Friday, February 29, 2008

I Want a President Who Watches The Wire

Several stories have been circulating recently, including this one, about Barack Obama's appreciation of The Wire as his favorite TV show and Omar Little as his favorite character.

And nothing has made me want to vote for a presidential candidate more than this.

First, this choice demonstrates considerable taste and intelligence.

Also, it displays an uncalculated sincerity. He could have given a safe, innocuous answer calculated to appeal to the broadest possible audience, like Gray's Anatomy. Instead, he picked a show and a character that are intellectually and morally challenging, and that provide a complex commentary about contemporary social and political issues which doesn't reduce problems down to simple binaries like good vs. evil or us vs. them.

And if he takes any lessons away from the show, I hope it's about the dangers of becoming a politician like Mayor Carcetti--an inspirational leader who ultimately succumbs to ambition over his ideals.

The selection of Omar as the favorite character also shows that Obama can separate fiction from reality--that one can admire a fictional character without endorsing his actions. It would have been interesting, though, if Obama said his favorite character was Clay Davis:

Monday, February 25, 2008

Dr. K's Oscar Post-Mortem: I Suck

Not only was last night's Oscar ceremony a fairly boring affair, but it also turned out to result in my worst predictions since I started making picks 15 years ago. I only got 11 right out of 24 categories, which is the first time I've ever dropped below .500.

The night started off not too bad, though the Best Costume Design award to Elizabeth: The Golden Age and the Best Visual Effects award to The Golden Compass should have been signs that things were not going to go well. Seriously--if anyone had these two picked correct in his or her pools, then he or she was just randomly guessing (especially The Golden Compass--that movie had some pretty dodgy effects). By the end of the night, I figured I could have done just as well by closing my eyes and dropping a pen on a list of nominees.

In retrospect, I feel especially stupid for not picking The Bourne Ultimatum for the technical categories. That choice makes much more sense than my Transformers picks.

Also, I should have gone with my gut and picked "Falling Slowly" from Once as the Best Song. It's a great song, and it's used really well in the movie. I also liked the way the performance of the song was staged, with Glenn Hansard using the same guitar, and the background duplicating the music store wall where the scene takes place in the movie.

In the end, though, I was glad that the Coen Brothers walked away with so many awards. This is the first time in a long time that I felt the Best Picture winner was the actual best movie of the year.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Dr. K's Oscar Prediction Spectacular

I love the Oscars. Though I have little faith in the Academy for making the right choices every year, I do get caught up in the hype and excitement of the announcements every year (though this year I'm a little less excited because of the paucity of nominations for the criminally overlooked Bring It On: In It to Win It).

For the past two years, my pal Roy and I have written an Oscar prediction piece for the local paper. We manage to work well together on these articles because we have competing selection styles: Roy (who reads this blog) is an idealist, usually picking the actual best selection in a category based on aesthetic criteria, while I tend to be more of a cynical pragmatist, looking at Oscar history and other, nonaesthetic factors in my selection process. I, for example, have no problem voting for a film I have not seen. Though Roy is wrong slightly more often than I am, he retains a certain level of credibility that I have long sacrificed. In the end, he probably sleeps better at night about his choices than I do.

I have, however, been proud of my track record over the past few years. Two years ago, I only got two wrong (though one was missing "Crash" for best picture, which I really can't be blamed for missing), and every year I've beaten the so-called professional prognosticators at Entertainment Weekly, which gives me no end of pleasure.

With that being said, and that gauntlet being thrown, I'm going to list here my picks for this year's Oscars, which will appear in bold in the list below.

The list of nominees, by the way, is taken from the official Oscar website.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
George Clooney in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)
*Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah" (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" (Focus Features)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.)
*Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War" (Universal)
Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment)
Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Universal)
*Julie Christie in "Away from Her" (Lionsgate)
Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse)
Laura Linney in "The Savages" (Fox Searchlight)
Ellen Page in "Juno" (A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production)

In these three acting categories, I will be really upset if these frontrunners don't win. Julie Christie's performance in "Away From Her" is just amazing, though Ellen Page has gotten a lot of buzz, which hasn't really let up. I also really hope that Hal Holbrook doesn't pull an Alan Arkin by winning the Best Supporting Actor award as a kind of de facto lifetime achievement award. Holbrook is barely in "Into the Wild," and Bardem gives a performance that will go down in history as one of the great film villains. And if Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't win, you can drink my milkshake.

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There" (The Weinstein Company)
*Ruby Dee in "American Gangster" (Universal)
Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement" (Focus Features)
Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone" (Miramax)
Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)

This is a tough category because every nominee has a genuine shot based on the history of this award. Cate Blanchett gets points for playing a man and for being nominated in the lead category--two factors that often lead to victory. Amy Ryan has a breakthrough performance that often wins here, as it did with Jennifer Hudson, Mira Sorvino, and Marisa Tomei, to name a few. Saoirse Ronan could pull an Anna Paquin here as well. And Tilda Swinton is a great actress who is really due for recognition, and "Michael Clayton" may not have a chance in some other categories. But I'm going to go with Ruby Dee because of her SAG win and for the Alan Arkin factor, even though she is barely in "American Gangster." Still, I'm vacillating on this choice, as I think that both Blanchett and Swinton have clear shots at this as well.

