Sunday, April 20, 2014

Meet Me There (movie)

Director: Lex Lybrand
Writer: Brandon Stroud
Starring: Lisa Friedrich, Michael Foulk, Dustin Runnels

You might now know because I rarely ever talk about it on here, but I've long been a fan of professional wrestling. I've been watching WWE on and off since 1996. Occasionally it opens a few interesting doors through association. Meet Me There was one of them.

I've followed Brandon Stroud on Twitter for a while, due to enjoying his weekly Best and Worst of Raw columns. It was there I learned of the film. I enjoy a good horror film - which have been in short supply lately - and I didn't have anything planned for that night, so my sister and I decided to go. The lady who owned the room we rented out for the weekend even decided to join us.

Going turned out to be a good decision. It happened to be the premiere, so everyone was in attendance, including Dustin Runnels himself and his father Dusty Rhodes. I started with wrestling at childhood, so The American Dream was before my time, but I'm the sweet spot for having fond memories of Goldust. Meeting the both of them was a highlight. It's not often you get to hang out with wrestling legends. Turns out they're nice people. That goes for everyone involved in the film, actually, from Mr. Stroud to Lisa Friedrich on down.

Everyone - from the cast and crew to the people who came to see the film - hung around outside waiting for the prior film to finish its showing. Sometimes we discussed wrestling, sometimes the movie we were about to watch. Eventually, the audience of the prior film filed out of the small theater and we all made our way inside. We had a movie to watch, after all.

A pretty good one, as it turned out.

After an opening that succeeds in thoroughly unsettling you, we meet our protagonists, Calvin and Ada. Almost immediately - and wordlessly - we see the problem that drives the movie; they're dealing with a lot of sexual frustration and counseling isn't helping. Ada reveals that she cannot remember much of her childhood, something that throws up some obvious red flags and seems like the root of their troubles. Calvin, looking to make some headway, throws out the idea that the two of them drive to her hometown in the hope that it would jog some memories and help them through the situation.

Since we are talking about a horror movie, I don't think you need me to tell you things quickly go directly to hell without passing Go.

A key strength of the film is in the writing. Dialogue in film can feel too neat at times, but going too far in the other direction isn't ideal either; spend too long meandering and you risk losing the audience. Meet Me There manages to find that fine line between the two, giving enough background to the characters to make a connection without boring you to tears. There are moments in the film that are legitimately funny, as well; I audibly laughed a couple of times, especially at the Smurfs story.

They also manage to get some real mileage out of clearly limited resources. The effects are all practical and the feel is that of a B movie, which I mean in the best way possible. Actually, that might not be a hundred percent accurate, either; perhaps it's better to say it reminds you of a seventies horror film, back when most of the greats were made with little money. Speaking of seventies horror films, the film occasionally reminded me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which isn't a knock; the opening five or six minutes that feel unrelated until late in the film, the murderous rednecks, the entire town seemingly complicit in whatever shenanigans are afoot. I'm not sure if it was intentional, but if that film was an influence, I felt it.

Another positive is the ambiguity surrounding the events depicted in the film. The cast and crew had a Q&A session after the screening and what struck me was that, when asked what the last twenty minutes of the film meant, everyone had a different answer. I even had my own theory - that the town is meant to represent purgatory - which barely resembled any take they had. Not every film can pull something like that off - you risk the audience wondering what they've just seen - but when it works, it's very effective. Films based on the work of Phillip K. Dick like to go this route.

None of this is to say it's perfect. The film had some audio issues worth noting, including a score that felt unnecessarily loud; on more than one occasion I found I had difficulty making sense of the dialogue because of it, a problem my sister seemed to share. I think I recall the director mentioning that it had something to do with the audio mix not meshing properly with the theaters equipment - and that it wouldn't be a problem going forward - but even so, I can only go by my own experience.

