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The Unwritten Vol. 1 review

Unwritten #1If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know I was a big fan of Mike Carey’s Lucifer. It was a great, epic book with a cast of wonderful characters that managed to create its own identity despite being one of many Sandman spinoffs published after Neil Gaiman’s series concluded. And I was quite fond of Carey’s return to Vertigo, Crossing Midnight, despite a slow start and some shaky art. So you can imagine I was quite excited when I heard Carey was writing another Vertigo book, this time reunited with Lucifer artist Peter Gross.

The Unwritten is the story of Tom Taylor, the son of a novelist famous for writing a series of Harry Potter-esque books starring a young magician named Tommy Taylor. When his father mysteriously disappears, Tom assumes a sort of C-list celebrity, the sort who shows up at comic conventions charging $5 per autograph even though he’s never actually done anything. Tom’s life of easy money and dubious fame is thrown into confusion he’s kidnapped by a man who claims to be Tommy Taylor’s entirely fictional arch-nemesis.

The story feels like it’s right in Carey’s wheelhouse, but when I read The Unwritten I can’t help feeling it’s all been done before.  It’s another story about fantasy and reality overlapping, ground that’s been well-tread by Sandman, The Dreaming, Fables, and others… maybe even the current Greek Street, if Peter Milligan ever gets around to explaining what’s going on. It seems too safe, the kind of book both fans and detractors expect Vertigo to publish. As much as I love Sandman and Lucifer, today’s Vertigo makes me think of Young Liars, Scalped, Northlanders, and other books that stand strong on their own two feet.

Perhaps the Harry Potter elements make it feel too trendy, too easy; maybe I’d be more receptive to a Wizard of Oz riff.

But then, maybe the problem is less one of repetition than it is simply not having much of an identity. Carey uses some nice tricks in the first issue, incorporating newspaper and TV reports and internet message boards into the story, but they’re gone by the end of the second issue. He has some fun with the homicidal, anti-literate antagonist, but most of the other characters are paper-thin, with little to distinguish them aside from their role in the plot. Tommy Taylor himself lacks much in the way of personality: The boy-mistaken-for-a-hero idea is interesting enough, and I can appreciate Carey’s attempts to at least start him out as an unlikeable jerk, but he doesn’t show much development beyond that of the usual character who finds out everything he believed about his life is a lie.

After the promising first issue, Unwritten just spins its wheels, trying to get out of the mud. A retreat for horror writers offers some clumsy meditation on how to scare people while a madman with a scythe stalks the group, but one mostly just gets the impression Carey wanted to make jokes about some famous writers. The dramatic reveal at the end of the fourth chapter is spectacularly unimpressive: When the first issue begins with a fictional villain seeming sprung to life, you can’t really end the fourth chapter with the same trick, particularly when your hero has grown magical tattoos and been stalked by a man who can melt objects into words.

The fifth chapter, “How The Whale Became”, is the most ambitious, but I’m still not sure it’s telling us anything new. After spending the first four issues in the present day, Carey goes back more than a hundred years to tell the story of Rudyard Kipling. The obvious points of comparison are the Shakespeare stories, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest” in Sandman, and not simply for the use of a famous writer. Like Gaiman’s Shakespeare, Carey’s Kipling, who begins as an unimportant bureaucrat in India, is approached by a mysterious figure who persuades him to channel his talents in a particular avenue; here, it’s to write about the glory of the British Empire.

It’s an interesting concept, but it never feels engaging. Kipling’s journey, like Tom Taylor’s, is a foregone conclusion – you know he’s not going to spend his life writing simple tales of imperial conquest.  And as much as it’s an “origin story” of sorts, it feels detached from the main narrative. For a change, Todd Klein’s lettering doesn’t help the story: the handwritten font used for Kipling’s letters  is distracting, and feels overly gimmicky – modern-day protagonists don’t have computer-print lettering for their narratives, after all.

I suppose I should be patient with The Unwritten. Lucifer took a while to gather steam, and “yeah, but it gets better after the first volume” is a common refrain for Vertigo books. While I’m sure I’ll come back to the book some day for another try, right now it’s hard to classify it as anything but a disappointment.

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So much for Human Target

I admit, I was curious about the pilot for Human Target. It’s not like I had great expectations, given the challenges of adapting Peter Milligan’s great books, but hey, I want stuff like this to be good. Maybe you can adapt a thoughtful and challenging book into the television format and..
Wait, what’s that? McG is the executive producer? Oh.  Uhm. Well, maybe it’s not all bad; McG gets a bad rap sometimes, and people can change, and raise their standards. Let McG speak for himself:

“We wanted it to be like those great action shows of the eighties, like The A-Team. We looked at the current television landscape and there wasn’t a show like that on the air. Until now.”

