The Walking Dead – “East”

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LAST WEEK’S EPISODE REVIEW HERE

Carol and Daryl, taking things into their own hands, are the catalyst for a host of poor decision-making among the Alexandrians in this week’s episode of “The Walking Dead.” Carol, broken and weary, leaves a note behind announcing her departure, insisting that nobody come looking for her. Daryl, on the other hand, heads off in another direction, recklessly in pursuit of Dwight to avenge the needless slaughter of Doctor Denise. Rick and Morgan head out to find Carol while Rosita, Michonne, and Sasha head out to stop Daryl.

At this point in the story, “The Walking Dead” isn’t really a horror-genre narrative – it’s a study on survival on recovery. That being said, there are certainly horror tropes that persist, lest we forget that dead cannibalistic corpses continue to roam the countryside. Every character in the show that we have come to know as capable, dependable, and intelligent does the one thing you never do in a horror film: they split up, leaving Alexandria vulnerable. None of this is really in-character, but one might surmise that the storytellers are trying to cement the notion that the Alexandrians are prepared, have united as a community, can face any problem together, et al. But it falls flat. When all is said and done, the audience recognizes that this is an excuse to fragment the group, push forward with the character drama, and leave the principle characters in an exposed position for the [likely] explosive season finale.

The heart of this episode’s themes exist in the interaction between Morgan and Rick. We are reminded of the flimsy morality in the new world as the two characters explain why they have chosen their own particular path toward survival. Morgan refuses to kill the living and Rick sees killing as an inevitability; one message seems sage-like, the other authoritarian. As Morgan expresses how he sees everything as cyclical, explaining to Rick how he saved the Wolf who, in turn, saved Denise, it’s difficult not to view Morgan as the more sympathetic, morally upright person.

“We didn’t finish it like we thought we did, with The Saviors,” Rick says midway through the episode.
“No,” Morgan says. “You started something.”

And we know that Morgan is absolutely correct.

Watching these two talk reminds us that they represent far opposite ends of a moral spectrum. As members of the audience, we know that both of them are right in their thinking, and that it’s the circumstance that lets us know which course of action is the correct one. That’s what the jail cell Morgan built is all about: creating an option other than falling on routine and regular summary execution. The set designers didn’t build that room just for one small scene in last week’s episode – that jail cell is going to get some use. At least, that’s my prediction.

We’re also reminded that, even though Rick and Morgan view the world from radically different lenses, they are on the same side. There are several paths that can lead to the same destination. Thankfully, the end their conversation on peaceful terms instead of thrown punches; they know that they can learn something from one another, temper their philosophies, and survive together, even if this conclusion is explicitly presented.

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Is Daryl Dixon dead? Don’t count on it. That spray of blood was pretty spectacular, but super-fans have Zaprudered it, as have I, and there are a few things to keep in mind. First, the advertisement for the season finale clearly shows Daryl in a scene, so he at the very least isn’t dead yet. More importantly, he is a fan favorite with plenty of qualities rife for further exploration in this increasingly character-driven narrative. I have long predicted that Daryl would eventually be killed because he is one of the few characters who only exists in the television series (not the source material of the graphic novel), but I have actually reversed my position on this. As the show veers further and further away form the source material, characters like Daryl and Carol and Morgan are actually more essential than ever, allowing the show-runners and the writer’s room to keep the story distinct enough from the graphic novel as to keep the show unique.

Who was the man in the barn that Rick and Morgan happen across? He had a spear that was clearly forged by the blacksmith at The Hilltop, and Rick concludes that he must be one of The Saviors. But what about the peculiar armor he’s wearing? It’s my guess that this is the first hint at yet another community wrapped-up in the trade agreement with The Hilltop and The Saviors. It’s my hope that the seed is planted in the season finale – and the brief glimpse of an armored man on horseback in the season finale preview metes this out – and we start to learn more about The Kingdom. There’s no need to spoil anything here, because I could just as easily be wrong, but it’s certainly one of my hopes.

See you next time, after Negan crushes a few skulls with his barb-wired wrapped baseball bat, Lucille.
I’m guessing she’s pretty thirsty…

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The Walking Dead – “Twice As Far”

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READ LAST WEEK’S REVIEW HERE

With only two episodes left in the season, I think it’s safe to assume that the terror that is Negan won’t be revealed until the season finale – probably during the final act of the episode. This defied expectations that the “All-Out War” narrative from the comic books would consume the back-end of this season. This is not wholly disappointing – it shows that the producers and writers are deliberately building tension and plan on spending more than half a season on the group’s confrontation with Negan and The Saviors. Chances are, “All Out War” will take up the full-run of season seven.

