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.”

 

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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.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Spider-Man: Homecoming- He’s Back!

Written Review by David Carter

Some Preamble (feel free to skip to the review)

Spider-Man is part of what is considered to be the“big three” superheroes who have lead, ignited, and perfected their respective eras of cinematic influence. Richard Donner’s Superman not only made you believe a man could fly, it also took comic adaptations from the TV serials and cartoons and made them viable to the big screen. Tim Burton’s Batman pretty much ignited the fires for the superhero boom we live in today, and it brought about the idea that auteurist aesthetics combined with the pop pulp of caped crusaders was a winning combination.

If those two movies cracked the door open, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man blew the damn door off the hinges.

In 2002 the movie landscape was much different (It would look almost alien to anyone born after 1997). Big blockbusters still only came out mostly during the summer and there were less of them (although slightly debatable because what passed for a blockbuster then is so far removed from now). Superhero movies had kind of fallen on hard times with the last Schumacher Batman film; the slightly unfairly maligned Batman and Robin. Things had gotten too bright and vibrant for a pre-9/11 audience, so after The Matrix dropped down on us like an elephant from a helicopter, Superhero movies followed suit stylistically. There was the good (Blade), the bad (X-Men), and the ugly (The Crow: Salvation). While I’m being kind of hard on X-Men, it did what it had to do to walk the line between gritty realism and Halle Berry in a white wig making nonsensical one liners at a toad boy. The movies were a success (well, not The Crow: Salvation) and the superhero genre was back on the movie menu.

Then 9/11 happened.

I’m not here to talk about 9/11. I’m not that smart and I don’t need a bunch of Jet Fuel-ly Mc-Can’t Melt Steel Beams to lecture me. However, there is something to the idea that a traumatic event can radically alter the zeitgeist and the type of art that’s delivered to the mainstream. So after 9/11 the shift in tones of movies significantly altered. Let me put it this way: If American Beauty is the most pre 9/11 Oscar film ever made then The Hurt Locker is the other side of that coin. It directly affected superhero films too and who began making them. People were ready to feel hope again, but not be talked down to or fed too much jingoistic propaganda (just enough).

Enter Sam Raimi and Spider-Man.

From what I’ve gathered over the years Raimi’s vision for the character wasn’t all that much different pre-9/11. It was largely still a take on the original Ditko/Lee run from the 60’s but when the towers fell some things had to change. For one, there was a shot of Spider-Man catching a helicopter in a web between the Twin Towers that was cut out. The snapshot’s of and commentary from New York citizens, their city pride, and their support of Spider-Man was cranked up (The climactic bridge scene line: “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us” is golden).

And of course.

This doesn’t even touch on the fact the first two movies shattered box office records and are flat out masterpieces of craft, structure, and performance (Spider-Man 3 is a classic case of fun but fatally flawed, but one of those flaws ain’t emo Spider-Man dancing James Brown. Don’t “@” me) that were the gold standard for superhero movies until The Dark Knight came and spawned a million very annoying dudes replacing Brandon Lee’s “The Crow” with Heath Ledger’s “The Joker” as the go to embarrassing grimdark Halloween costume. So why have all this preamble? Well, to understand why Marvel and Sony’s successful joint custody of the web head is such a big deal you have to understand why this character and moment specific introduction is so important. Like Batman and to a slightly lesser extent Superman, Spider-Man has yet to leave our now increasingly fractured cultural zeitgeist. Raimi’s humanistic take on Spider-Man has loomed over the character like a man in giant vulture suit, so much so that when Sony unceremoniously dumped Raimi’s fourth film in favor of a Twilight-esque post Bush era slog of a reboot, they succeeded in killing the franchise in just two movies (Amazing Spider-Man 2 deserves your Batman and Robin ire).

