Monday, November 16, 2015

Into the bad(writer)lands

Yes, I am going to write about Into the Badlands. Yes, that is a picture of Darryl from The Walking Dead leading off the post because the intent, despite the title, isn't to talk about how bad the writing was on Into the Badlands because it wasn't, overall. I actually found the show to be pretty interesting, if a little shallow but it was a first episode so, whatevs.

No, the moment that really stuck out to me through two hours of TV was one that many people probably coasted past because they either a) didn't know, b) didn't care, or c) thought that what was being portrayed was accurate. That moment was the one where Darryl's new friends, Dwight and Sherry, use insulin to "save" the third new friend, Tina, who's apparently in some form of distress (obviously, a diabetic.)

Now. I've been a diabetic for 40 of my 45 years, so this stuff is as natural as breathing to me. I never begrudge anyone their lack of knowledge of the condition (Tangent: People refer to it as a disease. There is no disease. There's no bacteria or viral agent involved. There may have been when it first emerged, but that's only a theory. It's a condition like having any other body part that doesn't work properly; in my case, the pancreas. /tangent) I've had emergency room residents not know how to respond to various situations (e.g. attempting to treat me for drastically high blood sugar when mine tested within normal limits not 10 seconds earlier) so, despite the prevalence of both type 1 (my type; permanent) and type 2 (can be at least partially alleviated) diabetes in the body public and the social consciousness in recent years, there's still a fair amount of confusion out there about what the condition entails and how to treat its rougher moments.

That being said, there's zero excuse for writing it into your screenplay and not performing the most basic research so that you not only portray the condition accurately for the sake of your story, but also don't mislead your audience into making a potentially fatal mistake if they encounter someone having a problem in the real world.

Left to right: Darryl, Tina, Sherry, Dwight
Darryl escapes from his new "friends" and swipes their infantry duffel bag (which they've stuffed a cocked and loaded crossbow into; Raise your hand everyone who thinks that's a smart idea?) A few minutes later he discovers that the other item in the bag is a small cooler, clearly labeled "Insulin" (this is akin to labeling your bag full of shells "Ammo" so you don't forget; again, WTF?) Darryl, being the morally consistent type in this our semi-civilization, returns with the cooler to the trio so that he doesn't deprive whichever of them needs the drug that's keeping them alive (whether that's a favor or a curse in this our semi-civilization, I'll leave to the viewer to decide.) Now, despite Tina seemingly functioning normally to this point, a few minutes later she's impaired and clearly suffering the effects of hypoglycemia (aka low blood sugar.) "Hypo" means low, as in the body has a calorie deficit and the person afflicted will have muscle spasms, lose motor control, and possibly lose consciousness as the body desperately searches for energy. You know what causes hypoglycemia in diabetics? Insulin. You know what the worst possible response to hypoglycemia is? Injecting someone with insulin. And, yet, that's exactly what Sherry does in order to "save" Tina at a crisis point in the script. What Sherry did there is effectively poison her friend, since Tina's state of semi-consciousness would typically continue to a complete loss of consciousness, seizures and, if it persists long enough, death.

If Tina was suffering from advanced hyperglycemia (aka high blood sugar), she would have been showing effects from it long before the point where she stumbles and collapses and, if she was in the state where she's unable to function, one small injection of insulin isn't really going to help her, since she's probably well on the way to the shutdown of several bodily systems (kidneys, heart, etc.) and the resulting coma and eventual death that follow (also known as the way all diabetics used to die before the synthesis of insulin in the early 20th century.) That injection certainly isn't going to snap her out of her problematic state, so it's pretty safe to assume that writer Heather Bellson figured she'd just take that moment that diabetics have in public sometimes (hypoglycemia) and decided that they must be taking this drug in order to keep those from happening; a misinterpretation that could have been cleared up with five minutes of reading between two pages of Wikipedia. This is writer/producer/director fail.

I mention this not just because it's colossally stupid, but it's also potentially dangerous. Just spinning a struck-by-lightning scenario here: What if the next time someone's suffering from hypoglycemia and unable to respond and someone decides that the solution is to jab them with an insulin syringe, just like they've seen on TV? And I ask this not to do a Helen Lovejoy, but because I've been in the situation where I've been fading out and people have asked me: "Do you need insulin?" Thankfully, I've been aware enough to refuse, but Bellson, director Jeff January, and the producers have just reinforced that idea to the largest single audience in America.

This is the expression of confused dismay that I was wearing.
But the reason I think it's mostly writer fail is not just because of that ridiculous error that, again, could have been resolved with very basic research. It's also the loaded crossbow in the bag thing, where anything (say, a cooler?) could have knocked against the trigger and shot someone in the ass or worse (Sure, Sherry may be a little dim, but if they've survived this long, some sense must be evident.) And the clearly marked cooler, as if the people carrying it need to be reminded of what they're carrying (this is to say nothing of the fact that, in the Georgia heat for an extended period of time, the cooler would have done exactly zero for a drug that needs to remain at room temperature or below to remain effective; they might as well have been shooting her up with water, at that point.) Furthermore, who in the world lets anyone get as close as Tina did to a corpse, almost knowing that they're going to be active? Seriously, in TWD America, who does that anymore?

But the crossbow had to be loaded to get the last-minute shot off to save Darryl and the cooler had to be labeled so that Darryl could immediately make his moral decision and go back for the trio. And Tina, apparently, had to die to lend pseudo-weight to the episode and ensure that Sherry and Dwight could rob Darryl again and escape, since they couldn't cram three people on his bike. It's just a series of writer shortcuts that, yes, sometimes are left to fortuitous circumstance (i.e. that's why people are heroes, because they're able to do heroic stuff that wouldn't otherwise happen (aka fiction)) but in other cases are just papering over a story that really doesn't work. This episode was one of those. It was only reinforced when we shifted to the other storyline and found Abraham muttering ridiculous lines like: "A man can tell." when Sasha confronted him with the fact that she may not want to get horizontal with him. My girlfriend snorted in disdain at that line for the same reason I did: we know that Abraham has a high opinion of himself and his own capabilities, but that line means we've crossed the point from confident to idiot and an otherwise fairly moving sequence of him coming to grips with his own anger and frustration at his impotence in the world at large is diminished.

