Death Note


Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Death Note: Sour Note

Written Review by David Carter

There seems to be something happening with director Adam Wingard. He’s trying to make the jump to mainstream movie making from his humble beginnings as mumblecore maker of the macabre, but he’s going through some unfortunate growing pains. Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett cut their teeth on making lo-fi horror films (A Horrible Way to Die stands out) in the same style that Joe Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, and Lena Dunham were doing in their malaise-y comedies and dramas. The biggest difference being that there was always a more pop and mainstream aesthetic to Wingard and Barrett’s films. It only makes sense that when their budgets got bigger and the audience expanded that they’d lean into those proclivities a little more. You’re Next and The Guest (and to an extent their short segment in the horror anthology V/H/S) play with all of Wingard and Barrett’s fetishes. Late 70’s and early to mid 80’s flavor (and needle drops), dark humor that plays over the entire film not matter how grim the scenes became, and casts that feel like the roles were tailor made to their exact strengths (my favorite being how director Ti West is cast as a vapid dummy in You’re Next because he can’t even blink convincingly on camera).

However, when they made the jump to the actual mainstream, things began to get lost in the shuffle. Blair Witch, while an interesting experiment in expanding the mythology of a film that largely relied on its atmosphere and performances to create its world (Blair Witch plays like an imagined found footage script written by Mark Frost in 2006), it’s ultimately a failure. None of their trademark aesthetics are there, the attempts at humor largely fall flat and the cast is forgettable. So it was exciting to find out that Wingard (sans Barrett) was tackling a project that seemed like an interesting canvas for his particular brand of horror. A movie about a high school loner given unimaginably deadly power seems ripe for Wingard to do something interesting with the material. Unfortunately, Netflix’s Death Note steps into the same mud piles as this year’s Ghost in the Shell adaptation. While also highlighting the worst tendencies of the director, but with a minor caveat that politics here are murkier and our protagonist this time around feels like a proper reflection and embodiment of a type of person that was given power by the advent of a particular type of internet subculture.

Death Note is the long gestating American adaptation of the Japanese manga and anime of the same name. Our protagonist is Seattle native Light Turner (played by YA actor Nat Wolff). A high schooler who doesn’t seem like he really rolls with any particular crowd. He keeps to himself and runs a side-hustle doing other people’s homework and take home exams for them. It’s our indication that Light’s a smarter than your average boy. He’s also a mope. He gets picked on and pushed around, all the while fawning out of the corner of his eye for the dark sided cheerleader Mia Sutton (The Nice Guys alum Margaret Qualley) who smokes (to no one’s objection) during cheer practice. Things change when a book almost literally falls into his lap. It’s called the Death Note and its purpose is simple: If you write a person’s name in the book with their face in your mind, that person dies. It also comes with a magical friend, a Japanese demon named Ryuk (played by two-time Oscar nominee, the Green Goblin) who’s there to seemingly guide Light with the use of the Death Note but is maybe more adversary than an advisor. With the Death Note and the encouragement of Mia (who sees something she likes in Light) Light gives himself the alias Kira and takes it on himself to become Judge Judy and Executioner of all those he sees as blights on the world. Unfortunately for him, this attracts the attention of the world’s greatest detective simply named “L” (Delightful weirdo and incredible actor Lakeith Stanfield who is far and away the best thing about Death Note). What partially ensues is Heat-esque cat and mouse game (complete with a scene of the two foes meeting in a diner and spouting their codes and philosophies) but in reality, the focus is all about Light’s ideals and his relationship with Mia.

Light’s characterization and his relationship to Mia are some of the few saving graces of a film that stumbles in trying to delivering an intense horror/thriller for an American audience. Like Ghost in the Shell, there’s controversy as to the fact that it’s once again white people portraying characters who were in their conception and cultural touchstones, Japanese. At least this time there’s some effort made to make this American. It’s set in Seattle, literally one of the whitest places on Earth. Yes, the leads are white, but “L” is played by a black man whose the foil to what is a walking embodiment of Reddit dot com. But, those alone aren’t enough to give it a pass due to the negligence of not updating some cultural touchstones, like Ryuk being a Shinigami (death gods in Japanese mythology) instead of whatever the American analog would be. Or the fact that “L’s” man servant is still a Japanese man named Watari and that Japan is so focal to the events early on in the movie. The waters are murkier on this one but full commitment would have been better than the sloppy half measures taken.

