Monday, July 30, 2007

X-Axis comments thread

- I keep meaning to start these regularly, and I keep forgetting. But hey, this seems like a good week. It's Wolverine #55 and Doktor Sleepless #1. Yes, just two issues, but there's a lot to say about Wolverine #55. A book like that needs to beaten thoroughly until it stops moving.

- To pre-empt some likely questions: I'm tentatively encouraged by the creators they've announced for Spider-Man, which seems to be leaning more towards storytellers than big names. That's a good thing. Zeb Wells has written some great stories in the past and deserves a big break. This looks like a swing back towards upbeat stories, and I'm fine with that. Not sure about Chris Bachalo, but we'll see.

- Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi on Astonishing X-Men? Hmm. I think Ellis tends to approve these things as academic exercises in "what can I do with this property", and the answer generally seems to be "Add Bluetooth." But you never know. Bianchi is good. It could work, although I don't see it selling as well as Joss Whedon's run. After all, Ellis's relaunch of Iron Man wasn't that big a deal.

- Grant Morrison on Final Crisis. Hmm. Okay, that's got me intrigued, because if Morrison says it's a story he really wants to tell, at least you can be reasonably confident that there's something to it. But it's DC, and it's got a year-long crossover leading into it, and they're practically doing everything in their power to put me off buying it. I'll look at it again nearer the time and see whether it looks like it might be comprehensible on its own terms.

- Terry Moore and Humberto Ramos on Runaways. Moore, yes. Ramos... well, the promotional art looks good, admittedly. (And why is Gert in the promo art, by the way?)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Great American Bash 2007

Welcome to the first pay-per-view of the post-Benoit era.

For those of you who've been living under a rock, a recap: Chris Benoit didn't show up at last month's pay per view, and the next day it turned out that he'd murdered his wife and child before committing suicide. This has sparked an awful lot of media attention in which, for the most part, the press has been trying to draw a connection between the steroid use which is notoriously rampant in the wrestling industry, and the fate of the Benoit family. The problem with this angle is that the truth lies somewhere between the two. Steroid and drug use are most probably a major contributing factor to the alarmingly high rate of premature death among professional wrestlers; but they're probably not the proximate cause of Benoit's killing spree.

The WWE's PR strategy, in a nutshell, is to keep their heads down and hope it all goes away once the media move on to another subject. This is taking rather longer than they might have hoped.

In the meantime, Chris Benoit has been effectively erased from history - the WWE website still acknowledges him as a former champion, but that's about it. The shows have gone back to business as usual. The storyline about Vince McMahon's murder, which was supposed to be the big plot of the summer, has also been quietly dropped. (It's slightly unclear whether Vince is still meant to be dead in storyline terms, but at the very least, it's no longer being discussed on air.) Instead, we have a curious month with some frankly strange booking decisions - strange in their own right, and especially strange when you consider that the company's steroid policy is attracting an awful lot of attention right now. You might think this would be a poor time to push all the really, really big guys to the top of the card. But that's not the way Vince McMahon sees the world.

The Great American Bash started life as a WCW pay per view, and the WWE dusted off the brand name when they decided to expand the PPV line-up in 2004. Originally there was some vague gimmick that the US military got to see the show for free, although they haven't been making much mention of that lately. The WWE's shows under this name have been pretty dire. GAB 2004 was headlined by the notoriously stupid Concrete Crypt Handicap Match, of which the less said the better. The 2005 show had a DQ finish in the main event, the final match of Muhammad Hassan, and undercard title wins for Orlando Jordan and the New Road Warriors. Last year's show, arguably the best of the bunch, still had the ridiculous Punjabi Prison match, and three last-minute card changes due to wrestlers suffering from, ahem, "elevated liver enzymes."

Basically, the show is a bit of a byword for crap. Fortunately for me, it's also a show that airs on Sky Sports 1, so I don't have to shell out more money to see it.

1. WWE Championship: John Cena v. Bobby Lashley. The Raw world title match is clearly headlining this show, given the state of the rest of the card. This is a relatively rare face/face main event, although it's always possible that Lashley is going to turn heel somewhere along the way. Cena, you'll recall, has held the title since last September, and although his popularity with the crowd has been intermittent, he generally seems to have them on side these days. Some audiences have tended to turn on him when they perceive his opponent as a better performer, more deserving of the top spot. Frankly, that's not been an issue in the last few months, when he's been fighting guys like the Great Khali. (Of whom, more later.)

