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March 2019

Guest Voices: Shazam!

Today's guest voice is author and comics nerd Jim D. Gillentine. He says the Magic Word.

 

I lucked into an early screening of the new DC movie, Shazam! and I have to say...  it is one of the best comic book movies I have ever seen. We're going to avoid spoilers, because that's the rules of this site and because I truly believe that you need to go see this film yourself to fully enjoy it.

The best thing by far in this film is the acting of Zachary Levi as the main character. He is able to portray the wonder, starry-eyed excitement a 14-year old boy would have to become a superhero with the power of the Greek gods at his disposal. Asher Angel, the actor that plays Billy Batson, does a really fine job playing the child counterpart to Shazam and you find yourself really wanting to give the poor guy a hug during the sadder moments of the movie.

But the best acting goes to Jack Dylan Grazer as Freddy Freemen, Billy Batson’s foster brother. The scenes between Levi and Grazer are pure comedic gold! I was laughing so much at the interactions between the two of them. They by far had the best scenes in the movie and are worth the ticket price alone.

But what is a superhero movie without a good villain? No worries there, as Mark Strong as Doctor Sivana does an excellent job giving us a villain we love to hate and yet, still feel a little sympathy for, because of how much his childhood influenced his path in life. Everyone else in the movie put a great effort in playing their characters and I tip my hat to director David Sandberg to be able to bring out the best from the cast.

The only real gripe I have for this movie is that I have to wait to go see it again in two weeks. If you want a fun, enjoyable time at the movies with your family then go see Shazam! I think you will be very pleased with what it has to offer.

 

Jim D. Gillentine is an author and self-professed comics geek, having immersed himself in four-color prose since the 1970s. He is currently completing his bachelor's degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Website.


Guest Voices: Us

Today's Guest Voice is Rahul Menon, filmmaker and grad student. Rahul sees every movie. EVERY movie. 

 

I think this would be the apt time to coin a new genre just for Jordan Peele: ‘Socio-Horror.' Us is a blast of ideas that’s been smartly packaged and sneaked into a movie theatre as a horror movie, with just enough absurdity to spark conversation.

Us-movie-poster-384x600The #Oscar win for Best Original Writing for Get Out hasn’t gone to Peele’s head. He’s still the same old writer, director, actor and creator: he loves absurd dark humor, he's a horror nerd, and someone who likes to make socially provocative projects.

I can’t talk about Us without talking about Lupita Nyong’o’s sublime performance, Mike Gioulakis’ chilling cinematography and Michael Abels’ haunting score. Lupita Nyong’o is so brilliant in this movie that I’m quite confident that she’ll be overlooked by the Academy, just like Toni Collette in last year’s Heredity. Her performance is essential to the psychological impact of the film, and she succeeds in a big way.

The creative cinematographic choices by Mike Gioulakis are key in illuminating some of the film’s core themes. It crafts a striking and memorable imagery, and enhances the overall chilling experience of the movie. The first time you watch it, enjoy the visuals and the absurdity of the whole thing, the second time you go for it, enjoy the deeper meanings of those visuals, which may lay out different interpretations for different people.

To think that this is Michael Abels’ second time scoring for a movie is just unbelievable! The score lives, breathes, and dances to every beat of the story, along with the characters. You will be spooked by the score, and you will feel like dancing to it, at the same time.

For those of you who have seen and loved Get Out, you know you are in store for lots of allegory and symbolism, satire, social commentary and metaphors. This movie showcases Peele’s ability to build tension and release it in a satisfying way, both with humor and horror, and at times it will remind you of his old comedy sketches from Key and Peele. You will have a lot of questions once the movie gets over; you will definitely want to have a conversation and a discussion with someone, which in itself  is a big win for this movie. 

Get Out was thematically better, much tighter and concise in its story. But Us is definitely a better horror film, using all the tropes to its advantage, and is easily some of the finest visual storytelling that you are likely to see in 2019. This is like a wild horror fever dream, and pretty much every component has to be viewed with the perspective of a social issue.

But the most important thing is that Jordan Peele is just beginning his film career as the new Master of Horror. Regardless of any plot issues the movie has, the guy is a master film maker.

As for Jordan, please keep making horror, please keep making us shudder, the genre loves you. I can see why you were chosen to revive The Twilight Zone.

So do I pay for the next Jordan Peele movie right now, or how does this work? 

"When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you."

 

Rahul Menon was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and currently lives in Illinois. He is an assistant director, screenwriter and occasional actor, as well as a computer science engineer who worked as a software analyst and in advertising and marketing prior to entering the film industry. His screen debut was as screenwriter and assistant director of Saayanna Varthakal (Evening News) in 2018. He is currently pursuing a masters degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Facebook, Instagram, IMDB.


Guest Voices: In Praise of Twenty One Pilots

Today's guest voice is none other than CultureGeek Jr., otherwise known as Ian Smith.

Once upon a time in Columbus, Ohio, circa 2009: high school friends Tyler Joseph, Nick Thomas, and Chris Salhi decided to start a band with Tyler on vocals, piano, and ukulele, Nick on bass, and Chris on drums.

They called this new group “Twenty One Pilots” as a reference to the play All My Sons by Arthur Miller, a story centering around a man who must live with the knowledge that he caused the death of 21 pilots in World War II after knowingly sending faulty parts to the military to help his business.

Tyler, Nick, and Chris then started developing their first songs for their self-titled debut album, which they released December 29, 2009. Shortly afterwards they began touring their home state of Ohio, building up a very small but passionate following in the area. Their early success is attributed to their constant touring and consistent use of social media to release their new content and interact with their small group of new followers.

However, in 2011, Nick Thomas and Chris Salhi quit the band, because they both wanted to pursue careers outside of music. There’s not a whole lot of information about how this actually happened, but what we DO know is that a few months after Nick and Chris left, Tyler met Josh Dun. Josh was the past drummer for House of Heroes. It was during this time that the newly formed pair found the sound that would define Twenty One Pilots, a unique mix of analog piano, synthesizer, bass, and drums. And all under the poetic lyrics that switch between Tyler's falsetto singing voice, spoken word sections reminiscent of rap, and occasional screams.

Even though they had found their sound, they still had trouble finding success outside of Ohio. They played their first out-of-state show in June of 2011 to only 12 people. Regardless, Tyler and Josh continued making music and performing, and then started working with filmmaker Mark Eshleman to create music videos for their songs and post them on Youtube.

In July 2011, Tyler and Josh released the band’s second album, titled “Regional at Best.” This proved to be the band's first moderate hit. They launched the album with a free show on the grounds of the new Albany High School in Ohio with hundreds in attendance. Later in November, they sold out the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio with more than 1,800 people in attendance.

Keep in mind, the band wasn’t signed to a label yet. But this growing success caught the attention of dozens of record labels. Eventually the band signed with Atlantic Records subsidiary Fueled By Ramen, the same record label that has boosted artists like Fallout Boy, Panic at the Disco, and Paramore.

Since they were finally signed to a label, they started working with producer Greg Wells on a new album called “Vessel," their first feature-length studio album to be released on a record label. The album was recorded at Rocket Carrousel Studios in Los Angeles with Tyler on piano, vocals, keyboard, and ukulele, and Josh on drums and percussion. Their producer Greg Wells contributed some additional keyboard and synths.

"Vessel" was released in January 2013, and featured several songs that were previously featured on an EP titled “3 Songs.” "Vessel" was the biggest success for the band yet, reaching 21 (ironically) on the Billboard Top 100 and selling over 569,000 copies as of July 2016.

It was at this time that they started touring internationally. In 2013 they were featured as an opening act for Fallout Boy, and made their late night television debut on Conan. They were also first-time headliners at some of the country’s biggest music festivals like SXSW, Bonaroo, and Lollapalooza in 2013. They even got to play their number one hit “Car Radio” at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards.

