Archive for April, 2016


Who are we kidding? You know damn well what the score is going into any flick called Navy Seals Vs. Zombies — it’s going to be a low-budget action/horror hybrid with as smattering of D-list “stars,” crummy effects, atrocious dialogue, poorly-staged fight sequences, risible acting, and no real point to it.

And to be sure, director Stanton Barrett’s straight-to-video 2015 might-as-well-be-an-Asylum-film has all of that —errrmmmm — going for it. But somehow it manages to pull off the seemingly- impossible task of being both exactly what you expect it to be, as well as something far worse.


When I saw this one added to the horror movie queue on Netflix recently (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD from what I gather but, as I’m sure it goes without saying already, you needn’t bother) under its alternate title of Navy Seals : Battle For New Orleans (although it was filmed — and the script explicitly states that it takes place in — Baton Rouge), I figured I’d give it a go just — well, just because, you know? And since I was in the mood for some good, cheesy, brainless fun last night, it seemed an opportune time to give it look sooner rather than later. So I plunked down, hit play, and with an attitude of “come on, how bad could it really be?” in mind, figured I was bound to at least enjoy something about it somewhere along the way.

Big mistake. Barrett and his credited writers A.K. Waters (story) and Matthew Carpenter (screenplay) definitely have the “cheesy” part and the “brainless” part down no problem — but Navy Seals Vs. Zombies is no fun whatsoever.

Here’s the damn thing, though — by all rights, it should be. Think about it : the plot here revolves around an elite Navy SEAL team sent in to rescue the vice president of the United States (played by former NBA star Rick Fox) after he becomes stranded in New Or — err, Baton Rouge following a zombie outbreak. No less than Michael fucking Dudikoff is the leader SEAL leader. Most of the effects are of the practical rather than the CGI variety. There are guns blazing and heads bursting open all over the place. A flick like that is bound to be many things — none of them actually good — but come on, surely it can’t be boring, can it?

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Oh, yes it can. And oh, yes it is.

For one thing, Dudikoff’s only on screen for about ten minutes tops, with the supremely untalented Ed Quinn, playing the role of Lt. Pete Cunningham, hogging up most of the rest of the screen time. His team doesn’t exactly appear to be in prime physical condition, for the most part, and these zombies are far from the incompetent shamblers we’re used to, so the fights at least ought to be semi-interesting given that the odds are a bit more evenly balanced — but they’re not. Nor is the story once the basics have been laid out. Nor are any of the characters, who don’t even rise to the level of being bland, one-dimensional ciphers. Nor, frankly, are the “legions” (and by that I mean a few dozen) of the undead themselves, who look like they all spent about five minutes in the makeup trailer before being put to work in front of the camera. There’s just nothing and no one worth giving a shit about on offer here. And so, consequently, you don’t.


From what I understand, Stanton Barrett — being a part-time stuntman and part-time NASCAR driver — is a man of many talents. Unfortunately, filmmaking just isn’t one of them. The lifeless and robotic manner in which he stages all of the scenes here (really, every last one of ’em!) seems indicative of a guy who’s worked on enough movies to think he knows how to make one himself, but really hasn’t learned much beyond a minimal grasp of “point-and-shoot” basics. Sure, he wasn’t given anything even pretending to be a decent script here, and Dudikoff and Fox probably ate up half his budget for the one day they were both in town, but seriously — I’ve reviewed any number of movies on this site that managed to do a whole lot more with a whole lot less thanks to not even inspired, but at least competent, direction. There’s plenty of blame to go around when something is as altogether unsuccessful in every single respect as Navy Seals Vs. Zombies is, but unfortunately I’m going to have to lay the lion’s share of the blame for this unholy debacle squarely at the feet of the director, because even a modest degree of vision and ability probably could have dragged this thing — kicking and screaming, if necessary — up to the level of being “stupid but at least watchable.” This is most definitely the former, but that’s about it.


In a way, it must be kind of great to be in Chester Brown’s shoes. Not that I share his same set of apparently-narrowing interests, mind you, but it would just be nice to have the kind of career where you can make a living (or at least something of a living) out of pursuing your uniquely personal passions.  Not too many people in too many fields of artistic endeavor have been able to delineate their own frankly obsessive interests with little to no concern for the larger “public taste” and yet somehow find an audience for their work (Woody Allen and Russ Meyer come to mind immediately), but Brown has evolved into just such an artist over the years — the question now is, will his work continue to be of interest to anyone other than himself?

Brown’s gospel adaptations are one of the things I’ve missed most since he wrapped up his long-running series Yummy Fur, so it’s great to see him returning to that wellspring of inspiration for his latest extended-form work, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus (subtitled “Prostitution  And Religious Obedience In The Bible”), but the cartoonist’s  many years of being a “john” (as related so matter-of-factly in his last graphic novel, Paying For It) have no doubt colored his take on the supposedly “good” book, to the point where he’s assembled this latest collection of Bible stories with a very definite thesis in mind — or rather, two of them. And that’s where things maybe get a little bit confusing.


