Saturday, February 24, 2018


I grew up around members of the G.I. Generation. They fought in WWII, called by a sense of duty to do "the right thing." They served bravely, and their efforts saved thousands of lives.

But the Greatest Generation sure knew how to dehumanize their enemies.

I sat on the knee of many a G.I. and listened to stories of war. Many were riddled with words like Jap, and Nazi. Those stories typically employed or embellished stereotypical characteristics about their enemies to heighten suspense or create a laugh. They weren't alone in their use of dehumanizing language: the US used cartoons, posters, and public service announcements during wartime to bolster patriotism and dehumanize our wartime enemies. After all, it's much easier to kill an enemy if you believe they are something less than you are.

Something less than human.

Using language to dehumanize people  is a highly effective way to reach a political outcome, and it's used every day:

He's a Muslim is a phrase used in some parts of America to suggest things other than one's faith.

Describing someone as liberal, or conservative, no longer speaks only to the political views of the person. Those are terms used with a sneer of hatred.

The term evangelical invokes judgment: he's considered narrow-minded and judgmental by some; thoughtful and moral by others.

An atheist? She's either immoral or a humanist, depending on who you ask.

The language we use to describe people provides insight into what we think of them and, in turn, shapes how we treat them.

Scott Cooper's Hostiles effectively illustrates one important aspect of how we treat others who are different from us: it's easy to stereotype, marginalize, and mistreat as long as one stays emotionally distant. When we get close enough to know the person behind the stereotype we tend to see and connect with the person as a human being.

Those we dehumanize because of differences are viewed as human once we recognize our similarities.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther

On the occasional Sunday in the late 1970s, especially when the weather was warm, my father and mother would load us kids into the back seat of the car for a leisurely drive to the home of my paternal grandfather, in south-central West Virginia.

It was one of my favorite places to visit. Not because we were close, really. It was my favorite place to visit because my grandparents had cable TV. Being used to antenna television, anything more than three channels felt cosmopolitan to me. And it seemed that on most every Sunday visit I could find on that cable system an old Tarzan flick. Tarzan and the Amazons. Tarzan and the She-Devil. Tarzan and the Jungle Boy.

I loved them all.

It was only years later that I realized that all those beloved Tarzan flicks were really depictions of a white man overcoming the perils of living in a black society. Most Africans in King of the Jungle movies were portrayed as either animal-like in behavior, or stupid. The characters were stereotypes that Tarzan always outsmarted and outlasted.

And I ate that stuff up.

Tarzan wasn't unique. Most jungle-based adventures in movies, TV, and comic books featured a white savior overcoming challenges created by Africans. Tarzan, Shanna the Savage, Sheena the Jungle Queen, Lorna the Jungle Girl, The Phantom -- all heroic white people who either fought or saved black people portrayed as superstitious, dangerous, or both.

Marvel's Black Panther destroys those stereotypes.

Ryan Coogler's take on the comic book superhero is honest and caricature-free. Black Panther is the first adventure-based movie I recall that portrays Africans as real people -- with all the flaws and complexities that come with the gig.  Coogler shows that heroes can be morally strong and still have ego; that villains can carry out their skullduggery while retaining some aspect of goodness; that women can be beautiful and independent, and strong.

Black Panther is well acted, shot beautifully, and is a story told with tremendous special effects. What makes it a great movie, though, is that the film takes back the portrayal of Africans from white-majority owned Hollywood studios.

Coogler's Black Panther is a movie about people, relationships, and honor. And I can't wait for the sequel.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I don't know anyone like the characters portrayed in Martin McDonaugh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

I don't know anyone like Mildred Hayes, who has been through -- and lives every moment reminded of -- tremendous tragedy. I don't have anyone in my life like Jason Dixon who, despite being deeply flawed and repugnant, I want to know better. I can't think of anyone in my inner circle of friends who'd stare down impending, life-altering personal catastrophe with the dignity and grace of Police Chief Willoughby.

But I want to know those people.

I wanna spend more time with humans who turn grief into action, even if that action is at times misguided. I need a friend who strives to be a better person, even though he doesn't have the skills to make that transformation alone. I gotta find someone who lives only in the present; who understands life is made up of moments, and who doesn't live with regret. 

If I could be around people like Mildred Hayes, Jason Dixon, and Chief Willoughby day-in and day-out I know I could be a better person. 

