Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Writer makes disappointing directorial debut. Also, dog bites man...

Directed by Garth Ennis
Starring Tank Jones, Lauren Alonzo, and Kate Kugler

Synopsis: The survivors of a crashed American chopper in Afghanistan face a greater threat than the Taliban when they are set upon by a seemingly invulnerable army of the undead. And then the SAS shows up...

I blow hot and cold on Garth Ennis. On the one hand, he has written some great and compelling comics (Punisher: The End, Punisher: The Tyger, Preacher, Hitman). On the other hand, he's a writer whose aesthetic interests I increasingly find hard to separate from his limitations. He writes the foul-mouthed badass & the strong, stoic man of action very well, but writes characters he doesn't agree with or respect as the most contemptible straw men. And sometimes his admiration of tough men making hard choices easily shades into fascism.

So, Garth Ennis making his directorial debut on a short film about soldiers in Afghanistan encountering a supernatural power more evil than the Taliban? Oh, and produced by the people at Avatar (a company that, for every good book it puts out, puts out seventeen stolen from Warren or Alan or Garth's commonplace books)? If it wasn't for the fact that chances to see this outside of Comicon were going to be rare, I probably wouldn't have lined up for it. And a small part of me hoped that Ennis, pushed into a new medium, out of his comfort zone, might do something interesting.

Unfortunately, Stitched isn't even an intriguing misfire. It's just a bore.

The writing isn't the problem, though what comes across on the comics page as clever exposition feels awkward coming out of a real person's mouth sometimes.

The bigger problem is that Ennis just doesn't have a grasp on how to do film. His time as a comic book writer has clearly taught him how to think visually, but the fact he doesn't have to execute those visuals means that good ideas are botched. The carnage of a previous battle that the soldiers stumble across is filmed in such a flat, matter-of-fact way that it comes across as a joke more than a horrific moment. And not a dark joke, but a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker joke.

A better example is a sequence of the soldiers climbing a hill. The soldiers are shot from behind and below as they ascend. It's a good idea either to sell the tiring nature of their trek or to give a mythic image to these tired warriors. In practice, the shot is framed and lit with the minimum amount of attention possible, and instead looks like a series of asses jouncing up a hill.

But the biggest problem is that Ennis can't direct actors. While it's hard to assess from the IMDB resumes of the stars how talented they are, the fact that all the line-readings are given with a similar lack of inflection, as if the scripts were handed to them five minutes before the shoot started and they were told this was merely a read-through. While Jones and Alonzo are poor actors, a special Razzie should be given to Kugler, who manages the amazing feat of being both dull and infuriating in her portrayal of a shellshocked PTSD soldier as a whiny teenager whose parents aren't letting her go to the mall.

Note to directors: stylized dialogue requires special attention to actors to make it work. Note to Garth Ennis: your dialogue is stylized.

If I sound so annoyed, it's because the monsters at the center of the short film are so fascinating. They're similar to zombies in that they are slow, stupid and can't use tools. And like traditional zombies, they're dangerous due to their numbers and tenacity as much as anything. But the visual, of creatures with every hole in their face (eyes, nose & mouth) stitched shut, who stumble along like the Templars from Tombs of the Blind Dead, is amazing. And Ennis' conceptual twists on these creatures (they can't be killed with a shot to the head or severing of the spine, for example) suggest a fascinating mythology.

But all of that is hidden inside a boring, indifferent film whose main purpose, at this point, is to serve as an extended trailer for the inevitable Avatar Press ongoing. Color me unimpressed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stop talking about comic books or I'll kill you...

I'm heading to Comicon. Posting to resume after I return!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Because Eve Tushnet always has such interesting posts...

Eve challenged her readers to think of Christian films and atheist films for hypothetical film festivals. Apparently, it's been easier for her readers to think of atheist films than Christian ones.

For the purpose of this post, she's talking about films that represent those worldviews, not necessarily films made by Christians or atheists.

Christian films

The Trial of Joan of Arc (d. Robert Bresson) - Not just because the subject is Joan, but because Bresson is focused on the suffering and humility of Joan, even her very human weaknesses, and her faith enables her to endure and transfigure those elements of her life. That transfiguration is the miracle we see in the film, not some fantastic magic trick (which is how film usually defines them).

