17 October, 2014

Why I Quit Destiny and You Should Too

WHY I QUIT DESTINY AND YOU SHOULD TOO
Or Why I Wanted to Get the Bungie Off My Back

After hitting level 20 for the second time, I realized something about Destiny: This game can go suck a lemon.

Despite all of the minds and the money behind it, Destiny is a mindless slog with no point and seemingly no end. It is somehow the apex and the nadir of all of gaming history. And, most importantly, it's a game that basically asks its players to act like junkies to make it work. There's a reason Jeff Gerstmann is already nominating this as  2014's Most Disappointing Game of the Year.

Meet your new dealer.
My basic problem is how Destiny handles it's loot system. "Loot," for those of you who do not know, is what the game gives you for completing certain tasks. Kill a guy? Maybe you'll get some loot. Finish a dungeon? Maybe you'll get some more loot. And so on. The game revolves around it. A lot of games do. World of Warcraft is a billion dollar industry built around it. The Borderlands series has entire algorithms built in support of loot. More recently, the critical hit Diablo III was based around the game dropping loot at your feet. Loot hunts can work. My problem is not that Destiny has loot, it is how it treats its loot system and, in turn, how it treats its players.

I've heard terms like hitting the “pleasure center” of the brain and “serotonin bump.” It's a conversation that doesn't sit very far from other terms like “loot lust” and another favorite neologism “binge watching.” Whether these people meant it or not, they've described the mechanisms of chemical addiction. That was the exact moment that I realized that I need to quit Destiny. I needed to get clean.

The biology of addiction is a funny thing. There's a lot of holier-than-thou pontificating that say that addiction isn't a disease and that it's "a choice." These people, you understand, are assholes. While we all have choices in our lives and sometimes we really wiff them (like buying a hundred dollar version of a Bungie game, for example), the fact is that addiction has real chemical effects on the brain. On a certain level, you aren't making choices, you're responding to evolutionary triggers. 

While I won't bore you with the details (nor do I remember most of them), the long and short of it is, if you have the right genetics and the right behaviors, after a certain point your brain will be unable to distinguish between healthy behaviors that it should reward and detrimental behaviors.

And, like I said, it's a funny thing. This isn't a bad thing. Your brain is engineered to work this way for a reason. Your lizard brain, when you, say, eat something or have sex or run away from a predator, the pleasure center of your brain gives you a bump. It's biology's little way of saying “Hey, good work, buddy. We didn't get eaten by a leopard today Here's a little something special.”

Pictured: Destiny players collecting
precious "Light."
What I've just described is the exact mechanic that Destiny needs to make the game work. It doesn't reward you emotionally or intellectually. It doesn't tell a stimulating story, it doesn't pluck at your heart strings. It depends entirely upon you cranking away at the same levels over and over again in the vain hope of scoring a proper high-- or in this case, some sweet Legendaries. Except that the Legendaries never come. Ever, meaning that Destiny is a drug, it's a bad drug.

When Destiny came out, I heard a quote, I'm pretty sure it was from Leigh Alexander (but I can't for the life of me find it on twitter), which was that the game doesn't have a heart*. She's right. Destiny has not heart. Most theaters of operation do not have hearts. It's a movie set. A false backdrop. The only thing that grips you is this fake reward loop that they've half-baked into the game. Once you see how hollow and sad that is, the only thing you're left with is hulking, anodyne work of art. Destiny has all of the life shooting gallery in an empty burn ward.

I'm also reminded of a scene in The Simpsons episode "Homer's Enemy." In the scene Martin shows off his fancy model of a nuclear power plant. Mr. Burns is not impressed.
MARTIN
Behold, the power plant of the future, today!

BURNS
Yuck. Too cold and sterile. Where's the heart?

MARTIN
But it really generates power. It, it's lighting this room right now.

He turns a knob, dimming the auditorium lights.

BURNS
You lose. Get off my property.

Destiny could have used some racing stripes.
But I think about other games? Aren't they all inherently empty? Are not all games just “games?” No they aren't. What are you, dense?

When I quit Destiny, I shifted my focus back to the first game I picked up for my PS4: The Last of Us. Without going into a review in a review, I'll say that it's awesome and leave it at that (but also it has just about the best stealth system of this generation). It's a very different game than Destiny and it is going after different goals, but, just as a game, The Last of Us is so much more rewarding.

What makes The Last of Us different? Well, first off, it just is, damnit**.

More substantially, it's a real experience, one punctuated by great characters, a fully realized world, and great game play. While Destiny shares the same kind of tight character control and wonderful art direction, it game falls short because none of it fits together. Instead it relies on the most base, thoughtless nature of its player. A coma patient could have as much energy invested in Destiny as I do. The same can't be said about The Last of Us because, well, that sequence where you're Ellie in the town is really hard and I'd like to see a coma patient pull that one off on Hard!

Goddamn that game is good.

But, anyways. . .

If you enjoy chasing the dragon on your next gen console of choice, I'm glad for you. I'm glad somebody is having fun around around. As for me, I have things to do. Important things to do. Things like reading, writing, socializing, and maybe, just maybe, abusing actual, real life drugs, ones that actually fucking work. I want more than what Destiny provides. Or maybe I'm just looking for something that doesn't think of me as a mark. Whatever the case may be, I am reminded of a quote from The Wire, that other great epic on the drug war, that sums up my feelings:
“You cannot lose if you do not play.”


*She cites Fallout: New Vegas as a game that, if messy, had heart out the whazoo, and goddamnit I want to play that game right now.

**Come this year's crop of Game of the Year awards I doubt Destiny will collect anywhere near the amount of accolades that The Last of Us did. If it does then there is no God and we deserve all of the calamities we having coming to us.

James Kislingbury writes, podcasts, and is 20 days clean from Destiny.

12 October, 2014

Fire and Stone and Everything Nice

Ever since my sister Amy bought me a Ripley action figure for my sixth birthday, I've had acid in my blood.
 
