Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Descent

The Descent (2006) Neil Marshall

I remember this one getting some pretty good buzz around the time it was released, and people seem to mostly feel pretty positively about this one I think, so I decided to give it a shot, it being the right time for a scary movie and all.

It was fine, I liked it.  As my pal Tony would put it, on a binary scale, it's a 1.  The plot is a pretty standard monster movie kind of thing.  A bunch of friends go out to explore a cave because that's what's fun for them for some reason, and they find themselves in perilous and terrifying situations, not the least of which is being stalked by monstrous bat-people.

The all-female cast is notable for being an all-female cast because when does that ever happen in anything?  But as far as the plot of the movie goes, they don't really make a thing of it, which is fine, but they also seem to be fairly interchangeable, with the exception of our main girl Sarah and our counterpoint Juno, who are lucky enough to be imbued with archetypal personalities of reluctant tragic hero and hubris fueled villain, respectively.

The Descent is straightforward and lean, offering the bare minimum of character revelation/development, in service of pushing ahead to create a platform for Neil Marshall's keen eye for violence and a very specific kind of terror.  The movie does very interesting things with light and darkness and colors so the overall look of it is engaging, definitely a big achievement for something set almost entirely in a pitch-black cave, but the scares are more haunted house-esque, preferring a quick jolt to make you scream and push you forward to the next set piece.  Rarely ever do we get that pervasive sense of dread that my favorite horror movies bring to the table.

I think that part of the reason for that is in the nature of the setting.  Something like Halloween is scary largely because it could happen to you in your own neighborhood.  Halloween is the kind of movie that you watch and absorb because of your familiarity with the setting and with the people, and because of that, when the movie's finished, you're scared to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.  You're scared about simply being exactly where you are.  The Descent has some genuine scares, but it is hampered by the fact that it is set in some remote, undiscovered cave.  None of this would have happened if they'd just stayed home.  I think that horror movies that end up being the scariest to me are the ones where the threat would have come to you no matter where you are.  The Descent's dependence on its exotic setting, while creating a very specific atmosphere of fear, also works against it in that the fear is limited to that setting.  Once the movie is over the terror is over for us because honestly, how many of you are going spelunking without a map?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Three Charles Burns Books

X'ed Out
The Hive
Sugar Skull
by Charles Burns

Charles Burns has finally wrapped up a trilogy of books that he began in 2010 with X'ed Out.  I'm not sure if anyone's settled on a name to call this story, so for now I'll just call it The Doug Trilogy.

The story follows Doug, a photographer/poet/performance artist, and his relationships with the women in his life, particularly Sarah, another photographer with a dark past.  So much of The Doug Trilogy is contingent on a past that is kept hidden.  Doug has his own secret that he keeps from us, the readers, and to a certain extent, himself.  X'ed Out introduces Doug as someone who is unable or unwilling to remember some kind of violent trauma, choosing instead to spiral down the hole of self-medicating on pain killers.  Similarly, Sarah has her own secrets, and Doug is happy to ignore them, at least at the beginning of their relationship.

A large component of these stories is the strange dream world that Doug finds himself in for a good portion of the series.  On the surface it's a strange, alien world with its own rules, dominated by a kind of surreal bureaucracy run by rude lizard men, but going a bit deeper, we begin to understand that it is further a continuing dream or some kind of sustained hallucination that gives us some clues about those secrets that Doug and Sarah keep from us and each other.

When I first read X'ed Out I remember wondering about that dream world and its connection to the main story, if it was a dream at all or if it was something else entirely.  One explanation points out that the cover to a Nitnit comic that Doug reads in The Hive is the exact last page from X'ed Out, suggesting that the dream world portions are actually scenes from the Nitnit comics.  After reading the whole thing, I'm of the opinion that it is a dream, a mysterious allegory to Doug's checkered past, but even if these were pages from a comic that Doug reads, I think the overall effect of explaining our characters' murky pasts through some sort of allegory or parallelism is the same.  If it seems like there are more concrete connections to the waking world of Burns's story, it's reflective of our dreams having the tendency to elicit a seemingly real connection to what we see and experience in our waking lives, like when you see something while walking home and you swear you'd seen it before, maybe in a dream.

The art style that Burns uses for the dream portions evoke HergĂ©'s Tintin books, and in some ways the dream world story takes on the spirit of a Tintin adventure.  The cover and book design of the three books certainly mimic that of a Tintin book, but aside from the art style and the loose theme of getting caught up in a strange new land, I'm not sure there's much else to connect it to Tintin.  However, Burns playing with HergĂ©'s style has less to do with the content of Tintin and more to do with the effect it has on the reader.  I think I remember a section of Understanding Comics where Scott McCloud is using Tintin as an example of simplifying linework as a way to maximize the readers' identification with a character, and juxtaposing that with more complicated or specific looking backgrounds as a way of creating a feeling of displacement/alienation (it's been years since I've read Understanding Comics, so forgive me if I'm conflating or misremembering), and I think that principle applies itself well to the Doug Trilogy.

The dream world and the waking world are key in understanding this.  The dream world is one of total alienation for Doug.  Strange creatures with even stranger customs dominate the otherworldly landscape, but through it all, Doug is able to retain some sense of self in as much as he realizes he is out of place, and that he would do well to comply with the strangeness around him in order to survive.  The Nitnit (this comic's Tintin analog) mask he wears for his performances serves as a visual tie, connecting the waking world to the dream world both for the readers and for Doug.  Perhaps we could take this to mean that Doug self-identifies as the comic book character Nitnit, and he thusly sees himself as Nitnit in his dreams.  It's feasible that Doug imagines his true self as the "Johnny 23" persona he's created for himself onstage, considering the fact that in The Hive, the dreamworld Doug is assigned the number 23 when he wears the lizard men's uniform at work.  There are other links too, like the Nitnit comics that Doug reads, and the romance comics he buys for Sarah.  Again, these may seem like fairly superficial connections, but they are important signifiers that are used to connect Doug's dream to Doug's life, demonstrating to the readers that these dreams have a connection to the details of the story that Doug has been concealing.

I appreciated the dream world sections for their strangeness and for the scope of vision that Burns applies to this fantastic and uncanny world, but after I put down Sugar Skull I felt that those scenes ended up undercutting the emotional resonance of certain powerful reveals, particularly the scene where Sarah's dream-world analog explains the plot of her romance comics (and by extension, Sarah's dark history) to dream-Doug.  That bit felt like exposition rather than a revealing hint about Sarah's character, and I suppose it is understandable since she is literally giving comic book exposition, but I have to think that revealing that information about Sarah in the real world would have had more impact.  Revealing these key character moments in the midst of the dream setting lends them an ambiguity that mitigates the emotional weight of a new insight about a character.

However, I think I can understand some of Burns's intent in revealing things in this way.  That ambiguity that results from some critical character backstory being revealed in a dream allows Burns to place a sense of doubt or distrust in a reader because what we see in dreams is innately untrustworthy.  Then when we see what we saw in the dream world confirmed in the real world, the effect works in two ways: 1) We get confirmation that the dreams are relating something rooted in reality, thereby making them important to us as readers 2) We develop a sense of dread when we see how things in the dream world unfold for Doug.  In that regard Burns very effectively shows us the unsettling power of a prophetic dream.  I still feel they'd have more impact if these moments were revealed in the waking world, but perhaps that speaks more to  my own inclination toward Doug and Sarah's mysterious romance than it does to a mistake in Burns's method.  The dream world adds a layer of obfuscation to character and story development which seems to be in line with Burns's storytelling preferences (as far as I can gather from my memory of his previous work).

