Cyberpunk Edgerunners

It’s weird for me to watch and review a TV show that’s on now, but it’s on Netflix, so here we are.

I had pretty mixed feelings about the game Cyberpunk 2077; the anime by contrast is pretty good. In fact I feel like this would have been a much better direction for the game itself.

Lucy and David not being hyper-violent, for the moment

I’m not going to be entirely rapturous, but mostly because I’m not 17 anymore. If you are 17 and read my blog for some reason, no disrepect, this series was made for you and you may find it absolutely cool. It’s basically a heavy metal ballad: live fast, aim high, fuck the bastards and die in glory.

If you’ve been living in a cave or something, here’s the basics: the series is 10 episodes of half an hour each, focusing on David Martinez, a smart but poor boy living in Night City in 2076, studying to be a corpo. Ep 1 gives you a heady brew of cyberpunk: it starts with a braindance of a guy going cyberpsycho, killing a bunch of cops; we meet David’s hard-working mother, see David’s morose everyday life; he also knows a ripperdoc for some reason; the rich kids at school are bullying him; then life gets even worse. Everything costs money in Night City and when you have none, no one cares. You may play the game and want to live in Night City. Watching the anime, not so much. Kids, only you can prevent libertarianism.

Things pick up in Ep 2 when he meets Lucy, a girl way cooler than him who is nonetheless wasting time stealing chips from corpos on the el. David has recently acquired his first chrome, which allows him (among other things) to move superhumanly fast; it turns out he also has an unusual ability to integrate cyberware with his wetware (his big floppy meat brain). Lucy introduces him to a rising gang of mercs, who don’t like him much at first.

Now, C77 has a sequence of Movin’ Up with Jackie, where you rise from total noob to minor gangster in a five-minute montage. And that’s pretty much what eps 1 to 6 amount to…. and it just underlines the huge wasted opportunity in C77. The game doesn’t really get going until you’re already well established, with your own apartment. It skips what Edgerunners revels in: how easy is to fall out of the grid in Night City, the hopelessness of having nothing and no prospects, the slow climb up the crime ladder because that’s the only exit; slowly acquiring and getting to know your new crew, a la Saints Row.

In short, I would have watched twice as much David & Lucy on the rise (the interval between Eps 6 and 7, basically), and I would have played the hell out of that as a video game. Instead C77 gives you fucking Keanu.

At the same time, I’ve been watching Cowboy Bebop for the first time– both versions. They’re very similar: cyberpunk dystopia, lots of violence, heists gone bad, a simmering feud with a vicious enemy, a crew of loveable fuckups. More on this later, but a lot of the comparisons go Bebop‘s way. The characters in Bebop are more likeable, the stories and themes show far more range, and there’s a lot more actual sf going on. I understand that Edgerunners is just focused on doing one thing, and it does that pretty well. But Bebop is the more ambitious show, and it did all this 24 years ago.

The one thing Edgerunners has going for it is the animation. It’s not perfect– yeah, Studio Trigger, I can tell when you’re saving money– but it’s better, very stylish, and often innovative. (E.g. David’s superspeed is represented by multiple still images… that can’t be what it would actually look like, but it’s a perfect use of the medium.) So, Studio Trigger, please just re-animate Cowboy Bebop, leaving the soundtrack as is, mmkay?

Both game and anime are all about the ultraviolence. I’m guessing that that’s how the RPG plays too. It still disappoints me a bit because I want the cyber stuff: hacking, detecting, stealth, inscrutable graphics representing the inside of the Net. Otherwise it’s just a gang story where the guns are just, you know, surgically installed in your arm.

Now, while you’re watching, almost everything is cool and exciting– you can just let it all wash over you. But very little of it makes much sense on analysis. The TV Tropes name for this is fridge logic: stuff that you accept until half an hour later when you go to the fridge for snacks. The characters intelligence and skill level varies widely, according to plot needs. Enemy capabilities very even more widely: same. Character chooses to lie or clam up or reveal secrets: same. You can never tell who’s going to have a badass movement and who’s going to fuck up. (Bebop has this problem too.)

Now, some of this is probably intentional: it’s a tragedy, after all: people have to make mistakes and miscommunicate; they’re all damaged people; it’s a biz that encourages a certain reckless bravado. On the other hand, I think it kind of ruins the last two episodes, admittedly a point where they have to cram in a huge amount of plot. Specifically (mouse over to read):

Lucy is cool and calculating except when she needs to get captured. David’s new suit can blast through an entire military battalion, but he’s overcome by one guy in a mecha suit. Rebecca can blow up everything until she can’t. Kiwi does a heel turn, then a reverse heel turn, then gets played as a sucker. Arasaka has spent a fortune on this new cyberskeleton instead of just building more Adam Smashers. There is never a shortage of ammo and implants, but you can easily run out of immunosuppressants.

I’m going to show another scene which is a bit of a spoiler but reveals a lot about the show’s attitudes, positive and negative:

This is David in ep 7, a big gang leader now in several senses, though still pretty morose. Note the nice digs: he’s made it as far as a gangster can go. He’s also augmented himself into a metal monster.

David is obviously a male power fantasy here, to the point of absurdity. And that’s OK, that’s the story they wanted to tell, and it’s told with a certain self-criticism, or typical Slavic pessimism: this is not a path that leads to a long happy life. It’s lampshaded early on: cyberpunk is about how you die.

Lucy is also part of the male fantasy. She is and remains cooler than David– on the whole Edgerunners is pretty good about making its female characters badasses– but she falls for him anyway. Also for some reason female hackers get naked while hacking. And while hanging out at home, apparently. (David does too. Saves on laundry bills, I guess.)

