Thursday, December 26, 2013

Despite All the Glitter, "Smaug" Breathes Real Fire

I wrote last year about Peter Jackson's first installment of his turned-trilogy adaptation of Tolkien's hardly-masterwork, The Hobbit.  Reminiscent and yet cartoonish, thoughtful and yet embarrassingly brainless, the work seemed like a confused story from someone's family history.  Its sequel, "The Desolation of Smaug" comes across somewhat similarly.  As I saw it on Christmas day and I was thinking of food, I discovered that "Desolation" consists of a delicious, perfectly roasted Christmas turkey, into which has been stuffed thirty-five unwrapped Hershey's chocolate bars. There's enough there to chew on without the dessert already inside.

In short, even though the Hobbit's showing-off is as excessive as Gandalf's fireworks, the saga continues to live on with beautiful emotional fire, thanks to a good deal of love and respect for J.R.R. Tolkien, though the torch-carrying facebook mobs moan otherwise.

A problem is that much of it is puppy love--a sort of adolescent "Wow!" like a kid destroying his father's meticulous train set.  Peter Jackson throws us a few absolutely ridiculous bits: a twenty-minute barrel-ride, a silly magistrate-with-a-combover side story, a trippy Sauron flashback complete with lava lamp animations, and some dialogue and scenes that are just plain stupid.  Parts could easily turn into a drinking game: How many orc heads will roll?  How many times will Legolas slide across the screen like a tobogganer?  How many times will Peter Jackson try to make us believe that Bard and Thorin are as cool as Aragorn?

In other moments, however, the love for Tolkien seems like it is walking hand in hand with the Old Master himself, bushy-eyebrowed and weird and wise.  One can imagine Tolkien pointing out the potential allegories here, laughing at a few little moments that bring churning blood and changing soul to The Hobbit.  

Nowhere would he be prouder, I think, than with Martin Freeman's Bilbo.  Bilbo doesn't get enough screen time in this film, and yet he dominates as the scurrying, scheming, steel-hearted would-be burglar.  He tells the great dragon near the end of this film's journey "I am he that walks unseen." Watching Bilbo come to his own, two parts burglar and one part hero, is the most compelling journey of the film.

Freeman finds time, in a movie obsessed with cutting orc's heads off, for wordless soliloquies that express more than some characters do with speeches of babbling.  His relationship with the ring is only mentioned once on screen, but every time it appears we know what it costs him to use it again.  Because of Bilbo, a morality finds its way back in to a powerfully moral world which, if Peter Jackson's boyish side were left unchecked, might have disappeared entirely.

There are others to thank for the film's real emotion and beauty.  Peter is actually one of them.  His invented romance between Kili (the one dwarf who, looking at, you would legitimately consider dating) and the wood elf captain Tauriel flavors the story with a relief we need.  Played by Evangelline Lilly, who here secures my embarrassing and eternal devotion, Tauriel is a soulful addition to a world that benefits from her presence.  A few moments of their romance are silly, but one scene in the prison shows us the reason we believed that Peter Jackson could bring this world to life.  The wistful Tauriel sighs to Kili, who complains that the light of the stars seems cold and remote:

"All light is sacred to the Eldar.  Woodland elves love best the light of the stars.  I have walked there sometimes, beyond the forests and into the night.  I have seen the world fall away and the white light of forever fill the air."

As fantasies often do, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings pit dark against light.  For writers who don't know what they're doing, it's easy.  "Oh, the light is the good guys and the dark is the bad guys." Scenes like this, however, and many moments of The Hobbit, attempt to explore what the "light" really is.  The quarreling races wish for different outcomes--Thranduil wants sanctity, Biblo security, the dwarves a homeland, the people of Laketown prosperity--and they fight over their different hopes.  The film calls for unity.  The message resounds in Tauriel's question: "Are we not part of this world?"

The other elf that steals the show is the arrogant, cold Thranduil, (father of pre-Weight-Watchers Legolas) played by Lee Pace.  The macho actor might have not seemed like the right choice at first, but his slithering, overconfident King slides into the world of The Lord of the Rings as naturally as Madame Blanchett as Galadriel, and five times better than Hugo Weaving.

And let's not forget the reason we came to the mountain in the first place--Smaug, the massive gold-hoarding dragon, voiced by the renowned Benedict Cumberbatch.  His scene with Bilbo is as iconic and well-written as the Smeagol-Bilbo scene in the first film, and in many ways it does not disappoint.  Bilbo's wordplay delights, and in terms of a visual feast it's a hard contest between the dragon and the actor.

The dragon stuns visually, bathing in that sea of gold or soaring or breaking things.  Sadly, despite Mr. Cumberbatch's best efforts, the post team went to town on his voice and left a grunting cacophany.  The classical actor's clever inflections and smirk are mostly lost, though if you're listening for them, you may find them.  His dialogue flips between the beauty of Tolkien--"my teeth are swords, my claws are spears, my wings are a hurricane"--and silly things bad villains shout "I am fire!  I am death!"  His conclusion, like other parts of the film, sacrifices meaning and character for tricks and trifles.

"The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug" will not bowl over diehards or newbies, but it is another heartfelt and exciting installment in one of my favorite sagas ever.  Even if it isn't the great story about fighting against despair, it's a reminder of why we must stand together, and the kind of world it makes when we don't.

Friday, November 29, 2013

"The Hunger Games" Sequel Is A Cut Above

It's been a while since we've been faced with a real trilogy.

There have been a couple of threes lately--Iron Man 3 happened this summer.  The Chronicles of Narnia got around to three before it sputtered and went out.  Harry Potter got us to eight, somehow.  The Dark Knight Rises brought us to three for the new Batman franchise.  But we haven't seen trilogies as a thing since Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

About an hour into The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I realized that I was in the middle of one for the first time in years, and I started to think about the whole thing differently.  By the end, I was convinced that we were looking at a pretty darn good one.

Trilogies are a tough business but they make a gorgeous structural challenge, with beautiful potential.  Look at the Star Wars films--if we only had a sequel, we would get Hoth but not Endor, Yoda but not Jabba.  If The Lord of the Rings ended with The Two Towers, we would explore Rohan but not Gondor, Theoden but not Denethor.  A trilogy gives a chance to explore deeply the world we have already met once, and to change our relationships with things we thought we understood.

Gosh, am I getting emotional?  So Catching Fire starts us in an unspecified amount of time after the first film, when Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson) jointly won a yearly massacre funded by the Capital of Pan Am to appease and distract the starving inhabitants of its Twelve Districts.  In order to win, Katniss and Peeta staged a sort of on-screen love affair that the world got attached to.  Katniss did it against her judgment, as she still had some sorta feelings for Gale back home, but Peeta from all accounts seems to reciprocate.

Katniss is a tough protagonist this time around.  At first glance, she seems weak.  Katniss is still haunted by the murders she committed the previous year, and Gale (whose only apparent virtue is being Liam Hemsworth) is still haunted by all the smackers she laid on Shorty McBreadmaka. And of course, like any self-respecting pseudo-boyfriend, he stays mopey about it for the entire movie.  Still, Ms. Lawrence's Katniss is still the most kick-butt heroine we've seen on screen for a while.  The middle installment of the trilogy shows a near-manic side of her, but the things we value her for (her love of her family, her self-sacrifice, and her prowess as a fighter) remain unchanged.

She seems weak, however, because she rarely makes decisions or follows clear objectives.  To her credit, Ms. Lawrence is not afraid of contorting her face in anguish, grief, or fury, but Katniss is even more accidental of a heroine this time than she was last time.  When attacked by a frightening sound of her sister being tortured, she curls up into a ball, showing no nerve.  When helping a wounded woman, she can do little else but give her a watered cloth and say "That should help" and run away.  At first this bothered me, but I think it's somewhat necessary.  In order for Katniss to come into her own as a powerful figure in the third film, she must go through a time of weakness here.

The film's story is surprisingly elaborate and surprisingly long, and both of these surprises thrilled me.  In an age where good stories are being compressed for movie-munching mindless audiences who can't sit still for two and a half hours, Francis Lawrence and company take their time, and it pays off.  Catching Fire, while full of heart-pounding action sequences, interesting characters, and an epic story, takes enough time to balance it with quiet moments of conversation, character development, and feeling.

Numerous characters stand out, and one of the film's strength is that all of them mean something to us by the end.  From Donald Sutherland's difficult tyrant President Snow to Jena Malone's elevator-stripping, f-word shouting Johanna Mason, portraits in Catching Fire always come three-dimensionally.  The film doesn't let us write off characters as bad, self-centered, or stupid.  Of particular note: Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), an arrogant-rival-turned-friend, shimmers with complexity.  Mr. Claflin balances shirtless shallow-boy with selfless caretaker, and his journey for the audience is an achievement by the whole team.  Plutarch Heavensbee, the enigmatic new Gamemaker, is clearly important because he is played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but even the Great PSH manages to live in the world of the Hunger Games believably and with the proper weight.


