Monday, December 28, 2009

The Future of Film?

Anyone who's ever seen a movie where the characters watch three-dimensional holograms pop in front of them like a couple of the Star Wars movies must have, at least at one point, wondered what it would be like to watch something like that instead of the normal flat images one sees on TV or on our movie screens.

While we aren't exactly there, 3-D films, as I understand it, are supposed to bridge the gap between this world and that. Hollywood currently has at least three major proponents of the new 3-D movement that started earlier this millenium. George Lucas, whether or not the 3-D images in his Star Wars films were his not-so-subtle endorsement of the format, has often talked about re-releasing all six films in the format. Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis, since abandoning live-action film making for motion capture films, has released all three of his movies in 3-D or IMAX 3-D format. James Cameron has been quoted as having said something to the effect that we experience life in 3-D, and that it makes perfect sense that we should experience the movies in such a way as well. While I certainly don't begrudge them their passion, especially considering that between them they have over a hundred years of filmmaking experience, I'm not yet a hundred percent sure I share it.

I've only seen two 3-D movies, after all. I suppose I'm glad I missed the 3-D movies of the 1980s (and of the 1950s) because from what I've heard they wouldn't have given me a whole lot of enthusiasm for the format, especially the horror movies. The closest I ever got to old-fashioned 3-D was a comic book, and apart from the novelty of it, it was not the least bit impressive. The red and blue glasses basically robbed the comic book of most of its color.

My first experience with the format, A Christmas Carol, was, to be honest, not an entirely pleasant experience. I liked the movie and some of the 3-D effects, but walked out of the theater with a headache. Also, it cost significantly more than it would have in 2-D and in truth, as entertaining as the 3-D effects were, they did nothing to propel the story. Based on that experience and on my sister's feedback from Up, where she basically said it didn't add anything to the overall story, I wondered if some of the internet haters were right all along and that 3-D really is nothing more than a fad.

That changed with my second 3-D movie experience: Avatar. I've written about this film here and elsewhere (apeltala.multiply.com) so there's no need to belabor the point that I had a great time.

The point, though, is that suddenly 3-D made sense to me. I have yet to see the film in any other format (or more than once, for that matter) but when I walked out of the theater, apart from not having a headache, I was convinced that had I not seen the film in 3-D IMAX, the experience would have been somehow diminished. I certainly won't attempt to pass this off as any kind of gospel truth but if nothing else, I've been convinced that I've just seen a glimpse of how the future of film should look.

Of course, I can't ignore the fact that IMAX 3-D is just too expensive to watch on a regular basis, but it is a cold hard fact that the experience is not one which can be replicated by any mainstream home entertainment system and therefore, barring the financial concern, gives a compelling argument for steering clear of the bootleg DVDs and catching movies in the theaters.

Maybe not every film will look quite as good as Avatar did in IMAX 3-D, but every medium and every format needs a benchmark. Also, there's a lot of room for improvement on Avatar's storytelling angle, so maybe we'll soon have a filmmaker dazzle us with both a scintillating story and dazzling effects. Peter Jackson pulled it off not too long ago, after all. I find myself eagerly awaiting Tintin, and would gladly save up for the 3-D version if there will be one. Such is my faith in both the filmmaker and the format in its current incarnation.

The future of movies looks pretty bright to me.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

When Pocahontas Turned Blue and John Dunbar Became a Paraplegic

I'm gonna say this right up front: I absolutely loved James Cameron's Avatar. I still remember walking into Titanic eleven years ago expecting the most moving, profoundly romantic experience I could have had at the time and walking out thinking "ehh." I experienced no such disappointment with Avatar, and it wasn't even necessarily because my expectations were lowered.

I think the comparisons between Avatar and works like Dances With Wolves, John Carter of Mars and even Pocahontas began the moment the story was disclosed to the general public. I suppose it didn't help that not everyone was sold on the way the fantastical aliens populating Cameron's new world, Pandora, looked. "Thundersmurf" became a popular internet slur for them. In true fanboy fashion, the bashing commenced though thanks to the fact that I actually had things to do this time around I didn't bother to indulge my usual masochistic urges of reading message board after message board full of venom.

Like I posted some months ago, this was probably Cameron's first ever brush with internet fanboys, and I wondered how he, or the studio backing him, would take it, even though Fox is no stranger to internet brickbats. They didn't really seem to give a shit what the usual "basement dwellers" had to say.

Still, upon watching the film I understood why none of the story or "Thundersmurf" revelations even mattered. I think it was genius, in fact, of Cameron and the film's marketing team to get that stuff out of the way as early as possible because none of it really give the audience any idea of what the movie is all about, and that is the realization of a world beyond imagining.

Cameron's Pandora, the new world he created, is the star of Avatar. Its hills, mountains, trees, birds and bees, all of which is both familiar and new at the same time. In terms of environments, I've only ever seen such visual innovation in a Hayao Miyazaki movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, but that was hand-drawn animation and was, by comparison, not nearly as challenging to render. That world did not face the challenge of making the viewers believe that what they were seeing was real. Cameron basically took the massive proceeds and virtually unlimited street-cred he'd picked up from Titanic, and cashed it ALL in making this unbelievable feast for the senses.

The consensus on this film is that the story is weak but the visuals make up for it. That, I feel, is an oversimplification. While I will readily concede that the story is not the most original ever to be written, it could have been done a lot worse. Titanic, for all its Oscars and accolades, had its fair share of truly rancid dialogue (and in fact its screenplay was conspicuously snubbed by the Academy back then) but down the line nobody seems to be complaining. Somehow, what Cameron had achieved back then with the digital sinking ship and the massive production, managed to overshadow what he had not, and in my humble opinion, that happens to be the case here.

Avatar comes across as a largely visceral experience when, like its main character Jake Sully, we are introduced to Pandora in all of its untamed glory. It's enough, for me, that he establishes the reason why human beings would want to despoil such splendor, and the science behind the titular avatars. As caricatured as the evil corporate types and their redneck henchmen may seem, we as a race would be sadly delusional if we refused to acknowledge that such people actually exist in real life. Life is not as simple as "humans are bad, while nature is good" but the themes in Avatar definitely remain relevant, no matter how heavy-handed their application may be. Seeing what corporations and the need for profit has driven people to do on this planet makes their actions in Avatar completely believable and as they ravaged Pandora I, for one, felt genuinely saddened because like I said, Pandora is the real star of the movie.

I remember feeling lousy during the first hour or so of Titanic with all of its uplifting music, bright lighting and the digitally-rendered version of that magnificent ship plowing through the Atlantic because I knew well beforehand that it would all end in tragedy. In Avatar In contrast, I could not be quite so sure what Pandora's fate would be even after it was all over (yes, there is the possibility of a sequel). Pandora is a world I wanted to survive, and I think that was what made the movie for me.

The debate on the merits of this film, I'm sure, will go on and on, which I think will be a hallmark of this film's greatness, i.e. that it is and will continue to be talked about for years to come, but to my mind, at least, the debate is settled: for all its flaws, and there are several of them, this was easily one of my more memorable moviegoing experiences. Sure it unpretentiously borrows from Dances with Wolves and other works of fiction besides, but what it adds is something which must be seen to be believed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Cathartic Appeal of Wolverine

I was never much of a Wolverine fan. I always connected more with Spider-Man's teenage angst or Batman's tortured soul. I even liked Iron Man's constant conflict with his inner demons better. Wolverine, to be fair, has his own share of inner demons, it seems that more often than not, they triumph as he slaughters people on pretty much a regular basis. I have an entire trade paperback (which my wife bought) consisting of stand-alone issues, every one of which features him killing someone or leaving him to his death. I also have the first half of the Mark-Millar-penned "Enemy of the State" in which Wolverine also kills a hell of a lot of people (to be fair, at first it's while he's under the influence of Hydra, but he also does plenty of killing on his own). I appreciate some stories told starring him, but he's never held that much appeal for me.

Till now.

The Maguindanao massacre has, by now courtesy of cable news and the internet, shocked pretty much the world. The fact that it happened at all is bad enough but that no one seems to be able to do anything about it feels ten times worse. Though the adult in me is appalled by what happened and hopes for the best but not expecting much, the eternal adolescent in me still fantasizes about what I could have done had I been a superhero on the scene.

I have no interest in being a Superman or a Spider-Man and basically stopping all the bad guys in their tracks and saving all the victims, or in being a Batman and basically roughing up the bad guys but only up to a certain point.

