The Way of the Word

30. July 2011

Review: Witch Doctor #2

Publisher: Image Comics. Cover Price: $ 2.99. Written by Brandon Seifert. Art by Lukas Ketner

Dr. Vincent Morrow, the Witch Doctor, has a choice: take care of a Cuckoo Faerie infestation (a faerie that steals and kills human children and replaces them with her own offspring), or join Absinthe O’Riley on a creature hunt. The latter scares even Morrow, so he decides to handle the infestation. Which is a job he actually considers to be beneath him. Meanwhile, Abby’s hunt is successful, and when Morrow returns home, he finds a surprise monster in his office.

Witch Doctor is a comic that makes me cry: “Why didn’t I have that idea?” Because the idea is really simple: you take one part of House MD and one part Re-Animator, shake rattle and roll it, and you get the medical horror drama Witch Doctor.

Of course, as simple as that premise sounds… Well, the result is more than that. Far more. So much more that I’m convinced that Brandon and Lukas are really bugf*ck crazy.
Consider that we’re talking horror, and you’ll realize that it is a compliment. Because the creators take the idea of a medical/scientific approach to the supernatural and think it through, without shying away from the consequences. The result is a horror comic that is sick, bizarre and over the top fun. While Ketner’s art fails the Shooter Test (it is sometimes impossible to tell what goes on in a panel if you didn’t have the words), that is due to the nature of this beast, and not at all detrimental to the fun.

The characters are also wonderfully off-beat. Dr Morrow is Dr House as Jeffrey Combs might play him, his paramedic Erik Gast is the straight man to Morrow’s over the top approach to the situations they find themselves in. My main problem is the second assistant, Penny Dreadful. And not because I dislike the character. But she’s a scene stealer. Seifert and Ketner make her strange and mysterious, always leaving hints at her nature without explaining anything. The problem is that the character is so fascinating that she becomes a distraction when she is on-panel. Which, yes, is once more a back-handed compliment.

If you like horror, you owe it to yourself to buy this comic. Because it shows a completely new and original approach to the subject matter, with a ton of in-jokes and references to the more classic versions.

Verdict: Extremely recommended!

Review: The Mis-Adventures of Adam West #1

Publisher: Bluewater Comics. Cover Price: $ 3.99. Written by Reed Lackey. Art by Russell Dauterman.

Actor Adam West has problems: his values and ideas are out of fashion, and because he refuses to compromise them he doesn’t get any more work. But then something amazing happens: a strange amulet that he gets in the mail not only makes him young again, it also transports him into a spy adventure — which he eventually recognizes as one of the scripts he had recently rejected.

Like most of my generation, I have a soft spot for Adam West. Which is why I broke my rule of not spending more than $3.00 on any one comic, and impulse-bought this one. I was rewarded with a charming little story of a man who feels his time has passed, and who (apparently) is about to get the chance to prove everyone wrong.

The writing is competent and rather nostalgic. It manages to evoke sentiment in the reader — if you’re like me, you’ll feel with Adam West because you agree with him; if not, you’ll probably scoff at his old-fashioned notions. But you will react in some way.

The bad thing about this comic is the art. Invoking the Shooter Test, it’s servicable. You can tell what happens in each panel even if there were no words. But it is no more than that. The art is a bit too simple, too bland to excite. And frankly — if your comic is officially licensed by Adam West, then you should draw him in a way that the readers will recognize him even if you don’t say, “This is supposed to be Adam West.”

All in all, The Mis-Adventures of Adam West is a charming comic, and the only reason I won’t get the next issue is the price tag. I’ll keep an eye out for the TPB, though.

Verdict: mildly recommended.

Review: Marksmen #1

Publisher: Image Comics. #1 of 6 Cover Price: $1.00. Written by David Baxter. Pencis by Javier Aranda.

In #1 of Marksmen, we meet Drake McCoy, a Marksman for New San Diego in a postapocalyptic USA. Drake is out to fetch some tech for Dr. Heston, who (seems to be) in charge of New San Diego’s science division. While doing his looting, he is attacked by a clan of cannibals and rescued by fugitives from the city of Lone Star in what used to be Texas. The fugitives are on their way to New San Diego to warn them of an impending attack by the religious fanatics who run Texas, because Lone Star has run out of oil and now wants New San Diego’s tech to keep their civilization running.

Marksmen was an impulse buy. I figured, I can’t really go wrong for just $1.00.
I figured wrong.

After massive recession the United States government collapsed and a civil war erupted between the cities and states to keep any last resources to themselves. This destroyed our country’s infrastructure and most of its population… the Big Collapse.

Out of the ashes rose New San Diego, one a few cities that survived by cutting itself off from the outside world. Rebuilt by a roup of top scentists and protected by the Navy Seals stationed at the Coronado Navel Base, NSD became a technological utopia. Sixty years later the ancestors of those Navy Seals still protect the city as… the MARKSMEN.

That’s the intro from the inside cover. Spelling, grammar and word usage are diligently copied.
Notice the problem? If so, you clearly did a better job than the writer, editor and publisher of this comic. The lack of English language competency shows throughout the comic, in bad word usage, spelling and word balloons pointed at the wrong person (at least according to context).

