Ghost in the Shell

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Ghost in the Shell: RSL (Race, Sex, Location)

Written Review by David Carter

David & David at the Movies 2.0, while a rousing success (Some say it heralded a new age in human existence), was too time consuming for Carter. His art style is so complex that weekly comics just aren’t an option. So for the time being, welcome back to David & David at the Movies: Classic

Adaptation is very hard. Transposing something that belongs in one medium, to another almost disparate counterpart is something that almost always requires liberties to be taken. Elements from one medium may not translate to another medium for a multitude of reasons. For example, music doesn’t really translate to a comic book. While a “splash page”, a mainstay of the comic book genre, can’t be conveyed literally with melodies and lyrics. It could also be the timing and era of the adaptation. If you adapt something that was made for people in 1817, you have to take into account that it might not go over the same way with a crowd in 2017. This is why in all cases of adaptation, be it medium, time or cultural, creators have to transpose, update, and interpret in order to keep the core idea intact.  Sure you can’t represent a “splash page” in music literally, but you can take that concept or that idea and replace it with a symphonic explosion of soundscapes, or whatever the equivalent would be.  Cultural adaptation can be a little trickier, especially given how socially conscious audiences are about misappropriation and representation.

This put the 2017 live action remake of the highly influential manga and anime, Ghost in the Shell in a tough spot right at its inception. A film being translated from a translation in addition to having to walk the fine line of how to round out its cast and culturally update its themes without erasing its Japanese color. Unfortunately, the movie decides to slavishly keep the beautiful imagery from the 1989 manga and 1995 film of the same name, while simultaneously adding one the most ill-advised reveals in recent memory that not only aggravates the film’s early criticisms of whitewashing. It also squanders an opportunity to turn the original material’s themes of consciousness, mortality, and humanity into a very contemporary discussion about identity politics.

Ghost in the Shell takes place in the vaguely defined near future, where technological upgrades to human physique and mental faculties are as common as owning a smartphone. One character casually mentions that his daughter has enhancements that allowed her to learn the entirety of the French language before she finished singing a song in that language. It’s a brief Illustration about how ubiquitous the technology is. In this future, the first fully robot/human hybrid is created in the form of Mira Killian (controversially played by Scarlett Johansson, who has become something of an expert at playing women at odds with their humanity in the recent films Under the Skin and Lucy). She’s told by her creator, Dr. Ouelet (the always fantastic Juliette Binoche, who hasn’t been this squandered since 2014’s Godzilla) that she is the sole survivor of a terrorist attack, and that they were able to preserve her brain (her “ghost”) and put it into a mechanically sleek new body (the “shell”). Time passes and she’s joined up with an anti-terrorism group called “Section 9” and is now Major Mira Killian. With her partner Batou (Pilou Asbæk, another Lucy alum), and under the supervision of Chief Daisuke Aramaki ( the legendary ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano), Mira is tasked with hunting down a mysterious figure named Kuze (Michael Pitt giving a performance that would make Microsoft Sam proud) responsible for strategic hackings and murders. Along the way, Mira will find answers about the company that made her, her connection to Kuze, and her own foggy past.

The past that gets drudged up is what tailspins this movie from “interesting premise” to “hashtag problematic” in less time than it takes for ScarJo to fight a giant spiderbot. For the sake of brevity and conversation, I am going to spoil the reveal in this movie and spoil the reveals of the 1995 movie (I think 22 years makes it fair game to spoil a classic). So if all you want is to know whether or not you should watch it: No. Watch the original and any number of the films inspired by it (The Matrix, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report). Honestly, the remake isn’t worth the energy (even with some decent visuals) so read on if you don’t care about spoilers

Spoilers

It’s revealed that Mira, isn’t in fact, the first person to be put into a shell, she’s just the first success they’ve had. The memories that keep surfacing in her mind in almost palpable detail are from her past life. A life in which she used to be a Japanese girl of 17 named Motoko Kusanagi (the character’s name in the original Ghost in the Shell. Also this reveal is not present in the original film). Outside of the revelation that Mira/Motoko has been lied to, the revelation serves as a meta-justification on the casting of a white actress in an originally Japanese role. Smarter, more qualified people than I have talked about this controversy, but I think The Hollywood Reporter’s interview with four currently working Japanese actresses gives much-needed insight (and the most important POV) to the issue. Their discussion can best be summed up by actress and comedian Atsuko Okatsuka who states, “It’s not even about seeing me on the screen as a performer. It’s a bigger concern. It’s 2017 and I don’t know why these representation issues are still happening. It’s overwhelming. This means so much to our community but is so on the side, still, for a lot of people.” There’s a lot to unpack in this conversation, but I think what the reveal in the movie does is throw away its opportunity to make the movie about humanity’s rapidly changing attitude towards gender and even racial identity.

The original Ghost in the Shell touched on this by having the “shell” technology be common place in the world, and by having the protagonist’s shell be almost androgynous in nature (feminine shape but no female sex organs). This presented a world where you could identify as one thing and present as another with the help of technology. However, this iteration was more focused on themes of the definition of humanity and what constituted consciousness. The 2017 adaptation could have taken those dangling threads and tied them into something relevant for our times. You see seeds of the idea in having Mira/Motoko (and later revealed Kuze) be, essentially transracial and that her arc is trying to find definition for herself outside of her flesh. The movie drops the ball because there is not enough groundwork laid for this journey. If there was one page that the film should have taken from the original movie’s playbook, it should have been having people talking more about identity. If you’re more of a “show, don’t tell” type of person, have the world bursting with people who are androgynous in all aspects of their identities. Show us that Mira/Motoko is the next step towards something people are reaching for anyway. Instead, the movie accidentally posits that the height of physical perfection is that of a shapely white woman and that other women of other colors should aspire to that standard. I don’t think this is what the movie was going for, but in its hastiness to justify its casting (a choice, I am sure is complicated by that fact that the movie is funded with Asian money. It also has approval from the original film’s director Mamoru Oshii, and has to bear the weight of Japan’s complicated history of portraying animated Japanese characters with distinctly white features) it stumbles into standards of beauty. We live in a world where Rachel Dolezal won’t be an isolated incident. We live in an age where fluidity of identity is going to come up more and more as technology keeps advancing and people’s search for truth keeps going deeper. I’m not comparing transsexual and gender fluid people to Rachel “embarrassment to humanity” Dolezal, but I think the issue needs to be talked about. It would have been nice to have a science fiction movie do what science fiction does best: talk about a very modern issue and place it under the veneer of allegory and fantasy imagery.

The movie is so beholden to its crisis control, and the whims of fans looking for a direct translation it doesn’t take a second to become its own entity. Sure, it’s cool to have scenes and imagery ripped from the frames of the original movie and manga, but those pictures were telling the story from a Japanese point of view in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It’s similar to how the future of the 1950’s (progress, utopias) looks a lot different than the future of the 1970’s (breakdown, dystopias). I think the American (and by extension global) point of view of 2017 would visualize a much different looking future. I don’t know what that future would look like exactly, but surely not one that looks like some cyber-goth’s wet dream.

Ghost in the Shell should come as a warning for people planning more adaptations of Japanese material. As Hollywood keeps threatening us with an Akira live action remake, maybe take the times we live in now into consideration. Localize it (meaning make it reflect America. Not just white America), update and transpose the issues and ideas to something that’s relevant to the colorful people of 2017. It’ll be better for it.

Power Rangers

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Carter

Power Rangers: Shower Bangers

Written Review by David Yoder

Welcome to the new format of David and David at the Movies, I’ll be doing the written reviews from now on and David Carter will be doing the comics.

If you cannot already tell from the title of my review, I have no reverence for the Power Rangers (Mighty Morphin or otherwise). It’s not something I ever caught onto as a kid, maybe I was too old or maybe I just preferred to watch things like Animaniacs and Darkwing Duck. But you’re here to read my thoughts on the new movie adaptation of the long-running series, Power Rangers. This movie starts out with that classic gem of a joke about milking a male cow (are they just called bulls?). I never thought this gag really worked except in the lowbrow classic Kingpin. For some reason, Woody Harrelson drinking the “milk” out of a giant bucket in that movie is much classier than the joke in this one, where the one character asks if there was only one udder and then the other one actually looks under the cow/bull to double check. This is followed by a police car chase where our hero, Jason- played by Dacre Montgomery with his Zac Efron-lite face, causes a severe car accident. Cut to title.

Before this, we got to see a cold open where Bryan Cranston in alien makeup and speaking an alien language (except when proper nouns) crashes on earth millions of years ago. Take me back to that movie, please. If only to find out why the aliens were completely naked under their morphin suits. Instead, we’re stuck with Jason being bland, and I guess we’re supposed to feel sorry for him because he’s on house arrest and also has a leg brace due to the previously mentioned car crash. I do not feel sorry for him, not at all. Feel sorry for anyone that has to see this movie, like me!

