Wednesday, January 30, 2013

View From The Brig(gs): PUNISHER, TALON, a Bit of PI & More!

Hey, gang. Well, welcome to my first actual trawl through "What's Out There That I Think's Cool, That I Think You Should Be Consuming". This is basically what you'll be seeing in this column, with a few detours for minor rants. There's two weeks' worth of stuff here, so I apologize if there's a lot to get through. Hey, it's not like they're paying me by the word. (Hell, they're not paying me at all!)
On movie screens right now, there's a couple of things you should have seen (so, if you haven't, get out there now).
Tops for me is still "Life Of Pi", and "Lincoln". "Life Of Pi" was a colossal surprise to me. I'd managed to avoid watching a trailer, and (not having read the book, especially) had serious misgivings about the ability of Lee to sustain what I knew about the premise for the duration of the movie.

Boy, was I surprised. Whimsical and touching, the closest thing I can liken this to is "Cast Away", if Wilson maybe had teeth and they largely forgot about the island.  

Considering how many shots of the C.G. tiger are in the movie (and the other jaw dropped at two of the zebra shots, which I thought were particularly audacious), it's a serious testimony to how much work was put into delivering a believable tiger, that there's only a dozen or so marginally apparent shots. The movie flies by, and there's some fantastic imagery: you're only cheating yourself if you make excuses not to see it. Even if you don't come out loving it (and if you don't, don't bother telling me: I don't want to argue with you), the visuals will stick with you and make you think. (If you don't want to take my word for it: Gary Kurtz yes, he of "Star Wars" fame, said to me it's his favorite use of 3-D to-date. And Gary isn't a fan of 3-D.)
In a way, I sort-of wish I hadn't seen "Pi", as it's smudged my memory a bit of an excellent current movie from this last year called "Kon Tiki", a dramatization about eccentric Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's voyage on his lashed-together wooden boat of the same name. Made on a trifling (by Hollywood standards) budget, the movie has some of the most astonishing aquatic imagery I've seen depicted. There are some "making of" showreels online, but I'd really advocate you seeing the movie before looking for them.

"Kon Tiki" is a bit of an oddity: if you're in the States (and several other countries), you'll likely see this in a version in which the European actors speak perfectly fluent (although with a tiny accent) English. However, the filmmakers shot two versions: one in English, and the other with the actors speaking Norwegian and later subtitled. I saw the subtitled version, but I'm very curious now to see the English one to see if the differing performances affect the movie either way. It should be noted that "Kon Tiki"'s up for the Best Foreign Language film this year, which is a bit ironic given the above! You should see this because it's excellent, and also because co-directors have just signed on to make a big supernatural thriller called "Spectral" for Legendary Pictures.
Also out there is the new version of "Anna Karenina". I hadn't read any reviews before I saw it, and having since thumbed through Rotten Tomatoes I'm a little surprised at the savaging it's received. It remind me very much of Coppola's "Dracula" in terms of its production design's striking and very deliberate theatricality. When the movie started, I paused at its very ultra-retro opening shot. When it became apparent in the opening scene that it was staged as if it were a play, my heart sank as I'd more hoped for something more traditionally narrated. However, as the story progressed, my jaw slowly dropped. The story opens up and changes aesthetic several times. Honestly, it's perhaps (particularly within the context it's set) the best photographed movie of the year (and, again: shot on film! Are we seeing a pattern, here?).  Seamus McGarvey shows what he can do when he's working with a real director, and some of his compositions and inventiveness are astonishing, with lovely allusions to famous paintings and scenes from other films. There's outstanding sound design, too: one striking bit with a hand-fan at a horse race speeding up to match the thundering (though unseen) horses was wonderful.

