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by Bob Clark

There’s a passage in Scott McCloud’s graphic novel (or perhaps the better term is “graphic essay”) Understanding Comics in which the cartoonist examines the ways in which new artistic mediums sometimes rely on the principles of past forms in order to gain their footing. When films began, they were often little more than stageplays recorded on celluloid until directors began to take advantage of the newborn disciplines of camerawork and editing, and when television started out it chiefly resembled radio with a visual component, or films reduced to living-room screens (depending on who you ask they’ve never stopped being that). He didn’t directly mention the live playhouse experiments of the early 50’s where neophyte creators like Rod Serling and John Frankenheimer got to cut their teeth as professional writers and directors before graduating to feature films or their own series, but in the best examples of that form you can sometimes see the idea that McCloud was referring to come to life– the sometimes shaky, sometimes graceful first steps of a genuinely new and potential-rich creative medium, born of the clumsy and hodgepodge marriage of more established peers.

The fact that Tony Kushner’s landmark play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes would find its home on television can in some ways be recognized as a sort of artistic destiny, reaching back to the close relationship that newborn, cinematic television had with the stage in its early days. But it shouldn’t go overlooked just how unlikely and revolutionary it was for this work to thrive in such a mainstream forum, for reasons ranging from the political to the dramatic, to the purely aesthetic. It all looks so easy, fourteen years out from Mike Nichols’ saintly production of the epic-length Tony winning play– spanning two three hour installments and detailing, among other things, the catastrophic effect of AIDS on the gay communities of New York in the 1980’s and a whole host of legacies revolving around the worst abuses of America’s power throughout its lifetime. The fact that it was made with an Oscar winning director and flamboyantly scenery-chewing Oscar winning stars, the fact that it was made on HBO, ground-zero both for prestige television and the sometimes derided subgenre of AIDS dramas (sandwiched between the star-stutted And the Band Played On and The Normal Heart), or even the fact that its writer would since go on to become a dependable scribe for no less than Steven Spielberg on Munich and Lincoln (a fact that would probably make every single character in this play gag for multiple reasons)– it’s all very tempted to take Angels in America for granted and simply move on to the next celebrated bit of 00’s television and leave it at that.

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By Bob Clark

The careers of most celebrated anime directors, generally speaking, begin on television, and one might say that if they’re lucky, they remain there. Sure, filmmakers like Miyazaki and Takahata are renowned and beloved the world over for their feature works, but there’s a liveliness and spontaneity to the workmanlike stuff they did for Japanese television in the early parts of their careers that often matches, sometimes even exceeds their most critically acclaimed (or to put it more honestly, critically approved) works. Like many, they did time producing adaptations of long running manga series where they first got a chance to sharpen their skills as directors. Miyazaki’s first feature film “Castle of Cagliostro” was an extension of his highly entertaining years on the action-packed thief comedy series “Lupin the 3rd”, and plenty of other directors have followed suit beginning their career translating comics to the small and big screen. Occasionally, you’ll even get somebody who began on original work retreating into existing material, like Hideaki Anno did after the emotionally exhausting double-header of “Nadia” and “Evangelion”, turning on a dime away from existential sci-fi to adrenaline-injected high school rom-com in “His and Her Circumstances”. There, having already sharpened his skillset and developed his authorial voice, he inevitably wound up butting heads with the original mangaka and eventually had to quit and cede control to his collaborator Kazuya Tsurumaki, a turn of events that Mamoru Oshii would face after his second directorial feature, “Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer”.

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By Bob Clark

Classic science-fiction has done a great job of looking forward into the future and predicting many of the major and minor concerns that we find as we move forward in time ourselves– granted, much of the time they really shouldn’t be called “predictions” as much as “suggestions”, the position of any great sci-fi work being a little like the scientist who winds up unconsciously affecting the outcome of an experiment by merely observing it in the first place. From our own minor vaunts into the baby-step realm of outer space, or growing anxieties of how we may render our world into a post-apocalyptic waste by the slow erosion of climate change or the flashbang of war (if it’s even an either/or proposition), all the way to big shifts and small miracles on any number of technological fronts, the way that sci-fi can throw off any number of pre-concieved notions and offer up imaginative speculation gives it an almost automatic thrill of curiosity that most other genres have to work a little harder for. As with so much of sci-fi, however, it’s often best for such speculation to take place in something of a void, some field of science that hasn’t been fully tested or explored. This is true in a number of ways, chief among them being the novelty of the frontier sentiment, giving the creator enough freedom to come up with what they like without pesky reality getting in the way. The more is known, the more a sci-fi story is bound to be scrutinized, and sometimes the very technology that the genre can anticipate can again poison the conversation before it’s even started in earnest– in other words, the Internet.

