Movie Review – Wall Street

Wall Street (1987)
Written by Oliver Stone & Stanley Weiser
Directed by Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone is one of those filmmakers I’ve seen many films from but don’t feel I’ve ever dived deep into his work. I remember being hyper-aware of JFK when it was released and then subsequently referenced in comedy across the contemporary landscape of the time. Riding high off the success of Platoon, Stone wanted to write a script with his film school friend Stanley Weiser about the 1950s quiz show scandal. As ideas were tossed back and forth, the film evolved into focusing on Wall Street and the investment boom of the 1980s. The two writers spent weeks observing at a brokerage firm and pulled on their own connections within the tribe of stock bros. Citing inspirations like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and the satire of Paddy Chayefsky, they ended up with a script titled Greed, later changed to Wall Street.

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Movie Review – L’Argent

L’Argent (1983)
Written & Directed by Robert Bresson

Money is essential for survival in our current system yet is the constant root of many problems. Theft is predicated on taking money from someone or stealing property that can later be sold for money. Homelessness results from not having enough money to afford rent/mortgages. Medical debt continues to explode across the United States. Inflation is driving up the prices of essential goods. As Max Bialystock once said, “Money is honey,” but it’s also a load of shit. Those with money essentially live in a different society from those who do not have it, able to transcend the Law and behave as they please. Those who must toil and labor are slaves to money, never able to take a break from working for more. Robert Bresson was a student of how humanity tortures itself and imposes strictures based on economic class. We saw this in Mouchette earlier this year, as a peasant girl is made to be the object of cruelty for so many. 

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TV Review – Stranger Things Season 4

Stranger Things Season 4 (Netflix)
Written by The Duffer Brothers, Caitlin Schneiderhan, Paul Dichter, Kate Trefry, and Curtis Gwinn
Directed by The Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy, and Nimród Antal

In Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life, the author discussed the concept of hauntology. This is a pun on ontology, the philosophy of being. Hauntology is the inverse, the persistence of elements from the social or cultural past. Fisher did not coin this term, which came from Jacques Derrida in the Specter of Marx, a rumination on the post-Soviet world. Hauntology has been incorporated into almost all the arts; think of the DIY music genres that involve remixing old fragments while combining a 1980s or 1990s aesthetic. Fisher sees hauntology as indicative of an obsession with “lost futures.” This manifests as a yearning for repurposing old forms, not because they provide greater insight, but because they help numb the pain over realizing the utopian futures humanity once imagined for itself appear to be crumbling in the face of late-stage capitalism. We live in a disjointed time, out of step with what was supposed to be, and thus forced to retrace our past steps over and over and over, forever.

Stranger Things Season 4 finds the familiar cast of characters broken up across the world. It’s March 1986, and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is going to visit Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in California, where she lives with Joy Byers (Winona Ryder) and her sons Jonathan & Will (Charlie Heaton and Noah Schnapp, respectively). Meanwhile, in Hawkins, tensions boil over when popular cheerleader Chrissy is found dead in Eddie Munson’s trailer. Eddie is the Dungeonmaster of the high school’s Hellfire Club, which fuels the community’s paranoia about Satanism in the town. The Hawkins kids realize Chrissy’s murder was done by forces in the Upside Down. However, none of them know that Hopper (David Harbour) is still alive and imprisoned in a Soviet gulag where experiments are happening on creatures that have breached the wall between worlds.

Stranger Things has become one of those cultural signifiers for discussion about a renewed love & adoration of the 1980s. But I would argue it’s not quite that simple. This season Stranger Things became nostalgic for itself, with the extended flashbacks to an even younger Eleven and the tension between her and Papa (Matthew Modine), the scientist behind the program that developed her powers. So the nostalgia is now meta-textual, which works with how the show was received. Two groups find enjoyment in this show. The first are people of an age that makes Stranger Things a source of nostalgia, people in their 50s-40s who can use it as an escapist fantasy to their past. The second group is young people for whom Stranger Things cannot be a nostalgic experience. Instead, it serves as an escape from the nightmare of a futureless world. Both groups are searching for old forms that can be recreated and used to disconnect from the present. 