But the real star of the film is Mr. Hutcherson's Peeta Malark.  In an early scene with Katniss on a train, he admits "I don't really know you.  Friends tell each other the deep stuff." "Like what?" she replies. "What's your favorite color?" he asks. "Now, that's going too far," she answers.  I connected with Peeta because in a world where any sort of normalcy or friendship seems impossible, Peeta is trying to make things work.  Where Katniss often stands by, mouth contorted by fear or pain or wrath, and does nothing, Peeta steps in.  He makes bold moves.  He tries to help people, even as they are dying in his hands.

This might come from his need to be loved.  Everyone loves Katniss, but Peeta admits "Nobody needs me".  It's the same old unrequited love story, but Peeta gets the credit that is due to many unrequited lovers--they fight for what they want.  He is made even more heroic by Haymitch's description of him to Katniss: "You could live a thousand lifetimes and not deserve him." In yet another stroke of subtlety, the film doesn't let us love people simply because they are handsome or romantice--it asks to question why we do.

Like a good trilogy, Catching Fire lets us look at the characters and the story through a new lens.  The political commentary is never terribly deep and the moral lessons are surprisingly shallow for such a twisted story, but the characters make it worth seeing and experiencing.  It asks us to question our American-Idol style celebrity worship and asks us why we follow people, why we believe in other people.  This is still young adult literature, but rarely is such material treated with this kind of respect.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Ender's Game" is Beautiful, Thoughtful

When I was eleven, my mother brought me to an audition for a Children's Chorus.  I capitalize those words for a reason--the three years I spent there demanded excellence from me in ways I had never expected.  In my first audition we were given a piece of music, taught it in a group of 300, and asked to come to the front of the group and sing for the rest.  Seeing a pattern in others' manner of doing things, I gathered my wits, memorized the words, and set down the paper on the auditioner's table before singing.  I was part of the eighty or so children who moved on from that audition and joined the chorus.

I felt like a loner for almost my entire experience in that chorus.  I accidentally hurt myself very stupidly in school during that time, and several other singers mocked my bandages, reinforcing my sense of absolute loneliness.  I barely made any friends, even at the summer camps we attended, and I spent all my energy trying to sing as well as I could.  Not make friends with the leaders, not make friends--I worked as hard as I could.  I saw other singers as rivals, and when I got solos over them, I rejoiced inwardly.  I was not a child prodigy, but I fought like one.  Perhaps for this reason, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is one of the shaping stories of my childhood.  Though it surely is not perfect, Gavin Hood's adaptation does a passable job of bringing it to us untainted and unhindered.

"Young people integrate complex data more easily than grown-ups," says Colonel Hyrum Graff, the hard-bitten recruiter (played with a thoughtful ruthlessness by Harrison Ford) to Ender, the young strategical prodigy.  Graff has a hard job: enlisting young minds to help humanity wipe out the aliens that almost killed them fifty years ago.  His journey and Ender's--not only to save humanity but to become adults in the process--is the basis of one of the most powerful, emotional, and effective pieces of science fiction ever written.

The story is centered on children fighting one another.  Even in his small school on Earth, Andrew "Ender" Wiggin beats everyone.  His strategy makes a much bigger boy call him a cheater, and when the boy corners Ender after school, Ender gives him a beating that makes the other cronies tremble.  He is not only smart, he is vicious--characteristics that make Ender at once frightening and fascinating.

Ender's nature as a fighter is very much played down in the film.  Asa Butterfield's performance shows a consistently compassionate, thinking boy who cries more than he shouts.  Though the screenplay shows him talking too much about his near-psychopathic brother Peter, he is clearly more like his sister Valentine (played lovingly but not very deeply by Abigail Breslin) whose compassion made her unfit for Battle School.

But fit is exactly what Ender is, and a housecall from Graff and a Colonel Anderson (Viola Davis) sends Ender skyrocketing up into orbit, where a few score children under the age of sixteen train for combat, leadership, and the eventual command of Earth's Fleet.

And this is where the games begin.  Once there, Ender and his new friends (enemies) are thrown into a zero-gravity space game that allows them to experiment, lead, and fight one another.  The film presents the idea more excitingly than could have possibly been done even ten years ago, and it is a sight to behold.  The few matches that we actually see are gripping and exciting, and the victories are satisfying.

The great weakness of the film comes in its first forty minutes.  Main characters are introduced and voiceovers tell us why they are important, but rarely do we get to see the interactions that make them that way.  Bean and Petra, key characters from the book, never have true interactions with Ender to show us why to care about them.  Thus their quips, little glances, and interactions later do not come with the emotional impact that makes the end of the book so moving.  The entire story clips along so fast that even Ender's family does not draw us as much as the beauty of the game.

Though it weakens the film completely, it still is somewhat appropriate.  Ender's Game reminds us how believing children are.  If they are told that the people around them are their rivals, their competition, they will believe.  They will fight one another, even when it makes them depressive, even when it makes them insane.  This game that may not be as serious as everyone believes comes to rule these children's lives, until they are willing to kill one another for it.

But the movie also explores compassion as an antidote or even a companion to competition.  The game begins with a text quote from "A.E. Wiggin" saying "In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him"--an axiom that, though arguable, brings up some interesting questions.  Ender thinks constantly about how to deal with his opponents compassionately, or more significantly with those he commands.  In order for him to succeed, Ender must know the weaknesses and strengths of his friends as well as his enemies.

The rest of the film brings us farther from the battle room and from Earth, to simulations of space battles with the aliens.  These antlike creatures, called Formics, possess a massiveness and terror that, through impressive work on the part of all the creators involved, become beautiful in their own way.  Ender's journey questions what the effect of any battle, even a simulated one, has on our consciousness and the way we view the world.

In the end, Ender's most impressive quality is his story.  The film can have all the weaknesses it will, but the depth of its story and the issues it considers might make it one of the best science fiction films ever, easily surpassing the Star Wars series for depth of meaning and emotional imagination.  Given these things, it is incredible that portions of the film community can brush off something so intelligent and worth-considering because of opinions held by the original author or (worse) because of the man's religion.  Such a thing is so petty that I wonder if even these children would do it.

I highly recommend Ender's Game, the film, and the book even more highly.  In watching it I considered myself again.  I have never been to Battle School, never fought aliens, but I have been a child who thought he had to fight other children in order to be better.  I have thought winning was better than friendship, that survival was better than love.  This book helped me recognize the cost of excellence, and though I do not think that I am perfect yet, I am glad to be able to look back and say that I have found, like Ender, a higher purpose.  I hope someday to teach this to my children, and when I do, it might be after we watch the 2013 film of Ender's Game.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

'Thor' Is Not The Hero We Need

A few years ago, in another superhero galaxy, we heard: "He's the hero that Gotham deserves, but not the one that Gotham needs right now. So we'll junt him.". Batman, made a criminal, rode off into the night in the twilight of the best superhero movie perhaps ever made. The world considered anew what it meant to be a hero, the human toll of obsession, and the insanity of unbridled self-reliance.

Last night I watched "The Dark World", and as armored, red-caped Thor (Chris Hemsworth) bounded from a London street into a dark red cloud of CGI Evil, a shot of his lover-girl Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) showed a big red bus in the background. The ad on its side blared cheekily a false movie poster, for a film called "Moral Sacrifice". You, like me, might sense a lack of literary value.

Despite its clunkiness, "Thor: The Dark World" starts explosively. The beginning sequences shovel heaps of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings onto the pile, and it's admittedly glorious. Asgard soldiers (read Elves) swing glowy swords (read lightsabers) at white-helmed laser-shootin (Stormtroopers) foes, dark forces are locked away, and ashy landscapes in The Dark World contrast with the gold, fertile castles of Asgard. For anyone who has ears to hear, I kept waiting for some Protoss to show up.

See what I mean?

More impressive than the animators and art designers, however, is the establishment of characters. Tom Hiddleston's ever-Shakespearean Loki arrives in chains like an imprisoned Aaron (Titus Andronicus),Thor himself arrives making quips like Petruchio, and a particularly well-written scene shows the romantic tension and unrequited interest between Sif and Thor. Some of these moments are so believable, creating characters with whom we can connect, that I can legitimately compare it to the Lord of the Rings.  Elegant, deep, simple.

The rest of the film fails on this.  Sif, easily the most compelling and least predictable character, is shunted out of the limelight before she's had two seconds in it.  A lengthy subplot with Loki, instead of bringing any changes to his and Thor's relationship, resorts to name calling, even in a scene on a boat that had at least some potential.

Natalie Portman gets entangled in the plot, which seems basically to be: The bad guys need the red goo in order to destroy the universe.  The good guys fight them.  Poor Jane Foster gets some of the goo in her blood, making her dangerous and doing absolutely nothing to her in any other way.  (Another shoutout to the animators for the scene where is examined by Asgard "doctors" using some very fun equipment, clearly touch screen but cooler even than what us earthlings have.) Portman pales in comparison to Freda (Thor's mother) and Sif, who not only are totally awesome fighters and independent women, but stay modestly dressed throughout the whole film (if you're worried about nudity, Thor's impressive breasts are thoughtfully considered by the camera at one point).

