Monthly Archives: June 2012

Eight Bits to Oblivion

The Kingdom.

They said they took her to The Kingdom. A walled off ruin of the worlds-that-were, towering and cavernous at the same time, an impossible maw with infinite teeth. Nobody even remembers what it used to be. For as long as anybody has been anybody The Kingdom has been its own little piece of the dark ages crammed in along with everyone else in the endless city. No electricity, no cops, no rules. The dragon roars beneath me, its particle engine turning everything in front of it into pure speed. There’s only one road in and out of this place, and I want them to hear me coming.

I’m going deep behind enemy lines, just like back in country with DK’s in every godsdamned tree. Eighty-First Airborne, the “Jumpmen.” Seems like a lifetime ago. I was a different person then, do I still have the edge I need? No room for hesitation, if I stop moving in there I’m dead. No obstacles. The best approach will be through the sewers, miles and miles of forgotten labyrinth running through every inch of creation. Can’t count on those though. Streets are a death trap, so I’ll have to go over when I can’t go under.

Nothing but the largest street gang ever assembled between me and where I want to go. Probably gene-droppers too, the weird ass punks. The shit kids do to their bodies these days. I’ve got surprises of my own though. Enough daisy-grenades to level a square block and a whole kit of military grade fungal steroids. Make you feel like a giant, man. Then there’s the pulsar. Gods, hope I don’t have to use that.

I see the first checkpoint looming up ahead, the ragged edge of everything. The toy soldiers are already lining up. Good. When I hit them I want them to never want to crawl out of their holes again. I reach behind and feel the comforting grip of the hammer, popping the first of my little helpers and the gunning the monster down the highway to hades…

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The Shadow #3

Diamond Distribution’s manifest villainy is well established. It is through their mercurial chicanery that I never obtained a copy of The Shadow #2. I have not read it, nor do I know what is contained betwixt its umbral covers. This makes reviewing The Shadow #3 somewhat more complicated.

Last time, on The Shadow…

… I really don’t know. Couldn’t tell you.

We open for whatever reason on a Russian plane flying over what can be assumed to be China. This is apparently a highly important secret mission for the Soviet Union. Or at least it would be if it didn’t get blown straight to hell by an intercepting Japanese Zero. The explanation for this lies with a pair of Japanese agents discussing their various skulduggeries, including an appropriately pulp-y radioactive death ray. The particular vernacular of their conversation is a little bit stiff, but it does a good job of communicating the arrogance of the Imperial Japanese military. The next exchange is between our hero Lamont Cranston and his own conspiratorial contacts. Cranston spends most of the scene being punchably smug, taking breaks only to be subtly manipulative. He’s not the most likable of protagonists, but that’s exactly the way he’s supposed to be. Also endearingly terrible is Buffalo Wong, the Chinese bandit warlord who seems to greet everyone by shouting his own name.

Yes, he shouts his own name for no readily apparently reason. I was hoping to have an image but I couldn’t find one. I’m as stumped as you are.

Wong’s scene with the nefarious Japanese officers is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, because popular depictions of history rarely acknowledge the anarchic patchwork of petty strongmen, revolutionaries, and foreign insurgents that dominated Chinese society in the first half of the twentieth century; often referred to as China’s Warlord Period. Second, Wong’s description of his violent dealings with an American expedition serves as an explicit attack on the paternalistic attitudes that undergirded western colonialism for over two centuries and which shaped China’s relationship with outside powers for most of its modern history. It’s the little things really.

Meanwhile, in the obligatory seedy Shanghai nightclub, Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane await an attempt on their lives with disarming coolness. Here we see a different side to Cranston. In private with Margo he demonstrates a brooding acidity more in line with his Shadow persona. That he turns this slow burn on Margo indicates he’s still far from flawless, but it’s a more honest face that describes a man changed by the horror he has witnessed. Right on time the assassins arrive and Cranston intercepts them as the Shadow. An impossible terror that appears from the corner of an eye and guns down the assembled dacoits with almost gleeful sadism, finally pulling one damned soul from death’s embrace to compel information from him.

