A Very Scary Pairing

FILM:
Insidious - 2010 and Insidious Chapter 2 - 2013
Directed by James Wan
Written by Leigh Whannell



The party starts here.

Ever since director James Wan shook up the horror genre with Saw in 2004, he's been the "It" director of horror films.  Rather than continuing to churn out Saw sequels, as he surely had an opportunity to do, he's brought even spookier tales to the screen in films like The Conjuring and Insidious 1 & 2.  It would not be unfair to call Wan this generation's John Carpenter.  His next film will be the seventh Fast & Furious, which seems like a good fit, given Wan's intense and unsubtle approach to direction.  While Wan never shies away from clubbing the viewer over the head with his story beats on film, it's his partnership with writer/actor Leigh Whannell (the guy who is not Cary Elwes in Saw) that truly stands out as an example of thoughtful and clever storycraft.


"You have something on your shoulder..."
Nowhere is that more evident than in Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2 -- the latter in particular.  I'm discussing them together because they are the rare case in horror movies where the sequel was clearly planned from the beginning rather than invented as a way to separate teens from more of their allowance.

Insidious is a modern take on the fairly rote themes of the possession story.  A family starts to experience an increasingly unnerving series of haunting events.  Mom picks up a creepy voice on the baby monitor.  Floor boards creak.  Locked doors are blown open.  Visions of the dead begin to creep in.  All that good stuff.

Wan takes a pretty heavy hand with the presentation of these things.  Many scares are telegraphed from miles away and the viewer can frequently point to the split second when a spook will suddenly appear.  It's hard to say whether we're simply so conditioned by movies that we respond so strongly to the rote pacing of a scare, or whether the alchemy of film has so refined the process of scaring us based on our natural tendencies.  I suspect it's a little of both.  The music, in particular, seems designed to not-just-suggest how we should be feeling, but to scream it in our faces like an archetypical drill sergeant.  "YOU are FEELing TENSION right now, you damned panty-waist!  That TENsion is BUILDing to a POINT.  Right NOOOW, I want you're skin to be CRAWLING, soldier, and what I want is LAW, DO YOU HEAR ME, maggot?  THAT was the moment of relief before (SKREE-SKREE-SKREE) a FRIGHT that will cause your BOWELS to release like MONteZUma's REvenge!  Now STRAIGHTEN UP, you wussy little pukes!"  It's... a bit much, at times.  And yet, it often works.  I genuinely had to question the wisdom of watching the sequel on quite so chilly a December evening.

"Dear God, no... not cosplayers!"
The series of scares builds up to an increasing threat toward the children of the family, until the older son falls into an unexplainable coma.  When all scientific approaches have been exhausted, his grandmother brings in a psychic/paranormal investigator.  She believes that the boy has been astrally projecting got lost in the limbo between the world of the living and the great beyond.  The greater threat is that his spiritually vacated body is to ghosts what a boarded up row house is to London squatters.  If he can't find his way back to his body soon, something else will.

As it turns out, the father encountered the same danger as a child and had his memories suppressed for his own safety.  Tapping into a talent for astral travel, he's able to cross over and seek out his son's wandering soul.  It's here that things cross the line from a build up of scares to openly explicit boogeyman territory.  The spirit world is all darkness and fog with moaning people in gray makeup.  It was just... too much ...in my opinion.  It was tense, but it wasn't scary anymore.

Insidious ends with a death and a mystery, which leads directly into Insidious Chapter 2.

"What was that?"
The sequel takes a much more fluid approach to time, opening with a flashback to the father's childhood and the events that would (literally) come back to haunt them all.  It then rejoins the story a few hours after the end of the first film.  The family has gone to stay with grandma in the father's childhood home while the police conduct their investigation into the death at their house.  It quickly becomes clear that the "insidious" spirits are not done with them yet, and the chilling process of building up fear begins again.  The filmmakers hit us pretty hard with their escalation of terror.  While things get worse at home, grandma is out with the paranormal investigators tracking down the origins of their ghosts, find that this rabbit hole leads directly into a Hell of human making.

We are returned to the land of darkness and fog, and while it's all still very sound-stagey, the established mythos makes it more effective the second time around.  We're not looking for naturalism anymore, but accepting it as a conceit of the series.  It takes on a number of twists of its own, now that we know what to expect from it.  It's still not as scary as the real world scares; the anticipated, the startling and the unknown, but it contains its own tension and drama.  This time, rather than wholly containing the climax within this world, there is paralleling tension and drama in the material world, creating a much more effective anxiety.

"Watch it with the spoilers!"

I'm of the opinion that it ends with something of a joke.  As the camera moves in on one character's face, it's like a game of chicken for well-trained horror fans.  We KNOW it can't end with a pure sigh of relief... or can it?  Wan & Whannell allow themselves to have it both ways, both wrapping up the story while still leaving room for the inevitable sequel rooted in the the first two.

It's really in the crafting of the narrative that they shine.  I've kind of made a point of both sides of Wan as a director.  He knows all the notes and hits them hard, but it's often too hard, with too much... flair.  Kind of like a female pop vocalist in the post-Whitney Houston era.  Ease up on the friggin' melisma, you know?

In the script, however, Whannell weaves together a variety of scares in a tightly-paced fashion, and story elements that actually add up, rather than merely existing to make the viewer jump.  It's in Chapter 2 that the cleverness is truly revealed, as mere haunts from the first movie turn into pivotal story beats in the second.  It's one thing to unspool a mystery, but it's even more thrilling when you discover that the mystery is bigger and more complex than you suspected.  Taken as a whole, I felt that Insidious 1 & 2 delivered both bigger and deeper than Saw.  Forget your M. Night Shyamalan (which you really should have done by now anyway); Leigh Whannell is your guy for twisty stories.  I really hope that he's able to break out on his own.  His narrative skill would be amazing in a TV series.

And now, just for shiggles; another Wan/Whannel afterlife joint... Doggie Heaven.




Somehow...

...I know that Patrick Duffy starred on The Man From Atlantis, a show I've never seen....

...But I don't even know what Trigonometry IS.

The Breakers Are Broken

FILM:
Spring Breakers - 2013
Written & Directed by Harmony Korine


WARNING: The following review discusses a despicable movie about despicable people.  If you are sensitive to descriptions about despicability, I suggest that you stop reading here.  Reader discretion is advised... Mom.

Spring Breakers is a terrible movie about terrible people making terrible choices and encountering virtually NO believable consequences for their terrible actions.  The -- I hesitate to call it a story since it bears none of the benchmarks of storytelling but merely unfolds as a delirious wandering from one occurrence to the next -- thing that happens in the movie is that four stupid college girls want to go to Spring Break in Florida, so two of them rob a diner with a third driving getaway.  Then they all go to Florida and act like fools with zero sense of self-preservation, which is evidently totally okay because nothing too bad really happens to them while they wreak havoc in the lives of others.  If that's non-specific, hang in there, because I have no reservations about "spoiling" the "plot" of this back-alley abortion of a film.

