Dope Is Awesome

dope poster 1Don’t you just love when you think you’ll dig a movie and it turns out even better than you expected? That’s the joy of watching smaller films and writing about them on our little corners of the internet like many of us do. Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is that movie for me right now and damn it’s fantastic.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog on a regular basis will know that I have a big soft spot for ridiculous, somewhat obscure 80s coming of age movies. Spring Break is probably the best of the bunch as far as I’m concerned. When I first saw the trailer for Dope, I thought it looked like it would be in line with those movies, or maybe more like Adventures In Babysitting, that kind of thing. In a way, I was right, but it many other important ways, this movie is so much more. Continue reading Dope Is Awesome

Parks & Recreation Is Awesome

parks and recreation castI sure have fallen for Parks and Recreation. This is a show that I went from writing off to enjoying to abandoning to now mainlining on Netflix. Thanks to a bad start that went way too The Office, my wife and I weren’t fans of the first few episodes. Eventually we came back around and watched chunks of various early seasons but fell off thanks to the many time slot changes and other shows popping up we were more into. Now, I can’t think of a better show on television (or that was on TV).

I know a lot of people call this the Golden Age of TV because shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and True Detective are telling these amazing, complex, dark stories, but the shows that I continue to be drawn to all revolve around friendship. I realized not long ago that, instead of watching mean teenagers get bumped off in horror films or henchmen get face-kicked in action films, comedies make me feel better when I’m down. Sure the laughs in Parks & Rec, but I can’t think of a show that’s a better example of what real, honest human relationships should and can be like than this one.

As a work-from-home dad who spends the majority of his time behind a keyboard partially below ground whose friends all have regular jobs in other parts of the state and country (who is also super-shy, but thrives on human interaction), it can be difficult for me being so isolated. I love my wife and kids and my folks moved here not long ago which was an amazing sacrifice on their part, but you start to miss your friends and wonder if you still even have connections to those people when you mostly exist to them as a person on an email chain.

Recently, I had the chance to be a good friend and was helped out by another. A friend-since-high school’s brother passed away a few weeks ago and I drove to Ohio to be there at the wake and the funeral before coming right back home. It was an important thing for me to do because being friends isn’t just hanging out, drinking beer and telling old stories, it’s being there for the hard times as well. Thanks to the support of my wife and parents, I was able to make this happen and I’m glad I did. Another longtime friend and his wife were nice enough to let me stay on their couch the one night I was in town, so the circle kept on going. This past weekend, another set of good friends came up for a visit. I can’t even remember the last time just the four of us hung out. It was a great recharge for my system.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying that friendship has been on my mind a lot lately and Parks & Rec exemplifies how I feel about friendship in all of it’s many forms. First of all you’ve got Amy Poehler’s Leslie who is such an amazing, positive person that she actually makes everyone around her better. Her peers and even superiors see this and do their best to help her in any way they can. They don’t just vote for her when she runs for city counsel, they run her campaign. You really get to see this intense friendship these people have formed in the Season 5 episode “Ben’s Parents” when just about everyone from the office threatens Ben (Adam Scott) harm if he hurts Leslie.

But, it’s not just that. Like I said above, being a friend involves wading into the bad times with them, but also moving way outside of your comfort zone to help them. The loner April (Aubrey Plaza) participates in government not just because Leslie and other characters believe in her, but because she knows they would help her out. Ron, the grizzled anarchist/libertarian often times breaks his rule of staying out of peoples’ business because he knows that no one has a bigger hear than Leslie. Or Tom (Aziz Ansari). Or Andy. And, at the same time, he’s grown a bond with April thanks to their shared interest in not liking most people. We also get to see the real talks that people have when they’re this close. Anne (Rashida Jones) might not have it together as much as Leslie does, but she is often the voice of reason when the overly enthusiastic government employ starts to lose her way.

The romantic relationships are also some of the best around. They’re real and complicated and feel earned even though you don’t necessarily spend entire seasons wondering if the people will get together or not. I worried that Andy (Chris Pratt) and April might be rushing into things too quickly when they got married, but the work so well together, it’s amazing! And how great is it watching Ben and Leslie? Sure there was some of that will-they-won’t-they stuff, but most of it felt real and honest instead of “Uh oh, Ross came back from Europe with a girlfriend just as Rachel realized she loved him!” (I love Friends, but boy did that relationship tumble around like a drunken gymnast.)

Better yet, those relationships have grown and changed over the seasons (I’m towards the beginning of five as I write this). If you saw a first season episode with April being snotty and then a fourth season one of her being nice to Chris (Rob Lowe), you might think the character had been radically altered for some reason, but watching the whole thing shows you all the good things that she’s done that have changed her in various ways. Some people balk at the idea of changing. They think that however they are is the way they are and that’s that, but my parents instilled in me pretty early on that people go through life and a lot of different things can happen that result in changes. Basically, nobody’s perfect, but there are ways to better yourself and P&R shows that without being preachy or even that obvious about it.

