Reviews, Reflections & Reappraisals

General Comments on Books, Movies and Music

Saturday, September 20, 2003

What is it about Comic Book adaptations for the big screen that seem to go horribly wrong? This is an especially pertinent question to ask considering that this was literally the summer of the superheroes. We had X-men 2, The Daredevil, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Hulk (The Incredible part got lost somewhere along the way). In the past we had adaptations of such diverse works as Alan Moore's From Hell, as well as a whole slew of interesting but flawed Batman and Superman movies. Although I am generally of the opinion that great books when translated to celluloid generally end up less than transcedental, the track record when it comes to comics is startlingly poor.

In order to look at why they seem to be adapted badly, we perhaps have to look at the nature of the comic book itself. The Comic form, for all its recent entrance into the mainstream thrives in a sense on excess. Its major appeal in its early days was as a form of wish- fulfillment to adolescent boys. Of course, since then its has matured and evolved greatly, but ultimately comics tend to give us the unattainable especially in the form of the protagonists superhuman powers be it great strength, the ability to fly, or well, the ability to shot laser beams out of one's eyes. These powers, if one were to think about it carefully, often bends the limits of credulity, but of course to be fair when we read a comic or watch a superhero movie, we are not looking for an explanation of how it is possible, but are content to believe the fantasy. After all, in a sense do we not read them in the first place in order to escape the sharply defined confines of reality?

But therein lies a problem. This love of excess is well and good and works perfectly fine within the medium, but at the hands of effects mad Hollywood producers, that excess can sometimes, well to put it bluntly sometimes seem excessive. When so much heed is payed to creating the feel for the comics such as in the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen for example, the results can be a canvas painted with with all the right colours, looking almost like the original, but severely lacking in depth. I for one believe very strongly that too much effort was paid in the Batman movies to make everything exactly like the comic - from the Batmobile, the Batwing, the Batcave and so on. They spent so much time ensuring that the Catwoman looked like the Catwoman and the Penguin and Poison Ivy looked the part that they seemed almost to descend into cheap imitation. I guess the point is that Hollywood producers face an overwhelming pressure, at least in their minds, from fans to stay faithful to the original, and thus tend to produce effects laden pictures with poor plots (if any at all), little real character development (after all the fans already have a fixed idea what the characters are like) and card board characters out of actors heavily made up to look like the real thing.

I guess the tendency, at first glance, of comics to paint many things in absolutes of good vs evil, revenge vs forgiveness and alienation vs acceptance does not lend itself well to cinema, where subtlety is often important to prevent a sharp descent into cliche. However, if you think about it, comics are far more multi-layered than that. Comic book writers often seek to allow their readers to be able to relate to us emotionally, creating complex characters facing difficult choices and decisions that they have to make. Thus, as much as we would love to have their powers, we wouldn't want the sense of alienation and of responsibility that they entail. Sadly, such subtlety in emotion is often lost in movies which cannot afford the time to devlop characters in the 90 minutes that comic book writers have over the hundreds of pages. One reason why Spiderman was in many ways the most successful of the adaptations was it showed the emotional transformation of Peter Parker from selfish teenage miscreant to responsible superhero and gave us some idea of the motivations behind it. Sadly though, the Green Goblin was rather one-dimensional as was Elektra in the Daredevil (Revenge!). Some others have gone the other way. The Hulk's first hour of exposition into Banner's past and the repeated use of flashbacks bored many people senseless. Why? People care less about how Banner got his powers (in this case a truly excessive and belief suspending combination of a DNA modification at birth and radiation exposure) than some means of assocaiting with the characters which was never provided ( and hindered by some truly constipated acting by Eric Bana).

If anything, I must admit I enjoyed many of the Comic Book adaptations this summer. Why then criticise them? it should be remembered that one of the main reasons why Comics were shunned for so long by the literary mainstream was precisely because they were seen to provide only a sense of vicarious thrill. Also, in my opinion, the worst of the adaptations have been of the more recent mature and literary of the comics. Alan Moore's work in From Hell and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been absolutely butchered by Hollywood. I guess in many ways it is dissapointing but in no way surprising (considering many of the movies coming out today) that Hollywood has stripped comic books bare and turned them into entertaining Action/Adventure shows. So sure, the movies might be fun, but if you really want the full experience, read the real thing.

posted by caleb  # 3:52 PM

Friday, September 19, 2003

A Review Of Yundi Li: Chopin

The credentials are impeccable. He was the youngest ever winner of the Warsaw Chopin festival held only once every half decade at the tender age of 18. His performances in that competition stunned the world, showing a pianist who showed a brilliant range of touch and feel belittling his youth. Past winners of the Warsaw Chopin have used it as a launching pad for wonderful careers such as Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini. The question since then has been, can he live up to all the hype that has been generated, as well as to the vast achievements of other previous winners? This, his debut CD goes some way to answering those questions.

It is perhaps unsurprising, all things considered that his debut on Deusche Gramophone shows an all-Chopin programme, and includes such famous pieces as the Piano Sonata No. 3, the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brilliante, as well as the Nocturne No. 2. But like all pianists tackling Chopin, he faces a daunting task, namely, how does one add anything to pieces that have been interpreted by so many great pianists before him? How can the pianist deal with the burden of expectation that these previous interpretations places on him, whilst also not decending into cliche and resorting to merely mimicking them? It is to Li's credit that he nicely avoids these pitfalls.

Perhaps the most outstanding quality that is evident in this recording is his ability to confer upon the listener the whole range of Chopin's emotion and feeling, from a searching tenderness to a sense of a yearning melancholy. He is able to bring shades of feeling and meaning to many of the pieces with his wonderfully lyrical renditions. Indeed, the pieces are throughout played with nearly flawless technique but more importantly with a seemingly fearless ability to cut straight to the core of a piece and to communicate its essence straight to the listener.

This CD leaves little doubt that Yundi Li is an extremely talented pianist. Even more encouraging is the fact that his playing is remarkably thoughtful and reflective, especially for one with so little experience. His intrepretation of Chopin seems to find a middle path between becoming iconoclastic and radical whilst being to stoic and reserved in attempting to remain "true to the composer's intentions" rather like Brendel and his school. Indeed, Yundi Li has managed to bring life and sparkle to these standards, and his performance here with all its merits must definitely be recommended wholeheartedly.

Caleb Liu
posted by caleb  # 10:15 AM


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