Wednesday, October 31, 2007

King Corn

King Corn follows two friends as they leave their city life behind to plant and harvest an acre of corn in Iowa. Along the way, they learn about the way corn has dominated our food system, as well as the nature of our farm subsidy program. There’s powerful subject matter available here, as the film could easily focus on either the folly of city boy novices attempting to enter the insular rural farm world, the insidious nature of corn products in our food supply and their effect on our health, or the impact of farm subsidies on small farmers, industrialized farms, and the US taxpayers as a whole. Unfortunately, the documentary’s multiple themes result in a lack of focus on any one of them, so viewers are left with a smattering of information about each of them and an entertaining final product, but not a hard-hitting or especially insightful documentary.

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis trace their roots back to the same small farm town in Iowa, but their ancestors long ago abandoned the rural life for the big city. As Yale grads and devout city boys, they know absolutely nothing about the complexities of farming, but they have the gusto to embrace and follow through on their crazy idea to plant their own acre of corn and attempt to track it through to food production. Upon arriving in Iowa, they secure an acre of land and set about learning the ropes regarding equipment, fertilizer, and seed, as well as signing up for the omnipresent farm subsidy program.

With their crop in the ground, they set about learning where the corn goes after harvest, a journey that eventually takes them to 30 states and Mexico. They learn that today’s genetically altered corn bears little resemblance to the corn raised by early settlers of our continent, and it’s no longer an appetizing food source in its basic form. However, in conjunction with high-powered fertilizers, it is designed for maximum yield, allowing farmers to fill their silos past capacity like never before, contributing to an over-production of the crop. With so much corn in such abundant and inexpensive supply, it has become a core staple of our food chain, with corn syrup long ago replacing sugar as our primary sweetener and corn becoming the primary food source of most of our nation’s cattle farms. As an example, they point out that a typical McDonald’s meal is fully reliant on corn, from the corn-fed beef, to the soda sweetened with corn syrup, to the fries made in corn oil.

After their successful harvest, they attempt to track their crop to its final destination but find it to be an impossibility. Their small crop is mixed with the harvest from other large local operations before being sold off to its eventual owners. They are able to determine that about half of their crop will likely go to cattle feed and some will find its way to our food supply, but can’t specifically track their crop since the era of small farmers being able to mill and market their own product disappeared long ago. Their harvest allows them to collect the balance of their meager farm subsidy, which leads to their discussion about the impact of the farm subsidy program on US farmers and eventually the general population. With the government paying the farmers to produce above market demand, food prices are kept low and food supply is kept high, potentially contributing to our nation’s increasing obesity rate. Their study is couched in generalities and doesn’t explore the issue from a medical standpoint, but it raises some alarming concepts that might prod viewers to seek out further information.

King Corn is now playing in limited theatrical release in select markets. It will be broadcast in the 2007-2008 season of the PBS series Independent Lens. For more information, visit the film's website or view the trailer below:

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars Vol. 1

Frank Beddor's comic book adaptation of his Looking Glass Wars universe has been collected in a lush hardcover "geo-graphic novel" complete with a plethora of bonus features. Although it's just one of many takes on the Alice in Wonderland story, Beddor's approach is so unique that it feels fresh and exciting.

Hatter Madigan has a huge problem. As royal bodyguard appointed to Princess Alyss, he is duty bound to protect her at all costs…but he has lost her. Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars recasts the Alice in Wonderland story as a real event from the 19th century, with Alice falling through the looking glass into our world instead of out of it. Instead of a jolly, crazy little hatter, the book portrays Hatter Madigan as a ruthless, highly skilled bodyguard who will stop at nothing in his quest to find and protect his princess. The main tool of his trade is his custom top hat that transforms into a whirling blade o’ destruction whenever needed. He’s also equipped with blades that pop out of his sleeves like Wolverine’s claws, as well as long blades protruding from a backpack that don’t seem to serve much of a useful purpose other than limited protection and coolness. In short, he’s a badass, and he’s in an extremely foul mood with his princess missing in a foreign world.

The story begins with Madigan’s search in Paris where he promptly loses his hat and his freedom before reclaiming both, while the action later moves to Budapest where he follows Alyss’s trail as it leads to some other recent arrivals from Wonderland, a few vampires, as well as a pesky reporter interested in Alyss’s story. Eventually, he gets sidetracked assisting a girl similar to Alyss, providing him with some heroic adventures while he continues his primary search. The pacing is brisk and doesn’t get bogged down with needless exposition, making this a thrilling ride told mostly through the visuals. While it’s a dark and serious tale, a few comedic touches are thrown in to lighten the proceedings, such as the Parisian tendency to lapse into an occasional Pepe Le Pew homage (“le huh?”) and Madigan’s delight upon entering a hat store (“an armory!”).

