Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Stuff That Has Been Done

Hey, all, I know it SEEMS like it's been pretty quiet lately, but 1) I've been out of town enjoying a bit of hooky before the quarter begins and I have to return to the classroom and, 2) I haven't been completely slacking.

I am now a semi-regular contributor to Alan David Doane's resurrected Trouble With Comics group blog. Although I don't manage to answer every week's discussion question, I am trying to be more consistent about it. (I'm very inconsistent about it.) This week's question was the intentionally ambiguous "Do comics matter?" to which I provided a long and rambling answer that probably ranges a bit further afield than Alan was expecting. Oh well! (I will hopefully remember to put CBG in the blogroll at some point in the near future . . . ) You can also read the rest of the replies by scanning down this page - a good Murderers' Row of old-school comics blogging talent, and a stimulating half-hour-or-so of reading.

Also, in case you forgot, I'm still doing my part over at the AV Club's Comics Panel. Some week's are more eventful than others, but the most fun weeks (for me at least) are the weeks were I get to savage something crappy (which really should come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog for longer than five minutes). Most of the reviews on the site are fairly positive - the people involved, by and large, use the format to shine a light on good books that deserve a wider audience or serious attention. Me being me, however, I still try to sneak in the occasional brutal takedown. Which is to say - take a look at this week's edition, where I go hard on the motherfucking paint against two unspeakably awful books of celebrity "cartooning." Seriously, when you see these books in your local big-box bookseller store this Christmas shopping season, take a moment to sit down and flip through them. You need to see for yourself. I don't know if words can do justice to just how . . . not good these books are, and it was a true pleasure and an honor to rip them to shreds.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Very Important Poll

Did Batman totally kill those guys or what?
Yes, he was joking about the shark repellent because there was no way he could have known whether or not poor local fisherman had effective instantaneous shark repellent on them at all times.
No, he somehow knew they really did have shark repellent and would be able to use it quickly enough to stop the sharks who were only about 5-10 yards away from the overturned boat
Poll Maker

Friday, September 04, 2015

Legends of the Dork Knight

"Venom" by Dennis O'Neil, Trevor Von Eeden, Russell Braun, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

After two storylines that could fairly be ranked with among the best Batman stories of the period, if not ever ("Gothic" and "Prey"), all the momentum that Legends of the Dark Knight had built by its second year came screeching to a halt in the pages of "Venom." This happened despite the killer art team of Trevor Von Eeden, Russell Braun, and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez working together to produce five issues of excellent adventure cartooning with an Alex Toth feel. The reason for this dramatic car crash can only be laid at the foot of one man, and it's a familiar name: Dennis O'Neil, longtime Batman writer and editor, and the writer of the first LotDK arc, the strange and underwhelming "Shaman."

It was easy to be kind to "Shaman," even if the story was a mess, because it was clear that O'Neil was striking out into relatively virgin territory. "Venom" suffers considerably for being a mess that comes on the heels of two very good stories that successfully mapped the space where interesting Batman stories could be told in this format. But over and above the fact that the story itself is a mess, its premised on a central idea so singularly, spectacularly awful that there's very little even the best creators could have done to salvage it - and we know this for a fact because we've got the dream team of Von Eeden, Braun, and Garcia-Lopez working their collective asses off to polish this turd. (I really don't want to undersell the art - it's gorgeous, but all for naught.)

Not to beat around the bush, the problem here is simple: "Venom" is the story where Batman gets hooked on drugs.

One year previous, Captain America had suffered through his own drug problem, in the pages of the thoroughly odd "Streets of Poison" storyline that ran from Captain America #373-378. Even though the story itself may have been problematic, the motivation behind "Streets of Poison" was sound. The prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in athletics first became a major public health concern in the late 80s and early 90s. (Anabolic steroids weren't even illegal until 1990, at which point they were added to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act.) This side skirmish of the "War on Drugs" was notable at least partly for the fact that steroid use was seen as popular among a far different demographic than that which had previously been targeted by law enforcement for drug abuse in the 80s - white middle class young men, to say nothing of wealthy professional athletes. It was difficult to make the argument that steroids were as harmful as other narcotics when the people who used steroids were often successful, sexy, and wealthy.

