Friday, June 27, 2014

Transformers 4: Or, Why Michael Bay Should Be Ashamed Of Himself

I've been in the habit lately of avoiding movie trailers and spoilers. This is easier than it sounds, because I don't have a TV, so the only thing I knew about the new Transformers movie was that it had Mark Wahlberg and Dino-bots in it. Now, Wahlberg is a very talented actor and what could possibly go wrong with giant robot dinosaurs? So, you know, last night when I was bored and wanted to get out of the house, I figured let's give it a whirl.

The parts of this movie that are not boring or trite are actually downright offensive. Not only should you not see this movie, this movie is Truly Bad, by which I mean it's bad for society. It reinforces some of the worst habits of our culture, and we would all have been better off if Transformers 4 had just never been made.

A lot of the Truly Bad I'm speaking of has to do with the film's treatment of women. While there are a couple of token women in this movie, the woman with the most screen time and plot significance (such as it is) is Nicola Peltz as Tessa Yaeger, Wahlberg's daughter. Peltz is an object in this movie: an object to be rescued and fought over, and in the worst of the film's Truly Bad scenes, she is a commodity which is exchanged when her protective father hands her off to the boyfriend whom he has disliked until now but, through the process of exchange, now can relate to. I've had to sometimes explain to my students the worst aspects of "courtly love," the way in which it sometimes functions not as a way for a man and woman to love one another, but instead as a way for two men -- one of whom is higher in status than the other -- to forge a power relationship through the use of the wife/lover as object of currency. In this reading, Guinevere and Lancelot's story isn't about them at all. It's the story of Arthur, who needs Lancelot as an ally, and gives Lance his wife to secure that alliance. In other words, it's once again All About Men. And when Whalberg's father hands his daughter off to her boyfriend after making him promise to take care of her for the rest of her life, it's just another version of this terrible exchange.

Compare X-Men: Days of Future Past, when Raven is placed in a position to choose her own fate. Peltz never chooses anything in this movie. She is entirely without agency.

The other Truly Bad aspect of this film is its blatant marketing. Now, I understand that a movie based on toys who turn into cars is going to have a certain amount of product placement, but with Transformers: Age of Extinction we have officially reached the tipping point. This is not a movie which happens to have some product placement in it. This is a 2 1/2 hour commercial break strung together with a plot. It's not just the cars and the toys. I listened as characters name-dropped Red Bull, as Wahlberg conspicuously guzzled a Bud Lite, as a rampaging robot somersaulted over a Victoria's Secret bus stop. The entire last reel is set in China, not for any particular reason except that China is a huge market with millions of paying viewers.

The rest of this movie is just boring, not Truly Bad. I did not know Stanley Tucci was in it, and I always enjoy watching him, though in this movie he's playing Evil Steve Jobs and has been kept on a very short leash. Two things surprised me about this movie: first, it is conspicuously "more serious," and you can tell because they kill off the comic relief character in the first hour. And second, this film was free of the fetishization of the American military which is so prevalent in action movies, most recently in the otherwise-laudable Godzilla.

Speaking of which, the Dino-bots were cool.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Wherefore Art Thou, Owlbear?

Prompted by Steve Long's personal encounter with Owlbear Fever, I am obliged to chime in with my love for this, perhaps D&D's most cherished oddball monster.

Few things say D&D better than the Owlbear, and one of the things that makes it so distinctive -- that makes it a creature that would not, could not, exist in any other universe -- is the ridiculousness of its nature, which we can allow Varsuvius to sum up for us: Why would anyone crossbreed a perfectly serviceable bear with an owl?

If you think I am going to let that question stand unchallenged, well my friends, you do not know me well at all.


#1: You Want A Nocturnal Predator

Bears are omnivores and they sleep half the year. They'll kill a man, sure, but they'd just as soon break into his tent and eat his garbage. Owls are hunters. They eat meat, have famously good night vision, and specialize in the ambush. They are masters of the hit-and-run. They don't hibernate, so they work year round. You don't have to be Stephen Colbert to know bears are scary; now imagine a bear who stalks you by night, can see by starlight from miles away, and who doesn't stick around to fight your well-armored pals but instead grabs you so hard and fast he snaps your neck, then runs off faster than they can follow, climbs a distant tree, and eats you.

#2: The Mythical Associations of Owls

For pretty much as long as mankind has looked up into the trees and seen enormous eyes peering down on them, we have associated the owl with the supernatural, with darkness, and with death. They are banshees: whoever hears their voice is going to die, and Dido, Queen of Carthage is only their most famous victim. They are the companions of Mictlantecuhitl, the Aztec god of death; Mayans considered them messengers from the underworld; Lakshmi rides an owl. But in western culture, the owl is associated with intelligence and wisdom, and if you were a wizard who wanted to breed a more lethal monster to stand in the path of greedy adventurers, breeding your bear with an owl can have only one certain result: that thing is going to be smart. And if it ends up with a save-or-die death spell linked to its hoot? That's just gravy, man.