Three Billboards is that rare work of art that's complex and beautiful because of its simplicity. A portrait in which we can see ourselves, despite the painting being somewhat exaggerated. An examination of lives that few people live but, given the proper circumstances, many of us would.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri reflects the best and the worst of our society. But ultimately, if reflects our human potential. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Shape Of Water

Guillermo del Toro proves -- again -- that he is a cinematic genius.

The Shape of Water is exactly what one might expect from a film conceived, nurtured, and directed by del Toro -- superb, innovative cinematography, a consistent thematic feel throughout, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) dichotomies between characters, and vivid, richly saturated visuals.

You know the film is a fantasy, but del Toro makes the viewer feel that maybe the story really could happen!

The Shape of Water is the perfect example of a movie one must see in a dark, quiet theater.

The Post

Fir the life of me I can't understand why, in a movie about the Trump administration, everything looks as if it takes place in 1971.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

Based on ancient play
Add modern twists, thrills, and fears
Acting is superb

Helpless, forced to choose
Due to past mistakes and sins
Someone has to pay

Distinctive, surreal,
Most peculiar from the start
Odd, yet enthralling

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

I first recall having the thought  -- maybe it was more a feeling than a thought, but I'm not certain -- while sitting alone at 2:30am on a mountain ridge in south-central West Virginia.

I'm safe and OK. My dad will protect me if something goes wrong.

How I came to be sitting on a dark, isolated mountain ridge in the early morning hours isn't a remarkable story. My dad and I were hunting for raccoons and our dogs, catching a deer's scent, took off on a wild romp though the forest. So they wouldn't get lost, Dad had to get to them quick. My 12-year-old legs couldn't keep up, so he asked me to sit alone on a log for a few minutes while he went on. It was dark, and we were miles from civilization.

I was scared.

"I'll be just over that line of trees, and for only a few minutes. Sit here with your light on, and I'll be back in about 15 or 20 minutes."

And I knew every word he said was true. I knew he'd come back exactly as he said. I knew he'd get the wild dogs back on the right track. I knew I'd be safe.

He said it, so I believed it.

I grew up believing my father could do anything. Smart and curious, he knew at least something about most things. He could fix anything that was broken. He had just the right advice for every uncomfortable situation. He was strong and could always protect us. It's not that he proved he could do those things -- I never saw him in a fight, for example. Simply, because he was my father I believed he could overcome any obstacle.

You know that belief.

The problem with that belief is that I grew up measuring myself against my dad, defining my life milestones as successes or failures based on how I thought my dad would have done in those same situations. And like most people struggling through their teens and twenties -- and hell, even longer if I'm honest-- there were lots of failures.

A lifetime of moments where I felt small compared to my dad, knowing he would have handled the same situation I faced with more strength and grace than did I.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a Netflix original written and directed by Noah Baumbach, dissects the belief most kids have about their fathers. Through small vignettes -- because that's what life really is, isn't it? -- the film examines from each perspective the relationship between a father and his three children. Starring Adam Sandler (I promise, it's his best dramatic performance ever), Ben Stiller (solid in a non-comedic role), Dustin Hoffman, and Elizabeth Marvel, Meyerowitz Stories deconstructs the existential angst sometimes experienced by the adult children of heroic fathers. Forced to recognize the personal and professional shortcomings of their larger-than-life father, the three Meyerowitz siblings are faced with realities about their own lives, and how the relationship each had with his or her father was integral to their life choices.

Perhaps, they discover, their father wasn't as confident, heroic, or successful as they perceived him to be as children. And if so, perhaps their assessments of their own lives aren't accurate, either.

I believed, during every moment of my childhood and into early adulthood, that my father could overcome any obstacle he faced. What I didn't consider is: did he believe the same?

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky is the movie for which Steven Soderbergh ended his retirement? 

OK, I admit there are some really cool things -- some things I really liked -- about this flick.

The complicated heist movie -- and isn't that something Soderbergh does best? -- takes place mostly in Boone County, WV and in Charlotte, NC. I know those areas well, and it was fun seeing the culture of those regions portrayed on the screen.

Adam Driver's accent and affect is pure Appalachian. He's channeling scores of people I've known, lived with, and loved during my lifetime in West Virginia. Farrah Mackenzie, who plays Sadie Logan, steals the show and will melt your heart. If you don't get misty-eyed during her emotional scene near the movie's end, you should turn in your hillbilly membership card.