The story is predictable, the fights are interesting but never emotionally compelling, and worst, Thor does not change in any way.  As a hero, he has no characteristics to admire or dislike.  He is blandly righteous, blandly temperamental, and blandly self-sacrificing.  Sort of.  Even when he is in danger he comes out with wounds that avoid his beautiful features.

Here I know I am in a comic book, not a story about heroes. Thor is a brightly drawn figure with very few defining lines, drawn by animators who make money on making more books. He "sacrifices" for his friends, and it leaves us thinking, "you know, I would do that. I would walk through fire for the people I care about".  What a good thing to be encouraged.  But that's rarely a story we live. Rarely are we faced with someone near death who we can heroically save. But we are faced every day with people who need help. Little things can be cries for help.  We can help even when we are not asked, instead of waiting until it makes us look heroic.  We can choose to open ourselves up and be vulnerable, allowing our faults and failures to be seen.  We can choose to care.  Thor does none of those, and still gets offered to be the King of Asgard.  It doesn't seem to be a good recipe for me for real heroism.

If Marvel is really hitting its stride in Thor, it is in connecting it stylistically with its source material.  Comic books were intentionally numerous, serialized, and individually rather bland.  We can feel comic book sensibilities in the naked Dr. Selvig running around Stonehenge, with Thor's hammer chasing him around the nine realms, with Jane's silly sidekick.

Perhaps it is a success, then, just not in my style.  The reboot genre has become a medium with value because it allows us to reconsider old things.  Thor: The Dark World is instead a loving revisiting of the same old melodrama.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Math Solves All The Problems in Formulaic "Safe Haven"

I watched this movie on the 9-hour plane ride from London to Minneapolis.  In my state of time confusion, "The Place Beyond the Pines" was a little too intense and deep, I'd already seen "Gatsby", and "Oblivion" didn't catch my interest.  So I tried out "Safe Haven", which I'd seen trailers for and thought "I could like this for an hour and a half."

It tells the story of Katie, a girl who flees home because of a danger we don't understand and settles in a tiny North Carolina town.  There, she makes the acquaintance of Alex, a cheery widower who runs a little shop for people taking the bus through town.  He's got two children--adorable gap-toothed Lexie and disobedient, stern Josh who misses his mom.  I bet you have no idea where this is going.  If you really don't, I'll give you a clue.

Yeah, let's just say surprise is not really a part of the story.  She ends up with the guy, big surprise, he helps her solve her problems.

The first line that stuck out to me was a transaction.  She comes to his little store after escaping scary-man-Dan, and she buys something, and he says "That'll be 97 cents." I wonder what on earth these days costs 97 cents!  Did he not make her pay taxes?  The reason it stuck out to me is, because, like the rest of the movie, it was too easy.  The math works out.  You only have to pay three cents in change.  I was struck by this when she came again to get groceries, and he said "That'll be 18 even.  Out of 20?" Once again, two bucks change.  Let alone the romance, I just can't believe that all that food is this cheap.

"Safe Haven" falls into a genre of movies where unchallenged audience members watch people in an almost-perfect situation find their way into a basically-perfect situation.  What self-respecting girl doesn't want to come out of a bad breakup with the wrong guy and immediately encounter a selfless, gentle, normal guy who will take care of her come hell or high water?  And what self-respecting small-town convenience store widower doesn't want some humble, beautiful girl to come along, revitalize your life with a jolt of love, and become best friends with your kids who you feel you can't raise by yourself?  There's a soothing quality to watching things work out okay.  Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel have a nice chemistry, she appears to be able to speak English and look like an absolute bombshell all the time, and he actually acts most of the time, and it's nice.

The North Carolina setting is charming and underused, and the little girl is adorable even if she is so unrealistic and perfect as to be ridiculous.  The villain is only useful for making Judd Fry jokes.  It's a shame that it's so predictable, as I found myself pausing the movie and wondering how they intended to fill in another hour and a half of it.  Luckily I had a book with me to read during the boring parts.

Still, there's something to be said for a world in which such movies exist.  Besides the mathematics of love, which abound here, another idea surfaces, that of Tribe Dynamics.  Not only is Man lacking one (1) female, Woman needs one (1) protector, and both children need one (1) mother.  The real satisfaction of this film actually doesn't come from seeing beautiful people fall in love and vicariously enjoy their emotional and physical pleasures.  It comes from watching roles be filled and a narrative of happiness take place.  That's why it's a Tribe movie--not only does Katie come to love Alex, she comes to love the city and to be a part of it in a special way.  She fills a role, many roles, and I realized watching the movie that transcending non-entity status to become something is, for many, the great relief of life.

Literary folk and critics gawk at such a base display in a film (you know, such an elevated medium with its long history of not-shallowness) and thus give it a probably deserving 13% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Still, I think it's fascinating that humans find Love to be such a big deal, as it is such an everyday feeling.  The welcome arms of acceptance and the thrill of being able to make someone else happy drive us to complete the tasks that civilization lays upon us like bricks on Egyptian slaves.  And "Safe Haven" shows a sort of naive view of how it could work, a fantasy of seeing things work out okay, and only costing 97 cents.  I guess that's the part that's naive and predictable.

You probably don't have to watch "Safe Haven".  You could watch the trailer and get most of what I got out of it.  That is, if you're human.  If you're an alien, this is a great anthropological study about some pretty basic human ideas.  And it's got pop music in the credits, if you need incentive.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" Is Gaiman's Anchor Work

The teeny little book that a friend gave me as I visited home, a thin hardcover that seemed bite-sized compared to the last four books I'd read, proclaimed itself A Novel under its big title and beautiful cover art.  I gave a knowing little hm.  Neil Gaiman was selling this book differently.  I wondered why, a little, and then forwent the thinking about it and just read the darn thing.

Neil Gaiman gets by on many things, but the key is charisma.  Tall, curly-haired, with a sort of knowing glint in his eyes, he draws an audience like a flea draws varmints--in multitudes, apparently.  He is the Joss Whedon of fantasy writing, and it's little wonder.

Those caught up in the dank labyrinth of Game of Thrones love George R.R. Martin, but the enormously-bearded man is not a peerlike, inquisitive sage, but instead a crafty, devious storyteller who has it in for everyone in his stories--the bloodier, the better, especially if they get naked a few times beforehand.  Supporters of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan are more like archaeologists than bookworms, and Brandon Sanderson lovers "really dig" the dude who writes such "awesome" stuff.

Fantasy writing has its nuances, just as any genre, and Neil Gaiman avoids a certain camp: the camp of making-up-your-own-names, inventing crazy new species, making a storyworld you could play D&D in.  Gaiman pulls out of mythology, folklore, and the urban obscure.  Besides Stardust, his major works are universally set in the modern day, with protagonists living normal lives presented with the delirium, confusion, and beauty of the Other world.  And this is where he finds his niche, his charisma, and his magnetic draw:

Whereas other writers spin fantasies out of their dreams to amuse, startle, and teach, Gaiman always seems, just a little bit, to believe.  His fiction shows the reader a world that lurks beneath their apartment building, or at the other end of the pond behind their house, and instead of a neat moral to tie things up, the final temptation always asks "Why don't you take a look?"

Considering this introduction, it's important to point out that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, essentially, a Neil Gaiman novel.  It follows his patterns, reads in his understated, clearly enunciated voice, and charms and enraptures as he knows so well how to do.

But The Ocean at the End of the Lane is more.

The book tells the story of an Englishman coming home for a family member's funeral and, by a sort of driving autopilot coincidence, visiting the backyard of an old neighbor.  Behind their house at the end of a long lane sits a pond.  The neighbor in question, the long gone-away-to-Australia Lettie Hempstock, called their pond an ocean, and this memory triggers a leap back into the man's memories as a seven-year-old.  His memories are the substance of the story.

The story of a young boy and his relationship with a family who turn out to be much, much more than they seem follows the same path as many fantasies.  There are dark things at work in his town.  One feels ripples in the water--ripples coming from Coraline, MirrorMask, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, an ebb pushing from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and a deep undercurrent from the tradition of English fairy folklore and other myths.

The story itself is a precious, well-hewn tale that walks down familiar paths with all the fear, wonder, and depth that we felt before, but where Neil Gaiman has spent his career as a jazz musician of folkore, improvising and riffing on what has already been told, Ocean draws it together.  It connects all of the stories of its kind ever told, and what's more, it tries to explain them to us, through the eyes of a seven-year-old.  For the first time, or at least in a new way as fresh as a homegrown tomato, Neil Gaiman hands his audience his heart and the reason that he tells the stories he does.

When facing off against a frightening aberration that is tormenting his family and now threatening to destroy him, our protagonist observes: "It did not matter, at that moment, that she was every monster, every witch, every nightmare made flesh.  She was also an adult, and when adults fight children, adults always win."