No, I conceived of a Wolverine fantasy, this time, which involved me being in the thick of things, taking all of the bullets those bastards have to offer while opening up their intestines, cutting off their limbs and severing their arteries. Killing them simply wouldn't do; if I had the power to take as much abuse as Wolverine does in his most tenacious incarnations I would not content myself with stopping those animals. No, I would inflict the maximum amount of pain imaginable.

I would let them shoot me, riddle me with their bullets and gain the impression of superiority in arms and force and when I'd lulled them into that sense of security I would attack and watch their bravado melt into horror as they'd realize they were completely helpless to stop me, even with all their guns. I'd destroy their weapons with my adamantium claws, in some cases with their limbs attached, to remind them of how useless they are against me. I would cut them in places where they would bleed out severely enough to die but slowly enough so that they could take in just how conclusively they've been routed.

Once the last of the gunmen had breathed his last I would then behead them, gather up their heads, drive over to the mansion or nightclub or office of the person who sent them and drop each and every one of them at that person's doorstep. And after taking another hail of bullets from the personal security and after maiming and killing the entire cadre of personal security I would stand right in front of the people responsible for masterminding the would-be murders, have them look around at the carnage, tell them I'd be watching them, and then walk away, leaving them in a sea of their goons' blood and entrails. I would leave them with fear of God in their hearts and a pair of soiled pants.

And then, when they'd thought I'd gone, I'd sneak up behind them and kill them anyway.

I'm not Wolverine, so I obviously would never get to do any of those things but after the brutality in Maguindanao it was the first time I had ever wanted to do them, even in my mind.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Back When Marvel Wooed Hollywood...

I don't know if anyone remembers this but many years before his death last July, Michael Jackson already met the Grim Reaper, albeit in the pages of Marvel Comics' Longshot miniseries, where he got blasted to smithereens while filming a television show on Mojoworld. I'm sure a lot of people do remember how preoccupied Marvel was with being fashionable back in the '80s (among other time periods), as perhaps best exemplified by the jeri-curled Beyonder who faced off against the Marvel Universe in Secret Wars II, and the perpetually mullet-haired Longshot himself.

But way before Blade, the first successful movie based on a Marvel Comics character came out in 1998, Hollywood was Marvel's wet dream. It was all over their comic books; whether it was fans or writers coming up with their own personal lists of who they'd like to see playing Spider-Man (with names like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt getting mentioned more than a couple of times).

It's a different world now, one where Disney has bought Marvel (for a steal, in my opinion) precisely because of the power its properties wields at the box-office, where Hugh Jackman was made a star precisely because of his appearance in the X-Men movies, which remain his highest-grossing films to date, where people like Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds and even Robert Downey Jr. campaign avidly to play Marvel characters, in some instances not even for very much money, and where studios holding the rights to Marvel films prior to the Disney acquisition scramble to make more because they don't want to lose them. Yep, it's a different world, one that more than makes up for the snubs of Marvel roles by the likes of Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, for the several aborted attempts to realize Marvel projects, one of the most notable of which was Tom Cruise's failed Iron Man endeavor at the beginning of the millenium, and even some of the creative misfires that did make it to the screen like Daredevil and Ghost Rider.

The buzz for Iron Man 2 is at a fever pitch right now and it still makes me feel all warm and tingly inside that the first one is widely regarded as the film that re-launched the career of Downey Jr., an actor whose work I have always admired.

The best part of all this is that even for this tantrum thrower, the best is yet to come.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Hip to be Square.

I love the recent film 500 Days of Summer. With the exception of the cornball narrator I love just about everything about it from the writing to the acting to the music.

As strange as it may sound, one other thing I love about this film is that apart from an e-mail message which the main character, Tom Hanson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives from Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), there is no mention of any technology anywhere in the film that could possibly date it. Nobody texts, nobody tweets, nobody has a myspace or facebook page.

Tom dresses like a prep-school kid from some eighties movie, shops for Ringo Starr albums, is a huge fan of the 1980s TV series Knight Rider (not its tepid 21st century revival), and dances to one of my favorite Hall and Oates songs. He is, apart from being my kind of guy, the anti-hipster, a character who, to borrow a phrase used by renowned film critic Richard Corliss, is joyfully, defiantly anachronistic in his pop-culture preferences.

In Tom's delightful dance number to the 29-year-old Hall & Oates song "You Make My Dreams," he basically flips the bird at putrid, trying-hard movies like He's Just Not That Into You which love to scream out at the audience how up-to-date their script is with trends and technology. "Look, our characters have myspace pages! They text! They tweet! Aren't they the shizz?" Probably, but the minute these little technological quirks have gone the way of the dinosaur like the pager did, thereby ceasing to have any contemporary cultural relevance, so will those little references. It irks me that Iron Man makes reference to myspace, which has already been supplanted by facebook, as I understand it.

To my mind it's pure foolishness for filmmakers, unless they're working with a story that deals directly with technology like 1992's Sneakers or 1998's You've Got Mail, to make references in their films to extant tech, especially if the story can be told without it.

It's like the difference between Pixar movies and many Dreamworks films; with all of their pop-culture references, the Shrek films will one day be dated back to things like The Matrix or the first Spider-Man film, while most Pixar films, with the possible exception of Cars (which is dated by the models of the newer cars involved like a Porsche 996 Carrera S and a Ferrari F430) will truly achieve timelessness, especially films that feel neither here nor there like The Incredibles or Finding Nemo.

It's a given these days that audiences have woefully short attention spans, as products perhaps of the MTV generation. It's been over a decade since a movie has spent more than five weeks as the number one film in America (James Cameron's Titanic) and so the quest is on to find something that people watching movies will latch on to.

Well, I will say this; the answer to that remains to be compelling, relatable characters and a great story.

The trashy He's Just Not That Into You, with its "look at me" references to myspace and texting may have made more money than the infinitely superior 500 Days of Summer this year, but I wouldn't be surprised if, years from now, when people start making lists of truly great romantic comedies of the new millenium, that little movie with the guy who didn't text or tweet were to appear on all of them, with the other film basically being consigned to oblivion.

Monday, November 02, 2009

WHY Aren't Anime-Based Movies Selling?

The first movie I ever watched that was based on a Japanese anime or manga series was Christophe Gans 1995 film Crying Freeman, starring Mark Dacascos, which I genuinely enjoyed even though I had not watched the original series or read the original comic books. The last one I watched, just last Saturday, was an adaptation of the seminal anime/manga classic, Astro Boy, who was created by the so-called godfather of animation, Osamu Tezuka. In the case of Astro Boy I had watched one of the TV series starring him (there have been three, one in the 1960s, one in the 1980s, and one that ran about three or four years ago), and I still enjoyed the film, shortcomings notwithstanding.

I've noticed, though, that the reception of Joe Public all around the world (with the exception of Japan) has not quite been as warm as mine was of these two movies, or of anything based on anime or manga in general. Three of Hayao Miyazaki's films, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle and now Ponyo, have all made very decent box-office, the vast bulk of it in Japan and Korea, but have otherwise made very little impression on the global box-office.

Films like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Speed Racer were the kind of flops that could lose studio executives their jobs (and quite possibly did) and the aforementioned Crying Freeman never even made it to theatrical release in the United States. Considering how badly the current Astro Boy film is doing in theaters, it may as well have been sent straight to the DVD shelf. And the less said about 20th Century Fox's Dragonball, the better.

This is strange because judging from things like comic book conventions and amateur comic book drawings of fans all over the world, one would think anime is one of the most popular media out there, a global phenomenon. Heck, the word anime isn't even Japanese; it's French for "alive."

Why, therefore, do so many people outside of the Land of the Rising Sun ignore anime feature films, or feature films based on anime? Is it some residual resentment left from World War II? Is it a general global inability to digest Japanese pop-culture (a thesis which the success of movies like The Ring would debunk, I'm sure)? I'm curious.

It's really quite a shame as there are quite a number of good works of anime that, with the advances in today's technology, could be adapted pretty well with the right people behind them. We're talking about an industry that is capable of bringing books, plays, comic books, toy lines, video games, television shows and even blasted theme park rides to the big screen with resounding success. The successful and profitable translation of anime to the big screen shouldn't be as big a challenge as it has been for the last several years (though I'm really not crazy about the upcoming Akira adaptation, as I feel it is a classic that should be left alone).

Come on, Hollywood! Bring me my Robotech!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Nice Little Dream

For the last month or so I've been quite stressed about one thing or another, and today I was able to get at least one source of stress of my chest by finally conducting a direct examination I'd been dreading for several months; I was prepared and I articulated my questions well and in an objection-proof manner.

I had something, though, that helped me get through that direct examination, as nerve-wracked as I was, besides the usual preparation.

