Archive for June, 2017

Sometimes you just know what a movie’s about before you’ve even seen it.

Take, for instance, the low-budget 2015 Canadian production Man Vs that I checked out on Netflix the other night (I gather that it’s also available on DVD). With a title like that, is there any doubt in your mind that we’re going to have some kind of “reality” TV theme going on here? And that it’s most likely a “found footage” film?

You already know the answers to both those questions, so perhaps the first (and, as it turns out, only) surprise on offer from director Adam Massey and his screenwriter, Thomas Michael (working from a story by Massey himself) is that the “reality” host that their protagonist, Doug (played by Chris Diamantopoulos), is based on has a lot more in common with Bear Grylls than he does with Adam Richman. Nobody’s eating a 20-pound burrito or a six-foot-long hoagie sandwich in this flick; instead we’re witnessing one man’s desperate struggle for survival in the Rockwood Conservation Area, a rugged and unforgiving (and, it must be said, quite scenic) expanse of northern Ontario wilderness that most of us would probably be able to make a go of it in for maybe one day, tops. For the sake of his popular TV show, though, Doug’s gonna try to get through five.

Almost immediately, there are problems — not just for Doug, but for the film itself. Diamantopoulos isn’t one of them, fortunately — he’s reasonably charismatic, comes off as being generally likable, and commits himself to his role in the way that one must for these, essentially, one-man productions (don’t get me wrong, he ain’t Redford in All Is Lost, but he more than gets the job done) — but there’s a lot of suspect editing that mars what would otherwise be a nicely-paced first two acts and reduces the believability factor that Massey and his star work so hard on selling, there are several “how is he getting this shot done?” logical gaps that are difficult to overlook, and a handful of the “life-threatening” moments are staged in such a manner that calling them “highly suspect” is probably being kind. Ya know what, though? I can overlook all that given the modest (speaking of being kind) budget Massey and Co. had to work with.

Here’s what I can’t overlook : this friggin’ movie telegraphs its big “shocker” moment so early on that it absolutely ruins the third act — and said act is so lousy in and of itself that really doesn’t need any extra help when it comes to sucking.

In case you haven’t figured it out,  the whole shtick here is that Doug’s not out in the woods by himself. He’s being stalked, Predator-style, by —- something. Now, the minute you glom onto this fact, you already know there’s only a few ways things can go — and Massey opts for the easiest, lamest possibility you can imagine, spells it out for you clear as day, then seems to forget he did so and tries to surprise you with a “revelation” that’s already, in modern parlance, been thoroughly “spoiled” in his own goddamn script. There’s no way that’s gonna work, because it just plain can’t. An Alzheimer’s patient would still see the ending to this thing coming a mile off. Throw in a whole lot of dodgy CGI, and what you’ve got is a film that would be a case study in self-sabotage even if the first 2/3 of its runtime was absolutely flawless — which it isn’t by any stretch, but damn, compared to the final 20 minutes or so, it’s Oscar-caliber stuff.

I hate to be too hard on Man Vs. I really do. You can tell that a lot of work went into getting this thing in the can and that it was probably an exhausting shoot. There’s a really solid performance anchoring the whole thing. Stitching together the “found footage” and “survival horror” genres is a natural. And there’s a lot of breathtaking scenery in front of the lens for nature-lovers to enjoy. But you can’t show your hand at the poker table, pull your cards back close to your chest, and then expect to collect the pot.

I’m not one to stretch a metaphor, but seriously — Massey’s either going to have to raise the stakes considerably for his next feature, or else just fold.

Let’s not kid ourselves — America is fucked. Anyone who follows my ramblings regularly is already more than familiar with my views of our current (and, in my opinion, probably quite temporary) president — and anyone who doesn’t can probably intuit how I feel about the bloated orange mentally ill clown easily enough based on the first couple of lines of this review alone — but one good thing about living in strange and tumultuous times is that the great Howard Chaykin will probably have something to say about them.

After taking us back to the past in his last series, the stylish noir thriller Midnight Of The Soul, Chaykin and his steady collaborators, colorist Jesus Aburtov and letterer Ken Buzenak, are taking aim at the present day (well, three years into the future, as the timeline here would have it) with their new Image Comics six-parter, the provocatively-titled (and speaking of provocative, how about that cover?) The Divided States Of Hysteria. Are you ready for a bumpy ride?

