onsdag 29 februari 2012

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – how NOT to do action-thrillers

OK, so I went to the movies yesterday, which occasioned this unhappy little screed.

The Mission Impossible movie series featuring Tom Cruise has had a rather mixed history. The first film by Brian DePalma was a pretty good action movie with a solid plot, somewhat marred by too-glib dialogue among the supposedly incredibly professional IMF team introduced at the start of the movie, as well as by the fact that Tom Cruise just can't act. But still, worth seeing, and with that brilliant Mission Impossible theme.

The second movie was a mess, with John Woo stringing together overly aestethicized action scenes with a cursory plot, and it didn't help that Cruise can't act. It was watchable once on the big screen, but try re-viewing it on a TV screen; the paper-thin plot breaks almost immediately, and you've already seen the stunts, so what's left? Nothing.

The third one's OK. Some great action sequences, the best being the ones where Cruise has to work with very little resources to handle impossible situations, like when he's chained to a gurney under guard by several IMF agents, and still manages to escape. The love story between him and his fiancée is a bit too much on the syrupy side, but this movie works – even though there is some reason to doubt the tactical competence of somebody going in on a rescue mission with so little ammo that it comes down to having just one bullet left to kill the final bad guy. These people are experts? Really?

And then we have this latest installment, which simply sucks. Oh, the stunts and action scenes are well done, but even when they are, they're often not very good. The scriptwriter and the director have fallen into some oh-so-common traps that plague B movies and TV series; let's look at a couple of them.

First of all – and this is "first of all" because it indicates the lack of respect the film has for its own subject matter – it has a comic relief character. Now, in many teams of various sorts you'll find somebody who's the "comic relief" guy of the team, making jokes and lightening the mood. However, he'll not be providing comic relief by being incompetent at the actual job the team's supposed to be doing, because if he was, he wouldn't be in the team to begin with – especially if the team's job was one where failing at it would mean getting killed.

However, newly promoted field agent Benji Dunn provides "comic relief" not to his team, but for the movie, by being bad at his job. He babbles in English about all sorts of irrelevant stuff when he and Ethan Hunt infiltrate the Kremlin – and this error is compounded by having him state that he's babbling because he's nervous, an admission as good as any by the scriptwriter and the director that "we suck at our jobs, so we'll just have to tell the audience outright what we instead ought to be able to convey through dialogue and characterization". Not only that, but just before Dunn and Hunt start the final, dangerous part of the infiltration, he tells Hunt that "Look, I'm sorry about your wife".

So we learn that there is some tragedy related to Hunt's marriage, but this info comes at a cost to the movie. First, it establishes that Dunn is an idiot and that nobody in his right mind would want him with him on a mission. Second, it dilutes the tension of what should be an incredibly tense, exciting moment. It's right out of the Sloppy Scriptwriting Handbook – and there's more where that came from.

You also have the outright stupid moments, like at the very beginning, when elite IMF agent Trevor Hanaway is killed not really by assassin Sabine Moreau, but by his own mobile phone. See, after his daring escape from the bad guys with the nuclear launch codes which are the movie's MacGuffin, walking along a nearly empty street, he gets an alert signal from his cell phone's facial recognition app that the woman walking towards him is none other than assassin Sabine Moreau. What does this highly trained IMF agent do? He looks down at his cell phone. Seeing the "look out she's a killer ZOMG!" alert on its screen, he then looks up at the person he shouldn't have taken his eyes off, and gets the bullet he so richly deserves from her silenced pistol.

I mean, come on. You're basing your most dramatic scenes on incredibly unprofessional behavior by what's supposed to be the greatest secret agents, and crappily-designed software – I mean, that's hardly user-friendly, is it? So the Sloppy Scriptwriting Handbook strikes again.

All right, back to that Kremlin caper I was talking about. That mission is thwarted by the brilliant evil mastermind that is the movie's bad guy, Swedish physics professor Kurt Hendricks. Not only is Hendricks able to somehow (unexplained to the audience) sneak into the Kremlin and steal whatever he wants including nuclear launch codes, he has also the super-power (shared with the Joker of The Dark Knight) to place whatever amount of explosives he wants wherever he wants without anybody being able to detect it.

Kurt Hendricks is also a major problem in the movie. Not only is he, a middle-aged and somewhat paunchy physics professor, seemingly able to hold his own in a fight with a top-trained IMF agent (good grief), he also has a motivation for his evil deeds that is not even on the level of credibility of a James Bond villain – in fact, it doesn't even reach the level of "comic-book-y". It's like something out of a Menachem Golan movie.

