2017年1月14日 星期六

Comic Book Interlude 9

1. "American Splendor" by Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, and Others (1976-1991)

Underground comic, largely autobiographical in nature.  Parts of it are good, but it's extremely repetitive, and at times crosses that line between art and masturbation.  The author, Harvey Pekar, writes about life in Cleveland, and people that he knew there.  Everything I said about "Ordinary Victories" could be applied to this one.

It was later adapted into a film starring Paul Giamatti.  The movie is probably much better than the comic book. 

2. "J. Michael Straczynski's Midnight Nation" by (of course) J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank (2002)

Super boring comic book about a policeman trapped in limbo.  The art is also too "superheroic" for the subject matter.

Dear Mr. Straczynski: If you're going to put your name above the title, you really ought to come up with something less derivative than this.  You've got a good ear for dialogue, but good dialogue doesn't make up for a lackluster story.

3. "Nailbiter" (Volume 1) by Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson (2014-2015)

An "interrogation expert" investigates his friend's disappearance in a town full of serial killers.

The writing is ok, even if the concept of a town full of serial killers is a bit implausible.  The art veers between manga and Frank Miller.

If Nailbiter was adapted into a movie (stranger things have happened), it would be a campy affair, but under the right director it could work.  Writer Joshua Williamson doesn't have J. Michael Straczynski's ear for dialogue, but other than that this comic book is much better.

4. "New Avengers" 1-33 + Annual by Jonathan Hickman and Various Artists (2013-2015)

Secret Wars makes SO much more sense after you've read Hickman's New Avengers!  Now I know what those "other Earths in the sky" really are!  Now I know how Doctor Doom got involved in the first place!  Now I know how the Avengers first learned of the "Incursions!"

This, and it's also a good run of comics in its own right.  I think I might like Hickman's run on New Avengers even more than Secret Wars.  To be sure, Secret Wars is still vastly superior to DC's Convergence, but Secret Wars - despite a great beginning - was something of an unfulfilled promise.

Hickman's New Avengers issues build more gradually, and he maintains a nice sense of tension throughout.  Most of the art isn't that great, but the story more than makes up for the art.  I really liked the interplay between Namor and the Black Panther, and Black Swan is/was an interesting character.

5. "Preacher" 1-66 + 6 Specials + Saint of Killers by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (1996-2000) 

I wouldn't blame you for finding a comic like Crossed off-putting.  It's violent, it's transgressive, and it's more than a little repetitive.

But Preacher?  Yes it's violent, but it's as cleverly written as any comic book out there, and the art - although far from flashy - tells a great story.  Preacher is iconoclastic in the way that all great art is iconoclastic - it says what it wants to say, and the devil take the the hindmost.

Preacher is excellent stuff, and if you have the patience I think you'll find it just as spellbinding is I did.

6. "Punisher MAX" by Garth Ennis and Various Artists (2007-2009)

Garth Ennis brings a bit more of the old ultraviolence to this series featuring Marvel's most famous psychopath.

It's not as riveting as Preacher, but it's easier on the digestion than Crossed.  I haven't read through all the issues yet - just the first two storylines, but I plan on returning to them when I have more time.

2017年1月13日 星期五

Comic Book Interlude 8

Time for another round of comic books.  I'd like to say that these are the newest, most up-to-date, most fashionable comics out there, but I can't.  What you see below is what I could get a hold of, and not necessarily my first choice(s).

1. "Black Science" 1-7 by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera (2013-2014)

A group of "anarchist scientists" hop between parallel dimensions.  Reminded me a lot of the Fantastic Four, and their many adventures in the Negative Zone.  A strong family dynamic at the center of the narrative, though more dysfunctional than anything seen in the FF (outside perhaps the Ultimates).  Surprisingly good, though the writer is much better with dialogue and plotting than with exposition.

2. "Captain Atom" 1-13 by T.J. Krul and Freddie Williams II (2012)

The New 52 version of Steve Ditko's most famous (non-Marvel) creation.  This one is something of a mix between Captain Atom and Firestorm, which makes sense because those two heroes were always a bit too similar.