For all its exciting dream logic and allegory, the Doug Trilogy is still a story about a relationship falling apart because of Doug's selfishness and inability to mature emotionally.  Doug's relationship with Sarah is a kind of "the one that got away" story, but throughout the course of the trilogy it becomes clear that Sarah "got away" because she had to.  Doug is a nice guy but he is unable to give Sarah the emotional support she needs because he himself is unwilling to mature.  We are able to see this in the relationships he has before and after Sarah.  Doug immediately runs out on Colleen, the first girl we see him with, in order to take in the art scene at a warehouse party and perform for an audience that couldn't care less about him.  Colleen only goes to the party to be supportive of Doug, and Doug repays this kindness by ignoring her for most of the party except when he wants her input about how he looks before he gets on stage to perform.  When Doug is with Sarah, it's fun and perfect until Doug finds out about Sarah's past and when Sarah actually needs Doug to be with her during a pregnancy scare.  Doug loves the idea of the perfect girl in Sarah, but is unable to handle a reality with a real woman with a troubling past.  He is unable to deal with the consequences that would result from being unselfish and emotionally available to her.  Tina, the woman he is involved with after he and Sarah break up, is a rebound relationship, but when we see her interacting with Doug, it is again in the role of unreciprocated support.  Tina takes care of Doug when he drinks too much, and to her credit, she stands up for herself and tells Doug she's sick of hearing about his relationship with Sarah and his father's death (more on his father in a bit).  Finally, Sally, the woman that Doug seems to end up with, is again not so much an equal as she is someone who Doug is with because he's become accustomed to her doting on him.  By the time he ends up with Sally, Doug still hasn't made any meaningful changes, and he is still hung up on seeing Sarah again.  The way that Doug treats the women in his life show that what Doug wants is not really a partner, but rather an emotional receptacle to dump on when he's feeling low or needy.

The women aren't the only indication of Doug's stagnation.  Take Doug's photography.  He takes the same polaroid self portraits, making the same dumb face in most of them.  When he finally does something different (taking a picture of Sarah posing with an animal heart) it's out of spite for Sarah's past with her abusive ex-boyfriend Larry.  He never progresses with his art.  He eventually ends up working at a record store and dabbling in photography when he has time, but he never really made a commitment to making any serious progress.  For Doug, his photos are not a way to relate his view of the world so much as they are a way to remember himself at a certain time.  Perhaps that's why he revels in his onstage Johnny 23 persona: The masking is ageless and unchanging, his t-shirt is iconic.  When he finally tries to reconnect with Sarah at the end of Sugar Skull, Doug wears his Johnny 23 shirt in the hopes of sparking a visual reminder of what they once had, but it's doomed to fail because it's not a reminder of their relationship, but rather it's a demonstration that Doug is still the same person he was all those years ago.

Doug's father is also reflective of an inability to change as well as being a warning about getting hung up on the past.  We see Doug's father in the real world, and more unsettlingly, in the dream world.  When we first see him, Doug's father is not introduced as such.  We know nothing of him except that he is dressed in the same robe and pajamas that the dream version of Doug wears, visually connecting him to Doug. This visual connection without any concrete knowledge about his identity suggests initially that this person we see is perhaps some kind of future version of Doug.  It is understandably uncanny and unsettling for the dream Doug to see this, but the reality of it is fairly close.  Even Sarah, when looking at old pictures of Doug's father when he was Doug's age, remarks that Doug and his father look very similar.  This goes further than a mere visual connection, however.  After Doug's father's death, Doug and Sarah find in his robe an old picture of a young woman who is not Doug's mother (whom we only hear about, but never see).  We don't know who this woman is, but in a flashback we do see Doug catching his father staring wistfully at his secret photograph, so we could infer that this woman meant something to him, so perhaps an old girlfriend.  Like Doug, Doug's father is also hung up on a woman from his past.  We also get a sense that Doug's father is a sign of Doug's future to come when we hear Doug talk about how he remembers his father's life and how a once vibrant man that can be seen in old photographs eventually became uninterested in anything else besides TV and cigarettes.  The visual connection between the two, given the significance of visual connections between the dream world and the real world, would suggest that Doug's father is a warning of what's to come for Doug, and it becomes even more foreboding when we get to the final revelation in Sugar Skull of Sarah's son looking just like Doug.

The Doug Trilogy is a story about relationships and the dangers of never learning to move on.  The surrealistic connections between dreams and reality allow for a lot of further unpacking and varying interpretations, but I think at its heart all the nauseating and mysterious dream imagery relates to exactly what we see in the real world.  Burns is an immensely talented artist, using these three books as an opportunity to play with varying styles and to experiment with color effects.  His strong technique delivers a story that is an experience equal parts repulsive and rewarding.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Philip Kaufman

WARNING: the clip below is from the end of the movie, so don't watch it if you care about spoilers or whatever.  Also, this movie is almost forty years old and a remake of a sci-fi cultural touchstone so if you're worried about spoilers... come on, dude.

I'd never seen the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I never really felt like I needed to.  I got the gist.  Aliens, pod people, paranoia, etc.  This one had just recently popped up on Netflix and with a cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy, I figured I'd be into it.  And I was.  For parts of it, at least.

I think my main problem was in the pacing.  It starts out pretty brisk and tense.  Strange flowers appear all over San Francisco.  We meet Elizabeth and her basketball-obsessed dope of a husband.  We meet uptight health inspector Matthew.  We get the status quo and then we wake up the next morning and something about Elizabeth's husband is different.  He wears a suit, he's cleaning up after himself, he skips out on the basketball game to go to some kind of late night meeting.  And he's not the only one.  Other people in the city seem a bit off as well.  There's a pervasive air of discomfort that we feel in the first half hour or so of the movie, but that creepy momentum doesn't really carry into the rest of the movie.  
Instead what we get is a bumbling investigation by a group of non experts who keep deferring to Leonard Nimoy's character, an asshole self-help book writing psychiatrist who is never in any real position of authority.  Seriously, they keep coming to him with what they find, and he keeps listening to them and telling them they're hallucinating or whatever.  Even if he did believe them, what could he possibly do about any of this??

It's not all tedious stumbling around, though.  There are some very unsettling and strange moments that are scattered throughout the second act of the movie, and by the time we make it to the third act, the movie seems to have finally hit its stride, offering up the paranoid horror it had been building towards.

That's the thing about this movie, I think.  There are individual moments that are shocking and scary, but the true horror of this movie comes from the big picture concept.  There's this great bit where Matthew and Elizabeth are captured, and one of the pod people starts to explain about how they are refugees from a dead planet.  He is about to go deeper in his exposition, but he gets interrupted when the two decide to take this soliloquy as an opportunity to get the jump on their captors, strangling one of them and locking the other in a freezer before they rush off to their escape.  It's a great moment that works as a comment on the futility of ever speculating on where these creatures came from, what they want from us, etc.  At this point in the invasion the reasons are no longer important.  The only thing that matters is survival.

That idea of futility is the truly terrifying thing about this movie.  The risk and paranoia that comes from the fact that any of these people you see could be one of "them" is understandably scary and exciting, but I think the crux of the horror here comes from the fact that you can't change any of it; there's no winning this one.  None of our protagonists knows anything about these body snatching alien plants, they're just picking it up as they go, and each minute that goes by another human comes under their control.  They are massively outnumbered and all they can do is run, but to where?  They don't know how widespread this invasion is.  They don't know how long it's been going on.
There's this great scene near the end where Matthew and Elizabeth, both fighting off the effects of a sedative, have narrowly avoided being discovered and find themselves in a shipyard.  Matthew plans to stow them away on a boat so they can at least get out of San Francisco, maybe warn the human race.  He leaves Elizabeth to hide herself as he runs to some massive cargo ship to see if there's a way on, but he has to stop and turn back when he sees that the ship's cargo is just giant pallets full up with more of the alien plants responsible.  It's at that moment where we feel the weight of defeat along with Matthew.  Any attempt to survive truly is futile, and humanity is unquestionably doomed.  I like that kind of stuff.  I just wish they'd gotten to that bit sooner.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Gotham s01e01 "Pilot"

No one was expecting this to be good, right?  Because it's not.  Gotham, as far as I can tell from this pilot episode, is not good.  But that doesn't mean it isn't any fun.

I guess I should further clarify the above by explaining that Gotham is fun for me, and I think your enjoyment of this show will depend on what you like in your Batman.  Batman is a character who's gone through many varied interpretations in his 75 years, all of them pretty valid.  True, this show's whole driving thrust is that this is Gotham before there was a Batman, but anyone who's seen a Batman movie or read a Batman comic knows that Gotham the city is intrinsically linked to Batman.  One's take on Batman typically aligns with one's take on Gotham.

