Vacation

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Warner Bros. torch-passing reboot of the National Lampoon’s Vacation series bookends with PowerPoint credits sequences of vacation photos, both real and starring the film’s characters. Many appear innocuous and pleasant, until unfolding to reveal an uncomfortable or darkly humorous context. It frames the film between them, where grownup Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) attempts to rehash his original family trip to Walley World with his own brood, as a selectively edited memory. Rusty’s wife (Christina Applegate, given little to do) and sons (Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins) are even more dysfunctional than the previous Griswolds: she wants more passion and spontaneity back in the relationship; the elder son is an awkward, sensitive boy unwilling to defend himself against a younger brother whose sociopathy threatens to cross over into murder. Rusty insists, like his father before him, this Vacation will strengthen their bond, yet he steamrolls over their disinterest in his nostalgia.

The film, from Horrible Bosses scribes John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, toys with this self-critique: Rusty’s obsession with perfect moments is initially sad (he has the urge to keep up with the Joneses when another family is invited to dinner), but borders on creepy as the film progresses. When Gisondo’s guitar-playing teen chats up a girl who is clearly interested in him, Rusty inserts himself as a wingman, his smug grin leaving her with the impression he’s a pedophile (a subject revisited again and again, especially with a trucker who straps a teddy bear to the grille of his rig). When she runs off, he cluelessly assumes she wasn’t interested in his dweeb offspring.

Repeatedly, views other than his baffle and confuse Rusty. Staying for dinner at his sister (Leslie Mann)’s home, he sees her pleading her wealthy, hyper-masculine Texan husband (Chris Hemsworth) to be allowed to get a job and continues assuming they’re happily married. Rusty has to overhear his family’s complaints about their annual cabin trip before noticing their desperation in photographs. When learning of his wife’s wild years in college, he struggles to maintain the image of his family he’d rather have than face the reality of what it is.

Daley & Goldstein suggest Helms’ Rusty is emotionally scarred, unable to process his own memories. A third-act visit to his parents reveals Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) never recovered from his meltdown, at seeing Walley World closed for repairs all those years ago. With bulging eyes and what remains of his hair fraying in multiple directions like lightning, he’s an unsettling presence pockmarked with bitterness and suggesting the early signs of dementia. Rusty is unable to face this fact, only absorb his father’s perspective.

The film portrays the stop as a revitalizing moment, Rusty becoming more determined to reach Walley World after the preceding failures and his wife realizing she still loves him after all. Pecking order reestablished–with a few modest tweaks (the older brother finally learns he should be tormenting his younger sibling; Rusty decides to take his wife on the Paris trip she wanted)–they have the bonding moment Rusty desired. It’s a sham, though, achieved through belligerence and maintained by a husband/father holding all the purse strings. Behind the cutesy shit gags, sex farce, and callbacks/’subversions’ to the original film, an ugly truth unfolds.

Monsters: Dark Continent

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was a slog. It treated both its sci-fi conceit (an infestation of squid-like aliens breaking through all measures to contain them) and the political allegory behind it (debates over illegal immigration in America, particularly from Mexico) as the locale for a backpacking trip where two rich white people fall in love. Every scene limped along with repetitive, nonsensical dialogue, assured at its own self-importance. Mildly interesting ideas flailed at the edges and basic questions went unacknowledged. Monsters: Dark Continent is half a world away in location (trading Latin America for an unspecified Middle East) and in tone: the structure and perspective remains, but testosterone-fueled aggression is cranked up. Its central journey is less Richard Linklater and more Call of Duty: Black Ops (though I’m sure the half-assed aim was for Apocalypse Now), with a squad of grunts brought in from every bad stereotype of Detroit (a prologue set in the Motor City resembles a Kid Rock video) to fight monsters and insurgents while a Paul Giamatti lookalike screams at them in overexposed white light. The monsters are even less a presence this time, often seen as grunting generics galloping around, the hired help replacing Edwards unwilling to do anything interesting with them besides rehash his film’s intimate climax. Monsters was merely tiresome, Dark Continent feels like punishment.

 

Maggie

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What’s initially startling in Maggie is how utterly normal Arnold Schwarzenegger is. He’s still framed as massive, immoveable, even menacing when staring down a cop antagonizing him. At times, Henry Hobson stages the actor contemplating against barren landscapes, the spirit of Milius’ Conan the Barbarian alive within the body of a humble farmer. Yet, faced with an untenable situation, Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) falters, hesitates. His oldest daughter, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), is zombie-infected, and he has to choose: send her to quarantine or put her down himself when she turns.

