Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Girl Who Owned a City: The Graphic Novel (2012)

The O. T. Nelson novel The Girl Who Owned a City was first released in 1975, and I read it around 1987 for English class. I was a big book reader back then, but I had never embraced a novel like I did that one. I can't recall if I read it before or after seeing George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but either way it was part of the genesis of a lifelong love of what the Japanese dubbed "survival horror." The premise is that a plague turns everyone over the age of twelve (or was it thirteen?) to dust, but seems to resolve itself after the deaths of its last victims. Regardless, it leaves a world full of children to struggle without supervision, education or utilities. The kids swiftly descend into scavengers and pillagers, barely subsisting on junk food. A particularly clever girl named Lisa Nelson recognizes the need for organization and leadership, especially with the increasingly aggressive advance of the Chidester Avenue Gang. Nelson slowly turns the frightened neighborhood children into the prototype of a new society, but not without complications or hard fought battles. I was completely immersed into the narrative as a kid, and I recall being so excited that I spontaneously woke up in the wee hours of one morning to finish reading it. I had to return my class copy, but bought one of my own around 1992. I loaned it to a pretty girl pretty much immediately after I got the thing at a book fair, and she never returned it. For years, I considered it my favorite book, but I haven't read it again in a quarter century.

After reading the comic book adaptation, I'm inclined to keep it that way. It works as an empowerment fantasy for kids, but it's hard to take it seriously as an adult. The author's objectivist agenda isn't really a problem, since the selfishness of that philosophy suits children, but they're just too damned good at rising to the challenge of assuming the mantle of early adulthood without guidance. Too much happens in too short a span of time with too much sophistication and too little emotional impact. Kids are basically guileless adults, and most grown-ups are stupid and lazy. It's hard to believe that one charismatic leader could whip a whole town into shape, and it's amusing how close to a communist ideal they come for a book ostensibly intended to be a young adult introduction to Ayn Rand.

Setting aside my issues with the source material, it makes for a problematic adaptation. It's tough enough to turn a 180 page book into a 126 page comic, before you realize that the essence of the book is meetings about city planning. Characters talk and talk and talk, and when they actually do something, it basically comes down to shopping at a warehouse and home improvement tasks. Pages 33-35 form a dramatic beat, and then a series of dangerous encounters are discussed in a two page montage in the mid-60s. That leads into about twenty pages of modest action and melodrama, followed by a lengthy stretch of planning. There's a final anticlimatic encounter running maybe a dozen pages, and then it's over. I remember enough of the book to know that the showier moments got the blood pumping, but the affect is considerably muted in comic form by the clearer picture of minimalist violence and the tone of the artwork. The book could fool the reader into believing characters were imperiled, but the comic can't pull off the same trick, so that you're left waiting for Spider-Man to lift the heavy machinery and rescue Aunt May.

I don't blame the creators of the adaptation for its limitations. Scripter Dan Jolley compresses the material well. However, it sometimes feels like a later draft of a heavily revised screenplay with lots of unresolved vestigial elements. A major character disappears after page 95, and there's a lengthy sequence from the book involving Lisa Nelson attempting to recruit mercenaries that feels extremely extraneous in the comic. Jolley suffers the common pitfall of trying to hit too many popular story points without letting each one have enough room to breathe, making the reader conscious of this being a narrative told in shorthand. Joëlle Jones' art style is accessible and well suited to the material. I would say that it is the main draw of the graphic novel, but as mentioned, its sweetness also removes a lot of the tension of the book. Lisa Nelson is distinctive and heroic, but also seems visibly as mature as originally written, which is to say she's ten-going-on-seventeen. Her handling of main antagonist Tom Logan also strains credibility, as his disfigurement is closer to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight than anything approaching reality.

At $9.95, there are worse ways to spend your money than by picking up this comic, but I don't think it will necessarily hook the Hunger Games crowd on its own merits. As usual, the original book is probably the better investment. Still, if you just want a brisk all ages post-apocalyptic read with cute art, this is a way to go. I'd also be interested to see if it opens the door for an adaptation of O. T. Nelson's sequel, which was rejected by the publisher and has yet to see print. Given that ringing endorsement, a ten buck illustrated Cliff's Notes might be the perfect avenue for presentation.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

nurghophonic jukebox: "Old Fashioned Morphine" by Jolie Holland

Released: April 27, 2004
Album: Escondida
Single?: No

I was given a copy of local artist Jolie Holland's second album by a co-worker years ago. He was mostly into punk and subgenres like psychobilly, so it was odd that he'd introduce me to something so jazzy. Maybe she opened for somebody? Anyway, I was listening to Pacifica Radio the other day, and a standout track came on, so I figured I'd share while it was refreshed in my mind.

Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
It's good enough for me

What it was good enough for my Grandpa
It was good enough for my Grandpa
It was good enough for my Grandpa
It's good enough for me

Sister don't get worried
Sister don't get worried
Sister don't get worried
Because the world is almost done

Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
It's good enough for me

It was good enough for Billy Boroughs
It was good enough for Billy Boroughs
It was good enough for Billy Boroughs
It's good enough for me

Sister don't get worried
Sister don't get worried
Sister don't get worried
Because the world is almost done

Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
It's good enough for me

It was good enough for Isabelle Eberhardt
It was good enough for Isabelle Eberhardt
It was good enough for Isabelle Eberhardt
It's good enough for me

Sister don't get worried
Sister don't get worried
Sister don't get worried
Because the world is almost done

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Frank Review of "The Incredible Hulk" (2008)

The Short Version? Hulk II: The Quickening
What Is It? Super-hero action/drama
Who Is In It? Derek Vinyard, Arwen, Arkady Renko, Mr. Orange, Delmar O'Donnell, Phil Dunphy
Should I See It? Yes.

The Incredible Hulk was the second movie released by Marvel Studios, arriving just over a month after Iron Man. That meant it was overshadowed by the blockbuster of the summer, and by the stigma attached through its Universal Studios predecessor, which was commercially successful but broadly disliked. Given that the Hulk was well established in pop culture, it made sense for him to be tapped, but hoops had to be jumped through to get the property away from Universal. The neophyte studio made mistakes along the way, including getting bullied by star Edward Norton, who made his own rewrites and later refused to do any press for the flick. Iron Man surely cannibalized Incredible Hulk's audience, and with no Marvel Studios movies released in 2009, it could have better benefited from the Tony Stark good will tour by being pushed back. At least 2011's Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger had a few months' breathing room. As a result, The Incredible Hulk is something of a bastard stepchild, the least loved of the movies leading into The Avengers.

Like the '70s television series, Hulk owes as much of a debt to The Fugitive as to the comics. The first act of the film takes place in Brazil, where Dr. Bruce Banner hides out at a bottling factory while working to control his rage. It takes about a half hour for the beast to finally appear, and then again for the reappearance. The film is at its most effective in this phase, as director Louis Leterrier is playing to his strengths. The action is very well choreographed, and the primacy of prey escaping hunters taps into the adrenal gland. There's some melodrama mixed in that's less affective, but strong casting buoys what could have been silly segments. There is a strong feeling of never getting the whole story, though. The film isn't really a sequel Ang Lee's 2003 version, and there are too many elements from the comics and cartoons to work as a TV show follow-up. Pity the completely uninitiated, who have to settle for an oblique smash cut origin sequence during the credits. Also, the majority of the geek-baiting cameos occur early in, so I'm sure some were puzzled by left field giggles and pointing.

The movie peaks at around the hour mark, during a confrontation between the Hulk and an army unit led by General Ross. Everything works here, from Banner's foiled escape attempt to the Hulk's more successful collateral inducing one. Escalation is the key, as troops chase Banner, Banner Hulks out, various new technologies are employed, and the Hulk struggles to overcome them. One soldier, Emil Blonsky, has been exposure to a variation on the Super Soldier Serum, and offers dazzling combat acrobatics that made me so hopeful that the Captain America movie would get them right. Those hopes were ultimately dashed, but it was still a thrill to see the types of Cap/Hulk confrontations I enjoyed in my youth reading comics transplanted to and improved on celluloid. It doesn't hurt that this CGI Hulk is clearly modeled on the late '70s/early '80s comics most familiar to readers of my generation.

The movie falters in the second hour, as there's too little depth to Banner's struggle. Besides being on the run and Betty making his green balls blue, Bruce has a pretty good handle on his condition. There are no redneck truckers instigating a diner smash-up, and it literally takes an army to get a rise out of the Hulk. Betty doesn't show any fidelity to her boyfriend of half a day earlier either, as she happily hops back onto the Banner express. Transportation isn't even a problem as the pair hightail it up to New York to visit a scientist who has been clandestinely aiding Banner over the internet. The plus side is that the plot doesn't get bogged down with side trips, but the minus is that it all comes a bit too easily for the modestly put out Doctor Banner. Then the contrivances kick in to effect the creation of the Abomination, allowing the Hulk a comparable creature to trade blows with for the last twenty minutes. An effort is made to find ways of keeping that fight entertaining, but the rubbery CGI and funky Abomination design undermines them. There's a rush to wrap-up as well that diminishes any potential emotional resonance, but then again, that's par for the theatrical cut of the movie.

