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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

REVIEW: RAW is a Coming of Age Story With Teeth

Horror movies and coming of age stories are often a good pairing–the terrors of growing up have been the subject of dozens of horror movies, from It Follows to Christine to Let the Right One In. I would wager that if you think of the scariest, most nerve-wracking moments in your life, many would be during your formative years, when you aren't sure who you really are yet. Raw, directed by French newcomer Julia Ducournau, does this superbly well, and with a level of complexity rarely seen in these kinds of films.

The story follows Justine (Garance Marillier) as she starts veterinarian school to join her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), following in the footsteps of their parents. Her parents are militant vegetarians, and Justine is happy to uphold their animal rights beliefs, but a freshman hazing ritual has her eat a raw rabbit kidney after having animal blood dumped on her. After this, she develops a craving for meat that escalates into a craving for human flesh. This is all complicated by the fact that Alexia seems to encourage this cannibalistic behavior in her sister.

Throughout the film, there is lots of imagery that suggests themes of growing up or becoming a new person: as part of the hazing, Justine must wear a diaper to class, and at one point Alexia tries to teach Justine how to pee standing up, but she just ends up wetting her pants. There's a lot of Justine trying to be more like her sister, or being pressured into being more like her. Sex and sexuality play a big role, too, as both sisters attempt to seduce Justine's gay male roommate, and Justine experiments with her own homosexuality at the height of her animal lust.

Despite it's college drama trappings, though, Raw is replete with horror and gore that will no doubt turn off some. Even in a post-torture porn horror movie world, some of the gross out moments in this film are downright disturbing. The scene in which Justine decides to try human flesh for the first time is one that has already reached an adrenaline high, so the disturbing and revolting aspect of it is extremely heightened. As a huge horror fan, I consider myself to have a strong constitution for gore, but I found myself making faces during a few scenes. Given the film's themes, I consider this a major success; it really drives home the feeling of shame when you've done something deeply reprehensible in the name of trying something new.

While most coming of age stories depict someone growing into a more mature adult as they learn the lessons of adolescence, Raw shows something meaner; it shows how this process can be an ugly one, one that turns you into a person your younger self would be ashamed of. In the film's bold final scene, we see that Justine's condition is not just a phase, but rather something she must come to live with and, as another character tells her, "find a solution" for. It's a surprisingly powerful message, that one has to find a way to make your neuroses and bad habits work as an adult. It's impossible to suppress these things, but even worse to let them roam free, so the only answer is to find a way (or someone) who can balance them out.

For those with a strong stomach, Raw is well worth seeking out. It's an impressive feature debut for Ducournau, full of bold moments and haunting shots that continue to stick in my mind days after seeing it. Certainly one of the best movies of the year so far!

Raw is directed by Julia Ducournau and stars Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf. It opens in Landmark theaters this Friday, 3/24.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 170

 Birthright #23
by Andrei Bressan

The gorgeous color contrast and intricate detail on the subject gives a rich depth and an eye-catching boldness to this cover.

 Dirk Gently: The Salmon of Doubt #6
by Ilias Kyriazis

I love the color choices here, and it's a funny and clever concept that really stands out on the shelf.

 Doom Patrol #5
by Farel Dalrymple

I miss me some Dalrymple! He's got a style and unique sense of perspective that's unlike anyone else out there, and Doom Patrol feels like such a natural fit for his talents.

 Future Quest #11
by Evan "Doc" Shaner

Shaner is such a perfect fit for these characters; his clean-lined retro style is really put to use by a fun character combination like this!

 Helena Crash #1
by Andrew MacLean

MacLean pulls off this classic action movie concept in a fun way, with exceptional cartooning as always!

 KISS #6
by Charles Paul Wilson

This one is a really fun concept with some excellent design and color choices. This would be a killer poster for a dorm room wall!

Loose Ends #3
by Chris Brunner and Rico Renzi

This series' covers continue to be stylish and sexy in a really unique way. I love the title design, the integration of the byline, and the two-tone color scheme. Gorgeous!

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Friday, March 17, 2017

IRON FIST and the Marvel/Netflix Monotone

Consensus seems pretty close to unanimous that the Marvel/Netflix partnership that brought us Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage has its first truly unambiguous flop with Iron Fist. Already under fire for diversity criticisms - and the show's utterly lacking response to a justifiable critique - further reviews also tag the show as boring. And while few reviewers, or viewers in general, agree with me, I think a primary driver of that dullness is that... well, all the Marvel/Netflix shows are kind of boring. But for most of them, the tone matches the character: Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones all fit very well in an urban crime thriller, and while we can debate whether or not the shows do the genre well (I would argue that they don't), they absolutely make tonal sense. They fit their genre, so there's a natural flow to the shows. Iron Fist, put simply, does not.