Last night, I dreamed about my best friend and the godfather of my firstborn, Jay Tan. Here's the thing; it wasn't even one of those dreams where he was alive and walking and talking. No, he was pretty much as dead in the dream as he is in real life. But there was something special about this dream.

In this dream, I and several other people were gathered to watch several performances based on work Jay had done. I caught a stage play and an animated short film (though of course I cannot remember the story of either) based on stories he had written.

Now, as far as I know Jay did not write fiction as a hobby. He wrote ad copy for a living, and was quite the songwriter and occasional blogger, but he didn't do a whole lot of fiction, so I'm pretty sure that the notion that he would be honored for his works of fiction was basically a product of my own mind.

But I loved the idea of Jay being cherished after his death even by people who didn't know him in life. I loved the idea of celebrating his creations even after the funerals and weeping and the regret. I loved the idea that he had achieved immortality in the eyes of not only the people who loved him but the people who loved his work.

I once decried a line from the Ridley Scott film Gladiator uttered by Maximus, the Roman general played by Russell Crowe: What we do in life echoes in eternity. I found it an expression of utmost hubris and a failure to acknowledge that we are all part of a bigger plan. In view of this dream, though, it's not quite so bad as I thought; being immortalized through one's work is something that's nice, as is the thought that the things one does could even survive the demise of an entire species.

I love the thought of Jay living on in things like his work, and I certainly hope he does. Maybe the guys who have hold of his songs could publish them somewhere...

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Return of the Rom Com

Two romantic comedies this year have managed to make a splash at the U.S. box office, He's Just Not That Into You and The Proposal. I utterly despised the former and was mildly entertained by the latter, but in any case I'm glad they're back because as far as I'm concerned they simply don't get old.

Now, it goes without saying that some rom coms are better than others; not everyone can make something as compelling as Sleepless in Seattle, or As Good As It Gets or as laugh-out-loud funny as There's Something About Mary, and in fact the very makers of those films were not really able to follow up those films with equally strong work. Indeed, Sandra Bullock's The Proposal is nowhere near as inherently endearing as her own While You Were Sleeping was over fourteen years ago.

The good news, though, is that with recent films like 500 Days of Summer, it seems that there is a rising new generation of filmmakers who, while not necessarily hell-bent on replicating the magic between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan or Bullock and any of several of her rom-com co stars like Bill Pullman or Hugh Grant, want to take the genre to new places while paying plenty of homage to where it's been over the last several decades, which can only be a good thing.

Yessir, I love me a good rom com, and even though I've found most of them tepid lately with the exception of Summer, I'm glad they're still on the radar.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

World Champions

When Michael Schumacher won his third world championship and his first for Ferrari in 2000, I had no idea it would be the start of an era, though I was as excited as hell. I had no idea that this would be the first of five consecutive titles for both the Red Baron and the Scuderia. Although the 2001 and the 2003 seasons were real nail-biters (with the 2002 and 2004 seasons being so boring I was actually happy when someone else would win a race every now and again) nothing ever quite beat the thrill of seeing Schumi pip title rival Mika Hakkinen to victory at Suzuka in 2000 through some very canny pit work.

The next Formula One season I would enjoy in the same way was the 2007 F1 season, particular the latter part, in which then new-Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen overhauled Lewis Hamilton's 17-point lead in two races to take the driver's title for the Scuderia. Disappointingly, Raikkonen was unable to repeat his success the next year, or the year after, but 2007 still felt like a classic.

These are old pictures of old cars (the first one a full nine years old while the second nearing two) but they bring back fond memories of some exciting sporting events.



Friday, September 04, 2009

Easy Targets from Whom Apparently Nothing Was Learned

About three years ago Marvel Comics published, as a kind of "dessert" to a twelve-issue run on Wolverine by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. a one-shot issue by Mark Millar and artist Kaare Andrews. It was set in WWII era Poland, and featured as its narrator a Nazi death camp commander who had a big problem in the person of a troublesome, hairy little prisoner who for one reason or another wouldn't die. It was an engrossing little tale and a rather entertaining one, even though it was rather predictable. It was a throwback to reading those Gold Key horror comics I used to read as a kid from my uncle's stash, both the vintage American ones and the local reprints. There was no real morality play at work, but Millar, clever little left-winger that he is, drew parallels between Nazi Germany and the Bush Administration. The Nazis were still very much the bad guys, but there was so much more dimension to them.

I'm quite keen on watching Inglourious Basterds and have enjoyed WWII movies from Saving Private Ryan to Enemy at the Gates, but after having followed the excesses of the Bush administration on the news for the last eight years it strikes me that Americans who take shots at the Nazis, especially the ones who were fond of propping up Bush and his policies on the Middle East, are really kind of like the people living in glass houses chucking stones.

For one thing, as evil as the Nazis and their actions were I think it would be far more intelligent to look at them from a historical perspective rather than a pulpy, puerile one. Films like the 2004 Austrian film Der Untertag (translated as The Downfall for English speaking markets), Conspiracy, that brilliant HBO movie with Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, and the TV movie Nuremberg which starred Alec Baldwin and Brian Cox took a much more matter-of-fact, if still inevitably dramatized look at history's favorite villains. They weren't just mustache twirling fiends bent solely on world domination (though they were admittedly the closest one could ever GET to that in history), they had genuine socio-politico-historical-cultural motivations and underpinnings in their grossly misguided actions. The idea was to get into their heads not just to condemn them all the more but to understand how a country can take a wrong turn in the way it views people.

People love to pick on the Nazis, which is fine, but apparently a whole lot of them have learned nothing from their downfall which was the product of, among other things, hubris and a fundamental misunderstanding of cultures different from their own. Sound familiar?

It was never just a fundamental question of who was right and who was wrong. I mean, if all imperialists and perpetrators of genocide are evil and should get their comeuppance, then how come the Native Americans who were either killed and/or corralled like animals from the seventeenth to the twentieth century are basically now living like squatters on their own country while the descendants of the people responsible are living it up? If the Nazis were tried and hung in Nuremberg for war crimes, how come no one was held accountable for the fact that at the outbreak of World War II, several thousand Japanese Americans were summarily rounded up without due process and chucked into internment camps?

I think entertainment featuring Nazis getting their butt kicked represents a comfort zone for Americans because it represents the last time they were really right about something and won righteous victories on top of that. From what I understand both the Korean and Vietnam Wars were both gray areas, the latter more than the former, with the former not yielding a clear cut victory and the latter being a tactical and political disaster with fallout that has lasted to the present day. Of course, the Iraq occupation remains a problem the Americans don't know how to solve. The sad thing was that in the 80s and early 90s the warm box-office reception of such gritty and unpleasant portrayals of the U.S. military in films like Platoon showed that Americans were comfortable with a sense of accountability for their mistakes, but with the consistent box-office failure of films trying to deal with the situation in the Middle East including stuff from the two Toms (Cruise and Hanks) it seems they've regressed quite a bit. "Neocon" indeed. Going back to WWII and torching Nazis and Japs they can easily say "yes, we were RIGHT to kick their butts," pat themselves on the back, and go to sleep at night.

So soon (in the Philippines, anyway) we'll have a movie with Jews kicking Nazi ass and somewhere out there is even a comic book/strip featuring Jesus kicking Nazi ass and God knows how much other media there is out there featuring somebody kicking Nazi ass. Well and good, but if that's all they've got it's ultimately weak and meaningless fluff.

The greatest indictment of the Nazis would be to never repeat any of their mistakes.

Rediscovering my REAL First Love

A few posts ago I wrote about how I was slowly rediscovering comics and was, as a result, drifting a little bit away from collecting toy cars because of the expense involved as well as the hassles of storage.

Well, lately I've been drifting away from collecting anything in general because after years of false starts I've finally managed to get myself in a rhythm and to pursue my TRUE first love, not comics, not toy cars, not watching movies, but WRITING.

I'm glad for the blogs and the fact that I have to write for a living because at least my writing faculties haven't dulled. If anything, the fact that I've managed to get out there and experience life to some extent has given me a lot more to say. And the best part is that my writing now is kind of a release from my job. I don't write as a lawyer would. I don't think of arguments or cite precedents in support of an argument; I just write.

I have no idea if anyone else will find the stuff any good but for now it's enough that I'm writing for myself. I'm sick of writing about other people's work and commenting on things that are not only irrelevant to my life but to life here in the Philippines in general.

And to give myself a real target to hit: I intend to self-publish when it's done. Screw the whole "hunting for publishers" thing.

If there's one thing I learned from Pixar's Up it's that it's never too late to chase your dreams.

