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Having finished a re-read of Alan Moore and Gabriel Andrade’s six-issue run on Crossed + One Hundred (which I just reviewed, as well) earlier in the day, I was still in the mood for more “post-zombie-apocalypse” stuff, and what do you know? Right now the Netflix instant streaming queue is full to bursting with “living dead” flicks I’ve never even heard of , much less seen, so I did a bit of legwork, cross-referencing various titles against their IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes entries, and eventually settled on a 2015 (hey! that’s this year!) low-budget indie effort from Australia called Plague, featuring not a single name with which I was previously familiar.

That’s never a bad place to start in my book, and given that I was hoping for something that offered a bit of a new and unique take on the well-worn tropes involved, this one sounded like a low-key, unassuming winner in book. I certainly didn’t expect to find anything as flat-out revelatory as Crossed + One Hundred, mind you, but then that’s probably impossible. Just give me something reasonably good and reasonably different, and what the hell, I’ll be reasonably satisfied.

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I’m pleased to report that Plague (which is also available on Blu-ray and DVD, but not having seen it on those physical storage formats, I can’t fairly comment on the technical specs for either one), uninspired  — and, let’s be honest, uninspiring — title aside, is both different and good, although, in fairness, that “reasonably” prefix definitely needs to remain in place . Like the just-mentioned Moore/Andrade comic book mini-masterpiece, it plays against expectations and utilizes a bog-standard set-up to tell us a story quite unlike anything we were expecting going in, and I give it “props” for that fact alone. But before I go any further down this road, perhaps it would be best if I explained,  in generally “spoiler-free” terms,  exactly what the hell I’m talking about here.

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Writer/co-director (along with Nick Kozakis) Kostas Ouzas puts the audience on uneasy footing right from the start by dropping us into the action right after some sort of semi-climactic occurrence has happened to an already-assembled (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) rag-tag bunch of “zombie holocaust” survivors. No watching how the band came together in the first place or anything of the sort here, we’re simply informed via dialogue that these folks have been making a go of it together as best they can for some time, and that just-concluded (but, crucially, unseen) events have led to them leaving behind a guy named John, which is causing some friction given that his wife, Evie (played by Tegan Crowley) is still with the group and, understandably, wants to try to go back and get him, wherever he is.

The dynamics of the makeshift less-than-family are quickly established, with Gary (Don Bridges) as the voice of reason and Bob (Nicholas Stribakos) as the arrogant and potentially dangerous hothead, with the other three characters (all women) falling somewhere in between — and then just as quickly dispensed with, and by violent means at that, when one of the polar opposites (bet you can guess which) kills the other and takes off with the ladies, minus Evie, who opts to stay behind and let either death or, preferably, her husband find her.

Fortunately for her it’s the latter, as it turns out that John (Scott Marcus) is very much alive and has somehow managed to make his way back to their —here’s another cliche for you — abandoned farmhouse encampment. There’s just one problem — it seems he flunked “Survival 101″ just like she did,  and it’s pretty apparent that the two of them aren’t long for this world, either separately or together.

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Fear not, though — help soon arrives in the form of solo “wanderer of the wastelands” Charlie (Steven Jianai), who has all the hard-scrabble, alpha-male skills any self-respecting tight-knit band of survivors might require. Hell, this guy could probably make fire out of one stick (I know, I know — just break it in half so you’ve got two) and kill a kangaroo with his bare hands. He’s exactly what our over-matched city-slickers need.

Here’s the rub, though — turns out he just might be a bigger monster than the zombies he’s “protecting” them from.

And so, after all that set-up (and, it has to be said, some great gore effects),  Plague is really just a cleverly-disguised slow-burn psychodrama with themes straight out of the oldest “be careful what you wish for” morality play you care to mention. But ya know what? I kinda dug it anyway, given that Crossed + One Hundred employs a “bait-and-switch” of its own (although admittedly on a much larger, and more fundamentally frightening, scale) , so this flick sort of kept the accidental “theme” of my afternoon going. Yes, the actors are clearly pretty new to the game and really do struggle with the “believability factor” at times (particularly Crowley), but by and large they manage as best they can with their material, and that material  at least contains a few pleasingly unexpected twists and turns, even if they are a bit drawn out — which is my semi-polite way of saying that pacing is a problem here, and that those with a short attention span might find their mind wandering a bit.

For those who choose to stick with it, though, Plague offers a pretty nice payoff in the end, and handles its business with a reasonable amount of professionalism and, crucially, heart. Ouzas and Kozakis may be a little rough around the edges as filmmakers, but they seem to be willing to take a few risks in the hopes of delivering their audience a bigger reward later on. They’re also unafraid to throw you — and themselves — in at the deep end and let their movie sink or swim based on its script, its characters,  and a few well-placed “gotcha!” moments. None of which adds up to an unequivocally succesfull movie in this particular case, but given a few more years and a few more flicks under their belt, they might just have one in them. This is hardly “can’t-miss” viewing by any stretch, it’s true,  but if you happen to come across it you’ll probably find it a plenty good use of an hour and a half or so of your time and will walk away from it at least somewhat glad for having seen it.

 

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Fair warning : there are a few key “spoilers” ahead — not just for Crossed + One Hundred, but for Southern Bastards and The Wicked + The Divine, as well — so if you’re not completely caught up on any of these books, skip the seventh paragraph following this one, pick up again at the tenth, and you’ll be in good shape. Got that? Okay, my conscience is clear.

