Stir-Fry Cinema Podcast Series

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Nobody

The Nobody

by Jeff Lemire
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published by Vertigo (DC Comics)
Date Of Publication: July 7th 2009

      Many writers (myself included) make an attemtp at some point to take an established story and tell their version of it. We like the challenge of trying to take a well known piece of literature, and retell it in such a way that we make it our own. Unfortunately for many people (again, including myself) our success in this arena is minimal or simply non-existent. The trick in such an endeavor is to find that balance between respecting the original author and their work without sacrificing yourself or being afraid to take those chances that are not only necessary, but crucial to the validity of such a work. Without that balance, the work will either be simply a bland summary of the original, or will be so far removed from it that it becomes unrecognizable. That balance comes through every page of Lemire's work with such ease, it puts my meager attemtps to shame.

     The Nobody is a reimagining of the classic novel The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. It is the story of John Griffen, a drifter clad head to toe in bandages, who finds himseslf settling in the town of Large Mouth, "Home Of The World's Biggest Bass!" Large Mouth, your typical small town, doesn't know how to react to the spectre that has come to inhabit their community. Griffen, not obtuse to the effect his presence has on the townsfolk, keeps to himself and tries not to bother anyone, preferring to remain in his room, with only brief excursions outside for food and fresh air.

     Being like most small towns, the gossip flows as freely as cheap diner coffee, and despite his intentions of styaing out of the public eye, he is frequently beset by cool indifference at best, if not overt suspicion and hostility. Only Vicki, daughter to the local cafe owner and the narrator of the story, makes any attempt to befriend him. She alone makes an attempt to know the man, rather than ponder and gossip over the enigma he represents. She brings him food, company, and friendship. The bond that grows between them is quite touching.

     But things have a habit of changing, of refusing to go according to plans, however well laid, and Griffen's past catches up with him. This sets into effect a string of events that turn the townsfolk (who after a long enough time have finally begun to ignore Griffen, allowing him to blend in) into a cacophonous mob howling for his head, all over what is ultimately a misunderstanding.

     Though Griffen is far from either the heroic OR monstrous ends of the spectrum, he illicited a number of strong reactions from me. Pity or anger, I felt for him, for the bad things that happened to him, whether they were consequences of his actions or simple circumstance. Despite all that occurs, you can't help but have sympathy for him.

The text of the story is complemented perfectly by he art. Lemire is one of my favorite comic artists working in the industry today. With simple black and white drawings (he uses only a shade of blue in lieu of traditional shading technique) and a minimum of unnecessary detail, he creates characters every bit as strong visually as they are in the narrative.

     Before his characters even utter line, you have a perfect sense of who they are and how they approach their life, from the gossiping spinster who runs the motel, to the caustic barfly wo tries at every turn to spread distrust toward Griffen.  Vicki's father, a sturdy man of simple means who possesses great courage and strength, but is also quite reserved and uncomplicated, is likewise fully formed before the first word is put to his lips.  Even Griffen, clad entirely in bandages, is clearly every bit as concealed and withdrawn within as he is on the outside.

     Even Lemire's use of panels is flawless.  He knows just when and how many to use, what size and shape, and moves perfectly from a single full-page image, to a number of small, quick moving panels.  These then meld, within the same page, into an intriguing mosaic shot.

     At only about 180 pages (pretty short for most hardcover graphic novels being released these days), it is a great afternoon's read, and well worth a trip to the library to grab a copy.  That is assuming you are lucky enough to have a library that carries it.  But even if they don't, with only a $20 price tag, it is worth every penny to just buy it outright.  Everything about the book tells you clearly how much effort and thought went into every panel, every word, every choice.  Lemire is one of the most respected comics authors in Canada.  That much deserved acclaim is now spreading worldwide.  We have great things to expect from him.  I just hope we don't have to wait too long.

Story: 4.5 out of 5
Art: 4.5 out of 5
Overall Rating 4.5 out of 5

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dragonball: Evolution

Dragonball: Evolution
Genre: Action (Martial Arts)

Starring: Justin Chatwin, Yun-Fat Chow, Emmy Rossum

Release Date: April 10th 2009

     Just to be perfectly clear, I did not come into this movie with high expectations.  I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of "Dragonball Z" (the anime that was the basis for this movie).  I have the highest respect for anime as a whole, and am a devoted fan of a variety of different series.  "Dragonball Z", though, has always been, to my mind, a cookie cutter show; cheaply made, mass produced drivel.  I don't say this to offend anyone, and there are no accusations being made towards or about the legions of fans both in Japan and Stateside.  I simply feel it is important for my readers to know my mindsight upon viewing.

