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Grant Morrison Trade Post: Flash – Emergency Stop & The Human Race

June 24, 2015

Flash Emergency StopMuch like my tour through the works of John Carpenter, my look at Grant Morrison’s DC Comics work came to a screeching halt last year. After writing about Animal Man, the first Doom Patrol collection (which doesn’t really count) and Aztek I intended to move on to the run on Flash he did with Mark Millar, but just didn’t get to it. I want to get back in action, so here we go!

The Flash: Emergency Stop (DC)
Written by Grant Morrison & Mark Millar, drawn by Paul Ryan
Collects Flash #130-135

Okay, so TECHNICALLY, Morrison launched JLA before he and Millar started working on Flash, but since this is a smaller run, I’m tackling it first. To be even more accurate, he had already finished up Aztek and done a year of JLA issues when Flash finally hit. This is actually pretty clear in the story because Wally west specifically mentions the time he and the gang fought the Key in JLA #7-9. I only mention that because part of doing these posts is to look at how connected all of Morrison’s DC books are.

Before getting into the actual stories, I just have to say how much I love this era of Flash. I came to know him as a horn dog jokester in Justice League Europe and saw him grow and mature into a family man over the years. I know he’s a fictional character, but seeing that kind of growth and depth doesn’t come often. At one point I had a subscription to Flash and tried to keep up on his adventures. These Morrison and Millar issues come right in the middle of Mark Waid’s epic run on the book (which he would pick up after they were done). It was a fun time to watch a good hero, do amazing things.

Going back to the story itself, this one starts off with a story about a killer supervillain suit, moves into the return of Mirror Master (who Grant introduced in Animal Man), a Jay Garrick solo story and the third part of a crossover with Green Lantern and Green Arrow. The first two are a lot of fun that take Silver Age-like stories and tell them in a more modern manner. They both also introduce countdown elements that quicken your pace as you read through the book, a nice trick if you can get it to work. The Jay one is a pure love letter not just to Golden Age heroes, but to amazing parent/grandparent figures (if you don’t want Jay Garrick as a mentor after reading this issue, you’re just not well) and the last gets into that very Grant headspace that looks at how a world filled with superheroes would actually work. In this case, we’re talking about law and the court system. I can’t be 100% sure because it’s been so long, but it felt like he hit on some of these themes later in the Seven Soldiers Bulletwoman story, but I’ll let you know when I get there.

The first time I read the Suit story — actually back when these issues came out circa 1997 — I thought it was a little corny. But, looking back now, I realize I was missing the context. Morrison and Millar were clearly going for a horror movie theme put on top of a superhero story. Once I latched onto that idea, I had a lot more fun with it. This story also breaks the Flash’s legs which means he wraps himself in Speed Force to create a new sort that he eventually makes look like his usual suit (though I liked the yellow one myself).

flash human raceFlash: The Human Race (DC)
Written by Grant Morrison & Mark Millar, drawn by Paul Ryan, Ron Wagner, Pop Mahn, Joshua Hood & Mike Parobeck
Collects Flash #136-141, Secret Origins #50

This second book was only half co-written by Morrison, but it continues many of the themes and ideas established in the first and is generally a solid read. The first story, “The Human Race,” finds Wally racing his imaginary friend from childhood to keep the Earth from being destroyed. After playing along for a trip through time that shows us the destruction of Kyrpton and caveman Guardians of the Galaxy, Flash uses his brains instead of his feet to figure out a way to save the day. The second features the first appearance of The Black Flash (the Grim Reaper for Speedsters) who takes someone important to Wally, but comes back for more later on. Both stories continue that Silver Age-but-updated feel that takes seemingly bonkers ideas and puts weight behind them because we’ve come to care about these characters so much.

Alright, let’s get into themes. Morrison loves legacy heroes and that shows on just about every page of these books. Back in the 90s, Wally West was always hanging out with a group of younger and older heroes making him the center of a super cool, super family that also included his awesome girlfriend/fiance/wife Linda Park (I actually squealed when she appeared on The Flash this season). I loved this element and it’s clear that the writers did as well. But the legacy aspect also carries through with the villains as well with new guys picking up the old weapons and making themselves Rogues. These new relationships also showcase how different things are from when Barry was alive and the bad guys didn’t seem so bad. The idea of what makes heroes and villains chose their paths is also a constant. Why is Flash a hero? Why does Mirror Master do what he does? Why can’t Jay let the Thinker pass away? We don’t get the answers laid out for us, but through actions we get an idea of why.