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A little while back, I reviewed the first issue of Alan Moore and Gabriel Andrade’s Crossed + One Hundred from Avatar Press, and I’m not sure how many of you took my advice and jumped on-board with it, but I’m guessing it must not have been a very big number because my inbox hasn’t been flooded with emails from random strangers thanking me for turning them onto this series (although I did receive one, which I appreciate) and, frankly, there’s just no way I’d be confronted with that sort of “radio silence” if folks had heeded my words.

I  say that with full confidence because, now that the book’s initial six-issue run in over (which is all that it had originally been slated to go for, but apparently sales have been good enough that Avatar has picked it up as a monthly ongoing, with Si Spurrier taking over the writing duties from Moore as of issue #7), it’s safe to label this first “story arc” of Crossed + One Hundred as far and away the best goddamn post-apocalyptic “zombie comic” ever.

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Trust me when I say that I don’t throw a compliment that all-encompassing down lightly — I only do it because Moore and Andrade have unquestionably earned it. Seriously — those who are still picking up The Walking Dead on a monthly basis (or even my beloved Empire Of The Dead) and are also reading this know that there’s just no comparison. To put things as plainly as possible, every other four-color exploration of the “undead plague” is hollow, one-dimensional stuff when judged by the standards set by Crossed + One Hundred. Robert Kirkman has been fleshing out his post-zombie-apocalypse world for, what? A decade now? And he still hasn’t put as much thought into the hows and whys of humanity’s survival as Moore obviously has here. To use a cliche, this is “next level” stuff — from the mutated language, to the makeshift technology, to the new attitudes toward sex, to the fundamental changes to basic morality itself — and the damned thing is, when you sit down and think about it for a minute, it all makes perfect sense.

Consider : if you woke up tomorrow and found yourself transported to a world that was a century removed from a civilization-destroying “extinction event,” one with no more television and radio broadcasting much less an internet, what do you think the most valuable commodity would be? Knowledge. Specifically. knowledge of the past. And where would you find such knowledge? Books. The printed page would be your only lifeline to what came before, and would be essential not only for learning  how we came to find ourselves where we are, but for understanding what culture itself really was, and what it meant — valuable information indeed in a world where only a vague approximation of it still exists, and has been developed entirely on the basis of necessity rather than choice.

Let’s take it a step further. With no more movies and TV, what would humans do for fun? Well, there’s always fucking, and in a makeshift “society” where the shit’s already hit the fan and day-to-day survival is far from a guaranteed prospect, would archaic notions of purely “homo” and “hetero” sexuality still exist (assuming they were ever relevant for anything beyond social control in the first place)? Would people still refrain from talking about sex in “polite” company? Hell — would there even be such a thing as “polite” company, given that the forefathers and foremothers of the small number of people still around would have to have been a pretty hard-assed bunch?

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Moore has fully developed all of these various hypotheticals in his mind, and that’s a key difference between Crossed + One Hundred and every other zombie comic (or, for that matter, zombie movie or zombie TV show) out there. But notice I said “a” key difference, and not “the” key difference —that’s because, there’s one other, and it’s the most brazen, “balls-y” thing you’ve come across in some time. Sit tight, and I’ll explain.

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The “bait and switch” is a common tactic in today’s comic book landscape — in Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards, the guy we thought was our protagonist gets killed at the end of issue #4, and the book’s next “arc” gave us a four-part story about the series’ chief villain, while over in the pages of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, our lead character makes it all the way to issue # 12 before being killed off (in spectacular fashion, and right after her greatest wish came true) and the narrative shifting gears to — well, I don’t rightly know where that book is headed now (although I remain curious to find out). In issue #5 of Crossed + One Hundred, though, Moore does his peers (okay, fair enough, perhaps Alan Moore doesn’t really have any “peers”) one better by pulling the whole conceptual framework of what we’ve been reading out from under us and letting us know, in no uncertain terms, that this book was never about humanity’s survival at all — not matter how much rich detail he poured into it — but about the survival of the so-called “Crossed,” and about how all of our efforts were as naught compared to theirs.

How fundamental a shift is this? Not to put things too lightly, but also not wanting to give too much else away in terms of “spoilers,” I’ll say only this much — it turns out that it was their world all along, we were just ignorant and/or arrogant enough to believe that it was ours. Moore then doubles down on the impact of this revelation by allowing his protagonist, archivist Future Taylor, to survive (along with some, but not all, of her supporting “crew”), but what does that even mean when confronted with the reality that, in Ms. Taylor’s own words, “I didn’t know we were all just wishful fiction”?

And that, friends, is how you pull off a “bait and switch” with intelligence and meaning and raise it above the level of mere storytelling contrivance. The climactic sixth issue plays out more or less exactly the way we believe it will know that we know the “Crossed” are intelligent, and that they’ve spent a century absorbing the “teachings” of an honest-to-God serial killer and planning their revenge on humanity, which is to say — it’s an absolute fucking nightmare. But it’s a nightmare that matters and has impact beyond just the visceral (although Gabriel Andrade does visceral like nobody’s business — but more on him in a second) because Moore has fleshed out his post-doomsday world so well.

