Monday, March 29, 2010

RIP - Dick Giordano

Some very sad news in the world of comics, as legendary industry veteran Dick Giordano passed away over the weekend after a long battle with leukemia. He was 77.

Giordano began his career in comics in 1952, when he was hired as a freelance inker and artist for second-tier publisher Charlton Comics. He was mentored by Steve Ditko, the legendary penciller who would later co-create Spider-Man during his time at Marvel. Working steadily at Charlton, Giordano would rise through the ranks until he eventually become Editor-in-Chief and oversee the creation of Charlton's "Action Line", which included new or revamped super-hero titles such as Captain Atom, The Question, The Peacemaker, Judomaster, Peter Cannon...Thunderbolt, and The Blue Beetle.

In 1968, he moved over to DC Comics, where he would take over editing a number of mid-level titles. Though few of them were commercial successes, he would shepherd a number of titles that were critical successes and have since become classic runs, such as Deadman. He would also begin a lucrative partnership with artist Neal Adams, becoming his regular inker on their classic runs on Deadman, Green Lantern and Batman. Giordano would become a DC star, easily being the most famous inker of his day.

He left his exclusive gig at DC in 1971, to partner with Neal Adams in the creation of their ground-breaking studio, Continuity Associates. During this time, he began to work heavily as a penciller, doing classic work on Batman and Aquaman. In 1980, he returned to DC Comics as an inker, penciller and Executive Editor, a role he would fill until 1993. During this time, he also wrote a regular column that appeared in the letter pages of all DC Comics called Meanwhile... Beginning in the late 80s, Giordano began working hard for creator's rights, a cause he fought for for the rest of his life.

In 1993, following the passing of his wife, and due to his age and increasing hearing loss, Giordano entered retirement. For many fans of DC comics over the years, it was the end of an era, and his influence would be missed.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Human Torch Wields Shield

Well, it's pretty much a dead lock that Chris Evans is going to play Captain America for Marvel Studios. I, for one, am pretty happy about it. Look, we all knew that they would go for a younger guy in order to get as many movies as possible with as low a salary as possible. Some of the names on the list were perfect for Cap in terms of physicality, but they all seemed a little, shall we say? Too much of an unknown quantity to anchor what is shaping up to be a pretty important franchise for Marvel.

Evans is a solid choice. As I've stated before, I thought he was one of the few elements of the Fantastic Four films that worked. He captured Johnny Storm pretty much perfectly. And almost all of that charm came from him. Can he handle the gravitas needed for Cap? Well, I'm way less wary of his skills than of a total unknown.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

It's Not TV...

Okay, let's leave aside that The Pacific is currently airing on HBO, and that's reason enough to get that channel, but here's a couple of trailers for two new shows that are starting up soon on the cable giant, and they make me want to order it right now.

First up is a trailer for Boardwalk Empire, which is based on the non-fiction book about the crime-filled, gangster-run, Prohibition heyday of Atlantic City. It's being run by Terrence Winter, one of the best writer The Sopranos had, it stars the always great Steve Buscemi, and the pilot episode is directed by Martin Scorsese.

Next we have Treme, a series about New Orleans in the brutal days following Hurricane Katrina. What makes this show so special is that it's being run by David Simon. You know, Homicide: Life on the Streets, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill David Simon. So it should be intense, lacerating, complex and brilliant. And more than a little depressing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

To all readers out there, Happy "Pretend That Distant Irish Relative Makes You As Irish As Michael Collins And Gives You The Right To Be Obnoxiously Drunk" Day. Here's some Pogues for you:

Try not to wind up as drunk as this guy:



Monday, March 15, 2010

RIP - Peter Graves

Peter Graves, the actor who portrayed super-cool spymaster Jim Phelps on TV's Mission: Impossible from 1967 to 1973, and who later lampooned his stoic demeanour in the Airplane! movies, passed away on Sunday at the age of 83.

