Speed (And Other Considerations)

speed

Speed is, above all else, a journeyman’s movie. Jan de Bont was a DP who had worked with directors as wide-ranging as Ridley Scott, John McTiernan, and Paul Verhoeven before landing the big job, and it was for a movie pitched as “Die Hard on a bus.” Tellingly, de Bont hasn’t directed anything memorable since.

None of this takes anything away from Speed, at all. In fact, this informs the film’s greatest attribute: de Bont, the stunt and effects teams build organically around the bus gimmick. Once the bomb is armed, and Keanu Reeves’ earnest, adrenaline junkie cop is on board, every setpiece plays like a how-to for keeping a bus above 50 mph in various levels of L.A. traffic–freeways, gridlock, and an under-construction interchange get their moments in the spotlight–all requiring on-the-fly thinking and a great deal of luck. Weight, momentum, fuel level, all practical matters are factored in. Speed stealthily pulls off the procedural blockbuster a year before Michael Mann’s Heat. Punch ups and a cast of memorable personalities fill out the script: the passengers, Sandra Bullock especially, match surfer-cool Reeves with with dry, cynical humor about their situation; Dennis Hopper’s meticulous, mugging bomber would’ve made a great Joker. Textbook as it is (a couple circular pans aside, de Bont favors impersonal lock shots), there’s a consideration here sorely lacking in, say, The Avengers and its billion-dollar franchise ilk. Where those films could benefit from logistical thinking, they instead replace action with busy CG and fast edits offloaded onto a second unit. If nothing else, journeyman filmmakers should at least be interested in process.

Accidents in the Course of “Destiny”

destiny

In the 40 minutes it took for Destiny to install onto my PS3 hard drive, I got to look at a lot of pretty artwork. It detailed worlds of ships and alien spheres, floating rock formations and vast cities half-abandoned to terraformed nature. When the game finally boots up, players are given a choice of three races to portray–plain humans, mutated humans who resemble elves, and machines curiously divided into two genders–then are sent out, in spaceships lifted from the Star Wars prequels, to fight aliens in the ruins of a great human diaspora.

This being a Bungie joint, the plot is more Joseph Campbell than Octavia Butler. Like their Halo franchise, Bungie slots player avatars into the role of a hibernating super-soldier, revived in humanity’s darkest hour (reduced to a picturesque city one only sees as a skybox from a tower hub, between quests). You are a chosen one (ironically one of many, since this is an online multiplayer game) to save the empire from a “Darkness” fronted by three shades of bloodthirsty alien hordes. They seek to destroy the Traveler, a machine god which spurred the acceleration of human evolution (and holds the key to stopping the evil). There’s even an A.I. sidekick (voiced by a bored-sounding Peter Dinklage) for exposition, comic relief, and key to all the locked doors and deactivated tech–a walking monomyth device.

Lore established and universe primed, players are thrust into total war. Destiny‘s society, like Halo‘s before it, gives pride of place to combat and scavenging: kill aliens, collect bounties and valuable minerals, bring them back and get better gear to help kill more aliens (and collect more bounties and minerals) (there is a currency system, but it’s largely made irrelevant by quests which offer the same rewards as hoarding money). Story missions get all the pomp and circumstance (complete with a rousing soundtrack and Dinklage assuring you everything is important), but each planet’s Patrol segments are littered with barely-disguised fetch quests, meant to get back a piece of tech or gain some tactical insight into the enemy. Grunts are put through punishing firefights to help their superiors make incremental gains.

Curiously, though, there is no evidence of a rigid, militaristic hierarchy on Earth. Soft-spoken beings with important-sounding titles (i.e. “the Speaker) are on hand to say what needs done, but this never gets harsher than a strong suggestion. MMO quest mentality is taken for granted, the developers anticipating players willing to go into battle simply for the promise of better gear. Here is where Destiny finds its place and its fun.

Players drop into their battlefield from orbit. They wander around a bit, marvel at colossal structures, get into firefights. Other players may ride over a hill, then rush in to assist in eliminating enemy forces. This may lead to one party inviting another to join a “Fireteam,” to keep working together on whatever problem is to be killed. Just as often, players will simply tag along until paths diverge. Calms between setpieces allow for reloading, friendly actions mapped to the D-pad (if you don’t have a headset to help build camaraderie). A community of loose affiliates facing annihilation, ready to split up at any time but will back each other up–more utilitarian than heroic.

