So our national fingerwag has found its way through the mire of newsprint and cable television and into the Land of Comics. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you won’t hear it from me because I’m not joining the fray, my children, but it’s Obama’s fault.
Just like that rewarring in Iraq is Obama’s fault – obviously a plot to distract us while his armies of Kenyan invaders gather for the Big Strike. Or this global warming bushwah… more distraction. I mean, global warming? Last winter – that long and brutal season, remember? – as you were struggling to start your car in sub zero weather, did the globe seem warm to you then? Yeah, I thought not. And those pictures of melting ice caps: in the first place, do you really care if some ice melts? Doesn’t it happen every day in your lemonade glass? And in the second place, how do we know it’s really happening, even? Anyone actually believe that the White House doesn’t have access to Photoshop?
Of course, Obama’s real triumph was the destruction of Pompeii in 79 CE. How can that be? you might ask. Wasn’t Pompeii destroyed when a volcano, Mount Vesuvius, erupted and buried the city under tons of ash and rocks and stuff? How, youmight continue with just the tiniest edge in your voice, could our monster-in-chief be responsible for that?
Ah, the innocence of the naive! You underestimate the power of the monster’s evil – an evil so great that it shattered the constraints of time and hurled back through the centuries until it emerged by chance, unless Obama had something against the locals, in the heart of Vesuvius, arriving with the momentum gathered as it veered through the millennia, again shattering time. Obviously, the unexpected arrival of a gigantic lump of malevolence from the future upset the area’s cosmic balance and the poor volcano had to do something! I mean, wouldn’t you erupt?
By the way, none of this is depicted in the recent Pompeii movie and I don’t remember any of it being part of The Last Days of Pompeii, which I saw when I was a little kid. Of course not! The recent film? Well, You know Obama and Hollywood! As for the earlier movie, the one I must have seen in rerelease in the 1940s…maybe the backward-speeding malevolence stopped in 1935, the year the movie was first shown, just long enough to obliterate any traces of the truth that may have been lying around. Or maybe the movie guys just didn’t know about the Obaman meddling with geochronology.
I mean, we’re reasonable people here. We can’t blame everything on Obama.
How do I know about all this? Well, I’m not making any claims, but just suppose an angel came to me in a dream and told me what I’ve been telling you and maybe I believe the angel because I believe in angels.
I came late to the first How To Train Your Dragon film. I caught it on HBO well over a year after release and while I thought the “better than Toy Story 3” hype was a touch overblown it was a revelation for DreamWorks Animation, which had previously churned out franchises like Shrek and Madagascar that I flat out detested. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is not quite as good as the first one but it’s a fine film that should hold up a little better to being driven in to the ground like every other shiny thing DreamWorks gets its hands on.
Where How to Train Your Dragon 2 shines is in the amazing action sequences. The wide variety of dragons keeps it visually interesting and when it wants to the movi keeps the screen in constant fervent motion. It’s definitely the kind of movie that can hypnotize a theater full of small children. This is better action than Pixar produces, this is better action than Disney or Blue Sky put out, this is the standard bearer for animated action. I don’t know what that’s worth as the rest of the field seems to be focusing on pulling on heartstrings and wow-ing academy voters but as a stalwart defender of the live-action popcorn action movie I must stand and recognize the efforts of the animated equivalent.
It might not be completely fair but I think the thing most holding me back on this movie is the performance of Jay Baruchel as the lead. I hate the voice he’s doing here and you have to hear it an awful lot. It’s grating and annoying and while I understand how that serves the character of an outcast intellectual Viking I can’t let my ears hang out in the platonic ideal the voice seems to be serving. I don’t like hearing him talk and so I hated having the main character on screen. That’s a pretty big problem for a movie to have.
I’ve also saluted the politics of Frozen and Maleficent so I feel obliged to ding How to Train Your Dragon 2 for feeling awfully regressive in places. The movie does not pass the Bechdel Test and, more importantly, the second most prominent returning female character is given a storyline where she’s obsessed with this bad boy dragon trapper even after he’s terrible to her and even goes as far as to basically molest him at times. None of the female characters here are ones I’d be comfortable with my non-existent daughter’s modeling themselves after and I don’t know that there’s space for characters like that in this genre any more.
But really, no one is considering or not considering this movie for its politics. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is fun when it wants to be fun, stunningly sad when it wants to be sad and ultimately the best kids movie I’ve seen this year. The shortcomings are far exceeded by the sheer joyousness of the picture and that’s a near impossible thing to nitpick away.
