Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Catfish: It's all movies these days, I guess

Hey, whatever gets me writing, I guess. But first, have some links: This Kickstarter for Dash Shaw's animated movie The Ruined Cast looks like it's worth contributing to, I think.

I encourage checking out the Dogs of Mars series on Comixology; it's illustrated by Paul Maybury, and it looks really nice. First issue is free, second is 99 cents. Not bad!

Here's an artist who I wasn't familiar with, but looks pretty amazing: Jeremy Sorese. That link leads to his story "In the Parlor Room", which is currently being serialized, but he's got lots of other nice comics and illustration work on his site; I think he might be one of my new favorites.

As for other artists that I like who have webcomics, here's Koren Shadmi's The Abaddon. Cool.

This webcomic is a kinda cute, satirical take on the Pied Piper story, but the really neat thing about it is the way it uses horizontal scrolling, moving different layers of the images at different speeds to make an illusion of 3-D. Beautiful.

And for one of the very best comics I've read lately, here's Sarah Glidden's devastating "The Waiting Room", a journalistic story about Iraqi refugees in Syria. Wow.

2010, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Note: There are probably some mild spoilers here, in discussing the very premise of the movie, but hopefully nothing too experience-ruining until stated otherwise.

Being as generally out of the loop as I am, I have no idea what the general consensus, revelations, etc. are on this movie, so my main question upon watching it is, is it real? That is, is it the genuine nonfiction documentary it presents itself as, or is it a narrative film masquerading as one? Either way, it's a pretty fascinating piece of work, generating conflicting opinions and examining the nature of "truth" in our modern, online society, in which anyone can connect with anyone else, and choose which face to present to them, ranging across a huge spectrum from pure and unfiltered to blatantly false. As a documentary taking a close look at a specific case of trickery, it's pretty interesting, but if it's fiction, it's fucking brilliant, adding enough layers of obfuscation and manipulation to leave one's head spinning.

The hook is pretty simple, following Yanev, a twentysomething photographer living in New York, as his filmmaker brother and their friend decide to document his online relationship with a young girl named Abby who has begun making painted replicas of his photos, Rob Granito style. Soon, he also begins communicating with Abby's mother, Angela, and especially her older sister, Megan, a sexy dancer/musician/free spirit, with whom he ends up falling into a romantic relationship. Maybe it's the expectation that nothing is as it seems that gives us the feeling that this will all probably turn out to be too good to be true, but the filmmakers do a remarkable job of selling the believability of the electronic relationships, showing all manner of online communications, such as Facebook messages, photos, excerpts from emails, and text messages, all familiar sights to modern technology users, from the fonts and pixelated images to the telltale green-and-white Iphone text boxes. Maybe that's why the phone calls we see seem to be the most awkward exchanges, yet are as nonetheless believable as everything else.

But, as mentioned, it is all too good to be true, and the reveal of the truth (or "truth") is where things get really interesting, but is also where we venture into hard SPOILER territory, so read on at your own risk. When the authenticity of some songs that Megan seemed to write and record for Yanev incredibly quickly comes into question, he understandably freaks out, and they decide to pay a surprise visit to the family at their home in Michigan. At this point, we expect a scam of some sort and just want to find out the answers, but the revelation is surprisingly complex, in terms of both the actual truth (which is all tangled up with the various lies, and might be fiction itself anyway) and whatever judgment we might render on the perpetrator. All the online communication turns out to be coming from Abby's mother Angela, a homely housewife with a working-class husband and two mentally handicapped stepsons. While we may have thought of her as a liar and manipulator, we soon see that all her ruses apparently started as an attempt to escape from the difficulty of her daily life, and spiraled out of her control until she had created a vast web of fake personalities, fictional relationships, and made-up events. Is she somebody to be pitied? Even that is hard to say, since she continually makes up new lies, even while confessing to her old ones.

This point is where the movie kind of stalls, as Yanev interrogates Angela to try to find out what is and isn't real, how much of the woman he fell in love with is made up and how much is part of Angela, and just what the deal is with this obviously disturbed person. As interesting as the whole situation is, Angela ends up being kind of boring in person, although that's probably part of the point. And of course, the question of the movie's authenticity keeps viewers on their toes; is this a purposeful deflation of expectations, an attempt to make the entire story seem more "real" by relentlessly focusing on this person along with Yanev to find out what makes her tick?

That way probably lies madness, since questioning one aspect of the film causes one to wonder about everything. Yanev seems kind of false, at least at first, with a goofy grin usually plastered on his face. But as the movie proceeds, it just seems like camera-shy awkwardness. A lot of the events seem too contrived, such as a postcard that Yanev sends to Megan which we see later, but, as with any documentary, that could just be an example of selective editing from what was surely a great deal of footage that didn't make it into the final film. It's a constant tightrope walk between possible truth and possible fiction; as with the very subject of the film, the more time we spend with these people, the more we think we know them and want them to be real. Or is it the other way around, and we think it's all a ruse and search out every possible contrivance or discrepancy, congratulating ourselves on our debunking skills? Is the scene in which Yanev confronts Angela in an almost casual way rather than staging dramatic argument an example of veracity, or is it a deft defiance of expectations? Is the weird bit in which Yanev asks Angela to speak to him "as Megan" contrived, or is it a moment of human awkwardness? If the movie is fiction, how did they get the mentally impaired boys to play their part? If it's fact, Angela's husband's title-providing monologue seems awfully convenient, doesn't it?