Unfortunately, this aspect only seems to be an accident of an efficient, online shooter design which borrows liberally from World Of Warcraft and Farmville. After all, Bungie’s emphasis remains on rote dynastic struggles, appeals to vague ideals, nonexistent plot, sturdy soldiers of fortune wiping out those different from them, and dangling hooks for sequels/DLC. Capturing anything resembling human in their space opera, let alone exploring it, never seems close to the front of their thoughts.

What Kind of Horrors Await Inside? Comics, That’s What Kind

All-New Ultimates #7
Art by Giannis Milonogiannis and Jordie Bellaire
Writing by Michel Fiffe
Published by Marvel

all-new-ultimates-7

Beyond the surface style, the notable change brought by fill-in illustrator Giannis Milonogiannis (King CityProphet) is space. The previous six issues, under Amilcar Pinna, consisted of tightly wound, close-cropped images, often packed together on the page. Threats–be they Warriors-rejects the Serpent Skulls, reactionary vigilante Scourge, or even the cops on their tail–were always closing in to take out the Ultimates. Milonogiannis, who takes more after French artist Moebius than John Romita, Jr. or Frank Miller (Pinna’s apparent influences for the series), instead draws the eye back as the Ultimates search for Skulls leader Crossbones, who has disappeared into the New York sewer system. The underground environment overtakes the characters; even in close-ups, the superheroes only ever take up a quarter of any given panel. It approaches the menace of Michel Fiffe’s scripts from a different path, focusing on the city’s labyrinthine structures themselves rather than what lurks within. The teen heroes’ descent connects the subculture of urban exploration with the adventure fiction which was part of classic superhero comics–in essence, they are discovering a new(ish) world, complete with a monster on the prowl. Youthful possibility colliding with fear of the unknown.

Catwoman #34
Art by Pat Oliffe, Tom Nguyen, and Sonia Oback
Writing by Ann Nocenti
Published by DC

catwoman-34

Not much to say about Ann Nocenti’s Catwoman run I haven’t said before. This, the final issue of said run, is closer to what it should have been: free of larger, editorial-driven-bullshit-crossovers and guest writers, focused entirely on Catwoman sneaking around darkened buildings, mucking things up for someone more criminal than her. Social commentary that’s on the nose but tied into the story, rather than being ripped-from-the-headlines window dressing meant to make a comic seem smarter than it is. This time, we’re reading about online dating/gaming/harassment, where sidekick Alice Tesla is being wooed by a creep who wants to steal all her private data (said creep even does up a 3-D printing of her in a chainmail bikini). Pat Oliffe gets a couple good illustrations in–a stat panel used to make silence the punchline to a quip-y exchange; a collage of Catwoman bouncing around a room, looking for weaknesses in security, while Tesla’s Zen-like observing is used to divide the panel. Tom Nguyen doesn’t make any glaring mistakes on inks, and Sonia Oback’s colors do the job. The story (largely) wraps up, and is allowed to be its own (unremarkable) thing. Given the state of DC, editorially speaking, this is as graceful an exit as Nocenti could have hoped for.

The Fade Out #1
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Writing by Ed Brubaker
Published by Image

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If Fatale was Brubaker/Phillips’ statement on the suffocating presence of sexism in human civilization (and its art), The Fade Out #1 reads like self-flagellation. Screenwriter Charlie Parish wakes up in the home of actress Valeria Sommers, finding she’s been strangled. He panics and wipes away evidence he was there, stumbling into a larger coverup, where the studio which employed them makes the death look like a suicide. Charlie’s realization of this is set to panels of him walking in front of illustrated recreations of scenes from black & white films (depicting a cowboy, a gangster, and duelists), mourning his double-failure as a man–first at not being able to save Valeria from her killer (or even awake when the murder occurred), then in not coming forward with the truth. Coming out at a time when women in the comic field are openly discussing a culture of harassment in the industry, the parallel (despite a light whiff of its own sexism in the implication Charlie should have “protected” Valeria) only becomes clearer. In the comic, guilt overtakes Charlie, and a need soon emerges to talk (vaguely warning another associate off from going to a Hollywood party), to ease his conscience. Obstructing the truth was meant to save his skin, but it burdens his conscience. Silence is shown as the worst crime of all.

