Punisher Comics Review 6

Season two of Daredevil herald the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. The character has his own series on Netflix and it remains to be seen if Bernthal can keep up the momentum. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series to covering my favorite Punisher stories.

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The Slavers (2005)
Garth Ennis
Leandro Fernandez

If you were to compare Frank Castle to a movie slasher, Michael Myers is a perfect match. They are both shapeless entities with a singular drive, operating on instinct to get what they want. Where they differ is Frank has a defined moral compass, but remains an emotionless automaton. Nicky Cavella came close to getting a tangible emotional reaction out of Castle, but pissing on the corpses of his family was not enough. What came next would ultimately do the job in one of the darkest Punisher stories ever written.

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Lining up his crosshairs on a Balkan crime boss Frank prepares to do what he does best when someone tries to steal his kill. A lone woman nearly kills the boss before fleeing the scene. The boss sends his boys to get her, leaving him alone for Castle to perforate from his rooftop perch. Tracking the woman Frank contemplates abandoning her before the boys catch her and drop their pants. Castle makes quick work of them, saving the woman from humiliation.

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On his way out the woman begs for help, but Frank wants to stay out of it until she mentions a baby. The next day the woman wakes up in Castle’s subterranean home where she tells her story. Her name is Viorica and she lived in a village in Moldova before she was kidnapped and forced into prostitution. After enduring months of abuse and selling her body to multiple men on a daily basis, she was sent to America as a part of a larger operation run by a Romanian father/son team and a woman named Vera.

After the move Viorica gave birth to a baby named Anna, but she was only allowed to see her if she worked hard. Desperate to escape with her child, Viorica ran away and met a social worker named Jen Cooke, who was building a case against the Slavers. One day, when Jen leaves the baby in what she assumed was a safe place she gets an email from Vera meant for Viorica.

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A dead baby is more than enough motivation for Frank to rip and tear. All he needs is a who, what, and where. While telling her story, Viorica laid out the details of the operation. The Slavers have middlemen to attract clients before sending them to discreet locations where the girls are held. One of the middlemen was the boss Castle deep-sixed beforehand, leading him to the man’s club for answers. Wiping out the remaining gangsters, Frank interrogates the boss’s replacement, and gets an address.

Posing as a driver for a pair of clients leaving the house, Frank pulls over the van and makes them an offer. He wants the clients to tell him everything and then to lie to the house guards about losing their wallets once they drove back. The clients oblige until a cop shows up, siren blaring. Intent on sparing the officer Castle puts the fear of God into him before fleeing, the cop’s arrival no doubt spooking the Slavers.

While trying to get information on a new house location, Frank butchers random pimps until he realizes they do not know anything. He later tracks down Jen Cooke to get something more and she gives it up without protest.

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Tiberiu and Cristu Bulat ran a militia of foreign fighters during the Bosnian War. As they massacred whole villages, the militia took the young women, and killed the rest. Castle assumes once stability returned to the region, the sex trade would be difficult to maintain without NATO intervening. So, the Bulats took their operation underground and moved west. Frank realizes trying to get more information from veterans of the Yugoslav Wars would take extreme measures and plans accordingly.

Following up on a potential location from one of Jen’s rescues, Castle heads into rural New York in search of a house on a lake. Watching from a distance he spies a squad of heavily armed men enter the house, Cristu among them. Knowing they were ready for him, Frank knew to come at dinnertime, and spike their stew with a knockout drug. Soon the whole house goes to sleep and he gives each of the men a twelve-gauge face-lift. The only man to survive was Cristu because Frank needed answers. What followed is one of the most disturbing pages in comics.

 

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Having gotten what he needed Castle makes his way back to the house when he notices Tiberiu and a dozen men had arrived. Apparently, the father came to kill the son over a business dispute. Frank takes the smart route and hides under the cabin’s dock, hoping to given them the slip. Without a second thought he decides to go loud and gives the closest man a 45-caliber castration. Frank opens fire topside until he realizes he is not fighting street trash. The Slavers are real soldiers with more than a decade of experience. As Tiberiu gives orders the soldiers overwhelm Castle, forcing him to dive into the lake.

