Top 10 Movies of 2017

Comic Top 10 List Written and Drawn by David Yoder- except last panel by Denis St John

Top 10 (But Secretly 25) of 2017

Written Top 10 List by David Carter

I think every year at the movies is a good year. I just think that it depends on the year for what type of movie tends to get the spotlight. In my lifetime so many years stick out as having a particular theme or focal point of achievement. 1999 is the year that future trailblazers and Gen X auteurs like P.T. Anderson, The Wachowski’s, David Fincher and Spike Jonze would break out with some of the defining films of the century. 2007 is largely considered the best year of the 00’s, containing films such as Superbad, Hot Fuzz, There Will Be Blood, Zodiac and No Country for Old Men. All movies that shot for the moon and hit galaxies we hadn’t even heard of. I’ve recalled 2015 being the year that sequels, remakes and reboots hit a high point and evolution that signaled we could take shameless brand recognition and pull actual meaningful and expertly crafted art out of them.

Upon reflecting on 2017, the year that made us look like idiots for thinking things couldn’t get worse after the sobering way 2016 played out, all I could think was how much of a cinematic cry for compassion, human decency, self discovery, and love it all seemed to be. I know these are broad concepts that could be applied to so much of our film landscape, regardless of the year. However, if art, especially art meant for and consumed by the masses are supposed to be this reflection of the zeitgeist then 2017 is a full length mirror showing us who we truly are and who we strive to be.

It was also the year where movies stepped up their game and showed us that certain types of movies we thought were dead really just needed a fresh perspective (i.e. not just white dudes) and ones that had been par for the course reached dizzying highs by leaning into their strongest elements and minimizing the weaknesses.

Frankly, it was hell making this list. I saw close to 100 films from 2017 and I’d bargain more than half of them deserve to be on a list in which the only criteria was how much I personally enjoyed them. Meaning, how much the impacted me, how much the stuck with me and how much they held up upon scrutiny or subsequent rewatches. This is not about objective quality because I feel like that’s boring and produces samey looking list (although I’m guilty of having some critical darlings on here as well). So before we jump into the meat here are the various runner-up’s that I feel like people should take the time and check out while the movie goin’ season is slow and these start rolling out on VOD.

Three Star Slappers That I’ll Be Watching on Friday Nights for Years to Come

Murder on the Orient Express, Kong: Skull Island, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. (reviews here, here, here, and here)

Small Dark Films to Take a Chance On

Super Dark Times, Nocturama, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Girlfriend Day (review here), Wheelman

Films That Go For Broke

The Villainess,  Blade of the Immortal, Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Lure, BPM, Lost in London (review here)

Films that Destroyed Me Emotionally

Lucky, Step, Princess Cyd, All These Sleepless Nights, A Ghost Story

The Objectively Most Important and Entertaining Films of the Year

Get Out, Lady Bird, The Big Sick, Wonder Woman (review here, here, here, and guest review here)

The Films I Wish I Could Have Seen Before Making This List

The Florida Project, The Phantom Thread, Your Name, Coco, Wind River

And here my top 25 films of the year with some quick thoughts on the the top 10.

Top 25 (25-11)

25. Split (review here)

24. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2/Logan (review here and here)

23. mother!/I, Tonya

22. Alien: Covenant (review here)

21. Blade Runner 2049 (review here)

20. T2: Trainspotting 2 (review here)

19. Mudbound

18. Logan Lucky

17. The Lost City of Z

16. Columbus

15. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

14. John Wick: Chapter 2 (review here)

13. The Work

12. It Comes at Night (review here)

11. The World of Tomorrow Episode 2: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts

10. Raw Directed by Julia Ducournau (review here)

It was a hell of year for first time outings. Get Out, Lady Bird, and The Big Sick all signal the seismic shift of what’s happening in Hollywood as of late. Movies that are so assured, complete and carry the very unique voices of their creators. However, none of those were as assured, complete and unique as Julia Ducournau’s horrific tale of carnal discovery. A movie that never once drops the ball on what it’s overarching metaphor is, while balancing so much tonal control it makes you dizzy. It’s a movie that’s as off putting as it is erotic. You may not feel as good as you would  from those aforementioned films, but you’ll walk away saying you saw something wholly unique. I can’t wait to see what Ducournau does next.

9. Good Time Directed by Ben and Josh Safdie

“After Hours as envisioned by Abel Ferrara”. That was my first thought as the machinations of this non-stop story started to unfold. The Safdies are making movies that don’t exist anymore. Capital “G” Grimey New York stories about people on the margins.  If their 2014 film Heaven Knows What plays like a heavy dramamine drip right into your veins, then Good Time is like going on a bender of whip-its, vodka and steady stream of cigarettes. But even outside of its unforgettable style, pacing, score (top 5 of the year easy) and an M80 of a performance from Robert Pattinson, it’s got things to say without coming right out and preaching them. A movie about love, systems designed to make outsiders struggle and the hierarchy of those very same outsiders. Queens as a microcosm of our society. I can only be more excited to see what they do with a 48 Hours remake.

8. The Post Directed by Steven Spielberg

It’s a list made up of favorites, so bias was always going to play a heavy part in making this list. I unequivocally believe Steven Spielberg is our greatest living filmmaker and upon his death his name should be said in the same breath as Hitchcock or Kubrick. So much can and has been said by much smarter people about the importance of this incredible movie that was rushed to production in the midst of our administration shouting down the press and threatening our 1st Amendment Rights. Though, for me the thing that makes my skull ring is how easy he makes it all look. The way he blocks a scene, the way he can control the crescendos and diminuendos of something as simple as a conversation, and of course the always motivated and only occasionally flashy use of the camera. It’s like watching Valerian’s very own Herbie Hancock blow over a blues. You can tell he’s not even thinking about, he is just existing in the song. People always doubt Spielberg or find him inauthentic, but every time he shows up and finds a way to dig into the essence of what makes us tick as humans and The Post is no different.

