Sunday 26 October 2014

Krazy Kat by George Herriman

I have seldom blogged about comics, but they've been an important part of my life and I still have a lot of love for them, although I seldom read them these days. (On the other hand I do write them.) And Krazy Kat was one of the greatest comic strips of all time.

I've been inspired to blog about it now because of an excellent radio documentary which is available here. You can listen to it for approximately the next month, so don't delay.

Created by the bizarre and fertile imagination of George Herriman back before the First World War, Krazy Kat remains startlingly modern — indeed avant-garde — even today. It tells the droll tale of an eternal romantic triangle. A cat (all right, a "Kat") called Krazy is in love with a mouse called Ignatz. The mouse wants nothing to do with her and rather cruelly hurls a brick at her every chance he gets.

Meanwhile a dog — a police dog! — called Offissa Pupp — is hopelessly in love with Krazy, who won't give him the time of day. He has it in for Ignatz, of course, and is always trying to put the mouse in jail for brick-hurling.

That's basically the whole situation. But the comic ran, with unfailing invention, for thirty years, right up until Herriman died. (A true professional, he left a week's worth of strips on his drawing board when he keeled over.)

Krazy Kat is sustained by wondrous visuals — magical surrealist landscapes inspired by the Painted Desert of Arizona and the indigenous Navajo art. The backgrounds change with each panel, even when the setting hasn't shifted. And a crescent moon might be depicted as a slice of cantaloupe rind. 

Picasso read Krazy Kat — and was influenced by the art! So was Miro — see the image of Dog Barking at the Moon, reproduced here. Herriman's art is utterly gorgeous, especially when he was given the chance to do weekly Sunday pages in colour.

Herriman was also an inspired writer who made great use of language. His punning wordplay is positively Joycean. 

Krazy Kat is hard to describe. You should just check it out. It's definitely oddball stuff, and an acquired taste. But I think it's a taste well worth acquiring.

A couple of interesting footnotes about Krazy Kat...

The strip appeared in newspapers run by William Randolph Hearst, generally regarded as one of the evil robber-baron villains of American history and the real life model for Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. No doubt Hearst was a monster, but I have developed a fondness for him for two reasons.

Firstly, his mistress Marion Davies nicknamed him "Droopy Drawers." Secondly, and more importantly, when various newspaper editors tried to drop Krazy Kat (which wasn't always a huge commercial success), Hearst refused to let them. He championed the strip and allowed it to flourish.

The other footnote concerns the gender of Krazy. Because although she is generally referred to as "she", sometimes he's a "he". Much has been made about this gender confusion, with theories about gay subtexts (or texts!) and the plasticity of sexual identity, etc. etc.

I think it's way simpler than that. Anyone who's ever owned a cat (and George Herriman owned numerous cats) knows that people who aren't intimately acquainted with your pet will randomly refer to it as "him" or "her" — since they just don't know. Herriman was simply making comedy out of this traditional confusion, and adding another surreal dimension to his madcap, krazy, universe.

If you would like to buy collections of Krazy Kat strips, the best place is the wonderful Fantagraphic Books. I recommend the colour volumes.

(Image credits: The Sunday pages are from the useful George Herriman Dot Com. The brick hurling panel is from iDownloads. The book cover, which has nostalgic value for me, because it was the first (of many) Krazy Kat books I bought, is from Chanoyu Records. Don't ask me why. The Miro picture is from Arts Desk.)

Sunday 19 October 2014

The Equalizer

How is it possible to go wrong with a movie like The Equalizer? Based on a successful 1980s TV series (a vehicle for the great British actor Edward Woodward) this new film stars Denzel Washington as an everyman action hero who takes on the Russian mob and wins. He's a vigilante who defends the poor and helpless — against vicious gangsters. It's a perfect, emotive pulp adventure setup and Denzel is ideal for the part.

So, what's not to like? Well, unfortunately, the movie is a mess. It goes hopelessly off the rails in the very first major action scene. Denzel confronts an evil Russian pimp, and offers to buy out the contract of a teenage hooker whom Denzel has befriended (he and the girl frequent the same late night Edward Hopper style diner, in the best scenes of the film). 

Of course, the evil Russian says no and Denzel slays him and all his minions. (Denzel is an average Joe who works in a deadend job at a Walmart clone, but naturally he turns out to be a black ops intelligence super-soldier.) Now, there is nothing wrong with Denzel despatching all these Ruskies. It's the raison d'être of such a film. What is wrong is how he does it.

The first evil Russian minion he kills has a gun, and the unarmed Denzel takes it away from him, using his martial arts skills. Does Denzel then use the gun to kill the others? Nope. He discards the gun and picks up a corkscrew. Because that's way more interesting. And similar insanity pervades the rest of the film, with him killing bad guys using a microwave oven, an electric drill, a Gutenberg bible, the Large Hadron Collider... Okay, I lied about the last two, but you get the picture.

And Denzel is supposed to be a professional, with military training. This is deeply nonsensical stuff, and it helps to sink this deeply silly film. The Equalizer may be a big hit, but it's total junk.

If you want to see this sort of thing done right, watch the magnificent TV series Person of Interest.

(Image credits: All the posters are from Ace Show Biz. And don't be fooled by the gun Denzel is holding, in the movie he uses a drill.) 

