Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Four Weddings and A Funeral--the TV/Movie/Comic Edition

There’s been a lot of great geekery going on television lately, and for the most part, it’s been very impressive. Comics have exploded in a way that I don’t think anyone expected. There’s a show on every network, it seems, streaming or otherwise, that you can tie into a comic book in some way.

Not my Joker. Not my Series. Y'all have fun with it.
Fair warning: I’m not going to talk about Gotham, or any of the other shows I’m not currently watching. I tried Gotham for two and a half seasons and came to really, really dislike the show from its premise on down to its writing. That’s clearly not a show for me, and if you like it, good on you. It’s not my jam. And I really don’t feel like dumping on the show, since I know it’s popular for some folks.

Instead, we’re going to talk about what I DO like right now. I know I’ve used the phrase “embarrassment of riches” before, but it’s really true. You have to be old to appreciate it—like, older. Forty or older. You have to be able to remember back to when we were all watching Batman and Robin in the early 1990s and thinking to ourselves, “Well, it was nice while we had it.” Or watching the first episode of M.A.N.T.I.S. on television and thinking, “This really could have been something.” You had to have been bitterly disappointed when The Flash was cancelled from CBS because it was too expensive to make and no one but us was watching it.

You really do need to be in your late forties-to-early fifties, or older, to really get it, as I have talked about at length before. But rather than lecture you kids today, I’m going to talk about what’s positive, mostly, and where I think we may be heading, which may not be positive. 

Hey, look! Vampire Bill got a new job! 
The Gifted
Fox has one card left in their stable: the X-Men Franchise, and boy, are they squeezing blood out of a turnip. I don’t mean this in a necessarily negative way. But let’s face it; the movies all kind of cancel each other out. The best one (X2) is negated by its sequel, (X-Men: The Last Stand) and all the rest have been fair to middling with flashes of greatness here and there. The only thing that tips the “franchise” in the win column is that each successive Wolverine movie got better and better. But I don't want to overlook the phenomenal Legion mini-series that came out last year (and neither should you).

In 2018, we are coming to the end of the Intellectual Property Film Rights Options—I mean, the end of the X-Verse as we know it (because why think like a realist when you can ignore the billions of dollars changing hands as if that in no way influences the creative decisions being made). There are three X-movies on the film schedule. Deadpool 2, which has a spectacular chance to suck, for one reason, and for one reason only—I suspect we’ve seen everything that made the first movie work already. It’s no longer a surprise, and so, my prediction is that the film will disappear up its own asshole. I’d rather it didn’t, but I just don’t think lightning is going to strike twice.

Not when X-Men: Dark Phoenix is on the schedule, as well. Which X-Men will it be? Will Famke Janssen come back from 2003 to reprise her role? Who can say? At this point, who cares? But it COULD be a good thing, if they let it be the send-off that gets us to The New Mutants.

Tonally, this movie looks a lot closer to Legion, which was a total surprise for everyone who watched it (go watch it if you haven’t; it seems to be in the same world—maybe—as Gifted). If Fox is smart, and wants to recoup some of those buckolas they’ve been paying out over on the news side of the media empire, they need to pivot the movies into X-Men TV, because what they are tentatively doing is remaking the X-verse for a multi-series TV empire. 

The Gifted is great. It’s really fun. It seems to be set in a universe that is somewhere past The Days of Future Past story, but not post-apocalyptic. They are playing their cards close to their chest on this (this is studio-speak for “we don’t know if we’re going to get the movie rights back or not”), so every episode reminds us, through familiar mutants like Polaris and Thunder Bird, that “we don’t know what happened to Professor X and the rest of the X-Men! Magneto may be dead for all we know!”

To that, I say, Good, and Good Riddance. All the X-fans ever really wanted was to see their beloved characters on the big screen. They didn’t have to actually do anything, or say anything; they just had to show up, in a movie that didn’t suck. Well, that score card is pretty well punched through. What’s left is the idea, the conceit of the whole comic series: there are these folks born different, with powers and abilities, and they are feared and distrusted and hunted by the government, detained without due process, tortured by their captors, turned to be used against their own kind...are we seeing the metaphors yet?

That’s always been when the X-Men books (and movies) were at their best. Gifted embraces that ideal. It’s fun to watch Polaris have powers like Polaris. It’s fun to watch Thunder Bird track. The new kids, the POV family, have interesting powers that are a deep cut into the X-verse.

Runaways
Not to be outdone, and weirdly, not to be repeated, either, is Runaways, something of a surprise hit as a comic and now, also, a surprise hit on Hulu as well. The premise is a lot like the X-Men, if you say, “It’s teens on the run from the authorities for their powers and abilities.” But here’s the cool twist: These kids, teenagers all, have been friends for years because their parents know each other. These forced friendships have broken up following the unexpected death of one of the kids. They end up through various plots together during one of their parental get-togethers, and that’s when they discover that their parents are actually (dun-dun-DUUUUNNN!) SUPER VILLIANS. Well, in the Hulu series, they are a cross between Doctor Doom and Scientology. So, villainous-enough, maybe?

It’s not quite that obvious initially in the Hulu series, but all of the beats are there, and in that way that Marvel Media has of surprising me, one of the greatest things about the comic book series is included in the show. I don’t know how often we’re going to see Gertie’s watchdog, but oh, oh, oh, when it showed up initially, I came up out of my chair. Yep. They got the dinosaur right.

Don’t expect it to be a straight one-to-one transfer; that’s not how we do things, anymore. Instead, revel at the characters themselves, how “right” they got them, and how instantly recognizable they are from the comics, and then enjoy a slightly more streamlined storyline and more character development as the teens try to figure out what’s going on and how they can stop it. The Hulu series is just as entertaining as the comic.

The Punisher
I had to slide into this one gradually. I took several days to watch it, and I didn’t grab it the weekend it came out. It just didn’t feel right. I’m glad I waited, though, because this was one of the best Netflix series, and certainly the best Punisher on film, hands down, game over.

This series, of course, takes place after Daredevil Season 2. Frank Castle is dead, according to the whole world, except for a few people who helped him go underground. When he gets found by a man in similar circumstances, he’s not happy about it. But their partnership is what saves the series and makes it eminently watchable, even as there is blood and gunfire and horribleness happening.

The biggest and maybe best surprise was the amount of story space given to veterans suffering from P.T.S.D., which was used as a legal defense by Matt Murdock, and mentioned in the second Captain America movie—never in a negative way, I want to point out. But this series goes deeper and shows what one bad day can do to someone. Even though the story slant is firmly in Castle’s direction, it’s impossible to not sympathize and also empathize with everything he’s been through. Right up until the white skull on the black vest comes out, right, I mean, you can’t solve every problem with a gun. Just THIS particular problem. That’s how the Punisher sees it; it’s his job to finish what he started, and with good reason, considering what happened to his family.

I realize this kind of show is not for everyone, but what Netflix and Jeph Loeb got right is in acknowledging the rather simplistic, nudge-nudge-wink-wink this is really Deathwish in disguise comic book origins, and instead finding interesting ways to personalize the story and make Castle a real person and not a walking, talking, gun-toting cliché (which is why all of the movies failed--we didn't need the Punisher in a world where we already had Charles Bronson and Rambo). I think Jon Bernthal realizes he’s got the part that will define his career and he should be nominated for an Emmy. He's going to be smart in moving this character going forward and I think he’s treating the material with care and respect. This really gets me excited for Daredevil Season 3.

The Berlanti-Verse
I have a love-hate-love relationship with Greg Berlanti and his clutch of DC Comic-based shows. I love that he is consistently sticking it to The Man (Warner Brothers film division) by sneaking in characters that he’s not supposed to have. And I have to commend him for the sheer surface area of what he’s been able to build with four shows.