The story and the characters are also rather derivative. The Marksmen, as shown here, are slightly reminiscent of Judge Dredd and his cohorts, and the first half of the story is borderline “Judge Mad Max vs. The Hills Have Eyes.” The only moderately original idea is that the scientific utopia, which going by the very few hints in this comics is something of a science-based military dictatorship, is about to go up against an invading religious-fascistic dictatorship.

The art is servicable. With some more practice, Javier Aranda might eventually get to be pretty good. As it is, his figures are stiff, and he relies heavily on stock poses. However, his art passes what I call the Shooter Test: you can tell what’s going on in each panel even without the words.

There are of course hints of problems and complications to come, but I know for certain that I’m not going to be around to read about them.

Verdict: Very Not Recommended!

29. July 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

USA 2011. Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde. Runtime 118 minutes

A lone cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up a long way from home (or anywhere, for that matter). He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he came to be there. Which isn’t even the most bizarre thing he discovers; that would be the strange bracelet he wears on his left wrist. He eventually finds his way to the town Absolution, where at least some people seem to know them: the mysterious Elle (Olivia Wilde) and the local Sheriff, John Taggart (Keith Carradine). Actually, it’s from Taggart that the cowboy finds out who he is: Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw. Just as Taggart is about to ship Jake off to the judge in Santa Fe, they get a visit from Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the rancher who rules the town with the proverbial iron fist. Dolarhyde wants not just his son back (who shares the prison coach with Jake), he also wants Jake because Jake stole his gold.
At this point, Absolution is attacked by UFOs who abduct a considerable part of the town’s populace. Those left behind form a posse to chase the UFOs and rescue their loved ones. Along the way, they encounter a gang of outlaws that Jake used to lead, and an Apache tribe that also has missing family. Together, they take the fight to the aliens, who turn out to be just an advance party that is here to check if the planet is suitable for looting and exterminating.

With cross-genre stories like this one, one of the main questions is which one it resembles more closely. In this case, Cowboys and Aliens is more the archetypical western movie with aliens tacked on. It’s a movie about hard men riding lonesome trails — which describes the movie’s feel. Not to disparage Craig and Ford, but both of them channel Clint Eastwood (at different points in his career) for their respective parts. And Olivia Wilde isn’t really as mysterious as she is supposed to be — at least in part, for me, because I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the baggy pajamas she wears in half the movie. Terribly distracting, and not in a good way. On the plus side, they do manage to make it feel like a classic western, even if they go overboard on the western tropes.

And that is where Cowboys and Aliens fails: the tropes. The characters in this movie are mostly stock characters. Their adventure is a mix and mash of various western tropes, played straight. (When I did something similar in my own cross-genre novel Cowboys and Barbarians, I also stuffed it with tropes, but in a tongue-in-cheek way.) There are some bizarre elements put into the second act, but those seem to be added for their own sake instead of leading anywhere. In total, the movie feels overstuffed, in places it appears as if the writers wanted to use the awe-factor to distract from the movie’s flaws. Less awe-factor, here as everywhere it is applied, would have been more.
The aliens are familiar. If you’ve seen any alien invasion movie since Independence Day, you know these aliens. The main difference is that (by necessity) they aren’t as invincible as those from Independence Day, Battle LA or Skyline. (I even entertained myself with the notion that all the three above and this movie all tell the story of the same alien invasion — they are all that similar.)
That means that any character who isn’t Jake Lonergan gets short shrift. When Dolarhyde bonds with the Sheriff’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), it doesn’t work, because it’s really just a sidenote. The writers put some (metaphorical) loaded guns on the fireplace but don’t fire them (perhaps in earlier drafts of the screenplay?). Some character growth feels false because it doesn’t really develop naturally. And the showdown would have worked better if there had been more consistency — the aliens are bulletproof or not, depending on whether or not the writers want to kill the cowboy in question.

In summary: Cowboys and Aliens is an entertaining western with some sci-fi elements. You won’t leave the movie feeling that you’ve wasted your time. But you will leave the movie feeling that it could have been much much more. And by borrowing heavily from both other western and sci-fi movies, you never lose the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before.

Verdict: mildly recommended.

