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Archive for the ‘Scoundrels’ Category

The most important holiday on the capitalist-utopia calendar, Cyber Monday, has come and gone, and that can only mean one thing:  most of the fall TV shows are either on hiatus, about to be on hiatus, or already cancelled.  That means I finally have chance to catch up on a bunch of hour-long serialized dramas, because that’s definitely how I should be spending my precious few hours between sleep and toil every day.   Here are my very scientific findings:

Constantine
Constantine 
I watched the series premiere of this, and quickly fell asleep trying to watch the second episode.  I am not a die hard fan of the Hellblazer comics (although I have a fat stack of ‘Blazer trade paperbacks I picked up in sort-of anticipation of this program and have yet to read), so I can only evaluate it on its own merits and not on how it stacks up vs. the Vertigo series.  My conclusion: this is a pile of hot garbage!  It does have a lot of pretty awesome special effects, and the pilot had one or two decent ‘scares,’ but hardly enough to sustain my attention.  And I wasn’t alone — as of this writing, NBC has suspended production on the series, which is not quite an outright cancellation but it’s certainly a sign things are on life support. GRADE: D-
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Arrow
Arrow hit some real peaks last season, with the interwoven story of Oliver’s escape from the island and his confrontation with Deathstroke in Starling City delivering the series’ most satisfying and ambitious arc to date.  By comparison, season three is so far floundering.  ‘Five years ago’ timeline Oliver is now off the island and working for Amanda Waller in Hong Kong, which means there is very little drama left in the flashback sequences.  All we wanted to know for most of seasons one and two was how Ollie would escape the island — now that that has been resolved, it seems like there is no tension left and really no reason to chart the rest of Oliver’s journey back to Starling City.  In the main, present-tense storyline, there are several promising threads unraveling:  Roy Harper has developed into a full-fledged sidekick, even adopting the Arsenal moniker, but continues to struggle with the after effects of the mirakuru experimental drug, which puts Oliver in the position of becoming more and more of a father figure for Roy even as the latter gains even more self-confidence.  Oliver’s sister Thea has returned to the city, ostensibly to reopen her nightclub, but in reality she’s developed ninja techniques and is working in cahoots with Malcolm Merlin, the Big Bad from season one, back (of course) from the dead.  And, in the most delightful but underutilized plot device of all, Queen Consolidated is in the process of being absorbed by billionaire super-genius Ray Palmer (aka, The Atom), played by failed-Superman Brandon Routh.  For existing fans of the show, this season still has the enjoyable characters and relationship dynamics (Oliver-Felicity-The Atom love triangle, anyone?) to obsess over, but plotwise, it really seems to be spinning its wheels.  Of course, with the 20+ episode seasons of all of these comic book inspired shows, it’s no surprise that the first halves of seasons are usually full of filler.  GRADE: B-
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The Flash
What do you love about classic Flash comic books?  Is it the affable, nerdy, do-gooder attitude of Barry Allen, one of comics’ most beloved heroes?  Is it the crime-solving and detective work inherent in Allen’s secret identity as a forensic scientist?  Is it the Flash Facts, little bits of science (or pseudo-science) frequently thrown in to explain the Flash and supporting characters’ remarkable powers and gadgets?  Is it the somewhat goofy lineup of rogues such as Captain Cold, Mirror Master, and Gorilla Grodd?  Is the sheer joy of imagining all of the things you could do with superspeed, undoubtedly one of the most excellent of the classic comic book superpowers?  If you answered All of the Above, you should probably just go ahead and watch the Flash because it captures the vibe of the comics upon which it is based better than any comic-to-TV adaptation I can think of.  GRADE: A-
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How To Get Away With Murder
Superstar defense attorney Annalise Keating removes her many layers of makeup and her wig, turns to her husband, and utters the phrase that reverberated around the world: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”  That was the stinger at the end of one of this show’s early episodes, and it was the moment that solidified the show as yet another obsession-worthy Shonda Rhimes Special.  Just as Kerry Washington’s white hot charisma powers Scandal, much of the joy of HTGAWM comes from simply basking in the intensity of Viola Davis as she rips students to shreds, blows the tops off of courtrooms, and frequently displays heartbreaking vulnerability.  For me, an even bigger pleasure comes from watching the sexcapades of Keating’s very young, very hot, super diverse, and full-on hilarious team of junior associates.  If you like backstabbing, double-speak, network television’s most explicit boy-on-boy action, and this haircut:
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you will love the hell out of this show.  GRADE: A+
Gotham
I love the comic strip Garfield minus Garfield.  By removing the fat orange cat from the strip entirely, and leaving John Arbuckle alone to contemplate his meager existence, Garfield minus Garfield creates something entirely new through the art of omission.  It takes something mildly funny and recasts it as something profoundly dark.  Gotham, which could just as easily be called Batman minus Batman, does the opposite and recasts something profoundly dark as something *very* mildly funny.  This is a tune-in-every-once-in-awhile-if-the-episode-title-seems-promising kind of show.  Recommended for fans of Batman: Forever.  GRADE: C-
Scandal
This season just makes me want to toss off my all-white winter wardrobe
 Scandal -- Screengrab from exclusive EW.com clip.
curl up on the couch with some fried chicken in my Uggs
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sip on a nice, modestly sized glass of wine
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and watch it over and over and over because there’s a decent chance that this is the best season of Scandal yet.  GRADE: A
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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D
This series received an injection of buzz and fresh ideas when Captain America: Winter Soldier came out in the middle of its first season and completely changed the show’s status quo.  Suddenly a show about a lame bunch of do-gooder government flacks became a show about betrayal, secrets, and life on the lam.  As the second series has begun to pick up speed, it seems like Agents is failing to take advantage of the excitement and tension inherent in the Hydra storyline.  Coulson’s crew are already back on the right side of the law, with access to seemingly unlimited resources — not excitedly the underdog scenario that was promised in season one’s final episodes.  The one saving grace of this season has been the action sequences.  The fight choreography and special effects this season have been pristine — too bad you generally have to wade through 30-40 minutes of blah storytelling to get to them.  GRADE: C+
Brooklyn 99
 The funniest traditional sitcom currently on TV — in fact, maybe the only funny traditional sitcom currently on TV.  Immature gross out humor, a cast in which ‘competent white males’ take a backseat to actually competent women and men of color, genuinely lovable and delightfully flawed characters, and this face on a weekly basis:
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GRADE: A-

