Monday, October 31, 2011

A Frank Review of "Phantasm: OblIVion" (1998)

The Short Version? Phantasm 4. See Phantasm 1-3.
What Is It? Horror.
Who Is In It? The Phantasm guys.
Should I See It? No.

Phantasm IV is the least effective film of the series for a variety of reasons. Newer characters from the previous installment Tim and Rocky are dumped without further reference. Mike is flung off on a solitary drive after the troubling revelations of the previous installment, and Reggie left to meander, unaffected by his recent experiences and without clear purpose to pursue. There are sequences revealing the origins of the Phantasm universe, but they are barely informative and not terribly imaginative. Character development feels stalled, and there are some turnabout that don't really ring true. Folks are really starting to wear their ages, especially Angus Scrimm, whose Tall Man is looking to need a tall walker from Walgreens. It's hard not to notice, because a good chunk of the running time is devoted to repurposing unused footage from the first movie. These undeleted scenes have more vitality than the new material, even if they are confusing with regard to the always shaky continuity of the series. Since the footage is tied to reflections of the characters in their current situations, the film feels less horrific than melancholic, wistful for better days and the financing to produce better films.

Speaking of which, the most likely culprit for IV's lackadaisical vibe is "Phantasm 1999 A.D.," a post-apocalyptic version of part 4 written by Pulp Fiction's Roger Avery. The script was well received by franchise founder Don Coscarelli, but the financing never materialized, so this was filmed as some sort of stopgap. The necessary spinning of wheels is obvious, and drains the life out of this picture as surely as the film itself left the series stranded in Death Valley, living up to the oblivion in the title. There are a few strained new uses for the phantasm balls, some scenes worth visiting, and a snail's progress in the characters' journeys. Still, this installment feels pointless, beyond perhaps setting up a reboot/continuation down the line with Mike replacing Scrimm as The Child Actor Who Aged Creepily.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Spawn: The Armageddon Collection Part 2 (2007)

This collection of Spawn #156-164 is an examination of how thoroughly a ball can be dropped. It opens with a child having brutally murdered their sibling, while Spawn begins his battle with the Hindu goddess Kali. Both of these situations carried over directly from the previous volume, and both reach temporary resolutions of a satisfying nature. The book returns to the mad warrior angel Zera as she slaughters the less faithful, as well as to the Man of Miracles, whose nature is further differentiated from Marvelman/Miracleman. Each of these characters are built up through sacrilege, so the religiously sensitive should damned well already know to keep their distance from a book about the Hellspawn. Unfortunately, both characters are also sold out to a large degree by the demands of the megaplot, which really kicks in two issues into the collection.

Fonzie, meet shark. In the annals of genre tropes, there are few more hoary than the big reveal seen here. "It was just a dream" is probably the worse, and guess what, it kind of comes into play by the end, as well. I can't lambast this development as thoroughly as it deserves to be without spoiling the book to a degree I'm not comfortable with. Suffice to say at one point, Jesus H. Christ makes a guest appearance, and even M.Night Shyamalan might be inclined to groan. The "Armageddon" in the title is taken literally, but in place of the affective foreboding of part 1, this edition descends into TBN Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 level bullshit.

There are a few attempts at "aw man, that's messed up," but they're wimpy compared to the earlier stuff. The really interesting revisions to Spawn's powers and nature(s) are written out. There's a lot of video game logic where characters who at one point destroyed Spawn turn pussy as he gains dubious level-ups. None of the curious, novel asides are present here, with one major through story of middling interest and a single cypher of a protagonist. Basically, everything that's ever been wrong with Spawn is in full effect here, from the overheated melodrama to the tone deaf characterization to the meandering pace to the lack of stakes or repercussions. How do you manage to make the Biblical day of judgment so tedious? How can such heavy theological themes be rendered as a retarded WWE smackdown, complete with homoerotic imagery?

The best part is the book's coda, which absolutely comes out of nowhere. Fourteen straight issues of a widescreen Warren Ellis take on Tales From The Crypt of Pat Robertson, and the wrap-up run head first into Lifetime: Television for Women's special presentation of Todd McFarlane's Spawn, starring Viola Davis as Wanda and Blair Underwood as Terry Fitzgerald. What could have been a defining moment for Al Simmons is delivered with all the subtlety of a falcon punch, which strikes with such force as to render any prior good will insta-borted. It's so bad, you'll wish Superboy-Prime would jab his way into the Toddverse.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wednesday Is A Buck BOOM! For All I Care #124

Doctor Who Volume 2 #1 (2011)
Planet of the Apes #5 (2011)
The Rinse #1
Wormwood Gentleman Corpse #1 (2006)

Hundred Penny Press: Doctor Who Volume 2 #1 (IDW, 2011, $1.00)
My first girlfriend was a Whovian, and so is my father, but I managed not to watch a single episode until a few years ago. It was the one about the guy who forms a band with Moaning Myrtle, and while I understand the episode received mixed reviews, I liked it pretty well. I've caught a few more since then with David Tennet and Matt Smith, and for a geeky sci-fi show, it's pretty corny and goofy in the good way. Based on my limited exposure, this comic seems to capture that feeling of the show, although it also has that distinct comic book disregard for budgets and a bit of stilted pacing. Some of that comes from the likenesses, which unlike that Buffy comic from last week are so spot on I have to figure some referencing chicanery is going on. There's also a bit of cognitive dissonance when I look from a lovingly rendered Amy Pond to a villain that resembles Danny Trejo as drawn by Mort Drucker. Tony Lee and Andrew Currie coast along on easy charm for this pleasant little done in one.

