Archive for November, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In recent weeks, Ouija : Origin Of Evil has meet with a surprisingly positive critical and commercial reception, but you know how we do things here at TFG : why review the “real thing” when low-budget alternatives are available? To that end, I plunked myself down in front of Netflix the other night and watched writer/director Israel Luna’s 2011 “found footage” horror The Ouija Experiment, as well as its sequel (which we’ll get to in our next write-up), just to say I did my part to support the current Ouija craze without putting a dime in Hollywood’s pocket. As it turns out, though, I shouldn’t have wasted my time.

Cranked out for the paltry sum of $1,200, Luna’s flick is the sort of thing I probably should have enjoyed just to maintain my reputation as a connoisseur of zero-budget filmmaking, but try as I might — and believe me, I tried pretty damn hard — I simply couldn’t find any saving graces hidden anywhere in this pile of derivative, stupid schlock. By the time it was done the only positive I could extract from the experience was the knowledge that at least I didn’t waste my time or money renting — much less buying — this thing on Blu-ray or DVD (although it is available in both formats, if you absolutely must ignore my advice), but when that’s all a movie has going for it, well, that’s less than nothing, isn’t it?

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Our plot particulars are as follows : college-age self-absorbed nitwits Shay (played by Belmarie Huynh), Brandon (Carson Underwood), Calvin (Eric Window), and LyNette (Swisyzinna — who’s nowhere near talented or famous enough to be a “one-named” performer, but whatever) are headed to their friend Michael (Justin Armstrong)’s house for your standard-issue evening of debauchery and scrying. The house has a bit of a history in that a brutal crime was purportedly committed there back in 1976 (with the ostensibly “guilty” party being convicted based on the fact that he left DNA at the scene — not that they had the ability to test for such things back then), and of course they’re gonna commit whatever happens to video just in case it’s actually interesting.

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And it does, of course, what follows is just a series of shop-worn horror cliches that were already well beyond their sell-by date 20 years ago. Cue strange noises. Fleeting images moving quickly into and out of frame. Shit happening to make characters jump. And the restless spirit of a little girl (Leah Diaz) at the center of the entire “mystery.” You’ve seen it all before more times than you can count, and you’ve seen it done by folks who can actually act, which is something no one in this film can do.

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Luna tries to jazz things up with some pointless, hackneyed interpersonal drama between members of his principal cast, but they’re all so relentlessly shallow and one-dimensional (if that), you’ll honestly find yourself hard-pressed to give a flying fuck about any of them — a problem that escalates from being persistent and annoying to downright unforgivable when the time comes for them to start either living or dying. Despite his obvious (over-) familiarity with genre tropes, our lower-than-low rent director simply can’t figure out a way to make you care in the least about what he’s serving up here, and if you can sustain any level of interest whatsoever in this utter shit beyond, say, the 20-minute mark, then congratulations — you’re doing a lot better than I did.

Sill, The Ouija Experiment obviously made a profit — not a difficult thing to do given its budget — and four years later came back for round two. We’ll delve into that next, but fair warning : if you’re expecting this “franchise” (a term I use very loosely) to make some kind of miraculous turnaround, don’t hold your breath.

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You can do a lot with $30,000. You can buy a pretty nice car. You can make a sizable down payment on a pretty big house. You can take one hell of a nice vacation to just about anywhere. Or, if you’re California-based indie filmmaker Gualtiero Negrini, you can head out to the Lucerne Valley and crank out a moody, almost dreamlike little horror flick.

Obviously, our guy Gualtiero chose the latter option of the bunch, and the end result is Fairlane Road, which was filmed earlier this very year (that’s 2016, in case you’re reading this in what will become the future) and recently found its way onto Netflix’s list of horror selections (no word as of yet about a Blu-ray or DVD release). Most of this straight-to-streaming stuff is pretty well crap — if you’re a regular reader of this site you’ve seen me bitch about enough of it to know how I feel — but I have to say that on the whole, especially given its numerous and obvious limitations, this one isn’t half bad at all.  Which is pretty far from a ringing endorsement, I suppose, but it’s an honest assessment, and I don’t see how you can ask for any more out of your freely-available internet content than that.

