Archive for the “reviews” Category

It’s clear that studios had hopes that these “horror movies as action films” would go bigger than they eventually ended up going. It wouldn’t make any sense to give Peter Hyams, the man who gave the world Timecop, a prestige project based on a best-selling novel like The Relic if you didn’t expect a big return. What they ended up with was an incoherent mess that, as pretty much every critic at the time reminded us, was trying to ape the vibe of Alien “but in a museum!” while making it clear that no one involved in the production actually understood why Alien worked.

We open with a not at all culturally sensitive scene of creepy anthropologist John Whitney observing native religious rituals in South America, and then later becoming so panicked over his artifacts being shipped back to Chicago that he stows away aboard a freighter. Some time later, the boat arrives in Chicago with the entire crew killed, and a mysterious series of murders involving decapitations begin to occur at the natural history museum, with intrepid biologist Penelope Ann Miller caught in the middle of gruff detective Tom Sizemore’s investigation. Political pressure stalls the investigation so that the Mayor can attend the museum’s lush new gala, which results in the local 1%ers being slaughtered by a giant lizard-bug creature that eats human brains. Penelope eventually figures out that the creature is a bizarrely mutated John Whitney and blows up him, saving the day.

It’s a mess, honestly. It’s hard to see what, exactly, the film-makers were aiming for, as they keep cutting between elements of actual suspense and mystery and scenes where problems are solved with guns and explosions. The characters are all stock, with no real depth, and there’s a creepily racist undertone that pops up from time to time, from Miller’s rival scientist, a cheating, scheming Asian nerd, to Miller’s constant comments about “primitive” people, to the wholescale othering of Native Americans and their mutative herbs that underlies the film’s plot. But where the film really fails is in it’s half-assedness as an adaptation. Relic, the novel, had a sequel out in time for the film, but the film not only kills off recurring characters, but also completely excises a central character that would have opened up the film to franchise potential. It speaks to the sort of laziness that typifies the film.

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So, before they became an action movie imprint, the Warner Brothers/Universal production studio “Dark Castle” was a churner out of relatively cheap “horror movie as spectacle” films, in the tradition of William Castle. In fact, several of their early films were gored up versions of classic Castle films. Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship was an early effort, when they were still concentrating on doing very gorey horror films with an action movie sensibility, before they started putting Ethan Hawke in Fast and Furious knock-offs. Now, to be sure, the “horror as spectacle” trend wasn’t limited to just this one studio, but nobody hit it quite as hard as Dark Castle, nor with such a distinctive half-assedness.

After a mood-setting opening sequence, that attempts to inter-cut horrific violence with a cheery glam 60s aesthetic, we cut to Gabriel Byrne as Murphey, captain of a salvage crew that includes Final Girl lead Juliana Margulies as first mate epps and Karl Urban before anyone cared who he was. They are approached by Ferriman, a weather pilot who has spotted an abandoned ship in the Bering Sea, and offers to share the location of the ship in exchange for a substantial cut of the salvage profits. The crew agrees, as pickings have been slim and the promise of a luxury liner means good money. When they arrive, they discover that the ship is the Antonia Grazia, a well known lost ship. While patently ignoring plenty of clues that something is wrong, even Epps seeing a ghost, several times, the crew continues to explore the ship, eventually finding the remains of a previous salvage crew and crates full of gold bars. Celebrations are cut short when their ship explodes in a not at all suspicious accident and the crew must now attempt to pilot the sinking and rudderless Grazia home. The crew is picked off by ghosts one-by-one, as a ghost girl gives Epps a visual info-dump, revealing that the gold came from the Lorelei, another lost ship, along with a survivor, who convinced several of the Grazia crew members to kill the passengers and remaining crew and take the gold, before being killed themselves by the survivor. Who is revealed to be Ferriman, an apparently immortal supernatural being with a not at all portentous name. Epps destroys the ship, freeing the souls of the passengers and is rescued, only to learn that the cycle is bound to repeat.

It’s hard to find things to like about Ghost Ship. Big, loud and dumb was the name of the game with the spectacle horror films, and there’s fairly visceral thrills to be had from time to time. But the film confuses gore and special effects with actual terror, which often leads to unintended comedy. Somebody, at some point was paying attention, as there are hint-heavy murals in the background of a number of shots, not to mention the heavy-handed naming convention at work with Ferriman. Rumor has it that the script the cast was shown was almost completely jettisoned by the time filming begun, with a more psychological film turned into a jump-scare film. It’s plausible, and several cast members certainly act as if they’re in a different film than the one they ended up in.