I'd hit that... with a dump truck, if I know what's good for me.
It's entirely possible to hear the general concept of the film and to assume that it's going to be a fun and silly romp.  It is not.  I came to the independent conclusion that it was more like a horror story, and I've since discovered that I'm not alone in how ugly and perverse this movie is.

How do I hate Spring Breakers?  Let me count the ways...

Starting with the most obvious but least offensive element; Spring Breakers is shot in a dreamy, semi-hallucinatory style, detached from any concept of presenting a scene as a piece of narrative or exposition.  Some people have tried to claim the mantle of "neorealism" for Spring Breakers, but there is far too much evidence that any form of realism could never have been the intention of a mess this unrealistic.  The style is "realistic" the way a mean girl's Facebook page is realistic.  Yes, these things exist, but that doesn't mean that they have any sort of perspective on reality.  MUCH of the movie plays like a series of photos, shaky-camera video clips and vague, self-obsessed statements that seem designed more to convince the individual themselves that they're being fulfilled than the sharing of any genuine informational or emotional content.  It is absolutely impossible for a sane, mature human being to give any credibility to pastiches of wandering sunset-colored light smears and the leers of drunken frat boys with voice-overs about "wonderful people" and "finding myself."  Anyone with any experience in the real world MUST roll their eyes at such moments -- and the entire movie is those moments.

The similarly themed The Bling Ring from Sofia Copolla uses the detached technique as well, and why it's not as gawdawful as Spring Breakers, it's still the weakest movie I've seen from Copolla.  It works in Lost in Translation, but Lost in Translation has some heart in it, and features human beings who behave like human beings in a world of other human beings.

There IS, I believe, a case to be made for the style.  Like I said, it's annoying but not egregious, and annoying as it is, it provides one possible loophole for some of Spring Breakers' greater crimes.

The music was hideous.  I couldn't tell if it intentionally used the most generic dubstep possible as a way of making a point about the generic bad taste of dubstep fans, or if that's just the way dubstep IS.  I have chosen to conclude the latter in the absence of any evident self-awareness (self-obsession is not the same thing as self-awareness).

The characters were not JUST unlikeable, they were un-not-want-to-kill-able.  Despite figuring out early that I hated these characters and this movie, the ONE reason I watched it all the way to the end was because I wanted to see at least one of them get killed.  Seriously.  They deserved to die, and not just because I hated them so completely, but because in a real world, they would have gotten themselves killed with their choices.  This is why the "neorealism" claims are such complete horse crap.  There is not one shred of realistic behavior in this trainwreck.

There are four girls, but really only two characters among them.  There are three completely generic stupid blonde sluts, and then the one who isn't.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I don't use the term "slut" lightly.  This is not some Rush Limbaughian endeavor to slander mature women who are in charge of making perfectly responsible choices with their bodies and their lives.  I employ the term not to slander all women, but to define by their character and choices the kind of women who slander the gender, and indeed the species, through unexamined, undiscerning, uninformed, unaware, unconscionable actions based less on "choice" and more on animalistic id.  They want.  They react to that want without consideration.  If these characters were male, they'd be serial rapist football players and we'd be appalled by any movie that didn't see them facing the natural fallout for their behavior.  Spring Breakers instead takes the side that it's all good as long as they don't lose their scholarships.

So, we have the three generic blondes demonstrating similar character but less depth than webcam porn videos.  Even in their classes, they're fixated on getting fucked up and sucking dick.  One of the blondes is a pink blonde, but except for a couple moments, behaves pretty much as a unit with the other two -- who may or may not be twins, that's how bland and ill-defined they are.  Then there's the dark-haired one who is different.  You can tell because she has dark hair.  She also belongs to a caricature of a campus Christian group.  It's through her that we see any kind of morality, but the story seems to take the position that her morality and choices are naive, cowardly and weak, but worst of all, a total bummer, you guys!


Then there's James Franco as Alien, the drug-dealing hood who has clearly looked no further than the least imaginative gangsta rap for the images upon which he has modeled his life.  Every gun he hangs above his bed, every bottle of booze, every piece of electronics, every car and customization, every attitude he expresses or goal to which he aspires are items he mentally circled in the lifestyle catalogue of terrible hip-hop.  Alien goes to great pains to express his alienation as a white man in the black man's world he has both mentally invented, and to which he imagines himself to be a part.

He's also a racist cop-out as a story element.  He's "black" culturally, in the crassest, shallowest way possible, thus appealing to the pseudo-rebellion of ignorant suburban trash, but he's not ACTUALLY black, which makes him acceptable to the ingrained fears of ignorant suburban trash.

That said, Franco as Alien is the ONLY thing that less-than-completely sucks about this movie.  He has the only funny lines or emotional depth beyond "Hee hee, I'm so DRUNK!" here.

As bad as all these crimes are, they're but elements to Spring Breakers greatest sin.  Not ONLY is the story thinner and shittier than diarrhea-drenched toilet paper, but it simply lacks ANY sort of credible behavior from the characters or the world around them.  I'm not even holding it to "realism" which is clearly not present here.  A story needn't be "real" to be credible or believable, but it should behave in ways that make sense.  When I saw Olympus Has Fallen, about North Korean super-ninjas taking over the White House, my first impulse was to declare it the stupidest movie I'd seen in years.  Then I remembered that I'd seen Spring Breakers, which is far, far stupider.  The stupidity that they share is based on characters which simply do not behave like credible versions of human beings in any context.  One shot, symptomatic of the stupidity in Olympus Has Fallen involves multiple Secret Service agents and Marines trying to run through a doorway through which the attackers were pouring machine gun fire.  The ENTIRETY of Spring breakers is like a slow-motion version of this one shot.  It's just one long stupid sequence of behavior that resembles no human being that would be allowed off the ward without a chaperone.

It starts off with the girls all impatient to get done with classes so they can get away from all their misery.  Right away, the part of me that is older than 22 wanted to tell these spoiled little shits to go fuck themselves.  "Oh really?  You're suffering the fate of an EDUCATION, paid for by your hated parents?"  I guess some people relate to that, but nobody I wouldn't tell to go fuck themselves, themselves.  So while the blondes get themselves increasingly lathered up for drug-binging and semi-anonymous sex, the not-blonde feigns enthusiasm for some pretty farcical Christianity.