He was born Peter Aurness, and was the younger brother of fellow actor James Arness. After serving in World War II, he studied drama on the GI Bill before following James to Hollywood, where he toiled in minor roles until the 1950s after changing his name to avoid comparisons with James.

He appeared in supporting roles in such classic films as Stalag 17 and The Night of the Hunter, as well as in a number of B Westerns and Sci-fi films. In 1955, NBC cast him in their new TV series Fury, a family show in which Graves played a rancher who takes on an orphan and a stallion. The show lasted until 1959.

Nearly a decade of forgettable film and TV roles followed before he landed the role of Phelps, taking over from Steven Hill, who played original team leader Dan Briggs for the first season of Mission: Impossible. Graves' serious approach and effortless cool helped gel the series into the massive hit it became, and it made a Graves famous the world over.

After the show ended, he appeared in numerous TV movies and other roles until he took on the role of Captain Oveur in the film Airplane!, produced, written and directed by David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams. The spoof film lampooned the star-studded airplane disaster movies of the era, and worked largely because established actors like Graves and Leslie Neilson sent up their ultra-serious style and played every line ("Do you like movies about gladiators, Joey?") totally straight.

In the late 1980's, Graves became the host of A&E's Biography, lending his voice to countless documentaries on the lives of famous people throughout history. since the late 1990s, he was basically retired. He is survived by his wife, Joan Graves, and three daughters, Amanda Lee Graves, Claudia King Graves and Kelly Jean Graves.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The 10 Best Films of 2009 - Part 2

I'm finally getting around to posting my top ten films of last year. Here's 10 - 6, and now below I present the top five!

5 - Up in the Air

You know that old chestnut about how it's never too late to change your life for the better? How, at any point, you can make a positive choice about changing the way you interact with others and it will vastly improve your life? Well, here's a film that, while on the surface it appears to be charming and breezy, presents a reality that we often don't want to acknowledge; sometimes, it is too late. There's a time limit to certain things in life. And George Clooney's disconnected Ryan Bingham is forced to consider that question in this incredibly enjoyable, impeccably crafted film. It got a bit of a backlash thrown at it after opening earlier in the year to great guns, but that's not really fair; it may seem light, but that's deceptive. One of the major problems facing us all in this technological age is the growing lack of actual, face-to-face, community. This film attacks that issue head-on, and it's surprisingly moving. Clooney has never been better.

4 - Up

There's something in the water over at Pixar. They just can't make a bad movie. Cars is the closest they came, in my opinion, but even that film wasn't bad, it just didn't quite live up to incredibly high standard set by the studio. Up is no exception, and it may even be their best film, joining the ranks of WALL-E and The Incredibles. The story is crafted perfectly, using an incredibly affecting silent montage to immediately draw the audience into the story and get them behind their main character, who takes a journey that is supposed to be the end of a life and turn it into a reason to revitalise himself. It's a very touching film, and one that, like the Disney classics of old, immediately gains a beloved place in our hearts.

3 - The Hurt Locker

The phrase "hurt locker" refers to being in a place of incredible pain or injury. All of the characters in the film are in different Hurt Lockers, but the most profound pain belongs to the film's troubled main character, Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, in a star-making, Oscar nominated performance). He has become totally accustomed to the adrenalized, terrifying circumstances he lives in during his combat rotations. While this makes him an effective, if reckless, leader of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit, it also means that he really doesn't feel alive in any other situation. The scenes of his return home to his wife and family are heartbreaking, as he tries to assimilate, but finds that reality for him has become war. The things he is supposed to want to get back to hold no interest for him any longer. This is a common problem with soldiers, especially those whose tours have gotten longer and longer, and who have been "stop-lossed" back into active duty far past their original terms of service. This is the reason why there has been an increase in soldier suicides upon returning home. The Hurt Locker comments on the whole fucked-up mess that are the modern wars America has entered into, and all without overt speeches or melodrama. It is lean, powerful, and compelling.

