Books, Movies

Beasts of No Nation – the book and the film

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I read Beasts of No Nation after watching the movie. Written by a Nigerian author named Uzodinma Iweala in 2005, it came about as a continuation of Iweala’s award-winning thesis in a creative writing course in Harvard, way back in 2004. It is a work of fiction based on true stories, and was an attempt to capture the life of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. But really, Agu, the protagonist could have been any orphan in any war-zone in the world, brainwashed, abused and thrown into circumstances that are too horrible to comprehend for someone like me.

An excerpt from the book, the description of a child slaughtering a grown human being as a rite of passage. Enough to turn your stomach and make you want to curl up in a corner and cry. The narration and dialogue in the film follows the tone of this passage very closely, but is more linear than the book.

He is squeezing my hand around the handle of the machete and I am feeling the wood in my finger and in my palm. It is just like killing goat. Just bring this hand up and knock him well well. He is taking my hand and bringing it down so hard on top of the enemy’s head and I am feeling like electricity is running through my whole body. The man is screaming, AYEEEIII, louder than the sound of bullet whistling and then he is bringing his hand to his head, but it is not helping because his head is cracking and the blood is spilling out like milk from coconut. I am hearing laughing all around me even as I am watching him trying to hold his head together. He is annoying me and I am bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA every time and seeing just pink while I am hearing the laughing KEHI, KEHI, KEHI all around me. Then I am hitting his shoulder and then his chest and looking at how Commandant is smiling each time my knife is hitting the man. Strika is joining me and we are just beating him and cutting him while everybody is laughing. It is like the world is moving so slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face.

I thought the movie version was much more well-rounded. The cinematic experience is something you need a strong stomach to sit through, and not only because of graphic content. It is hard to not take it in as a guerilla documentary, shot among real people with a hidden camera, except that it is singularly gorgeous through and through. Some of my favorite scenes in the film involve Idris Elba and the photography. The kids, especially Strika and Agu are incredibly good, of course. Surprised to learn that the actors in the movie were former child soldiers and mercenaries who participated in actual warfare, and had problems shooting in Ghana because they were on a watch-list.

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Books, Movies

Talking about books I read: ‘How Star Wars Conquered The Universe’

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Pal Seamus was reading this book when I went to meet him one evening in Larchmont Village. Even though there were other books in my queue, hard to resist a book about Star Wars. Not that I have much love for the franchise – people’s reactions to it make me shake my head in bemusement and back away slowly.  1I suspect the most invested I was in the series was while reading a bunch of Star Wars novels about 10 years ago, specifically The New Jedi Order series, which begins with the death of Chewbacca in the first book. Don’t worry, this is not really a spoiler, none of the books are canon anymore, especially with The Force Awakens and the planned one-Star-Wars-movie-a-year releases. Just so you know, this book talks about that happening too, with the kind of cold-blooded objectivity that sends shivers down your spine.

When fan grief over the death of Chewbacca surpassed anything Shapiro or Stackpole expected, a rumor surfaced that Randy Stradley of Dark Horse Comics had told the meeting to “kill the family dog,” and compared Chewie to Old Yeller. But Stackpole denies that, insisting they all stuck the knives in at the same time, like Roman conspirators. Shapiro, who would edit the book, was happy to wield a blade. “You’ve got to get people’s attention. Otherwise it’s just ‘Oh, another adventure, another super weapon,’” Shapiro explains.

Why the interest in this book then, you ask? Because the behind-the-scenes affairs with the series has always fascinated me. Stars Wars’ tendrils encompass a lot of sci-fantasy pulp fiction, old-school Hollywood space operas, and world cinema. Alex Raymond and Akira Kurosawa, EE Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs coming together in a cultural bouillabaisse that is timeless and appealing to multiple generations, clunky dialogue be damned. Lucas, an avowed non-writer, worked his way through anxiety and budgetary nightmares to try and bring back to life his childhood fascination with film serials; to deconstruct what made his heart soar in a darkened movie theater. And – pardon my mixed pop-cultural metaphors – he even went boldly where few screenwriters had gone before, tapping into primal myths and stories, specifically the themes and archetypes that writer Joseph Campbell identified in his seminal works. For me, knowing about Star Wars was much more enlightening than watching the movies. 2 That’s why I jumped on this book immediately.

Also, turns out Campbell had nothing but good things to say about Lucas, who met him later in life and befriended the academic:

“I was really thrilled,” Campbell said of the Star Wars series in a later interview. “The man understands the metaphor. I saw things that had been in my books but rendered in terms of the modern problem, which is man and machine. Is the machine going to be the servant of human life? Or is it going to be master and dictate? That’s what I think George Lucas brought forward. I admire what he’s done immensely. That young man opened a vista and knew how to follow it and it was totally fresh.”

The book opens in a wonderful manner, a screening of Star Wars dubbed into Navajo, where the writer tries to find Star Virgins, people who hadn’t seen any of the movies before. He spirals out into how pervasive the movie’s references have become, and how it is very hard for anyone at all to come into Star Wars with a blank slate. (If I remember right, someone did a Star Wars virgin watch on Twitter recently.) Alternate chapters of the book talk about fandom and the weird ways in which everyday lives of people have been affected by the movie. I had no idea, for example, that light-saber classes existed:

The easiest way to describe light-saber class is that it’s one part fencing, one part yoga. The goal is to learn a numbered system of fight choreography worked out by Bloch and his co-founder Matthew Carauddo, who runs the same class in a studio in Silicon Valley. You and I could meet for the first time with our light-sabers at a Comic-Con, say, and I could utter a string of numbers and you would know that I was going to slice around your body in a star formation and parry appropriately. We could even throw in flourishes such as the figure eight, or something more elaborate Bloch calls the “Obi-Annie” (but which is actually a move called “plum blossom” from the martial art Wushu). We would for one moment shed our nerd shells; we would look cool.

Or that the imperial storm-troopers you see at conventions are part of an officially-endorsed Stormtrooper legion created and managed by loyal fans, called the Fightin’ 501st. They later went on to be name-checked and referenced both in novels (Timothy Zahn’s Survivor’s Quest) and in the prequels, though in an ill-fated turn of events, they will forever be known as the baby-jedi killing storm-troopers.

It was, friends agreed, a pretty neat idea. They helped him hand out leaf-lets at conventions: “Are you loyal? Hardworking? Fully expendable? Join the Imperial 501st!” In 2002, Johnson mustered roughly 150 Stormtrooper costumers in Indianapolis at Celebration II, the second official Star Wars convention, and offered their services to a skeptical Lucasfilm to let the 501st help out as crowd-control when the event’s security proved woefully inadequate for the thirty thousand attendees. Lucasfilm was won over by the tireless, hyper-organized troopers, and started to use the 501st as volunteers for all its events. Lucasfilm licensees followed suit. If you’ve ever been to one of the Star Wars Days held at dozens of baseball stadiums across the United States, if you’ve seen multiple Stormtroopers, or Darth Vader or Boba Fett at a store, a movie theater, or a mall, you’ve almost certainly been staring at the forces of the 501st.

The 501st Legion is now recognized as one of the largest costuming organizations in the world. It has active members in forty-seven countries on five continents, divided into sixty-seven local garrisons and twenty-nine outposts (those units that comprise fewer than twenty-five members). More than 20 percent of the troops are female. The 501st absorbed a once-independent UK garrison and established a garrison near Paris, though some French Stormtroopers have gone their own way with the 59eme legion. The Germans, meanwhile, have a garrison consisting of five squads that are all large enough to be garrisons on their own—but are loath to undergo any kind of de-unification.

Swooping into a quick history of Lucas’s childhood and influences, the book talks about his early avant-garde career – one of his acclaimed student films, for example, was comprised entirely of panning shots of photographic images with music playing in the background. The takeaway is that Lucas always had ideas, but they were unconstrained by any Hollywood pretensions – the three-act screenplay was not for him, until American Graffiti came about. The nugget there is that the name did not quite appeal to the studio bosses, because the word “graffiti” was not in popular usage then.

