Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Legion of Super Jerks

I was replying to a post on another blog earlier this week and the subject of my favorite Legion of Superheroes episode came up. Specifically, I was remembering one of their try-outs where one of the characters was Plaid Lad. You can see his appearance in the middle of the following scans. What I had forgotten was both X Bomb Betty and what jerks some of the members of the Legion were. The first part of this is from Legionnaires #2 from 1993 (written by Tom and Mary Bierbaum, art by Chris Sprouse and Karl Story):

At this point, the soundtrack would be going all ominous. It's clear from the way this is going that Stephen King's Carrie is unknown in the 30th Century. But let's continue, shall we? In the next issue, Legionnaires #3, we return to poor Cera:

...and cue the revenge fantasy. Sheesh, you'd think that a thousand years of superheroics would have demonstrated that when you're a jerk to someone, that someone is going to come back as a supervillain to kick your ass. But, hey, the Legion is young. Perhaps they haven't covered the roots of supervillainy in class yet.

As a post script, we have this episode from Legionnaires #4:

At the end of this particular story, Saturn Girl makes up with Lightning Lad (they were calling him Live Wire in this particular incarnation, by the way) and all was hunky dory. Which just goes to show that some things never change. Gorgeous, smart, telepathic women will STILL be hooking up with absolute jerks a thousand years from now.


As a postscript, here are some additional thoughts. The notion that Matter Eater Lad is judging the try-outs amuses me. I mean, come on. It must REALLY suck to get bounced by someone with as lame a power as that.

I also ran across this posting at Comic Book Resources, detailing the top five Legion rejects. Plaid Lad comes in at #5, while X-Bomb Betty gets an honorable mention. Arm-Fall-Off Boy is very disturbing, in a lame kind of way...


Monday, July 28, 2008

Three Revisitings

234. It's difficult to imagine an American studio of the period making a film as resolutely downbeat as Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948, directed by Basil Dearden). For that matter, it's fairly out of character for Ealing Studios, too, who were best known for their droll comedies. But downbeat this film is, telling of the tragic love affair between Princess Sophia Dorothea, the wife of the future King George I, and Swedish Count Philip Konigsmark, a mercenary in the hire of the Hanovers. There's much court intrige as the Hanovers plot to assume the English throne (they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams--the current Royals are descended from Sophia and George I). Unlike an American producer, Michael Balcon isn't tempted to append a happy ending to the actual historical record. This movie unfolds more or less as it did in "real life," in which Konigsmark is murdered by the minions of the Hanovers and the machinations of the fading Countess Clara Platten, who had an unhealthy obsession with the man. Sophia Dorothea then spent the rest of her life imprisoned in a castle. But getting to that point is all of the fun. Our doomed lovers are played by Joan Greenwood (so young it hurts to look at her, but already possessed of that fabulous voice) and Stewart Granger. The swordfight at the end is reminiscent of the swashbucklers Granger became known for (especially Scaramouche), but no swashbuckler would end the duel as this film does. The sets won an Oscar, and the costumes SHOULD have, and this is a fine example of the work of the great cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe. Supposedly, this is one of Christopher Lee's first film appearances, but I didn't spot him. One wishes that director Basil Dearden could have employed a livelier cinematic sense, but the film is overstuffed with other pleasures that its relatively mundane direction isn't really a liability. And I LOVE the title.

235. I took another look Phil Karlson's Scandal Sheet (1952) this week. I really like the hard boiled deadpan that Karlson evolved in his crime movies from this period. It's a harder version of film noir, minus some of the poetry of shadows, but adding a hard-nosed approach to storytelling. The story itself is a variant of The Big Clock (the film credits the story to a novel by Sam Fuller, but that doesn't change the dynamics), in which a reporter is investigating a murder committed by his editor, who is guiding the investigation away from himself. John Derek is more or less a non-entity as the lead here, but Broderick Crawford more than makes up for it as the movie's heavy. For that matter, Donna Reed is entirely too much for Derek, too. But he's servicable enough. There are fine character faces in support, too, including Henry Morgan as a photographer and Henry O'Neill as a drunk ex-reporter. As a plus, this doesn't waste time on extraneous detail, and clocks in at a terse 82 minutes. Talk about no-nonsense filmmaking.

