October 14, 2018

sub standards

Jack Ryan rides again on Amazon Prime, busted back down to early-career espionage somewhere near the CIAs mail room—the curse of workable IP circling back around like a comet. I joined some of the dots in Ryan’s shift from tackling 20th Century Soviet extremism to the 21st Century Islamist version for Sight & Sound, a change that among other things requires a CIA of good-guy team players on the right side of useless. It involves a delve into the mindset of difficult men too, something VOD series still wear as a badge of entry to the club, even though it’s been clear for a while now that only David Lynch really knows the score there.

The Predators finale was fiddled with and reshot, which is pretty symptomatic of an era when even films so High Concept they’re in Earth orbit still don’t satisfy the people who paid for them when they see them—but not as symptomatic as the fact that it still makes no sense at all. Spotting why the new film is a flub compared to Predator from three decades ago would need a conversation about form rather than content, and they don’t currently happen, but a film that needs a Predator to explain what it’s up to in English through a loudspeaker may have succumbed to self-doubt. There’s some half-decent pastiche in the bunch of scuzzy disreputable males bumbling through an alien invasion, the kind of thing John Carpenter doesn’t do anymore but which was a solid B-movie staple for more reasons than just the accumulated machismo. This bunch hovers around an unconscious Oliva Munn leaving little presents, like the seven psycho dwarves; but I’m not sure I ever wanted Munn to get dragged into the action hero stream, even if those years she spent busking on cable TV stuffing six sausages in her mouth before leaping into a large flan have bred a healthy lack of on-screen pretension. Plus she served her time speaking Aaron Sorkin dialogue and keeping up with the cast of The Newsroom, useful when speaking Shane Black’s attempt at copying what he read about screwball rhythms in a textbook. Her character is a skilled scientist in a semi-transparent lab coat, knows how to unleash ballistic death from large automatic weapons, and at one point is compelled by the plot to strip naked in a crisis. The film stops short of combining the shooting and the stripping in the same scene, but we can assume it was considered.

October 10, 2018


Mention of some science stories I had a hand in recently:

Adaptive optics has plenty of potential uses, one of them being to accurately image the retina of a patient without the errors and inaccuracies that creep in when you use a scanning microscope. Attempts to use AO systems for this over the years have led to platforms so bulky they only really work on patients lying down and keeping very still, but Duke University has come up with a handheld portable system that could be used more comfortably on adults and restless children.

Also: using some form of structured or patterned light instead of straightforward illumination has a lot to offer in several bioimaging techniques, especially when it comes to measuring oxygenation and hemoglobin levels in tissues. A California company called Modulated Imaging has just had FDA approval for a device using spatial frequency domain imaging, which is really a way to try and cut out the effects of scattering and absorption, two things that biological tissues are often annoyingly good at.

And: improvements in virtual reality don’t only involve getting higher quality display screens to sit closer to the eyeball, but that is a big part of it. A German project has developed an OLED microdisplay that measures one inch across, with a pixel density of 2300 pixels per inch. Put a pair of them in front of each eye in a suitable helmet, and the wearer is looking at authentic WUXGA widescreen. Configure them correctly and that wearer might not get a headache.

October 9, 2018

class action

For the November Sight & Sound magazine I watched Sink, a British drama about working class men that could fit onto Wednesday night ITV without scraping the sides—so pointing out that it’s not exactly I, Daniel Blake seems unnecessary. It also fits into a department of working class dramas whose political slant is not so much leftist as just left-ish. A while ago I saw Between Two Worlds, in which mouthy young men of a post-Blair generation couldn’t wait to put Britain’s centre-left period behind them and emigrate to Hollywood; and now Sinks beleaguered middle-aged job-seeker played by Martin Herdman is out of tune with his father’s socialism and makes peace with breaking the law in order to treat himself to a nice coffee maker. As it happens Herdman is effortlessly empathetic, while the lads in Between Two Worlds were so insufferable you would have mailed them to Los Angeles in a crate yourself, but both films are most likely invisible to anyone looking to claim working class cinema exclusively for one precise spot further left on the spectrum. Both films might well be invisible to any real audience too, but that’s a different issue.

Final Score: joining Alan Shearer tonight on Match of the Day …Final Score: joining Alan Shearer tonight on Match of the Day …

There might be greater working class passion on screen in Final Score, in which West Ham United fans are so invested in a cup-tie that they don’t notice Die Hard taking place around them. Ten minutes into Final Score the camera pans around the boisterous fans in the stands at the old Boleyn Ground and picks out five terrorists about to take them all hostage sat in a line stony faced and stationary, and the music pounds and the supporters are all jumping and the heavies are all immobile and the fans are all smiling and the goons are all frowning and I missed the next few minutes as I was laughing too hard.