Saturday Night Live
This has been a season full of lame hosts and totally lacking in breakout stars among the cast.  Michael Che and Leslie Jones have been delightful but underused.  Pete Davidson seems promising but has yet to develop any memorable characters — besides himself on Weekend Update.  It seems like Kate McKinnon and Taran Killam are keeping the show afloat most nights with their broad repertoires, but they’re so overused that it’s just starting to seem like schtick.  The best parts about this season have been Kyle Mooney’s weird little segments and digital shorts — he’s the one writer/player who seems to have a distinct voice at this point – and the last run of musical guests.  Prince, Kendrick Lamar, and Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson/Mystikal brought the house down over the last few weeks.
GRADE: C
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30. Drederick Tatum

 

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29. Eddie and Lou

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hutz

28. Lionel Hutz

 

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27. Cletus Spuckler

 

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26. Kent Brockman

 

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25. The Rich Texan

 

24. Jimbo Jones, Dolph, & Kearney

 

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23. Lindsey Neagle

 

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22. Kurt Van Houten

 

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21. Superintendent Chalmers

 


20. Squeaky Voiced Teen

(more…)

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I struggle with the apocalypse.

I can’t wait for it to get started, for one thing.  Floating cities.  Thunderdomes.  Roving bands of cannibals.  Time enough at last.  Mutants.  A lot of people say that they were born too late, that they were meant to live in Victorian England or ’60s Paris.  I was born to early.  I was meant to live through the End of Times.

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I still think we might get there, sooner than a lot of people suspect, but that doesn’t solve my most immediate problem:  how do I make the Apocalypse into my Apocalypse?

See, I’ve been writing this story.  In my head for years, and with actual words on screen for…years.  It’s a novel, maybe, called For A Dying Planet.  Or The Herald.  Or something better, I hope.  And it’s pretty post-apocalyptic.  Awesome, because that’s one of my favorite settings.  Not so awesome, because the post-apocalypse (or dystopian civilization that rise from the ashes) is definitely the most popular setting for science fiction stories these days.

How am I going to come up with a take on it that hasn’t been done and done to death?

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I have a few tricks up my sleeve.  Godlike artificial intelligence (which has been done).  Terrifying genetic experiments (done).  Borderline unlivable alien planets (done, done, done).  Youthful female protagonist (so done, but probably still not done enough).  A post-Rapture Catholic Church that’s barely recognizable yet still stubbornly the same (yes, done.  In other news, done.)  So yeah, a lot of ideas that maybe aren’t brand spanking new.