I'm not saying this triptych makes any sense, but I do want it tattooed across my back.
 2014 marks the 35th Anniversary of the film Alien and, as such this October has seen a well planned flurry of secondary and tertiary market material: A newvideo game, a 35th anniversary blu-ray (which will mark the 4th time I will have bought this movie and I still don't own it on VHS or laser disc), aninstallment in the BFI's Film Classics series, and a return of Dark Horse's comic book series.

Also, there's a distinct chance that I just wanted to feel pain.
Never mind the water mark. . .

The first book I picked up up is Aliens: Fire and Stone #1 by Chris Roberson and Patric Reynolds.

Aliens does quite a few thigns right, but what sticks out is something that has been driving me crazy when it comes to horror books (especially Alien books). It gets the art right. Patric Reynolds was the exact right choice for this project. It's a kind of sketchy art that belongs on a horror book and, while you can't hide behind lighting like you can in a movie, Reynolds' art manages to evoke the kind of vague sketchiness that matches the subject matter and the tone of the writing.

As for Roberson, he wisely eschews colonial marines in favor of what built Alien in the first place (what William Gibson called its "kitchen sink funk"): Working Joes. Bread and butter, salt of the earth folks. People with jobs, people incapable of dealing with something like the Alien. That is to say, Robertson understands what makes Aliens tick and he understands what makes a horror book tick.

I give it four chestbursters out of five. Not perfect, but I'm not going to begrudgingly pick up issue #2. A promising start, yet, as with any licensed material, this thing might tip over at any given moment and list right into the fucking rocks. Let's hope it doesnt!

Then there's Prometheus: Fire and Stone #1. Written by Paul Tobin and with art by Juan Ferreyra, Fire and Stone #1 is, as I understand it, the first Prometheus story that isn't the film.

My problems with it begins in the opening fold of the book. To the left of the first page is a quick summary of the facts: Who Elizabeth Shaw is, what the Engineers are, and who Mr. Weyland is. Then, right at the end, as a little foot note, it adds one more fact: It says that it takes place after the events of Aliens: Fire and Blood #1

Hold up. After? How can it take place? If I'm not mistaken, the entire premise of Prometheus is that it is a prequel. It is fundamentally a story about origins. That's the reason it exists.

To be sure: This is the best page in the book.
It's other main draw is that it is in the Alien universe, but not exactly of the Alien universe. It is less a Phantom Menace than it is an  Old Testament to Alien's New Testament (except that it was written after the first movie and, as I understand it, originally not connected to Alien at all, which, I guess would make this Prometheus closer to the Book of Mormon than anything else). 

But, the premise of the Fire and Blood event (or whatever Dark Horse is calling it) is that everything connected. That's odd. The entire premise of this book is to make the entire premise of the movie moot. With that said, you're faced with a story about scientists that stumble into a bunch of aliens and, correct me if I'm wrong, that isn't any different than an Aliens story.

Another thing: Considering the amount of weird grotesqueries that inhabit Prometheus (the hammerpede, the deacon, that zombie, the Engineers, etc etc etc), why would you go back to the well and show us the xenomorph, a monster we've seen a million times before? The comic does feature a weird monkey monster and a hive of black goo infected ants (a silly idea, but one that I can't fault them for, because it is literally the exact same idea I wrote into an Alien screenplay I wrote about seven or eight years back), so maybe it is holding back. Again: Let us hope.

Of course all of this would be fine if it was a truly gripping story. It isn't. The Aliens comic is not without its problems, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do: It delivers a bunch of working class schmoes getting killed by aliens. Done and done. I guess Prometheus #1 does offer up a mystery and no little amount of foreboding doom, it's just, I need more than that, especially when you're going to screw around with the core premise of the book. When I see the premise getting futzed with, I tend not to believe that this is a brave writer making some bold choices, but a guy who doesn't get what he's writing. That's what this feels like.
It's not fair. They put Paul Pope on it, so I had to buy it.

The other problem is the art. Unlike Aliens: Fire and Blood #1, the art isn't great. Juan Ferreya does a fine job. The problem is that, unlike Patric Reynolds, he doesn't fit on this book. It's too glamorous, it's too realistic, it looks too nice. I guess Prometheus is a cleaner universe than Alien's, but that's like saying that Dr. Moreau has a nicer house than Dracula. This story lacks the gothic horror that the universe requires.

Also, the font used on the comic's cover kind of has that weird, lined gradation that Predator has. That's weird.

Two out of five chestbursters. Could go somewhere fun. So far I am unimpressed. Buying it next month will be a slightly unpleasant experience. With all of that said, I do want to see what a Predator looks like when they get hit with some of that black goo. . .

What this will turn into, who knows? So far, with only two issues (four as of today), the Fire and Stone cross-over event is a real mixed bag. One solid book, another with a lot of ground to gain. But I'll be buying them all and I'll keep you update, because, man, I sure do love Aliens, Predator, and Prometheus and if I was going to stop buying things based on quality I would have started doing so a long time ago.

 

29 September, 2014

So, You've Made a Huge Mistake.

I decided to enter into the glorious future that has been promised. I bought a Playstation for.
I made a big, dumb mistake: I bought a Playstation 4.

God help me, I bought a Playstation 4.

Now, now, let me explain myself. There's a confluence of factors involved. First of all, I had some Amazon gift points burning a hole in my pocket from an unrelated charge that I had to make on my credit charge. Secondly, The Last of Us is a game that I desperately wanted to play that I never had the chance to (and it was just re-released on the PS4). Then there's Destiny, a game with so much money and hype behind it, that it actually generates its own gravitational field. That seems like a good way to avoid my responsibilities (and in space!). Lastly, buying a Playstation 4 is but one mistake in a long line of mistakes. It's not so much a silly decision as it is a pathological one.

Now that it's all said and done and hooked up, you know what impresses me most so far about this whole thing?

The menus.

