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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Justice League #1 - DC: The New 52



The launching pad for DC Comics' New 52 initiative, Geoff Johns' and Jim Lee's Justice League #1 sets the stage for the formation of the greatest superhero team in comic books (nope, it's them, Avengers and X-Men, not you), and does so in classic Justice League team up fashion, where two (in this case future) Leaguers would band together to tackle one segment of a larger, formidable threat. Justice League #1 is set five years ago, in a DC Universe that has hardly heard of "superheroes".

Hunted as a vigilante by the Gotham Police Department, the mysterious Batman is hot on the trail of some kind of creature garbed in rags who tried to plant explosive devices all around Gotham. (It's not Bane like in Batman and Robin, uttering "Bane! Bane! Bomb! Bomb!") Green Lantern saves an irritated Batman from this marauder; Green Lantern was drawn to Gotham City by his Power Ring, which he describes as "a GPS for the extra-terrestrial". 

It's a little disheartening that Batman is the World's Greatest Detective but, I, the reader, figured out way before he did that the enemy they're after is a Parademon from Apokolips. (Because the entire scenario echoed a gripping segment from Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola's Cosmic Odyssey where Batman battles an Apokoliptian Hunger Dog in Gotham's sewers.) The Parademon, which Green Lantern's Power Ring shockingly can't identify, detonates an explosive device in Gotham's sewers, but quick force field ring-slingling by Green Lantern saves his and Batman's lives.

Because their common enemy is extra-terrestrial, some shoddy logic by both Batman and Green Lantern lead them to believe it must somehow be connected to Superman, who is also an extra-terrestrial. Because, you know, all aliens from space must know each other.  Neither Green Lantern nor Batman have ever met Superman, but Batman has been studying "his power levels". I... see. (No doubt Batman was doing so with a stupid satellite called Brother Eye. Wait, no, that better not be the case.) So off the two heroes go, in search of the Man of Steel.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to high school football hero Vic Stone, whom every college in the country wants to recruit. But all the best football stars have daddy issues, and Vic's father continues to miss his son's games. We learn through a one-sided phone call that Dr. Silas Stone has been studying the new superheroes emerging in the world; hence he has little time for Friday Night Lights.

Back to the superheroes, Green Lantern and Batman fly to Metropolis to search for Superman, and they quickly find him. They find him clad in "ceremonial Kryptonian armor", his eyes glowing slightly less red but still glowing red since DC Comics' seems to believe flaming crimson eyes is one of the defining points of Superman. Superman knocks out Green Lantern in a red and blue blur and announces himself to Batman: "I don't handle easy." (That's what she said. No, not Lois, not in the New 52.)

Famous last words of Justice League #1 are from Superman, red eyes glowing (of course) and sporting a slight smirk, looking over the Dark Knight for the first time and asking, "So... what can you do?"  See, everyone with super powers thinks they're sooo cool and Batman isn't because he's just "a guy in a bat costume."

And that's it.  Not a complete story by any means, just a $3.99 set up chapter introducing four of the Justice Leaguers and opening up the new DC Universe, dropping several hints about the new world order in the DCU. But if you wanted to see the whole Justice League in action like the cover advertises, you're S.O.L.

The overwhelming theme of the first issue of Johns and Lee's new Justice League seems to be "making Batman uncomfortable". Green Lantern's bright, glowing presence yanks Batman out of his comfort zone in the shadows of Gotham, and he doesn't like it one bit. Nor should he. Batman especially didn't enjoy flying to Metropolis in a luminous emerald fighter jet constructed by Green Lantern's light.

Batman and Green Lantern bicker constantly throughout, and the characterization of Hal Jordan as young, arrogant, and cocksure is sound. This is the Hal Jordan I know - not the self-loathing coward we saw in the Green Lantern movie. Jordan's first words to Batman - "You're real?" - confirm that up until this point "the Batman" has been an urban myth. 

The best moment of the entire book was Batman yoinking the Power Ring right off Green Lantern's finger as Hal Jordan prattled on. "It's powered by concentration. You weren't concentrating."

So, what do we now know about the new DC Universe? Five years ago, the world had not warmed up to superheroes yet. Batman has been around the longest, hidden from public view but hunted by the authorities. Superman has already gone public, and is the subject of study by Batman, but Batman had not heard of the Green Lantern Corps. Interestingly, the Green Lantern Power Ring couldn't identify Apokoliptian technology. We know from a shot of a sign in one panel Lexcorp still exists. Plus Silas Stone has been studying superheroes, which is a compelling bit of integration, cause and effect, because we all know Vic Stone will be Cyborg.

And the main villain is Darkseid. "Dark Side? What is that, a band?"  

