I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Following S01E01: "Pilot"

The Following is probably the best publicized new television program to air as a mid-season replacement this winter. Simply put, it is the story of a serial killer with quite a... following who has escaped from custody and the author who knows the most about him and who must organize a crew in order to take him down.

One of the first things you have to look for in a new network television program is how well the actors act. In some shows, old hand actors with an amazing tenure in the business fall flat, delivering only what they need to deliver in order to get a paycheck. And while new talent sometimes seems like it can't compare, it is often that actor that you have never heard of who makes waves, like Evangeline Lilly on LOST, for example. The point is that you can rarely tell by looking at the actors on IMDB or even by watching the trailer for the show if the cast is going to be strong. The first thing I noticed about The Following is that Kevin Bacon, Maggie Grace and Billy Brown (remember him from Dexter?) are all great actors with varying degrees of success. I think the best moment of the Pilot took place when Grace's character Sarah Fuller testified against the killer in a flashback and described a moment where she couldn't remove a knife from her so she pushed it deeper inside in hopes that she would bleed out sooner. It was heavy. It was deep. It was creepier than I'm used to with prime time network television. It was just plain good.

Unfortunately, that's where the good ends. Everything about the writing, directing and production feels like everything else on successful network TV - it is cheap and boring, but it is familiar and doesn't require much from its audience. It is perfect for the every-fattening Americans who sit on the couch and talk about how much they like franchise television shows like Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS. Shaun Ashemore's acting is weak, his character vacillating back and forth from cocky cop running the show to fanboy. And here's the really sad part: there is nothing the least bit menacing about the murderer. It doesn't matter if James Purefoy is a fantastic actor, because the murderer Joe Carroll was written to be so bland that nobody could make him interesting.

I had invested first in the Cinemax show Banshee, second in the FOX show The Following and then finally in the FX show The Americans. Banshee and The Following were both weak enough that I found it difficult to watch the entire pilot - forty minutes of commercial-free programming can be a very long time for a busy young individual, after all. Thank goodness that FX delivered with The Americans. Skip the others.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Uncanny X-Force #1

Now that the marriage between Storm and Black Panther has been annulled and the relationship between Psylocke and Fantomex appears to be over, the two X-women have a decent amount to talk about. Of course, in true superhero form, these conversations occur while the two are putting their lives on the line for the greater good. In this first issue, Ororo and Betsy accept a mission from the premiere Canadian superhero Puck.

The cover (Olivier Coipel) and interior (Ron Garney) art in this book is absolutely amazing. In a reverse of Schindler's List, black and white is used to distinguish characters from their colorful surroundings for narrative purposes. When it comes to illustration, sometimes it feels like you're looking at scribbles that anyone could have put together, but Uncanny X-Force reminds you that illustration is an art. The artist has just as much power, and possibly more, when compared to the writer in developing the characters and the narrative.

Writer Samuel Ryan Humphries shows that he knows what he's doing - and thank goodness, because I've never heard of him before Uncanny X-Force - by choosing some interesting characters, showing that he's done his homework when it comes to their past and their motivations, and showing that he cares about them by showcasing important parts of their lives. In addition to the interesting discussion of loves lost between Storm and Psylocke, it is interesting to see mostly forgotten characters like Puck and Spiral in this story, and it is especially interesting to note that Spiral is one of a couple characters responsible for Psylocke losing her eyes and having them replaced by bionic spy eyes. If you haven't recently read Uncanny X-Men from the mid- to late-80s, you might have completely passed over this rivalry. I have some hope that Humphries might give Puck a similar treatment. Let's not forget that Puck used to be a giant of a man. There is some interesting story there.

