Saturday, January 21, 2017

Recent Movies


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – I love Star Wars and I am desperately trying to like the new films. So far they are 0 for 2. Rogue One isn’t an awful film; it’s just boring. The actors are stiff and lifeless with no attention paid to character and less to the story. The characters gather in a throne room to talk, then a war room to talk, then on ships to talk ... why don’t they do something?! Actress Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso is bland and even more uninteresting than Daisy Ridley as Rey in The Force Awakens. She has no personality, no emotion and the charisma of a bag of doorknobs. It’s about the same for the crew of rebels who assist her, with the possible exception of Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe. They put Zatoichi in a Star Wars movie. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Forest Whittaker as Saw Gerrera is at his “Look at me, I’m ACTING! Look how TORTURED I am!” best. He has given this exact same performance a hundred times. It may be time for him to report to Overactors Anonymous.   

There is nothing inherently wrong with having a diverse cast, which Rogue One does. But it gets a bit weird. The entire Rogue One Squadron, the good guys, is either female or minority—and all villains and evildoers are middle-aged white men. Um, what are you trying to tell us, Star Wars Universe?

Of course the special effects are breathtaking, as are the digital reproductions of young and deceased cast members. Darth Vader was handled well and was definitely on model. But overall Rogue One was an unnecessary tale told by a group of lackluster actors and filmmakers. The PC elements didn’t help. This drivel gives me little hope for future Star Wars installments.

Rating: ** stars out of 5


The Legend of Tarzan – Much to my delight, Hollywood is once again trying to introduce Tarzan to modern audiences. Since I read a buttload of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Jungle Lord books when I was a teenager, I’m a huge fan. Tarzan is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters and I care about getting him right. Unfortunately, this is not the film to do so.

This time around Tarzan is played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård. He’s a great Tarzan, the filmmakers chose well. His wife Jane is Margot Robbie, also a great Jane. Inglorious Basterds' Christoph Waltz is a credible villain. The only misfire is Samuel L. Jackson as the whiny comic relief. This film was shot before Robbie’s breakout role in Suicide Squad, where she became a geek household name. I supposed the producers thought the film needed some star power, so they created a superfluous role for Jackson, who has no earthly reason to be in this movie.

The plot is decent; Jane is kidnapped in Africa and Tarzan has to go find her. This is the plot of 90% of ERB’s Tarzan novels and is perfectly acceptable. The execution is ... not good. It’s as if someone told someone else the story of Tarzan, then that person talked to the writers and they used that story to write the movie. Did they crack a Tarzan book? In the books, Tarzan wears an animal skin loincloth; leather, lion skin, leopard, whatever. In the movie, he wears culottes. Tarzan does not wear culottes. This took away from the classic visual of the character and just made him a muscular guy in culottes. Ugh. In the books, Tarzan never goes into the jungle without weapons, usually his bow and arrows, knife and possibly a spear. In the movie, he gets off a train and runs into the jungle with nothing. He’s following an army and trying to rescue his wife. That’s not just not following the books, it’s stupid.

When Tarzan gets off the train and goes into the jungle to rescue Jane, Sam Jackson’s character goes to follow him. Tarzan says, “I’m not going to let you slow me down.” Then Tarzan proceeds to slow from a run to a walk, then walk through the jungle rather than swinging from tree to tree, thereby letting Jackson’s character slow him down. Was anyone paying attention to their own script?

The movie did get some things right; Tarzan is a well-educated, well-spoken man. But the movie Tarzans are never as raw, as primal, as ERB’s original. The literary Tarzan was highly intelligent, compassionate and honorable. The movie Tarzans are always weak and equivocating. This movie Tarzan was a creature of the city, ashamed of his jungle heritage and reluctant to go back into the forest. The literary Tarzan, a much more interesting creature, was proud of his jungle life and always longed to visit his African holdings.

The great Tarzan film has yet to be made. 1984’s Greystoke starring Christopher Lambert was close, but no cigar. I’m still waiting, Hollywood. Please do better next time. And no culottes!

Rating: *** stars out of 5


X-Men: Apocalypse - 20th Century Fox continues to pump out X-Men movies, whether anyone wants them or not. Here, the oldest and first mutant, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), is released from his Egyptian tomb and gathers a group of mutants to conquer the world. Bryan Singer directs, but doesn’t offer anything new to X-Men or superhero movies.

