30.12.09

Film of the decade: honourable mention

I want to talk some more about stuff I like. Why not? Here are some more films made this decade that were important to me and some other people.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy - Peter Jackson (co-writer/director)

Basically the Star Wars of my generation. Kids in the 80s had their minds blown by lightsabers and stormtroopers. I had my mind blown by... well, where do you begin? The visual spectacle presented by The Lord of the Rings was a quantum leap in the cinematic experience. The innovations are many: crowd AI, bigatures, a stopmotion/animated character that worked, that looked real next to real people, that wound up giving the best fucking performance in the whole of The Two Towers. Gollum's schizo scene has to go down in movie making history. Thrilling, funny, touching, profound. From a guy created by computers! No one had seen that before.

I can talk some more about the peerless design work, the fine acting from a well-picked cast, the sure-handed, punchy directing, the marvelous score*, the surprisingly (really, wow) intelligent, skillful and compassionate writing. But we all know this already. Standing back, it really does look like Peter Jackson and co. have given us the definitive Lord of the Rings adaptation. And I'm pretty confident it will stand up in 30 years time just as well (no, better!) than Star Wars does now.

*Now would be the time to confess that The Return of the King makes me tear up on five separate occasions, and Howard Shore's music is the major reason why the emotion hits me the way it does.

Garden State - Zach Braff (writer/director)

Basically the Annie Hall/Graduate of my generation. The quirky, indie, romcom that caught the moment, found the audience, and set the trend for quirky, indie romcoms for the rest of the decade. However, nothing that came afterwards had as much soul as Zach Braff's creation. He was laying himself completely open. That earnestness holds a charm and a poignancy that stays with you. I saw the film quite randomly in the cinema when I was 15, and I walked out thinking that's the film I wanted to make. It was exactly the thing I needed, at exactly the right time. Everyone will have this experience when they are growing up, and this was mine. It was for quite a few other people as well.

That said, two of my best friends hate it and give me mad shit for loving it so much. So the whole 'Garden State is the voice of a generation' angle might be a little off. Then again, maybe my two friends are just cold-hearted, soulless robots! Take your pick.

Serenity - Joss Whedon (writer/director)

Another film I go on about endlessly, and another film those same two best friends delight in disparaging. To which I say, as well as being unable to feel, they seem to be unable to enjoy themselves. Serenity is fun. in the same way that Pirates and Star Trek and Die Hard 4 are fun. But it's also clever. So much cleverer than people expect. Much cleverer than the dirge-fable Children of Men, or the flashy pyrotechnics of Sunshine, or other sci-fi contenders this decade. This is the little budget blockbuster that could. More people need to see it. More people need to love it.

The New World - Terrence Malick (writer/director)

Yes, yes it is his best film. My position on The New World is pretty much the polar opposite of my film critic guru Mark Kermode, who found it long, boring and with a hippy treehugger vibe that irritated more than it inspired. Kermode could look past those problems in The Thin Red Line because he though the film said something about nature's aloofness to humanity's presence, and particularly to war. However, he thought The New World may lead to re-evaluations of Malick's solid gold critical approval.

I had exactly the opposite experience with the two films. I came to The Thin Red Line with high expectations, and will concede that it was beautiful to look at. But I couldn't come to grips with the voiceover, which spewed nothing but meaningless, wooly, pretentious nonsense. I can't remember any of it. It was just a constant stream of words doing nothing. Most importantly, I couldn't believe that any of the soldiers would actually think any of the things being said. Soldiers are not hippies. Soldiers HATE hippies.

I didn't have this problem with The New World. Perhaps because it was set further in the past, or amongst a more alien society, I could accept the pretentious voiceover. I could believe John Smith and Pocahontas were thinking the things I was hearing. I could participate in that relationship. This meant I could ease myself into the other elements of the film -- Malick's rosy-eyed view of primitive cultures, his obsession with the bankruptcy and unnatural condition of western civilization, the overwhelming love of the natural world, in its grandness and its little details. I got it. The film became magnificent. Malick was doing something no one else could do, or had done before. As David Thompson says, that's what the movies are all about.

