Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Like" My New Haircut!

Good news, facebook fans!  We can once again post decapitation videos!  Facebook has reversed its policy against users posting video decapitations, instituted last May.  That is, so long as users who post beheadings to facebook include a proper amount of condemnation of the practice of beheading people.  This is not to be confused with condemnation of the practice of posting beheading videos to facebook; let's not get these confused.

facebook says we also need to make sure we're posting our beheadings and such to an age-appropriate audience, responsibly. I assume this means having no under-aged friends?  Is "the internet" an age-appropriate audience?  Judging by some of the things I manage to find, I'd say the internet is a pretty worldly bunch.

You also need to have warnings, and I don't know if spoiler tags count.

What I do know is you can't just post a beheading video and be like, "haha no need to lose your head over it" or make some other lame pun.  Comments should say, "Disgusting!" or "I am appalled!" or something similar so people know you object to actually watching the video murders you post to facebook. Or maybe you object to the murders themselves, and you feel it's your civic duty to speak out about human rights issues in a forum usually reserved for Grumpy Cat and funny pictures of that Dokes guy from Dexter ("Supplies, motherfucker!"...LOL that gets me every time).

My suggestion:  Make sure your follow-up to the video comment has plenty of righteous indignation. Like,  "I'm so disgusted that you would post this, self." or "I really didn't need to see this, me!"  That'll give it the air of seriousness such issues deserve, and let the censors at facebook know you're serious about beheadings.

By the way, I hear you get more hits if you post a picture of the beheading in the original post, then link to the actual video in the "comments" section.

Don't ask me about the "like" button in these instances, I don't know if it counts for or against beheading.  Maybe you clarify by adding a "'Like' if you hate trivialized violence!"

facebook says they figured out the morality of it all during the Boston Marathon bombing, or at least that's what their representative told Gizmodo.  Apparently, there was video of a man whose legs were blown off.  And what type of news service would facebook be if they denied you video of a guy with his legs blown off?  Why, they'd be no news service at all, I reckon.  Without up-to-the-minute coverage of beheading and dismemberment to attract real, useful advertisers, they'd probably have to resort to selling ad space hocking pay-to-play games about farming and gambling.  People would have to look to other sources to form their opinions on graphic depictions of murder and acts of terrorism.

It begs the question:  If not for facebook, how many victims of the Boston bombing would have been left wandering the streets, yearning for some other way to communicate their terror? Twitter would have been my suggestion, but imagine having to express all that shell-shock, arterial spray, abject misery and confusion in 140 characters or just doesn't work out, does it?  Unless your fingers are blown off.  Then, I'd guess 140 characters (or 3, maybe?) would be fine.

We should, as responsible citizens of the blogosphere/cube, always be on the lookout for dismemberment and beheading news to post to facebook, especially with Halloween right around the corner.  Make sure your phone understands gestures if there's any chance you yourself are about to be dismembered: You may only have seconds before you pass out, and you don't want to spend those last moments helplessly hammering your bloody stumps into a touch screen.  Remember, there's an entire internet that needs to know.

It really makes you think:  What if just one sword-wielding nutbag had seen just how many "likes" an anti-beheading video of a beheading was getting? Could that have stayed his hand?  I have a hard time believing a tweet could make the difference, but when you add the embedded video and open-concept facebook floor plan...

Oh, and no nekid boobies during the beheadings.  I mean, c'mon folks: That would be offensive.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Rush

Rush is the latest film from director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen).  It tells the (true) story of the intense rivalry between Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), two Formula 1 drivers with extreme personalities whose on- and off-track battles were the stuff of sports legend in the 1970's. In a sport where a significant percentage of drivers is killed, on average, every season, the two figures rise to dominate the track, each fueling the other's desire to win, regardless of risk and personal cost.

The Good:  The personalities on display here are extreme, almost to the point of caricature, but neither the script nor the direction can be faulted for it.  To put it simply, the film does a good job of conveying the truth:  To take up this sport required a certain fearlessness not present in your average person.  To win, one must have been more than a little insane.  The dialogue conveys this, including some word-for-word quotes from interviews and other recorded footage, as if to let the audience know that the personalities on display here are extreme, but aren't "amped up" for cinema.  The subjects needed to be that way, or it wouldn't have been their story being told decades later.  Hunt did show up for interviews with multiple models on his arm. He did speak as if the world was his playground. He did take chances on the track that resulted in both wins and critical injuries. Lauda did walk onto one of the most storied racing teams of his time, blackmailing them for a spot by first building a faster car and then demonstrating that he could beat their best driver in it.  It's one of those situations where narrative truth could have taken a back seat, and personalities could have been toned down to make it seem more real or believable to audiences.  That, and events could have been re-arranged or edited for a more pleasing arc...but it wouldn't have been the truth.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives us some of the best work of his career. The 70's muted Kodachrome color palette was perfect, especially where integrating stock racing footage was necessary to tell the story.  The camera work both on- and off-track was thrilling, and edited to perfection.  I gotta say, this is a contender for "Best Editing", with cuts paced to build intensity during race sequences, and communicating to-the-point personalities outside the track very, very well.

I don't know who to credit with this, but this film needs to win several awards for sound, especially the way the foley work was integrated with the music.  Although there were some missteps and hokey-ness off the track when it came to chosen songs for montages, on the race track was perfection:  Engine noise overwhelms, then gives way to announcers, whose voices in turn echo seemingly right on beat with the music, and it all blends to a seamless whole.  I was thrilled with the race sequences in general, and due in no small part to the craftsmanship evident in what I was hearing.

The bad:  The film may cause feelings of inadequacy, especially among middle-aged males.

Oh, and some of the CG wasn't absolutely perfect.

The verdict:  Probably the best racing film I've ever seen...but that doesn't say much, as, let's face it: Most racing films are stupid.  If you like action and drama, go see it.  9 out of 10.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Kick-Ass 2

Kick-Ass 2, as many of you know, is the sequel to 2010's Kick-Ass, a film adapted from the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic of the same name.  Both Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and Chloe Moretz (Hit Girl) reprise their good-guy/gal lead roles, along with alum Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Red Mist/The Motherfucker) returning as this film's nemesis.

I'm going to keep this one short:  Kick-Ass 2 tries really, really hard to be as subversive and entertaining as the original, but frankly, it's a concept that's played out.  It's a shame, because screenwriter/Director Jeff Wadlow is under the scrutiny of comics fans everywhere for this effort, as well as for being on tap to produce a screenplay for, and possibly direct, a feature X-force film with a tentative 2016 release. Although the shtick of it (a "normal" kid simply decides one day to be a super hero, but he has no powers, no partners, and no comic-book back story/origin to compel him) was perfect for a 2-hour introduction in 2010, it's simply a re-tread on display here, and a bad one at that.

Chief among the film's failures is saying nothing new.  To be honest, I haven't read the second entry in the comic series, so I don't know how much of the blame to lay at Wadlow's feet for it.  There's what passes for a super-villain origin story (although as a character he's re-heated from the last film), and the cast of heroes is slightly expanded (but none of the new are fleshed out), but nothing of note along the lines of change.

Looking back to 2010, the allure of the first film wasn't in the quality of the narrative, to be sure:  It was the fact you'd never really seen anything like it.  It was at once an homage to the genre and a deconstruction of it. These characters live in a mundane world, and with the simple act of stepping into costume and facing the world as super-heroes, you begin to see a sort of magical twist to the rules of reality.  It was as if what they were doing was so extreme, the universe had to back off a bit. Things had to get comic-book-y.  Situations became more and more twisted, personalities became focused and amplified, lines were drawn, costumes were sewn, chaos ensued. The fun of it wasn't limited to watching the characters grow into some sort of archetype, as in most conventional stories of its ilk: It was in watching the world around them change to fit their weirdness.

In 2, however, with the magic spell cast in the original entering its third year, we must look elsewhere for original concepts. Sadly, Wadlow (and perhaps Millar before him?) wallows in the feel and conceits of the original.  The only marked difference is the frequency of toilet humor, really.

I wouldn't have known where to go with the story, either, but then, I'm not asking for a portion of your ticket price. Yeah, I do think Wadlow gets the spirit of it, which does come through on occasion, and I think he does a competent job pulling performances from the actors, and maybe it's just that they're staying true to the original print material. There are a few competent chase and action sequences (as with the first, anything involving Hit-Girl in an action sequence is well done). But for the most part, what was once shiny and new is now...I'll call it boring. Colorful and somewhat random, but boring overall.  Pointless would be another word to use.

At least wait for the rental.  It's a 4 out of 10 stars for being mildly entertaining on occasion.  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews - Elysium

Elysium is the second major studio release for director Neil Blomkamp, perhaps best known for his work on District 9, another gritty sci-fi/social commentary piece. District 9 made waves for (among other things) its seamless visual effects, done on a rather shoestring budget but to incredible visual success.  No surprise, then, that Neil's background is entrenched in the world of 3D visual effects on a budget, having supplied them for such television fare as the CW's Smallville.  With this new effort starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, one would believe that any budgetary concerns are in the past.