Original Sin #8
Art by Mike Deodato and Frank Martin
Writing by Jason Aaron
Published by Marvel

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Lots of clatter and racket, plenty of epilogues to hype for spinoff series (the comic even reminds readers to buy them), even some grotesque imagery (Nick Fury dangling the Watcher’s eyeballs from his hand), but what story was actually told? As a whodunit, Original Sin had few suspects and fewer motives, keeping intrigue to a bare minimum; in fact, the answer boils down to “If this person didn’t do it, then this series wouldn’t exist.” As a summer blockbuster superhero crossover, action consisted of a string of pinup shots, barely held together by scenery and with only the faintest idea of stakes (some villain wants to control the world, maybe?). If one squints hard enough, there’s a sense of cosmic, even divine, judgment at work against the crossover’s principal character–grizzled Nick Fury, perpetually shrouded in secrets and fighting hidden wars where he acts as judge, jury, executioner–as he’s sentenced to a terrible fate. This even suggests some political stance on Barack Obama’s kill-list approach to the War on Terror, but is garbled on its own terms (Ann Nocenti, even under the most dictatorial editors, beats this tripe): while Fury suffers for his crime, his place is taken by another, and the other heroes express doubts on whether or not he was wrong, in the shadowy quiet of Frank Martin’s colors. An illusion of damage within a story not even told.

POST-SCRIPT:

Of course, some might say having a coherent plot with actual character motivations or action which is better than a string of barely-related still frames might be too much to ask. This is, after all, a superhero crossover, meant to shift numbers. But! If competence is too high a hurdle to ask these things to jump, then why should anyone be excited to fork over money (their own money, even, which they presumably worked to attain) to giant corporations which charge extra for giving less of a shit?

What Social Life? – Movies 2014: August

The beat goes on:

  • Croc (2007) – Dir. Stewart Raffill
  • Thale (2012) – Dir. Aleksander Nordaas
  • Snowpiercer (2014) – Dir. Bong Joon Ho
  • Godzilla Raids Again (1955) – Dir. Motoyoshi Oda
  • Lucy (2014) – Dir. Luc Besson
  • The Hunt for Red October (1990) – Dir. John McTiernan
  • Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) – Dir. John Carpenter
  • Shock (1946) – Dir. Alfred L. Werker
  • The Raid (2012) – Dir. Gareth Evans
  • The Raid 2 (2014) – Dir. Gareth Evans
  • Escape From L.A. (1996) – Dir. John Carpenter: Killer ending, rest of the movie’s pretty bad, though.
  • Fantomas II: Juve vs. Fantomas (1913) – Dir. Louis Feuillade
  • Batman Begins (2005) – Dir. Christopher Nolan
  • Mars Attacks (1996) – Dir. Tim Burton
  • The Conversation (1974) – Dir. Francis Ford Coppola: Favorite for the month.
  • Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013) – Dir. Lars Von Trier: Ugh, this movie.
  • Lisa & the Devil (1974) – Dir. Mario Bava
  • Dracula 3000 (2004) – Dir. Darrell Roodt
  • The Dark Knight (2008) – Dir. Christopher Nolan
  • Jug Face (2013) – Dir. Chad Crawford Kinkle
  • You’re Next (2013) – Dir. Adam Wingard
  • World’s Greatest Dad (2009) – Dir. Bob Goldthwait
  • The People Under the Stairs (1991) – Dir. Wes Craven
  • Men In Black (1996) – Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld
  • Bellflower (2011) – Dir. Evan Glodell
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Dir. Christopher Nolan

Total: 26 (YTD: 130)

No unifying theme this month. Re-watching The Dark Knight trilogy was primarily intellectual exercise. Since Rises, I’ve come away from other people discussing those movies feeling like certain criticisms (“too dark,” “humorless,” and especially the parts about that interrogation scene being “pro-torture” or whatever) just rang false. Wanted to see if my original takeaways held up in hindsight (yes and no).

