Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tarantino Unchanged

Twenty years and seven-and-a-half films into Quentin Tarantino's directing career, it's fairly safe to say that he's unlikely to change his style. Anyone who thought that his adherence to genre fiction, his reliance on homage, his obsession with incorporating disparate pieces of other movies and TV series into his movies, was merely a chrysalis stage while he found his voice has probably abandoned that conceit. Tarantino is as Tarantino has always been. And that's not a bad thing.

DJANGO UNCHAINED, Tarantino's new western (true, most of it takes place in the antebellum south, but as a character in ARGO says, if it has horses it's a western) is unmistakably a Tarantino film. Once again, Tarantino takes scraps of other movies and pastes them into his movie scrapbook, adding connecting bits to create his own story. He combines actors who have worked with him before (Cristoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson) with big-name actors known for other works (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx.) Tarantino focuses yet again on creating vivid characters, primary through dialogue; Waltz's German bounty hunter dentist, who savors the English language like a fine meal, provides most of the verbal entertainment until Foxx (as title character Django, the slave Waltz frees who becomes first Waltz's protege, then his partner) and DiCaprio take over. He again defies conventions of pacing -- lingering when other directors would be hurrying to the next action scene, catapulting the viewer forward when least expected, drawing the viewer's anticipation and tension to the breaking point. He again indulges the tall tale, with the bizarre coincidences and amazing feats one would expect of a legend. He again seeks the elements of the heroic among the depths of crime and inhumanity. He focuses on the consequences of violence, simultaneously repelling and fascinating the viewer with his geysers of blood. (In terms of acts of violence or body count, the film is probably no more violent than the average western of the past; but Tarantino emphasizes the bloody effects of gunshots on bodies.)

And somehow, he makes it all work. The film may be long, and may occasionally drive the viewer crazy with the director's seeming self-indulgence; but this viewer's attention never waivered from the screen. Tarantino may tell a long story, but it's never a boring one, and if he were to pause the listener would urge him on until he reached his conclusion.

We are unlikely to ever get a Tarantino film that is free of homage, that gives us his vision of the world without the filter of his fascination with what has gone before. But as long as he gives us films like DJANGO UNCHAINED, we won't mind.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

SKYFALL: On Not Breaking One's Toys (a Nearly Spoiler-Free Review)

Anyone who follows pop culture with more than a passing-consumer interest knows the problems inherent in dealing with a fictional character whose persistence in culture outlasts the era in which he or she was created. Whether it's Tarzan, born when the British Empire was in full imperial flower, or Batman and Superman, children of the Prohibition and Depression fueled upheaval between the world wars, or the Marvel heroes and their origin in Sputnik-era bad science, creators tasked with producing a new work featuring an old hero must take care with their creative choices. Handled with skill, deconstruction of pop-culture heroes -- taking them apart, finding the source of their appeal, and finding the elements that can be expanded or explored for a deeper resonance with modern audiences -- is a delicate procedure. Characters created for entertainment may be more fragile than they appear. If you press and probe your toys too much, looking for hidden recesses that don't exist, you can break them.

Which brings us to James Bond. The Bond film series is unprecedented and unparalleled. Consider a 50-year film series (born from a book series of even earlier vintage), produced almost entirely by a single studio, that features a secret agent who is equal parts professional assassin, and, as Dr. No put it, "a policeman." A character who has real-life counterparts (there have been intelligence agents for most of the history of civilization) but who is so multitalented, so indefatigable, so unkillable that he is ultimately a fantasy character. One whose popularity has waxed and waned, but has spanned the many twists and turns in society over the last five decades. A series that ranges in tone from grim horror to slapstick comedy.

How do you handle James Bond in 2012? Do you make it a period piece, set in the late fifties, with a Bond who was born in the early 20th century and who battled fifth columnists in World War II era New York? Do you divorce it entirely from reality, so that it inhabits its own little universe of absurdity untouched by the modern world? Or do you make Bond entirely a creature of our time -- the era of spy satellites and Internet espionage?

