Pop Thoughts: Big Hollywood and the War on Independent Journalism (Part Two)

This entry will be significantly shorter than my last ramble but I intend to keep this topic alive because I feel it is important.  If we hope to maintain an open and honest media, even if it is a blog that is a barely-trodden corridor of the city-sized labyrinth of Internet rags, we have to get the word out whenever we feel there is some sort of system in place that exists to handicap or even eliminate our ability to share our own thoughts on a product released by a major media corporation.

A long-time studio tactic that has been called into scrutiny more and more of late is the review embargo.  A review embargo is a prohibition on the early release of reviews and detailed commentary before a certain specified date after early screenings or pre-release copies of a product are made available to critics.  These individuals are usually your standard mainstream newspaper critic but their ranks also encompass a rollcall of columnists from other “trusted” sources.  Often coming with a written agreement to the studio’s terms and even the occasional non-disclosure agreement, these embargoes are almost always a red flag for me.

While I often prefer to avoid citing any corporate-fed media source, I think critic Marshall Fine said it best on the Huffington Post; “It’s all about controlling information — and bad word of mouth.  This kind of embargo is almost never associated with a movie which is expected to be a critical hit. (source)”  I think this pretty much hits the proverbial nail on the head.  If a movie or game is expected to rock everyone’s world, why keep them out of the loop as long as possible?  Sometimes these review embargoes can be in place up to as late as the Wednesday before the release of a film, intentionally buried in the middle of the workweek.

I stated in my previous diatribe (for lack of a better word) that as products become more expensive, it becomes more necessary to hide or silence any negative press for as long as possible to get the cash of early adopters and opening weekend addicts who want to beat the barrage of inconsiderate spoilers that will inevitably flood the Web by Saturday evening.  However, I believe this tactic is starting to lose its effectiveness.  Consumers are growing more and more savvy to the biases and manipulations of major media sources and are less tolerant than ever of being conned into buying a product that is knowingly-bad, the flaws of which being intentionally hid from them in the hopes that they will spend first and ask questions later.

Pop Thoughts: Big Hollywood and the War on Independent Journalism (Part One)

Before my rant begins, let me be clear by stating I, in-no-way, consider myself a “professional journalist”.  In fact, I am merely a journalist in the most literal sense of the world in that I am a “person who writes” as an entirely independent commentator and reviewer.  I am more of a “hobbyist journalist” than a paid contributor or a critic contracted to any major media outlet.  To be entirely honest, I will never consider taking such a job without the express condition that I will be absolutely free to offer my own opinion on any product regardless of what others may feel about it.  So, with that capricious disclaimer out of the way, let me express to you why I am so pissed off at, sick of, and downright appalled by the major media both online and in the dying legacy sources…

When I was a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, even at a very young age, I adored watching Siskel & Ebert At the Movies.  They were my first exploration into the world of film criticism and gave me a stronger perspective of how film works on us; How movies should and do affect the audience and how these effects influence our attitudes towards popular culture at large.  Have no illusions, no matter how objective a critic may claim to be, we all have biases that manifest in one form or another.  Take myself, for instance: I really dislike (and often despise) how CGI has affected storytelling in movies and the filmmaking process as a whole.  I find it funny that movies like Avatar and the recent Star Wars movies actually look like video games and, as if it were some Freudian expression, we then get a movie in which Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage actually battle giant video game characters from the 80’s (regardless of the quality of that film).  That bias does subconsciously affect both my suspension of disbelief and my subjective reaction to special effects as they happen on screen.  My brain processes an 80’s action flick with a real exploding car differently than a massive CGI monstrosity oozing across a screen.  So, when I see most CG special effects I tend to be put off of them and it does change my interpretation of the qualities of the film I am watching.

So, given that I will expect all critics to express their own biases in any report or review they scribe for any site out there.  Even things like political leanings may change one’s interpretation of the content of any media, which is fine as long as these personal determinations are clear to the reader/watcher in some context.  However, where I draw the line is when a reviewer expressly defines to the audience how they should feel about something.  I’m sure I have exercised this fallacy in the past at some point, possibly even recently, and I do appreciate being called out for it whenever possible.  It is important to avoid cognitive dissonance in general, but when you are trying to convey feelings and reactions to media, as trivial as that media may be, if you are unable to provide some objective observation without skewing things to a bent, the factual information provided about the film (basic plot, names of actors, locations, etc.) that may prove useful to the reader or watcher becomes overshadowed with their implicit biases that fire subconsciously during the consumption of said review.

In the past year, we have seen more and more reviews that rely solely on identity politics as qualitative variables to determine the value of a product.  It’s important to accept that all films, video games, TV shows, comic books, and novels are just that: products.  The studios releasing a film do not care about how their product makes you feel, they only want your money.  That’s their job.  Art is subjective and it does act on us whether we want it to or not or even realize it.  This is now apparently being used by major studios and the media to manipulate and even attack potential consumers based solely on their reactions and opinions on something as minuscule in value as a movie trailer.

