Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Big Kahuna - 1999

So as of late, I've been putting in two hours at the gym and watching two episodes of Netflix's amazing show House of Cards from the second season while I'm on the treadmill and the elliptical. Having that carrot makes having to do the runs more tolerable. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I've lost close to 70 pounds, but hell, ain't nobody happy to be on a treadmill. And frankly I don't understand you people who like running for fun anyway, even when you've got wonderful scenery to look at.

House of Cards has a lot of great things going for it - crisp writing, gorgeous cinematography and an amazing cast. And the heart of that cast is the always great Kevin Spacey. Lots of people are familiar with some of Spacey's giant successes such as The Usual Suspects, Seven, American Beauty and L.A. Confidential, but there are a couple of films of his that never really got noticed like they should've been. The one I want to talk about today is The Big Kahuna.

Don't feel bad if you didn't hear about it. The film didn't get much press, and it didn't get a very wide distribution, so it slipped under the radar from, well, almost everyone. And it's a damn shame that it did, because it's sort of an actor's showcase.

Let's start by telling you the cast - Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito and Peter Facinelli. And that's it. I think maybe there's a bellboy who gets a single line or something, but other than that, these are the only three actors who speak in the film. And they talk a lot.

See, The Big Kahuna started its life as a play, called Hospitality Suite. And the film is a faithful adaptation of it, as the film is mostly set in the one room in question, with the three men talking about a lot of things, but mostly how they're going to try and get one particular account. Spacey and DeVito play two marketing guys and Facinelli is a member of R&D who's come along with them. The framework on which everything hangs is that Facinelli's character bumps into the man whose account they're trying to get and invites him to a party, but just him, leaving Spacey and DeVito, the marketing guys, out in the cold, hoping that their R&D person can convince him to talk to the marketing guys.

Except that he doesn't.

Instead of talking to the titular Big Kahuna about their product, Facinelli's character decides to talk to him about religion, which incites quite a reaction from Spacey/DeVito. Spacey plays the loud mouthed, high strung cynic, DeVito plays the world-weary everyman and Facinelli is a little too earnest for his own good.

This is a film that hangs on the performances of the three men involved and it reminds me how underappreciated Danny DeVito has been over his career. I mean, people like DeVito but you don't often people talk about what an amazing actor he is, I suppose because he doesn't always have the greatest sense of what films to take and what to pass on, but this is one of the films that should convert anyone who doubts the man is a hell of an actor. It's easy to see why Spacey was drawn to this script, because it's a livewire performance that plays to his strength - aggressive, confident and a little brutish, all of the things that make him great in House of Cards. But DeVito is the center of this picture, and the other two actors pivot on him, as he's sort of the middle ground between Facinelli's wide-eyed innocence and Spacey's hard cut bitterness. And Facinelli has the hardest part in this show, as he's clearly out of his depth. There's a wonderful exchange early on where Facinelli says "Throw me in the water and see if I can swim," to which Spacey responds, "I think you're missing the point here, Bob. We're about to throw you off a cliff and see if you can fly."

The film is part comedy, part soul searching and part meeting of the minds. It's not for everyone, but it's definitely a film that should be seen, and if you've devoured the second season of House of Cards and are looking for other ways to get your Spacey fix on, Big Kahuna will do you just fine.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Sneakers - 1992

There are two stories to tell here. The first is personal - I saw "Sneakers" for the first time at the end of November, 1992, with my friend Tristan Dalley, at a movie theater that showed films cheap near the very end of their time in theaters. I know this because of two reasons. First, I'd just gotten my driver's license, so Tristan and I were going out to a movie to celebrate. Second, we went into the movie theater with clouds overhead and came out a few hours later to a few inches of snow on the ground. That's right, the day I got my driver's license and I luck into a goddamn blizzard. We got home fine - it was Nebraska and I'd prepared for the eventuality of driving on snow. I just hadn't expected to run into it on my first day driving without supervision.

The second story is that "Sneakers" is absolutely one of my favorite films of all time, and is more relevant now than it was when it was made, which is saying something for a film about technology. It's a story about encryption, ethics, the role of computers in our lives, the nature of warfare in the modern age, crime, punishment, history and a whole lot more. It's a story about, as described in the film, guys who are " [hired] to break into people's places to make sure nobody can break into their places."