Apocalypse gathers some young mutants, including Mystique, Storm and Angel, as well as an older, disillusioned Magneto (Michael Fassbender). His efforts are fought tooth and nail by Professor X (James McAvoy) and young versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey and the Beast. The actions scenes are superior and the special effects of Apocalypse slaughtering humans and the X-Men fighting back are truly spectacular. The highlight of the movie is a terrific cameo from a feral mutant everyone has come to love. But there is just nothing new here. An evil mutant threatens the world, the X-Men team up to stop him. No one discovers something new, no one acts out of character and almost no one offers anything worth watching. Michael Fassbender is always fascinating to watch as Magneto, and he did have an interesting story arc and the most growth of any character. But that was a small part of the movie. I kept looking for something that made X-Men: Apocalypse special or unusual or stand out in any way from a crowded superhero marketplace. I suppose this film is not the worst way to pass two hours. But in the end, out of all the movies made last year, X-Men: Apocalypse was one of them.

Rating: **½ stars out of 5

Monday, January 2, 2017

Top 10 Comics of 2016

In alphabetical order:


Birthright


Bone: Coda


Future Quest


Lake of Fire


Manifest Destiny


Rachel Rising


Red Team: Double Tap, Center Mass


Rom


Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses



Velvet

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Comics Capsule Reviews

Mother Panic #1: There’s a new vigilante in Gotham City, and it’s a strange one. Violet Page, rich Gotham socialite, is returning to the city after making her reputation around the world. And what a reputation! In that time, she’s become the female Bruce Wayne; a selfish, spoiled, hard-drinking debutante used to the spotlight. And like Wayne, she has an alter ego; the oddly named, and odder dressed, Mother Panic.

Violet sticks around Gotham long enough in this issue to stop an assassination attempt as Mother Panic, then take care of her dementia-afflicted mother. The story holds a lot of mystery—Violet is after someone, but who? And why? Her alpha-male father is in prison. Why? What is her agenda and whose side is she on? She seems to have no love for Batman (featured in a cameo here); indeed, her one comment on him is “f--- the Bat.” Yes, Mother Panic is a mature readers book and does feature the f-word liberally. That doesn’t seem to fit a superhero book with Batman guest starring, but what good decision has DC made lately?

Mother Panic is a well-written, if possibly too adult, superhero comic with a good sense of pacing and several intriguing mysteries. I'll keep reading for now. 

Rating: ***½ stars out of 5

Betty & Veronica #2: Writer/artist Adam Hughes continues his winning streak with Archie’s girlfriends. One of comics’ finest fine artists, Hughes provides a fun and interesting take on the material. When the Riverdale gang discovers Pop Tait’s Choklit Shoppe is closing, Betty starts a grass roots campaign to save the teen watering hole. Veronica, whose father’s company is purchasing the Shoppe to replace it with a hipster coffee joint, takes the opposite point of view. While Veronica supports her father’s business (and hipster coffee), Betty prefers to keep Pop’s open and the hipsters out. Thus starts a major war between the two regular frenemies.

Hughes’ writing is sharp, with witty dialog and a gift for puns. He captures the teenage voice well, at least to my middle-aged ears. But the art sells the book. Photo-realistic with just the right touch of cartooning, Hughes is a perfect draftsman, designer and storyteller. He has even researched teen fashion and styles and provides a perfect setting to unleash them. Count me in as a fan, of Hughes and Betty & Veronica.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Scooby-Doo Team-Up #20: These team-ups tend to be not only unexpected, but entertaining. There have been the traditional collaborations between the Scoobies and Hawkman, Superman and Batman. But give me the deep cuts, with folks like Buzz & Frankenstein Jr., Jonny Quest and in this issue, Space Ghost. Space Ghost has his full crew of Jan, her brother Jace and Blip, their pet monkey. They come to Earth chasing the devilish duo of Zorak and Moltar. Teaming with the Scoobies for their detective skills, the group tracks the villains to ... the moon? Where else? The Scoobie Gang then space suit up and deploy to the moon for battle. Writer Sholly Fisch manages to distill the essence of whatever guest star is appearing that month and capture the character perfectly. Artist Dario Brizuela is flawlessly on model and everyone looks exactly like they are supposed to. Disengage your brain and enjoy these tales of space hero mayhem. Excellent.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Love and Rockets #1: Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez launch their latest volume of L&R. This is the fourth iteration of the book. The first was a 50-issue magazine, then a 20-issue comic series, then an eight volume annual graphic novel series. I always thought the Hernandez’s were most comfortable in magazine format, and that is what they return to here. The characters are the same, from Jamie’s best friends Maggie and Hopey, to Gilbert’s Latina half-sisters Luba and Fritz. There’s just one problem ... I’ve never really liked Love and Rockets. I have tried all four iterations now, and it just isn’t my thing.

