Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Shugo, boss

I interviewed singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru about his rad new record, In Focus?, for the latest issue of Demand, which comes with each Soundsupply album bundle. Check it out, y'all!

Monday, June 17, 2013

On Man of Steel and video games

Speaking of Superman, let's briefly talk Man of Steel. Initial impression: I'm pretty mixed-to-negative on it. There are some interesting elements, especially visually (always true for Zack Snyder), but I could've used way more Smallville and non-destroyed-Metropolis, and way less explosions (also always true for Zack Snyder) and Krypton.

If Bryan Singer's Superman Returns skewed too heavily emotional at the expense of memorable action, Man of Steel has the opposite problem, favoring mindless destruction over character investment. The happy medium between those extremes remains Richard Donner's Superman, still the definitive live-action representation of the world and tone of these characters.

Ironically, Singer encountered the same problem on Superman Returns that Snyder had later when adapting Watchmen: By being overzealous in his devotion to the source material of Donner's Superman, Singer was unable to give his own version any potency. With Man of Steel, Snyder feels no such obligations; make no mistake, this is Zack Snyder's Superman, for better or (mostly) worse.

In contrast, Supes's Justice League compatriot Batman is faring better recently on the adaptation front: Last week, Warner Bros. released the gameplay trailer for Arkham Origins, due out in October.

Admittedly, I haven't been much of a gamer since the Super Nintendo was still around, but what I have played and seen of the Batman: Arkham series has been enough to nearly suck me back in. Playing from the Dark Knight's POV to solve puzzles, select utility belt options, and swing on the grappling gun is the kind of video game I dreamed of as a kid (it's the closest thing to being Batman!).

But what's really made the series stand out is that its creators truly understand the character and the city he inhabits. The Arkham games collect generations of source material and choose from among different story lines and visuals, allowing players to move among a Gotham that's familiar but wholly the series' own. They've been able to do what I suggested future Nolanverse Dark Knight films could by keeping the story grounded in the "reality" of a hard-boiled modern metropolis while still incorporating the "Dark Deco" elements of the animated series and comics.

Would that Snyder could do the same with Superman's long history for his inevitable sequel.

Monday, June 10, 2013

5 things I learned at the Superman Celebration

Over the weekend, I attended the 35th Annual Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Ill. The Celebration, a kind of county fair-meets-Comic-Con, features talks by Superman experts, signings by actors and comic artists and writers, screenings, and a carnival, all in a sleepy southern Illinois town that, despite its name, is more Smallville than Metropolis. Here are five things I learned while reveling in the Kryptonian glory:

1.) They really milk the Metropolis thing for all it's worth
Billed as the "Home of Superman," Metropolis features a Super Museum, a statue of Adventures of Superman star Noel Neill as Lois Lane, and a newspaper called the Planet.
But its most well-known attraction is a 15-foot statue of the Man of Steel in the middle of the town square. Here's Obama posing with it:
And here's me:

2.) The Super Museum: A whole lotta crazy crap on the walls
The museum has amassed an impressive collection of Superman memorabilia—much of it kitschy junk, but a fair amount of genuinely neat original art and props and costumes from movies and TV shows (I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that the plastic Kryptonian crystals used in Superman's opening scene look as chintzy up close as they do). 

3.) The animated Max Flesicher shorts are still the best
One of the weekend's events I was most looking forward to was a screening of the 1940s Superman serials, which I've never seen. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. apparently denied permission at the last minute. (When the pre-screening announcement was being made, I briefly got my hopes up that there was a surprise showing of Man of Steel in store instead. No such luck. Don't Superman Celebration attendees seem like just the kind of fans Warners should be catering to with something like that, though?) But it all worked out, because the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons from earlier that decade are public domain, and were shown without issue.
As a little kid, I had a VHS tape with a few of these shorts, and I watched them endlessly. When Batman: The Animated Series (and later, although less so, Superman: The Animated Series) premiered, I was immediately able to recognize the Fleischer films' art deco influence on creator Bruce Timm, even if I couldn't articulate that then. Revisiting them on the big screen, the films were every bit as magical now, their smooth animation, striking lighting, vibrant color, and intricate production design on full display. (It was also a good reminder that Fleischer's Lois Lane was a brazen risk-taker, a far cry from the helpless damsel that the character that the character has sometimes been boxed in as in other incarnations.) 

4.) Its fan film festival is pretty legit
Another fun screening event was the 6th annual Superman Celebration Fan Film Festival, featuring amateur submissions of Superman-related films of 20 minutes or less from around the world. This year, winners included Bizarro Classic (pictured above), which took Best Animated Feature, Trailer, or Music Video, and One on One, which took Best Drama.

