Civil War Diaries

Last night I went out and saw the excellent Captain America: Civil War.

That word – excellent – is all I’m going to say in the sense of an overall qualitative review. Drilling down on more overall praise would be redundant at this point. Go see it, you won’t be disappointed.

What I did want to get down is some thoughts about why it works. I’ve deliberately tried to keep it spoiler light. You can read this. These are only bullet points, but I think they’re all worth noting:

The Russos: People have been wondering how the Russos established themselves with such surety as action directors, but it’s worth noting that the main skill they draw upon here is not actioneering (though more on that in a moment), it’s character balance. The brothers cut their teeth on Arrested Development and Community – both character focused comedies that needed to keep everyone’s story line clear whilst allowing them to ineract. Servicing separate arcs but shifting emphasis from one character to another and finding time to make the people that they’re depicting compelling. Do we recognise a pattern here? Civil War juggles an AMAZING number of characters, and whilst some of them get a shorter shrift than others, every character gets at least one significant beat in their overall arc. That’s amazing, given how easy it would be (and has been in other films) for characters to get lost in the shuffle. As action directors, they still know to serve character with their action sequences, and keep those sequences in service to the story. Quick case in point – at the beginning of the film, the action sequences are shot with “shaky cam” – blurred, kinetic, rapid cuts. Even in these sequences you can still divine what’s going on, but the fights feel fractious and chaotic because that’s how the characters are feeling. It reflects chaos that is critical to the story, without betraying the overall capabilities or visions of the characters in service to that chaos. Later in the film, when battle lines are more clearly drawn, the direction of the action sequences becomes clear – steadicam. Wide angle shots. Long pans from character to character. In one notable multipartite slugfest it comes as close to anything I’ve ever seen in recreating a splash page from a comic book without feeling too still or slavish. Everything moves, and continues to move, but the action sequences derive more and more focus – following the arc of the film as chaos becomes clear. This is how you direct a superhero film.

Character First: The comment I made above about how the Russos come from a character focused background? Well, they’re equally well served by the script and the performances, all of which focus on key motivations for the characters. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that both RDJ and Chris Evans have spoken more openly about staying on with Marvel after this one, as they’re obviously given the lion’s share of the work to do as actors and that must feel satisfying when there’s this much meat to it – but they’re not the only ones. Ideology and motivation are made clear in ways that feel intrinsic to the characters, but are also subject to change which arises naturally out of the course of events in this film. Much of the film (not that it stints on action) is taken up with dialogue – people considering, reconsidering, debating, finding and losing common ground. This works because we have a clear and defined sense of who they are and what they want. That’s true for the new characters too, T’Challa and Spider-Man who each get enough time to explain their motivations for this film and set them up for future endeavours. There’s never a moment where the conflict here is driven by anything other than character – no flashy deus ex machinae, no papering over the cracks. This is about people who behave in understandable ways. Leading on to my next point…

They’ve Earned It: It sounds kind of facile to say this, but it absolutely needs to be said: even moreso than The Avengers (which I’m not trying to discredit, I’m just saying it operated by different rules), this is the proof of concept movie for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie works without it, but it works so much more effectively because of it – references to old beats and conflicts (a sequence where Captain America raises his fists, a beat where Steve and Bucky stand next to each other, when Tony notably at one point says “I changed“), self-contained arcs within the movies which nevertheless reflect the overall themes of the universe. We know who these characters are and what they want, and they feel so wholly inhabited by their actors that where some people have less screen time, it’s still remarkably effective because we know who they are. Marvel has smartly saved itself spadework in introductions for the most part – there are reintroductions that allow us to get straight into the good stuff. The movie centres around events of a lot of the previous films, but in the aggregate, not the specific. It’s less about the precise recollection of any particular events (though as I say, the Easter eggs are there for people who are looking for them), and more about a general recognition that this is the next stage in an overall extant and internally consistent world. In full credit to its writing, it smooths out previously spiky edges, without ever diminishing the content of what comes before.