Against advice, Wade keeps Maggie at their home with his second wife. It’s a small defiance, though. They follow guidelines, take precautions (sending their youngest children away), play mostly by the rules. Unlike the dystopia of Hobson’s last go-around with zombies, The Last of Us, this pandemic is somewhat managed. Martial law in the nearby Kansas City aside, life is routine as ever. The occasional gas station may be occupied by a ravenous cannibal, but they still operate. Rural teens still sneak out to the reservoirs and party. Talk radio and NPR are still on the air. Phones, even landlines, still operate. Wade and Maggie joke about Mrs. Vogel’s cooking. Beauty and warmth mingle with soul-crushing horror. America’s infrastructure, bureaucratic and occasionally cruel, remains. Wade doesn’t believe he can overcome it, nor does he want to. All he wants is to be a reliable father, protecting Maggie until disease cuts her life short.

Schwarzenegger hones on this need to be rock solid, flipping Wade’s brooding to quiet assurances, wiping away a tear before embracing a distraught Maggie. His scenes with Breslin are fantastic: the mythic action star now a dad who can’t bring himself to pull a trigger. Even when the film cops out his decisions, their weight remains.

Why Stop Now? – Movies 2015: June

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  1. 0009-1: The End of the Beginning (2013) – Dir. Koichi Sakamoto
  2. Dragon Eyes (2012) – Dir. John Hyams
  3. Inherent Vice (2014) – Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
  4. Jupiter Ascending (2015) – Dir. Lana and Andy Wachowski
  5. The Fog (1980) – Dir. John Carpenter
  6. Beowulf (2003) – Dir. Robert Zemeckis
  7. Toad Road (2012) – Dir. Jason Banker
  8. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) – Ana Lily Armipour
  9. Spy (2015) – Dir. Paul Fieg
  10. Venom (2005) – Dir. Jim Gillespie
  11. A Trip to the Moon (1902) – Dir. Georges Méliès: For some reason, Netflix had a version with, *ahem*, ‘comical’ narration.
  12. Thief (1981) – Dir. Michael Mann
  13. Jurassic World (2015) – Dir. Colin Trevorrow
  14. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels () – Dir. Guy Ritchie
  15. Nightbreed (1990) – Dir. Clive Barker: Director’s Cut
  16. Primer (2004) – Dir. Shane Carruth
  17. Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) – Dir. Jeff Barnaby
  18. Spring (2014) – Dir. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead
  19. Phantoms (1998) – Dir. Joe Chappelle
  20. Ju-On 2 (2003) – Dir. Takashi Shimizu
  21. The Zero Theorem (2013) – Dir. Terry Gilliam
  22. Mortal Kombat (1995) – Dir. Paul W.S. Anderson

YTD: 131

All-New, All-Different Melancholia

In my tentative steps back into the steamy pool of comics, I’ve been overly cautious in what I’m picking out. Luckily, shop owners are sent stacks of freebies to hand out with each purchase, usually in the form of a Comic Shop News and some preview for a Marvel/DC release. This is especially well-timed because Marvel is in the midst of one of those line-wide relaunches of all their books they pull out every three months when they realize their sales are falling yet again, this time aping the line-wide reboots DC pulls out every other line-wide relaunch when they realize their sales are falling yet again. This time, Marvel has dubbed their relaunch “All-New, All-Different Marvel.” I think their last one was “All-New, All-Different Marvel NOW”(?), so at least they’re trimming down a bit.

In any case, the preview had 45 new-ish titles (and more to come, apparently), most shown in single image and a tagline fashion, with some creator credits. Fairly standard for an all-new-all-different direction, but it’s so massive I figured I might as well give first impressions on the thing.

The preview opens with a letter from Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso. Even looking at it right now, I can’t seem to recall anything it says as it’s so drenched in pitch-speak I keep rolling my eyes back into my head.