But what is new anyway?  It’s the Hip-Hop era, ya’ll, also known as Postmodernism (Modernism, we hardly knew ye), and there’s nothing original under the sun.  So say we all.  Now that the internet exists, creativity means sifting through the rubble, shaking off the dust, and reassembling the pieces into something shockingly new.  Basically, I’m hoping to create the upside-down urinal of post-collapse space opera science fiction novels.  That’s cool, right?

Yeah, that’s what I tell myself when I rock myself to sleep at night wondering if I’ve ever had an original thought in my whole life.

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The unnamed protagonist of Ben Passmore’s Daygloayhole (issue 1, issue 2) is much more mellow about the whole affair.  A spiritual nephew of The Dude, our hero eases into the end of the world like an old man into a hot bath.  His apocalypse is full of tropes and cliches, to be sure, but they’re dismissed with a shrug.  What else would you expect from a culture that gave us so many American Idol ripoffs and NKOTB clones?  Even the apocalypse is another consumer good dreamed up by eggheads at Proctor & Gamble.

Diametrically opposed to this world view is No Limitz, an oogle for whom the new world is the ultimate punk rock challenge to be conquered, one giant cybernetic death worm at a time.

Even though the setting of this comic is deliberately unoriginal in many ways, the characters are refreshingly new.  And that was the biggest lesson I took away from Passmore’s book: the most lavish and mind-bending settings are deathly boring without interesting fully-realized characters to inhabit them.  By the same token, even a setting that has been used a thousand times can come wildly alive when a character reacts to it in interesting ways.

That’s why I’m going to stop worrying so much about whether the technology, settings, and even plot mechanics of my novel have been used before ad nauseum, and just focus on getting deeper inside the brains of my characters.  Because there’s no chance that my take on a desert planet in a state of decay will surprise and astonish anyone, there’s a good chance that exploring the choices and emotions of a realistic character in that environment will surprise even me.

****

Special thanks to Ben Passmore for sending me the links to his comic and giving me a few minutes of his time at CAKE this year.  You should go buy some comics from Mr. Passmore’s store, or check him out at the upcoming RIPExpo in Providence, Rhode Island.

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Top Row: Saint's Love by Krystal DiFronzo, Ines Estrada, Needle Dick by Anya Davidson.  Bottom Row: Chris Cilla, Blimpakind by Tanya Modlin, Lucy Knisley

Top Row: Saint’s Love by Krystal DiFronzo, Ines Estrada, Needle Dick by Anya Davidson. Bottom Row: Chris Cilla, Blimpakind by Tanya Modlin, Lucy Knisley

Topical!

I spent my weekend at my favorite comics convention of the year, CAKE, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo.  I wrote a full report for Comics Beat  , which was kind of a big deal for me.  Even after writing that massive 4,000 word con report there were a ton of comics that I was excited about that I didn’t mention or give enough attention to, so I’ll be mixing some of those in with my usual tights’n’fights stuff in this column over the next few weeks.  It’s kind of remarkable how a show like CAKE, which is approximately 1/30th the size of C2e2 (CAKE had 2,200 attendees this year, C2e2 63,000) can offer so much more diversity than the larger show.

That means diversity as far as who was at the show and diversity in terms of the types of comics and art on offer.  C2E2, a convention which aims to embrace all of pop culture, essentially boils down to popular science fiction and epic fantasy franchises, video games (but only popular current and vintage mainstream games, not experimental or indie), superheroes, and paranormal romance.  Creators at CAKE had comics about all of that stuff, but also about food, punk music, graffitti, environmentalism, dealing with illness, coming out, losing touch with friends, making new friends, buttsex, non-butt sex, crossdressing, long walks on the beach, dismantling the patriarchy, baseball, absentee fathers…and that’s just walking down one row of tables.  Basically what I’m saying is that comics can be about anything, anything in the world, and CAKE proves that.  And at C2E2, about 80-90% of the creators exhibiting are straight white men.  At CAKE, more than half of the creators are women, and there is a ton of representation of the LGBTQ community, who are the backbone of the Chicago indie comics scene.  CAKE also has a higher percentage of creators of color, although it did seem like C2E2 drew a higher percentage of fans and attendees of color.

