Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Empowered Volume 6 (2010)

Yay! For the first time in several years, I'm finally all caught up with Empowered volumes! Of course, that volume shipped late last year, with ever widening gaps between editions, and I actually started reading this a few months ago? Well, not boded.

The last volume was excellent, and I began reading this one in hopes of a nice opening chapter or two during a study break. Thirty-eight pages later (43 if you count the prologue,) I thought I was at least done with the aftermath of the death and destruction of the previous epic. Emp caught her usual unfair amount of shit, Major Havok was even more loathsome than usual, Sistah Spooky is emotionally devastated, and the dead walk the fucking Earth. Well, that was intense in an unexpected and not entirely desirable way. So hey, how about another fourteen pages of Emp and her boyfriend fighting about her near deadly last adventure, to really wring the soap opera out of the preceding events? Argh! But wait, there's more! Twenty-five pages of funerals, extended consequences, grim foreshadowing, emotional tumult, and two guest pages of yaoi porn by Jo Chen and Emily Warren.

It isn't until page 91 that there's a serious attempt to progress into new territory, which still amounts to Marvel Zombies/Blackest Night on Empverse terms. It isn't as much of a retread as that might sound, since a lot of the undead characters are pretty cool "fresh" faces, plus Emp's low key secret origin gets thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, the next chapter spends thirty-two pages satisfying the bondage fiends with unfunny funny sexcapades. In a volume that was already sour, overwrought, random and atonal, it feels completely out of place.

As has become the standard, the final chapter is an extended epic that attempts to draw all the loose strands together for a rousing finish. It only half succeeds. The premise is solid, but it all feels rushed and poorly thought out. Instead of startlingly well orchestrated callbacks, references to earlier chapters seem forced or obvious. I felt like a boss villain with potential kind of got thrown under the bus. Emp gets a moment of glory that doesn't feel earned, in part because it doesn't fully make sense, and seems to be generated out of contrivance. The book does end with a bit of "ohhh, shit" foreshadowing, but not necessarily the one folks were expected to get. I'm almost dreading a return visit from a group of villains I'd hoped would stay gone indefinitely, but I'm hoping Thugboy supplies a twist in the near future.

I hate to get on Adam Warren's case. When it's good, Empowered is one of the best books on the market, and even off volumes like this one display one of the most fertile imaginations since Jack Kirby. Part of the problem is that Warren sets the bar so high. The other part is that when he's not bringing it, you're staring down a couple hundred pages of sloppily unmet expectations and fatiguing indulgence.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Frank Review of "Thor" (2011)

The Short Version? Thunder God Down Under.
What Is It? Action-Comedy.
Who Is In It? Captain Kirk's Dad, Padmé Amidala, and Hannibal Lecter.
Should I See It? Yes.

Before writing this review, I decided to take a look at a list of all the Marvel Comics movies to date. Did you know that there was only one prior to 1986's Howard the Duck: the 1944 Republic Pictures Captain America serial? I guess everything else was TV movies up to that point, and even then only the sputterings of Cap, The Punisher and the still unreleased Corman Fantastic Four before Blade began the Marvel age of comic book movies. Now, Cap is my favorite Marvel hero period, but I wanted to figure out which Marvel movie hero was my favorite. That would be S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson, who co-stars in this picture.

A lot has been made of casting choices in this type of flick, some bad (Halle Berry as Storm,) some obvious (Patrick Stewart as Professor X,) and some revelatory (Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.) The problem is that too often, the movies are too crowded or the marque players not given enough films to truly settle in and develop their roles. Agent Coulson started out as a seemingly meek bureaucrat struggling to get a meeting with Tony Stark, but stepped up to help protect Pepper Potts and eventually "manage" Iron Man himself. Then he gets spun-off into Thor, and steals every scene he's in with his calm, courteous, yet calculating manner. Even amongst deities and geniuses, he tends to come off as the coolest cat in the room without a drop of sweat. It doesn't hurt that actor Clark Gregg is a comic fan from back in the day who name drops Silver Surfer and Adam Warlock in interviews.

I do believe it says something that I've managed to reach the third paragraph without really discussing Thor, and I'm sure a big part of that is that he's a character I'm ambivalent about. I think the guy can be cool at times, but all the pomp and cosmic circumstance of his solo title has tended to leave me cold. I love a good odyssey now and again, but Thor tends to hit the same beats repetitively (Odin pissed at him/imperiled, Loki plots, new guy gets the hammer, Odin dies/lives again, Ragnarok) and never seems to progress much as a character. However, toss some faux Shakespearean shit talk into a super-team brawl where he drops the hammer, and I say thee yay. The benefit of that was that I dug all the trailers, had no problems with the costumes, and no desire to nitpick the film to death. On the other hand, I brought no fandom into the cineplex with me (aside from Agent Coulson,) so I only took away from it what was presented: a solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable action-adventure.