But sometimes, those shows are not good. Well, okay, your mileage can, will, and does, vary greatly, but I will say it this way: sometimes, the CW-ness of the shows overwhelm me to the point that I am angered and nauseated. And yet, I power through. I went back to re-watch the first season of Arrow because they did a Flash two-parter in season two. And I jumped into The Flash with both feet and was rewarded with Gorilla Grodd. GORILLA GRODD. I was more cautious about Supergirl, mostly because it premiered on CBS, but also because, well, I’m not a 12-year old girl. Over at the CW, the Lesbian quotient has doubled (yay!) and so has the manufactured drama that plagues every single show on that network. The worst show of the bunch is, of course, Legends of Tomorrow. Don’t ask me why, especially if you disagree. One, you’re wrong. And two, to explain everything that series gets wrong would take more time than anyone alive has to waste, so you’ll just have to trust me.

All that said, the team-ups have been fun. First Arrow and The Flash did it (and had the brass balls to call it “The Brave and the Bold,” too), which really highlighted the tonal differences in the shows. After that, people started hopping all over the multiverse (yeah, there’s a multiverse on CW, right now, and it looks a LOT like something from a comic book). My favorite, personally, was the Constantine/Arrow cross-over, just because they could.

Then they tried this big-ass alien invasion cross-over last year that really fell flat. But that was in the middle of a depressing Arrow season, a depressing Flash season, and a completely off-the-rails clusterfuck over at Legends of Tomorrow. That was 22 episodes of the team just showing up and blowing things up, as near as I can recall, with the best villains from the other three shows constantly one step ahead of them.

Thankfully, this year’s stories have righted themelves after a wobbly start. The Flash is more fun (Ralph Dibny? The Elongated Man? COME ON!), Arrow is 35% less tragedy porn, Supergirl seems to have settled into a groove where she is, in fact, the super hero in the how and not Mon-El, or Jimmy Olsen, or anyone else.

And Legends of Tomorrow continues to be a shitshow, with one major change: Rip Hunter has rebuilt his Time Police, and they have, as an organization, come to the conclusion that these buffoons have no business mucking with time travel. A point on which we can all agree. But they insist on cleaning up their messes, which at least acknowledges that yeah, they are bad at this, and they need help.

Then they did the cross-over event: Crisis on Earth-X

Holy Crap.

Congratulations, boys and girls, you got me, and you got me good. The multi-Earth cross-overs were among my favorite JLA comics as a kid, especially when it featured anything having to do with Earth-X, the Earth where the Third Reich won World War II. So, all of the Golden Age characters who were giving the Nazis the what-for back in 1943 were still doing it to this day.

This was our four part cross-over. And it was good. It was really, really good. We got to see some old friends, previously thought to be dead on our Earths, alive and kicking here in Earth-X (I won’t spoil the surprises for you) and we were introduced to one of my favorite Golden Age characters, still fighting on Earth-X. Again, no spoilers, but let me just say, Lou Fine would be proud. Well, maybe not proud, but certainly tickled.

The roster, the sheer amount of heroes, and of course, the splitting off into teams to get things done, was straight out of my early comic reading days. Not a lot of plot complications, either, and only a little carry-over of drama from each series. Mostly, they were all united on kicking Nazi ass and getting back to the proper Earth. And as much as I liked the villainous, Ratzi-Scum counterparts to Green Arrow, Supergirl, and the Flash, I couldn’t help wondering if we are going to see an Injustice League for next year’s cross over. I wouldn’t put it past Berlanti. He beat everyone to the punch with this four part extravaganza.

The Inhumans
I saved the worst for last. I’m going to go ahead and call this the first real failure on Marvel’s part to get their characters onto the screen. Maybe if this was 1994, this would have been killer-diller. But in the wake of all that we have seen—and that includes Iron Fist—this was a disaster from start to finish.

I have heard tell that this particular showrunner didn’t have the same amount of ramp up time for Iron Fist, and had to go straight over to The Inhumans afterward, with no breaks and no downtime. Months instead of years. Okay, we get it. This is a hard job. So, we’re going to lay some of the blame at Jeph Loeb’s feet for trying to turn a marathon into a sprint, and then we’re going to talk about the real villain afterward.

But first, let’s all remember how excited we were when we saw the trailer and Lockjaw dropped Black Bolt off in the middle of a city street. They did it again! Is there nothing Marvel can’t do? Well, actually, yes. They can’t do The Inhumans to save their lives. And they may have screwed up other stuff, in the process.

We get to meet the royal family, living in their city on the dark side of the moon, as per the comics. Gorgon stomps on a rover that took a picture of his hoof, so someone is now convinced there’s life on our moon. Meanwhile, Maximus the mad, powerless as an adult (what?) decides to lead a rebellion. So he cuts off Medusa’s hair, thus saving the special effects budget, and they all end up teleporting to Earth—Hawaii, specifically.

What follows is seven episodes of the Inhumans doing not-very-inhuman things as they have to navigate the morays and weird ways of 21st century Hawaii. Karnak hits his head, so his power doesn’t work right. He can’t see the outcomes anymore—a crying shame, since his power was one of the coolest ones to watch play out visually. Gorgon? He falls in with surfers who are special forces or some shit. Medusa, sans hair for the entire series (and the one time they animated her hair, it looked like shit), ends up with the scientist who has been trying to prove her rover didn’t just crash on the moon.

Meanwhile, Maximus is scheming with the human scientist to send him back through terragenesis to get powers, since he didn’t get them the first time. Oh. And the peasants are revolting. And Crystal finds a nice blonde haired guy who is NOT named Johnny Storm, okay? He’s not. But he knows a vet who can fix up Lockjaw.

You know what’s missing? About two seasons of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where they spent show after show meticulously setting up Inhumans, Terragenesis, the Terragon mist, the whole damn thing. There was a tiny—and I mean, three sentences—attempt to connect one of the big hanging plot threads to this garbled mess. Oh, the questions! Oh, the insufficient answers!

Medusa knows how to get on a public bus, but doesn’t know how an ATM works. No one’s powers really work on the show until they are needed. Two previous cast members—better actors, really, but truthfully, the whole cast—wasted on this Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing show. I kept expecting someone to find a Hatch just off the beach. It would have made more sense than what we got.

I’m just going to pitch something: instead of running into ordinary humans, and having to explain who they are to everyone they meet, how about having them run into Coulson and SHIELD? Now the explanation is three lines of dialogue, and we’re all caught up anyways, because we’ve been expecting this payoff on Agents of SHIELD since the whole fershlugginer Inhumans plotline Started!

Cancelling Agent Carter remains very high on the Stupidest
Things ABC did in the 21st Century List. Unfortunately,
The Inhumans just knocked that decision out of the
top spot. Here's Peggy with the Howling Commandos,
one of my favorite episodes in the series, and a good
excuse to run this picture of Hayley Atwell as Agent
Carter and Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan.
So, now there are questions: how are you guys King and Queen of anything, asks Daisy. Mac says, we’ve found other abandoned bases with these portals. And the Inhumans say, those were our former homes. It was decided, many decades ago, that we needed to leave Earth for our own safety...(cue the flashback) Now it’s SHIELD in the 1980s and we have another excuse to see Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter in her role as SHIELD’s former top agent. Maybe even squeeze in a two-eyed Nick Fury for fun. Or Sam Jackson with a high and tight. Anyway, they decide to use the considerable tech that they are all hiding—maybe even make one last deal with Wakanda before that relationship sours—and send them to the far side of the moon, where they will never be found.

Now we don’t have to explain why they speak the same language we do. We can even show them watching our television. And when Maximus finds out that there was some tech that never got cleaned up (or was intentionally withheld, as per Fury’s instructions), he realizes he’s got a whole new group of Inhumans who will potentially fight for him on the moon where they can be rulers instead of hunted and poked and prodded like freaks.