I want to touch on the aforementioned aspect of Light’s updated characterization. Full disclosure: I have read and watched the entirety of both the manga and anime. There are unfortunate changes made to have a multi-volume story fit into a 101 minute run time. Like the fact that all of the labyrinthine rules of the Death Note being already written inside its pages as opposed to the slow burn of Light testing the limits of the book and figuring out those rules himself. However, the change of Light being this amazingly intelligent sociopath who presents himself as a Golden Boy to the family and peers in the manga and anime to someone who is a mildly intelligent logic bound, personified “actually” is an interesting change. It makes Light more of antagonist within the context of the film instead of the criminal we have some empathy for in cops and crooks movies. It’s a great reflection of the type of person we would fear getting their hands on a weapon that powerful. A teenager, who through their white-male entitlement and above average intelligence might think they have the world figured out. In the real world (especially modern day America) it’s rarely super intelligent people that tell people their outlook is wrong, it’s the trolls who lurk in Youtube comments. It’s why casting “L” black is a great way to bring out that subtext. An insanely competent person who went through hell and high water to earn what they have is constantly overshadowed by a white dude who got lucky. It’s a smart change on Wingard’s part.

For all the good racial and cultural subtext of Death Note, it doesn’t really work as a piece of fiction. So much is told through montage and Wingard leans way too heavily on his style and personal tastes (this and Spider-Man: Homecoming earn the annoying distinction of having high school dances where the kids in 2017 are way into the 80’s pop music the DJ is spinning instead of,  you know, music kids would actually listen to). Hopefully down the line, this property gets a long form adaptation that is faithful to the spirit of the manga but retains the interesting cultural changes that saved this movie from just being another slapped together mess that’s used as a punchline among fans.

Advertisements

Ingrid Goes West

 Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Ingrid Goes West: The Queen of Social Media

Written Review by David Carter

In 2017 it’s great to see a crop of young fresh filmmakers emerging with ideas that feel not only fully fleshed out, but ideas and scenarios that feel lived-in and universal. One movie in particular that strikes this balance is Ingrid Goes West. The first feature film from director/writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith have done a great job walking the tightrope of crafting complicated characters who aren’t necessarily likable but you feel an empathy for their struggle. This isn’t a navel gazy or moralist tale about vapid L.A. or social media culture (though it certainly plays a part), but a story about damaged people and their survival instincts in the 21st century. In addition to all of the texture this movie has to offer, it also taps into a vein that Martin Scorsese was mining in the early and mid-80’s. Dark and sometimes comedic odysseys into worlds where all of the people feel real to the environments and how the (sometimes sociopathic) protagonist shifts and morphs into whatever they need to be to get by in that environment.

Ingrid Goes West explores the exterior and more importantly the interior life of someone struggling not only with mental illness but the loss of a loved one. When we meet Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza, who in 2017 has proven to be one of our most indispensable dramatic and comedic talents) she is ostensibly at her lowest point. Sitting in a van outside of a wedding reception, scanning the brides Instagram feed with manic puffy red eyes. You can tell she’s at a breaking point, and like a flimsy tree branch supporting a grown man playing on a tire swing, she snaps. She assaults the bride for not being invited to the wedding. Ingrid is devastated. She’s liked every post and commented like a loyal “stan.” How could she be left in the cold like this? After a stint in a mental rehabilitation facility, Ingrid goes back to Instagram, the only remaining constant in her life and discovers another social media celeb to imprint on. Taylor Sloan (a SoCal soaked Elizabeth Olsen) embodies everything Ingrid wants. On her phone screen she’s a woman living her greatest possible life. High-end eateries, a relationship with an artist, effortlessly beautiful, intelligent, and a lovingly large follower count. Taylor is the modern day American dream, someone who can be whatever she want’s to be in the world of double tapped likes and #nofilter photography. Ingrid wants a slice of that dream, takes the 63,000 dollar inheritance left to her by her mother, throws it in a backpack and heads for the land of opportunity.

The film’s title is an allusion to the West as this wild and untamed place where you could go to become whatever you wanted. If you were poor you could get lucky and strike gold. If you were a criminal out East, you could now become sheriff. For Ingrid, this means a new identity as someone who is simply not a freak or a loser. What doesn’t immediately dawn on her is that the people she idolizes from an iPhone have done the same thing for the same reasons, and the one person she does meet and make a connection with who is genuine (O’Shea Jackson Jr. as the Batman loving Dan Pinto who will charm the pants off of every single person who sees this movie. I’m still looking for my pants. Where are they O’Shea?) she takes them for granted and uses them. She stalks and lies to her targets and hopes for things to come together in her favor. Her modus operandi bears a striking resemblance to the lead character in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin.

Ruppert isn’t so much trying to reinvent himself or escape anything, but rather seeking the approval and adoration he can only get from his idol Jerry Langford (late great Jerry Lewis in his best role) and the millions who watch Jerry’s show, the same way Ingrid pursues Taylor and those who follow her on Instagram. Ruppert’s a sociopathic two-bit comedian, but that doesn’t matter because in his mind he’s owed his 15 minutes of fame and he’ll stoop to whatever levels to obtain those minutes. Like Ingrid, you don’t view Rupert as a monster, just unscrupulous in their actions. They both clearly need professional help and are struggling with past trauma but for them, notoriety is the only healing they want. Like Ruppert says during his final stand-up routine “Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.” For Ingrid, the quote would probably read “Better to be a queen online than a freak in the real world.” And given her situation, you might find it hard to disagree.

But for all the comparisons there are to make to other films, the movie stands on its own merits. Ingrid as a character feels unique and so of this time. We all have our vices and escapes, but the thrall of following the perceived lives of people we don’t know and will most likely never meet can be a strong one for a generation who’ve pretty much grown up on interacting and connecting with people’s online identities. Spicer and Smith don’t judge the people or the practice but do want to dig into the psychologies of those who embrace the lifestyle. What they dig up aren’t hollow shells but rather people just looking for acceptance. However, those people got lost (or maybe just changed) in the journey for that acceptance. Can the image you present of yourself online and amongst other social climbers be the real one if you chose to believe it with every fiber of your being? The movie doesn’t offer any answers, but it’s definitely a question that’s relevant to the ubiquity of the social media lifestyle. There used to be a distinct separation of online or the real world but we’ve finally reached a place as a culture where those lines aren’t just blurry, they’re being erased. You can’t deny the bad (“fringe” communities that helped get our current president elected) and the good (conversations and positive developments about identity, race, gender and socioeconomic disparity) effects the internet has on the real world. That erasure of the line extends to social media. The way people present themselves online might as well be the real thing for their followers. At least as a follower, you have something to aspire to. Even if the image you aspire may be considered a lie.

David and David at the Movies Volume Two

Hello, everyone! We’re not reviewing a movie this week. Instead you’re getting the cover image for Volume Two and David Carter’s introduction for that volume. We’ll be debuting the book at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland at the Marriott North Bethesda Hotel and Conference Center on September 16th and 17th. We’ll be at tables K12-14A. More info is here: http://www.smallpressexpo.com/. And now, David Carter’s introduction:

Carter Introduction Volume Two

Well, here we are again. Somehow David Yoder and I have managed to keep this whole project going long enough to put out a Volume 2. I think it’s appropriate that Volume 2 be the months where we covered a lot of the summer releases, a huge chunk of which are sequels (one of which is literally subtitled Vol. 2). So hopefully if you pull anything from reading this compilation, it’ll be about the nature of continuing a story in interesting ways. But there was also a great summer for interesting original movies breaking through into the mainstream or striking a chord with a small audience. Like any summer season there were up and downs, but this year, in particular, has been so exciting to experience. We couldn’t cover everything we saw (on average I see at least two new releases a week and we can only cover one) but I hope this book has an eclectic enough selection for you to find and interesting POV on a film or type of film that interest you.

This time around our POV has expanded! We have some great guest artists and writers joining us for the weeks when we were just too busy to see a film or wanted a different outlook on a particular film. They really brought something special to the table and our anxiety and lethargy willing, if there’s a Volume 3, we can have more of these great perspectives and visual styles. Although in this volume, in our Power Rangers review, you do get to see my debut as an artist that the world just wasn’t quite ready for. Pearls before swine. Saltiness aside, thank you for buying,  borrowing, or even just glancing at our book. Without further ado, on with the show!

David Carter

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Comic  Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Beneath the Planet of the Apes: Let’s Just Get it Over With

Written Review by David Carter

Occasionally there will be parts of the year where there won’t be any movies that Yoder and I will want to see, or conversely we won’t want to write about. So on those weeks, we present you with some older films that we love or that one or both of us are discovering for the first time. So enjoy some thoughts on Beneath the Planet of the Apes

 

Some movies are just made in a way that stay relevant no matter what era they’re viewed in. This is sadly due to the reality that while things do generally get better with time, some wounds and conflicts are so deep that no matter how calm the waters appear on the surface, the swirl of muck and danger still exists down below. This is something that some Americans have been finding out the hard way these past couple of years. However, when it comes to timeless movies that deal with the always applicable issues that flare up like cold sores on the face of a person in denial about their affliction, it’s even more interesting when you look at the film’s outlook on the issue. For example, you look at a film like Do the Right Thing and see a story about flawed people stuck in a melting pot that never really melded together, but no matter how tense and out of hand things got, they never stooped to the level of the people who were supposedly there to keep the peace. It’s a viewpoint and outlook filled with nuance and depth. Do the Right Thing doesn’t offer any answers to a centuries old conflict, but it does pose some important questions (It’s not “Why did Mookie throw that trash can?” but “Why did the cops kill Radio Raheem?”). You can’t say it’s flippant.

