Widows

53-Widows

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Widows: Unexpected and Welcome Collaborations

Written Review by David Carter

Carter-Widows

In film having a unique voice behind the camera and another on the page is always an interesting exercise in stylistic melding. I think the most famous contemporary example is David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, a film that balances the bleak and myopic and lurid textures of a David Fincher film and the snappy, quick paced, holier-than-thou finger waving of an Aaron Sorkin script. In the end, the film was successful in making these amoral future tech overlords more interesting and entertaining to watch while never letting up that these people are (to an extent) vile, and would sell out their mother if it meant being the first person at the proverbial table. Neither voice is lost and yet everything blends together near perfectly. It made for a film that you can talk about its authorial intent without talking about both voices involved, which becomes rare in the conversations about directors and the other creatives behind the scenes.

 

David Fincher didn’t shy away from this type of collaboration. 5 years later he would adapt the novel Gone Girl by author Gillian Flynn. Flynn is the one who adapted the novel for the screen. Flynn was (and still is) seen as something of a trojan horse author. The perception of her books being that they’re all these thrilling and tawdry beach reads filled with sex, violence, and mystery, but the past few years of adapting her work for screen has shown that behind all that there’s blunt and vital commentary of what it’s like to be a modern woman in America. Some of it not so subtle (the “cool girl” speech in Gone Girl) and other times poignant and complicated (the entire mothers and daughters conceit of Sharp Objects).  She’s quickly become someone you can call on to provide a titillating idea to lure people in, and a hook that will catch them and have them thinking on the car ride home or as they shut off the TV and get ready for bed.

 

While Gone Girl was a masterpiece in its own right, it left me wondering what Gillian Flynn could do with material that wasn’t her own. Enter Steve McQueen, a late-00’s and early-10’s arthouse darling from the UK with a penchant for making grueling, emotionally taxing dramas. Now, combine those two talents with a BBC series from the mid-80’s. Flynn (along with McQueen, he also has a screenplay credit)  took Lynda La Plante’s thrilling yet novel idea of “wives of dead criminals have to rob a bank themselves” and turn it into something a little heavier. The film’s premise isn’t that far removed from the above-mentioned idea but with a few important additions. The film has transplanted the story to Chicago and drops the audience right into the unseen wheeling and dealing of a small stakes election, except it’s not small for the people living in this district. Colin Farrell plays the son of a particularly vile Robert Duvall. They’re a dynasty of city officials (aldermen to be exact) that want to hold control over a predominantly black neighborhood, while Brian Tyree Henry and his brother and enforcer Daniel Kahlua are gangsters turned politicians who want to put the power back into the hands of black folks, even if those hands are very dirty.

 

Then there’s the titular “Widows” themselves (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon, and Cynthia Erivo), a group of women all dealing with grief, disappointment and new-found autonomy that their husbands left in their wake. It’s a movie that deftly juggles the interiority of the women whose lives are turned upside down in a moment and how that interconnects to the class and racial politics of an inherently compromised system, things that Flynn and McQueen are so gifted at portraying. But this would be selling short the two most entertaining and tense traits these creatives bring to the table. McQueen’s raw eye for blunt and incredibly tense action and violence (the way he films the heists, chase scenes, and murders will truly rattle you) and Flynn’s innate sense for bringing out the trashier elements in a story like this. Audiences love to be intrigued and they love the drama that comes with sex, money, and betrayal. So, why not give it to them in a way that makes them feel like they have to hide under their covers with a flashlight to enjoy it?

 

And like The Social Network these two voice pop and simultaneously meld so well together that you start forgetting about the authorship and just sit down and enjoy a piece of entertainment aimed at adults. Something that will make you laugh and clench your seat, but will also make you think about what you just saw after seeing it.

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A Star Is Born

52-A-Star-Is-Born

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

A Star Is Born: The Same Sad, Soulful Song

Written Review by David Carter

Carter-Star-is-Born

What follows is a sentence I never imagined I would ever write:

 

In a scene within the final tear-inducing act of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born, Lady Gaga (playing the eponymous “Star” Ally) and Sam Elliott (playing Cooper’s brother, Bobby) sit and talk about Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine’s musical philosophy. Elliott sits and espouses that Jackson believed all music was just twelve notes played over and over again in different octaves. Jackson maintained that those twelve notes only really became special when the right person arranged and performed them. He believed that everyone has some sort of talent but we get too caught up in the looks and persona’s of it all to take notice of those doing something truly special.

 

If that isn’t a thesis statement for a film that’s been remade three times in wildly different decades with its current iteration from a first time director, then I don’t know what is.

 

For all the great memes the wonderful trailer inspired, for all the head scratching the casting news brought when it was first announced, and for all the grousing that was made about Bradley Cooper’s career arc and his choice to seemingly play his version of this character as Scruffy the janitor from Futurama mixed with the leariness of late-period Nicholson, the movie manages to be more than just a play at awards gold (although it certainly will get some of that- if a PR disaster doesn’t rear its ugly head) and actually manages to be about something. It’s a movie about why we’re so attracted to certain stories over and over again, even though nothing about them really changes outside of a superficial level. What a story it is.