One of the Reasons Why It's Good to Take Pictures

This castle is wonderful. Apel built it maybe two or three years ago, but rebuilding it is no longer possible because being children, he and his sister have misplaced several of the blocks. I'll buy them more blocks some day, but it won't quite be the same. When he builds an even more magnificent edifice, I'll be sure to take pictures of that, too...

My Officemates

These fellas have kept me company through many a dreary workday.

One of them's Michael Schumacher's personal Ferrari FXX and the other's a Ferrari F40.





The Possibilities Are Endless...

Hehehe...stumbled on this site. The "Mouserine" is the only bit of original art but the rest are still just as fun...



Punisher meets the seven dwarves...



Spidey meets Wall-E...



and my favorite...

Lamborghini's Teutonic Cousin






More old car pics; this one's an Audi R8 in 1/18 by Kyosho; Audi owns Lamborghini and apparently shares components with them on a regular basis so a lot of this car was derived from the Lamborghini Gallardo (personally I like this better but they're both very good-looking vehicles).

Slayer of Exotics






This is a Nissan GT-R R35 1/18 by AUTOart. The real version of this car achieved quite some renown when it set a scorching laptime on the famed Nordschleife of the Nuerburgring, scorching the times of such highly touted sportscars as the Mercedes SLR McLaren, the Lamborghini Gallardo AND Murcielago, the Bugatti Veyron, and the Porsche 911. I took these pictures several months ago but was looking at them again and damn they look nice.

Looking Like the Cat That Got the Canary

Giancarlo Fisichella is a 36-year-old Italian Formula 1 Driver who started his career with Jordan F1 and who has gotten to drive for such teams as Benetton Playlife, Sauber, Renault and most recently Force India. Back in his day he was a highly-regarded figure in the paddock with even Michael Schumacher saying that given the right equipment, he would really shine.

All his life he's wanted to race for Ferrari who let him test drive one of their cars in 1995.

Until recently, Force India had gone for a whole season and a half without scoring a single championship point, until last Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix when he clinched pole position and finished a very, very close second to Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen.

The bosses at Ferrari apparently took notice, and here's what happened...






I don't post F1 stuff here anymore but holy cow would you look at that grin. Like a kid on Christmas morning...

Monday, August 31, 2009

On Disney Buying Marvel and the Imminent Explosion of Many a Fanboy's Head

I was a little shellshocked to learn this morning that media/entertainment giant Walt Disney Co. intends to wholly acquire Marvel Entertainment to the tune of four billion dollars. Not being a shareholder of either I don't really have any personal stake except that of a fan.

From the financial standpoint the sale makes perfect sense in the current economic climate; Disney is a brand name that is probably the closest thing to recession-proof that an entertainment company can get these days, and as much as I've loved many of their comic books, and as much money as their movies have made over the last ten years, I don't think the same can be said for Marvel. They are basically doing this to secure their future, which has probably been thrown into doubt by all the madness of the last year or so. On that score, I'm quite happy Marvel has such deep pockets at their disposal.

From a creative standpoint, though, well, there's bit a lot of screaming on the internet in the last few hours about how bad that could be, some of it funny, some of it devoid of any intelligence, and all of it speculative, of course. The general consensus appears to be no consensus at all, with many people dreading Hannah Montana/Avengers crossovers and others cheering the prospect of Marvel/Pixar teamups.

For my part, I don't think Disney should mess with Marvel's publishing line, and I'd like to think that they won't; why change a formula that attracted them enough to buy an entire company in the first place? Basically, Disney knows next to nothing about the kind of comics that Marvel publishes, markets and sells, and Marvel has been doing a pretty good job of it over the last several years from a sales point of view, so I hardly think they'd mess with what works. Of course I could be wrong, but considering Joe Quesada, who is basically responsible for that very line has been among the first online to reassure the reading public of this, well I take some reassurance. Another potential plus from the impending relationship is that the prospect of Disney money might lure some creators over, though frankly I'm already quite happy with the stable that's already there. (Not like Jim Lee needs the money, but I'd still like to see him draw a full Spider-Man and/or Daredevil story-arc before I die).

So as far as comics are concerned, I'm reasonably confident that guys like Matt Fraction, Mark Millar, Dan Slott and Ed Brubaker will still be great writers and will continue to come up with great stories. Life as we comic book readers know it will continue, with a couple of possible perks as well in the form of new creators wanting in on the Disney money train.

On the animated front, I have to confess I have mixed feelings on the matter.

On the one hand the merger will mean that Pixar is to be Marvel's sister company. That prospect could blow up millions of fanboy heads as well, but in a good way. For one thing, Pixar could serve as a platform for Marvel's not-so-well-known-outside-comic-fandom properties that might not quite make the transition to the big screen, like the Runaways, who were recently announced to be slated for live-action adaptation but whose film could, development hell being the way it is, in reality take a looooong time to get off the ground, Doctor Strange, whose film has been in development hell since the 1980s, and the Guardians of the Galaxy as well as other cosmic characters like Mar-Vell and Noh Varr, to name but a few. And if they were by some miracle to get their hands on The Fantastic Four, well all of 20th Century Fox and Tim Story's sins will be forgotten if not forgiven. Of course, that's not likely to happen as all of the studios currently with deals to film or at least distribute Marvel properties, from Fox to Paramount to Sony to Universal, are now clinging to these contracts for dear life as they know how much money is on the table. In short, anyone hoping for a Pixar-made Avengers, Spider-Man or X-Men will be bitterly disappointed unless Disney is willing to make Paramount, Sony or Fox a whole lot richer. Fortunately, there are a lot of other toys for Pixar to play with; Marvel's library does consist of over 5,000 characters, after all. So the prospect of Pixar drawing on Marvel's library for future movies is something that is very, very good. As long as it's Pixar doing the animating and not the made-for-TV-mediocre in-house outfit Disney came up with that produced such execrable films as Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, back when Disney were afraid they'd lose Pixar, Marvel's properties should be in great hands.

As far as the TV/Home Video Animation front is concerned, though, I'm not particularly thrilled. Anyone who's seen Disney's truly dreadful direct-to-video sequels of their popular and acclaimed animated films like Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, and more recently Cinderella, not to mention the rather abominable TV adaptations of fantastic films like Tarzan, will know what I'm talking about when I say that Disney is capable of taking some great properties and milking them for every dollar they're worth and then some. It could be good, but it could also be very, very bad.

On the live-action feature film front, well, I'm kind of filled with dread. Films based on Marvel properties are clearly action movies and on that front Jerry Bruckheimer has practically been Disney's go-to-guy since the mid-1990s. Now Bruckheimer is responsible for producing a lot of action movies I've enjoyed over the years, from Top Gun, the first Bad Boys, Crimson Tide and The Rock, all of which he co-produced with the late Don Simpson, to the thrill-ride Enemy of the State, which remains one of my favorite Will Smith movies ever, Black Hawk Down, and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I also happened to enjoy the first National Treasure movie a lot, but I would not want any of my Marvel movies to be made with the same sense of flightiness. My rule about Bruckheimer of late, though seems to be that the bigger the movie, the worse it gets, as attested by films like Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and the two Pirates of the Carribean sequels. Most movies based on Marvel properties by nature, would have to be big, so that doesn't bode well for having Bruckheimer produce any of them. If Disney leaves folks like Kevin Feige, Avi Arad and Jon Favreau to their own devices, everything should be fine. Of course, like I said, barring additional buyouts, film properties like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Avengers (all part of Marvel's self-produced film slate) are still locked into Marvel's agreements with Paramount and Universal, the studios responsible for marketing and distributing the films, for better or worse.

I know this blog post is like a drop of water in an ocean of fanboy reaction but I'd like to conclude by saying that it's way, WAY too early to conclude that the merger means the end of Marvel as its fans know it. It's also too early to say if this is a good thing, though there are tangible positives already. Let's just sit tight and see what happens; the merger hasn't even happened yet, after all.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cameron, Meet Messageboards and Comment Pages

The last time James Cameron made a straight-up action movie, True Lies, the internet (as we know it, anyway; it's been apparently been around for 40 years) was in a somewhat nascent form. By the time Titanic was released in 1997, the internet, and the messageboard, was already in a state of rather healthy activity as far as messageboards and online comments went, but sites like aintitcoolnews.com were still a year or so away from truly exploding onto the pop-culture scene. And in any event, Titanic made its megabucks through women and teenage girls who enjoyed a good cry and the boyfriends and husbands who wanted to appease them.

Avatar is James Cameron's first feature film in twelve years, and it is opening to a completely different pop culture milieu than any of his other movies. It's opening in the age of u-torrents, trailers on Apple, TMZ and most imporantly, of legions upon legions of self-important fanboys.

