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Monday, February 19, 2018

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 215

Death Bed #1
by Riley Rossmo

Dept H #23
by Matt Kindt

Ice Cream Man #2
by Martin Morazzo

Batwoman #12
by Michael Cho

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Monday, February 12, 2018

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 214

 Black Monday Murders #8
by Tomm Coker

Bloodshot: Salvation #6
by John Bivens

 Gotham City Garage #9
by Dustin Nguyen

Rumble #3
by Toni Fejzula and Marta Garatea

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #29
by Erica Henderson

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

Here are some brief thoughts on all 15 of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films. 

Starting with Live Action there is DeKalb Elementary, a film that starts tense and barely lets up. It’s based on a real 911 call that took place after an unstable young man wandered into an elementary school office with an automatic weapon. From there, it’s up to a scared but collected secretary to try and calm him down. The secretary part is very well performed. Overall, it’s a nice piece about empathy. It’s unfortunate that a black woman has to coddle a white dude, but that kind of reinforces the message. On a side note, I’m 99% sure this was shot at my kid’s school, which didn’t alleviate any of the inherent intensity.

My Nephew Emmett isn’t any lighter. It’s the tragic story of Emmett Till told from his uncle’s perspective. The best part of this short is how it captures the horror and terror the uncle feels when he merely hears what Emmett has allegedly done. He instantly knows what’s coming and that in the world he inhabits, he’s helpless to stop it. Beyond that, it felt like the story deserved to be bigger and stronger. Some of the acting isn’t that great and some of the lighting choices aren’t much better. This year’s Mudbound is a perfect counterexample of how to impressively tell this kind of story.

The shortest and best of the nominees is The Eleven O’clock. It contains a perfect short film hook. A psychiatrist is about to see a new patient. Hilariously, one of his symptoms is that he thinks he’s a psychiatrist. A snappy screwball comedy unfurls from there. It’s sharp, funny, and quite brilliant. It doesn’t overstay the premise or reach for something profound. It settles for being perfectly executed.

The Silent Child is solid for most of its runtime. It’s about a deaf little girl and her new teacher. The girl’s mother isn’t convinced that sign language is the best path forward for her kid. She’s also more than a little jealous of the new bond she sees forming between her daughter and the teacher. The film stays quite muted. It’s bolstered by a strong performance from Rachel Shenton as the teacher (she also wrote the script). But it never really adds another layer. It’s just sad, and ultimately a propaganda piece created solely to raise awareness for proper deaf education. On one hand it’s successful, I just wish it was a more dramatic success.

And then there’s Watu Wote (All of Us). It’s based on the true story of a bus in Somalia being attacked by terrorists. The terrorists demand to know who is a Christian and who is a Muslim so they can execute the correct infidels. It’s an intense scene but it takes forever to get to it. It’s meandering and then over too soon. It’s also distractingly similar to another short nominee from 7 years ago, Na Wewe. That older nominee was about a van attacked by terrorists in an African-country who demanded the passengers split into two groups, and it was made by Europeans who seem way too proud of themselves. It’s familiar and it’s fine.

Moving on the Animated Shorts, PIXAR returns with Lou. This one played in front of Cars 3 and it’s a cute and heartwarming CG short. It’s about a lost and found bin at school coming to life to teach a bully a lesson. It spins its wheels in the middle with an okay chase, but it is fun enough. It’s not pushing any new tech or experimenting wildly and that’s okay too. Garden Party is probably my favorite animated short of the group. It’s an almost plotless film innocently following around frogs outside a giant mansion. Slowly it reveals its more sinister intentions and its audacious and dark sense of humor. I’m kind of in awe of what it pulls off and of how beautiful the CG animation it creates to pull it off with. It’s nuts. Revolting Rhymes is from the same previously nominated studio that made The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom. It’s a polished adaptation of Roald Dahl’s fairy tale twists. But it just never feels fresh enough to justify another go round with Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and the Three Little Pigs. The house style is nice, but not that special. Negative Space is a weird little stop-motion film. It’s a narrated poem about how packing for trips was the only way a boy could bond with his dad. What starts as a giant “who cares” deftly turns existential and beautiful. An impressive feat of brevity. Dear Basketball has absolutely no business being nominated. It’s Kobe Bryant’s self-produced ode to himself. Kobe clearly knows the right people in town. It is hand drawn by a legendary Disney animator and scored by John Freakin’ Williams. So yes, it’s easy on the eyes and ears. But if you set aside Lakers fandom (yes, I am a fan, and I assume local animators must be too for this to have made it in), and the questionable past allegations, especially at this moment in time, you’re still left with a piece that has no business anywhere else but inside Staples Center.