Upon discovering that they don't have as much money saved as they thought they did, the girls suffer a bout of self-righteous pouting about how much they suffer and how much they deserve to go to Florida and act out their Girls Gone Wild fantasies.  This leads the blondes to the conclusion that they should steal the money, per their perceived "right."  So the two most vacuous of the group hold up a diner with a hammer and a ridiculously realistic squirt gun and DON'T get their asses kicked, while the pink blonde keeps the motor running.  It's actually a well-shot sequence, if you ignore sanity.

So off they go to Florida, and it's just like the MTV wet dream they've fantasized about, with the booze and drugs, the so-NOW-it's-already-tired blaring music, the horny, leering young binge-aholics and all sundry creepy hangers-on that they evidently longed for.  At this point, all they're risking is drug overdose, date rape and STDs -- you know, college.  This alone should serve as motivation for people to RAISE YOUR GODDAMN CHILDREN BETTER.

All of this is presented in the previously mentioned dreamy Twitter pastiche with all kinds of moronic "I think I really FOUND myself here" voiceover.

Then during another night of raging against the machine (YEAH!), and trashing a motel room with a bunch of other similarly drug-addled entitlement brats, they end up arrested and facing a judge.  Rather than facing up to their actions and contacting their parents, they find their bail paid by corn-rowed white boy Alien.

This is where things start to make even LESS sense.  Alien takes them to a  dirtier-and-seedier-than-a-farmer's-pocket bar, where they do NOT get raped and/or forced into prostitution.  The "good" girl (AKA the not-blonde) gets very uncomfortable and starts crying about wanting to leave because "something bad is going to happen."  Now, if there was any credibility here, something bad WOULD happen, but it doesn't.  Alien agrees to take her to the airport and she's gone.


The other three remain, becoming some kind of little crime family complete with matching hoochie wear and balaclavas for their gang war on the dealer that brought Alien up in the game.  Alien believes he's found a sense of belonging with them, and they go native, slumming it with their just-bad-enough bad boy.  The pink blonde takes a bullet in the shoulder, and she decides to cash out and go home too.

This just leaves the two with absolutely no personality, which they share between them, to act out their most debauched fantasies, so strongly compelled and self-loathing are they to rebel against their poor little rich girl lives.  In a final assault on the rival dealer, Alien is killed and the two of them wander through a shooting gallery on a yacht, murdering mostly black gang members as casually as they'd piss daddy's money away at Abercrombie.

Then they drive away in Alien's Ferrari.  The end.

So I just sat through a movie of foul barely-there characters who make unimaginably stupid choices and suffer no real consequences thanks to completely impossible luck.  These are not anti-heroes.  These are villains.  Alien may have been a colossal loser, but he had a reason to be in the life he was, in the world he was.  He was born to it and made sense of it the best his limited intellectual resources would allow.  He and his rival/father figure were respectful of the rules of the game.  Then a bunch of walking text messages come into his life and stir up his whole world to the point that dozens end up dead, almost certainly leaving a citywide gang war in their wake.

And this is entertaining why?  I'm not saying there's not a good way to tell such a tale, but the shallowest means possible is not the way to do it.  What horrifies me about this in a way that no ghost or zombie ever could is that A) some people (among our younger and stupider demographics) think this is actually "realistic" and relate to characters with no character, and B) find that to be entertaining.

The only way the story MIGHT make sense to me ALMOST would be if one of the generi-blondes started drinking early and daydreamed the whole thing while goofing off in class.  That would explain a world that seems to support their solipsism, leading them into danger for the sake of fun and then letting them off the hook just because they're SO freakin' special despite there being absolutely nothing special about them.

There are indeed repetitions of the nattering postcard sentiments that the whole trip has been "like a dream."  I, personally, do no buy that this is the case, and it wouldn't end up mattering if it did.

If it were the intention of the director to frame it as a dream, he failed to lay claim to it in an adequately clear way.  A plot point with the power to change it from a horrible story about horrible people doing horrible things with no consequences to a flaky story about boring people who are merely horrible on the inside isn't something to mess around with.  As much like a horror story as it is, actual horror movies don't don't screw around on the switcheroo.

But let's say I was prepared to buy that line.  It still begs the question why on Earth I would possibly CARE, even to a greater extent than it did before.  Really?  So an idiot had a daydream about being an idiot... only it was easier than it usually is for the poor, oppressed stupid spoiled sluts of America?  Quit bothering me kid, I have better movies and drying paint I'd rather watch.  I knew a kid in the sixth grade who constantly drew tanks and airplanes blowing each other up on his notebooks, and I think he was disturbingly fascinated with WWII Nazi regalia.  His notebook doodles were a less nihilistic and better developed fantasy than Spring Breakers, but I still don't want to watch a fucking movie about it.

No matter how you slice it, Spring Breakers is a bad movie in every way possible, but some of the ways are disturbingly worse than others.  There's no "getting it" that will make it seem otherwise, unless the "it" is a frontal lobotomy.

This is a man who could have saved himself a lot of trouble.


Ghoul, Interrupted

or One Slew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

FILM:
The Ward (2010)
Written by Michael & Shawn Rasmussen, Directed by: John Carpenter



My recent interest in horror movies has inevitably led my path to cross with that of John Carpenter.  Now, I was pretty familiar with his more action-oriented work product, but as he's arguably neck-and-neck with Wes Craven in terms of influence on the horror genre, it was inevitable that I'd end up watching his classic work from the 70s and 80s.  Carpenter kind of fell out of favor after that, which is a shame, because I found The Ward to be one of the most satisfying horror movies I've ever seen.

The movie doesn't exactly throw you into the action as much as wake you up to find that you're already hurtling through a plate glass window.  The classic horror opening -- a teen girl in terror meets an unfortunate end -- is so abbreviated that it leaves one struggling to catch up from "go."  This is immediately followed by another teen girl in terror.  She sets fire to a farm house and is gathered up by the police in short order.


Before she -- or we -- know it, she's the newest resident of the North Bend Mental Hospital of North Bend, Oregon... and it's 1966.  At this point, I must admit, I was feeling highly skeptical.  A lot was going on and none of it was making a hell of a lot of sense.  As it turns out, this is all as it should be.

As the girl, Kristen, explores the secrets of the ward, and the mysteries about herself, we discover the answers along with her.  She shares the ward with four other girls, a frequently absent or inconveniently present staff, and a very vengeful ghost. The other girls each have specifically individuated personalities (or personality archetypes anyway), which is more than can be said for a lot of genre movies.  The staff is menacing and controlling, except for the times when they appear to be gone altogether.  I had to mutter an "Oh come ON..." when the action led Kristen through a kitchenette with an unsecured meat slicer on the counter (mercifully NOT an implement of death here).  As the story progresses, the staff appear to be covering up the ghost's deadly deeds, building upon the mystery of just what is going on.

