Friday, December 23, 2016

Rogue One Insta-Review

“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it."

- Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Film Essays: Lord of the Rings

The late SEK wrote a great deal of movie criticism for the center-liberal blog "Lawyers, Guns, and Money", the most thorough of which was his work on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. They are worth reading.

Part one.
Part two.

Part one ends with the conclusion:
[A]t this point it would behoove us to unify the generic conventions I've identified as succinctly as possible:
High fantasy consists of narratives in which singularly important people go on quests for tokens of power in order to facilitate or forestall wars between anonymous hordes and all of that can be tracked on maps.
That seems like a fair assessment of the genre, as established in Fellowship, don't you think? If you don't, what essential features do you think I've missed?
And to some degree this is good analysis. You can see how these artistic features (shiny jewelry, pretty maps) play into political opinions like "what is important in the world" or "how can things be categorized." And the storytelling creates a clear divide between those "singularly important people" and the "anonymous hordes." (SEK would probably agree with me about the failure of dehumanizing these hordes.)

But in being condescending to the work, SEK's explanation misses some other very important key elements, ones that give high fantasy a much more human-like texture.

There sure are a lot of battles in the 6 film Lord of the Rings saga. What else do we know about them, besides this stuff about jewelry and maps. What about them doesn't make practical sense, and so therefore is probably there for thematic reasons.

Like every goddamn battle has the good guys on one side, more bad guys on the other side, and things are looking bad, and then in the middle of the battle more good guys swoop in and save the day.

It is ridiculous how often this happens. Two Towers. Return of the King. The third part of Hobbit. And not even just once per movie.

And militarily, this makes no sense. Armies are large, you can generally see them coming. They send riders ahead to let allies know they are coming. And even if these weren't true, the odds that over days or weeks of travel, they would happen to show up in the few hours, or even minutes when the tide depended on them, are astoundingly low (not to mention the far more common situation where no one comes to your aid.) And this happened in something like five out of five battles.

This is not to say that this impracticality is dumb, but only that it is significant. Tolkien and Jackson bend the laws of logistics in such blatant ways, to say what?

That friendship matters. That in your darkest hour, when you have given up hope (and only then) will the bonds of loyalty arrive to deliver you. The entire movie builds up to this climactic moment, when we can shout for the sudden arrival of an old friend.

This is not necessarily a good message. It preaches helplessness because there's nothing you can do to save yourself from evil but pray and hope. It tells us that the only people who deserve to be saved are those with ancient allies. And it reiterates a world where you never have to lose, because if you even lose once, the entire world will be lost beyond redemption.

But these are pretty key conventions of the genre as well.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Film Essays: Why Horror?

This week this blog is going to read a couple (much more well known and influential) essays about the appeal of genre films. Then we'll engage the ideas, see which parts make sense and fit the evidence, and what they miss. We're starting off with Noel Carroll's chapter "Why Horror?"

To briefly summarize what we're responding to, the thesis is basically this:

Why are audiences drawn to movies about disgusting, frightening things? Horror movies usually involve a process of discovery, which is cathartic for obvious reasons. However finding something revelatory to discover is hard, so one easy method is to choose impossible things beyond our normal comprehension. Many of the things we find impossible are best described by Mary Douglas as "interstitial" figures, occupying a place between categories that makes us uncomfortable. This is particularly true for impure horror fascination.

Friday, December 16, 2016

C'est Non Passable

Okay, that last video just sent me down the rabbit hole of Youtube movie reviews again, which yeah are mostly terrible (or at least "nerd ideological" so same thing.). Though I did stumble on this one:

The audio dialog here is roughly correct. He explains why it's so frustrating to see so many movies that didn't move you, and theorizes why we are seeing more of them. Give me an interesting failure over a mediocre success any day.

The weird thing is which movies he is choosing for the visual track. Presumably when he's talking about "passable" movies, he's showing those, when he's talking about failures, he's showing those. Except like, he's wrong on almost every one of them? It's just a feeling of incredible dissonance "you call this passable??"

So maybe it's some sort of test. To see if watchers can resist an Authoritative Voice, and see the examples he is giving are all wrong. It's like a Milgram Experiment but with film criticism. Because the only reason I can see to call fricking "Jurassic Park"mediocre is to see who calls "bullshit!"

