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PSIFF Day Two: Pan's Labyrinth
Why see a movie at a film festival thatís currently playing in theaters everywhere? While at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, I originally intended to attend the showing of Panís Labyrinth that included a Q&A with director Guillermo Del Toro, but I wasnít able to make it. Instead, I was at the filmís second, director-less showing, but what a film it is.
Itís 1944. In a small village in Spain, the local captain (Sergi Lopez) is obsessed with keeping control in the face of various insurgents opposed to the new fascist government. His new wife has just arrived with her young daughter from a previous marriage, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). The girl lives two lives, one in the harsh and lonely environment of the Captainís home, where she and her mother are subject to his cruelty, and one in a strange fantasy world located within the nearby labyrinth, where she discovers she is a long-lost princess with a destiny to fulfill.
As of this writing, critics and movie fans all over the world are falling all over themselves in praising this movie, so Iím not sure what I can say thatís any different, except everything youíve heard is pretty much spot on. The movie is not just visually rich, but it also has a great story, fascinating characters, and moving performances.
Ivana Baquero has received a lot of deserved praise for her years-ahead-of-its-time performance here, but for me the real star is Sergi Lopez as the captain. This guy has jumped right to the top of my all-time favorite movie villains list. He is just a slimy, cold-hearted monster. While watching the movie you want awful, horrible things to happen to him. Itís thanks to Lopezís spot-on acting here that you get that reaction.
The visuals of Panís Labyrinth really shine, as expected. The fantasy sequences are not just eye-popping, but theyíre also dark and creepy throughout. If Ofelia is merely imagining her otherworldly journeys, then the poor girl is pretty messed up in her brain. The faun, her guide to this world, is all kinds of creepy, and youíre never quite sure if heís on her side or not. Another monster, one with bulging eyeballs on his palms, is even ickier, with stretchy skin dangling from his thin frame as he slowly moves toward you.
But as a whole, Panís Labyrinth is less about the monsters and more about the characters, and their longings for either control or freedom from control. Youíll see a lot of brutality and violence from beginning to end, from both sides of the conflict. There are some interesting subtleties at work here too -- notice how a knife shows up in both of Ofeliaís two worlds and how they are used later on in important ways.
Given how goofy Del Toro sometimes acts in DVD extras on his other films, it was almost a surprise as to how mature and confident this one is. Itís certainly the best of his work that Iíve seen. Highly recommended.
PSIFF Day One: Nomad
So I recently spent a week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, enjoying the desert atmosphere and taking in some cool flicks, and boy did I start off with a good one.
Itís a shame that moviegoers' views of Kazakhstan will forever be associated with the lowbrow yuks of Borat when the actual country has produced Nomad, an action-packed historical epic, with high drama, gorgeous cinematography, and sword-swinging mayhem.
The story is set in the 18th century, at a time when the country was made up of various wandering tribes of Kazaks, always under threat of attack by their enemies, the vicious Jungars. As the film begins, thereís a Moses-like prophecy that says a sultanís son will someday unite the Kazak tribes and defeat the Jungars, so of course the baddies set out to kill the sultanís child immediately. Fortunately, the baby is saved by the titular nomad (Jason Scott Lee, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), a mystical butt-kicker and occasional advisor to the sultan. The nomad and the sultan agree to let the nomad raise the boy in secret, so the Jungars never learn he survived.
Jump to years later, after the child, Mansur (Kuno Becker), has been trained by the nomad to be one of the most skilled warriors in all the land. Upon learning who his father is, as well as his world-changing destiny, Mansur not only has to deal with fighting the sinister Jungars, but also the strains on his relationships with his father, his best friend, and the girl he loves.
What Iíve covered above is only the first half hour or so of the movie. Not only are there plenty of twists and turns to the plot as Mansur discovers his destiny, but there are all kinds of rousing action scenes along the way as well. The obvious comparisons to make are with recent ďepic battleĒ movies like Lord of the Rings or, more appropriately, Kingdom of Heaven. But in its tone, Nomad is more like 1982ís Conan the Barbarian. Life in the desert is rough and violent, and those who are strongest with their swords are the ones who get to live the nice life. That is, until a hero like Mansur comes along, unites the people, and creates a new peace
The festivalís guide book makes a big deal about how the action scenes in Nomad are ďold school.Ē There are no CGI armies here; instead, whenever you see a wide shot of hundreds of barbarians hacking and slashing away at each other, those are hundreds of bona fide extras all fighting it out for our entertainment. The many swordfights are well choreographed without resorting to outlandish jumping and king fu moves, and some of my favorite scenes include some elaborate chases on horseback.