This level of antiheroism might be somewhat jarring for new readers of the character. The Shadow in his truest portrayals does not conform to the accustomed superhero formula. From his inception the Shadow was intended to be more of a noble villain than a truly righteous crusader,  a man of sinister qualities who nonetheless fought for the innocent. This is an outgrowth of many pulp heroes, and even early comics heroes, existing as an expression of generational frustration. In the 1930’s it was not difficult to imagine that civilization itself was coming apart at the seams. Economic apocalypse, the erosion of justice, and the looming spectre of fascism all contributed to the sense that we were all a breath away from the reckoning. The myths of that era tended to reflect this sentiment in one way or another.

Three issues in and Garth Ennis is nailing it. Whether you’re an old fan or just getting into the game, I’d pull this one off the rack.

Now, to wear my fedora for the rest of forever…

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Earth Two #2

Diamond Distributors, pretty much the only name in delivering comic books to retailers, is fumbling things pretty bad right now as far as my friendly local is concerned. As such, my expected ongoing reviews of Earth Two and The Shadow are coming ‘much’ later than anticipated. For that I apologize, and continue without further delay.

Previously, on Earth Twooooooo…

In the parallel storytelling-universe that is the setting of this series, the central familiar characters of DC continuity (Superman, Batman, etc.) were all slain in a climactic battle with invading extraterrestrial forces, leaving a vacuum which is now being filled by a new generation of heroes (which are actually re-imagined versions of  characters that are truthfully much older, dating back to the 1940’s “Golden Age” of comics). As can be inferred from the cover, this particular issue focuses on the introduction of The Flash. No, not this Flash, that Flash. Except its not, really. Sort of.

It’s a bold offing, no doubt about it. The original characters they’re re-engineering, while not as popular as their contemporary descendants, were iconic in their own right and possessed a vocal cult fandom. I haven’t really fallen on one side or the other of the issue yet, but as a rule I like to reward risky ambition in the comics medium, so for the moment it has a subsidy of approval. In any case, onward!

The issues actually starts with the crash landing of Michael Holt, aka Mister Terrific, on Earth Two after falling through a convenient plothole wormhole at the conclusion of his headline solo series. I wanted to like the series, but it never really delivered the goods, so all in all I’m glad to see Holt getting back to his roots with his old team (or a version of it, anyway). Immediately he is confronted by a man named Terry Sloane, the self proclaimed “Smartest Man In The World” who predicted Holt’s arrival in this universe. Canny observers will note that Terry Sloane was also the name of the 1940’s version of Mister Terrific. Right off the bat, boom! Terry Sloane is revealed to be a villain, replete with mad science and a nefarious master plan. Controversial? Possibly, but it’s kept me interested. Also controversial? This.

I think. Maybe.

Full disclosure, the hubbub surrounding this hasn’t been nearly as intense as I thought it would be. The general consensus seems to have been “huh, how about that?” No great fanfare from either side. I was at ‘least’ expecting Fox News to try fomenting a misplaced moral panic. Frankly I shouldn’t be surprised. Alan Scott, while iconic and a solid B-lister in the DC lineup, isn’t any sort of immediate reference point for people outside the comics readership. It’s put me in a slightly awkward position, honestly. Innumerable times since the announcement I’ve seen people post that “Green Lantern is gay” believing it to be Hal Jordan, the mainstream version of the costume. Correcting them creates a set of inherent problems. While it’s on the surface simply a point of information, it’s difficult not to come off as somehow defensive of Hal Jordan, as if this somehow casts aspersions on his character. What’s more difficult is that there are an unfortunate number of fans who will take that very tack without irony. Honestly, I’m tempted to say that it ‘should’ have been Hal Jordan to be revealed as gay. To me it seems more like a proper “coming out,” in addition to being a more recognizable bannerman and more currently relevant given his military background. However, to argue this also can carry the implication that Alan Scott ‘shouldn’t’ be gay, which is problematic and not my intention. It’s possible that I may be getting over encumbered by P.C. rhetoric, but given the graceless hand that many fans seem to treat minority issues with I feel that at least one person ought to acknowledge these questions for what they are.