So, in the end, we go back to that old distinction between “good” and “entertaining.” Ghost Ship isn’t good, but there’s enough of something there that was once good to wring a half-way competent “dumb fun” picture out of.

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The 90s, culturally, were not all that great. At best, the high-water mark for a lot of 90s productions is that, down the road, they’re less cringe-inducing than most 70s and 80s media. Horror films were at a particularly low ebb as major productions, and when they did get made, they were often some kind of strange hybrid with another genre. Such as Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising, which is a very broad, gorey horror film/action film hybrid that really does neither genre much credit. On the plus side, it does have a frequently wet Treat Williams* out-handsoming a bunch of other actors.

Williams is Finnegan, a salvage boat captain who has been hired to escort an ethnically diverse group of mercenaries out to an undisclosed location in the South China Sea. While he very pointedly overlooks that he has hired himself and his crew out to what is clearly an extremely illegal operation, the luxury cruise liner Argonautica is having a culturally non-specific Asian-themed celebration as part of its maiden voyage (seriously, there is a Samoan fire-dancer, Japanese drummers, and a Foo Dog puppet all in the same pan shot at one point). While grifter Trillian (played by Famke Janssen) gets locked in the ship pantry after failing to rob the vault, a mysterious saboteur disables the ship just in time for a mysterious something to collide with the ship from the ocean’s depths. When Finnegan and the mercenaries arrive a few hours later, after being disastrously struck by a speedboat that fell of the cruise ship during the collison, they find the ship deserted but evidence of a massacre. Rounding up a handful of survivors, including ship owner Simon Canton and Trillian, it becomes obvious that Canton’s plan to use the mercenaries to rob the ship and sink it for the insurance money was interrupted by, of all things, giant fanged tentacle monsters. The cast is whittled down one-by-one, until of course we are left with only our handsomely white and flirtatious male and female leads, and then we get to our big denouement, where Treat Williams fights Cthulhu with a gun.

Deep Rising is, to be sure, not a good film. But one of the things one must learn to deal with as a film consumer, especially with certain genres, is that “good” and “entertaining” are not the same thing. Deep Rising is an entertaining film. There’s an effort made to have a certain degree of artistry to the film. Interesting contrasts are made between the use of red and blue as colors, with the warm red marking the world of wealth and decadence and the cool blues marking the deadly forces of the ocean and nature. Some stylistic jabs are made at framing and camera positions, with long narrow shots marking how limited the movement of the characters is, which ties into the notion of the creature “herding” them towards the larder, itself an echo of Trillian’s pantry imprisonment. There are some nice off-center, titled shots intercut with each other which echoes the “bobbing” motion of the boats and the insecurity of the characters. And there’s a big, mostly unexplored central theme of parasites feeding off hosts, with Trillian robbing 1%ers, Canton willing to kill to collect insurance money, and the creature itself doing basically the same, but on a grandly amoral and indifferent scale. But all these nifty little ideas are never developed because the film mostly cares about dumb, inappropriate jokes, comic relief, and big guns being fired at CGI monsters.

Still, Treat Williams fighting what is basically Cthlhu and then escaping while firing a rifle from a speed-boat. That’s kinda cool.

* A late in development replacement for Harrison Ford. And yes, they put iconic Han Solo lines in his mouth.

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Adam Wingard’s You’re Next does a lot of things right that you wouldn’t really expect it to. The home invasion genre of horror is one that usually has a lot of overlap with slashers or torture-porn, so it’s hard to find an approach that feels fresh. It’s also one of the genres that is more prone to solipsistic moralizing, something that is generally never a good sign in a horror film, specifically in the way many films seek to indict the viewer for wanting to see people be horribly brutalized in the name of entertainment even though the film-makers are the hypocrites themselves for presenting the material the way they do and denying the viewer a proper catharsis (I blame Haneke and Funny Games for setting the tone for the genre). What Wingard and screen-writer Simon Barrett do that’s interesting, is largely play with that voyeuristic aspect, but in a self-aware and frequently comic way.