21. July 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

Does anyone remember Marvel’s Epic imprint? Not the one from the 1980s/1990s, but the one from 2003?
If not, a short reminder: Under Jemas and Quesada, Marvel had resurrected the Epic Imprint as kind of a new talent search. It didn’t last very long, they folded it rather quickly. But at least they tried.
Of course I submitted. My idea was very outrageous, and I didn’t think they’d go for it:
I submitted a pitch for a Red Skull series.
Yes, that Red Skull.
A German writer, submitting a pitch for a series starring one of the most evil characters in comics (if not the most evil), a Nazi even, taking over a country in Africa as his new springboard towards world domination.
If you can’t see at least 15 things wrong with that, I don’t want to know you.
I scripted the first issue, wrote rough outlines of the following five issues of the initial miniseries, and charted a course for a potential ongoing. Then I submitted it.
To my surprise, Marvel was interested. But they didn’t like the first issue, because I recapped the origin. They asked me to revise and resubmit.
Epic’s end was announced two weeks or so after that, before I got around to doing the revisions. The Captain America movie reminded me of this old thing.
So here, for your pleasure, is the pitch (but not the first issue script) for my proposed Red Skull ongoing. The characters and everything are TM and (c) Marvel Comics Group, the story is (c) me.
* * *
The first issue would have been a recap of the Red Skull’s origin. He discovers that one of his African “trade partners” has problems delivering Coltan (a rare ore needed for most modern consumer electronics). So he goes off to take care of the matter himself, and gets his butt kicked. That gives him the idea to take over that country, become a world leader, and use it as the cornerstone for his eventual world domination. If enough people should ask, I can post the script some other time. Here, for your entertainment, the almost accepted pitch. It’s perfectly okay to read it without the #1 script, since I had thought, when Marvel asked for revisions, to just toss out the first issue and start from #2, just altering the pacing to stretch that (and parts of #1) into six issues.
* * *
ISSUE #2
· Red Skull’s forces invade the presidential palace. He murders the president of Jumalia. His army arrests all the other members of the country’s government. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner. After all, having their own countries works for Doom, Magneto, the Black Panther…”
· The next day, when he publicly executes Jumalia’s government, he declares himself the new president of Jumalia. Red Skull sets up a new government. He appoints N’Dolo to serve as his vice president.
· While Red Skull has his final argument about race and opportunity with Hitler’s portrait, and then disposes of it…
· …his troops go to every village in Jumalia and draft every unmarried man between 18 and 25 years of age into the army. Because these people are all poor, they eagerly sign up when they discover that the army pays better than anything else: US-$ 20.– a month.
· Red Skull buys some nuclear weapons. He decides that he has a better use for them than to resell them.
· Some factions among the previous president’s army mutineer, but Red Skull strikes them down.
· He organizes his new army along the same lines that Shaka did 200 years before. N’Dolo, who is becoming something of the Red Skull’s sounding board for his ideas on reforming Jumalia in the image of a new Reich, ably assists him.

ISSUE #3
· Red Skull hires several super-villains: Avalance, Constrictor, Chemistro, Cobra, Crossbones and Mandrill. He appoints them to be Jumalia’s team of super-heroes. One of their incentives is full diplomatic immunity, and a nice, regular paycheck. He also hires Taskmaster to train these villains so they can work as a team. He calls this team The Cadre.
· He calls the local representatives of several international corporations to his new office. All these businesses, which had been exploiting Jumalia’s resources, are told that their contracts are now null and void, and may be renegotiated. Two of the representatives, secure in the power of their corporations, dare to challenge the Skull’s decision. At first, it seems that they get away with it.
· The next night, they are abducted from their homes and punished for their insolence. Naturally, they do not survive their punishment.
· The corporations refuse to be treated in this way, and run to their governments to complain.
· The US administration take action. They call Red Skull and warn him: play nice, or else. Red Skull defies them.
· In Jumalia, Red Skull has the tribal elders brought to him. He tells them that they are now the nation’s council. N’Dolo is shocked: President Red Skull shares power?! No, Red Skull explains. He only gives the elders the illusion of power, because that will pacify the villages, leaving him free to do what he must do to forge this collection of tribes into an empire.
· Jumali’s underground press finds out about this and publishes both the news about the elders, and the problems with the US. Skull finds out, and doesn’t like it at all. He orders the head of his newly-installed secret police to find and bring him the publishers of this underground newspaper.
· Red Skull discovers that there are plenty of companies out there that want to negotiate for a piece of his resources. Among them are A.I.M., Hydra, Halliburton, Nokia, Microsoft…

ISSUE #4
· Poachers invade Jumalia’s forests. Red Skull’s elite troops, a mix of the new native army and his original strike forces, engage them and wipe them out. Red Skull leads them personally. He sends one survivor back to let everyone know how poachers will be received in Jumalia.
· This is very much a PR tactic, however. When the poachers attacked, Red Skull is entertaining various international dignitaries, and he makes a point of how he cares for the environment. They buy his line.
· With corporations, he discusses his plans for exploitation of Jumalia’s resources. These resources include diamonds, coltan and oil. After his earlier presentation, he stresses that the exploitation models should respect conservation of the environment. He also insists that the corporation hire local workers, and compensate them fairly. Since this is Red Skull making these demands, nobody dares to suggest otherwise.
· Red Skull also makes a deal with A.I.M. to set up a research facility in Jumalia.
· When the news about Jumalia’s deal with A.I.M. reaches the US, they openly threaten Red Skull: cut your ties with the terrorists, turn in any weapons of mass destruction that you might possess, or face the consequences. Red Skull’s reply: “Yes, dolt, I have weapons of mass destruction. If even one of your soldiers sets foot within range of my borders, I will use them to reduce your cities to piles of radioactive rubble.”
· The US government decides to send in their newest government-sponsored superteam: The All-Americans, who consist of US Agent, Battlestar, American Eagle, Crusader and Timeshadow.

ISSUE #5
· Red Skull’s spies in the DoD warn him of the impending attack of the All-Americans. He prepares for it.
· Red Skull sends out invitations to a press conference. He also sends out invitations to international charities, such as Greenpeace, the WWF, UNICEF, to set up offices in his capital and help work towards the improvement of his new adopted country.
· N’Dolo has a clandestine meeting with Jumalia’s resistance movement. They had originally gathered to remove the previous president from power. Now that Red Skull has taken over, they aren’t sure what to think. After all, he’s white. N’Dolo argues in Red Skull’s favor. So far, everything Red Skull has done has benefited the people of Jumalia in some way. He argues to give Red Skull a chance. Since he is part of Red Skull’s inner circle, he hopes he can influence Red Skull to work in the resistance’s interests.
· The secret police arrest the publisher of the Jumalia True Story. They bring him to Red Skull. Influenced by N’Dolo, Red Skull is persuaded to make a deal: the publisher is allowed to live… if his newspaper will adopt a more patriotic slant.