Mind you, when I say “bumpy ride,” I definitely don’t mean that as a criticism — quite the reverse, in fact. I just know my Chaykin (shit, I’ve been reading his stuff for nearly three decades now), and things never go smoothly for anyone in any of his stories. That’s a big part of their — dare I say it — charm.

So, what the hell is happening in this book? That’s something of an open question one issue in : we seem to have a typically Chaykin-esque morally bankrupt protagonist at the center of events here — in this case an undercover CIA operative — and he appears to be undertaking and/or being conscripted into some sort of assignment that involves him assembling a team of recently-busted criminals (among them a high-dollar transgender prostitute, a Henry Lee Lucas-style serial killer, a homicidal maniac who hates white people, and an embezzling accountant turned mass murderer) in order to function as “disposable assets” working high-risk assignments in an America where an attempted (and failed) coup has resulted in some low-level cabinet member or other “inheriting” the presidency given that everyone above him (or her, that part’s not really clear yet) was either implicated or killed in the plot. So, yeah, things are messy — and that’s before they literally go “boom” on our final-page cliffhanger.

Yeah, “messy” — that’s sort of the operative word here. On many pages, a number of panels nearly threaten to get buried under a steady, throbbing stream of sound effects, digital coding, social media posts, and various other forms of electronic “white noise,” and while this represents Chaykin and Bruzenak amping their usual “look” up to about a “10+” on the ugliness scale, I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work in terms of setting a visual tone that’s both arresting in its hyper-stylization and probably more than a little too close for comfort as a reflection of our information-overloaded world. I’d say something trite and cliched like “we’re clearly not in Kansas anymore” at this point, but who are we kidding? Kansas is saturated under all of this crap, too.

Keeping up with everything going on here, and accurately processing and collating it all, is something of a challenge, it’s true — but again, how is that anything other than an absolutely accurate and honest representation of today’s social, political, cultural, and media landscape? Chaykin just plain gets that, and he’s not in the business of sugar-coating the truth in order to make it more palatable — never has been, never will be, and don’t let the fact that he’s in his seventies now fool you : slowing down and retreating quietly into his twilight years is clearly and obviously nowhere on his agenda, a fact for which we should all be damn thankful.

I love stories like this, where we’re dropped in at the deep end and presented with no options other than “sink” or “swim,” and the creators trust us enough to navigate our own way out of the drink before we drown. Maybe we’re gonna make it, maybe we’re not, but we don’t need our hand held either way. The Divided States Of Hysteria makes it pretty clear that it thinks most of the American public is a bunch of shallow, self-absorbed, intellectually lazy, lowest-common-denominator idiots — but it doesn’t think you are. Take that as a compliment, take it as a challenge, but whatever you do, take it. We’re all in uncharted territory at this point, and our best bet to come out the other side is to hone and sharpen our critical-thinking skills with sharp, substantive, incisive works of art like this one.

Oh, and  perhaps the most amazing thing of all? Chaykin wrote and drew this before Donald Trump was even the Republican nominee, much less the president. This guy is definitely still ahead of the curve.

My latest review for Graphic Policy website —

Graphic Policy

Quick — what do you get when you cross Juno with The Omen?

I can’t say I know for sure, but the answer could be the new Aftershock Comics series Babyteeth, the latest from the suddenly-quite-busy Donny Cates, cooked up in collaboration with Black Road artist/co-creator Garry Brown, which seems right off the bat to be a mash-up of those two popular films, but who knows? It could prove to be something else entirely as events proceed.

Here’s the run-down : 16-year-old Sadie of Salt Lake City, Utah, is more than just a nerdy social outcast comic book fan — she’s also pregnant. The old man — whoever he may be — isn’t around. She’s managed to keep her condition a secret from everyone barring her dope-dealing sister, Heather, but when her first contraction register a 5.0 on the fucking Richter Scale, well — this…

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There’s probably a way to talk about — hell, there’s probably even a way to make — a movie like this one without resorting to grandiose hyperbole, but where’s the fun in that? Let’s begin, then, with a bit of theorizing —

Conventional “wisdom” has it that Marvel’s super-heroes are human, fallible, down-to-Earth, while DC’s tend to be more mythical, aspirational, larger-than-life. There are a million and one exceptions to this unwritten “rule,” of course — probably enough to negate it entirely — but as films have replaced comics as the public’s preferred “delivery mechanism” for capes n’ tights adventures, that line of thinking has carried over : Marvel’s doing better than DC at the box office, folks say, because audiences want heroes they can relate to.

