Thursday, April 26, 2012

Of Bratpackers and Top Gunners

Today I saw a twenty-plus year old chestnut screen on HBO, the sequel to the 1988 sleeper hit Young Guns, titled, simply enough, Young Guns II and starring Emilio Estevez as the infamous Billy the Kid with several other rising stars of the era such as Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips as his co-stars. I was reminded of my youth, then, and of a lot of the actors I grew up with from the 80s through the 90s, and wondered where a lot of them are. Many young actors from the 80s have managed to endure. Sutherland has certainly left his mark on Hollywood, if not necessarily with his body of work on the big screen (which is already fairly considerable) then certainly with television hits such as 24 and more recently Touch. Charlie Sheen, brother of Estevez and 80s staple since the breakout success of Oliver Stone's Platoon, was, up until his bizarre meltdown a year or two ago the highest paid actor in television for his work on Two and a Half Men, and of course Tom Cruise, whose career was made by Tony Scott's Top Gun in 1986, apart from a brief dip in his career a few years back, has remained easily one of the most bankable movie stars in the world. So a lot of kids/ young actors from the 80s have done pretty well for themselves. But then, what happened to the other guys? Anthony Edwards, known to Gen Xers (I wonder if anyone even remembers that term anymore) mainly as Top Gun's doomed Goose, had a bit of a career boost throughout much of the 90s as Dr. Mark Greene on television's ER, sporting a few more wrinkles and a lot less hair. It's not so much a mystery what happened to him as it is a disappointment that he kind of dropped out of circulation after that show, which arguably launched the career of his co-star, George Clooney. Val Kilmer, who post-Top Gun donned Batman's cowl for Batman Forever in 1995 and who was on the big screen as recently as 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang together with Robert Downey, Jr. That film wasn't a box-office hit but it was apparently well-enough regarded that it seems to have landed Black the directing gig for the next Iron Man movie, and I for one couldn't help but wonder why Kilmer didn't really stay in the game after that. He's kind of let himself go; the last time I saw him he was as fat as Santa Claus, though that could have just been some method acting I wasn't aware of at the time. Meg Ryan, whose appearance in Top Gun was limited, went on to basically be America's sweetheart all throughout the nineties, so her fall from grace was particularly saddening if I may be honest. I hate the double standard of audiences that has allowed Russell Crowe to rebound from his tryst with Ryan eleven years ago but which seems to have all but destroyed her image. I wish Ryan would enjoy a breakout hit, one that more than a handful of people actually watch. She's not exactly awards-caliber talent (though she did try her hand at drama, albeit unsuccessfully), but even in her later efforts, in my humble opinion, she still remains eminently watchable. In terms of looks it must be said she's aged pretty well, so at least she's got that going for her. The fate of the Brat Packers, a cadre of young actors whose heyday was in the 1980s with John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club and Joel Schumacher's St. Elmo's Fire, is a little harder to lament considering that neither of these films (nor any other of the Brat Pack films) was quite the pop-culture phenomenon that Top Gun was, and considering that many of them have worked quite steadily like Rob Lowe featuring prominently in Brothers and Sisters and Judd Nelson. Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy have pretty much fallen by the wayside, with Ringwald in particular registering a notable cameo in Not Another Teen Movie which was a sendup of just about every teen movie done in the last twenty years, including the ones in which she appeared...and little else. Estevez himself has, after his success in the 80s and 90s, pretty much settled into the background. Perhaps it's preferable to going nuts like his brother did, but I still wish he'd show up every now and then, especially considering his dad Martin Sheen (Ramon Estevez in real life) has been keeping pretty busy. Sheen will be showing up as a reincarnated Uncle Ben in July's reboot The Amazing Spider-Man. All things considered, given that he's pushing fifty Estevez could actually play that role, or roles like it, by now. For me, to see all of these actors I grew up with fade away until they show up in an E! special or on some reality show sometimes makes me wonder if they wouldn't have been somehow better off going out in a blaze of glory a la Heath Ledger. I suppose that, as is the case with rock bands, not every act can transcend more than one or two generations, but it would have been nice to see at least a few more of these guys go the distance.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Walking Dead: Who's Next?

Hands-down, one of the best things about the fact that the TV series The Walking Dead has deviated substantially from its source material, namely the comic books by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Aldard, is how much uncertainty it throws into the picture. Two full seasons in, and only a handful of people who have met their maker in the comics have kicked the proverbial bucket here. More significantly, their deaths on the small screen varied considerably from the deaths they met on the printed page.

(Mild possible spoilers)

Although one of the deaths in season one of the series was, as it was in the comics, a relatively early one, another character, one who lasted all of six issues in the comics was able to make it all the way to the penultimate episode of season 2, as major character who underwent a fairly rich storyarc, at that. Conversely, a character who lasted for nearly five years of the comic book's publication bowed out relatively early. Another twist in the storytelling is that one character who is actually still alive in the long-running comics died in a rather climactic fashion in the TV series. And then, of course, there's the fact that one of the show's most interesting characters, Daryl Dixon, is exclusive to the TV show, as is his brother, leaving audiences completely in the dark as to what his fate might be.

