Every year, residents in a remote Japanese village are tasked with helping the recently deceased come to terms with their death and move on to the afterlife. It’s a fraught and difficult job, and it becomes all the more so for Naoko — who’s already questioning her rural existence — when she develops feelings for her latest charge. At first blush, Festival of Shadows feels like a typical “girl meets ghost” paranormal romance, but it develops some intriguing twists as Naoko makes some startling discoveries about her charge — and herself. Atelier Sentô — the creative duo of Cecile Brun and Olivier Pichard — have conjured up a delightful ghost story characterized by painterly artwork and wonderfully detailed illustrations. I look forward to their next title.
I’m not exactly sure how I learned about This Was Our Pact, but I’m glad I did. Written and illustrated by Ryan Andrews, it’s a delightful tale of friendship and fantasy as a group of kids go on a night-time bike ride through an increasingly strange countryside — a ride that will change some of them forever. There are some moments in This Was Our Pact — specifically, the friends’ encounters with a talking bear in search of his family’s fishing hole and a kooky witch named Madam Majestic — that feel like something out of a Miyazaki film. Which is just about the highest praise I can give. Andrews’ artwork, which is predominantly cast in shades of blue, as befitting his nocturnally set tale, are beautiful and evocative, and lead up to a final scene that perfectly encapsulates the sense of fun, wonder, and adventure that ought to define childhood friendships.
If I were to describe Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as a Hammer horror parody set in a cursed hospital where Dr. Rick Dagless, M.D. must battle occult forces, I’d only be telling you half the story. Because it’s also a show-within-a-show about noted horror author (or “dreamweaver,” as he prefers) Garth Marenghi (played by Matthew Holness), who finally has a chance to unleash his show — aka, the most significant televisual event since Quantum Leap — on the unsuspecting public. Filled with hammy acting, stilted dialog, gloriously ’80s hairstyles, and special effects that make classic Doctor Who episodes look positively cutting edge, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is the Platonic ideal of a cult classic, the kind of show you either get completely or hate absolutely. I fall into the first category. Be it Marenghi’s arrogant assessment of his writing skills, Richard Ayoade and Matt Berry’s performances, or the outlandish storylines involving psychic doctors, eyeball children, and alien broccoli, all six episodes had me consistently cracking up.
I can’t remember where I first hear about Beef Wellington, but the idea’s fascinated me ever since. A delicious fillet wrapped in prosciutto and a paste of mushrooms, shallots, and various seasonings, and baked inside a delicate pastry crust? What’s not to like about that. I finally got to enjoy one courtesy of my lovely wife, and it did not disappoint. It’s a wonderful dish that just feels fancy, the perfect sort of thing for special occasions, like family holiday meals.
A detective’s latest case becomes something much more than a simple murder mystery when the victim turns out to be a god. Good thing he’s a… wait for it… cosmic detective. Even so, he may still be ill-prepared for the revelations that his investigation uncovers, revelations that could challenge everything he knows about existence. Given that Cosmic Detective was co-written by Jeff Lemire (Black Hammer, Gideon Falls), you can expect a fairly downbeat story. Although it doesn’t feature any eldritch entities, the cosmicism on display in Cosmic Detective’s pages — as rendered by David Rubin’s mind-bending artwork (which pays tribute to Jack Kirby) — is definitely Lovecraftian in spirit, and reminiscent of Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland. Interestingly enough, my church is currently studying the Book of Ecclesiastes, and Qoheleth’s existentialism actually jibes quite nicely with Lemire and Matt Kindt’s (Dept. H, MIND MGMT) story and helped me consider its themes in a new light. Even so, best to avoid Cosmic Detective unless you’re up for pondering the potential meaninglessness of existence.
After finishing Sarah Arthur’s Once a Queen and then discovering that she co-founded a festival devoted to C. S. Lewis, my first thought was, “Yep, that tracks.” And no, that’s not a slight. But Arthur’s novel — in which a girl named Eva discovers evidence that her grandmother was a queen in another world, the very same world chronicled in Eva’s favorite book — is clearly inspired by Lewis’s beloved Narnian stories. But it’s inspired in the best ways, and no mere rip-off. Arthur’s prose is often quite beautiful and even moving at times, and she weaves a story filled with delight and imagination as well as sorrow, tragedy, and heartache. (Because, as we all know, the best fairy tales often have darker, sadder undercurrents.) Once a Queen is a bit cluttered — I confess, it was occasionally difficult to keep track of all of the characters’ familial connections — and Eva’s naïveté and stubbornness is as frustrating as it is endearing (as is often the case with fourteen-year-olds). But the novel is also deeply earnest in its insistence, à la Lewis, of the importance and power of myths and fairy tales, and their ability to convey deeper truths. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give Once a Queen is that upon finishing it, I immediately began thinking of all of the youngsters who should read it when it’s released later this month, starting with my own kids. (Thanks to NetGalley for the advance review copy.)
I remember the kerfuffle that surrounded Fight Club when it was released back in 1999, with detractors calling it perverse and fascist. It was a box office powder keg, with many criticizing its darkness even as they missed the point of the darkness. An obvious issue with watching a film that was so controversial so long ago is the extent to which the ensuing years have dulled its edges or weakened its bite. Given that it’s almost 25 years old, some aspects of Fight Club do feel dated, like its MTV-esque flashiness. But its critiques of consumerism, capitalism, and advertising are perhaps even more relevant in today’s FOMO-driven and influencer-saturated world. The same could also be said concerning its depiction of Tyler Durden’s philosophy, which starts off with some valid points about modern masculinity but inevitably descends into dehumanization and nihilism. (Indeed, the film almost feels nigh-prophetic in light of the recent rise of incel culture and hucksters and cult leaders like Andrew Tate who can often seem very Tyler Durden-esque, albeit with none of Brad Pitt’s charisma or humor.) There’s the unavoidable irony of a big-budget Hollywood movie with major stars critiquing consumerism, but Fight Club has plenty on its mind that’s still worth considering, even now in 2023.
Back in the early ’90s, my friend Eric ran a bulletin board system (BBS) where I spent hours discussing music, anime, and video games with folks that I never met in real life. (It was an obvious precursor to the internet and I thought it’d be the coolest to run a BBS of my own. I never did, but I still wrote up documentation for one.) There was the thrill of connection, but also the thrill of danger and rebellion, particularly when you found documents with titles like “101 Ways to Wreak Havoc In Your School” that included instructions for all sorts of nefarious (and illegal) activities. Incredible Doom captures that sense of excitement as it follows several kids in a small podunk town who connect through a BBS, and become involved in the local DIY punk scene. But Incredible Doom isn’t just a nerdy celebration of technology; it’s also a bittersweet story of family trauma, first love, and the inevitable heartache that comes with realizing just how difficult it’ll be to hold on to your youthful idealism. I wish some of the series’ storylines had been explored a bit more fully, but if you ever spent any time on a BBS, making zines, and/or listening to punk/alternative music in the early ’90s, then I think you’ll feel like Incredible Doom was written just for you.
Reservation Dogs is usually billed as a comedy, but that doesn’t feel quite right. True, it’s frequently hilarious, albeit in a slightly skewed and often surreal way. But it’s also deeply sad as the ten episodes explore the effects of death on a closeknit community. Death of friends and loved ones, most obviously, but also the death of one’s dreams, of friendships, of innocence. Season two starts off a bit awkwardly as it tries to pick up where season one left off, but it’s also filled with delightful (and delightfully poignant) moments: Bear slowly maturing and getting a job; the reservation coming together to mourn and honor Elora’s dying grandmother; a group of middle-aged Indigenous women trying to hook up at a conference; or a couple of influencers imparting some “wisdom” to Bear, Elora, and the rest of the reservation’s youth. (I probably could’ve done without the catfish sex, though.)
