Thursday, May 19, 2016

Future Quest #1 Review

Future Quest #1

Written by Jeff Parker

Art by Evan Shaner and Steve Rude with Steve Buccellato

                Years before, the last of a proud group of space protectors watches in horror as his comrades give their lives for the planet they called home. In the ashes of civilization, he kneels alone in a sad, pyhrric victory. In the present day, The Quest family investigates strange interdimensional phenomena in the Florida Everglades. Johnny Quest, boy adventurer, along with his friend and adopted brother Hadji, fly out on jetpack while under the watchful eye of Race Bannon and family dog Bandit. Meanwhile, at the Quest compound, noted scientist Dr. Benton Quest is joined by special agents Ray Randall and Deva Sumadi. Unbeknownst to them all, the phenomenon they are studying will open paths to worlds unforeseen and dangers unimaginable.

                When Cartoon Network had first launched, I was around thirteen years old. I had already heard of Space Ghost and The Herculoids via other shows from earlier in my childhood. But characters like Shazzan, Mightor, The Galaxay Trio and Birdman, Frankenstein Jr., Johnny Quest, and the Impossibles were not properly on my viewing radar until I saw them on Cartoon Network. They were incredibly formulaic, but also interesting to watch and fun to enjoy despite their simplicity in both writing and animation. I look back on those days fondly as something of a hold-over of my life-long love of superheroes before coming back into comics later in life.

                Reading Future Quest #1, I’m reminded of writer Jeff Parker’s 2014 revival of King Feature Syndicate’s comic strip heroes, King’s Watch. As an unashamed “Defenders of The Earth” fan, I couldn’t help but feel a swell of giddy pride seeing these titans of my childhood return to form. In the first issue of this miniseries, I would dare say Jeff Parker has rekindled my love for the Hanna Barbera heroes of days gone by. It was like walking into the living room and being reintroduced to old friends who have still been around, but haven’t seen them in a long time.

                There’s an energy to the pencils and coloring in this issue that harken back to the recently deceased comic artist and scribe Darwyn Cooke (who is given special thanks in the credits). While it doesn’t gritty itself up to make it seem more “adult” and “mature” it’s also not so cartoonish as to be disengaging and not being able to take seriously. From the first pages opening up to a planet-wide apocalypse on a distant alien world, to the reintroduction of boy adventurer Johnny Quest, the artwork is amazing and captures the feel of the art style of the old cartoons, but with a more modern aesthetic. These character designs didn’t fix what wasn’t broken, slight Birdman redesign aside. Even the reveal of long-time nemesis of the Quest family Doctor Zin retains his original design.
                Johnny Quest flies right off the page, ever the intrepid boy adventurer and risk taker. His devoted friend and brother Hadji still the stalwart, but equally precocious companion joins in the hijinks that inevitably ensure whenever the two are out and about in potentially dangerous territory. Race Bannon continues to be an action minded caretaker and bodyguard and Benton Quest is still the good-natured and well-meaning super scientist he’s always been. These are the same characters from the cartoons and it’s great to see them back as they were in their heyday in terms of characterization.

                Alluding to the Birdman redesign earlier, I liked how he was handled in this story as well. I can tell right away from the way he’s drawn and colored before I heard his name or saw the faithful purple falcon Avenger. Benton Quest even remarks that Birdman (also known as Ray Randall)’s voice carries, keeping in tune with his voice in his show. Seeing him don the costume (after saying a really cool mantra) and shout “BIRDMAN,” I was immediately sold and would absolutely buy a series based on the Solar Centurion.

                I liked that there were a couple of new characters as well to give support and expand the world a little more. Despite their inclusion, they weren’t given all that much to do except give their names and brief backstory. The introduction of TY and his blunt force exposition was a little forced, but it wasn’t distracting from the action. Also Agent Deva Sumadi provides a good human companion for Birdman as she seems to know his secrets already and is fully accepting them as a fellow agent. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

                I think it’s a good move that the story DOESN’T try to cram in every hero in the first issue, merely showing them in portals visible by Johnny and Hadji. We see the Herculoids (even the collapsed body of the Triceratops-like Tundro in the Florida swamp), the gigantic genie Shazzan, the outline of Space Ghost’s ship, the Galaxy Trio, Mightor, and even Jan and Jace, Space Ghost’s faithful wards. While they haven’t yet had time to shine, I’m hoping they’ll get a chance to shine in future issues. And there’s the possible inclusion of others that weren’t shown in the story as of yet. The possibilities are tantalizing.  

