Comics Review: Tonoharu

December 11, 2016 0

On the show, we’ve given a lot of love to Marvel Comics, and I can assure you, the Unreliable Narrators could do a very similar show on DC as well. It’s the independent comics that are a little harder to give love to. We have our faves (Mouseguard, Hellboy), but which indies you read are often a matter of personal taste.

Last night I drove home through an Iowa snowstorm after a full day of battening down the hatches for a creative snowy Sunday at home. I didn’t feel like digging into the writing or the huge epic fantasy I was reading, so instead I grabbed the volumes of Tonoharu that my comics guy, Ken, had tracked down for me.

Tonoharu may not pique everyone’s interest. It certainly picqued mine. The story is about two Americans serving as teaching assistants in English (think JET) in a small rural town. The art is in small squares, and is a simple, gray-washed style of moment pictures. In the prologue, Dan talks about whether or not he will renew for a year. For most of the story, we follow his predecessor, also named Dan, through his troubled, isolated year in Tonoharu.

Lars Martinson, the author, emphasizes in the support material, that the story paints a very grim view of living in Japan, and he goes on to wax poetic about how vital and life changing living in a whole different culture for a long time can be. I have to agree. While I have not lived for a year in Japan, my relationship with Japan has totaled 5 trips and probably about half a year in the country if you add it all up. My longest stay, as a student of Japanese in the summer of 1998, really helped me relate to Tonoharu. Dan is very much a fish out of water, although you can see that he would be just as uncomfortable in the US. His successor is much more like me, and figures out how to make it work in a compromise of the two cultures he’s negotiating.

The characters in the story seem real to me, because I have met so many of them. I have my own admirable sensei who is a fantastic person. I know my own shy students, strange expats who impose their culture upon the country, guys who are just there to sleep with Asian women. They all exist, and I found it eerie the way these characters might typify the expat experience in Japan.

I love Japan. Like any multi-cultural interaction, we find each other complicated and we have stereotypes about each other. We find enlightenment when we are surprised, we find isolation when we can’t understand. Tonoharu is a quiet comic, but if you’ve ever lived somewhere else for a while, you will find it a rewarding read. This will probably be one of my recommendations for the year as we close out 2016.

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

November 25, 2016 0

It has been said films which are set in the 20’s do not do well at the box office, and I understand this is true of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which had, according to Warner Brothers, a somewhat disappointing opening weekend. If you are looking for all Harry Potter, all the time, of course you aren’t going to want to see this movie. It’s set in the US, and in a different time period. The central figure in the film is Newt Scamander, whom many of you might know as the author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find from the Potter series.

Turns out Newt is the Jane Goodall of the magical world. Newt has a mission–to help his fellow wizards realize the magical creatures they share the world with are not as dangerous as the ban in the US would make them appear. Well, let’s be realistic. They’re dangerous like all animals are dangerous, but Newt is a trained professional and unnaturalist, if you like. Newt’s a quirky, captivating character, very interesting and single-minded, so the film must be supported by some other emotional layers. Unfortunately, the female lead, an ex-female Auror, Tina Goldstein, is kind of lackluster and dull.

However, it is in the supporting characters where one finds the real emotional meat of the film. One Jacob Kowalski, a non-mag (Muggle to those of you in the know) ends up involved in the plot and seems like he will be the butt of jokes, but turns out to be a stalwart friend and yes, a romantic lead. Tina’s sister, Queenie, is a mage who reads minds, and is a charming, sweet woman. The chemistry between Queenie and Jacob is all the more poignant because Jacob is not allowed to remember his interactions with wizards at the end, a strange unnatural American law, as Newt points out to Tina.

The other emotional plot involves the manipulation of an orphan named Creedence, who has been adopted by the  anti-Wizard organizer of Second Salem. Creedence is manipulated by Mr. Graves, a wizard high in the Magical Congress of the United States, who thinks he is the way to a dangerous young wizard who has a powerful, evil occulus. I can’t reveal much here without revealing a lot of spoilers, but this plot also has emotional depth, and also reveals Tina at her best.

If you want to see more of the Potterverse, as in not more Harry Potter, but more of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, this is a great way to go. Costumes are wonderful. Special effects are great. Newt is winning. Queenie and Jacob are fantastic. Go check it out and give it the love it deserves.

Miraculous (Miraculous Ladybug)

November 11, 2016 0

And now, for something completely different.

One of the things that my animation-loving spouse recently introduced me to was a new cartoon originating in France, but with an international cast of producers and animators. It is called Miraculous in the United States and Miraculous Ladybug in France. A mere three days after we failed to elect the first woman president of the United States and elected a president who sets women’s rights back 20 years or so, shows like Supergirl and Miraculous Ladybug become increasingly important for maintaining and elevating the status of young girls.