This whole episode was doubly frustrating because Darryl remains one of the more interesting and complex characters in the show and yet here he's reduced to placeholder for a contrived crisis so that the show could introduce another set of "bad guys" that may or may not be worse than the Wolves. In short, this is how trying to cram too much into one episode can often lead you down a path that doesn't make sense for either characters, story entire (Seriously, who lets someone get that close to a corpse? Who?), audience, or basic science.

And now a few words from our other show...

Hm... I liked it, for the most part? I thought they did a decent job of introducing setting and characters while still avoiding exposition dumps. They kept a certain level of mysticism which is important for a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff where people speak of far-off lands that may or may not exist. I always found that to be essential when running games of Gamma World, for example (nerd moment.) I did appreciate the fact that they avoided a lot of the usual "badass" symbology (for example, Baron Quinn's house symbol is an armadillo, rather than something ferocious, like a dragon) since different symbols grow into contexts that may not always be apparent, which means there's some depth and thought given to the story and just how long this state of affairs may have been extant. I thought the sword work was good and exciting, although if they're deriving most of it from Japanese origins, as seems to be the case, there's still way too much edge on edge contact (do that with two katanas and you'll end up with your blades stuck together.)

On the technical aspects, I thought the dialogue was a little pedestrian. Why use: "You're every bit as good as they say you are."? We already know that about Sunny. We've seen it. That's a superfluous line and doesn't do anything to enmesh the Widow in the story. If, instead, she'd said: "Good to see that all the rumors were true.", the audience would still know what she was talking about and it would be apparent that she lives in that world, instead of just reading scripts in it. I thought some of the set pieces were a little too kitschy. That final fight in the town felt a little improbable because here was the Widow, apparent enemy of Quinn, rolling right into town with several of her Clippers and sitting there watching the fight without any apprehension whatsoever, even as her car gets pierced multiple times. Perhaps there's more to that because of what she mentioned about Sunny not being able to touch her because she's a baron, but it still felt like a scene that was supported on more artifice than it should have been.

Speaking of which, Martin Csokas, as Quinn is kind of a weird mesh of two recent Hollywood figures that ran plantations. He looks like Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave, but he acts more like Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Calvin J. Candie in Djanjo Unchained. It left me wondering if they'd consciously aimed for that kind of derivation when considering what a post-apoc poppy plantation owner with what is, in essence, both a slave workforce and a slave army, might look and act like and how the audience might be able to identify with him. OTOH, Daniel Wu was kind of wooden. This is his first major venture into American film or TV and it's not like there's a ton of difference in how the industries operate or how audiences react between China and the US, but acting styles are different. I know much more about Japanese cinema and I could see how Wu's reactions (or lack thereof) might play better in a culture that's generally more reserved than the American one. It may just have been the contrast between Wu's seeming diffidence and everyone else emoting pretty regularly. Regardless, I'll certainly watch next week and see where they take it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Brave New World

Yes, nerdism has taken over the formerly almost-sacrosanct environments of non-cartoon TV and movies. With the dramatic success of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, all things Marvel, and the impending Star Warsapalooza, there's no shortage of projects that may be springing from prose to screen (Yes, Star Wars first hit big on the screen, but in terms of actual solid storytelling, many of the comics and novels beat the films from the word 'May'.) Someone on the board linked Tor's massive list of potentials and almost-realities (ahem) here. So, let's review, top-to-bottom:

Good Omens: I heard Neil Gaiman tell a hilarious story more than once about the initial attempt to write a screenplay from this book. Whether it can ever beat that story is up for debate.

Altered Carbon: The possessing-someone-else's-body experience has been done, many times, and has still never been improved upon since All of Me. This was a great book. Film? Eh.

Ancillary Justice: This, OTOH, would be, as Leckie says: "tremendously cool"! How to translate it successfully to a TV audience? There's a question.

Bone Street Rumba: Never read it, but the premise sounds way too much like the "villain of the week" serial that they attempted to make of Hellblazer this year and which, of course, died a totally deserved and hopefully agonizing death.

Brave New World: Spielberg? Nope. Syfy? Nope. If it was being done by AMC or HBO or Gilliam, I'd have hope.

Gateway: This, OTOH, may be right up Syfy's alley, in that it can be easily converted to a Star Trek-like "problem to be solved by the 4th commercial break"-of-the-week delivery, even if a lot of the subtexts in the story may be lost. Beyond the black screen horizon...

Little Brother: Creative death, thy first name is "reality-based young adult" series. Seriously.

Lock In: I hate Scalzi's stuff. That is to say I love Scalzi's stuff because he's so much better than I am. This, however, was not one of my favorites and recommending Legendary by referencing Colony does not do it any favors.

Luna: New Moon: Haven't read it. Have heard good things about it. CBS? Ugh. Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Redshirts: This, OTOH, was one of Scalzi's best. FX adaptation for a limited (key word) series? Oh, hell, yes.

Robopocalypse: Haven't read it. If it truly is trying to compete with The Walking Dead, but with robots, I'm not particularly interested unless it's carrying some kind of philosophical bent akin to The Matrix.

Six Months, Three Days: Creative death, thy second name is "light procedural" (read: cop show.) If they do want to turn this excellent story into a modern version of Moonlighting, that only reaffirms my contempt for NBC (see: Hellblazer.)

Spin: Haven't read it. Not a real Wilson fan. Sounds ideal for Syfy...

The House with a Clock in its Walls: As you may have guessed by now, I'm not a huge fan of kids' fantasy,either, and haven't been since I was one. (Exception made for Skeksis.)

The Last Policeman: Haven't read it. Sounds kind of intriguing on a very personal perspective level. But, alas: CBS.

100 Bullets: I really like Azzarello's work. I think he has a good sense of pace and a great understanding of his characters. That said, I think Bullets is one of the more sorely overrated series of the past 20 years and attempting to make a film of it, rather than a TV series, doesn't strike me as wise.

Fortunately, the Milk: Haven't read it. Again, not too excited about kids' stuff, except to say that Gaiman's light, yet layered, touch would probably interest me more than others.

And, no, I didn't put in another pic just because it's Scalzi. I'm trying to break up the wordage.

