Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"Blackcoat's Daughter" continues to haunt long after it's over

A creepy and unsettling movie (released in some markets under the title February) that gets under your skin immediately, and stays there pretty much the entire 94 minutes.  Staged like The Shining lite, The Blackcoat's Daughter resonates with a tone that is hypnotically disturbing, and even though its climax features scenes of gory violence, it honestly could've done just as well without them, using the minimal approach reminiscent of the first act. 

Director Oz Perkins proves that the most terrifying horror is that which you can not see or touch; the psychological breakdown of a person's mind, a la Jack Torrance due to an isolated loneliness caused by a heavy snowstorm, is a nightmare a person can not wake up from. 

It's ok if you don't understand the story completely, or if the ending leaves you scratching your head: by the time it's over, this movie will have spooked you plenty to keep you from getting a good night's sleep for days afterwards.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A vegetarian comes of age in uncompromising "Raw"

Justine's (Garance Marillier) arrival at the "prestigious" veterinary school in French countryside is followed by a night of hazing of the newly arrived freshmen, in addition to an all-nighter of a party in which pretty much everyone is either drunk, tripping on hallucinogenic drugs, or participating in a free-for-all orgy until the break of dawn (somehow no adult is every present to control these young "doctors" in training).  A vegetarian all her life, Justine is forced to eat a rabbit kidney during the hazing initiation, and somehow, this sparks a never before felt hunger in her for meat - and not just poultry or beef.  Soon she's feasting on her sister's freshly severed finger, biting a classmate's lip off, and even penetrating her own flesh with her teeth during sexual intercourse, just so her thirst for blood can be quenched.

Julia Ducournau's film, Raw, is a coming of age story as much as its allegorical subtext is about out-of-control cannibalistic urges that go unmanaged, especially since its subjects are way too young and inexperienced to know how to properly deal with them.  The final scene, between Justine and her father, in which he explains their family history to her, is both shocking and revelatory in just the right amounts.  Raw may not have reinvented the horror genre - as so many pundits have declared - but it'll definitely shock, disgust and disturb you all the same.  I imagine that was its director's intention in the first place.

Monday, May 22, 2017

"T2" feels like a tardy postscript to the '96 original

Few movies from the 90s possessed such kinetic, mad-as-hell cinematic energy as Danny Boyle's adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel of Edinburgh's out-of-control misdirected "youth" (early twenties is still considered youth, is it not?).  When Trainspotting was released back in the summer of 1996 (my senior year in high school), it was the ultimate movie about junkies spiraling out of control (until Requiem for a Dream's release four years later), and Boyle was able to capture the charm of Scotland's bottom feeders with the aid of an exciting soundtrack and some brilliant camera & editing techniques.

T2 Trainspotting, which takes place exactly 20 years after the original, finds our protagonists adjusting to life in Edinburgh as middle aged men whose time has long passed, even if their stupidity has not.  Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to his hometown after spending the last few decades in Amsterdam, and is shocked to find the newly escaped prison convict, Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), still after him for the money he stole; Spud (Ewen Bremner) is a heroin addict, and with the help of Sick Boy's (Jonny Lee Miller) new girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), he turns to writing, and becomes the eventual narrator (officially) to the entire story arc we've seen so far (perhaps playing Welsh himself?).

Not nearly as flashy or thrilling as its predecessor, T2 often times feels like an overgrown child who's a few decades late for the prom.  Its characters, so fascinating to follow once-upon-a-time when the needles were sticking out of their arms, have by now become rather redundant in their old age.  This isn't a movie for those who don't hold the '96 original close to their hearts; for everyone else, it's a trip down memory lane that manages to entertain and disappoint.  Luckily, it pulls off the former more often than the latter.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

"Supermike's" vanity nearly runs Zagor out of Darkwood

As Mike Gordon (a.k.a. Supermike) - the pompous, egotistical brat from the East who arrives in the American Wild West with the blind ambition of a conqueror looking to be the talk of every town - the blonde haired young man is, in a way, Zagor's exact antithesis.  Whereas The King of Darkwood is a humble and compassionate individual, never interested in personal achievements, but in prosperity and endurance of both the whites and the Native Americans to co-exist together, Supermike is a boastful punk whose only interest is his own vanity.  He simply wants to be the best.  At everything.  And yes, that includes both knitting old sweaters and being the fastest gun in Zagor's neck of the woods.  No one said that arrogance was an uncomplicated character flaw.

Peculiar nicknames apparently lead to peculiar egos.

