Category Archives: Pop Culture Commentary

I’d Ask You to Think about Fish and Water: THE SHAPE OF WATER Review

Recently, I finally got around to watching Revolutionary Road, in which Michael Shannon plays a small but key role as a recently released mental patient who disrupts the marital façade of a suburban couple. Over the last several years, Shannon has proven himself an invaluable and versatile actor, in both film and on the television series Boardwalk Empire. His General Zod notwithstanding—a loud, overbearing performance that I blame more on the writers’ and director Zack Snyder’s fundamental misunderstanding of their source material—Shannon has done excellent work. He seems most at home playing edgy, borderline-insane authority figures. In Guillermo del Toro’s masterful, moving magical realist film, The Shape of Water, Shannon’s Richard Strickland is, in some respects, the straw that stirs the drink, so much so that I recently told my wife it might well be my worst nightmare to awake and find Shannon standing over me, watching me sleep with those bug eyes of his.

Except for the visually muddled destruction-porn mediocrity that was Pacific Rim—a movie that could have been Snyder’s work, except that it had some semblance of character development and a more-or-less coherent plot—I love del Toro’s work. Were I to rank his films, always a dicey and subjective and ultimately useless proposition, I would put The Shape of Water ahead of everything but Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a strongly directed, well-edited movie with super makeup, beautiful retro set design, and a script that is equal parts Creature of the Black Lagoon monster-adventure and suspense-romance.

The plot: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman at a research facility that looks like a dank VA hospital, lives a life of strict routine, right down to the perpetual tardiness that bemuses her best friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, who—in a situation that will likely please Academy voters even as it annoys cultural critics—plays a similar black-domestic role as her Oscar-winning turn in The Help). Each night, Elisa goes home to a small apartment located next to the near-identical residence of her other best friend, gay painter Giles (Richard Jenkins, who will also likely be recognized this award season).

Elisa’s dull life is disrupted with the arrival of Strickland and a mysterious research subject encased in a water tank. None of this affects Elisa much until, one day, an injured Strickland stumbles out of the lab, having gotten too close to whatever he brought into the facility. As the cleaning crew are left alone in the lab, Elisa discovers exactly what it is—a creature the film’s credits call Amphibian Man. He will look very familiar to fans of the old Warner Brothers Creature series. Played here by Doug Jones, who has made a career of embodying strange and/or homicidal humanoid creatures in del Toro films (see the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth), the Amphibian immediately bonds with Elisa and demonstrates a human capacity to learn and communicate.

Many viewers’ experience with this film may hinge on how deeply they buy into the romance between Elisa and Amphibian Man, which includes not only an underwater sex scene but a later explanation of exactly how this kind of interspecies coupling is even possible, given the Ken-doll appearance of the Man’s bathing-suit area. Perhaps Elisa’s enchantment comes too easily. Perhaps we might wonder why and how the Man reciprocates her fascination, given the physical and communicative barriers between them. One answer is that Elisa finds ways to communicate sensually without a voice, through food and music. Another is that we are probably supposed to understand that these characters, voiceless and lonely as they are, thrive on empathy. A third reason is, perhaps, revealed in the (imagined?) final underwater scene, and while you may see the revelation coming, it still feels impactful.

The eccentricities of this love story should come as no surprise to del Toro devotees, nor should the excellent performances he coaxes from his cast. Hawkins’s expressive face and the timing and tenderness of her gestures could serve as an acting class in portraying emotion without words. Shannon, all self-righteous glower and rage, conveys the personal and the universal threat of a xenophobic government; it feels all too timely.

Spencer’s quiet strength radiates in her every scene; she makes Zelda’s roles as Elisa’s fierce protector, as wife of a no-account man, and as background player in a government facility oozing masculinity and classism, more than the sidekick-of-color comedy relief she might otherwise have been. The script helps, giving Zelda key roles in facilitating Elisa’s opportunities for romance and in the ultimate rebellion against Richard Strickland’s angry-white-male tyranny. Though this is primarily still a story about white characters, the occasional nod to the period’s racial injustices at least assure that those problems are not erased.

As Giles, Richard Jenkins, always a strong addition to any cast, delivers an award-worthy performance dripping with the loneliness of the outsider. A painter, a gay man who lives alone and wants desperately to find love, best friends with his mute neighbor and—using symbolism that is becoming more common—owner of a couple of cats (one of which is quite unfortunate), Giles steps out of his melancholy but entrenched life to help Elisa on her great adventure, and Jenkins makes Giles’s every moment, every decision, every out-of-character act both funny and uplifting.

Whether the film earns our understanding of Elisa and Amphibian Man’s romantic connection is a key question for viewers and critics, and my main quibble with the film is that it spends key screen time on a couple of scenes that seem to add little to the narrative or characterizations—Strickland at home, for instance. This time could have been used to deepen and broaden the connective tissue between Elisa and Amphibian Man. I was also a bit surprised at how Strickland’s story ends. Given what we learn about the nature and powers of Amphibian Man and how the movie generally rejects aggression as problem-solving, I expected something else. Still, as a writer, I know you have to tell the story inside you, and not every reader/viewer will applaud every narrative decision. Even so, my disagreements are relatively minor.

Overall, The Shape of Water deserves the critical love it has gotten since its release and makes a powerful addition to del Toro’s canon. I look forward to buying my copy.



In the first act of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a woman marches into the local advertising office and pays five thousand dollars to rent three derelict billboards located on a seldom-traveled rural road. That woman is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), and from the first words she speaks, from her hard facial expression, from her indomitable body language, the viewer—and the poor ad agent—understand that you mess with Mildred at your peril.

These billboards, set at perhaps fifty-yard intervals, catalyze a communal crisis that involves Mildred, her son, her friends, the local police, the advertisers, and one dentist who picks exactly the wrong time to take a political side. Mildred has the billboards painted red and sequentially messaged:

Raped While Dying

And Still No Arrests

How Come, Chief Willoughby?

These messages represent Mildred’s shot across the bow of the local constabulary, led by William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). We soon learn that Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered, her body set afire, months before. The police have no leads. And Mildred has waited long enough.

Though you might think a small conservative town would rally behind the victim’s family, much of their loyalty to their fellow citizen ends where their adoration for Chief Willoughby begins. Mildred learns this almost immediately when Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who, like most actors in this film, disappears into his role so well you forget whom you’re watching) spots the billboards and reports them to Willoughby (yet another excellent Harrelson character). This leads to a talk between Willoughby and Mildred, in which the complicated nature of the film is epitomized:

Willoughby: I’d do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don’t match no one who’s ever been arrested, and when the DNA don’t match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn’t a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well… right now there ain’t too much more we could do.

Mildred: You could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of 8.

Willoughby: There’s civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town?

Mildred: Pull blood from every man in the country.

Willoughby: And what if he was just passing through the country?

Mildred: If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.

Willoughby: Yeah well, there’s definitely civil rights laws that prevents that. (This quote courtesy of

From this exchange, we can see that Willoughby is less a bad man than a flawed human being. We can never forget those flaws, but we can acknowledge his empathy and the real problems law enforcement faces in cases without leads. From the same scene:

Willoughby: I don’t think them billboards is very fair.

Mildred: The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl’s probably out there being butchered.

The brutal rape, murder, and desecration of Mildred’s daughter has hardened her past the point of empathy with Willoughby’s problems, including his slow and agonizing death from pancreatic cancer—though there is a later scene in the police station that suggests that isn’t quite true, either. In short, from the opening moments of the film, we realize that we have entered a complicated world, where those who deserve our sympathy don’t always get it and no one is clearly and purely good or bad.

Chief Willoughby, whom, we might assume, is the antagonist—and who is capable of saying things like, “If you fired every cop who was just a little bit racist, you’d have, like, three cops. And they’d hate the fags”; who is capable of strong-arming the mother of a rape/murder victim; who continues to employ Dixon in spite of rumors about his torturing black suspects—is also a self-sacrificing man who can see the smallest, dimmest spark of humanity in a goon like Dixon and the likely outcomes of his disease for his loved ones. A series of letters he writes to the other characters reveals further depths in this man, who, against your better judgment, you may come to love a little.

Mildred, so strong and so broken, backtracks and shows honest concern over Willoughby’s health just before she commits an act of protest that may well shock you. In many ways—hence this review’s title—she is like her own character from Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film, Blood Simple, moved to a new town and sick of men’s bullshit. If McDormand is not nominated for Best Actress, I shall cry foul.

Dixon, at first a cartoonish buffoon who embodies the worst characteristics of southern white men and police officers, reveals layers of compassion and dedication underneath those borderline-inhuman traits.

In short, the film never lets us settle comfortably into rooting for any one character, and it forces us to see all sides of a complex, maddening, tragic situation. There is nothing wrong with a good guys vs. bad guys tale, but Three Billboards’ story is one we could imagine occurring in a thousand small towns anywhere in America. That universality and the depth of the movie’s character development make this story impossible to forget.

Plus, for a narrative that hinges on racism, sexism, rape, murder, Missouri citizens versus the police, terminal illness, suicides, severe injuries, and familial strife, Three Billboards is often surprisingly and refreshingly funny. At times, you may laugh and cry after one scene.

Supporting characters, played by always-welcome film and television veterans like Zeljko Ivanek and Clarke Peters, play key roles. Caleb Landry Jones’s advertising man is the hinge on which key plot points turn. Peters, playing a black officer who sweeps in and takes over a station with a history of racial problems, brings his typical no-nonsense gravitas to a minor character, as well as a few key lines that remind us of the stakes: looking about at the all-white force in the station, he says, “Ain’t y’all cracker motherfuckers got work to do?”

Some viewers might not appreciate the film’s non-resolution resolution, but for this writer, it perfectly encapsulates the world of Ebbing, Missouri, which, in its turn, perfectly encapsulates so much of American life in the 21st Century—questions without clear answers, strife on intersectional levels without clear solutions, individual pain rippling through a community and vice versa.

Underrated director Martin McDonagh and his stellar cast and crew have crafted one of 2017’s best films. If you missed it in theaters, rent it as soon as you can.


Cuckoo for #COCO? Yeah, Mostly–a Review

I have never seen any of Pixar’s Cars movies. Something about the concept never really appealed to me. I’m not sure why. Old dude who flies his house across continents using helium balloons without losing so much as a shingle? No problem. A rat who wants to be a chef? Sure, I’ll watch that. A family of superheroes, sentient toys, a robot that can love? I’m there. A film about talking cars, co-starring Larry the Cable Guy? I just couldn’t.

What all this means is that I will follow Pixar almost anywhere. Moreover, I usually love the trip. They tell stories that work well for the typical target audience of Disney animation—little kids—and the people who buy the tickets.

I saw Coco with my wife, my son, and my youngest daughter, who is eighteen. Our theater, while not packed, was well-attended. Families with up to half a dozen kids piled in, popcorn and sodas and hot dogs in hand, ready to experience the latest Pixar magic.

We had heard that a twenty-minute short film preceded the feature, a point of contention among some local and vocal viewers we had encountered, but our showing got right to the main event. I’m not sure why. I was disappointed in that part of the experience, because I usually dig Pixar shorts, but that’s not Coco’s fault.

To the movie—Coco tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a pre-teen would-be musician born into a family that hates music. Why? Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his family—including his daughter, the wheelchair-bound and so-old-she’s-barely-aware titular character—for a music career. Formerly a passionate singer, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Mama Imelda, forswore music, banning it from her house and passing the edict down in the family ethos all the way to Miguel’s day. If his parents—or, worse, his fiery grandmother, known only as Abuelita—so much as catch him near a Mariachi, woe be unto that poor musician.

The film is set on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As Miguel tries to sneak away to practice his musicianship—the film never reveals how he procures a cheap guitar or builds a hideaway complete with a television or learns to play his instrument so well—Abuelita and the rest of the family try to teach Miguel the importance of building an altar to their dead ancestors, displaying pictures of the departed and leaving offerings, like food.

Convinced that his great-great-grandfather was the famous singer/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced with plenty of self-satisfied ooze by Benjamin Bratt), and infuriated with his closed-minded family after Abuelita destroys his guitar, Miguel runs away and attempts to steal de la Cruz’s guitar from the mausoleum. This is, of course, a problem, because the cemetery is full of families cleaning and decorating tombstones. Stuck within the tomb, Miguel strums the guitar while standing on top of a carpet of flower petals and, through the magic of Dia de los Muertos, is transported to the light-filled, celebratory, walking-and-talking-skeleton-populated Land of the Dead.

The catch? Miguel is a live boy, but he can only stay that way if he returns to the Land of the Living before the holiday ends. To do so, he must get the blessing of his dead family—who will only grant it if he forswears music forever. Rejecting this condition, Miguel sets off on a quest to reach de la Cruz, whose celebrity status makes a visit nearly impossible. Aided by a mysterious figure named Hector, who desperately needs to reach the Land of the Living, and chased by Mama Imelda’s griffin-like spirit animal, the ever-more-skeletal Miguel races against time and the ways that the deepest, darkest truths of his family tie him ever tighter to the Dead.

If it seems like it took me a while to reach the film’s central conflicts, like this review leans heavily toward multiple points of exposition, that’s because the movie does, too. Along with some unanswered questions, like those mentioned above, the initial plot threads—Miguel’s love of music vs. his family’s unwavering rejection of it! Miguel’s need for an instrument and an audience! The identity of his great-great-grandfather! Mama Imelda’s ultimatum! The chase through the Dead’s city! The question of just who this Hector dude is! Why the film is named after a secondary character who barely moves or talks! The purpose of a lovable but doofy stray dog!—fly in many different directions, making for a haphazard and overly busy first act. When compared with the emotionally devastating yet economical storytelling of Up, for instance, Coco feels muddled.

Once Miguel runs from his dead family, just as he ran from his living one, and the race to find his musical ancestor coalesces with his race against time, the film gels, and its twin arcs—Miguel’s fate as a musician and his understanding the true importance of family history—interweave beautifully. From that point on, the already visually stunning movie churns at a quick pace, hitting key emotional beats at just the right time.

Pixar has gone dark before—Ellie’s death in Up, the third act of The Incredibles, the torture of toys in Toy Story and the attempted murder of our fave characters in Toy Story 3, the end of the world in Wall-E, et cetera. Somehow, though, parts of Coco feel even darker. There are long-kept family secrets, a devastating betrayal, a murder (!!!), questions of what happens in life after the afterlife, issues of legacy, Miguel’s increasingly skeletal body, and more. While some parents might find these elements a tad too dark for the film’s youngest viewers, they add gravitas and high stakes to the narrative, making Miguel’s journey feel urgent and intensely personal.

Yet the movie, rightly lauded for its commitment to diversity, also feels universal. Voiced by an entirely Latinx cast and exploring Mexican cultural traditions in a time when American leaders talk of bad hombres and border walls and travel bans, Coco, with its emphasis on family ties and the extraordinary power of art, feels necessary and timely in a way it might not have before November 2016. In fact, though the timeline of Pixar filmmaking almost guarantees that this is coincidental and not an intentional decision, Ernesto de la Cruz—vain, concerned above all else with his legacy and image, loyal only to his sycophants, greedy, myopic—bears, in terms of personality and values, more than a passing resemblance to certain Muppet-headed American leaders of today.

For all that, though, the story is, at one level, about one boy’s acceptance of and into his family—finding his place in the world. The scene between Miguel and Grandma Coco, praised in Entertainment Weekly as one of the top ten movie scenes of the year, may well break your heart, even as it makes you smile.

With excellent voice acting, Pixar’s high standards of astonishing visuals, cultural significance, timeliness, and poignant humanity, Coco overcomes its haphazard first act and proves itself a worthy entry into the Pixar canon.



Spoilerful Review: STAR WARS: #TheLastJedi

From fan reaction around the world, you’d think that Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is either the greatest film ever made or the worst affront to this fine and storied franchise since Jar-Jar Binks. It is neither, but when has reality ever stopped hyperbole?

As of this writing, users’ average rating is 7.6/10. The film rates a “Certified Fresh” on with a 91% critics’ average, though the same site reflects fan polarization, with a current (as of 12/29/17) rating of 51%. rates it 86/100.

All this seems to suggest that people who know movies and watch them for a living overwhelmingly like the film, while everyone else is split nearly down the middle.

Count me in the pro-TLJ camp. While the film is imperfect, I enjoyed it as a viewer, as a critic, and as a Class of ’77 member.

I was seven years old when Star Wars IV: A New Hope burst into theaters—or, in my case, onto a southeast Arkansas drive-in screen. I can honestly say, without exaggeration or irony, that sitting in a car with my parents, listening to a tinny speaker gargle out James Earl Jones’s stentorian Darth Vader voice and watching Luke and Leia swing from platform to platform in the Death Star, changed my life. For the first time, I realized that I, too, could see more and do more than my immediate environment provided. Life could be an adventure, not just a series of days in which you took one more sequential step toward some far-off goal—getting through this year’s grade, waiting for baseball season, becoming a teenager. It was also the first time I realized that I was drawn to tweeners and scoundrels, because I identified much more with Han Solo than white-bread goody-two-shoes Luke Skywalker.

And so, while some have argued that any Star Wars film is ultimately for kids and not to be taken seriously, I reject that notion. As artist, academic, critic, and fan, I find the distinction between so-called “high” and “pop” art dubious, but even if we accept that distinction, I believe this series of films adds up to far more than popcorn entertainment for the twelve-and-under crowd.

