Posts Tagged ‘review’

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Monday, March 9th, 2009

watchmen_teaser_movie_poster.jpgI have to say I was poised for disappointment. Alan Moore’s Watchmen is an icon in the graphic medium for good reason, and there are many aspects that present problems in translating it to the screen. First off, there’s just so much of it. It’s a dense piece of work that twists and winds and flashes back. There’s heaps of supplemental material to help you to better understand the (sometimes very) flawed characters, and an internal pirate comic that parallels the graphic novel you’ve got in your hands. I really didn’t think they could pull it off.

I was wrong.

The movie begins when the aging Comedian is mysteriously killed, years after a law in Congress is passed outlawing masked vigilantes. Despite being a generally horrible human being, his old Watchmen teammates from the good old days slowly begin looking into his murder, spurred on by the paranoid and clinically unbalanced Rorschach. Set against an alternate 1985 that is poised on the brink of WWIII, they find themselves pulled into a master plot that will either save or condemn the planet.

One of the things that makes the story work so well — on film and on paper — is the characters. It’s plausible. Only one of the five main characters has genuine “super” powers, and all are flawed to the extreme. At the time of the Comedien’s murder, they are aged heroes, complete with receding hairlines and spare tires. Old habits die hard, however, and they find comfort and life in their old personas, especially in light of the global situation that is quickly crumbling around them.

They could have updated the movie to be set in the present day, but I liked that they didn’t; I felt the Vietnam War was an important part of the story line, and do not believe another conflict would have sufficed as satisfactorily. The use of pop music in the soundtrack could have been corny or jarring, but it wasn’t, and is another nod to its original form.

The casting was wonderfully solid: there were no big names to create over-inflated expectations, and the actors were absolutely true to the characters. Rorschach and Nite Owl were my personal favorites.

They stayed very close to the comic, almost to a fault. Almost. I loved the respect that was apparent for the original form, and the novel was strong enough that it didn’t need much editing — what they trimmed was just perfect. The updates they did make were excellent — the costumes were great: real enough, practical enough. The special effects were good: I don’t recall any points when my brain cried “not real!” at any CGI.

It wasn’t without flaws, of course. Some of the make-up was not convincing — the first Silk Spectre’s aging and Nixon in particular were not good; and I guarantee there were some eyerolls at the “Hallelujah” love scene (I liked it, but I’m a sucker for some sexy sexin’). It is a solid R rating, which is refreshing and uncompromising. Also, there is some blue wang, so brace yourself if you’re squeamish about a man’s dangly bits, but let’s be realistic: if you’re an embodiment of unimaginable cosmic power, you really don’t concern yourself with pants. Some dialogue felt wooden or cliche, but as Justin Kownacki accurately points out, it wasn’t really meant to be spoken out loud.

Watchmen was a win as far as I’m concerned, but I can only speak as someone who also appreciated the original work. I will say Josh liked it quite a bit, however, and he’s never read the novel. The figures I saw Monday night gave $56 million for the opening weekend; I hope it recoups its initial cost and then plenty more once the public realizes it’s not supposed to be Batman or Spiderman.

The Dark Knight

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

darknight.jpg

May launched a very anticipated summer movie season for me: Iron Man, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, and finally, The Dark Knight. Let’s face it: the summer is usually a season of heavily hyped disappointers with a couple gold nuggets that slip through. I have to say on the whole I felt this summer was largely satisfactory, and went out on a very, very good note.

After the series of Batman films wound painfully down in the 90’s, I’d really written off hope for one of my favorite comic book heroes. Batman wasn’t the dark, brooding, troubled vigilante that delivered justice via brain, brawn and ingenious technology that he should have been; he’d become a James Bond full of corny one-liners that battled silly, bumbling bad guys in funny costumes. It was embarrassing.

Then Batman Begins came out in 2005. I went with expectations carefully in check, but excited at the appropriate darkness I’d seen in the previews. Was it perfect? No, but it hit all the right notes with me. I loved it. Its sequel, The Dark Knight, came out Thursday at midnight. I didn’t see it until Sunday afternoon, but everyone I heard in the interim — friends, family, fellow bus riders and strangers in cafes — had very positive things to say. I would say them, too, except the movie left me largely speechless.