SKYFALL succeeds because it walks a middle path between those choices. The Bond of SKYFALL is recognizable as the Bond of the earlier movies and the Fleming novels -- perhaps a little less dashing, not quite as smirking or cheeky, but definitely Bond. It explores the emotional landscape of Bond without sinking into the depths of darkness and muddle of, say, the previous Bond movie, QUANTUM OF SOLACE. It takes on the questions posed above, and does so within the context of its own narrative: Bond and his organization must answer the question of what place human field agents have in an era of electronic intelligence that even the genius villains of the early movies could hardly have foreseen. And rather than allowing that question to sink the narrative, it deftly mixes it with that indispensable ingredient of the best Bond movies: Fun. As in insane villains who pose a genuine threat not only to Bond but to the general populace; incredible chases; great vehicles (including a wonderfully familiar one); eye-popping action sequences; and scenes that celebrate the variety of vistas the world offers, from the glass-and-neon highrises of Shanghai to the misty subdued colors of the Scottish Highlands.

In other words, SKYFALL has tremendous fun bending, posing, and stretching its toy -- without ever breaking it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Riding on the Expo

Last Saturday, Amy and I spent a day at Comikaze Expo, the two-year-old convention that Stan Lee bought (along with Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson) as one of the many entrepreneurial ventures the 90-year-old comics icon has on his plate. Since the event was held at Los Angeles's Convention Center, and the MTA's Expo line runs from Culver City to a station a block away from the Center, we decided as an experiment to take the train. Or rather, the light rail.

I'm not a stranger to trains. I've taken the Amtrak Surfliner between L.A. and San Diego or Santa Barbara several times over the last 23 years. When I lived in San Francisco in the late '80s, I relied on the Metro trollies and BART to get around. I've ridden San Diego's trollies, Seattle's light rail, and the JR Rail system in Japan (including the Shinkansen bullet train and the terrific railway within Tokyo). I've found urban trains far superior to busses in regard to smooth rides, reliability, frequency, and speed.

And we found all of those positive aspects to be true of the Expo line. We had some delay starting out (because we didn't look at a schedule before we came, the train left just before we got up to the platform and we had to wait 15 minutes for the next one to leave), and we had to wait for a while going back before our train showed up; but the time on the train was pleasant. Likely we benefited from using the train on a Saturday: A recent article stated that there were 18,000 boardings of the line a day during weekdays, a testament to its popularity. In any event, we were able to get seats both ways. And although the trip did not take any less time than a normal Saturday trip from the westside to the Convention Center, we had the advantage of avoiding the stress of traffic and (perhaps more important) the hassle of negotiating the streets around the Center during a popular event, and of getting parking.

Will we take the train to future events? Probably, at least some of the time. We can foresee occasions that the convenience of using our own vehicle, and setting our own arrival and leaving times, will outweigh the benefits of the train. But at least we have the option.

Now, someday, we should try the L.A. subway.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Disappearing Childhood

One of the inevitable side-effects of growing older is that the creators of works that defined or shaped your childhood disappear. Recently, two artists who were instrumental in my childhood left us.

In mid-August, Joe Kubert passed away. Although his career in comics spanned nearly 70 years, one of the highlights of his time in comics was his two decades of work on DC's war comics. At the time I was reading them, the early '70's, Kubert was editing them, along with drawing covers for several titles (particularly "Our Army at War," featuring Sgt. Rock) and frequently drawing stories. Since I read and enjoyed war comics long before I started reading superhero comics, Kubert's approach to the genra -- one that focused on the individuals fighting the war, and those caught up in the battles, with frequent closeups of faces with haunted eyes -- helped shaped my appreciation for comics.

I previously blogged about Kubert's work here and here

Hal David, who passed away this past weekend at the age of 95, was a lyricist whose name I didn't know as a kid, but whose songs were everpresent. It's easy to put down his collaborations with Burt Bacharach as elevator music or easy-listening fodder. But the truth is that songs such as "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," "This Guy," "Walk on By," "What the World Needs Now," etc. became hits, and remain in the mind decades after they were first recorded, because they seem to bypass the intellect and grab the emotions. Like a cartoonist's drawing that conveys so much because the lines are so clear and simple, the seeming artlessness of the lyrics amounted to art.

The creators of your childhood pass away. But the effects of their work upon you remain.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Images of Comic-Cons -- and Creators -- Past

In the weeks before this year's Comic-Con, I posted some photos I took at previous Comic-Cons in the '80s and '90s.

These are from the era before digital cameras became common, when amateur photographers (well, me, at least) were sparing with their photos because they had to pay to have each one developed before they could even look at them. When photos went into albums (or sat in envelopes, waiting to go into albums) rather than online. Hence, the cons I've attended in the last eight years are far better documented than those previous to that time. Nevertheless, I do have some images from that time. This post will focus on creators who are no longer with us.