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Of course, any script this detailed needs art equal to the task, and damn, Andrade sure has proven to be the right guy for the job here. Every wildly varying scenario he’s tasked with detailing — from a Muslim colony in Appalachia (of all places) to a “Crossed” encampment made from  skulls and bones is rendered in exquisitely-realized detail, and his characters all look like distinctly unique people who have weathered a hell of a lot in their time on this planet. He’ll be continuing with the series when Spurrier takes over, and that’s very good news indeed not only for the sake of visual contnuity, but because  he’s firmly established himself as an artist worth following.

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And speaking of following — when it comes to Crossed + One Hundred, I’ll be doing just that. Spurrier’s got some big shoes to fill, and only time will tell whether or not Avatar’s decision to continue this comic proves to be a wise one, but, if you’ll permit me to adopt the language of our post-plague survivors for a moment, I’m going to keep on opsying this wishful fiction because these first six issues were fuck movie.

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What’s the next line in that song? Oh, yeah — “what the hell am I doing here?”

Spoiler alert : I kinda wondered that myself for the last two minutes or so of Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’s 2014 indie horror (now streaming on Netflix even before it hits Blu-ray and DVD) Creep, but that was only after thoroughly digging the first 80-or-so  minutes a lot more.

Yes, folks, we’re back on the “found footage” train here, and with a distinctly limited cast of characters, at that — in fact, just two. Brice (who co-wrote the script) stars as “millenial looking for a buck” freelance cameraman Aaron, while Duplass (who not only co-wrote, but directs here) is Josef, who has enticed him with a $1,000 cash offer to come to his cabin up north in order to , he says, document an average day in his life for his as-yet-unborn son or daughter to watch later —ya see, they won’t be around to watch their old man in action because he’ll be dead by the time they figure out how to work a television (which, I’m reliably informed, is at the age of about two).

Josef, even if it’s only by his own account, beat cancer once already, but the chemo has “given” him an inoperable brain tumor — which is doubly inconvenient when your wife’s pregnant, I guess — and now he finds himself with only a few months to live. Still, he’s determined to let his progeny get to know him (albeit by video proxy) even if he’ll never get to know them.

Sounds kinda touching, right? But when Josef strips naked for the camera and gets into the bathtub to re-enact something called “tubby time” that he apparently did with his own father as an infant, we get our first sign that things are gonna go off the rails here. And do they ever. Simply put, we get a pretty clear idea that Josef is one freaky customer with, by his own admission, “a fucked up sense of humor,” well before he introduces us to his lion-masked (at least I think it’s a lion — even if they’re not usually black) alter-ego, “Peachfuzz.”

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Aaron survives the physically and mentally rigorous  day-which-becomes-a-night (barely), but once he gets home and Josef tries to “make amends” for things going batshit crazy, well — they go even batshit crazier. A low-grade campaign of stalking ensues, that eventually wears down our protagonist to the point where he agrees to meet, one final time, with the guy who’s way too fucking desperate to be his “friend,” and — ah, but that would be telling.

Creep is definitely an unusual beast, to put it mildly, with no real violence (much less blood n’ guts) until the very end  and barely even any swearing to speak of, but the bizarre homo-erotic undercurrents and profoundly, if quietly, disturbing psychodrama will be more than enough to disabuse you of the notion that you’ve turned on some cleverly-disguised “Christian horror” flick by accident. Most of the tension here — and there’s a lot of it — is very understated, but no less powerful for its low-key delivery. “Found footage” or “mockumentary” horror has its up and downs in general, of course, but here the immediacy and naturalism of the whole (admittedly overplayed) “shaky-cam” shtick work to the material’s advantage (producer Jason Blum, who released this under the auspices of his wretchedly-named “BlumHouse Tilt” sub-label, certainly having plenty of experience in the field) and you quickly come to realize why shooting this conventionally just wouldn’t work.

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That ending, though — that just doesn’t/couldn’t work under any circumstances. It’s not the plot twist itself that I mind — that’s reasonably effective, even if a bit predictable in comparison to the rest of the film, which does a much better job of keeping you both guessing and consistently off-guard. But the suspension of disbelief required as Aaron sits there for an interminable length of time waiting for Josef to — ah, shit, spoilers again. Let’s just say that it really lets the side down and leave it at that.

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All of which leaves your humble armchair critic here with a bit of a conundrum : did I enjoy  this thing despite its ending, did I enjoy it except for its ending, or did I end up failing to enjoy it because of its ending?

That’s a question I really can’t answer right now. But I don’t think I’d be opposed to watching Creep again a few months down the road in order to form a more definitive opinion. And maybe that tells you something right there.

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Jeb Bush has a plan to save America from our supposed economic crisis — according to statements that have issued forth from his own mouth, we all need to work an unspecified number of longer hours, we shouldn’t expect to retire until we’re 67 or 68, and we’d better not look forward to Medicare being there to take care of our health insurance needs once we finally do get to stop working because he wants to “phase it out.” Apparently, if we enact all of these austerity measures (let’s just call ’em what they are, even if Jeb and his corporate sponsors think we’re stupid enough to think of them as “reforms”), then — and only then — will we get ourselves out of this mess he insists we’re in.

In short, then, poor, working-class, and even middle-class Americans should just buckle down and get ready to have a shittier life, while the rich — well, he’s not telling them they have to do a damn thing. In fact, as we all know (even if some of us don’t want to admit it), they tell him what to do.