All of this might sound like I’m talking about a serious show, but it’s also one of the funniest around. How can you not like Ron? Or cringe-laugh at all of Jerry’s nonsense. Or just love (and pity) Tom at the same time? I laugh so loud at some Andy-related incidents that I worry I might wake the kids up.

And a lot of those laughs come from the show’s own sense of continuity and history. I’ve always been drawn to narratives that give readers or viewers or listeners little easter eggs. The world of Pawnee Indiana is filled with insane sugar companies, wildly literal newcasters, the oddest assortment of residents this side of Twin Peaks and people who adore a tiny horse simply for existing. These more out-there elements get balanced so well with the heart-based ones that you almost don’t notice. The little nods here and there to previous storylines and episodes probably would have gone unnoticed by me were I watching this series when it was on, but I’m catching and appreciating a lot of them this time around.

All in all, I’ve had an amazing time re-watching this show and can’t wait to see how it ends. I’ve seen that the last season isn’t on Netflix Instant yet, so I just added them to my disc queue and will pop them up top when the time comes.

Jason Aaron Is Awesome

GhostRiderOmnibusJasonAaron Jason Aaron’s one of those comic writers whose career has interestingly intersected with my career as a writer about comics. When I first started at Wizard one of my buddies and an editor at the magazine was huge on his Vertigo series The Other Side. I didn’t read that one, but I did check out the Ripclaw one-shot he did as part of Top Cow’s Pilot Season not too long after that and the first few books in his Scalped series.

The first of his works that really captivated me, though was Ghost Rider. But it wasn’t until my second attempt at reading it. As I’ve written, I love the down-and-dirty, grindhouse-y tone of that book and the wild places he took it. I assumed for a while that that was pretty much his wheelhouse, but as I’ve learned recently from branching out into X-Men: Schism, Wolverine & The X-Men, Amazing X-Men, Thanos Rising, Incredible Hulk, Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine and Thor: God Of Thunder, this guy has more tricks up his sleeve than all the magicians in Vegas. Continue reading Jason Aaron Is Awesome

Dwayne Johnson Is Awesome Part 1 (of Infinity)

furious 6As you can tell, I haven’t been blogging much lately. My days are filled with work, kids and house stuff, so I don’t have as much time to sit back down behind the computer and write out my thoughts on important things like movies and comics, but I’ve been lucky enough to see and read a lot of cool stuff lately and want to remember that.

So, let’s start with the trio of Dwayne Johnson movies I’ve seen recently. A few weeks back, unbeknownst to us we had a free trial of HBO. For a night, I thought we’d had the thing since we moved in six months ago and I’d just missed it, but the disappearance of the channels the next day revealed the truth. Still, I was able to take advantage and watch Justin Lin’s Furious 6.

I’m actually not very up on the Fast & Furious movies. I saw the first in the theaters way back in 2001, but I preferred the previous year’s Gone In 60 Seconds. Since then this series produced a few sequels that kept the motor running until it really kicked into gear in the past few installments. In a lot of ways, these movies have taken on a kind of comic book nature. The last three films have drawn from the previous ones as far as characters go and also, as Paul Scheer said on the episode of How Did This Get Made dedicated to the movie, they’re basically superheroes at this point who can’t die (or mostly can’t die). Continue reading Dwayne Johnson Is Awesome Part 1 (of Infinity)

Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man Is Awesome

amazing spider-man the fantastic spider-manIt might have been a few months since I wrote about how much I enjoyed Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man, but I’ve been burning through every subsequent trade and issue leading up to Superior Spider-Man with a quickness and anticipation I haven’t felt in a long time. Since we’re talking about nine more trades here, I’m going to talk in a few broad strokes about this excellent piece of longform comic book storytelling.

As I wrote last time, I was emotionally blown away by what Slott did with ASM #655. He didn’t stop there. In fact, he got me again not much later when Spidey joined the Fantastic Four after Johnny Storm seemingly died. It’s been a while since I read those FF issues, but I was really moved by how Spidey honored his good friend and also worked with these new teammates.

In fact, Spider-Man’s team interactions are a real high point for me in these books. He’s a great superhero on his own, but he’s even better as part of the FF and the Avengers. Some solo books do their best to avoid the idea of calling in the teammates, but Slott has Spidey utilize them in ways that make sense and feel organic (they are all in NYC at the same time, after all).

