Archive for April, 2014

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Once in awhile we like to get our hands dirty around here by delving into “real world” topics, and let’s be brutally honest — as far as societal crises go, the widening gap between the rich and the poor in the US is well past the boiling point, We’re headed towards banana republic status if we continue down this road, with a small handful of very well-to-do individuals and families controlling nearly all the wealth generated by the economy, while those who actually generate that wealth — namely, the rest of us — fight over the meager table scraps they leave behind for  us to try to eke an existence out of.

It’s not a new phenomenon, to be sure, but it’s been a steadily-growing one for the past few decades now, and regardless of which of the “two” major political parties are ostensibly running the show, the ever-widening-and-deepening chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots” has continued to metastasize.

All of which is enough to make me wonder — how come the peasants haven’t shown up at the gates with pitchforks in hand yet? Because honestly, it’s well past time to do so.

Of course, while everyone knows this a problem on an instinctual, “gut” level, there exists a massive media machine designed to hoodwink us all on an intellectual level that, hey, this whole thing is all in our heads, and that if we go after the rich — often laughably referred to as the “productive” class (yeah, they’re so productive that they can’t even manage to run banks that operate at a profit while being given billions — even trillions — in taxpayer-funded bailout money for free while simultaneously charging interest to the rest of us) — we’ll be cutting off our nose to spite our face because, gosh, we depend on these people for our livelihood. Ever notice how the media in general — not just Fox “news” — only brings up the spectre of “class warfare” when ideas such as raising taxes on the wealthy are mooted, yet pretty much completely ignores the very real, and hyper-aggressive, class war that the ultra-rich have been waging against everybody else (and, sadly, winning) for so long now?

Why is that, do you suppose? Could it be because, for all its purported (and demonstrably false) “liberal” bias, the fact is that the entirety of the mainstream media is owned by gigantic multinational corporations that are headed up by the very same modern-day robber barons that are at the root of this crisis? Just a thought.

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The Wall Street crooks have pulled out every trick in the book to keep middle class purchasing power — and thus corporate profits — nice and high without actually paying folks more : from credit bubbles to tech bubbles to housing bubbles, you name it, they’re tried it. The problem is, those bubbles have all burst now and we’re all staring at the very real problem of a middle class whose income has steadily eroded since the 1960s but whose spending is necessary to keep the beast that is the US economy fat and happy. You’d think that at some point the folks who own the corporations would realize that they’re in big trouble if people don’t have enough money to be their customer anymore, but evidently all the creative energy that could and should have gone into both strengthening, and expanding, the middle class has gone into cooking up the next hustle designed to obfuscate the stark reality that the standard of living that Mr. and Mrs. Middle America are used to is being purposely eroded for the short-term gain of a very few at the top of the economic pyramid.

One guy who’s been following this situation very closely is UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich. Best known for his diminutive physical stature and big ideas, Reich served one term in Bill Clinton’s cabinet as secretary of labor before becoming burned out at his inability to change things and retreating to the safe confines of academia. Maybe he should’ve toughed it out longer, but according to what he has to say in his newly-released documentary, Inequality For All, it sounds like his ideas for restoring some economic fairness in the country were deemed to be a bit too radical for Clinton’s “Republican Lite” agenda and that he probably would’ve been shown the door had he opted to even try to stick around after the 1996 election anyway.

Reich and director Jacob Kornbluth do a pretty solid job in Inequality For All of reducing the scope of this seemingly-insurmountable challenge to an abstract level that everybody can understand, and do a nicely demonstrate how the purposeful decimation of the labor union movement in the private sector has gone hand-in-hand with the rising income gap, beginning in the late 1970s, really picking up steam under Reagan in the ’80s, and frankly continuing unabated ever since. Sure, their movie is loaded with graphs and charts, but it’s all very simple to understand for even the most previously-economically-unaware audiences.

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Real life stories of formerly-middle-class individuals who have fallen behind add a welcome human dimension to the proceedings, as does Reich’s reasonably interesting personal history, which is interspersed here and there throughout. The guy remains almost disarmingly upbeat in the face of a political system that effectively froze him out, and you’ve gotta admire his dogged tenacity in explaining to anyone who will listen how income polarization had led to political polarization and social polarization. At the end of the day you’re left with the distinct impression that this is stuff everybody can and should understand, but is being purposely blown off by the very people who benefit most from it. Shit, he even manages to get former hard-right Republican senator Alan Simpson to go on the record as saying that income inequality is the the biggest problem facing our country today and that its attendant socio-political divide is threatening to rip our democracy apart at the seams.

Where Reich comes up short, though, is in offering solutions to the problem. At film’s end he simply directs people to go to the his website and find resources there — which is probably well and good, but how many people will get off their asses and actually do it? The very economic elites who are profiting the most handsomely from the current inequality gap have a vested interest in fostering an attitude of pessimistic resignation among the populace by way of their bought-and-paid-for media mouthpieces, and I’m not sure if 90 minutes of Reich speaking truth to power are enough to stem that tide of bone-idle economic weariness.

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Still, I guess it’s a start. And while Reich and I would probably disagree on how directly and forcefully to bridge the inequality gap (his site proposes pushing for marginally higher taxes on the rich and bumping up the minimum wage while I support a both a very large increase in the minimum wage and the institution of a maximum wage, for instance), he’s at least willing to put his neck on the line at least a bit as one of the few notable public figures who sees this problem for what it is. He’s also been aggressive in terms of getting this modest documentary onto platforms where it can attract a large audience (I watched it on Netflix, for instance, and it’s also available on DVD and Blu-Ray) without having to go through the cable TV networks, even the “progressive” ones of which have been more and more cool to his message the more understandably strident he has become over time.