See, there’s your pitch. And it’s got everything we wanted in it. Only, you know, without the bullshit. Don’t bother with it. I would be very surprised if it wasn’t quietly mulched and buried.

So, The Inhumans becomes the first real Marvel stumble. It’s certainly fixable. It can just be ignored, since it literally touched nothing else to begin with. Or it can be restarted (use my outline or any of the dozens of other great ideas that sprang to mind when you were reading my pitch—for they will ALL be better than what we got). But why was it so bad? Why even go to all of the effort? Why hire a showrunner, why get these great actors (who made the best of a bad situation, I promise), why do all of this stuff?

It comes down to the real enemy here, and you’re not going to like it: Disney. This whole Inhumans push was always intended to be leverage against Fox for the X-Men franchise. As those options ran out, as those extensions were activated, as those movies were made, it was all a countdown to Fox re-negotiating with Marvel (now owned by the biggest entertainment conglomerate in the entire world) to keep on doing X-stuff. It was a dare to see if Fox would blink. Their reply, by the way, was two pretty good X-Men movies, a hellacious Wolverine finale, and a Deadpool movie that surprised everyone except die-hard Deadpool fans, such as they were. Oh, and Legion, and Gifted. So, this idea that Fox is going to meekly hand over one of the few things in their stable of franchises that is putting butts in the seats is ludicrous. And we need to stop talking about re-starting the X-Men at Marvel, or doing an X-Men/Avengers crossover. It’s time we put away childish things and look at what’s really going on here.

Folks, at this point, we’re done with comics. Storylines don’t matter. Characters don’t matter. All of those, “Wouldn’t it be cool if...” and “You know who I’d like to see in a Deadpool movie...” discussions are nice, and fun, and we can still have them, but the people in control of all of this—and I mean all of it—it’s in the hands of accountants and C.E.O.s at very large corporations who consider these characters, created at these small companies for decades and were brought to life with pen and ink and paper and color, who you grew up with and are maybe even still inspired by—these men sitting in board rooms consider The Inhumans, The X-Men, Spider-Man, Deadpool, and all the rest of them, as “product.” Specifically, Intellectual property. And it’s something you’re all going to start learning about, whether or not this Fox deal goes through or not. You’d better hope it’s not. (Note: I am not advocating for the site, but the article is cogent and succinctly outlines the good and the bad from such a deal going through).

See, they don’t care about storylines. They only want profits. I know a lot of you are saying, “no duh, we know that, stupid!” but it bears repeating right now. We’re all loving the Marvel movies, and they are doing great things, and that will keep right on happening as long as the movies continue to make the same, or more, as the last movie. They can dip down a little bit, sure, because hey, they can’t all be The Titanic, now, can they? But if the Marvel train ever loses its momentum, you know who’s stepping in? Disney, with their 2 billion dollar investment. See, they have shareholders to make happy, and they don’t want their stock to go down. That’s why they acquired the Marvel characters to begin with. Also Star Wars and Indiana Jones. That’s strategy, not love.

Just be aware, and stop frequenting all of those websites that offer up fifteen reasons WHY the X-MEN is a GOOD BUY for DISNEY and instead start looking at the financial pages of Variety. Watch the deals being made. Follow the money. That’ll tell you more about what’s really going on than Rotten Tomatoes.


Edited: Fixed a network.


Monday, October 16, 2017

I Come to Bury Blade Runner 2049, Not Praise It

Nice poster. 
This entire article is a spoiler. You have been warned.

I’ve got real problems with Blade Runner 2049, but they are not the problems you think. Specifically, I have a real urge to throw this movie and everyone associated with it under the bus. But I’m going to untangle my ire and see if I can’t get to the heart of what’s bothering me. There’s a series of errors occurring in meat-space that have all conspired to create a false narrative around this film.

Fans got it wrong. They didn’t want this. They never did. Even if they say they did, they didn’t really. And right now, fandom is shearing off into two camps, as per usual; folks who are tearing the movie to pieces because it doesn’t look like what’s in their head, and folks who are blindly adoring of the movie because it’s “transcendent” and “evocative” and they dare not dislike it for fear of being accused of “not getting it.”

Critics got it wrong, for the most part. They were the ones granted early access to the film and they didn’t talk about what’s really wrong with the movie. They used words like “transcendent” and “evocative” to cover up the fact that they had no idea what they just watched and didn’t want to seem as if they didn’t “get it.”

Dennis Villeneuve and his whole team got it very wrong. Blade Runner 2049 is a Jurassic Park T-Rex: its makers were so pre-occupied about whether or not they could make it, that they didn’t bother to ask themselves whether or not they should make it.

This is a thing that should not be.

I think the thing that bothers me most is the reaction I’ve seen from some people akin to profound relief and satisfaction, as if they’ve been waiting patiently for three decades for them to “finally get it right.” Let me re-iterate: No one asked for this. The reason why it has slowly morphed into a beloved classic of the science fiction film genre is because there was only one of them, and it more or less worked right the first time. It didn’t need a second chapter, and it damn sure didn’t need to be re-kickstarted into a “franchise.” This whole project is a disservice to everyone. And it was doomed from the get-go.

Not my favorite Harrison Ford movie.
But let’s back this up 35 years, first. The problem begins in 1982 when Blade Runner first appeared. Ridley Scott was (comparatively) at the beginning of his career. Blade Runner was his third movie, after The Duellists, which was seen by maybe seventeen people, and Alien, which was seen by all of North America. He’d done some TV and music video work prior to that, but Blade Runner was clearly his most ambitious movie to date.

It was based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” by Phillip K. Dick, and it was the first of many Dick-inspired films appear, with widely varied results. To wit, there’s not much of the story in the movie, but then again, it was 1982, and we weren’t really expecting there to be. Also, Blade Runner ends up asking questions that are similar to the kinds of questions Dick wrote about, so this movie gets a pass from most die-hard SF readers and fans.

The movie starred Harrison Ford, fresh from Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the apex of his "Young Bogart" phase. Sean Young co-starred, doing her best Veronica Lake impression, and then there’s Rutger Hauer, an actor who was literally cast in everything he’s been in since based entirely on the strength of his performance as Roy Batty; i.e. "Hey, is that Rutger Hauer? Boy, did he get fat!" "Yeah, but he was the shit in Blade Runner, wasn't he?" The film is front loaded with great co-stars and character actors, each one bringing something different to the mix. Darryl Hannah plays a killer sexbot. M. Emmet Walsh is Deckard’s old boss. Edward James Olmos plays a skeevy cop named Gaff. Brion James, William Sanderson, James Hong, Joanna Cassidy...it’s smorgasbord of talent, okay?

Noir-style lighting, expertly applied, with no guessing as to where the light was coming from.
The film came out during this great period in early 80s cinema; ILM was an established entity by this time, and could turn in some impressive special effects, but it wasn’t so easy to do that you could sacrifice story or plot to make your spectacle. You still had to make an actual movie. And while Blade Runner spends a lot of time swinging wide over chilling hellscapes of over-developed cities in a flying car, there’s not too much else going on to distract you from the main story.  Also, there were a lot of downbeat endings, sort of a holdover from the 1970's flirtation with "realism" in cinema. It was okay, for example, to have a "happy for now" ending. Lots of movies from the early to mid-80's had that feel to it. It's like films were deconstructing themselves, even as people like Lucas and Spielberg were trying to stitch them back together again. But I digress.

