Thursday, December 18, 2014

Weird Christmas Traditions Returns

Every time I decide to write one of these lists I’m shocked that I can dredge up even more tales of odd and wonderful Christmastime traditions, but here we are again and I’ve amassed five more of the weirdest Yuletide customs from around the globe.

Pictures with Santa… and High-Powered Firearms (USA)

In Scottsdale, Arizona hundreds of people from around the community flock to the Scottsdale Gun Club to get a wonderful, traditional photo with Santa. The big man in red isn’t so much the focus of the photos, though. No, it’s probably the $80,000 Garwood mini-gun that the club has setup in the background. This bad boy would make Arnie proud.

At $10 a pop, you and your family can be fitted with your choice of machine guns, pistols, rifles, and racks upon racks of belt ammunition. Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking, “But, what I really wanted was a picture of Santa with a grenade launcher. Christmas is ruined.” Fear not! Grenade launchers are also available at the club. You can even go classic and get a picture with a good ol’ AK-47.

Described by the club as “… fun from those who support the second amendment and those who don’t”, they state that, “Whether you’re a gun advocate or not, you should have a lot of fun with it.” And who wouldn’t!

I don’t think anything properly expresses the true holiday spirit like a rosy-cheeked child holding a high-powered boomstick, draped in ammo like Rambo.

Family Saunas (Estonia)

How many times have you been sitting in a nice steamy sauna, the woes of your day evaporating slowly from your muscles, and thought to yourself, “I really wish I had my family here to enjoy this with.” Well in Estonia, your dreams can be answered.

Estonia has an interesting dichotomy to their Christmas traditions. A blend of Pagan and Christian events are observed. There’s mysticism, spirituality, and Christian themes at play, but everything looks like a very traditional Christmas you’d see anywhere in North America.
The party starts on December 21st for Estonians with St. Thomas’ Day and runs right until the Epiphany on January 6th. In some areas it is stretched out one extra day, until St. Canute’s Day on the 7th. The Christmas Holidays, specifically, are celebrated from December 24th to the 27th.

Known as jõulud, the celebrations have as much to do with the Winter Solstice, and the impending cold and dark, as they do with the birth of Christ. On Christmas Eve many interesting traditions are kept, including fortune telling, but there was one in particular that caught my eye.

After preparing the traditional jõulud feast, and before church services are held, all the Estonian families will find a nice sauna to spend the afternoon together in. How does that all go down? Well first everyone gets naked, bathes, lathers themselves up in honey, and then wile away the afternoon, whipping one another with birch twigs to really massage and clear your skin.

I love spending time with my family around the holidays, I really do, but I don’t want to get naked with them and practice S&M right before church.

Danny and his Grandmother’s Cookies (South Africa)

You might think that from a geographical standpoint that South Africa wouldn’t really practice Christmas traditions, but being that it was mostly populated by European colonies, the customs found a home there. From what I can tell, in fact, Christmas is pretty traditional in South Africa. But, like good ol’ Krampus, there’s nothing like a story of absolute terror to keep those kiddies in line.

During the seemingly normal Christmas festivities, families will gather up all of their children on Christmas Eve, to tell the story of a young boy named Danny. You see Danny lived with his Grandmother and in preparing for Christmas and Santa, she had baked a batch of delicious cookies for the jolly old elf. Those cookies were so tempting that Danny couldn’t contain himself, and he ate the whole batch.

So what did Grandma do? Did she tell Santa and have Danny’s presents turned to coal? Nope. Did she scold him for what he’d done and make him bake a fresh batch for the Claus? Wrong again.

No, in a fit of rage she brutally murdered her grandson. Now, his ghost haunts South Africa during the Christmas holidays, reminding young children that they need to be good, practice patience, and not be greedy or their grandparents will take their lives away from them.

Las Parrandas de Remedios (Cuba)

Cuba has a pretty interesting history with Christmas. For 30 years it was outlawed by Castro after he declared the government atheist in 1969, and it was only in 1998, prompted by a visit to Havana from Pope Jean Paul II, that Cubans were allowed to practice the traditions of Christmas once again.

One of the more elaborate events in their Christmas celebrations is Parrandas, which is essentially a huge carnival. The most famous Parrandas celebrations happen in the city of Remedios, where Parrandas was first conceived.

The story goes that a priest, Father Francisco Vigil de Quiñones, wanted the townspeople of Remedios to come to midnight masses during the week leading up to Christmas. In order to keep people from going to sleep Father Francisco would send the altar boys from his parish out with pots and pans, which they would bang while singing at the top of their lungs. Eventually this turned into a kind of street party and that tradition has remained until this very day.

