Sunday, April 19, 2015

Recent Movies – John Wick and The Guest

John Wick: This film offers a unique theme for a revenge movie—the death of a pet. When Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen, the wonderfully sniveling Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones) invades the home of John Wick (Keanu Reeves) to steal his vintage sports car, he and his crew overpower the unprepared Wick and kill his dog, a last gift from his dying finance. A former hitman and enforcer for the mob, Wick goes back into business to track down those villains what done him wrong.  

The plot is that simple. But the execution is magnificent. Wick is a man on a mission. No threat, mob killer or father’s plea can stop him from tracking down and killing anyone in the crew that murdered his beloved pet. This is one of the most violent films I have ever seen. Wick becomes a hurricane of action, and is focused like a laser beam on his goals. In one scene he moves through a nightclub, shooting scores of mob toughs keeping him from his revenge. Two in the chest, one in the head seem to be his mantra, and bad guys are shot up close and in the face. When Wick runs out of bullets, he’ll use anything from a tire iron to a deadly out-the-front knife (similar to the one I carry personally, that was cool) for last-resort protection. He is also an expert martial artist, and there are some brilliant hand-to-hand fight sequences. The action is mean and gory, with Wick leaving the city littered with bodies as he chases his revenge. Can we have a moment of silence for all of the stuntmen obviously killed during the making of this movie? 

The end leaves an opening for a sequel, as Wick finds himself back in the enforcement business. I’m all in for Wick 2, as long as he carries those lovely knives. 

Martial Arts/Action Rating: ***** broken sternums out of 5 

The Guest: The Peterson’s are a nice suburban family. Their son was recently killed in Afghanistan and they are still dealing with their grief. Enter David, a soldier friend of their son’s. David is kind and likable. He stopped by on his way home from the war because he promised their son he would check on them. Invited to stay a day or two, David makes close friends quickly with the family. Beautiful daughter Anna Peterson (Maika Monroe) is the only one who suspects David of not being all he claims. But she can’t put her finger on what’s wrong about him ... 

Then things start to fall apart. David has a violent side which he allows the Peterson teenagers to see, but hides well from the parents. His happy-go-lucky demeanor slowly starts to peel away and reveal a violent monster, No one will believe Anna that David is not all he seems until it is too late for any of them. 

It’s hard to believe Dan Stevens, the puffy English gentleman Andrew Crawley from Downton Abbey, plays the title role. He has slimmed down, buffed up, and has that perfect American accent most British actors seem to acquire effortlessly when needed. David is friendly, full of smiles and easy manipulation to get what he wants. As he turns darker and more violent, he insinuates himself totally into the life of the Peterson’s, their children and their friends. When government authorities arrive to investigate, David shows his true mettle and proceeds to run them all in circles. When the results of his military “programming” are revealed, everyone who had contact with him is suddenly in deadly danger. The ending is absolutely breathtaking and caps off a creepy and addictive movie. Recommended, for a great story and a bevy of chilling performances, especially by Dan Stevens and Maika Monroe. 

Rating: ****½ stars out of 5

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Comic Strips – The Complete Little Orphan Annie and Tarzan: The Complete Russ Manning

Both of these volumes are from IDW’s Library of American Comics imprint, hands-down the best reprints ever done of American comic strips. 

- The Complete Little Orphan Annie Vol. 1: This book is a wonderful way to discover the plucky little red-headed orphan who leads one of the most adventure-filled lives in history. Reprinting strips from 1924 through 1927, readers discover Annie in her orphanage, being abused and longing for a real life and loving parents. She is introduced to, and ultimately adopted by “Daddy” Warbucks and his snooty, uptight wife—who has no love for Annie. Loveable mutt Sandy is also introduced and becomes Annie’s instant companion and protector. Several tumultuous storylines are presented; Annie meets and falls in love with a farming couple named the Silos, she joins the circus and becomes an elephant tamer; and circumstances force her several times to wander the country broke and alone, facing real danger. Through it all she adopts a stoic, can-do demeanor that thrilled readers of all ages for decades. 

This volume also includes informative background material by comics historian Jeet Heer, and over 1,000 daily comics with nine complete stories. This is truly one of the great American strips. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 

- Tarzan: The Complete Russ Manning Newspaper Strips, Vol. 1 (1967-1969): I devoured the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novels when I was a teenager, and the Ape Man is one of my all time favorite adventure characters. It is always a treat finding high-quality depictions of Tarzan in other media. Russ Manning is a writer/artist who seriously “gets” Tarzan. He takes the Lord of the Jungle all over the world in this volume, from Africa to Opar, to Pal-ul-don and other time-lost lands. He also makes room for a few storylines with Korak, the son of Tarzan and Jane. Sometimes those storylines converge into one grand adventure. And Manning can draw it all perfectly, from beastly half-men to dinosaurs and fantasy monsters. If you’re a Tarzan fan, I don’t see how you can not have these books in your library. 

