Seriously – Godzilla

27 05 2014
fanart by vladgheneli

fanart by vladgheneli

Warning: giant radioactive spoilers

I figured I’d better chime in on the new Godzilla movie. He’s kind of the mascot of this blog. I want to take him seriously, even though his movies tend to be aggressively ridiculous. Thankfully, Godzilla (2014) is not. At no time does the movie wink at itself with campy meta humor. For that feat alone, I can forgive the movie’s flaws. Bottom line: the story makes sense, the characters act like people, the effects are convincing, and the monsters are glorious.

Some of my favorite people online were disappointed that it wasn’t more of a horror/disaster movie, that instead Godzilla becomes a heroic figure. I do agree that there should have been room in the film for a more catastrophic, force-of-nature aspect of Godzilla. However, when I realized that there was more than one monster in the movie, I was absolutely elated. The film essentially jumps into sequel territory right away, which is a bold choice by Hollywood standards. But honestly, do we really need an origin story for Godzilla? Do we really need a whole movie of throwing ineffective planes and tanks his way? I was thrilled that this movie went straight to kaiju-wrasslin and Godzilla as both threat and protector.

Some of the plot was awkward. Some promising background elements were undeveloped. My biggest complaint is that the monster scenes were often cut short for no good reason. Individuals generally made rational decisions, while institutions made terrible ones, which to me feels true to life.

I’ve heard that a sequel has been green lit. They will have to bring in another classic monster. My favorite was always Gidorah, but it’s hard to imagine Legendary Pictures finding a workable rationale for a deeply weird monster from space. I predict Godzilla and Mothra teaming up against a new adversary.

What would be really cool is for a rival studio to make a Gamera movie. Warner Brothers? How about it?



Obsessives Anonymous

21 05 2014

Silence of the Lambs was on recently. I like that movie, mostly for Hannibal Lecter. I am a fan of monsters, from towering atomic lizards to human beings ruled by inhuman impulses. Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs is a great monster; alien, powerful, horrifying yet sympathetic.

I went on a little Hannibal kick and dug out my paperback Red Dragon, which I hadn’t read for 20 years or so. The writing wasn’t to my taste as much as it once was, but I read on, happily anticipating the Lecter scenes, figuring I would reread the whole trilogy. But I got to Lecter, and was disappointed. He seemed much more materialistic and petty, not so much the lethally wise enigma Hopkins brought to life. I have a lot of books to read, so I put Red Dragon away.

The other movies with Hopkins as Lecter don’t quite measure up either. Something magical happened in Silence of the Lambs, some confluence of acting, co-acting, writing, directing, cinematography, I don’t know what all. But that quintessential Hannibal Lecter exists in that film, and nowhere else. I wanted more of him, more of Clarice, more FBI vs Hannibal, but there is no more to be had. I decided it’s better to enjoy the one movie that really speaks to me than to chase pale imitations.

This is a new behavior for me, with a range of applications. There are many books, comics, movies, and tv series that I enjoy deeply. Many of those are media-crossing franchises. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an obsessive fan. I have seen obsessive fans, some of them are my good friends, and there are levels of collecting and consuming and trivia-mining that I don’t come anywhere near. Still, I have been known to latch onto a book or a show like an escapism-eating lamprey. And once latched on, I’ve been known to eagerly scarf up every new iteration on screen or page. And the experience is almost always disappointing.

The king of this phenomenon is obviously George Lucas. But like the houses of Westeros, plenty of others are vying for the throne. Steven Moffat is gradually ruining Doctor Who. DC comics have placed their faith in crummy filmmakers. Peter Jackson is burying The Hobbit in bloated sub-plots and self-indulgent special effects. Such is the way of the world. A great story maintaining its greatness for many volumes and across media is miraculous. Of course it doesn’t happen every day.

I used to pin gigantic hopes on newly minted iterations of my favorite stories, like all my happiness depended on the film or the sequel or the series finale getting it right. And sometimes they do get it right, and I will always find that thrilling. But if they blow it, they blow it. Whatever version of the story I fell in love with still exists. I will not require it to update or expand to keep me interested.

Now I’m off to see Godzilla!




Prejudgey Critic vs Saving Mr. Banks

5 12 2013

So, it’s a movie from the world’s largest entertainment behemoth, about said behemoth’s founder at his cuddliest, trying to get a flakey artist to surrender her intellectual property in exchange for boatloads of cash?

Erm, no.

Despicable Me 2 vs Animation Snob

9 07 2013

Hey, I almost forgot! I saw Despicable Me 2 this weekend. In the interests of maintaining some semblance of occasional timeliness, here’s what I thought.

It was good. Funny gags, lots of minion stuff, adoption thread that continues to wreck me emotionally. My one complaint is that Lucy, the female lead, was poorly characterized. Her mix of secret agent skillz and sunny goofiness was just bland. I didn’t much care about her and didn’t buy her as a longtime villain fan. I blame clichéd animation techniques. If Lucy had been designed and animated with more restraint, taking more cues from Kristin Wiig’s style of understated lunacy, she could have brought much more to the table.

Twilight Made Me Care About Vampires

8 07 2013

draculaI’ve loved monsters– pretty much all of them– ever since I was a kid. Giant city-stompers, gothic creeps, alien weirdos, mythic creatures, I was a fan of them all. Except for vampires.

I’m not sure why. Probably because they are essentially human beings with little fangs. The thing I liked about monsters was their strangeness. I much preferred the Wolfman or the Creature from the Black Lagoon to Dracula. Even Frankenstein and the Mummy had more alien mystique than Dracula. Honestly, a guy in a tuxedo baring his teeth is pretty dorky.

I was in high school when Anne Rice came along with Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat. My friends were big fans, and some of their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I became interested in the subtext of monsters, the underlying cultural fears that inspired them. But my craving for monsters was never about fear; it was more about escapism. I wanted non-human characters I could identify with. Rice’s books were the beginning of vampires as sympathetic characters, but if anything her vampires were more human than ever. I enjoyed her modern gothic stories, but the vampire remained my least favorite monster. I wanted someone to reinvent the werewolf instead. (No one did, so eventually I started writing my own updated werewolf story. I might even finish it one day.)

The vampires of The Lost Boys were, in my opinion, the coolest yet. Rather than bemoaning their curséd state, they embraced their power and flaunted their outsider status. By the time Bram Stoker’s Dracula came along in 1992, I had taken a college class in gothic fiction, read the original book, and was eager for a full-blooded (ha ha) film interpretation. That movie remains my favorite vampire story,* because it really plays up Dracula’s monstrous qualities. The style and cinematography emphasize unreality. Dracula takes on many bizarre forms; a bat-creature, a wolf-creature, an unnerving count with big brain hair, crazy fingernails, and an independent shadow. Even in his previous life as a medieval warrior he wear armor that looks like a flayed man’s muscular system, with a bestial snout. The tragic romance is perhaps overplayed, but that’s the nature of gothic romance. Also, the music kicks ass. (Unfortunately, there is Keanu Reeves. But on the plus side, Winona Ryder.)

It seems like I’m fully on board with vampires after Gary Oldman. Maybe I am. After college I saw the vampire as an essential member of the monster canon, but I still found almost any other monster to be inherently cooler. (Zombies are less cool. They only have scare value and are impossible to identify with.) I enjoy watching True Blood with Marcie. But, while the vampire drama is good, I’m more interested in every other character, including the humans.

And then….Twilight.

In fairness, I haven’t read any of the books. I have seen the first movie, and I’ve read and heard plenty of commentary on the whole series. In which, vampires shun the daylight because it… makes… them… sparkle.

Before long the awful stew of misplaced wish-fulfillment and Mormon family ideals boils over with harmful, regressive stereotyping. But really, the sparkling says it all. This is a non-vampire vampire. This is a monster stripped of all monstrosity. This is a fairy story masquerading as a vampire story. Now, there’s nothing wrong with fairy stories, but if that’s what you’re telling, then tell a fairy story! Don’t hijack a monster and dress it up in sparkles for millions of readers too young to see what a crime against fiction you are committing!

Thanks to Stephanie Meyers’ libelous novels, I am suddenly up in arms about vampires. Suddenly I’m all about the wide range of erotic/thanatotic subtext, the crucial roles of blood, sunlight, and darkness, the  dramatic potential of a monster that speaks with erudite sophistication.

Like any legend, the vampire is always subject to interpretation, reinvention, even parody. But not betrayal. You cannot betray the essence of the legend. These things are important to some of us. These unique  creatures, powerful in their alienation, wrestling with good and evil impulses, have been a lifeline in hard times for some of us. Their bad side is not something you can jettison for narrative convenience.

I still think the fang-mouth is kinda dorky though.

*Actually, my favorite vampire story is Dexter on Showtime. While not technically a vampire story, it has the blood, and the cursed predator, and does everything I wish vampire stories would.

Person or Brand?

2 07 2013

brandingI just read this article about Paula Deen. (Also this, which seems like a more measured and responsible take on the whole controversy than I am capable of.) I don’t have much to say about the Deen story–I’ve never been a fan and I don’t mourn the loss of her career. What really jumped out at me in the first article was the bit about Food Network Star, which, much like American Idol, Shark Tank, and a host of other shows, offers contestants the chance to be “a big star who makes a lot of money and is successfully transformed into a brand.”

This is the Faustian bargain being pushed throughout our consumerist, media-heavy culture. Stop being a person, start being a brand. This is why I have no patience for any of the manufactured stars of reality tv competitions. Brands are artificial, hence inherently false. Brands are calculated to make lots of money.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but every time the word “brand” is used for a concept larger than an actual logo, my skin crawls. All of us independent artists are supposed to make brands of ourselves, which to me seems like the opposite of making authentic art. Franchised fictional properties are brands, not characters. News outlets work harder to brand themselves then to report the news. Even our political parties are now brands. How are we supposed to ever have a real discussion about anything when everyone is busy targeting demographics?

The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. Before long they’ll probably rule that brands are people too. We’ll have brands electing brands, an entirely brand-driven economy, with the few remaining people toiling in the service of brands. At least there will be plenty of sugary soda.

The Unfair Critic vs Life Of Pi

10 05 2013

life_of_pi_ver2Warning: I will spoil everything

This is a hard post to write, because I find myself in endless ironic loops. I’m just going to barrel forward and try to ignore them, you can do as you like.

I read Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I only knew what everyone knows about it: boy gets stuck on a lifeboat with tiger. I like animals, and I like ocean voyages, and I was hoping those things would be dealt with somewhat realistically. I was engaged by part 1, about Pi’s life in India. I thoroughly enjoyed part 2, the part about being stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. I found myself frustrated and angry by the end of part 3, when the author brings everything back around to a question of faith. It’s not the book I want it to be, which is my problem, not the author’s. The author, as far as I can tell, achieved exactly what he intended, and I commend him for it.

I didn’t see the movie, and I don’t plan to. I think I would hate it. The still images I’ve seen from the movie glisten with that CGI sheen. I don’t want this story to shimmer with magic. The situation is fantastic enough; I want the sights and sounds and smells to land with matter-of-fact, undeniable reality. I want to believe it. I want to be on that lifeboat with that tiger. I want to breathe the air in the middle of the ocean with a wild predator, at once dangerous, inaccessible, and part of a bond with a human being.

Part 2 of the book accomplishes all this admirably. Pi’s strategies for dealing with the tiger are surprising, ingenious, and plausible. Their journey is arduous and enthralling, and believable. The distance between human and tiger is never entirely bridged, because hello, it’s a wild animal. Believability is key. I desperately didn’t want the story to become fantasy. I enjoy fantasy, but with this story I was hoping to feel a more authentic connection to the natural world; the ocean, the sky, wild animals. Again, my problem. What’s the point in approaching any work of art with such specific expectations? I’m not writing the book. I can interpret it in my own way, but I don’t get to decide what happens.

Still. Expectations met, as I said, in Part 2. Even though there were some elements that stretched plausibility, that might be called magical realism. The oil tanker that blindly brushes past the castaways seems unlikely in the vast ocean, but also seems like one of those events so ridiculous it has to be true. The island of algae may or not have any basis in actual botany, but I had no trouble believing it. The one thing that really threw me was meeting the other blind sailor in the other lifeboat. That was so utterly unlikely, I thought the whole episode was a hallucination, right up until the two Japanese reps discuss it in Part 3.

Part 3, when Pi tells his story to the men from the shipping company, and they don’t believe him. So he tells them another story, with no wild animals, that they can believe. And then I start to doubt this wonderful story I’ve just finished. Why would the author do that? Probably for the same reason he wrote 100+ pages of Pi being in India and absorbing different religions. Pi is pious (is that why Martel chose that odd name for his protagonist?) and he prays a lot at sea, but it’s his empirical knowledge of zookeeping that saves him. So what’s all this religion in aid of? Only the central theme of the book, it turns out. In the end, we are given a choice. Believe the unbelievable, the much better story, or fall back on what fits with our own experience. Have faith, or don’t.

To clarify, I don’t really doubt the story with the tiger. It’s pretty clear what really happened to Pi (if anything can be said to have “really happened” in a work of fiction.) I think Martel is just giving us an exercise in faith, a miniature model of faith. I am not religious, so when I hear people talk about faith a part of me switches off. Faith is nothing to do with me. So I was frustrated to get to the end of the book and feel evangelized to, even in a most subtle and friendly way.

