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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Superhero Smackdowns? Who Needs 'Em?

Superman Returns, the most recent attempt to bring The Man of Steel to the big screen was a relative box-office failure and drew more than its fair share of criticism from fans and casual movie goers alike. Personally, I rather enjoyed it (note: as of 2012, I can honestly say that this is not a movie that has aged all that well so take the next bit with a pile of salt) thanks to some wonderful direction, spectacular set pieces, good performances and a real grasp of the sense of wonder and hope that Superman should elicit. Sure enough though, on a script level, it was a bit of train wreck. I am more than willing to take on board that the script was illogically structured, badly thought out and featuring some real head-scratching decisions in the form of Lex Luthor's moronic masterplan and the distracting inclusion of the Super-kid.

On the other hand, one criticism that has been levelled at the film time and time again that I have absolutely no time for is the idea that it was a weak Superman film because it didn't have enough moments of him trading punches and heat-vision blasts with some "big bad". Why precisely do superhero stories need massive punch-ups? Don't get me wrong, I get that the visual aspect of having fully grown adults running around in brightly coloured tights tends to lend itself to epic action scenes. To be honest though, the thoroughly thrilling sequence of Superman saving the free-falling plane in Superman Returns leaves even the biggest action scenes in even the best of the other superhero films in its dust.

I say this because even though it's clear that there is far more to the comic book - an art form that has been garnering more and more "mainstream" acceptance in recent years thanks to the growing popularity of graphic novels - than superheroes, there is still a tendency to underestimate just how powerful a storytelling device the superhero actually is. While the detractors of superhero comics write the whole lot off as nothing more than "juvenile wish fulfilment", characters like Superman or The X-Men are, at even the most cursory of glances, used as allegories for all sorts of real-world concerns. Superman is a particularly interesting case as he has meant a wide variety of different things to different people over the years from displaced refugee to a Christ-like saviour to a Moses-like leader to an assimilated immigrant and back again. It is on that note that we come to what is very easily my all time favourite Superman story, a Superman story so perfect that it doesn't even need to technically have Superman in it (more on that in a bit): Superman: Secret Identity.

Let's make no bones about it, Superman: Secret Identity is probably never going to be mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen, Sandman or Maus and perhaps understandably so. Aside for not having the popularity of those comics, it certainly isn't anywhere near as ground-breaking as those genre-redefining masterpieces. Personally though, I love it just as much as those seminal works and even if it doesn't exactly reinvent the art form, it embraces the metaphorical nature of the superhero with a dexterity that is all but unmatched by even the greatest superhero classics.

The clue is in the title but Superman: Secret Identity explores a superhero trope that is as tightly affiliated with the genre as capes and tights: the secret identity. Most impressively, it doesn't simply take a meta-textual look at what the secret identity means to the fictional world of superheroes but gives it far more resonance and relatability by using it as a metaphor for the inherent complexity of every human being. It's a metaphor that is so blindingly obvious in its genius that it is something of a wonder that it hasn't been worked into every other superhero story published in the seven decades since Superman's first appearance.

Secret Identity is driven by the typically wonky old Silver Age premise of "Superboy Prime". For those who aren't steeped in old superhero geekdom, Superboy Prime was basically a kid named Clark Kent who grew up in our "real world" and to whom Superman was just a comic book character until one morning he wakes up with powers just like his fictional namesake. As a concept it's just as baffling, ridiculous and charmingly creative as you would come to expect from a time when superhero comics were aimed almost exclusively at young boys. It's also a concept that has recently been resurrected with a much less innocent slant in DC's regular superhero comics. In Secret Identity, however, it is simply the springboard for a story that is beautifully layered, emotionally involving and all too human.

Originally released as a four-part mini series before being collected into a single-volume graphic novel, each of the four parts deal with different stages in this version of Clark Kent's life. The story begins with our protagonist as an insecure teenager, burdened by the constant teasing and bullying that comes with having such an unlikely name. It isn't long, however, before things become much more complicated as he finds himself suddenly endowed with powers not far off from the Superman with whom he shares a name. It turns out though that real life isn't quite as simple as the comics. While the fictional Clark Kent may be able to preserve some semblance of a normal life simply by switching between a brightly coloured costume and an ill-fitting suit and glasses, our young hero quickly comes to the realisation that he will need to keep his superheroic identity just as tightly under wraps as his civilian identity - especially after a run-in with some less than benevolent government agencies.