Hundred Penny Press: Wormwood Gentleman Corpse #1 (IDW, 2011, $1.00)
I hate the art style of Ben Templesmith, and all of his clones. I get fucking sick of pages and pages of brown. I also find his painterly eccentricities are used to bury plain old bad work consisting of plain figures, oversized panels, the general absence of backgrounds and chickenscratch. He's basically the Rob Liefeld of the art house scene. His writing is solid enough though on this quirky tale, which held me interest right up until the plague of our times, decompression, saw the book end right as I was starting to get into it. Admittedly, the quirks are largely secondhand, but for seriocomic gothic adventure, it was surprisingly decent.

Planet of the Apes #5 (BOOM!, 2011, $1.00)
How thoroughly must a director shit the bad on a franchise when you make hundreds of millions of dollars on a remake and the studio still doesn't bother with a sequel. Poor Dark Horse had the license for Tim Burton's version of POTA, and I figure Adventure Comics got more mileage out of their take on the original movies fifteen years after they had stopped being produced. BOOM! hedged their bets by also hewing to the old movies, despite a second reboot being a top film this year. Probably for the best, since Rise of the Planet of the Apes didn't establish enough lore to spin a comic series out of, and the old stuff remains meaty material.

For instance, the assumption of political undertones in the franchise means updating the property is as simple as following modern day politics. There's terror bombings, union strikes, underclass labor, extraordinary rendition, martyrdom... bridging the world we know and a time before the first Apes movie. BOOM! likes to do this thing where they offer a dollar issue the same month as a trade collection of the issues that preceded it. I wonder if anyone ever buys the one issue on its own? I don't imagine it would make a lot of sense, but it soundly continues Daryl Gregory's dense plot. Unfortunately, it also continues flat, uninvolving characters that are moved about his chess board. Carlos Magno's rich art seemed too busy to me at first, but I've grown to like it and his ability to convey the humanity the script does not. The guy has a lot of potential to go far, and he's well served by the coloring of Nolan Woodard.

The Rinse #1 (BOOM!, 2011, $1.00)
People gnash their teeth and rend their clothes over the death of most genres in comic books beyond super-heroes. I think they forget that television started bleeding the audience from comic in the 1950s, and the medium's steady death march across decades has never truly abated. People buy super-hero comics because it's the only thing about comic books that hasn't been adopted and bettered by video games, motion pictures and the like. Of course, now that super-hero comics are written like a single hour of television spread out across five issues, even the one thing the industry can still call its own is losing its unique appeal.

What does all of this have to do with a comic about an expert money launderer? Because it reads like an old time television show, from back when they were all based on short prose stories, plays, and radio dramas. I guess someplace like AMC or HBO might could pull off a project like this as a cable show, but it strikes me that reaching back in this way is something comics are ideally suited for. It might work better as a graphic novel than a floppy, since I doubt the story can keep its moment in monthly installments. It isn't that Gary Phillips story is any sort of revelation, but it's okay, and the art of Marc Laming and colorist Darrin Moore make it better. Basically, as prose, this would be nothing special, but transitioned to the comics medium with the right collaborators, it turns out a bit better than the usual fare from either discipline.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Spawn: The Armageddon Collection Part 1 (2006)

I've spoken at length in the past about how Spawn should be the most popular African-American, multi-platform, superhuman badass in an action/horror milieu (with apologies to Blade, whose franchise was entirely dependent on Wesley Snipes, who is now over.) Instead, Spawn is an emo bitch who somehow managed to spin his wheels and shed his tears for 150 issues before making any really progress in the story department. To summarize those fifteen or so years, Spawn fought a whole lot of non-threatening demons who made for silly looking action figures that were supposedly articulate, but sculpted in such a way that you could only stand them just so without their falling over and breaking. Spawn built up a pretty solid supporting cast, but around his ex-wife rather than himself, so that Wanda acted as the anchor around the guy's neck. Lose the chick, which after 100 issues of mooning was a desperate need, and you lose Terry, Cyan, Grandma, the twins, etc. Spawn did kill his big bad Malebolgia, but that just opened the door for a bunch of weaker retreads.

At the start of this trade, one such Malebolgia Lite (who looked just like another deceased antagonist, Jason Wynn) called Mammon had wiped Spawn's memory, and he was predictably being a tittybaby about it. He picked a fight with an angel, got ripped to pieces, and then those pieces got stolen by demons. Spawn was sewn back together, absent his heart, so that he could be tortured by Mammon. Meanwhile, Spawn's heart became a little white kid named Christopher, who is sent on a quest by not-Marvelman/Miracleman, because Neil Gaiman sued that character into the Phantom Stranger. Fucking Billy Kincaid shows up, the child killer Alan Moore created that will not go away, despite just begging for another lawsuit to cause even more of the Spawn library to become radioactive. Some signs of the apocalypse and a greatest hits collection of lame super-villains later, the anniversary issue wraps.