There’s a lot to like in Ladybug. Our main character Marinette, half Chinese and half French, is a normal teenage girl, tongue-tied in the presence of Adrien, her crush. She has a good friend, Ayla, and a snobby rival Chloe, and is supported by a cast of well-rendered high schoolers. These students are important because every episode, someone is evilized by the show’s thematic villain, the Papillion (called the Hawk Moth in English because that’s more villain like that Butterfly, I guess), and while the evilized villain isn’t always a friend, it’s good to have a stock of misunderstood adolescents to choose from.

Remember Adrien? The rich son of an overprotective father, he too has a superhero ID. Marinette’s Miraculous (a cute little bug-like creature called Tikki) turns her into Ladybug, upon whom Adrien has a crush. Adrien’s Miraculous (a catlike stinky cheese eater called Plagg) turns him into the Chat Noir, or Black Cat. The gimmick is that Adrien and Marinette have no idea who their partner actually is. Ladybug plays down Chat Noir’s flirtations, and Marinette is hopeless around Adrien, a well-maintained tension.

While the show is presented as a partnership in the U.S., Ladybug usually saves the day with her lucky charm powers and resourcefulness. Chat Noir and Ladybug are great friends and partners, good role models, and a lot of fun to watch.

I prefer to watch the show in French with subtitles. It’s good practice for my rusty French, and I always think original voice acting is usually the best performance. But for your kids, you can watch the show in English on both Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. They can learn French later.

So, go watch this bright, colorful show with good animation. Show boys and girls how well they can work together and get along. Enjoy its quirky villains and Parisian culture.

Spots on! Or words to that effect.

The Unreliable Narrators Watch… Chinese Ghost Story

October 31, 2016 0

We spent nearly as much time talking about Chinese Ghost Story as we did watching it. This movie has (very nearly) everything—a beautiful, tragic love interest; a flame-throwing monk; a hapless tax-collector hero; a breathtaking pavilion in the middle of a lake; stop-motion zombies; and a climactic battle in hell. What it doesn’t have is a consistent tone or a linear plot—but maybe those things are overrated?

As always, we’ll start with our conclusions, and hide the full transcript after the jump. Prepare for spoilers galore.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:
Chris
Cath
Chia
George

 

cathschaffstump 11:01 PM In part, even though these films have some “quality” issues, they are a lot of fun.

cathschaffstump 11:01 PM And the cheese is part of the feature.

cathschaffstump 11:01 PM And there are moments when they transcend and put us somewhere unique.

chris 11:02 PM cheese goes well with horror. Hello, Vincent Price

cathschaffstump 11:02 PM On the whole, I’m gonna say that I would recommend this to others if I know they would like it, or well, if they are well prepared.

chialynn 11:03 PM Yes, this is one I’d enjoy watching again with other people who would enjoy watching it.

chialynn 11:03 PM Or people I could count on to be entertainingly and/or charmingly baffled by it.

cathschaffstump 11:03 PM Yeah. It would be no fun if the people you were watching it with thought it was weird or stupid.

george_galuschak 11:03 PM this is as much screwball comedy as horror

george_galuschak 11:03 PM it’s really a very upbeat movie

george_galuschak 11:04 PM optimistic

chris 11:04 PM yeah that’s why earlier I said this may not even qualify as horror

cathschaffstump 11:04 PM But the tongue! That’s kind of scary.

chris 11:04 PM other than the tongues and claymation zombies

cathschaffstump 11:04 PM The zombies are pure camp.

george_galuschak 11:04 PM they were great

cathschaffstump 11:04 PM I will admit I am not too worried about having any bad dreams about this one.

 

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The Unreliable Narrators Watch… The Woman in Black

October 25, 2016 0

Or: Harry Potter and Chekhov’s Beloved Child

Okay, that’s not entirely fair.

The Woman in Black is an old-fashioned ghost movie with a sound design so effective that your humble Narrators are still talking about more than a week later. It’s not a perfect film—we’ll get to that—but what it does, it does well.