I hate to say it, but I can’t help but feel like media outlets are using some manipulation tactics to drum up grassroots support for products before their release.  I can’t be certain that is the motivation, but that is certainly happening.  I would say, if you have a movie with a message, that’s fine.  However, a movie that should be accessible, enjoyable and just be entertaining like Ghostbusters or Black Panther being used as a marketing gimmick for studios is not uncommon, but their being brandished as some sort of weapon against potential consumers is unacceptable behavior by a major media company and I do feel this is going to backfire.  This may seem like a new trend, however, these promotional tactics have been used in the past to manipulate audiences into seeing movies.  Sensationalism sells and Hollywood knows it.  This goes back to horror films that were sold as “Banned in ‘x country’!” and “The movie your parents don’t want you to see!”  This isn’t a new tactic and consumers must be wise about how they are being marketed to.

The key to all pop culture is enjoyment.  For every truly awful film, there are fans (I know I have a few bad movies I like) and that’s okay.  It’s just important to remember that not everyone will always share your sentiments towards a particular movie, TV show or game.  This is not going to change in an age where subjective ideals reflected in various mediums are treated dogmatically or even as empirical truths.  So today, Hollywood and major media outlets have begun campaigns to lock out and outright attack independent reviewers for sharing their opinions.  This isn’t exactly a new trend, but it is absolutely obvious why it is being done.  With movies becoming more and more expensive to make, burnout for franchises like Star Wars and various superhero movies at an all-time high and fan cynicism hitting new depths, studios have an incentive to make their movie appear as promising as possible.  If emotional manipulation of consumers is what it will take, then dammit, they’ll do just that.

There is an active campaign by Hollywood to discredit and block reviewers who aren’t part of the mainstream press.  The reasons for this are not entirely transparent, but an obvious point could be they realize that independent pop culture journalists are not beholden to any major corporation or media outlet which shares corporate ownership of, or has some ad deal with, a studio or publisher.  As a result, there is less skin in the game when it comes to liking or disliking a movie, therefore their opinions are likely to be more honest.  If I’m not getting a check from Disney, I have no incentive to write a positive review of one of their films if I do not actually enjoy it.  The same goes for any form of media.  So, it behooves a major corporation to be methodical in how they deal with negative reviews.  For instance, a Rotten Tomatoes score can be called a “snapshot” into the quality of a movie, but it in no way actually provides a sound rating of what critics thought of the movie, only an average of critics who liked or disliked the movie in a thumbs up or thumbs down sort of way.  A movie with a 75% doesn’t mean the movie got 3 out of 4 stars, it only means 75% of critics who reviewed the movie liked it.  It’s also important to note that the site deceptively divides reviews based on “trusted” critics versus everyone else.  As a result, it isn’t uncommon to see a dramatic dichotomy between fans’ and journalists’ respective scores, especially in the case of projects with a lot of money on the line.

Because of this, we are starting to see fan ratings of movies become more and more denigrated and with that so are the independent reviewers who just write a quick blurb on IMDB or run their own blog.  The “fans do not matter” mantra that we know Hollywood has held up for decades has never rung truer.  In the end, most of these big budget movies will make more money on merchandising than overall ticket sales anyway, especially in the case of major brands like Marvel.  It’s doubtful a producer is going to scoff at a bad review of a mediocre MCU flick like Thor: Ragnarok, instead they’ll laugh their brand licensing all the way to the bank.  They already have your money, they certainly do not have to care if you liked it or not.  This is why fans’ scores are becoming more and more important on websites.  A reason a lot of sites are removing comment options and disabling ratings for advertised products is that fan ratings, comments and reviews work.  They are proven to have a significant impact the perception of a film and they do have a natural effect on the way people see the final product, even if it is in retrospect.  A person who liked The Last Jedi in the moment but disliked it more and more upon reflection (such as myself) is less likely to jump on the merchandising bandwagon for the long term, so it is essential that my views on such a product be kept hidden as best as possible to ensure maximum sales returns.

I know all of this may come off as a more than a little jaded but given these past few years of nonstop fan-shaming and vitriol coming from creators, actors, etc, towards detractors of various entertainment products who are merely sharing their own opinions, I do not think this is unwarranted.  I do not agree with every view put out there, but I also do not want anyone to feel like they should be afraid to offer that very view.  This concept that one is not allowed to have an opinion of a product because of entirely arbitrary or superficial reasons is asinine and unacceptable.  It’s time to start treating these little pieces of entertainment as they are, oft-nonsensical distractions that entertain at the moment.  If we allow our tastes to be tied to what major corporate outlets dictate, the public loses its autonomy, and in the end, our choices in what entertainment is out there for us.

TV Pilot Hell: Danger Bay

A lot of TV series that had a degree of success in their day do not really live on long into the annals of pop culture history; Danger Bay from 1985 is one such series.  Character actor Donnelly Rhodes stars as Dr. Grant Roberts, or ‘Doc’ as he’s called, who manages a wildlife reserve and also acts as a sort of de facto animal sheriff/veterinarian.  He supports his two annoying kids and their pet otter named Danger while wrestling with local politicos who care nothing for the wellbeing of the defenseless animals and saving the day from those who would do the environment minor-to-medium levels of damage.

