UnReview: Luke Cage

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I just finished watching the first four episodes of Luke Cage and after the first, I came to a realization.

I could not write this show.

The other two Marvel shows, I could have taken a swing at. I could write about Daredevil, I could have written about Jessica Jones. Whether or not the shows would have increased or decreased in quality isn’t the issue. I could have taken a swing at those shows and written with some skill.

I watched the first fifty minutes of Luke Cage and knew I wouldn’t have stood a chance at making something this awesome. Not only that, I would have been lost in the woods.

Back in the ‘90’s, Spike Lee took a lot of heat for saying a white man couldn’t direct a movie about Malcolm X. I understood what he meant at the time. My 10th grade Civics teacher was a black man. We were in Georgia. He had a picture of King and Malcolm on the wall. I knew who King was, but I had no idea who Malcolm was. So, he gave me a copy of Malcolm’s autobiography on a Friday. I read it all weekend. Stayed up at night. I burned through it like a Stephen King novel. I returned it on the following Monday. He was surprised I read it that fast and even suggested I hadn’t read it and gave me a small verbal quiz. Then, he asked me what I thought.

I told him, “I understand why you don’t trust white people.” Then, I said, “In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t trust white people anymore.”

So, when Spike Lee said a white man couldn’t make a Malcolm X movie, I understood what he meant. The same goes for Luke Cage.

Sure, I could write a Luke Cage script, but it would not have the nuance or substance this show has. It wouldn’t have the same dialogue, the same nuance. I would have never thought to put the Notorious B.I.G. on Cottonmouth’s wall. I couldn’t write the basketball dialogue. I wouldn’t know the black authors and poets to invoke. In short, I would have made the script white. And Luke Cage isn’t white.

I love this show. I can’t express how much I love it. I spent five years in Georgia, and for three of those years, I was steeped in black culture. That’s because I was a kid from the North. The white kids literally tortured me. For the latter part of my life in Georgia, most of my friends were black. The black kids didn’t trust me at first, but I earned that trust. Even still, that was a long time ago and I was still an outsider. But I learned blues and jazz from men and women who played and sang. I learned how to tell stories from an 80-year-old black man, sitting on a back porch, drinking sweet tea. But I was still an outsider.

Watching Luke Cage reminds me the world is a lot bigger than I see. Luke’s Harlem may as well be on the other side of the world. The language is different. The culture is different. If I stepped into Luke’s world, I’d be stumbling around helplessly trying to figure things out.

But the people are people. They care about family and friendship. They care about keeping your word. They love good food, good music and good sex. And…

… hey, let’s stop for a moment and talk about how amazing the music is on this show? Marvel, can I haz soundtrack, please? Please?!?!?

Luke Cage is a hero. A different kind of hero who lives in a different kind of world. It’s a world that I’ve seen as an outsider, but I could never write with the degree of authenticity and urgency this show has. If I wrote Luke Cage, it would be his story through the eyes of a white man. And that would be a goddamn shame.

Oops. Swear jar. Sorry Pops.

UnReview: Suicide Squad

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A desperate plea to all screenwriters. Please stop trying to destroy the Earth. Or, if you’re gonna do it, have some guts and actually do it.

I have a notion for a Star Trek campaign for my friends. They’re Federation cops on the fringe of Federation space handling smugglers, renegade Klingon captains and other miscreants. Their ship is small (a command crew of five with a squad of marines) but heavily armored and armed. Yes, they try to use diplomacy, but their job sometimes calls for a little firepower.

They stumble on a shapeshifter plot to destroy Earth and cripple the Federation. They capture one of the conspirators and with the help of a Vulcan mind meld, they discover the details of the plot. They send the information back to Earth—they’re on the fringe remember?—and start heading back to help and drop off their shapeshifter buddy.

Then, the Earth blows up.

All Federation computers go down. All starships have to be manually rebooted and are helpless while doing so. Sixty minutes of emergency life support and nothing else.

The shapeshifters invade with the Romulan Empire.

The Klingon Empire divides into two factions: those who want to help their allies and those who are ready to exact revenge.

The Vulcans look at the situation and come to the only logical conclusion to save their species: they surrender.

Everything’s fucked. Every. Thing. Is. Fucked.

And our little police ship—with a crew of five, some marines and a shapeshifter in the brig—are on their own.

If you’re gonna blow up the world, have the guts to blow up the fucking world.

So. We were talking about Suicide Squad...

My friend Rob Justice (www.robjustice.net) ran a Suicide Squad game for our online group last year. I had a blast. We all had a blast. Rob understood the comic is about consequences and choices. The characters not only pay for the consequences of their past lives, but pay for the consequences of their choices in the Squad. Folks die. A lot of folks die. Our first mission had us waking up in mid-drop, plummeting toward the ground. We all pulled our parachutes… and Kraven the Hunter’s shoot didn’t open. He went splat.

Was that intentional? Was it an accident? Was it a message? We didn’t know and our boss wasn’t telling.

That’s how our game started.

My favorite session involved Amanda Waller ordering us to find and kill The Batman. We spent four hours talking about it. How we would do it, if we should do it, if we should just run. I asked Waller, “Can I have a suitcase nuke?” She said, “Yes.” And gave it to me.

Shit got real after that.

But the game was always about the consequences of our choices. The World’s Greatest Thief, the World’s Greatest Assassin, the World’s Greatest Mastermind and the World’s Greatest Imposter. Others died around us, and we knew we could die at any moment. And our choices mattered. Our choices got other folks killed. And maimed. And splatted.

