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.

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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.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

The Abominable Dr. Phibes: Revenge Old Testament Style

Written by David Carter

It is with a heavy heart that I must admit two of my weaknesses as a film lover and specifically horror lover. My ignorance of British horror movies and the big gaping holes I have in my Vincent Price views. I’m almost completely ignorant of the Hammer Horror films and when it comes to Price you can throw a pebble and easily hit something I haven’t seen. However, what I have seen tells me everything I need to know about the man. He was one of our finest actors and I don’t think anyone has come close to occupying the large operatic space he filled in the film world. He was of a breed of actors I like to call “Spooky Boys.” Horror icons with distinctive physical characteristics, voices and theatrical styles well suited for the macabre. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Agnus Scrimm,  Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff just to name a few Spooky Boys. What made Vincent Price stick out so much was that he had physical characteristics that walked a line between Clark Gable and Snidely Whiplash. He could be a tall dark and handsome hero, or conniving threatening menace. Also, his voice was unique, but not in the same way that other creepy icons’ voices were. It wasn’t deep and sonorous but nasally and slightly effeminate. If you didn’t know what Vincent Price looked like, you sure as hell knew what he sounded like. There have been countless impressions of the man’s cadence and tone and I think it’s safe to say that almost everyone on earth has probably heard him in the song  “Thriller.”

So it only makes sense that one of his most classic films has him mute for a large portion of its runtime.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a romantically baroque slasher flick. One where the slasher is always three or four steps ahead of the detectives trying to bring him to justice. Everything, no matter how implausible or convoluted is planned out to the letter. Why shouldn’t it be? Dr. Phibes himself is essentially the Old Testament God. Wreaking divine and wrathful havoc on the ungrateful mortals who have wronged him, but I’m getting ahead myself.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is about Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price having so much fun), a mysteriously mute doctor, scientist, biblical scholar and I kid you not, one of the world’s greatest organists. A true renaissance man. Along with his mute assistant Vulnavia  (Virginia North in what the movie says is her debut role but according to IMDB it’s her final screen credit), they perform visually and musically lavish routines for an audience of no one in a decked out art deco lair. The first 10 minutes of this movie is just Vulnavia dancing in extravagant costumes while Phibes lays into an organ (with some accompaniment from a Chuck E. Cheese-esque robot band). It’s disorienting but a wholly welcome tone the movie sets out the gate. However, the next thing we see is the murder of a man in his bedroom by way of bats. Another layer added to this hearty multi-layer dip of a movie. The murder is pretty gruesome and played to shock the audience member. This isn’t just a fun campy romp. Except for when it occasionally slips into being a Scooby Doo-like romp. Layers indeed.

We soon learn that Phibes is behind the murder of the man and murders that follow. The connection? All the victims are doctors and a nurse. Phibes’ ill wife Victoria was under the care of these doctors when she passed away. Phibes feels that these people were negligent and incompetent, so he decides to take his revenge on them in the only way he feels suitable: Using the theatricality of the biblical plagues of the Old Testament to murder his victims.  Frogs, locust, beasts, hail and so on are put into full effect, and Phibes has some clever and truly inventive ways of employing these. The Abominable Dr. Phibes has some of the most inventive kills this side of the Friday the 13th franchise. But Inspector Trout (played by Peter Jeffrey, who looks like a computer’s too-perfect rendering of a British man from the 70’s) and the doctor most responsible for Victoria’s care, Dr. Vesalius (another Hollywood legend Joseph Cotton) try to bring Phibes to justice before he reaches the final two plagues: death of the firstborn and darkness.

This is a fool’s errand because while I won’t spoil the film for you, I’ll just tell you that Dr. Phibes cannot be got. The man makes the Jigsaw killer from the Saw movies look like a bush leaguer. Not only that, Phibes is hands-on in his murders. He wants you to know that you’ve been done in by the best. He takes pride (and in one delightful scene, glee) in his work. He puts the same time and passion into a murder as he does any of his luxurious compositions. Every drop of blood is just another leitmotif to Phibes.

Why shouldn’t he put in that amount of craft? He’s a creator after all. Using the plagues of Old Egypt is the perfect modus operandi for a narcissist of Phibes’ magnitude. He’s the all-seeing eye and no one will escape his grasp and wrath. He is so assured of his righteousness and so good at what he does that you as an audience member almost (or in my case definitely) begin to root for him. When it comes to murder the man is truly the God of revenge.

