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by Bill Gibron

10 Jul 2008

Ever wonder what it would be like if your favorite filmmaker had the creative freedom to realize his or her own inner artistic aims? Ever lament the fact that directors like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Darren Aronofsky are stuck working within a studio system that demands certain commercial sacrifices over an individual’s aesthetic desires? Well, welcome to the world of Guillermo Del Toro. Here’s a man brimming with imagination and invention, and yet no film has really allowed him the kind of collective carte blanche to fulfill his most outlandish visions…until now. Thanks to the universal acclaim of Pan’s Labyrinth, and a future helming The Hobbit, someone finally gave Del Toro a limitless paintbox. The brilliance that is Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, is the result.

Long ago, when the Earth was green, mankind and the elements of magic battled for control of the planet. Seeing the error of their ways, the two sides came to a truce before the mythic Golden Army (a goblin-made indestructible mechanical killing armada with no remorse) could complete their directive. Now, centuries later, the son of King Balor, Prince Nuada, wants to pay humanity back for its crimes against his fellow creatures. He seeks the three pieces of the royal crown, the device that controls the feared robotic redeemers. Crossing over into the real world, he unleashes his otherworldly minions to help him seek the sections.  Naturally, this puts him in direct conflict with the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Along with the fire-conjuring Liz Sherman, and the aquatic empath Abe Sapian, it will be up to the heroic Hellboy to stop Nuada and save the day…if he can.

In a summer already overloaded with brash, bravado cinematic turns, Hellboy 2 has got to be one of the biggest and ballsiest. Stamped with a kind of genius rare in today’s Tinsel Town terrain, Mexican madman Guillermo Del Toro has fashioned a kind of supersonic spectacle, an intensely engaging epic that finds a way to keep both its scope and entertainment value legitimate and yet larger than life. Loosely based on the Mike Mignola comics, and clearly the product of its director’s outsized originality, we are treated to two hours of monsters, myth, and moviemaking majesty. Since he no longer has to give us the title character’s origins, and can swiftly bypass any further character introduction, Del Toro goes right for the throat. From the opening stop motion animation that sets up the storyline, to the finale which pits armored automatons against our heroes, this is nothing short of pure visual bliss.

Del Toro has always been a geek, an old school nerd who plies his obsessions with a fetishist’s fascination. You can sense him marveling at his own novelty over the course of the film, his camera capturing the actual awe and inferred wide-eyed wonder. Our synapses shouldn’t fire this liberally or often, and yet Hellboy 2 makes the overload feel like a familiar friend. This is big screen fantasy as a wish fulfillment free for all, a far out fairytale told in the most intricate of celluloid calligraphy. Luckily, this is one director who makes room on his crowded canvas for moral fiber and subtext. This movie is more than just a collection of setpieces showing off the best that CGI and other F/X have to offer. Instead, it’s a deep meditation on magic, and how civilization has lost touch with its ethereal power.

Returning to remind us of how great they were the first time around, Ron Pearlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), and Doug Jones (now also voicing Abe Sapian) provide the nexus for our emotional involvement, and all do splendid work. Especially impressive is our title titan, a muscled bad ass with a soul as sensitive as a little child. This version of Hellboy may not match his graphic familiar note for note, but as a conduit to how Del Toro views the world around him, this link between the various planes of existence remains a remarkable work of fiction. And thanks to how Pearlman plays him - strong yet unsure, macho yet mindful of his purpose - we grow to like him more and more as the movie progresses. Jones is also good at channeling Abe’s inner turmoil, a battle Hellboy fought semi-successfully in the first film. 

Par for his creative course, Del Toro delivers villains who moderate their evil with a sense of purpose and potential decency. Prince Nuada (beautifully underplayed by Luke Gross) doesn’t only want to destroy the human pestilence that populates his world - he wants to reset the order, to regain the respect and dignity the supernatural forces once held among the living and undead. He goes about it in nasty, underhanded ways, but the valiance in his purpose is not unnoticed. Similarly, the various creatures created for the film rely on a Brothers Grimm kind of seriousness to support their sinister purpose. They aren’t just the things that go bump in the night. These are the nightmares meant to remind man, as the movie says, of why they originally feared the dark.