It sounded odd to contemporary ears. The Italian word had not yet gained common currency. New York subway trains were about a year away from being covered in spray-painted signatures. Lucas hadn’t intended that debased usage of the word in any case; he meant the word invented at Pompeii in 1851 that means nostalgic etchings. He wanted to record the legacy of a lost decade: an American Pompeii, frozen in time forever.

Lucas tried to follow up this success with options of Dune and Flash Gordon. Producer Dino DeLaurentiis happened to get Flash, and Alejandro Jodorowsky got hold of Dune. Flash Gordon ultimately got made as a campy pastiche in the early 80s, while a different version of Dune made it to the screen. The book talks about trippy possibilities that the latter presented, and this reminds me that I need to check out the documentary soon:

Jodo, appropriately enough for Dune, was something of a cult leader himself. He persuaded the great Orson Welles to act as the villain of the piece in exchange for hiring his favorite Parisian chef, and even managed to hector Salvador Dali into agreeing to a cameo as the Emperor of the Universe (for $100,000 a minute, Dali insisted). He got the Swiss artist H. R. Giger, possibly the only person in Europe weirder than Jodo and Dali, to do a bunch of nightmarish concept paintings, and recruited French comic book artist Moebius to storyboard the entire film at lightning speed.

Most of the making of the actual Wars movies was not new to me. Too much have already been written about the process, and the different iterations of the first movie’s screenplay that Lucas banged out. One thing however stood out, the short-lived gender reversal of the lead character, a telling choice for a series that has been plagued with gender/race allegations until the recent sequel. Think of what might have been.

In March 1975, Lucas decided to fix that at a stroke: Luke Starkiller became an eighteen-year-old woman. After all, he’d been reading an awful lot of fairy tales as research into the mechanics of storytelling, and it’s rather hard to ignore the convention that the protagonist of fairy tales is almost always female. (Think Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks—as much as they have to be saved by princes or woodcutters, we at least see the story through their eyes.) This gender reversal lasted for a couple of months, long enough for the female Luke to show up in a McQuarrie painting of the main characters.

The discussion becomes much more entertaining with the movie’s release. Taylor goes into an inspired examination of the first few words on the screen – words that apparently were rewritten at the last minute by Brian Coppola to lessen the original verbosity.

Consider instead that this is exactly what every fantasy epic needs to give you right off the bat: a setting in space and time that says, relax. Don’t bother trying to figure out the relationship between what you’re about to see and your own Earthbound reality, because there isn’t one. This isn’t Planet of the Apes; the Statue of Liberty isn’t going to turn up in a last-reel twist. No other movie had ever announced its divorce from our world so explicitly before; with the exception of Star Wars sequels, none would ever be able to do so again without seeming derivative. The perfect simplicity of those ten words appears to have been hard for a lot of people to understand in the run-up to the movie’s release. The words that open Alan Dean Foster’s novelization (“another galaxy, another time”) aren’t quite the same—that might place us in the future, rather than in a story that is safely in some history book. Fox didn’t get it at all: its trailer for Star Wars opened with the words “somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now.” The ten words remain on the screen for exactly five seconds, long enough for the casual viewer to think, Isn’t this supposed to be a science fiction movie? Aren’t they all set in the future?

It is this modern myth, that of how the Star Wars machine became what it was, in the first weeks and months after the release of the first movie, that the book really captures so very well.

In May 1977, repeat viewers didn’t necessarily add to the ticket gross: they could simply stay in the theater, wait an hour or so, and watch the movie again. This was not something viewers had tended to want to do before. Indeed, it was because of Star Wars that most cinemas instituted a policy of clearing the audience out of the theater between shows. But as soon as they left the theater and came back, the repeat viewers were responsible for an incalculable amount of box office takings. For many—and this is something you see time and again in television and newspaper reports from 1977—the number of times they’d seen Star Wars took on the tone of a competitive sport: “I’ve seen Star Wars twenty times!” But for many more who weren’t quoted by the news media, it was simply a thrill to invest themselves in a story with such eminent repeatability. You could see it twenty, thirty, forty times and not get bored.