This is a film you should 100% seek out and watch. It’s the type of spooky film that horror hounds will love to add to their collections, while people who aren’t super into horror movies can get onboard with since there’s a fun macabre streak running through the movie and the deaths aren’t as gory by modern standards. There’s a sequel to this film called Dr. Phibes Rides Again also starring Vincent Price which sounds buck-wild when you consider how The Abominable Dr. Phibes ends.

Happy hauntings to all and to all ghoul night.

Blade Runner 2049


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Blade Runner 2049: K and the Real Girls

Written Review by David Carter

Disclaimer: This is, unfortunately, one of those times that the angle at which I’m tackling a film is only worthwhile if I just flat out spoil the film from top to bottom. But for those just wanting to know my feelings: it’s a great film and one that took an entire week of contemplating to grow. It’s not an easy watch, but I think a rewarding one. It’s movie that wants to have a dialogue with the subtext of Blade Runner but morph it into text, while taking its own even more complicated journey. Please see this film.

As I mentioned in my Blade Runner review last week, the movie’s legacy is so entrenched in its groundbreaking aesthetics, and production design and slightly less in its characters. However, some of those characters have also gone on to influence so much of the film landscape over the course of 30 years. While I talked about Rick Deckard and his deeper complexities in that write up, I only briefly mentioned the true protagonist of Blade Runner, Roy Batty. He’s the Byronic Hero of the story. A character who rebels against the very concept of death even with its inevitability. He’s romantic, charismatic and arrogant. As Tyrell, his maker and god, tells him “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long and you have burned so very very brightly.” Roy Batty is the living and breathing embodiment of the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Roy rages against the dying of the light like nobody’s business.

And while that light did burn half as long, it burned an impression on the landscape that all future replicants were able to follow. Blade Runner 2049 has replicants all taking pages from Roy Batty’s playbook, but now their lifespans are no longer artificially shortened. This complicates things and is what the larger narrative tension is about in Blade Runner 2049. An angry and dissatisfied group of people coming together in greater numbers and organization to escape the societal bondage they’re kept in, with a few twists to that narrative thrown in. This, however, is just the text of the film. What was once underlying in Blade Runner is now outright and writ large in Blade Runner 2049. The subtext of the film plays with the journey of a new character. One that’s an amalgam of Rick Deckard’s introspective, self-discovering private eye and Roy Batty’s destiny denying replicant, but someone that’s also dealing with his own issues. Issues that take on a decidedly female form.

Blade Runner 2049’s lead character is a replicant lawman named KD6-3:7 (Ryan Gosling who continues to be one of our most reliable and interesting actors) or simply “K.” Even though he’s more officially on the LAPD’s payroll than Deckard was, he’s still playing the role of a private eye in the form of Blade Runner. Right off the bat things are different with K. He’s quiet but not in a brooding way (at least not outwardly) but more mild-mannered and reserved. The film opens with him going to a protein farm to retire a fellow replicant Sapper Morton (a tinily bespectacled Dave Bautista). K sits patiently waiting for Sapper to come home while a dutch oven full of simmering soup spits and spatters across from him. Sapper arrives knowing what the deal is. He knows he’s not long for this world even if he fights back, so he sows a thought into K’s mind. One about miracles. K’s steely reserve is shattered at the discovery of this new mystery. While a great callback to the opening scene of screenwriters Hampton Fancher’s unused draft of the original Blade Runner, it’s an efficient and subtle way to flesh out K’s character. Underneath the calm demeanor lies a sea of swirling questions and anxieties. It feels like only a matter of time before he’s no longer able to pass his baseline test (a seemingly more intense and efficient Voight-Kampff stand in to see if replicants are mentally stable). You think K’s journey through the film from here will be reckoning with his replicant heritage and the morality of making his livelihood hunting down his brothers and sisters, but it goes so much deep than that. The impetus is when K comes to realize that the larger conspiracy at play is that a child has been born of a replicant (specifically Rachael from the first film. K finds Rachael’s remains buried under a tree on Sapper’s farm) and that he may be that child.