This week’s episode, titled “Twice As Far,” has revealed that the writers have completely flipped the script, leaning further and further away from the source material in a deliberate (and successful) attempt to keep the story engaging. After last week’s encounter with The Saviors, the episode opens with a ‘clockwork’ montage, showing the guards at their posts, doing rounds, keeping watch on inventories, and exchanging knowing glances with one another. Alexandria is keeping watch on the walls, and things take on a slightly tense, ‘business as usual’ tone.

Morgan has built a jail cell in his downtime, an obvious attempt to inject some civilization into the violence of Alexandria’s leadership. In a brief exchange, Rick looks around at the cinder-block cell and asks Morgan why he built it. “It’ll give us some choices next time,” Morgan responds. We’re reminded what happened with the Alpha Wold that Morgan captured, the division it created, and the danger it presented when the Wold absconded with Doctor Denise.

The world is getting bigger, and it dawns on us that a holding cell, an interrogation room, even a permanent prisoner residence may eventually become necessary. Summary execution is a quick solution, but the world has gotten bigger. The exchange between Morgan and Rick transitions back to Carol, fingering her crucifix, smoking cigarettes on the porch swing, clearly conflicted after slaughtering the small holdout of Saviors in the previous episode.

There’s a lot of heavy-lifting with the narrative of “The Walking Dead,” but the show transitions between Eugene and Abraham over to Rosita and Daryl, escorting Doctor Denise on a pharmacy run, with ease. With so many characters getting screen time this week, we’re reminded of how securely the fates of the Alexandrians are tethered together. Father Gabriel with his rifle, Sasha at her guard tower, Morgan practicing his martial arts in the grass, Eugene thinking much more ‘big picture’ with his plan to manufacture bullets, the newly-erected jail cell – this episode, despite some spoiler-heavy action, is largely quiet, representing the planing stages, the quiet before the storm.

Dwight knows where Alexandria is, we discover during a tragic encounter on the train-tracks outside of town. If Dwight knows where Alexandria is, Negan won’t be too far behind.

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Watching The World Burn

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Heath Ledger’s performance isn’t anything to be overshadowed by his untimely passing. Comic book film adaptations, even today (in the golden age of comic book feature-length films), have never been taken seriously. They are relegated to “special effects-driven extravaganza” status among Hollywood elites and film critics. Box office numbers are good, but even as revenues climb, most of the world doesn’t take Marvel and DC properties very seriously. They’re just comic books. They’re fun rides. They’re cash in the bank.

Christopher Nolan, while not the lone savior of the comic book film adaptation, certainly spear-headed this new wave. After the monumental failure of “Batman and Robin” and the forgettable bombs of “Daredevil” and “Green Lantern,” even moderately successful comic book properties like “The Crow” and “Blade” couldn’t take the stink out of Hollywood executive’s nostrils. And hell – who could blame them?

Alongside Bryan Singer’s take on the X-Men franchise and Jon Favreau’s infinitely accidental smash-hit success with the first “Iron Man” feature, the age of the Hollywood comic book feature has truly arrived. Part of this has to do with technology – the digital effects that make the extraordinary subjects of these films come to life – and part of this has to do with genuine investment in storytelling and world-building, something that graphic novels have done for decades and Hollywood executives have failed to do for an almost equal number of decades.

Well, the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ has arrived. Actually, it arrived about two months after “Iron Man.” And DC has been struggling to catch up with it’s own cinematic universe ever since, re-booting Superman not once, but twice, in the interim. Most of these stories are old-hat, but known largely to comic book collectors and fan-boys. Most of us, even knowing the stories, don’t decry these film adaptations, but rather look forward to seeing how the material will be interpreted and adapted for the screen.

We’ll be seeing the Caped Crusader (the world’s greatest detective), in not one, but two feature length films in the coming months. The chances are very good that the upcoming iteration of the Batman character will be somewhat different from the Christopher Nolan films that helped breathe life back into the character over the past ten years. If anything, it appears as though the upcoming films will adhere more firmly to the comic book origins of the character, which should make a lot of ‘true believers’ quite happy – but it may alienate fans of the Nolan-verse, who have little or no attachment to the Batman character before “Batman Begins” and it’s two sequels.

The problem with the DC properties is that the focus seems scattered. From the carnival and neon-light camp of “Batman and Robin” to the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy, the shift in tone is undeniable. The Marvel camp has found a way to swing from the early expression of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men (2000)” into “Future Past (2014)” and “Apocalypse (2016)” without skipping a beat and without a radical change in tone. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more cohesive, while the DC Cinematic Universe is still struggling to find it’s identity.