Morrison is also known for putting himself in his stories. He actually appears in Animal Man and has said he modeled Invisibles‘ King Mob after himself, but he’s a little less obvious this time around. I posit that the very Scottish Mirror Master is a stand in for the writer (or possibly both writers). Why? Well, first off, no one understands Scots like Scots. But also because this villain appears to put the hero through his paces without really saying why and isn’t that the whole point of writing corporately owned superhero comics?

I mentioned above that I read this book before JLA because it’s shorter, but after finishing, I’m glad I did it this way for another reason. First off, I’ll be able to keep an eye out for any ideas that cross pollinate (like the costume I also mentioned above). It’s also nice to see how he handles two very different kinds of teams. The Flash group is a family, while the JLA is a professional group of heroes. He got to play in both of those sandboxes at the same time which must have been gratifying. It’s also nice to see him be able to take one of the characters he played with in the widesweeping super-opera that was JLA and drill down more into the character. He’d go on to do this to great effect with Superman and Batman so it’s cool to see this earlier experiment in action. Now? On to JLA!

The Chronological Carpenter: Christine (1983)

June 22, 2015

ChristineJohn Carpenter was a machine in the late 70s/early 80s. Between 1978 and and 1984 he made eight movies, no small task for anyone, especially someone of his caliber. The second to last movie in that streak was Christine, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, which also came out in 1983. It’s about a car with a mind of its own and the dweeby kid it turns into a 1950s greaser. Apparently, I didn’t like it very much when I first watched it back in 2010.

I had a much better time with the film this time around. That first time, I didn’t really know anything about it and wasn’t very into the idea of a killer car movie, but this time, I was psyched about watching a John Carpenter Killer Car movie. I only remembered a few bits and pieces from that first viewing (and none of the negative feelings I had after that first viewing) and actually had a really solid experience this time around.

stephen king christineFor what it’s worth, I haven’t read the source material and will not be comparing the film to that (maybe in a later Book Vs. Movie post down the line, but not any time soon). So, I’m going solely by the film itself and what it gives us. One aspect that must have slipped my mind the first time I watched it was the fact that the main action of the story takes place in 1978. That bit of information goes a long way to explain why parts of the story might sound silly, because it’s a person (whether King or Carpenter) going back into their memories and building on those.

As it turns out I just read Chuck Klosterman’s essay on the film Dazed And Confused in the Criterion booklet a week or so back. In that he talks about memory and how it plays into filmmaking and storytelling. He wrote: “Dazed and Confused is not a movie about how things were; Dazed and Confused is a movie about how things are remembered. This film doesn’t illustrate what it was actually like to be in semi­rural Texas in 1976, but I’m sure it evokes how that time and place must retrospectively feel to any­one who was actually there.” I think that’s at play quite a bit in Christine in the way the characters are handled and the way it was shot. I didn’t get that the first time I watched and felt like part of it came of as lame or old fashioned, but I think it’s a function of memory playing out on the screen.

christine-USTake our main character Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) for instance. He’s a nerdy dweeb in the same vein as that kid from Grease. Heck, even his name immediately conjures up images of Happy Days. He’s a big glasses-wearing nerd who only has one friend — a nice jock played by John Stockwell named Dennis — and that’s about it. He’s basically helpless, gets threatened by predatory schoolmates and has parents who give him far too much trouble considering he’s a straight-A student with no life. Gordon plays him perfectly and continues to do so as his new car transforms him from powerless nobody into someone you should definitely not mess with. Now that I think about it, maybe Gordon’s near-perfect greaser looks are what made them go a bit over the top with the glasses and whatnot in the beginning, kind of like putting Rachel Lee Cook in overalls and glasses in She’s All That (weird reference, I know). Then again, I bet his overbearing mom wouldn’t let him out of the house wearing much else.

Last time I bagged on the kills in the film, noting that they seemed slow and easily avoided. It’s funny, that thought didn’t even cross my mind this time around (no, I didn’t read my review before this viewing). In fact, the one where the car smashes its way into a thin alley to kill the guy actually made me squirm a bit this time because it showed just how dedicated this car was to getting revenge. By the way, am I the only one who noticed how The Crow parallels this movie? I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but that made me chuckle when the “hero” of the movie started hunting down the gang of jerks who wronged it.

In a lot of ways, Christine feels like even even bigger step away from Carpenter’s usual films than something like Escape From New York. Even with its supernatural leanings and the appearance of EFNY‘s Harry Dean Stanton, this one just feels out there. First off, we’re not really meant to like Arnie. We’re supposed to be with him in the beginning and feel sorry for him because he gets taken over or influenced, but unlike Snake or Laurie Strode, this is a “hero” who turns into a villain before our eyes. Meanwhile, the secondary lead steps up and becomes the real hero of the story. Now that I think about it Dennis is a lot like Laurie, he’s super nice and a little quiet, but nowhere near as mousey. This is also one of his few full-on adaptations even though it reportedly takes liberties with the story.

