Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sequels shouldn't have sucked

Okay, I'm not going to lie, I haven't seen MIB III and I hear that it doesn't suck but MIB II sucked enough that I can't quite bring myself to watch it. But here's the thing: they waited too long to make a shitty sequel and then waited WAY too long to make a non-shitty sequel. Men in Black came out five years before MIB II. There was then a ten-year gap between the second and the third film. The two good movies in this series are fifteen years apart and (and holy shit, Men in Black films have been made in every one of the last three decades, what the fuck is wrong with us that we're taking so long to do this?) that's too long to hold on to a core audience.

Men in Black is an immensely diverting movie. It's goofy fun with silly aliens and a ridiculously accelerated plot and cool montages involving identity erasure and putting on suits. But it also does a great job of building up an easy-to-swallow world that's full of fascinating possibilities.

Tolkein took thousands of pages to build a world we all want to hang out in. Herbert took thousands of pages. The Star Trek universe has been built up for half a century. Men in Black built the universe in just under two hours and we still haven't even scratched the surface of the fun that could be had there. (This is, of course, discussing only the cinematic universe. I'm completely aware that the comics have been doing it for a long time but the approach to the content and morality of the comics makes the print and cinematic universes totally different canons).

So I watched Men in Black tonight and I had fun with it. I really appreciated the absurd physical comedy Vincent D'Onofrio put into his performance. It's entertaining as shit to watch Will Smith butt heads with Tommy Lee Jones and to watch them both be different kinds of awesome. There are cool aliens and a kitty and nice explosions and pretty much everything about the movie is entertaining - I just wish there had been a better follow-up to a movie that had so much potential.

     - Alli

Now you see it, now you don't

So the only reason I got RX: A Tale of Electronegativity was because I felt guilty reading Robert Brockway's new novel, The Unnoticeables, without having read his first novel; I'd been meaning to read RX eventually anyway and then there was Amazon's Prime Day and Brockway was pushing his new book on Cracked and long story short suddenly I had a whole bunch of new books. I read RX first because it felt right, and I'm glad that I did - I liked that book and had fun with it, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did The Unnoticeables and I'm super glad that I saved the best for last.

The Unnoticeables is not a story, like RX, that takes place in a strange and distant future. It takes place here, now, and forty years ago. It's full of scenes I recognize and faceless horrors that are strikingly familiar. Though maybe that's because I live in LA and it's not really a stretch to believe that minor celebrities here are blank-eyed monsters who are out to get you.

But I don't want to get into spoiler territory. So let's talk big picture: it is vitally important that you have a decent stock of beer handy when you're reading this book. You will want beer frequently and if you have to stop and get some you'll be irritated. You'll probably also want cigarettes, if you smoke, and at least four hours worth of poorly-produced punk lined up on your playlist (regardless of whether or not you smoke). Do not, under any circumstances, watch Saved by the Bell for at least a week before or after reading The Unnoticeables. Keep a lighter in your pocket at all times (also regardless of whether or not you smoke).

The book is a quick read, the story is creepily plausible while still being fantastic, and the world it occupies is filthy and bright and homey all at once. You'll be guided through the plot by two fascinating people with lots of problems and very little hope but enough gumption and resignation to be extremely likeable protagonists. Did I mention that the book is funny? Because it is. It's not always the kind of funny that makes you sick, usually it's the kind of funny that makes you queasy, but it's hard to be unamused even as you're also horrified. Totally worthwhile, basically, is what I have to say about The Unnoticeables.

Brockway, Robert. The Unnoticeables. TOR Books. New York: New York. 2015.

Comfort and joy in the off-season

Look, I can't tell you why I decided to read A Christmas Carol for the first time in the middle of July, but that's what happened. Life is weird. And yeah, the book loses something when you're sweating through a monsoonal flow and being a little bit jealous of people who are experiencing cold weather, but other than that it's pretty good.

I mean, yeah, it has all the flaws that you'd expect out of Dickens - there are no interesting female characters who aren't evil, it's sappy as all get-out and I couldn't even manage a tiny tear for Tiny Tim (though Bob Cratchit's mourning for Tiny Tim is moving, even to a cynic like me). We get it, Chuck, poverty sucks balls and the rich are slowly marching toward hell. But I can only bitch "we get it and I'm tired of this message" because Dickens was hugely instrumental in communicating messages about child abuse and labor laws and debtor's prisons. So I guess I'm sometimes a bit sick of Dickens because we owe Dickens for giving a voice to some of the major changes that our society has seen. It's old news to me because Dickens was the one making the news.

But, for all that, it's not as monolithic as a lot of Dickens is. The book is only about 70 pages and can easily be read in an hour or two. Reading it aloud might take a bit more time but also might be a fun Christmas activity for Christmas-celebrating folks. As for me, I'm a bit of a Grinch. Hell, maybe I was able to enjoy this book more for not being caught up in the endless jangling of Christmas carols and the crowds of people spending too much money on trinkets and the stress of dealing with crowds of people and unpleasant gatherings. I like the message of generosity and kindness and redemption, I'm just not so wrapped up in the Christmassy aspect of the thing. Though if you are, that's cool too. You'll probably like the book. And it's relatively inoffensive regardless.

     - Alli

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Simon & Schuster. New York: New York. 2007. (1843).

Lovely ugliness

Robert Brockway is another Cracked author who I've grown to adore over years of time-wasting at work. I think his piece on the hell you go through while moving is probably my favorite example of his bodacious, personal writing style on Cracked.Com but RX: A Tale of Electronegativity is all the fun rambunctiousness that can be seen in his articles blown up to the length of a novel and exploded in a fury of pantslessness an hilarity. It's kind of rad.

The story is told from the perspectives of three fascinating characters, all of whom are given wonderful, alien motivations and who occupy a world that is distinct from ours and tremendously confusing, but still recognizable and uncomfortably familiar in a lot of ways. It's a terrible place that has been made awful by flawed people. The novel is made compelling and creepy by its through-a-glass-darkly setting, and makes you want to be a better person while never moralizing at you.

There were some flaws with the story - some interesting concepts seem undeveloped and fascinating characters go unexplored - but overall this was a delightful read that I couldn't put down. I'm pretty sure I set it aside just a few pages away from the end because I started reading it at 1 am and just couldn't stay awake until 5 am to finish it, but I was pissed at myself for not saving the book to start when I was fresh enough to read it all in one go. It was fun and frightening and very, very funny in places. It's not a comedy, it's not a horror story, it's a sci-fi thriller with a smirk and I was largely delighted by it.


Brockway, Robert. RX: A Tale of Electronegativity. Self-Published. 2012.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

OMFG how could they do that

I am going to try very, very hard to not flip out and give spoilers, but Gillen and Co. did a fantastic job of fucking over their fanbase and guaranteeing long and profitable careers with the second volume of The Wicked + The Divine. I don't mean they fucked us over in the sense of absolutely screwing us, they just did terrible things that are totally unsatisfying and then left us hanging for who knows how long to figure out what in the hell is going on. It's a wonderful but frustrating feeling and I really have to congratulate the creative team because I want to tear my hair out trying to figure out where things are going and how we'll get there and OMFG is everyone okay, no of course they're not okay, fuck, fuck, shit how do they keep doing this to us, and so on.

The characters in this series are just brilliant. They're easy to fall in love with, easy to obsess over, and that makes readers easy to hook and easy to string along. Again, I don't think the creators are intentionally stringing us along, I just think they wrote and illustrated a fascinating universe that I want to pick apart and explore with my bare hands and instead I'll just have to feverishly await a new issue of Volume Three each month.

Comic geeks are so predictable. We're so eager to fall in love and once you've got us we're usually yours forever. Gillen and the crew know this but STILL made an effort and I really appreciate that. The writing in the series this far is stellar, the art in the first two volumes is magnificent, and this has been a wonderful joyride that I'm in no hurry to give up.

I'm sure there are some people who I wouldn't recommend this comic to but I honestly can't think of anyone I know personally because if you're the kind of person who DOESN'T think a story about a modern pantheon of gods with superpowers and infighting and a rabid fanbase is totally bitchin' then I don't think we've ever hung out or are likely to do so. So read it. Read The Wicked + The Divine. It fucking rules.