Because that, my friends, is what Suicide Squad is about: choices and consequences. Everything else is bells and whistles.

And so, when the movie came out, with all of us in one place at Gen Con, we conspired to see it together. A little drunk. Well, the world conspired against us and that didn’t happen, so I saw it myself this morning.

I really liked the beginning. I liked the style of it. Liked the introduction of Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The others… eh. Oh, except for Diablo. I loved Diablo. But more on that later.

I love “gathering the team.” And that’s exactly what the first act of this film was. The director made it fun, the actors made it interesting and I was thinking, “Why do people hate this movie so much.”

Then, the second act started. And I wished I was doing anything else. Such as laundry.

You see, the plot has our anti-heroes going after a villain who wants to destroy the world. Is she going to succeed?

NO. OF COURSE NOT. ARE YOU FUCKING STUPID????

Of course she’s not going to succeed because that would mean the end of the DC Cinematic Universe. And because this is Warner Brothers, they’re not going to do anything remotely that interesting or daring or challenging.

Instead, we make sure to get plenty of shots of Harley’s ass. Make sure she bends over, boys. As often as you fucking can.

 

Now, let me stop right there for a quick aside. Because I have something to say about Margot Robbie. She saved this fucking movie for me. Her performance sold me. She knows the Harley Quinn character. She’s perfect for the role. This is despite all the bullshit dialogue they throw at her, despite all the cheesecake shots, despite all the… well, despite the film itself doing its best to bury her performance.

And Will Smith delivers. He gets an opportunity to play a real bad ass. And he milks it for all he’s worth. I don’t know for certain—in fact, I’m just guessing—but I believe his best lines were written by him or improvised on the spot. Will Smith’s Deadshot is a real motherfucker and I like him. Despite the fact the film does its best to bury his performance.

And let’s talk for a moment about Jay Hernandez in the role of Diablo. Goddamn, I loved him. I loved this character. I bought it. There’s a bit at the very end that made me stand up and cheer. Granted, I was in a mostly empty theater, but I did it anyway. My buddy Mark Diaz Truman needs to see this movie for Hernandez’s performance. I’m telling him that as soon as I get done here.

 

So, anyway, back to the whole blowing up the world bit. The second act begins with the Squad crash landing on the outside of the city where all this shit’s going on and they have to hoof it to the huge beam of light flashing into the sky to stop Zul from opening the…

… yeah. It’s the plot from the first Ghostbusters. Fucking hell.

So, like Frodo and Sam, they walk to the fucking big beam of flashing light. And that’s when the plot grinds to a dead halt. We get a fight scene we know they’re gonna win because they have to get to the big beam of light. And they have another fight scene we know they’re gonna win because they have to get to the big beam of light. And Harley has a solo fight scene so we can prove she’s a real bad ass in high heels and a thong and we know she’s gonna win because…

… you get the point.

Everything that happens after the crash landing bored me to fucking tears because I know where all this is going. We’re gonna get to the big beam of light, they’re gonna fight the villain, they’re gonna win. And maybe—just maybe—some of them are gonna die.

Deadshot? Not a chance.

Harley Quinn? Not a chance.

Killer Croc? He has maybe two lines of dialogue, so I don’t give fuck all about him.

Captain Boomer—

… sorry. I had to stop myself from crying/laughing. Captain Fucking Boomerang.

In other words, you know exactly who’s disposable and who isn’t. Unfortunately, they kill off the most interesting non-disposable character—if you’re paying attention, you know who that is—which also made me wish I was doing anything else.

Because I know how this all ends. The Squad beats the villain, saves the world and goes right back to their cells. I’m not intrigued. I’m pretty fucking far from intrigued. And when you kill my favorite character… yeah, you can fuck right the hell off.

I really liked the first act. I liked it a lot. But the movie misses the entire point of the comic.

Choices and consequences. They don’t matter in this universe. We’ve seen that in the Zack Snyder movies. Choices and consequences don’t matter.

In Suicide Squad, they’re the only things that do matter. Except in this film.

In this film, the only thing that matters is walking to the inevitable ending.

 

 

 

BATMAN v (supersomeguymaybe) PLUS WONDER OMG WOMAN

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Before I begin, I feel the need to reintroduce my concept of an “unreview.”

I write reviews using e-prime, a linguistical tool that excludes all uses of the verb “to be.” In other words, I can’t say “the movie is bad” or “the plot is confusing” or anything like that. I put this limitation on myself because I feel most reviewers would be out of a job if they couldn’t utilize that language. Instead of telling you whether or not the movie is good or bad, I just talk about my own reactions to it. My own highly subjective reactions that you evaluate on your own. Using e-prime also assists a writer in getting rid of a pesky little habit known as “passive voice.” If you want to learn how to write, I suggest you try it sometime.

Also, in reference to reviewers of any kind, I highly suggest you remain skeptical of anyone who makes a living criticizing the creative accomplishments of others.

Oh, and I’m including spoilers. Just so you know.

 

 

Now, in other mediums (cough-cough-Facebook-cough) I expressed some doubts about Zach Snyder directing a second Superman film. In fact, I think I expressed doubts on whether or not anyone should allow Zach Snyder to direct any movie ever again. However, I decided to check out this latest my adoration for Superman demanded I check out this film.

