Weird Kitties fizzled out, but I had a few spare reviews lying around and Jane's holiday is going to run one more week, so here they are.
Material, by Ales Kot, Will Tempest, Clayton Cowles, and Tom Muller
Reviewed by Sean Dillon, eligible in Best Graphic Story, available on Comixology.
What does 2015 look like? That is a question at the core of Material, an Image comic written by Ales Kot, drawn by Will Tempest, lettered by Clayton Cowles, and designed by Tom Muller. The comic follows four people, living in these turbulent and fragmented times1.
The first is a Philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the name of Julius Shore. Every issue, save the fourth one, opens with a lecture he is giving, ranging from the incompatibility of Art and Business to a nervous breakdown in the form of wearing Su-Real dynamite on his head while ranting about how he is a failure. His ongoing conversations with an emergent sentient AI, which he dubs as Alien Intelligence, make this comic eligible for a Hugo Award2.
The second is an actress in Los Angeles by the name of Nylon Dahlias. She is escaping from the failure of her film career and the death of her mother via Alzheimer’s by doing a lot of drugs. She has just been cast by an up and coming auteur in his new film that’s missing its first 10 pages. Nylon’s story culminates with her running into her producer in the middle of the street having a nervous breakdown, unable to deal with the fragments of the reality around him3.
The third is Franklin, a young man from Chicago who went to a “Black Live Matter” protest. As with many of those protests, the cops showed up and beat everyone to the ground. Franklin woke up hours later in Homan Square where an officer of the police confronted him. Said officer is now blackmailing him to act as a mole in his uncle’s New Black Panther Movement. It is implied, though never directly stated, that other things have been going on between the two of them4.
The fourth is Adib, a man who was wrongly put into Guantanamo Bay (for being the wrong person, the wrong skin color, and worshiping the wrong god instead of the humane reasons it is wrong to be locked up in Guantanamo5). Now that he’s out, he can’t talk about what had happened to him in his time, not even to his wife. The only person he can relate to about his experiences is his female BDSM partner6.
The narrative is an unflinching look at the modern day, covering subjects from the Black Lives Matter movement and how it relates to the progressive movements of the past to the complexity of wanting your life not to be dominated by the cruelties that have happened to the man you are married to. The four issues are told masterfully as Will Tempest conveys a sense of control with the 9 Panel Grid as well as a sense of chaos with sketchy art style used for the characters within it7.
Sadly, the comic was canceled after four issues due to Ales Kot wishing to release future stories in a once a year graphic novel format rather than the serialization format used for the first four issues. Nonetheless, it highlighted the state of the world in an unflinching light, as all great science fiction does8.
What does 2015 look like?9
Reviewed by Patrick Dillon, eligible for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), available for purchase here.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien, one of the best filmmakers working today, has created a vision of the martial arts movie in The Assassin, which is unlike any other; stripping it down to it essentials and posing the existential question of what it means to be a martial arts movie. Where most modern martial arts movie focus on graceful, at times over the top, action set pieces and fierce characters who are defined by their movement, Mr. Hsiao-Hsien elects to instead focus on the moods of the environments that the characters inhabit and juxtaposing crude action set piece against with quiet moments of graceful movement.
The plot of the film could be summed up in a sentence or two, which has been problematic for some. As such, The Assassin plays more like music, shifting its audience through emotions without explaining why one feels this way. It is surreal and dreamlike. Much care is given to the look of the film, with everything from costumes to the art direction has detailed texture, adding to the immersive feeling that the film provides and giving the sensation of being in an classical Chinese landscape painting.
Each movement that the figures in this world make is delicate and has purpose, emulating a dance or a martial arts form. This results in some of the most memorable imagery of the year. My personal favorite shot is when the titular character is spying on her family at night. She disappears in and out of the shadows, like an owl stalking its prey, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
This is poetic filmmaking at its finest. Either one gets lost in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s hypnotic canvas or they don’t. For me, it was one of the most engaging film going experiences of the year!
Hard to be a God
Reviewed by Patrick Dillon, eligible for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form), streaming on Netflix
If I were to go solely on the basis of sheer entertainment, Hard to Be a God would be the clear winner. This grand, bat-shit insane movie is compulsively watchable and in every sense of the word entrancing. The film was a surprise hit back in February, when it premiered at Anthology Film Archives, and caused a rarity for the theatre, in that they had to bring it back because it was so popular- and the popularity was well deserved, this is a great film. However, as far as my knowledge it was not a hit in the rest of the country, which is unfortunate.
The film is set on another planet in an unspecified future, which is identical to Earth in every way, except culturally and technologically, where is still trapped in the renaissance period, except without the religion. It follows a scientist from Earth who was sent to the planet so as to help the group evolve intellectually, but instead takes over a village, and presides over them as their god. What ensues is a series of surreal, bloody, and absurd events that are not easily comprehensible, but nonetheless irresistible and jaw dropping. This is largely due to the filmmaking at hand and the time and care that went into it, which is evident in every frame of this three hour magnum opus.
The film was directed by Alexsi German, one of the great hidden treasures of world cinema, who began filming this film in the year 2000 and continued to do such for the next six years on an on and off shooting schedule. This was due to the rigorous filmmaking, which involved scenes that involved several different stunts occurring at the same time in addition to a constantly moving camera that glides beautifully through a rich, heavily detailed landscape. I assume Mr. German also required several hundred takes of each scene, due to the level of perfectionism displayed on screen.
Following the shoot, he spent the next seven years carefully editing the film before his death in 2013, at which point his wife and son took over, completing it roughly half a year later. Talk about a monumental production.