I LOVED IT. It’s long (152 minutes), but it’s really two movies. Right when the story seems to resolve and your internal story-clock is thinking “ah, here’s the end”, they twist it around and give you another 45 minutes of movie. Heath Ledger’s Joker is deliciously unpredictable. Aaron Eckhart is an ambitious, well-intentioned and valiant Harvey Dent, which makes his fall from grace all the more painful. Christian Bale is… well, he’s a dark, brooding, troubled vigilante.  And you have to love a supporting cast that consists of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Gary Oldman.

The mood is dark, gritty, dangerous, and beautiful. There’s a layer of wonderful anxiety over the whole movie. People died, which was refreshing; I like a movie that isn’t afraid to kill important people off. Characters are believable and artfully crafted. The costumes and technology are modern and realistic. Some of the plot was predictable, but they threw enough curve balls that I stopped guessing and just let them take me for a ride. They cover a lot of ground. The end is… poetically bittersweet and wonderful. It was a perfect movie experience as far as I’m concerned, with magic that won’t strike again, especially in light of the rumors that Bale and Nolan will not return for the third installment.

It’s rare that you see a movie that legitimizes the hype. This totally lived up to my expectations.

BONUS: They showed a preview for the film adaption of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The Billy Corgan music pseudo-slow-mo thing was a little over the top for me, but I’m still looking forward to it. Can they pull it off? I don’t know. It’s a seriously dense piece of fiction. Here’s hopin’ they can.

This should conclude the movie reviews for a while. Probably. Maybe.

Jeff Smith’s “Bone”

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

jeffsmithbonecvr.jpgIf you have any interest in the medium of graphic storytelling, this is one piece that should be at the top of your To Read/Own list.

Originally self-published by Jeff Smith from 1991 to 2004, Bone is hailed as the longest running independently-published comic by a single author. Originally, there were 55 issues, released sporadically. These days you can purchase it as a complete volume that clocks in at a spectacular 1,332 pages. And every page is a work of art.

hoodedoneratcr.jpgWhen the three Bones - Phoney Bone, Smily Bone and Fone Bone - are run out of their hometown, they find themselves far from home and separated from one another in The Valley. We primarily follow everyman Fone Bone as he’s taken in by tough Gran’ma Ben and her (cute) grand-daughter Thorn for the winter. But as Spring blossoms, so does trouble: Thorn is having strange dreams, frightening Rat Creatures have begun to invade the valley, and a dragon has been spotted in the woods. They discover the mythic Lord of the Locusts seeks someone to release him from his ancient prison so he can destroy the world, a role he thinks can be filled by either Thorn or Bone’s cousin, Phoney. The barriers between the real world and the dream world begin to break down, and the discovery of Thorn’s mysterious lineage puts them in even more danger than before.

Smith weaves a tale that effectively combines fantasy elements like dragons, monsters, other worlds, and fate with lighter, comedic fare. The art reflects this juxtaposition as well - most of the characters are human, while the three Bones are more simply rendered, with big cartoon-y features and little clothes. Many of the human characters are still exaggerated, however, and I think that’s where Smith is at his strongest. Gran’ma Ben in particular is wonderfully expressive, despite having only lines for eyes and speaking primarily through her chin. His creature designs are straight-forward but fantastic, whether it’s a dragon, Rat Creature, or the cute baby animals. Emotion is poignant and subtle when it needs to be; action is always clear, expressive and exciting.

bonesample01.gifRarely does one truly find an author that is just as gifted at art as he/she is at storytelling. In every work of fiction it’s the story that is key, and sometimes graphic novels can get caught up in the “how” rather than the “what” when the author/illustrator are the same person. In Bone, they work well hand in hand.

I really can’t recommend it highly enough. I’ve read it twice, and I had just as much fun this time as the first time. I’m sure I’ll pick it up again in the future.

Bone is also being re-released in color, with the talents of Steve Hamaker adding some umph to Jeff Smith’s expert inking.

The Golden Compass

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

goldencompass-offposter.jpgHave you ever seen a good movie adaption of a book you’ve read? I haven’t. So I’m doing this one backwards: movie first, then book.

The His Dark Materials series only came onto my radar when I saw the trailer for the movie last year. Josh suggested we check the film out on Sunday, and we headed to the cheapies in Bridgeville. (Sidenote for Pittsburghers: Screenworks 14 is well worth a short drive. $2 tickets!)

