Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
11. Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus by Jack Kirby
They call Jack Kirby the King of Comics, and for good reason. As a precocious young artist, he co-created Captain America with writer-artist Joe Simon; his star-spangled superhero socked Hitler on the jaw a few years before Kirby himself helped liberate a satellite concentration camp during the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II. After returning to the States, Kirby would pioneer both romance and monster comics in the ’50s before work for which he is best remembered: the early-’60s co-creation of the Marvel Universe with his frenemy Stan Lee and fellow artist Steve Ditko. The dynamism of his artwork was miles away from the staid, square-jawed superheroics of Superman, Batman et al, and as the co-writer (and often primary writer) of Fantastic Four and other Marvel mainstays, Kirby gave birth to characters and concepts that essentially preserved the comics industry in North America after the censorious ’50s.
Kirby’s true masterwork came when, fed up with Lee’s spotlight-hogging and his own lack of creative control, he decamped to rival publisher DC and was given carte blanche to create his own line of superheroes. In genuinely prophetic fashion, the four titles that resulted — New Gods, Mister Miracle, The Forever People, and Jimmy Olsen — told one massive interlocking story about a war between rival deities, the evil half of which were led by a granite-faced embodiment of evil called Darkseid, whose son was secretly raised by the forces of good. (Sound familiar, Star Wars fans?) It’s not simply the scope of Kirby’s ambition nor the cataclysmic psychedelia of his artwork (drawn completely drug-free) that makes the Fourth World Saga, collected in four omnibus editions by DC, so compelling. No, it’s this World War II veteran’s Vietnam-era conviction that the true source of “Anti-Life” is violence itself, no matter how righteous the cause. Sadly, the epic was cut short by the publisher before Kirby could reach its proper conclusion. Several great superhero works would eventually follow (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman, Mike Mignola and John Arcudi and Guy Davis’ Hellboy/B.P.R.D. saga), but they all labor in the humanistic, explosively creative shadow of the King.
10. Gast by Carol Swain
A work of such profound empathy that it almost feels like a hole in the world, Gast is a gentle yet ultimately unforgiving look at the ways in which the world can break down those who cannot quite bring themselves to fit in. It follows an 11-year-old girl named Helen on a trip to the Welsh countryside, during which she discovers she can talk with the wild and domesticated animals that populate its rolling landscape — all of whom speak to her of the death of a “rare bird” who lived near by. This turns out to be a farmer named Emrys, whose gender dysphoria (he wore women’s clothing and ostentatiously dyed his hair, but kept to himself out of fear of reprisal and continued to identify as male) and failing fortunes led him to suicide. Gast functions like a murder mystery with no real killer and no real victim; the investigation itself is the point, as Helen learns about this sad and secretly much-loved person’s life, and about life and death themselves in the process. Swain’s soft charcoal artwork, the unusual and descriptive angles of her drawings, and her willingness to take things slowly make for an utterly unique reading experience.
9. The Descent (2005)
Years before he redefined TV action with his work on Game of Thrones, British director Neil Marshall earned his place in the horror pantheon with this merciless survival-horror story. One year after a car accident shatters their bonds, a group of women go spelunking in a remote Appalachian cavern and unearth far more than they bargained for. The claustrophobic setting is intense and the creature effects genuinely disturbing, but the film’s greatness lies in its use of its main character’s raw, red grief as emotional kindling for the catastrophe that follows. Few of even the greatest genre movies dare to go places this deep.
Alongside a murderers’ row of critics, I wrote about some of the best horror films of the new millennium for Rolling Stone. (For the record, I was on the “Mulholland Drive IS a horror movie” side of the argument referenced in the intro.)
Three episodes deep into Westworld, it’s become clear that there’s a problem with the user interface. Theoretically, our deepest interest in this increasingly dark sci-fi parable should be with the characters best capable of sustaining it: the humans. After all, the guests and the staff of the theme park are the ones with actual, honest-to-god (or honest-to-Darwin) consciousness. They’ve lead real lives with real experiences, instead of having fake memories uploaded into their brains. Their emotions can’t be switched off with a command. Their bodies can’t heal from fatal wounds after a quick overnight trip to maintenance. They’re people, damn it.