Although I wouldn't call it a "follow-up", Elysium does tread a lot of the same thematic elements as District 9, although the set of metaphors in this movie tread much more familiar-looking territory.  The two movies both portray a stark separation between the haves/have-not's, the presence of baseless prejudice in the human collective psyche, and a sort of entrenched nationalism on the part of the elite in our societal structure. In District 9, the prejudices being illustrated were a little more in the abstract, as the object of hatred and mis-understanding was an insectoid alien culture.  Elysium, on the other hand, tells a thinly-veiled story of the US/Mexico border, only "Mexico" in this metaphor is the hopelessly polluted and over-populated planet Earth. The United States is represented by Elysium, an orbiting satellite filled with the mansions of the one per-centers looking down on the planet with the same predilections as Ozzy Ozbourne had for fans beneath his hotel balcony way back when.  Lest you think there might be some less specific metaphors in play, especially given Blomkamp's South African nationality, the movie is set in Los Angeles, and almost the entire supporting cast (at least where the "hapless denizens" are concerned) is Latino.

Matt Damon plays an Earth-bound worker (Max) given a terminal prognosis after a lethal exposure to radiation at his incredibly unsafe and exploitative workplace, and his only hope for a cure lies (of course) in the advanced medical facilities aboard the satellite...which, besides being in space, are zealously guarded by its citizens.  Max must enlist the aid of the 22nd century's equivalent of the coyote, and get his ass to Elysium. Oh, and along the way, fight for equality and bring hope to the masses and all that.

So, yeah, it's really preachy.  But does it work as a movie?  Short answer: Mostly, "Yes."

The Good:  Matt Damon plays a convincing every-man in Max, and the desperation and determination of the character's everyday life as a cog in the machine is convincingly focused and magnified through the lens of the more immediate conflict.  Sharlto Copley(The A-team)'s performance was the standout, however, as his intensely violent and determined portrayal of Kruger, revealed as Max's more direct nemesis, was incredibly well done.  Although Jodie Foster's portrayal of Delacourt hasn't enjoyed much by way of critical acclaim, I thought she did a fine job with the ballsy, ruthless defense minister of Elysium, charged with keeping the riff-raff off the station.  She plays a lion among lambs, and I thought it was a wonderful effort on her part.  Overall, the story is competently delivered, and the pacing excellent:  This writer/director knows how to pressurize before he lets the steam out in the more violent scenes, which I think is lost on a lot of the current crop in Hollywood.  Visually, the movie is very well done, as expected, but there were one or two scenes where the effects became overt.  I liked the camera work overall, especially during fight sequences:  It's not steady-cam-centric, as one might come to expect in a Matt Damon action vehicle.  Rather, it is both experimental and elegant in the way the camera, for example, exactly follows the sweeping arc of a thrown punch, all with the fist at center.  It is is focused and on-point without being clinical, and without losing detail in the action.  In certain scenes, the view switches between standard and helmet-mounted cameras, giving the audience a less omniscient perch that serves to anchor to the character's experience of combat.  The sets are excellent, and the textures used (dust, scabs, tears, decay, or the distinct lack thereof) are consistent visual reminders.

The Bad:   I'm all for metaphor in my sci-fi, and I think one of the best aspects of the genre is illustrating the concerns of mankind and how the future addresses them (or ought to address them). However, the best science fiction, in my view, boils the issues down to their essence, and doesn't need such direct and obvious metaphorical links to current events.  Such overt metaphor cheapens whatever message is being conveyed. The parallels drawn in this movie are simplistic caricatures, and it nearly ruins the narrative when you can practically hear the author's voice throughout:  "SEE how the closed borders inevitably result in human trafficking and exploitation of the huddled masses?  SEE how the blind nationalism results in exploitation and the loss of human compassion across borders?  SEE how the use of drone aircraft results in a disconnect between the soldier and the consequences of combat?  Oh, and Universal Health Care!!!" If you've ever thought to yourself, "You know, George Clooney should teach a class in how to portray the ethics of US foreign policy in a blockbuster movie, I'd sign up right away!", then this is the movie for you. Also, much of the movie's plot depends upon minutiae that doesn't stand up to examination, like the security systems surrounding the government of a space colony being remarkably easy to subvert, and machines capable of DNA coding that can re-build a person atom by atom, but are fooled into dispensing care to non-citizens by a forged brand on the skin.  These little things are beside the point, but then, the enjoyable aspects of the movie are ALL beside the point: Everything slaved to "the point" ends up being about as thought-provoking as the PSA at the end of every GI Joe cartoon.  If you disregard the "message" of the film, you'll end up looking elsewhere for stuff to think about, and it's an easy leap to start dissecting the film for plot holes (which invariably appear).


The Conclusion:  This is a good sci-fi action film, having a skilled director that knows how to construct good drama, and its intentions are in the spirit of the best science fiction. However, it falters where the specific and unabashed metaphor for current US politics is concerned, being altogether transparent and detracting from the film's supposedly future setting.

The Rating:  A solid 8 on a 10 scale as a sci-fi action/drama, but only rates a 3 in terms of social commentary.  Too transparent, too simplistic, too "now" to provoke anything in terms of conversation on the issues at hand.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: 2 Guns

Director Baltasar Kormakur's second major studio release featuring Mark Wahlberg,  2 Guns, opened last Friday and proceeded to secure the number one spot at the box office, albeit for a relatively slow weekend.  Based on the Boom! Studios graphic novels by Steven Grant (which I have not read, yet), the film is the latest in a long list of comics adaptations in recent memory, yet seems to tread territory more familiar to the action films of the 80's than the tights and capes films of the last decade.

When I bought my ticket, I was looking for lite action fare, but with comics personality and panache.  The action movie genre as a whole, in my humble opinion, has been taking itself entirely too seriously lately, and the previews seemed to indicate a lighter treatment of the buddy cop motif, which looked to be something I'd enjoy.

The film concerns the exploits of two secretive "good guys", Bobby Trench (Denzel Washington) and Mike Stigman (Mark Wahlberg), each working undercover for a different entity, and each unaware of the other's true disposition.   What starts as a bank robbery caper quickly turns into a sort of ground war between various factions, including a number of corrupt government agencies (5, maybe  6?), drug cartels, and those working multiple angles.  Both characters begin the movie wholly convinced of the way things ought to work, and only by throwing out the rule book, so to speak, can they succeed.  

Let's get straight to it:

The Bad:  Personality the film has, in spades, although I hesitate to say what type:  It's all over the map.  The action is played too straight and certain dramatic moments are too intense to belong in a farce/parody, but the plot is simply too outlandish to belong in either straight-up action drama or even buddy cop territory.  The worst part is the way the film switches personality and tone from scene to scene:  There are about 6 intense gun battles, for example, that are played completely straight by the camera, the editing, and the direction, but these are predicated by grab-bag action movie plot devices that go to outlandish extremes and dialogue that's anything but serious. Seriously, every government agency mentioned in the movie, from the Border Patrol to the US Navy, the ATF, the DEA, the CIA, etc., is involved in drug smuggling, has its own Snidely Whiplash corrupt official, shadow organization and/or black ops hit-squad that initiates broad-daylight gun battles with impunity.   Sometimes, the movie seems to be heading for the dramatic intensity of something like Drive or Dog Day Afternoon, other times it seems to want a more comedic or stylized approach akin to a Troublemaker Studios effort, and yet other times, it feels like a shallow buddy cop flick similar in tone to (insert Eddie Murphy buddy cop movie here).  The trouble is, the style elements are so diluted by the schism that it's hard for the film to succeed in any one of its many aspects.  In this regard, Washington's Trench character is played a little too straight, and has some elements of plot attached that are a bit too dramatic to fit:  There are those moments where you know he's phoning in his typical Washington "seasoned rogue" gig you're likely used to from previous efforts.  He does have his moments, but he's out-shined by his counterpart in just about every scene (more on that below), and he is his most successful playing off Whalberg's superior lead.

The Good:  There are indeed some well-filmed action scenes in the movie, and there is a good amount of fun to be had if you check your mind at the door.  Whalberg seems to know exactly what to do with his character, who goes from doe-eyed believer in the system to "I don't give a shit" rogue during the course of the film. The character arcs are basically the same between the two main draws, in that fundamentally each hero must become their cover, and Whalberg's Stigman is the most apt, delivering one-liners and little personality ticks that get you believing early on that he is polarized along those lines, but could make the leap between wheelhouses easily. He gets the most entertaining of the two main sets of dialogue, and delivers every one-liner and insult to great effect.  My only complaint was that he didn't, or maybe wasn't allowed to, go farther with it.  If it were my film, I'd have written/directed his character as a straight SNL parody of himself, complete with "Do you like Entourage?" fourth-wall-breaking debasement, but that's just me.

The Conclusion:   This film would make a solid rental, good for a weekday night or a slow Saturday.  I don't know that the cinematography or action merits the big-screen treatment, and there's little else here to justify a "go buy a ticket" recommendation.  Perhaps for this last weekend and the next couple, it could scratch that itch for a movie buff that just has to have a movie to go to.

The Rating:  It's a 6 on a 10 scale for theater-viewing, but perhaps an 8 or a 9 as a rental.          