Today’s Parrandas is a far cry from the street parties of 200 years ago. There are several events that take place during the carnival, which begins at 10:00PM. The first is rumba dancing with fireworks known as palenques. These fireworks are meant to be completely soundless in their launch, but burst over the crowds of dancers, surprising and scaring them as they dance in the streets below.

In the second event, massive floats are pulled into the city’s plaza, each created and decorated by different cities surrounding Remedios. The floats are decorated in your usual lighting and colours, but also each float has actors who are meant to signify the theme for the year, and a story which is read aloud as their floats make their way to the plaza. There’s one caveat: the individuals on these floats are not allowed to move in any way as the float is moving some 40m. It is considered a “demerit” to the district if the actors move on their floats.

The final piece is a row of 20,000 rockets, which span up to 4 city blocks, and that are lit off and explode in the sky in a volley of fireworks. After the rockets, mortars are launched (for good measure), which are meant to be the exact opposite of the palenques set off at the beginning of the carnival; they are loud and canon-like to announce the end of the festivities.

A Christmas of Fear (Iceland)

For most of the the Americas Christmas is a time of warm hearths, music, family, and all those gumdrop dreamin’ kids, but I’ve also found another prevailing element to Christmas outside of North America: fear.

I’ve already visited the Krampus in my previous list, so you know this sort of thing exists, but Austrians have it easy compared to Icelanders, who have to deal with a broad menagerie of monsters trying to eat them at Christmastime.

First there’s the Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn. A massive, man-eating beast, the Yule Cat is said to prowl on - get this - those who have not received new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve. In what has to be one of the most direct examples of fear being used to drive the masses, wealthy farm owners used to give clothes to the workers who finished their Autumn wool preparations. In order to make sure they worked fast enough, they came up with the Yule Cat and the story that if they didn’t finish by Christmas Eve they’d be devoured by a monstrous beast.

Over time the Yule Cat was enveloped by Icelandic folklore and became the pet of the Giantess Grýla, a gruesome witch who lives in the mountains of Iceland. Once a year Grýla descends from her lofty perch and using her innate ability to detect misbehaving children, she captures bad kids all over Iceland, brings them back to her cave, and makes them into her favourite dish: a nice hot stew.

If that wasn’t enough, Grýla managed to entrap a few husbands along the way. With her third husband, Leppalúði, Grýla birthed a brood of child-eating troublemakers known as the Yule Lads, or Jólasveinarnir. The Icelandic version of Santa Claus, for all intents and purposes, the Yule Lads or usually portrayed as pranksters that cause all kinds of havoc in the countryside. There are thirteen Lads in total, and in many ways remind me of Snow White’s dwarves. Their names describe each of the Yule Lads’ specific traits; there’s Sheep-Cote Clod who likes to torment sheep and sheepherders, Bowl-Licker who, well… lick bowls, Sausage-Swiper who steals sausages, and Stubby… you get the idea.

Although there seems to be a lot of fear-laden tradition here, there is some good. The Yule Lads, for all their mischievery, also reward good children. If a child has been good all year and places their shoes outside their window-sills on the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve, they may receive a present from one of the Lads. If they were bad, though, they might receive a rotting potato! You know, if they don’t eat those children instead.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Shane's Favourite Movies of 2013

Another year, another batch of movies. Here we go.

5. Man of Steel
I went to see this movie on opening weekend, had an absolute blast, then proceeded to watch people shit on for the next several weeks. I recognize the movie has flaws, but this is a very entertaining film that is leagues ahead of Superman Returns. All my life I've waited to see Superman face some epic foes on the big screen and have the large scale battles fitting of a Kryptonian. This movie delivers. When Superman flies some poor bastard 50 miles across multiple counties and through several building, I was cackling with joy.

To the people bitching about the reckless destruction Superman causes while fighting Zod. I say this: I've seen plenty ... plenty of Superman 'saving the day without breaking a sweat' moments. I've almost never seen Superman in over his head. This was an overwhelmed and still inexperienced Superman facing a more powerful foe. As a result his fighting approach feels desperate and messy. And to the people whining about how Superman finally (spoiler!) defeats Zod, I say: How did you expect this shit to end? Zod was energy-humping Metropolis to ruins and had to be stopped. And since Superman was forced to kill the last of his kind, it may strengthen his resolve to preserve all life. That would be ideal if Superman ever faced an evil, but physically weak, mortal enemy. Who could that be?

