Monday, December 29, 2008

The Filipino's Resurgence in Comics, Here and Abroad

I'm all but retired from collecting monthly comics, and even from posting on this blog, which was purportedly supposed to be devoted to "pop culture" such as comics, movies, books and TV programs after I'd designated my "multiply" blog as the site of my ruminations and after I pretty much stopped following Formula One after watching Ferrari throw a potential driver's championship away. This blog has, for the last couple of months, actually felt by and large irrelevant as I find I have surprisingly little to say even though I've been busier, and happier, in the last year than I EVER have. Maybe the problem is that "tantrum" now sounds like a complete and utter misnomer. Still, someone once said not to get rid of the stuff I write as this is actually inventory.

Well, introspection aside, I thought it worth writing that even though 2008 may not have been the best year for comic enthusiasts in general in terms of the available reading material, it's been a great year for fans of Filipino comic book creators, who got to flex their artistic muscles in both local and foreign publications.

2008 was the year that Gerry Alanguilan concluded Elmer, his highly engaging, if flawed miniseries about talking chickens. It was the year Budjette Tan and Ka-Jo Baldissimo presented not just one but two collected editions of Trese, their refreshingly original and distinctly Filipino series about an investigator into the paranormal. It was the year that Arnold Arre, the creator of the beloved Mythology Class, launched another graphic novel.

It was also a continuation of the Filipino artist's long-running winning streak in drawing American comics. For eight months of this year, Secret Invasion, a Marvel miniseries drawn by Filipino Lienil Francis Yu, topped the sales charts, and this month has seen the launch of Marvels: Eye of the Camera, the sequel to the groundbreaking miniseries by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, with Filipino Jay Anacleto taking over the art chores from Ross this time around. Of course, Filipinos are making their presence known all over the comics landscape with artists like Carlo Pagulayan, Phillip Tan, and Mico Suayan to name a few, landing regular gigs among the big comics companies like Marvel, DC and Top Cow/Image, also to name a few.

Unfortunately, the recent financial crunch has meant another price hike for some mainstream comics, and the decrease in spending on luxury items, which is essentially what comics are, may inevitably hit the industry, but it's nice to know that, for this year at least, Filipino talent has continued to make quite an impression on comics readers around the world.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hollywood's Losing Battle: The War on Terror

For the last two years or so it has perplexed me that, for all of their filmmaking and marketing prowess, Hollywood seems utterly incapable of selling movies that touch, directly or tangentially, on the United States government's infamous "war on terror." I'm not speaking as any kind of entertainment insider and in fact, this topic was discussed in Time Magazine with probably a lot better insight than I could hope to give, but at the time the article was written, yet another work touching on the controversial conflict, Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, starring Leonardo Di Caprio and frequent Scott collaborator Russell Crowe, was just about to hit theaters. It was speculated at the time that it could finally end Hollywood's losing streak with the war, but at the end of the day, it didn't, failing to even open at number #2 on its opening weekend.

So as it stands Hollywood now has a zero batting average when it comes to selling feature-length films touching upon the war on terror. From Oscar winners like Reese Witherspoon (Rendition) to Jamie Foxx (The Kingdom) to Hollywood royalty like Tom Cruise (Lions for Lambs) and the aforementioned Crowe and DiCaprio, Tinseltown's efforts to lure moviegoers into the seats with their take on the war have been received with, at best, tentativeness and at worst, complete and utter indifference. Meryl Streep, it should be noted, starred in not just one but TWO flops on the war on terror: Rendition and Lions for Lambs. She has the track record to show she can sell a film, so she definitely isn't the problem. It isn't even much of a stretch to predict that the upcoming film Green Zone, from the tried and tested box-office duo of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass of Bourne fame, will suffer a similar fate at the tills. Universal Pictures, the film's distributor, has apparently yet to announce a release date despite the fact that the film was in the can several months ago. The widespread interest in Hollywood types to have their say on the war seems to have been tempered by the widespread rejection of audiences of just about every single movie thus far released on the topic.

The lingering question, really, is how does one explain the aversion of Joe Moviegoer (a very distant cousin of Joe the Plumber) to any and every take on the war on terror?

I don't buy that America isn't receptive to criticism; one need only look at the sensational box-office returns of Farenheit 9/11, which was essentially one long diatribe against the Bush Administration and its war on terror.

I don't even really have any ideas on what's behind the almost unanimous rejection of these movies, whether left OR right-leaning, but it's definitely some kind of sociological phenomenon considering the pedigree and box-office clout of filmmakers who've thrown their hats into the ring. I've never even actually seen any of these movies so I can't speak about their merits or lack thereof, but seeing such widespread rejection I can't help but take notice. Is the problem that the movies themselves aren't any good, or that their target audience just aren't ready to digest their subject matter?

It's a question Hollywood should be asking itself before bankrolling another project set in Iraq or even discussing, let alone critiquing, the war on terror. It's a shame because all things considered, it's a discussion that really should be encouraged.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Madness and Brilliance of Tina Fey

I'd known about writer/comedienne/actress Tina Fey for quite awhile, but my first real exposure to her was the film Mean Girls, which she wrote and in which she starred as Lindsay Lohan's teacher. When I heard of the TV series 30 Rock, which she actually created based on her extensive experience as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, I was quite keen on watching it but, for one reason or another, never got around to it.

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, however, I've been able to catch up on several episodes of the second season, and I dare say I love the show even more than I thought I would based on the ads I saw on TV! From the zany, rapid-fire writing of Fey and her team of writers to the knock-'em-out-of-the-park performance delivered by card-carrying Democrat Alec Baldwin, playing his antithesis, a staunch Republican in just about every episode I've watched, this show is pure gold. I easily enjoy this show a lot more than the last sitcom I followed with any semblance of regularity, which was Friends.

Maybe I'm at that stage of my life where I like stories about the workplace more than I do those about people's personal lives, and given that Friends was largely about the interpersonal dynamics of the six protagonists, mostly as far as their romantic relationships went, but whatever the reason, I am well and truly loving this show. I never liked Ally McBeal with its self-absorbed, self-pitying heroine, but oddly enough, Fey's Liz Lemon isn't exactly completely removed from the neurotic lawyer Callista Flockhart played for five years, and yet I totally connect with her character. What I like about her is how, even though she has issues, she doesn't act, the way Ally McBeal often did, like her problems are the most important in the world. No dancing babies here, folks.

And the best part is how, even though this show is, in every way that counts, Fey's baby, she doesn't hog the limelight. The world of 30 Rock is populated by fantastically insane characters, the notable of which being Baldwin's uber-prick Republican Jack Donaghue (sp?), though he is far from the only one. Even Jane Krakowski, who basically recycles her oversexed, busybody secretary from Ally McBeal, manages to make me guffaw time and time again.

It's nice to have something that really tickles the funny bone on a regular basis again. These days, being able to laugh is a truly precious commodity.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Good Time to Be Broke

Financial crunches of late, both global and personal have severely curtailed my personal spending. The good news is, right now I don't really mind.

Everything on the consumer market that might vaguely interest me nowadays, from movies to comic books to toy cars to DVDS, has me feeling particularly underwhelmed. I stopped collecting albums/CDs a long time ago, and since becoming a lawyer I seem to have become increasingly less literate (as absurd as that sounds) as time goes by, with even comic books becoming a chore to read. But more on that later.

Now that I've seen Tropic Thunder and am only really looking forward to Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace, the latest James Bond caper, there is, rather blissfully, almost nothing I'm looking forward to spending my money on.

In the realm of film, I have to say there isn't much I'm looking forward to, save perhaps for Avatar, (James Cameron's first movie since the monumental Titanic), which looks, from all indications, to be that rarified Hollywood animal: an ORIGINAL blockbuster film, not one derived from a novel, a comic book, a TV show, a toy line, or a video game. That, unfortunately, won't be out until Christmas next year, but the good news is I don't see myself spending a whole lot of money on movies until then. I'm also looking forward to the sequel to Iron Man, the Marvel Comics Avengers movie (as opposed to the Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman stinkfest) and film adaptations of Avatar: The Last Airbender (not related to the Cameron project) and the European comic book sensation Tintin, but none of these movies will be out any earlier than 2010, so my wallet is destined to stay healthy between now and then, and any spending won't be on account of rushing to cinemas.

In terms of comic books, the anti-climactic-event-comic-book still seems all the rage these days, with Secret Invasion and Final Crisis topping the comic book charts and most Marvel comic books bearing an "embrace change" banner implying that Secret Invasion is likely to end on a low note with the marauding Skrulls somehow taking over the world or at least staking a huge chunk of its territory, as if real life weren't bleak enough. Considering Marvel, my bastion of comic book entertainment, is still very much into its addiction to shaking up the status quo every year I don't intend to give them business again any time soon. I can definitely see myself picking up collected editions of their Stephen King adaptations and some of their Spider-Man storylines down the line, but the compulsion to buy their books on a monthly basis, to which I was once a slave, is now completely gone, with no sign of it ever coming back.