Mark Fisher speaks to this desire to live in perpetually recreating forms. There was a period in American culture where “newness” was a sensation experienced by every generation. Newness came in the form of unfamiliar presentations. Think of the evolution of popular music from the 1940s to the 1990s. Over those fifty years, there were points where someone might have heard music and not recognized it as anything but noise. This type of jarring, new form of music wasn’t something underground but being played on the radio. As a person in the culture, you had to reckon with how that “noise” redefined the collective understanding of music. Fisher argues, and I agree, that we do not encounter that newness anymore. Popular music shies away from potentially confusing new forms and just continues to repurpose the same sounds over and over. 

Where generations before us lived in a world that was transforming at an overwhelming rate, presenting them with media that exploded forms and challenged definitions, the 21st century appears to be an era where that is over. Our disorientation is akin to Groundhog Day. We seem to be living the same experiences repeatedly, with slight tweaks to the details. Stranger Things is its own show but is also based on repurposing aesthetics and moods from forty-year-old media. It does not present us with anything new; instead, its familiarity is its reason to exist. Eleven is Firestarter. Mike & friends are The Goonies. Vecna is Freddy Kreuger. What was old is new and renewed and renewed again. The show features contemporary young people, but their characters are designed around fantasized images of old viewers. Nothing is out of date when we no longer move towards a future.

This does not mean the period from the 1980s to the present has been static. On the contrary, we’ve experienced some horribly traumatic moments on cultural and individual bases. The transformation of the Western economies into neoliberalism has upended many institutions that were once able to be counted on, at least by the privileged classes. The rapid-fire evolution of technology since the days of the child heroes in Hawkins has been disorienting, to say the least. I can look at my college days in the early 2000s to the present and see how technology has an entirely different presence in my day-to-day life. One of the side effects of this unrelenting socio-political upheaval is the cancellation of the future. 

Francis Fukayama, one of the key authors in articulating the engine of neoliberalism, spoke to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Western liberal democracy as “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” This has led to a cultural “deflation of expectations,” as noted by Fisher. We no longer live expecting the sort of cultural shock moments brought to us by the advent of rock n’ roll or disco or hip hop. Instead, we have new artists wearing the husks of old forms, making no comment or critique on them, simply being them.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Star Wars was a pastiche, an imitative work based on George Lucas’ childhood love of serialized adventure movies. Upon Star Wars’ initial release, just like Stranger Things, it worked for two audiences: an older audience who understood the reference and was able to lose themselves in the nostalgia and a younger audience for whom this appeared to be a new experience. It’s no coincidence that Star Wars’ ascendency is seen as the end of the introspective film movement of the 1970s. Indiana Jones is not something new either, following in the same nostalgic sentiment. Even Back the Future is a movie nostalgic for the filmmakers’ youthful days in the 1950s. As a child of the 1980s, I’ve really come to understand how much of what I perceived as formative media speaking to my generation is just another level of nostalgia for someone else. Fisher points out that a common refrain when a musicophile is asked about examples of “futuristic music” they will point to Kraftwerk, a group whose core work occurred around 40 years ago. No one has contemporary popular music they can point to as sounding “futuristic.”

The deeper problem with this, Stranger Things included, is that while we have these “nostalgic” pieces of media that are new, they do not ultimately feel right. There is something off about the Duffer Brothers’ the 1980s, whether it be the apparent contemporary use of digital effects or the way hair and clothes evoke a perception of the 1980s rather than the typical suburban blandness that it really felt like. This nostalgia cannot ever genuinely pass for the real thing, so we are left with this nagging psychological after-effect, the sense of disjointed time. The global mental health crisis in Western nations speaks to this growing disconnect. It fuels the sense of apocalypse; it truly feels that we are reaching the end because we have been conditioned to neither seek out nor seek to create new forms. Fisher states, “[,,,] the intensity and precariousness of late-stage capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated. The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of attention. In this insomniac, inundated state […] culture becomes de-eroticized.” 

There is very little alive about popular art being produced in our time. It seems to speak to some yearning for our past because we are uncertain about our present and beyond. We look to the media as a drug, expected to provide a quick cozy fix, returning us to a time when we perceived life to be simple. This is because we’ve predicated our society on an economic philosophy that can only consume resources, time, people, and life. Those with the means will not risk it on new things because new things bring with them the potential for financial loss and an awakening of humanity. If we were to collectively wake up to our conditions, we might do something about them; we might fight to ensure security for ourselves, our children, and generations to come. Better than we are nestled in the comfy cocoon of nostalgia, the unnerving repurposing of forms. As British music journalist Simon Reynolds put it, “[…] in recent years, everyday life has sped up, but culture has slowed down.”

