Neon Oldie #14

Cover14

By
C.T. McMillan
+++

Cover: C.T. McMillan
Model: Megan Crawford (ING: @mleighmoon)

Copyright 2018 by C.T. McMillan
All Rights Reserved
In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

Also By CT McMillan
Back to Valhalla: A Military Fantasy
Neon Oldie Vol. 1 “The Mark”

Acknowledgments
I could not have come this far without my family encouraging me to pursue my ambition to be a writer.

Dedication
To Razor’ and ’19 for providing inspiration.

***

Enzo van Gogh’s remaining eye stared at the ceiling as he lay in the bag. His other was blown out on the floor, pulled through the hole of shattered silicon by the bullet. Kiddo Volk watched him from the bed, displayed atop the gurney. She clutched the blanket on her shoulders, hoping he’d look her way.

“What you think?” asked first coroner at the end of the gurney. “Kernel panic?”

“For sure,” said the second at the front, clicking the gurney upright. “Guy blew a synthapse and went nuts.”

“I remember in Baja,” said the first moving to the side of the bag, “Cyber Ops hacked a Federale brothel and RC’d the Andie whores into killing a dozen politicians and top-brass hombres. Real nasty.”

They spoke like she wasn’t watching them seal up Enzo like a gas station sandwich. “And that’s why closed circuit is the way to go,” said the second pulling the gurney.

“Or buy a firewall,” said the first. “Guess this guy couldn’t afford it.”

Kiddo stared at the threshold after they left. Her peripherals were blurred, even the Copper’s snapping fingers by her face.

“Volk? Volk, come back to me.” The Copper stood with a notepad and pen in hand. He was in full beat cop attire; helmet, armor vest, and combi-pistol on his hip. The stiff gust of a sigh escaped his nostrils when Kiddo didn’t look away. “Is ‘at concussion playin’ with her head?” he asked the EMT dabbing the cut on her scalp.

“Not a concussion, Quincy,” she said. “Just a bad knock.”

“Well, she’s actin’ pretty out of it.”

“She’s in shock. I’d be if my boyfriend blew his brains out in front of me. Apply a delicate touch, I guess.”

The Copper made a grimace hidden by most of his asymmetric visor before going to one knee. He put the notepad on the floor and joined it with his helmet. The face beneath matched the accent, tanned skin creased in darker lines of wear and tear. His hazel eyes fit the brown crewcut ironed by the helmet. “Look at me, Kiddo.”

Her movement was robotic, head turning on a swivel until her slack face met his.

“Ain’t gonna pretend I know what you’re going through. Not my job. But ya need to gimme an idea of what happened. After he attacked you in the tub, what’d Enzo do between then and his death? A little somethin’ will do just fine. Are those little cuts on your face his too?”

Her jaw clenched and Kiddo blinked for the first time. “When can I bury him?”

“Afraid that’s not my department. If y’help me get to the bottom of this, we can turn over the body in no time. Just talk to me.”

Kiddo turned to the cops probing the apartment. They wore rubber coveralls and gloves, groups of two spread around. One team scraped Enzo’s brains and eye into an evidence bag. Another took pictures of white splatters by the tub and bed. Kiddo focused on a team going through her luggage. They bagged up clothes and the usual toiletries, the wads of money already gathered off to the side.

The Copper watched her stare before slumping his head and retrieving his helmet.“Dicks on their way?” he asked after clicking the vox unit wired into the collar of his vest. He stood after putting his face back on. “…Good. This one’s out of it. A little time in interrogation ought a’ do the trick.”

 

On the way to the station the EMT stabled Kiddo’s cut and covered it with a bandage. She sat in the little room of painted cinder block, a ceiling camera and two-way mirror her only company. The fluorescents had a low hum that was impossible to ignore in the compressed silence.

Kiddo watched her hands under the shadow of the table, the broken polymer exposing the pulleys underneath. They sat palms up, making slight involuntary movements with a low click of the fingers. They twitched at once with a flinch when the door finally opened.

Mitty Freeman didn’t look like a cop, but wore a cop’s desk-jockey uniform. It was a blue and white double-breasted shirt with featureless blue trousers. His last name was printed over his heart with corporal chevrons on the shoulders. Down his left arm “TECHNICAL” was stitched parallel to the sleeve in black on a white stripe.

The guy was sweating, his ebony forehead shiny before he wiped it dry. Mitty sat opposite and took his time. “…Enzo was a good guy… So much, it almost hurt. I remember this one time–“

“I want his body, Mitty.” The words came out indifferent. “I’m listed as next of kin. You can’t keep me from burying him.”

Mitty knew exactly what to say and wished he didn’t. “That’s why I’m here. This situation’s got everyone in my section and the higher-ups spooked. Company guys ’re on their way right now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Enzo wouldn’t ‘ve touched a hair on your head, Pink. He was remote hacked. The long-term drive was shredded, but the short-term told us the truth. You’re innocent, but what happened to him was impossible. Enzo was soul’d; a closed circuit Andie. You can’t hack one without a hard-wire link. We’re talking experimental tech.”

“So, when do I get the body?”

Mitty pinched the skin on the bridge of his nose. “Given the extraordinary circumstances behind this case, I have no idea. TalSec wants him here for exploratory analysis. It’ll be a month or two of deep-dive mining and autopsy. Maybe longer.” He could see it in her eyes she wanted to rip him apart. “And they wanna keep everything recovered at the scene in case this was caused by some external trigger or–“

The look on her face stopped him cold.