7. Okja Directed by Bong Joon Ho (review here)

Speaking of Spielberg, here’s one of the most buckwild films of the year from disciple (but not imitator) Bong Joon Ho. This movie can only be described as a delight. A movie that hammers home how important it is for us to communicate to each other and look past our baser instincts from time to time. If that wasn’t enough, it features some of the most striking visuals and laugh out loud funny moments of the year. The image of Tilda Swinton striking a jubilant pose announcing a competition as banners and confetti rain around her is seared into my mind. It has the best chase scene in a movie since Mad Max Fury Road and that movie didn’t involve an adorable super pig. The movie puts stark drama, comedy, slapstick, action and violence on the same plate. At first you’d be skeptical if those flavors belong in such close proximity to each other, but after you take a bite you’ll realize just how delectable that fusion of flavors is.

6. Visages Villages (Faces Places) Directed by Agnes Varda

I don’t know why Agnes Varda isn’t as recognized as the national treasure she truly is. You would think the inventor of the French New Waves supposed final film (she said Beaches of Agnes was her final film, and that was nearly 10 years and one TV series ago.) would be greeted with more fanfare but c’est la vie. Movies about mortality are always a tough pill to swallow but with Varda it becomes this beautiful and ecstatic journey into getting to know the world around you when you’re on your last leg. “Last Leg” isn’t exactly the right phrase, considering that even with her use of cane and a wheelchair, at the age of 89 Anges still has more energy and wit than most people have in their 20’s. It’d be shame to give any of this wonderful documentary away but the last 10 minutes truly is some of the most poignant cinema you will ever see. An ending that plumbs the very depths of cinematic history itself.

5. The Lego Batman Movie Directed by Chris McKay (review here)

Like all my list and rankings, when it comes to Batman movies it’s an ever shifting process based on my mood and the current standing the character itself. But I can safely say that The Lego Batman Movie is hands down my favorite Batman movie (you put up a good fight Batman Returns) and may objectively be the best Batman movie ever made. Unfortunately the playing field was never going to be level considering that the take on Batman in this movie is a celebration and deconstruction of every televised and cinematic depiction to come before it. It gets right to the nitty gritty of what makes Batman tick as character for himself and for us as the audience. It’s a heartwarming generational story about fathers and sons/daughters, and it’s a dense brick of wall to wall gags and jokes so funny (Robin: “My name is Richard but my friends call me Dick” Batman: “Well, children can be cruel”) that I spend every rewatch trying not to laugh over a joke I missed the last time by laughing over it. If the spark could be sustained and the talent stayed aboard Warner Bros. and DC would be smart to have this be their new DCEU going forward.

4. Dunkirk Directed by Christopher Nolan (review here)

I waxed poetic in my review of this movie about how this movie is a successor to Inception, Nolan’s greatest film to date, and the culmination of the man’s entire career. I also spent some time talking about how much pure, uncut cinema this movie has coursing through its veins and how it’s an experience so unique to see in its preferred 70mm format that I fear I’ll never see anything like it again. All of those things are true, but if I had the foresight to see that this tale of tooth and nail survival and unbridled kindness was going to be a definitive reflection of the mental psyche of the zeitgeist in 2017, I would have seen it four more times. I’m tearing up just remembering a shot of Tom Hardy gliding in for a landing after taking down a rival fighter pilot on an empty tank of gas, the sunset draped behind him. Knowing that he’ll be captured, but also knowing he did the right thing.

3. The Shape of Water Directed by Guillermo del Toro (guest review here)

“What am I?”

It’s what Elisa (played by the incredible Sally Hawkins) asks Giles (played by God among men Richard Jenkins) as he tries to tell her there’s no worth in risking their necks to save the fish man (Doug Jones, who needs a god damn Oscar already). It’s a big question, and one the movie never shies away from exploring. It’s a question I sit here in 2018 asking myself every single day when I crawl out of bed in the morning. A movie that wants us to look at people on the margins and see them as fleshed out, living , breathing entities with wants and desires. It’s the Merchant of Venice quote (“If you prick us, do we not bleed”) realized as entire movie that does nothing but fill me with a radiating light of joy.

Also I cannot stress enough that a lady bones down and tap dances with a fish man and it might be nominated for some Oscars, so please do yourself a favor and be a part of that magic. Guillermo del Toro forever.

2. Baby Driver Directed by Edgar Wright (review here)

“Baby, oh, baby

You look so good to me, baby

Baby, oh, baby

You are so good to me, baby”

“Just one look in your eyes

And my temperature goes sky high

I’m weak for you and can’t help it

You know I really don’t wanna help it”

“B-A-B-Y, Baby

B-A-B-Y, Baby”

Honorary #1. Twin Peaks: The Return Directed by David Lynch

I really try and not be one of those people that wants to try and take great televised works away from the medium and call them cinema. But as look on my movie shelf that holds The Decalogue, and Fanny and Alexander, or think about what Shoah and OJ: Made in America  is, it becomes clear that some projects defy the two mediums completely and there is enough wiggle room for them to fall into multiple categories. By all accounts Twin Peaks: The Return was written and shot in the same manner as an 18 hour movie would be and plays that way when you watch it. It has been shown in its entirety at the MoMA and for all of these reasons I consider it to boundary breaking cinema. Classifications aside however, this was hands down the best viewing experience of 2017 for me. Every week, I would be greeted with some new idea or image to chew on for months to come. Part 8 could be considered to be the single most buckwild hour of viewing this decade, and with a cast as incredible as this one, the cards were always going to be stacked against the competition. For all the flare of the show, Lynch and Frost never lose sight of the point that they’re trying to get across. One about the legacy of abuse and trauma we inflict upon women and children. Because for all of his weirdness and eccentricities you can look at a large chunk of Lynch’s work and tell that in the end it’s all about love. It’s no mistake the David Lynch as Agent Gordon Cole delivers the single most memorable line of the entire experience:

“ I told them to fix their hearts, or die”

1. Call Me By Your Name Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Sometimes it can just be one scene to seal a movie in your heart forever. One soul shattering and earth moving monologue delivered by our greatest soft spoken actor. No fire, No fury, just the soft caress of empathy. The speech delivered by Michael Stuhlbarg to Timothee Chalamet in the final minutes of Call Me By Your Name is to me one of the finest moments put to celluloid. A speech so simply about what we give up in our youth in the struggle to exist in the world with some semblance of comfort. A speech that hit me so hard that I sat sobbing in a crowded theater with no control over what was happening to me. The movie had made me take a step back and think about who and what I am at this very juncture in my life and what I had given up to become that person. It was too much absorb in that moment but as the days passed and the movie threaded itself into my very DNA that speech became a refrain of the most sumptuous pop song I had heard since In the Mood For Love.

