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There’s something kind of fun about going into a new comic with no preconceived notions about it because you don’t know the first thing about any of the creators involved.

Okay, fair enough, I know that one of the writers of the new Black Mask Studios series No Angel, Adrianne Palicki, is a star on the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, but I don’t know the first thing about her writing ability, nor that of her brother and co-author/co-creator (and, perhaps curiously, sole copyright holder) Eric. Artist Ari Syahrazad is a name I’m completely unfamiliar with, as is colorist Jean-Paul Csuka. So, yeah, as far as “unknown quantities” go, this book features nothing but. And that’s kinda exciting.

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As is the premise here : a PTSD-afflicted Iraq vet named Hannah returns to her hometown after the murder of her father and brother and immediately smells a rat as far as the investigation goes — there’s some angle here no one is even considering, but what is it? Hannah’s not so good with people in general, which means that her exchanges with the local authorities — one of whom may be a former high school flame — and even her own estranged family members don’t go so well, but all that’s nothing compared to the rapid-fire revelations that will follow. For one thing, her old man appears to have been carrying on a years-long affair. For another, she’s even got a sister she never knew about. And for yet another, said sister doesn’t appear to be, well — human. I’ll say no more than that, but the cliffhanger splash-page at the end of this first issue makes one thing perfectly clear : this comic only seemed like it was a police procedural, in actuality it’s — well, let’s just say the title should probably be taken literally.

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The Palickis have delivered a smart, sharp, quick-moving script here that gives you terrific insight into their protagonist and sets the stage for an intriguing mystery at the same time, and the dialogue is authentic and well-timed. They’re not afraid to let the pictures tell most of the story, but even though the whole thing can be read in about 10 minutes it doesn’t feel like an insubstantial comic in the least. There’s plenty going on in this issue, and the particulars are laid out with a minimum of fuss and plenty of gritty, street-level style. Chances are you’ll end up reading it twice, back-to-back, just like I did.

The art, unfortunately, is a bit more of a mixed bag : there’s nothing wrong with Syahrazad’s illustration, per se, but it’s definitely derivative — it’s a pretty fair approximation of Andrea Mutti, and given that Mutti’s style is an approximation of Alex Maleev’s, well — let’s just say the artistic family tree is readily apparent here, and that each branch, unfortunately, seems to yield diminishing returns. Csuka’s colors don’t help matters a whole lot, either, opting as he does for an extremely limited palette  with curiously-chosen dominant hues signifying different points in time. The Iraq flashbacks awash in gaudy greens and yellows are particularly tough on the eyes.

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Still, that can get better with time — one hopes — and the story here is certainly strong enough to keep me around for the duration provided it doesn’t go off the rails. No Angel is ambitious, highly involving stuff that gives no clear clue as to where it’s going or how it’s going to get there. That sort of uncertainty usually makes for an exhilarating ride, and this looks to be one that I’ll be happy to be along for.

 

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The siren call of micro-budget horror cinema has been lodging itself deep into my brain with something akin to relentlessness lately, and for those who like their fright flicks done on the cheap, Amazon Prime’s streaming service is definitely the place to be these days. Films that will quite clearly never go any further — and often ones that you’d be amazed even made it this far — are as plentiful as seagulls at a landfill there, and often the garbage metaphor turns out to be a pretty good one. Still, once you’re hooked, you’re hooked, and you eventually find yourself speaking almost an entirely different cinematic language, of sorts : production values are gauged on a scale of relative plausibility in accordance with the budget at hand, you make a lot more allowances for obviously substandard acting, you learn to find needles in haystacks in the form of unexpectedly effective shots that belie some usually-accidental sense of genuine artistry, and you gain a newfound appreciation for things like lighting, shot composition, story pacing, etc. that don’t necessarily require a tremendous amount of money to pull off well.

