Halloween Scenes: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

lets-scare-jessica-to-death-dvdAfter I successfully stuck to my very first themed week with posts all revolving around the year 1988 I promptly failed in my attempt to write about another theme: vampires. A few posts in the wheels fell off the bus because of the whole work-and-parenting thing, but I actually started working on another year for reasons I can’t quite remember.

With 1971 selected, I started looking around for potential horror movies I hadn’t written about and Let’s Scare Jessica To Death jumped right out. How could it not with a title like that? Plus, I know I’ve heard people talk about it, but had absolutely no idea what it was about. And neither should you, frankly. If you haven’t seen it, don’t watch the trailer, don’t look at the poster and definitely don’t hit the jump for more info. Go watch it. Seriously, right now. It’s a great, off-beat indie psychological thriller that has stuck with me for weeks. Continue reading Halloween Scenes: Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

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Quick Movie Review: Drinking Buddies (2013)

drinking buddies poster In a lot of ways, flipping through Netflix’s Instant offerings reminds me of my days wandering through my local Family Video and checking out all kinds of movies based on very little information. I usually went by cover or familiar cast, maybe reading the description on the back and just giving all kinds of movies a shot. It’s basically the same thing with Netflix with a lot more landmines thrown in the mix.

When I saw the poster for Drinking Buddies, though, I was pretty sure it was something I’d like. Just look at that cast! Office Space‘s Ron Livingston! New Girl and Safety Not Guaranteed star Jake Johnson! Pitch Perfect‘s Anna Kendrick! And Olivia Wilde whose work I’m not really familiar with. I also didn’t know much about writer/director Joe Swanberg who took a very improvisational approach to this film, often just letting his actors go with a few story details and seeing what happened. Swanberg’s a big deal in the small budget subgenre called mumblecore which usually focus on super personal stories for the characters.

In the case of drinking buddies, Wilde and Johnson play co-workers at a brewery who are also good friends. They’re each in a relationship, Wilde with Livingston and Johnson with Kendrick, but a trip to a cabin soon breaks up the norm for them. I won’t get into spoilers — by the way, skip the IMDb trivia page for the film before viewing because it’s super spoilery in the main section — but the film essentially finds these two characters examining their relationships with one another and their partners.

As I mentioned above, I wasn’t very familiar with Wilde going into this movie, but I found myself really enjoying her character and performance. Of the group, I think she’s got one of the more complicated characters to play and she pulls it off. She’s really great at her job (which seems to be in PR or something along those lines), but doesn’t really have much of her life aside from that in order. Her relationship with Livingston feels like a placeholder even if she doesn’t want to admit it. And when you see her in her apartment, it opens up a whole house full of windows into who she is (the birthday cake thing made me cringe).

Overall I liked this film. The chemistry between the characters is spot on. You get why each person is friends with/connected to/in a relationship with the others and it all feels fresh. I don’t know how big a fan I am of the super realistic way the characters talk though. It might feel more real — people stutter, repeat words and get lost in thought all the time in real life — but that can be distracting in a piece of fiction. But if this improvisation format allowed the actors to better tap into the emotion of their characters, I can handle lots of “likes” and “ums.” The movie also doesn’t have a traditional arc when you think about it. At the end of it, you’re not really sure what’s up with any of the characters. Truths are told, but we have no real idea what ramifications the events of the film have. This also didn’t bother me too much, but I can see it being a sticking point for some. I think if you’re a fan of the actors — Jason Sudeikis is also in a few scenes — and are even remotely familiar with this style of indie filmmaking, I think you’ll dig it too.

Doc Review: Comic Book Confidential (1988)

I’ve been reading comics since 1992, when Superman died. In the ensuing nearly 20 years, I’ve watched a few documentaries and read a few books about the history of the medium, but nothing too in depth. Even so, most of these kinds of things go through the same general flow of information: the first comic consisted of newspaper comic strips put in one book, someone eventually started doing that with new material, Superman came along and exploded everything, comics sold in the millions, eventually though there was a downturn, superheroes fell out of favor, horror comics got big, Frederick Wertham, the death of EC, Barry Allen kicks off the Silver Age, underground comix, grim and gritty, Image, the bust, etc.

