The Books Are Better: The Walking Dead (1)

I was at military school when the first season of The Walking Dead (TWD) premiered. No one had access to cable, but on Thanksgiving break I used my sister’s Hulu account to watch the first episode. Later I bought the season on DVD. Before then I was a fan of the comics the show is based on. It was 2010 and in the comics, Rick and company were about to enter Alexandria, which did not happen until Season 5. I knew what to expect, but Season 1 was a fantastic adaptation of Volume 1. A year later came the trailer for Season 2 and I hoped for another exceptional bit of television… until I sat down and watched it.

I touched on the subject of show versus comics on a friend’s blog some time ago. I got into the broader differences, but here I want to get into the minutia of each season and the volume it follows. I would like to try and analyze the whole series, maybe two or three per new post. It will give me something comic-related outside of Punisher to write about and give you new stuff to read.

Here we go

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Themes

If you look at the front covers of TWD book 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, and 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 1/Volume 1

This is the only case where the show is better than the comics. Unlike most new shows TV-TWD started out very well with film-quality production values. Thanks to director Frank Darabont and his crew, there is an atmosphere of widespread catastrophe that a lot of zombie movies fail to nail down. The world is quiet and empty where the dead have replaced the living. The sense of isolation even following live characters is so prevalent. Episode 1 alone has this feeling of hopelessness bearing down on you as Rick wanders the desolation in a daze.

On top of that, the first season is actually scary. Like a good monster movie there is an escalation to the threat. We do get a zombie in the cold open, but we do not understand the extent of their presence until later. After Rick wakes up, there is a great scene where he comes to a pair of chained doors and hands start reaching out from the opening, the sound of moaning growing louder behind them. This does take away from a great moment in the comics, but is very well utilized in the show.

The rest of the season’s frightening moments center on claustrophobia and how even open spaces contain veiled threats. Taking place in and around Atlanta, Rick and company contend with tight streets and alleys packed with zombies. Add on the scarcity of resources and vulnerability of most of the characters, even small encounters are dangerous. The zombies are a very real threat and you feel it from start to finish.

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The atmosphere and horror is where TV-TWD surpasses the comics. Unless you are Junji Ito, it can be difficult to scare readers with static images or convey a feeling a constant dread. What author Robert Kirkman does is show horrific and disgusting things and puts the characters in dangerous situations. Granted, the art is beautifully disgusting, but it is hard to feel real horror and tension in drawn pictures.

The writing of the comics is also very technical aside from dramatic moments. Take the dialog from the original Dawn of the Dead about the characters trying to secure the mall and that is 60% of the comics. After all, it is a survival horror. This is where the show decides to balance the drama and the technical equally with neither overshadowing the other. This is the first and last time TV-TWD gets it right.

Where the comics were superior is in the characters Shane and Lori. In the show Shane is the archetypical bad-boy that was a perfect fit for actor Jon Bernthal. Lori, played by Sarah Wayne Callies, is a headstrong matriarch looking out for not only her son Carl, but also everyone in camp. Both fall flat compared to the comics in ways indicative of the series core themes.

Comics-Shane is basically Rick with darker hair and a larger build. There is nothing much in the way of personality that differentiates the two until after the zombie apocalypse. As mentioned before these are real people forced into a survival situation where everyone is on constant alert. Under these conditions, people will show you who they really are, and Shane shows himself to be jealous and envious of Rick. He’s a husband and a father who has all the right answers when it comes to leadership, something Shane knows he does not have, and he wants it all.

In the show, Shane does not seem concerned about leading and differs to Rick more often than not. The jealously is still there, but the actual shift from normal Shane to envious psychopath is fast in the comics, like it would be for real people. He wants what Rick has and Shane had it until Rick miraculously showed up at camp. Shane’s change in personality was so immediate that when he tried to kill Rick in Issue 6, a very young Carl blew his neck out without hesitation. In the show, Shane does not get what is coming until Season 2 after the remains of his character was butchered.

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With Lori’s character in the comics, she is still a devoted mother and wife, but what is missing is the vulnerability. Call me sexist all you like, but when you’ve spent a chuck of your life growing up in a stable world and become a mother mere years before a zombie apocalypse, you are going to need help. Comics-Lori is focused on taking care of Carl and nothing else. She cares so much about him that because Carl is just 9 years old, she does not want him anywhere near guns, despite being the most useful tool at the moment. And when zombies eventually attack the camp, Carl has to save her.