5.) World records are elusive
Sadly, the Celebration's noble attempt to reclaim the Guiness World Record for "Largest Gathering of People Dressed as Superman," originally set there in 2008, seem to have fallen short. Last week, 566 Sears employees set the new record at their suburban Chicago headquarters (pictured above). Hopeful attendees who gathered in front of Metropolis's statue this weekend appeared to be much less in number. Ah, well—there's always next year.

So long, Metropolis. I hope to see you and your many large statues again sometime.  

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mario, Q&As, etc

How dope is this Super Mario Bros. 3-style transit map? I wrote about these over at The A.V. Club.

I also took part in a few recent AVQ&As there, offering my favorite pop-culture goodbyes, books I've loved longest, and favorite/least-favorite cultural baits-and-switches. What are some of yours?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

R.I.P., Ray Harryhausen

The loss of both Adam Yauch and Maurice Sendak within the same week last May hit me hard. More than I could recall with those of many famous people, their deaths had a profound impact on me because of the ways that their lives and work were so formative for me in different stages of growing up. A year later, I could say much of the same about losing Roger Ebert and Ray Harryhausen within the same month. 

I have vivid memories of staying up way too late on sleepovers with my cousins, searching my grandma's hallowed cable channels for something to watch, and deciding on movies like Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts. Snuggled in a sleeping bag, I took in the iconic images of those films, and they never left me. Years later, I would realize that renowned effects artist Harryhausen was owed the majority of the credit for those lasting impressions.

Looking back, the influence of Harryhausen's stop-motion-animated creations was not only hugely felt by me as a kid, but also clearly by the filmmakers whose work I was obsessed with at the time, like Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg. His innovative work brought to life creepy, beautiful, wondrous characters with personality and power that CGI still struggles to rival. Harryhausen will be missed, but his legacy will last as long as the movies'.

Friday, April 5, 2013

R.I.P., Roger Ebert

Wow. Rest in peace, Mr. Ebert. I still feel everything (and then some) that I said a few years ago in this brief post about him. It's hard to fully articulate his influence on me, countless others, and film criticism in general.

Chicago critic and filmmaker Ignatiy Vishnevetsky also has a beautiful, unsentimental piece at MUBI about his relationship with Ebert and time logged as co-host of Ebert Presents: At the Movies

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Lincoln was great and all, but ...

... when do we get a Frederick Douglass biopic?

Famed for their generally bland, awards-baiting formula, biopics are often in a precarious position. The lives of interesting historical figures can, of course, make for interesting screenplaysbut they don't always. And even if they do, the weight and pressure of compacting a person's entire life, message, or impact into a couple of hours can be a daunting and unwieldy task.

What a relief, then, that director Steven Spielberg's and screenwriter Tony Kushner's Lincoln covers only a relatively small span of time in the president's life. The best way to explore the legacy of such a towering icon while still telling an entertaining, artful story may indeed be to limit the scope to a particular chapter in its subject's history, as Lincoln does with the passage of the 13th Amendment. What makes Lincoln work—apart from Daniel Day Lewis's nuanced performance—is its focus on the political maneuvering and backroom deals required to push through the contentious amendment, smartly avoiding flashbacks or framing devices. 

It's refreshing to see a historical biopic—a genre typified by modern sensibilities tsk-tsking those of the past—content to stick largely to the policy discussions held within the White House and Congress at the time. There is, of course, some triumphant moral speechifying, but that's to be expected, given the film's subject. Where Lincoln truly falters is its seeming desire to have it both ways: It's perfectly fine for a movie about an historical event like the abolition of slavery to limit its concerns to the president and the political process. But by relegating a few black characters to token supporting roles, the film inches dangerously close to a much less nuanced narrative manipulation. 

When former slave Elizabeth Keckley (a figure certainly worthy of her own biopic), played by Gloria Reuben, challenges the president directly with an emotional monologue near the film's end, it feels more than a little unlikely, in the Amistad mold of revisionism. Same goes for scenes featuring a black soldier reciting, unprompted, the Gettsyburg Address to Lincoln, or between Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and Lydia Hamilton Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson), portrayed here as Stevens's common-law wife, as well as his housekeeper. 

All of which raises the larger issue of whose stories we choose to tell. There's no shortage of lavish movies about white politicians, even when the subject at hand is the rights of black people. Even if he didn't meet or speak with the president during the few months Lincoln covers, the absence of someone like Frederick Douglass, an important player in the process within the story told here, is conspicuous. And if ever there was a ready-made biopic subject, it's Douglass's fascinating life. So where's his movie?