Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Radical Strategy for Critical Times

The filmmakers behind THE MATRIX and V FOR VENDETTA have teamed with the German art house director of RUN LOLA RUN and PERFUME to independently finance a project that is so hard to classify they've released a five and a half minute trailer AND a two and a half minute directors' introduction to help market it. The film is called CLOUD ATLAS, and it's based on David Mitchell's Bookman Prize winning novel of the same name.

This is the first film from the Wachowskis since 2008's SPEED RACER, a campy and possibly unfairly maligned adaptation of Tatsuo Yoshida's popular anime series. Because of the diminishing returns on their films since MATRIX RELOADED and the indisputably noncommercial plot flow of Mitchell's book, the creators of one of the most popular and profitable sci-fi franchises of all time were refused backing by every studio who would take a meeting with them. As the filmmakers explain in their video introduction to the trailer, practically everything about the project was met with suspicion: studio bosses shook their heads at the idea of three directors at the helm; marketing directors shrugged at the concept of multiple actors of varying racial heritage cast in the same roles; sales execs fretted a script that combined not just one or two genres, but seemingly all genres.

Risky? Sure. But it's not like they entered these meetings with nothing.

For one, they had a script endorsed by the novelist of an award winning best seller. They also had a dream cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and established box office champs including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving.
Still, no backing.

Emboldened to persevere, the filmmakers scraped together one hundred million dollars in independent funding and convinced Warner Brothers to agree to a partial distribution deal for the finished film. At the time of this writing, CLOUD ATLAS is set to open in 20 countries in the space between October 26th and March 22nd, and the success or failure of this film will cause shock waves in the front offices of Hollywood for years to come. I, for one, hope it succeeds.

Aside from the track record established by Terrence Malick's successful TREE OF LIFE, there are other dream projects that became wildly profitable when the filmmaker's vision met at the intersection of popular opinion and critical acclaim. Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW springs to mind. But there are many high quality films that challenged the accepted norms of cinema only to be met with crickets, so to speak. Darren Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN is only among the most recent examples of a highly concepted, richly acted and lavishly produced metaphysical epic to fail at the box office, despite all it had going for it. Even Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER was considered a flop in its day.

But it would be nice if the audience for this film actually showed up opening night to see it, because a sold box office performance would send a message to the powers that be that sci-fi fandom wants thought-provoking material. How are we going to escape bad sequels and hastily written scripts if we keep rewarding the studios that produce them with box office dollars? They'll certainly not get the message if we don't show up for the good films. The only thing that studio bosses understand is formula. The purchase, production and marketing budgets are dictated by projections, and projections are based on recent track records of comparable titles. I say we make their jobs more difficult by staying away from formulaic fodder and supporting originality. Maybe that will compel them to consider quality an asset. How's that for radical?

Monday, September 10, 2012

For Mature Readers

The last two weeks saw the release of the third installments of the first two titles to kick-off the Before Watchmen line. Both comics were devised at the keyboard of writer Darwyn Cooke, who handled illustration as well on MINUTEMEN, while tasking Amanda Connor with art duties on SILK SPECTRE.

Three issues into it, these titles still represent the high watermark for the entire relaunch campaign, making it a shame that we are limited to six and four issues, respectively.

In MINUTEMEN #3, the story turns a bit nasty as The Comedian gets another chance to show his true colors–and is seemingly rewarded for it. The Silhouette's romantic life is revealed and the division between the real heroes and the publicity mongers widens. Cooke is once again dead-on in capturing a vintage feel that seems more inspired by the pulps than by the comics. His narrative is multidimensional and sophisticated without being verbose or pretentious. This is honest-to-goodness storytelling at its best.

With SILK SPECTRE #3, the summer of love comes to a violent conclusion with a clever cameo from The Comedian, but not before supplying copious amounts of hippy sex and nudity. If you'd have bet me that a teenaged Silk Spectre in the hands of Cooke & Conner would be the most salacious title in a Before Watchmen line that includes Brian Azzarello penned adventures of Rorschach and The Comedian, an Adam Hughes rendering of Dr. Manhattan, and Jae Lee's vision of Ozymandias, I'd have lost money. Of course if you'd told me that SILK SPECTRE was going to be one of the best books in that line, I'd have never believed that, either.

For some reason, I've not been paying attention to the number of issues granted each series, and it bums me out that we'll be getting only four issues of SILK SPECTRE and RORSCHACH, while being force-fed six issues of OZYMANDIAS. Maybe we'll get lucky and Len Wein will quit the reboots like he quit the original series, and Jae Lee will get a real writer worthy of his extraordinary talents. I'm glad that NITE OWL has been limited to four issues, as there has barely been enough of him in his own title to warrant much more, but judging from the superb DR. MANHATTAN I'll be missing a longer JMS script on that. I'd rather read six issues of RORSCACH than the COMEDIAN, but maybe those extra forty+ pages will give Azzarello and J.G. Jones the space they need to bring Eddie Blake's story back home. What started as cameo-laden mess has gotten more textured and I'm willing to stick it out.

Speaking of which, it seemed like fans of Grant Morrisson's FLEX MENTALLO would be tasked with tracking down the very expensive back issues of that seminal series forever, but sixteen years later and in a svelte $23 hardcover, DC finally reprinted it. My Amazon pre-order took an inexplicable month to arrive (as did my INVISIBLES omnibus), so I missed the rather unfriendly review that The Comics Journal posted back at the start of August. That didn't stop me from replying, however, so if you want to read my opinion of their review, you can click here.

FLEX was Morrison's first collaboration with artist Frank Quitely, and was the first book in the author's hypersigil trilogy that also includes THE INVISIBLES and THE FILTH. The impact of breaking the fourth wall begun with ANIMAL MAN was further twisted with this highly original take on what was in essence a proto-meme: the Charles Atlas ad. False history taken as fact mixed with other chaos magick elements like sigils and recontextualization make the Man of Muscle Mystery an important chapter in the annals of the greater comcidom.
The fact that it's so enjoyable to read, too, is a great bonus.

And if some of the salaciousness of SILK SPECTRE comes under fire, DC can always redirect that attention from their Before Watchmen line to their new National Comics line and this amazing LOOKER cover, penciled by Guillem March. Looker was created by Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo as a frequent ally of The Outsiders who went vampiric, became a talk show host, and apparently survived a satellite bombing by Talia al Ghul before re-entering DC continuity as a sanctioned agent of Batman Incorporated. This new version of Looker is a psionic vampire supermodel. The interior art by Mike S. Miller reminds me of the Luna Brothers and their work on ULTRA. The story is pure escapism, so as a one-shot, I think it succeeds. At the very least, it should get fanboys acquainted with Guillem's previous work on CATWOMAN or GREEN LANTERN: NEW GUARDIANS. I, for one, am excited for more March.

If you want to pick up an original published drawing by this talented Spanish artist, he's just launched a crowd-funded sketchbook project that allows you to dictate the pose of your favorite scantily clad heroine.

For mature readers, indeed!