Posts Tagged ‘film’

Somebody, please, tell me : where’s all the hate coming from?

Okay, maybe a better way to put that would be — why is all the hate coming in the first place because, strictly speaking, we know where it’s coming from : just as the gaming scene was disrupted mightily by right-wing trolls who didn’t want any women around and coalesced into a toxic stew known as “Gamergate,” and the comics scene has recently found itself fending off a broadly anti-diversity rump of retrograde fans who have taken to labeling their harassment and intimidation campaign “Comicsgate,” the Star Wars scene has been besieged by an as-yet-untitled, but damn noisy and annoying, group of right-wing ostensible “fans” who have decided that their (again, ostensibly) beloved franchise has been besieged by “political correctness,” and that the films are now loaded with so-called “SJW messaging.”

It’s all bullshit, of course : if anything, the Star Wars films are as obliquely pro-war as ever (hell, it’s right there in the name, so maybe it’s not so “oblique” after all), but that never stopped a bunch of noisemakers aligned with the “alt-right” from trying to gin up a controversy where none exists for the sake of hopefully making a few bucks. To date, actress Kelly Marie Tran has gotten the worst of it, her turn as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi — hell, her very existence — pissing off the troglodytes to the point where she has literally shut down all her social media accounts after getting understandably sick of literally hundreds or overtly racist messages and comments being flung at her every day, but for reasons I can’t fathom, these same douchebags also decided well in advance of its release that the spin-off film Solo : A Star Wars Story was going to suck.

Again, though, as always, the dipshit brigade was dead wrong.

And, again, that hasn’t shut them the fuck up, and at this point it’s worth noting that the crossover between the various “gates” is getting pronounced — not just in terms of their vile politics and their even more vile tactics, but even in terms of the very people involved : noted “Comicsgate” shit-disturber/untalented hack artist Ethan Van Sciver, for instance, has recently been migrating over Star Wars fandom and has made thousands of dollars selling bootleg “Soylo” t-shirts (“soy,” like “cuck” and “SJW,” being favored derogatory terminology deployed by “alt-right” types against their philosophical opponents) that I’m thinking Disney’s lawyers might want to take a good look at being that they use the exact same logo as the Solo film.

Tell you what, though — even if Van Sciver justifiably finds himself getting his ass sued off, he’ll probably still claim a pyrrhic victory : Solo, you see, has been the first legit box-office disappointment in Star Wars history, and the “anti-SJW” crowd is taking all the credit for it.

Which, say it with me now, is also complete BS, as there’s nothing even remotely “SJW,” or even political in any way, on offer in this flick. I don’t know why this movie hasn’t done so well — although it’s worth noting that when all is said and done it’ll probably still turn a healthy profit — but I do know that politics has nothing to do with it. Solo is essentially what any Han Solo “origin story” should be : a space western suitable for all ages, races, genders, ethnicities, and political persuasions. A 12-year-old kid who cried with his mom the night Trump won the election and a crusty 60-year-old in a “MAGA” hat can each find plenty to love here, because the film’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious : Alden Ehrenreich is a pitch-perfect choice in the title role; Woody Harrelson’s rogue-ish Tobias Beckett is a fantastic foil/mentor; his partner in crime and life, Thandie Newton’s Val, is equal parts tough as nails and achingly human; Paul Bettany cuts a genuinely menacing and mysterious figure as chief villain Dryden Voss;  Donald Glover is spot-on stupendous as a young Lando Calrissian; Emilia Clarke is coolly intriguing yet eminently relatable as Han’s love interest, Qi’ra; hell, even Joonas Suatomo seems to approach the role of Chewbacca with a little extra heart. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that all the principal players flat-out nail it in their roles.

I’m thinking this all flows from the top down — veteran blockbuster director Ron Howard was brought in approximately halfway through to rescue what by all accounts had been a flagging production, and armed with a screenplay by old Lucasfilm hand Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, the air of tonally perfect professionalism established is unmistakable : the humor (of which there is plenty) is well-timed and genuinely funny, the battle scenes and their attendant special effects spectacular, the various subplots compelling — seriously, this is a “popcorn movie” that’s firing on all cylinders all the way through, and more importantly, it has everythingStar Wars fan could possibly want, and nothing they don’t.