In Bruges - Martin McDonagh (writer/director)

Other end-of-decade lists have been extraordinarily kind to Tarantino, which I find rather baffling. His work in the 00s comes no where close to the three films he made in the 90s. But this does. It goes further than any other Quentin copy because it's not a Quentin copy. It's sensibilities are very different. The love of pulp is there, but so is a prevalent Irish Catholic background. In fact, the more I watch it, the more I think the film is narrating a kind of conversion experience. But anyway, there's no other filmmaker I'm more exited about as we step into the 10s, so that's were I'll end my list.

(Mulholland Drive, A History of Violence, There Will Be Blood and The Departed also belong here, but everyone else has written about them, and Lynch, Cronenberg, Anderson and Scorsese hardly need any more blogger love.)

27.12.09

Film of the decade

The decade round-up continues, having gained an objective air that fits uneasily with the argument in my first post in the series. Yet another example of my endless hypocrisy, friends! The reason for the shift is straightforward. I feel comfortable when my ideas, reactions, obsessions, loves, are shared by people cleverer than me, so I advance them more forcefully. If other people think this, then I'm allowed to make maximalist claims about it. The Wire is the greatest television show ever, partly (mainly? only?) because everyone thinks it is the greatest television show ever. There is no such consensus behind Silent Alarm. Why I don't know. I think it's better than Is This It? or Turn On The Bright Lights, but can I trust that feeling? Bloc Party came after the Strokes and Interpol, but for me they were the game-changers. For the clever people writing those best-of-decade lists, it was the other way around. Maybe that's all it comes down to. Anyway, I felt isolated, so that's why I had to shoehorn some autobiographical justifications for my choice. Just so you know.

Anyway. My pick for best film has a consensus behind it. If by consensus you mean resident BBC film critic, and most adorable middle-aged fanboy in the universe, Mark Kermode. He says this film is the new Citizen Kane, so I'm pretty happy giving it my top spot. Drumroll...

Pan's Labyrinth - Guillermo del Toro (writer/director)

A fellow Wire fanatic and I once spent a good three minutes actively trying to pinpoint some aspect of the series that didn't work. We could only engage with the challenge on the level of pedantic nitpickery -- that line could have been delivered better, that shot could have been more interesting. All the major, structural building blocks -- the characters, the themes, the plotting, the look, were faultless. Perfect.

The last time I watched Pan's Labyrinth I set myself the same challenge. The only thing that stuck with me was a single crane shot sweeping up above the forest canopy to the sky, which I thought was colour-timed too blue. That was it. A NOTHING of a criticism! Laughable in its absurdity!

Pan's Labyrinth is quite literally a perfect film. Its definite, fully-formed shape reminds me of the control Alan Moore exerted over Watchmen. Del Toro's vision is crystal. He knows exactly what he's doing. Nothing you see or hear in Pan's Labyrinth is an accident. Every frame is a symbol. The windows, the furniture, the shape of the trees, are all imbued with meaning.

And it's a feast of a film. Every shot swoops you up from underneath and throws you headlong into the fantastic, gothic, tense, creepy, surreal world of Franco's Spain. The camera is almost singing a lullaby to you, casting you adrift, floating you through the fairy-tale. And the colours are hyperreal, bright golds and reds, and mysterious blues and violets, depending on the world you're currently exploring. And the monsters: knobbly, slimy, fleshy, physical. And meticulously designed. The Armchair Critic has come up with some convincing interpretations of the symbolic significance of the three tasks Ofelia has to face.

But what ultimately clinches Del Toro the top spot isn't the much talked about individual details, but the big picture. Pan's Labyrinth sets up two parallel avenues of interpretation, the secular and the fantastic, and keeps them open throughout the film. In using this structure, the film explores the link between a frightened girl's imagined fairy tales, and the origin of religion. Del Toro's lapsed Catholicism is all over Ofelia's return to her father's golden kingdom. The paternal God, the maternal Mary, the sacrificed child. And below, the goat-legged tempter (though the faun is more of a Old Testament Satan -- not a malevolent devil, but a good-natured trickster). The film shows how these bedtime stories, myths, fables, grow out of a real historical setting. It celebrates the transformative power of our imagination.

But it does more than that. Ofelia performs her secret missions in a Spain torn apart by civil war. The two sides are drawn with a fitting childlike fairy-tale simplicity -- the ruling, oppressive, bloodthirsty fascists, and the downtrodden, selfless, brave socialists. Anti-authoritarianism is the film's most obvious and powerful theme. Even religious authority is suspect -- the village priest shares Captain Vidal's table. In mirroring Ofelia's trials with the struggles of the resistance, Del Toro is stressing that all authority is a work of imagination. It is a lie that comforts us, but is ultimately a pretext for oppression. Our imaginings are seductive and dangerous. They can imprison people. Pan's Labyrinth draws up a manifesto for a new anti-authoritarian imaginative project, where everyone is free to build a religion of their own.

26.12.09

Liveblog of the RSC's Hamlet

(...demonstrating the unfortunate way my brain works. Touched up here and there)

Hamlet makes a distinction between external indications of mourning and internal feelings. His uncle observes only the former.

Both Claudius and Polonius send men to spy on their sons. With deception you discover truth.

Both conspire to spy on their offspring, to see if they are in love. Deception to discover truth.

Hamlet's exposure to Ophelia: a genuine outpouring of internal feelings, inspired by her brush-off? Or calculated ploy to put distance between them?

Wants Ophelia to go off to a nunnery, away from Elsinore. Away from the deceptions of (male) political life. Free from sin. Wants to save her from the fate he has to bear.

Ophelia believes Hamlet to be the paragon of manly virtue. Exactly what Hamlet has grown to despise.

Avenge your father's murder. Do evil to stop evil. The political life.

The Ghost has his sins burned off in purgatory. The ways of state. Teaching these sins to his son. Son has to do his duty, but he doesn't like what that means.

To be or not to be: fight against injustice or endure it silently. Which one is the moral choice?

The dreams that come after death are more horrible than the pain of existence. We don't know what death will bring, which is why we bear with what life gives us. Consciousness makes us cowards. Thought (and the possibility of its end) denies us resolution and action.

There is method in the madness. Applies to Polonius as much as Hamlet.

Art can cut through the bullshit. Confront us with truths we do not want to face. And yet the actors are themselves lying!

Hamlet uses art to discover the truth. Claudius and Polonius use other people.

Claudius: justice on earth is imperfect. Only in heaven is it stripped of all falseness. He believes himself damned.

Hamlet: prayer can remit even the most grievous sins. Even murderers can cheat their way into heaven. A cop-out?

Is Gertrude complicit? We will never know. She loves both Hamlet and Claudius. Torn apart by them.

Madness = honesty, virtue, freedom.

Ophelia's councilors are all gone. There's no one to tell her what to think.

She remains virginal and "pure", but is thoroughly wasted by Elsinore regardless. Hamlet didn't save her, he ruined her.

Laerties unflinchingly seeks to revenge his father's death. A true politician.

Fortinbras unflinchingly seeks to revenge his father's death. A true politician.

Fortinbras provides the example. No hesitation.

Yorick's skull: no heaven any longer. Only bones and dust.

Ophelia a maenad in death. Lusty, vibrant, free. Burns out just like Hamlet.

Can Hamlet distinguish truth and falsehood any longer? Thinks Laertes's sorrow is an act. Everyone in Elsinore is faking it. Comes to his senses later.

Hamlet only wants his story told. The only thing that is worth anything.

Notez on the production itself: stagey, which isn't surprising, but the incredible acting managed to hold your attention anyway. The CCTV stuff was dropped halfway through, which was weird. Also, not necessary. Liked the Habsburg decadence vibe. And Tennant's muscleman t-shirt. Also: don't watch Dr. Who, but now offish a fan.

Ideas and power

Some notes on the 5th century Christological controversy:

Pagan Romans viewed the world as being permeated by a whole host of supernatural beings -- malovalent deamons and benevolent gods. Material and spiritual success depended upon performing very visible rites correctly, and getting the local spirits on your side.

Constantine's 'imperial' Christianity inverted this local, immediate spirituality. Local spirits were all branded as malovalent daemons, and were set against a distant High God who made his commands known through a series of priviliged representatives of his will, of which Christ had been the greatest and Constantine the most recent. God is a remote monarch, whose agents were different from himself. The Emperor (like Christ) was sacred by association, not sacred himself. You can clearly see the way Christianity was shaped to suit the needs of those promoting it.