236. I'm sure that when I originally saw it on its first release, the pointed critique of consumer culture and the Reagan revolution in Poltergeist (1982, directed by Tobe Hooper) was completely lost on me. I was there for the special effects, I'm sure. Watching it a quarter of a century later, I'm shocked that I missed all of that. I was also suprised at how careful the film is in building its sense of "wrongness," going from playfully unsettling manifestations of the "poltergeist" to outright horrors like the evil tree outside the children's window and that damned clown doll. The first half of the movie is a masterclass in how to construct a post-modern haunted house movie. Gone are the gothic excressences and the crumbling mansions of the past. Here we have a haunted tract house that looks just like all the other tract houses around it. We see the day to day minutiae of the lives of an average suburban family that creates a shock of recognition in the audience (the similarity to producer/ghost-director Steven Spielberg's Jaws is striking). By the middle of this latest viewing, I realized that I was watching a really good Stephen King movie. The second half of the movie is the light show, what all those teen age kids in 1982 went to see the movie for. Some of the effects haven't held up, but some of them--the house folding in on itelf at the end, for example--are as awesome today as they were back then. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is that it's a horror movie in which no one dies. It's a carnival ride, sure, with bizarre mirror images thrown in to disorient the audience, but like a carnival ride, no harm is done in the end.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Objects of Chaos

231. It's common practice to group Son of Frankenstein (1939, directed by Rowland V. Lee) with the first two films in the Frankenstein series as a kind of trilogy. That's understandable, I guess, given both the presence of Karloff as The Monster and the steep drop-off in quality in subsequent films. But having watched Ghost of Frankenstein recently, I'm coming around to the notion that Son of Frankenstein is really the first film of a trilogy (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man would be the third in the sequence). The last time I watched Son, I didn't have the frame of reference in mind to notices the deep similarities between the two films. Not only is the tone more or less the same as in Ghost, but it even provides Ghost with its best line: "His mother was the lighting." None of the subsequent films are as good, unfortunately, in part because they got cheaper and cheaper, but also because of the steady drain of interesting cast members. This film, on the other hand, is loaded. It looks expensive and it has terrific faces. The film arguably belongs to Bela Lugosi, but he's given a run for his money by Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill ("One does not easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots"). It's a fun movie.

232. I don't think I've seen all of Hellraiser (1987, directed by Clive Barker) since it was in theaters. I may have seen snippets of it here and there, but the whole movie? No. In the interim, there are a number of things I had forgotten about it. One is the sheer nastiness of its violence (alleviated somewhat by unconvincing make-up effects). The other is the sheer stupidity of its ending. It's two thirds of a good movie, I think, but, Jesus, do the wheels fly off in the last act. I don't think I ever noticed the fact that the first two thirds of the movie are a deconstruction of the gothic novel with the sexual hang-ups brought to the forefront. The sexual hang-ups of the gothic novel are sadomasochistic, which gives the movie its kick and its kink. The whole thing builds quite a head of steam, but Barker has shown time and again that longer narratives are not his forte. So it is here. The images are strong, but the narrative is a muddle. Still and all, the puzzle box is one of the few movie props that I wouldn't mind owning. So that's something, I guess.

233. The Dark Knight (2008, directed by Christopher Nolan) is a crackerjack crime thriller with disturbing political subtexts. I wish I could like it more, because the performances--particularly Aaron Eckhart's--are superb and the whole is really well made. But I have grave misgivings about it. I've posted a long review of the film here: http://members.tranquility.net/~benedict/darkknight2008.html

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Do the Batusi

So my brother called me last night to ask if I wanted to go see The Dark Knight at the IMAX. I'm not opposed to it, but I'm leery as hell of it. The last go-round with Batman Begins ended badly. The flash-pans at the beginning of the movie, amplified by being on an IMAX screen, made me so motion-sick that I had to leave the theater. But what the hell.