There is a clever, almost kitschy way in which Hellboy 2: The Golden Army delivers its delights. It’s like a freakshow film noir where Men in Black meets Clive Barker’s Cabal (or Nightbreed, for those of you not literarily inclined). There is a telling texture to this filmic universe, a real sense of gravitas and threat. When Hellboy battles a massive earth Elemental, it’s Cloverfield conceived as an old fashioned serial cliffhanger, imperiled infant and all. Indeed, Del Toro keeps the riff references and homages coming, touching on the entire history of horror and fantasy in just under two hours of spellbinding cinema. And we sense the director continuously building on his legend, opening the door for a brain melting final installment/trequel sometime after he completes his trip through Tolkein.

And frankly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer, more knowledgeable guy. It’s rare when Hollywood gives the eccentric and iconoclastic a chance to shine, let along a second one. One misstep and you’re usually sitting in entertainment exile, wondering where your creative cache went. In this case, through a sheer force of will and an unreal amount of invention, Guillermo Del Toro has rewritten the rulebook. All that post-Pan Oscar cred didn’t hurt, but there’s got to be some substance to support a repeat performance. Apparently, this filmmaker has more than enough on his plate to feed an imagery-starved fanbase. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army may say ‘Hell-friggin’-yes’ to another excess time and time again, but when the meal is this ridiculously rich and refined, we’ll gladly indulge. In a summer soaked in spectacle, this dish is just divine.

by Bill Gibron

10 Jul 2008

There is nothing wrong with being generic. There is no crime in staying standard and formulaic. Sure, it signals a kind of creative malaise on the part of the product being discussed, but when it comes right down to it, if something achieves the basic goals of its medium or market, why should it be punished for doing so in a solid and efficient way. This issue seems especially important when considering the latest update of the Jules Verne classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. Though this new film obviously believes it offers a unique twist on the storied adventure romp, it’s really just a standard spectacle wrapped up in a technological gimmick that more or less salvages its existence.

Having lost his brother ten years earlier, Professor Trevor Anderson still wonders what happened to him that fatal day. He gets a chance to rekindle his curiosity when nephew Sean shows up for a family visit. The boy brings with him a box of memorabilia, including his dad’s copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth. While looking it over, Trevor discovers some notations that seem to support his own scientific research. Hoping to discover the truth, the duo takes an impromptu trip to Iceland. There they meet up with Hannah Ásgeirsson, a mountain guide familiar with the situation as well as the local terrain. One botched hike later, and the trio is falling down into the core of the planet. There, they discover that Trevor’s brother may have unlocked the secret to Verne’s novel…and that it may have all been based on fact.

As it chugs along like a novice marathon runner aware of its inability to win the race, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D does nothing to dissuade us from its earnest need to entertain. In a long line of limited projects that propose to do little more than meet a certain commercial ends, there is nothing inherently bad here. The acting is good, the plotting perfunctory but built to serve an uncomplicated cinematic strategy. Like a theme park ride, former F/X wiz turned director Eric Brevig keeps the action moving, giving us one minor movie magic moment after another. By the end, when our hero has saved the day, captured the girl, and reclaimed his professional dignity, we feel satisfied, if not completely overwhelmed with well-earned entertainment value.

Thanks to Brendan Fraser, who has that rare ability to turn even the most hackneyed dialogue into something almost resembling wit, there is no major void at the center of the storyline. Carrying the entire production on his Mummy mounted shoulders, he does a nice job of being both fatherly and flashy, a hero in everyday dude attire. Sadly, the rest of the cast can’t match him. Child star Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, Bridge to Terabithia) is locked down in whiny brat turned superman mode. His eventual change of heart, when it comes, never resonates as anything other than a script mandated shift. As the easy on the eye candy female facet, The Tudor‘s Anita Briem is mere beauty baggage. Again, Fraser is functioning on a whole other level. His costars can’t find said audience friendly/pandering wavelength. 