Gordon's eventual arrival in Darkwood is soon followed by various infractions, committed mostly to embarrass and enrage Zagor - who had earlier given him a public licking after Mike had maliciously murdered a notorious gunslinger for the sheer purpose of bloviating his own unmatched ego.  Strutting around in his newly designed yellow costume, consisting of a large "M" on his chest (another antithesis of Zagor's own Eagle symbol), Supermike blows up a U.S. Army bridge, nearly destroys a village of Native Americans, and physically assaults Zagor several times, and does it all with a smile on his face.  But Zagor finally has enough: he proposes a challenge to Supermike, a contest where their physical abilities will be put to the test, and the loser will eventually have to leave Darkwood forever.  Soon it's game on, and one - or perhaps even both - of them will not make it out of it alive.  

Written by the legendary Sergio Bonelli (under the pseudonym Guido Nolitta) and illustrated by Zagor's graphic creator, Gallieno Ferri,  Zagor versus Supermike (Epicenter Comics, 312 pages, $16.99) is an unforgettable adventure of that famed and long running Italian comic book hero (second only to Tex in longevity and popularity), and has been ranked among Zagor's top 10 adventures of all time by his faithful fans ever since its initial release in the early 1970s.  The bold, kinetic new cover artwork for this Epicenter issue is by Michele Rubini, and it pits Zagor against Gordon's screwy alter-ego atop of an elevated, old-school type of boxing ring, like two Gladiators whose so-called "seventh" round truly was a fist-fight to the death, so to speak.

A challenge, a challenge... my kingdom for a challenge.

More than just a standard Zagor's action tale - which typically involves the Darkwood King going up against crooked bootleggers selling illegal alcohol to the Natives, fighting injustice at any cost, or even facing his immortal nemesis, Professor Hellingen - Supermike pits our acrobatic hero against a foe who isn't interested in the extermination of the American Indians - as serials with similar themes generally tend to focus on - but a delusional man who's obsessed in creating his own legend in the Darkwood forest.  That of course, includes surpassing the myth that Zagor has built for himself during all these years. The problem is that, although Supermike is physically as gifted as Zagor, he simply lacks the humility and decency to ever look past his own reflection in the mirror.  The man is a reincarnation of Narcissus himself, but instead of staring at himself in the water, he gawks at Zagor's aura, and deems it an obstacle that he must overcome, at any cost.

As Zagor and Supermike face one another, Darkwood residents enjoy their iconic mano-a-mano bout.

Zagor has fought many notable enemies during his life, and hopefully, he will continue to entertain his loyal readers by fighting many more in the years to come.  He has, however, seldom had an adversary who was as charming as he was diabolical like Mike Gordon.  Chances are, he may never face the likes of him again.  Or perhaps he might.  That would surely be a super occassion, just like the first ever publication of this quintessential episode in English.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Hounds" howls with unrequited love

Ben Young's new Australian feature film, Hounds of Love, presents us with a twisted couple who get off on abducting teenage girls, only to chain them to a bed in their creepy house while torturing and raping them, before murdering and burying their bodies in the nearby forest.  One day, when they cunningly lure young Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) into their home, they find themselves, at long last, discovering just how different from one another they may actually be, much to both of their surprise.

As a woman who is conflicted about her boyfriend's maniacal serial killing ways, Evelyn White (Emma Booth) displays a quiet rage that is simultaneously off-putting and relatable.  She's the modern day Lady MacBeth, but with a "heart" - albeit an easily manipulative one, controlled with just enough psychotic subtlety by her coarse-as-hell boyfriend, John (Stephen Curry).  Cummings' inner turmoil is scarily and realistically authentic, both psychologically and physically.

But make no mistake: the real wonder here is Booth, an actress with raw talent that is heartbreakingly vast in the range of emotions her complex character has to convey.  When Hounds of Love is over, you may find yourself wondering if what you've just seen is just another dramatic torture porn, or a film with unexpected depth that explores the thin line between good and evil in the most original way.    Me?  I'm leaning towards the latter.

Friday, May 12, 2017

"Regression" is a display of vile beauty

Adrian's waking nightmares are the stuff of real vile, disgusting horror.  The visions of rotten corpses, revolting maggots and general death that he experiences while at a friend's house for a barbecue would even make Kevin Bacon's character in Stir of Echoes do a double take.  Is he witnessing the horrors of future yet to come, or are his perceptions merely a window to a past long since gone?  And if so, whose past?

In Image's new series, Regression, writer Cullen Bunn (from Dark Horse's Harrow County fame) and illustrator Danny Luckert (the dazzling colors are by Marie Enger) have created a modern horror tale for the average everyman whose mind may accidentally possess the uncanny ability to see even that which it would rather not see, and as such they have produced a comic that is as beautiful as it is hauntingly disturbing.