With DVDs, well, with the Blu-Ray disc having won the format wars I find myself somewhat leery of spending large amounts of cash, whether on real or fake DVDs, on a product that was always destined to one day be antiquated but is now just counting the days till it goes the way of the Laser Disc. I don't have much of a collection to begin with, and although I still want to add Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk to my small and incomplete collection of Marvel movies, well, both the thought of them being outmoded and their prices are just too scary for me right now, especially given my limited funds.

As for my toy car addiction--I mean hobby--which kicked off in December of 2006 and raged for most of 2007 and a good chunk of this year, well, apparently the speed with which I could acquire the cars I liked was greater than the toymakers' ability to come out with new models because I now have everything all the models I want that are currently on the market. The only cars left that I still want to buy aren't even on the market yet, and, I hope, will stay that way for awhile. If I had my way I wouldn't want them to come out until sometime next year.

I don't even spend that much money on eating out anymore because quite frankly I really don't want to keep shopping for increasingly bigger pants every other year. Maybe, if I drink enough liters of water every morning and eat small enough meals, I'll be able to squeeze into my 34-inch pants again someday.

It's a good time to not have a whole lot of money for worldly pleasures, guilty or otherwise, because right now there aren't a whole lot of pleasures on which I'd like to spend it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Starting and Ending the Summer On Top

Robert Downey Jr.'s story this year is really one for the books; this is the year he finally claimed what had been coming to him since being nominated for an Oscar for his sensational work in Sir Richard Attenborough's Chaplin: the title of box-office king. This has actually already been covered in an article published in Time magazine that featured an interview with Downey and came out some weeks before the release of his certified blockbuster Iron Man, but I thought to say something in view of the fact that two of his three projects this year, Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, have been bona fide number one box-office hits, being the first and last big hits of the 2008 U.S. summer box office.

The best part about Downey's story, though, is is that he didn't exactly disappear into the ether when he had his drug problem and emerge years later expecting be treated like the Hollywood royalty he was following his Oscar nod in 1993. No, aside from his trips to rehab, he's also kept himself busy with a variety of projects, some of them obviously just for the paycheck (The Shaggy Dog), while others with arguable entertainment value (Bowfinger, Gothika, In Dreams), while others still reminding people of his caliber as an actor (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Zodiac). In other words, when he nabbed the role of Tony Stark he wasn't exactly trying to cash in on his goodwill from Chaplin, or even from his stint on Ally McBeal.

Downey is an inspiration to underperforming slackers everywhere. He's the kid with the 180 I.Q. who failed all his subjects because his mind was elsewhere or he's busy smoking weed and who managed to get his head out of his ass a few years later and finally graduate. I'm sure it's been written elsewhere that this guy was once Hollywood's greatest wasted talent, but if it hasn't then allow me to coin the phrase. Well, it's now a thing of the past.

Also, for me the underperforming genius analogy isn't that far from the truth because what Downey brings to his roles is a distinct intelligence, something you don't quite get from Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. He's kind of like George Clooney that way, and if his portrayal of Tony Stark was criticized for being too Jack Sparrow, I think it's because he and Depp share the same mad-genius approach to eccentric characters like the ones they portrayed in their respective blockbusters. I'm absolutely champing at the bit to see him as a crazy Australian method actor who has his skin color altered to play a black man in Tropic Thunder. From what I've seen his performance looks out-and-out insane.

Welcome back, Robert. Please stay on the wagon this time so we moviegoers can bask in your greatness for a long time to come.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pixar and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Pixar Animation Studios is easily the king of the animation hill nowadays, in terms of both quality and box-office take. Of its nine feature-length films, only one has grossed less than $190 million in the United States: 1998's A Bug's Life. They average a healthy 90% or so on websites polling movie critic reactions like metacritic or rottentomatoes. Since the animated film feature award was introduced in 2001 Pixar have only lost it twice (to Shrek in '01 and Happy Feet in '06) and have more animated feature Oscars than any other studio. Their films, year in and year out, just seem to get better and better (with the exception of Cars, which left several critics cold). So things should, ideally, be all happy in Pixar land, right?

Well, maybe not necessarily.

Since the arguably underwhelming performance of A Bug's Life, Pixar movies experienced very healthy box-office returns with Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles each making at least a quarter of a billion dollars at the United States box office. Cars nearly reached the quarter of a billion benchmark as well. In terms of box-office, however, Ratatouille made heads turn by having both the lowest opening weekend box-office AND final box-office returns of any Pixar movie since A Bug's Life. In fact, it was estimated that allowing for inflation, Ratatouille is the lowest grossing movie ever to come from Pixar. It seems that although critics (and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) loved it, a lot of people were not thrilled with the thought of rats preparing gourmet food.

This year's WALL-E should have marked a return to form. Written and directed by Andrew Stanton, one of the masterminds behind Finding Nemo, Pixar's biggest hit to date, it's a superb film that should pretty easily walk away with yet another Best Animated Feature Oscar for the studio next February. Critics loved it. The protagonist is cute and lovable, the story is moving and relevant, and the visuals are astonishing. It DID make over $200 million dollars and surpassed Ratatouille's underwhelming (for Pixar) grosses. However, like that movie about the gourmet chef of a rat it looks like it'll sputter out long before the quarter billion mark, which Pixar films used to hurdle without popping a sweat. Taking inflation since the release of those older films into account and the chasm becomes that much bigger.

My question, then, is: what one earth is going on here? We're talking about a company that makes some of the best MOVIES, let alone animated ones, around. With our childhood heroes like Spielberg and Lucas now producing tripe like the latest Indiana Jones movie and the Star Wars prequels (including a VERY poorly received cartoon prequel), these guys feel like the only true pioneers left (i.e., filmmakers that make their living off purely original, as opposed to adapted, material) with passion and vision. Since the traditional animation industry basically breathed its last a few years ago these guys have taken the baton and have led animated films into a new age. It got kind of crazy two years ago when something like a dozen CGI films came out, but things have since settled down again and the last two years have had a much more reasonable number of films come out.

It's hard to form any real box-office trends from Pixar movies considering that, with the exception of Toy Story 2 and the upcoming sequel to Cars, each movie they come up with is a fresh one and stands or fails on its own merits or weaknesses, but it is genuinely dismaying to me that WALL-E didn't do better at the box-office considering it easily stands head and shoulders above anything else out there in movie theaters. I liked it better than my previous favorite for the year, Iron Man, and certainly better than the much ballyhooed The Dark Knight. Though we're essentially talking apples and oranges, it appears the critics liked it better, too.

There's no point in prescribing any cure for this apparent downtrend because Pixar are, and will probably remain, better at what they do than anyone else. Audiences will watch what they want to watch, and no one can tell them otherwise. I'm just pointing out that for a film so in keeping with everything that has made Pixar such a giant of the industry to perform poorly relative to its predecessors is slightly perturbing.

If I were to hazard some "advice," it would be that, maybe, just maybe, audiences are looking for something new. Considering that Pixar's next offering will have 3-D portions, maybe they've already figured that out, and I hope their leap of faith pays off, because if anyone deserves to be rewarded for boldly going where no one has gone before, it's them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I never bought into the fanboy ranting that proclaimed Batman Begins as the best superhero movie of all time. I mainly adhered to the tried and true maxim "to each his own," but I also had a number of reasons why, while I enjoyed the movie, a lot, even, I don't consider it one of my all time favorites. Most of my reasons had to do with the time Bruce Wayne actually donned the mask.

I've heard similar criticisms about the Spider-Man movies, and pretty much wrote them off to that aforesaid maxim. There was one critic on one site who just kept ranting about how untrue the movie was to the character and how fake the special effects looked (which I found true for the first and much of the third installment but not the second) but most of his ranting just seemed like irrational fanboy hate. Fortunately I actually met someone who could actually articulate what it is he really disliked about the movie: the complete absence of Spider-Man's witty quips.

Now that The Dark Knight is, even adjusting for ticket price differentials, on its way to becoming the highest grossing comic-book movie of all time, it's dawning on me that there are a lot more fans who would have plunked down some more money to watch the Spider-Man movies again if the mythology had been tweaked more because I know for certain that as a comic-book character Spider-Man is at least AS popular as Batman.

Apart from Heath Ledger's death which was probably good for many of the glowing reviews as well as a few tens of millions in grosses (the way Brandon Lee's death arguably enabled his swansong The Crow to make about forty million more dollars than it probably would have had he lived), TDK benefits from being the most faithful page-to-screen comic-book adaptation ever.

Thinking about it now, the problems I had with the script and story devices are problems I would have with the comics in general. I had thought to devote a generous portion of a blog post to a discourse on why Nolan's and Ledger's purportedly "realistic" Joker is a caricatured, inadequate representation of evil considering that most evil in this world, even the worst kind, is motivated by some personal gain and not some insatiable penchant for destruction, but I stopped myself because I realized that this was how the latter-day Joker was written: as the never-ending chaos that perpetually foils Batman's never-ending quest for order in Gotham City. I understood at last why Christopher Nolan "gets it" completely and while Sam Raimi, as noble as his intentions and efforts are (at least in the first two movies), does not.

