Oscar Snubs: Who got dissed at Oscar 2009?

My annual “shoulda been a contender” list is up at MSN now.

Best Picture

Academy voters have proven quite open-minded about hobbits and elves, serial killers, gangsters and all manner of eccentrics when it comes to handing out Oscar gold. So why is it that comic-book movies still get no love from Oscar? “The Dark Knight” has been racking up critics’ awards and guild nominations all season, only to be knocked out of Academy Award contention by the self-consciously serious “The Reader.” Literary pedigree and “important” themes trump pop-culture mythology. Apparently voters don’t know how to respond when the metaphors are masked in spectacular set pieces and Halloween costumes.

From the flamboyant to the sublime: It would have been lovely to see Kelly Reichardt‘s quietly intimate “Wendy and Lucy” get a nom and some much-deserved attention. And although foreign films are rarely acknowledged in the top category, it would have been exhilarating to see “A Christmas Tale” (MSN Movie’s pick for best film of 2008) in that company, especially because it wasn’t even submitted for the Foreign Language Film category. At least “WALL-E” has its Animated Feature Film nomination (and is pretty much a shoo-in to take home the statue).

See the complete list here.

The Best DVDs of 2008

My picks for the best DVD release of 2008 are now up at MSN.

Here’s my number ten pick:

10. “The Dark Knight: Two-Disc Special Edition”: “The Dark Knight,” the second film in Christopher Nolan‘s character reboot of the masked avenger, is the best of the superhero movies of the year, a pulp tragedy with costumed heroes and villains taking the roles of mythic gods and monsters and with an urban noir aesthetic to the melodrama. The DVD delivers just the kind of featurettes on stunts and special effects that fans love in a smart, sharp little package. To give credit where it’s due, the deluxe editions of “Iron Man” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” are even more impressive packages, with a surfeit of behind-the-scenes material and imaginative supplements delivered by enthusiastic filmmakers. But while they get points for creativity, “The Dark Knight” is the better film. Needless to say, the Blu-ray editions of each are the stuff that Blu-ray dreams are made of.

And my number five TV pick:

5. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series”: For four years, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were TV’s coolest cold warriors: Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, top agents of U.N.C.L.E. (the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, of course). Hatched in the era of James Bond and “The Manchurian Candidate,” the show mixed espionage plots and high-tech gadgetry with a trace of sardonic humor and the continental charm of Vaughn’s dashing Solo. The entire run is creatively packaged in a box set designed as a secret agent attaché case, and Warner fills it with the kind of supplements more often associated with James Bond films: hours of featurettes, bonus interviews and the funky ephemera that the cult show inspired.

For the rest of the picks – all ten movies DVDs, five TV sets and one Blu-ray disc – just follow the link to MSN here.

DVD of the Week – ‘The Dark Knight’ – December 9, 2008

Superhero films have been getting increasingly sophisticated and decidedly darker as they become (for better or worse) a full-fledged genre. With Batman Begins, writer/director Christopher Nolan (drawing inspiration from the revisionist Batman comic books by Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb) rebooted the Batman mythos for the big screen, bringing the often lighthearted hero back to the shadows, both figuratively and literally. Now, with the origin story out of the way and the obsessive hero established, Nolan delivers a pulp epic with mythic overtones for the darkest of comic book heroes with The Dark Knight, a pulp tragedy with costumed players and elevated stakes and terrible sacrifices.

Heath Ledger leaves a legacy

In a Gotham City that is part violent gangster thriller of the thirties and forties and part modern metropolis with a rotten foundation under its magnificent cityscape, The Batman (Christian Bale) has cast an aura of fear across the underworld with his vigilante war on crime. He doesn’t trust many people in the corruption-riddled halls of justice, but he takes a chance on the man called Gotham’s White Knight: crusading new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who brings a hint of grinning arrogance to Dent’s passion).

Shambling into the battle comes The Joker (the late Heath Ledger). With his stringy hair, greasy make-up over the smile carved into his cheeks and garish, street-battered suit, Ledger gives us a volatile psychotic far removed from Jack Nicholson’s showboating exhibitionist in Tim Burton’s “Batman.” He works over his sardonic dialogue in a rumbling wise-guy whine and off-balance patter, his tongue darting in and out like a lizard, his slumping posture so at ease in the chaos of his capers it’s disturbing.

Nolan delivers the expected set pieces for a big screen superhero spectacle, from a sharp bank heist executed (in every sense of the word) with impersonal efficiency by a masked gang to a high-speed ambush in an underground tunnel to a nearly incomprehensible rescue operation where the good guys are working at cross purposes. But The Dark Knight is also a tighter, smarter, more focused film than Batman Begins and Nolan has become a more effective storyteller.

It’s one of the best American movies of the year (I review it on my blog here) and a terrific DVD.

The “Two-Disc Special Edition” includes “Batman Uncovered: Creation of a Scene,” a collection of over an hour of featurettes on the making of key scenes (like blowing up the hospital – for real! – and a real life stunt jump from a skyscraper more thrilling than the finished scene) and versions of the six scenes shot in IMAX format presented in their original aspect ratio…. The Blu-ray edition presents the IMAX version of the film (the IMAX scenes fill the entire widescreen TV frame)…

I review the DVD in my MSN column here.