I don’t make that comparison lightly. Both are hypnotic tales about a brief period where two people reaching out for each other could let there emotions run wild. While In the Mood For Love never has Tony Leung and Maggie Chung physically consummate those emotions and Call Me By Your Name most certainly does, the end result is the same in both. As Timothee Chalamet sits staring into fire place during the closing credits of the film you can tell that like Tony Leung he is reminiscing about the summer he had.

His face may not show it, but he remembers fondly.

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The Shape of Water

Guest Comic Review Written and Drawn by Denis St. John. Denis draws horror comics, check out his work at deniscomix.com, support him on Patreon at patreon.com/denisstjohn, and buy his most recent book- “The Land of Many Monsters: And Many More Monster Tails” on Amazon HERE.

The Shape of Water and the worlds of Guillermo Del Toro

Guest Written Review by Jesse Pasternack. Jesse Pasternack is a filmmaker, blogger for IU Cinema (read his work here), contributor to the Indiana Daily Student (read more of his work here), and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast.

 

It is always fascinating to see director Guillermo Del Toro’s fantastical worlds bump up against reality. The unsettling creatures of Pan’s Labyrinth were eclipsed in scariness by the Fascists of 1940s Spain. He made the ghosts and the murders in Crimson Peak more disturbing by making them exist in a sumptuous world more appropriate to a Merchant Ivory film than your standard horror movie. Now, Del Toro tells the most beautiful and adult love story of the year. That a mute woman and an amphibious man share this passionate love amidst the prejudices and repressions of early 1960s America is yet another example of how Del Toro’s fantastical imagination interacts with more realistic history and the ugliness of society.

The Shape of Water takes place in 1962 Baltimore. The benevolent and mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaning woman at a government facility. She has a seemingly full life listening to records and spending time with her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay artist who feels like he has wasted his life. But Elisa’s life changes forever when she discovers a creature often referred to as “The Asset” but credited as Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator of Del Toro’s who always plays beautifully designed creatures). She develops a bond of love with Amphibian Man, and soon plots to break him out of the facility. But the sinister government agent Richard Strickland (the underrated and frightening Michael Shannon) has other plans for Amphibian Man.

What distinguishes the Baltimore of The Shape of Water from Del Toro’s other worlds is its realism. The bright colors and production design could have come from Mad Men, another creative work set in 1960s America that had a dreamlike bent. The sets are as exquisitely designed and imaginative as those in Pan’s Labyrinth, but they are not quite as fantastical. In contrast to Pan’s Labyrinth or Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which had many different types of creatures, this movie only has the Amphibian Man. There is still an idiosyncratic quality to this film, especially in a scene where Elisa and Giles have a small dance number, but that ineffable characteristic has the matter-of-fact feel of magical realism and not the wild nature of fantasy. By making the world of The Shape of Water more recognizably like our own, Del Toro makes it easier for audiences to accept his film’s messages.

The Shape of Water focuses on disenfranchised people. Its nicest human characters are a disabled woman, a gay man, a black woman, and an immigrant. In a decade when people like them were dehumanized, Del Toro shows that they have rich humanities that make them worthy of love and acceptance. His belief in loving people for the idiosyncrasies that others would demonize is just as vital in 2017 as it was in 1962.   

This warm and loving spirit that guides the film is perhaps best embodied in Hawkins’s lead performance as Elisa. Hawkins has shown that she excels at portraying characters whose defining characteristic is kindness since her breakout performance in Happy-Go-Lucky. She does bring the liveliness that animated similar characters in Maudie and Paddington to her performance, but her performance in this film is even more impressive because she has to convey all of her emotions without a single word. Some of her facial expressions are as vivid and emotional as any that were performed by one of the great silent era film stars.

The supporting cast is exceptional. Octavia Spencer shines, even if she doesn’t have a lot to do. Michael Stuhlbarg (who also acts in The Post and Call Me By Your Name this year) is excellent as Dr. Hoffstetler, and his scenes in Russian are almost as magnetic as Hawkins’s silent ones. Del Toro additionally supports the actors with beautifully mobile camerawork crafted by cinematographer Dan Laustsen and a rapturous score by Alexandre Desplat that can make even the most stone-faced viewer swoon.

    The Shape of Water is a jewel in Del Toro’s filmography. It features one of his most recognizable and rich worlds, as well as his most timely lesson. In the midst of darkness and bigotry, Del Toro argues that love and imagination can triumph over hatred and cruelty. That belief is more wondrous and beautiful than any impeccably crafted set or meticulously designed creature ever could be.  

 

Lady Bird, The Disaster Artist, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Lady Bird, The Disaster Artist, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Examining Narcissism in 2017

Written Review by David Carter

As the year rolls to a close one of the few pleasures that greets the movie-going audience is a deluge of great movies aimed at adults all clamoring for the awards gold that awaits them early next year. These movies aren’t all perfect, they just tend to swing for the fences in a way that the mainstream movies don’t typically do (swing big, miss big), although in a year where we got Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant, and  mother! during the blockbuster season, this particular wisdom may be coming moot. Inversely we also get good old-fashioned Oscar bait, that can be fun in the moment but ultimately forgettable (when was the last time you thought about Argo or The Artist?). While what’s considered awards-worthy is rapidly evolving (for the better) with the introduction of new and excitingly diverse voices in every aspect of film culture (direction, writing, production, criticism, reporting) the 2018 awards season looks to be a huge toss up. That’s exciting for a medium that tends to do better when it’s pushing and expanding its worldview.