Now, I am not saying it is a bad thing that TV-Lori is not dependent on men, but it makes more sense that she needs help while taking care of her son. And this may sound offensive to some people, but men usually do not expect anything of women because men tend to do the heavy lifting on their own. We do our part and women do theirs. That is just logic and TWD comics are very logical. In the show, it doesn’t feel right at all. TV-Lori strikes me as just another character that “don’t need no man” and does her own thing, including ignoring her son.

More on that when I cover Season 2.

The last issue with TV-TWD is the ending. On the season finale, Shane is still alive before Rick and company go to the CDC to find answers. They do not get their answers beyond things they already knew before the building self-destructs and the group moves on to find shelter. In the comics the CDC is never mentioned and once Carl kills Shane, the group moves on.

Honestly, I do not find anything wrong with the group going to the CDC. In fact, it makes a lot of sense if you are trying to figure out how to stop the zombies by scientific means. The group does not know if they are dealing with a virus or something biblical. They have no idea and the best place to find answers would be one that specializes in civilization-killing diseases. It is not a bad idea, but the way it happens in TV-TWD is rather corny given the tone of the show. Other than that, the first season is still great.

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And that was the best start to a new show probably ever. Performances were great, especially Andrew Lincoln, and the effects are to die for. All of the zombies are wonderfully gross with make-up on par with Tom Savini’s work on Day of the Dead. They look like actual dead people undergoing necrosis like the comics. As days go by on the page, zombies appear more and more rotten. The earliest issues have zombies with color still in their eyes before it goes cloudy with time. Season 1 of The Walking Dead was truly the best the show was ever going to get…

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.

Netflix Review 1: Marvel’s the Punisher

Oh, boy. Here we go.

Six months after finishing off the gangsters responsible for the death of his family Frank, played by Jon Bernthal, retires from vigilantism and goes into hiding. While haunted by nightmares of his dead wife, a former NSA analyst named Micro, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, contacts him incognito. They team up when Frank learns there is more to his family’s murder than he once thought.

I am going to say something out character as a fan of Punisher. I know the guy like the back of my hand and when you get down to the nitty-gritty, why his family was killed does not matter. The what is more important because it was the trigger that turned Frank into the Punisher. The only why that has any meaning is the question of why he keeps killing after getting revenge.

All this stuff in the show about the CIA’s wet-work operation and tying up loose ends was boring and played out. We get it; Frank did some stuff back in the day that the Company wants to keep secret. They try to kill him, it does not work, and he kills them back. His very simple and complete revenge story was finished in Daredevil season two and the first five minutes of Punisher. We did not need all this convoluted Jason Bourne crap with Homeland Security and a private security firm caught in the middle of a CIA agent’s quest to redeem his masculinity.

The overarching story is the only major issue I have with the show. It was run-of-the-mill, had way too many moving parts, and I totally understand why. Frank is not a difficult character to get, but trying to make a watchable season of 13 one-hour episodes about a Nietzschean Void is impossible. Imagine a show about Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men; that is what a proper Punisher series would look like and it would be horrifying.

An action-based deconstruction of the anti-hero archetype would be an ideal show. Thing is, no one would watch it. It would be depressing with Frank mass-murdering criminals without feeling or remorse with accompanying narration. It is all he wants to do because he is driven by pure animalistic instinct. Delve deep enough into his character and you find there is so much that cannot be put to screen for mainstream audiences. The show Mindhunter is all about the psychology of murderers, but that is not Marvel-friendly material.

Taking out the depth of the character, a straight action show would be indistinguishable from the rest. There has to be something else to break up the monotony. Punisher’s convoluted story had to be that way with a lot more meat on its bones. So, we got the family connection, the CIA operation, and Homeland Security to pad out the show. It would have been fine with just Frank, Micro, and a bad guy in nine episodes.

The actual execution of the story was fine. Each plotline per episode got an equal amount of coverage without overshadowing one another. It worked as a cohesive whole; it is just too bad half of it was not very interesting.

Frank and Micro’s arc was the best part. They have great chemistry as partners in vigilantism with similar experiences. Where Frank lost his family, Micro had to leave his family after a little whistleblowing almost got him killed. Things get interesting when Frank plays surrogate father/husband for Micro’s family. Their personal conflict comes out of their dueling personalities. Where Micro is sympathetic and easy to understand, Frank is a killer with a moral compass. In that way they worked really well together and I cannot wait to see them again for season two.