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: The Wolverine

So, I just got back from seeing The Wolverine, the latest X-film from Fox.

Truthfully, after the putrid bucket of nonsense that was 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this is a movie I wasn't really excited about...and it's lineage isn't exactly one to knock your socks off, either.  If you go over the credits, it stars Hugh Jackman (a great actor, but no guarantor of a decent film) alongside several relative unknowns.  Two of three of the female leads (Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima) have never been in a full length movie, much less a major studio release.  Writer Mark Bomback's credits don't exactly shake the rafters with such dross as Live Free Or Die Hard and the 2012 remake of Total Recall. Director James Mangold, at least, is of note for helming the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, as well as 2005's Walk The Line, and co-writer Scott Frank did Minority Report, so I guess there's hope to be had there.  Oh, and Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) apparently co-wrote the script, but didn't get credit on imdb for whatever reason.

But, low and behold, Rotten Tomatoes' metascore is hovering around 75%, which, in my experience, is a pretty decent place to be for an action film.  I heard good things from the comics community, so I bought a ticket for a matinee at Penn Cinema Riverfront in Wilmington, Delaware (the 2D version).  

Getting to the point:  This is a half-decent movie.  It should satisfy fans left with a sour taste in their mouths after the '09 failure, especially those left hopeful after the far superior (but not perfect) X-Men: First Class. This is a movie that doesn't get everything right, but manages to engage enough to make it the "Wolverine movie fans have been waiting for" as it was billed...well, at least for die-hard fans.

First, the negatives:  Although the movie has an interesting setup and an engaging second act, the third act doesn't manage to bring all the plot threads to a close without some considerable stutter to the pacing.  To be honest, there are simply too many competing motivations at play, and the tone of the movie up until that point called for a more personalized, one-on-one showdown between our hero and those who vex him. I think a minor re-write, and perhaps the consolidation/elimination of a character or two, could have relieved the film of some cumbersome baggage.  Motivations early in the film seemed consistent and well thought-out, but in the end, several character arcs simply derailed in a completely unnecessary, "Wait, what??" fashion.  That, and the last nemesis, hinted at early in the film, is over-wrought and kinda clumsy...this is one place I wouldn't have minded the writers going off the comic book script.  The film suffers an ending that's either too long or it simply "ends" two or three times too often.  I can forgive even this, but I'll understand if some, especially the casual, non-comics-fan viewers, come away with a negative reaction.  Oh, and the infrequent use of steadycam, although it does enhance the frenetic quality of some of the action, gets a little heavy-handed...but not enough to spoil the fun.  

As for the positives...well, the first and second act give us a Wolverine with soul.  Mangold pulls performance from his lead, and the feeling you've walked a mile in Logan's shoes really hits home.  The backdrop of Logan's lost love is portrayed in flashbacks and dream sequences at tonally appropriate moments without straying from the path.  The Wolverine's healing factor plays a prominent role in the film, and each sequence involving our hero being wounded is used to maximum effect (truthfully, one of the most engaging things about Jackman's performance throughout all the films is his believable reactions to pain). The feeling of mystery surrounding the various players in Yashida Corporation is expertly delivered in the second act as well, although in this case the take-down doesn't have the luster of the setup.  For comics fans, the movie doesn't stray far at all from the Claremont/Miller stories it was based on.

All in all, I think the film ends up in C to B- territory. A 6, maybe a 6.5 on a 10 scale. It's good enough to be worth a matinee ticket, but the problems in the third act render my recommendation a little shaky.  This film is not for the overt film critic, and I doubt it will win any awards, but franchise fans will want to check it out:  It's the best Wolverine since X2...but that isn't saying much, now, is it?  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Man Of Steel

Even while critics gave it a barely passing grade, director Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel went the distance this past weekend to set box-office records for a June opener.  So, who's right, the ticket-buying audience or the film buffs? Is Man Of Steel similar in tone or quality to the 1978 Superman, or 2006's Superman Returns?  Read on for my take, and find out whether you fall into the category of person likely to enjoy this film.  This review will avoid spoilers where practical, and assumes some knowledge of the Superman mythos to this point.  It will also use the 1978 Superman as a vehicle for comparison at several opportunities.

Director Zack Snyder is probably best known for the visually lavish, if not historically accurate, 300, as well as the controversial comic-to-film effort Watchmen.    So he has a certain pedigree when it comes to making films based on comics characters.  It should be noted that in both cases, Snyder had a visual palette from which to the case of Watchmen, he filmed a cut of the movie that was almost a shot-for-shot remake of the books (heavily edited for the cinematic release, however).  This time around, Snyder had David S. Goyer's script to work from, a script whose story architecture was reportedly penned by none other than Christopher Nolan, father of the recent Batman trilogy.

Man Of Steel takes the same path as many recent re-boots of popular franchises, and unlike 2004's Superman Returns is a departure from the mythos first envisioned by Richard Donner in 1978.  It's yet another origin story for the character that re-tells the events surrounding his birth, but adds back-story and plot elements to the last days of Krypton that have far-reaching effects throughout the film. The first act concerns the destruction of Krypton and the infant Kal El's flight to Earth.  The second mostly concerns the young Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) wrestling with his power and abilities, and the third concerns his revelation to the world, and his conflict with General Zod (Michael Shannon) and the denizens of Krypton that hope to re-make Earth in its image.    

Visually, the film is what you would expect, given its lineage:  Flat, cool color tones, stark and imposing landscapes, and more often than not, strange alien architecture.  The film spends a surprising amount of time both on Superman's home world of Krypton, as well as inside various Kryptonian vehicles come to Earth.  Gone are the towering spires of lighted crystal from Donner's '78 effort:  This Krypton is an imposing brown cut with alien architecture right out of a Geiger painting.  The second act, changing settings between the American mid-west and Alaska territories, fares no better with the somber tones set forth in the first, and finally the washed-out greys that dominate the third act's city-scapes and alien spacecraft are occasionally punctuated by Superman's and blue costume.

The chief problems with the screenplay start to crop up in the first act:  It seems a compulsion for this movie to wish to one-up past efforts in the superhero genre in the action and visuals.  For example, one of the opening scenes concerns Jor El (Russel Crowe) witnessing an assassination by the rogue General Zod then fleeing home to secure his son's launch in the rocket destined for earth.  Instead of making his way across a war-torn capital city on foot, or even in a mechanical personal conveyance of some kind, he mounts a dragon, then flies home from work looping and wheeling through an epic aerial battle right out of a Star Wars prequel.  These types of excesses dominate the first and third acts of the film, to a degree that would make Michael Bay blush.  The needless pageantry is exposed for what it is when Jor arrives home (well, the dragon-landing pad outside his home), dismounts his mortally-wounded steed, and discovers that the General has all but beaten him there, Tortoise and The Hare style. Once the plot pieces are in place to begin the second act, the battle conveniently and abruptly halts, tipping the writers' hand to the utility of the device.

The second act calms a little but nevertheless favors a different type of excess.  The narrative jumps back and forth from Clark's childhood to young adulthood, and the story suffers a little here for a lack of rhythm and clear buildup of the character arc.  All the material is there for a significant look at the character, including the most poignant dialogue between his foster father Jonathan (Kevin Costner), but there are few, if any, scenes of Clark or the Kent family just being people.  In the same way that the pageantry of the first act is spoiled by excess, so is the gravitas of the second act diluted by repetitive story beats and dialogue of a singular theme.  Every word out of Jonathan's mouth is a bit of grandfatherly sage advice, to the point where you half expect a ray of sunshine to punctuate his every utterance. I don't think he has one line of dialogue in the whole film that sounds like something Dad would say, no "can you cut the grass" or "pass me the potatoes", just a constant stream of prophetic wisdom.  Every scene centered on Clark involves his actively using or not using his powers, and although the choices are explained, you're robbed of a chance to see the moral center of the character and his love for humanity develop in the rich way portrayed in Superman. Jonathan gives Clark reasons to jealously guard his secret, and those reasons compel him to the point where he must, eventually, be forced to step out of the shadows.  I don't have a problem with this change in the character's arc, except to say that it robs the Superman character of a certain moral center to suggest that all his life he was counselled to avoid revealing himself even at the cost of human lives.  Snyder tries to play up the iconography of the character in a scene in a church, but it's so heavy-handed and club-you-over-the-head subtle that it evokes laughter.  The 1978 Superman had a far superior second act when it came to the development of the character, and it was done with half the screen time spent on Clark's upbringing.

For some audience members, the third act is the part they paid to see, and for others, it's where the thing disintegrates completely.  It is for this that I am most hesitant to recommend either one way or another on this film:  The third act of Man Of Steel is an hour-long pitched battle, pure and simple.  And what a battle it is:  Skyscrapers fall, the earth is torn, the army attacks, city blocks are picked up and slammed down, alien space ships fire bolts of energy, trains are de-railed, satellites are hurled out of orbit, etc.  For an hour.  The third act doesn't build, it simply arrives, and it's not over until its over, so to speak.  Any one of Snyder's action scenes, when taken on its own, can be regarded as wonderful for its powerful imagery and beautifully moving pieces. But for all their thunder and calamity, you never get the sense that either combatant is against the ropes for more than a second or so between landing blows.  There's no lull, and therefore no rhythm to speak of, just spectacular yet inconsequential violence.  Superman on occasion stops to aid a human soldier, but he evinces almost no concern whatever for the workaday human populace.  In real-world terms, the off-screen death toll from his fight with Zod would have been staggering, yet no concern is evident until the very end, when Superman is forced(?) to make a decision that runs counter to what many fans expect of the character.