Sunday 12 October 2014

Dracula Untold by Sazama & Sharpless

Dracula has always had certain leading man tendencies, at least as depicted in the many dramatisations of Bram Stoker's novel. 

For an undead bloodsucker, he has generally been allowed a tall dark and handsome cadaver or, in the case of Bela Lugosi, at least had some natty evening wear.

But in recent decades the world's most popular vampire has been recast as a full blown romantic hero, lovelorn and deserving of our sympathy when he isn't busy slaughtering the innocents (see also Hannibal Lecter). 

This has been the standard template for Dracula ever since Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 version of the movie, entitled Bram Stoker's Dracula (though it was a considerable overhaul of Stoker's concept) and, crucially, featuring the tag line 'Love Never Dies.'

But this new and more sympathetic version of the Count doesn't actually originate with Coppola, or his screenwriter James V. Hart. Hart had come up with a script which showed the human side of Dracula — so to speak. The Transylvanian prince had lost his beloved bride and was doomed to spend eternity looking for her.

This concept won the script a green light, but Hart — a talented writer who recently did a fine job on Epic — wasn't the first one to us it. That credit goes to the great Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel), one of America's finest screenwriters, an excellent novelist and short story writer, and a master of the horror genre.

Almost twenty years before the Hart/Coppla picture, in 1973, Matheson wrote an outstanding script for a TV movie of Dracula featuring Jack Palance as the Count. Confusingly — but appropriately — it shares a title with the Hart/Coppola version and is also known as Bram Stoker's Dracula. It was produced and directed by Dan Curtis, who had created the cult gothic-horror soap opera Dark Shadows.

Crucially, the Matheson script incorporated concepts from Dark Shadows. Most importantly, the idea of the vampire (Barnabas Collins in the TV series) as a doomed Romantic hero with a great lost love.

As I said, this set the template for the brooding and Byronic, rather sympathetic, user friendly fang-meister who is today's cliche, and features most recently in Dracula Untold, playing in multiplexes now. I really enjoyed this movie — in fact, I have to confess I've seen it twice. 

Dracula Untold is directed by Gary Shore, who has a background directing commercials. This is his first feature, which is pretty darn impressive. It is written by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless. This is also their feature film debut, and again it's an impressive one. The script is imaginative, effective and fresh — they have actually done some historical research and rooted it in some intriguing factual background. Although in fairness I also have to mention some real silliness in the script — like the blindfolded army

 The cast is excellent. Luke Evans (from The Hobbit) plays Dracula, the Canadian actress Sarah Gadon is ravishing as his beloved (and doomed, naturally) wife Mirena, Dominic Cooper is brilliant as the Turkish Sultan bad guy Mehmed and Charles Dance makes a seriously impressive big daddy vampire.

Charles Dance is also the big daddy villain in Game of Thrones. And indeed this Dracula flick is a very post-Game of Thrones version. In fact the notable soundtrack music is by Ramin Djawadi, who also scores Game of Thrones.

The classy cinematography is by John Schwartzman, striking production design by Francois Audouy, lovely costumes by Ngila Dickson (who did The Lord of the Rings) and a special shout-out must go to Joe Hopker for some very groovy hair styles!

Dracula Untold, is a surprisingly good film and well worth a look if you're into horror movies at all.

(Image credits: the posters are all from Ace Show Biz. The shot of Sarah Gadon is from Start News.)

Sunday 5 October 2014

Getting it Right: The Guest

I loved this movie. It just blew me away. It's a down and dirty little thriller with no redeeming social value at all and I just adored it. I see dozens of thrillers every year, and most of them miss the mark, some by a long, long way — such as The Equalizer which I hope to post about soon.

But The Guest gets it right. It's a simple tale, rivettingly told, with good characters (beautifully acted, it must be said) and a constant brooding sense of imminent violence — which eventually pays off, both satisfyingly and rather shockingly. 

The story is simple. An American family is grieving for the loss of their soldier son in combat in the Middle East. When the son's friend and fellow soldier turns up to pay his condolences, he soon insinuates his way into the bosom of the family. Yes, you can guess that the 'friend' is not what he seems, but that in no way lessens the pleasure of what follows.

The film even survives a third act lurch into black ops/corporate conspiracy territory which I was worried would kill it dead. But no, this nifty little dark-hearted action movie just keeps on trucking. It is also often the funniest black comedy since Heathers.

The Guest is set in a small midwest town around Halloween (gorgeously and moodily evoked by cinematographer Robby Baumgartner) and is in some ways reminiscent of John Carpenter's movie of that name, although vastly superior. It's directed by Adam Wingard, who made a considerable impression with You're Next another superior, scary thriller. The excellent script is by Simon Barrett who also wrote You're Next (while working as a private eye!).

The thing I liked best about the movie is that the characters are smart: the teenage daughter in the family (Maika Monroe) rapidly susses out that there's something terribly wrong about their guest, and tries to take action... But nothing turns out they way she — or the audience — expects.

Maika Monroe is terrific. Leland Orser is excellent as the dad. But top honours go to Dan Stevens as the guest himself. He's wonderful in the role. And his American accent is so convincing I had no idea that he was the same Dan Stevens as the British actor in Downton Abbey.

Also, notable music by Steve Moore and splendid production design by Thomas Hammock.

A great little movie. A classic. See it.

(Image credits: The black and purple poster is from the Consulting Detective. The rest are from Imp Awards except for the red one, from Abando Movies.)