Best animated feature film of the year
"Persepolis" (Sony Pictures Classics): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
*"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Brad Bird
"Surf's Up" (Sony Pictures Releasing): Ash Brannon and Chris Buck

Achievement in art direction
"American Gangster" (Universal): Art Direction: Arthur Max; Set Decoration: Beth A. Rubino
"Atonement" (Focus Features): Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
"The Golden Compass" (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Art Direction: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
*"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount): Art Direction: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Art Direction: Jack Fisk; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson

Achievement in cinematography
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.): Roger Deakins
"Atonement" (Focus Features): Seamus McGarvey
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Janusz Kaminski
*"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Roger Deakins
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Robert Elswit

I'm torn here between "Atonement" and "No Country." "Atonement" has some incredible camera work, including an amazing long tracking shot, but I'm bothered by the fact that the director, Joe Wright, did not get a much-deserved nomination. Roger Deakins is nominated twice in this category, and that may cause a split. However, I think that the momentum will be with "No Country for Old Men" on Sunday night, so I'm going with that.

Achievement in costume design
"Across the Universe" (Sony Pictures Releasing) Albert Wolsky
"Atonement" (Focus Features) Jacqueline Durran
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Universal) Alexandra Byrne
"La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse) Marit Allen
*"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount) Colleen Atwood

Achievement in directing
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Julian Schnabel
"Juno" (A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production), Jason Reitman
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), Tony Gilroy
*"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson

The Coen Brothers are my favorite American filmmakers, so I'm kind of picking with my heart here rather than my head. Paul Thomas Anderson could take this one as well if "There Will Be Blood" ends up having more momentum than "No Country." Also, because the audience for those two movies is so similar, Julian Schnabel could come in with an upset.

Best documentary feature
*"No End in Sight" (Magnolia Pictures) A Representational Pictures Production: Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
"Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" (The Documentary Group) A Documentary Group Production: Richard E. Robbins
"Sicko" (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company) A Dog Eat Dog Films Production: Michael Moore and Meghan O'Hara
"Taxi to the Dark Side" (THINKFilm) An X-Ray Production: Alex Gibney and Eva Orner
"War/Dance" (THINKFilm) A Shine Global and Fine Films Production: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine

Best documentary short subject
"Freeheld" A Lieutenant Films Production: Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth
"La Corona (The Crown)" A Runaway Films and Vega Films Production: Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega
"Salim Baba" A Ropa Vieja Films and Paradox Smoke Production: Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello
*"Sari's Mother" (Cinema Guild) A Daylight Factory Production: James Longley

I almost never get to see the short film nominees, so I base my guesses in these categories on subject matter and title. I usually do pretty well, nonetheless.

Achievement in film editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal): Christopher Rouse
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Juliette Welfling
"Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment): Jay Cassidy
*"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) Roderick Jaynes
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Dylan Tichenor

This category almost always goes to the ultimate Best Picture winner. I so want Roderick Jaynes to win this. The Coens have created a hilarious mythology around this pseudonym, and I hope that they have plans to build on it at the ceremony if he wins.

Best foreign language film of the year
"Beaufort" Israel
*"The Counterfeiters" Austria
"Katyn" Poland
"Mongol" Kazakhstan
"12" Russia

Achievement in makeup
*"La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse) Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald
"Norbit" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount): Rick Baker and Kazuhiro Tsuji
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (Walt Disney): Ve Neill and Martin Samuel

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
*"Atonement" (Focus Features) Dario Marianelli
"The Kite Runner" (DreamWorks, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Participant Productions, Distributed by Paramount Classics): Alberto Iglesias
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) James Newton Howard
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney) Michael Giacchino
"3:10 to Yuma" (Lionsgate) Marco Beltrami

"Atonement" was one of the few movies where I actually noticed the score. The use of typewriter keys as percussion was really distinctive and fit the film perfectly.

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
"Falling Slowly" from "Once" (Fox Searchlight) Music and Lyric by Glen Hansard and: Marketa Irglova
"Happy Working Song" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz
"Raise It Up" from "August Rush" (Warner Bros.): Music and Lyric by Jamal Joseph, Charles Mack and Tevin Thomas
"So Close" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz
*"That's How You Know" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz

I'm taking a total guess here. "Falling Slowly" could benefit from the "Enchanted" split, and it's a wonderful song that serves an important role in a very cute movie. If one of Eddie Vedder's songs from "Into the Wild" were nominated, I'd be picking that.

Best motion picture of the year
"Atonement" (Focus Features) A Working Title Production: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
"Juno" (A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production) A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production: Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) A Clayton Productions, LLC Production: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
*"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax) A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers

I want this movie to win more than I've wanted a movie to win in a long time.

Best animated short film
*"I Met the Walrus" A Kids & Explosions Production: Josh Raskin
"Madame Tutli-Putli" (National Film Board of Canada) A National Film Board of Canada Production Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski
"Même les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)" (Premium Films) A BUF Compagnie Production Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse
"My Love (Moya Lyubov)" (Channel One Russia) A Dago-Film Studio, Channel One Russia and Dentsu Tec Production Alexander Petrov
"Peter & the Wolf" (BreakThru Films) A BreakThru Films/Se-ma-for Studios Production Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman

Best live action short film
"At Night" A Zentropa Entertainments 10 Production: Christian E. Christiansen and Louise Vesth
"Il Supplente (The Substitute)" (Sky Cinema Italia) A Frame by Frame Italia Production: Andrea Jublin
"Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)" (Premium Films) A Karé Production: Philippe Pollet-Villard
"Tanghi Argentini" (Premium Films) An Another Dimension of an Idea Production: Guido Thys and Anja Daelemans
*"The Tonto Woman" A Knucklehead, Little Mo and Rose Hackney Barber Production: Daniel Barber and Matthew Brown

Achievement in sound editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal): Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Skip Lievsay
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Randy Thom and Michael Silvers
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Christopher Scarabosio and Matthew Wood
*"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins

Achievement in sound mixing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal) Scott Millan, David Parker and Kirk Francis
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Randy Thom, Michael Semanick and Doc Kane
"3:10 to Yuma" (Lionsgate): Paul Massey, David Giammarco and Jim Stuebe
*"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Peter J. Devlin

When the same movie is nominated in the two sound categories, it usually wins both.

