Thursday, September 29, 2011

Record Club #5: Manic Street Preachers

Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible (1994)

The fifth discussion for the Record Club takes place today, and it is hosted by Jamie Uhler at the multi-author blog Wonders in the Dark. Jamie has picked the album The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, and he has written a fine introductory post as part of his long-running series "Getting People Over the Beatles." Now it's time to join the conversation in the comment section. I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


The neat trick of Gore Verbinski's Rango is the way it wraps some rather adult themes (and adult references) around a pretty basic kids' movie structure. The film follows the titular chameleon, voiced by Johnny Depp, as he falls out of a moving car and stumbles into the desert, where he encounters an adventure right out of a spaghetti western. The film is packed with hip references, like an early blink-and-you'll-miss-it Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas visual gag, and more notably the obvious influence of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood "Man with No Name" trilogy. Those films loom large here, as Rango arrives in a dusty frontier town populated with various grizzled species of anthropomorphic animals. Rango, who inhabited a lively fantasy world to stave off loneliness in his small tank, now presents himself as a wandering mercenary hero, ready to help the townspeople, who are suffering from a drought that threatens to eliminate their water supplies. The plot combines the Leone films with, improbably, Roman Polanski's Chinatown and its schemes over water rights.

The plot, however, is not the film's strong point by any means. Despite the sophisticated reference points, the film's narrative is a bit of a jumble, and Verbinski leans too heavily on cliché when he's not nodding to his more venerable influences. When one mid-film action sequence devolves into a noisy, silly war film parody complete with "Ride of the Valkyries" — probably the most tired musical choice it's possible to make in a movie these days — it underscores how rapidly the film veers between clever pastiche and rote regurgitation.

It's easy to forgive and forget the more unimaginative stretches, however, when Verbinski packs the fringes of the film with such a wealth of visual wit and interesting ideas. When Rango first arrives in the desert, he encounters an armadillo (Alfred Molina) who has been run over on the highway but is somehow still alive and talking as though nothing has happened. This is especially disconcerting because there's a giant truck-tire-sized cutout in the animal's midsection, but the armadillo simply wants Rango to push the two halves of his body back together again. It's a disconcerting image, particularly for a movie supposedly made for kids, and an image that suggests the twin poles of surrealism and mortality that will serve as important motifs throughout the film.

Indeed, Rango is curiously obsessed with death. A trio of musical birds provide the vibrant, Morricone-esque soundtrack for the film, while also appearing onscreen as a Greek chorus narrating Rango's adventures. From the beginning, the birds suggest that this is going to be the story of the life and death of a hero, and they begin to seem strangely disappointed when the hero continually faces death and fails to die. At one point, the birds even deliver their grim predictions while hanging from nooses. The film's biggest threat, the tremendous, vicious Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), claims to come from Hell, and his fiery eyes and seeming willingness to kill suggests that there's some truth to the claim. The grislier aspects of the film sit uncomfortably against its sillier moments and its concensions to kids' movie conventions, like the plucky love interest (Isla Fisher) and the unbearably cutesy kid (Abigail Breslin) who does pretty much nothing and serves no purpose, throughout the movie, besides saying cute things in a cute voice and batting her huge eyes.

There's tension here, because the film sometimes seem to want to offer little more than this kind of predictable, jokey entertainment, but sometimes it seems to want to tell a much more serious story. It's a story about loneliness (on the personal level for the misfit Rango, a lifetime loner who creates his own entertainment with imaginary friends because he's never had real ones) and about the costs of modernization and the impotence of common people faced with powerful political and economic interests. The latter story, the big picture social story that's derived from the example of Chinatown, crops up periodically, most powerfully perhaps when Rango discovers the body of the town's bank manager, killed and cast aside in the rush for progress. Like all the best Westerns, this is a film about the West facing its end, about the push to tame the frontier. But the theme is never fleshed out very much, so that even at the end of the film, the exact nature of the plot cooked up by the film's obvious-from-the-start villain, the turtle mayor (Ned Beatty), is somewhat unclear, and he's left to spit out rote expositional dialogue to emphasize his villainy.

