Archive for February, 2018

No metaphor or hyperbole here — cartoonist Dash Shaw’s 2016 cinematic debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, is an indie animated feature that’s about exactly what its title claims. And what kid, present or former, didn’t dream about precisely that happening to their high school at least once?

And yet Shaw, in his capacity as writer/director, avoids romanticizing the youthful outsider, as one would assume he’d be inclined to do — in fact, his stand-in protagonist (also named Dash and voiced with considerable range and realism by Jason Schwartzman) comes off as both willfully delusional (he’s convinced that he’s the best writer in the school and that his newspaper is “making a difference” — while also less-than-begrudgingly admitting that he chases after banal gossip stores in an attempt to boost his readership) and, frankly, more than a bit of a jerk. His best friend/good-natured foil, then, Assaf (Reggie Watts) ends up assuming the role of the film’s conscience/key sympathetic figure pretty much by default, but even he has his less-than-stellar moments after the shit hits the fan, quite literally — but then, who would remain calm, cool, and collected at all times after an earthquake sent their school careening off a cliff and plummeting, slowly but surely, toward a date with Davy Jones’ locker?

Shaw has long been one of the rising stars of the “alternative”/indie comics scene (his graphic novels New School and Cosplayers are both must-reads, and his strips have been among the highlights of numerous anthologies ranging from Kramers Ergot to Now), but for those not tuned into his wavelength going in, the hand-drawn animation in this flick may take some getting used to. The abstract color blocks laid underneath the art give the proceedings a very distinctive and vaguely modernist look, but if you’re not focusing on the “hand-drawn” in that sentence, then you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The art for damn near every animated film is cranked out on a computer these days — the fact that this wasn’t is straight-up cause for celebration. But it’s not just Shaw’s aesthetics that set his little opus apart —

As is the case with pretty much every generation since time immemorial, we’re told that today’s youth are “lost,” that they’re “coddled,” that they “have it easy,” that we’re more or less fucked when they grow up and take charge. Shaw turns every one of those dull assumptions on their ear and shows that, warts and all, the kids are alright. Dash and Assaf have a lot to work out — their differences are ostensibly “creative,” but run considerably deeper than that — as they try to make their way up to the school’s roof to (hopefully) be rescued, but they both come off as reasonably thoughtful, articulate, and smart adolescents, hampered mostly (hell, only?) by the same insecurities, zealotry, eagerness, and hard-headedness that we were all afflicted with at that age. If we turned out okay (alright, fair enough, the jury’s still out on that), odds are better than good that they will, too.

What’s perhaps most surprising about Shaw’s film, though, especially given its roughly 75-minute length, is that no one comes off as a one-note cipher. Lena Dunham’s Mary is afforded a good deal more depth than most “Queen Bee”-type characters, Maya Rudolph’s Verti is more than a simple antagonist for Dash , and this same courtesy is even extended to the flick’s grown-ups, such as Susan Sarandon’s lunch lady Lorraine and Thomas Jay Ryan’s Principal Grimm. Every one of these various and sundry personages could reasonably be expected to be little more than plot devices and/or comic relief, but dang — for a bunch of drawings, they sure seem real.

And while we’re on the subject of drawings, keep a close eye on Shaw’s at all times. Absurdist visual gags and “Easter eggs” abound, with one thrusting itself into the foreground every few minutes or so. Obviously the premise here lends itself to outlandish humor, so when it rears its head it’s hardly a shock, but what is shocking is how damnably clever and smart it all is. In his work as a cartoonist, Shaw has always excelled at the “oh my God I wish I’d thought of that” moment, and has managed to work them into his books or strips without interrupting their narrative flow — to see him translate that skill into a new medium with this much ease is almost jealousy-inducing.

All in all, then, I believe that captivating is the word we’re looking for here. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the crisp dialogue, the stylish animation, the pitch-perfect humor, or the honest characterization — My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. After enjoying a reasonably popular (if limited) theatrical run, it garnered a further dose of attention and acclaim upon its Blu-ray and DVD release, and it’s now available for streaming on Netflix. Pass on it at your peril (okay, that may be overstating things, but still) — this is supremely confident, assured, and heartfelt stuff that will almost make you wish you were a kid again.

Provided, of course, that the everybody else in your high school sank into the sea while you and your friends made it out in one piece.


Let’s be honest — as was the case with last year’s Wonder Woman (in fact probably to an even greater degree), Black Panther was a cultural phenomenon before it was even released, and in future it will be examined as such. As something more than a movie. As something that resonated within, and reverberated throughout, the zeitgeist. Its trajectory in that regard is largely unwritten to this point, but can be predicted with a fair amount of certainty : near-universal praise will come first, followed by the inevitable backlash, followed by an almost apologetic, “ya know, maybe we were too hard on this thing that we loved at first” sort of acceptance. If we could just skip all that, and take it as a given, it would save us all a lot of time and effort — but it’s on the way, so tune in or out of all that as you see fit. My concerns here are considerably more prosaic : to talk about the movie as what it began “life” as, to wit — “just” a movie.

