Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A Life On Our Planet

I’ve just watched David Attenborough’s “A Life On Our Planet” and it’s beautiful as always, frank, open, heartfelt, a powerful plea to protect, preserve and even expand the wild places that he so loves and has made it his life’s work to document and explain. To do so, he says, is not mere environmentalism, but a necessity if humanity is to survive on this planet. It’s all delivered in his trademark BBC tones of gentle wisdom and quiet authority—not the gravelly voice of God a la Freeman but something warmer, more familiar and human—it is assured, it is educated, intellectual, knowledgeable and kind without being saccharine. It is a chronicle of nature in the 21st century, which means of course it is a chronicle of how fast that nature is disappearing and—OH MY GOD WE MADE DAVID ATTENBOROUGH CRY. Well done, us. I hope we’re fucking happy with ourselves. We’ve saddened this beautiful, beautiful man, whose hiking boots we are not worthy to—oh, it makes me mad. MAD. I’ve been listening to Sir Dave since Life on Earth, back in the early 80s, and it is just heartbreaking to hear him talk about how much has been lost, much of it irrevocably. His prescriptions are not novel, and repetition from the mouths of other environmentalists has stolen some of their thunder, but he does stress how attainable they are—greater use of renewable energy, cooperative and planned utilization of ocean resources, less dependence on meat-heavy diets, an end to human expansion. Fine goals of course, but the challenge is (as it always has been) that many refuse to admit there is even a problem. I’m sure this documentary gets a rougher reception down America way, where belligerent climate change denial has become a cornerstone belief for half the population (the message probably also faces an uphill battle in, say, China or India, sorry Americans for picking on you again, but you are the Florida Man of the English-speaking world at the moment). Which is also sad, if not quite as sad as seeing Sir David upset. It is so frustrating to hear people at times bemoan our modern lack of moral compass, the cliched “What would Jesus do if he was alive today” when we are surrounded on all sides by Attenborough and Mister Rogers and Bob Ross and Steve Irwin and Keanu Reeves and, idk, Dave Grohl, we are surrounded by figures pointing the way to kindness and humility and respect and we keep throwing up our hands in the air and saying “Welp, too bad everything sucks, that’s life.” The answers are all around us, people. Worried what to do about climate change? Just listen, listen for once in your goddam lives instead of yammering away on Facebook and Reddit and Twitter and Instagram and just listen. What would Jesus do? I DON’T KNOW WHY DON’T YOU TRY FUCKEN LISTENING TO ONE OF THE THREE DOZEN SHINING, POSITIVE FIGURES IN OUR CULTURE. Maybe we wouldn’t be in such a goddamn mess then. But no, it’s Donnie Trump, football players and the sodding Kardashians. Mad. But back to Sir David. The poor dear is 93 but still going, if not strong, then gently and calmly as ever, and I would say “we shall not see his like again” but I don’t want to jinx it, I sincerely hope we do see his like again, whole battalion of Davids, great regiments of Attenboroughs sweeping across the continents, documentary teams in tow. Endless Davids, a never-ending stream Attenboroughs. Then maybe life on this planet will actually be worth living.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Enola Holmes

Title: Enola Holmes
Directed by: Harry Bradbeer
Screenplay by: Jack Thorne (based on a novel by Nancy Springer)
Network: Netflix