I liked Gal Gadot. She looks right, sounds right, moves right. My friend Mike said that when he first saw her—the way she moved, the slinky red dress, the way she was flirting with Bruce—that he thought she was Selina Kyle. I could see that. My (very healthy) preoccupation with Wonder Woman means I could not make that mistake, but after some reflection, I could see why he would. And I liked the way she looked in the costume. Although, I couldn’t parse out why she wanted her picture back. Because she didn’t want a picture, she wanted a digital copy of a picture which… well, I didn’t understand that part. Maybe because I was distracted by the fact every outfit she wore directed by eyes to about three inches below her shoulders. Not that I’m complaining! I like her shoulders very much.

I thought this Bruce Wayne was the most comic book Bruce Wayne we’ve seen yet. What I mean by that is, this whole movie felt like a Batman comic. Out of all the Bruce Waynes I’ve seen on the screen, I like Ben Affleck’s the best. I like the news about him getting to write and direct his own Batman movie. I think I will like that one more than this one. Although, I have to say, if we’re going with a Batman who kills people—and he kills a lot of people in this movie—I can’t think of a reason why the Joker is still alive in the DC Cinematic Universe. A Batman with such a casual attitude toward murder would not allow the Joker to take ten more steps. Harley Quinn, neither. In fact, half the cast of Suicide Squad should be in the ground. Batman murders gangsters without blinking an eyelash, he sure as shit ain’t lettin’ the Joker walk away. He’d take one look at that crazy sumbitch and PLLLLTHTHTHTH no more Joker. Which also made me wonder why Lex Luther was alive at the end of all this. Batman killed his cronies, why didn’t he kill Lex? Hm. Questions to ponder.

I felt the initial scene of Wayne in Gotham should have started the film. I’ve seen Batman’s folks killed a thousand times already, I don’t need to see it in Zach Snyder Slow Motion (TM). In fact, those moments really took my breath away, that shot of everyone running away from the wreckage and ruin and Wayne running toward it? That moment communicated more to me about who this Bruce Wayne is than anything else in the movie. I like this Bruce Wayne. Which made all the moments after that one really difficult for me to watch.

I didn’t like Batman and Superman threatening to kill each other. Not at all.

And I don’t like being ahead of the detective. For those of you who don’t read mysteries, “being ahead of the detective” is when you feel like you’ve figured out the mystery before the protagonist does. In this movie, I know from the first second of the film that Superman is a hero (e-prime protocol break there; my apologies). I know this, but Batman does not. Which means throughout the entire film, I’m ahead of Batman. I’m smarter than Batman. And it isn’t until the very end of the film that Batman catches up to the audience. I didn’t like that. Not one bit.

As for other stuff I liked…

Um…

Uh…

Yeah.

Gal Gadot looked fantastic. I understand Snyder isn’t directing the Wonder Woman movie. I’m glad about that.

And if I have to suffer through this movie to get an Affleck Batman… after seeing Gone Baby GoneThe Town and Argo, I’m good with that.

The Hateful Eight

 

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I watched Reservoir Dogs on VHS tape, late at night. I was at  party and someone asked if I had seen it yet. “No,” I said. It was one of those “You’ve got to see this” moments. And, the people who showed it to me were right. I really did need to see it.

Fifteen minutes in, I thought, “Holy crap, this is a Richard Stark novel… except Parker would never take this job.” I watched the “Caper Movie Where You Never See the Caper” and felt the delight build in my belly. I loved every minute of it. Watching it was like reading a Stark novel: no bullshit. Like Elmore Leonard advises: “Leave out the parts that readers skip.” That’s exactly what this movie did. Trim, immediate… Stark.

Tarantino turned me into a fan in just one hour and thirty-nine minutes. Eh, screw that. I was a fan after fifteen minutes.

His follow up, Pulp Fiction, added an element that made me even more of a fan. The colorful dialogue, the tight plotting, the non-sequential chapters… a Stark novel. But if Pulp Fiction were a painting, Tarantino added a single brush stroke of magic. Just a single brush stroke. I like to call PF a work of “magical realism.” And that was enough to make me interested in just about everything he would do after that point. I’d see anything he directed.

Last night, I saw The Hateful Eight. Invited The Legend Jessie Foster with me, also a fan. We sat down in the small theater with the big screen—we went to see the 70mm print which will be 16 minutes longer than the standard print—and we waited for the show to begin.Me and the Legend

No trailers. No advertisements. The movie just started. The distinct musical voice of composer Ennio Morricone filling the theater. The same man who composed the music for all of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. The first time Tarantino’s ever used an original score. As if he was just biding his time, waiting for Morricone to agree to score one of his films. And, of course, it’s a western.

Over the years, Tarantino’s style has changed. I like that. He’s evolved as a film maker, keeping the original voice I liked, but expanding its vocabulary. This movie was no Reservoir Dogs. That film opens with a rapid fire tommy gun conversation and a swirling camera, almost as if Tarantino is daring you to keep up. This movie takes its time. Setting that huge 70mm lens on gorgeous landscapes as the music encourages us to sit back in our chairs and enjoy. Like a British nature documentary.

But then the stage coach comes rushing in, carrying the plot with it. And before you can say, “Royale with Cheese,” Samuel L. Jackson looks up from under a wide brim hat and says the first line of the film in his own distinctive voice.

“Got room for one more?”

Yes, there’s room for one more. Where they’re going, there’s room enough for everyone. Because they’re all going to Hell.

Tarantino himself said this film was a mix of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Reservoir Dogs. And if we are to be “critics,” we should evaluate a film on the film-maker’s intent. Did he accomplish that intent? From my own perspective, sitting in that dark theater with a small group of fellow devotees, I can tell you that we certainly believed he did.

