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I have so many books I need to read. And I do read them. But it often becomes a very solitary experience, as reading so often is. I decided that at least one book I read a month will be a communal thing which led me to start the Pop Culture Book Club.

For the month of August, our book will be A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. I’m familiar with Tremblay from a few horror short stories he’s written. His work would definitely fall in the space between Lovecraftian horror and weird fiction. I do not know a lot about A Head Full of Ghosts, other than it’s been compared favorably to the novels House of Leaves and The Haunting of Hill House.

In the last week of August, I will post my review of the novel along with 3-4 discussion questions to provide a jumping off point if needed. I hope you join me on this endeavor!

Purchase a physical or digital copy of the book here!

cosmos-zulawski

This was probably one of the most French movies I’ve seen in a long time. The final film of Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, the film tells the story of Witold, a law school dropout obsessed with writing a garishly romantic novel. He and his friend Fuchs end up at a rural inn run by a family just as crazy as our protagonist. Mrs. Wojtys is prone to outbursts of screaming only to freeze in place for a few moments after. Her husband Leon is an insane retired banker who is constantly twisting around language. Her daughter, Lena, becomes the focus of Witold’s obsession and comes to despise her pretty boy architect husband. He also holds an obsession with the housemaid, Catherette, who suffers from a lip deformity as the result of a car accident. Throughout the story is the ongoing mystery surrounding a bird found hung by its neck in the garden behind the house. The film meanders through the inn and the group all end up at a seaside cottage for the finale, chasing each other through the woods with lanterns.

To say Cosmos caused major confusion as I watched it would be an understatement. There is very little plot to the film beyond what I described. The majority of the picture consists of Witold exploding in wildly emotional monologues either while typing out his novel or lamenting and pining over the unobtainable Lena. I personally love films that challenge narrative structure and experiment, but moments of Cosmos went so far over the top it lost me. Scenes play as vignettes that don’t really add up to a meaningful whole.

The acting was wonderful due in part to how free and insane the characters were meant to be. Sebastian Genet as Witold did an incredibly convincing job of portraying a comically angsty poet/philosopher. He even made the stranger moments captivating enough to keep me engaged. Early in the film, he has a moment where he faces the camera and repeats the phrase “The savage power of stupid thought” over and over in a Donald Duck voice, looking like he is both on the verge of tears and bursting out laughing. In many ways, that phrase serves as the thesis statement of the film.

The film was packed with references to authors and figures of note in the arts. This becomes part of the word play with Witold referring to Sartre’s Modern Times, only to have Fuchs mistake it for the Chaplin film of the same name and proceed to perform the waddle of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The crazy old man Leon overhears a conversation about films and chimes in with “Spielbleurgh” (bleurgh being an expression of disappointment) which leads to a sort of pun competition between the man and Witold to plug bleurgh into a litany of other names (Bleurghman). I seem to recall another of Leon’s bizarre turns of phrase being “When an icicle mounts a bicycle it becomes a tricycle”. *Shrugs*

I was never bored by Cosmos but I was pretty strongly confounded for 90% of it. It is a movie that has a very strong forward momentum, that momentum is just leading you to nowhere, but that is on purpose. By injecting things like the hanging bird mystery into the film Zulawski almost seems to be daring you to try and make sense of this absurdity. The film does manage to capture the chaotic nature of creativity through Witold’s mad outbursts of typing as his novel becomes more and more about recording his angst. Most definitely a film that does not have wide audience appeal, but then not all films should. If you are wanting to be challenged and confounded Cosmos is certainly up to the task.

joke

Batman: The Killing Joke is an adaptation of the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The original text tells the story of a possible final showdown between Batman and his arch-nemesis, The Joker. The battle hinges on the sanity of police commissioner Jim Gordon after The Joker shoots his daughter Barbara and tries to drive Gordon mad by taunting him over the randomness of the act. As this battle of ideologies rages on, we get distorted memories from the Joker about what his origin as a horrific villain could have been. The emphasis is on the idea that one bad day can destroy a normal person. Due to the short length of the comic, the writer of the film added an additional thirty minutes of content to flesh out Barbara Gordon’s career as Batgirl.

