Sunday, February 17, 2013

Mary and Max

Written and directed by Adam Elliot

            There are several things that are sorely lacking in the world of film, and animation specifically targeted towards adults is one of them.  Maybe it’s this idea that, if you’re not trying to target kids with bright colors and silly humor, you don’t need to do animation, an idea that is sorely mistaken.  Mary and Max manages to prove just how far from truth it is and shows how much adult animation is needed.
            Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a child and Toni Collette as an adult) is an 8-year-old Australian girl with parents who are apathetic and alcoholic.  When she starts wondering where babies come from in America, she chooses a random name in the phonebook to write to, which just happens to be Max Jerry Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44-year-old New Yorker with Asperger’s.  From there, a long-lasting pen pal relationship begins.
            The movie’s main strength in its use of animation is how it changes tone at the drop of a hat.  Whereas live action has certain rules about humor vs. darkness, Mary and Max switches between them freely.  Moments like Max talking about his mother’s death are followed by a witty line of dialogue or a bit of humorous animation.  The claymation here is gorgeous, beautifully crafted and managing to create two incredible worlds.  Whereas Australia is fairly colorful, New York is shown only in black-and-white, with only certain bits adding color to it, most of them coming from Mary.
            But the movie’s real structure is the incredible relationship that develops between two people writing to each other.  While they initially seem like they couldn’t be more different, the pieces start falling in place and just how together they are becomes obvious.  We learn their personalities and histories mainly through their letters to each other.  In fact, the letters are the majority of the actual dialogue, with most of the movie narrated by Barry Humphries.  It provides the appropriate atmosphere for the movie.  These are two people who are mainly friendless and alone in the world, which is strengthened by the fact that their only conversations are with each other.  Their histories are tinged with humor, but also filled with pain, darkness that they’re solving by bringing light to each other’s worlds.
            An extraordinary movie which draws you into a world that mixes its animated silliness with plenty of reality.  It handles its tough subject matter with care, and manages to make a movie that will make you laugh and cry.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Double Fine Action Comics Volume 1

Written and drawn by Scott C.

            Double Fine has consistently been one of the best game developers out there.  Maybe execution can’t always follow through on concept, but in terms of love for whatever the subject matter is, it always comes through.  And much to my surprise, there’s apparently been a webcomic going on for years that I’ve missed out on.
            The first volume of Double Fine Action Comics collects the first 300 strips.  The loose story has a knight meeting up with Double Fine’s logo of a 2-headed baby.  From there, there’s plenty of misadventures with them, a muscleman, and two astronauts, as the stories have a joke contest, aliens, and mummies.
            As should be obvious by now, Scott C’s style leans towards the absurdist.  For every moment that actually goes towards a plotline, the strip is just as likely to veer off.  It will suddenly cut to new characters, have new plot developments that are almost immediately forgotten, and generally only make about as much sense as it wants to.  Strips randomly go color, only to turn back to black-and-white.  Like most webcomics, the art style is simplistic but endearing, which lets the humor come off from the ridiculous dialogue.  It’s filled with slang that’s used in a purposely inhuman way, making the characters simultaneously real and surreal. And every space is loaded, sometimes at the price of some of the text being hard to read.  Even the space above and below the strips is filled with doodles which make their own mini-comics. If nothing else, these 300 strips are an experience.
            The experience continues over to the extras.  Halfway through, there’s a pin-up of the knight and the 2-headed baby.  Half of the extras are actually useful, like sketches of some of the comics and a look at how knight’s design changed from #1 to #300.  Then there’s commentary on 4 strips which is between weird and useless.  There’s a small board game.  There’s a drawing guide for the characters which turns incomprehensible.  The one extra my review copy was lacking was a promised foreword by Tim Schafer, head of Double Fine.  If nothing else, this would’ve provided some nice context.  For example, it wasn’t until halfway through the collection when Psychonauts was mentioned that I realized exactly how far back this comic started.  I also don’t really know who Scott C. is in terms of his role at Double Fine, which I would’ve loved to know.
            DFAC is weird, surreal, and constantly enjoyable.  Whether you love Double Fine or not, it’s worth reading just for the experience of reading it.

Fatale Volume 2: The Devil's Business

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips

            One of the most important parts of the film noir is the femme fatale.  The woman that gets the hero mixed up in everything and inevitably leads to his downfall.   Normally, this is just a part of the formula that made up noir.  Fatale turns the concept on its head with one simple question: what if the femme fatale didn’t want to be the femme fatale, and was just cursed to be one?
            Fatale is the story of a man whose godfather dies, which leaves him with one of his unpublished manuscripts, only to shortly be mixed up with Josephine and attacked by mysterious men…while flashing back to Josephine, who’s the same age in the past.  While the first volume took place in the 1950s with the godfather, this volume skips forward to 70s Hollywood.  Miles is a wannabe actor who’s only starred in one good movie, only to find himself on the wrong side of a cult and seeking sanctuary with Josephine, who’s secluded herself.  But the cult is also after her.
            First things first: the continuity issue.  Do you need to read the first volume?  Yes and no.  Yes, for the present day overarching plot, you do.  For the story in the 70s, I certainly don’t think you’d get as much out of it coming in here.  At the same time, the time-skip means it’s a new set of characters and new plot which at least wraps up at the end of the volume.  I’d say it’s a fairly friendly jumping-on point.
            The main twist of Fatale is its combination of crime stories with supernatural elements.  The cult here isn’t just a cult, they’re really working for a demon.  It’s certainly a bit jarring, but most surprisingly, it doesn’t break the atmosphere.  The dark, gritty crime stories still work even if the villain is a Cthulhu-esque demon.  It’s a blending of genres that Sean Phillips’ art manages to make work.  Everything is stylized like a noir movie, but as demons appear, they come off as almost Mignola-esque.  They look wrong in this world, but that’s what makes their presence interesting. 
            It’s impressive that the tone the first volume sets in the 50s manages to stay across 20 years.  There’s quite a difference going from the noir-fuelled world of corrupt cops and reporters to a Hollywood ruled by sex, drugs, and cults.  Keeping the narration around helps, and Josephine provides the link.  We get more of her character here, too, including the confirmation fairly early on that she mysteriously attracts men to her.  There’s only so much given here, of course.  At the end, we’ve gotten maybe one piece of the puzzle, along with some more of her character development, but there’s still enough missing that makes you want to read more.  It is worrisome that it’s only 40 years until the flashbacks catch up to modern day, but then, we’ll have to see where the series go before it’s worth worrying about completely.
            The Devil’s Business is easily as strong as the first volume.  If you want a noir story with some twists, go there.  This is where things are really beginning go places, taking the noir genre and twisting it more to fit into different decades and plots, along with starting to reveal where the overall plot is going.  Fatale certainly has my interest, and I eagerly await future storylines.