Wednesday, October 13, 2010

the Comic-Con saga continues!

I found yesterday out sadly from my editor at Film-Forward that there will not be a Comic-Con piece due to some technical issues on the site.  So, with that noted, I've decided to just write about the other films I saw here in my trusty blog-o-matic.

And here we go, with the next Vs. movie:


Unlike the straight-to-video schlock of Alien Vs. Ninja, at the least what can be given to its directors Yoshihiro Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu, is that they made a "real" movie.  It may have also been shot on video, but one upgrade is the 1:85 aspect ratio instead of the 4:3 square box.  And there's at least a little more attention paid to the actors, to the story, or what can be in any real assessment called a 'story' in a tale of high school rivalry with blood and guts and limbs and torsos ripped and legs lopped off and so on.  At its best, the movie has the spirit of a dirty South Park - or, more to the point, a good Troma movie - in how it aims so gleefully to offend while making its points.  Actually at least in South Park they make the 'moral' point by the end of the episode.  This time it's just... very, very, very fucked-up Japanese style.

Nishimura, though not Tomomatsu, comes out of the recent semi-school of movie technicians who just make lots of crazy special effects that ooze, shot, geyser or relentlessly chuck blood and body organs and do other things that will make the squeamish squeam.  Just look at Nishimura's filmography and tell me that he isn't at least a little in love with a concept, to re-paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson: When the going get bloody, the bloody turn pro.  Perhaps his work is best exemplified by his best and most notorious (in my eyes) work yet: Tokyo Gore Police, about a police chick that does battle with... well, do I want to spoil it, why not just take a look at THIS and call me in the morning.  To call this movie, along with his latest collaboration with Tomomura (whose own filmography includes Maid-Droid and Eat the Schoolgirl), insane is to insult the fans of the padded white walls.

But what precisely is this movie about?  I took some notes during the screening at Comic-Con, but perhaps they are so scribbled quickly in the midst of laughing hysterically that it's moot.  It's basically in log-line terms about a teenage boy who meets a girl and has a crush on her - she's the quiet girl who has just moved in to town - and soon realizes she's a (say it) vampire.  No, this ain't no fuckin' Twilight.  For one thing she gets around to finally, after some cheery exposition about how fun it is to be a vampire and feeding clueless Mizushima some bloody chocolate, she turns him pretty easily (though for the rest of the film he's kind of the limp noodle of the bunch), and this girl, Monami (the very cute but tough Yuki Kawamura) knows how to kick some serious ass with her daggers coming out of her arms made at least partially out of blood.

And the Frankenstein Girl?  She's created out of various parts by, naturally, a Dr. Frankenstein with his own Igor, and takes from a few parties: the Chinese teacher who has lungs of steel from smoking and being fortified to withstand the toxic smoke for so long; the mad teen girl who is the president of the Wristcutters club who has arms toughened like rawhide from years of slicing (and she never hits an artery lucky girl!) and some other body parts from hot, attractive girls.  They slice and dice and bolt together and finally come up with something good.  This Frankenstein Girl- who also happens to once have been Mizushima's jilted girlfriend, could take over everything, unless the Vampire Girl puts a stop to it!  Oh, and in the process of this we get the sub-plots with the wristcutters competition - just watch what happens to the side that loses - and another group that is made up of, and I wish I were kidding, girls in blackface with big buck lips and outrageous features who sign songs about Barak Obama.

What the hell is the point of those black girls?  It's the kind of imagery that could make Spike Lee lunge for his vocal chords and have enough ammo for ten years.  It is offensive, but I have to wonder if it is as loaded as it seems.  According to an interview on, Nishimura says it's something not too unusual to see such outrageously stylized black caricatures in blackface, as though Japan were playing innocent and not knowing of America's own history of this for the past hundred years.  And yet I think that it actually works in favor of the film because how outrageous and crazily-amped-to-11 everything else is.  The world Nishimura and Tomomura create is that of the perverted, deranged, nightmarish fantasy of someone locked into a bender of no-holds-barred action and chop-socky and horror and teenage fetish movies, with a touch of Sam Raimi.  I wish I could stress enough how insane things get here, and how far they take the gore, the comedy, the violence, the fighting that in the climax goes so far to the top of a Tokyo tower and where half the fight takes place in suspended animation with blood daggers and body parts unhinged.

Oh, and things like this happen - the Frankenstein Girls' eyes in her nipples (didn't I hear that lyric in a Jim Morrison song?):

At what they intend to set out to do, the directors and make-up fx crew are successful.  This doesn't mean that audiences thinking they're ready for it - such as those at the Comic-Con I attended, will be quite prepared for it.  I heard a lot of groans, 'oh shits', and other comments, while a solid few laughed at whatever madness was dished out.  In the science-fiction nightmare of Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl there are no rules or barriers, and this includes having a somewhat reasonable character, Mizushima, who says as the fight really takes shape: "And this is how the battle between Vampire Girl and Frankenstein Girl began.  By the way, has anyone considered MY feelings?"  

Everything, from the students to the teachers to the wristcutters and "black girls" in the clubs to the Dr. Frankenstein and Igor who is who-knows-how-many-hundreds of years old, to the fight scenes that are staged with deranged cutting and dutch angles and the inherent surprise of what body part will fly to what sector (this is, by the way, the kind of movie that *should* be in 3D if it must), is so over the top visually, thematically and visual-fx-like that you wish you could see the top as you fly over it.  Anything goes here, anything is fair game to mock and to warp with the imagination, and as horrifying as a lot of it is, it's all done with tongues sticking out of cheeks and, at heart, the kind of cute love story that the Japanese love to do.  In fact it combines what the Japanese in their B-to-Z grade fare do best: combine the adorable with the disgusting, the visceral with the huggable.  You'll want to go "aww" while getting stabbed all over and decapitated in this world.  

Or to give a clearer idea of the enjoyable mayhem, here's the trailer:

And now for something a little more "normal", but must be put in quotes:

Among the several writers working in the comics and graphic novel (or "Sequential Art") business goes, Grant Morrison holds a place as one of the rare artists whose reputation comes about as close to someone like Alan Moore's does: his work is revolutionary in how it approaches to challenge the form of comics, shake it up, do something cool or trippy, or to challenge what a superhero or superhero medium can do.  He's done comics on the adventures of a group of anarchists (The Invisibles) and on the dregs of society (The Filth), and done some of the most highly regarded (All Star Superman) and controversial (Batman R.I.P.) work with D.C.

I first came across him while going through Batman comics at a comic book store and noticing a bunch of interesting-strange-different graphic novels by Morrison; only one of which I've read, Batman & Son, about Batman/Bruce Wayne discovering that he has a son (oddly enough named Damien) that was conceived in a moment of unlikely passion with Raz-Al-Gulh's daughter, most likely under some hypnotic Batman-goes-horny spell.  He takes Damien under his wing despite the kid being a little shit, and the story goes from there.  I mostly remember there being some strange goings on with Batman and his son, and the last chapter jumping many years into the future as in some sci-fi society Damien has now taken over the controls of Batman.  It was a dark, weird read that does its best to change up the Batman mythos, and actually did for a while (now under the latest title, Batman and Robin with Dick Grayson as Batman and Robin as Damien, things only get stranger still under the current run of Bruce Wayne being dead and maybe coming back soon, probably, I guess it's about time I suppose).

But what the hell does this have to do with anything with Morrison?  Well, I wanted to illustrate here the kind of personal response to Morrison's work that the documentary gives, at least in some part.  The people who work with him have the utmost respect for him and his methods; the way he writes a script isn't very special, until the artist who is looking at the script takes a look at the directions for what to draw and how to go about it, at which point the artist cowers and (as described in the film by a few) "How am I going to DRAW this!"  The documentary peers into how Morrison, like Moore, could write a "normal" superhero-fights-baddies comic or a slugfest, but the personal impression of the artist has to come through, and how the persona of the artist himself is part of the allure of the creator.  For example, Moore is a bearded shaman with long fingernails (like THIS).  Morrison, on the other hand, took a cue from Neil Gaiman's caricature of himself as the Sandman in his comics by changing his look entirely to look like a character in his revolutionary-punk comic The Invisibles (though I might argue his look is to parrot Hunter S. Thompson when he was on his Gonzo-political ticket, but that's just me).

I should note that we didn't get to see ALL of the documentary at the Comic-Con presentation - it was kind of a panel, kind of a screening, both and not at the same time - as the producers and director of the documentary screened roughly half of the film (there was a full screening the previous night but it was at 11:30 PM after a long day at the Con starting at 9 AM so it would have been just too much).  But my impressions of the film from what was shown give more than a rough idea of the man/myth/legend of Morrison.  He came from not-quite-humble roots as his father was a sort of revolutionary himself, or would-be one, as he was interested in anti-nuclear stuff, going so far as to take Grant with him on "fishing trips" to really take pictures of far-away nuclear plants-  this later found its way into The Invisibles as well.  He also has a kind of mystical-mythical proportion about him that's been built up over time: he talks about being abducted by aliens and talking with Gods (as the title says) in the same sort of off-handed style as he would about going to pick up a sandwich at the deli.