My favorite scene in Netflix’s YA breezy, light, fluffy and fun Nancy Drew-slash-Ferris Bueller knockoff “Enola Holmes” is when the black woman jiujitsu instructor in Victorian London turns and says directly into the camera: “Sherlock Holmes failed to dismantle the patriarchy.” Which is to say, it’s a fun little adventure movie several cuts above your usual made-for-Netflix fare but my god is it horribly unsubtle with its out-of-place political posturing. You could, you know, make a movie that inspires the audience to reevaluate the place and role of female characters in period dramas by doing what this movie does the other 90% of the time when it’s not having anachronistic hyper-modern women totally destroy those fuddy-duddy Victorian men with FACTS and LOGIC—i.e. by creating an enjoyable, engaging movie in which women happen to play all the central roles. That would do it, guys. That would get your point across. You don’t have to bring the action to a screaming to a halt just so someone can break the fourth wall and just say the premise straight to the audience. It’s weird, it’s distracting, it detracts from what would otherwise be a ringing endorsement of more female-centric movies. Bah humbug get off my lawn. Anyway. So. The actual movie. Enola Holmes is a fictional sub-creation of the blessedly copyright-free Sherlock (here played with marble stiffness and facial inarticulation by Henry Cavill), a supposed younger, precociously and spunky and plucky teenage sister of the big cocaine-addicted S, played with instantly adorable and delightful charm by Stranger Things’s Millie Vanilli Bobbie Brown Bel Biv DeVoe. With Sherlock and brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin) grown up and moved away, Enola is raised by her independent, eccentric domestic white terrorist mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) who speaks in inspirational poster homilies (“If you want to be heard, you’ve got to make some noise,” says the fey dearie as she builds pipe bombs to slaughter innocents). All seems well until Mother disappears one day—ooh, a mystery, involving a Holmes, who would have guessed. Enola’s search takes her to London, and along the way stumbles across a plot to bump off the young, pale, slightly foppish but actually not really his personality is a bit of a mess honestly Marquess or Possibly Viscount of Somewhereorother (Louis Partridge and His Hair), in order to prevent said Lad Who Is Quite a Modern and Liberal Thinker from voting the wrong way on a historically inaccurate bill to give women the vote. Enola promptly stops looking for Mumsie (probably just as well, as this is not a terribly compelling arc) and resolves instead to save the Marquess (or Viscount) and His Hair. Aided by numerous and repeated flashbacks to Enola and Eudoria beating the hell out of each other at juijitsu, Enola solves the case, er, mainly by using jiujitsu to beat up and kill the assassin sent after the young Laird. Not much sleuthing going on, really. Enola’s two talents appear to be decrypting messages that have been purposely fed to her in order for her to read, and dressing up as a boy. Because either the scriptwriters aren’t that good at coming up with clues and mysteries, or because (as I’ve whined about elsewhere) our society is currently incapable of thinking of any way to show strength other than beating people up. Sherlock does show up once or twice, but is here mainly used for the “Worf effect”, that is having a supposedly intelligent character get out-thought by the protagonist in order to showcase just how gosh darned smart she is. In between, Enola talks to the camera in the style and tone of Ferris Bueller, which doesn’t add much to either the plot or our understanding of the character, but hot damn, that Millie Bobbie Brown can charm the back legs of an Arcturan Megadonkey. All this leads to the rousing climax in which Enola saves the Lord, gets women the vote several decades too early, and manifests her manifesto, declares her independence and sets up the sequel. Huzzah. And I’m being incredibly cynical about the whole thing, maybe because Generation X as a whole has been raised to view the world through the filters of irony and cynicism, maybe because I’m an incorrigible misanthrope, and yet this movie has moved me to wonder—is the English-speaking world finally moving past detachment and irony as its default and primary if not only means of interpreting the world? The bromides in this movie about equality and gender ring tinny and false in these tired, failing old ears, surely nobody could say this with a straight face, yet the movie’s single notable characteristic is how committed and sincere it is about everything. Could, my crusty old heart wonders, audiences actually mean it, sincerely mean it, sincerely enjoy having characters stand up and declaim their beliefs with outthrust jaws and beaten breasts? Are we (and as a terminally-repressed Englishman in Canadian disguise, I shudder at the prospect), are we on the cusp of a new era of genuine emotion? People online have long bemoaned the death of satire, but few have considered what is taking its place, and I think I see now: Sincerity. Meaning what you say. No more “ironically” enjoying things that are objectively awful. No more sarcastically quipping lines you don’t believe in. No more sneering at genre tropes or cliches in shows or movies that consciously ape those tropes and hold them up to ridicule or else seek to subvert them. A movie about a plucky, spunky teenage girl who is (A) plucky and (B) spunky and that’s it, that’s the whole thing, it revels in her terminal pluckiness overload and in her anaphylactic-shock-inducing abundance of spunk. It wears its applique-thin iron-on primary school philosophy on its sleeve and is proud of it, genuinely proud, is not afraid to bellow it into your face. So to me, the effort feels hopelessly misguided, because who my age takes philosophical moralizing in a movie aimed at teenage girls seriously, but I’m the one out of touch now, there’s a coming wave of genuine-ness and it wears the winsomely smiling face of Millie Bobbie Brown.

Monday, October 5, 2020


Title: Foe
Author: Iain Reid

Junior and Hen, a couple living on an isolated farm in the near future, are suddenly informed that Junior is being conscripted into a two-year space exploration program. During his absence, the agency will provide a synth/replicant that looks just like him, to take care of Hen and keep her company. As the government agent regularly visits the couple and peppers them with strangely personal questions, Junior starts to suspect the program is not what it claims, and something more sinister is happening. At that point, I was figuring either (A) the protagonist, Junior, would turn out to have been a synth the whole time, or (B) he’d go away and when he came back his wife would have been replaced with a synth. I must be some kind of goddamn genius, because ladies and gentlemen: It’s both. For all the predictability of the twists, this is still a neat little novel that packs a punch, particularly when you go back and review the interactions between notJunior and his wife in a new light, realizing that despite Junior being the “I” of the novel the main character is actually his wife, Hen, grappling with living with this replicant imposter of her husband, with the dissatisfaction that comes when you feel your life is in a rut, everything is routine and one day blurs into the next. It’s essentially a married woman having a mid-life crisis, dressed up in SFnal trappings. The writing is sharp and snappy at first but starts to wear after a while, as all Junior’s three-word declarative sentences get to be a bit monotonous after a bit, and you kind of wish Iain would vary the pace every once in a while. The blunt droning of Junior’s inner monolog isn’t helped by the fact that aside from the two big twists, this short novel is essentially plot free, nothing much happens except !Junior argues with his wife and gets confused and irritated with everyone and everything else and—just as an aside—I empathize 1000% bro, I really do. People are all malfunctioning robots, my guy, there’s no telling what is going on in their faultily-programmed brains. Seriously, I’ve given up trying to understand my fellow human beings, you’re all aliens to me. Anyway, real Junior comes back, unJunior gets deactivated, but then real Junior and his wife fight because he’s a real selfish asshole who really left her to go off on a real two-year space program and she kind of liked the replicant better. So she ups and leaves him, but before Junior realizes what’s happened, the agency quickly subs in a replicant for his wife. Real Junior and unHen waltz off into the sunset, happy in their comforting irreality, their artificial facsimile of a happily married life. I’m not sure the plot makes a whole lot of sense once you know the ending—why tell the replicant about the space program? Why tell him that he is going to be replaced, when he already is the replacement? Why not just have it live a normal life until the real guy comes back? But I get why it’s structured that way, for that little dopamine rush when you figure it out. It’s not a book built for the CinemaSins crowd, and I get that structurally the point is to mislead the reader about what’s going on so you get that Eureka! Moment and all those weird conversations between notJunior and Hen suddenly make sense. Is the real horror the way our lives dissolve into drudgery, the way we exist in order to keep on existing, that any change no matter how dramatic eventually becomes mundane, routine, boring. Is the numbing comfort of the familiar the real foe? I don’t know, you’re the robot aliens. You figure it out.

