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It’s my birthday, and I decided to do something a little different, so I put together a list of formative movies from my misspent childhood. Not all of these are even good, but they’ve all impacted me one way or another (.gif sources listed where I could find them):
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1. Mr. Mom (1983, dir. Stan Dragoti): apparently watched this a ton when I was little. Would even crash carts into others at the grocery store and say “I have right of way”–I was a little shit. Superficially, it’s a movie about realigned masculinity (Michael Keaton learning to parent, etc.), the decline of the Big Three and the American industrial sector/organized labor, Reaganomics and all that. John Hughes, who wrote the script, doesn’t seem to particularly care about any of that, though, beyond as a vehicle for delivering jokes, most of which is forgettable. Keaton is what really makes this worth watching. The rest of the cast is ‘eh’–Terri Garr and Christopher Lloyd are wasted, everybody else is static –but Keaton is perfect. Right in that range of having a comedic bite to a guy who, objectively, is being a shitty person, and is charismatic enough to make him likeable enough you want him to become better…so when he does you actually give a shit. Oh, and he punches Martin Mull, and who HASN’T wanted to do that?
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2. Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (or Ebirah, Horror of the Deep if you want the original title) (1966, dir. Jun Fukuda): My gateway into Godzilla specifically, Toho monster movies and Japanese cinema generally. Also a King Kong script, repurposed when Toho lost the license (Godzilla, for instance, is infatuated with the lone woman in the group). Jun Fukuda also isn’t half the director of Ishiro Honda: sets and costumes are noticeably cheaper, and original monsters (a giant lobster and condor) are boring. He does, however, hone in on a childish sense of adventure (spies! thieves on the lam! teenagers at dance-offs!) and shocking levels of monster violence. So, in that regard, it was perfect for someone watching a movie in pre-K, when one of the other kids brought in a VHS.
 
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3. Cobra (1986, dir. George P. Cosmatos): Sylvester Stallone’s Beverly Hills Cop is full of ridiculous, future shock snarling and violence, coupled with weird little character bits (cutting pizza with scissors and the matchstick). Everybody in it is delirious and sweaty and so very 80s. What’s not to love about this movie?
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4. Adventures in Babysitting (1987, dir. Chris Columbus): Probably the first “one crazy night” movie I remember watching, a genre I’ve only become more fond of. Even the bad ones have an economy of storytelling to them which makes it hard to absolutely hate them, because you aren’t forced to either leave or sit through 3 hours of it (superhero movies, I’m looking at you). And Adventures is the good kind of one crazy night: a fun cast of archetypes given a simple goal, complicated by increasingly insane obstacles. What starts as a simple jaunt into the city to pick up a friend becomes a life or death chase from mobsters, climaxing with a small child clinging for dear life on the side of a glass and steel skyscraper. Also manages to, on the side, make a really great blues musical number.
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5. Blade (1998, dir. Stephen Norrington): Speaking of superhero movies, I can space my viewing of Blade out by years, and still recite it almost line for line. Can’t even remember any of the Marvel movies minutes after seeing them, which should say everything. Before anyone chimes in with “nostalgia goggles” or whatever bullshit, I’m going to say this: most great movies are built around a single, strong idea. Blade does this so well, and most other entries in this genre are so bad at it, that it almost boggles the mind it did it before the genre went big, did it well, and yet no one bothered to replicate it. That that single idea–of a nigh-unstoppable, impossibly cool, angry, nihilistic half-vampire commando’s unceasing quest to purge the world of bloodsuckers–invariably centers around star Wesley Snipes might be the answer why. Snipes’ physique and face (perpetually behind those badass shades) dominate the screen. His voice commands attention. He’s buffered by capable character actors and a no-bullshit script from David Goyer, but it’s unquestionably his show. This is a movie with a star and it lets you know it–Avengers has Robert Downey Jr., but the sarcastic wit he brought has been exaggerated, then sublimated into Whedon dialogue and so much franchise noise (and who else do they have? Chris Evans? Fuck off). Blade gives you this solid image, every mannerism and one-liner etched in marble. In a genre built on perpetual, ephemeral hype, it gives you something eternal.
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6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990, dir. Steve Barron): There’s a lot I could say about this movie, but most importantly it doesn’t talk down to its audience. It juggles some goofy, cartoon hijinks and family friendly moralizing, but is also a movie about disaffected youth, the effects of violence on bodies, and about the very human need for healthy social attachments, but is surprisingly subtle about this. Like, the most ham-fisted this movie gets is when Splinter sagely intones about fatherhood or shouts at the Foot Clan kids about the Shredder exploiting them (and the movie earns that shit, so it doesn’t feel ham-fisted). Dialogue elsewhere is watching these characters bond and converse, either confronting or dancing around their conflicts (both external and internal), without anyone ever telling you exactly what they’re doing. Absolute favorite part remains the truck-start scene between Donatello and Casey Jones, which is just a gag-heavy version of literally any Michael Mann scene: it establishes the way those characters relate to each other and their playful antagonism, but it’s layered into a scene that is: a) the two of them fixing a beat-up old truck, b) having a fannish, “who would marry who” conversation about Gilligan’s Island, and c) playing a game where they insult each other alphabetical order.
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7. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, dir. James Cameron): Would watch this at a family friend’s house, sitting next to their dog while the adults played euchre or pinochle. It opens with Linda Hamilton narrating about the time-travel premise and the war against the machines, and then you see skulls getting crushed under a metal foot. Cameron just loads the movie with these arresting visuals, all while telling a story about a robot becoming the best dad possible in a world full of broken people. Even better: it’s a great showcase for Arnold Schwarzenegger, revisiting and reexamining his and Cameron’s iconic cyborg slasher as a portrait of emerging humanity. He sheds the sunglasses and motorcycle in tandem as he acquires expressions and slang from his charge, often repurposing in unintended ways like a dorky dad. Easily the best father/son movie of the 90s.
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8. The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter): Best movie on this list, though it took me two viewings when I first encountered it to appreciate its genius. Quintessentially Carpenter in the way it depicts two kinds of collectives battling for supremacy: one a group of raggedy, burnt out men in over their heads on the edge of the world, a leader emerging in Kurt Russell’s indomitable, individualist MacReady; the other a walking, seething viral infection with a hive-mind mentality patterned after a rapist’s. That it’s also one of the great special effects movies, and a big-budget studio movie built entirely on a mounting, inescapable sense of dread is just icing on the cake.
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9. Robocop (1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven): Still can’t believe my parents let me watch this as a kid. Shockingly violent, even (more) today, and increasingly, frighteningly relevant. A biting satire, a rumination on the effects of mechanization on humanity, a religious metaphor, a science fiction film about Theseus’ paradox, a damn good action movie, Robocop is a movie that’s all of those things and none of them. Every time I sit down and watch it, every time I discuss it with anyone, I pick up something new. The one constant though, the thing which stuck with me, whether it was when I had the simple, childish, reptilian brain glee of watching Alex Murphy get back at the gangsters who executed him or now that I’ve been thinking about that movie for over 25 years: it’s Peter Wellers’ face, the contorted pain he exhibits in Murphy’s death. It is utter pain, in response to both the physical sensation of gunfire and the cruelty of Boddicker’s gang (acting, itself, as an extension of the corporate machine which infects its fictionalized Detroit). In a very real way, that movie instilled in me from an early age both a value for human life, and a respect for how easily it can be taken away.
Here’s to another year of being alive. Take care out there.
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One For the Road: Prelude

Amazing Spider-Man #377 - My first comic

New Year’s resolutions are not something I’ve ever really considered doing. Just never saw the appeal. But, this year has left me drained of enjoyment for art and entertainment I’ve previously loved. Comics culture is tiresome, and the comics themselves largely seem to provide diminishing returns for increasing costs. This is compounded by living 30-40 miles from a comic shop in any direction, along with a few personal goals I want to attain (which would be easier if I freed up time taken by my usual hobbies). So, with the year almost over, the timing just seemed right to set forward at least one resolution: no comic books for six months.

This also seemed a good time to take stock of my collection. Pick out some personal high points, reread them, write about them. Something to remind me this hobby is more than a habit before I hit the reset button.

Stay tuned. Or don’t. It’s your business.

Now The Wound Has Scabbed Over, Time to Pick at it Again: Sometimes Pop Culture is Terrible

Not being content to let things go, I felt the need to follow up my kinda-sorta “Best of 2013” list with some of its stinkers. Last year was a big movie year–more out of personal need to keep myself occupied and out of the house–which also means I watched a lot more terrible movies as well. So, again, this is mostly a movies list, with cameo appearances by terrible comics and video games.

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Star Trek Into Darkness: J.J. Abrams’ sequel Star Trek Into Darkness was exactly the kind of movie I imagined it would be: pompous, stupid, tedious and chasing after Wrath of Khan glory it would never get. Wrath of Khan was made with middle-aged actors, about fears middle-aged men have (obsolescence, oblivion, missed opportunity). As such, it’s light on fisticuffs and shootouts (despite being an “action” movie). Built instead around naval-warfare-in-space, with frail characters left to the mercy of technology and the cosmos, it’s less Errol Flynn and more Herman Melville. William Shatner was also at an interesting crossroad: aware his career as pretty boy lead was over, but not yet molded into the preening self-parody of today, Shatner played Kirk as a military lifer staring down retirement, set to drink himself to death in a study. He’s briefly stirred to life by the return of one-off supervillain Khan (Ricardo Montalban), only to retreat inward when faced with consequences he couldn’t weasel out of or brush off. It’s the greatest performance Shatner ever gave. Star Trek Into Darkness attempts similar introspection, but with a cast which could model for Abercrombie & Fitch on the side and spastic, overblown action scenes meant to excite toy fanboys. Even if Chris Pine were a good actor, his New Kirk lacks the footing for deconstruction. The others–from Benedict Cumberbatch as New Khan to Karl Urban, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, and Zoe Saldana–are reduced to Wacky Impersonation games, while the script is a convoluted mess of schemes by Cumberbatch and Peter Weller (wasted in a nothing role) compounded with unmotivated character arcs, bad in-jokes, lazy deus ex machina, and Abrams’ misuse of lens flare (despite the film’s slickness, it’s hideous looking). Too ramshackle for thought, too grim for fun, Star Trek Into Darkness only kills brain cells.

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The Wake #1-5 (a.k.a. “Part One”): Another entry in the pompous-yet-dumb category. This first half of the Scott Snyder/Sean Murphy Vertigo series teases millennia-spanning audacity, but delivers cheaply constructed horror sequences littered with what amounts to paraphrased Wikipedia articles about various concepts from myth and folklore. Murphy and colorist Matt Hollingsworth are reliably excellent on the art side, but next to Murphy’s more heartfelt and shocking Punk Rock Jesus it can’t help but pale. The real kicker comes with the close of issue five, and Snyder’s essay promising all the cool shit is coming with the second half, as if blessing readers who already spent the dollars on five issues for the equivalent of a polished Whopper.

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The Great Gatsby: Post-Spider-Man 3, Tobey Maguire retreated from the Hollywood machine, and public limelight, into smaller movies where he gets to act out darker impulses (Jim Sheridan’s American remake of Brothers), playing off the wholesome “Golly pie” act he brought to mopey Peter Parker. All the more baffling, then, he opted to play, completely straight, that same act for a character intended to be bitter and cynical, all while narrating prose like he’s struggling to read. Then again, everything in Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel hits all the wrong notes at all the wrong times.

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Aliens: Colonial Marines: A shoddy, uninspired FPS relying on franchise appeal? A zeal for fan fiction-level plot points in a desperate bid to reach the hallowed realm of ‘canon’ within said franchise? Buggy gameplay and subpar graphics? Even the failure of Colonial Marines lacks identity. Hobbling around as another gravel-voiced soldier spraying Xenomorph-skinned popups leaves less a feeling of being overwhelmed by unknowable evil and more of swatting pesky flies away, particularly when half the dialogue in Gearbox/Timegate’s production involves meatheads simply parroting militaristic phrases like they’re Hail Marys. But if all Colonial Marines was guilty of was mediocrity, it likely wouldn’t even rank mention. Nah, the real crime is how much effort was taken to cover up the mediocrity: Gearbox insisting its pretty, unplayable demo footage was in any way representative of how their macho fanservice vehicle would look and play. Of course, when the product shipped, and the sham shown for what it was, critics and gamers had a rare synchronicity of justifiable rage. So little else in 2013 showed as much disdain for basic craft or its audience, except maybe…

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Peter Jackson one-ups George Lucas’ attempts at self-indulgent franchise destruction with a go-nowhere/do-nothing script. CGI-heavy setpieces are far removed from the tactile, horror movie quality which made Fellowship of the Rings the fascinating start to Lord of the Rings‘ cinematic incarnation, and Jackson foists upon audiences ugly, sickness-inducing gimmicks (3D and 48 frames/second) while portraying cardboard cutout characters (it would be easy to simply write “Tauriel,” but that creation is a figurehead for how little concern Jackson and crew have for characterization in these movies. Basically, you could remove half the cast and have changed precisely jack). It’s nothing more than an effort to squeeze just a little bit more out of people far more invested in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth than they are in their families. At least with Lucas, the money-grubbing excess was being done by someone looking to milk their own creation dry; Jackson’s exploitation of Tolkien is much more gross.

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Avengers (volume whatever the Marvel Now one is) #16: Indifferent, lumbering nonsense masquerading as an epic. Jonathan Hickman’s faux-mythological slant and mumbo-jumbo plot beats mask a disconnect from any remotely human concern–he’s perpetually fond of “countless” body counts for his city leveling alien attacks, but refuses to depict anything other than the stoic anti-reactions of corporate mascots–which would be downright sociopathic if this were a legitimate attempt at storytelling, rather than another cynical prelude to another cash-grab crossover.

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Dark Skies; The Conjuring: The flip side to last year’s great horror movies Lords of Salem and You’re Next, these Paranormal Activity descendants are essentially clones. Both have the exact same structure, and not in the 80s slasher way which allowed directorial flourishes to dictate the movie (Halloween being different from Friday the 13th being different from Friday the 13th Part 2 being different from Sleepaway Camp). Both movies use the same jump scares, reveals, and camera angles at roughly the same time, with roughly the same level of pseudo-proficiency. The only real deviation is when actors hit their false notes to unintentionally hilarious effect: Dark Skies‘ moment occurs late in the movie, after an hour of mind-numbing drama and limp-wrist scare tactics, when the parents utter a cartoonish, harmonized “Nooooooo!”, getting a belly laugh out of what was intended to be climactic thrill; The Conjuring‘s comes throughout from Patrick Wilson’s deadpan explanations of supernatural phenomena (“That’s to mock the Holy Trinity” or “That’s where the witch hung herself”). It’s as if Wilson were channeling TV home improvement host Bob Vila. Inadvertently, he exposes The Conjuring (given an R-rating for its supposed scariness) as the cheap television formula it is. The movie’s inability to dramatize any emotional toll on either of the families at its heart–the haunted Perrons or the ghost-hunting Warrens, struggling to maintain domesticity in a house stuffed with supernatural relics locked away like guns, leading to a lame third act tease–means there’s no theme or subtext to what it depicts. It’s all artifice.