The Civil War: Is so, so much better conceived than Civil War as depicted in the comics. Avoiding spoilers here is difficult, but suffice to say that a compelling argument is drawn for all participants, in a way that in no way diminishes that they are men and women of good will and integrity who are driven in different directions. No-one needs to carry an idiot ball. No-one needs an out of character heel turn. The film is about the inherent conflict in doing the right thing. How that is interpreted, the price one needs to pay for it, both its burdens and its benefits. Unlike certain other hero vs. hero movies, there’s no sense that any of these characters are less than heroes and perhaps more critically, it never EVER suggests that there’s anything facile in the heroic ideal. This is a Captain America movie, and even moreso, I think, than Winter Soldier, it functions by taking Cap as a person of integrity and making him the fulcrum of how people interpret integrity and, well, righteousness in a complicated world. Those complications aren’t cynical, but they are real, and it’s to the film’s credit that it never tries to provide simple, facile answers or jingoistic ooh-rah-rahs.

The Joy: This is probably the last, most critical piece, but it also really matters. This movie is fun. Not just funny (though it is that, jokes and quips abound without ever diminishing the serious moments), but generally wondrous about the things it’s allowed to do, without ever being self-indulgent. There are superheroes galore on screen, and they do superhero things – perform incredible feats, awesome stunts, clever tricks, amazing chases, a mix of unstoppable power and incredible grace. That character distinction comes to the fore too, you get a sense of what every character can do and why they’re valuable to the MCU as a whole, but part of why they can do that is how they do that: seeming to really revel in these characters being superheroes and these being awe-inspiring things to do and see and be. I have a rule about Doctor Who, which I’m also starting to apply to superhero properties – the more you can see daylight the more of an indication that the storytellers are confident in the wonder of what they’re creating. They’re unafraid to put those creations to the test under the light of day.

When it’s this good, they shouldn’t be.

Christmas In Ravenloft

‘Twas the Night before Yuletide, and all through the Domains
The poor tortured victims looked up from their chains.
Strahd’s victims were hung in the dungeon with care,
Because if hung poorly, they’d be liable to tear.

The bodies were nestled all snug in their graves
Unlike poor Azalin who fevers and raves
Madam Eva in kerchief, and I in Strahd’s trap,
Were anxiously listening for a final snap

When out in the woods there arose such a fire,
That it looked to the world like a funeral pyre.
I sprung from the trap with adventurer’s vigour
Leaping clear as I heard the click-clack of the trigger!

The moon rose, blood red from the fires below,
and cast ghastly shadows along drifts of snow
When what to my febrile brain should appear,
But strange lunar illithids, eldritch and queer.

With their dripping proboscises stretched to my brain,
I knew in a moment I had gone insane.
But now, to my poor madman’s mind became clear,
The sound of their mind-flayer moans to my ear:

“Now Xeplz! Now K’rstrix!
“Now Ythrid the Mangler!”
“Now Ulthrig and Maktox
The Cerebral Strangler!
To the top of the Castle! To Ravenloft’s spire!
We must keep our meeting with that fateful vampire!”

Like dry bones that rustle in crypts then expire,
A rattle arose as they climbed ever higher
So up that bleak summit the illithids crawled,
Whilst inside Strahd’s victims still wailed and bawled

And then, with a squelching, I heard on the roof
The castle come open, to display its dark truth
I knew then my end would be painful and gory
As Strahd von Zarovich arose in full glory.

He wore a long cape, from his throat to his heels,
And he bore two sharp fangs that his snarling reveals.
His hands wrung like talons before each fell guest,
And a ruby-gold pendant gleamed red on his chest.
His eyes – how they glimmered! His hair – sleek and black!
His cheeks high and sunken! How straight was his back!
His cruel mouth was drawn in a rictus so grim,
that even the illithids seemed scared of him.
The sword at his side, well, it looked like a prop,
It hurts to describe him, so reader, I’ll stop.

But then, to my mounting surprise and dismay,
He shook rich with laughter, and oh, so did they.
The mind-flayers it seemed, bothered Strahd not the least!
For they were his guests for a dark Yuletide feast!

With a twist of his neck and a wave of his hands,
The Dragon arose and obeyed his commands!
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
As the Yuletide beast took to the sky with a jerk!

And the illithids leapt to it’s plum-pudding back,
And it covered the moon and left the forest black!
This was no mere wyrm that they set out to ride,
But a great Christmas Dragon I’d soon be inside.

And the last thing I heard as I sailed down its throat,
Was the smooth voice of Strahd as it rung out to gloat:

“True, we are monsters, and souls do we lack
But hell, what is Christmas without a shared snack?”