Going into Comic Book Confidential on Netflix Instant I was curious how much of the above would be included (well, not Image because the movie came out in ’88). As it turned out nearly all of it wound up in this doc, but what really makes CBC interesting is how it focuses not on Marvel and DC after a while, but on the underground and independent comics and their creators from the 60s, 70s and 80s. After a certain point in the doc, you’d think the Big Two were just putting out nonsense that no one cared about, which might not be completely representative of what was happening, but I did appreciate the focus. I personally don’t need to hear about how Green Lantern/Green Arrow pushed the borders of what could be talked about in a comic book or how epic Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men run was for the millionth time. In fact, I hadn’t heard about guys like Spain or Gilbert Shelton, so not only getting an idea of their work but how they created or thought of creation was a lot of fun.

The movie does something kind of interesting, but also slightly annoying after a while where they have the creators featured actually reading some of their comics as the panels and pages are shown on screen. It’s actually a better presentation than I’ve seen in most motion comics, but I also would probably have liked to have seen Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb, Stan Lee, Harvey Pekar, Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman or any of the others get more screen time. In fact, I would love to see some of the out takes and footage that didn’t make it into the finished product because the movie’s only 90 minutes long. Someone should talk to director Ron Mann about putting out a kick ass special edition DVD with all those extras.

The most interesting aspect of this film, for me, though is how it’s such a snapshot of the comic industry at the time, or more accurately a particular aspect of it. You’d think that, from the tone of the movie, that indie comics were going to take over the world and become this amazing art form that people all over would enjoy. It’s almost like doing a documentary about youth culture that you finished and put together right before the Vietnam War hit because soon after, everything changed. There’s no real indication of the grim and gritty movement (though they do talk to Frank Miller about his Batman comics), the boom, Image and the bust. So what happened? I dunno. I’d actually like to see director Ron Mann gather as many survivors from the original doc as he can and answer that question.

Trade Post: Shortcomings

SHORTCOMINGS (Drawn & Quarterly)
Written & drawn by Adrian Tomine
Collects Optic Nerve #9-11
Adrian Tomine is a creator I’ve heard a lot about from my more indie-oriented comic friends. I even remember when Shortcomings came out in trade format in 2007. Actually, I remember when it was announced the book was coming out a few months before. I was working in the research department at Wizard at the time and if memory serves my buddy Sean Collins was going to write about the book for Book Shelf (the monthly trade review section of Wizard at the time). I loved writing for Book Shelf and reading it, but I also hated that section because it meant a full day of me sifting through boxes in the hot, stuffy comic book library trying to track down certain issues. For the most part we didn’t get advance copies of the trades, so we would just get the issues together and read them all together, asking the companies if there were any extras of note. I developed a bit of a system, writing the cover date month on many of the long boxes, which worked out pretty well, but it was never an easy task, especially if the books were sought after by other folks which meant they would be all out of order. It might surprise some that the Wizard library did in fact include Optic Nerve, but since the book had a non-traditional shipping schedule it took the longest to track down. For whatever reason, possibly bitterness, I didn’t wind up reading the book.

Until now, thanks to a D&Q sale that I took advantage of, ordering Shortcomings along with the first Walt & Skeezix Tinpan Alley volume. The book stars Ben Tanaka a generally caustic dude in a relationship with Miko who winds up heading to New York for an internship. His friend Alice, a skirt-chasing lesbian, seems okay with his general assholeishness because she’s used to it, but it comes as no real surprise when he starts having trouble getting a hold of Miko and tries to start flings with his punky coworker Autumn and later Alice’s friend of a friend and “fence-sitter” Sasha, neither of which are destined to go anywhere. Alice heads out to New York in order to clear her head, finds something that Ben just has to see and the pair of them find out what Miko has really been up to in the Big Apple.

After reading the book in a single sitting, I’m not really sure what to think of Shortcomings. It’s not bad, by any means, but it left me slightly flat. I think one of the reasons for that is that the comic has a lot of echos back to Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Chasing Amy. Ben works at a movie theater, hates his job and seemingly everything else, but doesn’t want to leave it, he doesn’t have any further career aspirations and seems unable to make a real change in his life. He also starts dating a lesbian who has a more varied sexual history than him and things work out until something happens and they break up in a big fight. I don’t want to imply that Tomine borrowed those elements from the movies, but I have trouble thinking of anything else when those elements are put into place in close proximity. I have seen those movies a LOT by the way. One of the guys at the movie theater even notes that Jay and Silent Bob Strike back is one of his favorite movies. I can’t tell if that that’s a subtle form of what the Lost writers called “hanging a lantern” on the festivities (i.e. drawing attention to something in-story that the reader/viewer might be commenting on in the real world) or a dig at Smith (is the soon-shushed guy who also likes Fight Club and Reservoir Dogs being silenced because he’s one of those dudes who never shuts up about movies or because his favorite movies suck?). I’m probably thinking way too much about all this.