Ocean is so obsessed with children & adults that at first I worried for its well-being.  So many of those stories simply stop at "children are better than adults, they have that intuition thing" and it seems like a cop out to be escapist and displeased with growing up.

But that is not what the book is trying to do.  Like a young religious seeker, Gaiman dives into a secretive world trying to find answers.  Though seven-year-old eyes see the story, the man remembering them is middle-aged.  He is trying to come to grips with a past that he only somewhat understands and remembers.

The beauty of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is how many answers he finds.  This seven-year-old sees "the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty", and though he dreams of escaping to the world in Lettie's "ocean", what he eventually discovers is much deeper, much more real, and ultimately, amazing.

Note: (Added August 4th, 2014) Gaiman's book is not perfect; few are, and even perfectly-engineered books can seem silly.  But the book has grown on me.  There are passages here as powerful and mysterious as the Gospel of John, and just as the fourth gospel brings purpose to the story of Christ as the others cannot, so Ocean, I think, is telling the story of what nerds and geeks and dorks are really after.  Less mature, emotional works can celebrate the educated elite that make up those demographics, showing the innovation and smarts and community grown out of it.  But Gaiman looks past these things to the childlike sense that there are things beyond reality:

"I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.” There is fear and terror here.  But beyond it there is purpose.  When presented with a beautiful possibility of knowledge without hurt, a young witch tells the protagonist boy that knowing everything is no fun, because it means you can't play. "Play at what?" he responds.

This is the real quest of the nerd kingdom, whether they seek after it or not.  And though it may perhaps sink into obscurity, Gaiman's work may become the Gospel of John of the Bible of Geekdom, and hopefully, of all those who choose to imagine.

I recommend The Ocean at The End of the Lane without reservation to any human being, fairy, hobgoblin, kobold, spirit, selkie, or shadow creature that might come across it, or that uses currency to purchase books.  And more especially to those who do not read fantasy, I implore you:  Read this book.  Step into this ocean and see things a little differently.  Or maybe a lot.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Mercy is the Mark: Morality, Murder, and More in "Dishonored"

WARNING: This review contains what might be considered emotional spoilers.  No plot points or characters are revealed, but important events are discussed.

One reason I think I like to write reviews is because I like to read reviews.  I try not to watch R-rated movies unless I have some idea what's made them rated that way, and the MPAA is less than helpful, so I find myself reading three or four reviews of a movie before I watch it.

I was even more stringent when I was considering buying Dishonored.  The 2012 stealth/action game was praised for its setting in the deep, dark city of Dunwall, its exhilarating, creative gameplay, and some gorgeous art design.  Powered on whale oil and choking on a rat-borne plague, I breathed in Dunwall like secondhand smoke, crawling around on rooftops among smoke-belching chimneys and sneaking through houses where plague-ridden wackos set up shrines to the mysterious, malicious Outsider.

The game puts the player behind the eyes of Corvo Attano, the Lord Protector of Dunwall, who returns from a voyage just in time to witness the assassination of his close friend Empress Jessamine and the kidnapping of her daughter Emily.  Guards accuse him of the murder, and Corvo is sent off to prison and condemned to be executed.  Through some fortuitous circumstances, he escapes and meets up with an undercover team of dissenters trying to take back power from the people who stole it from Corvo.

A video game attempt at "The Count of Monte Cristo" ensues, but instead of wealth, intrigue, and betrayal, Corvo gains supernatural powers from the Outsider, wears a frightening mask, and sets out to eliminate the people who killed the Empress and blamed him for it.

This is where the morality comes in.  Early in Dishonored's creation, developers revealed that part of the design of the game was to allow players to win the game without killing anyone.  Corvo's targets can all be killed with a flick of the knife (or, more often, a gruesome, bloody shoving match) but every mission rather clearly presents a possibility to stop them from doing evil while still leaving them alive.  A religious character can be branded with a mark that makes him excommunicated for life, leaving him living but friendless.  Corvo has the opportunity to find a hidden voice recording of a high-ranking official, which, if played over public loudspeakers, is the equivalent of political suicide, rendering him imprisoned but unharmed.

In simpler situations, Corvo sneaks around guards and plague-wild Weepers instead of fighting them, or creeps up behind and knocks them out.  Their snores assure the player that the person they've taken out isn't dead, and will wake in the morning with a sore neck but little else.

This idea fascinated me, and motivated me to buy the game even if the trailers looked like a messy, blood-gluttonous massacre.  That option exists, and I won't talk about it much because I didn't experience it.  I did fight a few times, and it was fun.  Once I accidentally lopped a guy's head off and gasped so loudly that my roommate thought I was having a heart attack.  It seems fun but way too gory for me, and (important and cool) the game changes depending on how you choose to play, as well as the ending.  So I decided not to have that experience, and was interested in what emotional journey the game would take me on.

For much of the game, my choice disappointed me.  The Outsider as a deity is pretty shifty, and blesses Corvo with an array of gruesome abilities, such as sending forth a gust of wind to blow enemies off ledges and Splat-style deaths or summoning a horde of vicious, bloodthirsty rats to rip your enemies to shreds.  Using a short-range teleportation spell called Blink, the rather-awesome Possession, and the obligatory Night Vision, I felt limited.  Weapons, as well, seemed useless, though I did use a couple of incendiary bolts from a crossbow to draw the attention of guards before I sneaked up on them from behind and knocked em out.

Still, this was actually a small issue for me.  I am just as satisfied to explore a gorgeously designed world (which it is) and meet interesting characters and discover a deep, three-dimensional world as I am to use an array of weapons to destroy my enemies.

But here's the problem: The world isn't three-dimensional.  When Corvo stepped out of prison into the Hound Pits Pub, it was clear from the first look that the men and women enlisting him to help were not motivated by noble ideals.  Seeing echoes of City 17 and Half-Life 2 (carried over with the handiwork of art director and conceptual artist Viktor Antonov) I expected a world like that--dark, frightening, but filled with people to whom I could relate.  

The world of Dishonored, instead, is filled with people I didn't care about, and who in many ways I abhorred.  Their dialogue has no hope, no connection to other people in their lives.  I read a few books that detailed bizarre rituals or showed perverted sexual plots from plays.  I asked myself for the first several levels: "Why, if Corvo is a deeply moral man who cared about the Empress and Emily, does he agree to join Havelock and the rest?  They offered him revenge, but what does he care about that?  Why, if I refuse to kill, do my missions revolve around getting rid of people?" I failed to see a motivation for Corvo, and without that the story fell flat.  Part of this came from the choice for Corvo to be a silent protagonist.  I finished Bioshock Infinite a few months ago, and understanding Booker's amoral, hardened background, I had very little difficult roleplaying in his persona.  Violence was normal to Booker, and his motivation was strong--"Give us the girl and wipe away the debt."  Even if I didn't agree with him, I was able to learn from being in his shoes for a few hours.

At one point later in the game, everything changed.  A plot turn yanked Corvo from safety to being imprisoned again, and I had to find my way to my captor (a man with great significance from earlier in the game) and take him down.  Suddenly Corvo had motivation--people I cared about were in danger, and time felt short.  I escaped in a hurry and, immersed in the character, I didn't take the time to sneak past the people guarding me.  I dispatched them and hurried to find the man who was responsible for much of this.

The best scene of the game followed, and the conversation and one-on-one fight that follows are well-written and gripping.  I chose to spare his life, to which he replied: "And you choose mercy.  Extraordinary."

Corvo escaped into the dim evening and watched a train dump plague corpses into a trench full of the dead, and overheard a sick man talking to his friends in desperation, still hopeful for his own life.  On a bridge above us, two men talked about how they would escape the plague district, their cluelessness and despair becoming very clear.  

The Beautiful Hidden Paintings Of Dishonored

In the course of a view moments, I was transported from a hostile world of sick, unpleasant people who I could only really help by not stabbing in the face.  Instead, I entered a deeply wounded city, where people dreamed of many things that I could not give them, but wanted desperately to.  I snuck by them and hurried through the insanity raging around me, desperately trying to find the one person who still mattered to me.

Because of this experience with its last few levels, Dishonored won me over.  Its message came through for me--that in a world full of evil, it is hard for good to make any difference.  For most of the game, it seemed that no one cared whether I had integrity--whether I cut people to pieces or expended enormous effort to keep everyone alive, people greeted me the same way.  But by the end, it made a difference to me.  I loved the people of Dunwall with their flaws (though I could have loved them sooner if they were written better) and wanted to help them, even if it was harder for me.  It taught me, to some degree, that goodness is not always rewarded by the world, but it is rewarded in small ways.

If we did a do-over, I'd say to the developers: To give more strength to your peaceful-playthrough idea, make the missions about things other than getting rid of the bad guys.  Give us a chance to see what the people of Dunwall need.  Could Corvo get supplies to the flooded district?  Who would he have to convince, or steal from, to do so?  What about his mother?  Does she live in the city?  Wouldn't he want to find her and make sure she's okay?  These kind of missions would be much more engaging, and allow us to care about what we see, grieve for the sadness, and fight for better things.  