***

The manager of the Coronet, a cranky old soul named Al Levine, had never seen anything like it. He offered a now-famous description of the crowds: “Old people, young people, children, Hare Krishna groups. They bring cards to play in line. We have checker players, we have chess players; people with paint and sequins on their faces. Fruit eaters like I’ve never seen before, people loaded on grass and LSD.”

***

In June 1977, the monster crowds at the four theaters in New York showing the film each required police on horseback for crowd control. All walks of life rubbed shoulders in those lines. Johnny Cash, Muhammad Ali, and Senator Ted Kennedy waited at their theaters like everyone else. Elvis Presley tried a different tack; the King was in the process of securing a Star Wars print to screen for himself and Lisa Marie at Graceland the day before he died.

***

In May 1977, the most popular poster in America was an image of Farrah Fawcett, chief Charlie’s Angel, in a bathing suit, with a noticeably aroused nipple. By July, Star Wars posters were outselling Fawcett five to one.

***

Toy sales came to the rescue. Despite the movie no longer being in theaters, despite the disastrous Holiday Special, and against all expectations, Kenner announced that it had its strongest holiday season yet. Sales of Star Wars action figures, spaceships, and play sets had crossed the $200 million mark, funneling more than $20 million into Lucasfilm subsidiary Black Falcon. Without that cash injection, there’s little question Empire would have been sunk. There’s something poetic about it: millions of children joyfully acting out the further adventures of Luke Skywalker literally funded the further adventures of Luke Skywalker. Call it a karmic Kickstarter.

It’s funny how Taylor blazes through the three prequels all in one chapter. Star Wars fans from the New Hope generation are so predictable.

All in all, the book was an excellent read; it did make me want to re-watch (or watch, in case of Jedi) the original movies, and put in pieces of the Star Wars history that were missing from my understanding of the history of the seminal series, especially the debt Lucas and Co owe to concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, whose designs really helped sell the movie to both Lucas’s friends, his team and studio heads. My dismissive tone about the series is at odds with my fascination for its metadata, as you can clearly see. I know the technical details of where the sound of Wookie comes from (‘a bear starved in a zoo and then shown a bowl of milk outside the cage’, for your information) or how Lucas made a note when someone asked for Reel 2, Dialog 2 in the editing room of THX 1138, or the story behind how Han Solo’s sprezzatura in saying “I know” came about. I can also appreciate how it probably is the only bit of mythology that America can truly call its own. The person sitting next to me at the morning screening of the Force Awakens cried a few times as the movie played. My local comic-book shop (and others) had large “Star Wars Spoiler Free Zone” signs up the first two weeks of release. All I wonder is how long this reverence will continue to play out. A major part of Star Wars is to do with how little we know about the Star Wars universe and its details – and it only takes a few years of misbegotten scripts to run a special thing into the ground, to turn a mythic tale into something mundane.

Notes:

  1. while growing up, some people distinguished between Star Wars and Star Trek as the series with the tube-light lights and the series with Mr Spock. Star Trek played on Doordarshan in 1985, a year before we bought our first TV, so I bypassed that too. But there were kids in school who would pinch you really hard on the back of your neck, because Mr Spock.
  2. Here’s a confession: I saw the first 20 minutes of Empire Strikes Back when I was 11 or 12, and did not make sense of it, obviously. I have vague memories of watching one of the Ewok movies a year later, and that was a cutesy experience where storytelling did not matter. I saw New Hope in my second year of college, shaking my head over the outdated effects at the end but letting myself be sucked into the world. Then came the prequels, and much as I enjoyed them in the theater, the relentless barrage of wtf-ery in both plot and dialog overpowered the love of the world Lucas created. Yes, I have never seen Return of the Jedi.
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Movies, Myself

A Very Bloody Christmas

“So, Satya”, she said. “Which M was your Christmas this time?”

