Friday, November 30, 2007

The Reset Button

This past week, part 3 of J. Michael Straczynski's Spider-Man swansong, One More Day, finally hit stores, and finally settled the question of just how Marvel, through artist and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada was planning to put a sledgehammer to Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane Watson, (not that it was that much of a mystery leading up to this issue): Peter and Mary Jane make a deal with the devil, known in the Marvel Universe as Mephisto, to save the dying Aunt May.

There's really not much to say about this issue other than that it is among the most heavy-handed, clunkily-narrated comic books starring Spider-Man which I have ever had the misfortune of reading. In this issue the reader can see the all-powerful hand of Marvel's editorial, led by Quesada himself, guiding Straczynski's pen, and it's come out that JMS himself wanted to remove his name from the last two books altogether. Well, when he has to write lines as utterly putrid as "I want that which gives you joy...I want your marriage," it's hard to blame him. The story would have worked better at this point had Joe Quesada simply drawn his own face instead of Mephisto's; everyone knows this was pretty much his idea.

Now, I understand the logic behind "undoing" the marriage; marrying two young leads is something best done at the end of a movie or movie franchise, or even at the end of a long-running TV series. It's not something someone should do in the context of a serialized comic book with an indefinite shelf-life. Spider-Man was introduced to his first generation of readers as young and single, and Quesada's beef, like that of editors that came before him, was that rather than remain as such for succeeding generations, which can actually be accomplished in the comic book world, he aged along with that first audience, to the point where he got married and was, at one point, about to have a kid. There is a point to this argument; Peter and Mary Jane may always be eternally young, but once they're married they will not eternally be newlyweds. In short, it can be argued that the decision to have them get married was a mistake.

But like the old saying goes, "two wrongs don't make a right," and this story is most definitely, indubitably wrong.

This is, in my opinion a crying shame because each issue of this book boasts some of the best artwork I've ever seen in any of Spider-Man's books, and Joe Quesada's best work EVER. I liked his work on the latter issues of Daredevil: Father with the sixth issue being one of my favorites, and this series just completely eclipses that one in terms of the sheer quality of the draftsmanship. If I may wax cliche, Joe is on top of his game artwise.

However, just as Todd McFarlane's art couldn't save the piss-poor writing in his fifteen-issue run on the Spider-Man title he launched nearly two decades ago, Quesada's art simply cannot redeem a story so bad that not even its writer wants to be identified with it.

Brand New Day had better be really, really good and even then I only plan on buying the stuff Steve McNiven draws...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

15 Minutes

Filipino activists with blogs the world over are probably atwitter with yesterday's events, but for my part, all I can do is shake my head at the stupidity of everyone involved.

Trillanes' stunt (and let's be honest, that's really all it was) worked pretty well in that he basically wrapped both the local media around his finger and got Malacanang to declare a curfew, something that hasn't been done since the Marcos days, but to my mind he really didn't do himself any favors by walking out of his trial and basically putting himself squarely in contempt of court taking over a posh hotel with no real plan as to what he was going to do. If he had hoped to walk out of that hotel the newly-appointed President of the Philippines, then he's even stupider and more deluded than people have given him credit for.

There isn't really much to say about the clumsiest attempt to unseat the administration that hasn't already been discussed ad nauseam in newspaper, radio and television editorials, other than that it's given the government another opportunity to shoot itself in the foot by declaring another curfew (though that's been quite healthily discussed as well).

What I find funny about all these "expressions of outrage" is while everyone knows what the disease is, nobody, and this has been the case for nearly three years now, has presented a cure, in no small part due to the fact that the opposition cannot even agree on what that is.

Trillanes and his motley cadre of supporters looked downright foolish in last Thursday's escapade, with some of the people presented rapidly distancing themselves from him when it all went south, such as the bishop who claim that he just happened to be in the hotel at the time of the incident. Riiiiight...