And yet, even for all of that, there’s no denying that most of these flicks are just plain bad — the question is, would they be any good with some actual resources behind them? To be honest, the vast majority of micro-budget efforts don’t provide enough evidence either way to answer that question definitively. Most offer flashes of something potentially greater here and there, but they come and go pretty quickly and are usually buried under waves of sheer incompetence that no amount of money could fix — after all, the backyard autuers who make up the micro-budget rank and file are usually undiscovered and/or ignored by Hollywood for good reason, in the same way that most film bloggers such as myself probably don’t have “what it takes” to be the next in-house movie critic for Rolling Stone or somesuch. Still, these amateur directors, actors, screenwriters, producers, etc. are probably in it for much the same reason myself and my fellow armchair critics do what we do — because it’s fun, and we can.

Ryan Callaway is one such “in it for the love of it” dime-store Spielberg, and he seems to be making a go of it — earlier in 2016 he wrapped his latest feature, The Girl In The Cornfield, and he’s got a solid backlog of flicks you’ve no doubt never even heard of, much less seen, behind him, as well as a couple others in the works that will probably make it onto Amazon just as this one has. So, hey, more power to him and his wife, Amy, who serves as his frequent co-writer and co-producer. He’s obviously got some ability, as this is a reasonably good-looking flick, and he should be given “props” for concocting a film with a more-or-less entirely female cast that doesn’t require any of them to lose their tops or giggle like silly schoolchildren and instead presents women as the real, actual people we know they are — but when he tries to move from the real to the surreal, well, that’s where he kind of loses his own plot.

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Speaking of which — BFFs Heather (played by Briana Aceti) and Corrine (Tina Duong) are driving home late one night with Heather’s little sister, Tiffany (Madeline Lupi) in the back seat. It’s been a long day, and when Heather starts to nod off at the wheel, she ends up hitting a woman in a white dress (Mollie Sperduto) who stumbles out of the cornfield at the side of the road and right into the path of her vehicle. The supposed “crash” isn’t particularly well-executed, but with a budget of $20,000 (according to IMDB, at any rate) there’s only so much you can do. And what our titular girl from the cornfield has apparently done is fucked off back to wherever it was that she came from. Our ostensible heroines follow a trail of blood left behind in her wake, but of the mystery woman herself, there’s no sign. They report the incident to the cops — hey, you’ve gotta venture off the Children Of The Corn script at some point — and then return home, only to discover that whoever (or maybe that should be whatever) they made violent contact with has come with them, and is determined to ramp up her campaign of terror from nightly apparition-style visits to flat-out destruction of their very lives in due course. Next time, I guess, make sure whoever you hit is good and dead.

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I’m not sure where this was filmed, but things get a lot more authentic-looking once they get out of the cornfield, which looks like it was slapped up in a low-rent soundstage to me (even if it wasn’t). Authenticity is the order of the day for the principal cast members, as well, none of whom are especially great, by any means, but who are all generally believable in their various roles and could probably make a go of it as TV guest stars or something with a few more acting lessons under their belts. So it’s not like we’re dealing with a completely hopeless production here by any means.

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That being said, this is a darn fine example of a micro-budget director trying to bite off more than he can probably chew. Callaway delivers a handful of quite gorgeous shots (such as the one pictured directly above), but his script loses focus precisely when it should be ramping up, and he simply doesn’t have the cash on hand to effectively traverse the more “trippy” supernatural road that things go down and would probably (okay, certainly) have been better served tethering his ambitions to a more earthly — and therefore achievable — realm. He’s got a sequel in the works, and maybe that will address some of these problems, but given that it’s got a working title of Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2, it sounds like he’s determined to double down on the ethereal and supernatural. He’d better hustle up at least 40 grand if he wants to do it right.

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Who knows? Maybe one day in the future, when aspiring directors are shooting medium- and even big-budget productions on these things, we’ll look back at 2016 as being a watershed year in the history of iPhone filmmaking. And if that turns out to be the case, then it’s safe to assume that one Nigel Bach, of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, will be considered a trailblazer. A pioneer. Perhaps even a prophet. But for now, in all honesty, he looks like a guy with way too much free time on his hands.

It’s not that his recently-completed effort, Bad Ben, is necessarily a bad film, per se —  please don’t think that’s the case by any stretch — it’s just that, after having seen it, I can’t possibly fathom what possessed him to even make it in the first place, beyond the most obvious explanation : simply because he could.

