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June 2019

Guest Voices: Yesterday

"A world without The Beatles would be infinitely worse."

In the charming yet painfully bland Yesterday, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later, 127 Hours, etc.) teams up with Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually, About Time etc.) to craft a promising what-if concept that falls short because of how uninspired the main formula is.

Yesterday is a competent realization of a brilliant concept, but it could have been so much more. There are a lot of hypothetical and philosophical concerns that they could've used to create a morally complex story and characters, yet it spirals into another conceit of routine rom-com filled with cliches. Even if we see this as just a British rom-com, Yesterday is far from what we hope to see from Boyle and Curtis.


The Beatles’ music is still as relevant today as Yesterday. And if you are a Fab Four fan like me, then the songs featured in the movie will remind you of certain events in your lives, first with a smile then, maybe, a tear or two as well.

This is Danny Boyle's gentlest film since the under-seen and underrated Millions (2004), it's also his most improbable, imperfect, and delightful work.

This movie may not rock your world, but it's a pleasant trip down Abbey Road.

"And when the brokenhearted people, living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be." 

- The Beatles (1970)

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. FacebookInstagramIMDB.


Guest Voices: In defense of Thor the Voluminous

(Hark! There be spoilers for Avengers: Endgame here.)



Outrage is the modern zeitgeist, so of course, people Had Opinions about Avengers: Endgame. Some feminists felt it was outrageous that the film had forced Brie Larson to play a sexualized version of Captain Marvel who wore — horrors — makeup. (Never mind that actress Brie Larson chose Carol Danvers’ look and we got a great “woman power” scene in the climactic battle.)

But I’ve also seen some ink spilled and some pixels lit up over the portrayal of Thor in the movie. After a first-act, post-Snap showdown with Thanos — in which Thor “aims for the neck” as he failed to do in Infinity War and cleaves the Mad Titan’s head from his shoulders — we flash forward five years and the world has changed.

Captain America’s leading a grief counseling group. Hawkeye — now dressed in the Ronin costume a couple of people have worn in the comics — is killing bad guys who didn’t get Snapped away. We don’t see Rocket making viral videos mocking people, but you just know he is. And Thor?

Well, Tony Stark calls him “Lebowski” at one point, and it’s a fitting comparison. Chris Hemsworth donned one of Hollywood’s infamous “fat suits” and put weights on his wrists and ankles to change his gait into that of an Asgardian with PTSD who buries his pain and guilt in alcohol and fighting with Fortnite trolls online. (If you think of Thor’s alien pals Korg and Miek as “Donny and Walter,” really we’re just a Kenny Rogers song and a White Russian away from a complete homage.)



And, oh, do people Have Opinions about that. “Fat-shaming” is the common refrain. Rocket says Thor looks like “melted ice cream,” and when Thor later asks “What do you think runs through my veins?” (the answer is supposed to be “lightning”), War Machine asks “Cheez Whiz?” Even Thor’s mother, Frigga (encountered in the “time heist” portion of the movie shortly before her death in the dismal Thor: The Dark World), tells him to “eat a salad” among her last words with him.



That’s it, really. There’s physical humor of him giving Rocket a hug, and our alien scrapper struggling to get away from the beer gut, and Thor and Hulk both have trouble turning around in the small Norwegian house Thor calls home in New Asgard.

Outrage! Except …

I was about 10 years old when I was first groped by a boy who took my daring to develop the medical condition gynecomastia (look it up) as a sign that I was girl-like and ripe for exploitation. Thor’s slight case of “man-boobs” and protruding belly reminded me of myself in my thinner days, but I wasn’t triggered by the sight — or the jokes — at all. Not in context.

The Avengers are, for one thing, old friends who have busted each other’s chops for years. Of the four weight-related remarks I heard in the movie, one was Iron Man calling Thor “Lebowski,” and as I’ve noted, they disheveled his hair and beard and dressed him in a bathrobe for much of the film. It was a whole persona being acknowledged, not a weight joke. Avengers-endgame-fat-thor-chris-hemsworth

A mother telling her child to eat more healthily? That’s not an insult. We might laugh, but it’s a gentle laugh — mothers are mothers, even on Asgard, even in emotionally fraught moments. (Without the words ever being said aloud, Rene Russo plays Frigga as a woman who realizes her son’s demeanor is that of an orphan, and his attempts to warn her — which she shuts down — send a clear message her death is at hand. Yet she worries about him.)