And who knows? Maybe his “baby steps” approach will be enough — if it’s ever actually enacted. But I’m keeping my pitchfork handy just in case.

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If you buy the 1971 copyright credit on legendary exploitation producer Harry Novak’s The Godson — and I guess there’s really no reason not to — then that means only one thing : they got this sleazy softcore number “in the can,” so to speak, in a hurry. A quick nudie cash-in on Coppola’s mob masterpiece was a given, of course, but the fact that writer/director William Rostler (who, interestingly enough, went on to a career in children’s television) was able to crank this out for Novak later during the very same year that The Godfather was released — in fact, you can rest assured Francis Ford’s opus was still playing when this one hit The Deuce and various grindhouse and drive-in screens across the country — is a fairly impressive feat, in my view. Not that my standards for what constitutes being “impressive” are all that high, mind you, but whatever.

And speaking of being impressive, a lot of the nubile female flesh on display here is precisely that. The poster for this flick proclaims their main girl, Lois Mitchell, to be “the most exciting new discovery of the decade” (keep in mind the decade was rather young), and while that might be a little bit much, she’s certainly easy on the eyes, particularly in the opening credits sequence that’s lifted more directly from the James Bond series than it is any mob movie. Sexploitation starlets Uschi Digard — who, sadly, only appears in one scene, but at least it’s a memorable one — Maria Arnold, June Allyson, and the one-time Mrs. Richard Pryor herself, Deborah McGuire (who also turned up briefly in Russ Meyer’s Supervixens , so Uschi’s  not the only “R.M. girl” to be ogled here) clock in for duty as well, so hey, there’s not a whole lot to complain about in the simulated-bumping-and-grinding department.

Unless you count that the fact that so much of it is decidedly strange, even by pre-Deep Throat standards, when you had to get inventive to get noticed because you couldn’t legally go “all the way” yet . Seriously, it’s no huge wonder that “discovery of the decade” Mitchell only went on to appear in one more film in her short career (and in a bit part, no less), given the confusing entry into the business she endured here. She shows a fair amount of gung-ho phony enthusiasm for the more “hands-on” aspects of her work, but Rostler can’t decide if he wants to make a hard-hitting misogynistic mob movie or a Benny Hill-style romp, and the end result is softcore with a decidedly split personality .  Still, that gives it a leg up over its mostly-dull competition in my view, and   trust me when I say that the keen eye will be rewarded by paying close attention to one scene in particular that Rostler offers up here. More on that in a minute, though — first we’ve gotta talk plot.

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Calling the story in this one “paper thin” is probably being a little generous, but that’s true for any early-’70s softcore effort, isn’t it? Marco (Jason Yukon) is the godson of a feared mob boss who’s determined to make his own mark in the underworld and break out from the long shadow cast by his benefactor (who, of course, he resents the hell out of) . To that end,  he double-crosses his Don by turning the previously-failing local brothel into a rip-roaring success, but his business acumen angers the wrong folks and proves to the key to his eventual downfall. Whoops, sorry for giving away the ending — suffice to say he’s not the only one who dies, though.

In between all this middling quasi-drama the girls he employs are put through a heck of a workout, and by and large seem to be having fun. Hicksploitation stalwart John Tull turns up to get his willie wet, and I vaguely recognize some of the other guys in this one as well, but the most recognizable face appears only briefly and  is obscured by two naked women positioned on his lap — none other than legendary science fiction scribe Harlan Ellison is the lucky fella in question, in a scene that sees our ladies performing an “outcall service” in the writer’s actual (as in real life) home. Yes, friends, this is most definitely the only (nominal) mob flick that depicts a post-sci fi convention geek orgy, guaranteed!

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The Godson is probably worth a watch for that fact alone, but a little more Uschi would have been welcome (I suppose you can say that about any film, though), especially since even though, as I mentioned, the other ladies all seem plenty hot to trot, she still puts ’em all to shame with her boundless bouncing and eager carnal euphoria. I have no idea if she’s anything like to always-ready-to-ride nympho she plays in every single one of her flicks, but ya know, it warms my heart to think that she might be.

Still, in case I haven’t made it abundantly clear already, The Godson is, at the very least, a decidedly different kind of sexploitation picture. Sure, it’s uneven, and frankly pretty amateurish in many places, but it’s at least never (well, never might be a reach — will you settle for almost never?) dull. I don’t really know if Rostler had a very clear idea of what he was doing here, but watching him try (and, sure, sometimes fail) to figure it out while a bunch of good-looking naked women writhe and gyrate isn’t the worst way to spend 92 minutes of your life.

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For those of you sufficiently intrigued to feast your eyes on this curiosity for  yourself, it’s available on a double-bill DVD from (of course) Something Weird Video, where’s it’s paired with the decidedly darker and more somber Below The Belt (which features a lot more of  Uschi, yay!). It’s presented in a reasonably good-looking full frame print with fairly solid mono sound, and the disc includes a veritable shitload of extras including a feature-length commentary track with Harry Novak and assorted co-conspirators, two short Uschi nudie loops including one where she meets Dracula, a generous sampling of trailers for other Novak sexploitationers,  and that “gallery of exploitation advertising art and stills” that’s ubiquitous on all of these SWV “special edition” discs they put out through Image Entertainment.  All in all it’s a heck of a nice package — and it definitely doesn’t hurt  that the main feature itself is a fair bit more interesting than most similar fare produced at the time.