When I say, then, that TLJ is a good movie and one of my favorites in the series, know that I ain’t playin’.

My current, and extremely mutable, ranking of the films looks like this:

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Rogue One
  4. The Last Jedi
  5. Return of the Jedi
  6. The Force Awakens
  7. Revenge of the Sith
  8. Attack of the Clones
  9. The Phantom Menace

Don’t bother giving me shit for putting Rogue One at #3. I really liked it, other than the strained cameos by R2D2 and C-3PO, and it’s just my opinion. Plus, admittedly, #s 3-6 are likely to change with more reflection and my mood. For instance, I admit that it is as much sentimentality and nostalgia as good critical arguments that led me to list RotJ ahead of TFA. Still, at least for the moment, TLJ is a top-four film in the canon.


[SPOILER ALERT: if you have not yet seen the film but still intend to, stop now and come back later. I’ll wait.]

Much of the ire aimed at the film seems to have centered on fanperson theories that turned out not to be true—Snoke as Mace Windu, Han and Leia as Rey’s parents, and so on. Look, folks, it’s not the movie’s fault that you’re wrong. Get over it.

Other people’s issues seem to stem from TLJ’s left turn from plot beats and characterizations that we all recognize.

Of course, some of these same folks lambasted TFA because it hewed too close to ANH’s bones—young orphan stuck on a desert world (swap out Jakku for Tatooine) and eking out a fairly miserable existence; the arrival of a visitor from the stars and a droid or two (swap out Poe Dameron and BB8 for R2 and 3PO) as inciting incident; mysterious Sith Lord and his dark-clad, enormously powerful apprentice, who opens the movie by slaughtering rebels; old freedom fighter who imparts wisdom and sets our new heroes on their course before he is struck down by the Dark Side (swap out Han for Obi-Wan Kenobi); yet another Death Star, more properly called a Death Planet; the usual plan for destroying a Death Star (even Han says, “Let’s blow it up. There’s always a way to blow it up.”); a visit to a wretched hive of scum and villainy; and on and on.

I chose to view TFA as a love letter to the original trilogy and its fans, not a thinly veiled copy churned out by creators with no new ideas. But the death of Han Solo—my all-time favorite Star Wars character, the one with whom I have always most closely identified, played by an actor I adore—and the way that Kylo Ren, badass Sith apprentice meant to take Darth Vader’s place, got his ass kicked by someone who had never used the Force before, and our first view of an individual Stormtrooper who had different ideas about how his life should be lived, also demonstrated that the series would be taking us in new directions.

I had no problem with that. In fact, though I hated seeing Han Solo die (and no, I don’t care that Harrison Ford wanted to kill him off in RotJ), the possibilities excited me. Can Rey possibly become the new Luke AND the new Han? Can Luke be Rey’s Yoda? When Finn wakes up, what will he do? Should we care about Poe? How will Leia survive without her long-time love?

TLJ gave us some answers. Can Rey fill Han’s place as outside-the-box rebel and Millennium Falcon pilot AND Luke’s role as the Jedi’s best hope?

She doesn’t really have to. Rey and Poe Dameron share Han’s tendency to go off-script and spout off whatever’s on his mind and generally drive the rebel authorities nuts, even as he proves himself indispensable to the cause. Because she must toe the Padawan line, Rey cannot be pure hero-against-her-better-judgment, I’m-my-own-best-boss role that Han played, which partially necessitates Poe’s existence. On the other hand, the I-know-what’s-best-goddammit Poe, as a commander in the rebel fleet and General Leia devotee, cannot be pure Han, either; he follows orders well, as long as they come from Leia, and he’s no smuggling scoundrel. He’s just a hardheaded mansplainer and the best pilot since some guy named Skywalker—the part of the Luke role that Rey cannot fill because a) she pilots the Falcon and b) she must spend too much time on the ground, fighting lightsaber duels and trying to save Kylo Ren from himself.

In short, Rey and Poe replace Han and Luke by each taking on parts of the original characters’ duties and characteristics. It’s not a one-for-one trade. This strategy allows us old Star Wars fans to recognize the characterizations while moving on from the films, and the characters, and the actors that we grew up loving so much. That’s not just good storytelling. It’s also good marketing, since the franchise is trying to reach new audiences who have not aged with the originals and lack the same kind of emotional investment you can only feel when you have loved something for forty years.

There are many indications that this film signals a watershed moment in the Star Wars universe. Certainly, the death of Han Solo was the first, and perhaps the most painful, transition. Outside of the films, Carrie Fisher’s untimely death sent all of us into the theaters with the knowledge that we would be seeing Leia for the last time, no matter what happened in the movie, and that lent my particular viewing a deep sense of melancholy that existed side-by-side with my forty-year-old excitement upon hearing that theme music cue up again and seeing those opening text crawls.

In TLJ, one major moment of change comes when Luke contemplates burning down the Jedi Temple, their Tree of Life, their original sacred texts. He cannot do it, of course, because deep down, regardless of Ben Solo’s betrayal and Luke’s disenchantment with what he calls Jedi vanity, he is still a Master at his core.

So Afterlife Yoda shows up and does it for him, calling down a lightning strike that would make Thor proud, forcing Luke to realize that change, evolution itself, often begins with letting go of the past. This, in fact, is one of the major themes of the film. Kylo Ren speaks it aloud several times, including in the wake of the battle in Snoke’s throne room. He pleads with Rey to join him in leaving behind the Jedi, the Sith, the darkness-and-light binary of the galaxy’s entire belief system. Though I cannot believe that the next film will eschew uses of and discussions about the Force, the Light Side and the Dark Side, searching and using one’s feelings, Empire vs. Rebels, lightsaber duels and Tie Fighters vs. X-Wings, the idea that a major Star Wars character might want to think and exist in some Third Space suggests a desire to point Star Wars and its tropes in fresher, newer directions.

Of course, another of my questions above is whether Luke can fill the proverbial shoes of his great teachers, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. The short answer? No. When he sees a growing darkness in Ben Solo, he faces a test of character not unlike his Journey into the Cave in TESB. We see two versions of this story play out—one from Ben/Kylo’s perspective, in which Luke betrays him, tries to murder him in his sleep, and sends him further down his dark path; and one from Luke, in which he admits to considering the murder, snuffing out his nephew/apprentice for the galaxy’s greater good, before realizing that he cannot, will not, do it.

What this suggests to me is that, despite the committed and confident Jedi Knight we see in RotJ, Luke has continued the struggle with his faith that make up some of TESB’s most poignant and quotable moments. In ANH, Luke is the wide-eyed and idealistic Padawan; in TESB, he roils in a crisis of faith, both in himself and his mission; and in RotJ, he seems to have come out of his crisis and into the Force’s light for good. TLJ reveals that the naïve young man-turned Knight-turned Master, through hard experience and personal failure, has evolved into a cynic who would rather burn down the Jedi religion than lead any more young people to their deaths or into the hell that is the Dark Side. His self-doubt leads to fear, which, as we know, leads to anger, which leads to hate. Fear of what Ben Solo might become leads Luke to inward-pointed anger, which leads to self-hate, which leads, mercifully, not to the Dark Side but to self-exile.

That Luke has changed so much over the years; that he never becomes the pure hero he always wanted to be because he is, ultimately, all too human; that his self-loathing and other-directed empathy bring him to that lonely island; that Rey, R2, and Chewie are able to reach him through all that and coax him back to the fight, all contribute to a deepening of Luke’s character and a stronger, more powerful film than we would have gotten if Luke had become Yoda without the weird syntax.

Yet his example—his knowledge of the Force, his clear-eyed view of what it truly means to be a Jedi Knight, his final heroic act of self-sacrifice and his understated yet heart-wrenching goodbye to his sister and 3PO—demonstrates to Kylo Ren, to Rey, to Poe, and to the scattered but unbowed rebellion that hope still lives. Taken together, Rey, Finn, and Poe are supposed to be our new New Hope, and Kylo Ren is supposed to be our new Emperor/Vader combo. If they seem less archetypal and legendary than Luke and Leia and Han and Vader, I would like to believe that it is a purposeful complicating, a strategic humanizing, of the new characters. Let’s face it; it’s doubtful that they could ever operate on the level of the original trilogy’s beloved figures. And so the legends leave us like legends do, while those still finding their way stumble over obstacles and screw things up and fail.

