Thursday, January 31, 2008


I gave Tiger Competition jury member Jafar Panahi a drunken pat on the back the other night. I told him to keep up the good work. I hope he does.

Today I deliberate with the FIPRESCI jury about their prize for the Tiger Competition. My fellow trainees and I get 1 vote combined. I think The Sky, The Earth, and the Rain, by the Chilean filmmaker Jose Luis Torres Leiva, is by far the best film in competition, and one of the best I've seen all week. I write about it more in my next IFC post, which should be up in a day or two, but it's, as the program notes say, pure cinema. Set in southern Chile and shot with mostly natural light, it's a ravishing visual experience, and a true landscape film. Leiva told me he watched films by Apichatpong and Pedro Costa before filming, and their influence is palpable, in the dappled light and rigorous compositions, respectively, but it emerges as a great work in its own right.

Other fun things: the oppressively minimalistic The Rebirth, from Kobayashi Masahiro. It tracks the everyday doings of two sides of a murder. The mother of the murderer and the father of the deceased child end up living and working in the same factory town. Made up of endless repetitions of their daily work - it's akin to Jeanne Dielman. Eliciting many harrumphing walkouts, I was pretty well fascinated. After an hour of waking, eating, working, sleeping - the biggest bit of drama was when the father couldn't find the soy sauce jar on the table. Their routines are repeated over and over until small discrepancies arise - the father goes to the deli instead of the cafe, for example - and you know the whole house of cards is about fall. But it falls, of course, minimally.

I've never seen Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor, but now I have to. I just saw You, The Living, which premiered at last year's Cannes festival, and it's incredibly funny. Like Tati, he fills the frame with bits of action - every window holds a punchline. His frames are static tableaus, though, like comic book frames stuffed with detail. It's a series of vignettes set in a small Swedish town - people recall dreams, have absurdist arguments with their wives, and generally yearn for a better life. I think I remember that Tartan picked up the rights, although I'm not sure. See it if you can.

Wisit Sasanatieng, he of Tears of the Black Tiger, has a silly piece of thorwback horror fluff with The Unseeable. A camp gothic horror film about a crazy aging beauty and her decrepit mansion, it's a bit like Sunset Blvd. with umbilical cord eating vampires, but it's not as fun as that description sounds. Picks up speed in the end, though.

I eat now.


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Local Favorites

With the writers strike dragging on into its umpteenth month (I miss you Dirty Sexy Money!), I've turned more and more to my Netflix account to fill my evenings. And if you've ever browsed that website you know that it's a bottomless pit of weird quirks. Take for example, the fact that at the bottom of the home page, you can see a list of movies that are popular in your area. Not necessarily the most rented in New York City, but rather the films that "members in and around New York are currently renting much more than other Netflix members." I suppose the thinking in showing me these movies is that the enormous peer pressure of knowing that Manhattanites all around me are so obsessed with Paul Mazursky that I might cave and rent it too just to get a fleeting taste of the sense of community that post-modern urban living has deprived me of.

Currently, the top five in this category are:

1)Next Stop, Greenwich Village
2)The 39 Steps
3)Crossing Delancey
4)Barbarians at the Gate
5)The Panic in Needle Park

So you have four films set in New York, and one that's been turned into a critically acclaimed Broadway show. Fascinating and, I suppose, it makes some sense for people to be interested in stories set around them. Then again, shouldn't these people be out and actually living in New York City, instead of watching people pretend to on their televisions?