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On the one hand, I have to hand it to director Jonathan Glazer — you can tell when viewing his latest, Under The Skin, that’s he’s planning for the long haul here : oh, sure, self-appointed cineastes are talking about this one in  breathless, reverent tones already, but this is a movie that’s designed from the outset to grow in stature as time goes on, a pre-planned “cult classic.” And I’m sure that’s what many will eventually hail it as. But will it deserve such lofty status?

The simple answer is : yes and no. Glazer has definitely put together a visual marvel here, with every frame being worthy of  slapping up on a gallery wall. It’s worth seeing for that alone. And it definitely sucks you into its singularly surreal world and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll. Everything from the purposely annoying electro-minimalist musical score to the composition of each shot to the sparse but loaded-with-intent dialogue to the precisely-timed sound effects is meticulous in its planning, execution, and presentation. It’s easy to see how the art snobs have fallen in love with this thing.

But it’s also a remarkably distant (none of the characters even has a name), clinical work with no room for spontaneity or, dare I say it, soul. Glazer’s story of an alien seductress (played by Scarlett Johansson, who really does git nekkid every bit as often as you’ve heard) preying on horny, lonely (and in one instance horribly deformed) males until she eventually learns to experience a degree of humanity before finally meeting a tragic end can also fairly be viewed as a  Lifeforce redux loaded under layers of pretense, as well, so the small but vocal army of folks who positively despise this film already aren’t entirely wrong to do so, either.

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For my own part, I guess I fall somewhere in the middle — I have a certain amount of sympathy for the arguments made by both the “love it” and “hate it” camps, and at the end of the day have to admit that I didn’t feel engaged enough in the proceedings to come away as a member of either. The flick kept me more enthralled than interested (if that even makes any sense), and while I left the theater with a general sense of being impressed by what I’d seen, I was also keenly aware of the fact that Glazer was more impressed by what he’d done than I was, because for all the tits, ass, bush, and cock on display, it’s Under The Skin‘s propensity for gazing at its own celluloid navel that really does begin to grate even as you’re staring right along with it. Glazer knows you can’t turn your eyes away from what’s happening on the screen — even if, in fairness, it’s a rather threadbare series of events — and he can’t resist indulging himself at your expense by constantly subjecting you a stream of  (admittedly gorgeously presented) “high weirdness” for its own sake.

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The slim plot  —I guess Glazer and Walter Campbell’s screenplay is actually based on a novel by Michael Faber, though it’s difficult to see a novel’s worth of material here —  didn’t bug me in the least, nor did the essential predictability of the main narrative, but Glazer’s inability and/or unwillingness to engage viewers on anything more than a stylistic, surface level did, and that’s where he’s left himself open to a fair amount of entirely justifiable criticism. Yes, this flick is a marvel to look at — but it would be so much more rewarding if we actually had a reason to give a fuck about what we’re looking at.

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Still, there’s little doubt that this is one we’ll be hearing about for a long time to come. The story is (again, purposely) presented with enough ambiguity to leave it open to multiple interpretations, the atmosphere Glazer constructs is an entirely unique one, and the cinematography and visual effects are flat-out breathtaking. All of which lead me to want to like Under The Skin more than I did, and prevent me from actively disliking it as much as it could be argued it deserves to be. It’s probably at least half as good as Glazer thinks it is, and that’s enough to make it worth one viewing. But I’m certainly in no rush to see it again.

I take a look at issue four of George Romero’s “Empire Of The Dead” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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There’s no doubt about it at this point — the entirety of the first five-issue arc in George Romero’s Empire Of The Dead is pure set-up. Consider : with one more installment  to go in the opening “act” (the official numbering here being George A. Romero’s Empire Of The Dead Act One #4) we’re finally getting our first sustained glimpse at a character called Dixie Peach, somebody who, from all I’ve read about this series, is slated to play a pivotal role in the proceedings. Who exactly she is and what her motivations are remain a mystery — she and her crew have just come up to New York from Georgia and seem to be intent on causing mayhem as, I guess, a sort of “payback” for the Civil War, and get off to a pretty good start by killing a border crossing guard and shooting out a security camera…

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If you’ve followed my reviews regularly — or even semi-regularly — around these parts, two things are readily apparent : first, you need something better to do with your time, and second, I’m not terribly fond of DC’s “New 52” reboot.  By this point — nearly three years in — I was hoping it would have grown on me somewhat, I guess, or that I’d be at least so resigned to its inevitability that I’d just shut up and move on, but unfortunately neither of those things have happened, and I still feel the need to bitch about it for whatever reason, —even if it’s just tilting at windmills. Sorry, but I can be stubborn like that.

And DC’s being stubborn, too, aren’t they? I mean, a series that deviated from the norm a little bit would be welcome relief to those of us who like their characters but are bored to tears by how homogenized their universe has become, but so far they don’t seem too interested in catering to us in the least. We can take the stuff they’re putting out or leave it, but they’re not going to change.

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Oh, sure — by and large it’s fair to say that I’ve walked away from the entire enterprise (apart from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, which is terrific stuff), but every now and again I find myself with nothing better to do with three bucks (I really should consider crack addiction at this point as a viable alternative) and pop my head in at some random spot to see if things have improved. Such was the case just like week, in fact, when I took a flier on the first issue of the new Sinestro monthly series written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Dale Eaglesham.