What will happen to Finn? Well, as we see, he wakes up and still sees the small picture—save Rey and get the hell away from the First Order! That he is immediately caught, tasered, and thrust back into the fight recalls the series’ complicated exploration of destiny vs. free will. When he realizes that running is not an option and that the Rebels face extinction, Finn steps up, and by the end of TLJ, he refers to himself as “Rebel scum” (emphasis Finn’s). Much like Han at the end of ANH, Finn wants nothing to do with the war until personal ties outweigh his political and social neutrality. These parts of Han’s and Finn’s arcs follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey pattern and echo other moments in cinema history, such as when Rick in Casablanca does, in fact, stick his neck out for somebody. It also suggests a strategy for our current times and troubles—that when we cannot persuade someone to act for Great Political Causes or Social Issues, appealing to their love of family and friends might work.

Plus, Finn’s better at close-quarters fighting now, so there’s that.

Should we care about Poe? Well, the jury’s still out. Oscar Isaac, a chameleonic actor who seems to star in every other movie released these days, does his best with a crucial yet underwritten role. Who, exactly, is Poe Dameron? Is he the hotshot pilot and good Rebel soldier we see in TFA? Is he the smartass X-Wing jockey who takes on an entire Star Destroyer by himself in TLJ, only to buck orders and sacrifice the entire Rebel bombing contingent? Is he the Leia loyalist who will follow her anywhere, or the rebel amongst Rebels who incites mutiny when Leia is injured and his mansplaining to Vice Admiral Holdo doesn’t work? Is he, in his own way, a Padawan, and if so, whom will be his Master when the next film must go forward without our Princess?

I’m interested to see where the series takes Poe, but at this point, he is the least interesting of the new characters.

As for how Leia will survive without Han, well, she survives by being the same badass, take-charge woman we first met in 1977. Though older and wiser, a general instead of a Princess, or both at the same time, Leia remains the consummate leader, the sun around which all the other characters orbit. This is a woman used to loss. Remember that a Death Star obliterated her entire home planet. Her biological mother and father both died without her ever really knowing them. Her brother disappears. She loses countless friends and colleagues to the Empire and First Order. Her son betrays her and everything she stands for.

Of course she can thrive without Han. She has never needed a man to complete her. The bigger question is what the franchise, and the characters, will do without her.

Yet we also see new wrinkles in Leia. TLJ, in a much-maligned scene, shows that Leia understands and wields the Force in ways that we have never seen before, such that she can survive an explosion and the vacuum of space. Though overt demonstrations of Force mastery have obviously never been Leia’s way, I was pleasantly surprised with that scene. Why? First, Kylo Ren’s inability to blow up the bridge himself shows, rather than tells through didactic dialogue, that he is, indeed, still conflicted—that Rey might still save him from himself. Second, the scene pays off the conversation between Yoda and Obi-Wan we saw way back in TESB—the “Luke is our last hope” and “No. There is another” talk on Dagobah. That always suggested that Leia could be what Rey is becoming—a female New Hope that could stand against the Dark Side—yet the films never really showed any evidence that she had real truck with the Force.

Now we know. She could have taken over for Luke, but the Rebels needed more than one kind of leader. She chose another path, but Yoda was right; she could have been the Chosen One, had Luke fallen.

We also know, thanks to scenes between her and Rey in TFA and her and Poe in TLJ, that Leia has remained a loving, caring, nurturing mother who can still kick your ass. Whether Ben Solo was seduced to the Dark Side because Luke failed him, or because Han did, or because of his own character flaws, or some combination of all three, we can be pretty sure that Leia did nothing to drive her son away. Yet, just as she is willing to stun Poe and end his mutiny, she is also practical enough to realize that her son may well be gone and cannot, in any case, be allowed to run roughshod over the galaxy.

Leia is probably the strongest character George Lucas has ever created, and if TFA was a final showcase for Han Solo’s brand of heroism, TLJ is, in many ways, a curtain call for Leia’s unbreakable spirit and love.

More praise for the film—whereas TFA took us back to the good old days of blowing up Death Stars, TLJ teases us with stratagems similar to those used in earlier films: the infiltration team sent into the First Order ship to disable its tracking mechanism, similar to ANH’s mission to shut off the Death Star’s tractor beam; a Walker march on a Rebel base, such as we saw on Hoth in TESB; an attempt to destroy something with one pilot’s near-suicide run and precise shooting, referring to Finn’s attach on the battering ram and Luke’s one-in-a-million shot in ANH; and more.

Yet, unlike in ANH and Rogue-One, the infiltration party is betrayed and fails; the Rebels escape the base before it is overrun, as in TESB, yet it takes a major character’s sacrifice to do it; and Finn is stopped before he can martyr himself, which leads to his own once-in-a-lifetime shot missing. In these and many other ways, TLJ echoes past movies while changing outcomes and attitudes. The lack of patience and the general failure of Poe Dameron’s brand of heroism—in-your-face fighting against incredible odds, unnecessary risk, self-belief that borders on hubris, et cetera—leads me to wonder what kind of heroics the next film will model for a new generation.

Luke’s final battle with Ren also echoes yet alters previous films’ beats. It’s TLJ’s version of ANH’s Kenobi-Vader throwdown, complete with its own version of “Strike me down, and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” and the turning off of a lightsaber. Yet its twists on that scene—Ren’s team’s all-out assault on Luke, leading to Luke’s “Bitch, please” shoulder-brush; Luke’s outright admission that he failed Ben Solo; and the revelation that the entire battle was not just an Obi-Wan-style distraction but a complete swerve, with Luke projecting his image and voice across untold distances so that Ren is, in effect, fighting a hologram; Luke’s “see you around, kid” line that portends his continued influence on Ren’s conflicted soul—freshen the familiar and provide a true “Oh my God, Luke really IS the man” moment that I never once felt, even in the original trilogy.

As usual with this series, the visual effects and sound editing are top-notch. The fight choreography is often excellent, particularly in the Rey/Kylo team-up in Snoke’s throne room. The acting is strong, with the Most Improved Player award going to Adam Driver, who shakes off TFA’s “Emo Ren” characterization and brings Ben Solo into his own as a vicious, determined, capable fighter who misses his mother.

And no, I have no issue with the Vulptex crystal-wolf creatures, who provide both a key plot point and a spectacular visual, or the Fathiers Finn and Rose ride, or the Porg. The latter have come under particular fire as a cynical source of potential merchandise cash from little kids. Perhaps they are, but they’re so damned cute, and so much like puffins, and such good comedy relief in a film that mostly ignores older sources like R2 and 3PO, that I don’t care. I’m really intrigued to see how the stowaway Porg gets on with Chewbacca, who thus far has mostly used it as a football. Better a cutesy mascot than an Ewok or a Jar-Jar.

I am, of course, cognizant of the film’s problems. As a friend recently pointed out, this movie and TFA talk a lot about Ben’s seduction to the Dark Side without really showing how it happened or what, indeed, is so seductive. For all we know, the “growing darkness” Luke senses in Ben Solo might have been hormones.

Though the visuals and emotional payoff of Vice Admiral Holdo’s self-sacrifice are powerful, one wonders why the plan had to be kept secret from the rest of the crew, including Poe, other than that the script wanted to surprise the viewer. It just seems like poor strategy.

R2 and 3PO have been written as largely irrelevant.

Kylo Ren cannot pull the trigger and kill his own mother, but he can order others to do so, as his “no prisoners” directive in the assault on the rebel base makes clear. This seems like a contradiction in characterization. Kid, you either protect your Mom or you don’t. Causing her death by proxy isn’t better than killing her yourself.

Rey’s characterization as a Jedi deepens as her skills and control increase, but her characterization as a person doesn’t really progress much. That’s disappointing.

Worse is Poe’s haphazard development, especially since off-screen issues—our Princess’s death—may well lead to the character’s ascension to Rebel leader. He seems ill-suited to that role. He’s a better pilot than a strategist. In fact, none of the surviving characters seems particularly ready to lead the whole rebellion, and this film undermines the concept of the individual zooming off to take down an empire alone. Will the Rebellion lose, allowing darkness truly to rise, simply because they’ve run out of military brainpower? In short, have the creative powers-that-be written themselves into a corner? Or will a new leader arise? Could that leader be Finn, who at least received military training? If so, will we buy it, considering he’s only now wholeheartedly getting on board with the Rebellion? Or will Rey have to shoulder that burden, too? Must she be part Han, part Luke, and part Leia, and if so, will it keep her from every truly being herself?

TLJ has made me long to know the answers to those questions. It works well for me as the second act of this new chapter in Star Wars. In fact, it works for me, in part, because of its difference from previous pacing. The Big Bad Emperor dies in this film, not the third act, and Ren gets the chance to do what even Vader never did—rise to the throne. Rey must step up without her Jedi Master one full film earlier than Luke did. The head of the rebellion has been cut off.

What happens next? What new ground will be broken? Who will survive, and who will turn, and why?

I can’t wait to find out.