The conveyor belt producing easy-listening action pantos where men with foreign accents are set on fire or tipped into deep-fat fryers and American stars come to London so that they can blow half of it up may never stop—not unless people start looking askance at the violence anyway, and why would anyone start now? I like Dave Bautista, although he looks about as comfortable on London soil as John Wayne did in Brannigan, and I like Ray Stevenson, who can leverage his 0.005 percent of Thor into whatever he wants; but the cobalt sheen and close cinematography and clownish characters of the average jovially jingoistic action film are not exciting any more, and certainly not subversive; just mildly diverting. And to not at least ponder the violence amounts to not watching the thing. You would probably need to start by pondering the violence on television generally, the medium for which Final Score was made and where Spooks tipped Lisa Faulkner into a deep-fat fryer of her own on BBC One all the way back in 2002. The sixteen years since then don’t seem to have clarified what the cultural effect or affect of this stuff really is, beyond showing that ultra-violence has lost whatever disreputable seediness the exploitation sector once relished. Now it’s so reputable that a film can slip an easter egg from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in between maimings.

On the other side of the coin there’s Mile 22, an action film with a straighter face and faith that sweaty fast-cut wobbling-camera colour-desaturated cinema produces intensity and intrigue, rather than, say, a headache. I’ve had a soft spot for Peter Berg the actor ever since Linda Fiorentino made mincemeat of him in The Last Seduction, but as a director his Michael Mann-ish tendencies seem to have been scuttled once and for all by Battleship. Now he’s a trusted purveyor of Mark Wahlberg punch-ups and their conflicted unenthusiastic machismo. The plot has the CIA acting psychotic and out of control, which is a given in this neck of the woods, but even without making any sense the film has an intensity that smaller screens are not yet confident about copying. Possibly because it just might not be worth it any more.

September 26, 2018

the moderns

Great faces in The Moderns. But Linda Fiorentino first among equals.

September 16, 2018

very British crews

I’m in the current November-dated issue of Comic Scene magazine with a piece about Paul Grist’s comic Jack Staff, a strip which grabs British humour comics and British humour generally in a big warm bear hug.

My appreciation of Paul Grist and his earlier Will Eisner/Frank Miller homage Kane is on record from a long time ago, but Jack Staff is a more expansive gesture, half nostalgic swoon for old comics and half mournful eulogy for acres of British cultural history. The fact that Image Comics picked it up and turned it into a colour strip for US readers who may or may not have recognised Harry H Corbett when he turned up as a vampire hunter is just another layer to conjure with. You can find Comic Scene here or in comic shops.

Supplementary material: Back in 2012 I spoke to Paul Grist about his comics and career for a magazine article which was ultimately unpublished. Some quotes from it are in the Comic Scene article, but the whole interview is here on this site.

Elsewhere: For Tripwire I read the new graphic novel adaptation of Yellow Submarine, which Titan commissioned to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles animated fantasia. Bill Morrison’s background at MAD magazine and Bongo Comics makes him a crafty choice to work at the point where animation and comics overlap, and this particular comics adaptation of a film certainly resembles its source—which is more than you used to be able to say for those old issues of Marvel Comics Super Special. Even having to pretend the film doesn’t have a note of music in it isn’t fatal to the book overall. But at some point this rip tide of nostalgia that’s now tearing constantly at our footing will have to be tempered.

August 19, 2018

old soldiers

Rebellion didn’t say how much it spent buying up the output of the old IPC Youth Group and having half of the UKs entire comics output for the 1970s and 1980s delivered into its warehouse in tankers, but presumably it was not chicken feed. The publishers did say up-front two years ago that the plan was for new stories with the old characters, ie. an active return on the investment, which now turns out to be reworkings of them into something more in the current superhero vein by active 2000AD creators, and a connected universe for everyone to rub shoulders in. You don’t have to be too averse to nostalgia to wish that this wasn’t quite so inevitable. The reprint programme has already shown to at least one reader that the frantic brevity and excess exposition inherent in the UKs old weekly anthology format do not necessarily make the best impression, when the strips are gathered into large sequential runs and the stories’ end-points recede endlessly away from you towards the horizon. The stand-outs so far are probably the calmer material from Misty and The Beatles Story reprinted from Look-In, which are self-contained and neither hectic nor lunatic; but for the boys comics stuff it’s not the easiest task to see exactly which audience is being fostered here, beyond the literal appeal to people who were reading 2000AD in 1977 plus those who wish they had been. Finding a way to treat the loopier old stuff as cultural works rather than IP fodder might be a better destiny for it. Or at least consider making a break from the standard vein of 2000AD, which seems entirely predicated on nostalgia already. But all this is easier to say if you’re not the one signing the cheques at Rebellion.

