Stop Reviewing Bad Movies

Michael Bay’s Tr4nsformers came out few weeks ago and judging by the box office numbers, every man woman and child in the country has seen it at least once already. This includes me unfortunately. Sometimes you’re out with friends, and they really want to see a bad movie, and you just get roped into it. That said, you might have noticed I resisted live tweeting that atrocity. I am currently resisting the urge to review it. Which is not that hard actually.

I literally have nothing to say about it other than that it was utterly forgettable. Michael Bay is really good at manipulating movie building blocks such as tropes, stereotypes, archetypes, pop-culture references, set-pieces and action sequences into functional entertainment spectacle that is almost like a real movie but completely devoid of any kind of consistent message. He is like a human Markov chain generator blindly remixing pop culture into original scripts.

The movie is artless, sexist, racist and problematic on many levels, but so are most of the other blockbusters that came out in the last few months. This is of course not an excuse, but I’m no longer sure if he is actually the worst offender, or just the most visible one. Or perhaps it is because he does not seem to have any filter or creative oversight, and so his prejudices can flow freely onto the celluloid without him ever giving them a second thought. Which further cements his image in my mind as some alien robot who has learned to efficiently manipulate movie tropes into configurations that focus test very well, but who does not really understand their context or implications.

Have you ever seen that episode of TNG where Data is trying to learn how to do stand-up comedy but he can’t quite get it right because he does not fully grok humor? I think this is kinda like that. Bay has nothing meaningful to say about human condition. He is not interested in having his movies stand for anything or explore any high concept ideas. He is primarily interested in creating a compelling visual spectacle, and he uses whichever human emotions, notions, ideas or moral truisms that seem to be appropriate for any given scene, without any deeper awareness or insight. He uses them like he uses product placement, carefully arranging them between explosions for maximum effect and exposure. At the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with that but it makes for a rather empty experience.

meh

meh…

I left the movie theater wandering how a film with so many explosions could be so utterly boring.

But I can no longer blame Bay for this. I used to think of him as the embodiment of all that was wrong with the movie industry. But can we really blame him for making the kind of movies that people really, really want to see? Can we really blame him for not wanting to be an artist, when each of his soulless, artless productions makes him barrels of money, and bring joy to millions of movie goers around the world?

Regardless of the objective quality of his movies, Bay is definitely an auteur. He has a very distinctive style, that is unmistakably his. It is artless, soulless, commercial, prejudiced and vulgar but it is unique to him alone. If anything, he is consistent. We all know this: especially those of us who write movie reviews. And yet, we still go to his films, we still live-tweet them and write blog posts feigning shock and disgust at his latest exploits. And for what? It has already been established that Bay’s long running franchises are immune to criticism. Regardless of how many thumbs down and one star scores they receive, people will still go to see them in droves. In fact, the venomous, negative reviews help to build the hype for his movies. Among the folks who pay to see Bays films there are those who genuinely enjoy them, and then there are those who watch them out of morbid curiosity.

At this point in the game, calling Bay out seems almost counter productive. Movie critics treating Bay movie reviews like performance art, competing with each other trying to invent the most innovative and hilarious ways to trash his work only draws more attention to his work. When the internet reviewers unite to spit on the latest installment of his silly 3 hour toy robot commercial, average Joe can’t help but wander what is this all about. Our vitriol and hate only fan the flames of morbid curiosity that pushes people to spend money on something that is only vaguely entertaining at best. So I’m just not going to feed into this vicious cycle.

I’ve seen it and it was awful, but you already knew that. You knew it was going to be awful long before the movie even came out.

I’m not saying that we should stop calling out movie makers on the things they do wrong. I’m not saying we should stop reviewing all bad movies. All I’m saying is: look, this is a long running franchise which started bad, got worse, made loads of money anyway, and whose creator is not interested in changing or improving the formula. What can we really say about it that was not said in the reviews for the last three installments of the series? At this point the most constructive way to approach Transformers reviews is to use them to psychoanalyze Michael Bay’s weird personal quirks and hangups. But even that shtick is getting stale these days, because does not vary his game at all. There are new revelations there to be had, and the whole thing starts to border on ad hominem attack on him as a person. So what’s the point?