So K goes on a Raymond Chandler-esque journey to separate fact from fiction, all the while dealing with the implication that he may be this Christ-like figure to lead the replicants to the land of milk and honey. However, after the end of the 2nd act of the film, K has a rude awakening: he’s not the child. The child is a woman named Dr. Ana Stelline. A fabricated memory maker with an immune system deficiency, so she works in a glass cage. She puts herself in her work leading K to share memories with her. This revelation of a woman both being the chosen one and the shaper of his memories and life experience is no accident. You see, K’s entire world is seemingly motivated and driven by his female anxieties. You can see it in the power dynamics with all the women he interacts with within the film. K’s boss Joshi (played incredibly by Robin Wright) is the one barking orders at him, and treats him closer to a little boy told to go do his chores and clean up afterward than a detective and killer. K has a relationship with an artificial intelligence named Joi (a wonderful and gentle performance from Ana de Armas) who seems to love K and only wants to be as close to him as possible. Which is exactly why K’s own affection for her is slightly stilted since he’s never quite sure if she feels this way about him or if it’s an algorithm at work fulfilling all his desires. K’s physical antagonist is Luv (played with ice-cold menace by Sylvia Hoeks) who is superior to K in nearly every way, even declaring herself the best replicant ever made at one point. If K is a droopy-eyed bloodhound on a trail for the truth, then Luv is a wolf ready to tear that bloodhounds throat clean out. Replicant prostitute and revolutionary Mariette (Mackenzie Davis, whose screen presence can’t be contained to four corners) pities K, even chastising him for having a virtual girlfriend when he turns down her strategic advances (“Oh, you don’t like real girls” she provokes) but she also sees a potential for change and good.

Even the set dressing of this world is littered with images of male anxieties. There were two visuals in particular that stuck out to me, one being women in cages. Whether it be shots of dancers/prostitutes in cages on display in downtown L.A., Joi being limited to the confines of K’s apartment and then a hologram projecting pen, or Ana Stelline trapped behind glass in a small room doing incredible work (not knowing that she herself is special). It’s a clear illustration of how we treat women now, but amplified and literalized for the future. The other even more striking image is all of the giant women presented throughout. There’s the already striking image of the giant naked Joi advertisement pointing and talking down to K. There are the gates to the Vegas-like city depicting two women, mouths agape for oral pleasure facing each other. Not to mention the half-destroyed statues of women in vulnerable positions wearing heels. There’s even something as seemingly innocent as ballerinas dancing around the city. It all feels very Freudian and Fellini-esque, especially when you consider that K’s entire arch is not one of connecting with his potential father, Rick Deckard, but learning more about his potential mother whose body he discovers. K is a lost child in this movie looking for maternal figures to guide and nurture him. The movie is so explicit about K’s Oedipal nature that Joi gives him the human name “Joe” when he thinks he truly is the child born of a replicant. She does this after saying a mother would want her child to have a real name. Joi is the nurturing presence for K, but also a sensual and sexual one. It’s complicated.

The guidance helps in his journey to become a real boy (there’s a Pinocchio thread in this film as well. Joi is pretty much K’s Jiminy Cricket) but it doesn’t solidify it. K only takes control of his fate when he relinquishes his ego and the idea of him being the savior and instead decides to help with the replicant cause. In Blade Runner 2049, you can read the replicants as so many disenfranchised folks, but with the heavy female cast and imagery, it’s so solidly about women’s current struggle to take control of their lives and bodies. I haven’t even touched on the villain of the film, capitalist and industrialist Niander Wallace (played to aplomb by the insufferable Jared Leto precisely because he fits the character so well), another visionary without vision (Wallace is literally blind and Tyrell wore thick glasses) and the Satan to Tyrell’s misguided God figure. Our introduction to him is watching a naked female replicant be born, all the while monologuing about the implications of replicant procreation. He rubs her stomach while remarking on it’s “barren pastures” and “salted earth” only for the scene to climax with the slicing of her womb and her disposal. It’s not very subtle, to say the least.

While I only briefly touched on Gosling’s performance in this film, there’s a reason he was chosen for this part. What made him such a compelling actor in the early 2010’s was his ability to be simultaneously charming and boyish while also having a stunted emotional capacity. His roles in  Nicolas Winding Refn collaborations make that the defining point of his characters, especially in Only God Forgives (which is also very Oedipal and about masculine vs. female anxieties). He’s the perfect conduit for a movie like this to be snuck into theaters. He’s so handsome and likable that you almost miss that it’s a 3 hour, 150 million dollar cyberpunk film about a lonely boy who has a cyber waifu and must contend with the fact that women, more important and talented than him, are a large part of the world and he must make the choice to be an ally or go back to ignoring the problem. Truly a film for our times.