Ghost Brigades: Doing the whole Old Man's War story would be amazing. Doing it by Syfy would be less so, especially given their inability to normally sign actors that could truly bring Scalzi's stuff to life (young or old.) Still, I'd watch.

His Dark Materials: Eh. This sounds like a slightly younger version of the BBC's recent Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I watched one episode of and fell asleep halfway through. Twice. I have the other five on the DVR. No telling if I'll come back to it.

Horrorstör: "Hey, you know what'd be cool? If we do a more focused version of Office Space, but with ghosts in a warehouse!" No.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties: Haven't read it and, y'know, Neil is reliable and all, but I keep thinking of Jeff Goldblum in Earth Girls Are Easy and just... nah.

Hyperion: Would be killer. Even on Syfy, I'd be glued to this.

MaddAddam: Margaret Atwood. Darren Aronofsky. HBO. What else needs be said?

Midnight, Texas: Haven't read it. Actually sounds kind of intriguing. But NBC? Any broadcast network that uses the words "humorous, sexy, and downright scary" is going to produce something like Wicked City. Seriously, does anyone that isn't trying to sell middle America another piece of shit use the word "downright" anymore?

Ready Player One: So, so geeked (ahem) for this.

Red Mars: Epic books. I have little background with Spike TV, so I've no idea if they'll throw decent weight behind something as cerebral as this, but Straczynski is a selling point, even if I only saw a few episodes of Babylon 5.

Skin Trade: Decent story. Almost ideal for Skinemax. Maybe.

The Dark Tower: Read the first one. Didn't like it. Not inspired, but remain to be convinced. I'd be far more enthused about a cartoon of Dork Tower.

The Forever War: Would be teh awesome. I'm a little cagey about Tatum, but he was quite good in Foxcatcher.

The Kingkiller Chronicle: Haven't read it, but have had it recommended to me by a couple friends. Anytime someone signs up in as large a way as Lions Gate has, it always strikes me that they're leaning on marketing (and, typically, copying someone else's success as an aspect of that marketing; GoT anyone?)

Time Salvager: Reading the description makes me think 12 Monkeys has already done it and then I see who the director is... HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! No.

Uprooted: Reading the description makes me think Dragonslayer has already done it.but at least Ellen Degeneres has more credibility than Michael Bay.

Y: The Last Man: I would kill for this. Hopefully, I won't have to.

American Gods: This would be amazing. The Starz label makes me hesitate somewhat, but expanding things actually sounds viable for once and they're clearly engaging the fanbase, so...

Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories: I've read most of them. They're good. Sky TV isn't easily available in the US, so I'm muted on this (in more ways than one.)

She Who Brings Gifts: I'm sorry. No more zombies. Do Not Want. Yes, perhaps humorous, innovative take. Doesn't matter.

Story of Your Life: Never read it, so I'm blank on this one. Can't really go wrong with Adams and Renner... except what am I saying? Of course you can go wrong. But, again, I have no idea. The premise doesn't sound exceptionally different from many similar stories (like one we'll see below.)

The Sandman: Not a chance in hell. The whole series in one film? I don't care if Gaiman and other notables like Goyer and Gordon-Leavitt are involved. It's not feasible. I mean, good luck to'em and all, but to be honest, I was never that huge a fan when comparing it to other things that Vertigo was doing at the time.

Childhood's End: This is what Story of Your Life could aspire to. I'm eager to see how they make this work, especially since I always arched an eyebrow at the appearance of the aliens, since it seemed like too obvious a message. And it is Syfy, but this book may be something they can excel with.

Hunters: Never read them, so I'm blank on this one, too, but the phrase "heavy procedural" just entered my mind. Edit: Having now watched the trailer, it looks bad.

Lucifer: Hrm. I never liked this idea and wasn't particularly enthralled with the story the first time. Now it's going to be a series? Hellblazer, here we come (Ironical!) Edit: Having now watched the trailer, it looks bloody awful.

Preacher: The sole saving grace (heh) of this one is that it's AMC. The comic series, while initially excellent, faded over time and I'm not entirely certain that even AMC will be able to sell some of the excesses of Ennis' imagination to a non-pay-cable (i.e. HBO) audience and, if not, why bother?

The Expanse: Never read it. Sounds pedestrian (MASSIVE conspiracy!) and, of course, Syfy. But it's at least open-ended enough to give a look-see on the pilot and see if they've escaped the clutches of the Sharknado.

The Magicians: Harry Potter as a college student! Awesome! Not really. Edit: Having now watched the trailer... just, no.

The Man in the High Castle: Often Dick's most highly-regarded work, I'll certainly watch it, but I'll begin by questioning whether anyone can capture the twists of his particular insight. Ridley Scott did it once. Edit: Having now watched the trailer, it looks promising.

The Shannara Chronicles: In essence, they're adapting the only worthwhile book of the Shannara series (Elfstones of Shannara) but I have doubts about how well that will come across in the lower budget of TV and, of course, MTV, which doesn't have a track record of releasing anything of cultural impact and/or merit since circa 1983. Edit: Having now seen the trailer: production values are high; acting maybe not so high. Worth a look.

So, a few highlights, some more possibilities, and then the usual amount of fool's errands. We'll see.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Caught in a loop of its own making

Arterial Splendor
Time has stopped and, no, not because of the implied shock of the scene above (even though time has "stopped" in that picture because, y'know, it's not moving... Meta!... This may be why some people believe cameras steal your soul... but can they steal the souls of zombies? I digress...) No, it's because the first three episodes of season 6 of The Walking Dead have all revolved around the same two-hour period. In the same way we never left that goddamned farm in season 2, we may never leave this day in the show. It'll turn into a soft landing spot for Bill Murray after the movie bomb of the weekend- Groundhog Day 2: Continually Back from the Dead (Meta!)