Ditto for the upcoming TMNT movie which looks just as loud, hideous and artless as Tr4nsformers. I highly doubt that there is anything one could possibly gain by reading or watching a review of it. Unless of course you are into critics feigning shock for the sake of comedy or find the annual ritual of Internet Bay Bashing to be cathartic in some way.

Instead of complaining about the silly robot or turtle movies, let’s talk about things that may be worth watching. For example, has anyone seen Snowpiercer? I have yet to see it, but from what I heard this is the movie we should all have seen instead of Bay’s robot extravaganza. I had it described to me as a blend of Hunger Games and Those Who Walk Away from Omleas with plot hooks of Speed (if Speed was actually a good movie) and raw brutality of The Raid 2. I think you will agree that is a hell of an elevator pitch.

Aubrey Plaza has a new dark comedy Life After Beth coming out which puts a new and original spin on the old and tried zombie movie tropes. Terry Gilliam has quirky and off-beat Zero Theorem due to drop soon, and it will be worth watching because… Well, Terry Gilliam. Even when he fails he fails in interesting ways.

We are also days away from the premiere of Guardians of Galaxy which I am really excited for. It’s not just because it is another Marvel movie (and those have not been bad since The Hulk), or because it has all of my favorite actors in it. I think I’m most excited for the fact that if it works, if it becomes a box office success, then it will open up the door to the crazy-ass SF side of the Marvel comic-verse with it’s larger than life villains, and epic plot lines. The success or failure of this movie will heavily influence the direction Marvel is going to take with Phase Four movie batch, and will ultimately play into the post-Avenger planning discussions they are doubtlessly already starting to have.

What movies have you watched in the past few weeks? What movies are you excited for?

Posted in movies | 9 Comments

This is Marvelous

I was planning to write a short blurb about the new Batgirl costume design, and then Marvel decided to be awesome and this redesign is no longer even relevant or important. But let’s talk about it for a few seconds before I go gushing about the more important changes in the comic-verse. When the new Batgirl design dropped on the internet we briefly had this conversation about how amazing it was. Her new costume was simple, sensible, practical and even fashionable while at the same time it completely rejected the common super-heroine design tropes. You know, skin-fitting spandex, boob windows and the like. The new Batgirl takes subdued selfies in the mirror instead of striking the spine-breaking, anatomically impossible Hawkeye poses.

The New Batgirl

The New Batgirl

In retrospect it is kinda sad that this design is considered progressive. That a superhero in a leather jacket without a cleavage window and boots instead of ten inch combat stilettos is newsworthy. Unfortunately, we as a society we still have a tendency to draw our comic-book women almost exclusively from male gaze perspective.

I might have mentioned this elsewhere on this blog, but I will soon to be an uncle to a little girl. I’ve been thinking a lot lately on how I could one day introduce her to the world of general geekery / nerdism, and whether or not this would even be a good thing to do. Getting men and boys to be fans of dorky stuff is easy: you just show them how cool said stuff is and they will either get it or not. There aren’t many hidden downsides and there isn’t even that much stigma associated with it anymore. These days no one will really give you much shit for enjoying video games, or being excited for the latest Avengers movie. Besides, male nerds can easily find support systems helping them deal with any possible residual stigma attached to their hobbies and obsessions in the form of message boards, comic book stores, game stores and etc.. If you’re a girl however, being a geek almost always comes with a side order of abuse. Women are typically not welcome in traditional nerd communities. Game and comic book stores are usually man-spaces protected by vigilant gate keepers that insist on all women who enter proving they are not “fake geek girls”. The most vocal members of online communities usually welcome women by saying “tits or gfo” and police their brethren who refuse to join them in the harassment by calling them “white knights”.