After that busy, confusing, yet still somewhat plodding start, the run of incoming creative team David Hine and Billy Tan starts in earnest. The story of Christopher brings to the fore the EC Comics influence that has always been one of the redeeming qualities of the series, and establishes the potential for Spawn to become a one-man anthology series along the lines of (amusingly enough) Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. For about the first time ever, the cartoonish grisliness of the series is worked into legitimately horrifying imagery that disturbs the senses. The Spawn supporting cast, including Sam and Twitch, are used very effectively. Building in the background is an end of days epic that, while leaning heavily on the usual Judeo-Christian plagues, is smart enough to also delve into world myth, beginning with Kali.

There is more energy and story potential in the six issues collected here than large swaths of the previous 149. Phillip Tan is clearly not as polished an artist as McFarlane, Capullo or Medina, but he's able to shift gears from the usual over the top shtick to more varied storytelling modes. Functionally, this is much better than his later, more stylized work. Rather than the whining associated with Spawn as a character, David Hine elicits real pathos through the tragedies and existential dread of his characters. My only complaint is that once all the balls are in the air, this collection ends exactly when and where you would least want it to. On to part 2, then.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A Frank Review of "Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead" (1994)

The Short Version? The Balls Are Back, as well as half the first film's cast after a skipped chapter.
What Is It? Horror Action Comedy.
Who Is In It? The Phantasm cast.
Should I See It? Yes.

A fun aspect of the Phantasm movies is that they are so plainly products of their time, begging for direct comparisons since they always involve flashbacks to previous episodes. Even more hilariously, we've got the character of Mike originated by A. Michael Baldwin, who was replaced by James LeGros for a sequel, but Baldwin resumes the role five minutes after LeGros' in-story exit but seventeen years since he first filmed it as a teenager. Suffice to say, not only is there no similarity whatsoever between Baldwin and LeGros, but Baldwin is barely even recognizable as himself nearly doubled in age. Similarly, Bill Thornbury returns as brother Jody after the same duration of absence, except Jody died in 1977, has been supernaturally revived after a fashion, and still manages to be a dumpy middle aged dude. Meanwhile, Reggie Bannister somehow keeps chugging along, just a bit grayer. Director/writer/creator Don Coscarelli sure chose his protagonist well.

As mentioned, this film once again tries to pick up right after the previous installment, despite a lapse of about six years and casting changes. A primary character from the first sequel gets thrown under the bus as a result, and I guess they must have also been ground under the wheels and gummed up in the trans-axle, by the look of things. Not unaware of the strain this puts on the narrative and suspension of disbelief, Coscarelli tries to distract from the problem by throwing a slew of plot tangents at the screen until he can see what sticks. Not to get deep into details, but besides the two original cast members returned to intermittently reprise their roles, Reggie is joined in Tall Man hunting by two entirely new soldiers of types generally frowned upon by the stereotypical horror fan. However, they're both very capable (sometimes to the point of being Mary Sues,) and interact well with Reggie in their pursuit of becoming America's Next 3rd Tier Franchise Players.

Coscarelli is clever in balancing the comfortingly familiar with entirely left field elements. There's his signature shot of a sleeping passenger coming to and being greeted by a new/returning cast member, sphere POVs, the crawl through ghost towns, trips past the forks, and creeping through the mausoleums. On the other hand, old characters are put through bizarre paces under radically altered circumstances, the new characters are unexpected and offer different dynamics, while the series' mythology is advanced without burdening it with full, entirely lucid explanations. A defining characteristic of this series is dream logic, so that last bit is important.

Despite a total of four original cast members, Lord of the Dead feels more like the successor to Phantasm II than the original. The action is shot in a similar fashion, the influence of Sam Raimi's brand of comedic action-gore is still keenly felt, and it seems like a lot of the developments with Mike were necessitated to explain why the status quo from II had to be altered to accommodate the return of A. Michael Baldwin. While not as strong as its predecessors, Phantasm III has its own quirky charms, and its inventive contributions to the series should not be discounted. While Angus Scrimm's Tall Man remains the iconic face of the franchise, the familial qualities of the cast and unpredictable turns remain at the heart of the series.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wednesday Is Numerically Ordered For All I Care #123

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Nine #1
The Strange Talent of Luther Strode #1
Ultimate X-Men #1 (2011)

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 9 #1 (Dark Horse, 2011, $2.99)
This was kind of a cotton candy issue. It was made for people who followed all of the previous volume, but at the same time it's something of a sitcomy one-off for new readers. I'm not sure who would get the most out of it. Old fans probably wanted something more intense and involved while establishing the new status quo, as seen in Angel & Faith. Casual readers may wonder who the hell these people are, and why they should care about some chick getting sloshed at a party. I think George Jeanty is a good artist, and I'm glad they've got a guy drawing the book with some life in him. The downside is that very few of these characters are positively identified by name, and not a single one resembles the actor who played them, so eyepatches and the colorist have to save the day. This is also written for the trade, which I won't be buying, so that's that.

