Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Movies – Suicide Squad

I’ll get right to it; Suicide Squad is great. The reviews are decidedly mixed; I’m not sure what critics were expecting. Even some genre critics have been harsh; I’m not sure why. It’s the best DC Comics property movie in years—probably since The Dark Knight.

The premise mirrors the classic ‘80s comic, mostly written by John Ostrander (one of the best comics writers of all time) and his late wife Kim Yale. Task Force X, nicknamed the Suicide Squad, is made up of supervillains doing dirty jobs for time off their sentences. The mix of personalities and actors in the film are well done, the chemistry is dead-on and there are even some laugh-out-loud one-liners, a first for a DC movie. Especially good are Margot Robbie as a sexed-up Harley Quinn (nothing wrong with that) and Will Smith as the assassin Deadshot. I wasn’t too pleased with the race switching at first—Floyd Lawton is white in the comics and it’s a pretty big part of his identity—but Smith did such a great job it ended up not bothering me at all. I suppose there is room for two Deadshots in the DC Universe!

In the movie, June Moon, possessed by the ancient entity Enchantress, also resurrects her brother and starts a path of world domination. They attack New York and the Squad has to stop them. The group bonds on this first adventure and manages not to kill each other (or soldier and squad leader Rick Flag) in the process. Overall the writing is sharp, the dialog is funny and the action is paced well.

There are some minor nitpicks—I didn’t understand what Enchantress was doing to conquer the world. She creates, as Deadshot put it, a “floating circle of garbage” that was supposed to “kill all the armies” or some such nonsense. That made no sense, but I suppose it didn’t really have to. It was bad and the Squad had to stop it. Also, I loved the Amanda Waller character (played by Viola Davis), but one scene depicted her as a crazed serial murderer. That is not Amanda Waller and is a huge character mistake in the film. That scene also made no sense. Jared Leto was fine as the Joker.

Overall Suicide Squad is fun, escapist entertainment that I really enjoyed. I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel in a few years. Finally, a DC Comics movie worth seeing!

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5

Monday, August 1, 2016

Prison Tales: My Friend Sam Part 7 - Interview with Sam

Sam Droganes
Hard to believe it’s been a year since my friend Sam was released from prison to a halfway house to start his journey back to civilized society. If you remember (or if you don’t), Sam was sentenced to 18 months in a minimum-security prison for selling the kind of fireworks you need a license to sell. He did not possess that license. His company, Premium Fireworks, carried around 1500 items, and the laws were gray on many of those products. Sam accepted a plea deal and was convicted of a felony, but only because the government threatened to put him in prison for 10 years if he lost at trial. Everyone who knows Sam and the case knows he at most deserved a fine, and should not have been convicted at all. What on earth was to be gained by putting him in prison? The case had it all; lying prosecutors, angry and incompetent ATF agents and a vengeful government with unlimited resources. Resources they were more than happy to turn on a successful businessman who was providing a fun product people loved. Sam served 13 months of his sentence in a Kentucky prison before being released to a Cincinnati halfway house for the remaining two months. I wrote about visiting him in prison during that time in a series of posts. If you want to follow the story from the beginning, here are the links:

Folks familiar with Sam and the case have repeatedly asked where he is now and what his plans are for the future. I spoke with him recently about those topics and wanted to share the answers with anyone who is interested in or has followed the case.

Jerry Smith: Can you sum up your prison experience and what you learned from it? 

Sam Droganes: I learned a lot from the prison experience, actually. Most of what I learned was how wasteful our government is. For some inane reason they would routinely throw away a massive amount of food rather than offer the inmates a second portion. I learned the upper echelon of the administrative staff there seem to have multifarious ways of lining their pockets, through shammed up training that is supposedly offered to the inmates, to insanely created incentive programs that probably sound good to some liberal bent on attempting to reform supposed criminals, but in practice are so abused that they are little more than a dog and pony show for the powers that be. On a personal note, I learned a big dose of how to do without a lot of the basics and comforts of life. For example, a little thing like cinnamon was virtually priceless inside the fence, when one could even secure some. Doing without bacon was also something I learned, but I am glad I do not have to do that anymore! 

Jerry: No bacon! That should qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. If you would, describe your halfway house experience before you came home. How long were you there? 

Li Tien, Sam and Sam Sr.
Sam: I was at the hellhole of a halfway house, The Talbert House, from June 10 to August 10, 2015.  If I would have had any idea how bad it was I would have stayed at The Manchester Federal “Correctional” Facility. The most miserable experience of my life to say the least. Despite the fact that I never used a drug in my life nor smoked anything, I was routinely (as in weekly) subjected to an early morning urinalysis. I am not sure if it is because of its urban location or the personnel, but the staff, with a few pronounced exceptions, was racist towards those of a lighter shade. The food there was slightly better and of a greater portion than at Manchester, which was probably the only thing that was superior. The communication there, as to anything relative to the facility, was so contorted, convoluted, and connived that it often rendered me contumacious [Note: Yeah, I had to look it up. “Contumacious” means stubbornly or willfully disobedient to authority. If you know him, very appropriate for Sam]. While the atmosphere at the halfway house was more laid back than in prison, the staff was actually more harassing and much less helpful.      

