Friday, March 13, 2009

Watchmen: It's Ok to Watch

Watchmen didn't need a movie. The longer this trend of film adaptations of graphic novels run, the more I'm convinced that film execs think that there's something wrong or missing with graphic novels. I get the feeling that when they see a comic book, they just treat it like a storyboard for their potential movie, which is a huge disservice to the medium. Comic books are what they are; they aren't missing anything, they aren't some sort of transitional step between movies and books, and they certainly don't require any motion or voices to make them "come alive". Have some confidence in the art form for Christ's sake. With all this considered, I thought that Watchmen was a good movie.

"Visionary" director Zach Snyder inherited this "unfilmable" project and did a pretty good job with it, I thought. The film is beautiful to watch, the special effects dazzle in every frame of Dr. Manhattan, the most celebrated of the novel's characters. Jackie Earle Haley's performance of Rorschach is another high point, and this was an area of particular sensitivity for me, as he was my favorite character in the novel. His gutteral voiceover throughout was precisely like I imagined, as with his sociopathic intensity. Rorschack is a figure who acts like a hero, but thinks like a villain, and the film portrayed this very well. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag, but Jeffery Dean Morgan as the Comedian was another strength. Billy Crudup's portrayal of Dr. Manhattan is one of the most intriguing perfomances I've seen in a long time. At first I thought it was poor acting, and it may be, but Dr. Manhattan is a god-like being who growing increasingly distant from the rest of the world. Being a god can be lonely, and I think Crudup hits the mark, intentionally or not. Probably my favorite part of the movie is the opening sequence where a montage of events about the Watchmen's past are revealed to Bob Dylan's "The Times Are A-Changin'." This sequence holds a number of rewards beyond the graphic novel. Here, it's obvious that Snyder was having a lot of fun with the Watchmen mythology. A few rewarding examples are bits like Kenedy's assassination with the Comedian hiding in the grassy knoll, or Andy Warhol selling a portrait of Nite Owl.

This movie looked great on a lot of fronts, but elicited unintentional laughter from the audience during certain parts. For instance Dr. Manhattan's penis. I understand that it's textually accurate to include it, but that doesn't make it a good idea. Then there's the sex scene with Nite Owl and Silk Spectre with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" playing over their coital encounter. The musical choice made the whole scene so ridiculous and bizarre, and I felt weird for seeing that. Who watches the watchmen? Because whoever they are, they're some sick bastards.

While I'm thinking about the soundtrack, I would say that it's the worst aspect of the movie. It gives Watchmen a feel of listening to some CD-R a high-schooler made rather than impending apocolyptic doom. I didn't really have "Hallelujah" in mind when Nite Owl and Silk Spectre were going at it, or Jimi's "All Along the Watchtower" as Nite Owl and Rorschach were storming Ozymandias' Antarctic hidout.

What is the most unfortunate thing about the movie, though not the worst part, is how Snyder's direction works so slavishly close to the original book, that the movie doesn't really have an identity of its own. I feel like this will never be considered as Watchmen, but as Watchmen: The Mov- (omg have you read it? about amazing!!!11)ie. I won't cite specific examples out of fear of spoiling.

All things considered, though, the movie was about as good as it could have been, realistically speaking.

Michael Bay was actually considered for directing this film in 2003. ugh. (I liked transformers though; it was a really good looking for a terrible movie). You can see his impressively underwhelming 8% moviemeter on rottentomatoes. Man, the stock of Michael Bay & Co. and the Sam Hamm Corp. isn't doing too well.

Not only that, but the following Actors were at one point considered to play Rorschach: Robin Williams, Doug Hutchison, Simon Pegg, and Daniel Craig. Oh yeah, they also tried to cast Ron Perlman as the Comedian and Kevin Costner for Nite Owl. Ugh.

So really, I was happy with this movie. It won't blow minds and cream pants like the book did, but I thought it was a really pleasant adaptation. Plus Solid Snake wrote the screenplay. How cool is that? Since the movie is damned by the writer of its source material, I feel like I'm eating a forbidden fruit of sorts, but it is pretty damn tasty.

Oh, and for a good laugh...

Next Topic: Terrible Band names: This Shit Needs to Stop.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lone Wolf and Cub and The Saga of the Swamp Thing

Lone wolf and Cub-

This groundbreaking manga, written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima, is a highly influencial work that emerged from the 1970s and inspired a number of films, including Shogun Assassin. Huashaaaww! The manga series enjoyed great popularity in Japan, with it's gritty, blood- drenched portrayal of the Tokugawa era. Comic book publisher Dark Horse eventually picked up the series for American readers, issuing out 28 volumes, the last of which was released in 2000. The cover art for the early volumes of Lone Wolf and Cub were illustrated by Frank Miller.

Lone Wolf and Club is the story of Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro. Formerly an executor for the Shogunate, Ogami's wife is murdered and Ogami himself his sentenced to death for his insults against the Yagyu clan. Choosing to kick ass instead of committing seppuku (ritual suicide where the person spills his own intestines and a kaishakunin beheads the other to ease the pain), Ogami and his son embark on a path of vengeance against the shogunate, while taking various assassination jobs along the way. More often than not, Ogami's employers betray him, though he always knows this beforehand and simply frappes them later, so it's all fine. Much of this graphic novel is new to me, but many scenes from Shogun Assassin are taken direclty out of chapters from this comic. Chapter 8, Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast, is faithfully remade scene by scene in the film where Lone Wolf and Cub travel to a spa only to be trapped in the violent, depraved world of bandits.

I thought this was a really good read. I'm no judge of the authenticity of the story's setting, but one really gets a sense of the period through Koike's meticulous study of Edo period Japan. As for the art, Kojima's black pen platters over the pages as Ogami hacks and slashes his way to vengeance, and every panel and action sequence flows smoothly and effortlessly.

My only gripe about Lone Wolf and Cub is how Ogami deals with all of his enemies with such ease, that it's impossible for the reader to feel any level of concern for him, knowing that not only will Lone Wolf and Cub survive every battle, but will walk away unscathed. Invariably a guy will challenge Ogami saying "I am the greatest swordsman of this region" or "You can't survive my so and so technique". And he does. Every time. Frank Miller's illustration portrays Ogami limping away from scattered dead bodies, his bloody face grimacing in pain as he hobbles away with his child. I don't actually recall anyone even scratching the guy throughout the whole volume. Maybe volume 2 and beyond will have Lone Wolf and Cub encountering enemies of a higher calibur and we can actually fear for their safety.

Still, this is a really cool graphic novel, and I recommend reading it. Each chapter is a bombshell; the action never disappoints and the story's gripping the whole way through. So check it out, and find out where Shogun Assassin comes from.

Saga of the Swamp Thing-

It would totally suck to be a scientist in a comic book universe. With all the disfigurations and mutations going on, it's surprising anyone anyone would bother. The comic's hero, Alec Holland isn't deterred, as he works on a bio-restorative formula. His experiment is sabotaged. On fire and covered in his experimental formula (pretty bad day at the office) he retreats to a nearby swamp, emerging as the Swamp Thing. He then sets out on a mission to become Alec Holland once again.

Alan Moore's Saga of the Swamp Thing takes up where the original story by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson left off. The Swamp Thing, shot and cryogenically frozen, is soon studied by a half man/half plant botanist named Jason Woodrue. Woodrue, also known as Floronic Man, is a fascinating villain who harbors a deep hatred for people, calling them "sobbing steak" and "screaming meat" he condemns "the red world" and its war against the green. Chapter One, "The Anatomy Lesson", is presented in Woodrue's chilling inner monologue about his study of the Swamp Thing and the murder of his employer. Woodrue makes a groundbreaking discovery of the Swamp Thing's origins, betrays his boss by thawing out the Swamp Thing's, and leaves him alone with the enraged creature. After reading Woodrue's report, Swamp Thing stumbles upon a deeply upsetting truth of his origins. Swamp Thing was never Alec Holland, never will be; he is just a pile of vegetative matter that ate Holland and absorbed his intelligence. The plant matter then designed its body to imitate a human.

After a massive psychological break, the Swamp Thing roots himself into the swamp, intending to live out the rest of his existence as part of the ecosystem's consciousness. In Saga of the Swamp Thing, the villain wants what the hero has, and the hero wants what the villain has. Woodrue is a human who wants to fully become a plant, and Holland is a plant who wishes it was human.

Woodrue taps into the samp thing's brainwaves as a means of communicating with the forest. Woodrue then takes on the responsibility of acting on behalf of the plants, waging an all-out war on mankind. The Swamp Thing is forced out of his coma to stop him. Swamp thing undergoes a profound trauma similar to separation anxiety in children when they first realize the burden of being an individual. No longer a part of a comfortable collective consciousness of the green, the Swamp Thing must reclaim whatever humanity he had and separate himself from the swamp to try to stop Floronic Man's insane aggressions against makind.

The first part of the comic is the conflict between Woodrue and the Swamp Thing. The second half is about the arrival of a mysterious man named Jason Blood, who claims to be the devil and the summoning of Fear, an amorphous demon who takes the shape of whatever a person fears.

Since this is written by Alan Moore, I guess what everyone's thinking is, "How good is it compared to Watchmen?". I would say that it's at least as good as Watchmen, but that's just me being weird again. This volume exceeded all my expectations. It has fascinating environmental themes, rich characters, intriguing villains, and special appearances by: Superman, Green Lantern, Beezelbub, and others. The writing is superb. "The night...The night can make a man see himself, can make him look into his own insides, and the night can make him honest enough to accept what he finds there. All the weakness, all the selfishness, the clammy desires and the small cruelties. He's been thinking, thinking since she walked out the door... She needed his help, and he wasn't there. the night... it can bloody up a man's conscience. He's going after her, going to help her, going out into the cold... the dark... the night. The night can make a man more brave, but not more sober. The frozen tableau, crystallized in time, hangs poised like spilled blood yet to reach the ground..." The book is full of this, and it's just awesome. If you see this in a comic store buy it. If you can't buy it, steal it. This was a really hard book to return to the library. Hopefully I'll be able to get my paws on this volume and the others.

Next Topic: Watchmen, the redundant movie.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Berlin Trilogy: Pop with Purpose

Sorry to all (both) of you about the updating delay. My computer was in a coma, indifferent to my cries for it to come back. I considered dousing my computer in gasoline, mixed with my own tears and watch it go up, like a hobo's burning barrel but everything's fine now. Regardless, I still want to talk about David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy, because I think they are fantastic albums and worthy of your attention and admiration.

David Bowie has influenced more musicians in his day than any other artist, rising from glam rock oddity to pop icon. Following his glam rock years, Bowie turned to German minimalist synth pop groups like Kraftwerk for inspiration and recorded what later became known as the "Berlin Trilogy" between 1977-1979. Despite the name for this period, only Heroes was recorded entirely in Berlin, but the trilogy, recorded a mere 500 yards from the Berlin Wall, embodies the zeitgeist of Cold War era Europe.

To create these albums, David Bowie invited musicians such as keyboardist Brian Eno, who is commonly mistaken to be the albums' producer, and guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, both would work together in King Crimson. The albums themselves are all short as LPs go, with Low at 38 minutes, Heroes at 40 minutes, and Lodger clocking in at a paltry 35 minutes. In this case, brevity is indeed the soul of wit. Though succinct, these albums are massive in terms of depth and influence.


Much of the music of Low are the result of rejected compositions Bowie wrote for the film The Man Who Fell To Earth. Although the composer liked Bowie's contributions, he thought they were unsuitable for for the film. Bowie decided to concentrate on a follow-up to his previous album Station to Station. Bowie, reducing his cocaine use from his previous Station to Station recording sessions, was moody and despondent. Many think that the title Low alludes to Bowie's dour mood during Low's recording sessions.

Both Low and Heroes have unusual song organization for pop albums. Side A of the original LPs contained the straightforward, often terse, pop singles while side B was more experimental and mostly instrumental. Eno contributed much of side B, but his direct involvement is most easily heard in A New Career in a New Town. For Low, the opener is Speed of Life, beginning a series of lively, but tepid pop songs. These songs are all great; guitarist Ricky Gardiner absolutely rips through Breaking Glass and What in the World, and the band blazes through these tracks with a punk-like disregard of whether you're listening or not. One fascinating aspect of these songs, bearing titles like Breaking Glass and Always Crashing the Same Car, is how they capture mortal sensations of high-speed urgency. While the tempos are upbeat, Bowie expresses difficult feelings such as isolation and loneliness in Sound and Vision (Blue Blue, Electric Blue/ that's the color of my room where I will live/ Pale blinds drawn all day/ Nothing to do/Nothing to say). In some songs like What in the World, ambivalence is the strongest emotion Bowie can feel when trying to lure out his love who isolates herself in her room. "You're just a little girl with grey eyes/never mind/I'm in the mood for your love" is all he can muster, hinting that he can very easily fall out of the mood.

Speaking of mood, Warzawa, inspired by Bowie walking around Berlin's defunct factories, is the most depressing track that Low has to offer. Lugubrious and beautiful, it is a sad track that is deeply necessary, and worthwhile to hear. From there leads to the nebulous and neutral Art Decade, followed by the trickle and buzz of Weeping Wall. While all the songs on the second side of Low are ambient, strange, and beautiful, the closer Subterraneans best exemplifies the feel of Side B. With heavy Joy Division-like synth and wailing sax, it's one hell of a way to end an album. David Bowie cited this album as his most personal work to date, saying "cut me, and I bleed Low." This album is a masterpiece, and before the end of the same year, Bowie would create another.