Bunn's writing - especially a scene involving a comic medium who hypnotizes Adrian in order to get to the bottom of his vivid nightmares - is original and clever in the purest way; simultaneously, Luckert's artwork is clean and sharp (and very reminiscent of Image's recently released Plastic).  The final page/vignette, an eloquent shot of horrors that Adrian's hypnosis has unleashed, is freakishly alluring.

Regression is the most exciting horror comic that Image has produced in a long time, and a month after releasing such beauties as Plastic and Redneck, that is saying a lot.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Gifted" offers the same ol' custody battle melodrama

Resembling a modern after school special whose virtues most audiences may not be familiar with, Marc Webb's Gifted comes across like a (several times over) recycled idea with characters who would be better served in an after school special than a mainstream theatrical feature.  As an uncle who's a full time guardian to a young child prodigy (Mckenna Grace) Mr. Captain America himself (Chris Evans) has only one emotion: absolute neutrality, sprinkled with sarcasm and a little bit of charm.  Octavia Spencer, here playing a sassy, opinionated neighbor with an attitude (a cliche, perhaps? Me thinks so) never once behaves in a manner fit for a real human being, and the court room scenes are definitions of banality (would a lawyer really be allowed to belittle the witness on the stand, without the judge ever stepping in?).

The problem with movies such as Gifted is that they play all the right notes to the audience's soft spots, and therefore come across as profoundly moving to the dumbed down masses (a scene in a hospital involving a family's reaction to a birth of a child would be insulting if it wasn't so schmaltzy instead).  But the truth is that you - and everyone else - have already seen this movie before, and most likely executed way better than this. You likely don't remember it, because you're too easily charmed by the generic nature of Gifted to even care.  Which is a damn shame.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Legendary sci-fi "The Eternaut" invents post-apocalyptic horror

By now, to those familiar with the world of graphic novels and comics, The Eternaut is the stuff of legend, and I'm not just saying that.  Its conception by Héctor Germán Oesterheld and eventual publication in an Argentinian paper, Hora Cero Suplemento Semanal from 1957 to 1959, gave birth to what we today consider a complex, politically allegorical graphic novel not seen before.  As much a defining pop-cultural, sci-fi post apocalyptic horror as the American Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Eternaut presents us with a society on the brink of destruction from an unseen foe capable of manipulating others to do their dirty work.  It is a tale that, however glum it may appear at times, still manages to celebrate the human spirit more than its tough exterior would suggest.

Released for the first time in English language in this 2015 Edition, The Eternaut (Fantagraphics, 368 pages, Hard Cover) - illustrated by the Argentine comic book artist Fransisco Solano Lopez - features an average everyman hero, Juan Silva, and his desperate attempt to save his city of Buenos Aires from invading, vicious extra terrestrials.  Silva is aided in his plight by a few close friends: Professor Favalli, the brainy, know-it-all wise man of the group who most often has the best possible solution for any sticky situation; and Franco, a tough but compassionate metal worker with whom he often plays cards.  

As the mysterious "snow" begins to fall in Buenos Aires, Juan and company soon discover that it is of lethal nature: everyone who comes into contact with it dies immediately.  Protagonists are unable to make contact with their neighbors or the rest of the world, so they create special rubber suits - an image of Juan Silva in the aforementioned outfit and glass mask, resembling a high-tech deep sea diver, is an iconic illustration in the comic book pop-culture world, and especially in Argentina's capital - which enables them to remain resistant to the snow and its deadly effects.  While venturing outside, Juan and Favalli rescue young Pablo, a wisecracking boy who will serve as comic relief during the story's rather gloomy tone.  

Our protagonists eventually join a small army, and in their fight versus the alien enemy, they will encounter giant beetles ("cascarudos", to quote Oesterheld accurately) who fire an utterly destructive white laser-like light at them; large buffalo-shaped beasts, Gurbos, who are capable of crushing and stomping everything in front of them to smithereens; and humans who've been 'turned' and are now working for the enemy, referred to as robot-men.  There are also several copies of Hands (Manos), a slightly more intelligent species of their enemy, with white, slicked-back hair resembling a post-modern Wall Street broker.   Hands get their name from their abnormality that allows them to have some twenty-something fingers on their hand, and this gift enables them to operate complex machinery and technology that is too advanced for human comprehension.