Jerry: What is the first thing you did when you were released from the halfway house? What was your first meal? 

Sam: The first thing I did when I was released was to open my years’ worth of mail. Although some of the mail had been sent to me or brought to me at the halfway house, there was still a lot more to go through. Fourteen months allowed a plethora of mail to accumulate. Other than that I thanked God the craziness was over and that I could return to good food. To that end, my first meal was a home cooked meal of steak and potatoes that my mother served with distinction and d├ęcor to welcome me back. Although steak is my favorite meal, the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] was sans any form of this, so it was great to get it immediately upon my return. And of course ice cream was also part of my cause for celebration and I indulged in quite a bit of it, as often as I wanted!

Jerry: Why do you think the government acted unethically to put you away? Was it you personally or the fireworks industry? 

Sam: To postulate on the government’s motivation for anything they did in my case is speculative, but as my lawyers believed, the moronic lead agent, or “special agent’ as he corrected me, furtively, if not factually, wanted my vast and quite valuable firearms collection. Although I have no knowledge of other’s collections of firearms, I was told by several arms dealers and numerous attorneys that it was probably one of the largest in Northern Kentucky. All I know is that I had more than 350 guns, almost all of which were new and in the box. Looking like a kid on Christmas morning, the agent, uh, that is, “special” agent, and he was “special” all right, went through every one of them that fateful July 2, 2007 [When Premium Fireworks was first raided by the ATF]. I noticed this as he foraged through the hundreds of them and then left them in a pile at the two locations where they were, looking like a cyclone had just hit. 

Despite my firsthand observation of the absolute exuberance he displayed as he pawed his slimy fingers through each and every one, beginning with my then concealed carry Colt .380, I was not the one to reach that conclusion. Ultimately seizing and confiscating only one rifle, the agent alleged it might have been capable of automatic fire. I might be capable of becoming a woman too, but neither his assertion nor my capability was the case. Despite this they retained the rifle for more than 18 months. Finally we filed a motion to compel its return, which is one of the few motions the court granted unfettered in the entire charade, otherwise known as a legal case. My attorney called me the day the return order came in and asked me if I wanted to pick it up. I assured him I did not have a target on my back such that I would walk through the federal building with a rifle in my hands! So he picked it up and called me as soon as he exited the location there, asking me about the rifle, which was one of a few munitions that I had bought used, not new. It was at that moment, after he had seen the rubbish that passed for guns in the ATFE evidence room that my advocate put forth the theory that the agent wanted my gun collection. My ugly Portuguese-made rifle, according to my attorney, was the standout in the crowd. It was far superior in quality and condition than any other weapon they had there at the time. My attorney told me then that he was starting to realize what this case was about, the agent wants my guns. I practically scoffed unbelievingly, as at that time I still thought the government and its agents would act above board. I assured him that this could not be the case.

As the case wound its way through the Kangaroo courts, at least four times the same agent mentioned to one or both of my attorneys that if the case goes down like he thinks it will and the feds get the felony on their client, he will have to come and get my guns. Now given the fact that they spent somewhere in the neighborhood of at least $25 million in my case to make me a felon, but fined me not a penny, the only explanation that makes sense is that proffered by my lawyer. They lied and cheated and stole everything else they could, using the broad search warrant powers they were permitted.     

Jerry: How much longer are you on parole? 

Sam: Officially another two years of their crazy Supervised Release is what I am due, given the sentence was three years of it. But I talked with the probation lady (who is actually reasonable) and we both agreed that, since fireworks was the only trouble I had been in in my life, and because I will soon be out of the fireworks business, three years was excessive and unwarranted.  She said if I can show her that I have divested myself of the domestic fireworks business and that I have also sold my factory in China, she would work with me to lessen the time. She further explained that it is the local office’s policy that those on probation serve at least half their sentence, but that I might even be the exception to that, if I can show divestiture and permanent absence from the pyrotechnics trade.

Jerry: Tell me about the year you have been out. What have you done with yourself? 

Sam: I have been busier than when I was otherwise running a business, or when I was teaching college courses and running a business. It is hard to believe that in a month and a week it will have been a year since I was released from the inane hellhole known as the Talbert House. I have been doing some projects that I never could get to while operating a business, like trying to fix up my former fireworks location in Covington. A lot of things had been ignored there and the building is 98 years old, so I thought it time to address some things like weather stripping, window work, paint and plaster work that otherwise had been delayed or deferred. I also moved a lot of things around, now that the fireworks are out. I’ve tried my best to travel as often as possible, which I love to do as well. My pent up longing for road trips never got satiated when I was working and fourteen months as a guest of the government’s crossbar hotel did not exactly assuage my aspirations in that department. And currently I am in the process of assisting my sister to divest of the last of the remaining inventory as well as in the process of trying to sell my factory in China. 