For what it’s worth (which may not be much), I’m tempted to agree, to an extent, with those who are pointing out that simply seeing this flick is in no way an act of “resistance” in and of itself : after all, if the fact that the first thing that runs in theaters before the film starts is a commercial for Lexus cars featuring Chadwick Boseman in full Panther gear isn’t enough to clue you in to the reality that, at the end of the day, this is much more about profits than it is about politics, then the product placement within the film itself should do the job — and at the end of the day, one of the largest corporations in the world, founded by noted racist Walt Disney, is still the one making all the money off it. If, then, shelling out ten or fifteen bucks to watch Black Panther is an inherently defiant or dissident act (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s a highly commodified and co-opted one.

All that being said, when a film is released out into the world, particularly a film with as much fanfare attached to it as this one, there are gonna be ripples that emanate out from it — and among the millions of kids, in particular, who watch this flick, the seeds of an interest in African culture are sure to be sown, and the more they follow the metaphorical stalks that grow and flower from those seeds, the more they’ll discover things like historical resistance to colonialism, exploitation, capitalism, and the like. So while Black Panther may not be a radical (or even a particularly political) work in and of itself, it may inspire some radicalism in the future — one can only hope, at any rate.

But that’s pure speculation at this point, so let’s talk about what we know for certain.

One thing anyone who follows this site, or my work anywhere else, absolutely knows is that I’m no fan of Marvel Studios product in general. Unlike, apparently, most people, I find the overwhelming majority of Marvel flicks to be hopelessly redundant, formulaic, lowest-common denominator fare directed in a flat and lifeless “house style” with no particular visual flair, no particularly standout performances, no particular vision to do anything but get audiences keyed up for the next one. They exist as a self-perpetuating celluloid organism, one with no distinct personality but a lot of business sense and promotional muscle. This has been going on for so long, and with so much box office success, that I went into flick essentially expecting more of the same — sure, I knew it had a predominantly-black cast, and was set in Africa (albeit in a fictitious country), but that doesn’t mean that director Ryan Coogler was going to break the mold in any appreciable way. Hell, it doesn’t even mean that he would be allowed to do so. Happily, my pessimism was turned on its ear almost from word the word “go” here.

Black Panther looks different, feels different, because it is different. Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole certainly capture the dynamism, the energy, the Afro-futurism that has been a part of King T’Challa’s backstory since Jack Kirby created the character and his world (nope, we don’t lay any credit at Stan Lee’s feet around these parts, but I’m not getting into the “whys and wherefores” of that right now because, shit, I don’t have all night), but advance it all considerably, absorbing the extra layers added onto the mythos by the likes of Don McGrregor, Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates over the years, and coming out with something uniquely suited to cinema and very much of the “now.” There’s a hard-driving and kinetic sense of energy to this film that the so-called “MCU” has been missing since it inception, and if you’re among the small number of those who agree with my assessment that most of these flicks play out more like two-hour TV episodes than proper movies, you can relax : this is as bold, brash, and big as it gets. This is blockbuster fare not only in name, but in execution, with visual effects that amaze, sets that inspire awe, cinematography that commands attention, action that sizzles, a script that charges forward, and music that slicks that trajectory along. This is arresting cinema that doesn’t even give you the option to leave your seat.

But what of the acting, you ask? It ranges from good to great, and thankfully the great includes the key players : Chadwick Boseman is regal yet human, fallible, relatable in the film’s central role: Forest Whitaker embodies aged wisdom tinged with regret as high priest Zuri; Michael B. Jordan is the first truly formidable villain, crucially one with a compelling backstory and some entirely valid philosophical viewpoints, as Killmonger; Martin Freeman not only reprises, but considerably expands, his already-extant “MCU” role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross with heart, humor, and brains; Sterling K. Brown makes the most of limited but significant screen time as T’Challa’s late uncle, N’Jobu; Andy Serkis — as a human this time! — chews up the screen with dangerous charm as Ulysses Klaue (or “Klaw,” as the comics would have it). These guys are all tops, really. And yet —

It is the women that carry this film. Whether we’re talking about Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, a determined, fiercely independent, and soulful force that isn’t just her partner’s “equal,” but his conscience; Danai Gurira as General Okoye, head warrioress of the Dora Milaje, who embodies martial discipline and loyalty with the controlled fury of a hurricane ready to strike at any moment; Angela Basset as Queen Mother Ramonda, a living embodiment of grace, stature, and tradition; or Letitia Wright as younger sister Shuri, part “Q” to T’Challa’s “Bond,” part grounding and humanizing influence, part Moon Girl-style intellectual prodigy — as in life, it is the women that both make this movie’s men what they are, while also being complete and fully-realized in and of themselves. African history is far less patriarchal than is commonly believed, and in Wakanda that proud matriarchal lineage is exemplified, modernized, magnified — and honored.

Most films reflect the moment. Others define the moment. Black Panther goes one further by creating the moment. It’s as near to flawless as big-budget blockbusters get and eschews the too-common-flaw that movies made on this scale have of dumbing things down to appeal to the masses. Coogler and company instead trust those same masses to be intelligent enough to meet them on their level, and to respond to being talked “up,” rather than “down,” to. By believing that the world was not just ready, but eager, for something that goes far beyond mere spectacle — something that challenges the intellect while speaking to the heart — they have woken what could very well be a sleeping giant.

Now, let’s just keep our fingers crossed they’ve spurred that giant to do something more than simply go out and buy luxury cars.