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Next is a spread of various characters presumed to be appearing in “All-New, All-Different” Marvel. Again, fairly standard “have a bunch of poses” layout. What immediately registers when I look at this image: the four Spider-Man-themed characters, the generic guy in a suit with a gun (who I presume is the generic, inexplicably popular SHIELD agent from the Marvel movies who died, then got resurrected for the TV show), two Captains America (old one, who is now old, and new one, who was previously the Falcon), Ms. Marvel (I remember liking her comic), and a Native American depicted as every stereotype of Native Americans shy of a feather headdress. Clearly, Marvel has different definitions for “all-new” and “all-different” than the rest of the English speaking world. The Vision–the floating dude in the background wearing a cape–looks like a slightly-better-redesigned Mr. Miracle than the actual Mr. Miracle redesign from DC, at least.

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Next is yet another spread, featuring even more characters. For some reason, Iron Man is featured again and there’s two Wolverines (old one, who is now old, and new one, who is his female clone), but there is more variety! There’s Medusa, Dr. Strange carrying an axe, a gentleman in a hoodie and bandaged fists. Part of me wants to say it’s Luke Cage, but maybe I’m being dumb because no way Marvel would be so crass right??? I’m four pages into this thing and already suffering an existential crisis. Oh, and Citizen V (dude in the U.S. flag shoulder pads), who I mostly remember being the cover identity for supervillain Baron Zemo in the Kurt Busiek/Mark Bagley Thunderbolts comic–about villains pretending to be heroes in a crazy world-conquering scheme. That book was pretty rad, from what I recall.

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After this, the previews get specific, starting with Invincible Iron Man, from Brian Bendis and David Marquez. Bendis has pretty much been the headline writer at Marvel for over a decade now, and a whopping four pages are devoted to promoting this book (two for the preview image, two for concept and interior art). Iron Man, the billionaire weapons dealer who sponsors a paramilitary supergroup who act outside national and international laws, is also the popular face of the Marvel movies, so I’m guessing Marvel wants to make this their flagship book. Its tagline is “Upgrade,” which I only hear in the voice of the automated phone operator in the Mike Judge film Idiocracy.

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A-Force, from G. Willow Wilson and Victor Ibanez, is a series about an all-female Avengers team which sprang up out of the currently running superhero crossover/time waster, Secret Wars. I’ve enjoyed Wilson’s comics in the past (Air, Ms. Marvel, the reboot of the Crossgen comic Mystic, which came and went without notice), and am happy she’s found a position as a popular, influential author within one of the major publishers because it gets her consistent work. I’m also sad she’s found this position, as it means she’ll likely spend the rest of her career on boring, impersonal superhero projects. The “#1″ tag here suggests this book, only two issues old so far, is already getting relaunched with a new number one, which is just precious.

All-New, All-Different Avengers, from Mark Waid, Adam Kubert, and Mahmud Asrar. Nothing really to say about this one. It exists.

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Uncanny Avengers, from Gerry Duggan and Ryan Stegman, also gets a two-page spread. The image from Stegman, an artist I’ve admired for his ability to scrawl personality onto his figure’s posture, is either consciously evoking the mid-90s output of Rick Leonardi and Steve Skroce or is a total rush job. The primary coloring and costume designs suggest the former, but given Marvel’s tendency towards factory farm output, I wouldn’t be surprised if this comic ends up looking like a mess.

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New Avengers, from Al Ewing and Gerardo Sandoval, is “holy fuck we’ve already got four Avengers comics” level meh. Al Ewing previously wrote The Mighty Avengers, which was, a) decent, and b) relaunched with a second volume (titled Captain America and the Mighty Avengers) earlier this year before being cancelled because of the reboot–which was supposedly planned in advance years ago. Now, it might look like Marvel is simply incompetent at charting their publishing schedule, but this is a feint: they know their audience (nerds) will shell out for first issues because its like a dog whistle to them.

Ultimates, from Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort, at first glance appears a break from the glut of Avengers titles, until you realize “Ultimates” was previously the designation given to what was essentially the Avengers in the Ultimate Universe (Marvel’s primary alternate universe Marvel for over a decade, soon to end with Secret Wars, I guess). This makes five Avengers comics for your All-New All-Different reading pleasure.

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Dr. Strange, from Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo, is not an Avengers title (at least I’m aware of). Aside from this, Bachalo is capable of drawing the kind of weird landscapes and mind bending page layouts which have been associated with the character from way back in the day when Steve Ditko created him.

Captain Marvel gets yet another reboot, from Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, and Kris Anka. This is the Carol Danvers Captain Marvel, previously Ms. Marvel, who has gone through three, maybe four series in the last ten years. Sensing a pattern here?