Hey cats and kittens! I’m ba-aaaaack! Apparently from the world of retro greetings. And from the world of convention organizing. For anyone who’s wondering what I’ve been up to during my l’il six-month hiatus from ComicMix (did you miss me? I missed yooooooou!!!), one of the fun things I did was act as the Program Coordinator for Awesome Con here in D.C. And man, was Awesome Con an awesome time! We had a ton of stuff to see and do for our over 30,000 attendees, and have heard tons of great feedback from attendees, guests, participants, exhibitors, etc. I expect next year to be even bigger and better than this year (which had over four times as many attendees as Awesome Con D.C.’s first year in 2013), so if you’re in the area or like to travel for cons, I’d recommend adding next year’s Awesome Con, May 29-31, to the calendar now! You won’t regret it!
And speaking of things that have been on my calendar lately, this past Wednesday I went to The National Press Club to hear screenwriter, director, and producer M. Night Shyamalan talk about his book on closing America’s education gap, I Got Schooled. A surprising topic for a movie-maker to be writing about, perhaps – but after listening to him discuss the topic, it’s clear that this book was a passion project for him, and it was fascinating to hear him talk. In his own words, “celebrity activists make my stomach cringe – you don’t automatically get the right to give advice about something because you are successful at something else. But you do have the spotlight on you sometimes. In my case, [this is] something I’m really sensitive about, so I’ve always said, graciously, ‘no,’ to being asked to promote this or that, charity-wise. So this situation [of being a charity advocate] is very unusual for me; and in fact came about really organically.”
Shyamalan then described an experience he had visiting two nearby schools in his home city of Philadelphia while scouting locations for The Happening. One he described as “this incredibly vibrant school,” in which “these kids came rushing over, saying ‘Oh my God, are you making a movie here? Can I be in it? Can I die in your movie?’ …and the possibility of a movie being made there was right on the tip of their tongues, and they were ready.” The other “was just the worst thing you could imagine. You know, [with] metal detectors, the lights really dim, and the kids just not in a good place. In showing me the classrooms, the janitor had to unlock the classroom doors. There were bars on every classroom; literal bars. The theater had been burnt down because someone had set fire to it. It was like animals; it was damage control. And in this other school, a kid walked up to me, looked at me, kind of recognized me, and decided, ‘That’s not possible’ and kept walking.” Shyamalan felt this experience was very symbolic of the differences in how these children were being educated. This inspired him to seek knowledge on what system would produce more effective inner-city education for low income kids.
For two years after that, Shyamalan said, he gathered information on “what works in education,” and eventually ended up with thousands of studies on the table, which turned out to be “a big blurry pile of information, half-knowledge, insinuations, and anecdotal movements. … You could cherry-pick anything you wanted,” he stated, “and whatever your confirmation bias was, you could find confirmation for that.” At that point, Shyamalan wasn’t sure what move to make next; but then a doctor friend noted that there is a system of best practices in health care in which if patients do five things – sleep eight hours a day, eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, pay attention to mental health, and don’t smoke – the chances of getting all diseases drop to an incredibly low level. If a patient doesn’t do one of these things, however, those chances buoy back to the norm. Shyamalan hypothesized that this might be analogous to best practices for education, and set out to see if the data supported this. “Is there a group of things,” he asked, “that when done together, always work to close the education gap – the gap that exists in every state between inner city, low income children and their white suburban counterparts?”
It turned out that according to his studies, there is. After two more years of analyzing the data, the pile of “blurry information” the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation had gathered became organized into five consistent groups. The Foundation then checked its hypothesis by going to every school that was closing the education gap, and “lo and behold, they were all doing these five things.” The five keys to closing the gap, Shyamalan says, are used by all the schools that achieve, and are: leadership by principals and staff and a consistent empowering message; teacher training that specifically focuses on how to approach inner-city schools and students; data on best practices in curriculum and how to teach that are then implemented; more time spent teaching the children; and smaller schools.
Shyamalan discussed each of these key points further, and stated the conclusion he finally reached in answer to his initial inquiry into solutions for closing the education gap. Shyamalan said, “If the home environment does not change, can we close the achievement gap? The answer to that is categorically yes.”
An encouraging message, considering that according to Shyamalan, inner city low income schools represent 18% of the country’s schools; and one that I hope is true. I’m a big believer in the importance of education, and it’s clear that this country needs to do some serious work to raise the standards of education for that 18%. Whether Shyamalan’s five keys turn out to be the answer, and whether they will be implemented to good effect, is still on the table; but Shyamalan has stated that the book has helped to spur active efforts towards improvement in Philadelphia and elsewhere; so here’s hoping that out of that original blurry pile of data have come some focused answers, and real methods that can be used to improve kids’ lives.
It only took me close to six decades, but I finally did it. And I’m inordinately proud of myself.
What did I do? Cure cancer? End hunger? Stop global warming? Hell, no.
I stopped buying new comics that I didn’t want.