2 - Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

There were critics who saw Precious as nothing more than "victim porn", a film so dedicated to dragging the audience through an absolutely horrific experience as to traumatize them into feeling they have seen a great film. There were others that felt the film did a huge disservice to the perception of African-American life; that is was a con job that showed all the most awful stereotypes possible. I feel both those views miss the ultimate point of the film. Yes, the main character goes through some of the most horrible and hugely tragic hardships ever visited on a protagonist in American film, but what we are watching is not meant to be an exploitative experience in degradation, but rather a moving depiction of the reclamation of a human soul. Yes, the things that happen to Precious are almost too much to take, but do things that bad happen to kids in real life? Sadly, I think it must be said that they do. But these kids are not lost unless we let them be lost. Precious finds, through education, through exposure to people who love her and (more importantly) find value in her, a way to be more than what the circumstances of her life have given her. And as such, it is a film of rare power and truth.

1 - The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke, the director of this masterful film, is a polarizing figure. Some consider him more pedagogue than visionary, more lecturer than artist. But, no one can deny the power of his latest film, an attempt to examine how seemingly ordinary societies can produce things like the Nazi horrors, terrorism and brutal repressions of all stripes. Some have focused too strongly on the Nazi angle to the film, while this is the closest and most personal analogy for Haneke, the film can easily reflect any society that finds itself growing more and more cruel in the its need to be safe and secure. As the town in the film is best by seemingly random and completely mysterious acts of violence, its hierarchy becomes less and less humane, descending into repression and intolerance. The only redemption seems to comes from individuals. Haneke seems to have absolutely no faith in systems or authority, but he does present fleeting glimpses of beauty and kindness; in the sweet courtship of two characters, in the gentleness of a little boy, in the recognition of the stifling nature of her community by a mother. These moments seem incredibly fragile, and yet keep the film from total gloom. Perhaps the most out and out beautifully shot film of the year.

Hope you enjoyed this look back!

The 10 Best Films of 2009 - Part 1

It occurs to me that I didn't post my top ten films of the year in January like I planned to. I'm sure that my opinion doesn't mean all that much to you, but if a blog isn't an exercise in vanity, I'm not sure what is, so you'll all have to suffer my pontificating.


10 - Star Trek
You can go back and read my posts to see how much antipathy I had for the Trek franchise before this film. But as we saw more and more of the film in the lead up to release, the more excited I got. Finally, when I saw it, I wasn't at all disappointed. In fact, I was blown away at how skillfully the film makers managed to create a brand new direction for Star Trek while still honoring what came before and retaining its familiar qualities. The film was well-cast and exceptionally shot (even if the lens flares became a little distracting). It had style and panache, a quality which many recent adventure films have been sorely lacking. It was certainly the most enjoyable, nakedly fun thrill ride of the year.

9 - Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino may be the boldest and brashest of American film makers working today. Still often unfairly criticized by some as nothing more than a mash-up artist, those detractors miss the pure cinematic joy that fills every frame of his films. Put simply, the guy has celluloid in his blood. Like Scorsese before him, he lives film, but unlike Scorsese, he seems to have more of a soft spot for the grimier aspects of film history. So what he does is create films that seem to be pop entertainments; mere pastiche. But what they actually are are exercises in applying the depth of a master film maker to styles that never had that kind of attention focused on them before. With this film, he takes the "men on a mission" film as a starting point, and then lets whatever mood that hits him dictate where the story goes. It is equal parts foreign film, war film, spectacle, comedy, thriller, and brutally indulgent wish fulfillment. In short, it's brilliant.

8 - A Serious Man

After winning critical and popular acclaim with No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers dug deep and came up with this strange little film, a modern and challenging interpretation of the biblical story of Job. In this version, the Job character must suffer through a litany of humiliations and hardships while he struggles to maintain his principles. And, although this is a strangely heightened world, it does reflect one of the great struggles of the modern human being; how do we retain any sort of higher moral behaviour in world that seems to continually lower its standards? Michael Stuhlbarg is fantastic throughout, evoking sympathy while simultaneously playing a man who watches every aspect of his life fail him.