And apparently he doesn’t even impersonate other people now?
Clearly, god is punishing me for something.
(And yes, I know there were Human Target comics before Peter Milligan, but I don’t care about them, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about them.)

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Jennifer’s Body review

Jennifer's BodyIf the editorial offices of Maxim and FHM ever master the art of human cloning and bioengineering, they’d probably come up with something a lot like Megan Fox. She’s got a ridiculous body, perfect skin, pouting lips, and a voice that always sounds breathy, feminine, and slightly submissive.

So who better than Fox to play the perfect high school girl, the girl every boy wants and every girl wants to be? Jennifer has a killer body before getting mixed up in demonic virgin sacrifice gone wrong, and continues devouring boys after, though in a much more literal sense.  Unfortunately, while Fox may be the perfect prom queen, she doesn’t have nearly the personality to dominate a film as the villain.

Fox gives almost every line the same delivery: Bored, dismissive, and seductive. She doesn’t have the charisma to dominate the screen as a villain, but she’s also never particularly sympathetic as a victim. She’s just a pretty, bitchy, silly high school girl who likes fucking and/or killing boys.

It’s not all on Fox. She’s hardly the best vehicle for the material, but the role doesn’t have a lot of meat to it. There’s very little depth to Jennifer, either before or after being stabbed and dumped in a demonic whirlpool. Jennifer’s friendship with Needy (Amanda Seyfried) is at the core of the movie, but we never actually see the two of them being friends.  Jennifer is so self-absorbed, narcissistic, and generally dim that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would be her friend. It’s shown that they’ve been friends forever, and nerdy “Needy” obviously doesn’t have the best sense of self-worth, but that’s not enough for the audience to get behind Jennifer as a real person.

Jennifer’s Body treads a delicate line between comedy and horror, and doesn’t always keep its balance. It’s seldom scary: only Jennifer’s post-sacrifice appearance is suspenseful. After that, it’s a simple and straightforward equation: Jennifer + Boy = Dead Boy. There’s no doubting what’s about to happen, nor is there ever the slightest possibility the victim will escape. The final confrontation between Jennifer and Needy is similarly straightforward, as is the familiar process where no one believes Needy when she tries to tell them what’s going on. Most of her victims don’t have enough personality to generate sympathy; they don’t deserve their fate, but they’re still just archetypes of high school boys.

But for all its flaws, I enjoy Jennifer’s Body. Most of the credit for that lies with Amanda Seyfried, who makes Needy such an adorable, likeable heroine. She knows when to play it straight and when to be playful; her delivery on lines like “actually evil. Not high school evil” is note-perfect. Her opening and closing monologues show her as the perfect action movie heroine, like a much cuter verision of Linda Hamilton in T2. She’s clumsy and nerdy, but also smart and self-aware; unlike her co-star, Seyfried never slips into caricature.

In fact, forget about Megan Fox. Just watch the movie and think Needy the Demon Slayer, and it feels much better. It wouldn’t hurt to disregard much of what you see in the trailer, which markets itself as a) a Megan Fox movie, and b) a pretty straightforward slasher flick.
There’s also something wonderfully absurd about the demonic rock band, particularly Adam Brody’s manic ringleader. He’s sleazy and homicidal – “I think the safest place to be right now is my van” –  and yet still charming and, if I were a 16-year-old girl, totally dreamy.

Jennifer’s Body is also fascinating for its lineage. Where else will you find a horror movie written by a woman, directed by a woman, and starring two women who never have to be rescued by men? It’s strange that this sort of thing should be considered revolutionary today, but Jennifer’s Body just feels different sometimes. It has its own beat, its own quirks, and while sometimes they’re a bit too self-conscious, it nevertheless stands out as a singular film. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it can be uneven and jumbled, but the sincerity and character make it feel like an adorable mutt at the pound that just wants to be loved, even if it’ll pee on the carpet now and then.

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Daybreakers review

Daybreakers PosterDaybreakers has a great premise and a lot of ideas: What if vampires won? What if almost everyone was turned into a vampire? It’s not an entirely original idea – if you can, find a copy of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, which is criminally out of print – but writers/directors Peter & Michael Spierig put a lot of thought into their sci-fi/horror world.

