Monday, September 25, 2017

mother! is Not About to See Your Light

darren aronofsky

I've set out to write a post about Darren Aronofsky's mother! a couple of times and I'm not sure where to start or that I really want to. I loved it. But I think a one way conversation is a real injustice to it. I loved the audacity and commitment he had to go with this bizarre poetic thing that unfolds in metaphors, playing out cosmic concepts as creepy domestic anxiety. It's almost theatrical, really. People seem to hate it, which is not at all surprising. I think it's way over the heads of the majority of people. I don't mean that as a dig (I kind of do) but mass audiences aren't used to this sort of thing. This is somehow straightforward and not at the same time. It's text and subtext as one, with the symbols out front and in your face, which can be seen as lazy or even invite deceptively simple explanations.

I may have at some point mentioned a professor I had that talked about finding tension in literature. He taught us that critical analysis wasn't about finding some secret one to one code of symbols and meanings, but rather about exploring the different ideas that may be playing out in the work, sometimes contrasting or outright contradicting each other. Art has an original intent by it's creator, but as soon as they start to work on it, there are subconscious ideas that creep in. And then readers come in and bring their baggage and it becomes hard to say what's valid or not. To a point. We always have to keep in mind that these are just interpretations. Some artists create things that are very straightforward and if you push it too far, it falls apart. Others create completely open ended material that is made to be discussed and dissected. I think mother! works best when discussed. It's easy to fall into a one to one ratio on it, because the symbols being played with are so iconic. I think we should resist that urge, though. It's too easy.

My take? I lean towards the ecological with it. As an anti-theist I see Javier Bardem's character as the villain who started with good intentions, but is ultimately a narcissist prick. My only complaint is not enough Danzig. But enough about me. What's your take?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Walking Dead Season 7 Premiere. . .

I don't believe in hard rules for what makes a narrative work or not. I had a creative writing teacher who used to preface criticism by basically saying "what do I know?" with regards to the basic rules of narrative, because the only thing that matters in the end is execution and whether it winds up connecting or not. Some of the most memorable stories ever told broke several rules that lead them to being imitated repeatedly to the point that the break becomes cliche. Still, there are stories that are designed to be somewhat meta, at least a little, and when those types of stories break rules, it usually ends up working really well. But if a story was never set up that way, if it was set up to make you live each moment with the characters, and then it breaks that flow, more often than not, it will fail.

I already wrote about how The Walking Dead season 6 finale failed in exactly this way and the Season 7 premiere only added to that failure. For starters, it dragged out the big reveal of who Negan killed for no reason. We get treated to close ups of Rick slowly disintegrating, then Negan taking him out to the woodshed, so to speak, for nearly half the episode. And then, even worse, they play with us by showing what I guess is Rick imagining if Negan kills everyone and when we finally get the reveal of what happened, it's now a flashback and more of a relief than it should be. You just want them to get over with already. We don't get to experience the helpless agony with our characters, instead we get manipulated repeatedly by technique that reminds us we're watching a TV show. The sad thing is, they had the elements to make this work all along. Killing two people was a good way to extend the shock, had they killed one in the finale and then the other in the premiere, in real time.

But instead, because they separated the act from the emotion of the moment by elongating it all, the act itself is less about helplessness and loss than it is just shock for shock's sake and torture porn. The extreme violence and gore of the scene would have been fine had it been anchored by real time humanity. We could have been crying right along with them. But after being played by editing tricks and media hype it comes off as little more than a sadistic spectacle. At least that's my take and I don't think it's because I read the comics.

Not that sadistic spectacle isn't called for. Negan is a nasty, scary fuck. He's a character who is vulgar to his core and that is a big part of what makes him scary. The ease with which he dispenses extreme violence is part of that vulgarity. From that perspective, everything works. He's vile and powerful and sets up a new status quo that makes the Governor look like basket of puppies. I just wish it hadn't all been about his show, so we could spend more time feeling the impact of it. It's fine line before this sort of thing wears thin or, worse, Negan becomes more like-able than the main characters.