So, is it a good movie?  Partially.  See, Snyder gets the imagery and iconography right, and there is a compelling arc and poignant story notes scattered throughout the second act....I just don't think Snyder gets the music of it. Some story notes are shouted too loudly, others drowned by the thunderous drums of action set-pieces destroyed, and some are too brief or too out of sync to be of consequence.  Yes, it's a clearly recognizable three-act play, but it could have benefited from some choice editing of the third act, the inclusion of some humanizing script for the second act, and a minor re-write of the first to tone the narrative down a little.  Yes, some of the character choices in the script are interesting when evaluated out of context, but I don't know if the writers realize what was lost when they made Jonathan a jealous guardian rather than a guiding hand.  It's strange how, with as many glimpses of greatness as this film gives us, and all the talk about changing the world, it simply doesn't end up feeling like anything special...and the reasons for this are so plainly evident and easily fixable.  

Lemme to rate this...I know, I'll use a sliding scale!  Find the byte below that best describes you, and you'll find your rating for Man Of Steel right after.

The Blockbuster:  You know who Superman is, but you don't read comics and you're not a fan of the '78 film (that wishy-washy rom-com with Margot Kidder that is, like, ancient) due to its slow pacing and obvious 70's special effects. You think that modern CGI is a chance to show some really cool battle scenes. You loved the Transformers movies, and think Iron Man 3 was the obvious best in the series.  Your rating:  9 out of 10.

The Andy Warhol:  You know the Superman character, and what he stands for, but you're more into the visuals than anything else.  You want to see Superman holding up a building, standing in front of a stained glass window, flying through space, on fire, in an H.R. Geiger painting, etc. You thought Sucker Punch was one of that year's best films. Your rating:  8 out of 10

The Fanboy:  You're dying to see this film.  You've waited 35 years for Superman to be done right again, and the previews are looking good.  You're very familiar with the Donner films, and happen to enjoy several comics and animated takes on the character throughout the years.  You think Waid's Birthright was really cool.  Your rating:  6 out of 10

The Keeper Of The Flame:   You are familiar with Superman's comic history, and can debate for hours on why silver age Superman is superior to any other published work in the last 30 years.  You think the Donner films were "interesting", but can't stomach the liberties they took with the character and the obvious non-canon approach to the character's back story.  Your Rating:  3 out of 10

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The From The Booth Podcast Goes To Wizard World Philadelphia!

From The Booth Podcast co-hosts Ken and I went to Wizard World Philadelphia over last weekend to catch a couple of artist interviews and cover the Marvel Comics panel discussion.  We interviewed artists Phil Noto and Leinil Yu, two of the top pencilers in the bullpen, and managed to get a question answered of some of the top brass at Marvel editorial at the panel.

Jim Dietrich (myself), artist Phil Noto, and FTB co-host Ken

The Noto interview  went very well; He was very approachable and receptive to questions, but we managed to dump the audio when our recorder malfunctioned.  I had asked him if, having worked for so many comics companies on so many diverse properties, there was any title or character he regretted never having the chance to work on.  Noto replied that there were so many things he'd worked on that he was proud of, that there were no regrets.  He said that if he had to choose one, it'd likely be Micronauts or some other property that came and went before he got into the business. When asked about coming full circle with Disney (he started his professional career as a clean-up artist for the Mouse), he said that although it was strange to be (technically) working for them once again, Disney maintained a distance and were very "hands off" when it came to Marvel. I think "creatively separate" was the term used.  
FTB co-host Ken, Jim Dietrich (myself) and artist Leinil Yu

The interview with Leinil was brief, but a lot of fun.  Yu talked a little about his early influences, his current work, and his planned run on Avengers (issues 16-23)  Audio of that can be found here.

The panel discussion was informative, if a bit short on announcements about future Marvel endeavors.  Audio of the complete panel, as well as individual, select questions broken out for brevity, can be had here.

Overall, it was a fun and successful trip.  Many of the hardcore comics fans I run into disparage Wizard World Philly for being taken over by tv and movie celebrity appearances, but I have to say that the lack of depth to the offerings in Artists' Alley is overblown, imho, and they more than make up for any perceived shortfall with an unmatched level of accessibility to some of the top talent in comics.  Lines for artists are rare if they exist at all, and availability of commission sketch work, signatures, and conversation with comics creators is excellent.  

Oh, and there's this:

Don't forget to check out the podcast for more details on our trip and all the latest comics news, reviews, previews and commentary!  And special thanks to Phil Noto and Leinil Yu.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

From The Booth - Pulp Friction

This week's new podcast is up!  Ken and I talk about pulpy horror comics and why some of these should quit while they're ahead, we announce a major interview "get" for Philly Wizard World this weekend, we talk First State Comic Con coming up in late June, and, of course, we review and preview comics and give you our take on the latest pop culture news and events!

The From The Booth Podcast

Monday, May 20, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek:  Into Darkeness is the second Star Trek feature film offering helmed by J.J. Abrams, and is the twelfth to share the Trek moniker.  While previous entries in the franchise worked from the established canon of the 1966 television show and previous films, Abrams's 2009 offering, Star Trek, replaced the the much-beloved original cast in favor of a younger set of actors and re-imagined the mythos from the beginning.  The back story was not all that was changed, however, as there was a definite shift in tone from considered, high-minded sci-fi themes to a focus on action, adventure, and pageantry. 

The first of Abrams's films in the franchise sailed on to box-office success, and a certain level of critical acclaim as a sci-fi action/adventure film.  Fans of the 2009 Star Trek may want to see Into Darkness, as it maintains the cast, back story, director, and sensibilities of the first of Abrams's efforts.  But there are those detractors who say Abrams has missed the point of Star Trek, and his focus on the more visceral aspects has cost the franchise its soul.

My hope, in providing this review, is to give perspective on the film, both as the action/adventure vehicle it is, and how well it "fits" with established notions of character and plot from previous productions in the franchise.  This review will assume some familiarity with the Star Trek universe, and although it may describe certain scenes and settings, an attempt will be made at doing so without major spoilers.  I saw the film in 3D IMAX opening weekend, at a newer theater (in great seats, btw).

This time around, I'm going to lay things out in a question/answer format.

Does the movie live up to the hype?  Most assuredly.  Hype being, of course, linked to those visceral elements we talked about previously.  If you were thrilled with the visuals afforded you in the previews, you'll get an amped version of this in the theater, especially if you enjoy 3D and opt to see it that way.  Unlike Iron Man 3, for example, the 3D in Trek is seamless, and in my opinion enhances the film experience greatly.   Space looks endless, chasms look deep, ships are imposing, debris is hurled with exciting depth and bombast.  The camera work on this film is simply stunning, and what the film-makers do with real-world sets and digital environments is nothing short of brilliant.  So far as settings are concerned, the term "epic" comes to mind early and often, as we get a more fully-realized vision of the various parts and pieces of the worlds of Trek than the 2009 film. The Enterprise herself is tossed,  turned, torn open and slammed in ways that previous feature films in the franchise could only dream of.  We've come a long, long way from the original series cast throwing themselves around the bridge consoles in mock distress, and Abrams never shies from letting the audience know that the lethal vacuum of space is just a bulkhead away.   The movie is filled with harrowing chase sequences, destructible environments, gripping hand-to-hand combat, and other action-movie essentials, and it's all paced and shot expertly to deliver an edge-of-your seat experience.

Is the movie true to the original Star Trek?   In what I see as the most essential way one can be "true" to a franchise having hundreds, perhaps thousands of creators attached to it over the past 45 years, yes it is.  The characters are all very well cared for here, the central figures of which (Kirk and Spock) each have a definite, relateable character arc.  These are characters with soul, and their interactions evoke the spirit of the original.

But make no mistake, Into Darkness maintains its hold on the action/adventure model at the expense of certain ethereal elements of the original series and movies. Character traits are still exaggerated to the nth degree, much as in the 2009 film.  Those looking for a predictably stoic Spock are bound to be disappointed, as there is an undercurrent of emotion evident in his character throughout the film.  Rather than the audience guessing through the subtleties of a vulcan/human hybrid's emotional spectrum, we get to witness the character instead try to negotiate a storm of feelings via oft-misplaced rationality.  Although fully lovable and expertly performed, Scotty and McCoy remain more comic relief and mcguffin-providers than fully realized characters.

There are changes and revisions of technical canon as well, especially where set-pieces are concerned.  The Enterprise's engineering section, for example, is still a converted brewery with a few tacked-on sci-fi-ish apparatus to convince the audience they're looking at the guts of a starship.  For better or worse, Abrams always opts for that which is visually appealing and most advantageous to story over that which is most true to the set-piece measurements and fictional technical elements of the original.  There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth among die-hard "Trek tech" experts with their Enterprise blue-prints and warp core diagrams.