THE END

A Little Note on the Big Sleep

I’m typing this on my phone, unable to sleep. I was going to post something like this after Bowie passed, but refrained in favour of keeping my headphones in for a couple of days and letting forty years of great music wash over me.

And now Alan Rickman’s dead.

Kurt Vonnegut – the writer who I may think of most in times of stress – said that his enlightened Tralfamadorians would greet all deaths with a simple “So it goes”. In part because we live in a universe where all things move toward their end, but in a larger part because time, on blessed Tralfamadore, is an illusion. People who mean something to us are always where – or at least when – they were when they came to mean that thing.

It’s a lovely sentiment. But the time machine we call memory is imperfect, and I at least have a little too much Dylan Thomas in me to summon up that clarity without a little rage. Some losses are too keen to make for good philosophy.

For the most part.

I do – as I think we must – think differently of artists whom we love.

When Terry Pratchett died, my mother called me. To see if I had heard, to check I was okay. This is a process that had been missed for actual relatives. But I was okay. And here’s why:

Except in fortunate, specific, cases we don’t know the artists we talk about. We have fleeting glimpses. Formed impressions. Often, they’re not the people we thought they were.

But why should they be? The attachment we feel isn’t to a person. It can’t be. It’s to their art, and to the idea of their art. We feel sympathy for their friends and family. We mourn the passing of the idea.

And for art, well, So It Goes. Songs play their final notes, curtains fall, books come to an end. But the ideas of that aft stay with you.

Art – we must always remember – is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s not affection, or inspiration, or even beauty. It’s an act of creation. All art is something out of nothing. It’s something new entering the world.

Matter, they say, can never be created or destroyed – only changed. But artists add things to our base sphere. Those things remain.

The Tralfamadoriansams are right on this one: art is outside time. The book is waiting for you to pick it up again. The song is waiting to be played.

The impulse to mourn often comes from our sense of loss. The dead don’t mourn. They have gone on to joy or to nothingness. We feel the pang if songs they might have written we never got to hear, parts they may have played we never saw. But EVERY part or song or book or painting or cathedral is more than we had any right to expect.

To borrow from another artist who touched my life immeasurably, without me giving back: I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.

But I will say, be grateful, and take comfort.

The fact of art itself is nothing less than a miracle. To quote another artist whom I love (present tense, because I experience the art now, and not the man, passed), Orson Welles:

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

I couldn’t say it better. Isn’t it marvelous that I don’t have to?

Balance to the Force

This is “the” The Force Awakens post. It’s probably the only big one I’m going to do – the movie a few hours in the past for me now, filtered through first impressions and subconscious dream states. (Sleep and then wake/for better hot take, as the old saying goes).

I’m not going to talk too much about the film overall here, though. I will say that this is going to be SPOILERRIFIC, so please take a step back if you don’t want to be spoiled – and you don’t – go watch the film first and come back afterwards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everyone done?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Good.

 

Alright, so a little bit of light preamble: I liked that a whole lot. Loved it, in fact. Was it a little light on the exposition? Yes! But that’s okay, because it’s STAR WARS. I don’t mean that in a pure fandom sense, I mean that I have always thought Star Wars works better with a few gaps in the margins. The archetypes are broad enough that you can fill in the mysteries yourself, and it gives future installments bits and pieces to explore. Were there some retreads of A New Hope beats? Of course there were, not only because fans were hankerin’, but because Disney has a multibillion dollar IP to service, and they need to do it in such a way as to be sure audiences are going to be happy. They have every reason to be. It looks pretty, the new cast is great, the old favourites function marvelously, and the various balls are kept in the air. Well done, Disney, JJ, Star Wars and company.

More importantly though, rather than try to conceal what it borrows from the earlier films, The Force Awakens wears it proudly on its sleeve, and it does so for a purpose: this is a handover film. Of course there are X-Wing/TIE Fighter dogfights, fascist goons, masked villains, strange coincidences, desert landscapes, firefights, cute droids hiding secret plans, and aliens. That’s what Star Wars is. Han Solo gets to play a major role in the film not just as a creaky mentor, but as the custodian of Star Wars itself. “It’s true. All of it,” he says, as was seen in the trailers – but what’s more important is who he is saying it to: Rey and Finn, the new generation of Star Wars leads. Later in the film, as they face down Kylo Ren after he has done the “unthinkable” and kills Han Solo (the clearly telegraphed unthinkable that SUCCEEDS nevertheless, based on the gravelly way Harrison Ford says “Ben”, by the way), the key words of the franchise are exchanged: “It’s just us now.”