Personally, I'm of the mind that one can and should learn to appreciate all forms of Batman/Gotham.  From back alley vigilante lurking in the darkness to hairy chested sci-fi jet setter or caped fascist, I think most every read on Batman has meaning and every read enriches the other.  Same for Gotham, a city that contains everything from dirty urban hellholes to high society gala venues.  So what can we make of Gotham's take on Batman and Gotham?

The first thing I noticed about Gotham was the set design.  It's gaudy and soundstagey and it's not even trying to look like a real city.  It acts as a sort of counterpoint to Christopher Nolan's last two Batman movies, which used actual city locations to evoke that feeling that Gotham could be any major city in America as long as it rhymed with "Schmicago" or "Schmew York."  The sets look very much like how a kid who reads a lot of Batman comics would imagine places in a city.  That first scene in the Gotham police station, for example.  It looks like a police station that's just one giant room filled with desks and ringing phones while jail cells line the walls.  I can't think of a single police station that would ever want a set up like that.  Really if anything, Gotham's set design is evocative of Tim Burton's Batman, with just a small touch of that Schumacher flair (read: gaudiness).

The set design is really just the start of it.  It's emblematic of the hefty doses of camp that lace the writing and performances.  It being the pilot episode, Gotham went in hard on trying to sell you on who these characters are and what their motivations mean to the story they want to tell, going so far as to have characters explaining to other characters who they are.  Jim Gordon tells Harvey Bullock, "You're a cynic," Barbara Kean tells Renee Montoya that Jim Gordon is "The most honest man I've ever met," Oswald Cobblepot hates being called "The Penguin," Bullock tells Ed Nygma to quit it with the riddles, etc.  This cycle of characters introducing themselves to each other is pretty much the meat of this episode, and it reeks of desperation.  Every new scene brings new characters into the fold, saying their own names with a weighted significance, as if to say "Yeah?  You get it?  You know this character right?  That character you know?  Wow you're so smart and good at Gotham."  They held back on turning their heads, looking directly into the camera, and giving us a knowing wink, but man they may as well have.  It felt like all of those little passing references to the source material that you see in superhero movies just got crammed into one episode and they were like "OK, I guess we'll turn this into a series."  "But these are just references to comic book things, shouldn't we actually build an interesting plot too?"  "Yeah sure we'll figure it out later AFTER WE'RE DONE COUNTING ALL THAT SWEET CASHEESH, RIGHT?? UP TOP!"

As groan-inducing as all the introductory clever name-offs were, I felt the performances were all on point.  I've seen some people on twitter saying the acting is bad, but I think they're missing the degree of camp that's going into these performances.  None of these actors seem like they are taking any of this too seriously, and it's not like they don't care about it, but as a result what we end up seeing are some more playfully outrageous performances from most everyone.  This isn't bad acting in the sense that Carey Mulligan is a bad actor (sit down, she is).  It's camp.  You see it in Ed Nygma's delight at how clever he is, you see it in Mario Pepper's battered wife clutching her robe and speaking in a performative Tennesse Williams by way of Broadway hysterical woman style, you see it in Jada Pinkett Smith making a clear actor's choice when she does a little wig adjust after putting a thug in his place.

The one exception seems to be Ben McKenzie as Jim Gordon.  McKenzie kind of has the one thing that he does, which is being a seething good guy with perpetually gritted teeth.  It's fine, it works, especially considering the idea that Jim Gordon is supposed to be incorruptible and surrounded by lunatics.  In that way it provides this interesting and, at times, funny contrast within Gotham, dropping McKenzie's typical serious TV cop in the middle of a bunch of campy overacting.  I think it's interesting because whenever we see a Batman story, each one of his villains seem to be reflective on the type of Batman story we're getting, and Batman is crazy enough to face them head-on every time, but in a Jim Gordon story with Batman's villains, he is entirely out of his element.  Gotham reflects this point in particular by casting serious man McKenzie alongside the likes of Donal Logue, wise cracking vampire sidekick to Stephen Dorff, noted bumbling sit-com dad, and perhaps at one time TV's best answer to Jeff Bridges.

The Gotham City of Gotham as evidenced by its villains, is one that is informed by its gritty predecessors, but is not beholden to them.  Gotham works within the trappings of a crime show to foster the more outrageous and campy leanings of its cast.  It doesn't seem to be working as the producers may have intended, but what we have is something more interesting than a simple "Phantom Menace, but it's Batman," although when it falls flat it does feel like this show may just be "Phantom Mencace, but it's Batman."  It's far from a perfect show, but Gotham doesn't need to be.  It never needed to be because people were going to watch it no matter what; that's how nerd consumer culture works.  What's nice about Gotham is that it doesn't try to be perfect and it doesn't try to follow in the footsteps of something like Nolan's Batman movies-- it's just trying to have some fun.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Hideo Kojima (and a bunch of other people)
PS4 (and maybe other places? I'm not sure.  I played it on Tony's PS4)

I've never really written about video games before, and I haven't really played much of anything made after the Playstation 2, so please bear with me here.  I'm sorry if anything below is totally obvious to people who've been playing and thinking about video games for years.  I just wanted to write about this game because it's probably the worst I've ever felt playing a video game.

P.T., as I understand it, is a playable teaser for Hideo Kojima's upcoming game Silent Hills, the latest entry in the Silent Hill series of horror/survival games.  In the game you play from the 1st-person perspective of some anonymous man who wakes up in a room and explores a hallway in a house, possibly his own.  The controls are simple: you use one control stick to move, the other to look around and to look in closer at something.

The initial fear comes in quickly as you listen to a radio broadcast about a man who recently murdered his wife and child.  You are alone, exploring a dimly lit hallway.  There's trash scattered everywhere and all you hear is the squeaking sound of a lamp suspended on a chain swinging back and forth above the foyer.  When you finally come across a door that you can open, you pass through it and you end up in the exact same place you began in the hallway.

Now, I understand if uncanny circular floorplans aren't exactly your idea of horror, but don't worry-- it only gets worse.  I'll try to skip past detailing the rest of the awful, horrible things that you're subjected to (a quick look through the "PT" or "playable teaser" tag on tumblr or a search for walk throughs on youtube will help you out there), but "it only gets worse" is something that I feel is an accurate description of my experience playing through it.

I think that's what I want to get at here: games as an immersive experience.  I'm regularly impressed whenever I see new games these days and how meticulously they've built the world of the game that you'll probably only be spending a couple hours a night on, but P.T. is probably the best recent example of a truly immersive experience and it just takes place in a dimly lit hallway.  P.T. achieves this by creating a very real atmosphere that takes advantage of both the visuals and the sounds of the game, but it's also very dependent on the horror and mystery of it all to compel you to keep playing.

After playing through the first couple of loops of the hallway, I set my controller down and decided to stop because it was too scary.  And nothing really even happens during those first couple of loops aside from the terror of being trapped in some sort of strange hallway and this horrible feeling that you aren't alone and that something is going to be waiting for you when you turn the corner.  It only gets worse.

I came back to the game the next night, convinced that since I already knew what was going to happen for those first couple of loops, it would be less scary.  It worked for a little bit; I was feeling pretty brave and confident, exploring the hallway and taking my time looking at all the picture frames and details, but once I figured out what to do next I got scared all over again.  The game is not above using a very effective, cheap scare.

When I think about the scares in P.T. I can easily see those things working just as well for a horror movie.  However, what I think made P.T. a scarier experience for me was that all of these things happen as a direct result of your participation.  With a horror movie, you're always watching a movie.  You're always a step removed from the action that you see.  With an immersive horror game like P.T., you are involved in the fear via the character you're controlling.  This is all happening because you are in a way actively choosing to experience it.  In a horror movie you can shout all you want, but those characters are still going to turn the corner and see something scary.  In P.T. you can shout all you want, but you're the one who's still pressing forward on the controller, ready to look behind that door that just mysteriously opened a crack.  It's that sort of agency and involvement that really makes you feel awful.  You know you shouldn't look behind that door, but you're going to do it anyway.  It only gets worse.