So why do they feel like lines of computer code, stuck in a loop?
I reviewed this week’s Westworld for Rolling Stone. The human characters are faltering while the robot “characters” are fascinating.
The most striking thing so far about Season 3 of “Empire” is just how insufferable Lucious has become, not just to Cookie but to everyone else. In this episode he shows up at Tiana’s performance solely to bust the chops of his family. First he goes after Cookie for dating Angelo. Seconds later he taunts Jamal for falling for a ruse Lucious concocted involving Freda Gatz. Is there a single character on the show who wouldn’t be better off if Lucious were dead? The “anti” in his antiheroic persona has been cranked up too high for story lines involving him to work; you know he’ll undermine his family to get what he wants every time, which makes him pretty uninteresting.
Just a reminder that Julia Gfrörer and I will be attending Cartoon Crossroads Columbus tomorrow through Sunday, where Julia will be a special guest and where we’ll both be hosting the Sunday night afterparty. We hope to see you there!
OBSERVER: How quickly did you find out that the show was gonna be renewed for a final season?
Chris Cantwell: We found out that afternoon, actually. The network called us and said, “Are you available for a conference call in four minutes?” They couldn’t find Chris, so I actually had to call Chris’s wife, which I try to never do for work. We got him on the phone, and they gave us they news, and they told us to call the cast, so we had to quickly call all the cast, and then they put the press release out like 45 minutes after that. They run a tight ship at AMC! They do it quickly.
This may be a stupid question, but how did that feel?
Chris Rogers: I mean, we were elated to get to do another season of the show. Somehow there’s gonna be 40 of these! You catch us on a nostalgic morning when we’re looking back on when we wrote this, and when it got picked up — when we thought it would never get picked up…To say there’s gonna be 40 episodes would’ve been beyond a dream at that time. You immediately register that, and the elation of getting to go back to Atlanta with this family we’ve built: the cast, the crew, the editors. We know their kids’ names, you know? So that is a thrill.
On another level, it’s bittersweet to see the end in sight. But it’s also kind of a creative gift, just to know that that’s what you’re writing to. We try to end each season like it could be the end of the series, but this year is gonna be different. Maybe it gives us the ammunition to top this third season, which frankly we kinda put everything we could into. So, a lot of emotions. We’re feeling all the feelings tonight.
“I’m so sick of hearing about the future,” says Cameron Howe-Rendon. “What isthat? The future is just another crappy version of the present. It’s some…it’s some bribe people offer you to make you do what they want instead of what you want.”
“This future can be different,” Joe MacMillan.
For Halt and Catch Fire, the future is now. Leaping forward into the ‘90s for the final two episodes of its masterful third season, “NIM” and “NeXT,” Halt pulled the time jump from the prestige-TV toolkit and utilized it as well as any show since Battlestar Galactica and Lost, the two series that pioneered the practice, and Mad Men, its direct precursor and the show to which it has more than earned direct comparison this season. Mad Men incorporated time jumps directly into its architecture, with the time frame of each new season and the status-quo shifts that took place between every finale and premiere becoming one of its main attractions and driving concerns. Halt took a different, more unpredictable tact: It fast-forwarded into the era of the World Wide Web in the middle of its most tumultuous, dramatically engaging, and all-around excellent episodes to date. The move makes sense for audience engagement, sure: “www,” “http,” and “html” are far more recognizable tech terms than anything on which the show had been focused so far. But it could easily have backfired in every other conceivable way — cutting off the mounting tension between the characters at the knees, setting them adrift and forcing us to find them again at a moment when they’d never been quite so individualized, so recognizable, so real. That the time jump not only worked, but worked spectacularly, is a testament to what showrunners Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers and their cast and crew have accomplished together this season. We may have skipped forward into a new decade, a new age, a new period in the lives of our heroes, a new alignment of the relationships between them. But they remain the people we’ve come to know, and their story remains the one we’ve come to eagerly anticipate each week as among the very best being told on television today.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes 11, 12, and 13: “Now You’re Mine,” “Soliloquy of Chaos,” and “You Know My Steez”October 12, 2016
You could cut fully five hours of fat from Luke Cage without losing a single story beat or worthwhile idiosyncrasy. Seriously, it’d be possible to preserve every major plot point and every successful bit of local color, every musical performance and every smackdown, yet still delete enough dead air, aimless conversation, redundant dialogue, over-scored soundtracking, and endless scenes of people walking from place to place to create a version of the show that’s essentially as-is, but tighter and quicker and, frankly, better.