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Return to Mikey

Mikey Neumann, who did my favorite podcast for a couple of years, has a growing YouTube channel where he reviews movies he likes. I... actually don't really like this channel[1]. Lately he focuses much more on the writing and basic plot content instead of the cinematic choices that make movies a different and more powerful form of art. Plus his philosophical perspective is usually just aggresive mainstream liberalism, which is generally inadequate for exploring these works.

But! This week he did The Dark Knight, and it was pretty good.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Anonymous comments:

And, of course, for all the Terminator movies' surface level fatalism: it's working. The robopocalypse keeps getting pushed further and further into the future.
On the most recent Terminator related post.

It's an understandable read. Though it begs the question whether "delaying the robot apocalypse" a few years is a victory of gradually pushing back the darkness, or the failure of never fully saving humanity.

This seems a misreading of the Terminator films though, or at least an underestimation of them. Time travel in these movies (and in most American time travel movies) is a metaphor by which the "future" is actually the flip side of our present day. The apocalyptic future is always an exaggeration of the underbelly by which our society really functions.

Quel Wars?

Todd at Vox is being roundly mocked for his controversial headline for his decent Rogue One review.

A lot of the mockery seems to miss his underlying point, which is that "Star Wars" films most people think of, such as A New Hope or The Force Awakens, are about one or a few people having awesome hijinx, and not so much "the terrible reality of war." And he actually discusses the cinematic choices that convey this, without spending too much time on the writing quality of the plot, or how many billions of dollars it will make the franchise.

He ignores that the Prequels were really very good about this. Phantom Menace shows the subjective reality of colonization. Attack of the Clones spends time on these giant, lower class armies clashing. The powerlessness of the heroes in the face of amoral systemic forces is part of what makes it so uncomfortable for audiences, after all.

However, the more depressing truth is that Vox knows very well how dumb this headline will look, and will enjoy many angry people clicking it to see what he is talking about.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Questions Unaddressed

One thing in movies that can tell you a lot about the ideological assumptions of the world that created it, is the questions they do not answer and that no one even bothers to ask. In some cases this is just setting details (like, how does the economic system translate these little green pieces of paper into goods), sometimes it is more clearly ideological (why do no women talk to other women about things other than a man), and sometimes it's completely sublime.

I'm not talking here about Lost style "unanswered mysteries" that everyone walks away from the movie theater being unsatisfied with. Those have their uses, but our attention is definitely drawn to them. But the sort of thing that isn't explained in the plot, and most reviewers never even bother to ask about, because it fits the logic of the world so much that it doesn't even introduce any sense of discomfort.

Let's explain with two recent genre examples, one from Marvel and one from the Terminator series.

Friday, December 9, 2016

More Shapeshifting

It's possible in covering all the good things about First Class, Wednesday's post went through fairly quickly what was so extremely interesting about the depiction of Mystique, who is a fantastic subversion of a concept most viewers do not even have a name for.

So let's start with shapeshifters in film. The most memorable shapeshifter in modern cinema has to be Terminator 2's T-1000, who not only bring a sense of dread that he can become anyone you know or trust, but also the beautiful liquid-metallic morphing that emphasized that everything was on the surface and there was no real internality. (The obvious feminine aspect of the shapeshifter was exaggerated to almost satirical degrees in Terminator 3, and the theme is explored more interestingly in the underrated Terminator Genisys.) But they're a favorite of many genre movies: Loki in the MCU, the mysterious assassin in Phantom Menace, various Star Trek creatures, the face masks in Mission Impossible, etc. Filmmakers love playing with this fluidity of appearance.


And logically, what does the shapeshifter usually do? Well usually they are some sort of trickster figure (since they can fool naive mortals) but not a full on anarchist, since they generally derive their power from the authority system they can imitate. They think they are above the oppressive system, and undoubtedly can take advantage of it, but they are still very much a part of it.

Critical theorists call this sort of thing the "posthuman."

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Little More X-Men

Yesterday's post reminded me that the trailer for the new Wolverine movie "Logan" is really damn good.