Movies from this year: caught Snowpiercer close to its final week (if not the actual final week), at the Alamo Drafthouse in Kalamazoo. If I were to get down to it, the venue was better than the film itself (and it should’ve been at the prices they charged), but I appreciated how much Bong Joon Ho drew upon Terry Gilliam in making it. The kids singing about freezing to death, Chris Evans slipping on a fish, the way nothing about the train adheres to any spatial logic, just these patently absurd visual moments. There’s a sense that, even to its super-serious lead, hardly anything about this situation registers as real. This also proves its undoing, since the ending is just total arm-flailing nonsense.

Kind of like Lucy, the other theatrical release I caught in August. Besson fucking about with stupid premises has been a pretty big money-making enterprise for him, and here he uses psuedoscience (the “humans only use 10% of their brain” fallacy) to remake the bits from Akira where Tetsuo murders people and horribly mutates. Lucy even threatens cosmic implications as Scarlett Johansson sands off her attempts to pass for a party girl in favor of a Terminator-esque scan-and-act mode, which in turn gives way to a cold, alien goddess handing down edicts for mankind to follow. The rest of it, though? The Asian drug cartel has moments–the leader washing blood off his hands with bottled water–but is only a plot mechanic (and a racist one at that), as is Morgan Freeman explaining things, and the French cop? No real need for him at all. And, while everything which Johansson does is loony, her performance is too restrained to really carry the film. She needs other personalities to bounce off her, and Besson doesn’t commit to that, so the film just peters out.

A lot like this post.

The Dark Knight

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Quietly, assuredly, Christian Bale gives a fascinating portrait to Bruce Wayne’s moral and spiritual crisis in The Dark Knight. Last time around, fatherly confidante Alfred (Michael Caine) warned Bruce he was “getting lost in this monster”; Bale seems to have run with this line. A year on, Bruce has subsumed every facet of his life into the War on Crime/Corruption: through his company and CEO/gadgeteer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), he fakes merger talks with an exec who launders mob money, in order to get a look at their finances; he arranges a fundraiser for district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), apparent savior to Gotham, through his high society connections; of course, as Batman, he pummels mobsters and helps the police get around pesky jurisdiction laws. This obsessive-compulsive, dominant behavior plays out in the (mostly) improved fight scenes: fists guarding his head, Bruce directs attackers to his ribs, catching them with elbow counterattacks before using them as human battering rams. Gadgets are always placed in advance of actual need. Bruce, then, is an extension of Bale the actor, compartmentalized in body language and vocalization at all times (going into a Terminator mode when a thug gets in his way en route to a costume change). He’s a performance put on to distract everyone. Bruce will let the mask slip in the presence of his tiny social circle–a chuckle when Alfred gives a well-timed “told you so”, or expressing fears to friend/would-be lover Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes). The rest of the time, though? He’s in control.

That is, until a psychotic clown shows up and starts blowing everything up.

Throughout the film, Christopher Nolan defines Bruce by his relationships to the men around him: he looks up to Alfred and Fox, trusts Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), appointed as head of Gotham’s Major Crimes Unit, and wishes to be Dent (not least of which because he is the preferred rival for Rachel’s affections). Then there’s the Joker (Heath Ledger): a conniving, nasal-voiced madman who frustrates any attempt to pin ideology onto him, shifting the goal posts (and his origins) depending on who he is having a conversation with–chaos the sole motif. He has no civilian identity, either, nothing human to tether him. The Joker is what awaits Bruce if he loses to the monster.

Tellingly, the Joker is the only person, other than Alfred and Rachel, Batman loses his cool with. In a fluorescent-lit interrogation room, Joker tells him both Harvey and Rachel have been abducted and will be murdered. Rage boils over. The Bat smacks the clown’s head against glass, then starts punching him harder, harder. Hans Zimmer’s electric, buzzing score raises in pitch. Batman’s “one rule”–the oath against killing–might be broken. Earlier, when Gordon is shot, Batman breaks a mobster’s legs before realizing he’s going too far; the only thing stopping him in that interrogation room is a time limit. The result is tragic: Rachel dies; Harvey becomes scarred, vengeful Two-Face.