The film opens with a scene of a couple having sex, shot mostly through the windows of their house. He takes a shower, and emerges to find her dead and the words “You’re Next” written in blood on the window before he is killed himself. The next shot is a nicely composed scene of Aubrey and Paul driving out to their deeply secluded woodland mansion to celebrate their anniversary, soon joined by their son Crispian, a struggling professor, and Erin, his grad-student girl-friend. Over the next day they are joined by snobbish son Drake and wife Kelly, daughter Aimee and film-maker boyfriend Tariq, and troublesome youngest child Felix and girl-friend Zee. For the first half of the film, it plays as an earnest indie family dramedy, the kind of self-consciously “important” film where actors mumble and talk over each other to tell a story of privileged white people having problems pretty much only comfortably wealthy white people have to face. Once the family sits down to dinner and, in the midst of an argument, begin to be killed off one-by-one by killers in animal masks, the gears shift into full horror mode.

Much of the action is confined to the house, giving the film a somewhat claustrophobic feel that add to the siege panic of the dwindling number of survivors. The focus almost immediately becomes Erin, who rises to what at first blush seems to be a rather rote “Final Girl” sort of role before we learn that, no, actually she spent her entire childhood in survivalist camps in the outback training for just this sort of thing. Deaths are quick and relatively gore-light, as the film depends more on atmosphere and the dwindling cast numbers to build tension. There are surprising moments of levity, veering towards an almost inappropriate comedy of errors level at times. For careful viewers, there is even a strongly seeded mystery, disguised as a “twist” that becomes apparent as the film develops to it’s, frankly, inevitable climax.

Why the film works as well as it does, I think, is because the film retains a sense of awareness of genre conventions but never becoming smug about it. There is a very deliberate use of recurrent horror motifs, such as a lone female survivor, a masked psychopath, and voyeuristic POV shots that the film makes deliberate usage of, but in a way that acknowledges that these are tropes that work for a reason, apart from some deliberate lampshading of the “Final Girl” idea. While some critics dismissed the film as “nihilistic” I think that description is a disservice. It’s grim, but it’s a grimness borne of black comedy, veering into satire. Yes, the bulk of the characters are unsympathetic, but they’re meant to be. This is an indie drama about a dysfunctional family where the problems are resolved not by bold declarations of familial love but by murderers.

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2000 AD-2000 AD
The usual eclectic, Judge Dredd heavy assortment of sample 2000 AD strips. A good assortment of material offering a fairly balanced portrayal of the publisher’s output, and the tone of the material, both current and reprint.
It’s free

Adventures of Jellaby-Capstone
Beautifully illustrated, gentle stories about a girl and her monster. Utterly charming work.
Get it

All You Need Is Kill/Terra Formars-Viz
Sci-fi stories of soldiers fighting aliens, with a fair amount of violence to each. The material if fairly unremarkable otherwise.
It’s free

Archie Digest-Archie Comics
Unsurprisingly Archie-heavy collection of typical Archie Comics material, broken up some very nice vintage Josie strips.
It’s free

Armor Hunters-Valiant
We all like to joke about current comics bringing back the 90s in full force, and no one is committed to that ideal more than Valiant.
I have absolutely no idea what is going on here, and it’s all a lead-in to a cross-over about characters I’m still more than a little startled to find there is still an audience for.
It’s free

Atomic Robo-Red 5 Comics
Fun stories featuring Atomic Robo and Bodie Troll. This book is always one of the highlights for FCBD. Just all around stellar work.
Get it

Avatar: The Last Airbender-Dark Horse Comics
Nothing here is For Me, but the lead story is a cute, in-universe take on the “Fake Geek Girl” nonsense that’s fairly amusing.
It’s free

Bongo Comics Free-For-All-Bongo Comics
As with past years, a mix of Simpsons comics by a variety of creators. The work is typical of the line, and whether or not you enjoy pretty much hinges on what your tolerance level for the Simpsons is these days.
It’s free

Buck Rogers-Hermes Press
Reprints of vintage Buck Rogers newspaper strips and some preview pages for the current, Howard Chaykin illustrated revival. The vintage material is charming, in that “of it’s era” sort of way, but the appeal here is mostly the historical curiosity value it might have.
It’s free