Anyway, this whole concept of certain areas being more interested in particular movies fascinated me. The Netflix site lets you search different areas to find what is the most popular movie in each zip code in their database. Here, now, are the #1 movies in each of the following cities:

Baltimore, MD: Homicide: Season Six
Boise, ID: Out of the Blue: A Film About Life and Football at Boise State
Cedar Rapids, IA: Beer League
Chicago, IL: Expo: Magic of the White City
Cincinnati, OH: Last Man Standing
Dallas, TX: Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds
Denver, CO: Things to Do In Denver When You're Dead
Helena, MO: Montana Sky
Honolulu, HI: Samoan Wedding
Indianapolis, IN: Bambi
Lexington, KY: Jefferson in Paris (#2: Birth of a Nation)
Little Rock, AK: Paradise Lost
Los Angeles, CA: The Last Mogul
Madison, WI: Wisconsin Death Trip
Minneapolis, MN: Al Franken: God Spoke
Nashville, TN: Nashville
Orlando, FL: The Name of the Rose
Park City, UT: Clear and Present Danger

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)

In DVD supplements, director Michael Davis explains that with Shoot 'Em Up he was trying to make "an American John Woo" movie. Specifically, he loved the scene in Hard Boiled where Chow Yun-Fat rescues a bunch of babies from a hospital and decided to turn that into an entire movie. Well I think you can sense the problem with Davis approach. First off, we have American John Woo movies; most of them look like Paycheck and generally stink as compared to his Hong Kong filmmography. Second, he's not just giving a new spin on the bullet ballet, by his own admission, he's just rehashing one scene into an extended 80 minute gunfight. Whatever; I know John Woo and you, Michael Davis, are no John Woo.

The plot, such as it is, involves a mysterious hobo named Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) who randomly stumbles on a pregnant woman under attack from an army of heavily-armed stunt doubles. He delivers her baby (even as he continues firing on people) but fails to save the woman; now he's got take care of her tot and figure out while this army of goons, led by Paul Giamatti as Hertz, so badly wants it. Eventually he turns to a lactating hooker named D.Q. (Monica Bellucci) to feed and care for the baby, and to have vigorous sexual intercourse with him of a middle of a gunfight.

The worst thing about this movie? It made me feel old. I've got a sneaking suspicion that ten years ago I would have loved this movie. The admittedly inventive ways of killing people, the fact that the movie equates Bugs Bunny with a remorseless killing machine (and the fact that Owen kills not one but two people with the sharp end of a giant carrot) Now as an aging 27-year-old fart, I kept feeling like I needed more. For all the blood and quips and people flying through the air with two handguns, I felt empty at the end. Have I really grown up? Egads, I hope not.

Monday, January 28, 2008


My first update on the festival for IFC News us up, and it's filled with delights you can't possibly imagine. In other news, the screening of Momma's Man has been cancelled for tonight, ruining my well hewn plans. Now I may just drink alone.

La France is one of the best things I've seen here, and luckily for you NYC folks, it's slotted to play the New Directors/New Films fest. An unclassifiable WW1 film that contains four whimsical musical numbers in the midst of a tale about haunted French deserters walking endlessly in their own no man's land. Shot with soft, delicate colors, mostly blues and greys, and composed in tableaus (the soldiers are almost always in group shots - when individuals are isolated, it is a privileged moment of revelation). And a beautiful last shot!

The sex shop on the corner has statues of cows in the window. I'm both frightened and intrigued, with intrigue winning out.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Free Drinks in Rotterdam

After seeing 15 movies in three days, it was time to unwind. The industry party at the Engels (!) building provided just that opportunity. After walking by Jafar Panahi to score some free beer, I bonded with my Brazilian counterpart about the genius of Metallica, Howard Hawks, and Clint Eastwood. The other critics in my program were ladies, and oh, they danced.

To give a brief update....Dainipponjin lived up to expectations, filled with ultra-deadpan humor and absurdist CGI. I also enjoyed the compositonal glories of In the City of Sylvia, the lovely romance of the post-tsunami Wonderful Town, and the humor of the Malaysian Flower in the Pocket. Tonight I saw Alexei Balabanov's super-acidic take on the last years of the Soviet regime, Cargo 200. Totally unforgiving and occasionally completely revolting, it's filled with grime, corpses, and sexual horrors like I've never seen on screen. I've never been so delightfully disgusted!

