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If there’s one advantage to seeing the most-talked-about film (at least in my circle of admittedly “weird” friends and acquaintances) of 2015 so far six or so weeks after it came out — a delay necessitated by the fact that I promised my dad I’d take him with me to see it and my folks were out of town for a couple of months so we saved it for out Father’s Day “thing to do” — it’s that I was able to go into Mad Max : Fury Road with only the preconception that it was probably going to be good, maybe even damn good, and it didn’t need to live up to either all the perhaps-a-bit-inflated praise it received right out of the gate, given that the inevitable backlash wave that started hitting a week or two later had the predictable result of tempering my expectations somewhat.

Not that said backlash wave was all that severe, mind you — while too many people to count were saying this was “the best mainstream Hollywood action movie in at least a decade,” the harshest criticism the naysayers could come up with was stuff along the lines of “hold your horses, folks — yeah, it’s good, but it’s honeslty not even the best Mad Max flick.”

Here’s the funny thing, though — both statements are probably true.

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Mad Max : Fury Road quite likely is the best mainstream Hollywood action movie to come down the pipeline in at least a decade (at least I can’t think of any better ones that spring to mind), but it’s also still not as flat-out awesome as The Road Warrior. Which isn’t too big a knock on it considering that those are some pretty big shoes to fill. So why not just take it for what it is? The highly unexpected return of the seminal “post-apocalyptic” movie franchise of all time that ably demonstrates that creator/director/co-writer George Miller not only hasn’t lost a step, but is far more youthful, energetic, and imaginative than most filmmakers less than half his age.

Seriously. Watching this thing you’d hardly guess that it’s the product of a 71-year-old industry veteran whose last efforts were the highly popular (and lucrative, as Miller’s work tends to be — maybe it’s time he got some of the credit he deserves) Happy Feet animated films. Precisely how he was able to convince Warner Brothers to give him $150 million to take his cast and crew over to Namibia and shoot a spectacular series of explosions, car chases, and other assorted ultraviolent bad-assery in service of resurrecting a storyline that’s been laying dormant for over 30 years is anybody’s guess, but we should all be damn glad that his powers of persuasion seem to fall into the realm of the superhuman.

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As surprising as it is that Mad Max : Fury Road even managed to get made, though, rest assured that Miller hardly exhausted his bag of tricks behind the camera, because there are some genuine surprises that play out in front of it, as well — chief among them being that solo drifter of the irradiated wastelands Max Rockatansky (and if you thought Mel Gibson’s seminal iteration of the character was a man of few words, wait until you see Tom Hardy’s stoic and near-silent performance here) is more or less relegated to being an also-ran in his own movie, with the main focus here falling on Chralize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, renegade escapee of an insane patriarchal quasi-society known as “The Citadel,”  where a triumvirate of old-timers run the show and train the men to be unquestioningly loyal servants dripping with evangelical zeal while the women are reduced to being brood mares pumping out future generations of, one assumes, increasingly-inbred offspring.

Damn. Of all the religious groups to survive World War 3, it would have to be the Mormons.

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The astonishing advances made in the realm of CGI since last we visited the desert wastes of post-nuke Australia (by way of Africa) certainly mean that Mad Max : Fury Road is the best-looking entry in the series, but it’s this film’s great leap forward in terms of attitude that most sets it apart from both its predecessors and its competition at the box office today. Simply put, this flick is pure punk rock in a way that its trio of progenitors, which generally took themselves pretty seriously, weren’t. Sure, the souped-up cars, tankers, dune buggies, and assault vehicles are ‘roid-enlarged to greater heights of absurdity than ever as one would expect, but when the villains go into battle led by a maniac guitarist whose instrument shoots flames from its neck, well — you know that no one’s too terribly concerned with presenting anything like a “realistic” take on what life would be like after “the big one.”