After watching this, I don't need to see the movie. We got a whole movie experience right there: mutant powers are gone, Logan is living alone and dying until he finds a broken Professor, Logan meets the little girl who is the future, they bond like a family and are pursued by cyborg policemen, fights ensue, the Professor dies, Logan and little girl continue on trying to find hope. All with Johnny Cash's classic song about a broken shell of a man. Good stuff.

You do not actually need exposition about what virus wiped out mutant powers, or how Logan found Charles, or who these post-apocalyptic government thugs are working for. You don't need to see the whole action scene where Wolverine rescues the surrogate daughter, just the one awesome dive with his claws. These two minutes are enough to paint a cohesive picture.

This ties in to the post earlier this week about the pure-imagery short stories that prologue recent Star Trek movies. We don't need more plot or backstory, we need to learn to take in and read the small details that are presented to us.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Best X-Men Movie

I wrote before about how good the class revolutionary themes in X-Men: Apocalypse were, but it's still only second to the first X-Men prequel "First Class." (Sadly "Days of Future Past" is both terrible and forgettable, which is a dismal combination, with the exception of its Quicksilver scene.)

Fine, fine, we can watch the DoFP scene again. And turn the sound back on.

On a pure "convince your buddies to watch this" level, this is arguably the best Marvel movie to date. Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and James McAvoy are some of the best actors and actresses in any Marvel movie, and they're used well in places where they can showcase their emotional talents, rather than a) spout sarcastic dialogue or b) deliver lots of weighted exposition.

The Xavier/Magneto split is one of the better origin stories for major comic book characters. It's got the pathos of grown men making decisions that are both terrible, and understandable from both sides. Okay, it goes all in for that liberal ideology of "everyone's trying for good in their own way" and Xavier's "peaceful gradual change will win the day," but this is still a lot more interesting than the fascism inherent in "street scum killed my parents so now I will haunt them."

Apply the best actors, to the best origin story, and you unsurprisingly have a pretty good movie, just so long as you don't mess anything else up. But the purpose of this blog is not to convince your buddies to watch the movies you like. The purpose of this blog is to figure out what is seriously going on in these works of art. And while First Class could have rested on its laurels with the cast and story it made the much better decision to do something interesting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Transformers 5

What is going on with this crazy Transformers preview?

I watched it without sound, like you do, and I'm super interested.

And for those who think Bay's Transformers movies are the absolute lowest form of art possible, check out Terry van Feleday's insanely good analysis of them.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Star Trek Double Feature

Trying to write about the two most recent Star Trek movies, it became clear that I really can't talk about one without the other. Fortunately enough time has passed to consider Star Trek: Beyond and what it meant.

Movie posters are great and usually express some of the same themes as the whole movie.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Not all patriarchal archetypes...

Bit of a follow up to both the Whedon and Alien discussions.

Joss Whedon is certainly not the only artist to hit on the "enemies in law, enemies in chaos, we're stuck in the middle" theme. Hell, even all give five Alien movies use this. Oh look, the weakest of those, Alien Resurrection, is a Joss Whedon movie.

But it's not a universal theme you see in every work, only one that you see in every Whedon work, and one that plays well with his constant delivery of anti-dramatic sarcasm.

Another significant difference is the attitude of the lawful-enemies. In the Alien franchise for instance, they are inhuman entities whose key trait is they do not give a fuck about you. In the first movie the key phrase is "Crew Expendable" typed out by a remorseless AI. In Prometheus, order is somewhat represented by a grasping Weyland who doesn't care if an alien was just cut out of your body, only if you're standing between him and immortality - but more it's represented by the Engineer race, this angry male god who sees you as little more than an accidental blot on a clean galaxy. Generally all of these forces are willing to ignore you when you don't matter, and expect you to die for them when they desire something.

Whedon's order is a much more human patriarchy. It cares about you, it wants you to submit, and it wants you to be grateful for their beneficence. It wants to change you, into something more useful and obedient (hence why Whedon's Alien movie is the one about biologically manipulating and controlling Ripley.)

Saturday, December 3, 2016

MCU Color Grading

Cute little Youtube video on a particular aspect of cinematography: color grading. He even ties the artistic decisions made here, to those made in the inking process for comic books.

The only problem is the twelve hundred times he says "this is just my opinion." Including the self-deprecating insert at the end about just being a nerd with over complicated opinions.