Beginning with the first story he chooses for this book, that of Cain and Abel, a reasonably clear “through-line” forms of Brown seeking to demonstrate for readers that God actually likes rebellious folks who blow off his laws and edicts in favor of doing their own thing. Fair enough, sounds like my kind of deity — although I have to wonder why he or she would bother laying out a bunch of commandments in the first place if the idea was for us not to follow them — but then with the stories of Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, his second major point comes to the fore, that being that the Bible is replete with stories that portray prostitution in a positive light. This becomes even more apparent when Brown posits that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was herself a prostitute and that Matthew, in his gospel, surreptitiously tried to slide that little bit of info in there without being too terribly explicit about it.

Now, I have no particular beef with this assertion myself — although I can imagine the conniption-fits it’ll give to “religious right” types — but I do have to wonder if this book might have been more successful split into two smaller “graphic novels,” each concerned with making only one of Brown’s points. It’s not that things here necessarily get all that muddled, but his two separate arguments do seem to be competing equally for the reader’s time and consideration, and that’s something of a drawback.


One aspect of this book that will get nothing but praise from me, though, is the art. Brown employs a rectangular four-panel grid for these adaptations (apart from the story of Job, which is buried back in the appendices and footnotes — about which more in a moment) that I find far more visually satisfying than the eight-panel grid he used in Paying For It or even the six-panel grid he employed in Louis Riel —not least because the pictures are all larger, and his obsessively-detailed linework and cross-hatching really shines when shown at this more generous size. He must spend literally hours on many of these panels, and the attention to detail really comes through in this format. Nobody utilizes shadow and silhouette like Brown, either, and while his writing style is incredibly blunt and to-the-point, his evocative and moody illustrations communicate all the subtlety and nuance that his clinical dialogue purposefully avoids. This is a gorgeous little volume to look at, all told.

As any veteran reader of Brown’s work can tell you, though, the backmatter is where a lot of the action lies in these far-too-infrequently-published books of his, and here that’s cause for both commendation and concern. His afterword and footnotes, when taken together,  run to nearly 100 pages in Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus, and while they’re no doubt uniformly fascinating and illuminating throughout, the simple fact is that they make a much stronger case for both of his theses than do the comics themselves.  In fact, I wouldn’t recommend reading this book without reading the backmatter, because while the “main” portion does a reasonably good job of letting you know what Brown is going on about here, you don’t have any real understanding of why until you get to the supplemental material. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but equally-footnote-heavy works like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell use “the stuff at the back of the book” to expand upon the material they’re referencing, while Brown is coming perilously close to doing just the opposite — writing and drawing comics to expand upon the points he’s making in his footnotes.


That fairly major qualm aside, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus is still an important and thought-provoking addition to one of the most iconoclastic cartoonists of his generation’s body of work. Brown certainly reveals himself to be a distinctly “new” type of Christian (one who doesn’t believe Jesus to literally be the son of God, for one thing, which makes me wonder why he wouldn’t be more comfortable self-identifying as a Jew, but hey — whatever works for him, I guess), and probably one that we could use more of — these dogmatic “do as we say or you’ll burn in everlasting hellfire!” sorts of people really work my last nerve, while our guy Chester appears to be more of the “find your own inner path to spiritual enlightenment and seek to develop a personal relationship with the divine” variety. That, at least, even a confirmed atheist like myself can respect.

Hmmm — could Chester Brown actually be a modern-day Gnostic? Spiritually and philosophically, he seems to be hewing pretty close to much of what they used to teach, whether by accident or intent. But maybe that’s a subject best explored in his next book.



Long before Prince (way too) prematurely crossed the mythical Rainbow Bridge, he crossed another bridge — specifically, Graffiti Bridge. And while this 1990 sequel to Purple Rain isn’t remembered all that fondly by many and frankly showcases His Royal Badness at his most self-indulgent, it’s far from a bad flick, features plenty of well-staged, extremely-high-energy song and dance numbers, and provides an interesting glimpse into the spiritual awakening he was going through that would go on to inform so much of the rest of his life and career.

Originally conceived of by Prince (who wrote and directed it) as a co-starring vehicle for himself and then-girlfriend Kim Basinger, their break-up necessitated a quick bit of re-casting and, I’m guessing, resulted in a budget-and-resources trim-down from Warner Brothers, but who are we kidding — given the film’s navel-gazing premise and heavy focus on music over story it was probably never going to be getting much studio promotional muscle behind it, and there’s really not much actual need for anything beyond a few sound stages (which were set up at Paisley Park)  and a couple afternoons of location filming to get something like this “in the can.” Prince was a notorious perfectionist when it came to his live performances and as a director he obviously lavished much more care and attention on the “club” segments of this film than anything that took place outside of them, but all of it flows together reasonably well to create an admittedly simplistic “love is God and God is love” (to borrow some lyrics from “Anna Stesia”) message that, in a pinch, works as a sort of shorthand description of the Purple One’s spiritual outlook.


First, though, he’s gotta go through the darkness to reach the light. At the start of the film, Prince (reprising his role as “The Kid”) is the successful owner of a club called Glam Slam, but the recent passing of his father sees him in a decidedly melancholy mood, brooding and writing letters to dear departed dad from under our titular graffiti bridge. His big rival from last time around (Morris Day reprising his role as — well, himself) is still a persistent thorn in his side, though , and runs a club of his own called Pandemonium (with the able assistance of ever-present sidekick Jerome Benton). Things finally boil to a head in a fairly bog-standard Prince-Day confrontation, and the two finally decide to settle their differences once and for all by seeing who can write the best song — the winner gets control of both clubs, the loser walks away with his tail between his legs.