 

A Star is Born is one of the quintessential American tragedies, in that it’s a love story based around The American Dream and how choosing fame as the vehicle for that dream is always going to poison you and the way you love those around you. The basic premise has changed little between adaptations, with some minor details tossed into the mix. It’s always about a struggling and down-on-her-looks young female performer meeting an older, on the decline, alcoholic or drug-addled male performer. They fall in lust, then in love. The older man sees the potential and raw talent in the young woman. He gives her the grandiose gesture of the spotlight and the young lady proceeds to launch into stardom. The older man’s career fizzles out even faster and his vices become worse. He hits a rock bottom by embarrassing the young lady on the night of her biggest triumph which sends him on a journey to recovery. However, the young lady cares too much for her love to see him go by the wayside. So, she talks of jeopardizing her career to take care of him. This leads the man to make one more tragic final decision to make sure he doesn’t drag her down with him.

 

With each film the story updates with the time. The look of the film changes from the big bawdy classical Hollywood epics of 30’s and 50’s to the New Hollywood aesthetic of naturalism in the 70’s. The occupations of the performers change from actors to musicians, and the circumstances and supporting characters change based on need. Yet, the one thing that never changes is the inherent subtext of the story. It’s not just about rocketing stardom and fading fame intertwining with human folly and ego. Instead, it’s the story of a man who had talent and artistry settling for fame, and indulging in all the vices that fame brings him. He tries to redeem that mistake by giving someone (less burdened by their own demons) the chance to retain their talent and artistry because he legitimately cares for them. Combine that with the above-mentioned idea of the American Dream and you have a story about fame and artistry colliding, leaving the destruction of vulnerability in its wake.

 

That’s what each of the narratives come down to at some point. They come down to two people struggling to be vulnerable not just with their audiences but with each other. Cooper as a director understands this and leans into it. This version is about the male character’s broken psyche from misplaced hero worship in his past, more so than any of the past narratives. It’s crippled Jackson as a functional person and leads him to make impersonal art, which is why he gloms onto Ally so readily. She writes songs that are open and poetic but she’s too scared to put her true face out there in the world because so many people have told her she doesn’t look the part. Jackson tells her that all of that doesn’t matter and it makes all the difference.

 

While that may not be the most earth-shattering revelation a story has presented, it comes back to that idea Sam Elliott talks to Gaga about. The music to an extent is all the same, but the performer makes it come alive. Bradley Cooper, for all that remains unseen about what he can do after this, made a story that’s been told four times by name (and countless times analogously) come alive in times where vulnerability is something that we could use more of.

The ‘Burbs

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

The ‘Burbs and the Sabotage of Conceit

Written Review by David Carter

So, here’s a scenario. Your friend is showing you a movie. One that you’ve been curious to see because you like the cast and you really like the director because they’ve made a handful of movies you really enjoy. You watch the movie and low and behold, the movie is a blast. The characters are clicking, the story is fun, the visuals are everything you want from a director with a distinct look and rhythm. You also slowly start to realize that this movie is about something, well all movies are ABOUT something but this one is building up to making a point. You get excited as the movie keeps building and building towards the end of the movie and it brings the noise. The third act happens and it’s rapturous, but above all else, the conceit of the movie is revealed and fulfilled. And in a way that is appropriate to the tone of the movie. Your dust yourself off and say “Well, that was worth the wait. Great movie, can’t wait to watch it again.”

Only to realize there are another 5 minutes left that’s gonna undo all the good that came before it and leave a big smudge across a mostly pristine canvas. All for the sake of some gags.

If it wasn’t obvious this was my experience watching Joe Dante’s The Burbs. A film about a middle to an upper middle-class neighborhood, filled with people with nothing better to do than not mind their own business. The film stars Tom Hanks as an anxious man named Ray Peterson on vacation and his neighbors Mark Rumsfield (played amusingly by Bruce Dern as an uptight military man) and Art Weingartner (Rick Ducommun who made a living by portraying pleasantly annoying average white dudes in the 80’s and 90’s) who are suspicious of the Eastern European neighbors (The Klopeks played by Courtney Gains, Brother Theodore, and everyone’s favorite Illinois Nazi, Henry Gibson) who have somewhat recently moved into the neighborhood. Due to strange happenings and disappearing neighbors, the Klopeks are immediately pegged as fishy and the bored suburbanites take action and investigate.

The movie is undistilled Dante from the homage to horror of the 50’s and 60’s, to the mocking of the military, to the extraordinary happenings in suburbia. The whole cast is wonderful (I named checked the husbands but Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman, and Wendy Schaal also bring it) and loved Jerry Goldsmith’s score (it literally opens with him quoting his most famous trumpet fanfare from Patton), but the ending of this movie really sticks out like a man in a green plaid suit against a white background.

You see, this movie sets up an idea: what if the “native” suburbanites are the ones who are being strange and disruptive? Obviously, it’s a comedy but the movie walks you to the place where Hanks and company are the ones doing legitimately unforgivable things. And at the end of the movie, Tom Hanks delivers a rousing final speech about how the suburbs are filled with busybodies, nosey people and people who are just looking for any excuse to target anyone who doesn’t fit into their cookie cutter existence. The movie even has the one black person with a speaking role (maybe even in the entire movie) scold the three men for their action as he’s about to take them to prison. I’m not even sure Dante meant to have this detail in his film but in my admittedly 2018 eyes it feels so pointed. I felt like at this moment the movie was successfully having it both ways but as I said, it was short lived. The movie then decides to confirm the fears of the suburbanites by having the Klopeks actually turn out to be a real threat. Hanks and crew were right all along, the foreigners that have invaded their space are the true villains and their outlandish and ugly actions are justified. Roll credits.

