Friday, December 30, 2005

Comics: The Year In Review - UPDATED!

In accordance with the general tradition established by Marvel and DC this year, I will not be writing a review of my own, instead directing you to earlier reviews written by other people. I do this not because I'm unoriginal, but because I'm building on the history and continuity of online comics criticism. Each review stands on its own, but if you read them all together you'll get the Big Story of 2005.

Paul O'Brien's "Article 10": (Note that the X-Axis will be doing its own 2005 retrospective next week).

Raul Grau takes the month-by-month approach in "Comics For Dummies":

Rich Johnston's "Rumor Awards" revisits old stories, but at least it doesn't retcon anything:

Andrea Speed comes up with a surprisingly versatile list in her "Best of 2005":

This thread will be updated as I retroactively insert other reviews that, really, I planned on using from the start, even before they were written. I just... uh... didn't know they were so important.


More O'Brieny goodness:

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Comics Review: December 24

X-Factor #1

"Decimation" continues to confound me. On the one hand, I'm not actually reading any core titles affected by it - with the possible exception of "Astonishing X-Men", but it's still unclear whether that book will have anything to do with the cesspool that was "House of M".

On the other hand, the miniseries emerging from "Decimation" actually seem to have some degree of quality: by all accounts, "Deadly Genesis", "Generation M" and "Son of M" exhibit a certain level of competence, if nothing else. And yet their premise is sourced in one of the most badly-written, poorly-structured and pathetically contrived Events in recent Marvel history. You disagree? Consider that Marvel doesn't even have a uniform idea of what depowering mutants means - in some books, deformed characters like Beak are given basic human features (ie: what they'd look like without mutation), while in "Generation M" the laws of physics kick in, killing mutants with misshapen bodies. Except, if they don't have the mutant gene, they shouldn't be misshapen anymore.

What's a girl to do?

Since I read in arcs anyway, there's still plenty of time to wait and see what develops on the miniseries front. Expectations are probably high given the writers involved, and Marvel certainly earns praise for keeping the various minis self-contained (ie: I highly doubt we'll get much more out of "Son of M" than a Quicksilver character piece - read it or don't, it won't make much difference).

The big question mark for me was Peter David's new "X-Factor" series. It's a continuation of the "Madrox" miniseries, which I really enjoyed, and that should've been enough... except it's also very strongly tied into "House of M", including discarded Bendis plot device Layla Miller - once promoted as the most important new character in the Marvel Universe (fortunately, Bendis' credibility had already been thoroughly ground to dust by this point, so I doubt anyone took his hype seriously to begin with). The core premise has been damaged by "Decimation", since Madrox and his friends are no longer investigating mutant-related mysteries - that's what gave the concept an added boost, the fact that the standard tropes of the detective story couldn't be applied to astral projection and shapeshifting.

PAD compensates for this by shifting gears, focusing more on the ensemble cast than their investigations. Madrox is fascinating as ever, Strong Guy and Wolfsbane continue from where they left off in the previous miniseries, and four new additions are brought in: Rictor, now powerless; M, who I'm not familiar with and also doesn't appear in this issue; Siryn, Banshee's daughter; and Layla Miller, who is only slightly less horrendous than she was in "House of M" - but then, if anyone can redeem this waste of ink, it's PAD.

The bulk of the issue is given over to a conversation between Rictor and a Madrox dupe. "Decimation" is put into a personal context here, with Rictor attempting suicide after losing his connection to the Earth. Granted, it's just "Lifedeath" with a different character, but I suppose that's about the best we can hope for under present circumstances. Fortunately, it's still a good read: there's some typical PAD humor to be found, but overall the tone is as dark and noirish as "Madrox" was.

One danger this series faces is the possibility of losing its distinct voice the longer it deals with "House of M" fallout. But that's a problem for another issue; as far as this one is concerned, it does its best to put a good spin on a bad idea, and succeeds.


What If 2005

So far, Tony Bedard's Civil War take on Captain America has been the only "What If" of December 2005 that was readable. The others were all pretty rancid, despite the talent involved (including Mike Carey and Greg Pak).

True to form, Marvel has mucked with the original formula without understanding why it worked all those years. The appeal of "What If", as opposed to DC's "Elseworlds", is the emphasis on causality: typically, the slightest detail would occur differently, leading to a chain reaction that, more often than not, turned the entire world on its head (sometimes literally so). It's fun watching a butterfly effect demolish the Marvel Universe, and the best stories kept its featured cast in-character... you really got the feeling these stories could have happened.

With this new batch, we're told all seven stories take place in the same world. A hacker living in the primary Marvel Universe (who goes by the handle "The Watcher", har har), has managed to access the Internet of a parallel dimension. Browsing through its various web sites, he discovers historical documents regarding a Russian Fantastic Four (that isn't any kind of Fantastic Four, really), a Wolverine who was also the Punisher, a Namor who grows up on land and still becomes a jackass, and so on.

The problem, of course, is that we have no sense of what this other world is like in the present: what we're getting is a series of historical events featuring reinterpretations of Marvel heroes, but there's no thematic relevance whatsoever. Does it matter that Wolverine was the Punisher in the 1920's? How has the survival of the USSR changed that other world? They're all just disjointed vignettes, and not particularly inventive in their reimaginations.

Save us from mediocrity, Uatu!


Girls #8

The plot thickens, as the outer world finally takes an interest in what's been happening in Pennystown. Meanwhile, the surviving townsfolk learn that the Girls have had intercourse again, which means they're about to multiply.

"Girls" is a difficult series to review, in the sense that it's really telling one 24-part story, as opposed to a series of segmented and sequential tales. It's also extremely consistent (probably for the same reason), so individual issues don't offer a lot to talk about.

So, one more reiteration of my general opinion here: though some characters tend to be interchangable due to the enormous cast, the ones who stand out are fleshed out nicely. Ethan comes off as particularly sympathetic in this issue. The central mystery is unraveling while providing quite a bit of suspense along the way.