Obviously, The Kid could use some inspiration at this point — and fortunately for him, a healthy dose of it comes his way when he meets a lovely young poet named Aura (Ingrid “where-is-she-now-anyway?” Chavez), who opens him up to the beauty of life, the truth of universal love, all that good stuff. Much of their romance is, in fairness, rather cringe-worthy in its one-dimensional simplicity, and both Prince and Chavez are less than polished actors, but there’s an earnestness to it all that’s reasonably charming even as it insults your intelligence.


Threadbare as that plot admittedly is, it’s really not the reason you’re watching a film like this, anyway, though, and Prince wisely spends well over half his flick’s 90-minute runtime on infectious grooves. Most are courtesy of him and his own band, of course, but The Time are showcased for a couple of numbers, and Mavis Staples, George Clinton, and then-child-prodigy Tevin Campbell all get in on the act, as well. It probably won’t surprise you in the least to know that everyone’s terrific and that Graffiti Bridge is worth seeing at least once for the music alone. Heck, any movie that gave us “Thieves In The Temple” has at least something going for it, right?


It can’t all be good times, though, and just when The Kid seems to be reaching some sort of zenith in the happiness department, Aura meets with a tragic and unexpected fate that a)shakes our hero to his core and plunges him back into somber introspection all over again, and b)relegates her entire character to being nothing more than a plot contrivance to get Prince from “Point A” to “Point B,” spiritually-speaking — oh, and to win him Morris Day’s nightclub.

This time, you see, his journey inward in different, because the love he and Aura shared showed him that the truth is one and all is truth and — shit, I dunno. But he channels his grief into an incredible song called “Still Stand For All Time,” which he uses to absolutely blow Morris out of the water in their little contest and essentially take over the entire Minneapolis music scene. The end.

Obviously, for a movie that fancied itself as being some sort of vessel for enlightenment and awakening, some of the messaging here is rather dubious, and its treatment of women is both shoddy and offensive. Prince was many things but subtle usually wasn’t one of them, and despite the fact that actual storytelling wasn’t terribly high on the agenda here, what little there is really is quite clunky and amateurish — as is a lot of the film’s overall look, which is maybe to be expected given that most of it was essentially filmed at the star’s own house/recording compound.

And yet, for all its obvious flaws, it’s impossible for me not to have a tremendous amount of warmth for this flick (which is out of print on DVD but can still be purchased rather cheaply and is available via instant streaming on Amazon — standard-definition only — for a couple bucks), simply because what it lacks in polish and professionalism it more than makes up for in sincerity. Sure, what dialogue there is tends to be ham-fisted and melodramatic, but it has a certain lyrical quality to it, and whether by accident or design the entire production has a sort of other-worldly vibe  that really can’t be faked and marks it as something that truly could have only come from one mind. Plus, as mentioned before (but it bears repeating), the musical performances are frequently beyond magnificent.

As a movie, Graffiti Bridge may leave a lot to be desired — but as a vanity project, it’s both surprisingly entertaining and absolutely fascinating.



In recent days I’ve emerged from my funk by feeling the funk — leave it to Prince to have provided his fans with the one sure-fire way of getting over his death which is, of course, by getting into his music. He wouldn’t want us to feel too blue for too long, after all — he’d rather have us all feeling decidedly purple. And what better way to not only remember, but celebrate, his extraordinary life than by witnessing the magic he created at the very height of his powers?

Granted, one could argue that said “height” lasted for decades, but for my money the best filmed record of it came in 1987 with the release of his flat-out monumental concert movie, Sign “O” The Times, directed (with a considerable amount of flair and confidence, I might add) by Prince himself with uncredited assistance from his former manager/business partner (and the guy behind the camera on Purple Rain), Albert Magnoli. We all know, of course, that His Royal Badness was the most gifted musician of at least the last century, but his super-human skills in the studio were arguably eclipsed by his skills on the stage, and if there’s one area where Prince may actually be underappreciated, it’s as a showman. Indeed, one critic remarked that in this flick, he “makes Michael Jackson look like he’s nailed to the floor,” and if anything, that’s putting it mildly.

Sign “O” The Times showcases Prince in what anyone who’s seen him perform live would agree to be his natural element — in front of a rapturously transfixed audience (at the Rotterdam Music Hall in the Netherlands, to be precise) that he is in absolute command of from the start of the evening to the end. A recent Slate piece proclaimed this to be the single-greatest concert film of all time (narrowly beating out Talking Heads’ Jonathan Demme-directed Stop Making Sense), and it’s easy to see why  — the sheer energy that radiates from every frame ins’t just infectious, it’s downright transcendent, and the ease with which the star of the show is able to channel raw, cosmic power both into and through everything he’s doing is flat-out unnerving at times in its sheer brilliance.


The double- LP (of the same name) that 11 of the 13 songs featured in this film originally appeared on is, of course, one of Prince’s very best (Spin ranked it as the second-best album of its decade), but was also one of his most intensely personal works in terms of its construction and execution, given that he not only wrote, arranged, and produced every song on it as was his custom, but played just about all of the instruments, as well. It’s about as “solo” as solo albums can get, in other words, but don’t think for a minute that the band he toured with to promote it wasn’t up to the task of translating that material in a stage setting, because damn — the assemblage of “A-list” talent that Prince had with him on this tour was a veritable “murderer’s row” of musicians, dancers, back-up vocalists, and rappers.

