Monday, 29 April 2019

Gringo (3 Stars)

Families are overrated. I started writing this review two hours ago, as I can see by the time stamp, but apart from inserting the photo I've done nothing. For the last two hours family members have been walking in and out of my room, talking and squawking, not letting me get on with it. Sure, I love my family, but at this time of night I deserve a little peace.

End of rant. Now let's get on with my review.

"Gringo" is a film I wanted to see when it was in German cinemas last year. It features Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried, two of my favourite actresses. Add Joel Edgerton and Sharlto Copley, and you can expect a brilliant film.

Unfortunately, a film's quality isn't the sum of its actors. "Gringo" skids out of control with too many subplots weighing down the film. Oops, I'm mixing my metaphors, but I think you know what I mean. I'm sorry to say that Amanda Seyfried is completely superfluous. The film would have been tighter and more enjoyable if she'd been written out.

Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is an employee in an American pharmaceutical company that's about to begin to sell medical marijuana. It's not clear what he actually does in the company, but his boss refers to him as middle management. The vagueness is deliberate. His boss, Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), is a personal acquaintance who obviously just wants someone to blame when things go wrong. Harold probably just writes reports that nobody will ever read.

The company is in Chicago, but the production is in Mexico. While waiting for approval for the sale of marijuana pills in America, the company has been selling them to a drug lord in Mexico. Off the books, of course. Now that the official sales have begun, Richard wants to break his connection with the drug lord. That's not as easy as he thinks. The head of the Mexican factory is tortured. During a business trip Harold is mistakenly thought to be the company boss, so the drug lord wants to kidnap him. Richard sends his brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), an ex-mercenary, to retrieve him. Or kill him. If he dies while on a business trip the insurance will pay the company five million dollars.

If that plot summary were everything, the film would have been much better. Now come all the subplots. Harold's wife is having an affair with Richard. But Richard is also having an affair with his business partner, Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron). Charlize could also have been written out of the story. Harold isn't just kidnapped in Mexico, he also tries to stage a fake kidnapping to get ransom money from his boss. And then there's Amanda Seyfried as Sunny, an innocent young woman who's talked into going to Mexico to pick up drugs with her boyfriend. There's also an undercover DEA agent. I'm sure I've forgotten other things. Honestly, too much is going on.

Harold is a tragically comic character. He believes the best of everyone. He considers his boss to be his friend, not realising that he would rather kill him than pay ransom money. He doesn't suspect for a moment that his loving wife is having an affair. Harold is naive to the point of stupidity, stumbling from one crisis into another. I didn't know whether to pity him or laugh at him.

It was difficult for me to take the characters played by Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron at face value. They're both so downright evil that they're like caricatures. Joel plays basketball with his employees after work and ridicules the other team when he wins; he always wins, because they're afraid they'll be fired if they beat him. Charlize is a sexual predator; while sitting in a bar with a potential buyer for the company's pills, she tells him to take his penis out. "If I like the look of it we can go back to my place and have sex. If not, we'll just do business". Do women like that exist in the business world? I've never met anyone who even comes close.

The film's talent is wasted. More effort should have been invested in the screenplay.

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Sunday, 28 April 2019

Kiss of the Dragon (3½ Stars)

Liu-Jan (Jet Li) is a Chinese police man sent to Paris to help the French police arrest a Chinese drug dealer. The French police chief kills the drug dealer and frames Liu-Jan. While on the run he meets a prostitute, Jessica (Bridget Fonda), whose daughter is being held hostage by the police chief to force her to work for him.

First the plus: Jet Li is always an excellent martial artist, and the fight scenes in this film don't disappoint. The most spectacular scene is when he enters a police station, alone and unarmed, and fights his way through. He's unfortunate enough to walk into a police karate training room. Do they really have them in police stations?

Then the minus: After watching the film I have no idea why the police chief killed the drug dealer. What did he have to gain from it? There are possible explanations, but if I named them it would just be speculation. The film itself doesn't tell us his motivation.

I was also disappointed with Bridget Fonda's role in the film. In films like this the two people aid one another in a common goal. In "Kiss of the Dragon" the prostitute does very little for Liu-Jan. She can testify against the police chief, but Liu-Jan already has a videotape with enough evidence to do without her.

Overall, this is a pleasant film, but far below the quality of Jet Li's Chinese films.

Success Rate:  + 0.6

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I've had my first feedback on my "Success Rate" for films. It took a while. I've been adding it to my film reviews, if available, for almost 12 months. Maybe nobody noticed it.

There was a complaint about the ratings of two films, "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (+1.2) and "Happy Death Day" (+23.5). "You can't possibly be saying that Happy Death Day was twenty times as successful as Age Of Ultron?"

My success rate is purely proportional, based on the return from the money invested. I could pick more extreme examples. "Titanic" has a success rate of only +8.9, whereas "Supervixens" has a success rate of +168.

Let's take the following examples.

Film 1 has a budget of $1 million dollars and earns $10 million at the box office.
Film 2 has a budget of $10 million dollars and earns $100 million at the box office.

Both of these films have the same success rate, +8.0, but people would intuitively say that the second film is more successful. I see the problem. My proportional rating system is a disadvantage for successful big budget films. On the other hand, I like the way it shows that films like "Supervixens" made a lot of money, relative to their budget. A rating system that simply says how many millions a film has earned would lose that.

The best alternative would be some sort of combination between proportional and absolute income. I could give a film 0.1 points per million dollars earned to give an absolute score, then take the average of the two scores; or I could calculate both scores, then use the larger of the two scores. I don't know. I have all the films I've rated so far in a spreadsheet, so I can play around with different calculation methods until I get results that seem realistic. Until then I'll stick with my proportional rating.

Marvel Years 08.04 - April 1968

Stan Lee himself refers to this month as "the start of the second golden age of Marvel". It's customary for comics fans to refer the the 1960's as the Silver Age of Comics, but Stan saw it differently. The 1960's may have been the silver age for comics in general, the second best phase, but for Marvel it was their best ever time, worth calling the golden age. Brand Echh was struggling with a steady sales decline in their silver age, but Marvel was still growing stronger in leaps and bounds.