At the end of the day, I like Christine, but it took me a while to get there and understand if people who love Carpenter’s earlier horror films came out of it wondering what they had just seen. This one might take a little more thinking and contextualizing to really dive into the horror underneath. On the surface, the idea of a haunted car is pretty silly, right? But, look just a little bit below the surface and you’re talking about a mode of transportation that leads to tens of thousands of deaths a year. Cars are and can be very scary, but we treat them as these rights of passage, these simple things, but really they’re multi-ton behemoths being lead around by easily distracted drivers who could, literally at every turn, shift from cruising machine to combustion engine-fueled battering ram. Cars might not be haunted, but they’re dangerous because of the people who drive them and the miniscule and major things that can happen to them.

Up next we have a film I’ve owned for years, but never actually watched: Starman!

The Trade Post: A Big Ol’ Pile Of Library Books

June 17, 2015

comic pileLongtime readers might remember a time when I was reading so many books a week that I would simply take pictures of them in a stack and do a quick hit kind of report on them. Well, I’m not knocking down nearly as many books these days, but I did read through a good number from the library and figured I’d return to that form for this post. Let’s hit it! Read more…

The Chronological Carpenter: Escape From New York (1981)

June 16, 2015

escape-from-new-yorkGood golly, has it really been NINE months since I posted about a John Carpenter movie? Well, after checking out 1980’s The Fog last fall, I actually watched the next two films in relatively quick succession (for me at least). But, I never got around to writing about those films: Escape From New York and The Thing. I wanted to get back on this train, so I watched Escape again and here we go.

escape from new york poster 1The first thing that struck me about this film is the scope. All of Carpenter’s movies revolve around strange things happening in the real world (masked killers, ghost pirates, stalkers and voodoo gangs) which create these smaller, twisted realities. But, with Escape, he’s creating a whole world. The Big Apple has been abandoned, the island has been walled off and turned into a prison. On top of all that set dressing we also have characters who all feel like they’re as lived in and sometimes legendary as possible.

And a lot of that comes from Kurt Russell’s portrayal of Snake Plissken. The man doesn’t say much, looks cool and is known by EVERYBODY (even if he’s shorten than expected). He’s also got a deep history hinted at but never fully delved into. This is a nice trick that’s played in comics when it comes to characters like Punisher, Wolverine and John Constantine where we’re impressed (and possibly scared) by them because just about everyone else is. Russell fills the role with his own presence and created an iconic character who continues to inspire comic books and toys to this day.

escape from new york poster 2Adding to that, you’ve also got the denizens of New York, one of the strangest groups of people this side of Thunderdome. Creeps, weirdoes, evil geniuses, murderers and Cabbie? Seriously, why is Ernest Borgnine in this place?! He seems so nice (except for when he ditches everyone). Questions like that might not come the first time you watch the film, but pop up the more times you check it out which broadens the world.

On the surface, it might seem like Escape is an outlier in Carpenter’s filmography because there aren’t any supernatural forces at work, but if you look a little deeper you’ve got the clear influence of westerns (lone gunman with a reputation entering a place and getting the job done), the concept of being trapped by something nefarious and Carpenter’s growing cast of actors who appeared in several of his movies like Russell, then-wife Adrienne Barbeau and Halloween‘s Donal Pleasence as the president (who gives a great latter day Loomis performance here).

 

As much as I like this movie, I have a weird relationship with it. As it turns out, I think I actually watched the sequel Escape From LA first back in high school, so there are huge portions of that movie that live in my brain because that was back when I could absorb the most information. Because of that, I kept wondering when the map seller would show up or when the basketball scene would happen. The other problem is that I seem to fall asleep during this movie more than any other. I don’t know what it is, maybe the music or the subdued performances from many of the cast members. More likely, it’s the fact that I can barely stay up past 11:30 these days. Whatever the case, I’ve started this film more times than I’ve finished it and yet I still love the opening 20 minutes which sets everything up so well. I’d love to see this one on the big screen to really feel the full force of this huge, sprawling and yet subtle at times world that Carpenter crafted.

