Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Introduction

Were she still alive, Bette Davis would be turning 102 on April 5, 2010, and my guess is that if she were able to get out of bed she'd still be acting. From 1931 to just before her death in 1989, Davis worked steadily in movies (and in TV in the latter part of her career), through the highs and lows of fame and success, from Oscar-nominated roles to forgettable supporting parts, from acclaimed classics to pure trash. I first saw Davis in what might be her best-known role, 1950's All About Eve, about five years ago, and I was immediately mesmerized. Since then I've seen a few more of her films, but Davis' filmography is so varied and extensive that it's difficult to even know where to start. Over nearly 60 years she appeared in more than 100 feature films and TV productions.

Thus, April here at Signal Bleed will be Bette Davis Month, in celebration of the birthday of perhaps the greatest actress of all time. Each day this coming month I'll be posting about a different Bette Davis movie, covering all the way from her first film (1931's The Bad Sister) to her last (1989's Wicked Stepmother). In between I'll be bouncing around chronologically, covering both well-known classics and forgotten curiosities. I'm trying to broaden my Davis knowledge, so there won't be any movies I've seen before (I wrote briefly in the past about All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Now, Voyager). I'm leaving out TV for the sake of narrowing things down a bit, and I'm sure I'll miss a few notable films as well, given the scope of Davis' career. But I hope I can give a sense of Davis' genius and versatility, her magnetic and alluring screen presence, the way she luxuriates in language and can wither a co-star with a look. I'm looking forward to spending a month with Bette Davis, and I hope you will, too.

Bette Davis Month posts:
The Bad Sister (1931)
Of Human Bondage (1934)
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
The Petrified Forest (1936)
The Catered Affair (1956)
Return From Witch Mountain (1978)
The Letter (1940)
The Sisters (1938)
The Corn Is Green (1945)
The Whales of August (1987)
Juarez (1939)
In This Our Life (1942)
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
Pocketful of Miracles (1961)
Housewife (1934)
The Nanny (1965)
Dead Ringer (1964)
Satan Met a Lady (1936)
The Anniversary (1968)
Mr. Skeffington (1944)
The Great Lie (1941)
Burnt Offerings (1976)
Dangerous (1935)
Dark Victory (1939)
The Little Foxes (1941)
A Stolen Life (1946)
Death on the Nile (1978)
All This, and Heaven Too (1940)
Wicked Stepmother (1989)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Marvel looks back: Eye of the Camera & The Marvels Project

The owner of the comic book store I frequent (the excellent Maximum Comics in Las Vegas) told me a few weeks ago when I picked up the final issue of Kurt Busiek and Jay Anacleto's Marvels: Eye of the Camera that he has a customer who will only read comics like Camera and Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's The Marvels Project, set in past eras of Marvel continuity, because he has no tolerance for the superheroes of today. Presumably these stories offer him the chance to feel safe, comforting nostalgia without just re-reading old collections of Silver Age and Golden Age series. It sounded to me like a pretty sad mode of comics fandom, and I didn't want to feel like I was falling into that same trap, given that I was buying both Camera and Project. Maximum's owner also suggested to me that if I went back and read Busiek and Alex Ross' original 1994 nostalgia-fest Marvels (which is probably one of the most influential comics of all time), I'd find it incredibly boring.

I haven't gone back and read Marvels again, but I suspect he might be right. I really like a lot of Busiek's work, especially his creator-owned stuff; I still read and enjoy Astro City, and I was a big fan of Arrowsmith. I'm looking forward to Busiek's upcoming dark-folk-tales series American Gothic as well. But I've been less enthused about his mainstream superhero work, which often seems overly safe and respectful -- probably what that Maximum customer likes about it. I have very fond memories of reading Marvels as a teenager, which is why I decided to pick up the long-in-the-works sequel, Eye of the Camera, which concluded last month after a nearly yearlong hiatus between its fifth and sixth issues.

Camera isn't bad, but it is boring, and in a separate way from how Marvels itself might be boring. The main problem with Camera in its early issues is how much of a rehash it seems to be of Marvels. Unlike Busiek's current epic Astro City arc, The Dark Age, Camera doesn't specifically comment on a changing era in comics storytelling, or the political climate of the U.S. in decades past. It's mostly an affectionate extension of the first series, with photojournalist Phil Sheldon witnessing momentous events in the history of the Marvel universe and offering an everyman's perspective on these fantastical stories. A lot of the events in Camera aren't familiar to me, but it almost doesn't seem to matter: The point is that unfathomable things are happening, and regular people have no control over them. It's something we saw in the original Marvels, and, thanks to that series' huge influence, it's something we've see in loads of comics (including Astro City) since.