A genuinely riveting read, but perhaps more suitable to the trade format.

Friday, December 23, 2005


Part The Second

The Brain That Wouldn't Die

This film should be retitled "The Movie That Wouldn't End". There's a high concept that makes rudimentary sense, but if you can successfully separate it from the horrible acting, the ridiculous "monster" and an ending Ray Charles could see coming, you're a better critic than I. Not worth the celluloid it's printed on; certainly not worth the bytes it would take to write a full review of it.



"What do you want me to tell you?"

"Tell her."

"You know I can't. I can't. What I have with her... is good."

"Is it real?"

"It's close enough."

One of the things I love most about "slice of life" drama (when done properly) is how the mundane intersection of individual lives becomes something fascinating. There's nothing extraordinary about the chain of events that unfolds in "Heights", which means credibility is never undermined.

"Slice of life" tends to hinge upon identification with at least one character or situation - it's not really an intellectual genre, and the plots are somewhat simplistic by default, so you have to care about these people. "Heights" succeeds in this regard because its cast is made up of sympathetic figures dealing with everyday quandaries: a secret from Jonathan's past is digging itself up, Isabel isn't happy with the sacrifices she's made for her relationship, Diana wants to experience passion but is too afraid to submit to it, and Alec is an actor who's tired of pretense. In the periphery, Peter's job assignment is interviewing his lover's ex-boyfriends, and some very unpleasant truths come to life. It's all dramatic, but not melodramatic, and that's where the movie's great strength lies: going over the top would lead to detachment. So even the climactic scenes are pared down, subtle - and they bite all the deeper for it.

There's a lot of clever maneuvering in this movie, such as the way its parallel character arcs are constructed. It's not always immediately clear how everyone connects to everyone else, but as you become more enmeshed in the web of relationships, the strands become more visible. When she first meets Alec at her audition (and learns he lives in her daughter's building), Diana says New York can be the smallest city in the world sometimes, like Two Degrees of Separation between people. She's ultimately proven right.

I like that the most significant character, in terms of the plot, never appears on-screen. Benjamin Stone is a British photographer who's connected to Diana, Peter and Jonathan - they all know who he is, they're all involved in his manipulations, but we don't even hear his voice even though he's the catalyst that sets the domino effect in motion. It's a chilling reminder that sometimes the biggest changes in our lives are caused by people outside our line of sight.

There's also some interesting symbolism at work: Jonathan and Isabel are planning a Jewish wedding, in which it's tradition for the groom to break a glass at the altar. It's supposed to signify the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but we know shattered glass can also mean destruction on a personal level - a foreshadowing of things to come.

With one exception, all the actors in "Heights" are at the top of their game. Glenn Close (Diana) and Jesse Bradford (Alec) give particularly compelling performances. The exception would be James Marsden, who comes off a bit wooden throughout the movie and never manages any significant breakthrough.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning the Big Gay Kiss; you know how sometimes, the first thing you'll know about any given movie is that two guys or two girls get intimate? Fuck the premise, fuck the actors, it's horizontal CPR that makes the press releases. Of course, I find it amusing that the kiss scene doesn't even have to be good to get attention - I'm thinking here of Colin Farrell and Dallas Roberts in "A Home At The End of the World", in which my favorite dirty Irishman basically slobbered all over the other guy's face. Oy.

But I digress; point is, yes, there's a Big Gay Kiss here. No point in me withholding names, as I have yet to see a press release regarding "Heights" that doesn't spell it out. James Marsden and Jesse Bradford make out. Bradford does well enough; Marsden looks like he's got cramps throughout the entire scene. Granted, this actually is a painful moment for Jonathan... but I swear, you'd think Bradford was knifing him in the guts or something. It certainly undercuts the scene, because this is supposed to be the moment Jonathan chooses Alec. Someone should really explain to the straight men of Hollywood that homosexuality can't be contracted through snogging. It's just a movie!

Another amusing tidbit: the actors who play Ian and Peter also played Richard and Geoffrey in the Robert Halmi remake of "The Lion In Winter"... in which Glenn Close played Queen Eleanor, their mother. Two Degrees of Separation indeed.

"Heights" is a very theatrical film, one I could easily see played out on stage. It also eschews the romantic conventions where the loss of "true love" means a dismal end for the parties involved; by the end of the movie, relationships have broken apart, but there's hope that these people can start over, find love elsewhere. Maybe that's the bittersweet answer to Alec's question - there's no opposition between what's real and what's good. Every character in this movie (with the possible exception of Diana) eventually stops pretending, and ultimately ends up in a better place for it.



This one's so quirky I honestly don't know where to begin. Maybe we should start with the background and context of the movie's release: by 1992, horror cinema was withering away. The previous year had seen the conclusion of both the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Child's Play" series. And while new movies would continue to be produced for "Halloween", "Friday the 13th" and "Hellraiser", these franchises had long since passed their prime.

The creators of "Candyman" are obviously conscious of this decline, since they do just about everything they can think of to make sure this movie wouldn't be perceived as just another slasher flick. The end result is a bit muddled.

Helen Lyle is a university student determined to write a thesis on urban legends that will set the academic world on fire. She fixates on a specific myth concerning the Candyman - the spirit of a murdered black man who stalks the Cabrini Green projects, slaying anyone who calls his name five times in front of a mirror. Obviously, Helen goes right ahead and does so just to prove her disbelief in the story. Meanwhile, her obsession with the Candyman starts to get out of hand, causing her to take some dangerous risks. And then the real thing turns up.