So far, so good.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes



With a solemn straight face, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the prequel that details how mankind fostered its own destruction by genetically enhancing a super intelligent ape named Caesar who would eventually replace humanity with his own kind. Utilizing astounding visual effects by WETA and a motion capture performance by Andy Serkis to create photo-realistic apes and an emotionally resonant chimpanzee protagonist, Rise is a well-constructed science fiction parable far superior to the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes from 2001. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you will believe monkeys can take over the world. Except... c'mon, man! They're monkeys! I cannot take this shit seriously. They're monkeys! Look! Caesar's wearing a red sweater! Look at him eating CGI Chips Ahoy cookies! Even as Caesar suffers brutal treatment in the monkey gulag at the hands of Draco Malfoy (monkeys are the worst kind of Mudblood), we know Caesar is gradually planning to take over the world. Cheering Caesar on makes no sense to me. But then, there are no humans to root for either. The only humans in the picture who aren't money-grubbing dimwits or sadistic monkey-abusers are James Franco and Frieda Pinto. Franco is the super duper genius who uses his research in apes as a means to cure the Alzheimer's of his father John Lithgow. Franco brings Caesar home and raises him like his son, despite how as Caesar gets smarter and more uncontrollable, he starts terrorizing the jerk neighbor next door. (Why the neighbor didn't pack up his family and move when he and Caesar brawled around the neighborhood is his own foolish monkey business. Later, Rise uses the neighbor as the delivery system for the monkey virus that eradicates mankind.) Franco sure loves Caesar, beyond all reason, and probably more than he loves Pinto, who has no character and nothing to do besides look beautiful and utter one warning about how it's right to fear chimpanzees. How right she was. When the apes go AWOL and attack San Francisco in the action packed third act (utilizing - ahem - guerrilla warfare tactics), the pathetic response of the San Francisco Police Department was embarrassing. They bent right over and took it from the apes. The SFPD was a disgrace to our species. But what're you gonna do? In the end, the apes just wanted it more.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Conan The Barbarian



Sweet Barbarian Love

The new Conan the Barbarian re-imagines us back into a hazy prehistory of swords and sorcery taking place "after Atlantis fell" and before... everything else. On the continent of Hyboria, a child was literally "born in battle" to a tribe of Cimmerian barbarians, the battle conveniently happening around his birth and subsequent heartbreaking death of his barbarian mother. This child would become Conan (pronounced "Cone-IN" like O'Brien and not "Cone-NAN"), whom we observe as a feral youth more adept at killing groups of gruesome man-monsters than most of the adult barbarians in his tribe. Though not prone to outward displays, Conan's father Corin the Barbarian (Ron Perlman) is particularly proud of his hellboy of a son.

In a Lord of the Rings-esque prologue, we are informed by narrator Morgan Freeman(!) that in a pre-prehistory there exists an ancient mask of evil that was broken into shards and hidden by the different barbarian tribes, so that no one person would be able to wield its evil power. Wouldn't you know it, one person, the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) has almost all of the pieces now and is missing just the one shard hidden by the Cimmerians. Zym and his freaky deaky sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan, costumed with the finger knives of Freddy Krueger and the forehead of Christina Ricci) slaughter the Cimmarians and take the last shard of the death mask, giving Corin the Barbarian a Golden Crown for his troubles (Conan is the second movie this summer to reference Game of Thrones in this manner).

Young Conan escapes and spends the next 20 years maturing into the ripped, chiseled and jacked form of Jason Momoa, who portrayed Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. Like Drogo's wife Daenerys Targaryen, Conan spends his barbarian days roaming around Hyboria freeing slaves. In particular, Conan prefers freeing harems of sexy, topless female slaves, massacring their slavers, and then throwing sexy orgies for his band of barbarians (don't call them Team Coco). Conan is a popular guy, and has earned the loyalty of his sidekick Ukafa (Bob Sapp, playing Djimon Hounsou from Gladiator). What Conan really, really wants, though, is to kill Khalar Zym and avenge his father. All the best barbarians have daddy issues. However, one can't blame Conan for how easily distracted he was from his Life's Mission of Vengeance by all the sexy slave girls. For 20 years.

While Conan was out in the world making his bones and boning slave girls, Khalar Zym was having a particularly frustrating 20 years. Even though he has the death mask, he needs the pure blood of some race of sorcerers to make the mask do what he wants it to do: resurrect his dead sorceress wife. Even though his daughter is the spitting image of his wife, has the same magic powers, and seems down to do it with her daddy, Zym rebuffs her. No, it's the dead wife he wants. The pure blood he needs belongs to Tamara (Rachel Nichols), the screaming-est sexy priestess in all the land. Seriously, Tamara screams longer and louder than Kim Basinger did in Batman. Finally, after 20 fucking years, Khalar Zym locates Tamara in the only monastery in Hyboria, but she gets away with the help of Conan. 

Tamara learns hanging with Conan means being tied up often and listening to his terse barbarian orders like, "Sit!" and "Be quiet!". When she changes costumes, Conan assures her, "You look like a harlot." This is all barbarian foreplay, you see. They escape Hyboria via Ukafa's yacht but Khalar Zym's men still find and attack them. (Conan memorably kills an evil female archer by chucking a spear right through her babymaker). Yet, even this gruesome violence is also merely barbarian foreplay, all leading to Conan bringing Tamara to his secret love shack in the caves of some island. Thus Conan gets to the real meat of things as Tamara experiences sweet, gentle, tender barbarian love.  