How does an entirely nocturnal population get around during the day? And more importantly, where do you get human blood if everyone is a vampire? The film establishes early on that vampires who drink the blood of other vampires turn into feral beasts, so that’s not an option; animal blood may be functional, but it won’t keep bloodsuckers in peak condition.

It falls on the shoulders of Ed Dalton (Ethan Hawke), a haematologist researching blood substitutes. He wants to save humans from being hunted and farmed by vampires, but his boss, played by Sam Neill, merely wants to increase profit margins. His sympathetic attitude brings him into contact with a human resistance movement, and a man who was miraculously, and mysteriously, cured of vampirism.

Unfortunately, there may be too many ideas for a movie that’s just over 90 minutes. Daybreakers opens with a striking sequence of a vampirized 12-year-old committing suicide because she can’t accept the idea of living forever and never growing old, but the effect of immortality on the populace is never explored.  Strained family relationships between vampires and humans are brought up, but never dealt with in any depth. The blood shortage creates clear haves and have-nots in society, but it’s not really explored. And for a film about a scientist trying to perfect a blood substitute or outright cure for vampirism, the scientific discovery seems pretty simple.

All this unexplored potential becomes even more frustrating when the film kicks in to Dumb Action Movie mode. It’s a vampire movie so there obviously needs to be action, and I don’t begrudge it some slashing and bloodshed.  But it seems forced an unnecessary when this generally smart and stylish film – there’s an interesting 1930s noir feel to the fashion and design, and some of the vampiristic innovations look great – resorts to car chases and shootouts, as though the filmmakers were afraid the audience was going to stop paying attention. Daybreakers is never a particularly subtle film – the exploding head takes care of that – but the pounding dramatic scores and slow-mo action sequences are the work of someone who’s afraid audiences won’t understand what’s going on if it isn’t super-emphasized.

The casting is interesting, but not entirely effective. Sam Neill is delightfully evil as the corrupt corporate vampire CEO who harvests human blood for profit. Ethan Hawke is likeable as the mild-mannered scientist caught in the middle of everything, though he rarely feels passionate about much of the story. Willem DeFoe plays Willem DeFoe. Sometimes he has an accent, sometimes he doesn’t; sometimes he’s funny, and sometimes you just wonder what the heck Willem DeFoe is doing in the movie.

There are too many characters, and too few of them have enough depth to be interesting: Audrey, the brave and attractive resistance leader; Hawke’s brother, a loyal vampire soldier; Neill’s daughter, a human who ran away when she saw what her father had become; a vampire senator helping the human resistance; Hawke’s research assistant. They’re all there, they all have roles to play, but we know little about them that isn’t demanded by the plot.

All things considered, Daybreakers feels like it could make a very satisfying miniseries, with its cast of characters and wide-ranging social commentary. Or maybe it just needs to be a longer movie – another 20 or 30 minutes could give the story and characters added depth without making the film unwieldy.  It’s an interesting film, at the very least, one that’s just good enough to make you frustrated that it’s not better; there’s an odd mix of the thoughtful and the bizarre, with an unfortunate helping of stupidity from time to time. I have some hopes for a more complete director’s cut of the film, as well as high expectations for the Spierig’s next outing.

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Vanity Fair to Twitter: Get Off My Lawn!

During Christmas Dinner, I had to explain Twitter to my girlfriend’s father.

I don’t remember how it came up. It’s possible I did something bad and this was Lizz’s way of punishing me. I explained things slowly, tried to come up analogies that were accessible to a man in his sixties, but I don’t think he understood. He was okay with the technical process – he knows how to use a computer and a cellphone, he knows what a text message is – but I’m not sure he really got his mind around why people would actually do that sort of thing for fun, or how it would be useful for anyone.

I think he still could have written a better article about Twitter than the one Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote for Vanity Fair.

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Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul review

“Worst” is a horribly misused word. Look up any movie on IMDB and you’ll find the user reviews  peppered with comments declaring it the worst ever. There’s an astonishing lack of perspective and context on display, as though people simply don’t understand the vast amount of utter crap that is produced in any field in any year. X-Men 3 may have been a pretty damn bad movie, but it’s not Plan 9 from Outer Space, nor would it surpass any number of student and independent films produced around the world in the decades since someone thought it would be neat if they could find a way for pictures to move. It’s not even limited to a lack of historical or global context; sometimes, people just don’t think before throwing “worst” around like a Wal-Mart Throw Pillow.