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Sam Wilson, Captain America, from Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna, follows the exploits of new Captain America (née the Falcon, a much more awesome superhero identity) as he breaks up with old Captain America, I guess?

The Totally Awesome Hulk, from Greg Pak and feminist scholar Frank Cho, has the Hulk’s face blanked out and asks “Who is the Hulk?” There’s three answers to this question: 1) the green guy who smashes shit, 2) blanking out his face is unnecessary for creating mystery, because the whole point of the Hulk is he transforms from a person into the Hulk, 3) with that haircut, it’s clearly Alfalfa from the Little Rascals.

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The Mighty Thor, from Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman, is the third in a series of Thor comics written by Jason Aaron, and the second in a series about the new, female Thor. Just keep repeating “All-New, All-Different.”

Scarlet Witch, from James Robinson and Kevin Wada. Okay, maybe. I mean, not really. I’m not going to read any of these. It’s the first of these which doesn’t immediately feel familiar. How many of these have I gone through to find that feeling?

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Ms. Marvel, from G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, and Takeshi Miyazawa, is the relaunch of the new Ms. Marvel, which Wilson and Alphona started last year. I’ve already mentioned it was an enjoyable comic. Mostly because, despite clearly being set in the Marvel Universe and coming off the end of a previous crossover, it existed as its own entity with a different voice. Tied in with all the Secret Wars, universe reboot stuff…I have doubts this quality will carry forward.

Illuminati, from Josh Williamson and Shawn Crystal, uses the title of a recent, seemingly never-ending DC crossover as a tagline, which reads like poking fun at the competition. Unfortunately, this invites the comparison to Marvel’s own tendency towards seemingly never-ending crossovers.

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Hawkeye, from Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez, has turned its title character (well, one of them, anyway) into a Thor lookalike (I mean old Thor, not new Thor). So, okay?

Ant-Man, from Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas, is oh god when will this end?

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The Vision, from Tom King and Garbriel H. Walta, just stop.

Contest of Champions, from Al Ewing and Paco Medina, is named after an old crossover event, and spins out of a crossover event, and probably lays the groundwork for the next crossover event. Kill. Me.

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Amazing Spider-Man is from Dan Slott and Guiseppe Camuncoli, who was the same exact creative team on Spider-Man for the last…fuck, I don’t know how long. Words no longer mean anything. Marvel’s basically in charge of Newspeak at this point.

Carnage, from Gerry Conway (wait, really?) and Mike Perkins, has the benefit of a genuinely striking image (the titular villain’s mouth opening, revealing a mine shaft within) and an appropriate tagline. At least somebody knows what they’re doing.

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Spider-Woman, from Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez, looks to be about Julia Louis-Dreyfuss’ character from Arrested Development, taking her fake pregnancy schtick into a career in super-heroics. Seriously: the only part of this woman which even looks pregnant is the belly, while the rest is the lightly-toned stick figure all superhero comics artists seem to think women should be. “All-new, all-different” “all-new all-different” “ALL-NEW ALL-DIFFERENT”

Spider-Man, from Brian Bendis and Sara Pichelli, is about new Spider-Man, imported from the Ultimate Universe I mentioned back when words may have meant things, only now in the Marvel Universe, which has been rebooted, and is written by Bendis who has been writing Ultimate Spider-Man, which this is a continuation of, for over a decade. Smell the new, feel the different.

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Spider-Gwen, from Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez, for fans of beating dead horses.

Silk, from Robbie Thompson and Stacey Lee, keeps milking that Spider-Man.

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Spider-Man 2099, from Peter David and Will Sliney, takes you to the future of my indifference.

Web Warriors from Mike Costa and David Baldeon, because fuck it let’s ripoff Batman Incorporated while we’re at it.

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Daredevil, from Charles Soule and Ron Garney, exists, possibly.

Guardians of the Galaxy, from Brian Bendis and Valerio Schiti, knows you’re excited about the raccoon being in charge.

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Drax, from Cullen Bunn, CM Punk, and Ed McGuinness, sure fine.

Howard the Duck, from Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones, admits Marvel has a problem with “(Yes, again.)” under the title. Whether it’s the problem of constantly relaunching titles within months of starting them or the problem of Marvel loving to stick it to Steve Gerber (or Jack Kirby, or Steve Ditko, or Marv Wolfman, or etc. etc.), it doesn’t say. Doesn’t matter, because ironic flippancy in corporate comics is bullshit and you all know it.