Roll call : Sheila E. Dr. Fink. Levi Seacer Jr. Atlanta Bliss. Cat Glover. Dr. Fink. Wally Safford. Eric Leeds. Boni Boyer. Miko Weaver. Gregory Allen Brooks. Sheen Easton even turns up in the video for “U Got The Look” that marks the film’s only “non-live” performance. All in all, a beyond- impressive list of names, to be sure, each supremely gifted in their own way.


Let’s not kid ourselves, though : it’s my hometown’s favorite son who is front and center here at all times, a whirling dervish of hyper-kinetic dancing, singing, and guitar playing that fucking destroys everything in his path — most notably anyone’s will to resist. Prince’s stagecraft in Sign “O” The Times is something beyond merely “undeniable” or “arresting” — it’s well and truly magical. It’s not a “superstar” performance, it’s a supernova performance, and frankly you could stand inside of an industrial blast furnace and probably be exposed to less pure heat than you are here.

Perhaps the most amazing fact to consider about it all, though, is simply this : Prince did this sort of thing all the time. I was lucky enough to see him in concert four times over the course of my unworthy existence, and every show was literally mind-boggling in its scope. Not so much for its high production values — although they were always second-to-none — but for its jaw-dropping musical bravado and the incomparable power of the electricity coursing through the veins of both its performers (particularly the master of ceremonies, of course) and its stunned, transformed onlookers. Even the occasional mis-step (like the one in this film that sees Prince rip Cat’s skirt off in a manner more lecherous and perhaps even violent than it is overtly sexual) is quickly recovered from when the Purple One and his band were really “feeling it” — and damn if they’re not “feeling it” to the utmost in Sign “O” The Times. For that matter, damn if they weren’t “feeling it” almost every single time they performed.


Unfortunately, this hour-and-a-half of concert movie super-perfection is pretty darn hard to come by these days. I was lucky enough to see it in the theater (the old Skyway in downtown Minneapolis, to be precise) when it came out and even luckier to score a used VHS copy for a buck from the second-hand thrift store I used to manage, but it’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in the US and from what I understand most of the various foreign Blus that are available go for pretty high prices. Let’s hope that this situation is corrected in the very near future, because Prince fans the world over — particularly those never fortunate enough to see him perform in person — absolutely deserve to be able to see this. Elvis may have been the “King of Rock” and MJ may have been the “King of Pop,” but Sign “O” The Times is proof positive that Prince was a higher class of musical royalty unto himself.



We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life —

He certainly did more than “get through,” though, didn’t he? Equal parts icon and iconoclast, superstar and outsider, there was always a sense that Prince was something other than, or at the very least apart from, the rest of humanity. Mind-bogglingly talented on a level most of us can scarcely conceive of, watching him perform a guitar solo live is the closest thing many folks will ever have to a truly cosmic experience. Surely this virtuoso energy, creativity, and freeform mastery that was flowing through him came from some otherwordly, perhaps even extradimensional, source. I mean — how else to even explain it, right?

Unless you’re from here. His home town. Minneapolis. In which case, he’s not only the most impossibly gifted musician of his generation (as well as any number of those that preceded and followed it), he’s one of us. And that’s doubly true for an Uptown kid.


Everybody’s going Uptown — that’s where I wanna be — Uptown — set your mind free.

There’s a line in Ang Lee’s generally-reviled Taking Woodstock that’s always stuck with me, melodramatic as it might be — when Liev Schreiber’s transgender character tells the film’s young protagonist, played by Demetri Martin, to go down to the concert and “see what the center of the universe feels like.” Been there, done that, thanks to Prince. I was about 12 years old at the height of his Purple Reign, and Minneapolis was ground zero for a new sound, new style, and new sensibility that was sweeping the nation. And ground double-zero was Uptown, well known as the burgeoning mega-star’s favorite neighborhood. It’s also where I grew up. And where waiting around for a chance to see our local royalty was not just a thing to do, but a bona fide way of life for a good couple of years there. Whether you were loitering at one of the tables they used to have in front of the McDonald’s on Lagoon and Hennepin, or standing in line for tickets for that evening’s midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which played every Friday and Saturday at the Uptown Theater to packed houses for at least a decade), one way or another you were on a Prince-sighting mission — and more often than not your efforts weren’t in vain, as he’d cruise by on his purple motorcycle, no entourage in tow, just taking in the sights and sounds of his city. Yeah, we all know he put First Avenue on the map — but when he wasn’t performing or practicing or writing or producing or acting he was Uptown. It’s where he wanted to be, after all. Was it really the center of the universe? Of course not, but it sure felt that way when you were an impressionable little kid and the star of the biggest movie in the country at the time who had a string of number one hit singles to his name hung out five minutes from your house almost every weekend.


I guess I should’ve known, by the way you parked your car sideways, that it wouldn’t last.