The comics dated April 1968 (which were actually released in late January and early February) brought in sweeping changes. Throughout the 1950's Marvel printed a series of anthology comics, including Tales Of Suspense, Tales To Astonish and Strange Tales. In the 1960's the anthology stories were phased out and replaced by super-hero stories. These comics kept their names and were used to feature two stories each, half issue stories with a length of 10 to 12 pages. Now it's time for a change. The anthology comics will be cancelled and renamed, each being replaced by two new comics. There's a three month transition period from April to June 1968.

Note that Stan Lee announces an end to calling the competition company Brand Echh. He still refuses to name DC Comics by name, it's just "our competition". This is just being polite on the surface. It's true that many writers and artists who worked at DC were personal friends with people at Marvel, but it doesn't change the fact that DC was a second rate company which churned out second rate comics month after month. It wasn't until the mid 1970's that DC began to improve, one comic at a time.

DC started the 1960's as the market leader in the comic book industry. When did Marvel overtake them? That depends on your definition. Some people say 1966, some say 1971. It wasn't until 1971 that Marvel sold more comics than DC, but Marvel was already making a bigger profit in 1966. In the 1960's DC was a large company with a lot of overhead. Marvel was a small company that could work more efficiently. DC and Marvel had different target audiences. DC wrote comics primarily for children, whereas Marvel wrote comics primarily for young adults, 18 and upwards. That doesn't mean that children couldn't appreciate Marvel – I began to read Marvel when I was six – but there were more serious themes in Marvel's comics that attracted older readers.

For me DC was still Brand Echh, and to be honest, Stan Lee still treated his competition as Brand Echh. This month's issue of Not Brand Echh features a backup story by Roy Thomas, "The Origin of Stuporman", in which the stupidity of 1960's Superman stories is mocked. This story is so good that I feel tempted to publish it here, but I'll refrain. If you don't want to take my word for it, sign up to Marvel Unlimited.

The Incredible Hulk #102

Title: This world not his own

Writer: Gary Friedrich
Artist: Marie Severin

Villain: Enchantress, Executioner

Regulars: General Ross (flashback), Rick Jones (flashback)

Guests: Odin, Fandral, Hogun, Volstagg, Thor (flashback), Silver Surfer (flashback)

The last issue of the Hulk's solo comic was Incredible Hulk #6 in March 1963, but now the numbering has jumped to 102. This is because the comic has adopted the numbering of Tales To Astonish.

This comic features more outstanding artwork by Marie Severin.

The story in Tales To Astonish #101 ended with the Hulk turning into Bruce Banner and falling to his death. He's caught by the Enchantress, who is planning to conquer Asgard with the help of the Executioner and an army of Rock Trolls. We last saw the Enchantress and the Executioner in Avengers Annual #1, but the Executioner says he remembers meeting the Hulk in Tales to Astonish #77. That's strange, because that issue takes place in the 25th Century. It's possible that the Executioner travelled into the future with the Enchantress's help and returned to the 20th Century after he was defeated.

The Warriors Three (Fandral, Hogun and Volstagg) consult the oracle Oldar for information about the Hulk. She recounts the Hulk's origin from Incredible Hulk #1. Meanwhile, the battle against Asgard begins. Bruce Banner turns back into the Hulk and joins the fight on the side of Asgard. Odin wants to reward him, but the Hulk isn't intelligent enough to realise that Odin is an ally and attacks him.

Odin changes his mind and wants to punish the Hulk, but he's stopped by Fandral. Odin must be confused in the heat of battle, because he gets his name wrong and calls him Balder. Odin sends the Hulk back to Earth.

Captain America #100

Title: This monster unmasked!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Villain: Baron Zemo

Regulars: Agent 13

Guests: Black Panther, Nick Fury, Dum Dum Dugan, Thor (dream), Iron Man (dream), Giant-Man (dream), Wasp (dream), Sub-Mariner (dream)

This is the first issue of Captain America's solo comic, but it starts at 100. This is because the comic has adopted the numbering of Tales Of Suspense.

At the end of Tales Of Suspense #99 Captain America and the Black Panther were lying unconscious at the feet of Baron Zemo. Captain America dreams about how he was found by Sub-Mariner and joined the Avengers in Avengers #4.

Agent 13, disguised as Irma Kruhl, refuses to shoot the two captives. This gives them the chance to wake up. Agent 13 drops her disguise, and the three of them fight against Zemo. Captain America unmasks Zemo and reveals that he's an imposter. He is Zemo's former pilot. When Zemo's guards see this they surrender.

This is the first time I've seen Captain America using a gun.

As they fly home Captain America asks the Black Panther to replace him in the Avengers. He says he'll consider the offer.

The Crazy Credits say that the story is treasured by Irving Forbush. I treasure it as well.

Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1

This is a one-off special issue continuing the story of Iron Man from Tales Of Suspense #99 and Sub-Mariner from Tales To Astonish #101. Next month they'll be given their own magazines. The question can be asked why they weren't immediately given their own magazines after the cancellation of those two comics. I suspect that their 11-page stories had already been written, so it was too late to write full length stories. Whether or not this was the case, this is a beautiful special issue, a treasure in the collection of any true Marvel fan.

Title: The torrent without, the tumult within!

Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artist: Gene Colan

Villain: Big M, Whiplash, AIM

Guests: Jasper Sitwell

At the end of Tales Of Suspense #99 Iron Man was trapped by being held on a magnetised table while the Maggia's casino ship was sinking. He uses a wire dangling from the ceiling to give himself a charge, enough to escape. AIM and the Maggia fight for control of the ship. Big M and Whiplash flee, while Iron Man is sucked into AIM's submarine.

Title: Call him Destiny, or call him Death!

Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Gene Colan

Villain: Destiny

Namor is still unable to remember when and where he met the man who calls himself Destiny. While he's trapped, Destiny tells him how he came to get his powers. He was born with the ability to read minds, something he used in carnival shows, but he wanted to increase his powers. He heard of beings called the Ancients, so he travelled to Antarctica in the ship of Captain Leonard McKenzie, Namor's father. He found a helmet which increased his powers and gave him new abilities, such as projecting images into people's heads.

Namor breaks free, and the walls of the ice cavern collapse. Destiny assumes that Namor is dead.

The Crazy Credits claim that Sam Rosen's lettering is fitful. Not at all! It's completely steady and consistent from the first to the last page.

Fantastic Four #73

Title: The Flames of Battle

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Guests: Daredevil, Spider-Man, Thor

This story continues from last month's Daredevil #38.

Daredevil plans to visit the Fantastic Four to warn them about Doctor Doom. Unknown to him, the Fantastic Four still think he's Doctor Doom in Daredevil's body. The Human Torch attacks him, but he accidentally flies into a water tower that puts out his flame. Spider-Man sees this fight and offers to help Daredevil. Thor is nearby, so his help is also recruited. Stan Lee says in the notes that this story takes place while he's searching for the Wrecker. This must have happened between pages 15 and 16 of last month's Thor #150.

When Spider-Man and Thor attack, the Fantastic Four assume they're Doctor Doom's robots. Daredevil fights Mr. Fantastic, Thor fights the Thing, and Spider-Man fights the Human Torch.

Thor and the Thing trade battle cries. Which one do you prefer?

"For Asgard and Honour Imperial!" – "It's clobbering time!"

The battle continues until Susan Richards returns from California and breaks it up. She says she's seen Doctor Doom on television, so it can't possibly be him.

Yet again, the Crazy Credits call Artie Simek's lettering laconic. I'd rather call it apt.

Amazing Spider-Man #59

Title: The Brand of the Brainwasher!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: John Romita

Villain: Kingpin

Regulars: Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson, Captain Stacy, Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn

Peter Parker returns after a few days in which he lost his memory. He has the perfect explanation. He says that Spider-Man captured him because he didn't know who he was.

Mary Jane Watson has a new job dancing on stage at the Gloom Room A-Go-Go. That's something I'd definitely want to see! In between her acts she has to take photographs of the customers who sit at specially marked tables. What she doesn't know is that the flash bulbs in her camera hypnotise the people being photographed. Police chiefs and judges are being hypnotised to let criminals out on bail. The club workers call their boss the Brainwasher, but his real name is the Kingpin, who we last saw in Amazing Spider-Man #52.

Peter Parker goes to the club with Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn. He sees Captain Stacy acting strange after being photographed, so he follows him. He's grabbed by the Kingpin.

To be continued.

The Crazy Credits say that Peter Parker's clothes have been supplied by Forbush Fashions Inc. He does look pretty snappy in his suit at the Gloom Room A-Go-Go. If Irving Forbush keeps it up, Peter can do a guest appearance in Millie The Model.

Strange Tales #167

Title: Armageddon!

Writer: Jim Steranko
Artist: Jim Steranko

Villain: Yellow Claw, Doctor Doom

Regulars: Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones, Countess Valentina, Clay Quartermain, Jimmy Woo

I've praised Jim Steranko's artwork before, but this story reaches another creative peak. Look at the cover. Look at the splash page. No other artist at Marvel has ever reached this level. Not even Steve Ditko.

I'm very critical of the two-page pictures that artists like Jack Kirby sometimes draw. The page divide spoils the overall effect. One page should be the maximum. However, Jim Steranko pushes the boundaries even further. He's drawn a four-page picture. Yes, FOUR pages. He recommends in the comments box that readers should buy two copies of the issue and lay them side by side. The readers of my blog can simply click on the picture to enlarge it.

The only complaint comes from Stan Lee. Martin Goodman should give him a raise.

Every single page, every single drawing in this story is a masterpiece. Did I ever tell you you can find Jim Steranko's complete comics online at Marvel Unlimited?

Nick Fury faces the Yellow Claw in a final battle in the space-time continuum beyond human reach... whatever that is. It's finally revealed that the Yellow Claw is just a robot. The true enemy was Doctor Doom.

Title: This dream, this doom!

Writer: Dennis O'Neil
Artist: Dan Adkins

Villain: Yandroth

Regulars: Victoria Bentley, Ancient One

Dennis O'Neil takes over as writer in this issue. There's no consistency to Doctor Strange's stories. Ever since Stan Lee gave up the writing the series has been of lesser quality. At least the artwork is good. Until now I've never considered Dan Adkins a great artist, but his artwork in this issue is beautiful.

The Ancient One tells Doctor Strange that he didn't really die in Strange Tales #157, he just let himself be trapped inside the pillar of Stonehenge so that he could bequeath his power to Doctor Strange? Bequeath? That sounds like dead to me.

Doctor Strange pursues Yandroth into an alien dimension which is governed by the laws of imagination, not reality. While distracted by mythical beasts and warriors, Doctor Strange doesn't notice that Yandroth is pointing a gun at him.

Thor #151

Title: To rise again!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Villain: Loki, Norn Queen (Karnilla), Destroyer, Ulik

Regulars: Odin, Sif, Balder

Thor battles the Destroyer, not knowing that it's being controlled by Sif. If he kills the Destroyer, Sif will also die. At first Sif refuses to fight, but as Thor repeatedly strikes the Destroyer its instincts take over and it fights back against her will.

The religious reference in this panel is unmistakable.

Loki and the Norn Queen are gloating over their certain victory, when they're challenged by Ulik the Troll, last seen in Thor #139. He says that the Troll wizards have now made him even more powerful. Balder offers to defeat him if the Norn Queen will free him. The Norn Queen agrees, but Ulik mocks him.

Odin gives Thor his powers back. Now he has more of a chance against the Destroyer.

The Crazy Credits say that the comic has been lovingly lettered by Sam Rosen. It's always good when a man takes pride in his work.

Title: Inhuman at large!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Inhumans: Triton

Triton allows the film crew to transport him back to New York City. When he hears them say they'll find a stronger cage on land he breaks free and smashes the ship. He swims to shore while the others escape in a lifeboat.