For a sweaty, fury-ridden, bloodthirsty killing machine, Conan the Barbarian is surprisingly well-versed in the tender arts of love. Conan is no Khal Drogo, who only knew how to rape from behind and had to be coached by Daenerys into learning simple sex positions like missionary and cowgirl - oh no, Conan knows all of that and more! Who would have ever guessed Conan the Barbarian would be such a kind, considerate lover? His secret love nest has a bed that all but vibrates coin-operated, complete with luxurious pillows, sheets that no doubt are made of two thousand thread count, and the whole shebang is candle-lit to best accentuate Conan's gleaming buttocks, as if forged from fire and ice like the steel of his father's broadsword. Oh, and Nichols looks good naked too, in the split seconds of afterthought the camera focuses on her.

After the tender, sweeping acts of barbarian love, the last half hour of Conan the Barbarian is a requisite blur of senseless, frenzied action. The morning after, Tamara is kidnapped by Khalar Zym, Conan gives chase to the aptly-named Skull Cave, Conan fights off a multi-tentacled kraken of some sort, Conan kills the evil father and daughter combo, destroys the death mask, saves Tamara, and barbarian justice is restored to Hyboria.  The movie as a whole is bursting with blood and viscera on the screen, yet is bloodless at heart.

In the original 1982 Conan The Barbarian, when Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan is asked, "What is best in life?", he replied, "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women." Jason Momoa's Conan would agree with the first two, but when it comes to this new Conan, lamentations is not what he's hearing from the women. Conan the Barbarian 2011 delivers all the loud, ultra-violent, CGI and 3D-enhanced, nonsensical wholesale slaughter expected, but Momoa makes bloody sure to spread that sweet, sweet barbarian love. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Friends With Benefits



I Know Who I Want To Take Me Home

Justin Timberlake is an attractive, twentysomething, "emotionally unavailable" new media art director in Los Angeles. Mila Kunis is an attractive, twentysomething, "emotionally damaged with more issues than Magnum P.I. can solve" "headhunter" in New York City. At the beginning of the frank, sexy, and terrific Friends With Benefits, Timberlake and Kunis are simultaneously dumped harshly by their respective significant others (Emma Stone and Andy Samberg). Kunis recruits Timberlake to relocate to NYC as the new art director for GQ, prominently product-placed. They form a fast friendship based on easy comfort and their mutual proclivity for snappy repartee.

Timberlake and Kunis are obviously attracted to one another, no matter how much they claim they aren't. But they both wish to avoid messy emotional entanglements (he much more than she, really), so they strike a deal: to be sexual partners only and friends always, no more than that. "I wish they'd make a movie about what happens after 'happily ever after'," Kunis muses while watching her favorite rom com. "They did. It's called porn," Timberlake replies. And thus, they get all porn-y with each other, starting with the happily ever after as if beginning a meal with dessert. Though the inevitable outcome of this questionable sex-only arrangement is never in doubt, in Friends With Benefits, the joy is in the journey.

Enlivening a savvy, relevant script as rat-a-tat as Kunis' laughter, Timberlake and Kunis sell all of their witty banter, even the cliches, with confident gusto. They can't even pipe down long enough to have sex without continuing their jibber-jabber throughout. ("You two bicker like an old married couple," Jenna Elfman, Timberlake's older sister, wryly observes when the NY-based movie takes a sun-kissed vacation in LA.) It's refreshing to hear young people in a romantic comedy parry with real wit and cleverness as opposed to pandering to non-existent laugh tracks with smug sitcom one-liners. 

Friends With Benefits is a movie that extols the coolness of pint-sized 1990's rapping munchkins Kriss Kross and mines the Semisonic (not Third Eye Blind, Timberlake finally learns in an amusing runner) one hit wonder "Closing Time" for profound emotional significance. Timberlake is apparently paid in the high seven figures to be art director for GQ, and the magazine is so flush with cash, it provides Timberlake with a furnished, multi-million-dollar apartment. (GQ's gay sports editor, Woody Harrelson, commutes from New Jersey via the same antique speedboat Sean Connery used to escape from SPECTRE in From Russia With Love.)

Timberlake also seems to be "headhunter" Kunis' only client, yet she dwells in a huge SoHo loft. Kunis' mother, a welcome Patricia Clarkson, playfully taunts Kunis with the identity and ethnicity of her absent father and disappears on international trips despite having no visible means of income. Timberlake meets Kunis when she jumps on the baggage claim conveyor belt, managing to not get detained by airport security. Whether Timberlake and Kunis are in New York having private conversations on the roof of 30 Rock or in LA having private conversations on the Hollywood sign, realism is in short supply. Yet somehow it all works, the movie powered by the mega-watt charisma of Kunis and Timberlake.

Even when falling victim to obvious third act plot machinations (break them apart to put them back together for the romantic finish) and the pat explanation of Timberlake's reticence towards relationships he learned via the life mistakes confessed by his father Richard Jenkins, who suffers from Alzheimer's, Friends With Benefits still manages to earn their sweetly sappy, flash-mob happy ending. Justin Timberlake was a key player in The Social Network, the 21st century incarnation of Citizen Kane. Smart and wise, new school but old-fashioned at heart, Friends With Benefits may well prove to be the When Harry Met Sally for this generation.