I say this not to argue with the hordes of ranting lunatics on the internet, but to provide context  to this piece, to let you know that I do not say what I am about to say casually or without introspection: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul is one of the worst comics I have ever read.

Look, I think superhero comics get a bum rap from some people, with the genre bearing the brunt of complaints about wonky distribution systems and a medium that struggles with mainstream acceptance. It’s true that I don’t read a lot of Marvel or DC superhero books these days, but that has less to do with quality than it does to do with big crossovers, obsessive nostalgia, and an unwillingness to do anything truly unique or different.

Take Resurrection, for example. I didn’t have much interest in the Batman crossover when it was being serialized. Partly just because it’s a crossover, which rarely brings out the best in a creative team. Partly because Ra’s Al Ghul is one of those comic book characters I’m supposed to care about even though I don’t think I’ve ever read a story about him; it seems like he’s a big deal because Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams created him, and no one talks about how little he’s been used since. And the word “Resurrection” borders on farcical, suggesting as it does that anyone should be surprised or impressed that a supervillain is coming back from the dead.

(In fact, one of the first warning signs in Resurrection comes in the introductory character descriptions: “Ra’s Al Ghul is finally dead… or is he…?” If he’s not actually dead, then he doesn’t need to be resurrected at all, does he? Or if you want to emphasize finally dead, then if he’s really, truly, finally dead, you probably can’t resurrect him.)

But I found the hardcover edition of Resurrection super-cheap at a Boxing Day sale, so I figured, sure, why not? I like Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan, and Fabian Nicieza and Paul Dini are usually at least competent writers. And, you know, Batman is cool. So what the heck, right? How wrong can you go for five dollars?

As it turns out, it’s a lot like buying a monkey for five dollars, and then finding out the monkey is a trained knife thrower and has a nasty cocaine addiction.

It starts fairly nondescriptly, with a chapter by Peter Milligan and David Lopez that provides much of the setup for the story: Ra’s Al Ghul is dead. Batman had a son with Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter Talia, and the son is now… 13? Something like that. Ra’s Al Ghul’s followers believe the son, Damian, can become the vessel for the soul of his grandfather, facilitating his return from the dead.

Yeah, it’s kind of silly when you try to sum it up like that. But I had to explain She-Hulk to someone last week, so I can respect that awesome things can sound stupid when you try to explain them in a simple fashion.

(No, I didn’t really have to explain She-Hulk. I’m pretty sure she didn’t ask. But it came up, and I fulfilled my manly duties. I was not in any way rewarded for my efforts.)

Most of the introductory chapter consists of Talia telling Damian the story of her father’s life… except not really. The narrative skirts around Al Ghul’s life, filling in blanks that may not have been told before, but not actually covering the pre-existing story. We see him meeting a wise old man and his beautiful and intelligent daughter centuries ago, but skip over the part where everything goes horribly wrong and the noble man is set on a path to evil. We see him fighting against Napoleon, and later in Whitechapel learning how he may recover from death, but we never see the actual death that makes this story necessary.

None of it is particularly helpful. Ra’s Al Ghul may be a “classic” Batman villain, but he hasn’t appeared in a comic since 2004. In the five years since then, DC and the Batman franchise have had several creative overhauls and, just maybe, it might have added a few new readers. Unlike other iconic villains like the Joker or the Penguin, Al Ghul has a complicated backstory that everyone might not know.

But, you say, Damian, Talia, and the League of Assassins has been featured in Grant Morrison’s Batman run prior to this story, so maybe more was explained there. That may be a fair point (I’m not really sure, having ignored most of the non-JH Williams part of Morrison’s run), but it doesn’t apply to the hardcover edition: There’s no number on the spine, nor is there anything anywhere in the book suggesting where this story fits in the 60+ years of Batman stories. The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul never actually explains how Ra’s Al Ghul died.

But let’s move on. While Damian is learning about his grandfather, Batman is in the Australian outback, looking for some missing biologists and talking to people who would have been rejected for roles in Crocodile Dundee because they’re too over the top. And then this happens:

Next month: Batman travels to Sesame Street to face The Count

No, in case you’re wondering, the fourth assassin is not off-panel. At no point is Batman shown to be fighting more than three ninjas, nor is there even a mention of “oh, and that other guy I beat up between panels five and six while you were in the bathroom.” No one is alarmed when Batman later refers to the four assassins who attacked him.