4. Blue Jasmine
In a not so thinly veiled retelling of "A Streetcar Named Desire", Woody Allen presents to us, Jasmine, a socialite who lost everything, now hanging on desperately to her former lifestyle, and sanity. This is a knockout performance from Cate Blanchett, and the best work from Woody Allen since Matchpoint.

Every time I watch this movie I find new things to appreciate about the performances and the film's jumbled narrative structure. And each time I pick up on subtle pieces of the story that slipped by me before. The movie is filled with amusing, flawed characters, and tells a fascinating story of loss and denial. Plus, as a bonus you get Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay. A pleasant surprise.

3. Gravity
If I were to make a list of the most spectacular and thrilling cinema experiences I've ever had, Gravity would be in the top tier of that list, no question. It is a dazzling, riveting, nerve wracking adventure in space and feels like a real-time struggle for survival in the most inhospitable setting known to man. The sound design and immersive visuals are extraordinary, and if you didn't have the opportunity to see it in 3D at the theatre then I'm very, very sorry. I'm upset at myself for not seeing it a second time.

As breathtaking as it is on the big screen, therein lies the problem. In 2009 I put Avatar as my second favourite movie on the year. However, I have yet to watch it since writing my list, and have yet to feel a desire to watch it again. Gravity feels like a similar situation. I have watched it at home, and while it was still amazing, it was decidedly less amazing. Along with performances from Bullock and Clooney that were just fine, and dialogue that felt cliche and hammy, this film is not without issues. Don't get me wrong, though. I still fucking love this movie. But the massive screen and 3D presentation seems essential to the experience, and completing the director's vision.

For some kids, who are desperately in love with space and didn't see Gravity at the theatre, this will be their Jurassic Park. They will love the film regardless, but maybe 20 years down the road they will have an opportunity to see it in all its glory.

2. Stoker
It should come as no surprise that an entry on this list would come from one of my all time favourite directors. This is Chan-wook Park's first English film, and while it feels a bit restrained at times, it has his trademark style all over it. The story is about the Stoker family where an unstable mother and introverted daughter are coping with a death in the family. When the mysterious Uncle Charlie comes to live with them things grow exponentially creepier as both mother and daughter are drawn to Charlie for different reasons.

I think many viewers will be put off by the film's pacing, and the unsettling "crazy eye" exchanges across the dinner table, but it's all part of the fun of Stoker. It's designed to put you on edge. The film turns having ice cream in a murder mystery, a leather belt becomes a vision of gothic horror, and a piano duet is filled with suppressed sexuality.

Stoker feels like a blending of a Hitchcock thriller and a Korean horror film. I suppose that should come as no surprise since it's from the director of Oldboy. Chan-wook's films are always masterpieces of violence and perversion, and the twisted Stoker family fits right in.

1. Mud
It didn't take long into my first viewing of Mud before I know that I would love this film. It's such a wonderful display of quality filmmaking. The acting is strong all around, with compelling performances from the young cast. The cinematography is gorgeous and captures the dreamy mood of the film perfectly. As for the story, it centers on two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, and their unlikely friendship with a fugitive named Mud they discover hiding on a tiny island. They end up helping Mud reconnect with a lost love, and help him rebuild a boat so he can continue to evade bounty hunters.

You can't help but love these characters. McConaughey gives a honest and powerful performance as Mud, a beguiling role model to the two boys who has a shady, violent past. Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) gives perhaps the strongest performance; a boy trying to hold onto the idealism of youth while being crushed by the realities of adulthood. Then there's Neckbone (played by Jacob Lofland) who has got to be the most straight-shooting kid ever, and together with Ellis, the most dependable kids of all time. Need a boat motor? You got it. Want us to go ferry a cement truck down the river? I reckon we can make that work. I was entertained by every cuss-filled bit of dialogue between them.

It's a touching film that will grab you early on and refuse to let go. It's a bit of Tom Sawyer, and bit of Stand by Me. A coming-of-age film, mixed with a fugitive on the run film, mixed with a love story. If you overlooked Mud last year, I highly recommend another look.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

MINI-LIST: The Best Adaptations of "A Christmas Carol"

The holidays are all up in your grill and so it's time to whip out another Christmas themed list. This year let's talk about A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens' story of redemption and enlightening holiday ghosts. It's a story you know like the back of your hand, it's been adapted hundreds of times, and it just wouldn't feel like a proper Christmas without enjoying this classic. So here are the most entertaining ones you should see.