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Pacific Rim: I’m already regretting putting this here. Not remotely awful like the rest of the list–it in fact has moments of genuine greatness in it–but no other movie represented the worst tendencies of Hollywood and nerd culture better. Championed for all the wrong reasons (even by me for a minute)–“It’s multicultural!,” “It has a strong female lead!,” “It’s a bunch of things you liked as a kid!”–all of which turned out to be utter bullshit. It’s multicultural in the same way every American studio-backed summer explode-o-thon is multicultural (that is, the white American guy is still the de facto main character driving the plot, no matter how uninteresting he is), its female lead (Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori) is a fetish object (introduced via Old Hollywood glamor shot) who spends most the movie with a perpetual pout as the boys decide her every action (“But, she beat de facto main character in one fight!“…right before literally regressing to a child)*, and homage to anime, tokusatsu and giant monster movies isn’t substantial enough (especially when your monsters are bluish-gray blobs of indistinct CGI, lacking the voice of Toho stables like Godzilla, Mothra, or Rodan).

*The only good interpretation of Mako Mori I’ve heard was given by a friend who loves the movie. Paraphrasing her words: the character is a woman in a male-dominated situation and acts accordingly. Sensible, yet doesn’t strike me as feminist.

Guillermo del Toro is good enough to make Pacific Rim a single-view, throwaway popcorn flick: with fitfully intriguing world-building (the slums built around Kaiju bones), a great Hong Kong fight scene and reliable performances from Kikuchi, Idris Elba, and Charlie Day, he gets to play with his toys for 2+ hours and not be a complete waste of time. Furthermore, his commitment to themes of extinction and total war means audiences aren’t left with another dumb franchise hook the way all these summer movies end anymore. If anything, the sparse characterization and creaky script indicate del Toro knew this was nothing more than disposable entertainment with a massive budget, slanting his filmmaking accordingly (after At the Mountains of Madness failed to get greenlit, a director as non-prolific as del Toro probably wasn’t being picky).

The hype and excessive fanboy support for this movie is, ultimately, what kills it. Which bugs me a bit: when critiquing a movie, it’s traditional to completely disregard those elements, but the movie not only plays into them, it practically required them.  With broad stereotypes/archetypes for characters (a problem it shares with The Hobbit), and sluggish to get anywhere, Pacific Rim is all about reminding the nerdier crowd they’ve seen these things somewhere before, and that it’s “cool” now to see them this way. This is a movie which had a fan club before it even saw release–just think if back in 1977, there were people camped out front of theaters for a month dressed as Chewbacca before Star Wars was even a thing–whose press release virtues as a multiculturalist, feminist-empowerment movie were parroted all across the internet, accompanied by a gaggle of man-boys who chin-stroked over the Bechdel Test’s “uselessness” (because the movie wouldn’t pass) in the same year they’ve done everything else to discredit, discourage, and disdain women for speaking out about comics/movies/video games’ treatment of them (both in the actual works and industry practices). All of this strikes me as a greater symptom of corporate brainwashing: most of those who loved this movie in fact loved the marketing of the movie, and have thus made the product a cause to rally behind, trampling over dissenters.

This fanboyism isn’t exclusive: it certainly pops up in the psychotic rage over negative reviews of anything from the Marvel Studios Avengers Assembly line, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Amazing Spider-ManThe Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, or Star Trek Into Darkness. But with those there’s a logic to it, twisted as it is. The fandom there is rooted in books, TV shows, even other movies which took decades to develop their own sub-subcultures. Part of it was aided by marketing, sure (what isn’t?), but it went hand in hand with a genuine emotional response from people who became obsessed with what they saw, read, heard. This? This was packaged with the fanboy mania by shills and marketers, which is the worst kind of toxic.

Basically, We’re Screwed (But Damn, We Got Some Great Movies)

2012 was not a good year. By all accounts, 2013 was not any better. All the usual politics hyped up to catastrophic levels for anyone who works/cannot work for a living (government shutdowns, furloughs, the push to cut more from assistance programs, that sort of thing), more war, more shootings (and more shootings of unarmed kids by supposed adults), Barack Obama pushing hard to finally meet his goal of being exactly like Ronald Reagan, basically the entire Republican party dropping even the most cursory pretense of concern for actual people from their platforms, Detroit being forced into bankruptcy by Michigan’s Governor Snyder and his corporate toady Kevyn Orr (to the obvious catcalls of Americans oblivious of the same misfortunes brewing in their own backyard)–an ongoing story which resembles less an attempt to fix the broken structure of one of America’s greatest cities and more like a bunch of mobsters trying to dump a body after putting a bullet in its head. People in other countries dying because of shoddy work conditions, which pundits who advertise themselves as right or left seem to agree is okay, because, hey, slightly-less-expensive jeans, yo. People dying in this country because of shoddy work conditions, which pundits just seem to be unaware is a thing, still. Comics and video game nerds competing over who can have the worst attitudes towards women/blacks/gays//etc, only to be beaten at the last minute by Duck Dynasty fans. Which is embarrassing, really. It’s a fakey-fake-fake reality show about some fakey-fake-fake millionaires pretending to be good ol’ boys (why, they worship Jesus and have tacky, matching camouflage outfits!), whose only goal is to sell their cheapo merchandise to white people who complain about how their rights are oppressed by gay people–with their “not wanting to be beaten to death in the street simply for being grown, consenting adults fucking other grown, consenting adults of the same gender” agenda–all while snuggling up to T-shirts made by people in countries who actually are being oppressed (Brand synergy, motherfuckers!).

I mean, seriously: Duck Dynasty? That’s what Americans will be moved to stand with?

Anyway, enough of that shit. Here’s the entertainment I consumed and felt best defined 2013:

Pain & Gain: Back when it came out, I tried writing an essay about Michael Bay’s black-hearted comedy (had the title “The Grossest, Most Beautiful People” in mind), but never got around to finishing it. This was an absolute surprise, a Coen Brothers movie on testosterone and aimed at cutthroat capitalism–represented by an intense Mark Wahlberg as Danny Lugo (the leader of the real-life Sun Gym Gang) and a caustic Tony Shaloub as a sandwich shop magnate Lugo kidnaps and extorts. The way Lugo and his buddies (Anthony Mackie and scene-stealer Dwayne Johnson, as a cokehead/ex-con/born-again Christian) are seduced and corrupted by the American Dream, the way they leave people dead and broken (Johnson, as the closest the group has to a conscience, has sympathy for the victims), the way they indulge in every gaudy, lurid fantasy Bay ever committed to celluloid, and the way their situation spirals out of control is perfectly nasty, hilariously disgusting, and smartly cutting. The ease with which Lugo gets around tepid regulations of bank practices (bribing his boss, a notary, into falsely approving a transfer of assets) turns the mid-90s crimes upon which the movie is based into a perfect metaphor for the housing market collapse (doing for that crisis what The Dark Knight did for the War on Terror). If Michael Bay’s career as a Bruckheimer hack was the plot of a film, this was the third act twist. The pulling back of the curtain to reveal Bay as a much smarter director than anyone (myself included) ever gave him credit for. Transformers 4 could be the worst piece of shit on the planet, Pain & Gain still justifies its existence.

Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us: Voice actor Troy Baker’s year was defined by one theme: emotionally scarred, cynical men escorting teen girls through a sci-fi nightmare (in both, the girls are, for the most part, only vulnerable to the psychological wounds the game inflicts). The Last of Us was standard zombie apocalypse fare, with Baker’s Joel escorting foul-mouthed Ellie (Ashley Johnson) across America. Gameplay was divided between genuinely tense stealth moments (where scrounging for supplies was dangerous, yet could pay off in a tight spot) and the same cover-shooting and Quick Time Event action setpieces which defined Naughty Dog’s one-dimensional Uncharted games, but also took the time to marvel at the elegant mix of beauty and horror in nature reclaiming civilization. Joel and Ellie bonding, becoming co-dependent (she a surrogate for the daughter he lost years ago), makes up for the script’s lame attempts at deconstruction (only once does Joel kill someone who is neither threat to him or Ellie, and only after the game goes out of its way in the third act to tell us he’s a crazy, murderous psychopath).
Bioshock Infinite, however, was the more complete experience: its entire world, the floating city of Colombia, defined by violence and oppression. The bourgeois class, led by Comstock (Kiff VandenHeuvel), enjoys so much leisure they refer to their metropolis as “Heaven, or the closest you’ll get in this life,” but rest on the broken backs of slave labor (a cross-section of early 20th century black and immigrant communities) who routinely get mangled by unsafe work conditions, if not killed for sport. This inspires justified revolution (The Last of Us‘ Fireflies didn’t have real motivation…they were a plot device), except it goes so far as to murder children. Baker’s character, thug-for-hire Booker DeWitt, only adds to the chaos, with motivations for extracting teen psychic Elizabeth (Courtnee Draper) more personal than he realizes. Redemption and baptism figure prominently in the narrative, with Booker trying to “wipe away the debt” even as more and more blood gets on his hands. Pundits mistook this critique in a first person shooter as ludonarrative dissonance, forgetting that any story about the effects of violence has to have violence. Those sprinkled moments of quiet throughout the first half–Booker and Elizabeth wandering Colombia, or when they hide out in a bar for awhile, performing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”–are about these two finding some grace, but it always exists in a fragile bubble amidst carnage they leave in their wake. Ken Levine and his Irrational team chase these themes down a rabbit hole of alternate universes and time travel, until we get to one, single conclusion: the damage we do can’t be fixed by simply repenting.

The Long Journey: Boulet’s infinite canvas webcomic doesn’t just capture modern frustration. With a story which only builds, and never really ends, as his avatar goes beyond humdrum reality to backpack across surrealist landscapes, he finds beauty in expressing that frustration. Boulet wishes to escape the world, yet keeps coming back to incidents and images he sees everywhere (graffiti being the most prominent). What he finds is the need for connection, with himself, with people, with life. The nuances within the monotony of existence, which keep us going when all is dark and the end is never in sight. Boulet finds out he can go on a little more.

Horror movies: The genre had a minor comeback this year with three movies. First was the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Evil Dead remake/sequel/thing, a vicious allegory about the plight of addicts. Fede Alvarez borrows superficially from Sam Raimi’s original movie (the isolated cabin, Book of the Dead, possession, girl being raped by tree) but fixates on the self-mutilation the Deadites force upon their hapless victims (two lose their hands, one as a morbidly funny bit of misdirection), calling to mind the amputation of Jared Leto’s arm in Requiem for a Dream. In a worse year, this would’ve easily been the best horror flick, but it was just warm-up: after this came Rob Zombie’s American giallo Lords of Salem, contemplative in the ways all his previous movies were (about violence, sexuality, drug use, music, and Americana) but with a much more assured hand. The big winner, though, is You’re Next, a movie as much a window into the fucked-up dynamics of an upper-class family (as seen through the eyes of Sharni Vinson, playing the fiance of A.J. Bowen’s meek middle brother) as it is the latest in the new wave of home invasion thrillers. Adam Wingard neatly divides the movie into halves, allowing the relationships between the siblings (especially Bowen’s antagonism towards his cocksure, passive-aggressive older brother) to be the core around which the movie revolves. In a way, their bourgeois affectations expose the rottenness of most Hollywood dramas and mumblecore (both about the troubles of pretty, rich, white people), while Vinson gets to portray the working-class, can-do attitude of a John Carpenter anti-hero. I cheered for this.

Arrested Development Season 4: I’m really not sure what people were griping about. Instead of wasting the new opportunity provided by Netflix cruising on fan-service, Mitchell Hurwitz and crew took Arrested Development in a bolder, meaner direction. Splitting apart the Bluths, embroiling them in schemes which became increasingly sad and pathetic extensions of their own isolated misery (George’s loss of masculinity and Maeby still going to high school), and even more explicitly attacking the American political system (Terry Crews is better at being Herman Cain than Cain is), this was exactly what the show needed to be.

Star Trek Into Darkness: Just kidding, this sucked.

XCOM: Enemy Within: It’s not often a game’s expansion pack adds thematic depth as well as content. Opening with a new, foreshadowing quote from Buckminster Fuller–replacing the too-common Arthur C. Clarke one of Enemy Unknown–the Firaxis team fills out the premise of sacrificing humanity to achieve victory with a slew of upgrades in addition to the neat tech and psychic powers: genetically modify your troops, giving them secondary hearts or the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or cut them up and turn them into cybernetic MEC Troopers (complete with an international crew of voice actors impersonating Peter Weller), players are presented with choices as existentially horrific as they are really fucking cool. A new human faction, EXALT, gives one pause when realizing how closely they mirror XCOM itself (scientist Dr. Valen hypocritically remarks about how little responsibility they show with their genetic tampering), even as their allegiance leans towards the alien invaders.

Pretty Deadly: 2013 comics were a sorry state of affairs. The mainstream littered with the jack-off fantasies of bald(ing) white men–the Brian Bendis-written non-event Age of Ultron springs to mind–and giant corporations flooding the market with crossover tie-ins, accelerated release schedules, and tightly-managed-yet-poorly-edited “content.” Even good superhero comics–Fraction/Aja Hawkeye, Gillen/McKelvie Young Avengers, Nocenti/Sandoval Catwoman, Dial H,–couldn’t maintain momentum under those circumstances. The bigger creator-owned publishers (Dark Horse, Image, IDW) didn’t fare much better, with TV pitch-comics and fake-liberal Brian Wood on Star Wars being the norm. The small guys were off doing their own thing (most of which I’d have to tread the murky realm of buying online, and I’d rather not because I’m a total Luddite when it comes to Amazon and PayPal). There was plenty of good and even great work, but almost all of it was continuations from previous years (honorable mentions: Prophet, Fatale, The End of the Fucking World, Rachel Rising).
Then this happened: a magical realist Western created by the invaluable Emma Rios and the respectable Kelly Sue DeConnick. Deploying manga tricks and the surrealist touches of Sam Kieth’s The Maxx or Todd McFarlane’s Spawn (minus the latter’s high-school philosophizing), the duo turned out three virtuosic issues transferring song and good old fashion myth into the tale of a blind gunslinger, the Native American girl he cares for, and the death which chases them. Prodding, divisive, and experimental, this was the rare comic worth arguing about. And it’s a comic worth reading more of.

Music: There was plenty of great music this year. Neko Case had a new album. I saw Murder by Death in both Detroit (at the Magic Stick) and Chicago (at Reggie’s Rock Club). There were some other songs and albums which caught my attention, but my opinions on music aren’t as strong as with other things. But still: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight. The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Such a great album.

The World’s End: So much to say about Edgar Wright’s final Blood and Ice Cream movie. About how great Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are (here having completely switched roles), how smart and crisp the dialogue and imagery is (“There’s nothing between us!” goes down as my biggest laugh of the year, followed only by a line from Inside Llewyn Davis), and how the fight scenes are coherent and inventive. It’s also about getting old, trying too hard to cling to youth, and watching gentrification creep up and claim everything unique and interesting in the name of mediocrity and propriety. As funny and cool as it is, it’s about as biting as satire gets.