This year’s least interesting Documentary Short is Edith + Eddie. It’s about interracial nonagenarian newlyweds and the family squabbles that interfere and conspire to separate them. The short doesn’t have much to say about them or their situation. At first it’s just neat. The kind of story you used to see get 500 words in your local paper. Then it starts to feel like we’re eavesdropping on someone’s very personal business. The 5-minute stretch of black with audio only, because the cameras were forced off, only emphasizes this feeling. Love is powerful. I get it. Try as it might, this film doesn’t strengthen that old cliché. Traffic Stop is a little better. It takes on the racial prejudice of the local police. It uses the case of Breaion King whose YouTube video you might have seen on the news. Thankfully her case didn’t end tragically like so many others, but it’s still gross and shocking how she was treated. The most disturbing part being when a different officer who wasn’t involved with her assault begins “rationally” explaining that black people have violent tendencies. However, the film doesn’t really do a whole lot besides let you get to know the victim. She gets to tell her story, share some of her life, and reclaim her time. It’s extremely one-sided, and there just isn’t 30 minutes of material here.

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is as strange and hard to understand as its subject matter. It’s about Mindy Alper, an LA artist who makes weird sculptures and strikingly odd drawings. She recounts her life story but because she is clearly mentally ill, the film jumps around, overshares, drops other details, and forgets to fill out the whole picture. For instance, the film is well into the story before we even know the artist’s name. We get a lengthy explanation of all the medication she’s on, but we’re never told what specifically is wrong with her. Is this how she’s always been? Did she used to be better? How does she take care of herself? The only context we’re given is if she gives it to us and she’s clearly an impaired source of information. The art is fascinating and she’s a compelling character but the movie could stand to be clearer.

The best two doc shorts are Heroin(e) and Knife Skills. The former is about the opioid epidemic in West Virginia. Rather than a doom and gloom story about death and societal failure, the film chose instead to follow 3 women who are out there trying to do something to better their community. There’s a fire chief who can barely sit down for an interview without being pulled away for another 911 overdose call. There’s a judge running a special “drug court” to help convicts with rehab. And there’s a good Christian who started a program that hands out food to prostitutes living on the streets. Hollywood could instantly turn fire chief Jan Rader’s story into a dramatic feature film starring Jodie Foster. It’s very compelling, and the whole short is structured wonderfully. It’s an inspiring and balanced look at a real issue without falling victim to histrionics. It’s impossible not to root for real fucking heroes, unassumingly just doing the work. Finally, there’s Knife Skills. It’s about a restaurant/culinary school in Ohio that runs a program to help train and hire ex-cons. It plays out like a cross between MasterChef and The Wire. It knows just how much kitchen drama to mix in with all the hard knocks. It could use a little more context and background on the program as well as the man who runs it. For instance, how much if anything are the employees paid? Or does the government assist the program in any way? No matter. This and Heroin(e) are really smart and interesting stories of people trying to help people.

And now I try to make some predictions. 

For Live Action, I find it difficult to go with anything other than The Eleven O’clock. It’s clearly the best and maybe since it’s the only comedy and the shortest that’ll help it win too. For Animated, PIXAR won last year and Lou is hardly a top tier work from them. I’m left thinking the unique Garden Party ends up standing out amongst the rest of the field. And for Documentary, it seems to always be pick your pet issue: opioids, criminal justice reform, Black Lives Matter, old people. I think Heroin(e) gets an extra boost for being widely seen on Netflix and feeling the most refined. I realize I just went with my favorites, which I hate to do, so I’m guaranteed to be wrong. Oh well. Go see the films for yourself. They’ll be in theaters starting February 9th.

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The first trailer for VENOM kicks off Sony’s new Marvel slate

To be honest, I’m not 100 percent sure how Sony’s new set of Marvel films that they’re trying to spin franchises out of link up with the already established continuity of Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is firmly set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the answers to that question have been vague, one day it’s a part of the MCU, another day it’s not…and with rumors that Tom Holland may pop up in this year’s Venom, that throws even more fire on the idea that Venom, and the upcoming Silver & Black, about Silver Sable and Black Cat, are all quasi-part of that sprawling universe.
In the meantime, here’s the first trailer for the Tom Hardy starring tale of Eddie Brock and his symbiote. It’s a pretty vague and short minute and a half, and a bit of an odd way to begin marketing for a movie that so many are dubious about – how do you not show the suit right away?
Still, the cast is very good (I forgot Michelle Williams is in this, and is that Dan from Veep I see?), and I’m hanging a lot of my hopes on that.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018


Before now, it wasn't really right to think of Cloverfield as a franchise in the way we typically think of them. Cloverfield, Matt Reeves 2008 film, was a found-footage horror film about a group of friends trying to survive a giant monster attack on New York City. 10 Cloverfield Lane, the 2016 follow-up, was about a young woman in a bunker trying to figure out if her rescuer was more dangerous than the ostensible alien invasion happening outside. There really wasn't much connective tissue between the two; instead, it seemed, the Cloverfield brand was used, in this franchise-obsessed world in which we live, to help a brilliant small-scale sci-fi thriller flourish. The idea of using the franchise to build up projects along a similar theme but with no other connection was brilliant. Alas, The Cloverfield Paradox disagrees, and contorts the film into a weird, clumsy prequel. If the Cloverfield brand helped promote an excellent thriller a couple years ago, here, it helps destroy a promising idea.

