Comic Review: Transmetropolitan

The United States recently concluded its latest Election and delivered a profoundly unsettling result.  As I pondered all the bad things which could potentially happen, I realized it was time to go and read my issues of Transmetropolitan again.

Transmetropolitan was a gloriously nasty, gritty, and beloved comic book which ran from 1997 to 2002.  It was the creation of the famous Warren Ellis and it futured a cyberpunk, transhumanist, dystopian New York City 200 years from now.  The primary character was a cantankerous journalist named Spider Jerusalem, a foul-mouthed drug-using burnout whose nasty disposition hid a goodhearted man who just wanted to tell the truth about what he saw on the street and in the halls of power.  Over its five-year run, Spider’s story went through several twists and turns as his pursuit of the truth eventually earned him increasingly powerful enemies who would stop at nothing to silence him. From its anarchist beginnings to its bittersweet end, this ranks as one of the best comic stories ever told.

Especially relevant is Spider’s relationship with the President of the United States.  Spider’s quest for truth leads him to interview two different Presidents – the first is ‘The Beast’, a hulking Nixonian paranoiac who is endlessly corrupt and self-serving.  The second is worse – ‘The Smiler’, a horrific sociopath who ascends to the Presidency, hates humanity, and whose soul intention is to torment anyone who displeases him.  The interviews Spider had with both men rank up with favorite comic book moments ever.

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To say any more about the series would ruin the fabulous fun but suffice it to say, this comic book is one of the best heroic stories I have read.  Instead of a masked crusader with superpowers, you get an ordinary man who is an unlikable barely functioning human being thrust into interesting times.  He doesn’t fly or leap tall buildings in a single bound, he is a journalist who fights back against the powers to be with pen and paper.  During one of the darkest moments of the series, he pulls out a cigarette and says, “So we have a deadline.  We can do deadlines”.

Spider Jerusalem isn’t anyone’s idea of a superhero but heroes come in all shapes and sizes and this guy is the most heroic comic character I know.  Frankly, I admire him.  Transmetropolitan was ahead of its time – but as I sit here watching the news unfold on the TV, I realize its time has finally arrived.

Movie Review: The Arrival

I watched the Arrival last night and I’m conflicted.  It was either the best pure science fiction movie I’ve seen in a while or it was one the most boring.

The Arrival is a film about first contact with an alien race but instead of a crowd pleasing special effects spectacle like Independence Day, it tries to take the subject matter seriously and deal with one of the most vexing questions which would arise in such a scenario:  How do you talk to these beings who don’t share a single physical, mental, cultural, or social similarity to us?  How would you communicate if their concept of language is radically different?

To its credit, the Arrival is visually striking.  One of the opening scenes of the helicopter flying over the Montana landscape approaching the Alien ship is one of the best single science fiction shots I have ever seen.  The choice of the Montana landscape was beautiful, but cold and foreboding.  I couldn’t imagine humanity living there – and then you add the dark and unresponsive alien ship and suddenly, my own planet – hell, part of a state of my own country felt alienating.  The movie is full of shots like this both outside and inside the alien ship.

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The actual process of how they go about communicating with the aliens is fascinating.  It is difficult, full of fits and starts and roadblocks.  Some of their successes are accidental, some of them brilliant.  The process is made more fascinating by good character performances.  Forest Whitaker as a patient but stressed military officer and Jeremy Renner as a physicist are both good but this is Amy Adams movie from start to finish.  Her performance is pun intended, stellar as she deals with a hidden melancholy which later makes more sense as well as the fatigue of linguist for whom working her ass off because everything is riding on her.

It is unfortunate though that so much of the movie is boring to watch.  I knew I wasn’t there for dogfights and laser beams – I was there to think and ponder but damn, this was one weirdly paced movie.  One moment you have this truly brilliant set shot, and then you get a bunch of dialogue which is barely interesting filler.  You then get these riveting scenes of alien-human interaction, then you get some flash forward shots with narration explain things – not a good choice.  Even the central conflict which dominates the late third of the movie seems like a half-hearted afterthought meant to add dramatic tension – as if the language scenes which were the strength of the movie weren’t enough.  I felt it interesting that in the middle of the movie, I saw a few people get up and leave the theater which was otherwise packed.

Ultimately, I feel this movie ranks up there with Close Encounters and Contact as the best realistic first contact stories out there – I would probably rank it third behind the two above and thus in good company.  Do I recommend it?  Yes – but I think you’re going to have to understand what you’re getting.  You are going to get a slow paced, beautifully shot, cerebral movie which leaves you thinking about big things – you’re just not going to get a very exciting one.

Movie Review: Doctor Strange

 

Doctor Strange is one of those Marvel heroes I never followed growing up.  Occasionally he would pop into other series (I seemed to recall seeing him do some things with Thor and Spider Man at some point in the past) but I didn’t go out of my way to seek out his stuff.  Mostly what I remember was he was presented differently than the other heroes.  Where they were going after threats to humanity with lots of heroics and superhero one-liners, Strange was strange.  There were talks about other dimensions and other metaphysical stuff which frankly my youthful self just kind of bounced off.  Nowadays, Strange is something which I think I could have gotten into.

As for the movie?  I will give you two reviews.

The first review is of the film itself and regrettably, I found it to be average hero origin story 101.  Let me see if this sounds familiar?  Arrogant man is brought low by a crisis, goes on a voyage of self-discovery in hopes of turning back the clock.  Discovers what he was looking for and is served up a villain to fight.  Loses the first time, goes through further doubt, gets motivational speech and then comes back in for the big win – at the same time learning about self-sacrifice and becoming heroic.  Where have I we seen that one before?  The answer is everywhere.

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That isn’t to say the movie itself isn’t worth seeing.  Like all the Marvel movies, it is competently made and given that the heroes and villains of this story can bend time, matter, and space towards their will, there are some inventive set piece scenes and use of CGI.  The performances are well done and they have continued the trend of injecting humor into the story.  Strange isn’t Tony Stark – but he gives off the same vibe.  Still, I think there was missed opportunity for something special here.  The material lent itself to a quieter more metaphysical movie.  To battles of competing realities and psychedelic head trips where time itself was called into question – I wanted the superhero version of InceptionI must admit I was disappointed with all the possibilities, I got two guys sword fighting.  Come on, these guys can make reality their bitch – couldn’t we have gotten something different?

There it is, average.  Two thumbs meh.

I said earlier there would be two reviews and the second one is that no Marvel movie can be talked about in isolation.  Disney is building a tapestry of interlocked stories and properties and Doctor Strange the property is an exciting addition and opens the possibilities of tons of news stories.  The Netflix properties (Daredevil, Jessica Jones) are street stories while Agents of Shield and the main line movies (Captain America, Iron Man) are about defending the Earth.  Guardians of the Galaxy covers the Space angle and Thor is the crossover character which straddles multiple storylines.  Strange opens the world of magic, mysticism, and the multiverse and I personally think they are setting him up to be a crossover character for multiple storylines.  Seeds dropped in this movie including a critical post-credit sequence which might as well be the first scene to the next Marvel movie leave me excited by the possibilities.

Ultimately, go see Doctor Strange and enjoy it – it is a middle of the pack Marvel film and those are generally decent ways to spend an afternoon.  However, I personally am hoping for more in further installments and for future directors to make things strange.