Archive for Grant Morrison

These Aren’t Films

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

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Wayne, Bane & Michael Caine

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2012 by dcairns

Fiona wasn’t sure she wanted to see THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. I said I’d go myself, but she forbade me. So we eventually saw it together (and in IMAX) and in fact she liked it best of all three films — mainly for Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman/Selena Kyle, the only reliable source of humour and sexiness. She was  fan of Michelle Pfeiffer’s work in the role, but Hathaway, though less feline, is more woman-shaped, a fact Nolan even accentuates by having her ride a motorcycle in the doggy position.

This one does seem to me to succeed better than the previous two films, and in fact it could be argued that Nolan’s series defies most if not all historical precedent by improving from film to film.

There’s nothing maybe as extraordinary as Heath Ledger’s remarkable Joker — but to my own surprise I enjoyed Tom Hardy’s Bane, with his ridiculous voice (sounding at times, more in phrasing than accent, like James Mason talking into a polystyrene cup). For a man who’s been through so much (spending his life in the world’s worst prison, having his face smashed off), Bane seems to be constantly very, very happy — I’m judging more by his vocal delivery than by his facial expressions, admittedly. He’s quite inspirational in that way. Of course, he does murder almost everybody he meets. I’m reminded of James Coburn’s diagnosis of CIA assassin Godfrey Cambridge in THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST — “That’s why you’re so well-balanced: you can get out you’re hostility by actually killing people!”

The film is dotted with favourite actors — Nolan even finds a good use for Matthew Modine, an appealing thesp who seemed to go out of style once his eternal boyishness ceased to match his biological age — and striking faces (stand up, Burn Gorman).

Fiona always maintained that Christian Bale’s Batman voice is that of the dog who can say “sausages” (and “Anthony” and “a jar”) —

It’s nice here to see Bayle given what seems like more talking scenes as Bruce Wayne, who talks like a person and doesn’t require a cheerful northerner to manipulate his jaw muscles.

I did feel a bit sad for Michael Caine, who does too much blubbering in close-up — the kind of big emotion that would play less unpleasantly from a distance. I’ve never had any desire to see Caine blubber (Billy Wilder suggested that strong emotion is best filmed from behind). Incidentally, Alfred the butler in the comics is usually written as a sardonic geezer who masks his devotion to Bruce Wayne with his cutting wit — make him sentimental and the character really loses all depth.

The film is generally better at emotion on the grand, operatic and epic scale rather than the human — which is true of most blockbusters these days, but particularly Nolan’s. Still, it matters than Nolan can deliver the excess required to do this kind of thing well, as attested by the opening aeroplane stunt (featuring a welcome Aidan Gillen) which is gloriously absurd yet put over with po-faced conviction.

Nolan’s shooting and cutting of action has been a talking point throughout this series. There was a cunning plan behind the incoherent cutting of the fights in the first movie — make the audience as confused as Batman’s enemies. The trouble with that idea is that an action movie audience would rather see a stunning action sequence than be plunged into the confusion felt by the third goon from the left just before the caped crusader punches his lights out. The second film was altogether less messy, although by delayed effect it picked up most of the bad reviews for confusing staging (I think only the truck chase really lost me), though I’d agree there was room for improvement.

This time round, we get a chance to see the fights in wide-ish, waist-high shots that actually last more than one punch. Unfortunately, Bale or his stuntman in that heavy outfit can’t really move as fast as we always imagined Batman should be able, so the fights (some set in broad daylight) feel clunky at times. And Batman has a disconcerting way of going in without a plan and getting his ass kicked. The Batman written by Grant Morrison in the comics would never do that, and certainly not twice in a row with the same opponent. It not only makes the character seem dim-witted, and it’s dramatically unsatisfying to see him fail to learn.

But I’m being a touch over-critical — I enjoyed the movie’s sweep, and felt the plot delivered some good surprises that shouldn’t have been possible with such  well-known mythos. Some of this is done by changing character names, and some of it might not have worked if I were more quick-witted, but it felt satisfying to me to find a couple of familiar comic book figures, hiding in plain sight.

“Why so serious?”