Ford plays Deckard, a former cop known as a Blade Runner (why? Sounds cool, I guess) that hunts down and “retires” rogue Replicants—artificial workers who sometimes get wise that they are being used for slave labor and decide to rebel, run, or cause trouble. Pretty cynical. Deckard is done with that business, but apparently, he gets called back by his old boss for “one last job.” While he’s on the job, he meets Rachel (Young), and as soon as he does, he’s doomed. We find out pretty quickly that she’s a Replicant, like the ones he’s hunting. Deckard gets leads, drinks a lot, and runs the Replicants down, one by one, all while dealing with Rachel who keeps insisting she’s a real person. She’s got memories, photographs, see? She can’t be artificial.
 
One of the most used and most dramatic stills from the film. 
We find out that the Replicants who are rebelling want more life—they were only supposed to be active for five years. Eventually the head of the Tyrell Corporation, the maker of all the Replicants, has to tell that to Roy Batty, the leader of the gang of miscreant Replicants. “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long. And you have burned so very brightly, Roy.” Weirdly, that does not satisfy Roy, who was looking for more than platitudes. But by now, Deckard has caught up to him and they fight, and Deckard is clearly outmatched. But Batty recites some amazing dialogue and dies right in front of an immobilized Deckard. The movie ends with Deckard grabbing Rachel and heading for the country. She may have a limited lifespan, like Batty. Maybe not. But Deckard decides it’s worth it, because they love each other.

Neat movie. Really makes you think in places.

Only, that’s not the end of it. Ridley Scott decided several years later that he didn’t like the movie. There’s voice-over narration in the film, see, and it was added under protest because the studio couldn’t figure out what was going on in the movie. The V.O. really heightened the “film noir” aspects of the movie. Also, the ending was tacked on, see? Another studio addition. So, Scott released a Director’s Cut, with more scenes of the flying car zooming over horrifying cityscapes, more Vangelis music, no narration, and an ending that was abrupt and jarring. Case closed, right?

No. See, it turns out that Scott really didn’t approve the director’s cut, and now there is a third version out there, a workprint that was screened once, and THAT is the closest to his vision. Oh, but there’s also a UK Director’s Cut that’s slightly different...sigh. By the time the dust had settled, there were a total of five different prints of Blade Runner, including the Ultimate Final cut that Scott DID approve of, complete with computer re-coloring because we can do that now.

But central to most of these do-overs was a scene where Deckard falls asleep and dreams of a unicorn. Based on that, for literally twenty years now, there’s been a friendly debate about whether or not Deckard was a Replicant himself.  Watching the movie that way completely changes the film. Especially since—and this is very important to note—there is literally zero indicator of this throughout the film.
 
There is more expression in this still than in the whole of Blade Runner 2049.
And don’t start on me with that “But Mark, the clues are there if you’re paying attention, see...”

First off, Chuckles, I’m not Sherlock Holmes. I’m not even John Watson. I’m a guy watching a movie. I don’t want subtle clues. I want scenes with plot, story, and dialogue in them. Heck, you can even throw in sub-text, if you like. I’ll sit there all day and discuss what it means with you. But at some point, you need to cue your audience in to what you want them to know in some way.

“See how much damage he takes? That’s a clue, man!”

Well, yes, but all of the signifiers in this movie are telling me it’s also a film noir homage, and one of the classic tropes there is the Herculean amount of concussive force the detective hero soaks up on his skull without permanent brain injury. So, if you signal to me this is a film noir, and then you have Deckard getting continually beat to shit, I’m not going think, “Hmmm, he must be a secret robot!” I’m going to think, “Oh, they’re doing the old Sam Spade schtick.” The only way it works is if in act three you let it slip that he’s a secret robot. If you keep it a secret, then you either didn’t think this through or you just didn’t want anyone to know in the first place.

This is one of the major problems with directors going back after twenty-five years and monkeying around with their movies. They aren’t the same people, anymore. They are bringing a completely different brain to the process. Early work is early work. If you want to revisit it, the best thing you can do is identify the themes you want to expound upon and put them into a new project.
 
Another great example of how to light an actor so that you can see
the performance. Something to think about for next time.
But as muddy as the waters were around Blade Runner, this was a friendly argument to make. After all, there were people who liked the voice-over (myself included) in that it helped build and explain the world in which this dystopian society operated in. Just like Noir voice-over should. This is doubly useful because of all the extra time director Ridley Scott spent filming vistas of blasted hellscapes and flying cars and having people sigh and drink and not say anything. And I never warmed to the Director’s Cuts, any of them, because I kept hearing the V.O. in my head during the scenes when it was supposed to be there and wasn’t.

But it was our movie, and we loved it. It was science fiction at a time when there was a limited amount of it to consume and the quality varied widely. Over the years, it became a right of passage for other SF fans. “You haven’t seen Blade Runner? Oh, you gotta! We’re watching it this weekend.” And it’s a movie that gradually became more popular, and more respected, despite the director’s best efforts to confuse everyone, but it was always firmly in the SF genre. It didn’t break out, never really crossed over. Jocks don’t watch Blade Runner. It’s not that kind of movie, and never was. Even in the new Age of the Geek, it’s a deep cut. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I never ever, not once, thought to myself, “I wonder what happens next?”
 
In the original movie, buildings were billboards.
So, like, we're two years ahead of the curve on this one.
Now we get to Blade Runner 2049.

In the “Even a Blind Squirrel Occasionally Finds a Nut” Category, we find this short feature by Looper on Why Blade Runner 2049 ReallyFailed at the Box Office. I offer it here with no commentary, because I largely agree with it, and also, what I really want to do is pile on here, because I watched this movie twice and I have to tell you, I don’t know what you all were watching, but I don’t think the Emperor is wearing new clothes, here.
 
This orange color palate is supposed to mean something,
but I have no idea what. Ford is blue in the poster. 
Dennis Villeneuve made a splash with Arrival, a science fiction film, adapted from a real science fiction story, and it was well-received all around. He apparently pulled a lot of his visual style from watching early Ridley Scott movies. I wonder which ones?

It’s too bad he never figured out that Scott’s “style” is another way of saying “storytelling,” because this film substitutes mood for murk, doesn’t know when to start telling the story it’s trying to tell, doesn’t know how to signal anything to an audience, visually meanders for two hours and forty three minutes. That’s if you don’t count the three short films Villeneuve commissioned to explain key events leading up to Blade Runner 2049. Those run an additional twenty-seven minutes. That’s three hours and ten minutes’ worth of “What the hell am I watching?”

A great many of the shots in this movie are set up along the same angles and planes as many shots in the original film. Noticeably so. This wouldn’t be so bad in and of itself, but when Villeneuve isn’t swiping visual cues from the original movie, he’s bathing the background in heavy fog or smoke or “atmosphere” so that it’s really difficult to see what’s going on. In a 3D movie, darkened by technology to begin with, this renders big chunks of the movie oily and muddy by degrees.

When there is a light source, it’s in motion, creating a strange distraction. It’s the future. Why are light bulbs still swinging? Is conduit that scarce? Many of the scenes are inadequately lit—and we know this because when other scenes start, they are expertly lit, or over-lit. In a movie with three generations of hunky actors in it, you’d think you would want to shine a light on those darling faces so the audience could see them. There’s a scene with Ford and Leto where the moving light is so distracting, I was trying to figure it out instead of listening to the dialogue.

Oh, and that’s the thing: you have to concentrate on this movie, and instantly judge what you’re listening to so you can decide if this is plot, big secret reveal, or simply chit-chat before something else happens. For a movie that both slavishly values its silence, and yet also wrote in a literal Girl-Friday-in-the-Machine for Gosling to interact with so that we aren’t watching a silent picture for three hours, there are still scenes that Go Nowhere and Do Nothing. Gosling and Dave Bautista, easily the best actor in the movie, have several minutes of empty-calorie banter before Bautista is retired. The only purpose it serves is to introduce the idea that Gosling’s character is a Replicant, and in case you forget it, there’s a scene where he’s walking down a hallway shortly after that someone—human, I guess, barks at him as he’s walking by, “Lousy Skin-Job,” and Gosling’s character flinches and pulls away. See? Replicants are still a problem, here, too. But, why? I’ll get into the story, later.