The Strange Talent of Luther Strode #1 (Image, 2011, $2.99)
This was maybe one quarter of a good comic. It has a spiffy premise, the archetypical characters are established quickly, and the high school nerd revenge fantasy is a winner. The art is strong and meshes perfectly with both the domestic and gorehound portions of the story. It's just that like most modern comics, there's a bunch of silent panels with storyboarded action that lazy film producers should love if they come calling with an option. I'm sure it'll make for a rad flick. As a comic though, it means I'm done and left wanting more in the sense of eating three potato chips or a tiny juice box. It's not "hey, that was so swell I got's to get me more of this," but "you want two dollars for a doughnut hole on a stick?"

Ultimate X-Men #1 (Marvel, 2011, $3.99)
I'm straight, white, male, my zits are under control, I'm comfortable around women, and I can't remember having gotten beaten up since junior high. The X-Men don't really resonate with me anymore. I'm also not a parent, which was why I dug the ending to The Mist, where an encumbered acquaintance felt that it didn't make sense at the level of the mammal. I expect he'd call bullshit on this book's opening twist, as well. All this is to say I won't continue reading this series, but if this is the kind of comic you like, you may well like this comic. Nick Spencer's script is better than this deathless title deserves, and I like the art of Paco Medina okay, though I miss his days as an Humberto Ramos acolyte. It's got that disenfranchised, violently persecuted minority vibe of the best Roy Thomas and Chris Claremont material down pat. At the same time, it also has all the modern amenities, including maintaining the status quo of X-team memberships consisting of dogshit in recent years. I love Kitty Pryde as much as the next nerdy child of the '80s, but Iceman, the Human Torch and Digrassi Wolverine? That's so wretched it gives me a slight pang of sympathy at the burden of its readers, like liberal guilt during a screening of The Help.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Frank Review of "Dawn of the Dead: European Version" (1978)

  • Zombies: Dawn of the Dead
  • Zombi: L’alba dei Morti Viventi
  • Zombie: Le Crépuscule des Morts Vivants
  • Zombi: El Regreso de los Muertos Vivientes
  • Zombie: In De Greep van de Zombies
  • Zombie
  • Zombie: Rædslernes Morgen

The Short Version? Foreign Version of the Living Dead
What Is It? Action-Horror
Who Is In It? Vincent Parmelly, Angelo Fettucini, Marhalt and Becky Vickers
Should I See It? Maybe

Fair warning: this is not in the strictest sense a proper film review. George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorite films, and this is a fanboy deconstruction of an aberrant version of that film.

When famed Italian director Dario Argento helped get the sequel to Night of the Living Dead made, he was due some concessions. One was the feature making extensive use of the music of Dario's rock band, Goblin. Another was that Argento would get final cut of the film in foreign markets. Now, director George A. Romero has created two films that could be debated as personal masterpieces, and both are significant to cinema as a whole. However, Romero has a rather spotty track record with regard to making good films, much less great ones. As in, there's the two great ones, with arguable competency on everything else. An intriguing premise would therefore be whether Argento could cut Romero's film better than Romero. The answer is no, and it isn't even close.

Another of my favorite films is Pulp Fiction. Imagine if Martin Scorsese had been given final cut of that picture, and decided it should run in chronological order with much of the Mia Wallace story cut out. Also, change the title sequence and drop most of the soundtrack in favor of more FM hits of the '70s. Pulp Fiction would still be a pretty good movie, but it would lose its mojo-- its special magic. It would smother your French fries in mayonnaise. That's what this is like.

Zombi drops seven minutes from the running time, trimming out virtually all of the humor and quirkiness out of the picture. Since most of the bloodletting occurs in the first act, the cut is so plot heavy that you're nearly an hour in before the characterization really kicks in. Even consequential stuff, like the lead characters planning their operations, hits the bricks. Goblin's score is relentless and often atonal, especially hair metal riffs the close the film over boring black credits. Argento doesn't seem to recognize the value of silence, and he has no use for any subtext or pretense. His cut is a straightforward action/horror popcorn flick with extreme gore, and it's unsettling for a die hard fan to watch. After watching three different versions of the film in a box set within 48 hours of buying it in 2004, I didn't mind the changes as much, because I enjoyed seeing the flick from different (and occasionally new) perspectives. In my first viewing of any version in something like two years, I found myself frustrated by the omissions and misguided alterations.

That's about all I have to offer anyone not already a fan of the movie. From here on out, it's strictly responsa amongst the devout. Turn away now if you are not so damned...

I don't really care for Argento's cut of the opening section. The actual credits are distractingly large. Opening with the score's best track not only leaves the movie nowhere to go but down musically; it also comes across as a silly "spooky sounds of Halloween" riff in this context. The dialogue is much more clear, but it vastly reduces the tension, and feels staged in comparison to Romero's Altmanesque cacophony. While likely shorter in length, the clarity and continuity of the exposition makes it seem like more of a drag.