Allow me to call bullshit on that right now and offer up an alternate take : I think the public subconsciously clamors for heroes that offer something that’s by and large missing in the real world. Stop right now if you don’t want to read a review that veers into the socio-political arena, otherwise proceed —

Consider : for all of Marvel’s unquestionable success at the box office in the aughts and into the teens, with their venerable Iron Man franchise leading the charge, the most bankable hero over that same period has still been Batman — and what do Iron Man and Batman have in common? Well, they’re both rich, that’s for sure, but they’re also both, basically, assholes. Iron Man is a self-obsessed asshole and Batman’s a self-pitying asshole, but they’re assholes nonetheless — and they rose to the top of the Hollywood heap at a time when rich, self-obsessed and/or self-pitying assholes were in rather short supply on the world stage. The national and international political situation was (relatively) stable and the leader of the free world was a calm, cool, collected, articulate guy who had a larger-than-life, for some even a heroic, aura himself.

Needless to say, that’s all out the window now, and the dominant figure on the worldwide geo-political stage is, go figure, a rich asshole who’s both self-obsessed and self-pitying. We don’t need fictional characters like Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark anymore, we’re stuck with a dude who embodies the very worst elements of both in the real world. Now, I humbly suggest, is the time for heroes who embody not what we are but what we hope to be.

Enter Patty Jenkins. Enter Gal Gadot. Enter Wonder Woman.

It makes perfect sense, in a way, that it would be a female hero who’s first out of the gate to capture the public’s imagination in the so-called “Age Of Trump” — after all, women were the first wave of what’s quickly come to be known as “The Resistance,” marching by the millions in cities and towns across the world just a few days after Old, Orange, Fat, and Stupid was sworn into office. They’d had enough of this guy even before the Russia scandal hit, his travel bans blew up in his face, his corrput-to-the-core cabinet took up their posts, and his tax cut for the rich cynically sold as “health care reform” stalled out. They knew in advance — and subsequent events have proven them correct — that their reproductive rights were about to be under assault, that their health care choices were going to be taken out of their hands, that they’d be shunted aside in the new government, and that their voices were doomed to go unheard. But rather than let that get ’em down, they took it upon themsleves to show everybody the way forward. They were ready to lead the charge — if not in Washington, then out on the streets.

Popular culture being a reflection of the overall zeitgeist, then, it’s plain as day why Wonder Woman has exceeded all expectations at movie theater ticket windows. But why has it conquered critics’ hearts just as surely?

Easy answer : like a lot of women that I (and, I’m sure, you) know, it’s a film that’s unafraid to roll up its sleeves and get to work. Oh, sure, the slow-mo-heavy, music-video-influenced visual template established by Zack Snyder for the so-called “DCEU” is still present and accounted for here, but director Jenkins establishes her own tone from the outset, with precocious young Diana (played by the heart-stealing Lilly Aspell) running carefree through the island of Themyscira and unafraid to dream of bigger and better things even though she lives in paradise. That sense of striving to be all you can be and then some is at the heart of this flick and never wanes, and that’s what makes Wonder Woman the most truly mythic super-hero movie since Richard Donner’s Superman. I think even Marvel knew they were beat this time out as they conspicuously took a pass on engineering the kind of “whisper campaigns” that they’ve utilized so effectively against DC productions (“hey, you — influential internet critic — here’s a free ‘Captain America’ t-shirt and baseball cap, say nice things about our movies and bad things about theirs and if you’re ever in LA we might even hook you up with a one-day studio floor pass”) in the past.