Jason is in detention and we get to meet two more of the to-be Rangers, Kimberly and Billy. Kimberly is played by Naomi Scott whose troubled back story is mainly just that she slut-shamed a friend online or something? Oh, and she also gives herself a way too-even haircut with straight-edged scissors. Billy is perhaps the shining light of the movie, played by RJ Cyler. I really wish he was the leader of the team instead of Jason, Billy describes himself as “being on the spectrum” and his father has recently passed away. These three meet in a detention that is trying its hardest to be The Breakfast Club (I have not seen The Breakfast Club, this is just something David Carter told me and I find to be accurate).

Hey, does it feel like I’ve written a lot about this movie but we have yet to meet all the main characters or the villain yet? Well, that’s because this movie misunderstands what people are expecting from a movie about the Power Rangers. You want to see those troubled teenagers in spandex fighting weird shit, instead, you get an hour and a half of the characters not being able to morph into their costumes because, I dunno, reasons? But back to our story, we’ll meet the other two Rangers soon enough.

Billy latches onto Jason really quickly as a friend, and it is rather adorable. Billy offers to take off Jason’s ankle bracelet with science, in exchange for friendship. Jason instead decides to wait until the last friggin minute to bike over to Billy’s to have him to remove the anklet, and then Jason has the nerve to get agitated with Billy because he isn’t removing it fast enough. After this and with the bribery of Billy’s van for Jason to also wreck, Billy and Jason head to a quarry or some such shit. At the quarry is where we finally get to meet the other two Power Rangers, Zack and Trini/Dee-Dee/Trinity. Zack, played by Ludi Lin, lives at the quarry? I guess because there’s a mobile home park there (we only ever see his) and we find out much later that he often misses school because he is taking care of his sick mother. Trini/Dee-Dee/Trinity is played by Becky G. and has more names than she has lines in the movie. Honestly, she’s called “Crazy Girl” more than her actual name and I think I will stick with that. She’s rather quiet and rather slow to open up to others. She’s also the character you maybe read much hype about there being a gay character in the Power Rangers movie. It’s kind of addressed in the movie, and I don’t mean to belittle it but it really doesn’t add or take away anything from the movie. But it seems about as important as if we were to find out Billy were asexual, something not touched on in the movie.

Anyway, oh my god I’m still writing about this movie and nothing has happened yet. You know things are a lot quicker with pictures, it’s like BING! BANG! BOOM! Throw in a joke or two and you’re done. But here I am with this word salad going nowhere. Blah blah blah, the kids find coins or emblems … I forget what the movie fucking called them. Then there actually is another car accident, this time even more severe than the one in the opener. The kids all race a minivan away from the quarry authorities and drive straight into a train. Cut to next morning and everyone feels fine, sexy, and strong and are breaking their sinks, lockers, and cell phones.

Okay, I’m tired of writing about the boring shit. At the same time as the kids start to realize their powers, our villain, Rita Repulsa, finally appears. Rita Repulsa is played with quite a bit of glee by Elizabeth Banks. The only reasons I can really recommend seeing this movie are for her performance and Billy. Billy’s the best. But Rita gives him a run for his money, she is on a mission to collect a ton of gold and goes about it by killing people for Angel Grove’s surprisingly high amount of people that have gold fillings.

After realizing they have powers the kids discover a secret spaceship, that is only reachable by suicide jumping down a mountain. Inside the spaceship, they meet a robot voiced by Bill Hader and Bryan Cranston’s giant face on a wall if it were being pushed through one of those metal pin toys you could make a hand flipping the bird in relief. They inform the kids that they are now Power Rangers, and the kids are like “that’s cool.” They consistently fail at morphing, except this one time Billy got it somehow (probably because he’s the best) and instead do their only training in the form of fighting rock hologram creatures.

Again, this movie is taking its sweet time and not really giving us much to go on. The fact that you have to wait so long for the kids to be in costume, then when they are in costume not only do they look stupid but you only get one five minute, poorly shot fight sequence with, you guessed it, rock creatures. There’s also Zords, giant animal robots they can drive. But they’re told they can’t do that because they can’t even morph yet. In the climax, they’re all using their Zords without fail or any training. Only Billy, God bless you, Billy, admits to not knowing how to control the Zord because, guess what, they never trained to use them. Also, in the climax (oh, Spoilers I guess) they figure out to morph into Mega Zord or Nega Zord when no one ever told them it could do that … as far as I recall.

Here’s the real spoiler for the movie, though, besides it sucking, the climax of the movie revolves around product placement in the form of Krispy Kreme. Like, heavily featured product placement. It’s ridiculous. You do get a glorious shot of Rita eating a donut in the shop as the town is getting destroyed, so maybe it was all worth it. Honestly, if they went further into the silly, overtop element like this then it would have been more fitting. Instead, the movie tried to be a rather serious teen drama with some lame jokes thrown in, and then ramp it up to 11 for the third act and turn it into a Kaiju battle movie. I would have rather gotten the last third of the movie extended with much less of the preamble before it. It almost doesn’t even feel like the same characters once they’re in their ugly Ranger outfits. I think a lot of positive reviews for this movie are based on the fact that the movie spends time to develop the kids’ characters. But it’s too much time spent on that, that’s not what this movie should be about. It’s like how people criticized Kong: Skull Island for not developing characters enough and moving too fast. They’re missing the point. To quote Method Man in Garden State:

But instead of “titties” the question should be, “Who here just saw some giant ape fighting all kinds of other giant monsters?” Because that’s the real point.

One of the biggest crimes of this movie is having a character death occur and then not have it be an immediate fakeout. Instead, they languish on the idea that this character has died (it was Billy, don’t see this movie). The stupid kids don’t know CPR, don’t know to call 911, don’t know to take a drown victim to the hospital. What they do know is how to carry said victim as if he were Jesus Christ, and since it’s Billy that’s about as close to Christ as this movie gets. I don’t care, I’ll spoil it all. Keep reading, why should you have to waste your money too? So the dumb kids carry Billy back to the head of Bryan Cranston and say “hey, uh. A little help?” Cranston says that Jesse was a better science student than they are Power Rangers. There’s a moment where you’re lead to believe Cranston is going to come back to his physical body (something established earlier in the movie, whatever), but he lets Billy come back to life instead. ‘Cause he’s nice like that. My pet theory, because the scene (like most scenes in this movie) goes on for too long was that Cranston Head was really considering coming back to life but then realized that shitty Jason was gonna be the Red Ranger in charge and he’d have to take Billy’s place as the Blue Ranger. Since Cranston Head has already waited 60 million years what’s a few more if it means not having to deal with these dumbass kids anymore, right? And that’s why he lets Billy come back to life.

That’s it. There’s a post-credits scene that’s more pointless than this review, so if you for some reason you do go see this movie (despite my warnings) make sure to stick around for that or not. I know this movie wasn’t made for me but I was hoping for something on the level so bad it’s entertaining or so cheesy it’s fun, that is not what I got. After seeing the movie, and since I never really watched the show, David Carter showed me all of the intros for Power Rangers over the years. I have to say, that 20 minutes of show openings is a million times more entertaining than this big budget movie. If you do find yourself nostalgic for Power Rangers, maybe watch an episode or two. Don’t do too much or your brain will turn to mush. And if you never saw the show but are curious what all the hubbub is about, skip going to the theater. Just sit down and watch the intros with some good friends. It’s a lot shorter, cheaper, and you’ll have a much better time than at the movie, I know I did.

David and David At The Movies Volume One

Hello everyone! No movie review this week but wanted to let you all know that there is going to be a print edition collecting the first three months of David and David At The Movies. I’m excited to tell you that David Carter has reworked the essays from the website and also included an introduction and glossary/index of movies for the print edition. On my end I am doing about 20 new drawings to go in the book, including the cover as seen above.

Since there’s no movie review, I figured I would break down my process in creating the final cover image as you see above.

Step 1: Graph Paper and an Idea

First I made a rough drawing and I knew I wanted to have Carter and myself at the top of this tower getting attacked by all the movies we’ve reviewed. Putting in all those other characters though I decided to do an overlay drawing on some vellum.

Step 2: Draw a Bunch of  Stuff

Now the next step was to combine them in the computer for a finalized version of the rough drawing.

Step 3: Computer Fun

This may look rather messy but I have all my basic elements now and also added in the text with Photoshop.

Step 4: Wet Paints

 I lightboxed the rough printout onto watercolor paper and outlined the basic shapes with a light blue pencil. Then I painted in the colors.