I love films about thieves, make no mistake about it, and "Sneakers" definitely has a heist vibe to it for the majority of its runtime. Breaking into banks, labs, companies... you get to see a lot of the odd work that is done by both sides, the white hats (the good guys) and the black hats (the bad guys). You get to see how people can find out things about your identity, your habits, your weaknesses and how all of that can be used against you. It's a film that rewards careful viewing, and pays very close attention to the details. Closer than you may even be expecting.

If you take a look at that poster, you'll also see it has one hell of a cast - Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn and River Phoenix, in one of his last roles. Seriously, think of the sheer wattage of star power there. Not enough? Well, keep in mind the movie was written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, who is best known for directing "Field Of Dreams." There's also a couple of other well known actors who make cameos, but I don't want to give away all of the surprises.

"Sneakers" is also, above all else, a comedy. This is a film where Dan Aykroyd says "We turn ourselves in now, they'll give us twenty years in the electric chair!" The writing is fun, the characters are distinct and well-developed and everyone has clear motivations, but most of all, the actors have a sense of genuine camaraderie, like a group that's been working together for years. There's a comfortableness there that's important. Martin Bishop (Redford) and his gang of misfits feel like they're (mostly) comfortable with each other, their habits, their foibles and shortcomings. They certainly don't know everything about each other, but they know enough, and they trust one another. And it's drawn from a real world kind of people - the people who've been poking and prodding at the systems of the world for years.

Like I said before, the film's only gotten better over the years. The idea of the government spying on us plays more truthfully now that we actually know they're doing it. And the idea of so much riding on encryption, well, we as an audience have a better understanding of what it actually is. Sure, some of the actual tech is way out of date - using a phone line to call up a computer? What is this, 1992? Oh, wait... But it's easy to look past those things and focus on the easy charms of the actors and the fun attitude of the writing.

It's also worth noting that the film was one of my earliest recollections of seeing San Francisco on film, and there's a bit of geography in the film that comes into play, which has always helped me remember the major bridges in the area, and little things that differentiate them. I didn't know it at the time, but the Bay Area would later become my home, and I'll always remember seeing Redford's character dumped at Hyde and Lombard.

Even the music is amazing, with a jazzy, slinky score that's apropos for the subject matter. You'll love it. Trust me on this one.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Catch Me If You Can - Novel in 1980, movie in 2002

It's hard not to be drawn in by the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. Before he'd turned 20, he had been a pilot, a doctor, a teacher and an attorney. He'd defrauded banks for tens of thousands of dollars. He'd crafted fake payroll checks good enough that they were passing inspection. At the age of 21, he was imprisoned in France. After being extradited from France to Sweden after six months nude in a cell, he was deported back to the US and escaped in transit. Not bad for a high school dropout who didn't have the experience or education to have gotten any of these jobs.

Frank Abagnale Jr.
Frank's story is one of amazing luck, bigger balls and no small sense of wonder. It's a tale of a somewhat simpler time, back before we were living in the modern era of paranoia and hyper-awareness. It's also a little larger than life, mostly because bits of it were exaggerated by the ghost writer of the book, Stan Redding, which Abagnale himself has admitted to in interviews. But the core of the story is true, most of the details are true and the man at the heart of it is 100% real, for a fake.

He wasn't a criminal long, eventually being captured (a couple of times) by the FBI, and after serving some time in a US prison, he was released and began helping the FBI catch, well, people like him. He eventually opened his own anti-fraud company, and began the thing he'd always feared - respectable.

The book itself is well-crafted and full of a bunch of moments where you will find yourself going "No fucking way..." only to find out, yep, it really happened. There are a couple of sections in particular where you can't believe the absolute stones on this kid, his willingness to just keep on going, to double down on a lie when everyone else in their right mind would have either cracked or fled. It reads fast and has a certain sense of adventure to it, as if he were one step away from being Robin Hood, a swashbuckler not afraid to regale in his own past glories. The book came out in 1980, but I didn't pick it up until the late 1990s, when I was in college, and the movie had started picking up steam. I'm glad I read the book first, because the book ends before Frank's final capture in the States, and the part where he goes to work for the FBI is left to a tiny little coda, which wraps the story up a little neatly.

When I finished the book, I did a little homework on the story ad found out that a movie was in the works, something I followed with a good deal of interest. The book itself screamed to be on the big screen, and the first thing I found out was that the planned adaptation was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who's directed a lot of things I've liked over the years. You should really know who he is without me telling you, but just in case you don't, go watch "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" and then you can thank me later.

So, with Spielberg on board, I kept eyes on the progress of the film, which seemed to bounce back and forth between his "next" project and his "after the next" project, but more details kept coming out. Eventually, it was settled that filming was about to start, and the two stars were announced - Leonardo DiCaprio, as Frank Abagnale, and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent who would eventually bring Frank down. At the time, I wasn't a huge DiCaprio fan (partially because, well, Titanic had been everywhere for the better part of a year only a couple of years before, and I was still sick of hearing about it), but I liked Tom Hanks in most things I'd seen, so I figured I could give it the benefit of the doubt. (The fact that Christopher Walken was in it was a pleasant surprise.)

The film was released in 2002, and did solid business, bringing in $52 million. It was generally liked, and on the whole, it's a good film. It's even in's Top 500. DiCaprio is great in the role (and this was the film that turned me around on him) and Hanks has a moment where I chuckle just thinking about, because it's such a stark contrast from what you expect. The film is a little heavy-handed on the sentimentality regarding Frank and his father, both near the beginning and later in the picture, but you sort of expect that with Spielberg. It's sort of his thing. Still, a lot of people never saw the flick, and that's a shame, because the story is one of those tales that deserves to be savored as the wild tale that it is.

Frank's adventures would be a lot more difficult now, but that just serves to highlight how much we've changed. There's a certain degree of carefree playfulness to most of Frank's story, despite the fact that he's way out of his depth. Oh, for simpler times indeed...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Batman - Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth

When people ask me what should they read when they're first getting into Batman comics, I have a very elite list I give them. There are five collections that will show off the highlights of the Batman universe and mythos. Let me share that secret list with you now:

These five books will give you a wide berth of  Batman stores in a variety of styles. Yes, Frank Miller's on the list twice, but he really did create what serve as the bookends of Batman, and I'll visit those stories in a later post. Today, I want to talk about the first one of these I actually read - Arkham Asylum, and how it introduced me to two people whose careers I've followed religiously since.

It must have been 1990 or so, when I was branching out into more comics, having been hooked initially by Suicide Squad and jumping from there into Chris Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men, and I was going to a comic book shop in Omaha called The Dragon's Lair, which is still there today, having opened a year before I was born, all the way back in 1975. The owner, whose name is Bob, had two loves: new customers and ping pong. He and the other guy who always working there (a tall gentleman whose name has been lost in the recesses of my youth) were always happy to introduce young and impressionable minds to new titles. They had opinions and were always willing to talk about what they did and didn't like, a trait I've found to be pretty common for people who work in comic book shops. I know I was chatty for the month or so I worked in one after college.

I remember asking what sort of titles were out there that were more mature that the sort of popcorn storytelling I saw in a lot of the books at that time. I had been drawn to X-Men because the issues weren't always "case of the week" style, wrap-it-up-in-one fiction that seemed to be pretty common, and the characters had motivations I could understand - wanting to fit in, wanted to belong, wanted to understand why you were different. So Bob handed me Arkham Asylum, although he warned me that it was kind of strong stuff. I was 13 or so. He was absolutely right. It was very strong stuff.

Arkham Asylum opens with the inmates of the titular institution having taken over and having taken hostages, threatening to kill them all unless Batman comes in and talks to them. For those of you who know nothing about Batman, Arkham is the home for the criminally insane, where the supervillains that Batman captures get locked away, with the slight chance of rehabilitation, but mostly to just remove them from society entirely. It usually doesn't take, but Batman has a strict moral code against killing, and sometime there's a glimmer of hope, such as Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, who is making progress in the book, and is no longer dependent on his coin to make decisions, having graduated up to using tarot cards to aid in his decision making.

Through the course of the book, Batman sees a large collection of his rogue's gallery, each with an axe to grind, as he attempts to put the entire asylum back into some state of order, which is easier said than done, as well as discover exactly how it was the inmates took over the nuthouse. Most of the good Batman stories have, at their heart, a mystery in them, and this one is no exception. The inmates clearly had a hand in getting control, and Batman is on the case.

