Category Archives: comics

Film Review: Persepolis (Spoilers)

An awesome piece of work, adapted by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud from Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same title, ‘Persepolis’ is Satrapi’s part comic, part animated autobiography, focusing on the 1979 Iranian Revolution and how it affected her and her family. It’s intensely political yet warm, engaging, funny and entertaining. It has moments of horror and despair, but offers enormous insight into the social differences between western Europe and not just the fundamentalist caricature of Iran, but the much more liberal and emancipated nation which lies underneath the Islamic Republic. It’s no wonder it got the attention of highly political actors like Sean Penn to do the English voiceover for her father, and he’s not the only big name attached (Gena Rowlands & Catherine Deneuve round out the stellar English language cast).

It’s a fascinating examination of how people can stay individual under extremist rule, and is an oddly enchanting look at Satrapi’s life without the conventions you’d expect using most modern animation techniques; Persepolis is defiantly true to the graphic novel. And yet it works – by making the story the priority and not the animation, you’re left to focus on Satrapi’s life as a child (with her obsessions with Bruce Lee, the Bee Gees and Iron Maiden), and then as an adolescent – the often funnier but largely murkier period in Vienna. Particularly upon her return to Tehran you’re left in no doubt about how difficult it is for freedom to survive there, following the autocracy of the Shah through to the extremism of the revolution and its mad war with Iraq; the people have their ideals but there’s little oxygen for them to take hold. Satrapi finds the reverse true in Europe – plenty of oxygen but few ideals. The Marjane of the film comes across as very lonely indeed, but in her continuing defiance an inspiration for us all. Sometimes simple is best, and it’s highly recommended. 8/10

Film Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Spoilers)

I don’t know if I’m going to be alone in saying this or not, but from my perspective as a life-long comics fan, a huge fan of Claremont & Byrne’s X-Men in particular and even the first 2 films, I think this really did turn out to be largely a pile of rubbish. I don’t like slating films which I hope to enjoy, but the storytelling was so bad, the messing with the core X-Men mythos so severe, and the acting quite often so awkward, that I simply don’t have any choice.

I should make it clear that the fault of my discomfort with the movie doesn’t belong with Hugh Jackman, despite his co-producer status. Director Gavin Hood moves uncomfortably through often stilted set pieces in order to get the film going, leaving a massive emotional gap between the audience and main players in the film. The script is awful, the liberties it takes with Wolverine’s origin (an ongoing controversy even in the comics world) so fundamental, that I was simply left cold. You can’t have the death of Silver Fox dealt with so badly without it becoming an irrelevance. You can’t have Logan choosing to enter the Weapon X programme without him looking stupid. You can’t have the programme cause him precious little trauma without it make him look, well, boring. Barry Windsor-Smith had him kidnapped into the Weapon X programme, causing him such monumental trauma that he retreated entirely into an animalistic persona, rescued only from the wild by James MacDonald Hudson (later Vindicator in Alpha Flight). Here he’s so upset at Sabretooth’s apparent murder of Silver Fox (now ‘Kayla’) that he chooses to become Weapon X out of revenge. Even in his past that wasn’t Logan’s nature at all! It isn’t the only fundamental problem though.

Upon his escape he is intercepted by kindly Jonathan and Martha Kent analogues. Quite preposterously they’re clearly used to ‘humanise’ the character and make him less dark – more ‘family’ if you will. It’s terribly contrived and adds to the feeling that the script was put together by committee. Jackman admittedly does hold it together, but only just. Wolverine’s memory problems (caused by the Weapon X programme in the books)? Adamantium bullets. His heightened senses? Oddly missing when Silver Fox is apparently killed. And why is Sabretooth killing former Team X colleagues, when his remit with Stryker is merely to kidnap them (as he does with Scott Summers)? Gaping holes all over the place. Jackman brings the same humanity to Logan which he did so well in the 3 X-Men movies, but it’s not enough to make this anything than a horrible licensing opportunity, with so many unnecessary mutant guest stars & cameos (Taylor Kitsch as Gambit anyone? Why? I don’t know either!) you often lose sight of what the story is supposed to be about.

If there’s a Wolverine 2, it looks as though the source material will move on to include Claremont & Miller’s first Wolverine limited series. Great if so – the samurai element to his backstory would be quite welcome. The essential nobility of the character, trapped between the animal he is and the warrior he sees himself as, is the most interesting part of the character in the books. As it stands, despite the occasionally entertaining play-off between him and the excellently recast Liev Schreiber as Sabretooth, he’s certainly not that interesting. 4/10

Government to Criminalise Drawings

The government continues its move towards policing thought itself, with its attempt to criminalise virtual reality:

This week Parliament will discuss a new Bill which will make it a criminal offence to possess cartoons depicting certain forms of child abuse. If the Coroners and Justice Bill remains unaltered it will make it illegal to own any picture of children participating in sexual activities, or present whilst sexual activity took place.

