Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Clone Saga Revisited, Part Two

Well...I sure let this one fall by the wayside. Sorry about that. Here is the six-month old first part of this series if you are interested. Basically, as the new "Complete Clone Saga Epic" collections come out, I'm going to give the story another look and explore what it was about this plotline that ultimately pushed me away from Spidey comics. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like there has been much improvement since. From what I know of this "Brand New Day" business, I didn't know how good I had it back in the 90s. I do wonder why Marvel has chosen to reintroduce this much-maligned story to the public Ben Reilly set for some sort of return to the mythos? Time will tell.

This second collection starts out with "Back to the Edge," focusing on a still moody Peter Parker/Spider-Man as he struggles to deal with Aunt May's deteriorating health and the sudden return of his clone. Meanwhile, Mary Jane heads back to Pennsylvania to see her estranged family members. Her plotline is actually a lot stronger; Spider-Man's encounters with Puma and Nocturne feel aimless. It picks up a little towards the end as Spidey meets up with his old pal Daredevil (another character who was going through some weird crap in the 90s). They team up to fight two avian-themed villains, the Owl and the Vulture. B-B-B bird bird bird, bird was the word. Sorry.

Anyway, you might remember the Vulture as the senior citizen with a feathered suit that allowed him to fly and who could give Spider-Man a good fight despite his advanced years. At this point, however, he had just undergone a process to make him young again (way to undo the most interesting part of the character, Marvel). Anyway, Vulture infects Spider-Man with a deadly virus that has no antidote. Uh-oh.

Now it's time to go back to Ben Reilly/Scarlet Spider for the "Web of Life" storyline. I mentioned last time that I was fond of "The Exile Returns," the first solo clone story, but this one is somewhat weaker. The most interesting part was the connection between the Scarlet Spider and Betty Brant, who was looking for an interview with the new Spider-person in town. Unfortunately, this element is jettisoned almost immediately...perhaps to give more attention to the story's major antagonist - Kaine.

If you've been following the Clone Saga through these new collections, then you already got a full explanation for the beef between Reilly and Kaine in "The Lost Years." Back when these issues were first coming out, however, this was all very mysterious indeed. You could tell Marvel wanted Kaine to be the next Venom-esque antihero, but the fandom wasn't really sold. In fact, a lot of people hated the guy. I thought he was okay in small doses. At the end of this story, Kaine fights and kills The Grim Hunter (Kraven's son who had only just been introduced recently) and Reilly basically watches the whole thing. The story also introduced his geneticist pal Seward Trainer, who would be important later on.

What of Spider-Man? He begins to succumb to his illness in "Web of Death," and receives help from a most unlikely source - Doctor Octopus. Except for the very end, this story is damn good, even awesome. J.M. Dematteis and Tom DeFalco turn in excellent writing here. As Doc Ock observes that the Vulture may have succeeded where he always failed, he realizes just how much he respects Spider-Man as an opponent. "I've always looked upon you as the last decent man," he thinks, and is clearly faced with a "Who am I without my enemy?" complex. It's pretty brilliant.

Dr. Octopus decides that he doesn't really want to see Spidey gone for good, and puts his considerable scientific knowledge to use to develop a cure. He is successful, though not before Parker flatlines for a few minutes and has a ghostly vision of his own ascent to the afterlife (a very subtle hint about the Clone Saga's future is dropped here, it's quite sneaky). Still, Spidey recovers and gets more good news - Mary Jane is pregnant. Knowing that he is going to live and will soon be a father, he finally shakes off his depression and joyously bounces across rooftops. For fans who had waded through months of oppressive doom and gloom, this was a godsend.

What of Doc Ock? He turned himself into the police, saying that he wanted Spider-Man to be rested and refreshed for their next battle. Spidey's bafflement as Ock marches off with the cops is priceless. Sadly, this story would have a miserable ending. Kaine shows up again, defeats Dr. Octopus easily and then snaps his neck. That's right - one of Spider-Man's all time greatest foes, a guy with a thirty-plus year record at that point, is killed off by this newcomer. It sucked hard. Marvel ultimately realized their mistake and years later, Ock was resurrected by mystical ninjas (I am NOT making that up).

The collection also features the "Funeral for an Octopus" mini-series, which I could never convince my parents to get me since I was spending so much money on other comics during this Clone business. Ock's death brings a bunch of his supervillain buddies together and they cause trouble. That's about it. It's pretty lighthearted and fun, actually. After that is a standalone story where both Spideys deal with terrorists who have taken over the World Trade Center. Yeah, that's right. This was kind of dull in the 90s.'s unnerving.

The final story in this second collection is "Smoke and Mirrors," which features the return of The Jackal, the mastermind of the original 1970s Clone Saga and Ben's creator. Given that clones were in again, it made sense for him to come back. The change in his characterization is notable. In his original incarnation, the Jackal was just a mean, nasty adversary. Now he is king of puns and cringe-inducing pop culture references. You could tell for a long time that Spidey's creators wanted a villain who was similar to The Joker. They tried with Carnage...who certainly had the requisite insanity, but he was something of a simpleton without Joker's mad genius. The Jackal has the genius, but is a bit too over the top in his ambitions to get the same appeal. Joker didn't really want to take over the world, he just wanted to do crazy stuff. He was brilliant at that, though. Can't blame Marvel for trying, but you can't top The Joker. Won't happen.