A few issues in, Camera becomes about the swan song of Phil Sheldon, and at that point it gets rather unappealingly maudlin (Busiek also takes on co-writer Roger Stern with the third issue), piling on more and more sentiment until the tearjerking finale. Busiek still has some nicely observed moments to dovetail with Marvel history (his riff on mutant persecution, while entirely familiar, is well-executed), but overall the story of Phil and his slow battle with cancer, his saying goodbye to his family, dominates. It's not about humanizing superheroes so much as it's about superheroes in the background of human drama, but not one that's particularly compelling.

And Anacleto's art isn't as exciting and new as Ross' was on the original series, nor as it was when Anacleto first appeared on the comics scene with Aria in 1999. His hyperrealistic style is, well, boring, with little sense of movement or scope. It's great at depicting static images of beauty, but to convey the hugeness of old-school superhero battles, it's pretty useless. Rather than make Phil's story feel real and grounded, the art just makes it even more stilted and awkward. The whole package is easy to read and clearly full of affection for the Marvel universe, but it's still fairly lifeless.

I didn't expect similarly respectful dullness from The Marvels Project, but it's been a lot more subdued than I imagined it would be (seven of eight issues have been released so far). A unified retelling of the early days of the Marvel universe in the historical context of the late 1930s and early 1940s, Project has a little bit of Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier (which took place in the 1950s) in it, with its efforts to tie the evolution of its characters to a specific time in history. Unlike Marvels, it doesn't use an everyman observer as its point-of-view character, but Brubaker does center the story around obscure Golden Age character the Angel, who chronicles the rise of Marvel's first costumed heroes.

I'm not familiar enough with Marvel's Golden Age continuity to know if Brubaker is doing a wholesale retcon here (other than the changes to Captain America and Bucky's relationship that I know he already made in the regular Captain America book), but if he is, it's pretty mild. This is a fairly straightforward retelling of the origins of several iconic characters (Captain America, Bucky, Namor, the original Human Torch) alongside a number of more obscure ones, but other than the Angel, none of those side characters really comes to life. The first issue, with its deathbed confession by time-traveling Western hero the Two-Gun Kid, set up a story that would be epic in scope while drawing new connections between characters, and that hasn't really happened. Instead, Brubaker's been telling mostly separate stories about the Torch, Captain America and Namor, with only occasional crossover.

The story has moved so slowly that it's sort of unbelievable to me that it's wrapping up in one more issue. There's no overarching narrative, so there's not really anything to resolve, but there's a lot going on that doesn't seem like it's going to conclude within so quickly. I guess that's part of the point -- this was all just the beginning of Marvel's grand superhero history -- but it makes the story feel incomplete, like Brubaker just ran out of time and had to stop. Maybe that eighth issue will really bring everything together, but so far the series has been too disjointed, even though the individual bits are strong, and Epting's clean art style works perfectly.

The reason I read stories like this is not, I don't think, because I can't accept change or that I don't connect with modern comics (although I don't read a whole lot of current mainstream superhero books from Marvel or DC). It's because I like writers who can pull together the disparate elements of a committee-created superhero universe and make them into a unique and personal story. It's also nice to read something self-contained in this era of endless cross-pollination. I don't know if either Eye of the Camera or The Marvels Project is entirely successful, but each one gives you a clear picture of how its creators view the characters and comics they love, and that's the kind of storytelling that draws me in.

Friday, March 19, 2010

American Vampire #1

Vertigo certainly has a fondness for these American _______ series, after American Century and American Virgin, neither of which were all that successful. Generic title aside, American Vampire starts promisingly, even though it lacks as unique a narrative hook as other recent Vertigo series. It's a vampire story, a fairly traditional one, and you could argue that vampires are tired and played out in comics in particular and pop culture in general these days, and you wouldn't be wrong. But we can accept endless variations on superhero stories if they're told well and feature interesting characters, so why not vampires too?