I don't think I'll ever get past Adrian Brody as my ideal fan casting for Bruce Banner. I'm a fan of Ed Norton, and hoped he was up for the job, but he's clearly more of a fan of the show than the comics. Like most Stan Lee creations, the character is metaphorical. Banner is supposed to be scrawny, meek, trapped in his head and divorced from his heart. Ed Norton's demonstrably attractive Banner is even more well adjusted than Eric Bana's. He handles his anger normally, and he seems to have a healthy relationship with Betty Ross and the world in general. It doesn't make sense that this guy would have an uncontrollable rage monster unleashed by gamma experiments. He's just a bright, well meaning guy stuck with a major lifestyle alteration.

On the other hand, Liv Tyler is the best Betty I could have hoped for. She's sweet and caring and drawn to intellectuals diametrically opposed to her father. At the same time, she has the inner strength and occasional aggression necessary to direct and protect her scientist loves. You could see her falling for the comic book Banner, and she would be irresistible to most anyone else.

I couldn't image anyone better physically personifying Thunderbolt Ross than Sam Elliott, and certainly had my doubts about his being replaced. Color me surprised when William Hurt absolutely won me over with a pitch perfect performance in the role. Elliott was comparatively too much of a calculated charming, where the General needs to be a relentless take-no-prisoners son of a bitch as seen here. Hurt embodies gruffness and contempt for civilian concerns.

Tim Roth is Tim Roth, as usual, but his Tim Rothness as Blonsky works. He also pulls off some solid stunts. Tim Blake Nelson is a cornball Samuel Sterns, making me concerned about any potential sequel appearances. Ty Burrell is solid as Leonard Samson though, so he'd be welcome.

The rule of threes applied to Hulk casting, as proved in The Avengers. Mark Ruffalo brought a winning neurotic passivity barely concealing a lust for destruction, not to mention excellent chemistry with his co-stars. Ed Norton was a decent enough Bruce Banner, but unlikely to ever reprise the role. I think that from direction to writing to cast, The Incredible Hulk got enough right that with a new lead and evolving threats, most everyone involved with this production would serve the next well. The flick may not sustain through to the end, but it is entertaining and fast paced enough to recommend and offer hope for a more potent follow-up.


  • Alternate Opening This scene was referenced in The Avengers, and worked better as such. I suppose the limitations of a PG-13 insisted that it not be clear what Banner was getting up to, and the delayed Hulk-out works better in the film.
  • Deleted Scenes There's practically a second movie here, or at least a spin-off special. I think it was wise to excise the material, because the tone and pacing of the movie would have been damagingly compromised otherwise. There are little seen movie characters with entire arcs though, especially Leonard Samson. Very insightful.
  • The Making of Incredible A half hour devoted to showing what an accomplishment the production of the movie was. It impresses.
  • Becoming The Hulk Focus on the acting and CGI. I do think they did a good job on the face and overall design.
  • Becoming the Abomination Not a fan of the design. I understand the need for a reworking, but the bones are too Doomsday, and the exposure makes him look vulnerable. That said, Tim Roth and the mo-cap team kicked ass.
  • Anatomy of a Hulk-Out Three featurettes, one for each of the major Hulk scenes. They're long and extraneous, plus they highlight where the movie peters out. The first is on the Brazil shooting, which emphasizes how scary and dangerous the location was. That came through in the flick, but so did that slight hesitation that comes with professionals knowing they're close to a real edge. The second feature is on the campus battle, which was the most joyous and inventive balls out action. After all the real world trials, the third focuses on computer geeks doing cartoon fights. They were good rubber animation battles, but not really comparable to the previous spectacle.
  • From Comic Book To Screen I was hoping that this would be a comic doc, but instead it's a Hulk: Gray motion comic with obnoxious panel progressions and no spoken dialogue.
  • Feature Commentary Louis Leterrier's accent is amusing and he does most of the talking. Tim Roth as his partner seems a bit odd, but the bad blood between Marvel and Ed Norton probably limited the options. There's a lot of talking, and some of it is informative, but there's still noticeable avoidance in the conversation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Marvel Graphic Novel #22: The Amazing Spider-Man: Hooky (1986/2012)

I didn't read very many graphic novels growing up. I didn't have regular access to a comic shop until around 1989, and graphic novels cost several times as much as any other comics of comparable length. I had much better luck with trade paperbacks, which collected a wealth of unattainable stories at a greater value, and could typically be found at mall bookstores. That's how I read classics like The Dark Knight Returns, and not-so-classics like The Life and Times of Death's Head, but they always seemed worthwhile. Still, graphic novels held a certain forbidden allure, as if they were more sophisticated and complete bodies of work that matched their upscale printing and pricing.

