Author: Robert Greenberger

Robert Greenberger is best known to comics fans as the editor of Who's Who In The DC Universe, Suicide Squad, and Doom Patrol. He's written and edited several Star Trek novels and is the author of The Essential Batman Encyclopedia. He's known for his work as an editor for Comics Scene, Starlog, and Weekly World News, as well as holding executive positions at both Marvel Comics and DC Comics.
REVIEW: Madame Web
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REVIEW: Madame Web

Sony has been struggling to find the secret formula to make their Spider-Verse movies satisfy audiences in the same way Marvel Studios has managed for the last decade-plus. Boiled down, it seems to come form a lack of coherent vision and weak scripts.

The critical despair and box office indifference to Madame Web is misplaced because it’s not the worst of the lot, but viewers are clearly tired of Sony misfires, which doesn’t bode well for the forthcoming Kraven.

The incredibly weak script from director SJ Clarkson, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless, and Claire Parke mars the potential found deep within the very disappointing Madame Web, out now from Sony Home Entertainment. The basic premise that four women are brought together as part of a woven tapestry of spider-powers is fine, as is importing Ezekiel (Tahar Rahim) from the Spider-Man comics to be the bad guy.

However, the script them all. Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) is scarred after her mother, Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé)’s death, hardening herself with a shell of indifference even as she works as an EMT, which requires a desire to interact with mankind. Her only friend, it seems, is Richard Parker (Adam Scott), whose pregnant wife Mary (Emma Roberts) is carrying an unnamed baby boy (Peter, for those who miss the breadcrumbs).

At the same time, Ezekiel, who is responsible for the death of Cassie’s mother, receives the psychic impression that three young women are a threat to his future. He maniacally and one-dimensionally tries to find and kill them to save his life, coming across Cassie, who, as fate would have it, unites the girls.

Cassie’s emergence as a leader and mothering figure for Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced), and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), all abandoned by their own parents, could have been a wonderful arc. Instead, she herself abandons them for a week to track the Amazonian spider tribe and learn more about her powers and destiny. We see little of what happens to the girls during this time, which is a wasted opportunity. While a worthy goal, the abandonment derails the core plot. The three teens aren’t deep, with surface personalities that rob the actresses from doing anything meaningful.

And then we get to the climax, which sees cars crash, buildings burn, and Cassie coming into her own. It’s all cookie-cutter and less than original. The potential is squandered from beginning to end, yet another Sony misfire demonstrating that they just don’t know how to make these super-hero movies work. SJ Clarkson’s direction is perfunctory when it could have been revelatory.

The movie is available in all the usual formats, including the reviewed Blu-ray, which has a superb 2.39:1, 1080p High Definition transfer, and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. A digital HD code is also included.

The disc is rounded out with a fine, if unexceptional collection of Special Features including Future Vision (7 Minutes), Casting the Web (9:09), Oracle of the Page (4:54), Gag Reel (4:31), Fight Like a Spider (5:31), Easter Eggs – The Many Threads of Madame Web (3:55), and a single Deleted Scene – You Died (1:00).

REVIEW: Devour: A Graphic Novel
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REVIEW: Devour: A Graphic Novel

Devour: A Graphic Novel
By Jazmine Joyner & Anthony Pugh
Abrams ComicArts – Megascope/208 pages/$24.99

Anansi has had a bit of a revival in the last decade or so. The African trickster god has played a significant role in comics and prose, soon to conquer television in the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. Until then, we can sit back and enjoy this debut work from writer Jazmine Joyner, who makes their fiction debut after writing for numerous places, including /film, SyFy Wire, Ms En Scnee, And Comics MNT.

The Turner house stands in a small town in a Louisiana suburb. It’s been around for a long time and garnered much gossip and speculation. When its current occupant, Vassie, develops dementia, her son brings his family to live and care for her.

The only daughter, Patsy, is a talented artist who carefully navigates her way through her new high school, making just one friend, fellow artist Stu Everett. Most of her time, though, is spent at home, and the reason becomes clear: as the sole female in the waning family line, she is destined to replace Vassie as the guardian of Anansi.

Deep in the basement, trapped in a pocket dimension underground, a manifestation of the story-hungry spider screams for release. Slowly but surely, Patys comes to accept that Vassie’s stories and her magic are both real. She does not take well to having this destiny revealed to her and eventually takes comfort when her brother Demetrius is taken into their confidence.

Nearby are the Everetts, white rednecks who harbor a decades-old grudge against the Turners, feeling the plot of land is rightfully theirs. Their enmity and bitterness represent the lingering racism that mires the deep South to the past. They want to learn the Turner house’s secrets, hoping to find a way to gain control of the property once and for all.