In fact, that is pretty much what this is: a Menachem Golan movie. Its plot, script and internal consistency is pretty much right out of a Chuck Norris cheapo actioneer, albeit one with brilliant production values and excellent instead of cheesy stunts.

One of the few positive points is that the female lead, Paula Patton, is very, very beautiful – but true to form, her supposedly highly trained and professional elite agent character doesn't have the common sense to handcuff a deadly assassin she's apprehended. This somewhat later results in what I'm sure the film makers considered another exciting fight sequence when in fact, all it was was sloppy field work by the agent. Which in turn came straight from, well, you know: the Sloppy Scriptwriting Handbook.

So incredibly not recommended.

onsdag 22 februari 2012

My t-shirts, part 50: Snoopy and Woodstock

Well, this is really not a t-shirt but a nightie (and not even a men's nightie), but hey, it's got Snoopy and Woodstock in a funny hat, plus I'm down with a cold so there's not going to be any meaningful blogging tonight anyway.

torsdag 16 februari 2012

Shooter, Francisco & Harren: Turok, Son of Stone Vol 1: Aztlán

OK, so it's 1428, and a bunch of Aztecs are about to sacrifice a young boy on a makeshift altar. The warrior Turok who has chanced upon the scene rains arrows on them, allowing the boy to escape his fate. Turok and the boy flee, and the boy's father gives his life to buy them time to put some distance between themselves and the pursuing Aztecs. A terrific storm descends on Turok, Andar (the name he gives the boy), and the Aztecs, somehow transporting them all to a time and place where dinosaurs roam the Earth... and that's just in the first eight pages.

Yeah, well, we've all heard about in media res, but this is almost ridiculous. The pace in this Dark Horse reboot of a classic comic is a bit frantic at the start.

Anyway, Turok and Andar gain an ally among the slaves the Aztecs brought with them, only to lose him shortly thereafter, a predator dinosaur comes between the Aztecs and their prey, Turok & Andar are captured by the fierce Panther warriors tribe, who are led by a "goddess" – a young blonde woman who's been brought to the land by a similar storm from present-day Norway – and want to sacrifice Turok and Andar. Meanwhile, the Aztecs have encountered fellow Aztecs from a lost Aztec city which has apparently been transported to this time and place previously. They're sworn enemies of the Panther tribe, and they have an ally from the 22nd century, armed with deadly high-tech weapons...

And then, all these story threads collide in a couple of massive battles.

It takes skill to keep it all together, and Jim Shooter's certainly in possession of such writing skill. He can describe his characters with a sort of clinical detachment, and isn't sentimental about letting his heroes befriend somebody only  to have that person killed off a couple of pages later. It lends an air of realism to the story, because we can't really control things in real life, can we?

And yet, it also sort of sinks the story. In real life, we still have a constant that keeps it all together; namely, ourselves. Our brain keeps even relatively disjointed events together, forming a comprehensive narrative – when we lose that ability, we're in trouble (or our mental health is). Shooter already has a story that takes a bit of effort to keep together; adding and losing people to the small group of Turok's allies cannot help but make the narrative more disjointed. It doesn't wreck the story, but it is a weakness – especially with it already being populated by people from rather varying times and places. This being the first chapter in the reboot of Turok's adventures, I think a more careful establishing of the dinosaur-infested setting for the series, somewhat more slowly paced, would have been preferable. We'll see what Shooter does with the series in the future; his Turok is a well-crafted character in the stoic and intelligent hero tradition, and I'm kind of partial to those rather than the hot-tempered variety.

The art – the first half of the book is drawn by Eduardo Francisco, and it's OK; it looks a bit like a sketchier Tom Palmer effort. The second half is by James Harren, and is too sketchy and uneven for my tastes. I wish the interior art could have been of the same quality as Raymond Swanland's covers, which are excellent.

So all in all, I can't really recommend this book. It's not a waste of time, but it could and should have been better than it is.

Jan-Öjvind Swahn: Häxor tomtar jättar och huldror ("Witches, gnomes, giants and huldras")

Well, I enjoyed Swahn's book Svenska mord ("Swedish murders"), so I figured I might try some of his other works. This one, from the sixties, is basically a collection of folklore causeries (that is, short, witty essays) he produced for Swedish radio and then set to print – for which I am thankful, as it is indeed an amusing series of little essays on various sorts of supernatural beings that populate our Swedish myths and legends. Swahn tells his readers about how the evil eye (and its cousins, the evil foot – yes, the evil foot – and the evil meeting) could harm and how to protect against it (and how Jacques Offenbach and Pope Pius IX were prominent culprits), legendary strongmen, werewolves, pixies and much more.