The angle here is that we don't know whether the Candyman is real, or if it's all in Helen's mind. Every time he turns up, she blacks out and wakes up covered in blood - we don't see what happens in the interrim. We do know she's having marital difficulties, and she knows things only the Candyman could know (ie: the location of an infant he abducted). As far as I know, this kind of unreliable protagonist is uncommon in the horror/slasher genre; we're never asked to question Nancy Thompson or Kirsty Cotton. So, if nothing else, the film succeeds in consistently establishing a central ambiguity that deviates from the norm.

However, this ambiguity is resolved and then cobbled back together: an event occurs that can only be attributed to the Candyman, thus confirming his existence. But immediately after that, Helen's sanity is again made uncertain. It derails the rest of the movie because the writer wants to have his cake and eat it too: the Candyman is real, therefore it's a slasher movie, but Helen might be imagining him, so it's a psychological thriller. By failing to commit to one or the other, it falls between the cracks.

The biggest problem is the Candyman himself. There are some intense moments scattered throughout the movie, but I don't think any of them derive from the killer. He's not scary because he's impossible to understand: unlike his predecessors, the Candyman doesn't seem to have any modus operandi at all. He just floats around Cabrini Green randomly murdering and mutilating its inhabitants. Oh, there's something about "eternalizing the legend" within the congregation, but that doesn't work as an explanation because of the paradoxical way the Candyman is depicted. If he needs the faith of his people to survive, then he's a spirit. But he sleeps, he can be wounded, and Helen ultimately kills him by stabbing him with a burning length of wood - all of which suggests he's alive. It doesn't make any kind of overall sense, so odds are you'll be too confused to be afraid of anything.

It's a pity, because "Candyman" does at least attempt to break the mold, where most of its contemporaries would be content with cookie-cutter plots and themes. But its attempts are too clumsy to merit real credit.


Saw 2

While I was quite fond of the first "Saw", warts and all, I find I'm not as willing to forgive the sequel its flaws.

In contrasting the two, it's clear that "Saw 2" adopts the "bigger and better" sequel mentality that more often than not fails to deliver. To be fair, it does get a few things right: for starters, Amanda (the junkie with the bear trap helmet from the first film) returns, providing a strong connection to the previous story. I would've preferred Adam, although he makes a dismal but unsurprising cameo when the Saw-ees stumble upon the original Bathroom of Homoerotic Death (guess Larry never made it to the phone after all). The narrative sequence has been straightened out - no more pesky "flashback-within-flashback" expository scenes.

However, these improvements come with a heavy cost: the characters are all one-dimensional cardboard stereotypes. All of them. Without a single exception. Even Jigsaw - arguably a complex figure in his own right - doesn't say anything especially new this time around. Ostensibly, this is because Leigh Whannell, writer and Scream Queen Supreme of the first movie, was only brought in to touch up director Darren Lynn Bousman's script (which was actually for another movie altogether, and later reconfigured as a "Saw" sequel). As a result, the movie's entire emphasis is on Jigsaw's fiendishly elaborate death traps, rather than the people he's tormenting. The gimmick wears thin fast, and you're hard-pressed to be moved by the horrible deaths of a bunch of nameless ciphers and one very annoying refugee from "Oz".

Like the first movie, "Saw 2" manages a nice twist ending. I don't know if I buy it - it's a character moment that falls flat because the character isn't explored sufficiently (or at all, come to think of it). I suppose it's worth seeing, but don't expect a particularly gratifying experience. The death traps are fun to watch in a Wile E. Coyote sort of way, just don't think about it too hard or the whole thing will come apart.


Next time on Dianapalooza: Paris Hilton dies screaming! If that won't bring you in, nothing will.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

MEME: My Pantheon

"Tired of monotheism? Bored with a God who can't make up his mind as to whether witches should be fried or grilled? Build your own Pantheon to worship!"

With that in mind, these would be the deities ruling over my perfect world:

King of the Gods: Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Like Zeus, he's got what it takes to populate the land with illegitimate demigods. And his bite is most definitely worse than his bark.

Queen of the Gods: The Vancome Lady. Who else could keep Triumph on a leash?

God(s) of the Sea: the Penguins from "Madagascar". Woe to the industrialist who tries to pollute their ocean.

God of the Underworld: Reginold. I'm not even going to tell you why, see for yourself:

God of Wisdom: Foamy. Again, another nomination that speaks for itself:

Goddess of Music: Janice. Because then it would be perfectly legitimate to burn Mariah Carey and Eminem fans at the stake for heresy, as opposed to bad taste. :)

Goddess of Love: Anne Merkel, from Kyle Baker's graphic novel "Why I Hate Saturn". Because she knows the score. :)

God of War: The Rock. Well, it's not like he's good for anything else. Even Charlie Brown knew that.

Friday, December 16, 2005


Part The First

Like Odysseus, I too have embarked on a journey to strange lands. Like Odysseus, I too have seen things that defy human logic. Unlike Odysseus, I have not slept with a bunch of himbos while my poor boyfriend sat at home besieged by hairy suitors. Some people have all the fun.



Maybe it'll sink in if I type it enough times...

I will not subject myself to mindless testosterone-fests on the outside chance Karl Urban will take his shirt off.
I will not subject myself to mindless testosterone-fests on the outside chance Karl Urban will take his shirt off.
I will not subject myself to mindless testosterone-fests on the outside chance Karl Urban will take his shirt off.
I will not subject myself to...

Oh, who am I kidding.

On a related note: The sense of accomplishment I got after locating the above picture is just about the only positive experience I had in relation to this piece of dreck.


Corpse Bride

That's more like it.

I used to be a big fan of Tim Burton's Gothic stylings - his Batman movies, "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands" are old favorites of mine. But aside from "Big Fish", I can't think of any recent releases of his that actually interested me. "Planet of the Apes"? "Sleepy Hollow"? "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"? Uh-uh, and a big HELL NO to the last one.

