Posted on June 21, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Holy shit, this is the worst movie since Purge Election Year which was the worst movie I had seen since Face/Off. I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be a quality film but I thought, what with the beer and pizza I was having with it, I would at least be entertained.
Is this what all Resident Evil movies are like? This even fails as fan service. More than once, I heard snickering ripple through the crowd as yet another improbable scene plopped into existence without explanation.
Let’s start with the declarative dialog. I mean, 90% of the movie is, “That’s the door we have to get through. Time is running out. Here they come. I’m here for you.” Just short bursts of information that aren’t even necessary because we can see that’s the door you need to get through and we know time is running out because you have an Escape From New York countdown bracelet on and we know they’re coming because we can see them coming and so on.
And then the editing. Holy shit, I’ve never hoped for an editor to be fired and never work again before. The cuts are so hyper-kinetic they actually remove sense from the scene. Half the time, we don’t know how a character got from here to over there. That information was cut out to show us an unintelligible, half second clip of someone’s unidentified hand going by.
Also, sound designer. You’re fired, too. Just ugly white noise being blasted at us at random intervals for two hours. Get out.
It’s pretty obvious Paul W. S. Anderson wishes he had directed The Matrix but enough with the stealing, already. Also, maybe hire a writer next time? The deaths of characters who mean nothing to us add no value or gravitas to the story.
Oh, and that brings up another thing. Casting agent: EVERYONE LOOKS THE SAME! Since they don’t have interior lives, it’s really hard to tell them apart. I thought Ali Larter’s boyfriend had already died three times before he actually did.
And then… And then… the motherfucking betrayal of all storyteller betrayals….
I don’t ever publish personal stuff on this blog. I tried doing a blog like that a while back and it ended up consuming all of my creative time and energy. The only reason I returned to blogging at all was that my agent told me I would need an internet presence when The Vengeance Season came out and he had a deal in the bag.
Also, I feel like talking to yourself about yourself is the literary equivalent of jerking off in a bus station while yelling about how the government is trying to control your thoughts.
The content updates have been splotchy at best over the last year. Maybe this scene will explain why I’ve had other things on my mind:
Me: What does alcohol consumption have to do with stage IV cancer?
Doctor: I’m just trying to get a lifestyle profile for your chemo…
Me: I have three martinis a night. My cholesterol is fine and my triglycerides are little high, but that’s mostly down to my love of fried food. Let me save you some time. I don’t exercise, I eat too much, I drink just the right amount and I smoked for twenty years. And yet no doctor has been able to take me out of the game.
(I reach for the gun in my ankle holster)
Me: You weren’t the first white coat to make a try for me and you won’t be the last, but today is not the day. Or should I say, it’s not your day?
(I shoot him twice in the chest and stride out of his office to a Springsteen song we can afford)
That’s right. I’ve been unable to focus on blogging because… I’m a terrible screenwriter.
Oh, and my country somehow managed to elect an unhinged narcissist to the highest office in the land. That may also have had something to do with it.
Okay, let me be serious. I haven’t been on stage since November 9th. I haven’t written any new material since then. I haven’t done any improv. I haven’t worked on my book. I’ve just been watching blankly until something grabbed my attention hard enough that I would look at it.
Rogue One was a wonderful and powerful film. I loved it. I came right home and started to write a post about it and all I could think was, “Hey, here’s another goof saying Rogue One is good.” Saying something is good without delving into the emotional context of the experience of having watched it is the equivalent of “liking” a post on Facebook or “hearting” a tweet on Tweetbook.
So, Rogue One was good and impactful and I’m so proud of Disney for not getting in the way of that ending that showed that rebellions require real sacrifice, but I actually wept while watching Arrival.
So, yeah, I came home and wrote that one up and published it. I got on a roll with Black Mirror because I was basically hate watching an inferior product that didn’t live up to my expectations — which is the firstest of first world problems. Dirk Gently, as much as I loved it, wasn’t good for my mental state. Douglas Adams has never been good for me. He’s exactly my kind of depressive. Where everyone else sees randomized hilarity, I see him speaking directly to my fear of the truly nihilistic heart of an uncaring universe.
It’s been a tough year. I think my psychic propierception alerted me early on that Trump was going to win, that the world was going to shift suddenly and terribly to the right the way it did during the 1930s and that we were going to have to live through some truly terrible times. The sense of doom fell over me a year ago and I haven’t been able to shake it since.
I finally did find something to engage the other parts of my brain. A show that Netflix dropped without warning or fanfare, one that I watched only because I respect its star and creator, Brit Marling, and because of Netflix’s cache for original programming.
Spoilers for The OA follow.