The pilot episode centers on the family searching for Danger after he runs away.  It cuts back and forth between the struggling father trying to console his kids and find their pet while also telling the story of how the otter came under their care in flashback.  All of the blander, more uninspired moments of Danger Bay are then punctuated by something utterly insane.  Two fishermen who are apparently fishing out of season, are busted but instead of paying the presumed fine they would be faced with, they begin to not only open fire on Doc, try to kill Danger for eating fish out of their net and evade authorities for a relatively-minor offense, but they ultimately result in trying to kill Doc’s son, Jonah, for no rational reason other than he might be a witness to their very minor criminal activities.  This isn’t zero-to-60.  This is more like negative 60 to 100 all in a 30 minute pilot that is so overblown and apparently lacking in any real sense of humor that it makes me wonder how this show actually got to six seasons!  Firefly didn’t even get a full season and this goes on for six years?!  I mean sure, it’s Canadian, I don’t know what they watch up there, but dammit!  Why?!

I can only assume the writers of Danger Bay had a degree in psychology as every element in this show is designed to be emotionally manipulative.  A struggling, despondent single father raising two abnormally-smart Disney kids who only want to rescue animals while facing off against greedy penny-pinching suits and sleazy, unscrupulous interlopers with no regard for minor wildlife preservation laws…  It’s a Sophist’s dream..?  I think?

The environmentalist themes are not lost on me.  Hell, they probably wouldn’t be lost on anyone.  This is about as subtle as Captain Planet only without the Speedo (unless that comes later in the series).  The kids are reading off queue cards that could have had dialog pulled straight from of a Green Peace flier and their father, who is apparently supposed to be the grounded realist, is actually struggling with “The Man” over an otter!

Now, I definitely remember this show from the 80’s.  I didn’t remember the name, the plot, or the absurdity; but I definitely remember the otter and the theme song.  Oh!  That theme song.  Never before has a show with such a limited scope been graced with such an over-the-top, absurdly-80’s action theme.  It is almost comical in its bombast.  This would be like playing the theme to MacGyver over the opening reel for Golden Girls.

Danger Bay premiered on CBC (Like I said… Canada!) but saw syndication in The Disney Channel around the same time, which is undoubtedly where I watched it during its run before its cancellation in 1990 (presumably due to its failure to compete with Booker).  I don’t know what anyone was thinking with this pilot, but it is so ridiculous that I almost kind of liked it.  It isn’t offensively-bad by any means, the acting was lazy but that isn’t atypical for this sort of show and there were a few attempts at tension (albeit those attempts were mostly just hilarious to me).  What makes this show come off so strangely is it would be like sending Magnum, P.I. after a teen who stole his neighbor’s television.  It’s all so overwrought and really is a shining example of much ado about nothing!

Comic Quick Review: Sideways #1 (2018)

There have been quite a few cool new series starting up over the last few months.  Some, like Silencer and Mister Miracle, have been cool fresh starts on older, largely-forgotten comics.  Sideways is a new hero from DC that has branched off from events in the ongoing Dark Knights Metal series and is now part of DC’s “New Age” lineup.

Sideways is the story of Derek James, a seemingly-unremarkable teenager who is the adopted son of a family who, due to previous events in DC’s “Metal” run, have grown to be extremely over-protective.  What they do not realize is Derek, after facing down the darkness, has been imbued with the power to create “rifts” and teleport freely to just about anywhere on a whim.  This comes at a cost, however, as someone (or something) has become aware and disturbed by Derek’s abuse of the space time continuum, so now he has become a target of forces that are not of this world.

Sideways does a good job of establishing its characters early on through quality sequential storytelling and very solid artwork.  Even though each of the core characters are in their own ways archetypal, they are written in a mostly-naturalistic fashion which makes them far more convincing.  The world in which this story is set feels somehow more real than many of the more over-the-top settings we see so much in comics, despite taking place in DC’s own Universe.  There is a human quality to things that can sometimes be lost when dealing with superhero stories.

In its first issue, Sideways establishes a cast of individuals that I look forward to following in the future.  If you have a chance to hit the comic shop, give Sideways #1 a shot!  It’s worth a read and shows the potential for a huge plot with real stakes.  I look forward to #2, which is slated for a March 14th release!

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My 15 Favorite Songs by Utada Hikaru

Utada’s earliest US efforts that began in the late 90’s did not see her to any massive success in North America.  It was not until the young Japanese-American artist moved to Japan and recorded her first Japanese language album “First Love” that things really took off for her.  For the uninitiated, Utada is a fairly standard pop artist.  Her style isn’t too far removed from a lot of other popular artists in the genre, especially out of Japan.  What sets her apart is her delivery.  While many modern artists rely on gimmicks like auto-tune, vocoders and caricature-personas, Utada was able to rise to stardom on talent alone.  Her amazing voice, wide vocal range and knack for composing catchy and warm melodies make her a shining example of the pop diva done right.