"Corpse Bride", based on what little I knew of it before I saw the movie, seemed to be a return to Burton's roots: dark, surreal fantasy with a touch of twisted humor. Interestingly, while Burton always wore his Gothic/Victorian influences on his sleeve, I think this is the first movie he ever made that was set in the corresponding time period.

Victor, son of a nouveau riche family, has been roped into an arranged marriage with a woman he's never met. Victoria, his intended bride, is a member of an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times, and is desperately concealing its destitution from the rest of society; Victoria's parents hope that the marriage will bring fresh money into their pockets. Fortunately, it's love at first sight for our young couple. Unfortunately, Victor keeps messing up his wedding vows - which, in Victorian society, was a bit more than "Baby you so fine, I wanna make ya mine". He wanders out into the woods and manages a perfect recitation... only to unknowingly marry the Corpse Bride, a woman who was murdered while waiting for her lover. Since Victor is technically her husband, there's not much he can do, as the Bride drags him "downstairs" where a whole host of skeletons and dead bodies sing and dance and play jazz (overall, they're more lively than the living, a recurring theme in Burton's work). Meanwhile, Victoria's parents waste no time in setting her up with another nobleman - whose intentions are much darker than Victor's.

For people like myself with an extensive familiarity with Burton's repetoire, "Corpse Bride" might seem a little repetitive in terms of its themes and stylistic choices. The only real departure from Burton formula is the setting. That said, it's a lovely fantasy film, full of catchy musical numbers and beautiful imagery, along with excellent voice acting from Johnny Depp (Victor), Helena Bonham Carter (Emily/The Corpse Bride), Christopher Lee (the pastor) and Michael Gough (Elder Gutknecht) among others. And I love that scene where Burton sets up a potential "Night of the Living Dead" scenario, only to deflate it at the last moment in the most heartwarming way possible.

I have only one minor reservation in recommending this movie: American viewers might have trouble understanding the Victorian setting Burton is so loyal to.


Ferris Bueller's Day Off

I had a rather unusual line of thought about what this movie might represent on the extradiagetic level, but before we get there, I want to talk about the film itself.

In my opinion, you'd need a heart of stone not to love "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". It's one of the best '80s teen rebellion movies I've ever seen, very sweet and full of gleeful optimism - helped in no small part by Matthew Broderick's performance as the adorable and irrepressible Ferris. After cleverly faking an illness, he skips school to spend a day of fun in New York City with his best friend and his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Ferris' principal is determined to catch him at all costs. It's a bit dated, in the sense that everyone behaves in ways that made perfect sense twenty years ago but don't quite echo contemporary reality; however, it's still funny, and it's still easy to get swept up by Ferris' youthful enthusiasm. A must-see movie for anyone looking to experience a bit of the '80s zeitgeist.

And now for that extradiagetic consideration I mentioned: I think "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" foreshadows "Dangerous Minds". I would've loved to see the two back-to-back; another time, maybe.

Obviously, these are movies from very different times - even a casual comparative glance makes this abundantly clear. You've got "Twist and Shout", upper-middle-class suburbia and marriage being more important than sex in one corner; you've got Coolio, poverty-level ghettos and more sexual innuendo than the Kama Sutra in the other. But I can see a line stretching from one to the other, if you consider both to be snapshots of their respective generations.

Ferris Bueller is the quintessential "good rebel" in 1986; he's clever, a bit of a wild card, but he's not a malcontent. His actions are self-centered in a "Boys Just Wanna Have Fun" sort of way. Quite frankly, the film expects you to take Ferris' side of the conflict by default: his high school principal is a raving lunatic who breaks into people's houses, his secretary is a bitch who's categorized every student as "asshole", "jock", "slut", "junkie", etc., and the teachers are so boring students are being lobotomized where they sit. One of the film's best moments is in the opening scene, where Ferris describes his methods for faking diseases: it's stupid and childish, he says, but then, so is high school.

Fast-forward a decade and that message has been internalized, to a very radical extent. The conflict isn't between the system and the students anymore; unlike what we see in the '80s, the worst thing people in authority do to kids in "Dangerous Minds" is ignore them. The principal never leaves his office. In lieu of a higher power to fight, the teenagers are turning against each other. Suddenly you have racial tension, murder, drugs. To call upon a historical analogy, we've gone beyond the Revolution and into the Reign of Terror.

The John Hughes paradigm, if you will (think "Breakfast Club" as another example), is predicated on rebellion as a way of self-definition, against an actively-oppressive authority. Being a kid means having fun, and the older generation prohibits fun, so the kids have to defy the restrictions placed upon them to fulfill their identities. By the time you get to "Dangerous Minds" or "Sister Act 2", fun isn't on the agenda anymore. Staying alive is a greater concern. The system is apathetic, while the need to rebel is still there - even though it's been reduced to an empty cliche due to the lack of an external antagonist. The kids are angry and frustrated, but it's just sound and fury signifying zilch. We never really get a sense as to what Lou Anne's students want beyond the obvious (sex, drugs and the occasional shootout). And there's no place here for John Bender or Ferris Bueller, because rebellion - of the most extreme, virulent kind - has become the way of life.

Consequently, I think it's hard to feel that any of the teens in the '90s movies are worth spitting on, because they have no explicit cause. Their actions are meaningless. Instead, we're called upon to care about the authority figure, Michelle Pfeiffer's character: the teacher with the golden heart, who feels for the brats readying the guillotine for her.

On a larger scale, I think that's why high school-based dramas of this sort don't work anymore. Rebellion is still seen as the only thing worth living for, but there's nothing to rebel against.

My, that was heavy. Let's move on to something lighter, shall we? ;)


The Crow: Salvation

First up, thanks to Theo, Tink and The Braz for helping me get this one.

I absolutely adored James O'Barr's "The Crow". It was stirring, gripping, utterly visceral. Pure emotion pouring off the page. Naturally, it got turned into a movie; also naturally, it all went south rather quickly. As in Antarctica-south, icicles-forming-on-your-buttocks south.