Edit: Just came across this tweet after publishing this article. Wow

Movie Review – Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue (1980)
Written by Leonard Yakir and Brenda Nielson
Directed by Dennis Hopper

As we close out our series on American Disillusionment in the 1970s, our eyes return to Dennis Hopper, who we last saw in The Last Movie. That was the last film he directed before this picture. Out of the Blue is a transitory film, moving its focus from the boomer generation’s self-involved anxieties to see what happened to Generation X in their parents’ emotional absence. It’s a painfully nihilistic film that continues Hopper’s career-long struggle with wanting the American mythologized to him while seeing that it is falling apart before his eyes. His take is expectedly reactionary and therefore unable to provide a fully coherent point, but the emotions that underlie the story are genuine. It’s the story of a generation already lost before getting on their feet.

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Comic Book Review – Thor by Walt Simonson

Thor by Walt Simonson Omnibus (2011)
Reprints Thor #337-355, 357-369, 371-382, Balder the Brave #1-4
Written by Walt Simonson
Art by Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema

I can’t say I was a fan of the Thor comic books growing up or even as an adult. I loved mythology as a child, and D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Mythology got me hooked. But something about Thor just didn’t hook me. I was certainly intrigued by the art I saw, but the stories, with their very austere manner of speech, were a little much. Every time a new creator comes onboard the title, I will give it a chance, only to find myself growing bored. I wish I could tell you I fell in love with Walt Simonson’s legendary Thor run, but I can only really say that I respect it, and there were parts I enjoyed a lot. He’s undoubtedly a lover of Norse myths and infuses the series with it from the first issue.

Simonson had done pencil work on Thor when Len Wein wrote the title. He worked on Thor for about a year in the late 1970s, but by the time Simonson took over as both writer/artist, he’d intentionally worked to change his style. I don’t know how to fully describe Simonson’s artwork, but it’s not like much else I’ve ever seen. It has traces of styles present in illustrations from the 1960s and 70s. Male characters are often “chunky,” square in shape, and broad-shouldered. Female characters are smaller but still powerful, agile, and muscular. That’s really just describing the heroic and villainous characters. Supporting characters come in a wider variety of shapes. Volstagg and his wife are both very plump and round but not drawn for comic effect, instead presented as just who they are. Movement feels fluid due to Simonson’s line work; there’s a visual path used to show characters flying through the sky or bringing a weapon down on an enemy.

Simonson opened his run by shaking things up. He introduces Beta Ray Bill in #337, a figure who, for people outside the comics, will sound insane. Bill is an alien, specifically a Korbinite. His people have been displaced from their home in The Burning Galaxy and have a massive space ark working its way through the universe to find a new home. The Korbinites use their technology and willing test subjects to create a champion. Bill is the one who passes the tests, and he is transformed into a fierce cybernetic warrior. SHIELD detects the ship crossing through our solar system, and Nick Fury calls on Thor to help investigate. Thor loses his hammer during the fight, and Bill can lift it, transforming him into a variation on Thor. Eventually, Bill and Thor become friends, and Odin is able to forge Stormbreaker, a new hammer just for Bill.

Thor had always been one of the more Jack Kirby-influenced Marvel comics, so blending high fantasy and mythology felt like a natural fit. Beta Ray Bill is also such a unique character that throwing him on the cover of that first issue felt like a declaration that Thor was getting a major shake-up. During Simonson’s run, Bill is paired with Lady Sif, one of Thor’s potential paramours, and I found their dynamic to be far more interesting than any relationship the title character ever had. Bill’s story also ties directly into the central story arc that makes up the first big chunk of Simonson’s run. His homeworld was overrun by fire demons who ended up being the acolytes of Surtur, a devilish figure in Norse mythology. 