Here are my fifteen favorite songs by Utada…


15. Wings (Ultra Blue; 2006)

Starting at the back of my list I have a smooth, melodic tune from Ultra Blue, Utada’s sixth album and fourth effort in Japan.  Opening with a blues piano riff leading into a smooth jazz composition, Wings is one of Utada’s best “slow jams”.  The lyrics do not really translate well so it is hard to tell exactly what this song is about, but it seems to reference something or someone that is unattainable or possibly unrequited love.

Listen on Spotify


14. Traveling (Deep River; 2002)

There isn’t much to Traveling.  It’s catchy, so I guess that helps it, but lyrically it really doesn’t convey much.  It is just a fast, bouncy, well-sung pop song; nothing much more to say about it.


13. Sakura Drops (Deep River; 2002)

Arguably one of Utada Hikaru’s most well-known and well-received songs, Sakura Drops is a beautifully-performed song about moving on.  While the it is easily interpreted as a break up tune, it could be made to reference anything.  Something happens, it hurts, but as the seasons change and the cherry blossoms bloom, it could bring a sort of renewal.


12. Beautiful World (Heart Station; 2008)

Heart Station was Utada’s last album in Japan before returning to the US in 2010.  Beautiful World is a love song of boundless admiration for her significant other.  It was the headlining single off the soundtrack for 2007’s Evangelion 1.0: You Are Not Alone, a follow-up movie set in the universe of the popular anime.  It’s upbeat, has some great vocalizations and a very catchy chorus.


11. Colors (Ultra Blue; 2006)

Colors is full of metaphors and innuendo making it hard to decipher.  It was, however, yet another successful single from Ultra Blue.  It’s a great tune from a melodic standpoint, though.  The minor key and building chorus make it one of my favorites just on its musicality.


10. Goodbye Happiness (Singles Collection Vol. 2; 2010)

Goodbye Happiness is arguably one of Utada’s poppiest songs.  It’s a cheery, upbeat and honestly kind of silly song that seems to be about a fleeting summer romance.  This song is exceptionally-catchy though, and has an almost 90’s-esque tone to it.


9. Keep Tryin’ (Ultra Blue; 2006)

Keep Tryin’ is a silly little song about cynicism!  Featuring a catchy chorus and a bridge with one of Utada’s most memorable vocalizations, this song deserves its chart success.


8. Heart Station (Heart Station; 2008)

One of Utada’s more Western-sounding tunes, Heart Station has hip-hop influence and a moody, drifting chorus.  The synth backing and classic urban beat make it one of Utada’s most accessible tunes for those who are unsure about whether or not they would be able to get beyond the language barrier.


7. Flavor of Life (Heart Station; 2008)

One of the top-selling singles in history, worldwide, Flavor of Life is undoubtedly the song that cemented Utada’s legendary status as an international superstar.  The song received two recordings, the single version, which is an upbeat groove and a ballad version that is much softer, having been recorded with a full orchestra.


6. Prisoner of Love (Heart Station; 2008)

In yet another hip-hop, Western-styled turn, Prisoner of Love is one of the more mature-sounding songs from Utada’s final Japanese album before her hiatus.  The fast chorus, the urban beat, the simple-yet-satisfying vocals and the steady build make it yet another accessible song that displays the diva’s American influences.


5. Blue (Ultra Blue; 2006)

As the name implies, this is obviously a song about sadness.  Separation resulting in a feeling of inescapable despondence.  A soft melodic tune builds to a chorus that hits you with a certain emotional intensity.  It still has a calm melody, but the way she sings it, so quickly and intensely on such a high scale, expresses a mood of desperation.  The feeling of any song is rarely conveyed by any artist as well as it is here by Utada Hikaru.

Listen on Spotify 


4. Hikari (Simple and Clean) (Deep River; 2002)

Many Americans were first introduced to Utada by the intro to the hit game Kingdom Hearts.  The opening theme, “Simple and Clean” was a English remix of this song, Hikari.  The Japanese lyrics and entirely different, guitar-pop style make Hikari an entirely different song from the one so many gamers are used to.  I actually feel this original recording is superior to the remix on the grounds that Utada’s voice is so much clearer, not having been synthesized to mix with the fast, electronic beat of the video game theme.

Listen on Spotify 


3. Making Love (Ultra Blue; 2006)

Yep.  It’s another break-up song.  Kind of…  Making Love, a song about separation over a long distance, is one of Utada’s catchiest songs.  Having one of the most perfectly-placed synth riffs I’ve heard in this sort of tune, the chorus is accentuated with a well-timed arpeggio that takes an otherwise standard pop melody and transforms it into a smashing classic.

Listen on Spotify 


2. Take 5 (Heart Station; 2008)

I don’t know what this song is about.  I will assert, however, it is Utada’s best song from a vocalization standpoint.  The back beat vocal melody and minimalist, pounding beat sets Take 5’s pace and gives it a sort of character.  If you break it down to its individual parts it is a very simple song in its composition, but as it comes together it takes a moody turn.