Sunday, September 20, 2020


Well I just went to see Tenet and dna teneT ees ot tnew tsuj I lleW

If by some mischance COVID gets me for this I just want you all to know that I died as I lived: Utterly confused by everything, but still having a good time on the whole. It’s a pity this came out so close after Bill and Ted Face the Fact That Keanu Reeves Is 56 Years Old reminded us that time travel stories are all faintly ridiculous since the writer can always have the heroes hide their own car keys for them to find later, as this realization makes all the backwards-running reverse-shooting and I don’t want to think about what happens if you have to go to the bathroom-ing in an otherwise solid actioner faintly risible. It’s JDW and Robert Pattinson’s excellent adventure. Watching the inverted fights just reminded me of the time Red Dwarf went to the backwards planet. Inevitably, as any Star Trek fan could tell you about time travel stories, it ends up being a bit of a narrative and visual ouroboros where the protagonist’s main mission is to make sure absolutely nothing happens. Still, it’s more grounded that Interstellar, less dreamy than Inception and reminds me of Memento more than a little. In short, a solid but unexceptional addition to the Nolanverse Criterion Collection and a further extension of his core philosophy that linear time can go fuck itself, as can people attempting to listen to the dialogue in his movies. The time travel whatthefuckery has some brilliant set pieces, including the airplane crash from the trailer (twice, both coming and going, as it were) and the highway car chase (also twice). Robert Pattinson exudes dapper charm from every hair follicle and in any sane world would be playing Bond, not Batman. But of course this is 2020, a year that hates sanity almost as much as Nolan does. What this movie isn’t is the savior of movieplexes and cinemas the industry had been praying for. The plot needed about three more rounds of editing to get rid of the extraneous excess and make it halfway comprehensible without three diagrams and/or a potentially lethal quantity of LSD, focuses on a dull lead who is effortlessly outshone in every scene by his sidekick, climaxes in an army apparently shooting at nothing, and uses a lot of pretty scenery to disguise the fact it is roughly 50% people standing around explaining the backstory. There are about three key scenes absolutely critical to understanding the movie’s incestuous pretzel of a timeline, and in all three cases the scene is cut as if the lives of the editor’s wife, son and chihuahua (“Bubbles”) depended on nobody understanding the plot points. I used to make fun of all those “The Ending of Return of the Jedi Explained, Jesus Fucking Christ” or “The Blinkingly Obvious End of Avengers Explained, You Complete and Utter Morons” YouTube vids, but I did it, goddamn it I did it, I went online and read a bunch of articles just to understand what the gnikcuf backwards hell was going on. But I won’t hold that against it, because this makes it probably one of about two big-budget movies released in the last year or two that has demanded the audience use somewhat more than two of their tiny little braincells to understand. After months of snacking on Netflix’s made-for-TV movie quality hamburgers, it’s amazing to discover Taste! Spices! Flavors! A plot which doesn’t pander in structure, theme or have a completely unnecessary love triangle! Oh, not being able to predict exactly what is going to happen in each scene, how I missed you. Which is doubly ironic for a movie that is half about things going backwards in time. I haven’t sat on the edge of my seat like that since Mad Max: Fury Road, the other blockbuster this decade to mainly be about people going backwards and forwards. Somebody send this script back in time so that we can avoid the mediocrity of Marvel cookie-cutter movies, or use it to kill baby Hitler, whatever. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Quantum Thief

Title: Quantum Thief
Author: Hannu Rajaniemi
Publisher: Gollancz/Tor

For a while there you could just call everything “nano” and science fiction audiences would just nod their heads and accept anything you shoveled their way. Nanobots, sure, Nanomissiles, why not, Nanowrimo, knock yourself out. Of course, today’s audiences are far more intelligent, perceptive and sophisticated. Now, you have to call everything “quantum.” Much better, isn’t it. Quantum Thief is less a novel than the result of putting a mathematics textbook in a blender and printing whatever words dribble out the other end. Archons and cryptarchs and warminds and gevulot and phoboi and yes, whenever the writers of Bungie’s online shooter game “Destiny” had writer’s block they flipped open a random page of this book and used the first word that they saw. It’s normally at this point where I try to explain what the story is about but you know, I haven’t the faintest fucking clue. Couldn’t even tell you if the title means the thief is quantum or he steals quantum or what either of those things would entail. In any event, he’s rescued from the archons and warminds inside an infinite prison where he has to play a real-life version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, why I don’t know, by a Finnish woman, her flirtatious spaceship and the voice of God if god was an amorous Italian woman. Again, I don’t know why said rescue happens, it just does. Because of Quantum. They all fly to Mars where there’s a walking city in which everyone has physical privacy settings, communicates by sharing GIFs (no change there, then) and is immortal but periodically dies and spends time as a mindless servant before going back to being alive again and no, I don’t know why. Said city is also inhabited by a colony of “zoku” who are basically Quantum gamers. The thief goes to the walking city to steal something, what I’m not clear on, in order to establish proof of something, again your guess is as good as mine, but also to find some of his lost memories, can’t help you there, and in the process reveals some big secret about the walking city’s past, who tf knows at this point, before the big climactic showdown with the cryptarch, shruggie dot emoji. Quantum. His Finnish rescuer hates him at first but then doesn’t, because he takes her to karaoke, and frankly this is exactly the opposite of what I find happens every time I go to karaoke with a female companion, perhaps because I’m not a dashing, debonair thief of the quantum variety, but also perhaps because I have a signing voice that sounds like a bronchial parrot with a stutter. Anyway, the effect is sort of dizzyingly amusing for the first third of the book or so but then you slowly realize there’s no getting off this quantumly wordy tilt-a-whirl and you’re going to be completely in the dark about everyone’s motivations or what they’re even trying to do right up until the final page. At which point, they proudly announced they’ve done whatever it was they were trying to do. Huzzah. Good for them. It’s all giddily, sprawlingly, psychedelically inventive, but it’s a bit Jackson Pollock painting in the way words are kind of splattered across the pages and you fucking figure it out. The protagonist is more annoying than raffish, the detective on his trail sherlockian without putting any of the deductive effort into it, the gamer zoku are a hoot but in the book far less than they should’ve been, an the two main female characters don’t do much except get exasperated with the hero and occasionally try to kill him until at the end when they don’t and do the exact opposite instead. Quantum.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Dune Trailer

Dune Trailer
Director: Denis Villeneuve

Hey guys I’ve got a sure-fire idea that is guaranteed to satisfy and delight absolutely every single science fiction nerd over the age of 20: Let’s take a third stab at adapting a 50-year-old pillar of the genre whose source material contains a quasi-Arabic jihad, a cabal of witch-women trying to breed a male messiah, giant penis-shaped creatures that can be ridden into battle or turned into an aperitif for the ladies and internal monologues that go on for three pages. It’s like a series of hot-button topical Russian nesting dolls, each one holding a large RED FLAG. Well, we’ve started with potential islamophobia and sexism, let’s throw tampering with a beloved classic in the mix. Why not, what could go wrong? In our post-Star War Sequels, screaming-online-about-everything this is potentially explosive as a gender reveal party. A giant middle finger to subreddit moderators everywhere: Let’s see you deal with this, suckers. So yes this is about the latest trailer for Dune and as you can tell I’ve decided to finally stop pretending to be a serious reviewer of anything and just rant a bit. Anyway, in the lead up to this movie we’ve already had people whining about the casting (no Arabs, one minor male character turned into a black woman), about the script (the mother-figure is apparently being transformed from advisor to kick-ass warrior princess because headshotting people is now the only way our society can conceive of showing strength) about the costume design, about the eyes, about the length, and this was all so skull-thumpingly predictable. And now we have a trailer. Hurray, a trailer, there’s no way these are ever slickly-produced snapshots built to preset patterns with weighty quotes about destiny or duty or duty-free shopping in the right places, showy special effect shots in others, recognizable versions of famous songs in the background and oh for heaven’s sake mankind, haven’t you figured out that making slick trailers is still the one last remaining thing Hollywood can do with any reliability other than produce sex criminals? Point is there isn’t much point in discussing this, even though that’s precisely what I’m doing here through seriously if you haven’t figured out there’s not much point to this whole site by now then, hey look, a trailer! Bet that excites you. It looks fine, of course. Trailers always do. Potentially risk your life in a movie cinema good? Well, come on, like you’ve got anything else to live for. Tenet? Come on. It ticks all the boxes, at any rate. The weighty quotes and FX shots are present and accounted for in the algorithmically designated times and quantities, and yes, the phallic monster that was promised pops up at the end, wink wink. It’s even got the single-most recognized line from the book in the voiceover. Timotheee Chalamet sounds a bit too American to me, but it’s like this whole thing was custom-built to keep nitpickers occupied with harmless distractions during the pandemic. The trick with Dune was always going to be the second half, because how do you dramatize a smartass Jesus with an invincible army wrestling with his conscience? Am I going to see it? You better bet your fucking ass I am.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Project Power

Title: Project Power
Directed by: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman
Screenplay by: Mattson Tomlin
Network: Netflix

Another solid 4/10 effort by the masters of mediocre at Netflix. A stereotypical group of government black hats test a drug which gives you superpowers for precisely 5 minutes (regardless of your body mass, what you recently ate or other factors because that’s the way drugs work) on the unsuspecting inhabitants of New Orleans. The power might be cool, like super-strength or invulnerability, or very uncool, like suddenly making your insides outsides.