The first IFC update should be running soon, so look forward to that unprecendented insight in the near future. I plan on seeing some 4th generation Chinese films soon, as well as the Sundance critics hit, Momma's Man, directed by Azazael Jacobs, the son of the experimental filmmaker Ken, whose RAZZLE DAZZLE I was stunned by in these parts.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Blog Envy

Our vicious festival overlords are making us blog at their site, which hurts me deeply. I can't help but feel like I'm betraying the sacred bond between Termite Art and our tens of fans. But here we are. Right here. I've seen four films today, one of them good, and am off to another one, which I consider disappointment proof.



Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Matt on NPR's Talk of the Nation Today (1/23/08) at 2:40 EST!

With Sweeney off to Rotterdam and me in Sundance, these are heady times for Termite Art. And, insanely, I have now been invited to appear today as a guest on NPR's Talk of the Nation, talking about famous Oscar snubs. BRING THE HEAT NEAL CONAN! I KNOW MORE ABOUT 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS THAN YOU CNA POSSIBLY IMAGINE!

So yeah that's going down today at 2:40 eastern (adjust for various time zones because this sucker is LIVE) and you can even go and find out how to call in and join the discussion (i.e. be a plant who will provide me with easy questions I already know answers to) by going to their site. They've got a stream there as well, so if you're near a computer but not a radio, you can listen that way.

Hope you can tune in. If you're busy at 2:40, it looks like NPR puts all their shows into an archive. If I don't embarrass myself I will post it here as well.

UPDATE:The show is archived on NPR's site for your listening pleasure. I believe by tomorrow it'll also be on iTunes, and you can download it as a podcast as well. Listen and judge my performance! Just not too harshly...


I wouldn't pretend I knew Heath Ledger but I did interview him once, at the junket for Brokeback Mountain. He came off as incredibly smart, and very serious about his work. For that role, and many others, and many others we now won't get to see him in, he will be missed.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rotterdammerung, Ledger

I'm off to the Rotterdam Film Festival tomorrow night, which is making me all atwitter. I was accepted into the Trainee Program for Young Film Critics (look - there's me!), which gets me press accreditation and a healthy helping of Dutch wit. Being the first big film festival I've attended, I plan on seeing an unhealthy amount of cinema and very little of the Netherlands. The photo above is a still from Garin Nugroho's new documentary, Teak Leaves At The Temples, which I'll be soaking in shortly: "Two extremes in music were brought together: western free jazz, leaning entirely on improvisation, and the local traditional music of Java as it has been played for centuries around the Borobudur Temple." It's a concert film I'm looking forward to far more than, say, U2 3D, which is premiering at some festival in Utah.

I'll be sending a few dispatches to IFC News, so check out that fine site for my polished thoughts on the fest. Hopefully I'll find some time to update the more unsavory aspects of my trip on the blog, but I may be too burnt out and/or hallucinatory to find the time.


My favorite Heath Ledger performance was his incredibly funny turn in Lords of Dogtown. Effortlessly aping the mannerisms of a surfer/stoner megalomaniac, and emplyoing a rapid fire mealy-mouthed delivery, it was a tour-de-force comic performance that slowly edged into tragedy. A truly idiosyncratic effort.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Ford At Fox: 3 Bad Men (1926)

The next film in the set is 3 Bad Men, which again showcases the sparkling cinematography of George Schneiderman - whose work is one of the many marvels of this set. In collaboration with Ford, he composes exquisite long shots of western landscapes (most of them shot at Jackson Hole, Wyoming - thanks Joseph McBride!). They are deep focus wonders, rich with chiaroscuro and constantly slashed by intrepid wagon trains, preparing for a land rush into the Dakotas (land wrested away from the Sioux nation). The three bad men aren't so bad, at least after they run into toothsome Olive Borden (former Mack Sennett bathing beauty) after her father is killed by horse bandits (who just happened to beat the naughty trio to the punch). The whiskered heroes are played by Tom Santschi, J. Farrell MacDonald (a Ford Stock Company regular), and Frank Campeau.