“Don’t you dare. I earned that money for us. For our future. It’s all I have left–“

“And it was found at a crime scene, under very, very strange circumstances,” he said with a loud whisper. “Look, I’m just the middle man, and guys off the payroll wanna empty their gats into your face. The detective working your case sent me in because she doesn’t wanna deal with ‘Gori trash’ as she put it. You’re outnumbered and the only way you’re gonna get what you want is to chill out.” He stood behind his chair after pushing it in. “I’ll try to speed this along, but the evidence will stay impounded until the analysts deem otherwise. We get it: that money’s yours and you’re not gonna lose a cent. They’ll uphold the law if you behave yourself. All you have to do is mourn. I know this ain’t any better with Cicero gone, but you have to manage.” Mitty made for the door. “Text me if you need someone to talk to.”

Kiddo’s isolation wasn’t so quiet like before. The air pumping out her nostrils was louder than her whining fists. She rocked in her seat, tears spilling over. She bent forward, her head resting on the edge of the steel table. A deep groan rumbled through clenched teeth as she pulled pink strands from her head.

It was harder to cry than she thought.

When the door opened Kiddo didn’t bother, staring at the tennis shoes she threw on before they took her in. The shadow under the table gave little respite from the fluorescents that felt like heaters.

“Did you know 5% of android/human couples end with the human killing their partner?” asked a voice. “5% is a big number when you consider there aren’t a lot of us out there. At least, the ones with consciousness.” Kiddo slowly peeked at an Andie in a suit by the door. She had a badge clipped to her belt and blonde hair held in a stiff pompadour. “Must feel rotten inside,” she went on. “Like there’s a hole in your chest that isn’t quite empty, but it’s opening wider and wider. I’m surprised you feel anything, punk.”

The Detective took the seat as Kiddo leaned back, eyes down. “Your rat Mitty and the tech boys might’ve found footage to prove your innocence, but I’m not convinced. There was enough cash in your luggage to buy the best data fixers to scrub a snuff film into a family friendly musical. You’re allowed to go home, but don’t think you’re off the hook, Volk. I’ll be looking into you closely and there’s no way you’re getting away with it. Not you or any of your crew.”

Silence again, the Detective looking at her with a smirk, expecting a snappy retort.

“…On our second date, he told me even when he was an un-soul’d secretary for some CEO, he remembered this painting called Starry Night in the back of the office. He loved the swirls of color in the sky, the stars made huge and bright against the darkness, and the tree in the foreground rising up like a crooked tower. He said it felt like he was alive, staring at it from his desk. Enzo loved the painting so much, he changed his hair and skin to match the colors, even took the last-name of the artist…” Kiddo wiped her cheeks on her hoodie sleeve. “I was also gonna take his name once I was pregnant. He let me pick baby names. I wanted a boy and call him Sasha after Dad. If we had a girl, Jae-un, after Mom. I know we could’ve paid to choose the sex, but I wanted to leave it up to chance like normal parents… And I wanted to have a son more than anything.”

Shame’s too small a word to describe what the Detective was feeling. She made sure it wasn’t written across her waxy features before the door burst open.

“You harrassin’ my witness, Pierce?” asked the Copper, still head to toe in armor.

The Detective put on her serious face and got to her feet. “Doing my job, Quincy. And she’s my witness. Your job’s done.”

“Lady was cleared half hour ago. Got a couple loose wires in that plastic head a’ yours?”

“I don’t have wires. I was grown in a tank.”

“Doesn’t matter to me. Wanna be a real person, I’m gonna treat ya like one.”

“And if you’re going to bring up my anatomy in a manner that isn’t complimentary, I’d be liable to take it up with IA again. Obviously the counseling didn’t stick.”

The Copper’s mouth curled into a sneer. “…She’s clear to go home. C’mon, Volk.”

Kiddo pushed herself off the table and kept her arms close as she stepped between the two. Once she was out the door the Copper followed, no doubt leaving the Detective with a mocking look shielded by his visor.

 

The hard stench of bleach clung to the floorboards. All that was left were faded blotches of white between the bed and tub. Dawn pierced the blinds, painting the apartment in blue stripes. The sinking of the bed under her ass was more than welcoming. The creaking springs told Kiddo to lie down, kick those old shoes off, and get the hours she missed.

But all she did was sit and look at the stain at her feet, a stripe of blue across her eyes. Her hand whined softly as she ran her palm along the back of her head. She couldn’t feel it, but the scrape of the shaven hair against the polymer told her it was smooth. On her right temple the sound was lower, the hair longer. Kiddo traded hands on the spot like she was putting a phone to her ear.

She took a long, deep breath, and looked into the blue across her eyes.

 

Tossing the money counter away Kiddo grabbed the handle of the strong box and slid it out of the crawlspace. Printed in white across the lid was ‘Mdl-C,’ followed by a white American flag without the stars.

A pair of black arm mods sat in foam inside. They were thicker than Kiddo’s and more realistic, like Flesh painted to look metal. They had a glossy finish, the light bending with the mods’ stout contours. The edges between the plates and joints were flush and the texture homogenous. Would’ve been hard to figure where a plate and joint began and ended without the seams. What made them un-cannier was a ring built in before the elbow on each forearm. They were gunmetal grey and etched with slanted grooves along the circumference. On the deltoid plate of the right another white flag was printed onto the steel and the ‘Mdl-C’ designator on the left.