Give all the focus that Alan Scott’s minor role in this issue has received, it’s easy to forget that the main character of this particular story was ‘supposed’ to be Jay Garrick, the Flash. You know, the dude on the cover in the less than dapper space helmet. It’s not to say that his story is an overlooked epic hiding between the pages of this periodical. He talks to Mercury (yes that Mercury), gets his powers, fights some rats (yes the rats on the cover), aaaand yeah… While the process of re-imagining these characters has the benefit of making them fresh and accessible for a new audience, it also causes a medium with limited narrative space to become bogged down in successive origin stories before really cutting its teeth. I like what I’ve seen so far, but the pacing has undeniably suffered. I’m still on board, I just wish it would reach the next station a little sooner.

Now if only everyone in this book had goatees…

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Meta Fiction Double Feature

So I’m going to assume that everyone who had any inclination to see Rock of Ages has by this point already done so.

I love musicals. I love 80’s rock. This is a shoe-in, right? Well… not completely. It’s not that it isn’t fun, it’s definitely that. It’s just that it feels a little, I don’t know, superficial? Maybe that goes hand in hand with the Reagan era aesthetic. Style over substance was kind of the mantra of 80’s hair metal, to the point that the alternative and grunge scenes of the early 90’s (whatever your personal opinion of them may be) ultimately formed as a spasm of reaction to its hollowness. On the other hand, as I mentioned, it’s still fun. The unashamed machismo of the genre, unburdened by the social awareness or irony of earlier decades, probably accounts for part of its enduring popularity. This still creates problems though.

I have nothing against the basic premise of a “jukebox musical,” a musical that repurposes existing popular music for its libretto rather than composing its own original score. I understand that the production of any film or stage show is a financially risky endeavor, and using a known quantity for your soundtrack helps to hedge your bets. It becomes that much more difficult though to craft a workable story around the narrative constraints of your music, which in this case is made up of songs composed independent of one another with preexisting lyrical context. Some scripts make this work. Across the Universe is an excellent example of this, and even Mamma Mia makes pretty much all the music suit the story. Rock of Ages, by contrast, doesn’t really have a good handle on this. The song numbers feel more like jerky music video breaks and seem to exist more for their own sake than anything else. Also, since just about every song is a full-belt ballad of some kind the movie loses a sense of pacing energy-wise, and the absence of any real “showstopper” makes it hard to track the story’s arc. The script is painfully bland, though maybe criticism on formula is unwarranted given the already cited superficiality of the subject matter. All in all it just comes off as sort of narcissistic and self-congratulatory. Yet, the film’s own blissful ignorance of this imbues it with a quirky charm. If you’re a fan of either musicals or hair metal, as I am, I can say you at least won’t want your money back. Then again, if you are either of those things chances are I don’t have to convince you.

And to answer one final question, if I have a favorite 80’s ballad that wasn’t included in the film it would probably be this one…

Now, to this evening’s second presentation. Without further introduction, Pixar’s Brave.

I’ve seen a number of reviews of this movie over the last day or so that assert Brave doesn’t stand up with Pixar’s other intellectual children’s fare.

These reviews are false. Do not truck with their foolishness.