And this is told well, with a double-feature format that gives a sense of scope to the history of vampires in America while offering enough space to tell specific stories about two related characters. It helps that these stories are set in two milieus that appeal to me, the first (written by series creator Scott Snyder) in 1920s Hollywood, and the second (written by Stephen King, aka the reason people care about this series) in the Old West. So the first is a bit of a vampire/noir mash-up, while the second is a vampire Western, and both are fun and fast-paced and star promising main characters. Rafael Albuquerque draws the whole thing, and his expressive style suits both stories well. Although the book is split in half, both stories feel complete on their own, and I'm curious to learn more about this world. Maybe it's not a radical new take on vampires, but it's very entertaining, and that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ugly Americans

I have such low expectations for Comedy Central programming these days that I was expecting the new animated series Ugly Americans to be some sort of disgusting train wreck along the lines of Drawn Together. Instead it's mildly clever and mildly amusing, not something I'm excited to watch beyond the two episodes I've seen, but not painful to sit through, either. It's actually less manic than I expected, not desperate to deliver a punchline every two seconds. It reminded me a little of MTV's '90s heyday of weird animated series like The Head and The Maxx and Aeon Flux, although it's also a lot sillier and a lot less weighty than those shows were.

Americans takes place in a New York City inhabited by humans along with every fantasy and sci-fi creature you can imagine: zombies, demons, wizards, robots, aliens, werewolves, vampires, etc., where the human main character is a social worker helping to assimilate various strange creatures into the city. It's a loose structure as an excuse for riffs on various genre conventions, some of which are funny and many of which are just lame. Still, the animation and character design is fairly creative, and there's an effort to create real characters rather than just spew gross-out jokes. It's not hilarious, but at least it's trying.

Premieres tonight at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Claudette Colbert and the movie-star face

A while back, I acquired a copy of Universal's The Claudette Colbert Collection box set for a review that never ended up happening. Before that, the only movie I'd seen Colbert in was It Happened One Night, and I found her captivating and clever, and immediately wanted to see more of her. I thought I could review this set as a way to experience more of Colbert's work, and when the review fell through, it seemed worthwhile to watch the movies anyway (at a much more leisurely pace). It turns out that this set is probably not the best introduction to Colbert's career, as it's filled mostly with minor films that don't amount to much. Still, sitting through these six mediocre movies showed me how brightly Colbert shines even through the most unimpressive material.

And really, a lot of it comes down to her wonderfully expressive face. Sometimes that luminous movie-star quality actually works against her. In 1937's Maid of Salem, a plodding period drama about the Salem witch trials, Colbert looks consistently out of place as a 17th-century Pilgrim, with her Hollywood vivaciousness shining through the dour surroundings, and as a result she generally just seems like she's playacting. The movie gives Colbert the part of an unusually forward-thinking Pilgrim, yes, so she can espouse tolerant viewpoints and wear "risque" outfits, but even that characterization doesn't compensate for her inherent sass. Colbert's frequent co-star Fred MacMurray looks equally out of place here as a roguish rebel, and the movie surrounding them is awkward and ungainly.

MacMurray shows up twice more in this set, in the romantic comedies No Time for Love (1943) and The Egg and I (1947), and he and Colbert have a nice chemistry. He's got more charisma than Colbert's other male co-stars, and she easily lights up when he's around. But both of those movies are hopelessly dated battle-of-the-sexes hokum, with No Time for Love easily the worst offender. MacMurray's inconsiderate brute practically sexually assaults Colbert's pseudo-independent career woman, and of course his rude, demeaning, macho behavior charms her so much that by the end of the film she's abandoned her artistic, intellectual, fey (read: gay) circle of admirers to run off and be his wife.

The Egg and I starts where that story ended, with Colbert as a newly married city gal and MacMurray as the husband who decides to pack them both off to a farm in the sticks. It's Green Acres before Green Acres existed, and as such it's pretty much a feature-length sitcom (it in fact inspired an actual short-lived sitcom in the '50s). The movie is best known not for the story of Colbert and MacMurray trying to make a go of it as farmers, but for supporting characters Ma and Pa Kettle, redneck caricatures who went on to star in their own very popular series of spin-off movies. Between the Kettles and the ridiculous Native Americans saying "how," it's a parade of lame stereotypes, and it doesn't help that the whole last act deals with Colbert leaving MacMurray only to realize how important it is for her to subjugate her needs to her husband's (the real woman on whose memoir the movie is based, Betty MacDonald, eventually divorced her version of MacMurray's character).

