Archive for the Comics Category

These Aren’t Films

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2015 by dcairns


More things that aren’t films…

Donald Westlake’s Kahawa, about a coffee heist (!) in Idi Amin’s Uganda, is a rip-snorting adventure yarn, more serious and brutal than the author’s usual light capers. It could make a great movie, like Jack Cardiff’s DARK OF THE SUN, but I guess LAST KING OF SCOTLAND “did” Idi Amin for a generation at least. Don’t get me started on the narrative failings of that movie. Except maybe to note that in order to facilitate the hero’s eleventh hour escape, Amin personally drives him to the airport, before having him suspended in the duty-free section by guards who then wander off so he can get rescued (Overdubbed line: “He will still be here when we get back.”)

Westlake of course machine-tools his plot to perfection, but also throws in more convincing local colour and local horror. I suspect the darkness infected his subsequent thriller, The Comedy is Finished, in which, basically, Bob Hope is kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. It sounds like it should be wickedly hilarious but it’s bleak, intense, gory and profane.

Favourite line in Kahawa deals with a British diplomat meeting a charming African girl: “Then I’m delighted,” Sir Denis said, smiling down upon her from his greater height and age and sex and race.

Favourite line in The Comedy is Finished describes a naive revolutionary trying to explain how the world works: He was trying to make a necklace, using some real pearls, some fake pearls, and imaginary string.


“Look at him. Look at Geoff Wode.” Morrison’s WITHNAIL obsession burns on.

Enjoying Grant Morrison’s comic book Annihilator, drawn in lambent cosmic hues by Frazer Irving, but what the hell has happened to the last episode? It’s an apocalyptic black comedy in which a Byronic rake from beyond our reality abducts a dying screenwriter whose brain tumour may be a corporeal manifestation of a black hole in another dimension. The comic book industry is weird, in that release dates apparently mean nothing, so the gap between penultimate and final episode has now gone on longer than the series ran when it was actually appearing.

Also good: Nameless, an occult thriller in space that excels whenever it gets really distressingly trippy. There’s a quite straight narrative about a killer asteroid filled with Lovecraftian horrors but the story keeps disintegrating under a barrage of repulsive and terrifying imagery — it’s the sense of What The Hell Is Going On? which makes it scary. Chris Burnham’s art has always had an affinity for the grubby and icky, and Morrison exploits it with glee.


It’s ridiculous that Hollywood hasn’t managed a Morrison adaptation yet, but I fear his stuff is too smart. Whereas anytime Mark Millar coughs into a hankie they buy the screen rights.

The BBC’s adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell certainly has cinematic scope. I never even imagined it would make a good adaptation as I devoured the book, but Peter Harness has the skill to shape it into tight episodes without leaving out the crucual moments or dwelling too long on the diversions. The cast is absolutely splendid, with pitch perfect lead perfs from Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan (cast very much to type, but brilliant at it). My mate Brian Pettifer is delightful in a supporting role, and week by week we await the appearance of Niall Greig Fulton (of CRY FOR BOBO and LET US PREY and NATAN) as John Uskglass, the Raven King.


I want to specially mention Claudia Jessie out of the excellent cast, because I’m afraid nobody else will — she plays the small role of Mary the maid in the Strange household. In her stand-out scene, she’s quizzed by her mistress (breathy, magnificent Charlotte Riley) about something she may have learned from her beau — so first she has to ask about her beau. It’s like a bottle is uncorked and slowly tipped: Mary starts to reluctantly admit that she is attracted to this young man, and then it all spills out in an embarrassing erotic confession — she can’t help it, possibly nobody’s ever asked her about her love life, and suddenly she finds she NEEDS to tell. The actor not only nails this, she makes it her own, and then she exceeds expectations about what might be done with such a scene. The show is full of such grace notes. (Does Claudia self-google? Hi, Claudia!)