The producers and writers of the TV show have laid down a marker of sorts, declaring that while they by and large respect the canon of the comics, they intend to strike out on their own path. This is gratifying as it means that even people who've followed the comics are left guessing as to who may die next, which adds quite a bit of a thrill to the proceedings. What's the point of a horror-themed series, after all, when the characters aren't in the peril of their lives?

For those who have followed the series since its birth on the printed page, Kirkman's work still stands head and shoulders above its small screen counterpart due to his purity of vision. As owner of the book, Kirkman isn't influenced by things like ratings or the bottom line. The thing is, a straight adaptation, as is the case with most works that go from the page to the screen, big or small, would never have worked. Recognizing this, the brilliant Frank Darabont, who was primarily responsible for bringing the series to the screen, came up with something truly special.

In its somewhat brief first season, the TV show, thanks largely to the efforts of Darabont, was easily on parallel with the comics in terms of truly gripping narrative. Darabont took Kirkman's and Moore's first six issues and absolutely ran with them, faithfully incorporating scenes and characters from the original comics, expanding sequences, creating whole new ones, and finally throwing in a couple of curve balls for good measure. I for one am pretty sure things like the survival of a character whose time should have been up, and the introduction of the Center for Disease Control story angle, to name but a few of the innovations, no doubt even shook complacent fanboys of the comics out of their comfort zone. Of course, it helped that Greg Nicotero's superlative prosthetic work far, far outstripped Moore's and Aldard's artwork in terms of visual impact, and that from a cast and crew perspective, everything was pitch perfect.

Though things fell flat in the second season, which stretched out quite a bit longer than the first, and which, while still retaining much of that blend of character development, suspense and terror that has drawn me to this show like a moth to a burning lamp, lost quite a bit of its edge, the crew bounced back in the end with some really kick-ass final episodes. The show did seem to be a bit diminished with the loss of its primary shepherd Darabont, but given how strongly the writers and directors came back at the end of season 2, I'm inclined to think that the series will hit the ground running when Season 3 premieres in October.

Monday, April 09, 2012


After over a quarter of a century of collecting comic books, today I finally did something I've never done before; I picked up a comic book after having seen its adaptation, in particular the enormously popular cable TV series The Walking Dead. I had ever and always followed a comic book from the page to the screen, usually the big one, and it was only because of how compelling I found the live-action television version of TWD that I actually found myself going in the other direction for a change. I figured the best place to start was the very beginning, and so I got hold of Volume I, "Days Gone Bye" in which writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore introduce the world to the world of the walking dead.

I won't review the comic book compilation here, as it is an eight-year-old publication and I don't as a rule review something that's been out that long, especially something as popular as this particular book, but now having at least seen some of the comic books on which the TV series was based I have to say my overall experience of TWD is now that much richer. Given that Moore only ever illustrated the first six issues of the series, and that his work is reportedly a lot better-looking than that of his successor, current series artist Charlie Aldard, it seems I now have the cream of the crop, at least in terms of art.

Now, as blasphemous as this may sound to devotees of the comic book, what Frank Darabont did with the first season of the show, which was by and large an expansion of the first six issues, amounted to a narrative tour de force, as a result of which that season actually played better than the first six issues of the series read. There were a lot of tweaks made to the TV series that added dimension to the story and the characters; the expansion of Shane's character was a pretty significant departure from the comic book, as was the introduction of the Dixon brothers, particularly the certified badass Daryl (Norman Reedus), who remains unique to the show and who was, in fact, created by Darabont and not Kirkman.

The thing is, though that Darabont, with the power of Hollywood and the talent of make-up demi-god Greg Nicotero, as well as a dedicated cast, crew and team of directors and writers (including Kirkman himself) at his disposal, had a distinct advantage over Kirkman, who only had artist Moore to help him establish mood. More importantly, though, it was Kirkman and Moore who blazed the trail with this extraordinary work; without their work there would have been no show to watch. The whole notion of a zombie apocalypse being played out as compelling human drama rather than some camped-up kitsch is something that was firmly established by Kirkman and Moore in these first six issues, and, I imagine, throughout the series, long before the TV show ever came into being.

With the TV series on season break until the fall, which is nearly six months away, I now have plenty of time to catch up on the comic books I've missed, which span five years worth of stories. With any luck I'll be able to pick up at least three or four more collected editions before the series makes its return in September. It really was a new thing for me to actually be introduced to a comic book through its adaptation, but it's a new experience I most enthusiastically welcome. The show, and the comic books that inspired it, are fantastic.