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And, ya know, thinking about it, maybe that’s the most noble reason one can have for making a movie. It’s certainly the most honest. And given that he made this flick for a reported $300, Bach simply can’t afford bullshit — nor can he afford to hire a screenwriter, an editor, a sound technician, or even any other actors. This is strictly a solo operation. So props to him for not only doing all this sans assistance, but also for managing to get it up on Amazon, where you can either rent it for two bucks or catch it for free if you have a Prime membership. Shoot, even if Bach doesn’t accomplish anything else with his life, that’s a fairly impressive little feat (sorry, Lowell George) right there.

So, anyway, here’s the deal : Bach’s character, one Tom Riley, buys a home at a sheriff’s sale after its previous owners are reported missing and never come back. His plan is to sell off whatever shit is still in the house, do some quick repairs if necessary, and “flip” the thing for a nice little profit. Welcome to bottom-feeding capitalism, folks. The problem is that objects he’s sorting through and cataloging with an eye toward hawking  have a habit of turning up in places other than where he’s sure he just left them. There are strange sounds coming from rooms when he’s not in them. And some of the crap the family that used to live there left behind is a little bit — disturbing. Crucifixes, scary children’s drawings, Satanic altars, all that sort of thing.

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Eventually all the low-grade weirdness going on convinces Tom to activate the house’s dormant video security system, and this provides something of a welcome break from the full-time phone-filming, while still keeping all the proceedings firmly within the “found footage” sub-genre. It also means that Bad Ben is more or less pre-determined to find itself compared to Parnormal Activity, but I don’t think any number of phone calls or emails or facebook “likes” are going to get this flick shown at your local theater. Just a hunch.

I’ll tell you what, though — if it ever did, by some miracle, make it to the big screen (or even the small one given that IMDB has inexplicably listed this as a made-for-TV movie), I might be persuaded to actually check it out again. The “pull-quote” that Bach has selected for his website to pimp this flick is one of those “so bad it’s good — an instant cult classic!” things, but while I’m not nearly prepared to heap that sort of praise upon it, there is an irreverent sense of humor clearly on display throughout here, and our guy Nigel, despite clearly being an amateur with zero by way of formal training, is eminently watchable and naturally comedic in a completely blase and deadpan manner. I have no idea how hard he’s really trying here, but the near-genius of what he’s doing lies in the fact that it really doesn’t matter whether he is or not because it’s not like it would make a whole shit-ton of difference either way. If he’s well and truly putting his heart and soul into everything he’s doing and this is the best he’s capable of, then hey, good on him — and if he’s just going through the paces and having us all on, then again, hey, good on him. We’re never gonna know either way, of course, and you could make an argument for either point of view — if it really matters to you. Which it both shouldn’t and, trust me, won’t.

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To be sure, Bad Ben‘s singular location and even more singular cast give the film an insular feeling, and if either works your nerves you’re in for a tough slog. It’s definitely nothing like a “movie for everyone.” But it’s considerably more interesting and entertaining than it probably has any right to be and, in a quietly weird way that has to be considered more a result of accident than design, uses its admittedly tremendous limitations to its advantage by getting you to consistently underestimate it at every turn. That’s not a bad hustle, really, when you think about it — as long as you don’t think about it too much, which is pretty good advice across the board with this one, since it’s not like we’re talking about some deep and multi-faceted work here.

What it is, though, is work well worth checking out. There’s only so much you can realistically expect from something like Bad Ben, of course — it is what it is and it couldn’t pretend to be anything else if it wanted to. But the damn thing is, odds are you won’t even want it to strive for “something more.” It’s not like Bach shows some innate ability to go beyond one-man-show iPhone movies. But he might just be the best one-man-show iPhone movie-maker on the planet — even if that’s largely because he’s also the only one. For now, at any rate.

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The iPhone is an amazing device. You can use it to take high-quality photos and send them to all of your friends instantly, to listen to music of your choosing for hours on end, to watch entire seasons of your favorite TV shows while you’re running errands around town, to call in sick from work, and other noble pursuits. Yesiree, this one little gadget can do it all, and once you’ve got one, it becomes almost impossible to imagine life without it.