I miss the cute scene transitions throughout Romero's movie, beginning with the switch from the TV studio to the police raid. The jazzy scoring muffles the sense of dread, playing more like a cornball action movie. I do like the chorus of moans laced in there, though. I also think Argento was smart to spend a bit more time with the unnamed African-American cop, instead of rushing his partner's suicide. Goblin's music nearly drowns out the priest's speech, both audibly and in effectiveness. I did enjoy it during the extended execution sequence of the basement zombies, though.

Argento chopped the hell out of the chopper base sequence. Peter's inclusion in the group was always rushed, but here the entire bunch seem thrown together and disconnected. I really missed this "getting to know each other" section, as well as the odd bits of comedy.

There's an interesting variation on the redneck country flyover in this edit. In Romero's version, the "'Cause I'm A Man" song baldly announces the outright satirical nature of his movie, which is both part of its charm and a turn-off for more serious-minded viewers. Argento still offers canned country music, but treats his subjects with more respect, and I do not miss the silly musical beat from the car explosion one bit. Argento takes better advantage at that "expensive" effect by lingering for production value.

Argento's cut of the abandoned airbase sequence makes improvements. The music is eerier, and the relatively rapid crosscutting tightens up what was one of the more exasperating Romero sections.

I could go on indefinitely. The point is, Argento renders a great film pretty good, throwing out genius with the flaws, and making a fun soundtrack grate on the nerves. It's novel for people like me who would watch as many different variations on a beloved flick as they could get their hands on, but I fear anyone introduced to the movie through this edit are getting sold short.

  • Commentary with stars David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger and Gaylen Ross This is a swell bunch of coworkers discussing their time making the picture. By extension, a lot more time is spent discussing expanding waistlines and thinning hair than the deeper themes of the picture. Still, it's cool when a fan gripes about the loss of the cigarettes scene and Gaylen Ross chimes in to back them up. There's also some criticism of where the remake failed to live up to the ambitions of this feature.
  • Trailers Surprisingly gory. An Italian version and two German numbers.
  • TV Spots A pair from the U.K.
  • Poster & Still Galleries Lots of fun stuff to scan through for the hard core fan. The photos get repetitive, though.
  • Soundtracks The art of the albums. Goblin looks like the '70s prog band you'd expect.
  • Video Covers So, so many. DVD, VHS, laserdisc. Some of these boxes are ever so tacky. I've owned a few of these over the years.
  • Dario Argento Biography Good stuff, for a text piece.
  • Menu The gun store "tribal" music and a partial skull with moving red eyes. The commentary set-up button doesn't work, so hit your audio buttons a few times.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Frank Review of "Phantasm II" (1988)

The Short Version? The Balls Are Back.
What Is It? Horror-comedy.
Who Is In It? The usuals, -2, +1.
Should I See It? Yes.

Okay, you've got a low budget movie filmed in 1977, released in '79, and you're planning a studio sequel for 1988 just as the horror boom begins to wane. Today, it would be a remake. If you got Don Coscarelli to do it, and they did, he opens five minutes later despite a studio-forced recasting of one of the leads featured in footage spliced right into the new one. Crazy motherfucker makes it work, so long as you don't look too closely.

The timeline eventually moves forward seven years, which helps gloss over James LeGros taking over as Mike. He's got that thing going on where he's kind of handsome, yet kind of ugly, and his many screen credits would lead you to think his line delivery would be better. Reggie Bannister's gotten a lot better at same in the intervening years, and he's great as the balding ex-ice cream man/monster hunter. It is very clear that Coscarelli had seen the Evil Dead pictures, including a brief shout to Sam Raimi by name, and the influence shows up repeatedly in this film. Few would call that a bad thing, and in fact many of the borrowed techniques are perfectly applied to the deadly spheres that are a trademark of the series. While this may have been one of the cheapest movies Universal Pictures ever released, what got spent is all on the screen. Quadruple-barreled sawed-off shotguns, much improved zombie dwarves, killer ball tricks, far higher quality full frontal nudity... it's a gonzo hillbilly delight.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wednesday Is DC New 52y Fresh & Fruity For All I Care #122

Action Comics #1 (2011)
Aquaman #1 (2011)
The Huntress #1 (2011)
Stormwatch #2 (2011)

Action Comics #1 (DC, 2011, $3.99)
Hello hype, my old foe. I like the art of Rags Morales, and since a Treasury Edition of Superman #1 was one of my first comics, I dig the return of a lower powered Man of Steel as social avenger. Still, folks giving this glowing reviews must be totally high off All-Star Superman, because fuck all actually happens. It's two action set pieces sandwiching a few pages of Peter Parker Clark Kent scraping by as a young turk reporter with a cell phone. Nice update, lots of potential, but don't you dare ask me four bucks a month for something so slight as this, especially when acting under the guise of working class heroism in a bitterly recessive economy.