5) A Christmas Carol (2009)

Who's the Scrooge this time? It's ol' rubberface himself, Jim Carrey. He even provides the performances for the three spirits who visit Ebenezer in the night. Talk about saving time on casting roles.
Doesn't this seem a lot like The Polar Express? Yes, it's another 3D motion capture Christmas themed movie directed by Robert Zemeckis where the main actor plays multiple roles.
And you enjoyed that? Yes, actually. Despite the generally unappealing 3D and CG motion capture filmmaking choices, this movie turned out to be quite good and was an entertaining theatre experience. It actually managed to feel new.
What's so special about this adaptation? It's one of the most thorough adaptations of the novel I can think of, and it didn't shy away from dark and grotesque elements in the story. It has scenes that would terrify young children. Corpses, creepy spirits, haunting visions of death and decay. Actually in 3D, it kind of freaked me out.
So does this mean you want Zemeckis to make more movies like this? Oh God, no. I really hope his mo-cap days are behind him because animation really needs to be left to the animators.

4) Scrooge (1951)

Who's the Scrooge this time? It's Alastair Sim, who I imagine didn't need a lot of work to look the part for this movie.
Who? Even though he was in dozens of films, you're not likely to know him from anything besides this movie. It was his biggest lead role, which he even revisited in 1971 to provide the voice of Ebenezer in an animated version.
What's so special about this adaptation? Being one of the earliest and best of the film adaptations, this version has been around long enough that everyone knows it. It's one of the versions that always seems to be on TV this time of year (In fact, as I write this on Christmas Eve, it has appeared on television twice already). It's a straightforward telling of the tale with no gimmicks, great performances all around, and continues to stand the test of time.
What if I can't handle watching movies in black and white? First of all, grow up. Second, there's a colourized version that looks pretty good.
Do you have a favourite scene? Yep, it's when Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning filled with the spirit of love and generosity, accosts his housekeeper on the stairs, all the while giggling and barely able to contain his excitement. Nothing spikes the adrenaline like a visit from the dead, and Alastair truly plays the part like a raving lunatic of joy. Then when he shows up at his nephew's home asking for forgiveness, you can't help but smile to see him welcomed with open arms and begin dancing with them.

3) Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)

Who's the Scrooge this time? You're not going to believe it, but they used Scrooge to play Scrooge. I'm sure it was a tough decision with all the characters in the Disney pantheon to choose from, but after countless meetings and arguments they went with the most daring choice.
Wait ... wasn't the character "Scrooge McDuck" created for this adaptation? No, he was actually created way back in the 1940's for a comic book. So, like some snake devouring it's own tail, you have a fictional character being used to depict the fictional character that they were inspired by and named after. That would be like doing an animated version of Bram Stoker's Dracula for television and then using Count Chocula to be Dracula. It's fucking weird when you think about it.
What's so special about this adaptation? Well, it packs the entire story into a mere 26 minutes of animated excellence.
Only 26 minutes?! I know it felt longer as a kid, but that's the illusion of commercials for you. And yet it tells the story completely, with every important scene and character. Not a wasted frame.
Any favourite ghost? It's gotta be Goofy as Jacob Marley. I'm pretty sure Dickens intended for the tortured spirit that first confronts Ebenezer Scrooge to perform a little slapstick.

2) Scrooged (1988)

Who's the Scrooge this time? The always delightful Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a selfish asshole and TV executive who hates Christmas, and everything else. Guess what happens.
Wait, so there's no Ebenezer? Nope. But Frank's journey is essentially the same and happens parallel to a classic production of A Christmas Carol that Frank's station is airing live on Christmas Eve.
What's so special about this adaptation? This is easily the most fantastic modern take on the Dickens' story. Taking place in 80's New York, all the components of the original are there but as wildly different forms. Instead of Bob Cratchit, you have Bobcat Goldthwait with a shotgun. Instead of the apparition of Jacob Marley, you have a rotting corpse hanging Frank out a skyscraper window. Instead of a grim reaper, you have a cloaked monster with a television for a face.
Which ghost was your favourite? Definitely the ghost of Christmas Present played by Carol Kane. She is such a cheery, abusive psycho. First thing she does upon meeting Frank is hover across the room and kick him in the nuts. He threatens to rip her goddamn wings off. And the scene where she uppercuts him in the face with a toaster? Priceless.
So does Frank learn the error of his ways, and welcome the generous spirit of Christmas into his heart? Of course! While always an entertaining journey along the way, the real magic of A Christmas Carol is watching Ebenezer being reborn as a new man on Christmas morning. I'm particularly fond of the ending for Scrooged because watching Bill Murray burst out of an elevator screaming, taking the live Christmas Carol performance hostage, and ranting wildly into the camera until he's in tears, is just great. I love how it feels like the ending was improvised, so it's like the actual movie you're watching is breaking down just as the show within the show is being derailed. If you haven't seen this movie, definitely check it out.