 

Pitch-perfect casting across the board certainly doesn’t hurt matters any, either : Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright are straight-up magnificent as Amazon Queen Hippolyta and head warrior Antiope, respectively; Chris Pine is suitably charming and charismatic as Steve Trevor, the guy who ushers Princess Diana into the world of men and their stupid-ass wars (specifically World War I — and those who doubted the wisdom of this film’s period setting certainly seem to have gone silent); Trevor’s sidekick trio portrayed by Said Taghamaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, and Spud himself, Ewen Bremner, are the best one-note ciphers Hollywood has cooked up in ages; Lucy Davis shines in what probably read as little more than a dead-end comic-relief role in Allan Heinberg’s screenplay; Danny Huston is fantastically menacing as German General Ludendorff; Elena Anaya injects a welcome dose of pathos and quiet pain into her turn as his evil chief chemist, Dr. Maru; David Thewlis tackles what ends up being a dual role with skillful aplomb that sees him turn on a dime in convincing and utterly naturalistic fashion —and you, dear reader, probably care about none of them.

And why the hell should you? This is Gal Gadot’s show all the way. Stunningly beautiful, impossibly athletic, undeniably classy, as gracefully elegant in battle as she is at a formal ball, this is star-making stuff all the way. At once accessible yet “other,” she understands us mere mortals — if not our ways — instantly, and hopes for so much more from us. I hesitate to drop wretched, pretentious terminology like “it’s amazing to see someone so fully committed to a role,” but, well — it’s amazing to see someone so fully committed to a role. It can’t be easy to play an honest-to-goodness freaking goddess, but Gadot steps into the part as if she were born for it. Prepare to be blown away.

Needless to say, if you’re getting performances this good out of this many actors, you’re doing something right as a director, but Jenkins — who, if you’ll remember, walked away from Marvel mid-way through helming Thor : The Dark World — showcases much more than a deft handling of her cast : her pacing, her action-scene staging, her expert use of light and shadow, and her command of the visual language audiences have come to expect from blockbuster productions are all executed with supreme, yet hardly flashy or ostentatious, confidence. Simply put, she knows what she’s doing so thoroughly that she doesn’t feel any particular need to tell you how good she is at this — she just shows you instead.

Okay, yeah, the flick’s third act has come in for a certain amount of criticism, not all of it undeserved, but most of that boils down to amplified dissatisfaction with the cut-rate CGI that literally screams “we’ve already blown our production budget!” and really does let the side down a bit. The film’s tone doesn’t nosedive, the performances don’t waver, the story doesn’t let up — it’s just that the FX suck. In my own view, dwelling on this to the extent that so many folks have just shows the paucity of today’s watered-down critical “environment,” but what they hell — they do have a point, just nowhere near as large a one as they think.

In the final analysis, then, maybe Wonder Woman comes up just a hair short of being the long-sought-after perfect super-hero film — but that doesn’t mean she’s not the perfect heroine for our times.

This, I think, is the point at which I’ve decided I’m well and truly hooked — although, in fairness, all signs were pointing in that direction already.

Part (not episode, remember?) five of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 2017 iteration of Twin Peaks — you may add or omit “The Return” as you see fit —features none of the arresting surreal visual poetry we were treated to last week, the “high weirdness” of parts 1-4 is dialed back considerably (although still present and accounted for), and some rather prosaic explanations are offered to a handful of the mysteries that we’ve been served up (the mutilated body in Buckhorn, South Dakota is that of the “real” Dougie, Russ Tamblyn’s Dr. Jacoby was painting those shovels gold to hustle off to the gullible viewers  — among them Wendy Robie’s Nadine Hurley and David Patrick Kelly’s Jerry Horne — of his right-wing, conspiracy-themed YouTube show), but I was still glued to the TV despite the fact that this was far and away the most straight-forward installment of the bunch to date.

Plot progression, plain and simple, is the primary order of business this time out, and let’s be honest — there’s really nothing wrong with that, is there? Kyle MacLachlan’s Dougie/Dale is still wandering about in a daze, but somehow gets through the work day (we can all relate, I’m sure) and exhibits a new super-power, to boot; Deputies Hawk (Michael Horse) and Andy (Harry Goaz) are still on the case (although no one’s sure quite what that case is yet); “Evil Coop” finally gets to make his phone call;  ever-laconic sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) comes in for some good, old-fashioned brow-beating from his wife; the bizarrely-named Janey-E (Naomi Watts) is still figuring out what the fuck to do with her empty vessel of a husband — in short, life is going on.