This is the film that had to be close to the old Star Wars so that Star Wars itself can be passed on. To whom it is passed on is the important point.

I want to talk about Kylo Ren.

It is no accident – can be no accident – that Kylo Ren is the flawed inheritor of the greatest of all possible Star Wars legacies. He is the son of Princess Leia and Han Solo, trained by Luke Skywalker…and he sucks. I don’t mean the character sucks, he’s great, but he’s great because he despite all his privilege isn’t very good at his job.

Can you hone in on the key word in that sentence? The Force Awakens says that the presumptive natural inheritor of Star Wars is, in fact, not such. Despite the legacy bequeathed to him, he’s not a Jedi (or a Sith). He’s a failed state. The crackling, semi-functional lightsaber he wields? Again, not an accident. Deeply symbolic. He can’t build a lightsaber. He is no Jedi. The knowledge and power he has acquired is half-borrowed, half-stolen. Think about what Ren says when torturing his victims. “I can have anything I want”. Think about the temper tantrums when someone gets away from him.

He’s a spoiled, frustrated, privileged asshole. He’s also – in case it missed your notice – the principal white male of the new generation.

The trailers certainly hinted that Finn was going to be the Force user touched by the titular awakening, and although that’s not off the cards yet, it’s not the narrative of this movie. Rey is the true inheritor of the Light Side destiny – at least for this film – and it makes this abundantly clear by having Luke’s lightsaber fly to her hand. “You need a teacher,” hisses Ren – despite the fact he’s been wounded by Finn already, that he’s made mistakes at almost every turn. The whole film comes down to that fight in the woods.

And then Rey beats the shit out of him. He’s wounded, and tired, and clearly having a hard day – but that message can’t be any clearer. The true inheritor of the Star Wars legacy is a woman. She is given both Luke’s lightsaber AND the Millennium Falcon. There can be no doubt. Star Wars belongs to her now, with Finn as the second principal figure. (And thank God for Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, because damn me if I don’t feel they both can carry it.)

JJ copped a bit of flack for his remarks about Star Wars moving to include women now – but it’s clear with the benefit of film context that he was trying to say something vital about what the film is. 

To put not too fine a point on it: Kylo Ren is a Star Wars fan. He’s an insider – he knows all the old stories and all the players involved in it, and he’s a seed planted from the first moment a Princess clapped eyes on a scruffy looking nerf-herder. He thinks that makes him entitled to Star Wars. But it’s not for him. He has no right of ownership.

The Force Awakens is a movie which hands over Star Wars to the next generation, but it’s also a movie about who that next generation needs to be. Not the entitled legacy of another white man who feels he has been promised a victory he neither earned nor deserved, but belonging to those who can feel the Light Side of the Force, from all kinds of backgrounds who understand what it means, beyond all the trappings. Go where the heart goes, and the trappings will follow.

Much can be made of Kylo Ren’s complicated feelings about his father – the man who made him, but who, as the man says himself “will just end up disappointing you”. That observation can’t be divorced from the very complicated legacy of George Lucas. Lucas isn’t the villain of the piece, thankfully. It’s not what the progenitor of the franchise deserves. If he’s represented by anyone, it’s the creaky Han Solo, going back to his roots. Reminding us of what was great about Star Wars in the first place. Rather, the villain stems from the attitude of a total jerk who feel that he’s somehow been “betrayed”, that he is (and in so far as he represents certain segments of the audience, that they are) the true custodians of Star Wars. Yeah, that’s the Dark Side speaking, motherfuckers. That’s the opinion of the man who kills Han Solo. You don’t get to lock the gate and keep the key. The Force is part of all living things.  You want to talk about bringing balance to the Force? That means it gets shared equally.

When Solo recognises Rey and Finn as his successors (and he does, that’s not a subtle point), he’s standing as the head of the comet – the titular expression of the old Star Wars verse that these new kids are the ones we’re following.