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Here’s the deal, then : a rather listless young-ish man named Nick (Anthony Sherritt) is headed out to the high desert to take care of his dying uncle, Jack (played by Negrini himself) when his admittedly cool car has some trouble along the way, forcing him to make the acquaintance-at-a-distance of a mysterious, nameless, semi-ethereal Native American woman (Lucy Kazarian) and an even-more-mysterious “YA” Native American girl wearing a leg brace and carrying a balloon (Sophia Marie Negrini, who I assume is the director’s kid, or niece, or something) who’s equally nameless and most probably the just-mentioned woman’s daughter. The pair of them start turning up so often, in fact — either somewhat together or completely separately — that one could even be forgiven for assuming that they must be stalking our ostensible “hero.”

Still, he gets to where he’s going sooner or later — okay, later, given this film’s languid pacing — but when his uncle’s nurse, Kateri (Aurora Martinez) clues him into the fact that his family property sits atop a mass grave of her Native American ancestors that were killed by white settlers in the area, you know things are only gonna get worse. I mean, curses and all that, right?

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Still, I have to give Negrini and Sherritt, who co-wrote the script, credit for eschewing the blatantly obvious here and always keeping you on your toes. They don’t do much to make Nick a likable character — in fact, he’s so annoying that when he runs into the “Vato”-type guys above, you hope they’ll kick the shit out of him or worse — but he’s at least interesting, as are all the other folks in the film. The quality of the acting varies, of course, as you’d expect in a production of this sort, but none of it is actively bad (wish I could say the same for some of the CGI, but you can only do so much when you’re making a movie on mid-price car money) and the film’s evocative cinematography and more-than-competent scene staging make for a moody and atmospheric viewing experience that keep you reasonably involved in the proceedings even when there’s not a whole lot going on — which, as already stated, is pretty damn often.

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Tell ya what, though — warts and all, Fairlane Road does a good job of keeping viewers guessing as well as feeling genuinely uneasy about where things are headed. And while it more than takes its time getting where it’s going, it has a genuinely “tripped out” conclusion that makes the ride well worth the taking. It’s probably not a movie that you’ll find yourself watching over and over again as the years go by or anything, but it’s a mystifying flick with a lower-than-low-key vibe all its own that comes through at the end with a nice payoff. It can try your patience at times, sure, but it ultimately rewards it, and for that, Negrini and company more than earn a tip of this critic’s hat. Not that I’m wearing one, but whatever.

 

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Last week, I cranked out a little column called “Five Comics To Help You Survive The Age Of Trump” that got a fairly healthy number of hits and re-tweets and all that shit — for which I’m grateful, rest assured — but while that piece focused entirely on currently-running series, the perhaps-unbelievable truth is that comics’ ultimate response to the “Trump Age” actually came out way back in 1971.

If there’s one creator who could predict the future with uncanny accuracy it was, of course, Jack Kirby — and he frequently did just that. Kirby was — and remains — comics’ pre-eminent visionary, but one could actually make a strong argument that the fruits of his boundless imaginative prowess constitute the single-greatest body of work produced by any artist in any medium in the last century. Every great creative genius has a greatest work of his or her own, though, and it’s a fairly safe bet that the majority of Kirby fans and scholars would point to his Fourth World opus — a long-form series of connected titles comprised of Forever PeopleNew GodsMister Miracle and, believe it or not, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen — as representing “The King Of Comics” (a title that he will never relinquish) at his absolute apex. The raw, undeniable power of Jack’s illustrations from this early-’70s period is still breathtaking to behold, it’s true, but what sets his Fourth World books apart from the already-stratospheric heights achieved by his previous works (he did, after all, create a multi-billion-dollar mythical juggernaut you may have head of called the Marvel Universe) is the sheer philosophical, conceptual, and metaphysical weight of the (sorry to use the term, but) “senses-shattering” storyline that he was able to marry seamlessly with his jaw-dropping visuals. Add in a  poetically bombastic writing style that the ill-informed have often chided as being “clunky” and/or “unrealistic” (as if “realism” was ever the point) and the end result is a true modern epic in every sense of the word. If, in the far-flung future, our civilization is effectively plowed over and forgotten to the point where no trace of the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, or any other purportedly “holy” books remains, one can actually envision some neo-primitive survivor stumbling across a couple issues of any of these comics and basing a new religion on them, so soul-shaking and perspective-rattling is the magnitude of their scope. These aren’t just comics — they are four-color transmissions from a consciousness quite beyond our understanding, but one that we recognize to be undeniably true and good. To many readers of the time, they were almost “too much” to fully take on board — no less an authority on subjects both comic and cosmic than Grant Morrison has described his first youthful encounter with them as leaving him feeling as though he’d been “mugged by the word of God” — but with the full advantage of hindsight, we can finally see them for what they were and are : a gauntlet thrown down in the spirit of showing us the way forward, if only we possess courage enough to accept the challenge.