But for all their aesthetic, budgetary and POV differences these films still share the human element. Humans, no matter what their background tend to share some universal experiences and therefore some universal themes. There’s one theme, in particular, that’s been daisy chaining seemingly dissimilar movies together in my mind for the past few weeks. One that speaks to anyone who’s been caught up with their own ego or passion and hasn’t taken a minute to step back and figure out how it affects themselves and those around them. Especially family and surrogate families. The narcissist is a tried and true archetype and a popular one at that. Why wouldn’t it be? All of us want something to aspire to and the narcissist is aspirational in a way. They’re a hero unto themselves. They’re smart or beautiful but use that power to benefit themselves first and the world second. They’re right of center of a hero and left of center of an anti-hero. They’re never really bad enough to be a villain but they do villainous things. Most importantly they leave a mark on the world and those around them.

But in 2017 we tend to view characters like these through a different lens. As the lines for good taste and standards of consciousness change and expand so do our flawed heroes. Sympathy, empathy, and growth are key ingredients to make characters like these not come off as repulsive. In 2017 three awards contenders inadvertently cover this ground in some pretty welcome and unique ways.

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut Lady Bird is the latest in what has become an annual presentation of female coming of age tales (Diary of Teenage Girl, Edge of Seventeen and Girlhood are all wonderful movies from the past 3 years you should check out). Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (a potential career-defining performance from Saoirse Ronan) confidently states that she gave her moniker to herself and wears it proudly. She’s an audacious teenager looking to take the world by storm, while at the same time trying to figure out what exactly she wants out of it. Like most teenagers she’s selfish, and hasn’t really developed the skills necessary for impulse control, which rubs up against her mother Marion’s (Laurie Metcalf in a heartbreaking performance) own closed-off worldview. Lady Bird doesn’t do anything more drastic than any latchkey kid who grew up in the early to mid 00’s but the things she does do is to get attention. The attention of the cute boy in her theater group, the attention of the popular girl in class, and the attention of a mother that doesn’t really seem to love her so much as tolerate her. She spends so much time grabbing for attention that she never sees past her actions. She can only see herself as the lead in her own story. So yes, she’s a teenager. Little does she know that her family, friends, and teachers can see that once she looks forward she’ll do wonderful things.

It’s odd to say that James Franco’s The Disaster Artist covers the same ground in a very different way, but it’s true. The Ed Wood-esque tale of the making of cult favorite and cultural oddity The Room, is less about the process of making the world’s (debatably) best “so bad it’s good” movie (although holy shit is it about that as well) but more about the strange friendship of Tommy Wiseau (as someone who saw Tommy Wiseau in person, I can report that Franco is almost identical in speech patterns and mannerisms) and Greg Sestero (ditto for Dave Franco). Tommy is just as juvenile as Lady Bird, hell maybe more so, but his narcissism comes from a place of tragedy. He’s a lonely man who wants to make incredible art, but all of his instincts aren’t so much bad as they are extra-terrestrial.  He doesn’t know how to behave like what we as a society would consider a “normal person,” and has little interest in doing so. When he meets Greg and they do a reading of a play at a diner, Tommy urges Greg to come out of his shell and ignore what all the people around them think as they read the dialogue with the grace of a bus trying to Tokyo drift around a corner during 5 o’clock traffic. However, it’s good advice and gets Greg out of his shell and into a relationship with this bizarre man who’s mysteriously wealthy, claims to be in his 20’s when he’s clearly pushing 40 and speaks with an unpinnable eastern European accent but says he’s from New Orleans. I pointed out the Ed Wood comparison earlier but the relationship Tommy has to Greg isn’t the same as Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood’s because Tommy is pretty much Bela and Ed wrapped up in the same person. Tommy is delusional, steadfast, and stubborn to a fault and Greg is there to help him keep his dream on track and be an occasional voice of reason and healing when Tommy goes too far even by his standards. You root for Tommy right up to the point he starts verbally abusing Juliette Danielle, the woman who plays Lisa in The Room. His narcissism is no longer charming, it’s toxic in a way that no longer excuses Tommy’s eccentricities, but puts them in context. He’s not a monster, but he’s an asshole looking for a purpose.

Which is exactly what you could say about Sam Rockwell’s Jason Dixon character in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri. A movie which is filled with narcissists all trying to sort through the complicated mess of a jarring tragedy.  Frances “give me my goddamn Oscar now” McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a sharp-tongued matriarch who wants nothing but to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter. She does so by putting up three billboards on a little-used road outside of Ebbing Missouri posing the question to Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson in what is his third knockout role in 2017) as to why there haven’t been any arrest.  She has extreme but relatable beliefs (every man over the age of 8 should be registered to a database and when they commit a crime they should be killed) and she won’t take shit off anyone (she kicks two children in the crotch when she suspects one of them of throwing something at her car). She’s smart, she’s quick and she’s capable. She is the polar opposite of Jason Dixon, who is by all accounts and actions a certified moron. Jason is a policeman and a surrogate son to Sheriff Willoughby even though Jason lives with and has an odd relationship with his tough as nails mother. He has a murky past that includes torturing a black man under interrogation. One of the movies many themes is the meditation on a simple phrase “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.” Jason does some dubious and downright unethical things throughout the film because to him he is doing the right thing for everybody. He’s the ugliest side of narcism. The side that has all the flaws of the quick-witted, Sorkin-esque heroes we love sans any of that wit. We also see him do things that are good and right, as well as things that stand in a grey area. In other words, he’s a complex human being who can’t be so quickly sorted as good or bad. Like Tommy or Lady Bird, he’s an asshole in a lot of ways and you don’t have to like him or even think those selfless acts outweigh the bad he’s done. It just wants you to know that for all the righteous anger aimed at people, in some cases there’s more there than just the shitty thing they said or did in a moment. It’s no mistake that the movie ends on a moment shared between Mildred and Jason, two character who have done and said morally and legally dubious things throughout the film as they face down the barrel of something that’s so grey that any narcissism to be had is washed away with a conscious awakening moral quandary that leaves them silent. In 2017, that’s the type of wringer we like to see our narcissists put through.