During all this constant touring around, the two kept a small bubble studio with them wherever they went, so they could quickly record any song ideas they had while on the road. When it came time to record their fourth album, they did so in a very unorthodox manner. Instead of writing and recording all the songs in one studio with one producer, they worked with multiple producers and several different studios: veteran music producers Tim Anderson, Ricky Reed, Mike Elizondo, all in their separate studios across the northern hemisphere, and even Mike Crossey in London.

All this work resulted in “Blurryface,” the band's fourth official album released in May 2015. "Blurryface" was a concept album that centered around a character, appropriately named Blurryface. Tyler himself heavily identifies with Blurryface, stating that the character represents everything he feels insecure about. In live shows and music videos from the album, Tyler wears black paint on his hands and neck, stating that it helps him get into character.

The hype for "Blurryface" was so big that the official Twenty One Pilots website crashed because so many people were trying to pre-order it. When the album finally released, it was featured No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100, it sold 150,000 copies in the first week, and eventually it sold well over one million copies, which certifies it as platinum.

A lot of the album's success might have been because of chart-topping singles “Stressed Out” and “Ride.” "Stressed Out" was about the struggling transition from childhood to adulthood; "Ride" is about asking questions to yourself and getting lost into your deep thoughts. "Stressed Out" was No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100, and "Ride" was No. 5. That’s two songs from the same band and both songs were in the top five; the only other people to do that were Elvis Presley and The Beatles.

After the world tour of "Blurryface," the band decided to take a break from performing and making new stuff for almost two years. In November of 2018, the band surprised everyone with news that they’re going to release a new album. “Trench” was released in October 2018 and features hit singles like "Jumpsuit," "Nico and the Niners," and "Neon Gravestones."

If you hadn’t figured out, Twenty One Pilots is my favorite band: the beautiful and poetic lyrics, the constantly changing vibes between songs, the fact that they fit into SO many genres, and most of all, the messages behind the songs. Every song that they’ve ever written has a message behind it, and knowing Tyler it's usually a message about living with anxiety or depression, how to cope and live with the things that emotionally hurt and cripple you the most.

The messages are not always negative and dark; a lot of them talk about love and hope, and remember to laugh once in a while and be optimistic.

If this has spurred any interest in Twenty One Pilots, please do this: listen to "Neon Gravestones." It's a beautiful song about suicide, but has a lovely message at the end. It’s one of my favorite songs and I feel like it should be heard a hundred times more.

 

Ian Smith is a film and theater student in Illinois.


Captain Marvel Roundtable!

Elizabeth Donald, your friendly neighborhood CultureGeek

Look, I can't read everything. I'm sorry to say Captain Marvel as a character was pretty much unknown to me, except as one of those comic-book characters who had had multiple identities over the years - you know, like Batman, Robin/Nightwing/Whatever, Captain America, Spider-man, Green Lantern.... So I really wasn't sure why everyone was all crazy about Captain Marvel premiering as Carol Danvers except, y'know, she's a girl. Eeeek!

CaptainmarvelbrielarsonIf you're looking for a deconstruction of angry fanboy wails regarding the emasculation of the American hero, eh. Here we want to talk about the movie itself, apart from the extracurricular nonsense surrounding the "inevitable decline" of a franchise following a $455 million worldwide premiere weekend. Ahem. 

And I have to agree with Alicia Lutes of Variety who said Captain Marvel was... fine. It was enjoyable, far less eye-rolling than some of the MCU (Ragnarok, I'm lookin' at you) and a fun outing with introduction to a character I liked. It was not, however, the best superhero film ever or the best of the MCU, frankly. I had quibbles, but they're minor and spoilery, and I know that several of you have not seen it yet (including some of my guest reviewers, sadly...)