Step 5: “You’re a Tracer!”

Then I penciled it again for like the fourth time on some vellum again and I used the printout of my rough drawing with a combination of the watercolors to determine the inked lines placement. Which we’ll see how well that worked in the next step.

Step 6: Uh-Oh 

If you look at Wolverine and Ryan Gosling’s pants in this image you can see how things weren’t matching up perfectly. Luckily Photoshop has a Clone Stamp tool and I used the heck out of that thing. You can already tell some places where I cleaned it up and had to fix the gap in between Kong’s hand I completely missed. Anyway, last step is the final version as you see at the top of the post. I hope this was insightful and maybe somewhat educating. Perhaps I should stick to digital colors from now on?

Check back here soon we’ll have a link of where you can purchase the print book this cover was done for, I’m still in the process of putting the whole thing together.

See ya next week!

-David Yoder

Kong: Skull Island

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Kong Skull Island A Crisis of Kong-fidence

Written Review by David Carter

Movies will use certain historical events and imagery as shorthand to get its thematic through line across as quickly as it possibly can. Especially imagery that comes from different skirmishes and wars that have been fought throughout human history. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy uses the iconography (and J.R.R Tolkien’s experience) of World War I to strengthen its story about a looming, absolute power threatening to take hold of a rapidly changing world and the small yet courageous people who rally to stop it. Directors Michael Bay (Transformers),  Zack Snyder (Man of Steel) and Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds)  smear their canvases with the imagery from 9/11. People running around devastated, covered in dust and debris as buildings topple around them, not quite sure or processing whats happening. In the 70’s and 80’s there was a tradition of using the Vietnam War as shorthand for a no win scenario for militarily superior humans, versus craftier and exceedingly dangerous extraterrestrials. James Cameron’s Alien$ and John Mctiernan’s Predator are prime examples of movies about overly confident soldiers being slaughtered by an enemy they greatly underestimated. In Star Wars, George Lucas even takes the conflict and reverses the roles so you root and empathize with scrappy group of guerilla freedom fighters instead of the technologically advanced Empire. What makes Kong: Skull Island so compelling is that it’s using Vietnam War iconography (with special attention to Apocalypse Now) while looking to give you this no win situation for the humans. It’s also having you empathize with both the humans and the monsters of Skull Island. It’s laying bare the pointlessness of the conflict.

Kong: Skull Island is a smash-bang kaiju movie with King Kong at its center. Set in a immediately post Vietnam War world, we see America fresh off of its loss. We follow obsessive and put down scientist Bill Randa (played by national treasure John Goodman) and his colleague Huston Brooks (Corey Hawkins of Straight Outta Compton fame). They work for “Monarch”, a fringe-y science organization whose name may sound familiar if you remembered their presence in 2014’s Godzilla.  Bill and Huston have a lead on a previously uncharted and undiscovered land mass given the moniker “Skull Island”. They approach Senator Willis (a small cameo by Richard Jenkins) to get the funding and manpower they need to get to Skull Island before it disappears from satellite imaging again, due to the island being constantly shrouded by storms. They enlist the help of a mercenary/tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston getting a Han Solo style introduction), an anti-war photojournalist named Mason Weaver (the ever amazing Brie Larson), and a helicopter squadron nicknamed the Sky Devils. They’re led by the traumatized and mentally unstable Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (the incomparable Samuel Jackson). Bill and Huston’s plan is to drop bombs on the island to get a geographical survey of the land using the seismic vibrations from the resulting explosions. What ensues is all the imagery you come to expect from a Vietnam war flick: bright orange and red plumes of fire amongst the thick green vegetation of the jungle. Helicopters rolling in like horsemen of the apocalypse, soldiers gleefully surveying their handiwork. Needle drops (sometimes literally) sprinkled with the sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival and David Bowie. And most importantly, the moment when it all comes crashing down for the people who thought they were indestructible. Kong (a physical performance played with majesty fit for a God by Toby Kebbell) doesn’t take too kindly to having his home wrecked by these interlopers and responds with equal measure, demolishing a vast majority of the scientists and military men aboard the helicopters. This leaves the survivors asking questions about what they just saw and why they are here in the first place. Along the way they meet more kaiju, islands natives, and a World War II pilot who crash landed on the Island 20 years prior named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly showing us why he’s one of the best character actors working today). However, the biggest monsters the survivors have to deal with aren’t necessarily the ones on Skull Island (although don’t get me wrong, those are scary too), but the ones among them. The ones too obsessed and broken to see that Kong may not be their enemy, and that fighting on grounds they have no right to is pointless and destructive in the end.

This all comes through in the characterization in the film, with each character representing a side of the conflict and how they play off of each other. Packard and Randa (Randa knew that there were monsters on the island prior to landing) create dangerous friction as two men too obsessed with their own ego’s to see exactly how much danger they’ve put civilians in, as well as soldiers close to the end of their tours. They have different agendas. Packard is looking for meaning and purpose after fighting a war without any. Randa is looking for proof after so many higher ups have dismissed him as a crackpot. But in the end both men are looking for validation of their misguided beliefs. It’s military and science at their worst, two groups who are supposed to protect and advance the human race. This comes into direct conflict with the hired help.

Conrad is a mercenary and tracker who was once in the military, and didn’t find the purpose he was looking for within the service. He also understands that they (the humans) are the extraterrestrials on this hallowed ground and should approach with caution and respect. When a group of soldiers raise their weapons in fear to fire at a buffalo looking kaiju, he forces their guns down, immediately realizing that this being is peaceful. This is a visual summarization of an anecdote told by a cynical soldier named Cole (played by Shea Whigham) about how the gun he carries is one he got from a Vietnamese farmer during the war. The farmer had never even seen a gun before the war. It drives the point home that some enemies don’t exist unless you make them yourself.

Weaver is an anti-war photojournalist that seeks to end conflict in the most peaceful ways possible, hence why she chooses to carry a camera instead of a gun. For her, photography is an art of empathy and her character has loads of the stuff. Like most of the other past adaptation of the King Kong mythos, she’s a beautiful blonde woman who connects with Kong. This time however, it’s not due to her beauty or the uncomfortable undertones of an exotic other overpowering a white woman. It’s because Weaver is able to connect with Kong on an emotional level (the way she stares into Kong’s eyes), and see past the brutal force of nature Kong is on the outside.

John C. Reilly’s character of Hank Marlow is a reminder of what putting aside your difference can look like. In a prologue that’s very reminiscent of John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific, we see Hank and a Japanese pilot named Gunpie crash land on to Skull Island after a dogfight. We find out that over the course of 20 years of living on the island together with its peaceful, ESP communicating natives, Gunpie and Hank became as close as brothers. When taken away from the petty conflicts of the world, they were able to get past all of their barriers (language, cultural, political) to work together towards something constructive. They could have easily tried killing each other, but what would have been the point?

“What’s the point?” is the question burning in this movie’s mind. You ache and groan as you watch characters make one bad decision after another. Even the deaths that are set up to be heroic are played with a layer of ironic nihilism. The only real hero is King Kong himself. He stands above the pettiness of the conflict and does what’s right by protecting kaiju and human alike. He’s God on this island. Keeping the order and putting the devils at bay.

The Kaiju fights in this movie are as entertaining as anything in a Kaiju movie in the past few years standing right alongside Peter Jackson’s T-rex fight in King Kong and the attack on Hong Kong sequence in Pacific Rim. Kong doesn’t fight like an ape so much as a man engaged in a down and dirty street brawl, using chains, blades and anything at his disposal to get the job done. The kaiju themselves are Miyazaki-esque in their creature design (very intentional on director John Vogt-Roberts part) feeling like gods of their domains within the island. It’s mixed with the prehistoric nature of the island so you get your fill of dinosaur like creatures in the mix as well.

The problems with this movie lie in that for all the chest thumping and anti-war sentiment, the characters admittedly come off as a little thinly sketched. The motivations are present but most of the characters never really get a full arc (Mostly Jackson and Reilly do and that’s because they have the most screen time). The bones are there but there’s no meat. The movie moves a little too quickly for its own good sometimes. We speed past the first act so quickly that it feels like a “previously on Kong: Skull Island”montage set to a 70’s soundtrack. A little more time spent with minor characters would have been welcome. I can’t penalize the movie too hard for leaning on its Apocalypse Now influence too hard considering that this movie isn’t exactly going for subtle (the movie’s as subtle as a 100 ft tall ape) but sometimes I wish the writers dug a little deeper into some of what made the Vietnam War so interesting in American history outside of it being a loss for American morale.