I think that’s a good thing — a damn good thing, in fact — and like the best punk music, Miller and fellow screenwriters Nico Lathouris and Brendan McCarthy (yes, comic book fans, that Brendan McCarthy — former frequent collaborator with Peter Milligan and co-creator of such visually transgressive and mind-bending fare as Skin and Rogan Gosh, Star Of The East — I think it’s safe to say that a lot of this “in-your-face” punk sensibility  I keep harping on about can be directly traced back to his influence) have hidden a very relevant message about sexism and the death-spiral trap of uber-masculinity under all the operatic chaos on display here,  which means that Mad Max : Fury Road isn’t just the best mainstream Hollywood action flick in at least ten years, but also the smartest and , perhaps paradoxically given how over-the-top (to say the least!) everything playing out in front of us is, the most relevant as well.

Then again, delicious irony has always been a punk staple, too, hasn’t it?

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Hey, look — as a longtime (nearly lifelong, sad truth be told) comics reader, I’m not complaining (much) about the current state of the medium. Sure, “The Big Two” suck, by and large — but they’ve always sucked, by and large, and there are more independent titles out there than at any point since the pre-implosion days of the early 1990s to satisfy the discerning reader’s need for something well-done, intelligent, and different than the capes-and-tights fare being peddled to an ever-dwindling audience at ever-increasing prices by Marvel and DC. Creator-owned books are “where it’s at” these days, and the burgeoning web comics “scene” is providing an outlet (even if it is, in almost all cases, a non-paying one) for up-and-coming cartoonists to get their material out there to the public without having to pound the pavement looking for a publisher willing to stick their neck out and take a big financial risk on unknown and untested talent. There’s a lot for fans to be thankful for — apart from ridiculously high cover prices across the board — in the current comic book landscape.

One thing constantly gnaws at the back of my mind though — whatever happened to honest-to-goodness underground comix?

I know, I know — the just-mentioned wave of web comics has given rise to a new generation of storytellers, many of whom are definitely carrying the ethos, if not the format, of old-school undergrounds into a new digital era, while most of the top creators from the last big underground wave of about 20 years ago have graduated to doing “respectable” efforts that are presented in high-quality hardback volumes and discussed in the New York Times book review section. And while  I’m honestly happy that folks like Dan Clowes, Seth, Chester Brown, Peter Bagge, and the like are seeing their work getting the recognition it deserves, what about some of the genuinely idiosyncratic and “out there” cartoonists from their era that were producing challenging and highly unconventional fare before seemingly dropping off the map altogether?

What about, say — Al Frank?

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If you don’t recognize the name, don’t worry — his five-issue black-and-white series The Adventures Of Tad Martin, published by the short-lived Caliber Press’ even shorter-lived Iconografix imprint, only lasted a sum total of five issues between 1991 and 1993, but it certainly left an impression on those of us who read it, even if our numbers were few. Tad was a rather bog-standard “too cool for school” late-teen/early-“twentysomething” character who started life as something of a hipper,  punker, younger, more nihilistic take on the likes of Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn, but as the book snaked its way along he increasingly functioned more and more as a painfully obvious stand-in for the creator himself and his unique brand of , for lack of a better term, “deadpan neurotic.” There seemed to be no real coherent philosophy behind it all except for no philosophy,   and one got the impression that Frank was probably churning this material out because he  needed to for his own mental well-being, but that he wanted us to believe he was simply doing it because, hey, he could. Tad Martin, as well as the man behind him,  probably felt like giving the world a great, big, well-deserved “fuck you,” but ya know what? Even that would be too much hassle.

And then, like everything else that was holding onto its publishing survival by the tippie-tips of its fingernails in a then-grotesquely-oversaturated marketplace, the book simply went away.

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Life went on for Al Frank, though, as the just-released sixth issue (numbered “sicksicksix” and priced at $6.66) painfully documents. He — err, “Tad” — found himself trapped in a shit marriage with an emotionally unstable speed freak wife that sent him spiraling down into a dark hole of prescription drug addiction and rapidly-deteriorating mental and physical health that ultimately strained his already-tenuous relationship with reality to the breaking point. And he documented the whole thing. Anywhere he could.