Justice League

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Justice League: Breaking the Cycle

Written Review by David Carter

Back in 2012, as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy was coming to a somewhat ungraceful end and the Marvel Cinematic Universe had hit what many still consider to be its absolute peak with The Avengers, it was refreshing to receive some news that there would be a cinematic resurrection of  DC’s second most bizarrely underserved hero, Superman. The first being Wonder Woman, but more on that later. Superman is largely considered the first superhero of the modern era and is the character most responsible for bringing superhero films to the big screen. Yet, after the run of Christopher Reeves films ended the character would largely only exist outside of comics in DC excellent animated series, a Dawson’s Creek riff (Smallville), a Moonlighting riff (Lois and Clark), and scores of undeveloped (most heartbreakingly, a George Miller directed Justice League movie) and underthought screenplays. There was the somewhat underappreciated Superman Returns in 2006 that put a small nail in the big screen coffin of the character for seven years. It’s safe to say that creatives were struggling to find a way to make the Big Blue Boy Scout work on the big screen.

But here comes Zack Snyder, who’s not particularly hot off of anything at this time. Watchmen, while I think a very good film was met with an underwhelming box office and mixed reviews. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was a decently successful animated film despite no one on planet earth having actually seen the film (it’s a quantum mystery), and Sucker Punch is an interesting and ambitious passion project that failed to be (*checks notes* ) good or reach any audience. So, it was an interesting choice to have this man receive Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan’s blessing to make a film that would potentially become a rival to the the MCU, not in execution (at least not at that time) but at least in scale. However, it looked as if maybe that would be the case.

That above trailer is, to me, the best DCEU film to date. Everything from the music, the tone, and the cast had all the elements of a proper Superman film for the the 2010’s. I wasn’t sold on the muted colors or the redesign of the costume but I just took these as creative choices that would make more sense after seeing the film. They did, but not in a way that had me or most audiences particularly inspired or entertained. It’s safe to say you know what happens from here. We’ve all seen the slow and very expensive trainwreck that has been WB’s DC films. Movies that have just been reacting to themselves, critical backlash, and eventually the continued, unmatched success of the MCU. And yes, Wonder Woman is the glaring outlier of this trash fire, simply by being a film with a functional screenplay (no shade, that’s a compliment), competent and exciting cinematography, and a top-notch cast portraying interesting and well-developed characters. Furthermore, it did something other superhero films weren’t doing for a long time: accepting that people besides men between the ages of 13-35 like going to these movies and maybe want something besides angst. The other 4 DCEU films can barely check one of those boxes off.

So here we are at Justice League, a movie with a behind the scenes production saga that is infinitely more interesting than anything tossed up on screen. Let’s get this out of the way, Justice League is a Franken-movie pieced together from the bloated but singular two film vision of Zack Snyder, chopped down and re-color corrected by producers, and sloppily salvaged by original MCU architect Joss Whedon. To put it simply, Justice League is the endgame of a studio that’s had no clear direction as to what to do with these films. I could barely think of anything to write about Justice League because whatever subtext that was in the film was scrubbed in the re-edit all that remains are small pieces of larger wholes i.e. the idea of these heroes being  new Gods, Cyborg and Barry bonding over being creations as opposed to born with abilities or wealth, and without any sort of existential or theological conversation about resurrection. If there was one thing of interest I would write about at length it would be about the music, and how while DC has largely succeeded in producing themes that are more memorable and emotionally effective, they have struggled to integrate and mold these into anything that feels appropriate to what we are watching. It’s also a bad sign when you don’t even have enough faith in your composers or compositions that you have them use themes from much better movies. You straight up hear the Danny Elfman/Tim Burton Batman theme along with the climax of John Williams Superman theme. The fact that these films have one of the worst fanbases on the planet and seem to only do exceedingly well abroad is just icing on the cake.

And I’m done with it.

Let me explain. It was suggested to me that I skip Justice League and write about how I and other people should stop going to these films like they’re obligations. We’ve been burned so why keeping walking into the burning building? But, my curiosity got the better of me and I saw the film, therefore relinquishing any moral or critical high ground I would have, i.e. I would be a hypocrite to tell people to stop going to something that I indulged in. While I think that’s fair, I don’t, however, think it excludes me from saying that from this point forward I’m bowing out of these films financially and critically, but with an asterisk. I don’t care that Aquaman is being made by one of my favorite genre directors (James Wan) I’m not seeing a movie made in the realm of people who clearly have no idea as to what these movies are. The asterisk comes in the form of the possibility of paying to see a Wonder Woman sequel, simply because that film and its creative team gave me every reason to believe that they could deliver another movie as or more satisfying and interesting as the last film. Even more simply, I’ll choose to support a movie made by and aimed at women because there isn’t nearly enough of those.

This isn’t a call for everyone to do the same because I don’t have the authority to do that, but if we are actually fatigued and worried about every installment of this series then the best thing we can do is let it wither up a bit. I want more DC films, just not THESE DC films. If I were to tip my hat into the what should be done with the DCEU (outside of just letting these films sleep for about 5 to 10 years and start over with some anticipation and good will built up from the vastly superior CW shows) it would be to have these films cost between 60 and 100 million (no more than that), have Wonder Woman be the model and character you build around (what Iron Man was for the MCU), make them as stand alone as possible, and have someone (not Whedon or Kevin Feige. Get a fresh voice or alternatively one of those DC animated people from the 90’s and 00’s) take leadership over the whole thing who has a knowledge of these characters but more importantly the knowledge of how good movies and stories are made. Because at the end of the day, all people really want out of superhero movies are just good movies. Why that’s so hard to do in 2017 escapes me.