While the rest of the graphic novel unfolds wonderfully from here in terms of plot, the true heart of the story lies in the thematic exploration of the two sides of this Clark Kent: his unassuming, for all intents and purposes "normal" exterior and the far more unique, powerful personality that hides behind the surface. It is not, however, a story of identity confusion, as it perhaps could have been in the hands of a more cynical scribe. What writer Kurt Busiek spends the ensuing 200-odd pages exploring is an idea that is both far more profound and far more common place. Busiek uses the extra-human events of the comic to examine the relationship between the parts of a person that he or she exposes to the rest of the world and the real person within.

Clark shows himself to the rest of the world to be a thoroughly decent, well accomplished human being but the thing that makes him truly special, the aspects of himself that truly defines him as a person is something that is hidden from outside eyes. It is a side of himself that is so precious and so important that he, ironically, doesn't dare show to anyone else. Before long, however, Busiek goes on to introduce a Lois Lane to this Clark Kent and love, unsurprisingly, quickly blossoms. At this point Clark is introduced to a truly life-altering dilemma: does he continue to safe guard his secret at all costs or does he dare risk sharing this invaluable part of himself with someone else? The answer to this dilemma drives the story through to its perfect, beautifully handled conclusion.

As is pretty much par for the course with such fantastical fiction, I am, of course, reasonably sure that most of us do in fact not have super powers, nor indeed do we have dangerous government types chasing after us (though I am slightly less sure about the latter). Nonetheless, like the best fables, parables and fictions, the themes that underline Secret Identity, could scarcely be more profoundly realistic. Indeed, from the elegant narration to the well rounded characters to the pitch-perfect dialogue, the comic is pretty much perfect on a writing level alone but its Stuart Immonen's breathtaking art that truly makes it soar. Immonen's soft, painterly style is as adept at showing human emotion as it is at presenting spectacular moon-lit Kansas vistas.

Superman: Secret Identity is simply the sort of comic that encapsulates everything great about the artform. Its combination of art and language work in tandum to create a superb piece of storytelling with an almost palpable sense of warmth and humanity. No comic book collection is complete without it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So, About That Canadian Americana... Also Some Belated Thoughts On That Jackson Fella.

Just to finish off my review of my favourite stuff from a few weeks ago, here's a few thoughts for my music pick of the week: Tonight at the Arizona by The Felice Brothers.

As anyone who even remotely knows me might be able to tell you I generally prefer music from the 60s and 70s to what's being produced today. I do need to stress the word "generally" though because I am finding more and more stuff recorded more recently that I really enjoy - though, sure enough, very little of it gets much in the way of play on mainstream, Top 40 radio or MTV. One complaint that I still have about a great many of these newer acts (and indeed, new releases from many music veterans) is that even if I really like the music the way it's recorded leaves a lot to be desired. The latest and greatest in recording technology should in theory make music sound better than ever but a hell of a lot of the time it makes things a whole lot worse. Far too many albums released in this digital age are plagued by some really off-putting problems in the way they are recorded. Well, to my ears anyway. That clean but organic sound that was present on even lesser recordings from the late 60s, early 70s have been replaced with a sound that is either lifeless, too loud, cluttered, overbearing, undynamic or, as is all too often the case, a mixture of all of these.

The best thing about Tonight At the Arizona isn't the pitch-perfect arrangements, beautiful melodies, evocative lyrics, excellent musicianship or even its irresistible blend of various strands of American roots music, though these are all present and accounted for. It's not even that every song here is a fully formed gem in its own right or that the singer sounds like a more technically competent Bob Dylan. No, the thing that I love most about the Felice Brother's second (?) album is the way it sounds.

It's been well recorded (or at least as well recorded as it can be for such a seemingly obscure band) that the Felice Brothers hail from the same place as their most obvious influence - and Canada's greatest musical export this side of Neil Young - The Band and I'm certainly not going to argue that point. I'm also not going to argue that much like the band, they have the kind of understanding of traditional forms of American (as in, from the USA) music that most born and bred American musicians would be envious of. In fact, this is probably even more impressive in the Felice's case seeing as how the Band did have in drummer/ mandolin player/ singer/ guitarist (talented bunch them Band members) Levon Helm someone who came from the very heart of US cotton country, which was also right at the heart of many of America's great musical movements.