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Nova, from Sean Ryan and Cory Smith, with Humberto Ramos on cover art–which reminds me: a lot of these books announce cover artists (Marcos Martin, for example) way more exciting than the interior artists. Which is baffling.

Star-Lord from Sam Humphries, either doesn’t have an artist yet, or is someone so forgettable they simply put cover artist Dave Johnson over their name. Which has to hurt.

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Venom: Spaceknight, from Robbie Thompson and Ariel Olivetti, will probably manage some of Marvel’s I.P.

Howling Commandos of SHIELD, from Frank Barbiere and Brent Schoonover, will ditto.

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Agents of SHIELD, from Marc Guggenheim and Mike Norton, all something all something. Image at least attempts a Jim Steranko pop art thing, I guess?

Uncanny Inhumans, from Charles Soule and Steve McNiven, is rumored a part of Disney/Marvel’s attempt to replace the “Uncanny” X-Men (which Fox owns the film rights to) with the Inhumans (which Disney/Marvel own film rights to). Nothing else to add there.

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Karnak, from Warren Ellis and Gerardo Zaffino, not sure if this is going to be the Inhumans’ Wolverine or if Ms. Marvel (who is at least partly Inhuman…oh god, that sounds horrible when said out loud) is. I mean, the latter already appears everywhere, whereas Karnak…? Warren Ellis is writing though, so it’ll probably be self-consciously weird.

Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, from Marguerite Bennett, Kim Jacinto and Stephanie Hans, is Marvel sticking it to Todd McFarlane, one of the guys who left Marvel to found Image Comics and make demonic looking toys. Angela was a character created by Neil Gaiman for McFarlane’s comic Spawn. The two had a legal dispute, ending with Gaiman owning the Angela character. He then turned around and gave it to Marvel because why not? Gaiman’s wife, singer Amanda Palmer, also got into hot water when she tried to pull some bullshit on her successfully Kickstarted tour where she would “pay” local musicians who performed with her in, and I quote, “merchandise, gratitude, beer, high-fives, and hugs.” If there’s one thing true across all entertainment industries: someone is always going to screw you over.

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Squadron Supreme, from James Robinson and Leonard Kirk, has a tagline saying the titular super-team will “do ANYTHING to protect” this world. Curious if the “anything” means anything besides committing acts of depraved violence “anything” usually means.

Extraordinary X-Men, from Jeff Lemire and Humberto Ramos (hey, one of the cover artists is actually drawing the comic itself!). Guess the X-Men aren’t going away entirely…

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Uncanny X-Men, from Cullen Bunn and Greg Land. But with creative teams like this, they’ll wish they were.

All-New X-Men, from Dennis Hopeless and Mark Bagley, is another “wow, really?” entry. A continuation of a Brian Bendis comic about the original X-Men being time-warped to the present and staying there because why not? Maybe why this is still happening was resolved at some point, but I don’t care.

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Old Man Logan, from Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino, is about old Wolverine, who died last year (I think?), but is now alive and old. Something to do with an alternate universe version brought in to the main universe (see also: Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man) which for some reason gets fans aroused?

All-New Wolverine, from Tom Taylor and David Lopez, starring new Wolverine, previously X-23. I don’t wanna know what’s going on with her belt.

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Concluding, with relief, there’s Deadpool, from Gerry Duggan and Mike Hawthorne. It’s still around because somebody keeps pulling the Deadpool lever at the factory. This, despite the character not really being all that interesting since Cable & Deadpool ended in 2008.

Oh, in case you thought this was the end, there’s also a series of advertisements for Secret Wars tie-ins, but why subject myself or the imaginary people reading this to any further indignity?

What have we learned from this endeavor? Apparently you can do the same things you’ve always done and call it “all-new, all-different.” Have the same people writing or drawing your books you’ve had doing so for over a decade and few will care. You can have five Avengers comics (not counting those of individual members), four Spider-Man comics, three Spider-Women , three X-Men comics, two Wolverines, and two SHIELDs–and these aren’t even all the books to be announced!–and no one in the decision making process will even make a face about it. Marvel still gets its rocks off at the expense various writers and artists, because the audience doesn’t care so long as they keep churning out product. That they’ll victory lap over having “diverse” characters while still hiring the same pool of white people to make the comics–and still relying on racial caricatures for the characters themselves. That fan-fiction premises made canon excites nerds and that excitement is monetized by figurative sharks who channel your clicks into ad revenue.