The Ten Zombie Films You Must See before You Reanimate

With the recent release of World War Z and the upcoming season four of The Walking Dead, zombies in pop culture are harder to kill than the (ahem) real thing. So are “best of” lists. Even Rolling Stone made a “ten best zombie movies” list, so what follows is hardly original in conception or content. Still, some of you asked for it, so here it is—my list of the ten zombie films you have to see before you reanimate and try to eat your kids. Feel free to disagree, kvetch, and counter-argue. I’m pretty sure I’ll forget approximately six hundred movies that should be on this list.

First, a few rules: believe it or not, I haven’t seen every single zombie film ever made. I will therefore decline to cheat and put anything on this list that I haven’t experienced first-hand (sorry, Fido and Plague of the Zombies; I’ll get to you one of these days).

Second, I won’t list any movies that are what I like to call “zombie-adjacent”—films in which the hordes often act like zombies but are not, in fact, reanimated corpses. That forces me to leave out several movies I really dig and would still recommend that you see before you shuffle off this mortal coil, come back as a zombie, and spend all your time, uh, shuffling around this mortal coil.

Such movies include 28 Days Later and its good-but-inferior sequel, 28 Weeks Later; Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s excellent modern-day grindhouse flick; and the Evil Dead films. I have seen Raimi’s trilogy on some zombie lists, though I’m not sure why. Sure, a couple of corpses come back and make trouble, but mostly, it’s about spirits and what they do with live bodies.

Other films that are worth watching but have no place on this list: George A. Romero’s The Crazies and the 2010 remake starring Timothy Olyphant, two more zombie-adjacent flicks; and Drew Goddard’s fine meta work The Cabin in the Woods, which features zombies but also a couple dozen other supernatural baddies.

Third, I can’t in good conscience write about anything I saw years ago but was too drunk or exhausted to remember. Thus, at least one staple of zombie top ten lists, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, doesn’t make the cut, through no fault of its own.

You could easily argue that Return of the Living Dead should be on here, given that it is generally credited for introducing zombies that hunger for brains, not flesh (a stereotype that does not hold in most canonical texts) and, according to some critics, the concept of fast-moving, even intelligent zombies. It’s fun in its own way, but it deviates so strongly from the visions of people like George A. Romero that I would only be putting it on the list because of its difference. I’d still advise you to watch it at least once, and if you’re a fan, feel free to substitute it for either #9 or #10 below.

On to the list…

10.       White Zombie (1932), directed by Victor Halperin. White Zombie

This movie, which many viewers still find creepy, features an interesting performance from Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, long before he torpedoed his career with drugs and starring roles in Ed Wood movies. One of the taglines: “See them dug from the grave and put to work as slaves to murder!” Set in Haiti, the film locates zombies in exotic locales inhabited by dark-skinned people, which allows for the continuing comfort of the first-world viewer. It also both contributes to and reflects the early 20th century’s problematic racial attitudes in ways that later zombie films engage more directly and complexly. Madge Bellamy’s very white protagonist, Madeline, is reduced to a zombie slave on a Haitian plantation, providing an interesting wrinkle to any allegorical readings of race. Some critics believe that the movie can be read as an anti-imperialist text; they suggest that the characters’ attitudes toward Madeline, the nature of zombification, and the plantation itself mirror Western colonial attitudes. All that is well and good. But this movie is on my list mainly because it is widely considered the first zombie film, and if you’re going to delve into the canon, you might as well start with cinema’s version of Patient Zero. You might love it or find it cheesy, badly acted, and horribly dated, but you should experience it for yourself before the inevitable zombie apocalypse.

9. [REC] (2007), directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. [REC]

Purists may well cry foul here and accuse me of breaking rule #2. They may well be right, and if you think so, feel free to strike this one out and replace it with what you feel is my most egregious omission. I, however, am giving [REC] a pass that I did not give films like 28 Days Later for a couple of reasons: a) the antagonists act like zombies, including through their stubborn refusal to die from anything but a head shot, and b) the film itself leaves their exact condition ambiguous. While the movie pretty much tells us that their illness seems to be viral, such that it can pass from animals to humans, many zombie outbreaks in cinema are similarly sourced. [REC] suggests, near the end, a possible non-zombie cause of the outbreak, and it is often unclear whether the victims are truly reanimated or if their zombie-like condition is merely the last stage of some illness. Enough ambiguity exists for me to include this film here.

And, as horror films go, it’s a doozy. A Spanish movie, it may well test your ocular and cognitive abilities while you watch the action and read the dialogue simultaneously. The plot centers on a young female reporter and her cameraman, Pablo, as they cover a local fire company’s night shift. When the company answers an emergency call about an ill woman who won’t come out of her apartment, the reporter and cameraman tag along, only to find themselves quarantined inside the building as the occupants and would-be rescuers are transformed into vicious creatures that rip into human flesh.

The film is probably best known for its cinematographic conceit. We see the entire film from Pablo the cameraman’s perspective; his handheld camera is the only camera used, which immerses the viewer in the characters’ experience. We only see what Pablo films; we only hear what he can pick up on his camera microphone. It’s unsettling and scary, perhaps even more so than The Blair Witch Project.

The acting here is much better than you’ll see in White Zombie or the Romero movies, which you have to grade on a sliding scale. You can’t expect Academy Award-winning performances when you’re working with an unknown cast and a 73-cent budget. [REC] has more to work with, but it’s still a horror film, so don’t expect to discover the next Olivier or Brando.

One of the movie’s taglines— “Whatever You Witness….. Never Stop Recording”—might well be the basic direction for any reality TV cameraman.  [REC] was remade in America as Quarantine, a nearly shot-for-shot remake. But I would seek out the original and watch it first. Tell Netflix I sent you.

8.         Day of the Dead (1985), directed by George A. Romero.  Day of the Dead

Some zombiephiles feel very strongly that this movie is the second-best Romero entry in the canon. Here, it appears at #8 mainly because I’ve seen it less than the others and don’t feel comfortable placing it higher.

In Day of the Dead, the apocalypse has already happened. The plot focuses on the few survivors holed up in a military bunker. The scientists there conduct gruesome experiments on the zombies as the survivors try, with varying degrees of success, to cope with the realities and tensions of their lives. The scientists are convinced that the dead can be reconditioned, and much of the film is spent exploring zombie physiology and psychology. In fact, much of the fanboy love for the movie stems from the explanations for why zombies eat human flesh and so forth.

That’s all well and good, but you’ll also be treated to some old-fashioned zombie attacks. Come for the blood and guts; stay for the course on zombie motivation.

7.         World War Z (2013), directed by Mark Forster.  World War Z

Elsewhere I have already expressed my admiration for this movie’s pulse-pounding action sequences, for how it represents an evolution in zombie methodology (the swarming behaviors that mimic certain animals, the idea that zombies can tell the difference between a good meal and a bad one), the way the production managed to snag a prestigious director and star (Brad frickin’ Pitt!!!). I have also articulated my problems with the film’s character development and its over-dependence on CGI. Plus, there’s this issue, to quote Kalene Westmoreland: “a lot of these problems wouldn’t have happened if they just had a can of WD-40.” Seriously, they spend five minutes talking about how the creatures are attracted to sound, and then they take the world’s squeakiest collection of bicycles to the plane? Every door in the WHO facility has to creak like it belongs in a haunted house?

Here, though, the positives truly outweigh the negatives. World War Z lives up to its title; it takes a global view of the zombie apocalypse, demonstrating that these filmmakers truly understand the scale implied in the term. Philadelphia collapses. Israel is overrun. And after all that international carnage, the climax is surprisingly intimate and intense, providing both a break from and a logical extension of the larger issues.

If you haven’t seen this movie yet and you’re a fan of zombies, action movies, apocalypse narratives, or Brad Pitt, get thee to your local theater. If you have seen it, spread the word.

6.         Zombieland (2009), directed by Ruben Fleischer. Zombieland

World War Z had an Oscar nominee in Brad Pitt. Zombieland has four: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and Bill Murray, who plays himself in a hilarious small role. The other major star, Emma Stone, is a Screen Actors Guild award winner and one of Hollywood’s hottest young actors. Therefore, if you’re looking for A-list acting and recognizable faces, you can’t find a better zombie flick than this.

The premise: zombies have taken over the world (or, at least, America). Our young protagonist, Columbus (so named because that’s where he wants to go), decides to see if his parents are still alive, so he takes to the road, where he encounters the eccentric, zombie-hating, Twinkie-loving  Tallahassee (Harrelson); the beguiling Wichita (Stone); and young-but-not-helpless Little Rock (Breslin). Columbus has survived because of his “rules,” which could double as a meta lesson on what every dumb character in horror films never does: limber up before you enter any unknown territory, in case you have to run. Work on your cardio. Always “double-tap” seemingly dead zombies. Always look in the back seat, etc. Echoing Randy’s rules for surviving a horror film as seen in the first Scream, these rules are winking, self-referential, and absolutely true.