Listen on Spotify 


1. Passion (Ultra Blue; 2008)

Passion was going to take the top spot from the start of my compiling this list.  This theme song from Kingdom Hearts 2 (released as “Sanctuary”) is a giant.  The soaring chorus, synthesized backing vocals and syncopated drum beat offer up a smooth and gripping entry into Utada Hikaru’s stellar library.  Comparing the KH release of Passion versus the remixed Simple & Clean, it isn’t even a contest.  The warm, full, and precisely-mixed composition of “Passion” dwarfs the isolated cold of the electronic tones of the first game’s theme and really showed American audiences just how talented the Japanese American artist really is.


Important Pop News: Robert Wagner Named As a “Person of Interest” In 1981 Death of Natalie Wood

It was late November of 1981 when the historic Hollywood story struck the headlines.  “Natalie Wood Dead: Body found floating off Catalina” dominated the front page of the Daily News on November 30, less than 48 hours after the notorious incident.  While on a sea excursion off Catalina’s coast on a boat owned by superstar Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken, an argument broke out between Wagner and his wife, the late Natalie Wood.  After the stars were reported to have gone to sleep, a loud thud was heard from the deck and when the passengers investigated they found Wood was missing.  The following morning, Wood’s body was discovered beached a mile down shore.

The death has always been controversial, and suspicions have lingered.  Wood was known to struggle with alcoholism and painkiller addiction, and autopsies discovered she was intoxicated when she died.  However, suspicions were further fueled by the discovery of abrasions along Wood’s body, including on her arms and face.  These wounds, typical of domestic violence, led some to speculate that Wagner had attacked her during a fight and either Wood fell off the boat, hit her head and disappeared into the black water, or was intentionally thrown overboard.

30 years after the incident in 2011, the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, who was piloting the ship that night, stated he was certain that Wagner was responsible for the death of the famous actress.  However, despite the controversy, Wagner got by unscathed.  Wood’s cause of death was changed from “accidental drowning” to “drowning due to undetermined factors” and the case was officially reopened.  A recent statement by LA County Sheriff John Corina during a 48 Hours interview has sparked new life in the story in the last 24 hours.  “As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s (Wagner) more of a person of interest now,” Sheriff Corina stated during the interview. [source].

Wood was most famous for her classic role as Maria in Robbins & Wise’s musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, as well as Splendor in the Grass that same year and her childhood role as Susie in Miracle on 34th Street from 1941.  She was nominated for three Oscars and won three Golden Globes, including one for “Most Promising Newcomer” in 1957 for Rebel Without a Cause.  Natalie Wood was not a “Newcomer” when Rebel was released having appeared in a number of roles as a child on film and television. [source].

I can only speculate what truths will be revealed in the coming months surrounding this legendary case.  Could one of Hollywoods most infamous cold cases finally be solved?  Wagner, who is nearly 90 now, could finally face charges for Wood’s death after almost four decades of mystery and conjecture…

Comic Quick Review: Damage #1 (2018)

As part of an ongoing push by DC to resurrect the Dark Age of comics, 90’s B-list anti-hero Damage makes a return to shelves.  As (one of) DC’s answers to The Hulk, Damage was meant to have the combined power of a number of DC’s most powerful heroes.  Now he makes a comeback as the failed experiment that feels no pain, shows no mercy and will not stop…

The comic opens with American solider named Ethan strapped to an exam chair, busting free as a clock showing one hour is printed in frame.  From here, we see him take the form of Damage and leave miles of destruction in his wake as he combats a specially-trained mech-driving solider sent to stop him.  The army’s attempts to stop him have failed and now, after Damage is the last man standing, Ethan finds the briefest respite.  He is now left hiding, stranded, and he can only wait until his alter ego returns for another hour-long rampage.

Damage is 90’s comic insanity done right.  Issue #1 doesn’t have a whole lot of exposition, it just opens with carnage and destruction then ends with a tease.  The upcoming issue promises a brawl with the Suicide Squad, who is sent in after Damage once Amanda Waller sees the military (and Damage’s creator) fail to stop this “walking, talking weapon of mass destruction.”

Back in the day a lot of the time the first issue will just be a chaotic brush with death to get the reader excited about what is to come.  There would be exposition and story, but the focus was on showing us what the hero can actually do.  Damage does a good job at this and while it is certainly not thought-provoking and intellectual, it is insane, entertaining action.  Sometimes that’s all I want.  Comics do not necessarily have to be deep, they do not always have to start a conversation or represent any particularly meaningful political topic.  Many times, fans just want their comics to be fun.  Damage #1, in all of its muscle-headed madness, has me excited to see what’s ahead.  The thought of seeing this gray monstrosity face off for an hour with Harley Quinn and the gang in the next issue is enough to get me pretty excited.

The art in Damage is pretty solid, too.  At points the quality takes a sudden decline but it isn’t often enough to really hurt it.  Also, there were a few points where I thought the action could have been drawn to appear a little more dynamic.  That said, it looks great, you can tell what is going on, and the character Damage really does come off like a force to be reckoned with.  Also, the cover is 100% “Badassitude!”  Give this one a read if you want some dumb, chaotic, rampaging violence in your week!

Comic Quick Review – Avengers Infinity War: Prelude #1 (Updated!)