I will say the final moments of the episode began to make up for it all, in large part to Lauren Cohan's Maggie. Her performance, her character's true to form reaction and strength, even as she's completely fallen apart is a balancing act that could have been more central to these events from the start. Nothing against any of the others. Andrew Lincoln played it right too. But Rick's break, while understandable, is obvious. I don't know. Let's hope the makers of the show can get out of their own way for the rest of the season, and not continue to make this a show about how clever they are.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Comics: I'm Back, Baby!

A few months ago, I discovered Hoopla Digital, an app where you can check out digital items from your local library. There are several apps where you can do this, depending on which ones your library uses. But the big deal with Hoopla (at least for me) is that they specifically mention comics as one of the things you can borrow. Well, the selection is pretty damn impressive. There's no Marvel, but just about every other publisher I can think of seems to be represented. It's not perfect, but free is not something to be sneezed at. Anyway, I've been reading comics. A lot. Here's a few.

fiona staples

I caught up with Saga, and I'm happy to say it is still just as good as I remembered it being.  I haven't been following comics for a couple of years now, so I don't know, but I would still put my money on Brian K. Vaughn being the best damn writer in the medium. You're never quite sure where he's going to take you, yet it always makes sense. The characters are alive in ways that very few can manage. Although, I will say a big part of his success is also his ability to choose artists that can make those characters breathe. Fiona Staples can draw these really beautiful characters that captivate. It's easy to get caught up in her work from a distance, but one reason I really enjoy digital comics more than paper now a days, is that you can focus on details in each panel in a way that you (or at least I, and my old eyes) can't on paper. When you do that in Saga, you'll notice the subtlest hints of facial expression that are not typical of the medium. It's as if these were just freeze framed at very specific moments that only a real observer of humanity would know to choose. And she does. And it comes across in a way that makes you know exactly what these people are thinking and feeling at every moment, regardless of the words. I can't stress enough how everyone should read this book.


Because I'm a sucker for Elseworlds stories and it was free, I decided to give DC's Injustice: God's Among Us a try. I read 5 volumes of this shit, hating it and myself along the way at various points. Yet, I will likely read the next volumes when and if they become available on Hoopla because now I gotta see it through. To be fair, the first volume is a complete shitshow, but it does improve as it goes on. A little. Inconsistently. Without a doubt, this is the most inconsistent art I've ever seen in anything. One page will be filled with scribbles and then out of nowhere, there's a panel that looks amazing, like it was dropped in from another book. The "writing" is what you'd expect from a book that was thrown together just to justify a video game. It's ultimately nothing new. "What if Superman went mad and became a dictator" may not have been done outright in exactly the same way as this, but there have certainly been elements of all of this in other stories from Red Son to a bunch of other glimpses into alternate universes over the years. What I take most offense with in the whole story is the portrayal of Wonder Woman as almost a blood thirsty Lady Macbeth that at one point says she will be whatever Superman needs her to be. Fuck. That. Shit. I can't wait to finish reading this garbage, though. Like reading trashy novels, I guess.

chip zdarsky

What if you could stop time by having an orgasm? That's it. That's the premise of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's Sex Criminals and I would never have expected to love this book so much. I gave it a shot and, much like Saga, I was instantly hooked by how alive these characters are. And also, it's fucking funny. Without being immature, although, sometimes it is on purpose and that's funny too. But it never defaults to lowest common denominator humor like I would have expected. It's always smart without being pretentious or loosing the comedy. There's a lot of meta stuff going on with characters addressing the reader and background jokes like crazy. I have to admit at first Zdarsky's art didn't seem like my cup of tea, but I got over that by like panel 3 or so when (again, thanks to digital) I could really see what he was doing in the fine details. It totally makes sense now that this book has won so many awards. Read this.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Walking Dead Season 6


Knowing the source material can give you an unfair advantage on an adaptation that works like a double edged sword. Sometimes it means that you won't be surprised by what happens, but thankfully, The Walking Dead fixed that early on by veering far enough away from the comic to make it fresh enough for us comic fans. The dynamics of the characters hasn't been the same as the comic for most of the series at this point. Different people have lived and died in each, so even when they do follow the events of the comic closely, the impact is going to be different enough to make it interesting. Daryl, as much as I think he's the most boring character on the show and has been since season 2, doesn't even exist in the comic, so right off that's a new element in the mix. These are good things. But, because we live in the age that we do, where people that have never read a comic book in their miserable lives can look up whatever they want online, the show has been toying with all of us this season with anticipated deaths and the coming of Negan. And not in good ways.