After returning to the city he meets Jen at a diner with two off-duty cops, Russ and Miller. They came to her after learning Jen was under surveillance by a Detective Westin, a known shitbag. Russ and Miller eventually reveal Westin is on the take from the Slavers. The cops agree to help, but on the condition that the Detective lives. Frank agrees and moves to pull apart the remains of the operation.

Making his way to a business office Frank confronts Vera, the brains of the Slavers. Plunking her two guards he throws Vera face-first into the window of a secluded room. The glass does not break, giving Frank enough time to reveal how much he knows after dissecting Cristu. He throws her again and again, slowly turning her face into a bloody pulp, while looting filing cabinets for information on Westin. With his final throw the window pops out its frame and Vera plummets to the street.

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Vera’s files give Frank the address of the last house and a possible location for Tiberiu. After setting up an explosive under the manhole by the curb of the house he waits across the street for the old man’s arrival. Triggering the bomb after making a positive ID Frank charges inside. He chases Tiberiu to the top floor where he uses a girl as a shield, knife to her throat. The old man eggs him on and Castle knows he is at a disadvantage with a scattergun. Out of options he settles for a gamble and calls Tiberiu a coward in Romanian. The old man tosses the girl aside and charges Frank before Tiberiu takes a knee to the face.

Later, with Tiberiu chained to a chair, Castle brings in Detective Westin to make a deal, threatening him with Vera’s file. Frank offers to surrender the file if Westin delivers a package to the Bulat’s contacts back home and acquires Visa’s for the rescued girls. Westin asks what package before Frank turns on a video camera and douses Tiberiu in gasoline. Sparking a flame from a flip-lighter Castle looks into the camera and says “Don’t come back here,” before tossing the lighter.

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The Slavers is Taken if it were a horror movie and actually good. It shines a light on the darkest criminal enterprise in the world and makes sure you see every detail. While acts of sexual assault are not shown on the page, the description and implication thanks to Ennis’s unparalleled storytelling makes you feel all sorts of uncomfortable. Unlike the usual story arcs, trafficking and slavery is very real, and having the Punisher in the middle of it was surreal to say the least. Instead of cartoonish gangsters and run-of-the-mill thugs, Castle is faced with real monsters that make their money on sexual violence.

If you cannot stomach sexual assault and/or violence against women, stay far away from this book. For Punisher fans, get ready for Frank’s most visceral and disturbing story yet.

Movie Review: Ready Player One

I remain of the opinion that nostalgia is creative poison. It certainly has a place in the creative process, but the constant celebration and veneration of the past leads to artistic stagnation. I get it; the 80s were awesome unless you had AIDS or a mental illness. Ronny Reagan was in office, all the best movies were coming out, and pop music was tolerable. However, the more you dwell on the past, the less you grow and evolve. Like Deadpool and Robot Chicken the joke gets old really, really fast. There is no better tool for inspiration than nostalgia, but if you use it as a crutch for creativity, you are not creating a damn thing.

When I first heard about the book Ready Player One (RPO), it sounded like a perfect nightmare, and that was before I found out Will Wheaton was apparently a character. Seriously, the guy is more hated than Voyager and Discovery combined, and that is not taking into account his opinion of gun owners. That alone kept me light-years away from the story, more so as I learned about the narrative over time. I resigned myself to ignore the film adaptation until I heard Steven Spielberg was directing. After that, there was nothing that could keep me from buying a ticket.

The story of RPO is Willy Wonka meets Tron. There is this massively multiplayer online world called the Oasis that everyone plays and they are competing to find a set of three keys to gain control of the world and the fortune of its creator Halliday, played by Mark Rylance. The clues to complete the challenges and acquire the keys are in Halliday’s past and Wade, played by Tye Sheridan, has been searching for the solutions for five years. At the same time, the IOI Corporation is sending its employees into the Oasis with the goal of capitalizing on the game’s economic and societal value.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover RPO was not a laborious cringe-fest like the book. The celebration of nostalgia is there in many forms, but in ways that work for the story. Character avatars, props, and background elements play a role in the narrative. Everyone is obsessed with the past because they do not like the present and the story is more or less about how Halliday kept himself grounded in the past. Because he was incapable of interacting with others he created a world built on the foundation of nostalgia to interact with like-minded individuals. All the references are in service to this idea and do not weigh down narrative as pointless window dressing.