The various threads are leisurely paced, giving plenty of room for the plot to percolate and boil in the story’s final quarter. The sense of dread is palpable throughout, and the Truner family is nicely delineated. The Everetts, though, are one-dimensional stereotypes that I wish were as nuanced as their black counterparts.

Anthony Pugh’s artwork conveys the horror and the ordinary with clear storytelling and fine coloring. Some of his figures are stiff, or the proportions feel off, but this veteran illustrator at least provides details and backgrounds, grounding the story’s fantastic elements in a realistic setting.  

Unfortunately, the story does not end but continues into another volume. What’s here is good, but a done-in-one might have felt more satisfactory.

REVIEW: Wednesday: The Complete First Season
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REVIEW: Wednesday: The Complete First Season

“Wednesday’s child is full of woe.”

When Charles Addams was helping turn his amusing gothic New Yorker cartoons into a television series, the little girl needed a name, and he used a line from an old-time children’s poem. He’d been at the drawing board with these characters since 1938, although Gomez and Morticia’s daughter didn’t arrive until 1944. At different times, she was older or younger than her sibling, Pugsley.

Ever since her arrival, Wednesday has been a fixture, her pale skin, pig-tailed black hair, and solemn expression imprinted on future generations of Goth girls. From Lisa Loring to Christina Ricci, the live-action look has endured as the character has aged from her purported six years old in the original series pilot to 18 in the 2010 Broadway musical adaptation.

Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, no strangers to teenage angst after a decade-plus at Smallville, settled on a 15-16-year-old incarnation for their delightful Netflix series Wednesday. Removing her from home, she is sent to attend school at Nevermore Academy, where she intends on honing her detective skills but makes friends, finds young love, and far more than she bargained for in eight captivating episodes.

Tim Burton’s macabre touch is seen throughout, and he finally gets a chance to work on the property since he was first circling the 1991 film adaptation. The off-kilter characters and set decoration all feature his hallmark touches, making the show visually compelling.

At first, she doesn’t want to make friends, fall in love, or interact with anyone, but as she gets to know her roommate, Enid (Emma Myers), she finds herself drawn into the lives of others. Then, when someone dies, she begins to investigate, bringing her in contact with the Vermont locals who have an uneasy relationship with the school.

This is Ortega’s show, and she is front and center, called up to be brilliant at almost everything, mental or physical. Today, mention the show, and you immediately think of her memorable dance sequence, which apparently exhausted the actors. She shines here, enlivening every scene she is in, and communicates so much through her deadpan expression.

She’s ably surrounded by a fine supporting cast, including Gwendoline Christie as Larissa Weems, the principal, who was once a roommate with Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones, when they attended Nevermore; Ricci as Marilyn Thornhill, the botany teacher/dorm mother to Wednesday and Enid; Joy Sunday as Bianca Barclay, a siren; and Percy Hynes White as Xavier Thorpe, an art student. Wednesday is also accompanied by Thing (Victor Dorobantu), the disembodied hand that she has grown up with, maybe the only being she truly cares about.

The series has been renewed for a second season, and a spinoff focusing on Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen) was recently announced. This single-disc Blu-ray is a great way to see the series, with a sharp 1080p digital transfer and fine DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. Sadly, no Special Features were included.

REVIEW: Phenomena: Matilde’s Quest
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REVIEW: Phenomena: Matilde’s Quest

Phenomena: Matilde’s Quest (Phenomena Book 2)

By Brian Michael Bendis and André Lima Araújo

Abrams ComicArts/156 pages/$24.99

It has to be said that writer Brian Michael Bendis rarely, if ever, repeats himself. His Ultimate Spider-Man is unlike his New Avengers, which is nothing like his Legion of Super-Heroes, his self-created Takio, or Murder Inc. He is incredibly prolific and highly original, with a gift for dialogue and character that always makes his stories engaging.

Here, he and André Lima Araújo have created a new science fiction world and populated it with all manner of organic and technological wonder. In 2022, we first met the trio of hotheaded Boldon, the outcast Matilde, and Spike and their exploits on a nearly unrecognizable Earth. An event dubbed the Phenomena, something shrouded in mystery, resulted in a towering wall separating two warring cultures.

In book one, The Golden City of Eyes, the protagonists meet and unite for the common good despite their drastic differences. They have traveled through several villages, and with each adventure, their legend begins to grow. As they arrive at Valentia Verona, once London, they must confront their legacy, and here, Bendis explores just whose story it is. Boldon complains that storytellers are stealing his story, but its enduring nature provides some new lessons.