Achievement in visual effects
"The Golden Compass" (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris and Trevor Wood
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (Walt Disney): John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and John Frazier
*"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl and John Frazier

"Transformers" is the only one of these movies that the Academy voters will actually feel okay voting for.

Adapted screenplay
"Atonement" (Focus Features), Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
"Away from Her" (Lionsgate), Written by Sarah Polley
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
*"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson

This, however, may be the category that PTA has the best chance of winning if the voters decided to spread the wealth a little.

Original screenplay
*"Juno" (A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production), Written by Diablo Cody
"Lars and the Real Girl" (MGM), Written by Nancy Oliver
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), Written by Tony Gilroy
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
"The Savages" (Fox Searchlight), Written by Tamara Jenkins

"Juno" is the type of movie that normally wins this category: the popular choice by a first-time writer. See "Little Miss Sunshine," "Thelma and Louise," and "Good Will Hunting." "Michael Clayton" also has a shot here, though.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

BIO Week: Anticipating the Next Bring It On Sequels

As I mentioned in yesterday's critical assessment of the cheer lexicon, The Bring It On Tetralogy gets much of its artistic power and significance from being au currant or of the cultural moment in which they are produced. The most recent films, in fact, have been made so quickly, that they have been able to capitalize on many current trends, including not only fashion, but also recent catchphrases that have not yet lost their currency. That is especially evident in the titles of the last two films: Bring It On: All or Nothing (originally titled Bring It On Yet Again) and Bring It On: In It to Win It. With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to brainstorm more possible titles for future Bring It On sequels, using current catchphrases and other slang.

Bring It On: Talk to the Hand
Bring It On: Pwned!
Bring It On: Whatevs
Bring It On: Fo Shizzle
Bring It On: Mad Skillz
Bring It On: All Up in Your Grill
Bring It On: Oh No You Di'in't!
Bring It On: Been There, Done That
Bring It On: Your Mom
Bring It On: That's What She Said
Bring It On: I'm a Grower, Not a Show-er
Bring It On: My Bad
Bring It On: It's All Good
Bring It On: You're Fired
Bring It On: Outside the Box
Bring It On: Fair and Balanced
Bring It On: What's in Your Wallet?
Bring It On: I Drink Your Milkshake
Bring It On: Friend-O
Bring It On: Change We Can Believe In

Recently, Chris over at the ISB and I were having one of our daily conversations about how great the Bring It On movies are. This discussion ultimately led to both of us imagining that the franchise could be even further extended by mashing it up with other movies. Below is an actual transcript of the conversation, as it really happened:

ISB: Oh shit.
ISB: Bring It On: For A Few Herkies More
ISB: Bring It On: A New Hope
ISB: Bring It On: First Blood Part 2
ISB: Bring It On Versus Predator
ISB: Hayden Panetierre. Marlon Brando.
Dr. K: Make that CHEEREQUIEM
Dr. K: Geriatric cheerleaders
ISB: BIO: The Cheer Hunter
ISB: Starring Ashley Tisdale and Christopher Walken
Dr. K: Hayden Panettiere. Steven Seagal
Dr. K: Bring It On Deadly Ground
ISB: Thank You For Not Bringing It On
Dr. K: The bawdy British comedy:
ISB: Hmmm.
Dr. K: That I'd see
ISB: (a silent film)
Dr. K: A gripping anti-war film:
ISB: No.
Dr. K: Starring Kirsten Dunst
Dr. K: Hello? Chris? Are you there?

Any suggestions for further sequels?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Bring It On Week Comes to the Spec: The Cheer Lexicon

Over at The ISB, Chris Sims has begun a week devoted to the sublimely perfect series of cheerleader movies, the Bring It On Tetralogy. Chris promises "A Worldwide Web of Cheercitement and Cheerventure!" and I have gladly agreed to participate in the internet-wide Cheergasm Cheerlocaust in celebration of these classic movies.

Now, the first thing you might be asking is this: "But Dr. K, you are a world-respected academic with a stellar reputation for taste and intellect--how could you participate in a celebration of cheerleading movies?"

The answer to that is simple: first, I have seen every movie that I ever needed to see in development of my expertise in the field of film. I don't need to see another movie ever again. The Bring It On films, therefore, are like a vacation--what I can do now that all my work as a film scholar is done.

Second, I think that history will look back at the Bring It On films, especially the sequels, in the same way that the French critics of Cahiers du Cinema in the late 1950s looked back on American B-movies of the 40s and early 50s: as a ground for creative experimentation by auteurs working under the radar and under considerable budgetary restraints. In other words, the Bring It On sequels are the Cat People and Detour of the 21st century.

