Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Collected Valerian Volume 1

Valerian Volume 1 (1967-69/ Collected 2017): written by Pierre Christin; illustrated by Jean-Claude Mezieres; translated by Jerome Saincantin: Before it was a blockbuster financial bomb of a movie directed by Luc Besson, Valerian was a beloved French comic strip ('Bande Dessinee' or 'BD' for short). It began in the late 1960's and influenced Besson and many others French and otherwise.

This volume collects the first three Valerian story arcs. Thankfully, as anyone can attest who lived through the awful English translations of major European comics appearing in Heavy Metal in the 1980's, the translation here is excellent.

Writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres start off slowly, but by the third adventure ("The Empire of a Thousand Planets"), they've really hit their stride. Valerian is a science-fiction adventure set in the far future. Agent Valerian can travel through both time and space to protect his present day, and he does, recruiting medieval peasant Laureline in the first adventure. The first two adventures involve time travel and are intermittently enjoyable.

By the third adventure, Jean-Claude Mezieres's art has progressed immensely from the awkward cartooniness of the first two adventures. Things are still cartoony, but Valerian and Laureline no longer look like Keane kids. His visuals of alien planets and space battles also take a great leap forward. The third adventure is thoroughly engaging. It would have made a great movie. Too bad Besson chose to throw a bunch of Valerian adventures into a blender and then throw the result on the screen.

Christin's writing doesn't have as far to go as the art, but he has also improved markedly by the third adventure. One can see how the strip became beloved. It may have elements of the then-contemporary and the classic science-fiction strip, from Barberella back to Alex Raymond's beautifully illustrated Flash Gordon of the 1930's, but Valerian is also its own comic strip. BD, that is. Laureline and Valerian are hyper-competent without being boring, and the third adventure involves a pretty solid 'Twist' towards the end.

I don't know that I'll revisit Valerian. But I may -- it's certainly superior by the end of this first volume to an awful lot of science-fiction comics. And the second story arc demonstrates that even French comic-strip creators love them some Jerry Lewis. Recommended.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018): written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura; directed by Wes Anderson; starring the voices of Bryan Cranston (Chief), Koyu Rankin (Atari), Edward Norton (Rex), Bob Balaban (King), Bill Murray (Boss), Jeff Goldblum (Duke), Kunichi Nomura (Mayor Kobayashi), Akira Takayama (Major-Domo), Greta Gerwig (Tracy Walker), Scarlett Johansson (Nutmeg), Liev Schreiber (Spots), Yoko Ono (Assistant Scientist Yoko-ono), and Tilda Swinton (Oracle):

Isle of Dogs (say the title fast) may be my favourite Wes Anderson Joint. I haven't seen The Royal Tenenbaums for about a decade, and I'd have to rewatch it to come to a final decision. 

Anyway, 20 years into a sporadically retro future, the citizens of the Japanese city of Megasaki exile all their dogs to the island they dump their garbage on because the dogs are carriers of a mysterious plague. 

A plucky boy travels to the island in search of his dog. Several plucky people in Megasaki search for a cure. Many plucky things happen. Have I mentioned it's all in stop-motion puppetry and models except for some traditionally animated visuals? 

Anderson pursues the techniques he used on Fantastic Mr. Fox to even greater aesthetic nuance and occasional hilarity. The movie looks great. The musical score by Alexander Desplat is also great. The voice work works. Really, the whole thing is great. 

Even the in-film explanations of narrative decisions are funny. The dogs all speak English (well, they speak different languages depending on the country of release; in the English-speaking world, the dogs speak English). Everyone else speaks either Japanese or English in the case of the American exchange student who helps lead the battle for dogs' rights.

When exposition is needed, a translator is around within the world of the film to translate Japanese. In Japan, do the dogs speak Japanese and the people English?

This isn't exactly a children's movie, though older children should enjoy it. There's some violence and a couple of operating room scenes. Anderson seems to have picked up a welcome level of acerbic tartness from adapting Roald Dahl for Fantastic Mr. Fox -- the movie never moves too far into the twee as some Anderson films do. Its antagonists are suitably nasty. The stakes are mortal. 

Isle of Dogs  almost makes me wish that the YouTube parody in which Wes Anderson directs an X-Men movie were at least partially true. But better he stay away from superheroes and mainstream treacle. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

What the Raptors Faced (2018)

So what did the Toronto Raptors, now down and doomed three games to zero to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavs, face in even getting to the NBA Finals this year?

Well, let's look at NBA teams that have won without a superstar/'Top 67' player...

I expanded the NBA's Top 50 at 50 list because it came out more than 20 years ago or so, adding players rather than subtracting and adding to the top 50. I came up with 17 more. So the next 17 for me would be the following:

LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Reggie Miller, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jason Kidd, Dwight Howard...


Last team to make a Finals without a Top 67 was... the Detroit Pistons in 2005. 

And the last team to win without a Top 67 was those same Pistons in 2004. 

But that team had All-Star players having career years (Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, and Chauncey Billups), one freak who could have been an All-Star if he felt like it (Rasheed Wallace), a great coach (Larry Brown) and a completely dysfunctional Lakers team to beat in the Finals...

Before that? 

Maybe the 1978-79 Seattle Supersonics. But they had one player better than anyone the Raps have this year (Dennis Johnson) and two really good players (Paul Silas and Gus Johnson). They also played a team that had beaten them the year before, the Bullets, which had two HoF/borderline top 67ers of its own (Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were on the top 50 at 50 list) but not much else.