Another good element of the show is the action. From what I could see, real blanks and squibs were used for the gunfights. You can tell a lot of work was put into making each fight different with a heavy dose of visceral violence. People are stabbed, punched, and pumped full of lead like an old fashion action movie. While not very creative these scenes are flawlessly executed. There is also no shaky cam and you can tell what is happening at all times. I would love to talk about my favorite scene, but I think you should see for yourself.

Those two elements make the show. The rest you can skip.

First is the Homeland Security plot. We follow Agent Madani, played by Amber Rose Revah, and she is terrible. I get characters need motivation for narrative, but Madani was so unlikeable and one-note I could careless. Her whole deal was meant to parallel Frank’s quest for vengeance. She wants justice for an Afghani police officer that was killed under mysterious circumstances and that is all. There is nothing to her. Madani is a boring strong female archetype that no one put any thought into when they had to meet a quota.

She is not even big or tall enough to come off as an agent of anything. She is five-foot nothing with the body of model. In the scenes where she is holding a gun, the weapons are bigger than her. My short friend in the Army was looking to replace her old personal side arm because it was the size of her head. She had to buy a tiny Sig Sauer to have any hope of hitting something. Madani looks like a Barbie doll got mixed in with the GI-Joe toys by accident.

And do not get me started on her partner. The guy is David Arquette annoying.

Then there is the CIA story taken from Punisher MAX. Here we follow the character Rawlins, played by Paul Shulze, who wants to kill Frank before he exposes the Company’s operations. There is a character in MAX of the same name and a million times more interesting. Show-Rawlins is a standard Company man who uses national security to justify his actions. MAX-Rawlins is an asshole that relishes being an asshole before Frank pries out his eyeball with a knife. Being a tough guy piece of shit was a façade because his persona and business depended on it.

Show-Rawlins has that masculine insecurity evident in his need to torture Frank for taking his eye, but the rest of him is boring. He is this box-standard dude that believes in protecting his country, even by illegal means. Something with depth, like the implication he enjoys torture and murder, is nonexistent. Maybe it was the actor’s lack of charisma, but there could have been a scene or two where he is smiling and laughing at the possibility of getting his hands dirty. MAX-Rawlins had a lot more to him beyond the traits of a cartoony Gareth Ennis villain character.

There is plenty of good to be had, but the whole of Punisher would have fallen apart if not for Bernthal’s best performance to date. The guy has the makings of a young Kurt Russel or Clint Eastwood, full of charisma with intensity to boot. Not only does he sell the character’s pain and anger, but he is also scary to watch. I expect nothing less from the guy that accidently clocked Jonah Hill in the mouth on Wolf of Wall Street because he was so into the scene. I have no idea how Bernthal could top this in the future.

When it comes to expectations everyone has a vision they want to see come to fruition. For me and other fans, we wanted an incarnation of Punisher to rival Ray Stevenson in War Zone. The second season of Daredevil gave us a taste of what was to come in the following year. Marvel’s the Punisher is the most we can ask for. There will never be a perfect incarnation, but Jon Bernthal is damn close. I highly recommend it if you are a fan of the character and of action, especially the graphic kind. But get ready to skip over a lot of boring shit to get to the good stuff.

Movie Review: Wind River

Taylor Sheridan is one of the best new talents in Hollywood. When it comes to writing he does it better than a lot of his contemporaries. His scripts are tight as a drum and to the point with great command of timing, visuals, and dialog that is so far unmatched. I wish I saw Sicario and Hell or High Water when I was in writing school. There is so much you can learn from his work and Wind River is his first crack at directing. Does he have what it takes to realize his vision or should it have been left in the hands of a professional?

While tracking down predators that killed livestock on the Wind River Indian Reservation Cory, played by Jeremy Renner, stumbles upon the corpse of a young woman. When FBI Agent Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen, comes to investigate, she must team up with Cory to help find the killer in the unforgiving wilderness.

With three movies to his name, you can easily spot a handful of signatures in Sheridan’s work. They are Neo-Westerns with modern themes that have an honest, yet nihilistic outlook on life. His films do not shy away from the reality of situations, including violence and the nature of humanity. In Sicario, the Drug War was regarded as a conflict that needed to be fought like an actual war, without concern for conventional law. Hell or High Water dealt with a pair of brothers fighting against the system that was consuming their rustic, old fashion reality in west Texas.