You think I'm kidding? Just look at how the films have inspired a classic work by one of the century's great artists:

How else do you explain the dancing girls in this video? Clearly an act of cheerspiration. Of course, the movies have missed a significant opportunity in not using this song in any of the films.

There are many reasons why the Bring It On movies are significant works in the 21st century, but none is more important than the films' near-Joycean linguistic experimentation. This wordplay functions on several levels. First, and perhaps most historically significant, occurs in the third film, Bring It On: All or Nothing, where the use of instant message language, combined with Sierra's sheer stupidity, allow for some quite Shakespearean comic moments:

The use of IM-language in this particular film are guaranteed to make it both a historical and a literary artifact studied for centuries. I will bet that one scholar in the future will make his or her reputation by annotating this film alone.

Note also this linguistic wordplay from the first film:

Darcy: What's the plural for 'butt'? On one person, I mean.
Carver: She puts the "ass" in "massive".
Darcy: You put the "lewd" in "deluded".

More obvious, yet ultimately more complex and satisfying, are the neologisms involving the addition of the prefix "cheer" to already existing words.

For example, in the first, and arguably the best, of the Bring It On movies, two cheerleaders have a debate over the political system their cheerleading team will use:

Torrance: Courtney, this is not a democracy, it's a cheerocracy. I'm sorry, but I'm overruling you.
Courtney: You are being a cheertator, Torrance, and a pain in my ass!

Of course, cheerocracy and cheertatorship are not the only ideologies compatible with the world of cheerleading. One of the most common systems, as you can imagine, is "cheereditary rule," though it's popularity was briefly replaced by "cheermunism" during the interwar years of the 1920s and 30s. One of the least successful cheerdeologies, however, was "cheerjectivism," which was hampered by the fact that its practitioners only shouted one, single-line cheer: "Give me an A!"

The cheer lexicon seems most vibrant when dealing with levels of disaster, as in "cheertastrophe." This language also reaches its apex in the Cheerstian faith, in which the cheerpocalypse will bring about the rapcheer, and then culminate in a final showdown between the good cheerleaders and the evil ones, which will be known as "cheermaggedon." All this is said to be revealed in the 6th and final installment of the film franchise, Bring It On: The Book of Cheervelation.

As you can see here, the films have a depth and cultural and artistic significance that is often masked by their disposable tween-entertainment facades. History will certainly bear this out, and I predict the future publication of scholarly resources like The Journal of Bring It On Studies.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Blackhawk in Bondage

One of the things I've discovered in my recent Blackhawk research is that the Golden Age series has a significant amount of bondage in it. Pretty much every story, Blackhawk gets tied up, and usually with his shirt ripped off.

In fact, I believe William Moulton Marston once said of the series, "You know, that comic has too much bondage in it."

First, there's this cover, which must have flown off the shelf, with upside-down, crucified, spread-eagled Blackhawk.

Here are just a few more randomly selected images from The Blackhawk Archives:

I think Blackhawk isn't flinching because this happens to him pretty much every day.

"Scream, Blackhawk, Scream': now that should be the title of the Blackhawk movie.

If this blog were Armagideon Time, it would, first, be smarter, funnier, and better written. Second, it would contain mp3s for X-Ray Spex's "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!" and Gang of Four's "I Love a Man in Uniform" to go along with this post.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Chop-Chop Hits Keep Coming

I know I'm running the risk of turning the 100-Page Super Spectacular into the Chop-Chop blog (and that would be wrong for a variety of obvious reasons), but the Chop-Chop posts have generated thousands of hits, and several other prominent blogs have linked to these pages.

One of those links happens to come from the blog of Gene Luen Yang, creator of the graphic novel American Born Chinese, who writes in the post, "Chop Chop is an ancestor to my character Cousin Chin-kee."

This is particularly cool because the paper I've been working on is about how contemporary cartoonists use racial caricatures from the past, and American Born Chinese is a prominent work in that research.

Monday, February 11, 2008

More on Chop-Chop

I'm kind of surprised that my recent post on Chop-Chop got so much attention, having been linked by both Mike Sterling and Journalista!. Traffic to this blog has septupled because of their interest, so thanks to both for the links.

I basically threw up the post as a way to work through some writer's block on the research I was doing, and it seemed to work, as I completed a full draft of the paper last night.

Sterling mentioned that the "metatextual" moment where Weng "Chop-Chop" Chen responds to his comic book likeness was one of his favorite metatextual gags, so to show what really happened, here's the moment, from Blackhawk 1 (1989), by Marty Pasko and Rich Burchett.

In the world of this series, the Blackhawk comic is actually written by Lady Blackhawk, who in this series is not the Zinda Blake of current continuity, but Natalie Reed, an eye-patch-wearing American Communist created by Chaykin for his miniseries. Here are the specific panels to which Weng is responding:

If you compare these panels to those in my earlier post, you'll see that this isn't really a parody of the original, but a pretty accurate recreation.

As Olaf's comment in the top panel addresses, the original Blackhawk series was not a font of cultural sensitivity--every character in the series conformed to some ethnic or nationalist stereotype.