Don't get me wrong, I think the show is still doing a great job, overall, of giving us this unflinching, dread laden tale of humanity at it's best and worst. And that's what it's about: humanity. Not the zombies. The best episode of the season to me was probably The Same Boat, where Carol and Maggie are captured by some of the saviors and Carol proceeds to break down for reasons you wouldn't expect, before finally having to do the horrible things that were necessary to survive. This episode's reminder that actions, no matter how necessary, have consequences on the conscience of good people could have been cheesy, but instead it was harrowing beyond the violence and gore. You understand why Carol is not just tired, but completely spent on an existential level. And Maggie's moment at the end, after being all hardcore, when she just breaks down and says "I can't anymore" is what makes this show special. There's no glory in the horrors of having to survive this way.

carol and maggie

But before we got to that episode there was the whole "is Glenn dead or not?" crap from early on. It was set up as a cheap ploy from the get go with ambiguous editing and media hype immediately following.  Then they intentionally didn't get back to Glenn for a couple of episodes before revealing his fate. It just wasn't organic storytelling the way the show has mostly been until now. They clearly were depending on the Internet furor to build up the tension instead of letting the story do it.  All it did is spark the conversation about Glenn's interaction with Negan in the comic, which furthered the hype until the last episode of the season. Cheap and unnecessary. 

The final episode was actually amazingly well done. The sense of dread and inescapable danger just closing in was almost too much for me. I felt sick to my stomach throughout the episode, partly because I knew what was coming, but partly because I didn't. It was back to old school Walking Dead tension where anyone could die, but someone is going to and it's gonna be hard. By the time we get to Negan's intro, he's everything he should be and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is perfect. You're afraid and this guy may as well be the actual devil, but the fact that he's kinda charming doesn't take the edge off. I've heard people say you kinda like him, but I don't think that's it at all. I think it's the realization that certain other people might like him which means nobody is going to help you. The look on Rick's face is how you feel and hope it never comes to that feeling for any reason in real life. Shit's hit the fan and now the fan is going to hit back. With a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. And it will be messy as fuck, both physically and emotionally. But then, the show went with hokey gimmick again instead of emotional knockout. Instead of just going through with the scene in the way that the comic did, where when I read it, I felt like I'd just lived it, they basically stopped the show. Never mind the shitty POV of whoever is getting beat, but ending the finale before the scene plays out makes the entire season feel incomplete. That is not an ending. 

The best cliffhangers end on a big reveal, with what's next hanging in the balance. Locutus appears on the screen, Ryker says "fire" and cut to black (gets me every fucking time). We know what happened to Picard now and we know Ryker has made the hard but only decision. Next season will tell us what's next, and I will be anxious all summer, but there was an emotional arc that came to a close. But on The Walking Dead finale, not knowing who gets killed, even though we're watching the killing is sending the wrong message. It's almost telling us that it doesn't matter who gets killed. But it totally does matter and not just because we love some of these characters. On one level, it matters because one of the questions we are left with should be how will they react and that will depend on who gets killed. But on a higher level it matters because ending this way separates the show from that humanity I spoke about earlier. This scene, in the way it was shot, even though it doesn't actually show much of it,  makes it about spectacle and gore and violence. That's the focus of the anticipation we're left with. It's not about consequence at all. The POV especially makes it a video game. It also disconnects us from our heroes because they can't make the violence stop, but we get a break. We're no longer living it with them. It should be an unrelenting scene, but it relents. It relents until October, I guess.

And beyond that, as a cheap TV ploy, it gives the creators of the show a way to gauge who should or shouldn't be killed in terms of ratings, something I don't think they had done before. Let's not forget it's not really all just big main characters in play here. Aaron is in the group too and while he might be a good character, he's barely been there. We just aren't invested in him the way we are with any of the others. If we come back next season to learn he was the chosen one, then the show has officially jumped the shark. This death is supposed to mean a whole lot more to everybody than some guy they just met. I have my suspicions on who it might actually be and if so it's a bold and maybe even dumb move. But it's a move that would at least work to do what it needs to do from a narrative perspective. That's assuming they don't just go with the straight comic version.  Either way, I'm sure before the next season it will be spoiled by set pictures or whatever because that's what they've opened it up to. We'll see. . . 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Revisit The Walking Dead Issue 100

This was originally posted on my Tumblr back on July 13th, 2012. This will be important to read as context for my upcoming take on The Walking Dead season 6, which should be posted in the next day or so. Interestingly, I didn't read this again until after writing most of the show post. 