Bobby Lashley was the champion of ECW, the company's C-show, until being brought to Raw in the recent draft. The angle, such as it is, is that Lashley is now an uncrowned champion who deserves his title shot. There's been a concerted attempt to present this as a clash of the titans even though audiences seem unconvinced by Lashley as a main event wrestler. But Lashley is a large, large man - remarkably so, when one considers the weight at which he wrestled as an amateur. Even more remarkably, the WWE has actually drawn attention to this fact in video packages. Presumably we're supposed to conclude that Lashley has stepped up his workout regime.

Lashley was one of the wrestlers pulled from last year's show due to eleveated liver enzymes.

The video packages on Monday's show seemed to be suggesting that Cena is the favourite, and given the WWE's usual reverse psychology, that's often an indication that he's losing. Even though Cena has had the belt for almost a year and it's arguably time for a change, Lashley is not the man - at least, not yet. He's big, he's agile, he's not bad in the ring, but he just doesn't have the charisma and presence to be the champion and to carry the show. Not without a manager to do the talking for him, at least.

The match will probably be decent. I have a sinking feeling that Lashley will win, although he really shouldn't.

2. World Heavyweight Championship: The Great Khali v. Batista v. Kane. Now this gets complicated. On last month's pay per view, Edge defeated Batista (albeit on a technicality) to retain his title, with the stipulation that Batista wouldn't get another shot for as long as Edge remained champion. The idea was that Edge would have a long title reign. Kane was inexplicably announced as the new number one contender, despite the fact that he's been a midcard wrestler for years, and hadn't really done anything to earn the title shot. Technically he's a former world champion, but that was for one day in 1998.

Meanwhile, Batista was booked in a match against the Great Khali, the Indian giant recently drafted from Raw. Since Batista is generally a bit ropey, and Khali is utterly horrible, this sounded like a truly wretched prospect, in keeping with the Great American Bash's high standards.

Kane, Batista and Khali are, however, all very large, and therefore terribly popular with WWE management. And to be fair, they're all reasonably well established and semi-credible characters, if you can look past the sheer terribleness of Khali's matches to see the way he's been written.

Unfortunately, during a build-up segment on last week's Smackdown, Edge tore his pectoral, and he needs surgery. He'll be out for four months. So Edge has had to vacate the title, and some hasty reshuffling took place on Friday's episode of Smackdown. Khali won the vacant title in, of all things, a 20-man battle royal, and Batista and Kane were set up as his opponents for Sunday.

This is going to be dreadful. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of Batista regaining the title, because Khali really is abominably bad for a main event wrestler. Admittedly John Cena got two watchable matches out of him, but there's only so much you can do with the guy before his chronic weaknesses will become apparent. In fact, given his limitations, there's only so much you can do with the guy, period. He only really makes sense as a transitional champion. But my bet would be that Khali pins Kane to retain, and sets up a rematch against Batista at Summerslam - traditionally a much bigger show.

Khali is also one of the guys who had "elevated liver enzymes" this time last year.

3. ECW World Title: John Morrison v. CM Punk. On last month's show, CM Punk was supposed to fight Chris Benoit for the vacant title. When Benoit no-showed, midcarder Johnny Nitro took his place and won the title. This is fairly standard booking - the substitute wins so that the audience don't feel like they've been watching a placeholder match.

So, Johnny Nitro is now the ECW World Champion, for what little that title is worth. This is a problem. Benoit as champion would have made sense. He would have been an indisputably credible world champion and it would have meant something to beat him. But without Benoit, the ECW roster is desperately short of credible headliners. This is why Johnny Nitro has got the call. Nobody would remotely have considered making him champion on Raw or Smackdown, but on ECW, he's the best they've got.

The trouble is, they now have to try and convince us that Nitro is a proper world champion even though there's nobody particularly credible for him to beat. His list of babyface challengers is miserable - indie stalwart CM Punk, indie veteran Tommy Dreamer, novelty act The Boogeyman. It doesn't mean a great deal to beat any of these guys. So how do you convince us that Nitro is anything more than the champion of the Bozo Squad? (Especially when it's true?)

Their solution is: repackage him! So Nitro has suddenly and inexplicably dropped the stage name and is now calling himself John Morrison. This may be perhaps the worst wrestling name I've ever heard. "Johnny Nitro" is cheesy, but at least it sounds somewhat flamboyant. "John Morrison" sounds like he ought to be a middle aged fishmonger from Kirkcaldy. It's not even his real name - that would be "John Hennigan," which is better than either.

It seems that this may be intended as some sort of Jim Morrison gimmick, although the mind boggles as to how that's supposed to work.