And the soundtrack? It’s industrial noise. Say what you want about Vangelis, and I would not presume to debate you, but the soundtrack in this overblown set of vacation slides is giant, strident Harrumphing noises and sub-woofer honks. I shit you not. They are loud, too, instigating almost a jump-scare, because, see, for the past thirty minutes you’ve been leaning forward in your chair, trying to hear something, anything resembling meaningful dialogue. Next thing you know, Gosling is back in the car, flying over L.A. and the movie is braying at you like the genetically-recreated dinosaur that it is.
 
This is the most exiting moment in the film.
A real edge-of-your-seat nail biter, this one is.
It’s a technical mess. Villeneuve inexplicably found a sans serif font that is very thin and hard to read, underlit the text, and then slapped it up the upper and lower corners of the frame. It almost works when the screen is black, but those cards that are ideally used to tell you where you in the new scene (Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc.) are get lost in the corners of the frame with no weight or light on them. Oh, and they are sporadically used, as well. Some places never get a card. Good luck figuring out the place with the context of Gosling frog-walking through a scene with no expression on his face! I’d call it a rookie mistake but I don’t think it is. I think it was just a bad choice.

The lighting is bad, the sound is bad (actors are either quietly talking, or the soundtrack is blasting sub-woofer honks at you), the pacing is bad, and it’s an editorial mess. So much dead space that is given to showing more vistas of blasted hellscapes. No sense of place, no sense of time. I honestly don’t know what Villeneuve was thinking.

Let’s talk about the actors for just a second. I love Harrison Ford. I grew up with him. Spiritually, he’s wish-fulfillment figure to me—a psychic Cool Uncle I wish I had. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my personal Rosetta Stone. And so I say this with zero irony and full sincerity: Please sit down. I am really afraid he’s going to break a hip or something. And for God’s sake, quit dressing up in your old roles. The only reboot you need to be in right now is the Grumpy Old Men revival. Of course, there’s a practical reason why Ford is in the movie, and I’ll hit that later. I guess if you’re casting a movie about life-like robots, the wooden Ryan Gosling is probably a great call.

I think Ryan Gosling is one of the blandest, most colorless, gotta-face-made-for-punching actors in Hollywood right now. I’m glad Ford really hit him. I don’t get how two lazy eyes and a half smirk equals sex appeal in the 21st century, I really don’t. And don't say "abs." There's better abs on better actors. This triangle-headed incubus is what's wrong with the country today.

And then we come to Jared Leto. Yeah, I’m just going to leave that right there. This kid, boy, I tell you what...

But the worst thing about this movie is that it hinges on making a decision about the first Blade Runner movie. Its premise is based entirely on the idea that Deckard is a Replicant. Oh, yeah, sorry. Spoilers.

This premise has to be bought if you are going to buy the premise for the new movie. And if you are like me, and think the “Deckard is a Replicant” idea is bullshit, well, guess what? This movie is a fight from start to finish.

It’s a fight because the whole “secret plot” hinges on finding the baby—the all Replicant child of Deckard and Rachel. The baby that shouldn’t have happened. Because they are, you know, not real. Gosling’s character has to track this kid down before he “upsets the balance of the world.” I guess if the Replicants can Self-Replicate, then they are people and therefore not to be used as slave labor for...doing what, exactly? The off-world colonies are thriving, we are told. They aren’t terra-forming. Or are they? It’s a bunch of hand-waving, and God Help You if you didn’t watch the 27 minutes of bonus footage that came out ahead of time.
 
Lots of great visuals in this movie. When you can see them.
But not enough to move the story forward. 
Three vignettes. The first one was Dave Bautista, dated one year before the movie starts. It connects directly into the start of the movie. So directly, in fact, that it should have been the start of the movie.

The second vignette, starring Jared Leto doing the worst “William Shatner does Stevie Wonder” impression I’ve ever heard in my life, dated twelve years before the movie starts. We learned that the Tyrell Corporation was bought up by another mega-corp, run by Leto, who is genius enough to make Replicants who are totally safe, this time, because see, he orders his man to kill himself and he does it. Genius! Based on the movie that just came out, it’s safe to assume the ban on making Replicants has lifted.

The last one, an anime, is the longest, but it’s also got the most useful information in it. It happens three years AFTER the first movie. All of the Nexus 6 Replicants (Roy Batty’s batch) have expired because of their 5 year life span. Except presumably, apparently, (and now according to Villeneuve definitely) Rachel, who Tyrell said was special, and if you think that way, then presumably, apparently, (and now according to Villeneuve definitely) Deckard, as well. So, the new Replicants are Nexus 8’s, and they have all of the advantages of Nexus 6 Replicants, but they have a normal life span.

When a pack of former Replicant Soldiers find out that they are fighting a war against other Replicants (“toy soldiers in a sandbox,”) they decide to free the enslaved Replicants. Oh, yeah, and there’s an uprising. Replicants are being lynched. So, get the metaphor? Okay, just checking. Deep waters, here. A small team of infiltrators manage to blow up a satellite uplink and an installation that contains all of the Replicant records. It’s called The Blackout. It means, obliquely, that the Replicants were free to go into hiding to escape persecution. Which, apparently, they did.
 
This fight? In the Vegas Lounge? It's technical chaos.
Glossing right over the idea that, in fact, Blade Runner 2022 makes for a much better, more compelling, and more interesting story than the one we got, these nuggets of info are crucial to understanding the 2 hour and 43 minute movie you’re watching—because, apparently, they couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn that information in—in 2 hours and 43 minutes.

But instead of putting useful information into the movie, we get told things and then are given all of this empty space to try and make sense of it. And, when Harrison Ford shows up at the end of Act 2, and you realize that all of the assumptions you had about the first movie were, according to this movie, wrong, well, that’s on you to wrestle with. We’re not going to fill anything in for you.

So, Deckard is, apparently, a magical Replicant, not a Nexus 6, but “special,” like Rachel. A prototype Nexus 8, maybe? Two of them? And why would NO ONE in the first movie say anything to anyone about this? Why would Tyrell create two prototype Self-Replicating Replicants, which is basically just cloning at that point, and not tell anyone about it?

When Gosling’s character (K, or Joe, or, you know what? Who cares!?) starts pulling at this glued-over Gordian Knot of a plot, it has to compete with other lapses in logic. RepliGos has to be regularly re-calibrated to “baseline,” which is, I guess, the tweak Jared Leto did that keeps the Replicants from freaking out. Except that everyone still hates and distrusts them. Except for the ones who don’t. Whatever. When he starts looking into this mystery of the magical RepliKid, he has another Replicant bird-dogging his every move. She’s loyal to Leto, who needs the kid for...what? The secret of Replicant Life? Leto apparently can’t make more Replicants and thinks a self-Replicating Replicant, or just a clone, is the key to making more Replicants. His Replicant helps RepliGos from a distance, at one point even taking out a group of people attacking him with missiles. But she doesn’t try to attack RepliGos until he finally goes rogue. And even then, his human handler gives him 48 hours to “get right,” but it’s clear she’s just letting him go. Now the Replicant Hunter has become the Replicant Hunted. And he’s being tracked by a tiny bug a prostitute slips into his coat. Jeez, Louise, what a god-awful mess.