Simonson had previously done art for the immensely popular Star Wars title Marvel published at the time, which is where his art style was really reinvented. When he gets Thor, he’s employing those skills to present large-scale space battles and showcase the scope of the mythology that runs through this pocket of the Marvel universe. Throughout the first year of issues, we’re constantly teased that something is happening in the background that will tie these stories together. A shadowy figure forges a large sword on an anvil, and the narration frames this as more than just a blacksmith. Making this weapon is a cosmic act; the hammer working the metal is cosmic thunder. Eventually, we’ll see this sword being wielded, and its swing will rent a chasm through the Nine Realms. It’s not a sword; it’s a manifestation of ancient dark power. 

While Simonson ties his epic stories to events on Earth, this run was the one where Thor’s human ties were quietly pushed into the background. Previously, Donald Blake had been Thor’s human form on Earth. It’s relatively straightforward that these are two separate entities, and Simonson has Blake disappear, and Thor simply never turns back into him. Instead, the hero establishes a secret identity of Sigurd Carlson, rents an apartment in NYC, and gets a job as a construction worker. Unfortunately, the Carlson identity doesn’t seem to be an element Simonson loved dearly, as it is used as a plot device and then discarded for most of the run. 

Thor having a mortal persona has just never made sense to me. It makes sense for Spider-Man or Iron Man; they were someone before they became the superhero. Thor is just Thor; that’s who he was born as. On the other hand, Thor had been handled a little like Captain Marvel/Shazam in his creation. Blake would smash his wooden cane down and, in a blast of thunder & lightning, be transformed into the hammer-wielding Norse god. By discarding Blake, it would be as if Billy Batson shouted Shazam and never went back. In Donny Cates’ current run on Thor, he’s had a storyline that addressed the abandonment of Donald Blake. If you are a fan of that aspect of Thor, I do not think you would enjoy how that story turns out.

Simonson also clearly loves the character of Balder the Brave, like a whole lot! Balder doesn’t exist in the MCU; maybe in the future? In Norse mythology, he plays the role that Thor has been thrust into in the movies. Balder is the golden child of the Norse pantheon; he’s the God of Light and, therefore, deeply beloved by Odin. In the myths, Thor is a cantankerous moody figure. It makes sense as he’s the God of the Storm; they pop up and are destructive, and suddenly everything is calm again. Balder is having an existential crisis when Simonson’s run begins. In the comics, he goes through the story of a myth where Balder is betrayed by Loki and dies. Balder is back in the land of the living but shaken up by that experience, growing overweight from depression and just hanging around Asgard doing nothing.

Balder’s story happens with small connections to Thor’s and feels like a separate comic book inside Thor’s title. Balder encounters the Norns, the triplet goddesses of destiny. They show him a vision of what will come for Asgard, which sets him off on a redemption arc. He transforms himself into the hero he’s supposed to be and fights entities from throughout Norse mythology. Simonson does some deep cuts to build out the world of the Nine Realms. Thor & Balder’s great-grandfather Buri shows up for a bit to cause problems while Odin is experiencing one of his many deaths. To his credit, Simonson brings out a lot of humanity from characters that so easily could have been written as distant from human experience.

Some new elements are also introduced, and I don’t think they are great. Malekith, the Dark Elf, is introduced here, and I was surprised at how inconsequential he feels. He’s certainly a threat, but one that is overcome easily to make way for the war with Surtur. Lorelei is the little sister of The Enchantress, and she just feels like a repetition of that character but less interesting. There’s also Kurse, a character that the writing seems to want you to believe is a possibly amnesiac Thor, but of course, isn’t. I like how Simonson took the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and made them one and the same, essentially with the Faerie. I don’t think The Wild Hunt storyline here is entirely coherent, but I get what Simonson was going for. Also, I think this run does some interesting things with The Executioner, and I wish Simonson had used him more.

I can’t say this earned its spot as one of my favorite Marvel runs of all time. I think it was essential to read it as one of those benchmarks in the history of the comic medium. This clear vision remade Thor and influenced everything that has come after. It could be argued that almost every creative team that came after Simonson is actively repeating the stories & themes he told or pushing back against them with a deep awareness of how they transformed the book. If you are a fantasy fan or someone who enjoys the big, bold action-oriented stories that comics can tell, this omnibus will pack a mighty punch for you.

Patron Pick – Blow Out

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Blow Out (1981)
Written & Directed by Brian De Palma

In 1966, Italian director Michaelangelo Antonioni wrote & directed Blow-Up, a mystery film about a fashion photographer who believes he may have caught a crime on film while shooting in a park. When director Brian De Palma was working on Dressed to Kill, he started to think about reframing Antonioni’s film around sound rather than images. By late 1980, De Palma was shooting Blow Out in his hometown of Philadelphia, working alongside many recurring collaborators. The result is a film made in the vein of dozens of 1970s political thrillers, wrapped up in the post-Watergate paranoia that has fueled Americans’ minds ever since. 

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Patron Pick – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1988)

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1988)
Written by C.S. Lewis & Alan Seymour
Directed by Marilyn Fox

I remember having the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia read aloud to me around seven or eight. It was my first introduction to C.S. Lewis’ series and immediately piqued my interest. A couple years later, this British television mini-series aired on PBS’ Wonderworks, a children’s anthology, and I was pulled in right away. While it doesn’t compare to the lavish production values of 1980s blockbusters, it did make me feel like I was passing into another world. Narnia felt very real and honestly very frightening. The series does not hold back on some terrifying imagery for a little kid. Many years passed before I rewatched it and what I found was that, while very faithful to the book, it does not hold up from an adult perspective.

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Comic Book Review – Batman: The Caped Crusader Volume One

Batman: The Caped Crusader Volume 1 (2018)
Reprints Batman #417-425, 430-431, Annual #12
Written by Jim Starlin, Mike Baron, Robert Greenberger, and Christopher Priest (as James Owsley)
Art by Jim Aparo, Ross Andru, Norm Breyfogle, Mark Bright, Dave Cockrum, Dick Giordano, and Pablo Marcos

Jim Starlin had established himself as the new main writer for the Batman title by this point following a spotty run by Max Allan Collins. While Collins chose to play loose with the timeline, setting some stories earlier and others closer to present day, Starlin shrugs all that off and firmly plants his feet in the present. Robin (Jason Todd) is about 15/16 and Batman has an established lengthy history. If you compare this to John Byrne’s work on Superman that series feels like it is starting fresh with the hero, reintroducing his villains. Starlin came from a place that all of Batman’s rogues’ gallery is well-known already. That didn’t mean he was just going to play with the toys he was given and this collection begins with the introduction of a villain who is still around today.

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Comic Book Review – Batman: Second Chances

Batman: Second Chances (2015)
Reprints Batman #402, 403, 408-416 & Batman Annual #11
Written by Max Allan Collins, Jo Duffy, and Jim Starlin
Art by Jim Starlin, Denys Cowan, Chris Warner, Ross Andru, Dick Giordano, Dave Cockrum, Kieron Dwyer, Mike DeCarlo, and Jim Aparo

Batman: Second Chances collects the issues just before and following Frank Miller’s iconic Year One arc. The stories here focus mainly on establishing a grittier tone for the post-Crisis Batman while developing Jason Todd, who served as Robin. The result is a jumble of small arcs and one-offs that aren’t brought together for any thematic purpose. Instead, this is just a means to collect some stories that would never have a place otherwise. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it as a historical artifact, a record of what Batman comics felt like in the late 1980s before other creators like Alan Grant and Chuck Dixon became the architects of a new Batman mythos.

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Comic Book Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 1

Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 1 (2018)
Reprints Detective Comics #568-574, 579-582
Written by Mike W. Barr, Joey Cavalieri, and Jo Duffy
Art by Alan Davis, Paul Neary, Jim Baikie, Terry Beatty, Norm Breyfogle, E.R. Cruz, Carmine Infantino, Dick Giordano, Pablo Marcos, and Klaus Janson

At the same time, Frank Miller was reinventing the Batman mythos in the pages of the titular book; very different things were happening in Detective Comics. It was a very different experience and an example of how DC Comics editorial had not thoroughly planned out the post-Crisis period, much like how the New 52 reboot wasn’t as coordinated as it could have been. Things begin messily with Joey Cavalieri penning a Legends crossover. If you have read the Legends storyline (one I highly recommend), you’ll quickly pick up that this crossover is entirely unnecessary and not coordinated with the actual event. You can see this in G. Gordon Godfrey, who looks like this in Legends and looks like this in Detective Comics. I thought there’d be some sort of editorial guidance for artists when using characters from crossovers so that they would, at minimum, look the same. 

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