ISSUE #6
· Red Skull has invited members of the international press to explain his vision of Jumalia’s future. He explains how he plans to unite the warring factions within the country, how he plans to improve the standard of living, literacy, the infrastructure. Initially, he gets hostility from the press, but he wins them over: “Aren’t you an international super-villain?” “So are Dr. Doom, Namor and Magneto. That doesn’t keep them from caring for the people in the countries that they rule.” “How can you be satisfied with ruling a country in Africa? You’re white…” “No. I am not white. I am beyond skin color. I am Red.” “But you’re a feared Nazi racist…” “I have renounced Nazism and racism. I have come to see how wrong both basic concepts are.” “But you’re still a fascist.” “I still believe in a strong government, yes.” N’Dolo and the tribal elders speak in glowing terms of what Red Skull is doing.
· Stupidly, the All-Americans choose this time, the press conference, to attack.
· The Cadre, trained by Taskmaster, leap to the Red Skull’s defense. They fight the All-Americans. The US-team is out-powered and outnumbered, and Taskmaster’s training has really taken hold. They defeat the All-Americans. Red Skull places them under arrest.
· Returning to the press conference, Red Skull spins the attack to his own geopolitical advantage.
· After the press conference, he visits the imprisoned All-Americans in jail. He tells them that he will not kill them. Instead, he will send them back to the US, thoroughly humiliated.
· Which he does, a couple of days later, on the same flight that the international press take.
· When the news reports come in, they are quite in his favor. Red Skull discusses it with N’Dolo. They discuss the next important steps for the country.
· After his day’s work is done, Red Skull enters the command center he is secretly building under the presidential palace. Here, he continues his scheming and plotting to destabilize the world’s governments, in order to facilitate his takeover of the planet…

THE PITCH

And so it begins… the new life of the Red Skull. A life that places him on the same level as Doctor Doom, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner and Magneto: a truly untouchable menace who acts under diplomatic immunity. Red Skull has a new mission, a new, bigger vision. And he has found a new way to attain his goals. Gone are the days of the racist Nazi who wanted to conquer the world without too much effort, while rubbing Captain America’s nose in it. No, the Red Skull has learned from the mistakes of the past. Rejecting his past obsessions, he recreates himself and becomes more dangerous than ever.

His new mission is based on a slightly non-traditional perspective of the Red Skull. “History is written by the winners.” The Red Skull, to us, is a major villain. However, had the Nazis won WW2, we would now be reading about the adventures of the heroic Red Skull and his arch nemesis, the evil villain Captain America. From a Nazi point of view, Red Skull was Nazi-Germany’s first superhero. The Nazis were evil. Red Skull is evil. There is no doubt about that. However, from the Skull’s perspective, he was created to be the Reich’s hero. The new approach to the character is based on this shift of perspective. To Red Skull’s view of himself.

RED SKULL: HOSTILE TAKEOVER is intended as a 6-issue mini-series. It changes the character’s status quo and also provides a set-up to continue it as an open-ended series, sales permitting.

The continuing story of the Red Skull would not only relate his problems with running a country (which would turn out to be more difficult than he had expected), it would also deal with the fall-out of his decision to become a highly visible world leader. Some problems that Red Skull might have to face could include:

· The return of his daughter, Mother Superior. When she arrives in Jumalia, does she want to support her father, or replace him as Jumalia’s head of government?
· The Cadre, Jumalia’s super-heroes, are known to be quite uncontrollable. When one or two members of the group, overconfident with the diplomatic immunity their new status gives them, go on a rampage through the US. It’s now up to Red Skull and the still loyal members of the Cadre to stop them before the public relations damage they do becomes too great.
· Wakanda will not be very pleased that someone like Red Skull has conquered his own country right on their doorstep. What will they do about it?
· Now, Red Skull also has the time and leisure to finally do something about the impostor who sullied his “good name” so many years ago: Malik, the man who posed as the Red Skull while the real one was in suspended animation.
· Baron Strucker and Hydra will not be particularly happy that A.I.M. has been allowed sanctuary in Jumalia. When they decide to do something about it, the Red Skull has to choose sides. Then again, this may be a welcome opportunity to finally get back at Strucker for betraying him so many years before.
· And, of course, Captain America will also want to have a word with the Red Skull regarding this new situation.

These ideas for potential stories don’t even consider the potential for conflict that would arise naturally from the fact that our central character is president of a country in the heart of what may be the world’s poorest and most exploited continent:
· How will the Red Skull, for example, deal with the situation when, upon seeing how much the standard of living in Jumalia improves, economic fugitives enter his countries from all the neighboring countries? How will he deal with the fugitives? How will the leaders of those neighboring countries react?
· Is it possible to reconcile the Red Skull’s plans to exploit Jumalia’s resources without damaging the country’s environment too much?
· How will the world deal with the fact that Jumalia’s leader is one of the most feared men in the world? Especially when Red Skull arrives in New York to join the UN?
· Since transitional periods in totalitarian states such as Jumalia are difficult times, Red Skull will not only have to deal with internal strife, but also with those neighboring countries whose leaders would consider this an opportunity to do a bit of conquering.
· Can Red Skull really get away with running a terrorist organization, while being such a public figure?
· And all of this doesn’t even take into account yet that Red Skull’s vice president, the one man he is taking into his confidence, is secretly one of the leaders of Jumalia’s resistance movement.

