Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Finding Dory" presents us with an even more emotional sequel than "Nemo" was

Finding Dory, the sequel to 2003 remarkable Pixar feature Finding Nemo, presents us with a similar, albeit slightly different, dilemma.  Whereas Nemo handicap was that he was young and possessing an  unusually small right fin, Dory's handicap is much more disadvantageous: she's unable to form any short memories.  Like a children's version of Guy's Pearce's Memento protagonist, Dory moves through the world experiencing everything and everyone for the first time, not knowing how the thoughts she finds herself having started in the first place.  Featuring additional characters, consisting of a beluga whale, a hammerhead shark and color-and-shape-shifting octopus named Hank, all who have charm to spare, Finding Dory is one emotional trip into its titular heroine's (and our own) past.  The scene near the end, where a large truck full of aquatic life drives off into the ocean, should leave a smile on your face for hours afterwards.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In "The Ethiopian", Corto Maltese trades the ocean for the dry Northern African desert

The Ethiopian (94 pages, IDW Publishing $24.99), Hugo Pratt's sixth official entry to his Corto Maltese graphic novel/comic book serious, is more humorous and tongue-in-cheek than his previous episodes.  Trading his perennial vast oceans for the dry, equally-smooth and just-as-wavy deserts in the North of Africa, Corto joins Islamic extremists, rebel beduins and even native Leopard-Men in fighting against injustice and oppression from Europe on the Dark Continent during the late stages of World War I.  The setting is a little different than we're used to seeing in this series, but the witty banter and clever insertions of political and social commentary of its time and place is delivered by its hero impeccably, as always.

El Oxford:  You may not know that I studied at Oxford, in London, New York and Paris, but... I prefer the desert.
Corto Maltese: Hmm... why?
El Oxford:  Because it's clean.

The most fascinating of the new characters is none other than Cush, an Islamic devil-may-care, tea-drinking native, a hater of foreign "infidel dogs" (such as Corto) and a man with no remorse when it comes to taking lives of others.  Cush is the anti-thesis to Corto's righteous and all-fair hero, a person whose people have been so oppressed that he's lost all conscience when it comes sticking it to the foreign occupiers of his once-upon-a-time free continent.  While helping Corto rescue kidnapped Arabian princes, introducing him to the Abyssinian wizard Shamael, or impressing him because of the close relationship he has with his mother, Cush eventually warms up to our protagonist.  When they finally part ways, at the end of a long and grueling adventure, their adieu to one another sounds later melancholy.

Cush: There are mysterious things in this land... Tell me, where will you go now?
Corto: I don't know, Cush... far away...

In addition to changing the oceanic setting of previous Corto adventures, The Ethiopian gives us new insight into a different place, but albeit the same war we witnessed in previous issues, most notably Celtic Tales and Beyond the Windy Isles.  Our hero, now slightly out of his element as a "fish out of water", is here privy to the suffering and survival of more primitive tribes in an area he was previously unfamiliar with.  His literal view of his surroundings has changed, but what about the figurative one?  Is he still capable of differentiating between the War at home and the one abroad?  And having now been marked as a future target of the vengeful cult, the Leopard-Men, what fate will await him?  I'm afraid that not even The Ethiopian knows the answer to that.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Valley" is violent, yes, but also humorous and observant

In a Valley of Violence isn't your typical Western.  For one, it's not really big on style, or gunslinging in general, or even a strong plot.  What it possesses instead is a keen eye for human nature, and ultimately, it may be the first ever Cowboy movie to also double as a comedy of manners.  As a drifter who passes through a dump of a town with his dog, Ethan Hawke is slightly miscast; his lines, spoken in a soft, raspy Clint Eastwood-esque voice, never quite have the impact as the (in)famous Man With No Name.  John Travolta, playing a U.S. Marshall, has perhaps his best role in years as a man who's fully aware that he's been cursed with a complete asshole of a son: an imbecile who pretty much dooms everyone around him with his arrogance and stupidity.  Director Ti West has made a pretty cool Western for the millennial generation; I just doubt that it'll stand the test of time the way previous films in its genre have.