Now, I’m not criticizing Lucy, or the romance– quite the opposite, it’s the one element of sweetness in the story, and a very welcome one. But I do want to ask: why didn’t the writers consider telling Lucy’s story instead? It’s arguably way more interesting. They tell some of it: she started out poor as well, and got trained and nearly killed by Arasaka. Yet she became a very successful hacker, chill and smart and kind and never subject to cyberpsychosis, and she never felt the need for David’s gorilla-grade bulk. It’s the Ginger Rogers thing: she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

If you want to see that idea taken through its paces– try Arcane, the animated show based very loosely on League of Legends. I’m not sure I’ll do a full review, but it also covers a lot of this ground, though with more a steampunk than a cyberpunk vibe. But it makes the smart decision to focus on the female badasses rather than the male wannabes they inexplicably fall in love with.

Sandman TV

In a departure from my usual unhipness, I’ve been streaming TV shows like a normal human being. I picked up Netflix in order to watch Sandman. It’s only $15 a month!

Quick verdict: it’s great; I’m really hoping now for Season Two. It does justice to the comics. And best of all, my wife likes it, and she is not a big fantasy fan. We just finished the last, bonus episode last night.

To make something like this work, both the casting and the writing have to hit. They scored big with all the ones they really had to: Dream (Tom Sturridge), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), John Dee (David Thewlis), and the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook). I heard part of the audiobook adaptation and couldn’t buy Dream and Death there, so this is big.

Dream is the most challenging of these: he’s perfectly suited for the comics page, where we only have to see his gothic splendor. But most of the comics images (e.g. those starry non-eyes, or the over-flowing robes) would look campy on-screen. Plus– his whole thing is that he’s uptight and a bit of an asshole. Sturridge is just right for all this (once you get used to his prettiness). I was worried at first that he was under-emoting, but I think he does a lot very subtly.

Gaiman, and the directors, take the point of view that enormously powerful entities (Sandman, Lucifer, Corinthian) can be calm and elaborately polite. The shouting madman as villain is real, but always conceals an underlying fear, a fear that he will not be taken seriously. The truly powerful person can be quiet because they know their orders will be fulfilled. Sturridge is the positive side of this: a guy where you should worry if he furrows his brow. Holbrook is the evil version, underlining his menace with Southern charm.

Death is Gaiman’s most perfect, most iconic character, and Howell-Baptiste nails her. She is warm and caring and yet catpures that older-sister ability to make Dream think.

The set design is good. I like touches like Matthew flying into the ceiling of Dream’s throne room, the painting turning into a 3-D scene; then ending up in Earth’s sky. It’s a nice use of the new medium: comics can show us amazing spaces, but it’s not good at transitions.

The usual trolls have complained about changes in race and sex. As Gaiman has gleefully pointed out, these folks entirely missed the point of the comics, where it was shown many times that the Endless are shown as they appear to the being observing them, be it human, cat, or alien sentient flower. Even Abel and Cain note that they are not actually human. But the comics, progressive for their time, feel a bit dated in their whiteness, and I’m glad they’ve been updated. The only one that I feel doesn’t quite work is Lucifer. Gwendoline Christie gets the surface suavity and politeness, but not the menace. And there’s something oddly stiff about her bearing, as if she’s being held up by her gowns.

I looked at a few reviews and found them quite weird– I suspect the reviewers a) see too much TV, and b) lack an affinity for the material. I haven’t seen much TV in years, and that probably improves the experience for me. The show isn’t lost in a sea of other fantasy/sf adaptations for me; I’m not bored by the tropes or the actors. E.g. one reviewer thought some episodes were “padded”, which is a weird thing to say when they’re rushing through like 15 comics in 10 hours. Another said Kyo Ra wasn’t that great; I disagree, though my wife didn’t.

Some things hit harder in a live-action version. The horrific abuse of Jed, for instance. It’s almost all taken straight from the comics, but it’s a lot more visceral when you see an actual human being as evil as Barnaby.

I’m going to talk about specific scenes and changes now, so I suggest you put this aside if you’re afraid of spoilers.

A lot of reviews seem to think this was a very tight adaptation. Parts of it are (especially the “cereal convention” bits), but there are quite a few little changes. E.g.:

  • The nods to DC heroes are gone.
  • Poor Gregory!
  • Lyta is now just a friend of Rose’s, not a resident of the Dream Dome. She’s also a sweet helper rather than merely depressive.
  • Ethel doesn’t run away with Ruthven Sykes.
  • Matthew appears earlier, and his predecessor Jessamy appears in ep 1; it’s rather a shock that Alex kills her.
  • Alex was relatively trusted in the comics; here he is abused and disdained.
  • The Corinthian’s role is greatly beefed up. He instructs Burgess on how to keep Dream safe, and rescues Jed from his horrible foster parents. He interacts with Rose, giving her more options (why not take over the Dreaming?!).
  • Johanna Constantine gets a whole subplot to show off her powers; and another one to make her relationship to Rachel far more poignant. (Also, wow, she looks better in a trenchcoat than John ever did.)
  • John Dee is quite changed. Rather than simply being a power-mad psychotic, he has a whole theme: an abhorrence of lies, due to the constant lying of his mother. His driver is blessed instead of murdered.
  • Brute and Glob are gone, replaced by Gault, whose motivations are positive rather than negative.
  • Hell is no longer a triumvirate.
  • Death gives more of an explanation of why she is happy to do her job.
  • Both Rose and Hob get to show off some self-defense skills.
  • There is way less female nudity: in the comics, Calliope was kept naked, Rose is half-nude in her final confrontation with Dream, and Despair wears no clothes. Ironically the only nudity is male: Dream in ep 1, and Ken in his dreams.