The Hateful Eight does not have the magical realism of Pulp Fiction. Eight strangers, in a small room,surrounded by a merciless blizzard, none of whom have any reason to trust each other, all wearing guns, and sitting in the middle of that room, is a bounty worth ten thousand dollars. And someone in that room, as Kurt Russell says, “Is not who he says he is.”

Reservoir Dogs meets The Thing. There’s a reason both Sam Jackson and Kurt Russell are in this film. That, my friends, is a deliberate choice.

And as much as I feel Tarantino succeeded in that goal, I wasn’t thinking of either of those films as I watched them. I was thinking about the basement scene in Inglorious Basterds. For my money, my favorite scene in that film. The slow, agonizing build. The threat of violence boiling under deliberate politeness, wit and near comedy. Pure dread of knowing that—at any moment—everything explodes into a bloodbath.

What QT did here was take that one scene—the basement scene—and run with it for three hours.

He divided the film into two acts and the first one ends with a literal bang. Tension broken, we know what happens next.

Bloodbath.

But he gives us fifteen minutes of INTERMISSION to sit in that theater and wait for it.

That, my friends, is a man who understands how to hook an audience, hold them in the palm of his hand… and squeeze.

That’s why I’m still a fan.

A Bittersweet Goodbye

I. The Awakening

I heard my first Rush album when I was thirteen. Staying at my grandmother’s house, looking through my uncle’s record collection, I was admiring the Molly Hatchet covers (all Frank Frazetta paintings) when I stumbled on a strange looking album cover. A woman in a ’50’s style dress, the skirt blown up by the wind. A street, flooded. I had no idea what to make of it. I had no idea what kind of band this could be. I gave the album a look over, pulled the inner sleeve out and saw only three people in the band: bass, guitar and drums.

Only three guys? How could that be any fun? But I saw the lyrics on the inner sleeve and started to read them. The first song, “The Spirit of Radio.” I started reading through and stumbled on a lyric that hit me harder than anything I had ever heard before. In just a few words, it summed up everything felt about the radio.

Invisible airwaves crackle with life
Bright antennae bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free

“Bearing a gift beyond price… almost free.”

That last line… it stunned my little thirteen year old brain. I spent hours and hours listening to the radio, hearing all kinds of music. Back in the day (I’m old, I can say such things), I’d scan through the channels. There were no digital radios when I was thirteen—you had to do it manually. If one station played a song I didn’t like, I’d twist the knob to another channel, looking for something else. It was a wonderful way to discover music. Kind of like eating crab. You have to work to get the good stuff.

I immediately slipped the album out of the sleeve and put it on the turntable. I had to hear this song. I had to. I didn’t expect much, after all, it’s just three guys. How much sound can three guys make? The record player hissed and clicked for half a second, and suddenly, I was bombarded. A guitar riff that was more like a solo. An onslaught of sounds that I couldn’t quite understand. I had never heard anything like this before.

And I could hear everything. The bass, the drums, the guitar. A perfect alchemy of sounds. And the chorus swept up… and the singer sang the line I wanted to hear.

“Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free.”

And he sang it with such earnestness. Like he believed it. Not a performance, but a testimony.

I was getting into the grove of the song… and it switched. I mean, completely switched. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand what a time signature was at the time, but I could feel it. Something changed. And yet, the song kept going. Then, it happened again. And the song kept going. It was abrupt, but intuitive. I understood what had happened. Like the band had suddenly changed its mind in the middle of the song, started playing another song, and I… I…

I got it.

The song came to an abrupt, crashing end and I was left there, stunned. I looked at the inner sleeve again. And I distinctly remember my next thought.

There is no way this is only three guys.

I listened to the rest of the album. “Freewill” was next. Another sledgehammer to my face. But then, up in my grandma’s attic, listening to my uncle’s records, reading along to the lyric sheet, I read something that changed my life. Another moment where the lyrics spoke something that was deep in my heart. This time, something buried so deep, even I didn’t know it was there.

A planet of playthings
We dance on the strings
Of powers we cannot perceive
“The stars aren’t aligned,
Or the gods are malign”
Blame is better to give than receive

 

On that last syllable… I stopped listening to the song. Something clicked in my head. Because, I think, someone else had said it. After years of going to Catholic mass and listening to Lutheran sermons (my father, he was Orange and my mother, she was Green), sitting in the pews, trying to make sense of God… I suddenly realized…

… God didn’t make sense.

Yes, folks. The reason I am an atheist is a Rush lyric.

Just hearing it from someone else’s lips… I understood what all the doubt and confusion in my head was about. I had already started playing roleplaying games (the link between D&D and listening Rush further confirmed), already started to build my own mythologies, already studied Lovecraft… but here was someone else saying the thing that was in the back of my head, but I couldn’t hear. Pointing out the ridiculousness of a divine entity in charge of everyone’s destiny.

Blame is better to give than receive. 

In just over ten minutes, my whole life had been changed. And by nothing more than music.

Needless to say, I had to start the album over again. Listen from the start. Listen to every word. Permanent Waves only has six songs: three on each side of the album. The shortest of those songs is 3:50. Far too long to get on mainstream radio. However, thanks to album-friendly radio stations—which I had not discovered yet—I was able to listen to all kinds of new music.

And it was still a year before Moving Pictures hit the streets.

I saw Rush in concert that year. I told my folks I was spending the night at a friend’s house and someone snuck me out and got me into the concert. And for the first time, I confirmed there were indeed only three guys playing all that music. It was my first concert. And I was surrounded by people (men, almost entirely) who were all there for the same purpose: to see the band they loved. We had great seats. I was sitting up close. Only about ten rows back. I had to stand on my chair to see. The guys ahead of me stood a little to the side so I could peek through their shoulders.