In short, we’ve learned nothing. This is an exercise in futility. Life and the universe are meaningless. Turn the computer off, find your closest loved one, hold them tight. Let them know they mean everything to you, because this shit here? It’s not worth it and never was.

The Return No One Clamored for, Coming With a Smile and a Shrug

Here I am again, writing about comics. Here goes:

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Providence #1
Art by Jacen Burrows and Juan Rodriguez
Writing by Alan Moore
Published by Avatar

In Providence, nothing is evident. Jacen Burrows illustrates post-Great War Americana in dapper garb and attentive poise. His people are reserved, stiff upper lip types (even the talkative ones), clinging to secrets and projecting an image of themselves. Alan Moore’s dialogue stresses privacy: when Midwest transplant Robert Black remembers getting his job at a New York paper, his new boss tells him “Your private life is, of course, your own affair. Just keep it away from work.” Later, on assignment, he encounters a doctor with a peculiar medical condition explaining a theory of a hidden America made up of everyone’s secrets.

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What becomes unsettling about Providence is how readers are never made privy to these secrets. Not in the sense of information being revealed explicitly. It’s in details: the way a character’s breath isn’t shown in a freezing room, how shadows of branches slither across a brownstone, or what’s said in conversations picked up mid sentence. Robert’s minor brush with weirdness runs parallel with another, seemingly inconsequential tale: a man tearing up letters, then spending an afternoon in a secluded building in a park. The connecting tissue is revealed at the end, of course, but in a revelatory pause, from which the reader fills in the implication.

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Robert himself is an enigma, bookish and curious. Back matter journal aside, Moore never reveals much of his internal life. When ending a relationship, his lover (presumably in tears) describes him as cold, as if there is nothing inside him. Barrows constantly frames Robert from the first-person perspective of others, even during his own flashbacks (sepia-toned by Juan Rodriguez). He’s the outsider, being eyed by someone or something probing into his own piece of the secret America.

Lady Killer #5
Art by Joëlle Jones and Laura Allred
Writing by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich

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A pretty textbook example of the phrase “every comic is someone’s first comic”: the fifth and final issue of a mini-series which functions well enough as its own individual unit. Jamie Rich and Joëlle Jones smartly allow the tale–of an assassin dressed as a stewardess, going after the man who put a hit out on her–to unfold, assuming readers who haven’t read the previous four issues (*raises hand*) will keep up. In addition to allowing breathing space for speed line-heavy fights and Jones’ artistic flourishes (including a film reel opening drawn like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon), this sidesteps the logorrheic tendency in adventure comics towards exposition, instead showing how Josie (the assassin) navigates around obstacles. In one instance, Josie pursues a target through a crowd at the Seattle World’s Fair, only to run into her husband, Gene, and their two children.

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She’s surprised, but not in the manner he’s thinking. Her attempts to gracefully slip away and finish her mission are cut off by Gene’s well-meant attempt at being a supportive, progressive spouse. It’s a light, humorous touch, dialogue and layouts as brisk and efficient as a hallway brawl a few pages later. It’s a typical action scene, but one crafted with the understanding of its purpose at informing character while keeping momentum. When Josie confronts her aggressor, demanding an end to the situation, it’s understood clearly what the stakes are for her. The relatively low ambitions of the material are elevated by the skill of its execution.

Jurassic World

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Beneath all the whiz-bang effects, casual sexism and nods to the original film, Jurassic World has good moments. John Hammond’s vision in Jurassic Park, of a theme park of wonder and mystery, is turned into the tacky Disneyland/Sea World hybrid it was probably going to be, anyway: corporate sponsorship, celebrity cameos, and Apple Store color schemes. Accordingly, interest wanes every few years, the prospect of living dinosaurs supposedly only exciting to children and men suffering arrested development. To drum up excitement, Jurassic World‘s scientists splice together a super predator called Indominus Rex. Robbed of a coherent genetic identity and raised solely in captivity, it becomes a psychopathic killer, orchestrating an escape attempt fusing natural disaster with coup d’etat.