Courtney Crumrin-Oni Press
A reprint of the first issue of the most recent Courtney Crumrin series. It’s an excellent book, and while there’s a bit less backstory given than is probably needed for a new reader to catch up, it’s still evocative, unique work worth attention.
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Defend Comics-Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
An interesting selection of material focusing mostly on the history of anti-comic book hysteria and free speech issues. It has the feel of something aimed more at parents dragged into a comic shop than kids and new readers.
It’s free

The Dumbest Idea Ever-Graphix
A kid-friendly bio-comic about making comics. Fun, engaging, with appealing art and story.
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Epic-Comix Tribe
I was prepared to just go with the It’s free response to this utterly bland story of a super-powered teenager who loses his powers around girls, but I decided I couldn’t get past the mincing, implied to be gay villain (poodle included) who appears in the prologue, so we’ll just go with

Far From Wonder-Automatic
Vaguely steampunkish Alice in Wonderland revision, reprinting the first chapter with art by Ben Templesmith…who does not draw the rest of the series.
It’s free

Finding Gossamyr: Way of the Bladeslinger/Past the Last Mountain-Th3rd World Studios
Beautifully illustrated fantasy stories, serving as prologues to forthcoming comics or collections. Nice material, and very engaging.
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Fubar-Fubar Press
Oh joy. A zombie comic, where the brave American soldiers get to kill hordes of Muslims, but it’s okay, because they’re all zombies! For those folks who thought the racist subtext of zombie fiction was just a little too subtle, I guess.

Giant Size 4-Pack Bundle-Red Giant
A four pack of flip-books of various fantasy and super-hero titles. The mix is fairly eclectic, and most of the material here is at least promising. Of the eight titles featured, Magika is the most appealing and has the nicest art.
It’s free

Grimm Fairy Tales-Zenescope
A tie-in preview of an upcoming “event” comic for the “sexy fairy tale women” comics. It’s pretty much exactly what I suspected it would be.

Guardians of the Galaxy-Marvel
Marvel, perhaps sensing that there was there was too much interest in the forthcoming film, gives us stories about Iron Man and Venom talking about the Guardians of the Galaxy, a ponderous conversation between Thanos and Drax, and a vampire killing Spider-Man.
Yeah, that should cool off any kids who thought those trailers looked cool.
It’s free

Hello Kitty and Friends-Viz Media
I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but it’s cute, bright and nicely illustrated, which is really all it needs to be.
It’s free

Hip Hop Family Tree Two-in-One-Fantagraphics
A brilliant “comics as artifact” presentation of the history of hip hop, presented absolutely perfectly and masterfully.
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The Intrinsic: Singularity Zero-Arcana
A group of vaguely magic themed heroes bicker amongst themselves, and then demons attack. The art is nowhere near appealing enough to counter the generic feel of the set-up.
It’s free

Ipso Facto-Automatic
A stiffly drawn and poorly paced sci-fi comic about…aliens? Psychics? Who knows. It’s not clear, and the presentation is so poor I’m not inclined to try and find out.

Kaboom Summer Blast-Boom
I’m not a fan of the aggressively weird school of current cartoons, as it seems like they’re aimed much more strongly at self-consciously ironic 20-somethings than kids. The comics based on them suffer from the same problem. So while the art on some of these is nice, it’s all very much not For Me, so no thanks.
It’s free

Les Miserables: The Fall of Fantine-Udon
Not being a Les Mis fan in any of its forms, I’ll admit to being biased against this from the start. That the art by SunNeko Lee is relentlessly cheery, and thus fully at odds with the subject matter, causes a merely mild bit of cognitive dissonance. The second preview, for a manga version of Pride and Prejudice in full shojo cliche glory, is of far more interest to me.
It’s free

Magic Wind-Epicenter Comics
A Weird Western, featuring Edgar Allan Poe and a psychic shaman. The art is appealing and the break from the usual genres featured today is welcome. The premise has promise and piques my curiosity.
Get it

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers-Papercutz
Prose introductions to the original Power Rangers, and a cute story featuring the same.
The kids who watched this have kids of their own now. I…I need to lie down for a bit.
It’s free

The New 52: Future’s End-DC Comics
Ugly and incoherent mess that pretty much embodies everything wrong with DC’s books these days.

Overstreet’s Comic Book Marketplace-Gemstone
As per usual, a paen to the joys of collecting comics for potential resale value. Also as per usual, misses the damn point of Free Comic Book Day by a mile.