Part of the reason the subjugating of Colbert's will in these movies is so frustrating is because the liveliness of the actress is in clear contrast to the eventual submissiveness of her characters. In No Time for Love, it's obvious she's got more going on behind those beautiful, wide eyes of hers than MacMurray's lummox ever will, and she's fully engaged in every conversation and negotiation in the entire movie. I found myself during all of these movies watching Colbert even when other characters were talking, and you can see from her subtly shifting expressions exactly how each character feels at any given moment.

That's true in the other forgettable movies in this set, the 1933 Depression-set family comedy Three-Cornered Moon and the dismal 1937 romance I Met Him in Paris, with Colbert torn between two equally useless suitors. The one movie I actually found entertaining here was 1938's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, another silly romance but one in which Colbert and her paramour, Gary Cooper as a multimillionaire businessman, actually seem on equal footing. The plot is sort of nonsensical, and the stolid Cooper is seriously miscast, but the dialogue by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett sparkles, and it's a thrill to see Colbert dive into some exchanges that are actually worthy of her talents. Where the other films seem to work to dim her inner light, this one lets it shine, even if she ends up outshining her co-star.

In the midst of watching these movies, I also saw Preston Sturges' brilliant 1942 The Palm Beach Story, with Colbert and Joel McCrea as a poverty-stricken couple who only realize their love for each other after they go their separate ways. It's delightfully weird, as Sturges always is, barreling from New York City urban bickering to a long train sequence to the third act in Palm Beach, where Colbert and McCrea are each paired with love interests who are simultaneously perfect and impossible. Colbert takes every one of the plot's insane turns with glee, and holds interest and sympathy in her character even while making exceedingly poor decisions. It's the kind of part that I wanted to see her in after being grabbed by It Happened One Night, where that charismatic face gets a character to match.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: District 13

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

There's a sequel to this 2004 French action movie out now, although it isn't playing in Vegas and I kind of doubt it ever will. Still, this movie was a bit of a sensation when it came out, introducing both the weird street "sport" of parkour (which was later showcased in Casino Royale) and director Pierre Morel (who went on to helm Taken and From Paris With Love, and is heading up the new Dune remake) to Hollywood and the world at large, and was a notable success for visionary French filmmaker-turned-hack producer Luc Besson's action-movie factory.

And having seen From Paris With Love, I wonder what happened to the creative, energetic filmmaker who made this movie, because despite its faults, District 13 is a lot of fun. The plot (involving a crime kingpin threatening to set off a nuclear bomb) is completely nonsensical and stupid, and the movie drags whenever stars Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle aren't beating up bad guys or hopping and jumping around the urban landscape, but the action sequences are extremely entertaining and kinetic, and the visual style is inventive. The pacing is brisk enough that you never have too much time to think about the plot holes, and the clumsy social commentary and sappy messages only get overbearing toward the end.

The key here is keeping things simple, and maybe the problem with From Paris With Love is that Morel was stuck with John Travolta as his action star instead of these crazy parkour dudes, who are clearly action guys first and actors second. That's entirely appropriate for a movie like this, and with everyone heading toward the same goal, it works out pretty well.

Remember Me

Even before its monumentally ill-conceived ending, Remember Me is a pretty bad movie. The leaden romance between mopey college students Tyler (Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame) and Ally (Emilie de Ravin of Lost fame) is weighed down with so much melodramatic baggage that it never gets a chance to take off on its own. Tyler's older brother committed suicide six years before; Ally's mother was murdered in front of her daughter's eyes four years before that. Both are dealing with overprotective parents, and Tyler also has a younger sister who's being bullied at school, and an unbelievably irritating best friend. With all their various traumas, it's a wonder the two can rouse themselves to have artfully shot sex in Tyler's meticulously dingy apartment.

Warning: Major spoilers ahead.

It's all very oppressive and lethargic and manipulative from the start, but then at some point in the second half, you probably realize what's coming: The movie is set in 2001 not so it can throw in a random scene of characters watching American Pie in a theater (although there is that), but so it can end with Tyler dying in the World Trade Center on 9/11, thereby allowing Ally to have the courage to once again ride the subway where her mother was murdered, and bringing Tyler's own estranged family back together. It's a crass and unearned moment, one that some may well find offensive but I just found tone-deaf and laughable. Still, it made me think about the growing prevalence of 9/11 imagery in movies that aren't actually about 9/11 (as opposed to something like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center), and why it sometimes seems innocuous and acceptable, and other times comes off as insensitive and cheap (as it does here).