That just leaves Brevig and his technologically updated ‘50s filmmaking gimmick to get us over the humps, and for the most part, both succeed. Don’t be fooled by notices that claim this film can be enjoyed sans the optical ballyhoo. Without the 3D, this movie would be a lame, tired TV vacuity with little redeeming value. Granted, there are a few to many ‘gotcha’ tricks, times when objects fly at the audience for no other reason than the polarized glasses on their face. Yet no matter what visuals are employed to render the threats real and the spectacle epic, the lack of dimension and depth almost undermines the movie’s imperfect appeal. For his feature film debut, Brevig shows some cinematic skill. He doesn’t understand the nuances inherent in the language of film, but give him some giant piranha or a collection of man eating plants and he’s perfectly happy.

Those looking for a revisionist “twist” on this material will have to settle for Journey‘s sole sense of invention - the notion that Verne may have based his books on actual fact. We learn of a secret society devoted to his writings, a group that believes in the validity of his speculative science. During the narrative, allusions are drawn to major elements in the novel - the fossilized mega-mushrooms, the prehistoric creatures - and the book plays a key role in uncovering the potential escape route. Sure, liberties are taken, but with any old story, some contemporizing needs to take place. After all, post-millennial wee ones aren’t going to sit still as scholars and scientists debate, using dialogue meant to disguise enlightenment and education. They want a rock ‘em, sock ‘em rollercoaster ride, that’s it.

Those of us who grew up in the Chicago area during the ‘60 and ‘70s will never forget Frasier Thomas and his Family Classics’ devotion to the delightful James Mason/Pat Boone take on this material. While it can never top the nostalgic version from 1959, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D is not offensive or irritating in its pre-planned revisionism. Instead, it guarantees a good time and never strives to go anywhere beyond that. In this day and age where everything needs to be bigger, brighter, and bathed in a clever marketing conceit, this action adventure throwback is definitely engaging. If you don’t anticipate too much, your expectations will be measured out and easily met. Go in expecting gangbusters, and you’ll see the lack of dimension - goofy glasses or not.

by Bill Gibron

1 Jul 2008

While it may seem sacrilegious to say it, stories of heroic human efforts during the tenuous dangers of wartime appear to be an international dime a dozen. Just when you think all the narrative bases have been covered, and no other angle could possibly emerge, a film comes along that explains yet another case of will triumphing over evil, spirit surviving the horrors inherent in conflict. Granted, not every one of these tales needs to be illustrated, but that doesn’t stop Tinsel Town from cranking out such indirect apologies. Japan’s torment of China prior to World War II serves as the basis for The Children of Huang Shi, yet another explanatory attempt. Yet as typical with most of these stories, it takes a courageous Caucasian to steer the natives - and the narrative - in the right direction.

As a reporter trying to buy his way into the battle torn provinces deep inside the China countryside, George Hogg is willing to risk his life for a story. But when he witnesses a horrible massacre, and is taken prisoner by the Japanese, it looks like his tour of duty is over. Luckily, he is saved by the Chinese rebellion, led by Chen Hansheng, and sent off to a remote school to care for some orphans. There he meets up with Red Cross nurse Lee Pearson, and together they try to reconstruct the lives of these poor, unfortunate kids. Luckily, Hogg is a natural teacher, and he manages to make ends meet with the help of a local opium merchant named Mrs. Wang. But when the Japanese push ever closer to their compound, our hero decides to do something desperate. His plan? Take his kids across the dangerous Liu Pan Shan mountains and relocate on the edge of the Mongolian desert.

While it would definitely make a far better documentary than a drama (it is based on a true story and an actual person, after all), The Children of Huang Shi has some potential at first. Granted, the site of The Tudors’ Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Hogg and the enigmatic Chow Yun-Fat as Hansheng prepares us for a fully fictionalized take on this material. Add in Radha Mitchell as our medical missionary and Michelle Yeoh as the poppy peddler and you know reality is slowly drifting away. And thanks to the gloss of good intentions ladled on top by journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode, we sense there will be more heart tugging and hand wringing than history. Unfortunately, that’s just the start of this film’s problems. The Children of Huang Shi is so desperate to be the Asian Schindler’s List, an example of atrocity draped in abject artistry, that it forgets to lay out the context.