The Ministry of Justice claims that the Bill is needed to clamp down on the growing quantity of hardcore paedophilic cartoon porn available on the internet, particularly from Japan. But critics of the legislation say the current definitions are so sweeping that it risks stifling mainstream artistic expression as well as turning thousands of law abiding comic book fans into potential sex offenders.

Let me just make it clear. We’re not talking images of real abuse, we’re not talking reality, we’re talking drawings, which could then be considered child pornography. Imagine that – criminalising the imagination, defining what was acceptable to see and not to see, to possess and not to possess, without those images involving a single solitary human being. I think it’s terrifying; that it’s unnecessary should go without saying. The police and CPS are terrible at judging the difference between what’s morally acceptable and what is not with photographic images – to give them free rein on drawings would be the thin end of the wedge. Jenny Willott, Lib Dem MP for Cardiff said of the proposals:

“The problem I have is that the definition of what constitutes and image and a child is incredibly broad,” she said. “The Government considers almost anything to be an image, from a painting to a private scribble on a piece of paper. At the same time they have defined a child as something that looks like a child even if it isn’t.”

But hey in the ‘protection’ obsession, we clearly even now have to ‘protect’ ourselves from the ‘dangers’ of art. Comic author Neil Gaiman said:

“If you accept – and I do – that freedom of speech is important then you are going to have to defend the indefensible,” he wrote. “That means you are going to be defending the right of people to read, or to write, or to say, what you don’t say or like or want said. The Law is a huge blunt weapon that does not and will not make distinctions between what you find acceptable and what you don’t. This is how the Law is made.”

Dr Manhattan Makes NBS Nightly News

Now this is a viral video to end all viral videos. Warner’s seem to be developing this strategy quite nicely for their hottest comic-to-film properties (Dark Knight), and now that the fight with Fox seems to be over, we can all start getting really excited about the release of Watchmen. March can’t come soon enough (not that I’m wishing my life away or anything).

Film Review: The Dark Knight

This film is ridiculously good. You need to know this before you read any further. You also need to know that this review is going to contain spoilers. Director Christopher Nolan takes the basics he assembled in 2005’s Batman Begins and screws with them until they bleed. He takes Frank Miller’s and Jeph Loeb’s examination of the Wayne/Harvey Dent/Jim Gordon trinity and uses it to frame the narrative for the entire film. Gordon is the fulcrum between Gotham’s Dark (Wayne) and White (Dent) Knights, both horribly psychologically scarred, but both prepared to do anything to rescue the city from the mob. Each as single-minded as the other, District Attorney Dent and Wayne see their and the city’s salvation in the other, yet where Wayne spent years honing his body and mind through his psychological damage, Dent has had no such training. And when Wayne becomes so desperate to hang up the cape & cowl his lasting character flaws become apparent, putting all his faith in Dent and ex-girlfriend (and Dent’s new fiancee) Rachel Dawes. Dawes however has long given up on him, but hasn’t the courage to admit it, whilst Gordon sits in the wings, efficiently smashing the mob whilst keeping his allies on side. Dent in turn makes smashing Eric Roberts’ mob his life’s work, whilst keeping secrets of his own. As long as there’s no challenge to this simmering tension, all is fine. Enter Heath Ledger’s Joker.

“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself turn into the villain.”

Prophetic words, which of course foreshadow Harvey Dent’s fate, in a genuinely epic tragedy. Dent’s fate is sealed before the film even opens – all the Joker does is attack faultlines which are already there – from Bruce Wayne’s self-deception about Dawes, to Dent’s increasingly, near-psychotic single-mindedness. But the Joker is so primally without a moral compass, whilst equally driven to do what he does, that he causes the Wayne, Dent and Gordon alliance to unravel without them even seeing it, being far more true to himself than any of them other than Gordon can afford to be. Wayne is all reason and rationality, Gordon is almost superhumanly human, but the Joker is all rebellion, irrationality and the absence of reason. He should be impossible to act, yet his war-painted persona is an acting masterclass. Where Jack Nicholson imprinted his own persona onto Tim Burton’s 1989 Joker, Ledger abandons his own altogether, for a character with no moral compass, no rules, nor feelings. He occasionally hints at a dark past which created him, but he’s all about ambiguity and terror for its own sake. Ironically it’s only Caine’s rock-like Alfred who understands this, and what’s needed to combat it.

Christopher Nolan rivals his own Memento with a rock-solid character piece balancing issues of democracy and anarchy and takes risks with the answers he comes up with. His casting of Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon at last becomes the most crucial aspect of this series, Oldman effortlessly demonstrating Gordon’s simple humanity serving him far better than Gotham’s Knights’ single-minded pursuit of justice and vengeance. Bale too crafts a fascinating Bruce Wayne, trapped in the unwilling role of hero and unable to see his own nobility when Gordon, Dent and Alfred can; his tragedy ends up the strongest of all. Ledger though imbues the film with a sense of real danger. His Joker, coming across almost improvised and unscripted, really could do anything at any moment – his threats aren’t just words, you can see the absence of any humanity in his eyes. If he doesn’t get nominated for a posthumous Oscar there really isn’t any justice in this world. He makes you laugh with painfully dark humour, whilst his violence isn’t just serious – it’s demonstrably excessive.