Changing the Red Skull’s status quo does not limit the character. Rather, it opens the doors to a number of new, interesting developments.

20. July 2011

Review: Captain America, the First Avenger

USA 2011. Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper. Runtime: 125 minutes

In the first days of America’s involvement in WW2, frail Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperately tries and fails to join the army. He is simply not fit enough. At one attempt, he is noticed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working on a super-soldier program for the US government. Erskine considers Steve the perfect candidate and recruits him. The experiment is a success and turns the skinny little dude into a perfect specimen. Unfortunately, he will remain the only one, because Erskine is killed by a Hydra assassin.

As the only possible result of this experiment, Steve is considered too valuable to be sent to the front. Instead, he tours the country in order to drum up support for the war effort. But when Steve tours the front and discovers that his best friend Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) unit has been captured by the evil Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), he goes off by himself and frees them. His success earns him a series of field assignments that cover the entire war.

During this time, Schmidt, whose nickname is Red Skull because of a deformity he got as a result of his participation in Erskine’s prototype experiment, has built Hydra into a fighting force, mostly because he managed to get his hands on a superweapon called The Tesseract. In the final days of the war, the Red Skull decides to eradicate the US. As his plane takes off, only Captain America can get on board to stop the Red Skull’s plan.

Captain America is a dramatic, movie, it’s an adventurous movie, Americans might even consider it a patriotic movie.  But at the heart of it, it is not an American movie. As in, you don’t need to be American to like the movie or the characters. Yes, Captain America dresses like the US flag, but the values he represents go beyond the US, and therefore the character can resonate with audiences all over the world. There is no patriotic flag-waving in this movie. And yes, that is a plus. Instead, it’s mostly a movie about people.

It is, of course, the story of Steve Rogers, who is willing to selflessly lay his life on the line for what he thinks is right and important. Be that standing up against bullies of all kinds and sizes, or just risking everything to save his friend. All the while remaining clueless about some other things, such as Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). Chris Evans rises to the occasion, presenting a more nuanced and mature performace than I thought him capable of. It is as if here, for the first time, he was actually challenged to play against type, and he is up to the task.

It is, surprisingly, the story of Abraham Erskine, a German scientist in US exile, who also wants to do the right thing. Stanley Tucci puts in an Oscar-worthy performance. In the short time he has, he infuses Erskine with so much humanity and makes the character so very likable that you are honestly sad when he is assassinated.

It is, to a lesser extent, the story of the Red Skull, whose job is to be two-dimensionally evil and give Captain America something to fight. Hugo Weaving is a very good actor, but he is overqualified for this role, which doesn’t require much more than chewing scenery.

And on the fringes, it is the story of the Howling Commandos, an elite fighting unit; of Bucky Barnes; and of Tommy Lee Jones as Nick Fury in everything but name (since the character of that name is played by Sam Jackson). Dominic Cooper puts in a very fun performance as Howard Stark, so much so that I’d want him to take over as Tony Stark when Robert Downey’s contract expires.

The story itself is very simple, almost simplistic, but it makes up for that in adventure, fun and excitement. It works even better for comic fans, because they are likely to catch most (if not all) of the Easter Eggs, such as the cameo of the original Human Torch, and Matt Salinger’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncredited cameo. (In the observation booth during Steve Rogers’s transformation.)

The special effects work fabulously. The most amazing one being skinny Steve Rogers, who is played by Chris Evans with the help of invisible (= not noticeable) CGI. The film is in 3D of course, but except for one moment (when Cap throws his shield at the audience), the 3D is (as usual) rather superfluous.

The downside: not enough Nazis. While the Red Skull starts out as a Nazi scientist, he disowns the Third Reich during his third appearance, after which it is all about Hydra. Apparently, Nazis aren’t evil enough anymore for a WW2 movie. While the logic behind this is obvious (Nazis might adversely affect merchandising sales, which must be avoided at all cost), it leaves a very sour taste.

All in all, however, Captain America is a very entertaining (although not very deep) movie. Joe Johnston is a hit-or-miss director, having delivered gems like Rocketeer and bombs like Jurassic Park III. Here, he is in Rocketeer mode.

Verdict: very recommended.

24. June 2011

RIP Gene Colan

Born September 21, 1926 in New York, died June 23, 2011 (aged 84), after a broken hip and complications from a liver disease.

Gene Colan studied art at the Art Students League of New York and began working in comics in 1944, drawing for Fiction House’s Wing Comics. He joined the US armed forces just in time for the end of the war, but spent time serving with the US occupation forces in the Philippines, where he rose to the rank of corporal and drew for the Manila Times. Upon his return in 1946, he produced a short story, took it to Timely Comics and was hired on the spot, where he worked as a staff artist until Timely laid off almost all their staff in 1948. Colan turned to freelancing, especially for the company that would become DC Comics.

Upon the beginning of the Silver Age in the 1960s, Colan quickly established himself as one of the greatest artists working in American comics. He worked on Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Iron Man and most notably Daredevil.