 

Beneath the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, says “Blow it all up, it’s all pointless anyway.”

 

Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the follow up to the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, a film that’s largely coded and allegorical about its racial and political aims. It’s been interpreted as everything from a broader depiction of America’s class system and how foreigners operate inside it,  to a racially charged allegory about fears of a black planet where black people (coded as apes, a very common racial put-down associated with black folks) had their way with America (spoilers: black people treat white people as badly as they’ve been treated and “blow up” liberty as we know it). However you choose to look at the film, one thing is pretty clear. Given its time of release (during the heat of the civil rights movement and coincidentally a day before Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination), its writers (which included Rod Serling, a man who perfected presenting unassuming and silly sci-fi as biting commentary), and its striking final image, the movie was about some aspect of the general unrest in America and American life at the time.

 

Beneath the Planet of the Apes takes that general idea of societal unrest and reaches for a logical extreme. The short version of the story is that after the events Planet of the Apes, our protagonist Taylor (played by notable Hollywood ham Charlton Heston) is unconvinced that this ape civilization lying within a designated safety zone is all that’s left in the world and decides to risk the danger of traveling outside of these confines. Taylor ends up disappearing behind a veil of some sort, leaving his companion Nova (Linda Harrison in a thankless role of mute eye candy that she sells anyway) to fend for herself. That is until another human crash lands in a spaceship similar to Taylor’s in the first film. This time our handsome everyman is Brent (the intelligent looking but decidedly less interesting James Franciscus) who upon meeting Nova and the fact that she’s wearing Taylor dog tags, decides that there’s a chance that Taylor is still alive and sets out to find him. What follows is a journey into snapshots of the civil unrest within the society of Ape City and its military power taking charge of its future. We also see that below the planet in what used to be the subway tunnels of New York City lies an “evolved” race of nuclear bomb worshipping humans that while disfigured from generations of radiation infused evolution also have psychic capabilities that keep their society hidden and safe.

 

It’s this (ahem) explosive cocktail of a fascist regime looking to exterminate something it sees as beneath them, crashing against a bunch of dangerous above-it-all religious zealots, with normal humans and peace-seeking apes stuck in between the madness. It’s certainly a nihilistic view on the discourse of the conflict between disparate groups. Groups who only seek flimsy justification for their actions, instead of seeking some sort of path to betterment in their already dangerous wasteland.

 

The mutants worship the bomb because it’s the physical symbol of the thing that gives them power, no matter how misguided that power is. They use this power to threaten and abuse anyone who even fails to be subdued by just their presence. They fail to recognize the irony of worshiping the totem that left the world in ashes. Sure, it’s seen as a cleansing force within their religion but even this is false considering that radiation is anything but clean. It’s a holy form of the might that the apes exhibit with small but effective military tactics.

 

The apes’ society is built on a system where those more interested in peace and progress aren’t as valued as those who want absolute control. The police and military are headed by General Ursus, an ape who’s more in tune with his own ego than the danger of trying to conquer an unknown region for the possibility of resources. He cares little about protesters who oppose the show of force and views the intellectuals and scientists of Ape City as hindrances instead of those to turn to for level headed and logical aid.

 

It’s all depressingly relevant to the Cold War, Vietnam and civil rights splattered late 60’s and 70’s and unfortunately continues to be. What makes this story so indicative of the time it’s written in is just how nihilistic it’s attitude toward these conflicts are. The rise of what was called New Hollywood (the arrival of young, more socially conscious directors as the new power holders in the studio system) brought along a darker outlook to even the most unassuming popcorn narrative. This manifests in Beneath the Planet of the Apes as the squabble between all parties resulting in mankind blowing up the Earth all over again (specifically and ironically Taylor, who was so devastated by the result of nuclear war), but this time for good. This ending was reportedly brought about as a final vindictive gesture by producer Richard Zanuck after being fired by his father and studio head Darryl Zanuck from 20th Century Fox. However, it doesn’t change its context within the film and its larger symbolic meaning. It’s a coarse statement that declares “Why bother at all with all the misery and injustice? Just end it all already.”

 

Dunkirk

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Dunkirk: The Inception Successor

Written Review by David Carter

Christopher Nolan is probably one of the last major blockbuster voices of a pre-producer driven franchise landscape. Back when studios were willing to take chances on directors who had a string of low to mid budget successes and handing them the reigns to truly gargantuan properties. Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Guillermo Del Toro with Blade 2 and the Hellboy movies. Sam Raimi and the Spider-Man trilogy. Peter Jackson and the miracle known as The Lord of the Rings. They all put their own characteristics and calling cards on those films with what seemed like minimal studio interference. Christopher Nolan was somewhat of a latecomer to the system but in the end, he turned out to be the most enduring. He had been picked up to helm what would become The Dark Knight Trilogy after having three critically acclaimed and financially successful movies (Following, Memento, and Insomnia) break through in the late 90’s and early 00’s. Say what you will about any individual entry in the Dark Knight franchise but it can’t be denied that those films helped shape the movie going experience in the mid to late 00’s in a way that’s only comparable to what Steven Spielberg did in the 80’s and 90’s. Like Spielberg, Nolan has accumulated enough good will he had grandfathered himself into doing whatever he wants, however he wants. However, I don’t think this goodwill comes solely from the success of those Batman films but from the unexpected success of an original idea. The 2010 dream-heist thriller Inception.