What main impression I come away with- and that makes me interested to see the whole film, outside of the direction being at least competent and giving some appropriately (if low-budgeted) trippy visuals to some of the transitions between interviews and a bad-ass opening shot of Morrison waiting in the wings to be called to the stage at San Diego con- is that he's a man of complexity who is not so eccentric as to be totally nutty, as Alan Moore's reputation seems to precede him, but is off-kilter enough to keep one guessing to what's truth or fiction.  One great story he tells, a tall-tale with bits of harsh truth, is how he came to write one of his most regarded stories, All-Star Superman's creation came out of two things.  One was the death of his father right before starting to write, and the motif of father figures working its way into the text.  The other was one day, while discussing ideas with his artist, seeing outside of his window a man dressed head to toe like Superman, but convincingly, as if he was always Superman, and Morrison then having a very long and detailed conversation about what it's like to be Superman, what Lois Lane is like, Lex Luthor, Krypton, etc etc, and that this was a big influence on the comic.

So he is a weird cat.  But there is something genuine to Grant Morrison's method of madness that is straightforward.  You feel like you could be sucked into whatever this cat says and that it would stick because he's saying it the way he does.  And in such a Scottish voice that is fun and carries some authority when he talks about important things like magic and his past.  If there is one minor drawback, at least from the footage I've seen, one may need to have some cursory knowledge of comic books, much less Grant Morrison, to really appreciate certain things about what the film presents.  Only some of the personal stuff like Morrison's family-background and his time as a musician seems to be more accessible to non-sequential art fans.

.... But that brings me to the final film, also a documentary, Will Eisner's Portrait of a Sequential Artist:

Will Eisner is far less of a kind of eccentric comic-madman with a public and private personality, but then go figure: he was one of the forefathers of the modern graphic novel, and maybe the most influential to people who looked to do something a little different, a little more personal, in the sequential art medium.  Hell, the guy has an awards, the Eisners, named after him, and like the Pulitzer or the Thalberg award its the highest honor a person in the field can get from their work.  His reputation precedes him if you bring up his name to anyone at least halfway familiar with his work on The Spirit (and the old-school Spirit, not to be confused with the respectable work by Darwyn Cooke in recent years, or the shitty movie made by Frank Miller in 2008).

This documentary, now also out on DVD (like the Grant Morrison doc will be in a week's time) is a little more straightforward than Morrison's, and is like a lot of celebrity-figure-docu-portraits, it tells the story knowing the beats: the opening is the regaling of him being such an icon, then where he came from, his early beginnings in the industry, his early works, his first success, (in this case) time in the army, and then bigger successes and his placement in the field around him.  For Eisner his background, like most other of his contemporaries (and these are the big guys like Stan Lee- nay Stanley Lieber- Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson and Jerry Schuster, creators of Superman) grew up Jewish in the Bronx and with very little money growing up.  Most fascinating is to hear about how he did his best to make himself stand out from the other kids, as he was bad at stickball he could draw airplanes on the sidewalsk, and how his parents were split between totally supportive (father, a frustrated artist) and doubtful (mother, the practical "get a decent job" type of Jewish mother).

The film works best when it shows Eisner's evolution as an artist, starting in drawing silly funnies, understanding storytelling in its pure form in short stories ("knowing the ending before starting to write the story"), The Spirit, in its first incarnation and then after the war when it got more sophisticated, the struggling time in the 1950's with the Comics Code, and then the later works which became the profound kind of graphic novels that one gets to if one avoids superheroes.  Though still un-read by me, A Contract With God sounds the most promising, and depressing (written after his daughter died suddenly and tragically), about people struggling to live in New York City.

What one comes away with and is exciting about the documentary- which is mostly low-key with its adulatory interviews and some insight into artistic process itself by Eisner- is how someone finds his voice and sticks with it, and finds a drawing style that compliments the toughness of the material.  Eisner isn't the kind of guy you go to right away for a superhero story, and even The Spirit is a "costumed character" inasmuch as he has a mask and a hat, but has no superpowers despite being back from the dead.  If you have at least a passing interest in the medium, or wonder how the history behind not just Eisner but Kane and Lee and Kirby and the Superman creators influenced most of the superb modern comics that are around today, it's almost essential viewing, even if the approach taken with the comics interpolated over the interviews isn't anything special.

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