Some may find it’s mash-up approach to storytelling a little off putting, but Kong: Skull Island at least has something to say on top of its thrillride. It’s not perfect but you could do worse in a monster movie with thinly sketched human characters and derivative imagery (*cough Godzilla (2014) cough*). It’s a good time and in my book, any anti-war blockbuster is welcome with open arms.

Logan

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Logan: Children of Mutants

Written Review by David Carter

And you can have it all

My empire of dirt

I will let you down

I will make you hurt

-From the song “Hurt”

We live in (to put it lightly) unfortunate times. People of all walks of life with different sexual orientations and identities can’t get basic human rights. In America we elected a narcissistic buffoon and his cronies to take away those rights and the rights we thought we had an iron grip on. Our environment continues it’s downward spiral into so many points of no return it becomes existentially paralyzing when you try to think about all of the devastation to the eco system you don’t even know about. In all this misery it’s understandable and completely human to try and figure out what your next move will be and how you can protect yourself and even the ones around you. But what’s been keeping me up at night is that in all this immediacy, no one really has time to stop and think about what this means for the future. By future I’m not talking about what this means for the next election or the next decade, but what this means for the next generation. Maybe this sounds like I’m shouting Helen Lovejoy’s, “Oh wont somebody please think of the children?!?” but this is what baffles and angers me whenever new policies, bills and whatever gets passed that just seem to make life harder for children to live their future (and current) lives. The legacy we leave behind can not only haunt us on the way to the grave but will have everlasting effects on those who come after us. Logan looks at the consequences of legacy (both good and bad) and how we carry that with us and what we can do to shift it into something transcendent before it’s too late.

Logan sees the return of the X-men franchises focal character, Wolverine a.k.a James Howlett, a.k.a Logan (Hugh Jackman strapping on the claws again after a 17 year run on the character). The year is 2029 and our title character is in a bad way. He walks with a permanent limp, he can barely see 5 feet in front of him and his body looks like hamburger meat, a canvas of scars and hammered flesh. When we meet him he’s passed out piss drunk just outside of his ride share limo. There are some carjackers trying to lift the rims off of his ride. You might expect what comes next: Logan tells them that they should walk away and not start anything with him. A bullet gets fired and Logan shakes it off like it’s a bee sting. And then he makes quick work of the unsuspecting lowlifes. Except you’d be half wrong. Sure Logan postures and takes buckshot to the chest, resulting in him pulling out his claws out, but everything is off. One of his claws doesn’t come out all the way, the gun wounds don’t heal very quickly or completely for that matter, and before he can fully start taking those punks out in the grizzliest manner possible, they gang stomp him into the dirt, a place where Logan seems to spend much of his time lately. This isn’t the hero or antihero we’ve so been accustomed to from the previous X-Men films. This is a man who’s given up long ago. Someone who doesn’t have the emotional capacity to care for anyone outside of himself. He barely cares for the 90 year old, mentally decrepit Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart giving an awards worthy performance), he more just tends to him out of pity and obligation. Charles’ brain is degenerating to the point that, combined with his mutant powers, it results in seizures that cause so much harm to anyone within the vicinity of the episode that his brain has been classified as a “Weapon of Mass Destruction”. Because of this, Logan and Charles live secluded out in the deserts of Mexico with Caliban (a wonderfully wry Stephen Merchant), an albino possessing the ability to (literally) sniff out other mutants. This seclusion isn’t just for the safety of others at risk from these episodes, it’s for their own safety. You see, there hasn’t been a mutant born in the last 25 years and for all these three know, they’re the last of their kind, and don’t want to go the way of the dodo just yet. The heavy bleakness of it all leads Logan to remark to Charles as he lays him down sedated on his bed, “You always though we were apart of God’s plan, but maybe we were God’s mistake.”

Logan has little to look forward to which is why he’s a limo driver, so he can save enough money to take him and Charles out to sea and live out the short remainder of their lives on a boat. That’s when a woman named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) comes to Logan asking for the help of “The Wolverine” to get her and a mute little girl to a place in North Dakota called “Eden”. Logan hasn’t heard the name “Wolverine”  in a long time, and hasn’t been that person even longer. He doesn’t want the business of anything that interrupts his slow march to the grave. Things get complicated when a robotically armed military man named Pierce (a smarmy and swaggerific Boyd Holbrook) approaches Logan looking for the same woman and little girl. Logan finds it high time for Charles and him to get on that boat sooner rather than later when the last wrench is thrown into the machinery: The little girl Laura (a star making and electrifying introduction to young actress Dafne Keen) is just like Logan. Not just a mutant but with the exact same skill set (claws, a healing factor) and ferocity Logan has. Logan now has to take Laura with him and Charles as they outrun the people looking for her, and on the way, look for answers about her and the state of the world.

The world’s seen better days in Logan, and it’s all mentioned in passing or put out in the margins as color. You see how border control has been stepped up to keep Mexican immigrants out and a group of white, privileged teens mocking them, chanting “U.S.A, U.S.A” as they drive by drunkenly on prom night. You see the dehumanization of the world as a bunch a GPS controlled semi trucks run a black family off the road, and you see that same black family trying to provide for themselves even as a company denies them the most basic human need of WATER (Flint, Michigan says hi). That’s what makes this future depicted in the film so interesting. It’s not quite a dystopia but a very realistic imagining of what America could look like 12 years from now. The people in Logan are still living but most people aren’t living well. In addition, there’s the specter of “what happened to the mutants?” hanging over the whole world, but as indicated in a A.M. talk radio show, no one seems to care anymore. The future that was left for the people in the movie is so bleak that you get the sense that people stopped fighting a long time ago and just want to live out their days in relative peace. This is what is embodied in the character Logan. He’s a brooding microcosm of failure and antipathy. He fought for what he thought was right with and for a man he could call father,  who took him in and put him on  a team he could call his family. Both are eventually killed or become shells of what they once were. He lost, so why should he keep trying to play the game? That’s why Laura is the heartbeat of this movie. She’s the personification of what he has to keep fighting for whether he likes it or not. For her, Logan was the personification of an ideal to look up to. In this world Logan and the X-Men are legends and folk heroes. So much to the point that their story was turned into comic books and action figures. Like all folk heroes, the story gets warped. Logan espouses “Maybe a quarter of it happened, and not like this”, but to Laura it doesn’t matter. In this fiction she finds something to live up to, the same way in real life we look to art to find purpose and energy to aspire to. However, like all heroes, it’s heartbreaking when they don’t live up to the myth, and in fact, almost become villains in your eyes. Logan looks at Laura and the world around him and see what his legacy produced and he’s horrified by it, but as the story progresses he comes to understand that it’s never too late to make up for some (not all) of your mistakes. Even as your past looks to tear you down again and again, you can leave the next generation with the idealized version of what you are, and they can be even better than that.

Logan uses westerns (The movie Shane is especially important) as its iconography. Westerns are good for a story about a hero on his way out because westerns are about the end of an era. The end of the outlaw and the “savage” and the beginning for civilization (power and the future) to take hold of the land. That’s what Charles and Logan are to the world at this point: outlaws and savages, and they have no place in this crumbling modernized world. But what makes Logan even more unique in its place as a “superhero film” is that it’s using revisionist westerns as its calling card. Movies like  I Shot Jesse James, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven. Westerns that exist in a world where the heroes are allowed to be more grey than black and white. Hell, “hero” isn’t even the right word, the people in these stories are just that: people. They’re fallible and don’t always do the right thing. The fallibility comes through physically in Jackman’s portrayal of Logan. He’s not an unstoppable force anymore. He bleeds and keeps on bleeding. With Patrick Stewart aged Charles Xavier you see a man who doesn’t know what is best anymore and makes fatal mistakes because of it. Laura looks at both these men and learns from their mistakes. Along the way she’ll make new mistakes but it’s better than repeating past sins.

The performances are the reason to see Logan. Patrick Stewart plays a mentally degenerative man with a grace and groundedness that made me remember family members in my life that were mentally fading away. Dafne Keen is the real deal as Laura. Director James Mangold said that she was the movies best special effect. I don’t know how much of her fights involved a stunt double, but her physicality and screen presence is enough to sell me that she is an incredible force to be reckoned with. This brings us to Hugh Jackman. A man who was thought to be wrong for this role when was cast in the first X-Men film (mostly because the fan response was to want a comics accurate Wolverine who hairy stood 5 feet tall. Which led to calls for Danny Devito and Bob Hoskins) but has now become the heart of this franchise after starring and cameoing in 9 out of the 10 existing X-Men films (he’s debatably the lead character in 7 of them). He gives the best of those performances in Logan. A performances that reaches for Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, but with more gravitas suited for a heightened reality. It’s also a performance (and a movie for that matter)that wouldn’t be possible without the existing other films in the franchise. You can see how the character has evolved from the mostly silent and out-of-his-depth man of the first film to a cocky, yet prickly lead of the proceeding films, to the husk of a man he is now.

