Friday, February 21, 2014

The Avengers - Consistency

When I discuss my frothing rage for The Avengers with normal people, their first reaction usually has something to do with the fact that I'm a fan of, and read the comics. Most of the time this is a negative reaction, like, "Well, you liked the comics, of course you're going to hate the movie," and exactly once did somebody think that my embarrassing hobby might provide further insight into the movies. Both positions are wrong.

So let's talk about consistency. For the purposes of a lot of movies, especially the lower-brow, popular movies like superhero movies, movies based on fantasy or sci-fi books, or movies based on YA series, there are three things that a character needs to be consistent with.

1) Consistent within the movie itself - You might think this one is pretty easy to pull off, and you might also think that when I say "it's pretty easy to pull off" that I'm about to take a jab at Whedon. Ding ding ding.

When this is done right, it doesn't mean that a character doesn't change from the beginning to the end of the movie. No, that is a character arc, and it is good. It means that due to the circumstances of the movie, Han decides that he wants to fight with the rebels. It is Mystique slowly coming to realize that she has grown apart from her best friend and they no longer see eye-to-eye about mutants and humans. It is Katniss choosing to use her hunger powers for good and not for evil. (I have not seen Hunger Games.)

What it is not is when a character inexplicably changes their tone or mannerisms. Han is still a smarmy, cocksure smuggler, and not, say, a hopeless idealist or stone-cold killer. Creating an arc, and creating it well, is hard; Keeping a character consistent is not.

Which is why there are two lines in Avengers that ruin Black Widow's consistency. From the beginning of the movie (not even acknowledging the other films right now) she is cold, fully in control of her emotions, and very capable at getting shit done. Twice, she plays up the damsel-in-distress cliche to take advantage of her adversaries, once with the Russian gangsters and once with Loki. (I love both these scenes, actually, and I'll be talking about them later.) But, for reasons of sloppy writing and the fact that Whedon only knows how to script the same type of character, she ends up cracking-wise/complaining later on during the big dumb fight scene.

First she's fighting the aliens with Hawkeye and says, "This reminds me of Budapest!" and Hawkeye goes, "You and I remember Budapest very differently!" then the laugh track. Is joke.

Next she gets orders from Captain America to go up to the top of the building, and she has to whine about it. "Yeah, this'll be fun."

You're thinking these throwaway scenes of dialogue don't matter, and that, heh, Hulk punched the big monster. Well, no, changing your badass, tough, no-nonsense character, who faced any challenge given her with aplomb into a sarcastic, complaining girl is shitty writing.

2) Consistency between movies - I touched on this a little bit in an earlier, equally whiny post about The Avengers, and I want to talk about it more later when I go through each character individually, but, I mean, you get it. You're not dumb. If a character is one way in a certain movie, it's pretty awful to suddenly change them to another way, just because you think one scene might be cute.

I'm talking about this.

3) Consistency with the comics - I'm going to make a broad statement with two caveats: Consistency with the comics is not a concern at all.

But, if you change something so far from the source material that it is unrecognizable, then don't bother using it.

Just call her "purple hair girl" for fuck's sake.

Also what you come up with in your movie should be equally good with what's in the comics. The comics are a wealth of information. A lot of these properties have been published in comic form for 50 years or more. A lot of good writers and directors figured this out and adapted stories and ideas from the comics into their movies -- The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, X2 off the top of my head. Not only did directors swipe ideas from the comics, but in a lot of cases, improved upon them or at least didn't make them worse.

So, in this sense, it is important that I'm a fan of the comics. Things in the comics are not automatically better....

...they can add a dimension to a character or a story idea that sometimes the movie fails at.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

I watched a movie about a girl with an impossibly short skirt. It's name was The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Look at the poster. Look at it!

This movie has nothing to do with the skirt and actually very little to do with time travel, but she does leap through time, so I guess it is technically accurate. A girl suddenly acquires the ability to leap through time, so she does some stuff that doesn't matter (like getting a snack from the past) and then there's an ending that also doesn't matter.

So, things I liked about this movie...when the girl leaps through time, she actually leaps through time, like she has to jump to activate the time travel. I eventually figured that perhaps there was a correlation between the height and severity of her jump and how far back in time she goes, and if that's correct, then the movie did a good job of showing that to the audience instead of just telling us.

The jumping thing led to some pretty funny moments, as whenever she went through time she always ended up crashing into something, repeatedly.

And...that's about it. For a while I was really engaged trying to figure out the end of the movie. Was she going to still get killed by the train at the end? (No.) Was the creepy aunt actually herself from the future? (No.) Was she going to make some sort of paradox or even use her powers for something good? (No.) For the first part of the movie I was interested in this, but as none of it panned out and the result was much more boring and frustrating to watch, so, I actually can't say that I enjoying watching this movie, or that I would watch it again. I can't even recommend it to anyone, actually, and it wasn't even worth seeing once. So how did this movie go so wrong?

I'm hesitant to say that it was made well. Just recently I was talking about how Tokyo Godfather's childish animation made what was actually dark subject more palpable. Girl doesn't have any dark subject matter, so when they do cutesy Japanese anime things, it comes off as unnecessary, annoying and distracting, but most importantly, lazy. There was no reason this needed to be animated, since there's no fanastical scenes or anything like that; It's really just a high school drama. I even recall one extended scene where the girl is running through a city and it's really cool, really well-framed, and would have been amazing if it wasn't just animated. Why not get some actors and shoot on film? Oh, because that's hard work. Ok.

Maybe I'm too simplistic, but I think a movie should be about a character I like working towards a goal. Is that too much to ask? I guess so. There are three important aspects in that definition, and this movie fails at all three.

Number one, she has no goal. Or at least, she gets a goal halfway through the movie. So the girl has two friends, boy and other boy. Boy asks her out, but she maybe likes other boy, so she ignores him. Eventually other boy gets a girlfriend, so she decides that she likes boy instead. The rest of the movie is trying to...I don't even fucking know.

Number two, I still don't know what her goal is, but if it has something to do with liking boy, she should probably, like, tell him. You don't even need time travel powers for that. You don't even need a fucking phone. Walk up and be all like, what's up, typical Japanese teenager, let's go get a bagel. Done.

Number three, if her goal is ??? and the obstacle is just telling the boy that she wants in love? or whatever, then she should just tell him, right? Well, she doesn't and the fact that she doesn't makes it really annoying to watch. So, why is this movie famous? Someone please tell me?

1) Well made? - Sure, but actors would have been better than cartoons
2) Contributed?  - Not to animation, sci-fi or romance
3) Good time? - Nope.
4) Watch again? - Never.
5) Worth it?  - The first forty minutes I guess?
6) Who should watch this? - I really wish I could say somebody somewhere must enjoy this...I guess Japanese schoolgirls?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tokyo Godfathers - Part Three

So, for the past week, I've been taking about Tokyo Godfathers. Part One is here. Part Two is here. Still trying to keep this around 500 words, and the scorecard so far is:

1) Well made? - Yes, very.
2) Did it contribute to anything? - ???
3) Did I have a good time watching it? - Yes.
4) Would I watch it again? - I wouldn't hate it, but probably not.
5) Was it worth watching once? - Sure.
6) To whom would I recommend it? - Not to fans of anime or kids, ironically, but most people.

In regards to whether this movie contributes to any issues in society, I'd like to talk about the homeless characters in this movie. Take a look at the poster again:

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a man, a woman, a young girl and a baby, but this is actually two men, a young girl and a baby. One of those men is gay. Can you guess which one?

Take your time.

Can't figure it out, can you? Well, it's this one:

At first glance and considering this comes from the not-so-progressive country of Japan, you might think that this character, whose name is Hana, is the worst combination of stereotypes and prejudices about homosexuals. In a lot of ways, that's correct: Hana is irrational, constantly overreacting, dresses in drag, acts effeminate, flirts with a cab driver, and, well, c'mon, just look at him.

However, Hana is, thankfully, more than a walking pile of stereotypes, and is actually one of the better characterized and more easily relateable characters in this movie. For starters, her actions get the plot rolling in this movie. Whereas upon finding the McGuffin Baby, the other main characters want to take it the police, but Hana wants to find the baby's mother, in part because no one should be unhappy or abandoned on Christmas, the mother needs to explain her actions, and Hana sees herself in this abandoned child. Hana is the antithesis of the cold, uncaring sentiments expressed throughout Tokyo.

I've also been referring to Hana as "he" up until this point, but that's entirely accurate, nor does the movie fully explain exactly what Hana's orientation is. He is constantly referring to himself as a "queer" and a "homosexual" but also states early on that he was put in the wrong body. So, switching pronouns, she is never seen in a "man form" and always in women's clothes, jewelry and hairstyles. The movie doesn't outright say this, and I'm making a bit of a jump, but I think Hana is either a pre-op or post-op transsexual. The difference between her being homosexual and her being transsexual has a huge impact on character and how she came to be homeless.

See, the other two characters made themselves homeless, and that is important. I'm not sure whether Satoshi Kon is making a statement about homelessness in general, whether it's a self-inflicted condition or what, but at least these two do more damage to themselves than anything else. The grown man gets into gambling debts and abandons his wife and child out of shame. The young girl gets into a pointless argument with her father about a cat, overreacts, stabs him, and then overreacts some more and chooses to live on the street. It becomes clear throughout the course of the movie that both of these characters' families are willing to take them back at any point.

Hana, on the other hand, has no family proper to speak of, except for a former boss she calls "mother", who is also more than willing to take her back. Working at a drag bar, Hana assaults a costumer yelling rude things at her, and leaves the bar out of shame. Pretty similar to the others so far, but a bar is not your home, and a boss is not a mother. Why not get a new job? The older man is in debt and bankrupt, the young girl is a young girl and can't support herself. Hana could get a job anywhere, right?

Well, maybe that's what the movie is trying to say. Maybe Hana can't find work because she's a transsexual, living in a city that generally doesn't care whether its inhabitants live or die.

And, I've already made two assumptions about her sexual orientation and her homeless, so I'll make one more. Hana probably has AIDS. She is definitely shown to be sick at one point, although the cause is never stated. Her "mother" at the bar also asks about her boyfriend. Hana replies that he died, and when the "mother" asks if it was AIDS, she says something like he slipped in the shower. Do we believe her? Nope.

Again, I keep making assumptions about this character, but from that, I believe that if someone lived in the Tokyo represented in this movie, where nobody cares about any other person, it would be natural to assume that nobody cares if you have a fatal disease. All of these characters believe that nobody cares about them, and except in the cases of their families, they are correct. It is only natural that they should be expected to deal with their suffering alone and stoically, which is why Hana's decision to care for the child sticks out as being so brave and so rash. The movie makes it clear at the end that Hana's actions lead her to being under the protection of the divine, since she broke the cycle of apathy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Avengers - Main Character(s)

If I'm going to convince the world that this movie sucks, the first thing I need to do is tackle is the most pervasive argument from its apologists, which is that the movie had an inordinate number of main characters and so even just putting this many characters in a movie is a triumph.

On the surface, this seems to make sense. After all, if the audience doesn't have a character they can identify with, it's hard to be invested in the movie. In fact, this is the truth with Avengers, but people tend to compare it to an idea in their head about how bad it could have been (perhaps because this line about "fitting in so many main characters" has been repeated so often.)

But, here's the thing, when you make a movie, there are no rules. Yes, you have four characters in this movie who starred in six of their own movies up until this point, that does not mean that they are all protagonists and that they should all get equal screentime. Not true, and not even a good idea, actually.

Let's say that the numbers of protagonists in this movie as it stands now is four: Cap, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor. Hawkeye is gone for most of the movie, Fury, Hill, Coulson and Black Widow are all just there to do there jobs. The other four guys have a motivation and need a motivation for being there. Breaking it down this way shows how strange it is to declare that the movie has "soooo many" main characters.

Tons of great movies have managed with four protagonists, but with one caveat: they focused the story on one. The Dark Knight has Bruce, Rachel, Harvey and Gordon, with Bruce at the forefront. X-Men had Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm and Rogue, with Wolverine at the forefront. Star Wars had Luke, Leia, Han, and Lando, with Luke at the forefront. Lord of the Rings had...fucking, a billion people and arguably two main leads: Frodo and Aragorn. Casablanca, Seven Samurai, Saving Private Ryan, The Prestige...all of them had a lot of protagonists in them, and they all work. I would argue that in each of these movies, they were good enough at characterizing the "side-protagonists" in a short amount of time, but focused on one protagonist as their "main character".

So, let's dispense with this notion of there being "too many characters" in Avengers. The problems with the Avengers cast are that there is no focus on one character, and that the characters are not characterized well. (Or, in some cases, characterized in the opposite direction. I'll talk more about this later.)

But ok, I get that making a movie with four characters who were previously stars in their own solo movies might make things weird, but again, there is no rule that says we have to split the movie four ways. So, the question is: Who should the main character been? As the movie stands now, the audience doesn't "follow" any one person's arc throughout the movie; Following someone -- anyone -- would have been preferable to this. I'll give you four options, you think about what the movie would have looked like in each of them, and then ask yourself if you think that the way Whedon wrote his script and characters was better.

1) Iron Man - I have a few simple reasons for suggesting that Tony would have been a good character for the audience to follow throughout the movie. First, he's arguably the most popular character in this movies. He even got top billing. Second, Iron Man movies make the most money. It would have made good financial sense to do this. I'm not saying that decisions that make the most money are always good, but again, someone would have been better than everyone. Third, Whedon can write Tony's character well -- snarky, quippy, stuck-up and making up dumbshit words.

2) Captain America - I mention in the bias page that I like Steve Rogers the most out of all these characters, so bear that in mind, but, if the point of this movie was to "bring the Avengers together as a team" than perhaps the group's leader would be the best at that and should be the focus. In addition, in this universe, when we last left all the other characters, they were in limbo. Tony's being Tony, Banner is off missing somewhere, Thor is up in Asgard. Steve, on the other hand, has just come out of his coma and is open to a lot of characterization from that. It would have been a good place to start following him trying to get adjusted while trying to bring everyone together. (Compare to the current "getting together" strategy, which is "the government says so." Is this heroism? Does this make you root for our protagonists?)

3) A Minor Avenger - What I think people get confused about when discussing this "main character" thing is that they think that having four solo stars in the same movie is an obstacle. Really, it's a blessing. You have at least 90 minutes with each character already written; the audience knows who they are and your job as a writer is basically done (as long as you don't completely change what was written in the other movies). So, with so much room to play with, why not focus the story on Hawkeye or Black Widow. Again, Whedon wrote most -- not all, but most -- of Black Widow's scenes well. I wouldn't have minded following her throughout the movie, since we've only gotten little hints at her character so far. Hawkeye even less so, since he's not even in this movie. This also adds a new element to it, in that both of these characters don't have "superpowers". They have to attempt to keep up with a god that shoots lightning by their skill alone. This adds tension, something that is painfully absent in this movie.

4) Fury, Coulson or Maria Hill - This is the most financially risky of all the choices, but storywise I think it could have worked. You have all these larger-than-life characters running around, instead of trying to get the audience into the mind of a billionaire or a green monster or World War II vet, just go with the everyman character. Seeing Coulson go up against Loki was cool to see, wasn't it? You knew that the poor little guy was outclassed by a ton, but you admired his courage. That one scene made Coulson one of the most popular characters from this movie. (No, Joss, not because he died, but because he was the only character to do something brave and not whine about it in the entire movie.) Also, if you must have the "government makes the heroes act heroic" plotline, these characters are the government. Fury's task of bringing this team together could be the backbone of this movie.

Now, I don't claim that this are all perfect ideas, but again, compare it to the movie as it is now. Who's the main character? Who's story is this? Nobody's, despite the fact that there are tons of options.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Superior Foes and Hawkeye - A Watershed Moment?

Like Mark Ginocchio, one of my favorite comic reviewers, I have a hard time talking about how much I love The Superior Foes of Spider-Man. There's just so much to love that it's hard to pin-down what makes it great, but I'm going to give it a shot.

More than anything else, this book does not take itself seriously at all, and in a world where all the Avengers comics berate the reader incessantly about the seriousness of the event you're reading about it, it's extremely refreshing to read a book like this.

I've long held that things like comics and animated movies can be more touching than dramatic movies because they're less pandering. When you watch a drama or romance movie, it's trying hard to make you feel sad because this is really sad you guys but it comes off as obnoxious (most of the time. To me anyway.) Which is why this was way sadder than this. And this made you cry, but you don't even remember this.

And that is what is going on with both Hawkeye and Superior Foes. They have created an unserious book that people like, although in two similar but distinct ways. Hawkeye's artwork is one of the main driving forces of this book:

And stands out as being unique. While the book is not without irreverent moments and quality storytelling....

...Superior Foes doesn't have anything special going on in the art department, but cranks up the irreverency to 11...

...and without such a unique art style as Aja, must rely on storytelling techniques to keep the reader engaged. (Which it does.)

So, ok, the books are good. So what?

Well, it's hard to predict what kind of trends will be popular in any medium or culture, but I'm going to say that from here on out, less-serious, quirky art, beta-hero or villain stories will start becoming more popular. Here's my argument why:

1) Marvel Knights has recently been recreated. The focus of this brand is on unique art styles, independent creators, and stories away from the main cannon. The fact that there's even a market for this shows that people are ready for books of this nature. Both Hawkeye and Superior Foes follow this pattern: There's not even any other Avengers in Hawkeye and Spider-Man doesn't even show up in Superior Foes of Spider-Man.

2) Hawkeye is making bank and getting good reviews. Follow the money, baby.

3) People fucking hate the 90s. If you're not into comics, the quick explanation of the 90s was that: there was poor writing; there were too many #1, big event issues; there was too much masculine, macho bullshit. I'm sure that people in the 90s and 00s hated this too, but now that we're getting so far away from the worst era in comics, people are started to realize more and more just how awful this crap was. Of course, that means that what will be more popular are things with: good writing; downplayed events; and "quirky", down-to-earth characters.

4) People hated Age of Ultron. In addition, I thought the latest X-Men crossover...I can't even remember the name of it...was just as bad, if not worse, but Age of Ultron was hyped a lot more, spread out a lot further, and more universally hated. People are sick of these big, dramatic events, since they happen every year or so, and the rest of the time, I feel just too fatigued to care about the next "big" event.

There you have it. I won't be a bit surprised if we see more comics like Hawkeye and Superior Foes of Spider-Man in the near future.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Tokyo Godfathers - Part Two

Yesterday I got started talking about Tokyo Godfathers and didn't have enough space to finish. Just to recap, I'm playing a little game where I try to keep this under 500 words; the prize being not wasting your time with my bullshit. But, yesterday's post didn't even mention the plot, so looks like I fucked that up. The questions we have left to answer are: "Does this movie contribute in any way?" and "Is it worth seeing?"

Anyway, the plot draws heavily from an old 1940s movie called Three Godfathers, but, and let me just enshrine this rule right now, if you haven't heard of the thing the movie is referencing or remaking, it might as well not even exist. In Tokyo Godfathers , three homeless people stumble upon an abandoned baby and decide to try and find its mother. Here is where the tonal dissonance begins to occur, because the issues of homelessness and abandoned children are not exactly adorable topics, but the tone of the movie seems to indicate that these things are no big d. For example, the movie looks like this half the time:

But looks like this the other half of the time:

The question then becomes whether this was intentional or if the creators thought that just by pure virtue of being an animation movie, they needed exaggerated facial expressions and goofy characters. I'm going to argue that the tonal shift in this movie both succeeds and fails. Here's an example of the tonal dissonance failing:

This comes near the climax of the movie, where a woman who has stolen the baby will probably soon kill herself and it. Again, very, very dark subject matter, very tense moment, but then we got this asshole with his huge anime face dissolving the seriousness of the scene. It hurts because it's things like that that took me out of the experience and I think kept this from becoming a perfect movie.

However, the time where the tonal shift occurs successfully does two wonderful things. The first is that it takes the edge off. As I keep saying, this movie has a lot of dark subject matter, and I think that if it was live-action, or didn't have a light-hearted moment or character in there, this would just be wrist-cuttingly depressing.

The second way it succeeds is in showing how little the citizens of Tokyo actually care about each other, and how rare it is when they actually do. The crux of this claim lies in a background scene where a couple gets hit by a car and nobody, not even our main characters, seem to care. When our protagonists find the McGuffin Baby, they too don't seem to show much interest and are eager to get rid of it as soon as possible. Throughout the entire movie, every Japanese person that encounters our homeless trio is either completely apathetic, disdainful or, in one case, outright violent. The only truly kind person in the movie aside from our protagonists is foreign. There's a reason that "Tokyo" is in the title. In a city like this, wouldn't everyone treat things like suicides, abandoned babies and homeslessness as nothing serious? Follow-up question: Isn't that the world that we live in already?

Take a look at this image, where a ubiquitous mass of drab, sickly-looking Tokyo citizens wait around under the gaze of a carbon-copied, youthful ideal. These people are miserable, unconcerned with each other, and falling well below society's expectation of them.

Our protagonists subvert what Tokyo has turned everyone into by putting forth such care into watching this baby and trying to find its family. This lack of concern in one's fellow man is what our protagonists are really fighting against, and it shows in the final scene of the movie: The baby's parents are talking to a police officer and requesting to meet the people that brought their child back to them. The police officer responds that they're actually quite homeless and the couple replies, "Who cares?" Well, everyone in Tokyo cared actually. Nobody took the time to worry about these homeless people until they, in the worst of positions, took the time to care about someone else.

Christ, 700 words already?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tokyo Godfathers Part One

Yesterday I outlined my six criteria for reviewing (I actually prefer the term judging) movies. If you were one of the 6.5 billion people minus one people who did not read my blog yesterday, please refer to that post right the fuck here.

Last weekend I saw Tokyo Godfathers, a Japanese animation movie by director Satoshi Kon, who is apparently famous for some other movies I haven't seen (yet). Look at the poster!

I especially wanted to write about this movie hot on the heels of yesterday's post for a few reasons. One, it's fresh in my mind. Two, I like seeing if I can reign in my pretentiousness enough to keep my posts under 500 words. And three, because if someone asked me, "Is Tokyo Godfathers good?" I couldn't answer with a simple yes or no. So let's get into into it.

Easy questions first. For starters, this movie is very, very well made. One of the core components of making a good movie -- if not the most important thing -- is the ability to draw the audience in and make them forget that they're actually watching a movie. The problem with Japanese anime however, is an over-reliance on the most obnoxious cliches and tropes in all of moviedom, without the slightest hint of self-awareness. For example, I also recently watched The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and the number of times the movie really, really wanted me to see that high school's girl's underwear made me very uncomfortable. There's no lampshading it either; If the main character would have, just once, just once said, "You know, I need to start buying pants" well, the movie would still make me uncomfortable, but it would at least be more bearable.

The great thing about Tokyo Godfathers though is that there are no annoying Japanese anime tropes in this movie. So, surprisingly, I can't recommend this to typical fans of Japanese anime. This really plays out as a drama movie that just happens to be animated. I'm not sure about Satoshi Kon's other movies, but this one is actually pretty realistic, and that makes it accessible...except...

Would I watch this again? Well, I wouldn't hate watching it again, but the movie is just so dark.

But I did really enjoy watching it. About halfway through, I started to imagine that there was no way this movie would have a 100% happy ending. The question then became exactly what ratio of hopeful/depressing the ending was going to be, and that kept me interested in the characters. How many of them were going to die, how many relationships were going to be ruined, how many families would be completely torn apart; It kept me engaged the entire time. I guess I should get into the plot now, shouldn't I? How many words do I have left? 50? Goddammit, why do I talk so fucking much?

So, alright, I'll talk more about this movie later, because it's going to take a lot to get through the tone of the movie, the character known as "Hana", animation dealing with dark subjects in general, and whether or not this movie actually contributed to anything.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Talkin bout Movies - The Rubric

I love talking about movies, but I have a hard time answering questions like, "What's your favorite movie?" or "Was X movie good?" I think anybody that watches a lot of movies or thinks about movies might have this same problem. I also never take "ratings" or "grades" of movies too seriously because what criteria one considers in rating a movie can heavily influence whether it gets a good rating or a bad rating.

For example, one could say that the Transformers movies are dumb action. One reviewer might say that because they're dumb, they should get a bad grade, and one reviewer might say that because they're fun action movies, they should get a good grade. In addition, an important thing to realize is that both assessments are equally valid.

With that in mind, I wanted to explain how it is that I evaluate and think about movies that I've seen with six different criteria and hopefully a lot of examples of each. Very rarely is a movie totally perfect or a complete failure -- even a bad movie can be a fun time if you watch with a few friends and many beers. And some movies are good only for certain people or during certain eras. So the six criteria I have are 1) Was it made well? 2) Did it contribute to either a larger issue in society, to culture, or to movies in general? 3) Was it entertaining to watch? 4) Would I watch it again? 5) Was it worth watching at least once? and 6) Who would enjoy this film?

For example, How to Train Your Dragon is one of my favorite films, and I would largely say that it is a "good" movie. It was 1) made very well, 3) entertaining to watch, and 4) I've seen it several times. However, can I say that it 2) contributed much to any important issues to society, the human condition or what the fuck ever? Not really. And did it add anything to culture of movies? Did it utilize a new movie-making or story-telling technique? Not at all. And while I do love this movie, 5) I don't think anybody is going to be missing out if they never saw it in their entire lives. Finally, the number of people who would enjoy this movie as much as I would is relatively large, and it's hard to hate it -- it is just a fun little animation movie -- but there is a certain category of person that I think is immediately turned off by these "simple story, quirky characters, coming-of-age" animation-type movies.

Another example, the original King Kong: This movie is overbloated, boring and extremely dated, but it did have a huge impact on movie-making techniques and the public conscious, so it's not completely without merit. Is this case, the movie is 1) well-made for its time, 2) contributed greatly to movies in general, but 3) is boring as fuck to watch. I would 4) never ever watch it again and it 5) wasn't even really worth watching to begin with. In fact, the only reason I watched it in the first place is because 6) I'm a snobby asshole who likes to say that I've seen all the classics.

I think it should be clear by now, but let's do one more example. The Greenskeeper! This is a pretty shitty movie. (I'm going to dispense with the numbers because I understand it's getting annoying.) It was not made well, and contributes absolutely nothing to society, but because it was a shitty, goofy movie, I had fun watching it with my friends. Would I ever watch it again or was it even worth seeing the first time? God no. And the only people I would recommend this to are drunk people who want to get together with their buddies and laugh at a poor attempt at horror movies.

So, there you have it. Even the "best" movies have their flaws, even my personal favorites are not always great, and even shitty movies have value. So, next time I'm talking about a movie, expect to see these six criteria.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Bill Nye and the Creationist Debate

I've said it before, but I need to repeat that writing on this blog is more important to me than it is to you. Whenever I write things down here, it helps me figure things out for myself. Having to explain something to a general audience forces me to defend my positions from all angles, and preparing for that forces me to try (and usually fail) to keep my opinions airtight.

The Bill Nye debate at the creationist theme park is something about which I've changed my opinions on a number of times in the short time since I've heard it until a few days after it happened.

See, I tend to have a very rigid view of science. This is the way things are, this the reason that we know this is the way things are, and if that hurts your feelings or makes you feel uncomfortable, too fucking bad. There's not really anything we can do to change it and you're not allowed to ignore it, so get over yourself.

This leads to me having a very harsh attitude towards people who want to blend science and mysticism, or ignore scientific facts. Oh, you think magic must be real because we can't explain where the first organic molecule came from? Fuck you. That's exactly what I say: Fuck you.

 But, here's the thing: That's not really a good attitude to take when trying to change minds. When I heard that Bill Nye was going to be debating a creationist, my first thought was, "What's the point?" I mean, really, everybody who's even remotely familiar with these types of things knows that we're just waiting for Ken Ham to say something dumb.

Moreover, the debate took place on their turf, with ticket prices going into their pockets. So, just to recap, this was an event that debated things not up for debate, against somebody who would just either flat-out ignore facts ("the bible's all I need"), twist the facts into something that suited him (2nd Law of Thermodynamics bullshit), or use the crudest, most childish arguments to try and win ("You weren't there. So, Jesus."), and all of the money raised by it went right back into this organization. In addition, Bill Nye is no Dawkins or Hitchens. Not only is he not exactly well-versed in the art of debate, but he's not going to lay down any of the hilarious sound bites those two are known for. Finally, all this is ignoring the fact that debating creationists gives them undue credibility. If I told you that I thought Harry Potter was nonfiction and that we should have a debate about it, would you agree with that? Or would you just say, "That's dumb," and move on with your life?

But this is all ignoring what Nye's true purpose was. He wasn't interested in converting Ken Ham, but he wanted to engage the people in the audience, the people on whom this debate actually hinges, the dumb people.

For a few years now, Nye's been going on Fox News and explaining complicated things like, "This is how pollution works" or "This is what the word 'climate' means," and I thought that was admirable. This is essentially the same thing, and Nye has a couple of advantages in this regard. He is not closely related to atheism, which just the mere mention of sends the religious into a fury. He is an entertainer, which means his message is not the rigid one that I advocate, but made to be palpable. He does not have much of an academic career, where debating against a creationist would be embarrassing. He hasn't practiced debating much, but he has "been to the lion's den" once or twice, so to speak, and so is probably much more patient than most.

Dawkins said once that his close in engaging the religious was not to sway the opinion of person whom he was debating, but the people listening in. When you get in someone's face and challenge their opinions, they're more likely to clam up and stick their guns. But if you're just listening to two opposing sides, you're more likely to see which one is making more sense. Usually.

So, there are still a lot of negatives from this encounter, but, I at least see what Nye was trying to get at. Sure, the creationist gift shop got a few extra dollars, but Nye debated on their turf, on their terms, and maybe in doing so changed a few of their minds.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Getting Started with Comics

I contend that comics are a medium and not a style. When most people hear "comics", they imagine the oft-ridiculous superhero-type of story and artwork. There's a lot more to that, of course, and I like a lot of those other things. However, I like the superhero stuff, and I feel that the serial, eternal nature of superhero comics has a special place in the world of pop culture. Craig Thompson's Blankets is great stuff, but it's not the same as years and years and years of comics about the same character. In addition, the over-the-top style of superhero, sci-fi, fantasy comics provides a lot of narrative ammo that doesn't, and can't, exist in other mediums and styles. Think about science fiction TV shows and movies using off-the-wall scenarios to describe the author's feelings about current events or culture.

What I'm getting at is that while it's easy for comic aficionados to recommend something like Blankets or Pride of Baghdad because it doesn't have any of the "weird" shit that exists in superhero comics, but superhero comics have value too, and I do think that general audiences should at least give it a try.

However, most superhero comics are operating on decades, literally decades, of characterization and development. We're to the point in our culture where we all know quite a bit about Wolverine or Batman; We can describe their characters in detail, their character histories and their relationships to other characters. But if a non-comic reader picked up your average Marvel or DC comic, they wouldn't know what the fuck was going on. "Oh, Frenzy has a problem with Pietro because of that thing that happened in the Apocalypse alternative universe, I understand perfectly!" Actually, I read a ton of comics and I'm not even sure what I just wrote is correct.

Right now, the best comics that I've ever read and are reading are Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X-Force and Superior Spider-Man. These are by far the best things to read right now, but I can't recommend them easily because it requires knowing a lot of the history of the characters, as well as being accepting of the weird superhero shit that shows up here.

With that in mind, I wanted to give special mention to a few comics that I think are good for warming people up to the superhero-style or comics that don't need much back story knowledge to appreciate.

Saga - Brian K. Vaughan wrote Y: The Last Man and Pride of Baghdad, which are some of the best comics ever written. Saga is 18 issues in and is...impossible to explain. It's something like Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars, I guess? It's the story of a couple trying to raise their child, but there are...robots and...cats? It's hard to explain but the characterization and artwork is superb.

Sex Criminals - This one is written by Matt Fraction and it tells the story of a young woman who stops time when she orgasms. Not making that up. Fraction's writing is fast-paced and casual, while still taking the time to be charming and quaint. This is only 3 or so issues in.

Hawkeye - If I had to recommend one comic as an introduction to comics or an introduction to superhero comics, it would be this one. This one is also written by Fraction, and focuses mainly on the day-to-day life of a superhero when he's not superheroing. The 16th issue just came out.

Black Science and Deadly Class - Both of these are written by Rick Remender, whom I've written about before. Black Science is extremely and intentionally campy. Deadly Class is only 1 issue in, which makes it hard to recommend, but I know Remender is a great writer, so I have high hopes for it.

Black Widow - This one is written by someone whom I haven't heard of before, but the art is by Phil Noto, whose work is amazing.

The story is progressing slowly, not a lot of characters, not an overarching plot yet, but I'm enjoying the long play, and I have hopes for this one.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Avengers - Bias

Hi, my name is Kevin, and I hate The Avengers.

Now, for some reason this movie was pretty popular despite getting (less than perfect reviews from critics) so I feel safe saying that I'm in the minority opinion here. If that's the case, then my defense of my hatred of this movie should be airtight. With that in mind, let me declare my biases:

1) I don't like Joss Whedon: I think I have legitimate reasons, and can argue them, that Joss Whedon is not a good writer. I'll get into later, but it is true that when I heard he was signed on to write and direct I was definitely disappointed.

2) I really wanted this movie to be good: I am a comic book fan, and I'm able to separate my love for the comics from the movies, but I always want to like these movies.

3) I am a bigger fan of some characters than others: When watching and critiquing this movie, sometimes this works in its favor and sometimes it works against it. For example, when I start talking about characterization, I'm largely pleased with what happened with Black Widow, because I had zero hopes or expectations for her, but I'm largely (and very) disappointed with the bad or lacking characterization of Captain America and Hawkeye, because I know a lot about those characters and I'm always going to compare the movie versions with what they could have been.

4) I know that Joss Whedon reads and writes comics: I hesitate calling this a bias, but it does change my approximation of the movie knowing that Whedon is a part of the comic book world. I want to mention this again when we talk about consistency in comic book movies.

Another thing I wanted to talk about is why I'm writing about this, and there's a couple reasons for that too.

1) Talking about bad movies and why they're bad helps us appreciate good movies: Hearing an explanation about why The Phantom Menace was bad helped me appreciate The Empire Strikes back a lot more, and, actually, all other movies. (Not coincidentally, Mike Stolska, the guy that made these reviews, is a huge Star Wars fan, wanted this movie to be good, and not a big fan of the writer as well. There might be something to the fact that people that like a certain type of movie can get really angry when they don't turn out well.)

2) This movie was really popular and that makes me angry: Are the type of person who ever complained about Justin Beiber or Twilight when they got popular? You knew that shit was bad and the fact that it became really popular made you hate it more? Well, guess what? I am that person too.

3) Superheroes are big money now: We're getting more and more superhero movies as time goes by, and I think we should start considering them to be their own category of movie (if they're not already). If that's the case, we need to start talking and thinking about what makes a good superhero movie, and a good place to start is talking about failures.

4) Not a week of my life goes by where I don't think about how much I hate The Avengers: Seriously, I have to write it down and get it out of my brain before I die from stress.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Mighty Avengers and Invaders

Mighty Avengers

Is there a reason to read this book? I started out for three reasons, I guess. One, the one I'm most ashamed to admit, is that I really like the character of Superior Spider-Man, and if you put him in a book, I'll probably read it. Two, I like the character of Luke Cage, but I'm far more interested in his potential as a character. He has an interesting dynamic where he has to balance taking care of his family, but still has a responsibility to do good in the world that he can't ignore. It's an amazing basis for a character, and maybe I just haven't read enough stories about Luke Cage, but it hasn't been fully explored the way it could be or should be. Third, when the cast was first announced it seemed like it would be a "minority Avengers" which sounds like it could be done badly or very well, but either way I was interested.

Well, they took Spider-Man off the team, so there goes reason number one. I like how they were characterizing him as a total jerk in this series, which is the way he's best, so I'm sad he's gone and I think the book suffers because of it. (I can understand him being off the team, however, since it seems like he won't be around for much longer.)

They also have barely mentioned Luke's family or any of his responsibilities. The series is just getting started, I know, but they've had five issues and haven't gone anywhere or done anything with it. The only time the baby came up was when they literally put him (or her? I don't even know) in a cab and then started with the fighting.

Third, I was interested in seeing minority Avengers, but all the criticism I leveled against Wood's X-Men is cranked up to eleven, throwing in characters I've never even heard of. The biggest departure between this and Wood's X-Men is that while Wood may be throwing a bunch of characters at us just because they're women, he's still taking the time to characterize them well. I've been reading Mighty Avengers for almost half a year now, and I can't even tell you who's on the team besides Luke Cage. Strike this from the pull list.


Robinson is sorta famous in the world of comics, having won an Eisner award for books I've never read, but nothing really grabbed me in this book. Am I wrong for thinking Captain America is becoming a Wolverine? He's in every book these days, Captain America, Avengers, Avengers World, Uncanny Avengers, Invaders, Superior Spider-Man and probably some more I don't even know about. Give the guy a break.

Only one issue of Invaders is out so far, so I can't judge too harshly, but I am not at all interested in reading the rest of this. I guess it only exists to give Marvel more opportunities to milk The Winter Soldier for every cent it's worth.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Rick Remender and Death

I wanted to talk a bit more about Remender's take on death and this time, I'll be delving into specifics, so if you were thinking about reading the new Captain America series or Uncanny Avengers, spoilers ahead. He said to his nonexistent audience.

To recap from the last post: Remender knows that you know that you're reading a comic, so instead of overdramatizing a character's death (like hack writer Cristopher Yost) when you know they're just going to be resurrected later, or killing off a character just for the shock of it (like hack writer Josh Whedon,) Remender focuses on the circumstances of a character's death, and the lasting effects it has on character's relationships.

So, to start with Captain America, began with Steve getting sent to an alternate, dystopian dimension for over 10 years. Right away, this is a clear signal to the reader that everything that happens in these pages is not entirely "true", because Captain America exists inside the larger Marvel universe, where he's on the Avengers team, punchin' stuff. Any kind of astute reader knows that Steve isn't really inside this dimension for over a decade, and you start imagining what could be going on -- could be a dream, could be a computer simulation, could be a time dilation (it's this one), maybe that's not even Captain America -- The point is, you're aware that nothing counts.

And you're very much aware of this when Steve adopts a young boy, Ian, and raises him as his son. Remender spends almost a full year on this arc, with Steve raising his son and making the protection of him top priority in the shitty world he lives in. But the reader knows (and Remender knows that the reader knows) that Ian does not and will not "exist" after Steve inevitably leaves the alternate dimension that he may or may not actually be in. Even with all this going on, you still get attached to Ian, knowing this he's doomed, and the focus then becomes not on whether or Ian lives or dies, but how it's going to crush Captain America when he inevitably kicks the bucket.

Again, another great thing about Remender's writing is not just the fact that a character dies (see: hack writers mentioned above,) but the way they die. In Ian's case, Steve's fiance, Sharon, enters the alternate dimension to try and save him, thinks that Ian is a threat and shoots him in the fucking neck. First of all, this is a really traumatic way for a child to die, not only for the reader but for Steve as well. Second, this was not an accident; Sharon intentionally shot Steve's child in the neck in front of him. Morbid though experiment, but can you imagine your feelings towards the person you love after they purposefully shot your son in the neck? Again, never mind the fact that the reader is unconvinced that Ian isn't "real", he feels real to Cap and has become endeared through the reader through a year of characterization and Steve constantly repeating how important Ian is to him.

I don't want keep harping on Yost and Whedon, but compare Nightcrawler and Coulson to Ian. Nightcrawler gets killed fairly unexpectedly, but dies "heroically" and then with much dramatic fanfare. Nevermind the fact that every person at his funeral had died and come back to life, this is sad dammit, so feel feelings. Whedon kills characters completely unexpectedly -- often in scenarios where the notion of "character death" hasn't even been introduced, so it comes as an even bigger shock -- but it serves no thematic purpose other than "You liked this character but he died." It doesn't even serve to villainize the antagonist further. Like, "Oh Loki's going to enslave humanity and slaughter millions of people, but, meh whatever. What? He killed that guy I spoke to three times? NOW I CARE."