On the down side, I am a little skeptical of the future of this title. Part of me wishes that this were the new Alpha Flight, starring Storm, Psylocke and Puck, but sadly I'm not so lucky. Instead, I see Storm in a really weird position. She is a woman who has always valued life and balance, even when she got really mad about losing her powers and decided to show the world by growing a mohawk, but I'm suddenly supposed to believe that she has no scruples with joining an assassination squad? This is the single character who had the balls to point out the moral problems with Cyclops and his Extinction Team after the division between team Cyclops and team Wolverine. Furthermore, the characters who are teased at the end of the book don't interest me, and I have a hard time believing that interesting stories can be built around them.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the art, the story, and the character development that I've seen so far has been strong enough to keep me reading to the next issue. In some ways this book is phenomenal (and by that, I mean in terms of art), but in all ways it meets the minimum expectation for a comic: it makes you want to pick up the next issue.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Deadpool: Classics Killustrated #1

When Deadpool finds himself unhappy with his ordinary every-day universe-hopping in order to murder every version of every Marvel character that he can find, he decides that he needs to expand his horizons and begin murdering literary heroes from before the age of comic books in the hope that killing the supposed inspiration for superheroes will prevent the superheroes from existing in the first place.

There is a lot to like about Classics Killustrated. Over the last decade, many comic book companies have done what they can to present literature to children in the form of comic books. The only successful attempt I've seen is Skottie Young's Wizard of Oz series. It is interesting to see Deadpool take on this phenomenon in his omniscient, fourth-wall-breaking way. Cullen Bunn is a strong support writer. I know him from being Brubaker's number two during his long run on Captain America, so it is not surprising to see him as the number two to Posehn and Duggan on the Deadpool books. The art is pretty solid as well, although nothing to phone home about. I really liked the concept that the classic heroes of literature might be the necessary condition for superheroes, and the setup for a Sherlock Holmes adversary was intriguing.

The problem is that I find it hard to invest in a non-canonical Deadpool book in which our favorite anti-hero kills characters at random across the multiverse without significant repercussions. Deadpool's motives make no sense to me, nor do they appeal to me in any way. While I would normally disagree when people in the government blame senseless acts of violence on the media, I can't help but see their point when it comes to some of these such-and-such kills the Marvel Universe books. Deadpool is an assassin, but there is much more to his draw than merely committing pointless acts of violence. Deadpool is supposed to be both funny and fun, and while I've mentioned that Bunn can certainly pull his own weight when it comes to writing, it seems like wit doesn't come quite so easy to him as with other Deadpool writers.

Some might think that this sort of a comic book is appalling. I just feel like it is pointless. I don't think Marvel should stop publishing books like this. I just think that readers with taste should do their best to stay away from forcing a boring book like this upon themselves.

Bunn breathes some fresh air into a genre of comic books that is utterly meaningless, but it is not the kind of air that gives life to something good. It is more like the air that you put in a leaky tire - it's enough to get you home, but you're still going to have to fix or replace that tire. In terms of Classics Killustrated and the entire "kill everybody" genre, I am weighing in on the side of discard, forget, and replace with something better.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Star Wars #2

In the second "episode" of the new Star Wars comic book, Princess Leia assembles a team of X-wing pilots to search for a new Rebellion home base. Meanwhile, Han Solo evades pursuit by an Imperial Star Destroyer, Luke "gets cocky" after showing off his piloting skills in a simulator, and Vader's Elite Star Destroyer comes under new management.

One thing that the Star Wars comic has going for it is that it de-centers the story-telling process. Instead of having Luke Skywalker (IV-VI) or Anakin Skywalker (I-III) as our main protagonist, we see things from the perspective mainly of Leia Organa (#1) and Han Solo (#2). This is both a good and bad decision on the part of the creative staff. It is good because these characters need to be better developed, and not just by non-canonical writers. When you release a comic called Star Wars without hyphens or colons, and this close to the announcement that there will be more films, you tease the possibility of their stories being canon, and what the Star Wars universe is lacking is canonical stories from the perspective of Leia, Han, Chewie, and friends. It is bad because there is no singular focus. Already by issue two, the Leia story, which is by far the most intriguing that the comic has to offer, has been pushed into the background, and Han, while fun, is not as interesting. A run-in with Jabba has been teased, but we've all seen the remakes of the original trilogy. The romance of Han and Jabba leaves a bad taste in our mouths, a taste of CG and the destruction of our childhood.