On top of all these great performances is great craft. The score to the film by Marco Beltrami trots along with the expected melancholy acoustic guitar themes but also contains some inspired sounds like a frantically dissonant piano that gets kicked on for action beats of the film. Screenwriters Michael Greene, Scott Frank and James Mangold bring something that seemed to be missing from big bombastic blockbusters or the past few years. They give us a tightness and a laser focus on what the movie is trying to say. Mangold and Frank not being strangers to stories about flawed men looking to do right (Check out Mangold’s Copland and Frank’s A Walk Among the Tombstones to see further evidence) know exactly how to play these characters so that you empathize with them without really finding them overly lovable, these are still killers after all. The movie also looks like nothing else in the “superhero movie” genre. Even the big action set pieces have more in common with Tony Scott film than anything in the DCU or MCU.

Logan above all else is a story of redemption, and not just that of the main character but the redemption all of us seek when we know a chapter is coming to a close. We may leave behind something that’s still a mess and just resembles an empire of dirt, but if we at least drop seeds into that dirt and water them, eventually those seeds become flowers for those who come after us.

Get Out

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Get Out: Fear of  a White Nation

Written Review by David Carter

Allegorical horror has been seeing a kind of renaissance as of the last few years. Films like The VVitch, It Follows, and The Babadook are connecting with critics and finding audiences who don’t usually go for the spooky stuff. This isn’t to say that all horror has to be about something profound to be of a higher quality (although I think horror is usually about something regardless of intention), it just means that these terrifying tales with social, psychological, and plain old human anxieties as text (or very blatant subtext) seem to be taking hold on the genre. This definitely isn’t anything new, allegory is baked into horror on a textual level. Dark folk and fairy tales existed to caution to people about the dangers of the world. As human beings evolved so did the depths of horror. It wasn’t just about the occasional danger, but the danger of everyday life. Paranoia (The Thing), the opulence of the 1 percent (Society), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead). It becomes more interesting when directors tackle subjects that focus on the fears of one particular group of people. Stories that aren’t about everyone, but are for everyone. This is what Jordan Peele decided to do in his directorial debut, Get Out. A movie about the anxieties and fears of black people in America and white America’s exploitation of our culture and more interestingly, our bodies. 

Get Out is about a young, handsome black photographer named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, probably best known stateside for starring in the “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of Black Mirror, another socially allegorical fable), who’s reached the point in his relationship to finally meet his pretty, white-liberal girlfriend Rose Armitage’s (Allison Williams continuing her great work of portraying WASP-y women) parents. Chris is rightfully nervous about the visit, not just because he’s “meeting the parents”, but because going into any social environment that predominately affluent white people (liberal or conservative) makes him nervous. Chris’s best friend, TSA agent, and comic relief Rod (Comedian Lil Rel Howery) gives Chris a hard time about the visit, but also checks up on Chris periodically since Rod is taking care of his dog while he’s away. When Chris and Rose finally arrive at the Armitage household, things are off immediately. Even outside of the “try-hard” liberalism of her parents Missy and Dean (perfectly cast Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford really selling the awkwardness of telling a black man they would have voted for Obama three times if they could have) there’s a strangeness about the house. Missy keeps offering to hypnotize Chris to get rid of his smoking habit. When Dean gives a Chris a tour of the house, he shows him a picture of his father and tells him about how he got knocked out of the qualifying race to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (also known as the olympics at which a black man got to stick it to Hitler and his Aryan Race bullshit) by Jesse Owens and how he never really recovered. There’s also two black people working in the house and on the grounds named Georgina and Walter (Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson) who don’t seem quite right. They’re TOO subservient for their jobs. Added to the mix is Rose’s sociopathic little brother Jeremy (a screen demanding Caleb Landry Jones) who’s fetishization and almost phrenological view of Chris’s physique (he believes black people have physical and biological advantages) leads him to almost wrestle Chris at the dinner table.  In addition to all of this, there’s going to be a big party at the house with a bunch more rich white folk to stress Chris out even further. At the party, there’s an appearance from from a black man named Andre (an ever delightfully strange LaKeith Stanfield) who’s been missing for months and isn’t behaving anyway like he used to. It’s a perfect cocktail for black paranoia, but it’s not paranoia because what you see is what you get in this film.

Get Out, in addition to being inspired by a real event that occurred in Jordan Peele’s life (visiting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time), owes a lot to movies like Night of the Living Dead, and more importantly the works of Ira Levin. Levin wrote the novels Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. Both were turned into very influential films that inspired Peele. The conceit is the same of both works: what you think is happening, is actually happening. Rosemary really is having Satan’s child. The women of Stepford are really robots. The allegory and subtext is front and center in these works so that audience can’t really read the movie for anything other than what it’s really about. It’s less Twilight Zone where Rod Serling and the other writers were attempting to couch the social commentary in a thin layer of symbolism and adding a twist to really pack a punch at the end. There’s not really a twist in the third act of Get Out. There’s a reveal that takes the films subtext, which is ostensibly about how white America (even liberals) devalues black lives but values and appropriates black culture, and has it go a level deeper. The movie posits that what white America really wants is our black bodies and image filtered through their white lense. That’s a scorching take on America’s race relationship in 2017 (and American history as a whole), but it’s only appropriate coming from half of the duo that embodied the zeitgeist of Obama’s America with their hit comedy show.

In addition to the objectification of black people, Jordan has an idea of how this systematic racism is perpetrated by white people down through generations. The Armitage family is a microcosm of America’s generational racism. Dean’s parents represent the “Greatest Generation” and their views of racial superiority. This gets passed down to Missy and Dean, the “Baby Boomers” who try and rebel against these ideas but eventually fall into neoliberalism that gives them a facade of racial acceptance and (knowingly or unknowingly) in the end they do the same things as their parents only sneakier and more sinisterly (there’s a scene where they play “bingo” that exemplifies this). This begets white “Gen X’ers” and “Millennials” who grew up with all this privilege and use black culture purely for their own trendy and fetishistic needs. These people grow up without really seeing or understanding the people who make and perform the things they find so appealing as people. It’s so ingrained in them that they don’t realize that this type of consumption lacks any form of empathy. These two observations of black objectification and generational racism swirl into a dangerous cocktail within the microcosm of Armitage household as Chris tries to escape. Its a mixture that says one thing: Black people didn’t choose to be here, and don’t want to be put in these boxes, but white people brought them here and now they can’t live without us. 

Peele has a clear lens about how to get this point across. His eye is like that of Quentin Tarantino or Edgar Wright. He loves referencing or using the iconography of his favorite films, but it doesn’t ever devolve into mimicry. He knows exactly what piece to take from another film to amplify his motifs. One that comes to mind is a Clockwork Orange reference that occurs when Chris is strapped to a chair and being “primed” for what comes next. The movie never directly uses the same iconography from the Clockwork Orange scene, just the idea of it within a new context. All of the cast is incredible, with Caleb Landry Jones being the standout supporting player for me. He OWNS what is one of the most uncomfortable dinner table scenes in recent memory (think a less cartoony version Django Unchained dinner scene). Lil Rel Howery’s comic relief character feels like he’s transported out of a movie from 20 years ago, but his schtick never gets tired. He really works as voice of the audience. Michael Able’s score to the film is fine, but the real standout is main title theme “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” which doesn’t sound like anything that you hear in a modern horror movie. It reminded me of all those gothic sounding title themes from movies like The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby and Exorcist 2: The Heretic.

If there was any criticism to be lobbed at the movie it would come in the form of its ending. Your mileage may vary based on how you feel about the thematic through line of the movie and how it syncs up with the real world. For me the ending felt like it was taking a stance on the type of images of black people it wanted show, i.e. imagery different from what we were used to seeing in the media on a regular basis. Regardless of that ending, it can’t be denied that this is a movie that’s made of it’s time, and sadly could have been made 30, 20, and even 10 years ago and had the same resonance. It’s unflinching and brutally honest and while it may not change any minds, it’s a story that certain make some people a little more alert and conscious about the world we live in.

 

The Lego Batman Movie

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

The Lego Batman Movie: Chuckles with Infinite Batmans

Written Review by David Carter

One of the cool things about superhero comics is that every artist and writer can pen their own version of a character, even within the same continuity. It’s why you can have Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s Peter Parker be a little more socially awkward than Todd Macfarlane’s dorky-but-cool take on the character. Or even have the interpretations be miles apart to tell specific stories. Grant Morrison’s “personification of good” All-Star Superman is very different from Frank Miller’s fascist puppet in The Dark Knight Returns. What few writers and artists (there are exceptions) rarely ever attempt to do is reconcile all of these different versions as the same character.  That’s what makes The Lego Batman Movie feel so unique in our modern cinematic superhero landscape: Its ability to lampoon, honor, and embrace all of Batman’s depictions. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is great follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie and also a hoot and a half.

