Monday, April 30, 2012

Violent Knight

Get Carter: written and directed by Mike Hodges, based on the novel Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis; starring Michael Caine (Jack Carter), Britt Ekland (Anna) and Ian Hendry (Eric) (1971): Brutal, great film about a ruthless, amoral English gangster (Caine) who returns to his decaying wasteland home city of Newcastle to investigate and avenge his estranged brother's death.

Caine plays Jack Carter as an almost pure sociopath -- even his 'love' is really just a reason for violence, though he becomes vaguely sympathetic when contrasted to the mobsters he ends up fighting (mobsters just like the ones he works for, of course). It's a mostly soulless, shark-eyed performance, and one of Caine's very finest. This isn't the performance of an actor (or the film of a director) looking to charm the audience with rogue-ish gangsters and their wacky ways.

I'd call this movie kitchen-sink noir -- it's got the grimy, disintegrating backdrop and characters of the British kitchen-sink dramas of the 1960's and the murky, rotten moral landscape of all good noir. In some ways, the plot resembles the 1940's noir classic, Robert Mitchum vehicle Out of the Past. But the film world of Get Carter can show what a 1940's film noir can only imply.

There's no evident soul-searching on Carter's part as he uncovers the personal effects of the violent, impersonal world he's worked within for so long -- just ever-increasing violence that never provides the vicarious zing that a lot of violent revenge dramas do. There are simply men and women doing terrible things to terrible people and innocent people alike.

The sudden bursts of violence still have the power to chill 40 years after the picture's release -- Hollywood may have remade the movie in the oughts with Sylvester Stallone (!) in the Michael Caine role, but the movie's grim, anti-cathartic world isn't something a major studio would ever try to portray today. It would be too dark and too honest about violence. It would cut into the box office. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Fear in the 1980's

Fears: edited by Charles L. Grant (1983) containing:
Surrogate by Janet Fox; Coasting by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; Spring-Fingered Jack by Susan Casper; Flash Point by Gardner Dozois; A Cold Day in the Mesozoic by Jack Dann; The Train by William F. Nolan; The Dripping by David Morrell; The Ragman by Leslie Alan Horvitz; Deathtracks by Dennis Etchison; Father Dear by Al Sarrantonio; As Old as Sin by Peter D. Pautz; Fish Night by Joe R. Lansdale; Remembering Melody by George R. R. Martin; The Pond by Pat Cadigan; The Beasts That Perish by Reginald Bretnor; Cassie, Waiting by Julie Stevens; and High Tide by Leanne Frahm.

Dandy anthology comprising both reprints and originals from the heyday of anthologized horror, and the heyday of horror great Charles L. Grant. There's something very Bradburyesque about many of these stories. Early, nastier Bradbury, that is, before the whimsy curdled, back when nostalgia worked alongside horror and the fantastic to conjure up that distinctive Bradbury glow that could suddenly be shot through with terror. Certainly the stories by Joe Lansdale, Jack Dann, Al Sarrantonio, and Pat Cadigan operate within the parameters of that Bradbury without slavishly imitating him stylistically or even thematically.

The anthology also gives us a mournful horror dandy from George R.R. Martin when he was a science fiction and horror writer, and not a best-selling epic fantasist. Reginald Bretnor's entry seems like it would make a dandy pitch for a TV show. Susan Casper gives us a prescient horror story about video games (prescient enough to anticipate a subplot on this season's Dexter, pretty good for 1983); Janet Fox leads with a prescient shocker about surrogate parenting. Dennis Etchison is represented here with one of his 1980's classics, and the anthology ends with a nice, Wyndhamesque bio-disaster piece by Leanne Frahm, an Australian writer I'm unfamiliar with. Recommended.

Yes, I Will Watch Almost Anything If It's On The Movie Channel

Zookeeper: written by Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben, Kevin James, Jay Scherick, and David Ronn; directed by Frank Coraci; starring Kevin James (Griffin), Rosario Dawson (Kate), Leslie Bibb (Stephanie), and Donnie Wahlberg (Shane) (2011): Yes, I watched it. It's a mess. A mess written by five people. And apparently sponsored by TGI Friday's, where about half the film takes place.

