Sunday, July 23, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW: Superman Returns

Superman returns and he appears to be missing something. The sense of awe and adventure are lacking and are replaced by reverence and spectacle in the latest film about The Man of Steel, “Superman Returns”. The idea of depicting Superman (Brandon Routh) as a savior rather than a hero adds to a sense of lost fun. While a savior he may be, he spends an inordinate amount of time foiling penny ante robberies around the world and his alter ego, Clark Kent, has a day job as a reporter for the Daily Planet. If he is going to save us, wouldn’t mankind be better off if Superman had no Clark Kent and was Superman all the time?

It's five years since Earth has seen Superman (Brandon Routh) and coincidentally Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been let out of prison and Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is in mortal peril. Nobody seems to notice the impeccable timing of Superman’s return to Earth with Clark Kent’s return to journalism. The story involves Lex’s dastardly plan to kill Superman and rule a new continent, Lois dealing with an ex-lover coming back to save her countless more times, and Superman looking for…well, what exactly? Is it love, acceptance, a better world? Only Superman can tell us but he sticks to Boy Scout platitudes or reticence.

Through the years in the comics, Superman has been overhauled numerous times to make him less powerful and more human and in essence a complex character. To the general public though, Superman is just that, a super man. It appears that the filmmaker’s attempt at complexity is to throw Superman into a love triangle and it doesn’t work. “Superman II” took on this issue and fared better by having Superman choose between devotion to Lois and devotion to everyone else. Poor James Mardsen, who as Perry White’s nephew here and as Cyclops in the X-Men movies comes out on the short end of the stick in two superhero love triangles in two separate superhero universes, the X-Men being a Marvel Comics property.

This is not to say it is all bad. The new costume with its deep crimson hues is quite fetching and the flying scenes are a joy to behold. The many nods to the comic books, TV shows, and original films prove the appreciation and respect that went into the film. But the good usually has a downside attached. Brandon Routh is fine in his role, although he is more enjoyable as Clark Kent than Superman. Parker Posey has a nice turn as Lex’s moll but isn’t given enough to do. Kate Bosworth is charming as Lois but not nearly as dogged as you would expect this intrepid reporter to be. Kevin Spacey should have stolen the show but Lex Luthor is written less as a narcissistic madman and more as a simple, vengeful, angry person. The action sequences are pretty but fall prey to the big budget dilemma, where if you have it, spend it, and it shows as the action scenes go on too long, much like the movie as a whole.

The main problem is that in the complete adoration of the title character everything else is left behind. Using similar plot points and the same John William’s score, the filmmakers somehow forgot to add passion. There is no chill down the spine as the music escalates and Superman comes to the rescue as there was in the original films. That’s a shame because the film wants us to believe in Superman so much but never lets us.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

My Dog Wears Diapers

So, our dog, Haley, is now wearing a diaper. And, no, she’s not into infantile fetishes or anything. She’s around 14 years old and has slowly become incontinent, or, less politely, she’s constantly peeing on the couch and bed. It started slowly. At first, we noticed some small wet spots. They began to grow. The blanket on our couch began to stink like the NYC subways. Then her coup de grace was to not pee while out on her walks. I would return from work, find a huge wet spot on the sofa, take her out for her evening walk and she wouldn’t pee. Not a drop. Then, soon after being back home, she would settle on the couch, and out it came. The same happened during her nightly walk. No pee on the walk. Pee in the bed during the night. Enter the diaper solution. And wee wee pads to place on the couch and the bed and other favorite spots for when she’s not wearing the diaper.

We traced her problem back a few summers ago when we went for a weekend in the Fingers Lake region of New York. Haley went swimming in the lake. She also joined us on a canoe ride, which was cut short as the canoe tipped over in about 4 feet of water. Haley loved it. I was trying to bail the boat out and get it back to shore and Haley kept jumping into the canoe. I suppose she enjoyed being tipped into the water. But after that weekend, she lost some of the curl in her tail and her back legs weren’t as strong as they used to be. After a visit to the vet, it was determined that she either had a neurological disorder in her hind area or some sort of spinal problem. This eventually led to her not being able to control when she would go to the bathroom.