The Lego Batman Movie sees the return of the The Lego Movie’s breakout character, Batman (a gravelly voiced Will Arnett), and this time we’re on his turf. Gotham City, where the superstitious and cowardly run rampant. They’re headed up by the jagged toothed, yet hilariously co-dependent Joker (Zach Galifianakis channeling Cesar Romero) who’s plan is to, predictably, blow up the city, but with help of what is seemingly Batman’s entire rogues gallery which includes everybody from Mr Freeze to…Gentleman Ghost? The Caped Crusader swoops in and stops the evil deeds of the Clown Prince of Crime, all while singing his own theme song he makes up on the spot. The real story begins when we see Batman go back to the Batcave after a job well done. He takes off his Bat-suit (but not his cowl) puts on a robe and sits and eats his microwaved Lobster Thermidor alone. He watches Jerry Maguire alone. He plays guitar on a floaty toy in the middle of his Bat-pond alone. He looks at a picture of his dead parents on the fateful night of their murder alone. Oh so very alone. Sure, he has his computer (which he adorably calls “Puter”) and Alfred (Ralph Fiennes continuing his hot streak) is there, but even Alfred sees and worries about his surrogate son’s well being and encourages him to get out of the cave and mingle. So Batman (begrudgingly in Bruce Wayne mode) goes to a gala honoring the retirement of police commissioner Jim Gordon (Hector Elizondo). There, he meets an energetic young orphan named Dick Grayson (MVP Michael Cera). Dick idolizes Bruce (he refers to Bruce as “the world’s greatest orphan”) and wants nothing more than to be adopted, which Bruce does only because he’s too distracted gawking at a beautiful red headed woman named Barbara Gordon (an authoritative Rosario Dawson). Little does Bruce know, Barbara is set to take her father’s mantle as police commissioner of Gotham and she’s all about reform, namely the reform of  Batman vigilante methods. She wants Batman to work with Gotham PD, and not go all “lone wolf” every time trouble strikes (mostly by pointing out that his methods of “beating up poor people” haven’t  really been effective anyway). With the conflict of a new power dynamic with Gotham PD, a new boy orphan in his life and the Joker up to a scheme that involves The Phantom Zone (an extra-dimensional prison for villains) Batman finds himself trying balance a lot on his plate, yet still stubbornly and childishly trying to do it all by himself.

This look at Batman’s thick headed drive to do things his away in solitude is where The Lego Batman Movie‘s thematic core lies. One of the things about Batman history that’s always mischaracterized or willfully ignored is that Batman is a hermit. Which is barely true. Batman, in most reads, tops out at loner. He needs his alone time, but Batman has had a makeshift family for a while. Alfred is a surrogate father and Dick is his adopted son. Barbara is usually like a daughter but sometimes she’s portrayed as older and becomes closer to a friend (and uncomfortably, a lover). While he never really shows him his true identity, Jim Gordon is Batman’s best friend. Hell ,Dick Grayson/Robin was introduced in Detective Comics in April 1940, which is less than a year after Batman’s own debut (May 1939). This mischaracterization that Batman’s modern day portrayal as a brooding genius with the emotional capacity of a teenage boy, was somehow baked into the character’s identity from the beginning is patently false. That’s what makes Batman’s lego counterpart so much fun. It’s taking a shot at the portrayals made popular by The Dark Knight Returns, Death in the Family, and The Killing Joke. The Lego Batman Movie is putting it in a light that says “Yes the lonely, brooding grimdark Batman is as mature as the Lincoln Park and Limp Bizkit you listened to in the 00’s”, which is to say “not at all”. But, it’s also showing us how different Batman has been throughout every era of the characters existence on the screen. Every on screen, landmark incarnation of The World’s Greatest Detective gets referenced in someway (Sorry Beware the Batman fans, no dice) with special attention to the more recent portrayals (Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder) and the wholly underrated Adam West Batman 66’ . This is shorthand on the filmmakers part to show us that these two wildly different takes on the character can co-exist in the same space. There’s no one definitive take on Batman. The only other piece of media that does this as gracefully is Grant Morrison’s 7 year run on the character where he reconciled all these different sides of the character (The father, the loner, the wacky/ silly detective) and created a character with so much more dimensionality. The Lego Batman Movie doesn’t quite pull off what it took Morrison 7 years to do, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t come close in the 104 minutes it’s given.

On top of all that examination and love of the character is just a great movie. Id say it is pretty much as good as The Lego Movie. The jokes come so fast that it’s going to take at least 2 or 3 viewings just to catch the visual gags alone, but if one of your movies problem is that the jokes are so good that people laugh over the next good one, you’ve got other things to worry about. Everyone is bringing a great voice game, including the heaps of people who only have one or two lines. My favorite is having the perpetually smooth Billy Dee Williams voice Two-Face, which is an in joke for people who remember that he only ever got to play Harvey Dent in the Burton’s Batman movies. Michael Cera’s an eager to please but not grating Dick/Robin that you can’t help but smile every time he has a line. The script is simple and gets straight to what the movie is about without abandoning the themes it wants to get across. I mentioned up top that it’s sometimes uncomfortable to have Barbara Gordon/Batgirl be a romantic interest to Batman, but the movie does a great job recontextualizing her role in the “Lego-verse” and making her Batman’s equal, and in some ways, his superior. If there’s any complaint I’d lob at the movie is that it simply can’t match the lightning in a bottle quality of The Lego Movie. This doesn’t mean it’s already becoming stale. It means that The Lego Movie was just that good, while also being a HUGE surprise.

The Lego Batman Movie is great examination of a character, while also being a delightfully silly movie that people can watch from all angles. If you like Batman: watch it. If you like comedy: watch it. If you like feeling joy: watch it. I hope Warner Brothers keeps up the level of quality with their next Lego films because in trying to have fun with a property and get down to what the character really is, they made one of the best Batman movies of all time.

John Wick: Chapter 2

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

John Wick Chapter 2: Babayaga Returns

Written Review by David Carter

A bird’s eye view of New York City. We glide over the the buildings at night making all of the LED lights and neon displays pop like signposts to the underworld. There’s an almost decadent aura about the city. We slowly make our descent down into the city. A Buster Keaton film is projected onto the side of a building. Just as we see Buster crash his car in the film, we also see a black Mustang come roaring off a side street like a demon possessed. It’s chasing a man on a motorcycle, whose bobbing and weaving through traffic. Its no matter though, the other cars on the street seem to barely notice the heart thumping ballet of  automobile acrobatics taking place. The Mustang mauls the motorcycle man and the other man exits from his car while twangy guitar plays a western hero’s theme and the camera follows his sharply dressed physique. He’s looking for one thing: His stolen car that rightfully belongs to him. We don’t see his face but we know it’s the man we came to see. Yeah, I’m thinkin’ we’re back in the world of John Wick. Specifically John Wick: Chapter 2.

John Wick, for those who somehow missed this breath of fresh air, was a 2014 action film that kind of came out of nowhere. It mostly snagged viewers due to word of mouth from early screenings and playing at festivals like the Alamo Drafthouses’ genre festival “Fantastic Fest”. The general consensus was“Holy God. Keanu is back”. They weren’t wrong. The movie is everything you want out of a well made action flick. A simple but engaging story, high emotional stakes, a deeply interesting world, a jaw dropping cast, and the most important of all: crystal clear mind blowing action. At the center of it all was Keanu Reeves, showing us why he was such a unique star in the first place. You can see the sorrow and rage he feels just by looking into his beautifully sad eyes. He moves with the grace of a dancer while doing blunt-force stunts that would make any Hong Kong action star nod their head in approval. John Wick: Chapter 2 continues to do, and elevate, all of these things, but the levels are now at full blown mythological heights.

The opening scenes to John Wick: Chapter 2 essentially serve as an epilogue to the first John Wick. John has gotten his revenge at the end of the first movie and burned an empire to the ground. Now he just wants his car back, and does so with the same proficiency and focus as he would use if he was pulling off a complex assassination. After getting his property back, he wishes for a truce. John is tired and he just wants to at least get back to a shadow of his short lived retired life. His revenge taken, and his old life (literally) buried, all seems well until Santino D’Antonio (played by Riccardo Scimarcio) knocks on his door. John has made a mistake, by coming back into the fold to exact his revenge, he’s made himself available to pay off a debt to Santino. The debt in question is the same one that allowed John to pull off the oft spoken, but never explained “Impossible Task” which gave John his freedom from his life as a killer. John is to kill Santino’s sister Gianna D’Antonio (Claudia Gerini) because she’s set to become head of the family, a spot Santino wants for himself. Due to the world of the first John Wick establishing a mysterious and super intriguing underground world of contract killers with very specific rules and customs, John has to pay the debt because of a “Marker”. It’s a debt that must be paid straight forward, otherwise the debtor will be hunted down and killed. So John is back in it again, and the only way out is to accomplish his task with the odds stacked around him.