Anyway, "John Morrison" (dear god) is going to defend his title in a rematch against CM Punk. The usual format with CM Punk matches is that everyone cheers when he comes out, and then they sit in deathly silence during the match itself before waking up for the finish. This will probably be the same. Morrison will retain.

4. Texas Bullrope Match: Dusty Rhodes v. Randy Orton. Randy Orton returns to his sporadic "legend killer" gimmick by taking on long-retired veteran Dusty Rhodes in his signature Texas Bullrope match. The point of the gimmick is to suggest that even though Rhodes is plainly some decades past his prime, at least he's fighting on home turf.

I've never liked this match. The gimmick is that the two guys are tied together by a rope around each of their wrists, and they can use the rope as a weapon. Halfway along the rope is a cowbell. This means that we get to enjoy listening to a sodding cowbell ringing continually for as long as the match lasts. It's also one of those matches that depends in large part on you having nostalgic recognition for Dusty Rhodes, but he's an American wrestler from the 1980s, and so it doesn't mean a great deal to me. Viewers whose memories don't go back far enough to remember Rhodes in his prime could be forgiven for thinking that Rikishi's looking a bit rough these days.

The actual point of this match is that they're going to introduce Dusty's real life son, Cody, as a regular character. So Orton will win, and that will set up Cody's revenge at some point down the line. I expect this to be slow and awful.

5. Intercontinental Championship: Umaga v. Jeff Hardy. Umaga regained the Intercontinental Title on Raw a few weeks ago by squashing Santino Marella, the ill-thought-out Italian character who never really caught on. As it happens, Marella was annihilated only a couple of days after Raw was dropped by an Italian TV station. Mind you, the storyline had already begun by that point, and Santino was clearly a flop, so the plan may well have been in hand anyway. Umaga is supposed to be fighting the cast of Jackass at Summerslam, and they may well want him as a champion for that angle.

(This is apparently a cross-promotional stunt dreamed up by the USA Network. It sounds like a horrible idea, and the trailers seem to have disappeared post-Benoit, so it's possible that the concept has been abandoned. The WWE are reportedly not too thrilled about the idea - the last time they had these guys on, they no-sold Umaga's offence, resulting in a segment that looked utterly awful. The WWE also reportedly came close to aborting the whole thing after a spending a day on a photoshoot with Steve-O and deciding that the little twerp wasn't worth the hassle he was going to cause - apparently he showed up with his own film crew in order to get footage for a DVD he was making, and spent the day running around trying to persuade people to put him in submission holds. If the whole thing has fallen through, it's probably for the best.)

Jeff Hardy is the random challenger for the belt, and Umaga will beat him in a moderately competitive match. It'll be an okay undercard match.

6. United States Championship: MVP v Matt Hardy. This is MVP's first major feud after winning the US Title from He Who Shall Not Be Named. Matt Hardy had peculiar value during Edge's title reign because of their long personal history, and the audience's knowledge of that feud. While Hardy was never going to become world champion, the prospect of him challenging Edge for the belt was by no means unrealistic, and could have drawn real money. A sudden winning streak suggests that the WWE may well have had something along those lines in mind. Matt seems to be an indestructible character who audiences continue to believe in and root for, no matter how badly he's written, so in theory he could work as a solo wrestler.

His main weakness is that he's not very good at talking, at least as a babyface. He was rather better during his heel run, when he presented himself as the world's leading exponent of "Mattitude", led beleaguered undercard followers around, and fought one-legged men. Still, you can do something with Matt Hardy.

A feud with MVP for the United States title is no bad thing, and I think it's got legs. So, MVP retains, but in sufficiently controversial fashion to set up a rematch. With these two, the match itself should be good - if they're given time, it ought to be the best thing on the card.

7. Women's Title: Candice Michelle v Melina. This is the obligatory rematch after Candice won the title last month. Not much more to be said about it, really. The match will be fine for what it is, and Candice will retain. After that, she presumably moves on to feud with Jillian Hall or Beth Phoenix.

8. Singapore Cane on a Pole: Carlito v. The Sandman. A last-minute addition to the card, after the two major Smackdown matches were conflated into one. This is an undercard feud from Raw which has at least got some story behind it. The idea is pretty simple. Former ECW champion the Sandman (from back in the days of the real ECW) was brought to Raw in the draft, where he is of course ridiculously out of place. He doesn't care. The typical Sandman match goes like this: he wrestles his opponent for a while, then gets annoyed, whacks the opponent over the head with the cane, and gets disqualified. I think I'm right in saying that every single match he's had since coming to Raw has ended in a DQ.

Sandman is meant to be the good guy, by the way.

