Archive for January 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Regular readers of the blathering assemblages of non-sequiturs and stream-of-consciousness semi-tirades that I have the gall to call “reviews” already know that the distant margins is where I often find the most interesting stuff, and they don’t come much more marginal or distant than 2016’s Dolly Deadly, a brutally surreal and intentionally ugly $10,000 production lensed in the depressing backwater of Chester, California by director Heidi Moore. Simply put, if you’re looking for a flick that makes you feel like an irredeemably sick fuck for even knowing of its existence, never mind actually watching it, then you could do a lot worse than this blood-soaked serving of deeply troubled and troubling psychological unease. I know I certainly felt like I could use a good, cold shower after catching it on Amazon Prime (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD, from what I understand) the other day — but how, exactly, does one shower the stain off one’s brain?

The story here, written by Moore and Cassandra Sechler, revolves around the tormented upbringing of a trailer park youth named Benji (played with chilling deadpan veracity by Justin Moore), who takes the terms “sullen” and “withdrawn” to whole new levels and feels that his collection of dolls — and, yes, he’s constantly informed by his grandmother (Kimberly West-Carroll) , in-and-out (as well as out-and-out) lowlife Donald (Jay Sosnicki) and any and all other adults and youth he encounters that “boys don’t play with” such things — represents the closest things to “friends” that he has. So, ya know, when a bunch of shit piles on him in quick succession and he finally snaps, it’s only natural that he’d dress up like a “living doll” himself and kill everyone in sight, right?

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Is the plot simple? Sure. The best ones usually are. But the unfathomable psychosis of the lead character is anything but, the horrors inflicted upon him are quietly depraved, and his vengeance is — well, not-so-quietly depraved, plus interest. Moore and Sechler have described their film as a kind of John Waters-meets-Troma mash-up, but in truth, Dolly Deadly doesn’t offer any sort of humorous safety valve of the sort you find in Serial Mom or The Toxic Avenger. It’s no more “realistic” than those films, to be sure — the gaudy day-glo color schemes employed throughout and OTT practical effects work see to that — but for all its unreality, it still feels, paradoxically enough, like something that could happen because, God help this society we live in, there are tons of kids this far-gone out there who are probably only one bad day away from “pulling a Benji” themselves, and often not without reason. To the extent, ya know, that their ability to reason is even functioning —

Photograph taken on the set of Dolly Deadly during a shoot in February 2014!

“Make ’em die slowly — and painfully!” seems to be the nearest thing to a “philosophy” that Benji has once he dons the mask and make-up, and I’ve gotta say, this youngster does a damn good job of living up to that, especially considering that he lacks any advance training in the murderous arts. His kills aren’t particularly original in terms of their methodology, but they are particularly brutal, and Moore stages each and every one of them with a reasonable amount of elan and considerable gusto. But for all the red syrup and fairly-convincing viscera on display, it’s what we don’t see — the inner workings of Benji’s warped mind — that holds the real scares here, and that will stick with you long after the Karo washes off. I just seriously can’t get over how memorable a slasher this intrepid little whippersnapper is, and considering that young Mr. Moore probably has zero formal acting instruction to his credit and spends much of the film with his face obscured, I’m damn near ready to give him an Oscar for producing such a memorable performance under such challenging circumstances. Unfortunately, the Academy seems to have forgotten, once again, to mail me a ballot this year.

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Tell ya what, though, our gal Heidi should definitely have one delivered to her PO box, because Hollywood could desperately use her advice on how to stretch a dollar well past its breaking point. Sure, this flick has a “cheap look,” but definitely not $10,000 cheap. The hallucinatory dream sequences interspersed throughout alone look like they cost a lot more than that to make, and seldom have I seen a “micro-budget” auteur get as much bang for their buck as she does here. Granted, you can get away with a lot more when your “low-fi” film blatantly calls for an equally “low-fi” aesthetic, but even that’s a valuable lesson other ultra-indie horror filmmakers could learn from : rather than trying to pretend your limitations don’t exist, or hope you can pull a rabbit out of your hat to somehow supersede them,  embrace  them and use them to your advantage and you’ll go a hell of a lot farther.

All told, then, on levels both artistic and practical, Dolly Deadly is a solid, bordering on remarkable, achievement. It’s ugly. It’s disturbing. It’s disgusting. It’s well beyond weird. It’s unwholesome in the extreme. And it wallows in its own filth with something approaching sheer glee, minus the happiness usually attendant with that term. This is “micro-budget” misanthropy par excellene and I loved every minute of it while hating myself for doing so.