Mark Gruenwald, then in the middle of his lengthy run on Captain America, recognized a problem in the makeup of Marvel's star-spangled hero: Cap's origin was, basically, steroids. In order to address this, "Streets of Poison" inserted Cap into the "War on Drugs" in a most unusual way. While becoming involved with street-level enforcement against drug smugglers, Cap was caught in an explosion during which he inhaled a massive amount of Ice. Ice, for those who aren't "in the know" on their street drug talk, is a real drug, a nasty stimulant with effects similar to methamphetamine crossed with cocaine. Not knowing that he had inhaled enough of the stuff to kill a horse, Cap spent the next couple days running around New York, getting progressively more erratic and dangerous, until finally being caught and given a total blood transfusion in order to clear the effects of the drug from his system. This had the salutary effect of cleaning the Super Soldier Serum out of his body, leaving him at slightly less than peak capacity but feeling better for the fact that he was no longer quite so much of a walking billboard for steroid use aimed directly at the children of America.

(It should be noted that this development had to be walked back just a few years later, when Gruenwald established in the "Fighting Chance" storyline that the remnants of the Serum in his system were slowly killing him. At the beginning of Mark Waid's run he received another total blood transfusion, this time from from the Red Skull [in Cap's cloned body], that restored the serum with no more deleterious side effects, where it had remained until very recently. A year ago Rick Remender again drained the Serum from Cap's body, this time with the effect of allowing the decades of aging which the Serum had mooted to rush back all at once, making him a frail old man, albeit one who still manages to get stuff done.)

(Also: "Streets of Poison" is very goofy in places - Cap does a chicken dance at one point - but it has much to recommend it. It's something of a follow-up to Frank Miller's run on Daredevil, using a b-plot to pit the Kingpin against the Red Skull for some portion of the New York drug trade. Also, it was the first use of Bullseye since the character had been sidelined in Daredevil #200 [not by Miller himself, but none other than Dennis O'Neil, still cleaning up loose ends from Miller's run], when Bullseye was hospitalized after a definitive beating at DD's hands. As strange as it might seem now, Bullseye was out of commission for over five years at the time, so his breaking out of jail to kill Cap was a pretty big deal. Also, while high on Ice Captain America beats Daredevil so badly that he literally spent six months as an amnesiac in his own book. I don't believe Cap ever apologized for that?)

In any event, as awkward in execution as these kinds of anti-drug "after-school special" stories may have been, "Streets of Poison" at least managed to finish up without seriously compromising Cap's character in any way. He was involuntarily dosed and lost his mind, but he got better and everything wrapped up with a nice anti-drug message (except for poor Daredevil, who received a severe traumatic brain injury which no one else seemed too worried about). "Venom" tries mightily for the level of plausibility of "Streets of Poison." It fails from the very beginning, when Batman willingly begins taking performance enhancing substances.

You can do a lot with Batman, as his over seventy-five years of continued publication should make abundantly clear. But there are a few no-no's about which I think most readers and creators would agree: Batman doesn't kill (except in the movies when he does all the time, sadly), Batman doesn't use firearms, Batman never gives up, and - this one should noy even need to be said - Batman doesn't take drugs.

The story concocts circumstances under which, the logic goes, we are to believe Batman is brought face-to-face with his biological limitations in such a significantly traumatic way as to baffle his better judgment. The story begins with Batman failing to save a little girl from drowning, due to his inability to lift a giant boulder blocking an underground tunnel. This is a bummer, admittedly. He later pulls a muscle lifting weights and gets beat up by some thugs who wouldn't normally have presented much of a problem, but he's having an off day. All of these actions themselves are fine: failure to save an innocent life would certainly spur Batman on to work harder, and it's been shown in the past that a tendency to push himself past human limitations is one of his few weaknesses. But even here - even in Legends of the Dark Knight's continuity-lite "One Year Later+" time frame - I can't believe for so much a single second that any Batman, ever, under any circumstances, would do what Batman does on the page above.

Getting Batman hooked on drugs is just part of a larger plan on the part of the above doctor, Randolph Porter (the father of the aforementioned dead girl) and retired General Timothy Slaycroft to develop a drug that will enable the United States to field an army of, well, super soldiers. If you guessed that Porter is a bad dude just from that page, congratulations, you're smarter than Batman, who should have figured out Porter wasn't playing with a full deck when he didn't really seem upset at the news that his daughter had drowned in the sewers as the result of a kidnapping plot designed to get at his designer drugs. (It's implied he was in on the plot, concocted with the purpose of bringing Batman into their orbit.) General Slaycroft isn't a nice person either, which we know because he eventually sacrifices his son Lil' Timmy Slaycroft Jr. to be a guinea pig for more of Porter's drug testing. (We later find out, incidentally, that Slaycroft killed his wife because she was coddling Timmy, so, you know, evil military guy.)