My friend, Nathan, texted me a few weeks ago as he was catching up on season 5 and said that he thought the writing in the second half of last season was the best yet and I agreed with him. I thought they were really pushing the envelope on certain characters and showed that they were willing to drive people like Rick into seeming insanity as the grinding, horrifying nature of life finally started taking its toll. Clearly, the theme of this season is the introduction of chaos in the form of good intentions. Happy Fun Land, otherwise known as Alexandria,  has been doing just fine up until Rick and Co.'s arrival. Now that they're here to demonstrate to the natives what it takes to survive in our brave, new world, said natives are dying in droves. What was this supposed to help again? If the intent is to show the road to hell, that's great. Sometimes people don't need a whole new outlook on life when they've been doing just fine to this point and turning Rick's group, the people that the audience is closest to, into well-intentioned idiots is something of a curveball. Will people still be fans of Rick and Carol and Abraham and the other hardliners if they show that the only thing that they brought to Alexandria was the elimination of half its population?

We're here to help. Really.
But some things are starting to gnaw on me (Zombie joke.) On the one hand, yes, being cooped up inside Alexandria with actual food, electricity, and Call of Duty: Black Ops (Meta!) means you haven't really been tested on how to live in the "real" world, but it also doesn't reduce you to the equivalent of a 2-year-old trapped on an escalator. The stark, raving incompetence of most of the inhabitants makes me think they'd have trouble pushing a wheelbarrow, much less maintaining a solar grid and constructing the kind of wall that surrounds the place. Yes, the Grimes band are survivors, but that doesn't mean that everyone in Alexandria is incapable of using a fork when eating, either. The writers have been really heavy-handed in emphasizing just how vulnerable and stupid most of the Alexandrians are and it's starting to get a little tiresome. We know that Rick is tougher than everyone else. He's proved it. But if you're telling me this whole town of fools and invalids has lasted for a couple years, post-apocalypse, I say you're a liar and these people are all actors.

Similarly, they've now introduced at least one person per episode this season who is only too ready to overtly accuse Rick of leading everyone to their collective doom. That person is subsequently killed off within minutes of stating said objection. If this is how the writers have chosen to portray the fact that Rick's best intentions are actually doing a ton of damage, we've gone past "heavy-handed" to "hit you over the head with this plot element like it's a cinder block." We can already see that things are going awry just fine by ourselves. We don't need to be reminded by the whiny assholes each episode, only for them to suffer the Truthsayer Phenomenon ("If you'd only listened to me, maybe I wouldn't be dead!") Perhaps that's their way of keeping Rick as a sympathetic figure while he's leading everyone to destruction because other people have to keep standing up for him, even while doubting his actions (like Michonne this episode)? If so, well played, but it's still getting annoying.

This one gang kept wanting me to join because I'm pretty good with a bo staff.
Next episode is supposed to be another time excursion as we get 90 minutes of Morgan, delving into his past and watching him wrestle with the problem of being the designated Arbiter of Morality in a world that tends to lack any. I like Morgan more than many of the other characters because he's conflicted but said conflicts haven't become a weight around his neck in the same way that, say, Carl's moroseness has become for him. (How annoying must it be for Chandler Riggs to have spent the vast majority of his acting career to date playing a petulant teenager, especially because he's... sixteen? Um, meta...?) Morgan also wields that staff (it's either a short bo or a long jo) with something approximating real knowledge of the weapon (I still grit my teeth every time I see Michonne gripping that damn sword like a baseball bat), so he automatically qualifies as interesting/hardcore for the martial arts geeks among us. So, even though we'll still be trapped in the Day of Infamy while we take the flashback train with Morgan, I'm OK with it.

The other big topic is, of course, the fate of Glenn (not really shown at the top of this post.) My opinion is: he's not dead, walking or otherwise. It was clear that Nicholas, after conveniently removing himself from the ranks of the returned via serious head trauma, fell on top of Glenn as they made the world's worst attempt at crowdsurfing. The blood and entrails were clearly coming from that body and Glenn's anguished reaction was from seeing someone else torn apart on top of him (which, y'know, could be trying) after having just witnessed a suicide. This is clearly a bad mental health day for Glenn. So, yeah, he's alive and this is shock value. Of course, in doing so, the writers are taking the viewers on a bit of a thrill ride by dangling the possibility that a crowd favorite is on his way out, but the payoff at the end of the ride seems almost impossible to do correctly. If Glenn does just die, then they might as well have just shown that and given everyone the Game of Thrones moment ('Anyone can be killed! Er.. except people crucial to the plot!") and moved on. If he doesn't die under a pile of walkers, then they're going to have to introduce some kind of deus ex machina moment that saves him and no one with any sense of storytelling will like that. At all. If they do come up with a way that successfully navigates out of this scenario, great. They've surprised me and that's always good. If not, well, they've made a cheap gamble for viewers on the most popular show on TV so... WTF?

Anyway, still worth watching. It's just descended a bit from "really intriguing" to "OK, but what do they do when this day is finally over?"

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The purity of struggle

I saw my first Michigan football game on November 20th, 1976. Michigan picked off OSU in the end zone to secure a 0-0 tie into halftime and then came out and scored 22, unanswered, to beat the Buckeyes for the first time in 4 years. I remember being fascinated by the helmets early in the game, with a design so unlike the animal pictures or simple letters of other teams that I'd seen; a simple design that implied uniqueness and the power that came with that; yellow wings on a blue field and lines that could be claw marks or simply the streaks of light as the last thing you'd see as they went racing by. I turned to my dad and asked which team it was that wore them. He said: "That's Michigan." I replied: "That's where I'm going to college."

That's actually a game against West Brom.
I saw my first Liverpool game sometime in April, 1979. It was a replay on CBC of the match between LFC and ManU that had taken place on April 14th. Kenny Dalglish scored just before the half and Phil Neal scored just after it to secure a 2-0 win at Anfield. I remember being fascinated by the all-red uniforms of Liverpool, even though that was the diametrically-opposed color of the hated Buckeyes. Of course, by then, I'd only seen 3 straight wins over the Bucks, so I didn't have quite the visceral response that other Michigan fans would have had. To me, the Reds looked glorious, menacing, dominant, flames alive on a field that burned only when and where Liverpool wanted them to. Of course, they were dominant and would go on being so for much of the decade that followed, just as Michigan had and would. My fandom was born in the bonfires of success, like many people. One tends to follow winners because winners are more fun.