But it's okay. Because as Lutes pointed out, a female-led superhero movie should not have to be THE BEST EVER in order to take its place in the franchise. Bearing a strong resemblance to the real workplace, a woman-led film apparently must be four times as profitable and ten times as good as the lousiest male-led film in order to be considered "equal." So it needs to be okay that Captain Marvel is okay, and not put in a cage match with Wonder Woman* or the eternally pending Black Widow, because what's good for one is good for all. It was fun, never dragged, and I loved the "stand up" montage (you know what I mean, I'm dancing around the spoilers here) and final confrontation.

It was fun, and a worthy addition to the MCU. Should you see it? Absolutely, but it really wasn't a question, was it? By now you're either dialed in to the MCU series or not (and if not, here's your catchup list), and just like the comics' Crisis of Infinite Crossovers, you gotta see them all. Fortunately, Captain Marvel will be one of the more enjoyable chapters (Ragnarok, still lookin' at you). 

Now hear from some of our guest reviewers - at least, the ones who were there on opening weekend. Because of course we were.

* Seriously, can we not with the "Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel" crap? The answer is: both.

 

Jason R. Tippitt, comics aficionado

Captain Marvel works as both a celebration of ”girl power” and the human spirit. The movie fills in some gaps for longtime MCU viewers, offering new looks at Fury, Coulson, and some Kree baddies we've seen before.

Carol Danvers’ comic book origins saw her as a supporting character in another hero’s book: the male Kree warrior Mar-Vell, who had turned against his warlike race to protect the Earth. She was one of several superheroines to be born in a male hero’s shadow, along with Supergirl, Batgirl, and Batwoman at DC Comics, or She-Hulk, the Wasp, and (at least by name association) Spider-Woman at Marvel Comics.

But Carol did something none of those others did: She outlived the male hero who had preceded her and inspired her original identity of Ms. Marvel. He died in the 1982 graphics novel The Death of Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers drifted around for years under a few aliases, and a couple of other people took the name Captain Marvel before Carol finally got the title. (In the comics, she's an Air Force major and outranks Captain America).

Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson play off each other well. There was more of Annette Bening than I expected, and her few scenes cover a broad range. And Goose (played by four orange cats) steals every scene he's in, as cats do. Great fun with an on-point soundtrack of 90s hits, many by female artists. 

 

Jim Gillentine, author and self-professed geek

I’ve been a fan of comics since I was around 12 years old. That was the age I started collecting and reading the many different titles I loved. By the time I started reading them, Captain Marvel was long gone and Ms. Marvel had been turned into a normal person (and inactive) thanks to Rogue of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. I did read the storyline how Carol Danvers had become Binary, but other than that I had very little knowledge of her. 

Why does this matter? I went into this movie blind, with no notion of the character and no expectations. How was it for me? Pretty good!

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers gave a good performance as someone trying to find her way as a hero, a person, and a friend to those around her. Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury was his usual awesome self, but the real scene-stealer was Goose the cat. A funny addition to the movie and worth every time the little guy was on screen.

Nitpick: Sometimes the CGI was meh, but most of the time it was the high quality we expect from Marvel.

How well would I stack this movie with the other films? It is just as good as Ant-Man and Dr. Strange as far as origin movies go. For me it was fun, exciting, and a good addition to the MCU, and I look forward to seeing Captain Marvel in Avengers: Endgame. As for the controversy around this film? Not worth my time to address. Go see the movie and enjoy it if you want. 

 

Ian Smith, film student

This is Marvel Studios first female-led superhero picture, and I enjoyed it very much. For someone like me who hasn’t read the comics or knows very little about the character and story, it was different from any others I’ve seen.

The average paint-by-numbers superhero origin story shows a regular person gaining powers and trying to adapt and use them for good (Spider-man, Captain America, Doctor Strange). And the second paint-by-numbers origin story shows a superhero who already has powers and protects the humans on earth (Thor, Black Panther). 