But other than those things I have been trying to get life back to some semblance of normal. Getting the various forms of insurance back; Obamacare and such have consumed a lot of time. Trying to renew various things that had lapsed, meeting with professionals in various capacities and the like have also kept me busy. Returning a lot of phone calls and other forms of communication have likewise resulted in little time to do many other things that I want still to do.  Unfortunately there remain folks, even after nearly a year, I am yet to contact, but want to and will soon, I hope.

 Jerry: What remaining things do you have to do to divest yourself of the fireworks industry? 

Sam: I have to get through the current selling season, which is imminent, first. [Note: This interview was conducted shortly before this year’s fireworks season] Then as soon as possible I need to get an accurate inventory of the remaining product. Then there are a number of vendors to call who earlier expressed interest in purchasing the inventory, post-season, when their coffers should be emptied by the season. One of my customers in Pennsylvania, who ironically has an ice cream shop next to his fireworks store there, has also expressed interest, as has a party or two in China, in buying my factory in Liuyang, China. I need to sell that as well. The only thing hanging in the balance beyond these two requirements is the three containers of merchandise that US Customs has been holding for nearly seven years. Those containers combined are worth about $135,000. I have fought the government since they initially took them, but they continue to hold the containers costing the taxpayers millions in storage fees, all for nothing, much as their governmental brethren the ATFE did.

Jerry: What do you plan for the future? 

Sam: As my good friend Jerry has made me realize, I am a lucky man in that I have had the extreme fortune to make a living, and some years honestly a good living, doing what I love, which is something a lot of humans cannot claim. Another thing I did not realize until afterwards was that despite my longings for one huge building, ultimately the State Fire Marshal’s demand to segregate my 45,000 square foot warehouse into three units has worked out more advantageously.  [Note: Sam’s fireworks warehouse is divided up into three separate sections] Two of the units are currently leased, one, ironically to another pyrotechnic enterprise from Georgia, and the other to a local furniture company. When we finally vacate our third of the building, two parties are waiting to lease that portion. With the warehouse fully leased, if I can sell my factory in China for what it is really worth, and sell the remaining inventory here for its true value, I hope I can pay off the huge amount that I still owe on the building. When that happens the revenue the building generates should afford me a greater living than a normal year in the fireworks business, all for essentially doing nothing, which I am quite good at. Now I am a ways away from that, but it is the theory under which I am currently operating. Other than that I want to finish the book about the whole perverted, judicatory juggernaut, my experience growing up in the pyro business, and my most esteemed father. My sister is already champing at the bit for a book signing, even though the book is not quite finished and I have not yet sought out a publisher.

Jerry: What is your biggest takeaway, good or bad, from this entire experience? 

Sam: Among other things, it has vivified me in that I know now there are other things in life besides fireworks. That may be an overstatement perhaps, but I was more married to my business than any other entrepreneur could be. Delayed gratification was my perpetual method of operation. I delayed building a house, put off looking for a significant other, was miserly in using the profits for more pleasure and in short delayed many other personal things or pleasures, in deference to the business. I always plunked more into inventory while my own remuneration or satisfaction was less monetary and more in merchandise. Having such a vast and multifarious inventory was my source of pride and I thought a prudent investment. Always costs for merchandise, shipping and associated costs were rising, so since I had the new big fat warehouse, it only made sense to me to order up and try to get it to capacity. Having no debts then besides the huge warehouse mortgage, and having access to vast lines of credit made this goal all the more attainable and desirable. But much like the structure in the movie The Bridge Over the River Kwai, I built it all up, carrying more than 1500 items, which is probably three to five times more than most any other fireworks retailer, wholesaler or importer. I had a couple of years of operating in this manner then watched a moronic, rogue government agent steal it and get supported by a clumsy court that wanted anything but true justice done.  

Jerry: If the authorities cleared you to get back into the fireworks industry, would you do it? 

Sam: I will miss it for sure, because it was not just part of my life, it was my life. Again, I delayed finding a significant other because of the business. I delayed putting up my own house because of the business. I delayed taking a lot of money in any given year because of the business. Always I wanted to pour more of the income from the business into an ever-increasing inventory. I did this all to watch them take away the $2.5 million in goods that I had amassed, all for nothing. That experience has jaded me to never again try to grow a business, just to see it fritter away because of a rogue government agent. So to answer the question succinctly, no, I would not return. This discounts too the ever increasing regulations that are foisted upon the fireworks business by all the various government agencies. I want no part of all that nonsense. 