In any event, I'm greatly amused at the seriousness of everything surrounding The Dark Knight. I mean, yeah, Batman is the genesis of the grim and gritty superhero--thank you Frank Miller--but he's also the comics character that has had far and away the widest pallet of tonal variations. Hell, much as I hated it, even Joel Schumacher's coded gay take on Batman has precedence in the comics. Frederick Wertham didn't make anything up when he concluded that Batman and Robin live "the wish dream of two homosexuals." I mean, look at this panel posted on Mike Sterling's Progressive Ruin:

Go ahead and tell me that these two outfits aren't swiped from Bettie Page's lingerie drawer. I dare you.

Somehow, Christian Bale seems too tight of ass to let go like this:

Ah, for the days of silly comicbook fun...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Functions of Genre

Only two features this week:

221. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008, directed by Guillermo del Toro) has a pretty standard storyline for an action fantasy, but that's genre for you. All genre movies are pretty predictable, and this one is no different. You know in pretty short order how this film is going to turn out. But that's only plot, and, as someone once said, plot is only an excuse. Lord knows, this movie understands that, because once you discard the plot, the individual scenes and individual moments are quite special, and the MEANING of what happens to the characters goes pretty far beyond what you can glean from just anticipating how everything turns out in the end. Sure, you know going in that in order to kill Prince Nuada, someone was going to have to kill Princess Nuala. Sure, you know that Hellboy is going to defeat the Golden Army by challenging Nuada's right to rule. You get that in the first ten minutes of the film (and if you don't, you just aren't paying attention). What you DON'T get is the relationships between the characters. These are unpredicable and largely independent of the plot. You don't anticipate the lovely dual motif of saving the life of the one you love even if it means the end of the world. You might anticipate the great tentacled monster that rises up over the city in this movie, but you don't anticipate what happens when it's killed. And you don't anticipate the film's many visual wonders, from the troll market to the elemental's fate to the Angel of Death. To a one, these are fabulous. But it's the smaller wonders that really make the film click. The sight of Hellboy and Abe Sapien drunkenly singing Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You" might be worth the price of admission all by itself.

222. Depending on what I've seen lately, I usually name Miller's Crossing (1990) as my favorite among the Coen Brothers' movies. This alternates with Fargo, usually, but lately I've been drifting towards No Country for Old Men. Miller's Crossing is, of course, a reworking of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, which itself might be my favorite of the hard boiled novels. As in Hellboy II, the plot is incidental, intricate and twisty turny though it might be. I could tell you that the movie is about Irish gangsters, but what it's really about is Gabriel Byrne chasing his hat. Early in the movie, he even comments that there's nothing stupider than a man chasing his hat. The Coens have built a formidable gallery of grotesques over the years, but none of their other movies is as packed with them as this one, whether it's Jon Polito descanting on criminal ethics or a street urching swiping the toupee off the head of a corpse. The parade of characters--none of them leading-man or leading-woman material--is endlessly fascinating. And after all these years, I still think this movie contains the Coen's best-ever sequence, in which Albert Finney defends himself against would-be assassins while "Danny Boy" plays on the soundtrack. It's contrapunctual music at its finest.

I also watched some of the third disc from the Norman McLaren Masters Edition, including:

223. Narcissus (1983)
224. Pas De Deux (1968)
225. A Chairy Tale (1957)
226. Neighbors (1952)
227. Opening Speech (1960)
228. Christmas Cracker (1962)
229. Canon (1964)
230. Ballet Adagio (1972)

These are mostly dance oriented--Narcissus is particularly lovely--and show McLaren following the lead of Maya Deren to its obvious conclusions. I should give a shout-out to Neighbors, which is a masterpiece. How this won an Oscar during the Cold War, I know not. But there it is.

Neighbors is all over YouTube. By all means, watch it:

Monday, July 07, 2008

Your Stupid Minds! Stupid! Stupid!

Last week was an anomaly for me, in so far as I didn't watch any movies whatsoever (I did sort of half-listen to Amadeus, but I can't say that counts as "watching" it). I did marginally better this week.

