Friday, December 17, 2010

On the last role of a great man, that of the last plot of an evil man

Peter Sellers' talents as a comedian and an amasser of automobiles are inarguable.  But in many eyes, his last film, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu is a letdown.  IMHO, the people who are disappointed by it don't know a great deal about the character, or Sellers' earlier work.

Very few people have seen a Fu Manchu film that they weren't snickering at; fewer still have read one of the books.  Fu Manchu is the archetypal Asian mastermind, spawning endless imitators; from the comics' Yellow Claw to Buckaroo Banzai's nemesis Hanoi Xan, leader of the World Crime League.  He’s fallen madly out of favor in recent decades, thanks to encroaching political correctness, but if you can track down the original novels, they’re classic pulp entertainment, very much “of their time” but no less entertaining. 

Sellers plays a double role in the film, that of the titular Oriental master of crime and the English detective Dennis Nayland Smith, Fu’s arch-nemesis.  As the film opens, both Fu and Smith are worse for the wear. At the ceremony where the Devil Doctor was to drink his Elixir Vitae, the potion which grants him eternal youth, it's used by a clumsy minion (Burt Kwouk, Kato to Sellers' Clouseau, in a cameo) to put out a fire.  Near death, he is forced to hatch a scheme to obtain the ingredients for a new batch.  Once it's clear the insidious Si Fan is active again, the British police are forced to contact Smith, long since retired.  A series of torture sessions by Dr. Manchu have left him a broken man; he spends his time dazedly puttering around his country cottage in the company of Delight, a manual lawnmower (you heard me) he found and befriended after his escape.  The news that Fu and his hordes were on the march rouses him from his torpor and he agrees to help. 

Fu Manchu needs diamonds for his elixir; not a large number of small diamonds, but a small number of very large diamonds.  The 75-karat Star of Leningrad is stolen shortly after the film begins, and the plot to steal its twin, the King George V diamond is the meat of the story.  Smith realizes that Fu would not allow himself to simply steal the diamond; he predicts the yellow devil will attempt to kidnap the King and Queen, and ransom the gem. 

Still early in her career, Helen Mirren shines as  policewoman Alice Rage, selected (after a stellar audition where she tap dances and plays the saxophone, together and at the same time) to impersonate Her Majesty as a decoy.  She is captured by the evil Doctor, only to fall in love with him when he reveals his softer side. ("Call me 'Fred'!  That's what they called me when I was at Eton!") Her subtle lisp never fails to bring a giggle ("Oh, Fwed...") and her rendition of the music hall standard "Daddy Wouldn't Buy me a Bow-Wow", just a hair off-key is hilarious. 

American TV legend Sid Ceasar plays American FBI agent Giuseppe “Joe” Capone who spends most of the film acting the boorish American, spouting embarrassing racism ("You're one great Limey bastard!") or talking on the phone to a relative in Chicago, barely able to hear him over the sound of machine-gun fire.  David Tomlinson (best known to Americans from Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks) plays the British chief of police, his last role before retiring.

Many reviews complain of Sellers’ laconic performances in the film.  I must assume they didn’t make it through the film.  Smith slowly awakens over the course of the film as the chase reinvigorates him. Fu Manchu find love in Constable Rage, and that carries him through much of the film, until his quest to formulate his elixir.  So the soft  line readings many mention work perfectly for the character, and even if he was a bit weak during the filming (he was advised not to take the role due to his heart condition) it didn’t stop him from being funny. 

I have a rule of thumb for a spoof.  Read the script and take out the jokes.  If you still have a good script, you have a good spoof.  Following that rule, this is a fine spoof, as the plot is a solid (if formulaic) Fu Manchu story. 

As for the jokes…a majority of the humor in the film follow the madcap form of Sellers’ earliest success, the Goon Show.  The character “Fred FuManchu”, noted bamboo saxophonist, appeared in his own adventure as well as several cameo appearances over the run of the show.  The odd last names of many characters like “Minge”, not to mention Nayland’s wacky mode of travel at the climax of the film are also reminiscent of the wild mindset of the series.  This is even different from Sellers’ Pink Panther films, where most of the comedy was from slapstick and Sellers’ clever mime-style reactions to things.  Here the comedy is in the plot and the dialogue. There’s a fair amount in stereotypical humor as well, but again, seen in the context of the time, before people got skin the thickness of rice paper, it’s a lot of fun.

The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu is now available from Warner Archive, as is another of Sellers’ films, The Bobo.  No mechanical spiders are necessary for purchase.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On the many faces of Aquaman, and the importance of keeping Batman clean-shaven

On the DC blog-site The Source, Dan Didio writes about the recent Kevin Smith miniseries "Batman: The Widening Gyre". 

Which I REALLY enjoyed.  When he's stayed responsible and gets the scripts written on time, Kevin does really good comics work.  This and the previous mini Cacophony (the pair making the first two thirds of a trilogy) are really fine "possibly in continuity" stories, with the kind of just shy of filthy humor that kevin does expertly.  The story he's building is very interesting, and the third chapter will be interesting indeed. I'll go so far as to say that his "Batman and the Joker" scene at the end of cacophony can stand toe-to-toe with the end of Killing Joke in the fight best "masks off, hearts on sleeves" scene between those characters.  And Walt Flanagan, a man best known to fans of the Askewniverse for having a fast dog, and who we met while he was working in Kevin's comic shop (he always remembers his friends; gotta give him that...) has a very different style, one that might not work for a regular monthly but worked perfectly for this very uniquely themed story. (END TANGENT ALERT)

In said piece, he discusses a sequence from the book which, as originally written, was hilarious, and could never be published.  The scene involves Aquaman misunderstanding Bruce Wayne's cries of private interpersonal communication (AKA Making The Beast With Two Backs) with cries for assistance.  The scene was still damn funny as published, but allegedly they were SCREAMINGLY funny as first handed in. And Dan knew they could never see print.