In my defense, I find Kevin James quite funny. He has his moments here. Orienting a kid's movie around a bunch of talking zoo animals giving relationship advice to the Kevin James character really was a colossal misstep, though -- there's an undercurrent of extreme creepiness in certain scenes. Never moreso than in the scene in which the Nick Nolte-voiced Silverback gorilla gets a girl's phone number. Yikes!

In the girl's defense, she thinks he's a guy wearing a gorilla costume. And she'll probably be disappointed when she finds out how small a gorilla's penis is. In the Director's Cut, I assume.

The screenplay seems to have been patched together from two or maybe three different screenplays, one of them sorta funny. But James, you know. He really is funny, and he really does have a gift for physical comedy. I for one look forward to Zookeeper 2: Zookeepier. Lightly recommended.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Falstaff in Comicbookland

Thor Visionaries Walt Simonson Volume 4: written by Walt Simonson; illustrated by Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema (1986; collected 2004): The fourth collection of Walt Simonson's 1980's run on Marvel's The Mighty Thor marks sort of a slight pause before the last major arc gets fully underway. Norse death-god Hela's curse on Thor would supply the impetus for the final ten-issue arc, and she does curse the Thunder God herein, but most of the collection is concerned with other things.

One of those things is the Simonson/Sal Buscema four-issue Balder the Brave miniseries, part of which takes place during events chronicled in the previous Visionaries volume. It's a pretty entertaining adventure for the Norse sun-god, while also setting up events and situations that lead back into the regular series.

Meanwhile, in the other four issues collected here, Thor teams up with Simonson's homage to Judge Dredd, Judge Peace (who would later appear during Simonson's run on Fantastic Four), to battle two old Thor enemies to save an even older supporting cast member. Most of two other issues tie directly into the line-spanning Mutant Massacre X-Men storyline.

One of Simonson's more endearing side-projects -- his fleshing out of the fleshy, comic-relief Norse god Volstagg -- also proceeds here. Sal Buscema's pencils continue to impress here. He's no Simonson, but the art remains solid and professional throughout, with some unexpected flourishes at points. Recommended.


Thor Visionaries Walt Simonson Volume 3: written by Walt Simonson; illustrated by Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema (1986; collected 2004): Walt Simonson's great 1980's run on The Mighty Thor continues here, with Simonson relinquishing the artistic reins to Marvel veteran Sal Buscema towards the end of this collection. Asgard's succession crisis (Odin remains lost in battle with the Fire-Giant Surtur) supplies the overall arc here, as Loki schemes to become ruler of Asgard.

Simonson's gift for light fantasy comes to the forefront in three issues about Thor's transformation into, um, a frog. Loki's magic, supercharged by Surtur's abandoned sword, changes Thor into a frog to keep the Thunder God away from Asgard. But what a frog! The Thunderfrog has charming adventures with talking frogs, rats, and alligators in Central Park before we return to the crisis in Asgard.

Sal Buscema does a nice job of adapting his art to resemble Simonson's without sacrificing his own strengths -- he really was a solid pro. Thor mopes around a bit -- this was the 1980's, after all -- but Simonson keeps moving the book away from angst into something much more Kirbyesque in its sometimes bizarre mix of myth and science fiction and superheroics.

At times, the dialogue seems like a prototype for how Joss Whedon would approach fantasy ten years later on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an oddball mix of portent, contemporary idiom, bombast, and bombast-deflating insight. Recommended.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bird and Magic

When the Game Was Ours: written by Jackie MacMullan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson (2009): Fun and occasionally revealing dual, quasi-ghostwritten autobiography of Celtics great Larry Bird and lakers great Magic Johnson, whose teams pretty much defined the National Basketball Association in the 1980's, winning eight of nine titles between them from 1979-80 to 1987-88, three of them in head-to-head competition. They saved the NBA from obscurity, briefly made passing cool again, and drove each other to greater and greater heights.

The most revealing sections of the book deal with the "lost" first meeting of Magic and Bird, playing for a college all-star team in the summer of 1978. At the conclusion of the 1978-79 NCAA season Bird and Magic's teams would meet in the college basketball finale, with Bird's overmatched Indiana State team succumbing to Magic's deeper Michigan State team in what remains the highest rated college basketball championship game ever. But in the summer of 1978, Bird and Magic played together.