I’m also getting a little tired of reading indie books with unlikable characters as the leads. I’m trying to get through Jimmy Corrigan and am having a ROUGH time of it (he’s such a sadsack loser, I’m having trouble caring about him whatsoever). Ben’s nowhere near that annoying and he does remind me of a younger version of myself and plenty of my friends, but that whole “bitching about everything and thinking it’s clever” mentality has been annoying for years to me at this point. Luckily, I don’t equate an annoying and hard-to-like character like Ben with bad writing and Tomine does a great job of turning things around, getting me to actually wind up on Ben’s side by the end of the book. He might be kind of an ass, but at least he wasn’t a huge liar. That’s way worse in my book. Plus, I dug the character of Alice and even more so, her lady friend Meredith, who winds up being the most likable, non asshole-ish character in the bunch, probably because she’s slightly older and definitely more mature than the others.

On the positive side, the story is well told, the characters well rounded for all their craggy exteriors and the art well done in a simplistic but expressive pen and ink style. Had I not seen some of the elements previously, I think the story might have hit me a little harder in the heart or gut. As it is, I dug the story, laughed a few times here and there and had a generally good time with the proceedings, but I wasn’t overly wowed. It felt like an indie movie, but, again, not one I loved, just one I liked.

Speaking of movies, I have a lot of respect for Tomine for having a story in mind, writing it out and turning it into a comic book. Anyone with that level of creativity and follow-through is aces in my book. I wish I could do something like that. He’s actually a lot like the aforementioned Kevin Smith in those regards in that he took something he loved and turned it into his job, something that I think many people want to do, but much like Ben Tanaka, don’t have the guts to drop everything and actually attempt. In Tomine’s case, according to his bio on the D&Q page, he actually started Optic Nerve when he was 16 and has turned it all into a career. I love that kind of ingenuity and spirit and even though Shortcomings didn’t floor me, I like the story and the artist enough to give some of his other work a try. What should I read next?

Trade Post: The Wild Kingdom

THE WILD KINGDOM (Drawn & Quarterly)
Written & drawn by Kevin Huizenga
Collects sections from Supermonster #12 and Or Else #4.
I was really excited about Kevin Huizenga’s The Wild Kingdom, especially after reading and loving the first three issues of Ganges. After immersing myself in this year’s most interesting indie books for a gift guide over on UGO.com, most of which I haven’t read, I decided to actually buy some books and actually immerse myself in a few indie books I’d heard good things about or enjoyed previous works by the creator. So, I bought Wild Kingdom, which had just come out, Black Hole and Jimmy Corrigan. I was impressed with Wild Kingdom‘s presentation, the cover is rad, and the book itself is actually a little hardcover that reminds me of books I had when I was a kid.

I really wish I understood/liked this book more than I did on the first read. I just don’t get it. The book is supposed to give some inner meaning to the world of nature, but I didn’t pick up on any of that while reading. Instead of being a full-on story, the book consists of a series of stories told that are supposed to relate to each other on a kind of esoteric level, many of which star Glenn Ganges. Between faux commercials for the Hot New Thing 2 and lots of appearances by writer Maurice Maeterlinck, but over all it felt really obscure and cerebral in a way that didn’t quite grab me like moments in Ganges did. There were bits I liked throughout, but I can’t say I enjoyed this as a complete work because so much of it either didn’t make a lot of sense to me or just wasn’t all that interesting (like reading an excerpt from one of Maesterlink’s books). I’m not saying the book is bad, I’m just saying it wasn’t really for me at least on this first reading.

I wish I had read Chris Mautner’s Comics College on Kevin H before purchasing or borrowing the book from someone else. He rated it as “Avoid” not based on the quality of the work but on how dense it is. For whatever it’s worth, Huizenga’s interview over on Avoid The Future didn’t help clear things up, though it is an interesting read. Overall, I wish I had done a little more research and bought the Curses collection instead, but maybe another reading down the road will change my mind.

Trade Post: Black Hole

BLACK HOLE (Pantheon)
Written & drawn by Charles Burns
Collects Black Hole #1-12

Man, being a teenager sucks. Everything you experience is so crazy and intense because you basically have nothing to compare it to. That seems to be one of the big themes behind Charles Burns’ Black Hole which I just read for the very first time thanks to my newfound urge to expand my comic horizons. I’ve always considered myself a realist, going as far back as I can remember thinking about how I think about things, so I can’t exactly relate with the impetuous decisions many of the characters in this book make (my buddy Sean pointed out how hyperbolic everything is when it comes to this group of teenagers). The logical part of my brain says “hey, don’t screw the girl you KNOW has an STD that will turn you into a mutant” and “it’s no big deal to go back home, your parents will love to see you,” but I get that the teenage mind doesn’t always work that way, especially when faced with extraordinary events like life-altering disease and the death of a loved one.