Outside those moments, Bruce tries to understand, if not empathize, insisting on figuring out Joker’s motives. Given another chance to break the rule, he saves the villain from death, saying he should be “in a padded cell,” preferring laws which grant leniency to the mentally ill over vengeance. This follows on from two previous strands: the affinity Bruce has for the poor and downtrodden in Batman Begins, and the way he steps in to save one of Joker’s henchman (a paranoid schizophrenic) from enhanced interrogation. Mistakes made and lessons learned, he sets about mending the damage–preventing SWAT from killing hostages and buying time for Gotham citizens to choose empathy over the Joker’s dog-eat-dog worldview.

Unfortunately, by this point, Bruce’s compounded anger and fear–of losing himself, his love, his humanity–lead him to cross a number of lines. Aside from the vigilantism and torture, he’s engaged in kidnapping and spied on Gotham citizens. By the time he’s foiled Joker and caught wind of Two-Face’s murder spree, there’s no turning back. Violence and terror have reached a fever pitch. Only one option for de-escalation: let the monster win, then cast him out.

No, I’m Not Tired, I’m Resigned to My Fate

Comics news of late? No, definitely not getting into that. It’s horrible. And it’s just going to be the same drumbeat.

fatale-24

Fatale #24
Art by Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Writing by Ed Brubaker
Published by Image

Fatale has been, if nothing else, smart. The three distinct arcs for the series–and the one-off fillers which took up a bit too much of the series’ middle run–have all been about male gaze. Josephine, the supernatural femme fatale, has powers boil down to seduction, yes, but this largely plays on an aspect of masculinity which is already there: desire to control and possess. Josephine goes skinny dipping before the issue’s climax, and an older acquaintance reminds her “I’m still a man.” The next page shows sharks, circling Josephine as she floats on the ocean surface. Sean Phillips casts this image similarly to the night swimming Josephine does in the L.A. arc, itself a play on romance comic imagery, pulling back to reveal the predatory nature of watching Josephine’s private moments. Themes of sexism are tied to historical corruption throughout the series: crooked cops and mobsters in the 40s, Hollywood exploitation in the 70s, or even further back to Inquisitions and Crusades, where men in power abuse and destroy those they’ve kept beneath them–particularly women. The tenth issue ended on Josephine asserting her own sexuality, only for this bodily ownership to be turned back on her later by serial rapists and musicians (among others) projecting their demons onto her. Since this is working solely from tropes, though, Phillips and Ed Brubaker do not conceive any end to this horror, only an escape. To no longer be noticed by men. Cynical, self-defeating, but perhaps enough for a single life.

caliban-5

Caliban #5
Art by Facundo Percio
and Hernan Cabrera
Writing by Garth Ennis
Published by Avatar

A plotline which revolves around decoding the remnants of an alien history. Men altered into homicidal beasts by chemicals and parasites. Vast collections of incomprehensible objects and animals. Human bodies reduced to fragile playthings for cold, pitiless monsters. Everything in Caliban moves from the freakshow setup of Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus, but brushes off the idiot box twists and returns to something desperate, panicked. The rapidly dwindling cast of survivors cook up plans for dealing with a possessed/mutated crew member–this time a spacewalk to get the engines running for the alien ship they’re stranded on–only to find they cannot outmatch their enemy. Garth Ennis, as always, moves the script at a rapid clip, powering through exposition with sidebar translations met with gruff annoyance at attempts to explain the obvious. Facundo Percio is fine with the crew, faces all expressive with grimaces and forlorn head-hanging (the ship captain, despairing the death of a lover two issues prior); he stumbles, though, in the actual carnage. Aliens are shown with basic, impersonal designs, while violence is depicted in flat, static handholds, forcing Ennis to sell the moment with pained screams. Even mangled, still living persons do not appear to suffer. It actually works better to cut these bits out, altogether, showing the arrival of a horrible thing, then the reaction of survivors to what it does (crew member Malik cradling sobbing technician Nomi as everything gets worse). Perhaps a streamlined edition is in order, focused solely around humans struggling to process the inhuman?