From 1989: Bob Kane, flush with the success of the just-released Tim Burton Batman movie. He passed away in 1998.

From 1990: Don Thompson, journalist and one of the founders of comics fandom. He passed away in 1994. His wife, Maggie Thompson, still edits the Comic Buyer's Guide magazine.

Also from 1990: Dave Stevens, meticulous comics writer/artist, whose character The Rocketeer was turned into a Disney movie in 1990. He passed away in 2008.

Finally, Julius Schwartz, legendary comic book editor, and agent for such authors as Ray Bradbury. Schwartz passed away in 2004.

When you see a creator at a convention whose work you admire, remember, there's no guarantee that you'll ever see him or her again. If you get the chance, tell that creator how much his or her work meant to you.

Comic-Con International: San Diego 2012: Historical Perspective

To a certain extent, every San Diego Comic-Con is about history.  An underlying theme of comic book collecting is preservation of the past -- both in collecting and viewing the comics of the last 80+ years, and in welcoming the creators who have worked in the field for decades.  History is everywhere -- from the aging pencil-and-ink on original art in the dealer’s room, to panels celebrating fifty years of Marvel super-heroes, to the display outside the convention center this year showcasing 47 years of TV and movie Batmobiles.

But for us, in particular the theme of this 2012 Comic-Con International: San Diego was historical perspective.

Amy attended her first Comic-Con in 1992.  She has attended every con since.  So she embroidered and proudly wore a “20 Years of Comic-Con” shirt -- a terrific conversation starter.

 For me, it was my 26th Comic-Con (my first was in 1980, and in addition to the 1987 con I’ve attended every one from 1989 on), so I approached the con from the viewpoint of someone who had watched the con’s evolution from the 5,000 attendee extravaganza in 1980 to the last few years, in which around 130,000 attendees compete for con memberships and for a scarce spot in the audience for the movie and TV presentations that make headlines around the world.

The importance of Comic-Con to our history was brought home to us Saturday evening at the convention.  We attended a banquet held in remembrance of Richard Alf, one of the founders of the convention.  The banquet was held in a ballroom in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel -- the site of the very first Comic-Con.  (And, coincidentally, I stayed in the Grant with my father and older brother when we attended the 1980 Comic-Con.)  The attendees, folks who had been involved in the convention since its earliest days at the beginning of the 1970s, included folks who had been part of my life for decades -- not just my comics life, but my real life.

Similarly, we attended the Friday panel for the Kickstarter-funded science fiction movie project SPACE COMMAND -- which included David Raiklen, the composer for the project and a friend of mine for nearly 30 years.

Comic-Con truly has been integral to my life ever since I was a teenager.  It was my wonderful experience there when I was 15 that led me to attend UCLA as an undergraduate, eventually leading me permanently settling in Los Angeles after law school.  Collecting was how I met my college roommate.  Collecting started a few relationships for me.  In particular, I met Amy at a comics shop, and we attended the 1994 Comic-Con (and every one after that) together.

History also provided us with some of our most enjoyable experiences at this year’s convention.  Events related to steampunk -- the celebration of the future as envisioned by the past -- proliferated this year.  At previous Comic-Cons, the programmers would schedule a single steampunk panel, usually held in the smallest meeting room (and usually filled beyond capacity).  This year, however, we were treated to several -- from The Witty Women of Steampunk (held on the first day of the con),

to the reception Friday night at the Steampunk Exhibit at the San Diego Automotive Museum, complete with food, drink, and live music,

to the annual mass steampunk gathering on the mezzanine outside the con center (this year marked by folks dressed as steampunk versions of Marvel and DC Characters,

to the spotlight panel and book signing (held immediately after the gathering) devoted to one of our favorite steampunk authors, Gail Carriger.

But we also dealt with some of the negative aspects of Comic-Con’s evolution.  On Friday morning, we were shut out of the panel that featured a reunion of the cast of TV’s “Firefly.”  Although we lined up before 8:00 a.m. for the noon panel, the program turned out to be one of the most popular at the convention.  Attendees therefore went to the first program in Room 20 that morning, and stayed.  (At least the weather was nice out by the marina, around which the line snaked.)

And the explosive growth of Comic-Con really hit home yesterday.  One of our traditions at the con was to pick up memberships for the next year’s convention.  Full advance memberships were readily available.  Last year, we had to wait in line for several hours, and still did not obtain full memberships -- we did not get to attend preview night.  This year, no memberships for next year were sold onsite.  They were sold online yesterday.  And even though we signed in the second the passes went on sale, we did not get full memberships, or even four-day memberships.  For the first time, we did not get passes for Friday and Saturday, the most popular days.