Also new this week is Olivier Assayas’s breakthrough film Irma Vep in a new “Essential Edition” from Zeitgeist:

French director Olivier Assayas satirizes the French film industry and pays affectionate tribute to the joys and frustrations of filmmaking in his offbeat 1997 comedy. Hong Kong icon Maggie Cheung plays herself in this playful lark about a company trying to remake the silent film classic Les Vampires with an unstable director (aging New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud) and a power struggle within the crew.

My DVD review is here.

Continue reading “DVD of the Week – ‘The Dark Knight’ – December 9, 2008”

Some Thoughts on Comic Books and Serial Storytelling

A few months ago, I wrote a review of The Dark Night where I made the observation that comic books and movies had been growing closer over the past couple of decades:

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"The Dark Knight" - graphic inspiration for Nolan's take
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"The Dark Knight" - the movie

The development of the superhero movie genre has been fascinating to watch. Over the past couple of decades, comics have become more cinematic and sophisticated and adult, leaving the preteen audience behind to focus on college readers and adult collectors. At the same time, movie blockbusters have become more juvenile and franchise oriented, while on the production side they have adopted technologies that allow them to replicate the kinds of images and action spectacle previously only possible on the page. In retrospect, the superhero movie blockbuster seems like an inevitable meeting of storytelling forms. What makes it so interesting is the way the genre has been attracting some of the most talented and cinematically enthusiastic directors: Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Sam Raimi, and now Christopher Nolan.”

It’s clear that the dark visions of Frank Miller’s take on the Batman had a tremendous influence on the movies, visually and thematically, though I would argue that Batman: Year One is an even greater influence than the more celebrated The Dark Knight Returns.

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Once this was the only kind of show open to comic-book writers

There is, however, a major storytelling difference: comics are (with exceptions) a serial format. Movies are (for the most part) self contained. Sure, there is the increasing franchise aspect to blockbusters, but even then it’s a wait of a couple of years between. In that aspect, comics are closer to TV storytelling, especially with the increase in long-running story arcs in such shows as Lost and Heroes. There, too, you can see the two formats borrowing from one another, not just in the conventions but in the increased crossover in writers.

Back in the seventies, it was almost impossible for a comics scribe (and I mean specifically superhero comics) to make the leap to television (apart from animated superhero shows) or screenwriting. When they did (like Roy Thomas on Fire and Ice and Conan the Destroyer) the results were invariably awkward and cartoonish. Gerry Conway, longtime Marvel writer (among his claims to fame: the Death of Gwen Stacy and the creation of The Punisher, both in The Amazing Spider-Man), quietly made the transition from animated kid shows to TV mysteries and cop shows and has since become a producer on such shows as Diagnosis: Murder and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but he’s an exception to the rule.

Or rather, he was an exception. In the last decade, the barriers between the media became much more porous, and not just on the genre shows like Hercules and Xena and Mutant X. Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween and Spider-Man: Blue, among other notable work) is a writer and producer on Heroes. Brian K. Vaughn (Runaways) is a writer on Lost. Frank Miller retreated from his first Hollywood experience (Robocop 2) to concentrate on comics, only to return and become a director in his own right, following Sin City with his take on Will Eisner’s The Spirit (due this Christmas).

Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Comic Books and Serial Storytelling”

The Dark Knight

I’d say I like superhero movies as much as the next guy. But that’s probably not true. I probably like them more than the next guy. I spent years collecting comic books and, after dropping out for a dozen years or so, got back into the artform with graphic novels and collections. That’s given me a love-hate relationship with the burgeoning superhero genre, embracing the best (the first X-Men and Spider-Man films) and decrying the worst (The Fantastic Four and Elektra, among others).

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"I'm an agent of chaos"

The development of the superhero movie genre has been fascinating to watch. Over the past couple of decades, comics have become more cinematic and sophisticated and adult, leaving the preteen audience behind to focus on college readers and adult collectors. At the same time, movie blockbusters have become more juvenile and franchise oriented, while on the production side they have adopted technologies that allow them to replicate the kinds of images and action spectacle previously only possible on the page. In retrospect, the superhero movie blockbuster seems like an inevitable meeting of storytelling forms. What makes it so interesting is the way the genre has been attracting some of the most talented and cinematically enthusiastic directors: Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Sam Raimi, and now Christopher Nolan.

With Batman Begins, writer/director Christopher Nolan (drawing inspiration from the psychologically brooding comic book rebirth of the seventies and the more recent revisionist Batman comic books by Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb) rebooted the Batman mythos for the big screen, bringing the often lighthearted hero back to the shadows, both figuratively and literally. The film was narratively dense but also a little ungainly, with a massive climactic set pieces that dwarfed the human scale of the action drama with the epic destruction.

With the origin story out of the way and the obsessive hero established, Nolan delivers a worthy story for the darkest of comic book heroes with The Dark Knight. The result is the new gold standard for superhero noir. Continue reading “The Dark Knight”