Dude, it's okay, you can have a perspective without apologizing for it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Prometheus and Truth

One of the best movies of the decade so far has been Prometheus, the prequel to Alien. As such it occupies this nuanced middle ground between:

  • Alien - being a story of company grunts who come upon a horrific discovery and are left to die for the sake of inhuman ambition. 
  • The Prequel Trilogy - being a hyper-real spectacle that mocks our attempt to make sense of a horrific universe.

But anyone I recommend this movie to always has one complaint before any engagement with the film:

SMG Addendum to Whedon Post

Replying to the question of "Is Joss Whedon a feminist?", SMG had a wonderful analysis that veers away from personal critique, and emphasizes the ideological straightjacket Whedon is stuck in, which works as a fitting conclusion to yesterday's post that asked "why is everything unruly zombies or cynical patriarchs with him?"

To start things off, there are two temptations to be avoided: 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Cabin in the Woods and "Death of the Author"

Much criticism of literary criticism (like this blog attempts to be) dismisses it as "death of the author." They see any textual criticism as the same as the idea that discussing the author of a work is utterly irrelevant to what the art says. You would think the numerous posts quoting Lucas, or yesterday's post wondering about the author of Unsong, would give the lie to that, but apparently not. TheGreyTribe has an amusing summary of such complaints. I also recommend people who want to use that term read Roland Barthes himself and see what he meant when he coined it.

The type of analysis this blog subscribes to is much more in line with "auteur theory," where the author is one contextual element of a work but not the only one. In addition to the author informing us about the work, the text itself informs us about the author.

(Below, spoilers that assume you've seen Firefly and Cabin in the Woods, or that you don't worry about spoilers.)

The Time Has Come

Thanksgiving has come and gone, the radio stations are playing holiday music, decorations are up, and the Love, Actually think pieces have begun.
Love, Actually is neither good nor romantic. Out of the 10 or so relationships depicted in a movie that markets itself as "the ultimate romantic comedy," none of them actually involve love, and most of them aren't the slightest bit romantic. 

So as a reminder and a defense against bad hot takes*, I am linking you to my Love, Actually explanation from a few months ago.

(*There is nothing inherently bad against think pieces or hot takes. Being against all such articles would be like being against consideration and interpretation itself. But an analysis can be bad, and the solution to that is actually good analysis that tries to rescue valuable meaning from everything in our lives.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rationalism and Art

Hello a bunch of visitors from r/rational ! Good to see you. You might want to check out my review of Worm in the sidebar over there. If you want to know "how serious I take this" check out my tumblr.

So now is a fine time to talk about what the heck is up with Slate Star Codex, right?

So on the plus side, he recently wrote a review of a book that showed a fantastic understanding of art.

Someone once said that the point of art is to be more real than reality. The House Of God is way more real than reality. Reality wishes it could be anywhere close to as real as The House of God. This is a world where young people – the kid just out of school, the blushing new mother – die. Even normal old people – your grandmother, your grandpa – can die. But the most decrepit, demented people, the ones for whom every moment of artificially-prolonged life is a gratuitous misery and you pray at every moment that God will just let them find some peace – somehow they never die. They come into the hospital, they go back out to nursing homes, a few weeks later they’re back in the hospital, a few weeks later they’re back in their nursing homes, but they never die. This can’t be literally true. But it’s the subjective truth of working in a hospital. The Fat Man is right. I’ve been working in medicine for three years now, and I have seen my share of young people tragically cut off in the prime of life, and yet as far as I can remember I have never seen a gomer die. The magical realism of House of God describes the reality of medical professionals infinitely better than the rational world of hospital mortality statistics.

I bolded "subjective truth" because that's exactly the type of terminology you should be bringing to these discussions. Given the impossibility of achieving objective knowledge, most of how we describe the world (whether we admit it or not), is subjective explanations. He sounds like he really understands this stuff. (A friend of mine comments that Scott isn't really a rationalist writer, but rather he uses the style of social justice writing, just applied to rationalist causes.)

So what the hell is up with Unsong.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Try Watching Movies Without Sound

Films are a visual medium, where we often get distracted by writing and dialogue from the much richer textures expressed by body language, lighting, shot choice, clothing and a hundred other things I don't even know to notice but you still react to.