END SPOILERS, so the conclusion can be read.

Maybe it's better not to know the "real" answer of the movie's authenticity. The state of uncertainty turns it into a Schrodinger's Cat-style paradox of truth, somehow both true and false and all mixed up together into a delightful stew of confusion. Narrowing those possibilities down to one single answer limits the possibilities, much as meeting an online acquaintance in real life can inevitably be disappointing. That's the price of human connection, or whatever facsimile thereof we currently consider acceptable.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Summer Wars: Not really all that seasonal

Links: I'm kind of late linking to this, seeing as it has already met its goal, but I wanted to point out this Kickstarter campaign by Joshua Hagler, whose comic The Boy Who Made Silence I really loved.  This one is for a 3-D animation project, but he's a pretty great artist, so I'm excited to see anything he does.

I enjoyed Think of the Children, a webcomic which imagines that Fredric Wertham and pals were actually fighting against a demonically possessed William B. Gaines during that whole Seduction of the Innocent affair that comics people are so obsessed with.

The first issue of Double Feature Comics is up, featuring stories by Tim Seely & Ross Campbell and Dennis Hopeless & Mike Norton.  Only 99 cents for either Ipad or PDF formats.  Get it while it's hot!

You could also check out this comic from LA Times Magazine by Don Winslow and Sean Phillips.  Nice.

And here's a free download of an uncompleted graphic novel by Vasilis Lolos, if you're wondering where he's been lately.

On a more timely note, I won't be at the MOCCA fest this weekend, but if you're going, you might want to check out The Tavern of Ill Repute, an event at the I Made an Art gallery, taking place on Saturday, April 9, and including work by artists (names like Danny Hellman and R. Sikoryak, as well as several others), new animation, performers, live music and a clown (?). Sounds like it could be fun.

Okay, I'm behind on comics reviews, but here's something else:

Summer Wars
Directed by Mamoru Hosada
Japan, 2010

How is it possible that a cartoon can feel so much more personal and full of life than most live-action movies? As an anime produced by a leading Japanese studio (Madhouse), Summer Wars must have taken tons of people and money to produce, but compared to any number of blockbusters, this one feels like something inspired by life, as if somebody worked to project their own family history onto the screen. It’s an effect that works to give the crazy plot about the end of the world via virtual reality internet hacking an emotional impact, something that sticks in the heart rather than just dazzling the eyes.

That plot? After establishing a future world in which the internet has been taken over by an especially Japanese version of Second Life called OZ, in which everyone has a cutesy avatar and interacts via a shiny, candy-colored virtual space, we are introduced to a student named Kenji, who is quickly dragged over his head into two different situations at once, in the on- and offline worlds. A fellow student named Natsuki pays him to come along with her to a big family get-together for her great-grandmother’s ninetieth birthday, waiting until it is too late for him to back out to reveal that she is passing him off as her boyfriend. He gets thrown into the chaotic interactions of all the family members, as they gossip, eat together, argue, play, and act like a group who are intimately familiar with each other.  Meanwhile, Kenji receives an anonymous midnight email containing a string of coded numbers, and being a math whiz, he cracks them, then wakes up to discover that he seemingly enabled a hacker to take over any and every account in OZ, completely disrupting not only the online world, but any offline services he wishes, including traffic signals, power grids, trains, and emergency services, with little in the way of reason beyond a trickster-like delight in widespread mayhem.

The interesting thing is where Kenji’s two worlds collide, as Natsuki’s family alternately rejects and accepts him, teaming up with him to fight the online threat or viewing him as an interloper. There are subplots about a family black sheep who is involved with the ensuing chaos, a younger cousin whose online avatar, a rabbit wearing a Marty McFly jacket, is a martial arts champion that becomes a defender against the all-consuming cyber-monster, and Granny’s matriarchal leadership, not only of the family, but of various powerful acquaintances who she encourages to pull together in the time of chaos, seeming to single-handedly hold the country together.  There’s a foreseeable family tragedy, leading to scenes of devastatingly relatable emotion, and a pulling together of forces, as multiple generations marshal their resources in a ragtag effort to stand against what ends up being a world-threatening villain.

Somehow, this all ends up being an enormously satisfying conflict, perhaps due to the realistic family dynamics of Natsuki’s clan, combined with the over-the-top unreality of OZ, which is presented as a virtual reality playland full of cartoony avatars and ever-expanding physical space, even though the characters themselves only seem to experience it through tiny browser windows and cell phone screens.  The scale of the conflict keeps expanding, as the hacker turns from a creepy Shiva-like monster into a gigantic, roiling mass of Facebook profiles, eventually facing off against Natsuki in an inscrutable Japanese card game for all the world’s marbles, a kind of silly yet effectively tense battle which includes what must be the most dramatic winning throw of a card in history.

That this all works so well is a testament to the good writing, the creation of characters that interact believably. Their shared sadness and joy, fear and triumph are palpable, even in the face of just-beyond-believable events, and the reactions of the observers are what sell the real stakes of the battle even beyond the real-world consequences that we see, making the furious staring at screens and pounding on keyboards, or Kenji’s deciphering of 2048-bit encryption in his head, compelling and tense.  This is one hell of an entertaining movie, goofy and strange and sad and happy all at once, a cyber-thriller that manages to hit the viewer right in the emotional soft spot, and stay there after the brightness of the visuals fade.  That’s something special.