Friday, March 23, 2018

Don't Mess With His Neighborhood ...

All kidding aside, I have nothing but respect and admiration for Mr. Fred Rogers. Kind, humble and a true gentleman, I wonder what Mr. Rogers would make of today's television landscape--even PBS? I'm sure he would handle it in stride, with an eye towards making children's--and everyone's--lives better. I'm looking forward to the Mr. Rogers' documentary this summer. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Television – The Punisher (Netflix)

*Slight Spoilers* 
How simple is the Punisher concept? A Special Forces soldier comes home from the war to his loving family. While on a picnic in Central Park, they get caught in the crossfire of a mob hit and are killed, he barely survives. Vowing revenge, the soldier devotes his skills to a new war, taking down violent criminals and mobsters in a variety of permanent ways. That’s the story of Frank Castle, Marvel’s Punisher. It’s so uncomplicated.

Not for Marvel TV though! Marvel TV has never met a creative concept they can’t mangle for politically correct television. I really looked forward to this show—how could anyone get it so wrong? First, these Marvel Netflix shows are too long! That is on them, Punisher could have easily filled a hundred episodes with the right ideas. Instead, Marvel TV is addicted to one major storyline (with several boring sub-plots to eat up time) over the magic number of 13 episodes. The first episode of Punisher is pretty good, the last is excellent. The rest drag like hell. Were the writers as bored as the rest of us? If they were it certainly shows.

Jon Bernthal rarely dressed as the Punisher
Actor Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher is good. However, the writers have no idea who the character is. They are too absorbed with their themes of guns; good or bad?, American military veterans and shady government operatives. And NO ONE comes out well. While some of the characters and storylines are layered. ALL soldiers and former military are portrayed as insane, evil or suffering from PTSD. At least no one is all three. Well, except for the psycho serial killer who kills everyone he wants to before the Punisher fails to stop him. Oops, spoiler. The most weak and sniveling of these ex-military villains OF COURSE wears an NRA shirt. Is there any other way for a Marvel writer?

One of the most iconic symbols emblazoned on the Punisher is the painted skull he wears on his chest armor. It’s been a part of his gear from day one. It’s a big part of what makes Punisher the Punisher. Marvel TV loves to ignore everything that makes a hero iconic, so they pretty much do away with this too. I think he wears a half-painted skull on his chest in maybe two of the thirteen episodes. Marvel TV thinks all cool costumes or icons need to be limited to the last five minutes of a show’s last episode. Don’t want to fans to get any service, you know! That might cause them to watch it or recommend it to others. Conservatives might end up watching the show. Can’t have that!

The worst part of Marvel TV’s Punisher is the slow, unevenly paced storytelling. The first episode, where Frank Castle is reintroduced from his run on Daredevil, is all right. The last episode, where Frank takes on the military bad guy back in Central Park, in full Punisher regalia including his chest skull, is great. Of course in the show it’s the military, not the Italian mob, who kills Frank’s family, another stupid idea. Episodes 2 through 12 are not all terrible, but have little to do with the Punisher. We have military hijinks, Department of Homeland Security politics, highly corrupt government officials doing bad deeds, and endless yawn-inducing similar scenes. And what is the Punisher doing? Romancing a co-worker’s wife. Sitting in his concrete bunker and squinting menacingly. Oh, and in episode 8, Punisher and his partner Micro talk about their feelings for an hour and then Micro shows Punisher his penis. Really.

Writers, for a much better show, read a Punisher comic (something I’m not sure anyone connected to this show actually did). Doing a show the opposite way would have made for a much better experience. Make the main plot about the Punisher, and sub-plots about all the political intrigue. Make it more episodic—maybe Punisher against a different bad guy every few shows—and make the military thing the overall subplot that resolves in the last show. They could have done this and kept the first and last shows pretty much intact, while adding a lot more Frank Castle action along the way. But no, instead the audience has to be bored by endless sub-plots and social commentary, while the star sits in a bunker and looks at computer screens.

Overall the Marvel TV’s Punisher was a massive and boring disappointment. There were good moments along the way, and when it hit the fan things got violent and the right folks got punished. The Punisher even wore his skull once. But there is massive room for improvement here. Again, try reading any Punisher comic by Dixon, Ennis or Baron and just follow the outline. Is it really that challenging?  

