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Non-Review Review: Ben is Back

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Ben is Back finds itself in a strange place in terms of weirdness.

At is core, Ben is Back is essentially the Key and Peele vehicle Keanu reimagined as an earnest prestige picture for the era of Beautiful Boy. It is an inherently absurd premise, an exploration of drug addiction that takes the form of an epic odyssey to rescue a beloved family pet. The incongruous pairing of a recovering addict with his suburban mother on this most unlikely Christmas adventure adds an extra layer of strangeness to the whole proceedings. There’s something very exciting about all of these elements thrown together, feeling incredibly unconventional.

Hug life.

Unfortunately, Ben is Back feels gun shy. It never commits to the inherent ridiculousness of using a trashy thriller template to tell a more intimate story about a pressing contemporary issue. Instead, Ben is Back compromises itself. It tries to have the best of both worlds. It tries to strike a balance between being a dogsploitation journey in to the heart of darkness with a more grounded and mundane portrait of a family struggling with the trauma that addiction has inflicted upon them. The two tones might work separately, but they jar as Ben is Back alternates between them.

This is a shame, as there’s a lot of potential in Ben is Back, and a few moments when it seems like it might actually deliver upon it.

Ben around the world, and I can’t find my baby.

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Non-Review Review: Rosie

Rosie is a a very timely piece of Irish cinema, but one that never loses sight of the humanity of this national crisis.

From beginning to end, Rosie is infused with an endearing humanity. Writer Roddy Doyle and director Paddy Breathnach keep the story tightly focused on one particular family caught in the midst of the homeless crisis. Breathnach often literalises this, with a handheld camera that keeps the film literally centred on the face of the eponymous protagonist. Even in wide open spaces, even in public, even when she’s the only adult crossing a green or a schoolyard, Rosie is so tightly focused that it feels claustrophic and almost suffocating.

This is the point, of course. Rosie is a very visceral film, and with good reason. Doyle and Breathnach work hard to ensure that the audience feels ever minor crisis, and that it understands precisely how precarious the situation facing this family happens to be. A delayed lunch break seems catastrophic, a child spending time with a friend seems like a disaster. Time is fleeting, and always slipping through the fingers of its protagonist. When life seems to unfold moment to moment, there is no opportunity to catch her breath or to worry about the bigger picture.

Rosie is a fascinating piece of Irish cinema, both timely and intimate, both reflecting contemporary culture and telling its own story within that framework. It’s an impressive piece of work.

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Alan Moore’s Run on Swamp Thing – Saga of the Swamp Thing (Books #3-4) (Review/Retrospective)

This January, I’m going to take a look at some of DC’s biggest “events.” You can probably guess which event I’m leading into, but I don’t want to spoil it…

I have never read Swamp Thing before. This trip through these lovely (but sadly not oversized or filled with extras) hardcover editions of Alan Moore’s iconic run on the title has been my first encounter with the character. This is Moore’s longest tenure on a mainstream comic book, and the one which introduced him to the mainstream. What’s astounding here is not only how Moore manages to offer something which still stands up as something unique and challenging, but also offers a fairly exciting and well-written book on his own terms.

I have a burning desire to read more...

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Justice League International: Volume 1 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

In light of the massive DC reboot taking place next month, launching with a Geoff Johns and Jim Lee run on a new Justice League title, I thought I’d take a look back at another attempt to relaunch the Justice League, emerging from the then-recent Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Once upon a time — there was a Justice League of America. But that was another era, when the world could afford borders and boundaries. When heroes could claim national loyalties and feel justified in their claims.

But in today’s world there’s no longer room for borders or boundaries. The walls between nations have to fall if our planet is to survive. So, for the new era — a new league: Justice League… International!

