A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Month: December 2008 Page 1 of 2

Three “Spirit” prizes come to visit … [giveaway]

Just in time for Christmas and the release of the film, I have three copies of “The Spirit: The Movie Visual Companion,” by Mark Cotta Vaz to give away, courtesy of the publisher, Titan Books, and the most excellent Tom Green. The book is definitely worth a look through for fans of Miller, Eisner and the movie — even if the movie itself turns out to not be to everyone’s taste. But to get a shot at winning, you’ll have to wade through me prattling on about some stuff and then answer a couple questions.

The film seems to be losing the battle of the critics so far, which is both unsurprising and still disappointing. I haven’t seen it yet myself, so I’m hoping there’s something about it — the tone, or simply embracing its own goofiness, if need be, that makes the experience fun.

I feel more invested in this movie than usual, as I’ve been writing about it for what seems like forever. I chatted up producer Michael Uslan at a party Oddlot Entertainment threw to announce the pic at Comic-Con in 2006, and managed to ask Miller about adapting Eisner’s short stories into a feature film (he said he was working on it). I did a set visit in November 2007 for Newsarama that produced three stories on the film; I did a short interview with producer Deborah Del Prete last summer about shooting in Albuquerque for a Variety special on New Mexico; and, coming up shortly, a piece on the film’s visual effects for Animation Magazine. Through that time, I’ve been impressed by the way the film is being made. The project was put together independently by Oddlot, who shopped it around, saying “this is what we’re gonna do, take it or leave it” and got Lionsgate to bite. This was the first feature film to shoot at the booming Albuquerque Studios, a brand new state of the art facility. The set visit was in a lot of ways less impressive, given that all there was to see was a huge greenscreen-draped studio and a few bits of scenery. It was cool to see an old-fashioned delivery truck with the logo “Ditko’s Deliveries” stenciled on the side, and to chat briefly with Gabriel Macht in costume. Unfortunately, none of the films’ femmes fatale were on set that day.

Beyond that, I’ve met Miller a number of times. (Some day, I’ll have to get my pal Jeff to talk here about the time he asked Miller to make corrections on a piece of original art he owned.) I was most pleased to meet him at a Dark Horse Comic-Con party in 2002, when I handed him a copy of the first Variety comics special I had edited and got a quick pic, taken by DH editor Diana Schutz with my camera. I later learned Miller always does the evil-eye thing in pictures. That night, he excused himself to go say hi to “a good friend,” who turned out to be Will Eisner.

Eisner was one of the greats I never had a chance to really meet. My favorite Eisner story was in “Invisible People,” the episode in which an obit run by mistake destroys a meek man’s life while the newspaper editor refused to admit the mistake and eventually won an award for her error-free track record. I was asked to be a judge for the Eisner Awards in September 2004 (the same day I had gone to press event for the DVD release of the original Star Wars trilogy and got to meet Mark Hamill and irvin Kershner — it was a good day). I had been looking forward to the opportunity to meet Eisner and perhaps talk with him a bit more. But it was not to be, as will died at the New Year, several months even before the judging. I don’t recall any of the judges discussing Eisner much in the room, but when the ceremony came around and Will wasn’t there, it was definitely a very sad moment.

Eisner and Miller’s relationship is also interesting, and I am quite looking forward to finding the time to reread “Eisner/Miller” after seeing the movie to see if the impression that these men were in tune with each other’s sensibilities was real or just an impression made larger than it really was by the very nice idea that these two creators from different generations could have the kind of collegial relationship they seemed to enjoy.

So, on to the giveaway: The first three people to answer the following three questions correctly in the comments section of this post will win a copy of the book. Be sure to use an email address I can use to contact you with when you make your post. I have to limit the contest to domestic entries, i.e., I will not ship overseas. I will contact the winners via email to get shipping info, etc. Got it? Go:

1. What year were the Eisner Awards first given out?

2. Who conducted the interviews in the 2005 book “Eisner/Miller”? (Bonus points if you can tell me what worthy comics org he works for.)

3. Which of his famous characters did Miller freely admit to copying almost directly from Eisner’s Sand Saref?

Good luck!

Early reviews blast ‘Spirit’

The premiere for “The Spirit” was last night at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood and the early word is not good.