Jerry: Sam, thanks for your time and those brutally honest answers. We all wish you good luck in your future endeavors. And in getting your voting and firearm rights returned.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Movies - Ghostbusters

So a friend wanted to see the Ghostbusters remake and I took one for the team. Yes, it’s as bad as everyone says. I didn’t care that it was a remake, I didn’t care that the Ghostbusters were women. All I wanted was to laugh and be entertained. I did laugh out loud a few times, but overall the experience was not entertaining.

The new Ghostbusters - it worked on paper ... 
The plot was wafer-thin and a retread from the first GB. Ghosts invade New York and the Ghostbusters come out to capture and stop them. The problems start with the script—it’s slow and lifeless—but really fails at the character stage. None of the actresses cast help this movie. Melissa McCarthy has burned up all of her emotional goodwill from Gilmore Girls, and is now just a shrill, unfunny actress. At least she wasn’t screaming the F-word six times every sentence. Kate McKinnon (who is a comedy genius on Saturday Night Live), mumbles through endless technobabble and adds nothing to the proceedings. Leslie Jones (again, hilarious on SNL) plays a stereotypical obnoxious state worker, with a “Who dat?” level of conversation. Picture the worst DMV antagonist you ever had, times a million. But the main problem is Kristen Wiig, who anchors the movie. She’s okay on SNL, or if she is fifth or sixth down the line in a supporting cast somewhere. But whatever a performer has to have to be a movie star, she doesn’t have it. She’s just not that interesting on screen, ever. Think of the way Bill Murry stole every scene he was in for the original Ghostbusters. Wiig can’t even shine in a scene by herself.

The one highlight is Chris Hemsworth, playing the himbo secretary. He’s clueless, funny, and steals the movie entirely in a dance scene near the end.

Could better actors and a better script have improved Ghostbusters? Probably, but we’ll never know. This GB remake was dull as dishwater and offered little entertainment value, even with cameos from all the still-living original Ghostbusters. I’d avoid this one, even on DVD. A stinker.

Rating: ** out of 5 stars

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Television: Banshee

Every now and then I discover some media I missed—a TV show, musical artist, recent (or classic) movie, etc. that slipped under my radar. Something I overlooked for some reason, but can now take the pleasure of finding and enjoying. Case in point: Banshee. I had heard this show was fun and a bit naughty, but never paid it much attention. This is the Golden Age of TV, so another action show on a minor pay movie channel just got lost in the cacophony. I am now having an absolute blast making up for lost time.

Banshee just finished its run this year after four roller coaster seasons. Seasons one and two are free on Amazon Prime, so I tried the first episode a few weeks back. It was like crack. I slammed through those two seasons, then went into withdrawal when, like any good dealer, Amazon wanted money for the last two. Now I had to turn back to Netflix for the physical discs. The gratification isn’t as instantaneous, but sometimes waiting makes things better.

Banshee features a simple, high-concept plot. A convict (Antony Starr) is released from prison after a 15-year sentence. He returns to his old haunts in New York to track down a woman. He finds her in Banshee, PA. Stopping at a local bar for a drink, he steps into the middle of a shakedown from two toughs working for the local crime lord. Just getting into town, brand new sheriff Lucas Hood also happens to be at the bar having lunch and is killed by the two toughs. The convict, with the help of the friendly ex-con bartender, assumes the identity of the sheriff no one has met and becomes head law enforcement officer of Banshee. Of course it helps that he is a smart, tough martial arts expert who can bluff his way through almost any situation.

The show is incredibly well cast. Ivana Milicevic plays Anastasia, the Russian mobster’s daughter he has come to Banshee to find. She has built a new life under an alias and has a husband and kids now. The nature of their connection is fascinating and is the crux of the show. Familiar character actor Matt Servitto is Deputy Brock Lotus, the long-serving officer who should have gotten the Sheriff’s job. He doesn’t care for the new guy’s attitude or his penchant for cutting corners. Trieste Kelly Dunn is Siobahn (pronounced Sha-vawn) Kelly, a hot deputy who has an instant crush on faux-Lucas. Ulrich Thomsen is brilliant as former Amish man Kai Procter, now a powerful crime lord who rules the Banshee underworld with an iron fist. Lili Simmons is Rebecca, his drop-dead gorgeous, promiscuous niece who is torn between Amish society and the world. If she’s not careful the choice will be made for her by the Amish elders.

The town of Banshee has three groups rubbing up against each other; the townspeople, the Amish and the local American Indian tribe. Faux-Lucas (his real name has not been revealed as far as I have watched) has his hands full protecting the Amish, dealing with Procter and keeping out of Indian affairs; mostly regarding the new casino the tribe wants to build (and Procter wants a piece of). On the side he continues his thieving ways by still carrying out grand thefts with Anastasia and their pal Job; mostly from large illegal organizations who won’t report the money missing. Yes, fake sheriff is a thief, but has a sense of fairness and decency that makes him a likable, sympathetic character. In my favorite episode so far, an MMA champion comes to down and beats his one-night stand to a pulp. Sheriff Hood has to deal with his violent resistance to arrest. The subsequent fight is epic and definitive. I love the action choreography of this show. Season 3 contains one of the most epic hand-to-hand martial arts fights I’ve ever seen, and I’m a martial arts connoisseur. And Hood isn’t even involved!