After a brief mise-en-scène preview of upcoming events, the movie starts in Asgard with spectacle and grand battles again Frost Giants. I've never been one of those bitch ass readers who needs super-heroes to have one foot squarely in a realistic milieu, so this was where I had the most fun as a viewer. Bouncing between the realms of extradimensional gods is super-hero movie real estate all Thor's own, plus it plays to the strengths of the cast and director Kenneth Branagh. Thor strikes a nice balance between capable badass and brash asshole, Loki is allowed nuance, and the Warriors 3+1 play well off both. The CGI could have used a better budget, but it's easier to forgive the cut corners when you're allowed to immerse yourself in the world for the duration.

The trouble starts when Odin banishes Thor through time and space to 1980's Superman II. Thor is in some redneck town without powers having comical misadventures and a romantic subplot. I'll definitely take Kat Dennings over Ned Beatty as comic relief, but there certainly were times that I was waiting for the Otis theme to be cued. Thor is aided by a band of disbelieving but curious scientists who help him retrieve his lost hammer and deal with life on Earth. That also would have been fine, except for the very tacked-on and malnourished relationship with Dr. Jane Foster.

I like Natalie Portman as much as the next guy, and I'll even buy her as a physicist, but not one so love-starved and nervous as seen here. Attraction is definitely built up, but there simply is not enough time or depth to go beyond that and still juggle the sarcasm, the machinations of Loki, the encounters with S.H.I.E.L.D., and other obligatory events. Others might argue that one of these plots should have been dropped entirely, but at least the universe-building stuff was interesting. The fluffy, relationship building stuff felt like ballast from other movies. I think that as a whole it manages to stick, but each of the threads had problematic aspects that need to be glossed over for the greater good.

Chris Hemsworth makes an excellent Thor; charming, formidable and ridiculous in turns as required. Natalie Portman once again plays Natalie Portman, increasingly reminding me of Julia Roberts powering her way through movie after movie on only a bright smile and America's affection. Tom Hiddleston is fine as Loki, but I still wish we could have seen Josh Harnett kill in this thing instead. Anthony Hopkins manages to pull off the gold armor and eyepatch without going off the rails (see: Bram Stoker's Dracula. Stellan Skarsgård and Rene Russo have thankless roles that would have accommodated any actor in their age group and range. Most of the Asgardians were serviceable, except Idris Elba as Heimdall, who I could watch in his own movie. If Elba had more screen time to be the pimp daddy of the Rainbow Bridge, I might have talked him up for a couple of paragraphs at the beginning of this review.

I can buy the chemistry between Thor and Jane Foster. I can appreciate the various characters Thor gets to play off. I can see Foster continuing to search for what lies beyond as both a scientist and woman. I believe Thor has enough humbling experiences to gain awareness of the consequences of his actions, but it would have been nice to have him chew on failing a little bit more and pratfall a bit less. I have more trouble with Thor hanging on to his experiences on Earth, since most of his lesson came from tragedies from on high rather than deeply meaningful human connections. At the same time, I'm afraid of how things might have turned out had any more time been spent in that area, since the efforts that reached the screen were less than satisfactory. The same could be said of the 3D, which I forgot about being part of this flick until just now, its only impact to raise the ticket price. I actively tried to catch this in 2D, and still feel like I did. It also serves as a reminder that Thor works best with a big playground, and where his film falters is when the scale shrinks behind him, like Norma Desmond with a winged helm.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Existence 2.0/3.0 (2010)

I bought this trade based on the high concept, fast paced and seriously attitudinal first issue, and I'm happy to say that vibe carried through the rest of Existence 2.0. The first three issue mini-series is basically a great unfilmed Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi script from his heyday, balancing the droll observations of Sylvester Baladine in his new life as a big dick brickhouse with bloody shoot-ups and a compelling plot.

An amoral scientist invents a means to instantaneously overwrite his mind onto others just in time to switch bodies with the ninja stealth assassin who "killed" him. The Tarantinoesque swagger and jumping through time plays very well, as clues are followed up regarding who ordered the murder. The only typical turn sees the seeker's heart softened by a loved one in peril, but I guess more lily-hearted readers needed some hook to root for the guy. The story is a hell of a lot of fun, complete unto itself, with no shortage of twists along the way.

Existence 3.0 then is the unnecessary sequel that Arnie wouldn't come back for, so it was left to Danny Glover or Robert Patrick to try carrying the lead. Peripheral characters from the first movie have an elevated presence, and hoops are jumped through to explain their illogical reappearance, but you know the producers are just trying to stoke your fire for the original with available materials. Worse, the new director wants to make their "own" film, so instead of being driven by an omnipresent humorous monologue, there are now great swaths of silent action and an attempt at heavier drama that doesn't play. Trading Dennis hopper for Willem Dafoe isn't so bad, but Sandra Bullock on a boat with Jason Patric just isn't her on a booby trapped city bus with Keanu Reeves.