Justin Chang at Variety writes:

A slain cop is resurrected as a masked crime-fighter in “The Spirit,” but Frank Miller’s solo writing-directing debut plunges into a watery grave early on and spends roughly the next 100 minutes gasping for air. Pushing well past the point of self-parody, Miller has done Will Eisner’s pioneering comicstrip no favors by drenching it in the same self-consciously neo-noir monochrome put to much more compelling use in “Sin City.” Graphic-novel geeks will be enticed by the promise of sleek babes and equally eye-popping f/x, but general audiences will probably pass on this visually arresting but wholly disposable Miller-lite exercise.

Newsarama, which also covered the New York-based junket, is a little more polite about it:

If this film does well enough to rate a sequel, and with some more directorial seasoning under Miller’s belt, perhaps future installments could achieve the greatness this one just frustratingly teases. As it stands, “The Spirit” does a precarious balancing act juxtaposing great moments and terrible ones, leaving audiences likely be split over which makes the greater impression.

And Ain’t It Cool News skewers the film as the worst since “Battlefield Earth.” Ouch.

And now I’ve seen something that has taken the top prize from “Battlefield Earth.” I mean, I honestly thought that would never happen. And it’s not like there aren’t MANY shitty movies made every year, and it’s not like I don’t SEE many of those. In fact, friends of mine and I have recently started a “Bad Movie Night,” where we have an opening act, a main feature, and a dessert: all of incredibly bad film & TV (the last one we did featured a vampire theme, so we started with “Knight Beat” (only available on VHS, but highly recommended), we feasted on the horror that is “Lost Boys 2: The Tribe”, and then for dessert, watched the (very) little-seen, “Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special” (holy crap! Amazing!). They’re our very own “MST3K” nights.

I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve seen the film, though given my general reaction to Frank Miller’s writing the past decade I can’t say my hopes for this film are high (despite the apparently excellent technical aspects of the film) were terribly high even before reading the reviews.

‘O Logan, Where Art Thou?’, a.k.a. another Fox-Marvel movie misses the point

A few days of thinking about the new trailer to “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” that officially hit the web Monday have me downgrading the clip from my first impressions. In case you missed it, here’s the trailer:


There’s a lot going on in this clip, but this appears to be a great example of how movies sometimes try really hard to be faithful to the comics and yet somehow still get it completely wrong. These clips show interesting bits and pieces of the character’s comic book history, starting with “Origin” and progressing to the pivotal Silver Fox-Sabretooth story that first appeared about 20 years ago in Wolverine #10. So far, so good.

What’s most problematic is the introduction of William Stryker and the implication that Logan turned to the Weapon X program intentionally to get back at Sabretooth. Stryker was made part of Logan’s past in the franchise-best “X2,” but this particular change is a major one for the character that significantly alters his entire motivation and points out just how much the character has changed (and not necessarily for the better) in his nearly 35-year history.

The first real definition of the character came at the hands of Chris Claremont, who wrote Logan almost esclusively from 1975 to the early 1990s, and evolved Logan from a wild man whose instinct for mayhem won out over brain power to the famed “failed samurai” of the Frank Miller-drawn 1982 miniseries. Much of the character’s appeal to fans came from Claremont’s resistance to nail down an origin or a past for Logan — in retrospect, a great idea for the way it teased fans used to having every aspect of a character’s life and motivation fully laid out before them. Logan himself stated on many occasions that he cared not a whit for who was responsible for what happened to him or for digging up his lost memories. He lived in the present, and eventually a little bit for the future.

But Wolverine’s popularity couldn’t keep writers from trying to fill in Logan’s past. Barry Windsor Smith’s “Weapon X” was the first, but while it portrayed the event of how Logan got his claws it was wisely light on the details of who was responsible. What was definitely clear was that this was done to him against his will — and the trauma it caused largely responsible for his lack of control over himself and his lost memories. This still worked within the overall X-Men universe, as the forces that experimented on Logan against his will was another example of the mutant-human conflict.

So having Logan turn to Stryker and willingly undergo the Weapon X procedure and join Stryker’s special team is a radical change. Instead of a wild loner, or victim of experimentation, Logan’s now motivated by his desire for revenge on Sabretooth. This is a more conventional character, but that’s not surprising given the direction the comics (and the movies) have been taking for years now. Fox could have made a much more distinctive movie if they’d gone the Japan route — but it appears that’s the last thing the studio expects from its superhero franchises.