Only time will tell if DC will be able to compete with the other heavy hitter on the block. For all we know, “Suicide Squad” and “Batman Versus Superman” will be the great wins of the year. Based on what we’ve seen from the two camps, and despite how powerful the characters from them are, my money is still on Marvel.

Excelsior!

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Movie Review – Deadpool

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Marvel and DC have mapped-out a half-decade of comic book movies. The market is saturated. Superhero movies are way overdue for self-satire and tonal variation. And that is precisely what we get with “Deadpool,” an incredible breath of fresh air in a crowded arena.

Mainstream reviews of Marvel’s recent release have been mixed, but this isn’t a shocking revelation. The titular character in “Deadpool” isn’t the most accessible – at least not to a broad audience. With self-referential humor, endless threads of inside jokes and constant forth-wall breaks, it takes a genuine fan to fully appreciate this cinematic gem. But a gem indeed it is. Regardless of what the naysayers have published, first-time director Tim Miller has cracked the code of the R-rated comic book movie in stunning fashion. The numbers speak for themselves.

While we have other R-rated movies like “Watchmen,” “300,” and “Sin City,” those are all dark horse examples, and their success remains somewhat questionable. “Deadpool,” on the other hand, is the first R-rated release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this is significant; the success of “Deadpool” will determine whether or not Marvel Studios will roll the dice again. The production is already famously stalwart for facing-down pressure from Twentieth Century Fox to make a PG-13 cut. Larger audiences and a boost to box offices sales is the primary pressure of adventure properties like this (can you imagine what an R-rated “Star Wars” movie could accomplish?), but an R-rating gives directors much more latitide. Tim Miller & Co stood their ground and the gambit is paying off handsomely.

As of this writing, “Deadpool” has already outperformed the previous Thursday box office record for an R-rated feature. In fact, “Deadpool” blew the top spot out of the water. The previous record holder was “Fifty Shades Of Gray,” banking $8.6 million on its Thursday release. One year later, “Deadpool” managed to rake in $12.7 million. This is a coup that nobody predicted. The weekend total is expected to top $123 million, a tall margin ahead of Fox’s $60 million projection.
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“Deadpool” is, at its heart, the smart-ass teenager too clever for his own good, filled with fits of irreverence that hinge on nihilism. He’s been described by some as that kid “who pretends to be too cool to care, but wants you to like him so badly it hurts.” This isn’t an entirely unfair description, and it identifies where the film character is separated from the print character. The comic book anti-hero is a sharp-tongued mercenary anti-hero. The film character is, more or less, a sarcastic hero-hero. He tickles our reptilian brain with slaughter, but he only slaughtering bad guys, and he’s made sympathetic and accessible by the love story that drives the plot forward. These are perfectly acceptable concessions – unavoidable, even – in the superhero movie marketing system. If we elect not to split hairs, “Deadpool” is an incredibly fun movie that brings a larger-than-life personality to the screen with a deep sense of respect for the source material.

The film establishes its irreverent tone straight at the open, with title cards that intentionally mock Hollywood (“Directed By: An Overpaid Tool,” “Produced By: Some Asshats,” “Starring: A Gratuitous Cameo,” “Starring: A CGI Character,” and on and on, to wonderful comic affect), as well as thumbing its nose at The Director’s Guild of America, which has famously sued directors like George Lucas for not crediting the director of “Star Wars” (himself) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (Irvin Kershner).*

After an action sequence opening, most of “Deadpool” plays out in flashback. We learn that Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) used to be a mercenary named Wade Wilson. We’re introduced to his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and his best friend Weasel (TJ Miller). Wade and Vanessa are veritable quip-machines, whose quirky and fast-paced humor seem to be the linchpin of future marital bliss. They’re both crazy, and both crazy in love with each other. Then, an unexpected late-stage cancer diagnosis burns the Happily-Every-After to the ground.

A mysterious recruiter gives Wilson an offer he can’t refuse: enlist in the Weapon X program (the same program that created Wolverine), and cure your cancer. Distraught by how his illness is affecting Vanessa, Wilson reluctantly agrees. He is experimented on, and tortured ruthlessly, by a man who calls himself Ajax (Ed Skrein) and his masochistic partner Angel Dust (Gina Carano). He becomes a mutant, with strength and regenerative powers, but is left horribly disfigured. When Ajax leaves him in a burning building, Deadpool begins preparing for his revenge.