If the film's plot is sometimes less than coherent, broken up by embarassing digressions like the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene, Verbinski compensates with other pleasures. Rango's first night in the desert is visualized by a charmingly surrealist dream sequence populated by a talking windup goldfish and a disembodied Barbie torso, his only "friends" from his solitary existence. Later, in the film's best and most memorable scene, Rango actually meets the Man with No Name himself, a cartoonized Clint Eastwood (actually voiced by Timothy Olyphant) dressed in the distinctive poncho he wore in his Leone films. It's a wonderful meta moment, an explicit acknowledgment of Rango's affectionate tribute to the Leone/Eastwood collaborations. Eastwood's appearance provides a good example of the film's animation quality, too, since the caricature is instantly recognizable as the iconic actor, his face deeply lined and worn like a grizzled, aging Western hero, squinting and sneering as he dispenses advice to the tiny lizard he's inspired.

The animation is generally gorgeous in general. Not all of the character designs are as expressive and satisfying as the depictions of the Man With No Name and Rango himself, but the animation is unceasingly lovely, and all of the characters are textured and detailed so that they never seem like molded plastic (as, for example, the highly praised Pixar's human figures often do). There are plenty of visually sumptuous moments along the way, brief sequences where the action pauses to simply admire the scenery. A posse ride through the desert is particularly jaw-dropping, as the sunset desert scenery looks simultaneously realistic and colorfully stylized. The iconography of the Western is lovingly referenced in the visuals, from a shadowy figure appearing out of the shimmering heat haze of the desert to a group of riders galloping against the huge orange half-circle of the setting sun.

Rango is in many respects an interesting, if somewhat schizophrenic, work with the ambition to marry some big ideas to a rather conventional underlying structure. At its best, the film is visually dazzling, witty and a tribute worthy of the spaghetti Western influences it wears on its sleeve. At it's worst, it's cloying, overbearing kiddie fare, and those two sides of its personality are never quite resolved. Still, the film has enough ambition, smarts and style to make it a mostly enjoyable entertainment that occasionally reaches for something more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Comics Blog (and DC's New 52, Week 2)

Following up on last week's post about the first week of DC's New 52 comics, I'm starting a new comics blog that will host my week-by-week thoughts on the new DC comics and any other comics that I'm reading every week. The new blog is called Thinking in Panels, and will be my forum for these weekly summary posts and anything else I'm moved to write about comics. I hope to see some of you there!

So check out this week's DC New 52 post over at the new blog, and be sure to bookmark or follow the site to check out future comics postings over there.

Visit Thinking in Panels

Friday, September 9, 2011

DC's New 52, Week 1

Beginning this month, DC Comics is completely rebooting its entire line of comics, starting every comic over from issue #1 and re-imagining their characters, not entirely from scratch but definitely making some changes. It's a move intended to bring in new readers to the continuity-heavy world of superhero comics, and since I've only occasionally read DC superhero comics myself, I figured this was a good time for me to check out what they have to offer. This month DC is unfurling 52 new issue #1s, and I'll be reading all of them and briefly reviewing them here, week by week. This week, I review the 13 first week titles, plus Justice League #1, which came out last week as the debut of the new line. I rank them below from best to worst; by my count there were 3 very good DC comics this week, a few more that were variably enjoyable and/or promising, and then some mediocre junk. Anybody else following this initiative?

1. Animal Man #1 - This book is just fantastic. I wouldn't be surprised if this winds up being the best out of all 52 comics when this month is over. It's a mix of family drama, horror, and superheroics, balancing all these different tones without seeming all over the place. Writer Jeff Lemire packs a lot into 20 pages, economically reintroducing this character, his family, and the themes and conflicts that will drive his story. And the art, by Travel Foreman, is amazing, especially since it shifts fluidly from sketchy domesticity to punchy superhero action to surrealist, horrifying dream sequences. This looks more like an indie book than a big DC superhero title, so the aesthetic is especially striking and invigorating in this high-profile context. The art is so attuned to the nuances of the storytelling, and the style morphs to fit each new wrinkle perfectly. This is a must-read book, one that already seems poised to match the high standard of Grant Morrison's classic run on this title.

2. Swamp Thing #1 - Definitely the second-best book this week, though not remotely in the same jaw-dropping way as Animal Man. Instead, this is just a solid introduction with some very good storytelling by Scott Snyder. I'm not very clear on what exactly is going on with this character, not having followed the pre-reboot DC universe, and in that sense this book doesn't seem as new-reader-friendly as most of the others. The character's history is left pretty vague and confusing, maybe deliberately since I sense that a big part of the book's early arc is going to be figuring out just what's going on with Alec Holland. But the essence of the character and his status quo come across and there are some great sequences of horror that really make me excited to see where this is heading. The whole scene where the big threat is revealed is chilling and creepy and genuinely frightening; I won't spoil it but it's true horror brilliance, wonderfully visualized by Yanick Paquette.

3. Action Comics #1 - I really dig Grant Morrison's new take on Superman as a populist crusader with an attitude, definitely a fresh perspective on the character. It's obvious that Morrison is deliberately taking a different approach from the mythic boy scout of his fine All-Star Superman miniseries. Even Superman's costume feels more approachable and human. The first half of the issue really pops as it introduces this new Supes in action. The second half gets a little jumbled and isn't as strong, but overall this is still quite good. It's also the most straightforward comic I've read from Morrison in a while.

4. Justice League #1 - This issue is actually from last week, since it was the debut of the new DC line. It's pretty good, nothing mindblowing or anything, and I don't know why the debut of a whole new reboot wasn't made more exciting, but it's still not bad. Mostly based around some amusing banter between Batman and Green Lantern, and then the badass new Superman shows up at the end. It's more a teaser than anything else and it works in that sense, but it's not much of a story. This issue takes place five years earlier than most of the other reboot titles (with the exception of Action Comics) so it's meant to show the early days of the new status quo, when the heroes are just getting to know each other.

5. Batgirl #1 - Just a fun, basic superhero story with a lot of heart and emotional complexity. I like that in restoring Barbara Gordon to the Batgirl costume, they've kept her history from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, so that trauma continues to haunt her even though she's regained the use of her legs. That darkness is contrasted against a refreshing enthusiasm in the dialogue and narration that's really infectious, and makes her seem like a girl who's just happy to be out kicking ass. Not exactly substantial, but pretty enjoyable nonetheless.

6. Stormwatch #1 - This is visually pretty interesting. Every few pages there's some slightly nutty cosmic concept that provides a very striking image. (Although the character drawings are a little stiff.) The problem is that the characters are all so flat and undistinguished, and writer Paul Cornell seems to know that a lot of readers will be unfamiliar with these characters, so virtually all of the dialogue is exposition and explanation. Lots of characters talking about themselves, explaining their powers, saying things to each other that they really have no reason to say except to explain something to the reader. That could get better now that the 1st issue is out of the way, but it still suggests a pretty unimaginative sensibility that jars against the visual imagination on display here. I'll check out a couple more issues of this to see which direction it heads.

7. OMAC #1 - A book that's totally in love with Jack Kirby. Not even a pinch of originality here, but it's fun enough, lots of Kirby dots everywhere, lots of superpowered enigmas pummelling each other. Entertaining and fluffy as hell. I imagine the Kirby pastiche will get old fast so I'm not sure how much longevity there is in this concept, but as a single issue it's a blast.

8. Detective Comics #1 - Pretty standard, even generic Batman stuff. There's lots of Frank Miller-style "I am the terror that flaps in the night" overwrought "gritty" writing. Not terrible, but not especially interesting either. And the Joker isn't funny, which is always a bad sign. The last page is nicely creepy, though.

9. Batwing #1 - Even more standard and generic than Detective Comics, despite this being about an African Batman, a protege of Bruce Wayne. Not exactly bad, but there's not much to it. It's one of those books where it's hard to point to what's missing except, well, anything that would differentiate it from countless other nondescript hero comics.

10. Justice League International #1 - I guess this is supposed to be the lightweight, fun, funny book where a bunch of D-listers hang out. The problem is that while it's certainly lightweight, it's not fun or funny at all, so it's pretty lame and pointless. Really bad dialogue, really bad all around.

11. Static Shock #1 - Yet another really boring one. It's trying for the light-footed teen superhero style of early Invincible, but its attempts at hip dialogue seem forced and the wisecracking tone doesn't produce any actual humor.

12. Green Arrow #1 - Not sure what to say about this other than it sucks. Totally generic, every line of dialogue is a clunkily delivered cliche, the art is static and bland, and all the Youtube references are obvious, desperate grabs for relevance that fall far short of the mark. This is somebody's laughable idea of "media criticism" I guess.

13. Men of War #1 - This. is. so. goddamn. boring. There were 2 stories in this, both straightforward war stories full of all the clichés you'd expect. I got through the first but my eyes started to glaze over just thinking about reading the second.

14. Hawk and Dove #1 - There might be 2 panels in this whole thing where someone isn't grimacing with that same damn I'm-squeezing-out-a-poop-right-now expression on their face. Actually, Hawk is the one who always looks like that. Dove, with her constantly gaping mouth, looks either perpetually surprised or like she's always ready to give a BJ. Rob Liefeld, man. This is terrible.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Wire: Season 2

One of the signature themes of David Simon's TV series The Wire is the idea that where you come from matters, that class and race are, to a large degree, destiny. The first season mostly framed this idea in terms of race, with black drug dealers from the projects often lamenting the fact that being born into this life gives them so few options. The second season drives home that the real issue is class, by translating this theme to the mostly white, mostly Polish working class guys of the Baltimore dockworkers' union.

In one key scene, union president Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) confronts his hired lobbyist Bruce DiBiago (Keith Flippen), contrasting DiBiago's big-money comfort against Frank's own desperation: DiBiago sends his son to Princeton, and says that now the kid can do anything he wants after graduating, a stark contrast against the pathetic life and constant failures of Frank's son Ziggy (James Ransone). DiBiago counters that his own family came from similarly limited circumstances, that his great-grandfather was a struggling working man who wanted more for his own kids, so he made sure they were educated and propelled them towards the better life that has resulted in DiBiago's current success. Frank's not interested in history, though, and he's not interested in thinking so long-term that his great-grandsons might make something of themselves. He wants security — and the dignity of work — for his own kid, something tangible he can see while he's still around.

Frank's story is at the center of this season because he so fully embodies the message that Simon is sending here. Frank is a member of a declining union, working in a harbor that's seeing less and less traffic and thus less and less work for the union members. Repeated scenes throughout the season emphasize how the men of the union come to work everyday not sure if they'll have a job for the day or not. This is particularly true for the younger men, like Ziggy and Frank's nephew Nick (Pablo Schreiber), who are continually passed over for what few jobs there are. They're mostly left to hang around and drink, glowering at the old union hands who tell raucous stories of the good old days. This is a story about obsolescence, about this union — once a powerful political and social force — struggling to survive in a modern political and economic environment that no longer has any respect for the old ways cultivated by the union culture. Frank is trying to adapt — he hires his lobbyist and feeds politicians dirty money he earns by working with the dockside smuggling operation of "the Greek" (Bill Raymond) — but the scene where he tries to charm politicians at a fundraiser demonstrates just how ill-suited the gruff, blunt-force Frank is to the subtleties of modern politics.

Indeed, it's Frank's failure to understand such niceties that more or less kicks off the season's plot. In one of the bitter ironies that runs unstated through the season, Frank comes under investigation not so much because of his genuinely illegal activity but because he dares to purchase a stained glass window at a local church on behalf of his union. It's a point of pride for him, but it's also a point of pride for the high-ranking police major Valchek (Al Brown), who had wanted to donate his own window to the church. Frank's refusal to give in to the politically connected Valchek causes the major to open an investigation into Frank, a frivolous and mean-spirited smear operation that eventually winds up exposing the full and rather surprising extent of Frank's connections to drugs, prostitution and smuggling in the city. Unaware of the investigation, Frank responds to Valchek's harassment by stealing a police surveillance van from Valchek's unit and shipping it around the world, updating the major with Polaroids of the van in various ports. It's the kind of old-school practical joke that Frank and his union buddies might have played in the old days, a silly and stupid prank that here has dire consequences.

At this point, as Valchek gets Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick) to assemble a new squad to investigate Frank, the show flirts with formula as most of the first season's cops return to work with Daniels, dually investigating Frank and the deaths of a cargo container full of European women who had been shipped through Frank's port for the sex trade. The assembling-the-team segments early in the season come off as a warped mirror of the first season, though, since they're not getting together for the high-stakes drug operation of the first season but for what amounts to a personal vendetta. The fact that the operation eventually exposes some very shady activity only reinforces the bitter irony at the core of the show: it's only at the impetus of a petty and insecure asshole that some real policework gets done in the city, almost accidentally, and certainly incidentally for Valchek, who gets more and more annoyed the more his squad discovers large webs of crime around Frank rather than focusing solely on the object of Valchek's wrath.