"Imperium" walks too cautious of a line on a controversial subject

Mr. Harry Potter has finally done it.  Daniel Ratcliffe, at long last, has shed his young wizard exterior for a tough adult role, in which he shows anger, rage and conviction we didn't think him capable of.  As a young FBI agent who goes undercover in Virginia in order to infiltrate a gang of skinheads, Radcliffe displays some of the similar elements that Leonardo DiCaprio did in The Departed: their boy-next-door personas go through a tough, scarring make-over, in which not only those around them have to believe how gangsta they are, but their own selves as well.  Imperium, however, doesn't quite know what to do with such a touchy subject as Neo-Nazism and other Hitler-like followings; whereas the great American History X pushed the envelope in its protagonist's transformation, director Daniel Ragussis sacrifices not a single character, muting the drama quotient entirely.  It's not a complete failure, but one wonders what it could have been in a more daring talent's hands.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

"Don't Breathe" may just make you hold your breath - for real

Thrillers nowadays can feel quite recycled and contrived, but Don't Breathe, a recent pulse-pounding ride set mostly in the dark, is pretty exhilarating.  When three youths decide to rob a house of a former military vet, who is currently blind (he's also recently lost his daughter in a tragic hit-and-run car accident), they get more than they bargained for: the man (Stephen Lang) quickly turns the screws on them, becoming a major predator to their newly-flipped prey status.  There is a middle section in which two of the robbers discover a horrible secret of the blind man, a gimmick that, I'm guessing, is supposed to make us more sympathetic to them rather than him; honestly, it falls kinda flat.  Still, the final act involving a vicious dog is as exciting as suspense gets, and the girl (Jane Levy) keeps us engaged.  Director Fede Alvarez does a much better job than he had previously done with the unnecessary Evil Dead remake, and the closing scenes also cleverly incorporate an opening for a sequel that would actually feel welcome rather than tiresome - something that most other films that overachieve on a moderate budget tend to do.  I just hope we don't have to hold our breath for too long before we see it.

"Captain" comes close, but still not quite Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen is a special actor.  With only a gesture or a simple look, he can transcend an emotion or a feeling to a whole new level.  In Captain Fantastic, he plays a father of six who, after his wife dies, is forced to introduce his otherwise in-the-wilderness-raised, home-schooled children to the outside world.  He means well, having taught his sons and daughters how to speak multiple languages, complex literature, how to hunt, cook and fend for themselves like the prehistoric humans used to, but is obviously unaware how quickly society has moved on without him and his family in it.  The movie has interesting ideas, and the characters, for the most part, come across as convincing; unfortunately, the final act is rather ludicrous, as we watch a grave being "justly" desecrated by this newly "changed, transformed" adult.  Also, why would an older, wealthy and powerful man (Frank Langella) give up so easily in his search for his runaway grandchildren after having won custody over them?  Captain is Mortensen's showcase, and he takes it as far as he can; it's just too bad the script eventually loses interest in logic by lagging a few steps behind.

"Reborn" #1 is a sci-fi action about a woman's second chance

Greg Capullo's stylish, clean and defined artwork immediately captures the reader's attention in the first pages of Reborn.  After a mysteriously cloaked sniper on a city rooftop assassinates two men, the story suddenly shifts elsewhere, to a more brightly colored, but otherwise dark world, where a small group of warriors readies for a large battle against a much bigger army.  The illustrations are rich with detail, the characters look sharp, and the action is kinetic.

The story, written by Mark Millar, is equally captivating.  The heroine is Mrs. Black, a seventy-eight year old woman who recounts her life through several pages before she is taken to the emergency room.  When she comes to, she finds herself to be a much younger woman called Bonnie, wearing a super-hero like costume, and living in some sort of post-apocalyptic, Terminator-esque future where dragons and goblins try to kill her.

So begins Reborn #1, a science-fiction/action series that is bound to have more than a few surprises in the upcoming issues.  It will be intriguing to see whether our heroine has been transported to another world or dimension, or has simply been reincarnated as her younger self.  Either way, a promising new comic is (re)Born.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Strangler" is disgusting and vile, but unfortunately, never funny

Once in a while a movie comes along that doesn't quite know what it wants to say, or even give the slightest shit about its audience.  For the year 2016, that movie is The Greasy Strangler, a depraved, unfunny cinematic experience - or should I just say exercise instead?  (Mind-fuck is honestly more appropriate) - about a strange middle aged man (Michael St. Michaels) living with his even more twisted father (Sky Elobar) - who just happens to be the titular serial killer.  These two men, neither possessing any redeeming qualities, bicker throughout, yell "Bullshit artist!" back and forth at one another when quarreling, and also fall for the same woman (Elizabeth De Razzo), which leads to further tension between the two.