For all that, though, very little feels forced, there’s no sense a “checklist” Howard and the Kasdans are working from is having its various boxes ticked off : yeah, how the hell Solo became such a good “space cards” player is never really explained and just needs to be taken as a given, and they do rush on pretty quickly from a central character’s death, so much so that it feels downright callous, and sure, the third act contains a bit too much set-up material for a sequel that will now probably never happen (although there’s a real jaw-dropper among these foreshadowings that ties this flick into Lucas’s much-maligned prequel trilogy) — but apart from that, everything here really flows from scene to scene quite nicely.

And speaking of “flow,” the entire film positively flies by, it’s two-hour-plus runtime over with all too soon. But you know what? You’ll be smiling the whole way, because Solo : A Star Wars Story isn’t just the franchise’s best outing since The House Of The Mouse took over (well over 12 parsecs ago now), it’s the best since The Empire Strikes Back.

So, where’s all the hate coming from? Well, when I put the question out to twitter as to where the supposed “SJW messaging” in this movie was to be found, I only got one response, that from a person I recognized as being linked with “Comicsgate” (some of them follow me out of sheer spite, I think), who opined that the “problem” with it was that it featured a “miscegenation relationship” (Harrelson and Newton) and “acted like it was perfectly normal.”

The hate, then? It’s coming from racist fucking assholes. And any movie that pisses them off is probably pretty damn good — this one certainly is.

 

Just when I thought the MCU might be getting somewhere —

About the only person more surprised by just how fucking much I loved Black Panther than a regular reader of this site was — well, me, but love it to pieces I did, and it’s an opinion I still stand behind 100% and then some. I’m not sure how much of the credit for its artistic success is down to the studio “suits” simply allowing Ryan Coogler to do something different, to break the mold, and how much was him actively wanting to while other directors remain content to serve up more of the same, but whatever the case may be, it was the first Marvel Studios flick that had a distinct look, feel, and personality all its own. It stood out, then, not just for its frankly profound cultural significance, but for its ambition and its quality. It wasn’t a two-and-a-half-hour episode of “Superhero TV,” it was something altogether more. Altogether different. Altogether better.

Say it with me in unison : ” but you knew it wouldn’t last.”

And maybe it couldn’t last. The strictures placed on an “event” film such as Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers : Infinity War are, after all, stifling at best, suffocating at worst. I mean, this is “The Big One,” right? The one they’ve all  been leading up to, and consequently (almost) all hands are on deck : Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, Chris Henworth’s Thor, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Robert Downey Jr. — sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (I get them mixed up because they’re the exact same goddamn character just with different powers), Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis — they’re all present and accounted for, as are Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in their voice-over roles as Rocket Raccoon and Groot, respectively.

Even most of the “big-time” supporting cast members from prior films/franchises are here, albeit for pretty cursory “check-ins” : Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Tom Hiddlesont’s Loki, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, William Hurt’s Secretary of State Ross, Benedict Wong’s — uhhhmmm — Wong, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, Danai Gurira’s Okoye — hell, even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puts in an appearance if you hang around through the end of the credits. If you like ’em, chances are they’ll turn up just long enough to make you happy.

Which means, of course, that there’s little room for anybody new — the “Big Bad,” Thanos, has made some brief-ish some cameos in some of the lead-ups to this, but by and large this is the first time we’ve seen him take center stage (and Josh Brolin actually does some interesting things with the character, portraying him as more dispassionate and calculating than outright menacing), so I guess we can call him kinda “new,” but the only semi-major player we absolutely have never seen before is Peter Dinklage in the role of Eiti, and ya know? He’s pretty damn good. But then, he always is.

So the story goes something like this : Thanos is out to assemble the six all-powerful “Infinity Gems” so he can place them all inside this big, fancy gauntlet and wipe out half the living beings in the entire universe, thereby insuring that the half who survive can have it good what with less competition for resources and the like. But not so fat, the re-grouped Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Wakandans, and the heroes who usually go it alone are all going to join forces to try and stop him, because that’s what they do. Big fights ensue. Big moments occur. Big conversations are had. And it all leads up to a big third act that changes everything forever. Really. The whole course of the MCU is altered. It’s momentous. It’s gargantuan. It’s the most hitherto-unimaginable thing to ever go down.

Unless, ya know, you’ve ever read a comic book at any point in your entire life. In which case you’ll know that nothing really happens that can’t, well, un-happen.