This isn't to say Arkham Asylum is like most Batman stories, though, as the book is certainly more dreamlike than the usual fare, or even what was prevalent at the time. Grant Morrison, the writer, has said in interviews he approached this particular story more like a bit of experimental music. Morrison's written a lot of Batman over the years, and the depiction of the Caped Crusader in Arkham isn't like how he's depicted anywhere else. At the time he was writing Arkham, Dark Knight Returns was all the rage, and in that book, we see an aged Batman, long since retired, being called back into service, and the tone of the book is a little sci-fi, but mostly grounded and realistic. (Hell, Batman drives a tank in it...) Arkham, on the other hand, is all about emotion, attitude and style. It's very much focused on whether or not Batman deserves to be inside the asylum as much as any of the people he's put there. Is Batman crazy? Quite possibly. Is he making that crazy work for him, and for the citizens of Gotham? It certainly seems that way. Does the very presence of him in Gotham cause more psychotic criminals to spring up every day? That much isn't clear, but it certainly is a possibility, and one that's suggested by one of the characters in the book.

Morrison weaves a killer story, but one cannot talk about Arkham Asylum without talking about the genius that is Dave McKean. McKean's artwork is like nothing else in comics, a wild collection of illustrations, photographs, sketches and paintings. It wasn't like anything I'd ever seen in comics before - it was gorgeous but it almost resisted reading, like it wanted you to work for it. When you thought you might have gotten the hang of the flow of it, photographs would appear and completely shift gears on you. Because of this book, I went and tracked down everything I could of McKean's, which lead me to Neil Gaiman's "Sandman," among other things.

There's something wild and primal about Arkham Asylum, and I always have just a little bit of envy when I loan the trade paperback out, knowing someone's going to get to experience it for the first time. It's not where I generally start someone who's got no exposure to Batman, because the book depends on you knowing a little bit ahead of time. You don't have to know who Maxi Zeus or Killer Croc are, but if you aren't at least familiar with the Joker, Two Face and the Mad Hatter, it's a book to get to after you've gotten some of the fundamentals down.

As I said earlier, Morrison's written a bunch of other good-to-fantastic Batman stories since, ranging from Batman: Gothic to Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, although his best stuff is mostly in his JLA (that's Justice League of America for those of you not in the know) run where he can play Batman and Superman off of each other. But there isn't anything quite as striking as your first encounter with Arkham Asylum.

The subtitle "A Serious House On Serious Earth" can be taken as tongue-in-cheek (the Joker gooses Batman, for example) or as accurate (see some the particularly hardcore violence contained within), and maybe that's part of the point. This is a story that'll get inside your head and make itself known. Serious indeed....

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Akira The Don - ZION 2012: The Apocalympics

Akira the Don is an odd character. He's part rapper, part DJ, part sample mad scientist, and very very British. He's had an up and down career, and as of the time of this writing, he'd just returned from wandering around Los Angeles with his wife and his son, Hercules, after having been evicted from his home in London. As they say, the life of a starving artist ain't easy.

His first album, "When We Were Young," was actually out on Interscope records in 2006, and featured the song "Oh! (What A Glorious Thing)" which has appeared in a film and a couple of commercials, and keeps him afloat. The album failed to make an impact, and Interscope dropped him not long after, which was probably for the best, as Akira (born Adam Narkiewicz) has become something of an internet gadfly since then, doing a lot of his best work when freed from things like commercial viability and rules. Without having to worry about what he can and can't release, Akira's turned into a guerrilla sound chemist, which has been fantastic to listen to.

My first exposure to Akira The Don came from comic book writer Warren Ellis, who posted a link to the song "Be Brave" from Akira's ATD23 Mixtape, which was The Street Fighter Mixtape. Akira does a mixtape every few months, each with its own theme. Some of them are better than others, but the Street Fighter mix had a lot of great songs on it, and "Be Brave" was catchy in a way that was hard to shake. It's a fun, slinky song that hangs on a wonderful set of samples from the classic Capcom fighting series. It's not the kind of thing he could get away with in a commercial release (as is evidenced by the fact that "Be Brave" was on his iTunes release "Living In The Future" but had all the Street Fighter sampled dropped out of it) but that's why his internet mixtapes are so much fun. They take all the rules of traditional music and throw them out the window. The song's great without hearing the classic "Noooo!" but there's something wild and fun about having it there. If you heard the song without the samples, you wouldn't know there was something missing, but when you hear the version with them, it feels more robust.