There were a couple of points where the delivery faltered a bit, too. It wasn't anything major and the cast still managed to make the characters feel real, but occasionally a moment would have an iffy reaction that was a little jarring. It's forgivable - the film certainly has a leg up on most low budget horror films in that there's infinitely less ham and cheese in the acting - but it would feel wrong not to mention it.

That said, any trouble is easily balanced by Dustin Rhodes turn as the preacher and the lady playing his not-all-there daughter. Both were highlights. The daughter might have been the creepiest part of a film that had a lot of satanic imagery, some super xenophobic hillbillies with shotguns and a cultish orgy in the woods.

All told, it's well worth attending. It's easily the best the horror genre has given us in a while using a fraction of the resources. I had a lot of fun, got to hang out with some cool people and generally had a memorable night in what turned out to be a memorable weekend. There's obviously no guarantee you'll get to hang out with a Rhodes or crew member, but at worst you'll get to see a pretty good film.

You can't exactly catch it in your local theater, though. You can check the official website for screenings. DVD copies are, thus far, only available to the people who backed the indiegogo campaign, but when asked I've been told they're hoping to get distribution. If and when they do, I'll update this.

My Opinion: Watch It

Friday, April 11, 2014

Indestructible Hulk: Agent of SHIELD (comic)

Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Lenil Yu
Collects: Indestructible Hulk #1-5

In a reversal of my last review, this was a book I was actually prepared to like. Mark Waid's a rock solid writer who's penned a few runs many consider to be among the all time greats. Even on a bad day he usually manages something that's a decent read. Should be a safe bet.

Unfortunately, I felt that Indestructible Hulks first volume whiffed. There are a few reasons why, not all of them the fault of the creative team. Regardless, they add up to something of a letdown.

We start off harmlessly enough. Shield is looking for the Hulk in the wake of Avengers vs X-Men. We don't get a lot of specifics, but they aren't really necessary; the Hulk is an engine of destruction on a good day, so it's not hard to see why Shield might be after him. Banner finds Maria Hill - probably the most utilitarian character in Marvel by now - and runs a proposition by her; they give him all the resources he wants to invent and he'll let them use the Hulk as they see fit.

Fair enough for the first issue, but by the second we've run into some problems.

The Shield thing I don't mind. The Hulk is a very basic concept at its heart - the Jekyll and Hyde dynamic multiplied tenfold - and has often required some spice to keep it interesting. By the time of Marvel Now, Hulk has been an inter-dimensional traveler, hero to a microscopic kingdom or two, been shot into space, ruled a planet, had a couple ridiculous fever dreams, got his own rainbow corps of Hulks and battled with MPD, his many personalities including a super smart fusion of Banner and Hulk, a straight up evil Devil Hulk and a grey version that enjoys making like an old fashioned mobster. As far as basic concepts go, throwing in with Shield in an effort to try and channel the destruction in a positive way is probably the sanest direction Marvel's gone with in a while.

No, the thing that gave me the most trouble is the one this creative team isn't necessarily responsible for. For a few years now - starting, I believe, with Greg Paks second run on Hulk - Marvel's pushed hard on a "Bruce Banner's kind of a genius" track. Still, Waid and Yu take is the furthest it's gone to date. Bruce Banner is now in the upper tier of Marvel geniuses; not quite a Reed Richards but above the likes of a Tony Stark.

You may think I'm kidding about that last part, but I'm not. Issue number two has Iron Man as a guest star. It's also the issue where they lost me.

See, issue two is entirely devoted to telling us Bruce Banner is smarter than Tony Stark. Not entirely unreasonable that they'd put him over Iron Man - this is Hulks book, so he's going to get the rub - but it reaches a point where Bruce Banner looks like one of the most awful human beings walking. The first issue had a sense of smug self importance about the character - some of his dialogue with Maria Hill rubbed me the wrong way - but it wasn't bad enough to make me stop reading and wonder what the hell was going on with him. Not so with issue two.