I was confused. Which M? Like James Bond M? Was my friend making some arcane pop culture reference that I did not get? Was I doomed to begin the year on a note of failure, unable to respond to a simple query? I must have blinked more than a few times, because she laughed. “I meant, was it Merry, Melancholy or Meh?”

“Oh”, I said. “Sorry, you lost me for a second there.” And then when I was about to answer her, I realized that my life is such a blur sometimes that it took me a couple of minutes to retrace my steps and answer her question. Merry, I said. But not the way you would think. And very very special. In fact, I told her, if I did not write this shit down, I would forget all about how special Christmas 2015 was.
“Goddammit are you going to not answer me right now and write one of those roundabout, self-aware blog posts of yours?”, she said, and seeing the twinkle and the grin, added, “You know nobody reads blogs nowadays, right? I mean, this is 2016. If you were writing this down, I would have lost interest right about now.”

Too late, for my eyes had already glazed over, as my mind flashed back to a few weeks ago. A time when events of major import were unfolding in another part of Los Angeles as I sat at my work-desk whispering arcane spells over cauldrons overflowing with bubbling ichor. Or debugging code, if you want a narrative that fits in more with your frame of reference.

You see, the New Beverly – which is a heritage theater that Quentin Tarantino used to frequent as a struggling screenplay-writer, and later on bought when the owner died and building was due to be broken down in 2007  – announced that they were going to play Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair on Christmas Eve. KB:TWBA, in case you didn’t know, is the NC-17 cut of the movie, both volumes played in one single screening with an intermission, with a combined runtime of 257 minutes. It has additional material, the whole House of Blue Leaves sequence is in color, as opposed to the b/w version that was aired for audiences because the excessive bloodletting did not make for happy Film Certification boards. Only one print of this cut exists, and QT owns it. It has French subtitles because it was cut for the Cannes screening.

Now here’s the important thing – the only public screening was in Cannes, for the premiere of Kill Bill. The only other time it had been screened until this happy announcement was also at the New Beverly in April 2011, for Tarantino’s birthday. I know the month because I bought tickets off Craigslist for the event; I had to sell them because of an unexpected trip back to India. The tickets yielded a profit, but the cruelest blow was the Tyler Stout Mondo poster that was released during the screening. I did buy the poster a few years later, but had to pay a huge premium; I complained to the moirai, out of frustration and resentment. But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, for the sake of his living room wall.

Anyway, the point of all this nerdtastic regurgitation of facts is: The Whole Bloody Affair is kinda special. Especially more so because out of Tarantino’s oeuvre, Kill Bill was the movie that mapped the movie-viewing landscape for me in the second half of my twenties. You know how when you are young and you like certain things, but you don’t really know how to classify them, or find more things like them? Before Kill Bill happened, I never really knew how to go around and figure out what I should watch next, but suddenly there was this explosion of taste; this whole spectrum of genres that QT’s homages and references opened up for me – Italian giallo, Shaw Brothers films, Spaghetti Westerns, *good* anime, the Yakuza movies of Kinji Fukasaku, the soundtracks of Morricone and Bacalov, Japanese noise rock; and surprisingly, a renewed interest in the likes of Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Godard. Films and film-makers that I had considered too pretentious or stuffy for my tastes suddenly felt warmer, cast in a new light; swathes of genre film that I had dismissed as not worth my time revealed deeper veins of style and substance. So it made the wait to see Tarantino’s original cut for the film even more special, a 12-year tunnel at the end of which a light flickered, finally.

But of course, all 200 tickets for the December 25 show sold out in 2 minutes. I was ready at the appointed hour, refreshing the tickets page. By the time I added tickets to my cart, the number came down to 92,  and by the time I got to the payments page, they were all gone. Somewhere, the moirai laughed. But I pulled myself up, brushed off the dirt of disappointment while muttering “So that we may pick ourself up” to imaginary Alfred in my head, and went on with my life, because there is not much else one can do.

That Christmas morning, I went to watch Hateful Eight in the morning; it was one of the few movies of 2015 that I was looking forward to, and to say I loved it would be an understatement. By the time I was done with lunch and came back home, it was nearly 4 PM. I am not sure why I checked Twitter, but I did, and in my feed there were tweets from the New Beverly Theater talking about the show due in a few hours. But huzzah, they mentioned a standby line. A moment or two of indecisive laziness, and then I found myself saying – fuck this, I can either stay at home and cry, or go stand in line and at least try. Moments like these – when one’s brain speaks in rhyme – defines one’s very existence. I walked out, paused, and ran back in, because it was really really cold outside – shut up, non-Los Angeles people – and put on another jacket, picked up a scarf, and drove like crazy to the theater. Hoping that there weren’t already 30 people in the standby line.

There were 7. I was the 8th. And after 3 hours of waiting, and talking to the guys standing ahead of and behind me, and hearing stories of how one of them sat next to Quentin T himself at one random movie screening and how the other fist-bumped Edgar Wright just a few days ago, it turns out there were 11 returns. I swear Tomoyasu Hotei played when I walked inside the theater. There was a line at the refreshments stand, which has one of the most wondrous cinema food prices in the world – $1 for a small drink, $4 for a popcorn – and even though I had only just been in line, I stood there again for a few minutes to grab me some nourishment. The pre-movie ad reels are always fun at the Beverly; this time around, we had an animated Max Fleischer Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer ‘toon in its entirety; followed by trailers for Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, the Western Navajo Joe, Bronson’s Death Wish, and the Clint Eastwood starrer Hang ‘Em High, which I realized I have never seen.

Thoughts on TWBA:

  • The music that begins Kill Bill, with the somewhat old-timey ‘Our Feature Presentation’ animation is actually QT’s homage to the New Beverly, which plays before every movie. This music therefore played before the movie actually began, and then again within the movie’s credits. We applauded, of course.
  • French subtitles throughout. ‘Buck’, for some reason, is subtitled  ‘Buckaroo’ in French.
  • Boss Matsumoto’s killing is defs more gruesome in this cut. Pun completely intended.
  • The Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves sequence is all-color, and has a bunch of unedited blood-and-gore snippets, obviously. It also features the kid that gets his ass whupped with the non-business end of the Bride’s Hanzo sword in yet another sequence, where his mask gets knocked away. That also misses the close-up of the Bride’s eye in the upstairs room – in the normal cut, she blinks, and the color flips back in.  Gordon Liu as Johnny Mo also gets a little more fight-time in this version.
  • Because both movies are linked together, Bill and Sophie’s scene from the end of Vol 1 does not have the line “Does she know that her daughter is still alive?” line. None of the preview snapshots (‘How did you find me?’, ‘That woman deserves her revenge, and we deserve to die’, ‘She must suffer until her last breath’) at the end of Vol 1 appear in the uncut version, for obvious reasons.
  • It also does not have the opening ‘Bill, it’s your baby’ sequence from Vol 2 – which is the same scene from Vol 1 but with the theme music from ‘Navajo Joe’ playing in the background. Also, the Bride looking into the camera saying ‘Thought you were dead, didn’t I?’ is not in this cut.
  • Love the way Gheorge Zamfir’s ‘The Lonely Shepherd’ leads into the intermission. Very very stylish.
  • There is a 7-second blooper at the end of the credits. For those of us who stayed until that point – and there were a lot of us – the staff at the New Beverly handed out custom beanies. Woo hoo!

My Christmas, therefore, was M for Merry. It was B for Bloody and T for Tarantino-esque and F for Fuck yeah, a gargantuan goal overcome.

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Movies

Twenty Fifteen, Post 4: The Netflix Queue

On the 1st of January, there were 224 items on my Netflix queue, including movies and TV shows. This is the first-world equivalent of owning a 3 TB hard drive, copying a bunch of movies from friends’ disks and feeling smug about it. “Have you watched that movie?” “No, but I have it on my drive.” Or on my Netflix list. Well, fuck that, I thought. I would empty that list, or at least put a sizable dent into it.