Almost always these changes are for the better, and feel more in line with Gaiman’s work overall. In the first volume of the comics, he was still feeling out his way, and tried too hard to be gross or shocking. Most of the changes create more continuity (e.g. more use of the Corinthian and Matthew), or strengthen the characters, or humanize the villains, or underline Dream’s need to learn empathy.

The diner episode is more watchable than I feared, probably because it didn’t feel like gratuitous violence… Dee is not just exerting power, but exposing lies… which turns out to be a really bad idea. I couldn’t watch the murder-suicides though. On the other hand the second half of this episode seems rushed: it should should take longer for Dee to believe he’s triumphed and then suddenly realize he hasn’t.

A few things I wasn’t so sure about:

  • Burgess having to learn from the Corinthian who he’d captured. I’m also not so sure about Burgess dying due to violence rather than just bitter old age.
  • Chantal and Zelda seem way too Addams Family. But the original comic kind of misfires here too: the residents of the house are kind of pointlessly weird. (I loved Hal though.)
  • I didn’t like Choronzon’s challenge passing to Lucifer. The whole idea was that this petty demon was predictable; it makes less sense that Lucifer was stumped.
  • I missed Death’s casual remark that she could “patter Romany”. But I’m a language geek.
  • I kind of miss the gate guardians. But they probably had a limited CGI budget.
  • Ep 10 has too many endings. I’d have left out the whole Hell scene.

The bonus episodes are not my favorites, but I expect I’m in the minority here. “Cats” is a neat idea wrapped up in a shallow joke. Well animated though. “Calliope” is very 90s: damsel in distress, with her rapist condemned, but humanized more than his victim. They’ve updated it– Calliope is a tad feister, isn’t blonde, and doesn’t have to be naked. The story is strangely anti-writer; it may be Gaiman’s version of the sad boner professor.

Re-reading my own review of the comics, I note that my major complaint was the art. I think that holds up: a lot of the volumes would have worked much better if an artist like J.H. Williams (Sandman Overture) or John Cassaday (Planetary) had drawn them. Maybe the best thing about the TV series is that it corrects that problem– it’s always gorgeous.

Ranking movies

At Mefi there was a posting on FlickChart, a site where you can rate movies. It’s simple: you are presented with two movies and choose which one you like better. (If it gives you a movie you haven’t seen, you just ask for another.) Then you do more and more, till you wonder where your time went. It’s very addictive. (Fair warning: it serves up ads with each choice.)

So, you’re very soon presented with some very weird choices:

  • Mad Max vs. Animal House
  • Memento vs. Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • Best in Show vs. Mulan
  • Bound vs. This is Spinal Tap
  • Psycho vs. What About Bob?

You’ll have to develop your own policy on genre comparisons. Is an Important Movie always better than a really well done comedy? Is an eye-candy sf spectacular better than a cleverly written plot?

Some things that I’ve discovered in my own rankings:

  • The question that helps me the most is “Which would I see again first?”
  • Real posers are rare– I can almost always decide immediately.
  • Even if I liked a trilogy or series, I rank the sequels way down.
  • I’m definitely a creature of my times. If it was big in the 70s/80s/90s, I probably saw it and think fondly of it.
  • Though a few of the hits of that time feel hollow in retrospect. Close Encounters, ugh. I can’t imagine watching E.T. again.
  • Disney movies are my trash bin. That was kind of a surprise, because I’d have felt very differently when I was 10, or 20. But I have little desire to see Pinocchio or Sleeping Beauty again. Pixar holds up better.

You’re a bit at the mercy of their database, which is skimpy on foreign and obscure films. I’ve now rated 300 films, and my top 20 are:

  • Kill Bill Vol. 1
  • Young Frankenstein
  • The Fifth Element
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Memento
  • WALL-E
  • Rear Window
  • The Princess Bride
  • Princess Mononoke
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Return of the Jedi
  • Fantasia
  • The Matrix
  • Mulan
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2
  • Home Alone
  • Back to the Future
  • A Fish Called Wanda

A lot of the list actually seems wrong to me. A lot depends on what actual choices you were presented, and I’m sure I haven’t yet chosen between #20, A Fish Called Wanda and #21, To Kill a Mockingbird, or #22, Black Panther. I don’t know what Home Alone is doing there, either. I’m not sure why Airplane! and Casablanca and The Sting and The Godfather and Galaxy Quest aren’t there, since I feel like I’ve rated them pretty highly. Do The Right Thing only just appeared in the choices, so it hasn’t had a chance to move up. And movies like Tampopo, The Triplets of Belleville, La Gloire de mon père, Blow-up, Allegro Non Troppo haven’t appeared at all. I’ll probably keep playing with the list, and it’ll look very different soon.

(Also, for some reason Youtube has been offering me clips of Kill Bill recently, and I find them pretty cool. I wouldn’t have called it #1 though.)

There’s a dearth of Important Movies currently, probably because of the pandemic, to say nothing of Trumpism. When my twitter feed is full of catastrophes, I don’t really crave enlightenment and/or education from the movies. I mean, Gandhi really is a deeper, more affecting movie than WALL-E, but if they were both on, I’m afraid I’d switch to the cartoon.

Still, there’s just enough truth in the list to point out two types of movies I really really like. One, visual spectacles, especially ones I’d never seen or imagined before seeing the movie; if they’re spectacular enough they can be forgiven some incoherence. Two, cleverly written movies: mind-blowers like Memento and Rear Window; near-perfect comedies like Young Frankenstein and Princess Bride.