This film takes a very long time to tell a very basic, hackneyed, clichéd story that ultimately goes nowhere and does nothing. It’s got no heart, no balls, and no guts. It’s fitting, I suppose, that everyone in the movie is so wooden as to appear to be puppets. The Biblical allegory is ham-fisted, and the elaborate machinations necessary to get Deckard into the movie, and have him figure into the Messiah plot, and spend so much time on these earnest discussions that solve no problems and raise no stakes. This movie flies in the face of everything that made the original Blade Runner great. It was a simple story, made complicated by the questions it asked. It did not ask a bunch of pedantic questions and then try to build a story out of them.

I watched this movie twice, trying to reconcile what I was seeing with all of the questions that came up. Having Deckard end up a Replicant in the movie knocked me out of the film completely, and took some time to get back in. By then, I was pissed. This is a premise that shouldn’t have been utilized for a platform.

I don’t doubt that Villeneuve is a huge Blade Runner fan. I think this movie attests that he was unable to separate himself from the material and as a result, he made bad creative choices. No one else could separate their fan-ness enough to help him, apparently. I wish like hell that Ford was able to continue his personal quest to kill all of his beloved characters before he dies. Deckard should have eaten a bullet in the third act. Instead, he gets the last shot in the movie. Phillip K. Dick is spinning in his grave.

Oh, and the cinematographer? Roger Deakins? I agree, he deserves an Academy Award. Just not for this. But this will be the movie he wins it for. And that just sucks.

You may well think I’m wrong. That’s fine. Feel free to try and convince me otherwise.








Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mending Broken Hearts with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers


Pretty much the album that made everyone a Tom Petty fan.
I was originally going to talk about all of the bands I carry around in my head, and why, but I think I can demonstrate my relationship with music using only Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I really wanted to make this a positive, uplifting essay. Instead, it’s going to be another damn eulogy.

I don’t talk about music very much. It’s not that I don’t want to, but rather, I don’t want to run afoul of someone who doesn’t get what I like, or why. Few things bow me up into a fighting shape like being told a band I like really sucks. Slightly less irritating is being boxed into one particular category of music fan. That’s really not fair because I genuinely like a little bit of everything. That is to say, I like certain artists and bands in just about every genre. For the most part, I do not indulge deeply, but I do enjoy widely.

There are exceptions, of course. Certain bands transcend whether time and place and become part of your history. At least, that’s how it is for me. I assume that other people have a music memory on some sort of level, that listening to the song you lost your Virginity to will catapult you back in time like you’re on an episode of Quantum Leap. Music is the thumbtack on my memory map. I know where I was when I first heard certain songs. I can recall memories, sights, sounds, and sometimes even smells, all tied up in and around certain songs.

I was still a youth when their debut album hit, but back in the 1970s, radio stations would play an album and the singles released from it for up to two years without thinking twice. So, while I remember hearing “American Girl” on the radio, it didn’t quite resonate for me. I wasn’t really dialed in to what Tom was talking about until Damn the Torpedoes. Like the rest of the planet.

You couldn’t get away from “Refugee.” It was everywhere. All of the radio stations played it. At the skating rink. Forty-Fives and cassettes. Probably a few 8-Track tapes out there, too. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, DJs were actual people, not computer programs, and they played “Refugee” constantly, and then they went back and played other Tom Petty songs when they got bored with that one.

After that, I started hearing Tom Petty. Not listening, but really hearing him. His lyrics really spoke to me. See, I had to grow into the affable, charismatic, devil-may-care person you know so well. In Junior High, and High School, and, oh, most of my 20s, and probably right up to the age of thirty, I can chart my successes (and many, many failures) with the opposite sex using nothing but Tom Petty songs. No one writes a male break-up song like Tom Petty. He never had that machismo swagger. There was always a plaintive vulnerability to his voice that really conveyed pain, loss, and yeah, even heartbreak.

I weathered high school listening to “Stop Dragging My Heart Around,” that fantastic duet with Stevie Nicks, and also “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” and “You Got Lucky.” Those songs had a quality to them that you did not find in any other rock and roll records. Springsteen was singing about larger concerns. Heavy Metal might as well have been singing about a colony on Mars. I was going to a high school in a suburb of Waco, Texas. The girls Motley Crue focused on? The “club girls?” They didn’t exist for me and my friends.

The other record that made everyone
a Tom Petty fan. 
New Wave? Just as alien, though not without some of its charms, thanks to many a teen movie soundtrack. Pop music around this time was just shitty. It was Rick Astley and Billy Ocean and New Kids on the Block. There were very few rock and roll acts out there that managed to keep their street cred and just play their music. Top of that list was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Thank God MTV and VH1 kept him in rotation. Generation X might not have survived otherwise.

When Full Moon Fever came out, I was in college. “Free Falling” and “Feel a Whole Lot Better” got me through one of the worst break-ups of my life, and it’s the reason why, to this day, I have a serious problem with women named “Amy.” It was a reinvention for Petty, and I think that producer Jeff Lynne made the inspired decision to put Tom’s voice right up close on the mic. It’s a more intimate sound, not as big and sonic as the early Heartbreakers albums, but it’s part of what makes songs like “Free Falling” so effective. When he goes up an octave for the chorus, and it sounds like genuine anguish, it gave me chills the first time I heard it.

Somewhere along the way, I started decoding the lyrics and I realized how effortless Tom Petty’s music always sounded, and how incredibly complicated it really was. And the Heartbreakers? One of the most underrated bands in rock and roll history. They are so tight that it’s really hard to unpack them. That more people don’t consider Mike Campbell to be a genius is just weird. That opening riff is so immediately identifiable, and yet it doesn’t sound like anything else, not really.

I owned this album twice. That's how much I liked it.
I was in the middle a tumultuous relationships when Wildflowers dropped. One of my most impactful relationships was stretched to the breaking point when I moved to California. I was trying to keep it together via long distance when I first heard “You Wreak Me,” and it cut into me like few songs ever have before or since. Taking it back to high school with the lyrics “I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants / You be the girl at the high school dance / Run with me, wherever I go /Just play dumb, whatever you know” was such a powerful sense memory; it was as if I’d been waiting since 1985 to hear that song and personalize it. The way the guy in the song begs the girl to throw it all away and just be with him and forget all the rest of it—that kind of crazy passion, the woman you know is bad for you, but you can’t help it—Ohhh oh oh. Yeah-aaaah. Who hasn’t had one of those relationships? Who didn’t come out of it feeling like they’d been in a car crash?

Flash forward to this year: my friends bought me and Cathy tickets to see Tom Petty in Austin on his 40th Anniversary Farewell Tour. This would be Cathy’s third time to see him. She’s also seen Bruce Springsteen three times. My wife. She likes rock and roll for all of the right reasons. Anyway.

Over the years, I have observed that experiencing a treasured band tends to overwrite my memories of listening to their music by myself and supplant that with memories of seeing them live. This has happened with KISS, The Cramps, Springsteen, Robert Plant, Joan Jett, etc. you get the idea.

As we are enjoying the concert—and it was a fantastic show—the band went back through their catalog in a greatest hits kind of playlist. “You Wreak Me,” by the way, was their first encore number, and it filled me with such joy.

Walking out of the Frank Erwin Center, and for days afterward, I was re-playing the show in my head and I noticed that all of that heartache and heartbreak that I’d attached to these songs over the years had scooched over to make room for that concert, with my wife and my friends, as we jumped and clapped and sang along, and the sense memory of holding my wife’s hand through most of the concert.

The heartbreak had become love. Not healed, so much as refocused. The power of rock and roll, baby.

I loved everything about Tom Petty. His sound, his sense of humor, his genuine love of music, his list of influences, and his dark streak of irony. Naming the band of musical nerds and misfits “the heartbreakers,” man. Self-effacing from the start. I always assumed that he’d be around forever, like Willie Nelson. It’s a darker, lonelier world without him in it. Thankfully, he has a song for that.

Rest in Peace, Tom. Rest in peace. 