Seriously, guys: This is not rocket science. It’s not a particularly complex string of words or pictures. Batman says “Four of you.” There are three ninjas.

I don’t know if it was an artistic mistake, a lettering mistake, or some sort of miscommunication, but how does someone not catch that? Moreover, how does someone not catch that a second time, since this is the second printing of the material?

On the bright side, David Lopez’s art in the prologue is probably the nicest in the book; it’s clean and easy to follow, traditionally superheroic without becoming stereotypical. The book might have turned out a little better if Lopez had been involved with the rest of the book. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is full of things like this:

"I don't know why these mirrors were on sale, I think they're great!"

That’s Tony Daniel’s depiction of Talia, daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul, lover of Batman, occasional leader of an army of assassins, generally considered fierce, intelligent, and dangerous. And she looks like a department store mannequin.

I understand how superhero art works. I know there’s often an emphasis on style over detail, and that things need to be sexed up sometimes. I was a big fan of Jim Lee in the nineties, back when he always found some way for Psylocke to lead an attack with her ass.

But this isn’t even good cheesecake. Leaving aside the outfit that makes it look like she’s waiting for a well-hung photocopier repairman, what the hell is going on with her right arm? Why does her head not attach to her neck properly? Why does she not have thighs or hips?

To bounce back to the positive side of things, we later get this depiction of Talia by Carlos Rodriguez:

Isn't it great how women can get bullet-and-sword-proof tops and bottoms, but not midriffs? Or are the ninjas just gentlemen?

It’s ridiculous. I like it.

After the prologue, the story splits into two avenues: Damian runs away to Gotham to look for Batman’s help, but is out of luck because Batman is travelling the world trying to track down Ra’s. Instead, Damian runs into Robin, and they fight. There’s a slight hint of sarcasm in Milligan’s setup – at one point, Damian is walking up the stairs with Alfred, who trips on the carpet; Robin appears at exactly the wrong moment and thinks Damian is beating up the butler. It’s so ridiculous it must be parody. Please, somebody, tell me this was supposed to be funny.

(It’s not funny. But at least that would be an excuse.)

And yet, everything still seems very serious, particularly when 200 ninjas attack Wayne Manor. Here’s the thing about ninjas: They’re totally cool, but they’re also kind of silly, particularly when packaged in bulk. Unless you are Frank Miller, it’s tough to pull off a swarm of ninjas attacking one or two targets without looking ridiculous. Unless your ninjas are utterly incompetent, they should be able to kill or maim at least one target when they outnumber the heroes 50-1.

But Robin and Nightwing have moves. Check out how Nightwing subdues three of Talia’s henchwomen:

Wait, where was I standing two seconds ago?

Smoke bombs are awesome. Smoke bombs that cause people to spontaneously switch positions are even more awesome.

And then there’s this:

Wait, whose foot is that?

I know, from the context of the story, what is happening: Alfred is pushed through the window by an attacking ninja, Nightwing jumps up, kicks a ninja in the face, and catches Alfred. But I have no idea what is actually going on in that picture, and the attempt to convey action just creates a visual mess and possibly several extra legs for Nightwing.

I’ll be honest: I kind of stopped paying attention around this point. There’s some guy known as the Sensei, who isn’t introduced on-panel but is apparently an ancient master assassin who can repeatedly impale people with a staff that seemingly has no points or edges. And there’s a blind guy named I Ching, and I have no idea what he has to do with anything. At some point, Alfred apparently lands a plane on a mountain and then takes off again.

It’s just the same thing, over and over. Explain, chase, fight, and repeat. It’s not always awful – though it certainly isn’t good – but it’s consistently dull and uninspired. While I suppose that might be expected from a crossover event, it doesn’t even work on a big, impressive, continuity wank level: There’s no artistic consistency from one chapter to another, oreven within one chapter, with sections being credited to multiple artists.

Sometimes, they don’t even bother with factual continuity: Ra’s Al Ghul is drawn looking pretty much normal on one page by Carlos Rodriguez, and then appears to be a zombie on the next story page by Ryan Benjamin.

I’d never heard of Benjamin before picking up this book; most of the time, he shows a heavy Jim Lee / Marc Silvestri influence, with a dash of Travis Charest, scratching lines across everyone’s face to indicate… I dunno, toughness? It’s not great, but it’s not too bad… until we come to this:

Batman: The Cocktail Napkin Collection

Really, DC? This is what we’re getting in the final chapter of your high-profile crossover? In Detective Comics, one of the flagship titles of your company?