Is there anything wrong with the movie?  Why yes, now that you ask, there are some things objectively wrong with the movie, in my opinion.  Although Abrams is a master at delivering an action sequence, for example, and creating engaging situations for characters, there is often some transparent McGuffin involved in moving the chess pieces into place.  A minuscule side-conflict or seemingly out-of-character moment will happen out of the blue, and one realizes later that it was only there to move character A to point B so they could do C.   A piece of technology is produced out of the blue, and one soon realizes that it is there only to perform some minor story function, whereupon it will be quickly laid aside. This is especially evident in ship-to-ship combat.  Although this is certainly not the first time we've seen this in Trek's long history (nearly all of the combat in Wrath Of Khan, for example, went against established original series "rules"), it happens so often and so overtly in this film that it detracted from my experience.  It wouldn't have been as bad, in my opinion, to simply break the rules sometimes, rather than point out the rule, point out the whiz-bang new device that allows one to break it, then break it.

The other problem, for me, is that so much homage is made to the original cast movies, that it borders on pantomime.  There is a scene in the movie (and a nearly unnecessary one, with a little wrangling) that is a complete re-make of a scene from a previous Trek film, with characters juxtaposed as if to say, "it's alike, and yet so different".  My take on this is that Abrams is trying to provide an homage to appease fans of the original crew, but it comes off as audience pandering that is just, well, hamfisted and totally unnecessary. I was moved to nostalgia during the scene, which may have been the intended purpose, but nostalgia just didn't fit with the tone, for me.

Is it a good movie?  An enthusiastic yes, from me, although there are some problems.  I don't mind at all Abrams's take on Trek; I think it stands as a worthy effort in almost every regard on its own, albeit not what others expect from the franchise.  Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition as Kirk's main nemesis, and although the cast is spot-on in any of their given roles, he steals many a scene.  Although many of the features and takeaway of Abrams's films differ from things we've seen with the original cast and crew, I don't think this version can detract from what was already committed to film....if you're a fan of old Trek, and not a fan of new Trek, then rest assured no one's burning the old master reels or trying to censor you in any way...disregard these new entries as you see fit.  Laying aside comparisons for a moment, Into Darkness is a terrifically entertaining movie that uses familiar characters to tell a new and interesting story, while providing plenty of excitement.

Overall rating:  8.5 out of 10.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews - Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 has officially had the second-largest opening box office in cinematic history. Some reviewers, especially those close to the comics community, are lauding it as the best of the three films, and I've even heard favorable comparisons to Avengers.  Does it live up to the hype?  Does it surpass previous takes in the franchise?  In some ways, I think so.  In other ways, not so much.  I saw the movie in non-Imax-3D last Friday with a crew of fans from Captain Blue Hen comics, and opinions varied slightly along a theme...

The review below, in case you're wondering, is written by a fan of Marvel Studios, a comics reader, comics pod-caster, and all-around superhero movie aficionado.  It's written by and for a person familiar with the first two entries in the series, and the larger Marvel Studios cinematic universe.  That doesn't mean I'm not looking for the same things from my movies as is your typical movie-goer, and it doesn't mean I'm not willing to forgive departures from the various written takes on the characters.  I watch movies to be entertained by good movies, and I read comics to be entertained by good comics, and unlike some more zealous comics fans, I'm willing to forgive when it comes to forgoing some of the finer details of the comics character when translating to film, so long as it's done in the name of quality.  There are some spoilers ahead, as an in-depth review is all but impossible to do without describing certain scenes and set-ups.

What it does right:  Iron Man 3 marks a return to, and a deeper exploration of, the introspective Tony Stark character that we saw in Iron Man.  Much of the movie is devoted to establishing Tony as a man of some maturity and sense of responsibility, the seeds for which were planted in the first film.  Tony is dealing with his role as de-facto head of Stark Industries (Potts's directorship notwithstanding) without the staple military contracts it used to subsist on, his committed relationship with Pepper Potts in place of the random one-night-stands he spent much of his youth cultivating, the remnants of his playboy image that continue to affect his everyday life, and the additional public role of superhero/savior added to an already insane level of public scrutiny.  The sheer weight of it all puts the character in a fantastic pressure cooker of roles and responsibilities, not the least of which is his fresh awareness of the gods, monsters, aliens and other fantastic threats he faces in the role he built for himself as penance for past foibles.   Tony Stark used to be a man who believed in his weapons, in his armor, as a means to free the world from war and worry.  Now, however, he's haunted by visions of threats from the great beyond he is powerless to explain or quantify.  He's a man who prides himself on his readiness, on his ability to engineer his way past every contingency, and the events of Avengers have more or less slapped this notion of the 'prepared man' down like a schoolyard bully.  Stark feels like he's just gone a few rounds with a late-80's Mike Tyson, and for good reason, and the film does a great job of illustrating this. His relationship to Pepper is clarified and continues to grow, his lieutenants, including Rhodey and Happy, are fleshed out and convincingly motivated. The main antagonist is a defined character that, although he has a very comic-bookish origin story, is ready to play the big screen, and he's sufficiently empowered and motivated to take on a solo Iron Man.

The film also treads new ground with its depiction of a Tony Stark who is capable and formidable outside the armor.  Much of the film is spent on an armor-less or de-powered Stark forced to use the tools at hand to defeat his enemies, and there are some cheer-worthy moments of triumph (in fact, they're the best moments of the film) that have little to do with a man in a tin suit.  If you're like me, you'll watch the film expecting at some point a musical montage where Tony builds an armor that is even more badass and goes forth to dispatch some hapless evil-doer with his top-secret falcon punch or some other such contrivance.  Spoiler Alert:  That moment never comes.  Kudos to the writers for understanding that the powers don't make the hero, and for finding ways to depict that while maintaining the action and excitement.

(Very minor spoilers ahead)  Halfway through the film, Tony encounters Harley Keener, a young boy who assists him in whatever way he can, and provides Tony with some much-needed grounding and perspective.  Everything about this sequence is good and right:  It holds true to the spirit of the super hero genre, taps into what makes these characters great in the eyes of young people, and provides several touchstones for the hopeful fan in all of us to identify with.  The movie is almost worth it for these scenes alone.

What It Doesn't Do Right:   The film suffers horribly from the creators' push to one-up previous entries in the Marvel Studios stable in the action department.  One of the action scenes (you likely saw hints of this in the previews) ends with a mid-air stunt sequence that is so laughably implausible that a collective groan from the audience is all but inevitable. "It's like, super-Point Break, man!  It's like Point Break times eleven!"  The film suffers in the third act from a dearth of settings and set-pieces, and getting the protagonist to the various settings in the desired condition becomes a mental mapping exercise that pulls you from the film.

The minions of Aldrich Killian, faceless ex-military types empowered with the Xtremis formula, don't amount to much.  Far from being convincingly motivated, the audience is to believe that once you drink the Killian Kool-Aid, you become his murderous thrall, willing to pillage and plunder at the risk of your life and the assured death of hundreds.  None has a back story worthy of note, nor is any one of them motivated beyond their listing in the credits.  Like other homage to the comics in this film, the organization they work for is more  trope than anything.

And why (spoilers ahead), oh why, did they do such a good job of showing Tony kick ass outside the armor, then end the movie with a protracted battle involving drone suits of armor controlled by the robotic Jarvis AI?  The point is not that the concept is bad, it's just executed in a way that is over-long and too involved.  What should have been a brief aside, a sort-of "look at the resources I can call upon when I'm up against the ropes" trope, is given too much screen time and eventually devolves into meaningless fireworks to punctuate the final confrontation.  The characters and set pieces are already there for a more personalized final battle between Stark and Killian, but the faceless denizens and cohorts of the antagonist and the drone armor take center stage, and the audience is emotionally invested in neither.  Worse, you know why it's there:  You can envision the board meeting where this conflagration was contrived; you can almost feel the slimy fingers of the suits and financial backers on the script, demanding the final sequence sell more toys.  It's a pity that, at the end of it all, a resourceful Tony outside his armor must bring not one, not two, but perhaps 15 versions of the armor to the battle, then suffer the indignity of a disembodied AI taking on the hero role.  Far from the masterfully executed, operatic camera ballet afforded us in the final scene of Avengers, involving characters we care about, we're subjected to a continuous barrage of non-character-on-non-character violence that quickly devolves into a mindless pyrotechnic display. A more personal Tony vs. Bad Guy (no pun intended) scene is called for here, but we don't get it.

The character of the Mandarin (minor spoilers ahead) is almost entirely squandered in this film.  This is more a comics fans' complaint, as he exists in the film without taking much away from it, and is performed by Kingsley in a convincing and comical fashion.  However, those of us familiar with the books know there was character to be mined here, and we're denied all but a Russel Brand-inspired piece of trype.  He was reasonably well-played with an eye for humor, but entirely wasted in comparison to what could have been.