Oesterheld and Lopez's creation some sixty years ago still stands the test of time.  Their characters and the potentially apocalyptic scenario and setting they find themselves in very much mirrors a possible reality that could, at any given moment, take place in our own world (especially given the socially divisive rhetoric of the current POTUS).  Juan Silva and his friends are ordinary men with very much un-extraordinary powers, yet their predicament doesn't leave them much time to debate themselves or each other about what the right thing to do, at this most catastrophic time, actually is.  Favalli sums it up rather well: "... We were hunting each other like animals... now, knowing that our enemies are extra-terrestrial beings, we're all brothers."

The stretched-out, protracted second act of The Eternaut, a section in which a colossal War takes center stage in the heart of Buenos Aires - and where much is shot at, blown up and destroyed ad nauseam - is perhaps a bit too long.  Oesterheld's anti-dictatorial hyperbole, established early on and effectively transitioned into the "action" packed follow up to the spooky and memorable intro, resembles a jam-packed movie where suddenly the characters and their personal plights takes a surprising second seat to a military-in-action fifty-plus pages extravaganza.  Since one could easily make an argument that The Eternaut is - at an excess of 350 pages - already too lengthy, one does wonder what it would've looked like if it was tidier and smoother, especially at its center.

In the closing pages, we're left to decide for ourselves if what we've just read has indeed been a factual event within the confines of Oesterheld and Lopez's imagination, as the narrator Silva has assured his audience of one, or if he's just a slightly deranged man whose own fantasy has taken a turn for the worse.  Did this Eternaut - or traveler for eternity - really experience world wide mass attack on Earth, and then accidentally get lost through the time-space continuum, and happened to find his wife and daughter by pure chance in the right year?  Or has his sanity abandoned him to such a degree that everything we've just read is a fabrication of his damaged psyche?  Will we ever know? Perhaps one day, if and when The Eternaut should visit one of us and recount his life's hardships personally, we'll be able to arrive at such a conclusion on our own.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Johannson's shell too tight for this "Ghost"

There's something about Scarlett Johannson's walk that I just can't put my finger on.  She struts around like a bulky, awkward man in tights, her every step a wooden, synthetic movement that feels strangely artificial.  This could, of course, just be a result of her playing a synthetic human, a type of an Artificial Intelligence in this remake of Mamoru Oshii's cult sci-fi Anime.  It could, also, just be the way Ms. Johannson is genetically programmed to walk (if it is the latter, than it's a damn shame).

Nevertheless, the superstar actress, who here resembles the Kick-Ass-First-Ask-Questions-Later Black Widow character that she portrays in Marvel's The Avengers franchise, remains surprisingly detached emotionally throughout from the audience.  Her plight is a personal one - her entire personality is a fabrication as a result of her human mind having been morphed with a cyborg-like exterior, hence the term "ghost in the shell" - but we never quite feel her anguish the way director Rupert Sanders would have wanted us to.

Still, this Hollywood remake, for all its backlash and lack of box office success, is a marvel of production design and art direction.  Not since Blade Runner has a futuristic city on the big screen looked dirty and beautiful at once.  Ghost in the Shell may be more 'miss 'than 'hit', but it's still a hell of a lot more engaging than its overrated 1995 Anime predecessor.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

"In Siberia" Corto robs trains & ponders about lost loves

More than any previously released (in English) edition of his acclaimed protagonist, Hugo Pratt's In Siberia (IDW Publishing, 120 pgs) portrays the charming, adventurous hero, Corto Maltese, as a man who is simply too realistic to actually have any fear, even in the face of certain death.  I mean, how else do you explain him throwing himself at and then strangling a man who was about to shoot him - at point blank range - to death, without so much as an afterthought?

Finding himself in the far East, in the Siberian sections where Russia and China intersect, the famed Captain will come across a beautiful Russian Duchess, a blood-thirsty General, and that "immortal" (or so it would seem) scoundrel Rasputin, both a villain and a foe to Corto, and a person who will remain a loyal motif to this series as much as Pratt's equitable prose.  Of course, Rasputin still threatens to kill Corto every chance he gets, a threat that's more an artificial, friendly bark than a malicious, murderous bite.

Rasputin: Are you still thinking of her?  You may not know it, but I had a great love, too. A girl from Nikolaevsk who took care of me when I was a baby... My mother was exiled to Western Siberia for prostitution and she died giving birth to me...
Corto Maltese: No doubt from fright after taking a look at you!
Rasputin: One more word about my mother, and I'll kill you, Corto Maltese!