(TANGENT ALERT PART DEUX) Which right there is an argument for a Mature label for DC titles.  Like any character, there are stories that can be written for DC characters that might not be suitable for every reader.  Very good stories, stories that might attract new readers (I know, the semi-mythical "new reader" argument again) but since DC makes books for kids, they're loath to do "mature" stories with those mainstream characters for fear of Mommy or Grandma buying one for junior by mistake and starting a shitstorm.  The Vertigo line, originally intended to be the place for those kind of stories, has become its own successful and separate fiefdom, where characters go and (until recently,at least) don't return from.  If I may make a comparison to the films, DC has a "G" line (The exemplary Johnny DC books) a "PG" line (The mainstream DCU) a per se "R" line (Vertigo) but no "PG-13" line where slightly more mature (In the complexity and dramatic sense, not necessarily the salacious "boobies and poo-poo words" sense) stories can be told with an opportunity to give fair warning that the title "might not be for everyone".  The first of Kevin's minis danced controversially close to that line, to the point that some claimed it "went too far" for a DC book.  People were REALLY put off by the idea that the Joker even MENTIONED Batman's junk, let alone saw it.  The editors were cool with everything that got into the book, but (according to Kevin) had problems with the idea of Batman having stubble, something I find a great example of counting the pennies and letting the nickels fall where they may.  Anyway, If DC had a sub-imprint for the more adult-y stuff, such complaints could be addressed before they start.  MOST mini-series and one-shots are of questionable continuity already.  Implicitly suggesting that these "DC-13" books are slightly more questionable in their timeline placement is not going to make too many heads explode.  And the more mature reader is likely not going to want to worry (or care) about which two issues this story shoehorns into anyway, so BFD. (END TANGENT ALERT)

At first read, it seems Kevin wrote Aquaman in that slightly naive, "new to the surface world" mindset that Mark Waid experimented with in "JLA Year One", where Hal Jordan gets him to scour the Secret Sanctuary for a bulb wrench.  But in some Q&A sessions, he revealed he was basically writing Aquaman as a surfer/stoner, one who's not quite in phase with the world of the dry-legs.  (The result being that when I re-read the scene, I hear Jason Mewes in my head reading Arthur's lines)  This of course upset hard-core Aqua-fans, claiming that that's "not what the character's about".

(And this is not a Tangent alert, because it's what I actually planned to write about)

Interestingly enough, there have been SO many different interpretations of Aquaman in recent history, in many different media.  In addition to this "Hang loose" one, there's the "OUTRAGEOUS" version on B: B&tB, a version that, before he re-appeared in Blackest Night and Brightest Day, I'd have happily read comic books of.  Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner's included him in their Supergirl strip in Wednesday Comics, where Jimmy described him as "The Denis Leary of the Sea". His take was that Aquaman's zone of patrol is the ENTIRE OCEAN, so naturally he was gonna get a little testy.  Again, great idea; how well you could use it in a continuing story, who knows, but perfect for that moment at that time.  Even the Young Justice preview played him more in the regal sense, more than we've ever seen him played in the comics.  And I'm not even COUNTING the older animated versions, voiced by (variously) Marvin Miller and Norman Alden.

Now each of those interpretations, especially the ones for the cartoons, are all perfectly valid.  But as a rule, when you see that many interpretations of a character, it's because they don't have a personality to speak of, or at least not one that everyone identifies.  Aquaman is one of those characters that has gone though so many iterations, both subtle enroute changes and radical revamps, that he's one of the biggest messes DC has.  Dan would regularly ask at conventions "What's 'the Right' Aquaman?  Is it the green and orange suit, the more tied to Atlantean myth version Peter David wrote, the water-hand guy, which?" It was only after the vast majority of answers he got was "The orange-and-green-suit guy" did he start to have a course to pilot for a return.

Right now, the best solution DC has for sorting out a character is Let Geoff Do It.  That's not a dig - his work is spectacular, he hits all the points, and come up with a version of the character(s) that respects  the previous iterations, explains (or explains away) the less successful ones and results in a strong "first position" character that he or any other writer can then move forward with. Nobody's going to please everyone (especially comics fans) but his versions provide the greatest good-enough for the greatest number.  And now he's addressing Aquaman in Brightest Day.  He's bringing the character back to a recognizable state, while simultaneously making wholesale changes.  Mera is now a kickass warrior, though not from the extra-dimensional race she once was.  There's a new Aqualad, and his story is still unfolding.  And the Aquacave is back.  If Storm and Imp show up, I may lose the ability to digest food for a brief period.  The reaction to Tusky the Walrus is too horrifying to imagine.

But again, we're not getting the return of a past version of Aquaman, we're getting yet ANOTHER iteration, but one with enough similarities to the past ones it seems familiar enough not to inspire (much) controversy.  And that's the right way to go; namely, forward.  Flash, Green Lantern, Toyman (I've talked about that one before) nothing was un-done, just addressed, and moved past.  When we see  the much rumored and prayed for Captain Marvel fix (I'm invoking personal opinion and choosing the term "fix" over "revamp" on purpose), I imagine we'll see something the same.  Much of the previous versions (hopefully the best bits) will remain, with re-told version of other bits, forming a new paradigm intended to appease, appeal, and attract the various audiences.

Let Geoff Do It.

Aquaman currently appears in Brightest Day.  The TPB of Widening Gyre is out now.