Wind River is about the relationship between man and nature, not unlike The Revenant, but more obvious and to the point. Other than Banner, Cory and many of the characters are used to living out in the middle of nowhere, in the naked heart of the wild. They understand their reality as plain as anyone who grew up in such rough terrain. It influences how they see law and order, especially on the reservation. You could say the whole movie is about what Amerindians deal with in their territory if you wanted to make it political (and you shouldn’t).

Before Banner comes into the story, we get an idea of life through Cory’s perspective. It is enough to go on until we are reminded that the world we know still exists outside the reservation. It becomes frontier justice versus bureaucracy, but more in the manner in which an investigation is conducted while dealing with the elements. It compounds the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land once Banner gets shot at and has to travel long distances to get anywhere.

Granted, this is nothing new to Westerns, but what matters is the execution. Sheridan took the idea of a city slicker going out west and modernized it. The idea of reservations fending for themselves in the face of crime and corporate exploitation in a harsh environment was the next logical step. He makes it easy to understand while using common tropes of the genre. Wind River has a lot in common with the show Longmire, which does the same thing, but is darker and more violent.

In terms of direction, the film is very standard and ordinary. There are some nice landscape shots and well constructed chaotic action scenes, yet it lacked the essential ingredient to set it apart from the norm. The movie did not have Villenuve’s aesthetic or Mackenzie’s cinematography like his last two. Sheridan’s strength is definitely his writing and he needs a little more practice directing to come into his own. That being said, I appreciate his use of practical effects. The environments seemed to be shot on location, there were real blanks in the guns, and real blood in the squibs. I have a good feeling he will continue this trend in the future.

Wind River would not stand out if Taylor Sheridan did not pen the script. The directing leaves much to be desired, but if you want a simple and honestly written Neo-Western look no further. I was pretty late in buying a ticket, so you better get to the theater as soon as possible. If you missed it, I cannot recommend Sicario and Hell or High Water highly enough.

Movie Review: Baby Driver

New Edgar Wright movie. How can anyone say no? Was Baby Driver another stellar entry in his filmography or has the limey genius reached his pique?

While playing getaway driver for a crew of professional thieves Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, dreams of living a normal life with a waitress named Debora, played by Lily James. Shortly after his last job his boss Doc, played by Kevin Spacey, pulls Baby back in.

As I said in my Ant-Man review, I like all of Wright’s films. They are tightly written with fantastic comedic timing, great characters, and they just happen to feature pretty decent action. The style of his movies, however, is somewhat understated. The camera work, use of music, and editing make them standout out from their respective genres. The snap-zooms and insert shots on mundane actions give Wright’s a signature edge that is all his own.

Driver is the culmination of these stylistic choices. Everything you have seen in his previous work is brought to the fore and multiplied. Close-ups, long shots, and elaborate timing make the movie what it is. It has a lot in common with a musical where the action is in synch with the beat. More often than not gunshots sound at the same time as a string of notes. Certain edits and shots are also determined by the tune in question.

For all its style, Driver does not have much in the way of substance. That is not to say it is entirely superficial. Generic is the operative word where the characters, their desires, and motivations are a vehicle for all the good stuff. Baby’s tinnitus is there to justify the use of music. Debora’s goal of a road trip into the unknown was meant to give Baby a reason to want to escape his life of crime. Basic though it may be, the sparse substance provides short breaks between what matters most.

As for the performances, everyone gave it their all despite of the lackluster material. Elgort and James worked very well together, especially come the last third of the film. Jamie Foxx was at his most intimidating as the insane Bats while Jon Hamm was the cool-headed Buddy with a subtle mean streak. Most of the cast was fantastic, but Spacey grabbed the movie by its balls. If he had more scenes, he would have stolen the whole show.

Been a while since I have written a short review. Those I save for the good ones and Baby Driver is pretty great. If you can set aside the lack of real substance, you better not miss this one. The style alone is reason enough to buy a ticket

Punisher Comics Review 5

Season two of Daredevil heralded the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. Soon, the character will get 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 books.

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Up is Down and Black is White (2005)
Garth Ennis
Leandro Fernandez

Trying to emotionally shake Frank Castle is like beating on a brick wall with a whiffle bat. The man is best described as a void, a walking abyss whose singular purpose is to bring death to those that have done wrong. If he did not have his own villains, the Marvel Pantheon of Heroes would have no one left to fight. The closest anyone has ever gotten to penetrate Frank’s black exterior was Nicky Cavella in the worst way possible.