The plots on Banshee are fast moving and thrilling. Someone is always poking a rattlesnake, and that rattlesnake always strikes back. Faux-Lucas is trying to steal, resuscitate his relationship with Anastasia and run the sheriff’s department. Oh, and fight crime and make an occasional arrest. The character takes more physical punishment during a typical episode than Mike Tyson took in his entire career.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t warn potential viewers about the astronomical levels of sex and violence in Banshee. It has the most per-minute explicit sex scenes and over the top violence of any TV show of its type. A level comparable to Game of Thrones. But actually it’s all in good fun. Banshee is a thrill-a-minute romp that never takes itself too seriously. Yes, faux-Lucas is sort of a bad guy. But he regularly beats the living @#$% out of worse bad guys. That at least makes him an anti-hero, right? Either way, the writing and performances in the show are an absolute blast.
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Comics – Captain America Epic Collection Volume 1

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America in 1941. Cap #1 debuted in March with that lovely and controversial cover of Cap punching the bejeezus out of Hitler. It was a wee bit controversial at the time because while Hitler was earning a reputation as a dictatorial despot, we had not yet declared war on Germany, nor they us, and diplomatic relations with Germany were a bit ... dicey. Cap was a wildly popular character for a while, then drifted out of the public consciousness some years after the war. Since Cap was one of the first projects young Stan Lee worked on as an assistant at Timely Comics (he was the nephew of Timely owner Martin Goodman’s wife), I think Stan had a soft spot for the old shield-slinger.

Writer Stan first brought Cap back in the Silver Age as a a tryout in Strange Tales #114 in 1963. In the story, reprinted here, an imposter Cap fought the Johnny Storm version of the Human Torch. That story was popular enough to bring back the real Cap in Avengers #4, supposedly having been in suspended animation since the end of WWII. Cap quickly got a co-starring role with Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, with each character taking half the book each issue. They shared cover space until issue #69, then alternated covers every issue. This Epic Collection reprints Cap's earliest Silver Age History, from that Strange Tales story to his co-run in Tales of Suspense issues 58-96.  

These stories are sublime, and readers can easily make out the soft spot Stan Lee has for Cap and his WWII sidekick Bucky. After we reintroduce the pseudo-Cap in the aforementioned ST #114, we move right to the modern day Cap’s resurrection in Avengers #4, both by Lee and Kirby. Cap’s story then moves solo to TOS #58. Cap is replaced by another double (a common occurrence in Cap stories for some reason). The familiar doppelganger is Spider-Man villain Chameleon, who picks a fight with Iron Man. This causes a lot of property damage to Stark International until the Avengers unmask him. In Issue #59, Kirby goes nuts  with his layouts as Cap battles a group of acrobat mob thugs who invade Avengers mansion (yeah—acrobat mob thugs). Cap shuts them down easily, by leaping, jumping, throwing his shield and engaging in fisticuffs. The energy Kirby brings to depicting Cap battles is like no other artist. In issue #60, Baron Zemo goes after his old WWII nemesis and Cap easily wades through his thugs. Zemo just never tires of failure. How does he eat through that mask? The next few issues are one battle after another as Cap takes on evil Sumo wrestlers and stops a major jailbreak, always being vastly outgunned and outnumbered. There is such a joy to this storytelling. Nothing too deep, just a heroic American sacrificing himself for the greater good.

Tales of Suspense #63 offers a WWII flashback story of Cap and Bucky, which continues for the next few issues. Cap’s origin is retold, as is his training and teaming up with Bucky. In a present day scene, he meets SHIELD’s Agent 13 (Sharon Carter, although he doesn’t find out her name for some time). They hit it off right away. In issue #65, still set in WWII, the ultimate villain is revealed as ... the Red Skull! Big surprise. Cap and Bucky fight the Skull and the Nazi menace, with help of Stan and Jack (and George Tuska, who did the finishes on issues #70-74). Cap defeats the Skull in WWII, but now has to defeat his fail-safe machines in the modern day. Issue #75 is a classic, introducing Batroc zee Leaper, the French savate expert/supervillain. Kirby is still doing layouts, but now Dick Ayers takes over the penciling. In Batroc’s second appearance in issue #76, John Romita takes over the art chores and the result is beautiful, as is everything Romita ever did. Romita continues for a few issues, until Kirby returns, bringing the Red Skull back with him in #79. Kirby continues on layouts/pencils with different artists until Cap finally vanquishes the Red Skull and the Cosmic Cube forever (chuckle) in issue #81.