1) The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Disney again? That's right, Disney again. Talk about a company that has an obsession with old men in nightgowns. I'm pretty sure they will release some version of A Christmas Carol once a decade until the sun explodes.
Who's the Scrooge this time? Our personal lord and saviour, Michael Caine. If you don't enjoy him in this role, then there is something wrong with you. You will believe in his performance as the cold-hearted Scrooge, fear for him in his darkest moments, and share in his joy at the dawn of a new day. And when he weeps at love lost, you will cry along with him. It's like gravity; you don't have a choice, so don't fight it.
What's so special about this adaptation? Besides the obvious addition of Muppets, this Christmas Carol is a musical. A damn good one, too. The songs are memorable and serve the story well. This should come as no surprise since they were written by Paul Williams, who wrote songs like "Rainbow Connection"? Plus, having Gonzo and Rizzo narrating the story and getting caught up in the adventure is entertaining stuff.
Sounds good, but what about Tiny Tim? How tiny is he in this version?  The tiniest you're likely to ever see. By using Robin the Frog, the audience will feel extra sympathy because he's tiny, sick, poor, AND a frog. Talk about having the deck stacked against you. What's next? Having Tiny Tim fall into a fire when his crutch breaks, just as he's announcing he donated his last good sock to a crippled mouse?
It all sounds interesting, but why is this the best? It takes a lot of talent and creativity to use puppets alongside real actors and make the audience care about them, especially when you're building upon source material so famous. This movie blends music, humour, beautifully designed sets and sequences, charming characters, and never loses sight of the important messages in Dickens' wonderful story. All the highs and lows are there, and the muppets fit in perfectly along the way. If you can only choose one adaptation to watch this Christmas, you really can't go wrong with this one.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Brutal Movie Deaths

I don't think anyone can argue that death is a huge part of film. War films, horror films, action movies, and tragic love stories have all been built on a foundation of corpses. Inspired by Cole's list of memorable movie deaths, I wanted to put together a list of other memorable scenes, but focus on the ones that make you go, "Holy hell, that was rough!"

The only conditions for my choices were that they have to be memorable, shocking and/or brutal deaths, and that horror films are disqualified (sorry, Halloween) since that's exactly what scary movies are going for. Instead let's look at the deaths that were burned into your memory as you watched in disbelief. There will be spoilers.

5) Bottle Boy - Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth is a beautifully filmed dark fantasy filled with gloom, freakish creatures, and oodles of despair. Early on the film lets you know just how grim things are going to get when the ruthless Captain Vidal questions an apprehended farmer and son suspected of being rebels. The two men claim they are simply out hunting rabbits and when the son insists they are innocent, it causes something to snap in Vidal.

Using a bottle, Vidal proceeds to strike the farm boy in the face over and over until it has completely caved in. To cap off his savage attack, the Captain shoots the weeping father in cold blood, then becomes annoyed when it's revealed moments later that they were telling the truth.

The scene left me aghast seeing how vicious the villain could be. Turns out .... extremely vicious. The film has a number of shocking violent moments throughout, but special mention must go to "the bottle scene" for letting the audience know - with horrific clarity - that this fantasy film means business.

4) One Grave For Two Brothers - Casino (1995)

When Scorsese directs Joe Pesci the role will usually follow this pattern: Pesci plays an aggressive, short-tempered asshole for most of the film and then dies an awful, awful death. Casino is no exception.

Even though the film had established violent mob deeds throughout (head in a vice, anyone?), I was still alarmed at Nicky's demise. He and his brother Dominick are taken out to a cornfield somewhere, beaten nearly to death with baseball bats, stripped down to their underwear and buried alive. The lesson here is that you can only be a cocky prick for so long before the guys in charge will make an example of you.

There is something very raw and relentless about this scene. Maybe it's the way Nicky is forced to watch his brother get clubbed to a bloody pulp until he sobs for them to stop. Maybe it's the sloppy way they are dumped into a shallow grave and you see the dirt covering Nicky as he gasps for air. Whatever the reason, the scene creates pity for a character that for most of the film deserved no pity. The audience can easily anticipate where a character like this will end up, but still be surprised by the details. I wanted him dead, too ... just not that dead.

3) Upham Fails Mellish - Saving Private Ryan (1998)

In a movie filled with horrific moments of violence, and graphic combat, the death of Private Mellish still stands out. Images burn deep into the viewer's mind: the knife slowly sinking into Stanley's chest, the drops of sweat dripping off the German soldiers chin, Upham weeping in the stairwell draped in ammunition. It all adds up to a very unpleasant, yet memorable movie death.

