Friday, January 15, 2010

Punishermax #1-3 by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon

I have to admit that I like the bizarre naming conventions of mainstream super-hero comics that Tom Spurgeon makes fun of. "Punishermax" isn't as gloriously, needlessly confusing and baroque as, say, Final Crisis Aftermath Dance, but there's still something off about it. For one thing, shouldn't the "Max" Punisher title be the one where he's running around as a Frankenstein monster killing zombies? So far, this is much more like Punishermin or Punishercomparativelylowkey.

Punishermax is the follow up to Marvel's MAX-imprint Punisher series, written first by Garth Ennis and titled The Punisher MAX, which changed to The Punisher: Frank Castle MAX after Ennis left and Duane Swierczynski took over.* Jason Aaron's brief seems to be to MAX-ify certain elements of the Marvel U that Ennis had left out of his MAX stories. (As far as I know, the only Marvel U character in Ennis' MAX series was Nick Fury, but I could be missing someone). First up, the Kingpin.

So far, this is a "just OK" Punisher comic: there's nothing revelatory about it. Unlike Ennis' work, I doubt this has the power to convert doubters into Punisher fans. Aaron's take on Frank Castle is pretty standard and what he's doing with Wilson Fisk a.k.a. the Kingpin seems like retcon-101. Part of the appeal of crazy-ass super-hero comic villains is that they are larger than life, so making a more "realistic" version of the Kingpin undercuts the character and turns him into a much more conventional crime fiction bad guy. The original villains Ennis created for his Punisher MAX series were more copelling and had a lot more personality than what's on display here.

And though I like Steve Dillon's work in general (he is one of the few "mainstream" artists for whom I've stood in line to get a sketch and signature), his work here reminds me too strongly of the pre-MAX Marvel Knights Punisher series he did with Ennis, which was heavy on slapstick, splatterstick, and jokey black comedy. Dillon's deadpan style is perfect for that kind of over-the-top take on the concept, but when combined with Aaron's understated, more conventional approach it becomes a bit underwhelming. Dillon and Aaron both put all the pieces in the right place, but the picture that emerges isn't (yet) that compelling.

*Gregg Hurwitz also wrote five issues in between Ennis and Swierczynski.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Screening Log: December 2009 and Early January 2010

(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) (v) * - You know how sometimes people complain that film critics can't enjoy movies because they watch too many of them? In general, I think that's a bogus complaint, but, here, specifically, I think that I would probably have enjoyed this movie a lot more had I not spent the last year catching up with Hong Sang-soo's very clear-eyed relationship movies and trying to watch the rest of the Rohmer films I still needed to see. That's probably completely unfair to this movie, but, as I think about it, it's much less unfair to compare this to Annie Hall, and when a Woody Allen movie feels less self-involved and self-indulgent, well... Anyway, the leads are definitely charming and there are some very nice moments (hence the one star rating). I can definitely see why this is a breath of fresh air for audiences who are more or less resigned to stuff like He's Just Not That Into You, but it just didn't do it for me.

State of Play (Kevin MacDonald, 2009) (v) ** - A modest political thriller, with a lot going for it, and, thankfully, no big point to make, although I suspect it's depiction of "how journalism works" is more-or-less b.s. If movies were still made like they were in 1955, Phil Karlson could have turned this into a B-movie classic. Instead, in MacDonald's hands, it's an A-picture that happens to be a lot less bloated than it could have been. This is my favorite Russell Crowe performance in quite some time, and the supporting cast is also pretty strong (even though Rachel McAdams continues to not bring much to the table).

Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee, 2009) (v) ** - A modest comedy/personal memoir that would make a nice double-bill with A Serious Man. Demetri Martin is a good performer, but not an actor, so the scenes requiring him to do more than give a funny line reading have a hole in their center. But there are enough other, interesting observations around the edges to make up for that.

Time Piece (Jim Henson, 1965) (v) (s) ***** - I can't believe it took me so long to find this on the internet. Wow. Among the best "new to me" movies I've seen all year.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski, 2003) (v) (r) **** and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Gore Verbinski, 2006) (v) ** - I have more to say about these movies and at some point it might show up on my blog.

Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) (v) (r) ** - Better the second time around, in that I know when to pay attention to the awesome parts and I know when the lame parts are coming so I can sit back and read X-Men comics.

Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000) (v) ** - Ambitious, interesting, and daring, but too on-the-nose for my tastes. I mean, I know that's part of the point, but that's why it's a question of taste more than anything else.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Stephen Sommers, 2009) (v) * - Enjoyably dumb action movie.

Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977) (v) ****

Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009) (v) **

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009) (v) - Every visual choice, every design choice makes perfect sense for the kind of movie Jonze and Eggers seemed to want to be making, but I the movie they seemed to want to make is pretty bizarre. Nothing wrong with bizarre, per se, but this seems less constructively bizarre and more symptomatically/pathologically bizarre - like, I feel I learned a lot about how Eggers & Jonze view childhood, growing up, the parent-child relationship, the best way to deal with anger, etc. that I really didn't need/want to know. I also thought it was kind of weird/curious/notable that so much of the movie reminded me of The Science of Sleep and/or Synecdoche, NY (both of which I liked a lot more than this).

Extract (Mike Judge, 2009) (v) *** - This doesn't have the comic highs of Office Space or Idiocracy, but it manages to sustain its comedy in a way that those movies don't. Appealingly modest.

The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009) (v) * - Promising opening.

Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009) * - Like Star Trek: enjoyable to watch, depressing to think about. Take (1): This is the Batman movie for people who found The Dark Knight to be too dark, too gloomy, and too serious. Take (2): There's something desperate about a movie that's trying to be so up to date, but, at the same time, is driven by character dynamics taken from an 80-year-old play and has taken its trappings from 10-20 year old super-hero comics. I much prefer a more straightforwardly "square" entertainment (like National Treasure).

The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth, 2003) (v) *** - The key movie for unlocking Lars von Trier?

The Perfect Human (Jorgen Leth, 1967) (v) ***

Gomorra (Matteo Garrone, 2008) (v) ***

Funny People (Judd Apatow, 2009) (v) * - Apatow seems to diminish as a director with each movie. Funny People feels haphazardly put together: there doesn't seem to be too much logic of how he puts shots together and his reliance on improvisation means that scenes often feel like a reel of "highlights" instead of organic conversations. That said, Apatow is attempting to delve into Albert Brooks territory here and there are some great moments when Apatow-the-writer doesn't let Apatow-the-director do him in. Plus, Adam Sandler is very good.

Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, 2008) (v) * - The first two Christmases are pretty funny, but then it seems to sputter out. And the insightful humor is eventually done in by the clich├ęd, sitcom-y humor.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001) (v) (r) ****

Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, 2008) ** - Nicely done, in some respects (I loved the recreation of Welles' Caesar), but a lot to quibble with, in others. The main problem, as I see it, is one of casting: Christian McKay "does" a great Orson Welles, but he is about ten years too old for the part. A small detail that changes a lot. For one thing, part of what made Welles so special was that he was so young. For another, the film sets up Welles as a sexual rival with a young actor played by Zac Efron, and the age difference seems to skew how this plays out, so it's all more conventional than it should have been.

Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer, 1955) (v) *** - Some thoughts, here.

Key:

(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon