Charlottesville

My least favorite genre to write about is reality. I like my salient commentary tucked nicely into escapist entertainment. But the rise of Nazism in America can’t go unremarked upon by anyone and even though many people far more erudite will have their say, I still feel the need to have mine.

Donald Trump is a racist. His cabinet is full of racists. The GOP is the party of white supremacy. What is it you think conservatives are trying to conserve? White power. Do you think the Democrats would have embraced and supported Trump if he had won under their banner? Trump was an independent, like Bernie, who invaded the Republican primary process, but it was still very much a GOP decision to support him once he stole their election.

The GOP’s inherent racism has been generally understood since Reagan gathered the southern (racist) Dixiecrats from the Democratic party in 1980. That purge allowed the Democrats to free themselves from being honor bound to defend and support colleagues they really had nothing in common with. It’s just unfortunate that by the time they found their new voice it was one of Centrism that made them little more than the GOP-lite. Essentially, the modern Democratic Party is all the job outsourcing, big bank money taking, moral equivocating of the Republicans without so much of the nasty racism.

That conservative White America was on a racist jag has been obvious for two decades. Incarceration rates for whites are far lower and the sentences far more lenient than they are for blacks for the same crimes. Being shot to death for driving while black has become a meme so present on the news that it hardly merits an eyebrow twitch anymore. That those murderers always get off because a black person made them nervous only helps prove the point that racism has been on the upswing.

I think a lot of the racism beyond die-hard pockets like the American South is not well thought out. It’s more likely knee jerk reaction to “the other” in times when the white middle class has been under stress for thirty years. They’re coming for our jobs. They’re coming to steal our stuff. They’re violent. That’s not the racism of the south which is hidebound and studied over with rabbinical precision and articulated from the pulpit every Sunday. That’s just being afraid of people who don’t look like you, whether it’s skin color, religion, or sexual orientation, invading your space and making you uncomfortable.

That is NOT TO SAY it’s not just as fucking dangerous as the khaki and polo Tiki-Nazis who invaded Charlottesville and turned  it into a meat grinder. Rather, it’s to say that passive racists need a lightning rod to activate them. As long as the general public sentiment is that racism is bad, Nazis are evil, and whites don’t have a corner on supremacy, these reticent Nazis tend to keep their racism to themselves. But when the President of the United States of America and the Leader of the Free World, comes out as a racist, Nazi sympathizer from the initial days of his campaign, they begin to think maybe there’s a market for their bullshit.

Fox News and the NRA have been fanning the flames of fear for three decades by first getting their flyover viewers to stop listening to opposing points of view by telling them, “Those other guys are biased against you (whites).” Then they fill them up with bullshit that spins everything into a threat against Mom and Pop Whitebread from Fargo. Eventually, all the third generation knows is their hysterical hate mongering which has, true to Hitler’s claim, become truth.

What we saw in Charlottesville was the ugly, carnivorous moth climbing from its stinking chrysalis to be born into a world eagerly awaiting its arrival. Its cocoon had been carefully woven by the Mainstream Media’s cowardice, the right wing media’s hateful spew, and the arrival of a presidential candidate who spoke to all the fears raised in people who, while not great, weren’t all that bad to begin with.

Charlottesville cannot become our Kristallnacht. Instead, it must be the “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” moment from the McCarthy trials. It must be the moment when Americans all across the political spectrum realize this has gone too far and it’s time to fight.

So go fight Nazis like your grandfathers did. Don’t be passive. Don’t give up without a fight. Don’t let them say your generation was the one that stood by while America descended into madness.

Dunkirk

When I first saw the trailer for Dunkirk a month or so ago, my first reaction was to say to my wife, “No way. That is one of the most depressing moments in WWII history.” I had a change of heart, obviously, over time as people began to talk about the move in terms of outstanding Christopher Nolan’s film making. I didn’t want to miss this generation’s Lawrence of Arabia, after all.

My response on exiting the theater was: “That was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but I wish I hadn’t seen it.”

 

Spoilers for Dunkirk follow

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Valerian

Way back in the 90s when I still smoked, I could tell how bad a movie was by how many times I left the theater for a smoke break. The record was four smoke breaks for Face/Off. If I were still a smoker today, I just would have spent the whole two and a half hours of Valerian out back smoking an entire pack of Marlboro Reds.

Spoilers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follow.

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Wonder Woman

Lucky for us, it seems like we get one of these a year now. A movie in which everything goes right. An engine banging along on all cylinders that takes you in immediately, pulls you along for the ride, and then kicks you out into the night, blinking unbelieving at the real world.

Superhero stories are never going to be unique. Joseph Campbell spent most of his life pointing out the tropes of the hero’s journey — and that’s fine. We don’t need them to be unique. As a matter of fact, I would say that we need them to be refreshingly familiar. Telling these tales to ourselves over and over reassures us that nobility and courage and selflessness are a part of our heritage even as we watch the majority of us wallow in greed and self-absorption and ignorance.