Since the crimes committed in the name of Japan are so utterly reprehensible, it’s hard to believe the movie needs more scope. But the truth is that few in the audience are students of the facts, and without such a perspective, the mass murder witness feels gratuitous. Similarly, we never buy into Hogg’s desire to play the part of reporter. His initial goals seem far more selfish than Fourth Estate-d. It makes his personal sacrifice later seem cockeyed, not commendable, and the entire middle section reeks of an Eastern Dead Poet’s Society. Mitchell and Chow appear superfluous, foisted on the viewer every once in a while so as to keep the narrative in forward motion. Far more interesting are the moments with Madame Wang, Yeoh bringing her standard grace to a part played mostly for what it infers, not what it deliberately does.

This is part of Spottiwoode’s style, to incorporate as much of Hogg’s mythos into his movie as possible without going into too much heady explanation. Montages take the place of the standard growing pains, and when the group finally starts that celebrated trek across the Chinese mountains, it’s like Lord of the Rings retrofitted to a 1930’s travelogue. What we require here is a center, a clear focus on what we should care about and why. Since the kids, with a rare exception here and there, are mostly interchangeable, their dilemma is not daunting enough. And since Rhys Meyers seems too perky to be perturbed by his stranger in a strange land fate (he picks up the language and customs quite easily), his eventual arc leaves little impact.

And then there is that gnawing cinematic de-vice of having a white man save the day. In films like Cry Freedom, where South African reporter Donald Woods winds up accepting the cinematic martyrdom for befriending Stephen Biko, there is an unhealthy implication that people of color can’t champion their own causes. Instead, they need someone like Hogg to bring their colonialist bravado to the fore and face off against the enemy. The Children of Huang Shi is not quite as obvious as the aforementioned narrative affront, but it does rely an awful lot on our twee English gentleman to get us over the potential dangers. Even worse, the role of the Chinese resistance is reduced to off-hand champions. They love to blow stuff up, but never seem to arrive in time to completely save the day.

No, it’s a tribute to what Hogg managed to do with just his wits and a few lucky breaks that the post-credits testimonials from the last remaining real life ‘children’ he helped (Now very old men) manage to resonate. Amidst all the grandstanding and skylarking, moments of misplaced manipulation, and outright disingenuousness, this movie manages to make its point. Since Spottiswoode’s bio would never suggest a Spielberg or Scorsese style epiphany, he can’t help but fumble the film’s many contradictory threads. At any given moment, in any given scene, we could have a far reaching family film, a war-torn thriller, a too languid love story, an able international intrigue, and an illustration of misguided political policy pitting one foreign locale against another. And even then, the movie manages to leave the smallest of impressions. The Children of Huang Shi is not a bad movie. It’s just not the great historic document it pretends to be.

by Bill Gibron

1 Jul 2008

Will Smith is the new up to date version of the late in life career of Charleton Heston. No, he’s not some gun wielding NRA apologist who narrates Bible videos in between bouts with aging. As one of Hollywood’s leading ticket/turnstile draws, he’s embraced the science fiction format in a way no actor has since the one and only Chuckster. From Independence Day, Men in Black, I, Robot, I Am Legend, and now his latest, the surreal super hero movie Hancock, no other contemporary star has dabbled in the speculative as often as he. Sure, he moderates such stints with powerful dramas and urbane comedies, but it’s clear that the majority of his bankability comes from action and adventure. Whether this latest film will advance his reputation remains to be seen.

LA is riddled with crime, but there’s a bigger problem within their midst. You’d figure that the city would love its resident comic book style crime fighter. But John Hancock is a troubled man. Driven to drink by demons he cannot control (or in most cases, remember) and horribly unappreciated - thanks in part to his antisocial attitude and tendency to destroy more than he saves - he still tries to bring down the bad guys. One day, he rescues PR man Ray Embrey from an oncoming train, and in an attempt to return the favor, the image maker proposes to overhaul Hancock’s reputation. This makes his young son ecstatic, and his pretty wife Mary uncomfortable. From the moment she sees the angry superhero, she senses a connection. After a stint in jail and a political change of heart, the public may have forgiven Hancock, but his past seems destined to destroy him.