So over the last few days, I have been picking random movies from the list and watching them. If I like them enough, they stay in the list, so that I can watch them again later. If I don’t, they get deleted.

  1. Le Chef A fluffy feel-good movie about an almost-has-been chef who is about to lose his Michelin star because of his traditional cooking, and a wannabe chef who can’t seem to get a break. Jean Reno and Michaël Youn play the two protagonists, and even though at points you can feel the script going through its buddy-comedy paces, it was a fun watch. Much fun is poked at molecular gastronomy, live cookery shows and celebrity chefs. There is a cringe-inducing Japanese sequence that I would rather forget. Final status: kicked off the list.
  2. Le Weekend Just keeping the French theme going. But this was a British movie, with Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan and Jeff Goldblum. An aged couple goes to Paris to relive their honeymoon; the burden of a relationship that has gone on for decades weighs on their vacation. Dark at times, light-hearted at others, this is a perfect movie for your inner cynic. I found out that the screenplay was by author Hanif Kureishi, and that made me want to watch more of his works. I love the ending, and that makes me want to keep it on the list, but let’s see.
  3. In A World… From Paris, we move to Los Angeles. This is a movie set in the voice-acting industry, the title of the film referring to the words that a voice actor named Don LaFontaine made famous in numerous trailers. Directed by and starring Lake Bell, it is about what happens when a female vocal coach – daughter of an acclaimed voice actor – is shortlisted to take over the legacy of LaFontaine’s famous delivery. Stars a bunch of comedy superstars, including Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro and Ken Marino in supporting roles. Quite a blast, but good for a single viewing only. Kicked off the list.
  4. Beginners Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent star in this lovely movie about relationships and commitment. I had seen the trailer for the movie three (or was it four?) years ago, but never went around to watching it. It deals with Oliver (McGregor) dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death. His father, you see, was gay, and came out of the closet after his mother died. Heart-wrenching at times, particularly because the characters are so well-written, this movie also has some of the best dog-dialogues you will ever see on screen. I would actually love to watch this movie again some time, so it stays on the list. (I watched this movie just after finding out that Ewan McGregor is also quite the traveler. With his friend Charlie Boorman, he rode his motorcyle around the world. Twice, in 2004 and 2007. There is even a book and TV show called Long Way Around, based on  their exploits.)

Only 220 more to go.

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Comics, Movies

Man of Steel wankery

I think Man of Steel was a better movie than most of what Marvel has produced so far, including Avengers.

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Earth-shattering spoilers follow, one that will brutalize your first viewing of Man of Steel and leave you a broken human being. Proceed at your peril.

The Dark Knight trilogy had it good – there were already iconic Batman stories in DC canon that could be strip-mined for imagery and a coherent feel. The entire Marvel-verse movies borrow heavily from the character portrayals and arcs in Millar/Hitch’s Ultimates. Superman? There really is no definitive Superman origin story. Mark Waid wrote one. It was pretty darn good, but not many people have read it and it’s not even considered canon. Geoff Johns wrote another, and it’s so weighed down by 60+ years of continuity horse-shit that you need to go take a shower half-way through it just to get rid of the fan-boy stench. You know, all that sweat from trying to understand who the fuck the Legion of Superheroes are and why they are relevant to Superman’s life. There is an “original graphic novel” called Superman: Earth One that you can read if you are feeling particularly masochistic someday. It’s written by J Michael Straczynsky and it has emo Clark Kent in a hoody. Yup, you read that right. All-Star Superman? Gorgeous, but ultimately a psychedelic tribute to the zany Mort Weisinger era of the fifties.  Whatever Happened to Man of Tomorrow, Kingdom Come, Red Son, Death of Superman – good luck reading them as a newcomer to comics.

Super: Earth One. Super-crap.

Superman: Birthright. Nice, but hollow and overly respectful.

Superman: Secret Origin. Or how Fanboys Fellate the Movies and Comics of Their Childhood

So it’s no surprise that the template for Man of Steel – the pacing, the beats of the story, the way the events in Clark Kent’s adulthood intersect with key events in his past – seems entirely based on the innards of the Movie That Worked, David Goyer’s script to Batman Begins. 