Characterization here runs deeper than in most of the genre’s entries. We know backstories. We understand motivations. Even though the characters sometimes seem to come from central casting—the sensitive but competent geek, the snarling tough guy with a secretly soft heart, the love interest who might be a femme fatale—they transcend their stock origins and become living, breathing, wisecracking people you will care about.

Zombieland is more funny than scary, although parts of the film do provide genuinely frightening scenes, especially near the end. This is not a criticism. The often lighthearted tone provides a nice counterpoint to the highly serious, doom-and-gloominess of most zombie films. Plus, Zombieland features an awesome soundtrack: Metallica! The Black Keys!

Fun, often funny, and sometimes gory, Zombieland deserves its place in anyone’s top ten. If you haven’t seen it, prepare to have a lot of fun.

5.         Dawn of the Dead (2004), directed by Zack Snyder.  Dawn of the Dead 2004

We enter the top five with what is, by far, Snyder’s best film to date. Though fanboys and -girls say that Romero’s zombie classic did not need to be remade, I really like this movie. Sure, it lacks the social consciousness of the original. Romero’s Dawn was set in a mall to critique our out-of-control consumer culture, while this film seems to appropriate the setting merely because it’s logically safer than the other options. But you know what? That’s fine with me. I still have the original when I want to think. This movie, by contrast, is an exercise in inertia, in pure kineticism.

The cast doesn’t quite equal Zombieland or World War Z in terms of A-list prestige, but the actors are all game. Ving Rhames plays, well, pretty much every Ving Rhames character you’ve ever seen. Sarah Polley provides a strong performance as our protagonist, and Ty Burrell kills as the absolute polar opposite of his Modern Family character. Throw in Jake Weber as an unlikely hero, Mekhi Phifer as a troubled family man, and excellent character actor Michael Kelly as the meanest mall cop you’ve ever seen.

You like gore? This film’s got it. Watch out for chainsaws, dude. You want fast zombies? There ain’t no shufflin’ goin’ on here. You want zombie mob scenes, gallows humor, strong uses of lighting? Check, check, and check. Plus, the worst newborn since Rosemary’s baby (well, not counting Trainspotting)!

Bottom line: this film isn’t high art, but it’s good. When it starts out with Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” you hope the rest of the movie will live up to it. It does. Stick around for the super-bleak ending over the credits.

4.         Night of the Living Dead (1968), directed by George A. Romero.  Night of the Living Dead

Not the one that started it all, but it sure seems like it. The first Romero zombie flick, it came with this tagline, among others: “If it doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” There’s some truth to that.

If you’ve never seen the film, well, it pretty much establishes the tropes for every other zombie movie you’ve ever seen. Outbreak of the dead rising and eating the living, with scientists providing, at best, a working theory as to what started it? Yep. A core group of characters thrown together by chance? Got it. Internal strife over how to handle the situation? Check. Our heroes finding themselves trapped and surrounded by the dead? Uh huh. Zombie infestation of the supposedly safe zone? Right. And if you think it took more contemporary texts like Snyder’s movie or The Walking Dead to trot out the zombified children, you’re wrong.

NotLD starts out in a cemetery, with Barbra and her dickish brother Johnny visiting graves. When Barbra feels creeped out, Johnny says, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” Little does he know they’re real, and they’re coming to get him, too. When Johnny buys it five minutes into the film, you aren’t sorry, but you’ve got to feel sorry for Judith O’Dea, the actress playing Barbra, because she has to spend the rest of the movie playing either catatonic or whiny. Throw in the bickering couple Harry and Helen Cooper and the more likeable but also more forgettable young couple Tom and Judy, and you may actually find yourself rooting for the zombies.

The main character, Ben, is extraordinary, considering the time period’s attitudes. Played by Duane Jones, Ben is our protagonist, and when the ever-angry Harry Cooper gets out of line, Ben slaps him around until he shuts up. Ben also acts as Barbra’s caretaker, and, when Harry finally goes too far, Ben’s method of dealing with him is both shocking and inevitable.

Why is all this so unusual? Because Ben is the only black member of an otherwise lily-white cast. Many critics, including one of my grad-school colleagues, have written about NotLD as an allegory for American racial attitudes in the Civil Rights era, and the characters’ different generational attitudes toward a strong black man seem to support such readings, as do the searing images of pale-white zombies mobbing Ben throughout the film. The ending’s indelible imagery will disturb you, and this, I think, is part of what Romero intends.

Add in to all the social commentary a lot of good zombie action (Romero, of course, only uses the shuffling kind) and some unintentional humor (see the sheriff’s hysterical line, “Yeah, they’re dead. They’re….all messed up”) and you’ve got a film that has fascinated generations of viewers. Much like most of the movies on this list, you shouldn’t expect stellar acting or writing, but this one transcends its limitations. See it now, if you never have.

3.         Dead Snow (2009), directed by Tommy Wirkola.  Amaray Wrap.EPS

Two words: zombie Nazis. That should be all you need to know about this Norwegian film.

A group of friends takes a vacation to a remote cabin. The one who was planning to ski cross-country through the mountains, alone and at night, never arrives, but soon, a mysterious stranger appears, warning our core group of a local legend about cursed soldiers and missing Nazi treasure. You can imagine what happens next.

Much like Scream, Dead Snow is postmodern in its metatextual references. One of our main characters is a film buff, who immediately recognizes the threat for what it is and warns the others not to get bitten. To say that the plan doesn’t work out very well is an understatement.

Unlike a lot of zombie texts, this one often sets the action in the daylight. In fact, the snowy landscape lends a near-blinding sheen to the gore, so that you see nearly every spatter of blood and almost every flesh wound in detail. As plan after plan fails, as the most competent characters succumb, as you view one of the grossest and most hilarious gags involving a crotch in cinematic history, you’ll laugh and grimace in disgust, sometimes simultaneously. In tone, it’s closer to Cabin in the Woods than Night of the Living Dead; you can decide for yourself if that’s good. Just watch the movie. Like now.

2.         Dawn of the Dead (1978), directed by George A. Romero.  Dawn of the Dead 1978

This one is Romero’s best, and it’s possibly the most loved and respected film in the canon. Starring one of Romero’s trademark cast of stars you’ve never heard of, featuring B-level acting and lines that run the gamut from good to dripping with cheese, utilizing the most absurd and nonsensical use of a blood pressure machine ever, Dawn of the Dead has nevertheless transcended its genre roots.

Like the remake, it’s set in a shopping mall. Unlike the remake, the mall here is infested with zombies, who shuffle by the locked doors of the shops our heroes inhabit. The monsters here look not all that different from your typical suburban consumer, and these images likely resonate now more than ever, given how we all do the “cell phone zombie shuffle,” staring at our handheld screens as we walk into fountains and trip over potted plants. This critique of consumerism foreshadowed the “more is more,” “greed is good” decade to come.

Beyond all the scholarly hooey, though, stands a really good genre movie, one with all the usual trappings plus the addition of a bloodthirsty biker gang that may be more dangerous than the zombies. If Snyder’s film is an exercise in pure forward motion, this one is more contemplative, but as a movie that extends what a zombie movie can be and do, it’s more important.

Dawn of the Dead isn’t as flashy or ironic or bloody as some movies on this list, but you absolutely must see it before you reanimate. And always, always, always pick a good time to check your blood pressure.

1.         Shaun of the Dead (2004), directed by Edgar Wright.  Shaun of the Dead

I may well catch some flak for putting this movie on top of my list. I don’t care. Shaun of the Dead does so many things at once that it may well be the only movie here qualifying for high-art status.

Is the movie a parody of zombie flicks? Yes, but like the best parodies, it completely understands its source material. Wright and his co-writer, star Simon Pegg, referred to the movie as a “rom-zom-com”—a romantic zombie comedy. It’s all that and more. It’s uproarious, often at zombies’ expense, and yet it is at times a gory, genuinely frightening, tension-saturated zombie movie. It’s a romantic comedy; the only thing more important to Shaun (Pegg) than surviving the apocalypse is repairing his relationship with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). It is poignant; witness the scenes near the end with Shaun’s mother, his stepdad Phillip (Bill Nighy (!!!)), or his best friend Ed (Nick Frost).

Shaun of the Dead is, in other words, several films in one, all of them excellent. It brought Pegg (most recently seen as Scotty in Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Frost a cult following. It led to further collaborations between the stars and Wright in the underrated Hot Fuzz. (Pegg and Frost would write and star in Greg Mottola’s Paul in 2011, while Wright would direct the energetic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World without his stars. Wright is now at work on Marvel’s Ant-Man movie, of all things.)

If you are among those who have never watched this movie, run—don’t walk—to your computer and Netflix it right now, or buy it and watch it tonight. I highly doubt you will regret it.