I bet this thing is just bleeding radiation.
They're so cool. They're slick. They're easy to use. They're all right there in front of you. They aren't hidden behind “blades” and you don't have to swipe through nine of them to get to what you want. Mot importantly, they move at the speed of a button press. What a concept! It's nice and it's a little thing like this that makes me think that I made the right choice. I mean, it has to be. It just has to be.

Having said that, I can't tell if it's an indictment of the system's features (and lack there of) or if it's an example of how I'm allowing the littler, dumber things in life to bring me pleasure. I mean, two years ago, before my retail job completely ground my dreams into dust, all of the little things in life were just that: Little things.

It's finding a dime or seeing that the show you like has a new season on Netflix. It's finding out that your bank account has twenty more bucks than you thought it did. It's a baby or a puppy showing up at work. Two years ago I wouldn't have batted an eye at these things. But now? That's the only thing that's keeping me going.

The big things don't quite cut it. They often come with big disappointments. You invested all of this time, money, and effort and then you find out that its defective. Or its slow. Or that one feature you were really looking forward to is busted as hell. And all of this knowledge cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of five-hundred dollars. Free things, the little, every day things that you find around your life do not do this to you. They can't.

And today? Today I saw a French bulldog puppy and I petted it and it was the best day I've had in a long, long time. I petted the hell out of that dog.

I realize that's more or less the size of the future: It's a whole lot of little things, adding up to you eventually dying.

That's all this sort of thing ever is. It's putting a brand new telephone in your house. It's trying out this gramophone thing. It's making sex movies with your home 8mm. It's playing the song you want in the order you want to listen to them in! It's the incremental additions that actually make up the future. Rarely ever is it some revelation that changes everything. And that revelation certainly isn't going to be a box of plastic that turns mathematics into distraction (because you are still going to die).

Behold, puny fleshbags! The future!
Yet, it's neat to have something new in your life. The Playstation 4 is neat, and as dumb as video games are, as pointless as killing digital zombies is, as regressive as screaming at a TV because I was “killed” by an illiterate 12 year old, as little as this progresses me in either a professional or financial way, it's still kind of neat. Just a little bit.

It's grabbing the future by the horns because you can. It's seeing that as expensive and as slick as it all is, behind it is the same, comforting, familiar ideas that you've always seen. It plays movies. It plays games. It runs out of batteries. It can't connect to the internet. It breaks. It impresses your nephew. It's the future. It's here, it's kind of fun, and it isn't scary at all. And that's kind of neat.

Right?

Well, for four hundred bucks it damn well better be. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go get beaten up by some aliens for a couple of hours because I'm working towards getting a new scarf.

26 September, 2014

We Could be Heroes

Just For One Day
A Review on Lone Survivor (2013)


Lone Survivor is a pretty good movie. Yet, for all of its documentarian aspirations, it never reaches the intensity of Captain Phillips. For all of its artfully executed slamming and banging, it never reaches the heights of Black Hawk Down. It's a movie that does its darnedest to be an important film. Yet, after two hours, a desire to justice to the story, and using many techniques of similar films, Lone Survivor falls far short of its goal as one of the great movies about the War on Terror.

The problem isn't that isn't the best film in a crowded class, it is that it's chosen form is problematic. The central stumbling block of Lone Survivor is that it never gets past its own artifice. For all of its desire to tell the real story (which is a phrase, I fell, should be in quotes), you are ultimately looking at Marky Mark, Into the Wild, the bi-boyfriend from Six Feet Under, and John Carter, he of Mars. But, you know, with beards.

All of these actors are either incredibly talented (with the exception of Taylor Kitsch, the patron saint of unwanted gifts, a man who thinks that the key to tough guy roles like Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood is to do nothing, and the single greatest charisma vacuum since Shia Lebeouf), so it isn't their lack of trying that causes this disconnect. In fact, its the inverse that causes the problem. They're good actors and we know it. And they look like it. And it doesn't work.

As desperately as this movie wants to look like real events-- and claims to be based in reality-- it looks fake. It looks great, but the eye of the movie goer is smarter than all of the movie's efforts and gestures. We know its fakes because it looks fake. To claim to hue so closely to reality and then to look fake is unacceptable. To quote Red Letter Media: "You might not have noticed it, but your brain did."

The fundamental problem is boiled down to a single fact: The only Navy SEAL who very clearly does not belong in this movie is the Navy SEAL the film is is named after. That's a problem.

With that said, Lone Survivor is a movie that is technically proficient at a level that few directors can ever dream of achieving. If youv'e watched The Kingdom this shouldn't come as a surprise. Peter Berg has an excellent sense of how an action scene is supposed to work. His storytelling is also admirable. It's simple. It's unobtrusive. We know these men through minor sketches and little conversations. While they fail to add up to anything greater, we know who these men are with very little effort.

It is also worth noting how the failure of authority and the system fails the film's heroes. It's a minor chord that United 93 revolves around and, while they are very different movies, it's a point that is well worth making, however minor it may be. It's also a point that seems more relevant as time goes on. It's one thing for our servicemen and servicewomen to die in combat, but it's another thing for them to die because of bureaucratic SNAFUs. It's one of the few times the movie moves away from the hagiography its trying so hard to craft.

Lone Survivor is a perfectly capable, action thriller with some very well played realist tones, but it isn't much more than that. In a world where people are coming back from the service in greater numbers than ever (or not coming back), these kinds of stories are not rare. They exist as books, as 60 Minutes interviews, as articles, and as people who are standing next to you at the bar. They're out there and this isn't one of them.

To be good is not enough. What's more is that truly excellent films about the War on Terror (or the Long War or whatever you want to call it) already exist. Paul Greengrass has directed most of them, the rest are directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and the best one was directed by an Italian guy fifty years ago.

The film has other problems. The lives of the Afghans and the motives of the Taliban are played out too simplistically. It relegates the Taliban to a bunch of decapitation hungry goon (which, to be fair, they are). It also paints the Afghans (specifically the Pashtuns) as a noble people driven by a sense of honor. It's Orientalist claptrap and it's also a plot point out of the Soviet-Afghan War movie, The Beast. The movie doesn't have space for these people or that sort of story telling. Which is a shame, because that's one of the most compelling parts of the story and, unfortunately, the movie's last act does lag.