The last major movie to use 9/11 as a plot point was Lasse Hallstrom's Dear John, in which the title character decides to re-enlist in the Army after the terrorist attacks, keeping him away from his lady love. Unlike Remember Me, Dear John used actual footage of the WTC attack (Remember Me director Allen Coulter cuts away once he reveals where Tyler is, since we all know what's coming), but it was to establish historical context, not to pull heartstrings (there was plenty of that going on in the rest of the movie). Dear John is a movie as much about the toll of war on personal relationships as it is about making out in the rain, and 9/11 is a catalyst, one element of many. Hallstrom and novelist Nicholas Sparks make a real case for setting a romance amid the war on terror as just as legitimate as setting one amid World War II, even if they don't actually make a good movie.

Contrast that with the histrionics of Mike Binder's 2007 weepie Reign Over Me, which stars Adam Sandler as a man whose family died on 9/11 and who still can't process his grief. Binder trivializes the event the same way that Remember Me does, making it a bit of cheap shorthand for creating the emotional weight that he can't achieve with character development, rather than the major historical event it is. In Dear John, the characters are swept up by world events; in Remember Me and Reign Over Me, world events are swept away by the narcissistic characters.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Vertigo round-up

Fables (Bill Willingham/Mark Buckingham & various)
Vertigo's de facto flagship title is still going strong, and although it hasn't been at the height of its creativity in a while, it's still generally a fun read with an engaging cast. Granted, the recent crossover that ran through Fables, Jack of Fables and miniseries The Literals was overlong, uneventful and tedious, but the follow-up storyline has brought back a sense of danger and menace with a new villain, and proves that Willingham still has new places to go with these characters after more than 90 issues. I expect to stick around for at least 90 more.

House of Mystery (Matthew Sturges & Bill Willingham/Luca Rossi & various)
I've recently given up on this book, mainly because after 22 issues I realized that I still couldn't remember which character was which, which ones had died or otherwise been written out, and who was in love with whom, since I obviously didn't care. This series never really wowed me, but it had solid moments here and there, especially in the little self-contained stories-within-the-story, and I kept waiting for all the pieces to fall into place. At this point, I'm tired of waiting, and the little moments are no longer worth the overall boredom.

Jack of Fables (Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges/Tony Akins & Russ Braun)
I'm tired of this one, too, which was always sort of a second-rate version of Fables that never quite justified its own existence. It was entertaining enough for a while, though, but since the energy-sapping crossover, it's completely lost its way. I'm not sure why Willingham and Sturges decided to jettison the title character and his entire supporting cast in favor of a cipher with the same name, but any amusement that came from seeing the arrogant Jack bumble through his adventures is gone, replaced with the dull square-jawed hero now starring in the book. I assume there's a plan at work here, but I'm not sticking around to find out what it is.

The Unwritten (Mike Carey/Peter Gross)
Here's what I'm excited about from Vertigo, though: A lot of the company's recent launches have failed to grab me, but Carey and Gross are doing fantastic work on this book, taking a lot of complex, esoteric subject matter about the nature of storytelling and how fiction is intertwined with reality and turning it into an extremely entertaining adventure story, complete with fascinating twists and engrossing detours (the issue about Rudyard Kipling is a marvel of short-form comics storytelling). I loved Carey's last Vertigo series, Crossing Midnight, which never really found an audience and got canceled prematurely. I'm happy that this one has been more successful, and will get the chance to stick around. It's one of the most exciting series in comics right now.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Sparta: U.S.A. #1

Wildstorm seems to pump out a lot of these miniseries with minimal promotion and no connection to any existing property, and it's no surprise that most of them get little attention. But sometimes they're quite good - I enjoyed Jeff Parker's Mysterius: The Unfathomable, and have picked up the debut issues of a few other series only to not be sufficiently hooked, or to just be unable to find the next issue.

Both might be the case with Sparta: U.S.A., written by David Lapham and drawn by Johnny Timmons, the first issue of which is a bunch of cryptic set-up leading to a cliffhanger that means little since the reader has pretty much no idea what's going on. The title location is a small town run by some sort of blue-skinned superpowered fascist, and a red-skinned rebel arrives at the end of the issue to liberate everyone. I guess this is Lapham's superhero allegory for the culture wars in America, or something, but its conflation of conservatism with supervillainy is sloppy, and despite a couple of creepy moments, the atmosphere is more silly than menacing.

Timmons' sketchy art does the job well enough, although the characters are a little indistinct. The main problem is that by the end of the issue there's still little sense of what this story is about, and the writing and art aren't strong enough to make me want to bother finding out.