You might be expecting me to move on to The Thing next, but that won’t be the case. Much like with Halloween, I love that horror classic a lot and, as I mentioned above, watched it not too long ago. I find its best to not overdo it when it comes to favorite horror movies because they can lose some of their power if you’re TOO familiar with them. I think it’s also safe to say that I don’t have much in the way of unique thoughts on the masterpiece of stranded, paranoid beauty he created there (plus I wrote about it a bit back in 2011). That means I’ll be moving on to Christine in the near future!

Toy Commercial Tuesday: Gizmo From Gremlins

June 2, 2015

After watching the commercial the first time, I wasn’t fully convinced that any of it was real. I mean, sure, the 80s were corny, but a full-on theme song about the rules from Gremlins (one of the greatest films of all time)? That seemed like too much to be believed (as did the fact that the plush looked like the love child of a Chihuahua and a dust bunny), but according to the least amount of research possible, it all appears to be legit.

Okay, so it’s real and I guess it would have been pretty cool if you were a kid back when the movie came out, but I definitely prefer the plush Gizmo that NECA made a few years back. In addition to actually resembling the character, it doesn’t look like the kind of thing your cheap uncle found in the parking lot of the mall after a rain storm.

Added bonus: after three viewings, the song really grows on you. Can we get a full version, dance remix and then a stripped-down folk cover please?

Big Bot Double Feature: Robot Wars & Crash And Burn

June 1, 2015

robot wars posterSeveral years back I was in the enviable position of being on Shout Factory’s PR list thanks to working at ToyFare. Because of that, I got a lot of interesting DVD sets, some of which I haven’t even watched yet. The Giant Robot Action Pack featuring Robot Wars and Crash and Burn is one such selection that I decided to finally watch over the weekend and I was surprised at the results.

I’ve actually tried to watch Robot Wars — directed by Albert Band and released in 1993 — a few times, but never really made it through for various reasons. This time, I was set to watch the film and actually succeeded. A kind of sequel to Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox — which is also getting the Shout Factory treatment — this movie takes place in a future world where one scorpion-like robot carries people from a protected city to one that was abandoned and preserved in 1993. After terrorists take over the robot, it’s up to our brash hero, his co-pilot, a reporter and an archaeologist to find another robot and save the day.

Though the title is pretty misleading — two robots fighting does not a war make — I had a lot of fun with this film. The stop motion on the robots looks better to my eye than the bad CGI that would be used today and the characters, while broad and oftentimes goofy, are charming and fun to watch (it wasn’t until this latest viewing that I realized the reporter is actually Lisa Rinna in an early role).

While this is far from the best giant robot movie I’ve ever seen, I appreciate that everyone involved seemed to be doing their best and trying to create something fun and interesting. Full Moon would sometimes swipe heavily from other projects, but this felt pretty original to me. That might not sound like the most thrilling endorsement, but it went pretty far for a low budget 90s sci-fi action film. It helps that my experience with huge robots doesn’t extend much past loving Transformers as a kid and loving Pacific Rim.

crash and burn posterThe other film on the set — Crash And Burn — is another kinda-sorta-not-really sequel to Robot Jox (they were marketed as such overseas, but share nothing in the way of continuity). This one actually really surprised me because it was such a mix of genres and movies that I love.

It starts off with a guy on a futuristic motorcycle traveling through the desert to visit a factory-turned-TV studio run by a rebellious old man who rails against the corporation that runs everything (and also employs the motorcycle driver). Once there, we meet an eclectic cast of characters that includes Bill Moseley, the old man’s granddaughter played by Dark Skies‘ Megan Ward, blowhard talk show host and a pair of women who…are there for some reason. Soon, an important character is murdered and the search is on to find out what happened. It just so happens to involve killer (human sized) robots and a huge robot outside that doesn’t work (BUT IT WILL!).

So, with this one movie you’ve got the seclusion of the desert with the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland-type set up mixed with the group-of-stranded-strangers motif (because there’s a radiation storm of some kind) plus the whodunnit mystery (though it’s pretty clear who the killer is if you pay attention to footwear), the someone-isn’t-who-they-seem thing AND THE ROBOTS.

Let’s jump into SPOILER TERRITORY for this graph because I don’t want to ruin an old movie I do actually want you to check out. I tried to paint with broad strokes above, but here’s the deal. If you happen to notice the murderer’s ridiculous boots and then wait about five minutes until you see the cast together once again, you’ll know who the murderer is. Of course, it’s not revealed until AFTER they do a take on the test from The Thing that doesn’t quite go as planned. But once the killer is revealed, it’s a damn delight to watch him go absolutely bonkers, knock off a few randos and then have a big fight at the end that eventually involves the big robot.