There was the Brandon Lee movie, in which somebody took their job a bit too seriously and shot Lee dead. Then there was "City of Angels" (which, IIRC, also spawned a TV show); don't worry if you missed it, just have a tooth pulled without novocaine and you've got it in one. The fourth film starred Edward Furlong and David Boreanaz - which about says it all, really.

Ah, you've probably noticed I've skipped one. Yes, folks, we're going to look at the third film, "Salvation". Once again, I find myself coming for the beef and hoping to stay for the entertainment. Meet Eric Mabius:

I know, I know... not exactly "be still my ovaries" level, but hell, it's not like the prospect of a third Crow movie automatically instills anyone with hopeful anticipation. Might as well find some reason to spend an hour or two on it.

"Salvation" isn't actually that bad. Oh, it's far from perfect, but as bastardizations of the O'Barr template go, this one actually brings something to the table. Traditionally, Crow stories are all about vengeance. Justice, such as it is, rarely (if ever) comes into the picture; more often than not the two are conflated. For example, in the original graphic novel, the five men Eric Draven returns to destroy are also criminals, gang members, drug dealers. Eric's vendetta is personal, but it still achieves the same effect a vigilante would.

"Salvation" tries to pry apart the two issues. Alex Corvis has been slated for execution, after being convicted of murdering his girlfriend. He insists he's innocent, but the wheels of justice grind him down and on his 21st birthday, he gets the electric chair. While his brain is being fried, he sees (or thinks he sees) the man who framed him; a few moments later, he is promptly resurrected as the new avatar of the Crow.

This is very different from standard depictions of the Crow, because it sets up an interesting dichotomy. Alex wants revenge, not against a specific individual but "the man with the scar" (he doesn't know who that person is). At the same time, what's strongly emphasized is the injustice, the fact that an innocent man was condemned. Which reason motivates the Crow to raise Alex? Does it even care about justice in the first place?

The film goes a step further by placing gaps in Alex's memory (brain damage resulting from his electrocution, no doubt). The possibility arises that he isn't innocent at all, that he did indeed murder his girlfriend and now he's just out to get the people who ended his life. It's an inversion of O'Barr that makes a lot of sense, because revenge has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. So for the first few scenes of this movie, you have an immortal, murderous entity running around seeking proof of its vindication that might not even exist.

It gets undermined pretty quickly, though. At a very early point in the movie, Alex manifests psychometry (touch-based precognition that allows him to see visions of the past). It's a rather cheap and contrived way to avoid any real detective work in uncovering the truth; it also means that the moment he touches one of the witnesses at his trial, he knows exactly what happened. From that moment on, we're back in standard Crow territory, as he seeks out his enemies and slays them. It's still fun, though major points are detracted for that scene where the police commissioner mumbles something about being familiar with the legend of the Crow - knowledge he shouldn't possess, and is never explained satisfactorily.

Sadly, the last act more or less implodes. The endgame hinges on the archvillain tricking Alex into thinking his vengeance is complete; as a result, he loses his immortality and starts bleeding away. So far so good: all Crow avatars are subjective in terms of their perceptions, so technically they could be convinced their job was done even if it wasn't. It all gets screwy a few moments later, as Alex discovers the identity of his nemesis... his motives are restored, his powers are not. Wha huh?

It gets worse: in his weakened state, Alex is subdued by said nemesis, who plants a seed of doubt in the avatar's mind that maybe he did kill his love, that this whole crusade was the last gasp of a petty, vengeful mind. Alex promptly goes inert, seemingly defeated. This whole scene doesn't work for two reasons: first, Alex has already had a vision of his girlfriend's murder. He knows what happened. Second, he's brought back (again) by the plight of said girlfriend's little sister - which has nothing to do with either vengeance or justice, and whether one is more dominant than the other in the world of the Crow, it's clear that compassion is something altogether foreign. It all goes splat rather spectacularly.

Side note: Kirsten Dunst proves that being an annoyance must be genetic - how else can people like herself, Michelle Trachtenberg and Drew Barrymore never fail to piss me off no matter what age they're at?

In the final analysis, "Salvation" is a movie that has some good ideas, marred by glaring oversights and a faltering conclusion. I rate it as slightly above average - but considering the standard level of Crow movies, that's actually rather good.


And so ends the first part of "Dianapalooza!" Next time: James Marsden and Jesse Bradford wrestle - with their tongues! Can the Candyman can-can? A woman's brain lives on after her body dies (while the opposite happens to the audience)! All this and more, when "Dianapalooza!" returns! :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Marvel March Solicitations

Or: "Marching In No Particular Direction"

Another month, another batch of babbling hype... let's see what we can really find here.

* "Ultimate Spider-Man" launches a five-part Deadpool storyline. I don't know whether to be excited or horrified.

* "Amazing Spider-Man" points to clouds building on the horizon, leading to a storm that will shake the Marvel Universe. At this point I'm thinking that the Marvel Universe must be bolted down with titanium screws, considering how many (shit)storms it's been through in the past year alone. Obviously, I'm not interested.

* Arana gets a send-off via a special with Spider-Man. It's written by someone called Tania Del Rio, as opposed to regular writer Fiona Avery. Pen name? It is a bit late to be bringing new writers to that particular character...

* "Squadron Supreme" (formerly "Supreme Power") launches. Let's hope the move to the Marvel Knights imprint hasn't castrated it.

* Marvel's cosmic genre looks to be making a comeback, with "Annihilation: Prologue" by Keith Giffen. I've never been a fan of that particular branch of the tree, but fans of Nova, Ronan the Accuser, Drax, Silver Surfer and Thanos should be overjoyed.

* Ed Brubaker writes a 65th Anniversary Special for "Captain America", continuing to mix Cap's WWII stories with his current battles.