Anyway, I don't make video games, but that's what I think.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Small Things Make Big Differences in 'World War Z'

In a troop-carrier plane en route to South Korea, impetuous, passionate Harvard grad Andrew Fassbach (Elyes Gabel) tells bearded U.N. tough fella Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) something about the disease that for an hour of screen time has been ravaging the planet.

"Mother Nature is a serial killer," he says, a lilt of excitement in his voice, "No one's better or more creative...[but] she leaves crumbs.  Now the hard part, why you spend a decade in school, is seeing the crumbs for the clues they are.  Sometimes the things you thought were the most brutal aspect of the virus, turns out to be the chink in its armour...and she loves disguising her weaknesses as strengths."

Fassbach's insight turns out to be invaluable for the people trying to find a cure for a virus that, twelve seconds after infection, transforms people into ravenous, mindless flesh-eaters.  One might say the same of certain movies as he did of Mother Nature--that a film disguises its weak plot with big action, disguises its two-dimensional characters with big plot points or big actors, etc.  That is not the case about with World War Z--in fact, the opposite is true.

'World War Z' thrives on its own imaginative and emotional steam, even if the final product doesn't look quite like the blockbuster some expected.  What some might see as weaknesses are in fact its strengths, and the result is a film that brings to tears more often than it elicits a frightened scream.

The story starts with a montage of news clips, most of it meaningless, some mentioning a particular virus.  Pundits incite worry and other pundits mock the worriers.  Meanwhile, shots of insects are interjected into the slanted opening credits.  Ants devour huge beetles.  Ants eat each other.  It's all a little freaky.

But then we're thrown right into the very human lives of Gerry and Karin Lane (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters, having a normal day in Philadelphia, PA.  Dad is called upon to make pancakes for breakfast, Mom asks the older daughter if she's got her inhaler, little daughter hears some words on TV and asks "Daddy, what's martial law?" He answers cleverly "It's like house rules, but for everybody."

The film's greatest strength is established in this sequence, and it sustains the whole film: it is people.  Pitt and Enos (a BYU acting alum, at which I shout for joy) try desperately to live normal lives, but it is clear that they have lived difficult things before.  Their performances are grounded and understated, and following them around for the first forty minutes just trying to find somewhere safe makes up the most gripping, moving experience I have had in a theater this summer.

I am tempted to tell the whole story, but it begs being experienced.  My near-nonexistent understanding of Max Brooks' novel is that it attempted to be a what-if-it-really-happened scenario.  It is not supernatural, no aliens are involved.  The characters in it, including high-ranking members of the U.N. and U.S. governments, are clueless, cut off, and trying to figure things out with extremely limited resources.  It is precisely the natural quality of it that makes it stand apart from other zombie movies.

So what are the other little things that make it good?  The zombies do not immediately seem to be that incredible an achievement.  In fact, one on one, they are positively mediocre.  Just make-upped actors twitching around (though the transformation process, making a helpful human friend into a ravenous foe in a few spastic seconds, is chilling) and shuffling in the normal zombie fashion.  Heck, they look like characters out of "Warm Bodies." But it is in groups that they are like insects, swarming in thousands.  Shots from the trailer show thousand of ravenous humans climbing on top of each other, trying to get to the top of a huge wall, and hundreds of people leaping onto a bus, making it so heavy that it falls and crushes their friends.  This careless, insect abandon contrasts sharply with the character's intimate attachment to each other, leading to the next thing that works.

The film is full of tiny roles.  In fact, every role is tiny.  The little girls have a few scenes (and they are wonderful and believeable) and Gerry and Karin anchor the entire thing, but the rest of the film hops around from Philly to the Atlantic Ocean to South Korea to Israel to North England and plenty places else.

I wrote in my review about Man of Steel here that human beings weren't portrayed honestly enough.  They seemed like idealized caricatures, beautiful people who we didn't want to see die just because they were people.  World War Z succeeds brilliantly where Man of Steel failed.  A man who at first terrifies us then makes us cry with gratitude when he gives something invaluable to our protagonist.  A soldier in South Korea (played with integrity by James Badge Dale, who you may recognize from another movie this summer) (first to know it without looking it up gets points) appears to be another Call-of-Duty playing American dude thrown into incredible circumstances.  He's not a terribly honorable man.  He's a jerk.  But he is as real as they come, and that's what we need as an audience.

I could talk about more people--the Tenth Man in Israel, a girl who Gerry saves and who helps him out later, and others.  The film is full of them.  Matthew Fox makes a cameo as a helicopter pilot and I'll be surprised if he says five words or even has a shot of his face in the movie.

While 'World War Z' reminded me and will remind you that people matter most, I was struck by something else watching it.  I am an actor and many of my good friends are actors, and watching this film I saw actors.  But because of the measured reality of the writing and the integrity of the performances, I began to watch people instead.

Film and theater are a shared illusion.  The audience must trust all the artists--actors, writers, directors, designers, technicians--in order to truly experience something that will change them.  The audience themselves must decide to agree to the illusion, and believe it themselves.  It's hard to do that when writers and actors portray life falsely, whether it be through making things too dark or too light, too sexual or too chaste, too complicated or too simple.

It is not easy, and it is not common, but when it happens it affects us.  And it may just be that I've seen too many superhero movies this summer, but because of a lot of little things, that's what happened to me when I watched 'World War Z'.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

'Star Trek' Rises Above Mediocrity Thanks To Inspired Source Material

My best friends and roommates love Star Trek.  Hopefully they'll appreciate my thoughts, even though it took me so long to see J.J. Abram's newest installment in the franchise.

I enjoyed the film a great deal.  The first one went completely over my head, as I had never before been introduced to the world of Star Trek, and mostly saw it as Star Wars with much less creative-looking aliens (mostly people with weird makeup) and a lot of dealing with kind of menial problems (let's fix the engine, watch out for the radiation, ya gotta put down your shields before you can beam people out).  Plus some weird-looking, kinda boring outfits.  All of these things are true, but there's some smart stuff behind it.

The film starts with a bang, as a crew of space travelers escape from a really red planet where a bunch of scroll-worshiping aliens are mad at them for taking the Scroll.  In the end, they save these aliens from getting destroyed by a supervolcano, but in the process they get seen, breaking one of the rules of their commanding unit, called Star Fleet.

The Captain of the ship, James Kirk (Chris Pine), is a smart-mouthing, rule-ignoring bro who likes sleeping with hot aliens and doing what he wants.  His sidekick and first officer is the hyperintelligent and unemotional Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is half-human, half-Vulcan.   He reports Kirk's actions, and Kirk gets summarily fired from being a Captain.

That is, until a terrorist blows up an important research lab and kills many leaders of Star Fleet.  We learn later (spoken through a really open mouth) that his name is (seriously, open your mouth wide) KHAN, and he escapes to a far-off world.  The film's plot has Kirk and his ethnically diverse crew of idiosyncratic friends diving into the depths of neutral space trying to find the guy and bring him back to Earth for a fair trial.  In case you're interested, the role is played by the fantastic Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Shakespearean actor voice and presence make us wish for a little more from his character.

Since its first days as a 60's TV show, Star Trek has operated from a moral center.  The Prime Directive, the idea that runs Star Fleet, posits that "observers could have a negative effect on the sociological development of alien cultures, and necessitated that explorers...avoid discovery." It's an anthropological idea that is bold and defended religiously, and Star Trek has always had things to say.  The writers fought against things they thought were wrong and made no quibbles.  There was a moral to take out of most episodes, some of which involved the setting aside of religion and God.  From a science fiction standpoint, the humans in the Star Trek universe had passed beyond the petty dilemmas of our age, eliminating poverty, much corruption, and violence, and have no need of extraterrestrial help--they are the extraterrestrial help.

This gives Star Trek a maturity that almost every summer blockbuster never bothers with.  At an early point, when Kirk and his crew are ordered to kill the terrorist immediately, Spock says that this action may cause war, which is "inherently morally wrong".  Those ideas of right and wrong, though they encounter pushback, are generally not abandoned.  From my place as a moral person, I cheer at this.

In our age of relativism, however, it is clear that the writers fail to take strong stances.  Terrorism, the taking of life, and government corruption raise their bleary, overused heads, but these are easy things to unite against.  The film is clearly a commentary on the September 11th Attacks, and it is actually one of the more respectful and thoughtful ones I've seen, but it is easy to call out "literary cowardice" without reservation.

One thing that fascinates me about Star Trek is that the characters rarely have families.  Captain Picard (of Next Generation, we don't see him here) is even frightened of children.  Star Fleet mostly consists of individuals, united in the cause of exploration, but unattached to family units.

Star Trek: Into Darkness draws an immediate connection between crew and family.  The terrorist Khan spends most of the film trying to preserve and bring back to life his cryogenically frozen buddies, and he asks Kirk: "Is there anything you would not do for your family?"