Looking at the rest of the trailer, the sheer number of mutants appearing in this film is impressive, though in danger of treading on the comics’ unfortunate tendancy to connect everyone to everyone else at every opportunity by throwing in Emma Frost and what looks like a young Storm. (Young Scott Summers is apparently in the movie, too.) Gambit looks good, though I’m still not sold on Liev Shrieber as Sabretooth. And the final line Jackman delivers just lacks the kind of aggression you’d expect from the character.

In the meantime, we’ve got “The Spirit,” which is increasingly looking like niche fare (I haven’t seen it yet), and “Watchmen,” which is becoming so big a movie that it likely will affect how Hollywood treats superhero movies for years to come — for good or ill.

Bits: Jackman hosts Oscars; Kahn and Eastwood; VFX contenders

Deadlines and holiday travel have limited posting this week, bur here’s a few tidbits that I came across:

* I haven’t seen if the trailer for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” that’s supposed to be running before “The Day the Earth Stood Still” has been made available online yet. But Hugh Jackman’s all over the place, having been named the host for this year’s Oscars telecast.

* Looking at the newspaper ads for Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” I spotted a name in the credits familiar to comics readers of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: Jenette Kahn. An exec producer on the film, Kahn was publisher and/or editor in chief of DC Comics for something like 25 years.

* No fewer than four comic book movies made the cut for the Oscar’s visual effects semifinals: “The Dark Knight,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” That list of 15 contenders will be pared down to seven for the famous VFX bakeoff in January, with the top three from that event getting actual nominations.

* And Bettie Page, queen of 1950s pinup girls and inspiration for countless comic artists, has died at age 85.

‘Punisher’ flops hard but comic frenzy continues with ‘Fables’

Wow. “Punisher: War Zone,” which I thought was a good pic for its genre, grossed a pitiful $4 million at the weekend box office. According to Box Office Mojo, that’s the worst opening ever for a Marvel pic and about a quarter of what the 2004 Thomas Jane version did its opening weekend.

Most reviews were dreadful, though I also think timing is an issue. It’s December, and most moviegoers are looking for family fare, Oscar bait or highbrow blockbusters — and this is none of those. October would have been a better month — much as it would have worked so much better for the also-maligned “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” — but who knows? The audience for this kind of movie has been dwindling into nichedom for years and we’re a long way from the 1980s heyday of Stallone, Schwarzenneger, Willis and Chuck Norris.

None of which means the film won’t make money — its primary market was always international box office and DVD. It just has a bit farther to go to get into the black. Whether Marvel will try yet again — sure. It’s just a matter of how long they want to wait and how they’ll try to reinvent the franchise yet again. I’d bet we have to wait about five years.

On the pleasantly hopeful side of things is ABC picking up a pilot based on Bill Willingham’s DC/Vertigo comic series “Fables.” Stu Zicherman and Raven Metzner will run the show — they most recently were on “Six Degree” — and the series is being produced by (big surprise!) Warner Bros. TV. David Semel will direct the pilot.

I can’t help but think the success of HBO’s “True Blood” influenced the pickup, as I can easily see a similar approach working with the “Fables” concept — though without all the nudity, sex and violence.

Frantic Friday: ComiXology on iPhone, ‘Dark Knight,’ Eisner submissions open

A couple of small interesting things for a frantic Friday morning:

* I don’t have an iPhone, but if I did, I’d definitely take the new ComiX0logy iPhone app for a whirl. The regular site has a very good new comics pull list system that I imagine would be extra helpful if I could pull it up on my phone when I’m at the comics shop because I always forget something. The app also gives you access to some digital comics and, if you buy it the first week, it’s a dollar off.

* In “The Dark Knight” news, the Joker has taken over the mosts recent issue of Mad Magazine. Check out a preview here. Meanwhile, the film is due to be rereleased to theaters on Jan. 23, which give me another chance to check it out in IMAX. And the AP moved a story yesterday about how the film’s Oscar chances have risen as the rollout of awards contenders nears its end.

* Speaking of awards, all you comics creators should be aware that submissions are now being taken for the Eisner Awards. Details here.

‘Punisher: War Zone’ review

“Punisher: War Zone” is far and away the best Punisher pic of the three that have been made to date. That was the least I expected from the pic. What’s encouraging is it’s also a decent action pic that adds enough flair and style to its violent proceedings to finally strike a tone that suits the character and the genre.

