SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)
Lightning-quick and feeling especially contemporary in our celebrity-addled culture, Mackendrick’s tale of a desperate press agent (Tony Curtis) and the newspaper columnist (Burt Lancaster) to whom he owes an especially odious favor is alternately pithy and poignant. A thoroughly cynical take on America’s media culture that benefits from sharp performances and a vernacular-laden, witty screenplay by Odets and Lehman (based on his novella,) it wouldn’t feel complete without James Wong Howe’s cinematography. His deft touch makes this a movie that showcases New York City’s high and low life just as much as does its well-realized characters.
No filmmaker, no storyteller has taught me more about movies, about fiction, or about life. His work is minimal and fractal simultaneously, reflecting the world even as it projects itself into it, creating depth from seemingly simplistic motifs.
He knew Toshiro Mifune was the motherfucker before anyone else did.
Every time someone approaches me about my Seven Samurai tattoo, I end up babbling a bit about why I have it and try to impart how elegantly how his most popular work thrillingly presents seven men that are willing give to so much for so little reward and how it codifies a moral stance that I would only hope to live up to, given the circumstances. It also involves swords and cutting dudes, which is something that also codifies a stance I hold.
If you can sit through Ikiru without losing by completely at the end, you’re probably at least 1/3 robot.
The early melodrama The Quiet Duel or the bloated, too-fanciful Dreams may be among his lesser works, but his fingerprints are all over the final product, making them worth a viewer’s respect and study.
Without Akira Kurosawa, I wouldn’t have the drive to tell stories that I do. He inspires me more than anyone else and I can’t imagine a world without his films and his spirit. He will always be The Master to me.
7. “One thing that distinguishes Akira Kurosawa is that he didn’t make a masterpiece or two masterpieces, he made, you know, eight masterpieces.” – Francis Ford Coppola
Tonight, I’ll be returning to 1991′s finest urban crime drama for the first time in fifteen years when I do a drunken livetweet of New Jack City. It’ll start at 11pm EDT. Want to tag along? The film is on Netflix’s Watch Instantly and I’m @beaucoupkevin. Let’s all agree to use the hashtag #NewJackCity.
(I’m going to end up being like Carrie, aren’t I? Covered in pig’s blood, babbling about Ice T, all on stage by myself.)
This video’s being passed around the last couple of days with people discussing the cliché that is the dead cellular phone in horror and suspense movies. What I’ve not seen is anyone stating why this motif is so persistent.
Horror is derived from the feeling of isolation, from the fact that there is no easy out for a protagonist. In an era where 82% of Americans now have a cellular phone of some type, any screenplay (or comics script) that wants to keep the audience from suspecting the protagonists are as dumb as posts for not calling the police/national guard/Justice League in at the end of the first act needs to address the issue of the ubiquitous communications device that allows us to send pictures, emails, text messages, and make phone calls. Yes it’s a cliché, and usually clumsily handled, but it’s a necessary one to keep that needed suspension of disbelief aloft for the 90+ minutes of entertainment that the viewer has paid for.
(On a slightly-related note, that’s something I’ve noticed a lot about Japanese horror: it’s definitely about being isolated. In a very social, very crowded culture like theirs, the idea of being utterly alone already hits a tone. A prime example of this is the last third of Audition, where Takeshi Miike plays this to the hilt.)
The second issue of El Gorgo has been printed and is waiting for your Paypal information. Sure, you could read it in its entirety for free, but I honestly think these guys deserve your pocket change for actually printing a comic about a gorilla luchadore and making it much better than it actually had to be to keep me entertained.
A second printing of the first issue of Glenn Brunswick and Dan McDaid’s Jersey Gods is hitting stands this week. I’ve been promising them a letter of comment for some time but I am quite wary of doing this as I’m afraid it’d wind up being one of those unabashed “Oh my god like you guys are so good and Glenn’s script is super-witty and sweetly romantic while managing to capture the cosmic bigness of the gods in the story and that Dan McDaid, boy, he can draw real good and when are you guys going to start a fan club with a button set and a newsletter I’d be the first member” sort of things, but suffice it to say that if your local shop has a copy of #1 and #2 in stock on Wednesday, you’d find yourself a better human being if you deigned to spend money on these books. You’ll notice them by their fine covers by Mike Allred and Darwyn Cooke, two gentlemen that you may have heard of.
I got the trade for Secret Invasion because I remembered liking bits and pieces of it in single issues while being put off by the way the series hung together as a periodical. I can’t help feeling that is comes off as being really sparse despite having quite a lot of talking and punching. I read the entire 8-issue series in about an hour and didn’t feel like I was missing anything. Am I alone in thinking that there’s no real depth to the work and that thematically, it’s pretty barren? Yeah, there’s plenty of rah-rah Marvel Fan Moments that I genuinely enjoyed (Maria Hill versus Jarvis on the Helicarrier in a sequence that should have been in one issue instead of spread across three, Nick Fury stone-cold shooting aliens in the face) but it left me cold in the end, feeling like a means to an end instead of a story in its own right.