Terrific direction from Joe Wright, and solid performances, especially Matthew Macfadyen's comic turn as Oblonsky. There's one actor in this who is seriously miscast, and whose performance pulls the wove down (but I'll let you figure out who that is.) It totally breathed new life in what could have been a stodgy affair. One of my movies of the year; pure extraordinary cinema and more inventiveness than anything else I've seen recently. I can't wait to see it again, and I don't say that often. Highly recommended (although, obviously, not for everybody).
Some weeks you wade wearily (and that's a lotta alliteration) through the comics pile, and find maybe one gem. Right now, though, there's a lot to be enjoying in comicdom.
Over in the Marvel Bullpen, Mark Waid's "Indestructible Hulk #3" has the jolly green guy going up against a zombie-powered Quintronic Man. Banner's a little more sadistic in this thread, and accepting of Hulk in being a weapon for SHIELD. I'm liking it. Leinil Yu's art is 70s odd, but compelling.
"Red She Hulk #61" seems to be setting up an odd globe-trotting Lara-Croft-ian centuries-old Illuminati organization, and guest starring Machine Man this issue. The Illuminati thing feels a bit old hat (although was that meant to be a Tesla hologram cameo?), and I don't know where the story's going, but it looks interesting enough to warrant sticking with it.
I'm loving Jason Aaron's run on the "God Butcher" yarn in "Thor: God Of Thunder #4", outstandingly illustrated by Esad Ribic (and with fabulous coloring by Ive Svorcina). Split between  past, present, and future, Thor's on the trail of the eponymous and mysterious destroyer, who's busy taking down deities all across the Universe. (How he's practically able to individually do this is glossed over, as when he's revealed he seems to be a Voldemort acolyte with a penchant for stock-in-trade monologuing.) Looking forward to the next issue.
In "Punisher War Zone #3", Greg Rucka continues the story of the Avengers having to deal with a lushly bearded Frank Castle; in this issue hiding out in the middle of nowhere and taking down arms dealers, precipitating Thor to turn up as guest star and have a teeny word with Punisher about his actions. There's a great little exchange between the two in the middle of Carmine Di Giandomenico's clean and lovely art. (I loved how he drew Mjolnir crackling with power, here.) Punisher comes around after the Asgardian's subdued him, to be offered a limp canned brewski by goldilocks, accompanied by the query: "…Or have you abandoned all life in pursuit of your war, Punisher?" Castle shoots back "The war is my life", which Thor tartly nullifies with "Then you fight for nothing." Neatly summing-up how Frank Castle's ongoing existence since his inception is essentially an empty vessel. One of the best "Punisher" issues I've read in years.
"Secret Avengers #36" has my favorite cover of the week, with the massed hordes of the Marvel Universe descending on a defiant Hawkeye. Inside, and sadly totally unconnected with this image, Spidey and his crack Avengers squad continue dimension jumping: from a realm of weirdly undead Avengers (with its very cool Universal Monsters-homage mansion team I want these action figures, and these characters badly need to go up against the Marvel Zombies Fantastic Four team!), to another Avenger-verse where mankind is metamorphosing into machines that spontaneously gain humanity. I'm digging this story run a great deal.
And the "Avengers" bandwagon rolls on. In a bid for Marvel to extract even more dollars from your pocket, "Avengers Assemble #11" has our intrepid A-Team going to bust bio-terrorist Yun Guang Han in peasant boondock China, not realizing they're merely super genetic material playing into his hands. Kelly Sue DeConnick makes amends for not-so-great recent writing on another Marvel title with this one: I've really enjoyed what she's done with "Avengers". Stefano Caselli's art is dynamic and detailed, and gives you pause to linger, but he's not served well by some poor coloring in this issue…the book's only black mark. It's not clear if the bad guy's dead or not at the end of the issue, but I've enjoyed reading him. He's cultured and urbane, and shoots off fun bon-mots. I'd like to hope he's still around for a more lengthy rematch. (I'd really like to see Han go up against Doctor Doom.)
Continuing the many Marvel "Avengers" titles, Dennis Hopeless' "Avengers Arena #3" is let's be honest a blatant rip of "Hunger Games" and "The Most Dangerous Game". Arcade has shanghaied a bunch of Avengers youth to Murder World and is sadistically taking them down one-by-one. Despite the obvious jumping-off point (and a weak first issue), this one introduced a interesting new antihero character this time, while (memorably) killing off another existing good guy. Any story that has Sentinels in them (and even better blowing up) gets my vote. Hey: you can't fault giant robot destruction. Nicely drawn, I'm giving this week's book a thumbs-up.
I enjoyed Dan Slott's "Superior Spider-Man #1". Newsflash if you haven't been keeping up on current events: Peter Parker is dead. Doc Ock has body-swapped with him, and is having a whale of a time with Spider-Man's youthful bod. Having techno-ed out Spidey's costume in the last prior-to-reboot issue, here Otto takes down the Sinister Six as they merrily set about doing a heist. Of course, he's the same pompous Doc as he does this. And, of course, you know that this body swap yarn will only last as long as readers give it the thumbs-up, and resurrect Peter once more. But while it does, I'll be enjoying Ock's vainglorious ride.