"Smoke and Mirrors" isn't really a good note for this collection to go out on. It's very contrived and a little tedious, and it first introduces the suggestion that maybe Ben is the real one and Peter is the clone. You can understand the writers wanting to add some mystery...but I remember reading that as a kid and being like "Really? They're going to do this?" It's one of those plotlines that feels natural but at the same time...I don't know if anyone really wanted it. That's it for now - there will be plenty more unwanted revelations ahead, that's for sure.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon - Conclusion

"Part of me thinks I should retire or die peacefully now. It would be better for my reputation." - Satoshi Kon, 2008

It was a joke when he first said it, but unfortunately it became prophecy.

Paprika, the director's final film, is charmingly familiar to those who have followed his work. Once again, we have reality and fantasy colliding, a heroine with a split personality, and a thundering score from Susumu Hirasawa. It was originally a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, a writer who Kon cites as one of his heroes. As fate would have it, when Tsutsui saw Millennium Actress, he was so impressed that he decided Kon was the director who could bring the story to the screen. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the nonsensical, rapidly changing landscape of dreams was perfect fodder for this particular director.

The title character is a cheery, resourceful woman who participates in the dreams of others to help with their mental issues. She is the alter ego of the tightly-wound Dr. Atsuko Chiba, and the technology is possible thanks to the DC Mini, a scientific breakthrough conceived by the childlike, morbidly obese Dr. Tokita. The technology is not yet widely known, but those who participated in its creation have differing views. For Dr. Chiba, it represents a potential breakthrough in the realm of psychotherapy. For the sinister Chairman Inui, it is an invasion of the last truly private element of human life.

Not long after the movie's virtuoso opening sequence, the technology is stolen and proves to be much more powerful than any of the characters could have foreseen. Dreams begin to merge with reality, and well...things get really weird.

Really weird. The insane finale to this film will make you think someone slipped a hallucinogen into your most recent meal. The entire movie is a showcase for one incredible image after another. I don't have enough superlatives for the quality of the animation here, it has to be seen to be believed. If there's anything lacking about Paprika, it's that while it is a very satisfying experience to watch, it doesn't provide the emotional undercurrent that Kon's other work has. Still, after the bleakness of Paranoia Agent, he clearly was shooting for something more light-hearted (though no less complex!)

Unfortunately, that brings us to the end of this little journey. Kon's sudden death means that Paprika would be the last piece of genius we would get to enjoy from this one of a kind talent. Apparently, he was planning to continue with the themes he explored here. His next film was intended to be called The Dream Machine, and the director described it as a "road movie with robots." The very last scene of Paprika features grizzled cop Konakawa going to see a film called Dreaming Kids. The name may have been altered, but I'm guessing that was a clue to what we were meant to see next. I'm not aware of how far along the movie was, but even if they were to finish it, it won't be the same without Kon to oversee it. Can't help but envy Konakawa now.

If it's not clear enough after all this, I found all of this man's work to be brilliant and truly inspiring. I can't have been the only one. I wonder how many in the business have seen Kon's movies and walked away with the same inspiration. The idea of implanting dreams into others, the focus of Christopher Nolan's Inception, is a little similar to Paprika. I also remember noticing how Hayao Miyazaki animated his heroine, Sophie, in Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie fluidly morphed from young to old to young with gray hair, like the many personas of Chiyoko Fujiawara in Millennium Actress.

If you want at least one concrete example, there's this:On the left is Perfect Blue, on the right is Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. The director revealed that he indeed sought Kon's permission to copy the "bathtub scream" scene shot for shot. You know what they say about imitation and flattery.

The prospect of no future Kon films or anime shows is a sad one. I suppose I can only hope that Kon's quote holds true, that his untimely death brings about at least a little more attention to his work...and that one day, he will be widely respected by animation enthusiasts as one of the greats.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon, Part 4

There's a large chunk of the anime audience that more or less ignores the theatrical films and focuses on the television shows. When Satoshi Kon followed up his three films with a 13-episode series, Paranoia Agent, I suspected it would bring much more attention to the director. I also remember thinking, "These people don't know what they're in for." I didn't really know what I was in for, either.

After the classy Millennium Actress and the lighthearted Tokyo Godfathers, it took the first episode of the show to remind me just how dark and intense the director could be. Like all of the man's work, Paranoia Agent is truly excellent. With six-plus hours of content to work with, Kon and his crew weren't afraid to get really ambitious, in both form and content. It's the sharpest example of his social commentary, and the animation is worthy of a feature film. You won't find any of that cost-cutting laziness that made every Dragon Ball Z story arc about 15 episodes longer than it needed to be.

Tokyo residents are being attacked by a mysterious young phantom known as Shonen Bat, who wields a baseball bat and chases down his victims on roller skates. Two investigators, who have a Mulder/Scully-esque relationship pitting realism against possibility, struggle to connect the various incidents and their stange connection to Maromi, a garish pink dog who stars in the latest cartoon hit. Eventually, the public takes notice of the media attention and sympathy given to Shonen Bat's victims and starts to envy them.

The series takes on an anthology format, using individual episodes to focus on one character at a time. The mystery of Shonen Bat is more or less the only element tying these tales together. Kon and his crew use this to try out all sorts of ideas, with mixed results. "Happy Family Planning," about three suicide-obsessed outcasts (including a little girl!) who meet on the internet to plan their demise, is a small masterpiece on its own. This is the blackest of black comedy, with a brilliant final twist that seems simple but may not be. Kon has never been simple, after all. On the other hand, "The Holy Warrior" is a parody of corny fantasy anime that winds up being almost as dull. Not every episode works, but the majority of them do. "Double Lips" is an interesting remix of the Perfect Blue story, and an incompetent animator's road trip in "Mellow Maromi" appears to be in real time.