The Mixtapes are generally where Akira's trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn't, playing with sounds and samples to see what connects, usually a mix of his own stuff and things he likes from friends and colleagues, but occasionally includes stuff from outside of that. And a shitload of samples from all sorts of sources. One of the most recent ones was called "Mangamusic" and you can imagine where he drew a lot of that from.

ZION 2012: The Apocalypmics
For me, the best of his mixtapes is the ZION 2012: The Apocalympics. It's clear from the mix that there was a lot of conspiracy talk in London about the 2012 Olympics, as well as the logo, the mascot, etc. I don't think Akira buys into any of the chatter, but I think he finds all the talk rather fascinating, and I have to admit, listening to all of the interviews and radio talk he splices in, I can see why. It's a weird, spiraling madness that loops back in on itself without ever seeing how it looks on the outside. There's one sample in particular where a guy says "It really can't be taken any other way," which always makes me smirk, because it's the sort of reductive argument you see a lot of in conspiracy theorists. Of course there are other ways to interpret it - there's multiple ways to interpret anything. What he's really says is that he doesn't see any other way to interpret it, because that supports the argument he wants to make, which has to do with a particular bit of red coloration being obviously symbolic of bloody guts and disembowelment. Of course, it could also just be a little flourish of color.

A lot of the ZION mix relies on an interview with a young conspiracy theorist named Rik Clay. Rik Clay, by most accounts, committed suicide in 2008, but before he did, he was talking a lot about how the London Olympics was filled with symbology and was indicative that it was part of a global agenda to create a new Jerusalem in London. Clay sounds passionate about what he's talking about, but in many cases, the whole thing feels like grasping at straws, drawing any thread he can in hoping to prop it all up. The Mayan calendar, alien invasions, numerology...

Rik Clay
There's a funny thing about numerology - it really is, when you look for it, you start stretching coincidence into "synchronicity" and makes connections where they don't exist. This sort of illusory correlation is something author Robert Anton Wilson talks about in his Illumintus! trilogy that we'll talk about in a later post. The heavy dependence on numerology is the keystone of the best song on the mixtape, "11:11," which focuses on how that number must mean something. Towards the end of the song, though, you get some of the tragedy of Rik Clay, as one of the voices we heard earlier talks about how Clay has died, and there is no evidence of foul play, but that some of his audience is going to have a different opinion on this, and that's fine. The song is a wonderful meditation on what happens when something, in Clay's own words, is "doing my head in." Maybe it was all the conspiracies that finally got to him. Maybe it was something personal that we'll never know about. The song has no opinion, simply showing a lot of what people were talking about before and after Clay's suicide. It leaves it to the listener to draw whatever conclusion they want to,

You won't find much rapping from Akira on ZION 2012: The Apocalympics (with the exception of "Where Were The Heroes?"), which normally would be a negative, but there's something magical about this whole mix, as if you're getting a window into what a part of the world thinks on a daily basis. And Akira offers no judgement of them, because there's parts where the argument starts to make some sense, only to push just a little too far and lose you again half a step later.

It's easy to just think of Akira as a rapper, because that's the focus of his career, but I think it's incredibly important to pay attention to how great a producer and mixer he is. He's got so many wonderful sounds blended together, so many voices, so many snippets of music, pianos, drums, choral tones, sparse electric guitar... it's an audio collage in the finest form. Akira's got a real knack for blending things together, and ZION is the mixtape where he's firing on all cylinders.

Some of the music from ZION is used again by Akira in other projects. The majority of the background music from "11:11" is used in ATD28 as the backing track for him and rapper Envy in "Give Me Something." The phrase "give me something I can hold" is from the original "11:11" and here is applied as Envy talks about losing her mother in the new song. Both versions of the song are excellent, although I have a slight preference for the original. This is standard operating procedure for Akira, who is happy to double-dip with a good collage or beat, and rightly so.

ZION 2012 wraps up with the song "Occupants," which showcases the optimism of even the conspiracy theorists, an upbeat tempo and a chipper voice saying "holding on" over and over again as the talking heads point out that, despite all the things they've pointed out, we shouldn't expect to see anything obvious or big happening at the 2012 Olympics, although the implication is clear - it could happen and if it does, we will be there telling you we told you so. The New World Order is clearly going to enslave us all, and we really can't do anything about it, but we won't see it coming, and we may not even notice when it does happen, so don't panic, because panic doesn't do anyone any good. On with the show!

