Friday, December 23, 2016

True and Fake and On the Take

For All Mankind (1989): directed by Al Reinert: Extraordinary documentary selects from 7 million feet of footage from the Apollo missions to create a composite journey to and from the Moon. Beautiful, haunting, and often very funny. Really a must-see for anyone who's interested in space exploration. Kudos to Al Reinert for discovering this footage and putting it together -- it was just sitting around in a NASA storage compartment for two decades! Highly recommended.

Doom (2005): based on the game from iD software; written by David Callaham and Wesley Strick; directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak; starring Karl Urban (John Grimm), Rosamund Pike (Sam Grimm), and Dwayne Johnson (Sarge): Joyless slog hamstrung by the fact that it adapts the joyless slog of a videogame that was the Doom reboot of the early oughts rather than the awesome original Doom with its colourful demons. 

This is basically a dumb, boring zombie movie that lifts large sections of its plot and backstory from John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars. Karl Urban, Dwayne Johnson, and Rosamund Pike are utterly wasted. Visual effects thrills are few and far between, as much of the movie takes place in the dark and the monsters aren't very interesting. Mancubus, come back! Not recommended.

The Wedding Singer (1998): written by Tim Herlihy; directed by Frank Coraci; starring Adam Sandler (Robbie Hart), Drew Barrymore (Julia Sullivan), Christine Taylor (Holly Sullivan), and Matthew Glave (Glenn Guglia): Adam Sandler at the height of his erratic powers, Drew Barrymore at the height of her pert cuteness. In terms of enjoyable movies, this was the moment of Peak Sandler: what came after would be increasingly dire and regrettable. Recommended.

Eddie the Eagle (2016): vaguely based on a true story; written by Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay; starring Taron Egerton (Eddie Edwards), Hugh Jackman (Bronson Peary), and Christopher Walken (Warren Sharp): Feel-good movie very loosely based on English ski-jumper Eddie Edwards' improbable time at the Calgary Winter Games of 1988, when he jumped terribly while becoming a media sensation. Taron Egerton is charming as Edwards, while Hugh Jackman plays Edwards' (fictional) mentor as a slightly loopier Wolverine. Certainly an adequate time-filler when you need to turn your brain off for a couple of hours. Recommended.

Hail, Caesar! (2016): written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Tilda Swinton (Thora and Thessaly Thacker), Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney), and Jonah Hill (Joe Silverman): The Coens create something that's an odd combination of black comedy and nostalgic fun-fest, complete with big, Old Hollywood show-stopping dance and swim numbers. 

The movie makes a lot of sense if you view it as the warped Hollywood dream of protagonist Josh Brolin, who plays a 'fixer' for a fictional Hollywood studio during the 1950's. Part of the cue to seeing the movie as its own type of warped Hollywood version of reality is that the film takes its title from the film within the film, a big-budget slice of ham that looks an awful lot like Ben Hur

All the actors bring their A-games for the Coens. Brolin is terrific, Clooney is hilariously dumb and baffled, Channing Tatum dances, and Scarlett Johansson swims. Soon-to-be young Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich charms as a B-list cowboy star elevated to A-list, 'prestige picture' status. Look close for Christopher Lambert as a director and Frances McDormand as a chain-smoking film editor. One of a handful of 2016's cleverest, bleakest, most joyful movies. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Fall Guy for Murder: The Comics Horror and Noir of Johnny Craig

Fall Guy for Murder and Other Stories: Illustrated by Johnny Craig (The Fantagraphics EC Artists' Library Volume 5: 1951-53/ Collected 2013): edited by Gary Groth and Michael Catron; written by Johnny Craig, Ray Bradbury, Al Feldstein, and William M. Gaines; illustrated by Johnny Craig; essays by Bill Mason, S.C. Ringgenberg, and Ted White:

Johnny Craig was the artistic king of noir and the hard-boiled at EC Comics during that company's brief time of greatness in the early 1950's. His art was slick but evocative, and he could write his own stories as well as illustrate those of others. He was also notoriously slow as an artist, which makes his EC output a smaller body of work than contemporaries that include Wally Wood and Graham Ingels. But what work it was!

The Fantagraphics EC Artists' Library reprints its stories in black and white, which takes the gore quotient down a notch while allowing one to more clearly experience the art. The reader also gets helpful biographical and critical essays on Johnny Craig and the history of EC Comics.

Johnny Craig's most infamous EC cover
Highlights written and illustrated by Craig include "One Last Fling," about as loopy a vampire story as one could want. "Split Personality" offers a perverse story of dating and two-timing with a suitably bloody conclusion. "Silver Threads Among the Mold" has an extraordinarily goopy climax to end a sort-of Pygmalion-in-reverse story. 

"Touch and Go" adapts the Ray Bradbury story "The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl" in memorable fashion, though it goes a bit too wordy at times (EC Comics were intensely, immensely, densely wordy). The last, eponymous piece, "Fall Guy for Murder," was written by EC Publisher Bill Gaines and EC mainstay Al Feldstein. It's a brilliant twisty, metafictional piece of work that represents one of the high points for EC. 

The selection of stories is solid throughout. The reader may groan at times at the sarcastic, punny narration that appeared perhaps a bit too much in the EC books. But the overall effect is sound, beautifully rendered work -- the sort of thing that can still work as Comic Books for People Who Don't Like Comic Books, without losing any appeal to People Who Like Comic Books.

Throughout Fall Guy for Murder and Other Stories, Craig gives his all on art and stories. He's a marvelously 'clean' artist, which makes the moments of graphic horror all the more menacing. Highly recommended for fans of good comics and noir.