Raimi and screenwriters David Koepp, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Michael Chabon, and Alvin Sargent all understood that what makes Spider-Man so special in the cinematic landscape of tights and fights is that he’s the crappiest wish fulfillment fantasy in the history of wish fulfillment. A brilliant but socially outcast nerd gets superpowers and attractive overnight, only for the powers to be a reminder of a death he failed to prevent and a duty to use his powers to help everyone he can even if it ruins his personal life (he’s also still a socially awkward schmuck, just handsome now).

So how do you handle a character that’s so defined by its cultural introduction and it’s solidly defined set of themes and morals? You update it for an audience raised in generally good times (The Obama years) and cribbing the long lost “teen movie” for good measure.

The Review

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the third feature film by up and coming director Jon Watts (whose last film Cop Car is one the best “actions have consequences” stories made in a while.), and Marvel and Sony testing the waters of this joint custody thing with red and blue “menace” himself. The story is pretty straightforward: After debatably stealing the entirety of Captain America: Civil War in one scene, Homecoming follows Peter Parker (Tom Holland who knocks the role out the park) trying to prove himself to his surrogate father Tony Stark (the always enjoyable Robert Downey Jr. returning to a role I’m sure he can do in his sleep at this point) with the hope that if he does well he can be a permanent Avenger. Stark lets him keep his new super suit under the condition that he checks in with Tony’s right-hand man Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau getting to have some fun) and keep to busting the street level crime in Queens.

It’s easier said than done when blue collar construction worker turned black market arms dealer of modified alien weapons, Adrienne Toomes’ (Michael Keaton who not only shows up to work but completes his trilogy of bird based superhero movie roles) merchandise starts showing up on the street in a big a way. In addition to tracking down the source of all this mayhem, Peter has to live the life a typical teenager. Quiz Bowl, parties, the homecoming dance, his attraction to the popular and hard-working Liz (Laura Harrier), and keeping curfews with his Aunt May (the always stellar Marisa Tomei who unfortunately doesn’t really get much to do outside of being the butt of the meta “Aunt May is young and hot now” joke). But with the help of his best friend Ned (best new original character and scene stealer Jacob Batalon) and his newly “jailbroken” spider-suit, Peter sets out to prove himself to Tony, unfortunately making a ton of dumb mistakes in the process.

That’s the conflict of the movie in a nutshell. The stresses of adolescent life (instead of Raimi’s adult life focus) rubbing up against the very adult notion of taking on responsibilities so gargantuan that all you can do is start to crumble beneath them slowly. Pete’s too eager and naive to realize that just because he’s brilliant and feels indestructible, the same way we all feel indestructible as teenagers, doesn’t mean that those around him won’t get hurt. In short, it puts the safety of the city on par with his high school social standing and a love life, which to be fair is pretty accurate when you’re 15. It’s what makes his foil for the film so interesting.

Adrienne Toomes is a character whose motivations are pretty clear: “The government and the rich have wronged me and people like me. So, I’m going to operate outside the system, even if it causes harm to the people who are supposedly like me.” Keeping very much with the times we live in, it feels like the supervillain equivalent to an upper-middle class pseudo-libertarian saying “burn it down!”, without realizing (or caring really) how much that harms those who aren’t lucky enough to have their type of security. But the twist being, that he really is doing this for the security of his oft mentioned family. He will steal whatever needs to be stolen and kill whoever needs to be killed to protect the one thing bringing him the funds to ensure their future. It’s a cracked mirror of Peter’s attitude toward this whole thing. Peter cares and wants to protect those around him too, but not with the weight he should, whereas Toomes has crossed the line to meet his ends.