As I was playing, my stomach started hurting from all this anxiety I was putting myself through.  My entire body was clenched, ready to just toss the controller away and bolt out of the living room.  Actively managing my body's fight or flight response was entirely exhausting, but there I was, forcing myself to keep on going, to keep subjecting myself to whatever evils lurked in that awful hallway and that horrible bathroom.  Everything was terrifying and you had to figure out little puzzles to get to the next part, which, on top of everything else, was inevitably just a return to where you started, but somehow scarier.  That was one of the most interesting things about this game, I think; the progression of the kinds of fear and terror that you experience as the game goes on.  It starts with the fear that comes with not knowing what the situation is; who/where you are, what you're doing here, etc.  Then it continues to the more uncanny fear related to doors not opening to where they should,  and things not being in their place; that sort of purposely nonsensical architecture akin to what Kubrick was doing in The Shining or in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves.  Later on we get more traditional horror elements like ghosts and murder and blood, but those fears of the unknown and the uncanny remain and seep into the rest of it.  Different horror elements are introduced as the game progresses, but they never disappear.  You enter a door and end up back at the beginning, but those horror elements stick around and build on each other, allowing your own fears to grow and, like the best horror, carry over into your own life.  Walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night is always the worst after watching/reading/playing a really good horror experience.

Probably my favorite part of this game came towards the end of my playing experience.  The last half of the game, maybe even more than that, I played while Tessa and our friend Tony gave me tips about the puzzles and what to do next.  None of us had actually played through the entire thing, so with me behind the controls, we set out into that darkened hallway and screamed at every scare around the corner.  I doubt this is what Kojima had in mind when he said he envisioned seeing people around the world having to collaborate to solve the final puzzle, but you make due with what you have.  It was nice playing the game together and sharing the same feelings of terror and dread, knowing that we were all hating every step, but still compelled to keep on going.  That's the kind of shared experience I never typically associated with online gaming groups.  There's something to be said about being in the same room and being scared together and yelling at each other and solving a problem together.  I don't know exactly how that ties in with P.T. being an immersive horror game, but maybe I'll take it as the one big sigh of relief I had during my experience.

Anyway, P.T. was a really interesting and terrifying gameplay experience.  It's nice to see Kojima's odd, brechtian affectations applied to a horror game, as it seems to be a genre of games that really thrives on those tics.  I was happy to have played it, but I was happier that it was all over.  At least until whenever Silent Hills comes out.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

thoughts on Multiversity and being okay with things moving on without you

The Multiversity #1
Grant Morrison, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado
DC Comics

I used to be really into punk rock music.  Like most kids in high school, it was the only kind of music that I thought really spoke to me.  Today, I still like to listen to punk rock but it's with a sort of detached, almost academic kind of fascination.  It no longer really speaks to me and my worldview so much as it makes me recall a time when I really believed in this music.  This is all a roundabout way to help you understand me when I say that I read that first issue of Grant Morrison's Multiversity the way I listen to punk rock today.

I liked that first issue of Multiversity.  I think Grant Morrison is great at these kinds of grand, multiversal, ensemble superhero narratives.  It was fun, and I think more superhero event epics could benefit from this approach of making everything as big as possible.  However, my problem with it is that it seems that we've seen most of this before.  I understand that that's partly by design.  Morrison enjoys making call-backs to his previous work and he seems to be interested in dealing with a certain set of themes in all his work, most especially in his superhero epics from DC Comics, but another part of it is that even all of these big ideas where he sort of just mushes together a bunch of sci-fi/spiritual/mystical-sounding concepts together to make things seem so big and crazy and wild and connected just all felt kind of routine.  I don't have the issue at hand right now so I'm paraphrasing, but there's that part where Captain Carrot is telling Earth-23 Superman about how the House of Heroes is orbiting through bleed space or something, and for all the sci-fi elements in his explanations about how the House of Heroes works, it kind of all just amounts to "This door won't be in the same place in five minutes."  Cool.  It's a place where everything shifts around because of weird science.  Yeah, I'm familiar with that.  Got it.  I'm being a little paltry here, but it's only because I think I'm just disappointed that I don't get that enthusiastic charge from all that sci-fi gibberish speak that I used to get when I was reading Morrison's comics in High School and College.

The rest of the issue feels like that as well.  Parallel Earths!  I know.  Analogues of familiar superheroes from other comics!  Yeah, I see.  From other publishers!  Right, like Image used to do.  Those guys are in there too sort of!  Yes.  There's a spaceship that goes through the space in between universes and it's controlled by music!  Yeah, we saw that in the last Grant Morrison event comic.  It was cool.  METATEXT!  I live on the internet.

For a while I was wondering if I even still like superhero comics.  I'm more of a grump about it these days, but I do still like this stuff.  I just don't get the same high I used to from it.  Multiversity itself is good so far, it's doing what it's meant to be doing, and a few years ago I would have been really excited by all of this.  I think somewhere along the way my tastes and sensibilities have changed, and I don't respond the same way to the same things like I used to.  Maybe it's because of over-exposure?  Like maybe somewhere along the way we all got over exposed to superheroes saturating the media and the weird metatext themes of superheroes being in the real world just became the actual text and it wasn't so weird to think about these things anymore.  Sometimes it feels like all you see on the comics internet these days is superheroes in the real world or movie casting news about the latest superhero movie or cosplay about superheroes and the last thing you are going to be excited about is how there's a Savage Dragon analogue in a DC event comic.  That's fine.  That happens.  I think the mistake lies in thinking another superhero comic is the answer to that problem.  Superhero comics can't save you from superheroes.  I think my problem was approaching a new superhero comic and thinking that it was the kind of thing that would make me feel like how I felt when these things were still so fresh and new and vital to me.  All a new superhero comic has anymore is more superheroes.

Anyway I give it Fifty Two (52) Bright Shining Earths out of an Entire Universe of Possibilities, and I'm going to continue to read along because I still listen to punk rock and watch skateboard videos for some reason.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Christopher Nolan

When I first saw The Dark Knight Rises, I walked out angry about how long and awful it was, but after a rewatch, I find that I've softened on this movie a bit.  It's still a kind of garbage movie, but I found there were definitely some things to like about it.  It's weird to look at it this way because it's the last of the three movies, but it seems to me like The Dark Knight Rises is like a bridge between the aesthetics of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.  With Batman Begins I got the sense that Nolan et al weren't entirely sure what they wanted the series to be, so they put out the realistic approach that they wanted, but left themselves open to the more fantastic elements of the superhero genre: Batman's crazy tech, the League of Assassins, Scarecrow's fear gas, etc.  When they saw that people seemed to be responding to the realism of it, The Dark Knight capitalized on that and pushed the realism further, giving us something more akin to a crime movie.  The Dark Knight Rises splits the difference, keeping the realism while still remaining comfortable with the more fantastic elements that wouldn't have been out of place in Batman Begins.  The League of Assassins is back, Bane's long game plot to destroy Gotham while Bruce Wayne watches is an insanely comic book super villain-esque plot, we get a Catwoman team up along the way, Batman fakes his own death, and THERE'S A FUCKING BATMAN STATUE TO HONOR HIS MEMORY!  So how did this Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of Nolan tones all go so wrong?

First, let's talk about the best thing in the movie because I think it leads pretty well into the worst thing about it.  Bane.  Bane is the best thing in this movie.  "But oh that atrocious Sean Connery impression through a gas mask voice!" you lament, as you clutch your pearls, and a prominently displayed piece marked "REVERANCE TO THE SOURCE MATERIAL" dangles in between your fat old-time political cartoon fingers.  I softly cradle you in my arms because I remember that I too was once like you, and again I say it: Bane is the best thing in this movie.  Tom Hardy and Christopher Nolan create a version of Bane that is still very much true to what I think is the core of the character despite the determined exclusion of his trademark enthusiasm for steroids.  Bane is a man who has the strength, determination, and will of Batman.  He gets the jump on Batman in this movie because at this point in Nolan's timeline Batman's pretty much quit the game.  He's out of touch and he's gotten soft.  Would Bane still have gotten ahead of Batman at the top of his game in The Dark Knight?  Yeah, probably.  That's what villains do in these things -- they get ahead of the hero and the hero learns a lesson.  Moreover, while Bane is a man who is driven by an ideology, Batman is driven by a very vague notion of justice.  It seems Batman just hasn't really given much thought as to the scale of that justice, and his role has been largely reactionary, while Bane's message is clear and proactive: the status quo is corruption and in order to fix it, it must be dismantled: with a nuclear bomb.