“I know you think that you have a handle on what this is gonna be: guns and tits and all that mindless shit that I usually enjoy. You have no idea.” When Logan, a handsome, sleazy young veteran of multiple trips to Westworld, says this to his milquetoast first-timer companion William, he’s ostensibly referring to misconceptions about the park. But for all his subsequent blather about the place helping you find “who you really are,” who Logan really is turns out to be a guy who enjoys, well, guns and tits and mindless shit. He indulges in multiple male and female partners twice in his first day of vacation, pulls out a gun in a restaurant to test whether a fellow diner is real or an android, and brutally stabs an elderly “host” he finds annoying. Despite what he told his coworker, this creep’s robot-resort experience lives down to expectations.
But the real target of his words is quite clearly us, the audience. In Westworld‘s second episode – “Chestnut” – co-creators/co-writers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy continue to take an “as below, so above” approach to their material. The same ethical dilemmas posed to the park’s visitors – the gratuitous violence, the literally dehumanizing sex, the freedom to indulge in absolute cruelty with complete invincibility – are the same ones set forth by the show to its viewers. The implicit promise is precisely the one Logan makes to William: There’s more to this onslaught of nudity and brutality than meets the eye, even if for the time being we mostly have to take their word for it.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Eight, Nine, and Ten: “Blowin’ Up the Spot,” “DWYCK,” and “Take It Personal”October 7, 2016
Erik LaRay Harvey is one of my favorite television actors of all time. As Dunn Purnsley, the silver-tongued, snake-eyed underling of Michael K. Williams’ crime-boss character Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, he took what could have been an exceedingly minor character and made him an absolutely mesmerizing presence every time he appeared on screen. Watching him slide from one side to another in the various gang wars that rocked Atlantic City was riveting, as was simply listening to him, since like many performers on that show he developed a voice that was a period-appropriate pleasure to listen to. Purnsley radiated the sense that he was more than the sum of his parts; when his bosses noticed this, so did you.
Now he’s playing Willis “Diamondback” Stryker, the prime mover of all of Luke Cage’s misfortunes and the show’s Big Bad, and yet he isn’t being given anything half as interesting to do.
Life meets art in an vastly more spectacular fashion when Cookie makes tries to coax her son Jamal, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, back into recording and performing. to that end, she books him a duet with a pop diva named Kitty, who bears an uncanny resemblance in real life to Mariah Carey, the superstar performer who just so happens to be playing her. (It’s hard to understand why real-world musicians who cameo on this show as musicians with identical looks and sounds don’t simply play themselves, but I’m sure Mimi knows best.)
Carey is a multimedia extravaganza in and of herself: Her character need only extend her hands and beefy assistants help her up and down the stage, and her outfits play more games of peekaboo than an overstimulated one-year-old. But when Kitty and Jamal finally get together in the recording booth, their collaboration (enabled though it may have been by all the pain pills he’s popping to get him past his anxiety) is a delight. “I mean, I’m surprised,” says an awe-struck Lucious, who was convinced the kid would tank his big chance, “but happy.” It’s a rare moment of unguarded sincerity and pride from the notoriously narcissistic mogul.