7 - Avatar

There's no denying that, like Titanic before it, Avatar has changed films forever. The completeness in how it depicts a totally alien world and society is achieved in a way that dazzles the eye and boggles the mind. Much criticism has been made of the unoriginality of the story, and it's fair for the most part, but it's a story that has powerful archetypes rooted deep in the viewer and that's why it works so well. Sometimes, critics often forget that audiences don't always want the bold and innovative; sometimes they want the equivalent of comfort food. Avatar is an almost perfect example of that. It's a film that is clearly a labour of love for director James Cameron, and its use of technology is certainly bold and beautiful, but its story is a classic tale, and that's what gives it its resonance with so many.

6 - (500) Days of Summer

A lot of reviewers talked about the similarities this film has to Annie Hall. There's the love story elements, the stylistic innovations in storytelling, the neuroses of the main characters. But while Annie Hall told the story of a love that wound up being unsuccessful, (500) Days of Summer is much more about how certain relationships can be uneven from the start, and how they wind up being important not necessarily because of the love involved, but because of what that relationship teaches us about ourselves. It's about that milestone relationship that is in everyone's past; the one that teaches us how to be in a relationship, and how to leave behind the silly expectations that society has filled us with and create a realistic idea of what love is.

Back soon with the final five!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Post-Oscar Wrap Up

Well, the glittering night is done, and Hollywood has put away its forced smiles and glad hands for yet another night. I hadn't really talked about the big show leading up to last night, because, by and large, I thought it was going to be a pretty by-the-numbers show. And it didn't surprise me, with a few exceptions.

I wasn't surprised Sandra Bullock won, as I knew she was a very popular fixture in Hollywood. I personally can't stand the confectionery she usually appears in, The Blind Side included, but a whole helluva lot of other people do, and I have to say, she has always struck me as kind of a classy dame. Her speech reinforced that, even as I thought that Gabourey Sidibe was the most deserving actress for her incredible turn in Precious.

The only other thing that surprised me was The White Ribbon not winning either Best Cinematography or Best Foreign Language film. Seeing as I thought it to be the best film of the year, I was surprised that the Academy went another way.

Few surprises meant the show was a little lacklustre this year. The two hosts, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, were funny, but were hardly on stage enough to really cut loose. Their funniest moment came with their spoof of Paranormal Activity, and with a few of their choice digs at each other and Meryl Streep. But look, if you've got a comedic duo on stage of that calibre, to not have routines written that highlight a "duo" structure is a waste.

The dance numbers were weak, starting with the hodgepodge of Neil Patrick Harris' opening number. It seemed tacked on and felt like Harris was auditioning to host the Oscars solo next year, and it wasn't a very good audition, it must be said. The Breakin' II: Electric Boogaloo-esque number that supposedly showed off the nominated scores was painful, with the choreography so muddled and convoluted as to defy description. It rarely matched the music or evoked interest.

Finally, and this was begun last year and I hated it then, there was the James Taylor performance accompanying the "In Memoriam" segment. People should be paying attention to honoring the people who had passed that year, not having their attention torn by trying to be respectful to the person performing.

Anyhoo, those are my gripes and praises. The Hurt Locker won big, and it deserved it for the most part, though I still believe Precious to be the best American film of the year, with The Hurt Locker right behind it. I'm just glad Avatar didn't win, even though this is a genre-friendly site. It just simply didn't deserve it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

OK Go and Rube Goldberg

Below you'll find the music video for a song called This Too Shall Pass by a band called OK Go. First off, I think the song is pretty good. But more importantly, the video is basically a short film of a massively impressive Rube Goldberg device. Take a look, you will not be disappointed:

I, in no way, have the ingenuity or will to pull off something like that. I would probably lay out like three dominoes before thinking, "Maybe something cool is on TV" and that would be that. Bravo.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ebert's Speech Returns

Most people who are into the show biz world have by now read the moving and exceptional piece on Roger Ebert that was written by Chris Jones for Esquire. There's also a very nice piece written by Will Leitch that tells a personal story of how kind the man can be to young talent.