Unfortunately, all-star team coach Joe B. Hall -- who had earlier in the decade declined to recruit Bird because he thought Bird was too slow to play college basketball -- relegated Bird and Magic to the second team in favour of a starting line-up composed entirely of players from Hall's 1977-78 title-winning Kentucky team.

So Bird and Magic dismantled the starters every day in practice, infuriating Hall but not winning them any more than about ten minutes of playing time per actual game. And none of this all-star tour was recorded in the pre-cable-TV universe of the late 1970's, so we can't really see much of this early collaboration.

The section on Magic's HIV announcement and its aftermath is also excellent, as is the full explanation of how bad Bird's back was during the second half of his career, when injuries and a congenital problem with the size of his spinal canal caused him to miss large chunks of his last five seasons. The overarching narrative of two fierce rivals coming to realize how much each one needed the other as both gauge and inspiration drives the book.

Needless to say, former Magic friend and failure at everything other than playing basketball Isaiah Thomas comes across poorly, while Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Kevin McHale all come across well. There are a few odd minor factual errors. Recommended.

Conan the Destroyed

Conan the Barbarian: written by Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard; directed by Marcus Nispel; starring Jason Momoa (Conan), Stephen Lang (Khalar Zym), Ron Perlman (Conan's father), Rachel Nichols (Tamara) and Rose McGowan (Marique) (2011): Oh, what an awful, awful movie. The sheer ineptitude of this movie caused me to think fondly of Conan the Destroyer, which really wasn't that good of a movie but which, compared to this movie, was Citizen Kane.

Don't ask me what that makes Citizen Kane.

The makers of this movie steadfastly ignore pretty much everything from Robert E. Howard's 1930's pulp creation and the 20-odd stories and one novel he appeared in. What they substitute is an awful, derivative revenge plot lifted instead from the original Conan movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

As evil despot Khalar Zym, Stephen Lang looks and acts hopelessly out of his depth, while Rose MacGowan, as his evil sorceress daughter Marique, jarringly plays everything with about as flat and contemporary an accent as one can imagine. We know she's evil, though, because she voluntarily paints a unibrow on herself. Quel horreur!!!

As Conan, Jason Momoa doesn't have much to do other than run around, ride around, and strike muscleman poses in lieu of demonstrating any actual sword-fighting skills. Not that one would be able to notice any such skills, as the editing jumps around a lot, I'd assume to hide the fact that no one involved with this movie knows how to stage a fight scene, much less any other type of scene. The movie substitutes a wearying series of chases and fights for character development, explanation, exposition, and world-building.

In this Conan's world, a person can pretty much get anywhere on horseback in less than a day. Apparently, the entire Hyborian realm is roughly the size of Oxford County. Written and directed by idiots, Conan the Barbarian is a wretched, stupid, embarrassing botch. Nothing makes much sense, and you're not going to care anyway. Not recommended.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Lucifer Volume 5: Inferno: written by Mike Carey; illustrated by Peter Gross, Dean Ormiston and others (2002): After his fight with the malign, supernatural card deck (!) known as the Basanos, Lucifer is weakened, many of his powers separated from him and stored in two lost feathers from his wings (double !). Challengers with vengeance on their minds are after him. He really needs to get back to the administration of the universe he created.

Oh, and Lucifer owes a debt to part-angel Elaine Belloc, a debt that he must repay by rescuing her stolen soul from the great areas of uncreated space known as the Mansions of the Silence. And there are, of course, other loose ends that involve the archangel Michael, the fallen cherub Gaudium, and the fate of the demon who killed Elaine.

Add in supernatural avenger Solomon (son of David), Loki, Yahweh, Mazikeen of the Lilim, and a standalone tale featuring a cancer-stricken convenience store owner and the surprisingly decent demon who frequents his store and you've got a collection. Recommended if one has read the books before this volume.

Rapping with the Captain

Captain America: The Captain: written by Mark Gruenwald; illustrated by Tom Morgan, Kieron Dwyer, Al Milgrom and others (1987-88; collected 2011): Stripped of his commission as Captain America by the U.S. government, Steve Rogers strives to find his place in the world while the government trains a new Captain America -- the former Super-Patriot -- in his place. The real Cap ends up fighting crime as The Captain for a time before various developments and machinations place him and the new Captain America on a collision course.