The Golden Compass is set in a world parallel to our own. One extraordinary difference is that each person’s soul resides outside their body, in the form of an animal totem called a daemon. When uncle Asriel leaves Lyra at Jordan College so he can travel North to investigate a mysterious substance called Dust, we follow this mischievous young girl as she is plucked from her charge by the suave Ms. Coulter. Lyra is gifted with a surprise birthright before she leaves with the woman: an alethiometer, the last compass of its kind that will lead to truth. All the others have been destroyed by the Magisterium, who Ms. Coulter happens to work for (uh oh!). Lyra discovers that Ms. Coulter is in charge of a project that is kidnapping children and when she tries to steal the alethiometer from Lyra, the girl runs away and her adventure North in search of her uncle and the missing kids — begins.

The tale that unfolds is unlike any other story I’ve experienced, especially on the big screen. There was lots of drama, action, emotion. Storywise, however, I couldn’t help thinking there were things missing. I know that it is inevitable to lose detail that you would get from reading the book, but I was left not caring for things I suspect I should have been more concerned about. For instance, the Dust that the Magisterium wants kept a secret? So much so that they would kill for it? I couldn’t really care. I know it’s supposed to be a mystery, but it would have taken a little more information to actually pique my interest. It is possible to keep certain details hidden from the audience and allow the viewers to still leave feeling satisfied.

With a couple exceptions, I thought the acting was excellent — Dakota Blue Richards does an exceptional job, especially considering the weight of such a strong leading role. The cast seemed to interact well with each other and, most surprisingly, the CGI. There were only a couple times when my mind did a little double-take and said “Aha, that monkey is totally not hugging Ms. Coulter!“.ioric_lyra1.jpg

Visually, it is stunning. The environments are beautiful and believable, the machinery was conceptually inventive, the costume design is great, and character design for the CG characters was good. My favorite CG character should probably be Pan, Lyra’s trusted daemon, since he’s all cute and squeaky and shape-shifting, etc… but my warm and fuzzy feelings are all over Iorek*, exiled prince of the armored bears. Wicked.

I have a couple beefs with The Golden Compass, but all in all it was an enjoyable flick. I would certainly recommend it if you are a fan of the genre, although it might be a little too deep-end fantasy for more casual fans. I personally look forward to the next installment. I’m also getting the soundtrack.

*This affection has nothing to do with the fact that The Sum of David has a butt-kicking polar bear, and that seeing Iorek deal out some awesome Bear Rambo justice on the big screen was all kinds of righteous. None at all.**

**Okay, maybe a little.

Amulet by Kazu Kubuishi

Saturday, January 19th, 2008

AMULET by Kazu KubuishiMy first exposure to Kazu Kubuishi was through his website for monthly installments of his comic Copper — single-page comics that follow a boy and his dog along various life themes. His insights on art, comics and entertainment kept me coming back, and I anticipated the release of his first full-length novel, Daisy Kutter. He was also the driving force behind the Flight novels, which showcase the exceptional talent of a wide variety of writers and artists under the theme of , you guessed it, “Flight”.

Kubuishi’s recent blogs have highlighted his recent involvement in Flight 4, the youth-aimed Flight Explorer, and his latest graphic work, Amulet. It’s been a unique experience following him as he created this latest novel — through tables stacked with thumbnails, the challenges of story development (and redevelopment), deadlines, etc. I was able to secure a copy of the first print run before Christmas (because I’m that awesome, yo) and Josh was tickled pink when he unwrapped it December 25.

…but he didn’t read it fast enough, so I got to it first. Really, this was my plan all along since I boosted his graphic library by at least ten, and he cannot humanly read them ALL at the same time. So: I win.

The story begins with Emily, Navin and their mother relocating 2 years after the tragic loss of the children’s father. Noises draw them into the basement on the first night in the previously abandoned family home, and their mother is captured by a monster and carried away. Emily and Navin pursue it down a mysterious stairway that disappears behind them and leads to much more than a simple sub-basement.

The fantasy world grows from there, introducing a mysterious voice that guides Emily in using a strange and powerful amulet that she discovered in their great-grandfather Silas’s study. Beyond the blob of tentacles that kidnapped their mother, there’s also a crash course in creatures that announce you’re not in Kansas any more, such as parachute mushrooms, dangerous conebeak birds, robots and the terrifying gauntlet. There’s also a creepy dude that follows them around, which you just know is going to end badly.