You don’t often read a novel that completely checks some of your boxes. But Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Silver Nitrate is one such novel for me. Obscure film history? Check. Eldritch horror? Check. Bizarre occult conspiracies? Check. Montserrat is a sound editor who, by virtue of a being a woman in ’90s Mexico, is constantly disregarded by her peers. But a chance meeting with a once-famous horror director might turn things around for her, especially after he invites her to participate in an arcane ceremony involving a lost film supposedly imbued with magic by a Nazi occultist. Naturally, things go wrong and Montserrat and her best friend — a former actor haunted by his reckless past — are soon visited by unsettling visions and forced on the run by an evil cult. Silver Nitrate drags in places and the protagonists’ nigh-constant bickering gets tedious, but Moreno-Garcia still casts a spell, especially when she delves into Mexican film history. Admittedly, I know very little about Mexican cinema, so I don’t know how much of Moreno-Garcia’s history is real or imagined — I was occasionally reminded of the mélange of conspiracy theories in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum — but that just made Silver Nitrate all the more intriguing.
Inspired by a Tibetan folktale, Shuna’s Journey has many of the usual Hayao Miyazaki tropes (e.g., fantastical settings, a strong female protagonist) and touches on some of his pet themes, including both humanity’s relationship with nature and its proclivity for violence and exploitation. At the same time, it has a fairy tale-esque tone, particularly as the titular hero enters the strange lands of the god-folk — but as is Miyazaki’s wont, it’s tinged with darkness and mystery. Originally published in 1983, it might be tempting to dismiss Shuna’s Journey as a precursor to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke — as if you’d ever really want to dismiss anything by Miyazaki, that is. But even with all of its familiarity, I was caught up within just a few pages thanks to Miyazaki’s gorgeous watercolors, poetic storytelling, and ability to pack so much life and energy into his illustrations. First Second Books’ edition contains a brief afterword by Miyazaki as well as some notes by translater Alex Dudok de Wit that offer some helpful insights into the story’s creation and themes.
Whenever we venture up to Omaha, it’s basically assumed that, time permitting, we’re going to eat at Tasty Pizza. Though it’s no longer located in that charming little house on Leavenworth, the pizza’s still just as good, er, tasty. There’s nothing all that flashy or eclectic about Tasty Pizza’s menu. Rather, they just focus on the essentials. As a result, though, I’ve never had a bad slice in all of the times I’ve gone there.
In keeping with the spirit of the spooky season, we watched this for a family movie night. It’s probably been 20+ years since I last watched The Sixth Sense, but it still held up quite well despite knowing the twist and all of the ways in which said twist is foreshadowed. (Indeed, a lot of the fun of watching the movie this time around was seeing my kids as the truth dawned on them. It was also fun exploring the film’s various clues in hindsight.) Much of that’s due to Haley Joel Osment’s central performance, which is just remarkable at times in both its honesty and emotion; the film simply would not work without it. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis turns in a wonderfully subdued performance. The Sixth Sense certainly lays on the melodrama and earnestness more thickly than the scares — which are still plenty effective — but thanks to the aforementioned performances, M. Night Shyamalan’s assured direction, and some excellent production design, it more than earns its emotional payoff.
Charlie Fitzer is a down-on-his-luck substitute teacher barely living from paycheck to paycheck. When his ultra-rich uncle dies, it seems like things might finally be turning around for Charlie — except that in addition to being ridiculously wealthy, Charlie’s uncle was also one of the world’s greatest super-villains. And now Charlie has been tapped to be his heir, which means dealing with the world’s other super-villains. But at least Charlie now has his very own island volcano lair. Starter Villain is precisely what I’ve come to expect from John Scalzi: an engaging and entertaining read that’s the literary equivalent of a bacon double cheeseburger with a side of fries and a chocolate milkshake. (Which is a good thing.) It’s frequently funny — the potty-mouthed talking dolphins trying to unionize had me chuckling, as did a scene of super-villains trying to meet over Zoom — and as an added bonus, Scalzi makes some pointed digs at tech bros and ultra-rich elites alike. (Which feel particularly relevant in light of, say, Elon Musk’s “inspired” leadership that’s current driving Twitter down into a death spiral.)
A year after their close friend’s death, four Indigenous teens plot to escape their small Oklahoma town and start over in California. That, however, proves to be easier said than done, as their various schemes never quite go the way they’d like and they find themselves in conflict with a rival gang. That, and they discover their bonds to their families and community are perhaps stronger than they’d like. Reservation Dogs is notable for being the first TV series to be written and directed entirely by Indigenous individuals, which gives it a truly unique perspective. It’s filled with memorable characters (e.g., the spirit of a warrior who died at The Battle of Little Big Horn and now doles out cryptic advice to the series’ characters, some rapping twins who roll around town on their bikes) as well as an understated sense of humor that occasionally verges on the absurd.