216. The highlight of the week was seeing Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959, directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.) on a big screen with an audience. Man, that's a pure, dyed in the wool pleasure, let me tell you. A little background: a local theater group is putting on a musical version of Plan 9--rockabilly, which suits it, I think--and this showing was a fundraiser. Several of the songs were performed prior to the movie and they were't bad at all. If anything, they were TOO good, because anything more than marginal competence is well and truly beyond the scope of Plan 9. They had some trivia questions about the movie, too, and I won a pair of tickets to the play for knowing that the original name of the movie was "Graverobbers from Outer Space." In any event, let's dispense with the notion that Plan 9 is the worst movie ever made. No movie that repays repeat viewings with such warm pleasures can possibly hold that title. It's not even the most inept movie ever made (anyone who's ever seen a film by, say, Ron Ormond or Al Adamson knows that Ed Wood had more imagination and enthusiasm than many of his contemporaries). For that matter, it's not even Ed Wood's worst movie. Plan 9 is charming in its "let's put on a play" earnestness. And watching it a week after Pride month, I can't help but read it as a plea for tolerance towards gays, though Wood himself was "only a transvestite," as Tim Burton's biopic insisted. As an aside, it was kind of fun watching the alien ruler's eyes drift towards Eros's package in every scene they shared. Hilarious.

217. Kung Fu Panda (2008, directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson) is all high concept and not so much a story. The sum total of the film is found in its title. The movie itself is almost an afterthought. But as such, it's not bad. Anyone who's seen a few kung fu movies will find no surprises. This is a cross between The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and any number of Chang Cheh movies. As usual, Dreamworks' insistence on casting celebrity voices remains an unnecessary distraction. Visually, the movie is interesting for the way it tends to flatten out the 3-D computer animation, sometimes lapsing into 2-D animation outright. The best part of the movie, for me anyway, is the prologue which is animated 2-d. Along with the graphics over the closing credits, this made me wish that the whole movie had been made that way. Alas. It should be noted, however, that when it comes to computer animation, it's still Pixar first, and everyone else a distant second, a point hammered home by...

218. ...WALL-E (2008, directed by Andrew Stanton), which sets the bar impossibly high. I love Pixar's movies. I do. But that love didn't prepare me for WALL-E, which is the studio's masterpiece. This is a movie of existential loneliness, of profound emotionality, and of visionary wonders. While the largely silent opening act of the movie has been rightly praised, I think I knew I was watching a legitimately great movie when it took time out from the ruthless mechanics of its story to let WALL-E and EVE delight in a weightless pas de deux. Oh, you can see Chaplin in this, and Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, and Jacques Tati, and Stanley Kubrick; this film is every bit their spiritual stephchild. Regardless, it's resolutely an entity unto itself. As we were leaving the theater, I said to my companion: "They're still going to be watching this 50 years from now." My companion said: "I can't believe they made a cockroach endearing."

219. "Presto" (2008, directed by Doug Sweetland) is the short that accompanied WALL-E, concerning a magician and a reluctant rabbit. This is probably not the best of the Pixar shorts, but it might be the funniest. It's certainly the one that feels most like a classic Looney Tunes short. It provided a good warm-up before plunging the audience into the melancholia of WALL-E's first half-hour.

220. It had been my intention to show a Western to my guests this 4th of July, but to a one, they all bitched because they "don't like" Westerns. This kind of pissed me off, because I had planned to show The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, which has always seemed like the Western for people who claim not to like them. But be that as it may, let it never be said that I'm not a gracious hostess. I said, "A samurai movie it is, then," which was met with enthusiasm. Of course, the joke was on them, because I chose to show Yojimbo (1962, directed by Akira Kurosawa), which, as you probably know, is A Fistful of Dollars in Japanese drag. Yojimbo is hilarious, whether it's Toshiro Mifune's nameless samurai saying "sorry, 3 coffins" to the undertaker or watching the forces of the two gang bosses line up against each other only to be too chickensh t to initiate the fight, there is comedy aplenty in this movie. I like to think of this movie as a satire of the Cold War, but you don't need any deep meanings to enjoy this. It's Kurosawa at his most cynical, as if he were channelling Billy Wilder, and making that cynicism all his own.