Act 1 works on blending familiar ghost story and mental patient tropes.  Act 2 becomes a somewhat standard one-by-one reduction of cast members with asylum-themed gore.  More questions are raised; not the least of which is, "Is anyone RUNNING this place?"

It's in Act 3 that The Ward reveals all its been holding back.  As the ghost story unfolded, I became more and more skeptical.  It seemed fairly rote.  The part that keeps it interesting is the ongoing question of what others know, and when they seem to know it.  Everyone is holding information back from Kristen, and the way that information is revealed constitutes the backbone of the narrative, rather than a mere arbitrary series of deaths (as in Carpenter's Halloween).  In Act 3 there was a major confrontation with the ghost and... something that should not happen in a ghost story.  This had me rolling my eyes and ready to write the whole thing off.  Then came the big reveal.  Now, I often pick up on third act reveals in the first five minutes of a movie (sometimes just from the poster), but I didn't see this one coming until maybe 5 minutes beforehand because Carpenter knows the song so well and wasted so few notes in the introduction.

There was, of course, a SUPER obvious horror movie final minute, but as a horror movie, it was obligated to offer nothing less.  So often, the last minute of a horror movie sneaks in one last "Gotcha!" just for the sake of making you jump, which can betray the narrative arc.  This one makes sense...ish in the context of the story.

The performances were above average for the genre and did a lot to sell the story, although I was never quite able to accept Amber Heard (Kristen) as a citizen of the 60s.  The crimping iron was overplayed in the effort to make her look raggedy.  I was also left wanting more screen time for Jared Harris as the resident shrink.  He has a remarkable ability to be likeable and unsettling all at once, which keeps one guessing about his motives, even as one wants to trust him.

I don't know that I was ever scared by The Ward, but I remained intrigued from start to finish, and I felt that my patience as a viewer was rewarded in a way that so many movies simply do not deliver these days.




Then Suddenly...

Having spent my life up until now really not caring about (if not actively repelled by) horror movies, I find that I've developed an interest in them recently.

I chalk this up to a lowered tolerance for gore and an heightened appetite for cheap thrills brought on by a heavy diet of our modern action flicks.

As I reflect upon this, a few more things occur to me... 

One, that many of this generation's filmmakers were heavily influenced by the horror movies of their youth.  Joss Whedon, of course, had 2 major TV series built around vampires and sundry other supernatural beings and co-wrote one of the best horror movies in recent years, the deconstructionist The Cabin in the Woods, which came out the same year as his mega-massive ultra-blockbuster, The Avengers.  Zach Snyder, director of this year's Man of Steel, got his big-boy pants with his remake of zombie classic Dawn of the Dead.

Two, that our special effects have gotten SO much more realistic that the old ways seem pretty quaint anymore.  I watched the notoriously gory Re-Animator the other night, and it played as pure camp.  A severed head with dangling gore was just surgical tubing and stage blood.  It was clear that the head, sitting in a pan, was just an actor poking his head through a hole in the table.  This was just... fun.  Meanwhile, the recent film The Raven included a scene cribbed from The Pit and The Pendulum where they felt obligated to show the ENTIRE slicing-through of a human body, cut by cut.  It wasn't scary.  It wasn't fun.  It was just crass and uncomfortable.  The mind had already pictured what would happen, but had to wait, and wait, as the film caught up in masturbatory detail.  I'd rather watch the old stuff, and not just because The Raven mostly sucked.

Three, that horror stories represent a very fundamental form of storytelling.  They have essential story elements and push specific emotional reactions, like romances and pornography.  Our filmmaking has become MUCH more targeted and manipulative of emotional reactions.  One need look no farther than the commercial success and influence of Michael Bay to see this.  As much as it makes you hate yourself, it's almost impossible not to feel his fingers working your heart-stings like a marionette with schmaltzy slow motion power ballad sequences.  Yeah, you know the one I mean.  Well, horror films are all about the emotional reaction, and obviously some take more evolved approaches to this than others.  There's "BOO! Ha, I GOT you!" and the ever-so-slightly creeping dread or dangerous curiosity, and for good or ill, it seems that the "Boo!" approach has a more direct impact on the safer commercial vehicles.



I've noticed something lately...

I've been watching movies that got terrible reviews, and have found that a LOT of them weren't that bad... or weren't bad at all.  I'm still figuring out what to make of this.  Naturally my first concern was that my own taste had been corrupted, but a little bit of consideration put that to rest.

What I came up with instead is -- short version -- the internet,  The long version is a deeper consideration of the way that the internet polarizes opinions, and has developed into an environment where anger is taken for granted as a default behavior.  It's tainted everything from opinions on movies to personal relationships all the way on up to the management of a once-great nation.  The complete story of the internet's impact on human life has not yet been told, and I think there are some subplots that are going to come roaring to the surface in later chapters.

Silver Lyings Playbook

FILM: 
Silver Linings Playbook
2012
Written & Directed by David O. Russell


At the heart of Silver Linings Playbook there is a central conceit which is a lie.  It's a film, which like so many other romantic comedies (loosely defined) is predicated on the premise that, when we're at our lowest, most desperate and broken circumstances, someone will come along who just "gets" us, accepts us, sees us for what we can be, and totally wants to get it on although we've done nothing endearing.

This is Hollywood bullshit.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm willing to accept all kinds of Hollywood fantasy and to extend my disbelief to some pretty remarkable extents, but this conceit isn't just fantasy; it's a damned dirty lie.  It just doesn't happen.  When we're at our lowest, most desperate and broken circumstances, people cannot wait to get the hell away from us.  Yes, I speak from experience.  I used to believe in this premise, and I can tell you; they don't come.  The only one who can accept us at our worst and life us out of it is ourselves, and if we can't do it ourselves, then we will never crawl our way out of it.

Of course Silver Linings Playbook is FAR from the only offender on this count, but it's because of all that it does so well, and how deeply seductive that lie is framed in the person of Jennifer Lawrence, that I found it so stinging in this presentation.  It wasn't until after the movie ended that I found myself dallying in daydreams of emotional rescue and a smokin' hot ass, and finally thought, "hey, wait a minute..."

The reason the lie works so well is the earnestness with which it is told.  The texture and vulnerability with which Pat (Bradley Cooper), his family and friends are painted gives them an authenticity -- if not in terms of the real world, then at least within the context of their world.  Bradley Cooper, as a former teacher just getting out of the mental hospital is electric, at least for the first ten to fifteen minutes.  I had to make a conscious choice to come into this film with an open mind about him, because I've had a hard time shaking the impression that he's got to be a royal douche in real life, based largely on some of his earlier roles.  He managed to cure me of that preconception, and then completely forget about him once Jennifer Lawrence walked into the frame.  So seldom has the phrase "You can't take your eyes off of her" been so true.  Even when Cooper is in full manic meltdown, bouncing around the screen, Lawrence is the gravity at the center of the solar system.