Recruited by an Asian gang known simply as The Red Lanterns, Corto embarks on an adventure in which he's to orchestrate a massive gold heist, a la The Great Train Robbery, on a large convoy in the freezing Asian Northeast.  An American Air Force Major, Jack Tippit, whom Corto meets at a Turkish bath, informs him of a Russian aristocrat, Marina Seminova, who is traveling in the North on an armored train.  Naturally, when Corto meets the said Duchess, he is smitten with her, but not as much, it would seem, as she is with him.  As she gives him a long stare, she simply says, between the puffs of her cigarette, "Hmmmh... Cortushka!"

One thing that's very noticeable about In Siberia - as opposed to, say Under the Sign of Capricorn or even Celtic Tales - is the kinetic energy of Pratt's vignettes, as well as his writing.  No longer limited to sea faring adventures where Corto battles octopi or sails the high seas only to find himself stranded on strange islands, Maltese here chokes his foes to death, fights Chinese enemies on top of moving trains, and even finds himself at odds with a romantic officer by the name of Nino.  Their first encounter is a melancholy one, typical of Pratt's sense of romanticism in the face of potential chaos of war.

Nino: Dasvidanya, would you like a drink?
Corto: Not just now.
Nino: Why not? Sooner or later we'll have to drink together...
Corto: Oh, really? Why?
Nino: Because fate willed that we both fall in love with the same woman...

The trigger happy, maniacal Baron Ungern-Sternberg, so keen on hearing a psychic's prophecy about his eventual fate, is no less a romantic than most of Pratt's creations.  He's happy - or, at the very least, not unhappy - to shoot people as if it's a bodily function, all because they presented him with facts he didn't really want to hear.  He's the antithesis to our faithful hero, in a way, and their encounter and general banter is definitely the stuff that graphic novel talk is made of.

Sternberg: Corto Maltese? Is that name supposed to mean something to me? You haven't told me what you're doing here...
Corto: You may not believe me, but I'm trying to forget someone.

Truer words were never spoken.  Ever the hopeless romantic, Corto may sail the world, ride gold carrying trains across the frozen wilderness, and even fly planes over dangerous war zones, but he still falls in and out of love as if he was a prepubescent teenage boy.  His farewell with Shanghai Lil at the very end is a very pensive adieu indeed, just as it was with a certain Pandora Groovesnore during one of his previous adventures on the Salt Sea.  But that's just the beauty of Corto Maltese: like the brightest, most colorful seasons of the year, his life is cyclical, and although at moments repetitive, it's never quite mundane.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Uneven "Colossal" a showcase for Hathaway

The dark comedy Colossal, featuring Anne Hathaway as Gloria, a woman who unknowingly destroys most of South Korea as a giant lizard-like monster, is too clever by... half.  Illustrating how one's low self-worth can translate into a Dr. Strangelove-esque mass scale death toll - and all this at the expense of "comedy", so to speak - director Nacho Vigalondo's satirical tone really turns into a weird, kind of disturbing psycho jealous-admirer showcase when Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), Gloria's childhood friend, does a complete 180 on his initially kind-and-considerate persona, and unapolagetically begins to crush Seoul himself (as a giant robot).

Hathaway looks and sounds the part of a lethargic woman who's just too irresponsible and flaky to keep a man (Dan Stevens) who clearly cares for her, and that indifference somehow manifests itself in a type of a small scale apocalypse half a world away.  Colossal is clearly meant to be a satirical farce, but as such, it is unfortunately very short on real laughs.  Vigalondo has shown that he has the guts and the audacity to push the envelope when it comes to content.  Now, if he could only muster a worthwhile idea to go along with such audaciousness.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Like a fine painting, "Frantz" changes with perspective

Francois Ozon's German/French drama, Frantz - set in post World War I Europe - is a delicately constructed portrayal of grief by two similar souls from opposite sides of The Great War.  As Anna, a German woman whose fiancé was killed by the French, Paula Beer displays a quiet dignity not often seen with such characters.  She wears her mourning not only as a mirror to the deep grief she's been in since Frantz's death, but also as a repellant cloak from obnoxious new suitors.  When a mysterious Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), shows up at his grave with flowers in tow, the local Germans are suspicious as all hell, not to mention still angry at their western border neighbors for losing the war.

Niney captures the conflicted anguish of his character very well, and Adrien's eventual fate will certainly surprise many viewers, but alas, if you're looking for a Hollywood ending, you won't find it here.  Frantz is a wise, artistic movie - its cinematic shifts from B&W to color based on the tone is a wisely used ploy - but by no means is it pretentious.  In a market overflowing with predictable celluloid romances, Frantz dares us to predict its final act, then sneaks up and does something completely unexpected .  Therein lies its bliss.