The overall message of the show relies heavily on metaphor and can be quite confusing. In fact, the final scene of the last episode features a narrator actually advising the viewer to watch it again...which definitely helps. My sense is that Kon feels that most people in contemporary society are no longer equipped to deal with the suffering that is an inescapable part of life. They would rather cultivate a sense of victimhood, or escape reality altogether via insipid obsessions with cute characters. It's no surprise that Maromi winds up being the origin of the Shonen Bat phenomenon - he represents all that Kon finds obnoxious and unfortunate about his home country.

It's all very abstract, but the last few episodes really tug on the heartstrings. In one truly epic confrontation, the frail, sickly Misae Ikari renders Shonen Bat powerless simply by facing her darkest moments and openly talking about them. The final revelations revolve around the shy Tsukiko, who was responsible for the death of her puppy, Maromi, when she accidentally dropped his leash near a busy road. Unable to cope with her mistake, she invented Shonen Bat as someone she could pin the blame on when she had to explain the incident to her father. In the gut-wrenching finale (animal lovers beware, I speak from experience), she faces her failure and apologizes to the broken, bloodied little dog. This halts the epidemic in Tokyo, but nobody else learns anything. It's back to business as usual.

There's a lot of stuff out there that's weird and confusing. But not everyone can deliver that type of entertainment while also providing a fulfilling emotional experience. Kon did it, time and time again, and that's one of the major talents that made him great.

Next, we bring this series to its sad conclusion with Kon's final film, Paprika.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon, Part 3

Now for something completely different.

Satoshi Kon's first two films were challenging, compelling works of art. Tokyo Godfathers is not quite that, but I still loved it for its memorable cast of characters and big heart. An oddly spiritual fable about a trio of homeless people who find an abandoned baby, this one will sneak up on you. Visually, with its gorgeous snow-covered cityscapes, it is as beautiful as any other Kon film. This time, however, the director set aside his typical themes and aimed for a more human and less abstract story.

The director's gift for realistic character designs serve the movie very well. There are a lot of priceless facial expressions in Tokyo Godfathers, most of them belonging to the scruffy, hard-drinking Gin. Then there's Hana, a melodramatic transvestite who doesn't bother to alter the pitch of his deep voice despite being dressed in women's clothing. The two of them have a contentious, quasi-marital relationship, and their "daughter" is Miyuki, a sullen teenage runaway. The three of them trade vicious (but hilarious) insults that would not be out of place in a 1990s family sitcom...though I guess you wouldn't have anyone shouting "Eat shit, you old fart!" on "Family Matters."

The three search the back-alleys of Tokyo to solve the mystery behind "Kiyoko's" abandonment, which are odd circumstances indeed. It's amazing how much coincidence drives the plot, to the point where it becomes humorous. It's fully intentional - Kiyoko is a harbinger of old-fashioned Christmas miracles, as the cosmic powers that be take pity upon those who have been shunned by society. This film is really funny, but Kon is not just interested in making you laugh. There is an emotional undercurrent that bubbles underneath the surface the entire time, bursting forth a few times along the way. Not many directors could make you choke up at the sight of a girl alone in a phone booth (makes sense in context).

Despite Gin's protests that "we're homeless bums, not action movie heroes!" there's a lot of excitement in the movie's epic finale. This scene brilliantly walks a tightrope between laughs and tears, and is likely to provide both in equal measure. Hana's jaw-dropping act of heroism, in particular, is as hilarious as it is moving.

In the end, I'm glad Kon stepped so far out of his comfort zone. It's a testament to his wide-ranging talent that this film, easily the odd one out in his body of work, is as excellent as it is. Plus, I'm glad there's at least one film of his I can show to a "average movie watcher." Let's face it, for a lot of people, Millennium Actress is too baffling and Perfect Blue is too damn frightening.

Speaking of fright, next time we go down the rabbit hole with Kon's miniseries, Paranoia Agent.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon, Part 2

Any time I think about Millennium Actress, it always comes back to that scene. I'm not sure which of Satoshi Kon's films is the best, but the most amazing single scene he ever created is in his second feature.

But we'll get to that soon enough. A few years after Perfect Blue, Kon returned with a film that touched on many of the same themes - fame, the blurred line between life and art, and fandom. Of course, it was far less disturbing this time around. Instead of the psychotic MeMania, we have Genya Tachibana, a much more benevolent take on the obsessive fan. His passion winds up being justified, since we learned he actually met the title character in his younger years as a production assistant. The "actress" of the film's name is the elderly Chiyoko Fujiawara, a character supposedly based on Setsuko Hara. The bulk of the film is Chiyoko sharing her life and filmography. However, this is a Satoshi Kon film, and it doesn't take long for the memories and the movies to start blending together to kaleidoscopic effect. The director throws the audience a bone with the character of Kyoji, a young cameraman who functions as a surrogate for the viewer and doesn't hide his confusion. "When did this turn into a movie?!" he exclaims at one point.

The numerous roles played by Chiyoko during the film include an astronaut, a geisha, a teacher, a war prisoner, a warrior, and a scientist working to defeat Godzilla. Some specific scenes pay tribute to live-action legends like Kurosawa or Ozu, and the various settings of Chiyoko's films encompass many major periods of Japanese history. The movie is almost a salute to Japan's history and iconography, which can be surprising given the spanking Kon gave to elements of Japanese society in Perfect Blue.