Kiddo sat facing the box and took hold of her left bicep. With her thumb pressed into the armpit, the mod went limp and the clamps along the deltoid flipped up. The pins and links were still pulling themselves from Kiddo’s skin as she yanked it prematurely. Her groan turned to a shriek before she tossed the arm aside and replaced it with a Mdl-C. She bit her lower lip as the arm connected with an electric rumble.

When it synched, Kiddo brought the hand up and made a fist. The ring spun as she squeezed harder and a small red light on the wrist started blinking.

***

Recommended Reading/Viewing
Blade Runner, Directed by Ridley Scott
13 Assassins, Directed by Takashi Miike
Old Boy, Directed by Chan-wook Park
Ghost in the Shell, Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Metropolis, Directed by Rintaro
Yojimbo, Directed by Akira Kurosawa
A Touch of Evil, Directed by Orson Welles
Battle Angel Alita, By Yukito Kishiro
On the Waterfront, Directed by Elia Kazan

About the Author
C.T. is a Florida native and proud gun owner. He is a fan of all things military, comic books, and a self-proclaimed movie buff. In his off-time C.T. reviews movies on a blog no one reads and writes screenplays that will never get made, but enjoys it nonetheless. He hopes this book thing will actually pay off so he can do it forever.

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Movie Review: Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel (CapMarv) is one of those characters that has a lot of potential, but the people writing her books have no idea what they are doing. In the past two years, the official CapMarv comic has been rebooted about five times. There are a lot of reasons this happens in comics and none of them are good. CapMarv has been and is being written by people who subsist on Big Bang Theory, Tumblr posts, and spend their writing time insulting readers on Twitter.

Like muh Domino, there is a lot to her that has yet to be explored. She is a recovering alcoholic, an Airman, and did some regrettable things in the very padded “Civil War 2.” So far, there has not been a good book since the DeConnick run. To say I had low expectations going into the movie would be an understatement. The bad press and manufactured outrage did not help either, almost killing an otherwise great movie.

Imagine if Wonder Woman was restricted by a small budget and shooting locations, but had a great script and actors that worked well together like a nice two-part episode of Stargate SG-1. Instead of making the movie as epic as possible, CapMarv settles on a small, but high quality film about Carol Danvers coming to terms with her past and present.

CapMarv does very well with its titular character and those around her. She has great on-screen chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson as a young Nick Fury. Despite what the trailers have shown, she is quite witty and the back and forth between Carol and Fury is classic MCU. CapMarv also does a great job of breaking the origin story mold. Instead of starting from the beginning and seeing her become a hero, we learn about Carol as she learns about herself in short bursts, and it all ties very well into the story.

While the actual window into the cosmic side of the MCU is small, it was nice to see something not tied to Guardians of the Galaxy. We get a glimpse of Hala, the Supreme Intelligence, and the Accusers are slightly more realized. And we finally meet the Skrulls. However, given budget constraints, they are relegated to just green people that can shape-shift. In the comics there is a jobber class that is cannon fodder and there are Super Skrulls that can mimic whole power sets. CapMarv does not get deep into the Skrull-Kree War either, but it is for a very good reason.

It is hard to discuss the real flaws because all of them can be tied to the budget. The big expensive set pieces and fights are saved for the latter third where they would logically belong. Do not expect Infinity War level CG, but from what I could tell the melee fights were mostly practical. In terms of story it was very tight and everything worked the way it should. Overall, it was a harmless and competent movie.

Many are probably discouraged from seeing Captain Marvel because of the bad press. It may not affect men too much, but when you alienate people based on skin and sex, I can assure we are still paying attention. However, I have seen this before with Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Ghostbusters (2016) (fuck you, Paul Feig). Outrage sells and when you want a group to see your movie, make it look like another group hates your movie. Then the target will buy a ticket several times over because they think it will hurt their “enemy.” It is all made up, but you should see Captain Marvel because it is up there with Doctor Strange and Ant-Man.

The Books Are Better: The Walking Dead (2)

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Themes

If you look at the front covers of The Walking Dead (TWD) hardcover collections there is the subtitle “A continuing story of survival horror.” That one sentence epitomizes what the comics are all about. It takes ideas from the original Dawn of the Dead from George A. Romero and takes them to their logical extreme. What if a zombie apocalypse actually happened and how would it affect real people, who have never known starvation or been in a survival situation? That is and has been TWD since its publishing 15 years ago.

Being real people means the characters have emotional baggage. They find love, lose it, move on, or go crazy. All the while the characters are in a constant fight against the elements, starvation, and hordes of undead. How they cope with this new reality informs who they become and how they act towards fellow survivors. To quote the comic’s tagline, “In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.”

Being character oriented and set in a hostile world, TWD does not shy away from putting survivors in danger. While zombies are slow and easy to kill, they are never taken lightly. The same can be said for other survivors. More often than not characters are killed or horribly maimed, no matter how long they have been around or how much you like them. Everyone is expendable in TWD. This is not the Mad Max apocalypse; it is The Road with zombies.

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TWD Season 2/Volume 2

It was all downhill after Season 1. How the quality of TWD skewed so far is simple, but I want to begin with the season’s corresponding volume to start off on a positive note because it will not get better from here on out. For the sake of brevity, I will not go in depth about who certain characters are because I assume you have either watched the show or read the comic. Also, some of them are not important enough to mention until they actually are.