Batman Begins

Confidently, I remembered most of Batman Begins beat for beat. The one aspect I did forget, though, subsumed by the momentum of Christopher Nolan’s latter Bat-films, was how tentative it was. Large patches of dialogue are clunky, sounding like meddlesome studio notes–beyond the Wayne Tower employee explaining the significance of Ra’s al Ghul’s stolen microwave emitter repeatedly during the final showdown, there’s also Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne asking for clarification of obvious points throughout the opening act (Liam Neeson says he can become “invisible,” and he responds “Invisible?”). The choppy editing of fight scenes doesn’t help, either. Initial goings suggest Nolan is aiming to put audiences in a position of weakness: fights play out first from Bruce’s POV, when he’s outmatched during his training; when he becomes Batman, we then see criminals and cops reacting to, and attempting to process, this predatory, almost supernatural figure, glimpsed fleetingly and leaving broken bodies (the sequence where Batman surgically strikes Scarecrow’s gang in Arkham Asylum, then escapes Gotham PD, is the film’s best). The climactic showdown, where Bruce confronts the genocidal would-be father figure aboard the hijacked remains of his real father’s public transit system, is where Nolan’s choices betray him. Unwilling to show even a complete attack chain, the fight is simply a mess which ends on a false punishment note.

So what makes Batman Begins successful, despite such huge, fundamental mistakes for an action film? Breaking down Bruce Wayne. Nolan and co-writer David Goyer introduce the man at his lowest point: grubby, imprisoned, fighting random thugs, and most of all angry. Flashbacks reveal not only his parents’ murder and the resulting fragile emotional state, but a narrowness of vision. When the mugger is scheduled for early release, in exchange for testimony against a crime boss, he fumes at this, even when the killer expresses genuine regret. This almost leads him to assassinate the man, before getting a rude awakening to how crime and class intersect. A childhood friend (Katie Holmes) who lacked the insulation of billion dollar inheritance shows him the crime bosses and ruling class pals who profit off a system which creates more abject poverty, the kind which leads to similar tragedies he endured. Shocked and in need of new purpose, he wanders the globe, training with al Ghul’s ninja clan in the ways of vigilantism. Their solution, however, rests on wiping out the poor and the downtrodden. Disgusted, Bruce blows up their HQ.

While Christian Bale retains the physique of Patrick Bateman, the vainglorious, murderous WASP he portrayed in American Psycho, Nolan codes Bruce in working class terms. He spies on targets while wearing ratty coats and baseball caps, assembles his arsenal and constructs the Batcave in jeans and T-shirts, and bicker banters with Cockney-accented Alfred (Michael Caine) on everything from mask construction to daytime hobbies. When Bruce does dress upper, Bale goes into a smirking, preening vaudeville mode, a chandelier-lit mockery of privilege. Notably, his public return to Gotham (and Wayne Enterprises) involves helping a secretary practice golf, disrupting a CEO’s get-even-richer dealings. As Batman, he doesn’t randomly attack petty crooks, but specifically targets authorities (mobster Carmine Falcone; crooked judges and cops who have to swear to him; the abusive, greedy doctor who becomes Scarecrow). He networks with a blue-collar Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Nolan’s Bruce Wayne follows an edict: wipe out corruption in the halls of power, level the playing field, allow opportunity to spread. Crime will dwindle as a result. Bale, Nolan, and Goyer redistribute a fascistic, 1% icon into a figure of bleeding heart populism, then drop him into a class war conspiracy in a rain-drenched, Blade Runner inspired ghetto. This core, considered ideal powers through Nolan’s awkward transition to blockbuster filmmaking.

The Raid 2

The Raid 2 uses its budget upgrade to expand on the human fragility which underscored its predecessor. Claustrophobic hallways are traded for spacious scenery and lavish interiors, often shot in bird’s eye view, actors taking up only a tiny portion of the screen. Fights become bigger, juggling multiple combatants across multiple locations (including a car chase with three distinct layers). Even the threat is much more overwhelming: this time out, rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) goes undercover into the Jakarta mob, entrenched with local police and at an uneasy truce with their Japanese counterparts. A Big Business/Big Government venture with its own internal, arcane logic around which it revolves. It’s a system too big for one man to dismantle. There’s even a suggestion all that’s really happening is a managerial shakeup.

