I thought the title would be ironic

June 30, 2008

It was too hot out to mow the lawn on Sunday, and we had free passes, so we went to see a matinee of Get Smart. While the specific alternative was dehydration and heat stroke, there are many other worse ways to spend an afternoon that stop well short of possible hospitalization. I don’t have any personal nostalgia for the original television series. (I always found Don Adams just plain annoying instead of amusingly so, though I realize that probably puts me in the minority.) My partner does remember the show fondly, and he liked the movie too.

I always find it best to wait to see a movie until a couple of weeks after it debuts, especially in the summer. Crowded movie houses increase the possibility of annoying audience behavior, and my tolerance for that has decreased sharply as ticket prices have increased. (Also, I’m a grumpy old man who just wants those damned kids to get off his lawn.) So everyone else was going to Wal-E or Wanted, leaving a small, well-behaved group of audience members to see if there was any point in turning another old television show into a summer movie.

It turns out that it’s a fairly forgiving vehicle when it comes to updating. Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart is… well… really smart. He’s a meticulous information analyst who finally gets his chance at field work after his intelligence agency, CONTROL, is infiltrated by its opposite number, KAOS. He’s partnered with veteran Agent 99, played by Anne Hathaway. They travel to Russia to find out what KAOS is up to, smoothing out their experience-versus-intuition dynamic along the way.

To indicate how many movies I actually watch, this is the first time I’ve seen Carell in a leading role, and I liked him a lot. He’s got a vulnerability that just about every other comedian-movie star lacks, and it goes beyond neurotic insecurity. I’ve always liked Hathaway, and she’s not bad here, but she doesn’t seem quite able to find many nuances in Agent 99’s cool confidence. I liked her moments of exasperation and bemusement, but I don’t think this role uses her talents and charisma to best advantage. Carell and Hathaway never really hit on credible romantic chemistry, and I wish the filmmakers hadn’t tried to make them, because their co-worker dynamic is plenty persuasive.

The movie is much better when it isn’t paying too much attention to its plot. There’s a wonderful early scene when a group of CONTROL agents are sitting in an emergency conference. The dialogue overlaps in a chatty, office-politics kind of way, and it reassures the viewer that the movie isn’t going to be a collection of underlined jokes and explosions. That the movie ends up in that mode is mitigated by its earlier looseness.

There aren’t all that many sequences that feel belabored, though one has a long string of self-inflicted puncture wounds that I could have done without. And while this is kind of a weird thing to place into the pro column, I was strangely pleased to see that Smart and Agent 99 actually kill people in a rather off-handed way. That kind of thing would normally color a comedy for me, but it works here. It’s also a lot of fun to watch creepy-hunky Dwayne Johnson try and play along with puppyish enthusiasm, but I sort of have a crush on him.

*

We actually left the house five minutes before the movie was supposed to start, and we still got in our seats, popcorn secured, before the last of the commercials had ended and the previews started. I almost fell asleep during the trailer for The Dark Knight, so I can’t imagine what I’d think of the actual movie.

*

What’s with the poster for Mamma Mia? Nobody’s going to see it because of the generic ingénue who’s listed seventh in the credits (though I’m sure she’s lovely), just like nobody went to see The Devil Wears Prada because of Hathaway (charming though she was). They’re going to see Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth butcher ABBA songs on a beautiful island in Greece. Wise up, Universal.


Friday conundrum

June 27, 2008

Here’s a thinker. This piece by Tom Spurgeon on DC’s refusal to allow a Batman story by Paul Pope to be included in the next Best American Comics anthology from Hougton Mifflin has two competing effects. On the one hand, it makes me want to read Pope’s Batman: Year 100. On the other hand, it makes me not want to give any money to DC because… well, because that’s really dumb. I mean, people were complaining about how narrow the focus of last year’s Best American Comics anthology was, and here’s a gift-wrapped opportunity to partially reverse that while showing that DC can produce interesting, innovative stuff, even with one of its cornerstone trademarked properties, and they not only decline, they take forever to do so. Oh, work-for-hire… you’re not having a good week, are you?

So can anyone recommend some Paul Pope books that won’t involve giving any money to DC?


Pantheon highs and lows

June 26, 2008

Many theologians have wondered how a benevolent divinity can allow evil in the world. Tapari and Yoshikazu Kuwashima’s Kamisama Kazoku (Go! Comi) offers one possible answer: God’s really busy trying to help his son get laid.

Samataro, the son of god, is attending an average school with regular humans. Any hopes for a normal life are dashed by the fact that he’s got every educational administrator’s worst nightmare: omnipotent helicopter parents. Even his most off-handed whims are made real by his mom, dad and sisters, with reliably humiliating results for all concerned.

