February 8, 2014
I believe in souls and life after death, but I don’t think they have anything to do with church and religion, and everything to do with art in all its forms. That’s where we put our souls.
This is a movie with that exact philosophy, so I was inclined to like it very much. Plus, it feeds in to my still-in-development ideas about how World War II is becoming America’s Middle Earth or Narnia — it’s where we go to have uncynical adventures, where heroes can be heroes without reservation, and where evil is very clearly identified by red armbands and sour expressions.
It’s a good, understated movie with an excellent cast (Bill Murray! John Goodman!), less of a story and more of a slice of this bit of history. (Much like another George Clooney movie, Good Night and Good Luck, which I also really liked.) It has some nice moments (my favorite is probably the ecstatic little gasp of relief Matt Damon’s character lets out when he finds an entire castle filled with missing sculptures) and some really great art. (My other favorite moment was when my friend leaned over to me and said, “It’s okay, that one makes it, I saw it when I was in Bruges.”) So if you like any of these things — history, good actors enjoying their work, the European art world — you should probably see this.
This movie also reminded me of an old Disney movie, The Miracle of the White Stallions, which tells the story of how Colonel Podhajsky rescued the Lipizzan stallions of the Vienna Spanish Riding School from the German invasion and pretty much saved both the Lipizzan breed and the school. It seems like we keep telling stories about World War II not just because of the opportunity to talk about heroism without cynicism, but because there are hundreds upon hundreds, if not thousands, of small stories about people saving things. Other people, whole communities, art, institutions, horses. Saving souls, really.
January 22, 2014
I picked yesterday to get my working life set up on a brand new computer, which may not have been the smartest thing to do after recovering from a trip, but it was definitely necessary. It’s kind of like the dentist trip, better to get it over with and it’s usually not as bad as you expect. In fact, I had the thing mostly up and running and was getting some work done within about 2 hours — this included transferring over my Word files and photos and music and whatnot. Excellent! I hit a couple of glitches that will take some time to smooth out, but I can work. I actually look forward to playing around with the new system and seeing what bells and whistles I can use.
So, I have a lot of commentary I could spout off about cyberpunk tropes in general, which ones have made it into the movies, and the ways in which cyberpunk has evolved — and in some ways, died out. In grad school I took an upper-level seminar on the topic of. . .come to think of it, I’m not even sure what the topic ultimately was, I think the professor may have just been mining us for her own paper topics. But we read Snow Crash. This was the second seminar in which I had read Snow Crash, because the novel has passed over the barrier and become “okay” for academia. As the only SF geek in the department, I got to then go up to the professors teaching it and ask if they’d read Neuromancer. In one case, yes, “Because Frederic Jameson made it okay to read science fiction,” to which I thought, “What the actual holy hell are you talking about?” The other said, “No, because I’ve heard it’s very problematic in its treatment of women.” And I said, “Well, yeah, probably, but if you haven’t read it you’re missing a big chunk of Snow Crash. Seriously.” (Like Snow Crash is all that better in its treatment of women than Neuromancer, sheesh…)
There’s a reason I didn’t go on for a PhD.
Anyway, I’ll never forget this seminar because in the middle of the discussion of Snow Crash, one of the other students, clearly baffled, said, “The story here is really kind of conservative. I thought cyberpunk was supposed to be all radical and subversive, but I don’t see that at all.” To which I, the only person in the room who had any experience with cyberpunk beyond Snow Crash, said, “Um no — this entire sub-genre exists to make nerdy computer guys feel better about themselves.”
Cyberpunk is heroic, conservative, and messianic. It’s about a powerful elite — the computer programers who know the code, who know how to manipulate the system — being the center of attention, the objects of desire and admiration.
I think one of the reasons cyberpunk kind of died out as anything other than a set of adventure tropes is that once the Internet opened up to a wider audience, it turns out you don’t need a hacker elite — anyone with a smart phone can surf the web. And it turns out we don’t really care about the code underneath. (Although even I can do basic HTML, right?)
This doesn’t mean cyberpunk isn’t still fun. It’s just not the literature of the future people thought it was in 1985. Anyway, here’s my list of movies I was thinking of as cyberpunk movies, which I’m throwing open to discussion. In rough order importance — or maybe it’s in rough order of my own preference:
Tron/Tron Legacy (let’s just mash them up, even though they’re thematically quite different)
The Matrix (I have a confession: I don’t think this holds up all that well. It’s stylized and kind of overwrought, and that scene where Neo and Trinity walk into the building and blast away absolutely everyone — and everyone they shoot is wearing a law-enforcement uniform — was kind of deeply upsetting the last time I watched the movie a few months ago. The post 9/11, post public shooting epidemic world has changed how this movie goes over.)