Debut director Tim Miller is the head of Blur Studios and is well-equipped to tackle a project like “Deadpool.” His background in animation led to the dazzling title sequence to “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and an astonishingly effective TV spot for the video game “Batman: Arkham Origins.” With a pedigree like that, he has created an energetic movie that vacillates between serious romance/tragedy and humorous (albeit violent) superhero antics. Some may find this manic pacing off-putting, but it effectively balances the action with the slower (and necessary) narrative beats.

Die hard fans may criticize how the film handles the forth-wall breaks, and a sense of humor that could have been more intelligently satirical of the comic book genre. Instead, the humor opts for the faster-paced machine-gunning of smaller meta-jokes. This is a stylistic choice that I think serves the film adequately. More sophisticated satire is better left on the printed page. Some jokes miss their mark, but they’re thrown around so rapidly that it barely matters. Ajax isn’t the most memorable villain, but this, too, is no surprise in a Marvel property; superhero movies seem constitutionally incapable (or unwilling) to spend the necessary time to flesh-out a compelling bad guy.

Weasel is a wonderful pace-shifting character that gives breathing room to the narrative. TJ Miller seems to strike the perfect balance of calm in his scenes, which serve as punctuation marks throughout the story. That being said, Reynolds flat-out owns this film, from beginning to end, leaving little room for the other characters to shine. This isn’t a bad thing; it plants the seeds for future iterations of the “Deadpool” story.
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If you knew who Deadpool was ahead of this weekend’s release, you’re going to love the film. It constantly makes fun of the X-Men franchise that gave birth to the Deadpool character, so it’s fair to say that fans of the franchise are going to “get” the humor. The famously bad Deadpool origin story that was shoe-horned into “Wolverine: Origins” is directly addressed during the film’s opening moments. When dragged away by Colossus (a beautiful motion-capture performance by Stefan Kapicic) to visit Professor X, Deadpool shoots a quick look to the camera and says “McAvoy or Stewart?” referencing the two actors – James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart – who have played the Charles Xavier character in previous X-Men movies. These nods are continuous, warranting multiple viewings, and the post-credit scene at the end of the film (which I will not spoil here) is worth the price of admission all by itself. Anybody outside of the bubble may not understand why the auditorium is erupting with laughter so frequently, and may walk out of the theater scratching their heads.

If you’re a comic book freak, step away from the computer and head straight to the multiplex. It’s worth it.

*George Lucas was fined $250,000 for his transgression, which ultimately led him to resign from the Directors Guild of America. Something tells me Lucas got the last laugh.

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The New Suicide Squad Trailer

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David Ayer’s ‘Suicide Squad’ is continuing along a new approach to film marketing that, if not outright established by ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ has been deeply influenced by it. This new style has become the gold standard for comic book and science fiction movie properties. Comic conventions, cos-players, and self-proclaimed ‘nerdists’ across the spectrum have helped transform film culture. Trailers, in and of themselves, have become event-worthy features.

Disney’s recent acquisition of the Star Wars property has proved successful, but this has been no huge surprise to industry insiders or franchise fans. It was a $4 billion purchase, but it’s recovering those costs faster than expected. ‘The Force Awakens’ has broken box office records across almost every category, although it’s appeal in foreign markets still appears to fall short of James Cameron’s ‘Avatar.’ Needless to say, nostalgia is one hell of a drug, and movie studios have taken note.

Film trailers are transforming how we look at films. They are driving internet traffic, spawning discussion boards and fan theories, and sculpting the final cut. Release dates are set not just for the picture itself, but for the trailer. Bootlegs of these trailers escape from Comic Conventions and quickly leak onto the inter-webs for everybody’s enjoyment. It has even been speculated that trailers are being intentionally leaked so as to curtail low-resolution bootlegs that simply won’t look as good. When a bootleg of the ‘Superman Vs Batman’ film was leaked last spring, Warner Brothers was essentially forced into prematurely releasing a better quality version.

To reiterate: fans are so persistent that studios are possibly leaking their own content. That is a remarkable thing.

Now, a movie trailer has commanded a half hour of television. In an extension of what has been accomplished with programs like Chris Hardwick’s “Talking Dead,” television specials are being used to market films.The Dawn of the Justice League on The CW, which aired Tuesday evening, was nothing more than a back-door pilot for ‘The Suicide Squad’ trailer. They devoted a half hour of network screen-time to debut a movie trailer.