Look, I’m not saying that Joe Dante is some sort of nationalist. As a matter of fact I think that he was actually trying say something about the current state of middle class America and what he saw it turning into if things went too far (The character Art even has a line at the end about how people shouldn’t mess with the suburbs, which seems like a knowing line to me) but I do think maybe he was victim of his own playful attitude. I don’t know if the script underwent changes or anything like that, but to me, his decision to undercut the ending of his movie for a zany reveal probably came from wanting to send the audience out on wink and a chuckle. However, it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t see how the optics of the movie play out with that reveal.

I enjoyed this film quite a bit and look forward to watching it again and loving the hell out of things that work for me and you should too! I’ll just have to accept that ending for the lark it is but I know it’ll nag at me with every watch. The ending may be the conceit of a story but it’s not the entirety of its makeup. A goofy good time can (and still will) be had.

Avengers: Infinity War

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Thanos: Thicc Boy With A Thick Skull

Written Review by David Carter

I think we talk about the quality of Marvel Cinematic Universe villains so much because they tend to vary so widely in quality in ways that pre-MCU movies didn’t. The chasm in quality between Darren Cross and Erik Killmonger is so wide that you could almost fit Avengers: Infinity War’s opening weekend box office gross inside of it. This is to say that within the more well-respected superhero franchises there were always standouts among the legion of fiends that crossed paths with our heroes, but you also had some consistency and some interesting choices. Sure, Nicholson’s Joker will always be the highlight of Burton’s Batman movies but Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and DeVito’s Penguin will always occupy that same space in my mind. Dafoe’s Green Goblin is untouchable but Molina’s Doc Ock, and Topher Grace’s Venom are interestingly performed and written in their own right. With Marvel, sometimes you get villains who want nothing more than a shiny MacGuffin that will grant them vaguely/broadly defined power, with a thin motivation stickered on to them to hide that there’s nothing going on under the surface.

Boy howdy does pre-Infinity War Thanos check all of those boxes.

When Thanos showed up in the mid-credits sequence of The Avengers you probably had the same experience as I did in the theater; a bunch of sweaty nerds gasping and immediately explaining who the smiling purple man was to people who have better things to do with their lives (I was one of these sweaty nerds, but I just nodded and waited until some asked who he was. Didn’t want to look TOO desperate). The reason for this excitement was because Thanos is a character that signaled that these movies may eventually exit the world of streamlined sci-fi and grounded magic (remember, Thor is originally accredited as being from an advanced alien civilization where their genetic makeup and weapons are just advanced technology) to full-on space opera complete with universe wide battles and team-ups between disparate characters and the physical manifestations of abstract concepts of Eternity, Infinity, and yes Death itself. It also signaled the arrival of a villain who was essentially an unstoppable force. Thanos the Mad Titan within Marvel Comics is an interesting character. He’s known for his ability to flawlessly carry out a plan (like say gathering up all of the Infinity Stones and the universe and deleting half the population of sentient life) only for his downfall to be a combination of hubris and imposter syndrome. He essentially succeeds only for the strands to unravel after a given amount of time. He’s also known for his crush on the living embodiment of Death who takes on a female form. The only reason Thanos even wipes out half of the universe is to impress her so she’ll smooch him. What a lot of people fail to mention about this aspect of the “Infinity Gauntlet” comic, is that Death rejects Thano’s advances or grand romantic gestures. Hell, most of the destruction he causes comes from the devastating rage waves he sends out into the universe when he throws a tantrum. By the end of his reign as cosmic ruler, he has imprisoned her along with the other cosmic entities and created an ideal woman in his image with no autonomy to speak of. Whether Jim Starlin and George Perez meant to or not, they created one of the best mainstream depictions of toxic male entitlement. To put it succinctly: Thanos was a galactic Incel.

But adaption is tricky and requires for you to make some tough decisions when translating to the big screen. Splash page worthy universes collided in Civil War but only amongst the more grounded characters. You got your space opera in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor films but outside of Ego The Living Planet, no Celestials or cosmic beings were seen (I still hold out hope that at least Eternity will pop up in a Dr. Strange film someday). These movies, while finally embracing the fantastical, still remained somewhat grounded. This meant that Thanos’ motives had to change. These movies were never going to drop in a wholly unexplained character like Death in the culmination of their 10-year project. Honestly, after Joss Whedon stepped down as the showrunner for the MCU ( I think he would have gone full force into the Death angle. The guy likes stories about emotionally abusive dudes getting beat down by women and misfits) I don’t think anyone at Marvel knew exactly what to do with the character that fit this more grounded approach.

I mentioned earlier that pre-Infinity War Thanos was nothing but a mustache-twirling McGuffin hunter because whenever he popped his head into these movies it was always just to smirk and posture. The most character development we ever got out of him was when Gomorrah would describe him to the other Guardians, or when she hashed out her feeling about their abusive father with Nebula. Those descriptions to me always leaned closer to comic characterization. It very much came as a surprise to me when the Thanos we got in Infinity War was a stoic and suffering headstrong nihilist with a plan in line with the beliefs of a British political economist.