(Someone more qualified should also talk about the role of the father figure in Goyer’s scripts. Both the movies reveal a great deal of influence their daddies had on the respective superheroes. Martha Wayne had zero lines, and Lara Lor-Van has a few, but not substantial. Yes, I know Diane Lane’s character contradicts my observation, but whoever lets facts get in the way of criticism?)

People talking about the 9/11 hangover in the movie, please stop. All falling skyscrapers need not allude to that particular day in American history. If in doubt, please refer to scenes in Miracleman #15, which is still held up as the definitive destruction sequence in comics. While a generation of moviegoers fondly reminiscence over the Donner movies – yes, he made us believe that a man can fly – but a man who is faster than a speeding bullet fights another of his kind, people become chicken-feed and buildings are toilet paper. The closest American cinema got to this was in the final showdown in Matrix: Revolutions, and that supposedly occurred in the virtual world, with non-human onlookers bearing witness. This? This was cinematic destruction amped up beyond comprehension, where we see technology trying to show us what happens when titans clash. (And Morpheus and Locke appear in it too, though not in the same frame. Matrix fist-bump, y’all!)

Miracleman 15Miracleman 15

I have a low opinion of Zach Snyder. Most of it stemmed from the fact that the man’s only claim to being a “visionary” was slow-motion fight sequences where you hear bones breaking. Dawn of the Dead was meh, and his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen (the latter of which, in all fairness, I could not sit through beyond 20 minutes) were so slavish to the source material that there was no sign of any directorial authority in either. Unless you count color-toning films as auteur-vision. Whatevs.  MoS however revealed a very sentimental side of Snyder – he actually paid attention to the quiet moments. Clark falling to the depths of the ocean, Lara looking at her planet’s final moments; “focus on my voice”; “you can save them all”. Beautiful.

Don’t expect Snyder’s osteomania to let up in this movie – the first few minutes have Russell Crowe inflicting major vertebral violence on his co-planetary compatriots. (On an aside, what the fuck is up with these highly advanced planets? Aren’t there nations? Factions? Different skin colors? Opposition parties that do not resort to violence? Or is all pulp science fiction proof that democracy as a concept has to be cast aside for a civilization to flourish? Whoa, deep.) The slow-mo sequences, however are hasta la vista, baby. The action sequences involving the Kryptonians are furious blurs – all that’s missing are speed-lines. However, time slowed down whenever Antja Traue was around. For me, at least.

 Faora-Ul

Man of Steel‘s worst offence is not its own, however. It is a byproduct of this current decade’s technological excesses applied to cinema. The , in particular the greyish-blue aesthetic that taints everything you see on screen: costumes, cultural paraphernalia, technology. Everything from spaceships to personal assistants are monochrome, and the skies turn ominously dark at all major events. It is like we live – or rather, our cinematic imagination lives – in a universe that came about after a to-the-death grudge-match between the design aesthetics of HR Giger and Moebius, and Giger’s palette overpowered the sunny outlook that Moebius’s works had. That, or someone took the word “cinereal” a little too literally. Once again, this is not something I aim at Man of Steel in particular, look at every single summer blockbuster out there, and that same mournful look permeates throughout. The curse of this decade, I say, and I will be glad when the winds of change sweep over animation render-farms across the world.

Those who say that Superman does not kill: please, this is not a comic-book. There is no comics code authority that shelters the children of the world from fictional violence. There is no editorial panel that wants a rogues’ gallery that can be rotated every few months or years. Drop it, you guys. You cannot lay boundaries on a fictional character, especially not after Sherlock Holmes has been seen using a cellphone.

Yes, I did not like most of the Marvel movies. That is because they are predictable and they have no consistent tone. The Avengers was fun because it was the first time we saw a team movie, plus Joss Whedon’s lines. As a story? You need to talk to my French friend. Her name is Cliché and she has a pet cat called Whimper.

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