Of course, Leia's mission to find the mole in the Rebellion is still under way, and we see it develop ever so slightly with the creation of her rogue X-wing team. I hope that I am following a red herring on this, but I think that the conclusion of this story is pretty clear. It will be frustrating if I am correct. Leia has spent a lot of time in the last two issues mourning her lost planet Alderaan, and now we find a starfighter pilot from Alderaan on her team. Certainly, she will be looking for someone who has experienced Alderaan, who remembers the joys, who can share her sorrow. She will grow close to the Alderaan pilot, and he will be the mole. Maybe I'm being stubborn. Maybe there's a much more interesting story to be developed here. I just don't think so.

The second issue is not nearly as interesting as the first. We need to hear more from Princess Leia, to understand her more fully, because the other characters (with the exception of Vader) are a little too flat in this comic (mainly because they're fully developed elsewhere). I want to keep reading this comic, but if we get too many more issues like this second issue, I might have to stop.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Superior Spider-man #3

In this issue of Superior Spider-man Otto Octavius/Spider-man offers his old friend the Vulture a deal if he'll quit his life of crime, but when he sees just how disturbed the Vulture really is he goes overboard in order to take him down.

If anyone had wondered if Dan Slott's genius had come to an end at the conclusion of his Amazing Spider-man run, this issue should answer with a resounding "no." The fact of the matter is that Peter Parker is not the only character worthy of development. In a flashback, Slott shows us a scene of mutual respect and friendship between a younger Otto Octavius and the Vulture. Reading the old comics about the first time the Sinister Six came together, I doubt anyone wondered, "What does this look like from the perspective of Doctor Octopus?" No. The actual response was, "Doctor Octopus is heartless."

But it is the heart of Otto Octavius rather than the devious mind that leads him astray in the third installation of this series. It seems that his respect for Vulture and their shared hatred for Spider-man blinded Otto to the true nature of his former friend. After all, the Vulture has been abusing the young in a variety of different ways since he first began using them as batteries in order to keep him from decrepitude. Perhaps for the first time, Slott informs readers that there are limits to how far Otto Octavius will go, and those limits have nothing to do with the memories and conscience of Peter Parker that have been superimposed on Otto.

This issue was mostly disturbing. If the Vulture's child abuse wasn't enough, then the eerie scenes where it is clear that Carly knows the truth about Otto's deception should have sent a shiver down your spine. It is clear to Peter Parker that Carly knows, but it is also clear that she has to play this one carefully. If Otto were to be exposed, there would certainly be a deadly backlash as he uses all of Spider-man's "great power" to protect his secret, to protect his newly found life.

The only bad thing I have to say about Superior Spider-man is that new issues come out so often that it has become difficult to keep up with reviewing them. Fortunately, I am having no problem keeping up with enjoying them. Superior Spider-man remains the best new comic of the year, and I don't think Bendis's Uncanny X-Men or Johns's Justice League of America will be able to dethrone the king.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

The Americans S01E02: "The Clock"

In this episode, superspies Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings undertake an impossible mission in order to get ears on a meeting between US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and her defense secretary John Nott regarding the Strategic Defense Initiative. For that to happen, they will have to attach a bug to the clock in Weinberger's office, hopefully without blowing their cover and sacrificing nearly two decades of residency. Meanwhile, Agent Beeman has a similar strategy: he wishes to convince a woman to work for the FBI as a spy in the Soviet embassy.

Due to the likelihood of this mission going bad, Elizabeth Jennings is forced to look at her own mortality and to examine the consequences for their children should their mission in America go bad. Phillip is much more concerned with the details of the mission while Jennings appears to spend her time worrying about the family, which stands in stark contrast to the events of the first episode where Jennings nearly ratted out her husband for losing his faith in the mission and wanting to live a normal life with their American children. While the pilot episode brought intrigue, the second episode brought depth - both of these people are both Soviets and Americans. Their concerns are divided over two worlds, and they believe that only one of these worlds can win.