Hancock is either a brilliant disaster or an often uneven masterwork. It either represents Will Smith’s decision to break free of his formerly fashionable (and profitable) summer movie mythos, or another chink in a box office armor that has shown some signs of wear as of late. While it cements actor/turned director Peter Berg’s status as a filmmaker to watch (next up for him - another try at bringing Dune to the big screen), it doesn’t do more than his fascinating USA/A-OK actioner of last year, The Kingdom. And with a supporting cast consisting of Jason Bateman and Charlize Theron, it’s hard to question the talent on display. But a quick glance at the film’s history (multiple stints in development Hell over the last few decades) and the numerous names previously attached to it indicates that, considering the chaos it was forged in, we’re lucky that the results are so likeable.

There are actually two movies battling like graphic novel champions to dominate Hancock‘s narrative. One literally wants to wonder about Gods on Earth, how their immortal powers play amongst the more humble elements of humanity. The other feeds off this, turning our surprisingly sour hero into an anger fueled alcoholic who has nothing but contempt for those he’s supposed to serve. Like the shabby My Super Ex-Girlfriend before, Hancock tries to show a jaded populace taking their savior for granted, unable to appreciate the altruistic acts he accomplishes. Instead, there are noisy news reports condemning the destruction that comes with his crime-fighting (isn’t that a given, considering he has to do what people can’t?) and the surliness he projects to cover the pain of being taken for granted.

From an audience perspective, the biggest hurdle to overcome here is the inherent anticipation Smith brings to his projects. From the trailers, the film appears to be a rollicking comedy with some more action-oriented undertones. Our statured celeb will be dishing the dingers and driving home the humor with his natural personality and panache. In truth, the second half spirals into a deep meditation on the notion of fate, and how even beings unbound to this reality can’t avoid its fickle hand. Things turn dark, dour, and very depressive. The moment this happens, at least half the audience will abandon Hancock in a manner similar to how the citizens of LA treat the onscreen character. They won’t buy into the last act dramaturgy, preferring the sequences where Smith curses out old ladies and tosses French-accented bullies up in the air.

Yet it’s this very notion of how to deal with immortal mortality that lifts Hancock above the typical popcorn fare. It suggests something rather intriguing, and director Berg appears comfortable dealing with these more substantive themes. The opening car chase is cute clever, what with the oversized slapstick of our drunken hero using buildings as a backdrop for his unstable gestures. But when he gets down one-on-one, our filmmaker finds engaging ways to deconstruct the genre. Had the film featured more of this, had it stuck to its Tonight He Comes origins (there are too many post-greenlight script doctors to bother mentioning), there’d be something really unique here. By it’s very definition, any attempt to break convention is awkward and disorienting. Unfortunately, Hancock can’t find a way to make said struggles work for itself. Instead, it falls back on old fashioned motion picture majesty - and can’t quite make it all the way.

Smith’s performance is pitched perfectly between art and artifice. He never stretches beyond the boundaries his paycheck demands, but at the same time you can sense he understands where a Hancock success would take him. As part of Berg’s growing company, Jason Bateman does the mild mannered idealist act quite well. He never overplays the obvious one-liners he’s sometimes reduced to relying on. Then there’s Charlize Theron. Given a not so subtle supermodel glow, her role is so ridiculously underwritten that you wonder how the minds behind this movie thought they could get away with it. She’s a last act catalyst, a red herring as real clue creation that definitely fails to live up to the inferences.

In fact, Hancock often feels like the outline for a much larger epic. At 90 minutes, it breezes by on waves of scheduled superficiality, and when it needs to stop and make an impact, editing takes us quickly to the next F/X setpiece. Indeed, the biggest battle within this film is not the one between our hero and the bad guys. Instead, it’s the clash between grand intentions and focus group execution…and it looks like those comment cards almost won out. There will be those who dismiss this movie as nothing more than subpar Smith, a blip on a retail radar that usually brings home the bacon in grand style. But there is something more inventive going on here, a chance at changing the genre dynamic that Tinsel Town just couldn’t handle. The results become an uneven, if ultimately entertaining, experience. Leave it to Smith to succeed despite himself. 

by Chris Barsanti

29 Jun 2008

During the expected pre-release hoopla leading up to the ultra-Disney-sized opening for the newest bit of Pixar CGI twee, Wall-E, director/writer Andrew Stanton swore up and down that the film was not supposed to have any sort of environmental message. In interview after mind-numbing roundtable interview (those modern stations of the cross for the entertainment industry to atone for their success), Stanton made it clear that it was a story about one lonely robot falling in love with another robot. Stanton told MTV News that the film was supposed to be “science fiction” and not “science fact.” That is of course true (unless the Disney Wall-E toy robot turns out to be much more intelligent than anticipated). It’s also the kind of statement that a creative person is almost honor-bound to make; one doesn’t sit down at the keyboard or show up to the set (or animation equivalent thereof) every day in order to make a statement. One wants to craft a story.