So: in this match, Sandman will be wrestling the obnoxious midcard heel Carlito, and if he can get his cane from the pole, then he can use it legally. In other words, the psychology is that Sandman, the hero, will lose against this middling villain, unless he can get the weapon and beat the crap out of his opponent with a stick. This really shouldn't work, but there's something oddly endearing about the guy that lets him get away with it.

I'm thinking that Sandman wins in a match that could potentially be quite an entertaining train wreck.

Worth buying? Dear god, no. Only three of these matches - Cena/Lashley, Umaga/Hardy and MVP/Hardy - really have plausible chances of being seriously good. And I'm not expecting all three of them to pull it off. The Smackdown title match will be dreadful, Orton is wrestling a pensioner, Sandman is endearingly awful but awful nonetheless, the girls are the girls, and we already saw the ECW title match last month, when it wasn't anything to write home about.

But it's on Sky Sports 1, so I get to see it anyway...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Edinburgh Film Festival

For some reason, the Edinburgh Film Festival is always the last of the annual arts festivals to announce its programme, but it opens its box office almost immediately afterwards. This is terribly irritating if you're planning to go to a lot of things, because you can't book tickets for anything else without running the risk of a clash with something on the Film Festival. (The average film only shows twice.)

Still, I now have my tickets lined up, so for those of you wondering what I'll be writing about come August, here's a selection.

First of all, before anyone asks, no I'm not going to see the UK Premiere of Death Proof. As you may know, following its dismal performance in America, Grindhouse has been split into two films for its UK release. This means that Death Proof has now been extended up to 114 minutes. I have not the slightest urge to watch such a thing. I thought Kill Bill was insufferable, and the more blatantly Tarantino indulges his movie fanboy leanings, the less interest I have in seeing them. His best films - Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction - may contain plenty of cinematic references for the movie buffs, but they're not fundamentally about old movies. His most recent films are about virtually nothing besides old movies, and I just can't be bothered with them.

There are a couple of other UK premieres which I won't bother with. I don't see the point in taking up time during the Festival season with a movie that's going to be out in the mainstream cinemas in a month's time anyway. I'd rather use the time on something that isn't going to be around for long.

So... here's what I actually did buy tickets for.

Aria is classic film festival material - a Japanese road movie in which, and I quote, "Lonely piano tuner Ota befriends Kuzo, an elderly man who performs an unsettling stage act with a lifelike girl puppet. When uzo becomes gravely ill, Ota agrees to undertake a quest on his friend's behalf - to track down the lost but strangely significant piano that once belonged to the puppeteer's late wife." I anticipate well-shot, vaguely impenetrable dreaminess. It would not be wholly unfair to suggest that this is my random completely-off-the-wall choice which happened to be at the front of the catalogue. But something about it sounds intriguing.

Protagonist is billed, rather ambitiously, as "the most emotionally expansive, formally ambitious documentary of the year." The fact that it's showing in Filmhouse 3, which is about the size of my living room, suggests that the programmers don't have quite as much faith in its appeal as the blurb might suggest. Apparently it follows the lives of four different people and explores how well, or badly, those lives fit into conventional dramatic structures. So it's about how well our stories truly reflect our lives and where we're fudging reality to create arcs that don't truly exist. Or something. This sort of thing appeals to me.

Razzle Dazzle - A Journey Into Dance is an Australian comedy starring Ben Miller, which is an odd enough combination in itself. Miller plays Mr Jonathan, a dance teacher on a bizarre mission to introduce heavyweight politics into the world of pre-teen dance, with original choreography such as the Kyoto Protocol Shuffle. I can see this working, and Ben Miller's been in enough good shows to make it worth a look.

LYNCH is a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE. (And yes, if you're willing to indulge Lynch's quirks, the title is meant to be written in all caps.) I haven't seen EMPIRE, but I've seen enough other David Lynch films to be curious about this. How do you direct films as weird as his, especially considering that he apparently doesn't explain them to the actors either? Sounds promising.

I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK is the English-language title of a South Korean film originally called Saibogujiman Kewnchana. The listing starts off unpromisingly:-
Young-goon is a cyborg, and needs an electrical current to survive. It makes perfect sense to her, therefore, to cut open her writs and plug herself into the mains; to eschew food in favour of licking batteries; and to only befriend other machines. The world at large seems to find her behaviour odd, however, and duly confines her to a mental hospital.

So far, so uninspiring. It's a film about a psychotic who thinks she's a cyborg, right?
There, she strikes up a touching bond with Il-sun, who has an uncontrollable tendency to steal other people's souls. A musical romance unlike any other, with extraordinary visual ideas (hold on for the airborne Alpine yodelling sequence) and lovely performances from two of South Korea's most revered pop culture icons.