Bane's plot to destroy Gotham is a great use of the over-the-top scheming that should be standard from a SUPER VILLAIN, but it's played straight enough that it doesn't seem too out of place with the tone that Nolan goes for.  Tom Hardy's performance is the kind of camp that perfectly offsets the self-seriousness of the movie around him as well as working to establish the idea that Bane is also a charismatic character.  There's a reason why Bane was able to build himself an army, and it's because he's a likable, imposing figure who is offering change through revolution to Gotham's long-suffering and forgotten.  Tom Hardy makes Bane look like he's having a great time overturning the status quo.  Perhaps Bane doesn't exactly delight in all the murdering like Heath Ledger's Joker seemed to, but he's certainly feeling comfortable in his convictions.  It's all a part of the job for Bane, and while it would be tempting to think that Bane loves his job, I think it's more that he is his job.  Bane exists as the primary agent of his cause and as little else, which is what makes him so intimidating.

Now as I understood it, Bane's whole end game was to destroy Gotham and make Batman watch, thus breaking him completely.  The class revolt that Bane triggers is really just a step along the way to detonating a bomb in Gotham, a way to provoke chaos and fear and bring out the worst in people, which means one of the more interesting pieces of this movie-- Gotham's violent class war-- is largely just set dressing, right?  I believe at the time of this movie's release we were in the thick of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the idea of class war was certainly lurking in the American consciousness, so it makes sense the Nolan and company would try to work that in somehow to give their finale a little more timely relevance, but I think that's exactly the problem with it: it's a great idea that just feels tacked on without any actual thought or development.  But as it stands in the movie we have, the promising and relevant idea of a class uprising is turned into a couple of cartoonish street riot scenes and then a backdrop for the third act of the movie.

It's also a pretty confusing statement that Nolan is putting out there.  I'm not sure about what exactly he's trying to say with this one.  I mean, speaking as one of America's 99%, Bane's message is appealing to me.  Maybe we should just dismantle capitalism and tear apart the Upper East Side for being complicit in a system that actively works against 99% of its people, right? It doesn't seem like it's been doing any favors for us lately.  I guess all the murder and violence is wrong, but Bane's message is resonant, despite it being just another step along the way in his mission to destroy Gotham.  If Bane's the bad guy we're supposed to be rooting against, then why is his message so appealing?  And what about Batman?  Isn't Batman the good guy that we're rooting for?  When Batman sees that Gotham is falling apart, and it's not entirely because of a super-villain's plot what's his response?  He saves the city from blowing up, fakes his own death, and decides to go on a permanent Italian vacation.  I thought Batman's whole shit was that Gotham was his city.  You saved the city from a nuclear bomb, but what happens afterward?  Everyone in Gotham decides they should all just pretend it never happened and go back to this system whose incredible flaws and corruption were just exposed to the entire world?  Wouldn't that period of rebuilding be at least as chaotic?  Wouldn't Batman want to stick around for that just to make sure nobody else needs to get hurt?  So I guess I'm still wondering what Nolan wants us to think about this.  He presents these viewpoints with the idea that there is nuance, but he never follows through in exploring that, favoring instead a strange transition from the interesting gray area of a violent class war to the more easily opposable and offensive marshall law.  Then he caps it all off with a black and white "Batman saves the day and everything's fine let's honor him with a statue" ending because it's his big finale and we've got to have some kind of closure.

Bane's message of changing the system seems justified despite it just being a part of his villainous plot, and sure, maybe it's going about it in the wrong way, but Batman's not out there to change anything at all.  Batman is fighting for everything to be just the same as it ever was, and as soon as he gets the chance he leaves it all behind.  It's that kind of inability to commit to a stance that takes an interesting idea, "how would Batman deal with class uprising?" and turns it into something frustrating with no clear payoff.  Further, it reflects these movies' inability to decide what they want to be.  Batman Begins wanted a grounded, realistic take on a concept that is inherently unrealistic, The Dark Knight was less a crime movie and more a movie embarrassed by its source material, and The Dark Knight Rises tries to make a relevant political statement without actually taking any kind of position on the issue they bring into question.  And it's not even one of those things where it's up to the audience to decide what the movie means, since either side of the argument doesn't ever really get a chance to develop.  Bane's incitement of class warfare is incidental to his mission and politics, and Batman ultimately abandons any political responsibility after he fakes his death.

I guess I wouldn't find the confusing politics of this movie so frustrating if Nolan didn't take up most of the first act trying to establish class disparity as a theme in this movie.  Catwoman has a little threatening monologue that she whispers to Bruce Wayne, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt pretty much gets Batman back into the game by shaming him about how he doesn't even know about what's happening to the real people of Gotham anymore on account of his locking himself away in his mansion.  Couple all of that with the idea that one of the popularly cynical takes on Batman is "Billionaire who beats up poor people in the streets," and after the first act, I'm getting pretty excited to see how Nolan addresses this facet of Batman's character, but by the end of the movie that idea's just kind of quietly swept under the rug, like Bruce Wayne's bum knee.  At least it didn't feel like every character was just explaining the entire movie to each other like in The Dark Knight.

Anyway, there was stuff I liked about this movie too, I swear.  Like Bane.  And that part where Batman finally comes back on the scene on his motorcycle and he just kind of fucks things up.  Also the part where Batman is in the bottom of the pit with a broken back and the only way out is through total determination and believing in yourself, and Batman's like, "um duh."  I remember people talking about how that part was boring, but I guess I've just always been down with people aggressively training and believing in themselves.  Because I'm an AMERICAN.  Oh yeah and SCARECROW COURT.  Scarecrow court was the best thing since Bane.  More Scarecrow Court.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Christopher Nolan's First Two Batman Movies

Batman Begins (2005) Christopher Nolan
The Dark Knight (2008) Christopher Nolan

I liked Batman Begins a lot when I first saw it, and I think part of the reason why it was so well received was because we hadn't really seen a take on Batman quite like this in the movies.  By 2005, when that movie came out, I'm sure comic book fans were pretty accustomed to seeing a self-serious take on Batman, but for the movies it still felt exciting enough to have Batman be a grumpy street-level vigilante.  However, people seem to gloss over the fact that Batman Begins still deals with some pretty goofy elements.  Most of the first third of the movie is about Bruce Wayne joining up with  the League of Assassins, and the endgame of the bad guys is to put fear poison in Gotham's water supply and then use some wacky macguffin to evaporate all the water so that everyone inhales fear gas and goes crazy.  There are more than a few strange elements that are played entirely straight in this movie, but Nolan does a great job of fitting them into this street-level motif that he's pushing.  In fact, out of all three of Nolan's Batman movies, Batman Begins is the most willing to incorporate the more outrageous elements of a comic book superhero into its self-serious, "realistic" take on Batman.

The Dark Knight, on the other hand, pushes self-serious realism even further, keeping the outrageous elements mostly outside of the workings of the plot, and limiting its use to the aesthetics of its villains.  There is very little to distinguish this movie from a crime movie, and it's reflected in the way Nolan shoots scenes as nods to Michael Mann or Ridley Scott.  It's a perfectly valid choice to make, treating a Batman movie as a kind of louder crime movie, and it's the kind of blending that could potentially elevate it above the trappings of either genre, but it is completely hamstrung by Nolan's distrust of his audience.  It seems like every other scene we get a character explaining the thematic weight of what has happened or what is happening.  Typically it's Alfred, sometimes it's Jim Gordon or Lucius Fox, every now and then it's The Joker or Rachel Dawes or Harvey Dent.  We know exactly what everyone's doing and why they're doing it and what it means on the grand stage that Nolan insists he's presenting us with.  I thought this movie was amazing when I first saw it, but this time around I just couldn't get past how all these characters are constantly explaining the movie to you.  I remember a few movie critics online at the time going on about how Nolan crafted a modern Shakespearean tragedy or whatever bullshit, and maybe in some ways that's true, but the most apparent similarity to me is how both Shakespeare and The Dark Knight Rises are big on explaining themselves to you.  It has the components of a great movie, but its inherent distrust of its audience and of itself keeps it from reaching its full potential.  I'm still ride or die with Heath Ledger's Joker, though.