Let's do a quick rundown of everything that happened. First, Iron Man shows up, understandably concerned that Shield just recruited the friggin Hulk, a guy known for toppling buildings if he so much as sneezes. He greets Bruce, understandably skeptical, and everyone decides to get in a little condescension before breakfast. Banner then dangles a carrot in front of Tony o he'll volunteer as wingman for a trip out to the Arctic to safely test a new, safer method of fracking. Tony fiddles with it in an attempt to make the process go faster. Banner flips his lid and it's at this point that we find out that this was his plan all along. He deliberately lured Iron Man out to the Artic so he could transform into the Hulk and beat the daylights out of him. The stated reason is because Banner felt Stark always looked down on him. This is apparently enough to justify turning into a demi-god of rage and blitzing a dude in a metal suit. A futuristic, high tech one, but a metal suit nonetheless.

Whatever the case, Iron Man attempts to fend Hulk off so he can get back to the device, which he didn't finish calibrating. It's now set to blow thanks to Hulks reckless attack, because Banner clearly thought this plan out in great detail. The explosion nearly kills Iron Man, which I guess is okay because Hulk saved him from being torched. I guess cleaning up a mess you made negates that whole "near death" thing. They go back and have a laugh, Banner condescends some more and Tony has to brush it off, go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and tell himself he's still rich. He's that shaken by Banner's clearly superior intellect.

Anybody else see the problem here?

There's the obvious issue in that, by this point, Bruce Banner has become entirely unlikable. Iron Man is very nearly killed amidst a brawl Banner lured him to a secluded spot with every intention of starting. He's now the smartest person in any room that doesn't include Reed Richards and he knows it, leading to an off-putting sense of sheer smug that makes you want to see someone deck him. Worse still, he doesn't have any of the charm or likable qualities that keep a character like Tony Stark interesting despite his many screw-ups. This is made even more striking by a character throwing out the notion that what Bruce really wants to be is Tony Stark; the issue tries to refute this a bit in the most "nuh-uh, Banner's better" way possible, with Banner himself basically laughing the implication off about an hour after he nearly killed the guy and Stark musing that Banner would have to aim lower to be him, but it really does feel like Stark is the type of character they're trying to mold Banner into now. The results are mixed, to be kind.

A problem that isn't as immediately obvious is what this intellect upgrade might end up doing to the character. There's a decent chance it might ruin him. We're not talking scientist level smarts anymore. He literally builds a new, world altering invention each week. The kind that solve problems like food and energy shortages. Obviously, this is glossed over and the effects this would have on society aren't shown. There's no downside either, aside from the obvious question of how he can make this stuff yet still find himself magically unable to find a cure. In conjunction with the Shield concept, the Hulk isn't even a counter anymore; his destruction is now, thus far, contained and used to take out threats to the US.

How is this character not a Mary Sue at this point? I do realize this could be going somewhere. Trouble is, do I even care anymore? I'm not sure.

The following three issues didn't do much to change my mind. Hulk basically goes off to fight quasi-Atlanteans or some junk. There's one sorta-Atlantean girl who wants to ride the Hulk, but hates Banner - if that sounds familiar, you've read some Hulk comics - whom Banner later kisses in hopes she'd deck him and he'd transform. Aside from the minor sexual assault, it's fine, but after that second issue, I needed something to pull me back. Those three issues did not fit the bill.

On the upside, the art is quite good. I've been a bit negative regarding Yu's art in the past, partly due to how scratchy it could get. There's little of that here. I'm not sure what else can be said about it. You'll never hear me claim to be a good art critic, because I'm really not. I know what I like, can tell you about what I don't and that's pretty much it.

I hate to be this hard on Indestructible Hulk - I've enjoyed Waids work in the past and went into this wanting to like it - but it just didn't work for me. I may read the second volume if the library has it in the future - I'm at least somewhat curious as to whether the aforementioned problems are leading to something or if it's just how the character is in this book - but I'm not going out of my way for it. As always, I note that you may get more out of it than I did; my opinion is far from absolute.

My Opinion: Skip It