Anyway, if that inspires you to rate your own list, have fun!

Harley Quinn: Gotham comedy

Youtube has for some reason decided to show me clips of the new Harley Quinn animated series.  And they’re great! Actually watching the show costs money, so I haven’t seen a full episode.

This is the first clip I saw, and one of the best:

(I notice that my borders make the viewer too small, so feel free to follow the links to watch on Youtube instead.)

I love this version of Catwoman, and the interaction with Ivy is brilliant: she goes in an instant from bad-mouthing her to Harley, to sucking up in person– a very human reaction that tells us a lot about both characters.  Ivy normally plays slightly-wiser older sister to Harley, so the turnaround is even funnier. In my favorite Catwoman interpretations she’s a bit nicer, but failing that I love seeing her super-competent at what she does, as here. And all three characters avoid the oversexualization that surfaced in the Arkham games.

Follow-up to that scene, where Catwoman shows off more of what she does, and Ivy has a cringey boyfriend with the poorest of timing:

jwz’s review is right on:

This is the greatest DC cartoon series ever made. It had not occurred to me that what was missing from these stories was lots and lots of swearing. But it is. It really, really is.

Elsewhere, the story can get pretty dark, which I’m not too fond of. (Take that as a warning if you don’t like cartoon gore.) But it’s not grimdark, it’s comic darkness, and that makes a huge difference. A lot of the humor is aimed at the grimdarkness or at least the over-seriousness of regular Batman, anyway.

Plus, focusing on the second tier of supervillains turns out to be the key move for comedy. Comic heroes are hard to do; though it can be done (cf. The Tick), it tends to leach the drama out. And making the top psychopaths (Joker, the Penguin) funny weakens them. But Ivy, Harley, Clayface, King Shark are just the right level: they can be made fairly human and fairly dysfunctional as needed, and they’re in just the right place to make fun of both the top tier villains and the heroes.

(To be clear, Mark Hamill’s Joker works, in Arkham City. But he’s a clowning psychopath, not a comic villain. He’s not usually funny, though he does have some good lines. Joker’s jollity isn’t meant to amuse onlookers, including us; it’s a marker of the way he really enjoys being a psychopath.)

Black Panther

So, tonight I finally saw Black Panther, which you may have heard of. If you haven’t, I suggest you go see it; it’s pretty good. This is actually the first Marvel movie I’ve seen. I hear they have, what, half a dozen by now?

We’ll get to the actual people below, but they have to work hard not to be upstaged by the set and costume design, which are some of the best to be seen in any sf/fantasy film. E.g. the big reveal of Africa’s biggest city, Wakanda:

lagos

Whoops, that is Africa’s biggest city, but it’s the real city of  Lagos, Nigeria.  Here’s Wakanda:

wakanda

So, this is a really cool shot, and it kind of ruins one of my jokes, comparing Wakanda to Numbani from Overwatch. This is far better done, not least because it isn’t just futuristic slabs as in every other movie and video game; it has interesting textures and seems anchored to the natural world. The street scenes are great too– it looks like a lively city that definitely doesn’t look American.

Still, I included the picture of Lagos for a reason– as a reminder of how mind-bogglingly large it is (the metropolitan area houses 21 million people, a little more than New York), and that the continent isn’t the basket case some people depict it as. (Nigeria’s per capita income is about the same as India, which today we think of, or should, as a rising power.)

The movie itself has a lot to say about oppression and unfairly divided wealth, especially as it relates to Black people, but its view of Africa outside Wakanda is uniformly negative. It’s the “Third World” that Wakanda hides itself as; the only scene set in non-Wakandan Africa is a human-trafficking operation. Not every movie can be everything, but in this area the movie is maybe a little too American.

Now, superhero movies are kind of forced to have a stereotyped and somewhat dumb structure. First you have to show that the superhero is awesome: they go and beat up normal mooks in amazing ways. But since 90 minutes of beating up mooks would get old, you have to have a supervillain, and the hero has to be beaten, and it’s hard not to make them look incompetent. Finally they get to be awesome again and the villain is decisively overcome.

This was a major problem in The Dark Knight, and Black Panther can’t quite escape it. Chadwick Boseman gets his early awesome scenes, but he also spends a lot of the movie looking kind of lost.

There’s also a special problem with the Black Panther character, which– to be honest– was created by a couple of white guys with pretty retro ideas about Africa, full of rhinos and kings and acacia trees. That is, he’s a superhero but also a traditional king His country is supposed to be wealthy and technologically advanced, yet also an absolute monarchy. (The main driver of the movie’s plot is that the king is chosen via a fight to the death.) The political contradiction was faced in the comics by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but he and Boseman both have problems humanizing the king– both T’challas are regal and austere and a little humorless.  On the other hand, that does give him a real character arc, and by the end of the movie he does have something to smile about.

Fortunately for T’challa and the movie, he’s also surrounded by badass women who don’t have to go through that act-two round of doubt and defeat. The standouts here are his sister Shuri (Leticia Wright) and his main general Okoye (Danai Gurira). I would gladly watch a movie centering on either of them. Okoye is beautiful to watch, making the superheroics look effortless. Shuri has great fight scenes too, but she’s also Wakanda’s Q, its scientific heart, and there’s nothing like her smirky smile when she’s carelessly explaining some tech she knows her listeners won’t understand.