This 'Arian' view becomes challenged in the 5th century by assertive church leaders, who wanted to bring God down to the level of their congregations. They emphasise that God himself came down to the earth, was tempted, suffered and died. God knew about the daily trials of humanity, because He had experienced and overcome them. Father and Son were of one nature. Monophysite -- monos, single and physis, nature. Cult of the Virgin Mary: like every human being, God had a mother. The Virgin Mary could intercede on your behalf by reminding God of his bond with humanity. God cared about everyone. Jesus can be called upon at every moment as a source of comfort and inspiration. He wasn't a distant presence, filtered down through the judgements and laws of the mighty. He was active in the hearts and minds of every local congregation. You can clearly see the way Christianity is shaped to suit the needs of those promoting it.

The Emperor Marcian convenes the Council of Chalcedon in 451 to resolve this dispute. The greatest such council ever assembled, over 600 bishops present. Invites the bishop of Rome to provide a compromise agreement. An appeal to an outside Latin authority that would not rile the two sides. Pope Leo gives due weight to both the human and divine elements in the person of Christ -- a completely uncontroversial statement in the West. It is close to the 'imperial' Christianity of Constantine. The Emperor choses the side most beneficial to him, but presents it as a compromise. The Monophysites are horrified. Refer to Chalcedon as 'the Great Prevarication'.

Throughout, you can see the way political power-struggles infuse spiritual debates. The Emperor wants to maintain his authority over a unified Church. Eastern bishops want the opposite -- independence from Constantinople. In the west, there is no Emperor and the pope is little more than a bishop in Rome. The Christological controversy is a purely intellectual conundrum, and is not particularly divisive.

21.12.09

Song of the decade

Choosing one song to embody a decade should be more difficult than this, surely? I didn't even have to think about it for more than a minute, it was so obvious. Drumroll...

'Idioteque' - Radiohead

The structure of Kid A is built around two giant perfectly carved black obsidian pillars at the beginning and at the end. The opener, 'Everything In Its Right Place', with its soothing melody and quietly insisting vocal, suggests an appeal for order, calm, simplicity. There are two colours in my head. Black and white. Everything has boundaries. It's defined. And it's in the RIGHT PLACE. But then there are these weird glitches and spasms and gibbers and howls that invade and fuck up this ordered picture. There is tension here. I woke up sucking a lemon. What was that you tried to say? Wait. FUCK!

By the fading swirls of 'In Limbo', Radiohead have thrown every kind of madness at us. Except those crashing, metallic beatz. NOTHING is in its right place. Everything is ALL THE TIME.

pmp-TSS pmTSS pmpm-TSSm pm-TSS. The beatz are laser-cut to provoke body movement. To my undying shame I am unable to dance. My feet cannot keep a rhythm no matter how hard I concentrate. And yet whenever I hear 'Idioteque', I HAVE to move. It's imperative. The song commands. I can't have it playing as I write this. My torso rocks too much. My arms leave the keyboard and jab the air.

I laugh until my head comes off. I swallow until I burst. We can't stop. Neither can we sate our endless appetite for food, clothes, entertainment. I haven't seen enough. I need to see more. Oh, what's that? Ice age coming. Don't worry. Keep dancing. Let me hear both sides! Who are they? Throw them in the fire. Take the money and run. Oh God, this is really happening. Oh God...

Just keep dancing. Dance as the world burns.

I love this. When I was a little younger, one of my major gripes with the house music that was taking over Bulgaria was this blindness to exactly what Radiohead are talking about. The DJs were focused on building this communal sense of love, freedom and euphoria in the club. And yet alongside this utopianism there is a heavy stress on conspicuous consumption: looking good, making money, having fun. I thought the two things were totally paradoxical. Why I prefer dancing to 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' and other crummy indie night favourites is that, yes you move and have fun with your friends, but through it all you are singing bleak lyrics about the endtimes. There is no illusion or false promises. We dance the crushing pain of existence away.

And Radiohead have made the ultimate anti-dance dance track. But it's bigger than that. Around the 3:10 mark the beatz stop, the song lurches, and this weird echoy wailing starts up. The beatz quickly return and ride over this background clamour: the pistons of human progress -- unfeeling, unaware -- trampling over the earth's screams. But they cut out at the end, quickly splutter and die, and only the screams remain.