For the greater part of her life, Chiyoko obsessively pursued a mysterious painter she met by chance in her younger days. She continues on for years despite how baffled everyone else in her life is by this, and it culminates in that scene. As a middle-aged Chiyoko makes one last mad dash for the mountains of Hokkaido, we see all of her incarnations rushing through rain, snow and other obstacles, all of them seamlessly integrated. She collapses from exhaustion, but hears the painter's voice in her head and wills herself back to her feet for one last trudge. This sequence is a moment of transcendent beauty and overwhelming emotion. I honestly had never seen anything like it, and when it was over, I didn't know whether to weep or stand out of my chair and applaud.

Part of the reason this scene (and the whole film) is so powerful is the bombastic, beautiful score by Susumu Hirasawa. An innovative composer whose style is instantly recognizable, Hirasawa would become a frequent collaborator of Kon. The score for Millennium Actress may be his finest work, it perfectly compliments the images and it's hard to imagine the movie working so well without it.

The natural instinct as a viewer, especially a viewer who would like to speak conpetently about the movies he watches, is to try and figure out which scenes are from Chiyoko's "real" life and which are from her movie life. Kon's style makes this virtually impossible, and he likes it that way. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Chiyoko's recollections blend them all into one story of yearning and perseverance.

This is a film that rewards multiple viewings. The first time around, I was focused on the lush visuals and Kon's brilliant scene transitions and editing. The second time, I really felt the emotion. It honestly gets better each time I see it. Kon's films are often compared to live action, and I guess this one could have been if the producers didn't mind spending a huge amount of money creating all the "sets" of Chiyoko's career. As it stands, Millennium Actress is another Kon masterpiece that raises the bar for animation not just in visual dexterity, but also in emotional depth. Next up - the funny, poignant Tokyo Godfathers.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Remembering Satoshi Kon, Part 1

It was the late 1990s. The anime selection at the local video store was less than impressive, but it was all I had. I wandered that (small) section of Hollywood Video and came across Perfect Blue. It wasn't often in those days that you found laudatory quotes from critics on a anime film's VHS sleeve, so I was intrigued even though my expectations were netural.

What I got was a lurid, visceral movie chock full of ideas. This was a truly mature (and not in the "Rated M for blood and guts" way, though there's plenty of that) psychological thriller that left me disturbed, fairly confused, and utterly blown away. "This guy is a genius! (pause) Who the hell is he?"

He was Satoshi Kon, a visionary who died suddenly this week at the not ripe at all age of 47. Updated reports cite pancreatic cancer as the cause of death, and those of us who were looking forward to a few decades more of his utterly brilliant work were left reeling. His challenging, puzzling, unmistakable style meant that he would never enjoy the fame of the Pixar crew or even fellow anime giant Hayao Miyazaki, but I can assure you he was just as talented as any of them, if not more.

In an interview with Andrew Osmond, the author of a comprehensive study of his work called "Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist," Kon said, "I'm interested in trying to visualize non-linear ways of thinking in my work. When a scene in a film changes, there is usually a long shot to let you know. Suppose there's a cafe. We show the cafe, then we show a man and woman meeting there. Then we show them talking. I'm not interested in this sleepy kind of continuity. I intended to make films that didn't always tell you when the scenes changed."

As a writer and director, he had more faith in the intelligence of a general audience than Hollywood typically does. He didn't think it was a bad thing if you had to use your brain to follow the events in his movies. This interest in an editing style based on chaotic thought patterns gave way to an obssession with how individual (or group) perception can blur the line between fantasy and reality, art and life. In his later work, he would also develop a profound fascination with dreams.

This sensibility is all over Perfect Blue, which was his debut as a director (He wrote the "Magnetic Rose" segment of the anime anthology Memories). The main character, Mima, is a pop star hoping to make the transition into acting via a gruesome crime show. This doesn't sit well with some of her fans, and suddenly associates of hers are being murdered in jaw-droppingly brutal ways. Her role on the crime show is becoming so similar to her real life that she eventually loses touch with reality...and thanks to Kon, so do we. Eventually it becomes impossible to determine what is real and what is a scene on the show. After being disoriented for so long, the ostensibly happy ending winds up being chilling...there have been too many reversals to really trust anything we're seeing.

Perfect Blue also demonstrated that Kon was willing to take on his home country. He came out swinging and took creepy Japanese double-standards about women to the cleaners. The subtext is illustrated early with a stunning shot of uber-creepy fan MeMania holding his hand out so it appears that Mima is a toy doll dancing in it. Depth perception has never been so creepy, and it's a perfect visual for how Japanese pop culture commodifies young girls. Later in the film, Mima decides to further pursue an "adult" image by posing nude in a magazine...the fandom is outraged. You're supposed to be a childlike minx, not an adult woman embracing sexuality.

Also worth noting is that MeMania is one ugly mother. It's like Michael Jackson tried to have surgery to look like a piranha. Kon strove for realism with his character designs, this was not the usual anime cast of bug-eyed characters who could only be distinguished from one another by gender and hairstyle. Even background characters had distinctive features totally divorced from the fantastical style often associated with Japanese animation.