This first of four volumes (three of which have been published) includes more than 650 daily and Sunday strips from December 1967 through October 1969. Everything about it is top-notch, from the storytelling and art to the beautiful reproduction. A flawless volume. 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Around the 'Net

Burt Reynolds as Iron Man?
Some fun links:

- What if the Avengers movie had been made in 1985? Burt Reynolds as Iron Man? Tom Cruise as Hawkeye? Clint Eastwood as Nick Fury? Speculation here.

- Former David Letterman writer Tom Ruprecht contributes a short article on some of his favorite stories of Letterman guests. Click here.

- Ace TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach worked on the TV series Lost for its first two seasons. Here are his memories of that time.

- Speaking of Lost, Pop Culture Safari provides a list of the things we still don't know about the series' mysteries. Great show, but this still sticks in my craw. For a full list click here.  

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Hugo Controversy Heats Up

Vader Reads Correia
For those not following the Hugo controversy, here is my boiled down version:

- The Hugos are genre awards for literature and other media (generally sci fi/fantasy) given out at Worldcon. They are known as the most prestigious awards in the world for sci fi/fantasy literature.

- Liberal/progressive themes have been nominated and won the lion’s share of awards for years, with literature of any other political—or neutral—persuasion excluded.

- Some authors, tired of the lopsided and overly political atmosphere of the most prestigious awards in the world, decided to urge readers to look at a larger slate of novels to nominate, free of any political prejudice. This was mostly spearheaded by ace writer Larry Correia, in a campaign hilariously named “Sad Puppies.”  

- This worked, and many novels with not-necessarily-progressive themes were nominated this year. Mr. Correia himself won a nomination, but recused himself due to the campaign. Now many liberal Worldcon members and voters are angry (I mean going off the rails angry) with Mr. Correia and his friends who worked to make sure the Hugo nomination process was more diverse.  

I absolutely, unequivocally love both of these writers. And unlike most of the general debate, Martin’s and Correia’s comments are (mostly) polite and well reasoned. For the record, Correia is right and, with all due respect, Martin is wrong. Not in his personal opinions, but that this is a bad thing. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Comics Capsule Reviews

Joe Frankenstein #1
Joe Frankenstein #1 & 2: Four-dollar comics just kill me. While I love comics, with all of the entertainment choices available, four bucks for a 5-10 minute reading experience continues to have diminishing returns. Welcome to that rare comic book worth the cover price. 

Master adventure writer Chuck Dixon and extraordinary artist Graham Nolan have crafted a thrilling tale of monsters and slackers. Joe Pratt is a kind-hearted foster kid, currently delivering pizzas to make a buck. When he is trapped by a coven of nasty vampires on a routine delivery, he is rescued by a large, hulking presence in a hoodie. A presence that tells him of his true legacy as ... Joe Frankenstein. 
Joe Frankenstein #2

The story speeds up from there, introducing several unsavory, supernatural business types that are after Joe. The monster sits back and deals death to any and all murderous stalkers. Joe has a hard time adjusting to all this, but sobers up to the truth quickly enough when his foster family is threatened and is forced to leave town in a bit of a hurry. The monster is a mystery man, introducing Joe to a lair more suited to a rich librarian than a village fiend. 

Joe Frankenstein is filled with action, brilliant characters and an intriguing plot that Dixon keeps fresh and moving. The remarkable storytelling of the much-missed Graham Nolan doesn’t hurt. Nolan’s layouts tell the story in a clear, flowing narrative that leads the reader’s eye smoothly from one scene to the next. I can’t wait to see where this goes. Why can’t all comics be this good? 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars
Alex + Ada #13
Alex & Ada #13: Sadly, I just found out this series is only running 15 issues. As one of the best comics of the last year, I’m incredibly disappointed to hear that. Especially with the events of this issue. The government is beginning to close the net on suspected androids who have their sentience activated. The secret 3D forums Alex and Ada frequent are shut down, with users tracked back to their home addresses. Alerts are all over the news. Black helicopters fill the air. Most of their friends who have violated the laws are in custody or in the process of being tracked down. Alex and Ada see no choice but to run. And not a moment too soon. 

With only two months to go, I expect some major explosions in the next two issues. Will Alex & Ada actually escape? Or will she be caught and destroyed, with Alex receiving a lengthy prison sentence? Or will they make it to some as yet unknown sanctuary? I suppose we’ll find out.  

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars 
Southern Bastards #8

Southern Bastards #8: The last part of the origin of football coach Euless Boss. I’ve never read a more stark, violent past of a character. Commentary on the letters page suggest some people are so stricken by Boss’s past that they have some sympathy for him as a character. Not me. Shedding light on the character’s backstory is interesting (and at points terrifying), but he’s still a monster. He could have taken all that hate and pain and used it to do something good, or make the world better. He didn’t. We also learn that Alberta Tubbs is leaving the army and coming home from Afghanistan. Hopefully that will be the beginning of the end for Coach Boss. 