Thanos’ entire modus operandi within Infinity War is the balance of all things, almost to the point where you wonder if his true offscreen origin is that he fell into a radioactive vat of scales. He believes that the universe as a whole is suffering because it is finite but the number of living organisms keeps multiplying. He comes to this conclusion because his homeworld of Titan refused to heed his warnings and crumbled underneath the weight of its population (or so we are told). He wants the Infinity Stones to balance the universe by eliminating half of all life in existence. He goes about doing this in the most burdened and righteous manner possible, because he believes with all his soul this is the right solution and any other way is just half measures. What’s interesting about the way the film executes his journey is by making him the main character. He’s a sociopath, sure but by making him the main character and giving him a traditional arc, you are put in a position as an audience member to sympathize with him on some level.

And when I say traditional arc, I mean a decently dedicated following of a hero’s journey narrative. We don’t see his crossing of a threshold, or meeting of mentor but he tells us about his refusal of the call. We see his road of trials, literally going up against a whole gaggle of supers and collecting a new tool to further his journey (like some big beefy Megaman). We see him face an ordeal which costs him so much but is rewarded handsomely. We have his second act low point and then a complete rebirth in which he comes out victorious in a way. Even the ending plays this as a triumph for him, as he watches the sunset on a job well done and a rest well earned. It’s an ingenious way to structure a movie with a cast of characters in the 20’s and build a character who was essentially a blank slate. The heroes are the army of henchmen and the villain is on a journey. Even certain heroes exist as cracked mirrors for Thano’s to see parts of himself in (all that’s missing is one of them saying “we’re not so different, you and I”).

This is all wonderful and great, but there’s one big problem with Thanos; his plan sucks and is bad. I know I’m not the first person to point this out and I won’t be the last, but even outside of the logical corner The Infinity Gauntlet puts the writer in (it can literally do anything, including make an infinite number of resources for the universe) Thanos’ plan is born out of a conservative, and misguided idea that the overpopulation is 100% the reason why the planet is falling apart and there isn’t enough to go around. He believes by dispassionately selecting people at random to become unstuck in existence it will free up all those plump resources. Problem solved, right? No! Because randomly selecting 50% of a population or ecosystem of organisms will just throw everything off balance and into chaos. What if that 50% consisted of 80% of all the doctors or farmers in the universe? Or it only took 2% of the people who own 99% of all the resources on any given planet? Yeah, that’s another problem with this philosophy, it assumes that all societal systems are inherently balanced, which is strange for a villain whose whole deal is the very concept of balance. This whole idea is seemingly (no one to my knowledge has spoken on it) inspired by the writings of Thomas Malthus who believed that in order for there to be enough food and land to go around, we would need to slow down population growth abstinence, especially among the poor. These ideas were written in the 18th century (pre-Industrial Revolution) so he couldn’t have predicted that modes of production would increase exponentially, but the ugliness in the idea is the same. In order to protect ourselves (the rich and/or powerful), there needs to be less of those other people. Obviously, this is not what Thanos outright says or even alludes to, but the self-preservational nature core of it exists. His planet didn’t listen to his warnings, so now he must get in everyone else’s business.

You say “David, this is what any good villain’s plan looks like! Something that sounds good on paper and maybe partially in practice, but is ultimately short-sighted and bad.” To an extent you would be correct. Thanos is a sociopath who is at some point in the film, also in deep grief. His plan isn’t supposed to be sympathetic. Hell, Marvel’s last villain Killmonger certainly made some waves with his plan that a large group of people in the real world agreed with (even if they didn’t look deeper into the text of what the movie was trying to say) but where Marvel and the creatives behind Infinity War really goofed up, was when they decided to tell the audience that his plan works. At one point in the film when he meets Lil’ Gomorra we see him enacting this plan on her planet. Later in the film when she confronts him about it, he says that people on her world are happier and more well fed than they’ve ever been. Now since we never see her planet at this point, this is could be a lie to validate his blind ambition. However, he’s never once given the audience any reason to believe that he’s anything but honest, even with someone he wants to sway. By giving his garbage plan power the Russo brothers (the directors of the film) have effectively taken any complexity out of play with the character. He is a sociopath and his narrow minded drive is validated, which is the opposite of what you do with your main character. You have to twist the screws and make them question everything about themselves and the world around them. Even something as blunt as someone pointing out the very idea of the things that I’ve written here, just for lip service. Maybe that’s what we have in store for “Next time on Infinity War” but then the ingenious structure is incomplete and incohesive.

I’m never one for these movies to be 100% comics accurate. I actually enjoy the remixing and subverting of characters and plot lines (Iron Man 3 anyone?), but I can’t help but wonder if the original motivation may have been the best one to go with. Not even just given how cool it would have been to see Marvel tackle something as topical as male entitlement (that’s a large part of it though) but to have Death actually be in a movie that’s essentially about the inevitability and soul-crushing notion of “the end.” Everyone going into this movie already wants to know who beefs it, why not make that subtext physicalized text? It’s better than a man who looks calm and collected on the surface but whose reasoning is fundamentally tipped in the wrong direction. So much for balance.

Duel

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Duel: The Passion of Youth

Written Review by David Carter

If there is such a thing as a movie sense—and I think there is (I know fruit vendors and cab drivers who have it and some movie critics who don’t)—Spielberg really has it.