And now he appears on Oprah today to reveal how old clips of his voice have allowed researchers to create a program that takes what he types and gives his words speech, in his own voice. His happiness and that of his wife is so palpable in the clip below:

It's fair to say that Roger Ebert, along with his partner Gene Siskel, introduced the concept of film criticism to people of my generation. It was a venerable field before them, peopled with the names and words of classic writers like James Agee, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris and Bosley Crowther. Siskel and Ebert were often derided for cheapening their craft, reducing it to soundbites, quick quotes and "two thumbs up". But, it must also be pointed out that they popularized film criticism and made the analysis of film something that could be enjoyed by everyone, not just a few intellectuals reading Cahiers du Cinema.

And, as the articles point out, since losing his voice to thyroid cancer, Ebert's writing has gotten even better than it was at his peak in the 1970s and 80s. It is more emotional, more close to truth than it was. As it's now his only form of communication with the outside world, it has become vulnerable and beautiful and much more skillful. I hope we don't lose that, but regaining speech after all this time is surely a worthy gift to give to the man that has given film lovers so much.

Go to Ebert's journal, and give yourself a treat. His writing is fantastic.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Comic Observations: Now Departing the DCU

Last week, I journeyed to my Local Comic Shop (or LCS, as they're popularly called in the nerd world; that's right, three words are too long, we don't have time for syllables anymore!) to pick up my weekly stash of comics to pour over.

My comic consumption has changed over the years. In my heady single days of solid employment, my pockets overflowing with disposable income, my metabolism able to process any processed foodstuff without converting it immediately into fat located squarely around my middle, I would spend a lot of money on comics. A LOT. I collected a ton of books, mostly published by DC and Marvel, but not exclusively. As I got married and had a baby, I had a little less to spend. Then we bought a house, and I had a LOT less to spend. Now, I'm pretty choosy about what I'll spend my heard earned cash on.

Put simply, some books had to go.

This is tough for a guy that grew up in love with comics, and could also recall the days of the quarter bins at your LCS where it was easy to walk away with a massive stack. But as my available funds shrank, I found myself becoming more discerning and was further surprised to see a definite pattern emerging as to what books I was dropping.

Out went Justice League of America, a book I had been collecting since the 1990s. I dropped Justice Society, a book I had read since it was relaunched as JSA. I dropped The Flash and Green Arrow. I dropped all the Batman related books except the one written by Grant Morrison, Batman & Robin.

All DC books. I didn't drop any Marvel books I can think of, and indeed, I added Fantastic Four to my pull list, after hearing that new writer Jonathan Hickman was an up and comer, and decided I missed Marvel's First Family after years of giving them a pass.

Over at DC currently, they're right near the close of Blackest Night, their Green Lantern-centric big event, conceived and mostly written by star Geoff Johns. People have been raving about it, but personally, it has left me cold. In my opinion, the series has been stuck in neutral, and I've sort of resented the way there has been a plethora of tie-ins that are way too essential to the main story. Same with Johns' other high-profile work, the much delayed Flash : Rebirth mini-series. This is a shame, as Johns' previous work on The Flash was some of my favourite comic book writing ever, but Rebirth has seemed rudderless, without a solid thematic underpinning to it.

The result? Well, other than Batman & Robin, I'm leaving DC behind and focusing only on Marvel. From Ed Brubaker's incredible work on Captain America, to the stunning run of superb writers they've had on Daredevil, to fun new direction of The Amazing Spider-Man, to the juggernaut Avengers franchises, to their bold re-invigoration of The X-Men franchise, they seem to be firing on all cylinders. They've had well-done mini-events like Annihilation, Planet Hulk, Messiah Complex and World War Hulk. Their big events have been well-done as well. Civil War may have forced its characters to act completely out-of-character for the sake of the story, but it left the Marvel Universe in an intriguing place, that allowed for some great stories company wide. And every event since has done so, as well.