I don’t know if this is entirely Benjamin’s fault; I don’t know anything about him, and this may have been a rush job. But that’s part of the problem – why do you have rushed art by an unknown artist in an event book like this? Or why wouldn’t you at least polish it up a little bit before you put out the fancy hardcover?

And then, in the end… Ra’s Al Ghul is resurrected. Everyone else is okay. I have no idea what the story accomplished, aside from resurrecting Ra’s Al Ghul, and I’m pretty sure that didn’t demand 256 pages.

Most people who are not 13 year-old boys living in 1993 would probably agree that Rob Liefeld is a terrible artist and an even worse writer. Grotesque anatomy, two different facial expressions, excess pouches, gigantic guns and shoulder pads, no feet… and I still have no idea what Youngblood was supposed to be about. But even the worst Liefeld comic has a passion and energy to it, a bold artistic identity: Every page declares I am Rob Liefeld, and fuck you if you’re not extreme enough to appreciate it!!


Resurrection doesn’t even have that. Even when the level of craft begins to creep above competency, it’s a lifeless story that has all the energy and passion of a 45-year-old McDonalds clerk. It has no greater ambition than to go from Point A to Point B, and it still keeps swerving off the road and into the ditch.

I know I’m not always in tune with what is cool and popular, but Batman is still a big deal, right? He’s one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world, he’s had two extremely successful movies recently – one of which featured the title character of this book – and he remains popular enough in comics to support multiple books.

So why is this book so awful? Why is it such a wretched patchwork of uninspired writing and mediocre art? Why does the whole story read like it was produced by people who would rather be doing something else? How does DC let something this important get this bad?

This would be a lousy book if it came from a third-rate small-press publisher that was trying to ape Marvel and DC, but coming from DC, in an “event” featuring one of their flagship characters, it’s unforgivably awful.

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500 Days of Summer review

Love will mess you up.

Unless you’re one of those lucky, possibly boring, people who meet the perfect match in grade 2, there will undoubtedly be a time when you’re in love with someone who isn’t in love with you.

Sometimes, at the easier end of the spectrum, they don’t know who you are. Sometimes they simply reject you, which at least provides some closure.

But the worst kind of Love is the one that isn’t quite there.  You meet someone, fall deeply in love, actually have a relationship together… and then nothing, because it turns out most of the feelings were one-sided. It’s not that she didn’t love you, it’s just that she wasn’t in love with you, something was missing, the timing was off, she just wasn’t ready for a serious thing.

It’s this sort of love that forms the basis for (500) Days of Summer. Greeting Card Writer and Would-Be Architect Tom meets Perfect Girl Summer. Tom falls in love. Summer doesn’t quite. Things go poorly.

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The Olympic Torch Relay is Decadent and Depraved

They stood along the side of Yonge Street like idle panhandlers who forgot to keep their palms extended. The crowds are sparse south of Dundas, with people gathered in small groups, staking out prime sidewalk real estate. The streets are washed with the glow of streetlights, Christmas decorations, and neon signs that flash brighter and more erratically as you travel north. The Cannon Theatre looks a little classy, and the Eaton Centre stands as a surprising beacon of good taste amidst dollar stores, bargain-basement electronics depots, and sexual paraphernalia outlets. Video billboards take over the landscape as you near Yonge-Dundas square; I pass one that’s promoting either perfume or softcore pornography.

It may seem a strange location for the Olympic Torch relay, but it couldn’t be more fitting.

I should have known something was up as I passed Nathan Phillips Square, which held more people and police than on most nights. The crowds on Yonge revived my memory: The Torch was passing through Toronto. And while my initial reaction to the news had been one of casual indifference, seeing the event in action was something else completely.

It’s not like I’m opposed to the Olympics. I like sports, generally, and think people who slide down an icy chute at 100 km/hr on a skateboard are pretty cool. I understand, and even agree with, the issues some people have with the Olympics, but it’s not something I feel terribly strongly about.

I don’t even mind Yonge Street that much. It’s gross and tacky and usually pretty dirty, but, hey, it’s Toronto. I love my city. It’s still better than Scarborough.

But sometimes, things just come together in a way that makes you want to throw up. It probably doesn’t help that it feels like I’ve been hearing about the Vancouver Olympics for most of my life; while regular Olympic hype can be overwhelming, Olympic hype in the host country is even more omnipresent. I have immense respect for athletes who train for their entire lives to become the best in the world at a sport, but considerably less interest in listening to their reminiscences of childhood or their favourite hats as someone else tries to sell me a savings account or a new pair of shoes.