And I saw three men playing songs that were bombastic and intricate. Dynamic and subtle.

And I saw my first Neil Peart drum solo.

I don’t think I blinked once. The acrobatic pyrotechnics he performed that night made me doubt the limits of the human anatomy.

 

 

I left the show both deaf and dumb. I had no idea what to say and I couldn’t hear anything anyone else was saying. But I knew one thing.

I wanted to be a drummer. And I wanted to be in a band. And I wanted to write lyrics for the band like Neil Peart did.

My life, for better or worse, had changed completely that year. 1980. The Year of Rush. I was thirteen years old.

II. A Bittersweet Goodbye

2015. Thirty-five years later, and I’m at what may be the very last Rush concert I ever see. One of the first things I notice: there’s a lot more women here than the first time I saw them.

I mention that to Jessica and she says, “There’s a lot more women everywhere.” She’s got a point.

For thirty-five years, Rush has been a part of my life. I can remember where I was at every album release. What state, what city and what state of mind. I could trace them like chapter headings. Those three guys have made many musical choices as we all grew older. Sometimes, the choices clicked with me, sometimes, they were perfect counterparts, and sometimes, we were “planets to each other, drifting in our orbits to a brief eclipse.”

I still remember Counterparts—still one of my favorite albums—and how every single track on that album seemed to speak directly to me. I always describe that album as “wet.” It’s leading track, “Animate” resonates in ways that are deeply personal to me. I’ve always had a “ghost sister.” My mother had an awful loss—a miscarriage—before she had me. I had a dream once of waking up, looking in the mirror and seeing a woman a little older than me looking back at me.

 

Goddess in my garden
Sister in my soul
Angel in my armor
Actress in my role
Daughter of a demon lover
Empress of the hidden face
Priestess of the pagan mother
Ancient queen of inner space

 

I’ve never been uncomfortable playing women in RPGs, nor have I been uncomfortable writing from their viewpoints. Bayushi Kachiko, Queen Elaine, the dowmgas in Orkworld, Tamyn Taval in Wicked Fantasy… it’s almost as if there was a female voice inside me. A ghost sister. It’s a fantasy I’ve indulged for a long time and hearing “Animate” for the first time was almost spooky.

 

 

I still remember Vapor Trails—a hard album for me to listen to—because it came out just before Jennifer and I split. A dark time in my life that I’m not entirely sure how I survived. I know part of it was listening to that album. One Little Victory hit me hard, almost to my knees, but the song that really dug into my heart and kicked me in the teeth was How It Is. A song that articulated the hopelessness of depression so clearly and so cleanly, it’s all I can do to not break down every time I hear it.

 

It’s such a cloudy day
Seems we’ll never see the sun
Or feel the day has possibilities
Frozen in the moment…
The lack of imagination
Between how it is and how it ought to be

 

I rationally know what’s happening to me. I rationally know that my mind’s chemicals are out of whack. I rationally know that my perspective is skewed.

And it just doesn’t matter.

Hearing someone else say it launched me back to my grandmother’s house in 1980. Hearing someone else say the same thing…

 

 

The lack of imagination between how it is and how it ought to be. And the person who can change that is me. If I could just get off my ass and do it.

I’m responsible for me. I’m responsible for my own emotions. And I can change it. I CAN CHANGE IT.

Depression has been a constant enemy of mine. An enemy addressed perfectly in the song Double Agent. “The doubt and the fear/I know would all disappear/Anywhere but here.”

For the longest time, I used Rush songs as armor and shield against that enemy. Rush songs became “pep talks” to keep myself reminded of my own responsibilities. Songs like “Something For Nothing,” (You don’t get freedom for free.) “The Analog Kid” and Marathon”…

Holy @#$%, “Marathon.”

It’s a test of ultimate will
The heartbreak climb uphill
Got to pick up the pace
If you want to stay in the race
More than just blind ambition
More than just simple greed
More than just a finish line
Must feed this burning need
In the long run…

Like I said, pep talks.

It wasn’t until I started reading Neil’s travelogues that I began to understand that I wasn’t the only one who used music to fight demons. And that was a revelation to me. In the same way that I learned how hard he worked to be as good as he was. Watching Peart play drums is like watching water fall over the side of a cliff. It seems so effortless. He makes it look so easy. But when I watched Anatomy of a Drum Solo and he talked about working on a particular part for a year before he started to get it right… I understood the devotion and dedication (and emotional endurance) he had. A dedication to doing it right. To making the impossible look easy.

And accompanying all those little pep talks was music… that same music that confounded me and inspired me the first time I heard it. Complicated, yet elegant. Musician’s music. Great riffs backed by arrangements suitable for an orchestra. Music that elevated the lyrics above simple poetry into something… sublime.

On the Snakes and Arrows tour, I won a contest that made me eligable to meet Geddy and Alex. Of course, Neil wouldn’t be there, and I didn’t expect him to be there. I was a little disappointed—I wanted to thank all of them—but I respect Neil too much to make an exception on my account.

Standing in line, waiting to have five seconds to shake their hands and say “Thank you for thirty years of music,” I was struggling for the words to say. Finally, it was our turn. We stepped up, shook their hands and I said, “I don’t know how to thank you for thirty years of music in five seconds.”

Alex laughed and said, “That sounds about right.”

I smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” I said.

They took the picture and we were ushered away.

See that big, dumb grin on my face? Yeah.