Some see this scene as an allegory for the war itself and the late involvement of the United States responding to the horrors Germany inflicted on the Jewish people. That comparison makes sense we see a German character murder a Jewish character while an American character fails to intervene. Later the American kills the German soldier responsible, but it is a hollow victory. The damage is already done.

A scene like this really tortures the audience in two ways: the physical brutality of the kill itself, and the agonizing helpless feeling it drapes over you like a blanket of shit. I've seen the movie several times and this scene is always hard to get through. A part of me thinks that maybe it'll turn out differently this time, that maybe Upham will find the courage to get up those stairs and save Mellish. Alas, it never happens. All you can do is sit there grimacing through it, filled with equal parts sadness and anger.

2) Curb Your Racism - American History X (1998)

Okay, do I even need to explain this one? This death is just horrible on so many levels, and the first time I witnessed it, my brain could barely compute what had happened. Now when I recall the moment where we see teeth making contact with cement, I can't help but cringe or do a full-body shudder.

The build of tension and intensity up to that moment is almost unbearable, and the reaction we see in Danny adequately mimics the viewers' feelings: first a desperate desire for Derek to see reason, panic, and finally stunned beyond measure. As Danny crumples to the ground you can't help but feel the same way... that hate has triumphed and everything feels hopeless.

1) Murphy's First Day - Robocop (1987)

You know that whole movie cliche where a cop will get killed just a few days away from retirement? Well, this movie didn't have the patience for it, instead opting to savagely destroy our cop on day fucking one.

Okay, it wasn't his first day as a cop, but when we first meet Officer Alex Murphy in the abysmal world of "future Detroit" he's been moved to a new precinct, is teamed up with a new partner, and shit gets serious real fast on their first patrol. From everything we see in the opening of the film, Murphy seems like a good guy. He's friendly, professional, has a sense of humour, is a loving husband and father. You certainly don't want to see him get executed in some abandoned steel mill.

When Murphy gets shot up by bad guys, he doesn't just get shot ... he gets blown to goddamn pieces! There were few other more scarring movie moments in my childhood than watching this nice guy get torn asunder by gunfire, screaming bloody murder the whole time. And when a thousand shotgun blasts to the torso wasn't enough to seal the deal, they pop one more round in his skull. Following that is several minutes of disorienting footage of the mangled remains of our hero being rushed to hospital, frantically worked on, then declared dead.

I realized later in life that I watched this movie at far too young an age. Everything about it is horrifying: limbs being blown off, the cruel laughter, geysers of blood erupting everywhere as Murphy is obliterated by this criminal shooting squad. Looking back it felt like the scene was 10 minutes of pure agony and horror. In reality, the whole affair took about a minute. Fun fact! Director Paul Verhoeven had to reduce the gore in scenes like this one to appease the ratings board while making the film's final cut. Meaning ... yeah, what we saw was the shorter, tamed-down version. Let that sink in.

With a reboot of the franchise right around the corner, I already have strong doubts that it can live up to the brutal slaughter unleashed in '87. Those are big, bloody shoes to fill.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Best Spider-Man Artists

Just like my list of Batman artists, we're dealing with an extremely popular and iconic character who has been around for a pretty long time (although not as long as the Caped Crusader) and has been drawn by a multitude of talented artists.

This list was actually a little easier for me to do. I'm not sure if it's because Spidey has perhaps evolved slightly less visually or not. Whatever the case, I don't feel the need to make honourable mentions as I did last time around. At least not to devote too much space to them anyway. We'll see how it goes.

5. Stefano Caselli
I promise you I didn't make this pick simply because I felt obligated to include a more current artist (he's had pencilling duties on Amazing Spider-Man since 2011 and has also drawn him in various cameos in a few recent Avengers titles). Caselli gets the nod because I believe he's the first artist in some time to come along and really bring a fresh style to Spidey's look that I also find appealing. While I'm satisfied with the look a guy like Bryan Hitch or Stuart Immonen gives the character, it's just not different enough to really stand out.

I feel like Caselli's take pays a bit more attention to real anatomy and how it affects the costume and gives us a somewhat more realistic-looking hero but without losing any of the dynamic boldness that makes him so visually appealing. That can't be any easy thing to do (it certainly wasn't easy for me express in one sentence). He's also on occasion drawn the costume with smaller eyes than I'd normally accept and yet, he makes it work. As usual, I'm kind of at a loss to explain just how this effect is accomplished. All I know is that Caselli's Spider-Man is always pleasing and exciting to look at and even presents our hero as a bit more vulnerable than we're used to seeing him.