Granted, there are communities that are friendly and welcoming to women, and there exist safe spaces where girls can geek out together. But unfortunately these are not the norm. When you introduce women into the world of fandoms and geek hobbies this is something you have to prepare them for and warn them about. If you don’t, chances are the first time they go out there and try to interact with the community they will get burned.

So this has been something on my mind lately, and it almost seems that the universe is conspiring to provide me with resources and solutions to make this work. To wit, Sam Maggs just wrote a book titled Fangirls Guide to the Galaxy which is essentially a survival guide for young women getting into all kinds of nerdy hobbies for the first time. It was written, illustrated and published by women and for women and is full of practical advice, first-hand accounts and it should be a fantastic resource.

I started thinking about geeky heroes that young girls could identify with, especially in the realm of comic books. It struck me how even the superheros who were designed from ground up to be (at least to a degree) feminist icons, like Wonder Woman or She Hulk still prance around battlefields in bikinis, and are still expected to contort their bodies into impossible configurations to satisfy the male gaze. And then the new Batgirl with her “leather, not spandex” jacket, combat boots showed up. And she makes a terrific counter-point to the common, sexed-up-vixen costumed female hero stereotype. She is not someone’s sidekick or a background decoration, nor is she some idealized icon. She is a character with quirks, flaws and an Instagram account full of goofy selfless.

And then, Marvel went “that’s cute” and dropped the news that Thor is now a woman.

This is Thor

This is Thor, deal with it.

That’s the big thing that I mentioned at the beginning of the post that has eclipsed Batgirls cool new get up.

I didn’t get just one cool female superhero this week. I got two, which is absolutely fantastic. As neat as Batgirl’s new costume and attitude might be, female Thor is real big news. Thor has always been sort of archetypically masculine and never actually had a proper distaff counterpart (Thorl Girl doesn’t count, right?) which makes him a perfect choice for this sort of gender swap. It is a bold statement which has been rippling throughout the community. My Twitter feed is full of comic book nerds, many of whom no longer follow the adventures of Marvel superheroes on paper, but this past week I have seen countless excited tweets about this development. Everyone has an opinion, and folks who have not bought a comic book in decades are now ready to jump back into it, even if only temporarily to check out this new development.

This plays into another thing I’ve been pondering recently: who is Marvel’s equivalent to Wonder Woman? DC and WB went on record saying they are too chicken-shit to make a modern Wonder Woman movie (which is probably for the best, considering the quality of post-Nolan DC movieverse) so Marvel can easily beat them to the punch. But which female super-hero could carry a solo movie of her own? The closest conceptual match to Wonder Woman we probably have is She Hulk but she is nowhere near as popular as the Amazonian queen. Not only that, the Hulk doesn’t translate well to the silver screen, unless written by Joss Wheedon and allowed to beat up Loki. If I had to pick the most iconic and popular Marvel heroine that people who are not into comics heard about, I would say Storm, but Marvel does not own the movie rights to her. We do have Black Widow, but she kinda lacks in the “super” department. This might be just wishful thinking, but I can’t help but wonder if this is Marvel’s way of strategically positioning themselves in such a way, that when DC eventually does make a fumbling attempt at a solo Wonder Woman feature, they will be able to respond in kind with “Thor 4″ or whatever.

Chances are that angry comic dudebros will get their way eventually, and at some point Marvel is going to return Thor to the default male version. But you know what? This will still be cannon. We will always have this run where Thor was a woman. And that’s pretty great. I might be able to give my niece a Mjolnir toy one day, and she will be able to associate it with an A list Marvel hero who is like her, and who she can easily identify with. Not a distaff counterpart, not a sidekick, not a side member of a superhero team, but a fully fledged solo protagonist of a long running series.