The whining was evident on at least two of the sites that showcased the Avatar trailer. Every other comment was how let down they felt, how the Na'vi (the fantastical aliens whose planet serves as the setting for the story) looked cartoony, or how James Cameron had turned into George Lucas. Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.

I'm pretty sure Cameron isn't exactly thin-skinned, but I wonder how he feels about thousands upon thousands of posts by strident, know-it-all fanboys proclaim that his film sucks four full months before its theatrical release?

Such feedback isn't what I'd call completely useless as reactions to things like Superbowl ads were cues for special effects vendors to tweak some shots but in general, like I've said a thousand times before, fanboys really are nothing more than a bunch of trolls at heart. There were legions of them who predicted that the new Terminator movie would rule the box-office just because their beloved Christian Bale is in it. There were bunches of them that predicted Star Wars: Episode II would kick Spider-Man's butt. And there are multitudes of them who, EVERY time there's a movie that makes heavy use of digital effects, have to harp on how fake the effects look, no matter how outlandish the character being depicted is. And so many of them are so woefully inarticulate that, apart from their inability to conjugate or spell properly, some of them can only manage to write one word: fail! Why Avi Arad strove to pander to these people when making Spider-Man 3 will forever be beyond me.

Avatar will probably make a killing at the box-office, and even though that isn't likely to shut the fanboys up any time soon even if it does, at least we'll know for sure that life goes on no matter how many trolls infest the internet.

Friday, August 14, 2009

And the World is Right-Side Up Again...

I don't know if anyone remembers the 1988 made-for-television film A Dangerous Life, but it was, I think, an Australian production employing Filipino, Australian, and some American actors made to dramatize the then-recent EDSA Revolution which saw the Philippines oust a dictator who had been in power for nearly two decades, Ferdinand Marcos, and install as their President the widow of one of Marcos' slain political rivals.

Time passed, and people gradually fell out of love with the Aquino administration, blaming it for the admittedly several problems that beset the country at the time, not the least of which were the widespread and frequent power outages that hit the entire countryside at varying times. They were a little happier to have her hand-picked successor (and former Marcos right hand, ironically enough) Fidel V. Ramos as president for six years, but by and large Cory remained a highly respected figure, especially for having been at the forefront of the restoration of the democratic process to our country.

Things started getting a little strange after Joseph "Erap" Estrada was elected President in 1998. One of the first things he seemed determined to do was to restore the Marcoses to their old glory, starting with the burial of former strongman Ferdie Marcos himself in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, which basically opened a lot of wounds that had only just healed, with some still in the process of healing. He was a marked man after that, and when he basically handed over the reins to his then-VP Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2001 one of the people presiding over "EDSA Dos" was Cory Aquino.

After the much-debated elections in 2004 in which GMA was proclaimed President at the expense of previous favorite, the late movie star Fernando Poe, Jr., things started to get a little crazy, particularly when the "Hello Garci" scandal broke out.

Cory Aquino knew or had a good idea of what it was like to have been cheated out of an election considering that was what is widely believed to have happened during the "Snap Elections" of 1986 and so she joined the growing clamor against GMA, the first time she ever stood against a sitting President she effectively helped install three years ago.

But that was just part of the craziness.

Suddenly, the Presidential Commission for Good Governance, the PCGG which had been formed under the aegis of the Aquino administration for the purpose of recovering the billions of pesos of allegedly ill-gotten wealth from the Marcos family and their cronies and for prosecuting the people responsible for gorging themselves on the national treasury for years, was attempting all kinds of kooky ex-deals designed to get the Marcoses off the hook in exchange for what was believed by some to be a token amount of the sequestered fortunes. Having worked there for over a year I wasn't too happy to read about these developments.

The next thing that appalled me was that in the bout between GMA and Cory Aquino, it was the latter who was, in several eyes anyway, apparently coming off worse. A lot of people were starting to say that Cory had become irrelevant and some insinuations as well as outright pronouncements were made that she was a hindrance to progress. That the palace would make these remarks was, of course, understandable, but that some writers picked up on it was downright confounding. Here we had an icon of democracy up against a person who had apparently engaged in massive fraud to attain the Presidency, and yet the general sentiment was the ignore the former and support the latter.

In truth, I could actually understand the general sentiment of weariness with "People Power," especially considering the opportunistic scumbags who were, from 2004 to sometime last year when they all started going their separate ways in preparation for their respective bids for the presidency, joining the bandwagon. Heck, it was widely whispered that Ramos used the "equity of the incumbent" to triumph over Miriam Defensor-Santiago back in 1992 but no one was nailing him to the cross for it (though admittedly FVR never had a "Hello Garci" recording to try to explain).

What I couldn't understand was how it happened that brickbats were suddenly being flung at Cory for trying to call for some accountability.

Now, though I was just a kid when EDSA happened, as I got older I had a better perspective of things, and I can honestly say I was never so high on the Cory Kool-Aid to be blinded to some of her poorer judgment calls while she was in power. A Mendiola massacre occurred on her watch, for one thing, and of course the controversy of family-owned Hacienda Luisita never quite left the public consciousness, not to mention the infamous Kamag-Anak, Inc. that made the proverbial hay while the sun was shining.

But for goodness' sake, the extent to which she was actually villified was really rather flabbergasting. I just didn't get it at all.

And then, somewhere in the middle of all this, people were talking about someone making a movie about the Marcoses starring Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt as Ferdinand Marcos and Julia Roberts or some other Hollywood it-girl as Imelda (granted, it could easily have been a rumor started by the member of the Marcos family itself or one of their sycophants)! Fortunately a not-quite-flattering portrayal of Imelda hit theaters a few years ago in a documentary about her, but I just couldn't contain the WTF impulses that possessed me then.

When Cory died, though, although it was sad to see her go, I was genuinely glad to see things suddenly turning right again.

Suddenly people remembered that the Marcoses had plundered the country and murdered people, crimes for which they have yet to be held fully accountable (at least Imelda anyway, considering that Ferdie could well be paying for it all already where he's gone). Suddenly GMA properly started looking like pond scum again, especially after she and some of her select lackeys, during this period of widespread mourning, were found to have gorged themselves on a million pesos worth of food in some restaurant in New York (where the food isn't even reportedly that good). Suddenly it's Cory whose life story will be made into a movie, albeit with local talent, though who would really want white boys and girls to play Filipinos anyway?

At least in some ways, the world is again as it should be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Celebrating Original Films in 2009

Going into 2009 I was only aware of two original films that I'd be looking forward to watching: Disney/Pixar's Up and James Cameron's Avatar. As of August, I'm delighted to learn that instead of just two there are now (at least) five: the aforementioned two, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Neil Blomkamp's District 9. Not having seen any of them, I'm certainly not qualified to give a review, but the good news is that, apart from the predictable buzz generated by a Pixar project and Cameron's first movie project in a dozen years, as well as the rather vocal if slightly mixed reaction to Tarantino's new film at Cannes, surprisingly The Hurt Locker and District 9, two movies that don't have any particularly big names attached (with the exception of Peter Jackson who has producer or executive producer credit on the latter) have, in terms of critical reaction anyway, become quite conspicuous, with the former, a military-themed movie, being the first movie dealing with the U.S. military's occupation of Iraq to get a positive response from film critics and some audience segments (with its buzz increasing over time). Both movies look like they're about ready to pop, and this remake/adaptation/sequel/prequel-weary movie lover is sincerely and fervently hoping that they do.

The best part of them both is that these films aren't just some esoteric, arty movies, the kind that, as Robert Downey Jr. said when inviting Gwyneth Paltrow to star in Iron Man, nobody sees. The Hurt Locker is an action-thriller, directed by the highly capable but sadly underappreciated Kathryn Bigelow, while District 9 is an action science fiction film. I think the last original action-thriller to hit movie screens was the first Die Hard film. Even the fifteen-year old, enormously entertaining Speed was literally conceived as "Die Hard on a bus." The Hurt Locker, which, this early, is already getting Oscar buzz from reviewers, wasn't even conceived as that kind of movie. It's set in the Iraq occupation, but from what I'm read it's apparently devoid of any of the polemics that have turned past efforts on the subject matter into box-office poison. District 9, for its part, appears to be the first original work of science fiction to hit screens since James Cameron's The Abyss. Sure, there have been some pretty entertaining sci-fi movies since then like Jurassic Park, but the thought that a filmmaker could sit down and come up with something entirely on his own without standing on the shoulders of someone like Michael Crichton is pretty amazing, even though theoretically, it shouldn't be.