There are just a couple of problems with this line of “thinking” — one being that we’re not, as far as I can tell, in the midst of any sort of “economic crisis,” so these are “solutions” in search of a problem. Oh, sure,  there was a massive crisis going on a few years back, one brought about by the very same Wall Street de-regulation that ol’ Jeb wants to bring back, but the worst of that’s behind us and we seem to be on solid ground again. It could all go belly-up again, absolutely, but if it does, it won’t be the fault of the average American worker — just as it wasn’t last time — so asking them to bear the brunt of the clean-up cost is not just tremendously unfair, it also makes no logical sense. Might I humbly suggest that if the markets do go into “meltdown” mode again, that it should be the wealthy and irresponsible speculators who cause the mess that should be tasked with footing the bill for fixing it?

Problem number two — these ideas are bound to be wildly unpopular, even among the hardest of  hard-core GOP ideologues. I don’t know if any “Tea Party” types are out there reading this, but if you are, ask yourself — do you want to work even more hours, for even more years, and have to pay for your health insurance expenses entirely out of pocket, just because a guy who inherited all his money and stature and has probably never even put in a 40 (let alone 45 or 50) -hour week himself thinks you should? Of course you don’t.

Of these two problems Bush faces in selling this fundamentally flawed bill of goods to the public, it seems to me that the first one — the fact that there is no actual “economic crisis” going on —should probably be insurmountable, but let’s face it : if Fox “news” decided they want to get on board with this crap and convince people that there’s a “crisis,” then a fair number of folks are going to believe it. And if and when Bush becomes the GOP nominee, that’s exactly what they’ll start doing. Chances are that they’ve even got a snazzy on-screen logo and a well-rehearsed set of “talking points” ready to go for just such an eventuality. Mark my words — the day after Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican national convention, Fox is going to be talking about this crisis-of-their-own-creation incessantly.

Problem number two, however — getting people to actually vote for a guy who openly boasts about how much worse you’re going to have it under his prospective administration — well, that could be a trickier one to navigate. Fortunately for Jeb and his paymasters and handlers, there’s a solution : Donald Trump.

Clearly, Bush’s economic “plan” is the most aggressive full frontal assault on anyone but the richest of the rich that we’ve ever seen. In fact, they’re not even trying to disguise it. The old days of hoodwinking everyone into accepting a candidate, and a set of policies, that are openly hostile to their own economic well-being are apparently over with. They used to tell us that huge tax cuts for the rich and de-regulation of the financial markets would result in a “trickle-down” windfall for everybody, but it seems that they either don’t think you’re stupid enough to swallow that line again (being we have four-plus decades of proof that it just doesn’t work that way), or they’ve become so brazen that they don’t even think you’re worth the effort it takes to lie to you anymore. Take your pick.

Let’s not beat around the — errrmmm — Bush : these are some seriously radical policies that Jeb is tossing out there, and he’d be getting called to account for them a whole lot more , even by the cowed corporate press, if it weren’t for Donald Trump. Captain Comb-over just has a way of making anyone else in the room look sane and reasonable by comparison, and even though his act is resonating with a sizable chunk of GOP base voters right now, we all know he’s not gonna be the party’s nominee. Every single Republican office-holder in the country right now is running for president, but you don’t need a crystal ball to predict how this is gonna work : after a defeat or two in the primaries and caucuses, the heavy contingent of “also-rans” will quietly drop out, one by one, and throw their support behind the “establishment candidate” as a means of blocking the guy who thinks Mexicans are a bunch of rapists and POWs are chicken-shits (as opposed to chicken-hawks, like himself) for getting caught. Trump’s support is probably maxed out at the 25% or so he’s currently enjoying in the polls, but the sky’s the limit for whoever the rest of the party decides to coalesce around as the “ant-Trump” candidate of choice (more than likely that will be Bush, but if the powers that be decide his name is too tainted-in-advance, they may go for Scott Walker in a pinch). Everybody else other than Trump might be polling around 10, 5, or even 2% right now, but as the field narrows, their numbers will grow, while Trump’s will remain pretty much right where they are. In a field of 16, sure, Trump can be top man for awhile. Once the field winnows down to two? No chance.

In fact, you might say that in a very real sense, Donald Trump is the best thing that could possibly happen to Jeb Bush. Sure, he’s turning the whole GOP primary season into a circus freakshow, but he puts Bush — who would otherwise be branded as exactly what he is, the candidate with the most extreme economic platform in American history — in a position where he can emerge as a “reasonable” and “sensible” alternative. Even if there’s nothing remotely reasonable of sensible about his ideas. Hell, people may even breathe a sigh of relief once he’s anointed. “Yeah, Jeb wants me to work 50 hours a week until I’m 68 years old and pay for my own medical expenses out-of-pocket when I’m frail and vulnerable, but geez — it was either him or Trump, ya know?”

It’s almost enough to make one wonder — and surely I can’t be the first person to suggest this — whether or not Trump was put up to this whole thing by either Bush himself, or someone very close to him.

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What’s all this got to do with director Paul Solet’s new offering, Dark Summer (now available on Netflix instant streaming — which is how I caught it — or on Blu-ray and DVD from Shout! Factory)? Not much, except for this : I had time to piece this entire (conspiracy?) theory together while I was watching the movie, and trust me, friends — a flick has to be pretty boring indeed to make your mind wander off to the traveling sideshow that is the current GOP presidential contest. Think watching-paint-dry boring. Or watching-the-flagpole-rust boring.