The great strength of the film is how deeply we care about this family.  Sulu the cool-headed Acting Captain, Bones the colloquial, antiquated Doctor, Scotty the fiery and hilarious Scotsman, all of them have their personalities that we recognize and care about.  More important are Kirk, Spock, and the beautiful, superbly acted Uhura (Zoe Saldana) who spends most of the film in a fight with Spock about his unemotionality in their romantic relationship.  In one scene, they are descending to the surface of a planet before a dangerous situation, and a conversation that lasts almost three minutes of screen time shows them talking about their problems emotionally and resolving them.  It is easily the best part of the film.

Zachary Quinto's Spock is unfaltering, and his moments of emotion are absolutely mesmerizing, Saldana's Uhura teeters on the edge of the teary girlfriend, but eventually falls into the land of three-dimensional characters (a great place for literary real estate, if you're on the lookout), and Pine's Kirk is...well, he's mostly okay, and sometimes pretty good.

Sadly, the film shows more gunfire (laserfire, I can't tell the difference) than these interactions, but they are frequent enough that it hit home far more deeply than most of the films I've seen this summer.  The destruction wrought on the Enterprise was so connected to the people inside it that I felt pain at its hurt.

Watching Star Trek: Into Darkness, I asked myself who my crew is, and what we are fighting for.  Unlike many of the characters, I have a family, but I also have people my own generation, people who are exploring the world and learning about it.  Sometimes we fight against the generations that came before us (in the film, this comes from the lovely Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) who fights against her father, the corrupt politician, supporting the morals of her friends instead) and sometimes we fight against each other.

The great lesson of Star Trek is that in order to succeed and be happy, we cannot only be insular and family-focused.  We are all connected, and live in a universe that is desperately in need of help.  There are always distress calls and challenges to be faced, and if we wish to succeed we must face them together.  At times we will disagree and we will always encounter trials that we fear worse than anything else.  That is when we need each other.

Bushman out.

Friday, June 21, 2013

"Man of Steel" Reaches For Heaven, Misses Earth

In a time of anti-superheroes whose flaws are only outweighed by their exceptional abilities, Zack Snyder and crew want to bring us a little old-fashioned hope.  Their efforts, titled "Man of Steel", follow the tradition of this generation of superhero films with beautiful, unexpected re-imaginings.  Sadly, the young superman's journey to Earth lands him on a planet so bereft of humanity that it leaves us wondering why anyone bothers going to so much trouble to save it.

Ignoring Kansas and the young wunderkind, the film begins with a woman, Lara (Ayulet Zurer) giving birth in a dismal unearthly room, helped only by her husband, Jor-El (Russell Crowe).  Soon the planet Krypton is exploding into near all-out war, as Jor-El pleads with the Jedi Council (or something like it; they wear crazy hats, several of which fall off during the scene) to let him send an escape-pods worth of people from Krypton before its core collapses, killing everyone.

His efforts are thwarted by the extremist General Zod who barges in, kills some people, and declares martial law.  Played shoutily by Michael Shannon, Zod suffers from never being given a single believable line of dialogue.  It's a hard knock life on Krypton.

Using his wits, Russell-Crowe-ness, and a big flying creature from Geonosis, Jor-El infiltrates the underwater chambers of Krypton's most important secrets, steals a vital artifact, and escapes back home in time for him and his wife to send their infant child off in an alien wicker basket to the remote planet called Earth.  "He will be a freak," his mother protests, desperately clinging to her last moments with him, "They will kill him." "How?" Jor-El asks, "He will be a god to them."

The opening sequence is gorgeous and full of pathos--not only that, but it's a reflection on Deity.  Superman has become the essential modernization of the Christ story, and in terms of actors, no one's pulled it off like Henry Cavill, and being with Jor-El and Lara as they send him off allows Christians to imagine the pain that Christ's Father and Mother must have experienced.  The Christ story is admittedly otherworldly, but seeing it this way connects even the distant family of heaven to our world emotionally, morally, and spiritually.

I spend so much time painting this picture because the rest is so full of disappointments.  With a disconnected sense of near-abandon, the film shows a montage of formative events: A beefy sailor incredibly saves a number of men from an exploding Oil Rig and disappears into the ocean.  A young boy is mocked unnecessarily by a boy on the bus, and when a tire pops and it falls off a bridge into the river, the boy is the one to push it out and save the child who bullied him.  The boy's father (played with simple, understand sincerity by Kevin Costner) counsels the boy to not let his fate be known by the people of Earth, lest in their fear of him they reject him.  Even these moments have their fascinations, but they find no root.

The people of Earth in 'Man of Steel' are not only innocuous.  They are downright boring.  Of the three moments of "bad people time" in the film, one is a drunk who grabs a waitresses' butt and two are foul-mouthed children who do not even touch their victims.  Sure, butt-grabbing is pretty bad, but the heroes of the film swear twice as much as the bullies, and are considered good.  Goodness for the film mostly implies a) being a part of the U.S. Military, b) being trapped under something, or c) being good-looking.  Superman's empathy comes across as taking care of pets.

As such, our Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) never seems to really relate to them.  Props to Mr. Cavill for making it clear how much he's feeling underneath--even with the weaknesses of the writing, this Man of Steel has a churning heart.  With his silent demeanor and Christlike turning the other cheek, he is noble and self-sacrificing.  Still, when he walks out of a conversation with a priest before it's even finished, there's a sense of enormous disconnect--there is nothing humans can give to him.  Sadly, Jor-El's beautiful message that "they will stand beside you in the sun" and "with them, you will accomplish wonders" fall flat.

The rest of the film clunks along with the same drama we've always seen.  They're gonna blow up the Earth, superhero does it by himself, but the humans help a little.  The worry that the humans won't accept him is a non-issue--no one ever seems to care.  Sadly, by the end of the movie, neither did I.

It could have worked out differently.  If it was written differently, what would the Earth they sent him to be like?  And how could someone like Superman really help the people of Earth?

Earth, as I know it, is full of people trying to do things right, people who deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.  But it is also full of awful things.  Violence haunts the streets and even more terrible ones happen in private.  Within everyone there are struggles--choices to be angry, choices to hide from other people, choices to destroy other people in ways that can't be undone.  Guilt, fear, and purposelessness run rampant.

As far as I know, being good is not about being from Kansas.  It's not about protecting the way of life we have.  It implies wanting to improve it.  That's what Jor-El foresaw, and Christ too.

'Man of Steel' makes some great efforts, but it ends up having a lot less to say than its source material demands.  Even the best special effects, the craziest fights, and a spot-on cast cannot make up for a badly-written movie.  Somewhere, though, in a better-fleshed-out world, this Superman might just make a difference.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The American Dream: The Great Gatsby Review

Cutting to the chase: The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite adaptations of literature to film.  And I was ready to hate it.  I was ready to join in the broiling ranks of intellectuals and former AP English students with baseball bats and brass knuckles, rallied in fury around Baz Luhrmann's house.  The boring vastness of Australia, the purposeless insanity of Moulin Rouge and even the sometimes-overdone-ness of the rather great Romeo + Juliet--all of these prepared me to be disappointed.  But it succeeds because it tells the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, and doesn't have to tell the book.

Just so you know: Nick Carraway (played sufficiently by Tobey Maguire) comes to New York to make it as a stockbroker.  America is the land of immediate opportunity and golden, wine-spouting success.  "The tempo of the city had changed sharply," he tells us, "The buildings were higher, the parties were bigger, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper." Nowhere is this more true than in the Playboy mansion behind Nick's tiny house, owned by the enigmatic, legendary Mr. Gatsby.  For reasons unclear, Mr. Gatsby invites Nick to his house personally and the two become friends, entangling Nick with Mr. Gatsby's uncertain past and his dreams to rekindle his love with Daisy Buchanan, Nick's cousin who has long been married to refined, old-money Tom Buchanan.  It gets crazier.  Go see it.

It doesn't try and imitate the pacing of the novel (except in the vital and brilliantly-executed ice block scene) but instead fevers past us like a convertible overflowing with hip-hop drunk white people on the way to get the evening smashed.  It doesn't pretend that it has the time to lazily slip into ambiguous characterizations--Tom Buchanan busts onto screen playing polo and strutting through his East Egg house; (which is as lavishly representative of his character as is Joel Edgerton, whose presence overwhelms and made me wonder "didn't this guy win an Oscar for something?" He hasn't, but the film makes you wonder why.) Daisy is introduced in a flurry of billowing curtains that takes one's breath away as efficiently as Fitzgerald's prose does.  Gatsby's overflowing fireworks introduction is as hilarious as it is majestic, and Myrtle and Catherine steal the show with their five minutes on screen and Nick's first real party.

I did feel babied with the fourth shot of T.J. Eckleburg's godlike glasses, accompanied by a voiceover that "God sees everything".  Still, more than ever, this director, accused of being the most bombastic of our time, delivers a story that appears so clearly to be near his heart.