The first volume was a little off-putting and confusing with the races and worldbuilding. Here, everything is put in its proper context, a neat feat considering all the new characters introduced. From the title, you know it’s Matilde’s story, and she proves to be an endearing figure, especially after she crosses the wall and confronts the enemy with a simple question.

Araújo (A Righteous Thirst for Vengeance) provides impressive black-and-white artwork that switches from the intimate to the magnificent, opening up this new Earth in interesting ways. All the characters are well-delineated, and his line work is intricate and appealing.

This clearly is the second volume in a trilogy, with Boldon’s story yet to be explored. This volume works fine on its own, but is a strong second chapter in this series.

REVIEW: Contagion
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REVIEW: Contagion

In 2011, I watched Contagion and found it a gripping thriller with an all-star cast–Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Ehle, Sanaa Lathan, and Gwyneth Paltrow–then promptly stopped thinking about it. I was, though, reminded of it in 2021 when the global pandemic became a reality.

And yet, Warner Home Entertainment skipped the obvious 10th anniversary in favor of finally releasing the 4K Ultra HD edition. It’s a stunning disc and well worth your attention.

From director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns, we have a now-eerily familiar situation that a weary world is hardly prepared for. As the camera casually pans across the empty spaces and we see only masked faces, it feels more like memory than fiction. We can admire how accurately they projected what a modern pandemic might be like and you would have thought more people would have paid attention back then and made us all better prepared for what is now clearly the inevitable.

PR executive Beth Emhoff (Paltrow), returns from Asia, and brings with her a disease that was already spreading. A flashback at the end shows how it all innocently started with…a bat. Her husband, Damon, is the character we follow through the various lot threads as the world rapidly spirals out of control. Dr. Leonora Orantes, Cotillard’s WHO epidemiologist, comes from Europe to study the disease and her outsider status rubs people the wrong way and also is discordant with the rest of the narrative.

We’re far enough away from our real-world life-changing circumstances to once again watch the film, but with fresh eyes and knowing nods of the head. Overall, it’s a compelling story with many strong performances.

The studio’s 2160p/HDR10 transfer is superb and an improvement over the previous Blu-ray edition. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is fine, although can’t keep up with the visual. Not that most of us would notice.

The release offers just the 4K and a Digital HD code, repackaging the 2012 special features while adding nothing new, which is a missed opportunity.  For the record, these include The Reality of Contagion (11:00), The Contagion Detectives (5:00), and How a Virus Changes the World (2:00).

REVIEW: Fall Through
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REVIEW: Fall Through

Fall Through

By Nate Powell

Abrams ComicArts, 192 pages, $24.99

Artist Nate Powell gained international acclaim for his work on the March trilogy of graphic novels recounting the life and career of the much-missed John Lewis. However, he is more than just that; he’s an acclaimed writer/artist, as seen in the just-released Fall Through.

Powell is celebrating the punk aesthetic from the late 1970s and early 1980s, set somewhere between the Ramones and the arrival of the New Wave sound. It’s a narrow slice of music history since the beloved Ramones started in 1974, and New Wave may have first appeared with the Talking Heads in 1977, a year before part of this story is set. He traces the rise of Diamond Mine, a small quartet that struggles to get from gig to gig as they attempt to be Arkansas’ first punk band.

While that would have been interesting enough for a story, he layers on the fact that they have crafted a song that propels them through time and space to alternate realities and it then becomes a search for home. They arrive in 1994 and want to get back to 1978 without a pair of silver slippers in sight.While the marketing calls it “Love and Rockets meets Russian Doll”,  I call it needlessly confusing. Powell vividly presents the power of music, adding in a layer of lightning to accompany their thrashing. It’s a visually interesting story if the narrative doesn’t quite connect.Of the four characters, vocalist Diana is perhaps the best delineated. It’s her powerful song “Fall Through” that sends them everywhere. Interestingly, this isn’t her story, but it’s Jody, the band’s bassist, who emerges as the protagonist. With the encouragement of her father, she leaves home with her bass, and hooks up with the others, forming the group. Unfortunately, she’s not particularly well-defined, and the other members of the band, Napoleon and Steff, come across with barely acknowledged wants and needs. We get glimpses of what’s on her mind through her tour diary, which spaces six weeks for her, and years for everyone else.

I don’t mind a good circular story (I really enjoy Russian Doll), but visually, it’s hard to parse which reality we’re in or what time period. Had Powell stuck with the punk community the band encounters across the country and the power of music. This could have been a significantly stronger narrative.

