Chicago was given a rare gift when St. Vincent (known to her friends as Annie Clark) stopped by the city to play on two consecutive nights. Both shows—a rainy Sunday at the Metro and on an overly humid Monday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park—were filled with songs such as “Black Rainbow” and “Marrow” that started out pretty and climbed to a transcendent climax.
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Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee
One of the highlights of my visit to the MoCCA convention was attending the ‘AH, HUMBUG!’ panel that featured cartoonists and comedic geniuses Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee in conversation with Fantagraphics editor Gary Groth. Roth is well-known for his broadly published illustrations and cartoons, and his comic strip Poor Arnold’s Almanac. Jaffee is renowned for his foundational work on MAD magazine and his signature MAD ‘fold-ins’, illustrations that fold together to reveal another picture that gives a second meaning to the caption.
The subject of the panel was a satirical humor magazine called Humbug that ran for eleven issues from 1957 to 1958. Together with comics giants Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jack Davis, Roth and Jaffee pooled their money to put together a creator owned and run magazine. Roth said that they were such a talented group of people that when Kurtzman suggested they do an issue that parodied New Yorker cartoons by drawing in its style and making the cartoons not funny, they all came back and said, “I can’t think of anything that’s not funny”.
Part of the discussion focused on why the magazine folded, since it is widely agreed that it represents some of these respected cartoonists’ best work. Roth pointed out that Kurtzman always wanted to do things different, so he made Humbug a smaller dimension than other magazines to stand out. It would have stood out more if it were taller than other magazines, because its small dimensions meant it was lost behind the other books. Jaffee made a note that their distributors were a little shady. They were using the same people to print and distribute and he always felt like the sales figures they were giving them were off. They always came back just below breaking even. He implored the audience to take control of the publishing process of their work as much as possible.
The complete run of Humbug was recently reprinted as a two volume set by Fantagraphics.
Michael Keaton has one of the most unusual career arcs ever. He began as a wild man stand-up, the kind of mirth maniac that typically lands a smalltime movie deal. He parlayed film success in such comedies as Night Shift and Beetlejuice. But when Tim Burton pegged him to play the Caped Crusader in his reboot of Batman, his trajectory took a path that proved both profitable and yet perplexing. There were successes (Much Ado About Nothing, The Paper) and failures (Jack Frost, where he was reduced to playing a rock star turned into a snowman - no seriously), critical acclaim (Jackie Brown) and commercial paydays (Pixar’s Cars). But nothing could have prepared him for the professional happenstance of The Merry Gentleman. Keaton originally signed on as an actor. Fate put him into the role of filmmaker as well - and believe it or not, he succeeds.
Escaping her abusive husband, young Irish girl Kate Frazier picks up and moves to Chicago. There she hopes to start a new life, free of her painful past. One night, she witnesses a man on the top of a nearby building. She’s afraid he wants to jump, and her scream shakes him back into reality. Turns out, the individual was a professional assassin who indeed was contemplating suicide. But when haberdasher turned hitman Frank Logan meets Kate, he is instantly smitten. They soon start seeing a lot of each other. This makes the police suspicious, especially recently divorced ex-alcoholic Det. Dave Murcheson. He too feels affection for Kate, but wonders why this new man has entered into her life. Things grow even more complicated when Kate’s hubby tracks her down. Claiming to be “reborn”, he wants his wife back.
Set up like a short story in both tone and approach, The Merry Gentleman is not out to make some grand cinematic statement. Though Keaton shows amazing vision as a first time director, this is not crime as some manner of glorified Greek tragedy or uber-cool familial opera. Instead, we are dealing with the lives of small timers, people who don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things. Kate is an abused woman who can’t get the safety and security she needs from the system. Taking matters into her own hands, all she wants to do is escape. It’s something similar for Frank. Though we are never quite sure why he kills people as a sidelight (or if the tailoring business is merely a front for his felonious activities), he is clearly at the end of his rope as well. There are several silent sequences where the agony on Keaton’s face registers the world of pain he is in as well.