Murder on the Orient Express


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Murder on the Orient Express and the Glory of the Three Star Blockbuster

Written Review by David Carter

The “3 star” movie is something that as I get older becomes a more and more treasured viewing experience. Something that seems to be increasingly rare or harder to find as films leave theaters twice as fast as they used to even just 10 years ago and move from the video store to the increasingly frustrating (in both navigation and the selection) world of streaming. I’m aware that this sounds like the rantings of an old man but let me clarify. When I talk about a 3 star film, I talking about something somewhat specific. Movies that by definition are just solid and reliable. They’re not movies that will be up for many awards, hold a significant place in film history or gross much money outside of their domestic run, but they’re also not failures in any way that matters and generally make a decent amount of money for their modest budgets. They’re usually films that are more aimed at adults, usually (but not restricted to) thrillers, erotic thrillers, crime, horror, and action. They’re slightly better than a matinee movie because you’d be willing to pay full price for them if you had to. They’re movies that when aired on Showtime, Cinemax, Starz or on a basic cable channel late at night, you’re pleasantly surprised and watch to the very end or doze off trying. They’re movies that have casts that make you say to yourself  “Wait, ALL of these people were in this?!?”

Unfortunately as the mid-budget movie disappears so has the 3 star movie. Oh, they still exist, but are more likely to end up direct to streaming, have an underwhelming theatrical run or be made into TV shows (I think Breaking Bad is a 3 star movie concept fleshed out). Films like The Gift, Split, and Free Fire keep the tradition alive and in some cases, like Split, actually do pretty well. I think, however, that the 3 star movie has been moved into the realm of the blockbuster. A place where ideas like this can have a better chance of thriving. What is the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise but a big budget erotic thriller that you would see on Cinemax at two in the morning? The underappreciated Kong: Skull Island is a throwback popcorn action flick with a star-studded cast that would have been made for 30 million dollars in 1994 with the same caliber of actors who are taking work between more reputable dramas. Murder on the Orient Express is really no different. It’s a lavish big budget “whodunit” featuring one of the most decked-out casts this year, but its aims are not that of something akin to Titanic but more along the lines of a mid-tier assassin flick John Wick where the pacing is brisk and modern and our protagonist is nigh infallible (he says as much in the movie). Who better to star and direct than the man who did this to a solemn soliloquy in his adaptation of Hamlet?

Murder on the Orient Express is an expertly crafted adaptation of one of the greatest mystery novels ever written from an undisputed master of the genre, Dame Agatha Christie. For those not in the know, Murder on the Orient Express is the story of former policeman and super sleuth Hercule Poirot serendipitously ending up on a train with 14 other passengers of different nationalities and social standings when a murder takes place. With a limited selection of suspects and a confined space, it seems as if Poirot will be able to solve this case handily until he starts realizing that all of the facts aren’t adding up and the circumstances and motivations are unclear. It’s a concept that’s been used so much that you’ll start outguessing the movie only to realize that solution to the crime is one of the most off the wall and cleverly put together you’ve ever experienced. The story has had three major feature film adaptations, the two most famous being the 1974 Sidney Lumet film with Albert Finney’s eccentric take on the character and a 2010 BBC TV movie with fan favorite David Suchet, who played the character for over 20 years. Both are clearly going for their own take on the material, with the BBC movie being a very straight up and down adaptation of the material and the Lumet film moving some events and reveals around to make sure its star-studded cast gets time to flex. The 2017 adaptation does much of what Lumet’s adaption does but with added (in my opinion) honey baked ham having Kenneth Branagh do what he does best: Self-aggrandizement and taking text meant for “adults” (i.e. Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Christie) and making it large, entertaining, and as operatic as you imagine these things would be for the decades and centuries worth of praise they receive.

For example, in the book the Orient Express is stalled on the tracks due to a snow drift in the mountains. Branagh looks at that text and says “hmm but what if lightning struck the mountain and there was an avalanche that crashes into the train. Also, it’s filmed in 65mm” with no hint of irony. Or how about that while Poirot in text is a character with certain eccentricities, such as his obsessive-compulsive nature to adjust things and pick specks off of his jacket, has been amplified to having him be cursed to see the world as an inherent place of order and anything that doesn’t fit into that order will and must be noticed by him. Hell, google any images of Poirot’s mustache prior to this film and compare to Branagh’s and you have a visual representation of how this man’s mind works when it comes to adaptation and his ego. That sounds like a slam but I’m a big fan of that ego because it’s always in service of something. The camera lovingly films every wrinkle in Branagh’s eyes as he starts putting pieces together as Poirot and it works because he knows how to sell those moments. He can have his character put himself on equal footing with God because in this world it’s true.

We also see Branagh use this power to bring out some of the text in the book that plays very well in 2017. Within the book the air of paranoia is thick and occasionally characters will defame each other by bringing up race or sex. Poirot, a man who sees past all of these petty trifles, slyly shrugs off and mocks anyone who thinks race or sex has anything to do with the fidelity of character or motivation. Branagh brings this out. The slurs and finger pointing fly quickly, characters races are changed and diversified so that the cast sports more than just a single token character. Without getting into the reveal, Branagh does this not only because it makes the film more interesting but recontextualizes the solution at the end of the film. Within the book, the ending comes quick and is almost as farcical as it is shocking. The movie plays it up and makes it a moral dilemma for every character involved including Poirot. It works well and is a good compliment to the same themes that The Hateful Eight explored in 2015, i.e. citizen’s justice, an absence of trust, race, and misogyny.