Just in case starting thing out with a complaint confused you, let me be clear, I really liked this movie.  The characters are interesting and defined beyond their service to the story.  The performances of said characters are delivered with color and affection by skilled professionals drawing from deep wells of talent.  The "sports victory" conclusion, while an obvious and over-used trope in its own right, downplays most of the obvious beats and finds its weight in personal victory rather than aggrandized significance.  And the romance, while somewhat (and appropriately) baffling, triggers such an empathetic sense of yearning that it's hard not to be seduce by it.

...and that's a lie.  A dirty, beautiful lie.


Iron Men and Paper Dolls

FILM & CULTURE:
Iron Man & Iron Man 2

Gloria in Excelsior!

Let me be clear about something.  I like the Iron Man movies.  I'm willing to accept their pro-business, military industrial complex attitudes as flaws of the character.  Not every "good guy" has to have the same motives, and Tony Stark's selfish goodness is frankly less disconcerting than Bruce Wayne's selfish goodness.  With The Avengers, we're allowed to see the conflicting motives between Iron Man and Captain America in their appropriate context.  Cap pursues good for goodness' sake.  Tony chooses good when it makes him look good.  That's the character; a lovable bastard, a reckless cad, a cuddly prick.  I'm okay with this.

Pay no attention to the following speech.  It's totally about me.
Iron Man the character is what Iron Man the movie is, and the movie is what movies have become.  Money and polish wins, defining "good" by its own values..  Robert Downey Jr. sells it with his winking performance, and I confess, I'm a fan of the Downey Brand Ham in a Can.  Downey is Stark, but Stark is Downey too, grinning their ways through detention.

I tell you this so you will understand that I'm not just a big Mr. Complainy-Pants because I don't like the movies and I'm looking for reasons why you shouldn't like them either.  I like them, but there are still things that I don't like about them, and there comes a time when "it's just a popcorn movie" stops working as an excuse.  Tony Stark's attitudes are one thing.  The films' attitudes are another thing.

I've been marathoning my way through Mad Men lately.  There is a very clear case of the characters' attitudes being separated from those of the narrative itself.  Don Draper is a flawed protagonist of the reckless cad variety, but at no point does the narrative suggest to us that his attitudes are correct, or Betty's, or Roger Sterling's or anyone's.  They are presented in a context that shows us the way things were, and we balk at Don's disregard for women, at Betty's casual child abuse, at Roger's bitter excuses for bigotry.

Iron Man, obviously, doesn't operate on a level of that kind of emotional depth, so things are what they are, particular once they leave the circle of Tony's self.  Tony is the only real character.  Everyone else is stage dressing.  They are physical realities.  Only Tony has an inside.

So with Iron Man 3 coming, there is one character/expression that I could really do without.  It was Mad Men that really got me thinking about the outdated sexual attitudes in the first two movies; attitudes that would have been perfectly acceptable in the early 60s, but which are appalling in the context of the 50 years between then and now.

This attitude is clearly demonstrated in the characters of journalist Christine Everhart and perpetual "girl Friday" Pepper Potts -- specifically in the dynamic between them.  Well, of COURSE it's limited to those two characters, as they are virtually the only women present in the first film (another is Marine, mistaken for male, thus proving her non-frivolous stature as something other than sex object).

Everhart is the abrasive, ambitious reporter who makes a token effort at questioning Stark, but quickly succumbs to his tactless sexual advances to get the "inside scoop."  You know, because she's not really as good as a hard-hitting male reporter.  So in the space of a scene she's been sexed and discarded by Stark for Pepper to "throw out the trash."

This is where the ad writers in Mad Men would be delighted.  "Fast" girl is "trash."  Wholesome, patient girl is entitled to denigrate her.  Her long-suffering entitles her to the "prize" of blameless (but wealthy, don't forget wealthy!) cad Tony.

Just in case you missed it, they bring Everhart back in Iron Man 2.  This time she is diminished by her failure to be worthy of Stark, an unquestioned subject of ridicule.  She's stuck with the awkward and unappealing Justin Hammer, who fancies himself a worthy rival of Stark.  But Hammer is too forthcoming, too needy of attention (hers in particular) and she is cloaked in shame.

Pepper, meanwhile, through virtue of her subservience to Tony and coy pouting has been rewarded with "girlfriend" status, and graduates from executive assistant to CEO of Stark Enterprises -- in 1960s analog, she got the ring.

Everhart's aggression makes her "trash" destined to disappointment.  Potts' passivity wins the man sweepstakes.  Ann Romney would be so proud.

As the old Shaw line goes, "We've established what you are, madam.  We are now merely haggling over price."


Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud

BOOKS:















One of the most unexpected and delightful occurrences of 2012 was Stephen Colbert's interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak.  I'd never seen Sendak before or known anything about him (other than how much I loved his work), when out of left field Colbert delivered this fascinating and hilarious two-part interview.



           
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 1
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive



Colbert starts to edge up on that line where he's a little too "Colbert" in Part 2, but it's still a lot of fun and Sendak shines through.


                   
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak Pt. 2
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive



Sadly, this was just a few months before Sendak passed away, May 8, 2012.  The interview made the loss more palpable, I feel, which maybe it should be.



A New York Times tribute by Christoph Niemann on his passing, culled from a Terry Gross interview on NPR's Fresh Air.





And here's the Terry Gross interview.  Hm, it doesn't seem to want to embed, so here's the Fresh Air interview on NPR.



Gladly, he kept working right up until the end, and leaves a trove of books yet to discover.  While I grew up loving Where The Wild Things Are like crazy, in recent years, it was his first pop-up book, Mommy? (2006) that really blew me away.

They're doing incredible things in pop-up craft nowadays

It's silly and short, but I love the tribute to classic Universal Monsters and the way the pop-up is animated, rather than just "boing! I'm a picture and now I'm poking out!"  Opening that flap on the mummy page is a show-stealer.

Did you know that there was almost an edition of The Hobbit illustrated by Sendak?  There was, until someone screwed up the labels and Tolkien got all grumbly that Sendak didn't know the difference between a hobbit and a wood elf.


I don't have a conclusion here.  Maurice Sendak was awesome and now he's gone.  It's happy and sad and happy again, because of who he was and all he left behind.

We should be so lucky.


6/11/2013
In recognition of Maurice's 85th birthday yesterday, I'm adding a couple more incredible interviews that came to my attention.  In fact, any time I find a new one, I'll throw it in.  He had some pretty brilliant things to say while he was with us.


This is another nice animated tribute based on interview audio, from Blank on Blank & PBS Digital Studios.