It's gratifying to see these two films muscling in on territory that for two long has been dominated by sequels, prequels, video games and (gag) toy adaptations. I love the thought that if these films become breakout hits with their low budgets and maverick filmmaking sensibilities, Hollywood suits will be scrambling to make "the next Hurt Locker" and "the next District 9" because just maybe, one of those suits will start looking around for "the next ORIGINAL idea."

I'm similarly enamored with Basterds, and particularly I love the story of how Tarantino spent over a decade (or more) writing the script. I know I'll be in line for it in a couple of weeks.

Although District 9 looks like it'll be coming out in a few weeks I honestly don't know if I'll be able to find the time to see it, let alone Hurt Locker which doesn't look like it'll be released here any time soon, if at all, but I am immensely glad that these movies are out there and I hope there are many, many more of their kind to come.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

This Comic Book Fan has Learned to Wait for the Trade

I think my days of collecting expensive toy cars may well be numbered; on top of the fact that I can count on one hand the remaining cars I want to buy, none of which are even on the market yet (and which won't be for awhile), it is simply too expensive a hobby to pursue on a regular basis and there simply isn't enough space anymore. I'll probably find myself revisiting it someday when a) I have a lot more money, which will eventually happen and b) I have a nice, dedicated cabinet in which to put all my cars.

But there's another reason why, after the last of the few remaining cars on my wish list trickles in, I may call it a day, and it's because I'm slowly rediscovering my first love: comics.

I once wrote that, even when my comic-book collecting had tapered off considerably, I wasn't going to renounce comic books altogether but that 1) I would stop collecting them in individual issues and more importantly, 2) I would only come back when I found stories that I wanted to read again.

Well, in terms of the former I haven't exactly been faithful to this promise as I've been buying a few single issues here and there such as one-shots, the landmark Amazing Spider Man #600, and the Captain America: Reborn limited series. They've all been fun, especially ASM #600 and Reborn, of which only two issues have come out so far, but nothing's persuaded me to go back to collecting monthlies.

On the recommendation of my favorite retailer, I picked up the first storyarc of The Invincible Iron Man in trade paperback format, and was quite simply blown away by both the story and the art. Here was a story that was in continuity and which took place after "events" like Civil War and World War Hulk and their somewhat unflattering portrayals of the character which showed respect for what had been established before but which managed to create an original story with real narrative heft. From my understanding of "events" and what they do, those that took place in this story not likely to be undone by any retconning event. I've long wanted to read a story that felt like it mattered somehow and I've finally found at least this one. After the somewhat lengthy "World's Most Wanted" storyline in the title concludes, I may well eventually look for that in collected form as well. I guess I really missed out by just sticking to the Marvel universe according to Bendis, Millar and Straczynski for the last several years. Matt Fraction is a gem of a writer and I hope Marvel keep him busy for a long time to income, particularly writing Iron Man stories. I also hope they keep Salvador Larroca locked into a contract to work for them for as long as is humanly possible.

Having a nice, handy volume to take anywhere whenever I want to read is not entirely a new thing for me but of all the trade paperbacks I've ever bought, I have to say this one has turned out to be the best read, even when measured against my all-time favorites like the collection of J. Michael Straczynski's inaugural story arc on The Amazing Spider-Man back in 2001. The thought that there are more compilations yet to come from this writer as well as old favorites like Millar, who will be returning to the Ultimates this month is positively tantalizing.

Gone are the days I had to rush to the store to get the next issue or get beaten to the punch by fans and/or speculators. Gone is the itch to complete long runs of a single book. Gone is the mental justification I had for buying single issues that I would one day be able to sell them on the internet. I've already sold a fair number of comics on eBay, getting easily more than I paid for them but the whole thing holds no more appeal for me, and taking care of comics against deterioration and acid damage is just something I can't really do on a regular basis, especially considering the climate here. But I still love a good comic-book story, and so I love me a good trade paperback. Single issues are indeed collectible, but I think I've sold more than enough of them on eBay to prove that to my wife (or anyone else who might doubt it), and I have no further interest in collecting things that are inherently fragile on the off-chance I decide to sell them again someday. Having them sit in my room with the smug knowledge (or supposition) that they will be worth a fortune someday doesn't do anything for me anymore either. So for me there's simply no point to single issues anymore.

I know that paperbacks can't survive without the original, single-issue runs, and so I understand and appreciate what impels single-issue collectors to keep collecting the way they do. After all, until only fairly recently I was one of them. But in reading the Iron Man trade paperback I've finally come to understand the made-for-trade mindset that has many Marvel Comics storylines take place over five to seven issues. Had I collected The Ultimates in this fashion, I would never have chafed at how late the individual issues arrived.

And, thanks to the fact that in collecting my cars I could never buy more than one every few months, I've gotten used to waiting for something, which I could never really do when I was regularly collecting single issues. Reading the issues all in succession is immensely gratifying, especially stuff written by Mark Millar or, most recently, this stuff by Fraction.

I may well buy my next trade paperback months from now, or maybe even a year. The point is it doesn't matter; the collected story will wait for me without skyrocketing in value on the back-issue market. Such is the beauty of the trade paperback!

So in a manner of speaking, my collecting days are back...but not quite in the same way.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Watching Harry Potter, Anakin Skywalker and My Girl Grow Up

I'm not entirely sure why I keep gravitating towards the topic of child stars. Maybe it's partly because I've been a parent long enough to watch my kids grow considerably, and within a considerably short period of time, that I've acquired this morbid fascination with the way Hollywood seems to "bring up" its young.

As far as I can tell, the handlers of the Harry Potter kids (apart, of course, from their parents) appear to have done the best job considering the enormous amount of pressure that has, for eight years running now, rested on the shoulders of these youngsters. For six movies now, they've played the same characters and have gone from tykes to teens. The good news is, we haven't been reading about any DUIs, wild parties or seen any snapshots of any of them without their underwear (though on the topic of snapshots I have seen ONE photoshopped pic featuring the actors playing the main trio with Rupert Grint's "hand" firmly on Emma Watson's breast"). In short, as far as outward appearances are concerned, they appear to be none the worse for wear. They're all still in school, and are apparently not on drugs, which can only be a good thing. Maybe, just maybe, they'll all go the way of Jodie Foster rather than Lindsay Lohan.

Speaking of kids who are in school, I was pleasantly surprised to read about (and actually watch a video of) Jake Lloyd, who back in 1999 played ten-year-old Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a movie I actually hated. It seems that, after the role that would have made anyone else's career, he pretty much dropped out of sight (something fanboys will probably thank him for if they get the chance) and turned up, ten years later, in an online interview. The boy's in college and appears to be doing well. No drug-related stories, etc. To think it was only a few years ago that his contemporary, Haley Joel Osment, who also starred in a 1999 smash-hit, The Sixth Sense, figured in a DUI arrest.

Another child-star, from a little further back, is making her return to movies after a long absence. Anna Chlumsky, star of 1991's My Girl, was unable to parlay the success of that one film into a film career as three of her next movies, including the sequel to My Girl, tanked at the box office. She then walked away from movies and focused on, apparently, growing up and going back to school, among other things. And now she's back and apparently quite well adjusted with a college degree, a marriage, and a healthy stage career. Maybe she should thank her lucky stars that her career as a child actor didn't take off. After all, it didn't do the career of her My Girl co-star Macaulay Culkin any favors.

It's nice to read about these things after hearing things about Michael Jackson's troubled childhood as people look back on his life. I guess that a lot of child actors turn out okay, especially the ones who take a step back to live life outside Hollywood for a while; it's just that we don't read about them too much.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Revisiting Spider-Man's Clone Saga and Other Stupidities

To my mind, the Clone Saga was one of Marvel's ballsiest gambits ever. I definitely won't consider it one of the best stories ever, or, for that matter, even a good story...or even a very original story.

Still, the notion of replacing the Spider-Man whose adventures people had been following for twenty years was insanely gutsy, made more so by the fact that they tried to pass off the replacement as "the real Spider-Man all along." This was, I think, the first truly serious attempt to "un-marry" Spider-man.

Of course, there was no way that legions of fans were going to swallow that the only Spider-Man they had ever known was a fake, and even though I enjoyed the adventures of Ben Reilly I knew, in the back of my head, that they weren't going to last.

Thing is, when Reilly was killed and Norman Osborn brought back in exchange, I was so annoyed that I basically dropped the book for three years, coming back a little over a year before the Straczynski-led Spider-renaissance. Even though I decided after a year of putting up with Howard Mackie that I was better off not reading the title, JMS, with his radically new take on Spider-Man, pulled me right back in and I was an avid, regular reader for over two years thereafter, at least until artist John Romita Jr. left the book in early 2004.