In any other commercial business, this would seem like a simple thing to do. If I buy a lipstick and decide I don’t like the way it wears, I don’t feel like I have to buy that same lipstick over and over again. If I get food poisoning from a restaurant, I don’t feel like I owe them a return visit. But, for some reason, once I started reading a comic, I used to feel like feel like I had to read all of them.
This isn’t just my problem. Every time a publisher announces a big crossover, fans complain that the company is doing this to force readers to buy books they don’t want. It’s as if Dan DiDio is standing there with a pitchfork, stabbing people in the butt when they miss a chapter.
He’s not. Your butt is safe.
Why did it take me so long? I think it’s part of the nature of comics, especially as they have become more serialized. A self-contained story is just that. You read it, and it comes to a conclusion. However, if there is a cliffhanger, or even just a loose thread of subplot, you don’t have that sense of finality. It’s normal to want to know what happens next.
This is how Charles Dickens became a rock star, with people anxiously waiting on the piers as the boats containing the newest chapters of his novels arrived on the market. This is how movie serials brought people back, week after week, no matter what the main feature was. And this is how soap operas sold soap for decades before middle class women went into the workforce and couldn’t keep up.
We, as a species, like long and complicated stories. We develop affection for our favorite characters.
What’s happened to me, at least, is that I’ve realized that my perceptions about what makes characters my favorites are not the same as those of the people publishing them.
For example, I liked the Wonder Girl John Byrne created. She was quite different from Donna Troy, younger, not so angst-y. Her costume was pretty much stuff she pulled out of her closet, a sports bra and shorts. She was a kid, not yet obsessed with boys. She was the super-heroine I would have been at her age.
Now, she’s not. Now she’s the daughter of a god. She’s angry all the time. She worries that Robin or Superboy doesn’t like her, or will get too close, or some other crap.
So I’m probably not going to read the new series when it reboots. Not to make a statement or a threat. I doubt my single copy makes much of a difference to anyone’s bottom line. I stopped reading all the peripheral Green Lantern books, and they seem to be plugging along just fine. I hope that the people who like them continue to get pleasure from them, because pleasure is good, and that the writer, artists and other talents continue to get paid.
Me, I now have extra free time in my comics-reading schedule. I’ve been trying new books, and found a few that I like. I believe I’ve raved about Sex Criminals before. SouthernBastards is also good fun. I wish there was more Resident Alien.
When they reboot Wonder Girl again, I’ll check out the book and see how she’s doing.
The Tweeks have been waiting months to sit in the dark and have a good communal cry over John Green’s ultimate weep-fest novel, A Fault In Our Stars, so they brought their camera & a panel of tween movie fans to the theater on opening night. Watch their review to see how the movie version stood up to what they consider one of the best teen reads ever.
It’s rare for me to watch a movie and not have at least one complaint about it before the credits roll. I’d chalk that up not to me being overly critical of films, but to how incredibly difficult it is for a movie to hold water all the way through yet not also disappoint in some way. Edge of Tomorrow turned out to be one of the rare cases where I was wholly satisfied, but the second the credits began, two guys sitting in my row started loudly discussing why they weren’t. They were disappointed that the movie [spoiler alert] doesn’t have a twist at the end. And while I guess I can’t blame them for expecting it to have a twist given how pervasive twists have been in entertainment over the past few years, I couldn’t fathom why they’d be disappointed the story didn’t have one.
The very nature of a plot twist means it reframes the context of the story it’s in, but if someone’s taken the time to really flesh out a world, develop characters, and craft an intriguing plot, it’s unlikely changing their context at the eleventh hour will strengthen any of those things. While there are many reasons why I could endlessly sing the praises of Breaking Bad, perhaps the biggest one is the fact that every single thing that happened in the show was inevitable because of who the characters were and the roads their actions consequently took them down. The narrative as a whole was a string of dominoes whose end wasn’t necessarily visible at the beginning, but with each piece that toppled it became clear what the next few would be. I love that kind of storytelling, because it lets a plot be delightfully potboiling while avoiding seeming predictable, but it does so without the writers having to resort to throwing a random wrench into the gears just to shake things up.
And perhaps that’s exactly why I tend to dislike a twist at the end of a plot, because (with the odd exception) it’s little more than a cheap, empty thrill employed for the sheer sake of a shock. But by changing the context of a key element of the story just to surprise the audience, a plot twist often also undercuts that element at the same time. There’s always a part of me that feels cheated when I learn a character isn’t who they were purported to be, or worse yet, when I can see who they really are from the outset and have to wait for the story to catch up to the reveal. But with the increasing pervasiveness of twist endings, viewers seem to frequently be doing the latter, leaving writers unsuccessful in their attempts at pulling the rug out from under the audience as a plot approaches its conclusion. And if audiences are so often ahead of the process that these attempts fail, why do writers keep persisting with them?