You can get the ZION 2012: The Apocalympics mixtape from Akira's website for five pounds (which is around $8.50 as the time of this writing) and you can get the albums "When We Were Young," "Living In The Future" and the essential "The Life Equation" from iTunes for $8 each, as well as a bunch of his other singles and EPs. A lot of his mixtapes you can listen to for free on his site track-by-track, such as the ZION mix, although some of them are purchase only at this point. Of the mixes, the most recent ones have all been pretty solid, although Unkillable Thunderchrist (the second to most recent one) can be a bit heavy handed in spots, although that's forgivable for the moment of teenager life called "This Is So My Jam." Although, in classic Akira fashion, he revisited the track in the most recent mixtape, ATD29, with "OMG (This Is So My Jam)" that takes the quiet mellowness of the original and amps it up with a techno beat, synth sizzles and turns it into a party anthem. The first version is more of the teenager alone in their room, ecstatic about a new discovery they're keeping to themselves and the second one is the teenager at a club or concert cheering as loud as they can when their favorite song hits the air like a wave of joy breaking just above their head, throwing their hands up to brush their fingertips against the feeling of it.

I gave Akira a copy of my first novel when I saw him perform live at a comic shop in San Francisco. Never heard what he thought of it, but hope it brought him at least as much joy as his music's brought me...

Monday, February 17, 2014

Suicide Squad - Volume 1 - 1987-1992

You've probably read a lot of comics in your time, but it's unlikely you've ever read anything quite like the original run of Suicide Squad. While there was a golden age Suicide Squad, it was 1987 when a guy named John Ostrander started writing the modern age Suicide Squad, a bunch of c-list supervillians who'd been given a chance to cut most of their prison sentences down to almost nothing. The only catch? The missions had a fatality rate like you wouldn't believe, they were blacker-than-black ops and if you got caught, you were dead. If you tried to run, you were dead. If you failed at the mission, well, you get the idea. How did they enforce this? Each member of the squad was fit with an explosive fitted to you that would blow your arm off, and probably kill you. Sounds intense, right? Well, how's this for intense - this was a comic that wasn't afraid to kill off main characters. Regularly. Brutally. This was a comic where it wasn't a good idea to grow attached to anyone.

How do you get started with something like this? Well, you start with the person who built the Suicide Squad, Amanda Waller, nicknamed "The Wall." If there are three people with no powers at all in the DC Comics universe you don't want to mess with, they are, in order, Batman, Lex Luthor and Amanda Waller. Waller created Taskforce X (the actual name for the Suicide Squad) as a way to have high-powered disposable agents who could go and get things done for the government. They're the classic "nothing-to-lose" archetypes that date back thousands of years in storytelling. The Wall takes no prisoners, tolerates no excuses and offers no mercy. She is as dangerous a foe as possible.

The Squad has a few members who are, generally, part of the regular rotation, and I don't think I'm spoiling much by saying you'll see a lot of these three over the course of the first volume, including one of the people I'd want in MY rogue's gallery. That would be Deadshot.

Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot, was created way back in 1950, as part of the Batman universe. Deadshot is a marksman with little-to-no regard for human life, a drifter's attitude and a mercenary tone. He's one of DC's best villains because he's not really like the majority of them. A lot of comic book villains are set on world domination, destroying a superhero or trying to pull off a legendary heist. Deadshot generally isn't interested in any of that. He's sort of a working class hitman. He's proud of his skills, but he's also got a deathwish like you wouldn't believe. In fact, that seems to be the great crux of Deadshot - this is a guy who wants to go out in a blaze of glory, and is just too good, too smart and too lucky to ever get that desire.

Deadshot has appeared in a lot of DC stuff, and is a recurring villain in the TV show "Arrow," which draws from the Green Arrow mythos. His first appearance there was a bit lackluster, but we've seen him a couple of times since then, and the most recent appearance gives me a lot of hope that they're getting the hang of the character. The first time around, he's just too... well, uncool, for a lack of a better word. The character is almost psychotic, rather than the sort of detached, professional he's usually portrayed as in the comics. The most recent time we saw him, though, the character was much closer to the canon depiction, and that got me excited, especially since he's not the only one we've seen from the Squad on the show.