To some extent, evolution is the gradual discarding of history.  But careful evolution keeps the elements of history that work.  Evolution that prevents folks who have attended the con for decades from getting full memberships is not (in my admittedly biased opinion) adaptive evolution.

I hope Comic-Con remains a part of my life -- even when Comic-Con itself seems to discourage me from participating in it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Falling and Rising

This post discusses the movie THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Two caveats. First, there are mild SPOILERS in this post. Second, I am not going to discuss the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. The sooner this movie is disassociated from that horrific event, the better.

One of the reasons that Batman has lasted so long as a character is that he is one of those few characters amenable to numerous approaches to depicting him and his caped crusade. Were Batman always portrayed as he was in his earliest adventures -- a stony-faced figure in a stiff bat-shaped cape who faces off against pinstriped gangsters, occasionally with a pistol in hand, breaking necks with his boots, silent except when tossing off "G'nights" like a gentleman detective -- the series wouldn't have survived long. Instead, the Batman character is flexible enough to permit multiple versions of himself to exist -- the silly 1966 Adam West version; the stylish Dick Sprang Batman of the 1950's, living in a Gotham City made of cunningly-composed cartoony dark and light; Carmine Infantino's Batman, the blocky-but-athletic caped detective; Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams's illustrator-style fluid Batman; Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers's playful-but-serious Dark Detective; Frank Miller's aging, cranky, right-wing warrior; Tim Burton's stylized reality Batman; Bruce Timm's deco animated Batman; and the gritty Batman of the ARKHAM games, are all close enough to the source material that no one glimpsing them could mistake the lead character for anyone but Batman.

So the character is certainly appropriate for Christopher Nolan's trilogy of films, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES the latest and final entry. Besides all featuring the unique directorial paintstrokes that mark all Nolan films, each entry in the trilogy shares the same formula. Each draws heavily from multiple storylines in the Batman comics, but with alterations that serve Nolan's themes better. In each, events drive Bruce Wayne to the depths of despair, sorrow, and rage. In each, he claws his way back to some kind of triumph. In each, he seeks to replace his lost father by depending on other father figures -- wisecracking butler and former secret agent Alfred; armorer and executive Lucius Fox; honest cop James Gordon (who generally acts, however, more like an older brother than a father); and, in the first movie, Ducard/Ra's al Ghul, who is both his "dark father" and the buddha he must overcome to progress on his journey. Each celebrates selflessness and sacrifice, which is depicted as the one force that can overcome any problem (although cool gadgets and martial arts skills help). Each is structured around the epigram Bruce's father tells him in the first movie: We fall so that we can get up again.

This movie, which draws on the storylines "Knightfall" and "No Man's Land" as well as some others I won't mention, begins with Wayne stewing in his own juices after the events of the previous movie, as well as other setbacks in his life -- leaving him a Howard Hughes-like hermit, his company almost bankrupt, and Gotham City almost crime-free -- although the reasons behind that last development are far from positive. Enter Bane, who is, as in the comics, a muscular tactical genius who spent his entire life in prison and who has built himself into a physical and mental match for Batman. (I did, however, like the depiction of Bane in the movie much more than the steroid-pumping masked wrestler of the comics.) Bane engineers a scheme that brings Batman out of retirement, and then destroys him. He brings about a purported revolution in Gotham, highly suggestive of the French and Russian revolutions (some scenes resemble DR. ZHIVAGO, and at one point Sidney Carton's speech from A TALE OF TWO CITIES is read out loud). In depicting these events, Nolan does not take sides; he attacks the excesses of all sides of the political spectrum. Bane's machinations ensnare not only Bruce but also jewel thief Selena Kyle (never called Catwoman, but dressed like Julie Newmar in the 1966 TV series), and John Blake, a heroic young police officer, both of whom are called upon to be the sorts of operatives Batman has often used in the comics. And once again, Bruce is called upon to do what the title of the movie says he must do.

All this is told with the sort of visual panache and slam-bang action we've come to expect from the Nolan Batman movies. The fight scenes may sometimes disappoint (Batman's initial physical battle with Bane looks less like two martial arts masters tangling, and more like two brawlers slugging it out); but they more often thrill. And Ann Hathaway is terrific as Selena, all catlike slithers and purring dialogue.