This is where the movie kicks into high gear. We get to see John go back to work in this increasingly complicated and surreal world of hitmen and women. The film expands its scope from just “The Continental”(the hotel in the first film that served as a safe haven for criminal and killer alike) and the mysterious gold coins everyone carries to pay for everything from a single drink to body disposal of the first movie. In this movie alone we see a network of homeless people who turn out to be an information distribution ring of sorts. We see beautiful, identically  dressed, spectacled and tattooed telephone operators who type up, file, and process all of the contracts in this world. We get to see that there’s a second “Continental”  location in Italy run by Julius (screen legend Franco Nero). All of these details and new layers take the “Greek Tragedy” of John’s situation and plunges it deeper into“Greek Mythology”. This is by the design of writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski. In an interview with SFX magazine Stahelski talks about this saying:

“[T]he Continental would be like the underworld. New York is a great city, because it feels like you’re underground, even though you’re on the street level because of the high rise and depth of the city. So we were just like, ‘OK. The underworld has Hades – you know, the different gatekeepers of it. And everyone’s a different kind of god that takes care of a different kind of service.’ So we went back and looked at the script like that and broke it down to iconic things like the gold coins, like talismans. The guns obviously become swords. The suits become armour.

[Rome has] a much older history. If anything, it grounds and gives our world a lot more history and folklore than we could have done in America. If anything, it’s the most expansive thing you could do for the world, because it shows you it’s been around a lot longer than just the United States. And when you say ‘myth’, it doesn’t just mean ‘ancient’; it means there’s a lot of roots to the story. John Wick is just passing through.”

This attention to detail and world building is what sets the John Wick series apart from the other hitman/revenge action movies, but what puts it head and shoulders above any American action films being made today is how incredible and precise the craft is.

Before Chad Stahelski became a director he was a stuntman and coordinator and specifically became a stunt double for Keanu Reeves on films like Point Break and The Matrix. You can tell the John Wick films are labors of love for both of them. Stahelski himself has very clear ideas about action. In an interview with Birth.Movies.Death when asked what makes a great action scene he admirably conveys his thoughts:

“The magic is in the aesthetics. Is it a cool tone? Am I supposed to laugh? What does the scene accomplish? Is it Saving Private Ryan? Or is 21 Jump Street? Is it Jackie Chan “oh shit, look at what he just did”? Or is there an emotional element that each impact is trying to convey? What most people don’t realize is that action can be one of our greatest forms of storytelling, because it’s human beings using their bodies to convey everything we need to know. Forget dialogue. It’s primal.”

The aesthetics in John Wick are laser focused. Every fight has a different emotional response it wants to elicit from the audience, and it’s not the same “wow, wasn’t that cool?” over and over again (although that’s certainly present). Some fights are funny, some are brutal, some are scary, and some are just slicker than oil. And while Stahelski and Stunt coordinator Jordan Perry deserve all the credit they get, it’s Keanu Reeves who put in the time necessary to pull off the insane stuff the movie demands of him. In the same interview Stahelski talks about Keanu’s commitment, say he trained “five hours a day, six hours a day, fighting, and putting rounds in targets”  and that  “By the time he was done with four months of that, he could’ve competed in a jiu jitsu tournament or a judo tournament, or brought it at a three-gun shooting competition.” If you need visual confirmation, here’s Reeves at a shooting range putting in work.

As far as the rest of the movie, everything is mostly tops. The movie is beautifully (a word that rarely ever gets used when it comes to describing how action movies look) shot by DP Dan Lausten who brings colors and hues to an otherwise very dark movie. The returning cast of Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo is wonderful as ever. There’s some great new additions as well. Ruby Rose plays a mute assassin named Ares and through pure physicality shows us why she’s one of the best action stars working today. Common plays Cassian, the deadly professional bodyguard of the woman John is tasked to kill. Cassian and John get the single most delightful set piece of the film, one involving silencers and a crowded subway and later, a subway car. Peter Serafinowicz is a scene stealer as the “Sommelier” a man who knows his wines as well as his guns. The MVP however, is my man Laurence Fishburne comin’ in and making a 4 course meal out of his all-too-brief scenes. He plays Bowery King, the head of the previously mentioned hobo network. He’s there to add some showmanship and direct smarminess to the proceedings (He would be the Ugly in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). The man gets what, for my money, is the single best line in the movie and leaves you wanting so much more.

The problems with movie range from minor to personal. The minor being that the surprise and smallness of the first movie can never be replicated. For all of the massive world building and elevated stakes the movie loses that small “one off” feel of the first. I compare it to The Raid movies (John Wick is essentially the American answer to The Raid) in that your preferences dictate which one you like better, but at the end of the day they’re both masterpieces in their own right. The personal being what your capacity for gun violence is. I’m not one to preach about violence and gore in media, I’m actually a big fan of those things when they’re used effectively (not a fan of torture porn) but, as film critic Jordan Hoffman points out in his piece about the film the line becomes crossed when the guns are identified by their real life names. This becomes especially uncomfortable when one of those weapons is the AR-15, the gun used in a bunch of high profile mass shootings. The movie is by no means endorsing gun violence (as evidenced in the above video of Keanu and crew taking the responsibility to learn how to PROPERLY use these weapons) and artists have every right to do whatever they want with their material, but for some the use of real names can take a little of the fun out of the film without substituting it for anything substantial.

John Wick: Chapter 2 does what sequels rarely ever seem to do successfully: surpass the original in every conceivable metric. It might have some motivation problems and while I can’t wait for Chapter 3, I wish it wasn’t so set-up since there were so many actions that had obvious consequences for the next entry. If I had my way Reeves and Stahelski would lean into the pulp hero aspect of the character and make 6 of these babys (kind of like how there are dozens of Doc Savage and Philip Marlowe stories) but I’ll accept what i’m given now: an action masterpiece.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

xXx: The D-Team (The “D” is for Diesel and Diversity!)

Written Review by David Carter

Once upon a time, back in the long forgotten and whimsical era of the late 90’s and early 00’s, there lived a man named Vin Diesel.

Vin was a dork.

He loved D&D and theater.

Vin however, was also unique looking. He was multi-racial, handsome, had a deep gravely voice, and good screen presence. These got him noticed in a small role in Saving Private Ryan and his voice work as the titular character in The Iron Giant. So Hollywood, now facing an aging Arnold Schwarzenegger, decided they would do everything in their power to make this kid the next big action boy for Generation X. So Vin took his looks and interest and attached them to things that walked the line between “Agro-bro Entertainment” and “Dork Fest”. He first had success with Pitch Black playing a character named Richard B. Riddick (Dick B. Riddick if you’re nasty), a sci-fi mercenary, bounty hunter and criminal who can see in the dark. It was B movie up and down. Small location, small but intense stakes, modest budget and pulpy action all around. Next came Fast and the Furious, where he played Dominic Toretto. A street racing criminal with a heart of gold who’s as much about the concept of “family” as he is about sippin’ sweet sweet Coronas.

Both of these eventually became franchises (franchise may be a strong word for Riddick but three movies ain’t shabby) that came back to help resuscitate Vin’s career after some not so stellar career choices. But, there was another movie right in line with Fast and the Furious and Pitch Black that kind of came and went from the public consciousness. A movie that was so aimed at the perceived Mountain Dew drinking, extreme sports watching, and video game obsessed Gen Xers and older Millennials, that in its attempt to make a “cool James Bond for the modern age”, it came back around to being quickly dated and so wildly uncool before it even hit theater screens. That movie is of course xXx.