The Avengers #51

Title: In the Clutches of the Collector!

Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: John Buscema

Avengers: Hawkeye, Goliath, Wasp, Thor, Iron Man, Captain America (cameo), Hulk (cameo)

Villain: Collector

Guests: Black Panther (cameo)

Stan Lee apologises for Goliath being drawn on the cover with his old blue and yellow costume, not his new red and blue costume. Don't worry, I forgive John Buscema. But there's another error that Stan didn't notice. He must be having too many late nights as a result of the new comics he's having to write this month. The cover shows the Wasp in her red and blue costume, but when Thor appears in the story she's wearing a green bikini. How could Stan miss something like that? I demand a No Prize!

The Collector, who we last saw in Avengers #28, still wants to collect a complete set of the Avengers. I understand what it's like to be an obsessive collector. I'm like that as well. It's essential for me to own all of Klaus Schulze's albums, even the ones that I don't like. There are a few of inferior quality. Luckily very few.

The Collector has already captured Thor. He's given him an Obedience Potion (TM), which forces him to obey him. This is said to be just after he regained his immortal, invincible powers. He regains his powers in this month's Thor #151, but he doesn't return to Earth until Thor #153 (June 1968), so I assume that this story takes place immediately after the events of Thor #153.

While the Wasp is sunbathing in a sexy green bikini the Collector captures her with an electrified comb that pulls her into space. Goliath and Hawkeye grab her and are carried with her into the Collector's flying ship. The Collector sends Thor to capture Iron Man. This is slightly out of sync with the current comics. It must take place after Iron Man #1 (May 1968). Yes, he's getting his own comic!

The Avengers escape and defeat the Collector in battle, aided by Goliath who regains the ability to grow in size after being subjected to the Collector's machines.

After the adventure Thor and Iron Man go their own ways. Captain America radios the Avengers and recommends Black Panther as a new member.

The Crazy Credits say that Sam Rosen enjoys this comic. It's always good to appreciate what you do.

X-Men #43

Title: The torch is passed!

Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: George Tuska

X-Men: Cyclops, Angel, Beast, Iceman, Marvel Girl

Villain: Magneto, Toad, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch

Regulars: Professor X (recording)

As we saw in Avengers #49, Quicksilver has rejoined Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. His sister Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, is still weak after a bullet grazed her skull. She has difficulty concentrating, and her powers have gone.

Quicksilver visits the funeral of Professor X, but he's afraid to face the X-Men, so he runs away without talking to them.

Magneto has been destroying ships for weeks to use their metal as building materials. The X-Men discover the island that he's using as his new base of operations. They attack him, but he defeats them after a short battle.

This month there's no X-Men Origins story. In its place there's a five-page featurette on how Cyclops' eye blasts work. This is the sort of featurette that Marvel usually puts in its annuals, but the X-Men haven't had an annual yet. They won't have their first annual containing original content until 1979. Be patient, I'll get to it eventually.

Daredevil #39

Title: The Exterminator and the Super-Powered Unholy Three!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Gene Colan

Villain: Exterminator, Ape-Man, Bird-Man, Cat-Man

Regulars: Foggy Nelson, Karen Page, Debbie Harris

Guests: Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm

This story takes place after this month's Fantastic Four #73.

Do you remember the four ridiculously named villains from Daredevil #11? Ape-Man, Bird-Man. Cat-Man and Frog-Man? What happened to the D and the E? They could have had a Dog-Man and an Elephant-Man. And why stop there? They could have had a whole alphabet of super-villains, from Giraffe-Man to Zebra-Man. Anyway, Frog-Man is still in prison, so only the first three alphabet animal criminals are at large, and Daredevil calls them the Unholy Three. They're now working for a new criminal mastermind called the Exterminator. It figures that they aren't smart enough to plan their own crimes.

The Exterminator has invented a weapon called a Time Displacement Ray (TM). I'm not sure exactly what it does, but it puts its victims out of sync with our normal reality. He gives his three stooges copies of the weapon.

Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson take Karen Page and Debbie Harris on a double date. The Unholy Three attack and temporally displace Debbie, intending to hold her as a hostage to threaten Foggy Nelson if he becomes the next district attorney.

Other comics published this month:

Millie the Model #158 (Stan Lee, Stan Goldberg)
Rawhide Kid #63 (Ron Whyte, Larry Lieber)
Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #53 (Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers)
Not Brand Echh #7 (Stan Lee, Marie Severin)

Friday, 26 April 2019

Suburbicon (4 Stars)

It doesn't matter how perfect a town seems to be. It can only be as good as the people who live in it. Suburbicon, founded in 1947, was designed to be a perfect place to live. There's no heavy traffic, no pollution, no crime, everything is pleasant. But that doesn't change the fact that people are greedy and lustful and selfish. It's easy to cover things up on the outside, but the sin still simmers beneath the surface.

Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) has a perfect life. He owns a small business, he has a beautiful wife and a smart son. What else could he possibly want? Two things. He wants more money, and he wants his wife's sister. The situation escalates as he finds out that everything comes with a price.

The film was a failure at the box office. I think I can understand why. It's not an easy film to understand. There's a mystery that slowly unravels, and the things that are revealed aren't things we want to know. I can't say more without giving away spoilers. The film has a surreal quality to it, as if it's a fairy tale, not real life. This might be unsettling for many viewers.

I have the feeling this is a film that I'll enjoy more with repeated viewing. I'll watch it again when I have time.

Success Rate:  - 2.1

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Luna (4 Stars)

This political thriller isn't a true story, but it's based on similar cases that have become public in the last few years.

Luna is a 15-year-old girl from Munich. Her parents are strict, but she loves them very much, especially her father. She's a Daddy's Girl, but like all other teenage girls her main interests are boys and parties.