In the post-Dr. Manhattan era, Nathaniel Adam is blessed/cursed with godlike powers following a scientific experiment that's never explained to anyone's satisfaction.  By the end of the run he fights his future self, with the whole world (possibly) hanging in the balance.

I really liked the art, and it gets satisfyingly trippy near the end.  The New 52 failed for many reasons, but 2012's Captain Atom wasn't one of them.

3. "Daytripper" 1-10 by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba (2010)

An extended meditation on what life means in the presence of death.  A sometime author, sometime obituary writer in Brazil dies at several different points in his life.  If the last issue doesn't have you teary-eyed, you probably need to rethink your priorities.

4. "DC One Million" 1-4 by Grant Morrison and Val Semeiks (1998)

Like most comic book readers, I have a love-hate relationship with Grant Morrison.  I'll read things like the first half of Final Crisis, or All-Star Superman, and think that he's AWESOME, and that he should be even more famous, and that I should immediately track down all the other comics he's written that I haven't gotten around to yet.

But then I'll read things like the second half of Final Crisis, or Aztec: the Ultimate Man, and think that he's TERRIBLE, and that he's ridiculously overrated, and that I should avoid him in the future (at all costs).

Happily for me, DC One Million was one of the ones where he got it right, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.  Sure, the time travel scenario poses some issues with regard to causality, but who cares about causality when you've got so many interesting ideas flying around?

I could provide a synopsis of the story, but it would just give you (and me) a headache.  Instead, I suggest getting your head together as best you can, clearing out an afternoon, and finding a quiet place to read (and think about) DC One Million.

5. "The Earth X Trilogy" by Jim Krueger and Alex Ross (1999)

This has to be the most seriously overwrought of all the seriously overwrought comics ever.

It starts from an interesting premise: The Celestials are using the Earth to incubate one of their offspring, and all of the superhumans inhabiting the globe act as "antibodies" which protect the incubating Celestial.

But aside from that one cool idea it's really hard to care about any of the characters in Earth X, and the series is so rife with plot holes - and lame attempts to close these plot holes later on - that I really struggled to get through it.  

To be fair, it's not nearly as bad as the latter parts of the Ultimatum event, but it brings to mind a lot of other, better comic book series using similar plot devices; comics like Kingdom Come, or the still earlier Marvels.

6. "Ghost World" by Daniel Clowes (1997)

This comic book reminded me of why I sometimes hate people in Seattle - the hipsterishness, the use of irony as a defense mechanism, the disdain for sincerity, or for anyone who genuinely attempts to improve themselves - it's all there.

The two girls who feature in this comic book are, in a word, horrible, but it's a familiar kind of horrible, and not something I enjoy remembering about the city where I grew up.

And yet there are these moments where reality intrudes upon their little, self-obsessed worlds, and it is these moments that make this comic book truly great.  The girl with a facial tumor.  The lonely guy with a beard.  The astrologer hurt by the unkind phone message.  It's hard to see these people, but at the same time it's hard to look away.

I'd never heard of this comic book before two weeks ago, and of course I was unaware that it was later adapted into a movie, but having read the comic book, I'll probably see the movie soon.

2017年1月7日 星期六

"Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend" by Winsor McCay (1905)

1905?  A comic strip from 1905?  A comic strip about food poisoning from 1905?  A collection of comic strips about food poisoning from 1905?

Yes, my friend, this is a real thing.  Winsor McCay drew these comic strips for the New York Evening Telegram in 1905, and most of them have been lovingly reproduced in this volume.

The set-up is pretty simple: someone eats something called "rarebit," or "Welsh rarebit," gets sick, and has strange dreams.  Some of the dreams are about getting rich.  Other dreams are about getting fat.  And still other dreams are about furnaces coming to life, turning into devils, and chasing you over rooftops.