It is a most enjoyable read, not just because of his easy-flowing, gently ironic writing style, but also because the legends and episodes he retells often are good, strong stories in themselves. Like the Swedish soldier who was taken prisoner by the Russians after Karl XII's failed war and got on the bad side of a Russian mage, who turned him into a wolf. However, as a wolf, he could escape from Siberia and get all the way home to his wife, who wondered about this wolf roaming about her house and consulted a wise man who advised to address the wolf as her husband to check whether it was really him. She did, and the wolf was transformed back into her husband, because a werewolf will revert to his true form forever if addressed by his proper name. (Another, less savory, method is for the werewolf to tear out the unborn child of a pregnant woman and eat its heart; I think we can all agree that the other method is wildly preferable to this one.)

Apparently, there was quite the werewolf craze in medieval Europe; even in 1500s France, it occurred that innocent people were executed in significant numbers for being werewolves. Swahn's theory is that they were mentally ill or slow-witted people who may have even believed themselves to have become animals. (On occasion, doctors also managed to convince the judges of that.)

Werewolf-con in Chateaurouge, 1858.

In Northern Sweden, with its conflicts between the aboriginal Sami people and Swedish colonialists/farmers, there were myths about how some Sami could transform themselves into a wolf or bear by putting on a belt made out of the back hide of somebody who's hanged himself, and then killing the farmers' sheep or cows. The trick for catching the perpetrator was to surprise him as he was coming home in the morning and look into his mouth for tufts of wool...

In the werewolf chapter is also detailed the myths of the bäckahäst (kelpie), who lurks in and around lakes and river with the intent of dragging children into the water and drown them, and the rye wolf, which lurks in the rye fields to kill little children who dare stray there. These two latter myths are rather easily explained as a way of trying to keep children from going where they shouldn't be – near water, where they risk drowning, and in the fields, where they would trample the crop – which is why I found them particularly interesting.

Witches and their traditional voyage to Blåkulla to dance (and worse) with the Devil before Easter also get a chapter in the book. Now, since this particular myth gets rehashed every year before Easter in Swedish media, I'm pretty much fed up with it, but Swahn makes it interesting even for me as he concentrates on retelling various specific legends, like the soldier who went there in his wife's stead as she was simply too tired to go that year, or how there were so many witches in the air early on Holy Saturday that if you simply happened to fire your rifle up into the air, you had pretty good odds of hitting one of them, or how you could nail a saddle up over the church door to make the women who'd gone to Blåkulla neigh like a horse when passing under it, thus revealing themselves as witches.

One more myth: the huldra, a female entity living in the forest, luring men to sex and gaining magical power over them, gets a chapter of its own, and a number of really good anecdotes – like the milkmaid Bengta who was to meet her beau in the forest, but who instead encountered the huldra who had disguised herself as the fiancee; Bengta went crazy for three days after having kissed her. Any hunter who wanted to become a master shot only had to leave his rifle out in the woods by a tree stump and put some bread and meat next to it. The huldra would then blow into the barrel and load the gun, and from then on he'd always hit what he aimed at. (Of course, he also had to run out into the forest to satisfy the huldra whenever she felt the urge...)

Anyway, a most enjoyable book. Recommended.

onsdag 15 februari 2012

DC Comics Presents: Batman – "Blaze of Glory" and "Urban Legends"

I really like the DC Comics Presents series; at $8, it's a relatively cheap way of getting 100 pages of comics that may not warrant being republished in trade paperback format. (And, reading these two editions, I have to say that they don't, in fact, quite warrant being republished in trade paperback format.)

Blaze of Glory collects a three-issue story arc from Legends of the Dark Knight #197-199 by writer Will Pfeifer and artist Chris Weston about a criminal bearing a grudge against the Batman after having been arrested despite having had a "perfect" plan, and then developing brain cancer. He goes on a vandalization spree connected with the bat symbol, and Batman immediately sees this as a biiiiig problem and starts tracking him down. When Batman finally catches up with the guy, however, it turns out he's got a plan to create some extra-special death and mayhem when he's caught.