Or so I’m told. Believe it or not, for a guy who contributes to any number of websites (okay, five or six) and maintains his own blog, I’m actually a bit of a technophobe and neither own nor particularly want one of Apple’s little pocket-sized miracles. But when I learned that one of my favorite films of 2015, Sean Baker’s beyond-magnificent Tangerine, was shot entirely by means of a few of these devices, I developed — well, not exactly a newfound respect for them, but definitely a curiosity about their utility as a filmmaking tool. And given that in recent months I’ve been delving ever deeper into so-called “micro-budget” offerings around these parts, sooner or later the obvious question arose in my mind — are there no-money, would-be auteurs out there making feature-length films on their iPhones? As it just so happens, it turns out, of course, that there are.

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Meet Justin Doescher, a regular (enough, at any rate, I’m assuming) guy from Baltimore (a town with a long and proud list of DIY movie-makers that includes John Waters, Don Dohler, Pericles Lewnes, and Tony Malnowski, among others) who, earlier in this destined-to-be-blighted year of 2016, cobbled together a script, mastered some basic editing software, got a few friends together to serve as his cast, hit “record” on his electronic best friend’s camera, and cranked out a “found footage” horror number with the less-than-original title of The Break-In, which you can now rent for a couple bucks on Vimeo or, better yet, watch for free if you’ve got an Amazon Prime account. You’ve gotta admire the dude’s gumption, I suppose, but just because literally anybody can be a director these days, does that mean that they should be?

I’m not entirely sure that The Break-In answers that question definitely one way or the other. Hollywood has definitely sunk big money money into films that have less going for them than this one does, there’s no question about that, but you’ve got to be willing to make an enormous number of allowances for the extremely limited number of resources Doescher has at his disposal if you even want to begin to attempt enjoying this thing. I have no problem with meeting it on its own level simply because I’ve had a lot of practice when it comes to watching cheaper-than-cheap shit, but at the same time, I can fully understand why anyone would bail on it after watching for 10 or 15 minutes, simply because it really does look like exactly what it is — and when you think about it, how could it really do otherwise?

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The plot’s pretty straightforward, as you’d no doubt expect : ordinary working stiff Jeff Anderson (played by Doescher himself) and his pregnant fiancee, Melissa Joseph (Maggie Binkley) have just become proud new suburbanites after having purchased a “starter” home right next door to their best friends Steve (Juan Veiza) and Lisa (Missy Merry). They’re officially living the dream (if your dream is seriously fucking boring), but it’s not all fun and games on the cul-de-sac — a series of break-ins and home invasions in the area have our lovebirds on edge, and some ominous clues and happenings convince them that the trouble that so far has only afflicted the people close to them will soon be landing squarely on their recently-manufactured doorstep. Isn’t this type of shit only supposed to happen in the inner cities?

One of the stylistic tropes that Doescher leans on heavily is the inclusion of supposed “security camera” footage, and by and large it’s pretty effective and relieves some of the narrative pressure of having to manufacture a reason for Jeff to be recording every damn thing that’s happening. Unfortunately, it also has the unintended consequence of making the standard “mockumentary” scenes stand out as being even more rankly amateur than they otherwise would, a problem that’s only compounded during said sequences by uniformly half-assed acting and frankly wooden and lifeless dialogue — and when you combine all that together, the end result is that a film that’s merely slow often feel downright glacial.

Ya know what, though? If you stick it out, chances are you’ll be glad you did. Doescher manages to ratchet up the tension in a reasonably methodical manner during the second half of his flick’s 72-minute runtime, and there’s a big payoff at the end in the form of a killer plot twist that I think it’s safe to say no one will see coming (I know I certainly didn’t). Sure, it would be nice if getting to this “holy shit!” moment were a more enjoyable experience, but even at its worst — which, admittedly, is pretty bad — The Break-In is still more or less bearable, and it’s at the very least interesting to see Doescher becoming obviously more confident in his new-fangled directorial abilities as he gets into the “teeth” of his story. Yes, this makes for something of a schizoid, day-and-night viewing experience, but heck — at least that’s better than the whole damn thing being lousy from start to finish, right?

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Clearly, though, any recommendation that I give here is going to be a heavily-qualified one. The Break-In has numerous problems that are painfully obvious to anyone. It really can only be so good, and it often falls well short of meeting even that exceedingly low bar. But when it does finally put it all together (to the extent that it can), it not only meets the metaphorical bar I was just talking about, it leaps right past it by a country mile. Whether or not it’s worth all the nonsense you have to suffer through in order to have your socks well and truly (and finally) knocked off is a question only you can answer for yourself, of course, and if you read this review and think to yourself “nah, I think I’ll take a pass,” I won’t blame you in the least. But if you decide to give it a go with the full knowledge that you have to be willing to overlook, or at least live with, any number of near-fatal limitations, then rest assured that your opinion of the film will be much higher by the time it’s done than you might expect it to be during its rocky early (and, fair enough, middle) going.

 

 

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Last week we took a look at Jack Kirby’s uncannily eerie prediction about the rise of Donald Trump in the pages of Forever People #3, but please don’t get the wrong idea : Kirby may have been able to peer into the dark corners of the human heart in order to limn the potentially dangerous borderlands of humanity’s future, but he remained, at heart, an eternal optimist — albeit one with a strong and well-informed streak of realism that tempered all of his Utopian visions with cautionary notes of warning. At the tail end of his career — a period which the wretchedly ill-informed and hopelessly conservative have said represents the King Of Comics working “past his prime” — those cautionary notes became more pronounced, it’s true, but the heroism of Jack’s protagonists grew in relation to the threats they faced, and a clear and ever-present internal tension was presented as being part and parcel of scientific and technological progress, particularly as those concepts related to super-powered human advancement : they presented a potential way forward, yes, but one littered with numerous pitfalls (both predictable and otherwise) and, ultimately, it would be up to us “normal” folks to navigate our bold new future with wisdom and a degree of caution, sure, but also with courage, compassion, and an unyielding belief in the power of humanity to sort out its own messes. And arguably no single Kirby work distilled that duality down to its purest essence more succinctly and successfully than Silver Star.

Originally a screenplay he pitched around to various Hollywood studios, Jack modified the story of Morgan Miller, the vanguard of a new wave of beings called “Homo Geneticus,” into a six-part, self-described “visual novel” — beginning with issue one, cover-dated February, 1983 and published by Pacific Comics, an early-wave independent outfit who also put out his superb Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers series. This may seem a tangential at best tidbit to mention, but for my money I think it’s actually quite crucial : there’s simply no way that either of the “Big Two” publishers would have known what to do with material this forward-thinking and challenging, as the relatively short runs a number of Kirby titles received at both DC and Marvel in the 1970s attest to. These guys simply had no idea how to even comprehend, much less market, the work of a transcendent creative genius who was growing understandably less concerned with couching the messages inherent in his astonishing output in “safe,” comfortable terms so as not to alienate any members of a mass readership, and was far more inspired by the idea of finally being able to do something he had absolutely and unquestionably earned the right to, namely : telling his stories his way.

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The opening pages of Silver Star #1 still seem to come from another place and time far ahead of where we even are now, as a little girl “reaches out” to Morgan’s mind via her own and plays a birthday song (written by Kirby’s free-spirited daughter, Susan) for him, the lyrics of which are quickly and seamlessly overlaid atop a battlefield sequence that shows how our protagonist came to be in the quasi-comatose condition he now finds himself in, and that also demonstrates the first near-apocalyptic explosion of his hitherto-dormant superhuman powers. It’s heady, transformative stuff — among the most raw and powerful scenes ever delineated in Kirby’s career — yet delivered with an absolutely singular and uncanny blend of the surreal and the semi- rueful. We don’t know anything about these characters, their lives, or their world at this point, but we know that all of the above have been shattered, irrevocably and immediately, by what we’ve just witnessed, and that the entirety of this series will happen after the point of “things will never be the same again.” The human imagination is scarcely more courageous than it is here.