Rather than the nostalgia-obsessed DCU, Marvel seems to be interested in using events to create a springboard from which to make bold new stories. That's why, while I'm a little disappointed to leave DC behind, I feel like there's some great reads ahead of me.

Like Siege, their current event. It requires only that you read the main mini, although the tie-in mini Siege: Embedded is good read, it's not essential, and I bet the other tie-ins will be the same. Unlike Blackest Night, the stakes are far more relatable than an ill-defined battle against "death". All in all, I'm enjoying it, and looking forward to see where the Marvel U is at when it ends. I'm betting it will set up yet another fascinating era in comics.

The Return of Leno

Last night, Jay Leno made his return to The Tonight Show after his abysmal detour into the 10 p.m. time slot for NBC. Leno's 10 p.m. comedy show that aired five nights a week was an abject failure for NBC that hemorrhaged viewers and caused a near revolt by network affiliates, who saw their nightly news broadcasts drop by nearly half during Leno's tenure.

Still, as everyone knows, no one was hurt more than Conan O'Brien, who took over the reigns of Tonight and, without any kind of strong lead-in on any night, had a lot of trouble building an audience. After only seven months, he was pretty much forced to quit the show or move it to after midnight to accommodate NBC's desire to retain Leno's services at 11:30 p.m.

So last night, Leno went back to Tonight. And he beat Dave Letterman in the ratings. C'mon, we knew he would, right? I mean, it's his first night back; let's just see what he'll do over time. But we all know, don't we? I'm betting he'll stay at number one. Is his show a boring, middle of the road, pandering snooze fest compared to others? You bet. But, it appears, that's what a broad majority wants in their late night shows.

Letterman is a polarizing figure, always has been. He's sharp, moody and probably the most innovative and brilliant guy in late night. But he's also the most mercurial and "unsafe for all time zones" TV personalities around. If he thinks a guest is an idiot, he'll show it. If he thinks someone out there is reprehensible, he won't do a gentle rib of a joke, he'll fucking destroy them with jokes. If he's having a bad night, he'll come right out and say it. He has weird feuds and some guests that seem to come on and do battle with him in a running joke that the casual viewer won't get at all (his long-standing routine with Charles Grodin is a case in point, a joke that never gets old). Take a look at this wonderfully odd and awesome exchange from last night's interview with long-standing fave Bill Murray:

Meanwhile, here's a look back at the first monologue Conan did on Tonight after making the decision to leave. It's simultaneously funnier than any routine I've ever seen Leno do, and the most clear depiction of clearly, deeply hurt man. It did allow for one of the most revolutionary moments I've seen in TV, where a guy was fired by a network and then allowed to go on and just eviscerate it night after night for weeks. Seriously, between Conan and Letterman, NBC was just brutalized during this whole mess, and they clearly deserved it:

So we move on, and we'll probably see another decade of Leno on Tonight at least. Which is sad, really. O'Brien took the high road and took care of his staff, stuck to his principles and called out a bunch of people who clearly said one thing while meaning other things entirely. Isn't that the kind of guy we want to see win? Yeah, his ratings weren't the best, but did seven months with no lead-in really give him the time he needed? Was he given the same consideration Leno was when he started? Undoubtedly not. It took the massive get of Hugh Grant's first public appearance after picking up a hooker to put Leno in the #1 spot.

The Tonight Show used to be a place where magic happened. Think of the brilliance of Steve Allen's innovative routines. Think of the scintillating talk featured during Jack Paar's sophisticated run. And of course, think of Carson's remarkable reign, filled with funny routines, great interviews and comedy that had wide appeal without being bland.

What will be on Leno's greatest hits reel? Hugh Grant, undoubtedly. Perhaps some Jaywalking and Headlines puns. But I can't think that there will be anything that matches the sheer riskiness and brilliance of his predecessors, competitor, and all too brief successor.