I hope the future of comics look a little more like CAKE and less like C2E2, although I love aspects of both shows.  If I could have a show that combined the diversity and range of creators and comics of CAKE with the event programming and cosplay of C2E2, that would be my ultimate show.

*****

Flu Drawings by Michael DeForge.  Self-published, 2014.

Drifting in and out of reality, the author envisions a psychosexual memory of adolescence.  Is it a poem, a memoir, a comic, a fever dream?  Whatever, it’s pretty good.  Pretty and Good. DeForge’s surreal illustrations allow the boundary between real and imaginary to become diffuse, inviting the reader to question the reality of the narrative as well.  Is the unseen narrator DeForge himself, or someone else?  Is the story being told truth, fiction, or something in between?  It sparks a lot of further contemplation for such a short work, which as a metric of quality is as good as any.

Image via Comixology

Image via Comixology

The Lizard Laughed by Noah Van Sciver.  Oily Comics, 2014.

“Even weak men can become fathers.”  That’s what Harvey has to say to Nathan, the son he hasn’t seen in a decade or more, after a tense confrontation in the desert.  It’s an effecting moment in a comic that’s full of them.  Set against the backdrop of Jemez Springs, New Mexico, the comic shines a harsh light on the effects of shirking parental responsibility, while also hinting at the possibilities of an alternative value system in which our traditional conception of family is turned upside down.  Engrossing.

Doctor Spektor: Master of the Occult #1 by Mark Waid and Neil Edwards with Jordan Boyd.  Gold Key/Dynamite, 2014.

What if Mythbusters was the most popular TV show in the world, was hosted by a fabulously wealthy eccentric with severe bipolar disorder, and even the most outlandish Myths turned out to be real?  That’s the basic premise of Mark Waid’s Spektor relaunch, which succeeds where so many recent paranormal adventures have failed by secretly being about reality TV instead.

Image via Valiant Universe

Image via Valiant Universe

X-O Manowar Vol. One: By the Sword by Robert Venditti and Cary Nord with Stefano Gaudiano and Moose Baumann.  Valiant, 2013.

Barbarian, meet crazy advanced alien culture.  Crazy advanced alien culture, meet Aric of Darcia — wait, what?  He already took your most powerful weapon and he’s hell bent on revenge?

Ideal for superhero fans who love historically accurate content about Visigoths.  Valiant’s flagship title may actually be the kookiest of the bunch.  I think I figured out my recent obsession with Valiant — entering this new universe recaptures the feeling I had delving into Legion of Superheroes  and The Avengers  as a kid — the feeling that I was in over my head, that there was a whole wild world out there and that it would take me ages to fit all of the pieces together.  Now when I read Marvel and DC comics it’s all “Green Arrow would never this” and “Wolverine’s costume is supposed to like that” — my preconceptions and, tbh, childhood associations make it hard to fully appreciate new developments in the universe.  With Valiant, I have no such biases, and am left ready to be blown away.

 

 

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Short column this week.  Short introduction, too.

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Pretty Deadly Volume One by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios with Jordie Bellaire.  Image, 2014.

I read this comic and I was all like “Yeah, so what?”  It seemed really hard to follow and that made my tiny reptile brain, fed as it mostly on serialized CW shows Golden Age action films, rebel.  I felt I owed to the dozen loyal readers of this column to at least have a minimal grasp on the plot, so I went back and gave it a quick second read — and that rather changed my opinion.

Rios’ style is inky and rich, and the action flows around the page like water through a narrow, rocky canyon — it’s clear enough where’s it going, but it sloshes around quite a bit before it gets there.  It’s very nice to look at, but it’s very impressionistic. DeConnick goes for impressionistic, symbol-laden language, too.  The pair obviously believe wholeheartedly in the writerly aphorism “show, don’t tell.”  I applaud that kind of highly visual, auteuristic vision for comics — but it can drift quickly into another, less comfortable aphorism — “style over substance.”

If this comic just had Rios’ name on the cover, I think it would be more widely celebrated (not that people aren’t nominating it for awards already).  Rios would draw a lot of comparisons to Paul Pope and no one would worry much about the plot and it would sort of be enough to grasp at vague mythological themes and toss them all into a pretty, deadly melting pot.  But knowing that the story and images come from two different minds makes me more suspicious of the whole enterprise; it makes me wonder that what I imagine to be a lack of imagination on my own part is really a lack of cohesion between the two principals, that they’re talking past each other and both trying to create a comic that the other doesn’t really understand.