I honestly don’t know what else the nay-sayers are looking for. Some of them say that it isn’t as intelligent and thoughtful as say Wall-E or Up, and while I’ll grant that maybe Brave doesn’t hit the same number of macro-level beats as the aforementioned power pair I think that some people might be missing the forest for the trees. The devil is in the details with this one, and there are a lot of them. Brave has theme and metaphor coming out of its ginger wazoo, working all the right angles on mother-daughter relationships, coming of age, and dialog on gender roles. Taken together with absolutely gorgeous visuals, a beautiful soundtrack, some mad cap humor, and a fantastic voice cast with awesome Scottish accents, Brave is all of the good things in life. Visual storytelling has always been Pixar’s stock and trade, but they’re really coming back to form with this one and putting nose to the grindstone (Merida’s hair alone…)  The soundtrack is a masterwork of place, ambiance, and powerful energy from Patrick Doyle, with features by the talented Julie Fowlis and the ever-popular Mumford and Sons.  Finally, hardworking performances from (deep breath) Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd and let’s face it the entire gosh-darned cast really deliver the goods.

It’s really the little things that really make Brave work as a tight kid-friendly adventure story with chewy material for older audiences. Keep your brain turned on for this one. If you don’t have something to talk about when the lights come up then you weren’t paying attention. Maybe we’ve just become so jaded that feminist narratives have become a stock trope, but I don’t believe it. It’s a rollicking good time. Bring your kids. Bring your girlfriend. Just get yourself in the theater!

Oh, and remember what I said about the soundtrack? Roll it hard, kids!

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Stone By Day…

Warriors By Night!

I’m getting a leg-up on the oncoming wave of 90’s nostalgia, as the focus of that particular niche moves inexorably forward with the advancing age of its original acolytes. I’ll be upfront, while I am familiar with most of our current nostalgia touchstones (Transformers, GI Joe, Thundercats, et al.), I’m not really their target audience. I was just a little too young to have caught most of them in their prime, and the properties I formed a connection with belong primarily to the following decade. In what exposure I’ve had to the cauldron of pop culture discussion, from which springs our obsessions with the artifacts of youth, I’ve noticed a certain undercurrent of elitism among the hierophants of 80’s nostalgia. They tend to get a degree of tunnel vision, disregarding what came before and what came after their particular window of genre saturation as beneath analysis, added to by the confirmation bias of seeing their niche so well represented in today’s revivalist pop culture environment. This being the case, insomuch as I have observed, I sense a war of hegemony on the horizon. Like a broadband John Brown I predict flame wars that shall scorch the very tubes of the interwebz as Young Turks of the 90’s vie for position against the fattened referential hierarchs of the Reagan era. In preparation for this battle of thinly-legitimized infantilism, allow me to loose my colors and cry hosanna to one of the truly great things to rock Saturday morning.

Gargoyles.

In the early 1990’s the Fox network had managed to hit not just one but two spectacular home runs in the realm of youth programming, with Power Rangers and Batman the Animated Series coming out of almost nowhere to create media and merchandising powerhouses. The Walt Disney company wanted in on this. After all, this was Disney. Kid oriented stuff was the mortar of their empire. Moreover, the “Disney Renaissance” was just really getting its feet under it, and it was a time that rewarded experimentation. So, Disney put its chips down on an ambitious gamble. A gothic fantasy adventure series that sought to capture the ensemble dynamic of Power Rangers and inject it with the brooding, slightly mature melodrama of Batman. The result was Gargoyles, and it was absolutely freaking sweet.

I recently undertook to watch a good portion of the series, wearing the equivalent of two hats as I did so. On the one hand, I watched it with the unbridled enthusiasm of nostalgia. On the other, I did my best to evaluate it objectively as a critic. The verdict? Still absolutely freaking sweet. Gargoyles still holds up almost two decades later, and in a way that supports more intellectual weight than most of its forebears and indeed many of its contemporaries. Don’t just take my word for it, check it out!

No small part of this is owed to the fact that Disney did not screw around on this project. The animation is fantastic, leveraging the full weight of Disney’s legendary art studio. If you’ve got an eye for it you can catch the occasional recycled sequence or hastily celled frame, but these are overwhelmingly the exceptions to the rule of Gargoyles‘ memorable, dynamic, and highly articulated visuals. Then there’s the voice cast. Oh the voice cast. You know what, let me just link you to the freaking page. Go nuts. I’ll wait.

