Friday, January 29, 2016

"The whole thing still had to be fought out to the end." Dreaming Eagles #1 review

Some years ago I watched a film called The Tuskegee Airmen on TV; it was a pretty good movie on the subject of the African-American pilots of World War II. A few years ago, George Lucas released a film called Red Tails on the same subject, only to be critically panned. I recently decided to give Red Tails a chance on Netflix because some of the dialogue around the film called it "old-fashioned" or a "throwback to 1940s air war films." As I liked The Tuskegee Airmen a bit and have a lot of fondness for classic war films, I thought Red Tails might be to my liking. It was not.

If I could boil down Red Tails' problem to one word it would be: "believability." Take the 1940s aerial film Air Force by Howard Hawks. It's pure Hollywood corn (although with some good melodrama) but Hawks was fascinated by the planes and spent an immense amount of time on the details of how things worked. Red Tails didn't look back to classic Hollywood, but rather carried problems similar to its contemporary war films - unconvincing CGI, heroes have unlimited ammunition and (consequently) no sense of stakes or danger. Ultimately, I couldn't finish Red Tails; it's about as much like Air Force as Bay's Transformers are like Pinocchio.

Which brings me to Dreaming Eagles, a new series from Aftershock Comics, a company I haven't previously sampled from before. Selling their series on Comixology with a mere $1.99 for the first issue and a striking cover by Francesco Francavilla was enough to catch my eye. Once I saw the author of the series was Garth Ennis, the bargain was accepted. I don't connect to many of Ennis' comics but I do connect to his war narratives.

Dreaming Eagles has its feet in two time frames: the 1960s as a young African-American man is participating in the civil rights movement and the 1940s as his father serves in the air force. None of this seems like a natural topic for Ennis; he's not American, African or African-American, after all (which makes his use of the n-word a question of "n-word privileges," I suppose - comics fandom was not particularly impressed with the recent series Strange Fruit which tackled African-American issues through the viewpoint of a lily-white creative team). But so far as the first issue goes, Ennis seems to have a story worth reading.

The art by Simon Coleby tells the story in a straight forward fashion, capturing many mundane details. There's energy to be found in the book's sole action scene, a flashback where the pilot recalls watching a German he'd shot bail out of his plane.

Dreaming Eagles has potential and I'm curious to see what Ennis ultimately has to say. Even if he has nothing to say about race beyond the most facile observations I'm at least hoping for some solid thoughts on the hell of war, which he has delivered on in the past.

Friday, January 8, 2016

That Went Well: 2015

When I stop to think about the media I enjoy - prose, comics, film, video game - I can't quite escape a sense of ennui. Have I read every word worth reading? Seen every film worth watching? So much of what I find - old or new - is too familiar and I'm far too detached from the experience. I want to be entertained, but perhaps I've experienced too much?

But of course, then something comes along which I truly, unabashedly, enjoy. Sometimes it's not only good entertainment but even touches me personally. For that reason, I'm here to share my favourite discoveries of 2015.


I had once heard the book Hell on Ice by Edward Ellsberg dramatized by Orson Welles on the Mercury Theatre radio program. That was enough to convince me to read the book when a copy came past me for disposal. I wouldn't have otherwise glanced twice at it; it's the story of an expedition to the North Pole which goes horribly awry; it's a very long, slow burn, but when the explorers' ship is finally lost the tension of wondering how any of them could have survived sustains a heightened interest to the grim finale.

The graphic novel Unflattening led me to the work which (partially) inspired it, Edwin Abbott's Flatland, an engaging blend of drama, humour, philosophy and mathematics.

I read two more books by Paul Brickhill, best-known for The Great Escape. In Reach for the Sky, he told the story of aviator Douglas Bader, a man who is kept rather emotionally distant in the narrative, but his determination to resume flying planes after losing his legs is remarkable enough on its own. I also read Escape to Danger, a collection of stories about pilots who escaped from the Germans during World War II, many of them very unusual in terms of the near-deaths the pilots would survive and the oft-surprising ease with which they would escape.

After initially quite enjoying Fyodor Dostoevsky through Crime and Punishment, I'd begun to grow disenchanted with everything else of his I read, but his romance story White Nights helped bring me back - it's a brief read, but with palpable emotions.