Tales of Suspense #82 is a fantastic read. The android known as the Adaptoid steals Cap’s likeness and powers for a few issues and goes on a rampage. Of course this is when the Tumbler tumbles into Avengers mansion looking for a fight. Thinking the Adaptoid is Cap, they battle it out. The story shows that even though the Adaptoid has Cap’s likeness, abilities and shield, he doesn’t have Cap’s heart and has a hard time overcoming the Tumbler. Defeated and disabled in issue #83, the android quickly returns in #84 as the Super-Adaptoid. The Adaptoid had secretly sucked up the powers of all the Avengers and is now nigh undefeatable. The Super-Adaptoid takes on Cap alone and nearly drowns him before retreating to safety. It’s a rare decisive defeat for Cap, and incredibly well written for what was intended to be throwaway children’s literature.

TOS #85 is another incredibly fun issue, there was real magic to Lee/Kirby in this time period. Hydra hires Batroc to kill Cap, then betrays him in the middle of the fight. This leads to Batroc teaming with Cap to trounce Hydra, and they part as not-quite enemies. In issue #86 Cap works with a sleeper agent to take down a communist dictatorship. This is all Lee/Kirby now and they are firing on all cylinders. #87 is Cap vs. The Planner, another villain masquerading as Cap. Cap should probably consider some type of trademark protection for his costume at this point. The plot is by Lee, but the script is credited to Roy Thomas, as far as I know his first Cap solo work. The art is by Jack Sparling.

In issue #88 and for the next few issues, the wonderful Gil Kane takes over the art chores. He is billed as Gil (Sugar Lips) Kane. I’m sure he loved that. He’s not as manic as Kirby, but already Kane’s characters have that balletic grace that distinguishes him from other artists. Here a mystery villain lures Cap to a desert island and tricks the Swordsman and Power Man (the bad one) into attacking him. Next issue we find out the mystery villain is ... you guessed it! The Red Skull! He’s back and monologuing, complete with a robot Bucky as a hostage. This torment’s Cap, who will always be plagued by guilt for Bucky’s death. To save Bucky, whom he thinks is a real boy, Cap makes a promise to serve the Skull for 24 hours—but Lee puts in a great twist to thwart the Skull’s plans. As expected, he doesn’t take it well.

Issues #92-94 are back to the Lee/Kirby team, and they’re great. Cap teams up with Agent 13, whom he’s now in love with, to take down A.I.M. Issue #94 introduces MODOK, in the form he stays in for the next 50 years. When Jack Kirby creates something, it stays created. In #95, Cap basically proposes to Sharon Carter, who turns the poor guy down because she’s dedicated to her career of being a spy and catching bad guys. He’s crushed, but understands. They agree to keep seeing each other—he is Captain America, after all. The final issue in the collection, #96, has more guys dressing up as Cap, this time to get publicity and impress their girlfriends! This fools the Sniper and his thuggish partner, who almost kill the impostors to fulfill their contract on Cap. Cap and Nick Fury (the real one) make mincemeat out of them.

These stories still hold up as bold adventure tales today, and were a total pleasure to read. I was not bored for one second, and it is clear that Stan loved Cap and his patriotic world with all his heart. So did Kirby! Cap does give some corny (but lovable) speeches about freedom and America, but this is not jingoistic, overtly flag-waving stuff. This is a patriotic veteran loving and defending his country. This leads to some of the challenges the Marvel of today has in telling Captain America stories. If Marvel editors like America, it’s sure hard to tell. Even if they do, it seems they don’t want their friends in the media to think they are in any way thankful or grateful to live in this country. Today, Cap can’t mention America or talk about how great we are. In the last few years, they have wrestled with this problem in many ways—Cap was banished to another dimension, aged to 90, given another identity, and turned the Cap mantle over to Sam Wilson (who uses it to support his partisan liberal causes, something Captain America was never meant to do for either side). It’s sad that Marvel is so caught up in Political Correctness, and that they perceive PC as not being able to recognize that America, with all its faults, is still a great country. Now they’ve even made Steve Rogers a Hydra sleeper agent, working for the enemy since day one! Is that a company who knows how to handle a patriotic character? Because Marvel is incapable of publishing good Cap stories, they should just cancel the book and give the concept a rest, until cooler heads prevail. Until then, we have these older stories to enjoy with no other agenda than to entertain and celebrate freedom and good over evil. Today’s Marvel has little understanding of those concepts.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Books: Savage Lane by Jason Starr

Savage Lane is another triumphant crime novel by thriller master Jason Starr—this time dealing satirically with the rot in American suburbia. At the center of most of the drama is Karen Daily, a teacher and hot divorcee raising her kids and not necessarily looking for a new partner. Her neighbor and close friend is Mark Berman, who’s a little too obsessed with spending time with her and considering their future together. Mark is trapped in an unhappy marriage with Deb, who has a thing on the side with charismatic recent high school grad Chris.