Here’s the thing, though — it did. Prince didn’t just have a moment, he was the moment. Even when he was tanking his career on purpose to get out of his contract with Warner Brothers, or changing his name to a symbol, or directing movies when he had no business trying to, or going bankrupt — he never totally faded from view, and still commanded the attention of any and every room he entered. At his career’s lowest ebb, there was never any sense that he needed a “comeback” so much as that he was biding his time waiting for another breakthrough — for the world to catch up to wherever he was at. From time to time it did and he’d be back at the top of the charts with a surprise multi-platinum single or album, and once Musicology cemented his place as the modern king of funk/dance/R and B/rock and roll all over again, he went from legend to “guy for whom legend is too small a word” and stayed there, on his self-made throne, arrived at in his own time via his own singular methodology, until today. He exists — and I suppose always will — as a genre unto himself. Someone whose name will immediately be linked with a sound that’s entirely his for as long as people have ears to listen with — and feet that can tap along to the beat. Go out and find me somebody who doesn’t like at least one Prince song. I dare you.


Sometimes it snows in April.

It didn’t today, but the sentiment from that song, which Prince wrote for a dead friend, certainly applies, especially here in the Twin Cities. Hard-core fans are understandably in mourning, more casual fans are in disbelief, and even folks who hardly followed his career seem a little off. Minneapolis has a palpable sense of loss hanging over it that you can feel, and complete strangers are striking up conversation with each other about something they have in common — an event they can relate to — in a way I haven’t seen since the Twins first won the World Series back in 1987. Back then it was random high-fives and “yes!!!!!!!”s — today it’s a shared sense of sorrow that our greatest living vessel of civic pride is gone, and that maybe we didn’t even realize all he’d done for us until it was too late. Yes, his untimely passing at only 57 years of age (just a handful of weeks after the death of his former protege, Vanity) is front-page news the world over, but it takes on added weight and significance here. I met some of the most passionate Prince fans you’ll ever find anywhere when I saw him in concert in Melbourne, Australia in 2003, and I have no doubt that he’s got zealous adherents all over the globe who are devastated by today’s events, but we’re still, in many ways, a provincial backwater (“fly-over country,” as a former football coach who went on to greener pastures once said of us), and nobody let the world know we were here the way he did. And while we’ll still be here tomorrow, our favorite son won’t — and that’s the most quietly seismic happening this community has arguably ever felt.

A world without Prince is really going to suck. But it’s going to suck even more for us former Uptown kids.


I was pleasantly surprised (enough, at any rate) by Franck Khalfoun’s remake/”re-imagining” of Maniac that he landed on my entirely unofficial and even more entirely unwritten “directors to watch” list, but here’s the thing — the fact that said “list” doesn’t actually exist means that it takes no more effort to scrub a name off it than it does to add one to it, and guess what? Khalfoun’s latest writing and directing “effort,” 2015’s i-Lived, more or less guarantees that’s exactly what I’ll be doing with his. Let the interminable bitching begin —


I barely use apps for shit, but I guess the young folks do, so who knows? Maybe for them, the idea of a flick about one of them that’s kinda/sorta haunted will have greater resonance. And maybe they won’t think this film’s protagonist, a twenty-something nitwit named — groan! — Josh (portrayed in truly cringe-worthy style by the apparently talent-free Jeremiah Watkins), who’s got a degree from fucking Stanford that he’s putting to “use” as an “app critic” on YouTube for no compensation whatsoever (speaking of cringe-worthy, the name of his “show” is “J-Tech Reviews”), is flat-out impossible to relate to. But I sincerely hope that’s not the case, because if there’s an entire generation of people who can empathize with this asshole on even any level, then our society is well and truly doomed.

Fortunately for us all, so is Josh — but sadly, it takes a long time for him to meet his richly-deserved demise. First he’s gotta download the “self-help” app called (as you’re no doubt already aware) “i-Lived” to his phone. Then he’s gotta follow its advice, which frankly seems to work for awhile. Using its timely tips he’s able to get himself a new girlfriend with money named Greta (the fetching Sarah Power), land a bunch of new subscribers for his half-assed channel, and score a deal with an online “network” to broadcast his show on their YouTube feed for big money. Sure, he’s being followed by a mysterious stranger in dark sunglasses who carries an umbrella with his at all times (Brian Breiter), but Josh, being an arrogant bastard and all (his mother is dying of cancer back home and he doesn’t even visit, just talks to her and his dad via Skype), doesn’t even register dude’s presence and thinks that the “success” he’s now having is entirely due to his own “hard work.”


Can you predict what happens next? Of course you can. He deletes “i-Lived” from his iPhone on the advice of Greta and his best friend Bobby (Chris Mena) and in a matter of days his girl cheats on him, his “big deal” falls through, and mom — who had been on the mend for a minute there — is carted off to the hospice ward. So it’s back to “i-Lived,” and suddenly everything is good again, even if he’s essentially having to offer blood sacrifices to the app at this point to keep it “working.” Then bright boy finally holds the name “i-Lived” up to a mirror (actually, to his darkened computer screen) and begins to have some serious second thoughts.  He also bothers to read the fine print on the app’s acceptance screen for the first time and sees that he’s — contain your surprise, please! — signed away his immortal soul to the devil as part of the deal. He wants out at this point, but I guess not that badly, and so all his dreams come true but he hates every second of it and finally kills himself. The end.

Oh, shit — guess I should have said in advance that this review was loaded with “spoilers,” huh? Oh well, I warned you that I was a cultural dinosaur.