     - Alli

Gillen, Kieron. The Wicked + The Divine Vol 2.: Fandemonium. Jamie McKelvie, Artist.
     Matthew Wilson, Colorist, Clayton Cowles, Letterer. Hannah Donovan, Designer.
     Chrissy Williams, Editor. Dee Cunnifee, Flatter. Image Comics. Berkley: California. 2015.

A warlike people who have all gone away

Mythology is a funny thing. It can tell you a lot about a culture in some ways, and in other ways it just tantalizes you with what it can't tell you about a culture. Mythology and folklore are distinct and that's important to keep in mind: myths tell you what a culture values and wants to think of itself, folklore tells you more about what the people of that culture are actually like. On the whole I think I prefer folklore - myths are too stodgy, too militaristic, and in some ways just too damned sad.

I didn't know a hell of a lot about Celtic mythology before diving into this collection of stories and I don't know a hell of a lot about Celtic mythology now. This collection is just a tiny snippet of the history of kings and gods and god-kings who went into forming the collective unconscious of the Celtic fringe, and it's primarily an Irish collection so it's even more limited. There's a lot of love for green hills and cold seas and pale enchanting maidens and musclebound warriors, which is all to be expected, but there are more stories about might of mind and wiry kings than I would have thought to anticipate.

What I did anticipate, and what saddened me, is that you can see cultural assimilation happening as you move through these stories. Chivalry isn't a thing that the ancient Celts would have embraced, it's an English court thing and it plays too much of a role in these myths for them to do anything but communicate the eventual defeat of these independent peoples and kingdoms into a massive monarchy. Even more disheartening is the displacement of old religions to make space for Christianity. It's difficult to read about the Sidhe disappearing from the lives of men, difficult to see golden druidical wands tossed aside in favor of crosses, difficult to wait for a spell to be ended by the announcement of the one lord and savior coming into the land. There's one particular story in this collection, "The Children of Lir," in which the titular characters are tortured by the methods of the old magic of their people and made to wait a millennium to be saved by the good news. Setting aside that that's fucked-up bullshit it's also internally inconsistent - if there is one true god and he is the source of all the supernatural power in the universe it was he who allowed the children to be tortured in the first place and to have to endure the torture until a dude with a dislike of snakes showed up to tell everyone about him. The evil stepmother in this tale isn't the villain, the Christian god is. And that's kind of the moral of the entire set of stories - they all have this ring of "wow, things used to be awesome and full of wonder and mystery and honor and loyalty, but things are much better now that we've assimilated into a different culture."

I wanted to know more about the world that came before, not learn how that world got swallowed up into ours. But I guess I'll just have to look for those stories in folklore, not myths.

     - Alli

Neeson, Eoin. Celtic Myths and Legends. Barnes & Noble Books.
     New York: New York. 2000. (1965)

Sexy, sweaty, and sweet

Magic Mike XXL is not, by any means, a great movie but it does represent great things. It flips the script on gendered gaze, it values women of color and bodies of all sizes, it is sex-positive, asks good questions about work/life satisfaction, and has a kickass soundtrack.

It is also full of objectively stunning men who take their clothes off and dance beautifully while miming sex acts and emphasizing consent and respect for women.

The story is kind of shit, which makes me sad. It takes too long to get where it's going and there are a lot of unnecessary diversions from the main action of the film. I spent a pretty significant amount of time in the theater wishing we could just move on and not be stuck in an awkward exchange of tension. The first film was better about that sort of thing, and seemed trim and tight by comparison but I guess you just can't have everything.

The dancing was a hell of a lot better this time around, though, and on top of the dancing being better the motivations for the dances were better. Before we saw exotic dancers performing some very stock exotic dance routines - sexy cowboy, sexy soldier, sexy firefighter kind of stuff. This time each performance was fleshed out to be unique and a good realization of character, which was delightful.

There was a lot going on in the movie that didn't really have to be going on but I feel like some quick edits and a total runtime trim of 20 minutes or so would do a lot to improve the film. There was nothing glaringly terrible and a lot of good stuff, so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it but I'd say know going in that it's not perfect and you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Same bullshit, new woman


I am sure that at some point in the nineteenth century it must have been terrifying to look around and see a bunch of learned-frail, poorly educated she-beasts having opinions and daring to talk to men. Henrik Ibsen and Henry James wrote about these monstrous developments and called them "New Women" and patted themselves on the back and called it a day and I've just now figured out why I fucking hate Ibsen and why Portrait of a Lady solidified my dislike of James.

