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.

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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.

Blade Runner (The Final Cut)


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Blade Runner (The Final Cut): Rick Deckard, More than Meets the Private Eye

Written Review by David Carter

I think Blade Runner’s biggest strength as a work has always been its place in the canon of great films as a mood piece and a feast of design. If you’ve ever read anything about the film or watched the incredibly in-depth documentary about its inception called Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner then you know that while the film wasn’t destined for immediate critical or financial success, it was destined to influence writers, visual artists, and directors for decades. What you mostly hear those people talk about is how lived in and fleshed out the world is, or you hear about how the lighting and cinematography redefined how you could visualize science fiction. If you’re a part of the fan conversation, the discussion inevitably leads to talks about the different cuts of the film, whether or not Deckard is a replicant, and occasionally about the philosophical themes of consciousness, morality, and faith. Because of Blade Runner’s highly visual impact, people tend to gloss over one of the great things about science fiction and how it relates to this film:

What does this film say about the modern world?

I’ve mentioned this before when I talked about the film Colossal, but in short, what makes science fiction such a unique genre is that you can couch all these big serious ideas (or more aptly, anxieties) about the modern world into the texture of something fantastical and far off. The more entertaining the text and the closer you are in time to the material, the easier it is for the allegory to slip through the cracks. The further away you get in time, the allegory becomes more obvious to everyone. Like I mentioned earlier when it comes to discussion of the deeper themes of Blade Runner people to tend to wax poetic about the implications of the soul of a machine, but there’s a deep vein of discussion to be had about what those machines represent and what is Deckard’s relationship to those machines. And on this most recent viewing, there was one scene that stuck out in particular to me. A scene that even my un-woke (asleep?) teenage self always found uncomfortable and kinda pointless even after subsequent viewings.

The forced consent scene between Deckard and Rachael.

This scene can feel like it comes out of nowhere for Deckard’s character, who up to this point has been kind of a lovable anti-hero. Someone who reluctantly (but adequately) does his job as a blade runner and has a few drinks to take the edge off, but then all of sudden he becomes a brutish sexual predator. It wasn’t until this viewing that I realized that it wasn’t the film taking a hard turn left, the film makes it explicitly clear who Deckard is. I had been taken in by Harrison Ford as a persona and brought my own empathy for the replicants to the table. I was already seeing replicants as people, but Deckard from the very beginning does not. Like almost everyone in Blade Runner Deckard has no qualms about abusing and killing these machines. It’s not an accident that the film implies replicant humans are on the same level as replicant animals. They’re not even second class citizens, why should they be treated as such? The element of having the charismatic Harrison Ford cast as Deckard is genius because you see him as a “knight in tarnished armor” type similar to Philip Marlowe but underneath he’s so much closer to Hank Quinlan. He’s bigoted and brutal but he shrugs it off with a smirk.

So, what is it about the forced consent scene that clarifies the themes of this film and also Deckard’s relationship to the replicants? Well, if replicants are supposed to be these stand-ins for historically disposable and abused people, be it Black people (which is how I read the film on this viewing especially with all the anxieties about how replicants are physically superior to humans), Chinese, Jews or anyone else I’m forgetting (I think there’s also an interesting reading of how veterans are treated in this film) – then Deckard is just another complicit hypocrite. Replicants aren’t anything to him until he needs something. In the case of Rachael, she’s a warm body to relieve his anxiety. He can sweet talk to her up to a point but eventually, he has to put her at a remove. The week he guns down a replicant peacefully trying to make a living, is the same week he goes to bed with a replicant. Deckard is the equivalent of a “Blue Lives Matter” cop having an abusive relationship with a black woman. Yet, I understand that this is all a part of his arc within the film. It’s only after his harrowing and soul-shaking encounter with the antagonist (and in my opinion hero) Roy Batty that something clicks inside him. Yet it’s only the first step in a long and unseen road to Deckard viewing Rachael and all other replicants as conscious beings.

This viewing was the “Final Cut” of the film, but each cut has slightly different levels of ambiguity to Deckard’s own humanity. When you take that into account along with the “prejudice” reading of the film, his humanity can drastically change those relationships. If he’s human then he’s a bigot coming to terms with that bigotry. If he’s a replicant then he’s someone who’s been culturally brainwashed and has to engage with this newfound inner conflict with his heritage. Ambiguity is an interesting wrinkle to fold into allegory but I think it makes the movie that much more fascinating.

Blade Runner is a film that’s been picked over and analyzed countless times. I’m positive that there’s writing out there that picks up and goes much more in depth about what I’ve written here. I just wish things like this were more a part of the discussion of this film. There’s been a small outcry lately that Blade Runner is another case of a film that’s style over substance (and emotion) and has been overpraised, but I think this is a symptom of people focusing on the same things ad infinitum. It’s a film that deserves the same level of thematic discussion as any other sci-fi classic, even if you have to dive into some uncomfortable territory to find it.