In addition to this stellar conflict, the movie just works. Outside of missing auteurist aesthetics and texture, a very clunky third act (blockbuster writers need to take a step back and figure out how story structure, action, pay off, and pacing works at this point) and some Marvel “this still kinda feels like an episode of TV” it’s nearly top to bottom a great time at the movies.  It’s got a distinctly loose and contemporary comedy style. You can feel the alt-comedy influence in certain scenes. Which probably has to do with the stellar casting of some of the funniest people working today. Martin Starr, Hannibal Buress, Zack Cherry (who gets the single funniest interaction in the movie), and Donald Glover (a little fan service) all shine. Sometimes when movies cast big like this, these people never really get to flex the comedy muscles. Not the case with Homecoming. Everybody gets at least one great scene or line. Even outside of the comedians, the young cast is all great. I mentioned Jacob Batalon being a stand-out but everybody brings something to the table. I loved Zendaya’s Ally Sheedy-esque Michelle. I enjoyed Laura Harrier’s updated take on the popular girl archetype (popularity is no longer just about good looks and social standing amongst the youngsters). I even liked Tony Revolori’s take on Flash Thompson as no longer a jock/bully but an immature tool (“Penis Parker” is his best burn he can give to Pete). If you notice something about these names and look them up (or you know, see the movie) it’s wonderfully diverse. Not in a forced way, but in a way that makes the school Peter goes to look truly like how New York looks today. The casting is so matter of fact that I feel like you’d have to get right with yourself to really to take any problems with it.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a pretty big fan of those Raimi movies and I constantly mention them here. I argue however that this movie itself is transparently inspired by those film. You get everything from the second act set piece being a mash-up of Spider-Man 1 & 2’s show stopping sequences (The bridge rescue 1 and the train sequence in 2) to Spidey getting photographed 180 degrees around an American flag, to a Michael Giacchino score that still feels like it’s cribbing a little Elfman in there. Watt’s and company realize that there’s no point in trying to completely ditch what came before it but instead really try and make it modern and fit a new generation’s temperament. The Raimi films spoke to geeky Gen X’rs  and older Millennials and gave them something to aspire to at a time when things weren’t their best. Spider-Man: Homecoming does the same for younger Millennials and as of yet named generation that are going through some pretty tumultuous times right now, and maybe feel like they don’t have much control over the tide. The wrinkle being that this is a generation that got to have a black president (who’s also a big Spider-Man dork) who wasn’t perfect but truly tried to make right what went wrong in the proceeding years. They’ve seen people step up to the plate and fight for their rights. They’ve learned that diversity isn’t something to fear but to celebrate. They’ve known an optimism that was all but absent for most of the 00’s. This is their Spider-Man. He’s still clumsy, he’s in way over his head, but he’s got the power and he’ll be damned if he ain’t gonna use it responsibly. I’m excited for the future of this character once again. Go get em’ Tiger.

Okja

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Okja: Homage Done Right

Written Review by David Carter

There are lots of imitators but there’s only one Steven Spielberg. Say what you want about the man and his movies, he’s one of the most well regarded and simultaneously (most) financially successful filmmakers of this or any generation. The side effect of this success and renown spawned swaths of eager young filmmakers to try and copy what the man does for years, specifically what he was doing in the 80’s and early 90’s. You rarely see people riff on late 70’s and mid 00’s Spielberg.  It’s ranged from Roland Emmerich’s hollow attempts at making big bombastic action films in his style (Independence Day, Godzilla) with about half as much craft and care Spielberg puts into those big movies, to J.J. Abrams and the Duffer Brothers (Super 8, Stranger Things) trying to crib the childlike  awe and whimsy of movies like E.T. and Poltergeist but lacking the danger and subtext those movies had loads of. The copycats come out to play but sometimes they get caught up in the alluring aesthetic catnip.

 

However, there are a handful of directors that have successfully taken what makes Spielberg such a great director and applied it to their own sensibilities. These aren’t copycats so much as they’re disciples. Let me put it this way, it’s less Stanley Donen making a Hitchcock movie with Charade and more Brian De Palma doing… well, his whole career. I’m talking about people who take elements, ideas, flourishes and then filter them through ideals, cultures, backgrounds, and visions. There are a handful of directors that have done this with Spielberg successfully. Joe Cornish’s alien invasion action-thriller Attack the Block is a great display of Spielberg’s penchant for propulsive narratives about hard-luck and flawed characters battling their way through stacked odds (Raiders of the Lost Ark, War of the Worlds) and filters it through the perspective of low-income kids of color who have all been written off by society. Or Stephen Chow’s CJ7, a film about a boy discovering an alien creature. It’s a Stephen Chow movie through and through (absurd gags, lowbrow jokes) but touches on the complex relationships between fathers and sons that run through so many of Spielberg’s movies. Okja looks to be the next Amblin (Spielberg’s production company) inspired film that carries the influence without blatant homage and rip-off, but would you expect less from master filmmaker Bong Joon-ho?