That being said, I did watch this celluloid abortion via instant streaming on Hulu (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD but ,needless to say, I don’t recommend even renting, much less purchasing, it) and between Khalfoun’s bland and uninspired direction and uber-predictable script, Watkins’ constant and annoying awareness that he’s on camera, and the film’s complete lack of suspense, intrigue, or even logic (never mind that there’s barely even any blood or gore), the kindest thing I can say about i-Lived is that it’s a total waste of an hour and twenty-one minutes of your life. I have nothing against the tried-and-true, or even the downright cliched, but please, Franck Khalfoun, if by some slim chance you happen to be reading this  — next time you want to tell a story about someone’s life going down the proverbial drain, make sure it’s a life that we don’t want to see over with from the moment we’re introduced to it.




One of the series, along with DMZ,  that made Brian Wood a “household name” among comic-book fans was his  Viking-era epic Northlanders, so when word got out that he was going to be returning to that same time period with his artistic collaborator from The Massive, Garry Brown, in tow, for a new book from Image called Black Road, folks — including yours truly — were pretty well stoked. Wood’s few carefully-chosen words on the (then-) forthcoming title indicated that it was going to be less a work of historically-plausible fiction and more just, well, completely made up, but no matter — if you feel the need to demand “accuracy” from your four-color “floppies” you’re about a hundred years too late, anyway.

Wood was going back to the proverbial well in terms of tone and temperament, to be sure, but the locales, personages, and even some of the timelines were going to be wholecloth inventions more concerned with storytelling expediency than they were with any vague notion of “realism,” and that’s not something that I, at least, have any particular “beef” with.


Nor should you, if the semi-spectacular debut issue of this first “Magnus The Black Mystery” is any indication, the particulars of which can best be outlined as follows : in the Norwegian town of Iskfold in the year of who-the-hell-knows, a mercenary-for-hire named, as you may have already pieced together, Magnus Black accepts a perilous gig to accompany a Christian “holy” man to his destination that lies at the northern end of the dangerous and titular Black Road that runs along something called the Hammarusk Coast. The region is suffering under the iron fist of monotheistic conversion when our story opens, and Black himself, for reasons not yet entirely clear but suitably hinted at, is considering ditching the old gods of Odinism or Asatru, but isn’t entirely sure this new faith being forced upon his fellow Norsemen is much to his liking. The incoming spiritual regime, needless to say, isn’t necessarily keen on folks taking a “wait and see” approach to the “salvation” they’re “offering,” though, and so treachery abounds around every corner — heck, even the job Black has taken on doesn’t prove to be what he thought it was, as he’s actually been charged with protecting an entirely different (and perhaps more sympathetic) party altogether.


The action in this opening chapter (titled “The Holy North”) moves at a nice clip, and Brown is a pro at delineating combat sequences, so that’s something to look forward to over the course of this title’s planned six-issue run (with further “mysteries” to follow should sales warrant it — and let’s hope they do, given that the recent Wood-scripted Rebels met a premature end at issue ten, and that his absolutely superb Starve is now slated to do likewise), as is his grim-n’-gritty depiction of both village and county life during what was undoubtedly a rugged at best/ vicious at worst time.  Colorist Dave McCaig is employing a limited yet highly effective palette to drive the point home in these pages, and so far the results — aside from an overly- abstract cover which I feel missed its mark by a rather wide margin — are bordering on the breathtaking.


Now, maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I still feel that “keep it simple” is solid advice when constructing a first issue, and that’s probably where Black Road #1 finds its greatest success (among a fairly healthy number to choose from). Wood gives us just enough information about each of his characters, puts them in peril precisely at the point where we know enough about them to genuinely give a fuck if they live or die, and then uses the end result of the dangerous predicament he’s foisted upon them to add further layers of intrigue to the proceedings rather than actually resolve anything. That’s good storytelling basics right there, that is, and should go some way towards insuring that the always-precarious sales drop between issues one and two of any and every given series is minimized. As a reader — generally speaking,at any rate — you want your first issues to give you reason to come back for the second, and this comic serves up plenty of ’em.

My advice, then, would be an unqualified “hop on board now.” Black Road doesn’t seem to have any particular ambitions beyond giving us an intelligent, reasonably thought-provoking story packed to the gills with lusciously moody and emotive artwork, but — oh, wait a second, that’s a pretty solid definition of what makes for a good comic right there, isn’t it? At this point I can probably just safely say “what more do you want?” and wrap this whole thing up, and so I shall!


Too often these days, up-and-coming directors (or those determined to convince us that they fit that description) try to reinvent the wheel by giving us something we’ve purportedly “never seen before” —and while ambition is great and all, many (hell, most) of them would be better served by honing their craft on the tried-and-true before going off the deep end in a vain attempt to knock our socks off. Besides, I hate to be the one to break it to you recent film school grads, but there really is nothing new under the sun anyway, and you can just as easily “find your voice” —and get the recognition you so desperately crave — by working within pre-established genre confines as you can blowing the whole damn thing up/throwing the baby out with the bathwater/pick your cliche.

Case in point : Mike Flanagan. He’s directed three feature films now (actually, I understand that he’s got a fourth “in the can,” but that it’s languishing in bankruptcy court as Relativity Media’s holdings are scattered to whatever winds end up picking them up and, more than likely, blowing then off), and they’re all uniformly solid, well-executed efforts that succeed in being both reasonably scary and reasonably surprising by playing with conventions and expectations rather than upending them. Absentia was a strong psychological horror offering that used its budgetary constraints in its favor by keeping much of the true terror “off-screen” and just out of reach; Oculus saw him “go Hollywood” without losing his edge by giving us a time-twister featuring one of the greatest “shoulda seen that coming but didn’t” endings in recent memory; and with his latest, Hush (which was filmed last year,  made its “debut” recently on Netflix,  and should be out on other “home viewing platforms,” including Blu-ray and DVD, before too long), he returns to his low-budget roots and serves up a pleasing twist on the typical “home invasion” premise that is both genius in its simplicity and miles ahead of the pack in terms of its execution.