A stupid premise doesn’t help matters much, either — and Dark Summer has one of the most insultingly stupid premises you’ll ever come across : Teenage loser Daniel (Keir Gilchrist) is so obsessed with apparently-unattainable classmate Mona Wilson ( Grace Phipps — by the way, what sort of script gives a last name to the barely-seen-at-all victim, but not to any of the actual principal characters?) that he “cyber-stalks” her until she commits suicide. This results in his being placed under house arrest, ankle-bracelet and all, and ordered to stay the fuck off the internet. He quickly gets around that restriction with the help of a friend named Abby (Stella Maeve) who’s obviously sweet on him, and their constant “third wheel,” Kevin (Maestro Harrell). Right off the bat, then,  the problem here in terms of audience identification is pretty self-evident, I would think — we’re supposed to be putting our sympathies behind a relentless creep whose campaign of non-stop harassment led the recipient of his unwelcome advances to take her own life, and unless you’re a grade-A asshole (and we’ve already spent enough time talking about two of those), that’s just not likely to happen.

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Oh, sure, Daniel tries to win us over with lines like “it wasn’t like that — I just wanted to get to know her,” and we’re supposed to feel bad for him because his dad ins’t in the picture and his mom is away on business all summer (can you even sentence a minor to house arrest without parental supervision?), but if you’ve ever been pestered by even the most easily-dismissed internet “troll,” your sympathy-meter is going to be registering very low for this movie’s protagonist.

Still, while Daniel might be done with Mona, she’s in no way done with him. The first thing he sees once he illegally gets back on the internet is her offing herself, and then she proceeds to haunt him both online and, increasingly, in the physical world — sending various low-grade “eerie” hallucinations his way, and generally fucking with his psychology until he very nearly snaps (apparently internet “stalkers” aren’t actually nuts to begin with — who knew?). They end up having a seance and all that shit and we’re even treated to the old “unquiet spirits can’t rest” line a time or two, but whatever — the whole “haunted internet” premise was handled considerably more deftly in Unfriended earlier this very year, and this is all eminently forgettable garbage.

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Perhaps even more offensive than screenwriter Mike Le’s insistence on trying to convince us that the victimizer is actually the victim here, though, is the plodding pace of his script and the utter lack of imagination or even basic engagement with the material shown by Solet’s lifeless, plodding direction. I know there’s only so much you can do with five characters (the other being a parole officer who seems about as interested in his job as Solet himself, played by Peter Stormare) confined to a typically soul-dead suburban rambler, but come on. Watching a ceiling fan spin around or a kid walking back and forth in his yard isn’t very interesting under even the best of circumstances, and these are from that. Solet’s “breakthrough” indie horror effort, Grace, was a bit of slow-burn, as well, but at least the “clinically detached”  vibe the director adopted worked for that one’s rather more “outre” subject matter — here we need some reason to get invested in the proceedings, and he seems downright pathologically determined not to give us one.

At least this flick clocks in at a mercifully brief 81 minutes, though, so if you decide to blow off my heartfelt advice you won’t have wasted too much of your summer on Dark Summer — but I would urge you to resist whatever natural contrarian impulses you may possess and take my word for it here. I wouldn’t even wish a forced sit-down in front of this on a Donald Trump or Jeb Bush voter.

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If you accept the axiom that “super-heroes are our modern mythology,” then allow me to start this review with a little bit of myth-busting. It’ll be fun, I promise.

Myth #1 : I reflexively hate all Marvel movies. This idea has become so entrenched among my friends and readership (such as it is) that I’ve come to accept it myself. But before I sat down to write this thing — well, okay, I was already sitting down, but I hadn’t started writing yet — I looked back over my past reviews of Marvel flicks and discovered something curious, namely : I’ve actually “gone easier” on most of these than even thought.

Thor? I gave that one a pretty decent write-up. Captain America : The First Avenger? I gave that a glowingly positive review. X-Men : First Class and X-Men : Days Of Future Past? Again, wildly enthusiastic notices from yours truly. The Avengers? I wasn’t even all that negative on that one, more just — meh. The Avengers : Age Of Ultron? Again, just sort of tepid, but I actually said it was better than I thought it was going to be. Veering more towards the “positive” again, we have my reviews for The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Really, the only Marvel flicks that I’ve expressed outright disdain towards were Thor : The Dark WorldCaptain America : Winter SoldierIron Man 3 and Guaradians Of The Galaxy. I was admittedly pretty relentless in my condemnation of all of those, but fuck it — I still stand by every word I said and think they’re pieces of celluloid shit with basically no redeeming qualities whatsoever. On the whole, though, I’ve actually written more positive reviews of Marvel movie product than I have negative ones. Go figure.

Myth #2 : Marvel’s latest, Ant-Man, had a “successful” opening weekend. I’m calling pure bullshit on this one, and it’s frankly astonishing to me how few people are willing to state the obvious here — that they’ve got their first flop on their hands since The Incredible Hulk.

Let’s talk about some obvious double-standards here, shall we? When Green Lantern took in $53 million its opening weekend, it was was touted as a “disaster” for Warner Brothers and DC. Likewise for Watchmen’s opening take of $55 million. Superman Returns was immediately written off as a major disappointment when it hauled in $52 million. And how about The Amazing Spider-Man 2? That flick was subject to an almost relentless “netroots” smear campaign co-ordinated by Marvel and aimed at Sony for the express purpose of getting them to throw in the towel on the franchise and “bring it home” to the so-called “House Of Ideas.” It raked in $91 million its opening weekend and was instantly labeled a “failure” thanks to Marvel’s uncanny ability to essentially control the entire fucking internet when it wants to.

All of which brings us back to Ant-Man. It made $58 million this past weekend — barely more than Green LanternWatchmen, and Superman Returns (despite having higher 3-D ticket prices than those three flicks), and far less than The Amazing Spider-Man 2 took in — and yet the headline on IMDB this evening reads “Ant-Man Comes Up Giant.” Please.

Reading the full text of this week’s chart analysis on boxoffice.com, the truth becomes more evident : you’ve gotta go down a couple paragraphs, but the ugly reality Dis/Mar can’t ignore is in there : this represents the second-lowest opening weekend for a Marvel movie ever (after The Incredible Hulk), and the lowest, when adjusted for inflation, in terms of actual ticket sales. It’s also highly unlikely that it will have much in terms of “legs” going forward, because it’s got a heck of a lot of competition out there right now. This movie landed with a thud — but it almost seems like people are afraid to say so.

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Normally I’d just chalk that up to Marvel’s overpowering PR machine “spinning” the message as they always do. Or possibly to the fact that Ant-Man has been a troubled production almost from the start — original screenwriter/director Edgar Wright bailed out over “creative differences” in favor of the apparently-more-pliable Peyton Reed and there have been reports of cost over-runs leaking into the entertainment press here and there — and maybe all the negative early scuttlebutt convinced casual or “on the fence” fans to take a pass, but ya know what?  At this point I think there might be something more going on. Have you taken a look at the upcoming release schedules from Dis/Mar and Warner? Both Marvel and DC films are going to be positively ubiquitous for the next 5-6 years, and if the whole super-hero trend is finally starting to run on fumes, Hollywood is in for a very rough half-decade. Nobody’s saying that Ant-Man is flop because Hollywood can’t afford even the idea of a super-hero movie flopping right now. They’ve put all their eggs in one basket, and the frankly monumental degree to which this one “under-performed” right out of the gate has studio execs all over Tinseltown nervous.

And now that we’ve got all that business concluded, let’s talk about the film itself, shall we? I promise to keep it brief.

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Dear God but this sucked, didn’t it? I mean, seriously. And I can say that in complete safety having established my bona fides as “nowhere near the Marvel-basher my reputation would suggest.” This is just a bad movie. Paul Rudd is likable enough in his lead role as ex-con-turned-reluctant-hero Scott Lang, but from there it’s all just downhill. Michael Douglas is an obviously tired and disinterested shell of his former self as “original” Ant-Man Dr. Hank Pym, Evangeline Lilly has all the charisma and charm of a Denny’s omelette as supposed “leading lady” Hope van Dyne, Corey Stoll is particularly uneven and unbelievable as chief baddie Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (although I give the half-dozen-or-so screenwriters credit for admitting, even if by accident, that corporate CEOs and psychopaths are often one and the same), the talents of Martin Donovan are absolutely wasted in a two-bit “supporting villain” role (and speaking of wasted talent, why have Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter in here at all?), the humor is flat, the pacing uneven, the idea that a guy could train to shrink down to sub-atomic size over the course of a weekend without losing his mind is a heck of a stretch even for a Marvel movie, and they give away how the whole thing’s gonna end pretty early on when they explain how Ant-Man’s red and blue discs work ( old-school Doctor Who fans will know what I mean when I call this scene the film’s “Hexachromide moment” ).

If all that weren’t enough, though, there are also Ant-Man‘s hideously offensive racial politics to consider. Sure, Scott’s done time, but he go busted for a Robin Hood-style crime of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Why, he’s even got a Master’s degree in electrical engineering (he tells us so himself). He’s also, ya know, white. His trio of prison buddies, though — well, they’re real criminals. Why, just look at ’em — one’s Latino (played by Michael Pena), one’s black (hip-hop star T.I.), and one’s a dirty Russian immigrant (David Dastmalchian). All three of them are dumber than a box of rocks, too. Good thing they have their educated friend around to keep ’em out of trouble.

The only character in the film who’s anything other than a one-note cipher is a cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), who’s married to Scott’s ex-wife and starts out thinking the worst about our “hero” but ends up coming around. Even his “character arc” is fairly cliched, true, but at least it exists. Everyone else is basically the same from start to finish. And all of this is brought to you via Reed is Marvel’s dull-as-day-old-dogshit “house style” that makes every movie look and feel like a two-hour TV episode with a huge budget.

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There’s a bit of a small-scale tragedy in all this, of course — Ant-Man is definitely an “also-ran” character and the potential was here to do something altogether different than what we’ve come to expect from typical MCU fare. But I think that potential probably headed out the door along with Edgar Wright. “Different” is something Marvel just doesn’t do at this point — but they might want to re-think that stodgy mindset pretty quickly, or the next few years could be long and hard ones indeed. Ant-Man‘s poor showing at the box office certainly isn’t proof positive that a “super-hero implosion” is necessarily upon us just yet, but it’s a strong signal that one could be in the offing, and the more rigidly Dis/Mar adheres to their strict assembly-line formula, the more quickly they’ll usher in the day when people really do just find themselves getting tired of the same old stuff.