Anyway…

Thirty-five years after I heard my first Rush song, I was sitting in the US Airways Center, waiting for the lights to go down. I had memorized the setlists. I knew if they played “The Wreckers,” they’d be playing “How It Is.” And though I didn’t mind if they played something else, what I really wanted last night was that song. Hell, they could play polka music for the rest of the night (what would Rush playing polka sound like?) but if they played that song, I’d be happy.

The lights went down. The music started.

“The Anarchist.” Yep. That’s the opening track for the show. A great song. Not the one I’m waiting for.

The second song… “The Wreckers.”

I nodded and smiled.

As the set went forward, it also went backward. Backward in time.

The songs were in reverse chronological order, and as they went through albums, guys in red jump suits came on stage and began dissembling the props. The stage would reflect a Rush stage from that time period. Some bits removed, others added. Clockwork Angles to Snakes and Arrows to Vapor Trails.

(Just then, I wrote a typo. “Vapor Trials” rather than “Vapor Trails.” A Freudian slip.)

Geddy announced “How It Is.” And my eyes swelled up, my throat got thick and I couldn’t hold it back. My cheeks were wet in moments. They’d never played that song live before and…

… oh, did I mention I’ve seen every tour? Sometimes twice? Yeah, I’m that fan…

In short, I was a wreck. I knew every word, every note. And I sang it out loud, as loud as I could.

There’s a part of me that really appreciates the “let it loose” element of Japanese culture. Keeping all your emotions wrapped up, then finding a moment to let them all out in a controlled yet irresponsible way. Concerts are like that for me. And last night, I let out so much emotion in a controlled yet irresponsible way.

I was crying and I didn’t give a single damn who saw it. I just didn’t care.

As the concert progressed, the stage became more bare. Stuff moving away. Until finally, there was just the three guys and their instruments. (There was no keyboard on the stage, and I thought to myself, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen Rush with no keyboard on the stage.”) There were two speakers hoisted up on chairs and a locker room projected on the back wall of the stage.

Just three guys making music.

Three friends who have been together for forty years.

The show ended. They all waved goodbye. Perhaps for the last time.

I stood up. I waved back. Perhaps for the last time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sushi Girl

First things first: I know folks involved in this film. I’ve worked with them. Both the director and one of the actors were involved with a short film I wrote based on The Shotgun Diaries RPG. One of the producers was the producer on this film. So, up front. I’m biased. No doubt.

 

Sushi Girl wears its influences on its sleeve. No, that’s not right. It has its influences tattooed across its back in Old English font. And on its knuckles. Up and down its arms.

It’s a love letter. No, that’s not right. It’s a lust letter. A big, fat wet kiss.

I’m a huge fan of crime literature. On my shelf right now are names like Hammett, Chandler, Stark and Thompson. (Actually, I’ve got two Thompsons: Hunter and Jim. I’m talking about the second one.) And while you may assume I listed those names in no kind of order, you’d be wrong. They’re in a particular order, from light to dark. Hammett and Chandler on one end and Stark (aka Donald Westlake) and Thompson on the other. Thompson. Talk about noir, as in black, as in, holy crap, nobody’s getting out of this shit without losing pints of blood.

Credentials
Credentials

Sushi Girl falls somewhere between Stark and Thompson, closer to Stark. Particularly the later years. The story of a heist that didn’t quite go wrong, but went wrong enough and the consequences of dealing with men who take from others for a living. Men who are willing to injure, maim, torture and kill. Ugly, awful, evil people.

And for me, that was the experience of watching the movie. A meditation on evil. Forget the comparisons to films like Reservoir Dogs. That movie is about honor. It’s a samurai film. This is not a movie about honor. It’s a movie about evil.

Sure, it’s got “revenge” all over the marketing, and that’s true to a certain extent, but when you look at these people… when you hear them speak… watch the choices they make… and see the consequences they suffer…

… yeah. Evil.

Way back in the day, my old gaming groups (who always insisted on playing Dungeons & Dragons, and not more sophisticated and nuanced works) would talk about wanting to play “an evil campaign.” That is, instead of playing heroes saving villages from monsters, recovering ancient treasures (and putting them in museums, of course) and dispatching villains, my players wanted to actually play the villains.

“Let’s try it out!” they’d scream ecstatically.

And being wise in the ways of the world, I’d acquiesce. “Sure,” I’d say. “Let’s do that. You all make evil characters.”

And the story would last two sessions. Maybe three. You know why?

Because evil sonsofbitches are evil sonsofbitches, that’s why. And that meant they pissed each other off and cut each other’s throats first chance they got.

Which is pretty much what happens in this movie. Because evil sonsofbitches are evil sonsofbitches.

Some of them are brilliant. Some of them are rabid dogs. Some of them are diabolical. And some of them were dumb kids who didn’t know any better and are now strapped to a chair regretting their decisions. Not that they didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. Oh, yes. But there’s just no avoiding inevitability.

I said that I know people involved in the making of this film and I’d like to point one of them out. His name is Andy McKenzie. You’ll notice him right away. He’s playing Max, the aforementioned mad dog. And watching him makes me shudder. He prowls. He stalks. He howls. And when he’s wounded, he bites. Hard. Like, take a way a mouthful of flesh, hard.

And the reason I bring up this performance in particular is because I know Andy. We’re not friends, but we did spend an afternoon talking about the character he was going to be playing in The Shotgun Diaries short. And here’s the thing about him: he’s a sweetheart. He’s a genuinely nice guy. Smart, intuitive and funny.

Max is nothing like Andy. And that’s why watching Andy play Max was so damn entertaining for me. Watching the man I met on that afternoon… and it’s not him. There’s someone wearing his skin, but that’s not him. That’s… I don’t know who that is.