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Unfortunately, of course, all too often we don’t. A world based on kindness, voluntary co-operation, peace, understanding, mutual respect, and open communication was what the so-called “Flower Power” generation claimed it was aiming for, absolutely — and of all the Fourth World books it was Forever People that made the most direct appeal to these ideals via its youthful protagonists (Big Bear, Mark Moonrider, Beautiful Dreamer, Serifan, and Vykin, The Black, for those of you who may not know) — but Jack had fought in the European theater during WWII. He’d helped to liberate the concentration camps. He’d felt the sting of anti-Semitic bigotry personally as a youth. And he understood the frightening siren call of surrendering your individuality to a kind of comfortable-but-deadly “group mind” exemplified by the blank-eyed masses shown on the first page of Forever People #3 (cover-dated July, 1971) shown above.

He also knew that a charismatic charlatan able to tap into humanity’s darkest and most primal fears could then exploit these masses to his own ends after sufficiently strip-mining them of their critical reasoning ability and promising them “safety” and “security” as part and parcel of joining his movement. “Leave it to me — leave it all to me — and I’ll take care of everything” has been the demagogue’s hollow promise since time immemorial. It was at the core of Hitler’s appeal. Mao’s appeal. Franco’s appeal. Mussolini’s appeal.

And today, both depressingly and predictably, it’s back to rear its intellectually and morally worthless head yet again. A vulgar and combative con man with a lifetime of broken vows, both business and personal,  trailing in his wake has grabbed this country by the — well, you know what — with talk of building walls to “protect” us. Of kicking out millions of people for the “safety” of those who remain. Of destroying our purported “enemies” utterly and without mercy. Of putting our unemployed citizens back to work in factories and production plants that by and large no longer exist. Of ridding our communities of crime root and branch not by addressing its causes, but by turning loose the power of militarized law enforcement. All we have to do is give in. Trust him. Follow him. Place our faith in him. Surrender to him. But before Donald Trump, there was Glorious Godfrey.

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A smooth-talking huckster from the dread world of Apokolips, Godfrey even looks like Trump, doesn’t he? And his travelling revival show — rumored to be based on the religion-as-spectacle efforts of Billy Graham — eerily echoes the Trump rally 45 years before there was such a thing. Life itself is the problem, Godfrey tells us, but he alone can make yours right if you just, ya know, fork it over to him, and allow yourself to become one of his zombified, technologically-augmented “Justifiers” — shock troops in his army to remake the world in his own image. Purposely conflating unity with submission to the point where the average attendee of his batshit-crazy carny show can’t tell the difference anymore, Godfrey doesn’t just have answers, he has all the answers — hell, he has the answer. It’s called “Anti-Life.” And it’s gonna Make America Great Again.

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Like all would-be conquerors, though, Godfrey is himself merely a pawn for the power behind the throne he looks to place himself on, just as Trump is a front for the very same “global elites” and “international bankers” he rails against. A 20-percent cut in the corporate tax rate and a six-percent (for now — watch that cut get bigger and bigger with successive income tax “reform” packages) slashing of the top marginal personal tax rates ain’t gonna do shit for Trump’s working-class base, but it sure will make the rich bastards who owned all those shuttered factories where they used to work happy. And if you know Kirby’s Fourth World, you already know that the puppeteer pulling Godfrey’s strings is none other than Darkseid himself, a creature of such unyielding and incalculable evil that the pages he was depicted on could scarcely contain his malignant ferocity. As always, no matter how wretched the public face of mass control may be, the one that hides in the shadows, controlling the would-be controller, is even worse.