I'll write about The Dark Knight Rises next time because I feel like I may have more to unpack about that movie than these two movies combined?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) Michael Bay

I came into this movie looking for spectacle, and that's what I got.  Shit explodes everywhere.  Shit gets wrecked.  There's an alien bounty hunter robot who can transform his face into a gun and sometimes he transforms into a lamborghini.  My only problem with the spectacle portion of this movie was that the action scenes just seemed flat and uninteresting.  It's always exciting to watch these big fights with tremendous collateral damage, but the fights are mostly gun battles and things being thrown at other things.  I think a big part of the reason is that the movie just wasn't loud enough?  Big action stuff happens and all of the sounds you typically associate with big action (explosions, metal scraping against metal, twisted steel tearing apart, shattering glass, smoldering fire, etc.) are muffled under this boring-ass score that I guess is played to make it all seem more epic and emotional?  The movie is about giant alien robots fighting each other.  That's not typically a topic that needs a score to manipulate us into gawking at the screen in awe like idiots, and as far as emotion goes in those cases, really the only emotion is something along the lines of "I hope X character survives this."  The score was boring and unnecessary, but it hurts the movie when it's actually holding back that visceral terror and excitement that you come to this sort of movie for.

Here's another thing that bugged me: that boyfriend character.  Wow that boyfriend character was a dipshit, wasn't he?  And just confusing tonally, I think.  In one scene he's arrogantly explaining to his girlfriend's father about how it's legally okay for him, a 20 year old man, to be in a relationship with a 17 year old girl because of this weird Texas law, and in another scene he's freaked out and surrendering to the bad guys.  I understand that people can experience all sorts of complex changes in emotion/character, but this was not one of them.  And on top of all that, we're meant to root for this asshole who's openly talking about fucking Mark Wahlberg's daughter right to his face.  The whole relationship dynamic of Wahlberg trying to protect his daughter while her boyfriend is trying to surpass her father as a protector/provider is a Michael Bay movie theme that's pretty gross and about as opposite of a feminist viewpoint as you can get, so here are some ideas I had about fixing this problem:

1) Boyfriend and TJ Miller get firebombed by the bounty hunter.  This allows Wahlberg and daughter to go through some guilt and come out of it with a stronger father-daughter relationship, and they can carry on with whatever bullshit they get up to while tagging along with the Transformers.  This also rids us of two annoying, unnecessary characters.

2) Make the boyfriend just another shitty 17 year old.  There is no reason for anybody in this movie, or in life, to be 20 years old.

3)  Replace boyfriend character with some other Autobot.  You get another shiny robot to look at with none of the concerns about statutory rape!

The other supporting characters weren't that much better either.  All of the Transformers who weren't Optimus Prime or Lockdown were these sort of two-dimensional, vaguely racist things that are pretty much just quipping over every scene they're in.  It's kind of like how Mystery Science Theater 3000 works, but with the actual characters of the movie, and it's not very funny.  Oh, also are we supposed to give a shit about Bumblebee?  That guy sucks.  Every Transformer in this movie has this short fuse and they're always hitting each other or yelling at each other.  And, I mean, I get team dynamics in these sorts of movies: not everyone gets along.  Fine.  But the way the Autobots are always fucking around, it makes them seem like a bunch of hyped up fiver year olds.  It's annoying, and again I think I'm gonna partially blame the sound mixing.  Everything sounds like it was added in after, and yes I know that that was probably the case, but it shouldn't sound like that.  My understanding of sound mixing is that you try to make it sound as natural as you can, as if these are actually people talking to each other or yelling from across a space, not like they just dropped in the recordings of people doing these voices in the same sound booth or whatever.

The human characters are fine (with the exception of the boyfriend who is human garbage).  It's typical Michael Bay big action, government coverup roles: Mark Wahlberg is the working class dad, Nicola Peltz is the daughter whom everyone insists is smarter/more charismatic than what we actually see, Stanley Tucci is the whacked-out genius, and Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver are the tireless government hounds tasked with standing in the way of our heroes.  They're all likable enough, but I think Wahlberg and Tucci really steal the show here.  Wahlberg hasn't lost any of the muscle from his role in Pain and Gain and it makes it pretty enjoyable to watch him cast as a sort of meathead scientist inventor with a dream.  That extra muscle gives him a little more credibility when you throw him into action scenes where he's zipping around in a little spaceship or getting chased down the side of a Hong Kong apartment building, leaping from air conditioner to air conditioner.  Tucci's character is interesting for a couple of reasons.  One: it's Tucci, and that guy is great at inhabiting a role while still clearly having fun with it.  Two: I read his character as a logical endpoint of a Steve Jobs-type of executive.  He's created a facade of someone who is improving the world by creating ubiquitous technology, but inside he's a greedy control freak, ready to take over every industry in the world with evil technology.  And it is evil technology, as one of the plot points is how the programming for this new transforming tech is infused with Megatron's evil personality.  It's an interesting thing seeing Bay ham-fistedly sneak in a tech industry critique into a movie that more easily approaches new technology as a facet of the military industrial complex.

That being said, this still feels like a post-9/11 movie.  And I mean that in the sense that this movie could have fit right in with anything that was coming out most any time during the George W. Bush administration.  The movie takes place after a devastating tragedy that's changed the face of America.  In the previous movie Chicago is destroyed, resulting in a changed landscape of human-alien (read: Transformers) relations.  All Transformers, including the good guys, are hunted down and killed, while the rest of the world mournfully remembers the tragedy of Chicago.  We see billboards and notices everywhere to be a good American and report any alien activity.

Though I do admit, a good majority of the plot is contingent on a distrust of shadowy government figures, so maybe I'm thinking it's operating more under that conservative viewpoint that big government is not to be trusted and that a real American is one who lives by his own rules, on his own land, creating and working with his hands, and providing for his family however he can.  Mark Wahlberg's character is kind of a modern conservative dream; an inventor standing up for himself and not letting the government get the best of him.  Bay plays into this with shots of a pastoral Texas landscape and a scene where Wahlberg is literally using a baseball bat to defend his land from a big city realtor.  Bay has always had a tendency to include grand, sweeping shots of American landscapes or small town folk and carefully placed American flags.  His are the kinds of movies that are unabashedly American and unable to function as anything else.

The other side of the coin of Bay's American vision is its direct relationship with consumerism.  Product placement in this movie is pretty blatant, from Beats speakers to a bus covered in a giant Victoria's Secret ad to a pretty funny instance of Mark Wahlberg crashing a spaceship into the Chicago streets and destroying a Bud Light delivery truck.  Tucci's character is the figurehead of American consumerism in 2014.  He runs a company not unlike Apple that provides sleek, stylish technology products for the average consumer that humanity has come to depend on.  I'm not entirely sure about whether Tucci's character acts as an indictment of the modern tech industry.  I don't think it's wrong to label Bay as a capitalist, so maybe Tucci's character and his company isn't so much an indictment as it is a sort of morality lesson about greed and a reminder to be true to yourself and your products and branding?

Speaking of branding, I've learned that a lot of people who don't care for Bay's take on the Transformers characters are partly upset about how these characters don't act like the characters from the beloved cartoon and comics.  In the case of the Transformers that have the misfortune of not being Optimus Prime or Lockdown, we have robot characters who are at worst walking racist stereotypes played for laughs, and at best catch-phrase spewing action pieces.  I understand the frustration there if your favorite character outside of the movies was one of these guys, but I don't really get all the hate that this version of Optimus Prime gets (at least from the corners of the internet that I've been privy to).  I was never that into the cartoon or comics as a kid, but from what I gather Optimus Prime is pretty much the infallible leader, always doing the right thing.  For the most part, he is exactly this in this movie, with a difference that I found to be the most interesting part of his character: Optimus Prime is fed up with humanity.  And I don't know, maybe I'm missing some key part of being a Transformers scholar and fan here, but it made sense to me, and it was the thing I liked most about his character.  He's a good guy who does the right thing, but he's fed up and going to complain about it.  He has every right to, considering a whole lot of his friends were killed in an all out war, and also after the war his surviving friends were hunted down and killed by the people he was trying to save.  I'd be upset too.  I probably wouldn't even bother helping humanity after something like that, but Optimus Prime helps out anyway because he's a better guy than all of us.  I think we can allow him to grumble about it.