With its cuddly-cute cover and fun premise, KK sounds like an endearing coming-of-age comedy. Unfortunately, the creators have a penchant for creepy fan service. A lot of it involves Samataro’s hot goddess mom popping up naked. I anticipate future volumes to portray Samataro’s extensive therapy, or at least a belated call to Godchild Protective Services.

For bonus philosophical points, the creators also address the issue of free will. It turns out the pantheon is pretty much against it if it keeps their golden boy from getting what he wants. To his credit, Samataro is opposed to the undue influence his kinfolk exert on the object of his affection, a blandly pretty newcomer named Kumiko, and the volume ends with his request to be a regular human, free of divine interference. It’s hard not to sympathize with him.

But it’s even harder to overlook the seedy titillation that seems to be the book’s primary selling point.

Mercifully, Go! Comi has also rolled out another new series that’s much more to my liking, Takako Shigematsu’s Ultimate Venus. I had been feeling a bit of a void since the conclusion of Shigematsu’s snarky, sparkling Tenshi Ja Nai!! (also from Go! Comi), so this is a welcome addition to the publisher’s roster.

Shigematsu seems to specialize in stories that feature a spunky everygirl thrown into high-end, high-stakes new social spheres filled with hunky but morally ambiguous boys. This time around, orphan Yuzu moves in with her grandmother, a sexy corporate mogul looking for an heir. Yuzu has been tossed into the deep end of a pool filled with sharks, but she has her late mother’s down-to-earth advice to see her through the tricky spots.

As Danielle Leigh noted in her review over at Comics Should Be Good, Shigematsu’s skills lie in making shôjo tropes sparkle with fresh energy. Like so many in the shôjo sisterhood, Yuzu has a big heart and an impulsive nature. She also has better-than-average instincts and a rewardingly low tolerance for other people’s crap, and it’s those qualities that really drive the story. Yuzu is a modern Cinderella; she doesn’t want to fit in and make everyone happy. She wants to stick to her own values in a setting where values are vague and shifty at best.

(Reviews are based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.)


Upcoming 6/25/2008

June 24, 2008

Some of the highlights from this week’s ComicList:

Sometimes a quantity and quality of hype make me abandon my normal standards. The latest example of this phenomenon is Oku Hiroya’s Gantz (Dark Horse), which promises much higher levels of gratuitous violence than I can usually tolerate. But it sounds cool.

Del Rey offers lots of goodies this week, but I’ll single out the third volume of Ryotaro Iwanaga’s excellent Pumpkin Scissors for special attention. It’s about a squadron of soldiers working on post-war recovery, and it’s a really successful blend of adventure, suspense, and comedy. Fans of Fullmetal Alchemist would do particularly well to give it a look.

Fresh manga from Osamu Tezuka is such a gimme for makers of lists of this sort, because it’s always, always worth a look. This week, it’s the second volume of freaked-out shônen quest Dororo (Vertical) about a guy trying to get his body parts back.

And before I forget, I wanted to point to a couple of reviews with which I agree entirely. At Manga Recon, Kate Dacey looks at Fuyumi Soryo’s smart and satisfying ES: Eternal Sabbath. In a recent Right Turn Only column, Carlo Santos asks this important question: “Why is [Kitchen Princess] not as popular as Full Moon or Fruits Basket? The level of drama is just as good, and this heartbreaking A- [sixth] volume proves it.”


Better Eats

June 24, 2008

Lyle Masaki gives me a reason to believe that my interest in the programming of the Food Network is not entirely dead. It’s about time someone there started talking about sustainable sources, and I’m not surprised that it’s Alton Brown doing it.

I also have to agree with Lyle that The Next Food Network Star is more of a peek behind the curtain than I ever wanted. Why not just show eight weeks of focus groups with target demographics? Over the weekend, my partner and I were wondering what happened to the last next Food Network star:

“Following months of speculation, [Gourmet Next Door Amy] Finley revealed in May 2008 that she had voluntarily turned down the opportunity to return for a second season, citing the stress of the obligations of being a television personality. She currently resides in Burgundy, France with her family.”

Now I’m picturing some kind of failed Food Network star protection and recovery program at a vineyard on the outskirts of Dijon.


The horror!

June 23, 2008

A new Flipped column is up at The Comics reporter, and it’s devoted to the wonderfully insane Kazuo Umezu.

And hey, it’s already generated reader mail regarding the also wonderfully insane Hideshi Hino:

“A Japanese publisher, DH Publishing, put out a series of Hino’s work called Hino Horror. A total of 16 volumes were announced/advertised, but I’ve only ever been able to confirm the existence of the first 14. Do you happen to know if the last two ever saw print/distribution in the US?”