Most of the material that forms the contents of The Adventures Of Tad Martin #sicksicksix was scrawled in notebooks and Moleskines during slow periods at his job as a barely-above-minimum-wage security guard, but some of it was committed immediately to paper by any means handy, including restaurant guest checks and prescription labels. You know what they say, friends — when it’s in you, sometimes it’s just gotta come out. And it comes pouring out here.

Obviously, this isn’t gonna win any sort of accolades as the “feel-good” comic of the year, but if painfully honest art that comes from a place of desperation that hopefully most of us will never know sounds like your cup of tea, well — you’re not going to do much better than this. And if my word’s not good enough to get you to fork over your cash for this book, the back-cover endorsements from the likes of Robert Crumb and Henry Rollins might just qualify as strong second opinions. But you know what? When Frank — who’s now adopted the nom de plume of Casanova Frankenstein — started slapping his more recent material up on the internet some years back, they were hardly the first to notice.

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Indeed, as related in the darkly fascinating backmatter at the end of this comic (which, by the way, is printed the way all self-respected undergrounds should be — in cruddy b&w on cheap newsprint that rubs off on your fingers), Frank(enstein) started posting these chaotically-rendered-and-scripted images up online around 2006 on formerly-popular social media sites like myspace and flickr and, lo and behold, many of his old fans came crawling out of the woodwork and took notice. One of them, Tim Goodyear (who has published this collection, along with Frank himself, under the auspices of a sure-to-be-one-off pairing labeled “Teenage Dinosaur” and “Profanity Hill,” with distribution through Diamond being handled by Fantagraphics Books), even teamed up with the late, great Dylan Williams to sell and distribute it directly to eager readers. Admittedly, it took some time for Frank to work it all out of system, to be sure — but lo and behold,  here we all are, nine years after the first hints that he was even working on anything again, with the complete, 64-page, sixth issue of a comic series that no one thought we’d ever see . And while the journey of this book from pen to publication is staggering enough, trust and believe that the contents of the work itself are doubly so, at the very least.  Having read it through from cover-to-cover twice now, all I can say is  — I’m not even sure how Al Frank managed to survive the  the 22-year period since the publication of the last issue of Tad Martin, let alone resurrect his genuinely obscure comic from the dead. I’m just very grateful that he did both.

trashfilmguru (Ryan C.):

I take a look at “Starve” #1 for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Originally posted on Through the Shattered Lens:

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Don’t look now, but Brian Wood is on a roll.

The once-hot wunderkind comics writer, who was felled last year by allegations of sexual harassment at comics conventions, apparently did some sort of public mea culpa/’fessing up, and is now deemed to be perfectly employable again.

For my part — to the extent that it even matters — I guess I’m still a little bit uncomfortable about the whole thing, but let’s be honest : Wood is certainly not the first industry pro to attempt to play the “casting couch” card with eager young female talent, nor (sadly) will he be the last. And there have been a lot worse offenders than him over the years. But he was the first to get called out publicly on social media for laying on the “I can really help you get a break in the industry, let’s got up to my room…

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Of all the horrendous decisions that accompanied DC’s now-apparently-over-at-least-in-name “New 52″ initiative, the worst of the bunch didn’t happen for a good year or more after the line’s initial roll-out — I’m speaking, of course, of the editorially-mandated usurpation of everyone’s favorite grimy Limey mage, John Constantine, from the Vertigo line to the “proper” DC Universe, where he was given a cleaner trenchcoat, robbed of his ever-present cigarettes, and put in charge of the supernatural super-team lamely named Justice League Dark.

We all know how that turned out, don’t we? A domesticated, neutered John Constantine is no John Constantine at all, and even with a TV show (that never seemed to be able to settle on whether it wanted to give us Vertigo John or DCU John, hence its failure) concurrently running that should have sparked at last some marginal interest in the character, the flagging sales of both Constantine as a solo book and Justice League Dark ensured that neither title would survive the post-Convergence culling and make it out the other side as part of the new “DC You” soft relaunch just underway this month.

What we have instead, then, is a new series calling itself Constantine : The Hellblazer that, as its title alone would imply, seeks to bring John back to his grittier roots — at least to a degree.