Is there any other song that embodies the 21st century so well? The seven tracks that came on top in Pitchfork's poll can't touch what Radiohead have put together. Have a listen and see what you think.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Was the plot of this film planned when they shot the last scene of Supremacy? I sorta hope not, because it only adds to the awesome achievement of the final volume in the trilogy. Goddamn is it a wild ride. And the fisticuffs in Morocco -- best fight scene ever? Kinda yeah.

If I was feeling really picky, I would slam the 'I picture the faces of the people I've killed, but I don't know their names' scene as a tired cliche. But the film does something clever, intercutting the monologue with Pam Landy reading the actual names of the people he's killed. So a scene about remorse becomes a scene about the balance of power between the rogue agent and his former masters, about abuse and exploitation.

Dubya's War On Terror is written all over this film. I do find the CIA's limitless resources in Ultimatum a little ludicrous when we know what we know now. (Burn After Reading is probably closer to the truth). But the idea that the intelligence services create as many enemies as they fight is interesting, and conveyed well.

And there's Julia Stiles. I love Julia Stiles, in 10 Things and Save The Last Dance and anything else she chooses to appear in. She is on love interest duties here, but what's great is how silent and tentative that relationship is. There is no relationship. There can't be while Bourne is still waging war on the CIA. But the final moment of the film is beautiful in its suggestiveness. Both characters are still alive, and now free (the final image of Damon swimming through water is a nice symbol of rebirth). The film makes the connection between them, and then leaves it hanging. The audience can continue that story in their heads if they want (and I do want), but it's only ever a sideshow to the main business of the film -- Bourne's origin -- which is now over. The most respectful and stylish romance in an action film ever? Kinda yeah.

19.12.09

Blade Runner - The Final Cut

Watched the film for the first time tonight on the BBC. I know, what took me so long, right? Some thoughts. The film was gorgeous from start to finish. It had a wonderful score. It used sex dolls to say some interesting things about false consciousness and patriarchy (or is my brain just smearing Dollhouse all over it?). The Jesus/dove stuff at the end was interesting, although the bit where the replicant leader kills his maker for not making him properly (why are we evil! why do we die!) was more interesting. HOWEVS.

All the moody, lingering shots were pretty an' all. But wasn't Harrison Ford just the flattest, emptiest hero of a sci-fi epic ever. There was no character there. Charisma can only go so far, people. I swear he only said about five lines in the whole film. This made it very difficult to root for him in the final showdown. I didn't care. I know we're supposed to feel uncomfortable with him being the hero, and we are supposed to realise that the villainesque replicant leader is the true hero. But if I don't know either of them at all, the whole exercise becomes a little ponderous, difficult, unmoving. Apparently, the first bastardized cut was supposed to solve this deficiency, but went too far. My feeling? The studio sorta had a point...

In all: give me The Fifth Element any day.

17.12.09

Scalped

The first trade I read ages ago, and didn't make much of an impression. But Ed Brubaker wrote a glowing introduction to the one called Gravel In Your Guts, so I had to pick it up. Good decision.

Scalped is noir at its purest. It's triple distilled evil and hopelessness in funnybook form. The Rez -- the setting of the series -- is as near to the state of nature as modern America can get. It's a prehistoric, eternal place. It's what society would be like with all the society taken out -- all you have are individuals in a free-for-all fight for survival. There's no mercy here. No redemption or salvation. No. Way. Out.

Jason Aaron's genius is in capturing the way people react to this hellish situation. In the trade's first story, we have two lovers who have had their 'sociability', or humanity, almost entirely eroded away. They can't deal with being together, because they have forgotten how to deal with people. Their lives are only made bearable through numbing drugs and passionate, cathartic sex. The final scene in their story is heartbreaking. The two sit on the edge of the mattress, naked, one showing the other how to smoke heroin. The panel presents them with their backs to us, small, surrounded by a mess of a room, in a mess of a world. They almost look like innocent children playing some secret game, becoming best friends. They are learning how to be around each other for the first time. But smoking heroin. Like I said: heartbreaking.