Apropos of nothing at all, here is an image from Iron Fist's most well-loved run:

From The Immortal Iron Fist #1

Now, when I mention that Iron Fist doesn't particularly fit in the urban crime thriller milieu, I should probably specify that most characters, Iron Fist included, can handle any genre. You can do romance with Batman, noir with Spider-Man, political drama with Wonder Woman. These characters are endlessly flexible, built to weather years of changing trends and storytelling mores. But, if you are going to mess around with the kinds of stories the character works best in, you need a solid understanding of the character to begin with. You need a strong base upon which to build.

The Marvel/Netflix collaborations do have some notable strengths, but they share some important weaknesses with the films of the MCU, particularly with regards to tonal consistency. In an effort to create a coherent 'universe' of stories stretching across multiple franchises, Marvel Studios and Marvel Television have opted to give many of their stories the same basic tone and visual palette. So, Daredevil season 1 was a gritty urban crime thriller, as was Jessica Jones season 1 and Luke Cage season 1. Each had other touchstones to help flesh the storytelling out and make the story fit the particulars of each character, but they all fit fairly well into that core genre.

It was reasonable to assume, then, that Iron Fist would follow suit. But there's a problem with that assumption. Daredevil had a long history in the urban crime genre, becoming an iconic hero as he descended into the street level darkness. Luke Cage was less tied to that kind of grit and more to early Marvel attempts at blaxploitation, but it wasn't a far stretch for the character, who has proven to be one of Marvel's most versatile heroes. And Jessica Jones was created by Marvel explicitly as a noir heroine, only later to be brought into the 'mainstream' Marvel universe.

Iron Fist, though, well...

Look, could you turn that - a dude punching a helicopter out of the sky - into gritty crime drama? Sure. Comic book heroes are, as I said above, pretty malleable. They can do a lot of things. But they have a default mode that they want to return to, and Iron Fist's default tends to be a bit 'bigger' than the other three Defenders.

In case you are unfamiliar with the character, this is Iron Fist's backstory: He was the son of a billionaire who was lost in a plane crash in the Himalayas before wandering into another dimension. There, with no family and no resources, he was taken as an apprentice by Lei Kung the Thunderer and trained in martial arts. He eventually fought a dragon, Shou-Lao the Undying, and upon killing the dragon and plunging his fist into its heart, gained the power of the Iron Fist, one of the legendary protectors of the city of K'un-Lun, which is itself one of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven.

In other words, Iron Fist exists in a world of high pulp, a mash-up of classic martial arts movie tropes and old-school comics fantasy. This is what many of his stories gravitate towards, and while his enemies are the same ones often fought by people like Daredevil or Luke Cage, his methods are almost universally more exorbitant. It's not that Daredevil can't be exorbitant, of course, it's just considered something of a change of pace from the world of femme fatales and crime lords that dominate the pages of his book. Danny's world leans towards the more... fantastical.

As I said, though, this is a pervasive problem with Marvel and DC's most recent forays into film. Trying to make a Superman movie that looks and feels exactly like a Batman movie is, to me, a fool's errand; the same could be said for Doctor Strange and Iron Man. They take place in different worlds, and while they might share a setting - and may be available for crossovers - that shouldn't be mistaken for existing in the same kind of storytelling world. If Marvel's Netflix offerings, or the broader MCU or DCEU, are to survive and thrive, they need to be able to tell different kinds of stories with radically different 'feels' and still be able to make them understandably the same world.

Audiences, after all, are not as slavishly devoted to the monotone as producers like to imagine they are. They flocked to see the satirical superhero takedown Deadpool, the blockbuster camp preposterousness of X-Men: Apocalypse, and the elegiac dystopia of Logan all within roughly a year -- all while, on TV, the genuinely surreal Legion pushed things further than I'd ever imagined. Fox has made a lot of really genuinely terrible X-Men movies, Apocalypse among them, but that's given them a willingness to experiment... and those experiments have clearly paid off for them. Because Marvel has been broadly successful, they've struggled to innovate. They have, after all, a winning formula.

In Iron Fist, formula fully overrides storytelling. The opening episodes of the series are staid, sterile, and safe, trying to do a 'realistic' take on the Iron Fist mythology. There is a whole episode where he's trapped in a mental asylum, his story questioned, as we try to verify his identity. Again: There is a whole episode of the show trying to prove that the protagonist of the show is the protagonist of the show. Which, I grant, might be 'realistic', but it's also - in addition to being bad storytelling - not why I'm watching a show about a martial arts master from another dimension. Another, later episode is about Danny trying to prove his identity legally. It fits in well with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, certainly, which focused periodically on poorly conceived 'corporate intrigue', but is it actually an interesting hour of TV? And shouldn't 'making an interesting hour of TV' matter more than 'fitting in tonally with Daredevil?'