That said, that Thunderbolts crossover trade was a lot of fun, mostly because I enjoy Norman Osborne vamping it up and being all arched eyebrows and hissed commands when he’s not in the public eye.
Yet the movie is ultimately undone by its own reverence; there’s simply no room for these characters and stories to breathe of their own accord, and even the most fastidiously replicated scenes can feel glib and truncated. As “Watchmen” lurches toward its apocalyptic (and slightly altered) finale, something happens that didn’t happen in the novel: Wavering in tone between seriousness and camp, and absent the cerebral tone that gave weight to some of the book’s headier ideas, the film seems to yield to the very superhero cliches it purports to subvert.
I was talking to sometimes-writing-partner Josh the other day about satirical films and how so few of them have seen any massive box office success. Off the top of our heads, we listed Robocop, Dr. Strangelove, and Starship Troopers*. Thank You For Smoking made a nice profit for itself ($24m on a $6.5m budget,) but that’s where my list ended. Discounting our love of movies like Idiocracy, what social** satires can you name that have made significant money for “the suits”? I feel like I have to be missing something here.
(Or am I overestimating people again? I am, aren’t I?)
Despite being an avid fan of Watchmen, purchasing multiple copies over the years and tracking down issues of magazines like Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal from the period of the series’ release, I can’t help but look down on the upcoming cinematic version (you know, the one with the action figures, coffee, condoms, ad nauseum.) If you know me, you’ve heard me scream that Watchmen is at its core a comic book, much like Citizen Kane is a movie. It uses its medium’s strengths and weaknesses to the story’s advantage throughout, doing things that can’t work on screen, even if you take each and every panel from the book, carefully edit the voiceovers into it, and ensure that each line of dialogue is exactly as it appears on-page. I can go on and on about the technical aspects, but there’s a more important element that’s sitting at the core of my misgivings about this slick-looking piece of superhero cinema.
Watchmen is at its core a drama. Yes, there’s a mystery that brings its main cast of players together, but it’s really about broken people and the fucked-up lives they lead. Laurie and Walter’s respective relationships with their mothers; the way Dan’s nostalgic values and fierce devotion to an intellectual ideal leads him down a lonely path; Adrian and Jon’s parallel devotion to logic, with the first becoming more alien as the other is held aloft as the height of humanity – all of these make the book work, and that’s where the real power of Watchmen lies, not in the (elegant and rewarding to be sure) investigation into the murder of Edward Blake. Even as they peel apart the superhero meme, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons devote a considerable amount of the book’s pagecount to exploring the common man in all its diversity (the newsstand vendor and the kid who reads pirate comics, the lesbian couple’s relationship woes, the psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with Rorschach.)
It’s this elegant dissection of people that allows Laurie’s realizations about her father to have a greater impact that the multiple pages devoted to Veidt’s final solution and its implementation. Moore is telling a story about everyone while Snyder, with his video game cutscene aesthetic and the stilted, too-mannered performances that pervade the clips available of the film, seems to have missed that point entirely, focusing on the costumed identities and the mystery. Yes, these are a few short pieces of scenes from a movie with a 2+ hour running time, but they seem quite telling. The riot scene from the 70s becomes high camp thanks to music by KC And The Sunshine Band and a jump that takes place in slow motion because it looks cool. Laurie and Dan’s re-emergence as superheroes is positively generic in its execution, lacking charm and tension entirely. Perhaps in the context of the film, these scenes have more power, but as someone who has read the book at least a dozen times over the years and knows how each beautifully-constructed simulacrum of a scene from the book fits into that story, I can’t help but pre-judge.
The more I see of the film version of Watchmen, the less I like it, and perhaps more importantly, the more I dislike what it represents: the dumbing-down of something greater for the sake of a false “authenticity” that’s apparent only to those shallowest of readers of the source material. Zack Snyder may have a made a movie that’s called Watchmen, features a cast of characters directly from the book, and liberally makes use of the book’s contents, but I’ll be very surprised if it has any of the original’s heart.
And for that, I’m sorry. No new edition of The Rack today; Birdie’s assured me we’ll have one tonight, but if you want to wait until tomorrow, we’d both be OK with that. We’ve been remarkably on time, so I’m sure you understand. Even Tiger Woods takes a mulligan on occasion.
Yes, I just compared two comic nerds writing and drawing a sitcom about a comic shop to History’s Greatest Golfer. Any complaints?