The problem with xXx, was that its Poochie like aesthetic was apart of its charm. So when Vin opted out of the sequel and Ice Cube took over for xXx: State of the Union, the movies “quality” improved but the hook was gone. Vin Diesel and his dopey Xander Cage character (a name, YA writers from 2003 are kicking themselves for not getting to first) were the heart of the movie. So when the trailer for a xXx movie starring a 49 year old Vin Diesel showed him skiing through the jungle wearing rolled up jeans and a sleeveless button up shirt like an extra straight out of a Limp Bizkit video, I knew I was in for something fun and goofy. That’s what xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is. A goofy, over the top ride that knows how dumb it is. What makes it stand out from the other early year action releases is that it brings a weapon that Vin picked up from his time making the Fast and Furious movies: Diversity and Globalism.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage opens with Samuel L. Jackson reprising his role as NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons recruiting another candidate (a cameo by Brazilian soccer star Neymar Jr.) for the “xXx program” that was founded after Xander Cage’s first mission in xXx went so well. The program seems to be recruiting anyone who has a left-of-center skill sets (athletes, martial artists, and hackers) just like Xander Cage had (who was seemingly killed off screen between the first and second movies). Tragedy strikes and a satellite is dropped on Gibbons and Neymars meeting place, killing them. Afterwards, CIA headquarters is attacked by a team of skilled fighters led by Xiang (Donnie Yen baby!) to steal a MacGuffin called “Pandora’s Box”, a device capable of controlling any of the satellites currently orbiting Earth, and using them like missiles. CIA agent Jan Marke (a totally game Toni Collette) hunts down the falsely deceased Xander Cage in the Dominican Republic (in a scene that echoes Cages own recruitment scene from the first film) and recruits him to track down the people responsible for Gibbons death and the theft of Pandora’s Box. Xander agrees because of his connection to Gibbons, but only under the condition that he assembles his own team.

Xander’s “A-Team” consists of Harvard “Nicks” Zhou played by Kris Wu, a real life Chinese born popstar and rapper who serves as the “Faceman” of the group, sneaking into high profile places and busting out his DJ skills when needed. Scottish actor Rory McCann (most famously “The Hound” on Game of Thrones)  channels “Howling Mad Murdock” in his Tennyson character. He loves pulling off dangerous car crashes that should kill him every single time. Lastly we get the “B.A. Baracus” of the gang in Australian, gender-neutral model, and action star Ruby Rose, playing the gifted sniper Adele Wolff. Everyone of these people (including Vin himself) comes from a different nationality, race, gender and sexual orientation. It should be pointed out the movie was partly funded with Chinese money but that’s feels like a cynical answer to what more seems like Vin Diesel’s commitment to big diverse cast of characters. It’s apparent in the Fast and Furious films where the late Paul Walker was essentially the only white guy in the crew. Even the bad guys in Return of Xander Cage are diverse. Donnie Yens Xiang is Chinese. The character Serena Unger is portrayed by Bollywood star Deepika Padukone. Thai martial artist and all around badass Tony Jaa gets to flex his weirdo muscles playing an unhinged character simply named Talon. You may look at this is a purely economic move but I’ll say from my standpoint as an audience member it was a lot more interesting seeing a diverse cast than a bunch of Jai Courtney’s and Sam Worthington’s running around on screen.

Outside of its casting the movie just works. Well…works on its own terms. The action set pieces are consistently exciting (especially any set piece involving Donnie Yen messin’ fools up) but super trashy and over the top. The standouts would definitely have to be the opening assault on the CIA with Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa showing us why they’re the best in the biz and the final set piece that cross cuts between a warehouse battle and a zero gravity shoot out on a plummeting airplane. This feels like the type of movie that you’re either in or out based on either the scene where Xander sleeps with (AND WEARS OUT) a Harem of women or the super nutty opening scene with Samuel L. Jackson whose Gibbons in this movie barely resembles the Gibbons in the first xXx movie. He’s essentially just playing an impression of Samuel L Jackson from a Spike Lee movie, and honestly I think it’s a plus. Gibbons in the first film was just a less charismatic version of Jackson’s own Nick Fury from the Marvel films (a fact that this movie LOVES to reference) and I think having him lean into his “Samuel L Jackson-ness” is right in line with the movie. The rest of the performances are good. Everyone gets their time to shine at some point, and you can tell Vin is having a blast on screen. There’s a great cameo and one liner near the end of the movie that had me applauding and laughing like an idiot. When the movie kicks into story and plot it slows down (story and plot are not this type of movies strong suit) but when people are bouncing off each other and the fist and bullets are flying, that’s when xXx: The Return of Xander Cage really shines.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage proves that Vin Diesel is at his best when he’s playing in sandbox portraying dopey characters who interact with people of different backgrounds. It’s not quite as good as the Fast and the Furious franchise (but what is?) but it’s definitely better than Diesels last dorky project, The Last Witch Hunter. If you need something to pass the time on a lazy weekend evening, grab some drinks and pop this bad boy in.

Lost in London

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Lost in London: Woody Harrelson’s Bogus Journey

Written Review by David Carter

There was a Q&A following the live broadcast of Woody Harrelson’s one-shot and one-take odyssey titled Lost in London. At the Q&A you can see a clearly dazed and exhausted Harrelson try and answer the questions from the panelist sitting next to him on a cramped stage that was used earlier in the movie. At one point he mentions that this whole movie is a love letter to his wife, which is a surreal statement when you remember that the movie is about how his infidelity and ego nearly destroyed their marriage, but it’s an appropriate statement given that everything about Lost in London was a surreal experience. From the casting, the setting, and the fact that it’s based on a true story (the log line of the movie even points out that “Too much of this is true”), the movie is a crossroads of celebrity, ego and Murphy’s Law all intersecting at once. It’s essentially Birdman meets Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Lost in London is the story of Woody Harrelson having the worst night of his life. While in London after giving an underwhelmingly received performance at a local theater, Woody (playing himself, as most of the celebrities in the film are) gets the bad news that a British tabloid is running a story with photos of him picking up multiple women who propositioned him for sex. The problem is that Woody has a wife and kids, all of whom are currently in London with him. After trying to block his wife from seeing the tabloid and failing, Woody is whisked away by middle eastern royalty for a night out on the town. Woody promises he’ll only be out for a couple of drinks and that he’ll be home by midnight to explain his actions. What follows is a night of reckoning for Woody and his pride. He degrades himself in front of bouncers at a club by singing the Cheers theme song to get into a club (it doesn’t work). He meets a beautiful and mysterious woman only for it to go horribly wrong in the most ludicrous way possible. He bumps into his “best” friend Owen Wilson only for it to devolve into a hilarious falling out between two people (regardless of how self centered they are) who care about each other. I could go on but whenever this gets a home video release it’s fun to have some of the surprises sneak up on you. That was the fun of the whole experience: where would this go next? Who would show up next? And would they pull this off? That last one, is sadly lost to the passing of the moment. You can’t talk about this movie without talking about the experience or the impact of its live debut.

Broadcasting live performances obviously isn’t new, hell CBS Playhouse 90 did it on near weekly basis. What sets Lost in London apart from those old T.V. plays is its scope. Those old CBS dramas where plays with strict staging, camera switches, and commercial breaks. So if something ever did go wrong it was easy to fudge it so that the audience wouldn’t notice it too much. Lost in London ups the ante by having it be one-take, one camera. So if at any point an actor missed their cue or dropped their lines, or the sound or visuals got funky it would have been all up there on a huge canvas. There’s even the added level of anxiety that what you are watching is an autobiographical account of a man’s lowest point. It could all come off as a misguided vanity project, but I don’t think vanity projects are usually this risky. You can even tell that Woody and crew weren’t completely sold on the idea for a long time and it took some gentle nudging from Owen Wilson for him to keep it live. I’m glad Owen did, because the live aspect sets it above other one take films such as Russian Ark or Victoria, the latter of which was a direct influence on Lost in London. When the movie goes off with very little incident (there’s some lines that get eaten by small sound issues, and there was even a missed cue from an actor that Woody did a great job improvising to hide it) it made you feel like it was an achievement.

The performances are delightful. Eleanor Matsuura is great at playing Woody’s wife Laura. My biggest complaint is that she really only appears at the beginning and end of the movie, and I thought it would have been a plus to have her be a bigger presence over the story. Owen Wilson is a show stealer. He really leans into his Wes Anderson-y character persona. The various London actors who fill out the cast are capital “P” professionals. The standout for me was Martin McCann as the wet behind the ears cop Paddy. He’s Woody’s biggest ally after he gets arrested and he really bring a sweetness to the part that seemed refreshingly sincere considering how mean the movie can get. Woody is still the stand-out. He’s in just about every scene and while you know he’s playing an heightened version of himself, you can tell that this stuff really affected him and changed him. He really proves why he’s one of our most reliable actors.

Lost in London itself isn’t anything revelatory, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a story that would be right at home on HBO or IFC pilot for a Woody Harrelson TV show. Wacky cameos, cringe humor, and poking fun at your persona are all things that are very much apart of the common comedy landscape. However, the one-shot aspect of it takes it over from “comedic incident” to “long dark journey of the soul”. The two aspects really compliment each other.  I hope when this hits home video that people plop down and watch it. It’ll probably be cleaned and polished, but seeing as it aired January 19th 2017 (making it the final internationally released movie to be produced and exhibited in the Obama administration) with all its bumps and scratches is something I hope I’ll never forget.