This was, of course, horseshit. It took me weeks to save up for Assassin's Guild during my Punisher phase, and that was one ugly turd of a book. There was nothing in the Dreadstar graphic novel that wasn't effectively covered as a recap in the first issue of the series. For all the critical hype in their day, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills and The Death of Captain Marvel were crushing disappointments. For better or worse, more or less, the rest that have passed my way have only ever been longer than average comic books.

I used to see the house ads for The Amazing Spider-Man: Hooky, and was really intrigued by the premise as presented of the hero in a darker, perhaps even horrific story. As Marvel's original breakout star, despite all the overwrought tragedy surrounding his life, there's usually been a safety net webbed up underneath the character. He can't battle a proper vampire, but instead a living one created by science. If a terrorist shows up, he'll be covered head to tow in brown spandex, and serve as a throwaway in a team-up. Later, there would be the '70s style gritty crime drama of The Death of Jean DeWolff, and psychological thrillers like Kraven's Last Hunt, but to this day I can't point to a Spider-Man story that was truly, deeply a terrifying tale of the supernatural. Marvel's gotten into the habit of cleaning out their attic to offer previously nixed inventory stories and reprinting obscurities like the Marvel Graphic Novel series, so when Hooky came up, I was hopeful that it would be a fraction as interesting as what my mind could conjure twenty-six years ago.

Unsurprisingly, Hooky read like a 62 page inventory story. There's this adolescent girl dressed for a spaghetti western who knew Ben Parker and roundabout solicits Spider-Man's aid against a curse because she's a sorcerer's daughter and whatever. It's pages and pages of flying around in a poor man's Dark Dimension and repeatedly fighting an evolving monster. I'm pretty confident that without the art of Bernie Wrightson attached, this script would have either stayed in the drawer or been cut to 22 pages for a Marvel Fanfare. The only thing I can dig up on Susan K. Putney was that she wrote a sci-fi paperback in the '70s. Maybe she was somebody's friend. I have to assume somebody was doing a favor. It isn't that the story is bad, but it's a lightweight fanciful romp strung along well past the length necessary to tell the tale. It feels like it was designed to allow Wrightson to noodle with monster designs, splashes and spreads to his heart's content.

The creatures are cool, but the humans are threadbare, and Wrightson's from that school of artists who make the mistake of trying to draw Spidey anatomically correct. That never works. Berni and Michelle Wrightson provide watercolors over the line art, which was very in vogue at the time, but today makes for an awkward washed-out pastel juxtaposition. The "graphic novel" is a cheesy YA affair with a pat ending; a modest diversion that couldn't help but disappoint after so many years of possibilities imagined.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Frank Review of "The Amazing Spider-Man" (2012)

The Short Version? Let's forget that emo dance number, eh?
What Is It? Super-Hero action/drama.
Who Is In It? Eduardo Saverin, Skeeter Phelan, Xenophilius Lovegood, Mama Gump, President Barlet, Tommy Gavin.
Should I See It? Yes.

Let's talk about Spider-Man. Pull up a seat. This may take a while.

Like most kids from my generation and after, I have no recollection of being introduced to Spider-Man. He was one of those entities that always existed parallel to my own life's development, like Bugs Bunny. The best I can recall are my early memories of Spidey Super Stories on The Electric Company during weekdays, episodes of the Nicholas Hammond live action series recut into weekend afternoon movies, and occasionally catching the '60s cartoon in the wee hours of a given morning. My grandmother used to buy the Sunday paper, so I'd read (but rarely comprehend) the newspaper strip, or get a free promotional comic tying into stuff like 7-11 Slurpee cups and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. When I bought my first comics, media taught me to start with Spidey, Superman, Batman, Captain America and the Hulk (nobody carried Wonder Woman,) until I developed my own personal tastes. While many of those super-media titans fell by the wayside, I continued to periodically buy Spider-Man comics into the late '80s, and of course watched my fair share of Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends. There were times Spidey was among my favorite super-heroes, but as I got older, I preferred more aspirational and/or anti-social heroes. By the time I was a tweenager, I knew that I was an outsider, where Spider-Man was the poster boy for the most broadly inclusive everyman hero possible. Peter Parker may have been a nerd once, but that was generations past. With a supermodel wife, an enviable job, a solid build, handsome hair, and the safest form of sarcasm available, Parker lacked the credibility of even the most mainstream sitcom underdog. He was so well liked and accessible to broad audiences, I couldn't relate to him, and had no use for him. I used to mock the lady I ran my comic shop with for favoring Spider-Man, just for kicks. My interest in Spider-Man ended prior to what I'd term the modern age of the character, which travels into the deaths of Jean DeWolfe and Kraven the Hunter, but before the days of Venom.