The key hook to get most comic fans interested in this book is the artwork by Ben Templesmith, who rose to prominence primarily through his work with writer Steve Niles on the 30 Days of Night series. Templesmith has a distinctly singular vision and may not appeal to more mainstream sensibilities, but fans of his loose and gory style will find much to appreciate in this series. His art is well matched to the material as he’s called on to portray numerous beasties and Madigan’s gruesome disposal of them, although the brief inclusion of vampires immediately pulls any 30 Days fans out of the story as it so closely recalls his past work. As usual, he shoulders all art chores himself, and his dramatic use of color is especially effective in this series. Love him or hate him, there’s no disputing that he’s a unique talent with an original approach to sequential art.

In addition to the 4-issue comic book miniseries, the hardcover collection furthers the conceit that its core story is real, with an introduction from The Hatter M Institute for Paranormal Travel, a posting of the Millinery Code of Honor, a Q&A session with Qs from questionable sources such as "S. Hawking, London" and "Larry and Sergey, Mountain View, CA", a page of Hatter's journal in his own encrypted text along with a cryptography key to decipher it and make your own messages, assorted ephemera supposedly collected from around the world to further substantiate the tale's legitimacy, a peek at the art process from initial sketches to finished pages, along with a concept gallery and cover gallery. The mini-series ends with Hatter's quest incomplete, so readers looking for the full story and resolution will need to read its source novel The Looking Glass Wars (as well as its new sequel, Seeing Redd) or hope that the comic book series continues in the future.

Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars is currently available in comic book stores and online at the Looking Glass Wars website.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dog Bite Dog

A ruthless Cambodian hitman enters a grimy Hong Kong restaurant and methodically consumes a huge dim sum feast before killing his target, an elderly female diner at a nearby table. This explosive beginning triggers his pursuit by a relentless and unorthodox young cop determined to make him pay for his crime. It’s a simple enough tale of crime and punishment, but in the hands of director Pou-Soi Cheang it transcends its plot to offer an uncharacteristically gritty view of Hong Kong and an involving character study…at least until the final scenes.

Unlike the typical Hong Kong mix of neon lights, flamboyant gangsters, and scenic harbor views, Cheang’s Hong Kong is an intensely dark, shady metropolis sparsely populated by brutal cops, junkyard transients, and questionable informants. Even during daylight hours, his characters stick to the shadows, making it seem like it’s always nighttime in the city and erasing nearly all color from the surroundings. This gives the setting a Gotham feel, a stark black and white world populated by characters with gray intentions.

Edison Chen plays the assassin Pang, a lone wolf raised from birth to be a killer. He endured a childhood of cage fights to the death and emerged as more animal than man, never trusting or caring about anyone else. The character is remarkably similar to Jet Li’s character in Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog), although Cheang doesn’t go so far to enforce the animal motif other than some questionable barking sound effects during fight scenes. It’s clear that Pang had a rough life and doesn’t give a damn about anyone, so it comes as a surprise when he begins to develop feelings for an emotionally damaged young woman he rescues during his flight from the police.

Sam Lee plays the tortured young cop Ti Wai, a loose cannon who stops at nothing to find his man. He’s had a rough life as well, mostly a result of being emotionally crushed when he learns that the hero cop father he always looked up to as a boy was actually a dirty cop. He has buried his feelings and lives only to make up for the sins of his father, even though he occasionally colors outside the boundaries of the law in his exuberance for justice. Lee puts in a fine performance as Wai, crafting a tough, primal character that nearly erases all memory of his early breakthrough role long ago as a goofy, gangly rookie officer in Gen-X Cops.

Pang desperately wants to extract himself from Hong Kong but has difficulty figuring out how to escape due to his language barrier. His rescue of the junkyard girl gives him a native speaker and a chance at happiness, but her subsequent injury makes her a liability as he’s forced to choose between continuing his escape or going to ground in Hong Kong to save her. Wai has an almost supernatural ability to stay on his tail no matter how frantically Pang attempts to ditch him. Their inevitable showdown seems to be leading up to a poignant end to the strong story, until the film throws a curveball that sends them out of Hong Kong for the final reel. That’s the exact moment where you can literally watch this fine project fall apart before your eyes, weighed down by an unbelievable detour that leads to an absolutely ridiculous ending.

The DVD release is well above average, sporting a 2nd disc that includes a behind the scenes feature as well as individual interviews with the stars and director. Dog Bite Dog is now available.

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