DRAMATIS PERSONAE:

Chris
Cath
Chia
George
Special Guest: Morris the Cat

 

Here be spoilers…

 

Our takeaways, with the full transcript after the jump:

chialynn 11:19 PM Obvious in ways I didn’t mind.

chris 11:19 PM I would say very creepy but not scary

chris 11:19 PM it’s that formula that relies on period. Phones and such make it not work

cathschaffstump 11:19 PM I concur, Chris.

cathschaffstump 11:20 PM Lots of really good sets and lighting.

cathschaffstump 11:20 PM Some really good acting.

chialynn 11:20 PM Novy just named the 3d animation and modeling package they used for the end credits.

george_galuschak 11:20 PM i liked it

cathschaffstump 11:20 PM I thought it was fine.

george_galuschak 11:20 PM it was effective at what it set out to do

chialynn 11:20 PM Good acting, effective use of the tropes, even when they were very clearly tropes.

chialynn 11:20 PM Creeped me the hell out.

chris 11:21 PM and yet… the tropes kept it from being scary

chris 11:21 PM too many scares that wouldn’t work without a BAM on the score

chris 11:21 PM It was mostly creepy-old-house atmospherics. And they played every card in that hand! who isn’t creeped out by old dolls, taxidermy, music boxes

chialynn 11:21 PM And… Kind of a happy ending?

cathschaffstump 11:21 PM Kind of.

chris 11:21 PM but then why go through all the shit with the car and the mud?

cathschaffstump 11:21 PM Trying to placate the woman.

chialynn 11:22 PM He thought he could change things. He couldn’t.

chris 11:22 PM did that even do anything?

george_galuschak 11:22 PM maybe she figured she was repaying him

george_galuschak 11:22 PM he wanted to be with his wife, she saw to it

cathschaffstump 11:22 PM Maybe. That’s an interesting take.

chialynn 11:22 PM But she did say “Never forgive.”

cathschaffstump 11:22 PM You gave me back my kid.

cathschaffstump 11:22 PM I give you back to your wife.

george_galuschak 11:22 PM sure

cathschaffstump 11:22 PM I like that.

chris 11:22 PM Well, we spent the entire film waiting for the other shoe to drop on Chekov’s beloved child

chris 11:22 PM and it did

chris 11:24 PM the child showing up just in time for the ending…

george_galuschak 11:23 PM yes, good ending

chialynn 11:23 PM Yes.

cathschaffstump 11:24 PM I still liked it, but I could see why some people might not.

cathschaffstump 11:25 PM So, I’m gonna recommend this one, but with some hesitation for those who don’t like their horror slow.

george_galuschak 11:25 PM i liked it. i will probably watch it again. i turned the sound down so i wouldn’t get too freaked

george_galuschak 11:25 PM the sound is the scariest thing about this movie

cathschaffstump 11:30 PM Agreed, George.

chialynn 11:25 PM I’m going to watch it again.

chialynn 11:26 PM I want to see some of the background stuff I missed.

chialynn 11:27 PM I like slow-build atmospheric horror.

chris 11:28 PM I’d say it’s passable. Not really a standout for me

cathschaffstump 11:29 PM I wouldn’t call it a great horror film.

cathschaffstump 11:29 PM But believe me, I’ve seen plenty worse.

chris 11:29 PM There’s the jacket quote. “I’ve seen plenty worse.” – Cath Schaff-Stump

chris 11:29 PM “Damning with faint praise indeed.”–Cath Schaff-Stump

chris 11:30 PM it wasn’t a waste of time. that’s my jacket quote

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Helloween Day Twenty-Four: REC

October 24, 2016 0

I heard about REC, a Spanish-language movie, when it first came out in 2007. There are zombie movies, and there are found-footage movies, but as far as I know REC is the first found-footage zombie movie (it’s that or Diary of the Dead, also released in 2007). Or are they zombies? Hmmm…Anyway, I borrowed REC through my local library.

The plot: Angela and Pablo are doing a feature on firemen for a show called While You’re Asleep. As one of the firemen says (paraphrasing), ‘if everyone’s sleeping who’s watching your show?’ They settle in for a long, dull night, and then the alarm goes off, and they’re racing to an apartment complex where an old lady is supposedly trapped in her apartment. The old lady is there, all right, screaming and covered in blood. She shows her gratitude at being rescued by biting one of the firemen.

Pretty soon the Barcelona authorities quarantine the building and nobody can leave. Not realizing they’re in a horror movie, the residents naturally want to know what’s going on. Besides Angela and Pablo, we have a fireman, a cop, a family of four, a bachelor, the super (they call him the intern) and a mom and little girl with tonsillitis. Or is it tonsillitis? The fact that she tries to bite her mother’s face off clues us in that maybe it’s not. Hmmm…

REC came out in 2007 when the zombie movie wave was starting to crest. Nothing much happens in the first forty-five minutes, and then things happen very quickly indeed. The virus – the movie calls it an enzyme, but that just might be the translation – messes up your eyes and makes you act like you have rabies. The disease seems to have started with a sick dog, so that makes sense.