My interest in Africa continues to lead me through various tomes on the subject, including two by Thomas Pakenham: The Scramble for Africa and The Mountains of Rasselas. The former explained the divvying up of the continent to me in a way I finally grasped (that it was told so that what each country was doing in relation to each other at each given time was most helpful) and the latter told of Pakenham's journey to Ethiopia in the 1950s with many beautiful photos; Ethiopia remains the African nation I most hope to visit one day.

As I've frequently remarked on this blog, I continue to enjoy the works of author Sax Rohmer, despite the frequent racism found therein. I read the biography Master of Villainy by Cay Van Ash but found the author far too willing to praise Rohmer to the heavens and wanted something less opinionated about him. The book The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia by Christopher Frayling was much more to my liking; it's meticulously researched to help explain the climate in England when the Fu Manchu stories first appeared and more interested in setting the facts straight than protecting Rohmer's reputation (which was Van Ash's problem).

I'm continuing to work my way through the original novels which inspired some of my favourite movies; in 2015 that included Deliverance by James Dickey, Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb, The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, Hell House by Richard Matheson, The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins. I also delved into some good books about film and film people: Cagney by James Cagney and This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles.


At last, Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo resumed regular publication (following his work on the 47 Ronin and Usagi Yojimbo: Senso mini-series) and, predictably, the quality is as high as before. Sakai continues to craft interesting tales about feudal Japan and the slow-yet-ever-changing cast of characters continue to progress. Usagi Yojimbo is the most dependable book on the market.

The Wild's End wrapped up, only to be followed by another mini-series, The Enemy Within. I need to post a review of this series as it isn't receiving a lot of notice, but Dan Abnett & I.N.J. Culbard are delivering a notably weird mash-up of two great institutions of British fiction: The Wind in the Willows and The War of the Worlds. The present series even includes a character who is vaguely analogous to H. G. Wells!

The Autumnlands by Kurt Busiek & Benjamin Dewey is taking a measured pace (much about the human protagonist remains unexplained) but I trust in Busiek to make the journey worthwhile; in the meantime, Dewey is delivering dynamic art and distinctive animal-people. I'm still following Busiek's Astro City (in trades) as well, and between the two they remind me of why I first became so excited by his writing back in '97.

Q2: The Return of Quantum & Woody reunited Priest & Mark Bright in a coda to their series. I gather Priest wasn't satisfied by the experience at all, but I enjoyed revisiting the characters and seeing Priest almost aggressively reject nostalgia in favour of continuing to move his cast forward.

The Complete Little Nemo was easily the best trade collection I picked up in 2015; I had eyed it for quite some time, but only moved on it when publisher Taschen ran a sale on their site. It is precisely what it claims to be - all of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo between two covers. What a delight!

Some other graphic novels I delved into were Deogratias by Jean-Philippe Stassen, Notes for a War Story by Gipi, Burma Chronicles by Guy DeLisle, Rose by Jeff Smith, On the Ropes and Kings in Disguise by James Vance, Unflattening by Nick Sousanis, Laika by Nick Abadzis and War Brothers by Sharon E. McKay, while I continue to follow Winterworld by Chuck Dixon, G.I. Joe by Larry Hama and Ragnarok by Walter Simonson.


Mad Max: Fury Road My brief thoughts on this picture were ultimately the most-viewed blog entry of 2015, which certainly speaks to how gigantic this film's reception was. I've rewatched it a few times since then and continue to be impressed by the ease at which the story is told and the subtle character development which unfolds. This is cinema that brings to mind Hitchcock, Ford, Murnau... hands-down my favourite theatre-going experience of 2015.

I caught up on The Edge of Tomorrow on DVD, having been intrigued by it's advertising. The marketing really did not sell this film - it's quite funny (particularly in terms of black comedy) and uses star Tom Cruise in a role which is quite different from his usual fare. In fact, I came to realize this is now my favourite Tom Cruise movie; previously, I would have asserted I didn't have a favourite. I like Cruise's development from craven coward to hero; I like Emily Blunt's far more capable secondary character who has to train him; and I laughed at a lot of Cruise's darkly funny death scenes.