 My Recommendation:  Although the movie gets a lot right (scenes involving "the mechanic" and his side-kick are pure gold), it also hosts enough wrongdoing and corporatized intrusion on the script that it doesn't belong, in my view, alongside the first in the series, nor does it invite favorable comparison to the seminal Avengers.  It invites, instead, comparisons to Iron Man 2 in terms of subject matter and quality.  A 6, perhaps aspiring to a 7 on a 10 scale, for me.                  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Jim's Comics Reviews: Thoughts On DEATH OF THE FAMILY


Okay, now that's out of the way, so I can get to the meat of the discussion.  Yesterday, comics shops across the land released DC Comics' Batman #17, the concluding issue of the Death Of The Family crossover event.  The event was helmed by writer Scott Snyder, with the help of several talented artists, most notably Greg Capullo.  The crossover tied in most of the Bat-titles in DC's current lineup, and if you need a complete list, you can find one here:  (Reading Order)  However, for the purpose of the review, I'm going to assume the reader has read the story and understands a little of how it relates to previous cannon.

The Good:  Scott Snyder's writing was good throughout, with exceptions that can (possibly) be explained away by the interfering hand of editorial.  He managed several intertwining plot threads deftly, and gave us a clear story with an awareness of pacing, especially during the clear build-up to the climax across Batman issues 16-17.  There were several nail-biting moments, especially the reveals in later issues, that got the adrenaline going and held the reader on a plateau of excitement across multiple pages.

True to his word, Snyder delivered a story one could navigate reading only the core title (Batman). There were certain issues of other titles I consider an enhancement to the story, or indeed essential for overall effect, but the narrative core of issues 14-17 did not suffer greatly, if at all, for being part of the event, nor would the reader of only the core title be unduly upset by omission of key events.  I can only imagine the task of having to thread together such a sprawling tie-in involving various writers, artists, and books, each with their own stories to tell and their own schedules to adhere to, but the resulting story arc has a very clear shape and direction.  The story did, at the least, convey the change in relationship between Batman and his lieutenants, and the reasons for it, which might be enough justification for a crossover for some readers (more on that in the next section).

Greg Capulo's art was no hindrance to story either. His style isn't necessarily one everyone agrees with: He likes fluid forms and line-driven textures in the vein of Marc Silvestri, but with a better sense of dimensionality to faces. He uses exaggerated anatomy and perspective that is mood-driven and, at times, cartoon-like. I like it. At the very least, he "got" the scene and conveyed it well throughout. Colors were okay on the core title, but at times a little to exaggerated for my taste, and a little too inconsistent on light sourcing (yeah, the Joker looks spookier with an under-lit face, but sometimes you can't explain where the hell it comes from).

The Bad:  The size of the thing.  I'm a big fan of sprawling, epic stories, so long as the plot pieces fit and are necessary to story.  I'm also no stranger to larger publishers' yen to expand stories to dollar-maximizing proportions.  But there were several issues included in the crossover that didn't merit the DoTF marquis.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't R.I.P. all over again.  However, I came away from several of the tie-ins, including early issues of Batgirl and Detective Comics, thinking DC editorial was definitely lending "suggestions" concerning their inclusion in the event.  Lest you think I missed the inclusion of several of Batman's rogue's gallery in the final few issues, and forgot how their machinations early on led into Joker's plot  through those seemingly tenuous story links, I will say this:  The vast majority of the villains present for Joker's big gathering simply didn't need to be there, as illustrated by both Batman and Joker dismissing them handily in issue #16 before the real conflagration in #17.  Some of the best villains in Batman's rogues' gallery were built into the story via a small aside in an earlier issue, only to be ushered stage left so quickly it made my head spin.  This cheapened both those characters and the story that contained them.  If one conjectures simply that they were there to illustrate the gravitas of the event, well, then I say there had better be some earth-shaking consequences to said event to justify their presence.

Which brings me to my next concern:   There were no earth-shaking consequences to this event. True, the story convincingly delivers the reasons for the wedge between Batman and the other members of the Bat-Family, but the wedge itself is seemingly nothing a group with a strong, almost familial, bond couldn't get past.  It's illustrated at the last by (gasp!) various excuses for the sidekicks not to show up at Bruce's planned victory dinner.  True, some of the lead-in to the conclusion such as the "face supper" was unnerving, but nothing the reader wouldn't dismiss as trickery after a moment's thought as to the far-reaching consequences to characters in multiple series.  Perhaps we've grown too complacent in the status quo, but I don't think anyone believed Nightwing, Robin, Red Robin, Red Hood, and Batgirl were going back to their respective series sans mug.

As an indulgence, about halfway through the event, I came up with a possible motivation for the Joker's actions, and said as much on the From The Booth podcast:   The Joker was goading the various sidekicks to attempted murder, and would subject Batman to the possibility that any one of his trainees could become another Red Hood.  The evidence seemed to support it:  Each death trap resulted in the decision by each sidekick to either attempt murder (in two separate instances with a gun), or be complacent while murder took place. Imagine Batman faced with the notion that his greatest failure (Jason) could be exploited and repeated!  At the very least, the wedge would have been driven more deeply, and maybe we'd have gotten a more worthy ending than the "we're still facebook friends, but don't expect a card on your birthday" moments we got at the end.

Overall, though, I have to say the story was enjoyable.  While it didn't have the payoff I had hoped for, and it suffered, in my opinion, from crossover-itis, I did think the story was well-handled logistically, it was cohesive, and it had several edge-of-your-seat moments that made it worthwhile on a more visceral level.

Let me know what you think!

Jim's Comic Reviews: Mind The Gap

This time, I published the review over at Captain Blue Hen's website:

Jim's Comic Reviews:  The Elle Word

I said as much on Jim McCann's G+ page, but I think it was in issue #3, the scene where Jo is dancing on the bed after receiving a psychic tweet from Elle in a dream, where it hit home for me how human and believable the characters are as written.  Those types of reactions are not things that occur to every writer of comics, especially in the superhero-centric genres, but McCann really inhabits and empathizes with his characters.  I know Mind The Gap was originally envisioned for television, and this seems to come through in the settings and scenery...which leads me to wonder about comparisons with McCann's more comic-oriented efforts.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Jim's Comic Reviews: Fatale (collected trades, Book One: Death Chases Me and Book 2: The Devil's Business)

Many reading this are already familiar with Ed Brubaker's work at the big two publishing houses, and were dismayed (perhaps only momentarily) by his announcement mid-year to part ways with Marvel.  His iconic runs on Captain America and Winter Soldier stand out in recent memory, the latter of which continued until just last month.  Rumors surrounded various possible creative paths Brubaker could take, but comics fans were assuaged in November, when he announced his intention to turn Image Comics' Fatale into an ongoing series The title,  another collaborative effort between Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, was originally intended for three parts in perhaps fourteen issues.  

I'm late to the party on this title, but here to review the first two trades:  Book One:  Death Chases Me, and Book 2:  The Devil's Business, collecting issues 1-5 and 6-10, respectively.

Book One introduces us to the character of Josephine, central figure of the story and a woman of some mystery.  It's gradually revealed that she's been around this world longer than your average human is entitled, and sinister supernatural forces are both her strength and her nemeses.  She exhibits an almost hypnotic power over men, who are drawn to her like moths to a flame.  Three such men, Nick, Dominick, and Walter, form chapters in her long life, each coming to know her romantically, finding himself in her thrall, and falling prey in some way to the strange and evil figures who pursue her through the decades.  Book Two delves further into Josephine's history, giving snippets and clues as to her nature and that of her pursuers, a midst a more urgent tone.

Brubaker's storytelling, at the onset, seems eerily disjointed.  As the plot thickens, however, the episodic and out-of-sync narrative falls into a skittish rhythm that lends to the air of noir and mystery.  It's absolutely thick with inter-twining fates and plot threads spanning the years, and paced expertly to deliver in every chapter.  Part of the richness is delivered through the settings, from the 50's detective noir that dominates Book One, to a drug-centric, post-hippie view of the 70's in Book Two. It's in Book Two, particularly, where I took note of just how much the period was in evidence in the tale. Here, the cult-spawning pop culture fascination with figures like the Manson family, and the drug-fueled orgies that belie the cultural innocence lost in the previous decade, are the backdrop for something even more sinister.  It's amazing how the tone of the story is tweaked carefully from one decade to the next, and how Brubaker's conscious use of verbal idioms and other indicators in the dialogue and character actions plant the story firmly in those periods.

Phillips' art lends well to this story.  Although I wouldn't like him for some of the more flashy super-hero types, I think he's well suited for period pieces, horror and noir, with his thick shadows, carefully selected essential details, and expressive faces, all telling no more and no less than that which is useful to story and mood.  This guy moves faces masterfully, and each simple line is crafted to belie tone, emotion, ethnicity, lighting, and even the uncanny madness of the Lovecraftian villains.  He's got that indispensable skill of an artist that allows you to almost see the photo-realism he imagined beneath the simple, stylized lines he delivers.  Panel sizes are small and lean towards a more dense narrative than most modern comics.  At times I wished for more novel layouts, but when the story is this thick, the art must follow.