Aquaman #1 (DC, 2011, $2.99)
Was this a comic book story? It had very pretty art by Ivan Reis that's the best the character has ever had. There were sequential panels, including a prologue and epilogue that foreshadow an upcoming story. In the middle was all this crap copied and pasted off a message board where trolls flamed and Aquaman just kept saying "nuh-uh." I think someone decided to turn a Newsarama interview into a visual narrative. That didn't work out so hot.

The Huntress #1 (DC, 2011, $2.99)
Paul Levitz wants to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Decompression, silent action, sparse dialogue, the absence of thought balloons in favor of captions, light exposition, mature elements, and a hero who speaks casually of murder. What Levitz can't hide is a clear, conventional narrative and a reliance on action movie tropes. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, since a lot of these New 52 titles are so desperate to make an impact amidst like-minded books all fired off in the same month that they read like a desperate nerd at an orgy probing ears and nostrils in hopes of securing any possible avenue of entry. By comparison, The Huntress is so calm and assured, you just know it was being prepared months ago completely independent of the relaunch. I guess we'll know for sure once there's some clumsy references to Earth-2 shoehorned into the fifth issue.

Anyway, I've always had a great affection for the Huntress, and this book pushed all my favorite buttons with the character, so I'm hopelessly partial in my enjoyment. Helena [Last Name Withheld For Now, the fuckers] is a badass bitch covered head to toe in a reasonably practical costume with light body armor performing boss martial arts moves and shooting people with a crossbow. I love all that shit, so I'm in. There's some titillation, but it isn't at Helena's expense, which I greatly appreciate. The art by Marcus To is lovely, like the love child of Gary Frank and Sam Basri. He never sacrifices storytelling for money shots, every picture is pretty, his Huntress is athletic while still feminine, and he's great about referencing complex martial arts moves. I'm going to be pissed if he disappears after a couple of issues, because this is a perfect match of creators and character so far.

Stormwatch #2 (DC, 2011, $2.99)
I enjoyed this second issue well enough, in spite of the fact that it worsens the flaws of the debut, and in part because my expectations have been lowered since then.

I was a little put off by the newly DC exclusive artist Miguel Sepulveda's so plainly tracing/shopping from Mongolian Death Worm that DC had the pages redrawn for the second printing. I still like the basics of his style though, and since he mostly handles the monsters/alien landscape pages, he's in his element. However, the real surprise was supporting artist Al Barrionuevo. While I enjoyed the guy's work on the 2006 Martian Manhunter mini-series, he was still rough around the edges, and aping Bryan Hitch a little too hard. For that book, Barrionuevo insisted on long, narrow, "letterboxed" panels for a supposed "widescreen" effect, but it just made everything look like it was getting squashed in a compactor. Today, Barrionuevo has really opened up his page layouts so that they have more energy and variety. Barrionuevo clearly loves following in Hitch's footsteps on Stormwatch, but he's also picked up a strong Phil Jimenez influence which makes for a quite palatable union. The guy gets another shot at the Manhunter from Mars, and while this is also a deviation from the more familiar model, it's close enough to classic to please me much. I hope Barrionuevo sticks with the series, since he slides in very well with Sepulveda. He may not have quite the same razzmatazz, but he's a a better storyteller with more fluid figures, balancing each other's strengths and weaknesses.

The scripts are where I find my ambivalence toward this book. When it was announced that the title would be at the forefront of the Wildstorm integration into the DC Universe, I was concerned about it starring a bunch of Warren Ellis creations, new characters in a similar vein, and the one doofy DC 1950s sci-fi super-hero. I thought the Martian Manhunter might be the book's Jon Kavanaugh or Seth Bullock; a white knight corrupted by circumstance, or an inflexible objectivist on a morally subjective team. Instead, the Martian Manhunter is about the only pre-existing character who seems consistent. The Authority were a bunch of self-justifying puffed-up jackasses, but they were of the likeable John Constantine mode. The new Stormwatch, to date, has been more like a Justice League consisting of Triumph, Guy Gardner, Vibe, Orion and Maxima. In other words, they're a bunch of jerks, and I not only do not recognize them, instead finding them derivative of DC counterparts. Apollo is the isolated, unsure pre-Superman Clark Kent. Midnighter was pretty much always the very model of the ultraviolent Über-Batman, but now he's an extra-creepy Queerstalker to boot. I don't recall the Engineer being a backbiter, and the pleasant enough new characters from last issue are either abandoned or take a nasty turn this month. It's bad enough that the book is so new reader unfriendly, mired as it is in a complex backstory-in-development, but do the characters have to be so irritable as well?

That said, the new issue flowed pretty well, despite some backpedaling and pacing geared toward the trade. Paul Cornell's writing isn't inherently bad, so I'm hopeful that he'll eventually catch a breath and properly introduce Stormwatch to its readers. The threat is getting fleshed out, twists are promised for the next issue, and this is supposed to shape up into a lynchpin title. I can see the seeding for interesting events down the road, but I'm already impatient for the book I expect this to be, and I feel like I'm reading a second or third story arc instead of the first. Onward with fingers crossed, then...