With all of this one the line, Phillip is forced to bluff Weinberger's maid into switching out the clock for them with only the threat of her son's death and the threat that there are more of these operatives watching her every move. We see him walk a tight rope, hoping all the while that things will go all right. The thin wall between victory and failure is shown by comparison to Phillip's relationship with his son. Phillip gives young Henry an imperative, and Henry's response is, "Or you'll do what?" What would happen if the maid were to ask the same thing? Would he have to kill her and find some other way into the office?

As I mentioned in my first post for The Americans, the creators have no problem dealing with difficult sexual situations. In the pilot, we see that Phillip is disturbed when his wife has a one night stand with an American government official. But in this episode, Elizabeth is jealous when she sees a picture of the beautiful blonde that Phillip has spent a decent amount of time turning into an asset. Certainly, Elizabeth's extramarital sexual act is hard to deal with, but what of Phillip's repeated infidelity and the fact that he's convinced this woman that he's in love with her? Add to this the fact that the Jennings family is forced to put these under-trained operatives in harms way time and time again with a fairly high mortality rate and you run into some serious moral dilemmas.

Many reviewers ooed and aaed about the pilot of The Americans and complained that the second episode wasn't as good. I'm here to say that both episodes are of the same quality. They tell a fantastic family story balanced with intriguing spy action. The Americans is developing into a robust family story with the potential for several seasons of quality entertainment. If you're not watching it, you're missing out.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

New Avengers #3

With the new addition of the marvelous blue-furred mutant Beast - the heir to the mind gem after Charles Xavier's death - the Illuminati decide to assemble the Infinity Gauntlet in hopes that its power can prevent universes from colliding and collapsing, or, to be specific, in order to save the Earth. Their prisoner, the universe-hopping woman named Black Swan, is not quite so optimistic.

While I was interested in the characterization of the Beast and Captain America, I have to admit that I was somewhat disappointed that Black Panther was pushed to the background in this issue. Just when I thought New Avengers would be a Black Panther book, Jonathan Hickman has decided to prove me wrong. Initially, this is not all that disconcerting. This is a team book, after all, and Black Panther has been the single most prevalent character if we total up all the page-time in the first three issues. My problem is that once a character like Black Panther has been pushed behind one or two other characters, it is not always so easy to pull him back out to the front. Panther was once the dissenting voice in a room full of powerful mega-minds who could re-write reality, and as of this issue he has been replaced by Captain America in this office. Certainly, it is interesting that he is willing to turn utilitarian as soon as he believes that the people of Wakanda in Earth-616 might benefit, but once this move is made, what is there to distinguish Black Panther from the rest of this council? As a publisher, Marvel can either bench Black Panther because he doesn't sell comics, or they can double down on him and convince the people that they should be reading Black Panther books. I am a fan of the latter, because I'm tired of businesses pointing to the consumers when they're accused of not caring for minorities and saying, "My hands are tied. The people don't like black heroes." It is too easy of a cop-out for an industry that has a surprising amount of power in changing public perception about social issues. (Did you forget how much of a hubbub Brian Michael Bendis brought about when he created a multi-racial Spider-man?)

Aside from this issue, which I don't think should just be placed aside easily, I really liked this issue. Beast is a great character, and I'm interested to see how he deals with the Illuminati as Xavier's proxy. It was really interesting to see Xavier deliver the mind gem to Beast via a psionic implant and trigger. Perhaps he took a page from the Weapon X handbook on that one.

Without spoiling the entire issue like I usually do, the conclusion of New Avengers #3 is troubling for the Illuminati, both because of the threats that it implies and because the voice of morality is likely to be ignored. I'm not excited to see what horrors might happen in the process of saving Earth, but I am excited to keep reading. New Avengers continues to be one of the better books that Marvel has released during the Marvel Now! movement.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

House of Cards S01E02: "Chapter 2"

In the second episode of the acclaimed new Netflix series, Frank Underwood continues his vendetta against his colleagues by convincing the denuded Secretary of Education to give over control of an important education bill and making the Secretary of State step down from office after looking like a racist jerk on national television. While Frank was able to accomplish quite a bit toward furthering his own agenda, much of the focus of this episode moved to Frank's wife Claire's struggles, both at work and in her relationship with Frank.