4. Gil Kane
A lot of people credit John Romita Sr. with being the first artist to break away from original artist Steve Ditko's style and successfully reinvent Spidey's look. I have no argument with that claim. Although even Romita himself admits that for the first few months all he really did was try to mimic Ditko's style because he was convinced there was no way he (Ditko) would just walk away from such a popular title. He was sure that Ditko would be returning soon and felt that it was best to just try to draw the way he did. Eventually he realized that the job was his and put his own mark on Spidey. And it was great. I'm sure he'd be on most people's lists.

But I'm gonna have to go with Gil Kane, Romita's own Spider-Man successor. Because to me, it just seems like Kane, having done a lot of work for DC in the sixties (he took over Amazing in 1971, I think), really brought a style that wasn't present in any Marvel book at the time. He also seemed to be the first artist to fully understand Spidey's capability for movement and how to represent that on the page. Now it's possible this is at least in part due to writer Gerry Conway's scripts, but I guess I'll never know. What's important was that after stellar work by both Ditko and Romita in defining the character's look, Kane really drew him to a fuller potential. He no longer looked stiff or awkward when he was swinging on a web line or hanging from a ceiling.

Again, we're dealing in personal opinion here so I can't just state that Ditko and Romita's Spider-Man DID look awkward in some movements or poses, but at least to me, that was the case. But Kane was the first artist to maybe really understand the character from a visual standpoint and how he should move.

3. John Romita Jr.
So now I have to somehow make the argument that the son's contribution to Spidey's visual legacy is more significant than the father's. Or, I guess I could just sidestep that by once again mentioning this list is primarily based on my own tastes. I think I'll go with that option.

Romita actually first drew Spider-Man in the early eighties, not at all that long after his dad. And while his work there was good, it really doesn't factor into my decision to include him on this list. Because at that point I don't believe he'd really found himself as an artist; he was still developing. I think it was in his work on Daredevil in the late eighties going into the nineties that he came into his own. If I were to compile a list of best Daredevil artists, he certainly would have a place there.

While I think his real strength was drawing street-level heroes like Daredevil set in urban landscapes, Romita proved to be one of Marvel's most versatile artists and he drew a ton of different characters in a ton of different titles throughout the nineties. He was their Mr. Reliable for sure. Whether you needed someone to draw Thor, Cable, even Hulk, he could pull it off. But it was his return to the character who had helped define his father's career where I believe he's done his very best work (although the Daredevil stuff is close).

 In 1996 he began penciling Peter Parker: Spider-Man. It was a period of turmoil for the character; the infamous Clone Saga, which had begun two years prior, was STILL going on. So Romita found himself drawing Ben Reilly as Spider-Man for awhile, (as well as as the Scarlet Spider before that) with a new costume designed by Dan Jurgens, who was doing the art and writing for the brand new Sensational Spider-Man featuring Reilly. For the then very important limited series, Spider-Man: The Lost Years, it was considered significant that he was the one doing the art. If people were going to accept this whole "new Spider-Man" thing (something Marvel eventually realized they wouldn't, and took steps to correct), then having a great artist like Romita was key.

We've talked a lot without getting into Romita's own drawing style and what he brought to the character. Well, on his initial work back in the eighties, I don't think there was really anything that distinct about it. His Spider-Man looked very much like an homage to the Spider-Man of artists like his father and Kane. But in the late eighties, Spidey would undergo a rather dynamic visual change that we'll get into in detail as we climb to the top of this list, and it would be impossible to believe that this did not influence his later work to at least some degree.

What I can tell you is that Romita Jr. might be the artist who has so far found the most iconic look for Spider-Man. When I was discussing Batman, in the entry on Neal Adams I mentioned that it looked almost as if he had discovered and given us Batman's true form, that is, his most authentic visual archetype. I feel that it's a similar case with Romita's Spidey - everything just looks right, somehow. So if that's the case, how is he not the number one entry on this list? Well, I guess I'd have to say that perhaps if there is a flaw to his Spider-Man, it's that it's just a little Given Spider-Man's unique look and potential for unique movement, Romita's Spidey does not take quite full advantage of the visual possibilities.

2. Mark Bagley
In 1983, by the age of twenty-seven, the ultra-talented Bagley was working for Lockheed Martin in Georgia, and had mostly given up on his dream to be a comic book artist, having so far failed to break into the industry. But fate found a way. In true Marvel fashion, a Marvel Try-Out Book was created. It was a deconstructed comic book that aspiring artists could complete then turn in. The artist with the best entry would be given a Marvel assignment and a shot to stick with the company. Bagley beat out thousands of other submissions to win the contest.