Times have changed. Michigan is just now emerging (we hope) from an extended streak of futility and Liverpool hasn't won the Premier League since the top division was renamed to that, 23 years ago. Michigan has been irrelevant to the national scene in football since 2006 and Liverpool has seen its place in the traditional Top Four of the first division usurped by Manchester City, previously not even good enough to be considered an afterthought, and Chelsea. I'd thought before about how similar my main rooting interests are, since they're both entities and fanbases that have great history and expectations to match, despite current struggles on their respective fields, but a great article by Brian Phillips on Grantland the other day kind of crystallized a few things for me.

Happy, happy! Joy, Joy!
In it, he questions whether the Liverpool fanbase, mired in the tradition of their club and the majesty of that tradition, can handle the ebullient, energetic and, yes, happy Jurgen Klopp. The picture is of the brooding fans of LFC, having famously adopted the grudging respect nature of the home city; its port lessened in importance by the Manchester canal, its musical glories long since faded; the only thing left being its football team (Oh, yes. Fine. Teams, if you stoop to including Everton. /LFC fan) and its heroic record from previous decades.

At this point, the easy answer is: Of course we can! [pause] As long as he wins. The piece echoes the many questions surrounding Rich Rodriguez's arrival at Michiganl back in 2008. Could he handle Michigan? Could he handle Michigan since he's not a Michigan Man? Could he deal with the expectations of playing real football, as opposed to that spread stuff that won't possibly work in the Big Ten? Uh, yeah, on that last point? Urban Meyer would like a word.

The tone of disgust in that last paragraph probably reveals my attitude toward most of that glory and majesty routine. The last few years have drained a lot of the prototypical "arrogant Michigan fan" out of me, in part because they've been so awful, in part because my distaste for the injustice of the college athletic system has only continued to grow, and in part because I find it really aggravating to be identified with a lot of people who don't know shit about the game even after decades of watching it. I've gone through a similar transformation with LFC, in that even though I still sometimes think of ManU fans as bandwagoners, there's no denying that they've been one of the best teams in football for the past 25 years. That's a long time to be on a bandwagon. But it's more recent to me because I was watching Liverpool dominate the world for over a decade prior to that. I have the same reaction when people talk about Wisconsin "always being good." While I was growing up, Wisconsin was bloody awful and we routinely beat them by 20 or 30 points. So, no, they haven't always been good. But they have been quite good for over 20 years now, so it's easy for people, especially younger people, to think that way. There are probably any number of younger people out there right now who think that Michigan and Liverpool always suck.

I think that's part of what Philipps was referring to, in that (like Rodriguez) Klopp represents a younger, more modern way of approaching the game and Liverpool is so mired in its history that it makes him wonder if people can enjoy a brand of football that doesn't try to overwhelm you with the ominous nature of how "This is Anfield" but tries to shock and bewilder you and score before you realize what's happening and you're already on the way to the next fixture on Monday.

(As a side note, I've always been really disappointed in the appearance of the "This is Anfield" sign. I mean, really. That's it? Just the words and the shield. Shouldn't there be a picture of Shankly melded with Leonidas, roaring at you with the liver bird embedded in gold on one extended fang: "THIS! IS! ANFIELLLLLD!"? Maybe a little OTT...)

But right there is both sides of my mindset, struggling with each other. The expectation is for the grandiose, the glorious, the dominance. But is that just covering for the club's inability to meet those expectations for most of the past couple decades? Should the implied majesty of the simple sign and the simple phrase be enough, akin to the "This is Michigan" tagline that will be Brady Hoke's one positive legacy for much of the fanbase? By the same token, as much as I can acknowledge the failings of Michigan's program for the past decade, when people dismiss them as irrelevant, I can feel my chin starting to stick out. More wins than anyone in the game, man! Biggest stadium in the game! Best fight song! Most recognizable helmets! Huge TV audiences! Everyone wants to see Michigan, whether they suck or not! Because we matter! Same thing with LFC: Most wins! Most points! Highest average finish for the past 50 years! 2nd highest for the 20th century! The only reason I knew they existed as a kid was because everyone wanted to see them and they showed up on the Windsor station! Because they matter! Man!

It's a fight response because it's touching on something that I grew up thinking was worth fighting for. As Philipps notes, there's a kernel of that in the Liverpool fanbase, as well. If the Reds get back to the top of the football world by hopping on the Klopp Joy train, will the purity of the struggle be sidelined? Is it possible to get to that position of dominance while making the struggle... fun? Does that diminish the seeming righteousness of the whole thing? Or is victory enough?

The question has meaning to me because I've spent most of my life in that mode. Most of my major interests have centered around the struggle to change things, whether it was building a political party in the face of the systemic obstacles and massive corruption of the American system or running a tiny business in a market completely dominated by two players who spammed a genre that we weren't interested in. The struggle, for many years, was my life and was always pursued with the idea that we were doing the right thing, if people would only listen; similarly to how many Michigan fans wax poetic about doing things the "right" way, even if it derails pursuit of a national title, but then go on to extol the virtues of the dominance of Michigan's program, anyway. My two major rooting interests are actually the mirror image of my life's other pursuits, in that they have been dominant, whereas consistency would say that I should be rooting for Purdue and West Ham. But winners are more fun. Or is it the struggle that makes it fun? Is there purity in struggle or is it simply a way to spread a salve over the fact that you keep losing, as I have, so often? I wonder sometimes if it's been easier for me to keep struggling in other areas, simply because when I turned to the sports world, I could go back to being a kid when Michigan and Liverpool simply couldn't lose.

In the end, I can't say that I identify very much with the fanbase that Philipps describes for the Reds, in the same way that I don't identify with much of the Michigan fanbase. I like modernization. I like change. I like looking forward. That's what most of my life has been about. The past, in many ways, seems magical, but it's easy to see it that way through eyes that were 6 and 8 years old. Jim Harbaugh is doing a great job of returning Michigan to some of that past, in more ways than one, given the Stone Age roots of his favored form of offense. But there are enough tweaks in it that it's an odd form of back to the future. I think Klopp will do the same for Liverpool, even if his strategic route is more direct; less borrowing from the past, more pushing into the future. At least, that's my hope. It'll be fun to win again, as we return to the flashing helmets and the flames on a field that won't die and, of course, the glory.