The Force Awakens succeeds not just in making a Star Wars movie which functions as a Star Wars movie with all the fun and all the trimmings (which was the bar everyone prayed it’d clear), but as a Star Wars movie which is to an extent about Star Wars and the culture surrounding Star Wars without undercutting all the fun and trimmings we’ve been waiting for. Take a victory lap, JJ. You’ve earned it.

Ren might turn back into Ben Solo before the next few films are done. It’s happened before. But for Episode VII at least, the conceptual markers are clear. Star Wars is what it always was, but there really are fresh hands at the wheel.

 

Imagined X-Men Speeches, Part One

Storm: “Here’s the thing none of you seem to realise, Captain. We’re going to win. You can kill our best and brightest, you can “accidentally” sterilise us with poison gas, you can be damn sure we’re going to get in our own way and fight ourselves and make a mess of things. But we’re going to win. We’ve always found a way before. Life has always found a way before. Because we’re the future. And you of all people should know you can’t fight it. The X-Men are just here to help ease the transition for you.”

 

It’s To The Tune Of “She’s So High”, Okay?

the-fly-1986-screenshot-4

He’s blood, flesh and bone
Transported chromosomes
New touch, smell, sight, taste and sound

But somehow he can’t believe
That this has really happened
The experiment went wrong
And something weird has happened
Yeah, yeah

‘Cause he’s the Fly…
It’s revolting, skin is moulting
He’s the Fly…
Not Seth Brundle but a bundle of man and insect
He’s the Fly…
It’s revolting

Stuck to the roof above
At first his lady love
Thinks he’s the best of everything

But what could a fly like he
Ever really offer?
He mutates more frequently
And it becomes a bother

‘Cause he’s the Fly…
It’s revolting, skin is moulting
He’s the Fly…
Not Seth Brundle but a bundle of man and insect
He’s the Fly…
It’s revolting

He opens the machine
Plans to merge with his queen
Make a genetic family

But somehow she can’t believe
That this is gonna happen
Also she’s pregnant as well,
And she can’t let this happen
Yeah, yeah

‘Cause he’s the Fly…
It’s revolting, skin is moulting
He’s the Fly…
Not Seth Brundle but a bundle of man and insect
He’s the Fly…
It’s revolting

Fake Openers For Fake Thinkpieces

‘”I-want-to-fit-in,” enunciates Patrick Bateman, brought to a kind of synthetic half-life to a pre-Batman Christian Bale in 2000’s American Psycho. The evenness of the statement is made clear as sublimated fury, not only desperation to fill some gaping chasm in the heart of the secret self, but also rage at the very act of being questioned in his carefully modulated banality. Bateman was in murders and acquisitions mergers and acquisitions, chosen by Bret Easton Ellis to represent a particular kind of 1980s successful homogeneity, but in the modern era, he might well have functioned excellently as an executive for the Disney Channel with his obsession with middle-of-the-road pop music, and his burning, all-consuming desire to conceal the monster within…’

‘The Laysan duck is what’s known as a ‘dabbler’, a form of surface feeder. Endangered, and restricted to the Hawaiian Islands, it’s somewhat ironic that it was first codified by Lionel Rothschild, scion of the great Rothschild banking house of Europe. A consummate zoologist, Rothschild was also the banker that the spectre of his name conjures up, and a member of the British Parliament. He was, in fact, a dabbler, but like the Laysan duck, dabblers in the world of big business have become endangered, even as the wealthiest 1% grow to control more wealth and assets. The key to that control, it turns out, is accretion and segmentation rather than diversity…’

‘Snap! Crackle! Pop! The onomatopoeic elves that guard breakfast cereals represent a simple elegance that has continually resisted attempts to modernise (or as the Simpsons would have it, Poochify) them. But does the iconography of the breakfast table hide a deeper cultural conservatism? “Breakfast is seen as family time,” says Gregory Baines of the National Nutrition Council. “We live in an age where people increasing divide for lunch and purchase cooked dinner, but breakfast is still mostly prepared at home, and shared by at least most of the family. Preserving the icons of earlier, ‘family-oriented’ campaigns taps into this nostalgia.” It seems straight forward enough, but one of those breakfast icons is under threat, with calls for the Lucky Charms leprechaun to be abolished as promoting pagan practices recently renewed…’

NB: These are not real hot takes, and I vouch for neither the facts nor opinions therein.