It’s probably been fifteen years since I last watched Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s hilarious ode to zombie films — and romantic comedies. (Read my original review from 2004.) Wright’s “RomZomCom” stars Pegg as the titular Shaun, a hapless slacker who isn’t going anywhere in life or love. Until, that is, the zombie apocalypse forces him to step up and become a hero. Time has been quite kind to Shaun of the Dead. Although it’s filled with the sort of frenetic editing that typified ’00s cinema, Shaun of the Dead has enough wit and cleverness for a dozen films, horror or otherwise. What’s more, Pegg and co-star Nick Frost — who plays Shaun’s even slackier best friend Ed — have the sort of easy onscreen chemistry that’s only found in the very best comedic duos. (I was fortunate enough to see this on the big screen via The Ross Theater’s first annual Fright Fest.)
I checked out Malcolm Kid and the Perfect Song from the library on a whim, and I’m glad I did. Austin Paramore’s debut graphic novel is the charming story of Malcolm Kid, an aspiring young musician who suddenly finds himself in possession of a keyboard that’s haunted by the spirit of an old jazz pianist. The only way to set the spirit free is to find and play… wait for it… the perfect song. However, that will require Malcolm to reconnect with an old friend, explore his town’s history, stand up to his demanding father, and confront some family tragedies. Oh, and deal with a Mephistopheles-like character who takes a great interest in Malcolm’s burgeoning talent. Paramore packs a lot into his story and does a fine job of balancing it all. Meanwhile, Sarah Bollinger’s delightful artwork keeps things light with some manga-like flourishes, but never at the expense of the story’s drama and emotion.
I’m not a big fan of DC’s live-action movies. (Sorry, Snyder Cut fans.) I do, however, enjoy their animated titles, be it series like Justice League Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold or movies like Justice League: War, Justice League: The New Frontier, and Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Which is to say, I’d really like to see an animated adaptation of House of El, a YA-focused retelling of the planet Krypton’s final days. As its title implies, Superman’s family is present but the series focuses on two young lovers from different social castes who are troubled by Krypton’s increasingly corrupt and hedonistic society — as well as the earthquakes that threaten to tear the planet apart. It might be tempting to dismiss House of El given its YA roots. However, I was never not engaged by the storyline and the series ends on a beautifully bittersweet note — as befitting any story about Superman’s doomed homeworld.
Do you enjoy watching epic, multi-episode-spanning space battles featuring tens of thousands of ships and maybe even some Death Star-like moon bases for good measure? That’s obviously a trick question, because who doesn’t like watching that sort of thing? But do you also enjoy watching episodes in which characters do nothing but discuss military strategies, debate political theories, and philosophize about democracy, freedom, and human history? If so, then Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These may be your next favorite anime. A modern remake of Legend of the Galactic Heroes, which ran for 110 episodes in the ’80s and ’90s, and was itself based on Yoshiki Tanaka’s sci-fi novels, Die Neue These really scratched my personal itch for sprawling, galaxy-spanning space opera, though it gets pretty convoluted with dozens of major characters and storylines within storylines. It’s also an interesting world-building exercise, juxtaposing 19th century Prussia, Norse mythology, and more “modern” cultures in its various futuristic nations. With just four seasons to date, I surmise that Die Neue These isn’t even halfway through its storyline, and I’m looking forward to season five and beyond.
The horror genre is often used to tackle heavy issues, including religious fanaticism, mental illness, and the dangers of technology. In Infidel’s case, the issue is racism as a young Muslim woman struggles to maintain her sanity in the midst of various threats, be it the unwitting racism of her white neighbors or the supernatural threats residing in the dark corners of her apartment building. But as Infidel progresses, the line between the former and the latter grow increasingly thin. To Infidel’s credit, nothing and no one’s simple; well-meaning friends can make terrible mistakes while potential antagonists might become a surprising source of help. Pornsak Pichetshote’s storyline ventures into some pretty esoteric territory at times, but Aaron Campbell’s artwork and José Villarubia’s colors keep the terror nice and grounded.