It’s safe to say the comics industry has been struggling over the past few years.  Sales are down, turmoil brews in the form of a cornucopia of controversies, characters are being replaced and storylines are intersecting to the point of incomprehensibility.  Marvel has been the tip of the spear here and the fallout has been deafening.  I have not been a fan of Marvel’s comics for a while now (not since the mid-aughts), as I think their storytelling abilities have been on a pretty steady decline as their writing staff was steadily replaced over a period of about ten years, leaving only a handful of cynical veterans behind.

Despite their more recent failings as a comic book company (with mainline books selling well-below 30k in units shipped), Marvel has shown consistent resilience in their movie brand.  Even the weakest of Marvel Studios’ films often have moments of enjoyment and the focus seems so far to have less about weaving together a complex universe and more about being fun adventure movies; Which I suppose is all a movie fan can really ask of them.  So, in preparation for the hotly-anticipated Avengers: Infinity War, I decided to give their tie-in comic “Prelude” a read.

Avengers: Infinity War - Prelude #1 (2018; Marvel)

Prelude is a combination of three things: A lead-in from the end of movie “Captain America: Civil War”, a tie-in to the upcoming “Black Panther” flick, and lastly a way to connect these two movies to the impending galactic struggle against Thanos in the titular 2018 Summer blockbuster.  The story opens with Cap and Stark’s confrontation at the end of the movie “Civil War” and sloppily leads into Cap’s rescue of his allies from a Hydra prison.  Then bounces haplessly to an over-long, boring exposition scene about Bucky as told by a Wakandan doctor that goes on for roughly seven pages!  Lastly we get more flopping around to Cap-and-company busting up a terrorist arms deal selling Chitari weapons.  If you didn’t gather it from my hastily-thrown-together synopsis, this book is a hot mess!

The sequential art is all over the place.  It switches between dull, mannequin-esque posing to rough, sloppy sequential action scenes.  Things happen quickly from panel to panel and it is often difficult to tell just what is going on without a second or even third look.  The seemingly-random series of events is merely a rush to force all of the plots of these films together while trying to introduce us to the Wakandan scientist Shuri, who is simultaneously the most boring and most unlikable character in the issue, due to her long monologing and sheer, abrasive arrogance (or should I say “the writer’s arrogance?”).

As for the art: It’s bad.  It looks like roughs used for storyboarding; not print-ready art.  The often-fanart levels of ugliness on display is unsurprising given Marvel’s present state, but seeing it come together like this in a comic that is meant to tie into the superior Cinematic Universe just makes it stand out even more.  This is the crux of this book’s problem, too.  I have a feeling the very existence of Prelude may only prove to intensify the apparent rift in competency between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel Comics’ publishing arm.  The contrast on display is glaring with art that varies in quality from page to page to visual storytelling that is occasionally confusing.  The writing is a bundle of exposition clumsily written into page-filling dialogue balloons as if to reassure us that these are the words of the characters we are reading and not an anonymous fanboy’s drunk IMDB plot synopsis.

So much is wrong with this obvious cash-in, and I definitely can’t give it a recommendation.  This is the comic book equivalent of a movie trailer.  It’s slashed to bits, vague, clunky, and I cannot foresee anyone reading it and finding it enhancing their enjoyment of the upcoming movies in any real way.  This is just shelf-bait hoping to grab disgruntled comics fans who are more excited about the upcoming movies than they are about anything pouring out of Marvel’s presses these days.

UPDATE – 2/16/2018:

Less than a month after writing this review, I forgot I had even read this book.  So, there’s that.

Batman & Robin: Is It Really That Bad..?

For nearly two decades, a popular contender for “Worst Movie of All Time” from multiple mainstream media outlets has been Joel Schumacher’s 1997 bomb, Batman & Robin.  The question I’ve since asked myself is, how bad is this movie, exactly?  Well, I will say I have watched Batman & Robin several times and will assert, right off the bat: It isn’t bad enough to be considered “Worst Movie of All Time”, but believe me when I say, it’s pretty bad.

First it’s important to lay out some context; Batman & Robin may seem anomalous by today’s standards, with its neon colors, flashy costumes, bad one-liners and cheesy performances, but this was the late 90’s, people!  If you did not grow up in the period, from about 1997 to 2003, we witnessed a virtual legion of over-the-top, goofy, brightly-colored pooch-screws that dominated cinemas.  Some of these contemporary flicks were passable; Most of them were terrible.  However, for its time, B&R was not really all that out of place aesthetically or in its tone.