The main antagonist, Erik Killmonger, is unusually good for a supervillain, because Ryan Coogler (director and co-writer) gives him an intelligent ideology and plan. (And at least at first, he’s more likeable than T’challa.) He wants to fight back— he wants to use Wakandan technology to take over the world and “run it right.” When he get a chance to confront the Wakandans, he asks them what they were doing when Africa was being carved up and millions of its people enslaved. No one answers, because they have no answer. They were protecting their little turf and that’s it.

Now, the dude apparently wants to use terrorism to create this empire– his plan consists of shipping out weapons, which he’s hoping will be used to kill a lot of people. So, that’s pretty bad. But he’s useful as a critique of Wakandan complacency, and an object lesson in why alpha-male combat might not be the best political system. And again, all this is way more sophisticated than most superhero stories, which are mostly about supercriminals with no relation to actual crime, and near-supernatural threats with no relation to actual global threats.

A few minor cavils:

  • Bits of the plot were obviously storyboarded, but not thought out. E.g. the operation in Busan (hi D.Va!) made no sense at all: the artifact wasn’t recovered, not enough operatives were sent, and Klaue was not secured.
  • T’challa asks his frenemy M’baku to safeguard his mother while the capital is held by Killmonger. Then, to push an alliance, he says Killmonger will come after M’baku. These statements don’t seem compatible…
  • “Hanuman”?  Yikes.

Even more than the set design, the costume design is consistently great. Okoye and the rest of the all-female royal bodyguard are especially striking in their red armor. The designer went to the trouble of creating designs for each of Wakanda’s five tribes… most viewers won’t notice, but there’s a reason (e.g.) Lupita Nyong’o always wears green. This is great worldbuilding: it adds depth without getting in the way, and it rewards deeper viewing and re-viewing.

Edit: Gaze, if you dare, on Tom & Lorenzo’s overview of the costumes of Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri in particular. Ruth Carter deservedly got an Oscar for this.

Finally, a word on diversity, which is that it’s awesome. If you’re a Hollywood exec, rather than rebooting Batman for the 119th time, let some people tell stories that weren’t often given that chance before. The novelty and passion will make a better film. Also, trust me, give Shuri her own movie.

 

 

 

Sin City 2: Sinnier, Citier

Short shameful confession: I liked Sin City, both the movie and the comic. Both are extremely over-the-top noir, and graphically stunning. There’s a sequel, and I finally got around to it— the chunkily named Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.  (It’s directed by Robert Rodriguez and Miller, and came out in 2014, nine years after the original.)

dametokill

Marv teams up with Catwoman

I read some reviews that mostly said “Kind of gross, but if you liked Sin City I guess you’ll like this.” And it is mostly more of the same: same extreme-o-noir, same green screen, many of the same stars, same nasty heroes, nastier villains, and warrior prostitutes. But not, unfortunately, the same fun. I think there’s several reasons for that.

One, it may be that one Sin City is about all we needed. It’s true that genre can get away with a lot of repetition, but you have to have a wider range of situations and emotions. Dashiell Hammett knew not to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon where Spade gets a new partner, who’s killed, and there’s a new tempting woman who sends him on the hunt for, oh, the Templar Duck.

Two, the movie knows it had a good thing in Marv (Mickey Rourke), so it plasters him all over the movie. And Jessica Alba dances a lot, and Bruce Willis is there, as a freaking ghost. And Gail and Miho show up. When a work is in love with its own material, it’s usually a bad sign. It’s like nudging the audience and saying “See, didn’t you enjoy him in the first one? There he is again! Look!”

That might be OK if the new material was good, but I think it’s something of a step down. Dwight was my favorite character in the first film, maybe because of Clive Owen’s soft voice: he’s the only one who isn’t auditioning for Batman. Here he’s replaced by Josh Brolin. There’s a story reason for this, but never mind, it’s a downgrade; he’s just dumb and ugly. This is one of the few Sin City stories with a female villain, Ava (Eva Green, who single-handedly has to provide all of the film’s bare breasts). And… it shows that Frank Miller should stick to male villains.  Philip Marlowe would have become an insurance salesman before being such as sap as Dwight.

There’s one odd omission. In the comic, Ava brings in crimelord Wallenquist, who gives her a rare rebuke: “I’ll warn you once and once only… Do not flirt with me, I have no use for your charms.” It’s minor, but it shows that there are limits to Ava’s power, and makes Dwight look like even more of a sap.

There’s two more new stories. One is a hotshot gambler who goes up against Senator Roark.  I liked his cockiness, but the payoff is low. The other is a sequel to the story of Nancy (Jessica Alba) in the first movie. She’s like, all troubled and stuff. This feels like a cheat, because the only way Miller gets away with his bondage-gear babes is that they’re all also badasses. Plus, the whole point of her story arc in #1 was that she was a tough cookie herself, so why the regress?  Fortunately this bit is over quickly, especially if you fast forward, and she puts on a goth outfit, takes Marv for backup, and goes off to commit badassery.

The stories interleave with those of the first film, in a way that probably makes no sense, but I’m not going to be bothered to work it out. Most of the stories feature Marv, which means they have to come before the first movie; but the Goth Nancy story is after the events of the first film.

It’s not all bad. Rourke does a good job, and whenever Gail, Miho, or Goth Nancy are onscreen it’s fun. Honestly I wish the movie had been all about Miho.  They could have adapted “Family Values”, which features her.

The DVD also has a featurette showing the whole movie in green screen. It’s pretty amazing… pretty much everything but the characters is CGI, even if it’s a crappy apartment or the side of a road somewhere. Kudos to the actors who had to act as if they weren’t surrounded by ridiculous green walls and floors.