Old-school fans will be straight-up overjoyed, I should think, at our first extended look at (and in) the Double-R diner, where Norma (Peggy Lipton) still holds court, Shelly (Madchen Amick) still works the counter, and long-time customer “Toad” now works in the kitchen, but they’re not the only familiar faces popping back into the proceedings — doucheface Mike Nelson (Gary Hershberger) may have “gone legit,” but he’s still a doucheface, Harry Truman is still ailing and literally “phones it in,” and the deceased Major Garland Briggs once again figures into things in very nearly a prominenet manner despite having shuffled off his mortal coil. Yup, the trusty old stand-bys are more than adequately represented here.

And yet for all that, a fair number of new faces are mixed into the stew (okay, shitty metaphor unless you’re a cannibal), as well — Jim Belushi and Robert Knepper are revealed as the mystery men who operate the Silver Mustang Casino; there’s a seriously ominous new psycho who’s muscling in on the ever-prosperous Twin Peaks drug trade; some seriously funky shit is going down in Bueno Aires(!); and at no less than the Pentagon itself we make the acquaintance of the named-no-doubt-in-tribute Colonel Davis, who’s played by none other than the beyond-fucking-great Ernie Hudson. How’s all this going to shake out? What do some of these folks even have to do with anything? Well, shit, that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?

And a lot of the internet fan speculation is already paying off — if you were one of the people who surmised that Amanda Seyfried must be Shelly’s daughter, pat yourself on the back, and if you likewise had it sussed that the loser Mike is berating in a job interview early on here is probably her previously-alluded-to deadbeat boyfriend, pat that back of yours a second time. Lynch and Frost are still two steps (at least) ahead of us most of the time, but it’s nice when they hit “pause” on occasion and allow us mere mortals to catch up.

There’s a rhythm, a tempo, an overall tone that Twin Peaks : The Return appears to be settling into that feels comfortable now even at its most disconcerting. We went through a lot to get here — much of which we can’t even begin to process yet — but now that we’re on more solid ground, it feels earned. It’s destined not to last, of course — the forces of entropy are still moving in on this temporary stability at a clip that’s more or less entirely unchecked — but it’s good to get a glimpse into the various lives doomed to be disrupted (or worse). I could maybe even deal with a few more “old home weeks” like this one, if I’m being perfectly honest.

So, yeah — that’s how I know I’m well and truly invested in this show in a way I haven’t been in a TV series since the halcyon days of I don’t even know when.  When every line, every scene, every facial expression and physical movement of every character matters to me regardless of how much — or how little — is happening, I’m a goddamn fish at on the end of a line just waiting to be reeled in. I liked — even really liked — most of the so-called “important” shows of the past decade or so : Breaking BadThe WireHouse Of CardsThe Sopranos, all of that. My love for Doctor Who extends all the way back to my childhood and remains undiminished, qualms about many aspects of its current version notwithstanding. But this new Twin Peaks is affecting me on a whole different level altogether from any and all of that — one that hits home with even more precision and accuracy than did its celebrated previous incarnation. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case after just a few short weeks — but, again, discovering the answer to that question as things go along is all part of the fun, right?

Review : “Paklis” #1

Posted: June 4, 2017 in comics
Tags: ,

My latest review for Graphic Policy website —

Graphic Policy

In recent weeks/months/years, I’ve bemoaned the lack of “single-creator anthologies” in the contemporary comic-book marketplace, and while I’m not suggesting that Dustin Weaver was actually listening to me — I’m sure he’s got better things to do with his time — I’m happy to see that he is, however inadvertently, determined to prove me wrong with the arrival of his new Image Comics series Paklis, a genre-centric showcase for his many talents that sees him wearing every conceivable “hat” a cartoonist can as he tackles the writing, art, coloring, lettering, and (to the extent any is even being done) editing on a rotating series of sci-fi and horror strips of varying lengths done in varying styles. At first glance the Moebius influence leaps right off the page at readers, but on subsequent pass-throughs, more subtle stylistic forebears — particularly Japanese masters Miyazaki and Otomo — make their presence known…

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To the extent that any “micro-budget” production that is destined to be seen by only a few thousand people (if that) can be said to have generated something of a “buzz” around it, writer/director Christina Raia’s 2015 debut feature Summit seems to have done precisely that.