It took a while, longer perhaps than for any other character, but Halt and Catch Firef ound a voice for Joe MacMillan. That voice is soft, sincere, thoughtful, emotionally direct. Actor Lee Pace gives that voice a tone that could be used to read bedtime stories to children, or to communicate deeply held beliefs or long-hidden secrets to a loved one who can be trusted with them. It’s a voice that sounds like Joe himself now looks: eyes made owlish by round Lennonesque glasses, face softened by a brown beard, hair lush and loose, clothes selected for autumnal comfort rather than boardroom barbarity. One of the many tragedies of “You Are Not Safe,” this week’s quietly shocking episode, is that this voice does him no good. He can’t use it to help his friend Gordon move forward with their grand plans. He can’t use it to save his friend Ryan’s life. He’s finally the man he truly is deep down, and it doesn’t matter. Everything turns to shit around him anyway.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Five, Six, and Seven: “Just to Get a Rep,” “Suckers Need Bodyguards,” and “Manifest”October 5, 2016
But that doesn’t stop this section of Luke’s first season from continuing to make the case for the series as one of the better live-action Marvel projects to date. As was the case with Daredevil — first with Wilson Fisk and his confidants Wesley and Vanessa, then with rival vigilantes the Punisher and Elektra — and in stark contrast to Jessica Jones, Cage takes the time and effort to complicate its villains. This starts with Detective Scarfe, played with sleazeball desperation by Frank Whaley. Yes, he’s snide and insufferable every time we see him with his criminal associates. But as his partner Misty Knight explains at length during the manhunt for him when he goes missing after a gun deal gone bad with Cottonmouth, Scarfe really did look out for her, mentor her, and support her when no one else on the force would. What’s more, he lost his son to a gun accident caused by his own carelessness. In the end, he confesses his crimes and dies trying to flee to safety at One Police Plaza, where he plans to turn himself in and testify against Cottonmouth and his army of crooked cops. Dies in the arms of a sobbing Misty, whose repeated cries of “No!” echo those of Luke himself when Pop died in his arms just a couple episodes back. In this way, the show deliberately makes a connection between the man it’s held up as secular saint and a crooked murderer, implicitly arguing that life has some inherent value no matter what you’ve done with it.
I reviewed the fifth, sixth, and seventh episodes of Luke Cage — spending a lot of time not just on Scarfe but on Cottonmouth and Mariah, who reach serious turning points, to say the least — for the New York Observer. Very happy with the direction the show has taken with its antagonists.
Not that any single fucking thing on this show matters, because we know what the outcome and the moral will be every single fucking time. Kindness is always weakness, brutality is always morality, outsiders are always animals, and at a certain point everyone will try to kill everyone else, so you’re never wrong to kill first.
Fear the Walking Dead is fascist.
I reviewed the season finale of Fear the Walking Dead for Decider. This franchise has way bigger problems than lousy cliffhangers and superfluous spinoffs. It’s hugely popular and deeply toxic. It should be talked about.
“What does it mean to be human?” is the least interesting question science fiction can ask, though that hasn’t stopped the genre from using tales of androids among us to ask it year after year. “What does it mean to be inhumane?” on the other hand? That’s an inquiry worth exploring. To knowingly inflict pain on artificially intelligent machine-men (or machine-women, though that’s a whole other issue) – when we treat them as slaves or toys or, to use Westworld‘s evocative term, “livestock” – that says a lot about us. Dr. Frankenstein made Frankenstein’s monster. The real question is whether this makes a monster of Dr. Frankenstein himself.
Judging from its intriguing, disturbing, hugely ambitious pilot episode (titled “The Original”), HBO’s series-length redo-cum-re–exploration of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie is focused on the correct side of this equation.