I can’t profess any particular love for this character, or for the entire “Green Lantern Universe” (or whatever you want to call it) as a whole, but Bunn seems to be a talent worth keeping an eye on if his work on Marvel’s Magneto is any indication (he seems to be drawing the short straw at both of the “Big Two” publishers and landing assignments on the villain books), so I figured what the heck? And I’ve heard that crack can be hazardous to your health, anyway.

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Unfortunately, I think even a low-grade crack rock (and I’m assuming that’s all three dollars would get me) would probably give my brain cells more to do than Sienstro #1 did, because this book sucks all the way across the board. It suffers from the acute lack of personality that seems to be the calling card for the “New 52” in general, and while I’m sure the creators put a fair amount of sweat into this thing, the heavy editorial dictates that they’re forced to comply with in order to get a paycheck have resulted in making this yet another completely interchangeable, mass-produced, cookie-cutter offering.

The plot, near as I could be bothered to remember it, goes thusly : Sinestro is holed up on some barren rock floating around in space, determined to lead a life of solitude and contemplation, when his old ally/adversary (depending on the situation), Lyssa Drak, shows up and convinces him to don his tights again and fight to free the few people of his homeworld who are still alive. So he does, since he thought they’d all been wiped out. And the first person he’s called upon to save in his one-man cosmic rescue mission is — well, that would be telling. But that’s all that happens, and that’s where the story ends, so trust me when I say I’m not skimping on any details here.

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As I said earlier, Bunn can write. but his talents are wasted on this drivel. This is a story that literally seems to have been born in an editorial meeting and then farmed out to freelancers to do the actual dirty work. The prose is stiff, the dialogue even stiffer, and the wretchedly formulaic nature of what DC has in mind for the character in the long haul oozes from every panel. Get ready for more of the same here, people.

Likewise, I’m willing to be that Eaglesham can draw pretty well, but you’d never guess it from the stale, derivative style he’s tasked with undertaking here. His Sinestro looks like the same guy we’ve always seen plus about 20 pounds of steroid-induced muscle growth, and the overall look of the book is, as with the “New 52” in general, that of a mid-’90s WildStorm comic that just happens to feature DC characters. Yeah, I know, I’ve made that exact same complaint before, but DC keeps putting out comics that have the exact same problem, so I’m just gonna keep it up until they either produce something even marginally different or I finally give up. Whichever comes first.

In any case, the end result here is a book you’ve already seen a thousand times before, even if it was called Green Lantern #20, Justice League #16, or Flash #9. DC either doesn’t care about letting their creators do anything unique these days, or has flat-out forgotten how to get out of the way and allow them that sort of freedom. Doug Mahnke’s variant cover (pictured above, underneath Eaglesham’s main one) comes as close to looking a little bit out of the bog-standard ordinary as anything we’re like to see from this series, but that’s about it as far as breaking loose from the assembly line goes.

Hmmmm  — if I have a few extra dollars left after picking up my usual stuff at the LCS this week, I think maybe I’ll track down that crack dealer after all.

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Are you a big fan of David Fincher? I tend to have a “love it or hate it” attitude toward his work myself, with the flicks I love being ones I really love and those I hate being ones I really hate. The funny thing is, the films of his that I don’t like seem to be the ones everybody else likes (Se7en, the ridiculously over-rated Fight Club), and those I like tend to be the ones everybody else doesn’t like (Alien 3The Game). One area of agreement I do seem to have with the grizzled, hard-core Fincher-fans, though, is that while movies like The Social Network and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button are the ones that have gotten him the most critical acclaim, his best work is — far and away — Zodiac, which isn’t just the finest entry into the director’s ouevre, but one one of the most tense, provocative, deeply-affecting, and flat-out awesome crime flicks ever made by anyone.

Fuck. Sorry about all the italics in that paragraph, I’ll try to chill on that from here on out. Here’s the “point” (to the extent I have one) that I’m getting to here, though — I bet Fincher himself isn’t much of a fan of director Tom Hanson’s 1971 non-thriller The Zodiac Killer (also released under the titles of The Zodiak Killer  and, you guessed it — Zodiac), simply because it’s hard to imagine any two films that are (ostensibly, at any rate) about the same subject being as diametrically opposite to each other as Fincher’s smart, psychologically-probing one and Hanson’s throwaway piece of trash.

Not that we have anything against throwaway pieces of trash around here, mind you — and truth be told, I don’t even have that much against The Zodiac Killer. Sure, it’s tasteless in the extreme to try to wring a few bucks out of actual crimes that left a lot of friends and family members of the victims grieving in their wake, and it’s  probably even more tasteless to release such a film while said events are still taking place in order to capitalize on the public’s then-current paranoia and unease, but in a way isn’t that, if not more ethical, at least more honest than covering your work in some veneer of “respectability” while still actively playing to the ticket-buyer’s innate fear of mass murderers and serial killers?

Sure, Zodiac  is a classier and better production in every respect than The Zodiac Killer could ever dream of being, but at its core, it’s still exploiting human tragedy for the sake of box-office dollars just like its cheap, sleazy predecessor did four decades earlier, isn’t it? Anybody wanna take that one? Bueller?