This movie was a good way to spend a part of an afternoon, and I'm glad I saw it, but I don't need to put myself through any of that again.  At least not until the next movie where it looks like Optimus Prime is out to fight God.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

2014 Movies: I've lost direction

I haven't written about movies in a while but here's what I've seen since the last time:

Mission: Impossible (1996) Brian De Palma
Jaws (1975) Steven Spielberg
Wet Hot American Summer (2001) David Wain
Dirty Dancing (1987) Emile Ardolino
Grand Piano (2014) Eugenio Mira
Blue Crush (2002) John Stockwell
The Great Muppet Caper (1981) Jim Henson
The Godfather (1972) Francis Ford Coppola
A League of Their Own (1992) Penny Marshall
Pumping Iron (1977) Robert Fiore, George Butler
Wish Upon A Star (1996) Blair Treu
13 Going On 30 (2004) Gary Winick
The Raid 2 (2014) Gareth Evans

I liked all of these movies. The ones in bold were ones I saw for the first time.

Sorry I didn't write about these this time, but maybe some other time? Hopefully I can get back on movie writing soon, I've realized it's pretty fun to do.  

Oh, I also saw all of The Fast and the Furious series, but I'm still telling myself I'm going to write about that at some point.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Uncanny Horror in The Drifting Classroom or, "WHY ARE WE SCREAMING??"

The Drifting Classroom
Kazuo Umezu

Kazuo Umezu is known for being one of Japan’s most influential horror manga artists, but his simple linework and cartooning style is not typically what one would associate with the look of Horror Manga.  In The Drifting Classroom, Umezu is able to achieve an exciting level of horror through a carefully crafted story that perfectly utilizes his own cartooning style.  As with all great comic works, art and writing inform each other, and Umezu is able to craft a singular vision for his ambitious story by ensuring that his story and his art strengthen each other and the themes of horror and growth in his longform manga.

The Drifting Classroom centers around Sho Takamatsu, unwittingly thrust into the position of leading his schoolmates through the wasteland of the future world.  He’s a good kid, a little rough around the edges, but at his heart he is brave and selfless.  His journey from selfish kid to responsible leader is played out across the eleven volumes of The Drifting Classroom, and it’s the kind of character arc that aims to be identifiable to the reader.  We have all been in Sho Takamatsu’s place, perhaps not under such supernatural/science fictional stresses, but Sho’s emotional development is meant to mirror our own journey to maturity.

Kazuo Umezu’s designs for each of the kids in Yamato Elementary are fairly uncomplicated, but the simple designs belie a true strength in cartooning that comes out in their juxtaposition to the more detailed and horrible elements of the post-apocalyptic setting.  Mouths hang open in simple circles of disbelief and brows furrow as the children encounter terrifying threats rendered in dirty, scaly detail both within and beyond the gates of their school.  Umezu effectively uses this juxtaposition of the simple with the more detailed as a tactic of identification and, conversely, alienation.  The simple designs and cartooning encourage a sense of identification with the reader.  We are meant to recognize something of ourselves in these children, and Umezu’s purposeful sparseness with their look makes them open for us to project both ourselves and our friends on them.  This capacity for identification draws in the readers and better positions them to empathize with the terror the characters feel upon encountering the monsters and strange environments outside in the wasteland of this future earth.  

The monsters and environments, on the other hand, are drawn with a specificity that imposes a feeling of otherness to their appearance.  These are all things that have never been been seen in real life, and as such they must look the part.  Their detailed and distinct appearances leave no question about their otherness, a quality that is further augmented by the juxtaposition with the straightforward designs of the children, and because we’ve been drawn into identifying with these children, the horror at seeing these creatures comes from the alienation we experience when we are exposed to such a strongly confrontational visual representation of “otherness.”  One of the main sources of abject terror in The Drifting Classroom is that the adversary doesn’t look like us, they don’t look like anything we’ve ever seen, and that nothing in this world is familiar anymore.  Umezu is playing into some very primal fears of otherness and alienation, primal fears that embody the kill-or-be-killed nature of this new world, and he does this by allowing us to create an internal logic to interpret his art-- namely that simple, familiar looking things like the kids of Yamato Elementary are meant to be reflections ourselves, and that anything that is drawn in much darker detail is meant to signify unfamiliarity and hostility.

However, this internal logic that we are meant to follow gets flipped on its head in later volumes when the adversary becomes not only the monsters outside the gates, but also the children inside who disagree with Sho, namely Otomo.  He is drawn just like any of the other kids, and he is also a part of the group of survivors in this future world, but his violent opposition to the cause of unity reveals him to be just as deadly as any giant monster.  Umezu does this to further reinforce the idea that no one is safe and that danger is everywhere, even in those we trust.  That Sho and Otomo eventually are able to work out their differences despite many bloody battles speaks to a message of hope that Umezu holds to amidst this landscape of fear.

It’s important to note that the terror of the children is not the entire focal point of The Drifting Classroom.  While The Drifting Classroom does act as an allegory of the trials of adolescence, Umezu also takes time to shift his focus to Sho’s Mother.  While the children are trapped in a desolate future, Sho’s mother is trapped in her own time, unable to help her son.  Sho’s supernatural connection to her (aside from being a convenient plot device) effectively sustains her pain and grief, creating a portrait of the desperation you would feel if you were in a position of being helpless to aid those closest to you.  That she can’t simply mourn her son is its own abject kind of horror, parallel to the grief of each of the students of Yamato Elementary.  Her connection to her son adds a level of frustration to her pain; She knows her son is out there somewhere, but no one will believe her, a feeling that is consistent with Umezu’s tactics of forcing you to wonder what you would do in this character’s place.  Umezu is again using the idea of identification or empathy as a tactic for evoking horror in his story, and in some respects the problems of Sho’s mother reflect those of Sho himself.  Sho’s mother is in a world that feels unfamiliar to her, a world where her son is dead but she can still hear her voice and no one believes her, while Sho and his group are literally in an unfamiliar world where they can only rely on themselves.  Both are helpless, but both still cling to the hope that there is a way to make things right.

By the end of the series we do get something of an explanation as to how the world got this way, and again, it is reflective of Sho’s experience.  The world has been reduced to such a state after lifetimes of humans living recklessly have finally taken their toll on the world.  Sho also once lived his life recklessly without any inkling of responsibility for himself and others.  Being forced into this future wasteland, however, has changed Sho, and as such, when an opportunity to get back home presents itself, Sho instead chooses Yu, the youngest member of their group to go back.  Sho sends him back with the message to change the world for the better, so that they hopefully won’t have to live in the wasteland surrounding them.  In keeping with this message, Sho and the rest of the kids stay in the future, determined to make the earth habitable once again.  It’s the culmination of the journey of learning responsibility.  Sho has learned responsibility for himself and others through leading his schoolmates through countless dangers, but he has also learned about taking responsibility on a global scale, sending Yu back to help everyone in the past make sure they all learn to take responsibility for their world and the environment.  Umezu’s optimistic ending may seem incongruous with the horrors his characters endured, but even when horrible things were happening, there remained a sense of optimism, that things could change for the better.  The conclusion of the series takes the optimism that had been laying buried beneath the horror and brings it to the forefront of our attention, in turn reflecting what he had been showing us all along in this world full of monsters and disaster: That though there may be darkness and danger, there must always be hope to make the world better.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror)

Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) 
Benjamin Marra
Traditional Comics

Sometimes I think I'm tired of Ben Marra's gimmick, and then I'll crack open a book like Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) and I'll realize that apparently that's not true.  His comics are a lot like Danny McBride's comedy in that regard.  Danny McBride is playing pretty much the same character in almost every movie he does, and when you think about it it's pretty tiresome seeing this same macho, vulgar, fat guy swearing at James Franco or whoever, but what sets Danny McBride aside from the TJ Millers of the world is that Danny McBride is so fucking good at being that guy.  He's so good at it that his repetition becomes less a point against him, and more something you can depend on.