Volume 2 is where the themes really set root and create a road map for the series. Rick finds out Lori is pregnant and juggles between thoughts of her dying in childbirth and that the baby is Shane’s. Tyreese makes his debut, my favorite character, with his daughter and her boyfriend Julie and Chris. Tyreese is pretty much a bigger, blacker version of Rick with more experience in wild. Before joining the group he beat an elderly man to death for almost raping Julie and is scared that he does not feel bad about it.

After finding a seemingly deserted gated community, the group is free to move out of the RV, and take up residence in one house. It is here the characters get more intimate within the privacy of their chosen space. To cope with the loss of her sister Amy after the group was attacked in Volume 1, Andrea has sex with a much older Dale. At the same time, Tyreese gets closer to Carol, a more dependent character compared to her television counterpart. Though implied, she is not really a battered wife, and her husband is already dead, but she has many issues that come up later on.

The next morning Rick discovers a sign by the gate that inspired the hospital door sequence from the premiere of Season 1. It is also one of the better scares. When the dead emerge from the surrounding homes, Donna, the wife of Allen and mother to twin boys, is bit in the face, and the group becomes surrounded. In the midst of escaping by jumping onto the RV from the second floor of the house, Tyreese finds Julie and Chris about to have sex before they get clear. Back on the road the food supply dwindles and Rick, Tyreese, and Carl go hunting. Out in the woods, Otis shoots Carl in the back, and before Rick could perforate the man’s face, they realize Carl is still breathing. They rush to Hershel’s farm not far away and the elderly veterinarian patches him up just as the rest of the group arrives.

How people cope with grief and loneliness becomes a strong part of the story. While Andrea has Dale to get over Amy’s death, Allen has no one to provide such support and shuts down. When Andrea tries to talk him into getting over it, Allen lashes out. When his own prospects of intimacy dry up within the group, Glenn expresses to Maggie his need for a woman, who then reciprocates. Julie and Chris also have a thing that escalates very quickly in Volume 3 in the wrong direction.

How Hershel dealt with the loss of one of his sons would come at odds with what Rick wants for the group. He is well aware they are guests on the farm, but Rick wants to settle down and stay for a while. He suggests they move into the barn and Hershel reveals that he keeps zombies there, one of which is his son and some neighbors. He had no idea what to do once he turned and settled on keeping him confined. Hershel understands full well that the zombies are people, sick people that need to get better, and he is shocked when Rick tells him the group has been killing them.

Then Hershel has to come to terms with reality after an attempt to put a zombie in the barn costs the life of another son and one daughter. Hershel personally executes them and turns the gun on himself before Rick stops him. They bury the dead and much like Allen, Hershel shuts down. And after almost shooting Rick for suggesting they move into his dead children’s rooms, he questions if he has lost his mind. After leaving the farm the group continues to struggle along the way until they come upon the prison.

Volume 2 is where TWD hit its stride and continued to run with it from there. It was also the debut of current artist Charlie Adlard after Tony Moore’s departure. I see Volume 2 as the blueprint for the series and how it would juggle its themes as the group adapted to new challenges and transitioned from roving nomads to a community.

Given the immense jump in quality from Volume 1 to 2, why was Season 2 of TWD so awful? Frank Darabont wanted a bigger budget to pull off his original vision, but AMC wanted to save as much as possible despite previous success. Budget cuts would be most obvious in the make-up department with the number of zombies on screen reduced or relegated to a single appearance per episode. These single appearances would be a set piece of effects work that would become a mainstay for the series.

This is rather off topic, but one set piece zombie included the “Camp RV Walker” that attacked Andrea in the RV and it just so happens I went to high school with the actor who plays him, Travis Charpentier.

What_Lies_Ahead_Zombie,_2

Anyway, AMC also wanted more episodes, doubling the original planned quota from 6 to 13, which would later become 16, further straining the already reduced budget. When Darabont pushed against the channel’s mandates, some fuck named Glenn Mazzara was brought in to rewrite a few episodes, and take over as showrunner once Darabont was fired. Like its comic equivalent, Season 2 would set a precedent, but for the worst.

The thing about television writing/production is everything can be changed at a moment’s notice. If an actor quits, dies, or the studio wants to make crippling edits to an already planned show, then the production is forced to adapt. Once AMC made its demands, there had to be rewrites in addition to reshoots. From what I could tell, Darabont had a small chuck of his vision on film. If you look at the Season 2 trailer, there is footage that did not show up in the original cut of Shane shooting zombies and the group returning to the location from the “Vatos” episode. Whatever was already shot and written had to be scrapped and reworked once AMC made their demands.

This is where Mazarra came in. His vision and voice would inform the rest of TWD, even after his exit in 2013. He was AMC’s man and what he decided for the show was of the channel’s design. One demand was to restrict shooting locations, which is why the whole of Season 2 takes place on Hershel’s farm. Keep in mind the farm did not come up until the latter half of Volume 2. To cope with the lack of a setting, the writing took on a lot of what we authors call bullshit, better known as padding. Take the average narrative of an episode and less than 25% of that is relevant to story progression. The rest is stuffing to balloon the runtime to meet the required 44 minutes. As a result you have these meandering conversations between characters and plotlines that do not lead to anything important to the overall story.

Hershel wants Rick and friends off the farm. Rick does not want to leave. Hershel is mad they will not leave.

Glenn rails Maggie and is later mad at him for wanting to kill zombies… even after getting attacked by them? I still have no clue what that was all about.

Andrea is sad about losing Amy and cannot shoot for shit. Andrea bangs Shane, gets over her issues, and turns into an unlikable tart.