As in the first season, Simon, along with co-writer and ex-cop Ed Burns and a regular stable of HBO directors, weaves together all these different plots and characters to provide a portrait of the ways in which cops and criminals act as part of an overarching social structure. The drug plot from the first season continues to percolate in the background, too, with the machinations of Stringer Bell, Avon, Omar and others eventually tied into the main plot by the end of the season. As in the first season, things that seem innocuous or small-scale turn out to be connected in surprising ways to much deeper societal currents. In the post-9/11 world, the Greek and his international criminal organization are even connected to the FBI, exchanging information and tips for official favors. Part of Simon's vision here is that in the zeal to fight terrorism, the modern national police infrastructure is proving willing to overlook greater and greater domestic evils to win some small victories against foreign evils. Witness the glee of an FBI counter-terrorism agent when he discovers a cache of Colombian drugs on the Greek's tipoff — is this relatively minor coup worth the information he feeds to the Greek, which allows the mysterious kingpin to kill with impunity, and at one point even gives him key information that leads directly to the death of an informer.

More locally, the criminal malaise of the docks is a reflection of economic changes that have these dockworkers teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. Frank is fighting desperately to get new projects started at the docks, but it seems to be a doomed battle right from the start. The politicians smile and take his money, and so does the lobbyist, but it never really seems plausible that Frank is going to get what he wants, and only he doesn't seem to realize it. Others want to build luxury condos in the area, further shrinking the extent of the formerly solid industrial/labor zone, and it's hard to imagine that the big real estate companies won't ultimately have more sway than Frank's declining union, even with all the ill-gotten money he's throwing around. At one point, Frank goes to an informational presentation about new technology that seems like it will largely make dock work an almost human-free occupation. The presenter makes a virtue of the fact that the new setup will reduce injuries, but Frank grasps the unspoken subtext: no one will get injured because almost no one will even be working there.

That's the flipside of the unceasing ethic of "progress" driving this society: there's a constant drive to move forward, with no thought for those inevitably left behind, the Sobotkas of the world. The show portrays the docks as a wasteland in the making, poised between the old way, as represented by Frank's hard-working, hard-drinking generation, and a new way where there's little room for much human presence at all, and certainly not for unskilled laborers like Nick and Ziggy. The dehumanized, mechanized docks of the future are contrasted against the fun-loving older generation, who are always at the bar telling alternately hilarious and harrowing tales of the old days. Their camaraderie and bonhomie in the face of the danger of their profession recalls Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, except that now all their male bonding and tough guy posturing takes place in a context where it's clear that this familial, tight-knit spirit belongs exclusively to the past. There will be less danger in the future — no more accidents like the one that crushes one man's leg — but also no more of that closeness and humor, no more of the touching togetherness that's displayed when the entire union shows solidarity for their injured brother, who faces his fate with courage and humor. The younger generation replaces that bold, positive attitude with the bitterness and hopelessness of Nick and Ziggy, the latter of whom is a heartbreaking fuck-up who responds to the obvious desolation of his prospects with a casual nihilism, embracing his status as a living punchline.

Frank sees that the next generation, including his own son and his beloved nephew, is not going to have anything waiting for them, which is why Nick still lives in his parents' basement and is forced to steal in order to have any hope of starting a life with his girlfriend. In a different way from the drug dealers of the first season, Nick has been born into a life that doesn't hold much in the way of prospects for him. He could've gotten out of there, gone to college, tried to find work elsewhere, but that seems like as much a dream to him as it had to the first season project drug dealers. He doesn't have any examples of that happening; the American Dream of bettering oneself always seems so remote and abstract from the vantage point of lower-class and working-class characters like Nick.

The situation of this season perhaps pointedly recalls the Marlon Brando classic On the Waterfront, which was similarly about corruption and crime on the docks, as well as the day-by-day struggle of working men fighting for a limited number of jobs. But there's no romantically redeemed Brando character here, no one who actively fights the corruption. And the conclusion is similarly hopeless. As in the first season, the last episode ends with a montage that shows everything continuing as before, the whole unstoppable cycle churning on despite the few minor bumps in the road presented by the police investigation and subsequent tumult.

These endings are perhaps the key to the show's brilliance. Even more than in the first season, when at least most of the major drug players had to pay some cost, there's no tidy wrap-up here, no moralistic coda, no satisfying dispensation of justice. Instead, the drugs continue to flow, new boatloads of impoverished women are smuggled into the country to pleasure rich men, while the men in charge evaporate from view and those few who were arrested are replaced almost immediately by new faces. Most poignantly, this montage speeds up towards the end with whiplash-quick visits to various dockside locales, all devoid of people, crusted in rust, as though the area has already been depopulated, turned into the ghost town it's destined to become.