 

Inception would coalesce and solidify what would be recognized as many of Nolan’s fixations as director. A focus on almost sterile but highly proficient craft and spectacle, puzzle box narratives with heavy exposition established rule sets, and perpetually “fridged” wives that drive our protagonist motivations and decisions forward. Inception would take all of these things and put them into practice in a way that served the overall function of the story he was telling. These were no longer just crutches or proclivities but all elements that amplified the story of a man looking to be absolved for something he unwittingly did years ago. It’s for this reason that Inception stood as Nolan’s masterpiece for so many years. But what Inception also brought to the forefront was Nolan’s most important and driving fixation: Time. Sure, it was in his work before Inception. The completely cut up narrative timelines of Following and the contrary timelines and backward reveals of Memento were certainly hallmarks of those films, not to mention The Prestige’s layered timelines told through the diaries of two rival magicians. Inception just took all of those elements and put them to their extremes. For as much flack as Nolan gets for his expository dialogue and table setting of rules (which to his credit is always spoken by interesting actors in interesting ways), it’s always been in service of gratifying payoffs. For Inception, Nolan went all in on what Griffin Newman of the “Blank Check with Griffin and David” podcast calls “the Faustian bargain” for lots of setup for double the payoff. The entire last hour of the film is nothing but catharsis and the clockwork-like interconnection and action of dream layers that all move at different speeds. Hell, Hans Zimmer’s greatest composition to date is the climactic theme of the film simply called “Time.” It’s a masterclass in giving action scenes stakes. Meaning the rotating hallway and zero gravity fight scenes are aesthetically pleasing and thrilling on their own, but when you understand what happens on the other layers and what’s up for grabs, your hands start clenching the armrest from the tension.

 

After Inception, Nolan would continue his experiments in time and tension with The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. While interesting in their own rights, neither quite matched the highs that Nolan set for himself.

 

That is until Dunkirk perfected and blew every previous effort out of the water.

 

Dunkirk is the rapturous peak of Nolan’s experiments, banked up studio goodwill, and box office stability. It’s a World War II film, but only one that Christopher Nolan and his team of talented craftspeople could make. A World War II film that is simply about one thing: survival, and how time is the ever looming presence that threatens that one visceral human instinct.

 

Dunkirk is the telling of the famous military snafu that left thousands of British soldiers and allies stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. Sitting ducks for the enemy to pick off via air raids. The film is simple, establishing its setting (and to an extent rules) right up front. There are three different timelines in three different locations. The land (Play out over the course of a week), the sea (one day), and the air (one hour). The story of land is one of pure desperation and terror as the soldiers sit and wait for deliverance from their predicament. The segment is led by two privates, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles of One Direction fame), and their journey to get off the beach and back to their homeland by any mean necessary. There is also Commander Bolton (played with aplomb by the legendary Kenneth Branagh) who takes the responsibility of making sure that every man gets home.

 

The sea is about the civilian owned and manned rescue boats going to get the men stranded at Dunkirk and the trials of operating in dangerous waters with an unstable passenger. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance who has solidified himself as one of our greatest screen actors in a very short period of time), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their boat hand George (relative newcomer Barry Keoghan) set sail to serve their country. Along the way they pick a shell shocked soldier (played by Cillian Murphy) who disagrees with their advancement towards Dunkirk and their skies are darkened by a Spitfire battle overhead.

 

The air is where the movie’s acrobatic action and taught tension transpires. Three British Spitfires race to Dunkirk to offer air support as German pilots do everything to stop them along the way. There’s so much of this sequence that can only mostly be shown and not told. Without a doubt, the highlight is Tom Hardy as British pilot Farrier, who delivers so little dialogue with a mask on and still manages to steal the movie from everyone else. It’ll make you think back to why you loved him in Mad Max: Fury Road, which isn’t a mistake considering that this movie feels like a huge debt to George Miller’s masterpiece.

 

Dunkirk, like Fury Road, is essentially a feature length sustained action scene. It’s the climax of a symphony that rings out for just over 100 minutes. Because of this some of Nolan’s calling cards are absent. There’s very little expository dialogue because everything we need to know is presented up front. There’s no puzzle to be solved, only payoffs from the crisscrossing and intersecting timelines. There’s not even room for a dead wife in the narrative! It’s about time and how these people don’t have nearly enough of it.