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Meet Jerry (played by Hal Reed, pictured above), a shy, reclusive mailman who’s awkward and stand-offish around women (even though he’s not above scoring some tail while going about his daily rounds), keeps bunny rabbit as pets, and lives a quiet, solitary life. He also has a thing for wearing black robes, worshiping at a half-assed occult altar he keeps hidden behind a curtain, and oh yeah — he’s the Zodiac killer. Don’t worry, I’m not giving much away here — the film tips its hand at about the halfway point after dropping a “red herring” storyline that tries, lamely, to convince us that Jerry’s buddy, an uber-misogynistic truck driver named Grover (Bob Jones), just might be America’s most famous-at-the-time serial psycho himself. Where, how, and why Jerry got his deep-seated misanthropy is never really explained until it’s way too late and we see him sobbing to his dementia-addled father about how mommy died young and daddy never showed him “any expression of feeling,” but shit — motivations really don’t matter much here, anyway.

Nor, apparently, does factual accuracy — while a couple of the murders shown are generally in line with those we know the Zodiac committed (one of which, the infamous multiple-stab-wounds knife attack on a couple of young lovers by a lake,  is probably the only one in the film that could be described as being effectively staged), most are pulled right out of the filmmaker’s asses, such as a broad-daylight attack on a teenage girl in the middle of the street that sees Zodiac “disguised” in one of those stupid Groucho Marx-nosed masks (I half expected him to jump out from behind the bushes and say “alright stop what you’re doin’, ‘cuz I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that you’re used to”) and an unbelievable murder at a senior citizens’ home that sees our “perp” pushing a an old timer’s wheeled lawn chair down a hill, through a busy intersection, and finally down a flight of stairs. This is a Zodiac killer who apparently just offs anybody who’s handy by whatever means available.

I know, I know — a few minutes ago I opined that The Zodiac Killer was, after a fashion at any rate, more honest than Fincher’s (justly) much-more-celebrated work, but I was only talking about its intentions, not its content, because the simple fact here is that, despite boasting the apparently-active participation of the San Francisco Chronicle reporter known as “Mr. Zodiac” himself, Paul Avery (portrayed in Fincher’s film by Robert Downey, Jr.),  this flick is complete and utter bullshit.

But is that such a bad thing? I mean, we know what the Zodiac killer did in real life, but we have no fucking clue what he might do next here. And that “don’t give a shit” attitude is, I’m happy to say, readily apparent throughout this movie. Hanson and his screenwriters quite clearly don’t give a shit about women, which isn’t cool, but they also don’t give a shit about cops, which in my admittedly juvenile worldview is, and every single character here is quick to ooze resentment  toward the bullies in blue at the drop of a hat — even nice, mild-mannered guys (when he’s not, ya know, killing people for no reason at all) like Jerry. Plus, the detectives investigating the case are portrayed as officious, bungling, incompetent imbeciles, which is always fun to see.

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Still, there’s an incongruity to this flick’s attitude toward crime and those who supposedly “protect” us from it that’s positively dizzying. After spending its entire runtime telling us what a bunch of good-for-nothing buffoons the cops are, Jerry’s interior monologue at the end, as he roams the streets scott-free, is right out of the right-wing authoritarian douchebag’s playbook, as he “tells” us that the “system” is designed to protect his rights, doesn’t really care about helping the victims, the pigs’ll never get him because they need pesky things like search warrants, and shit, even if they do eventually put him away, he’ll probably just get out in a few years, anyway. According to The Zodiac Killer,  then, the police are stupid assholes who can’t do anything right — but who, nevertheless,  shouldn’t have to read us our Miranda rights and should have the power to search our homes, cars, and persons on a  whim.  Go figure that one out.

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Obviously, this isn’t a flick that’s bothered to think anything through very much, both in terms of its relationship to actual, documented reality or its general philosophical outlook, and at the end of the day that’s probably the most interesting thing about it. It’s available on DVD from Something Weird Video (where it’s presented in a reasonably good-looking full-frame transfer with mono sound) as part of a triple-bill that also includes The Sex Killer (great first-date viewing) and Zero In And Scream (extras are sparse on this one compared to other SWV offerings and are pretty much limited to a smattering of trailers, but what the hell, you’re getting three movies, right?) so you can judge its relative “merits” — or complete lack thereof — for yourself, and I’d urge you to do so. It’s about as far-removed from an exploitation “classic” as you can get, but it’s at least as schizophrenic as the killer whose crimes it supposedly “documents,” and  that’s enough right there to make for an interesting time in my book.

 

 

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If there’s one thing that really bums me out about the “New 52 ” universe — and truth be told there’s far more than one thing, but that’s another matter for another time — it’s that DC editorial has roped in every single corner of its terrain and isn’t letting anything out. Even “weird” characters like Swamp Thing, John Constantine, etc. are firmly ensconced within the rigid confines of the dully homogenized “DCU,” as it’s called. And while the semi-fabled Vertigo imprint where they once had such a comfortable home has increasingly headed into creator-owned (after a fashion — see if you can get any of the creators of Vertigo-published books to tell you about how “good” the deals that supposedly grant them “ownership” of their work really are sometime) territory for at least 15 years or so now, I admit that I do miss the days when purportedly “marginal” and largely unused established DC characters were allowed to roam about a bit more freely under the Vertigo banner.

Jonah Hex is a perfect example of exactly what I’m talking about. The scarred bounty hunter, originally created back in the early ’70s as a kind of comic book answer to the “revisionist western” trend sweeping Hollywood at the time (think Butch Cassidy And The Sundance KidThe Wild BunchMcCabe And Mrs. Miller, and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid), Hex ended up being, for the most part, a fairly standard gunslinger/outlaw who just happened to be a lot uglier than most. He managed a good run, and even survived a disastrous early-’80s reboot that saw him taken out of time and dumped into a Road Warrior-style post-apocalyptic future, but by the time writer Joe R. Lansdale and artists Timothy Truman and Sam Glanzman were given the green-light to revive him in a new “mature readers” iteration for Vertigo in 1993, he’d been sitting around gathering dust on the shelf of unused characters for a long time.