In short, Nomad is an action-packed epic that thankfully has a great story to go along with its eye-popping battles. Iím guessing a nation-wide release and even a region 1 DVD will probably never happen, but if you somehow get a chance to see this one, go for it.
Comics Verdict: Best of 2006? Runaways!
At first, this was going to be a list of the top five or top ten comics of the year, but with Runaways in the number one spot, thereís no need to bother with anything else. Youíve got Runaways, which is way up here, and then youíve got all other comics, which are way down there.
Backing up for a sec, Runaways is about a group of unrelated California teens with nothing in common except that their parents are murderous supervillains working together to overthrow the Earth. Each of the kids has inherited some sort of power, item, or dinosaur handed down to them from mom and dad. The kids run away, swearing to right all the wrongs of their parents, as well as any other evil adults they come across. But, in the world of Runaways, the words ďevil adultĒ are redundant.
Thereís Nico, a would-be sorceress whose mystical powers involve shedding her own blood, Karolina, an alien with light-based abilities, Chase, who drives the teamís high-tech getaway vehicle, Gert, who fights crime with the help of a telepathic dinosaur, Molly, an 11-year-old mutant with the strength to bench press a bus, and Alex, the brains of the group. As you get farther into the series, some characters depart, while a few new ones join the team.
Marvel Comicsí Runaways is written by the great Brian K. Vaughn with a rotating team of artists consisting of Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, Mike Norton, Skottie Young, and Stefano Caselli, among others. Itís been collected in some handy digest sized graphic novels and in two gorgeous hardcover collections. If you want to ďtest the waters,Ē then I suggest seeking out the digests, which shouldnít be hard to find. That being said, I heartily recommend the hardcovers, which are well worth the money. Not only has all the art been reproduced with glorious color and detail, but the hardcovers have generous extras, such as scripts and concept sketches.
I recently received the Volume Two hardcover for Christmas and reintroduced myself to the stories therein. In this volume, the Runaways have their first encounter with Victor Mancha, who becomes a member of the team, despite the fact that his father is one of the Marvel universeís most feared villains. Then, Xavin, an alien, arrives with surprising news for Carolina, leading to heartbreak among the group. Finally, our heroes pay a visit to New York City, where they investigate a drug-related mystery and prove they have what it takes to square off against the Avengers.
Itíd take months to list everything that makes Runaways so thoroughly awesome. There are complex, twisty-turny plots, where just when you think youíve got the story figured out, thereís another surprise waiting for you. Thereís witty dialogue -- which weíve come to expect from Vaughn -- that knows when to make with the sarcastic wisecracks, and when to stay serious. Even though the kids are unconventional superheroes, youíll find plenty of kickass superhero action along the way. What really makes Runaways stand out way, way ahead of all other comics currently on shelves, though, is the character work. These are a group of characters that readers can instantly relate to and care about. Marvel Comics always gets praised for classic heroes like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four being great characters in addition to being great heroes. The Runaways fit that description nicely, and -- as long as future creators donít screw them up -- they should achieve ďclassicĒ status of their own in years to come.
If you canít stand superheroes and you hate all comic books with a poisonous rage, youíll still enjoy Runaways. Itís just that good.
I made it to Harvard Square on the afternoon of Dec. 8 to see the first showing of David Lynch's new movie, Inland Empire. Three hours of Lynch surrealism? It was an exhausting, frightening, amazing experience.
So the movie begins with a troubled young prostitute who, after, uh, "servicing" her, um, "customer," turns to the television to escape her nightmarish life. On TV, she watches an odd sitcom about some rabbits, which then transforms into the story of Nikki, a successful actress about to start work on an important new film. As things progress, Nikki eventually starts to become the character she's playing. From there, reality just keeps on unraveling, as Nikki finds herself in one unsettling predicament after another.
What we've got here is a film with several layers of story going on at once. The trick to it is to know which parts of which story belong to which layer and...
OK, I'm going to stop right there and not even bother trying to analyze the plot. As with most of Lynch's films, this one's going to take repeated viewings before eventually getting a sense of just what is happening. The first time you see a Lynch film, you don't focus on the story, you focus on the mood and the atmosphere. This one's got all sorts of dark, creepy imagery, as well as that dreamlike feel that Lynch is so good at creating. It's not as "out there" as Eraserhead, but it's more oddball than Mulholland Drive. I'd say Inland Empire's closest kin would be Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, in that even though there's all sorts of bizarre unexplainable stuff happening on screen, Lynch never loses sight of where the characters are emotionally. You might not know what's going on, but you'll still be able to relate to the characters.