Filled with Fordian low humor, including a choice bathing beauty in a barrel farce, it's also a complex take on one of his favorite themes - the noble outlaw making way for a civilization that has no use for them. The three drunken louts defend Miss Borden from the slick advancements of the corrupt local Sheriff, a smug, corrupt bastard whose official cover masks a naked lust for power. This ambivalence about the new order is encapsulated in the final action sequence, where the oleaginous sheriff sneaks behind the line of the land rush and plots to take over Olive's plot of land - as she has the inside dope on a gold vein. In a beautifully orchestrated defense, the three dirtbags give up their lives to the law in order to preserve the future for Olive and her athletic beau (George O'Brien, also of The Iron Horse).

But one can't get away from that photography. It's glorious - and Schneiderman is a guy who deserves further research.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Jawa Fight

I love Opera Jawa, Garin Nugroho's 2006 musical, a low-budget spectacle that deals eloquently with Indonesia's post-tsunami, post-Suharto state of mind. So I was disappointed with the response the film received in NYC (it's week-long run at MoMA ends this weekend). But I may not have been as disappointed as Jonathan Rosenbaum, who posted a scathing critique of Jeannete Catsoulis' review in the NY Times. Her review reads like she wrote it on a quick turnaround, with little time to think about or do any research on the film. The gist of her piece is that the movie is awfully strange, and that it "is guaranteed to test the fortitude of all but the most adventurous viewer." She fails to mention it's complicated use of music, which shifts between traditional gamelan, local folk forms, and even a bluesy ballad - or it's unique set designs, commissioned for seven local contemporary artists. But I wasn't as angry as Rosenbaum, who calls the review "ugly, xenophobic, and tossed off". I wouldn't go that far - but I do wish she had been able squeeze in some sense of the film's uncanny beauty - or any sense of what it was trying to accomplish. Instead she chooses to joke about one of the subtitles. Ah well - there's only so much one can do in 200 words, it's just unfortunate she couldn't do more for a film I love, and one in desperate need of critical attention.

And for those interested, you should be able to read my take on Jawa and its director in a future issue of everyone's favorite magazine. Details to come.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A word about Be Kind Rewind


Their website is fun too:

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Ford At Fox: The Iron Horse (1924)

John Ford's first epic production, The Iron Horse, flung Jack onto the critical map. While his previous Westerns with Harry Carey were popular, they were treated as run-of-the-mill programmers by the stuffed shirts. But throw a lot of money and publicity behind a historical pageant - and they take notice! Laureled upon first release but downgraded during his auteurist deification (along with his other silent work), its real value lies somewhere in between. Sure, it's saddled with an ungainly plot, with the fresh faced George O' Brien (who three years later would star in Murnau's Sunrise, which proved to be a huge influence on Ford) seeking love with his childhood sweetheart Madge Bellamy as they build the transcontinental railroad. The love plot is rife with coincidence and an evil mustachioed boyfriend.

But there are enough Fordian touches to offset the creaky melodrama - including luminous landscape photography by George Scheiderman (who shot Ford's Will Rogers trilogy), scenes of low humor preceding tragedy (after a train car is turned into a raucous outdoor casino, Ford pans down to a wife mourning her husband, who died of drink), and some wonderful scenes of drunken Irish humor (played besottedly by charter Ford Stock Company member J. Farrell McDonald). What lifts The Iron Horse to another level is the effortless way in which Ford links the personal and historical - as O'Brien and Bellamy's romance is fixed only after the last railroad spike is driven, effortlessly lifting the cliched romance into the realm of a founding myth - a couple uniting the country from East to West.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Classic Trailer Theater: Taxi Driver

Can't remember another trailer keyed to one actor and his resume.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why I'll Miss the Golden Globes This Year

Skip ahead to 6:30 in and watch the fun begin.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale (2007)

After a disappointing second series, creators/writers/stars Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant close down their second telvisual collaboration in heady, exhilarating style. Extras: The Extra Special Series Finale fulfills this uneven show's initial promise and even exceeds the best moments of its first series with exactly the sort of generous blend of awkward humor and warm-hearted characters that were the stock and trade of their masterpiece, the original British incarnation of The Office. They even take a stab at a sort of low-fi version of Network, with a ballsy, TV denouncing final sequence that really takes the screws to the medium that has nutured these artists' careers amongst so much other crap.