Life Itself is the documentary on Roger Ebert filmed at the end of his life and intentionally designed to show what his life was like at the time; it is at first startling to see Ebert missing his lower jaw and I appreciate that he didn't want to hide it from the camera. The biography of Ebert's life is also engaging, particularly to hear how wounded Ebert was when Siskel didn't inform him of his impending death.

Diagram for Delinquents is a terrific documentary from Sequart about the oft-despised Fredric Wertham, the psychologist who opposed comic books. Amazingly, this film offers a perspective on Wertham than that which comic book culture has absorbed; it actually brought me around to his side on some of his thinking. For that reason, this is easily the best comic book documentary I've ever seen - I actually learned something important!

There are other movies I quite enjoyed: The Citadel (1938), which touched on notions of the struggle to attain one's ideal life as in other King Vidor pictures; Johnny Got His Gun (1971), which I watched after having read the book; Ender's Game (2013) which I have not read in prose but I found it to be a good picture; 42 (2013) which interested me despite my lack of interest in baseball and led me to The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014), Knuckleball (2012), Moneyball (2011) and even Ken Burns' Baseball mini-series; Harold & Maude (1971), a picture I'd heard a lot about but didn't understand the appeal 'til I saw it; Romero (1989), with Raul Julia dramatizing the life of a murdered priest; A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) an adaptation of an Erich Maria Remarque novel which I haven't read (yet) but had an interesting look at Germany near the end of WW2; The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I had no idea had been adapted from a series of novels by the same woman who authored the stories adapted into Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train; Beasts of No Nation (2015) which examined African child soldiers and held up to everything I'd previously read on the subject; Nightcrawler (2014) I had heard praised in a few places and it turned out to be an extremely involving film with turns I couldn't quite predict and that's always a pleasure; finally, Bridge of Spies (2015) which is not what I'd have expected from a Spielberg/Coen Bros. mash-up, but told an interesting Cold War story in a very uncomplicated way.


In 2015, I upgraded to the Xbox One (or Xbone). I didn't plan to - I didn't want to shell out the money for what was (and is) still an expensive console when my Xbox 360 remained useful. Unfortunately, my 360 began to develop trouble reading discs and as it doubled as my DVD player, it crippled two modes of entertainment. Suddenly, the One seemed to make sense - it would mean upgrading to a blu-ray and, as my 360 friends had all abandoned that console for the One, it would mean having people to play games with again.

My mistake (and regret) was buying Destiny for the One. I already had it on 360 (Destiny was part of how I rationalized staying with the 360), but I wanted to play it with my friends as there were parts of the game you couldn't play without friends in your party. Unfortunately, by the time I got on the One my friends had given up on Destiny. I continued to play, but over time the game has actually become worse; the last update (The Taken King), which I avoided, actually barred me from accessing features I'd been able to use previously. That, coupled with the many behind-the-scenes troubles being reported on convinced me to stay away; if my friends went back to Destiny I'd consider giving it another go, but as it is I feel I've wasted enough money. It was good for what it was - that is, it kept me occupied until the release of...

Halo 5: Guardians. As I didn't plan on owning the One, I thought I'd played my last Halo game, but here I am. This game has a campaign story which is just okay; it turns a beloved character into a villain, which is unfortunate, yet never hits the emotions of the previous series entry (and I didn't think Halo 4's campaign matched the Bungie game entries). The campaign has some interesting fights, but the story's not as involving as it should be. Meanwhile, the matchmaking modes are pretty good; my favourite Halo mode, Firefight, remains MIA (was I the only one who liked it?) but the new Warzone mode finally perfects what some of the previous games were trying to accomplish; on the basis of Warzone mode alone, I'm very pleased with this game - I can happily play Warzone for hours. I still have hope there are other game types coming in future updates as this game is significantly smaller than Halo 4 was.

And those are my 2015 highlights!

Friday, January 1, 2016

"Are we really doing this?" Thoughts about Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I wasn't certain I would bother seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the theatres. The trailers made very little impression on me - simply seeing the Millennium Falcon or Han Solo again doesn't cause me to "geek out." I was perfectly fine having no more Star Wars films.