As a big-screen comic-book hero, Spider-Man could easily match if not exceed Batman in terms of outright popularity. After all, the box-office records set by the first movie stood for years and Sam Raimi's magnus opus will still be the first movie to ever make $100 million on its opening weekend. But there is still a cache of fans that won't give it repeat business because as a page-to-screen translation, something has been lost. The guy who mentioned it a couple of years ago was right on the money: he's missing his snark.

Spider-Man's witty dialogue is what makes him more entertaining than Batman, Superman, Iron Man, the Hulk and all of the superheroes, adapted or waiting to be adapted, together.

Out of the mask, Peter Parker is a luckless loser without money or much of a career to speak of, which is a very compelling aspect of the mythology considering what an intelligent person he is. Raimi gets that. In fact, Raimi's Parker is as close to Stan Lee's vision as you could hope to ever see on the big screen.

But when he puts the mask on, Peter Parker turns into something else altogether, and that's not a bad thing. Spidey guru Peter David put it best in a relatively recent Spider-Man comic book when he, through Spider-Man, explained that being in a mask was somehow "liberating" which enabled him to talk the way he did.

I used to dismiss the possibility of a movie Spider-Man wisecracking by rationalizing that it would be much tougher to choreograph the soaring action scenes, especially those of the second movie, with such dialogue, but recently, I saw something that convinced me otherwise: the new cartoon series The Spectacular Spider-Man. This may be a Saturday morning cartoon, but in many, many respects it's written with much more nuance than many of the movies (especially the third one) and well and truly opened my eyes. I'd absolutely love to have a season of this on DVD, as the dialogue and characterizations are wonderfully faithful and even a little updated, the action is off-the-wall FANTASTIC, and quite crucially, the fight scenes FEATURE the trademark quips.

It was upon watching this that I realized and finally came to acknowledge Raimi's shortcomings in adapting Spider-Man's adventures for the big screen. He GETS Peter out of the costume but doesn't have a clue how he's supposed to act when he's wearing it.

When in costume, Spidey is SUPPOSED to be cocky. He's supposed to have a swagger to him, and it's not SUPPOSED to be a bad thing, the way Raimi made it out to be in the third movie. His one cocky line "I guess you haven't heard, I'm the Sheriff round these parts" in Spider-Man 3, apart from being utterly painful to hear, strongly suggested that Raimi didn't or doesn't believe that Spider-Man should make wisecracks. I understand now why that would bother fans.

Well, here's the thing, Sam: if you profess to love Lee's and Ditko's Spidey as opposed to the later stuff by other creators, then you should know, by just perusing your first or collected editions, that the wiseass as Spider-Man is as integral to Lee's scripts as his money problems and responsibility hangups. This was not added on by later writers; it was an idiosyncrasy conceived by Lee himself. Try to understand, Sam: it's not a superfluity at all; in fact, in enriches the character's mythology by creating a fascinating dichotomy within him.

Spider-Man is a supremely confident and assured superhero who spends most of his time trapped in a loser/wimp's body. It is in donning his mask that he is able to set this side of himself free. When he is Spider-Man suddenly the money problems and other inadequacies in his life fall away, and he is able to bask in the glory of being super-powered. In fact, this scenario was deliberately engineered by Lee because in suggesting that Peter gets "high" on being Spidey, he presents an interesting dilemma of responsibility where Spider-Man might be shirking his other obligations to the likes of Aunt May by playing superhero.

The cockiness, confidence and wisecracks, in short, are an INDISPENSABLE part of the Spider-Man mythos, just as much as the luckless loser that Peter Parker is.

While the action sequences in the Spider-Man films (especially the second one) are really cool to watch, they do not project enough of that confidence, if at all.

Come to think of it, ROBERT DOWNEY JR. does a better job of selling Spider-Man's snark...too bad he plays IRON MAN, who isn't really known for it. Maybe he should trade his red and gold for a little red and blue? Well, maybe if he were twenty years or so younger...

Spider-Man 4 is due out in a few years, and Hollywood and fanboys being the way they are, the pressure will probably be on to equal if not exceed the heights that TDK is now scaling. Heck, the pressure will even be on to equal if not exceed the standard of quality Marvel's very own studio has set with Iron Man. I'd rather not think in those terms, but considering the first three movies have demonstrated the law of diminishing returns whereas the latest Batman movie has squarely defied it, Raimi might want to and quite frankly SHOULD reevaluate his narrative approach to arguably the most beloved comic book hero of all.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

How The Dark Knight Turned Out to Be Good For Robert Downey, Jr.

I only just read a little blurb on yahoo! news about how Robert Downey, Jr., now known to the world as Tony Stark/Iron Man, recently had to come down to earth after riding on cloud nine for a few months following the runaway success of Marvel Comics' first independently-financed film. It seemed he was reveling in his newfound status as fanboy god, but eventually came to the realization that if it got to his head, he may well be looking at yet another post-Chaplin downward spiral. Nothing was actually said about The Dark Knight's success having anything to do with his sudden flash of sobriety, but the article did say he was regarded as the mastermind of the greatest comic-book movie of all time, until The Dark Knight came out. There's something in the subtext (perhaps the slant of the article) that suggested that the overwhelming success of TDK in a season that had up until that point belonged to Iron Man might have pointed out to the star of the latter movie that, hey, he's mortal after all. Good thing, too, because at least we fans know he won't do what Tobey Maguire did when the time to make Spider-Man 2 came around and claim some kind of injury while holding out his hand for mucho bucks.

Now, while I liked Iron Man over The Dark Knight, I won't bother entering into debates on artistic merit. However, one point I will fiercely defend is how Downey, Jr., with his Howard- Hughes-meets-Hugh-Hefner swagger and his credible portrayal of Tony Stark's incredible intellect, was much more instrumental to bringing Iron Man, as a film, to life than Christian Bale, with his giggle/wince-inducing impression of Kevin Conroy (which really sounds like a lame version of a twelve-year old trying to sound like Clint Eastwood) was to bringing TDK alive. Everyone, even the fans, knows that TDK is the late Heath Ledger's movie, as his portrayal of Batman's archnemesis the Joker was what received the most attention. For my money, even Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face stole the show from Bale. In fact, in the story as well as in the actual performances, Bale/Batman is pretty much just along for the ride. Not so with Iron Man. Even amid solid performances by pros like Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow, Downey, Jr. stood head and shoulders above them all. Even people who dismiss the movie as mediocre cannot help but salute what was essentially a bravura performance that only the most fastidious of purists would bother to decry.

The next Batman movie won't have Ledger, or his death, to raise its profile, but Downey Jr. will, barring his falling off the wagon or worse, definitely be back for more Tony Stark, and if it's one thing he needs more than anything it's to maintain his fantastic sense of focus on the portrayal of the character. I don't imagine he would have been able to do that if he remained too intoxicated on his success this year. The guy has shown the way for anyone who wants to portray a Marvel character (or anyone who's considering returning to play a Marvel character) and though he no longer has the #1 movie of 2008 on his resume, he's not about to be forgotten anytime soon.

Will Iron Man 2 eventually eclipse the records set by TDK? Well, buoyed as that movie was by all things Ledger, I don't think so. But if solid, if not record-breaking box-office is the tradeoff for more and more amazing performances by the greatest-actor-ever-to-resurrect-his-career-from -the-dead (I'd like to secure a copyright to this phrase if I may) then may Iron Man movies never ascend to the number #1 spot of any year in which they are released. Downey, Jr., and his fans the world over, will be all the better for it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ultimate Marvel: Redundant?

When the Ultimate Marvel Universe was launched in 2000, the regular Marvel Universe was a highly problematic place. Quality of the product and sales were both down. Company President Bill Jemas and editor-in-chief Joe Quesada The idea of the new line was to enable a whole new wave of creators to tell stories completely free of the decades of continuity and editorial missteps that now hobbled the mainline universe and the creators working on it.

Well, eight years have passed and now the mini-universe which has grown in both books and characters, is now saddled with continuity of its own, which, in my opinion, has not been very well-managed. From a core universe of three books, Ultimates, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Ultimate X-Men, the line has expanded into four regular books including Ultimate Fantastic Four and a whole slew of miniseries. Of the two creators who launched the books, only Brian Michael Bendis remains, with the likes of Mark Millar, Adam Kubert, Mark Bagley, and Bryan Hitch having moved on to other things.

While he remains the writer on Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis himself, along with Millar, is now one of the pillars on which the mainstream Marvel Universe now stands. (Incidentally, Bendis can claim the sole distinction of having the only comic book published in the 2000s to have gone for over 40 issues with sales in excess of 100,000 units, namely New Avengers.) Morever, because Bendis and Millar have moved over to the mainstream Marvel U, they've bought their "edgy, hip and relevant" sensibilities with them, and as a result the Marvel Universe has taken on a lot of the characteristics that used to be unique to the Ultimate universe with events like Civil War and now Secret Invasion. Sales are good, and even fan reaction to the latest miniseries, so it's clear that the Marvel Universe is a much healthier place than it was when Jemas and Quesada created Ultimate Marvel.

Going back to Ultimate Marvel, it appears, from a creative standpoint, to have taken a nosedive. The line's flagship title, The Ultimates, has, in the hands of new series writer Jeph Loeb, gone from wall-to-wall action interspersed with scathing political commentary to a pastiche of its former self with absolutely infantile dialogue (think of the worst of the 1960s dialogue mixed with the worst of the Rob Liefeld-era Image Comics dialogue, and that's now how the characters talk), gratuitous and meaningless guest appearances by such grossly overexposed characters as Spider-Man, Venom and, of course, Wolverine, and next to no respect for anything that has previously been established. Worst of all, it appears that Quesada is now putting the fate of the line in Loeb's hands, as indicated by some recent solicitations that shows that Loeb is writing several of the line's annuals in addition to the planned miniseries Ultimatum, which is meant to revitalize the line. Sales of Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four, once right up there with the big boys, are barely blips on the radar, and Ultimate Spider-Man, even though it still has founding creator Bendis on board, isn't much better off.

It seems to me like the Ultimate Marvel U has served its purpose of generating interest in Marvel characters again in time for the release of their movies, as was the case with Spider-Man and the X-Men. The unofficially dubbed "616" or mainline Marvel universe is now as healthy as a horse, while Ultimate U has gone from looking like the "New Year Infant" to the "Outgoing Year Old Man" in its nine-year run. The Ultimates is the only title that seems to have any real durability at the top end of the sales charts, and it really seems to have very little left that make it any more "edgy" and "relevant" to readers than the mainline Marvel Universe. I'm sure the question on the minds of Marvel fans is what exactly the company's long-term plan for the line is.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hollywood vs. Comics: Let's Get it On!

Forget any perceived/contrived battle between Iron Man and The Dark Knight. This summer a much more momentous battle is taking place which could determine the future of comic book movies in general: the battle between the studio making a superhero movie without a comic-book origin, and the comic-book company making a Hollywood blockbuster without a Hollywood studio.

In one corner, we have Marvel studios which has come out with two self-produced movies this year, the first being the wildly successful Iron Man and the second being the somewhat more low-key Incredible Hulk. In the other corner, we have Hollywood, which has had varying degrees of success with its comic-book free superhero movies, the best of which would have to be The Incredibles while the worst of which would have to be the abysmal My Super Ex-Girlfriend. The latest addition to this line of comics-free superhero movies is Sony Pictures' Hancock, starring Hollywood's closest thing to a sure thing, Will Smith.

Iron Man and Incredible Hulk carry impressive budgets, casts and overall production value. The Incredibles won two Oscars, while Hancock stars the most successful movie star in Hollywood today, and boasts the visual effects talents of multiple-Oscar winner John Dykstra (Spider-Man).

Iron Man opened to critical accolades and box-office success. The Incredible Hulk was less warmly received, but was still considered by many to be a step-up from its studio-generated predecessor, 2003's The Hulk.

Hancock, while a genuine box-office success, was met with derision from reviewers and some fans.

So the question arises, between Hollywood studios and comic-book companies (i.e. Marvel only, so far), which player is winning the battle to make a successful, durable movie franchise without the help of the other?

My money's on Marvel.

Hancock may have benefited from some pretty snappy special effects and Will Smith's megawatt charisma, but apart from a brilliant premise it's little more than empty spectacle. It may have made money, but I believe it will go down in history as just another feather in Will Smith's cap, another movie that his starpower sold, rather than something that can stand on its own merit.

Iron Man, however, is something else altogether. It has, in a word, outclassed every single superhero movie that has come before it, in terms of story, character development, AND overall production value, the film is just about beyond reproach. It strikes the perfect balance between fun and gravitas that has eluded even the more ambitious comic book adaptations. Furthermore, it and Hulk have laid the groundwork for SO much more to come. Not only that, it effectively resurrected the career of a man once thought to be one of Hollywood's greatest wasted talents: Robert Downey Jr.

So Marvel, in my opinion, has gotten the message across to Hollywood in general and Sony Pictures in particular that the studios still need them a lot more than they need the studios.

THAT'S a wake-up call that creativity-challenged Hollywood would do well to heed. If they want to come up with really GOOD superhero movies, they should learn that you don't just build a rich superhero mythology at some stupid studio pitch meetings.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wish Fulfillment

My return to comics after several months of doing other things isn't exactly a permanent one but it was motivated by something I never thought I'd have the pleasure of seeing: Chris Bachalo's art in a Spider-Man comic-book.

Now, in the second half of my two decades of collecting comic books, there's always been something that's bothered me. It has struck me that every single A-list artist of the last twenty years or so has, at one point or another, worked on a book starring Wolverine, while the same cannot be said for Spider-Man, who is arguably Marvel's flagship character. The legendary Jim Lee, my favorite example, had never drawn more than a cover or cameo appearance by Spider-Man before he took seemingly permanent residence over at DC, where he has drawn, by contrast, a rather healthy selection of their characters on several occasions. Name any high-profile Marvel artist who's done Spider-Man, and the odds are high that he's drawn Wolverine too. Romitas Sr. and Jr., David Finch, Steve McNiven, Humberto Ramos, and Joe Quesada, to name a very, very few, all drew Wolverine, with Quesada doing enough Wolverine covers to fill a freaking poster book.

Chris Bachalo was once among the Wolverine/X-Men artists who'd never drawn Spider-Man in a mainstream comic book, and that happily changed when he was drafted to join the Brand New Day crew. He didn't quite give me goose pimples of joy like Steve McNiven did last January with his run, but I have wanted to see this guy's take on Spider-Man for a long, long time and he does not disappoint.

The three-part story, written by Zeb Wells, which pits Spider-Man against a Mayan god of mischief and the scientist who unleashes it, and a blizzard, is nothing particularly new or earth shattering, which is just fine with me. After seeing Spider-Man's world turned upside-down and inside out, I could use a little settling into a new status quo. It ties up nicely after the three issues are done without shameless nods to future stories down the line (though they're there if you want them) or hints that "everything will be changed forever." In short, I can go back to not collecting with more or less complete closure.

What I enjoyed, apart from Bachalo's art, which was the main attraction, was how FUNNY Spider-Man was again. Dan Slott did it well, and now Wells, who's actually no stranger to Spider-Man has done a good job, too. It really makes me wonder why J. Michael Straczynski never seemed to know how to make Spider-Man crack wise.

I'd only just been exchanging e-mail with someone asking me if and when I'd get back into comics and even suggested I check out a new Wolverine (ugh) arc drawn by McNiven, which from the outside looking in feels like yet another "The End" story which is silly considering Paul Jenkins practically just did one. Well, I found a reason to pick up some comics again, and I dare say I enjoyed them, though not quite enough for me to decide I'm back for good.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Meryl Streep: Superhero Killer?

I've a few minutes before I'm off to work so I'll squeeze in just one more blog post...

Two years ago, 20th Century Fox's The Devil Wears Prada opened the same weekend as the much-hyped Superman Returns in American cinemas, in what is known in Hollywood as a counterprogramming maneuver. The idea was that considering that SR was by and large a male-oriented movie, women were a neglected audience for that weekend and would want to watch something else.

Now, counterprogramming doesn't always work. It didn't work too well for Sony this year, which tried to counter the Paramount release Iron Man with chick magnet(TM) Patrick Dempsey's Made of Honor, only to discover that women liked Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow better than Dempsey and his leading lady. If I could think of more examples of counterprogramming, I'd love to make this post about the phenomenon in general, but none spring to mind right now.

Going back to Streep, the stratagem of opening against SR paid off for Devil. Whether it was because it was a genuinely good movie or because there was absolutely zero romantic chemistry between Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane and Brandon Routh's Superman, the women who went to see Devil paid a total of $27 million dollars during a weekend the Man of Steel had been expected to crush all box office records. Though SR still opened at number 1, it was an underwhelming opening at best and it was observed that Streep had stolen some of its thunder.

Oddly enough, Universal Pictures has decided to pull something similar by releasing the film adaptation of the popular musical Mamma Mia on the same weekend as the massively-hyped The Dark Knight. The adaptation stars Meryl Streep.

I don't see Streep pulling off a similar upset with TDK, which will draw on a solid fanbase due to the success of Batman Begins three years ago. SR was always iffy considering that the last Superman film nearly twenty years earlier had tanked and there was still a question mark as to how much demand there still was for another movie starring the character. (For the record, there was enough for the film to gross $200 million dollars flat, but not enough for it to recoup its nearly $300 million price tag, including production and marketing costs.) TDK faces no such question marks. People definitely want their Batman.