And, as Rob Rogers points out in the comments for the earlier post, Weng Chen's story continued into the contemporary era. At the same time as the Pasko/Burchett series, it was established in the modern DC universe that Weng was the CEO of Blackhawk Express, a Fed Ex-style delivery service. The first Blackhawk annual for that series had a backup story featuring the new Blackhawk Express, which includes Weng's children, and the "Who's Who" style entry in the back of the issue indicates that other surviving Blackhawks may be serving as a mysterious board of directors for the company (though I don't think anything was done with this). In 1992, DC published a Blackhawk Special featuring Blackhawk Express, though I don't have that comic. I think it makes for an interesting kind of irony that the most problematic character in the team's history becomes revamped as the one who survives the longest and has the most success.

RIP Steve Gerber

It's more sad news that Steve Gerber died last night. He'd been blogging from his hospital bed after suffering from pneumonia while awaiting a lung transplant. His blog posts were filled with the same wit and wry cynicism that marked his best comic work. Mark Evanier also has a nice rememberance of Gerber up on his own blog here.

Gerber was reaching his peak as a writer early in my comic reading hobby. While his work could be darkly funny, as in Howard the Duck, it could also be deeply spiritual and moving, as was especially the case with his most recent work, the new Doctor Fate series for DC.

Evanier and others have said pretty much everything there is to say about Steve Gerber. He was really one of the greats. Here's a quick list of just some of my favorite comics and moments from his prolific and influential career.

Mister Miracle 24, where Gerber built on Kirby's creation to make the character the messiah of the Fourth World, as Kirby intended.

The Phantom Zone miniseries: a story that 13-year-old Dr. K found both unsettling and awesome, which is a feeling I would have continuously in Gerber's comics for years to come.

Omega the Unknown: along with Howard the Duck, probably Gerber's purest creation.

Some pretty badass and hilarious lines from the final page of the Void Indigo graphic novel, and the start of a series that scared Marvel so much that they cancelled it after only two issues. An alien warrior comes to Earth, names himself Mick Jhagur, and watches a lot of TV.

To see Gerber's best work, check out The Essential Defenders, The Essential Man-Thing, and the forthcoming Howard the Duck Omnibus.

RIP Roy Scheider

Sad news that Roy Scheider passed away last night. He will probably be best remembered for his portrayal of Chief Martin Brody in Jaws, as well as his Oscar nominated roles in The French Connection and All that Jazz. He also starred in two of my favorite underrated movies of the 70s: Sorcerer and Last Embrace.

Sorcerer is William Friedkin's remake of the French film The Wages of Fear, about a group of four men who must transport cases of unstable nitroglycerin by truck, through the jungle and over washed out mountain roads, to put out an oil fire on a remote South American mountain. Sorcerer should be studied by anyone who wants to understand how to slowly and painstakingly build tension in a movie. The film is unrelenting in its tension, and every time I watch it I feel exhausted by the end.

Sorcerer should have served as the crowning achievement in Friedkin's 70s trifecta of great movies, along with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Instead, it was a career-damaging disaster. Because of the success of The Exorcist, Friedkin got final cut and nearly unlimited control to make this movie, and there is certainly a lot of excess evident on the screen. For example, each of the four characters is given a backstory, and each was filmed in a separate country, including France and Israel (Scheider's backstory was filmed in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which is also the city where I was born and gives me some added affection for this movie). The budget ultimately exceeded $22 million--a huge budget at the time--after an original budget was set at $2.5 million. However, all that excess went into making an outstanding film--one of the few occasions where such unlimited creative control resulted in an artistically successful movie.

The film's shoot was almost as interesting as the film itself. Friedkin had originally attracted Steve McQueen to star, but McQueen, who was always notoriously difficult, wouldn't film outside the U.S., and Friedkin insisted on the authenticity of the locations (primary shooting would be done in the Dominican Republic). Friedkin actually began shooting without a main star, though Scheider decided to join the film as his follow-up to Jaws. Despite the success of Jaws, however, the studio did not see Scheider as a bankable star, and this further increased their worries about the troubled production.

To make things even worse, the studio released the film just a few weeks after Star Wars in the summer of 1977, a decision that pretty much doomed the movie to obscurity. Perhaps if the movie had been released a year earlier, it would be better known today, but who knows if popular audiences would have gotten the movie anyway.

Peter Biskind details the excesses and troubles of this shoot in the great Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, but whatever went into the production resulted in an amazing film. Here's the trailer, which uses the film's excessive production as a selling point. The great, trippy score is by Tangerine Dream.

Last Embrace came out a couple of years later. It's an early Jonathan Demme film, and it stands as one of the more successful Hitchcock homages. The film also features Christopher Walken in a great supporting role. Here's the great opening scene of the movie--I love the use of slow motion and dissolves to create this dream sequence.

I'm going to be watching Last Embrace again this afternoon, and I'm going to try watching The Seven-Ups over the weekend (featuring an awesome car chase!).

I always liked Roy Scheider's performances. He got his start during a time when Hollywood was really in transition, and leading men like him, Richard Dreyfuss, Al Pacino, and Gene Hackman all had unconventional qualities that broke from the classic Hollywood model. Put up his six best roles--Jaws, The French Connection, The Seven-Ups, Sorcerer, All that Jazz, and Marathon Man--up against any other actor's career, and he holds up well. He also proves to be pretty essential to what made the 70s such a great decade for American films.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I Drink Your Milkshake!

Last Thursday night, I took the final opportunity to see There Will Be Blood at the local multiplex before it was replaced with the destined-to-be-classics Fool's Gold and Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins (which is, for some reason, playing on two screens). So, I went to the 10:20 show, knowing full well that I wouldn't be getting out of the theater until Friday morning.