Rating: **½ stars out of 5 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Time I Met Chuck Norris

The eyes of a Ranger are upon you ... 
This past Sunday I was lucky enough to score a free pass to the Lexington Comic & Toy Show. I wasn’t going to go, but I checked the attendee list and one of the guests was the one and only Mr. Chuck Norris. Of course I grew up with Chuck Norris—Good Guys Wear Black, The Octagon, Silent Rage and the greatest movie ever made, Lone Wolf McQuade. Frankly, I was giddy about meeting the great one. The man who doesn’t sleep, he waits. A cobra bit Chuck Norris once. After three days of agonizing pain, the cobra died. This is the man.

After a pleasant Sunday drive to Lexington, I entered the con and headed for Chuck’s booth. The line was crowded but not that bad. I saw him from afar. Walker, Texas Ranger himself, smiling, shaking hands and signing autographs. From afar he looked like a young, middle-aged man, as if his 78th birthday wasn’t the day before (it was). While I waited patiently, I struck up a conversation with one of his bodyguards, an armed, off-duty Lexington police officer in full uniform. I asked him about Chuck. He said he had been with Chuck all weekend, and he had never seen such a kind, involved, enthusiastic celebrity. Just what you want to hear about your hero.

I finally had the opportunity to approach Chuck. After a full weekend of being “on,” mixing with fans and pressing flesh, he looked like he was having the time of his life. I chose a photo to sign from his assistant, a Lone Wolf McQuade photo of Chuck brandishing two Uzis. I stepped up to him.

“Hi Mr. Norris, I’m Jerry.”

“Hi Jerry!” said the man.

He took my photo, turned it around and started to sign in a tight, readable script. Chuck would not have prospered in medical school.

“Can you sign it ‘to Jerry’?” I asked.

His assistant butted in and told me signature only. Celebrities have different rules about this—Adam West would only personalize with a specific name, which I didn’t want at the time. For the man, I wanted the world to know Chuck Norris signed a photo directly to me. Oh well, that’s life.

I engaged Chuck. “Lone Wolf McQuade is my favorite Chuck Norris movie!” I squealed like a 12-year-old schoolgirl meeting Justin Timberlake. He smiled and said “Oh yeah?” “Yeah!” I replied. “If you have time I can quote all the dialog from beginning to end,” I joked. He smiled and handed me my photo.

“It’s been a total pleasure to meet you, Chuck.” I said. He smiled like a kid and stuck out his hand. I shook hands with Chuck Norris. Read that suckers! I shook hands with Chuck Norris!

“Tell your buddy I said hi,” said Chuck.

Without missing a beat I said, “Thanks, I will!” I walked away holding my photo. Eventually it occurred to me that I didn’t know what in the world he was talking about. I racked my brain. What buddy? Was the great one confusing me with someone else? After thinking about it, I think the noise of the convention hall messed with Chuck’s hearing a bit. I think he must have thought I told him Lone Wolf McQuade was my buddy’s favorite movie. Not sure why I would say that, but he must have thought he meets all kinds, so what? Anyway, I can now divide my life into two parts—before I meeting Chuck Norris and after meeting Chuck Norris. This part is definitely better!

And yes, I realize I only survived the encounter because Chuck Norris let me live. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Contrast: Kirk vs. Picard

From the February issue of Previews, a peek at McFarlane Toys’ new Star Trek action figures. I think this brilliantly contrasts the differences between Captains Kirk and Picard. Kirk is the warrior/diplomat. He comes with a communicator and a selection of weapons. Picard is a pinky-lifting surrender monkey, whose accessories include a flute and some kind of male marital aid. 

Yeah, that’s about right. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Movies – Black Panther

It’s rare that “blockbusters” live up to the hype. Even with my love for superhero movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular, it is unlikely each film in their ongoing series will continue to become ever more entertaining. But that is what is happening.

Black Panther is a triumph. The film hits all the right beats, has flawed heroes and slimy villains, and most importantly radiates a sense of heroism and a joy of being alive. Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Wakanda guards its secrets, and its highly advanced vibranium technology, with great care. No one knows how prosperous and advanced Wakanda really is—except for Ulysses Klau (Andy Serkis), who gathers a force to try to steal their vibranium. He is aided by T’Challa’s cousin Erik Killmonger, an American unknown to the Wakandan royal family. He soon becomes very known to them, as he helps invade the country and challenges T’Challa for the right to be king. 

