Review : “God Country” #1

Posted: January 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

I contribute “mini-reviews” to Graphic Policy weekly, but it’s been a little while since I did a full-lengther for them. Now that it’s 2017, I hope to do a better job of contributing more often.

Graphic Policy

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Some books, you just know they’re gonna be all kinds of bad-ass before they even hit the shelves.

Such was the case with God Country#1, the first of several highly-touted new releases from Image Comics to make its debut in 2017. The brainchild of writer Donny Cates and artist Geoff Shaw, preview pages for this title looked absolutely spectacular, although it was hard to tell if Shaw or colorist Jason Wordie was the real star of the show, visually speaking. And ya know what? Now that the comic itself is here, I’m still not sure who’s earned that distinction.

Let’s just call it a draw, then, and say that Wordie’s “digital-watercolor” palette and Shaw’s dynamic, high-energy pencils and inks complement each other really well and make for one hell of a good-looking book. Bleak Texas landscapes have never seemed so weirdly breathtaking, but when “shit gets cosmic,” well…

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I have a feeling that Donald Trump supporters — at least those still capable of being honest with themselves — harbor at least one of the same worries that those of us who oppose him do, namely : that one day his big, fat, stupid, disgusting mouth with write a check that his big, fat, stupid, disgusting ass can’t can’t cash.

Okay, yeah, they might quibble with the colorful (but, I would submit, accurate) adjectives I just used in describing the various anatomical “attributes” of their chosen God Emperor, but still, come on — everybody knows this guy is liable to say something irrevocably stupid at any given time. And while he’s had nothing but praise for the likes of Putin, Assad, Dutarte, and other cheap, pathetic despots, the fact that he’s singled out Congressman John Lewis — a genuine icon of the Civil Rights era and inarguably one of the greatest living Americans — for criticism merely for saying what a good half or more of the country feels about this petulant, inarticulate, brain-dead man-child’s beyond-shady rise to power should give all people of conscience, regardless of their political affiliation, at least some pause. Hell, if anything, Lewis hedged his statements and didn’t go as far as many would. He didn’t, for instance, call Trump a Russian stooge, or a potential spy, even though he looks to be either one, the other, or both. He didn’t call him a racist, even though he clearly is. He didn’t call him a dangerously incompetent buffoon, even though he’s obviously that, as well. All he said was he didn’t consider Trump’s election “victory” to  be legitimate — and considering that the final certified national vote total showed the guy getting over 2.8 million votes less than his opponent, is that such a far-fetched claim?

It was too much for Mr. Big, Orange, and Stupid to handle, though, and so he went on yet another of his juvenile Twitter tirades, saying that Lewis was “all talk and no action,” that his Georgia congressional district was a “disaster,” and that instead of criticizing him, Lewis should “help” him with his still-mythical “urban renewal” projects that will no doubt line the pockets of both himself and his real estate-developer buddies. Imagine the nerve, if you will : while Lewis was being beaten half to death for marching for the equal rights our Constitution already supposedly guaranteed him, Trump was kicking black people out of his rental properties and getting the first tinkling — sorry, inkling — that he got off on watching girls pee, yet he’s got the gall to claim that Lewis is “all talk, no action.” Fuck that — and while we’re at it, Trump, fuck you, too.

And ya know what? That’s not “all talk” on my part, because I think it’s high time that people took some action, too. Fortunately for us all, there’s a simple and stress-free way for people to register their disgust with Trump’s attacks on a towering and heroic figure of American history — all you’ve gotta do is head down to your nearest book or comic store and buy March, the superb three-volume autobiographical graphic novel series from Top Shelf Productions/IDW Publishing chronicling Lewis’ life and struggles that he produced in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin  and artist Nate Powell. These books are available individually in both hardback and softcover, or in a handsome slipcase set that collects all three. An over-sized deluxe hardcover of volume one was released last year, and similar editions of volumes two and three will be out later in 2017, but whatever format you choose know this : you’re in for a read that will move you in a very fundamental, perhaps even life-altering, way. And if we can get this thing to number one on the New York Times graphic novel list or the Diamond sales charts? Well, that might just send Trump a message. Not that I expect him to listen.

