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.