                I mentioned earlier the similarities to Jeff Parker’s King’s Watch, and I mean that as both a favorable point and a mark of slight criticism. While I hesitate to call it a rip-off as there are differences to make it stand out, it does bear a striking resemblance to King’s Watch in its premise, plot and at least in one or two regards, characterizations. Johnny Quest could easily be a much younger Flash Gordon; Benton Quest has something of a Zarkov-esque quality despite his good nature. The plot introduces the characters via collaborating on invasion from portals opening from other worlds/time periods, an old foe of one of the main characters shows its face with a concerted effort to hinder the heroes before they can begin to mobilize, capitalizing on the opening of said portals. Though it is the first issue and comparisons can be gleaned, it is too early to say it’s a rehash. It doesn’t hinder my enjoyment of the issue or the story so far. That being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address it.

Bottom Line: Future Quest #1 is a fun start to what I am hoping is a wonderful series featuring the heroes of old, showing that they’ve still got what it takes to be exciting in this age of modernization and grim-dark makeovers.

8.8 out of 10.  

Monday, March 28, 2016

No Fancy Title Reviews- Batman v Superman

No Fancy Title Reviews: Batman v Superman 18 months after the invasion of Metropolis, Superman (Henry Cavill)’s existence is met with cheers from some and distrustful scowls from others. Chief among them is Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg), young billionaire genius/philanthropist/mad scientist. He is looking to secure kryptonite (let’s call it what it is) in order to create what he calls “a deterrent” for Superman after the superhero became involved in a scandal that led to rescuing Lois Lane after trying to get a story on a terrorist organization.

Enter Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) who finds out about Lex’s acquirement of Kryptonite and seeks to steal it from him in order to kill Superman for destroying a building that employed Wayne Enterprises workers. As tensions mount between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight and public opinion continues to waver on Superman’s beneficence to humanity, the stage is set for an explosive confrontation.

I had heard the remarks from fellow reviewers and critics, both positive and negative. I tried hard to block out both sides so I could see this film with an open mind and try to give the movie a chance to be good. Not even just to be great or awesome or magnificent. But just to be GOOD. And it could not fulfill that promise for the most part. It tried way too hard to be a Marvel movie and is playing catch-up with Marvel studios that it shows painfully clear on the screen. There’s at least two movies worth of material being stuffed into it tighter than me in a tutu. Don’t picture that. I said DON’T.

Henry Cavill is somehow given less to actually do in this movie than he was given in Man of Steel. He’s either incredulous, solemn, or menacing. He barely has much screen time with Amy Adam’s Lois, which we see one actual scene of them as a couple. In fact, the scenes in which the two are most like their comic counterparts are in the beginning of the movie where Superman saves Lois from a warlord who takes her hostage and the next scene at home where they’re making with the sexy time in the bathtub. Every conversation is about whether or not he is doing good in the world.
While this does show more of Superman saving people and being at least a little more heroic, (they at least moved the final fights to isolated areas this time) there’s something that’s still off about Cavill’s Superman. He has the look and he seems amiable enough to pull off the role of a likable, cheerier Man of Steel that doesn’t let the world or anyone else make him doubt who he is, his mission and his willingness to help people. But that isn’t quite the Superman we get here.

Amy Adam’s Lois Lane is also given much less to do in this film than in Man Of Steel, and what she does do serves to basically facilitate something that happens at the end without any real sort of payoff. I will say this, though. She seems to be around just to work on finding out about Lex, get saved by Superman (albeit only three times as opposed to repeatedly in MoS), and provide encouragement to Clark/Superman as to his place in the world. It’s a step up from Pa Kent, I’d say. She does well with what she’s given, though. Never let it be said that Amy Adams doesn’t do her damnedest.

Yes, I know Lois and Clark are established characters and thus we don’t need as much of them as, say, Bruce and Lex. But at the same time, it’d be nice if it wasn’t just The Batman show guest starring Superman and friends. It’s Batman v Superman, which means there should be at least equal time between the two main characters. However, we see once more that Batman is the one folks apparently want to spend more time with. That’s not to say Ben Affleck was a bad Batman. He was a badly written Batman.

Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman comes off as Frank Miller’s aged curmudgeon in The Dark Knight Returns for better and worse. He is a very brutal Dark Knight, who openly murders his enemies with missiles and heavy caliber weaponry as well as flattening them with the Batmobile. It’s about as blatant as Tim Burton’s Batman showing a bomb into a killer clown’s pants and throwing him in a sewer to his death. His interactions with Alfred come off naturally, though it does feel like Jeremy Irons should be slightly older. His stubbornness and determination (which are trademarks of the character) seem fully intact until a critical scene in which a single name derails his entire thought process and makes him perform a character 180. From bitter foes to good buddies in less time than it takes to order at a drive-thru? It just doesn’t work for me. I’m not saying people can’t have changes of heart, but this particular change was so jarring, it almost seemed like Batman had just woken up from a spell. Also, yes, they used a coincidental “oh, that’s kinda funny” bit of trivia as a serious plot point that alters the trajectory of the movie.

Lex Luthor’s personality bounces from playful dudebro to awkward billionaire tech nerd to threatening supervillain in just about every scene he’s in. However, he plays it all with the same kind of Eisenbergian dorky snark that one comes to expect. Lex Luthor is many things; egotistical, charismatic, and even a little witty at times. None of these traits come off of Jesse Eisenberg, or at least not very well. His Lex Luthor comes off looking more like The Joker with over-elaborate planning Lex’s elaborate plan hinges on him just happening to finding out certain things in order to make the plot move forward. As well as people being all around idiots. Lex’s plot relies on him knowing information he cannot have known in the short time frame of events, and hoping that Superman and Batman were full of enough murderous intent to try and kill each other.

Gal Gadot, for the limited amount of screen-time she had, was a serviceable Diana/Wonder Woman. She wasn’t as horrible as I’d feared she’d be but she didn’t have enough time to really endear me. Her and Ben Affleck shared plenty of scenes together and their chemistry wasn’t terrible. However, they were incredibly rushed as part of the laborious world-building aspect of the movie. That being said, they managed to tell something of a complete story for Diana’s arc in the handful of scenes she was in, which is pretty decent on their part.

As anyone in professional wrestling will tell you, if you want people to be invested in your match, you have to build up anticipation. You have to have a well-crafted story around your two combatants about why they’re fighting. Batman wants to kill Superman because his fight with Zod ended up wrecking one of his buildings, resulting in maiming and killing employees of his. On top of all of that, he’s been receiving strange prophetic dreams of an evil Superman, including one where someone who looks like the Flash (in CG so bad I thought his entire body was computer generated) warns Bruce that “he was right about him. He always was.” And as far as Superman is concerned, he doesn’t even really want to fight Batman, just make sure he doesn’t brand and brutalize criminals. Even during the fight when Superman has a reason to want to kill Batman, he tries talking to him first. The majority of the animosity is on Batman’s side, not Superman’s.

There’s a weird pacing hiccup that happens right before the titular fight where Bruce had sent over hacked LexCorps files to Diana and she opens to find her photograph taken a hundred years ago, as well as video surveillance of Cyborg, Aquaman and The Flash. Now, her watching her own is fine, as it sets up her wanting to leave and not be discovered. However, what kills the momentum of the scene dead in its tracks is when she decides to watch and therefore show the audience the other videos, causing an unnecessary pause in the action. These videos could’ve easily been used as post credits sequences.

I’m going to go ahead and say this isn’t a spoiler since it’s been shown in the trailers and one can easily make the inference. What was Lex’s plan to stop Doomsday in the event that either Batman or Superman or both were killed? It seemed clear the monster had no mind of its own and was fully intent on total destruction. What was his follow-through once the endgame was finished? Did he have a failsafe?

Batman V Superman is an absolute mess of a movie. Narratively speaking, it has the coherence of Larry the Cable Guy doing a drunken stand-up routine on the intricacies of French linguistics. And that’s not to say that it isn’t easy to follow. Instead of telling a story, it decides to try and play speed chess with the pieces. In terms of universe building, it’s like trying to furnish a house before the foundation has dried and the support has been put up. They are trying to speed through the process and throwing comic book references in here hoping we’ll not only notice, but go, “okay, we approve.” The idea of the government and people not liking/trusting Superman after saving the world seems to feel tacked on just for Lex to have some kind of “in” for him to make political moves.