And then there’s Mark Hammill.

You know how people talked about going to see The Dark Knight and they couldn’t find Heath Ledger? Well, I dare you to find Mark Hammill in this movie.

Double dog dare you.

That’s all I’m gonna say about that.

A few critics derided the director, Kern Saxton, as a Tarantino wannabe. Keep in mind that most film critics are frustrated and failed screenwriters who resent that anything is on the screen other than their overlooked genius work, jaded and cynical from having to evaluate other people’s successes. What they missed is that Saxton has more in common with David Fincher than Tarantino. His keen eye for detail and visual voice held my attention like a collar around my throat.

This movie made me squirm. Made me flinch. It reached out from the screen and kicked me in the guts. And a little lower. That’s because Saxton knows where to put the camera. A skill nearly lost in most modern cinema. There are some brave performances in this film that startled me. (Cortney Palm, in particular should get a medal.) And sure, I know the plot. I know exactly where this is going. I’ve read and own all 20+ Parker novels. I can spout Chandlerisms on command. I know exactly where this is going.

But like your favorite roller coaster… even if you know every drop, every curve, every loop… that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a helluva ride.

 

(By the way, Sushi Girl is streaming on Netflix. Go check it out now.)

Jurassic World: Starlord and the Happy Raptors

Michael Crichton is a complicated subject in my head. Early books like The Great Train Robbery and Eaters of the Dead are among some of my favorite examples of smart pop culture, but as time moved on, Crichton became a bit of a technophobe and anti-science advocate. Jurassic Park was his first step into this territory, making good-hearted scientists into good-hearted fools who didn’t know that tampering with Mother Nature and “playing God” were really just the same thing. Still, Jurassic Park was a lot of fun to read—despite the anti-science themes—and Spielberg made it a lot of fun to watch (despite the annoying switching of the kids’ genders and roles).

The two sequels were… shall we say… disappointing?… to say the least. Crichton’s anti-science routine had gone into full force in the second book and the third didn’t have anything to do with the people responsible for the first two—and it showed. I mean, I still remember the first twenty minutes of The Lost World and how it should have happened.

Jeff Goldbloom’s character shows up on the island and tells his girlfriend, Julianne Moore, “We’re leaving.”

She says, “But look at the dino—”

He hits her with a stun gun, knocks her out cold, puts her on the boat and tells the captain, “Let’s go home.”

End of movie.

I mean, that’s exactly what I would have done. No arguments. No discussions. No bargaining for more time. The last time I was on this island, it nearly killed me and I’m not going to let that happen to you. You can be pissed at me later, but at least you’ll be alive. And if you’re alive, there’s a chance you’ll forgive me. If you’re dead, I’ll never forgive myself. And, you know, you’ll be dead.

As for the rest of The Lost World… I honestly don’t remember it.

As for Jurassic Park 3… I don’t remember the movie at all.

So, a few months ago, I see the trailer for Jurassic World and I see it with my friend, Jessica. She seems very intrigued, which makes sense and… doesn’t make sense. I mean, Jurassic Park is a scary movie. And Jessica doesn’t like scary movies. But her eyes keep getting wider… and wider…

… and then the raptors show up.

And she almost jumps up and down, laughing out loud and clapping her hands.

I looked at her and said, “I suppose we’re going to that?”

She nodded up and down, smiling.

A little bit of background here.

Jessica loves animals. She’s owned just about every kind of animal you could imagine. She trained dogs. She has cats and fish and she’d have a dog, too if she weren’t living in an apartment. Snakes, turtles, you name it. Jessica loves animals.

And when she saw the slightly domesticated raptors… she was in. And I mean, in like Flynn.

That’s because the raptors were the only thing that kept her from screaming during the first film. When she saw the raptors were smart, they stopped being scary. At that point, her mind immediately moved to fascination.

In her mind, raptors had “pet potential.”

Fast forward back to the present day where we’re watching the trailer. And there’s Starlord riding a motorcycle with raptors running along side him.

Yeah, we’re in.

And to its credit, Jurassic World handles the happy raptors in a very smart way. We get to see them at the beginning of the movie and then… 

… wait for it…

… no, not yet…

… yeah, you think now, but no, not yet…

… almost…

Yeah, the movie teases you. It knows what you want to see. It knew what we wanted to see and it held on to that moment, squeezing it for all its worth. And when you do get the happy raptors again, it’s worth the wait.

And that’s a lot of what this movie does. It went back to the original and asked, “What made this work?” Then, it did what the people running the park did. It gave us more teeth.

The problem the park has in the film is the problem the film has in the theater. The park’s been around for years and, for most people, seeing a dinosaur is the same as going to the zoo and seeing the lions, tigers and bears, oh my! So, how do we get people to come back?

More teeth.

It’s a not-so-subtle bit of meta that gives the entire movie a kind of a wink and nod. “Yeah,” it says, “we know what you want and we’re going to give it to you.”

The movie doesn’t really care about character or plot—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—because it knows what the audience wants and it’s fully willing to give it to us. This is B-movie artistry at its finest. Popcorn movie.

One of my favorite Alan Moore ideas is the differentiation between pornography and art. Porn gives us what we want; art gives us what we need. Porn doesn’t have to be sexual: it’s just the kind of easy-to-take creative efforts that are meant purely for pleasure. We don’t need to think about what we’re watching or reading… we can just lay back and enjoy the ride.