What we need is a fresh take on the familiar superhero story. Whether it’s Deadpool or Star Trek (2009) or Rogue One or Sam Raimi’s Spider Man, we know the cadence of moments that make up a hero’s journey movie without being able to recite the names Campbell gave to them. What makes the good ones so invigorating to the spirit is that they tell the story of people who happen to be heroes and it’s getting to know those people that is so pleasing to us.

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MST3K: Moon 13, The Moon

There’s a famous line from baseball when a dangerous hitter is at the plate and there’s no open base to put him on. The pitching coach will walk out to the mound and tell the pitcher, “Don’t walk this guy, but don’t give him anything to hit, either.”

That’s basically impossible. Don’t throw balls, but also don’t throw strikes.

That was basically the mission when they decided to reboot MST3K: Don’t fix what ain’t broke, but don’t just do the same thing, either.

Somehow, they managed to do it.

This show is funny and fun and keeps the spirit of the original while being just new enough that you don’t think you’re watching a rerun. The new Mads are great. Felicia Day’s granddaughter (I think) of Clayton Forester is megalomaniacal in her own media-obsessed way and just as brutally incompetent as her grandfather. Patton Oswalt is letter perfect as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (just call him Max).

Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount have the perfect mix of child like innocence and drunken uncle cynicism. The animations look different, even using stop-motion at times, but are just as cheesy as the original and Gypsy finally had per processor updated so she can still run the vital functions of the ship and have an intelligent conversation.

If had been asked to pick the new subject of the Mads’ experiments, I honestly would have gone with Jonah Ray, too. I honestly can’t think of anyone else to where the jumpsuit.

So they raised a record amount of money on Kickstarter to fund this project, so much that they were able to make 14 episodes and put them up on Netflix. If you like expert riffs on amateurish films, do yourself a favor and go directly to Netflix and just watch all fourteen in a row.

You might as well binge them the first time, because you’ll be going back again and again.

Ghost In The Shell

My reaction to this movie was so complicated, had so many moving parts, that I had to take a couple of hours to unpack it after I got home. I mean, there’s no question that I didn’t care for it What makes it so complicated is all the conflicting reasons I didn’t like it, some of them so arcane they became circular references.

Having grown up a science fiction fan, I was a little depressed by the lack of new directions in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. I felt like all the innovation was coming out of the fantasy genre, one I’m not particularly interested in.

When I finally stumbled across an article in Wired about Cyberpunk, I sort of threw myself into it. Being a new parent, I didn’t have the time to read every book in the genre and I missed Steampunk altogether, but I did stake my devotion on the major works including Ghost in the Shell.

In other words, I’m the target demographic for this movie. What happened?

This is where we start unpacking.

First of all, and primarily, this Ghost in the Shell didn’t bring anything new to the table.  This hurt the movie in several ways. One, its slavish devotion to recreating scenes from the Anime hindered the actors’ performances. Scarlett Johansson, who is normally  a very good, very natural actor, looks stiff and inhibited in most of the scenes.

 

Secondly, so many movies have already lifted the iconic imagery from the original Ghost in the Shell that this movie looks like a retread – this is where the circular references start coming. There used to be a joke in the SF community that went, “I wish they would make a live action version of Ghost in the Shell. Oh wait, they already did. It was called The Matrix.”

Thirdly, we often complain when a movie deviates from the original material, but the truth is we need something new to keep the experience fresh. By hewing so closely to the original, this movie borders on the tedious.

Then comes the whitewashing.  At first, I didn’t get caught up in this teapot tempest because Anime is weirdly biracial. Every character looks half Asian and half Caucasian in what I assume is an attempt to broaden the market as much as possible. But there was this weird moment in the movie when Major goes to visit her obviously Asian mother that yanked me out of the film long enough to notice that a movie that takes place in Japan has Asian actors in the minority.

And finally, action movie, shmaction movie! We get one every fucking month and they’re all the same. That’s why John Wick and Chapter 2 were so refreshing. Someone actually sat down and worked out a different kind of action movie instead of using the exact same moves they’ve been using since they learned how to do wire erase.

That’s probably the final nail in the coffin. The original movie (and the manga it came from) was so innovative for its time that this movie’s complete lack of anything new just screams RETREAD!

So that movie we’ve been waiting for all these years finally came out and it had a big budget and a great lead actress and it wasn’t good. So now we have to ask ourselves if we really want to see a big screen version of Neuromancer or Snow Crash.

Kong: Skull Island

My first car was a baby blue 1969 Mustang. It was a beautiful car that started almost half the time when you turned the key. I can remember so clearly sitting behind the wheel, key turned all the way forward, foot firmly off the gas pedal, listening to it whine and groan, whine and groan, and then, just for a second, it would sputter and pop and you’d think it was going to start, but then it would just go back to whining and groaning.

That feeling of something never quite catching, never quite igniting was very much in my mind as I watched Kong: Skull Island. The movie would drag along with a remarkably phoned in performance from Hiddleston and Brie Larson trying gamely but ultimately having little to do and then for one brief, shining moment, John C. Reilly would burst into the narrative and light it up and you’d think, “Okay, here we go,” but then they’d push him aside and we were back to Samuel L. Jackson’s dreary attempt at Heart of Darkness.