But it’s Det. Murcheson that ties this all together, the link between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and romantic fantasy. Even though he carries his own oversized baggage into the fray, we can see him picking apart Kate’s convoluted story about how she got her ever—present black eye. And while he barely knows Frank, he can sense something is amiss with both the mystery man’s demeanor and determination about the girl. As a kind of creepy three-way without any of the carnal considerations, The Merry Gentleman asks us to size up the potential relationships and choose up partners. Would Kate really be better off with a killer than some cop who can’t seem to control his gut instinct, especially when the hired gun seems, outside of his amoral behavior, like a genuinely lovely and needy man. It’s these avenues that Keaton must maneuver through and around, and he does so majestically.
Because he himself is an actor and starring in the film, you’d except The Merry Gentleman to be purely character driven, and for the most part, that’s true. Keaton does give his actors room to stretch and expand, and costars Kelly Macdonald and Tom Bastounes take full advantage of the space. This is especially true of our leading lady. She turns Kate into such a mousy mess, so frail and shy that she seems barely present, that the sudden spirit she shows when Frank is around is mesmerizing. Their time together is both bittersweet and biting, an inevitable confrontation always a single conversation away. But Keaton never lets things grow maudlin or clichéd. We know Kate will eventually find out about Frank. The good thing about The Merry Gentleman is that their reaction is much more important than the implied dramatic of such a scene.
Some may be put off by Keaton’s underplayed approach. This is a movie that unfolds in quiet, reflective moments, like a flower that’s petals are slowly opening and revealing. There is a lack of action, though the film still finds a way to provide some disturbing killings along the way. There is a rather inconsistent tone here, yet one imagines if original director (and screenwriter) Ron Lazzeretti had been able to see the project through, he would have handled the material differently. Keaton is playing it safe here, letting the realities play out in ways that stay true without completely mimicking the facts. We know that hitmen don’t act this way, that this kind of abused woman is more of a symbol than a solid individual, and that Det. Murcheson is pushing his advantage in ways that would compromise any case. But because The Merry Gentleman embraces those truisms, the entire project sparkles.
Keaton clearly has a future behind the lens, should destiny push him in such a direction. Indeed, it would be interesting to see what he does with a slightly broader canvas and more subtexts to consider. His eye is remarkable, keen without every being obvious or flashy. And his way with actors is, as stated before, exceptional. Still, The Merry Gentleman is not destined to be some massive mainstream hit. Instead, it’s a slight indie effort that offers innumerable charms without totally testing your patience. In a world where such novice entries would be embraced instead of marginalized, this movie would be indicative of good things to come for all involved. Sadly, something like The Merry Gentleman may simply remain an anomaly - a case where the stars all lined up right, and then glowed brightly instead of simply fading away.
So, someone finally wised up. Some suit, probably lacking the usual double de-caf latte that keeps his brain in perpetual denial for hours at a time, finally saw the light and fired Stephen Sommers - well, at least that is the rumor. With his latest turkey GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra a mere month and a half from hitting theaters, Aceshowbix.com and several other sites are reporting that Paramount, angry at receiving “the lowest test scores in the history of the company” have relieved the director from further directorial duty on the proposed blockbuster. An editor is being brought in to try and “fix” Joe, though it looks like a massive red ink write-off is in this film’s future. Of course, this could all be hype, preplanned positioning to turn a tough sell into a box office curiosity. But with something that seemed only saleable to a certain isolated ‘80s geekdom, Sommers’ dismissal doesn’t seem so strange. It was his hiring that continues to perplex.
There are a lot of unpleasant descriptions associated with the man behind The Mummy - hack, vacant, superficial, untalented - and his rise in Hollywood has been a real head scratcher. In 1989, the 27 year old USC Film School graduate (with a Masters no less - yikes!) wrote and directed Catch Me If You Can - no association with the Spielberg/DiCaprio romp. Considered a cult favorite by some, the story of high school car racers received enough notice in Tinsel Town to greenlight his take on the Mark Twain classic The Adventures of Huck Finn. From there, he took a crack at another literally gem, a live action take on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. With home video providing enough commercial clout to warrant his continued employment, he struck genre gold with the monster movie spectacle Deep Rising.
Indeed, the Treat Williams actioner about a luxury liner overtaken by a giant sea creature brought Sommers to the attention of mainstream movie fans. Many saw his brash, blow shit up style as perfect for a dreary cine-shlock showcase, and it wasn’t long before the powers that be took a liking to his over the top antics. With the success of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and the limited appeal of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), Universal was looking for a way to reinvent even more of their horror icon catalog. Sommers was hired to handle perhaps the most difficult macabre myth of them all - the Mummy - and in 1999, his take on the title terror became a huge box office hit. Looking back now, the reasons are quite obvious.