And there's other points, but who cares? If you want to see a compelling movie based around real events, this is it. If you want to see something more substantial, something that has thoughts and feelings on the state of the human species and the complexity of the human soul go see Zero Dark Thirty. Or, better yet, read Black Hawk Down. Or, like, engage with a veteran. You probably aren't going to get a rad story, but you might, you know, learn something.

In the end, Lone Survivor tells its story with skill, empathy, and with no little amount of awe, but it still is not enough. It doesn't do its subjects justice.

Also, its cover of "Heroes" is embarrassingly bad and woefully out of place. Instead listen to the real version.

 

James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and has opinions about the War on Terror but saves them for when he's had too much to drink. You can follow him on twitter.

09 September, 2014

A Trailer, a Thought, and More Defensiveness About Movies I Love

This looks like it might be a winner, right?



After watching the trailer for Automata (which is way too close to the warmed up left overs that is the Penny Arcade crew's Automata), I wondered something: Are we quietly living in the best era of science fiction since the late 70's/early 80's?  While that decade had Silent Running, Alien, and Star Wars and in the early 80's you have Blade Runner, Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Terminator, and Outland.

Now, we have Looper, Moon, District 9, Inception, Primer, Her, Attack the Block, Snowpiercer, and the new Planet of the Apes series. . . I mean, these movies aren't perfect, but we're in pretty good shape here, right? They're either great pieces of cinema or they're interesting pieces of cinema.

And with that said, look at how good our big, dumb blockbusters are! Did anyone expect Guardians of the Galaxy to be that hardy of a picture? And while Edge of Tomorrow might be a lark, it's a smarter film than a lot of other sci-fi films that I do not care to name. Then there's Pacific Rim, which is a movie that I could go on about forever (and have).

And what did the 90's have? Total Recall (a great, great movie) followed by a bunch of Will Smith movies (you could argue for Terminator 2 (but that's more action than it is science fiction and that seems to be an outlier). Then you've got the 2000's which are stained with the legacy of the Prequels That Shall Not Be Named and, what? Avatar?

Oh yeah, Minority Report was awesome. Good call on that one, reader.

Maybe I just have a selective memory or a kind of blind confirmation bias. Who knows? Whatever the case is, we're lucky to be in an era where special effects have finally caught up with screen writing.

I don't know. Movie are cool. I guess that's what I'm getting at. We should be exicted about them. Which brings me to the next item on the agenda:

The script of Blade Runner 2 is complete.

There's been a lot of boring, Internet skepticism about this and as much as we all love a good skeptic now and again, it's important to remember you can shut the fuck up we have a goddamn Blade Runner sequel here. Thirty fucking years in the making do not take this away from me!

There's every reason in the world to trust Sir Ridley Scott on this one, too. I mean, he did make Blade Runner.

And Alien. And Gladiator. And Kingdom of Heaven. And Black Hawk Down. And Prometheus and fuck you, Prometheus is awesome. And sure, he's done quite a number of highly questionable films-- some of them as recent as the past year-- but, hey, when you're one of the greatest film makers of all time, you're entitled to a slump here and there. HE MADE BLADE RUNNER, YOU CURS.

In the meantime everybody go read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as a warm up for Automata. And toss Neuromancer and Akira in there while you're at it, because, you know, they're great.



James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and an enemy of mankind. You can follow him on twitter.

FOOTNOTES
*Notably I've left out Kathryn Bigelow, who would be perfect to take the mantle from Scott, except that she's already at work on Alien V, which is a fact that I am 100% is true.

01 September, 2014

It's All Over


Things Not Worth Knowing
A review of Unknown Soldier (1997).

I was trying to eat a cheeseburger the other day when my dad, watching the TV, started complaining that Al Jazeera wasn't "Pro-American."

To him, the BBC is offensive enough, but Al Jazeera is a news company that is most definitely in the hands of Islamo-fascists (or "Islamo-Nazis," depending on the mood he is in and the beer he is on). The rest of the burger was eaten in an uncomfortable, one-sided silence as I wondered if he knew where Qatar was.

Nevermind that we were actually watching NHK.

But, as I began to think about, I realized that he had hit on something. Watching a piece of media that you think hates you can really put you off. But it really puts you off when the story isn't any good. By staring into Unknown Soldier, I finally understood my dad's madness. To engage with something and the overriding thought that you have is "I think this book hates me" is a bit distracting.

The story begins with a fine hook: Agent Clyde, an All-American, Boy Scout-type finds a list of mysterious names on his computer. The names all have one thing in common: A covert agent code named "Unknown Soldier," a man who does not, and should not exist. It's at that point that his whole world turns into a carnival of violence that only becomes more bloody and terrible as he gets closer to this legendary secret agent.

It's a story full of tropes, characters, and ideas that Ennis revisits time and time again-- especially in the exceptional Fury: My War Gone By. The difference is that with decades of experience under his belt, My War Gone By, is a story that manages to move quickly through conflicts and through time without ever sacrificing its themes. It's a story that doesn't get lost in its size. With Unknown Soldier, as soon as the premise is laid out, the story takes a nose dive. The last issue closer resembles wreckage than an actual, working story.


The problem is that the book never gets properly started. Clyde is a boring character. Which is fine. Superman is a "boring" character. James Bond is a "boring" character. The problem is that Clyde is a boring character that exists in a boring world. You neither like him nor do you want to follow him into interesting scenarios. It's pointless on both counts.

It is further frustrating (and a bit of a consolation) in that Ennis has written about the same subjects Unknown Soldier concerns it with, but he's done it better. Again, My War Gone By, stars a straight-laced true believer in the American way (and so does Graham Greene's The Quiet American. His CIA agent Pyle is basically the prototype for that archetype). In those cases, the "boring" character works because they're either in a world that is interesting or they exist as a counter-point to warfare's more cynical characters. This book has neither of those things.