With Daredevil as his signature superhero work, he became something of a household name when he teamed up with writer Marv Wolfman on the horror series The Tomb of Dracula, a book that he had actively lobbied to be assigned to. His dark, moodily-brooding pencils that were complimented by the work of inker Tom Palmer were probably a greater factor in the book’s success than Marv Wolfman’s inspired writing.

In the 1980s, he had a falling out with Marvel Comics and instead worked more for DC Comics, on books like Batman, Night Force or Wonder Woman.

He quite literally kept working until the end.

Colan was a multiple awards winner, like the Shazam Award (1974), the Eagle Award (1977, 1979), the Sparky Award (2008) and the Sergio Award (2009). He was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2005.

Back in the Silver Age, Colan had his very own style. It was a dark, shadowy and moody style. Personally, I always felt that he worked on some books where his style didn’t mesh (Captain America, for example), but on the right books (Daredevil, Tomb of Dracula, Night Force, Nathaniel Dusk) it was really breathtaking. Colan is one of those few American comic artists whose work actually looks better when it’s stipped of the coloring, as you can easily see if you look at Marvel’s Essential Tomb of Dracula collections. He was one of the first artists who could make me excited for a new comics series: the only reason why I eagerly anticipated the coming of DC’s Night Force back in 1982, or that Nathaniel Dusk noir miniseries (1984) by a writer I didn’t know, were because it had Colan art, and he wasn’t doing superheroes.

In that regard, yes, it was funny: I was very much a superhero reader at the time, but I always felt that Colan was wasted on superheroes. His style was wrong for it, it was too different, too unique.  It was, in a word, distinctive, and by all accounts he struggled against the pressure from his higher-ups in order to keep it distinctive, rather than to conform to a house style or some momentary fashion. That alone should earn him respect and accolades. Of course, it helps that he was one of the best comics artists ever. His visual storytelling skills, his moody, shadowy and atmospheric style set him apart from most of his peers, and seriously, anyone who wants to work as a comic book artist should look at his work and learn from it.

Will he be missed? By those who knew him, certainly. I haven’t had the privilege, but I’m told he was one of the nicest people in the business. By the rest of us, his readers? Well, we still have the comics he drew to re-read and appreciate, and to make us thankful for everything he had to give to us.

21. June 2011

Review: Green Lantern

USA 2011. Directed by Martin Campbell. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Blake Lively. Runtime: 105 Minutes

After being freed from his prison, the entity known as Parallax strikes against the Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). Abin Sur escapes, severely wounded, to Earth, where his power ring picks test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) as Abin Sur’s successor. After a brief stint on the Lantern HQ planet Oa for training, Hal decides that he isn’t cut out to be a member of the Green Lantern Corps and returns to Earth.

Meanwhile, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is infected with a particle of Parallax energy and begins to metamorphose into a superbeing with incredible mental powers. Which he promptly uses to get back and people who he believes wronged him – such as his father (Tim Robbins). As Hal takes on Hector, Parallax notices the fight and decides that Earth will make a nice snack before attacking Oa. Hal takes off to Oa to ask for the Corps’s help, but since the Corps just got their butts kicked by Parallax, they are too afraid to commit. So Hal has to fight Parallax by himself.

I’ll readily admit that after the reviews I’ve seen, I went into Green Lantern thinking, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck.” Perhaps because of my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.

That doesn’t mean the movie has no problems. It has plenty of them. It also has a charm, however, that makes up for several of those problems.

The main problem is that it’s too ambitious. Green Lantern is three very good superhero movies compressed into one: Hal coming into his own as a Green Lantern, Hal fighting Hector Hammond, Hal fighting Parallax. If the creators had focused on one of these story arcs, they could have made one hell of a movie. Perhaps the one thing that almost made me cry was seeing the glimmer of Hector Hammond’s potential being unfulfilled. The way Sarsgaard played the character hinted at the tragic and almost sympathetic villain character that could have been if the movie had given the character enough time to be developed. The training arc on Oa was a GL reader’s proverbial wet dream, or would have been if it hadn’t been so short. The menace of Parallax would have been far more threatening if the monster had been on the screen for more than the (felt) ten minutes of screentime that it had.

In that regard, Green Lantern is the poster boy for missed opportunities. The poster boy for “less is more.” Less would have provided the chance to focus and develop aspects of the story and the mythology.

That doesn’t mean that Green Lantern is a hopeless case. Sure, some things don’t make sense, and I hope that there will be a director’s cut with deleted scenes that will fix that. Some other things make no real-world sense, but they make superhero-logic sense, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for that.

But the cast is charming, Sarsgaard is having fun, and the visuals…

… are spectacular. The visuals are what really sells this movie. Alien vistas, the entire Green Lantern corps in incredible detail. The energy constructs are cool and sometimes funny.

And Green Lantern is the first 3D movie that I’ve seen where the 3D actually works and enhances the film. (Well, except maybe for Tron: Legacy.)

So… what’s the verdict? Green Lantern fails completely in aspects of story and writing. The actors fight valiantly against a script that doesn’t give them the opportunity to develop their characters. But the visuals are cosmically spectacular, as they should be, and the entire film has something of a retro charm that in some places reminded me of those old Richard Donner Superman movies. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, but I can easily see how, if my mood hadn’t been as fine as it was, the faults might have glared more at me.  It’s the proverbial popcorn movie. Therefore, I can’t in good conscience give anything but

Verdict: neutral.