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Of course, our intrepid youthful heroes were able to scuttle Godfrey’s plans in the pages of Forever People #3, but their victory was shown to be a temporary one. The forces of darkness and dehumanization, Kirby knew all too well, would always be there to haunt us, and would always find a willing audience among those frightened to be truly alive — as well as to the extend the basic right of self-determination to others. I’m glad Jack’s not here to see the rise of Donald Trump. He was a kind, caring, loving, generous, and brilliant man — and as famous as he is for saying that “comics will break your heart,” (an opinion he arrived at thanks in no small part to another staggeringly duplicitous con artist, Stan Lee) I think this sorry and reprehensible period our nation has entered into would have crushed him perhaps beyond all hope of repair. But I’m even more glad that his work — in all its undeniable vibrancy, vitality, heartfelt integrity, and glory — is with us still, and resonating as clear a clarion call as it ever has. They may have Donald Trump, but we have Jack Kirby — is there any doubt who you’d back in that titanic struggle of cosmic absolutes?

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I don’t get it. There are literally thousands of aspiring horror filmmakers out there just looking to get noticed. They bust their asses for days, weeks, months, even years. They populate their crews and casts with friends, relatives, or other low-to-no-price talent searching for a usually-elusive big break themselves. They pour everything they’ve got and then some into getting their flicks made, hustling up whatever cash they can via crowdfunding, loans, you name it. They work two or three jobs to finance their ventures themselves to whatever extent they can and film at nights, on weekends, or whenever they have a couple of hours to spare. And if and when their movies get completed, then they have to double down and work even harder just to get anyone to see them. They hit you up on twitter. They email you. They start facebook pages that get 15 members. And they never give up, leaving the line between “persuasive” and “pestering” too far back in the dust to even see it anymore. Do most of their films suck? Absolutely. Without question. But there are some true gems out there in the world of homemade horror, damn near literally dying to be seen, and yet — 99.999% of them never will be.

Then along comes comes a guy like Jeffrey Hunt, who, because he has some connections in the world of TV, gets a lousy and uninspired feature like 2016’s Satanic financed and distributed despite the fact that it’s so relentlessly stupid that no one in their right mind would sit through the whole thing.

Unless they plan on reviewing it, of course. So call me stupid, but I hit “play” on this thing on Netflix the other night (I believe it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD but you shouldn’t bother) and toughed it out so that I could spare you, dear reader, the same miserable fate. I guess sometimes I just give ’til it hurts.

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Here’s the deal : four cardboard ciphers — obvious final-girl-to-be Chloe (played by Sarah Hyland), jock-with-a-heart-of-gold David (Steven Krueger), “Goth Guy” Seth (Justin Chon), and annoying sidekick Elise (Clara Mamet) — are headed to Coachella (I hate them already) when they decide to visit some purportedly “Satanic” California crime scenes along the way. Early on they meet a mysterious figure named Alice (Sophie Dalah), and soon after they find themselves making one brain-meltingly stupid choice after another as they follow her lead into a downward spiral that eventually delivers them all into the hands of a —yawn! — cult that has sinister plans for our collegiate creeps. Kill ’em all now and get it over with, please.

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Most of the principal cast have a decent enough grasp on the basics of acting, so that’s a plus, but screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski’s script is so aggressively hackneyed that whatever marginal amount of talent they have just goes to waste, and Hunt’s dull and plodding directorial style does less than nothing to elevate his decidedly sub-par material. Satanic goes from being plodding to being an absolute chore to endure at about the 20-to-25-minute mark, and it honestly never recovers — nor does it seem to even be trying to do so until the very end, when it attempts to pull a “surprise” ending out of its celluloid ass that is both exceedingly stupid and far too late in coming. The only mercy offered viewers here is when the closing credits finally begin to roll.

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Production values on this one aren’t too bad in spite of an obviously low budget — there’s a graphic throat-slitting scene that’s pretty cool for gorehounds like myself — but it’s not worth sitting through 84-and-a-half minutes of utter shit for 30 seconds of “hey, that ain’t bad.” So depending on whether you’re a “glass half full”- or “glass half empty”-type of person, Satanic either offers proof that anyone has a chance to get a film released, no matter how terrible, or that Hollywood simply doesn’t have a clue what the fuck it’s doing and that you’re better off seeing if the local snowblower factory or take-out barbecue joynt is hiring, because no matter how good your amateur horror film might be, you’re never going to get anywhere with it unless you’ve got industry friends with a little bit of money to burn.