 

It’s also a film where the pulse and action are what drive and develop the characters. Much has been written about how the movie’s intensity leaves little room for fleshed out human beings, but I don’t buy into that sentiment. What the characters say and reveal about themselves is minimal but what they do when the heat is turned up speaks volumes. A moment that sticks in my head is the look in Tom Hardy’s eyes as he realizes how little fuel he has to offer his support to the stranded troops and his decision to journey forward anyway. It’s perfect distillation of what this movie’s aims are in one character choice.

 

Continuing to expand on his sound in Inception, Hans Zimmer’s welcomely anachronistic score is driven by the beat a ticking watch that feels on the nose until you hear it in practice. It established in the opening scene and pops up throughout the film but it’s so in sync with the visuals that you will swear you hear it in every second of the film. Hans Zimmer has become the modern day John Williams, but what Williams has in his ability to create the amazingly memorable themes, Zimmer has in his ability to translate visual tone to a musical one. You can’t always hum a Zimmer score but you’ll be left with the impression long after you leave the theater. Dunkirk is Zimmer’s maturation as a composer after years of defining the blockbuster sound.

 

Dunkirk feels like the best type of art or experience. One that’s a culmination of years of learning, experimentation, failure, and influence that comes together into something that feels so well visualized it could have only turned out this way. I’ve talked about how this film is a direct successor to Inception but it also serves as an exciting high point for a director whose seemingly accomplished what he set out to do cinematically over all these years. It’ll be even more exciting to see where he goes from here. I guess only time will tell.

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Valerian: Love Will Bring Us Together

Written Review by David Carter

Luc Besson has never been a director to concern himself with traditional narrative and storytelling. This isn’t to say that he’s not concerned with commercialism and crowd pleasing. As a matter of fact, Besson was denied entry to the National School of Cinema because his influences were considered too American and too commercial (Scorsese, Spielberg, and Coppola were some names he rattled off). What makes Besson so interesting is his dedication to style over the substance of his films, or maybe rather style AS substance. His films are always about something, it’s just that he’s more concerned with aesthetic and archetypes as shorthand for the very simple but very affecting stories he’s trying to tell. The Jean-Pierre Melville cool meets Tony Scott-esque visual saturation and melodrama of The Professional to tell a story about unlikely spiritual kinship. Lucy uses pseudo-science combined with schlock and awe to get the audience on board with sophomoric ideas about shared consciousness and our primal connection to nature.

 

They’re big ideas played out in big unsubtle ways. The biggest and most unsubtle of which has to be Besson’s magnum opus The Fifth Element. A movie that takes 126 minutes to tell the audience about the three most important things in the universe: love, Love, and LOVE. Using an aesthetic that can only be described as Moebius by way of Die Hard, Besson uses planet sized manifestations of evil to go up against a hyper intelligent and capable being of empathy to tell the audience that if we are to last as species we have to open ourselves to the fundamental element of love. It’s no surprise that he would return to this well 20 years when empathy and care seem to be in even shorter supply by adapting the highly influential French comic series Valerian and Laureline. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets serves as a spiritual follow-up to The Fifth Element. One that fully realizes Besson’s visual scope and intention but unfortunately isn’t quite as put together on a textual level.

 

It’s the 28th century and after years of finally getting our affairs in order, humanity is a part of the galactic collective. What started as U.S. space station has over the course of centuries transformed into its own hub for thousands of species to cohabitate and conduct business. Agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan who is woefully miscast), a thick headed “by the rules” womanizer and Laureline (Cara Delevingne who knows exactly what type of movie she’s in) a no nonsense but welcomely empathetic badass, are responsible for keeping the peace and stopping any potential threats to the galaxy. We see them thwart a potentially dangerous trade in an extra dimensional marketplace ( a concept so cool that I wish it wasn’t just tossed aside). The trade in question has to do with a civilization of Na’vi-esque beings that were wiped out by mysterious circumstances. As Valerian and Laureline go deeper to find out what the hubbub is about they are lead down an increasingly dangerous (and zany) path of incidents that will unlock bigger truths they may not be ready for.

 

The truths in question come into direct conflict with the utopia of interspecies harmony the movie wants us to believe in. The opening scene itself is a masterclass in succinct saccharine sweet storytelling. Set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, we see one nation become many and one planet become a galaxy all because of a simple handshake and a little tenderness. It’s peak Luc Besson. It’s the stylistic shorthand I mentioned earlier taken to its logical extreme. Of course the narrative would have to conflict with this scene (one that plays almost like the epilogue to another film) but that conflict (one about human folly combined with individuals lack of compassion) never quite reaches the highs that this opening scene sets up, but that’s fine because this is one of those films where the destination isn’t what we pay money for. It’s the journey.