Tonight at the Arizona doesn't merely display this intricate understanding of the United States of America's rich musical heritage so much as lives and breathes it. It is one of those all too few albums that sounds genuinely timeless. Admittedly, it does sound like it was probably recorded after the invention of decent recording equipment sometime in the middle of the 20th century but beyond that it is pretty much impossible to date. It was recorded some 40-odd years after the release of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, which was clearly something of an influence on The Felice Brothers, but it sounds for all the world like a contemporary work. Hell, it wouldn't even be hard to imagine it pre-dating that landmark album by a few years.

Admittedly, comparing Tonight at the Arizona to Blonde on Blonde is probably a bit of a stretch as it displays none of the originality or ambition of Dylan's masterpiece but as a rich slice of classic Americana, it more than stands up.


Moving about as far away from classic Americana as it is possible to get, a few words on the death of Michael Jackson.

I have to admit that when I read the news, my initial reaction was hardly one of shock. Michael Jackson has over the years abused his body in a way that would shock even Keith Richards. Well, perhaps not, Keef is another story all together but the fact that his heart finally gave in was ultimately inevitable. Beyond that initial thought though, I felt some sadness that he did die so young but, I have to admit, that as someone who never really cared for the man's music, his death didn't really affect me in the way that, say, George Harrison's or John Entwistle's did.

Regardless of my feelings however, I am still shocked at the amount of media attention Jackson's passing has received. Oh sure, Michael Jackson's obvious mental instability has made him a fixture of lowest-common-denominator tabloids over the past decade at least but I would have thought that as a pop-icon, his peak as an artist, performer and popular figure would be little more than a distant memory to most. I would also have thought that his sometimes shocking apparent behaviour and appearance would have turned many fans against him as the decades passed.

Apparently not.

What I really have trouble with however is the way the media has reacted to his death. You really need look no further than Jackson's life and death to see exploitative, sensationalist junk journalism at its absolute worst. As Michael Jackson, beloved pop prince, receded spectacularly from public conciousness to be replaced by Michael Jackson, psycho freak, the media were there to chart every pathetic moment of his hideous fall from grace. They sneered during his scandalous lawsuits, jeered at his financial destruction and laughed at his outlandish behaviour. "Wacko Jacko" had the jackals salivating at his every move since the mid-90s as he clearly became an image of public ridicule, all the while his sanity allegedly nose-dived, his talent faded and his life fell apart.

Who knew that all he needed to do to get into everyone's good books again was to kick the proverbial bucket. The very same mind-pulverising tabloids and abominable "entertainment news" programs that went out of the way to ridicule Michael Jackson's every living move, suddenly but not expectantly, turned tails and turning him into a mighty heroic legend in death. Jackson was clearly a complicated person and an important, if not necessarily great, music personality with more than his fair share of demons but from all the duplicitous, hypocritical media coverage of the past days, all I'm really left with is a strong sense of distaste.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Week That Was: Classical Composers, Canadian Americana, Lipstick Lesbians, Crime-Scene Cleanups and Naff Holocaust Films. (Part 2)

OK, so, as per usual, I've fallen a bit behind here. The week that was is quickly becoming the week that was two weeks ago. As such, I'm going to keep the reviews of the three films that I want to talk about rather short - at least for the first two, any way.

Film of the Week: Sunshine Cleaning

Every poster, trailer and promotional item for this film have made it abundantly clear that it is by the same producer as Little Miss Sunshine. They even included the word "sunshine" in the title just in case you didn't yet understand that this was by the same people who brought you (in this case supplied the financing for, rather than actually making) that Oscar-nominated little indie flick from a few years back.

The good news is that it's actually a better film than the somewhat overrated Little Miss Sunshine. It is also much more noticeably a drama than its not-really-predecessor and I don't really understand why so many people have labelled it a "black comedy". Granted, it is a film about two sisters whose lives are somewhat less than idyllic that, in order to make ends meet, open up a cleaning service that specializes in mopping up the often gruesome messes that come in the wake of violent crimes, suicides and long-undiscovered dead bodies. As such, yes, there are some morbid - and some not so morbid - laughs to be had but the film's primary focus is on the two sisters, their relationship with each other and those around them and the way they find meaning in such an unsavoury occupation.