I saw Sam Raimi's Spider-Man at the theater with a friend in 2002. My friend hated it, and I thought it was fine, but by no means a favorite. Superman: The Motion Picture had perhaps unintentionally co-opted a lot of ideals originating from Spider-Man comics to bring the Man of Steel into the '70s. Raimi seemed to be clawing those ideals back from Superman, and I felt his first movie was largely a retread of Donner's film. Tobey Maguire was a good choice to play the early, awkward Ditko Peter Parker, and Kirsten Dunst was a decent Gwen Stacey pretending to be Mary Jane Watson. There was too much Ash Williams in Willem Dafoe's Norman Osborn, and a decade on, Green Goblin only looks more like a shoddy Power Ranger. The less said about James Franco's Harry Osborn, the better, but the rest of the supporting cast was rock solid. I preferred Spider-Man 2, which I rented. It had a much stronger storyline, better effects, and a cooler villain in Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus. Still, it went from mediocre to okay, so when I heard that Spider-Man 3 wasn't great, I passed on it entirely.

I can't speak for Amazing Friends, which I haven't seen in ages, but I can say Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man is otherwise the best adaptation of the character in my experience. As redundant as it feels to reboot a franchise just five years cold, I connected with this origin story more than I did the one from a decade ago. Where Spider-Man managed to coast on the widespread desire for a hero (cue strains of Chad Kroeger) in the wake of 9/11 and a poverty of quality super-hero movies in the late '90s, Amazing makes the effort to improve Spidey's game in the wake of Christopher Nolan and the Marvel revolution.

Is it just me, or do the leads in the earlier Spider-Man trilogy come across as underwhelming? Despite bringing the nerd hardcore, Maguire's Peter Parker wasn't particularly accomplished at anything. Between organic web-shooters, photographs heavily criticized by J. Jonah Jameson, and inferior interpersonal skills, is it any wonder Parker clung for dear life to the Spider-Man role? The modern Spider-Man is more truly amazing, an intelligent young man who chooses to set himself apart from the brutal, sheepish masses. He can't win a fistfight against a jock, but he will shout down his fellow students and attempt to salvage the dignity of a fellow geek despite the full awareness that his own humiliation is forthcoming. This Peter Parker is a budding scientist who, despite not formulating his own web fluid, is clever enough to swipe it from a corporate lab and then construct a means to employ it in a variety of ways through a versatile contraption of his own design. This Peter Parker may not have conceived of a key scientific formula, but he could understand and recreate it from memory, as well as deduce its later misuse. Parker 2012, like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, had the innate makings of a hero, and only awaited a catalyst to direct his gifts.

Between the first and second Raimi Spider-Man movies, Tobey Maguire made Seabiscuit, and complained of a back injury. Whether it was legitimate or a ploy to raise his rates, Maguire was nearly replaced by Jake Gyllenhaal. I was always sorry that didn't occur, because Maguire's lack of range trapped Peter Parker in awkward adolescence. Despite graduating and moving into the workforce, Maguire's Parker remained the creepy nerd with the nasal delivery, instead of transitioning into the Romita era troubled young adult. Andrew Garfield largely starts from that place, a bit shy and stammering, but already simmering with resentment over being subjected to the childish indignities of high school. He bristles at authority and jumps at the chance to mingle with higher classes of intellect. In costume, Garfield takes that anger and vents it by bullying criminal lowlifes with his acidic words and coarse actions. While Garfield's later school antics border on Teen Wolf levels of indiscretion, the need to take out his frustrations incognito validates the creation of Spider-Man. Garfield is a bit too old to be entirely credible as a student (thirty is fast approaching,) but that just means that he'll be more ready to play an adult Parker in the sequel than Maguire was after five years and three films.

Twenty-three year old redhead Emma Stone is surprisingly believable as a precocious blond teenager. Without being obvious about it, her Gwen Stacy immediately recalls the character's 1960s heyday while still being completely modern and not a little sexy. Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson from the first trilogy used her chemistry with Maguire and sense of longing to elevate her role and the series as a whole. However, Dunst's M.J. was still a bit dim and a victim of circumstance. Stone's Stacy is clearly in charge of her life, and accomplished at a young age. While her on & off-screen fireworks with Garfield similarly enhances the quality of her film, Gwen Stacy isn't defined solely as Spider-Man's love interest. In fact, she contributes mightily to the conflicts in the film and their ultimate resolution. It's Stacy's lab that Parker visits, Stacy's police captain father who hunts the new masked vigilante, and both Stacys are integral to the final act. Gwen was heroic to the non-powered Peter Parker, and continues to impact the movie's story with her intellect and determination regardless of Spider-Man's designs. Mary Jane as depicted was just waiting to be flung off a bridge to cause Spidey more grief. This incarnation of Gwen Stacy would have Pepper Potts' ID badge in one hand and her daddy's gun in the other.