The reason Avengers : Infinity War might be said, in purely technical terms, to “work” — and why so many people are leaving theaters all over the world in a state of absolute shock — comes down not to anything in the film itself, but to a clever advance marketing ploy, and that’s it. Ya see, early on it was announced that this was the first of a two-part story. Then Marvel seemed to backtrack on that and say, no, it’s not, we’ve re-worked this a little bit and now it’s a stand-alone film. And if you go into the flick believing that, then yeah, this is the gut-punch to end all gut-punches. But it’s all bullshit.

Seriously. This is no more a “one-off” than any of these things are. The status quo has been re-set in a very big way, no doubt, but who are we kidding? It’s only temporary. There’s one major-ish development involving the demise of a character (and that’s all I’m gonna say) that occurs before the balls-out climactic finale, and in theory I suppose that could stick, but everything else? Like Stan Lee infamously once said, “how much do you charge for a quick hand —” sorry, “don’t give them change, give them the illusion of change.” And that, friends, is precisely what this is. An illusion. A big, bold, brash, jaw-dropping illusion, to be sure —but at the end of the day, an illusion nonetheless.

For my part, what can I say? This hustle stopped working on me when I was about 12 years old. I need something more. And that’s simply not on offer here. This is a film that exists for the sole purpose of hoodwinking you into thinking that nothing will ever be the same again — and when you turn around in, I dunno, two years’ time, guess what? It’s gonna be like it never even happened.  So enjoy the re-arranged interiors while you can, because everything, minor window dressings aside, is gonna end up right back where it’s always been — and always will be.

This is what audiences want, though, and while that’s perfectly fine and dandy on the most obvious and liminal level — different strokes for different folks and what have you — when you spend any time thinking about it, actually it’s kind of depressing. Like Trump, Avengers : Infinity War (and, really, the entire MCU in general) is one big con job, and it’s a con job that’s winning. Once the initial shock of this film’s ending wears off, there won’t be a soul left wondering “oh my God, what did they just do?,” but there will be legions of people wondering”oh my God, how are they going to reverse all of that?” And I really don’t care what the answer to that question is.

Maybe I got overloaded on micro-budget horror back in October when I plumbed the depths of Amazon Prime’s offerings in the sub-genre for my customary “Halloween Month” reviews, maybe I’m just too damn busy at work to follow all of my interests (cinematic or otherwise) lately, or maybe trying to build up a solid backlog of content on my new(-ish) comics blog is eating up every spare moment I have for writing so I’m just not watching as many movies since I don’t have as much time to write about them — I dunno, but whatever the case may be, it had been a good few months since I’d watched a cheap-ass indie fright flick, and their absence from my existence was starting to be felt on, like, a goddamn cellular level. Something needed to be done.

So, yeah, last night I ended my impromptu fast and returned to combing through Amazon Prime for something weird (and weirdly-made) to watch, eventually landing on a 2010 Pittsburgh-lensed number called Necro Lover, originally released (to the extent that it even was — it went straight to DVD, and it’s not like that was heavily promoted) under the far less salacious title of Stiff. Certainly the premise sounded suitably amoral : depressed office drone Troy (played with no skill whatsoever by a guy named Bill Scott who’s — get this — trying too hard to look bored, which I never even conceived of as being possible) calls the suicide hotline one night and speaks with a “counselor” named Lori (speaking of lousy acting, Lulu Benton is flat-out terrible in this part, but she at least proves that calling this thing Stiff was apropos) who, picking up on his deep-seated unhappiness, decides that what she really needs to do is breach every single ethical standard of her ostensible profession and give this guy her personal phone number. Huh????

Fear not, though, dear reader : writer/co-director Jim Towns and his partner behind the camera, Mike McKown, have ensured that there is a method to her madness — she doesn’t want to “help” Troy at all, she wants to convince him to kill himself so that she can (yes, you’re reading this right) fuck his dead body. Ahhh, yes, now it all makes “sense” —

I’m not sure how to tip-toe around this, so I’ll just come right out and admit that I’m in no way averse to watching a film about necrophilia. Jacques Lacerte’s Love Me Deadly is one of my all-time favorite tasteless exploitation features, I found Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed bizarrely fascinating, Martin Weisz’s Grimm Love is a dark, haunting, and emotionally complex film that has stuck with me ever since I first saw it, Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik and Nekromantix 2 are legit underground gross-out classics — and who are we kidding? As far as abnormal sexual compulsions go, corpse-humping is about as harmless as they come. After all, what the hell does the other person care what’s being done to them? It certainly says something really weird and disturbing about the person who’s “into” it, there’s no denying that, but at least necrophiles are good at picking out partners who don’t judge them. In fact, they don’t do anything at all.