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To say that this is one of the most ambitious and ground-breaking endeavors in the history of the graphic story medium is probably to sell it too short, even if it’s true — it’s also a National Book Award winner, a previous #1 best-seller on both the NYT and WaPo lists, a staple in many high school and college classrooms, and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Among other things. It’s also a living historical document. Volume one chronicles Lewis’ formative years in rural Alabama, his crucial early-life meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, the rise of the non-violent lunch-counter sit-ins that would become a staple of the era, and culminates in a stunning climax on the steps of Nashville City Hall that will leave you breathless. Volume two sees Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders venture into the deep south and raises the stakes as the “powers that be” committed to enforcing Jim Crow resort to violence, arson, imprisonment, and even murder to keep systemic racism the law of the land in the buckle of the so-called “Bible Belt.”Allies from Dr. King to then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy emerge, as well, but will they be enough to help Lewis as he rises, at age 23, to head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and finds himself one of the “Big Six” leaders of the movement itself as they plan the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom? As volume three chronicles, however, other events such as the Freedom Vote and Mississippi Freedom Summer helped to pave the way for the titular “March” that would change the world forever — and fundamentally alter the trajectory of both American society and Lewis’ own life. You may have heard about this one. It happened in a town called Selma.

Rest assured, March is no hagiography or wistful reminiscence of days gone by : divisions within the movement often come to the fore, points of disagreement are laid out in a “warts and all” manner, and not all the people and personalities involved come up smelling like roses. Talk about an invaluable “insider’s look” that almost no one else who is still alive can provide — and as you see how truly hard-fought all the gains Lewis and his compatriots and colleagues made were, you’ll walk away with an even deeper understanding of why any and all attempts to roll them back must be met with the utmost resistance. We owe Lewis and everyone who marched alongside him no less. The rights that people died for are literally under assault in the new Trump era, with racist attorney-general-to-be Jeff Sessions leading the roll-back efforts — is it any wonder, then, that Lewis would consider this pathetic, morally and intellectually bankrupt, fundamentally flawed and compromised president-elect to be less than “legitimate”? Is there one “legitimate” reason he should be expected to attend the disgusting spectacle of his inauguration?

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Powell’s expressive and deeply human art does a great job driving home the emotion in every panel of Lewis and Aydin’s magnificently authentic script, and the overall reading experience provided by March is by turns informative, moving, personal, enraging, and hopeful — often all on the same page. These books are the closest most of us will ever come to “being there,” and, as such, deserve to be celebrated as the triumph of autobiographical narrative that they are. Comics, as a medium, is lucky that one of the most important living historical figures chose this form to tell his life’s story, and now — more than ever — comics readers should show our thanks and support by picking these up. If you have ’em already, buy extra copies and give ’em to a friend. Buy ’em digitally so you can read ’em on the go. Do whatever — just stand with John Lewis while he’s still with us and while you still can. It’s never been easier to do the right thing, so — do it!

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Congressman Lewis deserves so much better from his later years than to see our first African-American president — a man who awarded him the Medal of Freedom, no less — replaced with the most openly racist son-of-a-bitch to hold the office in decades, if not a century. But you know what? He’s been through worse, and come out a stronger and more indomitable man for it, and I have a feeling the same will be true here. When the epic and transformative life of John Lewis comes to an end, flags will fly at half-mast and solemn, sincere, and heartfelt memorials will flood in from across the globe.  By contrast, when Trump finally does us all a favor and shuffles off this mortal coil, I’ll personally start a gofundme to hire a couple of Russian hookers to go and piss on his grave.

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If there’s one book among the “Marvel Now!” 2.0 titles that it seems folks were reasonably eager, if not downright enthusiastic, about checking out, it was The Unstoppable Wasp. Okay, yeah, Marvel’s obviously running out of goofy adjectives to shoe-horn into their series’ names, but the talent being assembled to bring the story of the “new”(-ish, at any rate) Nadia Pym iteration of the world’s smallest female super-hero to life was such a promising assemblage of up-and-comers from the indie scene that this one looked to be yet another “offbeat, girl-centric” comic that would easily, and probably immediately, appeal to fans of The Unbeatable Squirrel GirlMs. MarvelMoon Girl And Devil Dinosaur, and Spider-Gwen, among others. Heck, even me, “down-on-Marvel” curmudgeon that I am, has to admit that they’ve been doing a terrific job on light-hearted-but-smart “outreach” titles like this and, credit where it’s due, they seem reasonably patient when it comes to letting ’em take their sales “lumps” (for a time, at any rate) while they do their job of raising the company’s profile among so-called “non-traditional” (i.e. younger, female) demographic groups. In fact, they’re getting so good at making these kinds of books that they’ve almost got it down to a science. And therein, perhaps,  lies the problem.