This large collection (500 pages+) has its ups and downs, though mostly ups. The late Mark Gruenwald was one of three or four Marvel writers of the 1980's and 1990's who really seemed to "get" Captain America as both an icon and a sympathetic character (for the record, the other writers would be Roger Stern, Mark Waid, and John Byrne, with a special mention of Frank Miller's mournful take on Cap in the Daredevil: Born Again arc). The art by Kieron Dwyer and Tom Morgan is straightforward and effective.

As with DC's Superman, Captain America represents quite a challenge to a comic-book writer. Go too far one way and he's an insufferable, flag-waving goofball. Go too far the other and he's simply not recognizable as Captain America (well, except for that iconic uniform). The Captain allowed Gruenwald to address this problem in an unobtrusively meta-fictional way: Steve Rogers isn't sure what his place is in the world any more, while the new Captain America rapidly becomes a kill-crazy nutjob undone by the stresses of the job. But eventually the narrative shows that the original Captain America still has a place in a world of increasingly violent heroes and villains.

Gruenwald advances his case for a realistically idealistic, principled Captain America in a number of ways: the motley crew of D-List heroes who follow Cap around for much of the book allow for Cap's influence to be shown rather than told; the new Captain America remains fairly sympathetic even as he goes off the rails; and one group of villains actually calls on Cap for help because he's the only Marvel hero who might actually come to the rescue of one group of villains being beat on by another.

All in all, solid superhero storytelling with some nice grace notes scattered throughout. The character of 'D-Man' -- a super-powered former wrestler who fights crime as Demolition Man in what appears to be an oversized Wolverine outfit -- is the most interesting supporting character here, partially because in the Marvel Universe a guy who can deadlift 15 tons is considered puny by a lot of villains, partially because he's an oddity verging on Grant Morrison Doom Patrol territory. Recommended.

Edge of Night

Cutting Edge: edited by Dennis Etchison (1986) containing the following stories:

Blue Rose by Peter Straub; The Monster by Joe Haldeman; Lacunae by Karl Edward Wagner; "Pale, Trembling Youth" by W. H. Pugmire and Jessica Amanda Salmonson; Muzak for Torso Murders by Marc Laidlaw; Goodbye, Dark Love by Roberta Lannes; Out There by Charles L. Grant; Little Cruelties by Steve Rasnic Tem; The Man With the Hoe by George Clayton Johnson; They're Coming for You by Les Daniels; Vampire by Richard Christian Matheson; Lapses by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro; The Final Stone by William F. Nolan; Irrelativity by Nicholas Royle; The Hands by Ramsey Campbell; The Bell by Ray Russell; Lost Souls by Clive Barker; Reaper by Robert Bloch; The Transfer by Edward Bryant; and Pain by Whitley Strieber.

Solid original horror anthology from Etchison, a fine and unjustly neglected horror writer in his own right. There's violence, and sexual violence, here, but most of it seems justified by the context of the stories (though "Goodbye, Dark Love" seems a wee bit problematic). The writers basically comprise a who's who list of 1980's horror writers, along with some genre long-timers (Nolan, Johnson, and Bloch). Etchison's revealing introduction grants an insight into his career, and into his thoughts on the state of horror and other genres as of 1986. Recommended.

Hebrew for 'Lord'

Ba'al by Robert R. McCammon (1978): McCammon's first novel and first published novel is a humdinger with a lot of flaws and a lot of raw energy and ambition. The influences -- conscious or otherwise -- initially seem to be The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and The Omen. By the end, though, McCammon has staked out his own odd territory with a climax on the Arctic ice during the long night of the North Pole.

A terrible baby is born sometime in the late 1950's, at least partially the product of a supernatural rape. It's Ba'al, the human-sacrifice-loving god of the Canaanites, a Christian demon known as Beelzebub. Shenanigans ensue. People die. The kid creeps everyone out. By the time he's an adult, apocalyptic cults will form around him. More people will die. And Ba'al's long grudge against the Jews and their god will drive his (or its) actions.

