Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Inexplicables--Old Man Sundays #2

Sorry I've been gone, folks. It's been so for a whole host of reasons, and since I'm not in the habit of treating this blog like a therapy session, let's just move on, shall we?

I watched Gymkata this week, for the first time in many years. Along with many other bad action movies, I watched this incessantly as a kid. At the time, it could not have been cooler. Unlike many other actioners of my childhood that don't hold up and are now mere bores, Gymkata is so stupefyingly inept, yet seemingly steadfast in earnestness, that it manages to be a bewilderingly charming 90 minutes. Having lately watched another movie of similar simultaneous earnestness and ineptitude (Thank God It's Friday), it gets me thinking that I'd like to see other movies like this. I'm dubbing them: The Inexplicables. I've already mentioned the criteria above: these movies must have earnest intentions, fail miserably in executing them, and precisely because of that ineptitude, impart upon the viewer an absurd glee in the viewing.

I want more examples, people. I've got the musical and martial arts examples par excellence. I don't think I've seen the heist example yet, but I'm guessing that Disorganized Crime is a solid candidate.

Eating at Hugo's Frog Bar and Fish House in Naperville, IL hit home a notion that I've been considering for some time. Namely, it is my experience that restaurants never really cater to the individual diner the way that they should. Whenever I eat out alone, I usually find that the servers are not as courteous as when I'm in a group, my wait is longer, and there are few to no check-ins from my servers after the meal is brought to me. A friend pointed out that the longer wait may simply feel longer, since I'm not conversing with anyone. This may be occasionally true, but certainly is not always so. I'm confused by the seeming lack of respect for the individual diner. Note to servers, mine is the only tip you'll be getting from my table. If you want a good one, show me a little courtesy, and bust your ass for me the way you would for the couple and their gaggle of youngsters next to me. Maybe it's just that I'm not the nicest-looking guy?

If you're wondering why I was in Naperville, it was to meet Charlie Higson, author of the Young Bond series. I was surprised--and a little sad--that there weren't more people there, but it afforded me the opportunity to chat one-on-one for quite some time with one of the few people around who've written Bond. In disarmingly funny fashion, Higson elaborated on the challenges of working certain elements into the Young Bond series--specifically the smoking, the drinking, the sex, and the violence. I took notes, because if I ever write a YA novel, I expect I'll be facing similar challenges.

For those of you in Madison, only one more day of Brat Fest. Your Double Johnnies await! As does your race with the devil on your way home.

I've found myself, on more than one occasion of late, dreaming of a Texas sunset. I think I'll take in a few soon, though I have not endured a Texas summer since 2001. We'll see if I survive.

Now that I have followers, I will start posting stuff on Twitter forthwith. Witticisms abound, people!

Take note, good readers: combing through e-mails at 1 in the morning always leads to no good. Actually, combing through almost anything at 1 in the morning leads to no good.

Best quote I've ever heard about the movie Tombstone: "Man, you were just an asshole if you weren't in this movie."

Watching Justified has, among other things, made me: a) want to buy a new pair of boots, now that my old ones don't fit, and b) wonder about my ability to pull off a cowboy hat again.

Speaking of quotes, I wonder how many times a year George Will describes politics as a "transactional business." Clearly, a reminder we all need.

Watched the Lost finale, like a few of you out there. Enjoyed it, like fewer of you out there. The show is, in the end, my 2nd favorite of all time (between Homicide: Life on the Street in 3rd and The Sandbaggers in 1st). Don't care to discuss further at this time.

Right this second, all I want out of life is to get out of cocked hat and into hog's fat.

Finally, I began with the inexplicable. I shall end with the inexplicable. Watch these now. Thank me at your leisure.

Again, profuse apologies for the absence. More to come. Entries, that is. Not absences.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Boundless and the Bold--Wednesday Comics #2

As origin stories are often told and retold in as many series as publishers can muster, I remain struck by Grant Morrison's first issue of All-Star Superman. While Superman is a character that has existed in the popular consciousness for decades, all Morrison required to tell the character's origin was 1 page--on it, 4 wide panels with 4 succinct captions.

An even more impressive feat is to introduce us to the origins of the universe, the universe's largest threat, and the man who is out to stop that threat--and requiring only 1 more page to do so. Then, after the concise yet descriptive captions, the storytellers go one step further by telling us all we need to know about the book's sense of humor with the main character's first line: "Huh?"

The storytellers in question are Brian Churilla and Jeremy Shepherd, and the book is The Engineer: Konstrukt, a handsome hardcover collection from Archaia. The Engineer (a former cosmonaut) has been enlisted by three slithery, sinister cosmic harpies known as the "Witch Sisters." His mission: to retrieve the components that form the Konstrukt: a device that allows its bearer to shape reality as s/he sees fit. The stakes: it's the only thing in the universe that can stop the Lahar, an "immense sentient entity (that) feeds on the very fabric of space time" that will return the universe to the nothingness from which it sprang.

And yet, when dealing with such grand stakes, it does a story good to keep a strong sense of humor. With the aid of an anxious top-hat-wearing robot ally, mutant bats, gargantuan crab monsters, an angry village mob, an interdimensional pipe organ, and a positively inexplicable fetish for chickens, Churilla and Shepherd give us exactly the well executed absurdist humor that makes a story like this a sheer joy to read. The jokes are never out of place and are not born out of snark for snark's sake. Rather, they help forge our path through this strange, fantastic world.