 

What a journey we get. One filled with colorful creatures, esoteric concepts and musicians (Herbie “I was in one of the best quintets in history” Hancock is on screen for multiple scenes and actually does a pretty good job delivering clunky dialogue) and character actors galore. You can see Besson really stretching out from the practical limitations put upon him in The Fifth Element. Alien creatures show up and disappear on screen within a second, but it’s more than just superfluous set dressing, it shows you the scope of how many sentient beings there are in the universe and how crazy it is that we have this level of understanding and cohabitation. One of those creatures is the shapeshifting-mind-reader Bubble played with aplomb by Rihanna who’s introduced to us rapid fire quick change strip tease where she dons every PG-13 fetish costume she can in about 70 seconds. It’s a showstopper, one that’s only manageable because for what Rihanna lacks in acting skill she more than makes up for in showmanship, personality screen presence. French actor Alain Chabat literally pops in to steal a scene as “Bob the pirate”. There’s even a cameo by a respectable Gen X icon to play a straight up space pimp, and you can tell it was an eventful fun day on set.

 

Unfortunately, for all the praise I can heap on the movie for its colorful characters, the main characters don’t really cut the mustard. Clive Owens Commander Arun Filit feel almost like an afterthought. Valerian feels like it was implicitly written for a seasoned actor like Bruce Willis and Dehaan can’t really play that type of role. Dehaan is 31 years old but he plays the character like a 16-year-old posturing like he’s in his late 40’s. It doesn’t help that the way his character is written is begging for some sort of undercutting. He’s a masculine lunk head lothario who thinks he really truly loves Laureline but doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to show it. He’s pretty much Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy but without a Chris Pratt in the role to undercut the more agro tendencies. Hell, even Bruce Willis could play a role like this with a knowing grin. Cara Delevingne makes out much better as the “straight man.” While I think her role would be better served by an older actress, she at least realizes how broad the movie is and plays the part in the easiest to understand manner possible. By far the best stretch of the film is when she’s tasked to rescue Valerian. His absence is welcome and her mini adventure has her bouncing off some great personalities. It’s important I single out these two actors because the gender dynamics in this movie are all over the place. Sometimes it plays out with giving female characters agency, other times it feels like a screenplay from the mid 80’s. Besson has gone on record as saying the Valerians overblown machismo was intentional because he finds that men at this point are overrated and has Laureline be the brain and heart of the film. Unfortunately, the movie’s too broad to subvert that dynamic and it just comes off as an unlikable character lusting after his co-worker (who he probably has a romantic past with but it’s not handled well). The movies so big hearted and dopey that these issues don’t cripple it, but they do stick out.

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is like when you take colorful birthday cake and ice cream and mix it into a mish mash. It looks kaleidoscopic and beautiful in a garish way, it’ll fill you and leave you feeling good for a little bit but eventually the sugar high wears off. You don’t feel terrible afterward and you’re glad you consumed it because it was a reminder of something good and wonderful but there’s barely anything nutritious about it. However, it’s damned good cake and there’s nothing wrong with having a little more cake in the world.

The Big Sick

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

The Big Sick: An Open Diary

Written Review by David Carter

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have made a career out of being open and personable with their followers. Kumail and Emily as hosts of the now sadly dormant Indoor Kids podcast (weekly video game podcast on The Nerdist) were always so candid for a podcast largely about weekly pop culture and video game news. They created memes out of their constant (loving) ribbing of some of the awkward things they would say around each other (“That’s so chicken sandwich”, “The Fisk is the Mayor”, Kumail singing the song “Bang Bang” at the top of his lungs). Emily as a former therapist has made it an important past time to help those in need within an easily accessible venue (you can check out her Tumblr here) and through her book Super You. Kumail’s podcast persona and standup routine have never shied away from his Pakistani heritage and how it conflicted with his very pop culturally American outlook as a child, or the acerbic but winking manner he deals with the stupidity he sees around him. The Big Sick feels like the direct melding of these two voices filtered through a traditional romantic comedy with a not so traditional premise. It delves not only into all the things that make a relationship so weird, special, and difficult, but adds layers about what we do in a crisis, and who we are not only to our family but to ourselves.