Speaking of which, Laura Dern was great here, playing several different characters (or, perhaps, one character with a very fractured psyche). I know a lot of folks are pushing for her to get an Oscar for this role, but I felt that her performance was genuine, and not just weepy Oscar bait. Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons, Grace Zabriski, and perpetual weirdo Harry Dean Stanton were all excellent as well.
I left the theater feeling excited, in a way. Seeing this movie got my creative juices flowing, and, as weird as it all was, it reminded my why I love movies in general. So, yeah, I recommend that everyone make the effort to go see this one at the theater. Even if "art" movies aren't your thing and you'd rather see something like ninjas fighting dinosaurs, I say go see Inland Empire anyway, and see where the journey takes you.
Comics Verdict: Ex Machina, Vol. 4
After an encounter with a seemingly alien artifact, New Yorker Mitchell Hundred gained the mental power to communicate with and control machines. For a while, he donned a jet pack and a mask and fought crime as ďThe Great Machine.Ē But heís since retired from the vigilante life, and now he tries to save New York City in a different way: as its newly-elected mayor. Thatís Ex Machina in a nutshell, the story of a superhero turned politician.
Brian K. Vaughn is my current favorite comic book writer. His work on Marvelís Runaways has been beyond amazing (that will be another blog entry in the future), and his work on Ultimate X-Men, The Escapists, and especially Y: The Last Man has also been outstanding. The guy has continually been able to create fascinating characters, witty dialogue and twisty-turny plots that keep readers guessing. Heís a major talent with a style of his own and I hope more folks out there check out his stuff.
In Ex Machina, Vaughn makes it look easy. Each line of line of dialogue is so character-specific that I can ďhearĒ the charactersí voices in my head as I read. This super mayor is surrounded by a cast of equally quirky characters, and Vaughn gives each a moment to shine in each story arc. Also, another of Vaughnís talents is that heís able to track down all sorts of odd trivia--the guy must be a real research rat--that he uses to punch up the dialogue and the characters. And yet he does this without it ever feeling forced or unnecessary. Like I said, he makes it look easy.
In this fourth volume of the series, titled ďMarch to War,Ē Mayor Hundred has to deal the aftermath of violence breaking out at an anti-Iraq war rally. Is it a terrorist attack, or has one of Hundredís old foes come back for revenge? Speaking of old foes, this volume also reprints an Ex Machina special, which is an extended flashback to the time when Hundred, during his masked crimefighting days, met the man who may or may not be his arch-rival, one with powers both similar and different to his own. Both stories show a lot of wit, character development, and surprises. If youíre new to Ex Machina, though, I enthusiastically suggest starting with volume one instead of here. Volume four is some solid storytelling, but youíre better off coming to it already knowing who the characters are.
Those who are familiar with Tony Harris from his work on Starman in the Ď90s know how good he is. His style combines old school art deco with modern tech, making him the perfect artist for a New York story. Chris Sprouse fills on the special and does a similarly excellent job. The change between artists wasnít jarring at all.
My only complaint about this volume and the series as a whole is that thereís still no answer to the question, ďWhy doesnít Mitchell Hundred just ask ATMs for all their money and become a millionaire?Ē Other than that, itís pretty much one of the best comics made today. For more info about Brian K. Vaughn, visit www.bkv.tv.
Comics Verdict: Jack Kirby's Galactic Bounty Hunters
Allegedly based on an unused and forgotten creation by late comics legend Jack Kirby, Galactic Bounty Hunters is a throwback to good old fashioned sci-fi adventure, when things like rocket ships, laser guns, and giant lizards took precedent over stuff like lengthy dissertations about quantum physics and astronomical anomalies. Itís not brainy sci-fi, but it is fun sci-fi. Imagine if Star Wars was a lot cheesier than it is, and you might get the picture.
The first issue begins when we meet Mainframe, leader of the titular bounty hunters, in pursuit of a deadly alien named Slugg. As the action builds to a climax, suddenly thereís a twist, and we see Mainframe in a new light. Iím avoiding spoilers here, but a crisis arises that involves our hero traveling around space reuniting his fellow bounty hunters, which include a reptilian brute, a sexy feline, and a hovering cloaked robot.
Jack Kirbyís Galactic Bounty Hunters is published by Icon, which is actually a division of Marvel Comics. There are four writers and five artists credited, as well as five names listed under ďdeveloped by,Ē so itís not like this is one personís vision, but Iíll be damned if itís not a lot of fun to read. The characters, settings, and action are all larger-than-life, in that big and broad Jack Kirby style. Thereís also a jokey tone to the whole thing, with comedic bits like a drunken robot or an alien tough guy wearing an apron. As silly as that sounds, it all fits with the overall lighthearted adventure tone of the series.
The question here is: how much of this actually came from Kirby himself? I got burned by Marvelís Sentry hoax (they claimed the Sentry was a long-lost Stan Lee creation, and this was later revealed to be nothing but a marketing stunt), so Iím cautious about any new characters that are alleged to be unused creations from back in the day. That being said, the comic is a blast to read, so I suggest readers enjoy it as a tribute to Kirby, and not as a genuine Kirby work.
So if you think todayís comics are too dark and morbid, check out Jack Kirbyís Galactic Bounty Hunters for some retro fun.
Comics Verdict: The Devil's Panties
No, all you pervs, this isnít Satanic porn.
Itís a webcomic, as in an original comic book or comic strip that you read on your computer screen, instead of on paper. Despite several yearsí worth of work by hundreds of talented creators, webcomics have yet to take the world by storm. To date, it still appears that only ones reading webcomics are other webcomic creators. Well, perhaps a few faithful voices, such as yours truly, can help spread the word about some good ones (even when writing about comics at a DVD review site).
The Devilís Panties is a semi-autobiographical strip by writer/artist Jennie Breeden. Sheís cast herself as the main character, with her siblings and roommates rounding out the supporting cast. Thereís also the classic gag of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other influencing Jennie in various ways. In this case, though, they appear to represent Jennieís inner thoughts more so than the classic ďgood vs. evilĒ debate we expect. This, naturally, lets Breeden get away with having the angel say and do all sorts of non-angelic things.
Unlike a lot of the whiny ďpoor meĒ autobiographical comics out there, Breeden's is a full-on comedy, keeping the feeling upbeat throughout. She shows a real knack for wringing laughs out of ordinary, mundane situations. Now matter how much crap Jennie has to put up with, she faces it all with a good attitude and some sly humor. This is helped along by her artwork. Although some might argue that her art is a little too rough, I say itís filled with personality and energy. The facial expressions are especially good, which is vital in a humor comic.
Like many webcomic creators, Breeden sticks to the ďjoke-a-dayĒ format. As a result, her comedic timing occasionally seems rushed. As much as Iíve been enjoying the comic, Iíd love to see Breeden tell a longer story with her creation, giving the humor and the character development a chance to breathe a little. But thatís probably just me.
So try on The Devilís Panties if youíd like a few slice-of-life laughs. Itís at http://devilspanties.keenspot.com, or, if you must read your comics on paper, there are three print issues--reprinting material from the web--available from Silent Devil. (And before anyone asks: No, Breeden and I arenít friends or anything. I just discovered her comic recently, I liked it, and thought Iíd let folks here know about it.)
That being said, hey Jennie, if youíre reading this, can I have a date with your little sister?
Comics Verdict: Civil War
For the longest time now, Iíve been thinking about using these blogs to write about comics, which, along with movies, are one of my three great loves. (The third is, of course, roller derby.) I know this is kind of presumptuous of me, because Iím not the only judge who's a comic reader, and that comics have very little to do with DVDs, but Iím going to give it a shot anyway.
Civil War is currently the big crossover event at Marvel Comics. A "crossover" is a huge, multi-part epic in which all the various heroes come together in a single story. The first three issues are out, and I picked them up this week. This time, the big event isnít a world-threatening villain, but a political issue dividing all the superheroes down the middle, forcing them to duke it out with each other. Itís a simple enough concept, but one that promises lasting repercussions, as these things so often do.
Iím still not entirely sold on Mark Millar as a writer. Iíve enjoyed some of his work, while Iíve failed to see what the excitement is about with others. Civil War is equally hit and miss. Millar really knows how to put together a big, cinematic action set piece, aided of course by artists Steve McNiven, Dexter Vines, and Morry Hollowell. Unfortunately, the core concept driving these heroes to battle one another seems forced, as does the reality TV-inspired incident that kicks the whole thing off.
Speaking of ďforced,Ē one of the most-talked-about elements in Civil War has been a life-changing decision made by good old Spider-Man. I have to admit, I wasnít shocked at all by what happened (notice how spoiler-free I'm being), because in my heart of hearts I know it wonít last. Thereís either a big fake-out coming at the end of Civil War, or a year from now a new writer will take over and re-write history (again!) so that Spider-Man will go back to being the same old Spidey we all know and love. This also applies to that hideous red and gold costume heís currently wearing.
On the plus side, Millar has wisely made Captain America the emotional center of Civil War, and Iím really enjoying all of Capís scenes. It looks to me like Millar really ďgetsĒ Captain America. Like DCís Superman, Captain America can be a tough character to write, because heís always the staunch do-gooder. Millar makes it work, though, by giving Cap something to believe in and to fight for, even if that something is a controversial one.
So there you have it. Three issues in, Iíd recommend Civil War more for the butt-kickiní action than the credibility-stretching plot, but at least itís a cut above a lot of limp, unnecessary crossovers weíve seen in recent years.
Blog Review: Shadow Skill vol.1
Shadow Skill v.1
In the mythical kingdom of Kurada, no one is more famous than the Sevalle, the most powerful martial artist in all the land. In various towns and villages, rumors spread that the current Sevalle has died, and a new one has been chosen. Meanwhile, Elle Ragu and her brother Gau ride into town, looking for work. Elle is a fantastic fighter herself, especially when various supernatural monsters or nefarious thieves show up. It turns out the that unsuspecting Elle is in fact the new Sevalle, but that high and mighty stature isnít helping her pay off her debts.
Shadow Skill mixes genres left and right, and yet it seems very little is new here. The big draw is the hand-to-hand combat, featuring the exaggerated action anime is famous for. Thereís also the fantasy element, involving raging monsters and characters casting flashy spells. That makes comedy the third element to the series. Elle, the most famous person in this world, spends money the second she gets it, with little thought to the enormous debts she has compiled.
This disc, featuring the seriesí first four episodes, is entertaining enough, but thereís not much new here. Characters ride into town, start some mischief, get into an epic battle, and then move on. Itís well-animated and the voice acting is appropriately enthusiastic, but most anime viewers are likely to shrug it off as the same type of thing theyíve seen before. Perhaps, as the series progresses, it will reveal more about this world, and what it means to be a Sevalle. There is mention of invading forces from another kingdom, so itís possible there is an overall arc to the series. But it doesnít get started here. Picture and sound on the disc are great, in its original full frame aspect ratio, and 2.0 tracks in English and Japanese, with English subtitles.
If you like your fantasy adventure tales with a light touch, such as the kind found in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, then give Shadow Skill a rental. But if youíve spent months pouring over every little detail of the last few episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion trying to find some sort of meaning to it all, this might not be for you.
Blog Review: Count Duckula
From the creators of Danger Mouse came this genuine oddball from the late Ď80s/early Ď90s. Count Duckula is the latest in a long line of deadly vampires, but a botched resurrection spell has made him less than fearsome. Instead of a vicious bloodsucker, heís now a clumsy vegetarian. Duckulaís only friends are his butler Igor, who longs for the good old days of terrorizing the Transylvanian countryside, and his gigantic, destructive, yet well-meaning nanny.
I recently had the opportunity to view a publicity screener containing only the first two episodes, but even at two, a formula presents itself for the entire series. While hanging out in the castle, Duckula and Igor get into a discussion that eventually becomes about another part of the world. Meanwhile, some treasure seekers and/or vampire hunters are trying to get inside. Thanks to a magic mirror, Duckula transports the entire castle to the foreign land in question, and numerous misadventures follow. The first episode finds our heroes and their adversaries in Egypt, wandering around a boobie trap-ridden pyramid. Then, itís off to Spain and right into a bullfighting ring.
Count Duckula was a combined American and British production, so you can imagine how the tone of the series is mixed. But in this case, itís a good thing. Thereís over-the-top slapstick in the Warner Brothers tradition combined with the dry line delivery British humor is known for. This what I like to call ďsummer stock theaterĒ comedy, with a reliance on mistaken identities, slapstick, the occasional musical number, and puns, puns, puns. If a joke is too stupid for you, donít worry, because another one is only seconds away.
The look of the series is unique. The characters are very simply drawn, but the backgrounds are highly detailed, with odd angles and moody lighting. Imagine Carl Barks collaborating with P. Craig Russell and you might get the idea. The picture quality on the disc leaves a little to be desired, though, with a soft image and several specks and scratches visible. The sound varies from good to great, especially during the toe-tapping Thriller-style theme song.
The first season of Count Duckula was released in stores earlier this week. Animation junkies in search of something different should give it try.
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