Everyone thinks they know what everyone else wants—is anyone ever right about that? In Mark’s mind, Karen is longing for the day he’ll leave Deb and propose to her. In public, Deb begs Mark to keep their marriage going and fights with him over his time with Karen. In private, she lets Chris abuse her and get a little too attached. When everyone does act on their most intimate feelings, the results are not what anyone imagines, and leads to absolute ruin for more than one of our players. Deb and Karen catfight on the floor of the country club, in plain view of recording cell phones. Chris’s dangerous past is exposed. And Mark has his dreams and comfortable life shattered, one defeat at a time. Even worse, not everyone makes it out alive.

Starr is an expert at putting his characters under inexorable pressure, then letting them simmer to see what happens. It’s almost humorous how ridiculous it all is … what people are sure of in their own minds that has nothing to do with reality. But it’s fun to watch everyone squirm. A wicked, tightly-plotted story with human characters and more than a few surprises. Recommended.

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Friday, June 10, 2016

TV Rampage

TV Rampage - Television Reviews

The Night Manager (BBC/AMC)
This British espionage thriller stars Dr. House, Hugh Laurie, and Loki himself, Tom Hiddleston, as adversaries in a deep undercover spy game.  Huddleston’s character, Jonathan Pine, is a former British soldier working as a night manager at a Cairo hotel. When he meets Sophie Alekan (Aure Atika), mistress of the hotel’s Arab owner, they immediately make a connection, physical as well as emotional. Sophie gives Jonathan some secret illegal arms documents she feels guilty about hiding, and quickly pays the ultimate price for her betrayal. Turns out those documents were a blazing trail to Richard “Dickie” Roper (Laurie), a flamboyant English arms dealer whose weapons indiscriminately kill soldiers, bystanders, children and local sheep. He’s a bad, bad man. Pine is perfectly placed for revenge and to infiltrate Roper’s group, so with help from MI6 (the British CIA) and the CIA, (the American CIA), he infiltrates Roper’s gang and attempts to take them down from the inside.

What follows is an edge-of-your-seat thriller about a slick but untrained undercover operative trying to bring down an international arms cartel virtually alone. As Pine gets closer to Roper, he fends off a smart, skeptical member of the group with many correct suspicions, and starts to fall for Roper’s young, hot American girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). Roper sets up Pine as Andrew Birch, the head of a shell corporation that sells everything from Cobra missiles to Sarin gas. What is so fun to watch is the shell game itself. Roper becomes aware of a mole in his company, but can’t be positive who it is. He knows the authorities are on to him (despite his bribed minions in high British office), and runs circles around their attempts to catch him and expose his operation. Time after time, Pine leaks documents or information, only for Roper to be one-step ahead and closer to having Pine’s extremities removed. The story circles back to the original hotel where Pine and Roper met, as they have their final confrontation.

I can’t write about The Night Manager without mentioning Olivia Coleman, probably the finest currently working British actress. Coleman (Broadchurch) plays Angela Burr, a very pregnant MI6 agent who has been trying to nail Roper for years. As she loses her battles with her bosses, with Roper and finally her entire spy division, she maintains a stoic surety that one day she will get him. Pine is her last hope, and she bets everything on him—her career and even her life. Her speech about first discovering civilian bodies gassed by Roper is chilling and Emmy worthy. I absolutely love this woman’s work. The Night Manager is a first-rate production—more like this please.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Wynonna Earp (Syfy)
This is the first season of a Syfy production based on the Beau Smith comic book. Shows on Syfy can be incredibly cheesy and most times are not worth viewers’ attention—even on a lonely Saturday night. I’m happy to say Wynonna Earp is an exception. Overall, the show is a whimsical breath of fresh air. Wynonna (Melanie Scrofano) is of course a direct descendant of Western lawman Wyatt Earp, latest in the line of supernatural fighting Earps. She inherited a magic six-gun that vanquishes demons, and as a child, said demons attacked her house and murdered her father and sister to get it. Wynonna comes back to the town of Purgatory after being away for a few years, and eventually recovers her magic six-shooter. She joins the “Black Badges,” a supernatural U.S. Marshall unit run by her boss Agent Dolls (Shamier Anderson), then proceeds to go after the rogue demons, especially the ones who attacked her home. Her younger sister Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) assists her from time to time.  

This show is a hoot. It is especially well cast, with Scrofano having a dynamite sense of comic timing and a hilarious talent delivering one-liners. When a demon demands she hand over her magic gun, she looks at him seductively and says, “It’s at home in my panty drawer, why don’t we go get it?” When she needs to empty out a bar quickly, she pulls out her pistol and shouts, “CrazychickwithaGUN!!!!!” and fires into the ceiling. Dominique Provost-Chalkley as Waverly beautifully plays the helpful sister sometimes frustrated with Wynonna’s self-destructive behavior, and Anderson is fun (but a little humorless) as Agent Dolls. Tim Rozon as 150-year old Doc Holiday strikes the perfect balance between slimy, questionable good guy and a bad-choice love interest for Wynonna. The plots have been smart and fun with some big surprises. The only wrong turn taken by the show is when a lesbian sexual predator in authority (a police officer) goes after formerly straight Waverly. And gets her. It’s creepy and unnecessary to the plot. Otherwise, Wynonna Earp is pure supernatural comfort food.