#3: You Need It To Be An Owl

Imagine for a minute you're the chief cleric of the Temple of Athena. Thieves are constantly trying to break in, and you need some guardian monsters for this dungeon. Well, what are you going to use? Athena's signature animal is the owl. But owls are small and they fly. You could use Giant Owls, but now they need even more room if they're going to be effective. And what about the halls and rooms inside the temple? You can't park a Giant Owl in a 20 x 20 room and expect it to have a fighting chance. But dude, what if your owl was also strong as a bear! It's still part owl. It's got big old owl eyes and it's covered in feathers. Athena is not going to hate it. In fact, she may even be flattered. Now you've got a monster that can TPK four 1st level adventurers without offending the Goddess.

If you put all these things together, you'll see the real question isn't, "Why are there Owlbears?" The real question is, "Why aren't they higher level?"

Mystique is the Loathly Lady: My review of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is an entertaining film. I still have to give the nod for "best film in the X-Men franchise" to X2, but it is certainly the best film since.

Random observations with no regard for spoilers follow.

I was really interested to see Peter Dinklage on screen as Trask. In terms of the script, Dinklage's height was absolutely irrelevant. It was never mentioned once. On the other hand, visually, it was absolutely relevant. There is a certain shot you do with Peter Dinklage, apparently. It involves him being surrounded by seated figures in a U shape. And he is on trial. And whether it is Tyrion Lannister insisting he is on trial for being a dwarf, or Bollivar Trask insisting that the human race is the new Neanderthal (boy, I wish Chris Claremont was getting some money from this movie) to a Senate subcommittee, we have to get a shot of him sitting in a chair with his feet not touching the ground. You don't make that shot when you're dealing with a 5/10" actor. That shot is about the Little Guy Speaking Back To Power. I could write a 5,000 word article on that shot.

Going into this film, I have very fond nostalgia for the original Days of Future Past issues (only two of them! Consider for a moment how influential those 44 pages have been) so I was initially rather grumpy about the fact that a story about Kitty Pryde had become a story about Wolverine. But Singer understood the original story, he had a crush on Kitty Pryde the same way every other adolescent Marvel fan did at the time, and he does his best to say, in this film, "Yeah, I know we had to mess it up a little bit to get this on screen, but, you know, Hollywood." Kitty has an important role in the plot, even if she has few lines and hardly moves, and her ability to send people's consciousness back in time is never explained and has nothing to do with her actual mutant power, but what the hell. It's not like they were going to introduce Franklin Richards or Rachel Summers.

And, honestly, Wolverine's role in this film is downplayed. I consider that a good thing. He goes back into his pre-adamantium body so he's just not as unstoppable as he would later become; Singer balances the film with the rest of the ensemble cast, and this is really not the Wolverine Movie that I was afraid it would be. The fact that Logan has a traumatic flashback at the precise moment he was sent back in time to act was a little ham-handed. I probably would have tried a different direction for that scene. But Jackman did not steal the show, there was even some fanservice buttshot, and basically its a win for everyone.

And let me say that I really did not think that they would bring Cyclops back at the end. I really thought we were going to get the "Everyone lives happy ever after" ending, and Logan would get his dream girl as the music came up and he put the smooch on her. When Scott's hand came up and we heard him go "Whoah," that may have been the gutsiest move in this movie. Because very few people in that theater see Cyclops as anything but a buzzkill, and endorsing his relationship with Jean, and her choice of him over Logan, is not something most fans of the X-Men movies want.

The film was well written and well performed and well shot. This is a pretty classic Bryan Singer X-Men movie, with all his tells. In particular, I noted that while Marvel Studios movies tend to make a head-nod towards relevant social issues (like Winter Soldier's recent gesture towards the issues of the surveillance state and the never-ending War on Terror), Singer's really got no interest in that. I found it interesting to see how he took the X-Men work done on things like Last Stand and First Class and reshaped it to say what he wanted to say. Some elements of these past films he ignored, some got name-drops, and a few people had a scene and some lines, but he really embraced the new history of Charles and Raven and he made that non-romantic, familial, relationship the core of the movie. Again, I think that takes guts. Hollywood has trained us to prioritize the romantic relationship; that's what movies are about. But in this film, the romantic relationship which is implied between Eric and Raven is bankrupt, and when Eric decides he needs to kill Raven to preserve his species, it's a great plot twist which I totally did not see coming and which suddenly answered my question, "Well, they've stopped Mystique, so now what are they gonna do for the next hour and a half?"