Robin Wright works very hard to make Claire Underwood downright inscrutable. It is nearly impossible to see what she is feeling beneath that shell of hers, both in terms of her decision to let go of most of her staff at her non-profit and in terms of her competitive/uncaring/caring/weird relationship with Frank. What we get from her is subtle, and it was wonderful to see Claire unpacked a little bit during this episode. If my interpretation is correct, Claire Underwood is concerned with aging and its ultimate result: death. This is why she bought a rowing machine for Frank, because health is one of the ways that we fight against entropy. This is also why she is going in such a difficult position with the non-profit: if she does not distinguish herself as hip and fresh, she and her entire enterprise will be distinguished as old and outmoded, and that's a situation where nobody wins. The question of mortality and replacement was hit home when Claire watches an older woman who is incapable of ringing up her coffee and who is immediately replaced by a younger, more capable employee.

These Death-of-a-Salesman-style themes permeate all of House of Cards. One needs only look to Frank being passed over for Secretary of State, Zoe Barnes rung-climbing past her colleagues because of her relationship with Frank, and the fact that the new education bill was written by six young wannabe-politicos to see this fact. The question becomes: Is Frank using this changing of the guard theme to his advantage or will he ultimately fail at his attempts because he's old and the next model has already come out?

House of Cards remains cleverly written and intelligently delivered. Kevin Spacey is still amazing, and he's even growing into that Southern accent a little bit better. The supporting cast is doing a great job of distinguishing themselves, but also of playing their parts. The second episode made it more clear to me just how fantastic the cinematography is in this series during a scene where Frank stands in front of a building in the night and the balance of light and darkness was absolutely stunning. Netflix pumped a lot of money into this series - this is true - but it is delightful to see that the money is going to good use. (If you've forgotten just how that much money can be misused, I direct your attention to Michael Bay's series of Transformers movies. What a waste!)

In the future, I'd like to see more about what made Frank and Claire Underwood into the people they are now, what their hopes and dreams were, what their early life was like, all that. It's not a problem yet, but if we don't get something that makes them more human within the first five episodes I fear it could hurt the program. As of now, however, House of Cards is the aces. (Get it?)

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Free Energy - Love Sign

Free Energy is a Philadelphia rock band comprised of Scott Wells (guitar), Paul Sprangers (vocals), Evan Wells (bass), Nicholas Shuminsky (drums), and Sheridan Fox (guitar). They released their sophomore album titled Love Sign this January.

There are a lot of good things that I can say about Free Energy. They are great musicians and Love Sign has some great production quality. Scott Wells delivers some fantastic and rich guitar sounds throughout an album that has a consistent feel to it throughout. Thematically, Love Sign is positive and makes the listener remember what it is like to be in love and to feel alive. It is hard not to hear remnants of other talented musicians in the work of Free Energy. The album starts off huge, much like The Darkness did in their album One Way Ticket to Hell and Back. Sprangers' vocals and much of the band's style are reminiscent of the '90s band Everclear if you removed some of the darker undertones of abandonment and abuse. Many of the songs feel like they were written either as Tom Petty or for Tom Petty to sing. Outside of those bands, there are little glimpses of Zwan here and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah there.

It would be really easy to write a great review of the album Love Sign, but unfortunately I just can't.

There is something missing in this album. There are moments where the band pokes its head into some real Indie rock goodness and proves that they have their own sound and their own story to tell, but almost immediately they retreat and hide in pop anonymity. Perhaps they wish to do honor to their predecessors and in the process they forget to do honor to themselves. While some of these influences point them in a great direction, elements like the terrible overproduced alt-rock-inspired background vocals bring this band down. Free Energy is fun but ultimately forgettable, and that is because they are missing the magic, that singular sound that could only be theirs. Without it, the best they can hope to accomplish is to blend in and get a paycheck.