By the way, since market analysis posts are very dry and niche, I thought I'd offer a bit on Stormwatch #1 at the tail end of this review. It was the 30th best selling book of the DC New 52 in September, placing it squarely at middling for the launch. Technically, that put it in a statistical dead heat with The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #1 (hi Shag!) and behind such books as Red Hood and the Outlaws, Birds of Prey, The Savage Hawkman and Superboy. However, every single one of those comics was ordered with the knowledge that they would be 100% returnable for a full refund. Stormwatch was the ninth most popular non-returnable book of the launch, ordered with full awareness that retailers would have to eat unsold copies. That's a serious vote of confidence in my book, even if orders were only about a quarter of the best-seller of the month, Batman #1.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Frank Review of "50/50" (2011)

The Short Version? Got Cancer?
What Is It? Dramedy.
Who Is In It? The kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun, the dude from Knocked-Up, the chick from Up in the Air, Opie's daughter, and the mom from every Wes Anderson movie.
Should I See It? Yes.

Just to get it out of the way, this is a Lifetime movie for men. It's Pepsi Max. It's as simple as that. A protagonist that acts as a proxy for the audience is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease and must deal with the emotional and material repercussions on his life. Since this is the version of that formula for guys, it also spends a lot of time figuring out how cancer will effect our lead's ability to get a nut, as well as the coping mechanisms preferred by men under such circumstances. Since this type of movie is rarely viewed from a perspective other than "the triumph of the spirit" or tearjerking pussified bullshit, it's actually affective and entertaining. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fantastic job of conveying his character's emotions as subtly as possible, maintaining a poker face and a tight lip. Men in life don't hug each other and weep together, nor do they offer overwrought monologues at pivotal moments. The movie is autobiographical, and the integrity of how men really deal with adversity is maintained throughout, making it something of a must see for women who'd like to better understand these things. For the record, my girlfriend cried through at least a full quarter of the running time.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Seth Rogen essentially plays himself, a big-hearted lug who has difficulty expressing himself outside broage. Matt Frewer and Philip Baker Hall are completely real as fellow cancer patients with their own difficulties. Anjelica Huston is great as the overbearing mother who through her actions offers a peek at why the lead is as he is. Anna Kendrick and Bryce Dallas Howard are loveable even as their characters are the least developed and most transparently stock. As I said, this movie offers insight into the male psyche, but is as arch about the opposite sex as its y-deprived kindred. Well written, well directed, and a good soundtrack if you can forgive the use of "Yellow Ledbetter." See it with someone you love, probably bearing testicles.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Frank Review of "Phantasm" (1979)

The Short Version? Death is not the end, by a damned far sight.
What Is It? Horror.
Who Is In It? The guys who appear in Phantasm movies.
Should I See It? Yes.

There is a consistent hype machine to insure we never forget the likes of Jason, Freddy, or Michael Myers. Hell, even Chucky gets play. Who ever talks about the Tall Man, though? Like Hellraiser, there's a quiet little sequel to the weird Phantasm series every so many years that balances the cerebral, visceral and surreal in a way not meant for mass consumption. I'd be surprised if one didn't inspire the other, and part of Phantasm's particular charm is that it's a might too obtuse, rural and oddly naïve to capitalize on its iconography the way the later Pinhead did for Clive Barker.

Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) were already orphans trying to get by before a friend was murdered in the graveyard. Teenager Mike started noticing strange goings on in town, mostly revolving around a rather tall and creepy undertaker (Angus Scrimm.) Joined by their buddy Reggie Bannister, the brothers are drawn into the horrors of the mausoleum, including zombie Jawas and flying silver orbs. If that sounds peculiar, you don't know the half of it, which is why Phantasm remains a refreshing alternative franchise.

The acting is not spectacular, but it is sincere, giving the characters verisimilitude. The direction is solid, with some clever editing to revisit key moments without resorting to expository dialogue. While there are understandable reservations about Mike's initial cries of wolf, they aren't stretched out to the point of denial. Jody and Reggie accept that when things gets hairy, extreme actions might be necessary, and are taken. Point being, they're game, and that's always welcome in horror movies. There's a reason this is a cult classic, and you'll have to see it for yourself.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Frank Review of "Retrospective: The Videos of Suzanne Vega" (2005)

The Short Version? One of my best loved singer-songwriters on DVD.
What Is It? Music Video Compilation
Who Is In It? Suzanne Vega
Should I See It? Sure hope you do!

  1. Marlene On the Wall: A solid, visually appealing video for 1985 by Leslie Liebman. As will prove uncommon later, this was the strongest possible single off Vega's eponymous debut. In the commentary track, Vega bitches about creative differences with her replacement director (after the first choice fell through) and her stylist. Yes, stylist.

  2. Left Of Center: This was a soundtrack cut, so I'm surprised there wasn't a version of this featuring scenes from Pretty in Pink. Instead they dolled Vega up like Molly Ringwald, and it actually works. In the commentary, Vega discusses contemporary fashions again, a pattern I hope breaks soon. I expected more poet, less vogue.

