Friday, January 19, 2007

Stale Movie Reviews

Here's some movie reviews for those of you who haven't left the house (or ordered PPV) in a year or so:

Prairie Home Companion
I have only appreciated what Keillor & Co. have been up to all these years from a distance. I’ve seen little bits here and there on PBS, and read at least one of his books (Lake Wobegon Days, IIRC). This movie is odd – and I am not sure if that’s in a good way or a bad way. It has a timeless feel, but that become confusing at a certain point. I had a hard time believe that Kevin Kline’s character could exist in the same world as Lindsay Lohan’s character. I know it’s a movie and I am supposed to suspend my disbelief, but it just didn’t all fit together for me. Perhaps it was the performances – at times, it came across like Keillor acting as ringleader the to Hollywood All-Stars who were all attempting to out-ham each other. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I hated this movie – as that is certainly not the case, but I can’t honestly say that I really like it either. I am ambivalent about it, and I’ve never felt that way about an Altman film before.

Grade: C+

Casino Royale
With a 13-month old at home, my wife and I don’t get out to too many movies. When we do get the chance, we prioritize. We decided that one movie we needed to see on the big screen was Casino Royale. When Daniel Craig was announced as the new Bond, I felt sorry for him. The backlash was unbelievable. Anyone who had seen Layer Cake knew that he had more than enough charisma to carry a Bond film. If you can cheer for a drug dealer, you are certainly going to cheer for Bond. This is a fun, fun film – which is a challenge, because it’s probably the flimsiest plot of any of the Fleming novels. Out of necessity, style has to overcome substance in parts – but that works. We’ve got a ‘Old School John Woo meets JJ Abrams’ thing going here, and I like it. Craig and Eva Green radiate and the supporting cast is sufficiently exotic to compensate for any stiffness. My biggest complaint is Judi Dench’s uncontrollable scene chewing. A perfect film? Nope, but it’s a lot of fun.

Grade: A-

The Break Up
How did this one make so much money? I just don’t get it. I actually had hopes that it would be good for a few laughs, as we’ve all been through some petty fights with significant others. I actually like both leads – but I’m starting to think it’s a ‘small doses’ kind of thing. The real problem, however, is the writing and directing – it just comes across like a compilation of scenes with little or no linkages, many of which are in needs of a rewrite. I’d write more about this one, but I have already forgotten most of the movies – never a good sign.

Grade: D

Borat: Cultural Learnings…
The first movie my wife and I had seen in theatres since the birth of our child. Does that give you a sense of how much we were looking forward to it? I must say – it lived up to our hopes. Of course it’s over the top, of course some people were perhaps misled just a little and of course not every American is a gun-toting racist. Actually, what this movie leave you with is a sense of just how willing many people are to help out a stranger, and how tolerant they will be of his lunacy. In the end, it was worth it to get out and laugh harder than I’d laugh in ages. Even the movies weakest point (the overly long nude fight) was salvage by SBC’s speech at the Golden Globes.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 15, 2007

#1 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

1. Batman

My first, my last, my everything.

This will be the shortest post I’ve made for the 12 Days, as it is extremely difficult for me to sum up what Batman means to me.

He is at #1 because he is more important to me than numbers 2 through 12 combined.

The best way I can explain it is as follows:I could not live with a comic book world that did not include Batman, but I could live with a comic book world that had only Batman.

#2 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

2. Spider-Man

No big surprise here. How can you not love Spider-man? I was raised on re-runs of the 60s cartoon and Spidey Super Stories. In fact, I believe the first Spidey book I ever read was the Spidey Super Stories with the Jaws cover.

The reason I love Spidey so much is that he comes across as very ‘human’, which isn’t always the case with superheroes. It is difficult to separate Peter Parker from Spidey, no matter how many times that costume winds up in the trash. What’s not to love? He’s a nice guy, he has girl trouble, and he feels a strong sense of justice in order to make up for his past failures. His life is my life – with a little more webbing.

As a child, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have so many Spidey books on the racks. In the late 70s and early 80s I was reading Amazing, Spectacular, Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Tales (the only way to get the good old stuff at low prices) and any treasury edition (love that Astonishing Spider-Man!) or guest appearances (there were lots) that I could lay my hands on. Some of the lowest graded books in the history of comics are in the Spider-Man part of my collection. A couple of years ago, I opened up an old Star Wars Treasury book and out fell a copy of Marvel Tales #111 (reprints Amazing Spidey #134). The fact that this book was still together in one piece defied the laws of Physics. There was no discernable spine. I must have read this one a million times – right down to that last panel featuring the Punisher.