I first read The Killing Joke as a freshman in college in 1999. I had never encountered writer Alan Moore up until that point and I did find it a captivating read. This is mainly due to the way it turns the Joker into a tragically pathetic figure. The book also leaves the final moments up in the air as to what Batman does to the Joker. I’ve probably read it a half dozen times in total over the years. A valid point has been made in recent years about its treatment of Barbara Gordon. She is shot early on in the comic and pops up one more time for a doctor to declare her paralyzed. Essentially, Barbara is treated as a plot device to motivate Batman and torture her father. There’s no humanity in what happened to her and it took a few years before other writers redeemed the character. In retrospect, Alan Moore even views the comic as too violent and cynical. I can’t help but retain some love for the text due in part to what I find an interesting exploration of the Joker’s psyche, but I still recognize the mistreatment of Barbara Gordon.

The film has some huge problems in its attempts to “fix” this slight of Ms. Gordon. The thirty additional minutes of story focus on Batgirl pursuing the nephew of a Gotham City crime boss. Francesco is attracted to Batgirl despite her attempts to take him down and attempts to drug and force himself on her, which she dodges by locking herself in a vault. There’s also a subplot where she talks about her relationship with Batman, describing him as a yoga instructor, to a coworker while commiserating on her love life. This eventually escalates to Batman and Batgirl having sex on a rooftop. This is not something I was expecting to see happen as in the comics there has never been a relationship between the two. She’s closer to Robin’s age and has been more involved with him when they were adults. But here, Barbara is in her early 20s so it’s not illegal, but still cringey. Later in the film, she reaches out to Batman and he brushes her off and she realizes it’s connected to their sexual encounter. I understood Batman’s motivation of not wanting to become too close to anyone lest them become compromised, but the only sequence read very awkward and completely unnecessary.

The added Barbara material works even less in the final two-thirds of the film after she is shot. Just like the original graphic novel she fades into the background and it becomes a Batman/Joker story. The Joker doesn’t appear until about 40 minutes into the film which is another odd structure piece. The Joker’s dialogue is lifted straight from the original text and while, for the most part, it doesn’t play awkward there is one moment where he puts Gordon on a hellish ghost house ride and it is way too wordy and overbearing with philosophical content. It doesn’t feel like the Joker would say this out loud, particularly the voice of Mark Hamill as the Joker. On the page, it’s not bad, but page to film translations of comics are never a great idea.

The animation is a very mixed bag. There is a concerted effort to make the iconic moments from the original text pop on screen and it looks alright. The rest of the animation comes across as very cheap and continues the trend with so many of DC’s animated feature films looking subpar. There was a featurette released a few months ago where the creators explained that original artist Brian Bolland’s style was too hard to emulate in animation so they looked at other artists, including Kevin Nowlan. I didn’t see much of Bolland or Nowlan in any of this animation. It just looked very poorly done.

I can’t really recommend Batman: The Killing Joke animated film. There are just so many technical and narrative missteps that add up to make a mess of a film. I had high hopes for this one. DC Animated had surprised me with its Dark Knight Returns and Year One adaptations but really missed the mark here. I would still say the graphic novel is worth reading if you haven’t, but the philosophical study of the Joker has been covered elsewhere, particularly The Dark Knight Returns in a much more interesting way than this animated film.

mustang-2

While Mustang takes place in modern day Turkey it is a story that could happen at any time and almost any place. Five adolescent sisters suddenly have their lives changes when their guardians: their grandmother and uncle, decide they are becoming corrupted by secularism. They have everything that could provide them contact with the larger world taken away, from cell phones to laptops to clothes considered improper to makeup. They begin to seek out arranged marriages for the older girls and the imprisonment takes its toll on the girls.

Told from the perspective of the youngest, Lale, the film is made with a lot of confidence and skill. The camera is mostly handheld and conveys the youthful energy of its characters. Sunlight is also used quite effectively to act as a force that still connects the girls to the world. The subject matter could very easily lead to a bleak, hopeless film but director Erguven is able to sustain a sense of hope at the end of this nightmare. Each of the girls experiences the loss of their freedom in different and interesting ways.

When questioned on her wedding night on why she didn’t bleed after sex with her husband, the eldest sister finds it easier to just confess to having slept around with boys when no one listens to her explain she was a virgin. Another sister, seeing that an arranged marriage is inevitable, convinces her boyfriend to ask for her hand as a way to reclaim some of her freedom and choices. Choosing this story to be told through Lale’s eyes is perfect because it puts us at a disadvantage as it relates to the details. Like Lale, we have to try and figure out what is happening in the world as we go.

There have been some comparisons to the Sofia Coppola directed The Virgin Suicides, but beyond the very basics of the story, there is very little similarity. While The Virgin Suicides is told exclusively from the male perspective, Mustang a very intimate look at these young women’s lives. You gain a greater understanding of how each character is processing the experience rather than the broad strokes of Suicides.

The film must maintain a fine balance between the realism of its situation and refraining from despondency. There are moments in the latter half that are a shocking jolt in the midst of Lale’s dreams of escape. If there is a central message here it would be about the power of determination and will. Lale never resigns herself to the loss of her freedom. From the minute the girls are locked away, she is shaking the bars on windows, spying on locations of keys, and plotting an escape. The film has a quite a bit in common with films like The Shawshank Redemption and Escape from Alcatraz.

Filled with humor and joy, Mustang is a timeless story. It transcends any particular religious or geographic specifics and conveys an experience that is felt by women across the globe at varying levels of intensity. Societies seem to have a preoccupation with controlling the will of their female citizens, based on a fear of loss of control. Director Erguven states firmly that this type of energy is impossible to contain and through Lale she tells a story that gives hope to those who may feel like they have no more freedom.

The Ultimates: Omniversal Volume 1: Start With the Impossible
Writer: Al Ewing   |   Artist: Kenneth Rocafort
Purchase this book here

ulitmates vol1The Ultimates has been a superhero team name used in many different contexts in the last decade by Marvel Comics. The current incarnation is a drastic shift from the former. Led by Captain Marvel, the Ultimates is another one of those “pro-active” teams. It’s a concept that’s been done many times before and I’ve never felt it’s never been done too successfully. However, writer Ewing has figured out a format that allows everything to work. The team counts Blue Marvel, Spectrum, Ms. America, and Black Panther among its members and their focus right out of the gate is a huge one: complete the metamorphosis of Galactus that was hindered millennia ago.

Galactus is a carryover from the universe that existed pre-Big Bang. He was saved by his specialized spacecraft and became an omnipotent world devourer in the new reality. The problem was that various armadas from across the galaxy interrupted his gestation and that is why he now eats planets to survive. Blue Marvel has deduced that Galactus needs to be put back in his ship and the process will be completed. Every member contributes their skills to this might endeavor and it’s a very satisfying two-part story. The conclusion establishes a status quo for Galactus that me genuinely shocked and excited.

The remaining three issues in the collection focus on Blue Marvel’s quest to repair the damage done to the timestream in recent years. Between the original teenage X-Men running around in the present day, the timeline catching up with what used to be the “future”, and the reality rendering of the recent Secret Wars, the Marvel universe is operating on a razor’s edge. The team constructs a ship capable of traveling into the space beyond the universe where they plan to fix what’s wrong. What they find ties directly into Blue Marvel’s path and they get help due to some of their previous actions.

ultimates 02This was the first Marvel comic that felt like it was capturing some of the magic I used to love about DC. Having a team that tackles the cosmic and multiverse level problems is always so interesting to me. I also love when a writer takes well-worn concepts, like Galactus, and makes changes that will forever alter them and open up a whole new world of stories to tell. The sense of a growing universe is so much fun, better than comic books that feel stagnate or just kill characters off only to bring them back months later. Character growing and changing their mindset is much more interesting.

The stories here are definitely not new reader friendly. Even with an effort to fill in some backstory for Galactus or Blue Marvel, it’s still pretty essential to do some background reading if you want to fully understand who these characters are and what is happening. The final issue in the collection is particularly impossible to parse due to its focus on a character with a lot of complicated history in the Marvel Universe. So if you enjoy jumping in the deep end you’ll like this comic but if you prefer to have things explained detail you might look elsewhere.

If you read Jonathan Hickman’s work the last few years at Marvel (Secret Warriors, Fantastic Four, Avengers World, Secret Wars) then this takes the ball and keeps it rolling. Events happening in Civil War II were seeded right here. I will definitely be keeping the series on my reading list. It hits those high adventure, exploring the unknown notes that Fantastic Four provided in at its best, continuing an important tradition in the Marvel U.

green room

There’s something dangerous about the woods. Yeah, the city is dangerous, but there’s something worse about the woods. You’re so far away from help. You’re isolated. The woods are cold and indifferent. So when the members of punk band The Ain’t Rights roll into the parking lot of neo-Nazi club plunked right down in the Oregonian forest there’s sinking feeling that hits your gut. I am ashamed to say I have not dedicated the time to watch Jeremy Saulnier’s previous picture Blue Ruin after hearing great things. Having seen Green Room, I must see this older film.

Green Room tells the story of a punk band that stumbles upon something they shouldn’t see in the back of a club. As mentioned before, neo-Nazis own the club and the band quickly become prisoners and involved in a brutal and violent standoff. Saying more would spoil the suspense of the film. The tension is built up beautifully through the moody ambient music of Brooke & Will Blair and the washed out cinematography of Sean Porter. Scenes are painted with pale green and blue ambiance and the tense drone that builds in the score. Right before all hell breaks lose all these elements come together and then explode into a nightmare.

The violence in Green Room reminded me a lot of Simon Rumley’s Red, White, & Blue. Harm to human beings is presented as realistically as possible, taking into account what actually happens to a body when hit with these sorts of traumas. There are many moments where you have to look away and the film doesn’t pull punches about who gets hurt and killed either. These are a group of young adults who aren’t trained to fight for their lives and they make the sorts of mistakes and show ineptitude with weapons that they truly would. I also loved the confidence of a couple characters going into extremely bad situations. That confidence is dealt with appropriately.

The acting is done very well with Patrick Stewart and the late Anton Yelchin heading up the cast. Stewart gives a great muted performance as the patriarch of this skinhead operation. He handles the band with just the right amount of calmness at the start, escalates as each side gets in their hits. Yelchin does a fine performance and is going for something very muted, unsure, and contemplative. You can’t watch his work now and not reflect on what we’ve lost. In the same way that seeing James Dean in Giant and East of Eden made me sad there weren’t films spanning decades featuring this actor, I feel the same way about Yelchin. I don’t believe we had truly seen his best work and films like Green Room show hints of that.

The supporting cast is excellent. Imogen Poots plays a local who ends up locked up with the band and brings a lot of physicality to the role that sold it. Her look and demeanor feel so real. The rest of the band does a great job, but it is the other neo-Nazis that are truly terrifying. Macon Blair plays Tad, the manager of the club and shows a lot of nuance. He’s not comfortable dealing with dead bodies and there’s a lot of unspoken and hinted at history that make him intriguing. Eric Edelstein plays an incredibly menacing skinhead that gets locked up in the room with the band. The stand out, though he is only on screen for a handful of minutes, would be Brent Werzner as Werm. He comes across a complete and total sociopath in his short screen time and is one of those people you pray to god you never meet in real life.

Green Room is a brutal story. But is is a very well told one. The narrative choices that are made help ratchet up the tension. Almost every moment of the film will leave you feeling the queasy, uneasiness, truly having no idea what horror is happening next. And this is definitely a horror film, not about the supernatural and not about a mindless slasher, but a horror story that preys on our fears of the big evil in the woods. This is what happens when you leave civilization and enter the realm of a vicious beast.