Friday, December 30, 2016

"Rogue One: An Excessively Star Wars Story", and the 2nd Biannual Trailer Update

Rogue One takes Star Wars in a bold new direction by exploring for the first time what it would look like if the fate of the free galaxy didn’t rest upon characters but upon a half-dozen interchangeable gray boxes.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Save Dewey, Build The Wall (Pepperdine Service Announcement)

The following is a digital transcription of an urgent message ineffectively distributed across Beatissima University the week before finals so that nobody would notice it or pay it any heed.  Dewey Hall is a stately and beloved middleclass dormitory situated on the far side of Greek Row that’s set to be demolished in spring of 2017 in order to be rebuilt from the ground up as a larger living area accommodating larger, more diverse class bodies that will incidentally be paying even more tuition to acquire less applicable knowledge from less intelligent professors.  What the Housing and Residence Life office of Beatissima does not know or refuses to acknowledge is that Dewey is currently resting on “sacred ground” and any construction efforts advanced upon it will not only prove catastrophic to the coastal environment but, more pressingly, cause irrevocable harm to the feelings and comfort of the students living there, who will be forced back into the shadows they’ve fought their entire adult lives to escape.  As it stands, people who call Dewey their home are Beas in every way except on paper, and the time has long since passed for the school’s Christian administration to recognize their dignity, which brings us to the text of this poster.

Most of this will not make sense to those who haven’t studied recently at Beatissima.  Most of this will not make sense to those who are currently studying at Beatissima, as reading comprehension is frankly not Beas’ strongest suit, any more than is staying informed on food and housing arrangements affecting where they live, any more than is remembering the statements of those running for president pertaining to Americans’ gun rights and freedom of speech.

First they came for the fountain, and I did nothing, because I was a broke-ass college student and did my laundry at my parents’ house, not in the fountain.
Then they came for the La Brea and Peet’s, and I did nothing, because I did not eat baked goods and already had Starbucks, which is better, at the cafeteria and HAWC and verily every corner.
Then they came for the cable, and I did nothing, because I did not watch anything that was not on Putlocker or Netflix and because I could not get cable on my iPhone.
Then they came for the library, and I did nothing, because I knew better than to waste my time reading anything more complex than a 100-word Facebook “rant” or a nihilistic Salon article.
Then they came for the mural, and I did nothing, because I was not one of the unacceptably few not-white people here and was not aware of any such mural or the affront it caused.
Then they came for Dewey, and no one did a thing for me, because they had never called Dewey “Home” and did not even know that it existed.

It’s time to send The Powers That B a message:
   That they cannot take whatever they want.
      That this is our land.
         That we stand in #insolidarity and unity for
               Immediately around


* Miller will pay for it.
** Some of the people in HRL, I assume, are good people.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Responding to Criticism, Warner Bros. to Adapt Childrens' Novel that Parents Also Read

When Suicide Squad happened, suddenly they realized, not only was this a story that could be told, but this was a story that needed to be told.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Star Trek Beyond, Jason Bourne, and Catching up on a Lot of Trailer Reviews

The Author reluctantly reviews some forgettable sequels and offers his unbiased opinions on 39 stinking movie trailers.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Killing Joke Is Feminist Affirmative Action

The much-reviled batsex in The Killing Joke film adaptation would be deplorable enough on its own, but the added subplot also reeks of politically opportunistic revisionism.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dharma Relativity Theorem in the Ramayana

The following was written for a catch-all class on Asian great books, philosophy, and calligraphy which kicked off with a reading of the Good Parts Version of the Ramayana.  The paper won’t make much sense to the uninitiated, firstly because I wrote it for a professor reasonably familiar with the Ramayana, secondly because the Ramayana itself just doesn’t make much sense.  It’s still a pretty good entry point to Eastern literature, as it feels like the best Michael Bay movie Hollywood hasn’t yet had the good sense to green-light and offensively recast with non-blue people of European descent.  Where the Ramayana falls apart as religious epic – or stands tall depending on your spiritual persuasion – is in its confused, progressive, and relativistic presentation of the moral code of dharma.

The essay is way too long and rephrases the same idea over and over because I was being graded on a page count and because a pretty big chunk of it was written overnight.  Teachers in other fields may take this as a cautionary paper.

The concept of dharma in the Ramayana takes a multitude of forms, encompassing such meanings as natural calling, social obligation, and right behavior more broadly.  Pretty much every character in the epic lays claim to knowing and walking in the way of dharma, even those whose aims are diametrically opposed to one another’s.  As such it’s often hard to discern what the author of the Ramayana believes real dharma to be.  The contradictions within the moral order and its manifold interpretations are most easily reconciled when one sees dharma not as a concrete, immutable, absolute code but as a personal excuse pleaded by fallible, selfish characters in justification of their actions.  In the grand scheme of the epic, fate plays a much larger role in Rama finishing his exile and reclaiming Sita than does his inconsistent, continually revised commitment to dharma.

The author commonly refers to Rama as a perfect incarnation of dharma, Avatara of the deva Vishnu.  The introduction to Rama at the beginning of Book Two describes him as a human in whom “all the virtues that Brahma ever created were gathered as the galaxies are within the universe”.  When held up to scrutiny, though, Rama often falters from the very principles he describes as dharma, succumbing to fits of wrath and needless outbreaks of violence. In one chapter he lectures Lakshmana on the foolishness of violent resorts, saying, “Violence is never dharma and you must not give in to your anger.”  But throughout the Ramayana, Rama not only engages in violent acts but veritably relishes the opportunity for them.  When the “hideous” and pitiful rakshasa Surpanka enters their encampment, Rama recognizes her for what she is, but instead of attempting to defuse the situation quickly and peacefully, he entertains her seductive behavior and toys with her by recommending his brother in his stead.  Aiming to capitalize on the brothers’ pretense of flirting, Surpanka aggressively moves to devour Princess Sita, and Rama responds by brutally disfiguring the demon with the aid of his brother.  Rather than lamenting this unfortunate defensive act, necessary to protect the wife who gave up everything to enter the wilderness with him, Rama celebrates the maiming of Surpanka, for as the text reads, “The brothers dissolved in mirth.”

Was it dharma for the exile to break his former testimony against bloodshed, in such a sadistic and excessive manner none the less?  Did the dharma of defending his wife overrule the dharma of nonviolence he’d spoken of earlier?  The key implication of this scene is not that Rama has somehow violated dharma, considering that his personal “dharma” is ever changing to suit his current circumstances, but that fate or destiny is using him in unpredictable, seemingly ungodly ways to fulfill his ultimate purpose of toppling the tyranny of Ravana.  As the abducted Sita says in her encounter with Hanuman, “Ravana is part of our destiny and destiny must take its course.  Rama must come to Lanka and kill Ravana... Then dharma will be established on earth… Let there be a war, a dharma yuddha, as is honorable.”  The humiliation of Surpanka only leads to Rama’s decimation of Khara’s rakshasa – another sweeping reversal of his prior counsel –, which leads to her inflaming Ravana with jealousy over Sita, which leads to the beautiful woman’s separation from Rama and his ensuing, predetermined quest to regain her by any means.

Rama, Lakshmana, and Jatayu hunt rakshasas in a notoriously unsuccessful 2009 adaptation.
© 2007 Twentieth Century Fox

Rama again resorts to gratuitous, ill-informed brutality when he unhesitatingly offers to assassinate Sugriva’s brother, the monkey king Vali, for reasons not entirely clear on a very one-sided account.  “It is plain that only Vali’s death will bring you peace,” he tells his new ally, “And I swear to you, he will die.”  These don’t sound like the words of a man who “shuns violence wherever he can”, nor do they make much sense given his address to the dying Vali, whom he reasons he can justly kill within his dharma because the vanaras are wild animals that have been hunted through the ages by his ancestors.  Since Rama isn’t beholden to the same rules when dealing with the punishment of animals, one can only wonder why he treats so solemnly the suffering of one like Sugriva, who has simply fallen short in the natural world’s battle of the fittest.

In any case, the prince of Ayodhya breaks his initial tenets of dharma in several ways, by needlessly killing a creature instead of negotiating a peaceful resolution, by shooting him from hiding like a coward – an insult frequently levied at Ravana for stealing Sita in the night –, and by subjecting his reason and concern for justice to his emotion.  “You are the worst kind of sinner: the one who pretends to be dharma itself… You have not even heard both sides of our story,” accuses Vali in his dying throes, but even now Rama tries to rationalize his execution of the monkey as an act of dharma, saying he’s called to judge and punish the sinful.  Whatever choice he makes resolving any given conflict Rama passes off as dharma, whether or not it clashes with the precedents of dharma he’s set in the past.