I could go on forever about the quality of the visual and thematic content of all of Kon's movies, but the most outstanding thing about them is their sheer power. In this case, Perfect Blue treats the viewer to a truly chilling buildup as Mima realizes someone is monitoring her every move and posting it on the internet. The meta-heavy seqeunce where Mima shoots her graphic rape scene on the crime show makes your skin crawl as you ponder the effect these kind of scenes have on the performers in them. The chase scenes are accompanied by blood-curdling music full of ominous chants and mumbling. The series of "Is this real?" sequences is enough to make you lose your mind.

Kon had a few less frightening movies in his filmography, and they will be discussed later. As you may have guessed, I plan on making a series out of this. Given how much his work has meant to me, it's the least I can do. Millennium Actress is up next.

On an administrative note, the Clone Saga retrospective is on hold until this is done. Priorities, people.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Clone Saga Revisited, Part One

So I may have found some use for the blog in the non-Oscar months.

The Clone Saga ended my tenure as a Spidey fan for several years, and even when I came back I could no longer stomach the main continuity and instead went for the "Spider-Girl" alternate universe. I think I made the right choice, this "Brand New Day" bullshit makes the Clone Saga look like Shakespeare.

I look back on the storyline with a mixture of frustration and nostalgia. These were my prime comic reading days...and some parts of the story were good. So when I heard that a series of volumes would finally collect this massive plotline within several books, I was pretty excited. After all, I never did read the entire could I? Almost every story was a crossover, meaning that you had to buy at least four comics a month to get everything. My allowance couldn't quite support that.

So right away, I was grateful for the idea to finally fill gaps in my knowledge of this saga which had lingered for years! As these trades come out (probably will take 6 or 7 books to encompass this whole was LONG, son), I'll look back on this maligned storyline and see what we can salvage from it. Spoilers will abound, so if you don't want 15-year-old story twists ruined for you, turn back now.

So let's kick this off with some context: Peter Parker was really depressed following the revelations of the "robot parents" storyline, and was swinging around all dark and moody and calling himself "The Spider." Aunt May was in the hospital for a stroke, which didn't help things. Most of this is recapped quickly in the collection (official title is "The Complete Clone Saga Epic") using random pages from various issues to help get us up to speed.

We start with "Birth of a Spider-Man," which was a supplemental story published in other issues that serves as a retelling of the very first 1970s Clone Saga from the clone's point of view. At the end of that first confrontation, Peter believed his clone was dead. Not so. This short story is really dark and kind of ugly, but it does help capture the most essential points from the 70s tale - the entirety of which is in a trade called "Clone Genesis," not sure if that's still in print.

Next is "The Parker Legacy," another short story about the clone's existential woes upon learning he is not the real Peter Parker. I always liked this story. Despite the fantastical subject matter, there was something very human and poignant about what the character was dealing with. It also introduces the clone's chosen name for himself - Ben Reilly.

The same creative team from that story (J.M. Dematteis and John Romita Jr) did the "Spider-Man: The Lost Years" mini-series, which touches on Reilly's adventures while living the nomadic lifestyle in Salt Lake City. I had never actually read this until now, and it was impressive. This is barely a superhero story, it's more like a straight up crime drama involving a few superpowered characters. The character of Kaine, an early attempt at cloning Peter Parker that went awry, was ubiquitous during the Clone Saga and he was never cooler than he is in this story. This three-issue story is some of the best stuff that came out of this whole saga.

Following that, the "Power and Responsibility" storyline that officially kicked off the new Clone Saga is a disappointment. Peter meets his clone, who returned to NYC to visit the ailing Aunt May, and the two of them get wrapped up in the sinister machinations of one Judas Traveller. Right from the first chapter of this, the writing was just weak. Of course, that may be the fault of Terry Kavanagh, who wrote "Web of Spider-Man" for quite a while around this time. Even as a kid, I knew this guy's writing was bad. Almost every bit of dialogue is a run-on sentence that stretches on through at least two panels. Hard to explain without showing you an issue, but trust me when I say it gets very repetitive. During "Maximum Carnage," which ran a couple years before this, Kavanagh was the genius who had the poor, unedcuated Cletus Kasady spitting off ham-fisted lines like "Your pathetic arrogance, fools, will be your very downfall!" *groan*

Still, the story has plenty of other problems. Traveller is just kind of a lame villain, his motivations about understanding the nature of evil or whatever are really boring and trite, and the scene where Spider-Man has a full-on whimpering meltdown in front of him was just embarrassing. I winced when I read that in the 90s and it made me wince now. By the time the four-part story ends, it doesn't seem anything all that important happened, except for Reilly's return.

The final story in this first collection is "The Exile Returns," a Ben Reilly solo adventure. This story has a lot going for it. I really like what the clone has to deal with - the cheap, homemade costume, the sense that he has to lay low or else risk messing things up for Peter. It was fairly compelling - plus the clone (who would be named The Scarlet Spider) got to beat Venom! Venom was ludicruously overexposed during the 90s, he deserved the beat down he got in this story. With that, the first installment of the collected Clone Saga ends on a triumphant note.

So what have I gotten out of this first re-examination? By itself, bringing the Spider-Man clone back was a good idea. Having two Spider-Men running around was kind of cool, and Ben was a good character. It's a shame the promise seen here would be ultimately undone by horrible writing decisions down the road, and indeed symbols of that decline are visible in this first book.

I already have the second collection, so a follow-up should come soon!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oscars 2010 Educated Guesses

A little early this time, but I'm going on vacation tomorrow so this is my last chance!