Project Black Sky-Dark Horse Comics
A promotion for Dark Horse’s new super-hero comics line. The story is a fairly standard super-hero misunderstanding leading to a fight, and the art is okay, but I find myself wishing a story featuring Captain Midnight and Brain Boy wasn’t taking itself so seriously.
It’s free

Raising A Reader-Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
A guide for parents on the mechanics of comic books and using them as a method of getting kids to read. A much better comics education offering than the price-guides and “hot books” nonsense we’ve seen in past years.
It’s free

Rise of the Magi-Top Cow/Image
A brief preview to a new ongoing fantasy series from Top Cow. It’s of that “blend fantasy with something like reality” school of fantasy. It’s not particularly strong material, but it’s entertaining for what it is.
It’s free

Rocket Raccoon-Marvel
This is the book Marvel should have slapped the “Guardians of the Galaxy” logo on. A fun, nicely illustrated story about Rocket Raccoon going on an adventure, backed up with a Spider-Man in space story.
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Scratch 9-Hermes Press
This comic features President Obama rocket-punching a “They Live”-bot to save a cat.
It is beautiful.
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Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan-Drawn and Quarterly
A selection from the artist’s memoir of life as a naval recruit in Japan during World War Two. The historical perspective is interesting, and the art is eye-catching, but the particular selections don’t flow together very well.
It’s free

Spongebob Freestyle Funnies-Bongo
I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with Spongebob stuff at the best of times. Some of the art and stories here are fun and nicely done. Others just reinforce how little patience I have with Spongebob.
It’s free

Sherwood Texas-12 Gauge
A modern re-imaging of Robin Hood as the leader of a biker gang. It’s actually a fairly clever spin to put on the story, but I wish the art was a little more appealing.
It’s free

Skyward/Midnight Tiger-Action Lab
A fantasy story and super-hero story, both not quite there, but engaging and different enough from the usual fare to be interesting.
It’s free

The Smurfs-Papercutz
An assortment of fun kids comics, mostly from Papercutz’s line of translated Euro-comics. A good mix of material, tone and art style.
Get itSonic the Hedgehog/Megaman X-Archie Comics
Short origin stories for Archie’s line of video-game tie-in comics. I continue to be amazed at how insular and continuity-driven this line of comics is.
It’s free

Steam Wars-Antarctic Press
Steampunk. Star Wars.
Oh dear lord.

Street Fighter-Udon
Nicely illustrated fight comics featuring characters I have absolutely no interest in.
It’s free

Teen Titans Go-DC Comics
In contrast to DC’s other offering, this a joyful, anarchic romp through the fun side of super-heroes. Perfect material for new readers and kids.
Get it

The Tick-NEC
An amusing, genre-savvy super-hero farce. Fun, but the amount of enjoyment probably hinges on your Tick tolerance.
It’s free

Top Shelf Kids Club-Top Shelf
Two fun shorts setting up the stories of kid-friendly fantasy graphic novels. Nicely illustrated and amusing.
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Prose pieces, with typical gory illustrations, from Avatar’s Nazi super-humans comic. By Avatar’s standards, almost restrained.

Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: A Matter of Some Gravity-Fantagraphics
Being a Donald Duck fan there’s pretty much no way I’m not going to endorse this. But even apart from that, the Fantagraphics collections of Disney material are easily the best reprints on the market right now, and this tale, featuring a visually inventive and clever Don Rosa story as it’s lead, is a great introduction to the upcoming line of Rosa reprints.
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Background material and prologue to a comic series about war between humans and vampires, of the postmodern “just a disease” type.
I really don’t like vampires, and I could have done without the gratuitousness of the shock-gasp-horror ending, but it’s not actually bad despite ranking high on the Not For Me table.
It’s free

Worlds of Aspen-Aspen Comics
A flip-book devoted to premiering a new fantasy series about a world with no men, and a sci-fi series about alien game hunters. The stories are actually fairly intriguing, but I can’t get past the Aspen house style.
It’s free

Zombie Tramp-Action Lab
Every year, there’s at least one book that gets the entire purpose of Free Comic Book Day wrong. This year it’s this…thing. Violent, gory, over-sexualized…pretty much the exact way to give a new reader as negative an impression of the comics industry as possible.
Avoid at all costs

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