I hope that this movie, as the title puts it, rises above the events surrounding its opening, and takes its place as one of the best comic book adaptations we've seen in an era full of them.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Not Quite as Amazing; Not So Much Spider-Man

[Mild spoilers]

I saw THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN a couple of hours ago, and since then I've been trying to figure out why I did not enjoy it nearly as much as I enjoyed the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man films.

I mean, it's not a bad film. And I did enjoy the third act -- you know, the one where Spider-Man starts really acting like Spider-Man. And there is some nice acting from Denis Leary as Captain Stacey (not looking anything like the crusty old Captain Stacey that John Romita drew, but still a three-dimensional character) and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey (looking quite a bit like the John Romita Gwen, and far more interesting a character than her occasionally wan comics counterpart -- and hey, her miniskirt and thigh-high boots have come back into style!). And the movie was visually interesting --again, much more in the third act than the first two. Still, I felt an emotional distance from the film. I certainly did not feel the elation and joy that ran through me when I saw how Raimi had captured in his first movie so much that made Spider-Man a standout comic book character.

I could blame the weird casting of Sally Field as a particularly whiney Aunt May and Martin Sheen (who strongly reminded me of the character he played in WALL STREET) as Uncle Ben. I could blame the offputtingly inarticulate Peter Parker portrayed by Andrew Garfield. (The Peter of the comics was nerdy, but he was never inarticulate -- indeed, his mouth often got him into trouble.) I could blame the fact that Spider-Man does not appear to show up as Spider-Man until deep into the movie, whereas the first Raimi film had him appear in full fighting fettle fairly early in the movie.

But I think the biggest problem was that the director (who was essaying an action film for the first time) was fighting the paradigm. The first two Raimi Spider-Man movies, like the best of the Marvel films generally, understand that Marvel Comics at their best are a strange and entertaining cocktail of adventure, realism, satire, and cartoon. The Raimi movie truly looked like a Spider-Man comic (a good one) come to life. It looked something like our world, but it was not our world; it was a far more interesting one. Those movies did not edge over into total camp, but they walked a tightwire between real and cartoon. Here, however, the director seems to be taking every pain to make Spider-Man as realistic as possible. The visual palate he uses for most of the film would work equally well for a family drama or a romantic comedy.

The result, at least for me, is a film that sort of features Spider-Man; but is not quite a Spider-Man film. I hope people enjoy it, just as I hope it will lead kids to read the comics from whence it came. And it wasn't a waste of time to watch. It just wasn't as much fun as the Spider-Man I saw on the screen 10 years ago.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

AM2 and Amy Too!

For those attending the AM2 anime convention in Anaheim next weekend (thoughtfully, it's not scheduled opposite Anime Expo this year), be on the lookout in the Artist's Alley for Amy's embroidery biz, Heart of the Star.  She's listed as Amy B.

Stealing Fire?

If you read science fiction novels -- make that good science fiction novels -- you know that an author can combine stunning "visuals" with intriguing extrapolation, a well-crafted story, engaging characters, and entertaining developments. If you watch science fiction movies, however, you may find yourself thinking that spectacular visuals must come at the cost of all that other stuff. It's not always true, but movies like PROMETHEUS from Ridley Scott certainly support my statement. PROMETHEUS looks exactly the way you'd like any spaceship science fiction movie to look: plausible ships and alien landscapes, detailed interiors that look like they are well thought out (no gewgaws without a purpose), fascinating spacesuits and hardware, incredible sights that can be found only in 3D movies (such as a rotating holographic starmap of unbelievable detail), and colors that are bright without taking away from the drama of the situation. And the creators through in some mildly interesting characters (though you've seen most of them before if you've seen the ALIEN films, or AVATAR) and a scattering of interesting ideas. But there's little development of those ideas. The story is not quite as cliched as AVATAR's, but there isn't much there there. I won't give away the story, but the thrust of it could be written in one or two sentences. Compare this to lower-budget SF films, such as MOON from a few years ago, where the visuals are adequate but the story has nuance and intrigue. One suspects that when huge bucks are poured into a movie, the producers shy away from story depth that might prevent the popcorn-popping public from returning and swelling the coffers. I don't want to give a false impression. I enjoyed watching PROMETHEUS. It's just that I wanted more from the movie than it was ultimately prepared to give.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