Maybe because there are so few truly original movies these days. From Marvel Studios to my childhood toys to reboots of sci-fi classics, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we’re living in a golden age for movie franchises. To sell audiences on the idea that there’s something new enough at the heart of properties that have been around in some fashion for years or even decades, employing a twist in concert with basic modernization seems to be the order of the day. And while I do enjoy a number of the not-so-new franchises that have become popular in the last few years, I’d be hard-pressed to ever pick watching an installment of one of them over watching something original that stands on its own. Really, it’s an awful lot like the plot of Edge of Tomorrow. Movies are looking to repeat the same formula over and over while implementing one small change in the hope that it’s enough to yield success, but total deviation from the plan everyone thinks should work is much more likely to win the day in my book.
And despite how much I dislike them, this column unfortunately has a twist ending of its own: it’s my last. Other commitments have made an increased demand on my time and sadly left me unable to continue with a weekly column, but I’ve loved my time at ComicMix and will certainly miss you, dear readers!
I’m always rooting for sci-fi action movies to succeed and when it became clear that Edge of Tomorrow was going to be equal parts sci-fi action and Groundhog Day I was ready to love this movie. Unfortunately the movie they delivered has the distinct feel of studio notes all over it leaving it feeling a little too much like a Tom Cruise movie than any of the component parts. I like Tom Cruise movies but it hurts this premise to make it hit all the same beats of a Mission: Impossible film.
You’ve probably heard that over the weekend, Peyton Reed has taken over directing chores for Marvel’s Ant-Man after Edgar Wright left the project over “creative differences.”
While I’m glad to see that Marvel is stampeding forward to avoid blowing any release dates (because Disney runs on a very tight schedule) I admit that when I think of the Marvel movie Peyton Reed should be making, Ant-Man isn’t what comes to mind.
I think the Marvel movie he should be making is the movie of the making of Marvel.
Recent years have brought an avalanche of terrible fairy tale remakes. Snow White and the Huntsman was boring, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was dreadful, and Jack the Giant Slayer is so absent from my memory that I suspect it induced some kind of post-traumatic stress reaction. I went to see Maleficent expecting to have an unpleasant experience along the lines of the others but was instead pleasantly surprised. Disney has made a thoroughly pleasant, if not super ambitious, modern take on Sleeping Beauty. They fall in to a few pitfalls along the way (if I never see another mid-to-large scale medieval battle it’ll be too soon) but emerge on the other end with a solid movie.
This is the second big Disney kids release that bucks the traditional fairy tale view of true love. In last year’s Frozen the moment of true love was between two sisters and in Maleficent it’s a decidedly maternal gesture. It’s refreshing to see them move to stories about characters that don’t have to be boy/girl romantic love stories and in Maleficent the love story is pushed so far to the periphery that I’m not sure it was in every draft of the script. I’m not cynical enough to say that I never want to see Disney do another love story but it’s wonderful to see a company with so much access to the building of romantic ideals of generation after generation of young girls start to acknowledge that other relationships can be loving and that boys aren’t the be all and end all.
Speaking of characters pushed way to the periphery, the trio of multi-colored fairies from the original animated film are done quite a disservice this time around. They’re just blithering idiots in this film and are reduced to scenes where they think infants should eat carrots and radishes straight out of the ground and reenacting magic-assisted versions of old Three Stooges routines. They also made some kind of horrible casting blunder by casting Imelda Staunton as Knotgrass, the leader of the trio. To an entire generation she’s Delores Umbridge, the phenomenally evil teacher from the Harry Potter films and I couldn’t help see anyone else even when she was in the throes of a hair-pulling slapstick routine and I can’t imagine little kids are doing any better.
The movie is completely carried by the command performance by Angelina Jolie. What ultimately separates this movie from the other fairy tale remakes is that Jolie is in an entire other class as a movie star than the actors in those other films. Letting her run loose with such an iconic character is a delight to watch and the effortless way she brings you along even as she does some honestly terrible things is a tremendous accomplishment. I don’t mean to take anything away from Elle Fanning who does a fine job being an adorable foil but this movie was always going to live and die on Jolie’s prosthetic cheekbones and it not only lives it thrives. I came in hating this entire genre of movie and left something of a believer and that’s as high a compliment I can imagine paying this film.
Versatile actor Lou Diamond Phillips talks about they new season of the A&E drama, LONGMIRE, and how his character is in the center of the action plus more with Will Wheaton including a look at just when being a “geek” became cool. Meanwhile, from JONAH HEX to Thanos, Josh Brolin grabs another comic book movie role.