With the right inspiration and the right direction, I think that Free Energy could be one of the best bands you've ever heard. Maybe that sound is there in their first album. I don't know, because I haven't listened to it. I think, though, that if they work for it, that greatness could certainly be present in their third album. My thought is that they could start with my favorite track "True Love" and devote themselves to making every track on their next album better than this stand-out track from Love Sign.

Free Energy has all of the puzzle pieces. Now comes the challenge of putting the puzzle together and seeing what appears.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

A$AP Rocky - LongLiveA$AP

A$AP Rocky is the stage name Rakim Mayers, a rapper who despite the inclusion of a dollar sign in his name is much more than a ripoff of '90s gangsta rap. While A$AP certainly spends a fair amount of time dealing with the themes of that particular genre, LongLiveA$AP makes it clear that A$AP is concerned with other things, like compassion and social justice, having a good time, and the thing that makes him a rapper of note, art.

While the first couple of tracks on the album make it seem like LongLiveA$AP is just a cheap callback to the works of Puff Daddy and Biggy, with weak beats and a ridiculous menacing deep voice, it is clear through this haze that A$AP is a really talented rapper. He is highly intelligent and referential, and when he's willing to be vulnerable he is really thoughtful. Of course, anyone who delves into gangsta-style rap, even for a couple of tracks, has difficulty with vulnerability, so you have to dig a little bit for thoughtful moments. When you get to a song like "Suddenly," however, A$AP effortlessly incorporates wisdom like the following line: "You my brother, you my kin / F*** the color of your skin."

For the most part, the album is well produced, and songs like "LVL" and "F***** Problem" are a couple examples of songs with amazing hooks. A$AP has the same problem that most of my favorite rappers have: he has difficulty producing an album. Don't get me wrong. He makes amazing tracks. But rap and techno tracks are often made differently than those of other genres because they're more likely to be mixed into other tracks by DJs. As a result, there will be more emptiness at the beginning and end of tracks and less flow from one track to another. While A$AP may have flow (ie. a decent amount of money gained by having successful records), he does not have flow (a consistent sound and feeling from track to track), and it certainly doesn't help that his album is a little bit too long. I would have cut out a couple of the first tracks and then sequenced and mixed the album a little differently, but I can't say that A$AP and his production crew have the same goals in mind. I can't fault A$AP too much for being better at tracks than albums. The only two rappers I've ever encountered who can put together an album that would make the Beatles and the Beach Boys proud are Kanye West (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below).

On that note, I have to digress and bring up a constant theme on LongLiveA$AP. After my first listen, I was certain that A$AP is obsessed with Outkast and the ATL scene. The first track "Long Live A$AP" has a chorus that could have been borrowed directly from Love Below track if I didn't know any better. With a high-pitched dreamy voice and enveloped sound, this could easily be Andre 3000 singing (although, I have to say Andre is a better singer). The fast rapping on "PMW (All I Really Need)" sounds like a throwback to Andre as well. In "Wild for the Night," A$AP directly references Outkast and the song "She Lives in My Lap," while Andre and Big Boi are both mentioned later in the track "Ghetto Symphony." This is a strong enough theme that I wonder whether I should review this album on its own merits or as a tribute album.

LongLiveA$AP didn't blow me away, but it certainly put A$AP Rocky on my map of rappers to look out for. My girlfriend said that 2013 is likely to be a great year for rap, and that means that the January release of LongLiveA$AP is merely the warning shots. Even if I'd skip a track or two here and there, songs like "Hell, featuring Santigold," "Fashion Killa," and "Like I'm Apart" were strong enough that I wouldn't be surprised to see them on a few reviewers end of the year favorites list.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

The Americans S01E01: "Pilot"

The year is 1981. Two Russian spies have been posing as an American couple for a decade and a half complete with a house and two kids at the center of American policy, Washington DC. The Cold War seems everything but cold with the election of Ronald Regan and the difficulties his spy-hunting stance bring for these KGB operatives. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings speak perfect English, and if rumors are correct they haven't spoken a word of Russian since they met. They also hunt down former Soviets who have turned into informants for American money while also making certain that their daughter has the clothing she needs and their son gets to hockey practice on time.