Electric Dreams (Anyone else remember this? It’s a big reason I haven’t gone to see Her yet, because I saw the previews for Her and thought, wait, isn’t this like Electric Dreams?)
Ghost in the Shell
There are a couple of movies that I either haven’t watched or don’t remember well enough to comment on — someone want to help me out on Hackers and Swordfish?
Then there are a bunch of movies that are definitely cyberpunk, but just aren’t very good: The Matrix sequels, Johnny Mnemonic, Elysium, Lawnmower Man, Nirvana.
Wikipedia has a much longer list of cyberpunk movies, but I don’t know that I’d class all these as cyberpunk. They seem to be lumping a lot of post-apocalyptic in with cyberpunk, as well as anything with robots and cyborgs, but I’d say there needs to be a significant computer hacking element to really be cyberpunk. Like Blade Runner — it has every cyberpunk trope but computer hacking, so how do you classify that? Is it the AI that makes it cyberpunk, not the robots? Then is 2001 also cyberpunk? Isn’t genre fun?
January 13, 2014
It’s award nomination season for the big genre awards! Everyone’s posting about all kinds of stuff from last year! I posted my own 2013 bibliography a week or so ago. But now I’m going to talk about other stuff that I’m likely to nominate.
I didn’t read a whole lot of new stuff this year, unfortunately. It’s just the way the cards fell. Of what I did read and encounter, here’s what I’m likely to nominate.
Fiction: My recommendations are heavily weighted to what’s online, because that’s what I read in the corners of my time. But there are others.
- “The Last Dignity of Man,” Marjorie Liu’s novelette from The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is on my list.
- Wild Cards stories “When We Were Heroes” by Daniel Abraham (novelette) and “The Button Man and the Murder Tree” by Cherie Priest (short story) weren’t just good Wild Cards stories, they were good stories.
- “Sing” by Karin Tidbeck (short story) also really good.
- YA novel The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater (the follow up to Raven Boys) was excellent, as was middle grade novel Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi. Oh, that twist at the end…
- For the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, I think Max Gladstone is still eligible. I still talk about his series, starting with Three Parts Dead, as demonstrating that genre boundaries are definitely made to be broken.
I was introduced to artist Aaron B. Miller’s work this year. Kinuko Craft is an artist I nominate every year. Galen Dara is up and coming and definitely someone to watch — she did the marvelous piece depicting Harry and Marlowe for Lightspeed.
Best related book: Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook. It’s such an astonishing accomplishment — a fully illustrated book on creativity.
I finally started reading webcomic Strong Female Protagonist this year, after many recommendations. Like many of us these days, it’s picking apart superhero tropes and doing some pretty far-out things. I described it to someone as Watchmen, but with a lawful good alignment instead of chaotic neutral.
Drama Short Form:
- I’m still on the quest to keep Doctor Who out of this category, but if you must nominate Doctor Who, consider “The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.” Snark with love.
- There’s astronaut Chris Hadfield’s cover of Space Oddity.
- And then there’s the Marvel One Shot as found on the Iron Man 3 DVD: “Agent Carter,” which broke my heart five different ways then built it back up again by the end. I haven’t seen anyone talking about this, but I thought it was fantastic. It’s a year after the war, and Carter is trying to make her way in a world that doesn’t want her anymore.
Drama Long Form: We have a plethora of movies to choose from this year. Here are my choices (I only get 5 nominations on the Hugo ballot):
- Iron Man 3
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
- The World’s End
- Pacific Rim
The movie category is going to be way interesting this year, given I left off Gravity (which I don’t think is really science fiction), Europa Report, Ender’s Game, and all those other movies I just didn’t go see. Oh, and Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters came out last year too! Oh, for one more nominating slot. . . Also the short form, what with Almost Human, Sleepy Hollow, Agents of SHIELD, and Orphan Black all starting up this year. I don’t know where to start with those episodes.
Whew! Meanwhile, I have a couple of weeks to catch up on some more reading. We’ll see if anything else squeaks on to my list.
January 8, 2014
The Short Review: This is the movie I wanted Brave to be.
Now I have to unpack that a little bit. I liked Brave, it was cute and Merida is a fun character. But it wasn’t exactly subversive. I mean, she ends up saving the day with sewing, not archery, which left more than a few of us feeling like the story was a bit incomplete and unambitious.
Frozen: subversive and feminist. It’s wonderful. Spoilers follow.