Lansdale, an acclaimed horror novelist who was new to comics at that point, wisely decided to blow off writer Michael Fleisher’s decade-plus run with Hex and yoke his take on Jonah a bit more closely to how co-creator John Albano scripted him, but by and large he was content to blaze his own trail with little to no regard for anything that came before,  and the result is a fairly accurate depiction of frontier life as it really was — illiterate, uncivilized, unwashed, unloved yokels leading nasty, brutish, and for the most part quite short lives in a largely-unsettled part of a country that was still a boiling, festering wound after the Civil War — and throws in a generous helping of supernatural “high weirdness” and bodily function and sex jokes to spice things up. His Hex is lewd, crude, rude, and usually in a bad mood. And needless to say, the end result is more fun than half-price day at an Old West whorehouse.

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Tim Truman was a brilliant choice to illustrate these scripts as the samples reproduced here show, and his down-and-dirty style has an appropriately “old school” western feel to it combined with a modernist’s eye for just what a shithole the frontier really was. A better  penciller for this stuff would be hard — nay, impossible — to imagine, and when you add on the rich inks of the legendary (a term we don’t use loosely around these parts) Sam Glanzman, the result is pure gold. This remains, to this day, one of the most lavishly-illustrated of all Vertigo comics.

The gang united three times — for the five part Two-Gun Mojo in 1993, which  sees Hex taking on a zombie horde in his quest to get payback for a friend’s murder; the five-part Riders Of The Worm And Such in 1995, wherein Hex lands work as a hired hand at an Oscar Wilde-inspired ranch (yes, you read that right) infested by giant man-eating earthworms who have — uhhhhmmm — bred with humans to create truly moronic, yet decidedly dangerous,  offspring (the main ones we’re introduced to being two twin brothers who are obvious stand-ins for musicians Edgar and Johnny Winter, who in fact sued DC for unauthorized use of their likenesses); and the the three-part Shadows West in 1999 that pits our scarred “hero” against the freaks and geeks of the Wild Will (yes, you read that right again) travelling sideshow when Hex decides to free a Native American woman and her half-human/half-bear (yes, you read that right a third time) from, shall we say, indentured servitude to the troupe. The Lansdale/Truman/Glanzman triumvirate played each successive series for more and more laughs, but they’re all just unsettling enough to make horror fans happy, as well, and the combination of fun and fright works like a charm in all three adventures. The stories are simple and straightforward, and Lansdale’s scripts are brisk, pacy, and give his artists plenty of action sequences and creepy grotesqueries to really sink their teeth into. No single issue takes more than a handful of minutes to read, but you can spend hours looking at the pretty pictures of ugly things.

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I would have expected all of this material to be reprinted in conjunction with the entertaining disaster that was the Jonah Hex movie a few years back (especially since Two-Gun Mojo was adapted for release as a “motion comic” at the time), but for some reason it wasn’t, and Vertigo is apparently making up for lost time now by finally collecting them all in the just-released Jonah Hex : Shadows West trade paperback, which is easily the most awesome thing you’ll find on the shelves of your LCS this week (or probably for the next several weeks). Even though these stories are all between 15 and 20 years old, they not only “hold up well” against most of the new stuff out there today, frankly they’re a whole hell of a lot better than, as they’d say in the West, ‘purt near all of it.  And while I could go on an on about all that for a thousand or so more words without much trouble, I do have one small gripe, so let’s get to that now, shall we?

The introduction for this volume, written by Lansdale himself and reprinted from the first collected edition of Two-Gun Mojo back in 1994, is one of the most egotistical, self-serving intros I’ve ever read. He doesn’t even drop Truman’s name — whose work really steals the show here — until the last paragraph of his three-page pat on his own back, and Glanzman, who’s never gotten anywhere near the level of recognition in the industry he deserves despite the fact that he, for all intents and purposes, invented the autobiographical comics genre back in the 1960s (and told some of the finest war stories the medium has ever seen, to boot) doesn’t even merit a mention from his author. Bad form, Joe, bad form.

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To his credit, by the time he does lower himself to acknowledge Truman’s contribution, he says that he’s “the perfect artist” to draw Hex, and he’s absolutely right about that. Then he goes on to say that he, himself, is the perfect guy to write Hex — and while that’s mighty brazen of him, he’s also right on that score, as well. At the end of the day, this superb team created a whole new subgenre — the western/horror/comedy. Nobody’s really tried anything like it since, and there’s not really much point, because the bar has been set so high (even if the material is decidedly low-brow, as it should be). Do yourself a favor and grab Jonah Hex : Shadows West now. No fooliin’ pardner, it’s the best durn funnybook yer gonna read in a mighty long spell.

 

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It occurs to me that I’ve been slacking, friends — but fear not, I have an excuse. I’ve reviewed all four previous installments in the Paranormal Activity series, perhaps Hollywood’s most unexpected “franchise” property, previously on this site more or less immediately upon their release,  but never did get around to the latest, 2014’s Paranormal Activity : The Marked Ones,  when it was out in theaters back in January.