The only problem is Halliday’s story is a subplot. The challenges bring to light his character, but not enough is explored. The most we get is he has a one giant regret and acknowledges his personal shortcomings. There is also backstory of Halliday forcing his only friend out of the company and we do not get any more information beyond characters talking about it. That is where RPO caught my interest and it went nowhere. Exploring Halliday’s character would have given the film more meaning beyond little hints of what it is trying to say.

The rest of the movie is standard Spielberg stuff. You have the hero down on his luck, the comical super villain, and all the schmaltz that has come to characterize his work since Third Kind. You cannot deny his films are fun and RPO is a relative delight to watch. I say relative because it does not feel very fun all throughout.

The opening race challenge is a perfect example. It should have been exciting, but the lack of score drained the life from the scene. Intense visuals can only get you so far. It is not just a lack of score, but also a lack of soul. All this cool stuff is happening on screen and I did not feel anything. Maybe it is just me and my hatred for nostalgia, but there was a moment at the climax that should have made me happy beyond comprehension and I felt nothing. All this cool stuff on screen and it amounts to things happening.

It should be noted that the special effects and animation are well done. Motion capture can be difficult to translate given how humans do not move at 24 frames a second. My one gripe is the visual style makes everything and everyone look the same. It can be difficult to tell characters apart because they look like the same humanoid with different physical features. The art styles that define certain characters in their respective titles were ignored outright and you could not tell them apart. Tracer is not supposed to look like Chun-Li, neither is Jim Raynor and Master Chief. It would have been visually interesting if they looked like they do elsewhere.

So, Ready Player One is difficult to recommend. Though I struggled to find the emotional value of the film, I did not hate the experience. It was cool seeing characters I recognized crammed into one movie and it was not a nostalgia cringe-fest like the latter seasons of Robot Chicken or Pixels (God help us). It all comes down to the fact that Spielberg makes some of the most watchable films out there, even if they are boring or horrifying. If you have a free weekend and Annihilation is not playing anymore, get yourself a ticket.

Muh book:

http://a.co/0KBwIxA

Editorial 30: Difficult Question

I have come to realize that what I say in writing has negative connotations.  Regardless of intent or context, there is always the possibility someone will be offended.  As a consequence, what I say creates a persona that does not reflect who I am.  When you are trying to gain a following, it is important to understand how people see you.  And because no one ever gives me feedback, I am forced to ask outright:

Based on what have you read (hopefully), who do you think I am, regardless if you know me or not, and what do you think I believe when it comes to religion, politics, etc?

Please be as honest as you can.  I will take anything I can get.

Movie Review: Free Fire

This week I was faced with a bit of a conundrum. The Promise and Free Fire were coming out at the same time and I was interested in seeing both. Obviously, if you want to maintain a budget, seeing two movies in a single week is a terrible idea. I was forced to choose between the two based on limited information. Free Fire is Ben Wheatley’s follow up to High Rise about a shootout in a warehouse. Promise is about the Armenian Genocide, a subject that gets very little attention in film.

Both stand on their own merits, but there can be only one. The subject matter of Promise is important when it comes to understanding history. Genocide is bad and the more we acknowledge and study atrocities of the past the less likely we will commit them in the future. The movie is banking on its subject, while the premise falls to the wayside. Not unlike Titanic and Pearl Harbor, Promise is a romance set against a tragedy. On the trailer alone I knew what was going to happen.