As I anticipated, I was the only one in the theater for the screening, which is the best way I can imagine watching this film. I was totally immersed in it, and I even found myself at times speaking aloud some of the movie's great dialogue.

As I left the theater after 1:00 am, I discovered that my car was the only one in the parking lot, so it may have been that the employees left me there to my own devices, as all the other movies were long done by then. While driving home, one line in the movie stuck with me, and I kept repeating it over and over:

I drink your milkshake!

Little did I know that this line also resonated with a lot of other viewers. There are already t-shirts, and a website has devoted itself to an appreciation of the phrase (in fact, that site is now serving as an intelligent and civil discussion board for this film and others by Paul Thomas Anderson). The site also provides an mp3 of the line, so if you didn't see the film, you can still hear it in all its glory. Entertainment Weekly this weekend ran an article about the line's popularity as well (though the writer complains that it diminishes Daniel Day-Lewis's outstanding performance to turn this line into a parody). Snell also came up with a use of the line that I wish I had thought of, and could itself become an internet phenomenon.

But the less said about the YouTube remix of the Blood trailer with Kelis's "Milkshake," the better.

Anyway, after hearing the line, I vowed to use it in ever situation possible. But what situations would provide the best opportunities to deploy an effective "I drink your milkshake"? Over on the IDYMS board, there's a discussion of that very question. One poster suggests that the phrase should replace "pwned." Though I agree that "pwned" is played, I think that the circumstances for using "I drink your milkshake" must be narrower. Keeping with its context in the film (which I'm hesitant to explain, as it may reveal some spoilers), it should be used only when one has achieved success at the direct expense of another.

So, for example, if you were playing a multiplayer, first-person shooter video game, and you took all of the ammo and life that showed up, while your fellow players were running out of ammo and dying, you could effectively shout, "I drink your milkshake!"

Or in the workplace: if, during a pitch to a client, you presented one of your co-workers ideas as your own and got a raise or promotion for "your" creativity, then you could send an interoffice memo to that co-worker with the single sentence, "I drink your milkshake."

You could also probably use it if you managed to cuckold a rival.

Politics may offer many opportunities as well. In fact, Keith Olbermann used a variation of the line to describe the Democratic race on Super Tuesday. He said something to the effect that Obama did not drink Hillary Clinton's milkshake. So, it's possible to use the phrase in the negative as well. However, when would it have been appropriate for Obama to use the line? If Obama had won New York, and gained more than,say, 70% of the white female vote in the process, he could have announced in that evening's victory speech, "I drink your milkshake!"

Now that I think about it, at the recent CPAC convention, if McCain had gone on after Romney announced that he was pulling out of the race, it would have been entirely appropriate for McCain to begin his speech with "I drink your milkshake."

So, barring the rare occurrence where I can actually use the phrase, I will probably just randomly shout it out when it comes into my head, as a kind of cinematic Tourette's.

And, at the risk of pushing things too far, here's something that I just couldn't help doing: lolplainview!

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Day Job: Keeping up with Chop-Chop

As I mentioned last week, posting has been light on this blog as I've been working on a conference paper on racial caricatures in comics from the Golden Age to the present, focusing particularly on Asian caricatures that inform Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, American Born Chinese. Part of my work on this project over the last few days has involved reading through my collection of Blackhawk comics and picking out images of the Blackhawks' Chinese mascot, Chop-Chop, to use in the PowerPoint presentation that will be accompanying the paper. This whole process, as you can imagine, is making me feel a little unclean.

Chop-Chop first appeared in Military Comics 3 as comedy relief in the otherwise pretty somber Blackhawk feature that began in Military Comics 1. Here's the first panel in which the character appeared:

From the beginning, Chop-Chop was depicted as a foul-mouthed Chinaman (actually, Dude, the preferred nomenclature is "Asian") who was prone to violence, usually with a sharp object of some kind.

He even had his own tagline, which he used with great frequency whenever Chop-Chop faced adversity or any kind of obstacle: "Chop-Chop been double-clossed!"

There were a lot of such stereotypes used throughout World War II and the Korean War, but I'm using Chop-Chop in this paper because he's representative of a lot of stereotypical images in comics, and he gained a lot of traction as a popular character in the series. Even from his first appearance, he was being used as part of the publicity for the Blackhawk feature:

By the 1950s, Chop-Chop would graduate to his own feature in the regular Blackhawk comic, which kicked up the caricature even further:

The Blackhawk series survived both World War II and the Korean War, and the 1960s run, where the team goes from being high-flying adventurers to a low-rent superhero group, needs a whole series of posts to discuss (these issues, written by Bob Haney, are flat out nuts, and it's one of my strongest desires that DC produces a Showcase edition of them). Blackhawk was also revived a few times as a war book. The series was revived in 1982 by Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle because Steven Spielberg bought the film rights to the comic (which would you rather have: Spielberg's Blackhawk or Schindler's List? I know exactly where I stand on that question.) Evanier and Spiegle's run in the 80s is plain fantastic, but it's proven really difficult for me to get a complete run of it. Some issues feature "Detached Service Diary" backup stories that feature some great art by Howard Chaykin, Alex Toth, and others.

Evanier and Spiegle made some changes to the Chop-Chop character, giving him a less caricatured appearance and avoiding the accented speech patterns, but they did keep the costume and made him a martial arts expert.