Still, it did cause me to reflect a little upon the franchise in the months leading up to the film, thus leading to my six-part look at Roy Thomas & Howard Chaykin's Star Wars comics (part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4; part 5; part 6). I also told the story of how I watched the Star Wars prequels, which was an anecdote I'd long been meaning to share. Finally, I listed my top 10 favourite moments in Star Wars #51-52.

When my friends Al & Nathan asked if I would like to watch The Force Awakens with them, I said yes. As part of my ongoing effort to not be a jerk, I've resolved that I won't refuse watching films with my friends (unless the film they want to see is truly dire). Further, I had a suspicion that Force Awakens would be at least as good as J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek and that was entirely watchable. My friends tasked me with buying them tickets and after we sorted out which night and time we would go, it transpired that we wound up going on cheap movie night and the showing was in the "reclined seating" room. I had never seen a film with reclined seating before and being able to reserve our seats (no need to arrive early) and recline while watching was so pleasant (and at $8 per seat, affordable) that I was already in a pretty good humour as the film came on.

The lights came up and Nathan asked, "What did you think?" One word came to mind:


"Safe." Then, reflecting on that word added, "...Which is a strange way to describe a film that killed Han Solo."

Star Trek fans may argue about when the franchise lost its soul, but I think we mostly agree that has happened. The two Abrams films were fairly generic action adventure/science fiction films (hence why I'm known to refer to them as "Space Dudes") which succeeded in making money despite being extremely superficial in how it approached the material. Now Abrams has come to Star wars and the difference is striking; although Abrams makes filming choices which Lucas wouldn't (the tight close-ups, off-center angles, lens flare), and yet at the same time submits to the audience's expectations from a Star Wars film. The music, sound effects, vehicle designs, costumes, props and screen wipes which one would expect in Star Wars are there and the plot is (as many have noted) very much like that of the original Star Wars.

Nathan told me he wished the film had been less safe - "taken risks" - but as the beginning of a new franchise which hopes to spawn a limitless number of new Star Wars films, the way to start is definitely to assure the audience that things are much the same. You know, it's like poetry: they rhyme.

On the one hand, I don't really want to see more Star Wars - I liked the ending of Return of the Jedi, which pretty much has to be overturned in order to generate another conflict. It also seems disingenous to continue Star Wars without Lucas as those films were so tied up in his interests, particularly his love for old serials. When Lucas did a screen wipe in Star Wars, it was an expression of his love for Akira Kurosawa. When Abrams uses a screen wipe in Star Wars, it's an expression of his fidelity to Star Wars. Star Wars was a thing which nostalgia spawned; now it has become the nostalgic thing which references itself. We have gazed too long into that abyss.

On the other hand, The Force Awakens is... good. Like, I enjoyed it more than either of Abrams' Star Trek films. How'd that happen? To again sum it up with one word:


As I said, I wasn't sucked into this film by the power of nostalgia. Thus, I was extremely pleased to find something in this film which I truly enjoyed - the character of Finn, who has a pretty good case for being the story's protagonist. He's a sort of audience surrogate - familiar with the past history of the franchise but uncertain of what the new plot is all about. I really enjoy stories about characters who are self-involved and gradually become heroic (it was basically Han's arc in the first film). So Finn, the reluctant Stormtrooper, escapes the First Order and has to think on his feet, trying to get out of danger. When he volunteers information to help assault the First Order's Starkiller weapon - his motivation being to rescue Rey - he finally becomes entirely selfless (and, noticeably, more confident in himself).

I know there are some concerns about Finn not being a Jedi, as the advertising suggested. I guess it would have been a big deal for African-American audiences? I mean, Rey being a Jedi has to be a big deal for women, but why would Finn being a Jedi be so huge for African-Americans? We already had Samuel "Internet Meme" L. Jackson as a Jedi - albeit, one who held as much intrigue as a rice wafer. But isn't it enough that Finn's a great character? When Kylo Ren demands Finn turn over his lightsaber and Finn answers, "Come and get it!" I was more engrossed in the picture than at any other moment - 'cause I knew Finn didn't have a prayer of winning, but I really wanted to see him succeed. The real triumph was that he was going to try and beat the villain on his own terms.

I also admire that Finn helps muddy the waters around Stormtroopers, making them less acceptable as cannon fodder. Now that we know they're not all evil and others might possibly want to switch sides. As a guy who's often bothered by the callous treatment of life in sci-fi epics, to me the redemption of Finn points the value of all lives.