In the first episode, The Americans delivers some of the best story telling I've encountered since watching The Godfather for the first time. A scene will create a question in the viewer - like, "Why was Elizabeth romancing that Department of Defense guy in the beginning?" - and right when it seems like that scene might have just been a throw-away scene about sacrifice and the spy life it is tied perfectly into the story. Every scene is necessary and plays an important role in the development of the narrative. After the one hour ten minute long pilot has completed I found myself amazed that I not only knew who the five main characters - Phillip, Elizabeth, Paige and Henry Jennings, and Agent Stan Beeman - were, what motivated them and a rough idea of the trajectory of their story arcs, but I also understood a lot about the American and Russian governments and their aims during the time period.

The acting is surprisingly strong. Keri Russell has been a favorite actress of mine for years now. I was never as much of a fan of her during the Felicity days, but when she started taking more adult roles she really showed that she is incredibly professional and very dedicated to the art of acting. But Russell is not the only one who delivers. There is not a single awkward actor in this series, at least not as of episode one. Furthermore, and I think this might be the key to the future success of The Americans, the creative team is brave. Already in the pilot, they tackle some seriously difficult issues of sexuality, from Elizabeth's sexual intelligence sortie and its implications for her relationship with Phillip to a KGB commander who is sanctioned to rape his underlings as part of their training to a brute who believes it is OK to take advantage of under-aged girls to the most difficult topic of all: the balance of duty to country and love of ones family.

Furthermore, if you want to win me over, there are two things you need to do: have a good story and make it a period piece in the 1980s. I was really impressed by the music and how well it was mixed into each scene. I'm not talking cheap, pop tunes that anyone would hear on some BMG "I Love the 80s" disc, although there was a little cheese to the fact that the song "In the Air Tonight" played during an integral sex scene. And who doesn't love a family who cares about hockey. While the Jennings family are proclaimed Washington Capitals fans, I can only imagine the drama that might have unfolded just a year earlier when the American Olympic team had their "Miracle on Ice" which pitted them against the seemingly invincible Russian team in the semi-final game. I'm going to admit that if we don't get a flashback to that game, I'm likely to be a little disappointed.

While the spy family concept has been done to death in such depictions as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Undercovers, and True Lies, The Americans stands out because of its incredible delivery. I have to admit that The Americans isn't likely to be my favorite new show in a year where House of Cards hits the scene, but then again, The Americans doesn't have the budget of House of Cards, so the accomplishment that this show marks means a little bit more. Ultimately any doubt I have about the series is overshadowed by hope and intrigue, and I highly recommend this show to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, but also to those with disabilities because of closed captions and whatever blind people use to enjoy visual art.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Friday, February 8, 2013

House of Cards S01E01: "Chapter 1"

Frank Underwood is the House Majority Whip and architect of the president's recent successful election strategy, two facts that should clinch him an appointment to Secretary of State. In fact, this cabinet position was promised to Frank when he put his name in support of the president. House of Cards follows the drama that unfolds when Frank's victorious colleagues deny him what is rightfully his and Frank decides to dedicate his devious political prowess to vengeance against those who wronged him.

By episode one, I can already tell that this is some of Spacey's best work in years. He is multifaceted and downright frightening like he was in the Usual Suspects. He is matter-of-fact, sarcastic and somewhat conceited like in American Beauty. He acts, he reacts, he narrates, and if he doesn't win awards, I will be incredibly surprised. The supporting cast does their job, but nobody is stealing the spotlight from Spacey. Perhaps this is because of his brilliance, and perhaps it has more to do with his character's need to be vindicated. I originally thought Spacey talking to the camera like he was Zack on Saved by the Bell or Wayne in Wayne's World was weak and it underestimated the intelligence of the viewers, but now I believe that there is no other way to deliver the complexity of Spacey's character on the screen.

