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  • Beans (2020, Tracey Deer)

    Beans (2020, Tracey Deer)

    Beans is an almost outstanding, always pretty good coming-of-age story with a historical event weaving its way through the narrative. The film tracks Indigenous Canadian tweenager Kiawentiio over summer 1990. The film starts with her interviewing to go into a prestigious (and very white) high school, setting up a contrast between her actual name (Tekehentahkhwa) and her nickname (Beans). It’s essential, but it quickly gets back-burnered for the historical events.

    So, in addition to Kiawentiio dealing with wanting to go to this high school, which also pleases mom Rainbow Dickerson but causes tension with dad Joel Montgrand, she’s also got to deal with the exceptional trauma of a summer-long stand-off between her tribe and the white Quebecois government. A neighboring town wants to tear out an Indigenous graveyard to extend their golf course. Kiawentiio watches the situation rapidly escalate in person; the film has a gentle start, then an absolutely harrowing sequence where Kiawentiio and adorable little sister Violah Beauvais have to navigate armed police tear gassing and raiding an Indigenous protest camp.

    The film uses mostly news footage from the time, which reveals many white Canadians to be racist pieces of shit (though it’s incredible to see so many guns around and no Brown people murdered). Though the whites also attack the Indigenous people with tacit police consent, it’s not so different from the United States.

    Director Deer leans heavily on the period news footage, letting the clips edify the viewer on the situation. Unfortunately, the footage doesn’t necessarily correspond to Kiawentiio’s experiences over the summer. And the news footage isn’t a great way of telling the history. The third act is full of deus ex machinas (deuses ex machina?), including the stand-off resolving in the news clips without sufficient transition information. Deer takes the story from A to B to C to E. D seems very important.

    Or, if it’s not important for Kiawentiio, why was it so important for the film? Beans only runs ninety-two minutes, and ten of it has to be the news clips. While Kiawentiio narrating through essay or journal or something would’ve leaned on tropes, they’re tropes for a good reason.

    But until the third act, Beans is smooth sailing. The standoff aggravates Kiawentiio’s cultural crisis even before she discovers how racist white people get. Following dad Montgrand telling her to toughen up, Kiawentiio befriends local delinquent and bully Paulina Alexis so Alexis can give her toughness lessons. After some false starts, physical assault, and bribery, Alexis agrees and mentors Kiawentiio in breaking bad.

    Some of the deus ex machina involves Alexis, who gets a last-minute character reveal to explain her behavior. The friendship’s a reasonably strong character relationship throughout (Kiawentiio and little sister Beauvais is better but gets less attention), so the ending resolutions come off incredibly rushed. Even amid “Beans”’s rushes, Alexis gets the briefest conclusion. It’s too bad.

    Deer’s a fine director. Sometimes, cinematographer Marie Davignon can’t keep up, which is too bad. The film always looks okay, but sometimes that okay comes with asterisks. Good music from Mario Sévigny and editing by Sophie Farkas Bolla. If only for a more balanced third act, “Beans” would be a big success.

    As is, it’s an almost great historical character study. Kiawentiio’s excellent; there aren’t any slouches, with mom Dickerson quite good despite an eventually underwritten part.

    Just wish that third act worked.


  • Tomb of Dracula (1972) #20

    Tomb of Dracula (1972) #20

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    It’s another fantastic issue. Not quite as good as last time because there was so much more human drama (and fewer hapless white dudes), but fantastic. Writer Marv Wolfman starts the issue with a hunted Dracula and ends with a captured Dracula, but by entirely different foes. The story’s called The Coming of Doctor Sun and Wolfman’s been steadily building this subplot for at least eight issues, though then he reveals some elements go back even further, with Wolfman tying in elements from before Tom Palmer was inking Gene Colan on the steady. It’s a culmination.

    And it’s also a ret-con. At one point, Frank Drake makes some glib remark to “good God, she’s too good for him, it could be a sitcom” Rachel Van Helsing, and so she has to school him on her origin facts. One would think she might’ve mentioned them in the second issue or some time between then and now, but Frank’s a dipstick. It also gives the comic a chance to plug the Bram Stoker’s Dracula adaptation running in Dracula Lives. Rachel is Abraham Van Helsing’s granddaughter, after all.