After recovering from his wounds suffered the last time he tried to kill Castle, Nicky returns home to a council of gangsters trying to salvage what is left of their business. Soldiers promoted to Capo have no clue what they are doing and call upon Cavella for advice. His solution: kill the Punisher. Having lost everything to the infamous vigilante the council is more than reluctant to devote their diminished resources to such a fruitless endeavor.

Nevertheless, they vote on the proposal while Nicky awaits their answer. Sending his partner Teresa, the sister of Pittsy to dispose of any dissenting voices, Cavella gets the gangsters to play along. In the same night Nicky and Teresa travel to the graveyard where Frank’s family is buried, exhume their skeletons, and urinate on the bones. The act is caught on camera and the footage sent to the media. At a diner the desecration is shown on television where Castle eats dinner.

Rather than bury the bodies, the NYPD confiscates the corpses as evidence in an ongoing investigation. Frank reacts to this development by travelling around town with a light machine gun and mopping up three criminal establishments in a single night. While inflicting near maximum casualties, he leaves one alive to tell the first responders to bury his family. If they do not, then he will keep going.

Watching his work play out, Cavella is visited by an old acquaintance named Rawlins, the same Rawlins that organized the failed terror attack on Moscow back in Mother Russia. The generals that planned the operation sent him to take out Castle for fear he knows too much. Seeing Nicky’s scheme as an opportunity, Rawlins convinces him to join forces via blackmail and appealing to Cavella’s repressed homosexuality.

With the mounting body count, the NYPD gives in and agrees to bury Frank’s family. Castle decides to go after Nicky, but a part of him knows it is a trap. However, he does not care about doing the deed with the same skill that made him such a formidable vigilante. A part of him, a rage greater than he had ever felt, wants to kill Cavella regardless of the danger.

Perched on a rooftop overlooking Nicky sitting outside a café, Rawlins stares through the scope of a rifle as Frank pulls up with shotgun. Before the killing blow could be struck, Cavella is hit instead. Behind the trigger stands Kathryn O’Brien, one of the CIA operatives that worked for Bethell from In the Beginning. She lays covering fire, buying her enough time to capture Rawlins and escape with Castle.

Meeting at the home of William Roth, another of Bethell’s operatives that tried to capture Frank, O’Brien interrogates Rawlins. He was one of her husbands who left her to a dreadful fate on a mission in Kabul. Rawlins brings up the incident and O’Brien leaves him alone with Castle. Meanwhile, Nicky and Teresa come upon Roth’s residence after licking their wounds. Cavella wants to wait for back up, but Teresa has a bloodlust that is exacerbated when Nicky turns down her advances.

After removing one of Rawlins’ eyes, Frank takes a breather with O’Brien. It is not long before the two are in bed together. She confesses that despite her years of wet work, she sees him as a good man. Watching Castle approach Cavella out in the open inspired her to act, fearing he was going to get himself killed. They lay with each other one last time before Frank takes a knife in the chest from Teresa. A fight ensues that leaves both him and O’Brien bloody. Castle gains the upper hand and gives her space to empty a whole pistol clip into Teresa’s face.

Before going their separate ways, Frank and O’Brien get Rawlins to confess to the Moscow terror attack among other operations. With the footage Castle will use it as evidence to go after the generals while O’Brien will use it to clear her name. On the way out, however, they stumble upon Cavella all by his lonesome trying to make a move.

After taking a little boy hostage, Frank calls him a coward who gets other people to do the killing and dying. Nicky gives in and lets the boy go, realizing his psychopath persona is a facade. O’Brien rushes back inside to warn Roth of the oncoming police and finds Rawlins gone. The story ends with Castle walking Cavella into the woods and shooting him in the stomach, saying he will die slowly from blood poisoning.

Needless to say there is a lot going on in Up is Down and Black is White. There was a lot I had leave out of the summary because we would have been here all day. With the characters working in parallel, we get Nicky’s backstory where he killed his own family and became the victim of sex abuse by his aunt. O’Brien is also more involved where she is accused of murder while in prison and escapes to New York City. Then there is Rawlins, who is connected to O’Brien and Nicky.

On top of that there is Castle’s desire for suicide that comes out of nowhere. While on his rampage, he has a reoccurring dream of all the scum dead at his feet as the innocents watch from the sidelines. Among the corpses is Frank’s family. He looks to the innocents and says, “If my world ends, so does yours,” before turning his gun on them. And after everyone is dead, his wife Maria tells him “We are still dead” before the dream ends.

