Sunday, June 3, 2012

Short Take: The Shark King, R. Kikuo Johnson

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Comics have had a deserved reputation as trash for most of their history. The adult-targeted graphic-novel movement of the last 30 years has done a good deal to change that. One hopes children-oriented efforts such as the Toon Books line will succeed as well. The capacity of comics for teaching children reading skills has always been apparent. The goal of the Toon Books line is to give them comics worth reading to learn with. R. Kikuo Johnson’s The Shark King, geared for second- and third-graders, succeeds admirably in this regard. The book is a beautifully executed comics dramatization of a Hawaiian folk tale about Nanaue, a young boy born of a shark-god father and a human mother. It tells of his efforts to fit in with people in his mother's fishing community. It ends with his embrace of his divine heritage. Johnson presents the story with humor, a lovely sense of pace, and superb art. He’s a remarkably elegant visual craftsman. The art is complexly conceived, with a fine sense of locale and character, but his sophistication is such that it is readable at a glance. This fun story is also an enjoyable introduction to traditional Hawaiian culture. It's a treat for younger and older readers alike.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Short Take: The Tree of Life

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Terrence Malick’s fifth feature, The Tree of Life, is a great film, and perhaps his best. Its centerpiece is a richly detailed look at life in Texas during the 1950s, as seen through the eyes of a middle-school-aged boy (Hunter McCracken). We see his experiences with his brothers and friends, as well as his ambivalent view of his mother (Jessica Chastain). The film is at its most eloquent when it explores his extremely complicated feelings towards his authoritarian father (Brad Pitt). Malick stages, shoots, and edits the picture in an impressionistic style that’s nothing less than dazzling. It dances from shot to shot and scene to scene with the utmost elegance. It’s one of the few films that truly deserves to be called lyrical. Malick’s artistry is at such a high level that one easily forgives the pretentious aspects of his script, most specifically the life-through-the-aeons nature allegory during the film’s first third. When the picture settles into the 1950s sections, one feels one could watch it forever. Sean Penn appears in the film's framing scenes as the protagonist in middle age. The masterful cinematography is by Emmanuel Lubezki.