Same with Ben Marra comics.  You know the gimmick: that late-night Skinemax vibe, the aggressive patriotism, crudeness, ridiculous violence, 80's action movie VHS excess, and those ugly little hands tightly grasping switchblades and uzis.  Granted, Marra is a fairly accomplished, classically trained artist, so these comics look the way they do because of an aesthetic choice, and not because of an amateurish necessity, but this aesthetic choice has remained in play for almost all of his comics work.  I think it's understandable that one would experience a sort of fatigue after reading comic after comic after comic after comic full of this.

Maybe it's just because I hadn't read a Ben Marra comic in a while.  I missed out on Sacred Prism's Blades & Lazers, and I think the last one of his I'd read was Ripper & Friends, which I think was more down with conceptually than I was with actually reading it.  I think taking a long break from reading Marra's comics played a part in me enjoying Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror), but that's definitely not the only thing that got me to enjoy this one.What I like most about Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror) is how it feels like watching a kid reenact a shitty 80's action movie from a video store's leftover pile.  I like how much joy Marra seems to be getting from drawing this comic, as if each panel was drawn just to make him laugh.  Publishing this comic seems like letting us in on his joke.  And while the joke is pretty similar to the joke in his other comics, it's still a lot of fun, and nobody does that joke better right now.

There's this thing that he does where he has characters in panels tersely describing exactly what is happening in that panel.  It's a funny throwback to older comic book storytelling, but he just keeps doing it over and over for page after page, and it never stops being funny.  The more it happens, the funnier it seems to get, and maybe it's this sort of irreverence that had me feeling like this was one of the freshest Ben Marra comics I'd read in years.  I think my fatigue with his comics happened because I just got tired of that exploitation vibe that he creates with his comics.  I get that the exploitative tone is a specific part of the style of story he's telling and poking fun at, but again, I feel like too much can wear thin on a person's tolerance for that sort of thing.  I think the fact that Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War On Terror)'s focus seems to be more on irreverence and absurdity rather than edgy subversiveness is what makes this feel like a fresh Ben Marra comic.  Those exploitative aspects still remain, but they never really seem to be the focus, which allows more of the humor to shine through.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

It Never Happened Again

It Never Happened Again
Sam Alden
Uncivilized Books

This is a new one from Sam Alden and Uncivilized books, collecting two stories, "Hawaii 1997" and "Anime."  I've seen "Hawaii 1997" up on his tumblr, but I'm not sure that I'd seen "Anime" anywhere else, so that was all new to me.

Sam Alden's pencil comics read like a memory that you have and you feel really strongly about, but the details aren't all there.  Like, you know the feeling that you're thinking of, and you remember certain things about this time and place, but everything just feels a bit fuzzy or out of focus.  I suspect that's largely due to the sort of impressionistic art style of his smudged pencil looking characters and the slow movement and sudden gaps in the timing and pacing of his comics.  Reading his comics in this collection feels like slipping in and out of consciousness while the world is happening around you.  It's got that day-dreamy quality to it, but both of these stories feel very real.  Would it be dumb to describe these comics as "shoegaze?"  Sam Alden's comics definitely remind of shoegaze music.

"Hawaii 1997" is the first comic in this collection.  It's about a young kid out visiting Hawaii (on a family vacation? a school trip?  I think the story is pretty vague about the exact circumstances, but that doesn't really matter) who meets and plays with a young girl on the beach at night.  The whole story has a loosely autobiographical feel, like perhaps this is a thing that actually happened to a young Sam Alden, but it carries with it a sort of dream-like quality that allows it to end on a haunting note.  The power of the ending reverberates through beyond even the events of the story, and into what you'd imagine the future would hold for its main character.  It has the resonance and weight of a formative experience, but the inherent dreaminess of the story allows you to wonder if it really happened the way you remember it happening.  The way I was reading it, it doesn't matter if it all happened exactly how you remembered it, what's important is that that feeling you get from your version of that memory is what remains with you.

Alden does some interesting things with his art and pacing in this comic.  He seems to take particular interest in light and shadow, and he's very skilled at playing around with creating negative space and  manipulating our perspective.  For the most part each page is two panels, giving each moment a very quick rhythm, but there's a sequence where Sam is chasing the young girl through some trees, and at that point it becomes one-panel pages, increasing the speed of the comic.  During this sequence of one-panel pages we see the nameless girl as Sam sees her: from behind, always running ahead of him, always out of reach.  Once again, the deeper meaning of this shift in perspective becomes more apparent when considering the consequences of the story's ending.  Sam will always be chasing this girl, a stand-in for a particular feeling, or a moment, or a place, or any number of things, not unlike Ahab's white whale.

"Anime," the next story in the collection, is about a girl named Kiki.  She's twenty years old, working as a tour guide, and saving up to go to Japan, where she thinks her life will improve.  Like "Hawaii 1997," "Anime" is set up with mostly two panel pages, keeping the pacing snappy, but it's the gaps in between each page that do much of the work with regards to making the story move.  Each page moves us to another scene, allowing time to quietly skip ahead, perhaps reflective of Kiki's desire to move forward with her life despite not really having all of the relevant details figured out.

"Anime" is the kind of story that may mean different things to the reader depending on where they're at in life.  Maybe I'm old, but I read Kiki as a someone carrying an underlying air of sadness and gloomy delusion about her.  The story begins with her father admonishing her for not having a plan, in part because it seems that most of the people that she knows from school are leaving town to go to college.  Kiki is stuck working her shitty job showing tourists around her little town, and on top of that it's not even like she's an exceptional tour guide or particularly passionate about it.  She's stuck with her job because she's convinced herself that it's all in service of her greater goal of going to Japan, where she believes everything will be easier for her and she'll fit in better with the people over there than with anybody in her own small town existence.

It becomes pretty clear that Kiki's belief in Japan being a life-changing paradise is unfounded.  Most of her experience is rooted in her love for Anime and teaching herself Japanese via some online courses.  It seems that she's bought into the common Anime premise of the main character (i.e. Kiki) being secretly special, and once that character is able to escape the shackles of their day-to-day existence (giving bike rides to tourists), they can unlock their potential and flourish.  And while that is an admirable and inspirational thing to believe in, Kiki doesn't seem to take into account that in lieu of magic powers or a secret powerful heritage, most people get by through hard work and dedication. Kiki seems to have no interests aside from watching anime and leaving her hometown.

It's a difficult thing, watching this girl believe so strongly in a plan that's just doomed to fail.  Once she gets to Japan, there is no new life.  There are no new friends.  There seems only to be a lot of aimless walking around and staying in to watch more anime, and it seems that Kiki realizes this in her heart.  There's  a sequence where she is in her room in Japan watching anime on her laptop.  Kiki takes off her glasses, then the panels focus on the anime playing, while off panel we see the sounds of Kiki sobbing to herself.

The story seems to end on a scene of ambivalence, as Kiki skips out on her flight back home and instead sits in a convenience store where an employee compliments her on her ability to speak Japanese.  Kiki smiles at the compliment, and for the first time in Japan, she looks happy.  I'd love to believe that the end is a happy new beginning, as Kiki finally gets her life started in Japan, and all she needed was a little encouragement, someone to believe in her in even the smallest way, but the cynical side of me sees this as some convenience store employee just being friendly to the tourist.  After all of this Kiki has made very few changes aside from the obvious change in location, and there's no way for us to know that her Japanese is any good anyway.  I mean, even if it is perfect Japanese, what is Kiki going to do out in Japan?  What is she even qualified to do, lead tours?  We've seen that back in her hometown -- she's really shitty at it.  So, while I'd like to believe she picks it all up and starts anew, we haven't gotten much in the ways of reasons to believe in her.