My first attempt at putting on the diaper ended like a scene from Mr. Mom. I adjusted the tabs thinking the diaper was affixed and then Haley walked a few steps, the diaper fell down her hind legs and she nimbly stepped out of it. Overall, though, she doesn’t seem to mind wearing them. Better than lying in a puddle of one’s own urine, I suppose.

She just began taking medicine to help curb the urination Hopefully, it’ll help some and she’ll be back to peeing on her regular walk schedule.

UPDATE (7/19/06): The medicine is working. She's now able to hold it in and relieve herself on her walks. She went all day yesterday without the diaper and no mess. We're still cautious, but hopefully she's back to her regular scheduled #1's for good.


William H. Macy plays the eponymous Edmond in Stuart Gordon’s film based on a play by David Mamet, who also provides the screenplay. Edmond Burke is disillusioned. On a Friday night, on his way home from work, he stops at a fortune-teller and has his tarot cards read. “You are not where you belong,” she tells Edmond after flipping from the deck. Edmond goes home, has dinner and tells his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon) he doesn’t love her. Then he leaves her.

What follows is an urban horror nightmare that is sometimes funny and almost macabre. First, Edmond heads to a bar where he meets an angry Joe Mantegna, who rails about white emasculation and tells Edmond that all he needs is to get laid, which sets the stage for Edmond’s new enlightenment. From there he heads to a strip club, a peep show, then a massage parlor, has a run in with three-card Monte dealers and later a pimp. Stopping at a bar after all this he picks up the waitress (Julia Stiles) and goes back to her house. Through all these encounters there’s a simmering of anguish that leads to a nonsensical exclamation of his new guiding philosophy, which ends with an act of brutality that is as sudden as it is inevitable.

Macy is arresting as Edmond. He occupies every scene and the bulk of the dialogue. Every second his face registers a different emotion: from confusion to resignation but never understanding. Edmond now knows where he doesn’t belong, but he has no idea where he should be. He also cannot let go of where he was. From his complete gullibility in falling for the three-card Monte game or his haggling every step of the way with each potential sexual encounter, Edmond gauges this new world with the mindset of his old. His own bafflement and pointless new theories keeps the audience at arm’s length of even remotely empathizing with him. There is no promise of fulfillment. It’s the thoughtless wanderings of a man running on empty. His path begins cautiously then turns desperate, as he becomes a victim of urban predators, to ugly as he relishes his conquests.

The film loses some momentum, as the night ends and Edmond must face the ramifications of his actions. But Macy carries the film and provides a provocative and ugly tapestry that is jarring and decayed. It resonates in the way the best of Mamet does: the cadence of the dialouge adds a weight to the words and actions that chill us by their potential of what happens when simmering disappointment reaches its boiling point.

In the end, recalling the words of the fortune-teller that began this, one wonders if Edmond is now really where he belongs or if he was there all along merely exchanging his old cell for a new cell.

An added bonus to last night’s viewing was that both William H. Macy and Stuart Gordon were on hand for the show. In a short introduction, they hinted at the long, tiring time they had trying to finance the movie (the movie itself was shot in 16 days). Gordon said, “Hollywood is terrified of this movie.” Macy quipped, in referring to the 27 producers the film has, that instead of one person giving them a million dollars, they found a million people to each provide a dollar. I don’t know much about the ways of financing a movie, but a movie that has William H. Macy, Denise Richards, Julia Stiles and Joe Mantegna and a screenplay by David Mamet shouldn’t have that much trouble raising money should it? Obviously, it’s not a mainstream movie, but shouldn’t a well-acted, well-written, well-directed movie get more support than avoidance? Or am I just being na├»ve?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

