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.


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.

*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.

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