Lori flip-flops between resenting Shane for almost raping her and being nice to him while telling Rick that he is dangerous and ignoring her very young son. Then she attempts to abort her baby and changes her mind at the last minute while ignoring her still alive and vulnerable son.

Dale also knows Shane is dangerous and does not bring it up before he is eaten.

The whole group cannot decide what to do with a single captive bandit for half the season and keeps him around as a plot device.

Scan 1

That is the entirety of Season 2 and the rest of series. The comics could not be simpler and more devoid of useless fat, but to drag out 13 episodes of a story that was six issues long, Mazarra and company just made shit up or bloated insignificant details because they are creatively bankrupt and lack artistic dignity. The great thing about TWD comics is they are entirely bullshit free and writer Robert Kirkman made sure to keep it that way. When characters were not given enough coverage or they had nothing to do, he killed them off, forgot about them, or saved them to kill later.

You like Donna? Now she’s zombie food.

What about Allen and his twin boys? Brace your ass.

Boy, I hope nothing bad happens to Maggie’s little sisters and her last brother.

You think Gabriel is a great character with a lot of potential? Get ready for Volume 27, you stupid pig.

Do not forget about Lori and her bastard Judith. Oh, boy, do I have a delicious splash page for you (emphasis on splash).

The comics are fantastic in how focused they are. The group needs to survive, there is some drama going on, and Rick has to keep it all together. That is it. Could not have been simpler and it remains so to this day. But because AMC wanted to save money and make wasteful demands in the same breath, we got 13 episodes of boring bullshit. It hurt not just the story, but the characters, the actors, and no one said anything because they needed something to watch on Sundays.

Rick is barely a protagonist because the show is too busy worrying about what other characters are doing. I guess 13 episodes are a little much for the poor guy. Rick is supposed to be the leader, but there is so much crap in his way and everyone is too concerned with their own shit. Andrea, who becomes Best Girl in the comics, is the most unlikable character on the show. For no reason, she turns into this vindictive wench pulled right out of a soap opera. She is snarky and does not care about anything except herself. Granted, she is only slightly tolerable than stupid and irresponsible Lori, but she was begging to be killed off sooner than later.

Season 2 was also where Chandler Riggs, the actor who plays Carl, was set up for failure. It is well known in television and film that child actors should say as little as possible. It is not their fault they are not great actors, but it is best they are set off to the side to learn from their adult costars. In Volume 2, Carl has maybe two pages worth of dialog, and he is always with Lori and Rick or a very much alive Sofia. In Season 2 Riggs had more lines than he could handle and I blame Mazzara. He was a good kid, decent actor, and deserved better. It is a shame we did not get to see him develop into the cyclopean badass he is in the comics today.

It is also important to mention the actors that left before their characters were killed in the comic. What movie buffs will notice is three of the supporting cast worked with Frank Darabont in the past. Jeffrey DeMunn who played Dale was in all of Darabont’s movies while Andrea’s Laurie Holden and Carol’s Melissa McBride were both in The Mist. Once Darabont was kicked from the show, everyone but McBride was killed off, possibly upon request, but it is difficult to say. There is more to this story and I highly recommend checking out Adam Johnson’s video on Season 2. He is a nitpicker, but does not make you hate movies like other YouTube pricks.

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I was one of the millions that did not notice the dramatic drop in quality following Season 1. Though I knew the comics were far superior and remain so, I failed to process the show’s downfall because I loved zombies. Name a zombie show in 2011 with the best practical effects in the business. CG squibs aside, it cannot be understated the majesty of Greg Nicotero’s work. This is how zombies should always be portrayed, no matter what, and it remains the only good part about the show. The comics only got better and the more I think about delving deeper in The Walking Dead, the more I am happy and regretting starting this series. Now I am forced to talk about a show that never got better and I will do my best to give you plenty of reasons to read the comics.

Editorial 42: Metro Exodus

Not long ago I was a videogame reviewer when I lived in Orlando. I would not have considered myself a games journalist; I have dignity, but I did not have a great time to say the least. It is far more fun to play videogames than write about them, which explains why real games journalists are cowardly degenerates. I would either make up nonsense I did not give a shit about or outright lie to meet the required word count. The only articles I am proud of are my review of Doom (2016) and an analysis on BroTeamPill. Everything else belongs in the garbage. That being said, I find it difficult to not write something about Metro Exodus.

When we think of the post-apocalypse many imagine barren blasted wastelands patrolled by raiders in makeshift cars and revealing attire. Road Warrior and the like have taken over our imagination of what the world would look like following a nuclear holocaust. The genre has been so impacted by this collective understanding there are hardly any deviations across cultures, except for Russia. Obviously, I am sure there are other localized interpretations, but the current benchmark for the Russian post-apocalypse comes from Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro trilogy.

Set in the Moscow Metro the story follows Artyom, one of thousands of people living underground 20 years after World War 3. In an effort to survive with little to no resources and under constant threat from mutants, the Metro is divided among a handful of factions that look to the past to survive the future. There is the egalitarian Hansa, the communist Red Line, and the fascist Fourth Reich. Everyone is trying to take over while the Spartan Rangers keep to the margins of society, taking down anyone or anything that threatens the Metro.

Metro 2033 was the first book and first game in the series. Originally released in 2010, I played the Redux version some months ago, and before that Last Light, the sequel. Both experiences are very different, but the core design ethos of the series is still there. Half-Life 2 set the standard for all first-person shooters, but I think Slav developers like Metro’s 4A Games perfected it.