Zack Snyder’s direction in Batman V Superman is par for the course; Nice looking visuals, but when it comes to substance, there’s nothing really there. It’s getting the NES box as the Christmas gift instead of the actual game console. You get to see the DC Trinity formed but there is no real weight to the significance of it except for the metatext of “This is something you’ve waited your entire lives to see! Cheer, dammit!” And that’s it in a nutshell, really. Batman V Superman is a two-and-a-half-hour tutorial on how not to world-build and how NOT to use dramatic references to comic storylines (One in particular which I won’t spoil here).

I have tons of plot questions that need addressing, but to do so would make this well past the length I feel this needs.

Bottom line: Batman v Superman is a Frankenstein’s Monster experiment of how talented people who don’t like comic books try to make a comic book movie.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

No Fancy Title Reviews- Final Girl

Veronica (Abigail Breslin) is new in town and local boys Jameson (Alexander Ludwig), Shane (Cameron Bright), Daniel (Logan Huffman) and Nelson (Reece Thomspon) have taken a shine to her. So much so that they’ve invited her to a secret place in the woods where the young men, always dressed impeccably in tuxedos, have their own form of recreation. The kind that involves killing young women like Veronica. Little do they know, however, that Veronica has a dark and bloody secret of her own: She’s been training with her handler William (Wes Bentley). These boys are her first solo mission and her final test before becoming a full-fledged killer. Let the games begin.

Now, you may think that the above paragraph essentially gave away the movie. However, the movie itself just flat out gives you the entire plot in just under five minutes of screentime. In fact, the pace of the story seems almost breakneck, jumping from scene to scene with barely time to learn about the characters. The runtime at about ninety minutes feels very light and tends not to waste time.

“Final Girl” is a 2015 action thriller with elements of psychological horror spliced in. It also has elements of humanity in several scenes, especially between Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley. What little we know of Veronica and William’s relationship is as sweet as it is unsettling, especially when the subject of sex is brought up.

In terms of cinematography, the camera work is terrific as well as the color design. The colors pop out under highly contrasted lighting and the use of shadows give it a very noir-ish feel to the film. Of course there being spotlights in the woods keeps everything eerily lit during each encounter with the tuxedoed killers. Everyone in the film looks stylized and right out of a pulp novel. One of the guys has an affinity for swing music and moves like a manic James Dean.

Abigail Breslin put on a very good performance as the trepidatious but strong-willed Veronica. At the beginning of the film we see her speaking with William, having lost her family and being taken in to train. Twelve years later and we see a confident young woman who is ready for the test. The performances of the tuxedo-wearing killers were pretty decent as well, especially during hallucination sequences where each of their characters were explored briefly.

With everything that is enjoyable in the film, I find that there are many aspects that are sorely lacking. Now, we probably don’t need to know everything about what kind of organization William and Veronica work for, but it might’ve been interesting to find out. Why were these particular young men chosen for her test? It’s implied that William’s job entails killing bad guys through a line of dialogue but other than that, I don’t see a reason for them to go after these particular murderous assholes other than the fact that they are murderous assholes. There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between this world and something akin to either a horror film or a realistic drama. We also don’t seem to get a real sense of the killers’ personalities until the climax rolls around.

Another problem for me is that I felt like we were being dropped in the middle of a story, rather than the beginning. While it progresses more or less linearly, the movie seems to want to focus on the part we came to see and the movie wanted to showcase; the climax. Here is when the movie finally stops to build tension and suspense.

(Spoilers in the next paragraph)

However, seeing as how well trained Abigail Breslin’s character is, we realize the most glaring flaw in this film: these guys never stood a chance. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should’ve had them kill the heroine or even be significantly more capable than her because we find that William is never too far from Veronica when he shows up at the end. Perhaps had the boys done their usual killing as the opening scene and then we see Jameson pick up Veronica, leading to the boys trying to kill her, only to find that she is an assassin who’s trained to take them all out. If they had switched the scenes around, I think it could’ve been a much better movie than it is.

I’m giving it a 2 out of 5. The premise is great, the visual style is strikingly evocative and Abigail Breslin is game as fuck, but the plot’s overall lack of suspense and tension takes the teeth out of this movie’s bite.