THE AVENGERS: Cinema's Mightiest Heroes

For a comic book fan, what is the point of a comic book movie? Why watch a live-action approximation of a comic book hero -- constrained by the limits of budget, technology, and human capability -- when we can read a comic book unfettered by such limitations?
The answer struck me some 33 years ago, when I was watching the first Christopher Reeve Superman film. At that point, Superman had been around for forty years; and although I had been around for only 13 of them, I had read multiple Superman comics, seen the various Sat-Am animated series, and watched the 1950s-era live-action show in reruns. At that point, I could not imagine the sight of Superman flying could create any sort of excitement in the slightest. But then I watched the scene where the cinematic Superman saves the life of the falling Lois Lane -- and then catches a falling helicopter in his other hand. Intellectually, that scene could not have generated any suspense. We knew that Superman would save Lois from dying, that he was quite capable of lifting both a damsel in distress and a few tons of machinery without breaking a sweat. Yet it was exciting. It was thrilling. It made everyone in the theater cheer. Why? Because visual cliches that have been driven into the ground in comics become fresh and thrilling when we see them on the big screen. Thus, in "X2," when Nightcrawler teleports out of a crippled jet, catches a falling Rogue, and teleports her back onto the jet, we cheer even though that sort of scene has been portrayed in comics multiple times. In "Iron Man," we are amazed to see the armored Tony Stark flying through the air, the non-existent aerodynamics portrayed so convincingly we believe that a man-sized aircraft can fly without wings or rudder, despite decades of Iron Man comics showing him do the same thing.
Hence the reason Amy and I woke up way-too-early on Friday morning and trundled ourselves over to the 4:00 a.m. showing of THE AVENGERS at the El Capitan. That's why fans crowded this old-time Hollywood movie palace in the wee small hours of the morning, and cheered lustily as actors portraying Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, The Black Widow, and Hawkeye enact the ancient Marvel Comics formula: Heroes meet; their arrogance, egos, immaturity, and insecurity drive them to clash; and then they overcome their differences and team up to kick evil's butt. And in many ways THE AVENGERS succeeds because it doesn't fight that formula; it revels in it. Writer-Director Joss Whedon is not the first comic book fan to make movies; but he is one of the few who have mastered the adaptation of the comic book style of storytelling to film without either adulterating it to fit their ideas of movie conventions, or simply adapting a comic book panel-by-panel a la SIN CITY. Although THE AVENGERS does not specifically adapt any particular story from the comic (it is inspired by the first issue of the series, in which a bunch of heroes are thrown together by happenstance to battle the Norse god of mischief Loki), it feels like an arc of the comic, perhaps from the late Sixties when Roy Thomas scripted it or the mid-Seventies when Steve Englehart wrote it.
In short, THE AVENGERS is a Marvel Comic on screen, perhaps more so than any of the other Marvel movies screened over the past 12 years. It is an adaptation that does not feel like an adaptation at all. It exemplifies the best aspects of those comics, and downplays the negatives. The results can be seen in the box office: The biggest opening weekend gross in history. That is one big 2012 summer comics adaptation down. Two more -- THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES -- to go.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Some Assembly Required

What it is about The Avengers?

Back in 1976, I picked up Avengers #149 -- the final issue written by Steve Engelhart, drawn by a then-newcomer named George Perez -- and was so smitten that a few issues later I subscribed (at the princely cost of $4.00) and continued to buy the title, with a few pauses (such as when Marvel subcontracted production to another publisher in the mid-90s)since, along with reprints and back issues. Now, with a Marvel/Disney produced movie coming out (and grossing nearly $180 million before it has even been released in the U.S.), the question remains: What is the attraction of a series that started out as a blatant ripoff of DC's Justice League of America title, featuring a team of Marvel heroes who lacked their own titles?

Perhaps it's the top-notch talent that has worked on the comic. The first 13 years of the title were written by only three writers, and they were among the beest in the business: Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and Engelhart. The first artist was the Marvel Universe's co-progenitor, Jack Kirby. Subsequent issues featured the work of Perez, John and Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, Barry Smith, John Byrne, and other top illustrators.

But the heart of the title's success is that it epitomized the Marvel formula of combining cinemascope-like slam-bang action with interpersonal conflict and a degree of unpredictability. In contrast to the rather genteel adventures of the Justice League, the Avengers lost founding member The Hulk in the second issue, when he left in a huff. (They fought him a couple of issues later.) Two years into the run, Lee and Kirby dumped all of the founding members, and staffed the Avengers with Captain America (revived from the Golden Age in the fourth issue) and three reformed criminals. (One of them, Hawkeye, appears in the Avengers movie.) In the late Sixties and early Seventies, writers Thomas and then Engelhart emphasized the drama of the lower-tier characters who appeared only in the title (Vision, Scarlet Witch, Mantis, Yellowjacket, Wasp) over that of the big guys (Thor, Captain America, Iron Man) who gravitated back to the comic even after getting their own titles.