Look, the Armenian Genocide was terrible, but I do not need a film about it to know it was terrible. The fact it involved the Armenians and Turks is inconsequential because no matter which way you look at it, mass murder and/or ethnic cleansing is awful by default and must be prevented. The played-out premise did not help the movie’s chances either. The only people who should see Promise are those interested in learning about a historical event and Cenk Uygur, founder of The Young Turks. And since I am already familiar with the Armenian Genocide, that title has more offensive subtext than Cenk’s fat buffalo ass. For those reasons, I chose to see Free Fire instead.

When a group of IRA terrorists attempt to buy rifles from a Rhodesian gunrunner, the two sides start shooting at each other over a misunderstanding. Trapped in a warehouse, they try to kill each other through the night until there is only one left standing.

Free Fire was fantastic. The acting was exceptional, writing tight and funny, and the action set pieces inventive. It is not the Second Coming, but in a world of remakes and reboots, I will take anything that is original and pretty good over total garbage. Ben Wheatley returns to his small-scale roots with the bulk of the story taking place in one location. The cinematography is more personal with hand-held shots that stay close to the characters crawling through dirt and debris. It was also a breath of fresh air seeing real blanks used in real gun and squibs that are not digital.

And that is all I am going to say.

I do not want to tell you anything except to buy a ticket as soon as possible. I always try to promote original works and it is not often that they are actually good. Though not entirely without flaw, Free Fire was great and it is not based on anything. The more we see films that are wholly original, the more they will become relevant in the future. If you want a good laugh and contribute to the cause of originality, look no further.

Movie Review: Silence

Despite the bad reviews, I had originally planned to see Underworld: Blood Wars for review this week. I was going to share the pain with a friend until our plans fell through. Then I thought about doing an Editorial on “Fuck You, It’s January” before I discovered Silence was coming out on Thursday. Between seeing what amounts to a live-action version of Hellsing Ultimate (seriously, watch that instead of Underworld), writing about an entire month dedicated to studios taking out their trash, or a new Martin Scorsese film, the choice was obvious. Does Silence add to his already impressive filmography or is Scorsese too old to direct?

After finding out their mentor had committed apostasy while on mission, Jesuits Rodrigues and Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, travel to Japan for answers. When they arrive, they and the local Catholic population are forced underground to escape persecution by the government.

Movies about Edo Era Japan are few and far between. The period is full of good material with warring families, samurai as a social class, and the rise of the yakuza in the wake of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s oppression. Remember 47 Ronin? That fantasy movie was based off a real event where a bunch of pissed-off warriors kill a guy and then themselves because it was not ada-uchi, a form a legally sanctioned vengeance. Then there is Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, 13 Assassins, Sword of the Stranger, and Samurai Champloo, each one taking place in the Edo Era.

Another aspect of the period that does not get enough coverage is the banning of Christianity. I understand why the Tokugawa were so brutal, being fervent isolationists and having dealt with a recent religious uprising. On top of that, it is impossible to deny how imposing beliefs onto other cultures is fundamentally wrong. However, it is important to acknowledge the darker side of history. Every nation is guilty of atrocities in one form or another. Japan is no different; they do not call it the Rape of Nanking because it was pleasant. While I do not care if a culture is in denial about their past (Germany), I think the more we know about ourselves the better.

While the oppression of the Christians is on full display, it is not the focus or a vehicle to shame the Japanese. You can look at it that way if you want to complain about something, but I feel the point of the violence in Silence is to examine the concept of belief. Without giving anything away, the story is the Crucifixion. Rodrigues is Jesus, Japanese officials the Romans, and there is a Judas equivalent that I will not spoil. The film uses these parallels to ask if the willingness to die for a faith is equal to wanting to live for it.

In the movie and history, suspected Japanese Christians were made to step on an image of Christ called a fumie. The characters undergo the process, but are executed anyway because Rodrigues refuses to trample the image. He has to prove his faith is so strong he will give it up to save innocents. The other side of the situation is the Japanese are trying to prove that foreign idols do not have meaning in their land. They reluctantly torture their own to force missionaries to understand that spreading a false faith is utterly pointless because they do not care. What is truth in Portugal is deception in Japan.