That leaves Rocket and War Machine’s food-related comments. Rocket is a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy, who embrace their lot as “a bunch of a-holes.” He snarks at everyone; but he also delivers the most powerful speech about shared loss to ever come from a CGI raccoon-like creature (even if everyone in Asgard seems to think he’s a rabbit).

And War Machine? James Rhodes is a military guy. The Air Force may rely more on brains than physical brawn, but there’s a military idealization of physical perfection to be considered here. (He’s also Tony Stark’s best friend, and how do you do that without knowing how to give as good as you get in the game of insults?)

But that military angle sticks out to me as important to consider. War Machine, Captain America, and Captain Marvel are all military veterans. The Black Widow and Hawkeye/Ronin are former SHIELD operatives — black ops of a sort — essentially special forces. Rocket Raccoon is a mercenary adventurer, and Nebula has been engineered to be a living weapon. Of the humanoids, they’re all what would often be called perfect physical specimens — in some cases, enhanced beyond that.



Iron Man and The Hulk stand apart as a billionaire playboy genius and a nuclear scientist, respectively. And the Hulk is actually quite gentle and caring for Thor, trying to pull him out of his funk the same way Thor helped him in Ragnarok.



Thor, as a Viking warrior, was like most of the rest for most of the time we’ve seen him on screen, chiseled. But now he’s on the road to turning into his fallen friend Volstagg the Voluminous, who died along with the other Warriors Three in Ragnarok. Volstagg’s appetites for food and battle were unmatched, and there were jokes about him that I don’t recall provoking so much outrage, but no one questioned his bravery. Volstagg was worthy.

And so is Thor. The enchanted hammer Mjolnir tells us so, coming to Thor’s hand just before he and Rocket leave the Asgard of the past to return to the present. And in the final battle, when we see Thor get a magical makeover that tames his hair and turns his pajamas to battle armor — but doesn’t do liposuction — we see he’s as fierce as ever. Thor’s worthy, as is Captain America, as Mjolnir drives home in the heat of battle.

So yes, there are jokes about Thor’s weight. And a more enlightened set of Avengers might have called Rhodey or Rocket on them, though the latter, at least, I fear is a lost cause.

But let’s not overlook how much progress this film series has made. From the first Avengers movie where The Black Widow was the only woman on the field in the Battle of New York (in a scene we see recreated here), now we have a legion of heroines who put a hurting on Thanos in the final act. A number of characters have disabilities or missing body parts: Winter Soldier, Nick Fury, possibly The Hulk now, War Machine, Nebula, and are we sure Drax isn’t brain damaged? He was in the comics.

As Miles Morales says in a Marvel movie from last year (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Spider-Man can be anyone. Anyone can wear that mask. The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t quite saying that “anyone can be a superhero” — it helps to be military-trained, royalty, or a super-genius — but it is giving a signal that it’s not just the white guys in domino masks or strongman tights who started the whole craze in the late 1930s.

And Ant-Man, the Wasp, and now Thor show that heroes come in a variety of sizes. I hope Thor’s time with the Guardians doesn’t shrink him back to standard size too quickly.

Jason R. Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered journalist whose first Marvel Comics crush was actually NOT Kitty Pryde, but Spider-Man’s amazing friend Firestar.


Dark Phoenix rises, and it isn't so bad

I find myself utterly flummoxed by the enormous negative reaction and dismal critic rating for Dark Phoenix, which was not nearly as bad as its reviews.

First, I want to declare my least popular opinion: I really don't care what happened in the comics. Don't get me wrong - I love comics, I used to have a pull list of my own before they became ludicrously expensive, I've read the Dark Phoenix saga in the original Chris Claremont.

But in my not-so-humble opinion, a movie adaptation needs to be able to stand on its own in its new medium, and that means changes. Some of those changes are good - I mean, have you ever read the novels on which Sleeping With the Enemy or The Hunt For Red October were based? Sometimes they take the source material and run it through a Cuisinart, but as Stephen King himself has said, the book is right there on the shelf. They can't change a word. (And he would know, given what Hollywood has done to some of his work.)

The Dark Phoenix story is not just the issues collected in the trade. It is also 30-odd issues leading up to it, with multiple storylines threaded in and out. As such, it is tricky to encapsulate the story in a single movie, as those behind the annoying X-3: The Last Stand discovered. And as the creators of Dark Phonenix have now discovered.