The reason comics universes got so big and weird and created so many lasting, indelible characters is precisely because they weren't all trying to be the same thing. It's because an Amazon from a lost island of perfect women could exist in the same world as a little boy whose parents were gunned down in an alley and no one would bat an eye. That's real life. Some of my days are romantic comedy; some are indie drama; some are travelogue. And that's just my own life. There are more experiences out there in the world than I can imagine, and our stories must reflect that diversity.

Iron Fist is the first genuine failure for the Netflix/Marvel partnership to me not because it's far-and-away the worst of the shows, but because it's the first of the shows that simply doesn't understand its hero. Jessica Jones understood that one of its lead's defining conflicts was overcoming trauma, and built a show around that central idea. It understood who Jessica was and what she wanted, and it told a story meant to explore that concept in detail. Watching Iron Fist, I get the impression that the showrunner was shown Daredevil and Jessica Jones and told to just do that again. The show doesn't come from a place of understanding, or even trying to understand, who Danny is or what he wants; mostly it seems to come from a place of trying to understand who the average Netflix/Marvel viewer is and what they want. Iron Fist is, at its deepest, about reminding you to watch The Defenders.
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Monday, March 13, 2017

Best Covers of the Week, Vol. 169

 Batwoman #1
by J.G. Jones

I love how this cover utilizes different styles and ideas to tell an abstract sequential story. It's beautiful and intriguing!

 Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye #6
by Michael Avon Oeming

This one is visually pretty exciting and is doing some really interesting things with color and shading. One of the most striking covers of the week!

Darkness Visible #2
by Robert Hack

Hack is still the reigning master of retro covers, and I absolutely love the design on this one, right down to the awesomely unnecessary quotation marks around the title!

Horizon #9
by Jason Howard

This cover is dense and beautiful–I love the color contrast between the red and the cold blues, and the newspaper text and silhouetted subject at the bottom tie it together very nicely.

Injection #11
by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire

Glad to see this one back on the shelves! The dynamic duo of Shalvey and Bellaire return to these stylish covers that combine great character work with abstract design.

That's it for this week. What did I miss? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!
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Sunday, March 12, 2017

The GeekRex Podcast Episode 143: Logan

This week we talk the newest movie in the X-Franchise (and maybe the best), LOGAN! We also chat a bit about KONG: SKULL ISLAND and some comics we're reading. Enjoy!

You can listen below, or subscribe on iTunes to never miss an episode! If you like the show, or have any comments or ideas, we'd love to hear them! Check us out on Facebook or Twitter. See you next week!

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: MY LIFE AS A COURGETTE Is Bleak, Beautiful, and Undeniably Sweet

The core concept of My Life As A Courgette, a French animated film that made a surprise showing in the Best Animated Feature Film category at the Oscars this year, seems incredibly dark: A little boy named Icare, called Courgette (Zucchini, translated) by his drunk, abusive mother, accidentally kills her and is forced into an orphanage. There, he meets a small group of kids with heartbreaking issues, from the little girl whose mother was deported who runs outside in hope every time a car pulls up to the child who was abused by her parents who shakes uncontrollably and doesn't seem to talk. As one of the kids fairly morbidly puts it: "We have no one to love us."

It would be easy for the film to wallow in this sentiment, but it never particularly does. Because after a fairly bleak opening, My Life As A Courgette reveals what it is actually about: Building your own family. Courgette, like so many of the kids at the orphanage, has been broken by a situation beyond his control, but the movie smartly argues that while family is necessary, anyone can be family. No one is so damaged that they can't be loved, or don't deserve to be.

The opening to the film is dark. I don't mean it is explicit or violent; rather, it takes Courgette's emotional inner-life seriously. The opening few minutes of the film find Courgette very nearly mute, first, it seems, with fear over what his mother might do as she drinks, then later with grief. There is explicit acknowledges that he can love and miss his mother without dismissing that she is abusive. But Courgette tips its hand a couple minutes in, when the kindly cop who drives him to the orphanage slows down to allow Courgette to fly his kite out the window of the cop car. Managing a tonal shift like the one Courgette undergoes is incredibly difficult. The kite scene helps moderate expectations, but the slow shift as Courgette himself begins to come out of the shell of his grief - helped along by outgoing bully Simon and charismatic new prankster Camille - can still feel pretty rocky at times. It is the characters that ground these two conflicting tones, and the film never loses sight of who these children are.

Thankfully, the film's absolutely gorgeous stop-motion animation is always wonderful to watch, even during the darkest moments of the movie. The characters are beautifully designed, from Courgette's grief-stricken blue color palette and general potato shape to the earthy, steadfast design of the police officer or the bright reds of the bully, Simon. So much of Courgette is character-driven, and having really evocative designs that help us understand the characters at a quick glance is vital. Courgette excels at this kind of nonverbal storytelling, its clay characters able to convey immense feeling -- and playfulness.

I am not used to family films that are this okay with being quiet. American animation tends towards activity above all else, making sure there is always something happening on the screen, but Courgette understands that sometimes, you just... have to be sad. Many of the best, most enduring movies for children are the ones that break the sugar-rush cycle and make them feel like they can see something of their lives on the screen, and I think My Life As A Courgette has the potential to be one of those movies. This is a movie of small moments, its most important 'plot' lasting maybe 10 minutes, meant to make us feel for these orphaned boys and girls, to allow us to sink into the visual artistry of the world. 

Running just over an hour, My Life As A Courgette is incredibly short, but it packs a lot of heart - and a lot of entertainment - into that hour. Its dark tone and sometimes eerie character design should appeal to fans of things like Corpse Bride or The Box Trolls, but Courgette is ultimately sweeter than either. Indeed, Courgette reminded me of nothing moreso than Moonrise Kingdom by way of Short Term 12, an emotional story about young love transforming a broken community into a home. Melancholy, earnest, and warm-hearted, My Life As A Courgette is a resolute charmer well worth seeking out, with a family or on your own.

My Life As A Courgette is out now in limited release, and will be coming to the Midtown Art Theater in Atlanta on March 10th. Written by Celine Sciamma adapting a book by Gilles Paris and directed by Claude Barras, My Life As A Courgette was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the 89th Academy Awards.
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Review: John C. Reilly saves KONG: SKULL ISLAND from itself

Based on the trailers and movie posters, my only real expectations for Kong: Skull Island were lots of CGI and a half-baked, boring romance between Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. I'm happy to report that it looks like some of the more comedic elements of the script (or most likely, unscripted moments) appear to have hijacked the actual plot, leaving Hiddleston and Larson almost nothing to really do in the film itself, which is probably for the best.

The first 20-odd minutes of Kong are spent with your typical "assemble the team" beats. Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have convinced the government to fund an expedition to an uncharted island, where they hope to explore who-knows-what before the Russians discover it too. Set in the 70s, the expedition comes on the heels of the U.S. withdrawing from Vietnam, so a group of soldiers led by Preston Packward (Samuel L. Jackson) who are supposed to finally go home end up accompanying the scientists to offer safe passage. They recruit James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) for his ability to "track people" (we literally never get more info on him than that) and Brie Larson tags along as a photojournalist searching for... I don't really know what. With a group of more than a dozen soldiers and scientists combined, the expedition heads to the island where, as we all know, they'll come face-to-face with Kong.

After crashing, the group gets separated and wanders somewhat aimlessly in hopes of making a rendezvous point to get off the island, encountering giants versions of bugs and other creatures along the way. The banter between the soldiers is pretty well-written, and the action beats are basically so-so. The movie clearly wants you to think about Jurassic Park, but truth be told, I thought about Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The camera also awkwardly swirls around Larson and Hiddleston, like a clothing commercial, as they lead the way across the island, but their characters are boring and paper-thin. Some general hints at character development are dropped in the beginning, but as soon as the adventurers discover Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been living on the island for decades, the movie spins in a completely different direction.

Reilly is clearly ad-libbing most of his dialogue, and the film abruptly shifts tone to something between a generic action/adventure film and something you'd see out of an Adam McKay flick. I obviously don't know what happens on these films behind the scenes, but Kong: Skull Island feels like a movie that had 30-40 minutes of its original, intended character arcs left on the cutting room floor in favor of the fresher and better humor and development carved into the movie by Reilly. Samuel L. Jackson also has some moments that feel like they took the same path, cutting off the generic action dialogue in favor of something more comedic. Truthfully, their characters are probably the only ones with anything resembling development, and it's most likely due to the work imbued by the actors themselves.

I can't say Kong: Skull Island is a great movie, but it's a good deal better than the generic "war is hell" action movie it probably almost was. 2 parts bland action movie, 1 part McKay comedy, and 1 part Honey I Shrunk the Kids leaves you with a weird combination of scenes that, at the very least, warrants intrigue and curiosity.

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