And there's more Ock-ness to be found over in the pages of Chris Yost's "Avenging Spider-Man #16". In this one, a weird giant spider that shoots death rays from its eyes (yes, seriously) turns up in the city, and the X-Men guest star to turn up and take it down. Wolverine is condescending to Spidey…so, is it any wonder a newly-Ocked Spider-Man might want to give Wolverine a bit of a smack-down? Yes, if you ever wanted to see Spidey wallop the adamantium Hobbit, this is the issue for you. Good fun.
On the subject of the "X-Men", here's a revelation: I'm not much of a fan. I love the movies, and I've enjoyed periodic visits into Wolverine's illustrated world, but unlike the iconic "Avengers", I find the comic-bound "X-Men" to be a bit dull. And yet, I still read them all. So, when there's gold to be found, it makes my day. The current Brian Michael Bendis "All-New X-Men #6" (there's a joke in the title, I think) has Beast bringing the original X-Men from the past into the present, following the apocalyptic aftermath of the recent (honestly, mostly tiresome) "Avengers vs X-Men" war. Time travel stories mostly are fun (they're really a variant on the "What If?" storyline), and David Marquez' artwork is punchy and terrific (although the previous issue's art by Immonen and Von Grawbadger was outstanding). I particularly liked their use of cluttered multiple speech bubbles in depicting a young Jean Grey's telepathy kicking-in.
Things are equally healthy this week over in the DC-Verse. I've had mixed feelings about various titles since the big Universe reboot over there (you do NOT want to get me started about the way they've dumped and neutered Power Girl), but there's no denying that pressing the reset button has galvanized a lot of titles.
I'm not an "Animal Man" fan, but the whole "Rotworld" title-spanning saga which has him as part of the good-guy team has been fantastic. Perhaps a little too reminiscent of Dark Horse's "B.P.R.D." title in places, and with (and this is no criticism!) healthy overtones of Alan Moore's venerable "Swamp Thing" run, the world is overrun by Arcane and the forces of the Rot, and the remaining dwindling DC heroes are searching for the one big power that can turn the tide. Here in Jeff Lemire's "Animal Man #16" they discover and free (neat character) captured plant-based Lantern Corps member Medphyll. There's a LOT happening in this issue. Multiple confrontations; the (apparent) death of a major DC Universe character…and a cliffhanger ending with a bunch of newly arrived and familiar characters. Recommended.
Snyder's "Swamp Thing #16", and also part of the Rotworld yarn, has Swampy holed-up with Barbara Gordon in the Arkham human enclave. Lots of little cameos make this a nice read, and oh. Someone major dies at the end of this issue.
I'm admittedly more of a "Superman" fan that a "Batman" one, though, and it's almost with a battle-weary groan that I plough into each new helping of "Batman" titles. The reappearance of a face-skinned and very disturbing Joker in Gotham has been spread across multiple DC books in the "Death of the Family" story. I don't care for torture porn movies, which this storyline seems to disturbingly skirting the edges of, but there's no denying that this sprawling saga is a massive shot in the arm to the Batverse. In Gail Simone's "Batgirl #16", our heroine squares off against Joker, while her mother is being held hostage by the baddie elsewhere. And Joker…wants to marry her. Ed Benes' marvelous art is queasily visceral. I like this issue a lot, but this (and other titles) really makes me question who we're writing comic books for these days. I wouldn't want my kids reading this stuff.
I was on the cusp of wavering in recommending Scott Snyder's "Batman #16", as it seems somewhat of a rushed compendium of bad guys in Arkham, set within the "Death of the Family" saga. However, there's some nice writing, and the panels depicting a flaming horse were startling enough to raise an eyebrow. Slightly better is Scott Lobdell's "Teen Titans #15", which also has them squaring up against the Joker (he's a busy guy these past weeks, taking down Batman's clan…gotta wonder how he's getting around town so quickly.) I'm not a "Titans" fan, but this one's well done, and again it slots into the "Family" saga, so it's worth a look. Very nice art. Even better than both is John Layman's "Detective Comics #16", which has Batman dealing with various crazed Joker acolytes across the city. This one has some really good characterization, and feels like it could be a lost chapter from Chris Nolan's "Dark Knight". Again, some disturbing stuff in here. Just as good is "Batman And Robin #16", wherein a drug-addled Batman gets pounded on by Robin in the Gotham Zoo, for Joker's entertainment. Nice inks and great coloring in this title.

More "Batman"-related, is the spin-off "Talon" series (#3, currently), which had surprised me by how much fun it is. It's all about the left-the-fold master assassin of The Court Of Owls, an Illuminati-esque underworld secretly running chunks of Gotham (although the story's only been running this last year.) It's a nice breath of fresh air from all the usual Batman-shenanigans, although the story has many of the same familiar faces.
It's Lobdell again with "Superman #15", which is an adjunct to the (slightly tedious) "H'El" storyline ("H'El"? Gimme a break!), which has Supes visiting an incarcerated Luthor with Superboy in tow. It has all the familiar Hannibal Lecter tropes, but is nicely written and drawn, and a huge fun read.