Best Animated Feature
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells

Who Will Win: This cateogry is the most competitive it has probably ever been in its short history. Up's status as a Best Picture nominee is unique, and there's no precedent to look to for how it may affect the votes in this category. That said, I think the widespread love of Pixar's latest hit will result in a win. However, I'm not overly confident this time. Princess and the Frog would win if this were the mid-90s. Coraline was released so long ago (February 2009) that it feels like it should have been nominated last year. Academy members are known for short memories, so the fact that it was included at all is a compliment. Nobody has seen Secret of Kells outside of a few random people in LA. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a much different could easily steal the trophy from Up. But for now, I'm playing it safe.

My Choice: Up. Though Coraline is close.

Best Original Screenplay
Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker
Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman for The Messenger
Joel and Ethan Coen for A Serious Man
Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds
Bob Peterson and Pete Docter for Up

Who Will Win: I think The Hurt Locker's gonna get some love here. Boal's screenplay was almost devoid of monologues or anything so dramatic, and he still crafted some really vivid characters and nightmarish scenarios. Still, Tarantino won this award in 1994 for Pulp Fiction and he may very well do so again. I was going to cite Up as a major contender as well, but then I realized that all of that movie's best moments had no dialgoue at all.

My Choice: Tarantino. For all of his excesses, the guy really knows how to use dialogue to build tension. It's uncanny.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche for In The Loop
Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell for District 9
Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious
Nick Hornby for An Education
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Up in the Air

Who Will Win: I doubt voters will let Up in the Air leave empty-handed, and this is probably its best shot for a win. The annual "dramedy" that fllls out a Best Picture slot almost always walks home with some writing award, and this should be no exception. I can imagine a scenario where An Education upsets, though.

My Choice: Up in the Air's script was very hit or miss for me. It had great interaction between characters, but all the voiceover was just too...ostentatiously "hip." Meanwhile, District 9 had some really creative stuff going on in terms of structure, but maybe that's better recognized in Editing. Even so, I'd like it to win.

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz in Nine
Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air
Mo'Nique in Precious

Who Will Win: In the past, this category has been notoriously difficult to predict. Well, not this time. Mo'Nique has got this locked down for her towering performance in Precious. It helps that the two Up in the Air ladies cancel each other out. Cruz and Gyllenhaal are just fller.

My Choice: Mo'Nique is obviously deserving, but I really liked Anna Kendrick and thought she was the best part of Up in the Air. Hopefully, she'll be back.

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon in Invictus
Woody Harrelson in The Messenger
Christopher Plummer in The Last Station
Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

Who Will Win: Another near-certain outcome. Waltz has been stomping all over his competition at the preliminary award shows, so there's no reason to believe he won't do so again. None of the others are even close.

My Choice: I'd love to see Woody Harrelson get something for Zombieland, but that might be asking too much. Let Waltz have it, he was great.

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side
Helen Mirren in The Last Station
Carey Mulligan in An Education
Gabourey Sidibe in Precious
Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia

Who Will Win: Meryl Streep is a regular in this category, and rightfully so, but she hasn't actually won since Sophie's Choice in 1982. Her problem is she keeps getting matched up against other beloved performers who have never won. That's exactly what's happening this year with Sandra Bullock. Mark my words, Streep will win at least one more time before her career ends, but probably not this time. I would be very surprised if Bullock lost.

My Choice: Gabourey Sidibe. I'm not sure who decided that Mo'Nique would be the one to get all the awards, when Sidibe's performance is just as good and even more important to the film as a whole. Her work is even more impressive when you watch her talk show appearances and see just how different her real-life bubbly personality is from the sullen Clareece "Precious" Jones.

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
George Clooney in Up in the Air
Colin Firth in A Single Man
Morgan Freeman in Invictus
Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker

Who Will Win: Bridges. It's just his time. He's a popular veteran with many great performances under his belt. The one with the best chance of upsetting is Jeremy Renner, who nailed what had to have been a strange, difficult role.

My Choice: Bridges. This is The Dude we're talking about! The fact that he doesn't yet have one of these is shameful.

Best Director
Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker
James Cameron for Avatar
Lee Daniels for Precious
Jason Reitman for Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds

Who Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow seems poised to make history regardless of how the Best Picture race ends. A victory means she will be the first woman to ever claim this prize, and that's hard to resist. Even James Cameron has said he wants her to win, which is good, because his tendency for annoying acceptance speeches will probably work against him.

My Choice: Bigelow is an unheralded talent who has been producing great stuff for decades, and the skill on display in The Hurt Locker is the work of a master.

Best Picture
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Who Will Win: With this many nominees, perhaps it's best to work backwards. The Blind Side is riding a wave of affection for Sandra Bullock and doesn't have a chance. An Education and A Serious Man are way too tiny and obscure. District 9 is....just too edgy and awesome, I guess. Up is not quite strong enough to do what Beauty and the Beast couldn't...especially against nine other films. Precious got a lot of acclaim when it was first released, but has since been overshadowed by other films. Ditto for Up in the Air. So, that leaves three very different films.

A handful of Oscar pundits are speculating about the possibility for a stunning upset by Inglourious Basterds, with the rationale that a lot of Jewish Academy members really love the idea of Brad Pitt and his motley crew killing "Naht-sees." If that did come to pass, it would easily be the most shocking turnaround in at least a decade. I still think it's between Avatar and The Hurt Locker, and this is where the Academy's new preferential ballots come into play.