REVIEW: Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar
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REVIEW: Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar

Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar very much wants to be one of the plethora of low-budget 1970s knock offs of Star Wars riding the comet tail of that phenomenon. It’s just not bad enough to be lumped in with Bartle Beyond the Stars or the 3-D mess of Spacehunters. Nor is it good enough to be a thoughtful low-budget meditation on the soul. It falls in between and is quickly forgotten the moment you turn off the DVD of the 2022 release, out now from Uncork’d Entertainment.

Late in the 30th century, mankind has somehow managed to survive the contemporary mess we’ve made of ourselves and has even managed to find a way to preserve the human soul, reducing it to a blue goo. The catch is that it’s expensive, so only the top 1% of the 1% can afford it, although starship captain Kip Corman (Michael Paré), a scavenger eking out a living, won’t let that stop him. He’s recently lost his wife and wants her essence poured into an android. With his daughter Taylor (Sarah French), they search for credits and the legendary Deepstar, where his salvation awaits.

This quest occupies the bulk of the film, as any story adhering to the three-act structure demands, and here there are some interesting obstacles, such as pirate Dykstra (Olivier Gruner). They even encounter an interesting scientist, Jackie (Anahit Setian), who promises them the starship’s location in exchange for their protection.

Based on what we’re shown, the future is shinier but nowhere near as advanced as one would have hoped. The costumes and sets are okay while the CGI effects get the job done.

Paré was on the cusp of stardom in the 80s with features like the underrated Streets of Fire, and here, he’s an older but engaging leading man. The relationship between him and French show some genuine warmth. However, they’re stuck with mediocre dialogue from Joe Knetter and Garo Setian, with the latter directing in an adequate, if unimaginative, manner. The rest of the cast are less talented and without stronger material to work from, fill the screen, and keep things moving.

The film is available as a DVD only and comes with a fine 1080p digital transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. Neither are great, nor do they need to be given the content.

There are a reasonable number of Special Features including Commentary from director Garo Setian, screenwriter Joe Knetter, and stars Anahit Setian and Sarah French. Additionally, there are four Deleted Scenes (5:29), the inevitable Bloopers (4:15), and the Trailer (1:34).

REVIEW: The End we Start From
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REVIEW: The End we Start From

Climate change has become the Go To dystopia for stories these days, each with an apocalyptic feel, showing little hope for humanity. Paramount released the film adaptation of Megan Hunter’s novel The End We Start From, the latest such installment, in December. Now available for streaming rental, the film, starring Jodie Comer, explores the aftermath of such a climate incident.

Water rushes from the skies, flooding ensures, and soon towns and cut off and cities can’t cope. England is submerged (the rest of the world’s fate is left up in the air) and the Woman (Comer), finds herself giving birth without any of the usual medical support. When we first see her, she’s in a bathtub as the rains fall outside so there’s no escape. The graphic birth shows the stakes she  and her partner R (Joel Fry) face in not only their survival but of the infant.

Thankfully, they make it out of London and are briefly ensconced in his parent’s home in a village located on higher ground. But supply chains have been wrecked, food and tempers run short, and they find themselves separated.

What follows is a largely episodic film, directed by Mahalia Belo, from Alice Birch’s script, following Woman’s struggle to stay sheltered and keep the infant safe. Along the way, she finds O (Katherine Waterston), with her own two-month-old. They bond and work to survive together against increasingly bleak odds.

There is an almost monotonous pacing to the film, as we see man’s humanity toward fellow man, leavened here and there with genuine acts of kindness. Still, so much of the emotional weight is carried by Comer, who gives a strong performance There is conflict, but nothing she can’t seem to navigate so she’s not challenged and we’re left lulled.

We never get to know Woman, or her relationship with R. Her friendship with O is the warmest part of the narrative, set against gray skies and damp environs. She survives, which isn’t a spoiler, but the world she is left to raise her child in is a cautionary one.

 

REVIEW: Special Ops: Lioness
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REVIEW: Special Ops: Lioness

Paramount+ was called, by some, the Star Trek channel when it first launched, but it rapidly was changed to the Taylor Sheridan channel, as his various series fuel their original programming slate. Thankfully, they are different and distinct, each with its own genre.

After conquering the modern and historic Western, he gave us the gritty Mayor of Kingstown and Sly Stallone’s Tulsa King. Then, this fall, came Special Ops: Lioness, an international espionage story that was (finally) female-centric.

The premise for the ten-episode show is based on a real CIA program, “Team Lioness,” from a Marine Corps program, “created to grant the Marine Corps closer access to women involved in potential terrorist plots,” according to Collider. The female Marines could search for potential female threats and form bonds in Iran and Afghanistan that their religious beliefs kept them apart from men.