But I find it very interesting that based on the grosses of one movie, a studio seems to think of Streep as the anti-DC hero. This could be coincidence, but then one wonders why Universal didn't try to play its film against Iron Man or Indiana Jones.

Well, arguably, Batman doesn't have any real love interest. Katie Holmes was most definitely one of the weak links of a mostly sublime Batman Begins. Sure, some mention is made of the fact that Maggie Gyllenhaal, has replaced Holmes as Assistant District Attorney Rachel Dawes, but that's never been much of a selling point. So maybe that lack of a romantic angle influenced Universal's choice of release date.

However, the dynamic hyped up in the trailers appears to be that of Christian Bale's Batman going up against Heath Ledger's Joker and this could ultimately be Mamma Mia's undoing on its opening weekend. Ledger's death is something women have most certainly mourned, and the fact that TDK contains his last complete performance may have just provided the movie with some entirely unsolicited and scathingly effective publicity. In short, it's possible to the point of being probable that people who don't give a damn about Batman will line up to see Heath Ledger's last hurrah.

Of course, movies made for women tend to be the kind that play on and on (like Titanic) and don't just depend on an opening weekend bonanza (though the recent Sex and the City, which made a killing on its opening weekend only to plummet in the weekends that followed, seemed to buck that trend), unlike their testosterone-fueled counterparts, so maybe all is not lost for Meryl Streep's latest effort.

However, if the marketplace is broad enough to accommodate both films, as it appears to have been this weekend with both Wanted and WALL-E raking in over FIFTY MILLION dollars apiece in the United States on opening weekend, then maybe fans of both Batman and Streep covering Abba songs will have reason to cheer in three weeks' time.

R.I.P. Michael Turner

I neither personally knew nor was I a fan of the recently departed comic-book artist and creator Michael Turner, but I found myself affected by news of his death just the same considering that at 37, he was barely four years older than me. There's something particularly perturbing about people going well before what appears to be their time. It wasn't a year ago that Mike Wieringo, another comic book artist, a health nut and a vegetarian, suddenly died of a heart attack. Turner, in comparison, had been battling with cancer for the better part of a decade, if not longer, so his may have been a little less of a shock, but is no less tragic.

Whether it's the fact that I suffered my own recent loss, or the fact that young death simply doesn't feel right, I find myself mourning these deaths even though these people, Wieringo and Turner didn't have anything to do with me or vice versa. As a collector of comic books (once and possibly someday again) it's always sad to see the talent pool shrink, especially in the case of Wieringo, as I followed his last regular series, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, until his departure in issue 11 or so.

My wife tells me that people have been dying young since the beginning of time, to which I replied that precisely what saddens me is how, in this day and age, with so much medical technology at people's disposal, they can't seem to eradicate things like disease and the death of young people.

If there's any comfort I can take it's that these guys lived and died doing what they loved; they were comic-book creators, and both of them had stuff in the pipeline right up until the time of their death. They were, in that sense, at least able to live life on their own terms.

And who knows, with no end to the oil price rise in sight, maybe they're the lucky ones...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Horserace Syndrome

I'm not entirely sure, but I think the first time one major Hollywood franchise collided with another in the same year was the summer of 1989, when the first Batman went up against Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Sure, 1984 had seen the release of three major studio films, Ghostbusters from Columbia Pictures, Beverly Hills Cop and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom from Paramount, but the concept of the franchise hadn't quite evolved into what it is now (although there had already been three Star Wars films and E.T., the idea of using movies to move enormous amounts of merchandise was not nearly as widely used as it is today). Besides, the only place where one could read about Batman trouncing the third Indiana Jones film at the box-office was in the trade paper, Variety, or in the occasional story the mainstream media would run on the subject.

These days, however, with the internet offering people all around the world instantaneous, real-time, daily access to box-office receipts, suddenly everyone can find out how this year's Batman installment (the sixth, although it amounts to a "reboot" of the 1989 version which featured the first Batman/Joker showdown) fares against this year's Indiana Jones. And suddenly, for some strange reason, it suddenly matters to fans how much money their movie will make in relation to another movie, even if they won't receive a single cent of it.

I've written derisively about fanboys here and elsewhere so I'm not particularly interested in flogging that particular dead horse right now (at least, not till I get some momentum going). What I would like to offer is my own personal opinion on the whole horserace phenomenon when it comes to predicting and even just following box-office results.

The first time I was exposed to a box-office horserace in the internet age was when the inaugural Spider-Man film pulled off a major upset against the second Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones. I was just happy to see Spider-Man on the screen for the first time in the many, many years I'd been following his adventures, and didn't care at first how well his movie fared relative to another one, except of course that I wanted the film to succeed.

That's what I'm about: box-office results of a movie in their absolute sense, and not relative to the earnings of other movies. Monitoring such results has been my hobby, my addiction, for as long I've had hobbies. Thanks to the internet it's one I'm able to enjoy free of charge nowadays. In the pre-internet age I can even remember following the weekly grosses in issues of Variety that I read off the rack ;) way back in 1990, if not earlier.

Before too long, though, I found myself genuinely irked that a lot of fans on the internet even in the mainstream media were "shouting down" Spider-Man, saying that there was no way it could possibly gross more revenue than the latest Star Wars installment. None of the makers of either film was trying to sell one movie as an alternative to another (there were interview statements to this effect, in fact) but for some reason fans and wags had just seen the need to make their more-or-less simultaneous release as a boxing match of some kind, or, like I said, a horse race, one that Spider-Man eventually won. For my part, I was gratified, but when I think about it, I probably wouldn't even have cared if none of the Star Wars diehards had started shooting off their mouths (or keyboards).

Since then, franchise showdowns have been a fairly regular thing at the multiplexes, but most studio execs are smart enough to space their releases because they realize that if they try to open against a big movie, everybody loses, including them. So, they're not really being diplomatic by saying "we'd love to see both movies succeed;" to an extent it's sincere.

It's not the studios, whether Paramount, Sony, Universal or Warner Brothers that are contriving these ridiculous contests, it's the twelve-year-old (actual or equivalent, sorry, I couldn't resist) fanboys who are stirred up by trashy magazines/websites like Entertainment Weekly or into creating this whole mentality.

2008 is yet another year for a horse race, it seems. The Dark Knight, the sequel to the successful 2005 reboot of the Batman franchise, Batman Begins, is arguably the season's, if not the year's most anticipated movie. Iron Man, the long-awaited adaptation of the popular comic book character, is what kicked the summer season off. Dark Knight comes out in July, Iron Man opened in May to stellar grosses and reviews. Judging by their release dates, these movies were intended to co-exist rather than compete. What the makers of Iron Man, a character relatively unknown to non-comic book fans, achieved is genuinely impressive: sustained box-office revenue over an eight-week period and really good reviews, which is rare in this day of first weekend bonanzas and second weekend dropoffs and critical panning. Whether or not TDK earns the highest grosses this summer, Iron Man is still an unqualified success. Still, articles on the internet pointing out this feat are invariably met with cries of "TDK will own" or worse, "TDK will pwn." It says something about the intelligence quotient of these people that they adopt typographical errors as their catchphrases.

I actually believe, given the buzz and some early reviews, that TDK will be every bit as successful as fanboys anticipate it to be, but that's not really the point. I doubt I'll be able to have that silent moment of gratification I had when Star Wars: Episode II failed to match the grosses of Spider-Man, but one thing I will be able to take solace in is knowing that the makers of Iron Man have made more money than most, if not all of those idiotic fanboys will ever make in their lifetimes, for all their harping about the as-yet-non-existent grosses of The Dark Knight.

It's as if fanboys want the products they love to monopolize success, not having the brains to realize that in a four-month summer movie season, there's more than enough of it to go around. It was the case with Star Wars, and was the case with The Dark Knight. If Marvel has its zombies, well I guess DC now has its drones who, without even receiving a red cent from Warner Brothers and without even being asked to, are slavishly marketing a film they haven't even seen yet. It doesn't help that the media, online mainly, contrives a competition when there is none.

Yes, the horserace mentality is really and truly stupid, but I guess entertainment "journalists" have to have something to write about every season besides the latest starlet's trip to rehab.

Still, I could be wrong about saying that it's the media who whips them up into a frenzy; for all I know, these stupid people have been around since time out of mind, and are only finding their voice now thanks to the internet, where stupidity and inanity can at last make itself heard, as witnessed by the fact that I devoted so much time to the topic on this blog. Hehehe

Sunday, June 08, 2008

One More Time Now...HULK SMASH!

I realize I've been writing about this topic nearly ad nauseam, but with less than a week to go I confess I'm on the edge of my seat to see how The Incredible Hulk will fare at the box office.