     Dragonball: Evolution is the story of Goku, a high school student who sticks out as much as his hair sticks up (read: severely).  After a brief narrative filling us in on the history of the movie world, the movie begins on the morning of Goku's 18th birthday, with Goku in the middle of martial arts training with his grandfather, Gohan.  From the first scene, we are treated to a brilliantly choreographed and equally well executed fight scene between the two.  If you don't know me, understand that nothing grabs my attention like a good fight scene.  My interest was piqued.

     After the fight ends (with Goku on his hind end in the dirt), Gohan gives him his birthday present.  A small, glowing orb, with four stars shining within.  This is a Dragonball.  Gohan tells Goku the legend of the Dragonballs.  Seven in number, collecting them all grants the holder one perfect wish.

     The movie keeps a nice steady pace throughout.  We see Goku in highschool, the target of bullying, but unable to do anything about it due to an oath to his grandfather that he wouldn't fight.  Likewise, we see him pining after the popular girl, and accidentally impressing her, despite a severe case of nerves.  If this section sounds rather formulaic, that's because it is, and I will admit that it started to lose my interest, however briefly.

     Tragedy strikes for Goku, sending him on a mission to retrieve the Dragonballs to stop world takeover by the alien warlord Piccolo.  Through various hardships and trials, and a healthy dose of stylized fight scenes, we see Goku grow steadily in skill and power, but also in character, culminating in a battle of powers and wills with Piccolo.  Along the way, he makes a few unlikely allies, such as the sassy and brilliant Bulma Briefs (Rossum) and the aging but immensely skilled Master Roshi.  Roshi is played to perfection by the incomparable martial artist and action star, Yun-Fat Chow (Crouching Tiger, Replacement Killers, Curse of the Golden Flower).  At times severe, at times the living embodiment of many a over-the-top and mildly perverted anime character, Yun-Fat is perfectly cast for this role, and I thoroughly enjoyed every second he was on screen.

     The movie does stick to a formula.  Likewise, the twists are, for the most part, pretty predictable.  This fact is even more true if you are at all familiar with the anime.  Those things didn't bother me, though.  Once I realized that the high level of quality action was not a fluke, that the filmmakers were, for better or worse, picking a style and a story, and sticking to it no matter what, and that these were going to be defining and consistent strengths for the film, I was able to let go of any expectations and just get caught up in the movie.  Admittedly, it might have helped that I was watching it with my children, who are much more easily pleased than I am.

     Was the acting dry in places?  Yes.  There is no discussion on this point.  The pitfall of action movies in general, and martial arts movies in particular, is that the creators are well aware beforehand that the action will likely eclipse any story that may be present.  As a result, many often don't give this crucial element the respect and attention it deserves.

     It is also true that, aside from Goku, there is VERY little development of the core characters.  Dragonball has always, in my experience, been "all about the action", and character development has not only fallen by the wayside, but largely been ignored, and when you are working from that kind of source material, you have to work with what you have.  You can't develop a character that has been given no depth to begin with, no chance to take on that life that the truly amazing and awe-inspiring characters do, and this is a failing that I do not blame the film for at all.  You can only make so many changes to a story like this, even if they are for the better, before you wake up one day to find legions of Otaku shouting "Blasphemy!" outside your front door.

     The thing that made this movie for me was (as I'm sure you can guess) the action.  The quality never slips, not even for a second.  That's not to say it is the best I have seen, but consistency counts for a lot, and Dragonball: Evolution has it in spades.  Additionally, Chatwin handled the fighting with respect and skill, to the point where I honestly couldn't tell for certain what was him and what was a stunt double.  I find that impressive in a younger actor, particularly one who (as near as I can tell) has no background in martial arts.  Despite my misgivings about having a white guy play Goku, he handled it perfectly, with great comedic timing where appropriate, and tons of honesty throughout, easily making his performance the highlight of the movie.

     So, despite my apprehensions, I enjoyed myself quite a lot.  I'm not going to be rushing out to buy the collected editions of "Dragonball Z" any time soon, but I will definitely be watching this again (often, if my kids have their way).

     I never thought I'd say this, but I can't wait for the sequel.

Action: 4.5 out of 5
Story: 3 out of 5
Overall: 3.75 out of 5

Friday, February 26, 2010

Asterios Polyp

Asterios Polyp
by David Mazzucchelli
Genre: Graphic Novel
Published by Pantheon
Date Of Publication: July 7th 2009

     I came across this book entirely by accident while browsing the Barnes & Noble site.  I clicked on it for one reason and one reason alone: the title.  I didn't order it that day, but it stuck with me.  For six months, in fact.  It was so unusual, and so adamantly refused to leave my brain, that when I received a gift card for my birthday, my mind went straight to it.