In The Cloverfield Paradox, Earth is in the midst of an unprecedented energy crisis. Russia is threatening a ground invasion of the United States, Germany is preparing for war, and people are using illegal, dangerous fuel cells to power their homes -- at great personal risk. Into this comes Ava (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a scientist dealing with a personal tragedy who is recruited for an ambitious, moonshot proposal. It's a killer hook: She joins an orbital international space station testing a new form of energy, hoping to stave off a new world war, and after two years of failure, they finally have a successful test... only for something in the ship to explode, and the crew to come to with no idea where the Earth is. Now, the crew must figure out where in space they are, what went wrong -- and why there's now a shrieking coming from the walls of the station.

Right away, the film runs into some... problems. We're told via newscast that we're in the midst of an energy crisis... then we're in a car, meeting our protagonists, who tell us about the energy crisis, before we get aboard the spaceship - why is this set in space, by the way? They say it's because the particle accelerator was too big to build on Earth, but that's just visibly untrue, and it seems like building a space station and then ferrying people back and forth to space is going to be a rough go during an energy crisis - and we're once again told about the energy problem. The first is inorganic and never should have made the final cut; the second is a bit clumsy, but at least it characters rather than snippets of the news; only the third, which takes place on the station and shows us the mounting stress of the crisis, really completely works... but by the time we reach it, we're already bored. And this is far from the only time the movie endlessly reiterates things in the clumsiest way possible, treating the audience like even the most basic ideas are beyond them. Don't even get me started on the freaking 'scientist interview' we see snippets of, warning that a successful test could unleash demons on Earth. You keep using the word 'paradox' -- I do not think it means what you think it means.

Some of the scares are effective and interesting, while others just don't work at all. At one point, we get a completely random shot of a foosball table, and we see the little players on the poles begin to spin wildly. It's a terrible idea for a scare, but that's not the only problem; it's also badly executed and badly set up. It appears to happen in a completely empty room, which means that we don't really have any characters being afraid to juice the emotions. It's a completely unimportant object, so we don't get the sense that it portends any particularly nasty fate. And, most damning, it is shot in a close-up on the spinning guys, which means that, in your head, all you think about is, "There's totally a person like three inches off camera just spinning them really intensely." It's not the kind of scene you should be laughing during, but I defy you not to.

The script resembles a puzzle, and I don't mean that in a positive way. A character loses his arm when a wall eats it for no reason; the arm is discovered by a character who had been locked up after he is mysteriously released for no reason; the arm tells them to cut open a different cast member for no reason; this gives them the ability to power their station. If the characters had figured it out on their own, it could have been an empowering moment; if they were attacked by something and forced into a series of difficult choices that ultimately gave them their way home, that could be scary. But instead, it's just a series of wild, random events, coincidence where the story should be. Because of that decision, potentially dramatic moments are rendered utterly inert. This is something the movie does over and over and over again, the complete lack of character agency makes it difficult to really get invested in what's going on.

The cast is phenomenal - Daniel Brühl is a talented up-and-comer, Chris O'Dowd is a strong choice for comic relief, David Oyelowo is a great actor without much to do, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw might be the finest young actress in Hollywood today. But Gugu is also the only one really given particularly emotional material to work with. We don't really know... anything about the rest of the crew, who largely seem to be their jobs. Do they have families? Why does Zhang Ziyi's character only speak Mandarin? Why did they volunteer to come up here? Even without dedicating dialogue space to their backstories, the performances themselves should give us the clues we need; Pacific Rim's Australian pilots, for example, don't get a ton of exposition about their pasts, but you know a damn lot about who they are as people as the movie progresses just based on their performances and they way they act. Because The Cloverfield Paradox takes place years after these people have known one another and they almost all seem to get along (the only ones who don't are because of a national conflict), there's no real friction here either. The movie comes alive for a stretch in the middle when a new person joins the cast and the relationships shift, but it takes so long for her presence to matter that it feels a bit too little, too late.