Comic of the Week - No Contest

I was always a big fan of Nirvana. One thing Kurt Cobain always talked about in interviews was the “loud quite loud” dynamic in his music which he attributed to the Pixies. Basically, the idea is that by having this dynamic in music, it makes each part stand out and have that much more impact, be it the loud part or the quiet part. The loud makes you listen more closely to the quiet. The quiet lends gravity to the loud. I believe Robert Kirkman has been brilliantly following this dynamic in The Walking Dead and issue 100 was about as loud as it gets.

Sometimes big milestones happen in comics and it turns out to be more hype than anything else. The Walking Dead hit 100 issues this week and it was one of the most tense, gut wrenching, harrowing issues I’ve read of anything in a long, long time (probably since some other issue of The Walking Dead, if I were to really think about it). By now, anyone reading the series knows that it’s not about the zombies or the gore. The horror, the fear, the nauseous feeling you get sometimes when reading this, comes from the humans. And more importantly, it’s as a result of emotional investment in the characters. Just like the events of issue 48 would have had less impact if they happened sooner, the events of issue 100 work because there are 99 issues of build up behind it. In the time this series has existed, people have often complained that nothing was happening for long stretches. But by now, you should be prepared for anything to happen after a long stretch like that. Yes, there’s a formula at play here, but Robert Kirkman uses that formula like a master.

Right off the bat (no pun intended) the issue opens with scenes that imply, somehow, that something horrible is about to go down. Sure, we know this is true because it’s been hyped, but even if we didn’t, and didn’t know that this was a big milestone 100th issue, there is something about the way the scenes are presented that just ooze tension. There’s a threat looming behind each group we see. They are, for the most part, saying they are optimistic about the future, but somehow, you know they’re really not. They feel it and you do, too. Charlie Adlard, through lines on a paper, in black and white, conveys a sense of doubt and apprehension behind the eyes and through posture that rival the best actors. The subtlety is amazing and yet the feeling is impossible to miss, so your stomach starts getting tied into knots as you turn each page. And yet, you’re never really prepared for what happens.

By the time we find out which group is in danger, the scene plays out slowly and horrifically. You know something is going to happen, but you aren’t sure what and once you do know what it is and even to who, you still aren’t sure how much you’re going to see or where it will end. But you see everything, in heartbreaking, agonized detail. And once it’s done, the threat of more stays hanging there. I for one felt just as powerless as the characters I’ve gotten to know for 100 issues. It was like I was right there with them, unable to stop what was happening, witnessing and getting very nauseous. Once I closed the book, I was not entirely sure what to do next. I eventually read the next book in my stack, Batman, and as good as it was, I still couldn’t shake The Walking Dead. I guess that, much like Macho Grande, I’ll never get over The Walking Dead.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Returned Season Two

les revenants

The thing about answers is that sometimes it's best to not have any at all. Especially if the story in question started off being about more than that. The first season of The Returned never made me feel like I absolutely needed to know all the intricate reasons and connections of why the dead were coming back. The second (final?) season gave us ambiguous answers at best, but maybe too many of them. Along the way, it still delivers on human level drama better than any American genre show that I can think of (except maybe The Walking Dead), but by the end of it, leaning on the mystical(?) puts it too close to Lost territory for the series as a whole to hold up to the brilliant first season.

As it turns out, many of the dead were connected, but not in obvious ways. I think the exploration of this deeper mythology held some promise. For example, the revelations about Serge and Toni's father, Milan and the effect that had on Serge could really be it's own show. That Milan is a key player in the larger mythology as well is almost irrelevant to the power of what their arc explores. And this repeats several times throughout many of the relationships. But I think they go too far in trying to explain the origin of it all by simply adding more layers of questions to who Victor/Louis is. Was he supposed to be death itself? An angel? A demon? God? Ultimately, who cares because this final layer was never something that was addressed early on. From the start, we were lead to believe he was just another returned. But it turns out he's not. He's more than that and by the final moments it's clear he has some extra powers that simply go too far. On the one hand, having him be the literal catalyst for the events of the series for the reasons shown are beautiful. On the other, it comes too late in the game and feels tacked on. It's like they suddenly decided to start telling a different story, one that might have been wonderful on it's own, but here just sort of clashes with everything we'd been watching. Again, too close to Lost for me to get on board with, because fuck Lost (and Lindelof).

