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Friday, January 30, 2015

Game of Thrones Trailer: Bowie and Blood and Beards, oh my

Game of Thrones fans -  your official season five trailer is here! Can we talk about that choice of music? The use of a "Heroes" cover here is basically perfect.

HBO published the official version of the trailer, previously only seen in the nation-wide IMAX showing, after a bootleg version made its way around the internet. The show's fifth season premieres on April 12, on the heels of the current IMAX event, which put the show in the history books as the first TV series to be broadcast in IMAX format.

As a fan of the book series, I have concerns about the show's fifth season based on the source material - the fourth book was the most difficult for me to digest - but between the depictions of Littlefinger, Tryion, Daenerys, and Cersei, there's enough here to draw my attention.
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Comics Spotlight Review: The Sculptor

Although Scott McCloud has worked on fiction comics before, it's been a while. He wrote and drew his fantastically unique superhero series Zot! in the mid-eighties, and since then the only major return was writing an arc or two of Adventures of Superman in 1996. What he's most famous for is his work on comics themselves, in the form of the seminal Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and finally Making Comics. These are highly regarded works amongst the comics community; reading the first often marks the beginning of a true devotee to sequential storytelling, acting as a kind of benchmark in fandom. McCloud set a pretty high bar for himself with this series when he set out to return to comics fiction with his massive new graphic novel, The Sculptor, and luckily for him, it mostly holds up to the sort of scrutiny that he brought to the comics world with his analytic books.

The Sculptor revolves around the life of David Smith, a young artist who we find at his lowest: the acclaim surrounding his earlier work has faded away, he has no family left, and he's spending his last few bucks on a cheap diner meal for his twenty sixth birthday. The inciting action of the book is a Faustian deal with death: David agrees that for the power to create great art, he will only live for 200 more days. Although his new found powers–the ability to sculpt any material with just his bare hands–grants him artistic ability, he still struggles to deal with the fickle art world and most importantly, the fact that he may have met the love of his life with just a few months to live.

The writing is quite strong. David, while not the most likeable guy in every circumstance, is relatable and familiar, especially if you've ever known a fine artist. He's frustrating but inspiring, and his struggles, both existential and tangible, hit a lot of the right emotional beats. It's a massive graphic novel at just under 500 pages, but for the majority of the book it is a page turner; I found myself not knowing where things were going, in a very exciting way. McCloud throws in many different conflicts, from a breakdown in communication with a loved one to the inability to make art that is both crowd-pleasing and truly great. Perhaps most noteworthy is his portrayal of depression, which comes across as refreshingly true-to-life, not using it as a plot device but rather making it a crucial part of character development.

The art, too, is perhaps McCloud's best. There's an excellent sense of pacing that subtly draws you into the perspective of David, with things moving along quickly with smaller gutter space when he's excited or scared. The book is two-toned, being in black and white with blue shading, and it looks fantastic. McCloud's cartooning is pretty phenomenal, capturing the moods of each of the characters often with only a look, and particularly important to the book is his rendering of the actual sculptures, which are visually interesting and feel true to both real life abstract sculpture and David's character. The Sculptor subtly plays with storytelling techniques that are exciting and fresh, crafted with the ambition of a young artist but the forethought of a cartooning master.

My biggest issue with the book comes with the last act, as David's life is winding down. Things take a narrative twist at this point, and while I wasn't wholly against the twist, it loses a lot of the down to earth-ness that it had up until that point. There are moments when it truly shines–a life flashing before your eyes sequence with literally hundreds of panels over ten pages stands out–but the book loses a lot of momentum and latches onto some unfortunate narrative cliches. The ending is not a mess, but it feels rushed and a bit of a misstep compared to the rest of the book, which is plotted with a lot of care and subtlety and has a unique unpredictability.