    Wolfman again reveals details of the post-novel era for Dracula, coming back and hunting down all the Van Helsings in revenge. Then there’s Quincy Harker saving little Rachel with his missile darts in his wheelchair. It’s a combination effective and silly sequence, punctuated with Rachel talking about how Quincy then “raised her into womanhood.”

    Frank and Rachel are in a helicopter shooting at Dracula with wooden bullets as he runs through a blizzard in the Transylvanian Alps. He can’t turn into mist because the winds would blow him apart; he can’t turn into a bat because the winds would toss him around. Has he ever turned into a wolf in Tomb? Maybe not.

    The chase is excellent. Beautiful art from Colan and Palmer.

    The kidnappers are Doctor Sun’s thugs. They’re tracking him through the storm and set a trap for him. No explanation on how they set the trap, but Doctor Sun’s presumably a genius. We get a big reveal on him, changing him from an evil Chinese Bond villain trope into something weird and wild. Wolfman’s fairly straight-edge as far as his plotting, never wanting to give Colan anything too silly to realistically render, but Doctor Sun appears to be Wolfman coloring outside the lines.

    It’s cool. And silly. And fantastic.

    There’s particularly great Dracula writing, especially after one of the surprises.

    The book’s on a phenomenal roll right now.


  • Detective Comics (1937) #475

    Detective Comics (1937) #475

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    So, reading this issue—the first of the Joker Laughing Fish two-parter—it’s clear why the comic’s got such an excellent reputation. Even with the utterly banal, fascist narration and Batman talking like a tool, it’s a great comic.

    Four things happen in the comic, all excellent for one reason or another.

    First, Batman goes to confront Silver St. Cloud because he thinks she thinks she knows he’s Bruce Wayne. He’s got to steel himself up for the conversation; she’s in her little sister’s bathrobe, getting ready for her date with Bruce; it doesn’t go well for either of them. We get thought balloons from both, first Batman, then Silver. Thanks to Marshall Rogers’s design-heavy panels, even writer Steve Englehart’s most leaden lines work out. It’s a great start and just gets better: after leaving her apartment, calling her from a phone booth in Bruce voice, some fishermen hail Batman down to tell him their catch is all Joker-faced.

    The Joker has poisoned all the fish in the sea to look like him. Presumably, they don’t die, and they’re still safe to eat because the next great scene is the Joker going to the copyright office to demand legal rights to all the fish. I’ve tried to be as honest as possible about my dated nostalgia for the comic and Englehart’s disappointing writing, but, holy shit, Batman, Englehart’s Joker is phenomenal. Rogers (and inker Terry Austin) obviously play a big part, but all the problems Englehart’s had writing the comic disappear when he’s writing the Joker. It’s magnificent.

    Joker’s going to kill the copyright clerk at midnight unless he gets the paperwork through; Batman goes to help Gordon protect the clerk. It’s a speedy locked room mystery with a fantastic visual finale. I feel like the locked room mystery is an homage to an early Batman, possibly something reprinted in Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. This issue showed up in Greatest Joker and, well, duh.

    The other excellent bit is Rupert Thorne’s continued meltdown. He gets into a fight with the Joker in the men’s room (it happens) before running out on his pals and skipping town. On the way, he picks up a familiar hitchhiker to set up more of next issue’s peril.

    I wonder if skipping the previous issues, regardless of their continuity value, is the best way to read Laughing Fish. Silver’s never had this much characterization, Englehart’s Batman-in-love has never been anywhere near this good, the Joker’s singular, and the Thorne subplot seems interesting. Plus, Rogers was stilted at the beginning.

    Or is it confirmation bias because I’m describing how I first read it as a kid when it really hit.

    Anyway.

    Great comic. Finally.


  • Fright Night Part 2 (1988, Tommy Lee Wallace)

    Fright Night Part 2 (1988, Tommy Lee Wallace)

    At first glance, it appears Fright Night Part 2 is the rare example of a film saved by a mullet. Lead William Ragsdale doesn’t have much more onscreen charisma than last time, but with his gloriously juvenile late eighties wavy mullet, his lack of appeal becomes charming. Or it may be another thing director Wallace fixed this time around; the horrific mullet, which would distract entirely in a lesser film, would still help a lot in that case.