-Pauline Kael on Steven Spielberg’s theatrical debut, Sugarland Express

 

At the full risk of sounding like a fanboy with a bias as long as the Mississippi river, I just want to say that some days I get furious thinking about how good Steven Spielberg is as an artist. It’s that full-on Salieri in Amadeus style jealousy of not only realizing that the type of genius some people have isn’t just untouchable, it’s almost an anomaly. Steven Spielberg seems to be a man who was designed at a genetic level to make cinema. If you watch a movie made by him you will see the craft of a person who stages a scene or moves a camera the same way I eat a slice of pizza; with efficiency and boundless artistry. He’s somehow simultaneously flashy and functional. For a small example of that, head over to youtube and watch Tony Zhou’s and Taylor Ramos’s video on the “Spielberg Oner”.

 

It illustrates how so much of this stuff seems to come second nature to him. Which makes sense. Spielberg is a wunderkind and prodigy turned elder statesman and god for this generation. He’s the rare artist that not only didn’t suffer a loss of spark and ambition that comes with age, that spark ignited into a full-on inferno and as far as ambition… look, he’s made some stinkers but you could never accuse him of phoning it in. The times he has made a belly flop it’s usually because he was wrong for the material and even those films fall into the category of “interesting failure” and you could never call them outright bad (Hook may be a mess only kept afloat by a generation of people with fond memories, but most directors would kill to make a movie that good). But even as a legend, that young man’s drive has been with him every step of the way. When you look back at what types of movies he was actually making as a young man, you see someone who could think quick on their feet while also painting a paranoia panorama as pulse-pounding as anything that Frankenheimer or Hitchcock could have whipped up.

 

Which bring us to Duel, Spielberg’s first feature-length film after impressing the higher-ups at Universal with his short film Amblin, earning him the cache to work on tv projects the studio was producing. Most notably his work on the anthology series Night Gallery, where at the age of 21 (Why am I sweating? Why are the walls closing in on me?!?!) he directed the notorious and legendary Joan Crawford. While she was at first alarmed by his age, even she eventually came around to the young virtuoso after seeing the work he could do. Afterward, a friend of his read Richard Matheson’s short story “Duel” in an issue of Playboy and pointed out to Spielberg that the material was perfect for him. Spielberg agreed and after showing Paramount the rough cut of the Columbo TV movie he had been working on, they knew they could trust him on a feature-length TV movie. Spielberg’s process on the movie has the crackle of someone with something to prove. The studio gave him 10 days to shoot, telling him he would have to shoot most of the chases on a sound stage since they didn’t believe it was possible to shoot on location and stay on schedule. He fought to have it on location and miraculously (if you’ve seen the movie you will understand) somehow only went 3 days over schedule. This may have been due to the fact that instead of a traditional storyboard (a must for shooting action efficiently) Spielberg made essentially a linear map of the entire path the vehicles take, only with what happens where (even non-action beats like a suspense-filled layover at a diner). Spielberg’s moxie could fill the grand canyon at this point in his career.

 

The actual movie itself feels like it could have fit right inside a Night Gallery-esque anthology series about strange but supernatural happenings in an anxiety-filled world. The premise of the movie is simple. Dennis Weaver of A Touch of Evil fame plays David Mann (this last name is not an accident) a businessman on his way to a meeting. His life is surrounded by a sense of emasculation. He listens to a drive-time radio show where the caller complains that he doesn’t feel like the man of his house anymore. While in Mann’s own house, his wife complains to him about his inability to stop a coworker from nearly sexually assaulting her during a dinner party.  To top it all off, there’s a giant semi-truck driving like a maniac as he’s trying to get the meeting. It all begins with a simple transgression, David tries to pass the truck which is driving lethargically and belching black smoke back in his direction. The faceless driver of the truck doesn’t take too kindly to the harmless show of force and punishes David for it for the remainder of the entire 90 minutes of the film.

 

And so begins the titular duel. The battle between a man so full of vile toxic masculinity that he wants to murder someone for a petty slight and a man just looking to recapture any sort of control in his life. The movie is just one long extended suspense scene punctuated by bouts of paranoia, like when David stops at a diner and notices that the madman’s truck is parked outside and doesn’t know which person in the diner he could be. Or the sheer terror the many directly attempted murders the truck driver pushes David’s way. The truck and the driver himself really does feel like a dry run for what the movie Jaws would be, down to men with varying degrees of wounded and unhealthy masculinity. As even learned on an extra feature of the film, Spielberg reuses sound effects and mimics shots from Duel when it comes to certain scenes involving the shark. The chase scenes themselves are ingenious. You see the early hints on Spielberg’s unbounded roving camera eye as we see how seamlessly the camera glides from car to truck in some truly tense chase scenes. He also always tried to shoot the chases against a cliff wall so that the vehicles looked like they were going 100 mph (due to the rocks and shrubbery that go zipping by) when in reality they were only going about 20 or 30 mph in any given shot. The movie also involves the low budget filmmaking magic of Dennis Weaver performing his own stunt of jumping out of the way just as a semi truck comes barreling towards him in a phone booth (complete with an accidental Spielberg cameo! He’s in the reflection of the phone both holding a camera). The last 15 minutes of the movie is, without a doubt, some of my favorite action filmmaking put to screen. The duel comes to a bloody and glorious end and it’d be criminal to spoil that here.