* Joe Casey launches a Fantastic Four miniseries revealing "untold secrets of the FF's earliest days". And here I thought their every moment pre-FF had been dramatized from the womb on.

* The new Scorpion (from "Amazing Fantasy") guest-stars in the "Doc Samson" miniseries. Someone obviously wants to push this character - good for them - but I don't quite think this is the appropriate platform for it.

* Warren Ellis' run on "Iron Man" blissfully, mercifully concludes. If you buy this issue, you'll have only yourself to blame the next time a book disappears for months on end.

* Brian Reed launches a Ms. Marvel series. I'm not very familiar with Carol Danvers, or Brian Reed for that matter - I'd rather wait and see what response it gets before trying it out.

* "New Avengers" #17 introduces The Collective, a new threat emerging out of "House of M". Apparently, "nothing can stop it". Well, I guess we can all go home, then?

* Brian Bendis also puts out that dreadful "Illuminati" one-shot. Whenever I wonder why I've become so isolated from the MU, and why my reading list keeps getting shorter, this is the kind of thing that reminds me.

* More Bendis news: Pulse #14 is his last issue. Paul Jenkins will be taking over.

* "Sentinel" concludes. I miss it already. :(

* "Runaways" begins a new storyline promising the debut of an all-new Pride. I'm very much looking forward to that.

* "Thunderbolts" reverts to its original numbering with #100.

* Five "New Universe" one-shots hit the shelves, "Untold Tales of the New Universe". This is probably a last gasp for old NU fans before Warren Ellis revamps the whole thing.

* "Generation M" concludes, as does the "Squadron Supreme" segment of the Exiles' World Tour.

* "Cable/Deadpool" crosses over into the Apocalypse storyline in Milligan's book, because - as the solicitation itself so helpfully puts it, "X-citement! X-Thrills! X-over = higher sales!" You know, I appreciate that at least they're honest about it, but Jesus, I'd like to think any other business that openly mocked the stupidity of its buyers would probably go bankrupt (again).

That's about it for the highlights. I need a drink. :/

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Comics Review: December 10 Addendum

I forgot to mention this during the review: Spider-Girl #93 also came out on the 7th, but after some deliberation I've decided to stop reviewing that series. There's really no point, IMO: it hasn't genuinely interested me in a long time, and rather than distill the positive qualities of the Silver Age in a more contemporary setting, writer Tom DeFalco is letting the worst excesses of that era overwhelm the book. I'll be jumping off as soon as the current storyline concludes (probably at issue 100).

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Comics Review: December 10

Y: The Last Man #40

If one were to break down "Y: The Last Man" in terms of overall structure, two distinct types of stories would emerge within the greater framework of the series. The main plots and subplots are dealt with in multi-part arcs (such as the recent "Paper Dolls" or "Girl On Girl"). But every now and then Vaughan takes some time out and delivers standalone issues that, more often than not, turn the focus away from protagonist Yorick and his companions to explore some other aspect of the unmanned world, or a character left behind. These issues usually demonstrate one of Vaughan's greatest strengths as a writer: his ability to really flesh out an ensemble cast, to the extent that you never feel cheated when an issue breaks away from Yorick to tell us his sister's life story, or what happened to Beth in the Outback.

This month's issue is dedicated to two women in Yorick's life: Hero, still on the road and recuperating from a bout of Amazon-related insanity; and "Beth 2", the first woman he slept with after the plague (way back in "Tongues of Fire"). I have to admit that, for all that I'm familiar with Vaughan's fondness for twists and turns, I didn't really expect this Beth (not to be confused with Yorick's lost love) to turn up again, or to have any significant role to play. But as is so often the case in "Y", people turn up when you least expect them. And typical of Vaughan, you're not three pages into the story when a massive plot twist emerges. It's a twist few will see coming, but one that makes perfect sense in hindsight - the best kind. :)

So anyway, Hero and Beth are confronted with a new adversary, one that I have some mixed feelings about. On the one hand, Sister Lucia Ober represents a major question Vaughan hasn't dealt with until now: what happens to organized religion when all the men die? However, it comes off as a bit wishy-washy: Ober and her minions seem genuinely threatening, then suddenly they're not. Their goal makes no sense, and Hero helpfully points this out, but the idea seems to be that because they're religious they've had their brains replaced with cottage cheese. It doesn't quite work.

Still, it's a nice story, with major implications for the rest of the series. And rather than the traditional cliffhanger, we get a nice two-page conclusion with Yorick where we're reminded he isn't quite as dense as most people think he is.

Only twenty issues left. Savor it while you can. :)


Hard Time Season Two #1

Another series I'll be reviewing by issue, since it doesn't subscribe to any visible arc format.

This was an old favorite of mine during its first run, when it was part of the "DC Focus" imprint - you may recall said imprint crashed dismally. Of the four series that comprised DC Focus, "Hard Time" was the most successful - and, not coincidentally, the most well-written. Still, cancellation arrived at issue 12 (to its credit, it outlasted all of its kin). At the time, there were hushed rumors the book would be back, adopting a seasonal approach, but until it turned up in the solicits I never really believed it.

"Hard Time" concerns a 15-year-old, Ethan Harrow, who participates in a high school vengeance prank that goes completely out of control and ends with five people dead, including his best friend. Because of political maneuverings that are never fully explained, Ethan is given an uncharacteristically harsh punishment, sentenced to fifty years in prison. While he's slowly adapting to life in "The Big House", he's also developing a bizarre power that's part astral projection, part telekinesis, all dangerous.

Steve Gerber is in top form here: Ethan's a very endearing character because he reacts to situations the way you'd expect a 15-year-old geek to react. The setting is completely detached from the superhero genre, which is good because it means there's no ready-made context for what Ethan is undergoing. Is it evolution? Magic? Alien DNA?

