DVD review at PM

Yesterday, my review of the DVD for 3 Backyards, Eric Mendelsohn’s (Judy Berlin) latest film, posted at PopMatters:

As much as I can admire what makes 3 Backyards different from more conventional suburban dramas, Iā€™m also left with the feeling that there may be less to the film than the sum of its parts. There is an effective sense of simultaneity, of lives being led here and now, but the larger whole, the interconnections implied by the metaphoric mapping of the characters and images of a greater nature, never cohere in a meaningful way.

Read the full review.

June comics

In the tfaw box this month:

Single issues:

Shorter takes:

  • Angel Yearbook (IDW). I am still planning on writing a separate post about the IDW Anglverse.
  • Birds of Prey #12 (DC). Well, just playing out the string now.
  • B.P.R.D.: The Dead Remembered #3 (Dark Horse). Liz is forced to feel the full potential of her power, but also gets to be a kid. A nice story from Mike Mignola et al, and I see that more Liz is on the way.
  • Carbon Grey #3 (Image). Lots of atmospherics and deep mythology, which, I guess is enough, because I will be looking for the next mini.
  • Generation Hope #7 (Marvel). An affirming ending. I also like Kieron Gillen’s use of Kitty in these last few issues.
  • Hellboy: Being Human & Hellboy: The Fury #1 (Dark Horse). A creepy Southern gothic one-shot and the start of a new major arc in the Hellboy saga. A good month from Dark Horse.
  • iZombie #14 (DC/Vertigo). Finally picking up on the change in title formatting. I can see the different threads coming together in the narrative here, including the Dead Presidents.
  • The Li’l Depressed Boy #4 (Image). A revelation that suggests Jazz is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl for sure. Now, the key will be how does LDB handle this news.
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 (Marvel). I am a little confused by the numbering here, but am happy for the contuation of the epic craziness that is this book.
  • Silver Surfer #4 (Marvel). More on this next month when the series wraps.
  • Spider-Girl #7 (Marvel). Penultimate issue. More next month.
  • Sir Edward Grey, Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever #5 (Dark Horse). Part of the good month from Dark Horse, and I guess the were buffalo was real. Don’t have as much to write about this as I thought I would, but I look forward to more Edward Grey books. These stories help to expand the historical range of the Hellboy universe.
  • X-23 # 10 and #11 (Marvel). Happy/sad that these issues did not convince me to keep pulling the title. Happy because I need to economize on comics, sad because I would like to get behind the book.
  • Uncanny X-Force #10 and #11 (Marvel). New storyline focused on Warren, alternate realities, and Dark Beast. This title remains very cool.
  • Uncanny X-Men #537 (Marvel). Kruun’s revenge continues. Lots of action. More well plotted and paced work from Kieron Gillen.
  • X-Men: Prelude to Schism #2 (Marvel). Talky.

Longer take:

Avengers Academy #14 and #14.1 (Marvel). As I remark most months, this is A’s book, but I enjoy it, too. I’m always happy to see a stable creative team on a title, and this one has clearly benefitted as Sean Chen, Scott Hanna, and Jeromy Cox have been given time to create distinct identities for the characters, and Christos Gage has been allowed to explore a set of themes related to heroism and celebrity that I don’t think would have registered as clearly as they have without a coherent vision for the book. What started as a pull for my kid, has turned into one of my more consistent reads. Nice work.


Approximate Continuum Comics (Fantagraphics).


Batgirl: The Flood (DC).


Clonk Volume 1 (Kettledrummer Books).


DV8: Gods and Monsters (DC). Brian Wood uses these characters to ask questions about “powers” and how people see themselves and are seen by others and how that dynamic shapes identity. I especially like the subtle variations in how the central cast respond to the situation that they are put in by the Powers that Be. Gorgeous, powerful art by Rebekah Isaacs.

Even the Giants (AdHouse).


Hellblazer: City of Demons (DC/Vertigo).


Mystique by Brian K. Vaughn Ultimate Collection (Marvel).


Osborn: Evil Incarnated (Marvel).


X-Men: Age of Apocalypse Prelude (Marvel).

Some horrendous art in the first half of the book, bizzare, plastic-y anatomy on the women. Gets better. One of those collections that helps me to fill in some of my missing history.

Yeah! (Fanatagraphics).