The series is known for their immersion. You really feel you are underground not just because of the atmosphere and technical tricks, but how you progress from level to level. You as Artyom walk through long stages that have different ways of progression, either loud or quiet, with little to know direction. The developers were mindful to use light sources to guide players in a natural, unconscious fashion. On top of that is the sense of claustrophobia and danger. You have to maintain the power in your flashlight and keep a supply of gasmask filters in the event you stumble into a toxic area or journey to the surface. The tension is ramped up thanks to the fantastic sound design that make monsters scary and stealth heart pounding.

Metro Exodus continues the series traditions while taking a massive risk. After a certain revelation I will not spoil, Artyom, his wife Anna, and a handful of Spartan Rangers escape Moscow by train. When they find out Russia is not as desolate as they once thought, the group decides to search for a place to settle down and give the people of the Metro a proper future. With a greatly overhauled karma system, what happens along this journey depends on your actions.

Each level is the size of a small open world with points of interest that offer supplies to craft perishables and work/rest stations. Exploration is encouraged and not restricted by linear progression. You can start a level, go just about everywhere, and the characters will even bring up that you already visited certain areas. Character requested items are located throughout that can boost your karma if you get them. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from striking out on your own and if you follow just the main missions, you will miss a ton of extra content and negatively affect the ending.

This works in tandem with the game’s character development. The way you figure out where to go or to search for items is by interacting with your comrades. You do not speak as Artyom, but when you hover around characters they will talk to you. If you played the original games, this is how you gained karma between shoot-outs. When you listen in Exodus you not only get side objectives, but also learn about the characters and build rapport. Though not quantified in a way similar to Mass Effect 2, you get to know them like real people, and enhance your experience. For your wife Anna, not matter what, listen and interact with her whenever you can.

Gunplay is vastly improved. No one makes a better military shooter than Slavs and Exodus plays like Call of Duty made by artisan craftsmen. Every shot feels like it has so much power with each squeeze and with accompanying sound effects that sell the sensation. Modifying your weapons is far more fluid and easy. The more parts you gather from enemies, the more you can change. When you trade one gun for another in the field, you can take those parts and save them for when you get the same gun again. There are also several customization options. You could turn a revolver into a rifle or the Kalash into an RPK. There is so much you can do and the only drawback is you cannot replay the game and keep all of your attachments from your first play through.

I hope that changes in the future.

It is easy to call Exodus a “fans only” kind of experience. Newcomers will not be aware there is a karma system or how it works without research and miss out on some important character moments. It would be a learning experience, as it was for me. Where I was used to the claustrophobic tunnels and mild survival elements, I had to contend with wide-open spaces and a lack of resources to create what I needed to stay alive. Couple that with great character interactions and gunplay and you get a fantastic experience that is well worth your time, fan or not. It is certainly a more worthy purchase than Anthem or that new Far Cry expansion I cannot remember.

Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

Battle Angel Alita did for cyberpunk what Berserk did for fantasy after it was published in 1990. While it had limited success and an OVA in its home country, like everything 90s and Japanese, the manga gained a rather large following in the US. Through director Guillermo Del Toro, James Cameron learned of Alita and set about making his own live action adaptation in 2000. Cameron’s short-lived TV show Dark Angel drew inspiration from the manga, vowing to start production after the show was cancelled in 2002. 15 years later we finally got a trailer and after another delay Alita: Battle Angel was finally released.

Where I am an Effects Nazi that can spot blatant mistakes a mile away, Cameron is an Effects Fuhrer. While Robert Rodriguez sat in the director’s chair, the visual effects in Battle Angel were definitely all Cameron. The man is utterly ambitious when it comes to effects work. Since his early days with Terminator he as pushed the bounds of what is possible on screen, mixing mediums, and making advancements we take for granted. Our use of 3D filmmaking and performance capture would not have been possible until Cameron perfected it in Avatar. He is like Robert Zemeckis without his head permanently affixed up his own asshole.

To that end, it is rare for Cameron to make a movie and not try to innovate. Avatar was nine years ago and 12 years before that was Titanic. For a working director that is not normal, but I would not consider Cameron a working director. The man is a perfectionist and an inventor that will not direct unless he can try something new and different. At the same time, how he approaches new projects depends on the material in question. Avatar had ideas and concepts that would have look awful when it was first conceived and Cameron shelved it until the technology caught up.

Having read the manga it is very clear why Battle Angel took 19 years to make. The character Alita is just a head and the other 90% mechanical with anime-eyes and a small mouth. On the one had, you could use prosthetics to make the actress look like a robot from the neck down. However, latex is not solid and any movements will wrinkle the material. Maybe you could cover her up to hide it, but it would not look good on screen or accurate to the manga. Then there are other cyborg characters with diverse appearances that require the same treatment.

The final product is flawless to say the least. If you are expecting photo-realism, give it another decade or two, but what Battle Angel achieves is a level of quality to rival the MCU. The animation and textures of the cyborg characters is realistic enough that it just works on screen. Movements are fluid and very easy to follow when things get very fast during action sequences. Between action, the cyborgs and general VFX elements look great. Alita and a minor villain named Zapan standout the most, but they blend in so well. The backgrounds and some of the props also fit the overall presentation without looking too fake.

On the practical front the production quality was superb. There are more real sets than computer generator from what I could see. The setting of Iron City comes alive at the street level with anachronistic architecture, stonework, and an Arabic bazaar look touched up with cyborgs of all shapes and sizes. Battle Angel is totally loyal to the aesthetic of the manga with the exception of a lack of clutter and squalor. Iron City, or Scrapyard as it was called in the books, was built under the waste pipe of a floating city. That waste became the city’s treasure and resource for everything, which is why furniture, gadgets, and such are made of scrap. The movie retains some of the look from the manga, but not enough to really standout.