The next story is all about the compromises you make to survive, and how you justify them to others and yourself. The portrait of Red Crow, the Godfather-like figure in the Rez, is powerful and moving. The only misfire I would point out is the way one of the characters' aspiration is expressed through his 'dream of being an astronaut', which was corny and unnessesary. Then again, I didn't grow up in America, nor have I lived there, so astronauts aren't a particularly important or emotive idea for me. So, you know, maybe let that pass...

Back to the point: Scalped is great! All I really wanted to say.

13.12.09

How I love Peter Milligan...

'Are you really this tough and scary, Stella? Or is it all an act?'

'It's like this, Agent Chivers. I'm a reasonably young woman with pert breasts and a passing resemblance to Winona Ryder, who has absolutely no intention of sleeping her way to the top in a very macho industry. So it doesn't matter if it's an act or for real, as long as I keep people guessing.'

"Y-you're right. You do kinda look like Winona Ryder.'

(BTW: Love the colours in this comic. And the lack of place/time signatures keeping everything messy and confusing. And, of course, the dialogue.)

11.12.09

Viriconium Knights

A young man enters into the service of an oppressive authoritarian queen, and (inevitably) is betrayed into the hands of her enemies. During his flight from the city, he is confronted with visions of alternate selves, other choices, better worlds he could have made. He cannot stand it. In his despair and rage, he resorts to his old grasping ways, but is wounded almost unto death. Wandering, hunted, haunted, he comes across the body of a dead knight, a relic that reminds him of what could have been. He inherits the fallen's mantle and sword, and continues. In the distance, the city he saw in his visions rises before him. His brutal life is transformed and his dreams become reality. And engaging with art (and history?) is the catalyst for this process.

Or at least, that's what I got from the story. M. John Harrison's imaginings are rich and evocative, and you can engage with them in many ways. I was reminded of something Guillermo del Toro said in his commentary for Pan's Labyrinth: that the genius of symbols is their ambiguity -- how they suggest a spectrum of meanings where the individual picks out the ones particularly pertinent for them. A symbol that only has one meaning is a cypher, inert and powerless, intriguing only for those who like crossword puzzles.

I've realised that my approach to art is kinda like that. It's a historian's approach, where your material is a source and your task is to unravel what went on in the brain of the person who created it. I've been looking for objectivity in a place where the goal is the opposite. I've slowly been realizing, as I've been writing this blog, that the ideas I've ascribed to creators are probably better understood as my own ideas. Or at least, ideas that float somewhere between the creator and me. When I'm reading (or watching, or listening), I've been engaging in a dialogue with persons unknown, through the shifting, ambiguous, materials they have left behind.

8.12.09

Wanted

Haven't seen the film, but reports I've heard have generally dismissed it as stupid CGI chewing gum for adolescent eye-balls. The comic is written by Mark Millar and drawn by J.G. Jones -- superstars in the field -- so I was hoping it would be a little more interesting.

Jones is an incredible artist, let's get that out of the way. The Mark Miller angle is more problematic. For someone with such a massive profile, there are some very basic deficiencies in his writing. One is a tendency to overwrite. Random example:

'The final battle took place in 1986. It lasted almost three months and we lost a great many friends during that encounter, but we beat them in the end.'

The 'during that encounter' is completely unnecessary for the sentence to work, and it makes it feel ungainly and unbalanced. When you hear the voice saying the line in your mind, it sounds wrong. It's not the way an actual person would talk.

Second, there's Millar's stab at witty comedy:

'It looks more like my chance to get fucked up the ass and found in a trash can with my throat slit, Professor.'

The love for Ellis/Ennis is evident, but again Millar's sentence is unwieldy. It doesn't zing. I like swearing as much as anyone, but it does not a funny line make. Ellis and Ennis do it right because they pay attention to the sound of the language, and they're inventive with it. It looks like Millar just throws stuff that sounds cool together, and hopes that it will stick. More effort please.

To be fair, the rate of clumsy lines goes down as the comic progresses. And our first-person narrator does rise to the occasion at the show-stopping final battle in the fifth issue. Still, you would expect something better from a writer of such stature.

Enough nit-picking. Let's look at the big picture. Does Millar have anything to say? Perhaps because of the lackluster dialogue, I've found his characters difficult to engage with in the past. His Fantastic Four and Ultimates were very flat, though the comics were saved by some out-there ideas and Brian Hitch's widescreen artwork. Civil War, being a crossover, had little time for characters, and the central idealism vs. pragmatism concept wasn't used for much more than to set-up massive team deathmatches. That said, a friend of mine who went through the entire Civil War saga says that the idea had legs in the individual series, so we shouldn't be too harsh.