The supporting cast is also a varied bunch: maniacs, rapists, killers, crossdressers, psychics, and a genuinely nice person or two (at least, so they seem). It's very much in the vein of "Oz", but Gerber recognizes where that series went wrong - too relentlessly bleak and depressing - and he works in a slightly more relaxed atmosphere that doesn't compromise the harsh setting in the least.

This issue is the obligatory "For Those of You Just Joining Us" exposition dump, but Gerber contextualizes it very well, and even manages a little something extra for his earlier readers: when Ethan relates his story to his new defenders, he actually goes a lot further back than anything we saw in the previous season. New and old readers alike see, for the first time, the sequence of events leading up to that fateful opening scene in Hard Time (Season One) #1.

An excellent, gratifying read. Highly recommended.


Coming soon: Dianapalooza! One woman's journey through the best, the worst and the piddling average Hollywood has to offer (yeah, I can take a wild guess at that ratio...)! How bad could "Doom" be, really? Does "Corpse Bride" signify a triumphant return for Tim Burton, or is it just another "Michael Jackson Meets Hershey World" pastiche? Is "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" worth the day off? All this and more, at Dianapalooza! :)

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Movie Review: "Elvira's Haunted Hills"

Or: "The Hills Are Alive... With The Sound of Torture..."

Nearly twenty years after her film debut, Cassandra Peterson is back as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, with a new movie. I had a great time with her first self-titled film, and though "Elvira's Haunted Hills" is entertaining in its own way, it's a very, very different movie... so much so that I'd say it appeals to a different audience altogether.

When I reviewed "Elvira: Mistress of the Dark", I noted that it was a film based on a specific dichotomy: only half of the film takes to horror parody in the Elvira style (ie: using her chest to break open a locked gate while running through a graveyard). The first half was more of an anti-authority/social revolution parable a la "Footloose" or "Breakfast Club", where the oppressive hierarchy is challenged by an individual who dares to be different. That layering adds a lot to the movie: it manages to capture a spark of the late '80s zeitgeist, infusing it with much more meaning than you'd expect to find from a B-movie horror hostess.

"Elvira's Haunted Hills" doesn't bother with that layering. Or any layers at all, really. It's a piss-take at Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman and the Gothic horror genre in general. It's very effective in that respect - you've got the overdone orchestra music, the frail Victorian woman coughing up her lungs, the gaunt and hysterical lord of the haunted manor, ridiculous British accents, thunderstorms, exotic and sexy foreign laborers... hell, Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" is replicated straight out of the original story. As a parody taken to extremes, it's funny. But that can only go so far.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that the previous movie played heavily on the contrast between Elvira and the people of Fallwell. But she isn't that different in Carpathia of 1851. Everyone's pale, everyone wears a lot of low-cut black. Instead, she's displaced via anachronisms, making references to Oscars and the Village People... as I said, it's a different kind of humor, and one that's much harder to pull off consistently.

Another reason the movie might fall short of expectations is because it's very scaled-back in comparison to "Mistress of the Dark": smaller budget means smaller cast, more enclosed setting, rudimentary plot lifted directly from any conventional horror movie of the early 20th century. There's virtually no room to maneuver, and it shows: even at the age of fifty, Elvira is still witty and charming, but there's not much for her to do aside from make the obvious snipes at the obvious people. The ensemble cast is great, especially Richard O'Brien (who I still remember as the host of "The Crystal Maze"), but it's not enough.

To sum up, then: good Gothic parody, but you should only watch if it that's exactly what you're looking for - there's not much else to be found.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Comics Review: December 3

Legion of Superheroes #12

First things first. We finally get two things this book desperately needed: a recap and a dramatis personae. Considering the book's primary storyline spans thirteen issues and the cast is made up of nineteen primary characters, it was probably overdue.

This is the penultimate issue of Waid's "galactic war" epic, which has been running since the very first issue. We're reaching the climactic point now, as the four subplots begin to converge. Projectra's team launches a suicide attack on Lemnos' army; Cosmic Boy manages to send out one last message to the Legion and their followers; Sun Boy and his team reach their destination only to find a difficult choice waiting for them; and Brainiac calls upon a secret weapon against Elysion.

There's a lot of action going on, a lot of movement, and in that sense it's as strong an entry in the series as the other issues. However, one very problematic element in this particular chapter is an increased reliance on contrivance. Brainiac's secret weapon, for example, is something that had been foreshadowed once or twice before, but we're asked to believe that he just didn't consider using it until just now. For someone who's been portrayed as the smartest being in the Legion, that's a bit hard to swallow. After having their powers switched, Sun Boy's team suddenly have full control of their abilities again, for no apparent reason. Projectra has magical abilities that no one mentioned before (in fact, there was a whole scene in a prior issue where she was almost held back from the squad because she was powerless). And Cosmic Boy manages to whip up a Cerebro helmet out of nowhere.

It's a bit much, really. Granted that Waid is operating on an atypically-wide scale, and it hasn't reached eye-rolling levels yet, but it still knocks a few points off.

Stuart Moore delivers a rather dull and pointless interlude that supposedly takes place during the first issue. If it's a subplot Waid forgot to insert that will have major ramifications on the last issue, it's sloppy storytelling. Otherwise, it's just extraneous.


Amazing Fantasy #15

I've been anticipating this issue ever since it was announced. Some background: in the early '60s, "Amazing Fantasy" was an anthology book facing cancellation. In the very last issue, #15, writer Stan Lee went for broke and threw in an 11-page story about a boy named Peter Parker who has an accident with a radioactive spider. I'm sure you know what happened next.