After being asked by Porter to murder James Gordon in exchange for another dose of pills, Batman finally realizes he's made a big mistake. And here we see Batman's idea of rehab, which involves locking himself in the basement for 31 days. Not 28, not 30, but 31 exactly. At which point Bruce emerges from having spent a month in the cave with six month's beard and hair growth, which is pretty impressive. The story tells us that the time spent detoxing from Venom and recovering physically was six months. Meaning there was a six month period right at the start of Batman's career where he disappeared. No one ever mentions this again, even though technically it should bring the series firmly into the territory of "Year Two" (but please God let us hope we never actually get to Year Two.)

From here, Batman has to track down Porter and Slaycroft after they flee the country, heading to a small Caribbean island named Santa Prisca (previous introduced by O'Neil during his run on The Question). But at this point you're just reading out of a sense of obligation. Even the promise of Batman fighting a shark can only do so much to salvage this mess. But since we're here, let's look at this shark fight, anyway. (Again, it's about as beautiful as a shark fight can possibly be - it's not the artists' fault this story is so awful.)

Upon reaching Santa Prisca, Batman's plane is shot down by an RPG. Alfred - still wearing his butler's tuxedo, because why not - is captured by General Slaycroft soon after. They tie Alfred to stakes far enough off the beach to represent a significant swim, but not before cutting his feet and ankles to attract sharks.

Do you see the problem? Please tell me you see the problem.

Remember earlier when I said there was a hard-and-fast list of things that Batman should never do. What was the first thing on that list. The very first thing, even above taking drugs. You can scan back to look, it's OK, I'll wait.

Batman doesn't kill. Except when it's a couple Hispanic fishermen who tried to hit Alfred with an oar, apparently, in which case it is totally acceptable to feed them to hungry sharks. Even better if you do so while making a "shark repellent" joke, because oh boy there's nothing we like to do more than remind ourselves about how much better and more mature we are than Batman '66.

At this point in the story we've seen Batman become a junky and feed people to sharks. Lovingly rendered, sure, but seriously. The worst part is, it's not even done yet. Batman is captured by the bad guys after being clobbered by Lil' Timmy (who has been turned into a giant monster), and is then locked in a room with the world's worst deathtrap. What makes this deathtrap so terrible, you ask?

Batman is locked in a room with a leaky pipe that will fill the room with water in exactly two days. In order to open the airtight door that will release the water and allow Batman to survive, he has to be able to pull down a chain to open an 800-pound steel door, which he will only be able to physically accomplish unless he takes more Venom. But hey, they left Batman in a locked room for two days, I'm sure he could never think his way out of this problem.

But hey, turns out that even though Batman is smart, he's still not that smart. Do you see the problem with his plan?

It's a simple problem, really. He's making more work for himself than he needs to. He doesn't have to open the door a crack and then rush out before it slams shut again. He's racing against rising waters, so all he needs to do is open the door enough for the water to drain. After that, one of two things will happen: either someone will come into the room to figure out why the hallway is filled with water (at which point he can beat them up and get out that way, because he's Batman), or he'll have enough time to chisel out another block or three to to add to the counterweight. As it is, he ends up almost getting cut in half by the falling door because he's a nimrod. (And boy, it's a good thing that extraordinarily sturdy table wasn't Ikea, hey?)

So then it's just a matter of capturing the bad guys, etc. But there's one more plot point I should mention, just in case you were worried there wasn't another remarkably stupid thing hiding out in this remarkably stupid story. Here we see Porter and Slaycroft (which would be a great name for a 70s soft rock duo) relaxing in their villa, not too worried that Batman is somewhere out in the surrounding jungle.

Do you see what they did there? Think about the time frame for a minute: "Venom" was released in 1991. By that time, according to post-Crisis math, Batman had been in operation since the early 1980s, the period in which this story is set. If you remember our previous discussion of Cloak & Dagger, you should recall that crack cocaine first rose to prominence in the United States in the mid-80s. So even though Denny O'Neil doesn't say it directly, the implication is pretty obvious: in the DC Universe, crack cocaine was the product of the same mad scientist who created the super-steroid Venom.

Good times, good times.