Beyond the two leads is another strong supporting cast, although not quite as across the board excellent as the Raimi films. Denis Leary's Captain Stacy is a one-note hardass for three-quarters of the running time. Martin Sheen isn't given as good material as Cliff Robertson had in the Ben Parker role, but his delivery is at least as sound. Sally Field has more to work with as Aunt May than Rosemary Harris, and makes use of it, even if it's still pretty basic. The same goes for Chris Zylka's Flash Thompson, who could have used a few more scenes of fleshing out, but serves his purpose. C. Thomas Howell puts his all into a smaller part, while Campbell Scott kind of phones it in, and Irrfan Khan makes a bad part worse. Rhys Ifans never quite lands on one side or the other of the good/evil divide, unconvincing in his altruism and overblown in his malevolence. The worst scenes tend to revolve around Dr. Curt Connors, which at least makes a body anxious for the relief and excitement of the CGI Lizard.

As much as Sam Raimi is known to be a stylist, his Spider-Man movies tended to be pedestrian recreations of former glories more than innovations in their own right. New director Marc Webb is similarly pedestrian, but whether through his guidance or staying out of the way, I found the computer generated action sequences much more interesting than anything in the earlier films. I'm grateful I didn't see this film in 3D, as the action is intricate, fast and furious in a manner that I could barely keep up with unencumbered by illusory ocular interference. The (500) Days of Summer alum handles his romantic subplots with maturity and humor, as opposed to the occasional exuberance but typically soapy melodrama of Spidey films past. There are serious problems with the editing that leaves artifacts of excised subplots and discarded trailer material everywhere, but the overall pace of the film still leans toward a welcome briskness. I expect that there was an awful lot of second guessing and last minute decisions here, but what hit the screen was mostly solid, and should secure a superior sequel once everyone is more comfortable with the plush new Spidey-verse. The Amazing Spider-Man is smarter and better acted than last decade's model, with more heart and threads that can bear the weight of sequelization.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Frank Review of "Girls" Season One (2012)

The Short Version? Dirty, neurotic, impoverished sex in the city.
What Is It? Comedy-Drama
Who Is In It? Um... the daughters of David Mamet and Brian Williams?
Should I See It? Maybe

Girls is a hip new dramedy on HBO about twentysomething (mostly) college grads half-assed toiling away in New York. There was a marathon recently, so I decided to catch up with the series to date and offer relatively "real time" commentary on each episode.

  1. Pilot: So, I guess this is one of those comedy of awkwardness/inappropriateness grandchildren of Woody Allen. I don't like any of the characters, and I have trouble telling the actresses Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet apart. I like the adults better, like Chris Eigeman's cameo as an "employer" and Peter Scolari & Becky Ann Baker as the lead character's parents.

  2. Vagina Panic: I liked this one a bit better. Partly because the lack of quality grown-up actors meant the younger ones weren't outshone, and partly because the girls and boys are so monumentally fucked-up that their train wreck lives became more interesting. Most of the characters are gaining dimension, but Shoshanna (the Sex and the City acolyte) is bugging the hell out of me. Sakina Jaffrey is great as a quietly exasperated gynecologist. This show has pretty great musical cues that are appropriate to given circumstances.

  3. All Adventurous Women Do: No wait, Marnie (the uptight whitebread bitch) is bugging the hell out of me. Also, this episode felt fabricated, like it was trying to be more like a "real" show. Been a while since I've seen James LeGros in anything, and it's awesome how he's like an actual actor now who looks like a person and shit.

  4. Hannah's Diary: Man, this show is really great at digging up awesome old character actors like Richard Masur. TV shows used to be all about familiar faces hitting the predictably right notes, and I miss that. I'm also finding that I like the girls a lot better when they're separated from one another and out in the wild. As a group-- estrogen isn't really analogous to testosterone-- it's like they's measuring each other's clits to see who's got the longest one, right?

  5. Hard Being Easy: I liked this one. It was an emotional pay-off episode for several storylines, and had a tender humanity to counterbalance the awfulness the characters had displayed thus far.