Love Exposure (d. Shion Sono) - Actually, this film can probably be interpreted multiple ways. And while there is a fair amount anti-religious material here, it's notable that the worst behavior is of people who turn religion to their purposes. The hypocrites and those without humility are those that cause the most suffering, and it is love (both secular & religious) that gives the male protagonist the strength to struggle on against a world that is turned against him. It's also about the way that outcasts can find fellowship & express Christian brotherhood for each other. I'd love to see Eve's reaction to all the complex & weird ideas about religion, love, gender & sexual orientation that overflow this film.

Terri (d. Azazel Jacobs) - This film, focusing on an intelligent, perceptive but troubled boy & his attempts to reach out to the world, deals with the injustice and pain of engaging with a flawed world and the broken, foolish people who inhabit it. Despite all the heartache and pain that engagement brings, the movie shows us the need to reach out to our fellow sufferers and sinners, since only that outreach can shape our suffering and pain into something better.

That's all that I can think of, off the top of my head, at the moment. But there are two relatively recent films and one older film that promote a Christian humanist worldview, to balance out all those despairing films Tushnet & her readers have thought of so far.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Quick Appreciation of Stan Lee....

So I'd been feeling burned out with comic books lately for several reasons (which will be the subject of a later post). Luckily, I decided to dig out those black & white phone book-style reprints of  Kirby's Thor & New Gods that Marvel and DC put out about ten years ago. I've always been a big Kirby fan and I even enjoy his late period stuff, which is certainly flawed, but has a wonderful energy.

Still, you can never go wrong reading/looking at Kirby's Marvel work in the mid-'60s and the first flowering of his Fourth World stories. He's not stretched quite as thin as he was in the early '60s when he worked on every Marvel book (it seems like) and he's not burned out or saddled with corporate remits the way he was after DC canceled the Fourth World books. There's a real sense that he's challenging himself in every issue to do something new with character designs or layouts or fight scenes. And on Thor, Vince Colletta's much-maligned inking is very beautiful. Even if he did erase or ignore the detail of Kirby's pencils, Colletta's thin brush strokes give Kirby's pencils a newspaper adventure strip feel (like Prince Valiant).

Kirby's always worth checking out, but New Gods and his run on Thor as it transitioned from Journey Into Mystery into Thor are amazing.

But one thing I noticed, reading the two back-to-back, is the differences between Kirby's work with Stan Lee and Kirby's solo work. Both periods have plenty of fans and supporters, and I enjoy both.

The thing that emerges from his work with Stan Lee on Thor is how the characterization is more subtle and grounded. Kirby's bombast and melodrama have their charms (and Stan Lee certainly wrote his share of melodrama), but he's not one for nuance. While Orion, upon rereading New Gods, certainly is quite complex (the irony that New Genesis relies on the rage and fierceness Orion inherited from Darkseid to defend themselves from Darkseid is acknowledged quite well), outside of Terrible Turpin, none of the human characters really register. They keep getting crowded out by all the superhumans.

Whereas in Thor, even the walk-ons end up making an impression. There's a sequence where Thor takes a cab to escape a crowd and ends up having a really frank heart-to-heart with the driver. It's a very nice moment, but the capper is, after Thor leaves, the driver's next fare asks him if that's really Thor.

The driver, who from the previous exchange we've seen is a humble, friendly guy. But he can't help but half-brag/half-joke that Thor takes his cab all the time, that they're old pals. And then, he ruefully adds, Thor forgot to pay his fare. 

Lee and Kirby together, through the dialogue and art, get across the complexity of this exchange very well. The cab driver comes across as a complex person, and it really illuminates Thor's character as well. Thor has "the common touch", unlike many of his fellow immortals, but even he can lose sight of the details.

What's really impressive about Thor is how funny it can be. Lee has a good touch for leavening the bombast, when it threatens to get too overwhelming. Volstagg's presence keeps Asgard from feeling too cold or inhuman, for example.

I know the attribution of what Kirby and Lee brought to their collaborations is always very tenuous. It's tempting to ascribe to Kirby a lot of what made their collaboration great, both because of Lee's boosterism at the expense of his collaborators and Lee's lack of creative success post-Kirby & Ditko. I think most people, given the choice, would put rather Mister A or Captain Victory on their resume than Ravage 2099 or Stripperella.

But Lee did bring something to Kirby's work. At the very least, he pushed Kirby out of his comfort zone as a co-writer, forcing him to deal with characters and emotions that Kirby preferred to avoid in his solo work.