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.

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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

 

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.

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.