The director, Jim Hosking, never quite finds an appropriate tone; the entire thing feels like Freddy Got Fingered-meets-Napoleon Dynamite, but with performances equivalent to a Junior High School stage production.  Also, one can only see so many shots of an elderly man's wrinkly, oversized (but obviously fake) penis before going, "I think they're trying just a little too hard." None of this would, of course, matter at all if the movie was actually funny, but alas, it isn't so.  The Greasy Strangler is what happens when a talentless filmmaker gets a huge amount of money to make his (twisted) dream project, and hires an even less talented cast: it's a movie about nothing, made for no one.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

"Certain Women" is a subtle, quiet look at lives of three females

Kelly Reichardt, that master of understated filmmaking where the female sex (for the most part) takes center stage, is back at it again with Certain Women, a Montana-esque drama about The Treasure State men's slightly differential treatment of their female counterparts.  Laura Dern is a lawyer whose client has began losing his mind; Michele Williams is a married mother who dreams of building her own house with a particular sandstone brick; and newcomer Lily Gladstone shines as a lonely ranch hand who falls in love with Kristen Stewart's young teacher.  The movie's pace is slow and deliberate, and its strength lies in capturing the reflection of their characters' souls through long stares and small gestures.  Reichardt proves once again that, using Williams as her muse, she's one of the most gifted filmmakers of this particular genre, which I would label as "literary celluloid for women."

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Wilderpeople" is a heartfelt story of youth rebellion surviving in the wilderness

A charming and engaging movie about a troubled boy's transition from big city's juvenile centers to the vast and nearly uninhabited wilderness where his new foster parents live.  The filmmaking style original and quite clever, and the writing is surprisingly moving and funny at the same time.  Newcomer Julian Dennison is a revelation: his character is at first Mr. Silence, then suddenly unable to stop talking, all the while being so aware of pop-cultural references that it's hard to believe he's ever been in trouble with the law.  Paired with his new "uncle" (Sam Neil), he learns the ropes of surviving in the deep woods, using leaves in lieu of toilet paper, and even becoming a great shot when it comes to wild game.  Filmmaker Taika Waititi creates a movie that is several genres all at once: drama, comedy and adventure, without ever coming across as sappy or melodramatic.  One of the very best movies of 2016.

Monday, October 10, 2016

"Green Valley" is a familiar yet intriguing medieval adventure

The Knights of Kelodia are serious badasses.  Consisting of four men - the animated Gulliver, envious Ralphus, young Indrid and the elderly Bertwald - it's a group to reckon with.  These heroes are so resilient and tenacious that not even an army of four-hundred barbarians can take them down.  I guess there isn't always safety in numbers.

The world of Green Valley, created by writer Max Landis, penciller Guiseppe Camuncoli, inker Cliff Rathburn and colorist Jean-Francois Beaulieu, is rich in character detail and visuals that are popping with colors, immediately dazzling the eye.  The valleys and fields that we witness early on, before the first battle against the Barbarians, appear so crisp and sharp that they seem to have been designed on a computer, rather than with pencil and unlimited imagination.  Likewise, the brutality of the world Landis has created can also lead to heartbreak, as Bertwald realizes shortly after returning home, when his wife-to-be, Amalia of Erskine, is brutally burned and murdered by the sudden attack of the barbarians, who've returned for a rematch.

Green Valley #1 possesses all the elements that we've grown to love in Game of Thrones since it has become such a powerhouse TV show whose every new episode is anticipated with such devotion by millions across the globe.  We have battles in open fields, brave warriors/knights who fear no living thing, and an element of the fantastically horrific, something I suspect future issues will explore.  Judging from this opening chapter, this is a series for anyone who appreciates high quality artwork and imaginative storytelling.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"Cannibal" is a zombie-like horror in steamy swamps of Florida

The modern Zombie isn't your typical undead.  No, they're merely human, still living and breathing, whose craving for flesh is a result of being treated for an old strain of Yellow Fever with medicine called Y-Pak.  In Willow, a small southern town, located in humid Florida, these breathing, living flesh-eating humans are about to make their mark.