But this hard work pays off, as every moment of this film is rich with detail and composure. The world feels completely lived in, with the wares and tares being center stage- simply looking at a chain has never been as fascinating as it is in this film. It is also probably the most shit ridden film I have ever seen.
To clarify, mud and shit covers the landscape and exterior set scenes almost always involve rain or hail, causing for the mud to only flood up the scenes more and more. The film’s pacing is unlike any other film I have ever seen, as it seemingly glides from scene to scene and managing to keep the high octane feel constant throughout.
One will likely find themselves losing track of the plot as a lot occurs at once in short moments, allowing for them to get lost in different aspects of this world, while still providing some of the most cinematic images of the year. It is completely atmospheric and wall to wall insane. One of my favorite images in the film is a wheel being turned slowly, so that a cage could enter a furnace and chicken flies through the frame. The sound in the scene is very crude and picks up a whole other scene that takes place off screen. Oh my god! The technical details only enhance the film further. It was shot 35 mm film with a 4:3 aspect ratio in black and white. This simultaneously gives the film a enclosed feel and adds to its otherworldly atmosphere.
Yes, for some Hard to Be a God will be a confounding watch. But for others, in will mesmerize and captivate. For my money’s worth, it was most thoroughly entertaining film.
Little Nemo: Return To Slumberland, by Eric Shanower (writer), Gabriel Rodriguez (artist) and Nelson Daniel (colourist)
Reviewed by Saxon Brenton, eligible for Best Graphic Story, available for purchase here.
This is the trade paperback collection of a four issue miniseries, the high concept being a homage/sequel to the original Little Nemo newspaper comic strips by Windsor McCay of the early 20th century. In brief, the Princess of Slumberland, daughter of King Morpheus, is pining for a new playmate. When she becomes aware of Jimmy, a boy with the middle name of Nemo (named "after a cartoon fish"), she takes that as a sign that he should be her new playmate and invites him to the land of dreams, where they have adventures along with the troublemaker Flip Flap and other oddball denizens of dream.
This narrative is a cleverly written and beautifully drawn, full of whimsy that is faithful to the spirit of the McCay originals. However, that is also its greatest weakness as a story, since it is so stylised. The dialog, in particular, has both an archaic feel and a tendency to be a description of events rather than a reaction. Similarly the concept of traveling through the land of dreams is frequently used for visual games, such as in the third chapter when a trip to the Tessellated Tower results in an extended chase sequence through environments based on the art of M.C. Escher. There is no use of dreams in expressing the darker impulses of the human subconscious.
To me it seems that the book has two natural audiences. For any adult who has an awareness of the source material and is predisposed to nostalgia, this will be a pleasant distillation of McCay's stories. But on an adult level it's very thin on plot. In retrospect I think that's why much of the first chapter is given over to so many repeats of the McCay trope of Nemo's dream being interrupted so that he falls out of bed and wakes up, or why the third chapter has such a very long sequence of Escher pastiche. Quite simply, it looks like padding. However, from a child's point of view those same repeated elements would make this an excellent picture story book.
Harrison Squared, by Daryl Gregory
Reviewed by Saxon Brenton, eligible for Best Novel, available for purchase here.
I found this novel through the Hugo nominations wiki, and a Young Adult novel with a Lovecraft premise looked interesting. The plot summary is that the title character, Harrison Harrison, is 16 year old who travels from the West Coast to the brooding town of Dunnsmouth, Massachusetts with his marine biologist mother, who is searching for evidence of an undocumented species of giant squid. When she goes missing he is too stubborn to accept that she may have died in another boating accident the way his father did when he was a child, and instead sets out to unravel the mystery of her disappearance.
As a genre mashup this is primarily a mystery adventure, with Lovecraftian trappings used in service of plot. For example, the isolated and culturally insular town of Dunnsmouth is evocative of Lovecraftian horror settings, with both an overt sense of alienation and allowing for a town-wide conspiracy of cultists to operate. Other elements are playfully used as local colour, such as the way school work includes vocabulary lessons on words like 'squamous' and 'rugose', and mathematics questions about non-Euclidean geometry. To a limited extent the novel even makes nods towards the notion that when someone encounters the inexplicable and supernatural they tend to go mad - however the story structure does not rely on this, and a pep talk given by the school librarian late in proceedings explicitly rejects the idea. Rather, the novel proceeds through the solving of the mystery and climaxes in with a quite good battle off the coast.
The character of Harrison is interestingly complex. There's a tendency in fiction for characters who are aware of and are able to articulate their feelings and reactions, while at the same time being unable to avoid making stupid mistakes. Harrison certainly has a self-deprecating line of patter that allows him to voice his own bad habits and insecurities after-the-fact - but not always honestly. He explains his aversion of going swimming, for instance, as a hatred of the ocean rather than a fear of it. Then there are selection of other character traits, such as his anger management issues, or the dichotomy between his preference for the scientific method that he's picked up from his mother versus his innate abilities to be sensitive to the supernatural.
Now, the straightforward mystery adventure is one interpretation. About a third of the way through I became aware that this is actually the second appearance of the character of Harrison, his first being in the non-Young Adult novel We Are All Completely Fine, as a member of a therapy group for survivors of supernatural encounters. Without having read that story I can hardly make an authoritative matchup of the character traits between the two versions, but it's possible to see how 15 years and a hop between two different styles of storytelling could lead from one to the other. So Harrison Squared would also be an origin story of sorts, albeit one that may have been somewhat fictionalised by Harrison himself.
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