After all of this however it’s actually Eckhart’s film – a man deserving to join the A-list for many years. His depiction of the decline and fall of Harvey Dent is truly towering – at least the equal of Ledger for its nuanced conviction. The arrival of Two Face was never in any doubt, and what it takes to create him are the moral gaps around him – from Wayne’s willingness for him to unmask as the Batman in his stead, to the Joker’s demonstration that his interests really are best served by chaos and not democracy. The multiple layers upon which he and the rest of the cast operate are quite extraordinary for a superhero movie, and Nolan really should be lauded for raising the film way above its own medium – the Batman and his rogues gallery have never even in the books been this compelling.

It isn’t a flawless film – recasting Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel may be an improvement, but the character remains as perfunctory as she was in Batman Begins. Her demise may be the last straw which guarantees Two Face’s creation, but her character really serves very little other purpose than that. I’ve also heard Bale’s Batman voice was indeed electronically altered to be as low as it sounds, and I would agree that it’s often excessive; at the start of the film it is an awkward distraction, although one which improves as the film goes on. But these are trivial concerns. From the electric storyline where Dent and Gordon get Wayne to extract the mob’s accountant from Hong Kong, to the claustraphobic confrontation with the arrested Joker, to the achingly painful finale between the three crime fighters, this is a mesmerising film, and one which will be very hard to top. It manages to walk the line which Superman Returns ignored, between adult and interesting and extremely cool – the Batmobile and Batpod chases are incredibly exciting, and not the straightforward marketing exercises, which their counterparts in such movies tend to be. Finally, not mentioning Morgan Freeman’s turn as Lucius Fox would be criminal, imbuing the character and his corner of the film as he does with deep moral character and authority. Right to the end Wayne has no idea of the love those around him have (& retain) for him, making his fate in what is clearly part 2 of a trilogy the most tragic of all. Will the Dark Knight Return?

Film Review: Iron Man

The first Marvel Studios film is in and it’s a knockout. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly not perfect, but its flaws are easily outweighed by its strengths. And as hoped, its principal strength comes in the form of Robert Downey Jr. The question was always whether a rich alcoholic was going to be able to play a rich alcoholic convincingly, and Tony Stark in particular, a character who bounces between consistent but conflicting incarnations more than most comics characters. He doesn’t just play Stark, he is Stark, and far more convincingly than I’ve seen him in the comics – more than Millar’s Ultimate Stark, more than Michelinie & Layton’s classic incarnation, more even than Lee in his heyday. He’s not just an arms dealer with a change of heart, or an alcoholic with an unwanted sense of nobility, but as in his current incarnation in the comics his sober decision-making is determined by his intense, alcoholic nature. He always finds ways to do what he wanted to do while justifying those ways to himself. This attention to character detail outdoes anything every superhero film has ever managed before. Downey even looks like Stark – it’s a bravura performance.

He’s hardly alone – Gwyneth Paltrow shines despite Pepper Potts’ under-written role, Terrence Howard pulls off Stark’s friend Rhodey again more credibly than the book, and Jeff Bridges delivers a genuinely masterful performance as Stark’s mentor turned enemy Obadiah Stane. His corporate manipulation is an effective approach for a character who was such a one-note figure in the book, and it’s almost a pity to see him as the genuine enemy, driven by ambition and jealousy, as the film goes on. And it really does go on, which is the main problem it has. At over two hours the film is far too heavy and unfocused, particularly in the origin segment in the first third, where it takes too long to get into the body of the film. But this flaw is easily outweighed by what follows – Stark’s development of the modern suit is both fun and enjoyable and the CGI is far better than anything I’ve seen in any other superhero film. And the film’s ultimate focus on corporate responsibility and humanitarian intervention is a revelation, one which director Jon Favreau might have been better advised to focus the film more on.

There isn’t much doubt though that a franchise has been born, one as with the renewed Batman franchise, is helmed by an acting heavyweight with charisma and good looks to spare. I really look forward to Iron Man 2 in 2010, particularly with the rise of the Mandarin and entrance of War Machine foreshadowed. 8/10

By the way you must wait till the end of the final credits. A SHIELD-related delight finally awaits, which no self-respecting comics fan should miss out on…

Film Countdown II: Dark Knight

Vodpod videos no longer available. from posted with vodpod

If the finished product is even a tenth as good as this trailer then we have a modern classic on our hands. I haven’t been this excited about a film in a long time. Note the trailer autoplays, but you can pause/stop it underneath its bottom left hand corner.