So there it is, folks, for better or worse: my top ten zombie films of all time. Feel free to post replies or email me with comments, complaints, or praise. And remember—they’re coming to get you, so there may never be a better time for a movie marathon. Stay up late and scare yourself silly. Live a little before your spouse gnaws your arm off.

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MAN OF STEEL, WORLD WAR Z, and Source Material: or, The Film Adaptation Did What, Now?

Since at least 1975, when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became arguably the first summer blockbuster, the summer film season has evolved—some might say devolved—into a kind of paddock in which every snapping, chomping, exploding, shoot-em-upping, CGI-heavy popcorn flick prowls. If it involves killer robots (giant or otherwise), aliens, super-heroes, car chases for the sake of car chases, debauched partying, and/or monsters, you’re more likely to see it on summer movie screens. You won’t see many Prestige Films from May to August. What you will see are the fanboy flicks meant to generate the bulk of the year’s income; these movies are the engines that drive the studios and, sometimes, allow them to fund movies with stronger plots, better characterization and character development, clearer cinematography, better editing, effects that supplement the plot rather than substitute for it.

That is not to say that all summer films are bad—far from it. Many are fun. Many are well-constructed, well-conceived, well-acted. Some might be equally at home in the fall, when Oscar-bait pictures enjoy wide releases and strategic advertising campaigns that are meant to entice the Academy as much as Joe Consumer. But for the most part, summer is the stomping ground for the kind of movie that inspires theme-park rides, action figures, and ComicCon panels.

And, in today’s ever-more-cynical Hollywood, most of these lumbering, clunky, and yes, often exhilarating movies are built not just to make zillions of dollars but also to jumpstart a franchise.

Two recent summer releases follow this pattern. Both were adapted from beloved source material. Both are CGI-heavy action films, though one also utilizes elements of the suspense thriller. Both opt for kinetic thrill over character development and present some troubling moral quandaries for the viewer.

But make no mistake—World War Z is not Man of Steel.

I wanted to like Man of Steel. I really did.

For over twenty years, I was an avid comic collector. My collection easily numbered in the thousands. I was purchasing around sixty titles a month at one point. Eventually, in the mid-1990s, I quit, the reasons for which could fill another column. Suffice it to say that I grew sick of the lazy, marketing-based storytelling. Should the reader be interested, I’ll break it all down sometime.

For now, I will simply say this: even at the apex of my comics-collecting frenzy, I never really followed Superman closely. He never really interested me. In the old days, no villain had a chance against him unless he/she happened to find a piece of kryptonite lying around. Superman was “super” to a fault, with more powers than the combined might of your average super-team, plus near-invulnerability. Moreover, I came of age in the 1970s and 80s, a time when comics were growing darker and ever more adult in tone. “The Big Blue Boy Scout” and his utterly pure ethics were much less interesting than the shades-of-gray morality of, say, the X-Men or the everyman struggles of Peter Parker. On the DC side of things, Batman’s neuroses—perhaps even psychoses—provided fecund grounds for character-based storytelling and action-based plots with real stakes. You always knew that Batman wouldn’t die or get hurt too badly—his name was on the book, right?—but he was vulnerable in ways that Superman could never be.

When Richard Donner’s first Superman film was released, I watched it because it was a super-hero film. Christopher Reeve did an admirable job. Superman II was, to my young eyes, pretty awesome. Terence Stamp made for a willowy, aristocratic Zod, but the triple threat of the Phantom Zone escapees posed real problems for Superman. I dug it. Of course, Superman III was really more of a comedy, and the less said about Superman IV, the better. Much like with the comics version, the filmic Superman interested me enough to keep up with what was happening, but not much more.

I never watched Lois and Clark on TV. I still have not seen Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Do you get what I’m saying? I respected Superman’s place in pop culture history, but I was never really invested in him, either.

Still, for some reason I can’t quite explain, I got really excited when I saw the trailers for Man of Steel. I found myself rooting for the Big Blue Boy Scout. I wanted the film to be good, a box office success and a critical smash. I bought my tickets and sat among the other drooling fanboys and girls, ready to be dazzled.

As I’ve said elsewhere, Man of Steel is really the first of the various Superman films to demonstrate understanding of Superman’s sheer scale. The leveling of Smallville and large sections of Metropolis provide strong, clear images of what would happen if godlike beings threw down, and, viewing the scope of the wreckage, the ticket-holder could be forgiven for his/her relief that such beings don’t exist in our world. Even if we forget about the potential loss of life, can you imagine the sheer economic devastation that would occur in the wake of just one super-battle? Insurance premiums alone would bankrupt your average citizen.

The problems with the film as a film have already been covered by other critics—the lack of chemistry between the leads, the over-dependence on CGI, the relentless battles that bleed into one another as if good scriptwriting were only a matter of moving from one near-incomprehensible set piece to another (I honestly wonder if the script might have been only 30 pages long), and so forth. To these concerns, I have added my own distaste for the fetishistic destruction of New York-substitute Metropolis, especially the scenes in which the Daily Planet staff wanders about a landscape that looks suspiciously like Ground Zero on 9/11. In fact, why did we even meet Perry White et al. in this film? They never really did anything substantive.

I also don’t like the typical Snyder-film acting style of SHOUTING EVERY LINE AT THE TOP OF ONE’S LUNGS, ESPECIALLY TO SUPERMAN, WHO HAS FRICKIN’ SUPER-HEARING. Michael Shannon’s a fine actor, but he chews too much scenery here.

A sidebar: at one point, Zod says to Superman, “I was bred for this! I was trained all my life to be a warrior! Where did you train, A FARM?” Um, dude, you were the one who got your ass kicked by a scientist in hand-to-hand combat.

Were it not for strong performances by Henry Cavill and Russell Crowe, the oft-dazzling visuals (Snyder’s greatest strength thus far), and the early scenes that ground Clark’s humanity in a typical “Who am I, really?” search, I would have hated the film. Still, I thought it was okay at best, C- material.

Back to the subject of this column, my main problems with the film lie with its ending and how that ending demonstrates the filmmakers’ fundamental misunderstanding of Superman’s character, as well as their own failure to construct a clear sense of ethics for Clark/Superman.

SPOILER ALERT: if you don’t know how the film ends, stop reading and come back after you’ve seen the movie. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If you’re still with me, then I can tell you that I am firmly in the camp that believes Superman should never kill. Certainly the actions of the cinematic Superman have no bearing on the source material. But as I said to a friend recently, if you’re coming to an adaptation of a beloved character, you expect some level of faithfulness to what made you a fan of that character in the first place. Superman is not Wolverine, or the Punisher, or Deathstroke, or Deadshot. He always finds a way not to kill. Having Superman kill Zod without even trying anything else (why not zoom up in the air with him? Put your super hand over his eyes? Pull him backward? Bop him on top of the head really hard?) is like a Harry Potter adaptation in which Harry is a heroin-addicted sexual pervert. It is, at best, a fundamental misunderstanding of your source material, one that cannot be whitewashed with creative license. At worse, it’s a betrayal of your audience. You can surprise them without insulting them.

Of course, all that assumes that cinematic Superman believes in the same ethical code as comic-book Superman, and the audience is likely to assume he does because the film does not construct a clear set of moral codes for Clark in his early years. I find this flaw within the film even more troubling than the alteration of the source texts.

As portrayed in the film, Jonathan and Martha Kent seem to exemplify the worst parenting tendencies of the contemporary age, specifically the propensity to teach our children that they are special to the point of exceptionalism. I’m all for building our kids’ confidence and showing them that, as individuals, they are valuable and strong and wonderful. But as an educator, I have seen how many parents take this too far. Children of these parents grow up believing that they are perfect, that anything they do should be unconditionally praised, that success in every endeavor is both a given and their right as human beings, that they are truly and unequivocally the center of the universe.

Jonathan and Martha Kent teach Clark that his safety, his life, is more important than anyone else’s. When Clark saves a busload of children but exposes his powers in doing so, Jonathan implies that letting all those kids die would have been a preferable solution. When Jonathan is about to die in the big tornado and Clark wants to save him, Jonathan waves him off. He is literally willing to die for his son, and I’m wondering why none of the Superman-as-Christ commentaries seem to be parsing this particular scene. So Clark grows up having been told that his own safety is paramount, even if others have to suffer and die.

To his credit, Clark rejects that idea, risking exposure several times in order to help others. Given his upbringing, we might wonder where these morals come from; surely there is an academic nature-vs-nurture article here. In any case, though, he seems to be rebelling against the teachings of his parents and following his own conscience.