Another aspect of note is the tone. Rodriguez always applies an air of levity to his work, even when dealing with relatively serious subject matter. You can tell he meant for Battle Angel to be an adventure of Alita discovering who she was and figuring out who she wants to be. She is intensely naïve and the biggest chunk of the film is spent finding her own way and coming to understand how complicated people can be. When things get very serious, Alita has more or less matured at the same time. That levity at the beginning was a perfect set-up because we could feel what Alita was feeling after waking up in a new body and no memory. It also helps that Rosa Salazar was the perfect casting choice.

As for the action, to elaborate on my previous statement, get ready to have fun. Combat is based entirely in melee because guns are forbidden in the film’s setting. Alita was always partly a kung-fu story with graceful and elaborate choreography in manga form. This comes through very well on screen with a handful of fantastic fight scenes and the story’s emphasis on Alita’s hand-to-hand prowess. One sequence involved a sport called motorball that could be a major plot point in a sequel. That being said, sometimes the choreography is stilted, where the actors hesitate like they are expecting a cut or waiting for their costar to make their move. When the fights are fully animated it looks fine because the motions are perfectly timed. Christoph Waltz, for example, is so awkward trying to swing around a giant rocket-sledge.

Another issue is how Battle Angel conveys information. Alita is a great audience surrogate who needs everything explained to her, but it never comes naturally. There is always an instance where characters outright tell her exposition like they are tour guides. Granted, this happens more than once in the manga, but the great thing about film is you do not have to say anything to convey information. What works in one medium fails in another. This does not just happen with Alita, but other characters talk to each other like they are also amnesiac newcomers.

This issue is tied to the film’s best quality in terms of adaptation. Battle Angel takes the first three volumes of the manga, and combines them in much the same way as the OVA back in 1993. There are also additional story elements that set-up future installments like motorball and the series’ main villain. Unlike 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel mixes its inspirations in a fluid blend that does not hurt pacing, and retains the substance of the source material. That being said, those first three volumes of the manga were packed to brim is mountains of information that the film struggled to convey. For fans like myself, I could not be more pleased. For moviegoers, you will find the excess information and how it is dished out hard to digest.

That last sentence epitomizes how I would recommend Alita: Battle Angel. If you are a fan or someone that has been waiting for a great anime movie adaptation, this is the best you are ever going to get. For everyone else, if you like superhero films and want something different, this is for you. Battle Angel is a fun little experience with a nice story about growing up. The mound of exposition is awkward, but it does not take away from the overall presentation. I recommend giving Battle Angel your attention because how many movies spend 19 years in development and come out this good?

Binge Review 9: Marvel’s The Punisher: Season 2

Here we go again.

With Frank’s revenge well and truly gotten, the season that followed was in a great place for introspection. Instead of regurgitating the same “being a killer is wrong” and “why can’t you stop killing” dreck that permeates the Walking Dead from episode to episode, season two of Punisher got into the actual motivation behind Frank’s vigilantism. I would rather not spoil how the show approaches the subject, but if you have read my other Punisher related posts, it would not be hard to imagine.

Season two is a remarkable improvement in quality. The narrative is not convoluted with five different plots happening at the same time and settles for the standard three. First you have Frank’s story, then Jigsaw’s, and a new character named Amy, a teenage con artist on the run from a mysterious hitman. Each episode devotes an equal amount of time to each plot without feeling too bloated, but not as often as anyone would like.

I understand the demand to fill time in 13 one-hour episodes. In school, I was taught you need to not only write complete stories, but also space them out between commercial breaks. All entertainment is based around a blueprint that has worked since Man learned to draw on cave walls. Everyone follows this blueprint, but like all the Marvel Netflix shows, there is a consistent issue of each show having too much space to fill.

While the story is not convoluted, the show spends so much time on its three plotlines that it becomes a slog. Rather than compartmentalize the plots with Frank’s character exploration as a framing device in a comfortable nine episode run, we get thirteen where different elements of each plot tag-teams converge. What you get is a season that flows about as well as bowels packed with concrete. The show is still better than before, but it is a chore to watch.

Jon Bernthal remains the best incarnation of the character since Ray Stevenson. His signature intensity has made his take on Frank wholly his own and I could not be happier. However, Ben Barnes’ version of Jigsaw took me completely by surprise. Instead of a villain that is a little more deranged than your average goodfella, Jigsaw is extremely traumatized from what happened to him last season. He has no recollection why Frank slashed his face and cannot remember events up until the maiming. Jigsaw lashes out at his therapist, has constant mood swings, and endures spats of pain. He is in pieces, but as he puts it all together, he develops into a great foil for Frank’s own journey.

The action scenes received a well-deserved upgrade with more brutal, close-quarters combat. Almost every episode Frank is stabbing or smashing someone and bathing in their blood. He also never walks away unscathed, either sliced or plugged with a hole or two. It is really a credit to the character as a hero that does not care about personal injury or that he is vulnerable. Frank wants to get loud and nasty.

The downside is relegated to the gunfights. As you probably know, I am a gun owner and an Effects Nazi, and I can tell when real blanks and squibs are being used. It is hard to fake unless you have a great VFX team. On the subject of bad gun effects, the Walking Dead does not hide the fact they use fake guns because, somehow, the production could not get real guns and blanks in RURAL FUCKING GEORGIA! There are airsoft weapons that simulate blowback and/or recoil and they could not have bothered buying just a few for less than grand of budget.