Nemo: Heart of Ice: A small, unassuming entry in  Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, revolving around a failed Antarctic expedition. It was Moore/O’Neill’s racist/hyper-capitalist interpretation of pulp character Tom Swift, a thorough condemnation of science fiction’s often gleeful championing of imperialism, which drew the most attention. It’s also Moore and O’Neill addressing the legacy of Victorian fiction (Janni attempting to conquer what her father, Captain Nemo, could not: Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness), its decline (Swift’s partners are fading, English predecessors), and the way literature corresponds with its respective empire. Before Watchmen never had a hope for being this good.

Inside Llewyn Davis: I could talk all about how the Coens articulate grief, the way Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a failure at everything but music, and callbacks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Especially gripping were the scenes where Llewyn is presented with an opportunity to do something noble or decent, but passes it up because he’s just pent-up and confused and angry and desperate. Basically, the only closure he gets is a modicum of comfort over the tragic suicide of his musical partner, even if he will never get over it. And all of that is wonderful, touching, and resonated with me on a personal level, but I really included this as an opportunity to type these words: “WHERE IS ITS SCROTUM!?”

Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard 2: David Petersen’s small publishing hit churned out another round of anthologies. All of varying quality (the best was Christian Slade’s “The Love of the Sea”), but each a celebration of storytelling and art, from its roots in oral tradition to modern publishing for the masses. Utterly charming.

Drug War: An allegory for Hong Kong/Chinese relations, Johnnie To’s first mainland action movie found humanity within the inhumane systems of crime syndicates, Chinese communism, and the global War on Drugs. Everyone here is a person–the cops have each other’s back for gas money, the crooks pay true respect to their dead friends by burning their profits, delivering 2013’s single greatest scene–which makes it all the harder to watch when the bullets fly and bodies drop. To effortlessly displays the ways even decent people, whether they have a badge or cook meth, fall prey to systems designed purely to steamroll over them.

Happy 2014.

Let He Who is Without Sleep Catch the First Zs

This sentiment turns up on my Facebook feed quite often:

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession:
I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians.

I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period.

This Stein “confession” (really a rant) goes on about how it’s okay to question the Bible, but not newspapers (patently untrue, just check the comical stylings of any comment section for any news article), that kids today have no conscience (arguable on any given day), and blah blah blah the world is going to hell because God is being pushed out, etc. Boilerplate rhetoric for a majority posing as minority, because being the minority is “cool” in the way everyone loves an underdog. It’s faintly annoying when hearing such from working people expressing (justifiable) rage at an establishment that’s long sold them out; at least from them, there’s genuine feeling, if misguided. From rich, right-wing Ben Stein, it’s insufferable because it’s so cynically designed to distract people from the real ways their futures are being determined: not by secular humanists, or even assholes like Richard Dawkins, but by businessmen thumping Bibles.

Let’s face facts: in America, Christians are not some oppressed minority whose rights are being trampled on. Christianity, in the grand tradition of all religions, has seeped its way into the halls of power over the course of America’s relatively short lifetime. It’s been made a part of our slogans (“God Bless America!”), it’s been inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, it’s been printed on our currency, and it’s even made itself a deciding factor on whether candidates are suited for office (That non-issue of whether Barack Obama was Christian or Muslim? Does anyone think he would’ve been elected at all if he was neither, and admitted such?), all long after the founding of the country. Religious interests are so strong in this country, a group from one state can muscle through legislation in another state in order to deny certain people equal rights, as happened with Prop 8 in California. Despite atheists and agnostics being roughly 20% of the American population, only one Congressman (Pete Stark) has ever admitted to being either. But, to hear so many religious folk crying about how they’re being “pushed around,” you would think their interests weren’t being catered to by governments and businesses every year, including the “liberal, godless” media that consistently peddles Christianity to the masses. Except their leaders have their fingers in the pie, so statements like this are baffling:

I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Except no one has expressed that. The argument is that America is a secular nation (big difference), an interpretation drawn from the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”). America is a nation for all religious views, which includes not believing in any of it. If you don’t like it, tough shit.

I do have to admire the gall, though. While I’m constantly having to put up with family members expecting me to pray to a god I don’t believe in before eating, or being given some annoying lecture about how I’ll “come around,” I’m also being accused of ramming my beliefs down Christians’ throats just for saying “No thank you.”

Ben Stein is not brave for writing this hooey. Neither is anyone sharing it on the internet. They’re falling in line with the establishment that says “God loves you” with one hand but says “He’s punishing you” if a hurricane demolishes your city and your home with the other. The same establishment that declared lands belonging to the Indians as theirs because God willed it, justifying years of genocide. The same establishment that over centuries has performed witch trials, inquisitions, and holy wars. An establishment that has escalated its arrogance at the same pace as the methods to back them up (swords to guns to bombs to drones) But, clearly, it’s people not wanting the Bible taught as science in schools that are the problem. After finishing his tantrum, Stein closes nonsensically:

Pass it on if you think it has merit.
If not, then just discard it. No one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

This is the mark of establishment, privilege, and the powerful. Stein, like his fellow Republican cronies, complains his views are being stifled, yet it’s plain in his speech there’s no interest in dialogue. Only the believers are allowed in the circle, and only then if they join hands and pray the rest of us are murdered in fire and brimstone. That isn’t concern for society, or the shape of the world, it’s only concern with not wanting to admit their own callousness.

I’m tired of it.

The Awkward Presentation of an Internal Dialogue, Which Should Have Stayed Internal

Since I love comics and criticism, I often feel the need to check out reviews other people put out. Not for shallow validation of my opinions by finding out if anyone agrees with me (though, that is nice), but to get different perspectives or some new understanding of craft.

Another reason is to remind myself of how I don’t want to write. For example:

“Given his past form, in which characters are introduced by spending entire issues on visiting each one in turn for a brief chat about their powers and motivation, it’s particularly enjoyable that Bendis has clearly decided to show rather than tell. Iron Man may be familiar to most, but the likes of Rocket Racoon [sic]  and Star-Lord clearly benefit from sequences that give them a moment in the spotlight. This may be the first time I’ve read a comic with Rocket Racoon [sic] in it, but the appeal of the character — at least as Bendis writes him — is instant. Similarly, Bendis packs widescreen, blockbuster action moments in this issue. An Earth-invading alien attack is well realized through expert choreography and timing, while elsewhere the leaders of various galactic empires meet to discuss Earth’s fate.”

– Review of Guardians of the Galaxy #2

This paragraph, as does the review as a whole, confounds me. None of the sentences written by the critic, James Hunt, have any sort of analysis to them. Nor does Hunt supply examples to back up anything he has written (the one-sentence plot summary he gives at the end of the quoted passage is not really specific to the comic he’s reviewing, even). The “appeal” of Rocket Raccoon (“as Bendis writes him,” anyway) is supposedly “instant,” yet nothing is said of how the character talks or behaves in the issue. Similarly, no examples are provided of how Bendis “shows” instead of “tells,” a sentence that seems contrary to reviews other, more rigorous comic critics have written on the series. It’s less criticism (academic or otherwise) than a series of superlatives looking to grace ad copy. This isn’t even a one-time thing, either: Comic Book Resources’ archives are packed with sterile, thoughtless commentary. Positive, negative, indifferent, there’s so little said with all those words it leaves the impression the site has its critics fill out a form rather than actually write (Abhay Khosla pointed out a while ago how much they love the word “masterful“). A Colin Smith, a Sean Witzke, or even someone middle of the road like Youtube’s Afroblue will back up what they’re saying with specific examples. They will talk about how something is put together, or the choices made (or not made) by the author(s). They also understand that adjectives are supposed to be used to qualify a thought, not to replace it.

This sort of thing wouldn’t bother me, except it comes up everywhere. Paid, professional critics who barely string a loose collection of sentences together and call it a “review.” While I hardly believe in the idea of “gate-keepers” and “role models” as a general rule, I do believe this noncommittal, eager to please/hesitant to upset model does set an example to the audience at large to not think about their art/entertainment. To remain as unengaged as possible. “Turn off my brain” or “You think too much” is the message here, and it is harmful. Not as immediately as a nut with a gun or a bomb, or increased expenses, or the loss of employment, sure, but a culture actively being passive is a culture incapable of anything but blind servitude.

Now and Then, My Dreams Need to be Crushed (In List Form)

I probably spend more time than I should dreaming up movie pitches that would a) probably not do well in any American theatrical market–major chains, independent drive-ins, arthouses, not even those filthy places built in the 70s where people went to watch pornos in the comfort and safety of a darkened room with other, probably masturbating strangers–and therefore b) would not be greenlit by any studio. It would, however, be great if they were. Here’s a few of them:

  1. A mind-bending sci-fi thriller starring Jeffrey Wright. (Source Code doesn’t count, as Wright was merely a supporting player, not the star).
    Why Wouldn’t It Get Made?: Wright’s an admirable character actor, but not a name that people instantly recognize. Also, Hollywood seems to think sci-fi movies are the realm of white folks (and Will Smith).
  2. Take the premise of Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, dump the white leads, and replace them with Giancarlo Esposito as a smuggler hired to sneak a family into Arizona. This would have improved the movie a million times over.
    Why Wouldn’t It Get Made?: Movies that are supposed to be about the struggle of minorities supposedly only resonate with audiences if a white person is there to help start the revolution (see: Avatar, District 9, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, The Help, etc.). So, basically, the same reasons as #1.
  3. A shot-for-shot remake of 300, but with dildos in place of the Spartans.
    Why Wouldn’t It Get Made?: Producers would insist Leonidas should be played by someone at least quasi-famous and generically handsome (“I hear Bradley Cooper is still looking to be taken seriously!”). In the end, they would decide to put all the “strip-mine our culture” money into re-releasing Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra in 3D.
  4.  A buddies in action war flick in the style of The Dirty Dozen or Saving Private Ryan, but about the Mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 80s. With a cameo by Habib Al-Habib as Osama bin Laden as “the drill sergeant guy.”
    Why Wouldn’t It Get Made?: Beats me.