Extras mutated a bit over the course of its short run. Each episode of the first series (as they like to call their seasons across the pond) followed a dependable formula: hapless movie extras Andy (Gervais) and Maggie (Ashley Jensen) work (or, more accurately, sit around killing time any way they can) on a film set where they run afoul of a movie star or two, played by a rotating cast of guest stars. Invariably, these movie stars — people like Ben Stiller or Kate Winslet — were revealed to be horrific versions of the people we believe them to be based on their media personas; Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, for instance uses his public appearances at charitable causes as a springboard to plug his band's new greatest hits album. Much of the show's humor and tension rose out of the massive divide between the lowly (but kindly) extras and the powerful (but douchey) celebrities.

Things changed dramatically in series two. Through a combination of luck, skill, and sheer determination Andy gets a sitcom on the air of the BBC. Though Andy's idea initially sounds very much like The Office, the realities of network television transmute it into something much much worse: a trite, catchphrase laden piece of hackery called "When the Whistle Blows." As the show becomes a hit, Andy in turn becomes rich, famous, and successful. He also becomes a laughing stock amongst the critics and artistic types whose approval he desperately craves (Maggie, meanwhile, is still a miserable extra).

It seemed like a pretty clever idea for Gervais to sendup his own television career but, in practice, making fun of "When the Whistle Blows" was about as much fun as actually watching "When the Whistle Blows." There's basically just one joke there — the show is bad! Tee hee! — and episode after episode rung that bell over and over. And while the first season's high-low dynamics worked just as well for an American audience, something about the second's season's rigorous savaging of mainstream British comedy (most of which I have never had the opportunity to see) got lost in translation. Perhaps the finer points of of the shiticy of "When the Whistle Blows" (and its relation to stuff actually airing on the telly) were absolute knee-slappers when they aired in the UK. None of that came through here (and who the hell is Robert Lindsay?). It also didn't make a whole lot of sense for Andy to keep his oafish agent (played by Merchant) around once he became a successful network TV star. When he was desperate you could buy him depending on someone this woefully incompetent (selling his likeness to a doll manufacturer who cocks up the thing so that it never stops spitting out Andy's obnoxious catchphrase, "Is he having a laugh?"). Flush with success there's no way someone as driven as Andy would let someone keep dragging him down.

Thankfully, that becomes a crucial part of The Extra Special Series Finale, when another agent with promises of artistic freedom and critical respect lures Andy away. But when he decides to cancel "When the Whistle Blows," the work and the attention dries up. Now, in order to keep his name out there, he begins to desperately appear in the kind of dumb guest spots he'd vowed to reject a few months before (there's a killer scene with Gervais in a giant slug costume, battling the latest version of Doctor Who). Suddenly, he's a has been, and now he'll do anything to get a table at the Ivy. In what amounts to an 80 minute movie (as opposed to the series of 2 hourlong specials that capped off The Office), Andy must come to grips with what he wants, whether that be celebrity, or integrity, or maybe neither.

In the episode's climax (and I'm about to get SPOILERY), Andy has an epiphany on the set of Celebrity Big Brother, rails against celebrity obsession and reality television, declares anyone who watches it a moron and himself even worse for participating, apologizes to Maggie (whose fall on even harder times than Andy has gone totally unnoticed as his narcissism got the better of him) and storms off the show. In response, Andy becomes hotter and more popular than ever. Now EVERYONE wants a piece of him. So what to do now?

There's a lot of ways that big scene could stumble. The speech is didactic, the sentiment is probably more than a little off coming from someone whose had such great success in television, and the tearjerky elements could easily fall right into camp if Gervais couldn't actually act. Lo and behold he can! As he launches into this finger-pointing diatribe I was ready to hate the sermonizing on basic principles but he sells it, and as he begins to well up as he apologizes to the friend he never appreciated I must admit, I did as well. It's really quite a beautiful scene (and the joke that caps it off is a really funny one). The outcome of that speech strikes me as quite truthful; though the creators of these reality shows try to control them well past the point where anyone could really call them true "reality" the people who watch these shows specifically tune in hoping for something like Andy's speech. People love the rare moments when the contestants of these things actually do and say what they feel (take a catfight on the set of a dating show). It's great, too, that Gervais and Merchant were able to use the real name and (presumably) logo and set of Big Brother given how blatantly negative they are about the show and the junk culture surrounding it. If they'd had to set up a sort of faux approximation the scene wouldn't have half the bite.

So the Extras finale provides me the opportunity to use a great cliche: I laughed, I cried, I wanted more. And I can't wait to see Gervais perform standup live in the States later this year. What do you mean you didn't buy tickets yet? Are you having a laff?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Termite (Sequential) Art: Spider-Man: One More Day

Yeah, it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Written by J. Michael Straczynski and Joe Quesada
Illustrated by Joe Quesada with Danny Miki

The greatest villainy in all of comics, the fiendish "illusion of change" strikes again, and this time it's erasing some twenty-odd years of continuity. In one misguided, poorly written, and downright upsetting storyline, all those decades of stories, including many of my personal favorites, have vanished as if they never happened in the first place. The reason seems clear, at least to me: in the eyes of some, Spider-Man was getting a bit too manly.

Editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Joe Quesada has, for years, argued that a married Spider-Man/Peter Parker (as the character has been since the late 1980s, when he wedded longtime girlfriend Mary Jane Watson) is less viable than a single Spider-Man/Peter Parker. A while back, Quesada helped launch the "Ultimate" line of comics, stripped-down versions of popular Marvel properties with streamlined continuity with no ties to the regular Marvel Universe. In other words, while the Amazing Spider-Man could remain married to Mary Jane the Ultimate Spider-Man was a high school teen dating Mary Jane (and other girls) for the first time. For readers like myself, it was a superb arrangement. The books were different but both, thanks to writers J. Michael Straczynski and Brian Michael Bendis, respectively, were good reads. One would have thought this an ideal compromise, particularly because it doubles the amount of money the company can get out of a rube like me.

The situation probably could have gone on forever were it not for one Sam Raimi and his remarkably successful and popular films about your friendly neighborhood wallcrawler. Suddenly the Spider-Man most familiar to people isn't the one gracing the monthly pages of Marvel Comics; it's the one gracing the biannual silver screens of multiplexes around the world. And that Spider-Man isn't married, has never been married. Now, in addition to whatever personal preference Quesada might have held, there was a clear commercial imperative for a breakup: the move alligns the world of the comics with the world of the films. At the end of One More Day, the story that tells the end of Peter and Mary Jane's marriage, Spider-Man's world has literally been transformed all around him, into one that looks remarkably like the one Raimi presented onscreen. In the final scene of Part 4, for example, Aunt May's house in Queens looks exactly like the one from the first two films, right down to the stairwell just behind the kitchen table. That sort of synergy has got to be good for business. From that perspective, the move makes a whole lot of sense.

From a story perspective, not so much. The concept Quesada and Straczynski cooked up to break the two apart is truly a bizarre one. It spins out of Marvel's recent Civil War series, where a new law required all super-heroes to surrender their identity to the federal government. Peter Parker revealed his secret on national television, but later decided to rebel against the so-called Super-Hero Registration Act, turning him and his family into fugitives. While on the run from both friends and enemies, a sniper aiming for Peter accidentally shoots Aunt May instead. In One More Day, Peter learns that Aunt May's injuries are fatal and there is nothing medical science can do for her. Feeling responsible for her impending death (just as he still feels responsible for his Uncle Ben's death years earlier), he seeks supernatural assistance and eventually encounters Mephisto, the Marvel Comics version of Satan. He offers Peter a choice: Aunt May's life for his marriage to Mary Jane. After a couple of pages of half-hearted hand-wringing the deal is done, the history of the world is rewritten and now it is as if Peter and MJ were never hitched at all (and as if Peter had never told Aunt May he was Spider-Man, and so on).

What might be most galling in this entire sordid affair is the fact that this storyline was pitched to readers as a grand send-off to Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5 and the regular monthly writer of Amazing Spider-Man since 2000. After years of stories so dreadful even I, hardcore Spidey fan that I am, stopped reading the series, Straczynski gave the book a renewed sense of purpose and its central character a clear, expressive voice. Most importantly, he was willing (some might say too willing) to push Peter Parker in new directions. He eliminated most of Peter's time at the Daily Bugle, where he'd spent decades as a freelance photographer and set him up as a science teacher at his alma mater, Midtown High School. He pushed the character through an otherworldly metamorphosis (in a storyline called "The Other") giving him enhanced powers. Most significantly, he finally revealed Peter's secret identity to his Aunt May (this was prior to the series of events where he ripped off his mask in front of the entire world). As part of the bargain with Mephisto, all of these changes were wiped away, as if they'd never happened in the first place.

For better or worse — and, without question, Straczynski's run, particularly in the last couple years, had some lackluster moments — Straczynski's Spider-Man was one that ventured into new territory and explored new avenues. The status quo established at the end of One More Day by Quesada and his new writers is a deliberate return to the past. Even ignoring the troubling moral implications of having your company's most popular super-hero make a literal deal with the devil, the story establishes a new continuity that is not only old-fashioned, it completely erases the accomplishments of a particularly progressive writer. What kind of happy send off is that? The final page of Amazing Spider-Man #545 is stacked with quotes from J.M.S.' peers, celebrating his achievements on the book. This is the proverbial gold watch; he's barely out the door and they've already made it so he never even existed.

The obvious disconnect between the editorial intent and the writer's was made unusually clear during a rather candid message board post written recently by Straczynski in response to widespread displeasure with One More Day. He'd actually asked to have his name removed from this so-called "tribute":

"...there's a lot that I don't agree with, and I made this very clear to everybody within shouting distance at Marvel, especially [Quesada]. I'll be honest: there was a point where I made the decision, and told [Quesada], that I was going to take my name off the last two issues of the One Mre Day arc. Eventually [Quesada] talked me out of that decision because at the end of the day, I don't want to sabotage [Quesada] or Marvel, and I have a lot of respect for both of those."

Quesada responded by insisting that Straczynski knew full well what sort of story he was getting hired to write, and that they disagreed only in the particulars and not in the execution. He also explains that a lot of their differences grew out of the fact that much of One More Day's ending had to be rewritten to reflect the new Spider-Man books that were already being produced months before the series actually finished; to change the conclusion now would mean to scrap months of already completed work. Once again, it's a decision that makes perfect business sense and terrible story sense.

But then narrative corners were cut anywhere Quesada (and, yes, Straczynski) could. One More Day is a four issue story in which the first full issue (cover price $3.99) is little more than a well-illustrated prologue. According to the title ("One More Day"), this is a story about what someone does with the love of their life when they have only one more day to spend with each other. Straczynski and Quesada's space management is so bad, and the execution so poorly botched, that we don't actually get to see what Peter and Mary Jane would do with the day. Even if you resigned yourself to the story's outcome; heck, even if you wanted to see it because you agreed with Quesada's rationale, you couldn't even savor that last day the title promised because it wasn't in the book.