 

10 years ago the Mirando Corporation, a company known most infamously by its generations of savage and unconscionable leadership, is now lead by the kooky and slightly naive Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton who unsurprisingly almost steals the movie in the opening scene). She is there to change the company’s image and decides that the best way to do this is to use its power to make a solution for world hunger. After discovering a species of pig in Chile, Lucy decides to start genetically engineer them since they grow to such enormous sizes. She also decides to host a contest by sending baby “super pigs” all over the world to be raised specifically to different cultural methods. After 10 years the best super pig will be crowned. One of the creatures ends up in the mountains of South Korea with a farmer and his granddaughter named Mija (played by the wonderful Seo-Hyun Ahn). 10 years later we see that Mija and the super pig Okja are inseparable. They go on dangerous adventures together and care for each other. When the eccentric zoologist Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal pretty much then steals the movie back from Swinton) shows up and  judges Okja as the best super pig, Mija doesn’t know that Okja is going to be taken away. Mija does everything in her power to get Okja back including unwittingly joining forces with A.L.F (Animal Liberation Force), a group of animal rights activist led by the soft spoken yet oddly sympathetic Jay (Paul Dano NOT playing a creep). As Mija goes deeper to get back Okja she learns about the nastiness of a world that seems so alien to the small and beautiful world her and Okja share.

 

It’ is “a boy and his dog” style premise (well, more like “a girl and her super pig”). A child and their wonderful, intelligent and magical creature are swept up into event’s they can’t control, but move and change the people around them on their journey. The characters they meet are as colorful and vibrant as the world is dangerous. They all seem narrow minded and two dimensional when we meet them but as the movie progresses you learn that everyone is putting on a show to deal with the tough decisions and world they operate in. Lucy Mirando is doing damage control and operating within an inhumane system, but she truly believes what she’s doing is for the good of the world despite telling some little white lies. Jay and A.L.F come off as PETA style terrorist when we meet them, but as the film progresses they learn that the feelings and concerns of one person can be more important than an agenda that will have collateral damage. Mija’s story is one about a loss of innocence while not compromising your core beliefs. You can easily see that once upon a time Lucy was much like Mija but had to compromise to the point that she’s nothing like our little hero.

 

This theme of innocence lost in a scary world vs belief in decent core values is what makes this so much in the canon of Spielberg stories past the obvious whimsy of a kid on a journey for the beloved pet. E.T., A.I., Empire of the Sun, and even Saving Private Ryan all tackle this idea. However,  master filmmaker Bong Joon-ho puts his uniquely complicated spin on it. Bong has a penchant for complicated family dynamics and a complicated antagonist. Mija has a strained relationship with her grandfather because he wasn’t able to keep Okja in his possession, though he tried. He just wants what’s best for her without understanding what she wants. A.L.F becomes her surrogate family for a large part of the film. Lucy Mirando (and latter another antagonist) seem pretty cut dry as duplicitous people but as mentioned earlier, they’re just doing their best within an unforgiving system (similar to the antagonist of Bong’s Snowpiercer). Even Johnny Wilcox is a casualty of the system that made him famous, albeit slightly more toxic and unsympathetic at times. This is all to say the movie is a perfect synthesis of one director’s vision and another’s influence to create something that looks and feels fresh.