 

I could go on and on and on. But needless to say, the stuff on display here is why I love visiting the early work of maestros. You see bits and pieces of things that they’ll expand on later but also something that they have to lose in the process. The ingenuity, the improvisation, and the thought that the sky’s the limit. Spielberg himself has gone on record saying he couldn’t make this film again in the same way. He wouldn’t know how. To me, that’s a magical part of creation. To leave a stamp of who and what you once were on a page for everyone to see for a long time. Even yourself.   

 

Black Panther

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Black Panther: The Price of Privilege

Written Review by David Carter

What do you stand for?

Are you a activist? What are your city plans for?

Are you a accident? Are you just in the way?

Your native tongue contradictin’ what your body language say

Are you a king or you jokin’? Are you a king or you posin’?

Are you a king or you smokin’ bud rocks to keep you open?

Because the king don’t cry, king don’t die

King don’t lie, king give heart, king get by, king don’t fall

Kingdom come, when I come, you know why

King, king, king, king

-Kendrick Lamar, “Black Panther”

I Am T’Challa

I think privilege is something people in most walks of life in contemporary society have to contend with. There obviously exists a hierarchy of privilege in which rich, old, able-bodied, cisgender white men sit comfortably on top, but I’m talking the privilege and power structures that exist in communities that don’t have to contend with such a factor. Like, imagine the make up of a society in which there existed only one race of people. Where at a glance, it looked as if the standard of living for all people was incredibly high and gender dynamics seemed to have women on equal footing. What would the privilege and power dynamics look like in a society that’s utopian by most other cultures standards? What would the responsibilities of a leader in that society look like when they had their own internal politics to contend with along with the knowledge that an entire world of their descendants didn’t have anywhere near the same privileges as even the lowliest member of their society?

What if that leader was considered conservative by those very people even though they were trying to do what seemed right for their nation?

It came as a shock to me as I sat in a nearly full theater on a Saturday morning that a Disney movie, based off a character created by two Jewish men for children’s enjoyment, was daring to not only ask these questions but to delve into them with a depth and nuance I personally hadn’t seen since watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing for the first time over 15 years ago.

I was not shocked, however, that the movie was guided so deftly by the hand that made the tense but empathetic Fruitvale Station and operatic and socially relevant Creed. Ryan Coogler seems to inherently possess the type of craft-focused, thoughtful, yet commercially surface level filmmaking we associate with giants like Spielberg or Scorsese. And like those two filmmakers he’s already knocking it out of the park playing in the big leagues at such a young age (he’s 31 right now and that thought alone is enough to send me into an existential shame spiral) and keeping his voice intact in a way that’s rare for emerging filmmakers to do in this increasingly producer and I.P. driven film industry. If you were to pinpoint one of two meta-narratives* within this film you would see that Coogler is probably feeling the weight of shouldering the responsibility of putting the first major (i.e. scale, size, and impact) work of Afrofuturism on the screen with a predominantly black cast.  “Heavy is the head the wears the crown” as they say, but not only is Coogler able carry that weight, he flexes and has the movie be unabashedly about the effects of colonialism and American imperialism on the diaspora and the responsibility of the privileged (be it black or white) to not only combat those influences but to tear up the toxicity that has entwined itself into the roots. What could the story of a movie this bold be in the first place?

Black Panther is the 18th Marvel movie, but outside of the prerequisite tie-ins to the Universe at large, it functions like the beginning of its own glorious epic franchise. The story is about prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, reprising a role he seemed destined to play) of the isolationist but secretly centuries advanced nation of Wakanda, becoming king T’Challa after the passing of his father T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War. The initial conflict of the film is bringing to justice one of the only men to see Wakanda for what it really was, Ulysses Klaue (a sentient honey baked ham taking the shape of actor Andy Serkis) who robbed Wakanda of a portion of its Vibranium. Wakanda’s miracle resource in which a large portion of its technology is developed from (for the nerds out there it’s stronger than Adamantium and serves a hell of lot more purposes than just “strong” and “sharp”), but that conflict is a trojan horse for the real villain of the film. The sexy, sweet and savage Michael B. Jordan struts in with his future Best Supporting Actor nominated Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. This character is the beating heart of Black Panther but I’ll give him his due later. Suffice it to say the movie becomes a battle about idea’s between Killmonger, T’Challa, and the people of Wakanda. Those very ideas forever changing the shape of Wakanda and the world at large.

The ideas that this movie is presenting aren’t something as simple or wrongly reductive as the perceived ideals of  “The Black Revolutionary” vs. “The Black Pacifist.” It’s tackling an issue bigger than that. One that starts at the doorstep of the tradition that T’Challa is simultaneously burdened with upholding and somehow expanding.

