Friday, March 17, 2017

"Saga Vol. 7" explores new friendships & refugee plights

The imaginative, intergalactic world of Saga is a sight to behold, and the original vision it took to create it is worthy of admiration.  Appropriately dubbed by many pundits as Game of Thrones meets Star Wars, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' space opera features characters both large and small, humanistic and animalistic, in a galaxy that resembles a retro nightclub gone ballistic with creatures on opposite ends of the sexuality spectrum.  And now, with the release of its Volume Seven Trade Paperback, Saga boldly ventures into new unexplored depths of its faraway and diverse galaxy.

Finally reunited with their young daughter Hazel - from whom they were periodically separated in Volume Six - parents Marco and Alana encounter new friends and foes, all the while attempting maneuver a large comet that is the central battleground of their two respective races who come from Landfall and Wreath.  We meet Miss Jabarah, a small, tailed creature whose race continues to be persecuted by the downfalls of a long and grueling war; there's also The March, a two-headed assassin who resembles a drag queen with long, skinny legs; and young Kurti, a rodent-type creature of Jabarah's race, who becomes a close friend to Hazel, and even add in contributing to her first kiss.  The fates of all of them will be determined in the explosive final climax that will leave the eventual outcome hanging in the balance, and leave the readers in the dark - literally.

Vaughan's story, as original and as exciting as it may have been early on, is beginning to lose steam, if ever so slightly, and one does wonder how long he plans to stretch it before concluding it altogether (The Walking Dead has jumped the shark looooong ago, and I can only hope that Saga does not succumb to the same fate).  Staples' artwork is as enthralling and mesmerizing as ever, and her style is clearly a match made in heaven for Vaughan's vast imagination.  Saga: Volume Seven may not quite be the intergalactic wonder it once was, but it's still one of the best and most original comic books out there.  I just hope that it finds its ultimate closure before it runs out of fuel, much like its heroes' organic rocket ship.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Get Out" tackles racial exploitation like no other

Who knew that Jordan Peele, that character, comedic actor from MadTV and Key & Peele fame, had such a dark vision in writing and directing a dark satire thriller like Get Out in him.  When a twenty-something Brooklyn photographer extraordinaire Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) accompanies his girlfriend (Allison Williams) to her parents' country estate, he finds that strange things are going on with every single African American he encounters there.  The future in-laws in question, played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, at first exude a charm and likability that is hard to resist, only to slowly peel away thin layers of their polished up personas to reveal unimaginable monsters underneath.

Peele manages the tone of an ordinary drama that slowly transforms into an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that explodes in a memorable third-act orgy of violence, and considering this is Peele's feature debut, it's an impressive effort.  Also, he finds a fitting comic relief in Lil Rel Howery, a TSA security officer and a close friend of Chris', who warns him that he may soon be turned into a "sex slave" for the rich white people.  Howery steals every scene he's in, and his timing is reminiscent of Peele's own comedic talent.  Get Out is a well constructed, expertly made thriller that might contain more truth about our current society than most will admit, and that precisely is its genius.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bullets blaze in "John Wick 2", but not much else

Action movies can be a lot of fun.  Just look at Robert Rodriguez's work (El Mariachi, Planet Terror, Machete, etc), or even John McTiernan's early films (Predator, Die Hard), and you'll see what I'm talking about.  A good action movie usually features hundreds - if not thousands - of bullets, extravagant car chases, expertly choreographed fight scenes, stylized violence, and above all, a script worthy of its star's charisma (Bruce Willis in his prime is a good example of this).  Keanu Reeves' John Wick is, unfortunately, a character lacking depth, charm or any interesting traits whatsoever (unlike the similarly invincible Deadpool, who's actually funny and likable, John is a definition of dullness). He's a modern action hero for a new generation that's apparently ignorant about storytelling or character development; how also can one explain the incomprehensible 90% on Rotten Tomatoes for this brainless effort?

According to filmmakers of John Wick: Chapter 2, an action movie need not be anything but a hundred-and-twenty-minutes (a running time that is at least thirty or forty minutes too long) of its "bulletproof" hero (John never seem to suffer more than a scratch or a minor wound, and even after his house explodes with him inside of it, all he suffers is some dirt on his white sweatshirt) shooting everyone who comes at him right in the face at point blank range.  And this, pretty much, goes on for two hours.  The story is non-sensical, and simply an excuse for us to witness unlimited carnage with absolutely no suspense or vision whatsoever.  It is a movie so dumb and numb to any common sense or logic that I wondered if Michael Bay had something to do with its production (a scene featuring Common and Reeves on the opposite sides of a subway platform boarding the same train makes no fucking sense!)

Look, if you're the kind of moviegoer who isn't interested in being challenged in the least, and if prolonged, unimaginative shoot-outs is your definition of a good movie, then you may enjoy John Wick: Chapter 2.  Otherwise, you'd be depriving yourself of two hours that you may never get back.  You've been warned.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Observant "I don't feel at home" is rich with unpredictability

Ruth Kimke (Melanie Lynskey, convincingly portraying a lonely woman who wishes people had more respect towards one another) lives a mundane life in the American Pacific Northwest, one in which people constantly cut in line in front of her at the grocery store, spoil the upcoming secrets of a book she's reading, or have their dogs shit on her lawn.  When her home is burglarized one day, and Ruth realizes that police won't do much to find her stolen belongings, she takes matters into her own hands, and with the help of her neighbor Tony (Elijah Wood, as quirky and odd as ever), decides to find and confront the perpetrator (Devon Graye) herself.

Writer/director Macon Blair has made a very original movie in which observant comedy, civilian vigilante justice and dumb criminals (David Yow and Jane Levy, both who give new meaning to "white trash thugs") all come together to produce a cinematic equivalent of Tarantino-esque "lite" feature - which is no small feat, mind you.  The movie paces itself accordingly, until it explodes in a stylishly-bloody third act shoot-out that may leave you breathless (unfortunately, it follows that terrific scene with a superfluous chase-across-a-river-and-through-the-forest sequence, whose resolution just feels redundant and anti-climactic as a result).

Nevertheless, I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore (Netflix) is terrific entertainment of a new hybrid-kind of modern filmmaking, where several genres successfully morph into one, satisfying our multiple movie needs all at once.

Friday, February 24, 2017

"The Crown" rules all the current series

Netflix's recent original series, The Crown, is the kind of wise, mature entertainment that David Lean would have made, if he had focused on episodic shows rather than feature films during his prime.  This great looking drama by writer/creator Peter Morgan evokes memories of Shakespeare's greatest plays had they been merged with George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga - but without the nudity, bloodshed or vulgarity.  In other words, it is the PG version of the war for Westeros, the writing which is just as bold and audacious as anything in the mythical Seven Kingdoms.

Each episode of The Crown is a historical account of the early days of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who comes to power abruptly (and perhaps before her time) after the unexpected death of her father, King George VI (Jared Harris).  The storylines effectively shift from social, political and international themes, all the while keeping the point of view of the Monarchal heroine, played gracefully by Claire Foy.  Her husband,  Prince Phillip (Matt Smith), is the kind of easy going womanizer who hates it when his wife "commands" him, and who spends his free-wheeling days learning to fly airplanes.  But the series, for the most part, belongs to John Lithgow, who plays the legendary British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, spitting out the perfect amount of noble growling and barking whenever his universally acclaimed leadership is considered to be past his prime by his contemporaries.

Highlights of Season 1 take place in Episode 4, titled Act of God, in which a thick, heavy smog envelopes London, causing land-wide deaths and accidents due to the toxins in the air and the poor visibility.  Churchill is faced with a great dilemma, and the episode's climax, in which an important character's death finally shakes the Prime Minister's soul, is deeply powerful and emotional.  Similarly, Episode 9, Assassins, incorporates high art and thoroughbred horses, and how each impacts vital periods in the lives of both English rulers.  Churchill, observing his own portrait by a great English artist, is at long last faced with his own fading mortality; the Monarch, coincidentally, will call out her husband's extra-marital affairs to his face with just the right amount of honesty and mandating.  The episode is a masterpiece of style and substance, superb in every single definition.