I had been planning on watching this one sooner or later, to be sure, but Lisa Marie Bowman’s review lit a fire under my ass and convinced me to go with the “sooner” option — and as usual, following her advice proved to be a smart move. Hush is a more stripped-down affair than the most celebrated recent examples of the “home invasion” subgenre (I’m thinking specifically of You’re Next and both iterations of Funny Games), but is no less effective for that — in fact, one of its greatest strengths lies in its absolutely “bare-bones” approach. A deaf-mute author named Maddie (played with incredible gusto by Kate Sigel, who also co-wrote the script along with Flanagan) has retreated to a secluded home in the woods after a bad break-up. She spends most of her time working on her second novel, playing amateur chef, and teaching sign language to her one and only neighbor, Sarah (Samantha Sloyan). Her idyll is shattered one fateful evening, though, when a masked intruder referred to simply in the credits as “The Man” (a creepy-as-fuck John Gallagher Jr.) breaks into Sarah’s place and ends up killing her when she escapes his clutches momentarily and flees to Maddie’s spread for help — never making it past the front porch. And that’s where our heroine captures his attention, interest, and flat-out demonic sense of obsession. He starts by stealing her cell phone — and things only get worse from there, as you’d expect.


Maddie’s disabilities add an intriguing wrinkle to the proceedings here, no doubt, and Flanagan’s increasing confidence as a filmmaker ensures that he chooses just the right times and places for us to experience things as she does by “going silent,” but it takes more than a fiendishly clever conceit to deliver a finished product this strong from a set-up this basic, and that’s where our two leads really step to the fore. Gallagher is pure methodical menace in his turn as “The Man,” scaring the shit out of us despite the fact that his face is obscured for most of the film, but it’s really Siegel who steals the show here, delivering a performance than runs the emotional gamut with the aid of very little dialogue. She’s called upon to do some seriously heavy lifting by communicating what she’s thinking and feeling to the audience without actually saying it, and damn if she doesn’t create a horror heroine for the ages by the time the end credits roll. “Acting!” “Genius!” “Thank you!”


The plot delivers some juicy twists and turns, have no fear on that score, but they’re kept in proper proportion and function merely as the “sizzle” rather than the “steak.” Hush is first and foremost a character-driven horror, and by getting us to actually care about Maddie and actively root for her, the bumps in the road are that much more affecting and unsettling when we do, in fact, hit them. This is all “Storytelling 101” stuff, without question, but that seems to be a class that too many aspiring screenwriters and directors forget about once they finally get their “break” in the industry. Flanagan and Siegel took its lessons to heart, though, and therein lies all the difference.

Hush, then, is more remarkable (and, yes, it is remarkable)  for how it’s done than for what it is — and while some may say that’s me looking to find a way to say nice things about a derivative and formulaic film, I say watch it yourself and then get back to me if you still feel the same way.


Some years back, Dave Sim conducted (via correspondence, if memory serves me correctly) a lengthy and fascinating interview with Alan Moore that he ran over the space of several issues as a backup feature in Cerebus. Moore was, at the time, in the midst of writing From Hell, and one idea that he kept coming back to as he expounded upon his creative process was something that he called “high-altitude mapping,” which is sort of a convenient shorthand term for “when you stand back far enough from the situation, there is no distinct separation between dreams and reality.”

It’s a powerful notion, when you really stop to think about it — after all, isn’t the whole point of living to “chase our dreams”? And don’t the limits imposed on those dreams by daily life’s practicalities whittle down and otherwise confine the scope of them over time? When you’re a kid, maybe you dreamed of being a movie star. Or a rock star. Or a famous author. Or a superstar athlete. Or president of the United States. It’s all technically possible for a time, of course, until our actions, or circumstances, necessarily begin to do away with some or all of those possibilities. Then at some point,  after limiting the scope of your dreams for any number of years, you have kids,  and you tend to transfer your dreams down to them — some of which they may be “on board” with, others of which they may cast aside in favor of their own. And so the cycle continues, our dreams affecting the course of our “real” lives while our “real” lives modify and alter the character of our dreams.

Then there’s the whole matter of the dreams we have while we’re asleep — that raw, unfiltered communication from our subconscious mind that informs our conscious mind in ways we still don’t, and may never, fully understand. In a very real sense we’re talking to ourselves in our dreams, and while they very often appear to make no “sense,” who can deny the power of a dream so “real” that it lingers in our waking thoughts for days on end? Say what you will for outer space, but with apologies to any Star Trek fans that might be reading this, the world of dreams is, in my own opinion, “the final frontier” of human exploration — just as it was, in many ways, the first.

