Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Movies: Logan

*Slight Spoilers* I saw Logan last night and I’m still not exactly sure what to make of it. Logan is a fine, well made tale of the famous feral mutant Wolverine and takes place in a near future of the X-Men Universe. It features spectacular action, wonderful acting and a great script. It’s an impressive film—I’m just not convinced it’s a great Wolverine film.

We join Logan as a much older man, driving a limo to help support him, an ailing Professor Xavier and the mutant Caliban. His healing factor is beginning to fail and his body is rejecting the adamantium coating his bones. He’s aging, tired, run down and in constant pain. It’s all he can do to keep going. When a young mutant girl named Laura enters his life and needs a ride to the north for safety, he wants nothing to do with her. Some nasty, violent people are pursuing her and Logan (going by his birth name of James Howlett here, an unexpected treat for comic fans) does not want to get involved. Eventually forced to flee with Xavier and the girl, Logan fights his way north through a series of obstacles to save her.

Director James Mangold has a specific and stylish story to tell in Logan. It’s serious, violent and not necessarily hopeful. The violence is constant and visceral, as the Logan we’ve always wanted to see finally surfaces and the movie earns its hard R rating. Logan cuts and slices arms, legs, heads and other extremities from countless evil hoods who are trying to stop him and his mission. Hugh Jackman, in supposedly his last Wolverine performance, does a fantastic job channeling Wolverine’s rage into lashing out at evil men and cutting them into small pieces. The ending is not upbeat, and can be taken as hopeful or not, depending on the viewer. I didn’t love it.

I’ve been reading Wolverine comic book stories for 40 years now. My version of the character is much more of a superhero than this broken, angry animal. My Wolverine wears a costume, has funky hair and while feral and violent, keeps that part of himself in check—barely, but he does it. This serious, adult film has nothing to do with that character. This is a dark, thinking man’s action adventure. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is a far cry from my Wolverine. There is definitely room for both versions of the character, but if this is the last Hugh Jackman Wolverine movie we’re ever going to get—possibly the last Wolverine movie ever—I would have liked to see the young Wolverine, maybe a costume, perhaps some traditional comic book villains—and not an overall feeling of depression and malaise throughout the entire endeavor. Again, Logan is a fine Wolverine movie—just not my Wolverine.

Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Books: The Trekker’s Guide to the Kirk Years by J.W. Braun

This thick compendium offers insight into all Star Trek series, movies and cartoons featuring the cast of the Original Series. Author Braun begins with all 69 episodes of TOS, dividing entries into episode title, grade, summary and a “Did You Know?” section. He then features the 22 episode animated series and concludes with all of the original cast films. As an extra Braun also covers “Star Trek Continues,” fan-produced episodes with new actors in the Original Series character roles.

Braun’s notes are exhaustive—summaries are clear and simple yet communicate the core of each episode. The “Did You Know?” facts are fascinating, as Spock would say. I’ve read dozens of books on the original ST, and Braun offers up many interesting details I didn’t know or hadn’t read before.

Of particular interest is Braun’s grading system for each individual episode. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure it works—favorites are so personally subjective. For example, my personal favorite episode of the original series is “This Side of Paradise," where plant spores are sprayed onto the crew and they become unbelievably cheery and rather mutinous. Leonard Nimoy explores Spock’s character in a touching and humorous performance. Braun gives the episode a C, saying it is “slow moving with little action and just a middle of the pack offering for TOS.” Another absolute favorite of mine, “Balance of Terror,” gets a B+. Braun points out some minor faulty logic in the episode, but so what? I loved it! At least the horrible “And the Children Shall Lead” got the F it so richly deserves. I probably would have gone for an F-. Braun’s grades don’t always match the ones I would give, but that’s okay, everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, depending on the grade, the system may cause some raised eyebrows among loyal ST fans who disagree with the author’s summations.

Overall The Trekker’s Guide to the Kirk Years is a wonderful compendium of Star Trek information and trivia for all ST fans. Recommended.