Strangely enough for such a singularly irredeemable story, "Venom" would go on to have significant consequences for the regular-continuity Bat-books. "Venom" was published in mid-1991, and in late 1992 DC introduced a new villain named Bane. Bane was designed as the ultimate "anti-Batman," a formidably smart and strong character who comes to Gotham in 1993 for the express purpose of defeating Batman. This storyline became "Knightfall," the most important Batman story of the decade (please note I didn't say "best," although I do think it holds up pretty well, and Bane remains one of my favorite villains). Bane's origin ties into "Venom" in two ways: one, he's a native of Santa Prisca, and two - at least at the outset of his story - he's addicted to Venom. (Strangely, Bane eventually detoxes from Venom using a method similar to Batman's: after "Knightfall," in Vengeance of Bane II, he's sent to Blackgate Prison, at which point he suffers greatly from Venom withdrawal. He's thrown into solitary confinement for a couple month . . . and uses that time in the hole to reshape his body and mind. He would remain sober for the remainder of pre-Flashpoint continuity.)

Just like Superman needed to kill a guy just to "get it out of his system" at the start of his career, Batman needed to try drugs just to see what would happen. That's the story logic behind "Venom." Also, it's totally cool to throw brown people to sharks if they commit the cardinal sin of trying to hit your butler with an oar. For someone with decades of experience working on Batman stories, Denny O'Neil somehow has very little understanding of how Batman should operate. Even though this is still the young, untested Batman of "Year One" (a premise that is, again, stretched pretty hard by the six month gap here), it is still well nigh inconceivable that any Batman would ever do many the things he is depicted as doing in this story. What the fuck, man.

What the fuck.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Ten Best Music Videos of All Time

Hey, Pitchfork put up some crappy list that people are whining about. Don't pay attention to those lists, it just encourages them. Here's a better, far more objective list:

10. Roxy Music - Avalon

Hello, my name is Bryan. These are my friends. When the samba takes you out of nowhere, you must be ready. In order to be ready, you must wear a tuxedo at all times. Do you see the other people in the band? You must not look at the other people in the band. They do not know how to talk to people, not like you and me, my friend. Do you like my falcon? It has been highly trained. Twirl as if your life depends.

9. Pavement - Carrot Rope

What are you doing, you scamps. Scampering around in your yellow raincoats. SCAMPER.

8. Bananarama - Cruel Summer

OK, girls. You're in New York. You are mechanics. You work at a service station. Sometimes. You don't have to know how to do anything with cars. Yes, it's possible you might not even know how to drive a car, from the way you seem to be interacting with the car in the video. It doesn't matter. You are in New York and when you're not working on cars you are skipping around. You don't need to skip, just do this little stutter step thing that sort of looks like you maybe practiced it but really you didn't because it's OK whatever, just throw some banana peels, because you're BANANArama, get it? Tease it. Tease it some more.

7. Kool Moe Dee - Wild Wild West

Imagine for a moment that this is the first time in your life you've ever been exposed to hip hop music. It's 1987 and you're watching MTV and suddenly this video comes on and you don't know what it is, but you like it, and you want more of it. FOr the rest of your life that's what hip hop is in your mind, mechanical cowboy music. And then this happened.

6. The Replacements - Bastards of Young

The audience for the video is people who are into alternative rock. I would say that the age of the audience varies from a teen age to a mid-adult age. The song is very simple and does not have a lot of movement or emotion during the video. It mainly comprises of the speaker and a guy who is sitting on a couch smoking some cigarettes. However, towards the end of the video the guy gets up and kicks his speaker, then walks out the door. The audience for the video would have to be people who are somewhat inspired to be punk rockers who don’t follow the mainstream music. I would say that the audience for the song would be people who are interested in hard-edge music and often has views not conforming with society and how things are run. The audience would be people who are in the young age because the song is edgy with an upbeat tone and man who looks fairly young. On the other hand, the song is in black and white and has pictures of being somewhat old so it may appeal to the mid-age. I would say that the audience that listens to the band has to be an older audience because of the vulgar language involved in the video. Overall, the audience appeals to alternative-punk rock mid-aged adults and teens.

5. Peter Gabriel - Sledgehammer

Peter Gabriel was born in Thistle-On-Downshire, Bottomsly Court, Mivern, in the Year of Our Lord 1823. He worked in a coal mine until the Reform Bill passed at which point he learned how to play the flute in a traveling carnival. He played flute for that carnival for over one hundred years, before finding a basket with a baby Phil Collins hanging from the branch of a tall tree. Phil Collin was not a child like normal men. He was a tiny man from the moment of his creation, and only grew larger, not older. When Peter Gabriel found him in his basket Phil Collins was eighteen inches tall, and now he is nine feet tall.