Over in "Superboy #16", our Super-powered gang have gained access to Supes' locked-down Fortress in order to catch up with villainous H'El. As I said, I don't much care for this bad-guy character, but there's just enough super-powered action and fun Fortress stuff to give this one a grudging thumbs-up.
Meanwhile, "Supergirl #16" has the eponymous lass kicking seven bells out of "The Flash" across various locales within the Fortress, as he tries to stop her being a minion of H'El. (I mean, seriously. What is she thinking? Silly girl.) This is even more fun than "Superboy #16", and ends with a jump-cut to outer space, with a bunch of aliens discovering a galactic entity en-route to Earth. (Can you say "V'Ger"?)
I'm not digging what DC have done with either the costume or attitude change for "Power Girl", which was a fantastic title before the reboot, but even a watered-down Power Girl is better than no Power Girl at all, in "World's Finest #8".
I'm not a fan of "Green Lantern". Back in '98, I was asked by a producer at Warners if I'd be interested in doing the movie, and I turned it down. Given that, you might be surprised when I say that the current cross-title storyline, showing the Guardians eliminating the Lantern Corps across the universe, is about the best Lantern storyline I've read. "Green Lantern Corps #16" starts with a ring-less Gardner in jail, skips to outer space for some planet-size space opera, then back again with the new Lantern, Simon Baz (who I think is terrific). This was a fantastic issue, and I just loved the hell out of it. Two Lantern Corps fingers raised to the vertical. I'm also recommending Tony Bedard's "New Guardians #16", within the same storyline.
Peter Milligan supplies some grown-up Lantern stuff in the surprisingly excellent "Red Lanterns #15", while (again) Milligan has an out-of-control Apollo using Midnighter as a punching bag for the pretty good "Stormwatch #16"
Over in Matt Kindt's "Frankenstein, Agent Of Shade #16"…hmm? A hulking wisecracking monster good-guy's existence is discovered by a human Government operative, with a vaguely-aquatic sidekick in-tow? Say, that sounds like something I adapted for a movie, once. Regardless of the similarities to another title, I've been enjoying what they've done with this character since the reboot. Oh, yeah. There's jetpacks in it, too. Score.
I've loved "Blue Beetle" since the first issue of this DC reboot. "#16" continues the story of tenth grade Hispanic Earth kid Jaime Reyes, stuck inside his symbiotic alien Scarab suit, in this issue fighting a couple of extraterrestrial thugs who are about to toss him into some otherworldly WWE televised grudge match. The art's not quite as sharp in this issue as previous excursions, but…hey. This is a fun book.
Outside the biggies, Mike Johnson writes a neat little "What If" Mirror Universe for JJ Abrams' TOS reboot in IDW's "Star Trek #16". Elder Spock encounters evil Mirror Chris Pine and his captured Narada from the last movie. I'm a sucker for Mirror Universe stories, so this gave me a lasting grin.
Also from IDW, "Godzilla: The Half Century War" has the A.M.F. monster squad as they trail Godzilla, set against the backdrop of a scientist using psionic transmitters to lure the Kaiju Big Guys to cities as WMDs. I've really enjoyed this story so far, and the transmitter-terrorist is a neat plot device.
Last IDW thumbs-up title is "Mars Attacks…The Transformers". I'm too old to have any fond childhood memories of the Autobot/Decepticon TV wars. But…I am a huge "Mars Attacks" fan, and this title is just nuts. I heartily endorse it for a bunch of chuckles.
Meanwhile, Dark Horse reboots "Star Wars"! Just as Disney buys the franchise, over in comic-land, Dark Horse tells a nice little Luke and Leia story.

I remember right after the first movie came out, and Alan Dean Foster's spinoff novel "Splinter Of The Mind's Eye" hit the stands, the opening scene of which had Luke and Leia swooshing through space in their fighters, before promptly crash-landing them on a planet. Brian Wood's story pretty much starts off that same way. Reading the editorial afterwards, The Horse's intention here was to almost make you forget you've seen 30 years of Expanded Universe, and take you right back to 1977 when a Galaxy, Far Far Away first exploded on us. And, you know? I think they succeeded.
Phew. You made it. That's all for this time; hope you stick around for the next (hopefully less exhausting) trawl through fandom's gold.

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