A few years later, in an underrated revival by Howard Chaykin (and later Marty Pasko and Rich Burchett), "Chop-Chop" was renamed Weng Chan, and the series frequently commented on the racism of the "Chop-Chop" nickname, including a metatextual scene in the Pasko/Burchett run where Weng complains about his depiction in the Blackhawk comic book (if I remember correctly).

The Chaykin prestige-format miniseries is great, typical Chaykin work from that period following American Flagg! and his Shadow revival. I remember at the time that it got a lot of criticism for its graphic sexuality and the strong liberties he took with the revamp. And like a lot of Chaykin's work, it has a complex narrative that requires the reader's complete attention, as well as considerable historical knowledge of its wartime mileau. However, as a long-time, devoted Howard Chaykin fan, I have a hard time being objective or critical about his work, even when it should challenge some of my stronger feelings about gender issues.

I feel that this post is setting up more posts that I'll probably do down the line on the Bob Haney Blackhawk series and on Howard Chaykin, among other things.

Update: More on Chop-Chop here.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Movie Review: Into the Wild

Here is my review of Into the Wild, the last review I wrote for the local paper that won't be published there. The only thing I want to add to this review is that I really hope Hal Holbrook doesn't pull an Alan Arkin and upset Javier Bardem for Best Supporting Actor at this year's Oscars. I'll be writing something about the Oscars and my predictions coming up here, but I have a sneaking feeling that Holbrook might get the sympathy vote for this performance. Nothing against Holbrook, but he doesn't show up until very late in the movie, and the performance doesn't hold a candle to Bardem's, which will go down in film history as one of the great villain roles of all time.

Anyway, here's the review:

In 1990, Christopher Johnson McCandless, having recently graduated from Emory University, gave his remaining college fund to charity, left his parents and sister, and began a journey around the country that ended two years later, when his body was found, weighing all of 67 pounds, in the Alaskan wilderness. McCandless’s story was documented in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, “Into the Wild,” which has now been adapted to film by writer and director Sean Penn. The film is clearly a labor of love for Penn, and Penn’s attraction for McCandless’s unconventional abandonment of American society obviously resonates throughout the film. However, Krakauer’s book presents several daunting challenges in the adaptation to the screen, especially in its episodic structure and an enigmatic central character with whom the audience may have difficulty sympathizing. Despite the film’s beautiful landscapes and nature photography, it ultimately fails to overcome the challenges of compressing McCandless’s story into a full-length feature film.

Penn structures the film around various chapter titles from Krakauer’s book, each indicating a different stage of maturation, such as “Adolescence.” In addition, the film frequently flashes forward from McCandless’s American journey to his 113-day survival adventure in the Alaskan wilderness, living inside an abandoned bus that had been converted into a hunting shelter. After graduation, McCandless attempts to abandon his identity and his overbearing parents by assuming the new persona of “Alexander Supertramp.” He then leaves his car in an Arizona ravine after a flash flood and proceeds on foot across the desert, armed with several books on surviving in the wild. His journey alternates between moments of intense isolation communing with nature and other times when he connects with other like-minded travelers, including characters played by the wonderful Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, and Hal Holbrook.

The film’s episodic structure—which moves from the Arizona desert to a South Dakota farm to the Colorado River, Los Angeles, upstate California and finally Alaska—makes it difficult for the audience to feel emotional attachment to any of these characters that intersect with Christopher’s life, despite some moving and authentic performances by Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook. Neither appears for very long in the movie, and Holbrook doesn’t even show up until the very end. Instead, Christopher moves from one location to the next with a suddenness and speed that dillutes the emotional impact he has on these people, or they have on him.

Penn also includes a parallel narrative detailing the McCandless family’s struggle to come to grips with their son’s disappearance. The part of the story is mainly revealed through a voice-over narration from Christopher’s sister, played by Jena Malone. This technique further burdens the film, but one can see Penn’s struggles to remain faithful to this story that clearly inspires him. However, one can’t help but feel some sympathy for the family, even though the parents’ dysfunction is blamed for driving Christopher away, and that makes sympathizing with Christopher even more difficult. Perhaps it’s to Penn’s credit that he doesn’t completely idealize his subject, but the character’s motivation becomes less understandable the more difficult it is to sympathize with him.

Emile Hirsch, who plays McCandless, is also clearly inspired by the story, and his performance is impressive, bringing life to an enigmatic figure who spends much of his time onscreen alone, immersed in his natural environment. As Christopher’s Alaskan adventure—the most compelling part of the movie—progresses, and Christopher continues to make small mistakes that will ultimately compound in tragedy, Hirsch’s performance becomes even more effective. The actor lost considerable weight to visually represent the sharp decline in health the character experienced. Much like Christian Bale’s recent performance in the Vietnam-era P.O.W. film “Rescue Dawn,” Hirsch’s performance deserves special attention for the dramatic physical transformation the actor underwent for this role.