But in that time, for me anyway, as someone who had followed Spider-Man's adventures on and off and on again since 1988, the JMS period represented a bit of a golden age as far as I was concerned; The Amazing Spider-Man was more readable than it had been in a long time. One thing I noticed, however, was that there was little to no reference, during this time, to anything that had come before it. In fact, it appeared that Spider-Man lived in a bit of a bubble. Except perhaps for some of the most rudimentary aspects of Spider-Man's history, there was nary a wink or a nod to any particular Spider-Man story that had come before.

The stories told in this period of time were, in a way, reflective of just about all Marvel's publications in the early Joe Quesada/Bill Jemas-era.

In this post-Jemas era, while crossovers, events and variant covers are all the rage again, one good thing about it is that suddenly Marvel comics writers were no longer afraid of revisiting the past again.

These days, retrospective stories like the Spider-Man and the X-Men miniseries can feature Ben Reilly in his brief tenure as Spider-Man, and an ongoing storyline can be published featuring the Clone Saga, "as it was intended to be told" by two of the original writers, Tom De Falco and Howard Mackie.

These days, Stan Lee can write a brief back-up story in The Amazing Spider-Man #600 commenting on how idiotic Spider-Man's status quo shifts over the years have been, including the changes to his marriage.

I gave up regularly collecting comic books because of the distinct feeling that the creators were constantly yanking my chain, switching the status quo just for the sake of it and not because it developed the character in any truly positive way. My favorite Spider-Man comic book remains issue #38, volume 2 in which he and Aunt May finally have it out about Peter's secret life as Spider-Man. It's an issue-long conversation in which Aunt May, having discovered without Peter's knowledge that he is, in fact, Spider-Man, takes him to task for having hidden the truth from her for so many years. It was heart-wrenching, beautiful stuff and a wonderful treatise on honesty in relationships. And now, in this "Brand New Day" where Aunt May is back to knowing nothing about Peter's double-life, it's completely meaningless, no matter what Quesada and his editors say about things "having happened, only nobody remembers them."

Maybe now that they're willing to "let the past in" and have stopped sweeping their past storylines and indiscretions under the carpet, Marvel will find a way to add that extra layer of meaning to Peter's relationship with Aunt May (among so many other things). Just maybe.

Of course, if they don't, I still get to save about P165 every month.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Subtext of Anti-Parent Cartoons

Thanks to the likes of Spongebob Squarepants, Avatar: The Last Airbender and a handful of other cartoons, I'm quite a fan of cable network Nickelodeon. Some of the shows of rival Cartoon Network are okay, too, but many of them, like Ben 10, feel more like they were designed to sell toys than tell stories. Unfortunately, it's got a couple of shows I don't care for very much, namely The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron and The Fairly Oddparents. In both cartoons, the main characters' fathers are depicted as ignorant, self-absorbed buffoons.

The Fairly Oddparents essentially tells the story of a child whose life is so miserable that he is "gifted" with two fairy godparents to help make his life more bearable. In this context it is understandable, at least from a narrative point of view, and therefore occasionally amusing that both of his parents (particularly his father) are depicted as complete jackasses. If he wasn't unhappy, he wouldn't have any need of his fairy godparents. The writing's fairly lazy that way but at least there's some logic to it.

As for Jimmy Neutron, well quite frankly I can't think of any good reason why his father has to be a complete and utter moron who doesn't appear to do anything useful for a living and is preoccupied most of the time with...of all things...ducks. About the only reason I can think of is that if Jimmy had parents who were even half as smart as he supposedly is (and for someone who's supposed to be smart he does a lot of profoundly stupid things almost every episode) he wouldn't be able to do all the amazing things he does because they wouldn't let him. Again, more lazy writing in my opinion, if that's the case.

But maybe there's more to it than that; maybe American parents in general and American fathers in particular have gotten so preoccupied with themselves and their own gratification that there's a whole generation of kids who have been neglected. Maybe it is this generation that has turned to cable television and video games for gratification. If this is a swipe at such parents and the overall effect of a consumerist-capitalist society, then so be it, but otherwise I cannot stand a show that would deliberately breed such contempt for parental figures.

At least Jimmy Neutron stopped airing new episodes two years ago...




Monday, July 13, 2009

Why Do Makers of Comic Book Movies Keep Recycling Actors?

What do Halle Berry, Sam Eliot, Jon Favreau, Morgan Freeman, Ben Foster, Samuel Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Ron Perlman, Natalie Portman, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Romijn, and Mickey Rourke all have in common? Well, each of them has appeared in more than one movie adapting a comic-book. In the cases of Eliot, Favreau, Foster, Reynolds and Romijn they've even appeared in more than one Marvel movie franchise.

Now, when they're done right or even just well (which oddly enough isn't always the same as right), I am a big fan of comic book movies, especially the Marvel ones, but I have to say this practice a lot of their producers have of recycling the same actors over and over again is kind of silly.

I'm not sure when it all started but the earliest instance I know of was Wesley Snipes who spent a long time cultivating the Black Panther franchise as a star vehicle before eventually jumping ship to play the title character in Blade instead, while Nicolas Cage was solidly in the running to star in Tim Burton's then-planned "reimagination" of the Superman franchise before the project fell apart and he left to do Ghost Rider instead. These actors, however, did not actually play two characters in two separate movies, some of them from the same "universe." I honestly don't get why comic-book movie producers seem to think there's only a limited pool of actors from whom they can draw people to play superheroes or their supporting characters. Sure, in many cases it's the actor who comes forward, as Reynolds has been actively campaigning to play the Flash and, prior to the announcement that he would be playing Hal Jordan a.k.a. Green Lantern in Martin Campbell's upcoming film, was already slated to star in a spinoff featuring the Deadpool character he played in the recent Wolverine movie. Robert Downey Jr. chased down the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man. But with the exception of Reynolds who is set to star as the lead in two comic book films, most of the recycled actors have played supporting, if pivotal roles for which, whatever their campaigning, they were ultimately chosen. So in short, either a limited number of actors went after these roles, or the studios went after a limited number of actors.

(Incidentally, and to go a little off-topic, while I did not feel Reynolds was particularly well cast as GL, I was happy to hear the news of his casting. I'm a big fan of director Campbell's work, particularly on Casino Royale, Daniel Craig's inaugural outing as James Bond, and The Mask of Zorro, and I have high hopes for this film.)

If it is a case of the studios dipping into the same well over and over again this is rather ridiculous, especially in the case of Marvel that has imminent plans of crossing over several of its franchises into the Avengers movie, with possibly more crossovers down the line should they ever start reacquiring the film rights to franchises that have been held for years by studios like Sony and Fox. It's unlikely that these actors would ever appear as two characters, but that it could even happen is extremely silly.

It's equally annoying that Marvel in particular keep going back to the same people for their scripts, particularly the likes of Zak Penn whose work in The Incredible Hulk may have been okay but whose X:Men: The Last Stand and Elektra were rather terrible.

One would think that with over two dozen successful films since the first Superman movie launched the genre 31 years ago, it would be easy for comic book-based projects to attract top talent, or at the very least fresh talent every time a new one is announced. For all we know this talent is already banging on the filmmakers' doors. I know a pre-Hulk Ed Norton campaigned to be able to play Warren Worthington/Angel before the role was given to the insufferable Ben Foster. So is this a case of producers going with the cheapest available talent even though the top talent is readily available? I certainly hope not.

One thing's for sure, there are a lot of great or potentially great comic-book based films currently in the pipeline, and it would be best for EVERYONE concerned, fans and moviemakers alike, if the producers got the best people available for the job, not just some bunch of also-rans they can easily lowball.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Shattering Images

NOTE: Edited for accuracy

Last year, when Meg Ryan went gave an interview to coincide with the release of her latest film The Women, she made certain comments with respect to her ex-husband Dennis Quaid's indiscretions during their now-defunct marriage (which were actually appropriate considering that the film dealt with the topic of marital infidelity among other things). These comments were reported in a lot of media outlets as the bitter tirade of someone who hasn't gotten over something.

Now, if these comments were simply a recollection of her own experience in relation to her film or a backhanded swipe at her ex-husband, it's impossible to say. But granting that it was a dig at Quaid I can't really say I blame her; her much publicized roll-in-the-hay with co-star Russell Crowe on the set of the 2001 thriller Proof of Life effectively killed her career, though it had no perceptible effect on Crowe's. Her stature as Hollywood's girl-next-door, or, more aptly, America's Sweetheart, meant that extra-marital affairs were a no-no for her.