In that sense, The Raid 2 plays out as much a companion to Johnnie To’s Drug War as a followup act to The Raid–straightlaced agent of the law (and piety, Rama holding fast to his Islamic faith when offered booze) up against a criminal enterprise consisting of large personalities. Director Gareth Evans makes Rama an incidental player in the gangster drama, protecting (possibly enabling) a duplicitous heir until ambition turns to bloodshed. Otherwise, his role becomes dispatching foot soldiers and three elite assassins (each with themed weapons). Despite the often massive scale of fight scenes (i.e. the prison riot), not only is everything clearly defined, Evans even makes them intimate, personal. Beyond the requisite bloodletting and bone-breaking, character beats are woven into action (“Baseball Bat Man” signing to his sister “Hammer Girl” before a fight; Rama slowing his roll against the main Assassin for their second bout, to better study an enemy which got the KO last time). The larger machinations are left to their own devices, probably to be reset; Rama’s real concern lies with his familial obligations (a wife and baby son at home, a brother to be avenged). It’s through this tension between indifferent forces and personal desire a portrait emerges: uncomplicated as he is, there’s a ferocity in Rama’s Silat martial arts style with elbows, knees, repurposed weapons turned back on his enemies, anything which will do more damage to others than they can do to him. The Raid 2, then, plays like Gareth Evans’ thesis on corruption and bureaucracy: one shouldn’t hope to annihilate it, only to outlive it.

Still Making the Wrong Choices, I Sit Down and Write About Comic Books Again

San Diego Comic Con happened recently. I remember reading the reports out of it, but none of it stuck. I’m sure some nice comics, movies, or something or other will be coming towards people.

Velvet #6
Art by Steve Epting and Elizabeth Breitweiser
Writing by Ed Brubaker
Published by Image

velvet-6

I’m not sure if Velvet is considered the B-title for Ed Brubaker’s Image run, but that would be an accurate assessment. Where his horror noir Fatale continually pushed and prodded against the structure it laid down from the first issue, Velvet has settled into an ordinary rhythm, like Saga or any number of other Image ongoing series. The directional flip of panels from the first issue–where action followed a right-to-left progression which opposed the left-to-right reading format it operated in, creating tension–has been filed off while the comic goes with the usual paranoid thriller trappings (this issue, Velvet Templeton goes to black ops allies hidden in the porn shops and sex parties of London’s Soho district). This becomes largely a showcase for Elizabeth Breitweiser’s coloring, her favorite red/blue combination oozing into the rainy nightlife as Velvet walks amongst a crowd of punks and perverts. She carries Steve Epting, who’s traded in compositional tension for a more rote stylization (circular inset panels detailing Velvet’s list of suspected double agents). It also means she’s carrying the series, since Brubaker’s scripting is leaning solely on genre savviness.

Teen Titans #1
Art by Kenneth Rocafort and Dan Brown
Writing by Will Pfeifer
Published by DC

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While this is yet another reboot, Teen Titans #1 dispenses with proper introductions. Instead, Will Pfeifer and Kenneth Rocafort deliver a single action scene to show off the abilities of the Teens–Red Robin, Wonder Girl, Beast Boy, Raven, and Bunker–as they battle techno-terrorists who have hijacked a bus full of kids on their way to a military-industrial complex lab. This should be a great way to start a series. Rocafort even has a couple nifty sequences (such as a collage piece detailing a terrorist shoving a child to the back of the bus, then out the door), but there’s little here that’s surprising or captivating. The lead terrorist is a faceless anarchist, a collection of stock ideals masking a who-gives-a-shit mystery. There’s no establishing shots to show how close the bus is to its hijacker’s intended destination, so tension is zilch, even while Rocafort’s wide panels and herky-jerky layouts continually stress forward movement. For a spotlight issue, it’s also surprisingly disinterested in process, the Titans doing little more than showing up and throwing bad guys off the bus (Pfeifer’s underrated Aquaman run found creative uses for the underwater superhero’s powers). Red Robin coordinates the rescue from a laptop, then swoops in to save a hostage, and another Titan is sent ahead for the finale, yet there’s no sense of purpose, thought, or even the spontaneity associated with teenagers. Instead we get drab heroics and villainy. Something which just exists.