How much do I like Finn? Having previously been unengaged with these films, I am now pre-sold on the continuation because I want to know what will happen to Finn!

Then there's...


Man, can you believe we used to make jokes about Anakin Skywalker being the "emo Jedi?"

There's something formidable and ridiculous about Kylo Ren. Formidable, because he demonstrates force abilities which Darth Vader apparently didn't have (halting blaster fire mid-air, immobilizing people) and has an extremely loose temper which causes him to smash up perfectly good electronics (which makes sense to me - if the Sith are supposed to be the ones consumed with anger, fear, hatred, etc, then they shouldn't all be calm and collected). He's ridiculous in the way that he tries to emulate his grandfather. I felt it was a mistake to unmask him before his face-to-face encounter with Han Solo because his big dorky face seriously defangs him. Still, as soon as you see him unmasked you finally understand who he is: he's a nerd. He cosplays as Darth Vader, prays to his collectibles and isn't quite as powerful or dangerous as he likes to pretend.

He's no Darth Vader, but he works well enough as a villain (certainly better by far than any prequel foes). But strangely, the most contentious character is:


Although I didn't look up anything on the film before watching it, I did occasionally see article headlines which gave away certain details. Some time before seeing the film I saw Rey called "Mary Sue." Having seen the film I have to say - I kinda agree? I mean, she's not a Mary Sue in the sense that I don't think she's the author's surrogate. However, she does seem unreasonably perfect; she avoids the temptation to surrender BB-8 for food; she doesn't need Finn's help in a fight; she can fly the Millennium Falcon, fix everything aboard it, seems to know it better than Han; she escapes the First Order before she can be rescued and she turns out to be so good at using the Force that she doesn't even need training to figure stuff out. She has maybe two failings: she lets out some monsters by mistake while trying to help Han (but the monsters wind up helping anyway) and she loses in her first enounter with Kylo Ren. For much of the film she's great at everything and is just waiting for the necessary motivation to do something.

Some online have countered that Luke Skywalker was pretty good at everything he attempted in the first film. To which I counter: not really. He whined an awful lot (fans have yet to forgive him for a certain line involving "power converters"), even during his one training scene and he tried to backseat drive with Han when he had no idea what was going on. Rey doesn't whine, gets by without training and is pretty much a peer to Han.

Then again, my favourite super hero is Captain America, a guy who I'm steadfast against being laden with personal failings, so what do I know? (but of course, Cap doesn't always win fights, he just tries - which again, is an attribute I noticed in Finn) I hope that the next film will give Rey some kind of personal troubles which will counteract her seemed "perfection" in this debut film.

It does seem odd to me that Kylo Ren accuses Rey of looking up to Han as a father. At that time she'd known Han for what, six hours? (probably Kylo reflecting his own Daddy Issues)

There's still a lot of mystery surrounding Rey so I'm not ready to praise or condemn her yet. The jury is out.


Nathan felt the movie had "just enough" C-3PO for him; I could have taken a little more, as his reintroduction was one of the funnier moments in the picture. And yet, Abrams might not be comfortable with the slapstick antics C-3PO normally generates. BB-8 was a welcome source of cuteness and comedy, however.

R2-D2's reawakening at the end of the film makes no sense. Did he wake up then because he read the script? I bet that's it. Maybe it was the will of the Force.

In addition to Finn's redemption, I like that the Stormtroopers have picked up some new tricks. That baton which could withstand lightsaber strikes is a pretty great weapon for future films since it gets boring when Jedi can't be stopped by their enemies (re: battle droids).

This must easily be the first Star Wars film to pass the Bechdel Test (even if you include Abrams' two Star Trek films). This film just be the first time two women in Star Wars spoke to each other about anything (in fact, the female quotient seems higher than usual).

My relatives wanted to talk to me mainly about how much Han Solo had to do in the film (they thought he'd show up for only a cameo). Perhaps a greater surprise is how much Chewbacca had to do, considering his lack of English dialogue. Heck, it might be the most demanding part Peter Mayhew has ever played.

Anyway: Star Wars! You already have an opinion.