When Clyde is confronts the actual Unknown Soldier he's less a character than an emotion with two legs.. He doesn't argue for some kind of sanity. He sits there and takes it and then rants for an entire issue, I guess, the story ends. And it's all wrapped up in this half-baked idea that he fights for America because it's "always right," whatever the hell that means. It's odd, because Ennis has written scenes where a scumbag argues with an idealist before. He has also written tightly plotted and compelling stories, but I guess nobody is perfect.

It makes me pine for better espionage books like Greg Rucka's Queen and Country or better thrillers like Who is Jake Ellis? and Velvet. Hell, it even makes me pine for lesser Ennis war books like the prurient Fury MAX or the nihilistic 303. Or even Dancer.

(But, hey, at least it isn't The Programme.)

Then there is Kilian Plunkett's art. Man. I hate to hammer on this book, any more than I already am, but Plunkett's art in this book is some of the murkiest, low quality work that I've seen in a book in a long while (at least since The Programme).

But the shame of it is that I mean, is that the actual scans and the printing quality is atrocious. The actual line work from Plunkett seems to be fine and so are his layouts, but it's completely compromised by the piss poor workmanship of whoever slapped this book together (or, possibly, whoever assembled it back in 1997). If DC was capable of shame they should find some time to be embarrassed about shabbiness of this book. If a comic is going to suck, at least let it suck as it was intended to.

Again, it's a point of both exasperation and consolation that there are much better espionage books than this poor mini-series. In fact, a better contemporary Unknown Soldier story is the run Joshua Dysart and his crack time of artists created back in 2008*.

The 2008 Vertigo run of Unknown Soldier is a book that, like the 1997 mini-series, has a sense of outrage. It's brutal, it's violent, yet, the difference with Dysart's story is that he doesn't get lost in the anger and the spectacle. Instead of it being driven solely by some poorly thought out emotion, it delivers a story full of action and intrigue. It's also one of a rare few books that I would call "important" without meaning it as an insult. It's a book that has something to say.


And if I could speak as a fan for the moment, my distaste for this book partially comes from the fact that Garth Ennis, of all people, has misread the character of the Unknown Soldier. He's turned him into the cynical, fist of American exceptionalism. It's a concept that doesn't develop into anything.

I might just be a drunk, barely employed loser, but I know the Unknown Soldier and this isn't him. Reading this book is like seeing Sgt. Rock burn a Vietnamese hooch or, I don't know, Superman snap a guy's neck. If you're going to break from tradition, it isn't enough that it's edgy, there has to be a reason. There has to be some kind of a heart. Unknown Soldier has none. Beyond the anger, beyond the pointless violence, it is this lack of meaning that makes Unknown Soldier so offensively ugly.


Or maybe he didn't misread it. Maybe it was all on purpose. And maybe I don't care.

What are we left with? Read a better book, first of all. If you want to read a spy story or a war story, go read  Ennis' War Stories or Battlefields first. Then read Fury: My War Gone By. Then read Punisher Max. Then, if you have time, read Fury: Peacemaker. Or maybe even Adventures in the Rifle Brigade or even. . . anyways. . .

The other thing that we're left with is that as much as it seems that Unknown Soldier was written by an angry poli-sci major with an axe to grind, that is not the real reason you should hate this book. There are plenty of stories where I disagree with the politics, but I enjoy them anyways. A good story should transcend our petty political biases. It should give you something to think about or maybe teach you something. This book doesn't do any of that.

Saying that the Unknown Soldier is anti-American isn't strictly true. It just feels like it is. The reality is much more mundane and depressing. This isn't a book that has a point of view, anti or pro or otherwise. The reason that I hate this book is because it commits the most unforgivable sin of all: It's boring.



James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and a war comics snob. You can follow him on twitter.

FOOTNOTES:
*Here's an interesting piece on the Unknown Soldier and Dysart's run with the character.

23 August, 2014

Another Quick Note About "Sahara". . .




As you might recall, I said that Sahara is a great film (that is also about a tank), but don't just take my word for it! War is Boring agrees!

Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be inside of this cardboard box pretending to hunt down the Desert Fox. . . This could be a while.

James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and is glad Bogey and Bacall are finally back together. You can follow him on twitter.

12 August, 2014

NEVER GET CAUGHT

Not Quite Like Pulling Teeth
Thoughts on Secret (2014).

Secret is one of those books I skipped reading in issues because I figured I was just going to get it in the trades. Manhattan Projects is one of the best books I've read in a long while (as far as super-science books go, I think Nowhere Men just barely edges it out). Considering the book's subject mattr, in addition to its pedigree, it seemed like a slam dunk. Having now finished it, having done some measure of meditation on the book, I kind of wish I had only bought the first issue instead.

And I am not entirely disappointed. Secret is a fine book. Perfectly fine, even. While I still really like Jonathan Hickman as a writer, this book feels sparse. In that way, it's less Manhattan Projects than it is Red Wing. It's an odd thing to accuse a Hickman book of being insubstantial. Overall it feels like a story that was sitting in Hickman's drawer for a couple of years until he became Mr. Crossover at Marvel. Good for him if he's got that kind of heat behind him. There's certainly less deserving creators out there and it's a hard enough trade, the comic's game, even within the halls of the Big Two.

On that same note Secret is fairly vapid. It isn't that it's dumb. I've read dumber books than Secret that don't move as quickly and as viciously as it does. The Programme is a book that is both dumb and slow. As a dressed-up genre book, it's doing something right. It's violent. It's mean. It's got twists. And that's about it.

When I approach some of the book's deeper meaning, I don't come away looking for more answers. I come away slightly more confused, as if the answer isn't even worth knowing. The artistic style leaps to mind.

The concept behind Michael Garland's color palette is my main stumbling block. In the book, it leaps from black and white to monochrome to sepia, with the odd splash of blood here and there. Think a collision of Sin City, Casanova, and, for flavor, the opening of The Big Red One.