The big talk about House of Cards is that Netflix invested mounds of money in this series. The money was invested wisely, at least in terms of artistic value: House of Cards is written, directed and acted superbly. The series gives credit to a hypothesis that I have been developing that subscription services like Netflix and Hulu Plus are going to be the future refuge of well-written scripted television. Of course, two things remain to be seen, whether Netflix can make back at least as much money as they have put into this original series, and whether their risky move of releasing the entire first season of House of Cards at once will sit well with viewers. I will have to admit that the only negative I could think of in regards to this new series was that it feels weird not having a new episode each week, but like the many changes to Facebook that everyone always complains about, I think I will get used to it.

What I look forward to in House of Cards is how Frank Underwood is able to get revenge on the highest ranking members of his party without jeopardizing his party, his personal beliefs, the good of the people, and his soul in the process. Since the entire first season is already out, I'm sure there are those of you out there who already know that answer. For the sake of the rest of us, keep it to yourself.

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Superior Spider-man #2

Otto Octavius/Spider-man continues to prove that he can be a better Spider-man than Peter Parker ever was. In the last issue, he did so by craftily dealing with the newly formed Sinister Six. In this issue, his focus turns to Peter Parker's love life and the inevitable Otto Octavius and Mary Jane Watson coupling.

The issue of Otto romancing Mary Jane while in Pete's body is touchy. If he succeeds in "wooing her" and "sealing the deal," that would be tantamount to rape. After all, it is not Otto Octavius but Peter Parker who she wants and who she believes she is dating. No deception on Otto's part can get around that fact. Slott deals with the issue carefully. With the help of ghost-Peter-Parker, the reader is alerted to the disturbing moral situations of Otto touching Mary Jane, flirting with Sajani, and even of Otto washing his current body in the shower. The moral ground is laid out so well that the reader is disturbed when Otto makes use of Peter's memories to "experience" Mary Jane fully.

Despite failing completely at every attempt to get invited up to Mary Jane's apartment, Octavius is able to gather some important data from his scientific trials concerning his sex life, namely that there is a logical conundrum with dating Mary Jane. Peter Parker cares about Mary Jane and wants to date her, but his presence in her life puts a target on her head, so Octavius concludes that he cannot pursue Mary Jane. At least on the surface, this appears to be yet another way in which Octavius is superior to Peter Parker.

Here's where a little reading between the lines might be able to reveal a prevailing theme in Superior Spider-man. I think that in every individual way, Otto Octavius is going to be able to prove that he is better than Peter Parker at being Spider-man, and yet overall he is going to fail at being Spider-man. What we're going to see is that being better has far less to do with the content and arrangement of ones actions as it does with the motivation behind the actions one commits. Octavius defeated the Sinister Six with ease, but he should have stormed their headquarters and prevented any possible harm that they might have done before they got to his trap. He decided to push away Mary Jane, but a super hero who has no connection to the people of the world will fail at seeing them as anything other than collateral damage in an all-out brawl.

Otto Octavius will fail because being Spider-man is less about intellect than it is about compassion. While Peter Parker has a great head on his shoulders, you put down Spider-man and pick up an issue of Fantastic Four if you want to read about what the smartest people in the world are doing. You pick up a Spider-man book because Peter Parker is all heart, something that Octavius will always fail at.

The future of Superior Spider-man looks bright. We can look forward to more quirks, like Peter Parker with a robot lab assistant that whirs when it speaks and spider-surveillance drones. Despite the surprising lack of witty dialogue from the vulturettes, Otto's run-in with the Vulture should be pleasing. And who can forget the fact that Carlie Cooper may have figured out that Otto Octavius has inhabited Pete's body. Like I said, future, bright!

I've syndicated this review at Examiner. You can read it here. If you click on it a few times, spend some time there, or navigate to a new page, I might get some money. But I'm only asking that of you if you liked reading the article here and want to show your appreciation.