Now, let’s paint an objective picture of Batman & Robin before we delve into everything wrong with this money pit.  First off, Joel Schumacher was not a bad director before this film more or less ruined his career.  He did make the (I would say ‘classic’) film Falling Down starring Michael Douglas, the sleeper thriller Flatliners, the dramatic courtroom epic A Time to Kill and the arguably-underrated 8mm.  He isn’t a slouch or an underdog in spite of what one may think of these movies, and yes, I DID like Flatliners.  So, hot off the heels of the successful-but-underwhelming Batman Forever (which primarily rode the popularity of Jim Carey at the time), Schumacher did not do much differently with this final entry in the 80’s-90’s Batman Saga.  The tone was the same, the ideas were similar and the bleakness of Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City was replaced with one that was more cartoonish and reminiscent of the ’60’s TV series; whether or not this is a good thing is debatable.  Now, the casting was more than a little questionable.  It’s obvious there was some hesitation on the part of the casting director to bring in someone who is too “different”, and they wanted stars who were recognizable to help Warner Bros. attach butts to theater seats.  So, by that standard it made sense to cast Alicia Silverstone (who was still riding her Clueless fame), Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was top-billed) and George Clooney (who’s portrayal of a passionate pediatrician on the hit series ER made him a super-star).  I think it is safe to declare it a fact that Batman & Robin was handcrafted to be a hit; or, at least, that’s what WB hoped…

Now, for a more subjective perspective, let us consider what made Batman tick as a series leading up to the 1989 Burton film.  The comics took a much darker turn in the 80’s, focusing more on the societal conflict of the presence of Batman as a vigilante than it ever had before, and the vision of Batman went from blue and purple to grey and black.  Why?  It was a sign of the times, a shift in the idea of comics as the age of the average reader increased, but it was also a reflection of the period.  As crime continued to rise throughout the 70’s, the following Neon Decade wasn’t all Lauper and stretch pants.  Dramas and crime thrillers turned to brutality as an answer to the projection of inner cities from news, movies and TV, and films like Robocop satirized the extremes we could have been headed toward.  Yet, this did not translate well to the big screen if I was to be entirely honest.  Most of the movies from this time were too dark and often gross in their depictions of grit.  The few films that did work landed because of the underlying idea within their plots being more than just bleakness, offering us characters and stories that reach beyond the cynical depiction of a collapsing social contract.  Where does Batman fit in to all of this pretentious rambling?  Well, the 1989 Batman was great.  It had that darker mood we expected from the time but it shared it in a way that was still humorous.  The evil, murderous Joker (played masterfully by Jack Nicholson) injected memorable moments into the film, his bright purple getup and wild antics being a stark contrast to the drab, unpleasant aesthetic of Gotham City.  Even the city’s ray of hope in Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) was somewhat shadowed in suspicion, especially for fans who knew what Dent was to become in the future.  Sadly, we never got that Two-Face.

Things looked good going into Batman Returns, but Burton took things a little too far.  While I actually like many elements of this first sequel, I recognize it as a dark departure to a story that was far too disturbing for young kids and far too… ‘Burton’ for many adults.  It has gained some cult status for this reason and I think deserves a second look to those who haven’t seen it since the early 90’s.  The biggest mistake following the criticism of ‘Returns’ was the over-correction on the part of Warner Bros. and their board room full of aging, out-of-touch executive producers.  Their attitude was contrasting the reception of Batman Returns with that of the masterwork that was Batman: The Animated Series.  Their solution was to turn the Dark Knight’s film franchise into a live-action cartoon, apparently having not spent ten minutes watching the actual TV show they thought they were planning to mimic.  If they had, they’d have realized that Batman: TAS was a well-thought-out, sophisticated, smart and surprisingly-mature show.  That is NOT what we got with Batman Forever…  Now, don’t get me wrong, Schumacher gets some blame in this as well, and it’s obvious he didn’t put up much of a fight because “Batman Forever” has studio stink all over it.  Therefore, I can safely skip over most of “Forever” because it is effectively a cinematic dead zone.  It isn’t quite terrible enough to dwell on, but it was an odd attempt to wring Tim Burton’s style out of a director who really only worked on thrillers, dramas and INXS music videos while tossing in a bit of cartoon antics to make things seem a little softer.  The movie did okay, but that was more due to Jim Carey than anything else, as he was THE hot comedy commodity at the time.

So, this brings us to Batman & Robin.  The problems with this one are lengthy, so bear with me.  First the movie is ugly; very, very ugly.  Every scene is poorly-lit, over-exposed and oddly-designed.  Dutch angles and wide-angle lenses are used in excess (a trend at the time) and every single scene in the movie is way, way too long.  Dialogue was inundated with bickering, pointless banter, and face-palmingly-bad “zingers” grumbled, grunted and bawled with comical vocal inflections by obviously-bored actors.  The forced tone of this film reeked of action-figure-friendly filmmaking with a tone-deaf attempt at giving us a more adventurous, exciting universe.  It did have everything WB could have wanted out of a money-printing marketing fountain, but what the actual filmmakers seemed to have forgotten was how to tell a story.  The plans of the villains were paper-thin and their actions often made little sense, each character’s place in the events that transpire is awkward and poorly-planned, and events jump around as if somebody edited the movie using a roulette wheel… with a ping-pong ball…  while drunk.  Also, is it even possible for a story with this many ‘lead characters’ could even work in this sort of film?  Large casts can do okay when they are tied together with a tight script (i.e. Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption), but here, since every line is belted and nauseating, this many overpaid presumed-to-be-adults on screen just becomes distracting.