Of course, a ragtag group of heroes will form to face this foe, the most interesting an aging theology professor who initially gets pulled into events while on a search for a colleague gone missing while investigating the rise of the Ba'al cult in Kuwait. The globe-trotting aspects of the novel bear more resemblance to the sort of plotting seen in a spy thriller than in a typical horror novel. McCammon's influences are never programmatic, or programmatically used, even here at the beginning of his writing career.

All in all, I enjoyed this novel. There are flaws, though I'm not sure whether the main flaw is McCammon's fault or his publisher's. Simply put, the novel doesn 't have a middle. We basically jump from the end of the beginning to the beginning of the end, from Ba'al at 10 to Ba'al ascendant. As there are textual references to a confrontation with Ba'al in Mexico and the American Southwest during the 'ascending' portion of the being's development, I really do wonder if this section (also cited in a later, otherwise unrelated McCammon novel, They Thirst) was cut by an editor with the mandate of a specific page length.

In any case, the novel -- and McCammon's brief but illuminating 1988 afterword to the novel -- both make for a diverting experience with much more depth and scope than the similarly themed Omen. Recommended.

Surtur Ascendant

Thor Visionaries: Walter Simonson Volume 2: written by Walter Simonson; illustrated by Walter Simonson, Sal Buscema, and Bret Blevins (1984-85; collected 2002): Writer-artist Walt Simonson's 4-year run on Thor was one of the highlights of superhero comics in the 1980's, an eclectic blend of sci-fi and mythology that took the title back to its heights, late in the Jack Kirby/Stan Lee years of the 1960's. Simonson's detailed, flowing, majestic but also nimble art made Asgard and the super-gods who lived there fun again without skimping on the melodramatically epic tone of the best Thor comics of the past.

In this second volume, Simonson's lengthy opening arc comes to its conclusion. Surtur, the fire giant tasked by Norse mythology with setting fire to the universe at the end of time, is about to break out of his imprisonment in Muspelheim thanks to the nefarious shenanigans of the Dark Elves, who've managed to unleash all the winters of the world upon the Earth by shattering the Casket of Ancient Winters, until now safely in the keeping of a long line of human protectors. Got all that?

When fire and ice finally conspire to break the walls between worlds, Surtur will storm Asgard, the home of the gods, to light his newly forged sword at the eternal flame Odin stole from him long ago and bring an end to everything. But the road from Muspelheim to Asgard goes straight through Midgard. Or Earth as it's more commonly known.

Gods, superheroes, and even self-interested supervillains and evil gods will have to unite to try to stop the end of the world. But Thor, one of Marvel's heaviest hitters, isn't powerful enough to stop Surtur on his own. Or, perhaps, even with a lot of help.

There's a lot to love in this jaunty second volume. One of my favourite bits lies in Simonson's visualization of Surtur, who had previously been drawn as pretty much a standard 500-foot-tall devil. Simonson goes with something a bit more impressionistic, and I think it works beautifully -- Simonson's a big Lord of the Rings fan, and his Surtur makes me wonder how he'd draw a Balrog. In any case, highly recommended if you've read the first volume.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Theodicy: The Odyssey

The Tree of Life: written and directed by Terrence Malick; starring Brad Pitt (Mr. O'Brien), Jessica Chastain (Mrs. O'Brien), Sean Penn (Jack O'Brien), and Hunter McCracken (Young Jack) (2011): Seeing Terrence Malick's Oscar-nominated film in a theatre might have killed me -- or at least put me to sleep. But watched in four installments over about two weeks, it's a riveting meditation on life, death, and theodicy (aka The Problem of Evil). As with the Coen Brothers' jauntier but no less problematic A Serious Man, The Tree of Life takes many of its cues from the Book of Job, the section of the Bible most often discussed when discussion turns to the question of why an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God allows evil to exist in the world. The Book of Job also features the famous bar bet between Satan and God over Job's faith, along with a Satan who can appear to many skeptics as God's employee rather than God's adversary. It's the Old Testament, Jake.

In The Tree of Life, adult Sean Penn in the here-and-now muses on his childhood and the pointed difference between his loving mother and his demanding, somewhat tortured father during the 1950's and early 1960's. The movie isn't so much episodic as it is musical (and music, classical music, is a huge component of this film), as themes and variations and lietmotifs play out both visually and on the soundtrack.

It's a magnificent, tough movie, though much softer than Yahweh's reply to Job when Job cries out for an explanation (God sez "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?", a Divine reply which Stephen King once paraphrased as, "Shut up, fuckface, and take what I give you."

Malick, ambitious and visually oriented, actually shows us God's reply rather than simply restating it, in a lengthy sequence that races through the beginnings of the universe all the way up to the development of life on Earth and beyond. This sequence would be splendid on a big screen. Really, this sequence would make a great 'Introduction to Scientific Cosmology' movie. And later on, we see the Earth end, burned to death by the dying, expanding sun. It's a hell of a movie, and startlingly humane. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain -- as the mother and father -- do outstanding work, as does the child actor playing Sean Penn's character. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Nihilists, Dude!

Talk to the hand!
The Infinity Gauntlet: written by Jim Starlin; illustrated by George Perez, Ron Lim, and Josef Rubenstein (1991; collected 2000): The good thing about this epic Marvel miniseries from the early 1990's is George Perez's art on the first 3 1/2 issues, especially those sections depicting Marvel's Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Strange. What those pages suggest is that, with the right writer, a Perez-illustrated Dr. Strange series would have been fantastic -- the mystical nature of the few Strange-centric pages herein really seem to free Perez to do things with layout that he doesn't generally do.

Otherwise, though, this almost reads like a parody of a massive superhero crossover event. The Infinity Gauntlet is basically half roll call, half fight scene. And as the fight scenes mostly involve hopeless battle against an omnipotent being, they quickly become distractingly depressing.

The death count is high, meaning that a reset button looms at the end of things, an end that takes forever to get to. But those heroes will suffer and be humiliated and get killed in the meantime. Boy, will they suffer and be humiliated and get killed. Among the sadists of the superhero-writing world of the 1980's and 1990's, only Chris Claremont seemed to revel more than Starlin at doing terrible and grotesque things to Marvel's heroes.

Jim Starlin, the destitute man's Jack Kirby, has been death-obsessed as a writer since his beginnings in the early 1970's. Herein, he has his death-obsessed super-god Thanos ("He's a nihilist!" one character breathlessly informs us) kill off half the non-vegetable, non-bacterial living beings in the universe in the opening pages as a love offering to Death. Literally. In Starlin's version of the Marvel universe, Death is a silent woman in a purple, hooded robe. And Thanos loves her. But she doesn't love Thanos. And he never learns. And she never says anything.

But with the Infinity Gauntlet -- essentially a remote control for the universe -- Thanos can now cause havoc for everybody. Leading the forces of good is dour cosmic crusader Adam Warlock, Starlin's go-to character for cosmic angst along with Marvel's original Captain Marvel. Much fighting and yelling and sophomoric philosophical musing ensues, and once Perez leaves and is replaced by the capable but somewhat bland Ron Lim as penciller, the series thuds and stumbles to its conclusion. Not recommended.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Radium Exit

The Invisible Ray: written by Howard Higgin, Douglas Hodges, and John Colton; directed by Lambert Hillyer; starring Boris Karloff (Dr. Janos Rukh) and Bela Lugosi (Dr. Felix Benet) (1936): Borderline crazy scientist Karloff discovers 'Radium X' in Africa, a space-born mineral with both healing and killing powers. Lugosi's character figures out how to heal people with it; Karloff's character goes another way. Fun melodrama with some striking visual effects for its time, and strong performances from both Karloff and a refreshingly non-scenery-chewing Lugosi. Bears some resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft's 1928 story "The Colour Out Of Space." Recommended.

Half Fish, Half Boobs

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: written by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie, and Jay Wolpert; suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides (1987) by Tim Powers; directed by Rob Marshall; starring Johnny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow), Penelope Cruz (Angelica Teach), Geoffrey Rush (Barbossa), and Ian McShane (Blackbeard) (2011): Vaguely inspired by Tim Powers's awesome novel about Blackbeard and the search for the Fountain of Youth. Read the novel. Not as bad as Pirates 2 or 3 -- this one actually has a coherent plot. Not very good, though, and someone seems to have turned the lights out in half the scenes so as to save money on CGI (which is easier and cheaper to do when the audience has trouble seeing it). Carnivorous mermaids are sort of cool. Not recommended.

Holy Fool

Our Idiot Brother: written by Evgenia Peretz and David Schisgall; directed by Jesse Peretz; starring Paul Rudd (Ned), Elizabeth Banks (Miranda), Zooey Deschanel (Natalie), Emily Mortimer (Liz) and Rashida Jones (Cindy) (2011): Genial, whimsical, low-budget comedy follows genial Paul Rudd -- a hippie so nice and lacking guile that everyone, especially his sisters, thinks he's an idiot -- as he tries to get his dog Willie Nelson back from a former girlfriend while simultaneously screwing up the lives of everyone around him. Except that he actually fixes the lives of everyone around him. They just take awhile to realize it.

Very low-key, though it was marketed as being another Judd-Apatow-style yuck-fest, something it isn't. All the performances are strong, and I wouldn't have minded spending another half-hour with the characters. Recommended.

Don't Order the Pizza

30 Minutes or Less: written by Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan; directed by Ruben Fleischer; starring Jesse Eisenberg (Nick); Danny McBride (Dwayne), Aziz Ansari (Chet), and Nick Swardson (Travis) (2011): Sour, underwritten comedy "from the director of [much, much better] Zombieland." With good writing, Danny McBride can be very funny as a lout. Without good writing, he's just a really annoying guy who takes up way too much screen time.

Two aging doofuses (McBride and Nick Swardson) hatch a plan to steal 100,000 dollars so they can ultimately collect several million dollars from McBride's hardcase, lottery-winning former Marine father (played by Fred Ward, who looks as if he knows what a lousy movie he's in). Underachieving pizza delivery guy Jesse Eisenberg is the unwilling lynchpin of that plan. Everyone in this movie is unpleasant for so long that by the time they stop being unpleasant and something resembling a comedy starts unfolding, it's far too late. On the bright side, it was filmed in Michigan, so I hope the local economy got a boost. Not recommended.

Bored of the Rings

Green Lantern: written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldenberg. Based on characters created by John Broome, Julius Schwartz, Gil Kane, Steve Engelhart, Joe Staton, and others; directed by Martin Campbell; starring Ryan Reynolds (Hal Jordan), Peter Sarsgaard (Hector Hammond), Blake Lively (Carol Ferris), Mark Strong (Sinestro), and Tim Robbins (Senator Hammond) (2011): Had DC's Silver Age comic-book superhero Green Lantern been cursed with a first appearance this convoluted and yet strangely bland, we wouldn't have been cursed with this movie at all. The filmmakers decided to shovel bits and pieces of 55 years of Green Lantern continuity into a 110-minute film while liberally borrowing the aesthetic of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy in an inappropriate way (the home of cosmic good guys The Guardians of the Universe looks strikingly like Mordor, for example, which constitutes something of a mixed signal).

The Green Lanterns are space-faring policemen gifted with green rings that can make anything the bearer thinks of, so long as his, her or its will power is strong enough. An angry yellow cloud -- perhaps the cloud Grampa Simpson was yelling at -- threatens the universe. New GL recruit Hal Jordan of Earth turns out to be the only Green Lantern plucky enough to defeat the cloud, actually a fear-eating being named Parallax.

There`s a lot of flying around and space vistas and scenes that look like video-game cut scenes, and surprisingly little superheroing. The overstuffed, undercooked plot doesn`t give Hal any room to fly around saving people from things more mundane than a talking, planet-sized cloud. Instead, we get endless exposition about things that are, frankly, often very silly once removed from their comic-book context.

One of the problems is that this isn`t Lord of the Rings -- which is to say, the Green Lantern mythology isn`t a coherent one shaped by one mind, but rather an accretion of ideas from six decades and counting.

Comic-book writers often hold onto inherently stupid ideas because those stupid ideas are part of a character`s continuity, and thus sacrosanct (and, possibly, copyrighted). Here, one such long-standing bit of nonsense -- the idea that 3600 Green Lanterns patrol a universe divided into 3600 sectors by the Guardians, one GL per sector -- gets trotted out again. I don`t even want to begin calculating how many solar systems that would encompass for each GL. Trillions. They must accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles.

Another bit of nonsense -- the cloud`s name is Parallax -- also gets trotted out. Why is a giant cloud named Parallax? Well, there`s a convoluted explanation that unfolded over decades in the comic book; here it`s just tossed out, another clunker. That fascist GL Sinestro is named, um, Sinestro was fine for a comic book aimed at children in which names can be glaringly descriptive of character. In something ostensibly aimed at adults, it's stupid.

And don`t get me started on the age gaps among the actors playing supposed childhood playmates Hal, Carol Ferris, and Hector Hammond. There's a 17-year spread, a detail that wouldn't be as much of a problem if the actors (Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, and Peter Sarsgard, respectively) didn't pretty much look as mismatched as their actual ages. So it goes. Not recommended.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Future Begins Again

Legion: Secret Origin: written by Paul Levitz; illustrated by Chris Batista and Marc Deering (2011-2012): This expanded origin story for the 'New 52' Legion of Super-heroes features the scripting of long-time (as in, on and off again since the early 1980's) LSH writer Paul Levitz and the appropriately clean, crisp artwork of Chris Batista and Marc Deering. The Legion, super-powered humans and aliens from worlds throughout the Milky Way galaxy in the 31st century, are back once again. There may be problems in the 31st century, but the Legion has always worked best against the backdrop of an at-least-partially utopian future Earth beset by problems from without and within, and not, as in the dismal late 1980's '5 Years Later' LSH universe, a ruined world being fixed by an almost equally broken Legion.

Levitz sticks with the decades-old framework of the Legion's origin (the three teenaged founding members save multi-zillionaire R.J. Brande from an assassination attempt; their efforts cause him to suggest they form a superhero team with his financial backing). Additional complexities, political intrigues, and schemes are added. The heroes learn to work together and show their worth to the United Federation of Planets. Both Brande and the young heroes plan to recruit Superboy from the past, though this doesn't happen in the origin. An ancient (in more ways than one) Legion enemy makes its first appearance (again).

I'm not sure how this introduction would play with someone who's never read a Legion adventure before. I thought it was a solid version of the origin, comprehensive without being overburdened with continuity. The Legion has almost always seemed to suffer most after a DC reboot or partial reboot (1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths and 1994's Zero Hour were especially destructive to Legion continuity and, ultimately, popularity), so it's nice to see that they've emerged from September 2011's Flashpoint reboot as perhaps the least affected DC book. And they get to keep Superboy as a member. Recommended.

Complicated without Complexity

Darkseid, fussy.
Justice League: Origin: written by Geoff Johns; illustrated by Jim Lee and Scott Williams and others (2011-2012): Fan favourites Johns and Lee seem to have turned the rebooted Justice League into DC's most popular monthly title, one that is still outselling every other title, DC or other, seven months after its launch.

The League has seemed to move through a set cycle, reboot or not, since the late 1970's: a line-up fronted by one or more of the 'Big Three' (Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman) makes the book popular; some or all of them leave; the book becomes less popular as lesser-known heroes take over; the book gets cancelled and then relaunched with one or more of the Big Three; and so on, and so forth.

Johns and Lee certainly make this an event book again, as the League forms for the first time to combat a massive alien invasion. Along with the usual suspects (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, and Green Lantern) and without original founding member Martian Manhunter, the league's seventh founding member turns out to be Cyborg in this iteration.

Historically, Cyborg did appear on the 1980's version of Super Friends, and he is a founding member of the League on Smallville. And he's African-American, which make the League look a little less white.

A lot of things blow up. Much Marvel-style bickering and posturing occurs among the superheroes before they figure out how to work together. Humanity, afraid of these relatively new super-heroes, comes to embrace them after they see them battling aliens in defence of humanity.

Lee's often hilariously fussy costume redesigns are distracting and often far goofier than previous iterations. His Darkseid is especially ugly, fussy, and over-complicated. Not much of interest happens here, but it happens loudly and repeatedly for emphasis. Lightly recommended.