Also, this happened, which is equally exciting:

Captain America

New Captain America

I might be reading too much into it, but there is a lot of symbolism here. Think about this: Steve Rogers has been the embodiment of the American spirit for decades now. He was our best superhero, and the only one we saw fit to wear our flag as a costume. He was also a white man with blond hair, who was a member of the greatest generation. He is now passing his shield and costume to a black member of gen x. This is the passing of the guard, from old to young, from a place of privilege to that of none. This is great.

Granted, this is not entirely unexpected. Marvel has been experimenting with diversifying their super hero roster for a number of years now. People who were blindsided and outraged by the Thor and Cap announcements this past week must have slept through the time Miles Morales became the Ultimate Spider-Man, Kamala Khan became Ms. Marvel and Carol Denvers took over the mantle of Captain Marvel. Then again, those were less prominent fringe titles, whereas Captain America and Thor are established mega-heroes with their own movie franchises. The fact they are willing to make these changes to their most precious and valuable heroes indicates that they are done “experimenting” and are now committed to creating a diverse setting that’s open and welcoming to everyone, and not just white males.

I know that comic books tend to go in these cycles of good and bad periods. I see this as one of the good ones. Marvel is doing something really cool here: it is trying to break the mold and is actively working to subvert age old tropes, and go against stereotypes. Ultimately we all win, because having more diverse hero roster will allow them to tell new and interesting stories and approach old subjects from new perspectives.

Posted in comics | Tagged | 3 Comments

Iron Council by China Miéville

China Miéville’s Bas Lag series is somewhat unique in the realm of fantasy literature in that it keeps me coming back for more over and over again. I am not a huge fan of epic sagas or cycles spanning countless tomes. My favorite SF writer Jacek Dukaj once told an inteviewer he was not interested in committing sequels because it would feel artistically dishonest. That it would be like milking commercial success of a previous novel, and cranking out an easy, semi-recycled, focus-tested product instead of taking new risks in an effort to write something new, original and thoughtful. Many authors find a setting and characters that resonate with fans and make a career out of iterating over the same handful of themes and ideas across countless sequels, zeroing in on that exact sweet spot between fan service and high stakes melodrama. And while there is nothing wrong with that (and there is definitely market for it), this is not exactly what I look for in a book.

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said R. R. Martin in his fifth book about the same group of characters inhabiting the same functional universe, and I keep wondering whether or not it is at all worth sacrificing seven of mine to see his epic through to the end, when it will be televised by HBO anyway. I could easily spend that time exploring other worlds, other ideas and other stories instead of worrying whether or not Tyrion is going to get brutally murdered at some wedding (this is not a spoiler, at least not that I know of). The mere fact that I care about Tyrion and Danny and bunch of other characters (most of whom are dead now) is an undeniable testament to Martin’s craft. He found our literary g-spot and he is working it raw (albeit very slowly). God bless him for that. I hope he lives a hundred more of valve-time years and writes 15 more books for us. But as great as his series might be, it isn’t about anything in particular. Entertaining and captivating and heart breaking: yes. But new installments don’t necessarily explore many new depths.

Miéville’s fantasy series is different in that each book about something. Each one has a particular theme and set of ideas it tries to explore. While the setting is recycled, protagonists are not and so each novel comes with a new set of personal journeys and character arcs. Each book has something different to offer. Perdido Street Station was a fantastic steam-punk thriller with a really cool nightmarish monster, and a deliciously tragic story of a man (well Garuda but whatever) guilty of an esoteric crime seeking to escape the punishment he actually deserves via arcane magical science. The Scar was a pirate adventure story with a big treasure hunt, a larger than life sea monster, floating city and explored bizarre, exotic cultures. Iron Council is probably the most ambitious and the most literary installment in the cycle because it deals with a rather loaded topic: inequality and class warfare. It is a novel about revolutions and social upheavals.