A confession of my own. When I read the book, Fiona was very ill with depression: she had vanished into herself so that only a tiny wisp of her life force remained visible, like the wick of a candle. I became fixated on the character of Mrs. Pole, sold to the fairies by Mr. Norrell, half her hours spent in the alarming palace of Lost Hope, her waking days an exhausted, distracted blur, unable to even speak of her plight due to an enchantment. I very much needed Mrs. Pole to get rescued. When Fiona got better I gave her the book to read but I’m not sure I explained why, asides from its excellence, it was important to me.

The book and show use magic not as a straight allegory but in all kinds of allusive ways. Ultimately it’s a feminist novel about the excesses of men granted too much power. The fairy victims who cannot even tell of their sufferings could be seen as abuse victims, who find they cannot accuse their persecutors (“There is a rose at your mouth,”) and must instead babble meaninglessly when all that matters cannot be uttered. But the richness of the work lies in how it can be read all sorts of ways.


I picked up a library edition of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s The Fantastic Four; Marvel Masterworks, and had the odd sensation of finishing a strip I must have started forty years ago. And I was reading it with a mixture of awe for Kirby’s punchy, wacky visuals — William Blake on steroids — and shock at Lee’s scripting. In reality, Kirby wrote the stories straight onto the page, in the form of pictures, and Lee’s job was literally what a lot of people think comic book writers do — he filled in the speech balloons. Actually, his verbose, stilted and inane dialogue, while on the one hand a perfect complement to the characters’ epic pose-striking, and a way of breaking up the space opera solemnity with occasional slangy zest, could be compared to an act of vandalism. Underneath all those unnecessary captions is MORE ART, damnit. Every time Reed Richards opens his prolix, stretchy yap, more penmanship is obscured. I know Kirby always left space for speech bubbles (thereby telling Lee who was talking and how much), but Lee always goes that extra wordy mile to cram as much guff in as possible. Hilariously, Ben “the Thing” Grimm’s contributions are usually to tell everyone else to shut up.

Also hilarious: the maniacal despots. The first two strips in this volume BOTH feature evil rulers bent on conquering the world with their hypno-rays.

I like how Kirby always drops in a clue to some mysterious new crisis developing elsewhere while the foursome are in the midst of their present adventure. Even when this week’s galactic punch-up is brought to a successful finish, a further cliffhanger is on the boil, forcing the fanboys and true believers to grab the next issue, even if it does take them forty years to get around to it.


Slightly ashamed to be looking at Marvel’s Agent Carter, but my excuse is I’m preparing a 1940s fantasy project of my own. First episode contained a pleasing in-joke (above), and one excellent exchange. Carter, disguised as a blonde, enters the office of a villainous night-club owner.

“Is this a bad time?”

Him, grinning, “We won’t know that until afterwards.”


Scratch Film

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2015 by dcairns


THE FLESH EATERS seemed like the best film for me to write about for the Film Preservation Blogathon, whose theme this year is science fiction. Obviously METROPOLIS, that ever-lengthening classic, would make a lot of sense too, but somebody’s probably already thought of that. But THE FLESH EATERS is an obscure monster movie in which the monster is played by neg scratches. Put it on a double feature with DECASIA, in which a man engages in a boxing match with an all-consuming blob of nitrate decomposition. But the silvery, wriggling scratch-monsters here are much too tough to punch out with a padded glove — they go boring into people’s legs in gory insert shots that are genuinely disturbing, despite the seemingly primitive nature of the effects work. I mean, OUCH.



The movie gains huge cult credibility by starring Martin Kosleck, the man who sculpted Rondo Hatton in HOUSE OF HORROR and the screen’s silkiest Dr.. Goebbels. By this time, he seems to have had a little eye tuck which accentuates his feline/feminine qualities and adds even more unsettling ambiguity to his persona.

The movie, unusually well covered for a B-picture (mostly shooting in the open air must have made the filming go quick) is dynamically edited by Radley Metzger, the favourite pornographer of all right-thinking cinephiles (Russ Meyer being more of a cartoonist than an eroticist).

Speaking of cartoons, the script, which trafficks in soapy stereotypes and jut-jawed confrontations, is by Arnold Drake, comic book writer and creator of The Doom Patrol (in their Grant Morrison incarnation, my favourite funnybook thing ever). The Doom Patrol were freakish superheroes who were all multiply-disabled as much as they were hyper-powered, which suggests a slightly wacky and agreeable perspective, and that off-kilter feeling prevails here too. He also created Deadman, the funniest/stupidest name for a superhero ever, and the original Guardians of the Galaxy. Drake also seems to have storyboarded this flick, so that one-shot director Jack Curtis, otherwise best known as a voice actor, consistently delivers exciting and punchy compositions far more dynamic that anything usually seen in Z-list B-pictures from bottom-feeding indie production companies.


Opening shot is a succulent flesh feast, a lithe bikini girl laid out like a banquet, in combination with the title seemingly inviting the audience to consider cannibalism. She’s soon skeletonized along with her obnoxious boyfriend, washing up later as a fully articulated set of science lab bones clutching a bikini top (the movie is totally silly but somehow preserves its own strange dignity).

Soap opera: a broke pilot takes a job flying a drunken movie star and her nurse/PA, unwisely trying to dodge a tropical storm — they wind up on an island inhabited only by nasty Kosleck and his weird man-eating sea-spawn, the results of a Nazi experiment he uncovered after the war. Rather refreshingly, Kosleck isn’t himself a Nazi — he’s a German-American employed by the US to investigate Nazi science — having found the ultimate weapon, he now hopes to make his fortune selling the blighters to the highest bidder.


Barbara Wilkins’ balconette bra is the film’s strongest supporting player.

The bickering crew are eventually joined by another character, Omar the beatnik on his raft, a yammering chowderhead whose role is to delight us by dieing horribly, eaten alive from the inside out. Kosleck feeding him flesh eaters seems to anticipates Michael Fassbender’s entirely unmotivated poisoning of a crewmember in PROMETHEUS, while a guy who rides to the rescue on a speedboat only to immediately get his face eaten reminds me of Scatman Crothers abortive mercy mission in THE SHINING.


The effects work is consistently ambitious and inventive. The most epic shot tries to suggest that the whole sea is glittering with the silvery worms, which it does simply by filming sunlight reflecting on the water’s surface. Not so much a special effect as an attempt at brainwashing, telling us that the commonplace sight we see is something else — Raul Ruiz would be proud of that. Landscape as bricolage. When Kosleck electrocutes the ocean as part of his crazy masterplan, we get one giant monster, the least satisfying thing in the film because obviously it has to be a Cormaneqsque monster costume, waving an action figure in its left tendril. But there’s one further insane flourish: to kill the thingy, stalwart Byron Sanders injects human blood into its eye, and Curtis films this action from INSIDE THE EYE.


Blob-monster puppets inspire affectionate nostalgia rather than terror. But those scratches… those can really fuck you up, especially if you’re a film lover.

This is my first entry for the Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted initially at Ferdy on Film. Click the button below to read all about it and then donate.


Blood and Thunder

Posted in Comics, FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2015 by dcairns


To my surprise, Edinburgh University Library turned out to possess copies of Marvel’s THOR and its sequel, which I discovered while unsuccessfully trying to get something on Joseph Mankiewicz (but I won’t tell you why, just yet). A certain dumb curiosity made me want to check out the “Film by Kenneth Branagh” — rarely has a possessory credit (on a film Mr. Branagh did not write) seemed so fatuous. Maybe I just wanted to see if he’d gotten any better at directing films.

When Branagh first burst upon the scene, I didn’t admire his films but I could see where he was stealing from, and at least the source of his theft — mostly Welles — showed ambition. It wasn’t an ambition — becoming Orson Welles, only more commercially successful — that he was ever likely to succeed at, but it seemed possible that he might get good.

I have enjoyed some of the Marvel superhero things (Ben Kingsley is so wonderful in IRON MAN III I can’t describe it) up to a point, so it didn’t seem totally pointless looking at this thing, but I should admit it was pretty pointless after ten minutes. Fiona was enjoying Tom Hiddleston’s facial expressions, but there wasn’t much else to appreciate. I thought it was strikingly poorly edited, and Branagh’s big Wellesian idea this time seemed to be Dutch tilts. I imagine the meeting thus —

“I think we’ll have Dutch tilts in this one. Comic book vibrancy and all that.”

“When shall we use them?”

“Oh, I don’t think that matters.”


Thor (Chris Helmsworth) was my least favourite character in AVENGERS ASSEMBLE so I admit I wasn’t expecting to love this. He has an OK character arc, I guess, and Natalie Portman is appealing. I don’t quite believe she’s a brilliant scientist but I don’t quite believe Stellan Skasgaard is either. Nor do I believe that when the Norse god is banished to earth and crash-lands in New Mexico (I knew he should have made that left turn at Albuquerque), he’s slammed into by a kind of Mystery Mobile in which three scientists are cooking meth doing physics, and one of them happens to be Scandinavian. But one shouldn’t really get upset about probability in a thing like this. I’m more upset about the meaningless camera angles.


I rented DREDD because I’d heard good things, and I’m a child of 2000AD comic, and I slightly regretted missing this one on the big screen in 3D. And indeed, there are some pretty visual effects I bet looked spiffing in depth. Films made by Andrew MacDonald’s DNA tend to go for unsympathetic characters and unpleasant story worlds — odd, since he seems such a nice middle-class chap (and grandson of Emeric Pressburger). This makes him ideal for Judge Dredd, created by Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra and Scottish writer John Wagner, who conceived him as a futuristic Dirty Harry, only more fascistic if you can imagine such a thing. The trouble with the 1995 JUDGE DREDD was that they neutered the character, turning him into an honorable action hero and removing his helmet (the comic book character has never been seen unmasked — he’s basically an impersonal functionary/killing machine).

Alex Garland’s script has a few good ideas and is part of his general redemption these days — I thought EX MACHINA was quite fine, despite hating his writing on 28 DAYS LATER, so I guess the dumbness was coming from Danny Boyle. This Dredd is meaner — Karl Urban basically just has to huskily whisper like Clint Eastwood, but with excellent timing. The comic WAS/IS comic, a jet-black, nihilistic blast of punk nihilism, dark chuckles amid Leonesque mayhem. I think the current movie is a little lacking in laughs, though there are some good ones, mainly to do with the sheer excessiveness of the bloodbathery — but you might not be amused by a man being made to blow off the top of his head with his own assault rifle, which makes you a better person than me.

I liked the acidic colours and Carpenteresque score. Director Pete Travis marshalled his resources well — a UK-shot, US-set dystopian thriller could all too easily resemble DEATH WISH III.


There’s only a microscopic amount of character change in this one, mostly around Dredd’s rookie partner, Olivia Thirlby (unconventional and interesting) — weirdly, this actually makes it MORE pleasing than THOR, because less familiar. I challenge the screenwriting gurus to figure that one out.


I finished my comic book weekend by actually reading a comic book, Domu by Katsushiro Otomo, creator of AKIRA. This was something I bought dirt cheap in a charity shop and it had been lying unread by my bedside for literally YEARS (along with heaps of other impulse-buy literature — it’s a real mess). Having finally picked it up, I consumed it avidly between the hours of midnight and one. Otomo has the ability to intrigue — his plots don’t resolve very neatly, but there’s so much damned apocalypse going on it’s hard to notice. The psychic kid stuff in this one is familiar, but this time the narrative is basically a police investigation crossed with a ghost story, set around a housing estate plagued by mystery suicides. The loose ends and unexplained elements are pretty evocative, suggesting an intriguing direction Hollywood movies could go in if they continue to de-emphasize plot at the expense of massive action set-pieces. Bring on the negative capability!



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