The spectacular action in this movie is only equaled by the art direction. The Black Panther is the most African mainstream film ever made. Everything from the clothing to the tattoos are inspired by authentic African tribes and the result is a blazing explosion of color and light. The acting is wonderful as well. The standout character has to be T’Challa’s sister Shuri, in a magnificent performance by Letitia Wright. Shuri is a genius, a beautiful science geek and has a precocious sense of humor. She takes her jokes right up to the line with her king and royal brother—and then regularly goes over. She’s funny and fun, a great character.

The stakes are high for T’Challa and his kingdom. When Killmonger challenges him, the entire Wakandan nation and national identity is at stake—and T’Challa doesn’t necessarily handle it well. He’s not perfect, which makes him all that much more likable.

Something I loved about Black Panther, as mentioned—is the sense of joy surrounding the film and its characters. When T’Challa is crowned king near the beginning of the story, thousands of his subjects are standing on a hillside observing. Huge drums are beating an African rhythm and the Wakandans are swaying to the beat, moving to the music, welcoming their king. I’ve heard some criticism of the scene as being corny, but I loved it. There is such a sense of joy coming from that scene. A nation and benevolent king who are acting as one. It’s inspiring. Scenes like this are what make Marvel movies far above anything DC is producing. In DC movies, the only happiness is the joy Superman feels when he murders someone. They are dark affairs, both physically and spiritually. Marvel movies are the exact opposite, where good battles evil and wins, not because an awful script says so, but because the heroes are better and their philosophy is better.

I loved everything about Black Panther; the story, the actors, the music and the absolute delight it emits. Kudos to Marvel Studios for allowing this film to be so much of what it needs to be. An unequivocal 5-star rating.

Rating: ***** stars out of 5

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Comic Capsule Reviews

Curse Words #11 – Charles Soule is one of the few current authors who swings for the fences every time he’s at bat. I love his stuff. Contrary to almost every other comic on the market, I can’t find a whiff of his political views in his work. Nor can I find that condescending snideness with which authors infuse their stories if the reader happens to be on the opposite side of the aisle. Soule just likes to tell a satisfying story.

Curse Words is about the travails of the evil wizard Wizord. When Wizord is sent to Earth from the Hole World to conquer it, he decides that it would be a shame to lay waste to such a lush, pleasure-filled virtual paradise, complete with baseball, sumptuous food and vast reserves of money and power. He turns his back on his demon boss Sizzajee and sets himself up as a wizard for hire.

Sizzajee doesn’t take this well, and has sent several assassins after Wizord. In this issue, after defeating his former lover and latest assassin, Ruby Stitch, Wizord sends her (or what’s left of her) back to the Hole World. She ends up in a surprising place and meets a group who has no love for Sizzajee. Meanwhile, Wizord searches for his kidnapped daughter Margaret (currently in the form of a platypus—don’t ask) and is frustrated to find his seeking spells don’t work. That’s because the government has wizards of their own now, and they are preparing to go to war with Wizord.

Curse Words is full of absurd (but wonderful) twists, startling ideas and impossible things. And is his time on Earth making Wizord ...  a better person? Nah. But still, he’s starting to mellow a bit. It’s clear that soon he will have armies from Earth governments and the Hole World after his scalp (and magic beard) soon. I look forward to the coming battle.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Mage: The Hero Denied #6 – I am generally a fan of writer/artist Matt Wagner, who is one of the best Shadow writers alive. This series is the third and final part of his semi-autobiographical Mage Trilogy. I thought the first miniseries was unique and charming (back in the ‘80s!), liked the second and am really enjoying this final chapter.

Series protagonist Kevin Matchstick, the reborn Pendragon, has come a long way. He’s lost most of his hair, gotten married and had two precocious kids. He’s also honed the use of his powers, now able to imbue any object with Excalibur magic, rather than just the baseball bat of Mage I & II (which I miss). As the series opens, Kevin and his wife are out of the monster killing game and settling down to life on the West Coast. However, the monsters haven’t retired, and when Kevin accidently runs across and kills several nasty ones, the game starts anew. Only now he has a family to worry about.