That's our guy. And our sign. YNWA.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Time travels they are a changin'

Amazon has produced their latest "100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books to read in a lifetime" list. Like most listicles, it's a marketing tool, but at the very least, it's an obvious marketing tool, coming from one of the three legs of the marketing (s)tool that makes up the Interwebs (the other two being Google and porn.) Couple things:

1. Why they feel compelled to combine SF and Fantasy, rather than splitting them into their own lists, is kind of jarring. They were always combined as the wing of geek literature that most booksellers didn't care about. Now, with the prevalence of all things geek (see: Game of Thrones, Marvel movies, impending Star Warsapalooza, etc.), you'd think that there's enough material to define each genre on its own. But, then again, it might be weak on the Fantasy side, but I think it's weak just based on what they have listed already (more below), especially since they insist on including some of the hoary classics that aren't even good books.

2. On the one hand, it's gratifying that they're including a lot of new (and very good) material rather than exclusively dwelling upon said hoary classics. OTOH, this is a marketing tool that can be used to sell new stuff, amirite? So, as with most listicles, this is one set of opinions and far from definitive. That said, again, good to see new(er) stuff, in addition to some things which may not have been recognized before.

I've read only 54 of them, believe it or not. Guess I'm slacking(?):

1. A Wizard of Earthsea. The first of three LeGuin selections. It's gratifying to see her reputation continue to grow as the decades pass, as she was among the best of the New Wave that elevated SF and Fantasy past what the Sad Puppies were whining for at the Hugos for the past few years. I liked the Earthsea stuff, but didn't stay with it.

2. The Windup Girl. One of the aforementioned newer selections. This was excellent.
3. Snow Crash. Still Stephenson's most iconic work, even if it is awash in "old school" cyberpunk trappings and came during his "troubled ending" phase, where it seemed like he had much more story to flesh out but decided to cut it off before he wandered too far afield. The Deliverator lives on.
4. Starship Troopers. Iconic and inflammatory in a far different way than the Verhoeven film, which remains high comedy in the guise of action.
5. Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed this one and I think the film was decent on its own merits. Do I think it belongs on this list? Maybe in one possible future.
6. 20K Leagues Under the Sea. This is one of those classics that I'm OK with in terms of giving the reader a broad appreciation of how the genre has developed and where it began.
7. The Forever War. This is one of those irreplaceable choices, because it remains timeless, even if it was a very pointed statement for its time.
8. Solaris. Lem's work was always legendary among the SF set. It's starting to descend to the hoary level, as one film after another tries to capture it and fails. I actually read this for an SF course at Michigan, suggesting that you can get something useful out of education.
9. The Road. Obvsly.
10. Slaughterhouse Five. Something else I read in that course at Michigan. Prior to that, I'd never really considered Vonnegut or his status as an SF author.
11. Blood Music. This was a selection in one of those "10 books for a penny" deals that Publishers Clearinghouse used to run. I knew Bear's name from several other books I'd seen on the shelves in bookstores, but had never stopped to read one. That's what marketing used to be.
12. 2001: A Space Odyssey. I appreciate the story, but this one has more impact for Kubrick's film, which makes me question its status as an actual thing you should read before you die, or simply one of those boxes to be checked.

13. Game of Thrones. This was also a selection on a different Publishers Clearinghouse list (yes, I guess I'm a good example of marketing success; that was the original cover, too), shortly after it was first published in 1996. I knew Martin only vaguely, but the blurb about political infighting in a fantasy world was enough for me to snag it.
14. Ender's Game. Another checked box. His best book and the one that should really be read is Speaker for the Dead.
15. Old Man's War. So, similar question: Do you include the first of a now-iconic series or do you replace it with the better writing and better story of later entries?
16. A Wrinkle in Time. I have several friends who swear by these books that they read when they were kids. I was unimpressed when I did.
17. The Sword of Shannara. Here's where we arc from pseudo-serious list into the land of total marketing. Sword was a blatant Tolkien ripoff and not a good book in any way. If you want to recommend anything from the Shannara series, you want The Elfstones of Shannara.
18. The Martian Chronicles. Box checked, but still a great work.
19. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Worked better as a radio play, honestly. I think Adams would agree with me.
20. Sandman Slim. As pleased as I am to see this new(er) work here, I'm also kind of surprised. I didn't think it had gained the kind of cachet needed for this list.
21. The Left Hand of Darkness. Another LeGuin and probably her most famous.
22. Good Omens. I have a hilarious story about the attempts to write a screenplay of this book...
23. I Am Legend. Book decent, not sure it belongs here. Movie awful
24. Dune. Still probably the best fictional political tale until GoT and yet shared the Hugo with a much smaller book (This Immortal) written by a man absent from this list.
25. 1984. Box checked. Predictions continue to resonate, even 31 years past. The more things change...
26. Childhood's End. Forget 2001. This is the Clarke book that should be here, even if the imagery does get kind of heavy-handed. (Devils? Really?)

27. Lord Foul's Bane. Eh. I really enjoyed the Thomas Covenant stuff when I read it at the age of 10, even if it was an obvious Tolkien lift (it was done better than the Shannara stuff...) I guess it's become kind of a pillar of Fantasy, but I'm still arching an eyebrow.
28. Pawn of Prophecy. Awful. Eddings wrote these as an "exercise of the form" and his paper-thin characters and lack of real action display that to the fullest.
29. The Lord of the Rings. Box checked. Still worthwhile as the foundation of modern fantasy.
30. Ringworld. Possibly Niven's best stuff.
31. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Read these as a kid. Liked them better than l'Engle, even if the Christian imagery was obvious even then.
32. Red Mars. Was a great leap forward when it emerged. Robinson has been doing great stuff.
33. Dragonflight. Has unfortunately been an anchor around her neck ever since. I liked it when I first read it, but I drifted away from her books as I got older.
34. Stranger in a Strange Land. Overrated, but interesting for the deep insights into Heinlein's philosophy and his dismay at the changing times.
35. Brave New World. See: 1984.
36. The Gunslinger. Again, have a few friends who loved this series. I read this one and stopped. I just wasn't impressed.
37. American Gods. I don't have a good screenplay story about this one, but it's the better book of the two Gaiman selections included.

