The thin line of civilization

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Behind the Curve – No Country for Old Men (2007)

(Note: You’ll be happy to know that this article does not mention tomorrow’s election. I’ll just trust that you intelligent folks will make the right decision.)

Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, as well as the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, is most concisely described as a modern Western. Although I don’t feel that label does either of them justice. Both the book and the film are largely philosophical tales that depict a nihilistic view of the thin lines separating life and death, civilization and chaos.

The story is very cat-and-mouse, driven primarily by the pursuit of a briefcase full of drug money . The action revolves around three main actors: Llewelyn Moss, Anton Chigurh and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Moss is a blue-collar every-man who finds the briefcase by stumbling upon the bloody scene of a drug deal in the desert gone bad, Chigurh is a brutal hitman tasked with recovering the briefcase, and Bell is a retiring sheriff who is mainly concerned with finding and saving Moss from the deadly powers tracking him.

No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is one of those movies where the villain steals the show. Chigurh is a chillingly pragmatic operative with very little regard for human life. He kills casually and efficiently, even when killing is not necessary to achieve his ends. Sometimes he kills just because it’s slightly more expedient, and sometimes the killing is even out of his way. Chigurh shows no human empathy or regret. He takes human life with the indifference of a man swatting a fly. Often you get the impression that he’s not a character himself, but a force of nature. Someone who cannot be bargained with any more than one can bargain with a hurricane.

But to me the heart of the story is Sheriff Bell. You see, Bell is a small-town cop who has gone his entire career without much real action. He seems to think that folks are mostly good people and that a lot of a sheriff’s job can be done without violence. It’s obvious he has never dealt with anyone like Anton Chigurh.

As the movie goes on, we see Bell become unnerved by the senseless brutality and violence of the mess he is uncovering. He realizes that it could soon be threatening his own life. This feeling culminates with Bell coming upon a hotel right after a shooting. He thinks Chigurh might still be in the hotel room. He knows he must enter the room. It’s his duty. But Bell also knows that he will almost certainly die if Chigurh is still there.

No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men (2007)

I won’t tell you how that turned out, but I’ve never seen a movie portray the fear of death more perfectly than Bell approaching that door. It was a precise crystallization of primal human emotion; the terrifying recognition of one’s mortality. It reminded me of those rare, dark moments when my mind understands that I will die and my consciousness will cease to be.

We humans think of our lives as valuable things. We think we possess some degree of safety against death. But all it takes is a relatively small amount of pressure applied to certain parts of our body and we’re gone. Our world ends. And if someone or something is determined to apply that pressure, there is very little that can protect us. Not God nor guns nor the laws of civilization.

We can die any time, at any moment. And it doesn’t matter to the universe at large. Our lives are nothing more than bio-electrical impulses held together by delicate flesh. We are insignificant specks living on a rock as it floats through an empty and uncaring universe.

Huh. I guess I’m feeling a bit pessimistic this week. Can’t imagine why.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) – Monday, November 14
  • Documentary: Best of Enemies (2015) – Monday, November 21
  • Book: 1984 (George Orwell, 1949) – Monday, November 28
  • Movie: The Imitation Game (2014) – Monday, December 5
  • Wild Card! – Monday, January 30

Teen angst

Battle Royale, 2000

Behind the Curve – Battle Royale (2011)

In the pantheon of story subjects, the topic of adolescent or teen angst is among the most deceptively difficult ones to tackle. On paper, it looks like a breeze. You are writing about people in the most unreserved, emotional period of their life, people who don’t hide their feelings under layers of discipline, maturity and repression. I can’t speak for other writers, but for me the opportunity to ditch subtlety would effectively cut my workload in half. I wouldn’t have to come up with clever ways of showing the audience what my character is feeling. He will just tell them. And the audience will instantly understand the emotions he’s experiencing because we’ve all been there.

Battle Royale, 2000
Battle Royale, 2000

The problem you run into is that although everybody has been an emotional teen at some point, adults still don’t particularly like them. We tend to see teens and teen angst as whiny and melodramatic. It’s why a lot of people hated Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode II. It’s possible that Hayden Christensen did his job too well. Although it makes sense that Vader would have started out as a troubled teen, that’s not what people wanted to see.

For another example, look at J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s a classic novel that contains what is, in my opinion, the most perfect depiction of teen angst ever set to paper. And yet, I know a lot of people who can’t stand that book because they hate the main character. They hate that he’s naive and sentimental and that he bitches and moans constantly. But those are the same traits that make him such an accurate portrayal of folks at their most emotional.

My theory is that most adults are, to one degree or another, ashamed the person they were as a teenager. We resent any accurate depictions of teen angst in fiction because they remind us of that awkward time in our life. Even while I found Salinger’s narrator more or less relatable, I had trouble stomaching him at times. I think it’s because I saw too much of myself in him.

So is the audience for teen angst exclusively teenagers? I doubt it. Teenagers like accurate depictions even less. Nobody likes having a mirror put up to show how silly they are. Teenagers want fiction that will take them seriously, not trivialize them. This, I feel, is one reason the popularity of YA novels and movies like Hunger Games, Maze Runner and Divergent has exploded in recent years. These stories take the very high school-esque problems of cliques and conformity and paint them as important, earth-shattering battles. But in my opinion these stories lack authenticity. The characters rarely come across realistic, angsty teens. More often they are generic stock heroes following generic stock hero character arcs. They’re trying to merge high school drama with action, but they don’t have the guts to take it all the way.

Divergent, 2014
Divergent, 2014

And that’s where Battle Royale shines. This movie is special in that it manages to balance a satisfying, visceral action movie with an authentic teen angst feel. If you’re unfamiliar, Battle Royale is basically the R-rated precursor to Hunger Games. Same basic story, but much more violent.

The brilliance of Battle Royale is that the kids who are battling to the death are all from the same class. Therefor it’s inserting life-or-death scenarios into the existing drama of a high school cafeteria. Once the kill-or-be-killed ultimatum is in place, alliances are formed and broken on the basis of old jealousies, crushes and cliques. There are noble sacrifices, professions of love, romantic rivalries, and it’s all dripping with that particular brand of high school melodrama.

Battle Royale, 2000
Battle Royale, 2000

And it doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth the way Catcher in the Rye sometimes does. Perhaps that’s because Battle Royale is an excellent hardcore action movie first and foremost, and the over-the-top melodrama seems to fit in naturally with the copious violence.

I find the combination to be very compelling. Perhaps because these dramas felt like life or death when I was experiencing them. Rather than a depiction, Battle Royale feels like a fulfillment of our old teen angst. The normally cringe-worthy high school melodrama is able to look almost poignant. It’s tragic to watch teenagers eagerly kill and die over problems that the adults know they’d be getting over in just a few short years.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Nintendo, 1993) – Monday, October 10
  • Documentary: An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – Monday, October 17
  • Book: A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway, 1929) – Monday, October 24
  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31
  • Movie: No Country for Old Men (2007) – Monday, November 7

Reanimating nostalgia

From Dusk till Dawn, 1996

Behind the Curve – From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

There seems to be a compulsion among certain filmmakers (and perhaps other artists as well) to try and repurpose the relics of their misspent youth. Star Wars, for example, is basically a polished, big budget version of the cheap, pulpy science fiction films that George Lucas grew up watching. Back then genre movies were risky investments (as hard as that might be to believe looking at the modern box office landscape), so most of the fantasy, horror and science fiction films had very small budgets and were never widely marketed. That’s also why just about everybody involved in Star Wars‘ production thought it would be a huge bomb.

From Dusk till Dawn, 1996
From Dusk till Dawn, 1996

Star Wars is probably the most influential example of the phenomenon, but hardly the only one. In a similar vein, Quentin Tarantino’s entire career (and I suppose Robert Rodriguez’s as well, but I’m less familiar with his work) has been spent improving on the exploitation, grindhouse and B-movies trends that were popular when he was younger. He did it with Spaghetti westerns in Django Unchained, mob and crime movies with Pulp Fiction and Resevoir Dogs, and martial arts films with the Kill Bill movies. In From Dusk till Dawn, he and Rodriguez do the same thing with crime drama and pulpy horror.

The main difference is that Star Wars played things pretty straight while Rodriguez and Tarantino’s work is full of tongue-in-cheek camp and nods to their cinematic ancestry. For example, when vampires show up in From Dusk till Dawn (completely out of nowhere and about halfway through the movie, by the way) nobody seems particularly surprised. It seems to parody the quick acceptance of fantastic elements seen in many low-budget horror movies. There’s even some goofy dialogue addressing how nobody is surprised. The characters also have a brief argument about whether silver will help, they being unsure whether it’s traditionally associated with vampires or werewolves. It’s a funny moment that sounds like some conversations I had with my friends in grade school.

Power Rangers movie image, Screen Rant, 2016
Power Rangers movie image, Screen Rant, 2016

But the overall trend of filmmakers tarting up their generation’s past makes me wonder what facet of our youth will be revived and gentrified as millennials begin to make their mark on popular culture. Perhaps the upcoming Power Rangers movies will be the beginning of that? I doubt it. The images I’ve seen make the movie look less like a spiritual descendant of Super Sentai-style shows in the style of Lucas or Rodriguez, and more like a modern genre action movie with the Power Rangers branding. Kind of like the Transformers movies. Oh well. Here’s hoping it’s good anyway!

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) – Monday, September 12
  • Documentary: Sky Line (2015) – Monday, September 19
  • Book: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Douglas Adams, 1980) – Monday, September 26
  • Movie: Battle Royale (2011) – Monday, October 3
  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31

Home-brewed, artisan schlock

The Usual Suspects, 1995

Behind the Curve – The Usual Suspects

I consider myself something of a beer connoisseur. Every time I’m in a new city, my first instinct is to hop on Google Maps and see if there are any microbreweries. It’s not an altogether healthy hobby, with beer being so fattening, but I love it. I love the hoppy IPAs. I love the smooth, coffee porters. I even love experimental beers made with weird stuff like cucumbers or jalapeños.

I understand why a lot of people drink the cheaper standards, like Bud and Miller. If all you want to do is get drunk then why not go for the cheapest option? But I make a point of avoiding those cheap beers because they are, quite simply, lesser products. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but microbrews are vastly superior and I feel like I’m getting more out of the experience. And if I’m going to be drinking something unhealthy, I’d rather drink the finest unhealthy beer available.

The Usual Suspects, 1995
The Usual Suspects, 1995

The same logic can be applied to entertainment. Of the millions of narrative pieces available across all mediums, I’d estimate that maybe one percent of them could be called “art.” The rest are just entertainment. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. In fact, there are times when all you want is entertainment. Times when you’re tired and don’t want to be intellectually challenged. You just want to be amused.

I occasionally find myself in that mood, and suddenly all I want is a bit of mindless schlock. But not all schlock is created equal. Just like beer, you have an upper tier and a lower tier. The lower tier is easy to spot. Formulaic shows and movies like Law & Order or the newer Star Trek movies will hold your attention, but I find them rather forgettable. When I watch them it feels like I’m simply killing time between now and the grave.

The upper tier of schlock can be harder to spot, but it’s worth searching out. Something amazing happens when a good filmmaker throws away “artistic” pretentiousness and resolves to just make a really good action movie. You get the watchablility of schlock without feeling like you’re wasting time. It’s still not exactly challenging, but you’re gleaming some net benefit by watching.

The Usual Suspects, 1995
The Usual Suspects, 1995

You get movies like The Usual Suspects and Guardians of the Galaxy, films that brim with charm and originality despite simple characters and plots that are fairly trite and predictable. These are the schlock films that people continue to think about. Films that we keep re-watching and quoting years down the road. Often they end up having more impact on a person’s life than the actually artistic films.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003) – Monday, August 8
  • Documentary: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (2015) – Monday, August 15
  • Book: American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001) – Monday, August 22
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29
  • Movie: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Monday, September 5

Likable character flaws

The Machinist, 2004

Behind the Curve – The Machinist (2004)

I love Spider-Man. Yes, it’s true. In fact, he’s easily one of my favorite superheroes. One reason is that I love the awkward, introverted aspect of his secret identity, Peter Parker. It creates an excellent contrast with the cocky, constantly-quipping Spider-Man persona. It gives the impression that Peter isn’t doing the superhero thing just because of the “Great power, great responsibility” shtick. It’s also because he likes it. There’s an undeniably liberating, almost voyeuristic, thrill that comes with putting on a mask and becoming someone else. It gives Peter the courage to break out of his shell and have some fun.

When we return to Peter’s normal life, we see him dealing with family troubles or ineptly stumbling through conversations with Mary Jane. In these moments it’s hard to believe that he and Spider-Man are the same person. That’s one reason I never wanted to see the Amazing Spider-Man reboot movies. Although Andrew Garfield certainly looked more like a teenager than Tobey Maguire, I never bought him as a social outcast the way I did with old Tobey. He seemed like a glib hipster with perfect hair as Peter Parker, and a glib hipster with a perfect body as Spider-Man. So what’s the point?

Spider-Man, 2002
Spider-Man, 2002

For me, it’s the awkward introversion that makes Peter Parker a compelling and likable character. Perhaps I identify with him, being no stranger to awkward introversion myself. However, I understand there are people who can’t stand Peter Parker. They say he’s too whiny, or too much of a wuss. And a lot of the things they hold up as evidence are things that I find compelling. I suppose that the depression and anguish of Peter Parker can easily be interpreted as whining by someone who hasn’t had a similar existence.

It’s interesting how likability, one of the most important aspects for the main character of a narrative story, can be so subjective. It’s the flaws that do it, I think. Audience members will be turned off by certain flaws, but you need flaws to humanize a character and make him compelling in the first place. Nobody’s interested in a character who is perfect at everything.

Furthermore, I find that more significant a character’s flaws, the more potentially likable that character becomes. See Game of Thrones for that particular crash course. Jaime Lannister is a snobby and incestuous attempted child murderer. Yet somehow, we don’t hate him. Despite (and partly because of) his grievous flaws, Jaime is very human and relatable. We understand why he did the things he did, and we know that he’s not proud of all of his actions.

But certain flaws will rub certain people the wrong way. We all have little triggers that make us hate a character. It could that the character’s traits grate on you, as in the Spider-Man example above. Or it could be that you find certain crimes to be unforgivable. For example, some people can’t sympathize with a character who is cruel to animals.

Every person is a little bit different in their sensibilities, and I doubt there’s a single character in the history of narrative storytelling who is universally liked. Perhaps the best thing to do is to cut your losses. Don’t bend over backwards to please the people who will hate your character regardless. You’re not writing for those people. You’re writing for everybody else.

The Machinist, 2004
The Machinist, 2004

The Machinist is a perfect example. Without wishing to spoil anything, main character Trevor Reznik does a very bad thing. At the end of the movie he comes to terms with the bad thing and experiences a partial redemption. I imagine many people would take issue with that ending. They’d argue that Trevor’s crime is unforgivable and that he should receive a harsher comeuppance. It’s not wrong that some people feel that way. But the movie isn’t for those people. It’s for everybody else. Personally, I found Trevor’s redemption to be very beautiful. It doesn’t come close to excusing the bad thing, but I found Trevor to be likable and sympathetic enough that I was on his side anyway.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Pokémon Yellow (Game Freak, 1999) – Monday, July 11
  • Documentary: Requiem for the American Dream (2015) – Monday, July 18
  • Book: The Martian (Andy Weir, 2011) – Monday, July 25
  • Movie: The Usual Suspects (1995) – Monday, August 1
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29

The problem with true comic book movies

Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016

Behind the Curve – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

After consulting a team of experts and performing a series of clinical trials, I’ve reached the conclusion that I like Batman v Superman. I don’t love it, but at the most basic level I enjoyed the experience of watching it.

It has it’s share of problems. Not least of which is a plot that can be charitably described as “unfocused,” or uncharitably described as “12-year-old-Call-of-Duty-player-takes-crack.” The movie feels packed to the brim, with dozens of characters, plot points and references to DC lore popping in and out of the movie like whack-a-mole.

I understand why. Warner Brothers executives must have looked at the unfathomable success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and collectively crapped their pants. They were so clearly late to the game. That’s why Batman v Superman tries to cram all the pre-Avengers-style groundwork that Marvel built over 4 years and 5 feature movies into a single film. God knows why. Presumably they could have made more money by spacing the movies out and stringing us along with small cameos the way Marvel did. But instead we have Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman battling Doomsday in the second movie of the DC Extended Universe. Yikes. Perhaps the big wigs at WB think the superhero movie bubble is close to bursting.

Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016
Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016

But as I was watching, I came to a strange realization. Batman v Superman may be the most “comic book-esque” superhero movie ever released into a theater. Let me explain.

The defining characteristics of Marvel and DC comic books is their quick pace, malleability and a slight tendency towards convolution in their stories. Say you have a story arch where Spider-Man is uncovering a plot by Doctor Octopus to take over New York City. After an inciting incident reveals that something is wrong, Spider-Man gradually learns more and more about the Doctor’s plot. Then, completely out of nowhere, Daredevil shows up. Let’s say the current arch in Daredevil’s comic involves him looking for Kingpin. So, the writers contrive some thin reason for the heroes to work together on a specific mission. Maybe Daredevil saw a picture of Kingpin with Doc Oct. Spider-Man and Daredevil team up, kick ass together, then go their separate ways.

More often than not, the guest hero won’t find anything of use, making his appearance pointless from a story perspective. Because if Daredevil did discover something relevant, you risk alienating Daredevil readers who don’t also read The Amazing Spider-Man.

This rather jittery style of storytelling can be fun in it’s own way, but it doesn’t often work on the big screen. Movie goers are expecting a self-contained narrative. Even in the MCU, where there’s a lot of inter-connectivity, each movie focuses primarily on the story at hand. You might get a few Easter eggs hinting at what’s going on in the larger universe, but that’s about it.

For example, Avengers is an incredibly watchable movie because it’s the simplest story in the book. A ragtag team overcomes their differences to save the day. Bam. Done. You can enjoy that movie without ever knowing there’s a greater cinematic universe. If a moviegoer does know about the larger universe, he can appreciate hints about the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War from the actions of Thanos and his servants. But all of that is very very brief and doesn’t get in the way of the main story.

Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016
Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016

Batman v Superman, on the other hand, devotes large sections of it’s run-time to plot points that have nothing to do with the main plot. It will be another year before Justice League Part One comes out and (maybe) pays any of it off.

It just doesn’t have the tight focus of Avengers. If feels more akin to Justice League: Flashpoint, an animated straight-to-DVD movie I recently watched on Netflix. They both feel too soaked in their lore and source material to achieve any sort of higher narrative success or mass market appeal. The difference is that Justice League: Flashpoint knows that it’s niche, while Batman v Superman is wasting billions of the Warner Brothers’ money.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015) – Monday, June 13
  • Documentary: Prescription Thugs (2015) – Monday, June 20
  • Book: Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) – Monday, June 27
  • Movie: The Machinist (2004) – Monday, July 4
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29

Groups and critical thinking

Spotlight: Open Road Films, 2015

Behind the Curve – Spotlight (2015)

I haven’t been to Church in a while. You may have guessed this based on previous posts. What you may not have guessed is that once upon a time I was perfect little Catholic boy. Oh yes. I went to Church every week, sometimes twice a week. I prayed every night before going to bed. I even went to confession regularly (which is pretty rare, even among über-Catholics). But now I’m a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic, and even that is just to appease my parents. It’s funny, in a sad way. I’ve become the exact type of person my younger self swore he’d never be.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no diehard atheist. In fact, there are still aspects of the Church’s teaching that I believe very deeply. Principles of compassion, love and selflessness that the Church taught me are permanently etched into my moral compass. But I no longer consider myself a Catholic.

Spotlight: Open Road Films, 2015
Spotlight: Open Road Films, 2015

So what happened? It wasn’t anything drastic. There were no sex scandals at my church. I can’t point to any one instance that disillusioned me with the Church. It happened very gradually, over the course of a few years. If I were to summarize it, I’d say that my perspective simply broadened and I found myself happier outside the Church’s narrow scope.

You see, the funny thing about the Catholic Church – and really all organizations that provide some sense of belonging, religious or otherwise – is that they train you to limit the scope of your own thoughts. You’re afraid that if you let your mind wander it might think up something contrary to the organization’s beliefs, and that this critical thinking will eventually lead to your alienation from the group. Or, in the case of religions, the critical thinking might lead you into sin.

We’re naturally social creatures, and therefore we fear being ostracized from our particular group. But fear is only part of the reason we end up policing our own thoughts. The other part is loyalty, which we typically think of as a virtue. But blind loyalty can be dangerous. Just think of World War II and all the horrible things done in Germany when men loyally followed their orders.

This cocktail of fear and loyalty is what we see on display in Spotlight. If you don’t know, Spotlight is a movie about the news team that discovered how the Church was covering up instances of child molestation and protecting the priests who committed it.

Spotlight takes place in Boston, where Catholicism is huge. All the characters investigating the scandal have Catholic backgrounds, and we see them dealing with this sense of guilt and betrayal throughout the movie. Even though what they’re doing is unequivocally good, they still feel guilty about betraying the group. That’s how bad we human beings need to belong.

Spotlight: Open Road Films, 2015
Spotlight: Open Road Films, 2015

Perhaps that’s why the spark of the investigation had to come from outside. It was the paper’s new Jewish editor who recognized the signs of a scandal that everyone else was ignoring and pushed the Spotlight team to dig deeper.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Pokémon Red and Blue (Game Freak, 1998) – Monday, May 9
  • Documentary: The Propaganda Game (2015) – Monday, May 16
  • Book: The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985) – Monday, May 23
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30
  • Movie: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) – Monday, June 6

Street gangs

The Warriors: Paramount Pictures, 1979

Behind the Curve – The Warriors (1979)

A while back I wrote about an article about society’s fascination with organized crime. I said that it’s perplexing how much we deify a group that is, by definition, morally reprehensible. It turns out I wasn’t entirely right. After seeing The Warriors, I want to clarify that my points only ring true when you’re talking about the mafia, what I see as the “whiter” version of organized crime. Aesthetically the crime families you see in The Godfather or Sopranos. The other form of organized crime, street gangs, are viewed by society in a very different light.

Full disclosure, the classifications I just used are based off no evidence except for observable distinctions in media. I don’t know what the technical differences are between mafia and street gangs. Perhaps there aren’t any. Perhaps its simply our media imposing a distinction. And it’s imposed some pretty serious ones.

The Warriors: Paramount Pictures, 1979
The Warriors: Paramount Pictures, 1979

Firstly, street gangs are never portrayed in a positive light. I think The Warriors is as close as it gets, since the protagonists are in a street gang and are somewhat relatable. The film chronicles the titular street gang fighting through an array of colorful rival gangs, each with a wacky name and themed costumes. For example, members of the Baseball Furies wield bats, paint their faces and dress like baseball players.

Obviously this bears as much resemblance to real street gangs as the Joker does to real terrorists. But over-the-top stylized is as positive as it gets. In any media with the slightest hint of realism street gangs are portrayed as amoral thugs who casually commit  violence towards women and hate crimes.

Not even the Warriors escape from that depiction. Race gets a pass since all the gangs in this movie have gone through diversity training. But the heroes are really misogynistic. They’re easily swayed by sex, sometimes with near fatally. And one of the Warriors very clearly tries to rape a woman.

I’d say it creates a conflicting tone, but it seems intentional. I feel that the movie is covertly mocking the street gang lifestyle. We get the impression that, for all their drama and struggle, the Warriors’ journey is essentially trivial. There’s a big shake up in the gang world, but all the normal people in New York don’t seem to notice. The Warriors like raucous children, scuttling around the streets of a big concrete playground, play-fighting trivial and pointless battles with other kids. So much so that it feels grossly out of place when someone actually dies.

The Warriors: Paramount Pictures, 1979
The Warriors: Paramount Pictures, 1979

I think that impression of immaturity is why no aspect of popular culture, with the possible exception of Hip-Hop music, accords street gangs the same respect and gravitas as the mafia. The mafia; they get things done. We see them as professionals. Adults. But street gangs? We see them as no more that wayward kids who aimlessly commit acts of violence. A series of bad decisions; not a career path. Perhaps its the lack of suits. Perhaps it’s a race thing. But I cannot shake a sense of inherent immaturity about street gangs.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) – Monday, April 11
  • Documentary: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) – Monday, April 18
  • Book: The Thin Man (Dashiell Hammett, 1934) – Monday, April 25
  • Movie: Spotlight (2015) – Monday, May 2
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Deadpool and the death of Superhero movies

Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016

Behind the Curve – Deadpool (2016)

I want to begin by saying that I love the new Deadpool movie. It’s the best comic book film I’ve seen since Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s the film Deadpool fans have been clamoring for since X-Men Origins: Wolverine butchered the character. It’s funny, violent, irreverent and it breaks the fourth wall in a way that’s not so obtrusive that it distracts from the story. And predictably, Ryan Reynolds as the titular Merc with a Mouth is an inspired casting choice. It’s the most perfect pairing of actor and role since Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark.

Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016
Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016

And despite all that, I still left the theater with some small twinge of regret. Not for the movie itself, but because of what I feel it signifies. You see, Deadpool it a satirical movie that pokes fun at other superhero movies, both in what’s on the screen and what happens behind the scenes during movie production. A major theme surrounds whether or not Deadpool will become a “hero,” and his decision seems directly tied to the business of superhero movies. I sense this turmoil happening under the film’s surface, but there are moments when Deadpool directly weighs the benefits of superhero movies. In doing so, the film comments on how bloated, convoluted and absurd the whole business has become. The studio battles, the fan outrage, the reboots and cast changes.

This all fits with the character from the comics, but in my opinion the satire works a little better than I was prepared for. Now I can’t help but roll my eyes at the many DC and Marvel films on the horizon, wholeheartedly embracing the more ridiculous aspects of the genre. It all seems so silly in this post-Deadpool world.

Still not making sense? Let’s take a deeper look at Deadpool and see if I can explain. He was originally conceived as a villain in The New Mutants, and was a shameless ripoff of DC’s Deathstroke. The creators even named him Wade Wilson (a spoof off of Slade Wilson, Deathstroke’s name) and had an inside joke that the two were related. So even before he got funny Deadpool was a joke, the incestuous spawn of the comic book industry’s muddled continuity and lack of original ideas.

Eventually Deadpool grew into the insane, satirical character we know and love. His irreverence and habit of breaking the fourth wall often served to take the piss out of more serious Marvel characters. In a way he was the embodiment of comics’ self-awareness. He’d hold up a mirror to everyone around him, turn to camera and giggle as if to say, “You have to admit, this is a little dumb.”

Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016
Deadpool: 20th Century Fox, 2016

At least that’s my opinion. And Deadpool the movie is doing the same things. There are self-aware references to the X-Men movies and their convoluted timeline, the concept of teamup movies like Avengers, cast changes. It references Ryan Reynolds’ portrayal of Green Lantern and the other version of Deadpool. This is all well-timed and funny at the time. Deadpool takes the industry down a peg, but my concern is that the superhero movie is no longer fresh and fun enough to survive some good-natured ribbing.

You’ll note that the character of Deadpool was created in the 90s, while the comic book industry was in a post-Bronze Age nosedive into irrelevance. I’m not saying Deadpool caused or even contributed to the decline, but his existence may have cheekily pointed out why it happened. I hope that superhero films don’t suffer the same fate, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14
  • Documentary: An Honest Liar (2014) – Monday, March 21
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28
  • Movie: The Warriors (1979) – Monday, April 4
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Being a niche

Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016

Behind the Curve – Lazer Team (2016)

So I’ve been a Rooster Teeth fan for many years now. How many? I wouldn’t like to say, but the Austin-based company has stolen enough hours of my time to write several novels. So it’s not surprising that I enjoyed Lazer Team, Rooster Teeth’s new sci-fi comedy. I thought it was a fantastically hilarious movie. But when I saw that the online reviews were mostly negative, I learned something about myself: I’m part of a niche.

I guess at some level I always knew that Rooster Teeth’s brand of humor was somewhat specific. It’s a balanced mix of dick joke, bickering insults and slapstick pushed through a filter that’s aggressively and gleefully juvenile. It’s not a particularly heady style of comedy. As a matter of fact, it feels designed specifically for shutting down brains..

Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016
Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016

On reflection, I can see how this would rub people the wrong way. And if that kind of humor isn’t your scene, there’s not much else Lazer Team has to offer. The plot is predictable, the characters are mostly shallow caricatures, and the special effects reflect the film’s independent origin. It also loses steam whenever the script tries to get serious, a problem the film shares with its ancestor, Red vs. Blue.

But none of that bothered me in the theater. Because if you’re already on the right wavelength for this kind of thing, it’s one of the funniest films you could watch.

So how should niche insiders like myself respond to negative reviews? Should we berate the reviewer for “not getting it?” Should we try and convert the masses?

Of course not. We should man up and ignore them. Negative reviews shouldn’t lessen our enjoyment of of the movies. And we don’t need some reviewer who’s more interested in Oscar bait to tell us what’s funny. It’s worth remembering that comedy is one of the most subjective types of entertainment. If a reviewer doesn’t like a comedy you liked, it probably wasn’t made for them.

Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016
Lazer Team: Rooster Teeth, 2016

Lazer Team isn’t for everybody. Even the positive Lazer Team reviews predict it will be a cult classic. And guess what? Not everybody likes cult movies. Hence the name. Rocky Horror Picture Show was a cult classic, and I found it about as entertaining as a Kindergarten play. Same story for Labyrinth (no disrespect to David Bowie). But other cult classics, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, are some of my favorite movies of all time. And that’s the point. Cult classics may have small followings, but they make up for it with sheer passion.

What I’m basically saying, fellow Rooster Teeth fans, is that there’s no shame in being a niche. We’re in quality company.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22
  • Documentary: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) – Thursday, February 25
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015) – Monday, February 29
  • Movie: Deadpool (2016) – Monday, March 7
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14