Definitely one of the oddest things I've seen in a while, but not by any means bad.  McCay was a good artist, and if the "dreams" that occupy each page of the collection are a bit repetitive, that's to be expected given the time period in which they were produced.

We are, after all, talking about a time before comic books even existed.

2017年1月5日 星期四

"High-Rise" by J.G. Ballard (1975)

"Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later.  The more arid and effectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered.  By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all.  For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses.  It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place.  Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find.  In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly 'free' psychopathology."

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've probably noticed that I'm a big fan of J.G. Ballard.  I would list him among the most influential and talented authors of the last century, and despite the creation of an adjective ("Ballardian") in his honor, I think it's a shame that he isn't more widely read.

1975's High-Rise is the eighth of his novels, coming after earlier efforts like The Wind from Nowhere, and The Drowned World, but before his later, best-known book, 1984's Empire of the SunCrash, another novel reviewed here, came out before High-Rise, in 1973. 

In High-Rise, modern man - in the guise of physician Robert Laing - finds himself deconstructed within the confines of a high-rise apartment building.  Laing is one of three main characters in the book, the other two being Richard Wilder, a filmmaker, and Anthony Royal, the architect who designed the high-rise which they inhabit.

Once the high-rise reaches maximum occupancy, the society within it becomes stratified into three levels relative to the floors they inhabit and the services they enjoy, and after this point they begin a long, slow slide into barbarism.  The modern world gives way to something more medieval, the middle ages give way to a world of warring tribes and nomadism, and by the end of the book people are eating each other - all without the authorities having the slightest idea of what's going on.

This is definitely the most sociological novel I've read in some time, and I think Ballard's use of the high-rise as a metaphor for the modern world works very well.  My only complaint is that Robert Laing isn't a very interesting character, and the narratives of Wilder and Royal aren't given quite enough time to develop properly.  Wilder's ascent of the high-rise is a nice attempt at mythologizing their situation, but it would have worked better if he'd had a little more depth, and if he hadn't been absent from so many of the earlier chapters.  Laing could have easily been ignored in favor of the dialectic between Wilder and Royal, and the result would have been a more gripping power struggle between the upper and lower classes.

Still, High-Rise is an excellent book, and far better than the recent movie adaptation.  It also shares many themes with Crash, Ballard's exploration of modern technology as applied to human sexuality.  Crash, however, is a lot more disturbing.  It's also much better.

2016年12月23日 星期五

"North and South" by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)

"'In our infancy we require a wise despotism to govern us.  Indeed, long past infancy, children and young people are the happiest under the unfailing laws of a discreet, firm authority.  I agree with Miss Hale so far as to consider our people in the condition of children, while I deny that we, the masters, have anything to do with the making or keeping of them so.'"

North and South was originally serialized in Household Words, a publication edited by Charles Dickens.  Dickens was writing Hard Times at the same time that Elizabeth Gaskell was writing this novel, and the interplay between the two authors' personalities and works of fiction provides some interesting background for this book.

In North and South, Margaret Hale moves to a factory town after her father, a minister, parts ways with the Church of England.  She later forms a strained relationship with Mr. Thornton, one of the factory owners in the town, and comes to understand the wide gulf which separates her social standing from those beneath her.

Dickens himself criticized the novel for lacking "conciseness," and I would heartily agree.  At over 500 pages this book sprawls, and given its actual content it could have easily been half as long.  Instead of what might have been a harrowing look at how the Industrial Revolution impacted the north of England (as in Hard Times), we are instead witness to Margaret's endless fits of crying, fainting, and pointless introspection.  Her relationship to Mr. Thornton also lacks the dramatic import it might have had in other, more skillful hands, and the role of women in Margaret's society could have been explored in much greater depth.  At times this book flirts with being good, but never quite gets there.

I wouldn't say that it's bad, exactly.  It's not unreadable.  But given both its history and subject matter, it's hard not to think about how much better Dickens treated similar themes, and how much more powerful North and South might have been if the author had been more "concise."