FICTION SERIAL #1: Severance Pay

I. The Train Yard

The night sky was starless, an obsidian mirror reflecting the dull expanse engulfing the world beneath. Jack Fleming didn’t notice. He also didn’t hear the fixed rumbling of a train, pulsed by staccato bursts of fiery energy, passing through the yard two football fields’ lengths to the south. Nor did Jack notice the car speeding up behind his own. The sedan traveled without the help of its lights, the engine muted by the train. Then about a car’s length behind Jack, the headlights ignited, forcing his recognition. His mind had been sorting through the many mistakes he had made over the previous three hours. He added his unawareness to the list.

The car, now alongside Jack, swerved to the right. The scraping of the two cars produced a hideous yawn. Jack turned his steering wheel to roll with the impact and absorbed the collision, but the interloper swerved a second time. Jack’s car, his sister’s Packard, he thought grimly, took the blast and staggered on to the shoulder only to suddenly find itself racing down an incline, stopping with a thud in the soft underbrush about 40 yards from the road. Jostled, yet alert, he quickly reached for the glove box where his gun waited, and as he did, glass thundered on top of him from the passenger side window. Jack fumbled for the gun and lunged for the door. Kicking it open, he stepped out and spotted two figures looming halfway between his car and their own. He saw a third man rushing around from his passenger side wielding a bat. He quickly deduced the cause of the shattered window. Then the bat wielding interloper was upon him. Jack braced himself and tried to roll from the swing. A pain shot through the right side of his back, his upper shoulder absorbing the brunt of the blow. He fell to the ground and scrambled, losing his gun. Next a boot crashed into his temple. He turned onto his back. The bat struck again, this time onto his exposed midsection. Jack heard a crack from his ribcage. He gasped and felt blood climb his esophagus like ocean waves crashing against jetties. By this time, the other two men had joined the third. Jack recognized two of them from earlier in the night at the bar. He knew he played his hand too soon. They knew he knew about the Brody girl. They knew he knew about the Juniper girl. And, the most foolish mistake of all, they knew he knew about Proctor. The fact that he had been run off the road proved that he was on his way to getting what he was looking for. All this to repay a debt from five years earlier when he was a dock worker during the great stock market crash. Now, he just needed to get out of this.

A voice called from near the other car, “You will leave this town, stranger. Tonight.” Jack, breathing heavy, looked in the direction of the voice. Its owner, shadowy and rotund in the dark, shuffled from one leg to the other like a restless schoolboy.

Jack scrambled to his feet as the men approached and backed up to the far end of the car. Misjudging the slope, he lost his footing on the dewy ground and tumbled down the small rolling hill. Finally stopping, he saw three shadows in pursuit. He heard the voice call, “Don’t lose track of him now. Go get him. You’re doing well this night, boys. You’re doing...”

The sound of an engine cut the voice off. Looking to his east, he saw a locomotive in the distance heading towards his position about a quarter-mile away. He ran in the southerly direction of the tracks. About fifty yards into his run, he encountered a mesh wire fence. He shouldered the bottom of it until he was able to scrape underneath. The train was just entering the yard, its pace slowing as it rumbled toward the depot. Jack made a beeline for the train. He heard a commotion behind him as bodies clanged into the fence. He concentrated on the train, which was now lumbering into the depot area. Out of breath, he glanced behind him, and saw one of the men in close pursuit, gaining ground quickly. The train picked up speed. Just in time Jack reached out and grabbed the ladder of the second-to-last car and hoisted himself up. Looking behind him, he saw his pursuer grab the handrail of the last car and disappear behind the other side of the train. Jack reached and tried the sliding door. Locked. He saw a shape above him. Shimmying across the two inch ledge of the train car, Jack found the ladder on the far end at the car and climbed. Once on top of the car, he met his pursuer. Both men, trying to keep balance atop the speeding train, sized each other up. Jack pretended a lunge, then quickly turned and jumped over to the next car. He landed clumsily, his body a dead weight against the tin roof. Picking himself up and clutching his bruised side, he hobbled to the front and clambered down the ladder. He reached for the door. It slid open. He swung in. Once inside, he fell like a sack of flour, exhausted. Soon the other man appeared in the open doorway. He pulled a gun and pointed it at Jack.