The family goes on holiday to a lakeside cabin. It's absolutely perfect. No people anywhere near and no Internet. Shortly after they arrive they're disturbed by three men with guns who speak Russian. They shoot Luna's parents and her younger sister, but Luna herself manages to escape. She hitches a lift to the next town and goes to the police. That's what anyone would do, but it turns out wrong. A police woman who's assigned to drive her home tries to kill her, and she's only saved by the intervention of a mysterious stranger called Hamid.

The things Hamid tells her reveal that she never really knew her father. He worked for the Russian secret service since before she was born. Recently he was uncovered by the German secret service, the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst). He was threatened with arrest and deportation, but he promised to deliver secret information about the names and addresses of Russian agents in Germany. His fellow agents found out, and they came to kill him. They also want to kill Luna as the only living witness of the operation.

This is an exciting, fast-moving thriller, as good as anything that's made in America. Hamid and Luna have to run for their lives, and they can't trust anyone. As Luna has already found out, the Russian ssecret service has agents inside the police force. She can't trust the BND either. They're just as unscrupulous as the Russians. They'll only help Luna if she does something for them in return, i.e. she has to find the information her father had gathered. They're willing to let her die if she doesn't cooperate. Collateral damage, that's all she is.

As stated above, things like this really happen. Russia plants sleeper agents in Germany for its long term goals. They take on new identities and wait for orders. They get married and have children so that they look like normal Germans, and not even their families know their background. It's all part of an elaborate international game. Luna is shocked to find out that if her father's murderer is caught he won't get a long jail sentence. He'll be given a pro forma trial, but at the first opportunity he'll be exchanged for German agents who have been imprisoned in Russia.

This film has only been released in Germany, without subtitles, but if you can understand the language it's worth watching.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

A year ago in winter (4 Stars)

This is a slow-moving family drama with an intensity which might not be obvious on the first viewing. It's not a film to watch and forget. It's a film that you have to sit and talk about with your family and friends.

It's the story of a broken family and its struggles to continue living. In winter, shortly before Christmas, 18-year-old Alexander Richter killed himself. He walked into the forest with his father's gun and shot himself in the mouth. Nobody knew why. Everyone thought he was happy, and there was no suicide note to offer an explanation.

A year later the family is falling apart. Alexander's parents are in the process of splitting up. His sister Lilli, now 21, is having trouble continuing her studies as a performance artist because she drinks too much. His mother commissions a life-size painting of her two children together, as if Alexander were still alive. Lilli should be playing the piano while Alexander watches her.

The reclusive painter Max Hollander says he will need three months for the painting. He's given a collection of photos and video tapes of Alexander, but Lilli has to visit him to model. Lilli hates it. She finds it grotesque, but she does what her mother wants. It's more than just modelling. The painter talks to her, trying to find out more about the relationship between her and her brother. He needs to know how they should look at one another in the painting.

As the weeks go by, Lilli begins to process what happened with her brother. She realises how much he loved her. Max might be an artist, but he does a better job than any therapist. Lilli begins to enjoy talking to him, and they find they can help one another. Max is a homosexual struggling to accept his sexuality. With Lilli's help he can talk about it openly, although, ironically, he feels attracted to her the more time they spend together.

When the paining is finally complete, Lilli's mother hates it, but Lilli thinks it's perfect. That's to be expected. Lilli has guided Max with the painting every step of the way. Rather than showing the children together it emphasises their separation. That's the opposite of what the mother wanted. The mother wanted to live in the past, but Lilli can only move on if she accepts things the way they are now.

Suicide can wreck a family, but if a person reaches the point that he has to kill himself things are already broken. Maybe therapy can help someone change his mind about suicide, maybe not. The usual steps in therapy are to persuade the person that it's not as bad as he thinks, that he can become happy, etc. In some cases this might be true, in others it might be giving him a false illusion, promising things that are impossible. I wouldn't try to talk anyone out of suicide. I would just talk to him and help him to see whether it's what he really wants. It's an important decision that shouldn't be taken lightly. There should be no uncertainty. It shouldn't be a spontaneous decision based on something that happened yesterday. But more importantly, the person should explain his reasons. He should write a suicide note, preferably a long, detailed suicide note. He should write exactly what has led him to his decision. Usually after a suicide the friends and family blame themselves, but that should be avoided. If someone really is to blame for the suicide, the person should be named, so that everyone knows whose fault it is.

When I was 18 I attempted suicide. I think I did it the right way at the time, apart from the suicide not succeeding. I thought a packet of rat poison would be enough to kill me, but it just made me sick. I arranged it weeks in advance. I travelled by train to a place where nobody knew me. I mailed a postcard to my parents with a short explanation. I've forgotten what I wrote, but I know it was a lie. The real reason for my suicide was that I couldn't cope with my mother being drunk every night, but I didn't want to blame her. I made up some other excuse, so unimportant that I can no longer remember it.

Do I regret wanting to kill myself? You might think that the fact that I'm alive and writing about it years later is proof that I'm glad I survived. That's not true. I think it was the right decision at the time. Ending my life at 18 would have rounded things off. The aftermath of the failed suicide attempt was traumatic. Months in hospital and years of therapy! Nobody really understood me. The only thing that stopped me doing it again was the fear of failing. What I hated most was certain therapists – luckily not all of them – who called my suicide a "cry for help", as if I'd never intended it to succeed.

However, even if suicide was the right decision for me to make when I was 18, I've moved on. Now I want to live. I've seriously considered suicide twice since I was 18, and both times I came to the conclusion that it would be wrong. There are reasons for me to live. They're possibly selfish reasons, but they're still good reasons for me. But one thing is certain: if my circumstances ever change and I decide to die, I'll write a lengthy explanation of my reasons. I shan't make the same mistake as Alexander in the film. I'll write whatever I can to minimise the uncertainty of those who knew me.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (4 Stars)

This is a 1988 comedy film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as two amiable con men. The film is meant to take place in the modern day, i.e. the late 1980's, but it has a 1950's feeling to it.

Michael Caine is Lawrence Jameson, a sophisticated British con man who exploits rich unmarried women. He pretends to be the prince of an unnamed European country who is looking for money to finance the freedom fighters. They give him money or jewels, whatever they think he may need, and don't suspect a thing. His scams must be successful, based on the villa he owns in Beaumont Sur Mer, a fictional seaside town near Monte Carlo.