When Anna meets and falls madly in love with Prince Charming in the space of a song, and everyone says, “You can’t marry someone you just met, that’s crazy!” When everyone in the movie assumes that “an act of true love” is necessarily a kiss between the girl and the guy — because they’ve been trained to assume that, as we all have — and it turns out that no, there are lots and lots of different kinds of true love and they’re equally powerful. I sat through the third act seeing that this was coming and hoping that they didn’t screw up the potential of this storyline — and they didn’t. It isn’t anyone else’s love for Anna that saves her — it’s her own love for others that saves her. A princess movie where the princess’s own agency is the key. Oh my goodness, it’s breathtaking.
I read a thing written before the movie came out expressing fury that Disney changed the Hans Christian Anderson story so radically, that the Anderson story is wonderful because it’s one of the few fairy tales that features more female than male characters, and that has a girl saving the passive guy, and what did Disney do but throw in a bunch of guys to serve as love interests. Here’s the thing: the original Snow Queen story might have lots of female characters, it might have a girl saving a guy, but it’s also a story about the evils of female sexuality, and how the only thing that can defeat a rapacious powerful woman is a sweet and innocent (i.e. nonsexual) girl. I’m so, so incredibly grateful that the movie changed everything. Disney’s given us enough evil queens, how wonderful is it to have a good one? And to have two women characters who aren’t at each others’ throats the whole movie?
And how does the film do with women and sexuality? Well — Anna expresses herself and her desires, and she makes mistakes, and this is depicted as normal and healthy, and she’s a wonderfully driven and well rounded character. And Elsa — turns out, she doesn’t need to fall in love and get married at all. She can be whole and complete and powerful all by herself.
You guys, the more I think about this movie the happier I get. This is upper level feminist stuff, but it’s important. It explains why the Resident Evil movies are feminist but the Underworld movies are not, even though they both feature kick-ass women main characters. It’s why a lot of urban fantasy frustrates me. Because you need more than a kick-ass woman character to be subversive. You need to tackle the whole status quo.
December 23, 2013
The short review: Oh, dear. On the other hand, I would like to nominate Lee Pace for the part of Elric of Melnibone.
The longer review: (SPOILERS AHOY, BUT YOU KNEW THAT, DIDN’T YOU?)
The bloat from the first Hobbit movie came from other bits of Tolkien. It felt like other bits of Tolkien, so I was willing to go with it and quite enjoyed a bunch of it. The bloat in this one was pointless. The one that really pushed me around the corner into aggravation rather than just annoyance: My favorite, favorite bit of the film was Bilbo creeping into the treasure horde and talking to Smaug. This is one of the most celebrated scenes in all of fantasy literature, and I was enthralled. The massiveness of the treasure horde, the moment when the coins cascade down to reveal the great scaled eye, the glimpse of coins shifting all the way on the other side of the room because as huge as that room is, Smaug fills it. It was wonderful!
And then we cut away to some bullshit subplot about politics in Laketown and the sequence my friends have taken to calling Elf Hospital. The best part of the movie, and the pacing and atmosphere were chopped into pieces for no good reason at all.
And that’s not even the worst of it, because we all know what happens next, because like I said, this is one of the most iconic scenes in all of fantasy literature: Bilbo steals a bit of the horde, Smaug — even surrounded by all that gold — senses the theft, and in a fit of rage bursts from the mountain, attacks Laketown, and is killed by Bard’s perfectly place arrow. So there I am, waiting for Smaug to finally burst out of the mountain in a fit of rage. And it doesn’t happen, because instead we get forty minutes of the Dwarves playing Mazes and Monsters and rigging up some ridiculous Rube Goldberg scheme to kill Smaug — which we absolutely know isn’t going to work because Bard kills Smaug with an arrow, which we know is going to happen because they so carefully set that up back in Laketown. That whole forty minutes might be clever and technically interesting, but the entire time I know it isn’t going to work. In terms of building suspense, it fails, and is pointless.
Two more things: 1) So that bit when Bard and his son take the spear and run off, and Bard says, “You distract them and I’ll go load the ballista,” and then they don’t actually split up and a minute later Bard says, “You take the spear and guard it with your life, and I’m going to go get myself arrested so we can have another contrived obstacle that will hopefully force the audience to feel some kind of tension?” That right there is what we call bad writing.
2) Sometimes a token female character is worse than no female character at all. I have a prediction: Tauriel will die, probably saving Kili, and Legolas will blame all Dwarves forever, which explains why he’s so mean to Gimli in Lord of the Rings, because apparently “Elves and Dwarves don’t get along” wasn’t a good enough reason. I sure hope I’m wrong about that. (Wait a sec — is Kili one of the ones who dies in the Battle of the Five Armies? Wiki says yes. I got nuthin’.)