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The review I slapped up the other day for visionary director Nick Millard’s Gunblast got more hits than my little site here has seen in months — just over 800, if you must know — so I figured, hey, why not go back to the well (assuming it isn’t already dry) and see if we can keep the admittedly low-rent “momentum” we’ve got going around here stoked to its current less-than-fever-pitch by talking some more Millard?

Hmmm — let’s see — we’ve already covered Death Nurse and Death Nurse 2 — ditto for Criminally Insane and Criminally Insane 2 — Satan’s Black Wedding, maybe? Nope, did that awhile back, as well — and Cemetery Sisters — and Doctor Bloodbath — and The Terrorists

Hey, wait! What about 1977’s .357 Magnum? That’s previously-uncharted (at least around here) territory — let’s give that one a go, shall we?

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True, this one predates Nick’s second — or maybe third, depending on how you look at things — act as an SOV auteur by a good few years, and it runs a little long by his standards clocking in at a whopping 71 minutes, but nearly all the essential elements of a distinctly Millard-ian viewing experience are present and accounted for here, apart from a plethora of recycled footage from earlier films in the director’s CV.

Roll call : opening scene in the “jungles” of “Angola” that has nothing to do with the rest of the film and features entirely different characters;   bizarre introduction to our supposed “leading man,” CIA “black ops” agent Johnny Hightower (regular Millard “rep company” member Marland Proctor, here working under the name Marland T. Stewart) nursing some sort of hand wound in a hospital; stock footage of Hong Kong with San Francisco’s Chinatown standing in for it (and, a bit later, for Tokyo) when the actual “action” starts (with the flow of automobile traffic reversed to make things look, ya know, “realistic”); weird scenes of a bearded dude walking around with a — you guessed it — .357 Magnum; Johnny leaving the hospital and going to Tuscon, where he mashes his face between a pair of boobs (Kathryn Hayes’ boobs, to be specific), and receives an assignment to kill “Clay” (the bearded dude) because he apparently offed a couple of undercover agents in the aforementioned exotic Far East locales that we are supposed to believe look just like Chinatown; Johnny hiring a drunk named Steve (James Whitworth) to “help” with the “mission” ; John and Steve shooting quarters and plates with their — I’m picking up a theme here — .357 Magnums; the house from Criminally Insane turns up for a second (and so does Crazy Fat Ethel, Priscilla Alden, herself); then we cut to the townhouse/condo from the Death Nurse flicks and Cemetery Sisters, where some dudes in stocking masks are breaking in and there’s a shoot-out with some fake blood and that’s really about it.

One nifty little quirk worth mentioning — Millard tore a page from the Doris Wishman playbook here and obviously shot this thing without any sound, so we almost never see anyone’s mouth at all. Even during scenes — and there are plenty of ’em — where people are just sitting around talking. Seriously, whole conversations go by — with plenty of weird close-ups on foreheads, eyes, eyebrows, chins — but you’ll never see a mouth. The post-production sound dubbing makes for some seriously bizarre and ill-timed insertions of musical cues and sound effects, as well. And yet, paradoxically, you never get the sense that anyone here, most notably the director himself (billed under his occasionally-used “Jan Anders” pseudonym) isn’t giving it their all. It’s just that their “all” can only result in the most feeble and half-assed of efforts by most conventional standards. We talk about low-budget cinema a lot around these parts, but I’m not even sure this movie had a budget. It just had a guy with a camera, some film (probably short ends), and a dream.

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Chuckle all you want, but there’s a certain nobility in that. Like all Millard works, .357 Magnum doesn’t just disregard any and all rules of conventional filmmaking, it refuses to even acknowledge their very existence. It’s art that operates on an entirely different level of reality than our own, and therefore can’t be judged by any pre-set standards. It’s not a “bad” film — nor is it a “good” one — it is simply a film that got made in the only way its director knew how and for reasons that only he could possibly understand. It’s every bit as beyond our criticism as it is beyond our comprehension.

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I would defend the films of Nick Millard to my dying breath if I had to, but guess what? His work does that for me already. It is a hermetically-sealed universe unto itself the likes of which other, more well-regarded and accomplished, directors have spent decades of their lives, not to mention untold millions of dollars, trying to create. It is what it is and no one else  has ever been able to come close to even imitating, let alone achieving, it. The intellectually lazy might just call it “hopelessly amateur” and leave it at that. The equally-lazy but somewhat more generous might label it “outsider art” and pat themselves on the back for giving Millard a back-handed compliment. I call it — and I have countless times already in previous reviews — pure genius. And goddamnit,  I’m right. But then, I suppose I would say that.

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It’s been awhile since I reviewed a movie that you, dear reader, probably have no chance of ever seeing — and it’s probably been even longer since I reviewed one of  Nick Millard’s SOV masterpieces — so why not kill two birds with one stone and take a look at 1986’s Gunblast (also released internationally under the title Mac 10), which is just over 60 minutes or pure, unfiltered, near-pathologically lackadaisical ennui from the man who is the one and only master of said rarified sub-genre, and that you can only find (if you’re truly lucky) on VHS from the late,  and in no way lamented, Mogul Video.