    The sequel picks up approximately three years after the first film; now twenty-seven-year-old Ragsdale (the mullet makes him look younger than in the first movie) is a nineteen-year-old college student. He’s been in therapy at the school, which appears to be provided. The film establishes, later on, they’re at a community college; Ragsdale’s got a single and a private bath, the student union has a bowling alley; it’s a very well-funded community college.

    Ernie Sabella plays the psychiatrist, who convinces Ragsdale vampires aren’t real. The first movie was his brain protecting him from discovering a serial killer next door who kidnapped his girlfriend and apparently brainwashed his best friend into serial killing too. The sequel will end up being all about the first film in one way, but the continuity’s loose.

    Sabella’s the only disappointing performance. It’s like they wanted Danny DeVito and got this guy instead but left the script for the disinterested DeVito. Sabella tries, and his scenes are sometimes really effective thanks to the other actors and Wallace’s direction… he’s just not very good.

    Almost the entire rest of the cast is good. Leaving aside Ragsdale, Roddy McDowall’s good (he gets a full arc this time), and Traci Lind’s good (as Ragsdale’s new girlfriend but not the damsel in distress); the villains are all good, with one asterisk. But Jon Gries, Brian Thompson, and Russell Clark, all unqualified good turns as the new gang of creatures come to terrorize Ragsdale and McDowall. The asterisk is main villain Julie Carmen, who doesn’t just try to seduce Ragsdale away from Lind but also has her sights set on taking over McDowall’s horror movie hosting gig.

    Since the fallout from the first movie (apparently, the film’s epilogue was a bad dream), Ragsdale has been avoiding McDowall. Sabella encouraging Ragsdale to get back in touch with McDowall is where the film’s main plot seems to start, except unrelatedly to Ragsdale’s therapy breakthrough, vampires are moving into the same building where McDowall lives. It’s a giant, gothic apartment building in L.A., even though the movie’s not set in L.A. (the street opposite the building, which is primarily a composite effects shot, is so L.A.). For a while, it seems like Part 2 is going to be a paint-by-the-numbers retread of the original, sticking to the home locations, but then Part 2 opens up, and then again, and then again. And it keeps opening up, only returning to the building for the excellent finale.

    Wallace does a great job directing. His cinematographer, Mark Irwin, isn’t up to many of the shots, unfortunately, but there are still some great sequences in the film.

    Now back to Carmen. When she’s a seductive vampire, she’s fantastic. With Brad Fiedel’s “wish I was Tangerine Dream” score and Ragsdale having to wear dark sunglasses for a long stretch of the film, Fright Night Part 2 feels like Risky Business with vampires, especially as it becomes a mystery for a while. Ragsdale and McDowall both investigate the vampires, sometimes to comedic results, usually to bloody.

    Of course, Wallace is happy to use dream sequences—and it’s a vampire movie, so why not—which lets them get away with a bunch.

    But when Carmen’s just got to drop exposition like a fanged Bond villain, she’s lacking. The first half of the movie, I wondered why she didn’t have a more successful career, then she started talking about something besides Ragsdale being yummy (if only she’d commented on the mullet), and her line reading’s so, so bad. She improves a little afterward, thanks to more seductive vamping, but it’s too bad she’s not better.

    The script’s well-paced, the gore’s excellent (though it sometimes goes on just a little long), and Fiedel’s score’s… not without its own charms. The film definitely needs better cinematography, but even though the music’s too much, it might be just right.

    Fright Night Part 2’s a surprising success; big kudos to Wallace, McDowall, Lind (who gets to play the real hero, without a jealousy subplot either), the effects people, and Ragsdale’s mullet.


  • The Lion & the Eagle (2022) #1

    The Lion & the Eagle (2022) #1

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    The Lion & the Eagle is oversize; bigger, squarish pages. Artist PJ Holden doesn’t fill the larger canvas with more panels, instead increasing the panels’ sizes, filling those larger pages with bigger content, not more content. Holden also does a lot of top-third double-page spreads; he’s clearly thinking it through.

    So it’s unfair when the issue’s only problem seems like an art problem. It’s not; it’s an editing problem. The issue has a running flashback, and the transition returning to the past doesn’t work because it’s entirely about writer Garth Ennis’s narration, with a disconnected visual.

    It had me confused and reading the issue mistaking one resolution for another. However, it’s an excellent comic even with the stumble, with Holden’s expressive, character-based art and Ennis’s combination of reflective and informative writing.

    Lion & the Eagle is a World War II story; the protagonist is a white Indian army officer. They’re loading up to mount an offensive against the Japanese, who’ve been kicking their asses the last few years without the British government really taking note. It wasn’t until the Americans showed up with vehicles and weapons they’ve been able to even consider an advance.

    The issue opens with the officer, Crosby, having a conversation about the state of the war with a Chinese observer. Crosby then goes and hangs out with his doctor best friend, Leonard McCoy… wait, no, Alistair Whitamore. They go from war politics to race politics, thoughtfully bantering; it’s a war buddy story.

    While talking, Crosby remembers the time they first met; cue tense flashback.

    Lion & the Eagle doesn’t spare the gore, though all of it is in flashbacks so far. While we get some context for the flashback’s resolution, all the information about the current operation—the series’s main plot—comes during dialogue exchanges, and the characters often talk about the impending mission.

    Holden does a fabulous job with the talking heads. There are a lot of talking heads, including in the flashback, during non-combat action scenes. The art’s the most impressive thing about this larger format; what could’ve been a gimmick is not; as usual, Holden and Ennis are making something special.

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  • 709 Meridian – 4×11 – Fright Night (1985)

    709 Meridian – 4×11 – Fright Night (1985)

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  • All Rise (2019) s03e09 – Truth Hurts

    All Rise (2019) s03e09 – Truth Hurts

    I want to be more enthusiastic about this episode of “All Rise,” but I don’t trust the show anymore. They’ve resolved Simone Missick’s extra-marital flirtation arc with (not appearing this episode) Sean Blakemore. Again. They promise this time. For sure. This time it’s over.

    For sure.

    The resolution arc involves Missick’s husband, Christian Keyes, who hasn’t had this much to do all season. Even though—as Keyes points out—he’s been selfless primary caregiver to their infant daughter, he comes off looking like a complete asshole this episode. I’ve always wondered if Keyes—recast from the original actor—was a stopgap before a potential fourth season without the character. It doesn’t seem like it anymore, but who knows? The show’s always been terrible with Missick’s marriage.

    Keyes has strong-armed his way into a case of Wilson Bethel’s; Missick’s the judge on the case. It’s a continuation of a Jessica Camacho arc from like four episodes ago. Unfortunately, this season’s longer arcs are a mess. It’s a lot of drama for everyone involved, which Bethel (in his capacity as director) leans into a little much. He tries to match scene intensity with shaky camera work or fast cuts, which never works out.

    And while Bethel does get the twist ending of the episode—it’s a talky, too vague, too hurried twist, he’s hands off from the main plot. J. Alex Brinson is defending a strip club customer accused of drugging a dancer. Evan Arnold’s the exceptionally well-cast sexual predator, Lindsey Normington plays the dancer. Bethel’s supposed to try it, working with Lindsay Mendez to gain the trust of the club’s dancers, only to kick it to newbie Ronak Gandhi.

    The arc has multiple twists, including Gandhi’s major crush on Normington and not professionally respecting Mendez enough. It’s harrowing, with good supporting performances from Brinson and Missick. It’s all about Gandhi and Mendez, though.

    Meanwhile, Camacho literally hops between plots, visiting all her pals without a case of her own. It’s still entirely unclear if “All Rise” is downgrading Camacho for an easy exit or if they just can’t manage all these characters.

    And then Marg Helgenberger shows up for a brief cameo to remind everyone she’s going to show up from time to time.

    In addition to the twist ending, there’s a ruling with future repercussions (“All Rise” is about to wrap up its first OWN season). Even with the occasional direction problems, it’s one of the season’s better episodes; it almost feels like they know what they want to do with the show. Almost.