4. Bone Thugs N Harmony - Tha Crossroads

We all have to live with the fact that when we die, no one will love us enough to make anything 1/100th as awesome as this video to commemorate our passing.

3. Beach House - Wishes

What's that, you say? It's been 25 years? It's time to leave the Black Lodge and ride the wind once more? Prepare my stallion.

2. The Chemical Brothers - Elektrobank

Spike Jonze and Sophia Coppola used to be married. That means, at some point, they probably had sex. I wonder if, at the time of the filming of this video, they had done so. "You see, daddy, I was able to get something out of the ten years of gymnastics you paid for. I did this techno video. I danced for you, daddy. Listen to me, daddy. Love me, daddy. I'm sorry I ruined your movie. I'm sorry. It was a long time ago daddy. Please." "It's OK, I'm totally not marrying you in an effort to try to steal your father's spirit, once removed. No, this is not a ceramic pot designed for the purpose of trapping souls, why do you ask?" If Sophia Copolla had directed this video, all you would see would be the gymnist, played by Kirsten Dunst because why not, looking in the mirror in the locker room with a blank look on her face. She's listening to her Discman and you hear the beginning of "Elektrobank." But she does not like dance music, so she takes out the CD and and replaces it with Television's Marquee Moon. And then you would hear "See No Evil" begin. Kirsten Dunst would stand there looking at her face in the mirror, motionless, with her headphones on, for the entire running time of Marquee Moon, which is 45:54. Then when "Torn Curtain" was over Kirsten would slowly turn her head in the mirror to look into the camera. A single tear rolls down her cheek. ELEKTROBANK. Cut to black.

1. Unsane - Scrape











Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Munchausen Weekend

Trainwreck (2015)

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust." - T.S. Eliot
It was around hour fourteen of the two-hour screening of Trainwreck that I noticed something peculiar. Amy Schumer's face doesn't really move. It's strange, really. She appears to have the same expression whether she's laughing, or weeping, or thinking, or having sex. One must assume that this is a deliberate choice.

The most dangerous moment in any comedian's career is that moment when, flush with the first intimation of success, they recognize that in order to further their career it may be necessary to make the leap into films. Some, such as those who find great success in television, wisely never feel the need to stake their careers on such a potentially fraught transition. Those who do feel this need, however, soon realize that the skills necessary to succeed on TV and the stage do not necessarily translate to the silver screen. You can build a TV show around a stand-up act. You can't necessarily do that with a movie.

There's nothing like seeing a two-hour vehicle for a television comedian on the big screen to convince you that not everyone is meant to be a movie star. What might seem amusing or even perceptive in twenty-minute chunks becomes grating and dull stretched out to cinematic proportions. This is particularly true if you are a stand-up with a distinct persona that allows little room for elaboration or digression. Richard Pryor, even given the fact that much of his movie career was flawed, was nonetheless a very versatile performer whose comedic talents enabled him to succeed in multiple kinds of roles.

Amy Schumer, you are no Richard Pryor.

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." - Oscar Wilde
It hasn't been a good couple months for Ms. Schumer. Although the premiere of the third season of Inside Amy Schumer was met with characteristic fanfare, a backlash was in the offing. Although she has been lauded for presenting a staunchly feminist voice at a time when such voices are rare in the mainstream entertainment industry, her meteoric rise also coincided with a number of corollary developments in the field of feminism, and leftist politics in general.

Much of the criticism amounts to an interrogation of privilege: if one accepts that Schumer's comedy is at least putatively feminist in nature, doesn't it seem questionable that many of her jokes seem predicated on racial or ethnic stereotypes? Is feminism an idea that belongs to upper-middle-class white women at the expense of, well, every other type of woman? The defense for much of her racial humor has often been that the jokes are supposed to be read as an indictment of her stage persona - that is, the clueless judgmental pseudo-bimbo whose words reveal more about her prejudices than about the supposed subject of her jokes. The problem with this construction is that even if you accept this rationale on face value, you must still acknowledge that she is able to get away with saying these jokes in the first place because of her privileged position as a pretty white woman being paid a lot of money to tell jokes about other, less privileged demographics. The supposed sincerity of her desire to lampoon herself or her own demographic does nothing to efface the fact that she can frame her self-criticism in such racialized language because of her position of relative privilege.