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Throughout the remainder of this debut installment, Kirby and his inking/lettering partner, Mike Royer, begin to fill in some of the blanks by letting us know that Morgan has been granted his extraordinary abilities thanks to the genetic manipulations of his scientist father, who has taken it upon himself to steer humanity’s next evolutionary leap forward by “raising up” a select handful of children from all races and ethnic backgrounds in attempt to build a truly egalitarian society at some point down the road — but profound questions about his fundamental right to “play God” necessarily underpin any enthusiasm we as readers might have for his admittedly heady dreams with a whole lot of entirely reasonable doubt.  And lurking just around the corner is the ever-present figure of Darius Drumm, perhaps Kirby’s last great villain, a one-time experimental subject himself who has decidedly different ideas about the place he and his “brethren” are destined to hold in the world. Moral and ethical complexities abound here, to a degree that comics wouldn’t attempt again until Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and yet Silver Star dares to ask these profound queries in a less refined, more stream-of-consciousness manner than did its more-celebrated successor. The result is a comic that gives readers not only no easy answers but, crucially, no easy way to even begin searching for them other than to intuitively feel our way forward.  Talk about having faith in the intelligence of your readers! This takes fearlessness. This takes absolute confidence in one’s abilities. Above all, this takes vision.

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To call Kirby simply “brave” — or any combination of euphemisms conveying the same idea — is an understatement bordering on the criminal, though. Work such as Silver Star shows that he was daring his audience to meet him at his level, and was doing so without necessarily showing them how to get there. A fan at a convention once remarked to Jack that he had no idea where one of his previous series, OMAC, was going, to which he replied :” I knew exactly where it was going. If I had thought you wanted to come along, I’d have brought you with me,” and while the same principal holds true here to a certain extent, that shouldn’t be taken to mean that this comic is in any way alienating or inaccessible. On the contrary, almost anyone can pick up this first issue and be reasonably intrigued and entertained on a purely surface level. But if you want to get the most out of it that you can, then you’ve got to be more than willing to do a good part of the metaphorical “heavy lifting” on your own. Kirby was more than happy to show you the way, but he’s not going to hold your hand as you try to get there. You’ve got to be downright eager to think for yourself, to form your own conclusions, to navigate profound and perspective-shifting philosophical terrain in a manner that feels “right” and “true” to you. Long before books were labeled “Suggested For Mature Readers,” Kirby was creating work that only a fully mature, fully engaged, fully questioning, and fully open mind could ever hope to fully comprehend. Five or ten years after this series wrapped up, the mainstream media finally got on board with the idea that “Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!,” but ya know what? Jack Kirby’s comics never were.

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Which isn’t to say that Silver Star #1 is peppered with any of the cheap ultra-violence or salaciousness-for-its-own sake that would mar later “adult” funnybooks. Far from it. You could show this thing to a six-year-old. And who knows? Perhaps the eager, unencumbered imagination of a child is exactly what’s required to grasp everything that Kirby’s rich and generous mind offers here, in much the  same way that I “got” Kubrick’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey (later adapted for comics by — need I even say it?) much better as a youngster than I do today. Kirby never went in for Kubrick’s clinical and austere perfectionism, it’s true, and imbued his pages with a truly personal level of emotional involvement  that one can only imagine Kubrick would have cringed at, but there were no “accidents” in either man’s work, and everything we saw from each, whether on the page or the screen, was there for a reason, and advanced a very specific artistic intent. Perhaps that’s why both, at the end of the day, continue to inspire such deep, even reverent,  wonder and awe in audiences — and always will.

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I’ll say this much — Marvel Studios’ latest mega-blockbuster, Doctor Strange, certainly is an amazing feast for the eyes. From the amazing opening fight sequence to the trippy other-dimensional mystical mindscapes peppered throughout the film, director Scott Derrickson (who also co-wrote the script along with John Spaihts and the erudite-sounding C. Robert Cargill) pulls out all the stops to “wow” you and succeeds in his goal admirably. In fact, if there’s ever been a flick that you need to see in 3-DD, Imax, and all that shit, it’s this one.

Here’s the rub, though : if you’ve seen all, some, or even just one of Marvel’s other cinematic products, then you really don’t “need” to see this thing at all.

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By all rights, of course, this movie (which only came out two weeks ago, but I’m slapping my “Late To The Party” header on it anyway since most people see these on opening weekend and I didn’t get a chance to catch it until last night) sounded like it might represent the best chance for the so-called MCU to break from its well-established (and, admittedly, quite financially successful) mold : the character of Stephen Strange himself, a semi-tragic figure brought low by his own hubris when the wealthy and arrogant neurosurgeon’s reckless driving leads to a car accident that renders his hands useless and sets him off on a quest to heal himself by mystical means, is arguably the purest distillation of the type of “morality play” his creator, Steve Ditko (sorry, Stan, I don’t care what the studio bosses say, you don’t get any credit for this one from me) excelled at during his 1960s Marvel period, and his signature psychedelic visual style is well-represented in the work of Derrickson’s CGI crew, but there’s definitely quite a bit lost in the translation from newsprint to celluloid here. I’ll grant you that this film isn’t nearly the glorified paean to war and militarism that the Avengers and Captain America flicks are, but in just about every other respect it follows the worn and tired formula of its stablemates downright slavishly : morally and ethically dubious protagonist (in this case Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange) goes through a long-form origin story that results in him becoming a marginally better person after attaining super-powers at the feet of a more experienced master (Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One);  he accrues a comic-relief sidekick (Benedict Wong’s — well, Wong), as well as one who might be a potential future rival (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo), along the way; principal bad guy (Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius) is a former pupil of aforementioned master gone rogue; main bad guy (Dormammu) is a computer-generated special effect; nominal love interest (Amy McAdams’ Christine Palmer) is essentially treated like a doormat but sticks by her guy anyway; you know the drill. In fact, you know it by heart at this point.

All of which means that a darn fine cast is wasted on this lifeless, assembly-line drivel (hell, you can even set your watch by the intervals between jokes — which largely fall flat this time out — in these things). Cumberbatch essentially plays Strange as Tony Stark in a magic red cloak;  Ejiofor buries his not-inconsiderable talents under a mask of dour, one-dimensional earnestness; McAdams suffers through her lines as surely as her character suffers through life as a plot device for her male counterpart; Swinton (whose casting was controversial among stodgy and conservative comics fans due to the fact that the “real” Ancient One is both Asian and male) shows some heart but the damn thing is that her role would be better served if she were more distant and blase a la David Carridine; Mikkelsen seems like a low-rent stand-in for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki; yadda, yadda, etc., etc.

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In many ways, in fact, the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios has never been made more plain than it is here — after all, if they can take a fundamentally different premise than that which we see in their other films and still turn it into big-budget, dime-a-dozen, interchangeable cinematic fare, then it becomes depressingly clear that not only are they not interested in trying anything fundamentally different, they more than likely simply don’t even know how to at this point.

Not that audiences seem to care, mind you. “More of the same” still sells, and unless and until one of these things tanks at the box office, nothing’s gonna change, and the “Big-Budget-TV-Movie” ethos that permeates the MCU will hold firm. When it comes to the bottom line, that makes plenty of sense — but sooner or later familiarity breeds contempt, and when the bottom finally falls out on the super-hero craze, I predict it’s gonna fall out hard. As in, end-of-disco hard. People aren’t just gonna stop seeing this stuff, they’re gonna be too embarrassed to admit they ever even liked it. And when that day comes, whether it’s in one year or ten, Marvel will have only themselves to blame. They crank out enough films to be able to do something at least a little bit adventurous and “outside the box” once in awhile. They can afford to throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. But they don’t. Won’t. Can’t. And now it’s gotten to the point where I’m a whole lot less lonely than I used to be when it comes to griping about the utter sameness of their films. The chorus of groaners is still small, true, but it’s getting louder. And larger. And sooner or later, the powers that be might want to pay attention.