Southern Bastards lives up to its name as few other titles do. 

Rating: **** out of 5 stars 

We Can Never Go Home #1
We Can Never Go Home #1: This sleeper from Blackmask Comics caught me by surprise. I read a positive online review the day it hit the stands and thought I would take a chance. I’m glad I did. 
Duncan is a nerdy underclassman, while Madison is a popular and pretty senior at their local high school. Passing by while Madison throws her gropey boyfriend into a wall, Duncan and Madison make a pact that he will keep quiet about her super strength. On the walk home, Duncan confesses he has a secret too—a deadly one. Madison is sure he’s nuts. Smitten, Duncan makes a mix tape for Madison and her friends do not let her hear the end of it. When Maddie visits Duncan’s house to try and cool his ardor, she ends up saving his life but committing a terrible act with her strength. Duncan says he will protect her, but they have to leave now. And they can never go home. 

This book was such a pleasant surprise. Writer Matthew Rosenberg has a great ear for dialog, and the excellent art by Josh Hood contains some creative layouts and characters who tell the story through their body language as well as the dialog. The characters have distinct personalities and surprise readers with their actions. An outstanding first issue, I look forward to more. 

Rating: ****½ out of 5 
Weird Love #6

Weird Love #6: Ahh, the cream of the reprint comic crop. Who knew people were insane in the 1950s? Some of this month’s treasures: 

- Love Slaves (First Love Illustrated #36, 1954). This is an especially weird one. Jan and Julia are lovers of some undetermined ethnicity. Their country is attacked by some undetermined Communist power and they are taken to the same work camp in an undetermined area. The nameless thug in charge develops a crush on Julia and decides to have his way with her in front of Jan. They escape, but the thug and his cronies track them for miles over an undetermined landscape. They reach the border and escape. Love ... triumphs, I guess? Was that vague enough for you? 

- I Was a Waterfront Girl (Love Letters #3, 1950). Sal Benson used to be big time. A hot dancer with the world famous Dick Ryan and His Chicago Cuties, she was on top of the world. Until they came to the island of Tralu and the act fell apart. Now she’s a torch singer at Beachcomber Bill’s (not part of an existing franchise). Feisty and bitter, Sal sings at Bill’s her way. In her time. In a really slinky dress. When she meets millionaire Bart Carroll, it’s love lust gold digging at first sight. She makes Bob forget all about his current, fiancée, uh, whatshername, but as soon as said fiancée gets a whiff of home wrecking, Sal is thrown back into the trash heap. On his yacht when Bart dumps her, Sal knocks him overboard to the sharks (literally). Luckily, said fiancée is a trained sharkfighter, so she jumps in with a knife in her teeth, kills several sharks, and drags Bart back onto the boat. This really happens. Who said romance is dead? 

- Heart Clinic (Confessions of the Lovelorn #114, 1960). Here’s one for the feminists. A somewhat clinical looking fellow who refers to himself as the “Mender of Broken Hearts” explains to Kate why women are so unreasonable and hysterical. He takes her through the Phases of Female Romance, A thru F. Phase A is Puppy Love, all the way through Phase F, which I can’t reveal on a family blog. Turns out women are just looking for a strong, square-jawed man to make all their decisions and order for them at restaurants. Gee, wish I’d read that in high school. Would have saved me a lot of heartache in life! 

- I Married A Monster (Just Married #81, 1971). Darn that Howard! Actors are so sensitive. He won’t tell his new wife Millie about the role he just procured on a new TV show. Is he replacing James Arness on Gunsmoke? Becoming the new Tarzan? Partnering with William Shatner in a buddy Western that will be cancelled after three episodes? No. Turns out he is the monster on a ... gasp ... children’s show. Yes, Howard is the lead in Wally the Wolf. With his polka dot pants, wolf makeup and propeller beanie, Howard is howling his way to the love of millions! Of small children. What’s worse, he’s a success! He is mobbed by kids everywhere he goes. Friends ask him to howl at dinner parties. And chicks want to see if he’s leader of the pack, if you know what I mean. Millie is scandalized! How dare Howard lower their social status by making millions on a, a kiddie show! Then comes the day when little Johnny crosses the street to see Wally the Wolf (on the sidewalk in full makeup). When Johnny is hit by a car, he screams for Wally instead of his negligent mommy. When Millie sees how much Wally the Wolf means to Johnny, Howard drops the kid’s head on the concrete so he can embrace Millie and live happily ever after! Or until the residuals run out. Howard is now doing summer stock in Poughkeepsie and Millie is dating Bruce Jenner. 

Other stories in this issue include Stay Away from Married Men and I Was a Child Bride! Why is no one serving time for creating this comic? The authorities must be alerted! 

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars