Thursday, January 05, 2017

REEEEEE Vult, a Response to The Economist's "Medieval Memes" Article



Yesterday I became aware of an article published by The Economist on January 2nd titled “Medieval Memes: The far right's new fascination with the Middle Ages.” It is an irritating piece of clickbait, that I normally would ignore, but this time its in my wheelhouse. Here it is.

Here is the Archive link if you don't feel like giving the Economist clicks for it (or in case it is somehow edited or removed)

I recommend reading along, because otherwise my ramblings won't make any sense.

Some credentials. I have a Master's Degree in Humanities, which is a small department at my alma mater that focused on a more Classical fusion of philosophy, literature, history and so on pertaining to a historical area. It was very niche, and allowed the student and department to work together to develop a focused curriculum suitable to their field of study. Mine was the 14th-15th centuries and more specifically the Northern Crusades. So while I am not currently employed as a Medievalist (it is a very small field and good luck getting your foot in the door unless you want to take a Marxist or Feminist approach to the subject, then you can be swimming in grant money. Sadly not a joke), nor am I by any means an expert in the field, I still am a historian thanks to my academic training, and I will be viewing this article though that lens.

First, the byline. The initials “S.N.” which tell me nothing. I have no idea who or what the author of the piece is, nor their credentials, if they even have them. A quick search of the initials in connection to The Economist bring up several “The Economist Explains” articles. One about Dutch people working part time, another about some economists wanting to get rid of cash and so on. A dead end, then. Next to it is “Claremont, California,” which a quick search shows is a primarily residential town at the Eastern edge of Los Angeles County that is home to a collection of seven colleges, both undergrad and graduate. So its a college town, and a large one at that. So the author of the piece is more likely to be a professor, or staffer, or student than, say, a pipe fitter.

Below that is a photograph from Game of Thrones featuring horsemen in armor that is clearly more fantastical than real. (Seriously, Lamellar? In a Wars of the Roses ripoff?) I suppose that's to be expected, since GoT is visually synonymous with “standard fantasy” in the eyes of modern pop culture. Ten years ago, it would've been a picture from Lord of the Rings. Yet it has nothing to do with actual Medieval scholarship outside of the visual cue of armored men on horseback.

The text begins with a contradiction. The first sentence asserts that until recently “it was rare to find Americans who were passionate about both medieval history and contemporary politics.” First, this is an anecdotal assumption without evidence provided (which is most of the article). Second, it mentions “the odd Christian conservative,” “a Marxist grad student” and “an environmental activist” in a list of hypothetical examples of your average medievalist. Each of these hypothetical people is identified as someone deeply rooted in contemporary politics. It is a Christian conservative, a Marxist grad student, and an Environmental activist.

None of these is a prerequisite for studying the past. Moreover, one need not have a modern political agenda to be fascinated by land ownership patterns or vegetable dyes. The Society for Creative Anachronism in particular is deeply interested in rediscovering how authentic Medieval clothing was constructed for the purposes of recreating it.

Moreover still, the odd “Christian Conservative” is less odd than one would think. I went to a Jesuit university. One of my grad school mentors was a Jesuit, and another was a devout layman who headed up the Catholic Studies department. I shared several classes with a few seminarians. The encompassed a broad spectrum of political alignment. In my experience, you could not throw a copy of Summa Theologi√¶ without hitting a fellow Catholic. Which is not a surprise, considering that Europe during the time period in question was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

“Since the September 11th attacks." The current year is 2017. 9/11 happened sixteen years ago. There are people who were born after the event who are now learning how to drive. “Fairly recently” is a stretch at this point. “The American far right has developed a fascination with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—in particular, with the idea of the West as a united civilisation that was fending off a challenge from the East.” The idea of a unified Western European civilization (interestingly, the spelling of “civilization” uses the British variant, a possible clue to our mystery author) is one that the Medieval Europeans themselves held. It was called Christendom, and referred generally to the lands where Christianity was the dominant religion as opposed to neighboring Islam or paganism. The notion of “whiteness” was much less important than being Christian to the Medieval mind. This is part of the reason why Europeans were so enamored with the legend of Prestor John's distant, but very Christian, kingdom providing assistance to greater Christendom in a time of need.

In function "Christendom" was more of a cultural identity than an established geopolitical unit, since Christian kings and nobles were constantly fighting each other over worldly disputes well before the Reformation fractured the religion in Western Europe. There's also the constant friction between the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire over who should lead the general Christian community, the Popes or the Imperial heirs of Charlemagne, that frequently led to wars and excommunications of Emperors. The idea of “Christendom” is by no means new. It is also no surprise that when Islamic extremists refer to their own attacks as literal holy jihads, that there are people who would take to the idea that “Christendom” is under attack again. In many ways, it is, or are we ignoring the criticisms of the “decadent West” and the rhetoric of how America is “The Great Satan” which was used by the Ayatollah of Iran in the 1970s? The far-right of the West are not the only ones dredging this imagery up.

“The embrace of the medieval extends from the alt-right online forum culture that has exploded in the last few years to stodgier old-school racists.” Oh boy, here we go. Deus Vult memes from Reddit and Twitter are very, very, very rarely to be taken seriously, as are photoshops of Donald Trump in crusader armor shouting “Deus Vult!” as a reference to his saber rattling against ISIS. Internet “shitposting” as its called (if you'll pardon my French) is mostly to be taken ironically or deliberately contrarian to get a rise out of people. A quick look at Know Your Meme would provide plenty of stupid jokes that display this.

“Anti-Islam journals and websites name themselves after the Frankish king Charles Martel, who fought Muslim armies in the 8th century.” I have never heard of a website named after Charles Martel, but I know for a fact that he was the father of the man who would establish the Carolingian Dynasty (Pepin the Short) and while Charles himself would functionally rule as Mayor of the Palace and Duke and Prince of the Franks, he never, EVER became king and deliberately left the throne vacant during his time as regent.

This is not some nobody. This is the grandfather of Charlemagne and a major early Medieval figure in his own right. He is well documented, and a MEDIEVALIST, even one not focusing on the Carolingian period, could verify this information with even a quick glance at any online encyclopedia. This is an insultingly amateurish error in basic research.

Curiously, the article mentions that modern Jihadists use their own memes and images to promote the idea that they are in a cultural war against a reincarnated Byzantium. Sounds like an interesting counterpoint, but is not addressed again.

We continue. “For Americans who are indifferent to the Middle Ages, or think of it as an unpleasant plague-ridden prelude to the present, this might be of little consequence. But millions of others with mainstream or left-leaning beliefs are attracted to the medieval era—witness the popularity of Renaissance reenactments, or medieval-inspired fantasies like "Game of Thrones".” I will meet anecdote with anecdote: Most of the people I know who view the Medieval period as “a plague-ridden prelude to the present” are left-leaning or Progressive in some form or another.

Why is there an automatic assumption that it is only millions of left-leaning or “mainstream” people that are attracted to the time period? For a theologically minded conservative Christian, the works of Aquinas, Augustine, More, Erasmus, and Dante are THE bedrock of academic scholarship. And “mainstream” is as vague a category as can be imagined. Besides, aren't the masses of average people the ones who don't care about the Medieval period that much anyway? I'm getting deeply mixed signals here.

Then it mentions conservative firebrand Milo Yiannapoulis for some reason (probably clickbait algorithms). He's irrelevant to the article, but regardless of what one thinks of Milo, he's such a self-promoter who puts his name out as much and as far as possible that it should be easy to copy and paste his last name into an article so that it can be spelled properly. “Yiannopoulos.” There. I just did it myself. Also, “including a preference for a preference for “homogeneity over diversity.” is a sentence where a big red circle from a professor would go to mark the error. Proofreading is essential to presenting a academically professional argument.

The following paragraph quotes an essay by Sierra Lomuto (I had to look up her credentials because the article did not provide them: she is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania with a background in women's studies and English) at “In the Middle” a left-wing academic blog that I have never heard of but has 2,895,500 page views. Here's the essay in full, if you are of a mind to read it since the author of the piece did not provide a link.

It is left-wing and intersectional, which is a topic of social justice controversy (and beyond the scope of this already too-long response), but the crux of its argument is that it is a moral imperative for Medievalists as a whole to resist white nationalism from pointing to the Middle Ages to justify their own viewpoints. Fair enough, I suppose, but could it not also be argued by a Medievalist who does not subscribe to intersectional feminism that they too must be resisted from pointing to the Middle Ages to justify their own viewpoints if they are counterfactual? The end goal of historical study should be historical accuracy, regardless of agenda.

Art historians document the appearances of dark-skinned migrants in northern Europe to show that medieval populations, if not quite as mobile as today, were still pretty mobile.” The “art historians” mentioned is one person, the person who runs the People of Color in European Art History page (medievalpoc.tumblr.com), which received considerable attention from left-wing outlets in 2014 (including NPR), has apparently received harrassment (which is never acceptable) but has also been rightly criticized for presenting factually incorrect information (the criticism of which is entirely acceptable for someone purporting to be historically accurate). Here's an example. (yes, its somebody roleplaying a Dalek, because Tumblr is a bizarre place, but at least they show their work and sources). Interestingly, the “In The Middle” essay also links to the Medieval POC Tumblr page.

The paragraph ends with: “Progressives and reactionaries may both be drawn to the Middle Ages out of an affinity for “tradition,” says Shirin Khanmohamadi, a professor of literature at San Francisco State University who teaches a course called the Multicultural Middle Ages. But progressives would find it most interesting to explore "the premodern contribution to 'multiculturalism' and to other modes taken for granted as modern."” Khanmohamadi has published one book, “In Light of Another's Word European Ethnography in the Middle Ages” in 2013 through the University of Pennsylvania Press. The description of which seems to explore Medieval European travel accounts, like those of “John Mandeville”, Gerald of Wales, and William of Rubruck. Fair enough, that's an interesting subject. What is much more controversial is her name attached to a list of 465 members of the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine resolution. The Modern Language Association is a huge body of academics who study modern languages and literature and have created the MLA Style Manual, which dictates the proper format for academic writing (in the Liberal Arts, at least). I say controversial because the resolution would call on the MLA to boycott Israeli academic institutions until political criteria are met by the state of Israel. That's uncomfortable territory for both sides of the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Then there is a small dig at people who enjoy movies and video games because that's somehow a sign of intellectual inferiority somehow? The very existence of Crusader Kings II, which is a very, very deep Medieval Spreadsheet Simulator, points to the opposite, that these mediums, while at times very flawed (such as Braveheart's Battle of Stamford Bridge Without the Bridge or the blatant Soviet propaganda of the 1938 film Aleksandr Nevskiy), they can be a valuable tool in promoting the study of the time period. Yet while absorbing medieval information primarily through movies is implied to be wrong, Game of Thrones is somehow fine, despite being a show many people watch for “titties and dragons.” If it is because George R.R. Martin has the “correct” political opinions, then this is, to appropriate a phrase, deeply problematic.

On the surface, it is a poorly-written article by an anonymous author with multiple proofreading errors, one glaring factual error, nonexistent citations, and a decidedly one-sided political slant that requires research on the part of the reader to discover.

The article's true argument seems to be that the Medieval period is one of deep historical complexity and nuance (I agree) and that it is a moral imperative that the gatekeepers of that academic knowledge must resist political stances that they deem to be wrong by teaching the benighted populist masses the error of their ways. On this I vehemently disagree. An “Ivory Tower” approach to teaching about the Medieval and Renaissance periods that presupposes the moral authority of a particular modern political philosophy is a dangerous slippery slope that discourages debate, encourages intellectual stagnation, and ultimately drives people interested in the subject matter away if they do not have the "correct" identity politics. No matter how well-intentioned it may be, that kind of mindset is identical to justifying every action with cries of “Deus Vult!”

Closing the academic gates against the supposed intellectual barbarians is not the answer. Those hungry for knowledge will seek it elsewhere, and the increasingly available translations of primary source documents, living history groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) or several Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) schools or the slowly growing number of very knowledgeable Youtubers will be happy to quench that thirst for knowledge.


Monday, October 03, 2016

"I am Torgo. I take care of the place while the Master is away."


So yes, Manos: The Hands of Fate is an infamous little movie from 1966 that is often mentioned in conversations about the "Worst Movie Ever Made." While I don't think its the actual worst movie ever made (that's a matter of personal taste), it is a colossal turkey that earns its reputation.

Written, produced, directed and starring Harold P. Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas, the movie was famously made on a bet with a Hollywood location scout named Stirling Silliphant, who would himself go on to great acclaim as the screenwriter of such classics as In the Heat of the Night, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and, uh, Over the Top. The bet was that Warren could complete a low budget horror film on his own.

After a tumultuous production and failing miserably in the Southwest, the film languished in obscurity until the famous MST3K episode aired in 1993. After that, it turned into a Z-movie icon, eventually spawning a mobile game, a blu ray digital remaster, and a successful crowdfunded project for Manos Returns, which is due some time this year if IMDB is correct. Much like Troll 2, its not exactly obscure anymore, but that doesn't change the fact that its still awful.

What's it about? 

After eight minutes of driving around the El Paso countryside, a family on vacation get lost looking for Valley Lodge. The father, Mike, is played by Hal P. Warren himself. The mom is Margaret, played by Diane Mahree, who would later find success in fashion modeling, and their daughter, Debbie, played by Jackey Neyman, but dubbed into incomprehensibility. They stop at a house that “wasn't there before” first to ask for directions, then for lodging as night approaches. The caretaker is a twitchy and awkward man with strange knees (whether he was supposed to be a satyr or “like a hunchback, only hunchknees” seems a bit ambiguous, since I've seen both reported. Doesn't really matter, anyway.) He's named Torgo, and played by John Reynolds, a troubled young man who was apparently on LSD during filming and committed suicide at the age of 25 a month before the movie was released to theaters. 

So that's depressing.

Torgo's weird as hell, speaking in halting sentences and stumbling around with his own theme song. He takes care of the place while the Master is away, and while reluctant to allow the family to stay, he lusts for Margaret.

The Master is played by Tom Neyman, and is the leader of a mysterious and vague cult of possibly immortal, possibly undead people. He worships an abyssal being of primordial darkness named Manos that has a hand motif, and his cult centers their worship around a macabre bonfire where they sit, talk, argue, and eventually get into a catfight around. Essentially the Dark Souls of movies.

I'm only half joking. The similarities might be purely coincidental, but they are striking.

Tom Neyman is essentially the unsung hero of this movie. In addition to being the villain, his daughter played Debbie, his dog played the devil dog, he helped make Torgo's knees, built some of the props and his wife designed most of the costumes. He also gives the best performance of the movie, for what its worth.

I've noticed that in the best worst movies made, there's always some person with talent that is applying genuine effort to elevate the movie above its massive failings. Here, its clearly Neyman who gave it his best effort.



So what doesn't work? Saying “Everything” is a cop out, and also untrue. The editing is bad, with long and short cuts jumping around the place and long stretches of boredom that help drag its run time over 60 minutes. The cinematography is bad, with mostly dull scene composition, flat interior lighting and absolutely horrible exterior night lighting. There's the occasional flash of an interesting shot, but it passes just as quickly as it arrived. The acting is bad, with flat deliveries of dull dialogue. The female characters have it worse, with weird delays in their reactions and awkward expressions and just generally weird timing issues with their delivery. The audio itself was bad, and every sound, including dialogue, was added in post production, with voice recording occasionally being drowned out by sound effects. The smooth jazz soundtrack also doesn't fit the tone of a legitimate horror movie at all, with its flutes and saxophones and pianos.

So what's good about it? Or at least “good” with air quotes?

Torgo has become such an iconic character because he's so damn weird. He's a filthy creepy pervert that peeps through windows, yet he's the most sympathetic character because its obvious he's an unwilling servant of the Master who's fed up with being treated like dirt for a very long time.

The Master himself chews the scenery and glowers like a madman. There's even a kernel of a moody, mysterious horror film buried at the core (brigadoon house, strange cult, creepy caretaker, supernatural goings-on, etc), but the execution is so un-salvageable that it adds to the boredom and, oddly, its bizarro charm.

Like so many of its Z-level kin, Manos: The Hands of Fate ends up being a trainwreck that is simultaneously boring and utterly surreal.


Do I recommend it? As a movie that fulfills the basic requirements of entertainment, no, HELL NO. For the certain masochistic subset that has conditioned itself to find joy in weird cinematic failures this is absolutely essential, like a rite of passage. 


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Talk about a workplace romance gone wrong."


Warner Brothers and DC continue to chase the dragon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Suicide Squad, and they continue to make weird creative and tonal decisions that continuously hamstring that effort.

It made me think a lot of thoughts, so buckle up, this is going to be a long one.



Task Force X, more commonly referred to as the Suicide Squad, dates back to a couple issues of The Brave and the Bold in 1959 where it was a government agency formed when the Justice Society disappeared for a while. They were mostly military people and disappeared into retirement/obscurity after a while. 


The second, more popular, critically acclaimed version that this movie is largely based on, dates back to 1987, where a government official rounds up a bunch of hardened criminals with super powers or advanced technology, and sends them across the world to do government wetwork where they either succeed or get themselves killed. Either way, its a win-win for Uncle Sam. But not THE Uncle Sam, who actually is a character in the DC Universe. 


Told you so.



 There's also a modern version of the team similar to the 80s-90s version, but this time with a little less inter-team backstabbing and with Harley Quinn attached because its a new continuity and they needed a popular character to add to it because that's what temporarily sells comic books.

What this means is that in one form or another, the Suicide Squad has existed in three different major DC comics continuities (Pre-Crisis, New Earth, and New 52). This is also why explaining comic books to normies is both frustrating and time consuming.

So before we get into it, here's the Spoiler-free Review: Suicide Squad is the most entertaining movie of the DC Cinematic Universe, but its still not very good and continues to be frustrating in how close it can get to getting it right and how painfully often it misses the mark. 5/10.

Anyway, the movie version is assembled much like the 80s team. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) proposes a disposable black ops team made up of hardened super criminals in the wake of Superman's bland death in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice so that the government has some way to check the next Superman who shows up and isn't interested in Truth, Justice, and the culturally sensitive way.

Oh yeah. Spoilers for Batman v Superman.

Waller is pretty spot on for what the comic version is all about and is herself a bad, bad lady when she needs to be. She recruits decorated war hero golden boy Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to serve as field commander and babysitter for her team. She does this by setting him up with an archeologist named June Moon (Cara Delevingne) who is possessed by an ancient entity called the Enchantress who is obviously magical but they persist in calling it extradimensional. Waller has the Enchantress' heart in a suitcase that she can stab voodoo-doll style if the freaky witch lady starts getting out of line.

The rest of the team consists of Deadshot (Will Smith), a world-class assassin and marksman; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the Joker's girlfriend and equal in lunacy; Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Australian crook who uses trick boomerangs and fought the Flash; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a former gangbanger with deadly pyrokinetic abilities and a desire for redemption; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the Batman villain who looks like a crocodile; Slipknot (Adam Beach), a jobber from Firestorm's old series who's good at climbing things. Oh, and they're also joined by Katana (Karen Fukuhara) who isn't a villain at all, but she does have a magical sword that captures the souls of the people killed with it. To their credit, they don't even bother trying to explain that one away as being extradimensional vaguely advanced science. She's a left field pick, but its fine, and it has me crossing my fingers that they actually go and make a Batman and the Outsiders movie. Because I'm the lunatic who wants to see them pull off live action Metamorpho and Geo-Force.


GEO-FORCE!

Anyway....

We're introduced to most of the team through flashbacks as to how they got arrested, usually through Batman and in Boomer's case, the Flash in a brief cameo.

While the team is being assembled, Enchantress goes off the reservation and frees her brother, Incubus, only instead of meeting him in outer space, they meet up in a subway. She goes rogue, Waller tries and fails to kill her, Incubus powers her up and gives her a cleaner costume, and the two proceed to build a gigantic glowing bomb that may or may not be a light grenade for vaguely defined reasons. But its definitely a threat. Because Waller says so.

The squad mounts up and chafes under Flag's gung-ho leadership and they fight their way through a city crawling with relatively easily killed minions and yadda yadda yadda, the villains end up bonding with each other and who's the real monster blah blah blah and it literally ends like Ghostbusters.

No, not this year's biggest movie trainwreck. I mean the original Ghostbusters.

The plot is derivative as hell and the only reason it isn't linear is because its broken up by numerous flashbacks. The editing is also really weird and reeks of executive meddling, since there are introductions, then introductions again, then recaps of things that happened half an hour ago, and other messes like that.

The meat of the movie is a ensemble character piece as these weirdos are thrust into an increasingly bizarre adventure. A lot happens, but the actual plot is surprisingly simple. Curiously for a character piece, the three top billed characters are the ones I had the most problems with.


Deadshot. So Floyd Lawton comes from a well-to-do but messed up family and his killing days started early. He tried to challenge Batman with a tuxedo and mask, got arrested, developed a nihilistic “death wish” which was him mostly not caring about whether he lived or died and eventually found out he had a daughter which gave him some semblance of something to live for. Death wish, sleazy white trash moustache, selfish prick, sarcasm, eventual discovery of a daughter that gave him something to live for. These are Deadshot's biggest character traits, and the movie only bothers with the last two. He only ever wears his iconic mask twice, which I understand. You pay for Will Smith, you damn well better use all of Will Smith. Its the lack of a death wish that really makes him generic anti-hero here. The whole appeal of Deadshot is to see him be enormously casual about the deaths of his teammates and about the danger around him, which ironically enough, makes him the perfect member of the Squad because all he cares about is himself and shooting people that annoy him.




Harley Quinn. Personal taste is personal taste, but I prefer the harlequin version from the Animated Series to the modern Suicide Girls camwhore version, mostly because I prefer minimalist designs. Character-wise, this Harley is cheerful, bubbly, and thoroughly psychotic, which is in keeping with the character, but she also lacks an innocence that detracts subtlety from the character. This isn't a knock on her performance, that's fine. My beef is with the writing. 


Part of the bizarre appeal of Harley is her innocence. When she's happy, its a childlike joy. When she's angry, its a tantrum, albeit a deadly one that usually involves hyenas tearing someone apart. She taps into a trickster archetype, a prankster. Making her a sexpot doesn't work for me because it means the Joker regressed her to a teenager instead of a pre-adolescent, which is less horrifying. And let's not bandy about here, the Joker taking an intelligent psychologist and manipulating her into loving him and then fracturing her personality into a thousand broken pieces is HORRIFYING. That's the point.




Joker. I haven't mentioned Jared Leto's Joker for a couple of reasons. First, he has absolutely no bearing on the plot. Whatsoever. You could cut every one of his scenes and it would work out exactly the same. Second, its the arguably the worst on-screen portrayal of the Joker, and definitely the worst live-action one. The Joker's entire existence serves as a mockery. A mockery of sanity, good taste, morality, style, taste, whatever you can think of, the Joker exists to deliberately subvert it. The argument can be made that this version's a mockery of modern day gangsters and their aspirations of opulence. My counter-argument is that its simply not funny in its execution. They get the off-putting weirdness of the Joker down on screen, but they miss the point that he's the Clown Prince of Crime. 


Much of Joker's atrocities are committed because he thinks they're funny. He's even go so far as to let people live because killing them wouldn't be funny. Its also why his history is littered with outlandish gag weapons and deathtraps. Its because he finds his brand of nihilistic absurdity hilarious, and when the writers are good, we too find it hilarious, which is the greatest element of the horror that is the Joker. We can identify with the Joker's sense of humor, which in turn repulses us, because there's that little bit of the Joker inside us all. Much like Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman, the misinterpretation of such an archetypal character as the Joker is downright tragic.

Now, as to the portrayal of Joker & Harley's relationship. The Joker is the primary mover and his erratic, often dangerous treatment of Harley is also part of his villainy. He created her on a whim, and just as often, casts her aside for those same reasons. HOWEVER, on the flipside, Harley is a monster of his creation and is psychotically devoted to him, in a “if I can't have him, no one can” sort of way, which is also comical because its a kind of karmic retribution for ol' Puddin'. Its a relationship built out of two horrible people who are always on the verge of killing each other. Its anything but healthy, but the abuse runs both ways.



Enchantress. Oddly enough, June Moon is fairly close to her comic counterpart, where she is wildly powerful but wildly dangerous. The problem is that she's also the primary antagonist so she has nothing to do with the rest of the team and does little besides sneer, move around creepily, and give Rick Flag something to angst about. Also, I do miss the green witch's hat.


Rick Flag. He starts out as a standard military action movie guy, then he gets involved with Enchantress, then he turns into the team's wet blanket, and then he gets a little more interesting, but not much. He has to play the straight shooter compared to all the villains, but he mostly gets lost in the crowd, and even his “rivalry” with Deadshot feels hollow.

So with all the legitimate complaints about the movie, there are some real bright spots that stand out, even if they're underutilized.



Killer Croc's a lot of fun as dumb muscle comic relief. He buddies up with Diablo, but aside from a few moments where he rips and tears or tosses off an occasional one-liner, he doesn't really do anything. Which is a shame, since the makeup work on him is fantastic.




Captain Boomerang steals every scene he's in because, like the comics, he's a complete and total shitbag. Drunk, filthy, womanizing, cowardly, backstabbing, and yet a survivor who, in the comics at least, is capable of giving the Flash a legitimate fight because he's such a tricky bastard. The scene where he dupes Slipknot into making a break for it only for the bomb to go off is lifted from the comics (except in the books, Slipknot lost an arm, not his head, so he could come back later and job some more). 



The part where Flag smashes the detonator and sets the Squad free because he's mopey about Enchantress is perfectly punctuated by Boomer grabbing his beer and bolting from the bar they're in. Of course its ruined by him showing up again outside when they all march off to the final action sequence for no reason that makes any sense outside of a shoehorned attempt to make these villains into “A FAMILY.” It would've been more in character if Boomer actually did run off only to get dragged back after the final battle's over. But whatever, I'm a big Flash fan, and seeing them otherwise get Captain Freakin' Boomerang done right on the big screen gives me some hope for the Flash movie. Not a lot, but some.



The real standout of the movie, and the character who legitimately gives it heart and soul is Diablo. He's soulful, mournful, and his self-imposed pacifism and hopeless quest for redemption is the actual beating heart of this movie. Sure, his arc's predictable like most of the rest of the movie, but its also the best executed and genuinely more compelling than Deadshot learning how to be an antihero or Harley being an awful person and getting away with it because “WE'RE A FAMILY NOW!”


Top-to-bottom, this is a deeply flawed movie with a lot of bad narrative decisions, but there's also some flashes of gold in there that make it the best entry in the DC Cinematic Universe. Its just a shame that “The best entry” in this case is a mediocre 5/10. Not recommended, unless you like C- and D-listers like I do. 


Monday, July 18, 2016

“Do not compare me to the Jaws mayor!”



Full disclosure: I was deeply skeptical of the new Ghostbusters movie. The controversy, the trailers, the leaked plot rumors (that turned out to be true), the previous failed attempts to get Ghostbusters 3 off the ground where Bill Murray allegedly shredded up a script and mailed it back to Dan Aykroyd. So for at least ten years, the story behind making a new Ghostbusters has been a shitshow, and before that, a pipe dream. The last time I actually wanted to see a new real, live Ghostbusters movie was in high school computer class back in 2001. I went into this skeptical but hopeful that it would surprise me.

So why am I writing a review of a movie I didn't really want to see for 15 years?

I had to know.

Not for the controversy, not because somebody else recommended it. I had to know for myself.

Now I know.

Its a giant piece of dogshit that has nothing to do with who has what kind of chromosomes.

First the setup. Have you ever seen Ghostbusters? It follows the major story beats without taking much time to set things up because this isn't a reboot of Ghostbusters. It's a remake. For the uninitiated: some academics have crazy ideas about researching the paranormal. They get kicked out by the faculty for being crackpots. They go into business for themselves, hire a secretary, investigate paranormal occurrences, have some rocky starts, build technology to catch ghosts, hire a new employee, successfully capture a ghost, attract the attention of a cranky mayor, then find themselves the only thing that can stop a giant supernatural threat that could destroy the city of New York.

All that's missing is the humor, the scares, the buildup of a credible supernatural threat, chemistry between the leads, character development that sticks, humor, any kind of made-up rules for how you could use technology to capture ghosts, any kind of a love interest plot that goes anywhere, quotable lines, and humor.

But it does have poop jokes. And fart jokes. And it steals a gag from Young Frankenstein. Oh, and there's a queef joke. And a pointless cameo from Ozzy Osbourne. And its got Bill Murray in a cameo where he looks dead inside.

And it devolves into a 20 minute action sequence at the end with fight choreography and goofy weapons and shooting the physical manifestation of their logo in the dick.

Our four leads are Erin Gilbert played by Kristen Wiig, who was once big into paranormal investigation but left it behind to become a real scientist and then loses her tenure track when she reunites with her old collaborator/friend and flips out after almost catching a ghost and her supervisor fires her. You would think that would lead to conflict between the two, and in a good script it would. Anyway, aside from playing the straight face of the group, she just fades into the background in most scenes. Except when she accidentally kills a man by releasing the only ghost they've managed to catch and it throws him out a window to prove to him that ghosts exist. See, its funny because its Bill Murray's cameo.

Yeah, that was a spoiler. I'm not sorry.

Next is Abbey Yates, played by Melissa McCarthy, who babbles incessantly. That's it. No realizing she accidentally ruined her friend's academic career, no self-awareness, no character development at all.

Abby has partnered up with Jillian Holtzmann, played by Kate McKinnon. Her only purpose in the plot is to be a mad scientist type who creates anti-ghost weaponry and rattles off techno-jargon. So to fill time, she mugs for the camera because there's nothing else to work with. She's one “Freunlaven” away from turning into Mr. Director from Animaniacs.

And last is Patty Tolan, played by Leslie Jones. She's an MTA employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of the weird side of New York and the connections to get a vehicle for the team. She's useful, resourceful, tough, and, remarkably enough, the most believable, fleshed out and likable character in the entire movie and actually has a character arc where she grows from when she's introduced. The movie might even have been better if it was just Patty and Holtz getting into crazy shenanigans. 

They hire Kevin Beckman, played by Chris Hemsworth. Kevin's a narcissistic, airheaded idiot who is miraculously still alive, but he's pretty and Erin has an immediate crush on him, so he's hired. He gets close to some genuine comedy because the character's such an oddball.

There's Rowan North played by Neil Casey, who's the villain. He's creepy and wants to usher in the Fourth Cataclysm (whatever that is) because he's...been bullied all his life? Its stupid and then he kills himself and turns into a ghost that can possess people and then he turns into a terrible CGI version of the Ghostbusters Logo and gets shot in the ghost crotch before being sucked into a portal.

Oh, and there's Andy Garcia as the mayor of New York who knows about ghosts and the supernatural, but helps the Feds clamp down on it to prevent panic. I only mention him because its Andy Garcia and he gets the only line that got a chuckle out of me (which is the quote I used above).

So to sum up what's good about this remake? Leslie Jones and some of the ghost effects. Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson both had good cameos. I had hoped that the controversy surrounding this movie would have at least been a lot of noise about an average movie with a few yuks. The script is terrible, the chemistry between the leads is absent, and there's absolutely zero weight to anything going on in this movie.

Instead, it commits the two biggest sins of comedy: Its boring, and its not funny.


The Star Wars Holiday Special of Ghostbusters.  

Avoid it if you can.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Tell me, do you bleed? You will.



So I recorded something off-the-cuff for this, but it ended up being an incoherent, rambling, overly-long thing that would have been unpleasant for an audience to sit through.

Much like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. ZING!

I'm partially kidding. Batman V Superman is Warner Brothers and DC's attempt at jump-starting a Justice League Movie Universe so that they can chase that Avengers movie cash cow, which is something that's been tried before with Green Lantern (and failed).

Actually, I saw the almost universal panning of the film by the media as a curious thing, especially when a couple people I respect on film/story opinions recommended it. This made me curious enough to see it myself to form my own opinion. Well, I have, and its complicated, and that's why I spent my Sunday night hammering this out.

Short and spoiler-free take? Its a disjointed mess with flashes of goodness but loaded with bloat and inconsistencies that ultimately frustrate the viewer with wasted potential.

From here on out, we're going into spoiler territory.

No, seriously. HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD.


Bats V Supes is a direct sequel to 2013's Man of Steel, which was directed by Zach Snyder and starred Henry Cavill as Superman. That was a deeply divisive movie that garnered tremendous amounts of criticism, but did well enough to warrant a sequel, and with Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy wrapping up, meant that the time was ripe to open up the DC vaults and get a good ol' fashioned crossover going. Two superheroes are led by misunderstanding to fight each other, resolve that conflict, and team up to take down the REAL villain. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme.

Except Bats V Supes is something of a bloated mess of a movie that has multiple ideas, plotlines, and even tones jockeying for the limelight.

The plot of the movie, such as it is, follows Superman trying to find his place in a world that is now in awe of his godlike power, and sometimes fears him. Rightfully so, as the opening sequence features Bruce Wayne rushing to Metropolis during the climactic battle of the last movie and trying to save people's lives while building an understandable resentment for the carnage caused in Superman's wake.

We skip ahead to where Bruce Wayne's hatred of Superman festers into a two-year obsession with finding a way to stop or even kill the Kryptonian while Superman struggles with trying to do Superman stuff like saving Lois Lane from bad guys and being inspirational in a movie that wants to punish him for doing Superman stuff. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is trying to get the U.S. Government to fund his attempts to experiment on Kryptonian technology so that he can find a way to kill Superman. And Wonder Woman shows up occasionally to justify her being in the climactic fight scene with Doomsday.

Is it a total mess worth 29% on Rotten Tomatoes? No. Zach Snyder continues to have a flair for shot composition, and that's something I think people miss. Hell, during Man of Steel, the movie goes from a washed out and gray color palette that increases in colorfulness as Superman begins doing more and more Hero stuff, so that by the end of the movie, its bright and colorful. Which is not something I ever saw mentioned in Man of Steel reviews.

Action sequences are generally well put together. When Batman fights goons, there's a visceral speed to how he takes people down. When you get to the Main Event between Batman and Superman, its a brutal slugging match as Batman has to keep finding ways to hamstring Superman in order to be able to hurt him.

Ben Affleck is great as an older, more jaded Bruce Wayne who's been doing the Batman thing for two decades. There are hints at the cost of being Batman, such as the dead Robin costume with Joker graffitti and the burned out husk of Stately Wayne Manor. This is an older, wiser, but deeply flawed Batman who, refreshingly, makes mistakes and gets outwitted occasionally. No Batgod here.

Instead of Batgod, we get Bat of Murder. This is terrible, because in just about every Batman story out there that isn't a movie version (*cough* Tim Burton *cough*), Batman has two simple rules: No killing. No guns. What does he do here? Kill people with guns. Quite a lot. Even in his dream sequences. Which makes him a hypocrite when he criticizes the destruction that follows Superman. It makes them both hypocrites. Its a horrible mis-characterization that mars an otherwise fantastic Batman.

Wonder Woman is played by the Fast & Furious' Gal Gadot. The whole “she's too skinny to play Wonder Woman” thing before the movie came out was dumb. She looks fine enough and there are worse problems with the movie anyway. Acting-wise, there's not much to evaluate her on. She shows up to be mysterious in the first half, and then shows up for the big team up. The biggest problem with Wonder Woman in this is that she's unnecessary. The movie could've happened without her with minimal changes. “Wonder Woman: International Woman of Mystery” isn't a bad hook for the character, but I doubt the movie in the works will take that direction.

I maintain that Henry Cavill is a good Superman. He's got the face and can sell the earnestness of the character, but both Man of Steel and this seem hell bent on not letting Superman feel good about helping people. Yes he saves people, but its in a slow motion montage that shoots for profundity and misses. Part of the appeal of Superman is that he is always going out of his way to help people, even if its for fairly mundane stuff, like stopping car accidents, foiling amateur bank robberies, or talking a suicidal person off a ledge. Showing Superman fix a spare tire or save a cat from a tree would have gone miles to helping his character in this. They mention this this kind of behavior, when Bruce Wayne accuses Clark Kent of writing puff pieces for Superman, but this is a direct reversal of the SHOW, DON'T TELL rule of storytelling.

Instead we get a sort of dream sequence where the ghost of Pa Kent tells a depressing story about how he helped his farm in a flood but in doing so caused the neighbors' horses to drown and some offhand lines about how he's trying fly Doomsday away from a populated area to minimize damage. Instead of Superman going to Congress and giving an inspiring speech about the infinite potential for human goodness, we have an explosion go off before he can say anything at all in his defense. Hell, the speech he gives to the UN in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a more effective moment, and that movie is all kinds of dumb.

Its enormously frustrating because the movie is hell-bent on turning Superman into a Christ-figure instead of turning him into Superman.

Amy Adams' Lois Lane is fine. She snoops around doing reporter stuff, gets in trouble, Superman rescues her. Classic Lois stuff. I still feel that she would make a better Lana Lang, but oh well.

Jeremy Irons is amazing as Alfred. He's got the right mix of paternal admonishment and encouragement for Batman. Its great. More Alfred, please.

Holly Hunter plays Senator Finch, a character who doesn't really bring much to the table outside of being part of a SHOCKING PLOT TWIST that lands with a thud. It involves a jar of piss labeled peach juice because of a comment made to Lex Luthor. Because scatological humor, am I right folks? 

Speaking of Lex, Jesse Eisenberg's version is just...bizarre. He's very young, very clearly Lex Luthor Jr., and has a mop of unruly hair and twitchy mannerisms that jump all over the place. Sort of like those insufferable millennial hipsters that infest San Francisco. An SJW hipster is a neat concept for a villain, except at that point he's no longer Lex Luthor. Part of Lex's character through his various incarnations has been the projection of strength and control, even when its just a front. This Lex can't even make a speech to a charity event without losing track of what he's saying. He's a creepy weirdo, but unlike Gene Hackman's clownish sociopath or Kevin Spacy's charismatic megalomaniac, this Lex doesn't have that edge of brilliance lurking underneath that justifies his arrogance. Instead, he's pretty much the Joker without the greasepaint.

“But its a false front! He's a master manipulator and he's just fooling everyone into thinking he's a wuss!”

Again, that's not Lex Luthor. Part of the reason he hates Superman is because Lex wants to be strong while Clark Kent IS strong. Lex will never be that kind of strong because Superman's strength comes from his selflessness and Luthor is deeply selfish.

Its a pity, because Eisenberg gives flashes of the real Lex here and there, but again, the movie doesn't let the character be the character.

Adding to the bloat of the film are all the teases for the Justice League. Batman has a dream sequence where he's in a post-Apocalyptic world with a giant Omega symbol and he gets attacked by evil army people, and he starts murdering the hell out of them until he gets overwhelmed by goons and full-blown Parademons. As a tease for Darkseid, its kind of interesting, but it grinds the movie to a halt and doesn't add anything other than a blatant “WE'LL GIVE YOU DARKSEID PLEASE KEEP WATCHING THESE MOVIES.” In that same vein, we get a "thrilling" scene as Wonder Woman receives an email from Batman with data on other metahumans and she opens up video clips of the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. Its hokey, especially Aquaman spending thirty seconds going Grrrrrr at the camera before destroying it, and it could have worked if the movie would have let itself be hokey. 

Which comes down to the fundamental problem running throughout this movie. It feels like there is a constant struggle between the whether or not the characters should act like themselves. When they do, the movie is better. More often than not, they don't for the sake of fitting into the plot's demands.

A strong character can completely derail a scene or plotline simply by acting in character, spoiling the writer's outline and taking it in a different direction. This movie feels like the characters are trying to do that, but editorial/studio intervention is constantly trying to clamp down on them so that the officially mandated plot can assert itself. Because we have to force nods to The Death and Return of Superman as well as The Dark Knight Returns regardless of them making sense.

Much like that jar of peach juice, the label on Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice tries to tell you its a fun superhero movie about how Superman and Batman met and planted the seeds of the Justice League, when its actually just a bloated mess of conflicting plotlines, characterizations, themes that reminds me more of X-Men III than either the Justice League or even The Avengers.

Its a huge letdown, made more so by the flashes of quality gasping for air. If it was a smaller movie simply about Lex Luthor manipulating the media into getting Batman and Superman to fight each other for his own amusement/ambitions, it could have been fantastic. The climax of the film was and should have remained the fight between the title characters and the realization that they're both good men who've been played. Instead we got a pointless fight with Doomsday for the sake of a fight and Superman's death for the sake of an obvious resurrection down the road to save the Justice League at a critical moment. 

If we're lucky he'll have that 90s era mullet.


Not recommended.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

“And if you were a man, baby, I’d knock your teeth out.”


So movies have taught me that your average 1950s teenagers were all in their 30s and as a course of habit always getting into every kind of convoluted predicament imaginable. Case in point: Daddy-O from 1958.

Plot
It starts with Phil (Dick Contino) driving a truck and being cut off by a curvy blonde in a Thunderbird, and he runs her off the road. Her name’s Jana “Jan” Ryan (Sandra Giles), and they argue so much that its obvious they end up together. They meet again at a restaurant/bar where Phil, “Daddy-O” to his friends, sings to the crowd on occasion. One of Phil’s friends, Sonny, is in a sullen and rather creepy mood (see, its ironic because his disposition doesn’t match his name, which...eh, you get the idea). Sonny’s in bad with a fat man named Sidney Chillis, sort of a cross between Orson Wells wand Sidney Greenstreet (played by Bruno VeSota). Chillis is obviously evil, and even has a slack-jawed henchman wearing coke bottle glasses. His name’s Bruce Green (Jack McClure) and he runs a gym and he’s incredibly unintimidating.

Whoo, things are getting complicated. Jan meets Phil again at the restaurant and challenges him to a race. Loser has to buy pizza. They get separated during the race and independently, Sonny was run off the road by Chillis and Bruce and died. The police think Phil did it through reckless driving, but his car doesn’t show any damage from a hit & run. Still, Phil’s license is revoked for other traffic violations because reasons. Phil suspects Jan, but she didn’t do it. Together they go into junior detective mode and track Sonny’s trail to Chillis and Bruce. Chillis offers Phil a job as a singer and errand-boy for his new club the Hi-Note, and Phil accepts, getting a fake ID and a new car. Phil also takes a codename (which is just his performing nickname) for his shady deliveries. Complicated story simplified, Chillis is using Phil to run dope for him while Phil tries to figure out the cause of Sonny’s death. Basically it leads to a goofy climactic fight scene in a basement filled with wine racks.

Characters
Contino is affable enough as Phil, though in a somewhat bland way. Phil gives the impression of being a decent guy who doesn’t think things through before acting. His song, “Rock Candy Baby” is kind of bad, but also just catchy enough for the refrain to worm its way into your head and remind you how bad it is every now and then.

Jan is spunky and shoots her mouth off a lot in the beginning. She’s also a reckless driver. Then she morphs into a love interest/sidekick for Phil and the two have a brief falling out when Phil starts palling around with Chillis’s secretary for a little bit.

Bruce Green is, again, not an imposing henchman. The absurdly thick glasses lead to that perpetual squinty-look. You know, the kind where the nose scrunches up and the mouth hangs open a bit. Bruce’s face is like that the ENTIRE MOVIE.

Sidney Chillis is, oddly enough, the most interesting character. He’s smug and clearly crooked, but he’s also a really classy and erudite guy. He gives Phil two jobs doing what he likes (singing and driving), provides him a car, sets him up with a fake ID, and even gets him some nicer clothes. If it wasn’t for the whole “dope smuggling racket” he had going, he’d be a fantastic boss.

Conclusion
Wait, before the end, I have to note that a young John Williams did the musical score for this movie. Its jazzy and better than a lot of contemporary music, but also not quite the level of awesomeness that Williams would eventually reach. Still, the music’s pleasant.


Daddy-O is ultimately another inoffensive, forgettable teensploitation movie from the 50s. A few interesting elements/characters and a listenable soundtrack don’t do anything to lift it above its contemporaries. But I can’t say that its downright terrible. Its merely forgettable.  


No trailer for this, but here's Rock Candy Baby from the movie, because if I had to listen to it, you can too.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Doctor Who: You'll Be AMAZED!

I BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW THESE ASTONISHING DOCTOR WHO FACTS



1.     It is a science fiction show about a time traveling alien called the Doctor and his human companions.

2.     It is produced by the BBC

3.    The Doctor's greatest foes are the Daleks, a militant race of genocidal aliens bent on extermination.

4.     The Doctor's time machine is the Tardis, which is permanently stuck disguised as British police box.

5.     The Tardis is larger on the inside than the outside.

6.     The Doctor's greatest foes are the Cybermen, a race of coldly analytical cybernetic monsters that assimilate victims into their collective.

7.     The current Doctor is played by Peter Capaldi

8.     The Doctor's greatest foe is the Master, an evil and insane Time Lord.

9.     The Doctor dislikes killing and weapons, so his preferred tool is the sonic screwdriver, which can do whatever the writers want it to.

10.    “Who” is not the Doctor's name. He refers to himself simply as the Doctor.