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They’d better start paying attention to the wretched politics of their films, as well. Women are props consigned to do little beyond making the men around them more caring and more human. Racial and ethnic minorities are consigned to “second-fiddle” roles. Gays and lesbians simply don’t exist. Might always makes right. And, perhaps most troublesome in the “Age Of Trump,” rich people — even the most noxious, self-centered, asinine, egomaniacal ones — are worthy of being granted super-powers and become better people once they attain those powers. Why they’re not called to the carpet more often for these clear, present, and nauseating themes remains a mystery to me, but whenever I bitch about ’em, the most common whitewashing excuse I hear from folks — even he most purportedly “liberal” viewers — is that I’m “overthinking” things. Well, I call bullshit on that. Tony Stark — and now Stephen Strange — have gone a long way toward normalizing this idea that overtly asshole-ish, obscenely wealthy narcissists can be heroes, and look where that’s gotten us.

Am I blaming Marvel, then, for the rise of our Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief? No (although it’s worth pointing out that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter was a major Trump donor and supporter), but in much the same way that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist (whose author, William Peter Blatty, was a psychological warfare operative in Vietnam) preceded the ludicrous “Satanic Panic” that followed in their wake about a decade later, and the spate of ‘Nam flicks in the 1980s that were, at least on a surface level, critical of that war helped numb audiences to the notion of endless, un-winnable conflicts that would start up again in earnest with “Gulf War I” in 1990 and continue, on and off, for the next three decades, these flicks do their part to contribute to the cultural zeitgeist that makes certain once-unpalatable notions in the real world very palatable indeed.  In that respect, then, Marvel movies may be graduating from being simply dull and predictable to being downright dangerous. I hope, of course, that this is just pure batshit paranoia on my part — I fear, however, that it’s anything but.

 

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They say that practice makes perfect, and you know what? In the case of micro-budget auteur Israel Luna, that’s absolutely true — his 2011 effort The Ouija Expriement was a sorry piece of shit, and his 2015 follow-up, The Ouija Resurrection : Ouija Experiment 2  is a perfectly sorry piece of shit.

True, our writer/director obviously has a bit more money to play around with here (most of which is squandered on embarrassingly lame CGI) but this film — also known as either  The Ouija Experiment 2 : Theatre Of Death or, simply, The Ouija Resurrection — ups the ante in the terribleness department by actually having the gall to think it’s clever rather than simply stupid.

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Evidently Luna has convinced himself that his first flick has somehow attained “cult classic” status — which, I assure you, it hasn’t — because the premise here in round two is that a couple of his nominal “stars” (Swisyzinna and Justin Armstrong, playing themselves) are attending a midnight screening of The Ouija Experiment where the audience is whooping and hollering, repeating  ostensibly “crowd favorite” lines, all that shit. But this film is no Birdemic or Troll 2 by any stretch, so what we’ve got here is a flick heavy on the “metafiction” that nevertheless remains completely and utterly unbelievable. And then somebody, of course, breaks out a Ouija board.

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Would’ja believe the movie house is haunted? Of course you would. And soon our old “friends,” with a handful of decidedly untalented newcomers in tow,  find themselves on the run from an honest-to-goodness ghost who goes through all the usual motions, finally culminating in a scene that’s a blatant and offensive rip-off — no doubt meant as an homage, but those take skill to pull off and Luna has none — of the famous hallway sequence from Exorcist III. I wanted to laugh at this (and everything else), of course, but the sad fact is that it didn’t trigger any sort of reaction whatsoever apart from a resigned shrug of the shoulders. I expected no better by this point — and I got exactly what I was expecting.

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I’ll grant you that the theater setting is a better one than the dull suburban home we got in the first flick, and that Luna is to be credited for moving away from the “found footage” trope and into more standard-issue filmmaking, but it turns out he’s no better at this, either, nor does having more funds at his disposal lead to a better handle on his part of his poorly-chosen craft. Some folks are lucky enough to just “have it” no matter what — and some never will, no matter what. Poor, hapless Israel clearly falls into the latter camp and needs to seriously consider a future at the post office, the coal mine, the landfill, the slaughterhouse — anywhere but behind the camera. Because this shit just plain isn’t working for him.

The Ouija Resurrection : Ouija Experiment 2 is streaming now on Netflix (which is how I found myself subjected to it), and is also available on Blu-ray and DVD, but seriously — even on the off chance that you liked its predecessor (hey, I hear it’s a cult classic!), this sequel has nothing to offer. Enjoy the feeling as you pass it over with extreme prejudice.