I must admit to falling off the Spidey bandwagon in the late 80s – the whole MacFarlane era did nothing for me. Since then, I’ve focused my attention of accumulating as much of the old stuff as possible. I gave Ultimate Spidey a try, and didn’t mind it – but it’s not the same. The movies, of course, thrilled me – and I felt like a kid again, watching Spidey brought to life. I swear that I could literally feel myself swinging through Manhattan.Spidey’s supporting cast is as good as any in the comic book world, but it is Mr. Parker himself who holds it all together. We cheer for him, we cry with him and we can’t wait to see what will happen to him next.That’s what makes a great character.

#3 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

3. Green Arrow

I have always rooted for the underdog. I probably liked Ollie at an early age because he always seemed so out of place within the JLA, but he never let anyone push him around. I always enjoy his role within the JLA, especially because he always seemed to be quitting every other issue. He serve as the annoying conscience of the League, much like he had with Hal circa 1970.

The Longbow Hunters was published at a time when I was pretty much out of comics altogether. It sucked me back in. I loved it. I really don't think that it was until the Mike Grell ongoing series that Ollie was fully realized as a character (interesting since it was nearly a half century since his creation). He was now more of a detective and was much more vulnerable as he seemed isolated from the rest of the DCU. I loved everything about the Mike Grell ongoing series. I was in high school at the time and could not wait for each issue to hit the stands.I just really dug Ollie - he was pompous, hot headed and didn’t really know how to treat his superhot girlfriend. After a crisis, he’d hit the road to straighten out things in his head. I really related to that approach to life.

Ollie is an extremely flawed man, and that’s why I admired him so much. His relationship with Dinah is about as real a relationship as I’ve seen in superhero comics. It was a good idea to have him settle in Seattle - as it was a blank slate and he could work his charms (or lack thereof) on the local people and police.I lapped up every single issue. I was absolutely shocked when they killed him off. Shocked! I actually ended up really enjoying the Connor & Eddie years, but this is a post about Ollie, so let’s stick with him.

Much like I felt with Daredevil, I was really concerned when I heard that Kevin Smith would be bringing Ollie back. To me, it sort of devalued his death as well as Connor’s growing role in the DCU. I was wrong - it was pretty well done and the stories following the initial Quiver arc were strong too. I have 5 or 6 of the TPBs now and I am pretty darned impressed - the whole Arrow Family works well as a concept and Ollie rocks as the father figure. I really like the Phil Hester drawn stuff - he has helped to breathe new life into the character.I am certain that Oliver Queen has a polarizing effect on readers - I just happed to be waaaaay over on the ‘Love Him’ side.

#4 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

4. Daredevil

Yup – this list is very heavily populated by the mainstream superhero crowd (and it’s only going to get worse). When I sat down and thought of who I really loved, that’s just the way it turned out. Daredevil appealed to me from a very young age, and he’s the reason I became a lawyer. Actually, that’s not true – but he and Foggy made the legal profession look pretty interesting.I was 8 or so when Frank Miller got his hands on this title and I loved it. Many of my favourite issues were published when I was 10 years old (I’m talking issues #179-191 or thereabouts). Even though they were quite sophisticated, I understood that this was groundbreaking stuff. Most of those issues seem as fresh today as they did back then.

Some people see Daredevil as Marvel’s version of Batman. He fights crime at the street level and is pretty far from omnipotent. I’ve never really bought into that comparison, but if that’s how people see DD, I’m cool with that. You could do a lot worse than a second rate Batman. There is much more to DD than that, though. Sure, he has risen from tragedy – but his style and surroundings are very different. Daredevil operates in a very small neighbourhood and, although he is part of the Marvel Universe, seems to keep it at arm’s length. He has a circle of friends and colleagues, but never lets anyone get too close. His love life has been a mess – and who can’t relate to that?

Miller’s run is the finest in my mind, but I truly appreciate almost all of Daredevil’s eras – even the Mike Murdock lunacy. That is fun, fun stuff to read. I had my doubts when the title was relaunched in the late 90s, but was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t picked up a DD book in a few years now, but I have heard very good things about the past few arcs and will look for TPBs.Matt Murdock is probably as well developed a character, as you’ll find in superhero book. Over the course of years, writers and artists have really made sure that readers get a feel for the world his inhabits. His friends seem real and some of his enemies even plausible. All in all, it is hard not to root for the guy.

I love Daredevil – always have and I always will.

#5 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

5. The Atom

Unlike some of my previous choices, I have always loved the Atom. I guess it has something to do with the fact that he’s a crime fighter with a different perspective (worm’s eye view!). To be honest, I think that I’ve loved him because I’ve always felt a little sorry for him. He is not Superman, as his superpower is limited in scope and he really needs to engage the brain to maximize its utility. On the flipside, he’s not even Green Arrow or Batman – since he does have some powers, he cannot climb up on a soapbox and rail against the big guns of the JLA. He’s kind of in the middle, and he’s always fretted about fitting in with other heroes and has often wondered if he really belongs in the crimefighting world.

One of the first Silver Age books I ever bought was Justice Leauge of America #14. It cost me $1.00 in 1980. This is the issue in which Atom joins the JLA, but the final few panels are what make the book for me. I haven’t pulled this one out in years, but I can still see the tiny boardroom chair they designed for the Atom and the look of disappointment on his face when he realized that he would be sitting at floor level. His frown was turned upside down when he discovered that the chair levitated so that he could see eye to eye with his teammates. It was this kind of touch that make the Fox/Sekowsky issues so wonderful, and helped make the Atom such an appealing character.The Atom played a pivotal role in two of my favourite comics from my childhood. IIRC, they both made my Top 10 Favourite Comics from last year.

The first, Worlds Finest #236, is a ‘Fantastic Voyage’ inspired tale in which Batman and Superman are helpless as people are coming down with an incurable disease. Who do they call? You’ve got it, the Atom. This is Dick Dillin at his finest, and the story forever endeared me to the little guy. The Atom shows a some real courage and tenacity as he travels through the body, which serves as a series of booby traps. It’s a really fun story and serves as a great showcase of the Atom as a character. I have been trying to track down original pages from this issue, and I’ve got 5 of them now.

The second special comic is Justice League of America #142. This is one of those crazy Steve Engelhart stories involving sexy aliens and psychotic robots. It’s a real doozy (did I just type that?), but it begins rather quietly with the Atom wondering if he quit the superhero game. He doesn’t have much time to pontificate as he, along with Elongated Man and Aquaman are thrown into an issue full of craziness. In the end, the Atom proves his worth as a hero and feels vindicated in sticking with the JLA. The panels below are of him receiving thanks from Mantis, umm… I mean Willow, the aforementioned sexy alien. It was only in more recent years that I went back to the original source material.

I was probably about 22 when I bought my first issue of the Atom’s Silver Age title (#20 to be precise). I loved it. I love the energy infused into the panels by Gil Kane, and the Gardner Fox stories were nothing short of fun (with a little science and history thrown in for good measure). I’ve now got a complete run of the series, and those books make me very happy. Have I ever mentioned how much I love the Time Pool stories? It’s always fun to time travel with the little guy.I’ll pick up just about anything with Ray Palmer in it. Heck, I’ve even got a soft spot for the ‘Atom Special’ books from the 90s. I am not really plugged into the DCU these days, so I really don’t know what has become of Ray Palmer (was he raped too?). I tried the Simone/Byrne Atom series and it was sorely lacking in just about everything that makes the Ray Palmer Atom great.Here’s to my #5 pick – the little guy who packs a big punch.

#6 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

6. The Spirit

OK – we are now entering the ‘obvious choice’ zone of my list. This is where I reveal that I am nothing more than a clich├ęd fanboy. If you have followed my postings at all over the past few years, these won’t come as a big surprise to you. Unlike my selection #1 through #5, I became familiar with the Spirit as a more ‘mature’ comic book fan. I had seen the old Warren mags and various Overstreet cover galleries as a kid and always though he looked appealing, but never got into him. That’s probably a good thing, as I think the Spirit can be best appreciated after getting a little comic book experience under your belt.I’ve now got just about every Warren and Kitchen Sink Spirit mag published, as well as a growing number of Archive Editions and the Harvey Giants from the 60s. I will buy just about anything with the Spirit’s mug on it. Heck I’d even buy a Spirit mug if I could find one.

Denny Colt is a bit like the Unknown Soldier in that he is an everyman as well as man without an identity. He is famous in his world and yet relatively anonymous. He works best when he take a hands-off approach to crimefighting and let the bad guys start in-fighting and pretty much brings themselves to justice. It’s a very different technique when compared to most Golden Age crimefighters, and when mixed with the Spirit’s great sense of humour – shows just how far ahead of the curve Eisner & Co. were in the 40s. It was its own genre – with elements of every single genre thrown into the mix. In the end, it’s the humour that gets me – whether the Spirit is pulling a prank or on the butte end of a joke, it keeps the strip fresh and lively.

The Spirit will likely live forever in comics because so many stories can be told with him as the protagonist. He’s been on the high seas and in space and it all seems to make sense. My fingers are crossed for more and more quality Spirit-related projects in the future. The good news is that so many creators respect and admire Eisner, that I am sure that they will try to maintain all of the super duper goodness that makes the Spirit the Spirit.

#7 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

7. Unknown Soldier

My first exposure to the Unknown Soldier was in Brave & the Bold #146. What a great first impression. Oh, did I ever love the World War Two setting and the team up with this master of disguise. It seemed a lot more ‘realistic’ than other books I had read to that point. Prior to that, I was only aware of the Unknown Soldier through house ads featuring those awesome Kubert covers (the ‘Cave In’ cover to #222 stands out in my mind).

One of the aspects of the Unknown Soldier that really appeals to me is the Man of 1,000 Faces side to the character. To me, a ‘master of disguise’ character has almost limitless possibilities (hence my love for the Chameleon as underused Spidey villain). In this case, it allows him to glide from one horror of war to the next, attempting to dull the impact wherever possible.

This Man of 1,000 Faces is also a man without a face, and this allows him to move anonymously through war zones, fading into the background when necessary. The most talented writers realize that the Unknown Soldier can act as a mirror – reflecting his surroundings. This is perhaps what I like most about the Unknown Soldier. Through him we get to experience the moral ambiguities of war, trying to maintain our balance on a razor’s edge.

The panels to the right are from the Michelinie/Talaoc run. The Unknown Soldier is disguised as a German Officer and has just passed a loyalty test by shooting a young woman. He’s had to make this sacrifice to save thousands of other lives. When I read this type of Unknown Soldier story, I feel like I am sharing his pain and outrage.

#8 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

8. Tubby Tompkins

Tubby is probably the biggest shit disturber in comic book history. Nobody gets up to, and into, more trouble than this guy. He is greedy, lazy, arrogant and delusional. I love him.

He is Little Lulu’s nemesis as well as her paramour. He is the perfect Yin to her Yang. Together, they are the 'Hepburn and Tracy Jr.' of the Four Color world. Lulu just wouldn’t be Lulu without Tubby serving as the constant headache in her life.Whether he’s trying to get a free soda, eating someone else's food, keeping girls out of his clubhouse or trying to frame Mr. Moppet for some crime, Tubby does it all with a lack of both grace and class.

They just don’t make kids like Tubby anymore. Tragic.

#9 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

9. Alfred Pennyworth

I think that everyone needs an Alfred in life. Someone who will stick by you through the best and worst of what life has to offer. He is the person who keeps Batman/Bruce grounded, and keeps him from going off the deep end. Like many readers (and Bruce from time to time), I probably took Alfred for granted. He was simply a nice British chap who made tea at all hours of the night.

From time to time, some writers give Alfred his due and capture his essence of Alfred and show just how important a role he plays in the Bat-Universe. More recently, I was delighted to see Michael Caine do Alfred justice in Batman Begins. He was absolutely perfect.There are not many comic book scenes that have touched me as much as the following page from Batman: Dark Victory as Alfred gets Dick Grayson settled in at Wayne Manor and attempts to make up for some of the mistakes he’s made in the past. When I first read this, I was absolutely blown away.It still gets me today.