While returning home from Zurich by train Lawrence meets a small time American con man, Freddy Benson (Steve Martin). Freddy is happy getting women to buy him a meal or give him $20 to cover his expenses. When they're sitting in a compartment Freddy boasts about his successes, while Lawrence just nods and smiles appreciatively. Freddy is travelling to Beaumont Sur Mer, but Lawrence doesn't want him there. He doesn't think of him as competition, merely an annoyance. As he says, "If a poacher is hunting rabbits he scares away the big game".

Eventually Freddy finds out that Lawrence is a big time con man, and he's impressed. He wants to learn his tricks. They go into operation together, but it isn't a happy partnership. They don't earn anything together that Lawrence couldn't have earned by himself.

Michael Caine is a perfectly suave gentleman. He's so pleasant in his manners that nobody would suspect he's a con man.

Steve Martin is more of a rascal. He blusters his way through his cons like a buffoon, acting so foolishly that nobody can believe he has dishonest plans.

The two men are so perfect in their roles that it's difficult to believe that they weren't the first choices. The film was written for David Bowie and Mick Jagger. That would have made it a very different film. I can hardly imagine how they would have played the roles. After they turned down the film, the part of Lawrence Jameson was offered to John Cleese. Okay, I can imagine him in the role, but I'm glad he turned it down. Michael Caine is the perfect gentleman con man. I can imagine rich heiresses throwing their money at him.

The film is dated, but I don't say that as a criticism. I can't imagine con men working like them today. Modern con men would take women's money after sleeping with them. Not Lawrence and Freddy. They're too refined for that. They only take women's money, not their honour. They're gentlemen rogues, Lawrence especially.

The two con men are very likeable. They're criminals, but they don't do any real harm. They only take money from women who have too much. They don't want to leave their victims destitute. Their charm is overwhelming, and we can't help but smile at their successes.

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Marvel Years 08.03 - March 1968

Fantastic Four #72

Title: Where soars the Silver Surfer!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Villain: Silver Surfer

Regulars: Crystal

Guests: Watcher, General Ross

At the end of the last issue Reed and Sue Richards quit the Fantastic Four, making it the Fantastic Two. Or the Dynamic Duo. Or the Perilous Pair. Whatever you want to call them. Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm are sitting moping in the Baxter Building, when the Watcher comes to warn them that the Silver Surfer is planning to attack the human race.

We know that the Silver Surfer isn't a bad guy. He has noble motives. He sees that the human race is motivated by evil and humans are constantly at war with one another. He thinks that if he attacks the human race they will unite against him as a common foe. When all nations unite he can cease his attack, and man will live together in peace.

The Watcher also stops the train carrying Reed and Sue Richards through California to recruit their help. Reed agrees to return to New York, but he insists that his pregnant wife remain behind in safety.

The Watcher mentions an all-powerful being whose only weapon is love. This sounds like a Christian message. I'm sure Stan Lee meant it as a Christian message, but later post-canon comics have attempted to create a supreme Marvel being who's above all and never gets involved with his creations. Almost never. A recent Deadpool comic has revealed that the one-above-all looks like Jack Kirby.

The only weapon capable of defeating the Silver Surfer hasn't been built by Reed Richards, it's a missile called the Sonic Shark (TM) that belongs to the US army. It causes an explosion that can absorb cosmic energy. General Ross authorises its use against the Silver Surfer. Reed Richards thinks it will kill the Silver Surfer, so he deflects it before it hits him. It still weakens him greatly.

The Silver Surfer comes to his senses and realises that he can't save the human race by attacking it. To paraphrase Ben Parker, "With great power comes great stupidity".

Some reviewers doubt that the unnamed general in this issue is General Ross. They claim he has a doppelganger called General Fredericks. I disagree, but I leave it up to my readers to decide.

Amazing Spider-Man #58

Title: To kill a Spider-Man!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: John Romita

Villain: Ka-Zar, J. Jonah Jameson, Professor Smythe

Regulars: Aunt May, Captain Stacy, Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Joe Robertson, John Jameson

Spider-Man seemed to be dead at the end of the last issue, but he's survived. Ka-Zar carries him away to help him revive. He might have grown up in the jungle, but he isn't a killer. When Spider-Man wakes up his memory has returned. He tells Ka-Zar that J. Jonah Jameson's opinion of him can't be trusted, so Ka-Zar releases him.

Professor Smythe, the scientist who built the Spider-Slayer, rings JJJ in his office. Stan Lee thinks that the robot was seen in Amazing Spider-Man #25. He's right this time! The professor has improved his robot, and he wants JJJ to try it out again.

If you think I'm being too flippant by referring to J. Jonah Jameson as JJJ, how would you feel if I called him PPPP? Those are Stan Lee's words, because he's called him a Peerless Paragon of Publishing Pomposity.

The Spider-Slayer attacks Spider-Man under JJJ's control. JJJ only wants to capture Spider-Man, which frustrates Professor Smythe. He takes over the controls and tries to kill him. Spider-Man narrowly defeats the robot.

I'll quote the Crazy Credits in full:

Wow! Try to beat this combo if you can...
Spectacular Script: Smiling Stan Lee
Brilliant Breakdown: Jazzy Johnny Romita
Fabulous Finalizing: Dashing Donny Heck
Exotic Embellishment: Mighty Mickey Demeo
Luscious Lettering: Swinging Sammy Rosen
And, in the immortal words of Irving Forbush... Whew!

The Avengers #50

Title: To tame a Titan!

Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: John Buscema

Avengers: Hawkeye, Goliath, Wasp, Hercules

Villain: Typhon

The story starts with Hawkeye yelling at Goliath. In the early days of the Avengers Hawkeye always had a bad temper. It's a shame that this trait is missing from Jeremy Renner in the MCU films.