Also: Wonder Girl’s tube top outfit is ridiculous.

Ragnarok #1
Art Walter Simonson and Laura Martin
Writing by Simonson
Published by IDW

ragnarok-1

Open the comic, watch Vikings get slaughtered by trolls and a wolf the size of an office block. Turn the page and see a lone god, Thor, standing above this fray on a hilltop being obliterated by lightning, as he stares down a serpent which spans two pages. The next spread, the panels get narrower, the lightning grows dimmer, until finally there is a long strip of black. Welcome to the end.

Simonson’s return to Norse mythology goes to the place his acclaimed run on Marvel’s Thor comics never could. Humanity’s gone and the gods are dead, leaving behind a barren, blue landscape dotted with the occasional ruin, the world a flicker of a shadow of its former glory. The remaining populace consists of elves and monsters, cutthroats scrabbling for immortality and pleasure at the end of history. The Road Warrior by way of a Fumito Ueda videogame. We’re introduced to elf assassin Brynja, tasked by a metallic demon with killing a god again before he can be reborn–in exchange for her daughter’s eternal life. Simonson’s linework is loose, often sketchy, Brynja’s traveling party becoming part of scenery which is fading into mist. What “countless” casualty Avengers comics could ever hope to top this?

Veronica Mars

Showrunners really shouldn’t be allowed to direct the movies spun out of their TV shows. Enjoyable as it was, Joss Whedon’s Serenity was a lens flare eyesore, while Rob Thomas’ Kickstarted revival of Veronica Mars never works up the courage to be a real film. Constructed around a “where are they now” premise–there’s even a 10-year high school reunion the eponymous (former) high school PI wants to avoid–the film saunters. Occasionally, it scratches at the loftier ideas the show hit on, but only as a reminder to fans already inclined to watch the thing.

Thankfully, Kristen Bell’s semi-successful stint in rom-coms hasn’t diluted the raspy bite to her voice. As Veronica, she narrates with an often-dry, ironic commentary; actual dialogue consists of terse exchanges with her father, former classmates and friends, even would-be employers. Like other heroines of the Whedon milieu, she’s self-aware, too, a fact which, coupled with hindsight, works to Thomas’ advantage: drawn back to her  stratified California hometown to clear her ex, Logan, of murder, Veronica’s predicament is likened to an alcoholic in a bar. Like many addicts, Veronica knows from experience what embroiling herself in Neptune, CA’s class-conflict will result in, but compulsion gets the best of her. Soon, she’s making excuses and pleading for leniency, then ignoring calls from the law firm which offered her a job and brushing off a comfortably nice boyfriend before, finally, she rationalizes her decision to return to the life she swore off. Her ending monologue comes across comfortably resigned to this cycle of relapse, self-destruction, recovery.

If Thomas had stuck solely to murder mystery-cum-psychodrama, Veronica Mars the movie would’ve been fine, yet we live in the age of the franchise, the reboot, and the tacked on world-building. It’s not enough there’s already 3 seasons of foundation, audiences have to be prepped for more to come. Subplots are setup solely for sequel grist: a crooked Sheriff’s Department performing stop & frisks help frame a former biker friend of Veronica’s, which relates to a case her father is working on with “a man inside.” Half hour from the endpoint, these confluent events tease an obliterated status quo, leaving a minor character dead and a major one hospitalized. Resolutions are off the table, though, to be continued in a possible sequel or series reboot. Filler to prepare for an underwhelming slasher climax where Veronica gets to turn the tables on a killer (botched if only because it starts with her cornered then escaping and ambushing the culprit, diffusing any attempt at tension). This is where Thomas could’ve used an actual director: someone to chop off the loose bits, or those which would only please fans, and reconfigure the script until it was tight. Someone who would’ve extended that gritty, 80s Joel Silver sheen from neon-saturated nights into the sunny days the film largely operates in. Someone who would rather have one excellent sendoff to a cult hit than a meager mass of carrots saying, “Maybe there’s more to come.”