So, yeah, if “sick and wrong” is your bag, this flick should, in theory, have plenty to offer. Unfortunately, all the good intentions in the world — even if those good intentions are in service of something most well-adjusted people would consider to be “bad” — don’t matter for shit if you have no idea what you’re doing, and all evidence on offer would suggest that no one involved with Stiff on any level had the first clue about how to make a movie.

I’ve already taken both lead actors to task, albeit briefly, but in truth I take no real pleasure in piling on either of them since they’re clearly not professionals and have each probably returned to call center or retail store work by now — if they ever even left it. Who I’m not going to let off so easily are Towns and McKown, who have constructed a slow and sloppy and utterly flat finished product out of what should have been at least an interesting premise.  Little gaps in logic like Lori living in a big, fancy house on a middle-class-at-best salary I can forgive, but predictability and lack of inspiration I can’t, and when it’s revealed that she became fixated on not letting sleeping corpses lie due to a traumatic childhood experience, and when Troy starts falling for her and re-discovering his will to live — well, that’s just indicative, to my mind, that these are two filmmakers who don’t have the guts to follow their own disturbing ideas to an equally-disturbing conclusion. In other words, what we’re looking at here is one big cop-out.

Fit me for a padded jacket now if you must, but I really did want to like Stiff. The raw ingredients for something that you’ll definitely remember, like it or not, at all here. Instead, what we get is the most eminently forgettable film about necrophilia ever made. I guess that pulverizing the combustible and shocking down into the staid and safe takes work, but then so does digging your own grave — I’m in no particular hurry to do it, though, and I know you’re not, either.

Although, hey, Lori would probably give you a hand with that.

 

A fair number of the films nominated for one or more of the just-awarded Oscars for this past year have begun to pop up on our local cable system for the pretty-damn-reasonable rental rate of $5.99, so now is a good time for folks like me, who didn’t make it out to the theater nearly as much as we’d have liked over the past 12 months (or thereabouts), to catch up on the stuff everyone’s been talking about — and in the category of celebrated acting specifically, they don’t come much more-talked-about than director Craig Gillespie’s biopic of notorious-but-perhaps-misunderstood figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya. Allison Janney went home with the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her turn as the one-time-phenom’s mother, LaVona, and Margot Robbie received rave notices for her take on the film’s troubled protagonist, so what the hell? On a low-key weeknight, have you got something better to do than to check this out? I don’t.

For those who lived through the early-’90s melodrama that was the Harding/Nancy Kerrigan dust-up, the general details — perhaps even the specifics — are still floating around somewhere in our syrupy collective memory, but for those who either weren’t around for it or had something better to do, it goes something like this : Harding, a rough-and-tumble gal out of small-town Oregon, who hailed from a decidedly working-class background that could generously be described as “atypical” when contrasted with most in her sport, found herself at the center of one of the 24/7 news cycle’s first wall-to-wall stories when one of her primary competitors, media darling Nancy Kerrigan, had her leg bashed in with a tire iron by a masked assailant who, as it was quickly discovered, was in the employ of Harding’s ex-husband, an incompetent loser named Jeff Gillooly who tended to surround himself with folks no smarter or more savvy than he was himself. But there’s a whole lot more to the melodrama than that, of course.

Harding’s place in figure skating history was already well-secured by the time all this shit went down : she was the first woman to successfully complete a Triple Axel in competition, she’d been a national champion and an Olympian, she was the first woman to successfully project a “bad girl” aura in what had previously been a genteel and refined sport. How and why, then, did she find herself mixed up in a Keystone Kops-style fiasco that ended with her being banned from competitive skating for life when she probably should have been milking lucrative endorsement deals and participating in “Champions On Ice”-style exhibition tours for at least a half-decade, if not longer? Believe it or not, that’s probably the wrong question to be asking.