As to the art (Churilla illustrates, Shepherd colors), I've seen others note stylistic similarities with Mignola, Oeming, and Powell, and these are all well-warranted comparisons. The panel construction creates well paced exposition, dramatic suspense, well staged action, and wry comedic timing, all with equal aplomb. There's also just the right amount of detail in every panel while maintaining a wonderfully expressive cartoony design. And the rich reds and vibrant blues rocket those panels right off each and every page.

But there's one more parallel I'd add to the list above, because when I read this book, I can't help but think of Kirby. I don't mean the artistic style here; instead, I'm referring to the book's overall sensibility. Even though this book has its roots in and references to many comics or sci-fi stories past, not for a second does it feel derivative or imitative. This is a book of bold, boundless fun, and that was Kirby's stock-in-trade. And, while there are a ton of fine comics in the marketplace, we can never have enough--and should never stop demanding--books of bold, boundless fun.

This is, on no uncertain terms, one of the best books you likely haven't read yet. This is the book that smart comic shops are recommending to their regulars. This is the book that deserves an even wider audience than that, and I sincerely hope it finds one.

Increasingly innovative publisher Archaia has certainly released this collection with that in mind. Coming in at over 130 pages, you'll find all three issues of the 1st volume, a hilarious backup story, bonus pinups (including one by Matt Wagner), a behind-the-scenes sketchbook section, all sandwiched in a lovely hardcover binding. All for a $9.95 cover price.

You now officially have no excuse not to purchase this book.

With any form of media--be it novels, comics, music, movies--the more you expose yourself to over time, the more you'll hunger for something to surprise you. The Engineer is one of those great surprises. I can't wait to see where these gents take us in the next volume, and I thank them for giving us this one.

Next time: A look at Jason Shiga's newest book, Meanwhile, which I believe is the first choose-your-own adventure comic, and is certainly one of the most formally elaborate comics ever created.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Of Pauses and Porn Stars--Monday Movies #2

I have what I consider to be a reasonable expectation--for narrative movies, anyway--that a film with as short a runtime as 77 minutes should proceed apace, and in even fashion. I also have the expectation that a Steven Soderbergh film should be narratively compelling (or at least 13 kinds of fun) and wonderful to look at.

With The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh fulfills only the last of my expectations. Serving once again as his own cinematographer, he uses scope to showcase his customarily great sense of composition, particularly in service of a script that doesn't necessarily warrant a 2.35 aspect ratio. However, the film plods, and the idea behind the movie--namely, an actual porn actress starring in a low-budget indie movie by an esteemed director--is far more fascinating than the story it produces.

In chronologically scattered fashion, TGE tells the story of a woman (played by Sasha Grey) who balances a relationship with her boyfriend of 1 1/2 years with her professional life as a high-end call girl. Through this 77-minute smattering of scenes, the film asks us to piece together the chronology of her interactions with her clients, her boyfriend, and other assorted characters along the way. That is, if we still care about the chronology once we've seen how everything plays out.

Deliberately fragmented storytelling is certainly not a new strategy for Soderbergh. Unfortunately, it feels here only like an extension of his earlier work, as opposed to an innovative step toward something more. The disjointed scenes merely bring on an intellectual itch to sequence events in chronological order; emotionally, they provide only cold distance from those events. Don't misunderstand; it's not that the distance was a surprise. It's that the distance slowly and steadfastly empties me of any interest or curiosity in the unfolding story. By the time the movie seems to be asking for some genuine emotional engagement, I have none to give.

Add to this characters quite bereft of character, delivering lines that are simultaneously over-mannered and under-acted, chock full of very noticeably fabricated pauses, stammers, and repetitions. I am uncertain at whose feet I should lay blame for this awkwardness in the dialogue (the writers, the director, the actors, or all three), but for a film similar in tone and low-budget experimental sensibilities, Soderbergh's Bubble had some of the most realistic dialogue I've ever heard in a fiction film. In this respect, TGE feels positively amateurish by comparison.

TGE also seems to want to focus more on what lies behind this woman's mask of professional sexuality, which is of far less interest to me than wanting to see how the relationship with her boyfriend works. In whatever way this film was designed to provoke, the fact that I actively want to see more of the dynamic between these two people, who are all but vacant emotionally, is singularly frustrating to me. It is the sole way in which the film succeeds in provoking me.

Again, I feel like the idea of this movie--perhaps even Soderbergh's notion of day-to-day direction on the cheap-and-quick--was and is way more interesting than the process of engaging with the finished product. I remember reading an interview with Soderbergh not too long ago, in which he speculated on his future in filmmaking, saying, "I'm looking at the landscape and I'm thinking, 'Hmmm, I don't know.' A few more years maybe...(a)nd then the stuff that I'm interested in is only going to be of interest to me." As his new projects are announced, and certainly in the wake of TGE, I grow increasingly worried that his statement has become more prophecy than musing.

However, for a man who was my favorite working director for almost a decade, it is my fervent hope that TGE is a more isolated case than that. To that end, I plan to catch up with Soderbergh's recent work by watching (and subsequently writing about) Che and The Informant! over the next couple of weeks, both of which will hopefully be much more memorable than this creative misfire.