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Fair enough, the first issue, entitled “Going Down,” does start with some blood, viscera, and barely-concealed nudity — and co-writers Ming Doyle (previously known for her work as an artist on creator-owned projects like Mara and The Kitchen) and James Tynion IV (scribe of my current favorite “guilty pleasure” read, teenage sci-fi/fantasy drama The Woods) at least give John his cigs back and are more up-front about his bisexuality than anyone since the great John Smith, who first hinted at it in a one-off story waaaaaayyy back in John Constantine : Hellblazer #51 (“Counting To Ten,” which I still maintain is the single-best issue in that series’ lengthy run), but here’s the long and short of it — after engaging in some harmless flirtation with a guy, when it comes time for Constantine to get his rocks off in this debut installment, he ends up fucking a sexy demon chick from hell.

And therein lies the rub, I think — Constantine as envisaged by Doyle and Tynion can cast a few knowing glances at his original, darker iteration, but at the end of the day, they’re only going to go so far with all of that. Odds, of course,  are pretty good that despite DC “suit” Dan DiDio’s insistence that “DC You” is all about “empowering creators to tell the best stories in the industry,” this is an editorial decision — sure, Constantine the TV show may be dead, but there are still Blu-ray and DVD box sets to sell, and the powers that be have decided that they don’t want anyone who wanders into a comic shop fresh off watching Constantine : The Complete First Season to find a version of John that’s too terribly different than the one they just watched on their flat-screen. Otherwise, there’s really no reason at all not to just “re-Vertigo-ize” the character, unless they’re just too damn proud to admit what a colossal cock-up de-fanging him was in the first place.

Hmmm — come to think of it, though,  given the micro-managing, control-freak mindset that exemplifies the current DC brass, maybe that is all there is to it.

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Anyway, John ends up taking sexy demon chick from hell back to the Dante’s Inferno-themed nightclub that she runs and helps her screw over her business partner before screwing her over as well, in one of his patented “magical double-crosses against a would-be double-crosser” that all comes together just a bit too conveniently and feels like a pale approximation of the sort of jaw-dropping “did he really just do that?” Hellblazer stories that we used to get from the likes of Jamie DeLano, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Paul Jenkins, Mike Carey, or Peter Milligan. The basic formula is present and accounted for, absolutely, but it reads like a tired re-hash of stuff that’s been done previously with much more zeal and heart. Having John doing his dirty work in New York rather than London doesn’t help matters much, either, but the real problems with what DC is doing with (and to) this character right now go far beyond superficial trappings like that. Hell, the fact that they haven’t even bothered putting a British writer on the book since his move away from their “mature readers” imprint tells you just how clueless they are at the end of the day about what the hell to do with JC.

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The book does have one saving grace, though, and that’s the art of Riley Rossmo. This guy has been flooring me in recent months with his work on Rasputin, and while the story here doesn’t give him room to breathe with his trademark epic double-page spreads and the like, there is a nifty two-page vertically-inclined sequence exploring the nine levels of “Club Inferno” that’s the most artistically “out there” thing I’ve seen in a DC title in ages. The color palette employed by helmsman of the hues Ivan Plascencia is nicely varied, as well, going from muted and subdued tones at the beginning to garish and gaudy when the shit hits the fan towards the end. All in all, this is a very good-looking comic and I might be tempted to pick up the next issue or two just for the visuals alone.

I’ve gotta be brutally honest, though — barring some massive tonal shift on the script front, this book’s stay on my pull list will probably be a short one. Doyle and Tynion give the impression that they desperately want to give us the old-school Constantine that we know and love back, but through a combination of not really having any new ideas and editorial clamping-down, they just can’t quite pull it off. The end result is a bunch of gorgeous-looking panels in service to a tepid-at-best story.

Still, I guess it’s better than watching John team up with Deadman and The Spectre to save Zatanna from Lex Luthor’s soul-stealing machine.

trashfilmguru (Ryan C.):

I take a look at “Jurassic World” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Originally posted on Through the Shattered Lens:

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“Everything old is new again.”