Book Cover

The Book Cover

Perdido touched upon New Corbuzon’s corrupt political system, and The Scar did introduce the readers to the plight of the setting’s subaltern underclass: the Remade – men and women marked for life, and stripped of human dignity and human rights as punishment for crimes both real and imaginary dealt out by the ineffectual, corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracy. Iron Council however brings these themes to the forefront and builds the story around them.

It wasn’t so long ago that young idealistic dreamers, united by their dissatisfaction by the growing wealth disparity and the progressing annihilation of American middle class went out on the streets and occupied Wall Street in a peaceful protest accomplishing a whole lot of not much at all. Iron Council’s Ori is one of such idealists who realizes peaceful resistance and activism and other ways of affecting change by working within the system are only effective when said system isn’t completely broken. He is tired talking about how bad things are and he wants to start doing something to change it. He seeks out and ultimately joins a fringe resistance group which seeks to disrupt and ultimately overthrow the government by force. And so begins his ascension through the ranks of New Corbuzon’s most infamous terrorist cell. While he thinks that their cause is just and while he finds camaraderie among his fellow freedom fighters he is plagued by doubts and appalled by the amount of collateral damage his group is causing.

Parallel to Ori’s story we also get to follow Judah Low, a restless adventurer and a master golemist who, spurned by the sad state of affairs and social unrest in New Corbuzon sets out on a journey to find the titular Iron Council. Said council is a New Corbuzon legend: a symbol of equality, solidarity and a big middle finger directed at the corrupt government. The city’s most ambitious railway project was hijacked when a group of low wage rail workers and remade slaves rebelled against poor work conditions, overthrew their taskmasters, defeated the City militia army sent to quell their rebellion then stole the train and much of the rails driving off to some unknown lands and creating a society of their own. It became New Corbuzon’s Tiananmen Square – an uplifting symbol to the people and a shameful embarrassment to the government which officially claims it never happened. If anyone can find this legendary secret commune, it is Judah Low because he was once counted among the council’s leaders and political instigators. He hopes that by finding council and convincing it to come back, he can help to unite New Corbuzon’s fractured underclasses and create a spark of an open rebellion.

One can’t help but notice that the novel is somewhat topical. The book was published in 2004, but Miéville seems to have successfully tapped into the global sense of dissatisfaction regarding the income inequality and accumulation of wealth and power that started to skew former democracies toward oligarchic like systems. That pressure has later erupted into events like the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and myriad of other bigger and smaller inequality related protests. Reading the novel now, one can see that the author has extrapolated on these notions and created microcosm exploration of social upheaval brought about by crushing inequality. Granted, we are talking about a revolution in a steam-punk/fantasy pseud-democratic-but-not-really New Corbuzon here. A city populated by frog-men, bird-men, sentient cacti in which corrupt judges can order your left ass-cheek to be magically fused with an angry porcupine as a punishment for littering. It’s not like this is a strong one to one metaphor for something particular. But it does make you think.

It does put you in the mind of the people involved in such revolts. It does a great job showing both the hope and hopelessness of fighting against a seemingly immovable unjust system. And the ending is as poignant and as fitting the story as it is unsatisfying. But most importantly it is rather unique, and very different from all the other novels in the same series. It is probably the most mature of the three Bas Lag books I have read so far, and one with a most diverse cast of characters. It is one of the few SF/Fantasy titles I have read this year that features not just prominent gay but also bisexual characters. Especially that last group has virtually zero representation in popular culture, and especially in SF and Fantasy. So it is nice to see Miéville making bisexuality the least interesting aspect of a vibrant and dynamic protagonist such as Judah Low.

I think Iron Council is definitely worth revisiting Bas Lag universe, even if you are getting tired of the setting. I don’t know if this can be said about all Miéville’s books set in the universe but Iron Council was definitely not an attempt to grind that commercial sweet spot. Personally I prefer his one of SF excursions like City and the City or Embassytown but I must admit that this novel might be the most serious and thoughtful I have seen him so far.

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