It’s up to a plucky teenager (Dominique Fishback), cop who always wears a football jersey (Joseph-Gordon-Samuel-Johnson-Rasputin-Sputnik-Spam-Spam-Spam-Lyle-Levitt) and a badass (Jamie Foxx) to stop them.

In keeping with Netflix’s tradition of splurging on a big-name actor or two and skimping on just about everything else, aside from the leads everything here is pretty dire. Continuity is out the window—people magically know where other people are, items appear and disappear with leprechaun abandon. The three potential bad guys are barely in the movie and have little impact on the plot, other than the one named “Biggie” who obviously has the best name.

The script can’t decide what the central super-drug conceit is an allegory or metaphor for: government and police corruption, the war on drugs, exploitation of the poor, or what? As a result, characters will toss out the odd line about hard it is to be a poor black woman in America today, and then the movie has fuckall else to say about the subject.

Speaking of dialog, since we’re not a professional website here, allow me to reproduce one scene for your reading delectation:

Jamie Foxx: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Dominique: A rapper
J: No, you cannot rap
D: I can
J: I refuse to believe in your capacity to rap
D: I demand a trial of my capacity to rap
J: No, it is impossible
D: (raps)
J: I am astounded and amazed at your ability to rap

The cinematography (by Michael Simmonds) is arty without purpose. A fight scene is shot entirely from within a 360 glass chamber whose windows are frosting over, while the fight rages outside. This foregrounds the irrelevant frosting over, while obscuring the dramatically relevant fighting. Elsewhere we get crazy off-kilter angles, extreme rack zooms, incredible close-ups of people’s left eyeballs as they look at something over their shoulder, none of which really conveys any dramatic or emotional information. Just there to look cool.

Stuff should be in the movie for a reason. Either to impart information, or deliver an emotion, something, anything. There's a lot in this movie that is just kind of there. Take the above-mentioned 5-minute superpower limit. Aha, you think, a ticking clock. This will play a role in the big climactic showdown. Only no, it doesn't. It has about as much bearing on the plot as Dominique being a young black woman.

Foxx is watchable and charming, even though he struggles with some of the cornier lines, Lovett is barely in the movie and Fishback is fun to watch in the quiet scenes with Foxx (when she’s not proving how badass she is by rapping), but wasted in the action sequences.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Monty Python and the Life of G

As we’ve all discovered, living in the middle of a pandemic does many strange things to your sanity, chief among them being going out of your tiny little mind with boredom, the other being running screaming for something comforting and reassuring.

Which brings me to Monty Python.

I recently discovered the entire four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Life of Brian, as well as the documentary Almost the Truth were all available on Netflix, so I’ve been both entertaining and soothing my brain with hours of nostalgic comedy ever since.

I can’t remember about three things from my childhood: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars … and Monty Python. And Thomas the Tank Engine. Four things. Oh, and G-Force. Can’t forget G-Force, man I loved that show. Five things … look, I’ll start again.

I couldn’t tell you when I first watched the Pythons, though it was maybe somewhere around the ages of eight to ten, thanks to my British-born parents' love of the series. My parents, like Michael Palin and Terry Jones, went to Oxford, so they were THE target audience for the Python’s brand of Oxbridge humor.

We had all the episodes on Betamax, being the cutting edge of video technology at the time and far superior to silly and inevitably destined-for-the-dustbin-of-history VHS, and a shelf full of books including the Big Red Book (with its blue cover), Dr. Fegg’s Nasty Book, the Brand New Monty Python Book, the scripts for both Life of Brian and the Holy Grail. All the vinyl records, too. From about the ages of 8 to 18 then Python was a constant companion, which was nice to have for a kid who went to six different schools in the eight years of elementary school. (Incidentally, I discovered that one of those schools—Sir Frank Markham Comprehensive in bracing, exciting Milton Keynes—has since been demolished, to which I say: good riddance)

In high school, I used to listen to Python tapes over and over again with a group of friends at parties. It was a godsend for an otherwise cripplingly shy, awkward, timid, dull and awful child-slash-teenager. With a single quote, you could make the room laugh! As the only British one, they’d ask me to do the voices. I still recall the look of stunned horror on the face of the uninitiated when they asked me to do “Ms. Nigger-baiter’s just exploded!”

So, this has been my own kind of 30-year reunion with the group.

Side note: Apparently nostalgia running in 30-year cycles is an identified popculture phenomenon, as people who consumed entertainment as kids become culture creators as adults, but let me just quickly reassure you that I remain as unproductive and unoriginal as ever.

Half a century after it was first broadcast, a lot of it has aged rather well. Monty Python is superficially silly, silliness without any point beyond its own silliness, but that’s ensured it hasn’t aged the way a lot of satire has.

On the other hand, a lot of it doesn’t hold up now precisely because I spent those first 10 years memorizing every routine. The Parrot sketch, the Argument Clinic. I do expect the Spanish Inquisition, I do. Their appearance was precisely the thing I was anticipating, really. Some of the sketches go on for too long or take too long to set up, and you start to recognize the set-pieces or concepts they re-use over and over: Sports but silly, man who speaks oddly, man getting angry at shopkeeper, and so on.

It’s the stuff you don’t remember anymore that delights. There’s a skit with John Cleese and Graham Chapman as pepperpots talking about a penguin on top of their television, and you can see them both fighting desperately to keep a straight face. It’s such a human moment.