Friday, September 29, 2017

The Alamo Draft House Gordian Knot

Note: I'm only posting this to give some context to my reactions regarding the massive scandal the Alamo Drafthouse Finds itself Embroiled in involving, among others, Devin Faraci and now Harry Knowles. If you don't care about any of this, or don't know the players involved, feel free to skip it all.

The first time I saw Harry Knowles was at a City Wide Garage Sale in the mid-1990s. We were walking around and looking for geeky junk and my friend pointed to their set-up and said, “Buyer Beware.”

“What?” Their set-up had a lot of interesting things on it. Some movie memorabilia, including Lobby Cards, which I was really into at the time.

“They have a reputation for selling reproductions and knock-offs as originals. And when you tell them about it, they refund your money, but put the shit back out on the table. We call them ‘Buyer Beware.’”

Good to know, I thought.

I later learned their names, and sure enough, they had a reputation around Austin amongst the other dealers and collectors in the Geek Secondary Market; the comic shops, record shops, weekend warrior dealers, etc. In other words, in a world of sharks, they were the sharks other people were careful to avoid.

Some time after that, they came into the comic shop where I worked; scratch that, they swaggered in. Their whole demeanor was one of “prove it,” and they were very careful to inspect us, what we were selling, and the look of the store. (Long Story Short: we’d taken over the business from long-time owners and made a few changes to the place—for those of you keeping up, it was the beginning of Austin Books, Mk.II).

They eventually made some small talk with us, bought some supplies (the go-to move for anyone casing a new store) and bid us adieu. Thereafter, we’d see them approximately once a year, as they checked in on us and looked for, well, I don’t know what, exactly, but they always made small purchases and that was it.

It was several years later (after I left the store, moved away, and moved back) that they made an appearance one day. Harry was excited. He’d just started a website, see? And he gleefully told me about some spy he knew from LA that sent him pictures of...you know, I don’t even remember what—but that he ran them and the studio was sooooo pissed at him, and he was just, you know, a fan, sharing pictures, and it wasn’t HIS fault if they weren’t supposed to be released, how did HE know? He then told me I should come check out the site.

I did.

It was terrible. Badly written, weirdly personal, not at all professional, distractingly disingenuous, and full of some real sycophantic, nearly slavish praise, for everything Harry was writing. It didn’t make sense to me.

I knew that his dad had tenuous connections to “Hollywood,” in that he worked on some films that were made in Texas, but they made way more of this connection than maybe a guy who worked, uncredited, in the prop department, fully deserved. Even before Austin became a Mecca Hot Spot for Texas filmmakers, it was always a quiet underground for Texas filmmakers, and actors. I wasn’t impressed.

Harry’s rep was largely folded around his father’s credits, such as they were, and so sure, they probably did know some folks behind the scenes working on movies. Again, I say, so what? Someone snaps pics of the actor on the set and you publish them. Basically, the same thing the National Enquirer does.

To borrow a quote from another,
better movie, "Uh, not really, no."
I hate-read the site for a while, trying to get a handle on it. And I was reading just at the right time read about Harry’s visit to the set of Armageddon, wherein they walked him around, and he got to meet Bruce Willis in his space suit, and he spent time at the craft services table, and on and on and on, but nothing really about the movie. Just his impressions of stuff. It was really amateurish, wide-eyed, wonderment. There were several of those travelogues, and they were all very embarrassing. On one of these trips, he split his pants on the set—and then stuck around after. Zero pride. Zero filters.

It was around this time that his “reviews” began to take on these glowing tones. You should have heard him gush about Armageddon, a film that might have been somewhat entertaining, but was nowhere near the emotional, cathartic experience he made it out to be. He was duly excoriated on the site, which brought his defenders running to say, “you don’t know, you don’t understand, you can’t do any better, etc.” It was appalling. I kept thinking to myself, “How is it that Hollywood is taking this guy seriously?”

I wrote about it, in an early email article that I was sending around—the first version of Finn’s Wake, back when I had an AOL address. And oh, God, did I get blowback. See, I was one of the ones who just didn’t get it. I didn’t know anything. I was not privy to any of the great plans, great deals, great schemes that Harry was planning on giving the world, all for us, and by tearing him down, I was a real asshole. What had they ever done to me?

Nothing, frankly. But the Knowles, as a group, were sketchy when I first saw them, they acted sketchy every time I interacted with them, and now they were profiting from being sketchy online. Oh, and the kid couldn’t write. Not well. It bothered me that his reviews were more about Harry than why a movie was or wasn’t good. It went beyond subjective. It was wildly inconsistent, because he back tracked, issued second reviews that nullified the first review, and demonstrated over and over that he was not above being wined and dined in exchange for saying nice things. Voice a criticism and his jackbooted-thugs-online followers piled on with hateful, spiteful, and cheerfully horrible attacks. It just wasn’t an interaction I was interested in having, especially not on a daily basis. So, I tuned out and stopped watching the tire fire.

The last time I saw him in the store was around the time that Dean Devlin’s new Godzilla movie was about to drop. Harry was bragging to me that “Dean kept trying to get me to say nice things about the lead actress in the movie, who, you know, he’s dating right now, but I’m not gonna...I mean, hey man, I’ve got some standards, here. I can’t just...you know, because we’re friends, and all...”

After telling me that story, they bought some comic book supplies and left.

Faraci at SDCC from 2007. Exactly how I pictured him.
By that time, I was reading CHUD, a Georgia-based movie fan site, this one dedicated to Horror movies. The Wild West mentality was in full swing over there, as well. One of the biggest shit-stirrers was a Journeyman Asshole named Devin Faraci, a man who seemed dedicated to taking hisAsshole Credentials to the Professional level. He was, if nothing else, a better writer than Harry, but he had a style of analysis that I have come to think of as Khan-textualizing. You know the quote. “You’ve managed to kill just about everyone else, but like a poor marksman, you Keep. Missing. The Target.”

That’s Faraci’s film commentary. Impressive. Showy. Makes good points. Always screws up the landing. He can’t stick the dismount. He always devolves into some petulant version of his own worst personality quirks, and manages to alienate careful readers. If, like most people reading on the Internet, you read the first few paragraphs and skim the rest, he comes off as a genius. But it’s in the skim where the Emperor Has No Clothes.

Apparently, though, he could talk a good game, because he next showed up at Badass Cinema. Later, it became Birth. Death. Movies. In both cases, it was hard to get past his now weapons-grade asshole-ish behavior. I never met him in person, but I am positive it would have been very hard to not have a go at him after all of the hateful shit he wrote online over the years.

Around this time, the Alamo Draft House was becoming a thing. To die-hard movie fans, their "No Texting" policy was a godsend. They were militant about it, and with good reason: it was a real problem in Austin, a tech-savvy city, at the time. It probably still is. But whatever, it was this place that was just not like the corporate-driven multiplexes. They "got it." My first experience with the Draft House was going to a midnight show of the movie Shaft. The ticket price included a 40 oz. malt liquor. Genius. And the place was paaaaaaaacked full of scruffy guys with unkempt beards, all singing the theme from Shaft, and I realized that not only had I found my people, but my place to watch movies.

This is purely from the standpoint of the outsider looking in. I have dealt with the Draft House professionally at BookPeople before on several occasions where we cross-promoted events, and me and my business partner Steve got to sit down with co-founder Tim League and talk to him about the perils of running a movie theater. He gave us some good advice. Probably doesn't even remember meeting me, and wouldn't recognize me to this day.

But I was never cool enough to be at any of these parties. Always had to work during FantasticFest. Didn't WANT to go to the Butt-Numb-A-Thon (see above). Never an insider. Never really wanted to be. Mostly because of the people I saw in those orbits that I wanted nothing to do with. Not when there were so many other people I could be working with that I did like, that weren't assholes. 