There’s so much more that could be said about Okja, from its incredibly vibrant score from composer Jaeil Jung (and hat tip to its  soundtrack choices) to it’s great supporting cast of characters I didn’t even get to (Shirley Henderson, Steven Yeun, and Giancarlo Esposito to name a few) or how the movie looks incredible from the way it’s shot by the stellar Darius Khondji all the way to its costume design (Gyllenhaal’s outfits alone are worth the price of admission). Sure Okja occasionally tips into “meat is murder” propaganda and it’s entertaining yet jarring tonal shifts don’t help the point sometimes, but it’s a vast improvement over netflix’s other prestige original movie and incredible film in its own right.

 

Baby Driver

Comic Review Written and Drawn by David Yoder

Baby Driver: Once Upon a Pair of Wheels

Written Review by David Carter

It’s a bright and sunny day. Three people sit stone-faced in a car outside of a bank clad in trench coats and sunglasses while one, the drive, sits similarly stoic, sporting earbuds. He drops a twist into the scene: he throws on some music. Jon Spencer’s Blue Explosions “Bellbottoms” to be exact. The song thumps as the other three get out of the car and go to work. When they’re inside the bank taking care of business something else happens.

The driver starts singing and dancing to the song.

And not just some minimal movin’ and groovin’ but full on beltin’ and steering wheel drummin’. This isn’t your effortlessly cool James Dean-light type, he’s a dorky kid behind those shades. But let’s not get it twisted, when it’s time to put pedal to floor and make high risks deals on wheels, our kid is Mozart in a go-kart. The heist finishes and we segue into a chase with “Bellbottoms” still keepin’ the pace while johnny law tries to make our hero’s heart race. He’s smooth like butter though and leaves 5-0 slipped up so the gang can switch cars and make a clean getaway.

Within that five-minute opening scene, I knew this was going to be the film of the year, but I was biased to begin with. Edgar Wright is without a doubt my favorite working director today. So much has been written about his incredibly kinetic and precise visual style or his penchant for layers upon layers of foreshadowing and meticulous set-up and payoff within his scripts, but rarely do people focus on how relatable his characters and their stories are. The Cornetto Trilogy, for all its winking, are pretty sincere movies about being at various stages in your life. The struggle to take responsibility and charge of your life in your 20’s in Shaun of the Dead. Hot Fuzz spells out the hardships of connecting with new people and new places as you move into your 30’s, and The World’s End is an ode to “where it all went wrong” and reckoning with your past and present self as you marinade in your 40’s. Even Scott Pilgrim fits into this cannon work by treading similar ground as Shaun of the Dead but from a distinctly millennial POV. Wrights characters up to this point have been flawed (mostly) ordinary people in relatable but extraordinary situations. Baby Driver has him exploring similar territory (the foreshadowing and set-up play a sneaky part in this movie as well) but Wright’s matured and he puts his passion on his sleeve to tell a Walter Hill-esque high octane pop and rock and roll morality fable. He leaves winking at the door and instead wants to whisk us breathlessly into a world that’s slightly more heightened than our own through the eyes and ears of a kid who doesn’t know that he’s going to have to make tough decisions at some point.

Once upon a time, there was a kid. The people around him called him Baby (the surprisingly magnetic Ansel Elgort). Baby is Bob Fosse in a Buick, but he had a quirk and weakness: he had a hum in the drum (tinnitus) that he got from a car accident as a child that makes him pump music into his ears around the clock. Baby had his own soundtrack 24/7 which helped him pull off daring escapes from the fuzz on his tail. Baby worked for a coolly menacing man named Doc (Kevin Spacey in his best film role since 2009’s Moon). Baby owed Doc a great debt and did these jobs until he was all square, but you could tell while Baby never wanted to dirty his hand with very dirty deeds a part of him enjoyed doing what he did best: Driving and listening to tunes to escape from his reality. It also has the added benefit of helping him take care of his aging foster father Joe (CJ Jones) in the process. But one day, Baby meets a beautiful kindred spirit in a diner waitress named Debora (a performance from Lily James whose as giddy as Sissy Spacek from Badlands). She want’s what Baby wants; to drive west in a car they can’t afford, with a plan they don’t have, listening to tunes the whole way there. He’s in love. However, happy endings don’t come easy and once he crosses paths with the sinfully psychotic Bats (Jamie Foxx, who really should be in more villain roles) and the dangerously in love Darling (relative newcomer Eiza Gonzalez) and Buddy (the always relentlessly handsome Jon Hamm) Baby has to start figuring how far down in the mud he’s going to have to dig to get free.