I’m reviewing Westworld for Rolling Stone, starting with last night’s pilot episode. I started as a skeptic and did not end that way.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Two, Three, and Four: “Code of the Streets,” “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” “Step in the Arena”October 3, 2016
Stated for the record: With four episodes of Luke Cage under my belt, I still have over two-thirds of the season to go. (That strikes me as a problem all on its own, but more on that later.) Yet I’d be enormously surprised if anything in the nine episodes that remain tops the sequence from episode three, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” in which Luke raids the Crispus Attucks compound with the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus” blasting in his earphones. Marvel’s “hip-hop variant” cover program (in which monthly superhero comics get a special makeover designed to look like classic album art from the genre) and snippets of Ghostface Killah in the first Iron Man (the character he took his alias Tony Starks from) notwithstanding, the nexus of hip-hop and superhero comics has waited a long, long time for a moment this huge. You could make the argument that using such an enormous song helps get the show over with the audience in a way it couldn’t pull of on its own — aka Stranger Things syndrome — but I’d beg to differ. Hip-hop in general and the Wu-Tang Clan in particular have derived so much inspiration from Marvel’s heroes and villains; clearly, the makers of Luke Cage were legitimately inspired in turn. It doesn’t feel like swaggerjacking — it feels like a twenty-one gun salute.
And the scene itself more than stands on its own two legs, or more accurately plows through an army of goons on them. Just as Daredevil defined its hero’s fighting style and his overall ethos in the massive hallway and stairway fights against the Russian mafia and a biker gang respectively that served as early highlights of its first two seasons, so too does Luke Cage establish its title character’s modus operandi. Where Daredevil used a combination of martial-arts precision and sheer ability to take a beating to best his opponents, Luke is both less elegant and less endangered. Armed with nothing more than a car door, a piece of rebar he peels from a smashed wall, a sofa, and the goons themselves, he simply strides through all of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin Councilwoman Mariah Dillard’s footsoldiers, grabs what he wants, and leaves. He’s the superhero as blunt instrument, too fed up with the bullshit to be anything but a closed fist in the face of any and every obstacle. (The political resonance there is unspoken but obvious.) What we see from him here is the same approach that will get him out of both his prison and the ruins of his apartment in the subsequent episode, “Step in the Arena”: He’s too confident, stubborn, and irritated by his enemies to be stopped. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he brings the mother[censored] ruckus.
I reviewed episodes 2-4 of Luke Cage for the New York Observer. I feel like you can start to see signs of strain by the end, but in the meantime the acting, writing, action, and cultural specificity remain strong.
Luke Cage’s biggest leg up on Jessica Jones, its predecessor and the launchpad for its title character, is who and how it cast. Though it emerged as the most acclaimed of the 2010s’ superhero TV shows, Jessica dumbed down and flattened out its lead as she was portrayed in the comics by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos, turning her from a good-hearted but self-destructive and entertainingly profane fuckup into a one-dimensional, glowering, sarcasm-spewing, hard-drinking, hardboiled-detective stereotype. This gave talented actor Krysten Ritter little to do but shoot people dirty looks in the same outfit for 13 episodes. The less said about David Tennant’s hambone turn as Killgrave, her telepathic abuser and nemesis, the better, as his scenery-chewing, mustache-twiddling performance did a tremendous disservice to the serious issues of rape and trauma the show attempted to address. (That attempt got it a lot of credit, more than the execution deserved). Carrie-Anne Moss and Robin Weigert were involved in a love-gone-horribly-bad storyline that had some bite to it at first, until the plot required Moss’s character to free a maniac in order to get a more favorable divorce settlement, a logical low point for the series (which is saying something). Everyone else in Jessica’s cast had the bland competence and attractiveness of cast members added to a CW show in its third season.
Cage, by contrast, boasts Jessica’s standout guest star Mike Colter as the title character (originally created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr.), a wrongfully convicted ex-con granted bulletproof skin and super strength in an prison experiment, but who’s now trying to live low as he hides from his enemies and continues to mourn his late wife. Colter was the liveliest, most magnetic presence on Jessica Jones (at least until Rosario Dawson showed up in the final episode); here he’s given the spotlight all on his own, and he absolutely shines in it. It’s not just that he’s a convincing street-level superhero a la Charlie Cox’s Daredevil or Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, or that he’s equally adroit at conveying Luke’s sense of squandered opportunities and paycheck-to-paycheck struggling — it’s that this show requires him to be a romantic lead, in a big way. Despite Ritter’s humdrum performance, his romance with Jones generated a whole lot of heat. In this episode alone, whether he’s gently rebuffing the advances of a law student whose son gets his hair cut at the barber shop where he works or flirting and, eventually, fucking as-yet unnamed cop Misty Knight (Simone Missick, every bit his physical and chemical equal), he makes Luke seem as effortlessly charming as James Bond, finding a way to make each of his flirtations feel plausible and irresistible for both parties. Only a handful of actors in a generation have the blend of good looks, good-natured warmth, and genuine physical danger that such a part requires to really work. As one of the barbershop regulars puts it, “You either got it or you don’t.” Colter’s got it.