I find the characters grating and uninteresting, and most of the plots meandering soap opera with a huge extended cast I don’t care about. Oh, I admit the work is done with love and craft, and I generally like both artists, especially Jaime. But nothing about this book clicks for me. It never has. I thought I would try one last time to see if anything had changed and if I could get into it now. Nope. I still found the characters to be annoying and a wave of apathy wash over me on each page of both stories. Sorry, world. I just don’t care for Love and Rockets. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently not good, it’s just not for me.

Rating: ** out of 5 stars

Red Team: Double Tap, Center Mass #5: This one of the best crime books on the market, and reads like some of the top crime shows television has to offer. Each issue would make a brilliant TV episode. RT: DTCM would be comfortable on HBO alongside The Wire and The Night Of. Eddie and Trudy are disgraced cops who are now assigned to the lowest jobs available. When they pull over a spoiled rich boy joyriding through town, the bodies in his trunk lead to a major case and maybe a way for them to erase their past. Unfortunately, they have to deal with jealous spouses, erratic witnesses and a department that isn’t quite ready to forgive them.

In this issue, the results are revealed from when Trudy was ambushed last issue. Will she live? Either way, Eddie and Trudy take their relationship in a direction it probably shouldn’t go. Meanwhile, Eddie interrogates their main witness with his high-priced lawyer in the room. Will he be able to get any useful information? The shock ending changes everything and moves the narrative forward like it’s riding a comet. Fantastic stuff.

Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars

Black Dahlia: Yes, that Black Dahlia. This standalone graphic novel is the latest volume of Rick Geary’s Treasury of 20th Century Murder. These stories are incredibly well researched, written and illustrated. Most crime buffs know the story of Elizabeth Short. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia, Liz was a wanna-be model and actress in the mid-1940s stalked by bad breaks and lousy luck. Bouncing around the country from her native Massachusetts, Liz was a chaste brunette who loved the nightlife. She had a lot of gentlemen callers but few close relationships. She liked soldiers though. She was actually engaged to a flyboy, who was shot down at the end of WWII. Liz bounced from hotel to flop house to friend’s back room in Hollywood, all while trying to become a model or meet a nice guy for her M.R.S. degree. One day a boyfriend dropped her off at a fancy hotel, she said she was meeting her sister. A week later her body, tortured horribly and cut into two separate pieces, was found in an empty lot in a residential district in Hollywood.

Geary divides the book into five sections filled with clear art and straightforward facts. Part One is “The Vacant Lot,” about finding the body, the press and police involved, and what was done to Liz. It wasn’t pretty. Part Two is “The Life of Elizabeth Short,” about Liz’s childhood, her estranged father and hardscrabble mother trying to provide a living. Part Three is her “Last Days,” a day-by-day account of Liz’s last week or so. Part Four is “The Investigation,” about the suspects and the police sparing no expense to find the killer. Part Five is “The Wrap-Up,” where Geary looks at the information and suspects that have been discovered since the investigation ended.

To the consternation of many a crime buff, the case was never solved and is still officially open. Geary does disclose the probable killer who came to light in 1981. The police were closing in on him and ... well, I’ll leave something for the book to disclose. I will say the ending of the story is as frustrating as the crime itself. Geary is such a talented raconteur I couldn’t put this down.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars                 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Movies: Doctor Strange


Marvel continues its string of hits with the Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr Strange. Cummerbund Bandersnatch (kidding! You know it’s Benedict Cumberbatch) plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a rich, arrogant snob of a neurological surgeon. Cold to his patients, condescending to his peers and addicted to wealth and power, Strange loses it all after an explosive auto accident. When Western medicine fails to restore his health, he looks to the East for a more mystical solution. There he finds the Ancient One, a mystical teacher who accepts him as a student and helps him heal his body and open his mind.

While training with other students, including the enigmatic Baron Mordo, Strange shows some aptitude for magic and spells, kicking and dragging his logical medical mind into the process. He learns of a major magical threat to the world and teams with his new peers to battle it, despite his neophyte status. 

Mr. Bandersnatch as Dr. Strange
Doctor Strange hits all the right buttons; growing and changing Strange into a bearable, caring human being, providing several intimidating protagonists and blowing viewers’ minds with special effects. Doctor Strange has the most trippy, complex and awe-inspiring visuals of any Marvel movie so far. The effects not only evoke otherworldly magic, but also the art of Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange co-creator (along with Stan Lee, who has a rather bland cameo in the film) and designer of some extremely wild alt-dimensional worlds in the original comic. This movie displays a unique and electrifying visual design sense. 