     I had heard many good things in the interim between discovering and buying, but to be honest, I'm a horrible impulse buyer and would likely have picked this up regardless.  However it had to happen, though, I am so thankful that it did, because it has become one of the prizes of my collection.

     Asterios Polyp is not just the name of the book, but of the protagonist as well.  Polyp (it was cut in half by a frustrated Ellis Island worker) is a once renowned architect famous for his brilliant designs, none of which has ever been built.  Now, he is a reclusive shut-in who, at the start of the book, watches his apartment building burn to the ground, escaping just in time to be a witness, rather than a victim.  Instead of picking up the pieces and moving on with his life, though, he abandons the city and what's left of his career and goes as far into the countryside as the cas in his wallet will take him.  He winds up in a small country town, and starts over as a mechanic.

     The rest of the book not only follows his growth in this new life, but piece by piece shows us the events that have brought him to where he is today.  We see him connect with people in his new life, and see him build real friendships.  Yet in contrast to that, we are shown why, in retrospect, even his attempts in this area could only be described as Herculean.

     The narration is splendid throughout, and is imparted eloquently through the ghost, or possibly just the alternate self, that is Asterios' still-born twin, Ignazio.  There are some nicely executed scenes where Asterios discusses the biology, as well as the psychology, of the often very similar lives that twins lead.  His discourse on the subject is as wit- and barb-filled as it is on any subject, because Asterios is not only a genius, he knows it.  Parallelling this, though, are intercut a number of "dream" sequences, where we observe, from Asterios' point of view, him interacting with his own life, but with Ignazio in the starring role.  Even more important to his development as a character, we see the growth, then stagnancy, then dissolution, and then (one hopes) reconciliation of his marriage.

     The art is simple, but certainly not simplistic.  Whether it is simply his natural style, or was perhaps a conscious decision to excise it, there is little of the flash and garishness that the modern comics industry (read: Superhero Comics) are notorious for.  His color pallette is likewise simple, usually confined to a nice balance of blues, reds, and purples. 


     The style itself is realistic to the point of clarity (in objects, people, etc.) but has enough of the artist's unique touch so that you don't feel like you are looking through a photo album, and can still enjoy the interpretation.  I really look forward to seeing Mazzucchelli's art grow as his projects do, beccause I couldn't begin to guess what he will be producing in the future.

     There is some adult material scattered throughout.  Both implications and images of sexuality in particular occur on several occasions, but are not gratuitous in the least, and are very tastefully executed.

     This is the point in the review where I was going to do a "cons" section.  The problem with that, though, is despite the 344 page count, the only complaint I did have was that I didn't want it to end.

     I admit heartily that I am biased when it comes to the graphic novel as an art form.  I believe that the right combination of the images and the story waiting to be told can be most amazing art in the world, and something that can (and has in my personal experience) continue to stay with you and affect you for many years.  Having said that, and all bias aside, this really was a fantastic book.  The message of it is very simple, and is an important one that, I feel, more people need to learn:

     Don't just hear someone; LISTEN to them.  Cherish what you have, and cling to it with everything you've got, because you never know when an asteroid might strike...

Story: 5 out of 5
Art: 5 out of 5
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

Crank 2: High Voltage

Crank 2: High Voltage
Genre: Action

Starring: Jason Statham, Amy Smart, Dwight Yoakam, Clifton Collins Junior, Efren Ramirez, Bai Ling, David Carradine

Release Date: April 17th 2009

*Contains Spoilers*

     Crank 2: High Voltage, the sequel to the relatively well received Crank (2006), is a very complicated and thought provoking move.  Oh, wait, no it isn't.  Not in the slightest.

     Jason Statham plays Chev Chelios, a hitman who, in the first movie, has to find an antidote for a new Chinese poison which slows his heart and kills him.  So, how does he avoid this?  Chelios tears across the city, hunting those responsible, while taking on any and every dangerous stunt he can think of to keep his adrenaline pumping and his heart beating, until ultimately, he falls out of a helicopter.

     That's right, he falls out of a freaking helicopter.  And by the way, we aren't talking about a little fall, here.  The helicopter isn't in the middle of take-off, and he tumbles out, and scrapes his knee, and needs a bandaid for his boo-boo.  He falls long enough to take out his cellphone, call his girlfriend (Smart), and leave her a long-winded apology message, before bouncing off and crushing a parked car and splatting in the middle of the sidewalk.