Finally, the careful, often muted color tones delivered by Dave Stewart are perfect for this story.  There were one or two instances where I wished I was seeing more widely ranged use of color, but I'd hesitate to recommend him anything in that regard lest the story suffer for more detail than is necessary.  The eye is drawn to the right places, and the color composition all lends to story flow, and, well, it's just wonderful.

Lest I gush further, let me just say that I'm thoroughly loving this tale: It has the best elements of a pulp novel mixed in with some awesome imagery and epic plot.  I'm hopeful for any way the work might continue into at least another year, as I feel the story has the legs (no pun intended) to do it.  It's a definite recommended read from me.            

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Experience With ICL (Implantable Collamer Lens)

This entry is a little break from the norm.  Rather than bring you some attempt at insightful commentary on whatever comic book or movie has last tweaked my fancy, this one is a little more personal and a little more technical, so bear with me.

Recently, after consult with my eye doctor and a specialist in the field, I made the decision to have contact lenses permanently implanted in my eyes. I've worn glasses since the third grade, and I couldn't function without corrective lenses.  The idea of waking up in the morning without fumbling around for the damn things seemed like the best thing one could wish for.

The procedure, known by most by the equipment nomenclature, is referred to as "ICL", which stands for Implantable Collamer Lens.  In the procedure, a lens very similar to a contact lens is implanted behind the iris, but in front of the eye's natural lens.  It's completely invisible to the naked eye, and corrects for nearsightedness.  It's a procedure based on, and somewhat similar to, the surgery used to treat cataracts.

There are several advantages and disadvantages between ICL and the more common Lasik procedure for correction of myopia.  Lasik is a procedure where a laser is used to re-shape corneal tissue (the outside layer of the eye, that you can touch with your finger).  Lasik is cheaper, and by nature less invasive...nothing is inserted into the eye.  This eliminates the small chance for some side effects such as cataracts that can occur when anything is implanted into the eye. Modern Lasik procedures can also correct for astigmatism, which is what you get when there are irregular imperfections in the shape of the eye and it's focusing mechanisms that can't be compensated for with a single, across-the-board prescription. The ICL version of astigmatism correction isn't approved yet.  Lasik is also cheaper than ICL by a fair margin, although they're in the same ballpark.

There are some advantages to ICL that Lasik doesn't have.  Lasik removes eye tissue to produce a new shape, like whittling away at a sculpture.  You can't replace this tissue and start over.  While Lasik can be fine-tuned in one direction, giving you further correction, you can't really dial it back, whereas the ICL procedure is completely reversible.  ICL can also compensate for a wider range of prescriptions, and may be the only choice for correcting people whose corneas aren't the shape or thickness required for Lasik.

The way things stand now, most ophthalmologists will point toward Lasik for people who qualify, with ICL being the back-up for those who aren't Lasik suitable for whatever reason.

I was measured for suitability for both procedures.  My first visit to the ophthalmologist included a battery of tests to map the shape and thickness of my corneas, determine my prescription, and examine my eyes for suitability for the ICL implant.  The measurements came back okay for either procedure.  While my prescription is at the lower end of what they suggest for ICL, and my corneal thickness was more than adequate for Lasik (more on that later), my corneas were apparently flat enough that the doctor left both options open to me.  I liked the idea of a reversible procedure enough that I chose the ICL over Lasik.  They scheduled me for an additional consultation, where everything was re-mapped and re-measured, and from there I scheduled the first of two surgical procedures for the following week.  The entire process took place across about 6 weeks.

An ICL operation actually consists of two procedures.  In the first procedure, usually a week or so prior to the actual implant, a laser is used to cut a small opening at the edge of each iris (called YAG laser iridotomy).  This allows fluid inside the eye to flow among and around the implanted lens, which is necessary for proper placement.  The second procedure is the actual implant of each lens, where a small incision is made in each eye, the lens itself is folded for insertion and basically released into the pierced chamber and allowed to unfold in front of the eye's natural lens.

My Experiences:

I came in for my YAG iridotomy on a Tuesday, having taken the day off work to have the procedure.  The iridotomy was to be a simple procedure lasting a few minutes each eye, involving 5 quick and relatively painless jolts with a laser to create the necessary opening.  I had been told previously that I'd be getting a dose of Valium prior to, as a calming agent, as having one's eye cut with a laser freaks some people out.  Once there, however, I was assured this was not the case, and that Valium was usually not administered until the final insertion procedure.

Had I known what was coming, I'd have demanded their highest dose of whatever calming agent was available.

Before the iridotomy, they placed drops in my eyes designed to contract the pupil, then observed me in a dark room while I lay comfortably in a chair.  Once the drops had taken, I was escorted to the operating room.  I was seated upright on a stool and my head placed in a chin rest and headband apparatus similar to what an eye doctor uses for routine exams. I was directed to hang on to two stationary handles that looked like the joysticks on an old style arcade machine.  It was at this point that several obstacles concerning my physiology that made the iridotomy difficult became apparent:  Apparently, my eye sockets are fairly well-recessed, and I have a prominent chin.  Whether this indicates a large frontal lobe of the brain and facial features like those of my comic-book heroes, or if it is, instead, a throwback to my cro magnon ancestry, I'll leave you to judge.  My melon just didn't fit in the thingey real good.

The doctor, seated in front of me behind some sort of Jack Kirby-inspired mechanism of scientific endeavor, observed my eye through a system of telescopes, mirrors, and supremely bright lights, and began to announce, repeatedly, that my head must come forward.  He needed an angle coming from the side of the eye closest the bridge of the nose and moving outward, and the nose was in the way. The nurse, behind me, tried to comply with his increasingly distressed announcements by placing both hands behind my head and bearing down on it with at least a considerable portion of her own body weight.  The problem seemed, to me, entirely due to the rather unyielding steel head band and chin rest in direct contact with my inflexible, cro magnon skull, and further complicated with the fact that even if my skull were to give way and be forced entirely through the "rest", my nose would presumably move forward with it.  My head proved completely resistant to her efforts to shove it through the apparatus like a potato through a drain pipe, but the doctor needed a better angle, so the efforts continued.  I quickly gathered that the object was not to move the head forward, but rather, to cause the eye by compression of the skull to bulge forth in its socket. What else, by virtue of the transitive effect of the motion of the skull imparted to the nose, could they be trying to accomplish?

In the mean time, my eye was fitted with a monocle-like device, which was covered in gel and placed directly on the eye around the iris.  This, I think, was to facilitate coupling the laser to it's target, and give a scope through which the doctor could observe the results.  The doctor, in a seeming bid to increase the pressure on the eyeball but prevent it from popping out of its socket, fought the forward pressure the nurse applied with pressure against the surface of the eye with the monocle. This was excruciating.  

The doctor seemed resigned to it after five or ten minutes of wrestling (I call it that, although I don't think I moved a single millimeter the entire time), and began his attempts at the laser cut. This, as I was told prior to the procedure, should have been 4-5 quick zaps with the laser in each eye, some minor discomfort, and done. After 15 minutes and about 35 zaps on the first eye, each of wish increased my discomfort along an exponential curve from "Shit!" to "Fuck!" to "FUCK YOU!", I was done.  With the first eye.  I was thankful, and at least prepared, I thought, for what was to come.

The second eye was much more difficult.  I lost count after 60 laser shots, and I'm sure I scared at least 3 potential customers out of the waiting room with my cursing the doctor, his nurse, and the lack of vallium or more potent sedatives, my bulging eye, and anything else I could seize on and malign for its existence.  The nurse was appropriately horrified by the whole thing, and said later that she'd never seen anyone take that many shots to complete.  Nevertheless, the doctor did eventually call it quits.  Between eyes, the doctor had announced that I had the thickest corneas he'd ever seen, and that this was preventing the laser from creating the size opening they needed.  That, and not being able to get my head in the proper position.  From that point, I had to reschedule another procedure that Friday, to enlarge the opening in the left eye the doctor had managed to create.

Recovery from the first procedure was about 6-8 hours, for me, before what was soreness subsided to a dull ache.  The next day, I returned to work with slightly reddened, irritated eyes that lasted the working day.

Friday's appointment went much better.  It had occurred to me since the first procedure that a slight tilt of the head to the side and perhaps being allowed to come out of the chin rest a bit would have given the doctor the better angle needed to do the job. This was confirmed on the second visit, when the nurse asked me to do the same prior to me suggesting it.  Once allowed to re-situate my head a bit, the procedure went off just as expected:  Five shots and done, with only mild discomfort.  They had offered me a mild dose of Valium for that portion of the procedure, however.  I took it.  It's not a painkiller, but there was less cursing and I exhibited what you would call a sunny disposition as I left.  I was informed that that was the way things were supposed to have gone on the previous visit, and I remember thinking how alike Friday's visit was to what they described on Tuesday.