In addition to seeing both Amanda Waller and Deadshot on "Arrow," we've also see Bronze Tiger, another classic member of the Suicide Squad. Bronze Tiger originated in martial arts comics DC was doing, but really cemented himself as part of the original Suicide Squad. He was temperamental, he was dangerous and he was hard to deal with. As it turned out, he was also has ties to the League of Assassins, that classic Batman group that's run by Ra's al Ghul. Bronze Tiger, like Deadshot, is most commonly associated with Batman and Green Arrow, so it makes sense that we've seen him on the show (played by the always killer Michael Jai White, no less), and the last time we saw him, Amanda Waller wanted to talk to him about "a group" she's putting together, which she corrects as "more of a squad." The fanboy in me was giddy like you wouldn't believe when she said that, and yes, reports are that we'll see the Suicide Squad on the show this season or next.

The last of the regulars is Captain Boomerang, and somehow, it's hard to tell you exactly how surreal a character he is. If Deadshot is the classic drifter, and Bronze Tiger is the classic angry loner, Captain Boomerang is the classic obnoxious asshole. This is a guy who goes out of his way to be loud, crass and hard to ignore, and almost impossible to like, which makes him hilarious to watch. In my ideal world, Steve Buscemi would play Captain Boomerang, in full weasel mode. George "Digger" Harkness, aka Captain Boomerang, started as a Flash villain, and is most commonly associated as part of Flash's "Rogues Gallery" or as part of the Suicide Squad - he's done equal time in each. It's hard to tell you exactly how unlikeable this guy is. He's undependable, he's cowardly, he's argumentative, he's abusive... and yet, the guy is like a bad penny that you just can't get rid of. Captain Boomerang saw a bunch of use in the DC universe after the cancellation of the Suicide Squad, figuring in heavily to the big "Identity Crisis" miniseries that Brad Meltzer did a while back. They haven't really done much with him since the New 52 (he had an appearance in the new Suicide Squad comic, which is... volume 4, I think?, but it wasn't particularly great - in fact, the title has been something of a letdown, partially because they're using characters that don't mesh well with the vibe of the title, namely Harley Quinn...) but who knows. I wouldn't be surprised if we don't see him popping up again sooner or later.

Ostrander's run of Suicide Squad dealt with politics, assassination, terrorism and a lot of the other real world nastiness that was going on at the time, and you would occasionally see people like Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev appearing in its pages. Ostrander wanted to create a heavy mix of The Dirty Dozen, Mission: Impossible and just a hint of The Magnificent Seven, and I remember picking up the first issue in a Walgreens (back when comics were on spinner racks!) and thinking to myself, "This is a dark story!" I was 12.

I wanted to recommend "Suicide Squad" because I revisited it a few years ago, and was reminded just how daring the storytelling of the book was. Comic books usually build readerships based on getting to see the same characters every month, but Suicide Squad was different. Cliffhangers were genuine cliffhangers, because there were no guarantees for anyone in the Squad, and a character that saw years of plot development could be gone in an instant. I've always admired that. The whole first run's available through Comixology, and if you just want a taster, you can probably track down the first arc of the 1987 run in a trade paperback called "Suicide Squad: Trial By Fire" from a local comic shop, or from a used retailer on Amazon.

I wish I could tell you the new Suicide Squad was great, but sadly, it's only been okay at its best. Harley Quinn is absolutely the wrong character for this book, because there is zero fear of her getting killed off, and she's, in my mind, too unpredictable for Amanda Waller to have ever considered putting her on an already volatile mix. It feels too much like "well, people like HQ, so let's put her in a monthly!" and not a "who would make Suicide Squad better?" I see what Adam Glass (the first writer for vol. 4) was trying to do, and there are parts of it that work. He mostly gets Deadshot right, King Shark is an interesting addition, and the threat feels real. We even see some characters getting offed, which is good, but around the time Harley comes in, it all sort of falls apart. They've changed writers a couple of times since then, and I stopped picking the book up a while back, so maybe the new writers are helping, but I have to be honest - not a lot of the New 52 is working for me. The art's good, but I feel like they've abandoned sharp writing, and that hurts. I'll still pick up the trades for the new volumes, out of a sense of loyalty to the Suicide Squad concept, but I gotta be honest - my heart's not really in it, because it's just not working. I wish like hell it was, but it just hasn't sung in a while.

That said, you should still absolutely read the first volume. Just don't get attached to characters... the body count will keep on piling up.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Clue (movie) - 1985

A movie based on a boardgame sounds like a terrible idea. In most cases it is, cue inevitable "Battleship" joke here. (No, go on, it's a freebie.) But sometimes, just sometimes, you can end up with something truly magical. Such is the case with the 1985 film "Clue."