That said, the book tackles some fascinating themes. The Sculptor captures what it is to be a frustrated artist better than most stories, and does it in a way that is visually gorgeous, especially if you're a fan of black and white cartooning. Throughout the bulk of the book, it brings in characters, ideas, and narrative devices that are distinctive and oftentimes quite beautiful. The way in which death is portrayed and explained, for example, and how he shows David the afterlife as a terrifyingly blank page are worth a lot of rumination, and while they reference earlier works (The Seventh Seal in particular), McCloud brings his own visual language to the whole concept.

Although the last bit left me a bit less than 100% engaged, the majority of the book had me cancelling plans to continue reading. Overall, it's a major graphic accomplishment, one that is both a compelling page-turner and a relevant meditation on life, art, and love, presented by one of the most important cartoonists of our time. It's certain to be the start of many best of 2015 lists, and despite my issues with it, I can't say I wouldn't consider it among the better graphic novels in the last several years. The Sculptor's careful storytelling and alluring art far outweigh the narrative problems that slowly creep in towards the last part, and in the end, it's a book I would strongly recommend with just a few qualifiers.

The Sculptor releases on February 3rd. If you act fast, you can still order signed copies through Barnes and Noble. See for details on the book tour. Keep an eye out as well for our interview with Scott McCloud about The Sculptor, which should be posted in the next week!
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Review: 2015 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

Let's talk Oscars. While many of us will go out of our way to see the Best Picture and Best Director nominees, the short films often escape our attention, in part because... well, not many theaters show shorts anymore. Still, there's often a considerable amount of enjoyment to be found in a particularly excellent short film, and since Harper talked yesterday about the charms of the animated short films, I wanted to run down the Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films for 2015.


Directed by Oded Binnun & Mihal Brezis

Aya is a French-Israeli short that follows Mr. Overby (Ulrich Thomsen), a judge at a piano competition in Jerusalem who mistakes a young Israeli woman named Aya (Sarah Adler) as his driver. Curious about the man and wanting to get to know him better, Aya goes along with his mistake and decides to drive him to his hotel. The two bond during the drive as awkward conversation slowly turns warmer and more confessional, but what will happen once they reach his hotel?

The film, with its increasingly intimate back-and-forth between a pair of strangers bonding after an unlikely run-in, reminds me a bit of Abbas Kiarostami's remarkable Certified Copy, but writers/directors Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis lack Kiarostami's poeticism - and Adler, while good, lacks the magnetism of Juliet Binoche. Aya is, ultimately, a largely incident-free film. Its two leads have reasonable chemistry, but their conversation only sporadically rises to be genuinely gripping. It's interesting, but flat.

Boogaloo and Graham

Directed by Michael Lennox

Michael Lennox opens up Boogaloo and Graham with a pretty purposeful fake-out. In Belfast during the Troubles, the heavily-armed military roam the streets. They slowly pass a darkened alley, a man crouched over a cardboard box, hiding its contents from view. "You ready boys?" he asks someone off screen. Silent assent. Pan down to reveal... a pair of baby chicks, gifts to his two young sons.Thus the focus of the film shifts; they may be living with the military hanging over their heads, but to these two young boys, the only things that matters are their family and the two pet chickens, Boogaloo and Graham, who will grow up with them.

Boogaloo and Graham often seems slight, but Lennox manages to slip in a few weighty moments examining life under occupation. Lennox never lets the darkness overwhelm the lively, lived-in family comedy, though. Boogaloo and Graham isn't the type of fare you typically imagine when you think 'Oscar-winning', but it is undeniably charming. It's a sweet-natured slice-of-life story of 1970s Ireland, well worth seeking out, and Lennox gives the film a relentless energy and warm, family-oriented comedy that will stick with you.

Butter Lamp

Directed by Wei Hu

A young man has a business photographing Tibetan villagers. To simulate travels they haven't gone on and likely never will, he has a whole range of paintings he can pose them in front of, giving them the illusion, however briefly, of having visited exotic locales. Butter Lamp has charm, but I have to confess: This one wasn't really for me on any level. Though I appreciated the film's subtle, lightly absurd humor, I never really got the feeling that there was any meat to this one at all. Those looking for something a bit off the beaten path will likely be won over, but Butter Lamp only sporadically came alive for me.