The two movies hold up better, I think because the jokes are of a more consistent and higher quality. I know everyone says you’re supposed to think Life of Brian is the better film because it’s more coherent, with a single strong storyline, and the jokes are more biting and satirical, but honestly, I find that for all the jokes it’s a rather depressing movie. The bare-bones outline is this: Young man in crushingly pathetic existence gets recruited by political extremists, captured during a terrorist attack and then crucified. That’s just dark, man, no matter how spot-on the Judean People’s Front and what-have-the-Romans-done-for-us bits are.

The incongruousness of the final jaunty number, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, is of course precisely the point of it but it’s also kind of frustrating to me—you’ve just spent 90 minutes showing me how crap life is, how the hell am I supposed to look on the bright side now?!

Whereas Holy Grail is yes, less a movie and more a series of sketches loosely strung together with a common theme and characters, it’s true, but it’s also a far more straightforwardly silly affair. I don’t really want to think about what’s wrong with fanaticism and blind belief at the moment. I just want to laugh. There’s that kind of youthful innocence to the Holy Grail, it’s a movie that doesn’t really want to teach you any Deep Message or Truth about the world, it just wants to have a giggle. And the jokes, especially in the first half, are some of the best the Pythons ever wrote—“Strange women lying in ponds” still gets a smile.

It’s also, I think, a more visually interesting movie than Life of Brian, possibly thanks to Terry Gilliam being the co-director. Apparently, the rest of the Pythons got so irritated with his focus on the look of the thing over getting the jokes that they got Jones to direct their other two movies on his own, which is a bit of a pity, I think. Just the mise-en-scène, pardon my outrrrageous accent, you know, the camera angles and the shot composition and the delightful grottiness of medieval England make it the more interesting movie to watch.

The ending is, of course, complete crap, with the whole thing just suddenly coming to an abrupt

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Old Guard

Title: The Old Guard
Director: Gina Prince-Brythewood 
Screenplay: Greg Rucka 
Network: Netflix 

[somber music playing]

Previously, I kind of facetiously suggested there was no point in reviewing anything, as various audience segments each consume entertainment for wildly different reasons, and their aims or intentions often do not align with those of reviewers, critics, award judges, or other gatekeepers of cultural quality. What I had not considered, and what I’m now—after watching Netflix’s latest action-caper “The Old Guard”—forced to consider, is that I omitted one case in which reviewing is at best pointless and at worst counter-productive: What if the product itself isn’t meant to be that good?

After “Titan”, “Mute”, “Extraction” and now “The Old Guard”, I’m starting to get the feeling that what Netflix is aiming for is not excellence, but a kind of good-enoughness, sufficiently competent and well-made that it elicits just enough delight among a target audience segment, but done on the cheap, taking few risks, skimping on script in favor of visuals. And it’s hard to critique something that doesn’t feel like it was ever meant to be that great anyway. It’s the brainless summer action blockbuster minus the block-busting and available year-round. It being good or bad feels almost beside the point.

[suspenseful music playing]

“The Old Guard” stars Charlize Theron as “Andy”, Andromanche the Scythian, an unkillable, fast-healing immortal along the lines of the Highlander or Wolverine or Deadpool or Hayden Panettiere’s character on “Heroes” and yes, this concept is precisely as tired and worn-out as Charlize’s cynical Andy.

Aside from a few flashback scenes in some rather unfortunate Xena cosplay, the story focuses on Andy and her team of three other centuries-old immortals, guy (Marwan Kanzari), other guy (Luca Marinelli) and slightly shifty guy (Matthias Schoenaerts) as they battle Martin Shkreli-esque pharmabro Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who wants to turn them into lab mice for the development of new drugs based on their DNA. A new wrinkle occurs when a US Marine deployed to Afghanistan (KiKi Layne) suddenly discovers she, too, is immortal.

[Frankie Ocean playing]

The plot is utterly predictable. The team is double-crossed in precisely the way that you expect, by the person that you expect. After we learn that immortality sometimes wears off, the person you expect to become mortal again does. When the team is captured, they are rescued by exactly the person you expect in precisely the way you expect. While one was previously encouraged to switch off one’s brain for action movies, in this case it becomes almost mandatory. To the point where it feels almost like a deliberate choice.

For example, they say the famous Nigerian Prince Email scam was written in a suspicious, fishy, blatantly scammy style in order to turn off anybody with half a brain, as the scam’s targets were the truly naïve and stupid. Anybody else was a waste of the scammers’ time, so they set up the scam so that the audience would self-select: Only those staggeringly dumb enough to fall for it would bother to respond.

And the cynical part of me wonders if that’s what’s happening here. I’d like to believe Greg Rucka, the man who wrote the original comic book on which the movie is based, is capable of coming up with an original twist or plot point. Yet the movie is absolutely, totally laser-focused on not surprising you in any way, shape or form.

[electropop music playing]

The dialog is dull and utilitarian. The fights are jerkily shot and confusingly edited, and feature the Wickensian headshotting we’ve already seen ad nauseum in three John Wick movies, not to mention Netflix’s own Extraction. Theron essentially reprises her Furiosa role from “Mad Max” albeit with a better haircut, but the others of her team make little to no impression at all. They all behave exactly like a modern action-movie Special Forces team, and nothing at all like 1,000-year-old warriors.