But maybe they’re going up for awesome “We did it bro!” high-fives every time they finish and issue and then going out to celebrate with a big sushi lunch, while I sit on my couch trying to decipher whether Ginny and Big Alice are supposed to be sistermoms or what, exactly?  DeConnick & Rios 1, internet comics critic, 0.

 

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Southern Bastards #1 by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour.  Image, 2014.

BBQ.  Football.  Pick-up trucks.  Four wheelers.  Rotten teeth.  The Second Amendment.  Old racist dudes.  Young racist dudes.

Any other cliches about the Deep South you want to toss in this one issue guys?

The Jasons, Aaron and Latour, take great pains to inform us in the now-perfunctory afterword to the first issue that they are both From the South and so it’s okay for them to portray a full quarter of the country as a never-ending trailer park full of methmouth Crimson Tide fans.  It’s supposed to a parody, an indictment of the men who took the South from us — neither Aaron or Latour gives an answer as to who ‘us’ is here, presumably it is people born in the South who don’t feel so totally invested in its culture that they would ever willingly live there again — so why is there exactly one character in the whole comic who’s not a white male?  For now, this is reading like a comic adaptation of the Dukes of Hazzard.

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The Silver Surfer #1-2 by Stan Lee and Moebius with John Wellington.  Marvel, 1988-89.

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Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.  Vertigo/DC (Warner Bros.), 2014.  Collects Flex Mentallo #1-4, 1996.

If you didn’t get enough wibbly-wobbly psychedelic post-modern fourth wall breaking Grant Morrison from Animal Man, the Invisibles, and Doom Patrol, here is more of the same.  Pre-JLA Morrison is a bit like William Burroughs (which I think Morrison would be happy to hear, actually) — they’re all good, they’re all trippy, but if you’ve read one, you’ve basically read them all, and good luck telling most of them apart.

Bonus:  If Jupiter’s Legacy is coming out too slow for your tastes, the Suicidal Rock Star character from this is basically exactly the main dude from that.  And both of them look suspiciously like Frank Quitely.

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Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio enjoy a breakfast of champions in Wolf of Wall Street

 

This weekend I watched two recent blockbusters films and at some point I felt like I was actually just watching the same movie.  Both movies are Horatio Alger/rags-to-riches stories.  Both are set in the freewheeling Clinton years.  Both feature copious amounts of cocaine abuse.  Both focus on anti-heroes whose rise is predicated on the misfortune of others.  Both feature career-best turns by popular but overrated actors, and genuinely outstanding performances by popular but underrated ones.   One was nominated for  five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  The other was a more entertaining, and maybe even better crafted, film with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 49%.

 

(from left) Anthony Mackie, Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg with Patrick Bristow in Pain and Gain.

(from left) Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie and Mark Wahlberg with Patrick Bristow in Pain and Gain.

I’m talking of course about Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street and Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain.  If I were to make an argument for Pain and Gain being the better overall of the two films, it would go like this:  it’s tighter (read: shorter), it’s more self-aware, and its moral compass is pointed more firmly in the right direction.  But whether you prefer one over the other has to come down to personal taste, and my guess is that like me, if you like one you’ll probably like the other.  My real question is, why has Wolf of Wall Street inspired so much critical conversation while Pain and Gain is largely below consideration*, and what does that say about our cultural assumptions about the film’s directors and stars?

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Martin Scorsese is an all-time great director and Michael Bay is a hack who makes crap.  That’s the consensus wisdom on the subject, for sure.   I’m not going to say that Bay is as good as or even in the same ballpark as Scorsese, from a lifetime achievement perspective.  But filmmaking is like the NFL: on any given Sunday (or box-office weekend) anyone can come out on top.  Scorsese is brilliant (Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas) but also given to overly-long and self indulgent projects that just don’t come together (Gangs of New York, the Aviator, Shutter Island).  Bay cares more about explosions and sports cars than character or story (Transformers, Transformers 2, Transformers 3, any future Transformers films) but he is also the master of action-comedy, the genre that forms the very foundations of the entire American film industry (Bad Boys, The Rock). 