Then there’s the writing. While it’s not without some occasional dissonance, mainly stemming from the inevitable strictures placed upon ostensible children’s programming and the occasional mediocre filler episode. The show by and large remains very solid though, with more than a few digressions into some fairly heavy stuff. Discrimination and xenophobia are their preferred drum to beat, but other questions of man’s inhumanity to man abound. In the action sequences realistic firearms are commonplace, and in one particular “very special episode” there’s even an unexpected amount of blood. The plots run the gamut from science fiction to high fantasy to modern intrigue, a consistent tone and rich mythology being the only things that keep its otherwise schizophrenic premise from falling apart. That the show manages to function at all given its quirky premise, complex machinery, ranging story, and mosaic of plot devices is something of a small miracle in itself. Work it does, though.

Despite that, unfortunately, Gargoyles never really became the breakout hit it was envisioned to be. It did respectably enough, consistent if underwhelming ratings and some moderate merchandising, but it didn’t mount any serious challenge to the lords of television at that time. After three seasons, the second of which a mammoth fifty-two episodes and the third of debatable canon following the departure of much of the original writers, the show got the axe. To date only the first season and the first half of season two have seen a DVD release, but with the twentieth anniversary of the show looming and its cult following gaining momentum with the dawning of 90’s nostalgia culture, it isn’t unreasonable to think there may soon be a complete series set in the offing.

In the place where I would normally close with something witty I’m instead just going to say “Go watch this show. Seriously. Go do it.”

Xanatos planned for me to say that…

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A Tale of Two Movies

So, Prometheus.

Yes. That was a thing that happened.

Should you go see it if you haven’t already? Yes, most definitely.

Did I like it? That’s… an altogether more complicated question.

Prometheus is a difficult movie to properly parse. Some of this is deliberate on the film’s part. Some of it… isn’t. I don’t want to delve too deeply into spoiler territory this time, because I legitimately want people to go see it and experience it for themselves firsthand. I will say that it’s got a lot of very intriguing ideas floating around. Some fairly heavy Freudian/Nietzschian stuff about parenthood and godhood and humanity and life and destiny and other sundry trip-your-balls-off chicanery. It also, yes, is framed as a prequel to the Alien films, and contains definite continuity nods to those movies.  Beyond that it’s also completely gorgeous. I only saw it in 2D and my jaw was pretty floored as it was. Seen in its intended dimensions and aspect ratio and I can only imagine the splendor it might evoke, and given the epic nature of the film, it’s appropriate.

So all that being said, why do I equivocate? Well, at the end of the day as ambitious and worthy as the project is I can’t one-hundred percent say that it came off. It crosses the finish line without completely flying apart, but it’s got a lot of moving pieces and frankly some of the gears grind a bit. There are some definite plot holes that exist, and you’ll probably come out of the theater with at least a few more questions than answers. A large part of the reason for this is that Prometheus is ultimately not really a single film, but rather two.

There are two distinct narratives that Prometheus is trying to weave simultaneously, and it’s the dissonance between these that creates a good number of its problems. On the one hand, Prometheus is trying to be a sweeping, thought provoking, philosophical sci-fi thriller. On the other, it’s also trying to be an Alien prequel. The goal of the former film is to create questions for the audience, something they can chew on and debate. The purpose of the latter film is to answer questions, to fill in the gaps in a mythology. The two endeavors end up being mutually exclusive. In trying to do both it accomplishes neither to satisfaction.

Now, what does this mean for the movie? As much I have to say the film is rather compromised, I can’t say with any conviction that it’s “bad.” Prometheus, for all its faults, still somehow manages to be something I want my friends to see. It’s naked ambition and sincerity of vision, if not necessarily it’s coherency, win it enough points for a passing grade. Moreover, while the plot holes I mentioned earlier are frustrating they do serve one particularly useful purpose for the film. They get people talking about it. The more people shoot theories back and forth and debate those very narrative flaws the more reputation the movie gains by word of mouth. Regardless of any other considerations, this is one we’ll be talking about for a while…

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