I'm seeing the movie early Friday morning. And with Joss Whedon (who excels at the sort of action-combined-with-soap-opera described above) at the helm, I have high hopes that the movie will embody the spirit that has kept the comic a going concern for nearly fifty years.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

L.A. on Two Wheels

Today the City of Los Angeles held its fourth annual CicLAvia event. Modeled after a Bogota, Columbia event, CicLAvia consists of the city closing miles (today, ten miles) of surface streets in and around Downtown L.A. to motor vehicle traffic; providing traffic cops (along with volunteers) to control intersections with streets carrying cars; and allowing bicycles, skateboards, scooters, and pedestrians to ride through the streets.

I parked in a pay lot right next to the route (surprisingly they were charging only $5 and had spaces available) at 3rd and Spring in downtown, and then rode out. I had intended to only ride around downtown; but ended up riding the route nearly to Hollywood. The route was easy (the hills weren't nasty), the density of bike traffic mandated a low-speed pace, and the sheer joy, bordering on giddiness, of the other riders carried me along.

The fabled L.A. road rage was nowhere to be seen. Riders were courteous, making room for each other on the street. There were power riders, kids with training wheels, bikes with trailers (some carrying sound systems booming away). There were riders of all ages, races, and economic strata. One rider who was a double amputee passed me, pedaling his bike with his hands. Some folks were in costume, others road custom bikes.

The folks along the route got into the event as well. Enterprising homeowners ran water and Gatorade stands. A collective of organic farmers passed out slices of grapefruit (with a person down the block holding a trash box for the rinds). A seller of organic coffee creamer handed out paper cups of coffee -- interesting to manage while riding. Restaurants and bars along the route were open and doing great business (the bars especially).

The sense of community was thrilling, and I was elated as I headed back to my car. I hope I can make this event next year.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

John Carter, Warlord of Movies

I'm not sure if it's good or bad when a major studio makes a movie that you think is absolutely terrific -- and the critics and most of the moviegoing public disagrees.

If it's a low-budget film, you may view it as a badge of coolness, of exclusivity. It just means that your tastes are singular; and since the film didn't cost much to make, you know that it will likely find enough of an audience to make a buck.

But if the movie is JOHN CARTER, reputedly one of the most expensive movies ever (and with a cast dim on star power, every cent is on the screen), there's a tinge of sadness to the same audience that embraced AVATAR showing a lack of interest in a far pulpier (and to me more entertaining) adaptation of the story that antedated AVATAR, and FLASH GORDON, and every story in which a warrior from our world finds himself stranded in another, far more romantic one. Because while Hollywood sometimes, ever so rarely, bets on long odds, it seldom bets on the same number twice.

For me, the special effects of our era were created specifically to take this brass-tubed, wood-stocked, sword-swinging vision of another world, envisioned by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs almost exactly 100 years ago, and plaster it on the screen in dazzling color. And AVATAR and STAR WARS, as entertaining as they are, were in some ways test runs before bringing their ancestor to the screen.

Yet the critics and audiences have bet against the movie on its opening weekend. We can hope that the movie will find its legs over time, if it stays in theaters long enough for word of mouth to generate business. But if not, then we are unlikely to see another movie of this ilk for a while. And that's a shame.

I recommend seeing JOHN CARTER, in the theater, with its otherworldly vision glowing on a huge screen, while you can. So that you can let the studios know that they should make movies for us.

One Year Later

A year ago, I was up all night with a sick cat (Bailey had just returned from the vet after emergency treatment for a serious infection) when horrific news and video started shooting across the Internet. Japan had been hit with a huge earthquake, followed shortly afterward by a gigantic tsunami that tore coastal towns and fields apart. Later came new horror, as the Fukashima nuclear plant failed and spread radiation around the only nation that has been nuclear bombed in wartime.