Quaid, who won a fair amount of sympathy after Ryan had two-timed him, has since his breakup with Ryan seen a bit of a career resurgence with films like The Rookie, The Day After Tomorrow, Vantage Point and even the upcoming G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. Maybe Ryan felt it incongruous that he should enjoy success after infidelity while she has effectively been kicked to the curb. Whether or not that was what she meant, it does seem a little unfair when one thinks about it. But then perception is not often governed by the laws of fairness.

The thing is, her fall from grace wasn't even a matter of her being a woman; Angelina Jolie has been married and divorced twice and is perceived by many, rightly or wrongly, to be the reason why Brad Pitt left his ex-wife Jennifer Aniston, and yet she not only has post-"homewrecking" hits like Wanted under her belt; she garnered an Academy Award nomination for Changeling to boot. Apparently bad girls are more in fashion now than sweethearts.

Speaking of "bad people" such as the aforementioned Crowe, apparently there is a limit to what "bad boys" can get away with as Crowe learned when he gained some notoriety for reportedly injuring a hotel clerk with a telephone even though based on some accounts the clerk, who supposedly uttered "whatever" when Crowe complained about a malfunctioning phone service, may have at least partially deserved to get pummelled. Crowe's image took a beating especially considering that at the time he was trying to sell a movie where he played a downtrodden depression-era boxer. Not much chance of that happening if you're a real-life bully. Perhaps as a result, Cinderella Man tanked at the box-office.

Kobe Bryant's career was, less than two years after the fact, none the worse for wear after the woman who accused him of raping her settled out of court with him. His star was not dimmed in the least when he won Olympic gold last year or hoisted his first Shaq-free NBA title trophy over his head a few weeks ago. His multi-million dollar endorsement deals are still pretty much intact (though they admittedly were in jeopardy for awhile as was his public image). He took a hit, but ultimately bounced back.

Lest people argue that the case was settled and that Kobe should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty, one could look to the case of the late Michael Jackson for a sterling example of how allegations of sexual impropriety can be a real kiss of death for one's career. Now, I'm not even a Michael Jackson fan (as I've written elsewhere), and admittedly there's something about pedophilia that arguably makes it even more heinous than rape of an adult but the fact of the matter is that while the first case was settled, in the second instance Jackson was acquitted. That is to say, it was ruled that it had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he had had sexual relations with his accuser. This was not some case of some shady out-of-court deal. And yet, the first case had already done enough to make sure his chances of selling new albums ere dead and gone, long before he was. In many people's minds, Michael died a pedophile, regardless of whether or not he was. Of course, he didn't do himself any favors by admitting he had little boys sleep in his bed, no matter how much he insisted that it wasn't sexual.

Mel Gibson, of course, with his sanctimonious, hear-mass-in-my-own-private-chapel-in-Latin, make-a-movie-in-ancient-languages-about-how-our-sins-killed-Christ pontification basically set himself up for a fall, and his DUI in 2006 was quite the fall, so much so that three years later fellow Hollywood star Brad Pitt was able to rib him about it. He really does look quite foolish in his mug shot. As to whether or not it's killed Gibson's career remains to be seen as either later this year or early next year he is slated to make his first onscreen appearance since 2002's Signs in a movie directed by Martin Campbell.

Scandal has different ways of affecting different people. For that matter, different things constitute scandal for different people. For Meg Ryan, scandal is having sex with a man other than her husband, while for other celebrities it involves DUI. But the thing about people who are well-known is that the effect of a scandal upon a person's career ultimately depends on what people have come to expect from that person.

Maybe, in that sense, a scandal can be liberating because then the person involved is free from all expectations.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Different Shades of Celebrity Deaths

I have no doubt that the internet is now chock-full of obituaries for Michael Jackson, and to a lesser extent, Farrah Fawcett who died less than 24 hours before he did. Not having been a huge fan of either of these celebrities, I really have nothing much to contribute by way of an obit. I do have a bit to say on the matter, though.

Celebrities are, by no means, any better as human beings than the average person; they are simply better known than we are. That comes with so many things; the ability to get across whatever they want to say to more people, often a higher salary than most of us, and often, the unwanted attention of several people, something that usually follows them all to their graves.

But just as not all celebrities (or people for that matter) live in the same way, neither do they die in the same way, and I'm not referring to causes of death. No, that's often secondary to the stage of a celebrity's career when he or she dies.

On the one end of the scale there are the celebrities who die so soon in their careers that all at once there is regret that they were unable to realize their full potential, that the public did not get the chance to know them better, and essentially that they died far, far too young. Probably the most recent such death would be that of Heath Ledger, although in the celebrity world there's really no shortage of them from the passing of such iconic figures as James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly and Kurt Cobain to deaths of other promising artists as those of River Phoenix, Brandon Lee, Aaliyah and even lesser-known talents such as Brad Renfro. These are people who died even before the age of 30, so young that they left so many questions behind as to what they could have achieved as actors or performers given the opportunity. There are also artists who may have died a little bit older than that but whose passing felt only a little less premature; the thought that there was so much more they could have given still weighs on people's minds. While John Candy was obviously not in the best of health, his passing to me was a real tragedy because quite honestly that guy was one of the funniest comedians around and had he lived even another ten years there was so much he could have done.

On the other extreme there are peformers who have lived long, full lives and have had the stellar careers to go along with them. These are celebrities who have achieved everything they possibly could have in their chosen careers and who pass on from this life as revered icons who rise above any controversy that may have popped up in their lifetimes. I think it's fair to say that industry legends like Frank Sinatra, Katherine Hepburn, Paul Newman, and even Charlton Heston fall into this particular category. If he were to die twenty to thirty years from now instead of tomorrow without making more Dan Brown-based movies and more of the caliber that won him his two Oscars, I think Tom Hanks is pretty much destined for this pantheon, as Will Smith, at his current trajectory, would be if he died an old man.

And then there's all the other permutations somewhere in between.

Farrah Fawcett left quite the pop-culture impression on the public in her heyday, but her time as a star basically came and went. She was able to settle into a relatively quiet life (for a celebrity anyway) and endure her battle with her esoteric cancer privately. She was most certainly an icon in her day, and she certainly died quite young, but all things considered, had it not been for her death less than two days ago she would have gone on living a relatively quiet existence.

Then there's the celebrity death which is defies ready categorization. This is the death of a celebrity who has had an impact on the cultural landscape that is so distinctive and so indelible that even if he or she dies long, long after his or her star has waxed and waned, that death leaves people talking about that particular celebrity for years after the fact.

It used to be that the only celebrity I could think of that would fit this bill was Elvis Presley, who, at the time of his death, was well past his lean, mean movie star days and had literally and figuratively gotten fat off the legend he had built. This notwithstanding, his death at the very young age of forty-two ignited worldwide mourning and volumes of conspiracy theories, many of which have managed to persist for over three decades.

Now, I'm convinced Michael Jackson will be the one other celebrity whose death will be viewed in the same way.

I am not what I'd call a Michael Jackson fan by any stretch of the imagination but I cannot deny the impact he had on popular culture in the eighties and the early nineties. He was not just some flash-in-the-pan; he didn't come and go with a particular musical era. He defined the era himself and set the stage for dozens of acts that came after him.

More importantly than that, even years after Jackson's popularity as a performer had waned with the record-buying public, he was still a hot-button topic of conversation. In short, even when were no longer listening to him as much, they were still talking about him. Even when the musical landscape had changed, he still lingered in the public consciousness, even if it was as an oddball recluse.

This is neither an attempt to canonize or condemn him; it's simply a fact. Talent...controversy...people have asked others to forget the other and focus on the one, but the truth is it's all part of the package, the totality of who he was. Thanks to a whole confluence of factors he became who and what he was and part of his public image.

And THAT's what makes his death so unique. Talented artists have died before him and will inevitably die after him, but none like him. He was arguably one of the most polarizing figures in the world of entertainment; there was never any middle ground with the guy, who was adored by his followers and profoundly despised by his detractors. To those who called him Jacko and those who called him Wacko his death represents something significant and certainly worth talking about at length.

Another thing about Jackson is that his is the ultimate cautionary tale. In a world where child stars fall from grace with alarming regularity his fall was the longest and the hardest and not even because of any dip in his popularity or his ability to sell records; that is actually irrelevant. He could have died with a billion dollar bank account and his albums selling like hotcakes but his fall, from the way he basically turned his body inside out for decades to the way he seemed unable to cope with going out in public, would still have been self-evident.

Earlier I blogged about how America and in particular Hollywood should take a closer look at how child stars are handled (or manhandled) by their parent/managers. Maybe stricter laws should be enacted or more maybe existing laws should be more strictly enforced.

His death, just like his life, is certainly unique in terms of the overall effect it's had on people so far, but if one were to categorize him it would have to be as someone whose celebrity may well have been the death of him.