Unlike nearly everyone I know, I actually liked Ang Lee's take on the Hulk in 2003. It was principally about repressed anger and pain, which is very much in keeping with the spirit of the character. I know of people who've excoriated the take for not being in keeping with the "Jekyll and Hyde" aspect of the character but in truth the Hulk was never just about that gray-skinned, Peter David-penned run. The movie had its missteps, and it DID take the Hulk a bit too long to finally appear, but Lee's heart, to use the cliche, was in the right place. And the ILM-generated giant looked a lot more impressive (albeit too large) than some ridiculous, latter-day Lou Ferrigno would have. I've said before and I say it again: I liked it, but I totally get why everyone else didn't. The movie did miss a lot of important marks.

The greenlighting and production of a second film has left a lot of non-fans/casual moviegoers (who are the real moneymakers for movies, no matter what fanboys may claim) scratching their heads, saying why make another one when the first one was so bad? This was not, after all, a franchise that had jumped the rails, like Batman had in 1997 before getting back on track in 2005 with Batman Begins. This was a property that stalled right out the gate.

Well, there's more than one answer to that, and fans know them. First of all, the Hulk is a Marvel property that's just too important to let die with one misguided adaptation. In the hierarchy of publicly known Marvel characters, i.e., those whose appeal stretches beyond comic-book geeks, he is second only to Spider-Man in terms of name recognition, thanks in large part to the 1970s TV show which played in syndication all around the world many, many years after it had run its course. Considering Marvel reacquired the rights to this truly beloved character it makes sense that they would want to erase the terrible impression Ang Lee left on most audiences five years ago.

Second, and this is clear from the events in Iron Man, Marvel is attempting something incredibly ambitious that goes far beyond the casual and rather limp references to Gotham City and Metropolis made in the Superman and Batman movies: they're looking to achieve a cohesive Marvel Universe and a movie that ties it all together with The Avengers. No, this is not the rancid adaptation, starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, of the old British TV show but a realization of one of the most important comic books in Marvel's publishing line. As a founding member of the original Avengers' team in the 60s and as a critical story point in the 2002 re-imagination of the Avengers' story, The Ultimates, Bruce Banner/Hulk is integral to the telling of the Avengers' origin. THAT is why his story must be redone, and done right this time.

It's not likely that non-fans will understand this imperative, which is why Marvel are working overtime to sell the fact that Robert Downey Jr., still basking in the runaway success of Iron Man, so far the year's biggest box-office hit, appears in The Incredible Hulk as Tony Stark. They bided their time with releasing footage due to concerns over the computer-generated imagery, but now they've pulled out all the marketing stops, with one trailer and internet clip after another. If the responses over at are any indication, Marvel and effectively banished the memory of the negative buzz building up to the first Hulk movie that followed its infamous "tank throwing" superbowl ad. The fanboys, as seems clear from the messageboards, are pumped for this.

As with Iron Man, the warm reception this movie is getting from fans appears to stem from the fact that there was no attempt to sanitize it for kids. This is a movie that makes full use of its PG-13 rating because its makers know that's where the core audience lies, and the story is much better for this lack of artificial and unnecessary restraint. A PG or (gasp) G-rated Lord of the Rings would have been completely inutile, and the same goes with the stories of the Hulk, who in his Forty-six years of publication has cut a huge swath of destruction across the Marvel Universe and who, it has long been established, is neither hero nor villain but just a misunderstood man who wants to be left alone. If the reviews I've read are to be believed, the new crew responsible for this movie had understood this concept a lot more than Lee and his crew did. And the fans are cheering in the streets.

The big fat question mark, however, remains; what do the non-fans think of this? It's the non-fans who spell the difference between one-weekend wonder and sustained box-office smash. It's the non-fans who made sure Iron Man was more than just another superhero movie that does all of its business in the first fifteen days or so. Having won over the fans (or at least their anointed representatives), with their advance screenings of The Incredible Hulk, Marvel now faces the task of winning over the people who are still wondering (and I've met them) why there's a second Hulk movie in the first place. It won't even be enough for a good opening weekend, to show that this movie's truly exorcised the demons of its predecessor it's got to show some legs.

I'm still holding my breath, because I dearly want this new movie to be GOOD.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hollywood's Summer of the Forty-something

It's funny how, this time six years ago, journalists were talking about how the actors chosen to lead big-budget Hollywood films were getting younger and younger, with stars like Tobey Maguire, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck headlining some of the summer season's biggest movies. This trend was presaged as a sort of "passing of the torch" with Hollywood's traditional rugged action stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger basically making way for a much younger and much less...masculine set of action or cinema heroes.

Youth was the catchphrase of many a writer about the future of Hollywood, with twenty and thirty-something stars, directors and writers being tipped to inherit moviemaking in general from the aging stars of yesteryear, including old fogeys like Tom Hanks and Cruise and Harrison Ford. Considering that among the up-and-comers included some pretty awful excuses for actors like Paul Walker, Elijah Wood, Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba and Shia LeBeouf, that future didn't seem particularly bright.

2008, therefore, comes as a huge sigh of relief to those dreading the takeover of these pseudo-performers as it seems that audiences aren't quite as youth-obsessed as Hollywood once thought they were.

Three of the year's biggest opening movies are headlined by stars all over 40, with the lead actors of Iron Man, Indiana Jones and Sex and the City Stars all having passed the big four-zero at the least two years ago, and in Indy's case many, many years ago. In stark contrast, movies centered around young heroes like Speed Racer and the Narnia sequel, Prince Caspian, have conspicuously floundered at the box-office, in the case of the latter, despite the very healthy grosses of its predecessor. There's no real science to my analysis but I can say categorically that it should be clear to studio execs that audiences don't gravitate towards a given movie based on the age of its stars. There's no need to cast a twenty-something unknown as Tony Stark when a forty-something Robert Downey Jr., baggage and all, is available and perfect for the role. There's no need to re-cast Indiana Jones just yet (pay attention, George Lucas) when everyone still likes Harrison Ford just fine in the role. And there's no need to flog us with useless romantic comedies, which are now a shadow of what they used to be, starring Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan (though I honestly wouldn't mind seeing more of Katherine Heigl) when Sarah Jessica Parker, horseface and all, and her menopausal or almost menopausal cohorts can still sell their movie like hotcakes.

I've nothing against movies with young people; heck at 33 I'm still within the demographic that is still pleased by a younger-skewing cast. But lately I've found myself extremely disheartened with Hollywood's tendency to go young, which is basically dictated by sequel math, i.e., how much older the actor will be by the nth installment of a potential blockbuster franchise, and not by the actual talent the actor has. Had this math been strictly applied, the 43-year-old Downey Jr. would surely have seen his chances of snagging the role of Stark dwindle, with the film's director Jon Favreau already declaring he wanted to find the next Brandon (shudder) Routh.

Of course, there are some roles that need actors of a certain age (the Harry Potter gang and even Spider-Man come to mind) but for a while Hollywood apparently figured its future lay in casting young actors no matter the role, and no matter how bad the actor. Iron Man would have been a perfect example of that logic, and thank God it isn't. Thank God Superman Returns now must suffer that ignominy.

Incidentally, I cringe at the thought that Captain America, whose movie has the potential to be the next Spider-Man, has already been cast based on the alleged actor's looks and not on his talent or resume. Someone posting on some messageboard claims to already know (though he wasn't telling) and said only "he has the physicality to pull it off" which basically sent a chill down my spine.

Marvel, and every other moviemaking outfit out there, should take down notes about how this summer is going; pandering to sequels and future installments is NOT the way to go, while casting actors who are RIGHT for their parts, WHATEVER their age, IS.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

If It's Broke, Reboot It

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I'm thinking of focusing this blog's posts on pop-culture/movie reviews and that sort of thing because my own personal/political rants don't really have any place here; I can post them on my multiply blog anyway.

Most people think the concept of the movie franchise "reboot" started with 2005's Batman Begins. As I posted a couple of years ago, that isn't necessarily the case. In 2002, Paramount Pictures, despite the success of the last installment of the Jack Ryan franchise, Clear and Present Danger starring Harrison Ford in 1994, decided to go with a younger actor, namely Ben Affleck, for what should have been a subsequent installment as far as the books were concerned, The Sum of All Fears. The film obviously couldn't have been a sequel, but because, storywise, it took place later than the other books, it couldn't really be treated as a prequel either. And it was too soon since the last one to be considered a re-make, especially since the book had never been adapted before. It was thus that the reboot was born.

Although Sum may have flown under most people's radar (and it would, next to the much more high profile Batman Begins and even the James Bond reboot, Casino Royale) it did pretty respectable business back in its day, dislodging Star Wars: Episode II from the top spot of the U.S. box office and grossing more than $100 million dollars in the U.S. alone. It validated the concept of the reboot and now it appears to be en vogue, with the handlers of many a flagging franchise at least toying with the idea.

One of those handlers, the newly-formed Marvel Studios, appears to have adopted that idea for one of their own franchises, the Hulk. Though I personally liked Ang Lee's decidedly unconventional take on the character in 2003, I can certainly understand and sympathize with the people who hated the movie. Still enjoying the runaway success of Iron Man, Marvel hopes, with The Incredible Hulk, the second feature film based on the titular property in five years, to rub out the box-office stench from Universal Pictures' failed attempt to establish the Hulk as a franchise.