It


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

It: An Outsider Among Outsiders

Written Review by David Carter

To be honest up front, I don’t know much about Stephen King. I don’t mean that in a nonchalant or flippant way, I just mean that my familiarity with his work is strictly from a cinematic standpoint. Even then I’ve really only mostly seen the good things based on his works or some of the movies he’s written. I know some basic trivia and I know enough context from pop cultural osmosis to get jokes about Stephen King (overwriting, phoned in premises, cocaine addiction, everything is set in Maine, abuse at the hands of less understanding generation of adults, broad characterizations of blue-collar people and minorities), but to put it simply I have never read one of his books*. So any criticisms I have about It are mainly drawing from two places: The 1990 T.V. mini-series directed by Tommy Lee Wallace and Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of the novel of the same name. This is to say that I can really only judge It on its own merits. I don’t know what has been left out or changed from the novel. What I can talk about is what I thought the film was lacking, and I don’t mean in it’s direction or writing (those certainly added to the problem) but with its characterization. Specifically, one character who’s given the shortest shrift of characters given a pretty short shrift.

In the town of Derry, Maine things are dangerously strange. In the late 80’s kids start going missing in droves and the adults in charge seem to turn a blind eye while stacking up missing children fliers on top of each other and making curfews 7:00 pm as a kind of empty gesture for care and safety. One kid, in particular, goes missing. Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott). Younger brother to the stutter afflicted Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher). Georgie goes to play with a paper boat going down the rain-swept streets of Derry when the boat plunges into a gutter. In this gutter lies a clown. Now I can wax poetic about a description of this clown, but I feel like if a clown waiting in a gutter for a child doesn’t chill you to the bone already then please come and protect me on those cold scary nights. The clown (named Pennywise and played by the littlest Skarsgård, Bill) offers Georgie his boat back if he comes to play with him down in the sewers where everyone floats. Georgie is hesitant and just wants the boat his brother made for him back and reaches out to grab it. He’s chomped and pulled into the sewer as an adult looks on in denial or complacency about what she’s seeing through the vale of rain.

Flash forward to a year later and many more kids are missing, it’s now the end of the school year. Bill still believes Georgie is just missing and pours his time into looking at blueprints of the sewer system and piecing together clues. His friends, Eddie the sick kid (relative newcomer Jack Dylan Grazer), Richie the wise-ass motormouth(Stranger Things alum Finn Wolfhard), and Stanley the Jewish kid (Wyatt Oleff, probably best known for his role as young Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy) quietly feel otherwise. They want to support Bill, but their biggest concerns are Bar Mitzvahs, escaping psycho-bully Henry Bowers, and just enjoying the summer. In the same school, just around the corner, are other kids who want to escape into the relative peace of summer as well. Beverly Marsh (standout Sophia Lillis) wants to get away from the slander and drama that comes with being a teenage girl, even though what she’s escaping to at home is a hellscape of sexual abuse. Ben Hanscom (loveable Jeremy Ray-Taylor) is the chubby new kid in school and want’s to be left to a summer of digging through books in the library.

And way out on the outskirts is Mike Hanlon. Played by Chosen Jacobs. The black kid.

Mike is homeschooled. Mike is an orphan due to losing his parents in a fire. Mike is doing the best he can with coping with that loss while helping his grandfather run his butcher’s shop. And unless I missed some extra’s strolling around in the background, Mike is the only black kid in Derry.

I point this out because as the movie progresses all these other outsiders band together against this creepy clown that seems to be behind Georgie and maybe every child abduction in Derry the past year. They’re each fleshed out or at least interesting to watch.

Except for Mike, who’s given nothing to do and is an afterthought.

This isn’t Chosen Jacobs fault either. He’s doing what he can with an underwritten part and you can tell the kid’s got physical presence. No, the problem comes from director Andy Muschietti missing something that was right in front of him: Mike is the biggest loser and outsider of them all simply by being a black kid in an all white town. Mike’s entire character and arch should be the conceit of the entire movie. He’s largely abused by Henry Bowers and his goons simply for being black. Even within the unity of the “Losers Club”, he’s an outsider. Every other character has some sort of significant relationship to each other, be it growing up together or romantic. All of them are connected to something. Mike doesn’t get the opportunity to make these relationships. As a matter of fact, it almost seems like he’s included in the group only because of his connection to the clown.

The movie does Mike dirty by not either leaning into and highlighting that exclusionary atmosphere hanging over him (maybe have an arch about the other kids getting to know Mike as a person and not a color) or going the other direction and giving him something to do while fleshing out his abuse by society as a compliment to the other kids who suffer very real abuse at the hands of adults. It makes no sense to me why Mike isn’t paired off with Ben considering they’re both unknowns to most of the kids anyway and both would have some predilection or experience with self-education (Ben being a bookworm, Mike being homeschooled), and probably seek some sort of companionship. Instead, Mike just to gets to show up in some scenes and occasionally contribute to moving the story along.

The underwriting of one character does not a bad movie make, but that character holds an unused key to deepening the subtext (which in this movie is closer to actual text) and relationships formed between the characters who fundamentally want and need kinship to survive within the dangerous world they live in. Failing to use that key just communicates to me that some perspective was lost to the creatives of this film. The perspective of the black girl or boy sitting in the theater just being told once again that even when you’re surrounded by other outcasts, you’ll still be an afterthought.

*I started reading The Stand shortly before seeing It but, I don’t think the 400 or so pages I’m into the book really qualifies me to speak to any of Stephen King’s strengths, shortcomings, or tendencies.