But equally foolish was the Arroyo administration, with its drastic midnight to five a.m. curfew summoning up images of martial law more dramatically than all three of its ill-advised Executive Orders and issuances last year which the Supreme Court slam-dunked.

If they keep this up, along with their own infighting (such as the latest Arroyo-De Venecia imbroglio), it wouldn't be hard to see the administration imploding the way Erap's did when Chavit Singson ratted him out. The only question is who'll be around to pick up the pieces, because currently no one seems to be properly positioned to do this.

The way I see it, it isn't that hard to get the people behind a personality; there's really too much shit going on for people to not want some kind of change. The lack of any concerted mass action is not attributable to exclusively to apathy, the way I see things. I've said this before, and I'll say it again: those idiotic activists pontificating on the radio, on TV and in their newspaper columns all miss the point; it's not about not wanting things to get better. Our problem is we don't want to hitch our stars to people like Antonio Trillanes. Some idiot columnist whom I've already taken the time to lambast in the past described Trillanes as a hero and a martyr or something like that, but I have to say; what kind of hero knowingly puts people, like media men and other civilians, in harm's way?

I agree that the Filipino people do need a hero, but one thing's for sure, we won't find it among the crop of buffoons just jockeying for their 15 minutes in the spotlight.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Spider-Man Re-Masked.

When Spider-Man was publicly unmasked in the pages of Civil War in the middle of last year, it was a question of when, not if, Marvel would come up with a story device that would effectively reverse this status quo and return his civilian identity to secrecy.

It was widely expected among the comics community that this switchover would take place in the pages of Joe Straczynski's and Joe Quesada's One More Day storyline, already touted as the story meant to undo Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane.

Marvel, however, decided to come out of left field and pulled the feat in the pages of Avengers: The Initiative #7, in a story written, appropriately enough, by upcoming Amazing Spider-Man writer Dan Slott.

Essentially, the Initiative's three Scarlet Spiders, heretofore reserved only for covert operations, go public in an attempt to retrieve sensitive government documents from three mercenaries dressed like the Vulture, known, prosaically enough, as the Vulturions. The chase happens to pass by Peter Parker, who is on a rooftop feeling sorry for himself while his Aunt May is dying in a hospital (this story is said to take place just before the star of One More Day), and he is so incensed that Tony Stark has recycled the "Iron Spider" armor for three copycats that he attacks them. The tide of battle is drastically altered as Peter takes on two of the Scarlet Spiders, while the remaining one is left to fend for himself as the three Vulturions leap at the prospect of an unfair fight.

In the course of the fight, the media picks up on several Spider-Men slugging it out, and so the public broadcast required to cast doubts anew on Spider-Man's secret identify is conveniently set up.

The Scarlet Spiders are able to prick Peter's conscience into helping him out, and eventually the three of them are able to subdue the Vulturions, although the documents they stole are in Peter's hands. Peter, however, has trepidations about handing them the said documents, and so in a gesture of goodwill they all camouflage their costumes to look like him and then explain to the press that he (Peter) was part of a government-sponsored program to mimic Spider-Man using high-tech exo-suits, thereby casting doubt on whether or not he was actually Spider-Man.

At first I have to admit I was actually pretty impressed by this idea, though upon re-reading the issue I've seen just too many holes in the story's logic to really enjoy its contribution to the canon. The premise was well-conceived, though it bears some similarities to the manner in which Ed Brubaker reversed the "outing" of Matt Murdock's secret identity as Daredevil, but the execution was, to my mind, somewhat wanting. I loved the art, but there was just too much wrong with the story, enough to convince me that I won't be following this series anymore, considering the most important of the twists involves a crucial ongoing plot point in The Initiative.

Nor is this a case of my "outgrowing" comics; I submit that a better writer could have pulled this off with a lot more panache, like the aforementioned Brubaker, for instance.