Still, I have to admit, all the things I wanted from this book–the sense of connection to the ocean, the sky, wild animals, the natural world–most people would call that a spiritual impulse. I don’t mind calling it that. One can seek and feel a connection to the larger universe without believing in God. We skeptics get a lot of spiritual juice from scientific observation. That’s why I so craved, and so appreciated, the realism in this story. Realism was my best path to a spiritual experience. When faith became the clear central theme, I almost felt my realist path to spiritual connection devalued.

Almost, but not quite. In the end I have to just let it go, as Pi lets Richard Parker go, connected and disconnected at the same time. Which again is the nature of spiritual experience, because unless you are fully enlightened and enter Nirvanna there will always be an element of disconnect. See! Despite my best efforts, Life of Pi remains the book its author intended. I’m gonna go read Spider-Man now.

Iron Man 3

6 05 2013

For once I saw a movie opening night. Now it’s already 3 days later and I’ve blown my chance to write a timely movie post. Oh well. I liked the movie a lot, but I didn’t have a lot to say about it. Then I read this article by Linda Holmes. Genius. This is why, as my blog title says, I take this stuff so seriously. Because when it’s done well, it actually speaks to serious, real life situations, and offers new ways of understanding old problems.

Here’s an excerpt:

But the biggest conversation we’re having now? About balancing self-sacrifice and ego and capitalism, generosity and gadgetry, embracing other human beings versus shutting ourselves inside ever more advanced fortresses at every level from national security down to personal technology? It’s pure Tony Stark.

click for full article

My Favorite Part of Django Unchained (Spoilers!)

26 02 2013

The pre-Civil War South is a land of insanity. The most loathesome, dehumanizing acts are protected by the law, and people of good conscience must move with utmost care. To stand up for simple decency could cost one everything.

Django’s wife Brunhilda is owned by Mr. Candie. Django and Schultz go to the plantation to buy her. They have to trick Candie into believing that they are as monstrous as Candie, as the whole society of a slaver nation. Candie must believe that they see Brunhilda as a commodity, not a person.

While Candie is entertaining them, a woman plays Beethoven on a harp. Schultz can’t stand it. The atrocities he’s witnessed play back in his mind, and he demands that the harpist stop. He can’t abide the beautiful culture of his native, eminently civilized Germany in the heart of the evil empire.

It’s a stunning reversal of every tale of American heroism in Nazi Germany– especially the one featuring Christoph Waltz as the Nazi, also by Tarantino.

It’s a subtle scene, and it happens fairly quickly, but it shook me much more than any of the amped-up spaghetti-western bloodshed. Somehow Tarantino’s signature goofiness serves to emphasize the deadly serious history lesson. The righteous happy ending of Django Unchained could only happen in a cartoonishly unreal Old South. Attitudes of American exceptionalism can only be maintained with a cartoonishly unreal grasp of history.

The Dark Knight Rises Revisited

21 01 2013

Yes, it’s another not-at-all-timely movie post. The other night I watched The Dark Knight Rises for the second time, the first time I saw it since it opened in theaters. I really wanted to like it then, enough that I enjoyed watching it once. But its flaws were too much for a second viewing. I probably could have overlooked them all, if I wasn’t immediately tripped up by how wrong they got Batman.

Batman is supposed to be relentless. He is someone who draws strength from the tragedies of his past. He is committed to his personal crime-fighting mission beyond ordinary rationality. Yet, the movie begins by telling us he gave it all up — due to a broken heart – and has been idle for 8 years. Which incidentally means that the sum total of Batman’s career is the first two movies. If he only ever fought The Joker and Ras-al Ghul, he’s not much of a superhero.

Superheroes are not complicated characters. That’s a large part of their appeal. The name and the costume should give you all the vital information you need as an audience. Not all there is to know, but all you need to get on board. (This is why the show Heroes never worked– they eliminated hero names and costumes. That and the stupid stories.) Uncomplicated does not mean unsophisticated; superheroes can have rich inner lives, inhabit complex worlds, experience convoluted plots.  But, dear moviemakers, you have to stay true to the characters’ root elements. Do that, and you can have a whole thrilling ensemble of distinctive mythic beings, like The Avengers. Fail to do it, and you get Green Lantern, Spider-man 3, Daredevil, etc etc.

As a standalone action movie, The Dark Knight Rises isn’t bad. But The Dark Knight really raised the bar. It captured Batman and The Joker so well, it illuminated the whole superhero/supervillain dichotomy. To wit: a superhero turns weakness into strength. Within himself at minimum, within others when at his/her best. A Supervillain turns the strength of others into weakness. Watch it again and see how beautifully that basic conflict plays out. That’s what I’ll be doing. What third movie?


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