I’ve spent the past three nights rewatching Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy. If your only exposure to Mifune’s samurai performances are through the (admittedly universally excellent) Kurosawa films, I highly recommend watching the series for nothing more than watching a how excellently the man shows the lead character’s maturation from callow youth to master swordsman. The films may be the tiniest bit mawkish and convoluted, but the stories are rock-solid and the climactic battle between Miyamoto and the rival he never wanted is one of the great screen fights, all tension and release.
Picked up Kazuo Umezu’s Cat Eyed Boy on a whim a few weeks ago and read the first volume in a day and then opting for a more leisurely route with the second. It’s definitely the sort of thing that’s more rewarding when read as it was originally distributed: in drips and drabs over a stretch of time. The gleeful insanity and “what the fuck” approach to storytelling (How many powers does the lead develop out of the blue?) is less annoying, even if you do lose the visceral thrill of wallowing in the junkier end of manga horror. My favorite part may well be the fantastic design and packaging from Viz.
Speaking of Viz and Musashi Miyamoto, I just received the first of the new oversized three-in-one editions for Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond, a series I’ve been interested in but didn’t feel like reading in 20-something separate volumes at $10 a pop. Inoue’s art has always caught my eye and saving 30% while getting a bigger book in return is right up my alley. I assume someone’s upset over this, of course. Only negatives at first glance: the “bonus sketchbook” section ballyhooed in the flap copy is a paltry two pages, and there’s no way to determine how deep your commitment to Vagabond might be, just that this is the first chunk.
The C.W. is apparently making a show I’m not going to watch about a character I only barely care about, but since it’s comics-related, it’s a thing? Newsarama’s responses are, of course, just as measured as always. My favorite? “This show infuriates me and it hasn’t even been made yet.” I guess that’s the opposite of the Whedonites who are begging Fox to not cancel Dollhouse before it even debuts?
Seriously, did T.I. and his producers use the Numa Numa song on that track with Rihanna? Yes, they did.
Daft Punk’s Electroma, directed by the duo and starring two other people in their famed robot suits is self-indulgent, ponderous, bloated, and utterly fascinating for its excesses and the statement they appear to make. For years, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have used their stage identities to remove the ego from their product, carefully crafting an image that makes the men behind the music invisible to all but the most inquisitive listeners, and this film adds another (likely very intentional) layer of obfuscation between them and their audience.
The film’s plot is threadbare, to say the least: two robots drive a Ferrari 412 (license plate HUMAN) to a town in the desert southwest (straight out of Charley Varrick or Vanishing Point) occupied solely by other robots (both male and female) with the same designs, clad themselves in human disguises that soon melt in the desert heat, and find themselves on the run from the citizenry. If it weren’t for Daft Punk’s explicit explorations of the themes of identity and humanity in the close-to-unlistenable Human After All, I’d think this was art-wank of the highest order. Once placed in context – Electroma began as an expansion of Human After All‘s promotional videos – it becomes part of larger work and, much like Alive 2007, improves upon the source material no small amount, even without featuring it directly.
Early screenings at Cannes were met with confusion and derision. For those not indoctrinated in the themes in the previous material, walking out would be an easy and understandable option: the film offers no explanation of the events presented, merely some above-average camerawork and a narrative that’s far too barebones to satisfy even the most pretentious of filmgoers. I think a lot of the movie’s appeal will be almost subliminal to a good deal of the audience that would be receptive to the work. I don’t necessarily recommend it to everyone, but I’m very glad I’ve seen and own it.
“Darker” isn’t necessarily something I associate with Superman.
However, “complex” is, and I get the feeling that Rubinov may have conflated the two.Â Superman’s strength as a character, once you get past the Depression-era common-man power fantasies and Silver Age weirdness, lies in the fact that he is actually hampered by the fact he can do almost anything.Â His ethical center (and all-American upbringing, natch) forces him to be restrained.Â While he could easily take over the world and rule with an iron fist, he doesn’t – he provides a touchstone, a guidepost for us.Â (And the other heroes in a shared comics universe, but let’s switch over to the single-character, movie-friendly take.) He’s also bound to a morality that forces him to work within the law, unlike Batman or even Spider-Man, and has to take the high road, which is likely to be very difficult when you can shoot lasers from your eyes with an offhand thought.
This connects with Superman’s biggest villain and best cinematic rival: Lex Luthor. While the Luthor/Superman conflict may be a bit played out on film at the moment, I could argue that the core of their animosity makes for a compelling central point that the movie audience could relate to with very few changes from the source material. Luthor’s a regular human being who is convinced that this alien has to have an ulterior motive – that no one is as perfect and ethical, as good as this man appears to be. He may be a criminal, true, but it takes Superman to drive him to the outlandish lengths he goes to, as seen in comics like Action 510-512, where the man brainwashes himself and becomes the Kryptonian’s BFF just so he can betray him. I feel like the hammy, if enjoyable, performances by Hackman and Spacey probably should be left behind and remembered fondly and replaced with something a bit more reserved and mannered, where the nastiness comes across as that much more brutal.