Therefore, when he is forced to kill Zod (or isn’t imaginative enough to figure out another way) and subsequently screams in teary-eyed—what? Anger? Frustration? Guilt?—we hope that this will be the start of a contemporary take on Superman’s morality. What effects will this action have on him? How will he ever get over it? Is he becoming more like his Earth father, in spite of his intentions? How much sleep will he lose? How long will he have to wander the Earth doing penance? How will such penance affect his burgeoning relationship with Lois and, more importantly, his ability to help the world become a better place?

Apparently, his reaction to breaking his own moral code—of not just letting someone die for the first time but actually taking that life himself—is to say, “Oh, well.” In the subsequent scenes, Superman trades one-liners with a general. He has a frank talk with his mother about his future, and his solution to his deep and scarring ethical breach is to smile and basically say, “I think I’ll get a job.” How has his relationship with humanity in general, and with Lois specifically, changed? Apparently not at all. He is the smiling, slightly horny, newest member of the Daily Planet staff.  Wow. That’s some deep stuff right there.

In Man of Steel, this ultimate breach of Superman’s canonical ethos and the rupturing of the film’s own ethical continuity (or, rather, the movie’s last revision of its own shaky construction of Clark’s ethics) have no visible consequences whatsoever.  In this world, Superman kills, and he’s momentarily sorry, and that’s about it. On to the next one. One wonders how Lex Luthor will die in the inevitable sequel and whether Superman will even bat an eyelash.

In this origin story, Clark never comes close to reconciling the varied sets of ethics with which he is presented, so the viewer is left wondering just what kind of Man of Steel we have been given. This kind of egregious and, thus far, purposeless dismissal of the source and the audience’s history with the character is unforgivable. And it undermines Man of Steel as a stand-alone story.

So why is World War Z, a film that radically departs from its source text, any better?

For one reason, World War Z does not carry so much historical weight. Superman’s first appearance, in Action Comics #1, occurred in 1938. Along with Action Comics, Superman appeared in his own eponymous book, various incarnations of Justice League of America, spin-offs, team-ups, and special issues, not to mention the various television shows, cartoons, and films that featured the character. Whole generations grew up with Superman, who, my own tastes notwithstanding, is still the most iconic super-hero of them all.

World War Z appeared, if I am not mistaken, in 2006. Though it enjoys a devoted following, particularly among zombie culture aficionados (among which I count myself), it has not enjoyed the kind of generational, wide-ranging cultural saturation that Superman has. If nothing else, its very recent appearance on the cultural stage assures us that a comparative iconography with Superman is, as of this moment, impossible.

Because World War Z does not and, at this point in time, cannot mean as much to as many people as Superman, the filmic version’s alterations of the source text seem less problematic.

World War Z the novel also eschews typical narrative conventions like point of view. As an “oral history of the zombie war,” its goal is to present as broad a view as possible of how a zombie apocalypse might evolve, as well as its effects on the global community. Instead of reading about the zombocalypse from the perspective of one central intelligence or one set of core characters, we jump from country to country, character to character. In doing so, we see how the zombie apocalypse affects various strata of humanity: men, women, and animals; the rich and the poor; first-world countries and undeveloped nations; religious and secular communities.

We don’t get much depth in terms of character development or setting, but the tradeoff is that we finally see the apocalypse for the world-wide cataclysm it should, by definition, be. It’s a different kind of story-telling that some love and some aren’t so crazy about; I find myself somewhere in the middle, liking the book but wishing that it were longer or the scope smaller so that the elements that make stories worth telling could have more time to develop. Still, the book does what it does well.

In terms of the film adaptation, it could not possibly tell the story in the same way. The book’s structure tries some audience members’ patience but still succeeds because it can fill a few hundred pages with vignettes. In the movies, though, telling the story that way would completely deconstruct any narrative through-line. You would have to spend only a minute or two at most with each vignette, leading to an experience that would be fragmented to a fault, or you would have to focus on just a handful, meaning that you’re leaving out most of the text anyway and would have little time to do more than establish the basic narrative situation of each before you cut to the next one.

Now…films like Cloud Atlas remind us that it is possible to utilize a fragmented narrative with shorter narrative arcs set in varied locales and time periods. In that film, the arcs focused on different characters and their interconnected plotlines; it used careful scripting and masterful editing to create a narrative that makes sense. However, Cloud Atlas concentrated on five or six locales and character sets; World War Z the novel covered many more. Therefore, the same problems mentioned above would still arise. What do you keep, and what do you leave out? Any omission would limit your devotion to the source text. Filmmakers are limited by budgets, running times, and actors’ schedules, among other things, none of which a novelist has to consider. So Marc Forster and his producers would, in adapting World War Z, have to leave out most of the novel or cover everything at far too fast a pace and in far too jumbled a way. You could, perhaps, faithfully adapt World War Z into an ongoing television series, but there seems to be no way to do so in a two-hour film.

Knowing that material would have to be left out anyway, the filmmakers decided—rightly, I believe—to focus the narrative on Gerry Lane and his family. Gerry still nation-hops, much like the correspondent does in the novel, only now we are seeing the apocalypse as it happens, rather than hearing about it second-hand. Forster and company might have chosen to shoot the film documentary-style and hewed closer to the book, but this approach allows for more action and less talking about the action—more showing and less telling. And while showing rather than telling is always good narrative advice, it is crucial in the visual medium of film.

There is also no discernible breach in the source text’s established ethos. In zombie texts, the undead are monsters, no longer human. There is no moral compunction to consider; you cannot feel guilty for protecting yourself against something that is already dead. So when Gerry kills zombies, he echoes what the various characters of the novel do.

We see the Lane family act in the midst of the zombie outbreaks: they steal a vehicle; they run away from the zombies, leaving other people to die; they protect themselves at the expense of others. When possible, as seen with the family in the apartment building, they help their fellow survivors. When no hope for help exists, they save themselves.

You can argue the moral relativity of their actions from now until the zombies bash in your own door; such arguments have and will probably continue to provide fodder for academic and cultural studies of zombie texts. Here, though, the point is that the Lanes act no differently than your average survivor in the novel. Sometimes they are selfless, risking their lives for others. Sometimes they flee in terror, probably glad that they can outrun their slower brethren. They fight on the side of humanity but exhibit human fears and the realistic tendency to break social and ethical codes when the society built upon those codes breaks down. They are no better or worse than the characters in Brooks’ novel. Therefore, while some readers might take issue with the altered structure and the focus on Lane, it is likely that fewer would find themselves deeply offended by Lane’s actions or how they fit within the framework of the narrative’s world.

In terms of how it functions as a film, World War Z is above average, but not perfect. It is very well-acted, especially for a genre film. Brad Pitt is particularly good; I forgot that I was watching Brad frickin’ Pitt in a zombie movie and found myself invested in the character’s survival (which, really, isn’t much a concern until the film’s final scenes; he’s the main character, after all). The action scenes were mostly well-done. The final scenes in the WHO labs positively drip with suspense; even if you can see what’s coming, as I did, you still want to know how it happens and who will survive. Like the character played by Christopher Meloni in Man of Steel, World War Z’s female Israeli soldier (whose name, like Meloni’s character’s, I cannot recall) was compelling. She endures physical and emotional trauma and still comes off like a badass.

If we are left wondering who Superman/Clark Kent really is, we know Gerry Lane well enough. He is a former U.N. operative with strong family ties. He is highly competent. He values his family more than other people but never abandons anyone when the possibility for saving them still exists.

Does World War Z leave questions unanswered? Yes, and it admits to doing so. We don’t know how the plague started or where it originated. We don’t know how well the solution will work. We don’t know exactly how it will be implemented. Yes, it’s that cynical Hollywood machine in action again, setting up a potential franchise at the expense of the stand-alone story. Yet this story does stand alone. The first stage is over. Some fans may feel cheated that the whole story was not covered, but at least they should not feel as cheated as Man of Steel viewers might. Marc Forster and company didn’t create a race of zombies that kill humans but raise puppies and daffodils or something equally insulting to the source mythology.

Even if you ignore the novel, World War Z isn’t flawless. I would like to see more development of Gerry’s backstory. The subplot with his daughter’s asthma fizzles out. Thomas the orphan boy seems to have little place in the film. Mireille Enos has very little to do other than look concerned. And, as my wife rightly pointed out, two of the major screw-ups in the film happen because a woman does exactly what she should not do at exactly the wrong time—not exactly gender-progressive.

While all these issues are troubling, though, they aren’t film-killers. World War Z is better acted, more coherent, and much less insulting than Man of Steel. I would grade this one in the B+/B range, significantly higher than Man of Steel’s C-. If these two films do indeed jumpstart franchises, which is clearly Hollywood’s hope—and the jury is still out, as both opened very strongly, but Man of Steel suffered a 71% dropoff in its second weekend—I hope that the second Z film (World War Z II? World War II-Z?) is even better than the first. And I hope that the Man of Steel team finds a way to redeem Superman. He deserves it, and so do we.

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