I also love how complex, yet surprisingly easy to understand the villains are. These are characters older than your parents and yet Slott makes them feel fresh, new and yet filled with just the right amount of history (instead of info dump/continuity overload territory). He makes you love and hate characters like Lizard, Morbius and even Doc Ock in ways that make them real.

amazing spider-man ends of the earthAnd then Slott goes and does the unthinkable, he made me love a story about everyone in New York getting Spidey powers. When I heard about this mini event, I kept thinking of things like JLApe, but it turned out to be an incredibly compelling crossover that felt big enough and important enough to keep me interested. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about the “Ends of The Earth” story which finds Doc Ock threatening every living thing on earth as he gets closer to his deathbed. This was by no means a bad story — in fact, seeing Spidey, Black Widow and Silver Sable try to save the world is pretty rad — but I think I have had my fill of Big Two “the world might end” stories. Slott does a great job of getting me interested, mainly from the villain side, but the more of these stories you read the harder it can be to suspend your disbelief. Of all the books in this series, this one took me the longest to read.

And then BAM, I was right back into it with the amazing Lizard story which also circles back around to Morbius. It just so happens that I read and wrote about Morbius’ first appearance for Marvel.com last Halloween, so I knew the background on this particularly strange relationship. This added some depth to what I was reading and also gave me the slightest insight into how much fun this book must be for longtime, diehard Spidey fans.

amazing spider-man 700Speaking of the fans, I’m sure they were pretty distraught when they read what happens to Peter Parker at the end of ASM #700. As someone who covers comics, I knew about the big reveal (which I won’t spoil here, but will in the next paragraph) so reading this whole run was kind of like watching Usual Suspects for the second time. I knew where it was going (to some extent) and could keep an eye out for the seeds Slott planted throughout.

Okay, SPOILER time. How amazing were those last few issues where Peter is just desperately trying to save himself, not because of ego, but because he’s worried that Doc Ock (now inhabiting Spidey’s body) will surely do some evil stuff with it? The way Slott figured out how to keep that from happening was great. I didn’t know about that specific bit, so it was a wonderful surprise that makes me incredibly excited about diving into Superior Spider-Man which is not something I thought I’d say after enjoying a character for over 50 issues and losing him.

I can easily say after reading this run on Amazing Spider-Man that it is one of my all-time favorite runs of comics and that Slott is a ridiculous talent when it comes to crafting these kinds of stories. Now on to the next nine-or-so trades!

Everyone’s Right, Guardians Of The Galaxy Is Awesome

guardians of the galaxyI was a huge fan of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s Guardians Of The Galaxy series which came out of the Annihilation events, though apparently I never wrote about it here on UM (though I did review a trade collecting the first issues of the original series). The mix of comedy, action and cosmic threats made for a thoroughly entertaining series that seemed perfect for the big screen, even if characters like Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax, Gamora, Mantis and Cosmo were completely unknown to a larger audience.

When the actual film version was announced, I was shocked, but excited. I got even more jazzed when Slither director James Gunn was revealed as the captain of this ship. Throw in a stellar cast including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, John C. Reilly, Benicio del Toro, Glenn Close, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, Josh Brolin and Michael Rooker. Of course, I rarely see movies in the theaters anymore, so it took until last weekend for me to see the film which everyone loved. I almost never say this — just look at my initial review of Cabin in the Woods — but this is a movie that lived up to the hype.

I won’t bother going into the film’s plot, because I assume you’ve all seen it, are waiting to see it or have no plans to see it. I will say that I was shocked at how little of the film was spoiled for me going in. I realized as we put the film on — yes, I watched this with my wife and 3-year-old daughter who also both loved it — that I knew very little about the actual story. Sure, I knew about the dancing, the team-up element, the adorable mid-credit sequence and the cheer-worthy post-credits sequence (from my daughter and I, at least), but as far as the actual story went? I was in the dark and that was delightful.

 A lot of people credit this film for being funny as well as action packed and that’s a dead-on assessment. Even after watching the flick three times in four days (like I said, the kid fell in love), I still found myself laughing at Groot, Drax and Rocket. But this isn’t just a fun adventure. There’s also a lot of heart. That opening scene is ROUGH, especially if you’ve lost someone close to you. And if Rocket’s drunken monolog doesn’t hit you hard, there’s something wrong with you. On top of all that, the film is packed with clever ideas. Introducing the adult version of your hero with a dance number on an alien planet? Awesome. Rocket’s plan for getting out of the prison? Genius. The way these wildly unique characters fight on their own and together? Fantastic.