This one is particularly great.  Bill Moyers AND Maurice Sendak?  Oh, BABY!

(It's in 2 parts with Madeline Albright in the middle.  Go ahead and skip her, but make sure you get both parts of him.)





EDIT: Another!  From the TATE & Guardian UK.





EDIT: For Maurice's birthday this year, I'm adding this fantastic interview he did with Dave Eggers for Vanity Fair in 2011.









Time, Time, Time, See What's Become of Me

A Consideration of the Lives and Times of Star Trek, Old and New

That's why they call it a trip through time.

While we now look forward to the Star Trek: Into Darkness, I thought it was about... time ...to examine the nature of temporal and narrative continuity in the J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise.

...and therein lies the rub.

Because, you see, it's not really a reboot, or a re-imagining.

Now, allow me to offer this caveat.  I am perfectly okay with re-imaginings, and I kind of hate the fanboy fixation with continuity.  I spent a LOT of years dealing with comic books, and getting sick-to-death of the kind of hardcore nerdistry that placed rigid statistical consistency about the telling of good stories was a big reason I finally walked away from them.  Events are not stories, and stories came to sacrificed by the industry to the petty gods of events.  Then, when continuity of events becomes so convoluted, they end up scrapping it all and starting over again with characters who hold less and less of the iconic power that gives them substance.

First words, "...the hell?"
For an alternate example, look at The Simpsons.  Continuity is irrelevant to The Simpsons.  Bart and Lisa have been in the same grades for over 20 years (temporary story lines notwithstanding).  In that time, they have experienced at least two first days of school, a number of Christmases, and a ton of Halloweens, their Aunt Selma has been married a number of times, Apu has married and had children who now walk.  Still, Bart and Lisa remain the same age.  Even Maggie, the baby, remains the same, despite pre-existing the Nahasapeemapetilon children who are now older than her.

And that's okay.  That is their character, and those are the stories the writers have to tell.

I tell you this to make it clear that continuity is not sacred to me.  Story matters. The narrative is all.

That said, the world of Star Trek is one where continuity hasn't always been iron-clad, but it has come to be an area of great consideration, particularly given its relationship with time travel.

Which brings us back to 2009's Star Trek movie.  It's a reboot of the series... except it isn't.  It would have been one thing if they just took the same basic concepts and created a new series from (nearly) whole cloth.  Batman Begins did this.  Battlestar Galactica did this.  But Star Trek didn't.

Hands out of your pants, nerd.
They just HAD to have Spock.

By building the story around a time travel conceit in which Leonard Nimoy's original Spock travelled back in time, they not only laid claim to the legacy, they bound themselves to the continuity.  So this is not merely a universe in which some classic concepts are birthed anew; this is a universe in which the same people and events -- barring redirection -- are occurring.

Why does this matter?  I'm glad you asked.

In the film version of both Star Trek and The Next Generation, the most powerful elements were those that carried the emotional weight of pre-existence.  In short; Khan.  Wrath of Khan is unanimously (or as near unanimously as is possible in a world that allows for insanity and wrongness) the best of the six original cast movies.  It's not necessarily the best story of the bunch -- or at least not exceedingly so -- but because we know Khan, and we understand the hatred between Khan and Kirk, it resonates for the viewer.  When Spock dies, that has weight for us.  When, in Search for Spock, Kirk's son is killed, we really don't care because he doesn't have that emotional weight for us, even though we know his death is permanent where Spock's was not -- and it's not just because we're glad to be rid of a whiner in an early-80s perm.

No other villain in the Trek movies resonates like Khan.  Probe on shrooms?  Angry Klingon?  Spock's brother we never heard of before?  Conniving Romulan?  Meh.

KHAAAAANTINUITY!!!


Oh sweet!  Pinhead!  No, wait...
Likewise, in the Next Generation movies, the characters that resonate with us most are both in First Contact; Zefram Cochrane and the Borg, both of whom have ties within the history of the series.  The weaknesses of Insurrection and Nemesis include this absence.  F. Murray Abraham's plastic surgery addict exists only to die in the end, much like the "nemesis" that we've never heard of before.  So what if he's Picard's clone?  We didn't care about Spock's brother that we never heard of before, why would we care about Picard's clone that we never heard of before?  We don't actually care so why are there so many scenes with them discussing this tenuous connection?  There's no weight there, and they didn't even bother to connect him to Tasha Yar's Romulan daughter.  That, at least, would have meant something to the viewers.

SO, when they -- rather than rebooting or re-imagining, but -- rewound the series in 2009, there was a great opportunity to recreate things that the viewers will have an emotional connection to, in fresh new ways.  Eric Bana's Nero, frankly, didn't bring that much interest of his own, other than the borrowed interest of bringing us Nimoy as Old Spock.  The team behind the new series tried to have it both ways, and as a result, really kind of has it neither way.  By paying homage to fan service, it's not wholly fresh and unburdened of history.

You still want to buy it?  Even when I rub it like this?
With all the anticipation for the new film, fans are looking for Benedict Cumberbatch's villain to be Khan, which we are told he is not.  That's okay.  Technically, these new films occur in a time frame prior to the original series.  Kirk did not originally go directly from Starfleet Academy to his own command, as happens in the alternate timeline of Trek '09, so there is clearly a window for new experiences.  But the Botany Bay is still out there.  That history hasn't been changed.  Likewise, Charlie X is still gaining powers, Harry Mudd is still smuggling and scheming, Cyrano Jones is still managing a small marketing concern for black market pets, Zefram Cochrane is still making freaky-deaky energy love to a far-out light show...

Therefore, not merely does the opportunity to revisit characters and situations of emotional gravity fall to the new vanguard of the franchise, but so does the responsibility incurred by tying themselves to the original series through Spock.  Pumpernickel Pumpkinpatch may not be Khan, but Khan is out there, and he's going to need to be addressed in due ...time.







Separated at Death?

This stop-motion animated film opens with an homage to campy old horror films.  The protagonist is a young boy whose father uses control to allay his concerns about his son being a "misfit" is a society that is predominantly ignorant and fearful.  This boy's "gifts" cause him to become involved with the dead.  The living dead rise and the boy must use his knowledge to restore restore peace in his quirky small town with a dark and unique history.

This film is
ParaNorman (August 17, 2012)
Directed by Chris Butler & Sam Fell
from Laika Entertainment

This film is
Frankenweenie (October 5, 2012)
Directed by Tim Burton
from Walt Disney Pictures


In ParaNorman, our young male protagonist is Norman.  Norman can see the spirits of the lingering dead all around him.  This puts him at odds with the painfully mundane citizens of Blithe Hollow, who treat him with apathy to antagonism.  His father fears for his son, but lacks the tools to express this fear in any way but anger.  His passive mother struggles to facilitate understanding between them.