I hope that makes sense because I saw Silence yesterday and it requires a second viewing to fully understand. You can see it as a simple martyr movie like The Passion or Hacksaw Ridge, trying to convert the audience through sympathy. That being said, the film goes out of its way to avoid gratuity. The violence is presented as just naked force used against others. You are also not told which side to follow and given both perspectives. The Portuguese want to spread Christianity because they think they are right and the Japanese do not want any part of it because it is incompatible with their culture.

Getting to the point of the movie is a chore of epic proportions. Unlike most of Scorsese’s works, you will feel every second of the 180-minute runtime. Casino and Wolf of Wall Street were three hours and you can watch them without complaint. This is because Silence does not feel like a Scorsese film. The shot composition, editing, and score feel like they are from a different person entirely. There is a distinct personal quality where he had a lot of respect for the concept and the material being a Catholic himself. It is very similar to when Spielberg helmed Schindler’s List, a major departure from his previous work at the time. As a personal project, I admire Silence all the more, but it is a tough sit, even for a Scorsese fan like myself.

If you are also a fan, odds are you have already seen it. If you are not, seeing a Scorsese film, in theaters, while he is still making movies at the age of 74, is a requirement for anyone who can. Be ready for quite a challenge to endure.

Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon

Well, this took longer than I wanted. I meant to put out a review for Deepwater Horizon on Friday, but I got quite hung up on some stuff, including a piece I hope to share with you all this month if time permits. So, is Horizon worth the delay or should you save your money for The Girl on the Train next week?

After arriving at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig Mike, played by Mark Wahlberg, finds the facilities and systems in desperate need of maintenance. Before anything could be done, the onsite BP executives want to commence drilling against protest from the employees that know the risks.

Horizon is the same movie as Sully, but with added fluff. Based on the trailer you can imagine what happens like a friend of mine did. You would think there would be a subplot with Mike’s wife, something with his daughter, and a number of other clichés you can find in similar films. Turns out, there are little to no clichés and anything involving the wife and daughter is insignificant or used in service to conveying important information to the audience.

Such clichés are often used to inject a measure of heart and sympathy into the characters before the disaster. Instead, the aforementioned fluff does that job. Elements of witty dialog and snappy interactions are spread throughout to give the characters substance and personality to latch onto. This is not exclusive to the main three you follow with supporting and minor players given ticks or traits that set them apart. Granted, they are small moments, but they put the characters in the back of your mind.

The rest of Horizon is classic Eastwood honesty. The facts of the event are presented clearly and without anything in between. You know what you are getting and it is also well made.

Coming off of Lone Survivor, Peter Berg brings a lite documentary style that keeps the focus on the characters, coupled with cinematic shots and fixed angles. During the disaster, the style changes to an action focus where everything is on fire and people are trying to save themselves. And because you were given ample time to get to know the characters with the fluff, these sequences are harrowing.

My only issue is the build up to the disaster. As a historical event, you know it was going to happen, but like Lex Luthor being evil in Batman v. Superman, I wish it were not so obvious. There are quite a few parts that show the sea floor and the interior of the pipe as it is on the verge of bursting with blatantly ominous music playing in the background. Also, they cast John Malkovich in the role of one BP executive. The man is an artist and plays his part well, but really? That is like casting a British person as a villain.

The other performances were stellar. The movie was made for Wahlberg to bring his charisma and timing to the part, despite the fact he did not bother putting on an accurate accent. Kurt Russell, in a role tailored to his natural badass persona, was perfect as the veteran roughneck Jimmy Harrell struggling to control the situation. The standout among the main characters was Gina Rodriguez as the resilient Andrea Fleytas. The second half of the film is where she shines as a strong woman reduced to a frightened mess unable to function.

Between Sully and Deepwater Horizon, it is difficult to choose the better. One is straight forward about the story and the other uses otherwise useless fluff to make you care about the people, while being up front about what went down. With Clint Eastwood’s involvement I would pick the former, but with the extra details and work put into the latter, I choose Deepwater Horizon over Sully. Whichever one you decide to see, you cannot go wrong.