Sheridan took things one step further, with the Lioness team actually embedding a Marine, Cruz Manuelos (Laysla De Oliveira), close to an Iranian daughter of their target, the moneyman behind Iran’s terrorist activities. Each team had a searcher and a guardian angel, with the latter being the hardened Joe (Zoe Saldaña), and her support troops.

There is a tense relationship between Manuelos, who had a hard life before enlisting, and Joe, who distances herself from her husband (David Anabele) and two daughters. Who watches the watcher? The ubiquitous Nicole Kidman fills that role back at Langley, and she reports to Morgan Freeman, so the cast is stellar.

The story traces Manuelos’ recruitment into the program and hurried training, and then we see her befriend the mark, Aaliyah (Stephanie Nur), about to be married, bringing her elusive father into the public eye (and target scope of Manuelos’ rifle, they hope).

There are some digressions that feel like filler to stretch out the story and tension across the episodes. Still, the domestic and international stories are riveting, and Sheridan’s hallmark of never leaving his characters undamaged effectively continues here. Manuelos’s arc is the most compelling as she is pushed way beyond her comfort zone, forming a social and then romantic entanglement with Aaliyah.

The series may or may not be back for a second go, but Paramount Home Entertainment has released Special Ops: Lioness Season One in a three-disc Blu-ray package. No 4K or digital HD code, but each disc has special features.

The 1080p digital transfer is fine, if unspectacular, good for home viewing. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless soundtrack is an equal match.

As for the features, on the first disc you get Behind the Story: Sacrificial Soldiers (7:21), The Beating (7:14), and Bruise Like a Fist (4:11). On disc two: The Choice of Failure (6:16), Truth Is the Shrewdest Lie (4:29), and The Lie Is the Truth (7:43); and on disc three: Wish the Fight Away (7:25) and Gone Is the Illusion of Order (7:30). There is also Embedded with Special Ops: Lioness (21:38), a behind-the-scenes exploration, Battle Forged Calm: Tactics & Training (9:02), and Inside the Series (19:00) with LaMonica Garrett, who plays Tucker, leading us through more background.

REVIEW: Dumb Money

REVIEW: Dumb Money

“I like the stock.”

If only the world of high finance could accept things as simply as that.

As we learned in 2021, the so-called masters of the universe had written off GameStop, the venerable supply of used video games and assorted tech gear. The only one, it seemed, who still believed in them was Keith Gill, who live-blogged as Roaring Kitty. With incredible transparency, he shared his spreadsheets and showed his faith by buying up shares, which encouraged others to follow suit.

The run-up of the stock, fueled by the disruptor app Robinhood, spooked Wall Street and led to at least one capitol group crumbling with hubris.

Finance can make you want to shut down and read a book, such as The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich, which inspired the film, but like the superb The Big Short, the 2023 film Dumb Money walks you through this Byzantine world. Director Craig Gillespie shows you how Gill (Paul Dano)’s faith and followers managed to propel a nearly 3000% increase in GameStop’s stock values from $17 to $500 per share.

Out now on disc from Sony Home Entertainment, we see Gill’s story, but also his influence on other “regular” folk who would never dream of buying stock, but thanks to the easy no-fee Robinhood app, they can take a gamble on Gill. Here we follow the everyday lives of financially struggling nurse Jenny (America Ferrera), GameStop retail employee Marcos (Anthony Ramos), and lesbian college couple Riri (Myha’la Herrold ) and Harmony (Talia Ryder), among others.

Not everyone is a fan with Gill’s own brother Kevin (Peter Davison), thinking him a loser. Still, Gill soldiers on, largely because of the unswerving love of his wife Caroline (Shailene Woodley), an underappreciated factor.

The film is compared with the superior Big Short, but it works very well on its own merits. Gill is not a financial genius, but watch his testimony to Congress, and you can see that the arcane ways of Wall Street have prevented the average American from understanding what happens to their companies. It’s a strong message that undercuts the smarm and greed of the high-rollers who just don’t get it. It’s quite satisfying to learn that Melvin Capital Management and its founder Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) lost billions as a result.

The film looks just fine in 1080p high definition, although it had been shot with the most contemporary 4K equipment, so having only a Blu-ray available is a disappointment and shows a lack of faith from Sony. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is up to the task given how much tech is employed, considering this all occurred during the pandemic lockdown.

The Blu-ray disc comes with a Digital HD code and has a handful of special features. These include the Audio Commentary by screenwriters Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum; Fat Cats Vs. The Roaring Kitty (8:00); Diamond Hand Ensemble (6:00), which is about the casting; and Deleted Scenes (3:00).