 

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I meant to see writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room when it was out in theaters “back” in 2015. Never happened. Then I meant to see it as soon as it came out on Blu-ray (from Lionsgate, who have put together a nice little package with a “making-of” featurette and a full-length director’s commentary track that’s pretty engaging). Never happened. Then it finally made it to the top of my Netflix rental queue (yes, I still have one of those) and guess what? Last night I did, finally, see it. And you know what? I’m glad I waited.

I say that because as good as Green Room no doubt seemed when it came out — and it is very good — it now seems downright prescient as an allegory for American life circa late 2016/early 2017. A year-and-change ago this punks-vs.-Nazis survival horror probably came off as being a bit far-fetched to many viewers, but that was back when the idea of uneducated rural racists seemed an almost quaint anachronism of a day and age that had thankfully passed. Now, their chosen con-man-turned-candidate is headed for the White House, and he’s bringing their wretched movement’s most successful spokesman, the risible and pathetic Steve Bannon, along for the ride — and so, in a very real sense, this flick has ended up becoming a preview of Trump’s America in microcosm.

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Of course, back when Green Room came out, co-star Anton Yelchin was also very much alive, so a solemn air of a Hollywood — and an America — that was and might have been hangs heavy over the proceedings here and accentuates a wistful tone already inherent in the beautiful and near-romantically shot Pacific Northwest landscapes. If you saw this film upon release, then, you’d probably be doing yourself a favor to go back and check it out again now in light of the small- and large-scale tragedies that have happened since and see if it hits you even harder this time. My bet is that it almost certainly will.

For those unfamiliar with the set-up here, it plays out as follows : an east coast punk band consisting of lead singer Tiger (played by Callum Turner), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), bassist Pat (Yelchin), and drummer Reece (Joe Cole) are wrapping up their latest tour with no money, food, or gas for their van. Their final show ends up a total bust thanks to half-assed preparation from Bay Area fan-boy/promoter Tad (David W. Thompson), but all hope is not lost — Tad can line ’em up with one more gig thanks to some cousin of his who knows a club out in the sticks that needs a bill-filler the next afternoon as part of an all-day music fest. It pays cash, which is always nice, but he warns them not to get too political, as it’s strictly a “boots and braces” crowd out in BF Oregon.

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Tell ya what, though, this band has balls — they get up in front of the racist fucking skinhead bastards (remember when we called ’em what they were instead of all this “alt- right” and “white nationalist” bullshit?) , play the DK classic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” and somehow get out of the place alive. For a second, at any rate. Until they get back to the titular green room, where they witness a brutal crime that suddenly thrusts them into an uneasy temporary alliance with a local “white power” fraulein named Amber (Imogen Poots) as they all fight to stay alive against the low-rent stormtroopers under the command of cold-blooded backwoods would-be Hitler Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart at his absolute best and most chilling). Spurts of intensely bloody and graphic violence expertly timed for maximum impact punctuate the white-knuckle (in this case very white-knuckle) tension that Saulnier lays on thick and heavy, but the real genius of this film lies in marrying the kind of psychotic evil we’re used to seeing in the horror genre (its most obvious physical manifestation here coming in the form of Eric Edelstein’s “Big Justin” character) with a very real and dangerous political ideology. And it’s twice as frightening now that there are far fewer than six degrees of separation between the skinhead movement and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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Populated with heart, gallows humor, spellbinding performances across the board, agonizingly human characters, and a very real and palpable threat, Green Room would (and, hey, should) have been my pick for best horror film of 2015 if I had seen it then — in post-election 2016, it’s downright essential viewing. This is what we’re up against, and it’s very frightening indeed. Nazi Trump Fuck Off.