Fair enough, it’s not a flick you’re going to be hearing about everywhere or anything — but everywhere this sort of thing is discussed? Sure, there’s been some largely positive chatter there, and so when I noticed that it was available for streaming while browsing the horror selections on Amazon Prime the other night, I was sufficiently intrigued enough to give it a go. Funded via a (successful) Kickstarter campaign at the tail end of 2012, the set-up for this one sounds like fairly standard-issue stuff — five friends headed to a ski lodge for a weekend of partying find themselves royally fucked by their GPS and end up at an abandoned cabin the likes of which only folks in a horror movie are stupid enough to decide to stay at. They don’t have nearly enough food or water to keep everyone’s mouths and bellies full for long, their cell phone coverage — shock! — sucks, and the longer they’re cooped up together, the more internal tensions within the group threaten to boil over. Eventually they do, of course, and one of the unhappy non-campers turns up dead, which cues plenty of finger-pointing and worse in the film’s late-breaking third act.

Obviously there’s no reinvention of the wheel happening here, but Raia proves herself to be a quick — hell, an immediate — study when it comes to the little things that make a big difference : the various explorations of the cabin that our erstwhile “heroes” undertake are uniformly well-shot and reasonably fraught with tension (even if there’s no real payoff to be had from any of them), the “driving-around-lost” scenes are very nicely-executed indeed, and small, seemingly throwaway plot points are revisited later with near-devastating effect. All in all this is smart stuff that rewards viewers who pay careful attention to even the most minor goings-on, but — and it’s a big but — events progress at such a slow pace that by the time we do finally get the dead body that most viewers were probably expecting at any given moment for any given number of moments,  you could easily be forgiven for already having checked out.

Seasoned aficionados of DIY cinema are used to so-called “slow burns,” of course, and at least this one offers some very good performances to maintain a person’s interest — I was particularly fond (if that’s the word) of Rob Ceriello as the hair-trigger-tempered Sean, but Ricardo Manigat deserves a mention as “party-dude-with-a-pragmatic-streak” James, Lauren A. Kennedy makes more than the most of what by all rights should be a pretty goddamn rough slog of a role as Jesse, and Emma Barrett elevates her character of Sarah, who’s probably the most poorly-written of the bunch, to another, higher level by dint of her strong acting alone. The only player who comes up a bit short is Ryan Kramer as Will, but given that he’s doing double-duty as the film’s producer, my best guess is that a nominally “starring” turn was part of the package that came with him helping to hustle up funds, co-ordinate locations, etc. Props should also be extended to cinematographer John L. Murphy, who delivers one moody, atmospheric, and professional-looking shot after another despite having nothing but the most basic digital equipment at his disposal. So, yeah, whether we’re talking in front of the camera or behind it, the folks working on this one mostly all brought their “A” game.

Unfortunately, just when it looks like everyone’s patience — and, again, staying with this one requires a fair amount of that — is going to be rewarded, Raia trips over her own ending, serving up a less-than-satisfying reveal of who the murder is, a less-than-plausible explanation as to why he (whoops, minor spoiler there!) did it, and a less-than-rational series of 180-degree turns from otherwise-level-headed (at least by fright flick standards) characters. It’s very nearly a deal-breaker, I won’t kid you — but the preceding hour and fifteen minutes (or thereabouts) are so nicely-done, even at their slowest, that an admittedly forced and uninspired conclusion isn’t enough to tap out the reservoir of good will that the first-time director, her fine cast, and her flat-out terrific cinematographer have earned.

So, yeah, at the end of the day, maybe Summit doesn’t reach anything of the sort, but it looks like a lot more than the reported $20,000 production that it was, it showcases a lot of fine up-and-coming talent, and it suggests very strongly that they’re probably going to be capable of better as their various careers progress. I wish it would have delivered on all of its promise, absolutely, but the fact that it was even able to convince me, for most of its run-time, that it might do exactly that is a fairly solid achievement in and of itself.