The core idea behind the movie is rock solid, but it is simply so riddled with problems that it just doesn't work. Frequent trips back to Earth - meant to tie the film more fully into the Cloverfield 'Universe' (ugh) and continuity (uggggggghhhhhhh) - completely derail the tension on the station, though the script only rarely lets that tension build in the first place, so I guess it's not a huge loss. It's not that the movie is irredeemably bad in any one area, it's just sloppy and ill-conceived on virtually every level, from the opening news clipping nonsense all the way down to its disastrous final shot.

10 Cloverfield Lane was excellent, and it seemed to herald a new kind of franchise filmmaking. Instead, it seems like it will just be the Halloween 3: Season of the Witch of this particular horror franchise, a strange outlier that shows what might have been, before meddling producers demanded something more conventional. Even so, The Cloverfield Paradox didn't have to be as rough as it was. A tighter script could have cut down on the useless trips to Earth and gratuitous exposition, letting this all-star cast shine, and a stronger delivery for setting up and paying off the scares would have really sold the tension. As is, the best thing about The Cloverfield Paradox is that I didn't have to pay for it.

The Cloverfield Paradox is out now, only on Netflix. Written by Oren Uziel and directed by Julius Onah, The Cloverfield Paradox stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, and Chris O'Dowd.
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Monday, February 5, 2018

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 213

 Harley & Ivy Meet Betty & Veronica #5
by Bilquis Evely

 Infinity Countdown: Adam Warlock #1
by Aaron Kuder

The Wicked and The Divine 1923 #1
by Aud Koch

 Batman #40
by Joëlle Jones

Deathstroke #28
by Ryan Sook

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: THE STRANGE ONES Is A Hypnotic Thriller

Jeremiah (James Freedson-Jackson) is a young teen boy on the road with twenty-something Nick (Alex Pettyfer). Nick claims to be his older brother, taking him on a camping trip, but there's a distance to Jeremiah that immediately puts everyone he comes in contact with just a little bit off. He clearly wasn't abducted -- he has a phone, he answers a text at one point -- but... he also doesn't appear to be Nick's brother. And his name may isn't Jeremiah. And they definitely aren't going camping. But what, then, are they doing? And why is Jeremiah haunted by visions of a fire?

The Strange Ones is slow. Some people might call it hypnotic (looking at the top of this page, I did, in the end), maybe even meditative, but a lot of that depends on your mindset. What the film often is, particularly in the early going, is slow. A lot of the film is built on your slowly shifting expectations, as some playful editing fundamentally changes relationships in interesting and often disturbing ways. It doesn't always work, particularly as directors Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff lean into some metaphysical territory that verges on incoherent, but even in its slowest moments the film manages to be attention-grabbing.

Even before we get to some of the revelations that come later in the movie, Wolkstein and Radcliffe make it obvious that this is not a story that's going to have a happy ending. James Freedson-Jackson (Cop Car) has to carry a fairly complex character who we know almost nothing about for much of the film. He's angry and possessive, with a sharp wit and a youthful arrogance that prevents him from being as careful as he should be. At first, Freedson-Jackson is frustrating, just a little bit too mature and just a little bit too reckless, but as the film progresses and we understand his character's traumatic backstory, the performance snaps into focus. Freedson-Jackson was fantastic in Cop Car, and he continues the incredibly strong streak of young teen performances here.

  The Strange Ones' tone verges on apocalyptic, laced through with a persistent dread reminiscent of something like Karyn Kusama's The Invitation, though The Strange Ones is less married to the expectations of the horror genre. While this could be called a psychological thriller, a lot of the tension comes from the filmmaking rather than the storytelling; this is the kind of movie where not a lot happens, and what does happen hits suddenly, but Wolkstein and Radcliff craft such an expressive atmosphere that you can't help but feel it. The violence in The Strange Ones is sudden, shocking, and utterly visceral in a way that I really didn't expect, but it fits the film's oppressive mood well; you know something bad is coming, and yet - if you are like me - you are unprepared for the speed and force with which it arrives.

The Strange Ones is, ultimately, a difficult movie to review. The plot is slim, and many of the narrative choices Wolkstein and Radcliff make don't totally work, though I think the film's bleak character work remains strong, both in its conception and as brought to life by Freedson-Jackson and Pettyfer. It's a movie sustained almost entirely by the lingering dread it manages to maintain and build upon through the entire film. Is it a bad idea, well-executed? I wouldn't go so far as that; there's nothing wrong with the core idea of the film, there's just not much there. And yet the haunting quality to the pacing and editing stuck with me after the film was over, a lingering mood that permeated my apartment. You either feel it or you don't, you either buy in to the despair or the movie fundamentally doesn't work. After a rough start, Wolkstein and Radcliff won me over, and The Strange Ones worked its uncomfortable magic on me.

The Strange Ones is currently streaming on demand on sites like Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. Written by Christopher Radcliff and directed by Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, The Strange Ones stars James Freedson-Jackson and Alex Pettyfer.
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