2016年12月16日 星期五

"The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1970s": Reflections on a List

If you go here, you can see a list of the "100 Greatest Movies of the 1970s."  There are of course other such lists.  I picked this one because it seemed more varied, and also contained more movies that I hadn't seen.  It also leans more towards the critically acclaimed movies, with less attention paid to the blockbusters.

About a month after first seeing this list, I can now say that I've seen 97 of the 100 movies listed.  The ones I haven't seen are movies I couldn't find.  Of the 16,186 people that took this quiz, 97 puts me in the top 1%.

I thought I'd compliment this list/quiz with a list of my own.  Here is what I came up with.

A. The Movies on this List that are Unquestionably Great, and Which Should be Seen by Everyone, Everywhere

1. The Godfather (1972)
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
3. Apocalypse Now (1979)
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
5. Jaws (1975)
6. Taxi Driver (1976)
7. Rocky (1976)
8. Patton (1970)
9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
10. The Exorcist (1973)
11. The French Connection (1971)
12. Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972)
13. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
14. Deliverance (1972)
15. Barry Lyndon (1975)
16. Alien (1979)
17. The Conversation (1974)
18. The Last Picture Show (1971)
19. All the President's Men (1976)
20. Dirty Harry (1971)
21. Coming Home (1978)
22. Carrie (1976)
23. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
24. All That Jazz (1979)
25. Amarcord (1973)
26. Shampoo (1975)
27. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
28. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
29. The Towering Inferno (1974)
30. Klute (1971)
31. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
32. Save the Tiger (1973)
33. Lenny (1974)
34. Norma Rae (1979)
35. Superman (1978)
36. Enter the Dragon (1973)

Notes: Many of the above movies would qualify as "greatest of all time" - not just greatest of the 70s.  The Godfather Parts I and II, Apocalypse Now, and every other movie up until #24 is, in my opinion, classic.

Around #25 or so is where I'd start describing movies as just "greatest of the 70s."  They're excellent movies, but they belong more to the decade that produced them.  Shampoo and The Towering Inferno in particular, but even movies like Superman and Amarcord have a charm half traceable to their quality, half traceable to the sense of nostalgia they're apt to engender.

Of all these movies, All That Jazz is the one that really blew my mind.  It is dismissed by some critics as pretentious and unwatchable, but I loved it.  If you're looking for a movie where the director went all-in, All That Jazz is the movie for you.

B. The Movies On This List That Are Watchable, but Definitely Not Great

37. Chinatown (1974)
38. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
39. Star Wars (1977)
40. The Deer Hunter (1978)
41. Network (1976)
42. American Graffiti (1973)
43. Mean Streets (1973)
44. Serpico (1973)
45. Blazing Saddles (1974)
46. Young Frankenstein (1974)
47. Animal House (1978)
48. The Sting (1973)
49. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
50. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
51. Nashville (1975)
52. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
53. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
54. Badlands (1973)
55. The Conformist (1970)
56. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
57. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
58. Life of Brian (1979)
59. Days of Heaven (1978)
60. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
61. Bound for Glory (1976)
62. The Hospital (1971)
63. The Last Detail (1973)
64. The Sunshine Boys (1975)
65. Cabaret (1972)
66. Breaking Away (1979)
67. The Candidate (1972)
68. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
69. The Goodbye Girl (1977)
70. Midnight Express (1978)
71. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
72. Sounder (1972)

Notes: I wanted to put Chinatown in the "Massively Overrated" category, but it's definitely more watchable than the other films there.  Not great, but good.  Ditto for Clockwork Orange and the Deer Hunter.  Yeah, they're "great" movies, but have you tried to sit through them lately?

Despite my undying love for Network, I couldn't bring myself to place it in the "Unquestionably Great" category.  It has definite flaws, though these flaws make it - in my eyes at least - more endearing.

Nashville is a movie that critics love, and while I liked it I can't say that it bowled me over.  It seems more like an interesting experiment than an actual movie.  Some great scenes there, but I can't say that they add up to a satisfying whole.