38. Neuromancer. Easily my favorite of the list. Gibson rejects this work now, but I'm an old-school cyberpunker and I still love the taut but fluid prose in much of it. This book inspired me to write more than any other.
39. The Handmaid's Tale. You can see the dreams of much of the Republican base. Solid, if unheralded, film, too, even if it largely deviates from the book.
40. World War Z. Great book. Riotously awful film.
41. H.P. Lovecraft: Tales. I've read all of them, even if not in this particular collection.
42. Riddle-Master. I read all of these on the advice of another of these lists (but printed on paper, as they did, back in the 80s) but never quite "got" them, I think.
43. Hyperion. Like Red Mars, kinda ground-breaking at the time, and deserving of all the praise it's gotten.
44. The Time Machine. Probably the better pick of the hoary classics, between this and War of the Worlds, since it's a social statement on the level of 1984 and others.
45. The Stars My Destination. Another I picked up as a kid from a "Best of" list.

46. Perdido Street Station. This is one of those books that discourages me from writing, since I don't think I'd ever be able to do something this good.
47. Interview with the Vampire. Ugh. Got 23 pages into it and put it down because she'd used the same phrase 4 times in those 23 pages. Old girlfriend insisted that it got better. It didn't.
48. The Hobbit. Marketing. Not a great book, prologue to LotR or not.
49. The Colour of Magic. Yes, it's the beginning, but The Light Fantastic is where the series and his writing really begin to shine.
50. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Still excellent, even today. That he didn't follow up is one of the great voids of the genre.
51. Frankenstein. Box checked. Read this for that class, too.
52. I, Robot. I find it fascinating how Asimov's Laws have become a kind of public property for much of science fiction.
53. Fahrenheit 451. I also find it fascinating how Bradbury's political views changed so much over the decades that he objected to Michael Moore's averring to his title.
54. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Perhaps the one instance where I'll say the movie (Director's Cut only!) was better.

Requisite "But where...?" response, albeit brief:

Where are Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny? If Neuromancer was the book inspiration, those two were my author inspirations. Strangely, they have the effect of both Neuromancer and Perdido Street, in that I read their stuff and am just awed into depression. The insight of Ellison and the poetic flow of Zelazny are both mind-blowing and crushing, all at once. "Maybe there was a pocket universe under my bed. I'd never looked." kind of sums it up.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Beautiful losers

There's a certain energy that inspires and accompanies spur-of-the-moment road trips that is usually some combination of excitement, desperation, and a nonchalant attitude toward responsibility and life, in general. My friend, Jeff, and I used to engage in a lot of them when we were running the comic studio in the 90s. One was a day-long jaunt down to Columbus, OH for a sizable show. We had two artists with us and, at one point south of Detroit, one leaned forward from the back seat and asked: "So, you know where you're going?" We both glanced back and said: "No." Silence followed for a few beats before: "What do you mean 'no'?" We both shrugged and said: "No.", as if the inquiry made as much sense to us as our implacability made to them. There was some amount of caterwauling about the terrors of being lost in direst, rural Ohio or, even worse, Columbus before we convinced both of them that this was less of a gamble and/or impending disaster than they thought. Sure enough, a few minutes past the city limits led us to a black-and-white sign alongside the highway that read simply "Convention center - next exit." (Jokes about the lack of imagination of Ohio residents go here...) Sometimes, venturing out into the unknown isn't as risky as it sounds.

In that respect, one could see the purpose of the road trip that makes up Mississippi Grind as kind of a meta definition of the act itself. Road trips are often an excursion into chance; a roll of the dice and done for the thrill of it. Road trips to gamble one's way into a card tournament are taking it to the next level. We took our trip into the nether reaches of Ohio with a sense of hope: we wanted to promote our stuff with an idea toward more fans, more buyers, and wider distribution. Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) arc a bit closer to the desperation aspect, in that they're not sure that making the effort toward New Orleans will be their ticket to the life change they're both looking for, but it seems like a much better idea than staying in Iowa and dreaming about it.

Quick synopsis: Gerry is a gambler who's in over his head, but still haunts the riverboats on the Mississippi, trying to get back on top. Curtis also plays cards on the boats, but for very different reasons, since he's in it more for the social aspect. In hitting it off, Curtis tells Gerry that he knows a guy who has a big poker tournament in New Orleans and they decide to grind their way down the river in hopes of winning the big prize.

Grind is a number of different styles of movies in one. It's a buddy film in the truest sense, as the two leads depend on each other for motivation and concrete elements of plot. It's a statement film about what life is like as a grinder amidst the riverboat casinos, so far from the glitz that is Vegas and so redolent with the gloom of post-modern struggle that is the American Midwest. But I think it's also a personal examination film, wherein many viewers will be able to find some element of themselves in both of the leads: Gerry for his yearning to be something; to hit it big in a way that lifts him past the life that otherwise seems empty. And Curtis for his yearning for something that he can't quite identify; an answer to the American dream that is so utterly absent from the horizons of so many. As he says, he doesn't gamble to win. He gambles because he likes people and he especially likes people like Gerry, who definitely has a goal (Get rich!) of some kind in mind, even if his lack of restraint prevents him from getting there. That next big score is always right around the corner for Gerry, but Curtis doesn't even have a "next big score" in mind, because he doesn't know what he'd do with it if it arrived. Gerry wants to pay off his debts, provide for his ex-family, and do something more meaningful with his life. Curtis wants to go to Machu Piccu, because that's something you might say if someone asked: "What do you want to do?" For Curtis, hitching himself to Gerry's fervent drive is a way to move forward, since he lacks that propulsion in his own life.

I could see myself in both roles at one time or another. I was Gerry when I helped Jeff run the studio, always thinking that our big break was around the next corner, after the next show, so close that I could feel it and we'd be on our way, competing with the big guys. Until then, I was grinding, showing up at Jeff's place in the middle of ice storms because "Tuesdays are when we work!" and chastising myself for taking time out to see a movie (ahem...) when I could be working on a script. On the other hand, I'm still playing Curtis, because even now I'm looking to share the enthusiasms of others without quite knowing if mine are the ones that could be turned into anything viable or if I even want them to be. Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (writing and directing) came up with the idea for Grind while working on a previous film and stepping into a riverboat casino on an off night and immediately being taken with the atmosphere. They knew that there was a story there and they just needed to figure out how to frame it, kind of like Curtis looking for his story. Overall, I think they succeeded.