The art is Amazing. Yes, with a capital A. Kubuishi is more than competent at showing action and emotion, and his choices on what to frame and how to frame it are excellent. The shots and pacing feel like you’re watching a movie. The linework is relatively simple, if very well executed, but the color and texture is what makes it fan-freaking-tastic. There’s a gritty texture to many of the environments and scenes that raises the bar to a new level; layered colors pile on top of one another and particle-like specks add a level of realism that boost it out of cartoony. I was originally worried about the character design, since the main two we follow through this first book are kind of generic looking, but the color really helps make them unique.

The end left me a little dissatisfied, since I wanted to know more and it wasn’t quite in a cliff-hanger-thirsty-for-more way. I’m okay with that, however, because there’s a lot that the two Earth children also didn’t understand about what just happened, where they’re going, or why. I would have liked to see a little more exploration of the story/surroundings, but I understand it’s only Book One and introducing a fantasy world does take a lot of time — you have to establish the environment and ground rules from square one. Besides… it was beautiful. All in all, it was well worth the read and I heartily anticipate the next volume. Check it out!

A disclaimer: Two of my current favorite graphic novels are Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Jeff Smith’s Bone, both of which are very large (600 and 1,300 pages, respectfully)… so my slight dissatisfaction with the end of Amulet could have nothing to do with the story and more with me being accustomed to having it all spread before me in a big, fat, satisfy-me-now brick of an epic. If Kubuishi’s past work is any indication, I’m sure I will continue to devour the entirety of the series happily and hungrily; I’ll just have to do it smaller, yummy bits.

…I understand that’s better for your metabolism anyhow.

City Theatre’s The Vagina Monologues

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

City Theatre invited Pittsburgh’s bloggers to their production of The Vagina Monologues on Saturday. Keli and I thought we’d give it a try.

City Theatre is located on the South Side’s 1300 block. The set-up is intentionally intimate: it seats 111 and the stage was only large enough for the three actors performing the monologues. I will say that I felt lucky to be of the half that was in the theatre-style seating, even if we were far off to one side. The other half was seated at two-top tables that, once the theatre was full, made movement almost impossible. Since Keli and I were on the waiting list we were the last to file in, and the toes I stumbled over (sorry!) had nothing to do with the wine I’d had. A little close for my tastes, but you do choose your own seats — perhaps some prefer the close quarters.

The Vagina Monologues was written by Eve Ensler in 1996, and is a series of monologues that was created after the interviews Ensler conducted with over 200 women regarding, you guessed it, their vaginas. Each piece explores some aspect of the organ: whether it be nicknames, sex, rape, childbirth, or orgasms.

City Theatre’s Erica Bradshaw, Holli Hamilton and Laurie Klatscher did a nice job. I thought Bradshaw particularly did a wonderful job with two of the monologues, one a portrayal of a sex worker and the other of a blossoming lesbian in the seventies. Klatscher also did a nice recollection by an older woman that referred to her vagina as “the cellar” and recounted what she called “the flood”, an experience that followed her throughout her life. I believe George Clooney was involved.

The first time I saw The Vagina Monologues was a production done by Point Park. It was longer and showcased a large cast of over twenty, each girl with a single monologue. I laughed hysterically and moved to tears. It also included more of the monologues — since the VM is actually a compilation of many facts and stories, each theatre picks and chooses the ones they incorporate into their show. There was at least one in particular that I missed seeing that had lent the show more of raw, empowering feel.

I don’t know that it would be completely fair to compare the two performances head to head, especially because but there’s a certain sit-up-and-take-notice that comes from a thirty-long list of nicknames for your genitalia that can only work as well the first time. The two productions were very different — the size of the cast and facility, the direction, the lighting, everything. But I also can’t help feeling that their production wasn’t as raw as it could have been.

That being said, it was certainly a nice way to spend a Saturday evening and I would definitely suggest checking it out if you’ve never seen it. The Vagina Monologues runs at the City Theatre from January 10th to February 17th. If you mention the word BLOG when purchasing tickets, you will receive $5 off each ticket. Because I have that kind of power.