Yodelling cyborgs? SOLD! This is either going to be magnificent or mesmerisingly bad. Either way, it's got to be worth 105 minutes.

Castells is a documentary about the Catalan tradition of forming human towers. And it just souned kind of interesting.

Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore is an anti-Michael Moore film made by two other liberal filmmakers who used to be big fans until they realised just how much manipulation and selective editing goes on his films. Moore is a frustrating figure because he tends to make perfectly good points in such a massively distorted way that it's easy to undermine his films, and the argument suffers by association. There's a good documentary to be made here, especially by non-partisans, and I've got hopes for this.

Finally, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is showing as part of an Anita Loos retrospective season - it's adapted from a novel she wrote in 1925. This is the Marilyn Monroe version (the original 1928 adaptation is lost), which I've never seen. And it's not often you get to see Marilyn Monroe films in a proper cinema these days. So why not?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Miscellany: 4 July 2007

- I watched some of the Fox News coverage of the Glasgow Airport attacks over the weekend. Bless them. Mad as hatters. Didn't even know what country Glasgow was in. Geraldo Rivera seemed more concerned about the disruption to his holiday in Ibiza this week - and there's an image - but actually, he may have his priorities straight there.

It's difficult to get too worked up about this. It's been almost two years since the UK's local terrorists managed to pull off anything at all, and they botched it almost completely. The IRA were a much more credible threat than this. And the tone of the newspaper headlines pretty much reflects that. The Daily Record's front page headline this morning is a tabloid classic:

Headlines like that are not the hallmark of a successful terrorist campaign. Nor is the full article. Is the hero cabbie fearful of the prospect of another terrorist attack? He is not. His priorities lie elsewhere.
"The police took all the clothes I'd been wearing so I lost my Nike trainers. They're a good pair too."
Not unreasonably, the cabbie was also slightly aggrieved when he returned to the airport the next day to pick up his taxi, and discovered that he'd been given a parking ticket.

- On a related note, here's a genuinely interesting article from Register contributor and ex-bomb disposal officer Lewis Page, who is thoroughly unimpressed by the calibre of today's terrorist. According to him, even if they'd managed to wire the bombs up properly, it would have been pretty trivial.

Petrol, gas etc make for an excellent photogenic fireball which you can normally be quite close to without ill-effects. ... Many people seem to think that any kind of fire or loud noise will become deadly if you add nails. ...

If these guys at the weekend really were anything to do with al-Qaeda, all one can really say is that it looks as though the War on Terror is won. This whole hoo-ha kicked off, remember, with 9/11: an extremely effective attack. Then we had the Bali and Madrid bombings, not by any measure as shocking and bloody, but still nasty stuff. Then we had London 7/7, a further significant drop in bodycount but still competently planned and executed. ... [Now] the jihadi threat has seemingly sunk to animal-lib levels.

Perhaps a bit sweeping, but he makes a fairly convincing case, at least as far as domestic terrorism is concerned.

- Changing the subject entirely, over at Newsarama, Marc Guggenheim discusses DC's strategy of false-soliciting his Flash as an ongoing title beyond the point when it was actually due to be axed:-
I was told that my run would be five issues... I did lead people to believe that my involvement would be open-ended, but that's pretty common in comic books these days. For example, when I had my first run on Wolverine, Marvel was the one saying that my commitment was going to be open-ended, when my run was only slated to be six issues. I think that's just common practice among both major publishers these days because of solicitations. And it's just better for sales if they don't publicize arcs being closed-ended.
Of course, inaccurately-solicited books are returnable, which publishers don't like. But Guggenheim seems to be suggesting that in his experience, Marvel and DC have a deliberate policy of making the solicitations accurate, but then completely misleading retailers in what they say elsewhere. A neat device to subvert the returnability clause, perhaps, not that the publishers have ever adhered to it very strictly in the first place.

Mind you, there's a legal term for inducing people to enter into a contract by making statements that you know to be false. And the outright false solicitations of two issues of Flash that were never going to exist aren't an entirely trivial point, because they're still inducing retailers to tie up their budget on non-existent DC books when they could be spending them elsewhere.

If I were a retailer, I'd be getting a little edgy about this trend.

- Happy Independence Day. In tribute to Scooter Libby, I'm tempted to put in the video for "Running the World", but it's not work-safe (on language grounds). Here's the link. Instead, let's have Gogol Bordello. They're even American. Well, American-ish.