All of these elements add up to a movie that not only has some flair and things to say but something that just cooks. The additional action beats work well and don’t tip into outright fantasy. Everyone in the cast is engaged with the standouts (besides Branagh) being Willem Dafoe and Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s not a masterpiece, like the above mentioned Hateful Eight (every problem is so minor but there are enough of them to knock it down), but it certainly earns its spot as a blown up 3 star movie I look forward to watching on slow nights when I want to enjoy myself but also think a little.

Thor: Ragnarok


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Thor: Ragnarok – A Genuine Movie

Written Review by David Carter

Here’s some transparency. These write-ups generally come out a week after whatever movie Yoder and I are talking about. Why? Because both of us are very busy and it takes more than a day to conceive, write, draw and color a multi-panel comic at a level Yoder feels comfortable putting out. I technically have the much easier end of the deal. I can generally write these in a couple of hours if I put my phone away and have a decent cup of coffee. What that extra week allows me to do is sit and think about as many angles on a film as I can possibly muster. I do this because I try and not just make these typical by-the-book reviews where I just summarize the movie up to a point and talk about things I did and did not like. While that’s present I’d like to think I go a little deeper than an average blog review.

The downside to this process is that I tend to avoid reading reviews, think pieces, and essays (however, I do read interviews with cast and crew) on a particular film until I’ve finished putting my own thoughts down on paper. This is so I can maintain what I consider is generally my point on a movie without chompin’ anyone’s flavor and to maybe come up with something no one is talking about. Unfortunately, in the age of social media, this isn’t really a foolproof system. I constantly glance at succinct takes and to the point headline titles that give me a general idea as to what that conversation is surrounding a particular film.

And folks, just about every angle and take I came up with for Thor: Ragnarok has been discussed at length by people smarter and more qualified than I. So much to the point that I decided to start reading these articles before I fleshed my own thoughts out on paper. There’s the discussion that Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most (ahem) low-key queer blockbusters made in recent superhero film history with coded imagery, an alluded bi-sexuality of a main character, and a color pallet and costumes that’s a little more multi-colored and bright than we are used to in our overtly heterosexual power fantasies. There’s the discussion of Mark Mothersbaugh’s moody and fantastical synth-infused score pulling Marvel out of its rut of producing uninspired placeholder-y sonic distractions of their other films. There’s the talk about where this sits as an auteurist entry with the incredible Taika Waititi’s flawless filmography, or how so much of the crew and parts of the cast are made up of the indigenous Māori of New Zealand as well as other peoples of color. Furthermore how that diversity and point of view in front of and behind the camera has led to Marvel producing a movie about the ugly realities and consequences of Anglo colonialism.

When all these takes started coming to me and reading them fleshed out in ways that gelled with my own reads of the film as well as deepening them and challenging them, something finally hit me about these Marvel films. They are still a product, made by one of the most powerful and dubious companies on the planet, but I don’t think it’s fair to say any longer that these products are cookie cutter and massed produced. Honestly, they haven’t been for a while.

Thor: Ragnarok is the third Thor movie but fifth movie featuring the character Thor (as always played comfortably by Chris Hemsworth), which is important because for all the non-character growth people accuse these movies of (which I find intellectually dishonest sometimes), Thor’s journey arc has been supported in all of these films, albeit with varying degrees of success and focus. Thor’s arc has simply been one about family, humility, and growing up (which sounds similar to Tony Stark’s arc but that was only within the first couple of Iron Man films) so that he can prove himself worthy of the throne of Asgard eventually. Thor: Ragnarok sees what is the culmination of that arc. Set 2 years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron the movie picks up with Thor coming to the end of his unseen quest to stop the event Ragnarok from happening (much like the entire franchise, Ragnarok is only loosely based off of the actual Norse mythology. Think “Asgardian Revelations”). He does battle with the demon Surtur set to the only band and song that can truly capture the dweeby fantasy elements of the Thor franchise properly, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” From here the movie has to wrap of various threads from Thor: The Dark World, such as resolving Loki’s false reign of Asgard, Odin’s imprisonment, and the departure of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster from the series. They are all perfunctory actions leading up to the main event, a complete upheaval of everything we’ve come to expect from these movies. The Shakespearean platitudes Kenneth Branagh built in the first movie are torn down and undercut at every turn. The villains are not only played by some of the most interesting and recognizable and veteran actors working today (Queen Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum just Jeff Goldblumin’ it up) but interesting people and beings with depth and quirks, a departure from the forgettable Dark Elves of Thor: The Dark World and the not at the time iconic Loki of the first film. Every human sidekick and old friend is replaced with interesting alien warriors with compelling backstories. Like indie film star (and one of the best young actresses working today) Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, or a full-on fleshing out of Thor’s relationship with The Hulk and Bruce Banner (both played by Mark Ruffalo). The humor replaces the well-worn fish out of water jokes for Thor not understanding Earth or human culture with well … actual bits. The humor in the movie, largely thanks to Waititi, ranges from delightfully immature world play to bits clearly riffed on the set the day of the shoot, to great visual gags that took some thought. The characters don’t feel like they’re reciting jokes, it feels natural to who they are.

I could go on, but the whole reason I bring all of these elements up is that Thor: Ragnarok is so far away from the days when people would complain that all of the Marvel films were amorphous grey slop made to taste like real movies. I briefly mentioned these criticisms in my Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 review and how I feel like they’re slightly unfounded. After Thor: Ragnarok I’m ready to say that Marvel has been making huge leaps in the right direction since Doctor Strange (You could argue for Iron Man 3 but that movie was an anomaly at the time). They’ve consistently brought in directors who have had skewed angles and interesting mix-ups to movies that largely still have to exist in a somewhat coherent universe. The talent has diversified and grown in stature (Most of Phase 1 is made up of mid-level and up and coming actors or Robert Downey Jr. in his redemption phase) in front of the camera as well as behind. Most importantly these movies have stories and tones that speak to so many people in so many different ways now. The shortlist of thematic and production elements I attributed to Thor: Ragnarok wouldn’t have been present in these films back in the late 00’s and early 10’s, but in 2017 alone we’ve had an action adventure sci-fi bottle story about familial abuse and human ego, a John Hughes infused parable about coming to terms with your limits, and a queer prog-rock album cover movie about the dangers of colonialism made by one of the funniest and most thoughtful auteur directors of color today. Outside of gripes about how the lighting and color grading of these films could still use some work, the Marvel movies have grown up into real movies and looking at Black Panther ahead, it seems like those steps are becoming leaps.