It’s an arc which recalls the Topps trading card series “Dinosaurs Attack!“, acidic humor lurking within. In early scenes, Colin Trevorrow rarely aligns with Spielberg’s sense of awe: a petting zoo with baby herbivores is initially gleeful, until seeing tiny triceratops saddled for a ride; the mosasaur is deliberately framed like Shamu. There’s an attempt to train velociraptors: a team focused on understanding the creatures (led by Chris Pratt) conflicts with a military contractor who wants weapons. Once again, the dinosaurs refuse to comply. Freed pterodactyls swarm over margarita-swilling attendees with Absurdist cruelty (especially notable with a minor female character, who is lifted and dropped repeatedly by an aerial predator, before both are devoured by the mosasaur). The raptors turn on their masters when used to track the malicious Indominus. Human efforts to contain the situation fail repeatedly; the only real hope lies in placing faith in the natural instincts of animals, as Pratt does when talking down his raptor pack. Compassion over control.

This is simply baked into the premise, though. Setup for fly-by setpieces and monologues by Pratt on the way to a Godzilla brawl (which is, admittedly, a better-structured version of last year’s kaiju reboot). More emphasis is placed on an undercooked family plot, with Bryce Dallas Howard playing a Frigid Career Woman who has to learn from Pratt’s Dreamy Boy Toy to appreciate life and her nephews (and coincidentally lose some clothing). The nephews themselves undergo a truncated version of Alan Grant’s arc in Jurassic Park, the older brother slotting into a paternal role for the younger, to keep him from panicking. Trevorrow treats these as bullet points. Guess it was too much to ask a fourth Jurassic Park to do something exciting.

Spy

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For their third collaboration, Spy, Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy have found a groove to match the latter’s ferocity. As CIA desk jockey Susan Cooper, McCarthy could have easily been the flailing sad sack she played support to in Bridesmaids (okay) or The Heat (better), and played herself in last year’s inert road trip comedy, Tammy. Trace elements are there: Cooper’s unrequited infatuation with operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law, whose resemblance to Connery’s 007 is uncanny); putdowns from superiors and rude service from a bartender (who gives preferential treatment to a glamorous agent); an expressed desire to be more than a voice in someone’s earpiece. Given her chance out in the field, after agents become compromised by an arms dealer (Rose Byrne) looking to sell a nuke, she’s given a series of frumpy, unflattering cover identities. She’s initially awkward, too, blundering through a posh, Roman casino before stumbling on her target. Enemies and allies (Jason Statham as an inept rogue agent, always as funny as McCarthy) are equally incredulous of the woman before them.

Cooper never falters, though. She shoulders these upsets, throwing in some sarcastic barbs worthy of Bill Murray when she can, constantly aware of the job at hand. Why wallow in self-pity when WMDs are in enemy hands? The film’s best, non-Statham bits play off this hyper-competence with how she and others view her. When cornered by a knife-wielding flunky, she falls to the ground. Dressed as a housewife, and holding an unloaded gun, she appears helpless in the moment. Cooper seizes on her enemy’s certainty, breaks his ankle, then unleashes a beating which leaves him dazed and tumbling over a rail to his death. Stunned by her first kill, Cooper vomits on the man’s corpse.

From there on, she becomes incrementally more confident; any mistakes she powers through. J.J. Perry’s stunt choreography–shot with clarity by Feig and edited briskly by Mellissa Bretherton and Brent White–builds around McCarthy’s heft: she tackles and judo throws assailants who underestimate her. When protecting Statham while undercover, she feigns clumsiness, blocking guards with her frame and knocking them over. In the presence of an assassin aware of her determination, she grabs dishes and pans to block incoming knife attacks. Like Paul Walker in Furious 7, she looks great replicating close-quarters panic. The suggestion throughout Spy is Cooper was already at this level, but operating in a stifled work environment. She can’t be contained, though. Won’t be. It’s a hopeful sign McCarthy can and will only get better, more audacious.

Jupiter Ascending

jupiterascending For the galactic scale of the Wachowskis’ latest, Jupiter Ascending feels oddly small. Plot progression is almost entirely a series of expository conversations–mainly between Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) and some whispery, intergalactic stoic–set in tiny rooms, cameras tightly focused on actors. Backdrops, ranging from a mining operation on Jones’ gas giant namesake to the skylines of Chicago, are green-screen creations which exist only when a zippy dogfight is used to punch up the script. The only non-CGI glimpses of the Windy City allowed are snippets of housecleaning and dinner-table discussions amongst Jupiter’s extended immigrant family. Peripheral characters are virtually nonexistent–literally during a massive wedding scene, the guests being holograms and all. There’s supposedly world-ending consequences in store for Earth, but the Wachowskis would rather bog audiences down with the minutia of protocol, regulation and stipulation.