It's actually somewhat laughable how Marvel tries to distance themselves from the word "reboot" even though they've already categorically admitted to hitting "the reset button" for this franchise as if they're ashamed to admit it. To an extent I understand their leeriness; it's only been five years since the last film, and unlike the Ryan, Batman or Bond franchises, there's been one other film so far. A reboot, therefore, feels too premature, even though a sequel to a film that many people hated obviously feels like a bad idea. So they're caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Whatever they want to call it, though, this film represents something very important for the studio as they try to build on the momentum they started earlier this summer with Iron Man. This film is meant to make a statement, namely that "the studio did it wrong; now that we have creative control, we'll do it right."

And they've hit a lot of right notes so far, from the casting of Edward Norton (who was actually one of Ang Lee's first choices for the role for his 2003 film) as Bruce Banner to the inclusion of character actor Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) as Emil Blonksy, better known to comic book fans as the Abomination.

Having been burned by the backlash they got for the computer-generated imagery of the first film (which in my opinion was actually pretty good), Marvel held off releasing footage of the new Hulk as long as they possibly could while they tweaked the shots, and were accused of refusing to market the movie. Of course, when they finally did release the trailer and several minutes of action footage besides, they still got the inevitable and utterly predictable fanboy bitching about how fake the CGI looked, as though it's possible to make a "real" looking nine-foot, 1500-pound green man. Maybe my post flipping the bird to fanboys needs updating (especially with all the Indiana Jones bashing that's been going around). Still, even the CGI-bashing fanboys have acknowledged that from what they've seen this film is definitely a departure in tone from the previous film and professed some optimism. Of course, fanboys are the only barometer so far because only fanboys love to shoot their mouths off about movies they haven't yet seen. Everyone else, like critics and audiences, weighs in after they've seen the film.

As a Marvel fan I dearly want this film to be good and may even forgive it some of its shortcomings, whatever they may be. I was happy that Iron Man restored some luster to the Marvel brand after the thorough disappointments that X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3 turned out to be, and while I seriously doubt that The Incredible Hulk will ascend to those heights, critically and commercially, I at least hope it will be good. The Hulk, I think, is a beloved enough property to justify a second attempt, as soon as it may seem. There's no denying though, that for all their careful casting choices and aggressive marketing at this stage, Marvel are still facing an uphill battle. Still, if they win it, what a victory it will be.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Paramount Pictures: Credit Where Credit Isn't Due

I guess one of the downsides of being a small, starting-up outfit is that when your product has the name of a bigger group attached to it, people will remember the bigger name.

That's exactly the case with Marvel Studios, which is enjoying an enormous amount of success with their inaugural offering, Iron Man, the first of several films Paramount Pictures is releasing pursuant to a distributorship agreement with Marvel for several of their self-made films. Marvel is the big winner here, having made a movie entirely on their own terms, creatively speaking, and now laughing all the way to the bank because of it. After all, they only have to pay a relatively nominal fee to Paramount for its help in marketing and releasing the film, as opposed to the lion's share they previously had to give up to studios like Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox. This bodes extremely well for future self-made movies, like Captain America (which Paramount may help finance) and the strongly hinted Avengers movie.

What irks me a little, though, is how in some of the mainstream and internet press, Iron Man is apparently being billed as a Paramount picture. Not just a Paramount release, mind you, although some media outlets have it right. No, some writers seem content to just chuck the Marvel brand aside and assume that Paramount came up with this picture with a little help from Marvel, much like Sony did the Spider-Man movies or Fox did the X-Men ones. For example, the very industrious (and credible) box office tabulator Gitesh Pandya of, on the eve of the release of inevitable box-office juggernaut Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull is hailing the possibility that Paramount may be the first studio to "generate" two movies that grossed over $300 million dollars in a year two years in a row.

Now, I understand that for purposes of tabulating box-office results here it makes sense to just group movies according to their distributors, but this annoys me for a very specific reason and it's not just because Marvel deserves full credit (which they do) for having made, not released, the best comic book movie ever to the complete exclusion of Paramount Pictures.

This annoys me because quite frankly, Paramount deserves little to no credit for actually making the movies that propelled it to the top of the charts last year as the studio with the biggest box-office, and even less credit for what is currently the highest grossing movie of 2008 (at $223 million and counting).

Sometime in 2005 or 2006, Paramount bought Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studios, and essentially inherited all of the movies that were in the pipeline at the time, including eventual box-office smashes like Transformers, Shrek 3, Blades of Glory, and A Bee Movie, or all four of the movies they released in 2007 that grossed over $100 million. What did they do in-house that year? Anyone remember Mark Wahlberg's Shooter? No, I didn't think so.

Before 2007 they had turkeys like Mission Impossible 3 and War of the Worlds (which was co-produced by Dreamworks). If anything, it's an article about War of the Worlds that even prompted this rather indulgent post.

Back in 2005, WoTW essentially opened to a $100 million weekend over the Fourth of July Holiday frame, nearly $80 million shy of the benchmark that had been set the previous year by Spider-Man 2. When asked how he felt about their biggest tentpole movie for that year basically falling far short of the record, some suit at Paramount basically said "this isn't just some comic book property, it's a beloved classic" or some really insufferable bullshit like that and went on to suggest that WoTW would have the legs to outgross SM2...which it didn't.

And NOW, after essentially basking in the success of properties they bought from Spielberg rather than making their own movies (the vast majority of which have tanked since the year 2000, when Tom Cruise was still able to sell Mission Impossible: 2), Paramount are receiving credit for the success of..."some comic book property?!?"

Hey, Pandya and all you other misinformed writers there who will probably call Iron Man and Indy Paramount's "one-two punch" of 2008 along with some other movies inherited from Dreamworks like Kung Fu Panda, please get it right: Paramount did not "generate" Iron Man (and arguably not even Indy, which is a Lucas property in the same way that the Star Wars movies are), they simply distributed it. They deserve no more credit for Marvel's inaugural smash hit than Newmarket Films did for The Passion of the Christ. THAT'S a comparison that should make sense to you.

I know Marvel are rolling in the dough right now and need about as much sympathy as a winner of the grand jackpot in the lotto, but the irony here hit me so hard I couldn't help but put in my two cents' worth.

Seriously, Paramount Pictures is enjoying a lot of time in the spotlight these days on the strength of films they either just bought lock, stock and barrel (like all their Dreamworks stuff) or are just distributing. Their formula for success or regaining their long lost box-office glory seems to be to just buy someone else's studio or distribute someone else's movies. When they start ponying up money and/or actual input for movies again, like they did for James Cameron's Titanic many years ago and like they will reputedly do again for Captain America sometime down the line, then maybe they'll deserve all the praise people are now heaping on them for coming up with box-office success.

(Of course, I wouldn't want them to start fucking up Marvel's movies like Sony and Fox did, but a big, fat boost in the production budgets of the movies would be nice...)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Anime Dialogue

Has anyone ever noticed how consistently awful the dialogue in most mainstream Japanese anime is? I used to think it was a function of the translation, but after hearing dialogue from several different shows I've come to the conclusion that it's now more the rule than the exception in today's serialized Japanese cartoons.

I can pinpoint exactly what it is about the dialogue that bothers me, too: the seemingly inexhaustible need for exposition, either by a bad guy or by an ominous supporting character. At some point in the story, the bad guy/supporting character explains, in rather stilted English when the cartoon is dubbed, an important story point to the hero, who, it seems, cannot otherwise figure anything out for himself. This exposition is punctuated by some extremely pretentious and wholly unbelievable language which seems all the more absurd when enunciated by the voice 'actors' who are either the same awful ones used over and over or different people trained to speak in the same monotonous accent. I used to think most of the English dubbing was done in Canada, but now I think it's done in Asia by people vainly trying their hardest to speak like Westerners. My computer is not facing the TV, but when I'm on it I can tell if the channel on is Animax from both the stilted (Canadian? Japanese?) accents of the characters and their ludicrous English they're spouting.

This character monologuing undermines the individual shows and the genre in several ways; first it violates one of the first principles of storytelling: show, don't tell. Considering that the medium here is a visual one, the storytelling deficiency betrayed by such heavy reliance on this poor excuse for 'dialogue' is all the more glaring and the irony almost too bitter to endure.

Some of the truly great anime, like Akira, relied very little on dialogue except at crucial points in the story, and even then not so much. One seminal work, Ghost in the Shell, was heavy on exposition towards the end where the Puppet Master character explained everything to the Major, and kind of ground the narrative to a halt, but at least not before the movie had hurtled along at two hundred miles an hour with some of the most eye-popping action sequences ever animated. The funny thing is, I don't even know that dialogue that appears midway through the story for exposition is even a Japanese thing; I've seen Japanese cartoons that have gone without it, and although I've seen very few of the legendary Akira Kurosawa's films, I know they weren't really dialogue heavy, either.