Now Amazing Spider-Man takes off in a new — or rather old, but made to look contemporary — direction with a host of new writers (the series will now appear three times a month, replacing the prior format where Amazing was joined by sister series Sensational and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man). They will attempt to pick up the pieces and move on. These stories may be good. But if fan reaction remains as negative as mine (and if you do a Google search for "Spider-Man" "One More Day" and "sucks" you'll see what I mean) the comics franchise could be in long-term trouble. This shameless deus ex machina wiped away decades of stories in a single stroke, but the creators following it may find the damage caused in its wake a bit harder to erase.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Once is Enough, Top Albums

I don't get it. Once is one of the best reviewed films of the year, and was mentioned on a number of Top Ten lists - nationally and in our little circle (where intelligent folks like Mike Lyon, Maggie Lyon, Alberto Zambenedetti, and Matt Singer either slotted in the top ten or as a near miss). But from my myopic perspective, it's easily one of the worst - as manipulative as any Hollywood romancer, just minus the charismatic leads and competent cinematography. No movie I've seen in 2007 is as visually ugly as Once, which turns the Emerald Isle into a palette of muddy pixelated browns - an example of how not to utilize DV.

Once is a musical romance - and it fails to entertain on both counts. Glen Hansard's tunes are ponderous, rhythmless odes to his own sensitivity - all peak with a tremulous falsetto as he longs for a gal. The songs, however, give no clue as to why the gal should have any reason to want him. A worse sin, however, is director John Carney's inability to find dynamic visuals to enliven the humorless songs. Instead we're treated to a lot of cinematic wallpaper - my favorite being the beachside frisbee game after the recording studio session. It reveals nothing of the characters or their relationships, existing merely as a placeholder for the song, the inane "Falling Slowly" ("You have suffered enough/And warred with yourself/It's time that you won"), to play again. This is true of almost every musical performance - there is often no story or character information advanced during the songs - everything just screeches dead for the 500th shot of mutual (but restrained!) longing between Hansard and his enigmatic love object, Marketa Irglova.

Irglova gives a likeable, cutesy, performance, and Hansard has a certain gangly charm - but they're not nearly charismatic enough to carry the sexual undertones the film reaches for with its threadbare script. Hansard's awkwardness comes off more like the sloppy advances of an hormonal adolescent than the flirtations of brooding artist. They never convey the feeling that anything is at stake.

What is most revealing about the film is what it chooses to mock - almost every secondary character is a caricature or a punchline. From the loan manager/crooner (whose tune is no less ridiculous than Hansard's), to the awkward/kooky backing band, to Marketa's TV-loving flatmates - everyone who is not Hansard (or his father, played beautifully by Bill Hodnett - the best part of the film) is a joke. Even Marketa's child is more of a prop than a character, just more stacking of the deck to make Hansard the sensitive superman the film wants him to be. This kind of ploy is a shortcut to audience sympathy - the kind of thing people rag Hollywood dreck about all the time - but Once gets a pass because of its low-budget and festival rep.

And speaking of tunes, here are my favorite albums of the year (of the few I heard):

M.I.A. - Kala
Miranda Lambert - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price - Last of the Breed
Brad Paisley - 5th Gear
Lil Wayne - Tha Carter 3 (a premature placement, since I've only listened to it once - but I'm confident it'll remain a favorite)
Lucinda Williams - West

IFC's Indie Sex is out now on DVD!

A pause from our 2007 celebration to tell you that you should begin 2008 as nature intended: watching me imitate Elizabeth Berkeley having on camera sex.

Today you can finally keep and preserve me in your home forever in a way that doesn't involve creepy Kathy Bates hysterics. That's right; IFC's INDIE SEX is available on DVD! This miniseries from last year explores the history of sexuality and censorship in cinema and includes contributions from tons of filmmakers, actors, and critics. Somehow, I bribed my way in.

You can get it for 25% off at, or look for it at your local DVD store. And, of course, happy new year.