So, most importantly, is Batman & Robin even fun to watch?  I would have to say ‘no’.  The excess on the screen, complete with skyboarding, lame ‘girl power’ with Silverstone’s motorcycle racing and the contrived turn as Batgirl, and bizarre and mostly-confusing sexual undertones, drag it way down.  On top of that, it’s easy to forget how boring this movie is.  Sure, it has action, explosions, yelling of one-liners and attempts at dramatic tension, but man is it dull.  More than half of the movie involves tight shots of characters talking and often arguing (insert dutch angle).  The heroes deliver their bland lines over each other quickly, but with no rhythm, so there’s nothing keeping an engaging pace with the dialogue (not to mention there being nothing of substance to discuss).  To contrast that, our villains talk slowly with strange, ill-advised puns.  It doesn’t make sense because there is no consistency through the film, so each dialogue scene either spins your head or leaves you shouting “Just finish your damn lines already!”

However, where does that place Batman & Robin in the grand scheme of things?  I will be clear in stating it is certainly not the worst movie ever made.  It isn’t even the worst movie I’ve seen in theaters in my lifetime!  As far as blockbusters go, it’s bad, but it isn’t as obnoxious and aggravating as Bay’s Transformers movies, or as cynical and self-indulgent as anything Adam Sandler has starred in.  It is just bad in the most obvious ways possible; bad dialogue, bad visuals, bad acting, bad story.  But nothing really drags it down below that standard ‘bad’ that we all know.  If you disagree that’s cool, but do go sit through Pink Flamingos, The Fat Spy and anything from PureFlix and get back to me on that sentiment.

I usually try not to give movies precise scores but for this I will say Batman & Robin sits safely at around a 3 out of 10.  I think it fails to be interesting enough to be so scorned.  It’s like calling Might No. 9 the worst game of all time; it’s terrible, but not in any particularly special way.  It fails at everything, but only in a way where it doesn’t really do anything right, as opposed to something like “The Room” which managed to fail at just about every aspect of filmmaking outside of simply getting the thing released.  Many people (myself included) love Wiseau’s Magnum Opus, yet hate Batman & Robin.  I guess Batman & Robin is so despised because it just quite isn’t bad enough to be loved…

Quick Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

After a brief scare in 2014, fans of Studio Ghibli let out a sigh of relief as fears that their favorite animation house would be closing their doors were squelched by official statements declaring the news to be a mere rumor. However, in recent years the famous brand has certainly slowed in their efforts and their latest outing, ‘Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter’, a CG animated TV series released to Amazon Prime video, has sparked much interest but has left filmmakers and long time fans to question the direction the company has taken. Thus, a few of the talents from the ranks of Ghibli moved on to start a new chapter in Studio Ponoc.

Ponoc’s first feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, is a light adventure that definitely follows in the footsteps of the Master, Miyazaki-san. It has all of the things he’s known for, yet is missing a few of the things that made many of his movies instant classics. However, all things considered, this is a skillful, beautiful and fun fantasy that will certainly appeal to all ages.

The story follows the titular Mary, a young girl who has moved to her grandmother’s home in the English countryside and is awaiting her parents’ arrival. However, her attempts to connect with others in this new landscape are appearing futile. In desperation she begins to pour out her heart to a black cat, and upon following this cat into a thick wood, she finds a glowing flower. Deciding to pluck it and hold as a keepsake, she soon discovers there’s more to this flower than she ever could have imagined…

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows many of the tropes from other films released by Ponoc’s predecessor, Studio Ghibli. The strange yet amazing fantasy world of Spirited Away, a magical ‘Castle’ in the sky, a stranger who befriends our heroine in their darkest hour… It’s all there. In fact, in many ways this is a patchwork of stories retold from a slightly more modernized perspective. Much of the whimsy has been replaced with vigor and the lead character Mary does seem to have a real personality outside of being a “spunky kid”. She reacts comically and believably to the strange occurrences around her and her first interactions with some of the odd, otherworldly characters bring some of the film’s best moments.

The Alice In Wonderland premise blended with a MacGuffin and some brief but satisfying action scenes come together to make a nice movie that only lacks in a few areas. Firstly, the film comes to a edge so often then pulls back. We get an idea of Mary’s potential with magic, but we rarely see her do anything. In fact, the apparent goal is to show how she can overcome these challenges without magic, but that is all negated in the end. In the meantime, the villains’ plans, which are never made entirely clear outside of a vague description, never really lay out any consequences. We are just meant to accept that their goals would cause some harm by having them take some “drastic measures” to achieve their ends.

That said, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an enjoyable movie and should give fans of the classic Studio Ghibli style hope that Studio Ponoc may be the fresh new face in cinematic Japanese animation. They certainly have a knack for it. This is an absolutely beautiful movie, with some of the best animation and art I have seen from Japan in several years. The writing is quite good, with characters that are likable without being annoying and real human moments that are often lost in animated fantasies. I give this one a recommendation, especially for families with kids. This is a great start into this world of family-friendly animation from Japan and I think fans of Miyazaki’s work would likely enjoy this one as well, though it fails to live up to the high standards set by some of his notable classics.

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