Jesus Christ.

Taking into account Punisher was shot in a New York, it is understandable that the best practical weapon effects could not be utilized and the show made due in both seasons. The issue with the gunfights is they are poorly choreographed. Early on no one acts like they know what they are doing. They just stand around holding rifles poorly before getting shot. Then there are scenes where muzzle flashes and accompanying sound effects are out of synch or poorly timed. Actors fall over before they are supposed to be shot or they are shot and do not fall down at the right time. Chalk it up to poor editing, but if maybe the guns functioned in a way the actors could see and hear them go off, you would not have much of a problem to begin with.

I also have a personal problem with how Frank is portrayed in the gunfights. 80% of the time he uses the same pistol over and over in a C.A.R. stance, where he is holding the gun to his face. This method works in the John Wick movies, but it looks stupid and everyone in the show does it. How about hold the gun like you are not trying to give yourself permanent hearing damage? When Frank is given a rifle it is a breath of fresh-air and adds a little diversity. In the comics he uses a variety of weapons depending on the situation, but all he has on the show is a pistol.

Lastly, and this is something I intentionally neglected to mention in my review of the first season, the Punisher costume sucks. In fact, it has sucked since its introduction in Daredevil. Nobody makes body armor like that. Not because it does not look practical, but because it looks stupid. There are exposed adjustable straps at the front, some shell loops that are not big enough for any caliber of ammunition, and there is no webbing for attachments like modern body armor.

This is kind of unfair, but if you look at this shot from the Edmondson/Gerads run of Punisher, Frank is wearing gear that works for his job.

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He has a plate carrier with ammo pouches painted with his signature skull and a hitcoat to protect his arms. The man is dressed practically and it looks cool because Frank makes it look cool. He is a military man that does not need fancy high-tech crap that looks like it was made by a cross-eyed cosplayer. He needs something that will keep working in hazardous situations and there is nothing more practical and foolproof than genuine military gear. I apologize to the costume designers, but if my own Punisher vest looks better than the one you made for a big budget show, it is time to go back to the drawing board.

I thought about going in depth into the pre-release controversy, where people promoting season 2 were saying one of the characters is Alt-Right, but I decided otherwise. I will say, however, the character in question played by Josh Stewart is a reformed Neo-Nazi and born again Christian. That is not Alt-Right. The Alt-Right does not give a shit about Christianity, most of them are Pagans or Atheists, and they care even less for Neo-Nazis, a catchall for gang-bangers that hate each other more than non-whites. This controversy was just manufactured outrage to drum up viewers from a demographic that do not watch these shows in the first place.

Despite the pacing issues and bloated runtime, Punisher season two is a great watch. The lapse in better action takes away from the appeal, but seeing Frank and Jigsaw’s dueling progression into who they really are was better than the best gunfights last season. If you can make it through the slog, the show is worth your time. Oh and be sure to skip over the parts with Madani because they still suck.

Binge Review 8: Bodyguard

In a world of Mary Sues entertainment media is going through a draught of flawed protagonists. What I mean is characters that are damaged, not ones that can take damage like John Wick or Marvel heroes. There is nothing more relatable than a character that is a little broken, not a perfect Adonis with everything going right in life that knows all the right answers. Real people feel fear and anxiety and there are not a whole lot of protagonists that contemporary writer’s are brave enough to bend and break. David Budd from Netflix’s Bodyguard is who we have been looking for.

About the same time I am writing this, actor Richard Madden just received a Golden Globe for his performance as Budd. To say it is totally deserved would be an understatement. Those six episodes had some of the finest examples of acting in recent memory. Madden went from a very run-of-the-mill part on Game of Thrones to a deeply complex and harrowing role. The range on display throughout Bodyguard is a credit not only to him, but the writer that put Budd on paper.

What you get is a character with a long history of trauma from his service in the military that destroyed his marriage. Instead of his experience making him an expert like we see all too often, it actively hinders his ability to function. That is not to say he fails constantly, but his anxiety affects how he responds to various situations. Each episode he struggles to maintain the appearance of composure, even as he is panicking and the odds are stacked against him.

Wrapped around the complexity of Budd is one of the best political/action thrillers out there. For any otaku reading this, imagine Jin-Roh if it were set in modern day Britain, and involved Muslim terrorists. It is not just a show about a guy protecting a VIP from would-be conspirators, but a layered narrative of intrigue. One way or another, everyone involved has something to do with something, and maybe not in the ways you think. The whole affair is surprisingly easy to follow as the show goes on.

There is also a consistent feeling of satisfaction from episode to episode. It is hard to explain, but you feel so fulfilled by what happens because you learn so much about the mystery, and Budd’s character. There is never a dull moment with scenes of tension replacing potential action sequences. Bodyguard could have been a procedural action show, but miraculous makes scenes of dialog and intrigue easily consumable and intense. For me personally, it was also satisfying to see a Scotsman surpasses Englishmen in competence despite his issues. It is like Braveheart, but with a smaller body count.

If you watched the Golden Globes and wondered who and why Richard Madden won Best Actor in a Drama Series, you owe it to yourself to check out Bodyguard. There are many movies and shows that do the same thing, but thanks to one fantastic performance and a very well written narrative, this show is stands above the rest. If you have a subscription to Netflix, you have no excuse to not look it up.