It is an interesting concept that furthers Castle’s complexity. Nicky was right to target his family’s grave because that is where it all started. That was the last time the world appeared normal and once they were gone, Frank became the void. But Cavella’s simple provocation made Castle realize that there was no point. His family is still dead and watching Nicky piss on their corpses showed a faint glimmer of reality that he had been denying. No matter how many people he killed, nothing was going to change that they were gone forever.

O’Brien is very similar in this case.  In the latter years of her life she became embroiled in a world not unlike Frank’s.  In the nihilistic underbelly of wet work she became used to the darkness and remains content.  Even after what happened to her in Kabul, she did not quit and brushed it off as another part of the job.  Her story, though not as prominent, runs in tandem with Castle’s whereas she sees him as a genuinely good person despite what they have in common.  The title Up is Down and Black is White is how they see the world and explains why they are the way they are.

Leonardo Fernandez returns with his pencils following Kitchen Irish. It goes to show that a having a competent colorist can make all the difference in the world because this is a decisive improvement. Every panel is rich in detail from the gruesome to the beautiful. The guns are accurate, the characters’ expressions full of life, and the scenes perfectly realized.

Though one of my favorite MAX books, Up is Down and Black is White is difficult to recommend if you have not read the last three books. It builds upon what was established beforehand while adding more details that have yet to come. If you are as big a fan as I, you will have no problem understanding what is going on. Otherwise, get caught up before you jump in.

Movie Review: The Accountant

Sorry for the absence last week on here and on the Drunken Odyssey if you follow my videogame reviews. With Hurricane Matthew I was more or less paralyzed with anxiety over my home getting destroyed and looted by my asshole neighbors. While the storm passed and nothing was broken, I am stricken once again by our current political climate. In mere weeks I will go to the polls and pick which scumbag is best for our country. Either choice I make will have the same outcome, but I cannot shake the feeling that one is decisively better for our country than the other. I will be forced to set aside by personal bias and make my choice for the sake of America and the world. The result, good or ill, will ripple across history, and I am scared to death at what that will mean.

Jesus, that was a depressing introduction. Anyway, was The Accountant good or should you see Girl on the Train instead (review incoming; I promise)?

As a vigilante accountant Christian, played by Ben Affleck, uses his high-functioning autism to un-cook the books of criminal organizations before turning them over to the authorities. When one job threatens his cover, Christian’s skills are put to the test.

To describe Accountant as “Rain Man with guns” is apt. Christian is on a spectrum of autism that allows him to understand numbers on par with the greatest mathematicians. He is so proficient at math that he is legendary, but there is an interesting twist. While growing up, his active duty father taught him to control his disorder through intense combat training. As an adult, Christian has very clear-cut morals that he applies to his work as a vigilante using his skills as an accountant. The whole of Accountant is focused on how Christian sees the world, what he is like as a person, and what he does. The actual story is just a hook to hang the character upon and show him off. It is acceptable for the most part until you consider the method in which the story is told.

For everything exceptional about it, the movie has the absolute worst pacing. There is so much information it wants to convey and makes sure it tells you everything without finesse or theatric brevity. Spread throughout is a number of flashbacks to give you information on Christian. At the same time, you follow three other subplots that are all over the place in how they play out. First you are dealing with Christian’s latest endeavor, then his past, followed by an investigation by the FBI, and then a visit by Jon Bernthal as a hitman. There are so many moving parts that it becomes difficult to follow.

However, the story is only half the film with all of the attention is focused on Christian. If the character is not great, then there is nothing left to keep you invested. Thanks to Affleck’s performance, that half of Accountant is the reason to buy a ticket. He was totally convincing as this socially awkward savant that happens to be an expert marksman. His ticks, mannerisms, and speech exude the qualities of a man driven by obsessive precision that is his being. His interactions with Anna Kendrick’s Dana further define him as he struggles to open up and escape the confines of his own psyche. It also helps that they have the best on screen chemistry I have seen in a long time.

As a lite action movie it is passable. The very few set pieces were decent except for the very annoying shaky cam that I wish would stay out of my action films. At least it did not give me a headache like the dread-fest Jason Bourne. The pistol battles were not as awesome as John Wick and the grappling melee fights that everyone stole from Iron Man 2 were not impressive.

That being said, The Accountant is more about Christian being a high functioning autistic vigilante accountant. The action and story are just theatric devices to show you who he is. On that merit it works and Affleck absolutely sells it. If that piques your interest, buy a ticket. If the issues are a deal breaker, I highly recommend Girl on the Train as a substitute.