25. May 2011

Review: X-Men First Class

USA/GB 2011. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon. Runtime: 127 Minutes

The year is 1962. Concentration camp survivor Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has become a Nazi hunter. He is specifically after one person: Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). His quest seems to come to an end when he discovers that Schmidt now calls himself Sebastian Shaw and is in Miami, FL.

The year is 1962. CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating the mysterious Hellfire Club, which is run by Sebastian Shaw. When she discovers things that are patently impossible (how can a man have red skin and a tail, and transport someone else 3000 miles within a few minutes?), she seeks out the help of a geneticist who specializes in mutation: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy).  He agrees to help her out in this case, and they track down Shaw.

Arriving at the same time as Lensherr. Despite Erik’s best efforts, Shaw escapes. But Charles has a plan: Shaw has a team of superpowered mutants on his side. The obvious conclusion is that Xavier assembles his own team to deal with it. And so, Xavier and Erik find and gather a group of young, powerful mutants to fight Shaw’s group.

The situation becomes desperate when Xavier discovers that Shaw plans to manipulate the USA and the USSR into starting a nuclear war, which will reduce the world to ruins — but ruins that Shaw will rule. The newly formed, barely trained and still unnamed X-Men dash to Cuba to stop Shaw.

X-Men: First Class is technically the fifth movie in the series (after the original trilogy and the Wolverine movie). This is usually the point where I wonder: does the world really need another (insert franchise name) movie?

In this case, the answer is a resounding YES. X-Men: First Class easily outshines and outclasses not only all the previous X-Men movies, I would rate it second only to The Dark Knight. The movie does everything right.

Instead of a superhero movie, X-Men: First Class is a thriller where the protagonists happen to have superpowers. The stakes are high: the survival of the world. And the events actually happened, sort of: the Cuban missile crisis is an historic event, and it almost did cause a total nuclear war. The difference between the movie and the real world was that there were no mutants involved in the real world event. (That we know of. 😉 ) The movie does not rely on big, splashy special effects. Which means that when they do present a big splashy special effect (yes, I’m talking about Magneto raising a submarine from the ocean), it packs quite a punch. The chilliest and scariest moments, however, involve Magneto and a small coin.

X-Men: First Class focuses on the characters. This is mostly an ensemble piece, so it’s clear that not all the characters get equal time. At the center are the relationships between Xavier, Erik and, to an extent, Shaw. Vaughn doesn’t forget the X-Men, however. Each of the young mutants has their own storyarc, which is compellingly told and actually brought to a conclusion. The young actors who play the X-Men sell their roles completely. As the audience, you invest feelings into all of them, you want to see what happens to them, what becomes of them. Even in those cases where you know, such as Magneto and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), you can’t help an emotional investment in the outcome. Taking, for example, the moment when Mystique discovers that the boy she likes is just like everyone else and considers her real form ugly, that the only one who actually accepts her for what she is is Erik… you, as the audience, can actually feel her heart break.

It’s the bad guys who get the short end of the stick here, Riptide for example doesn’t get any lines at all. But it doesn’t really matter, because they only exist as foils for the heroes. The only villain who matters is Shaw — and that is because of his personal connection to Erik.

If Michael Fassbender weren’t already a star, I’d call this his breakout performance. His portrayal of Erik Lensherr/Magneto is compelling, conflicted, nuanced. His relationship with Xavier is a mutual brotherly love, two men who want the same thing, but because of their opposite pasts see the future differently. Xavier is a sheltered rich kid, who sees people as inherently good. Erik, as the concentration camp survivor, has seen humanity at its worst, and his views are colored accordingly. At the end, when the X-Men reveal themselves to the world, one man’s views will be proven right.

And the audience will see where Magneto’s coming from. Because Erik Lensherr is a thoroughly sympathetic figure. He doesn’t trust humans, and when the proverbial chips fall, he’s the one who is proven right.

The movie also manages to balance all that gravitas with a lot of humor. It’s a good kind of humor, though, the kind where you laugh with the characters and not at them. One of the funniest scenes is where the kids are in the CIA compound, showing off their powers. Kids will be kids. And let us not forget the cameos. One in particular had the entire audience howling with laughter. “Go f**k yourselves.” You’ll see what I mean, and you can’t tell me you didn’t laugh.

In summary: X-Men: First Class is an extremely well written, well acted and well-directed thriller with superpowered protagonists that manages to get the audience involved in the destinies of each of the characters. It ties neatly into the other movies (only two minor continuity quibbles remain unresolved), but stands out as the best of them. As a matter of fact, X-Men: First Class sets the blue-gold-standard for this year’s superhero movies — and frankly, I don’t think the others can beat it. Among all the other superhero movies, I rate this second only to The Dark Knight.

Verdict: extremely recommended.

20. April 2011

Review: Thor

USA 2011. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins. Runtime: 114 minutes

A thousand years ago, there was a great war: the Frost Giants attacked the Earth. But the humans did not stand alone: to their rescue came the Asgardians, led by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). The Asgardians defeated the Frost Giants and sent them home. There was peace since then, but it was a fragile peace.