In writer Brian Buccellato & Jennifer Young's hands, accompanied by artist Matias Bergara's clean and thorough artwork, Cannibal #1 comes across like a less-than-polished comic book version of True Blood.  Its characters, consisting of two brothers (Cash and Grady Hansen) with contrasting personalities, a stripper (Jolene) who has captured one of their hearts, and a Sheriff Mays who can't quite "condone" violence against the living Zombies, "legally speaking".  When a young boy, working at Hog's River Bar & Grill, is brutally mauled to death by a hungry "cannibal", the small community is instantly thrown into upheaval.

Cannibal may not re-invent the genre of flesh-eating-dead-feasting-on-surviving-living, but what it does successfully is create a time and place worth remembering. Buccellato and Young's characters feel authentic and captivating, while the illustrations by Bergara more than satisfy our eye's craving for notable visual imagery.  If nothing else, thanks to this series, the Everglades is now a place where alligators are not the only predators worth fearing.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Azzarello & Risso's new "Moonshine" is a depression era prohibition monster tale

The world of illegal moonshine in Depression era Americana just got a new twist.  In the dark woods, under the bright moonlight, an unseen monster ravages three men with guns, leaving their mutilated corpses as evidence for other trespassers to beware.  This scene comes across as a hybrid of  Eliot Ness's agents meeting their doom at the hands of Lon Chaney's Wolf-Man, kind of.

Welcome to writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso's Moonshinre, brand new gangsters-vs-monsters comic.  At its center is Lou Pirlo, a business negotiator for a powerful NYC boss sent to the backwoods of West Virginia to inquire about a new quality moonshine.  Its maker, a scarred, scary looking man named Hiram Holt, first evaluates Pirlo before introducing himself to him.  It would seem Holt's family is harboring a secret of terryfing proportions: one of his children likely moonlights as a monster or werewolf or what not, and keeps his daddy's liquor protected from federal agents or other gangsters looking to steal his recipe.

Moonshine #1 begins fast and never wavers from keeping our interest.  Its world of gangsters, backwoods diners and broken Southern accents is a welcome sight in today's world of high-tech and sci-fi themed comics.  Azzarello captures the dialect of his characters nicely, and immediately introduces us to a handful of unique people who will likely turn out to be essential later on.  Risso's illustrations, reminiscent of his work on 100 Bullets, is stylishly supercool.  The expressions of his characters are convincing and authentic, and few people are good at drawing shadows as he evidently is.  The cover, also by Risso, is atmospheric, and instantly captures the intended mood.

This is a welcome return for these two artists who've already accomplished so much in the comic book world, but are looking to elevate their status even higher with the intriguing and engaging Moonshine.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

A story in 100 words or less: Hell's Angel

Hell's Angel

The boy ran from the gang member who yelled, “Scorpion!” as he chased him. 
"This must be a mistake", the boy thought, because he did not belong to The Scorpion gang. Finally, he ran out of breath, and stopped to face his pursuer.  
“Why do you want to kill me? I’m not one of The Scorpions!” 
The gang member walked up and pushed him against the fence and, with his large knife, picked off the live scorpion that was hanging on the surprised boy’s back collar. 
The relieved boy then asked the gang member, 
“Which is your gang?”  

Verhoeven revisits familiar themes in enigmatic "Elle"

Isabelle Huppert is currently in her early 60s, and if I may so, she still looks magnificently sensuous.    As a successful Parisian, head of a video game company, she is a middle-aged nymphomaniac the likes we've seldom seen before.  But after she gets assaulted and raped by a mysterious man wearing a ski mask in her own home, she proceeds to show... no trauma or ill effects whatsoever.  Director Paul Verhoeven has visited similar territory with 1992's Basic Instinct, where we also saw a very sexually charged heroine get her way with men and the corporate ladder.  The final act, at least for me, is a bit preposterous, because once the identity of the rapist is no longer a mystery, the climax is tedious.  Still, Elle possesses enough intrigue, eroticism and fine performances to be completely worth its (somewhat excessive) hundred-and-thirty-minute running time.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

"Lights Out" is just another demonic-entity-haunting-a-family

The Darkness.  Darkness.  Darkness Falls.  Dark.  Mama.  In addition to these, there were countless others... and now, we have Lights Out to add to the list of dark-demonic-entity-haunts-another-house genre.  The evil female ghost who terrorizes a woman and her young son is a mysterious figure with long claws, ragged hair, and eyes that resemble two tiny light bulbs.  She appears only in the absence of light, and apparently kills only those characters who aren't essential to the plot (surprise, surprise).  The only thing that filmmakers of Light Out do well is manage to keep their ghoulish film rated PG-13, which allows them to make tens of additional millions in profit without sacrificing the younger audiences.  Teresa Palmer looks great as the elder sister who tries to decipher the demon's origin, and I only wish that the scares were original (they feel as if they're six weeks late for Halloween) and that they'd have transcended the experience the way Palmer's sexiness does.

"The Wailing" walks a fine line between absurdity and horror

The villains in The Wailing are few, or perhaps many; we never quite find out.  In a small town/village up in South Korea's mountains, some people have been suffering from demonic possession or some sort of madness, during which they murder those close to them.  Director Na Hong-jin creates a two-and-a-half-hour mystery that never quite answers any questions and instead leaves us wondering whether there were a total of three different antagonists, instead of just one.  The protagonist is a chubby local policeman, who acts like a buffoon otherwise, and has plenty of problems dealing with his young daughter's recent possession.  By the time the movie is over, you may be satisfied or angry, depending on what kind of climactic closure you prefer.  The Wailing is an atmospheric movie that will stay with you for a long time after you see it; you just may not want to revisit it ever again.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mel Gibson is a tough-as-nails paternal figure in "Blood Father"

As a former convict trying to go straight, and a man whose estranged, troubled daughter has finally contacted him for first time in years, Mel Gibson's face in Blood Father says it all.  This man has seen a lot.  Wearing a thick beard and resembling some prophet savior in the level of his apparent atonement, he is a modern day Commando, ready to protect his female offspring from even Satan himself.  Gibson the actor proves he still has the machismo, the charisma and the tough-guy persona - a la Payback - to instill fear into those who take him too lightly.  Erin Moriarty is especially impressive as his daughter (she also looks fantastic in extremely short shorts), balancing Gibson's rough exterior with a heartfelt performance of a remorseful girl who has some redemption plans of her own.  Blood Father is a surprisingly taut and engaging action thriller that has been unfairly kept under the radar and out of the mainstream, and that is a shame indeed.

"The Infiltrator" is well acted, but feels too TVish for mainstream

For every Scarface, there's a misfire such as Blow.  The Infiltrator, a new thriller about a U.S.  Customs agent who goes deep undercover in order to trace Pablo Escobar's cocaine business currency trail, falls in the latter category.  The great Bryan Cranston delivers another fine performance (after the underrated Trumbo), but the movie feels as if it's borrowing too much from previous, superior works of this genre (a Donnie Brasco-esque scene, in which Cranston's character humiliates a waiter just so he can save face, feels awkward and so ten-years-ago).  The Infiltrator isn't bad, per se; it's just that its serious, made-for-TV narrative clearly suffers from conviction in the director department.  When it was over, the only reaction I had was, "Is this it?".

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"The Innocents" combines horrors of war with compassion of the Church

War and faith, as contradicting aspects of our culture, often come hand in hand in a dramatic forum.  In the cinematic The Innocents, a French red cross medical student decides to help a convent of nuns, all who have been raped by Russian soldiers post-World War 2, to deliver their babies, which they view as badges of shame.  The movie is appropriately slow paced, and all the nuns give excellent performances, especially Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), who seems to be the most compassionate and conscious one of them all.  The Red Cross nurse, played by Lou de Laage, is a particularly attractive woman, and her timeless beauty is evident in each close up of her doll-like face.  The Innocents is not for everyone, but anyone looking for a film where substance trumps style will realize it's an expertly made drama that explores the burden these women of faith must live with on a daily basis.  Fortunately, for every atrocious act that took place as result of the war, there were several acts of kindness to counteract it.  This movie is one of them.