Sunshine Cleaning is a small, unassuming film that puts a very human, down to earth spin on an odd premise that could have spun wildly out of control. It is at times unfocused and messy and it doesn't go too far out of its way to tie up its loose ends but, in a way, that only makes it all the more human. It is sharply written and the direction is effective, if, again, unassuming but it's the performances that really sparkle. Alan Arkin, as the sisters' lovably off-kilter, if troubled father heads up a great supporting cast but the film really belongs to Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as the lead characters. That Amy Adams was terrific is of absolutely no surprise to me - after all, in Doubt she managed to hold her own onscreen against veteran heavy-weights, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep - but the equally excellent Emily Blunt was a real revelation for me as I've somehow managed to miss most of her past performances.

Sunshine Cleaning may not be to everybody's tastes but if you're looking for a break from those soulless, mindless American summer blockbusters that are out this year (by the looks of things, aside for presumably Pixar's Up, this blockbuster season should have ended with the absurdly enjoyable Star Trek reboot), you could do far, far worse.

DVD of the Week: Amadeus

Milos Forman's excellent, if lengthy - though the director's cut is even longer - biopic about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may be twenty-five years old but it overshadows even the best of today's music biopics. I may not be the world's greatest classical music fan - though, as long as its purely instrumental, I do like it - but I'm amazed at how much more lively this film is in comparison to something like the dreary Ray Charles biopic, Ray. Forman brilliantly abandons any and all of the seriousness and sobriety that is all too often associated with classical music. Amadeus is a rollicking, inordinately entertaining film as Mozart is portrayed as being every bit as much a character as the biggest personalities in popular music.

Most importantly, while the final hour does occasionally fall into the nasty trappings of the genre (substance abuse, failing relationships), Forman wisely keeps the focus on Mozart's music than his personal life. He does this by telling the story not through Mozart's point of view but through the eyes - and indeed ears - of Antonio Salieri (played superbly by F Murray Abraham), a man who loved and appreciated Mozart's genius like no other but who, as a composer himself, was at the same time murderously jealous of him. It's a fascinating and incredibly poignant point of view to tell the story from and it turns what could so easily have been a shallow telling of Mozart's story into something far deeper and far more profound.

Amadeus is not without its flaws but as both a massively entertaining piece of celluloid and a powerful, intriguing exploration of, among other things, music, genius, jealousy and love, it is a must see for lovers of both music and film.

Rant of the Week: The Reader

Just so we're clear, before I even attempt to rip the bloody thing several new ones, The Reader is a very well put-together and solidly acted film. I can't see this ending up on anyone's worst of the year list and, lets be honest, worse films than this are released pretty much every week of the year.

The Reader isn't a bad movie by any means but that certainly doesn't mean that it's a particularly good one. And it certainly doesn't mean that it deserved to be nominated for the best picture, actor, screenplay etc. of last year's Academy Awards over far more deserving fare like The Dark Knight, Wall-E, Persepolis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or two excellent Clint Eastwood films.

The Reader is a thoroughly mediocre bit of drama that commits the twin cardinal sins of thinking that it's far better than it really is and of being monumentally dull. It is the absolute worst kind of Oscar-baiting tosh that features a bum-numbing running time, a period setting, failed relationships, the Holocaust and that nauseating mixture of endless longing gazes at nothing in particular and earnest whispers. Oh yes, and totally silly faux-German accents that could sully even a good performance from someone as wonderfully talented an actress as Kate Winslet so clearly is. Speaking of Ms. Winslet that she won for acting in a holocaust film should come as a bitter dose of irony to anyone that has ever watched Extras - something that Ricky Gervais picked up on himself.

The film itself is entirely without even a spark of humour, its sincerity starting off dull but well intentioned before soon becoming teeth-gratingly obnoxious. It features characters that I don't care about, entering into relationships that I don't believe in, spouting dialogue that is as stiff as the direction is lifeless. It doesn't even bother to follow up on the occasional themes of interest that it does fleetingly raise in between all the lingering gazes and rubbish failed romances.

Ultimately The Reader is the sort of film that promises much but delivers very little. If you want a great holocaust film, there's an abundance of better options. Failed romances? Court-room dramas? Films of redemption and tragedy? For all of these there are far better options than the Reader.

As for the great Kate Winslet performance? Come on, we all know that she should have won for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.