 

 

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A similar conversation can be had about Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg.  Leo is the darling of critics, the defining actor of his generation, it’s a crying shame he hasn’t won an Oscar.  Marky Mark is the butt of the joke, a former underwear model and pop star whose lifestyle is the subject of a satirical HBO series.  The way I see it, they’re both just-okay actors who mainly get by on their looks; Leo has simply had the good fortune of being in better movies (and that’s largely thanks to Scorsese, who at this point just casts him in everything).  Neither of them is on the level of a Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix or Daniel Day-Lewis.  Neither of them has a demonstrated ability to completely transform themselves  (Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club) or carry an otherwise weak film on their backs all the way to a Best Picture Win (Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump).   Both of them mostly just play this-or-that version of themselves in every movie, and how much you like their performances comes down to how much you like them.

 

 

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Both Wolf of Wall Street and Pain and Gain are based on tragically true stories, and the fates of the real people involved speak to the fates of the movies themselves.  In WoWS, Leo stars as Jordan Belfort, the stock market king who stole hundreds of millions of dollars from investors via boiler room pump-and-dump schemes.  He eventually served a minimum sentence in a posh federal prison and currently tours the world as perhaps the most successful sales trainer of all time.  In P&G, Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie play Daniel Lugo and Adrian Doorball, broke gym rats who kidnap a Miami businessman and force him to sign over his house, his Schlotzsky’s franchise, and his bank account (they also later commit attempted murder and manslaughter).  Those two are now on Florida’s crowded Death Row awaiting execution.

 

 

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Obviously, there is a significant difference between these crimes — Belfort was  a thief on a massive scale but Lugo and Doorball took human lives.  Still, Belfort’s criminal activities ruined dozens or hundreds of lives, people who put their entire savings into stocks based on tips from Belfort’s brokers only to watch it all evaporate as Belfort lined his own pockets.  Lugo and Doorball’s crimes were heinous (I can’t emphasize that enough) but much more limited in the scope of their victims.    Belfort was from the 0.1% and paid for his crimes with an extended tennis holiday.  Lugo and Doorball were “white trash” or “ghetto” and they will pay with their lives.

 

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Similarly, Wolf of Wall Street is an elite production from an elite director with an elite star and has been rewarded with plenty of praise from the cultural elite.  Pain and Gain is a popcorn movie from a hack director with a pretty-boy star and has been dismissed as such.  But that difference in critical reception has nothing to do with the content of the films — to defend the glorification of loveless sex and drug abuse in WoWS while decrying the same in P&G is beyond hypocritical — and comes down to the audience’s baked in assumptions about the personnel involved.  This isn’t a new argument; younger film critics have been championing ‘vulgar auteurs’ like Bay for years.  All I’m saying is, if you’re looking for a 2013 film about the dark underbelly of capitalism and the follies of materialism, Pain and Gain offers just as nuanced a point of view as Wolf of Wall Street, it has the Rock in it**, and its an hour shorter.  From I where I’m standing, that’s a win.

 

 

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*Pain and Gain did make a few critics best of 2013 lists:

A.O. Scott, New York Times (in a total cop-out six way tie for 10th place)

Sean Witzke and Tucker Stone, The Factual Opinion (#10)

Erik Henderson, Wired (unranked list)

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club (#4)

**In my ultimate fantasy, Michael Bay’s next movie is a sequel to The Rock starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson called Rock 2: The Rock Takes the Rock

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Photo cover for Coronet edition of Butcher's Moon by Richard Stark, via Pulp Curry.

Photo cover for Coronet edition of Butcher’s Moon by Richard Stark, via Pulp Curry.

“Nobody tops Stark in his depiction of a world of total amorality” — Anthony Boucher, New York Times Book Review, date unknown

That quote adorned the first Random House hardcover edition of Butcher’s Moon in 1974.  The longest of the Parker novels, it was also nearly the last.  Although Donald Westlake claims he had no plans at the time to end the series or retire his pseudonym of Richard Stark, after Butcher’s Moon both Parker and Stark disappeared for more than twenty years (they returned in 1997 with the aptly named The Comeback)*.

I’ve clearly been reading these books in a terrible order.  I started with a couple of Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptations, then picked up Flashfire, a middling effort from the second generation of Parker tales, then dove right into Butcher’s Moon, which I’ve since learned is the most continuity heavy and fan-servicing title in the whole series.  It was the sixteenth Parker novel and features references to every title that came before, especially Slayground, an early caper whose loot a now-desperate Parker is trying to recover at the beginning of the novel.