Now for the excuse part : I didn’t see it. More specifically, I didn’t see it until last night, when the DVD showed up in the mail from Netflix (and before you ask, it was one of those “for rental only” discs with no extras to speak of, so I can’t fairly comment on any of that). As to why I didn’t see it — truth be told, it came and went before I had the chance. It’s not that The Marked Ones was a “flop,” per se, but it did have the lowest opening-weekend gross of any of the five PA flicks (which was still more than enough to put it at the top of the box office that weekend),  and while it still made a healthy profit upon its theatrical run ($32 million on a $5 million investment? I’ll take that every time — and so will Paramount), it didn’t generate nearly the “buzz” its four predecessors did.

There are a couple of “reasons” that have commonly been bandied about for that, one of which has some merit, the other of which is complete hogwash, so let’s examine each quickly before getting into the nitty-gritty of the film itself, shall we?

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The first thing offered up by armchair box office observers in regards to The Marked Ones‘ purported “failure” is the fact that it was, in fact, a spin-off, rather than a direct sequel. This makes a certain amount of sense to me, given that it features entirely new characters and the main thrust of the plot only tangentially intersects with the rest of the PA ongoing storyline. In a nifty trick on writer/director Christopher Landon’s part, this film and the “main” story do, in fact, come crashing together most unexpectedly at the end, but to say more would be giving away too much. Suffice to say, even if this is more a side-step than a direct continuation, they could have titled it Paranormal Activity 5, had they chosen to, and it probably would have raked in another $20-30 million. I bet they’re kicking themselves over that.

The second rationalization given for this film’s more modest take at the gate is a real kicker, though : folks have opined that The Marked Ones was marketed “only” to Hispanic audiences, and that they didn’t support the flick in big numbers. Sorry, but I recall seeing ads for this one on any number of non-Spanish-language TV channels upon its release, and while it certainly was heavily advertised to Latino/Latina movie-goers, the fact remains that it was hyped on all the usual horror-centric websites, etc., as well.

As to the idea that Hispanic film-goers didn’t “turn out” in big numbers for it, how does anybody know that? Were they asking people who purchased tickets to fill out demographic surveys? Was the film only shown in predominantly-Spanish-speaking neighborhoods (“no” would be the quick answer to that, since I noticed it playing at a multiplex in lily-white Edina, Minnesota when I was there seeing something else)? Sorry, but this is a cheap — and frankly offensive — attempt by retrograde elements of society  to “blame” the movie’s “failure” on Hispanics because they blame them for — well, every other goddamn thing in the world that they’re not actually responsible for, like crime, taking “our” jobs, driving down wages, “mooching” welfare benefits, etc.  The simple fact is that there are a lot of reactionary assholes out there who don’t like the fact that this film was marketed to Hispanic audiences at all  (even though it makes perfect sense to do so given that the characters are all Latino/Latina) and furthermore just plain don’t like Hispanic people in general. So allow me to give a huge, collective middle finger from any and all horror fans with a brain to anyone and everyone trying to advance that racist line of “thought.”

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Ohhhhh-kay, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, how about was the movie? To make a long story short, Paranormal Activity : The Marked Ones was, in this wannabe-critic’s view, a very pleasant surprise indeed and quite possibly the best flick — original, sequel, prequel (which is what the first two supposed “sequels” actually were) or spin-off — to go out under the PA  banner. The Joost/Shulman team had worn out its welcome pretty thoroughly after that lackluster fourth installment, and by taking the core concept of “hand-held horror” into the inner city and adding a dash of Santeria-influenced spice, Landon (who served in a producer’s capacity on parts 3 and 4) has managed here to breathe some new life into a franchise that was sorely in need of it.

The main thrust of the plot concerns the exploits of three recent high school graduates and lifelong friends, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). When Jesse gets a snazzy new HD camcorder from his dad as a commencement gift, the trio do what all kids these days apparently do — record every fucking they do in the hopes that they might accidentally film something funny, stupid, interesting, or weird enough to slap up on YouTube.

Things take a turn for the frightening, though, when there’s a murder downstairs in Jesse’s apartment building, they go in to do some amateur (and, it has to be said, illegal) sleuthing, and the mysterious forces at work in the run-down ground floor unit decide to “mark” our would-be Spielberg as a suitable “host” vessel for their malignant presence. At first Jesse just thinks he’s landed some pretty cool super hero-style powers out of the blue, but he soon learns, to his regret, that all power comes with a price, and that in this case it’s a very heavy one indeed as all those who have been similarly “marked” (oh, and am I the only one who thinks the filmmakers here ripped off the main circle-within-a-triangle symbol emblazoned all over the place in this flick — including the poster pictured at the top of this very review — from the Canadian Antichrist-themed movie Abolition?) have met with untimely — and spectacularly violent — ends.

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There’s plenty of the usual teen summer hijinks on display here — boozing, pot smoking, fumbling attempts to get laid, etc. — but the genuinely terrific performances from the entire cast (particularly Jacobs, who does a really nice job driving home the horror of what his character is experiencing) make even that trite, overdone material bearable, and Landon gives you a trio of young people you actually — believe it or not — are willing to give a shit about, before doing what all good directors do and putting ’em though a meat grinder.

As for fans of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (is there such a thing as a fan of Micah Sloat? I suppose there must be, but I’m sure glad I don’t know of any personally), rest easy — they’re here. But they certainly don’t pop up either when you would expect it, or in the way you would expect it. Kudos to all involved for the manner in which they pulled this off.