As of this writing, the ‘Suicide Squad’ trailer has racked up 22.5 million views. These are the numbers just from the official Warner Brothers YouTube channel – several other channels have released copies of the trailer as well, all with high view rates. That is a significant number for a two minute video released only two days ago. The movie is still being made – it’s still in post-production. The final edit has not been settled upon. Audiences have seven more months before their appetites will be satiated.

Welcome to the modern film hype.

If there’s anything we all already know, this movie will cement Margot Robbi as the next hot thing in Hollywood. The CW gave a half hour of network time to a movie trailer. The movie trailer gave all of it’s energy to Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn). Fan-boys the world over have set their laser sights on the pig-tailed anti-hero, and they don’t even have to suffer through that 1950s-era Jersey accent from the Batman Animated Series.

The DC Cinematic Universe has struggled to match Marvel’s success, but the tide may be turning. Only time will tell.

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January 17 – The Good Book

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“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
~Mark Twain

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I have a massive collection of books. A massive collection.

Like many of my ilk, I’ve looked back and realized that I have always been a collector. My younger self collected a wide variety of useless things, from wall posters and semiprecious stones (every family vacation had me on the lookout for rock shops) to previously-viewed VHS tapes and pogs (when  those were in fashion – yeesh, how embarrassing). I continue to collect music, but the most obvious thing I collect, quite naturally, are photographs.

Thinking on it, I collected baseball cards even though I was never, ever a sports fan. Things went pretty sideways once I discovered that trading cards existed for comic books. Heck, my obsession even took me down the path of outright criminality; I got caught stealing Marvel Ultra trading cards at the local supermarket when I was probably twelve or thirteen. I was absolutely terrified by that experience, and painfully ashamed. I also survived and would you believe it, I didn’t steal cards any longer. Instead, I started collecting actual comic books.

The early 1990s were a wonderful time to get into comic books and, for twenty years, I’ve been waiting for those lovely creative people in Hollywood to tell some of those stories on the silver screen. The first major series I got into was an X-Men story-line called “Legion Quest,” in which Professor Charles Xavier’s son travels back in time to execute Magneto, thus preventing all of the damage Magneto has done in his lifetime. It’s another iteration of the “if you could go back in time and kill Hitler” thought experiment. I have always loved this about the X-Men stories. They’re thoughtful, and thought-provoking. Initially, the X-Men were a vehicle through which the authors discussed American prejudice, mirroring the experiences of ethnic minorities. Today, stories of exclusion and oppression also reflect the marriage equality movement. The world is always so quick to point at a group and shout “freaks!” And the X-Men, in these stories, are the freaks. It takes the anguish of real-life problems and de-contextualizes them, allowing us to think about these issues from a fresh perspective. It’s brilliant.

Hero stories are all morality plays in the end, and they’re infinitely more sophisticated than they might appear to be on the surface. It has been fun watching media like graphic novels and video games achieve the mantle of high art and experience legitimacy in the eyes of the wider public. Once upon a time, comic books were for kids and video games were nothing more than a waste of time (and yes, they still can be, so don’t get me wrong). The video game industry has now surpassed Hollywood in generated revenue, and graphic novels are now being made into feature length films.

Progress, ladies and gentlemen. The nerds have won, world. Deal with it.

The “Legion Quest” story-line was jam-packed with the what-if’s of time travel tales, and it laid the foundation for an even larger and monumentally engaging story: “The Age of Apocalypse.” I’m venturing to guess that this is what the next movie, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” will be presenting. It’s an exciting time to be a fan-boy, indeed!

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Needless to say, graphic novels also led to plain-old books. Large-print illustration books, art history books, some first-edition Steinbeck novels, throwaway Vampire Chronicles and Stephen King tomes, and hallowed American classics from the greats like Conrad, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Every move, from dorm room to apartment, apartment to house, city to city, has seen me lugging impossibly heavy twenty-eight gallon Rubbermaid containers stacked with books. I can’t seem to let them go, and I often will pluck a book off the shelf and thumb through it for inspiration. Hell, I rarely even sold my textbooks back in college.

The picture above is a studio photograph of a pocket bible. On the University of Arizona campus, probably my sophomore year, there was a day when a group of missionaries stood on damn-near every street corner, every intersection, and every entrance to the student union handing these things out. Green vinyl covers and tissue-thin pages. I took every single one that was offered to me as I crisscrossed the campus on my way to class – until there wasn’t any room left in my backpack. I probably made off with about thirty copies. I went immediately to task making art projects out of them, and a series of photographs like the one here. In retrospect, it was probably a little scandalous that I collected all of those books, but I don’t think the world is in short supply of King James Bibles.

I guess the jury’s out, but I’m banking on the Good Lord being as forgiving as they say.

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