A voice from the darkness boomed, “What’s the matter here? We aren’t looking for trouble.” A match was struck and the weathered faces of two hobos flickered in the dim light.

“No trouble that concerns you, old man. This is between me and him,” the gunman said, motioning at Jack.

“We’ll decide that” the hobo replied, his old face worn and burdened by a life on railway cars. Jack saw the gunman’s face go flush and his weapon fall slowly to his side before being unceremoniously dropped to the floor. Through the shadows, Jack saw the reason for his surrender. A glint of moonlight showed a knife blade held by a third stowaway against the gunman’s throat.

“What’s all this now?” the old-timer demanded.

“I have an IWW card here,” Jack said as he fumbled through papers from his pocket. He squinted at one, wiped blood from it and handed it to the man who had been speaking.

“Simon Rayburn. He’s a wobbly all right.” the man read satisfied,

“That man is a union buster” Jack lied, pointing at his now surprised and frightened pursuer. “I tried to organize the mill in this town and he chased me out.” Jack shrugged for effect.

“Get rid of him,” the old-timer said.

With that, the man holding the knife at the gunman’s throat thumped a hand into his chest and dumped him out of the car, closing the door behind him. Jack tried to say thanks, but nothing came out.

This story first appeared in Pocket Knowledge #2

Monday, July 10, 2006

COMIC BOOK REVIEW: Checkmate #1-3 (DC Comics)

The bulk of my comic reading was done between, say, 1985 and 1995: ten strong years of Marvel, DC, and plenty of crappy Independents (this was, remember, during the B&W explosion). I tailed off since that time, buying the odd Vertigo title, and, perhaps, a trade paper back collection of Miller or Moore or Gaiman’s latest. Rare is the new monthly series that compels me to purchase.

I remember the original Checkmate vaguely. I remember enjoying it. It had an alluring mix of international spy story and superhero goofiness. In other words, I had hoped it would use superheroes in espionage stories and not vice versa. Mostly, though, it was vice versa: the broad strokes of the waning years of cold war reality laid the groundwork for broad international intrigue with entertaining results. I should invade my parent’s basement and dust off those old issues and see if they hold up to the above description as I’m hard pressed to recall even one plot point of the series. In the meantime, there’s a new Checkmate series written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Jesus Saiz. I’ve read a few of Rucka’s Queen and Country TPBs and enjoyed them immensely (I’ve not yet waded into his novels). Based on my memories of the old Checkmate and my admiration for Q&C, I looked forward to Rucka’s Checkmate. So far, after three issues, the result has been middling.

Let me begin by saying that the “From the Pages of Infinite Crisis” blurb on the cover of #1 made me nervous. I know nothing of the current DC universe. I don’t read any current comics. In fact, it was the absurd and poorly conceived crossover “events” every year that led to the curbing of my comic reading in the mid-90s. Fortunately, no storylines elsewhere in the DC Universe interfered with the first three installments of the premiere Checkmate story arc, “The Game of Kings.”

In a nutshell, Checkmate is an arm of the United Nations. Their UN charter renewal is blocked by China. Checkmate now has a week before it closes up shop. So, they need to 1) find out why China opposes their existence and 2) convince/blackmail China to allow another vote on the charter resolution so that Checkmate is not disbanded. There’s also a group of bad guys called Kobra that may or may not have some influence on China’s decision. A higher-up of Checkmate is also Chinese and his patriotism may outweigh his allegiance to Checkmate. And the Chinese may or may not be wary of the American influence in the top echelon of Checkmate – a worry that seems not without merit to others inside of Checkmate.

An interesting aspect of Checkmate’s charter is that for every super-powered member of Checkmate there must a non-powered member. There’s also clever use of chess jargon (keep in mind I know little of chess. What’s clever for a chess novice – and here I’m being charitable with myself - may be viewed as pedestrian by a seasoned player). We have White King, White Queen, White King’s Bishop, White Queen’s Bishop and so on. The corresponding Black counterparts exist as well. The White squad deals with the politics. The Black squad deals with the tactical operations and field maneuvers. There’s some nice play between the White King, Alan Scott (Green Lantern) and the Black Queen, Sasha Bordeaux. Scott doesn’t like Bordeaux’s body count on missions. Apparently, he’s laboring under the misapprehension that everyone is in possession of a green ring that can foil people without killing them. (In issue 3, Kobra also sends an assassin after Scott wielding nothing more than a stake dipped in poison. Kobra doesn’t have better ways to deal with a Green Lantern? And yet they’re the main organized threat to Checkmate?)

Perhaps, it’s unfair to call the story average in the middle of its first story arc, but for all that is described above, there’s no real gripping storyline yet: Checkmate v. Kobra: not really fleshed out yet; Checkmate v. UN: so far, it’s convoluted and boring; Checkmate inter-squabbling: predictable. Hopefully, once the story progresses the twists and turns will prove to not be convoluted or predictable. I’ll stick with it until the conclusion of this first arc and decide whether this series is a keeper or not.


The epic and eternal struggle between good and evil – or Light v. Dark as in Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch – has been fodder for countless stories to mixed effect. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy stands as the modern standard-bearer in film. Now comes Night Watch, the first part of a trilogy based on Russian writer Sergei Lukyanenko’s novels.

Night Watch doesn’t veer from the most formulaic of good and evil struggles. It begins centuries ago where a face-off between the forces of Light and the forces of Dark ends in an uneasy truce that manages to stay in place to our modern times. Then, in 1992, when the story begins, the prophecy of the Great Other – the one who will change the balance between the forces – becomes a reality.

The story revolves around Anton, a seer and member of the Night Watch (those in the forces of Light who keep an eye on the Dark. The Dark have the Day Watch). Anton battles a few bad vampires and things turn out badly. At the same time, the Vortex has begun. The Vortex brings with it dire and possibly apocalyptic consequences if the Night Watch cannot figure out what has caused it.

And that’s the basic blueprint. There was probably more going on but some of the overly kinetic music video style direction hampered any understanding of what actually transpired. In fact, some of the fight scenes were so hyper with so many jumpy cuts it wasn’t until the action slows that my bafflement was sorted out. Other scenes though worked so well – the fight with a scissor-wielding vampire for instance – that the herky-jerkiness of the scenes were a fine payoff. Then there’s a scene of a bolt falling from an airplane through the sky and into an apartment building’s air vent that’s straight out of David Fincher’s playbook.

So, what to make of all this? Quite a lot actually. Night Watch accomplishes plenty despite the fact that when it’s over a discerning viewer can point to one too many tidy resolutions – how’d the lights come back on across Moscow for example? And also, perhaps, there is a too studied adherence to the epic struggle of good and evil: the procedural relationship of the truce - vampires applying for licenses from the Night Watch for instance - is hinted at but never explored. This would have added depth to the menial everyday existence of these Others in modern day Moscow.

But these quibbles seem minor in light of the sheer fun of it all. Fun despite the dour and dank atmosphere that permeates the settings. Anton’s closet is full of empty hangers. An owl turned agent of Light, finding herself in need of clothing, dons Anton’s neighbor’s mother’s old wear. It’s refreshing to see a movie so unencumbered by the style impositions forced upon the genre since The Matrix. Night Watch is unconventionally conventional. And isn’t that how all epic battles are won?