  6. The Return: This is a stealthy series. The episode is like a mini indie chick flick, but they hide it under all the schadenfreude. I never expected to see Peter Scolari nude in this life, but I'll admit that he's holding up well.

  7. Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident: This episode so requires context. Shit is going down left and right that's meaningful if you watch the show, but would seem so random otherwise. I speak from experience, because I watched part of this episode as I was taping the marathon, and was all "the fuck," but in sequence I'm all "it's cool." By this point, I still hate the shit out of Marnie the Robocunt, but I fairly well like everyone else as the messes that they are. Jeff took kind of a bad turn, but then again, fuck him for chasing skirt when he seems to have a good scene at home.

  8. Weirdos Need Girlfriends Too: This one started out okay, but felt flabby in the middle, and the whole thing had too obvious of a structure. I like arcs that pay off over multiple episodes, so it feels artificial in this type of vehicle for everything to be set up and resolved in a single episode.

  9. Leave Me Alone: Started out well with Hannah being horrible to someone who deserved it, and Jessa working out some things. Then about halfway through, Hannah started sabotaging herself and seemingly the episode. The upside is that it hopefully means less Marnie next season. Shoshanna needs more screen time, and Marnie way less.

  10. She Did: What the fuck was that? The whole episode was just a big bag of arbitrary that gets dropped in the sand at the end. Maybe the producers assumed the series would fail and decided to give it a sort of artistic closure just in case, but man, that was bad.
Final analysis? Kind of like the first season or so of Seinfeld. The basic characters are there, and they're alright, but they still need time and work to get properly fleshed out. The biggest hits come out of continuity, so following the series is an all-or-nothing proposition. Not only can't I see it as appointment television, but I'm not sure I'm ready to commit to a season two marathon next year, either. It's a bubble show with regard to my viewing interest and recommendation. I'm ultimately happy with the return on my five-ish hour investment, but I'll wait for the notices before giving any more of a green light to this series.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Frank Review of "Fatal Beauty" (1987)

The Short Version? Beverly Hills Narc Cop
What Is It? Police Action Dramedy
Who Is In It? Oda Mae Brown, Wade Garrett, Charles Lee Ray
Should I See It? Maybe

I saw Fatal Beauty at the movie theater because I'd become a Whoopi Goldberg fan in 1987. Since I came from lower class stock, that was because of Jumpin' Jack Flash instead of The Color Purple, but I got around to it eventually. Anyway, Fatal Beauty is probably best remembered for the controversy surrounding a love scene between Goldberg and co-star Sam Elliott being cut out before release because of fears audiences would reject the interracial romance, or at least Whoopi being half of one. Cher was supposed to star, which explains all the references to the Italian cop Rita Rizzoli who is written as a highly desirable woman in all but one scene, yet she's played by an African-American woman best known for a part partially defined by her perceived "ugliness." I'm glad the part wasn't rewritten though, because I've always thought Whoopi was better looking than she was given credit for, and it made for a fantastic dynamic with Elliott.

Goldberg plays a West Coast narcotics cop on the trail of a lethally tainted batch of drugs stolen by two psychopaths and put on the street as "Fatal Beauty." It's supposed to be a combination of cocaine and PCP that you snort and either kills you or turns you into a superhuman madman inside of thirty seconds. Who would want to kill off all of their clientele and attract that kind of attention, and how could a room full of people fall victim to the drug if the negative effects were that dramatically swift? Movie logic at work. While chasing the drug, Rizzoli is also trying to bust the worst drug kingpin ever, who oversees dealing at his legitimate businesses and moves merchandise in vans with his name on them. It's the kind of anti-drug movie that you'd have to be stoned to buy into, and isn't served at all well by crumby musical selections and journeyman direction by Tom Holland.

What salvages the movie is casting. Whoopi Goldberg has always had a strong screen presence, and while none of the scripted comedy works, the actress carries the film on her back with dramatic chops and personality. You hardly even notice that her bullets almost never connect and she's constantly being rescued by her love interest. One scene in which she breaks down after a particularly bad day is so potent and brushes so close to autobiographical territory, one suspects Goldberg was delivering championship improvisational ad-libbing. Sam Elliott, pretty much the last guy you'd ever expect as a romantic foil for Goldberg, has such earnest conviction in his obvious affection for Rizzoli that he sells the living shit out of Mike Marshak. Rubén Blades, Brad Dourif and James LeGros also put a lot more effort into their non-roles than you'd ever expect from such a shoddy paycheck gig, so one wonders if they were standing off to the side during the leads' scenes in awe. The pair's surprising chemistry is that big of a draw, and for the most part, the only one.