The green light, only mentioned a few times in the book, dominates Gatsby's vision as well as ours.  The music, a sort of mash-up between Gershwin and Fergie, Jay-Z and Harlem Jazz, instructs us more about the 1920's than any degree of dialogue about it could.  We know what they were like because we know what it is like today.  The characters don't talk about the issues that startle us--the faceless blacks without dialogue or place besides on the stage, the women whose say is trivial to the men--and instead of having to talk about it we see it happen.  Like Nick and Jordan in the hotel scene, we are hapless witnesses to the great crimes of our time.

And crimes there are, in abundance.  Though Tom is the first we hate, for his bigotry, infidelity, and cruelty, he seems so clearly a product of his time that I almost forgave him.  Gatsby's past is not as clean as he at first assures Nick, and for all of his assumed manners, the animal comes out in that great ice-block scene that makes us, like Daisy, shudder and want to turn away.  Leonardo DiCaprio gives Gatsby the shine of the celebrity, the charm of the con, and the pain and hope of the scorned lover. He is just imperfect enough to play Gatsby.

Here--and in the novel--Nick is a stroke of genius because he embodies the audience member.  Like him, we have always been taught to see the best in people.  Like him, we go with the flow, allowing the rhythm to overwhelm us and the current of the times to carry us along.  We seek the prosperity that others think we should, and deify those who achieve it.  When a drunk Nick steps onto the balcony in his underwear and says that he feels connected to everything, "within and without", we point our finger at the screen and say "I know what you mean." But what the novel asks us to consider is if our neutrality has any merit, and if we are really even living our own lives.  In the end, there is no one to side with.

And isn't that a message for our generation?  Our inheritances as a culture and a nation are more sickening than wonderful.  Among the worst is what we mean when we say 'Love'.  A sort of American Nirvana, complete with raucous sexuality, wealth and prosperity, and a fulfillment of all selfish dreams above all else.  Whether you are New Money or Old Money, Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby, or Wilson, pursuing that American Dream is destructive.  It is selfish.  It is finally meaningless.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel raised a voice of warning, but captured it with charitable neutrality.  The film does the same--it presents the brightness and fun of it all, and even the humor and heart of all its characters.  Life is fun, full of new surprises and beautiful sights.  For me, however, it asks a question: "Where do we go from here?" The past is behind us, freezing solid as we plunge on.  The future is unknowable, unplannable.  But what do we choose to do now?  As a nation, as individuals, as families?

We'll see if I figure it out.  For now, go see the movie.  Think about it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Absurd Idea: The Book of the New Sun

Like much of science fiction and fantasy, The Book of the New Sun does not defy description; instead, it invites caricature.  Gene Wolfe's four-part work could easily be cast aside as nerd-food, what with its lusty young protagonist who wields a massive, Latin-named sword, its episodic parade of curious creatures and exotic locales, and even a battle where a village of beaten-down lakedwellers invade the castle of a ruthless magician.  Turning up your nose yet?  Control the itch, please.

I have loved the work of author Gene Wolfe since I was fifteen, and luckily my degree of comprehension has increased somewhat since my first being entranced by his prose, stories, and worlds.  Wolfe was born in New York, dropped out of college to fight in the Korean War, became an engineer afterwards, and invented one of the machines involved in the creation of Pringles.  His prolific work in science fiction is consistently award-winning, and he keeps trudging along at 82.  While science fiction is often divided into "hard" and "soft" categories--that is, fiction based on either the natural sciences or social sciences--Wolfe's work spans both in such a comprehensive way that flies miles over the heads of many readers, or at least young me.

The Book of the New Sun takes places billions of years in the future.  The sun is dying.  Overly large and red, it is no longer bright enough to scare away the stars during the day, and will supposedly die soon.  Religious convictions of the time believe that the Conciliator, a celebrated philosopher of times past, will return as the New Sun, renew the dying star, and save Urth.  Our protagonist, a young torturer named Severian, sets down a story for us that seems unrelated.  He falls in love with a client of their guild, allows her mercy by giving her a knife to kill herself with, and is banished into the massive city of Nessus, full of the poor people of the Commonwealth.  His journey makes him an actor, an executioner, a soldier, a temporary father, and eventually much more.  Severian's intellect gives us clear pictures and leaves out important details he assumes we should know, coupled with boyish simplicity.

At first I valued Wolfe for the same reason I valued Mieville--amazing creatures like the alzabo (a wolf that imbibes the consciousness of the creatures it devours and then can speak like them), imaginative places (the House Absolute, a huge garden hiding a subterranean palace for the ruler of Urth guarded by camouflaged police), and fidelity to his creations that make them lived-in by their characters, instead of commented on by them.  There is not enough that can be said of these virtues, considering that they are ignored by almost every writer in the SF world.  Beyond this, I could have devoured his books for the reason I devour Stephenson's--the sheer wisdom of his foresight, the cleverness of his commentaries, and his undaunted hope.

But with Gene Wolfe, there is more to like.

Gene Wolfe's Catholic faith is surprising.  His work reads like a Borges who has just read Tolkien for the first time, but who still goes to the cafe weekly with Plato, Descartes, and the collected body of the Council of Nicaea.  I'm missing some figures here--Severian, our thoughtful protagonist who claims to have a perfect memory, covers what seems at times to be the whole of human thought in his own observations of the world around him.

And what a world it is!  Unlike keyboard-vomit writers (myself included) who create names for their fantasies with cool-sounding collections of letters, all of Wolfe's names come from archaic words.  His genetically-engineered horses are called destriers, his soldiers dimarchi (they who fight in two ways).  His lore has its sources too--the fuligin-clad torturers are subtle descendants of priestly offices.  Though some references are clearer than others, we come to recognize our own world in Severian's Urth.  A picture-cleaner shows Severian an ancient photo of a man in white armor and a gold visor in the desert.  A storybook tells a story about a young boy brought from another planet who was defended by a panther before a council of wolves and eventually became a great leader.

The detail of Wolfe's portrayal stems from wit, but also from a deep need for verisimilitude.  Wolfe is showing us the world as he sees it.  The fourth volume's portrayal of war echoes the chaos and futility he might have seen fighting in Korea.  The government of the planet is ruled by a man who runs a brothel on the side, for personal reasons.  Everything is many-layered--his aliens (called Heirodules, holy slaves) wear masks that look like human faces, beneath which lie hideous monster faces, but these too are masks, hiding real human faces.

The great success of Wolfe, who writes with the intent of revealing God (here called the Increate or The Pancreator), is that he never forgets the masks.  Most religious literature presents a world that is oversimplified in order to show how God works.  Wolfe presents a world so complex and difficult it shakes us to realize that it is real, accurate, and truthful.  He is not trying to help us escape, but instead to see our world differently.  Near the end of the book, a curator speaks to Severian of the dead.

"I wanted you to see that there has been a lot come before you.  That there was thousands and thousands that lived and died before you was ever thought of, some better than you."

"You are the advocate of the dead," Severian observes.

"I am.  People talk about being fair to this one and that one, but nobody I ever heard talks about doing right by them.  We take everything they had, which is all right.  And spit, most often, on their opinions, which I suppose is all right too.  But we ought to remember now and then how much of what we have we got from them." (pg. 389)

As a religious writer, Wolfe does not ignore the past.  Greek & Roman thought finds its way here.  Buddhism is not ignored, and others more obscure are not forgotten.  A sense of universe-straddling perspective descends upon the reader, and a clarity to pull what is absurd from what is real.  Here God steps  in, not as a logical conclusion, but as an improbable possibility backed up by strange and inconclusive evidences.

To find God here, one must always make the choice to believe in the absurd idea.  "But then," Severian points out, "all ideas are absurd."

The Book of the New Sun is an example of what science fiction can do.  It was invented as the "novel of ideas," a chance to put forth concepts that were new, things that no one had thought of before.  Nowadays so much of it has us plodding down the same paths looking at the same uninteresting ideas.  I strongly encourage you to give Gene Wolfe a chance, and to see what the genre is really made of.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Iron Man 3 is 2013's The Odyssey

I saw Iron Man 3 on the Saturday Night of its opening, expecting nothing at all.  Iron Man 2 was one of the least pleasant superhero movies I have ever seen (thought not as awful as Sherlock Holmes 2...yikes) and so I went because there would be other humans sitting in a dark room, looking at the same blinking lights as me on a wall.

Within five minutes, I was hooked.  After an hour, I was squirming with excitement.  After the credits, I felt empowered.

What makes Iron Man 3 kinda awesome?  Also, why is Iron Man 3 like the Odyssey?

Kay, quick summary: In the Odyssey, a heroic man named Odysseus has just finished sacking Troy with his buddies, and spends twenty years trying to get home, brought to the lowest of lows and aided by the gods in trying to get back to his wife.  He weeps for large portions of the book and sleeps with a lot of goddesses on the way, but his homecoming has warmed the hearts of 9th grade English students for, like, 2500+ years.