We’ve been fascinated, intrigued, perplexed, and in some cases flat-out terrified by our dreams, and what they say about ourselves, since we first crawled from the primordial ooze, and yet they remain as alluring to us, and as tantalizingly out of our reach, as ever — and that’s never likely to change. Unless it does. But we’ll get back to that in a moment — for now, let’s just acknowledge that as a species we’re positively obsessed by dreams, and H.P. Lovecraft was no exception, devoting many a story to the phenomenon of dreaming, and to exploring the notion that perhaps our “dream life” was our true one, with corporeal, “consensus” reality being , for all intents and purposes, our “secondary life.”


Issue number eight of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence, entitled “The Key,” opens with our protagonist, Robert Black, being regaled with numerous “dream stories” by his host, amateur author/would-be decadent Randall Carver (an obvious stand-in for Randolph Carter, the central figure in many of the stories that comprise Lovecraft’s “Dream Cycle,” with “The Statement Of Randolph Carter” being our de facto “anchor story” in this issue, but elements of said entire “Cycle” coming into play). The first one talked about/shown to readers is lifted directly from Charles Fort’s Book Of The Damned — and, really, given the thematic concerns of Providence and the time period in which it’s set it’s actually something of a surprise that this is our first exposure to so-called “Forteana” within its pages — but in fairly short order Black and Carver are discussing Lovecraft’s own Beyond The Wall Of Sleep and utilizing Carver/Carter’s “700 Steps” method for triggering “lucid dreaming” in order to journey through a semi-conscious landscape that incorporates numerous characters and story elements introduced in previous issues, stylistic homages to the great Winsor McKay, and hey — even some of the imagery featured in the “Dreamscape Wrap” covers that Burrows has lavished so much attention and detail upon. It’s a heady and intoxicating experience, to say the least, and its after-effects most certainly inform the rest of the issue.

One can’t dream forever, though, and if our characters want to make it to the reading being held later that night by Carver’s literary hero, Lord Dunsany, they do need to “snap out of it” and get back to “reality” — whatever that even means at this point. A casual stroll through the streets of Boston (that includes a perhaps-coincidental run-in with a now-obviously-quite-paranoid Dr. Hector North) soon gives way to an enraptured evening of listening to Dunsany talk that sees Black, and perhaps even the rest of the audience, re-enter the “lucid dreaming” state thanks, this time, to the power of the author/speaker’s words alone, and without the assistance of whatever it was that was burning in Carver’s incense pot earlier. Heck, not even one step is necessary this time around, much less 700 of them.


Don’t discount the ability of the physical world to hold surprises of its own, though, for once the lecture is over, the “big moment” that we’ve all been waiting for in this series arrives : Black meets Lovecraft himself for the first time, and the shock wave that this creates in the — I dunno, ether? — draws the attention of many a key player from earlier chapters in this sprawling epic. Could this, in fact, be the meeting of “The Herald” and “The Redeemer” long prophesied by the Stella Sapiente order? Black, as usual, is oblivious to this possibility, but at least he’s got a valid excuse — as he departs into the evening, Lovecraft’s invitation to come visit him anytime at his home in Providence having just been proffered, key early passages from Beyond The Wall Of Sleep are ringing in his ears so insistently and profoundly that he actually hears the people around him saying them, and this storytelling conceit is made all the more concrete thanks to their dialogue being rendered in a type-written font not unlike what one would find in the pages of one of Lovecraft’s books.


That bit of “fourth-wall busting” closes the main story out, but in the “Commonplace Book” backmatter that appends the issue, there is a curious fuck-up on page 29 that I don’t actually think is a fuck-up at all when viewed in the context of where this story has been heading all along — Black refers to Carver as “Carter” at one point on the page in question, and I humbly submit that this “blending,” if you will, of the “real” and the “dream” worlds is what Moore and Burrows have been building towards from the outset. It’s only a theory, mind you, but the insertion of Lovecraft into a narrative based on his works, the overall project of the Stella Sapiente being a “flipping” of the “real” and “dream” worlds, the assertion in the last issue that said “dream” world exists underground — it all fits in with the “high-altitude mapping” Moore discussed in his conversation with Sim, and leads me to believe that what we are witnessing in Providence is a slowly-unfolding occult ritual on the author’s part with an aim not so entirely different from that of, as Garland Wheatley called them, the “Stel Saps.” Moore may not be looking to actively overwrite our consensus reality with the “dreamscape,” but he’s actively blurring the distinctions between the two of them to the point where they either can’t be discerned anymore, or fade into absolute irrelevance. He and Burrows are playing not just with our perception of the world, but with the very nature of the world that we’re perceiving. If you want to be glib about it, you could say that they’re telling a fictional story — that’s becoming increasingly true.  And if you’re still not picking this book up, you’re missing out on perhaps the most thematically, artistically, and, yes, magickally ambitious comics series not just of this year, this decade, or even this young century, but — no shit — of your entire life.


Graphic Policy


I was excited. You were excited. Heck, we were all excited when we learned that Marvel Comics had landed one of America’s leading public intellectuals, the esteemed (and rightly so) Ta-Nehisi Coates, to write a new 12-part Black Panther series. And we were doubly excited when we found out that the legendary Brian Stelfreeze was going to draw it. Finally! After too long — way too long, in fact — King T’Challa and his fictitious nation of Wakanda were going to be portrayed with something akin to authenticity. If anyone “gets” this character, it’s gotta be Coates, right? And if anyone out there was born to draw him, it’s Stelfreeze. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, the answer to that question — and I say this with a deep and profound sense of regret — is “a lot.”


Neither Coates nor Stelfeeze is responsible for…

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