I’m not sure of the answer. I’ve read several of the installments (Black Cat is my favorite, because kitties + evil = WIN), but my pursuit has been kind of random. Can anyone help?


Digging myself deeper

June 23, 2008

I made a pathetic stab at organizing my “to read” pile over the weekend. It wasn’t terribly productive, but I did notice a gap in my reading, and I was hoping for some suggestions. The shortage I discovered was in the boys’ love/yaoi category.

Anyway, here are some general preferences:

• I’m partial to stories about grown-ups.
• I like stories with proper character development, or some semblance thereof.
• I tend to look more favorably on stories with some lightness to them or a humorous bent.
• Non-consensual sex is pretty much a deal-breaker with me.

Any suggestions?


Note to self (6/22/2008)

June 22, 2008

Seriously, just housekeeping to support my leaky-sieve memory and remind myself that I nominated Hikaru no Go volume 12 (Viz) as a Great Graphic Novel for Teens. Nothing here to see.


Note to self (6/20/2008)

June 20, 2008

It’s entirely possible that Hinako Ashihara’s Sand Chronicles (Viz) is less a great graphic novel for teens than a great graphic novel for former teens who remember the pointed moments of awkwardness and uncertainty of that time of life. Actual teens might look at it and think, “Yeah, I’m there now, so thanks for the reminder.” Either way, I think it’s a great graphic novel, so I’m going to nominate it.

In the second volume, Ann finds her life disrupted again by the return of her absentee father. She’s built a life for herself in the country, finding solace in friends and family after a dramatic loss in the first installment. Now she’s got to decide whose needs come first – her own for comfort and happiness, or her father’s.

Ashihara is so deft at balancing big drama with small moments. Ann’s woes never feel out of scale, heightened as they are. The difficult choices she faces are presented with nuance and surprisingly effective balance; there aren’t any villains here, just people whose priorities clash. Ashihara’s delicate illustrations and quirky sense of humor round things out beautifully.


Pardon my dwelling

June 19, 2008

So today I woke up in a world where Tove Jansson’s timeless gem Moomin (Drawn & Quarterly) can be nominated in the same award category as the Witchblade Manga (Top Cow). I’m not comfortable with this, obviously, and I’m even less comfortable with the possibility that I live in a world where the Witchblade Manga could possibly beat Moomin for that award. Because the pool of people eligible to nominate works for the awards is identical to the pool of people who decide which of those nominees will receive Harveys:

“Nominations for the Harvey Awards are selected exclusively by creators – those who write, draw, ink, letter, color, design, edit or are otherwise involved in a creative capacity in the comics field. The Harvey Awards are the only industry awards both nominated and selected by the full body of comic book professionals.”

Greg McElhatton notes that the Harvey nominations are “SO easy to stack,” and if anyone was on the fence about that, well… Witchblade Manga. The prosecution rests.

This is a problem. It’s not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things, obviously, but it’s a problem for the Harvey Awards, because the possibility of shoving a piece of crap into the field of nominees unfairly casts the worthiness of everything on the slate into question. If I can conclude, not unreasonably, that a bunch of people who work for Company A sat around the break room and decided to force a piece of crap onto the ballot, then I can conclude just as reasonably that a bunch of people who work for Company B sat around the break room and decided to force something brilliant onto the ballot. A desirable outcome doesn’t make a leaky process any more ethical.

Of course, it’s a universal problem for awards programs of any sort. All of them have to decide where they want to land on the continuum between potentially out-of-touch gatekeepers and a democratic process that leaves itself open to abuse. I think the simplest solution would be to use precisely the same pool of potential nominators but to prohibit them from nominating any work published by the company that employs them. (That’s how nominations work in the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens program.) That would still leave open the possibility of collusion among publishers, obviously, but that seems less likely than self-promoting ballot-box stuffing.

There is the remote possibility that what one might consider counter-intuitive nominees (some listed here by Dirk Deppey) wound up there as the result of an entirely democratic groundswell of support, heretofore unexpected by the casual observer. I’m cynical, so unless I get a bunch of e-mails or comments that support that optimistic possibility, I’m going to suggest that the Harvey Awards nomination process is broken and needs to be fixed if the sponsors want to cultivate a reputation for promoting meritorious work. Because there’s plenty of meritorious work nominated, and it’s not fair that it stands a real chance of losing to something awful because the system can be massaged.

For further reading, please see Brigid Alverson’s noble attempt to list more award-worthy works. I thought about doing that, but then I decided that the bar was set so low that I’d never stop.


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