(Full disclosure: The Trekker’s Guide to the Kirk Years includes a blurb from me regaling fans of my amusing meeting with William Shatner at a pop culture con a few years back. You can find the original story on the blog here. I was provided a complimentary copy of the book. Which I appreciate!)

Rating: **** stars out of 5

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Concert Review: Garth Brooks

At best I’m only a moderate fan of country music. I’d heard Brooks gave a great concert performance, but nothing prepared me for the entertainment atom bomb of Brooks’ live show. The man transcends any musical genre and is a phenomenon unto himself.

Brooks had two opening acts, Mitch Rossell and Karyn Rochelle. Singer-songwriter Rossell said his gig before that was playing in airports for tips. Rochelle had a sweet voice and is an extremely talented songwriter. But the audience was there to see Garth, who strutted out in a black cowboy hat and promised to play “all the old stuff.” And he did. He did sing some newer material, but continually wowed the audience with his greatest hits package, along with some album deep cuts that kept the entire US Bank Arena on its feet, screaming and applauding, for two plus hours.  

Garth began with his massive hit Rodeo, followed by Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House, and The Beaches of Cheyenne accompanied by some great beach video. He also did versions of The River, a very fun Two Pina Coladas, the tongue-in-cheek Papa Loved Mama, and a rockin’ Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up). Additional songs included Unanswered Prayers, The Thunder Rolls, and We Shall Be Free. He knew what the crowd wanted and gave it to them, with sugar on top.

I’ve never seen a closer bond between performer and audience. The only other performers who can compare are Elvis and Bruce Springsteen. Elvis was too shy to be that close and it’s not really Springsteen’s personality. But Brooks embraced his fans, addressing the audience personally, calling out signs and commenting directly to audience members. At one point, he would gesture to various sections of the crowd and they would cheer as if their home team had just won the Super Bowl. “I thank God that this is my gig!” he cried to the heavens.

Mid-concert Brooks was joined on stage by his wife, country star Trisha Yearwood. They sang a duet and she did several solo songs while Brooks no doubt collapsed on a couch somewhere. Brooks and Yearwood have a wonderful stage presence together, alluding to a deep love and partnership with no rivalry. If a competition exists, the audience certainly couldn’t tell.

Near the end of the show, Brooks cemented himself forever in my book as a class act. Talking to a woman and her mother near the front of the stage, Garth asked them about their sign saying the older daughter had cancer and attendance at the concert was her way of thanking her mother for helping her through. He asked her how the treatment was going and how she was doing. He wished her well and dedicated a song to her. Then Brooks asked a stagehand to bring him a Garth Brooks breast cancer baseball cap with a pink ribbon on it. Taking the hat in his hand, he drew it back to toss to the mother and daughter. Smiling at the last minute, he instead ripped off the cowboy hat he had been wearing all night, tossed it to the daughter, then flipped the baseball cap onto his head. He wished her well and went into the next song. No one in the arena auditorium had a dry eye after that. Mr. Brooks, you are my hero.

When the band took a break, Brooks read song requests off audience signs and played them on his guitar—not only his own deep cuts, but he was pleased to do a version of Don MacLean’s Starry, Starry Night as well.

When the band came back, Brooks finished with some of his most famous songs, including The Dance (in my opinion one of the finest songs ever written), and of course I’ve Got Friends in Low Places, complete with the rare naughty fourth verse.

Brooks spent over two hours jumping, laughing, singing, playing and engaging the audience like they were friends in his living room over for a jam session. For his last number, he playfully crawled over the stage to his guitar and jammed a fantastic rendition of another Don MacLean song, American Pie. The crowd shouted the lyrics with him.

The Brooks show was in my top three concerts of all time, and with perspective may end up being my favorite ever. I’ve never seen artist, band and audience in such perfect sync. This was my first Garth Brooks concert. Now I can’t wait until the next one. The man left nothing on the stage, and I think we both left exhausted.

Rating: ****** out of 5 stars

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 suppose 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:


Bone: Coda

Future Quest

Lake of Fire

Manifest Destiny

Rachel Rising

Red Team: Double Tap, Center Mass


Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses


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