 

 

Stalin dies again

Tonight we saw The Death of Stalin, the film. It’s based on the graphic novel I reviewed a few months back. It’s a great film.

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Standing: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale

The overall plot is the same, but it feels like there’s a lot more material– scenes of Khrushchev and his wife, scenes of Beria in his hellish HQ, scenes about planning the funeral, a recap of Stalin’s dinner and movie night with his colleagues just before his death. Some subtle differences:

  • Marshal Zhukov comes in later, and is treated far more reverentially. In the book he was an ugly, stiff bastard; here, he’s loud and no-nonsense and the only person not afraid of Beria.
  • There’s no open sex (which is just as well), but an unsettling number of on-screen murders.
  • The comeuppance of Beria is telescoped: rather than three months after Stalin’s funeral, followed by an actual trial (though of the kangaroo type), it’s presented as happening on the day of the funeral, followed by immediate execution.
  • Though everyone gets screen time, the story becomes far more focused on the power struggle between Khrushchev and Beria.
  • You’d think the comic version would be more cartoony, but in many ways the movie is. There’s a good deal more slapstick involving the puddle of urine around Stalin’s body, and the Central Committee awkwardly carrying him to his bed.
  • At the same time, though the graphic novel is dark, the film is darker.  This mostly, I think, comes from the handling of Beria. The graphic novel allows him a little comedy; in the film he’s just pure evil– 0% approval rating, as TV Tropes puts it.

A lot of reviews treat the film as a comedy or satire, but don’t expect it to be Blazing Saddles. A lot of it is not funny at all: the dreaded midnight knocks on the door, Beria’s torture chambers, his savage end. But there is a rich dark humor to be found when morality is of little use and competence is far less valued than loyalty.

The other thing the film has, of course, is actors. It’s very well served here. Simon Beale is a great villain. I wouldn’t have thought Steve Buscemi would fit the role (isn’t he always a lizardy low-life?), but he does great, and he manages a convincing arc from buffoon to top dog. Jeffrey Tambor is perfect as the hapless Malenkov; he gets across the plaintive air of a stupid man who is aware that he looks stupid and resents it enormously.

Though it was written and filmed before Trump’s election, the film surely sheds a good deal of light on how a corrupt, narcissistic, traitorous buffoon can hold such a grip on the Republican Party. You don’t actually need a canny old dictator or a secret police to hold the party in line: the threat of a primary, or the wrath of Fox News, is sufficient.

If you see it, you’ll probably want to know more about the real history; this page is a good place to start on untangling what’s true or not. (The absurdity of the event is not a clue.) The movie hints that the intrigue didn’t stop, and this is quite true– Khrushchev’s allies mostly turned on him four years later, and failed; a relative newcomer, Brezhnev, forced him out in 1965.

Tampopo

I got nostalgic for this flick (タンポポ, 1985, dir. Jūzō Itami) after seeing a Mefi thread on it, so my wife and I watched it again. Not only does it hold up well, I think it’s just about a perfect movie.

tampopo

A recap, if you missed it: Two truck drivers, Gorō and Gun, get hungry for ramen, and stop at a hole-in-the-wall shop run by Tampopo, widow of the previous owner. They get into a fight with the thuggish customers and get beaten up. Tampopo takes care of Gorō, and asks him how the ramen was.  The answer is, not good.  It’s “sincere, but lacks character.” Tampopo is desperate to make the best possible ramen, and Gorō takes on the task of training her.

This turns out, like a video game quest, to involve an escalating series of complications: spying on other restaurants, strength training, and building an unlikely fraternity of counselors: the king of the hobos who knows all about broth; a rich man’s chauffeur who knows noodles; and finally the thuggish customer who was bothering Tampopo earlier: after a fistfight with Gorō he becomes a pal and offers to remodel the restaurant.

This sounds like a thin plot for a movie, and that’s the first joke. Yes, they’re treating this as an epic quest, with overtones of samurai movies and Westerns– Gorō even has the hat for it. And yes, it’s like finding the perfect barbecue or gyros: ramen is (or was at the time of the movie) unpretentious street food.

But people are passionate about food, and that’s really the theme of the movie. At one point Gorō  is building up Tampopo’s strength by having her run (while he rides a bicycle). We see a line of businessmen, and “for some reason” (as Itami says in the making-of documentary) the camera follows them. This turns into one of many vignettes about food. The businessmen go to a fancy French restaurant, and all the important people– who can’t read the menu– order the same thing. Only the youngest (it’s obviously his first such outing) consults with the waiter, and orders an excellently chosen gourmet meal with appropriate wine. The five others stare at him, completely red-faced.

Most of the vignettes revolve around a joke, but some are about sex: they center on a yakuza and his girlfriend, both dressed all in white, who use food as foreplay. The yakuza meets his comeuppance near the end of the film, and as he lies dying, confides to the crying girl a recipe for boar sausages he would have liked to share with her.

On a less intense level, the film shows a developing romance between Tampopo and Gorō . But Gorō moves on at the end.  He has to, as a Western hero or as a video game protagonist. The next quest awaits.

It’s hard to convey in words just how assured and controlled Itami’s film is. The tone could falter at any moment. We could lose interest in the vignettes; we could find the overall ramen quest silly; the actors could play it too seriously or too hammily. But it never does falter. At one point early in the movie an elderly man is teaching a young man how to eat ramen. He says, in the reverential tone of every martial arts master on film, “Caress the pork slices with your chopsticks.” It’s absurd, but it’s delivered completely straight, and it works. The film is about people who are passionate for food, to the point of being a little ridiculous. And it’s like, yeah, why shouldn’t we be both passionate and ridiculous about food?