As you don’t know (because I didn’t tell you), I waited until the final week of Helloween to watch the movies I thought would really scare me. REC didn’t. Maybe it’s because of the lack of scary music cues? This movie has a ton of jump scares, and some of the violence is really disturbing, but it’s not much more than your run-of-the-mill zombie movie. At this point the market’s oversaturated. The source of the ‘plague’ is original, but the movie never fully explores the idea it raises. Still: the ending is scary as hell, and I was entertained. I even shrieked!

Recommended, especially for found-footage fans and zombie lovers.

Helloween Day Twenty-Three: The Hunger

October 23, 2016 0

I was in high school when The Hunger (1983) came out. I never saw it. Maybe I was too young to see an R-rated movie? The first R-rated movie I saw in the theater was Excalibur, but that’s another story. Anyway, years later I took The Hunger out from my local library.

The plot: Miriam and her husband John spend their time going to discos, seducing young couples and bringing them back to their freakish mansion located in the heart of New York City. They kill them with little dagger Ankhs, drink their blood and then dispose of their remains in the crematorium in the basement. In their spare time the happy couple play classical music with a teenage girl.

It’s an idyllic existence until John starts showing his age. He visits Dr. Sarah Roberts, who is researching the aging process. The visit doesn’t much help John, but it does bring Sarah to Miriam’s attention. Miriam, who is immortal, keeps her ex-lovers in boxes in her attic. She seduces Sarah and gives her a love-nibble during their lovemaking. Pretty soon Sarah can’t eat or sleep. She starts experiencing serious withdrawal symptoms, and only Miriam can give her what she needs.

An art house horror movie thirty years before the term was coined, The Hunger has three obsessions: narcissism, power and addiction. Miriam is the ultimate narcissist. Unlike her husband John, she has no conscience. She keeps her old lovers in boxes because that is the ultimate expression of her power over them, and any tears she cries are for herself. The sex between Miriam and Sarah is consensual; Miriam infecting Sarah is not consensual. The vampiric ‘disease’ is blood borne, and this movie came out when awareness about the AIDS virus was just starting to spread.

The Hunger has problems. It’s about ten minutes too long and the ending makes no sense. The pacing is slow, and the movie shifts main characters halfway through. Tony Scott’s directorial style might have been innovative at the time, but now it looks like a MTV video run amok. Everyone is stylish and smokes, just like the 80’s I remember! Despite these flaws, The Hunger is a striking film and well-worth watching. Recommended.

 

Helloween Day Twenty Two: Cronos

October 22, 2016 0

Released in 1993, Cronos is Guillermo del Toro’s debut film. The way I chose this flick is sort of funny. Instead of watching one of the big stack of horror DVDs on my coffee table I found Cronos browsing Hulu Plus. Besides the movie itself, there are also interviews with the director and actors. Informative!

The plot: kindly antiques dealer Jesus Gris finds what looks like a golden bug hidden inside a Madonna icon. He gives the statue to dying industrialist de la Guardia, whose room is full of bagged Madonnas, but keeps the bug for himself. De la Guardia sends his nephew Angel, a leg breaker who has plastic surgery every time his nose gets broken, to collect the Madonna. When Jesus winds up the golden amulet it sprouts legs. It also has a stinger – which Jesus learns the hard way.

To the amazement of his wife and granddaughter, Jesus seems to grow twenty years younger overnight. It turns out the beetle, made by an alchemist, has a literal bug inside it that can grant immortality. Of course there’s always a cost, as Jesus learns when the hunger pangs kick in. After awhile using the amulet’s not good enough and Jesus craves more. Of course, anyone who’s seen more than one horror movie knows what that is.

Despite my initial misgivings, Cronos is a horror movie. The word ‘vampire’ is never mentioned, but there are lots of bugs and bug imagery. When Jesus’ face starts to rot off it’s not the end of the world; insects shed their carapaces all the time. In an interview, del Toro called Cronos his ‘lapsed Catholic’ movie, and the movie is crammed full of religious imagery. He also said that Jesus is the saddest vampire ever, also true. When Jesus is alive he’s an old, out-of-shape antique dealer; after his death and resurrection…he’s still an old, out-of-shape antique dealer.

Cronos wasn’t made on a big budget, but it features striking visuals, sympathetic characters and a well-written screenplay featuring a slightly off-kilter take on the vampire legend. Addiction and family values are big themes, here. Ron Perlman is great as leg buster Angel, the gum-chewing thug. He’s a bastard, yeah, but he’s charming and we can’t help but like him. Cronos is a great movie. Highly recommended.

 

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