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From Bonnie And Clyde to Natural Born Killers, star-crossed lovers on the run from the law and racing head-first to a date with death have been a popular box-office draw for decades, and if you’re willing to tinker with the formula just a bit it’s not too great a leap to see how drive-in classics like Bonnie’s Kids and Black Mama, White Mama are cut from very much the same cloth. With the popularity of the exploitation ethos at an all-time high in the pages of indie comics thanks to series like Alex Di Campi’s Grindhouse and Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, then, it was probably only a matter of time before we got our own funnybook stand-ins for Mickey and Mallory, and now that writer Frank J. Babiere and artist Victor Santos’ new Image five-parter, Violent Love, is on LCS shelves, my only question is — what the hell took so long?

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These two have teamed up before, on the Boom! Studios revisionist super-hero min-series Black Market, and their experience and familiarity with each others’ storytelling strengths is on full display here, as this first issue reads almost as seamlessly as something from the mind and pen of a single creator. Our opening installment treats us to the tragic backstory of only one of the pair — whirlwind-of-trouble Daisy Jane (I assume Rock Bradley will get his due next month) — and if you dig well-developed “origin stories” you’re going to find a lot to like here. True, we’ve met Daisy’s like before, but I’m no sure we’ve ever met anyone quite like her, if you get what I’m saying. A solid framing sequence set in a dusty Texas backwater is the perfect narrative device for plunging us into this tale of doomed romance, and while the pacing of the issue is anything but breakneck, there’s a whole lot of character development packed into this book’s extra-length page count (Image is doing this with a lot of their “number ones” lately — and keeping the cover price steady at $3.99), as well as action aplenty. I found it to be a fairly quick read on the whole, true, but not an insubstantial one by any stretch of the imagination. In short, you get your money’s worth from this comic on the strength of Barbiere’s script alone.

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Fortunately for us all, though, that’s only the half of it. Santos’ slick and stylish line art may be a bit “cartoony” for some folks’ tastes, but there’s simply no arguing that it fits this material to a “T” and goes a long way toward advancing the cinematic flavor of the proceedings. There are a number of pages that are laid out almost exactly like film storyboards, and if you get the feeling that this whole thing is playing out like a movie that just hasn’t been made yet, congratulations — you’re not alone. Santos also handles the coloring on this book himself, and his watercolor-flavored digital palette looks just plain great and gives everything a “grainy old 16mm” finishing touch. Are you picking up on the idea that I’m pretty much in love with this comic yet?

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I guess there’s always a possibility that this series  will go right down the tank and I’ll leave to eat these words, but — nah, that ain’t gonna happen. These are confident creators and I’m confident in them. Everyone — genre cinema fans in particular — would be doing themselves “a solid” (do people still say that?) to jump on board Violent Love right now. I try my best to avoid hackneyed catch-phrases like “highest possible recommendation” in my reviews, but ya know what? Babiere and Santos’ obvious labor of love deserves exactly that.

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Like a lot of you, I’m still pretty well numb with shock over what the hell happened last Tuesday night — and if you’re not, read no further since what I’ve got to say will just piss you off. Will we survive this mess? Do we even deserve to if our country is this fucking stupid? Both are questions none of us can answer right now — but when I ride the train to and from work and see the abject terror on the faces of my fellow Minneapolitans who happen to be Hispanic or Muslim, I know this country has taken a turn for the darker, and it’s going to be up to those of us with a conscience to make sure that our friends, neighbors, and family members all feel both welcome and safe in this new, reactionary America. The angry white males are back in the driver’s seat — hopefully for the last time, given their shrinking numbers — and the threat to everyone who doesn’t fit into that narrow demographic is downright palpable. For my part, I refuse to get on board and quietly accept this repugnant new anti-intellectual, nativist, xenophobic vision of our country, and fortunately for those who are of a like mind, there’s plenty we can do in order to make our voices heard by lawful means, including — buying comic books?

Yup, while cartoonists from R. Crumb to Garry Trudeau have skewered our president-elect (I still throw up in my mouth a little bit every time I have to say or type that) quite righteously over the years, there are plenty of funnybooks on the stands right now that, while not taking Trump on explicitly or specifically, vigorously repudiate the man and everything he stands for, so here’s a sampling of five current titles (note this is NOT intended as a “top five” list, as these are all fine reads) to help remind you that there is another, better US of A hidden within the one we currently see playing itself out before our eyes (and, crucially, it’s a LARGER one, given that the orange-hued blob of flatulent fascism actually LOST the popular vote) and that one day — hopefully very soon — the values of optimism, inclusion, tolerance, and (not to be too grandiose) love will win out over the petty fears and prejudices of a dwindling and ill-informed political minority.