The Crown may not have the sexy brutality of Game of Thrones, but its drama and superb characterizations give every single current series a run for their money.  I imagine HBO is envious that they didn't think of it first.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Creepy "The Belfry" a homage to gothic frights

Borrowing elements from Jeepers Creepers and Lost, Gabriel Hardman's new one-shot The Belfry explores the crash-landing of a plane on an isolated island that may as well be run by Lucifer himself.      The place is occupied by strange, demonic creatures with large, flappy wings, and their objective, it would seem, is to bite the remaining survivors and convert them to their type of vampirism.  If I should ever happen to find myself in such a conundrum, I imagine my first reaction would be absolute terror, followed by the thought, "Now that I've soiled my pants involuntarily, where the fuck can I get a fresh pair on this godforsaken place?!?"

Doubling as a writer and illustrator, Hardman creates a world that is dark, ghastly and just plain old gothic.  His artwork is dirty, and in some cases confusing and unclear; perhaps that is his intention, to murk the line between reality and nightmare.  The ghoulish nature and appearance of the monsters reminded me of Scott Snyder and JOCK's Wytches, but with an ability to fly, which makes them that much more devastating.  The narrative is of rather bleak nature, and by the time we get to the final page (the story ends rather abruptly), we realize that there is simply no other way a horror story of this ilk could've concluded.

The Belfry is an effective horror comic, and considering that it'll have no follow-ups or sequels, it's even more admirable that Hardman was able to incorporate so much dread and fright in so few pages.  I may not necessarily want to read it again, but I'll surely remember its vision of hell-on-Earth for a long time.

Series 2 of "Sherlock" expands the emotional depth of Doyle's sleuth

Steven Moffat's creative genius and Benedict Cumberbatch's dorky charm are a match in TV show heaven, a collaboration that would, I'm sure, impress even Arthur Conan Doyle himself.  Sherlock Series 2 delivers more of the exciting mysteries and murder cases for our favorite London detective to solve, but this time around, he's humanized more thoroughly.  Mr. Holmes (ahem, not the hero's older brother, Mycroft, but the younger, quick witted genius) will finally meet The Woman, and perhaps even have his heart challenged at a previously unfamiliar level.

The first episode of Series 2, A Scandal in Belgravia, introduces Sherlock to Irene Adler (Laura Pulver), a dominatrix-for-hire who has incriminating photos of a member of the British Royal family. Mycroft, as a member of the government intelligence, brings in his younger brother to look into the matter; meanwhile, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) will wonder if Sherlock has ever had a girlfriend before, or even been in love.  Irene will even go so far to tell the good doctor that although he doesn't yet realize it, he is Sherlock's "other half", a theory Watson rejects.  However, it's clear that Moffat is also expanding the relationship between the two roommates, who are slowly becoming very dependent on one another.

The Hounds of Baskerville injects the first dose of horror into this otherwise non-horrific TV series.  Henry (Russell Tovey) was traumatized as a young boy when he witnessed a vicious beast maul his father to death, and those nightmarish visions are still present in his psyche some 20 years later.  After he hires Holmes and Watson to help him get to the bottom of, the duo take a trip into the English countryside, where they discover a military laboratory experimenting on various animals.  Baskerville may not possess the charm of the previous episodes, nor does it present us with a worthy adversary for Holmes (I already miss Laura Pulver's Irene Adler, and was disappointed to find she does not make a cameo here).  Overall, the episode is mostly bark, with some very cleverly placed bite.

The best episode of the entire series so far is The Reichenbach Fall.  At long last, we witness a complete and thorough confrontation between Sherlock and his nemesis, the criminal mastermind Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott).  The scenes in which they try to outwit and one-up each other sizzle with tension, their intellect practically on the same level, with very little between them.  Moriarty reveals that his goal is not to murder Sherlock - that would simply be too easy - but to ruin him in the eyes of the public, and to force him to commit suicide, an act that would eventually strip away any credibility that young sleuth has built over the years.  Scott turns Reichenbach Fall into his own personal one-man show, and by the time we reach the nerve-wracking climax, we may (or may not) believe what we had just seen and heard.

Sherlock Series 2 is simply superb entertainment, a show that should appeal to both young and old, cool and lame, rich or poor.  It's as good as anything currently airing on television.