Before that? 

Um, that's it. 

Even teams that make the Finals without a superstar are rare. 

Even the 40-42 Houston Rockets of 1980-81 who lost to Bird's Celtics, the only Finalist in NBA history with a losing record, had Top 50 Moses Malone in his prime. The Portland Trailblazers, who lost to the Bulls and the Pistons in the Finals in the early 1990's? Clyde Drexler was a Top 50 at 50. 

So yeah. Top-heavy league.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Elvis: The Searcher (2018)

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018): written by Alan Light; directed by Thom Zimny: 

This two-part, three-hour-plus HBO documentary is hagiographic to the point of occasional absurdity throughout. 

However, it also offers an overview of Presley's life through photos and footage and commentary from those who knew him (Priscilla Presley, assorted producers and friends) and those who admired him (most notably, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty). 

It's worth your time if you love Elvis or if you simply don't know that much about the arc of his career. By the end, it plays like a tragedy, one that F. Scott Fitzgerald might have penned had he been around for the Elvis Era (1953-1977). Recommended.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

This scene may not be in movie.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018): written by everybody; directed by Joe and Anthony Russo; starring everybody: Mostly diverting, overlong superhero slug-fest struggles to balance bombast and quippiness and mostly succeeds. 

Visually and writing-wise, it's a huge step down from preceding Marvel movies that include Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Ant-man, Spider-man: Homecoming, and Dr. Strange. It's a bit like eating mush made from cotton candy.

The plot thread starring Iron Man, Spider-man, and Dr. Strange is terrific. The Wakanda battle scenes make little strategic or tactical sense, and suggest that, among other things, none of the Avengers or Wakandans have ever seen Zulu

Or read about military battles after the invention of projectile weapons. Wait, didn't Captain America FIGHT in World War Two?

Thanos has been much-changed from his tirelessly malevolent comic-book self into a mournful giant who desperately needs a hug that he never receives. Maybe in Part Two! Lightly recommended.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Two-Minute Rule (2006) by Robert Crais

The Two-Minute Rule (2006) by Robert Crais: On the day bank robber Max Holman gets out of jail after a ten-year sentence, his son is murdered. Holman had been estranged from his son for more than a decade. And his son was a police officer. So begins The Two-Minute Rule.

Best known for his Elvis Cole and Joe Pike detective thrillers, writer Robert Crais here builds a compelling and sympathetic character in Holman, dubbed "the Hero Bandit" by the press because he got arrested at his last robbery while performing CPR on one of the bank's customers. As his son's murder looks fishier and fishier, and while the LAPD deems it closed, Holman calls on the help of the former FBI agent who put him away, Katherine Pollard.

Crais makes the nuts-and-bolts of crime, law enforcement, and bank robberies entertaining. More importantly, Holman is his most fully developed character, at least within the pages of one novel rather than a series. Holman is believable even when the plot gets twisty and turny. So too Pollard, retired early to raise a son, left alone when her estranged husband died of a heart attack, and now bored -- and in debt -- in her unwelcome retirement.

Everything builds to the sort of climax that seems ripe for a decent Hollywood director. Crais is an expert choreographer of action sequences, and this is one of his best -- and at points funniest. Recommended.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Jack Kirby's Black Panther

Black Panther Vs. Abominable Snowman!
Jack Kirby's Black Panther (1976-78; collected in two volumes 2005): written by Jack Kirby with Jim Shooter and Ed Hannigan; illustrated by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer with Denys Cowan: Jack Kirby's Black Panther followed the cancellation of Jungle Action and the premature end to Don McGregor and Billy Graham's run on Black Panther in that Marvel comic book. Readers who followed the character from one book to the next must have suffered from whiplash. 

Kirby's Black Panther is a super-scientific adventurer whose first multi-issue adventure involves a team-up with a diminuitive collector of weird antiquities named Mr. Little on a quest to find the second of two objects known as King Solomon's Frogs. They've discovered one. It periodically pulls someone or something in from another time. Together, the two assume, the two frogs should form a controllable time machine. OK!

This is Jack Kirby in full-on lunacy mode. It's great lunacy, mile-a-second action, wild double-page spreads, and some of the oddest of Kirby's 1970's narratives. I mean, a time machine shaped like a frog (why?) is weird enough. 

But the time machine will eventually pull in a dangerous, hyper-evolved human from millions of years in the future. There will also be a hidden kingdom founded by seven samurai. There will be a half-brother of T'Challa (that is, the Black Panther) who will seize control of the kingdom of Wakanda. There will be a Council of relatives of the Black Panther who will come together from across the world to battle that half-brother while T'Challa is stuck in the samurai kingdom.

Oh, and a lost Black Panther will stumble across a science-fiction movie filming in the North African desert. It isn't Star Wars, but it's clearly a nod to the Tunisia filming location of Star Wars. Kirby's work on a film adaptation of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light would be used to help some of the American hostages out of Iran. Remember Argo? They actually shot but didn't use a scene with Jack Kirby. It's true!

Whiplash, though, oh boy! This is rollicking science fantasy laced with absurdity. If you like more serious versions of Black Panther that address social and racial concerns, this is probably not your Black Panther. I love it. I love McGregor's version too. I am entertained by multitudes! Highly recommended.