Typhon has banished all of the Olympian Gods to the Land of Shades, assuming that it's the name and not just a description. Now he wants to conquer Earth. Hercules follows him to Earth, and the remaining three Avengers follow him. Together they defeat Typhon, and Hercules forces him to release the Olympian Gods. After this, Hercules returns to Olympus, leaving the Avengers with only three members, the weakest they've ever been.

The Crazy Credits tell us that Sam Rosen's lettering is lithesome. I'm not sure whether this is correct or not. Maybe his lettering's beauty is so subtle that it shines in its unpretentiousness.

Strange Tales #166

Title: If Death be my Destiny!

Writer: Jim Steranko
Artist: Jim Steranko

Villain: Yellow Claw

Regulars: Dum Dum Dugan, Jimmy Woo

At the end of the last issue the Yellow Claw knocked over Nick Fury before escaping. This issue evidently begins a few minutes later, because Nick Fury has donned a High Altitude Wing Kite harness (TM) and is leaping after him in pursuit. He's even had time to grab a cigar. Doesn't he know that smoking will kill him?

The time was short, so another SHIELD agent had to light Nick's cigar for him.

Nick Fury finds the Yellow Claw's lair beneath the water in New York's harbour.

Here's some more amazing artwork from Jim Steranko. Poor Sam Rosen has to do the lettering standing on his head.

The Yellow Claw plans to kill his arch-enemy, Jimmy Woo, but his daughter Suwan begs for his life to be spared. Isn't it a trope of literature and films that the daughters of megalomaniacs always fall in love with the good guy? She manages to free Jimmy while Nick Fury is fighting with her father, but she's killed when she stands in front of the Thermo-Frigid Intensi-Ray Machine (TM) aimed at Jimmy.

Jimmy Woo blames not only the Yellow Claw but also Nick Fury for Suwan's death. He says Nick could have saved her. He swears revenge on both of them.

Look at the comparisons made in the Crazy Credits:

Stan Lee is Marvel's P. T. Barnum. I find that very appropriate.

Jim Steranko is Marvel's Bad Boy Peck. Who's that?

Joe Sinnott is Marvels's Huckleberry Finn. I don't see the connection.

Sam Rosen is Marvel's Little Lord Fauntleroy. I don't think he deserves to be demeaned like this. Let's call him Marvel's George Washington.

Title: Nothing can halt Voltorg!

Writer: Dan Adkins, Jim Lawrence
Artist: Dan Adkins

Villain: Yandroth

Regulars: Victoria Bentley, Ancient One

Dan Adkins has taken over the responsibility for plotting this issue. I'm sorry to say that he doesn't make any improvements. These are still some of the weakest Doctor Strange stories ever. I'd go as far as to say that they're the weakest Marvel stories of the 1960's. Doctor Strange's stories started out brilliant, but they fell apart when Stan Lee quit as writer. Nobody else could live up to him, not even Roy Thomas.

Wasn't the giant robot called Voltorr last issue? I told you to pay attention. This issue he's changed his name to Voltorg. Maybe it was just a little blunder by guest letter Al Kurzrok. The magnificent Artie Simek doesn't slip up. Not often.

Doctor Strange defeats Yandroth's giant robot. Yandroth flees by teleporting himself and Victoria Bentley to another far distant place. Doctor Strange attempts to follow them, but he arrives at Stonehenge, where he meets the bodyless spirit of the Ancient One, who died in Strange Tales #157. I told you he'd be back, didn't I?

Tales of Suspense #99

This is the last issue of Tales Of Suspense. Big things are happening at Marvel. I'll tell you more about it next month.

Title: At the Mercy of the Maggia

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Gene Colan

Villain: Big M, Whiplash, AIM

Guests: Nick Fury, Jasper Sitwell

Iron Man desperately uses his reserve transistor power in a last attack against Whiplash, even though it puts his heart at danger. It isn't enough. He's left too weak to move. Whiplash wants to tear his armour apart and kill him, but Big M says that he wants to examine the armour while it's still intact.

Jasper Sitwell somehow escapes from the crowd of beautiful women and tries to locate Iron Man.

The Maggia's casino ship is rammed by an AIM submarine. They want to capture Iron Man.

Title: The man who lived twice!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Villain: Baron Zemo

Regulars: Agent 13

Guests: Black Panther

Captain America and the Black Panther have been brought before Baron Zemo. They try to break free, but they're knocked unconscious by the Hypno-Light Missile (TM). When they wake up in Zemo's control room they're still groggy. Zemo tells them he has an orbiting Death Ray which will fire a laser beam at any country that refuses to submit to him. Captain America and the Black Panther attempt to stop him, but they're so weak that Zemo can knock them out with his fists.

Agent 13 arrives, disguised as the East German spy Irma Kruhl. Zemo orders her to shoot Captain America and the Black Panther to prove her loyalty.

Tales to Astonish #101

This is the last issue of Tales To Astonish.

Title: Where walk the Immortals!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Marie Severin

Villain: Loki

Regulars: Heimdall, Fandral, Hogun, Volstagg

After last month's double-sized story, the Hulk returns to his usual 11-page format.

Bruce Banner is lying unconscious on the beach near Miami. Loki transforms him into the Hulk and brings him to the rainbow bridge. Heimdall is unable to stop the Hulk. He enters Asgard and fights briefly with the Warriors Three. They cease when they realise that he bears them no ill will, They say they will take him to see Oldar the Oracle to find out how he's come to Asgard. As the Hulk jumps across a bottomless chasm Loki transforms him back into Bruce Banner, causing him to fall.

This story contains Marie Severin's best artwork so far. Just look at the splash page if you don't believe me.

Title: And evil shall beckon!

Writer: Archie Goodwin
Artist: Gene Colan

Villain: Destiny (unnamed)

Regulars: Dorma, Seth

Prince Namor is being haunted by dreams of someone he thinks he's met somewhere before. He feels drawn to a place in the ocean. On the way he fends off attacks by American fighter planes. He finds a frozen underwater city, guarded by a large creatures that seems to be made of ice. After defeating it he comes face to face with the man he's seen in his dreams.

In the meantime the people of Atlantis are leaving their city, which was destroyed in the battle with the Plunderer.

Thor #150

Title: Even in Death

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Villain: Loki, Norn Queen (Karnilla), Wrecker

Regulars: Sif, Balder

Guests: Hela

Thor has been slain by the Wrecker. Almost. There's a last spark of life in him. The Goddess of Death, Hela, comes to escort him to an honorary place in Valhalla. Thor begs to be allowed to remain a short while to protect mankind from the Wrecker. At first he walks through New York as a bodyless spirit, unable to do anything, but he finally manages to enter his body again.

Sif and Balder have been sent back to Asgard, but Loki still wants to kill them while they've been stripped of their godhood. Sif and Balder venture into the Norn Queen's realm while searching for Odin's enchanted globe. The Norn Queen sends Forest Trolls to capture them and bring them to her. She pretends to be a friend and offers Sif a way to rescue Thor. She allows Sif's spirit to possess the Destroyer, who we last saw in Thor Annual #2. Sif easily defeats the Wrecker in the Destroyer's body. Thor awakes and prepares to attack the Destroyer, not knowing he'll be fighting Sif.

The Crazy Credits say that the comic has been lovingly lettered by Sam Rosen. It's always good when a man takes pride in his work.

Title: Triton

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Inhumans: Triton

Triton is the first Inhuman for centuries to leave Attilan and visit the outside world. He sees a sea monster attack a woman and rushes to defend her. It's not a real monster. A horror film is being made. It looks like Triton's appearance gives them the inspiration for "Creature from the Black Lagoon". Triton is shot with a tranquilliser gun and put in a boat headed to America. He could easily escape, but he decides to wait to see what the outside world is like.

X-Men #42

Title: Now strikes the Sub-Human!

Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Don Heck

X-Men: Cyclops, Angel, Beast, Iceman, Marvel Girl

Villain: Grotesk

Regulars: Professor X

Professor X orders Angel and Iceman to stay in the school and let Cyclops and the Beast face Grotesk alone. Only Marvel Girl knows what the reason is.

Grotesk escapes, so Cyclops and the Beast refurn to the school. They want to speak to Professor X, but Marvel Girl prevents it. Professor X has been disguising himself as a man called Professor Hunt. Professor X has a machine which is trying to prevent earth tremors, but Grotesk thinks it's causing tremors and tries to destroy it.

In the course of the battle there's an explosion that causes the death of both Grotesk and Professor X.

The cover insists that Professor X's death is "Not a hoax! Not a dream! Not an imaginary tale! This is for real!"

Well... let's say the story is almost for real. Maybe Roy Thomas really intended Professor X to die when he wrote it. Maybe it was the complaints from the readers that made him bring him back. Maybe Stan Lee yelled at him: "Roy! What have you done? You can't kill off one of my favourite characters!"

Unless someone can quote an interview on the subject, we'll never know. But Professor X will be back. Soon.

Title: The End, or the Beginning!

Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Werner Roth

X-Men: Professor X, Cyclops

Villain: Living Diamond

Professor X and Scott Summers fight against the Living Diamond. Professor X is also trying to save him. The new exposure to radiation has made him stronger, but it's also slowed him down, and there's the possibility that he soon won't be able to move at all.

Scott fires a vibration ray at the Living Diamond which immobilises him. Instead of surrendering he fights against it, and his body is shattered.

Scott Summers goes to Professor X's school and is given a costume, making him the first X-Man.

Daredevil #38

Title: The Living Prison!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Gene Colan

Villain: Doctor Doom

Regulars: Foggy Nelson, Karen Page, Debbie Harris

Guests: Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm

Doctor Doom has exchanged bodies with Daredevil. He walks towards the Baxter Building to attack the Fantastic Four.

Daredevil is left trapped in a prison cell. He assumes that Doctor Doom hasn't informed them about his latest plan, so he calls out to his guards and orders them to free him. He radios the Fantastic Four to warn them.

Reed Richards believes Daredevil's story because he thinks that Doctor Doom is capable of body transferal (though shouldn't it be called mind transferal?) This is a strange way for him to react. He should have said, "Doctor Doom has done it before". It was in Fantastic Four #10, to be precise. Did he forget?

Daredevil tricks Doctor Doom. He radios the Latverian council of ministers and orders them to declare war on all of the countries bordering Latveria. This forces Doctor Doom to swap bodies back and countermand the order. Daredevil destroys the mind transferal machine and leaves, thinking it's over. Doctor Doom still has one last trick. He phones the Fantastic Four and tells them that Doctor Doom is still in Daredevil's body and intends to attack them.

Marvel Super-Heroes #13

Title: Where stalks the Sentry!

Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Gene Colan

Villain: Sentry 459

Regulars: Yon-Rogg, Una, Carol Danvers

This is the second Captain Marvel story. Fans had to wait three months for it. Don't worry, it will be printed every two months from now on. Roy Thomas has taken over as writer, which should give Stan Lee more room to breathe.

Captain Mar-Vell is living undercover on Earth. Colonel Yon-Rogg is observing his progress, but he secretly hates Mar-Vell because he wants Una for himself. He accidentally fires a laser ray at Mar-Vell which would have killed him if a small aircraft hadn't flown in the way. The pilot is dead, so Mar-Vell takes his identity as Dr. Walter Lawson, a scientist assigned to the nearby missile base.

Sentry 459, which was seemingly destroyed in Fantastic Four #64, has been found, and it's Dr. Lawson's job to examine it. Yon-Rogg sees this and sends a command to awaken the Sentry. It begins to attack the missile base. When Captain Mar-Vell arrives the Sentry sees him as an enemy.

This comic features the first appearance of Carol Danvers as the base's head of security.

Other comics published this month:

Kid Colt Outlaw #139 (Ron Whyte, Werner Roth)
Two-Gun Kid #92 (Denny O'Neil, Ogden Whitney)
Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #52 (Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers)
Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders #2 (Gary Friedrich, Dick Ayers)