Really: Could a single movie include Mastermind, and the Hellfire Club, and the Lady Grey backstory, and the D'bari AND The Shi'ar in space, plus the Skree and Krulls and don't forget Uatu the Watcher... More importantly, would we want them to do so? I mean, it took 22 movies to build up to Avengers: Endgame, and by the time we got rolling in Infinity War, you were either in or you were lost. 

Both X3 and Dark Phoenix had another problem: A key character is missing. In X3, James Marsden couldn't hang around to play Cyclops through the Phoenix saga because he had to run off and be the real hero of Superman Returns. (A similar issue distracted Bryan Singer, who left the franchise he launched in order to resurrect Superman.)

In Dark Phoenix, the X-Critters are attempting to complete their biggest saga without Wolverine, who was neatly dispatched in the darkly emotional (and a tad dreary) Logan last year. 20th Century Fox chose not to recast Wolverine, as they are handing the X-Baton off to Disney, and allowed the character to simply disappear from Dark Phoenix. Maybe that's because it would be somewhat creepy for 51-year-old Hugh Jackman to spend a movie longing after a 20-something Sophie Turner. That only flies in Hollywood.

There have been far too many moments in the X-Men series where men stand around debating what to do about a woman, usually Jean. This was nicely dispensed by having the leader of the D'bari take the form of a human woman, so that the ultimate battle is between Jean and Vuk (Jessica Chastain) instead of Xavier and Magneto and Wolverine and Cyclops and even Mastermind deciding what should be done with her. This is a nice twist, and allegedly made to distinguish it from Captain Marvel. It was instantly derided as "trying to join the current trend of powerful women," because after dozens and dozens of superhero stories starring and largely focused on men, three women-led films are just crazytalk.

Unfortunately, the D'bari are the weak point of the film. Chastain practically speaks in a monotone, perhaps to indicate she is an alien intelligence translated into English, but it's a poor acting choice because we fail to feel any sense of menace from her. When she speaks of rebuilding the D'bari empire on Earth, she might as well be ordering a pizza. And her minions are practically faceless, certainly with no personalities whatsoever. They're just a convenient foil for the X-Folk.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

PhoenixAnother complaint: the movie spends a great deal of time blaming Xavier for placing barriers in Jean's mind, protecting her from the memory of causing her mother's death and her father's decision to surrender her to Xavier. This is a slight variation from both the comics and X3, in which Xavier placed the barriers to keep Dark Phoenix from taking over Jean's mind.

However, the movie goes to a ridiculous extent blaming Xavier for everything that happens, and it feels unsupported by the story. Xavier didn't create the power of the Phoenix or cause Jean to become Dark Phoenix. He did not call the D'bari to Earth or hinder anyone's ability to fight them. His decision to protect Jean from grief and trauma is ethically questionable, to be sure, but it is hardly responsible for all the mayhem that follows.

In addition, Mystique (an under-used Jennifer Lawrence with one blue foot out the door) spends a long speech haranguing Xavier for making the X-Men poster children for mutants. When James McAvoy snaps back that he prefers medals and speeches to being hunted to extinction, he's speaking for the rest of us, wondering where Mystique has been for the last few movies when they were an inch from being rounded up into concentration camps. Mutants holding the right to live as themselves in public has been her cause all along, and it rings false when they have achieved it and she complains about Xavier's methods.

The movie cannot make up its mind whether Xavier is right or wrong in his choices, making him well-intentioned and kind and not directly responsible for any of the badness... and yet forced to take full responsibility by everyone else, including himself. In the end, you find yourself blinking in disbelief and rooting for Xavier to slap someone silly and sentence them to go watch the last five movies again.

END SPOILERS

Extra credit should go to Sophie Turner, who studied mental illnesses in preparation for playing a Jean both drawn to and repelled by her new powers as Dark Phoenix; and to McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto, reprising their roles one more time with nuanced and skillful performances (plus or minus the writing of their characters). No one thought anyone could take over the roles created so well by Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and these two have done a terrific job.

Nicholas Hoult does a capable job as Beast, emoting through untold layers of makeup and special effects, while Tye Sheridan and Alexandra Shipp are simply there as Cyclops and Storm, neither impressing nor failing as their characters. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver, though criminally underused and muted from his terrific appearance in Days of Future Past. (Blink and you miss it: Chris Claremont is in the awards ceremony toward the beginning.) 

In the end, Dark Phoenix is not the best of the X-Men franchise and it doesn't really feel like the finale of the series, though it is unfair to compare it to Endgame even in that respect. But it is hardly the disaster that the critics and many fans have painted it. It makes more sense than Apocalypse and is far more entertaining than The Wolverine, but neither is it the delight of X-2 or Days of Future Past. Its dialogue was not nearly as clunky as X1 and the story was not so dreary as Logan. 

It is practically inevitable that the series (which was already quasi-rebooted with the First Class crew) will be rebooted again under the Disney umbrella. Swear all you want at the Mouse, but these days, just about everything they take over ends up vastly improved. I look forward to seeing what they will do with the X-Folk, with the minor regret that we may not see McAvoy and Fassbender at the chess board again. 

 

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist, editor, author, photographer, grad student and instructor, as well as the editor of CultureGeek. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at donaldmedia.com.


Guest Voices: Long live the king(zilla)

It has been five years since Godzilla swam off at the end of the 2014 Godzilla, and now the king has returned to reclaim his throne.

Michael Dougherty, director for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, decided that for this sequel he would give the "G fans" what they said they all wished was in the first movie: More monster action and fan service galore.

The plot centers on the world trying to cope with the fact that monsters are real, and the best way to deal with it. Vera Farmiga plays Dr. Emma Russell, who feels that the Titans (monsters) can be lived with and studied. Her estranged husband, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), thinks they should be killed, after their son Andrew died in the 2014 battle between Godzilla and the MUTOs. Daughter Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) is dragged into the middle, as eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) enters the fray.

In all of this, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) is still trying to get the governments of the world to understand that Godzilla and the other Titans are all part of the natural order of the world and that coexistence should be a goal. But when the Titan King Ghidorah awakens, it causes a chain reaction of Titans awakening across the world that only Godzilla can stop.

If you know me and have listened to me speak on the sci-fi convention circuit on panels, you all know I am one of the biggest G Fans out there. My love of the Godzilla movies has led me to write papers for school on the significance of the films and the symbolism the movies have created throughout the years. Iguana

So what has Michael Dougherty brought to this new Godzilla film? Pure popcorn fun and so many call backs to the old films you will need to get the movie on Blu-ray to be able to find them all. Once the action gets going, it is non-stop, with kaiju sightings, battles, and people running in terror from the monsters.

And man, what monsters! Along with Godzilla, there are three other monsters from the Toho movies: Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah are all beautifully crafted into CGI monsters of power. The battles between the monsters are fierce and just as destructive as they should be when monsters the size of skyscrapers are fighting. It was one of the most fun times I have had at the movies in a long time, seeing so many of my childhood favorites on the big screen again.

One of the most impressive things in the movie is the soundtrack. Legendary Pictures was able to acquire the rights to use the original music from the Toho movies. Hearing the classic music of the Godzilla and Mothra themes made it so magical. I was grinning ear to ear, listening to Mothra’s music as she came out of her cocoon.

It isn't perfect. Emma's storyline gets a little silly, and the eco-terrorist's motives are left to the oversimplified and overused points of "We are killing the planet and need to be destroyed." Millie Bobby Brown isn’t given a lot to do in the film, but what she is given she does a fine job of it. Some of the jokes in the film are forced and can be plain dumb. But luckily, Bradley Whitford’s Dr. Stanton is given all of the best jokes, and he does them well.

Spoiler Warning!

The Mothra Twins do make an appearance... but the way it is done is cool, with no singing.

The only Toho monsters in the movie are the Big Four...no one else shows up from the Toho roster of monsters, which is a little of a letdown, but hopefully if they make more movies, others can be adapted for the Monsterverse. Rodan and Mothra’s screen time is very limited which made me wish we could have seen more of them. But, for when we do see them it is wonderful. Although his only appearance is in video footage and a wall painting, Kong is mentioned several times. This makes sense, as the battle to end all battles comes next year with Godzilla vs. Kong pitting the King of Skull Island against the King of the Monsters.

End spoilers

How did they handle my hero Godzilla? Wonderful! He was the unstoppable force of nature that we all grew up watching and cheering for. When he gets smacked around in the fights you can’t help to cheer for him to get up. His facial expressions are done to perfection and I found myself cheering and jumping for joy at the end of the movie. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the big G, and it made me so happy to see him doing what he does best: Wrecking stuff and proving that he is the king.

If you are not a fan of the Godzilla genre, can you enjoy this movie? Well, if you like a good action flick and don’t mind rooting for a giant lizard and moth, you should be good to go. This isn’t Shakespeare, folks.

All in all, I loved this movie. I plan to go see it a few times to catch whatever I might have missed in the Easter Egg department and to see my hero stomping around. In other words...

Long live the King!

 

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.