Restricting ourselves to cinema for the moment, how many classics of the genre would’ve been nitpicked to death right out of the gate, had instant mass-media communication been around at the time? Some masterpieces like Metropolis or Blade Runner already suffered savaging even in the time of print– it’s tempting to believe that wider audiences might’ve found each other online and rescued the films’ reputation during their initial release, but who’s to say that the atmosphere might not’ve gotten worse? How many old-school post-war flicks might’ve been given heavier doses of criticism and snark if there were websites, message boards and blogs waiting to tear them to pieces? Plenty of what are recognized today as classics of the period rest upon at least a handful of fairly major technical limitations, thematic decisions and overall storytelling hiccups that might’ve derailed them to more media-savvy viewers. We remember the beautiful surrealism and dream-logic of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders From Mars, but forget how much of the movie’s running time is bloated by stock-footage padding and the occasional moment where even the master designer’s imagination went a little too far into the ridiculous. We remember the spectacular design and effects of Forbidden Planet and the novel way it appropriates The Tempest for a new genre, but can forget how so much of the script and acting veers towards the stiff and wooden– the only really natural performance probably comes from Robby the Robot. As such, when new sci-fi finds itself under an online critical assault long before it’s even screened for the public, I find it wise to take it with a grain of salt and tie a string ’round a finger to remind myself to keep an open mind, though if one keeps tying strings like that every warning sign, you’d likely cut off circulation when dealing with a movie from M. Night Shyamalan.

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By Bob Clark

Mamoru Oshii’s career throughout the 70’s and 80’s is interesting to consider when looking at his rise to notoreity as a feature director in the 90’s and 00’s. Like many animators in Japan, he got his start behind the scenes on television series based on popular manga, and for a time had a good deal of success with Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura. At first glance, the popular harem-comedy wouldn’t appear to have much in common with the more mature stabs at politics and philosophy that permeate through the director’s later, better known works, but even in his handling of the show and subsequent features based on the manga he found ways to inject his own personal themes into the characters. The series’ second feature film Beautiful Dreamer stands as a savvy precursor both to the surreal dream-narrative adventures in the heart of Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, and to the existentialist dilemmas of Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell, right down to the shared imagery of a protagonist confronting their own reflection in the underside of a body of water, struggling to breath and wake up out of their suffocating dreams.

Over time, however, Takahashi didn’t approve of the deviations that Oshii took from her celebrated manga, and the director eventually left to pursue his own projects, like the pure art-house animation Angel’s Egg, while his team from Urusei Yatsura moved onto less highbrow, but in a way more creatively successful works like the soft-core hentai turned mainstream satire film Project A-ko. But he wasn’t the only one who eventually left the Takahashi series to follow a newer creative direction– screenwriter Kazunori Ito would go on to work alongside Oshii on the live-action feature The Red Spectacles, a part of the director’s Kerberos cycle of films, animation and manga, and would eventually script his first Ghost in the Shell film before moving on to join the .hack franchise. But before either of those endeavors the two of them created the Patlabor series, best known in America for the second feature film and recognized as a precursor of sorts for the same ambitious blend of groundbreaking digital hybrid action animation and serious subject matters that the Ghost in the Shell films would later represent. Yet in ways both obvious and subtle, those features were merely building up from the established themes and subjects already present in the first incarnation of the franchise, as an Original Video Animation, and perhaps the best thing that can be said about Patlabor: The Mobile Police as an OVA is that, no matter what you think or know of the series or Oshii’s career from their feature incarnations, it represents something of a surprise.

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By Bob Clark

Though it began and broke new conceptual and thematic ground on television, and wound up thriving in spin-off after spin-off years later, the Star Trek franchise only really took hold and proved itself as something viable once it channeled its creative energy onto the big screen. That’s not to say that The Motion Picture was a resounding success– despite the talent and pedigree of director Robert Wise, special-effects guru Douglass Trumbull and of course the entire returning cast of the television series, that first film venture proved itself just a little too remote for most audiences. Amounting to something of a high-concept, somewhat more linear cousin of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie has quite a lot going for it if you want a piece of hard science-fiction that could stand tall with any of the speculative episodes that came before it on television (its script began as a pilot for a return to the small-screen, which wouldn’t happen until The Next Generation). But it was a little too slow for the mainstream crowd, and even a little trying on the patience of fans, who missed the adventurous, swashbuckling style that William Shatner cut on television as Captain Kirk, and that’s what they got in droves in The Wrath of Khan, perhaps the one movie perhaps that lives up to its reputation as a sequel that doesn’t just match the original, but handily outpaces it.