The somewhat confusing new procedure asks members to list the ten favorite films of the year, and takes all of the picks (and their positions on the list) into account when tallying the winners. This is where a divisive film like Avatar gets hurt. Sure, plenty of people probably named it number one, but there are a lot of others who likely didn't put it on the list at all. It certainly doesn't have a lot of love in the writers branch - the lack of a screenplay nomination is telling. Meanwhile, it's very hard to find anyone with anything bad to say about The Hurt will have many number one picks, but also a lot of second and third picks. I find it hard to believe that a love-it-or-hate-it film like Crash would have beaten Brokeback Mountain in 2005 with these rules in place.

So with all that in mind, I am going to very tentatively predict that The Hurt Locker wins, but Avatar still needs to be taken seriously (especially if members were persuaded by its box-office accomplishments) right up till the moment the envelope is opened.

My Choice: Richard Corliss of Time Magazine summed it up well:

"The most significant beneficiary of the expansion of this category, District 9 can now proclaim itself the first sci-fi-horror-splatter movie to be nominated for Best Picture. But the film is so much more: a parable of the white man's enslaving an alien race, a sensational debut feature for South African director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp (just 29 when the picture opened) and a demonstration that genre films can satisfy smarty-pants adults as well as dweeby teen boys. In a better, fairer world, the top Oscar would occasionally go to a movie like District 9."

I'm done until March 7.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Wide Range of Brow

The announcement has been made. Let's take a look at the big ten.

Best Picture
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
Inglourious Basterds
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

I'm liking this ten nominees thing. Overjoyed at District 9 being up there, that was a great movie that just needed a little push provided by the rule change to overcome the typical dismissal of sci-fi at the Academy Awards. Sci-fi masterpieces like Terminator 2, The Matrix and Children of Men were all ignored in past years, so it's very cool.

Up is now the second animated film in history to contend for the top honor....though Beauty and the Beast managed to do it in 1991 with five nominees, a feat that still deserves mad props.

There's really something for almost everyone's taste on this list, which is not often said about the Oscars. For example, An Education is almost tailor made for upper-class WASPy types who will tell their country club friends how moved they were by a young girl's various complex life experiences. The polar opposite of that is The Blind Side, a big surprise that is definitely living up to its name right about now. It's one of those inspirational sports movies that are beloved by the public but sneered at by critics for being too simple. Those looking to get their cynicism fix can check out A Serious Man, the latest Coen Bros. examination of society's suckage.

Precious and Up in the Air were givens. I suppose Inglourious Basterds was too. Never count out a movie about Nazis and the Holocaust, no matter how offbeat the tone is.

However, from my vantage point, this is going to be a close battle between Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Following the big A's win at the Golden Globes, Hurt Locker has picked up a lot of random guild awards (PGA, DGA) that make it a strong contender. To make it a little juicier, the directors of these two movies, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, were once married. Expect a lot of "War of the Roses Oscar Battle" type articles in the weeks leading up to the awards.

Let's talk about Avatar. Though it makes me cringe a little bit, it must be considered the front-runner. The Dark Knight wasn't considered serious enough for consideration last year, and now a movie about blue people is probably going to win? I don't get it. But it's okay, that colossal mistake paved the way for more Best Picture nominees and helped get District 9 up there, so I guess I don't have to be bitter about that anymore.

Avatar is now called the highest-grossing film of all time, which is technically true, but the math involved is fairly obnoxious. Most of its tickets were for 3D IMAX screenings, which are twice as expensive. Not only that, if you adjust for inflation, Gone With the Wind is still at the top 70 years after its release. Avatar falls to about 25. It reminds me of how Transformers 2 opened on Tuesday night and then bragged about a great opening weekend. Uh yeah, when you start your weekend on frickin' Tuesday, it will be pretty successful!

The battle between Avatar and Hurt Locker is about much more than its divorced directors. Allowing for a bit of hyperbole, it's almost a clash between dueling ideologies on what makes a movie great. Avatar is a stunning technical achievement that has been embraced by the world and will be an inspiration for countless aspiring filmmakers, despite paying only middling attention to things like story and characterization. The Hurt Locker is a tiny film, barely seen by the public but adored by critics. It's steeped in skill and professionalism, and it gets better in the days after you see it as you begin to feel its quiet power.

I'm tempted to say it's highbrow vs. lowbrow, but Avatar's not really lowbrow. It's more like middlebrow...or just brow?

There were virtually no surprises in the acting categories, so I'll get into them when I do the full-on predictions closer to the ceremony. I do want to react to these two, though.

Best Documentary
Burma VJ
The Cove
Food, Inc.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Which Way Home

I would like to extend a hearty "fuck you" to the Academy for excluding Anvil. It's almost impossible for any doc to make this category that isn't an angry look at some political issue. Now it's The Cove vs. Food, Inc. What pisses the members off more - dead dolphins or random disgusting stuff in their food? We'll know soon.

Best Animated Feature
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells

Awesome list, but...The Secret of Kells? I'm embarrassed to say I've never even heard of that one. Shame-driven research indicates it's a French animated film that won't even be relesed here until March. Let the pirating ensue!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

This was the first year in a while that I found it somewhat difficult to narrow down the movies I really liked to ten. While the current awards season is circulating around the same types of movies as usual, I felt there was a lot of great genre work released this year. Another year full of great animation is no surprise, those films have enjoyed a great run over the last deacde. Horror, on the other hand, has spent a lot of the last 10 years in the gutter, but two great films this year bring a promise of redemption. Bring in some comedy, documentary and science fiction standouts, and you get the picture. There's a lot more out there than drama. Read on for some examples.