Side note: Why do these people need to eat and sleep? Doesn’t the not-dying bit prevent you from starving or suffering from a lack of REM? What happens if you cut their heads off? The implications of their abilities largely go unconsidered, save for a flashback sequence in which Veronica Ngo’s character is chucked into the sea inside an iron coffin, to drown and revive and drown again for eternity. It’s the one genuinely creepy scene in the whole movie, and one I was hoping was going to power the plot, but nope, bog-standard baddies it is (Ngo’s character reappears at the very end in an obvious set-up for a sequel).

[another misplaced musical cue playing]

There isn’t much nice I can say about the rest of it, I’m afraid. The score, as I’ve hinted, is intrusive and rarely fits the mood of the scene. Thematically, it’s a bit of a mess: The preciousness of human life, how fleeting it is, ah me, oh my, such pathos, now let’s go murder 50 faceless goons with headshots that totally go SPLAT all over the walls.

The action is frequently preposterous—upon discovering her rapid-healing abilities, Layne’s squad-mates immediately turn on her. Why? Andy abducts Layne from a US army base in Afghanistan in a Humvee. How? Layne drives about a creepily empty London, streets totally deserted, until after the big escape and then cops and a crowd show up. What? I’m not a fan of the Cinema Sins style of criticism and searching for “plot holes” but this movie simply constricts itself in nonsensical plot lines.

[Gummi Bear viral song from 2007 playing]

But none of it matters. This is a movie for all the Charlize Theron stans out there. Your queen kicks ass. Yeah! In what feels like a deliberate shot at macho action-movie tropes, she’s a lesbian, Marwan and Luca’s characters are a gay couple, the new addition to the team is a black woman, the bad guy is a white dude with an army of white dudes in cop gear. I can tell the online discourse for this movie is going to be dominated by the presence of these elements. If representation matters to you, then all the headthumpingly dull plotting and wooden characterization probably won’t make any difference. If SJW-ness or whatever are your personal bugbear, no number of killer action scenes would have saved it.

It just has to be good enough to get a pass with its target audience, and they’ll defend it to the death. A thousand words of mine aren’t going to change any minds one way or the other. So I’ll stop.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Through a Genre Darkly

I had fun waffling about cyberpunk in the last post, so here’s another one, this time harping on another genre I like to talk about: grimdark fantasy.

Much like cyberpunk, it’s a genre that is both long-lived and has recently enjoyed something of a revival, thanks to the televisual kinomatic extravaganza that was HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (about which, I’ve pontificated about here and here).

The genre itself goes back much further, of course, with one obvious touchstone being Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone stories that started in 1961, while the word ‘grimdark’ was inspired by the 1987 tag line of tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000 “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.” Since then we’ve had a range of authors from Stephen R Donaldson’s “Thomas Covenant” to R Scott Bakker’s “Prince of Nothing” and is there something about having the initial R that makes you a nihilist, and oh yes also Joe Abercrombie’s “First Law” series (here and here) and Steven Erickson’s numerous and ponderous Malazan books.

Grimdark fantasy is often described as the antidote to Tolkien, a gritty, dirty, messy genre for everyone who rolled their eyes every time Galadriel broke into song or Middle Earth was once again saved at the 11th hour by the unlooked-for arrival of a flock of Very Large Birds Indeed. Grimdark is unepic fantasy, populated by angsty antiheroes, hard-faced warriors with anger management issues, villains who might have a point actually, and lots and lots of stage blood.

Iconoclasm can feel terribly clever when you are young, lord knows I was an insufferably contrarian smart-arse from age about 10 to 30 (well, probably long after that, truth be told). Realizing that, despite your parents’ admonition to tell the truth, work hard and be kind to others, it was actually quite possible and perhaps even advantageous to do none of those things and still be successful, can feel like an enormous betrayal.

Grimdark is above all an angry, hurt cry of rejection of the beautiful lies that epic fantasy tells: Life isn’t like that. Good does not always triumph. Good is boring, evil is interesting. There are no heroes, everyone is flawed. Nobody really thinks they are evil. And so on.

Hello, Kullervo

Proponents always trot out the same handful of rationalizations for the genre’s popularity. The dark times we live in, you see. As though the year of our lord two thousand and twenty were in someway harder to live through than two world wars, an influenza epidemic that killed more than the first war, the worst economic collapse of the century, the AIDS epidemic or the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

As you can tell, I don’t think there’s anything especially new or innovative about rejecting or subverting epic fantasy tropes. Here is the most grimdark story I’ve ever read:

A boy is orphaned when his parents and family are massacred. He is brought up by his parents’ killers, rebels against them and is sold into slavery. He escapes, meets and seduces a girl who he later discovers to be his own sister (unbeknown to him, she escaped the massacre). When she realizes they have committed incest, she commits suicide. Blinded by fury, the boy returns to the family that raised him, slaughters them, and then kills himself. The end.

Pretty grim, eh?

Here’s the thing, though. That’s the story of Kullervo, a Finnish legend written down in the 19th century, but based on a much older oral tradition. It’s also, pretty much beat for beat except with more elves and dragons, Tolkien’s story of Turin Turambar, which he first began in 1917.