Krakauer’s book has sold millions of copies and inspired many readers with its story of a real-life rebel and adventurer who attempted to abandon society and live a more authentic life. The abandoned bus where McCandless lived in the Alaskan wilderness has even become a kind of shrine, inspiring pilgrimages from fans of the book, including Sean Penn. Those who were moved by the book may find similar connection with the film, but the material ultimately does not lend itself well to the compressed narrative required for film. Penn has certainly created a beautifully filmed movie with strong performances (in addition to a great soundtrack featuring new songs by Eddie Vedder), but it struggles under the burden of an unwieldy story and an elusive central character.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Movie Review: Atonement

The posting on this blog has been light lately because I've had some other writing projects to complete, including movie reviews for the local paper and a conference presentation I'm delivering in Louisville in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I just got word this afternoon that the local paper is completely cutting its freelance budget, which means, for the foreseeable future, I won't be writing movie reviews--or the annual Oscar prediction piece I do with the paper's regular movie reviewer.

However, I sent the paper three reviews this week, on No Country for Old Men, Atonement, and Into the Wild. The No Country review ran today, but the paper won't be running the other reviews. Since I don't want to put the effort to waste, I'm going to make my local readers' loss your gain, and post the Atonement review here.

Before I get to the review, I just want to say, though I say something similar in the review, that Ian McEwan's novel upon which this film is based is my favorite novel of the 21st century, and one I've returned to often over the past few years. It really holds up to multiple readings. I'd also recommend pretty much every one of McEwan's novels, especially The Child in Time and his recent short novel, On Chesil Beach.

“Atonement”: A Rare Successful Literary Adaptation

Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement” is my favorite novel of the last ten years, and one to which I have frequently returned. So, it was with considerable trepidation that I anticipated director Joe Wright and writer Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the novel. Wright, I thought, had done some violence to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in his last film, adding too many modern sensibilities to a story that should stand up well on its own. However, the announcement that Keira Knightly and James McAvoy would play the two central characters filled me with some hope, as both seemed perfectly suited to this period story that spans the mid-1930s to the Second World War.

As an adaptation, “Atonement” is about as successful as a fan of the novel could hope for. While some elements of the novel are necessarily missing from the film in order to compress the narrative into a two-hour running time, and the novel’s surprising conclusion is far less satisfying in the film, the essence of the novel remains intact due to inventive directorial choices by Wright, an intelligent screenplay, and fine performances by the main actors.

The film opens in 1935 at the ancestral estate of the Tallis family. Young Briony Tallis (Oscar-nominee Saoirse Ronan) is on the cusp of adolescence, and she is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her visiting cousins so that they can begin work on her latest creation, a play called “The Trials of Arabella.” When we first see Briony, she is typing away at a typewriter, toy animals arranged on the floor of her room as a silent and respectful audience for her creative work. This image perfectly and economically condenses Briony’s character: she is an aspiring writer who selfishly demands the attention of an audience that conforms to her needs.

In a pause from her writing, Briony looks out the window to see a startling tableau: her sister, Cecilia (Knightly) stripping to her underclothes in front of a fountain, while the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (McAvoy) stretches out what appears to be a commanding hand. This scene, and Briony’s interpretation of it, becomes the catalyst for an escalating series of events that Briony fits into a larger, immature, romantic narrative that has devastating consequences for Robbie and Cecilia.

The novel features shifting perspectives that move through various characters’ points of view as well as back and forth in time, and the film succeeds at subtly duplicating some of these shifts without relying on clunky voiceover narration or other obvious tricks to indicate time shifts. At one point, Briony intercepts a letter from Robbie to Cecilia, and the letter contains a word that has such a strong, emotional impact on the young girl that it appears typed out on the screen in giant letters. The loud impact of the typewriter key on the page duplicates the impact of the word on the impressionable and immature girl’s mind. Briony is on the cusp of adolescence, still immersed in childish games and stories, yet exposed to information from the adult world that she has difficulty processing. In order to do so, she tries to fit it all into a romanticized, fantastic narrative that she has created, using the members of her household as the characters. Later, when Briony witnesses an apparent crime, her narrative reaches the point of its fulfillment, and the story she has created colors her testimony and has real-life consequences.

The film also follows the overall structure of the novel, moving from life at the Tallis estate to Robbie’s experience as a soldier in World War II attempting to escape France after the Allies’ defeat at Dunkirk. Though this segment abbreviates the novel too much, it does feature an impressive, bravura, long tracking shot of the British soldiers’ chaotic evacuation of Dunkirk.

The film’s third segment reveals the experiences of Briony (now played by Romola Garai—a change in performer that seemed to confuse those in the audience surrounding me, even though the segment opens by identifying her as "Briony Tallis") as an eighteen-year-old nurse training at a London hospital during the war. As Briony treats soldiers suffering from horrible wounds, she also tries to come to terms with the consequences of her earlier testimony and continues her development as a writer.

McAvoy and Knightly are perfectly suited for this film—both look great in the period costumes, and their chemistry conveys the passion of Cecilia and Robbie’s relationship. It’s unfortunate that they were both overlooked by the Academy Awards, because both performances are certainly deserving of recognition. The Academy did get it right, however, in recognizing young Saoirse Ronan in the Best Supporting Actress category. Her performance as the young Briony exhibits a feigned maturity that masks her real naïveté. While Briony makes tragic decisions, she is not truly malicious, and it’s to Ronan’s credit that she maintains this delicate balance in her performance without making the character unsympathetic.

While the film’s conclusion captures the spirit of the novel’s, I do wish the filmmakers had attempted to duplicate the novel’s stunning final chapter with more accuracy. That being said, “Atonement” is one of the most successful literary adaptations I can remember, and it should stand on its own for viewers unfamiliar with the novel (though I would hope that the film’s success would drive readers to the book and to McEwan’s other excellent novels).