#10 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

10. Lone Ranger

I can’t really admit to having grown up on the Lone Ranger. I did see some reruns of the 50s show when I was a kid and certainly enjoyed them, but the Lone Ranger was never really part of my childhood. It wasn’t until I read an article in Comic Book Marketplace 6 or 7 years ago, featuring those wonderful painted covers, that I became a true Lone Ranger fan. The moment I saw them, I just had to have them.

Thanks to this era of eBay and instant gratification, within weeks I had a dozen of ‘em. Nice, shiny, beautiful covers. You know what else? Those stories between the covers weren’t half bad, either.I really love the Lone Ranger because he’s the most misunderstood man in the west. He’s not actually wanted for anything, but the very fact the he wears a mask targets him for suspicioneverywhere ge goes. He has to win each person over individually, but once he has – they are an ally for life. Of course, as Lyle Lovett once sang, Tonto does the dirty work for free and he certainly plays a vital role in these adventures. Yet, there is something about the Lone Ranger, whose identity was borne of tragedy (like so many heroes) that makes him the real stand-out for me.

There’s nothing quite like a Lone Ranger comic book. A beautiful painting on the outside and a Newman/Gill masterpiece on the inside.

#11 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

11. Sandman/Wesley Dodds

I was only vaguely aware of the Golden Age Sandman when I started reading Sandman Mystery Theatre. I had seen him in a few JLA books, but that’s about it. I was always intrigued by this guy in a trench coat, fedora and gas mask; as he looked so different from all of the other Earth-Two heroes. I remember that Justice League of America #46 was one of the first Silver Age books I actively tracked down because I just had to know about this guy.

SMT was a revelation. It started during my undergrad years in Montreal – I wasn’t reading too many comics back then as money was scarce and the nearest LCS was far enough away that I’d probably drop the ‘L’. The closet store to my apartment was an artsy-fartsy bookstore on St. Denis that carried a small selection of comics like Maus and Love & Rockets. Luckily, they carried some Vertigo books. I saw this strange looking comic called Sandman Mystery Theatre and thought it might be worth checking out.

I am ever glad I did. In my opinion, there was no finer series published in the 90s. I never missed an issue and was completely enthralled by this lead character who was the unlikeliest of heroes. The great thing about Wesley Dodds is that he’s an everyman (well, except for the cash). He isn’t exactly the most ‘buff’ of heroes, his got bad eyesight and he hairline is in freefall. He’s a quiet fellow and seems quite shy. It took a very strong woman, in Dian Belmont, to slowly bring Wes out of his shell. What a pair they make! What I really love about Wesley, though, is his need to become the Sandman. He is haunted by dreams, and the only way he can fight these inner demons is to step out into the night seeking justice. Quite often, he’s in way over his head and this makes him incredibly courageous as he only relies on a mixture of spooky intimidation and luck.

I was very sad when the series came to an end. There were any other books that gave me the same thrill as SMT. Since then, I’ve purchased the Sandman Archives to see where it all began. I know understand that right from the get go, Sandman was a very different hero – more in line with a pulp character like the Shadow or Phantom Detective than most of the DCU’s cape and tights set.

#12 - Top 12 Comic Book Characters

Over at CBR, we had a series of threads focused on naming out top 12 favourite comic book characters. I tried to go with my initial instincts when choosing so I didn't fall into the trap of overthinking things. It was a lot of fun, so I thought that I'd reprint my choices here:

12. Charlie Droople

Charlie Droople is the greatest one-shot character of all-time. It’s a shame that more people don’t know about Charlie Droople as he should be a folk hero to comic book geeks everywhere. This is a guy who chose life inside a comic book over a woman! For those who have yet to meet Charlie, he was the star of the wonderful little Steve Skeates/Jim Aparo tale “The Best of All Possible Worlds” that appeared in The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves #6 (it was later reprinted in # 66).

In the story, Charlie and his girlfriend Dorothy slowly discover that they are inside of a comic book story (so post-modern!). Charlie is intrigued by the notion of living inside a comic. Of course, he and Dorothy don’t exactly see eye to eye on this, and the next thing you now; there’s one more Charlton book on the stands. It’s beyond brilliant and everyone should try to grab a copy as Charlie is such a great character. In a matter of 8 pages, we are made to feel like we’ve known him all of our lives. By the end, even though we’d love to spend some more time with him, we know that he’s moved on to a better place.