Doctor Strange does follow the normal Marvel movie formula, which is a strength here. There is an origin, dangerous protagonists who threaten to end the world and a slam-bang resolution. Along the way the acting, magic battles and art direction are absolutely stunning. 

The only negative in the movie is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. As portrayed in the comic, the Ancient One is an Asian man from Tibet. I’m not sure if they changed the character from an Asian man to a bald English woman for political reasons (China is a huge movie market, and the Chinese government doesn’t want to see a heroic character from disputed client nation Tibet), politically correct reasons (I thought race trumped sex in PC culture. Liberals, please educate me), or just because the director wanted to change something to put his stamp on the story. Regardless, the story follows the original Lee/Ditko comics closely except for this important detail.

The Ancient One
 
Not the Ancient One
Overall, Doctor Strange adds magic to the Marvel brand, and I look forward to his sequels and appearances in other Marvel films, as hinted in the post-credits scene. Doctor Strange is a fun romp well deserving of your time.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

Monday, November 7, 2016

Comics – The Master of Kung Fu Omnibus, Vol. I


This first volume reprints one of the most beloved properties of the ‘70s and ‘80s, stories of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. Created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi was the son of Chinese supervillain Fu Manchu and an unnamed American mother. With a publishing history stemming from the early 1900s, Fu Manchu was a well-known literary character licensed from the estate of author Sax Romer. A character original to Marvel, Shang-Chi (whose name means “rising and advancing of a spirit”) is trained from birth to be a human weapon and assassin for his father. Dispatched for his first kill, he is told his target is an evil operative who is a danger to the world. After killing the man, Shang-Chi is assaulted by doubt and eventually learns the truth about his father. Desperate to assuage his guilt for the murder, Shang-Chi joins British spymaster Sir Dennis Nayland Smith and his group of operatives to fight Fu Manchu and regularly save the world. Rounding out the cast is man-mountain Black Jack Tarr, man of style and action Clive Reston (son of James Bond and great-nephew of Sherlock Holmes), and Shang’s lover Leiko Wu.

These reprints start with Special Marvel Edition #15, then the title changes to Master of Kung Fu in issue #17, which keeps the Special Marvel Edition numbering. By issue #21, Englehart is off the book and writer Doug Moench takes over and becomes the creative force most closely identified with Shang-Chi and his adventures.

Moench takes Shang through some very James Bond-inspired adventures, and the group regularly battles Fu Manchu, usually resulting in a draw. Fu sends assassins like clockwork to kill Shang—they come in the form of waiters, lovers, spies and people on the street. Everyone knows kung fu and everyone is out to kill Shang-Chi for the price on his head placed there by his father. It is clear these tales were never meant to be read all at once, put together they can be somewhat repetitive. Even some of the included letters pages bear this out. But the characters and characterization are top-notch. Shang-Chi makes a conscious decision at one point that, while he abhors violence, he must work with Smith to fight villains and evildoers who mean humanity harm. It’s a tough decision for Shang, at heart a pacifist who just wants to be left alone to find himself.

The largest criticism of Master of Kung Fu is the kung fu itself. I’m not sure anyone on the creative team had ever cracked a magazine or saw a movie about martial arts. Forms are wrong, stances non-existent, punches, kicks and strikes are not related in any way to actual kung fu. Some artists are better than others (Paul Gulacy definitely improved as he went along), but this is a massive missed opportunity for the book. Shang-Chi could have brought real kung fu to the masses. Instead, the book turns out to be another superhero punch-fest with little or no authentic martial arts. But this criticism pales in comparison to the general quality of the stories and the characterization of Shang-Chi as constantly divided, always wanting to retire from his “games of death and deceit.” That conflict drives the series and Moench plays it perfectly.

Obviously inspired by the contemporary television show Kung Fu, starring David Carridine, Master of Kung Fu does manage to be its own separate entity. Shang-Chi is not Kwai Chang Caine, he has his own hang-ups and goals. The stories are fun and action packed, and do contain quite a bit of Eastern philosophy and aesthetic. Moench is a thoughtful writer who can write big concepts, meditation scenes and globetrotting exploits. Overall, MOKF gives readers killer plots, explosive action and a lot of bang for their buck. I very much look forward to the next volume in the series.  

The Master of Kung Fu Omnibus collects Special Marvel Edition 15-16, Master of Kung Fu 17-37 & Giant-Size 1-4, Giant-Size Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man Annual 4.  

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5