The Conformist is a wonderful looking film, but what about the story?  What about the characters?  Certainly worth a look on artistic grounds, but it lacks the dramatic weight that a truly classic movie ought to have.

C. The Movies on this List That Are Weird Enough to be Somewhat Interesting

73. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
74. Tommy (1975)
75. Last Tango in Paris (1972)
76. The Last Wave (1977)
77. Macbeth (1971)
78. Julia (1977)
79. Being There (1979)

Notes: None of these movies are especially entertaining, but if you're in the mood for something weird you might like them.  

The stories of how these movies were made are also interesting in and of themselves.  The Man Who Fell to Earth?  Bowie was snorting his weight in cocaine - on a daily basis.  Last Tango in Paris?  A beautiful female lead, and decades of rape allegations.  Macbeth?  Made just after Polanski's pregnant wife was murdered by the Manson Family.  

And on, and on, and on...

D. The Movies on this List That Are Massively Overrated

80. Annie Hall (1977)
81. M*A*S*H (1970)
82. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
83. Halloween (1978)
84. Grease (1978)
85. Manhattan (1979)
86. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
87. Bananas (1971)
88. Sleeper (1973)
89. Marathon Man (1976)
90. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie (1972)
91. Don't Look Now (1973)
92. A Touch of Class (1973)
93. Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Notes: I fucking hate Woody Allen.  It has nothing to do with any crimes he may or may not have committed.  I just hate every single film he's ever directed, starred in, or had anything to do with.

Halloween is a lot like A Clockwork Orange.  People gush over it, but the people doing the gushing probably haven't seen it in a while.  Even during the 70s there were much better horror movies.

E. The Movies on This List That are Just BAD

93. The Ruling Class (1972)
94. The Way We Were (1973)

Notes: I can't figure out why someone put The Ruling Class on this list.  It never won any awards, it was never particularly favored by critics, and it is CRUSHINGLY BORING.  I made it about halfway through and gave up.

The Way We Were was a calculated attempt to make Barbara Streisand into (more of) a star.  In this regard it could be considered an inferior version of A Star is Born, which at least featured a male lead that Streisand had some kind of chemistry with.  The Way We Were just makes you feel sorry for Robert Redford.

F. The Movies on This List That Were So Depressing I'm Sorry I Watched Them

95. Cries and Whispers (1972)
96. Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Notes: Ingmar Bergman... are Swedish people really like that?  I certainly hope not.  I found Scenes from a Marriage slightly easier to sit through, but Cries and Whispers, which features a woman slowly dying of an agonizing disease, might have been more agonizing than the disease featured in the movie.

G. The Three Movies on this List I Couldn't Find

98.  Il Giardino del Finzi-Contini ("The Garden of the Finzi-Continis") (1970)
99. Seven Beauties (1975)
100. Day for Night  ("La Nuit Americaine") (1973)

Notes: The first two of these movies, like The Conformist and Amarcord, are Italian films about fascism.  Day for Night is a film by Truffaut.  All won or were nominated for foreign-language Academy Awards.

H. Movies That Should Have Been on this List, But Weren't

101. Diamonds are Forever (1971)
102. THX 1138 (1971)
103. The Omega Man (1971)
104. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
105. Pink Flamingos (1972)
106. Fist of Fury (1972)
107. Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972)
108. Fantastic Planet (1973)
109. High Plains Drifter (1973)
110. Female Trouble (1974)
111. Zardoz (1974)
112. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
113. Shivers (a.k.a. "They Came From Within") (1975)
114. Logan's Run (1976)
115. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
116. Oh, God! (1977)
117. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
118. Desperate Living (1977)
119. Suspiria (1977)
120. Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
121. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
122. Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979)
123. The Brood (1979)

Notes: I've already discussed the above movies in other entries about the 70s.  I hereby refer you to Bond: the 1970s, Movies of the Early 70s, Movies of the Late 70s, and The 1970s: A Few More Films.