The thing about tradition and isolationism is that these are inherently conservative ideas. They both literally conserve and hermetically seal the makeup of a culture so that it can’t be influenced (for better or for worse) by other cultures or ideals. When conservatism gets brought up within the black community (or perhaps more accurately, the televised depiction of the black community) it always becomes a conversation about respectability politics or as beautifully illustrated by Key and Peele, jokes about…well see for yourself

T’Challa stands as a poster child for conservatism, but he’s not ignorant of the world. He knows that things should be done to help others outside of Wakanda, but he’s beholden to the elders of Wakanda, people who sit above him in the hierarchy of privilege. He, can’t afford to take risks and part of him doesn’t see a need to take risks. His people seem happy and he feels like he’s honoring his ancestors before him, but this way of thinking is slightly delusional. Those around him (mostly those coming from a much younger generation than the elders) feel differently about how Wakanda should proceed forward with its new future. His security advisor and best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, who even in this movie, gives the best side-eye in cinematic history) thinks they should be using their military might to resolve the ever-increasing number of refugees and civil wars that encroach their borders by intervening in those conflicts. Nakia (played by Lupita Nyongo in a refreshingly high profile live action role) who is a spy and former lover of T’Challa thinks that Wakanda is strong enough to protect its heritage and lend a helping hand to those in need outside of their sphere. She even walks the walk by taking insanely dangerous missions to help liberate human trafficked women and children who aren’t Wakandan citizens. Then there’s the wonderful and magnetic princess Shuri (Letitia Wright who should be running the table in Hollywood in a few years, if there’s any justice), who has never bought into Wakada’s isolationist attitudes and enjoys/assimilates the gifts that black diasporic culture has to offer into her own incredible inventions. She’s pop culturally savvy in a way makes her on guard for the dangers of colonialism, but celebratory of its joy. Her mere presence and ribbing of T’Challa for being so old-fashioned is enough to illustrate what the future could look like if they opened up as a nation.

T’Challa is a benevolent king and he sees and hears these possible ways to move forward with kind thoughtfulness but has the privilege to divert attention to what he sees as more pressing concerns: finding and bring Klaue to justice.

That’s until Erik “Killmonger” Stevens cracks and shatters the mantle of T’Challa’s world.

Fuck integrity, fuck your pedigree, fuck your feelin’s, fuck your culture

Fuck your moral, fuck your family, fuck your tribe

Fuck your land, fuck your children, fuck your wives

Who am I? Not your father, not your brother

Not your reason, not your future

Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory

Not your heaven, not your angel, not your spirit

Not your message, not your freedom

Not your people, not your neighbor

Not your baby, not your equal

Not the title y’all want me under

-Kendrick Lamar, “Kings Dead”

All Hail King Killmonger

There’s a recurring motif in Black Panther where after whoever attains the title of Black Panther through ritualistic combat, must undergo a ceremony where they are granted enhanced strength, speed, agility, and senses by imbibing a plant called “The Heart Shaped Herb.” The plant itself not only grants these gifts but also sends the imbiber on an ayahuasca like vision quest to commune with their ancestors. For T’Challa, he is granted a vision of all the previous Black Panthers including his father T’Chaka, all on a very Daughters of the Dust styled African savannah. T’Challa is able to talk to and take counsel with his father concerning whether he is doing the right thing as king. T’Challa has strong roots to his heritage and an even stronger foundation with his father for whom he thinks is a man who could do no wrong. It’s a touching scene. One that comes full circle when he once again speaks to his father after finding out that T’Chaka was no saint, and had to make tough and ultimately damaging choices for the good of his kingdom.

However, when we see Killmonger go on his journey it’s a scene so many black youths and adults in the audience recognized. A small apartment in an urban landscape (here, it’s Oakland) adorned with all the makeup of his youth intact. The ethereal shimmer of the savannah still present but outside the window, looking as if it was a million miles away. This is his heritage. The only world he has a connection to, one that is small and as boxed-in as he feels in the world. His roots are lost to the effects of a western world that has practiced divide and conquer with overwhelming success.

There sitting in front of him is his father N’Jobu (played by future Oscar winner Sterling K. Brown). A man that he had so little time with but learned so much from. He learned about the inequality of the world and the struggle to change it. He learned about his heritage and how he descends from royalty and that there exists a place that’s as whimsical and farfetched sounding as a magic kingdom headlined by a talking mouse. The film cuts from Killmonger as a man filled with nothing but rage to him becoming a child again as he listens to his father speak. It’s a visual rhyme with Coogler’s other work Creed, in which we see young Adonis Creed unclench his balled up fist when someone shows him a bit of compassion and guidance. This, to be personal, is the part of the movie that struck the loudest chord for me. I would hear the same sentiments from my father growing up. He would constantly say “you have the blood of kings and queens running through your veins” and much like Killmonger, all I could take that statement as was a fairytale. I lived in midwest America, the closest thing to black royalty I knew growing up was Michael Jackson, Oprah, and Michael Jordan. I couldn’t grasp at that age or with so much societal conditioning that he was trying to tell me about a heritage that was filled with success, grace, power, and ownership. But, I grew up in good circumstances. Killmonger and thousands of other kids like him did not, and that fairytale burned and turned to ashes in their mouths when they saw how the world at large treats people like themselves. So they lash out and start to find their own path to making that power they think is a myth into a reality, but all they know are the exact same tools as those who put them and their people in this place. They think they’re just playing the game. That’s exactly what Killmonger does.

It’s why Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross character is so important to the overall thematic content of the film. He is the token white guy there to realize why he should help the Wakandans protect their way of life and the world at large, but he’s also the stand-in for American Imperialism. He knows the playbook Killmonger is playing out of, so he can explain that to those not in the know. He also has to stand and watch in horror what that playbook looks like in action. Most people like Ross can only intellectualize this stuff, it’s different when your own empathy comes into play. Your point of view shifts dramatically.