Rama’s unwavering adherence to a rigid dharma, if it existed, would probably be an impediment to his destiny more than anything.  The more pragmatic, impulsive Lakshmana expresses as much after he’s been deceived into thinking that Sita’s died by the hand of Indrajit.  “My brother has been a savior to the munis of the forests… But his dharma has not saved him from evil.  Gentleness and dharma are of no use in this world.”  In fact, “real dharma”, or honorable action, often seems like it would counteract destiny, which depends on people acting in accordance with their baser natures and desires, i.e. with their personal, contextualized sense of dharma.  All the events that set in motion the eventual destruction of Ravana and his kingdom are motivated by transient adharma so that a different, generalized kind of dharma can prevail at the end of the ancient war.

Hanuman smashes Aksha while razing Lanka to the ground in Peter Jackson’s dumbed-down crowdpleaser.
© Universal Pictures

One example of this pattern is Ravana’s disagreement with Vibheeshana, who urges him to follow “the way of dharma” and return Sita to her husband, “the perfect man”, so as to avoid innumerable casualties in a catastrophic war with the vanaras.  Yet for Ravana to do this would not only contradict his own dharma as a demon, but further undermine the whole pretext for Rama dethroning Ravana in the first place.  Here the author introduces the theory of dharma as a natural, rather than a spiritual obligation, for Ravana repeatedly emphasizes the importance of what he’s doing to his role as a king and a rakshasa.  “You say it was dishonorable for me to abduct you, but you forget I am a rakshasa.  It is natural, and so entirely honorable, for me to take another man’s wife if I want her... That is a rakshasa’s nature, and his dharma.”  The dharma of a rakshasa, who’s given over to animalistic rage and orgies, differs starkly from the dharma of a human or a vanara, whom Rama judges must never take another man for his wife lest he be worthy of death. According to Ravana, who may be speaking falsely to get his way but nonetheless points out the relativity of dharma, even Sita violates her own calling as his prisoner by resisting his advances.  “You are denying your own nature, Sita.  Other woman have been brought here as spoils of war, as frightened as you… But when they knew me, none of them resisted me for more than a week.”

So too does the dharma of a king, who has to exercise aggressive, ruthless, often stubborn dominance to sustain his power, differ vastly from the dharma of everybody else, as both Vali and Ravana observe at various points.  “Let Rama come not with an army of monkeys but with the host of heaven, and I will not give Sita up to him,” objects Ravana to his wisest advisor Vibheeshana.  “Your counsel is the way of cowardice.  How can a king like me heed such advice?”  The disparity in dharma arises because each character, being in pursuit of different interests, reveres a different, private dharma that condones their actions specifically.  For Rama, that dharma is the divine authority of his judgment passed on other souls, and for Ravana it is the natural course of things when people follow their most essential, ravenous tendencies.

Where they overlap is in their confidence that everything they do is directly working out for fate.  “Sita, fate is all-powerful.  You and I were created for each other.  Why else would you have come to me at all, by the long and winding way that you did… Don’t resist the will of God.”  Ravana, for once, speaks truth without fully realizing it, because it is the will of Brahma that Sita and the Lord of Lanka be together for a while, just as it is Brahma’s will that Dasaratha banish Rama for 14 years and that Rama fulfill his inborn purpose of killing Ravana and inheriting the kingship.  Sita echoes this sentiment: when she defies her captor: “Now that I have seen how evil you are, I think fate conspired to make you abduct me.  So Rama would come to kill you.”  Whether or not the characters reach the final point by “dharma” is an insignificant detail, because destiny is the only constant in their lives and destiny dictates that dharma will ultimately triumph over adharma.  The path to this victory is paved with sin and violence, but sometimes it’s necessary for people to bend or pervert their sense of dharma in order to satisfy the will of the gods.

Another place one sees the relativity of dharma is in the prevalence of suicide threats from almost every grief-ridden character, including Rama and Sita themselves.  Hanuman briefly comments on the depravity of suicide in his scouting trip to Lanka: “But they say it is a grievous sin to kill oneself, worse than murder.”  This shows that most of Rama’s family are either ambivalent to their dharma concerning suicide, not understanding its consequences, or think that other forms of dharma – sharing the fate of one’s spouse, loyalty to one’s brother, motherly love – outweigh the bad karma they’d inherit by taking their own lives in violence.

If the subjectivity of dharma can be summarized in a single passage, it would be in Rama’s preparations to depart from Rama, when he tries to comfort his anguished mother and temper the furious Lakshmana.  “All this is fate working toward her own inscrutable ends.  Not even the rishis who are masters of their sense are beyond fate; even they fall prey to the passions of destiny… It is not that mother Kaikeyi is evil… only that destiny uses her, even against her own nature.”  Such is true of all the adversaries the hero faces on the path to Lanka, of Surpanka and Khara and Vali and Maricha and the dark lord Ravana himself.  Though Rama encounters much resistance and deception and constantly adapts or qualifies his dharma to meet the challenges he faces, fate in the Ramayana is always utilizing dharma and adharma, righteous deeds and sin alike to advance the final will of the Devas, and that which seems immoral or contrary to dharma in the present is just one of many instruments used by the divines in a greater plan.

On a side note, the Ramesh Menon adaptation/condensation of the colossal poem is hilarious and makes for a great read even if you have no interest in Hinduism or Indian folklore.  The Good Parts Version of his translation had me bursting into laughter almost as frequently as Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and I would gladly have finished it if I wasn’t enrolled in 18 units and it wasn’t practically impossible.  Here are some of the more riotous or just plain interesting passages:

“One moment, the rakshasa rushed at Rama with his claws outstretched to seize his throat; the next, he screamed as the astra struck him and his flesh fell away from his skeleton in anxiety to escape the intolerable pain of that missile.  His heart exploded, then his giant head, and nothing was left of Khara but patches of blood, skin, and a heap of bones on the ground.”
“‘Have you seen her?” he cried to the kadamba and the tilaka, the asoka, the karnikar and the kritamala.  But they stood mute, on the eloquent verge of speech.”
“Playfully, he cut off her nose and her ears, so black blood spurted from her face.”  [One of at least two nose & ear removals in the Ramayana.]
“Hanuman thought, ‘By her beauty she must be Sita.  But how does she sleep so contentedly in Ravana’s bedchamber, with a smile curving her perfect lips?’  He slapped himself again, across his cheek this time, as monkeys do.”
“Rama seemed undecided what he wanted to do first: look for Sita or consume the world.”

And those are just the ones I feel secure in sharing on this blog.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

NWTE – "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" and "The Invitation"

In which the Author briefly and half-heartedly recommends two “I Heart Indie” movies that have nothing in common and that almost nobody saw.

Not Worth The Effort was conceived in early Fall of 2015 with the aim of succinctly documenting and summarizing movies (and possibly other media) that simply aren’t worth the effort of a full review. This month’s issue is dedicated to Ghostbusters (2016), which is so far by far the most astonishing movie of the year and which proves to misogynist haters beyond a shadow of a doubt that women can be as witty and hilarious as Azis Ansari, Louis C.K., Adam Sandler, and Anderson Cooper.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Swiss AR-15 Man – Moving Radcliffe Biopic, Potty Humor, or Both?

A documentary of Daniel Radcliffe’s life as a farting corpse, Swiss Army Man does more to normalize unrepresented gender identities than any film in a very long time.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Feminazi Tomb Raider and the Unshakeable Curse of Cinematic Adventure Games

With the possible exceptions of Avengers, Avatar, or any reboot directed by J.J. Abrams, whenever a Hollywood blockbuster trades logic and pathos for flashy special effects and chaotic bursts of red, it’s lampooned as a puerile, vapid, Michael Bay explosionfest made by and for an audience of undiscerning teenagers.  Whenever a triple-A video game blockbuster does the same, it’s hailed as a “cinematic” joyride with dazzling “set piece moments” and amazing graphics.

This is OK, because it’s 2016, and video games are still perceived as stupid, expensive toys produced for teenagers’ amusement, while movies’ status as high “art” is never called into question.  This is also the lesson taught by the phoned-in 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, a game possessing neither art nor soul that nevertheless seduced critics and commoners alike into fawning over the high-definition rendering of Lara Croft’s youthful, always mud- or blood-streaked face.  Crystal Dynamics’ Lara is to the gaming press what Scarlett Johansson was to a lot of unfortunate Scottish men in Under the Skin, a pristine and irresistible example of how pretty and “progressive” games have become – look, a strong and hardened female protagonist who does everything Nathan Drake can do and more!  The difference: as strange and mechanical as Scarlett’s beautiful extraterrestrial appeared to viewers of that film, she still made a far more personable, sympathetic, and human entity than this decade’s quasi-Feminist Lara, who’s more of an SJW-inspired construct for a character than a character herself.

Tomb Raider feels very much the same as a game, never deviating from its packaged Indiana Jones-y plot or giving one a reason to care about anything that happens to its “characters”.  Visually it’s one of the better-looking games I’ve played – or shall I say experienced, as getting through its lifeless narrative often feels more like work than play.  As Lara, I virtually dragged myself through the last hour and a half, not out of duty to any boring comrades or interest in solving the mystery but merely out of fairness to the designers who had already succeeded in wasting so much of my time.  In retrospect, maybe I played so long under the delusion that the writer was obliged, or maybe indebted to give me a satisfactory ending, though I like to think I’m smarter than that now.

But I was about to talk about how gorgeous this thing is.  The landscapes and lighting are indeed befitting of a tropical paradise retreat, one where hundreds of well-armed plane crash survivors converge to pointlessly murder and get murdered by you.  There’s truly no greater reward in Tomb Raider than getting to pause and gape at the lovely mountain ranges between one forced firefight or untimed rescue effort and the next.  The weather effects are impressive and varied enough that you can run through a snowy, a rainy, a nighttime, and a sunny level in one hour of real time without leaving the island.  The character animations are astonishingly true to the adventuring life, and I never tired of watching Lara jumping, climbing, somersaulting, grabbing onto ledges while plummeting, and never getting tired through any of it because she’s a weightless “platforming game” character.  The best fun to be had from this title, besides setting scads of random, bloodthirsty lunatics on fire without remorse, stems mainly from charging around wide, open villages where the game isn’t bossily directing you down a tunnel to the next pit stop in the story.

These sections, it goes without saying, are very few and far between.  Most of Tomb Raider’s so-called gameplay involves running and occasionally jumping down a straight path while structures blow up and collapse around you in spectacular, preordained fashion.  To save Lara from falling to certain doom with the rest of the crumbling, largely unexplained ancient architecture, the player follows predictable on-screen prompts to press this or that button or to jerk the joystick back and forth maniacally.  None of these “quick-time events” will challenge anyone who knows the layout of the controller, nor do they amplify the intensity of the scripted cutscenes they replace. Rather, they serve as an obnoxious reminder that one is simply furthering a fictional, deeply linear interactive movie, and a really uninvolving, tensionless movie at that.

The omnipresent non-threat of A.I. bad guys, who are especially susceptible to arrows in the head and can very seldom make it to the end of the map where you’re hiding, also draws attention to the artifice of the game’s world, a lost island infested with savage cultists who have no connection to outside civilization and who ostensibly slaughter anyone who wanders into their domain.  Since there are no female, childbearing cultists observed within the game and the bad guys have a marked hostility to anyone who might prolong the survival of their circle, it doesn’t make sense why there are literally hundreds of bad guys to begin with, bearing literally hundreds of firearms and molotov cocktails.  Are plane and ship crashes such a recurrent phenomenon on this isle that arch-villain Father Mathias is able to recruit enough unfortunate passengers to settle, patrol, and randomly disperse lanterns, scrolls, and arrow quivers (recovered from the wreckage of transports that just so carried such things?) all over the place?  The only logical explanation for the magnitude and prevalence of the cult is that the developers were afraid of alienating anxious Call of Duty gamers who’ve grown accustomed to looking for and stylishly disposing of scores of nameless, mostly impotent baddies.  And disposing of them is pretty fun, up until the point you realize that the only reason you can kill so many people with such ease is because you’re playing a mindless, dumbed-down movie-game, and the people you’re killing exist in such quantities only because the medium of an Uncharted-esque tentpole release calls for them to be there, because the unskilled, unrefined masses would cry foul if they got anything less for their $60.

When performing awesome, death-defying feats is as easy as pressing the X button and the bland protagonist is for all intents and purposes invincible against man and nature, it’s impossible to form the slightest investment in what happens to her.  She’s Superman without a conscience (if I had a dollar for every time she yelled, “Die, you bastards!” or “Go to hell!” or something of the sort), and watching her narrowly skirt catastrophe over and over with little to no agency outside of basic directional commands makes for possibly the least involving experience one could derive from a game.  Even if cutscenes and camera changes didn’t constantly yank the player out of Lara’s boots, the game’s passive method of forcing Lara into a “sneaky” crouching stance whenever danger arises would accomplish that just as well. Tomb Raider doesn’t have a “cover system” per se, as has almost every 3rd-person shooter in the wake of Gears of War and Uncharted, but that doesn’t preclude it from reminding the players at every turn of the sheer disdain the designers held for their basic competence.

Normally I would say that the developer should have just made an uninterrupted cutscene, more commonly known as a movie, but Tomb Raider’s story is so fundamentally broken it wouldn’t work as anything.  I don’t want to ramble too much about the actual script as I’m more concerned with the storytelling methods broadly, but here’s a quick rundown of Tomb Raider’s many inanities.

* Battle dialogue. Again, the Die you Bastards thing, but also creative stuff like:
[Cultist 122] “She’s just one girl!”
[Cultist 123] “That one girl is kicking our ass!”

* Other dialogue:
“Look, I know this is a crazy plan.”
“It is, but right now crazy is all we got.  Let’s do this.
“You think you’re a hero, Lara?  Everything I’ve done I’ve done to survive!”
“Oh my god.  Sam – a vessel for the sun queen’s soul.  I have to stop this madness.”

* The mythological sun queen plot actually being treated seriously, despite it being the least appropriate thing to put in a story about the formative molding of Lara Croft.  The only adversaries needed were a band of loony cannibal cult-worshippers, some vicious wolves (the wolf-to-human ratio on this uninhabitable, storm-ravaged island is and should be something like 50:1), and the elements of the island itself.  Instead of a bracing, primal survival story about a frightened woman outwitting and fighting men who’ve forsaken any moral boundaries, what we get is a silly, unbelievable fantasy romp wherein the crazed savages are actually right and the hero must appease the angry, mythical sun creature to calm the storms enveloping the island.

* The hero having to prove her ability in order to honor her family name, which should mean something to us but depends entirely on unearned nostalgia.  “You can do it, Lara,” says the grizzled beta male companion in a scene sampled by a lot of advertising materials.  “After all, you’re a Croft.”  “I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft,” protests Lara, but the older man quickly rebuts that notion.  “Sure you are.  You just don’t know it yet.”  Before playing the Body Positivity version of Lara Croft, it never occurred to me that I might appreciate an origin story about the legendary tomb buster besting her weak self-confidence or sense of familial isolation.  Tomb Raider made sure to dispel that uncertainty within the first two hours or so of the game, which is equivalent to verbally dropping daddy issues in the first twelve minutes of a mainstream movie without ever bothering to show said daddy in the flesh.  Guardians of the Galaxy kind of did that, twice, but at least it wasn’t boring.  Tomb Raider’s story, however, is a more violent, overblown riff on an American Idol or Chopped episode; all are built around disgustingly manipulative backstories of people losing elder family members and trying to “prove themselves” by overcoming some challenge for the deceased, but while the character development on reality TV offers an antidote for a main attraction – bad karaoke, cooking, wedding dress shopping – that is frankly unbearable, the character development in this video game injects an unbearable distraction from the only possible attraction, which is setting off explosive barrels and stabbing people in the face.

A Lara I cared more about than the one in Tomb Raider

* Internalized misandry, or perhaps just misandry, because the lead writer was a woman.  Right around and subsequent to Tomb Raider’s release, much hullabaloo was being raised on the left side of the interwebs over supposed “misogyny” in the video game industry, by which accusers were referring either to the unsatisfactory proportion of vaginas on game development teams or to what they considered unflattering depictions of female characters in mega-successful game franchises.  Tomb Raider seems to have been commissioned directly in response to these complaints, not just in the way it desexualizes a character once embodied by young Angelina Jolie, but in its larger, subtler scheme of making almost every man in the game a ruthless, sadistic monster answerable to no greater code or principles but the dictates of an even crueler monster.  If GTA can be condemned as sexist because all its female characters are helpless or – less offensively – whores, then detractors of that major series should apply the same logic to the minor Feminist Tomb Raider reboot.  I forget if any one of the enemies go so far as to levy rape threats, but I don’t recall playing as Lara to be a very pleasurable or relieving experience, and I would have left with a profound distrust of all men if I didn’t know that this was fiction.  Goons in Batman: Arkham City often make leery, sexually charged threats against Catwoman, but that game’s prison setting takes for granted that its denizens are the lowest, most far gone drecks of uncivilized society.  Tomb Raider, on the other hand, might as well be labeled a 3rd-person patriarchy murder-fantasy simulator, and one of the worse ones in the genre.

In case I haven’t been clear, make no mistake that killing patriarchs as Lara can be pretty fun, and after an hour, I had gotten really good at killing them.  The problem is, in modern video games, killing people has gotten far too easy.  Any kid, heck, any crazy person who doesn’t even play video games, can walk into a shop, or go on Craigslist, buy any 1st-person action game, and start senselessly mowing down tons of people with assault weapons, and whenever someone tries to stop them, they can just duck down and let their health recharge.

Now there are two ways we can respond to this.  We can pretend the problem doesn’t exist, keep praising crappy military-style games like Tomb Raider, saying that Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Jonathan McIntosh, and other Feminists are trying to take these games away, which… is just not true.  We can tell ourselves that Tomb Raider is an A+ story when it’d really be a C- movie, because we think the jokes are funny, or the violence is provocative, or we like watching buildings fall down and blow up.

Or we can say enough is enough, admit the problem exists, and start working on tough but common-sense solutions to the “cinematic”, self-playing okey doke that is Tomb Raider.  Solutions like a modern Metroid game that isn’t Other M, or even Half Life 3.  We’ve got a long way to go, and the choice of how we go there lies with us.  But the time has long since passed for doing nothing.  The road ahead is clear.  With the courage and determination of the gaming community, Tomb Raider will be just another bump in a very rocky road.

6.5/10.  I have nothing good to say about this game.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

NWTE – A Forgotten Blake Lively Film & "The Expendables 2"

Unmerited reviews of some terrible movies about terrible people doing terrible things to other marginally less terrible people. Blake Lively! Arnold!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

"A Serious Man" – Asking the Unanswered Questions

Channeling Job in a pensive rumination on the problem of pain, A Serious Man may be the Coen Brothers' most challenging film, both exceptionally pious and aggravatingly agnostic.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Even More Stuff That Larry Twicken Says

This being the final chapter of an epic trilogy of things that Saddleback professor Lawrence Twicken says. The great thing about taking classes with Mr. Twinkett is that one could theoretically never run out of new and exciting Twinkettisms to share with all the world.  The not-so-great thing is that one would have to keep taking classes with Mr. Twinkett.

On the souls of black folk:
“If you thought black people were animals, why were you having sex with them?”
“People still want to study why black people run faster…” 
[Imitating a hypothetical black mother while explaining how blacks are “super-spankers”]  “Tonight – and she’s fingering her belt – I’m gonna whoop your black ass!”
“The black middle-class of today would not exist without affirmative action.” 
“There are two groups of people we don’t talk about: upper-middle-class black folk and Asian criminals.”
“We still are under that slavery, that system… even to this day.” 
[On the 3/5ths Compromise] “Shows you how important diversity is…” 
“Black folk have to buy a white anniversary card.” 

On females:
[Possibly facetious, possibly earnest] “There should be twice as many bathrooms for women.”
“Women are a numerical majority, but we talk about them as if they’re a minority because they have less power.”
 “… patriarchy…”

On his wife:
“My wife’s been trying to teach me to appreciate smooth jazz.”
[Recounting an anecdote about his wife getting caught in traffic, or a car crash, or some tense situation.  The only necessary background is that his wife never swears, but when she does…]  “So this guy is screaming at her, ‘I’m going to come over there and ____ you!’  And my wife says, ‘You don’t have anything to ____ me with!’”

On parenting:
[A long digression]  “Spanking children.  It doesn’t work.  All the psychologists say so.”
“I used to take my son, throw him up in the air and catch him, but you’re not supposed to do that – spinal injuries… When I figured out, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot.  That’s a violent act.’”  And he told another dad in a parking lot not to do it.

On Global Warming:
“Let me just say that there is global climate change.  The earth is getting warmer.”
“You shouldn’t write articles saying Global Warming isn’t real.” 
“We can solve it… it’s not a left-right issue, it’s all of us.” 
[Talking about the Hummer motor vehicle]  “It’s like you take your penis, flap it around, and say, ‘I’m going to rape the environment, I’m going to ____ the environment!’” 

On technology:
[Addressing a student checking his phone, while he’s setting up an HBO movie he’s about to screen for almost 2 hours]  “Put that away please.” 

On court packing:
“Adams thinks that Jefferson state’s rights people are gonna ____ things up; so he fills up the courts with Federalists… Basically they said, ‘____ you, ____ you, no ____ing way.  Not gonna happen.’” 
“Then Jefferson says, ‘How great is this?  I can destroy the mother____ing court forever!” 

On law and order and law enforcement:
[On de jure segregation, or de facto, not that it really matters to him]  “Whites know they’re privileged; blacks know they’re being ____ed with…  No matter how many opportunities they get, they’re ____ups.”
[Referring to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments] “… The Second Constitution…” 
“We have some pro-life groups which go out and shoot doctors…” 
“Most police don’t live in Los Angeles or give a s____ about people living there.” 

On the Confederate flag [snippets of a 35-minute intro to one class period]:
“The Confederate Flag was not just a battle flag.  It was a flag of slavery, meant to replace the United States flag.”
 “The flag was used to intimidate black folk.  It came back in the 1950s because of the civil rights movement.”
“It’s a symbol of terrorism… the same as the swastika.” 
[Anecdotal story about someone drawing a graffiti swastika in his neighborhood, school, wherever]  “My kids couldn’t sleep in their beds for months.”

On what conservatives and liberals want:
[Talking about mutual sacrifice and racial equality]  “Liberals just want to make the pie bigger, but the pie always shrinks.”
“John Roberts did the conservative thing [on Obamacare]… There’s no doubt Roberts is a conservative.  It’s a very logical argument he made on Obamacare.” 
“The NRA’s views on guns are not in line with the average gun owner’s.” 
“So conservatives don’t want to change the two-party system.” 
“Affirmative action is pretty conservative.” 

On himself being conservative:
“I’m pretty libertarian that way.  If people want to do [Operation Chaos, or similar electoral sabotage], let them do it.”

On checks and balances:
“The division of powers was logical, but not rational.” 
“How is the president any more qualified [than the people] to select the judges?” 
“The limit on that federal government is us.”  Says like he cares about limiting the government. 
“The layer cake analogy of government is bad because there are a lot more forces at play.  It’s really more like a marble cake.”
[On Congressional committees]  “The truth is no one’s going to read the ____ing bill.”

On demographics:
[On Social Security] “They ____ with young people cause they don’t vote, but old people do vote.”
“In the California suburbs, they want to be super-Mormon.  In Salt Lake City, they have Mormon drunks, Mormon gay people.” 
“The core of blue states’ voting blocs is black people.” 

On fairness:
“It’s unfair to ask a truck driver to work two more years to get Social Security… it’s unkind.” 

On homosexual marriage:
“Scalia’s outrageous, mean-spirited rant…” 
“The only argument against same-sex marriage is religious or that it’s icky… but people only think gay PDA is gross because of the government’s disapproval.” 
“Marriage is a civil institution… Marriage is a right.  It’s one of those privileges.” 
[Mockingly] “Horses and people are going to have sex with each other and have horsey babies…” 
 [On incest, speaking sophistically, I think]  “Why is it wrong?  What rational reason is there for fearing it?”  [Waits for student response.]  “Just no ____ing way!”
“Scalia was so wrong on Obamacare.”
“You have to go back 100 years to find a Supreme Court this crazy.” 

On other stereotypes:
[A lengthy tangent concerning a particular Irvine high school]  “I’m against every Indian mascot.”
“There are Asian people who are tall.  Not every one is super teach-smart.  Some of the most vicious gangs…”  [The Author’s notes end here.]
“If I say nigga, no one cares.  If I say the same word for Jew, then everyone is up in arms… [Demonstrates.]  Nigga, nigga, nigga!  … I’m using the Kanye West version.” 

On his grading rubric:
“I’m not ideological – I’m a pain in the ass to everyone.”
“If you make a dumb argument, I’m gonna be pissed.  I hate stupid people.” 

On himself:
“Most people want to challenge Mr. Twicken the first week.  But most teachers know more than you – not necessarily smarter, they just know more.”
“A student journalist here once got outraged that I said Thomas Jefferson raped a slave and wrote about me in the paper.  So I got my whole class to wear hoodies for Trayvon.” 
“One reason my wife married me is my hairy chest… and that I’m really smart, which I am.” 
[Of the John Adams government and the Alien Sedition Acts]  “They’d probably use the death penalty three times on me.” 
“That’s why this class is such a bargain.” 

Fast-travel to other parts:
Stuff That Larry Twicken Says
More Stuff That Larry Twicken Says

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Spotify Is Bad For Civilization – on Genre, "Music Discovery", and the Decline of Taste

I don’t often learn anything new in liberal arts classes, but when I do, it’s a revelatory experience.  Such an awakening occurred during the 5-minute break of a literature class when the conversation turned to one student’s musical tastes, or deficiency thereof.  “I’ve been listening to a lot of EDM,” remarked the three-year student of epic poetry, theology, and philosophy.  “EDM when I wake up, when I shower, when I drive…”  Everybody laughed, except for the Author.

As a somewhat avid listener of most kinds of music except for jazz and soul, which – let’s admit it – are horrible by themselves, and as the sole curator of a 177-hour-long list of hand-picked songs, I’ll confess that I, more so than other people, am predisposed to hate the implications of this statement.  Most people in this situation wouldn’t think anything of the student listening to EDM, and they certainly wouldn’t make it as far as passing judgment on that lifestyle.  “Live and let live,” they would say, or, “You do you,” or, most heinously, “It’s good that you’ve found something you’re really passionate about.”  I, conversely, found nothing whatsoever celebratory in it, and spent the rest of the class period mulling over such questions as, “What kind of EDM?” and “Who’s your favorite artist?” and “What the hell do you appreciate in EDM that’s any way artistically redeeming?”

Putting aside the banalities I associate with EDM (which is a euphemism for electronic dance music, which is itself an even more vapid incarnation of electropop music), the tendency of Millennials and consumers in general to blindly seek out and wolf down types of music based upon their disposition suggests a regrettable indifference towards the artistic process used to bring the music to them in the first place.  It’s easy to boast about your generation receiving arguably the worst pop music in the history of the world; I had thoroughly convinced myself of this dark reality back in 2014, a year that introduced and continued to feed us such innovations of musical gayness as Sam Smith, that Beyoncé album, Macklemore, One Direction, and so on.  Yet one could make this case for just about any year in music; if you only listen to whatever plays on radio, you will probably end up thinking yours is either the greatest or the worst era ever, depending on your temperament.

However, there can be no dispute that the youth of today, beyond producing and consuming the worst music of all time, have additionally assumed the worst methods thus far pioneered of discovering, listening to, and critically dissecting music.  This is on account of many things, some technological, others sociological, but music as an art form is undoubtedly declining as a pillar of our culture.  Whereas music formerly could only be experienced in public performances eagerly sought out by the middle-class, and later through radio and individually purchased physical records, the advent of the internet and of streaming services has enabled nearly everybody living in 1st-world countries to access untold stores of albums from every era and movement.  In theory this should come as a boon to musical literacy and – dare we say – diversification, but in effect these platforms have proven cancerous to their users’ acumen and mentality, systematically connecting them with whatever they already like and nothing else.  People develop an addiction to EDM, to metal, to Top 40, to whatever gets them “turnt up”, and gladly stay in ignorance of real music.  Their musical intake has backslid into something like Starbucks coffee or cafeteria chicken tenders: courses they consume just to sustain themselves, not knowing of or not having any better options.

“What kind of music do you like?” is a common icebreaker among Americans, one that has the potential to reveal a fair amount about an individual’s personality.  Of a man who says he listens to Kendrick Lamar or Public Enemy, one might induce he fancies himself an intellectual, politically conscious and keen to the demands of African-American neighborhoods.  Maybe he’s just like me and appreciates music that tries to say something, anything of pertinence to society.  Of a man who exalts the U2 of the olden days (before they totally sold out), one could presuppose a certain degree of spirituality and segue from that into a conversation about faith, the afterlife, or something as corny and poetic as the oneness of humanity.  Of a woman who says she likes Radiohead and thinks The King of Limbs is severely underrated, one could judge she’s either a tranny or a keeper, because women don’t listen to Radiohead.  Of a man who says that he likes Radiohead and believes Thom Yorke to be a messenger for our times, one could guess he’s probably a liberal male, and deal with that accordingly.

One’s favorite musical artist can be as telling a characteristic of one’s identity as one’s favorite author, city, pastime, historical leader, etc.  Bradley Nowell, Lou Reed, Fiona Apple, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Tupac Shakur: these were more just content creators happy to make a living entertaining the masses.  These were (and continue to be) cultural icons, even idols who shaped minds and inspired hundreds to hone their craft, their voice, their style, or their sex lives.  At the mere mention of these names, one could form a mental picture not only of the artists’ outer bearing but of what traits or virtues they symbolized to their fans.

A collage of extremely wealthy and popular EDM “artists”

What could one possibly assume about people who admit to “listening to a lot of EDM”, except that they probably don’t have great taste in music?  What distinguishes a Kygo from a Skrillex or a Calvin Harris or a Tiësto or a David Guetta, artistically or as celebrities, and would an EDM fan be able to blindly source a new track by any of them?  Such a person would be a blank slate from their EDM taste alone, as would a majority of my generation, which has all but disavowed the celebration and disciplined study of idols in the arts.  Yes, there are the Beyoncés and the Kanyes and the Lady Gagas of the industry, people respected in most circles less for their music than for the ideals they represent (women’s liberation, not caring what others think about you, and being gay), but by and large Millennials have exported the rock god in favor of the pop star.  What do Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Drake, Ariana Grande, J.T., Rihanna, and Taylor Swift mean to those who play their music?  What does the music mean to them, and could they explain the meaning to someone not acquainted with the record?  Would they listen to the record front to back more than once?  These, alack and alas, are dying practices in the 21st century.

This is not to call the pop star a strictly Millennial invention.  Indeed, every generation has had its share of safe and featureless junk that rapidly fades into obsolescence, only to be resurrected in a hastily made Totally 80s playlist and exposed to a whole new batch of suckers who think they love the pop music of their parents but wouldn’t bother themselves to buy or listen to any older album in its entirety.  This is the paradox of claiming to love music from the 80s or any other decade: by the very denotation of “80s music”, one both demarcates said music to a separate category from contemporary music, suggesting it’s less relevant or pure as art, and subtly dehumanizes the authorship of the older music by attributing its genesis to cultural trends instead of individual composers and performers.  Talking Heads, e.g., were not an amazing “80s Music” band; they were a very influential and creative band who were known for working in the new wave and art pop genres, who happened to flourish in the 80s, and whose lead singer went on to have a semi-successful solo career.

Nor do I wish to say that genuine musical artistry has expired; quite to the contrary, the internet, self-publishing, and crowd-funding have parted the floodgates to a deluge of artists who in past days may never have reached an audience outside their own town.  The sphere of music at our disposal has compounded in volume over the last decade, and yet Millennials have somehow conceived more and more efficient means of homogenizing everything that reaches their ears. Instead of listening to artists, stories, or sonic landscapes, we listen to genres and “moods”, effectively screening out any music that doesn’t match our spirits at a time or that we don’t already find pleasing.  We have music for pumping iron, music for hitting the beach, music for drinking fake, expensive coffee, music for getting drunk and upsetting the neighbors, music for spiting male conservative friends, and according to Spotify, even music for having sex.  Wired has an interesting article examining how exhaustively the company has wrapped itself around the lives of its customers, but this should already be apparent to anybody who has used the program more than once a day.  While music as a mindless supplement to other activities steadily proliferates, we see music for music’s sake increasingly regressing into an intimidating, alien concept, and not the kind that European leaders welcome into their society.  This is detrimental to any thriving culture.

A collage of song collections that are only good for one distinct occasion

For a service that seems ready-made to facilitate musical branching out and learning, Spotify habitually reassures users that they needn’t branch out or come in contact with anything they don’t immediately like. From its thousands of specialized playlists to its automatically generated personal recommendations to its front-page pop music advertisements (VIEWS by DRAKE available now, CLICK HERE!) to its archaic, Pandora-inspired radio functionality, which prioritizes or buries artists based on the user’s input, Spotify offers a wide assortment of tools to connect its paying subscribers with a decidedly narrow selection of music, and to shield them from most everything else.  This makes perfect sense from a strategic standpoint, as most businesses depend on satisfied, returning consumers, and most consumers want a fairly similar experience every time they visit a business.  In promoting such user-friendly systems, streaming providers like Spotify and Apple Music follow rather surefire regimens for building consumer trust, but in so doing they also undercut the very advantages of their existing at all, that being the freedom to listen to any album on demand.

Spotify bombards users of the free version with advertisements enticing them to subscribe and “skip away” until they find a song that’s just right for their current company or state of mind.  In the dark ages predating the internet and ADD streaming services, skipping away was not a viable or easy option, requiring one to record a mixtape or burn a CD in order to jump between several unrelated songs in a row.  Alternatively one could fumble through a collection of physical media to sate one’s longing for a radically different song, but the hassle involved in this exchange intrinsically motivated the listener to focus on one artist for 40 minutes at a time.  Certain LPs, such as The Dark Side of the Moon, played out as two unbroken, sweeping pieces of music, defying anyone twitchy enough to skip around and achieve the same emotional high encapsulated in the whole.  Pink Floyd’s albums, and others’ to a lesser extent, rewarded those who listened intentionally and persevered through the slower instrumental sections.  They were theatrical exercises in balance and contrast and bombast, ones that deserved to be heard in whole even by those who didn’t take to the band’s style.

The media distributors of today, in contrast, reward impatience and lackadaisical listening at every turn, encouraging people to downvote and hide away whatever uncomely, dissonant, or boring sounds accidentally pop up and disrupt their studying or cleaning or cooking.  If you don’t like that one song in Afternoon Acoustic, fret not and flip it over to Indie Chillout, where you may have better luck.  Are you really not digging the first 40 seconds of that weird 23-minute song called “Apostate”?  Skip that self-indulgent rubbish and never listen to another Michael Gira song again.  And by all means don’t try to make it through the last David Bowie album when you can just put on the “This is David Bowie” list for dummies that Spotify scraped together after he died.  Why would you run the risk of hearing a song you don’t instantly like when you could limit the breadth of your playlist to songs that millions of other like-minded people have already sanctioned?  Why would you bother finishing a 300-page novel either?  You’re a busy full-time employee or college student, most of the inspiring/poetic/so-true quotes are on Buzzfeed or Sparksnotes, and you’ll be able to watch the Hollywood adaptation in six months anyway.  And do you really have to stand for all those plodding, arty scenes of setup in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Surely there are hundreds of better entertainment options you could stream instead, and when those outwear their welcome too, you can change the show again.

As the shrewd guys at Red Letter Media noted in one of their 100-something Half in the Bag movie reviews (I remember not which one), modern men get DVDs out of magical grocery store dispensers, and in like manner they also get their vinyls out of magical thinking phone apps that know exactly what they want and when.  Somewhere along the line, frequenters of the Redbox became so numbed to what they were paying for that they forgot the films were even made by humans, that they could be viewed and evaluated critically as art.  Art films like It Follows and Goodnight Mommy would appear right next to franchise movies like Insidious Chapter 3 and Paranormal Activity 5, and at $1.50 each (or a paltry quarter with coupons), nothing was ventured or lost on any of them except a little gas and free time in the evening.  The element of risk removed from the equation, the layman’s perception of DVD rentals degenerated into an inexpensive form of momentary sensual stimulation, one release being as good as any other so long as it didn’t confuse or bore him.

The same principle applies to Netflix streaming, which highlights so many scores of B-movies on the front page that most people don’t feel burned if they waste 90 minutes on a made-for-TV presentation.  People could dig a little further into the app and find meaningful, visionary films by Park Chan-wook, Lynne Ramsay, Gaspar Noé, Bong Joon-ho, Stanley Kubrick, or P.T. Anderson, movies including Victoria, Upstream Color, The Shining, Nightcrawler, Risky Business, Oldboy, and those are just ones I already know to be good.  Nonetheless, whenever my friends fire up Netflix in the dorm lobby, we end up watching something like “Kung Fu Dunk” or “Timerunners” or “School of Rock”, because those are what show up first and they don’t really care what they watch for free on somebody else’s account.  We have more – and more varied – written entertainment sources within our reach than any other people in history, but we’ve lost the will to get anything other than entertainment out of them.

The same principle applies to digital music providers, which throw heaps of junk at unversed, probably busy listeners and congratulate them on “discovering” “new” music, when in fact they couldn’t put a name to what they’re hearing or differentiate it from the artist who played just before, and when they may have suppressed or skipped a bunch of truly different music to arrive at the cuts they tolerated right away.  The instant gratification model of Spotify (and Pandora, and Netflix, and any other Orwellian media assistant) is one that virtually precludes the user from learning to love any of the better artists working today.  I would not have become as big a fan of Bjork’s music if I had taken Spotify’s word that she was not for me.  Ditto with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, an album that repelled me on first listen, didn’t grab me on the second, and utterly enthralled me on the third, so much so I now agree it’s one of the seminal rock records of all time.  For others, this difficult album may have been Radiohead’s Kid A, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind, Grimes’ Visions, Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra, or King Crimson’s debut LP, but following the recommendations of Spotify wouldn’t have led one to any of them. Then there’s the matter of Death Grips, an avant-garde electronic/hip-hop trio so musically abrasive and violent that I had to force myself to listen until, ten tries later or so, the separate layers started to feel harmonious, exhilarating, and frankly brilliant.  They are one of many groups that deserve to be heard despite the discomfort they initially instill, and that demonstrate how music can deliver terror and anxiety in equal measure as joy and reassurance.  Yet with the possible exception of some crossover Grimes tracks, streaming services do little to expose these bands to the uninitiated.

A collage of albums that wouldn’t benefit from skipping away

It’s often generalized that ordinary art comforts the disheartened while extraordinary art challenges the comfortable.  Liberals especially love to invoke this bromide in praise of whatever semi-fictional social-justice film is currently making the rounds at festivals, glibly passing off narrative flaws or distortions of truth under the façade that it’s a movie “ripped from today’s headlines” that “demands to be seen”.  If only these poseurs, and the streaming platforms they utilize, heeded the same guidelines of great artistry in their musical preferences.  When I told one of my Beatissima friends that I’d finally listened to The Life of Pablo and wasn’t all that impressed (along with many one-time fans of Kanye West), his response was something like, “To be honest, Cote, I really don’t give a ____ about your taste in music.”  And I don’t really blame him; after all, most of the people he grew up with didn’t give a second thought to “white people music”, erecting a kind of protective wall around the urban artists they most respected.  Likewise, the county and the homeschooled community in which I grew up never listened devotedly to rap music unless it came from Eminem or Lecrae, and the pop-ridden airwaves largely reflected stereotypes of Southern Californian superficiality.  My peers and I didn’t partake of much of any “black people music” as traditionally understood, but we didn’t partake of the best white music either.  As with 99% of Americans, we bonded over what the radio cycled ad nauseum and what our friends deemed cool, which in my case was a lot of film and video game scores.

Everyone is influenced by their surroundings, and one could argue that the bonds forged in these shared surroundings form the backbone of our culture.  Radio, paradoxically, has played a principal role in both reinforcing and poisoning the culture, uniting millions in enjoyment of certain artificially catchy hits while severely degrading the quality average people come to expect from music.  What differentiates and sets radio above streaming sites is that FM stations don’t attempt to lie to those who still make use of them. Enthusiastic radio listeners have always had a 1 in 12 chance of guessing what they’ll hear when they get in the car, and if they use that medium more than any other, they probably don’t mind the repetition and would freely admit to liking most mainstream music.  Spotify, on the other hand, sycophantically seduces listeners into thinking that they’re taking strides to explore new musical voices, when almost every feature of the program is modeled on pampering consumers with music guaranteed to comfort, never challenge them.

Streaming services, it goes without saying, don’t care about introducing listeners to extraordinary art, and most of their signature practices are antithetical to the promotion of extraordinary art.  Hipsters love to rag on Pitchfork and its slavish fanboying over certain rappers, but Pitchfork at least recognizes the expressiveness of music and endeavors to call readers’ attention to artists they would normally turn off or ignore.  The only thing that music streamers respect is the monthly fee they cash from all their users, and the EDM that keeps the money flowing.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Marketing the 100-Something Movies List

Back in late November of the last year people could still say, “It’s 2015,” to justify their politics, The Author’s Files decided to run a narrowly segmented print advertising campaign targeting students of Beatissima who were preparing to turn in for the long winter and watch a lot of subpar television on their iPhones.  The fliers were to be posted on the so-called “Freedom Wall” outside the cafeteria in such quantities and visual variations as were absolutely necessary to catch the attention of an extremely inattentive demographic.  It didn’t work, but we put too much effort into the project to let the posters just disappear after the run.  Maybe they’ll find a more understanding, cynical audience right here.  If there doesn’t seem to be any binding logic or textual theme behind any of these, that was the idea, because Beatissima as an institution doesn’t think in logic or in text.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

100-Something Movies – More Films about Buildings and Food

Between this honorables section and the last, I made the error of watching still more genre films despite my stated plan, thereby setting back the next 100-something Movies update even more.  In keeping with the established order, I’ll get the science-fiction mentions out of the way before moving onto the stuff my average reader may actually find intriguing.

I found Upstream Color an utterly absorbing and completely baffling puzzle that most viewers, myself included, will need at least two tries to assemble in their heads.  This I could have anticipated, knowing just how dense the filmmaker’s previous work Primer was, but my resolve still died a bit around the 20-minute mark when I realized nothing was going to start making sense anytime soon.  Shane Carruth wrote, produced, directed, D.P.ed, edited, scored, and co-starred in the film, which makes Upstream Color the definitive independent motion picture and means that it exemplifies a very unified artistic vision the like of which you really don’t get to appreciate in, say, X-men 6: Apocalypse Now.

Accusations of piggybacking off of David Lynch tarred the reception of Richard Aoyade’s The Double upon release, but who better to imitate for this sort of story than Lynch?  The inside world of The Double is oppressively dark, industrial, and stifling, the outside world nondescript and cold and eternally smoggy.  As far as the characters seem concerned, the office is the whole extent of their worlds, the compulsion to be recognized within it their highest purpose, which is fitting as The Double is all about Simon James’ self-isolation and severe passivity.  It’s also unexpectedly humorous and at times depressing, since it also dramatizes the tendency of the unknowing and incompetent to rise upon the backs of the truly knowledgeable and competent.  Mia Wasikowska is underserved and Wallace Shawn’s voice gives you a big, fat grin until you realize he’s basically reprising the pernicious boss he played in The Incredibles.

The moment after I watched Rubber I was certain it would make the final cut for Update 1.  Today I’m certain it won’t, perhaps because it ends too soon, perhaps because it’s kind of repetitive, but mainly because it didn’t stick with me for more than 24 hours.  At any rate, you can probably judge for yourself whether you will like a movie such as Rubber, and its numerous hilarious quirks and subtexts are best kept under wraps.  I will say this: the decision to revamp the ancient Greek chorus as a diverse “moviegoing” audience camping out in Joshua Tree park is one of the best cinematic innovations of the decade.  Also, “I just saw a live tire,” has to be the movie quote of the year.

White God may well be the best dog-centered movie ever made: violent, visceral, sobering, and even epic at its best.  It’s the only movie in existence where you can see a throng of malcontented mutts charging through the abandoned streets of a city under curfew.  And yet it still falls so short of perfection, from the generic Zimmer-like music to its abundant head-scratching moments that leave you going, “Waaaaa?  Did they really just do that for the sake of moving the plot along?”  Watch the trailer, then if you don’t mind seeing realistic depictions of animal cruelty, pull up the movie on that one streaming service to observe all the scenes conveniently omitted from the trailer.

If any movie cried out to be played on loop on all the giant Costco televisions, it would have to be Baraka, which would be the greatest nature documentary ever shot (and not written) if it wasn’t so heavy-handed with its environmental posturing against metropolitan society.  I get it.  The guy standing in the street is tolling the bell for mankind’s impending doom, brought on by their own spiritual apathy and enslavement to commerce.  Ah, who am I kidding?  This probably is the greatest nature documentary of all time, because any guy other than Ron Fricke would try enlisting Morgan Freeman or Leonardo Dicaprio to tell us outright that we’re doomed.  Fricke just lets his music and slow-motion IMAX film do the telling.

Knowing Spike Lee’s penchant for racemongering, inciting violence, and “wanting to pick up a gun and shoot whites”, I wasn’t much expecting to like Do the Right Thing, and I’m still not sure I do, but I can respect it for being surprisingly even-handed.  Lee presents an Italian pizzeria owner as one of his most admirable and tolerant characters while making Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem the most cantankerous and hateful residents of the neighborhood.  Nonetheless, one of my main takeaways from Do the Right Thing was that in situations of extreme stress, even the most decent, level-headed men can snap and do very not-right things to the hoodlums who antagonize them.

In any case, it’s curious to me how the same man who made Do the Right Thing, a movie that seems to ridicule blacks’ desire for inclusion in every club (“Why aren’t there any brothers on this wall?”), would get so upset about the lack of non-white actors at the liberal American circle jerk that is the Academy Awards. Do the Right Thing, it appears, is too smart for even its own creator to understand.

La Femme Nikita is yet another showcase of Luc Besson’s adeptness at writing interesting parts for women.  Idiots who take their cues from The Hunger Games or from current superhero comics erroneously assume that “strong female character” means a girl who maims and executes and copulates just as ruthlessly as the boys, but Luc Besson knows better.  Nikita commands our attention to this day not because she adheres to an archetype of action-man masculinity but because she counters it in so many ways; trained to be a pitiless assassin, she doesn’t enjoy taking life, she has emotional breakdowns, and she purposely avoids pursuing actions that would endanger those she loves.  Anyways, Eric Serra’s soundtrack sounds like a blueprint for the work he would ultimately do on The Fifth Element, but the way it’s synced up with the other sound effects makes the movie’s scattered action sequences quite exciting. In fact, this is one of the most Hollywood-ish subtitled films I’ve seen, so if you’re looking for an easy and entertaining entry point to foreign cinema, look no further than Nikita.  Then check out the CW spinoff and remind yourself why network television sucks.

Spring Breakers is a curious specimen of a movie, on one hand being an entrancing foray into filth and debauchery and lawlessness excused as harmless fun, on another being an excessive and occasionally shlocky piece of borderline pornography that left me feeling thoroughly disgusted by the end, which I suppose it was trying to do.  The acting is trashy, the dialogue banal and obscene, but neither detracts from the intended atmosphere, surprisingly complementing the themes of superficiality and hedonism that fuel Harmony Korine’s picture.  Random things I didn’t like include the gunshot transition SFX repeated over and over, the flashback elaboration on the one-shot cafe robbery scene that was really well done the first time, and all the boobs.  Random things I really liked include the clever incorporation of inane pop music into the plot (the whole soundtrack is surprisingly brilliant), the casting of Disney stars gone wild as a commentary on the cultural rot of youth-targeted sitcoms, the gorgeous, super-saturated color scheme, and just how strange the whole thing is.

I would recommend Spring Breakers to aspiring filmmakers who want to see how editing and cinematography and music can reinforce tone and communicate emotion in place of dialogue – in short, to anyone who wants to know how an effective movie is put together.  This wordless montage in particular is one of the most emotive scenes I’ve yet encountered.  I would not recommend Spring Breakers to my parents.

About halfway through a random mystery thriller I knew next to nothing about, I had an epiphany that The Falling must have been directed by a woman, not because of any message it was trying to convey, but because of what the director focused on and how.  Some female directors have succeeded at obscuring or neutering their sex on film, e.g. Kathryn Bigelow with the surf classic Point Break, a film that could only be construed as feminine because it revels so cheesily in its own hyper-masculinity.  The Falling, in contrast, has femininity coming out of its eyes, coming out of wherever, and that alone makes it an interesting watch even with its many bothersome excesses, like the scene of  spoiler  that was technically legal to shoot in the U.K. but would probably require a body double in the U.S.  Many of the key plot points in Carol Morley’s film go unexplained or suggested by subliminal imagery that is itself open to interpretation, so it’s also worth checking out for screenwriters to see how showing is better than telling, and all that cal.  Unless your audience is stupid, which seems to be the case with most of The Falling’s IMDb user base.  In short, the soundtrack by Tracey Thorn is superb, one of 2015’s best, and the storytelling nothing if not unique.  I just wish it was more likeable.

No relationship to The Falling, The Fall is very clearly a passion project by director Tarsem, brought to life with little studio input or outside pressures.  In a way this is a good thing, especially if you believe that films, like novels or paintings, can have a dominant voice and don’t need to be “collaborative art”, a la almost every Marvel product.  The narrative of The Fall doesn’t resemble any other movie save for maybe The Princess Bride, and it achieves an epic look without extensive CGI or props.  In another way, the independence is a bad thing, because I was bored out of my mind and struggled to find a sense of weight in what’s presented as a totally made-up story-within-a-story.  Granted it was 4AM when I started giving up, but it was still pretty damn exhausting.

On a side note, the R-rating of this is ridiculous and possibly even more interesting than the film itself.  The Fall has a prevailing tone of the unreal and whimsical, and is told with a childlike sense of wonder.  The primary audience may be adults, as the main character is an adult speaking to a child, but there’s nothing so scary or improper in The Fall to preclude most 12-year-olds (arbitrary number, +/- a couple years) from watching it with their parents.  Because of a couple brief scenes of fake bloodshed, cinemas would prohibit unaccompanied teenagers from going to see a very artistic, original fantasy drama, but would accept their money for braindead trash like Pitch Perfect 2 or Transformers 4 without a second thought.  The Lord of the Rings films are all more intense and grisly than The Fall, featuring lopped-off heads, human sacrifices, and a surplus of stabbings, but because they keep the on-screen blood to a minimum, they get away with a PG-13.  And why can you only say two F-bombs in a PG-13 movie?  F-bombs are ____ing great!  If I’m shooting a documentary about babies and motherhood and the momma curses three times during childbirth, do I get stuck with an R-rating just for showing how strenuous it is to deliver a baby?  Misogyny!

Brooklyn was last year’s most pleasant and generally delightful love story: well-written without resorting to voiceover, attractive without drawing attention to itself, and endearing without descending into melodrama.  I would definitely rank it among my 15 Intelligent Romances Guaranteed To Get Her Holding Your Hand And Weeping Into Your Shoulder.  It was also the most unprogressive story of the year, for reasons I may discuss later in a more comprehensive 2015 recap.

Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter had one of the more oddball premises of 2014, concerning a Japanese girl who obsesses over the movie Fargo and progressively ruins her life in search of the money bag buried by Steve Buscemi.  It has visual humor, it has beautiful coloring, and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if the main character wasn’t a conniving, two-timing thief.  Unlike every other movie in this post, it’s also safe for the whole family, though kids under a certain age will probably find it boring as Fargo.

I should also mention this song.

No Country For Old Men was virtually faultless in every way.  I’m sure if I wanted to find logic holes in the story then I could do so, but the Coens’ filmmaking was so gripping I would be depriving myself to look for them.  I gave it a perfect score on IDMb and immediately thought it had a guaranteed spot in the 100-something movies.  It certainly stands among the best and most enthralling of the Coen Brothers’ work.  It just isn’t one of my favorites, and I’d be besmirching my own list if I put anything on it I didn’t engage with on some personal level.  Still, check it out.

Cross-apply most of the points made about Jarhead in the previous post to The Master, which obviously thinks itself much more intelligent and important than it is.  I watched this in a last-minute scavenger hunt for a movie that “had an impact on me that might be considered spiritual”, and came away with unscathed spirit.  Paul Thomas Anderson’s resounding message is that cults are bad, we should pity anybody gullible enough to fall into one, and that everybody has to serve a master.  The 65mm cinematography is incredible, as are Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but what else would you expect?  Hearing Hoffman cuss out a skeptical reporter is worth the price of entry alone, but don’t go in expecting a revelatory film that will open your eyes on, like, religion or human nature or something.

Three Colors: Blue by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski has a booming classical score, great acting, and some periodically interesting use of color.  I wouldn’t exactly call it required viewing for wannabe directors, which is the whole reason I watched it.  Maybe its narrative themes are a strictly French thing that doesn’t translate well to American audiences.  White is skippable and I’m hoping Red is better when I get to it.

Nothing need be said about Ennio Morricone’s score to The Mission.  If only the rest of the movie was as compelling for all of its two hours.  The Mission, unfortunately, is kind of an agenda film first and a story second.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t moving in places, or that it doesn’t document a very ugly period in imperial and church history, but I don’t remember much of anything about the characters.  Robert De Niro liked stabbing people with his sword and Jeremy Irons let a bunch of women and children die because he didn’t believe in violence.  What a maroon!

The Rover takes place sometime after some disastrous event turns the world into the same savage desert we’ve seen a hundred times before, and it trudges along at much the same pace one would need to adopt to survive in such a world.  It’s a revenge story that withholds the reason for revenge until the very last scene, and director-writer David Michôd pulls that scene off in the most raw and unaffected way possible. There’s moody cinematography, Guy Pearce is hard to recognize but great, and A24 is putting every other studio in its place.

Blue Velvet is one of the best-directed and -shot generic crime stories ever told.  I’m probably the 5000th person to describe it as dark and atmospheric, but the truth is that it’s really dark and atmospheric.  I may have felt more satisfied if I hadn’t kept waiting for a twist that didn’t come.  Blue Velvet is more modern fairy tale than psychological mystery, and nothing you see is meant to mislead you.  This ain’t no Mulholland Drive, folks.

Speaking of Mulholland Drive, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and your ability to enjoy it will depend in large part on your toleration of plots that don’t make sense.  I find myself admiring the technique of David Lynch’s films but grasping for some deeper meaning that most likely doesn’t exist.  Mulholland Drive is optimized for group viewing and discussion, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of more than two who’d willingly sit through it without escaping into their phones.  The sad realities of modern life…

More than two decades later, The Crying Game certainly remains topical, this being the year of the… well, I won’t say in case you haven’t already seen it.  In retrospect it seems like a movie that drew more attention for its subject than for its execution, but it’s still as well written and unpredictable as it was on opening day. Those suffering from Disney story arc fatigue should give this a look.

Pi and Europa are really good-looking B&W films from Darren Aronofsky and Lars Von Trier respectively.   The former sucked me in with its philosophical depth, disturbing images, and prototypically 90s big-beat score (complete with Massive Attack), while the latter literally put me to sleep.  Only cinephiles or fans of Chemical Brothers/Aphex Twin-style music should investigate.

I greatly admired Breaking the Waves the first time I saw it and thought for sure that I would recommend it to anybody.  Then I watched it a second time for a research paper and realized that the first important story beat doesn’t happen until 51 minutes in, and then there’s another 108 minutes of mental torture to go through after that.  I concluded that Breaking the Waves is a more exhausting, grounded, and joyless version of Dancer in the Dark, which I adore but would never subject myself to again without the musical interludes.  Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Youth in Revolt is what Me and Earl and the Dying Girl could have been if it was actually funny and not enamored with its own reflection.  Both stories revolve around eccentric nerds who pride themselves on their vinyls or arty film tastes, and both are set in motion by the dork’s run-in with an unattainable, equally weird girl, but one film is just so much more competent than the other.  Youth in Revolt isn’t amazing or original by any means, as teen coming-of-age stories tend not to be, but it is bursting with quirkiness and funny dialogue.  “I’m sorry, sweetie, but not with other people in the room.”

On the subject of arty and vinyl, I watched Pink Floyd: The Wall by myself and immediately afterwards wondered why no one else has tried to imitate it.  A kind of feature-length music video based on one of the band’s arguably more accessible and catchy records, it’s packed with surreal and haunting imagery that loosely relates the story embedded in the album. It’s a genre unto itself and fully deserves the attention of anyone who cares about music or film.

Screw that socialist blowhard Roger Waters.  Trump 2016.
Pink Floyd’s going to pay for it.