It’s the sort of world-building exercise which traps many would-be blockbuster franchises: tease something epic, lay out the rules in clumsy dialogue, string along some sequel embeds, wait hopefully for the cash to roll in. Jupiter Ascending is no less awkward and fumbling than predecessors The Last Airbender, John Carter, and the Amazing Spider-Man duet (among others), but the Wachowskis seem aware of the milieu they’re working in, using it to power a throughline about entitlement. The crux of the film is a rich family’s squabble over inheritance. Namely, they scheme to gain possession of the Earth, whose boundless genetic resources are being prepared for harvest. Only one problem: some commoner–Jupiter–is genetically identical to the deceased matriarch, making her heir apparent. Jones’ humdrum life gets upended by a hit placed on her, and she comes under the protection of an alien dog-man (Channing Tatum). Soon, she finds herself negotiating with her not-really-children (including one who desires to marry her to get the inheritance) and wading into a Brazil-ian bureaucracy montage. Kunis’ icy demeanor during these sequences belies how ridiculous the whole premise is.

The space family Jupiter contends with, the Abraxas, have all the wealth she and her actual family wish they had. However, they’ve gained it by birthright. Their every whim granted comes natural to them, the thought they might be denied infuriating. The misery and suffering their actions brought over millennia, and will potentially bring, as abstract as numbers on a ledger. It’s hinted their mother disapproved her spoiled brood: Jupiter is told her progenitor hated her life, echoing her own sentiments about a life of scrubbing toilets. A few days in their world of excess, and horrified billions of lives amount to a commodity, Jupiter shares the disgust (possibly with herself, too, for ever wanting even a piece of such wealth). She’d rather make time with Tatum and glide around in the sky, but over and over finds herself dealing with these blowhards.

Keyed into the inherent dark humor, Jupiter Ascending flirts with greatness. It’s a slack film, though, moving along pieces and rules. Like their villains, the Wachowskis are more  committed to the particulars of their universe than its consequences. Even Jupiter isn’t allowed to hang onto an emotional note for longer than a few moments. Nothing more than a welcome sideshow in a landscape of indecisive cinematic universes.

Why Stop Now? – Movies 2015: May

thesevenups

  1. Quest for Fire (1981) – Dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud
  2. John Wick (2014) – Dir. Chad Stahelski & David Leitch
  3. Police Story (1985) – Dir. Jackie Chan
  4. Gravity (2013) – Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
  5. Major League (1989) – Dir. David Ward
  6. Ex Machina (2015) – Dir. Alex Garland
  7. The Peacemaker (1997) – Dir. Mimi Leder
  8. Journey to the West (2013) – Dir. Stephen Chow
  9. Super Troopers (2001) – Dir. Jay Chandrasekhar
  10. Extraterrestrial (2014) – Dir. Colin Minihan
  11. Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear (2013) – Dir. Isaac Florentine
  12. 3 Days of the Condor (1975) – Dir. Sydney Pollack
  13. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Dir. Christopher Nolan
  14. Kite Liberator (2007) – Dir. Yasuomo Umetsu
  15. Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014) – Dir. Andrew Lau & Andrew Loo
  16. Tank Girl (1995) – Dir. Rachel Talalay
  17. District B13 (2004) – Dir. Pierre Morel
  18. The Seven-Ups (1973) – Dir. Philip D’Antoni
  19. Zombeavers (2014) – Dir. Jordan Rubin
  20. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Dir. George Miller – Twice
  21. Chinese Zodiac (2012) – Dir. Jackie Chan
  22. Enter the Void (2009) – Dir. Gaspar Noé
  23. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Dir. Joss Whedon
  24. Valhalla Rising (2009) – Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
  25. Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day (2008) – Dir. Bharat Nalluri
  26. High Noon (1952) – Dir. Fred Zinnemann
  27. Beverly Hills Cop (1984) – Dir. Martin Brest
  28. The Killer (1989) – Dir. John Woo
  29. Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) – Dir. Ridley Scott
  30. Predator: Dark Ages (2015) – Dir. James Bushe
  31. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) – Dir. Blake Edwards
  32. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Dir. John Carpenter

YTD: 109