In Iron Man 3, we begin following Tony Stark's battle of Troy--in case you missed it, it was the huge fight in New York that we saw in the Avengers.  A million gabillion aliens invaded the Big Apple through a big black portal that opened above it, and Tony Stark saved the day by stopping a nuclear bomb that was going to hit the city.  Using his flying Stormtrooper suit, he tossed the bomb into the portal, blew up the aliens, and saved the day.  The fact that this battle never receives an on-screen flashback is actually a nod to the Greeks, whose mythology was so familiar to them that the battle of Troy never receives mention in Homer's epic.  Homer (or the group of people who are now called Homer) was an oral poet who travelled all over Greece giving performances of The Odyssey to towns of people who would gather to hear him.  So it is today--our generation is united in a sense by the stories of the superheroes whose stories are made mythic and shown to us in small groups on the silver screen.

Okay, forgive me the historiology.  Back to Tony Stark.

The guy is suffering anxiety attacks following the battle in New York City, and stays away until all hours of the night tinkering with his suits, much to the frustration of "I-Don't-Get-Your-Hobby" Pepper Potts.  Their relationship is clearly flawed, and not just on his end.  When she comes home for her birthday and is greeted by his remote-controlled suit, she comes downstairs to see him having a breakdown.  Her reaction, that they go upstairs and have a communal shower, is soothing to the sexually-frustrated adolescent but totally insufficient to any reasonable adult.

Tony's condition immediately makes us want to jump into his corner.  He is no longer the overconfident showmaker of Iron Man 2.  He is at wits' end even before the conflict of the movie starts.  And oh, does it start.

Iron Man 3's biggest villain, the Mandarin, is one of the coolest we have seen in superhero movies for a long time.  Played by Ben Kingsley, with a long scraggly beard, greasy ponytail, and armor that makes him look like a tribal warlord, the Mandarin's messages to the United States overcome every channel on television and broadcast into every home.  His rhetoric is tight, his images disturbing, and his threat universal.  Several directorial choices strike me as awesome--the Baptist preacher voice stuns in a way that would make Kingsley's portrayal of Gandhi shudder, the home-video terrorist moments are strikingly real, and the rest of his storyline is a surprise.

There are others--old business compatriots and enemies that seem to have something to do with the mysterious explosions and weird mutant-looking people that we've been seeing all over.  It works out as tightly and simply as superhero movies do, and they're not why it's good.

What endears us to Iron Man 3 is not the tin man aerobics but the bionic heart of the man, who in this case is performed with all of the alacrity, panache, and charm we hope for in Robert Downey Jr., with higher stakes than we have seen in a long time.  Whereas Iron Man 2 was marked with press releases and public scandal, Tony finds himself with a battered, powerless suit in the snowy nowhere of Tennessee.  Watching him figure out the tiny details of how to get back in the air and back to saving the world are hilarious, and he gains a useful ally in a little boy (played like it is by Ty Simpkins) who gives Tony his sister's limited edition Dora the Explorer watch.  The watch later becomes the subject of the movie's funniest joke.

What the film refutes (at least to some degree) is the over-awesomization of superheroes.  Tony Stark storms a villain's lair with explosive Christmas ornaments wearing what looks like a homemade laser tag suit. Don Cheadle, the down-to-earth government employee who happens to be Iron Patriot (a name made fun of repeatedly, and for good reason), runs around in unfashionable jeans and a green polo shirt.  The movie does not glorify violence so much as it showcases larger-than-life people trying to save the very-normal world.

I'll admit some disappointments--one particular revelation lowers the stakes a great deal and the concluding sequence, while full of explosions and Christmas cheer, just didn't draw me in--but Iron Man 3 still might be coming in as one of my favorite superhero movies ever, because instead of trying to be a cultural event through size and spectacle, it manages to be one nonetheless through its humor and heart.

Tony Stark's Odyssey is too much fun for me to bother recreating and ruining for you.  Go see it.  It's as fun as watching a live performance of Homer.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Stronger Ending for Bioshock Infinite (Spoilers Throughout)

I am not the first to do this.

For me and many who have played it, I think the ending comes on too quickly and too unexpectedly for us to feel anything about it.  I hope to share some of my thoughts of what might have helped audiences to care more about this story.


About an hour after Elizabeth and I entered the tear that brought us to Vox-Populi-crawling Columbia, I was looking around at the carnage and devil masks and I thought: "I miss Columbia."

Remember Columbia?  That sunny, beautiful spot where the racist white people walked around in nice hats and listened to barbershop tunes?

Or remember, more interestingly, that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson had been increased to a level of Godhood?  That they held a sword, a scroll, and a key that had become sacraments and tokens of great religious power?

Remember how that all kinda got thrown away by the story?

Our first exposure to Columbia is in a temple.  Instead of the numbing weirdness of Comstock House, where  mutilated tuba players watched over guys wearing president masks, I would have liked to see the Great Temple of Comstockism, where high-ranking zealots practice the deep secrets of the Columbian Arts--Washingtonians planning which American cities to destroy and how, Jeffersonians stealing artifacts from Washington, D.C., and the busyworking Franklinians struggling to keep up with the genius Luteces and understand the sciences.  What a beautiful and challenging level that would have been.

Wounded Knee

Another part of the beauty of Columbia is its mystery.  We who have played know that Comstock's vision of  Columbia must exist to some degree in Booker--was he a strong-willed American patriot?  Was he a racist? Did he dream of a better society?  The mechanics of Elizabeth allow us a chance to see this.

Slate knew Booker DeWitt almost directly before he became Zachary Comstock.  They fought together at the Battle of Wounded Knee.  What if in one of the tears that Elizabeth rips open, Booker found his way onto the battlefield of Wounded Knee and lost sight of her.  He had to fight his way past Indians and joined Slate on the battlefield.

There are several awesome clues that we could get here.  We could find Booker's tent and his book about George Washington.  We could see the real Booker (or play as him) as he gleefully chops up Indians and touts their scalps.  We could see him hoist an American flag.  We could see him almost killed by an Indian and saved by a silhouette that looks like Ben Franklin but turns out to be Slate.  These kind of hints make the audience go What The Heck? and then allow them to say "Oh, I get it!" when we learn that Booker is Comstock.  The hints would already be there, instead of coming out of left field.

File:Bioshock wounded knee statue.jpg

The Luteces

These two have an interesting story which we only hear about over voxophones.  Laaaame.  What if we learned about the Luteces by having a bigger laboratory, a setting which was pretty lame anyway?  Sure, with some thought we can figure out that they are the same person from different dimensions.  Sure, we realize that they are trying to puppet all the variables in order for Booker to succeed and stop Columbia from blowing up the world.  But how did Rosalind get mixed up with Comstock.  Huh?  Huh?!

The Luteces are fascinating but hardly give us anything in terms of emotional connection.  Their death is not detailed or shown to us, but in the laboratory that Luteces would have every reason and capability to show Elizabeth and Booker what happened to them.  Or perhaps Elizabeth would open a tear and show us their death/reincarnation.  Imagine a prostrate Rosalind praying to George Washington as she fails and fails again at getting the machine to work, suddenly blessed with success (and a twin!).  Imagine Rosalind's discovery of Comstock's plans and her argument with the Prophet.  Imagine the torture of Robert that Rosalind has to witness that finally brings about their death and escape.  Is this cool?  Yes, it is.

3.  Elizabeth

Ken Levine is not a religious man, and much of Bioshock Infinite is an indictment of religion.  I am not only religious but a practicing Mormon--my religion was a clear source for many ideas that exist in Columbia.  Even with these things, I saw much that testified of God and of His goodness in Bioshock Infinite.  One of its great questions is "How can I undo the evil I have done?" Comstock asks it, Booker asks it, the Luteces certainly have asked it, Elizabeth has reason to ask it after her murder of Daisy Fitzroy.

Most of us do not have access to interdimensional portals, and even if we did, the laws of quantum mechanics imply an infinite universe of choices in which we make all possible decisions.  It is a complicated business indeed for Elizabeth to destroy Comstock--she must stop him from ever existing by stepping through all of the universes and smothering him in the crib.  Believers in Christ see him as a figure who steps into the past and changes the person that has been created by evil choices made.

The music that trickles into Columbia from the future hints at this: "Can the Circle be Unbroken?" says that there are "loved ones in the glory, whose dear forms you often miss.  When you close your earthly story will you join them in your bliss?" and asks if there is a better home awaiting in the sky.  "God Only Knows" potently states "God only knows what I'd be without you."

Elizabeth may become omnipotent when the syphon is broken, but she doesn't become heartless.  If she only had these last few moments to be with Booker before she killed him, is it possible that she would take him to France?  To stand under the Eiffel Tower for a few moments before opening a door back to Wounded Knee, the baptism, and the final smothering?  It could be nice.  Hasn't the existence of this twisted universe offered Booker a chance to meet his daughter?  Hasn't it made the world better for them, even if the new Booker and his new Anna will never meet Elizabeth as she was?

In the end, Bioshock Infinite tells a beautiful story that, in its hurry to let us know the secret, sometimes forgets to open its heart to us.  Kudos to all involved in its creation, and more power to them.  I hope my thoughts help express my respect and appreciation for what has been offered.  Good job, guys.