It's kind of a shame Marvel didn't hold out a bit longer before pulling the reversal, especially considering Daredevil's "outing" lasted for over four years before they finally pulled the old switcheroo, with Iron Fist parading around as Daredevil while Matt Murdock was in prison, and known by the public to be so incarcerated. I guess it comes down to Spider-Man being a much more popular character.

At any rate, it still feels like a cop out. Good thing they're putting Steve McNiven on Spider-Man and Ed McGuinness on Hulk next year or I'd be bailing out of comics altogether with the end of One More Day.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Three Days, Four Movies Part II

A few days ago I reviewed a couple of movies I had seen over the All Saints weekend, and now I'd like to review the ones I enjoyed most.

Knocked Up

directed by Judd Apatow
starring Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl

Having enjoyed Apatow's last movie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I was happy to give him repeat business when I heard about this movie, particularly considering that most of the cast and crew of Virgin remained intact with some delightful new additions.
Knocked Up doesn't benefit from quite an original a premise as Virgin, but Apatow's true gift is in the execution. The story is about an upwardly mobile employee of E! named Alison Scott (Heigl) who, upon being promoted from a behind-the-camera job to full-time E! reporter goes out to celebrate one night, where she meets Ben Stone (Rogen) a part-time web-page designer, most-of-the-time bum and stoner living illegally in the States (he's Canadian). Several drinks later, the pair end up in bed, and thanks to some rather comical miscommunication, without any contraception. The morning after, a now sober Alison discovers that she can't stand Ben. Eight weeks later, however, when Alison starts getting morning sickness, and learns, after several dozen home pregnancy tests, that she is, in fact, pregnant, she gives Ben a call.
The movie is essentially Ben's and Alison's seven month journey on the way to parenthood. They don't spend all of it together, and this makes for some wonderful interplay with Alison's elder sister Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd, also from Virgin), who, in contrast to the struggling new couple, have been married for ten years now. The contrast between the longtime couple and the new one is played out very nicely.
The movie is chock-full of belly laughs, which is pretty much to be expected, but what makes this outing really special, like Virgin, is that it has heart, on top of the biting wit of its script. I don't mean the treacly, virtually condescending "heart" of Adam Sandler movies, I mean real and honest-to-God heart courtesy of some truly wonderful chemistry between Heigl's Alison and Rogen's Ben and some genuinely touching acting even when they aren't onscreen together.
There's a lot of authenticity to the movie as well, with just about every character dropping F-bombs in a somewhat appropriate context (though I could have done with fewer of them) and Apatow going as far as to sneak in footage of an actual mother's vagina giving birth to stand in for Alison's moment of truth. It was a bit extreme, and in fact the knowledge that such footage would be used caused the original choice for Alison, Anne Hathaway, to drop out of the role, but having seen such a phenomenon up close and personally (sorry Theia), I can tell you it works for anyone who's ever had kids.
Knocked Up is a great movie, and although there have been some snide suggestions that its success was more the product of shock value than anything else I say nay. This is a movie that completely succeeds on its own merits.
For anyone who's into belly laughs, relationships, pregnancy, childbirth, raunchy sex humor, the DVD running time of celebrity sex scenes, or repeated references to Spider-Man 3, this movie is for you. As long as you're over 18, of course...


directed by Matthew Vaughn
starring Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro

I never saw The Princess Bride in its entirety, so I cannot say for certain, but part of me strongly believes that Stardust is, in spirit, its sequel, or at least is meant to be.
Stardust is the story Tristan Thorne (Cox), a country boy from the village of Wall who sets out on a journey to recover a falling star for the lovely Victoria (Sienna Miller) in exchange for her hand in marriage. This would be rather simple, except that the falling star is, in fact, a human being played by Claire Danes, and has landed in a magical realm known as Stormhold which lies just beyond the fringes of Wall, where she catches quite a bit of attention from three witches and the princes of Stormhold, whose father (Peter O' Toole) threw the Stormhold birthstone at the star that caused it to fall in the first place..
Pfeiffer camps it up as the lead witch, who sets out to find the star and cut out her heart (which is supposed to make her and her sisters young again, at least for the next hundred years) and is a delight to watch, as are the murderous princely siblings who have set out on their quest to recover the stone, for any of them to recover in order to claim the throne of Stormhold.
Although Tristan gets to her first, courtesy of a magic candle, the hard part is getting her back to Wall. And the fun/mayhem ensues, with transformations, swordfights, a transvestite pirate (DeNiro in a deliciously different turn) and generous helpings of magic both of the eldritch kind and the very human kind.
The movie is, all things considered a romance, so although Tristan starts the movie enamored with the self-absorbed Victoria, it doesn't take a rocket scientist who he'll fall for before the movie's running time is through, even without having read the book. The movie doesn't pretend to hold any real surprises, though, and this is actually part of its charm.
Though I bought, read and enjoyed the Neil Gaiman/Charles Vess illustrated fantasy novel from which this film was adapted (and yes, it is more like a novel than a comic book, so in this case the term graphic novel is much more apt than it usually is), I can't say I was particularly looking forward to this film, primarily because of my (silent) objections to the casting of Claire Danes as Yvaine, the lead female.
It turns out my apprehensions were, for the most part, unfounded. The movie is quite enjoyable, and even though quite a few liberties were taken with the original work, in many cases they are rather welcome changes and made for a more satisfying viewing experience than a straight adaptation would have been. I particularly liked the camping up of Victoria into a spoiled, self-absorbed brat rather than the annoyingly distant character she was in the graphic novel; it made for more engaging, if not slightly more caricatured storytelling. Although the addition of some swashbuckling elements seemed a little forced at times, I daresay I truly enjoyed the expansion of DeNiro's character Captain Shakespeare, who wasn't nearly as enjoyable in the book. I was also glad that some of the more adult aspects of the book were toned down, because really, this is a story a younger audience should be allowed to enjoy.
It's really quite a shame Stardust was one of this year's box-office disappointments. While not one of my all-time favorite movies, it was certainly a better movie than a whole lot of the other fare this year that have been killing at the tills; it certainly was a lot better than the trashy Transformers which was released by the same studio, and deserved a lot more than the feeble marketing push it got from Paramount, which treated it like gum on its shoe, all things considered.
Well, I take solace in knowing that its thematic predecessor, The Princess Bride, also did poorly during its box-office run, only to become a cult favorite on cable and home video. I hope this movie is able to flourish similarly.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Three Days, Four Movies Part I

Up until Halloween, I had gone for over two months without watching a single movie in the theater. It was a bit of a sacrifice considering how fond I am of movies in general, and there were a couple that I had wanted to see, but in general it was not that big a loss on my part. There just wasn't enough time or money.

With the long holiday that began last Thursday, though, during payday, that little problem was solved (though I admit I did stretch the budget a little bit). I got to see, in no particular order, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, the adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust, and a gloriously silly little sports/martial arts spoof entitled Balls of Fury.

It would feel wrong if, having enjoyed a virtual smorgasbord, I didn't review at least two of them. I've decided to review all four, though in two installments.

Lust, Caution

directed by Ang Lee
starring Tang Wei, Tony Leung

Of the bunch, this was the film I enjoyed least, though it was arguably one of the best made. It was the heaviest of the four movies I watched, and nearly devoid of any humor which really made it stand out considering the other films were decidedly comedic in tone.

The movie is basically about a Chinese student who, during World War II, essentially lures a collaborator into bed in the hopes of helping the Chinese resistance find an opportunity to blow his brains out. It's a long, excruciating process that is, admittedly, helped along by some really riveting storytelling, and about two hours into the movie, the most explicit sex scenes I've ever seen outside of a porn movie.