Killmonger knows a version of Disney World exists and he has the intelligence and tools to strip it bare for his own means and replace that big dumb mouse with himself (this metaphor might be getting away from me). He’s the antithesis of everything T’Challa stands for. Right down to the sentiment of what using your for a greater good means. This is where the ill thought out MLK/Malcolm X reads of the movie come into play, but the movie is striving for something way more nuanced than “preservation of values” vs “kill whitey”/”Killmonger was right.” It’s about pulling those infected roots from the soil and laying a new foundation completely.

I am T’challa. I am Killmonger. One World. One God. One Family

I brought up Do the Right Thing earlier for a very specific reason. The reason being how people tend to miss the point of the film completely when it comes to the actions of the lead character Mookie (played by Spike Lee himself). He’s been told by Da Mayor to “always do the right thing” in a super tossed-off manner (Da Mayor is an alcoholic and is probably a little drunk at this point) but they are the wisest words delivered in the movie (I mean, look at the title). But, this isn’t a morality tale for Mookie (he’s as complicated of character as you could ask) it’s kind of one for the audience. When the melting pot turned pressure cooker of a microcosm that is this Brooklyn neighborhood finally explodes, we see Mookie make a decision to essentially pour gasoline on an already raging fire by tossing a trash can through a window. However, we also see this righteous fire snuffed out only a few minutes later when two of the cops on the scene decide to make their own decision: to take the life of someone in the neighborhood when they posed little to no threat. I’m being vague for people who haven’t seen this incredible film (you should honestly stop reading and go put it on now) but what I’m trying to say is that those two decisions were generally met with one question from a lot of viewers: “why did Mookie throw that trash can?” but almost never do they ask “why did the cops take a life?” If you watch the movie or are even vaguely conscious of the world around, you know exactly why Mookie threw the trash can. It’s much harder to ask yourself why would somebody with that type of power take a life that they didn’t have to take. It’s about looking at the power structures and institutions set in place and questioning the very foundation they are built on, and if the foundation is faulty: you build a new foundation.

T’Challa effectively starts asking the right questions

Yes, Killmonger was right. The diaspora is in peril and it has been for a long time. The powers need to be tipped steeply back in its favor. We effectively know why he throws his metaphorical trash can and he is more than justified in throwing it. His only flaw was playing a game that was badly designed to begin with. One that almost left a mighty nation and his heritage in ruins. The movie also isn’t letting the (white) audience off the hook by having a worldwide uprising be halted with the help of a reformed white man (this is grossly reductive thinking). T’Challa is not the hero of the film, Killmonger is. Because Killmonger forces T’Challa to gaze into the ugly void of subjugation and makes him move to real action. You can only imagine how shook T’Challa would be after hearing a man’s final dying words be, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.” He decides to start putting his resources into places where they’re needed. Not rescuing one black child at a time, but a whole generation of them. This isn’t about creating another isolated community of black folks either. This is about effectively changing the entire game that’s been played for centuries and he’s writing the rules.

It’s why the final scene of the movie takes place at the United Nations. T’Challa sees what good he could do for the world. When the cynical UN rep asks what Wakanda can possibly offer the world, T’Challa smirks. Not just because of the irony of the statement but because he not only is holding all the cards. He’s completely redesigning the deck.

*I couldn’t find a way to fit this into the piece organically, but this movie serves as a meta Rocky 3 riff. It pretty much has all the same beats and structure as that film. The protagonist starts the movie off as the golden boy to lose it all when someone who has lived a truly intense life (rightfully) takes the championship, after taking the life of the protagonist’s mentor. Not to mention the racial subtext between protagonist and antagonist (in Black Panther, T’Challa is both Rocky and Apollo). The protagonist has to then go on a journey both spiritual and physical to become the people’s champ once again. The meta part of the equation comes to play out within the audience. T’Challa is our people’s champ going into the movie simply by existing. He steals much of Captain America: Civil War sure, but even in that movie he doesn’t have a traditional arc. He’s pretty much a fully formed character at the point we meet him. My take anyway.

The Florida Project

Comic Review Written and Directed by David Yoder

Written Review by David Carter to come later. 2 color prints of the comic are being raffled off for a showing of The Florida Project by Cicada Cinema (which David Carter is a part of) in Bloomington, Indiana. Information below.

We’re excited to announce our first film of 2018, the Bloomington premiere of the critically-acclaimed feature The Florida Project directed by Sean Baker (Tangerine) and released by A24 (Moonlight, Ladybird).

The Florida Project has made it onto the “Best Of” lists of many critics, including The New York Times’ A.O. Scott and Film Comment’s Amy Taubin. Following a summer in the life of six-year old Moonee, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is an adventurous exploration of youth. Equal parts comic, heartwarming, and challenging, Baker’s film delights with a stellar cast of young (non)actors and the great Willem Dafoe in a supporting role.

Plot: Moonee and her friends spend their days wandering the colorful surroundings of their budget Orlando motel residence and causing mischief. Living in the looming shadow of Disney World, Moonee thrives despite the larger struggles of the adults around her. Baker’s vividly-rendered film juxtaposes the raw unbridled joys of youth with the (often harsh) realities of adulthood in contemporary America.

Please join us for the first of our 2018 pop-up events bringing films otherwise unseen to Bloomington!

THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Saturday, Jan. 20th
Screening @ 7:00pm & 9:30pm
Location: The Fell Building (415 W. 4th Street)
$6
Rated R
Runtime: 111 minutes