Yup, not only has no one ever attempted to sort out whatever rights issues might be holding this up to release it on DVD, but nobody’s even bothered to make a rip of it from their old videotape to slap  up on YouTube. I guess they figure either no one would be interested in watching it, no one would be able to stay awake all the way through it, or both.

I’m here to tell you that, of course, “they” are absolutely wrong At least when it comes to the “no one would be interested in watching it” part. That’s because Gunblast, while admittedly not something that will be palatable to everyone’s tastes, is nevertheless a work of absolute — if accidental — genius, and is a very worthy entry indeed in Millard’s action-free “action” movie trilogy that began with .357 Magum in 1977,  took a long break before continuing here and, finally, wound up (or down, depending on how you look at things) with 1988’s The Terrorists.

Please understand — if you actually like action, you might not enjoy Gunblast very much. If you like boobs, however, you probably will. Especially if you like watching guys mash their faces up between ’em. In fact, our ostensible “hero” in this one, ex-con Roy Grant (played by Millard regular Marland Proctor, here billed as Lloyd Allan for reasons I can’t pretend to know anything about), sticks his head between “heroine” Maria Schneider (Christina Cardan)’s ta-tas a lot. Hell, he does it twice in a row, and for a good five minutes or so each time.  He’s got good reason for that, though, of course  — not only are her boobs pretty nice, but more or less the same exact scene is playing out consecutively.

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Confused yet? Allow me to at least attempt to clarify. Upon release from the big house, our guy Roy holes up in a seedy motel, where he watches TV, reads Playboy magazines, chain smokes,  eats beans and wieners from a can — you know the drill. In typical Millard time-killing fashion, this is all shown in excruciating detail. Then he goes to a porn theater and watches an extended clip of Uschi Digard doing what she does best — licking her own breasts — that’s taken right from the director’s own softcore number Fancy Lady (those familiar with Millard’s ouevre will know that re-using scenes from previous flicks is one of his tried-and-true staples). Then he gets a knock at the door — a door that appears, by the way, to be stained with what I hope is chocolate syrup — and it’s the aforementioned Ms. Schneider, who offers Roy (this is a direct quote) “50% of a half-million dollars” if he’ll her rip off her ex-boyfriend for his heroin and money at the Mexican border. He says no. Then he rubs his face between her tits for, like, ever and changes his mind says yes.

Just in case you didn’t get all that, though, Millard stages the whole thing again, more or less verbatim — in another room.

I know that pulling double-duty as a writer and director can be tough, but here’s the thing : I honestly don’t think Millard forgot that he’d already shot that entire scene. And I don’t even think he figured it was so damn good that he should just do it a second time, in a (slightly) different location. As anyone who’s seen either of his Death Nurse or Criminally Insane flicks can tell you, the regular rules of having an actual reason for doing something just don’t apply to our guy Nick. He’s so far beyond that. He just did the whole thing twice in a row because he felt like it and because he could. I ask you, friends, is there any more noble an artistic impulse than that?

Okay, yeah, having 60 minutes of camcorder tape to burn through and only about 30 minutes of actual story might just have a little something to do with it, as well —but let’s not harp on trivialities like that.

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So, where does the rest of the time go? So many wonderful places it’s hard to fathom. We’re treated to, in no particular order : more re-used footage from old Millard skin flicks; guns that fire, no kidding, a hundred-plus rounds per minute; characters having one-sided conversations with walls when the actor they’re supposed to be talking to isn’t there to shoot that particular scene; the same actors (including Millard regulars like Albert Eskinazi and Ray Myles) turning up later in the movie and playing obviously the same characters they were earlier, but with different names; the weirdest and most annoying doorbell you’ve ever heard in your life; and transcendent lines like “Hey man, you fucked my woman last night. I’m going to kill you.”

What’s that, you say? The plot? You want to know about the fucking plot even after that laundry-list of other-worldly awesomeness? What are you, a square? Things go south. Off the rails. Down the toilet. Up shit creek. Oh, and tits up. Of course. But you knew that already.

The beauty of it is, though, that it absolutely, positively, unequivocally doesn’t matter. You don’t watch Nick Millard movies for the story. You don’t watch them for the acting. You don’t watch them for the characterization. You don’t watch them for the action. And you don’t even watch them for the boobs-to-face mash-ups. You watch them because nobody else ever made movies the way he did and no one else ever will because no one else would a)want to; or b)know how to. There’s no mistaking Millard’s work for that of anyone else just as there’s no way Millard could possibly make a film the way anyone else makes them. He operates by his own set of quite-likely-not-of-this-dimension rules. Things like shot composition, logically sound dialogue, sensibly-placed musical cues, or coherent storylines are beneath his notice. His mind is just plain moving too fast to even consider such banalities. He’s working at 1000 MPH to come up with films that — irony of all ironies — move at a truly glacial pace. He can barely fill up an hour’s worth of tape — and has to recycle 25% or more of the material we see from his other movies to do it — but it feels like six. Or seven. Or more.

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You can call that crap if you want. Many people certainly have. But do any of them know the sort of genius it takes to pull something like that off? No way. Not in the million years it feels like Gunblast drags on for could Millard’s critics ever come up with anything remotely like it. I have a feeling that time will be much kinder to Nick Millard than it will to the rest of us, so take your cheap shots while you can — one day his work will be studied, celebrated, maybe even spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. His films may, in fact, pretty much all be the same — but his overall body of work is well and truly singular.