This isn't a merely academic issue. (Or rather, it is a very academic issue, at least for me.) In Spring of this year I taught an introductory class on feminism. It turned out really well, actually, despite my natural trepidation. The most depressing aspect was how few students in the class - women especially - had ever actually encountered feminist ideas or literature. The most encouraging aspect was the number of students who told me how much they learned from the class, how much they enjoyed it, and how much of it they'll take with them going forward. I change up the topic of my Composition classes every quarter - to keep myself interested as much as anything - and this is the first time I have ever had students tell me that they thought I should teach this same class again.

I tried to structure the class at least somewhat inclusively. We began with fairly standard feminist texts: Sylvia Plath's poetry and A Vindication of the Rights of Women, as well as the slightly leftfield Margaret Cavendish, and even Jane Austen. (Persuasion is really fascinating in an explicitly feminist context.) But in the last third of the class I tried to introduce the concept of intersectionality, to get away from the idea of feminism as the exclusive province of the white upper-middle-class. Se we read Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye for two examples of trying to read feminism outside of the context of, well, people other than white upper-middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.

One sour note, in hindsight at least, is the fact that - for a contemporary representation of feminist discourse - I played the class an episode of Inside Amy Schumer. To my discredit I presented the episode fairly uncritically, noting her critique of rape culture (and providing a definition of rape culture) and beauty standards. But what I didn't pay enough attention to at the time was something that sticks out like a giant red flag to me now: all the sketches exclusively featured white upper-middle-class women, except for the "Milk-Milk-Lemonade" video, which presents WOC as voiceless dancers shaking their asses. Again, it's not hard to see how this is "satire," but it's also not hard to see that this "satire" still places the WoC in the position of being passive objects in the discourse of white feminism. I didn't call this out at the time and I deeply regret it.

In any event, even though - in fairness - Schumer herself never actually asked to be considered a role model or feminist spokesperson, she has still found herself in the unenviable position of being one of the most prominent outspoken feminists in the entertainment industry. Despite what Charles Barkley might say, putting yourself out in the media has consequences, and being taken seriously is one of them.

"When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." - Friedrich Nietzsche
Trainwreck was directed by Judd Apatow. This is an important fact to remember, especially if - like me - you walk into a movie advertised as a comedy expecting to see a comedy.

In the years since his initial successes (The Forty-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up), Apatow has fallen into the grip of the delusion that he is a filmmaker of some gravity. His last three films - Funny People, This is Forty, and Trainwreck - while advertised as comedies, would more accurately be described as exercises in public encopresis. They are messy movies that, you suspect, are meant to be messy, which doesn't make the process of watching them any less unpleasant.

I admit I have a soft spot for Funny People, for a couple reasons. One, I'm a sucker for the "comedians are really sad" genre. The movie is built around Adam Sandler playing an Adam Sandler-esque comedian who recognizes that he hasn't been legitimately funny in a very long time, but keeps signing up for progressively more idiotic "family" movies because the paychecks are simply too big. It was an adept performance in a saggy movie, one that actually succeeds in tempering my disgust at Sandler's latter day output with the acknowledgement that, at least on some level, Sandler recognizes that he inhabits a hell of his own making. The movie is overlong, poorly edited, thematically scattershot and rarely funny, but it was at least interesting.

So, despite the fact that Trainwreck is ostensibly an Amy Schumer vehicle, it is primarily a Judd Apatow film, one which slots in nicely with all his other "growing up" movies. The plot, such as it is, is pure Apatow: Schumer plays a woman with a permanent case of arrested development, having taken her father's resentful attitudes towards the impracticality of monogamy to heart. The one mildly - well, not "interesting," but at least relatively novel - idea is that the movie presents an inversion of the conventional romantic comedy formula. Schumer is the irresponsible, irrepressible wild child who actually does seem to be enjoying her life before running into a dour, slightly stuffy but somehow (I'm not sure how?) charming Responsible Adult (Bill Hader, playing against type) who convinces her that settled domesticity is the hip scene.

Did I mention the movie is two hours long?

There are two conflicting drives here. On the one hand, the movie wants to be a showcase for Schumer's comedy. Politics notwithstanding, she is (or can be) a talented stand-up with an ear for timing and confident stage presence. None of that is on display here. But even if that's what the movie wants to be, what it actually is is a Judd Apatow dramedy about the need to grow up and the selfishness of maintaining youthful pursuits past the societally-sanctioned deadline for domestic settlement. The result is a movie where the comedic elements float atop a rather turgid family drama like a wad of tissue on the placid surface of a clogged toilet.