Heroes is probably my favorite David Bowie. At least, it has my favorite song of his, the album's title track. It's arranged very similar to Low, with pop songs leading the charge, and atmospheric instrumentals towards the end. Heroes essentially takes Low's framework and makes it lighter and more vibrant, but retains Low's progressive sound. This is achieved with Brian Eno at the synthesizers, but Bowie invited another guest to play for Heroes. One of the greatest living guitarists, King Crimson's frontman Robert Fripp, arrived from America to record all his guitar parts in only a day.

The seismic groove and bombast of V-2 Schneider as an introduction to side B is the polar opposite of Low's somber Warzawa, ending with thundering guitar strokes instead of wailing vocals. Only Sense of Doubt and Neukoln add any significant degree of gloom to Heroes, though Sons of the Silent Age (note on the video: David Bowie actually controls women) is pretty acidic. (Sons of the silent age/ don't walk, they just glide in and out of life/ they never die, they just go to sleep one day). Moss Garden is a beautiful, ambiant song featuring Bowie playing the koto (a Japanese stringed instrument sort of like a harp) with light sounds of rockets only slightly pervading a fragile zen bubble. The album's closer, The Secret Life of Arabia, breaks the silence in the fashion of the album's opening tracks.

As I said, the song Heroes is my favorite song on this album. Even after following excellent fanfare and charge of Joe the Lion and Beauty and the Beast, this stands out. This song, about two lovers divided by the Berlin Wall, is definitely political, but it's told with such innocence and naivete, that it's never overindulgent or preachy. It simply says that loving when told not to is heroic. And what could be more affecting or determined than I can remember/ Standing by the Wall/ and the guns, shot above our heads/ And we kissed, as though nothing can fall?


The final installation of the Berlin Trilogy is probably Bowie's "weirdest" of the three. Released in 1979, Lodger also featured Brian Eno, but also includes guitarist Adrian Belew in lieu of Robert Fripp. Belew has quite a resume, playing for Talking Heads, King Crimson, and Frank Zappa among others. The Secret Life of Arabia, the closer on Heroes, drifts from Europe, signaling the band's shift towards world music. Another deviation from the other two albums is the lack of instrumental tracks.

The more exotic sounds of Lodger accompany Bowie's lyrics, much of which express the intense desire to escape and travel. "Sick of you/Sick of me/ Lust for the free life/Quashed and maimed/Like a valuable loved one/ Left unmaimed" spouts Bowie frantically claustrophobic African Night Flight. This desire is echoed plainly in Bowie's odes to travel in Move On and Red Sails.

The rest of the album are songs that criticize society. Boys keep singing is a sardonic celebration of boyhood, while Repetition rolls the clock forward, revealing a grimacing portrait of domestic abuse. Dj, a song with an overbearing resemblence to Talking Heads, critiques the arrogance of DJs. The album ends with Red Money, which I presume is about, well, blood money, basically.

So there you have it, three of my favorite pop albums. David Bowie would never make albums as good as these, but when you're David Bowie, you don't really need to. This is one hell of a legacy he left with these three albums, and I hope you like them.

Next Topic: Kazuo Koike's Lone Wolf and Cub and Alan Moore's The Saga of the Swamp Thing.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Waiting for the Gift of Sound and Vision

Hey guys, have a seat (you're not actually standing at a computer, are you?) and I'll introduce my blog to get things crack-a-lackin'. "Sound and Vision", which shares the same name with a David Bowie Song, is something I decided to cook up as a creative outlet to share my thoughts on everything seen and heard. This could be a very sad quest since there seems to be so little out there worth seeing and hearing. Waiting for the gift of sound and vision means staring at a pile of shit hoping that a Monet painting pops out. I'll concede and say that 90% of art doesn't matter.

The way I see it, there are two ways of creating art badly. In the first category are artists, we'll call them yuppy hipster elitists, who operate on such a different level from the public, that their words become small and useless; whatever meaning they may have had is lost in all their puffed-up douchbaggery. The second are who I like to call "artards"; they just suck at what they do (I'm looking at you guys Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer).

So we continue to wait, hoping our efforts and patience will be rewarded, and sometimes it is. I created this blog to be there and share with you when it happens.

Next Week's topic: The Berlin Trilogy, Pop with a Higher Calling.