A year later, some things have improved and some things haven't. Although much of Japan has returned to normal, the devastation of the areas hit by the tsunami isn't something that can be undone in a year. And lack of government honesty about what was going on in the nuclear plant has not helped matters; it has only stoked suspicion.,0,5531592.story

On this day, once again, the world's thoughts are with Japan.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Gallifrey One: Spanning the Decades

It's appropriate that the science fiction franchise DOCTOR WHO (and franchise it is, with two TV series, three movies, two spinoff series, novels, comics, etc.) is about a hero who travels through time. The franchise itself started 49 years ago; and the Gallifrey One convention that over 3,100 folks attended this weekend bore testimony to the franchise's multi-decade reach. On Saturday (the day we attended alone), one could see guests ranging from Waris Hussein, the director of the very first DOCTOR WHO serial in 1963 (telling stories of how original star William Hartnell, who was rather racist and sexist, had to be coaxed into starring in a series created by a Canadian, with a female producer and an Indian-British director) to Caitlin Blackwood, who portrays Amy Pond as a little girl in the most recent run of DOCTOR WHO episodes. In between, one can find actors such as Louise Jameson, who played companion Leela (a pre-Xena Xena) in the series in the mid-Seventies, and Paul McGann, who played the eighth incarnation of The Doctor in the 1996 Fox TV-Movie revival of the series.

It's an impressive chunk of TV history, one that continues to be successful seven years after the series's 2005 reincarnation into a critically acclaimed series that has won many new fans. And Gallifrey One is the place to meet those who were present throughout that history.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Droid 4: The Phone of Promises

While I'm not quite as much of a gadget fan as some of my more techie-oriented friends, I do enjoy picking up a new electronic goody now and then. And that is why yesterday I traded my Droid smartphone (one of the original Motorola Droids) for its newest descendent, the Droid 4.

Doing so may have resulted more from gut feeling than reason. Had I reasoned the matter through, I probably would not have picked up the Droid 4 one day after its release on the market. I would have waited for collective market experience to materialize concerning its reliability and usefulness. Instead, I saw months ago that it was coming to the market; went to a Verizon store yesterday; played with it for a few seconds; and decided to buy it.

So far I'm happy with the decision. The Droid line may be a line of dinosaurs, with their slide-out physical keyboards in an era of virtual onscreen keyboards; but I've always found physical keyboards far more accurate and easier to use than their counterparts. The phone feels light and comfortable; it's fast; and so far it has acceptable battery life.

But I can't help noticing that this is the phone of promises. It has the "Gingerbread" Android operating system, rather than the state-of-the-art "Ice Cream Sandwiche" Android OS on Samsung's Galaxy Nexus. Further, intrigued by the camera that faces the user, I clicked on the Skype app on the phone -- only to reach a screen telling me that the Skype video calling app for that phone had actually not been developed yet.

So it's a "stay tuned" phone. Not the worst thing. It's fun to have stuff to look forward to.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Anime L.A. 2012: Capacity Crowd

The eighth annual Anime Los Angeles convention took place January 6-8, and was sandwiched by two unfortunate news stories about the anime industry. The first was Bandai Entertainment U.S.A.'s announcement that it would restructure, shed jobs, and stop issuing new titles. The second was Media Blaster's post-con announcement that it is laying off 60% of its staff. Considering that Bandai and Media Blasters are two major players in the increasingly shrinking industry of American anime licensors, these two announcements suggest that the market for anime in the U.S. is waning.

But that sentiment was belied by Anime L.A. 2012. The convention had its largest attendance yet, hitting the 4,000 member cap imposed by the size of the venue. And the enthusiasm of the attendees indicated that American love for Japan's animation project is still going strong.

We attended all three days (albeit I missed most of Friday) plus the Thursday Ice Cream Social, and had a terrific time. The convention is one of the friendliest and best-run anime cons that we attend. The con benefits from a terrific venue (the staff is used to all of these folks in strange costumes, particularly since the LAX Marriott plays host to multiple SF/Fantasy/anime cons throughout the year) and from a huge turnout of folks in terrific costumes.

Here are some photos:

The One Piece fan panel featured some great costumes from that long-running series, including a depiction of sea cook Sanji, currently suffering from severe blood loss from nosebleeds whenever he sees an attractive woman. Hence the IV bag.
One of my favorite current anime TV series is CHIHAYAFURU. So I was delighted to meet an entire group of cosplayers who dressed up as the high school Kurata players from that series.
Steampunk and anime are intimately connected (particularly with all of the anime steampunk series and movies that have been done), and so Friday afternoon saw a steampunk costume gathering, in which Amy and I participated.
And, of course, the convention saw some crossover non-anime cosplay, from both DC . . .
. . . and Marvel.

We look forward to next year.