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5

The Americans (FX) *SLIGHT SPOILERS*
Folks will be talking about The Americans long after the show is off the air. Taking place in the early 1980s in Washington, D.C., it’s a phenomenon that gets better every season, every episode. On the surface, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings and their kids are a close, middle class American family. Phillip and Elizabeth own a travel agency, their kids Paige and Henry are typical teenagers. In reality, Phillip and Elizabeth are Soviet sleeper agents, sent to America to raise a family and blend in while they go on covert espionage missions for the USSR. While Phillip recognizes that America isn’t all that bad and actually has a lot to offer, Elizabeth is a true believer who is in no danger of going native. Married as young agents, through the years they actually fall in love and become what they appear to be; a loving family.

Their neighbor Stan is an FBI agent—a coincidence, but one Phillip exploits by becoming friends with Stan. This is a prime example of the show’s brilliance—I think Phillip really likes Stan and would be friends with him anyway—but the extra layer is that he can innocently squeeze Stan for intelligence without arousing suspicion.

The show is in its fourth season and keeps ratcheting up the drama. This season Phillip and Elizabeth, and their handler Gabriel (Frank Langella) are working with another spy who specializes in infectious diseases. They keep sneaking more virulent strains of nasty substances out of the lab, but the expert himself doubts they should be giving it to the homeland office. Phillip agrees, but is conflicted by loyalty to his country. Meanwhile, the couple came out to their daughter Paige as to who they really are, with hopes of possibly recruiting her to their crusade. This was a miscalculation, as Paige couldn’t handle the news and told her church Pastor. Now Phillip and Elizabeth have to struggle with what to do … kill the pastor and be hated by their daughter? Or make him a friend and hope he doesn’t tell? It’s riveting drama.

Even though they are perfectly acted, well-rounded characters, I have little sympathy for Phillip and Elizabeth. Their actions have directly or indirectly led to the deaths of many innocent Americans. They have destroyed lives—including the FBI secretary Phillip married under an alias and who fed him classified information. The show should end with Phillip going to the gulag and Elizabeth being hanged. At least he has a conscience. Serialized TV doesn’t get any better than this.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Cleverman (Sundance)
This Australian show, new to American shores, offers a plethora of unique and mad ideas. Apparently a Cleverman, in Australian Aboriginal lore, is sort of a shaman who rules a supernatural dream dimension.

In the show, Neanderthals have survived to the present day, an idea that really appeals to me. Treated as an underclass, they are held in ghettos by the Australian government and called “Hairies” by the local population. They are as intelligent as humans, but twice as hairy and three times as strong. If they leave their ghetto they are subject to beatings, arrest and a possible sentence to a prison camp, where they are separated, abused and even branded.

Hunter Page-Lochard plays Koen West, an Australian bar owner and Aborigine who specializes in getting black market living spaces for the Hairies, then turning them in and collecting the reward money. He’s a double-dipping douchebag, with no empathy for his victims. When the large family he turns in has a young daughter killed by the police during their apprehension, Koen’s older brother Waruu (Rob Collins) steps in to punish him. Waruu is the leader of an underground group of Hairies and Hairy supporters, which has turned into a thriving, if not yet successful, society. Meanwhile, Koen and Waruu’s aged uncle Jimmy is the show’s Cleverman, at least in the pilot. He finds reason to give his magic powers to one of his nephews … but which one will he choose?

Meanwhile Jerrod Slade, the local Network mogul (played by the great Iain Glen from Game of Thrones) sees that the conflict with the Hairies makes good TV and doesn’t miss an opportunity to broadcast their stories. He also has a friendly relationship with the Cleverman. His chief on-air reporter is sleeping with Waruu. All of the characters are related somehow, making the cast very connected, sometimes without even knowing it.

I’ve only seen the pilot, but the show has set up an intriguing world of which I want to see more. There is magic, mythology and many questions to be answered. The two I have are: 1.) If the Neanderthals are so much bigger and stronger than us, how did they get to be an abused, conquered people? and 2.) Why are they hated and treated so badly? Sure, they’re not strictly human and hairier than us, but in 2016 the world would not let any group of sentient bipeds be brutalized and forced to live in work camp/slums, deprived of any sort of civil rights. It just wouldn’t happen, and it is not believable so far on the show. But I love some of the ideas put forth—what if Neanderthals hadn’t become extinct? How would humans react to living side by side with a different species? So far not very well. I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

Rating: ***½ out of 5