Captain Marvel took these two basic plot lines and mixed them all into one. It started out like a Thor story, where the hero finds this planet with puny lifeforms and feels a need to protect them. But they made an excellent choice in making her story more Captain America than Thor.

Captain Marvel was extremely enjoyable, especially for someone like me who appreciates a message behind the story and the cinematography. If you’re someone who has been up to date on everything MCU and Avengers, then you’ll see Captain Marvel and see that she is a great addition to the roster that will help the Avengers defeat Thanos.

And you don’t HAVE to be a die-hard Marvel nerd to enjoy and understand this movie. There are quite a few scenes that call back to the Avengers movies, but those are not the backbone of the plot. Even if you haven’t seen every Marvel in the past decade, I still think you’ll quite enjoy it as well. It has a strong, empowering feminist message, a compelling story and a cast of good characters that you will grow to know and love.

As good as this movie is, it still had the power to hype up Avengers 4 to an even bigger level (obviously). It’s not like Marvel NEEDED another reason for fans to go see Avengers 4. But I think it’s going to be so satisfying watching both Captains, Steve Rogers and Carol Danvers, fighting side by side. Heroes EVERYBODY can look up to, no matter the gender.

I think this is good start to something they should’ve done long ago: Breaking barriers, proving that female superheroes are just as capable and engaging (and sometimes better than) the others. I agree that it should’ve been done this long ago, but I’m just glad we’re realizing it now... and inspiring the little ones as they watch Captain Marvel and Captain America fight side by side, as equals.

 


Guest Voices: Meet Jason R. Tippitt

Please allow me to introduce myself; I’m a man of poverty and passion. (Apologies to Mick Jagger.)

I’m not exactly new here, but my arrival is something like one of those stories you hear where a band hires a fan to be the new singer. Except the previous singer didn’t leave. And we don’t really sound alike. But we’ve known each other a long time.

So this isn’t really that at all. I’m a longtime fan of this blog, but usually silent, though I’ve been reading it off and on since the beginning, and I’ve known Elizabeth Donald much longer than this blog has been here or since the word “blog” was not a typo, for that matter.

We share an interest in creative works. We both write. She publishes, and I get ideas that stall out before they’re done. (It’s a work in progress.) She is a queen of things that go chomp in the night; my tastes run more toward dragging real-life horrors out into the day.

She loves roller coasters. I have occasionally considered but never committed to buying a roller coaster-building simulation for my computer. 

I introduced her to comic books eons ago. She tried to introduce me to Laurell K. Hamilton (her books, anyway), but it wasn’t a good fit. I think we’re in agreement that constant crossovers have killed the joy of comics for us. (Editor's note: I call it the Crisis of Infinite Crossovers.)

Things we’ll be talking about here — well, I’ll be talking about them and I hope you’ll chime in, too — include how religious and spiritual themes appear in pop culture in unexpected places, the ways that comedy treats human sexuality, and the topic of what (if anything) celebrities “owe” to their fans and vice versa.

I won’t pretend to be all-encompassing in my knowledge of popular culture. I’m a guy of a certain age from a certain background who’s had certain experiences and known certain people. There are gaps in my knowledge which, the internet being the internet, I’m sure will be made known to me with a quickness.

At times, I will contradict myself because I’m a human being and we do that. Try to respect that complication in me and I’ll try to give you the benefit of the doubt as well. Life is a learning process.

The most important things I’m keeping in mind as I approach this — more like going to work at a store you’ve frequented, really, because no one has ever wanted to hear me sing — are these two facts:

There’s endless space on the Internet. “Running out of news hole” — a term only print journalists (and survivors of the industry like Elizabeth and myself) will understand — does not apply here, though exceeding readers’ attention spans does.

And the easiest way to annoy Elizabeth Donald is to

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Jason R. Tippitt is a former newspaper journalist and seminary dropout now caring for family members full-time three counties past nowhere in Tennessee. He is co-author (with Elizabeth Donald) of “I Live With It Every Day,” featured in her anthology SETTING SUNS.