Parker soon discovers that in order to get his $73,000 he’ll need to go up against the local mob — and he’s not the only party interested in dethroning the current local godfather.  As in many of Parker’s adventures, especially the first trilogy, Parker is not only an outlaw from the straight world but an outsider even within the criminal underground.  This is important because it means that nearly every character he goes up against is a criminal themselves, including the crooked cops and politicians who serve the syndicate in Tyler, Ohio.  As a writing device this is rather brilliant on Stark’s part because it allows him to ratchet up the bodycount to absurd levels as henchmen after henchmen falls to Parker’s snubnose, while still preserving some since of gravity when one of the (relatively few) innocents is caught in the crossfire.

I was taken with the setting of the mid-size city of Tyler.  In my mind, the mob is always centered around big cities like New York and Chicago or gambling meccas like Vegas and Atlantic City, but Stark’s understanding of the real contours of crime is more nuanced.  This was the Jimmy Hoffa era, after all, when ties between organized labor and organized crime were at their strongest, so it makes since that rust  belts burgs like Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Albany, and Buffalo would make strong power bases not only for the IBT and UAW but for their criminal benefactors as well.  Through the town of Tyler, Stark depicts a society in such moral decline that once unthinkable enterprises are now legitimate businesses.  One villain, the porno theater impresario Buenadella, reflects midway through that he represents a new generation of criminal, for whom the side businesses are more than just money laundering operations and the application of force has become less and less necessary.

Unfortunately for Buenadella and the other genteel mobsters, Parker didn’t get the memo about going legit.  When he decides to put an end to the mob that runs Tyler, they barely fight back — Parker is essentially shooting fish in a barrel, highlighted by a late scene in which Parker relentlessly hunts one cappo in his own home.  At some point in the book, Parker’s motivation has changed from merely getting his money to a desire to enact some version of frontier justice — an unusual change of heart that doesn’t escape the notice of Parker’s accomplices, though it surprises no one more than Parker himself.

The accomplices, by the way, are the most entertaining element of the book.  There are ten of them or so, introduced halfway through the story in a series of vignettes as they all race to answer Parker’s call to gather in Tyler for an unusual, but profitable, gig.  I delighted as Stark managed to paint a portrait of each new character in the space of a few paragraphs, each time telling the reader who they were, what their relationship was to Parker, and what their role would be in the ensuing crime spree, all without getting anyone garbled or coming across as a lifeless infodump.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the crew introduction sequence in Ocean’s 11 (the good version), whose sensibility and style no doubt borrowed liberally from Westlake, though perhaps more from his comic Johnn Dortmunder novels than the hard-boiled Parker series.  This section is no doubt of even greater thrill to more seasoned Parker readers, as I take it that every member of Parker’s newly assembled squad has appeared in at least one earlier book in the series.

The novel’s coup de grace is a long sequence of multiple heists in which this Merry Band of Outlaws takes the lead and Parker stays behind the scenes, counting the money and orchestrating the timing as his team knocks over the local burglar arm company and then takes advantage of this blind spot to hit four businesses with mob ties in one night.  Stark is at his best when delivering his clinical descriptions of perfect crimes, from which the bandits always get away, and it’s a thrill to read as the crew liberates hundreds of thousands of dollars without raising alarms, causing bloodshed, or seemingly causing harm to anyone but the “real bad guys.”  It’s almost elegant, a perfectly choreographed ballet of crime — an illusion that is shattered when the hoods take on their last job of the night, hijacking a suitcase full of drug money, a crime where the only plan is to shoot everyone and leave the scene as quickly as possible.

Though he first appeared in 1962, Parker is very much of a piece with the male antiheroes who dominate in our current vogue for elevated pulp television.  The only difference between him and Tony Soprano or Walter White is that he’s not nearly so internally conflicted.  And much like the creators of the Sopranos and Breaking Bad, Stark does a lyrical job of fetishizing and romanticizing the criminal lifestyle just long enough to shock us when he finally digs in and shows us its dark, still-beating heart.

Detail from Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel adaptation of Slayground, an early Parker novel whose setting is revisited in Butcher's Moon.  Scan via Lambiek.

Detail from Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation of Slayground, an early Parker novel whose setting is revisited in Butcher’s Moon. Scan via Lambiek.

*For the most in-depth publication history along with trivia and a great synopsis of not just Butcher’s Moon but every Parker book, I strongly recommend a visit to The Violent World of Parker.

 

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