  3. Luka: One of Vega's biggest hits, and the one that made her name. Also, a sound video with good commentary.

  4. Solitude Standing: Not a favorite album to begin with, and a terrible choice for a single. "Gypsy" was the most obvious potential follow-up hit on the album. This video was directed by Jonathan Demme, and decent enough thought was put into what is essentially a band playing in a room with a few distractions. Vega questions some choices made by Demme that I think worked, and I'm starting to get a control freak vibe off of her.

  5. Book Of Dreams: Another song I'm not fond of, but I can easily see the logic of releasing it as a single. Those were the days of Wilson Phillips, after all. Very potent visuals from the same art designers used for album materials. Good commentary, too.

  6. Men In A War: I could never resolve the incongruity of lyrics and music with this song, plus the latter kind of has that generic poppy sound of the time. The dissonance continues into the video, which matches the music and completely discounts the subject. Amusingly, Vega explains that the aspect that kept getting swept under the rug was exactly why this was never actually released as a single.

  7. Tired Of Sleeping: This one was directed by Tarsem Singh, so of course it positively drips with pretension. According to Vega, Tarsem got his award-winning "Losing My Religion" gig on the strength of this video, and she dug it. For myself, I found that the word pictures Vega puts in your mind are so vibrant, and could have been so easily visualized, that I'm frustrated by Tarsem's flat art film bullshit. Instead of kids playing in pennies, there's just kids playing in slow-mo sepia tone. Instead of a quilted heart, here's an old man spilling milk on the floor. I will say that it looks fine with Vega's interesting commentary on instead.

  8. Tom's Diner: Vega has lots to say about this video, but skips the most interesting part-- that the English duo DNA had stolen her song, remixed it, and were selling it as a bootleg. Vega got ahold of a copy, and liked it so much that she tracked the guys down and secured it a legal release, resulting in a worldwide hit. I don't think anything more came out of DNA, but they're responsible for my smiling at the bank over hearing the only Vega song still in rotation on overhead speakers and stations across the nation. As for the Gareth Roberts video itself, given that it was quickly cobbled together using recycled Vega footage and somewhat random visuals, it's very energetic and surprisingly evocative of the lyrics.

  9. Blood Makes Noise: Vega's enthusiasm for this video is audible, and it's one of my favorites, as well. It's busy as fuck and oh so much a product of its time that you'd be forgiven for expecting C + C Music Factory to show up, but it sure enough grabs you by the eyeballs. Nico Beyer turns Vega into the intellectual's sexpot, and his propaganda poster come to life perfectly parallels the industrial tune.

  10. In Liverpool: This one was apparently very expensive, and it shows. Almost too literal an interpretation, but it's lovely and it serves one of my favorite songs, so I won't be complaining. Excellent work by director Howard Greenhalgh.

  11. 99.9F°: Nico Beyer again. Awesome again. This one oozes an aloof, taboo sensuality that keeps you watching its entire... length.

  12. When Heroes Go Down: This is something like the third video to feature one of Vega's significant others, but at least this time it was also the producer of her best two albums. Unfortunately, I never much liked the song, and the video is downright irritating. It's one of those "what were they thinking" affairs involving a colonoscope.

  13. Caramel: Lovely, lush song with a video to matchby Charles Wittenmeier. Vega has an atomic age allure to suit the 50s pastiche. She does kind of snub Janeane Garofalo while referencing a film tie-in, though.

  14. No Cheap Thrill: Another wonderful song with a perfect video that continues the retro aesthetic, although the flaring effect is oh so '90s. Props to director David Cameron. Madonna gets mentioned again, which I find an odd point of reference for a folkie.

  15. Book And A Cover: A really nice song hidden on a non-U.S. greatest hits compilation. Vega plays up the creepiness of a shot involving an airplane and the World Trade Center, but the whole thing is rather tame. All the upside-downness wear on the nerves.

  16. Last Year's Troubles: A cute song, but the terrible video was clearly shot for no budget. Nepotism may have played a part, but that aspect is largely critic-proofed thanks to a death in the family. Still, the whole thing looks run through a generic old-timey "film stock" filter that's probably bundled with the Nero suite. While they were in there, they could have just thrown together a slideshow of public domain Victorian photographs and ended up with a better result.

  • Caramel (Alternate Version): There are some great shots in here, but also a lot of placeholding material involving Vega signing to her cat in black and white.
  • Days of Open Hand: A promotional video for the album that runs a bit long at six minutes, but has some good interview material and live performance footage.
  • 99.9F°: Promo spot for the album release. A nice snippet of the video with a bit of TV commercial cheese thrown in.
  • Songs in Red and Gray Promo spot for the album, which is not only an appealing commercial, but offers a bit of representation here for the under-appreciated album.
  • Discography: Could be handy?
  • Rarities: This is neat. Cover art slideshow of singles and oddities.
  • Personal Playlist: A track selection menu to play the videos in any order you'd like. Random, no?
  • Menu: Noteworthy for being unusually well constructed, aside from the redundancy of the Special Features and Audio Options links that both go to the exact same sub-menu.


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