Wednesday, April 22, 2015

WonderCon round-up, part 1

It's been a very long time since I wrote anything about comic books on here, but I am still an avid (if sometimes slow) reader, and a few weeks ago I attended WonderCon in southern California for the third time, doing some news coverage for Comic Book Resources and hitting the convention floor. As usual, my convention strategy was to focus on indie publishers and artists' alley, to look for some interesting discoveries. If something caught my eye and I could pick up an individual issue for $5 or less, I gave it a shot.

The Children's Vampire Hunting Brigade (David Blake Lucarelli/Henry Ponciano) There isn't really anything new in this series inspired by the true story of hundreds of Scottish children searching a cemetery for a vampire in 1954. Lucarelli uses that as the jumping-off point for a typical vampire tale, with one of the grown-up children warning modern-day teens about the dangers of vampires. It's a solid setup with decent art, but there isn't enough of a unique angle to really hook readers in. Plus the "Scottish" dialogue reads like it's all being delivered by Banshee in a 1980s X-Men comic.

Cirrus (Graham Sibley/Hillary Bauman) The first issue of this sci-fi series opens with a huge text-page info-dump about the development of weather-controlling technology, a super-virus that wiped out nearly the entire human population, and the rise of animal-human hybrids who could resist the disease. But almost none of that seems to have any bearing on the story, which is vague and sometimes hard to follow, despite the overabundance of back story. There is a mysterious weather-controlling figure who breaks some other mysterious figure out of a mysterious holding facility. The characters appear to be human, but Bauman's painted art, which can be evocative when depicting landscapes, is clumsy when it comes to faces and people, so it's hard to tell whether they're hybrids or regular humans or something else. The issue's end is meant to be a shocking cliffhanger, but to me it was just more confusion.

Havenhurst (Tanya Bjork) Bjork offers up a familiar concept, with a girl who's inherited magical powers ditching her heritage and living among humans. The art is cute but sometimes a little awkward, especially during an unclear fight sequence near the end of the issue. The main character is a bit inscrutable as well, which is problematic when the entire series is based on the idea that she's abandoned her heritage to live in the world of humans. There aren't quite enough distinctive elements here to make me interested in reading another issue.

Nutmeg (James F. Wright/Jackie Crofts) I really enjoyed the first issue of this teen crime drama, billed by the creators as "Betty and Veronica meets Breaking Bad." There isn't any actual crime in the first issue, but writer Wright sets up the ominous vibe at the all-girls junior high where the story is set, with basic but effective characterization for the main characters and their mean-girl nemesis. Crofts' art is both simple and expressive, with just the right balance of sweetness and menace. It's a strong debut, and the next two issues are already available on Comixology. I plan to get them both.

Rök (Katie Longua) This cute series launched in 2011, according to the indicia, and the first issue is a little slim and slight (Longua relies a little too heavily on splash pages). The concept is that the Norse gods have come down to Earth and formed a rock band, which is somehow key to defeating their enemies. A young woman turns from fan to participant when she ends up with the power of one of the gods. The art and the combination of rock music, hipster style and supernatural threats reminded me a bit of Scott Pilgrim, although without as much self-aware humor. The story barely gets started in the first issue, but it has the potential to be goofy, exuberant fun.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Apartment 1303' (2012)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

The 2007 Japanese horror movie Apartment 1303 is not exactly a stellar example of the genre, but the dreadful 2012 American remake makes it look like a masterpiece. It's sort of appropriate that a third-tier J-horror movie has been remade as a low-budget, basically direct-to-VOD American horror movie, featuring C-list actors clearly hard up for roles. Apartment 1303's only real selling points are its stars, specifically Mischa Barton in the lead role as a woman investigating her sister's mysterious death and Rebecca De Mornay as the sisters' mother, whose part has been greatly expanded from the original. But both actresses are terrible, with Barton giving a wooden performance that feels like she's marking time until the shoot ends and she can go home, and De Mornay overacting wildly as a drunken washed-up rocker who smothers her daughters.

The plot outline is basically the same, with timid 20-something Janet (Julianne Michelle) moving into her first apartment and encountering the ghost of a young woman who forces her off the balcony. Janet's sister Lara (Barton) then attempts to find out what happened, discovering the story of a mother and daughter who are now haunting the apartment, pushing all the young female tenants off the balcony. Writer-director Michael Taverna spends more time with Janet before she falls to her death, and he compresses the lengthy back story into a few quick explanations. Neither of these changes improves the plotting, especially since Michelle is extremely irritating as Janet, who's constantly talking to herself so she can over-explain her feelings and what's happening in the story.

Clearing out the flashbacks also makes room for more scenes of De Mornay, dressed like a second-rate Stevie Nicks, chewing scenery, but her performance is more desperate and sad than campy. A couple of months ago I watched the obscure Sam Rockwell indie movie Lawn Dogs on DVD, and was pleasantly surprised to see a remarkable performance from a 10-year-old Barton in one of her first roles. She apparently peaked early, because she's clearly completely checked out by now, barely putting any effort into her performance. Not that this material deserves much effort; Taverna's screenplay includes such dialogue gems as "Apartments don't kill people. People kill people," which is such a crucial line that it gets repeated three times throughout the movie.

Taverna's film is also a mess visually, with cheap-looking effects and some basic failures of blocking (there are multiple scenes in which he can't even bother to put the two actors who are facing off against each other in the same frame). For some reason this movie was released in 3D in a very limited capacity, but I can't imagine how the flat images and drab sets would be improved by seeing them in 3D. I dismissed the original Apartment 1303 as dull and forgettable, but that's a welcome alternative to a movie this inept and tedious.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

'The Comedians'

On the FX comedy The Comedians, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad play versions of themselves who are pathologically desperate for attention and validation, and who reluctantly team up for a sketch-comedy show even though they have no chemistry or creative compatibility or mutual respect. That doesn't seem too far from the truth about this show, which is strained and painfully unfunny, bringing out the worst in its two already hammy leads. The format itself is tired, with more disingenuous self-deprecation from celebrities playing fictionalized versions of themselves, alongside a parade of awkward cameos.

The jokes about the shallowness and insincerity of show business are cliched, and dated enough that they could have come out of a sitcom from 20 years ago. Crystal seems like he's reluctant to really dig into his persona, so his character is more put-upon than actively unpleasant, but that just makes the potential satire even more lifeless. Gad is more willing to mock himself, but he's not really famous enough to have enough material for mockery (there are far too many jokes about 1600 Penn). The supporting cast features some cliched show business characters (the pretentious writer, the lazy production assistant, the stressed-out producer), and plenty of the humor is just moldy and stale (Steven Weber has an unfortunate two-episode arc as a wildly miscalculated transgender character, and there's an entire episode devoted to Crystal and Gad getting high and wandering a supermarket).

I'm honestly not sure whether the occasional sketches from the show-within-the-show are actually meant to be funny, or meant to be funny because they are terrible, but they don't succeed at either one. I may have been disappointed with the last season of Louie, but at least Louis C.K. is pushing boundaries and expanding the idea of what can be done in a show featuring a celebrity playing himself. Pairing The Comedians with Louie just highlights how backward and regressive and pathetic it is. For a network known to take chances and foster artistic ambition, this is a lazy, clumsy misfire.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.