– Introducing the Justice League International, Justice League #7

Unlike the upcoming Johns/Lee relaunch of DC’s most famous superhero team, or even Grant Morrison’s tenure on JLA, it’s clear from the outset that Justice League: International was never going to be a powerhouse team. As the introduction states, in the wake of the massive restructuring of the DC Universe following the near-reboot of Crisis on Infinite Earths, many characters were tied up in events in their own titles. George Perez was working on Wonder Woman, while John Byrne was putting his own slant on Superman in Man of Steel. So the only returning iconic Justice League founding members were Batman and the Martian Manhunter. The team had to make do with Guy Gardner as the resident Green Lantern. It wasn’t exactly an all-star line-up, to be honest.

The Unusual Suspects?

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Marvel Crossover Continuity

In August, I decided it would be… interesting to take a look at the event-driven storylines that Marvel was producing between 2005 and 2010. So, for sixteen weeks (and more, if you consider the occasional bonus back-up feature), I reviewed one of the many “events” Marvel produced during the period. I’ve grouped the particular strands of continuity together below for easy of browsing (also providing the original date of publication). I hoped that exploring this particular aspect of the medium might grant me some insight into why big events like this continually upset on-going stories being told by writers in individual characters’ books. It was an interesting experiment, even if I doubt I’ll be engaging with the core of the Marvel Universe so thoroughly any time soon.

Note: It is incomplete. I had planned to follow The Avengers through to Siege, but it looks like my reviewing schedule caught up with them – for the same reason I haven’t got around to The Thanos Imperitive yet. I will return to this thread in the future.

Avengers-Based Continuity

It was a good decade for The Avengers as a franchise, with Marvel consciously pushing the franchise to the forefront – not just in comics but in other media as well. If the nineties and early naughties belonged to the X-Men (with X-Men: The Animated Series on the airwaves, Bryan Singer’s X-Men in cinemas and crossovers like Age of Apocalypse in comic books), this was very clear attempt to take that back. Brian Michael Bendis was tasked with turning the Avengers into Marvel’s prime franchise and succeeded – most of the “big” comic book events of the decade revolved around them. That said it was certainly a controversial restructuring of the book, with a line-up crafted to feature more popular characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine instead of more obscure characters like Quicksilver or the Scarlet Witch.

The Avengers branched out into other media too. Iron Man demonstrated that Marvel’s “big three” could hold viewer interest in cinemas, and promised a series of crossovers on the big screen that would see The Avengers assemble under the direction of Joss Whedon. As a brand, Marvel made sure these characters were everywhere.

The stories featuring these characters over the decade form something of a larger meta-story which seems to reflect on the superhero genre as a whole. Although Bendis’ New Avengers opens with a supervillain breakout, the characters spent more time fighting each other than bad guys (Civil War, World War Hulk). When they did fight bad guys, they were more often than not corrupted mirrors of themselves, be it the Skrulls who had managed to so perfectly imitate heroes despite being villains (Secret Invasion) or government-sanctioned psychotic “Dark Avengers” (Siege). It was a story about how difficult it was to be a hero in the last few years – in the wake of the “dark age” of comic books – and a deconstruction of the effectiveness of a group of individuals like this to actually make a difference. You could even argue that this was a grim reflection of real world political and social uncertainty – particularly mistrust of authority (it’s telling how much time these heroes spend going “rogue”). Of course, this is open to interpretation, and many fans were less than pleased with the execution of this particular tale.

“Cosmic Marvel” Continuity

Marvel’s Cosmic Universe got a much-needed revitalisation this decade, offering perhaps a better-plotted and more straightforward avenue for Marvel’s crossover events. Although Jim Shooter had done great work with many of these characters in the nineties (with Infinity Gauntlet and so forth), they had mostly remained in relative obscurity before the relaunch.

The distinguishing aspect of these stories is the way that they are structured. Rather than a big event coinciding with countless tie-ins across countless books, most of these stories would open with a single prologue issue which would branch into a handful of miniseries running for a set number of issues, before dovetailing into a main series. This meant that every issue remotely connected with a series could be collected in a hardcover. Admittedly the titles become more entangled in continuity as they went on (with War of Kings tying in directly to Ed Brubaker’s The Rise & Fall of the Shi’ar Empire story arc in Uncanny X-Men), but by and large these series served to avoid pointless tie-ins and an exceptionally convoluted continuity (everything you needed was included in the books themselves).