"Clue" is, at its core, a drawing room mystery, as well as a European farce. It is what happens when a comedy and murder mystery run smack into each other at top speed and keep running. It's a film that runs on, no, depends on, timing. It's a film about comedy of errors and the errors of comedy. It is a film that builds and builds and builds until you think it's going to burst, then it does, and it keeps on building.

The pedigree of "Clue" is a fantastic story by itself. The story of "Clue" was co-conceived by John Landis. If you don't know who John Landis is, well, you really, really should. He directed such amazing films as "Animal House," "Trading Places," "Coming To America," "Three Amigos!" and "The Blues Brothers" (which I've still never seen). He's generally one of the sharper directors and he wrote "Blues Brothers" so you can say his writing's pretty aces also.

The director, Jonathan Lynn, has had some ups and downs, but "Clue" was his first hand at directing, and it's a very high bar to have to live up to, which none of his following projects have (although "My Cousin Vinnie" does tickle close for a good part of it).

The cast of "Clue," however, is the real cherry. Let me give you the list of names first and foremost - Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Leslie Ann Warren... I mean, I shouldn't really have to say more than Tim Curry. You should have stopped me there and said "Oh, Tim Curry's in it. Of course I'll watch this." Tim Curry makes bad movies okay, okay movies good, good movies great and great movies AMAZING. And Tim Curry has been in some BAD BAD movies. Of course, he was also in "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and I think that's the pinnacle of "too bad not to be good." I can't let you go by without seeing some of that.

So that just happened. Tim Curry plays the butler, in an amazing performance the rebounds from incredibly stuffy to full blown frantic. He is the absolute lynchpin of this movie. He knows that he's the captain of the show, and that all the other actors have timing cues that mostly rely on him being just half a second faster than you would expect him to, and he nails it. If he didn't lock it in as well as he did, all of the rest of the things wouldn't work, which isn't to say the rest of the cast isn't amazing. Madeline Kahn, who was taken from us far too early by ovarian cancer in 1999, gives a wonderful headfuck of a performance, as Mrs. White, the serial widow. Kahn was an amazing actress who we'll revisit in this blog on several occasions, but here she plays the spider to a point.

Michael McKean's performance, on the other hand, is the complete oppposite - whereas Kahn is playing Mrs. White as ambiguous and silently insane, McKean takes Mr. Green into full-blown panic attack almost every chance he gets. You keep wondering how much bigger the performance is going to get, and it just doesn't stop giving. He's not the only one who gets a little over the top. Almost all of the cast have their moments of complete and unrestrained insanity. I mean, what else would you expect from someone like Christopher Lloyd, who's still best known for playing Doc Brown in the Back To The Future films, despite a veritable laundry list of comedic roles. And Martin Mull really should be in more things. His character is the epitome of a spinning coin, somewhere between military bluster and cowering wreck, with either threatening to show up at any moment. Eileen Brennan has the stoic, if addled, politician's wife, and has her role down fine, with the scene of her continuing to talk and talk and talk and talk early on giving the film one of its first escalating laughs. And Leslie Ann Warren puts in a fine performance, although her part is a little overly focused on the vamp. Still, there isn't an actor in this film that isn't delivering a killer performance.

In fact, the best part of this movie is watching all the actors interplay with clockwork precision, if that clockwork happened to be on a rollercoaster. It has all of the barbs and jabs it needs while still being wry enough to make you grin. It's a slow burn, too, that builds and builds and builds.

I don't want to spoil the movie, because there really is a mystery in the film (with three different endings!) but I do want to say that it's a film that's all about the details. The dialogue is witty and razor sharp without ever breaking the flow of the entire movie, which is no small accomplishment, as this movie certainly gets its flow on. The last twenty minutes of the film run at a breakneck pace that must have been ten times as exhausting to film as they were to watch.

I have watched Clue at least 20 times over the years, and it's one of the films that if I ever accidentally stumble onto on TV, I am compelled to sit and watch all of it. When that doesn't happen, I try and fire it up ever couple of years anyway.

So, for your consideration, "Clue" - a movie about murder, mayhem, madness and comedy, where the fourth murder of the film is the point where Tim Curry finally remarks, "This is getting serious." You need a laugh. Check it out.