Now the movie is a love story between a spy and the man she is setting up for assassination, so it's essentially a no-brainer that the story will end very badly for one or both of them and the movie does not disappoint in that respect. It's weighty, deliberately paced storytelling, which is another way of saying that Ang Lee well and truly takes his sweet time setting things up, which is not necessarily a good thing. His tendency to overcook his exposition is what bogged down The Hulk (a movie I still managed to like, being one of the very few people I know that did) and blunted the green goliath's first appearance, which didn't happen until halfway into the movie.

Arguably, it's necessary in this film to show how Wong, the spy/lover goes from wide-eyed, innocent student to would be femme-fatale, and there are quite a number tension-inducing scenes throughout the movie, so one certainly cannot accuse Lee of being boring, for the most part, but ultimately it still feels like the movie drags out too long.

Now, most of the attention this movie has gotten has been for its three highly explicit sex scenes. While I won't debate how graphic they were, I have to say at the outset that this movie doesn't qualify as pornography for a number of reasons, the first being that the sex doesn't take place until about an hour and a half (I checked) into the film, after the premise and the characters have been rather firmly established. The second is that if Lee had wanted nothing more than to titillate, he could have done a lot better than casting Tang Wei. There are women out there with bigger boobs and longer legs who probably shave their armpits. Thirdly, I feel it would be hard for a viewer to truly get into the scenes because for me all I could think about was what would happen to Wong if she ever got caught. They were certainly gratuitous, but I still don't think they qualify as pornography.

Finally, I don't think I could ever bring myself to see that movie again. It was just too heavy, and as a love story, it didn't particularly do anything for me considering how brutal the Chinese collaborator was.

I'm curious, though; can Lee ever tell a "normal" love story between people that doesn't involve tragic death, homosexuality, wartime massacres, or transformation into a green monster? I'd really like to see how he pulls it off.

Balls of Fury

directed by Ben Garrant
starring Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken

Now here's a movie I really enjoyed! Loud, self-deprecating and devoid of any intelligence, this one basically had me (and the guy beside me) howling with laughter from start to finish.

It's a basic riff on the martial arts "tournament to the death" movies of old, with Ping Pong being the "martial art" of choice.

The story begins in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where pingpong prodigy Randy Daytona, whose dad is apparently a compulsive gambler, loses the table tennis finals to a rival, causing his father to lose his life to the Chinese Triad led by the mysterious Feng.

Twenty-years later, a washed-up Randy (Fogler) is approached by an FBI agent (George Lopez) with a mission; infiltrate Feng's lair by joining his underground pingpong tournament and provide the FBI with evidence to put him away for good. Of course, as rusty as he is, Randy must learn how to be a ping-pong master, and he gets the best tutelage around from a Master Wong (James Hong) and his sexy niece Maggie (Maggie Q). After he defeats the fearsome "Dragon" (whose appearance is good for quite a few laughs), Randy is drafted into Feng's tournament via a "golden ping pong paddle" delivered to him by Feng's henchmen. Feng turns out to be none other than Christopher Walken, taking an absurdly flamboyant turn as Wong's best pupil who never finished his training.

The story takes a turn for the predictable from there and suffice it to say there's never any doubt that we're in for a happy ending.

A lot of the martial arts references were unfortunately lost on me, but none of the low-brow humor was, and it was practically therapeutic to howl in laughter at the non-stop stupidity. Fogler clearly has aspirations of being the next Jack Black, and although I don't see that happening, he's certainly funny enough here. As Wong, Hong is good for a lot of slapstick jokes at blind people's expense, as well as a lot of gross-out humor, but for my money the real star of this show is Walken, whose mock-serious visage on the poster was what got me to the see the movie in the first place. There is nothing to reflect on after this movie is done, no commentary on the human condition, but at the end of the day, I honestly felt I'd gotten my money's worth.

Yes, it was completely predictable and the plot was without any depth, real or imagined, from start to finish, but that's not the point. The point is that I was laughing all the way there.