The Mummy was a gory goofball joke, Indiana Jones without all the Saturday Matinee serial preening and lots of Brendan Frasier cracking wise. Toss in the emerging effectiveness of CGI, the overall polish of the production, and an early Summer audience’s need for some mindless entertainment (the film opened in May), and Universal was elated. As the ticket tallies continued to climb, the studio jumped into bed with Sommers, giving him the go ahead for both a Mummy sequel and a Rock-starring prequel. In 2001, the bloated, over the top The Mummy Returns hit theaters, excesses easily on display for eye candy starved viewers to sup upon. A year later, a Sommers’ co-scripted look at The Scorpion King (directed by the filmmaker’s picture polar opposite, Chuck Russell) arrived. Both movies made money, which increased the director’s creative carte blanche.
But it was his next project that offered the true beginning of his eventual end - allegedly. Sommers was seen as someone who could easily revive the “fun” aspects of the entire Universal horror canon. Given unlimited resources and the commitment from Aussie hunky meat Hugh Jackman, the filmmaker fashioned his most ambitious concept to date - Van Helsing. Taking the vampire hunter from the Dracula legend and refashioning him as a swashbuckling steely man of supernatural ass kicking didn’t seem like such a silly idea at the time, and as images leaked out during the production, fans seemed won over by the look of the various fright flick icons. With another early May opening on the books, Van Helsing was set up to be one of 2004’s biggest givens. Sadly, it turned out to be one of the year’s worst films.
Again, the reasons were obvious. Sommers never says, “Yes” to another excess. He grabs surplus by the shorthairs and hordes it like an ant amassing seeds for winter. Everything about his motion picture gluttony is on display in Van Helsing, from the need to keep things constantly moving in front of the camera to the notion that there is no such thing as too many monsters. This is especially true during the narrative denouement, when we learn that Dracula is hibernating an absolute army of winged demon babies (don’t ask) and then watch as literally billions of these eggs “hatch”, complete with computer enhanced buckets of goo. Given this obsessive need for ‘more’, it’s not shocking that Universal balked when they saw the final product - and the returns. With an estimated budget of somewhere near $200 million, the $120 million gross domestically guaranteed that Sommers would see some “downtime” before advancing on his next project.
Indeed, it’s been five years since that Jackman junk, and along the way, the director has been penned in for several high profile projects. He took over for Steven Spielberg when the superstar auteur dropped out of the When Worlds Collide remake, and he’s also been linked to a Jason and the Argonauts revamp, as well as a take on Tarzan. According to the Aceshowbix.com report, that ape-man update may be where Sommers finally lands, if only temporarily. It’s rare when a high profile director can survive such a concerted diss from a studio (whether it turns out to be true or not, someone from inside the production is floating the story around) - and Sommers is no Oscar winner. Indeed, aside from a couple of fluke successes, his movies are considered glorified garbage - disposable and often indefensible.
So it’s about time someone told Sommers to ‘suck it’. He’s been a less than stellar luminary within the popcorn movie artform. Once again, this is all speculation, and like most innuendo and hearsay, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra could be just another dumb action film, and those usually don’t tank too badly come Summer screening time (right Terminator Salvation?). Backtracking has already started - the offending information, apparently taken from a producer’s messageboard, has since been deleted - and be fully prepared to hear Paramount put on the bravest of faces when it comes to “discounting” the stories (right, just as Fox did when it turned out the workprint of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the final cut of the film, sans F/X). Either way, Joe better make some dough, or Sommers will indeed be the latest in a list of Tinsel Town cast offs. Oddly enough, he may be one of the few that truly deserve it.
Currently bouncing around the blogosphere: Subprime, the hypnotic new animated short by Wisconsin graphic designer Mike Winkelmann, which illustrates the progression of the housing crisis like, well, a Pixar flick about imperiled homeowners.
As if the eagle-eye view of a Lego Dubai wasn’t already cool enough, it also features a a killer score by Ratatatty electronica-rock duo NOBOT. The sound design and audio effects were also pored over by Nobot’s Kyle Vande Slunt; the resulting clicks and bloops are a pretty crucial part of the experience, so you might prefer the alternate version of the track that leaves them all intact. Funny noises make everything better, even catastrophic end-of-civilization crises.