Monday, July 2, 2012

A Frank Review of "Return of the Living Dead Part II" (1988)

The Short Version? Return of the Living Dead Actors who should have stopped after one.
What Is It? "Horror-Comedy"
Who Is In It? Embarrassed people.
Should I See It? Not really.

After getting improved digital cable service with all the premium channels, I'm actually bothering to watch TV again after over a decade of almost exclusively relying on DVDs for home viewing. There's better than a thousand different channels on this thing, although my interest is limited to a couple dozen or so, and it made me wonder if Bruce Springsteen ever updates his song in concert to "Fifty-Seven-Hundred Channels (And Nothin' On.)" It occurred to me that I'm now old enough to talk to kids about the olden days when Houston had three broadcast networks, two local channels, and Public Television. UHF of course had limited funds that they wanted to get the most out of, and horror was big with adolescents in the '80s, so the first two Return of the Living Dead movies ran so often that I couldn't tell them apart after having skipped revisiting either flick for the whole of the nineties and most of the aughts. I bought the first film a few years ago, and it turned out to exceed my best hopes for its holding up after all these years. My memories of its first sequel remained cloudy though, so I was glad to have the chance to record a 3 a.m. broadcast with this newfangled cable box I'm seriously impressed with.

As with the first film, some guys are playing around with a barrel of Trioxin, a chemical developed by the U.S. Army that can reanimate the dead. This time though, they're kids, so it's kind of fucked up when they turn into brain-eating zombies and kill their parents. One of the kids, Jesse, recognized how crazy stupid the others were, and immediately tried to warn the authorities about what was going on. I suppose in an attempt to avoid Annoying Child Protagonist Syndrome, the filmmakers made Jesse the smartest and most capable person in the whole movie. The side effect is that everyone else comes off as a histrionic moron, which isn't quite what I'd call entertainment. It doesn't help that Jesse is an especially precocious prototype for Carl from The Walking Dead, managing to get into all sorts of trouble despite having some brains worth munching on.

Actors James Karen and Thom Mathews return for the sequel, but as slightly different characters who end up doing almost the exact same thing in a slightly different way. Their predicament in the first movie was unusual and handled relatively well, but it played itself out thoroughly. By putting the same actors through the same paces, they're extremely irritating in this iteration. Where James Karen was once like Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!, a serious actor turning in an impressive one-off comedic performance, here's he's like Leslie Nielsen in the toilet bowl of his '90s output, mugging pathetically for a paycheck. Where James Karen was the dumb young dude trying to make a decent living in a crappy field who caught a bad break, here he's a spineless dumbass talked into deeply unethical and outright criminal activity who deserves to be punished for his acting as much as his actions. They are not helped by Suzanne Snyder, the actress in the girlfriend role this time, as she screams most of her lines. Philip Bruns plays Doc Mandel, one of the few sources of effective comic relief, but he plays the whole flick like a sitcom. Acting too hard is a problem that plagued this production.

Michael Kenworthy is decent enough as Jesse, but none of the child actors in this movie were going to quite reach the bar set by Jake Lloyd. Marsha Dietlein is exactly what you'd expect from the bossy big sister in an '80s b-movie. Dana Ashbrook, best known as Bobby Briggs from Twin Peaks, is a blank slate as the movie's secondary hero (after the kid.) Where the first film's heroes were an iconic collaboration between young punk rockers and wily older conservatives with rugged film credentials, here we have massively underwhelming child non-actors, bland off-brand TV fare teens, and a doddering old fool. The result plays more like a cheap, poorly executed knock-off than a direct sequel.

I can often look at movies like this with rose-colored glasses thanks to a combination of nostalgia and a taste for idiosyncrasy. One of these days, I'll have to write a lengthy review about why I love the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel more than the original film, the suggestion alone liable to make some gore geeks erupt into spontaneous nose bleeds. That just won't fly with Return of the Living Dead Part II, though. I saw the flick back in the early days of my really delving into the world of horror movies, and by mingling its juices with the original, my memories of this feature were much too kind. This movie is like Bizarro Return, a distorted, retarded recreation that delivers dismissive groans where there were once laughs, clunky effects, a lame soundtrack, and watered down afternoon special "horror" in place of one of the most delightfully nihilistic works of the genre. It isn't even terrible enough to deserve infamy. It is entirely serviceable as a stale popcorn flick, even as it lowers your standards so thoroughly as franchise viewing that the third one and even Necropolis look comparatively courageous. Aside from inspiring Braindead to later offer a fantastic riff on one good but undercooked gag, there's simply no new ideas offered here. It's just a lot of dumb retreading and constant reminders that there's no good reason why you're not watching the superior, sturdy, and all too similar original.


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