Here’s my best attempt at explaining the book. There’s two main characters: Chris (a girl) and Keith. Both are teenagers in a small town with a nasty STD making the rounds that seems to give each victim/carrier a different physical mutation: skin peeling like a snake, warped faces, extra mouths, tails and huge boils or warts among others. Keith has a thing for Chris, but Chris likes a dude named Rob. Rob gives Chris the bug. Even though Keith like Chris, he still hooks up with Eliza and gets the bug himself. Overall, Keith is all around bored with his life, unhappy at every turn and obsessed with a girl he’s put up on a pedestal who can’t help but fall once he learns more about her. I might not be able to relate to the bad choices these kids made, but I can relate to that feeling of disappointment in someone you hold in esteem. I had a lot of that in my younger years. Meanwhile, Chris is just trying to figure out what life’s all about, following her passions for Rob and falling in love with him even after he makes her sick (it’s actually interesting, now that I think about it, that her mutation is mostly absent for the latter part of the book, I wonder if it went away). To be fair, most of Chris’ bad fortune is a result of her bad choices instead and not the disease.

Burns’ use of squiggly panel lines to denote flashbacks and dream sequences are the comic book equivalent of the wavy effect they use to show flashbacks on TV and in movies, except it doesn’t just start and end those sequences. It’s always there, which gave the images even more implied motion in my brain. Not only was there implied  movement between panels, like in every other comic, but it was almost like the panels themselves were moving, vibrating, humming or doing that TV flashback thing. I’ve never spent this much time looking at panel lines, but there was something hypnotic about those perfectly round waves which continued from one panel to another, though invisibly, between panels. There were also times where the curved nature of the panel borders gave the panel itself added depth, I think that’s because, oftentimes, the line would cover dialog boxes, giving the illusion of layers. Very cool.

The art itself is just as absorbing. At first, the characters look cartoony, like something you might see in a newspaper strip, but it becomes very clear early on that these figures carry an emotional weight to them you don’t always see. The teens in this book are not having a good time of things, neither are the mutants in the woods. Man, some of them are really creepy. Burns also seeds a lot early on with imagery that pays off later in the book. There’s also the ever-present shape of an opening that realizes itself in everything from lady parts to a cut on a foot.

It took me a while to catch onto the snake theme. We’re shown snakes early on and one appears in Chris’ dream, but it wasn’t until she really started shedding her skin that I got the gag. She’s a snake, shedding her skin and possibly her old life. S[peaking of dreams, Burns has an incredible knack for creating nightmare fodder with his vast creepy landscapes filled with garbage and monsters. Just as creepy are Rick the Dick’s sculptures which look like real-life interpretations of those nightmares.

I went into this book thinking it was more horror themed. Sure there are horrific elements. I cringed a number of times while reading this book (the foot wounds and tail snaps were ROUGH) and it does have a disease that essentially creates monsters, but I don’t think I’d categorize it under the horror genre. It’s more of a teen drama with strange elements that never really get explained. But, much like Lost, this story is more about characters and less about explaining the weirdness. I was actually surprised at how familiar the story itself felt. Sure there’s the mutant STD, but at it’s core, this book’s about teenagers thinking they’re in love, running away from their problems and feeling like everything they do is so catastrophic that they can’t go back and just say “sorry.” There’s no reason Chris can’t go home again. Sure she’d have some explaining to do, but I bet her folks would just be happy to know she’s alive. It’s nice both characters got a kind of a happy ending, but much like their fear, it won’t last. Chris can’t live on the beach forever, especially in the North West and there’s no way Keith and Eliza are clever enough to avoid the eventual police investigation. Their prints are all over the McCrosky house.

In addition to making me cringe a time or two, the beginning of the book literally left me dizzy, which is something I’ve never felt from a comic before. Burns does this scene early on with Keith passing out after seeing the open wound of the frog he’s supposed to dissect with Chris. There’s this crazy circular piece of art with lots of imagery that will be important in the book and then we get a page of shots from Keith’s POV. The mooning faces of his classmates are huge in the panel, but I realized the dizziness came from how that perspective spins and flips around. This creates a kind of swaying, spinning motion that’s only exaggerated by the fact that the gridded ceiling tiles create a kind of crazy squared-off spiderweb in the background. I actually had to put the book down for a minute and now that I’m thinking about it again I’m feeling it again, though to a lesser extent. This is amazing work by a man who really understands how to use the comic book panel to his advantage and build a story with that knowledge that feels new, fresh and tragic even if some of the elements are familiar.

Okay, I’ve said a lot of positive things because I do think this is a classic piece of graphic fiction, but I do have a few questions/complaints. First up, and this one is really minor, they spelled Rob’s last name differently in its two appearances (Facincani/Facincanni). That bugged me and should have been fixed in the reprint process. I was also disappointed that the Pantheon collection has zero extras. No intro, no full covers, zilch. I could have definitely used some in-book insight after reading the book, but I guess I’ll just have to troll the internet. Finally, I’m not sure how a pair of scenes are supposed to fit together in the first few sections. There’s a scene with Keith and his buddies hanging out in the woods. Keith splits off and finds a girl’s skin in the brush. We found out in the next story that the skin came from Chris. But, Chris hasn’t been infected yet, which would seem to imply that this story is out of order compared to the rest of them. The rest of the segments seem to be told in somewhat chronological order except when denoted by the aforementioned wavy lines, but the one with Chris shedding her skin takes place seemingly too early in the story. I’m not sure what the deal with that is and maybe it’ll make sense on a later reading. And I will definitely be reading this book again. It made me actually feel something, which can’t be said about most comics and it seems like there’s a lot to unpack, making future readings even more interesting.

Trade Post: Return Of The Dapper Men

RETURN OF THE DAPPER MEN (Archaia)
Written by Jim McCann, drawn by Janet Lee
Full disclosure time before I get into my review of Return Of The Dapper men which I bought from the Archaia book at New York Comic-Con last weekend: I am friends with writer Jim McCann. He used to be my main PR contact at Marvel when I worked in the research department at Wizard, but soon after we actually met face to face and wound up at some of the same parties and became friends. He’s a great dude and one of the few creators in the industry I would consider an actual friend who I see outside of comic-related things. I also am good friends with Archaia‘s Mel Caylo who I used to work with at Wizard as well. But, all that being said, don’t think of this review as being one huge ego boost for a friend. If I didn’t like the book, I would have just quietly not said anything (my folks always taught me it’s better to say something nice and all that), but as it is, I really did like the story.

The story takes place in a world called Anorev (Verona backwards) where children and robots have been living through the same day for as long as anyone can remember. That is until the titular Dapper Men show up and start cleaning things up. Our hero Ayden–the only boy who draws and writes things– and his robot companion Zoe seem to be the key to getting Anorev moving again, but the hows and whys of that process will not be revealed by yours truly. I will say that this is the kind of book with extra layers that warrants extra readings so you can pick up new threads and hints.

Dapper Men has been compared to classic fantasy tales like Wizard Of Oz and Alice In Wonderland, but that can be a little misleading. Not it terms of quality, mind you, there’s something very timeless about the story that could easily allow it to stand the test of time, but in terms of content. After hearing the comparisons, I almost expected a story like those classics, but Dapper Men actually feels completely original as far as the story goes. A lot of times when you read something like this, it feels like something else you’ve read or seen before, but the book came off as wholly original, even when referencing those other stories with dialogue or literally painting on top of the pages from those books.

Speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve ever seen art like this in a comic. What Janet Lee does is actually draw out panels on paper, cut out the backgrounds, paint backgrounds on wood and then attach the paper to the wood making it one piece. This style adds extra dimension and depth to the proceedings and gives the whole project a classic style that makes it feel more like a classic children’s tome than another comic. While reading Dapper Men on the train ride home after my trip to NYCC on Friday, I could see myself reading the book to my future kids, something I can’t say about a lot of comics.

So, yeah, I liked the book. A lot. It’s fun and fancy and has a message that doesn’t slap you in the face with its presence, but still makes sense. It also has rad art and robots, which you can not go wrong with in my humble opinion. The book itself also has a great intro by Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, a series of pin-ups in the back and a look at how Lee does her thing with the art. I’m really proud of my friend Jim for getting this book made and hope that once it goes up for wide sale it sells out in a heartbeat. If I was smarter, I would have asked Janet to do a Dapper Green Lantern for my nascent GL sketchbook which I didn’t get any additional sketches in this weekend because the show was way too crowded and I’m a wuss.