 

The Big Sick is based on the true story of how Kumail and Emily met cute. Kumail Nanjiani (wonderfully playing a slightly amped up version of himself) is a struggling comedian in Chicago. He drives an Uber to pay the bills, and when he’s not hanging out with his comedian friends CJ, Mary, and Chris (Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and Kurt Braunohler respectively) he’s attending dinners with his family that occasionally has Kumail’s mother Sharmeen (played delightfully by Zenobia Shroff) unconvincingly acting surprised that suitors for Kumail (that she has picked out) arrive at their front door by “chance.” In Muslim culture, arranged marriage is the norm and anything else is known as “love marriage” which is forbidden to the point that whole families exile members for having one. This is complicated for Kumail for a lot of reasons, but the main one being that he doesn’t believe in the Muslim traditions his family brought him up on.

 

Things get even more complicated when one night during his set a blond woman with blue highlight in her hair named Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) gently heckles Kumail. Kumail takes notice and confronts her at the bar. After the show, he bumps into her and starts lecturing her on comedy club etiquette, While also simultaneously flirting with her. She flirts back. She’s as quick witted as he is funny. So it’s no surprise that she ends up going back home with him that evening. A relationship develops, but like any blossoming relationship, secrets are slowly uncovered that put Kumail and Emily in a new light, namely Kumail’s merry go-round of women his mother keeps trying to introduce him to. When Emily finds out she’s understandably hurt but also crushed that she has to leave Kumail. She doesn’t want to be the one responsible for him having to separate from his family. Unfortunately, after the break-up, Emily gets sick and is put in the hospital. Emily’s health goes south and since Kumail is the only person around. He’s tapped by the doctor to allow him to put Emily in a medically induced coma. Kumail is reluctant but he really has no other choice. After signing the paper Kumail realizes that he has to call Emily’s parents Beth and Terry (Played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano who honestly need to be in the Oscar conversation) and tell them what’s up with their daughter. Once they arrive, all parties have to deal with each other in one of the most stressful situations imaginable while also dealing with their own anxieties and shortcomings that are only being amplified by Emily’s illness.

 

Kumail is a comedian and seems to generally avoid confrontation like the plague, so his best coping mechanism for the surreal struggle he’s put himself into is to always crack a joke. He doesn’t want people to get too close to all of the pressure that’s built up, so he keeps them at a distance. You see this wonderfully illustrated in a scene where Emily goes to Kumail’s one man show about his childhood in Pakistan, only for the whole thing to play out closer to a National Geographic special written by a first-semester drama student. The information is impersonal because Kumail feels like a man who’s caught between two cultures, and he doesn’t know how people would respond to the material. Americans tend to put people of color in a box as far as interests and lifestyle are concerned. Even worse is when the “box” turns into bigotry like when two caricatures of frat boys heckle Kumail during a set and tell him to “go back to ISIS.” It’s a stupid jab, one Kumail tries to diffuse with a joke, but as the confrontation heats up it leads to one of the frat boys saying he does this because Kumail looks the way he does. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if Kumail can tell a thousand jokes about the Ninja Turtles, brown skin is all some people are going to see.

 

Additionally, Kumail has to learn how to be around and interact with Emily’s parents, who are going through their own personal strife. Terry and Beth know everything about Kumail but he knows nothing about these people. At first all they see is the brown man who unsuccessfully dated their sick daughter (Kumail does everything in his power to both diffuse the awkwardness and amplify it) but as the movie rolls along all parties see each other as people going through some stuff. It’s almost easier for Kumail to do this than to tell the truth to his own family about why he’s been missing so many dinners and blowing off these dates. The stakes are so much higher for him here. For as hard as it is for the West to see him as a comedian and human being, it’s even tougher for his family to understand that he doesn’t believe in Islam and has no plans on settling down with a Muslim woman (at least not through arranged marriage). It doesn’t change that he cares about them greatly, but getting them to see that is tough, especially when you realize how much they had to sacrifice to give Kumail the ability to even THINK about abandoning tradition.

 

Even beyond the great thematic character work, the movie is just funny. There’s a 9/11 joke that’s not only the highlight of the film (well, it’s a highlight of the year) but really colors how bad our characters are at communicating with each other.  The jokes don’t all come from Kumail either. Romano and Hunter get some great scenes that show off why they’re two of the best working actors today. Kurt Braunohler plays what feels like a very true to life struggling comedian and homebody roommate. If there were any criticisms to lob around it would be that like all Judd Apatow joints, even the ones he just produces, it feels about 15 minutes too long (stemming from how long the 3rd acts go on for). It takes us a while to get to the inevitable and to tie up the loose threads but it feels like something could have been tightened up in an otherwise great film.

 

The Big Sick is a welcome story from welcome new voices on the movie scene. It’s brought to life so caringly by director Michael Showalter (who’s proving to be the most sentimental and empathetic member of The State) that you’ll almost be shocked that there aren’t any winks to the camera. This really is the story of two people who met in unlikely circumstances, but there’s depth there outside of relationship struggles. A depth that comes from how open Kumail and Emily are about their lives. I, for one, appreciate that openness.