It is probably due to the infectious power of Gilbert Hernandez’s art that this book feels a lot like a lost “Love & Rockets” chapter. The fact that I only having a passing familiarity with Peter Bagge’s work undoubtedly contributes to that feeling, too. There’s so much going on in the faces of the characters here, including in the background, tongues sticking out, eyes dilating, mouths agape – lots of fun. Strangely, I still found reading the book kind of exhausting, lots of chatter and narration to read, full of crazy asides and whacked out science fiction fantasy, but thick. Many of the ideas about, for example, space limos and odd planets, also seems very Los Bros Hernandez, and suggests that maybe(?) more of a joint authorship than the credits imply. Then again, I haven’t read much Bagge.

Starting next month I think I will be selecting a few comics to write about more extensively for these posts rather than doing the laundry list approach.

New Blu-ray review

I have a review of the Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) Blu-ray at PopMatters:

In digital high definition, the picture reveals details, particularly in the weathered, ruddy, often grimy faces of the actors, that have likely not been seen with this kind of clarity before. This in no way detracts from the viewing of the film, if anything it highlights the care and craft that went into the production, but Once Upon a Time in the West is, literally and figuratively, a movie about the dirt under the fingernails of its characters, and how everyone has some of that dirt, no matter how they might appear on the outside or to those in society at large. Somehow that deliberate moral ambiguity, that greyness and imperfection, seems more at home in an analog context than in a digital one.

Read the review. (As an additional point of interest, I adapt Nicholas Rombes’ 10/40/70 experiment for the review. Details in the full article).

SUPER 8 and the significance of surprise

Last weekend, Anne-Marie, A and I saw Super 8 and we all had a great time. In fact, I can’t think of when I last had the kind of visceral fun at the movies that I had this past Saturday while at Super 8. I’ve been thinking about why that is, not so much to question the feeling itself, but because it isn’t hard to find fault with the movie.

First and foremost is that it is long overdue for a film like this to have “the girl”, in this case Elle Fanning’s Alice Dainard, be the hero and not just the sidekick/love interest/victim. This is not a criticism of Fanning, who, like Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb, does fine work as a “normal” kid caught in tough emotional circumstances and serious, even traumatic, strangeness, but I am disappointed that J.J. Abrams, of all the current popcorn auteurs in Hollywood, can’t seem to conjure a female protagonist for an action and adventure film.

In addition, predictably, given the periodization, active referencing of other films, and adolescent cast, there are moments that are too precious, one exchange of dialogue involving a Walkman stands out for me, and others that verge on camp, particularly in showing Charlie’s (Riley Griffiths) family.

Either of these problems, the gendering of the narrative and preciousness/camp, could have been distracting, but weren’t.

In part, I think, neither of these issues, ultimately, loom that large. Fanning’s character is still interesting for being in a clearly supporting, and traditional, role, and none of the period details or looking back results in a fetishizing of the past, and the campy, precious moments are brief and largely forgivable. So, more than how the faults are mitigated is how significant are the film’s virtues.

Yes, I am, in some ways, the target demographic. Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T. (1982) are films from my childhood, and I was not immune to the movie’s nostalgia. However, I think that it is to J.J. Abrams’ credit, as well as DP Larry Fong and production designer Martin Whist, that, while Super 8 overtly references the Spielberg films in its script and its look and feel, my brain also kept going to Breaking Away (1979), probably in the same way that so many others also thought of Stand by Me (1986), and Time Bandits (1981), which is a giant film for me, more important than Star Wars (1977) or the films listed above. So, I think that the nostalgia it evokes is of a complicated and specific kind, which is for movies and for Hollywood just before and just after the blockbuster became the engine of the industry, and not so much a general harkening back to the late 70s or early 80s.

More important than nostalgia is that Super 8 holds surprises; watching it involves real discovery as the film’s mysteries are revealed to the characters (and the way the narrative is made, I don’t think it matters much that the central mystery ends up being something familiar; what matters is that you need to watch the movie to find out what happens).

What I have been thinking about a lot since the weekend is how uncommon it is for a film like this to be based on an original script. Films centered on adolescents coming of age through extraordinary adventure are, today, typically taken from books and kid/teen/YA fiction.

The economics of this is not hard to figure out ā€“ pre-existing stories and characters offer studios “proven” commodities to work with ā€“ but it does mean that people go to the movies wanting to see things they already know as opposed to the unexpected, and, indeed, too much of the latter will alienate the core audience. Super 8 is significant for wanting to surprise the audience, or at least in wanting to offer an experience that is as close to purely cinematic as you can get in a popular film.