In any case, the original version of Herr Doktor Von Hoffmann, embittered old Nazi and maddest of mad scientists, has had his original adventures reprinted in a collection called Von Hoffman’s Invasion that I reviewed for Tripwire. No coincidence that his attempt to bring fictional 1971 Britain to its knees allowed a real-world 1971 boys comic to address a painful grievance, involving the World Cup and the West Germany football team. Also for Tripwire, a collection of Judge Dredd stories involving apes, mostly as adversaries although lately one of them as an ally. Science-fiction loves a good primate, and in 2000AD they always feel like one of the few strong ties between the black satire of the Dredd strip and the whimsy of Silver Age DC Comics, territory that 2000AD usually treats as a hinterland of no major interest.

Frank Miller’s position in the comics culture these days seems to be a hinterland all his own, and the conclusion of Xerxes from Dark Horse Comics has caused even less of a ripple than its launch, which itself did not look like much. At the time of writing, no one’s even bothered to put it on Wikipedia. There’s a contingent of readers who will never forgive Miller for Holy Terror and his apparent swing to the political right after 2008, some of whom had only just forgiven him for The Dark Knight Strikes Again anyway. Another bunch remain convinced that the man’s linework reveals hidden misogynist wickedness before the ink is even dry. Most reviews of Xerxes seemed determined to just parse the plot and skirt around the issue of the art altogether, as if worn out by the effort of looking at Miller’s sinuous, boneless DC superheroes last year on the covers of The Dark Knight III: The Master Race. Exhaustion might actually be the default critical response to Miller now. But some of the cartooning in Xerxes is as enlivening to look at as anything off the presses this year.

In theory Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander—a title you assume Dark Horse marketing had little say over—is part-prequel and part-sequel to 300, although the plot is more of a loose improvisation than a history lesson. Several generations of Persian kings are thwarted by internecine conflicts within their own house, and by resourceful Greeks putting aside their own fractious disagreements to foster a democratic project that looks like it could go either way. Xerxes shows every sign of becoming a despot, but more than once the real focus seems to be on unreliable hearsays and what you would have to call fake news, the accumulation of legend and lies onto fact like layers of dust until the roots are hard to discern.

Meanwhile the art has changed from 300s bronze-wash firelight into something properly rococo, with the bodies of Darius I, then Xerxes I, and finally (skipping over a ton of history) Darius III seeming to be embossed with ornamentation right there on the page. Miller’s current colourist, Alex Sinclair, was tarred by some of the general unhappiness with The Master Race, but in Xerxes the high-contrast palette seems completely in tune with Miller’s wish for heft and mass, legend and fate. On occasion Persian flesh is jet black, sometimes with hints of matching physiognomy, which opens more trapdoors of interpretation while also shunting the cartooning even closer to iconography, religious or otherwise. It can’t be as simple as saying that all this is just Miller hacking further into the undergrowth of expressionism, but that’s surely a big part of it. Expressionist figures ask for pity, as Robert Hughes once wrote, and the strong kings of Xerxes, drawn as terrible old gods of the past, dead and bent double in their holes in the ground or slumped dying on their thrones, are pitiable in vastly larger ways than Superman was when Miller gave him wrinkly leggings and a neck wider than his head.

News that Miller has recovered the film and television rights to Sin City from the smoking crater where The Weinstein Company once stood probably doesn’t bring that work much nearer to a live-action return—tough to imagine a studio green-lighting Sin City Anything at present—although if it means that Miller is emerging from the hinterland, I’m all for it. Frank Miller remains the best argument against conformity, complicity and self-conscious prudery in movies made from comics, simply by proving that the two forms will forever fly apart like magnets,” says me about the last Sin City film, but then I’m also the guy who did not hate The Spirit, and from a few years further down the track that film looks more like an authentic reflection of its maker at that moment than it even did then, odd conflicted intentions and all. At this point, with the calamity of Holy Terror still looming over Miller’s every pen stroke like a thundercloud, the five issues of Xerxes feel more compelling, more authentic in their cartooning, more drastic in their methods, than any two-decades of British comics combined. It’s a product of cultural wartime, saturated with artistic tensions, which sprints straight past the fragile nostalgia of Rebellion’s Treasury project and roars off into the future.

One looks at the figures, not the ground. Hence the theatricality of his failures. But like his successes, these too are the work of an utterly compelling artist who will die without heirs. No one could imitate Bacon without looking stupid. But to ignore him is equally absurd, for no other living painter has set forth with such pitiless clarity the tensions and paradoxes that surround all efforts to see, let alone paint, the human figure in an age of photography.

– Robert Hughes on Francis Bacon, 1985