In Frankenweenie, our young male protagonist is Victor.  Victor is... good at science.  This puts him at odds with no one but his father's expectations.  The other children of New Holland appear to be equally as enrapt by science, and Victor is actually the most normal one among them.  His father tells us that he's a misfit and goads him into playing baseball.  His passive mother is... passive.

The town of Blithe Hollow was the site of a colonial witch hunt which has burdened the town with a witch's curse and the threat of the walking dead rising from their graves.

The town of New Holland was founded by Dutch settlers, thus explaining the windmill in the film's climax, and built on... an abandoned mine?  An ancient burial ground?  We can't be sure, other than it explains the frequent thunderstorms.

When Norman's creepy, societally rejected uncle dies, the burden falls to Norman to keep the living dead at bay for another year.  With the reluctant aid of others, he gets to the bottom of Blithe Hollow's mystery, and, saving them, earns their respect.

When Victor's dog Sparky dies, his creepy, societally rejected science teacher gives him the idea of how he might reanimate his pooch.  Reluctant to aid others, Victor's secret gets out, unleashing a plague of living dead pets.  Sidestepping mystery, Victor and his friends smash monsters.


It was impossible, as I watched Frankeweenie, not to continually reflect upon ParaNorman, which had already become a favorite film for 2012, and in reflecting, it was nearly as difficult not to find Frankenweenie wanting in comparison.

ParaNorman was one of those classic stories; familiar, not because we've seen it before, but because it's true.  It deals with universal themes.  Its characters demonstrate human behaviors.  Things happen because of natural reactions.  It took a story that first appeared to be simple and challenged the basic preconceptions of who and what the living dead were, and in so doing, became something more.

Frankenweenie, perhaps not so surprisingly, felt like it was cobbled together from the dead pieces of other movies.  While some have responded positively to it for representing a return to form for Tim Burton, it's like a reanimated form of old Burton, lacking in satisfaction or surprises.
It's Burton wanking to Burton.

Now I'm not one of those on the Bash on Burton bandwagon.  For years, when others have accused him of falling off, I've continued to feel that there's always been something interesting to his films, even when they stumble... even when they're completely unnecessary remakes.  Up until, pretty specifically, Alice in Wonderland.

Now, they're not the same movie and I am in no way suggesting that anyone copied anyone else.  The film industry is certainly no stranger to very similar films coming out in proximity to each other, especially animated films -- A Bug's Life (1998) /Antz (1998), Finding Nemo (2003) /Shark Tale (2004) /Shark Bait (2006) -- but the similarities demanded analysis, and the analysis stacked up in favor of ParaNorman.

It attempted more.  It was better animated.  It was better designed.  The characters, even the less likeable ones, were more relateable and dimensionally human.

The other was thin of thought and intent.  It attempted nothing more than to serve up a reheated dish of the film-maker's obsessions.  To start with, it's obviously a retelling of the 1931 film version of Frankenstein, recast as a boy-and-his-dog film, which is itself an overly familiar trope at this point.  But Burton already did that in 1984 with a live-action short film, so this retells THAT, only longer.  Little visual cues abound.  The neighbor girl is predictably Winona.  The monster cat's snaky legs are familiarly Beetlejuicy.  The classroom science rivals are mad scientists from movies today's kids will not have seen.

Even the dog, Sparky, is reanimated from Brad Bird's 1987 Family Dog episode of Amazing Stories, upon which Burton served as Animation Designer.











I'd venture to say that ParaNorman exists in a universe where Tim Burton has already happened, or rather, is the product of a universe in which he's happened.  "Okay, that's been done.  We've seen that.  NOW WHAT?  Let's go deeper.  Let's be about something."

Burton is still about being Burton.  He's like a Burton App now.  Hey, let's take [existing fiction] and Burton it up, and in this case, it's like Burton pulling a John Malkovich and ending up in a Burton Burton, Burton Burton Burton.... BURTON!!!

Which is not to say that Frankenweenie is bad, per se.  It's fun.  It's... I dunno, cute?  It's probably very satisfying if you're looking for the Burton Experience, and perhaps more isolated from ParaNorman in context.

So in true Mirror, Mirror form, the Evil Twin goatee in the race between undead-themed animated films in 2012 goes to...





...Hotel Transylvania, because get the hell out of here with your Adam Sandler & Kevin James.

"Best" of "2012"

As is my way, when I put together a "Best of" list for the year, I openly acknowledge the extreme subjectivity of my list.  The "bests" can only be the best of what I saw.  There are sure "bests" I didn't see, but I can very well rank them as such without having seen them.  Even so, "best" is so purely subjective in the first place.  So what constitutes a "best" for me is really what I liked a lot, or found inspirational and/or thought-provoking.  Now, given this subjectivity, which would appear to be limiting, I then find myself free to choose, not just from the media released in this calendar year, but from the media I myself have consumed in that year, regardless of its year of origin.

In other words, Art does not have a shelf life; not true art certainly, and I am not obligated to consume it on a market-based schedule.  Large portions of our culture are trapped in the myth of newness -- that new is better, that our jaded standards for style and effects demand the cutting edge, and all else must be cut away as scrap by that edge.

ZO!  The Best Arts of (which I was audience in) 2012 arrre...

FILM

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not here to be the story you want it to be.  Centering on Hushpuppy, a 6 year old girl (AMAZINGLY performed by the young Quvenzhan√© Wallis) living a subsistence-level existence in a Louisiana flood basin, one of the people with whom I saw it kept waiting for it to be an uplifting Hollywood story about her journey from squalor to security.  It's not.  Rather, it plays more on the level of a Greek epic, or, more specifically, The Divine Comedy, complete with a journey through Hell, Purgatory and the revelations of Heaven.  It's not about the world changing for Hushpuppy; it's about Hushpuppy changing how she sees, and fits into the world.  This film gave me more to think about than any other this year, or in recent years.




John Carter (2012)

And the winner in the category of most mundane name ever for a grand sci-fi epic goes to...

This film performed with notorious badness at the box office, which is really a damned shame.  John Carter has the kind of classic high adventure spirit that Disney would be well-advised to harness for the forthcoming Star Wars sequels.  It's FUN, for one thing, which so many action flicks forget to be in all their masculine posturing nowadays.

The talent behind this thing tells the tale.  Director Andrew Stanton comes from Pixar.  He's the one we don't know the way we know John Lasseter and Brad Bird, but he's the powerful visual storyteller behind Finding Nemo and WALL-E.  It's the most lushly written action screenplay in years, thanks to Stanton, Mark Andrews (writer/director of Brave) and novelist/genre buff Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay).

