Doctor Strange Epic Collection Volume 1: Master of the Mystic Arts (2018)
Reprints Strange Tales v1 #110-111, 114-146, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2
Written by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Art by Steve Ditko
For such a massive movie star, Doctor Strange’s origins didn’t guarantee that level of fame. He began as a back-up feature in the aptly named anthology Strange Tales. Despite the name, Strange Tales was initially a showcase for science fiction stories in the 1950s. It was part of Marvel chasing the popularity of gorier stories found in EC Comics like Tales From the Crypt, but as superheroes rose back into popularity in the 1960s, the company pivoted. The feature story of Strange Tales in the early 1960s was The Human Torch. While having waned in popularity in recent years, The Fantastic Four was the premiere book published by Marvel in the 1960s. They were the company’s entry into the Silver Age cape & tights landscape, and the Torch was one of the most popular characters. A few issues in, a back-up feature was needed, and there was creator Steve Ditko with the idea for Dr. Strange.
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Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Written by Kōbō Abe
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Hiroshi Teshigahara was the son of an ikebana master (the art of flower arranging). This craft informed Teshigahara’s work as he was intentional and meticulous about filmmaking. He would eventually shift from narrative to documentary in the 1970s. In 1980, his father died, and Teshigahara assumed the position of headmaster at the ikebana school his father had run. He would focus on creating stunning bamboo art installations, eventually moving on to calligraphy and ceramics. Such an eclectic life is inevitably going to produce unique, incredible art. Woman in the Dunes is precisely that: a strange masterpiece that uses a deceptively simple situation to examine human existence.
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Written & Directed by Robert Bresson
In the early days of cinema, movies were just filmed as stageplays. Over time, filmmakers came to develop a language of film, understanding that the camera could be moved closer or further away from the performers. There could also be cuts to different places or flashbacks in time. Today all of these things seem standard, but they are part of a craft and had to be developed. Robert Bresson was a French director who worked to break away from the performance-centered model of filmmaking and refocus on the techniques. He saw that many movies were just someone aiming the camera at a performance but not really saying anything through the craft. He came to refer to his actors as models, implying they were posed by him and more like props in the stories he was attempting to tell. It probably won’t surprise you to learn Bresson had no interest in the acting schools that were coming up in the 20th century, and he hated performances that stole away from the whole picture.
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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Written by Robert E. Thompson and James Poe
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Capitalism and the constant need to keep working/hustling/grinding feels like it is at a fever pitch. The divide between the Haves and Have Nots has grown in the United States to a historical level, worsened by inflation and stagnant wages. However, a growing number of labor unions are forming, and workers in the service industry are becoming emboldened to stand up for themselves, often collectively. That gives me some hope while I worry the powers that be will undermine these movements every day. All of these events parallel the Great Depression, one of the bleakest periods in American history. People were desperate for food, shelter, and any money they could get. This constant living on the edge of death and survival led to dance marathons, sometimes going on for days or weeks, where couples attempted to remain moving and conscious. The last couple standing would win a cash prize, but along the way, many people would be physically and psychologically harmed by the strain. Writer Horace McCoy was a bouncer during the Depression and witnessed these marathons, which inspired him to write the novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
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The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Written by Luis Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel is a director whose films are very well-known for being clever and witty critiques of the Spanish upper class. He’d been making movies for thirty years at this point, so you feel right away that you are in the hands of someone who knows exactly what they are doing. At its core, The Exterminating Angel is Buñuel pointing out the ways human existence and its institutions are easily fallible. We’re currently living through a pandemic that has uprooted what we believed would protect us. The CDC reconfigures its metrics to make the United States appear as if it has passed through the COVID-19 crisis while people continue to be infected, reinfected, and horrifically die by the tens of thousands a month. America’s leadership comprises a mix of ancient relics and avaricious technocrats that feign calm while frantically hoarding resources for themselves and their wealthy friends behind the scenes. Buñuel was already familiar with this world decades earlier.
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The Trial (1962)
Written & Directed by Orson Welles
The legal system doesn’t consistently deliver justice. Since 1989, over 2,400 people have been found to be wrongfully convicted in the United States. Even back amid the first World War, writer Franz Kafka understood the absurdity of the legal system and its accompanying structures. Sadly, he would pass at the young age of 40 in 1924, but a year later, one of his friends would cobble together the fragments of The Trial and posthumously published the text. While Kafka’s final vision for the book will always remain unknown, it was clear he was using it to examine the systems he lived within, particularly how cruel and cold they can be to the ordinary person. Orson Welles would be approached by producer Alexander Salkind to make a film based on a book in the public domain; this was what the director’s eye drifted to. The result is a masterpiece of visual and narrative excellence.
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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Written by Edward Albee & Ernest Lehman
Directed by Mike Nichols
I can’t imagine how shocked audiences were when they saw this movie in 1966. It doesn’t have gratuitous nudity or sex, barely any profanity, no violence or gore. However, it features such bitter, hateful characters that this is a complicated picture to get through even by today’s standards. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that married couples on television would be shown. However, film and theater have always been ahead of the curve in pushing content boundaries. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a couple like this before. The rancor that is already overflowing when the movie begins just explodes. We’re given some moments of reprieve, but they fade quickly when the ceasefire ends, and the games begin again.
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Written by Leonard Spiegelgass, Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Gypsy Rose Lee
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91 in 2021. He left behind 16 full-length stage musicals and penned songs for both film & television. I can’t say I was ever a theater kid, but I did grow to have a deep appreciation for Sondheim’s work as just a fan. While I do not have the musical vocabulary to talk about the complexity of his work, I can address it as an appreciator of his clever lyrics and stories centered on people. His work has such maturity compared with many popular Broadway shows, particularly his writing in the 1980s when the industry was leaning into spectacle over quality. His stories refused to end on “Happily Ever After” sentiments and instead made audiences confront the nuance of being alive in the modern world. I don’t think someone like Sondheim would ever happen in today’s corporate Broadway musical landscape.
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Written & Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Persona is a fever dream. Literally. Writer-director Ingmar Bergman says he worked out the rough draft over nine weeks while recovering from pneumonia in the hospital. The film is tangled up in Bergman’s rather complicated personal life. At one point, Bergman was involved romantically with actress Bibi Andersson. A few years later, he ran into her in Stockholm, where he met Liv Ullman, who was friends with Andersson. The director says the friends’ resemblance to each other was uncanny, and the idea of this blending of identity came from that thought. Bergman, who was married to this third wife at the time, would eventually start an extramarital affair with Ullman and would have a child with her. Persona ends up being a film as complicated and entangled as the filmmaker’s own personal life.
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Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection Volume 2 (2017)
Reprints Amazing Spider-Man #18-38, Annual #2
Written by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Art by Steve Ditko
This collection encompasses the final half of artist Steve Ditko’s work on the Spider-Man title, a run that holds a legendary status among comic book fans. And rightfully so, Ditko’s artwork reaches some grand new heights here. I found some of his work in the first seventeen issues to not be all that impressive, but here Ditko has some sequences that are among the best art I have ever seen in the medium. As for stories, this is a more mixed bag. By this point, almost every iconic Spider-Man villain had been introduced, a truly remarkable feat for just a couple years. That means these issues either feature the return of already beloved rogues or the introduction of those villains who would be forgotten almost as soon as they debuted. I doubt we will find many passionate fans of Molten Man or The Looter out there among the fandom. What we do get is the introduction of some vitally important supporting players in Peter Parker’s life.
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