Is it symbolic? Is it tonal? Is it just quirky? Am I an idiot? If so, why? Or is it just there as chaff to distract us all from the fact that there's basically nothing beneath the surface of this book? At least when Hickman did it (and I'm sure it was his idea, it almost has to be his idea) in Manhattan Projects there is a clear connection to either a character or a timeline. It works in conjunction with Nick Pitarra's art (also Jordie Bellaire, the fairy queen of coloring works on the book, which doesn't hurt). Here. . . I don't know it's just weird.

Other than that, the art is excellent.  Ryan Bodenheim does a fine job of differentiating characters and generally making Secret's world of office blocks and cubicles into something visually arresting. Or at least as visually arresting as those things can be. I'd be interested to see what Bodenheim does in the future and what he's done in the past. Even if this isn't the perfect project, his art carries the story along nicely. Then again, it'd have been nice to see some color thrown in there somewhere.

It's frustrating to not know how dumb or how smart it is. It's like Lost. Or The Leftovers. Is it me? Is it this dumb book? Both, maybe? Are you leaving us a mystery to solve or did you just plain forget to fill out the details? With Manhattan Projects there is no such doubt. And, hell, it isn't Hickman's experiment on SHIELD, whatever the hell that was supposed to be.

But it's Jonathan Hickman making an industrial espionage book with a fairly talented artist and I am perfectly okay with that.  It's also only $9.99, so who the hell am I to complain? Image drives a hard bargain. Just read Manhatattan Projects or Nowhere Men and let's call this whole thing a wash, okay? Or maybe Zero if you want some crazed ultraviolence. Or East of West 

Hey, the world is your fucking oyster, okay? Go out there and read something.



James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and an enemy of mankind. You can follow him on twitter.

02 August, 2014

GOTG is Dead

Another GOTG in the Machine
A review of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).


Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest entry in Marvel's series bed sheets and back packs. This one is about space.

From start to finish Guardians of the Galaxy is a carnival of colors, light, and sound, often used in conjunction, to convey a story about people, space, and space people. Sometimes those people are actually a raccoon. Also sometimes these things blow up, because, if you hadn't noticed, it's Summer.

At points in the story it delivers exactly what you would expect a movie named "Guardians of the Galaxy" would deliver. Sometimes though, in it's running time, it is less than that. Sometimes though, it is more than that. Also sometimes things blow up because, if you hadn't noticed, it's Summer.

Where Guardians of the Galaxy gets interesting is. . .You're not even listening, are you?

You're watching the movie right now. Aren't you?

Come on, guys. This is my job.

UPDATE: I wrote an actual Guardians of the Galaxy review. Read it/get angry with me here.

James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and an enemy of mankind. You can follow him on twitter.

21 July, 2014

No, No. The OTHER WWII Fury.



I know I'm late to the party on this, but I am excited for Fury.

In preparation for what I hope is a decent movie (consider the director's track record: End of Watch is supposed to be great and Sabotage, um, not), let's go over a pair of WWII tank movies that are worth seeing:

Kelly's Heroes has greatest straight up tank fight in cinema history. And that's mostly because it might be the only tank duel in cinema history (which just can't be true, can it?).

As a film, Kelly's Heroes is more on par with something like Catch 22 than The Dirty Dozen. Or Where Eagles Dare, for that matter. It's gleeful and irreverent, and it takes the second world war about as it does a clown with his pants down. Or maybe it just doesn't take WWII movies seriously? Either way, Kelly's Heroes is a butt-load of fun and a perfect encapsulation of what Hollywood thought of the 1960's counter-culture.

It's a movie that laughs at the kind of square-jawed heroes that populate 1940's and 50's war movies.Yet it's savvy enough to know that tanks are cool and that Nazis are bad and it's fun when these things are slammed together.

I won't spoil the ending, but the entire climax of the film is built around the idea that the Tiger tank is the baddest piece of machinery ever built and that a rag tag bunch of screwballs may not be up to the task. Then it gets weird.

Then there's Sahara (the Bogart one). While a tank (an M3 Lee) is central to the plot, it really isn't about tanks. It's about the men who ride in and on them. The tank itself is a piece of shit, but it's got a kind of can-do charm of a dog with three legs. It's also notable for including just about every single member of the Allied Forces in some capacity helping our heroic tank crew along the way (it also includes both Italian and German enemies, which is about as rare of a feature in a film as a tank fight).

Sahara survives as an interesting film for a few reasons. The first, and the most important being, it's a Humphrey Bogart movie. While not all Bogart movies are created equal (there's Casablanca and The African Queen and then there's Beat the Devil and Sirocco), a good Bogart film is a great reminder of just what a presence he was as an actor. (There's a reason he's Michael Caine's favorite actor.)

The second reason is that Sahara is a perfect example of "the kind of movie they don't make any more." It's a war film, but it's light and it's loose and there is no question as to what the good guys need to do. There's a clear line in the sand as to what good guys do and what bad guys do. While it is the kind of film that helped to build up the myth of World War II, watching it, even now, it's not hard to see why we see the war the way we do. Sahara paints a picture of a war that needs to be fought and is worth fighting for. And hey, that's not such a bad thing, is it?

So, before you see Fury, go see these movies. At least we know they're good movies. And if not. . . Well, screw you. You don't want Clint Eastood and Don Wrickles on a caper? You don't want Humphrey Bogart and Jeff Bridges' dad defending your freedom? Are you so joyless?

Anyways.



With no little retinence, I am excited about Fury.

Despite Sabotage. Despite Mr. The Beef and his almost certainly mentally ill antics. Despite having recently been burnt by another special effects driven WWII movie. Despite always getting burnt by having any sort of investment in anything, I am excited. And there's a lot to be excited for. The movie has a great lead, a director who has turned out at least one impressive film in his burgeoning career, and the technology exists to make the convincing and worthwhile tank that I that we deserve.

That is until somebody finally gets the guts to adapt The Haunted Tank into a movie.

James Kislingbury makes comics, hosts podcasts, and generally just does his thing. You can follow him on twitter, too.