It was—again—weird to me that Tim would want to partner with both Harry and Devin. But they brought with them a certain extra value, in the form of loyal followers and large platforms from which to promote the Alamo Draft House. I just assumed at the time that it was a smart decision by League to use them to get the word out about the cool things the Draft House was doing.

I got busy doing my own stuff. I had zero interest in dealing with either of these people, and they were the people that I would need to deal with if I wanted to be involved in the Austin Film Community in some way other than as a fan. So, that’s what I did. Years later, folks finally began to question what Harry was doing. In a massive, two-part takedown, Film Threat flayed Harry for all of the things, and more, that I saw wrong with the site (Part 1 here, Part 2 here). Vindication was great, but by then, Knowles was worth 700K a year. And laughing all the way to the bank. It just felt like a scam from the get-go. Sketchy. Buyer Beware.

I’m only posting this because folks have wondered at my glee regarding these recent allegations. It’s more than mere schadenfreude on my part. It turned out, no one liked Devin Faraci at all, but because he held some weird perceived power, and people thought they had to kow-tow to him, they let him be an asshole instead of blowing the whistle and ordering him out of the pool.

I think it comes down to this: I don’t like bullies and I don’t like assholes. And I never have. I saw these guys for what they were from the start. I don’t think it merits a victory lap, per se, but I am very pleased to know that my gut-instincts were correct. I have since stopped doubting myself, relying on my ability to size people and things up accordingly, and it’s just good to know that I’ve had that ability for longer than I thought.

As for the Alamo Draft House, well, I really hope Tim can make the necessary changes to ensure this doesn't happen again. I think he can, and it's not that hard to do, in the grand scheme. My advice to him, step one, is to not associate yourself with sketchy people and assholes. That's a really good start.

Now both of these guys are “getting help” and I hope they do. They have apologies to make, and a lot of bad shit to atone for, and it’s not up to me whether or not they are forgiven. But—and let me say this out loud—even if they are forgiven, it would be a grievous mistake to re-install them anywhere close to where they were. Leopards do not change their spots. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even sober, even with 12-step programs completed, even with apologies made, and victims forgiving...even if all of that were to happen, my gut tells me they’d still be sketchy, still be an asshole. And this time, I’m trusting my gut.

Minor Edit: correcting the location of CHUD.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Len Wein 1948-2017

One of my all-time favorite comics.
It's not fair that we lost both Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein in the same year. You've probably heard by now about his passing on social media, and everyone is reminding us that Lein Wein co-created Swamp Thing with Bernie and also Wolverine with Herb Trimpe and he re-started the languishing X-Men by making them Uncanny and creating a bunch of now-standard--and interestingly, international--characters like Colossus, Nightcrawler, Thunderbird, and of course, the Canadian Mystery Man, Wolverine himself. This is a big deal, and should be mentioned, alongside his stint as editor-in-chief at Marvel comics, and his later career writing for TV animation like the Batman Animated Series. Len deserves every once of credit for all of that, and more.

But I want to talk about Len Wein and what he meant to me. See, I was late to the Uncanny X-Men--my first issue was well into the Claremont/Byrne run (issue #119, if you must know; the second appearance of Moses Magnum). I discovered Swamp Thing later, around age 9, watching them read aloud on television with actors speaking the parts, like a book and record sort of thing. But my first Len Wein comic I ever read was an issue of The Incredible Hulk. It wasn't #180 (*First Appearance of Wolverine-cameo, last panel) nor #181 (*First Full Appearance of Wolverine, worth a small fortune these day). Nope. It was Incredible Hulk #182 (*2nd Wolverine Appearance-cameo, first page). Which, as you may well imagine, ain't worth diddly-squat, by comparison.

Comics History, Bronze Age Style
But that doesn't matter. At the age of 8, I was reading them to be reading them. You couldn't get full runs of anything in Abilene, Texas, in the mid-1970s, and I had to be content with what I could find. So I read these comics very carefully, looking for clues and connections to other comics and stories.  This was, at first glance, a random issue of The Incredible Hulk. I don't even remember where I got it. Probably bought for me by my dad, or possibly included in a stack from a garage sale. Who knows. But this seemingly-innocuous comic hit me like a ton of bricks.

In a nutshell, here' the recap: The Canadian government captures the Hulk, no thanks to their field agent, Wolverine. Hulk gets loose, as per usual, and disappears into the forest. He comes across an old black man who set up camp. He introduces himself as Crackerjack Jackson and offers Hulk some food. He plays the harmonica and they talk for a while.

Elsewhere, two convicts, an angry black man, and a racist white man, have broken out of prison, but they are shackled together, chain gang style. They are not friends, and can't wait to get free of their chains and go their separate ways. They stumble across a mushroom-headed alien and shoot him. The alien is saved by the metal in the bullets and as a thank you for the help, turns their ordinary chain into an energy tether that gives them strength and power. They rebrand themselves as Hammer and Anvil and decide to get revenge on the prison.

This comic broke my heart.
Meanwhile, Crackerjack is teaching Hulk to fish and write his name. Crackerjack tells Hulk, "A man ain't nothin' if he ain't got his name." Hulk is pleased with his results. He agrees to accompany Crackerjack to see his son.

As it turns out, his son is in prison. The very prison that Hammer and Anvil are about to take apart. Moreover, Leroy, now "Hammer", is Crackerjack's son. Crackerjack sees what's going on and tries to intervene, but Leroy is too angry at his absent father to listen. When Crackerjack reaches out to his son, he grabs the energy chain and the shock kills the old man instantly. When Hulk sees this he goes nuts and attacks the pair. They get Hulk in a stranglehold, but Hulk overcomes and tears the bio-chain apart, which stuns them both.

Before the authorities can swoop in, Hulk takes Crackerjack's body in his arms and leaps away. There, in the woods, he digs a grave for his friend, and buries him. Using his finger, he digs into a rock, carving Crackerjack's name into the makeshift tombstone. And then he leaps away.

All of that story happens in a story merely 17 pages long. And at the age of 7, it filled me with such profound sadness, such regret and loss, that it made me cry. I've since revisited the story, and it's...well, dated, to be polite...but at the time, this was great, great stuff.. I'd argue that even though it's dated now, its heart is still in the right place. And that's why Len Wein should be remembered. This wasn't high art. But he took something that could have been just another Hulk comic and made it greater than the sum of its parts.

That was the first time I noticed the writer's name, Len Wein. Two years later, when I discovered Swamp Thing, I would see his name again and the light bulb went off in my head: you could write comics! You didn't have to be an artist. Because (and I say this with all due respect) there is zero chance of mistaking Herb Trimpe for Bernie Wrightson. But the connective thread there was Len Wein, the writer.

Comics, and especially Bronze and Silver Age comics, take it in the shorts for their "simplicity" and being "kid's stuff," and while there was a schizophrenic barrage of message inherent in the way comics and comic properties were marketed in the 1970s, the people writing them weren't writing comics for kids. They were writing things that interested them, based on what they were hearing from fans, who were all ages--thirty and forty year old men and women, even back then. So the themes of casual racism, absent fathers, self-awareness, patricide, revenge, and regret--this was all fair game back then. What the critics of comics never realized, never got, never understood, is that when comics were their very best, they never pandered to the lowest common denominator. All of the best books forced their readers to engage with them at a much higher level. And that's what Len Wein did when he wrote comics.

I've lost, traded, or misplaced many of my "childhood" comics, but I still have my battered and beat-to-hell issue of Incredible Hulk #182. It was a transformative book for me, one that most certainly contributed to my path to being a storyteller. I am deeply sorry I never got a chance to tell Len that in person.

Rest in Peace, Good Sir. And thanks. For all of it.

Edited to correct an appearance error and the weird loss of a paragraph in the posting.