It's a good film. Quicksilver's musical number is HILARIOUS. Oh, and tons of mutants get killed. Most of them multiple times. So all the guys that liked Man of Steel will still like this too.

POSTSCRIPT: On the drive realized I had more to say about this film.

I think it's very interesting, and great actually, that the key moment in this film is literally about a man recognizing that a woman has to have agency. Young Charles means well, but Raven scolds him because, even when he means well, he keeps talking about what she "has to do." That is, he is giving orders. Rational, moral, and good orders, but orders nonetheless. What he needs to learn is that this behavior cannot be sustained and is itself on very weak ground. Raven is, in this sense, a bit like the Wife of Bath crying out for "sovereignty."

In fact, if you look at that Tale, Raven is TOTALLY like the Wife of Bath or, rather, her story of the Loathly Lady who offers a choice: she can be beautiful but cheat on her husband all the time, or she can be ugly and be true to him. The choice Charles sees, like the anonymous knight of that Tale, is that Raven can either be Raven (a good person, but hiding her monstrous appearance) or Mystique (wicked, and ugly). But at the critical moment, Charles learns. Again, like the knight of Alisoun's Tale, he realizes there's a third option: LET THE WOMAN DECIDE FOR HERSELF. And he recognizes her agency, and lets her decide. And, like the Loathly Lady in the Tale, she smiles and chooses the best of both worlds: I will be both good and honest. I will not kill, and I will not hide myself.

Crap, now I have another article to write.

"I've Had Worse Times": My review of EDGE OF TOMORROW

EDGE OF TOMORROW is an entertaining popcorn flick that demonstrates Tom Cruise is A) a capable action hero even when cast in the role of a man half his age, and B) is still The Most Charming Man on Earth.

Spoilers Follow.

At its core, Edge of Tomorrow is almost classic science fiction. It takes one idea -- "What if a man could live the same day over and over again as long as he died at the end of it" -- and explores that idea in a lot of depth. I say "almost" because if HG Wells was doing this film, that would be the only science fiction element in it, and everything else would be the world we live in. But in this case we have an alien invasion and chaingun-equipped combat exoskeletons which, knowing most of the people on my friends list as I do, you are probably willing to forgive.

One of the things that struck me about this film is that Cruise is basically playing Jerry Maguire (a master of marketing and charming bastard) and his character from A Few Good Men (child of privilege and charming bastard) who finds a path to becoming a better man when he is thrown into the deep end. I guess I never realized that this is why you cast Tom Cruise in your movie. Your main character is a guy who has been able to coast on good looks and privilege for his whole life and is a jerk, but he's a redeemable jerk, and your movie is about that jerk figuring out how to be a good person by, and here's the trick, connecting with other people.

Emily Blunt underplays this entire movie. Her character used to have the same "Groundhog Day" powers Cruise's character Tom Cage has now (get it? Cage! Because he's trapped in time!), and ends up a mentor to him. Now, that's a cool role, and it's neat to see Blunt as the ass-kicking alien fighter. But it will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I wish Tom Cruise had been "the guy who used to have these powers but doesn't anymore" and Blunt was the protagonist who was on screen every single minute.

The film is not as monotonous as it sounds. For example, Cage despairs of his struggle and flees the war at one point (that doesn't really work out), and the script robs him of his time-reset powers for the final reel. The quiet moments between Cruise and Blunt are quite effective, and the script is fairly smart, because we don't get the customary exposition of their feelings. Instead, actors are allowed to actually, you know, act. And I respect it when filmmakers allow things to go unspoken.

I only have one other beef with this film, and I don't know if the film could escape it, so it's not really fair to criticize it. But I weary of alien invasion movies in which the invasion can be stopped if we can only Kill The Big Boss Alien or Use This Superweapon. Wars are not resolved with anything this simple. There is no "I Win" button for a war, but boy oh boy does America wish there was, and so we get movies like this. A story in which the heroes simply gain an advantage, or take a big step forward, or tip the scales, is not enough for a 2 hour movie that must wrap up neatly at the end. (Starship Troopers being the only alien invasion film I can think of that breaks this rule, and it even has to apologize for it at the end.) So I really wish defeating the invader was messier than it is always in these movies, but I suppose that's just not going to happen. Especially in a movie which is playing off of video game tropes, of which the Big Boss is certainly a part.

This especially struck me as I sat in my cushy chair on the 70th anniversary of D-Day and watched the Good Guys invade France's beaches. This was not a coincidence. This movie's opening weekend has clearly been chosen to resonate with the Normandy invasion, which its extensive beach scenes clearly reference. See, if we made a movie about World War II today, it would be about Tom Cruise sneaking into Hitler's command center with a bomb and ...