     Here's the good news.  Change the end I just described to the beginning, switch up one or two details in the first paragraph, and in the words of Emeril, "Bam!", you've got Crank 2, complete with dead prostitute aux jus.  This time though, it's his heart.  As in, Chinese mobsters have cut it out in a dirty motel, and considerately replaced it with something that looks like they stole it from the prop closet of Robin Williams' "Bicentennial Man".  The kicker this time is, the new heart is run by a battery pack, which being the fun-loving guy he is, Chelios destroys within minutes while crashing his car into a concrete abutment.

     This is where I started to think I'd already seen this movie.  Chelios, once again, tears a** around the city looking for the bastards who have his "Strawberry Tart".  Along the way, he throws plenty of kicks, punches, and vaguely British sounding witticisms as often as the film-maker thought it necessary to show bare breasts (which is a LOT).  So, in order to keep his ticker ticking, he is jumped by a car battery, tazed, electrocuted, sticks his finger in the A/C port of a limousine, wears a dog's shock collar, and climbs a telephone pole to grab the exposed wires there.

     The director even found a reason for him to publicly hump Amy Smart again.  Last time it was for the adrenaline, this time it's for the static electricity from the friction.  Yep, you heard that right.  And it's in the middle of a horse track.  You heard that right, too.  It's in the middle of a horse track, during a race, with the sounds of "Gamblers and Degenerate Low-Lives" cheering and SCREAMING their heads off from the stands.

     The movie ends with the expected "Gunfight At The OK Corral" type of scene, and the promise that Chelios is, you guessed it, still alive.

     So, this begs the question, if the movie was so ludicrous, so poorly written, so downright bad (and it was), why in the name of God am I completely prepared to sit through it again?

     Because Jason Statham is the F*%KING MAN!

Action: 4 out of 5
Story: 1 out of 5
Overall: 2.5 out of 5

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Imaginary Lives Of Mechanical Men

The Imaginary Lives Of Mechanical Men
by Randy F. Nelson
Genre: Short Fiction
Published by University of Georgia Press
Date of Publication: October 1st 2006

*Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award

The opinion of your average, modern-day reader is that the short story is dead. It had its last hurrah, and has ridden off into the sunset. Most people today prefer novels that are simply that, "Novel". A little flash, a little pomp, and very little thought (read: Twilight). However, though the form has, admittedly, experienced a decline over the past few decades, it is anything but dead, and it is authors like Randy F. Nelson that are keeping it alive.

Nelson's collection, The Imaginary Lives Of Mechanical Men, looks (from its cover photo and small size) like it's going to be some fluffy piece of Sci-Fi that might entertain you for a few hours. Within pages of diving in, you'll forget you ever thought that.

The collection is broken into four sections, each containing its own assortment of individual stories. These sections, as well assembled and tightly knit as they are, could almost function as books on their own.

I need to make a note here. No two stories are alike, which is part of what I like so much about Nelson's writing; he's not formulaic. He doesn't pick a theme and stick to that with almost religious fervor, which sadly is the failing of many short fiction authors working today. They try to hammer unity into their stories, instead of letting it flow from the narrative. Each of Nelson's stories is its own little world, self-contained and uninformed by the ones surrounding it. Having said that, the book keeps an amazing synergy throughout. As you read, it somehow makes perfect sense to move from a story about an emotionless boy with a talking dog to one of a Japanese magician who's magic is food.

The first story, "Mechanical Men", stands on its own, and serves nicely as a kind of an introduction, rather than a traditional forward. It is the story of an ape research facility, testing advanced neurological implants, that has had a tragedy occur, and is trying to find out what happened without jeopardizing their research. The story has you thinking throughout, despite the fantastical elements, about just how realistic the narrative is, how comparable to the attitude of today's scientific community (progress at any cost). Add in a little mystery, and it is the perfect way to start off.

After this is the first section, titled They Have Replaceable Valves And Filters. This contains five stories. "The Cave" is the tale of a mountain girl and a man trapped in a collapsed cave, and the bond that forms between them as everyone on the surface starts to come unglued. "Here's A Shot Of Us At The Grand Canyon" tells of a child with no words for what he's feeling, parents who have no idea what to do for him (and can't be bothered to try), and the talking dog they get to try to bring him out of his shell.
Three more stories finish the first section. "Food Is Fuel", about a writer trying to connect with his daughter on his deathbed through stories that might or might not be fiction; "Abduction", about a tabloid writer and an alien abductee; and "The Guardian", about a flower delivery boy and the man-child, Elrod Weiss, who works with him.

The stories in this group impart an amazing sense of loss, lost love, lost chances, lost hope, but also a sense that, as the saying goes, "Tis better to have loved and lost."

The next section, The Ticking And Tocking Of Their Hearts, contains four stories. "Cutters" is the story of a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, and the snake-handling, tongue-speaking, god-fearing people who were her big break. "Breaker" tells of a maritime lawyer sent to the third world to shut down a US boatbreaking (salvage) operation who gets a lot more than he bargained for. "River Story" is about a salvager with a strange illness, who takes a job (against his better judgement) from an unusual client. Finally, "In The Picking Room" is about a roll picker in a failing denim plant.
As a whole, Ticking And Tocking is about people who have somehow lost control of their own lives, and how they cope (or refuse to cope) while outside forces are taking over their lives. Nelson has really given us a sense of quiet desperation here, and he keeps us moving much like his characters, with the hope that things will turn up soon.

The third section, Two Who Drowned, has only two stories, "Refiner's Fire" and "Pulp Life". "Refiner's Fire" is about a black man living on the black side of the tracks, an intellectual who teaches at the university. As the narrator puts it, "The first black man at Baxter College who doesn't push or pull something." When faced with the demands of his neighbors and a tragedy he feels responsible for, he burns his books.
"Pulp Life" was, without question, my favorite story of the whole collection. The narrator is a young woman, trying to repent for an unforgivable mistake, and finding solace in old pulp magazines (such as "Weird Tales") and in collecting their cover art.
These two stories, at their core are about forgiving yourself and taking back the control you have lost, and they lead in perfectly to the final section, One Who Got Away, and its single story, "Escape".

"Escape" is two men in the wilderness, hunting for an escaped convict, who is himself hunting. Not for escape, but for repentance and forgiveness. After finding him in an unlikely place and in an unlikely state, the three are caught in a snowstorm, hours from their vehicle. How they conduct themselves, towards each other and towards the convict, deteriorates and reverses as the story and their journey progress. Without giving too much away, in the end, this is also a tale of forgiveness, and is a great finale to the book.

So, why so many more stories of heartbreak, loss, and helplessness than those of forgiveness and solace? In this reviewers opinion, Nelson was trying to remind us of a simple fact; Sometimes, it's easier to forgive ourselves, take back control, and move on, than it is to spend our lives pining for what could have been.

4.5 out of 5


Ichaerus' Movie Reviews

Crank 2: High Voltage
Dragonball: Evolution
G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra
Hell Ride
Ninja Assassin

Black Dynamite
Finishing The Game
How To Lose Friends And Alienate People
Yes Man

Blind Side, The
Twilight Saga: New Moon, The

Astro Boy

Dead Snow
Diary Of The Dead

Shaun Of The Dead

Science Fiction:
District 9

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

OMG! Zombies!

Graphic Novels:
Marvel Zombies: Volume 1

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies
World War Z

Dead Snow
Diary Of The Dead
Shaun Of The Dead

Ichaerus' Book Reviews

Short Story Collections:
Imaginary Lives Of Mechanical Men, The

Graphic Novels:
Asterios Polyp
Marvel Zombies: Volume 1
Nobody, The
Petey & Pussy

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies
World War Z

Stir-Fry Cinema Podcast Series

"Any movie is good with the right sauce..."

These are the movies that "E" and I have watched for our weekly Crappy Movie Night.  Not all of these movies wound up being crappy, but they fit a very carefully considered and thoroughly thought-out criteria prior to viewing.

Those points are:

1) Looked crappy enough to be worth a laugh.

Actually, that's pretty much it.

Crank 2: High Voltage 2-25-2010 (no podcast)
Finishing The Game 3-4-2010 (no podcast)
Black Dynamite  3-11-2010
Dead Snow  3-18-2010
Good Burger  3-25-2010
Bitch Slap 4-1-2010
Bandidas 4-5-2010
Galaxina 4-12-2010
Defendor 5-5-2010
Hell Ride 5-10-2010

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Welcome to the Studio!

If you have been here in the past (all four of you) you might notice that I have revamped the site a bit. Cleared out the cobwebs, so to speak. My aim for this blog is to make it a full review site. Books, Movies, Music (old and new). Local theater performances, Restaurants. The works. You name it, I'll review it. If you have suggestions, feel free to leave a comment, or drop me a line.

Note: Reviews of books, movies, and theater may contain spoilers, and will be marked appropriately.