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5. Bitch Planet (Image) – Let’s not kid ourselves : our soon-to-be president is an unrepentant sexist and misogynist of the lowest, most reprehensible sort, and his supreme court nominees are certain to do major damage to women’s rights. So thank the goddess that we’ve got the most stridently feminist comic series of all time going right now courtesy of Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. This grindhouse-flavored book does women in prison with a sci-fi twist, and just as important as its all-inclusive cast (women of color, trans women, and even men play active roles in the proceedings) and politically-charged story is its superb backmatter, which is a gathering place for feminist thought and discussion every issue. I can only imagine the positive impact these (accurately) self-described “community pages” will have on an increasingly-marginalized-and-objectified female readership in the face of the forthcoming all-out assault on their very humanity courtesy of President “Grab ‘Em By The Pussy.” Bitch Planet was always challenging and enlightening reading — now it’s flat-out necessary reading.

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4. Ms. Marvel (Marvel) – The best way to fight back against Islamophobic bigotry? Show that Muslim Americans are people just like anyone else, of course. G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel (currently illustrated by Takeshi Miyazawa) has been bridging divides since she first came on the scene in 2014, and now Kamala Khan has graduated to the level of a genuine pop-culture phenomenon.  Is there a place for her in Trump’s less-than-brave new world? You bet there is, as long as as we keep supporting this fine series. Positive representation of our Islamic brothers and sisters is downright crucial now, and fortunately for us, it’s already happening in the pages of this book. One word of warning, though — Marvel head honcho Ike Perlmutter was a major Trump supporter and financier, so you may want to take that into consideration before deciding to put money in his pocket.

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3. Shade, The Changing Girl (DC/Young Animal) – This might seem a surprising choice since it’s in no way a political comic, but so far Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone’s series has been a terrific look into the mind of a true outsider — outsider as in, an other-dimensional alien in a teenage girl’s body. And if there’s one thing history’s taught us about would-be authoritarian strongmen, it’s that they’re quick to marginalize and endanger anyone they consider “the other” — racial, sexual, ethnic, and religious minorities are usually at the top of the list of targets, but anyone who acts or even thinks differently is bound to be labeled a “freak,” “weirdo,” “subversive,” or even “traitor” in fairly short order. Shit, it wasn’t that long ago that anyone and everyone opposed to the Bush/Cheney war agenda was called “unpatriotic” and even “unamerican.” Multiply the nationalist zealotry and enforced conformity of those years by about a thousand and you’ll have some idea of how ugly it’s going to get for people opposed to Trump. “Safe spaces” for the culturally marginalized are going to be a real oasis in the years ahead — this comic definitely says “it’s okay to be different.”

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2. Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics) – Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your series populated with punks, queers, and strong Latinas got us through the Reagan years in one piece, and now you’re back just in time to do the same through an even more reactionary period in our history. Everything about this comic just makes me think the world’s gonna be okay.

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1. Renato Jones : The One % (Image) – One thing’s for sure : for all his phony-ass populist rhetoric, Trump’s a rich bastard, and he’s going to look out for himself and his pals first and foremost. If you thought the class war was hopelessly one-sided in favor of the wealthy before, wait until you see what the next few years bring. He’s already talking about lowering the top marginal income tax rates substantially and slashing the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%. The so-called “1%” are going to feast on the rest of us under a Trump administration, but  Kaare Kyle Andrews and his eponymous hero, Renato Jones, know what to do about these sons-of-bitches — take ’em out by any means necessary. When non-violent resistance simply doesn’t cut it for you anymore, this is your “go-to” comic. Renato’s already given one Trump stand-in a violent comeuppance, and right now is taking down another — while romancing a fictionalized Ivanka. Surreal, ultraviolent stuff with a strong social conscience.

So there you have it — all may seem lost right now, and who knows? Maybe it is. But let’s not go down without a fight. And let’s not go down without our comics.