But Wanted is something different. Millar puts himself out there. He wants to say something. To confront you. The final two pages are worth the six-issue slog through stupid villains and uninvolving plot twists. It should also be said that the portrait of Wesley Grayson at the beginning is done with sympathy and feeling, and I was won over. Millar can do characters, it seems. Or at least, one character -- who may resemble himself more than anything.

So. Recap. A good beginning and a good ending, with the bad writing in the middle partly redeemed by kick-ass art. Not bad. But not really good enough either.

(Admin note: Hey! What happened?? The design of the Hot-Doll pages has been rejigged, with the aim of make them a little easier to read. Hope that helps!)

7.12.09

Sleeper

...has been re-released in two massive 'season' trades. I read the first one recently. Have loved this series a whole lot for a long time. Just want to note a couple of things.

It's a slow build. You can really see Brubaker and Philips learning their craft as the series progresses. By the second half, everything is very tight. The sense of cliche you get at certain points in the first couple of issues is completely absent.

The series is not decompressed. Every issue works on its own, has a satisfying complete-ness to it. Very good comics, in other words.

Miss Misery's origin -- doing bad things (according to society) makes you strong -- pretty much summarises every supervillain origin ever. Clever idea.

Which is picked up and developed in the standout twelth issue. Tau's origin is a succinct, and very powerful, encapsulation of human evil. It's is what makes Sleeper something more than just good noir/spy/action pulp. And then we get Tau's offer to Carver of a chance 'to be more than a pawn in some morality play'. Irony, because Carver is exactly that. Brubaker (I think) is on record describing superhero stories as morality plays, and this scene brings out the central binary such stories revolve around -- thoughts and actions, belief and self interest, ideas and reality.

Finally, Carver. The character really gains a pathos towards the end, where he is utterly broken down, manipulated beyond endurance, and compelled to fully go over to the dark side. The strength of this character is ultimately why Sleeper works as well as it does. And from what I remember, it gets even better from here.

6.12.09

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

'Everywhere I went I felt like they were watching me. Fish-white flesh puckered by the highland breeze. Tight eyes peering out for fresh meat. Screechy booze-soaked voices hollering for a taxi to take them half-way up the road to the next all-night watering hole. A shatter of glass. A round of applause. A 16-year-old mother of three vomiting in an open sewer. Bairns looking on, chewing on potato cakes. I ain't never goin back. Not never...'

Could almost be in a Constantine comic. And that's the genius of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. It knows its genre trash so well that, take a few pisstakes away, it could be real genre trash.

Personal favourite voiceover line, for sheer ludicrousness:

'On a nearby rooftop, a bird took flight, but not even that could spoil this beautiful moment, as rosy-fingered dawn cupped Romford in its hands and thumbed open the new day's crack.'

1.12.09

The Dreamers

Not a perfect film, for sure. It doesn’t quite know what to make of Theo and Isa’s incestuous relationship. Nor is it particularly lucid on the student uprising of 1968. But you kind of stop caring. Look at the title, dammit. This doesn’t have to make sense. We are entering a dream. Characters lose their solidity. Things get childish and playful. Things get sexy and confused. The films and music you’ve internalized start invading your experience of reality. Everything blurs.

What you get from this smear of sensations and images is a feel for what the 1960s were like. You start to understand why those times were considered special by the generation that lived through them, and why they are so fondly remembered now. But there is a melancholy that comes with this perspective. Matthew starts telling Isa and Theo to grow up – that dreams aren’t everything. When their debauchery is uncovered, Isa is horrified enough to try and kill them all. Reality intrudes, and Isa doesn’t want to go there. She’ll make a perfect monument to idealistic youth instead. But the streets of Paris offer a better option – force your dreams onto an unwilling reality. Turn the world into that messy apartment. Isa and Theo get swept up in the revolutionary fervor, and Matthew has to leave them. He has already learned that reality will not treat dreamers kindly. You have to keep your dreams to yourself, and try and be as faithful to them as you can as you go live your life.