I tend to suspect it was the utterly generic title which left audiences unclear whether John Carter was a grand sci-fi epic adventure or a tax auditor.  It is very much the former.




ParaNorman (2012)

Laika Studios returns to the dark side with their second theatrical feature, and this one is, in my opinion, even better than their first release, Coraline.  ParaNorman both tells a deeper story, and delves deeper into the themes that it takes on.  Anyone like me, who had initial reservations about another zombie story, need not fear.  While the "z" word does come up, the undead are not zombies.  They come to be something much more meaningful.  It manages subjects of the inner emotional lives of certain characters, interpersonal relationships, one's effect of society and vice versa, and spiritual themes connecting them all.  None of which should suggest that this is some kind of heavy exploration.  It's often a very funny film filled with marvelous moments.  It just doesn't forget to be about something.  ParaNorman is a new classic, telling a new story, but rooted in the Truth that nurtures our great fables.




The Avengers (2012)

Pure comic book in the way that The Avengers comic books were meant to be.  Every bit as big as the concept demands.  Pure fun, not a thought in its head, but an endless supply of "Oh man, remember that part--" parts.  Everyone gets at least one stand-out scene (except Hawkeye, but who cares; no one came to see Hawkeye).  None of Dark Knight Rises' self-important turgidity.



Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

This documentary explores the life and work of Japan's most lauded living sushi master.  I felt it missed a big opportunity to fully unfold its narrative about the relationships between fathers/masters and sons/apprentices, but as a meditation on an artisan's commitment to craft, I found it inspirational.  Smaller stories about the quiet dignity of Jiro's elder son and the commercial face of the global issue of overfishing emerge from the simple pondering of Jiro's world.



 Hanna (2011)

Imagine if Jason Bourne was a 16 year old girl.  Hanna plays out with more pathos than a Bourne roller-coaster, but then isn't that part of being a 16 year old girl?  The film would also serve as a good model for a properly executed Elektra origin story.  It's an action movie that's not about the action, but where the actions remembers its place in the story, and the story serves as a conduit for developing the character.




Jeff Who Lives at Home (2011)

Unexpected.

Just in case you hadn't gotten the message yet, it's time to start respecting Jason Segel.











The Hobbit (1977)

Nope, not the big fat Peter Jackson epic Part 1.  The 90 minute Rankin & Bass animated TV special from my childhood.  Hold on, I'll tell you why...

It's definitely dated per the expectations of today's audiences, but I still get a stiffy for the creativity of the 70s -- reedy hippie songs notwithstanding. It's better than I remembered, and doesn't suffer nearly as much as one would expect from abbreviation. The worst shortcut is the battle for the mountain, but once you realize they took care of most of the action off-screen, it makes sense. I expect that will make up most of the third Jackson film.

Production design is marvelous. Scripting is poor, relying heavily on exposition (see: shortcutting action). Voice acting ranges from excellent (John Huston, defining Gandalf for a generation) to poor (Orson Bean, hyper-aware that he's making a cartoon).   I actually like the Gollum voice better than Andy Serkis. It's like a muddy Peter Lorre; it wears its years underground, whereas Serkis reminds me of Howie Mandel's Bobby character.

Even our popcorn entertainments today take themselves too seriously. With the effects available today, so much of it exists under this dour cloud of believability, which involves no actual belief (or suspension of dis-) on the viewer's part. Consider the joylessness of Nolan's Batman. the earnestness of something as sub-moronic as Transformers that demands to be mocked, the fanboy rage because Peter Parker had the offending gall to dance. I think we're paying a price for that with our cultural soul.
I don't know if the real Lester Bangs said it or if it was just Cameron Crowe's version of him, but in Almost Famous he talks about us all trying so hard to be "cool" that everything good and honest is drained away from the creative endeavor. That's where I see us, and for that, one or both versions of him have earned a place in my own personal bible.


TELEVISION

This was the year that I pretty much entirely gave up on broadcast television.  Even the one night each week that I still made an effort to watch, NBC's Thursday comedies, kept getting so jacked around that I was no longer to bother.  On the off chance that some NBC executive is scanning the internet to find out how they screwed up, here you go: putting The fucking Voice on comedy night, keeping The Office on the shelf long past its expiration date, messing with your single best show, Community, over and over and over, and trying to make Whitney a thing.  Also, much as I once quit commercial radio due to advertising, I have likewise had it with TV advertising.

But there's one element that's no one's fault.  Rather, it's to the credit of the creative people making television today.  I'd simply rather watch one show at a time, straight through or at least in big chunks, than have to worry about it being on once a week, unreliably.

So, the series television that defined the year for me was:

Star Trek (1966-1969)
Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1975)
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1984)
Dollhouse (2009)
Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Community (2009-current)
Californication (2007-current)
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
The Wire (2002-2008)


LIVE THEATER

Star Trek in the Park


LIVE THEATER/FILM HYBRID-THINGY

Filmusik presents Gamera vs. Guiron


MUSIC

The best music I listened to this year was funk & soul from 1970-1973 or hard bop jazz from the 60s.  I'm sure someone is making good music somewhere, but I just can't bring myself to care enough to dig through all the twee rock & roll and glitchy DJ mixes to find them.

Oh...








 Bobby Womack -- The Bravest Man in the Universe (2012)


...that was good.






COMICS & BOOKS






I can't front; I barely read this year.

I did, however, work on my own book.  Watch this space!












VIDEO GAMES

Batman: Arkham City (2011)
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010)

Both great action/adventure games.  Batman is near-perfection, combining a good (not great) story, incredibly moody and interactive game world, and excellent control.  AC:B had the same curse-inducing camera/control issues that plague the series, but also the same great story & immersive worlds that have crowned the series.

Yeah, I'll say it... I played a lot of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011).  What angry fanboys call "the same thing over and over," I call a well-developed game platform with which to share new experiences in an effective format.  This one was massive in scale, befitting its World War 3 setting.  It's not a game that you play.  It's an experience through which you are guided.

The Professor Layton puzzle/adventure games on the Nintendo DSi continue to charm the hell out of me.


BOARD GAMES

My brother-in-common-law and I have really gotten into a game called Garibaldi (2007).  It's like an asymmetric game of Battleship where one player plays as the Italian patriotic hero Garibaldi, racing across the Italian countryside in 1849 while hiding from the other player/players who take the role of Austrian troops trying to track him down.  The design of the game builds in a lot of natural tension as Garibaldi scrambles for his life, surrounded by troops who flounder in the near-dark.

We've also gotten some mileage out of Tsuro: The Game of the Path (2004).  It's a fast, simple game for as many as 8 players. 


BEST TREND

Republican delusional thinking coming around to bite them in the ass.


THE BEST "BEST"

Babytime with the neff.