I’m reviewing Luke Cage for the New York Observer, starting with the pilot episode. You never can tell with pilots, especially for the Marvel/Netflix’s long-feeling 13-episode seasons, but this was better than Jessica Jones’s pilot, which by the low standards of that series was actually one of the better installments.
The pop, the pulp and the politics of “Empire” are often so explosive they might be expected to send the show flying in a million different directions. Episodes like this week’s, however, go a long way toward explaining why that’s never happened: Quiet scenes involving the three Lyon sons, like the scotch-fueled exchange that appears near the end of the hour, frequently serve as the invisible thread that holds the whole thing together.
In the exchange, equal parts rueful and playful, Hakeem, Jamal and Andre all face serious burdens. Jamal has finally accepted that he has PTSD, and that it’s preventing him from performing. Andre is mourning the death of his wife, Rhonda, and battling the bipolar disorder he fears he can’t successfully treat without her help. Hakeem has a newborn daughter, but the family’s byzantine interpersonal politics and his own reluctance to settle down have stopped him from stepping up as her father.
With Andre’s smiling but steely encouragement behind them — a far cry from his wild-eyed, hallucinatory antics earlier in the episode, and a better fit for actor Trai Byers’s natural Gary Cooper demeanor — the three young men agree to face their demons head-on. Together, they toast to Hakeem’s daughter, but not before cracking wise about their seemingly never-ending bad-luck streak.
“Man, everybody messed up,” Hakeem says, attempting to offer big-picture perspective.
“Ain’t nobody messed up as the Lyon brothers, I’m sorry,” Jamal jokes in response.
Scenes like this one showcase the easy fraternal interplay between Mr. Byers and his fellow actors Jussie Smollett (Jamal) and Bryshere Y. Gray (Hakeem). These guys sound and act like brothers do, and the warmth that radiates from them when they’re getting along earns this soapy show substantial good will every time.
I got to write about one of my favorite aspects of Empire in my review of this week’s episode for the New York Times. It speaks to the show’s approach that this ep could include one of the happiest moments in the whole series — a half-dressed Taraji P. Henson opening her bedroom door to find Biz Markie performing “Just a Friend” live in her living room — and one of its grimmest — an utterly bleak and realistic portrayal of racial profiling by the NYPD.
A confession: I use Halt and Catch Fire reviews as a chance to show off. Because I like the show so much, because I feel it excels at, basically, everything a drama can and should excel at — casting, acting, cinematography, set design, soundtrack, screenwriting, you name it — I kind of see it as a chance to stunt, you know what I mean? The episode sets an emotional tone, and I try to maintain that tone in my writing. The phrase I come back to is “wax rhapsodic.” Or as I put it to my therapist last week, “If the show sings, then goddammit, the review’s gotta sing too.”
What to do, then, with “The Threshold”? What to do with an episode so good, so intelligently written, so beautifully filmed, so thoughtfully scored, so movingly acted, so cathartically plotted, that it stops me dead in my tracks? What to do with an episode that pays off fully three years of relationships, storylines, individual growth in a series of apocalyptic emotional confrontations? What to do with an episode that feels like a Mad Men Season Five–level culmination of form and function?
Man, your guess is as good as mine.
All I can really do is report to you how I felt while I watched this thing. I felt breathless, like someone was socking me in the gut. I felt like I was watching one relationship I’d invested in after another topple and crumble, like a perverse game of interpersonal dominos.