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The Unstoppable Wasp #1 is a comic that definitely wants to be fun, but it seems terribly pre-fabricated and, for lack of a better term, “inorganic” at times. Scribe Jeremy Whitley, who’s built up a loyal fan base thanks to Princeless, is doing his best to make Nadia an almost infectiously nice character, but he spends so much time emphasizing her bubbly naivete that she comes off as being rather one-dimensional, and seems more like a starry-eyed “science groupie” rather than the actual brilliant scientist she’s supposed to be herself. Ditto for her interactions with other super-heroes — it’s great seeing her teamed up with Ms. Marvel and Mockingbird right out of the gate here, but the emphasis is squarely on how she reacts to them more than on how they react to her, and the end result is a comic where the title character almost seems like a guest star in her own book.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing Bobbi Morse’s scientific bona fides emphasized every bit as much as her spy credentials or her status as Hawkeye’s ex-wife, but those aspects of her character were already well-explored by Chelsea Cain in her recently-concluded Mockingbird series, and a “Cliff’s Notes”-style further reappraisal of her character is a not-strictly-necessary sidebar in the first issue of a new title that’s ostensibly about someone else entirely. It’s cute how all three super heroines in this story get along, but at the end of the day — at least so far — that’s all it is. Cute. And by the time Nadia decides to use her newfound-mentor’s inspiration to found a new organization called — I kid you not — G.I.R.L. (an unbelievably forced acronym for, if you can believe it, Genius In action Research Labs), we may have crossed the line from “cute” to “cloying.”

Not that I necessarily feel like Whitley’s heart is in the wrong place, mind you. I think it’s terrific seeing new female characters coming to the fore and I love that they feed off each others’ energy and enthusiasm and inspire and encourage one another. Nadia’s immigration headaches are also timely and topical in our current disgustingly anti-immigrant political climate. So there are some positives here. But they demand a more intelligent and thoughtful exploration than the “Oh my gosh, you’re so great!” and “Oh my gosh, you’re so great, too!” treatment that they’re given in these pages. It’s early days yet, to be sure, but given how colossally “Marvel Now!” circa 2016-17 is tanking, Whitley had better hop to it quick if he wants to examine these issues in detail, because this comic is gonna be on a shorter sales leash than Kamala or Moon Girl were given when they were fresh outta the crib. And that’s really too bad.

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Wait, though! Didn’t I just spend a couple of paragraphs saying less-than-charitable things about this comic? Well, not exactly — I spent a couple of paragraphs saying less-than-charitable things about this comic’s script. When it comes to the art, though, I have nothing but superlatives to offer. Elsa Charretier has been threatening to “break out big” for awhile now, and finally given her chance in a monthly ongoing, she’s riding the opportunity for all it’s worth. Stylistically you can see a bit of Darwyn Cooke, Steve Rude, and even Bruce Timm in her work, but her hyper-inventive panel layouts, dynamic motion, vibrant action poses, and organic sense of flow are frankly unique unto her, and combined with the bold and daring color choices made by Megan Wilson, it’s gotta be said that this book looks like a million-and-one bucks and that it more than easily charges full-steam into the “worth buying it just for the art” category. Yes, I wish the writing was better — and I’m holding out hope that as things progress it will be — but ya know what? I still absolutely loved every page, and even every panel, of The Unstoppable Wasp #1 and added it to my pull immediately. As should you.

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Still, in a comics marketplace suddenly — and happily, I might add — awash with new female takes on so-called “legacy” characters (see the Kate Bishop Haweye series and the Riri Williams Invincible Iron Man book), my fear is that a third-tier character essentially competing for the same dollars from the same segment of the fan base is going to get overshadowed by her higher-profile counterparts. Riri’s gonna be wearing the Iron Man armor as long as Bendis wants her to, and Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero are giving us the best Hawkeye since Fraction and Aja — so while The Unstoppable Wasp has immediately established itself as one of the best-drawn books out there, I’m just not sure how it doesn’t find itself lost in the shuffle of other, more-profitable “strong female lead” comics. Time will tell — and I’d be absolutely ecstatic to be proven wrong about this — but my best guess is that we’d all better enjoy Charretier’s take on The Wasp while we can.

And then, of course, we’d all better follow her over to whatever title she’s given next!

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If it seems like we’re turning into an unofficial PR arm for Ryan Callaway and his “micro-budget” film production outfit, Shady Dawn Pictures, around this place, rest assured that we’re (or, rather, I’m) not, but when Callaway took notice of my reviews of a couple of his previous efforts and found them to be fair-minded appraisals of his work, he hooked my up with a digital “screener” for his latest (the first film with a 2017 release date reviewed for this site), Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2, which will be available via any number of so-called “home viewing platforms” later this month (hopefully he’ll drop by the comments section here with more specific details when he knows them). Now, I get folks sending me their “homemade horrors” all the time, and I generally do watch them — or start to, at any rate, as in all honesty they’re not always worth finishing — but I always feel a bit nervous about reviewing them. By and large these truly independent efforts represent someone sinking their life savings (however meager it may be) into a project, and are therefore genuine “labors of love,” so I play it a bit differently than I do with a Hollywood flick : if I like it, I’ll review it, but if I don’t  like it, or have a mixed opinion on it, I’ll refrain from trashing the film in public and simply pass on my thoughts privately to the director. Sometimes I make an exception if the flick in question is so bad that I think its would-be auteur needs to be told in no uncertain terms to give it up and find something else to do with his or her life, but that’s only happened a few times over the years, as it’s truly rare to find something with absolutely nothing going for it on any level. All of which is my way of saying, if you get ahold of me on twitter or via email to set me up with a “screener,” know that these are my “house rules” going in. Callaway, however, made it clear that he welcomed my review of his new project, regardless of whether the final verdict was good, bad, or somewhere in-between, so hey — credit where it’s due, the guy is willing to let his work stand or fall on its own merits.

And, truth be told, Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2 actually does have plenty of merit in its favor. The film is well-shot, generally well-acted, and has a more polished and professional look than many flicks with a similar budget (which I believe in this case was around $40,000, if I remember correctly). It also has some “knocks”going against it, as well, but we’ll get to all that in short order. If you’re even passingly familiar with the world of “micro-budget” horror filmmaking you know that none of these things are anything like a “perfect” movie simply because — well, shit, they can’t afford to be. The key, then, is to judge ’em all on, frankly, a fair generous curve that acknowledges their potential and balances that reasonably equally with their execution. Flaws are to be expected, but if they’re too glaring — or, worse yet, if they actively hinder your ability to suspend your disbelief and literally “take you out of the movie” — well, then you’ve gotta call ’em out on it. My time may be for sale — on the cheap, some would argue — but my conscience? I like to think there’s no price tag attached to that. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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Our story this time out is largely focused on the “sole survivor” of the previously-reviewed-around-these-parts (and available for free on Amazon Prime) first film, Tiffany (played by Madeline Lupi), who lost her older sister after a particularly harrowing series of encounters with the titular girl in the cornfield herself (Mollie Sperduto), and is looking to place her loss into some sort of context by tracking down anyone else who may have crossed paths with this reasonably ethereal presence. Enter — after a bit — one Adelaide Russo (Michelle Lulic) and her sister, Abigail (Alex Santoleri), whose family is apparently being “spirit-stalked” in a similar manner, and who could use a little help from the closest thing to an “expert” on these matters there is before they all end up meeting an untimely fate themselves. Again, as you’ve no doubt been able to discern, we’ve got a largely-female cast here, with the patriarch of the Russo clan, Jack (Hiram Ortiz), being the most notable male figure among the principles involved — but even he plays a very secondary fiddle to the ladies here. And, it must be said, most of ’em show a reasonable-enough handle on “Acting 101” basics despite more than likely having no formal training in the field. There are some rough patches, sure, but nothing anyone needs to be overly-embarrassed about, and a few of these folks — particularly Lupi — might have a chance at that ever-elusive “future in the business” if they really dig in and learn to both expand and apply their craft.

That statement is also true of our writer/director and his production partner/wife, Amy. They seem to be making a decent enough go of it with their New Jersey-based efforts, and are having better luck than many when it comes to hustling up financing, but you’ve gotta think that they’re chasing for a bigger break somewhere down the line. I don’t know how many people watch your average Shady Dawn production, but I’m thinking that it probably numbers in the low-thousands, and no matter how much you might love making art for its own sake, the simple truth is that you’re not gonna keep doing that forever when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. I don’t know if the Callaways entertain dreams of taking their act to Tinseltown or if they harbor more modest aims such as making a go of it doing local commercials or corporate promotional and/or training films or whatever in Jersey, but they’re clearly trying to show that they can “do more” with films such as this one, which tells a rather sprawling and expansive story (with an equally large cast) and clocks in at damn near two and a half hours in length. That’s definitely ambitious — but in this case it’s also slightly problematic.

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We all love character development and the like, but if there’s one thing Where Demons Dwell : The Girl In The Cornfield 2 suffers from, it’s putting us a bit too deeply inside the day-today lives of any number of its characters and taking some of the focus away from the central threat as it fleshes out almost everything else it can about almost everybody concerned. I respect the fact that our “other Ryan C.” has some serious themes and issues he wants to try to tackle here and that he’s doing his level best to show that you don’t need a ton of money to tell a “big” story. He’s living proof that imagination trumps resources and that character-driven horror trumps cheaper and more plentiful scares. The “slow burn” is great — and I welcome more of it in genre cinema — but you have to be careful lest it fizzles out entirely. I’m pleased to say it doesn’t here, but that’s largely due to a generally-satisfying and smartly-structured “third act” that pulls you back into the proceedings after the lengthy “middle act” nearly loses you. A tighter, “leaner and meaner” script, then, might be something worth striving for next time around.

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On a purely technical level, there’s plenty to admire here, as Callaway serves up some impressively-staged shots and continues to develop his visual storytelling skills, showing a far greater command this time out as far as lighting, blocking, and other vital aspects of the director’s “toolkit” are concerned. But if there’s going to be a Girl In The Cornfield 3 — a possibility that’s definitely left open by the “resolution” to this one — paring down the scope of the production may not be such a bad idea. I realize that sounds kinda strange when you’re talking about a super-low-budget flick, but there’s something to be said for doing less and doing it all well rather than doing too much for too long. Ryan Callaway has shown here that he’s not afraid to extend his reach beyond what circumstances dictate he “should” be able to do, and for that he deserves much credit — but now that we know how many things he can do reasonably well, I’d like to see him “zero in” on what he thinks he could be well and truly great at and craft a script that plays to his genuine strengths, rather than one that simply showcases his many abilities.

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Whatever you do, please — don’t call her “She-Hulk” anymore!

In the aftermath of the near-universally-panned (and not without good reason) Civil War II, Jennifer Walters is feeling even less herself than usual. Her cousin, Bruce Banner, is dead (for now, at any rate) and she’s recently spent a fair amount of time comatose, herself (as did most readers, but that’s another matter). So, with no “incredible” Hulk left, the now-adjectiveless mantle belongs to our gal Jen. Except — she really doesn’t want it. And she’s doing anything she can to remain calm and prevent her transformation from triggering. Her “mellowing-out” habit of choice? Watching YouTube cooking videos. I’d get downright sleepy, myself.

Oh, and she’s going back to the lawyering thing, taking on a new gig at a firm that primarily represents super-hero clients. That could be interesting, I suppose. Unfortunately, nothing else about Marvel’s new Hulk #1 is.

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Credit where it’s due : Nico Leon turns in some really nice, clean (if somewhat antiseptic) art on this first issue, and colorist Matt Milla is having all kinds of fun playing with various green tones (meant to hint at the inevitable, I suppose) in his color palette. But the tonal shift from the last few She-Hulk-centric titles to this one shows everything wrong with Marvel Now! circa 2016 in a nutshell : this comic just isn’t every fun, and almost nothing happens in it.

Granted, Jen has any number of good reasons for being a basket case these days, and for doing everything in her power to keep her alter-ego in check. She’s had a rough go of things lately. But seriously, when I say “in this issue she starts a new job and gets her first client,” that really does pretty much sum up the plot. Sure, there’s something weird about said client (besides the fact that she looks like Marina from John Byrne’s old-school Alpha Flight series — and who knows? Maybe that’s who she is), but it’s not like whatever mystery writer Mariko Tamaki has in mind for her is given anything like a gripping, or even mildly curious, introduction, and so the final-page cliffhanger? Yeah, it falls a little flat. And I honestly have to wonder how fans are gonna react to not seeing Jen transform into her green-skinned “better half” at all in this debut installment. A Hulk book starring She-Hulk? People can probably — or maybe that should be hopefully — get behind that. But a Hulk book with no Hulk in it at all? Even for a page? Can you say 70% drop in Diamond orders for the second issue?

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I’m sure Jeff Dekal‘s striking cover is going to be more than enough to entice some folks who were “on the fence” about this series when it was first solicited to give issue one a shot, but honestly, the storyline here is basically daring you to stick with the book, and offers prima facie evidence for the argument retailers are making (one which seems to be falling on deaf ears so far at 135 West 50th Street, but that’ll change soon enough) that this latest round of Marvel Now! is a loser. Second-tier characters thrust to the front of most major series while the few “A-listers” who do remain are shunted off into unpopular story arcs that see their powers, stature, or both reduced? DC tried that about 18 months ago with DC You, and in less than a year they were re-booting their entire line with Rebirth and embracing “back-to-basics” as the model of the future. Something tells me plans will soon be underfoot for Marvel to do something similar, given that the top-selling book of this “soft re-boot” — Mark Waid and Mike Del Mundo‘s The Avengers — didn’t even clear 100,000 in sales for its first issue. The writing, friends, is already on the wall.

And that’s too bad, because it’s the “marginal” titles that are the first to go when the orders to clear decks are handed down. For all the shit DC You got from fans, books like Prez and The Omega Men were actually really fucking good, but there’s no room for “outreach” series in Rebirth. It’s all tried, true, and depressingly conservative. If Marvel had stuck with a handful of “offbeat” or “non-traditional” books like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur, those titles could have co-existed peacefully alongside their major players on the shelves for years. But by trying to skew their entire line toward the “emerging reader,” the “established reader” is fleeing in droves, and in order to win ’em all back in 10 or 12 months, it’s the Squirrel Girls and Moon Girls of the world that are gonna bite the bullet to make room for double-shipped Thors and Spideys.

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So, yeah, Jennifer Walters isn’t gonna be the less-than-incredible Hulk for very long — and given how lackluster this comic is, that’s probably no bad thing. But in the larger scheme of things, getting our “old” Hulk back a year or so from now isn’t all that exciting a prospect, either. Not because I have anything against Bruce Banner per se, but because when Marvel’s tanking sales dictate that they hit the “reset” button yet again, it’s going to mean that a lot of books that are a lot better than this new Hulk are going to get a date with the axe that they don’t deserve. Squirrel Girl herself is nowhere to be found in the pages of Hulk #1, but her presence looms large over it nevertheless, because as I read this and other Marvel Now! titles, all I can do is shake my head and think about how much I’m gonna miss her when her series is canned along with the rest of the books in this doomed-from-jump relaunch. Good-bye, unconventional Marvel titles — it was nice knowing you while you lasted.

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There’s only so much you can do in the middle of BF Wisconsin with a thousand bucks and a hand-held digital cam, but what the hell — in 2013 those limitations didn’t stop writer/director/actor Cordero Roman from figuring he could shoot, and star in, his very own horror flick. And while the fruit of his labor, The Rohl Farms Haunting, is hardly destined to set the cinematic world on fire, it has made it as far as the streaming queue on Amazon Prime, and that’s at least something.

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Homemade “found footage” efforts like this are a dime a dozen, of course — we certainly talk about enough of ’em around these parts — but this one at least shows something vaguely resembling the generally-accepted dictionary definition of “ambition” : Roman starts out looking to film a “slice-of-life” documentary about his long-time friend, Luke Rohl (who’s also “playing himself”), a clearly-overwhelmed fellow twenty-something who’s recently found himself the less-than-enthusiastic owner of his very own farm thanks to the untimely deaths of both of his parents; then our gears quickly but predictably shift into rather standard-issue “paranormal” territory when a series of half-assed “inexplicable” incidents (mostly amounting to scratches on the door at odd hours — albeit the same odd hours day in and day out) threaten to send the already-stressed farmer over the brink; then we change direction again when we learn that — nah, that would be telling. Let’s just say that there’s an entirely different, and actually somewhat (though not terribly, it must be said) surprising explanation for everything that’s going on that at least comes reasonably close to rewarding viewers for sticking it out with this admittedly up-and-down effort to the end.

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On a purely technical level, Roman at least seems to know what he’s doing : there are no standout shots or anything of the sort, but there’s nothing that makes it in front of the camera that he needs to be embarrassed about, to be sure. Ditto for the acting  — while neither of our “stars” are exactly good, it has to be said that they’re not bad, either. They both have a job to do, and manage to get in, get it done, and get out with their dignity more or less intact. That’s far from glowing praise, obviously, but shit — it’s more than you can say for any number of “micro-budget” productions of this nature, isn’t it? Roman’s brother (played by his brother) and girlfriend (played by his sister — let’s not even go there) don’t fare quite as well, but whatever. It’s probably not even fair to expect the entire cast to rise to the level of being “believable” in a smaller-than-small-scale number such as this.

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In summation, then, “not too damn bad” is a pretty fair final verdict for The Rohl Farms Haunting. It does what it can do with what it’s got, and while that means, pretty much by default, that it’s going to rise to the level of “okay at best” and not much higher, it at least manages to meet that (fair enough, low) bar and offers a couple twists, one in particular, that will leave most viewers feeling like they certainly didn’t waste their time (84 minutes of it, to be precise) watching it. In a pinch, that’ll do.

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I’ll say one thing — and I should emphasize that it’s one thing — for Geraldo Rivera : his sensationalistic expose of the crisis conditions in many American mental institutions that led to mass closings of said facilities in the late ’70s and early ’80s has ensured that enterprising no-budget indie directors have a veritable shit-ton of freely-available,purportedly “haunted” filming locations at their disposal. Case in point : the shuttered Central State Hospital in scenic Indianapolis, Indiana that serves as “ground zero” for the “action” (a term I use ridiculously loosely) in Dan T. Hall’s 2013 “homemade horror” effort Asylum : The Lost Footage.

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The title of this flick alone gives away exactly what it’s about, but just in case you still have questions, never fear : the poster gives a full (albeit questionably-worded) accounting of the proceedings, so I don’t even need to repeat ’em here. We’re on a ghost-hunt with a group of amateur paranormal investigators looking for evidence of an elusive (aren’t they all?) apparition known as “The Lady In White,” and that’s all you need to know. If you’re related to any of the film’s nominal “stars” like Tony Bartele, Callie Burk, Alex Raymond, or Moli Hall (who’s also credited as an associate producer) you might, I suppose, care that they’re in this thing, but if not, there’s no way you’ve heard of anyone either in front of or behind the camera here, so let’s not dwell on any of that, either, shall we?

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So far, then, it’s fair to say there isn’t anything outside the norm happening here, and yet — this is not, strictly speaking, a “found footage” flick. It’s more an amalgamation of “found footage,” phony-ass “mockumentary” interviews, and even some traditional “point-and-shoot” stuff. This works to Hall’s advantage in a way, because you’re not as inclined to ask pesky questions like “who’s filming this shit?” when all five members of the ghost-hunting team — including the camera guy — appear together in front of the camera during the “found footage” sequences. The change of styles also keeps things from getting stale for viewers to an extent, although the hackneyed script (written by Hall and Marcia Ellett) and generally poor acting from pretty much all of the cast members do their level best to make this 70-minute production feel like it’s actually quite a bit longer than that. So, on that score, then, this movie is precisely what you think it is : hopelessly derivative and really bad.

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I have no problem whatsoever making any number of allowances for poor production values and less-than-convincing performances in these “micro-budget” horror numbers, but when there’s literally nothing going on we haven’t seen a thousand (or more) times before, shit — that I have a very serious problem with, whether your film cost 50 bucks to produce or 50 million. And that’s the one stumbling block that Hall and his cohorts just can’t overcome here. It may not be for lack of effort, but there’s a distinct lack of skill evident throughout this film that, coupled with its lack of originality, makes for a genuinely trying viewing experience. It’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime, but I honestly can’t think of any reason for you to waste your time on it. Consider this my first public service of the new year — I watched it so that you don’t have to.