(If you’re new to the Punisher, check out this photogallery I wrote on his history for Metromix. If you want to know more about the making of the film, I have a story on the filmmakers and one on the actors over at Newsarama.)

The first thing this movie does right is cast Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle. Not only does Stevenson look and sound the part, but in the action sequences he moves with the confidence, poise and apparent skill that an ex-Marine like Castle would have. And that makes a big difference, compared to the goofy and limited fights of the previous Punisher movies. He also has the right touch in the story scenes. Castle’s never been much of a talker, but Stevenson for the first time on screen really evokes the character’s smoldering rage and seeming genius for dealing out death.

So be warned: there’s a reason this movie is rated R. This movie starts out with Castle in full Punisher mode, massacring criminals with just the right mix of deadly seriousness and action-movie inventiveness. There’s plenty of head splitting, blood splattering, severed limbs and brutal, bone-crunching deaths.

All of this is executed with likeable style by director Lexi Alexander. The movie looks better than you think it will, with lighting that evokes the mix of bright and muted coloring of more recent Punisher comics. The action sequences are well-staged and, unusually in an age of hyper-quick editing, easy to follow. The film also cuts away from its most cartoony violence quickly, keeping the “did that just happen?” effect without staying on screen long enough to look fake.

The film also sticks closely to the Punisher milieu and resists diverging into action movie cliché. There’s not a single car chase. Nor is there a forced relationship between the Punisher and Julie Benz’s widow of an FBI agent.

Some found what little was done with the Punisher connecting with Benz’s daughter annoying, but given the circumstances that turned Castle into the Punisher, it makes sense. Also appearing are a few cop characters, played by Colin Salmon and Dash Mihok, who get a little personality despite their limited roles. And then there’s Microchip, long an element of the comic book series, played by “Seinfeld” alumnus Wayne Knight. Knight plays Micro as a serious supporter of the Punisher’s campaign, while bringing just enough comic relief to the movie.

It’s not all good, though.

The villain of the piece is Jigsaw — who first appeared as the Punisher’s nemesis way back in Amazing Spider-Man #162. Played here by Dominic West, who appeared in “300” and starred in the excellent HBO series “The Wire,” we see his character traumatized and transformed into Jigsaw in a scene that successfully makes your skin crawl. But West’s portrayal of the character borrows a lot from Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker — one scene in the film directly evokes that performance — and it so far has been a litmus test for the audience, with some loving it and others thinking it too over the top and cartoonish. I leaned toward the latter camp, but not so much that it took much away from the movie.

Helping Jigsaw out is Doug Hutchison as “Looney Bin” Jim, Jigsaw’s insane brother. Hutchison is great at creepy and crazy — he played the liver-eating, stretching Tooms in a pair of the best episodes ever of “The X-Files” — and he in some strange way balances out Jigsaw despite being no less cartoonish and weird. So your mileage on LBJ, as he’s called, may vary.

Additionally, the plot has some major holes in it that, despite being glossed over fairly quickly, are enough to make your head hurt if you apply too much brain power to them. The most egregious for me being a plot point that involves Jigsaw seeking immunity for his crimes that, while set up early on in the script, just is too hard to swallow when it eventually pays off.

The result is a film that in some ways succeeds by exceeding the admittedly low expectations set by previous films and in other ways fails as a mainstream movie experience. But it’s important to remember that it’s not intended to be a mainstream movie experience. This is a niche picture, rated-R and intentionally limited by its concept to appeal to mostly young men who like to watch thugs and things blow up real good. Marvel seems to understand this completely, marketing this as the first Marvel Knights picture complete with its own version of the flipping pages logo at the start of the film. They also kept the budget at $35 million, an amount that seems to ensure they studio won’t lose much money even if it’s a massive flop — which it won’t be given its niche appeal.

Bottom line: If you love the Punisher of the MAX series of comics, or are a general fan of this sort of action movie, you’ll likely love this movie. If you’re a more general Punisher or Marvel fan, you probably won’t get as much out of it, and if you prefer the Punisher as a quasi-villain guest star in the all-ages Spider-Man tales of the 1970s, your money and time will be better spent elsewhere.

Miller back-and-forth unfortunate reminder that ‘Justice League’ pic is still stalled

The strange case of the “Justice League” movie gets even stranger.