He got to draw some of the lower profile assignments, including trading cards and backup stories for the rest of the decade. In 1990 he transitioned to full-time artist, drawing the first twenty-five issues of the brand new title New Warriors. During some of the editorial shuffling at Marvel, New Warriors editor Danny Fingeroth became responsible for the Spider-Man books. He placed his faith in Bagley's ability and made him artist for the flagship: Amazing Spider-Man. His faith was well-placed: Bagley would go on to become perhaps the most iconic and definitive Spider-Man artist of the nineties.

In 2000, with the launching of the new Ultimate Marvel line, Bagley was this time the obvious choice to be the artist for that line's own flagship title, Ultimate Spider-Man. He and writer Brian Bendis would break the record for longest run by the same creative team on a title, previously held by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, established on their run on Fantastic Four back in the early sixties. Bagley did the art without interruption for the first 111 issues.

Bagley's Spidey screams dynamic. Perhaps more than any other artist's depiction, the sense of fluid movement is beautifully conveyed. Perhaps not since Ditko himself had anyone drawn Spider-Man as quite so wirey. He was still a muscular figure but clearly a lot leaner than most Marvel heroes. In Ultimate this was even more apparent since Spider-Man is fifteen years old and maybe three inches or so shorter than his adult 616 counterpart. And those large, exaggerated eyes on the costume he includes are just essential to me.

For quite some time I strongly considered giving Bagley the top spot on this list. He brings everything that Romita Jr. brings but perhaps with a slightly better grasp of Spidey's anatomy and style of movement. And when I say slightly, I mean very slightly. But I can't help but think that Bagley's Spider-Man wouldn't have been quite everything it was without the previous contributions of a certain artist, who resides at the top of this list.

1. Todd McFarlane
When you see McFarlane's name, it conjures up a lot. Few people in the comic book industry have been as successful as he's been and that's due to a lot of factors. He's proven himself to be very shrewd in matters of business and smart about applying his skills to different mediums. Perhaps he's best known for his involvement in the founding of Image Comics or perhaps his extremely popular toy lines. But what I'll always consider his greatest contribution to comics to be is his work on Spider-Man, specifically, the way he drew the character.

In my top three of McFarlane, Bagley and Romita Jr., I feel that their respective styles overlap and intermingle. I'm not sure exactly where it begins. But I am certain that when McFarlane started drawing Amazing Spider-Man in 1988, he redefined how the character should look.

Firstly, like Bagley after him, McFarlane gave us a Spider-Man that was muscular but still lean and wirey. This was emphasized by his understanding of Spidey's movements. His panels featured our hero bending and contorting his body in odd, almost inhuman fashion. This stands to reason since Spider-Man possess a level of flexibility and agility that goes far beyond the capability of ordinary humans. McFarlane took full advantage of that and the results were awesome. As far as the costume went, it seemed to fit better than ever. And then of course there were the eyes - no one before McFarlane had ever drawn Spidey with such large eyes. It's become so imitated that it's almost unthinkable for any artists since to not follow suit in that department. It's something I always have to include in my own visual idea of Spider-Man.

But McFarlane also innovated another aspect of Spider-Man that had remained virtually unchanged since his first appearance: his webbing. Gone were the thin, dark, almost black strands that used to emit from Spidey's wrists - McFarlane replaced them with much thicker stuff of a lighter colour. It was ropey and chaotic-looking. Now it really resembled real webs adjusted to human size.

Clearly I'm not the only person to think McFarlane's Spider-Man was awesome. His work on Amazing catapulted him into comic book superstardom and his talent soon was high in demand. He was given his own new Spider-Man (simply Spider-Man) title to write himself as well as draw. While not a particularly compelling series beyond its art, it sold like mad.

The rest is history and really has no place in this list. His initial departure from Marvel was of course far from friendly and he subsequently became so successful with Image, McFarlane Entertainment and other creative and business ventures that he's never really had cause to go back. Outside a single Spider-Man holiday special released in 2004, he hasn't drawn the character in any official capacity since 1991.

But his contribution to the character from a visual standpoint really can't be overstated. And while I know there are plenty of people who claim he was highly overrated as a Marvel and Spider-Man artist, I just can't agree. I've had quite a few years to think about how I feel about his Spider-Man and a plethora of artists to compare him to. And as much as I love Bagley's depiction of the character, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be quite what it is without McFarlane's influence.