Ibsen and James prototyped the New Woman (except, no, they didn't, they wrote about the kinds of women they were starting to see in the real world, they didn't write out these templates from whole cloth and women didn't start behaving like the New Woman characters - real goddamned women came first, the New Woman trope came after - in fact it was a New Woman who coined the term "new woman" and Ibsen denied that his writing was actually meant to advocate for women) in their works and their works were dedicated to laughing at her. Look at poor little Nora, darling little doll, and how fucking disappointed she is that she doesn't get to kill herself to save her husband's honor over her sacrifice for his fucking health. Ibsen makes Torvald a monster on purpose, the gross part is that Nora is a monster too and Ibsen doesn't even realize it. Ibsen thinks women - moreover the best of the women in the world - are monsters. And so does James. We marvel at Isabel's rags then riches and how she handles both, we're supposed to sympathize with her cousin as we watch her throw herself away but then cheer as she agrees to continue being garbage. Because of what? Integrity? James has just said that the most admirable trait that women have is that they won't change their silly little minds and that they're so weak and perfect and pure that they can't help but be victims of predatory men.

I've been ruminating on The Portrait of a Lady for over a week now and I don't buy what James is selling. He made Isabel what she is, he praises her and lifts her up for what she is, and what she is is shit. Hyperfeminine, ultra-frail, shit. Even if the reader isn't supposed to want to emulate her, they're supposed to mourn the tragic loss of her but Isabel's loss isn't tragic. She's nothing fucking special. She's a lady, not a person, and I can't boo-hoo that she's isolated on the pedestal that James and his male characters have built up around her. We're supposed to admire and mourn for Isabel, we're supposed to be perplexed and amused by Harriet and Harriet's ignorant vulgarity, we're supposed to revile Madame Merle, mock the Countess Gemini, and pity Pansy. Well Isabel is the least interesting of all of those people and I can't really be fussed, I wanted to give Harriet all of the high fives, Madame Merle did nothing but introduce Isabel to someone she was too stupid to get to know before she married him, the Countess Gemini sounds like a party in a box, and I just wanted to teach Pansy how to set shit on fire. I thought James wanted people to hate Europeans, not women. Fuck. We're supposed to laugh at the only female characters who have any fucking agency and pity but dismiss as useless the ones who don't (which includes Isabel, all the talk about her independence notwithstanding because she isn't actually independent, she's reactionary).

Ugh. Fuck all this noise. I'm done with James, done with Ibsen, and done with the idea that women are some kind of especially weak or especially wonderful species separate from men.

James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Signet Publishing. New York: New York. 1996. (1880-1).

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Wrapped in an enigma

I had a great time reading The Cuckoo's Calling so I ran out after I finished it and bought a copy of The Silkworm. Now that I've finished the second Cormoran Strike novel I'm still very pleased with the universe in which Cormoran does his work but the second novel didn't have the same giddy novelty of the first, but then who could reasonably expect that sort of thing?

The Silkworm is delightful. The relationship between Cormoran and Robin progresses in a way that is very appropriate (and much needed) after The Cuckoo's Calling. Robin takes a bigger part in all of the intrigue going on and expresses herself and her desires in a way that was more fulfilling for me than her character was in the first book. Cormoran is still getting his shit figured out but isn't as down-on-his-luck, teetering-on-the-edge as he was for the earlier story, and seeing him get his bearings is great.

The mystery itself is fun. I sort of feel like that's the limit of what I can tell you, simply because it's a mystery novel and I don't want to spoil anything, but I did enjoy the various twists and turns and red herrings that filled in the story.

And dammit all I just looked it up and there's another Cormoran Strike novel coming out this year, but I have to wait until October to get it. This year's holiday book season seems to be building up to an awesome peak - there are at least five books that I'm impatiently awaiting, and now I've got to add another to the list.

Check out the Galbraith books, if you haven't yet. They're a load of fun and it looks like they'll probably keep coming for a while (btw I'm hedging my bets here by hoping rather than predicting, but I'd love to see more of Strike's brother Al in the third book).

     - Alli

Galbraith, Robert. The Silkworm. Mulholland Books. New York: New York. 2014.

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