The right question, as it turns out, is how Harding could have possibly gone as far as she did given her disastrous upbringing and abusive domestic life. Janney’s every bit as compelling as everyone claims and nearly steals every scene she’s in — LaVona was a nightmare of a mother, callous and cruel and emotionally distant and manipulative and antagonistic in the extreme, a literal cauldron of seething bitterness and resentment split between being driven to push her daughter to the top of her field and being deeply envious of the success that she goaded her toward achieving, and it’s testament to Robbie’s own acting abilities that she’s able to stand toe-to-toe with her co-star and still make her own presence felt. When the two are going at it, they really go at it — and when they aren’t going at it overtly, the tension is never more than about a centimeter from the surface. This is meticulously-crafted interpersonal dysfunction that drips of years of slow-burn mutual  destruction, some of it aimed outward, much directed inward. LaVona, in particular, seems to hate herself and her lot in life every bit as much as she despises her offspring, while Tonya has internalized so much of the psychological trauma she’s been subject to that you just know she’s doomed to sabotage her own success because, after being told you don’t deserve it long enough, you begin to believe that’s true — no matter how hard you’ve worked for what you have. On the surface, the idea that Tonya Harding could be waiting tables in a greasy-spoon diner within months of reaching the pinnacle of her profession appears absurd — but when you see how her life played out, such a fall from grace (one in a series of them, truth be told) seems not only natural, but inevitable.

The same, sadly, can also be said of Harding getting into, out of, and then clinging around the margins of, a shit marriage. Sebastian Stan steps into Gillooly’s no-doubt-cheap shoes and inhabits the character with tremendous authenticity : he’s a fuck-up, sure, but a fuck-up capable of slapping the shit out of his wife at the drop of a hat, apologizing for it afterwards, and then doing it again. And again. And again. The sheer banality of the domestic abuse in this film is particularly disturbing — Gillsepie doesn’t swell the music and pull in the camera for tight and frightened facial close-ups, he just goes the naturalistic route, and it offers no safe dramatic distance for audiences. One minute Harding is putting groceries away, the next she’s getting a black eye. It’s abrupt, it’s shocking, it’s direct, it’s real. And yet you can also see why the Gillooly/Harding relationship made a kind of sense in the way that so many of these dead-end pairings in dead-end towns do : he was interested in her, she was interested in getting out from her mother’s thumb (not that she really did, but that’s another matter), and neither of them had anything else to do. Harding ended up getting the “upper hand,” so to speak, only when she finally dumped her old man’s sorry ass and he slid into the typical “I’ll do anything to get her back” mindset — but that came back to bite ’em both where the sun don’t shine, because what he would “do for her” turned out to be as stupid and disastrous as you could possibly imagine.

Of course, with a “bodyguard”/hired goon like paranoid, delusional, grown-man-living-with-his-parents Shawn —a part that probably looked like little more than comic relief on paper but is elevated to a kind of queasy believability by Paul Walter Hauser — at the center of a Gillooly’s grand scheme to prove his “worth” to his estranged spouse, said scheme never has a chance, and the minute the FBI starts poking around a guy of Shawn’s “fortitude” is gonna squeal like the proverbial stuck pig, so the only real surprise on offer in the film’s final act is the speed at which the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. It’s actually kinda breathtaking to consider that these clown thought they’d get away with the assault on Kerrigan, but again, that deep-seated sense of inevitability that Gillespie has so masterfully channeled from the outset (with no small assist in that regard coming from the admirably less-than-flashy screenplay by Steven Rogers) is what’s most compelling about watching this all go off the rails. Everyone’s so broken, so ill-equipped to handle the situations that they themselves have gotten into, that you can feel the walls of the universe itself closing in around them. This is the way it has to be, and even though you’ll fight against it, you’ll be doing so in full knowledge that your efforts are doomed to fail.

All of which makes I, Tonya a tragedy, of course — but one most people can probably relate to. There are no “heroes” in this flick, but there are no real “villains,” either — not even LaVona, who really just finds herself at the end in the same place she’s always been, namely a hell of her own making. Harding’s short-lived career as a boxer is touched upon not for laughs, nor for sympathy, but as just another thing that happened. That was bound to happen. As is also the case with her lifetime ban from figure skating — yeah, it’s a punitive punishment, but what else did anyone really expect? The die was cast the minute that Kerrigan’s kneecap cracked.