06 July, 2014

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

Lord I Believe I'm Freezin' to Die
A Kind of Review of Snowpiercer (2014)

After a long and unnecessary battle with theWeinstein Company, Snowpiercer has finally been allowed to come out in the States, uncut and uncompromised. In its current state, it is a movie that was certainly worth fighting for. It is also a movie that is well worth the wait.

Directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer tells the tale of the last remnants of humanity. Broken into a rigid class system, those to the rear of the train are brutalized and exploited at the leisure of those in the front of the train, who get to enjoy the pleasures of the eponymous train's "sacred" perpetual motion engine. As you can imagine, things come to a head rather quickly.

From there the movie follows Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow revolutionaries (and hangers on) through the absurd, yet grimly down-to-earth cars of the Snowpiercer. From there we get a kaleidoscopic view of a species on the edge. We see it at its best, its worst, and at every odd stage in between. More importantly, we also get to see one of the best rides of the year so far.

NOBODY SMOKES A CIGARETTE LIKE A KOREAN JUNKIE

If you hadn't noticed, Snowpiercer has one of the best ensemble casts this side of Days of Future Past (or the next Christopher Nolan movie).

If I start talking about the cast, I'll be here all day, so I'll try to be brief. So, real quick, remember when Chris Evans was a joke? Like, before Captain America, he was on his way out? I mean, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (always with the rise, how come nothing ever ascends? Or flight? Things used to take flight all the time) and, boy howdy, that's a terrible film. If things hadn't gone the way they had-- if things were just slightly differently, he would have disappeared, unwanted and unloved onto the heap of other handsome white action heroes like a Ryan Reynolds or a Taylor Kitsch. Instead he can probably stand slightly behind Matthew McConaughey and maybe adjacent to Channing Tatum making us feel slightly stupid for writing them off.

As with the rest of the film, everybody comports themselves wonderfully. From Octavia Spencer as a tortured mother turned soldier to Tilda Swinton trying her best to act through more prosthetics than she had in The Grand Budapest Hotel to John Hurt who is, as you may well know, John fucking Hurt..

The only weak link that I can think of is Jamie Bell's accent. And I don't mean his acting or the quality of the accent, I mean, the actual accent. Why is it there? How did he get it? Nobody else around seems to be Irish. Why is he Irish? What gives? Did John Hurt imprint on him? Maybe he got it from the same post-apocalyptic accent store that the military guy from Doomsday got his Scottish accent.

The stand out is an actor that should be familiar to anyone who has watched a Korean film before because he is literally in every Korean film ever made. That man is, of course Song Kang-ho, star of The Host, Thirst, JSA, and, again, every other Korean film ever made.

While everyone else is running around, bleeding over things, Kang-ho sits confidentially in the background, either feverishly getting high or redefining how to look cool while smoking a cigarette. If you're a foreign film nerd you get the pleasure of seeing him paired with some of the most interesting Western actors around.

Even the bit roles of the film are well done. From the wordless henchman played by (name) to the cultishly cute school teacher played by Alison Pill to Ed Harris' who plays the man at the front of the train like a combination between the Great Oz and Lucifer. It is one more example of how much care and attention was given to the film.

MAESTRO EN SCENE

What holds the film together is its ability to weave together several different kinds of genres and several different characters and idea and molds them into a single, wonderful product.

In the first half of the film, Curtis and his revolutionaries are pitted against a train car full of masked butchers. It's a scene with a lot of things going on in it. First and foremost, it takes Tilda Swinton's dentured and pig-nosed visage and manages to put it amidst a gang of hooded butchers and it seems like the natural, normal choice. It then manages to address the silliness of the train's traditions with utter carnage. And in all this, a spectacular action sequence is taking place. It is the film in microcosm and a wonderful sequence in a film overrun with wonderful sequences.

Another strength is that, like the train, it continually moves forward. We aren't ever bogged down in needless narration or we're left to think about what it all means. It plows forward. Through action, through dialogue, through characters. It moves. It moves at such a clip that the weaker moments of the movie are flattened by the momentum.

And there are moments in Snowpiercer where it threatens (you ready for this?) go off the rails. There's a distinct moment about half of the way through where it threatens to turn into a French film, where suddenly, Curtis and his cadre are going to be seduced by the decadence of the bourgeoisie*, that we're going to somehow end up with a Lois Bunuel film, but with more hatchet-based violence. Thankfully, it never tips over into full-blown satire. It's nice to see considering the the inexplicable shifts in tone of The Host.

The Host is a fine movie. It's a lot of fun and it's a kind of entry level foreign film that something like Wild Strawberries simply cannot be. It's more Jaws than it is The Seventh Seal, so maybe thinking about it critically is slightly missing the point, but, man, that film takes some weird turns. By the end of the film most of the principle cast dead (which includes an old man and a child). At the very end we're then left with a couple of characters who are, at best, catastrophically traumatized, but we're meant to believe it's a happy ending. On Christmas. In a kind of hobo lean-to/snack shack.  It's literally as baffling as I just stated.
Snowpiercer has none of these shortcomings. It's a movie that doesn't drag and it doesn't shoot off into any weird directions. It plows forward, working action, absurdist satire, petulent humor, high science fiction concepts, and a kind of gritty realism into a single working piece of machinery. It's violent. It's funny. It's smart. It's emotionally touching. Snowpiercer is the perfect example of a film that can have its cake and eat it too.

DISMEMBERMENT 

As I said above, this is a violent movie (which should come as little surprise if you're familiar with "extreme cinema"). As many ideas about society and class and destiny as there are on display, it's also about scrappy revolutionaries killing people with axes. It's about giving these people a reason to act and it's about us enjoying them move forward car by car. What I'm saying is that it's a smart movie that is also pretty awesome.

And it doesn't waste your time getting you there. It's odd that the Weinsteins wanted to cut the film, because I have no idea what they'd cut. A guy loses an arm to frost in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

From the very first moments of the film, you hate the upper class. You hate the system they've set up. You hate Wilford. You hate everything about this world and you just want people to be happy and you want certain other people to see the business end of a shank.