To Apatow's credit, he's able to fill the movie with a number of talented actors and comedians who do their best to overcome his shortcomings as a director, and Schumer's shortcomings as a leading lady. It would be fair to say that Schumer has no screen presence whatsoever. This is a problem considering that she is onscreen and the center of focus for almost every scene. Surrounding her with supporting players like Vanessa Beyer, Brie Larson, and Tilda Swinton - motherfucking Tilda Swinton! - hammers home at every turn the fact that every other woman in the film would make a more interesting, appealing, and convincing lead than Schumer herself. Whatever may make her an appealing presence on stage or TV just disappears - vanishes in a wisp of smoke - the moment she steps onscreen.

Apatow's attitude towards directing is, at least in theory, generous to his actors. He is fond of setting up a camera and letting his actors go, unhurriedly, without a lot of quick cuts or distracting camera angles. In practice, this is a terrible way to film a comedy. The actors don't seem to have been given any kind of direction in terms of tempo, leaving many instances with two or more actors left to interact for extended periods of time without any perceptible acknowledgment of the passing of time. The laconic pace comes close in places to replicating a conversational feel, a creative decision which represents a tonal misjudgment of cyclopean proportions. Comedy, like horror, is all about pacing. Colin Quinn is someone who I usually enjoy seeing. But in this movie, he flops around like a fish onscreen, telling jokes without punchlines, comedic monologues without any laugh lines. He just . . . goes on, talking in a vaguely comedic way until the camera pans over to a delayed reaction shot from Schumer. It's depressing, which is fitting considering that Quinn's character is slowly dying of MS and finally kills himself with an overdose of smuggled pain medication. Which undercuts the humor considerably, but does provide a necessary beat in Schumer's character's growing-up narrative.

Some characters, like Beyer and Swinton, seem to think they're in a broad satire. Larson and Hader play the material completely straight. Method Man - motherfucking Method Man! - shows up with all of three lines, saddled with an over-the-top Caribbean accent for no discernable reason, but his interaction with Meyer at Colin Quinn's funeral kills. Barely three lines, but his joke at the funeral kills.

And while we're on the subject, Schumer's funeral oration for Quinn's character focuses on the fact that her father was an un-PC asshole who offended everyone he met, but was nevertheless remarkably funny and universally appealing, even to the black nurse who cared for him at the end of his life and whom he insulted on a daily basis (this is Method Man, incidentally). All of which is to say: it's OK for white people to be terribly racist and offensive if their hearts are in the right place. God bless them for telling it like it is. The world needs more of these blessed, brave souls.

One of the frustrating problems with Apatow's script and direction is that he's at least trying to do something interesting. For all the side characters and stereotypes that pass unremarked through most romantic comedies, he's trying to give them something in his movie, some kind of background or motivation or set-piece, all with the hopes of adding verisimilitude, some idea that this movie isn't taking place on an empty sound stage. You do walk away with a good feel - or at least familiarity - for many of the supporting characters in this movie, but this comes at the price of any coherence or forward momentum the movie may ever have had. By all means, give Dave Attell's witty homeless guy more lines. It won't hurt the movie at all to check in with him every half our or so to get his Hot Take on the action.

The most rounded and appealing characters in the movie are the stunt-cast athletes, John Cena, and especially LeBron James. Motherfucking LeBron James! He's not an experienced actor and his line readings are a bit stiff, but damn, he looks like he's a least having a good time! He's can tell a joke, and has good chemistry with Hader. He pokes fun at himself like a pro. Based solely on the evidence here, I can say with confidence that if James wanted a side career in the movies, he could do worse than emulating Jim Brown or Carl Weathers. He's got more screen presence than Amy Schumer by many orders of magnitude. If seeing Trainwreck has had one positive effect on my life, it has made me optimistic about the prospects of Space Jam 2.

(It does leave open the question, however, of just why LeBron James spends so much time hanging out in New York with Bill Hader, including apparently having free reign of Madison Square Garden and the Knicks' training facilities. And John Cena, while funny in his small part, is nonetheless saddled with a series of homophobic jokes that strongly imply that, because he actually cares about his relationship with his girlfriend and is not actively trying to sleep with other women, he must be gay.)

But everything else just brings us back to the gaping void at the center of this movie, one of the worst actresses who has ever been lucky enough to star in her own star vehicle, Amy Schumer. If this had been a different movie she might not have come out looking so badly. If this were actually, you know, a comedy, then maybe building a movie around Schumer's stand-up routine (as this one tries to do, complete with a recurring voiceover) wouldn't have been such a bad idea. As it is, the movie is left in the strange position of presenting a funny (or "funny") character in a series of progressively less funny circumstances.