So I was already prepared to be sick of the torch. The torchbearers didn’t exactly help: Ivan and Jason Reitman. Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. I’m a big fan of the Reitmans’ work – Ghostbusters and Juno alone earn them my respect – but neither one conjures thoughts of Olympic competition. They’ve never even made a sports movie, let alone competed in anything. At least they’re more-or-less Canadian; I don’t know what Kumar has to do with anything, other than attracting crowds. Karen Kain probably makes sense, given that she was probably as athletic in her prime as most Olympic athletes.

Maybe I’m not cynical enough. Maybe it’s ridiculous that I think of the Olympics as anything more than a marketing extravaganza, an orgy of branding, product placement, and real estate development. Maybe I miss being a kid – I remember the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, how exciting it was, how I didn’t have the experience or sense to think about all the political and commercial factors.

But I like my dreams, my ideals, my optimism. I like the idea of the Olympics as a great sporting event, a time for people from all across the world to come together and celebrate the best athletes in the world.

Watching crowds gather in the artificial glow of electronic billboards to see a Hollywood director run down the street carrying a flaming cola advertisement is a good way to have your optimism punched in the face.

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No one cares about Girl Comics

I haven’t paid particularly close attention to the blogosphere over the past few months, but the reaction to Marvel’s Girl Comics has been amusing.

The obvious: It’s a pretty good lineup of talent. G. Willow Wilson, Amanda Conner, Carla Speed McNeil, Jill Thompson, and others. I’ll probably check it out.
I’m not sure about the title. On the one hand, it’s fairly silly. On the other hand, “Wedesday Comics” was a pretty silly name, and Marvel once published Giant-Sized Man Thing, so, you know, there’s precedent.

Some people are skeptical. Some see see the whole thing as a gimmick, an empty gesture Marvel can use to brush off accusations of only publishing books for boys by boys. And they’re probably right: Anyone who thinks this book represents a new approach to publishing for Marvel is going to be sorely disappointed. Girl Comics is, at best, a token offering to a market that may or may not exist.

But it goes both ways. Marvel may ignore these talented women creators 99% of the time, but so do most of the fans, male and female alike. Most people recognize the talented lineup, but some casual searching suggests few fans would be talking about these women if they weren’t appearing in this anthology or working on a similar title. (Amanda Conner is the obvious exception. Incidentally, I love her art but can’t think of a single title she’s drawn that appeals to me.)

I may have missed it, but I don’t see a lot of people talking about Thompson’s Beasts of Burden, Wilson’s Air, or McNeil’s Finder – and you can read the latter for free on the net.  (To be clear: There probably are many people talking about them. Just not the same people who talk about Marvel and Girl Comics.) And these aren’t even the “go read manga or Satrapi” suggestions that get thrown around when people talk about comics by/for women – Beasts is about animals investigating supernatural stuff, Air is a globetrotting mystical adventure comic, and Finder… well, Finder’s a bit more difficult to explain, but there’s fantasy/sci-fi stuff and you can read it for free. These are spiritual and thematic relatives to the superhero tradition. They’re hardly from obscure publishers: Burden is published by Dark Horse, Air by DC, and Finder is free on the web.

Most people don’t care, of course, because they’re not even working on a Legion of Superheroes spinoff. Which is completely understandable, since most people don’t care who writes and draws their superhero comics anyway.

That’s not entirely true. Obviously more people will buy, say, an X-Men comic by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday than one by Peter Milligan and Roger Cruz. But many people, the core audience that keeps these titles alive, will keep buying the book no matter who works on it. Few people will follow those favourite creators to another, less popular title, and even fewer will follow them to another company.

All of which is how we arrived at the status quo: Marvel (and DC) is in the business of making money. They’re kind of narrow-minded about it, though, so they only want to make money on stuff that has already made money. And since no one seems to be rushing out to their local comic book store to demand the latest works by some of the most talented creators in comics, they’re in no rush to hire any real new blood.

Of course there are some institutional issues. Of course some boys who publish superhero comics don’t think girls can create them. (Manohla Dargis‘ discussion of female directors in Hollywood is a great reference.) Of course some boys who read comics will think comics made by girls come with cooties, and the boys who make comics will be afraid of that. Even as we speak, irate fans dedicated to equality are flocking to message boards to complain the project discriminates against male creators. (But they’re also flocking to message boards to complain that Marvel still hasn’t published a new ROM series, so whatever.)

But most superhero readers are so finicky and particular that it almost doesn’t matter. Marvel may not be able to see outside of its gender-friendly box, but most of its readers can’t see outside their favourite brand. And we’re all worse off for it.

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Star Trek 2009 review

Star Trek 2009 posterI wanted to like it.

Honest. I like Star Trek. Not so much the original series, but the movies, Next Generation, and DS9, at least. And I at least have an appreciation for the original series, what with William Shatner, cheesy makeup, and nifty 60s sci-fi.

So when the prequel/remake came out this summer, I felt like I should see it. It certainly looked exciting, and received generally positive reviews. But somehow, I just couldn’t motivate myself to go to the theatre. It’s probably JJ Abrams’ fault: Alias bored me, Lost annoyed me, and most of his other work completely failed to capture my attention. He seems to wallow in a geek/kitsch/nostalgia field that doesn’t appeal to me at all.

My curiosity got the better of me at the video store, and I figured the film was at least worth a rental. And hey, sometimes low expectations are the best expectations to have – it’s easy to be pleasantly surprised that way.

But I was still ready to turn it off after the first half-hour.

For a “reboot”, Star Trek wallows in nostalgia and gets weighed down by convoluted continuity. Because it’s not really a reboot, you see: In the regular, old-Kirk-and-Spock timeline, Spock accidentally contributes to the destruction of Romulus with a black-hole-cum-time-warp. An angry Romulan miner gets sucked in and transported to the day of James Kirk’s birth and vows revenge on Spock, who soon follows through the time warp, and sets about destroying those who destroyed his world, thereby creating a new parallel time line.

That was about the point I started swearing at the television.  Batman Begins didn’t have an alternate timeline. Casino Royale didn’t try to explain why George Lazenby never existed. So why did Abrams have to make a movie about why he had to make a new movie?

Even without the time travel plot, Trek is far too concerned with nostalgia. Green-skinned women, red-shirted deaths, “Damn it Jim, I’m a Doctor…” lines all nod and wink to the audience like a mime with a facial tic. And yet Abrams and co. still introduce every character with big flashing lights that announce They Are Very Important, as though they’re not making a film for people that know who everyone is.

That said, things do pick up once the story gets moving, provided you forget about the stupid story. Chris Pine makes a good Kirk; he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and has the casual action hero thing down. Zachary Quinto is about as interesting as a Vulcan can be, and I oddly enjoyed Karl Urban’s Doctor McCoy, as occasionally over-the-top as it can be. Simon Pegg’s Scotty is ridiculous, but pleasantly so.

On the other hand, Frank Cho’s Sulu doesn’t have much to do, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov is fairly silly and useless – which, I suppose, is much the same as the original. Zoë Saldana’s Uhura is supposed to be a beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic love interest, but very little personality shines through.

Of course, this is the problem with translating a relatively large cast of significant characters to a two-hour movie: There’s just not enough time for everyone, particularly if you want to focus on the Kirk/Spock relationship (which is the strongest dynamic in the film anyway). But Abrams wants to give everyone their time in the spotlight, so everyone gets a moment to shine before fading back into the anonymity of the ensemble. Really, aside from “This is Star Trek”, is there any reason for Chekov, Sulu, or Uhura to be in this movie?

We’re not talking about Magnolia here – there’s not nearly enough time or space to develop multiple characters in between explosions.

Some of those explosions are interesting, at least. The skydiving-parachute-fight sequence on the upper-atmosphere drill is outstanding, and there’s a nifty snow moster. But the final showdown with the angry Romulan miner (dear god that’s a terrible thing to have to write repeatedly) is formulaic, and “Young Kirk Steals a Car” took way too long.

On the bright side, the movie looks great. It successfully updates the aesthetics of the original series without losing the general style and charm; it feels like this is how the future is supposed to look. And the Romulan mining ship, all jagged ends and pointy machinery, is a nice departure from the typically sleek ships of the Trek universe.

Star Trek could have been great entertainment, with all the pieces necessary to update and revitalize a flagging franchise. But Abrams seems to have been more interested in making a Star Trek movie to do that, too in love with the characters and the stories to risk disrespecting the material or angering any fans. Perhaps a sequel could improve on the film’s faults, but I’m afraid there will still be a “Why Chekov is useful” scene and some tribute to Frank Gorshin and a bunch of Tribbles weighing things down.

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