The irony of an alien representing the best we have, fighting against the worst isn’t lost on me, and hopefully won’t be lost on the filmmakers. If played properly, this struggle would make for drama at least as interesting as the whole baby daddy thing (and the attendant stalkerism) that muted a great deal of my affection for Superman Returns once I got past the atmosphere and feel of the piece.
Mind you, I’d pay non-matinee prices for a proper Superman vs Braniac vs Metallo brawl with lots of destructoporn if it looked like it had half a brain.
I’d also be happy if they went a bit Morrison and reduced the origin story to eight words over a montage and started with Clark Kent walking into the Daily Planet at the start of just another day. I doubt they’ll go that way, as producers and screenwriters and directors love to do “their” take on the origin, but at this point, the audience that’s going to see Superman knows the broad strokes by heart, if not through the comics or the movies, then through Smallville. Spending time on an actual Superman story versus remaking the first (fantastic) hour of Donner’s movie means that the screenplay gets a chance to hook the audience properly and, hopefully, touch on some of the themes I mentioned. (I liked the flashbacks to Kansas in Superman Returns a lot, is what I’m trying to say, and think that’s all the viewers need at this point.)
Finally, I’d really, really appreciate it if they’d cut back the Christ Metaphor stuff a bit. We get it. Also, I always thought the Moses angle worked a bit better.
This post contains some spoilers about The Dark Knight, so if you’ve not seen it, go look at kittens
1. Some conservatives are claiming that The Dark Knight and its depiction of Batman show that the character is a true conservative and that the film displays those values wonderfully:
Innocents get killed, civil liberties are infringed, and Batman ardently defends lies over truth in the pursuit of propaganda. Extremism in the defense of liberty is Batmanâ€™s virtue, and he ventures much farther into the wilds of lawlessness than any politician would dare. Moreover, his Gotham is a place where some believe that chaos can be managed, that giving into a simple demand from the Joker that Batman turn himself in might be a workable alternative in the long run.
So Batman, a true “hero” whose only motive is to protect the City, is portrayed as being hamstrung by pantywaist bureaucrats and nosy reporters. He needs to hide; he needs to do his deeds out of pure sacrifice, knowing that an ungrateful populace will not appreciate what he’s done for them. But he doesn’t care. He’s truly the warrior standing watch to protect the city, and he does not expect anything in return.
This is a remarkable piece of propaganda. It is the type of propaganda that’s breathtaking in its audacity and scope. It’s in your face. There is no subtlety to it. And that’s what’s eerie about it.
In their zeal to prove a point, sides actually ignore the fact that Batman’s invasions of privacy and the like were portrayed as bad things happening for a good cause. The whole film revolves around that moral gray area: Batman does things that the police can’t, but the police can’t do them for good reason and Harvey Dent, someone who believes in the law and its power, is betrayed by his belief and is pushed over the edge by The Joker.
Gordon’s escalation speech at the end of Batman Begins discusses the situation succinctly: “We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds.” Batman’s very presence has pushed Gotham into the state it’s in at the beginning of the movie with dopplegangers and supercriminals on the loose on top of the “old’ problems represented by Salvatore Falcone.
As Dorian pointed out in a conversation, Bruce Wayne’s affiliations with Lucius Fox and Alfred provide him with an ethical center he may not have otherwise. While it’s obvious that he wants to help the city in any way he can, it’s also apparent that he’s very afraid of going too far. By giving Lucius control of the listening devices, he’s allowing the man to act as a governor on his actions, and with Alfred he gets the feedback and steering that he still needs.
At the end, a new status quo emerges that is, if anything, more chaotic for the principals than what the film started with, despite the extraordinary methods used and sacrifices made. In many ways, you could say that The Joker won because he’s pushed Gotham into a more paranoid state than ever, something a terrorist would want. Batman’s actions, while saving countless lives and keeping the city together, are merely a band-aid on much larger problems that the character will have to face in the future.
I love that a summer blockbuster can’t be reduced to talking points by either side, no matter how much they try. In a time where the news, politicians, and most entertainment bombards us with left/right, right/wrong, and good/bad, it’s refreshing to have a movie – a superhero movie at that – contradict that sort of thinking by giving viewers something more than spectacle. It’s been over three weeks since I saw the movie and I still find myself thinking back about choices made by the filmmakers and their characters. Helluva movie.