On the technical merits, I think they did well in that the story is constantly believable and the characters are humans who react as humans would. They spend a lot of time in extreme closeups in the first part of the film but then shift out of that later. One could assume that their intent was to get the audience focused in on reading the faces of the two leads (the way you might at a poker table) but to gradually expand the view as they moved down the river and involved more people in the story, but I can't say for sure. Unlike many other films (Rounders, Casino Royale, etc.), the cardplay was believable, although this wasn't solely a poker movie, since we shift through most of the major gambling pastimes, from blackjack to craps to the ponies. [Spoilers below!]

My one complaint is that their story went too long. In the end, they get as close as possible to a happy ending with almost definitive resolution. Gerry doesn't have everything he wants and Curtis still lacks a definable path, but they've taken a huge step toward both of those goals because their grinding turns into a moment of success, as opposed to the results that so many end up with. You can argue that that's why their story is interesting, because it's exceptional. But their story is interesting, regardless of success, because Reynolds and Mendelsohn sell you on who they are. When they leave that, post-success, they instantly become less interesting and that just-around-the-corner tension dissipates. There's a great moment earlier in the film where they reunite in New Orleans after having left on poor terms and Curtis, having given away all but his last $100, finds Gerry at a blackjack table trying to play his way back into a bankroll rather than sit destitute 1000 miles from home. Curtis loses his hundred on a single hand and sighs... until Gerry flips him another $100 chip and they both smile. Right there is the defining moment. This is who these two people are. This is what makes them 'Curtis' and 'Gerry' and it's fine to leave them on that moment of uncertainty because that's what gambling is: uncertainty. The audience doesn't need to know that Gerry finally solved many of his problems or that Curtis finally has the opportunity to find his purpose. The purpose of those characters and of this film is to show them grinding toward that discovery. Fading to black on that scene leaves the audience to decided on its own answers which, as I've said before, is the best kind of storytelling.

All of that said, it's still a worthwhile film that I hope gets more exposure. When we saw the second showing at the Michigan Theater on Saturday, there was all of one other person in the room, so I'm hoping it hits it big elsewhere or will continue to have a chance to do so.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Clown Car, part deux

So, 10 guys go to a funeral to meet up with this one woman who knew it was actually a business meeting... That's pretty much the encapsulation of last night's clownshow which was only too ready for punchline after punchline. The continued pontificating and breathless grasping at the MLK moment ("I have a dream... that someone might say something of actual substance so that we may measure the content of their character instead of CNN's constant trolling...") all came in utter contrast to the one person who talked in blunt terms and short sentences. That's why many people think Carly Fiorina "won" the "debate", which is like saying someone outran a bunch of toddlers to the juice box table where everyone still got one. Hooray?

Fiorina answers questions like she's in a boardroom, which is precisely what you want if you want someone to talk about basic facts. She's still evasive as hell when someone asks a direct policy question (it's way too early to establish positions that could be picked apart for their inadequacy) but she keeps it short, spares everyone the flowery prose, and makes her case. People appreciate that, especially when it's down the dais from the bloviating Trump and his ego which only barely share space between themselves, much less Dexter Bush and the Right Reverend Huckabee. That makes Fiorina come across as halfway intelligent, even if she wasn't already standing out as the only female clown on stage. And on matters of sex and sexism, she did have the best genuinely funny moment (as opposed to all of the unintentionally funny moments) when she responded to Trump's idiocy from the last debate with her simple line: "I think every woman in America knew exactly what Mr. Trump said." That was worth a Kelso:

Of course, as soon as she wandered off the rez and decided to try to impress us with her prose, she withered. Note the pseudo-closing statement (dressed up nicely by CNN with their softball about what their respective presidencies would look like (You mean other than The Handmaid's Tale?)) where she blathered on about her personal manifest destiny, the return to the glory of the City on the Hill, and yadda yadda yadda (Gotta include the Yiddish phrase for all the Israel references when people were talking about what their American presidency would look like...)

[Tangent: It's hilarious to note the omnipresence of said references to Israel in most GOP discussions of foreign policy as perhaps the one hot button they can still press to get a visceral, red meat response from the masses. Said masses don't really know shit about foreign issues other than "Foreigners are weak [French], out to steal our jobs [Mexican], communists [Europeans, in general], and crave American leadership." but you can name drop "Israel" into almost anything and immediately get the kneejerk that equates to "Spend billions on the military to protect pseduo-Christians from evil Muslims and prepare for the Second Coming!" That latter part is most important to people like Huckabee, who always fail to see the disconnect between supporting the militarists in Tel Aviv so that they may bring about their own damnation when only Christians are allowed into Heaven. /tangent]

Speaking of CNN and their softballs... Ugh. These things are a complete farce in the first place, even if we weren't watching in glee over just how many clowns will do a pratfall as they climb out of the car, but CNN's questions were brutally bad. I know they're ratings-conscious and are aware that a large segment of the audience is watching for entertainment and not because they'll even consider voting for one of these idiots, but could they at least give a nod to propriety? The vast majority of the questions were the equivalent of conversation on a middle school playground: "Hey! I heard he said X about you! What are you gonna do about it?!" All they're doing is continuing to feed the perception that "the media" (whoever the hell they are) is out to get the GOP/right-wing/Trump/America's hayseed population. Even if that perception is inevitable, at least try to show a little class.

A couple highlights:

Christie: "Don't prosecute these people after the crime is committed, intervene before the crime happens!" I know what his intent probably was, but given all the other 1984 trappings that hang over much of GOP discussions these days (including the oft-quoted "Strength is peace!"; Ignorance, therefore...) that was totally a Minority Report moment.

Huckabee: "Vaccinations are a part of big government!" Why, yes. Yes, they are. Most people don't complain about the eradication of things like polio.

Trump: "We're three trillion in debt!" followed by "We're not spending enough on our military!"

This, of course, is a perfect example of the disconnect between the embedded disdain for George and Dick's Excellent Iraqi Adventure walking hand-in-hand with the earnest shouts to go balls out in Syria, because that worked so well the last time. Your Republican candidates, America. Exxon's biggest nightmare is someone hooking up a power cable to Goldwater's grave because he's not gonna stop spinning anytime soon.