the returned

By far, the best story is that of Camile, Lena, Claire and Jerome. A story that, interestingly enough, doesn't really have any connection to the larger mythology. In particular, I have to say my favorite actor of the entire thing is Frederic Pierrot as Jerome. He was good in season 1, but in the second season he brings the anguish of an unhinged and desperate father to life in a way that drips off the screen every time he inhabits it. He doesn't actually say many words, but his eyes are eyes I think any parent can recognize even if we've never been through anything similar, because how else would we look. His face is a Molotov cocktail of despair and determination that is ready to go off one way or the other. I sincerely hope this man is just a good actor and that he wasn't drawing on anything real because anything real behind this performance can't be something I'd wish on another human.

Anyway, The Returned is still worth a viewing, especially for the restrained feel of the first season and how it builds to a dramatic and near perfect end. I wouldn't say skip the second season, but maybe lower your expectations going in. I doubt there's going to be a third season. It was sort of a finale type of ending, but you never know.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Witch

the vvitch
Ever see a movie and feel like you were mislead by the marketing and that maybe you would have seen the movie and appreciated it better if not for the deception? Let's talk about The Witch, then. I've seen horror movies. I've seen slasher films, satanic themed movies, purely psychological horror, ghost stories, whatever. I'm not sure this movie is any of those. I think it has certain elements in common with horror movies, but I'm not sure I would call it that. And if I did, I certainly wouldn't use the terms that you see quoted all over the place to describe this. It didn't "scare the hell out of me," Pete Travers. And as I've pointed out before, I'm an easy mark. But before we go on, I want to point out that it's not a bad movie, at all. It just seems to me like one of those instances where people have a need to label things and when something comes along that doesn't seem to land in an easy to label box, they label it anyway and it's a disservice to all involved.

Spoilers Follow

What the movie does do, very fucking well, I might add, is create a setting and mood that makes danger palpable. Taking place in the early 1600s it opens with a family of recently arrived Puritans being banished from their settlement for "prideful conceit," which was either never made clear beyond that or I missed it. The reason almost doesn't matter, though. The point is that they are set off on their own to find suitable land, build their own home and live out their lives on their own. That alone is actually pretty horrifying when you consider the reality of it. In any case, soon after they have built a house and seem to be settled, their youngest son, maybe 6 months old, is taken. Now, from their perspective, the boy just disappeared under mysterious circumstances. They eventually chalk it up to a wolf, though doubt and suspicion lingers. But from our perspective we get an actually pretty disturbing scene where an old woman is seen taking the child to a cottage in the woods and proceed to sacrifice and bathe in the baby's blood before flying away on stick into the moonlit night. It's all done tastefully and effectively with close ups where you see less than you think you do and it's a great scene. But I take issue with it because I feel like it comes way too soon and preemptively undermines all the tension the film goes on to build after this.

anya taylor-joy

And the thing is, the film actually does a good job of building that tension, but it's not about whether or not the witch will come back. The witch is never the threat as far as they're concerned, but "a witch" might be. We see the family begin to fall apart because of lies and deceptions and scapegoating. But since we know there was an actual witch that took the child, to me, it defuses the conflict for all the wrong reasons. One major theme that plays out is how the oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is scapegoated due in part to her budding sexuality. The entire theme of female oppression, particularly from the point of view of how religion treats women is beautifully handled. I think it's a big part of why the Satanic Temple has embraced this film, and rightfully so. But again, I have to wonder if it might not have been better served if we hadn't seen the actual witch at the beginning. I believe this would have given the final scene with it's disturbing implications more impact than it did. I don't know.

I will say this. I started to write this post several times, just after seeing the movie on Sunday, and I couldn't decide what I really thought. That is a good sign. Is it a horror movie? I don't know. Not in the traditional sense, that's for sure. But it does deserve to be seen. It's important either way. I just wish people weren't so obsessed with labels.