I also hesitate to attribute too much of the movie’s appeal to nostalgia because the theater I was in was full of kids, all of whom seem fixed to the screen, including A. Generally, we go out to dinner after seeing a movie and our “rule” is no talking about the film until we get to the restaurant. After Super 8, A struggled mightily to follow that rule, which is as good an indication as any that she had exactly the kind of experience that its makers hoped for.

I don’t know if Super 8 will hold up to repeated viewings, or how well it will wear, but I’m grateful for the fun and joy of the first viewing.

Questions about place and the interpretation of MEEK’S CUTOFF

It’s been a few weeks since we saw Meek’s Cutoff, but one question I keep thinking about is the difference that place, or the context for viewing, might affect how people read the film.

I assume that most people who go to see Meek’s will have some vague notion of “Oregon” and “the Oregon Trail”, or at least “pioneers”, but I think it’s also safe to assume that the high desert landscape and region in which the characters get lost and disoriented will not be familiar to many (it’s interesting to me that even the official summary of the film has only a general description of where it takes place, referring to the setting as “high plain desert”, an oddly imprecise turn of phrase). I also assume that many viewers will have, at most, a fuzzy sense of “the Willamette Valley”, the “Eden” towards which the families are all heading.

I live in the Willamette Valley, and for most of my life I have lived here and in Portland. I saw Meek’s at Salem Cinema right in the middle of the Valley. I see the green and fertile lands promised by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) weekly along 99W and the country roads between Monmouth and Corvallis. I learned Oregon history as a kid, and as an adult I’ve taught courses on Western, Pacific Northwest and Oregon geography. I have a specific frame of reference for understanding where and why the Tetherows, the Gatelys, and the Whites are taking the risks they are in traversing the desert to get over the Cascades. Most importantly, I have a frame for reference for the myths that come from Meek’s mouth when assuring Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) that their fortune lies just over the mountains.

Meek’s promises of easy and instant wealth are exaggerations and propaganda, but I also know that the landscape he references encourages such mythologizing, makes it persuasive. Settlers like the families in the film would have seen a lush, green lowland seemingly made by God for farming (in fact, it was the Native American use of fire that shaped the landscape in that way, but most white Americans did not comprehend that. David Douglas, for example, was likely typical in seeing Native burning as a sign of savagery on the part of indigenous people). You can still get that impression today, due in part to Oregon’s land use laws which are used to control urban and suburban growth.

(Without digressing into a theoretical discussion of landscape, one way to read the fact that the state’s land use system remains largely unique in the U.S. is as another instance where the land has played a role in how it gets seen. The same qualities that made white settlers in the 19th century see an agricultural Eden worked in the 20th century to persuade people to enact barriers to urban sprawl).

It is easy to see Meek as nothing more than a charlatan, putting on a performance for the Tetherows et al. And no doubt he is, but I wonder how much more complex he seems as a character if you have a specific knowledge of western Oregon and an understanding of the plausibilities in his mythopoetic utterances, and whether that bolsters your impression of other moments of truth from him. For example, I think that there is truth in his rueful account of slaughtering Native Americans. I can see Meek as someone who has just enough real knowledge, even if only about the rhetoric of the Westward journey or the landscape in general, to persuade level-headed people like Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) that he has a shortcut over the mountains. But maybe viewers without a more detailed frame of reference for the history and geography of the film are more likely to see him as pure con artist, or to think that the families are entirely deluded about what they will find at the end of the Oregon Trail.

The ending of Meek’s Cutoff is notable for its abruptness and deliberate ambiguity. There are a number of ways to read the film’s final shots. A colleague of mine from the history department, who teaches and researches on the Pacific Northwest and American West, and who has a familiarity with the locations of the film, is able to give a compelling reading to aspects of the ending that would be difficult to make without his particular knowledge of place. Of course, maybe Kelly Reichardt and Jon Raymond made the film without meaning for audiences to specifically locate the closing shots, but they did make the film with a pronounced open-endedness, one that invites the multiple interpretations.

In a broader sense, I left the theater thinking about how connected I felt to the characters, from knowing, for example, how oppressive northeastern Oregon can seem even when in a car on the freeway and only a matter of hours from home in the Willamette Valley. Or feeling a kind of kinship with the families for having chosen to live in exactly the place that they are risking life and limb to reach. Oregon is not one of those places, like Los Angeles or Paris or New York, that moviegoers, globally, have some concept of. Meek’s Cutoff reads like a deeply place-based text, but maybe that very assumption is driven by my own experiences. In either case, I am curious as to how people without my connections understand the film, its locations, and characters.