Basically, I wish they would go back and cut out most of the other characters entirely and just tell John C. Reilly’s story. I was far more interested in what had happened since that day he and the Japanese pilot were shot down up to the present than I was in anything going on with the superfluous characters in the foreground.

On the plus side, we finally have the CGI capabilities to make a good looking Kong movie. Now all we have to do is tell a good Kong story.

 

John Wick 2

Yeah, let’s face it. When you go into a theater to see a movie with a number in the title, you’ve already subconsciously set the bar really low. To my mind, there have only been three great sequels: Godfather 2, Aliens, and Terminator 2. I don’t know if John Wick: Chapter 2 belongs on that list, but it is definitely better than 99% of all sequels out there.

Spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 2 follow

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Oryx And Crake, et al

I have to admit that when it comes to speculating about the future I am definitely a pessimist which is why I usually opt for more diverting fare like Ready, Player One and Lexicon. But one summer not too long ago I took a bath in despair by reading Never Let Me go, 1Q84, The Handmaid’s Tale, Children of Men, and Oryx And Crake all in one summer.

I’m both slightly dyslexic and very ADD, so audio books have been a real boon to my reading. The only problem with listening to a book is that you don’t get the same feel for the writing. Also, a bad narrator can keep you away from a book that you really want to read.

So I read some of those books and listened to others. It didn’t seem to matter which why I took in the stories, it all had the same effect. I ended up a hopeless, suicidal mess. Now, to be fair, this happened during a particularly stressful time of my life and I was already close to going out my mind. This series of books was just the nudge I needed to see into the blackness of human future.

I had already begun work on the initial drafts of my Dangerous Thoughts series when I went through this summer of bummer, but I hadn’t gained any real traction. Generally, when I start out to write a book, I begin with a dogmatic statement. It’s more of a lecture than a story, really, and over time as the characters come to life and the narrative develops that message slides into the background.

My initial idea was to show how awful our society is by showing a future society that had overcome all of our problems. Reading these books at the same time I was developing my story destroyed all my Utopian ideas. The problem with every human society — Communism, Socialism, Capitalism — isn’t the Ism, it’s the people in it. Eventually, the story began to mirror my own struggle as it details multiple attempts to establish a successful human society on different planets, all of which eventually fail.

Right up front, I’ll say that these are beautifully written novels and all of them, except for the tedious 1Q84, are spryly told. But they’re so fucking depressing. Not so much in their predicted outcomes for humanity as much as their dire and dead on depiction of how flawed humans are and how the more flawed they are, the more sway they hold.

1Q84 was a meandering mess that eventually led to nothing, but the one book I wish I hadn’t read is Never Let Me Go. Not because it wasn’t well written or interesting, but because it literally broke my heart. It is the saddest book I’ve ever read and a little bit of that despair stays with me to this day, years after I put it down.

 

 

 

BvS: Revisited

In the spring of 1977, I was just home from college and looking for something to do in the then small town of Manassas, Viriginia. I looked through the paper and saw an ad for a new science fiction movie called Star Wars and reached out to a friend about maybe going to check it out. But here’s the thing: I hadn’t heard anything about it and judging from the poorly drawn ad in the newspaper, I was under the impression that it was one of those awful Japanese imports like The Green Slime. The only thing my friend Sam and I loved more than badly dubbed Japanese SciFi with visible string special effects was badly dubbed Kung Fu movies.

Needless to say, when that Star Destroyer passed overhead, I realized we were in for something else entirely.

The reason I mention that story (which I tell way too often) is because it’s a scenario that is impossible today. Whenever a movie of any size comes out, we are inundated on every platform with opinions and information and trailers and reviews. It is very hard to go into a movie with an open mind anymore and this was especially true of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Now I’ve said before that when I decide I want to see a movie, I impose an all-platform media blackout. I don’t watch the trailers, read the tweets, peruse the blog posts, listen to my coworkers or anything else until I’ve had a chance to see the movie with fresh eyes. Even so, some stuff always gets in and if that stuff is bad then I start to let more stuff in.

This is exactly what happened with Suicide Squad, a movie I still haven’t seen. The idea of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn alone was enough to make me mark my calendar for opening day and turn off all other sources of information. But then news of Jared Leto’s crazy behavior on set leaked through and then I learned Will Smith was in it, and then came the re-shoots and the pushed release date, and then I just read everything that came out about it. Yep, still haven’t seen it.

With BvS, I didn’t even care enough to turn off the feeds. I’ve always thought Batman squaring off with Superman was a stupid idea best suited for preteen arguments in tree houses. I thought, if I go see this at all, I will be high as a kite and in it for the giggles. I ended up going because it was movie day and nothing else was playing.

When people asked me if I liked it, I told them I did not. When they asked me why, I didn’t have an answer. I’ve now watched it three times in an effort to come up with that answer.

Potential spoilers for Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice follow.

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