If you’re looking for redemption, then, or for a ninth-inning (sorry, wrong sport) comeback, or even for any of these folks to forgive any of the others for anything — sorry, not in the cards. Tonya Harding overcame a hell of a lot to make it as far as she did, absolutely, but in the end everything and everyone she had a chance to escape from pulled her right back down to their level — and not through any Herculean effort on their part, but simply because she never had the tools to learn to how to break their grip. Seriously, you have to wonder — what good is having a vehicle but no map of how to get where you want to go? Gillespie’s remarkable film — anchored by genuinely compelling performances — reminds us that even the brightest and flashiest of rocket-ships will crash and burn if it doesn’t achieve proper velocity at liftoff.

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.

So I’m rolling with one of those occasional kicks we all (I’m assuming) go on where we catch up on seeing a bunch of shit we’ve been hearing about for X number of weeks, months, even years, and  last night said kick took me to 2011’s Rise Of The Animals, a flick shot in and around Rochester, New York for the princely sum of $7,000 by a guy named Chris Wojcik who may be short on what passes for “skill,” but clearly thinks he possesses just enough to crank out one of those “so bad it’s good” pre-fabricated “cult” numbers that outfits like Troma and The Asylum have made their bread and butter for literally decades now. That being said, if any one film can be considered a direct thematic and stylistic predecessor to this one, it would be James Nguyen’s Birdemic, but there’s a very crucial difference between the two — Nguyen was actually trying to make something he thought might turn out to be “good” (at least his first time around), and Wojcik clearly suffered no such delusions and kept his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout his bargain-basement production.

Points to him having his head screwed on straight, then, I suppose, but here’s the thing — recent-vintage “midnight movie” favorites like Birdemic and The Room became grassroots mini-sensations precisely because they’re such earnest films where the various principals involved were working so hard to produce something that could pass for “art,” while a flick that knows it’s a steaming pile of horse (or moose, or bear, or cat, or squirrel) shit and just hams it up as much as its budget allows for can never come close to matching the wondrous ineptitude of those who try and (spectacularly) fail. I guess what I’m saying is that bad movies that were trying to be good are inherently more interesting than bad movies that were just trying to be bad.

I’ll tell you what, though — even with all that in mind, Wojcik almost won me over in the early going. The premise here is amazingly lame — teenage virgin pizza-deliver boy Wolf (played by Greg Hoople) and his equally never-been-laid buddy, Jake (Adam Schonburg), finally get lucky one night when they crash an all-girl slumber party, but Wolf’s lady-love, Samantha (Nicole Salisbury) heads clear across the country the next day. There’s no time time to be depressed, though, because out of the blue the animals (as in, like, all the animals) have turned homicidal and are slaughtering anyone and everyone in sight. And so Wolf, Jake, and Jake’s newfound girlfriend, Rachel (Stephanie Motta) decide their best bet is to hit the road and make sure Samantha’s okay. Cue the madness.

And even that’s kinda fun at first — stock footage of house pets, horses, etc, is mixed with amazingly bad puppetry (yes, you read that right) and even more amazingly bad CGI (my favorite being a gorilla with a red mohawk) to create some of the most clumsy animal “attack” scenes ever committed to to film (or, in this case, hi-def video) where actors seem to be moving in no relation whatsoever to the direction the “threats” against them are coming from, but here’s the problem — once the shtick wears off (which doesn’t take long), there’s just nowhere for this flick to go. And so it doesn’t.

There’s plenty of (phony in the extreme) blood and gore on hand here — in many cases people are absolutely drenched in the red stuff for little to no apparent reason even though they were pretty clean a second before — but that, and the hope for some more cringe-worthy dialogue, is about all that can keep you interested for the back half of the film’s scant 70-minute runtime. Wojcik doesn’t even fall back on the tried-and-true trick of consistently one-upping himself with his on-screen kills, some of the better (or at least weirder) ones happening early on, with the boring shit coming later on. The script essentially runs in place (even though the characters are headed toward a destination) until its big finale, and if you’re still any more than, I dunno, 25% more interested in what’s going on by that point, then congratulations on having a much greater attention span than I do.

Still, if there’s one thing I know, it’s my readership, and I’m sure that no matter how hard I might try to warn you off it, this is going to sound like the kind of movie that a lot of you feel like you just need to see. Fair enough. But please do yourself a favor and don’t hunt down Rise Of The Animals on DVD (if it’s even available in said format, truth be told I’m not sure) or pay to stream it, not when you can just check it out for free on YouTube by following this handy link :