This is an OK read but not a great one. Batman obsessing about the bad guy's initial act of vandalism – burning a big bat symbol into a "Welcome to Gotham" highway sign seems a bit odd and egocentric, to tell the truth, and his solution to the crook's final gambit is a bit obvious. Still, I give Pfeifer props for having Batman actually solve this case through his detective skills instead of through "just showing up at the right time because he's obviously deduced everything" as some Batman writers seem to prefer. Weston's art looks good – he is very good when it comes to textures – but has occasional problems with anatomy/proportions and action, and his Bruce Wayne looks too much like a Cuban drug lord out of Miami Vice. Anything else – clothes, buildings, ordinary people etc – looks real nice, though.

Rounding out this issue is a story from LotDK #212, "Chicks Dig the Bat", about a nerd getting one of the school's aloof hotties with him up on a rooftop on the promise that Batman passes by it every night. Unfortunately for them, so do a squad of ruthless criminals... Batman shows up to save them, but the nerd gets to play a part when one of the crooks takes the girl hostage, and this leads to her getting the hots for him all of a sudden. A kind of cute story, but I get a bit tired of the use of the girl as nothing but an object for the young male's affections/sex urges; she doesn't even get her own personality – if she had, I don't think I'd have reacted as negatively as I did.

There are three stories in Urban Legends. The first, from LotDK #168, has a Batman who's fallen from a great height and lost his memory. He just knows that he has to help people and fight crime, and he does get the support of several people along the way, but he's also in a bad shape after his fall, and, well, he has amnesia. Fortunately for him, his reputation is enough to scare off many bad guys, but you have to wonder... Is this really Batman? And if not, who is it? Whoever he is, he still displays a lot of courage and integrity, even if he doesn't seem to have the skills and physique to deliver...

I like this story; it comes at the Batman mythos from a fresh angle, and this Batman (or "Batman"?) is quite a bit more vulnerable than usual, making the outcome of the story more uncertain than is the norm for Batman stories. Kudos to the team of Bill Willingham and Tom Fowler for creating it.

There are two more stories in this issue, "Lost Cargo" from LotDK #177-178 and "Full Circle2 from #179. The first is about Catwoman and Batman's alter ego Matches Malone in an uneasy, sometimes even adversary, partnership trying to find a bunch of Filipino trafficking victims abandoned in a truck with air running out. The story isn't bad, I like that we get to see one of Batman's classic disguises take center stage for a change, but I'm not a fan of the art, which is a bit too much on the scratchy and sketchy side for my tastes. I prefer strong, elegant lines, which is definitely not what we're getting here. Similar with the art for the final story, which is about taking violent revenge for abuse at an orphanage – and apart from not being all that keen on the "the only way to deal with that is to murder the perpetrator" message, I don't think what is really a non-Batman story (he only shows up on the last page) has a place in a Batman comic unless it's a very strong story. And this one isn't IMO; just because a story incorporates the theme of child abuse doesn't automatically make it a powerful one.

I can't really recommend either of these books, but I will recommend the "Urban Legend" story because it definitely is a good one, and well worth a read.

tisdag 14 februari 2012

Jan-Öjvind Swahn: Svenska mord ("Swedish murders")

So, do you like to learn about history and stuff while believing that you're being merely entertained by titillating stories about murder and punishment? Of course you do. Me, too. Which is why I really like ethnologist and folklorist Jan-Öjvind Swahn's Svenska mord. Like the master of the "entertaining historical anecdotes" genre, journalist-historian Jan-Olof Olsson, Swahn keeps his narrative mildly ironic throughout, squeezing humor from events that really shouldn't hold any comic relief, and manages to do so without coming off as facile or tasteless – dry academic wit for the win, in other words. It's a testament to his writing skill that he manages to pull it off (also, I saw quite a bit of him on Swedish television when I was a kid, and I can actually "hear" his voice while reading his text – another testament to his writing skills IMO).

Anyway, the book comprises 23 chapters, all but the first couple of ones detailing a particularly noteworthy murder case, dealing with everything from the mythological murders of the Viking era to concrete criminal cases throughout history. The first semi-historical murders Swahn looks at is supposed 600s local king Ingjald Illråde's clever use of his father's burial feast to lock his neighboring king-colleagues up in the great hall where the feast was held, burn it to the ground, and then take over their lands. (He then repeated the tactic with another eighboring king, and later burned himself and his nasty daughter when a Danish king came up north and took his ill-gotten gains away from him.)

Swahn uses a 1600s murder as example of ancient CSI techniques – bårprov ("slab test", roughly), where the suspect has to touch the dead body, and if the body then starts bleeding, that indicates that the suspect is guilty. He also wheels through a number of famous murders, like Queen Kristina having a traitor executed at her court-without-a-country and thus making herself an embarrassment instead of a triumph for the Pope, the murder of Swedish king Gustaf III, and when Marshal of the Realm Axel von Fersen was murdered by a mob in connection with the funeral of Prince Carl August of Augustenburg, etc. Or when Swedish anarchist Hjalmar Wång wanted to murder the Tsar on his visit to Sweden, but instead shot a similarly-attired Swedish general to death. Etc.

There's 200 pages of enjoyable horrors in this book, which will also teach you a bit about aspects of Swedish history that you probably didn't learn in school. Of course it's recommended… and you're allowed to read it with a frisson of titillation, to boot.

söndag 12 februari 2012

David Liljemark: Boltzius

I've previously mainly come into contact with David Liljemark's satirical work, and haven't been impressed by it. Partially, it's been that his drawings aren't very interesting; the line isn't strong and lively as I like it, but dull drawings certainly don't make a comic not worth reading; I found the early Dilbert hilarious despite the uninteresting art, and there are plenty of people who've created interesting work despite not being particularly good at drawing (see, for example, plenty of underground comics creators). Mainly, however, it's been that his approach to satire leaves me rather cold; there's usually very little subtlety to his cartoons, so there's no artistic or conceptual finesse for me to admire or be amused by.

So I had some doubts as I opened Liljemark's comics format bio-novel of the Swedish late 1800s faith healer Fredrik August Boltzius, but Boltzius actually works reasonably OK, and it does illustrate the problems and tragedies with charlatans persuading sick people that they can be healed by faith alone, regardless of what science-based medicine says. Let's take a look at the story as Liljemark tells it.

The book is divided into seven chapters followed by a huuuuuge amount of endnotes (more on those later). The first chapter drops the reader in media res, with travelers from near and far arriving in the Värmland (Swedish province) village where Boltzius lives and works his miracles. They're all sick, they're all hopeful, they're practically all desperate. Then the miracle worker – or rather, the Lord's instrument, because that's how he sees himself – comes out of his cottage to lead the crowd in singing a hymn, preach a bit and show off his "successes"; people who rejoice in having been cured, but who pretty clearly haven't really.

"You don't have the faith!
Had it been my arm that was cut off, it would grow back!!"

In the second chapter, we learn a bit more about Boltzius' history before becoming a faith healer – failing as a farmer, being obsessively honest and apparently prone to bouts of depression and drinking. The reader learns this from a couple of friends drinking and discussing (and arguing about) Boltzius and his miracle-working.

These are the two best chapters in the book, I think. The hope and desperation of those seeking cures and the self-deception of those "cured" and of Boltzius himself are communicated both clearly and subtly, and Liljemark writes excellent dialogue. Unfortunately, after these chapters, the book runs into a problem: the main conflict in the story has already been revealed (and to a large extent resolved). Boltzius is an honest charlatan, who believes in what he's doing, and he's not helping the ill; in some cases, he's worsening things for them by giving them false hope (and keeping them from proper medical care). Liljemark goes into more detail about the criticisms against Boltzius from the medical profession (mainly from medical student, and later doctor, Emil Thorelius), shows more of Boltzius's fishy faith healing, and has a really clever question from a young girl "cured" by him – "If God can cure people whenever he wants to, why doesn't he? Why does he wait until Boltzius asks him to?" – but essentially, the dramatic nerve has gone out of the story. Even a serious car accident almost killing him (in chapter six) and Boltzius' actual death in the final chapter fail to really raise the temperature.

Finally, after the 100 pages of comics biography there follows a 250+ pages long, small-type, postscriptum with story notes and references, going into seemingly interminable detail about this or that person in the story, and the debate about Boltzius and his work. It does bear testimony to the work Liljemark has put into researching his topic, but it doesn't IMO really add to the book; it simply goes into too much detail to be interesting unless reading the comics story has rendered you somewhat obsessed with Boltziusiana.

So, while I do think Boltzius is worth reading, it has only limited re-reading value for me.

tisdag 7 februari 2012

Back from the comics store, February 7th edition

I wasn't going to buy the Annotated Sandman book, but it turned out to be so cheap that, well, why not? Buying the X-Men book was a mistake, though – I already have it in the Essential format, so why did I do that? And of course, I'm happy there's a Peanuts comic book introducing the strip to kids – including three or so Schulz Sunday pages, nicely enough – and a book with John Buscema sketches is a treat to any fan of great comics art (even though he could sometimes fall into a routine, even when doing things by routine he was a great, very skilled comics artist).