Suburbicon


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Suburbicon: An Ugly and Inept Mistep

Written Review by David Carter

I think more and more about how movies are advertised in the present. There are so many different forms of media vying for people’s increasingly diminished time that I feel like movie trailers are cut in such a strange way now. They’re closer to music videos than they are previews that give you a boiled down plot synopsis of a film. I think this is all because films have generally gotten better at tonal control in recent years. Filmmakers have a firmer grasp on aesthetics, mood and how to use them viscerally to engage audience members. That’s been coming through in movie trailers in the past few years in a big way. Drop a classic or current pop hit into the mix (sometimes a comically serious cover of that song), sync it to the action and throw in some great sounding dialogue (regardless if the context is misleading). You got yourself a 2-3 minute music video that might capture the tone of what your movie is.

 

Unfortunately, you can harness this to completely mislead audiences as to what your movie actually is and what it’s about. This is where I found myself watching the trailer for George Clooney’s Suburbicon. The movie I thought I was getting was a candy-coated Cohen crime caper. A Coen brothers movie with a lighter touch. They wrote the screenplay after all and the trailer had what looked like a dumb but scheming family man played by Matt Damon taking revenge on some hoods for killing his wife, all the while trying to protect his son and sister-in-law. The trailer had the Run The Jewels/DJ Shadow song “Nobody Speak” synced up over footage of actors (all of which are or should be Coen regulars) behaving in increasingly desperate and manic ways. This looked like a fun but minor Coens’ movie guided by the hands of a director infatuated with the look and rhythms of idyllic 50’s America and its dark undercurrents. However, it’s a film that hides it’s actual premise and thematic content from the audience because it’s either poorly conceived, executed, ugly, or more realistically, all of the above.

 

As the trailer suggests, Suburbicon is about an ideal 1950’s community called Suburbicon. It’s what you would expect in a broad sense. Children jump-rope, the milkman greets everybody by name and primary colored houses are squeezed together like Starburst in their wrapper. What quickly becomes clear is that something else is going on with this movie. As we discover that a black family has just moved into this neighborhood, to the outrage and malice of almost every other member of this community, we also discover that this movie isn’t going to be just about the unlikely dark undercurrents of unassuming places. It’s only after this scene that we meet our lead family. Gardner (played by Matt Damon) as paterfamilias, the mother Rose, sister-in-law Margaret (twins played by Julianne Moore, who for the second time in 2017 after Kingsman: The Golden Circle is given a potentially interesting part that is hindered by bad direction) and the little boy Nicky (relative newcomer Noah Jupe). This family lives next door to the black family and has a different type of drama unfolding. One night while Nicky sleeps, two men named Louis and Sloan (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler respectively) come into their home and take the entire family hostage. They’re drugged but just before Gardner, Nicky, and Margaret lose consciousness they see Rose given another dose of chloroform, killing her. Nicky becomes increasingly suspicious when after this tragedy his aunt Margaret moves in, and his father willfully fails to ID the two men who killed his mother in a police lineup. From there, things spin out into a yarn of bad deals and even more badly kept secrets with Nicky caught in the middle of all of it. Powerless and scared for his life.

 

If you couldn’t guess, Matt Damon’s Gardner is not the main character as the trailer of this film would suggest, it’s Nicky. For a while. it seems like this is purely done as a narrative trick. Make the protagonist someone who is incapable or only subtly capable of directing the story. But when you realize that Suburbicon and by extension the Gardner household (I can’t seem to find this family’s last name) is just a microcosmic representation of America itself, it all starts making sense. Matt Damon and Julianne Moore are the American government making corrupt deals with shady outside parties, only for those parties to come back and haunt them. Nicky is a generation of more progressive people who are ineffectual in calling out and trying to survive this bullshit.

 

This then answers the question of why this seemingly random black family next door even matters to the overall thematic or even textual narrative of the film. While all of these wacky criminal happenings are going down, the neighborhood, police force and media are too distracted with the circus of outrage. Even to the point that mass destruction and damage are done on Matt Damon’s behalf and it’s barely noticed. If you put all the pieces together you get a pretty clear picture:

 

Suburbicon is about corruption in America going unnoticed because people and the powers that be are too distracted by things like civil rights.

 

In 2017 I can barely think of something that feels like an uglier point to make. If you’re on social media you’ve probably heard some people, who feel like they’re above it all, espouse how things like the trans military ban or Black Lives Matter is all just smoke and mirrors to keep people ignorant of the real problems that all Americans face. This is an ugly line of thinking because it misses a very important point about these groups of people and their struggles. Not only are they in immediate danger and being treated like second-class citizens, they’re also having to deal with the corruption of the government just like everybody else does. The black family in Suburbicon is trapped in their house and made to endure a cacophony of slurs and jeers while Matt Damon literally gets away with murder. The movie doesn’t make any attempt to point this out and flesh the movie and characters out, it just wants to be a contrarian scream at liberal ideals.

 

It’s worth pointing out that this “subplot” was added in when Clooney and his frequent partner Grant Heslov combined a script about a real-life occurrence of a black family trying to buy a home in an all-white neighborhood in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957. Honestly, even with this information, it doesn’t really add any insight to the movie in which the context is completely different. Meaning, if this movie is supposed to be about the injustice of this black family, then why combine it with something as cynical and silly as a Coen brother script? Suburbicon is either a mash-up of a mess put together by people who don’t have a grasp on the material or an edgelord manifesto about how easy it is to distract from the real problems of the world. Regardless, I don’t think anyone was sold either of those ideas when watching the trailer.