To flog the dead horse a few more times: Gilgamesh is a tyrant and despot whose best friend dies, and later he fails to win either immortality or eternal youth. Achilles is a selfish arse and dies in the Iliad. Beowulf gets eaten by a dragon. King Arthur is killed by his own son. So it goes.

To my mind there’s nothing especially new or modern or even particularly anti-Tolkien about having troubled heroes who do terrible things. That is, if anything, the default to which Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a rare exception.

I'll Show You Realism

Nor do I think there is anything innately more “realistic” about letting the bad guys win. George Martin may very well be correct, for all I know might does indeed make right, but a quick glance at history and a fall back on a slightly different idiom should tell us that he who lives by the sword dies by it. For example, let’s have a look at the Roman Emperors who were murdered by their own Praetorian Guard: Caligula, Galba, Pertinax, Julianus, Elagabalus and Aurelian and that’s not even going into all the ones murdered by their own regular troops.

The dictator who rules for a lifetime is a relatively modern invention, and medieval rulers who tried to act like tyrants and despots were more likely to find themselves on the wrong end of a hot poker enema a la Edward II (yes, probably apocryphal, but still a good story to tell).

Being a ruthless bastards isn’t any more of a shortcut to success than being virtuous, generous and kind. Honestly, it’s all a bit of a crap shoot. You always hear about successful authors who got a break because someone assistant’s wife just happened to read the manuscript and insist it must be published, or showrunners whose first-ever pitch was greenlit because they have famous parents or the man who became president of the United States mainly because his father had been too, and my takeaway is that quite frankly nobody, neither good nor evil, has the slightest fucking clue what they’re doing. Evil works sometimes, sure. So does being good. That’s the only reality.

What Audiences Really Want (What They Really, Really Want)

But of course all these claims at greater realism are a decoy, a smokescreen, because we all know fiction isn’t really about reflecting reality, fantasy fiction doubly not so. I mean, the name of a genre is a bit of a dead giveaway, isn’t it: Fantasy. Not reality.

The whole point of speculative fiction, non-mimetic writing and fantasy as a literary, marketing genre is that it draws on myth and magic, legends and fairy tales, in order to present a world which is very definitely NOT our own. Sure, you could write a story that is essentially just the real world with a couple of elves in the background, but then my question becomes why (other than the commercial reasons) is this marketed as fantasy? Grimdark fantasy, like all fantasy, is not a reflection but an exaggeration, a specific attempt to highlight and twist something we find in our world. In this case: the atavistic taste for revenge, and the desire to indulge our darkest impulses.

Fans do not flock to watch “Game of Thrones” or pick up the latest god and wizards tome because they’re looking for an accurate depiction of the human condition. Grimdark is as escapist as epic fantasy, merely in the opposite direction. It indulges all the things we’d like to do in our darker moments, the co-worker we’d cheerfully strangle, the careless driver we’d like to run off the road, the rude shop clerk we’d like to stuff inside their own till. Grimdark lets you vicariously live out those fantasies in all their visceral glory.

In that sense, the genre is regressive and conservative, not iconoclastic. Nihilism and the refusal to believe in any kind of positive change, preferring instead to indulge in revenge fantasies, is inherently pro-establishment, because they’re the ones who benefit if nobody tries to change anything. Audiences want to have their caked blood and eat it too, to feel they’re doing something rebellious while engaging in the very boggiest of standard entertainment.

(This American need to be at once both the rebel underdog and the invincible champion is probably worth exploring. Maybe next time. On the same note, I make plenty of digs at America’s expense in this blog, but to be fair, most of the Americans I’ve met have been wonderful, kind people. This kind of ribbing is just what you get for being so big and famous and dominating the discourse all the time.)

It's Not All Bad Though

The only exception I’ll admit is grimdark that is satire, either of other grimdark works or of the nihilistic mindset it supports. And to be fair, the Terry Brookses and Tad Williamses and Robert Jordanses and Brandon Sorensonsons of the genre can stand to be brought down to earth every once in a while lest they get too carried away. It’s worth pointing out that for all their medievalist and poetic trappings the modern epic fantasy is still ultimately about dudes killing other dudes with swords.

Abercrombie gets this, I think, with his alcoholic princesses, dashingly brain-dead swordsmen, manipulative mentor wizards, perfectly pleasant torturers and barbarian berserkers with a heart of … if not gold, then brass maybe. I think Warhammer 40,000 also had this, until a certain cohort of fans started taking the setting at face value (you can still see traces of humor in the dimbulb orks, for example).

In line with my unwarranted American-bashing above, I note that this kind of satire seems to be a particularly British thing. I’ve seen this elsewhere too, with reams of American publications warning you not to try humor. I think the default American mode of communication is sincerity, which is why political discourse gets so overheated, nobody can look at the topic or themselves from an ironic distance. Whereas British people seem much more keyed to look for or expect life to be absurd. But I’m digressing.

I note in closing that the “Game of Thrones” fandom has more or less evaporated now that the show is over (whimper not a bang, there) and the next book nowhere in sight (next year, says Martin, and we’ve heard that before). That suggests a lack of staying power, a lack of purchase or foothold on the imagination, and thus a shallowness to the Gotcha! adolescent epiphany that life sucks. We know, dear. That ceased to feel insightful by about age 16. These days, it’s the hopeful fantasies that feel ground-breaking and innovative.