There’s a reason I’m only talking about the last hour or so of the film: I don’t remember enough of the first two hours to talk about them. Oh, the herd of pinto draft horses was really pretty.
As frustrated as I am with this movie, I’m going to go see the third one when it comes out. It feels like a pilgrimage where the path is wide and easy, so there’s no real danger in continuing on. But there’s a cold drizzle raining the entire way that is sucking all the joy out of the experience.
December 9, 2013
I’m not going to see the new Robocop movie — unless it somehow shockingly, amazingly, gets super-awesome-stellar reviews on the level of Schindler’s List — because I’ve learned my lesson. I will not fall into the nostalgia trap this time. I’m not even interested in it from an academic standpoint, to learn how Hollywood thinks this story needs to be updated and changed for a “modern” audience. I have absolutely no desire to see how the filmmakers turned one of the most brilliant, damning satires ever into soporific, sentimental drivel. I do not want to see why they decided to turn Officer Ann Lewis into Officer Jack Lewis. Everything about the trailer gives me hives. Hollywood, you do not get my money this time.
I’m just done.
December 6, 2013
My comics-guy friend Max and I went out for coffee. Here’s what we talked about (roughly edited for dramatic effect).
Max: Did you see they cast Wonder Woman for that Superman v. Batman movie?
Me: Yes. You know what the story’s going to be, right? It’s going to be Superman and Batman duking it out for Wonder Woman’s affections.
Max: No. No.
Max: No, that’s just not right.
Me: You know who’s directing, don’t you?
Max: …. Zach Snyder? Just no, he won’t do that.
Me: I have two words for you.
Max: (winces) What….
Me: Frank. Miller.
Max: (puts head in hands and repeats in a tone of despair) No, no, no, no……..
(It’s like the DC movie franchise is utterly terrified of a solo Wonder Woman project. And yet they desperately, desperately want a Justice League series than can compete with the Avengers. But they can’t do Justice League without a strong solo Wonder Woman project. I can see the producers curled up on the floor, hands wrapped around their heads, weeping…)
November 25, 2013
Another “Squee!” movie for me. I like the books a whole lot and this was a good adaptation. Just as nerve wracking as it needed to be, good off-the-rails science fiction fun. My terrible confession: I actually feel a little bit sorry for Effie Trinket. She’s trying so hard. She’s so trapped in the system. She’s got a role, and even when she suspects it’s terribly wrong she can’t at all consider stepping outside that role. I think her clothes get fluffier the more awful she’s feeling.
So, two “Squee!” movies in a row! I am spoiled! This got me thinking yet again about what I want out of my entertainment. As an entertainer myself, I’m very interested in this question, because it helps me figure out how to write my own books. What should I put in? What should I leave out? How do you craft a narrative to evoke an emotional reaction?
You know how people say, “Well, it’s a pretty good movie if you just shut your brain off?” You know how infuriated that makes me? Because it means you’re doing exactly what corporate filmmakers expect you to do: not care if a movie is dumb, as long as it has pretty CGI and explosions and crap. WE DESERVE BETTER.
What I’ve realized: I absolutely LOVE being able to shut my brain off during movies. Because when it happens for me, it means it’s a really good, fun, entertaining movie. Seriously, I want to be able to shut my brain off during movies. I want to be entertained! I write for a living, I don’t want to spend a movie — my fun time — figuring out how to fix something that’s broken!
So I love it when my writer brain (mostly) shuts off. (It rarely entirely shuts off. Thor Dark World and Catching Fire both have fairly rigid three-act structures and make use of escalation and so on. I could track it.) Bad movies are bad precisely because they will not let me shut my brain off. I can’t ignore it when bad writing throws me out, when the plot is nonexistent or becomes too forced to bear, when it becomes clear that the filmmakers think I’m an idiot and won’t notice that their movie is dumb.
So yes, those people who say I should just shut my brain off are absolutely right. Movies are better when I shut my brain off. But it’s up to the movie to earn my trust so that I’m able to turn my brain off. It’s not a gift. They have to earn it.
November 18, 2013
I think I’m just going to stop reviewing these things because we pretty much know it’s gonna be all squee. SQUEE.
I do want to talk a bit about what I’m calling the Avengers Sequence and how I continue to be impressed by the scope and genius of the thing. We’re up to eight movies (I’ve decided to include the Ed Norton Hulk movie, because it has enough tie-ins to the rest that it works) and a TV series, all set in the same world and continuity, and with mostly good stories that build a cohesive saga.