The making-of documentary has a fascinating bit where Itami plays the final scene for us three times, with different choices for the music– not even choosing different music, just differing places to start. It’s a little lesson in rhythm and the emotional effect of music, and another demonstration of Itami’s attention to detail.

I don’t think you can watch this film without coming out hungry for ramen. Or the beautiful rice omelette that’s made at one point.  Or boar sausages.

There is way, way more to the movie than I could explain without going to film school. Apparently it’s full of homages to other movies, Japanese and Western. The choice of actors must be meaningful: Itami seems to have assembled every older character actor in Japan.

If there’s any very slight weakness in the film, it may be Tampopo herself. She’s the perfect martial arts student: quiet, but whip-smart, absorbing everything she sees in order to win the big boss battle at the end (in this case, the final ramen-tasting). There’s nothing wrong with her, but maybe that itself is something wrong. She isn’t really allowed to have any vices or make any mistakes. But perhaps that’s what the other characters and the vignettes are for. (And maybe our own convention that the hero has to be flawed needs to be challenged.)

Interesting factoid: the actress, Nobuko Miyamoto, was 40 when the movie was made. She was also Itami’s wife, and the son in the movie was their actual son.

From the Mefi thread, this appears to be a movie that only a minority of people have seen, but that almost everyone remembers with affection. So, enjoy, and then have a great meal.

 

The Last Jedi

They are still making Star Wars movies, did you know?  This one is called The Last Jedi. I talked about the previous film here.

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Giving Luke a piece of her mind, and boy does he need it

Overall: this was great. It’s the first movie since the first that shakes things up and tries new things. Plus, I think it has the lowest cheese ratio of all the movies.  If you think the original movies weren’t cheesy, you’ve just forgotten.  Joel and the bots would have a field day with all of them. Last Jedi is still an adventure movie, of course, not Truffaut. But it takes itself seriously, tells multiple stories comprehensibly, never relies on people being idiots, and has some great action sequences.

Let me make it clear right away that I love the fact that Star Wars is finally foregrounding women, black folks, and Asians. It is, after all, a saga about fighting space Nazis. It ought to offend alt-righters.

The movie actually has a couple of themes, which is two more than an action movie generally needs or gets. One them is failure. Like The Empire Strikes Back, this is the middle picture of a trilogy, and has to get Our Heroes into deeper trouble. Which means it has to have heroic acts but ultimately end in failure. But all the failures are part of character arcs, and none are quite as Chaotic Stupid as trusting Lando in ESB.

The other is how to handle legends. This is kind of metatextual, but that doesn’t make it any less a valid lesson. The biggest mistake of all, it turns out, is treating Luke as a savior figure.

It’s disconcerting, of course, that Luke doesn’t want to be a hero any more. But, well, this is a far more mature and interesting approach than having him be the new Yoda and happily teaching Rey. Plus, you know, the movie explains its point pretty well: Luke feels he fucked up with Kylo Ren.  And he did. Once again, Mr. #2 Sith Lord is a failed Jedi. It may be extreme to decide to can the whole Jedi/Sith thing, but you can see why he thinks that way.  And he does get to have his time of redemption at the end.

Edit: Someone on Mefi had a great observation: if you think Luke is insufficiently heroic in Last Jedi, your real problem is with The Force Awakens, which sets it up: already Luke was absent from the fight, in exile. But people didn’t think through at the time what that meant.

The Rey/Kylo scenes are where the film takes its biggest risk. There’s a moment in ESB where Vader tempts Luke, but we don’t believe it for a second. Lucas could not think of anything Vader could offer that was worth listening to; the Dark Side was just Eeevil. Kylo is sometimes… well, often… a stereotypical out-of-control teenager with anger issues. But it’s a stereotype that exists for a reason, and it makes him more human and more interesting than Lord Eeevil.

In some ways Rey falls a little too easily for Kylo. But again, it is absolutely a thing that well-meaning girls fall for edgy boys; it’s far more understandable than Lucas’s attempt to explain Vader. Plus, the idea that the near-personifications of the Dark Side and Light Side of the Force are fascinated with each other is smart. It’s not so much that opposites attract, but that certain opponents care about the same things, and they share experiences that mundane people don’t. (At least one comic, Jay Stephens’s Atomic City Tales, makes use of this: the superhero protagonist starts dating one of the supervillains. You can see that they’d have a lot in common, if they avoid a few topics.)

Plus, all this leads to perhaps the best scene in the movie– the confrontation in Snoke’s throne room. The plot tension is high: we absolutely saw Kylo’s murderousness in the first movie. His turning on Snoke is both surprising and satisfying. It addresses a problem ESB set up but didn’t answer: why didn’t Vader do the same thing? It seems Sith Lords are uniformly terrible managers, and #2 murdering #1 comes with the territory.

Kylo’s little speech about getting past the whole Jedi/Sith thing echoes Luke. It’s not so clear what he thinks he’s doing, but at least that feels like a question we can ask. Vader’s goals (“get another gold star on this year’s annual review”?) were unfathomable.

Plus, of course, that fight scene is fantastic.  Who knew that what Star Wars needed was more red?

The whole Finn + Rose story is fun, not least because what the series is best at is building new heroes, and Finn needs a lot of building. Rose is certainly the most adorable Resistance hero, but she has a core of steel, which turns out to be just the role model Finn needs. It’s odd, but fun, that we get a little heist story in the middle of the galactic epic, and it has another fantastic set piece– the escape on the huge, um, animals.  Not going to Wookiepedia to see what they’re called; I might never get out.