That leaves Existence 2.0/3.0 as the Wall*Mart DVD 2-pack where you get both films for just a few dollars more. Yeah, the sequel was inessential, but those two scientists they brought in reminded you of the first film, it is a continuation of the story, and it was decent enough not to put you off. There's enough good in both scripts to see why writer Nick Spencer is on everybody's radar these days, and the art by Ron Salas is consistently impressive throughout. Early on, the art is more polished, recalling Gaijin Studios artists like Dave Johnson, Jason Pearson, and Cully Hamner. As the book progresses, the art gets rougher with less clear influences, but is still solid. Salas produced seven lovely covers for the series recalling Leonard Kirk and Lee Bermejo which are reprinted inside, but it looks like somebody slapped together the shitty cover of the trade in Photoshop from some interior panels. Still, fifteen bucks for seven issues is a steal in today's market, and the sum of its parts is great enough to buy the whole thing.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Frank Review of "Machete" (2010)

The Short Version? You messed with the wrong Mexican!
What Is It? Action Comedy
Who Is In It? So very many bad cameos.
Should I See It? No.

Uncensored NSFW Red Band Trailer (A.K.A. 90% of what's worth watching...)

Grindhouse was a cinematic experience unlikely to be recreated in my lifetime. Two abbreviated "bad" movies made great in context sandwiching a set of faux '70s trailers for low budget schlock recreations. Among those trailers was "Machete," about an illegal immigrant caught up in political intrigue that is resolved through ultraviolence and hot sex. It was magnificent, and of course every Mexican and film geek to cross Rodriguez's path afterward demanded an actual "Machete" movie be made. So he did. Which was a terrible idea, because the joke is thoroughly and perfectly played out over the span of the fake trailer. Everything else is just tedious filler and retread, like one of the many awful Saturday Night Live spin-off movies.

Rather than waste more of my time and energy than was expended through my actual viewing of the movie (supplemented by tossing through the last few months of my friend's copies of Bizarre magazine,) here is a quick rundown of what worked in the movie: The nudity in the pre-title sequence, some of the early kills, the entire hospital sequence, Danny Trejo's deadpan, Jeff Fahey and Michelle Rodriguez.

Things that did not work out: Jessica Alba as an "actress," her fake semi-nudity, Robert DeNiro as a comedian, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, the horrible CGI blood effects, most of the inert green screen dependent action sequences, Steven Segal past the initial amusement of his playing a Latino, the hammy political commentary, the bionic sound effect, Machete's unexplained survival of the pre-title sequence, the "writing," and the "direction."

Machete wants to be campy fun, but it's basically a shitty train wreck that tries one's patience. My advice if you're set on watching this is to put it on and just let it play until you get tired. The movie progressively peters out toward a truly limp ending, so you can basically munch on it until you've had your fill without missing anything worthwhile thereafter.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Skullkickers, Vol. 1: 1000 Opas and a Dead Body (2011)

In the '80s, Hollywood was churning out action buddy comedies like they were being produced out of a factory in Korea. For God's sake, there were two competing movies about police detectives saddled with canine partners, one starring the brother of a great comedian, the other headlined by a Bosom Buddy. It wasn't bad enough to be madness. It was just cut rate product with a reliable yield. Kate Hudson romantic comedies would serve as a more recent example.

Tolkienesque vaguely medieval Middle Earth bullshit turns me off like the prospect of being the meat in a Rosies Barr & O'Donnell sandwich. Skullkickers was a relief in that within the milieu it punctured any associated pretense at every opportunity in its story of two unnamed asshole mercenaries just trying to make mead money. I'm also not big on stereotypically manga-style art with Dreamwave cartoon cel coloring, but that grows on you here, as it works for the material. Unfortunately, when read in one big hunk, it plays like an '80s buddy action comedy. The book is filled with beefy characters, whether musclebound barbarians or giant monsters, yet there isn't an ounce of meat on the story's bones. The script isn't as funny as it would like to be, and the plot is so thin that you'll burn through this trade paperback in no time. It's much better than the usual cringe-inducing comic book fare in this vein (Deadpool, Lobo, etc.,) and the art by Edwin Huang makes up for a lot, but it's ultimately a rather vacuous pastiche. The book is very pretty, with high quality paper stock, a lovely spot varnish cover, and two back-up strips with fantastic art by co-creator Chris Stevens. There is no lack of flash, but a complete absence of substance.

Jim Zub(kavich) writes kind of like he's on cocaine. The mercs are killing a werewolf and now they're celebrating but the sheriff hates them but royalty is in town that gets assassinated so the mercs go after the assassin and they fail and the body gets stolen by zombies so they chase the body but they don't have horses so they steal horses, etc. etc. It's fun in the fleeting moment, but the second you turn your brain on, the plot goes into existential crisis. What purpose does the body serve? Why does the necromancer bother with the dwarf? Why does the gestalt form, and how could it be defeated in that manner? If this is just cliche under the guise of parody, why don't I read Groo the Wanderer so I can get this same shtick fortified with socio-political satire? Plus, the first five issues of Skullkickers is basically a long form adaptation of a ten page anthology story also reprinted in this volume. You expect repetition with sword and sorcery shit, but that's why I passed through my Conan phase around age twelve and moved on with my life. This is a mostly faithful recreation with tongue-in-cheek sensibilities, lacking real humor, any insight, or the courtesy of indulging in the hyper-seriousness needed to sell dudes in loincloths slaying giant spiders.

Skullkickers is a good looking silly diversion for fans of the genre, but I strongly suspect its novelty has an expiration date, barring the very likely event it begins to fall in line with the tropes it appears to mock.


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