Adam Sandler's career offers a refreshing contrast: instead of going for the gold with a heavy dramedy first time out of the gate, his first film was Billy Madison. That was a complete farce that summed up everything funny about Sandler's act up to that point in a neat 90-minute package that, wouldn't you know, has held up remarkably well. (Admit it, you still stop and laugh when you come across it on cable.) It was also, unfortunately, Sandler's peak, as every subsequent comedy would become an increasingly faded and increasingly more shrill photocopy of Billy Madison, and almost every decent attempt to stretch his acting chops would be undercut by terrible scripts (Spanglish, Funny People). (The exception being, of course, Punch Drunk Love, wherein Paul Thomas Anderson lit upon the brilliant idea of having Sandler play his trademark man-child comedy character in a realistic milieu, to tragicomic results. Who knows if Adam Sandler can actually act? Not me. But it really doesn't matter, because he's already insanely wealthy.) Schumer's attempts at acting are, frankly, embarrassing. There are a couple moments - as in, more than one - where we have to see a close up of her sphinx-link, never changing face crying. A single tear runs down her cheek, and her voice catches. You can almost hear, just offscreen, her acting coach mouth the words, "great job, Amy! You nailed it!"

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." - Abraham Lincoln
Schumer seems likely to follow in Sandler's lucrative footsteps. While not a blockbuster, Trainwreck has nonetheless proven quite successful. More Schumer vehicles are sure to follow. In a market woefully starved for female-driven comedies, she is sure to find great success.

Would it be too much to observe that Trainwreck is, like its namesake, a catastrophic accident leaving countless fatalities in its wake? This is Nick Cassavetes directing a John Cassavetes script - or is it the other way around? This is an attempt to make a serious movie about grown-up feelings, not so carefully constructed over the shaky foundations of a bawdy star vehicle.

This is a movie in which the most interesting performance is LeBron James. It ends with a musical dance number wherein Schumer performs with the Knicks City Dancers. Schumer's character, having been fired as a staff writer at a Maxim knock-off for attempted statutory rape and assault of the magazine's sixteen-year-old intern, is able to walk across town to a new job at Vanity Fair, which is happy to publish her hagiographical account of Bill Hader's career as superstar orthopedic surgeon to the stars. Matthew Broderick and Marv Albert show up, as themselves, in the last reel, just because. The best part of the movie - legitimately, no-caveats funny - is a movie-within-a-movie that recurs throughout the film, The Dogwalker, a black & white drama starring Daniel Radcliffe and Marisa Tomei. Radcliffe plays the titular dogwalker, brought back to life and love by Tomei. Why is this a thing?

In the end we're left with the question, why did I do this? Why did I willingly subject myself to this movie? Simple, really: Tuesdays are $5 days at the local multiplex.

I'll watch anything for $5.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Oh hey there

What's up? Not much, just chilling with my pal Alan, talking about Cerebus, as one does.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Sometimes I Feel So Deserted

It was a big week for comics over at the AV Club, for whose annual Comics Week I contributed a few articles of note to faithful readers.
I wrote a brief(ish) history of one my favorite superheroes, Ant-Man. Even at 2500 words there was still a lot I had to leave out.

I contributed five write-ups for this week's comics panel, dedicated to the week's theme of "Loser Superheroes." I think we each approached our entries differently - I went for the yuks, mostly. I supposedly got one of my editors to snort milk all over her keyboard, so there's that.

I interviewed one of my favorite comics people - and one of two great inspirations for this site (along with Abhay Khosla) - Jon Morris, in celebration of the release of his first book, The League of Regrettable Superheroes (which I also reviewed here a few weeks back). One thing I didn't get the chance to ask Jon about, because I only found out literally the day after the interview was posted, is that his book (or a special edition thereof) was selected for this month's Loot Crate. Given the type of sales boosts we usually see for Loot Crate orders in the Direct Market, I think its fair to say The League of Regrettable Superheroes is doing pretty well, and a sequel might not be entirely beyond the realm of possibility. Still, if you haven't purchased your copy yet, you should do so at your earliest opportunity.

Even though it's connection to comics is tangential at best, my review of The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker / Pinhead obituary was inexplicably published under the "Comics Week" banner as well. If you like my writing on Hellraiser - of which I am still the Comics Blogosphere's #1 Authority, lest ye forget - this one's for you.

And don't forget to check out my unfairly neglected exclusive excerpt of Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman, while you're at it. Personally, I don't understand the big controversy - makes sense to me.