Team Building Exercise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2012 by dcairns

I couldn’t not like AVENGERS ASSEMBLE in the end, because where else can you see Jenny Agutter attempt to nuke Manhattan? She hasn’t wielded power like that since WALKABOUT.

And there are other enjoyable guest spots besides her 30 seconds of screen time: Harry Dean Stanton, Jerzy Skolimowski, Powers Boothe. Oh yeah. You heard right. Powers Boothe.

Of the main cast, Robert Downey Jnr has the most star wattage, and continues to have fun with the Howard Hughes goes rock ‘n’ roll aspect of Iron Man. Scarlett Johansson is most like a comic book character, in a good way, and is intriguingly understated in everything she does, whether it’s swearing in Russian, walloping elderly Polish film directors, or jiggling. And Mark Ruffalo is THE BEST. “Always have a secret from the audience” — this guy has a hulk-full. Tom Hiddleston: very enjoyable. Chris Evans provides the heart, which turns out to be crucial in what could merely be a glib, loud entertainment.

Oh, and there’s that Thor guy.

Was sort of glad we chickened out and saw this one flat, because the sheer duration/volume gave me a pounding headache, but I still enjoyed myself. The writers of X-MEN and X-MEN II join forces in the ultimate team-up! And it works, because not only are the quips of a higher than average standard, they’re wonderfully character-specific. The nicest one-liner might be Captain America, refugee from the ’40s, being pleased to actually get a cultural reference (to THE WIZARD OF OZ). But there are lots of good moments. A sequence where the Hulk violently interrupts Loki’s monologuing reminded me of a favourite moment from Alan Moore’s early Captain Britain strip, back in the day.

(Cap has a villain down on the ground, and menaces him with a huge boulder. The villain starts taunting Cap, saying he hasn’t got the guts to make good on his threat. The reader turns the page and WHUMP – Cap makes good on his threat. Refreshing, since it cuts through a time-honoured comic book cliché, where the villain always manages to turn the hero’s merciful nature to his advantage, and the hero always falls for it. We’re willing to forgive the whole murder thing in sheer relief at sidestepping tedium.)

The film is weaker on plot than it is on dialogue, action of (admittedly comic-book) character. The heroes obey comic book law by getting into petulant fist-fights with each other, which is fine, and there’s a lot of gamma-irradiated dick-measuring going on, but at the moment they manage to figure out the Hulk’s role in the villains’ masterplan, they really should have acted more rapidly to get him out of harm’s way. There are a few things like that.

But as blockbusters go, this does actually bust blocks — I know the dream of post-9:11 sensitivity to images of burning cities is long dead, but I was still slightly surprised that this movie’s willingness to, you know, GO THERE: although this is an urban apocalypse with no visible civilian casualties. That’s problematic, in a way: the airbrushing out of human death.

I was reminded of Grant Morrison’s comics, which are the only superhero stuff I tend to read nowadays. He would have had more interesting aliens though. And I recommend his book, Supergods, to those interested in this phenomenon. His thesis, that superheroes are breaking out of the comics and into every other medium, preparatory to actually becoming real, does seem borne out by a lot of developments. Clearly, the movies are in thrall to the costumed crime-fighter right now. Only a couple of Hulks and a Green Lantern have tanked, the rest have basically hit the button, box office-wise. Judging by the new BATMAN trailer, Christopher Nolan is continuing to take his series closer to hyped-up realism. When his trilogy ends, a further reboot is supposedly already in the works. SPIDERMAN is coming back after just ten years. And KICK-ASS was the first modern, “realist” superhero movie.

I read an interview with Morrison last year where the interlocutor, attempting both levity and sanity, pointed out that the superhero look, shorts and tights, was still not popular. But he was wrong: admittedly, it’s only girls wearing them for now, but I see girls in tights or leggings with denim shorts on top ALL THE TIME.

Cue Twilight Zone theme.

And cue Fred MacMurray as a superhero —

(Freudian dream from Mitchell Leisen’s NO TIME FOR LOVE)

And cue the superhero, Captain Marvel, who was actually based on Fred —

Buy:

Incident at Loch Ness

Zak Penn’s film never got the audience it deserved. Herzog vs Nessie!

Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

They’re coming! And when they do, you want to be Jimmy Olsen (Superman’s Pal!) not Lex Luthor.

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