If the story sounds familiar that’s because it is. If you’ve seen a crime movie with any sort of morality at the center of it, you know that no one can stay squeaky clean forever. That’s the story Edgar wants to play with. The movie is made up of archetypes that you could see in any half-decent crime movie. The Psycho, The Planner, The Love Birds, The Surrogate fathers, The beautiful spirit who’s gonna help save them from the poisonous path our hero’s traveling. Baby himself feel like an amalgam of so many great protagonists. He’s a little bit Henry Hill, part Driver (from Walter Hill’s cult classic The Driver), and a dash of Freddy Heflin from Copland. Hell, Baby’s arc plays like a prequel to James Caan’s ace safecracker character in Michael Mann’s Thief. Wright wants to take all of these to their logical extremes.  Can ignorance and child-like innocence be enough to absolve you of the things you’ve done? Baby avoids tackling this question by staying removed from the world around him. He’s aloof and quiet, he puts himself at a distance from the other crooks and the music in his ears isn’t just there to drown out the ringing but put him in another world.

For as much as the movie is about slick chases and bone crunching crashes, the movie is a love letter to music. The way music can put your mind at ease when you’re spiraling, or how it can make you feel like the most untouchable person on the planet, or how it can vocalize and viscerally capture how you feel about another person in that very moment. Cinema is like watching dreams unfold in real time but music is like putting a little piece of magic in your ear. The movie alludes to how addicted to narcotics and the thrill of a job the other criminals are, but Baby gets high on harmony, mellow on melody, and ripped on rhythm. Like all addictions, it can turn from enhancer to a crutch in 0 to 60. Baby sometimes has to stop what he’s doing if the song isn’t swingin’ or the pace is in the wrong place. To him, he’s a hero and the tunes have got to reflect that in the right way, otherwise he’d have to face the music and realize he might be a common criminal with not so common driving skills.

Baby Driver is a ballet of showing off those skills, and not just in cars. Sure, the opening scene is a showstopper and the final scene is a pulse pumping and anxiety inducing face off between a human being and an uncaged  animal who smells blood, but the whole movie is so expertly choreographed, (not just synced and edited as Edgar Wright revealed that the cast and crew had to practice their cues and action scene timing to the songs on the soundtrack) that at times it becomes invisible the same way a good beat just blends together and becomes a pulse. There’s a foot chase sequence set to Focus’ “Hocus Pocus” that feels like a whole movie in itself with the way it up’s the stakes and weaves from one set piece to the next the way a bicyclist in heavy traffic does between cars. There’s a gunfight set to a stellar cover of “Tequila” by the Button Down Brass the feels like Michael Mann and Tito Puente doing the music video collaboration I didn’t know I wanted.

There’s so much more that can be said about Baby Driver, like how young adult Ansel Elgort is perfectly cast as a dreamy kid in over his head and how that’s a perfect allusion and simultaneous subversion to the casting of heartthrobs Ryan O’Neal and Ryan Gosling who play similar but more straight ahead roles in The Driver and Drive. We could talk about how Wright uses Atlanta, its vibe and its structure, the same way Bullit does for the hills of San Francisco or The Blue Brothers does for Chicago. In fact, we could even talk about how the movie is the most original pop musical SINCE The Blue Brothers, but that’s all window dressing to a movie that is gentle to its core while populating it with the crooks and carnage you’d expect from a movie like this. It’s as romantic as all those songs with the words that tell us over and over again how much we care about our baby even when everything around us just ain’t as groovy and unambiguous as what’s playin’ on the radio.