The following Monday, I came in for the last procedure:  The insertion of the lenses.  The regimen of numbing and dilating drops I was given was much more elaborate, and I was offered, and given, the strongest dose of Valium they could safely give me prior to the procedure.  After an hour or so of observation of my eyes' compliance with the drugs, I was escorted to the operating room and allowed to lie back in a long, dentist-style chair.  My right eye was first covered with adhesive paper cloth sheet that extended over my face, then exposed by virtue of a tear-away, eye-socket-shaped cutout that was removed to allow the procedure.  During the procedure, the incision was made at the side of the iris opposite the opening made the previous week, the folded lens was inserted into its proper place, and various squeezing and manipulation was done to the eye to situate it.  There was a level of discomfort; I'd liken it to that one experiences with a drill-and-fill dental procedure, but it was nothing to be worried about.

By far the most disconcerting part of the procedure was during the insertion.  You are asked to fix your eye on a point throughout the procedure, but even as your eye is fixed, the images you see swim and convolve like paint behind a stir stick...often, what you are focused on, without moving your eye at all, moves completely out of your field of view.  The only things you see with any clarity, really, are the (often sharp) instruments coming into proximity of your eyeball.  You feel a stinging on the side of the insertion, and you can feel the insertion itself and manipulation of the eyeball by the doctor (I think he squeezes fluid around the lens once it's inserted), but these are dull aches, and not overly discomforting. At random intervals throughout the procedure, the nurse is asked to irrigate the eye, which actually feels cool and refreshing.

The procedure takes about a half hour each eye, but the vast majority of this is the doctor folding the lens and otherwise fiddling with equipment.  The actual insertion process takes place over the course of five minutes for each eye.  Once the first eye is completed, there is a lull prior to the second beginning, as the doctor observes the proper fitment and disposition of the lens in the eye. It is at that point that most notice a change in the way things focus for that eye, although the ability to bring things into sharp focus is diminished through most of the first day.

My procedure lasted from noon until about 2:30 p.m., and although I noticed the change in visual acuity during the car ride home, I didn't get the full effect until about 9 p.m. that night. This morning, the day following the procedure, I had my follow-up visit with the doctors.  I easily read the 20/15 line on the eye chart, and I'd describe my eyes as comfortably working the way a non-myopic person would expect them to work.  Occasionally, I have dryness to the right eye, and some sensation of "something in the eye", but to describe it as discomfort would perhaps be too much.  This is expected to subside over the coming week.  I'm required to wear some guards on my eyes as I sleep for the next two weeks, but these have no arms and are actually more comfortable than the glasses I used to wear. I also have a required regimen of drops to keep to, every four waking hours during the next two weeks.  After that, I expect smooth sailing.

Would I do it again, or recommend it to a friend?  Yup.  Walking around with better-than-20/20 vision is a beautiful thing, and even my atypical experience with the YAG was worth it.    


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Jim's Comic Reviews - Week of 9 January

Fantastic Four #3

So, now that we've settled in, what can we glean about the direction Fraction and co. have undertaken with this title? I have to say, it's exactly as expected:  The first family of comics is in another realm entirely, disconnected from the events of Earth-616, partaking in adventure of a very Trek or Lost in Space vibe.   Bagley's art is competent, Mount's colors are all very whiz-bang, as you'd expect on such a title, and the characters are true to their nature...but I'm a little bored with it, to be honest.  The one thing the issue lacks is a complex, motivated nemesis, and the being they encounter instead is very Trek-like and just...well, generic sci-fi. It's all very predictable, and this is one title that's gotta be anything but.  The vibe they're going for is "boundless adventure" and what you get is something that, although executed with competence, you've seen before.  If 50's and 60's sci-fi nostalgia is what trips your trigger, I'd say give it a look-see, but even then, if you're more Whovian than Trekkie in your taste for weird sci-fi plots you'll want to give it a pass.  For myself, I've seen this episode dozens of times, it's just that Shatner was playing his own version of Mr. Fantastic.

Thunderbolts #3

I gotta say, this was a fun read.  Way's giving us a motley of characters that are all very broken, and delights in those moments of interplay within the team that make the book what it is. He's one of those few that can get legitimate, consistent hilarity out of the over-used Deadpool, who's played as the perfect foil to everyone else's weighty concerns. Dillon's art is what it is, never want for clues as to the characters' emotional states, and the storytelling, character blocking and composition is all there...but there's an element of same-face to characters and, well, to put it bluntly there's just something wrong with everyone's mouths and eyes.  The line weights are just too uniform around facial features and they lack any sense of texture. That, and character movements and poses are all very uninspired.  With a character like Red Hulk, for example, I want more "tank-like" and less "slightly taller than Frank Castle, if you check his driver's license" That being said, this title is going on my pull list tomorrow, great art or no.

Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files:  Ghoul Goblin #1

Apparently, there's a set of novels and a tv show about this Dresden guy, and I've never seen any of it...go figure.  I'm judging the work as an introduction to a reader who's starting out cold, so fans should bear that in mind.  Love the art work in this issue: the Cooper/Mohan team gives us images well suited for the story, which concerns the adventures of Harry Dresden, Wizard-For-Hire.  Now, that's a job title that just screams for a unique character and a bizarre plot to go with it.  While the plot here seems original in it's underpinnings, the execution is rather flat. I haven't followed the character in works past, so maybe there's back-story and motivation I'm unaware of that fans will just "get", but I didn't think the book did a convincing job of laying out the basics.  I'm thinking they were going for "hard-boiled" and "noir-ish", but they end up with a sort of faceless guy who deals in the fantastic in a way that's very parochial.  I don't recommend it as an introduction for non-fans of the character, but I'd guess that long-time fans might like it.

Batman Detective Comics #16

While the issue is without the mask cover of the other, sometimes more relevant, pieces of the Death Of The Family crossover event, it does have the crossover billing over the marqis.  I suppose the guts of the story  kinda depend on DotF going on, but it's definitely a side-line arc that could have, with a few tiny tweaks, ended up well outside the bounds of the crossover.  Nevertheless, Layman once again lays out a tight, engaging script that's perfectly suited for the title, and could definitely stand as it's own story. An up-and-coming villain is bent on taking control of the Gotham crime syndicate currently headed by the Penguin, and he's definitely proving himself willing to embrace Gotham's own brand of intricate, violent weirdness to do it. Layman is setting us up for many issues to come, and it's a fun ride.  The art is pretty stellar, too.

Thor God Of Thunder #4

Just go buy it already.  I can't believe Marvel is putting out such consistent quality with this title at such a fast pace.  Probably the best run of Thor since JMS was on the character a few years back, and I daresay it's even better.  The art, imho, is a runaway best of the new Marvel NOW! line, and I'd put it up against any current monthly title by any publisher.

Action Comics #16

Somewhere in here is a good Superman story, I'm convinced of it...but it seems, once again, Mr. Morrison has confounded it with a jumbled aesthetic and an incomprehensible narrative, and it'll probably take another six issues to glean enough pieces to even begin the work of puzzling it all together.  Maybe it is hard to come up with an unfamiliar-sounding Superman story after 75 years, but is the character so far gone that finding such a story involves LSD?

Earth 2 #8

Earth 2 has been on-again, off-again with the quality, but I thought this issue was rather solid.  It gives us a view from the other side of the conflict, and really serves to cement the idea that in this dimension, things can be allowed to spiral out of control, upsetting the status quo on a world scale and examining the consequences in a way that, let's face it, you just can't in the regular DCU, no matter how many times you push the reboot/reset button.  The Steppenwolf of Earth 2, having been trapped on the wrong side of a boom tube, is embracing the new world he's found himself in, and like Caesar in Gaul, he's got his sights set on conquering the scattered barbarians he finds there and bringing them to heel.  Convenient, then, that he's found the perfect fictional nation to home base in.  This title is, the way I see it, so very necessary to DC as a sort of end-game fulfillment of the what they billed the New 52 reboot as being:  Truly new, truly different...and assertively NOT dependent on 75 year-old characters in familiar settings with familiar motivations, to make it tick.  All in all, a very good read, if a tad on the dry side.

Superior Spider-Man #1

I've made no bones on the podcast nor in previous blog entries about the fact I think some of the decades-old characters of comics could use an ending to their truth, I've found the idea of a new psyche inhabiting the body of Spider-Man immensely intriguing, perhaps even worthy of an indefinite status with one of Marvel's linchpin properties.  But do I end up liking this character?  I don't know yet.  Octavius of the comics has always been written as kinda petty, and while it is an interesting premise to have such a self-centered mind saddled with Parker's everlasting guilt trip, yet stuck in a body capable of the sort of wish fulfillment every villain dreams of, you still get the sense things are in a state of flux, and it's tough, at least in this first issue, to get behind it.  You want the diverse motivational elements to get to detente, so you can take a look at the singular result with new eyes, but you still get the sense this is two characters jumbled into one, ala someone like Firestorm.  Perhaps it's just the stutter of changing gears, and things will all shake out after we've had some time with the character.  Nevertheless, it is FUN, and treated somewhat lightly, and I'm genuinely interested in a Spider-Man title for the first time in years.  Stegman's art is perfect for the cartoony, frenetic tone of OctoParker's endeavors, and it's scripted about as well as can be expected.  Good for Mr. Slott for venturing down this path...we could use a few more such risks with established characters....and a risk, it definitely is.

Anyway, it's been a great week for comics.  Thanks for reading!