Throw in some other genuine surprises, a generous helping of fun n’ cheap scares, hand-held video camera footage that actually doesn’t get annoying, and the coolest use of the old “Simon” electronic game I’ve ever seen, and Paranormal Activity : The Marked Ones is a winner. There’s probably not much chance of us ever seeing these characters again in future installments, but the time we do get to spend with them here is a heck of a lot of fun.

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So here’s the thing about Oculus — like the haunted mirror that serves as the film’s centerpiece, it’s all just a reflection. But it’s a rather appealing one.

Specifically, it’s a reflection of pretty much everything else going on in horror at the moment, combining elements of the “found footage” subgenre with those of the “haunted objects” subgenre, shaking ’em all up a bit, and coming out the other end with something that’s hardly new, by any stretch of the imagination, but at least well-executed.

The project started life back in 2006 as a short film by director Mike Flanagan, and after the generally positive reviews given his full-length feature Absentia, a veritable smorgasbord of financiers (including the WWE wrestling juggernaut) came together and threw roughly five million bucks at him to go back to his earlier work and flesh it out (along with co-screenwriter Jeff Howard) into a full-length movie. The finished product does, in fact, feel a bit padded in spots, as you’d probably expect, but no moreso than anything else coming out of Hollywood these days, and while there’s (again) admittedly not much here by way of originality, some reasonably strong performances, a nifty if derivative core concept, and a heaping helping stylish atmospherics save Oculus from becoming “just another” horror flick.

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Here’s the deal : 11 years ago, a wealthy software designer named Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) bought a haunted antique mirror, became seduced by the strange  secrets it whispered to him (not to mention the evil woman who occasionally stepped out of it), and ended up killing his wife, Marie (Battlestar Galactica‘s Katee Sackhoff) and traumatizing the shit out of his kids, Kaylie (played as an adult by Doctor Who‘s Karen Gillan and as a youngster by AnnaliseBasso) and Tim (full-grown version portrayed by Brenton Thwaites, youthful counterpart by Garrett Ryan) before Tim put a stop to it by pumping the old man full of buckshot. Here at TFG we like it when bad things happen to rich people, so hey — so far, so good.

The experience had remarkably different effects on the two siblings : Tim ended up confined to a mental institution, where years of “therapy” managed to convince him that the whole incident played out in a remarkably different way that he remembered it, while Kaylie went to work hatching a long-term plan to clear her family name by obtaining work at a prestigious auction house (and getting engaged to the owner’s kid), tracking the mirror (which had since fallen out of her family’s possession) down, researching its lurid history (pretty much everyone who ever owned it since it was first made had tragedy befall them), maneuvering to have it re-installed in her family’s former home between owners, and, the very night her brother is released back into the world. setting it back up with a video camera aimed right at it to document its “actions” before, if all goes to plan, ultimately destroying it with a complex swinging-axe contraption of her own design. Obsession or initiative? I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide.

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Needless to say, everything doesn’t go according to plan — not even close — and as our narrative unfolds over two separate timelines, we see the the mirror in both slow-burn action as it rips the family apart 11 years ago, and working considerably quicker in the present day, as it only has one evening to save its — errmmmm — life. Genre stars Gillan and Sackhoff both prove they’re ready for the big time with their performances (even if Gillan struggles at times to mask her Scottish accent), but it’s really Thwaites who operates as the audience’s central point of identification here, being called upon to both relive a past he’s done his damndest do forget/obfuscate and to save the day in the present.It’s a damn solid turn on his part, and one hopes we’ll see more of him the not-too-distant future.

Flanagan, for his part, transitions between the two time frames smoothly throughout, and manages to keep both storylines intriguing, which is no mean feat given that we already know how events in the past shake out, and he uses his (generally speaking) one location to solid, claustrophobic effect. Throw in some well-executed CGI work and “modern gothic”-type atmospherics and you’re all set for a fun and agreeably bumpy little ride that manages to make even something as innocuous as dead house plants seem laced with foreboding and dread.

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On the minus side of the ledger, when the film goes full-bore into “mind-fuck” territory towards the end, as the mirror (which, by the way, sure looks cool, doesn’t it?) begins altering our protagonists’ perceptions of reality, things get  a little jumbled and the overall effect falls more than a bit flat, and you’ll probably see the ending coming from a mile off, but screw it — at least the ride from points A to B is an interesting one, even if we finish things at more or less the exact spot we’d expect to.

Which, in fairness, still makes Oculus a modest accomplishment in my book. Maybe my standards are just really fucking low at this juncture — to the point where I don’t even expect, much less demand , anything terribly fresh from Hollywood horror and am willing to settle for the same old thing as long as it’s done with some style — but if we’re going to have another supernatural-themed “franchise” thrust upon us (and we are, trust me — this thing screams “sequel”) at least all indications are that this won’t be a shitty one.

It may not be much, sure, , but I’ll take it.

My thoughts on “Captain America : The Winter Soldier” for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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I’m firmly of the belief that nobody my age has any business whatsoever using the phrase “WTF,” but nevertheless — WTF? Captain America : The Winter Soldier has been playing for two weeks now, there are, what, either or ten people who write regularly (or semi-regularly) for this website, pretty much all of ’em are bigger fans of Marvel’s cinematic product than I am — and I’m the first person to review this flick here, even though more or less  the entire country saw the thing before I did yesterday? Well, okay, but somebody had better get busy on writing a rebuttal to this, because what I’ve got to say is going to piss a lot of people off.

It’s not that DisMar’s latest blockbuster is “bad,” per se — it’s just that it’s exactly what you expect it to be, that’s all these things ever are, and sorry, but…

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