In this issue, Kevin is in a race to find the legendary Fisher King before his adversary the Umbra Sprite does. Kevin obtains a potion from a local wizard to give him temporary magic sight, then goes on the trail of a Questing Beast, a being that can help him with his search. His quest takes him away from his family, not realizing his wife is in direct danger from an unexpected source.

Wagner is at his inspired best here, with art that pops off the page and characters that sing with goodness and evil. I can’t wait to see what happens next, which is a feeling every good comic should promulgate.

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Minky Woodcock, the Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini #3 – This historical fiction story by writer/artist Cynthia von Buhler is quite a treat. I’ve long admired Harry Houdini, the most famous magician who ever lived. I’ve read quite a bit about his career, especially his proclivity to expose mediums and fortunetellers as the grifters and confidence tricksters they are. In this story, von Buhler deals with the period of Houdini’s life directly before his death.

Minky Woodcock is part of a family of private detectives. Tired of answering the phones and sweeping the floors, she intercepts a call from Houdini asking for help and strikes up a friendship with the magician. She briefly becomes Houdini’s assistant and is present during the incident that causes Houdini’s death. In this issue, on his deathbed, Houdini asks Minky to do what she can to tell the world what happened, and not let the mediums claim credit for killing him. Mediums all over the world had been predicting his death for years. I suppose one year it would have to be true. To do that, she intercepts medium Margery of Boston, and disguises herself as Margery to do her next séance. Margery was an actual person, real name Mina Crandon. She was a Boston medium who had a huge bag of supernatural tricks that fooled rubes and educated folks alike. She was in a years-long war with Houdini, recounted in the excellent non-fiction book The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher (see my review here). It’s a nail-biting true story.

Cynthia von Buhler is an outstanding artist and storyteller, and her woodcut-inspired color art for this comic is amazing. Filled with action, grandeur and cloak and dagger intrigue, this comic is worth your hard-earned shekels. The book does contain nudity and adult themes and is not for children.

Rating: **** stars out of five

Paper Girls #20 – I think I’m finished with Brian K. Vaughn. Vaughn can be a good writer, but he and I are moving in different circles creatively and I don’t think I’m interested anymore in what he has to say.

I really enjoyed Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man, although I thought protagonist Yorick was a milque-toasty half man. Same for Vaughn’s sci-fi opus Saga. Marko was a wimpy beta-male who let his wife Alana do all the fighting and heavy lifting. I finally gave up on the title. His We Stand on Guard miniseries was so anti-American I’m surprised Vaughn hasn’t moved to Canada with Lena Dunham. Until recently, I liked Paper Girls. This entertaining time travel tale of four teenage papergirls always piqued my interest and kept me coming back. With recent issues, the pacing has suffered, the story moves like a glacier going uphill and plot elements have gone in clichéd and uninteresting ways.

In this story, paper girls Erin, MacKenzie, KJ and Tiffany are still traveling through time and dealing with several future (and past) factions out to get them. The future versions of Tiffany and Erin are hilarious and incredibly well drawn by series artist Cliff Chiang. But the pacing is thunderously slow. The girls have been sent to the distant past where they are chased by the natives, then to the future where they are chased by the authorities, to the present where they are chased by everyone. They (and the reader) don’t know what is happening, or why, or what to do about it. Instead of taking action or controlling events in any way, the girls are just tossed about by the plot, jumping from one frying pan into another. Add to this that the book is turning out to be just another lesbian story and the result is rather grating. I can read fifty Marvel comics a month for that. Vaughn once said in an interview he didn’t want his female characters defined by their relationships with men. That’s fine, but it seems he could fix that by being a better writer. But now he has solved the problem by having his female characters defined by their relationships with women. Would it have been impossible to have these very well defined female friends turn out to be just female friends? That would be a radical concept in today’s climate, and one Brian K. Vaughn is not capable of attempting. Too bad.

Rating: *** stars out of 5

I did something I thought I would never do again ... I bought superhero comics. DC has become too PC, but Marvel has done far worse—they’ve gone full scale Social Justice Warrior. Superhero comics are no longer about fighting bad guys, doing the right thing or action and adventure—they’re now about why America is racist, why conservatives are bad and why men and women should never, under any circumstances, become romantically involved with each other. Are those things really what younger readers want to read about? After some rave reviews from folks I trust, I dipped a toe back into the pool.