But that’s not the real genius of it all, I’ve decided. I went to see Thor: The Dark World with my mega comics geek friend, and some friends who know nothing of comics. I’m right in the middle. The first easter egg after the movie — the epilog, I suppose — was delightfully bizarre (to describe it without spoilers). An entirely new setting and aesthetic from anything we’ve seen so far, but still clearly part of the story. I know enough of the meta here to recognize this is probably something that showed up in the comics, and is probably our first lead-in to this. I asked my comics friend, and sure enough, he gave me the rundown, right down to issue numbers. But what did the non-comics friends make of the scene? Did the out-of-left-fieldness of it throw them off? No. The verdict: “There’s a new story here and I want to know more.”
Bingo. And that’s what these movies are doing right. They’re working on enough levels that they appeal to everybody. Sure, if you know the material you’re going to completely geek out and get all the easter eggs and dropped hints. But if you don’t, you’re still going to be drawn into it all because these movies have earned our trust and they’re telling freaking good stories. They’ve given us enough that a new setting intrigues rather than confuses.
I don’t know how it’s possible, but I may be even more excited about upcoming Avengers-related movies than I was a couple of years ago when the first Thor came out.
November 4, 2013
I can’t say a word about the movie without first talking about the controversy: Orson Scott Card, author of the novel this movie is based on, is a vicious homophobe, and there’ve been extensive calls to boycott the film, to express opposition to his views and deprive him of income. As someone who once counted Card among my favorite authors, and who avidly read his “how to” book on writing science fiction when I was a wee thing, count me among the heartbroken to learn of his current radical, bigoted stances.
I’m just going to throw some links out. More pixels are burning on this film than just about any other over the last few years. Lots of good reading out there: Cory Doctorow on not boycotting the film; likewise, an editorial from The Advocate; and John Scalzi’s take. Also, plenty of people aren’t seeing the film because rather than loving the book, they find it deeply problematic concerning issues of child abuse and preemptive violence. John Kessel’s famous essay on the problems of Ender’s Game is here.
The vitriol toward Card and his work is proportional to the degree that many of these same boycotters loved Ender’s Game. It’s a book that many people discovered as teenagers, it brought them to science fiction, and it carries such a message of tolerance and peace, that to discover its creator essentially hates them and their loved ones is too much to bear. It’s a betrayal as deep as what Ender feels at the end of the story.
Another link for you: Nick Mamatas, discussing complex political aspects of boycotts. Really, Card is currently making bucketfuls of money on book sales (this is how most writers make the bulk of money from adaptations of their work), and whether he makes money from this particular film is moot because its success or failure will determine his ability to make further deals in the future. The best that can happen from all this is that more people are now aware of his truly lunatic views.
Rather than not see a movie I’ve been looking forward to seeing for a good long while, I’ve made a donation several times greater than what I paid to see it to the True Colors Fund, which helps homeless LBGT teens. I like to think this will do more good in the long run than depriving Card of pennies or attention would. It’s something positive, at least, amidst all the anger.
Why Did I Want to See This?
1) I want to support movies based on high-concept science fiction novels, in the hope of increasing the chances of seeing movies based on oh, let’s say Ringworld, The Stars My Destination, The Left Hand of Darkness, Cyteen, etc. Also, selflishly, I have friends whose books-to-movie/TV projects might hang on whether Ender’s Game succeeds or fails. James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, for example. I want them to succeed.
2) My well-documented big spaceship fetish. Pretty, pretty spaceships. (It’s an illness, I know.)
I really liked it. Really. It’s been twenty years since I’ve read the book but I remembered enough of it to be impressed at how much the movie covered in not a lot of time, and to spend the third act hoping they wouldn’t frak up the end. There was a moment when I thought they might. (Spoiler: they didn’t.) The story is streamlined, but it’s all there, including Peter and Valentine, and Ender’s thematic journey is well-constructed. I cried at the end, right when I was supposed to. Battle School was stunning, as was Command School. I really liked that Petra was bigger and beefier than Ender, who was so physically unassuming. Nicely done. (I was surprised to find out that Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Petra, is only a year older than Asa Butterfield, who plays Ender. They really are peers.)
But goddamn it, when are these movies going to figure out they don’t need that prolog and voice over, especially if they’re just going to repeat the exact same footage and information ten minutes later (and much more effectively!) in the story?! STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP. IT.
Oh, and One More Thing:
When the book first came out in the mid-1980′s, video game culture was still new, and the book tackles issues that were being raised about the effects of virtual violence, and the distance between the player and the violence the player was inflicting.
I propose that in this era of unmanned drones and evidence of drone pilots suffering PTSD, this aspect of the story is as topical as ever.