And this movie is pure Alan Moore Sweet Caramel Popcorn Porn. There’s no nudity or sex—although Bryce Dallas Howard does a wonderfully slow ninety minute strip tease that transforms her from Ice Queen to Sheena, Queen of the Jungle—but it does give us exactly what we want. Chase scenes with dinosaurs. More teeth.

And you know how when you were watching the first movie and thought, “Damn, the raptors are scary… but they’re also friggin’ cool!

You weren’t the only one. And they’re worth the wait.

Mad Max: Fury Road

It’s been nearly 24 hours since I saw Mad Max: Fury Road and I’m still processing the experience. I want to see it again. In fact, after walking out of the theater, I wanted to turn around, buy another ticket and watch it again. There have been few movies that have done this to me. They fall under the category “Greatest Movie Ever Made,” a qualifier I use to both illustrate the silliness of qualifying art (a pointless task) and to say, “Goddamn, I liked this a whole helluva lot.” Films such as The Usual SuspectsThe Sting, Miller’s Crossing, Seven Samurai… when I discuss one of these films, I usually call it, “The Greatest Movie Ever Made.” So yes, there are multiples, and yes, I think Mad Max: Fury Road falls into that category. I’m putting it in the same constellation as films such as Fight Club, Fargo, Blade Runner and Pulp Fiction. At the risk of breaking my own rules of utilizing E-Prime when discussing films here, let me say this:

Fury Road is a fucking awesome film.

My friend Jesse Heinig (a Gentleman of Genius and Virtue) wrote his own thoughts on the film and I encourage you to seek them out. I have a slightly different tack on why you should see Fury Road. It isn’t the symbolism (which is so eloquent and elegant, it puts most “serious” movies to shame) and it isn’t the realization that Max’s world of tomorrow is really our world of today (although, again, director George Miller does such an amazing and subtle job of it that most audience members will only pick up on it with their lizard brains, providing an unconscious unease that provides the salt and pepper to this amazing dish), but it is something that’s so blatantly obvious and in-your-face that it may require someone to point it out.

After sitting in front of the screen for ten minutes, I realized I’d been holding my breath. Just the first ten minutes.

I turned to Jessica, my partner in this excursion and asked, “Just how long can (Miller) keep this up?”

Her answer was laughter.

The film had an answer to my question as well: “Until the last damn second, buddy.”

If forced to utilize a single word for this film, it would be relentless.

re·lent·less

rəˈlen(t)ləs/

adjective

1. oppressively constant; incessant.

2. harsh or inflexible

As has been mentioned elsewhere, the film is one long chase sequence. And while that may sound mundane or even banal, I can assure you, it is not. Every single frame of this film shows you something new. Something that flash on the screen just long enough for you to catch it, then move on, leaving you to wonder, “Did I actually see that?”

Let me show you something. Just a brief glimpse of something.

mad-max-fury-road-awesome-guitar-guy-1431710473

Yes, that’s a man strapped to the top of a truck with a wall of amplifiers behind him, mask strapped to his face, playing a chrome guitar that breathes fire, giving the chasing army of bad guys a theme song as they race across the desert.

A chrome guitar that breathes fire.

Yeah, it isn’t a symbol of our present condition, it isn’t the chains we cast away so we can find the freedom to care about others, it isn’t any of those things.

IT’S A FUCKING CHROME GUITAR THAT BREATHES FIRE.

 

One of the crucial elements of this film, and the main reason I want to run back to the theater today and watch it again, is the design work. Miller said he wanted this film to communicate to everyone, regardless of what language they spoke. He succeeds. The dialogue is almost unnecessary. The cinematography, the set design, the costume design… all of these things communicate. So many people forget that film is a visual medium. Miller does not. He employs the medium, pushing it as far as it can go, with a constant rush of images that never cease. This film is merciless. Like Inception from many years before, it begins at a pace and never pauses a single moment for exposition. It starts off running and dares you to keep up. And if you can’t, that’s fine. There are plenty of other movies who will spend entire scenes expositing at you.

But Miller has faith in us. He believes in us. He doesn’t believe that the audience is stupid and pausing every once in a while to explain what’s going on is a necessary part of film. He ignores that and says, “No, they’ll keep up. They’re smarter than we think.”

Watching this movie made me think of that meme going around with Captain America lecturing Spider-Man. It’s nearly three pages long and it’s just Cap quoting from a book. Quoting from a book.

page2captainamerica

 

Not only did this bore me to tears, but it also stunk like a burned out writer looking to fill page count. Now look, I’m a huge Alan Moore fan, so I’m used to verbosity in comics, but Moore understands that comics is a visual medium. This kind of exposition doesn’t belong in a visual art like comics or films. Moore gets that. So does George Miller. Everything in this movie communicates in such a powerful way that dialogue is almost unnecessary. Cap is a man of action, not a man of lecture.

(A quick note to Vince McMahon of the WWE: go see this film. Maybe if you do, we can skip the 20 minute promos that start each of your shows.)

But I’m digressing.

There has been some talk about this being the “feminist Mad Max” film. Bullshit. Did nobody see Tina Turner in Thunderdome? A woman who clawed her way up from nothing to become queen of a city? Did nobody see Virginia Hey in The Road Warrior? All the Max films have women who are capable people living in an impossibly difficult world, who serve as more than just romantic interests for Max. If Fury Road is a feminist film, then all the Mad Max movies are feminist films.

So yeah, I want to see it again. Not for the symbolism of freedom, not for the political commentary of our current state and not for the feminist message… although those are all present and raise the film above nearly every other action film I’ve seen in years.

No, I want to see that fucking chrome guitar that breathes fire.