Now, Odin is about to retire from the throne, and intends to proclaim his son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) king of Asgard. Unluckily, the ceremony is interrupted by a trio of Frost Giants who have breached Asgard’s defenses to steal the Cask of Ancient Winters. Odin’s superweapon The Destroyer makes short work of them, though. Still, it is not enough for Thor, who considers this an act of war and wants to retaliate.  Against his father’s wishes, Thor, his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and their closest friends take the battle to Jotunheim, the realm of the Frost Giants. And much ass is kicked. But in the end, our heroes are outnumbered, and look to go down fighting, until Odin comes to their rescue.

I suppose you can imagine how unhappy Odin is with his favorite son. He’s unhappy enough that he banishes him to Earth. But with an escape hatch: a quickly whispered enchantment and a hammer throw provide Thor with the means to eventually return to Asgard: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

Both Thor and hammer end up in New Mexico, where Thor meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her friends. Jane is an astrophysicist who has been busy exploring peculiar electromagnetic occurrences. Thor, of course, happens to be in the middle of one of them: Jane was tracking Bifrost, the bridge between Asgard and the other realms. Once Thor finds out that his hammer Mjolnir is also in New Mexico, he sets off to reclaim it. Bad news: he can’t. He isn’t worthy. Which means he is now stuck on Earth.

Meanwhile, on Asgard, Odin has slipped into the Odinsleep, leaving Loki king of Asgard. Loki, never one to miss an opportunity, sets out to cement his rule and make sure that Thor never returns. Leaving Thor stranded on Earth sounds like a plan, if only it weren’t for those pesky Warriors Three Fandral (Joshua Dallas), Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and their companion Sif (Jaimie Alexander). (For those who wonder why Sif receives extra credit, instead of being part of Warriors Four – the three guys take their collective name from the comics, and in the movie, Sif is badass enough to merit an extra mention.) These four set out to bring Thor back, because they don’t like the idea of Loki being king. Which means Loki has to kill Thor. Pity. He hadn’t really wanted that. Destroyer, if you would, please.

When the Destroyer comes to smash New Mexico, Thor shows some new found humility and the willingness to sacrifice his own life for others. That seems to make him worthy, because now Mjolnir takes off to return to its master’s hand. And much ass gets kicked.

The good things first: Thor kicks ass. Or rocks. Whichever you prefer. On a scale of Marvel movies, it’s not quite as good as Iron Man 1, but better than Iron Man 2.

The movie wins because of the cast and the characters. Because of the story and the writing. Thor is a jock, a braggard, he’s big and strong, he has never met anyone he couldn’t take, and he never had to grow up. For Thor, life is an adventure. And it helps if your father is king of the gods. Chris Hemsworth sells this, he owns the part. He walks with a swagger, and he is so utterly charming in his arrogance that it’s impossible not to like him.

Something similar can be said of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. He’s a schemer and a planner. His plan in this movie is far more layered and complex than it seems at first. But even though he is a wily manipulator, his actions don’t grow out of evil. They grow out of being the second son, the less-loved son, who stands in the shadow of his larger-than-life brother. As Hemsworth and Thor, Hiddleston makes Loki believable. Likable, even. Sure, he wants to have his brother out of the way, but at first he doesn’t even want to kill him. He just wants to humiliate him, then get him out of the way. As the situation escalates, so do Loki’s plans, as he grows increasingly annoyed and lashes out with the same petulance that Thor exhibits at the film’s beginning. In that, Loki’s increasing childishness while Thor grows up, Hiddleston and Branagh present Loki as the mirror image of Thor.

Those are just the two principal players. All in all, the entire movie is perfectly cast, up to and including the two actors where I had certain problems. Before the movie, I was opposed to the idea of African-American actor Idris Elba playing a Norse god, as much as I was opposed to the idea of slim actor Ray Stevenson playing a character known as Volstagg the Voluminous. Both won me over, because they nailed their characters. There is not a single bad performance in this movie.

The story is not too complex, and yet Thor manages to be a rather smart action movie. There are several laugh out loud moments, sometimes in the dialog, sometimes in the way the actors present their lines, sometimes as physical comedy. But they are never out of place. The humor comes from the characters, their interactions with each other and the world(s) around them.

The bad: you will want to see this movie in 2D, because the 3D is Last Airbender-level bad. The 3D makes the movie darker, it becomes blurry, and it doesn’t add anything positive to the experience. The best scenes are those where the 3D doesn’t punch you in the “lookee, 3D” face. Scenes that are really just 2D. Well, it’s not as if this problem is anything new with post conversion, right?

The other bad is that Thor shows that Kenneth Branagh, who is a solid character (and story) director, is not an action director. The four major action pieces — the Frost Giant attack on the Vikings, the battle in Jotunheim, the fight of Thor vs. Destroyer and the showdown with Loki — are visual messes. I’ll have to see the movie again in 2D to know just how much the bad 3D helped jumble the scenes (the opening action piece was definitely ruined only by the 3D), but the Thor vs. Destroyer fight was almost as bad as the showdown in Ang Lee’s Hulk — it was very difficult to tell what was going on.

Finally, Thor tries to stuff too many characters into this movie. Every single one of them gets a moment to shine, and every single one contributes something essential to the story, but it does make for a bit of a clutter.

All in all, however, those two are the movie’s only flaws. All in all, Thor presents a coherent and clever story, likable and nuanced characters and solid acting by every single member of the cast.

The after-credits scene, by the way, connects Thor to both Captain America and Avengers. I’m not going to spoiler it any more than that.

Verdict: very recommended

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: