Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Taster's Choice or I Read Comic Books (And So Can You)!

Comics have a bad reputation in the academic world--if you want a professor to take them seriously, you first have to pretentiously re-label them graphic novels. But the truth is that while comics appear effortlessly digestible, they're often intellectually rich and challenging. So, instead of cracking open the "classics" this summer, why not read a comic book that promises both stunning visuals and a satisfying story? Here's my list of must read comics:

 
1. Chew
Written by John Layman, Drawn by Rob Guillory

 
 

I'm personally not a big fan of superhero comics--Chew is as about as close as it gets to a superhero comic without actually being a superhero comic. It tells the story of cibopath detective, Tony Chu, as he solves various crimes/mysteries in a time where much of the population has succumbed to a deadly mutation of the bird flu (as such, chicken is illegal to cook, sell, and eat). If you don't know what a cibopath is, you're not alone--I think it's Layman's own invention. Basically, a cibopath receives psychic impressions from any food s/he puts in his/her mouth, except for canned beets for some bizarre reason . As a cibopathic cop, Tony is forced to do much of his investigative work through the tasting of various pieces of evidence (edible or not). As you can imagine, Tony's unique ability makes for some interesting and cannibalistic situations that are both disturbing and entertaining. Honestly, that's half the fun of this series!

 
Chew is an important and relevant read in our Western culture now. It reflects many of the apprehensions we have about the processing and origins of our food. Tony struggles with eating any meat, because when he does eat meat, he receives a graphic vision of the animal's slaughter. He struggles with eating food handled at restaurants after he receives a vision of a cook spitting into his soup. These are some of the struggles we all face in a culture where eating meat is no longer ethically or environmentally viable, especially with the emergence of giant, corporate owned farms. But the ethical treatment of our food isn't our only concern. We can't take a bite of anything without worrying about genetic modification, pesticides, local farming, ethical farming, sustainable farming, obesity, organic vs. inorganic, germs and disease. It is quite literally a lot to take-in. Chew plays on these anxieties quite well and gives you a lot to chew on without shoving any one particular stand point down your throat.

 
Besides the fantastic story line and hilarious food puns, Chew's art is refreshing and quirky. It has a distinct style without falling into the trap of too-similar-looking characters (*Cough* Walking Dead *Cough*). Each character is unique in his/her own way. I also enjoyed the fact that Tony Chu is a minority character (Asian)--you don't see that very often and I'm happy to see representation of people of colour.

 

2. Afterlife with Archie
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, drawn by Francesco Francavilla


 
I grew up reading Archie comics and, full disclosure, sometimes I still read them. Yes, they're often corny and formulaic, but they can be surprisingly sophisticated. Afterlife with Archie, while perhaps not canonical, is certainly sophisticated, if not downright disturbing. The story begins in Riverdale with all the classic Archie characters we have come to know and love: Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and even Sabrina. My heart swelled with nostalgia...and then the bloodbath began. Afterlife with Archie isn't your typical Archie story. In this comic, now available as a trade, Archie and his gang face a fast-moving zombie outbreak and all of the mayhem that comes with it. Ok, so zombies have been done-to-death, but this is a fresh parody that Archie, zombie, and comic book fans can get behind. I especially love the zombie outbreak origin story which is revealed in the first comic. It's original and fits well with Archie canon.

 
My only disappointment is the art--and let me qualify that statement. Francavilla went with an original and fairly dark art style. I'm not sure if this was a creative choice or if it had something to do with disassociating the adult content of Afterlife with Archie from the Archie comics that are typically targeted at a pre-teen and teen audience. Although the characters are recognizable, I think the original Archie style would have made the comic more uncomfortably remarkable and, therefore, more disquieting, especially for Archie fans. Regardless, Francavilla's technique and style are mostly well received on my end and fit nicely with the plot.

 

3. Battle Angel Alita
Written and drawn by Yukito Kishiro


 
Although Battle Angel Alita had its original run in the 90s, it has recently been re-released as an ominbus. It has also re-entered the spotlight of late since James Cameron reportedly plans on making the series into a live action film (fingers crossed this happens).

 
Battle Angel Alita is a dystopic Manga series (Japanese graphic novel) that takes place in the distant future, as dystopias often do. The majority of humanity lives in squalor on polluted Earth. Earth people are the slave class who supply food, power, and waste disposal to a minority of privileged people who live in a safe sky city called Tiphares. In order to survive on Earth, humans enhance their bodies with cyborg modifications, nanotechnology, and drugs. The cyborg technology is so advanced, in fact, that the entire human body (except for the brain, of course) can be replaced with metal. It's all very cyberpunk. The protagonist of this cyberpunk narrative is the mysterious and sexy, Alita. Ido, an ex-Tipharean doctor, discovers Alita's unconscious and badly damaged mechanical body in a scrap yard. Ido has an intense fatherly instinct (it's almost patronizing, actually) and so, he takes Alita home, repairs and adopts her. When she wakes up, she has no memory of her past, though it is quickly revealed that she has the strength, instincts, and training of a warrior. While some of the novel is dedicated to unveiling Alita's mysterious identity, much of the story concerns her misadventures in the scrap yard as she defends organic (unmodified) and weak humans.
 



 
Unfortunately, much of the "soul" of Battle Angel Alita all but disappears after the first four volumes (and there are nine volumes altogether). However, it is worth at least one read-through for its themes about family, the soul, identity and embodiment, religion, and class. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that embodiment can shape our personalities, realities, and identities. Alita seems to change bodies once per volume (sometimes twice) and her personality is often effected as well. For example, in the first volume, Ido gifts Alita with a feminine cyborg body--the body came from a gynoid prostitute, the arms are intricately designed, and the shape of the body is distinctly female. As a result, Alita becomes innocent and childish. She clearly takes on the role of young daughter and she is infantilized by those around her despite her impressive abilities. Later, Ido surgically connects Alita to a weaponized berserker body which was once used by Tipharean soldiers. When Alita sheds her gynoid body, she sheds her stereotypically feminine personality in favour of a more masculine one. The idea that our biological bodies (or technological ones, in this case) shape our reality really makes you think about how we form identity even in our culture now.

 
Battle Angel Alita's dystopic landscapes are captivating, if not depressing in kind with Blade Runner's landscapes. Being that this is a cyberpunk narrative, there is plenty of body-horror, including outright gore and murder. Brains, limbs, and organs are strewn about the city disembodied, glistening with sticky fluids, and available for a price. Alita lives in a world where human beings mutilate their organic bodies, kill for spinal columns, and beg for drugs on the street. It isn't a happy story, but it's a good one.

 

4. "His Face All Red"
Written and drawn by Emily Carroll

 

Emily Carroll's comics are web based and free to anyone with an internet connection, which is very in-line with the "of-the-people" nature of comics, I think. Not only are they available for free, they're also skillfully executed. Emily Carroll creates mostly one-shot horror comics that leave the reader silently petrified. "His Face All Red" is a one-shot that is particularly unsettling in its vagueness and subtly. The horror is never stated outright in its entirety and so readers must actively think on it. Carroll's story-telling is frustrating--because I just want the story to keep going--but effective.

 
To avoid revealing the whole plot (and the twist ending), I'll keep my description short and general. Basically, two brothers, one brave and one cowardly, and much like biblical brothers Cain and Abel (hint, hint), head into the woods to hunt a beast that has been killing the village's livestock. Once deep in the woods, the brothers come upon an inexplicable and perplexingly deep hole in the ground. That's when things get weird. And by weird, I mean terrifying.

 
Because Carroll is presenting her comic on a website, she is able to format the comic in a minimalist way (there's no clutter, no links, etc., just a black page with strips of the comic). Each "page" of the comic is presented on a black screen. When you click on the page, the next strip appears. This format suits the story well in that you feel that you are yourself sinking down into an infinite, dark hole as you scroll down the page. Overall, this comic is incredibly well-thought out.

 

 
Honourable Mentions:

 

Skydoll: Skydoll's story sucks (God, it sucks so bad), but the art is beyond words. Buy this series just to stare open-mouthed at the breathtaking colours and line work. Or just take a look at the art available online.

Sailor Moon manga series: Sailor moon is making a comeback in a big way this summer (redesigned and everything). And, really, who doesn't love a magical girl who eats and sleeps as excessively as a regular girl (or was that just me eating and sleeping excessively...)?

Uzumaki: Are you in the mood for terror? Are you tired of sleeping peacefully each and every night? Read this deliciously strange manga and say goodbye to your peace of mind!

 

That's my list for now. Do you have any comic book suggestions? Please feel free to add them in the comment section below. I'm always looking for a good read.

Image from Uzumaki

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What...Did I Just Watch: Review of Randy Moore's Escape from Tomorrow (2013)


WARNING: This review will contain spoilers. It’s hard not to talk about what I think happened.

Last January (2013), Escape from Tomorrow was one of the films featured at the Sundance Film Festival. I remember hearing about this film last year, but I didn’t fully understand why it was getting all kinds of buzz (aside from the fact that it was FILMED in Disney World/Land WITHOUT their permission). For those who have not seen the film, or heard of it, here is a short synopsis (taken from Comingsoon.net) and the trailer.

            An epic battle begins when a middle-aged husband and father of two learns that he has lost his job. Keeping the news from his nagging wife and wound-up children, he packs up the family and embarks on a full day of enchanted castles and fairytale princesses. Soon, the manufactured mirth of the fantasy land around him unravels into a surrealist nightmare of paranoid visions, bizarre encounters, and an obsessive pursuit of a pair of sexy teenage girls. Chillingly shot in black & white, "Escape From Tomorrow" dissects the mythology of artificial perfection while subversively attacking our culture's obsession with mass entertainment.

I want to note that I personally would have reworded this summary, and would have ended it with a suggestion for viewers: Watch twice, because if you think you know what’s happening, you’re lying to yourself. I would also add that the ending of the summary is perfect in PART, yes, “Chillingly shot in black & white,” but “dissect[ing] the mythology of artificial perfection while subversively attacking our culture's obsession with mass entertainment,” is far from what this film achieves. But hell, it really is worth watching, especially to see how expertly they shot the film without getting caught!

The Review:

 It’s extremely difficult to put into words what this psychological-horror is pursuing. While watching the film for the first time, I experienced a traumatic flash-back to my second year of post- secondary, where I had to watch David Lynch’s Lost Highway and “explain” what happened with literary theory.  Like Lynch’s film, Escape from Tomorrow forces the viewer to identify or understand the subtext on top of stacking the plot with other mini-plots and twists (creating genre confusion). I think I know what was going on in terms of the main idea of the film (a man coming to terms with his life and the irony of being in the happiest place on earth while “dark events” occur), but the inclusion of the enticing Parisian teenage girls, the menacing demon faces seen by the main character in easy-targeted “evil rides” as “It’s a Small World” and “Snow White,” it’s hard to discern if the film is commenting on the Disney company or being weird for the sake of being weird (or topical). In the initial scene when we learn that the main character Jim loses his job, we connect with him because he becomes relatable; however, when he begins to stalk the young girls that appear throughout the film, all sympathy is replaced by awkwardness, second-hand embarrassment, and being creeped-out. Not only does he stare at them, but he actively adjusts his plans for the day to be around them—tugging his son along for the adventure. Viewers may get lost in this side-plot and find the film heading into the “What am I watching” phase of the film, but then will be redirected to another genre or mini-plot involving a seductive “single-mom” who likes to play dress up (I will let viewers experience this part all on their own because it enters levels of extreme-weirdness), and then, adding a bit of sci-fi for the hell of it with a conspiracy theory about the Epcot Spaceship Earth ride—the big white ball (or known as the testicle, according to Jim). It’s fun to see all the rides that I was familiar with because I’ve been to Disney a few times, but in terms of the film and Disney’s involvement in the plot, the film could have easily been based in any kind of theme park. The focus on Disney itself fades as the film progresses. I think if the film focused on one aspect (or genre) such as the demon faces, the suspicious teenage girls, the GRAPHIC cat flu, or the robots and the company Siemens, the film would have been much more enjoyable and cohesive (each element would have worked well on its own).


Now that I’ve mentioned a few of the misconnections with the film, there are at least 2 strong aspects of this film that make it work (or watchable)—the lead actor Roy Abramsohn (Jim) and the cinematography (how brilliantly the film was shot). As mentioned, viewers will probably lose all hope they had for Jim becoming some form of an anti-hero in the film, but what keeps the story moving is how convincing Abramsohn is as a jackass middle-aged dad on vacation in a depressing situation. Granted some of the script is cheesey (juvenile sexual jokes), but Abramsohn’s delivery is solid throughout the film (especially in the scenes where you are most likely to roll your eyes or cringe). It would be safe to say that he carries most of the film. Along with the lead role’s strong performance, the film relied on how scenes were shot to create the surreal mood for the film. Shot by the director Randy Moore and a few extra skeleton crew (with hand-held digital cameras) guerrilla-style, the director only relied on natural lighting and tourists to create the shots. Considering films are shot with cameras about the size of a medium dog, the plan was pretty ingenious because who would suspect a tourist with a camera following around a happy family? In a recent interview, Moore mentioned one moment where park security suspected that the family were a famous couple (they were pulled aside and questioned), but the cast escaped out of pure luck (watch here for a brief interview -https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrYuE4ypTE8) . You can appreciate the film for its venture into psycho-horror-fantasy, or for its simplistic shots that propel the film. Either way, the film is worth seeing (regardless of the confusion and weird moments).
 

Most importantly, Disney has YET to sue the filmmaker for shooting in the parks and using the company’s iconography without permission. On the movie’s website, they have a countdown as to how long it has been without Disney notifying them of any legal action. I’d say that it’s impressive, but Disney is known for maintaining their “clean” image, and will most likely not take action.

Though I spent most of the review critiquing the film, I would highly recommend finding it to watch. Though it’s not for the traditional Disney or horror fan, it is rewarding for both as it pays homage to classic elements of mystery-horror films.
http://escapefromtomorrow.com/

For more on the film, here is a behind-the-scenes featurette (to convince you to watch it)