Since then, it seems that nearly every succeeding Star Trek theatrical venture has tried to imbue itself with at least some of the swaggering manner of Khan, or even pattern itself after its basic structure of space warfare and revenge storylines, this in a series that began as a vision of mankind coming together from all differences to reach a better society, free of hatred or conflict of any kind. In a sense, it’s only natural that the franchise should rely upon it as a standard narrative, as it provides a very nice way to contrast the high-minded social themes and concerns inherent in Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful look into the future with more personal motives, allowing an audience to better appreciate the sometimes more distant utopian aspects. The fact that the film also married this with the killer sci-fi MacGuffin of the Genesis device, capable of bringing life to a dead planet or wiping out the existing natural order of an inhabited world, and was moreover willing to take real chances with the status-quo of the series and add legitimate life-or-death stakes to the mix helps it stand above even the better imitators in the franchise. First Contact places a worthy, if distant second, mostly thanks to Patrick Stewart’s commanding lead and the genuine menace of the Borg, as well as a nifty inversion of the Captain Ahab tropes, but it’s by no means the only Trek film that attempts to resurrect the vengeance-themed goalpost of Khan, most of which have been middling affairs. But none have been so direct in their appropriation or as epic in their failure as Star Trek Into Darkness.

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By Bob Clark

1933’s King Kong may very well ought to be noted as one of the most important and influential films of all time, and not just for the myriad of obvious ways in which it’s shaped the course of movie history by its most direct methods. As a pioneering feat of action-adventure storytelling and marrying live-action to all manner of special-effects, from matte paintings to stop-motion, it more or less invented a kind of American blockbuster that has come to dominate world box-office, for better or worse. Countless directors have counted the film and its innovations as crucial to their inspiration to become movie-makers, and have even called back directly to the movie when formulating the vocabulary of their own FX-enhanced set-pieces– it’s easy to see traces of Merian C. Cooper’s work in everything from Lucas & Spielberg to Cameron & Jackson, but likewise it’s impossible to look at a movie like The Prestige, with all those grand acts of magic performed on the curtained stage with full proscenium arch, and not think of the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Plenty of big-screen monsters have competed for Kong’s first-place spot on the stage of world attention, and a few have even matched it (Isihiro Honda’s Godzilla and other kaiju creations, even meriting a showdown with the great one himself), but for the most part any attempt to out-do or even place with the work that animator Willis O’Brien did here in bringing the Empire State’s aplha ape have been at best forgettable (if only the same could be said of Dino de Laurientiis’ or Peter Jackson’s dismal remakes). But if in all the years since there have been any movie-monsters that have had any real chance of outshining the great Khan of Kongs and O’Brien’s efforts to tame the savage beast one stop-motion frame at a time, then they can only be due to the efforts of a man who gladly claimed Kong and O’Brien as crucial inspirations to his own start as an animator, and who very well stands as the greatest gift that 1933 film has indirectly bestowed upon the culture of popcorn cinema. Without Kong, there wouldn’t have been a Ray Harryhausen, and without him, nothing would’ve been the same.

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By Bob Clark

Though it came out in the same summer as the critically lauded box-office smash of The Dark Knight, the  first Iron Man film has come to be one of the most important and influential of the past decade or so’s worth of blockbuster entertainment, the opening volley in Marvel’s steady domination of the summer season with one series of hit-fest superhero flicks after another. Even if it weren’t literally the lynchpin of an evolving brand of tentpole franchise filmmaking– setting up the dominoes for subsequent Hulk, Thor and Captain America films to topple over in the lead-up to the almost chemical inevitability of The Avengers‘ chain-reaction climax– the upbeat and colorful movie would’ve easily been one of the stand-out comic-book based movies in recent memory, if for no other reason than the fact that it was able to deliver a super-powered hero who could be taken at least nominally seriously without any aggressive layers of angst or camp. The fact that it was bouyed by Robert Downey, Jr.’s cocky, pleasure-seeking performance as Tony Stark and so effectively relaunched his career into the stratosphere after more than a decade of being a tabloid punchline and occasional art-house redemption story at best helped lend a patina of reality to all of the histrionic explosiveness on-screen. We’ll probably never see Marvel or Disney let Demon in a Bottle out and unfurl the hero’s struggle with alcoholism onto the screen, but thanks to casting any viewer old enough to appreciate that aspect of the character can pretty much fill in the blanks themselves.

And though Downey does as good a job of carrying this blockbuster franchise, and to a certain extent all of the films connected to it, the way that director Jon Favreau built the visual world and terms that Iron Man and the surrounding Marvel films on cannot be underestimated– between all of the shared designs, action set-piece mechanics and even camera angles (nobody’s come up with a better solution to show Tony in the suit than cutting to those holographic-HUD filled close-ups, and probably nobody will), he practically seems owed a co-director credit on Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Perhaps the very best thing that can be said of Iron Man 3 is that, despite all that it owes to the past films in its and sibling franchises, it feels as close as you’re going to get to somebody deviating from the Marvel house-style, at least until the studio gets X-Men and Spider-Man back into its corporate cinematic fold. As co-scripted and directed by Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang bad-boy Shane Black, there’s a genuine sense of novelty to be seen in somebody outside the fold of the typical choices for superhero-film directors– even Captain America‘s Joe Johnston and Thor‘s Kenneth Branagh seemed to fit all-too easily into the genre forms they were handed in those films, with all the gee-whiz razzle-dazzle of the former’s The Rocketeer and even the high-speech and visual spectacle seen the latter’s Shakespeare movies comfortable precursors to the mantle of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

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