Dark Horizons posted recently that director George Miller, of “Mad Max” and “Happy Feet” fame, had told a Sydney TV show that he was off the “Justice League” movie. But when I went looking for the original item on that site, nothing came up. Now, it’s come out that some of Miller’s reps have contacted Coming Soon.net and said Miller never appeared on the show and there’s no truth to his being off the movie.

Even with Miller still on the project, things don’t look good for this project with constant delays, and casting controversies galore making it less likely every day that it will see the light of day unless something big happens to push it forward.

And without some kind of progress or encouraging plans, it’s only going to get worse. Now, not having read a script or having any idea how this movie is envisioned, it’s impossible to say whether it’s any good or not. It may be absolutely terrific. But the public perception remains that DC/WB don’t know how to make a good superhero movie that isn’t a Batman flick.

The same problem doesn’t afflict Marvel Studios, where their string of successes (and even the less than successful pics they’ve made) and ability to turn characters like Blade and Iron Man into hits gives folks confidence that we’ll see their schedule roll out on time with “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America” all leading up to “Avengers” in 2011.

That’s also a strategy that works for fans, because it’s how the comics were done — with each character being established in his or her own title before the big team up. Right now, confidence is low that WB can make characters like Wonder Woman, Green Lantern or Flash work on the big screen, making fans even less likely to think a Justice League movie with all of them will do justice to the characters.

On the other hand, putting “Justice League” on hold may not be the best idea if WB can’t find a way to get these characters to the screen any other way. If fans have to wait too much longer for more DC movies, there’s always a danger that the interest in superhero movies could cool and they may never get their shot. And in that case, nobody wins.

‘Wolverine’ pic: Overstuffed or lean and mean?

New pics from “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” show up seemingly every week, presumably because a trailer is imminent with the release of Fox’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” on Dec. 12. The film, which isn’t out until May 1, will be the first big test of how well Fox can handle the X-Men franchise in the wake of “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

The first major concern is that this film is trying to bite off too much. The photos and cast list on IMDB indicate that we’ll be seeing Logan fighting as far back as World War II, his relationship with Sabretooth (unhinted at in “X-Men”), a whole bunch of mutants making their first film appearances and possibly elements of the still-controversial “Origin” series from 2001. All of which just makes this thing look way too crowded, what with Deadpool, Beak, Silver Fox, William Stryker, Agent Zero, Gambit, The Blob, John Wraith and, apparently, Scott “Cyclops” Summers all set to show up. You have to wonder if there’s room left in such a film for Wolverine, especially with Fox actively talking about a spinoff for Deadpool. Alternately, charges of not giving each character their due are sure to come up, as is a question of coherence and clarity for folks who don’t know all these folks’ backstories. That kind of storytelling is the sort of thing that could turn the general audiences away from superhero pics, much the way they frustrate the casual comics fan.

On the plus side, the pictures look interesting. Jackman’s really bulked up his physique and looks as good as ever in the role. The much-leaked Comic-Con footage shows a lot of action, which could go a long way toward overcoming story weaknesses. And Fox and Jackman have a lot on the line with this, so you can be sure they will do everything they can to avoid disaster. I also like the idea of having an actor like Liev Shreiber play Sabretooth — he’s the sort who can give it the kind of depth it needs. Not being too much of a Deadpool fan, I still think Ryan Reynolds is good at that sort of wise-cracking hero thing and another good choice. Gavin Hood remains an unknown quantity — “Tsotsi” was acclaimed, but rumors of troubles on the set last year and the dispatching of Richard Donner to smooth things out is less than encouraging.

Updated: Comic Foundry and Write Now! pull the plug

Tim Leong has made the sad announcement that he’s pulling the plug on his magazine Comic Foundry because his burgeoning career at Complex Magazine just leaves insufficient time to continue to put it out. Which is a shame, because Comic Foundry was the best and most interesting mag about comics to come along in ages, crossing the seemingly vast divide between all-out geekdom and comics as pop culture. As much as I enjoy trolling the net for news, the nostalgia of the TwoMorrows mags and the in-depthness of the Comics Journal, I miss having something that fills the pop, “comics are cool” role that Wizard played once upon a time. Like spinner racks in the local candy store, the time has apparently passed for such magazines.

UPDATE: Write Now!, the mag about writing for comics, animation, TV, etc., also is ending its run. Edited by author and former Spider-Man editor Danny Fingeroth, the TwoMorrows mag was felled by low circulation and February’s issue #20 will be the last.

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