This sequence contains a single line– Rose explaining that the rich people at the casino mostly got their money selling arms to the First Order– that does more work on worldbuilding and analyzing power structures than the entirely of Eps 1-3. And this is later deepened by DJ’s casual demonstration that they sold arms to the Resistance as well. All this is again more sophisticated and nuanced than Star Wars usually gets.

The one thing that the new trilogy has failed to explain is where Snoke came from. Probably some movie will be made to explain that, but maybe it’s just as well if we don’t ever know. We can fill in the details from current events, after all.

Action movies often suffer from “fridge logic”… things you don’t question while watching, but which don’t make sense when it’s over and you head to the fridge. The biggest bits here would be:

  • Why didn’t they pull that lightspeed maneuver earlier, when they could have saved hundreds of people?
  • Why didn’t Holdo have any answer for Poe?  Even “it’s secret” would probably have shot him down.

Some things seem like they might fall under this category, but I’d argue that they’re just bad luck, or the characters’ mistakes. E.g. the whole heist sequence ends up failing. That doesn’t mean it was a bad idea (though the complexity of the plan was certainly a strike against it). It was far better planned than, say, the assault on the New Death Star in #6.

Similarly, Poe’s attack on the dreadnoughts at the beginning was risky, but it wasn’t simply idiotic.  They had to show what a Pyrrhic victory was.   Besides, the real idiot was whoever designed the bombers to be that slow.

The biggest surprise is that the Resistance comes so low in this movie. It didn’t seem like the First Order was that close to total victory in the previous film. But, everyone’s character arcs have clicked into place, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

I’ve seen complaints that the movie is too long. I don’t think so, but the timing does get wonky toward the end. There’s a moment of catharsis with Holdo’s maneuver and the big fight scenes on the ship, and then it seems we have another half an hour to go. My notes at this point say “We need a denouement.” But things pick up again, and there’s another nice bit with Luke’s final fight.

One more thought– read Tom & Lorenzo’s piece on Rey’s outfits. Quite interesting, and a demonstration that a lot of thought and thematic savvy goes into things that most watchers won’t even notice.

Valerian

I was excited to hear that Luc Besson was making a movie of Valérian, the French BD. And I finally got to see it!

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The top image is from the movie

Briefly: it’s pretty good, with caveats.  (JWZ hated it, though.) Pluses:

  • It’s visually stunning, far outdoing Fifth Element.
  • It’s a surprisingly close adaptation of the 1975 Valérian comic Ambassador of the Shadows.
  • It’s also faithful to the anti-colonialist spirit of the comics.
  • Laureline.

Minuses:

  • Besson lays it on pretty thick at times.
  • Nowhere near as compelling a villain as in Fifth Element.
  • Valerian.
  • Not enough Laureline.

It wasn’t very successful in the US, for about the same reason as Fifth Element: American sdon’t read French comics, so they just don’t know what to make of this sort of material. We expect our heroes to be rock-jawed and earnest, or maybe disturbed and grimdark.  And when it comes to satire, we have no subtlety: everything either has to be cynically absurdist (The Simpsons) or over-the-top dystopia (pretty much every recent sf movie).

The comic started in 1967, drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières and written by Pierre Christin, and continued to 2010. French comics are often gorgeous, and Mézières did amazing work bringing aliens, space vistas, and 28th century technology to life. Valérian and Laureline  are “spatio-temporal agents”— their missions cross both space and time, protecting the future Earth state, “Galaxity”— but there’s a strong humanistic and anti-establishment tone to the stories, and often they have to disobey orders and do what’s right instead.

In the comics, Valérian is kind of a big lug— good enough at executing his missions, but not very imaginative. Laureline is always depicted as smarter, more empathetic, and more versatile. (She also has the more interesting background: she’s from the 10th century; she met Valérian on one of his missions and, discovering his time travel ability, had to go back to the future with him, whereupon Galaxity trained her as his partner.)

Watching the movie, you can kind of see that that’s what Besson was going for— only he spoiled it by making Valerian an asshole. I’ve heard people complaining about the casting, or the chemistry between the actors, but I think Cara Delevingne does fine, and Dane DeHaan does what he can with his terrible part. The problem is the script: Valerian talks like a bad pick-up artist, and doesn’t really have much to say when Laureline points out that he loses all interest in a woman after seducing her.  The script suggests that going through an adventure together and saving each other’s lives a few times might change all that.  Maybe, but more likely it’d seem like a huge mistake in a month’s time.

The movie at least starts with strong source material: it adapts Ambassador, including the mega-space station, the primitive-seeming alien race, the converter creature, the shape-shifting aliens, the information-dealing little aliens, the sea monsters with telepathic jellyfish on top, the ambivalent and arrogant Earth government, the attack and kidnaping of the Earth official. But Ambassador was also virtually a solo adventure for Laureline: Valérian was kidnaped as well and spends most of the comic offscreen. Although it might be a weird introduction to the series, I’d much rather have called the movie Laureline, focused on her, and lost the ham-fisted bro-romance angle.

Still, if you look at Fifth Element too closely, it falls apart too.  Too corny; over-the-top excess; Ruby Rhod. And yet, it’s spectacular and eccentric, and Besson knows how to make a movie move. It’s really well put together, and very enjoyable if you just accept that the characters are caricatures.

And Valerian is pretty similar. It’s really beautiful, and the first bit of plot— the dimension-crossing Big Market— is crazy and amazing. It’s always beautiful and never boring. And though Valerian himself is kind of excruciating, he’s also, I think, meant to be that way.