How many times have you heard that one? Well, in the case of the just-released (and record-setting in terms of its worldwide box office take) Jurassic World, it turns out that tired old adage is actually quite true, since director Colin Trevorrow has chosen to hew pretty closely to Steven Spielberg’s original model for this fourth installment in the previously-presumed- moribund franchise extrapolated from the works of Michael Crichton. There’s certainly nothing happening here that one could call overtly “new,” per se, but gosh — it’s been so long since Jurassic Park III  that it all just sorta feels new, ya know?

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CGI technology has come a long way since the original Jurassic Park  made its debut in 1993, as well, and that’s a big factor — maybe even the biggest factor — in this new flick’s by-popcorn-movie-standards “success,” but don’t think that means…

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“See them avenge the death of a brother, the rape of a sister, and the murder of their only honky friend!”

What right-thinking person could possibly resist that tag-line from the trailer for 1976’s ultra-low-budget (as in $250,000)  blaxploitation revenge thriller Brotherhood Of Death? Not me, that’s for sure, and when I noticed that it was recently made available on Netflix instant streaming, I had to give this one another go for the first time in a loooonnnngggg while, having previously seen it only once as part of a DVD double-bill from Anchor Bay where it’s paired ( in a nice widescreen transfer with  mono sound and no extras) with the somewhat better-known, but frankly nowhere near as good, One Down Two To Go. Sometimes, as late Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner used to famously say, “the memory cheats,” but ya know what? In this case, that’s just flat-out false, because this gritty, nasty, almost-too-socially-conscious-for-its-own-good flick is pure exploitation gold.

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Set in the racist, backward burg of Smithfield, North Carolina (where it was also partially shot, with the rest of the action being lensed in and around the Bowie, Maryland area), this tale of Viet Nam vets Raymond Moffat (Roy Jefferson), Ned Tiese (Le Tari) and Junior Moffat (Haskell Anderson) taking their town back from Klan control after the aforementioned “death of a brother, rape of a sister, and murder of their only honky friend” (who just so happened to be the local sheriff, played by Bryan Clark) may seem antiquated to some modern audiences, but tell that to kids who want to throw a pool party on a hot summer afternoon in Texas. Or a 12-year-old with a toy gun in Cleveland. Or a guy in South Carolina who’s walking away from a cop and gets shot in the back (and in cold blood) by the guy who’s supposedly “serving and protecting” him anyway. Clearly, this idea of a new, “post-racial” society is an absolute fucking myth — but now, instead of films like Brotherhood Of Death which at least attempted to expose the situation for what it was (even if they could, admittedly, be a bit clumsy and overly-earnest while doing so), we have pablum like Let’s Play Cops showing us that the racist pigs are harmless,  wacky figures of fun worthy of not just respect, but emulation. Whatever.

Director Bill Berry, under the guiding hand of executive producer Ronald K. Goldman (who had previously overseen blaxploitation efforts like Sweet Jesus, Preacherman and one of my personal favorites, the amazingly politically incorrect The Black Gestapo) knew better. That billboard pictured above? Not only is it in the film, it was real and greeted people entering Smithfield until 1977.  The whites in the movie, who become increasingly brazen in their open terrorism as events progress, even borrow its rhetoric, saying that our trio of heroes are promoting “communist integration.” Clearly, heads need to roll.

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And roll they do, including in some very creative ways that I won’t spoil. Nothing about Berry’s direction is especially stylish, mind you,  but that’s part of the appeal here — the fact that the three main stars weren’t professional actors (Jefferson, Tari, and Anderson were all far-from-Pro-Bowl-caliber NFL players, and the film is loaded with other off-duty gridiron less-than-greats including Mike Bass, Mike Thomas, and Frank Grant in supporting roles) also helps to give the proceedings an air of unpolished immediacy. North Carolina and Maryland forests don’t exactly make for convincing Viet Nam sets, I admit, but apart from that, Brotherhood Of Death‘s blatant un-professionalism is actually one of its greatest assets.

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Honestly, my only gripe here is a small one — whitey really doesn’t get his until about the last five minutes of the movie. He gets it paid back with enough interest to make it worth the wait, there’s no question about that, but a longer and more satisfying sequence of ass-kicking and name-taking would have been welcome after the absolutely relentless series of indignities laid upon our protagonists and their community for the first 80-odd minutes here. Apart from that minor quibble, tough,  this is a flick with no other significant strikes against it,  and definitely one that “B”- movie fans, as well as fans of celluloid vengeance in general, should check out immediately.

 

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Confession time — I had never seen Lucio Fulci’s 1980 Italian “Eurocrime” thriller Contraband (or, as it’s known in its country of origin,  Luca Il Contrabbandiere — it also went out to the English-speaking world under the titles The Smuggler and The Naples Connection) until it finally made it to the top of my Netflix DVD queue the other night. I know, I know — there are those who probably think that the fact that there’s so much as a single Fulci flick that I haven’t seen is grounds for immediate suspension of my “B-Movie Critic’s License,” and they might even have a point. I can offer nothing in my defense other than the fact that there are only so many hours in a day and I can’t spend all of them watching every movie I’d like to see.

Although there are times that does sound better than clocking in at the day job. Just kidding, Mr. Boss-Man, I swear —

In any case, Contraband has a reputation for being an absolutely brutal bastard of a film, and it’s certainly well-deserved. There’s a graphic and extremely unsettling rape scene in here, a woman gets her face burned off  with a blowtorch, and we’ve got plenty of intestines being blown out of shotgun holes, blasted-open papier-mache heads, oozing and festering bullet wounds in the neck — shit, it’s gorier than most horror flicks. Or at least most horror flicks other than those directed by Fulci himself, of course.

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Not that there isn’t a reasonably involving story tying this whole atrocity exhibition together, mind you. In fact, as far as “Eurocrime” plots go, this one isn’t half bad : Cigarette smuggler Luca Di Angelo (Fabio Testi) finds his operation getting squeezed out on all sides by a French drug kingpin known as The Marsegliese (Marcel Bozzuffi of The French Connection at his dripping-with-evil best), who’s gone so far as to have Luca’s brother murdered, tip the cops off to his runs, and find various and sundry other ways to fuck with our erstwhile “hero.” That all turns out to be minor league shenanigans, though, once The Marsegliese kidnaps Luca’s wife, Adele (Ivana Monti),  and one after another of the other local Mafiosos start turning up dead in increasingly violent, depraved ways. It’s also becoming crystal clear that Luca may have a traitor in his midst that he needs to ferret out while somehow managing to hold his small-time criminal empire together at the same time —

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If you’re a fan of Italian cop -n’-gangster movies (or  poliziotteschi, as they’re known by their fans),  you’re sure to find plenty to like here, for certain, as there are some well-staged action sequences and the intrigue is often thick enough to cut with a knife. Yeah, there are unintentionally hilarious moments here and there, as well — mostly thanks to a veritable parade of questionable-at-best dubbing choices — but that just goes with the territory with these sorts of things, right? All in all, if you’re a “Eurocrime” aficionado and you haven’t seen Contraband, then it should go tot he top of your “must-watch” list immediately.

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For newcomers to the genre, though, I would have to say that more-celebrated fare like Revolver or Grand Slam would probably serve as a better entry point. Contraband is simply too loaded down with Fulci’s trademark amorality, ultra-graphic violence, misogyny, and occasional senselessness for me to recommend it in good conscience to anyone other hardened genre fans, and  Blue Underground’s DVD package pretty much ensures that casual viewers will stay away — on the whole the widescreen anamorphic transfer looks fairly crisp and clean, but there is some persistent grain throughout and a few moments where the print damage is frankly pretty severe (I’m assuming they did the best the best they could with what they had). The mono soundtrack is in considerably worse shape — effects are near- muted in several instances and the disco-ish musical score is often completely buried. As far as extras go, all you get is the trailer and text biographies for Fulci and Testi. All in all I would say the movie deserves a better treatment than this, and knowing BU’s penchant for “double-dipping,” odds are that one will come along sooner rather than later.