  • Evil (2019) s03e09 – The Demon of Money

    Evil (2019) s03e09 – The Demon of Money

    For a show about literally Satanic demons and humans cannibalizing each other to serve their dark lords, “Evil” hasn’t had any significant cast deaths. Certainly not any of the leads, none of the supporting regulars; I don’t even think they’ve had a repeat guest star die off.

    Well, unless you’re killed by one of the show leads. I can think of one character.

    This episode ends with a supporting character’s death, a relatively big one, with an absolutely lovely finish for regular viewers. I assume everyone who watches “Evil” at this point is a regular viewer.

    But the finale’s this tense sequence with one character out to kill another returning guest star, but then another returning guest star interceding. At any point, it could’ve been any of them to go. Incredibly suspenseful for “Evil,” which usually shies away from horror and suspense.

    Great direction from Yap Fong-yee.

    The main story is about a haunted stock, which ties into the demon map, which ties into returning guest star (no spoilers) Li Jun Li, who came back in what seemed like a cameo last episode but now seems almost a regular recurring character? The episode leans heavy on making Li part of the team in some capacity, thanks to her fortune-telling skills (straight from God’s lips to hers) and really liking hanging out with Herbers’s kids. They go to an indoor amusement thing with a ball pit. It’s silly and broad (Li has Vatican bodyguards), unlike “Evil,” but also what it needs.

    While last episode seemed like the series was getting a soft reset in preparation for season four, this episode pulls back on that idea in some areas while accelerating in others. Thanks to the shocking finale, the actual cast change will have major repercussions.

    Though any lasting repercussions would be novel on the show.

    The mystery doesn’t get much resolution, rather a punchline, as there are more important things going on, like Li being able to tell Christine Lahti’s in league with the dark ones, Kurt Fuller getting Herbers to read his Satanically influenced book draft, and so on. The stock plot, which has the principals giving each other a stock tip to test a scary man appearing, gets a little lost in the second half, but it also doesn’t really matter.

    Some terrific acting from Aasif Mandvi, whose incredulity crumbles when faced with an imminent supernatural threat.

    It’s an “Evil” episode where things happen. It feels like ages since they’ve done one of these.


  • Werewolf by Night (1972) #16

    Werewolf by Night (1972) #16

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    Mike Friedrich writes, adding his name to the list of seventies Marvel writers who tried to make hash out of Werewolf by Night with limited success. The issue credits have some enthusiasm for pairing two Mikes (Friedrich and Ploog), but then Frank Chiaramonte’s the inker, so how much can they really do? The most Ploog the issue ever gets is probably Topaz; Chiaramonte leaves her alone the most. I think it’s Ploog’s last issue, which makes the watered-down werewolf even more disappointing.

    And then the villain.

    This issue's villain is a mutant; his mutation contorts his spine and gives him super-strong skin. He begins the issue hijacking a French airliner; Jack and Topaz are connecting through Paris, done with their Tomb of Dracula crossover and ready to get back to Los Angeles. Except then there’s a fourth full moon (which the comic doesn’t explain at all, unfortunately). So Jack changes, running amok in the airport, then getting into a pissing contest with the hijacked airliner.

    Thanks to the hijacker attacking the werewolf when it boards the plane, the werewolf decides he’s the bad guy. Topaz tries to control Wolfman Jack, which the bad guy observes, so he kidnaps Topaz and, because it’s a Hunchback of Notre Dame thing, literally takes her to the cathedral as a hostage.

    The werewolf goes to save her, surprising bit of emotion in the finish, and scene.

    Friedrich doesn’t do well with the Jack narration. He does well with some other things, ranging from the historical detail—hence why the fourth full moon begged explanation—and his willingness to put the werewolf in everyday situations. It’s a plane hijacking guest starring Werewolf by Night. It works way better than it should.

    The villain’s a little flat throughout, but Friedrich has an arc for him. The groundwork’s there.

    I’d thought Ploog was done after the Dracula crossover (anything to save another Chiaramonte inking), and this issue appears to be it. Unfortunately, art-wise, it’s a wanting finish, even with the usual caveats.

    Overall, the whole thing’s wanting; there are just some solid moves from Friedrich, even if they don’t end up working out.