But, there are real issues with Logan Lucky that are difficult to ignore. First, like many heist films, the flick is complicated. Soderbergh tries to tidy up some of those complications at the very end, but some unanswered questions remain after the credits. 

Second, some of the logistics are screwy. Characters travel back and forth from Boone County to Charlotte, NC so often and so quickly that viewers might believe the two regions are in close proximity.

They aren't.

Madison, the county seat of Boone, is more than 275 miles from Charlotte, and it takes more than 5 hours to travel between the locations by car. And Madison to Lynchburg, VA -- where the young daughter of main character Jimmy Logan is moving with his ex-wife, who says the move is OK because "you'll still get your days," of visitation -- is nearly 250 miles driving distance. You just can't make those trips as easily as they appear in the movie.

It almost seems the screenwriter is unfamiliar with the region in which WV is located, and presumes the location to be more Virginia than West Virginia. 

Which brings me to the most interesting part of Logan Lucky: first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt. Although listed as being "from Logan, WV, but now living in New York," no one can verify that Blunt is a real person. Instead, the smart money says Blunt is the pseudonym used by Soderbergh' s wife, Jules Asner

That theory makes a lot of sense.

What else but a first time writing effort by one's wife would make a retired film director and producer come out of retirement to produce and direct a hillbilly heist flick starring Channing Tatum?

Monday, November 27, 2017

Punisher (Netflix Series)

Marvel's Punisher is -- at least according to my memory -- the comic industry's first anti-hero. Frank Castle's appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man (sometime in 1974) set the stage for later characters like Deadpool, and for titles like Suicide Squad.

(Hell, I doubt Batman's fan base could have accepted a violent, gun-teasing Dark Knight without Punisher setting that tone.)

The Netflix series is an extension of Punisher's origin story from Daredevils second season. The audience watches Castle struggle with the moral dilemma of what he knows he is, and what he knows he must do to carry out his view of justice. We see his struggle with relationships, and manipulate them in order to achieve his mission.

Finally, we see him embrace his (even) darker side in order to deliver a truck load of karma to someone who deserved it.

It was a beautiful thing to watch.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Justice League

I'm considered somewhat of an outcast among my herd of nerds, geeks, and comic book snobs. And that's for two very simple reasons:

1. I dig old-school, team-based, super-hero comics; and,
2. I prefer DC over Marvel, Image, and other publishing companies.

It's true.

Several of my comic-book-readin' friends scratch their heads after learning I prefer JLA or Teen Titans stories over The Wicked + the Devine, or that a stack of regular old Justice Society of America comics helps me pass a day of bad weather better than the best issues of The Avengers.

When I first started reading comics in the 1970s, DC was the company to read for great stories and well written dialogue; Marvel was the place for really cool visual story telling. (There were notable exceptions, such as Spider-Man, and I read and enjoyed those titles too. But those were exceptions.)

It was in a DC comic that I could find philosophical debate over ethics and morals, and friends arguing over the subtle points of a mission. It was in titles like The Justice League where I could watch a group of diverse people consider a problem from all angles, then reach consensus and act together to solve that problem.

My favorite comic book stories weren't those with dozens of panels showing Superman punching through walls.

My favorite comics were the ones where team members sat around their meeting table in debate, arguing through what they should do.

It's for that reason I enjoyed Justice League (2017). The flick has mixed reviews, and I agree with some of the scuttlebutt and poor reviews I've read on the 'net. I'm no fanboy; I have my own issues with the film. I absolutely hate the way The Flash is portrayed as an insecure kid, and I'm not wild about how producers focused in on Peter David's 1990s Aquaman when developing the character. It gives Arthur Curry some sass and stature, for sure, but this is not the traditional Aquaman most readers know.

But there is much about Justice League that is right. Ben Affleck is better as The Batman this round than he was in Dawn of Justice, and I think that's because he spent more time out of the batsuit as Bruce Wayne. Watching Bruce track down and convince the other heroes to join this new league was the highlight of the flick for me, as was the team's debate over the ethics of whether or not they should play gods with someone else's life or death.

(That's a purposely vague reference for those couple of people who don't yet know the plot of this story.)

DC movies are still a step-and-a-half behind Marvel in story-telling, effects, and structure. Marvel flicks are lighter and sell more popcorn. But Justice League is a step in the right direction, I think. And, hopefully, ten years from now the movie will be considered a turning point for when the studio started getting it right.