I do have three complaints about the film, though, but only two of them are valid. First, I really disliked that moment in the beginning where Quill says he forgot about the alien woman. I also don’t like how Drax called Gamora a whore towards the end, which makes very little sense. I was primed to see both of these flaws because of the people I follow on Twitter, but I agree that they didn’t need to be there and could have easily been changed. The third complaint is that it took me a while to get used to the different versions of these characters, specifically Gamora. In the comics I’ve read Gamora is a ruthless warrior with little compassion. In this version she’s a lot more human which works perfectly for this story, but took me some time to get used to.

We had such a fun time watching this film that I feel compelled to buy it and add it to my collection. That hasn’t happened with a new film since…Man Of Steel I think. Going even further, this movie got me excited for what’s going on in the Marvel Studios films leading into both Avengers: Infinity War. The Guardians have to be involved right? They’ve just gotta be!

Q: The Winged Serpent Is Awesome

Q The Winged Serpent Last fall a buddy of mine sent a few Blu-rays he got through his work my way. I’m always super appreciative when people do nice things like this because, unless I hit a really good sale, I’m probably not going to get my hands on a great many things. In that package was a little movie called Q: The Winged Serpent directed by Larry Cohen (It’s Alive) and starring Michael Moriarty (Troll), Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and David Carradine (Kill Bill). I was sold solely on Moriarty’s involvement who I had just seen in The Stuff and, as it just so happens, that film was also directed by Cohen, so I guess they bring out the best in each other because I love both of these movies, like hard.

Here’s the basics, as best I can remember them. People in New York City are dying and going missing. The police don’t know why, but it’s because there’s a giant flying monster eating them. Moriarty plays a wheelman dragged into pulling a jewelry heist that goes south. On the run, he winds up in the top Chrysler Building  which just so happens to be the monster’s nest. Meawhile detectives played by Roundtree and Carradine are trying to figure out what’s going on. In the process, Carradine becomes convinced that it’s not only a big monster, but also the reincarnation of the Aztec god Quetzlcoatl.

One of the many elements I love about this film is the fact that Moriarty’s character is so important to how this story plays out. This isn’t the story of a down on his luck hero finding the threat to the city and bringing it to the attention of the authorities. Instead, Moriarty uses the monster to take care of two guys trying to shake him down and he only tells anyone in the local government about what’s going on until after he’s made a deal to get a huge pile of money and pardons for all crimes, even the ones the NYPD might not know about (a “Nixon-like pardon” he says). Since he’s a sneaky, shifty dude, the movie goes places it wouldn’t if this were a more typical Hollywood tale.

For his part, Moriarty really carries this movie. He pulls off this oddly alluring synthesis of charming, down-on-his-luck and  bad that works so damn well. You might like him because he can play the piano so causally, but then you hate how he treats his long-suffering girlfriend. Then, at just the right point, he reveals a piece of his personal history that doesn’t excuse his behavior, but might explain it. That’s another major plus for this film, Cohen reveals bits and pieces of Moriarty’s character when they’re necessary, not before. In that way, it’s a really great example of delving out information at just the right time.

It might sound like I’m going overboard about this strange monster movie from the early 80s and maybe I am, but I still think it’s got a lot of greatness held within. However, it’s not perfect. The special effects don’t look so hot these days. From animated shadows to poorly composited images, there’s a lot for the modern eye to pick apart, but for me that was all part of the film’s charm. It did the best it could at the time and probably looked pretty darn impressive in 1982. I thought the actual Q monster looked pretty solid when it was on screen and there were plenty of dizzying aerial shots of NYC (maybe too many) that acted as monster perspective shots.

Now that I think about it, I think I might like this movie because it’s a combination of two of my favorite films without directly ripping them off. On one hand, all the perspective stuff reflect’s John Carpenter’s Halloween where he puts us in the killer’s perspective for chunks of time. Since we’re dealing with POV on a completely different level, it doesn’t feel like a direct lift. On the other hand, there’s a lot of “you don’t get to see the monster JUST yet” elements taken from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Around the time I watched Q, I heard a lot of people saying that the latest Godzilla  was like Jaws in the city, but it’s a dynamic that worked well given the setting and time of this film.

Also, like both of those admittedly much better films, Q also makes the locale a huge part of the film. Cohen and company made such good use of the Big Apple that it practically oozes all over ever frame. Obviously, the Chrysler Building plays a huge part in the proceedings, though how accurate the film is or whether they actually filmed inside, I don’t know, but those swooping arial shots also firmly cement the fact that we’re dealing with NYC. There’s even a scene shot at Columbia which I only knew because I’m familiar with another film that made such good use of New York City, Ghostbusters.

At the end of the day, Q: The Winged Serpent benefits from a great many positive notes. Moriarty is stellar, Carradine and Roundtree are great, the setting is perfect, the story works specifically because of the characters involved, the monster looks pretty good and presents a definitely threat and it’s got a pretty well thought out mythology. For all those reasons and more, I fully recommend checking this movie out.