Marvel Two-In-One #3 – MTIO has been such a pleasant surprise. It’s not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. It lacks Reed and Sue Richards, but make no mistake, this is a Fantastic Four comic. With Reed and Sue missing, Ben and Johnny are planning to scour alternate universes to find them. Johnny’s powers are malfunctioning and getting weaker. Guest star Hercules leads them to the money grubbing and mercenary Dr. Koul, who examines Johnny and finds a cool secret that adds to the FF mythos. Dr. Koul is an interesting character and I hope she joins the team for further adventures. This issue ends on a delicious twist involving the Mad Thinker and his obsession with Reed Richards. The banter between the characters, especially Ben and Johnny, is priceless, and the plotting moves the story along at a brisk pace.

The only criticism I have of the book is the lack of property damage. Comics as a medium has probably moved on from seeing Ben Grimm or Hercules, two of the most powerful beings in comics, ever throw a punch or clobber anything ever again. Today’s comics are all about the talky-talk and resolving problems by holding hands and singing. This comic is entertaining, but I’d like to see the Thing lift a bus and save some bystanders, or smack Dr. Doom in the mask. Those days are regrettably gone forever. But overall this is an enjoyable comic, something I never thought I’d see again from Marvel.

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5

Batman #40 – The other superhero comic I tried was this one. Critics of all stripes are raving about Tom King’s take on Batman and I now see what they are talking about. After being written as blandly as possible by Grant Morrison years ago to being relaunched over and over with more bland and awful stories, I suspected that all the good Batman tales were told and DC just didn’t know what to do with the character. Tom King has certainly changed that thinking. His writing is funny, fresh and he sees the character and his supporting cast with new eyes.

I read the story of Batman proposing to Catwoman in Batman #24, a welcome idea that has never before been done. King has redefined the Batman/Superman relationship and made Clark, Lois, Bruce and Selina all double-dating friends, handled brilliantly. In this issue, King presents Bruce’s relationship with Wonder Woman. Stuck in an alternate dimension fighting hordes of demons attempting to conquer our world, Batman and Wonder Woman are tempted to start a romantic relationship. Time moves differently in that dimension and years go by, years that test Bruce’s commitment to Selina. But Bruce and Diana come out of the experience as stronger friends, as it should be.

I’m not sure if DC has the stones to follow through with a Bruce/Selina marriage. But under King’s guidance I’d like to see it done, with the art of current series illustrator Joelle Jones. When we die and go to heaven, we’ll all draw like Joelle Jones.

Rating: **** stars out of 5 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Movies - The Villainess

The Villainess is one of the best South Korean exports in recent memory. Female action powerhouse Kim Ok-bin plays Sook-hee, a woman trained from youth to be a living weapon and deadly assassin. When her lover is murdered, she seeks revenge on the criminal organization that killed him. Captured by the authorities, she is arrested and given a choice by a clandestine government group—she can die, or she can go work for them. In 10 years she can retire fat and rich. She takes the job.

From the first minute, a point of view camera takes Sook-hee into a warehouse full of criminals where she violently removes everyone on four floors. First she uses guns; when she runs out of (a lot of) bullets, swords, then knives, then blazing fast hand to hand combat. This first scene challenges viewers to think, what’s next and how can the filmmakers possibly top this? Believe me, they do.

Sook-hee, now working undercover in her new identity as Chae Yeon-soo, soon embraces her government job. She gets an apartment and starts to fall for her quirky neighbor, Joong-sang. There is more to Joong-sang than meets the eye, but is he friend or foe? Or both?

Kim Ok-bin
Life slowly improves as Sook-hee raises her new daughter and proceeds to carry out her spy/assassin assignments—until she is targeted by a man she thought was dead. This leads to massive set piece battle scenes between Chae and a large group of criminals. She battles it out with their greatest assassins, with fights on the side of skyscrapers, in public transportation, and a heart-stopping sword battle on motorcycles, in a tunnel with armed riders all around her. These fights are original, spectacular and violent. The motorcycle sword battle alone must have left scores of dead stuntmen on the ground. If they used CGI to make heads strike the pavement at 70mph, I didn’t notice it.

Chae goes through so much heartbreak in the movie, with betrayals, dead lovers and family members, and vast organizations trying to kill her—including her own. The story is fun (if a bit soapy) and the action is unique and non-stop. This is one for action lovers. Highly recommended.

Rating: **** stars out of 5