There's a reason it's called anime, which incidentally isn't even a Japanese word; it's French, and loosely translated it means alive. The recent wave of dreck polluting Animax and some other channels featuring Japanese cartoons is anything but that.

Second, the reliance on consistently bad writing in lieu of action just goes to show how, just like the American shows they used to stand head and shoulders above, the makers of Japanese cartoons are not in the least bit above cutting corners and sacrificing the quality of their work in the process. Talking heads, after all, are a lot easier to animate than people fighting or running or jumping or doing anything else that could propel the story forward without hitting both the hero and the viewer over the head with some explanation of everything that's going on. It was bad enough when they had Gundam robots just floating around in space on their rocket boots or packs instead of running , throwing punches, swinging their lazer swords or whatever their weapons are. Now, they apparently can't even have people moving around; it's either too expensive or time-consuming, so they just have them stand around and talk most of the time.

I'm no anime connoisseur, but I am familiar with some of the best in the genre like the aforementioned Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo and some of the works of Hayao Miyazaki like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. That was stuff that was vibrant and alive and made full use of the imagery that was at their disposal. There, the only limits were the imaginations of the writers and animators. These days, apparently there are a lot more considerations weighing them down.

It's kind of absurd that in cannibalizing one of the oldest Japanese cartoons for the big screen, Speed Racer, the Wachowski Brothers have, based on the mostly negative reviews I've read, imported this penchant for expository dialogue in one of the scenes involving the hero listening guessed it...a long monologue by the villain.

This is not what anime should be about, and if this truly is the future of the medium, I honestly hope it leads to its extinction, so that people with a real sense of imagination can take the reins and give us actual anime, not just cartoons.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Marvel Films' Next Move

Over on my multiply page (, I basically wrote a review fellating everyone who had anything to do with the brand-spanking-new comic book adaptation, Iron Man, from Robert Downey, Jr. to Stan Winston and ILM to the Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby to Jon Favreau. I'm totally gay for all of those people now for making what I feel is the best comic-book based movie of all time. What I didn't mention in the review, which reached epic lengths, was how totally proud I was of Marvel studios for having successfully put to bed their very first movie as a studio.

Of course, the success of the endeavor will be decided in the coming days as the opening weekend grosses are determined, and more so in the weeks that follow as audiences will determine if the movie is nothing but a one-weekend-wonder (assuming it even achieves that) or a bona fide smash hit. Based on reviews and building internet buzz (generated by people who've already seen it), I'm willing to bet on the latter.

Granting that Marvel does bag its first box office smash right out of the gate, I think they should set in motion a number of things, which may or may not already be on their to-do list:

1. They should start aggressively buying back their properties from the studios they have existing deals with. Spider-Man is pretty much out of the question considering Sony's made billions out of just three movies and have at least another three contracted. Besides, it was Sam Raimi's vision and Sony's laissez faire attitude that were responsible for the thoroughly brilliant first two films and Avi Arad's intervention and desire to pander to fanboys that were responsible for the crapfest that the third movie turned out to be. So I think Sony should be left to their own devices with respect to Spider-Man, even assuming they wouldn't fight tooth and nail to keep him in their stable. Fox, however, has basically ass-raped the X-Men, repeatedly clipping Bryan Singer's wings and churning out the pure dreck that was X-Men 3 two years ago. They also ruined Daredevil and the Fantastic Four even though I actually enjoyed the second FF movie quite a bit. A buy back is definitely in order here, and given Tom Rothman's track record and visible disdain for these properties I wouldn't be surprised if all he'd ask Marvel would be "how much are you willing to pay for them?"

2. They should fast-track the Captain America and Thor movies. After the end credits of Iron Man, Marvel dropped a big-fat letter of intent to make the Avengers movie a reality. This won't happen, though, until the characters of Captain America and Thor, the only other two members of the team whose popularity would, theoretically, support their own movies, are well-established in Marvel's movie-verse. Thing is, Downey, Jr. has well and truly established himself as Iron Man with his portrayal, but the guy's already into his middle age. I give him a seven-year window at the very most before he starts looking ridiculous parading around as a super hero, so if they want to make an Avengers movie, they'd better do it while he's still got spring in his step. Iron Man's done and dusted bring on Cap and Thor and do it quick.

3. In this connection, Marvel should lure new talent. It's rather striking that in the course of over a dozen movies, Marvel have repeated themselves in terms of cast and crew and I don't just mean actors returning for sequels. No, some actors have starred in films based on two different properties, like Rebecca Romijn moonlighting between X-Men and Punisher and Sam Elliot moonlighting between Hulk and Ghost Rider, to name a couple. Worse still, however, is their woefully small stable of writers and directors. After the debacle that was Daredevil, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson shouldn't have been allowed near another Marvel property again, and yet he ended up making lightning strike twice with the comprehensively awful Ghost Rider. Screenwriter Zak Penn may have had a hand in the handsomely crafted X2, but he was also responsible for garbage like Elektra and X3. Despite the bad reception these films have gotten he was given another bite at the Marvel apple with The Incredible Hulk, even though Edward Norton supposedly made some major rewrites. While it makes sense to retain the services of those who've delivered for them, like Sam Raimi and Alvin Sargent, for example, Marvel should really and truly try to keep their talent pool fresh and perpetually growing in order to keep their concepts fresh. The four writers of Iron Man are a pretty good start in the right direction; their script crackles with intensity and intelligence. They, and not Penn, should be given a crack at the inevitable Captain America movie (and please, please get MATT DAMON to play Steve Rogers!).

If their concern is respect for the material, they should know there's no shortage of Hollywood writers and directors out there who'd love to sink their teeth into a Marvel property. They just have to know how to bring them in, and now that they have their own studio, they are free to do just that.

Iron Man could and probably will be the start of something big for Marvel. It could signal their transition from peripheral player to heavyweight contender in Hollywood, and if they are able to gain that foothold with this and their upcoming Hulk movie they should really make the most out of that goodwill because as with so many other things in tinseltown it could well be fleeting.

Couldn't Help Myself...

...the One Hundred Dollar toy car has been bought, except it turned out to be an eighty dollar car and a twenty dollar car. Over and above anything else, it was an extended (weeklong) period of stress spent finishing a very time sensitive project that pushed my desire past the point of controlling it. Fortunately, this little exercise in self-punishment paid fairly well so I was able (with the wife's consent, of course), to indulge myself just this once, even if it means a fresh and potentially longer moratorium.

There's really something to be said for buying such a lovely item...two of them, actually. Two different scales of the same car, the Porsche 911 997 GT3, by AUTOart. Probably not necessarily the most responsible way to spend money, but I definitely needed it at the time, having deprived myself of both sleep and time for my day job.

Anyway, a friend and fellow collector told me that the boon and the bane of being a collector, even a 'moderate' as opposed to 'hardcore' one is that no matter how gorgeous or definitively satisfying a piece is when one acquires it, x weeks or months later there will be something even more beautiful just begging to be bought. I know that, deep down, I still have a hankering for that Kyosho 1/18 Audi R8 that I just missed out on the day I bought the 1/18 911 GT3, even though I honestly do believe I got a better deal with the Porsche. I'm actually glad for the lean times I have to endure every now and then because at least the urge gets the temperance it needs. Barring another extremely high-stress, high-income stretch of time...or an insanely large windfall I can see myself putting off buying another big-ticket item (the Audi R8 comes to mind) until December at the very earliest, and I'm pretty sure I know where I'll be able to find one by then, even without the benefit of eBay.

But damned if this collector's itch isn't one of the most formidable forces I've ever had to reckon with in my life. I'm actually glad Matchbox makes such nice models; it's easier to keep the need at bay if I can feed it a little every now and then ;)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lowering the Bar

I'm of two minds of the recent decision to lower the passing grade of the 2007 Bar Exams. On the one hand, I thank God the Supreme Court saved all those people from the sadism of one or more of the examiners, but on the other hand, I wonder if they haven't done the profession a disservice in the process.

Of course, this is not the first time the bar grade has been lowered.

When he was alive, my grandfather never got tired of telling me how lucky he was to have passed the bar because the grade was lowered in order to accommodate a high profile examinee at the time (I will refrain from giving names). He told me he got something like a 73 or a 74 at a time when the passing grade was kicked down to 70.

That's just one other instance of grade-tweaking in the nearly 100 years of the bar exam, and from what I hear not the only one.

The thing is, I know how absolutely power-drunk and completely unreasonable some law school professors can be, giving students a hard time for no other reason than that they can, no matter what they might tell other people. A lot of bar examiners are cut from the same cloth, and unlike law professors, they cannot be approached after the exam is done and be begged for mercy or reconsideration.

All these things taken into account, yes, the Supreme Court did the right thing.

The question is, if next year, with a whole new batch of examiners, the un-'tweaked' results of the bar are still the same, will the decision to change things around still have been a good one?

And of those who benefitted from the adjustment, how many people actually deserved it?

None of these issues is of any real concern to me, but part of me can't help but wonder either way.