Directed by Talkhon Hamzavi

Talkhon Hamzavi has a winning, heartfelt short film in Parvaneh. The movie follows a young Afghani girl named Parvaneh (Nissa Kashani) who fled her home country into Switzerland, where she scrapes by earning money to send home to her family. On her first trip into Zurich to try to wire money home, she finds that she needs the help of a native, where she meets rich, rebellious punk girl Emely (Cheryl Graf), who agrees to help for a cut of the cash. The pair end up bonding, attending a party, fighting off a robbery, and chatting long into the night, two very different outsiders bonding over a surprise relationship.

Parvaneh is probably the most conventional of the short films presented here, a simple, narrative character study. Nissa Kashani is endlessly winning as the lead, playing off the pricklier Graf well, and Hamzavi understands the importance of understated tenderness. This is a crowd-pleaser, plain and simple, and Hamzavi's film undeniably worked its magic on me.

The Phone Call

Directed by Mat Kirkby

Heather (Sally Hawkins) works at some sort of Crisis Center/Suicide Hotline, and shortly after sitting down at her desk, she gets a call from a man named Stan. Stan is nervous, frightened, jittery - and quite possibly slowly dying of an overdose of pills. In his own words, he just wants someone to talk to as he goes. Can Heather talk him down in time? And what will this call ultimately mean in her own life?

The Phone Call is intense and nakedly emotional, headlined by a pair of genuine stars in Broadbent (Cloud Atlas) and Hawkins (Blue Jasmine). Far and away the most approachable of the films on the list, this will almost certainly end up being the popular favorite. I totally get why, too, as Kirkby has crafted a simple, powerful short that should speak to anyone who has encountered loss and loneliness, but that never wallows in its misery. It's also an effective reminder of the immense talents of Sally Hawkins, should anyone out there need reminding.

While I don't think this is a terribly strong set of short films, there is something in here for pretty much everyone. For me the experimental Butter Lamp remains the odd man out and Aya felt flatter than it should have, but The Phone Call, Parvaneh, and Boogaloo and Graham are all immensely winning entries, accessible and engaging to audiences everywhere.

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films will be playing in a variety of independent theaters across the country in the coming days, and opens today (January 30th) at Atlanta's Midtown Art Cinema.
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Thursday, January 29, 2015

'AKA Jessica Jones' Casts Its Version Of Hellcat


Marvel's second Netflix series, AKA Jessica Jones, has added a new cast member to join Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), Mike Colter (Luke Cage), and David Tennant (Kilgrave).

Per VarietyRachael Taylor (666 Park AvenueCharlie's Angels) has signed on for the role of Trish Walker, Jessica's best friend.

Here's how they describe the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Walker:
Trish Walker, the best friend of Jessica, is a syndicated radio talk show host, former model and child television star who’s best known to her fans as ‘Patsy’ Walker, based on the Marvel Comics character who appeared under the superhero identity of Hellcat. In the series, Trish will help Jessica embark on the most dangerous case of her career.
Hellcat has recently had a nice bit of profile elevation lately in the pages of Charles Soule and Javier Pulido's soon to be concluding critical favorite, She-Hulk; of which, my heart remains broken.

AKA Jessica Jones, developed by Melissa Rosenberg (Step UpTwilight), is quickly following Daredevil's footsteps in some great casting moves. The debut of these series can't come soon enough. I may actually have two shows that I binge on in one year, a personal record!

Expect to see this newest Marvel offering sometime in 2015 following Daredevil's April debut.
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Review: Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

As a short filmmaker myself, I always love to see short films. It's unfortunately a rare opportunity, typically only during film festivals, but once a year the Academy Awards nominate the best animated and live action shorts, and these are brought to select theaters as a single billing. These are often more varied in style, tone, and country of origin than all the other nominations, which makes for an interesting set of films to watch.

But let's get to what you're all wondering–which one should you bet on at your Oscar Party? Here you'll get reviews on each short as well as an overall review on the series, as you can see at a local art cinema if you're lucky!

A Single Life
Directed by Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen

This is the shortest of the shorts, but is very fun. It's a CGI story of a woman who finds that by turning a record she can go backwards or forwards in time in her life. It has a pretty standard animation style, but where it lacks in uniqueness it makes up in great visual gags through silent storytelling. Since it's only a few minutes, its hard to describe fully without spoiling the clever jokes, but suffice to say its one of the funnier shorts in the bunch.

The Bigger Picture
Directed by Daisy Jacobs
This has the most unique visual style, combining flat painting with 3d elements in a really interesting way. It's also the most dramatic, telling the story of two very different brothers dealing with their mother's descent into illness. It utilizes some really cool surreal transitions as it visually recreates the feelings within the characters' heads. It's thematically one of the meatier shorts, but because its style is so distinctive it almost takes a repeated watch to get past the sheer glee of watching such unfettered creativity.

The Dam Keeper
Directed by Robert Kondo, Daisuke 'Dice' Tsutsumi

While this is the longest, its touching story makes it go by almost too quickly. In a village of animals, a young pig is charged with winding up the windmill that keeps the endless soot clouds away, but he is an outcast at school until a new girl shows up in his class. It's largely silent, relying nicely on classic storytelling techniques and a sweeping orchestral score to hit its surprisingly emotional beats. The painted style is very interesting, and although it could probably do without the opening and closing narration, it's a wonderful and original tale of childhood friendship and responsibility.

Directed by Patrick Osborne

As the opening short for Disney's Big Hero 6, there is a high bar set, placing it among many past Oscar winners. The story of a man's life as told in the background through his puppy's meals is an odd idea, but it works beautifully, and is animated in a gorgeous cel shaded 3d style. As with all of Disney's shorts, it's exceptionally well crafted, with wonderful matched cuts and clever editing, and it's cute and heartwarming to boot. It's a hard-to-hate short film!

Me and My Moulton
Directed by Torill Kove

Having won in the same category in 2007 for The Danish Poet, Kove returns with a personal story that is presumably from her own childhood in Norway in the 1960s. It's done in a beautifully simple style reminiscent in it's defined line and bold colors of something like Tin Tin. Taking place over one season, it very accurately captures what its like to be a kid and how you can have a strange relationship with your parents: sometimes it seems like they're just doing things for themselves–or just to be embarrassing. It's funny and feels eminently familiar in a way that is comforting and very entertaining. This is probably my favorite; I would watch a feature film of this in a heartbeat!

Overall, it's a great bunch of shorts. As I mentioned earlier, this is sometimes–particularly in a year of deplorable feature nominations–where real unique talent gets a chance to shine. The variety here is off the charts; none of these have anything in common, from the style to the subject matter. I would highly recommend checking these out in a theater if you get a chance. With any luck, we'll see a few of these filmmakers move on to creating the next great animated feature film!

The Oscar Nominated Shorts blocks open in Landmark Theaters on January 30th.
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Mehcad Brooks Is Your New Jimmy Olsen on 'Supergirl'

mehcad brooks

When Melissa Benoist was cast as Supergirl last week for the CBS upcoming superhero drama of the same name, I had a feeling the Jimmy Olsen announcement could only be a few days away, given that the auditions for both roles were held pretty closely together.

Like magic, we now have a new Jimmy OlsenMehcad Brooks (Desperate HousewivesTrue Blood) will be playing everyone's favorite Daily Planet photographer/giant turtle-based superhero. Actually, the latter probably won't happen sadly, but Brooks will surely have a camera in hand at some point.

The Supergirl iteration of Jimmy is described as "a smart worldly photographer for CatCo, the media company where Kara works. He had previously been working and living in National City for mysterious reasons, and his salt of the earth nature piques Kara's interest".

I'm not totally up on my Supergirl lore, but National City doesn't ring any of my DC Comics bells (other than being the former name of the company). I assume its something created specifically for the new series.

There are a number of roles still to be cast, including: Cat Grant, Hank Henshaw - the Supergirl obsessed director of the Department of Extra-normal Operations, Kara's CatCo colleague Wynn Schott, and Kara's sister Alex.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is the Winter Soldier the heart of Agent Carter’s mystery?

"The Blitzkrieg Button," Agent Carter's fourth episode and mid-way point, may have actually been the beginning of the series' true arc and end game.

After a fairly eventful season premiere, the show has been stuck in a combination of logistical battles and character development. Between episodes two and three, Carter and Jarvis go on a series of fetch-quests and authority ducking missions to track down the "bad babies," dangerous weapons and inventions that Howard Stark says were stolen from him, and learn vague information about a Russian big-bad known as Leviathan. By the start of episode four, Stark is still suspected of treason against the United States for selling dangerous weapons on the black market; the only difference is that these inventions have been recovered.

This brings us to "The Blitzkrieg Button," and kicks off what feels like the first glimpse at the show's most important thread.

Now that Stark's weapons are back, so is he. Popping in on Carter unexpectedly, he explains that he needs her to retrieve a device from SSR that he refers to as the Blitzkrieg Button, which he says will wipe out an entire city's power. Though she is frequently underestimated, Carter's no idiot - she can tell Stark is hiding something and wouldn't have returned for a light switch. After pumping Jarvis for information (more on this in a minute...) she learns there is more to the device than Stark explained, and activates it herself, finding a vial of Captain America's blood inside.

Though Agent Carter has shown us all along that our hero will not find respect in her line of work or era, it's never been clearer than it is here. Agent Thompson tells it to her straight: Carter will never be considered an equal in their office. But outside of the office, she's trusted Stark up to this point to give her more purpose, only to find out that she's been used. Carter lashes out at him for lying, leading to the show's best scene to date. Stark brushes off the lying as a bad habit and claims he's using the blood to research its medicinal value, like vaccines and cures. Carter's response buries him: "I think you are a man out for his own gain no matter who you are charging. You are constantly finding holes to slither your way into in the hope of finding loose change, only to cry when you are bitten by another snake."

And although Stark is unlikely to end up completely in the villain corner, it seems like he's complicit in a much larger issue. Chief Dooley follows a trail of clues to Nuremburg to speak to a Nazi named Mueller who has information on the Russians working for Leviathan. Dooley learns that the "Battle at Finow," where the Russian Leviathan agents supposedly died, never took place - the Nazis only found piles of ripped and mauled bodies, already massacred in some other way. The SSR also learns Stark flew into Finow the day after this alleged battle.

OK, so if you're keeping score - everything important in this episode revolves around one vial of blood. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though it was implied that HYDRA was responsible for turning Bucky Barnes into the Winter Soldier, it's never been explicit. We're still in theory-only territory here, but I'm hedging my bets on all of these events leading up to either the revelation of the Winter Soldier's creation or the beginning of it via Leviathan. It would be a nice tie-in to present-day events, and with the involvement of Captain America writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, it would also make sense. We'll see how that theory pans out over the remaining four episodes.

Some other items to chew on:

- Dottie, Carter's friendly next-door-neighbor, is apparently an agent of some kind. Not a completely shocking turn, but an interesting one. That reminds me of someone else who had a next-door-neighbor who he thought was just a regular gal, but then it turned out she was an agent...
- Carter tries to get information on the Blitzkrieg Button from Jarvis, and notices that he tugs at his ear every time he states a fact that is untrue. Carter chalks this up to a poker tell, but my initial take on this was that Jarvis was intentionally hinting to her.  The tugging was just so... obvious? Then again, Jarvis isn't super smooth.
- Agent Thompson is starting to get a little more personality. Some of Carter's co-workers feel like caricatures, but I think his character might be one of the most realistic. He behaves like a man of the times but also seems to understand and have a bit of empathy for his co-workers, helping them in small and private moments.
- Agent Sousa, on the other hand, is just a little too good to be true. Too good, as in, I feel like he's probably a double agent kind of too good?
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