10. 500 Days of Summer
At first glance, it looks like another example of the quirky "indie" romance that's been run into the ground over the years. However, this film is actually a thoughtful deconstruction of that tired "goofy dream girl redeems self-absorbed loner" plotline. Sure, the two lead characters may initally bond over their mutual interest in hipster British pop music, but that doesn't make much of a difference when they find out they are incompatible in big ways. Joseph Gordon-Levitt digs deep, and casting Zooey Deschanel (who has already cornered the market on the "innocently attractive but deeply damaged girl with bangs" character) was genius.

9. The Hurt Locker
This may wind up being the definitive film dealing with the Iraq War, just as All Quiet on the Western Front is for World War I and Saving Private Ryan is for World War II (Vietnam is harder to pin down, lots of contenders). The storyline eschews politics, but this haunting, existential film still drives home the human cost of war. I can also guarantee you've never seen a battle scene like the nail-biting sniper duel about halfway through. Director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd deliver gorgeous visuals throughout, and the ending is an absolute knockout.

8. Drag Me To Hell
A fun horror movie enhanced by Sam Raimi's signature zaniness, Drag Me To Hell is a hugely entertaining watch. That itself is satisfying, but the extensive subtext has become the basis for all sorts of alternate interpretations hatched in the months since it hit theaters. For example, Allison Lohman's bank clerk character never eats...every time she's about to, something crazy happens. We are treated to glimpses of her unhappy childhood as an overweight teen...are the horrific occurences brought on by the trauma of anexoria mixed with guilt about causing a poor old woman (the great Lorna Raver) to lose her home? The discussions will continue. This film is in the same league as psychological classics like Repulsion.

7. The Hangover
Nothing quite like that lighter-than-air feeling of coming out of a movie where you laughed, laughed and laughed some more. Perhaps the only comedy of the last couple of years not featuring Paul Rudd, Steve Carell or Seth Rogen, The Hangover felt like an instant classic. Take an ingenious premise (trying to piece together an insane night in Vegas that the cast is too wasted to remember) and recruit a great cast of up and coming comedians, and the result winds up being quite good. Even Mike Tyson came off well, just don't steal his tiger or interrupt him when he's air-drumming "In the Air Tonight."

6. Coraline
Tim Burton's name may have been on The Nightmare Before Christmas, but a lot of the credit for that film's success belonged to its director, Henry Selick. His follow-up, Coraline, is a whimsical treat. The title character is dealing with all the anxieties of adolescence - she just moved to a new home, she has an odd name everyone pronounces incorrectly, her parents are too busy to pay attention to her, and she has no idea how to deal with the weird kid next door. When she comes across an alternate world, it's Selick's chance to show off his mastery of stop-motion animation. This is a great kids' film that doesn't condescend.

5. Zombieland
What is it that makes zombies and comedy mesh together so well? I'm not sure, but Zombieland is right up there with Shaun of the Dead in terms of delivering both laughs and thrills. Two hours of nonstop fun, featuring a great cast (led by the superb Woody Harrelson) and as a bonus, easily the best opening credits of the year. Not only that, we finally get a zombie movie where (spoiler alert?) you don't have to watch a wounded character eventually become a threat. Should flesh-eating zombies take over the world at some point...remember your cardio.

4. Paranormal Activity
If enough people in Hollywood take seriously the lessons that made Paranormal Activity a record-breaking smash, director Oren Peli and his cast and crew may go down in history as the people who saved horror from its current purgatory of derivative torture films and pointless remakes of past classics. The story of a young couple haunted by a malevolent presence is a breath of fresh air, relying on old-fashioned suspense and technical creativity. They only had $11,000 to work with, after all. The first true horror masterpiece in quite some time.

3. Anvil: The Story of Anvil
Metal on Metal, it's what I--whoops, got distracted. For me, this documentary was the surprise of the year. Metal, perhaps music's most misunderstood genre, got a surprising amount of attention from documentarians this year, but the most illuminating, hilarious and heartwarming of them was the story of a band who was there in the genre's early days but found themselves kicked to the curb as fellow acts like Metallica took off. Some of the band's members went their separate ways, but singer/guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner never gave up. Here's hoping their comeback continues.

2. Up
The Pixar formula becomes more familiar with each film, but it's hard to complain when the results are always this spectacular. Up is almost too moving, and the early montage which chronicles the long relationship between a married couple with no dialogue whatsoever has already become legendary. With its gorgeous visuals, beautiful score, great voice acting (especially Ed Asner), this movie continues Pixar's streak, which grows more impressive with each passing year.

1. District 9
It had about 25 percent of Avatar's budget but twice the dramatic impact. This innovative epic sets South Africa as the location for man's first brush with alien life, and the terrific visual effects augment the story instead of standing in for it. Directed by Neill Blompkamp (with a financial assist from Peter Jackson), District 9 has it all - timely social/political satire, edge of your seat action, creative cinematography and editing, an emotional undercurrent that builds right to the finale, and plenty of that intangible thing called movie magic. It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. Thanks to the change in Academy Award rules (10 nominees rather than 5), this film actually has a shot at the title. If it finds itself among the nominees, that new rule will have done what it was supposed to do. If not...well, you'll be hearing about it from me, that's for sure. Either way, this movie is great.

Honorable Mentions: Sin Nombre, Ponyo, I Love You Man, Where the Wild Things Are