All in all, it’s a perfectly crazy movie. While I appreciated Robot Wars for being better than I expected, Crash And Burn actually surprised me by being more aware of what it was and playing with the audience before finally giving them what they wanted in ways they might not have known that they wanted it. I can’t think of another movie I’ve watched recently where I had little-to-no expectations and yet was so pleasantly surprised.

We Want Action: John Carter, Edge Of Tomorrow & Jack Ryan

May 28, 2015

john_carter_ver2 I’ve been pretty tired and/or busy lately. Between work and the kids, the days are pretty full and I get awfully sleepy by the time evenings roll around. This is a bummer for me because I like to stay up and watch movies at night, but that’s been more of a piecemeal process lately. However, I’m still trying to take in new films like this trio of more recent big screen offerings.

Let’s start with Andrew Stanton’s 2012 film John Carter from Disney. This adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ space traveler didn’t do so hot at the box office and I think I know why. First off, the well seemed to be pretty solidly poisoned before the movie even came out. I have no idea why that is, but I was heavily in the movie coverage thing for Spinoff when this film was coming out and there seemed to be a lot of pre-press about how it was going to fail. I don’t know why and this might sound conspiratorial, but it seemed to me like someone didn’t want the movie to do well and then it didn’t.

But, that’s not all. This isn’t an easy film to understand and, for me, that’s not a knock. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on and do a little thinking yourself to keep up with this tale. It’s not all laid out at your feet, which I appreciate because too many movies spell everything out so there’s absolutely no place for confusion. I don’t mind working for my entertainment and actually think better of the projects that make me get into that headspace.

This isn’t just a thinking person’s sci-fi action film, though. It looks rad. The aliens are fantastic and the action sequences are on point. I’ve read maybe a quarter or a third of ERB’s A Princess of Mars and it seemed like Stanton and company took what’s a fairly dry, clinical narrative and gave it a bit more heart which I appreciated (I actually stopped reading because that old school style of simply listing everything weird that’s happening gets real old for me real fast). All in all, I give this one a big thumb’s up and hope more people discover it at home. It’s too bad we’re not going to get more of this world…at least for a while.

edge of tomorrowAs I move on to talking about Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, I’m realizing that all three of these movies were adaptations. This one is probably the least well known because it’s a manga (which I haven’t read, for what it’s worth). Basically, aliens are invading earth and humanity uses mech suits to fight them off. Tom Cruise plays a self-serving PR guy who gets unceremoniously recruited to the front lines where he kills one of the creatures which gives him a kind of Groundhog Day-like ability to keep living the same day over and over again. He gets in contact with Blunt’s super soldier character who had a similar experience and starts training like crazy, dying constantly along the way.

The story has a pretty high concept and some specific rules about how you get and lose these powers, but again, I don’t mind learning these fairly outlandish details as they’re presented. I was much more interested in Blunt’s character than all that anyway. She’s such a cool, shrewd character who, in a way, knows what’s going on, but in another is completely in the dark because she has no idea how many times Cruise has come back and tried any number of alternative methods. While he’s falling for her over and over again, she’s basically meeting him for the first time every day (and killing him a number of those times).

So, if you can buy into some bonkers rules and like Tom Cruise evolving from brash douche to war hero, then give Edge Of Tomorrow (or as it was retitled upon home video release KILL. DIE. REPEAT.) a shot.

jack ryan shadow recruitFinally, let’s talk a bit about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, based on the character seen in Tom Clancy’s novels. This particular story doesn’t come from one of those books, instead giving the CIA operative an updated origin story for the modern era starring Chris Pine. The idea here was to start a new franchise, but apparently the film didn’t do to well and those plans have been put on hold, but I thought this was a gripping thriller that kept my attention the whole time.

Ryan starts off as a finance wiz who joins the military after the events of 9-11. While serving, his helicopter gets blown up, but he survives to meet and fall for Keira Knightley in a hospital. While getting better Kevin Costner appears and offers him a job as a covert financial analyst for the CIA. He soon comes upon Kenneth Branagh, a Russian whose machinations include a massive terrorist attack that will topple the world economy.

As much as I love James Bond movies where our hero is super experienced in all things espionage, I kind of liked seeing someone like Ryan in his early days. He’s got the training and does okay when he gets attacked early on, but Pine also conveys how overwhelming some of these experiences are. It would have been cool to see his version of this character evolve over a series of films.

Of course, Jack Ryan has been in a series of movies like Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum Of All Fears. I don’t think I’ve seen any of those movies, so I wasn’t spending the whole run time comparing Pine to Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford or Ben Affleck which was cool, but I am interested in going back and check them out.

 

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