Forty years later, "Amazing Fantasy" is resurrected as an anthology title, albeit in a slightly different format (ie: introducing new characters in separate, self-contained multi-issue arcs). Sadly, it hasn't quite done as well this time around: the first six issues were dedicated to Arana, who then got an ongoing series more because she was Marvel's token Latina superhero and less because Fiona Avery had a single interesting thing to do with her. The silent cancellation of "Arana: Heart of the Spider" due to abysmal sales (and despite considerable hype) speaks for itself. The next six issues were considerably better, featuring Fred Van Lente's "Scorpion: Poison Tomorrow", but sales failed to improve and the character has more or less been consigned to pointless guest appearances. The last three issues featured "Vampire By Night" backups by Jeff Parker, which led into Giffen's "Howling Commandos" series - but since that turned out to be a total failure, there's not much to say about it. Then came the two-part "Vegas" I reviewed a while back, along with "Captain Universe" backups leading to last month's "Captain Universe Event".

All of which brings us to issue 15, the "anniversary" as it was. Clearly hoping for lightning to strike twice, Marvel has put together a double-sized anthology issue, featuring six short stories (and a seventh that's really just a gag) by six writers. These six are part of Marvel's "Ten Terrific", a rather silly promotional device for writers trying to outmuscle the Hollywood influx for a bit of spotlight. Still, Mark Paniccia (AMFAN editor) has brought together a rather quaint collection here - Greg Pak, Dan Slott, Robert Kirkman, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Sean McKeever and Daniel Way. No one too horrible (ie: Hudlin) or otherwise occupied (Whedon, Heinberg, Hine). And, of course, that precious commodity for which I'll generously lower my critiquing standards: new characters.

So let's take them one at a time...

"Mastermind Excello" is an interesting piece about a teenage supergenius who's being pursued both by the American government and by a mysterious, undefined enemy who wants him dead. Except they might be one and the same - an ambiguity Greg Pak leaves open to challenge the reader. After all, if Amadeus Cho really is the seventh smartest person in the world (and he demonstrates this rather nicely in the diner scene), we'd be inclined to trust his calculations... except he's angry, he's tired, and he's clearly emotionally involved. What if he's just paranoid? Points to Pak for a Marvel superhero cameo that's both surprising and, more importantly, thematically relevant to Cho himself.

Dan Slott's "Blackjack" is actually four two-pagers, as opposed to a single eight-pager. The vignettes are interspersed throughout the issue, and range from comedy to high action to slightly baffling philosophy (destroying aliens who offer utopia because "to advance, man needs to be discontent"?). They're all very energetic, very light (no big shock considering the length), and fun.

"The Great Video" is typical Daniel Way: violent, muddled and somewhat unfulfilling. A man is caught in an explosion at his video store and gains X-ray vision (that, for some reason, also sets people on fire). After ten days in a coma, he wakes up to find officers accusing him of arson. After immolating them, he escapes to his house only to discover his girlfriend has left him and taken everything but the video camera. He duly straps the camera to his head and kills someone who is either his ex's new boyfriend, or the rival video store that put him out of business (though there's no indication he was going out of business). As I said, there's a lack of clarity here that really prevents the climax from coming across well. Or at all, for that matter.

I wasn't approaching Robert Kirkman's "Monstro" with any expectations; I've noted before that he's always seemed very bland and uninteresting to me. So you can imagine my surprise when I actually liked "Monstro", a tale about a man called Frank, who uses his super-strength in a rather unconventional way: he's a firefighter. His partner points to the obvious expectation that he should be famous, or an Avenger - but in a refreshing twist, Frank replies that he doesn't particularly care for superheroics. In a genre where the first thing most superpowered people do is slap on a pair of tights, Monstro's more realistic perspective is actually a nice change. Again we have a bit of mystery at the end, and I'm beginning to think all these stories were deliberately written that way, to encourage the possibility of follow-up miniseries. Interesting exercise, if slightly futile considering the general fate of Marvel Next projects.

The first thing you'll notice about Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Heartbreak Kid" is that it's drawn very much in the '60s Marvel style - dots of color, slightly yellow paper, etc. This isn't just a gimmick, because the story is set at the earliest point of Spider-Man's history - possibly his first encounter with another superhuman. Uncle Ben is freshly dead, and Peter Parker is inconsolable. Enter the Heartbreak Kid, Danny Shephard, who has the power to absorb people's pain and grief. As with Pak's story, there's a bit of ambiguity here because Peter thinks the Kid is just a vampire feeding off other people's misery, and he might be right; but unfortunately, by focusing so heavily on Peter Parker, Aguirre-Sacasa doesn't manage to do much with the character he's supposed to be introducing. We don't even see Danny's powers in action because Peter chooses to preserve his pain, thinking that giving it up would take away his memory of that fateful "Great Power" platitude. So when, at the end of the story, the narrator helpfully informs us that "another name is added to the roster of those marvelous individuals who make the world of fantasy the most exciting realm of all", it's not a statement that rings very true.

"Positron", by Sean McKeever, is certainly the most frustrating of the six main pieces, because it doesn't even try to present a complete story. This can't really be blamed on page allocation, because however abbreviated the other stories were, they managed to provide both a self-contained tale and enough loose threads to warrant more. Annie and Jackson are enjoying a romantic evening when they get ambushed by Annie's father. Sounds domestic, but it spirals into something else rather quickly. A traitor is revealed, who expresses remorse after it's far too late... and that's it. It ends with "To be continued...?" Normally this wouldn't be such a big deal, except there's very little that guarantees McKeever will ever be able to finish the story, and it's a pet peeve of mine when writers take such things on faith (since they usually turn out to be wrong).

The anthology ends with "I Was That Guy In Spider-Man's Armpit!", a very amusing two-page story going back to the cover of the first Amazing Fantasy #15: who is that man tucked under Spider-Man's arm? More importantly, since Spidey helpfully blurts out his real name on that cover, does Armpit Guy know who Peter Parker really is? Great joke by Dan Slott.

Amazing Fantasy #15 falters here and there, but on average it's still an exquisite read, offering glimpses at a variety of characters we'll probably never see again... but it would certainly be nice if we did.