But, given the unalterably bleak vision of the future that Wall-Econtains, Stanton’s disavowal doesn’t quite ring true. It’s not as though one can simply take the film’s backdrop of devastation and either take it or leave it, as you could for, say, a sci-fi action film where a totalitarian future is nothing more than the excuse necessary to give its characters cool shades and a burning need to utilize high-tech weaponry at the drop of a hat. In Wall-E, the love story between the two robots only exists because of the dystopian vision that surrounds them. The two are inseparable, which is as it should be. One mark of great narrative art is that the setting, characters, and plot mesh together into a cohesive storytelling mechanism. So while Stanton was most likely telling the truth when he said that there was no “message” in the film, that should not be taken to mean that one can either take or leave the film’s quite loud and damning indictment of consumerism. That critique is just as much a part of Wall-E as is the moment when the two robots first hold hands. To say otherwise would be like claiming that the organized crime elements of The Godfather are really secondary to the main story, and quite beside the point.

Wall-E unfolds some seven centuries from now, when the Earth has undergone complete environmental collapse, a sort of fatal and global toxic shock. The planet is all dirt-brown vistas and dead cities, and not a living creature to be seen; like what one could imagine the world in Soylent Green looking like a few decades hence. Wall-E is a robot who’s spent untold centuries puttering around a poisoned Earth, busily compacting the mounds of detritus left by a big-box-shopping culture and turning them into neat little cubes that he then stacks into futuristic obelisks of waste. There’s no end of work for him to do, because as the film’s mostly silent opening makes clear, the humans that blasted off from the planet in 2100 were a frighteningly wasteful lot with plenty in common with those of us watching the film from cushioned stadium seating.

Amidst the rickety skyscrapers and crumbling overpasses, the film splatters everywhere logos for the ubiquitous, 7/11-esque Buy N Large corporation, which, prior to the human race blasting off into outer space in their cruise liner of an ark, seemed to have become the one-stop private/public business/government omnientity in charge of essentially all human activity. There are signs of elephantine big box stores with square miles of parking, and holographic advertisements still flicker up in Wall-E’s determined path from time to time. The message is clear and all the better for its utter lack of subtlety: This is a planet destroyed by overconsumption, aided and abetted by a sickening web of consumer-industrial-complex propaganda, where passivity is purchased by shoveling as much junk food and unnecessary purchases into humanity’s maw. Too much stuff for too many people who don’t need that stuff results in ecosystem-shattering levels of pollution and garbage; Earth is killed by shopping.

One of the perverse ironies of Wall-Eis that the surviving humans (there is no mention of what happened to all the people who couldn’t fit onto the admittedly huge Axiom cruiser) are then coddled into blob-like indolence by even more depraved levels of Barcolounger and Big Gulp-style creature comforts. Having been complicit in the destruction of the home planet, the human species on display in Wall-E is a swaddled band of babies, interested in little beyond the datascreens always plopped right in front of their jowly faces, much like the soulless entities inhabiting E.M. Forster’s prescient 1909 story “The Machine Stops.” It’s nearly impossible to behold these twin nightmares, the blasted Earth and the purgatorial shopper’s paradise of Axiom, and imagine that the film is anything but a clarion call warning of the environmental catastrophe to come. The fact that the robots at the film’s heart are more demonstrably human and brave than practically any of the homo sapiens lurching about, only proves the point more. This is not a species to be impressed by.

Another irony of Wall-E, and one that has rightly been widely noted in the blogsophere, is that the filmmakers participate quite avidly in the same consumerism that their film blasts away at with such heat. By dint of all the thousands upon thousands of plastic Wall-E and EVE toys that Disney will be trucking into the marketplace for this year and (they hope) many more to come, the Pixar boys become part and parcel of the same hypocrisy.

But, then, we all are, of course.

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