As with the humor and the drama in the film, Joon-ho doesn't ever lose control. The film's point of view never turns into mere satire and the violence never tips over into fantasy. Or into purience. It's as brutal and as intense as it needs to be to excite you, but to also make you feel a little bit sick. It's a fine act to balance and, once again Joon-ho nails it.

You believe this conflict just like you believe the characters, just like you believe that there's a magic bullet train shooting through the frozen future. It's visceral, it's believable, and it's a whole lot of fun, and that's kind of what movies should be, right?

FLAWS IN THE GEARS

Besides the odd moment where the film threatens to careen into the fantastic, the film has a few other flaws. They aren't major, but they're there, whipping by us as we watch the movie.

As in Days of Future Past, the most obvious shortcoming of the film are in its visual effects. While much of the special effects and computer effect go unnoticed, the exterior shots of the film look less like a frozen wasteland than they the Uncanny Valley after a blizzard.

What's more is that they aren't just iffy CGI shots, they're iffy in a weird way. They somehow look like computer generated miniatures. Meaning they somehow look both fake and small. The wonky visual effects are even more apparent when you consider how fully realized the rest of the film is. Unlike Days of Future Past, I at least understand why the CGI doesn't look great.

Then there's the woman in yellow. She's dubbed, right? Like, terribly? Right? Am I crazy?


END OF THE LINE

Go see Snowpiercer. Show the braintrust in charge of the Weinstein Company-- and the rest of the goons running Hollywood-- that America wants more than dumb, ugly schlock. Show them that we like intelligent, well made science fiction films. Show them that we don't need any more fucking robots.

What is more is you should see Snowpiercer because it's an excellent film.

It's international in the way that David Lean movies are international. Or Akira Kurosawa movies are international. The creators of the film set out to make a particular kind of movie about a particular subject. It isn't a perfect movie and there are some truly harrowing parts in it, parts that in the hands of a lesser director would come off as crass. Instead, it's one more example of the fact that this film works. You should see it because good art, made well deserves to be seen.

But don't just take my word for it. It's coming to VOD on Friday.



*It is about much more than the corruption of the underclass or the compromising of a bloody revolution (we have Bioshock Infinite for that).

22 June, 2014

Nippon by Numbers

"I'm the Most Acceptable at What I Do"
Thoughts on The Wolverine (2013)


The Wolverine is pretty good. It's competent in all the right ways and even has the odd moment of brilliance sprinkled through out the narrative. There isn't anything that is terribly objectionable. Overall, it's as challenging as a cup of cocoa. And not even, like, Mexican hot chocolate, I mean plain ass, straight up hot cocoa. Maybe some whipped cream on top.

It's the definition of a movie you watch on cable because there's nothing else on.

My main problem with the movie is also kind of the charm of it. Japan is as much of a character in The Wolverine as anyone else and, like everyone else, that character is a cartoon. The world that James Mangold has carved into celluloid (or, from the looks of it, binary code), is less an NHK documentary as it is a series of knobs and cranks doling out exactly what kind of Japanese we're going to see and how much.

Over the course of the movie Wolverine battles his way from a POW camp to fighting the Yakuza in modern day Tokyo to fighting ninja and then, finally, a giant robot. It's literally every home grown bad guy Japan has to offer.

There was a time when all I knew about Japan and Japanese pop culture I gleaned from the pages of PSM. It's fun to revisit these things. It's fun to not have to think about politics or thousands of years of wood carving or tea ceremonies or whatever. It's a cartoon. It's simple, it's fun, and it doesn't need to be anything more than that.

Basically, Japan is The Wolverine.

But a few other things come to mind, such as how it treats Imperial Japanese soldiers and the dropping of the second A-bomb. Even in a movie that is as pop corn munchingly throw away as this movie, it gives you something to think about. Or it at least tries, and that has always been the hallmark of the X-Men film franchise, which started with the Holocaust, for God's sake.

The Japanese Army's track treatment of their fellow man is well established. Anybody who knows anything about world history or World War II knows about how they treated civilians and natives and enemy combatants. If you don't, I'll be brief and tell you that they did not treat them especially well.

The Wolverine doesn't deal with those things. I doesn't need to. It doesn't even pay lip service to these things. At the risk of white washing history, I think it's a smart move on the part of the film makers. There's a couple of reasons for this.

The first one is practical. We have to spend two hours with this country (and almost exclusively this country, all but two of the leads, are Asian), so bringing up Unit 731 or bringing up "comfort women" or mass executions isn't going to make this narrative very palatable. Plus, it's a PG-13 movie. We don't need to see murder contests in a movie about a super hero vigilante trying to get his groove back.

When X-Men began with the Holocaust, it was a smart move. Maybe not in the best taste, but it was smart. It set up the plight of the mutant species (by showing both the specific plight of Magneto and by stating that the Final Solution is, in some way, analogous to the persecution of mutants). It also makes us sympathise with the villain of the piece, which, again, is one of the ongoing themes of the X-Men franchise.

Secondly, it goes against the spirit of the movie. In the opening minutes of The Wolverine, we see Wolverine in a hot box reminiscent of Bridge Over the River Kwai, but before that we see a Japanese officer freeing Allied (presumable ANZACs or Canadians) and waving off a guard from shooting them.

By doing this, it elevate the Japanese as more than brutal fanatics and it makes one particular Japanese man (who later turns out to be the villain) into a good guy. When the A-Bomb does detonate, it becomes  less an instrument of punishment as it is a force of nature.

In these ways it also injects a kind of basic human decency that is in keeping with the best of the series (or at least just Days of Future Past). It's a smarter, kinder move than a movie like this needs and if only for that it makes The Wolverine a better movie than it has to be.

It isn't changing history, it's choosing to deal with it in a different way. I like that.

And I can always watch Nanking if I want to be reminded of the actual facts. But sometimes I don't want to. Sometimes I just want to see a movie where a guy does what he does best and what he does ain't pretty.