They’re the best crossovers that you weren’t reading.

X-Men Continuity

The last decade has been an interesting one for the X-Men, as both the books and the characters have found themselves looking for purpose. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men posited a world where mutants would be the dominant species with a few generations and proposed to move the “mutants as oppressed minority” metaphor firmly into the twenty-first century, where the worries weren’t (at least for the most part) about government-sponsored genocide or legal rights, but cultural and social questions about the way that mutants and humanity live together. This was clearly a step too far, as Marvel decided to essentially wipe out the mutant population, feeling there were too many mutants in the Marvel Universe. This was done with three words from a psychotic Scarlet Witch rather than a more subtle approach (like simply reducing the number of mutants featured in various books).

Suddenly the X-Men found themselves facing extinction, and this became a driving narrative force for the book. It was as if the line was actively rebelling against the editorial mandate forced upon them. Instead of granting narrative clarity, the edict had instead complicated things. It also forced the X-Men away from their widely-loved position as a civil rights metaphor and towards a more straight forward “find the cure” narrative. It also served to isolate the franchise from the rest of the Marvel Universe (except for Wolverine, of course, who is everywhere) – the X-Men were always busy doing their thing and trying not to die out rather than assisting with Civil War or Secret Invasion. The solution to this narrative thread is entirely predictable, but it does offer a clear structure to the X-Men stories from the period.

It’s interesting to note that while all the major Avengers titles from this period (New/Mighty/Dark Avengers) have been consistantly collected, the X-Men books have not been. Ed Brubaker’s run is quite difficult to collect in one consistent format, as is Matt Fraction’s – and both are writing for what should be “the flagship book” of the X-Men publishing line, Uncanny X-Men. This makes it considerably harder to follow than the Avengers franchise, for example.

Final Crisis (Review/Retrospective)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. Later on today, we’ll be reviewing Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, so I thought I might take a look at a comic book tale which was heavy on Superman, Darkseid and Batman…

This epic elegy for a doomed civilisation, declining from splendor to squalor. This Final Crisis. This last ditch attempt to save creation itself from a loathing and greed beyond measure.

– Grant Morrison outlines the whole point of the book, in case you weren’t paying attention… in a narration which deserves to be read in the most pompously ridiculous style possible

Look, I could hitch a ride back with you. I have a real talent for gritty drama no one’s ever thought to exploit.

– Merryman makes a pitch for “relevance” in the hopes of escaping comic book “limbo”

Destruction or creation. Everything or nothing. A universe full or a universe empty. Life or anti-life. Grant Morrison certainly lives up to his reputation as a frustrating and challenging author – is Final Crisis the statement of a genre looking to make peace with itself, or nonsensical Silver Age surrealism repackaged for a modern world? Is it pretentious or profound? Insightful or devoid of interest? Can’t it be both, or are these mutually exclusive states?

We all knew Obama was Superman…

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Geoff Johns’ Run on Green Lantern – Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps (Vol. I & II) & Rise of the Black Lanterns

All right, gang. Let’s go shoot some zombies.

– Captain Cold, Blackest Night: Flash

It wouldn’t be a massive world-ending crisis of a DC Universe cross-over if there weren’t tie-in issues by the bucketful. Sinestro Corps War, Geoff Johns’ earlier Green Lantern mega-event, was relatively low-key in its ambitions, only really spilling across into four specials that dealt with the wider DC Universe. This time there’s close to thirty, which is, as you’d imagine, quite a lot. Given the relatively simplistic nature of the event (it’s basically “superhero zombies”), you’d be forgiven for expecting that the crossovers and tie-ins would become dull or monotonous, but they mostly avoid that. It’s partially due to the variety of perspectives offered, but also due to the extremely talented pool of writers and artists on hand.

As cold... as ice...

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