Sometimes a good way to re-focus on this, is just to watch the movie, or key scenes, without sound. Without the characters saying things, can you still tell what's going on? Almost always. (In fact, a good rule about expository dialogue is that it's often a lie that tells you more about the speaker than the facts they relay.)

For instance, try this classic scene from American Psycho. If you haven't seen it, well I shouldn't explain what's going on. See how much you can tell (which is pretty much everything) from just the actions and facial expressions.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fake News and Where to Find It

The News Tribune has a fairly hilarious piece about the generators of right-wing viral news. Rather than fellow true believers, of course, they are disaffected liberals who see no other way to secure their identity besides economic success, and see no other path to economic success than viral fame.

Instead, Wade hums a hip-hop song and starts a new post as readers keep reading, sharing and sending in personal messages. One comes from a woman who frequently contacts his page. “YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I TRUST TO REPORT THE TRUTH,” is one of the things she has written, and Wade doesn’t need to look at her Facebook profile to have a clear sense of who she is. White. Working class. Midwestern. “And the economy screwed her.” 
He writes another headline, “THE TRUTH IS OUT! The Media Doesn’t Want You To See What Hillary Did After Losing. ...” 
“Nothing in this article is anti-media, but I’ve used this headline a thousand times,” he says. “Violence and chaos and aggressive wording is what people are attracted to.”
“Our audience does not trust the mainstream media,” Goldman, 26, says a little later as Wade keeps typing. “It’s definitely easier to hook them with that.

Read it and laugh. This reminded me of the pre-alt-right book "Trust Me, I'm Lying" about generating similar fake content for blogs like Gawker when Gawker was still a thing.

Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by [Holiday, Ryan]

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hufflepuff Reinterpretted

Elektra Theatre in New York is putting on a comedy piece called "Puffs" which is the story of the Harry Potter years at Hogwarts, told from the perspective of Hufflepuff students, or in this very unlicensed script, the "Puffs", alongside the other houses "Brave, Smart, and Snake."

If you're going to see it, this review contains some spoilers, though honestly there can't be that much to spoil given your knowledge of the books and basic narrative structure.

So what is a Puff?

Monday, November 7, 2016

Transformers: Bayhem

Even among those who take Prequel analysis seriously, there's always some basement level of pop culture that they assume everyone agrees you can't possibly analyze. The most common example people mention of "there is no artistic merit to this" is Michael Bay's Transformers movies.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Close Reading

Midnight is a Southern Gothic novel about real people in Savannah, Georgia involved in a murder trial in the 1980's. John Berendt spent some time in the city, fell in love with it, and wrote about the colorful characters he met there. The book was hugely successful, and has come to define the town where it is known as "The Book" and social rankings are determined by how well you know people who were mentioned in it.

There was a movie version, starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey. It's nothing to write home about, except that the very fact that a movie was made shows how big a deal this quasi-non fiction portrait of a sleepy southern town was.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mr. Right, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, and Now You See Me 2

Long flights are an opportunity to watch forgotten movies, ranging from the "truly terrible" to the "so bad it's good" to the "weird, lost gems." Being adventurous here can let you see some Films That Time Forgot or at least soon everyone will.

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to see a triple feature of modern comedy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Saturday Night Live: Tom Hanks is on Fire, Apparently

Two highly praised skits came out of October 22nd's episode of Saturday Night Live, both featuring veteran actor Tom Hanks. The source of their appeal lends us something to talk about.

Friday, October 21, 2016

A Challenge: Question 2

Thing of Things is hosting an Intellectual Turing Test where people mimic a competing ideology. The best thing about it is the way people answer question 2 “ What is the true reason, deep down, that you believe what you believe? What piece of evidence, test, or line of reasoning would convince you that you’re wrong about your ideology?”

Every single respondent has thought deeply about what they believe. They’ve seen studies that back them up, thought about ethical principles, and seen the effects of oppression first hand. But when asked “why do you really believe this? what swayed you so much that it would change your mind if it was contradicted”… they often dissolve into vagueness and “everything shows I’m right!” Everything, of course, can never be disproven.

It’s a fascinating insight into how ideology works. Ideology isn’t formed by realizing our terminal values, or reading a study, it’s a much more osmotic experience than that. It involves quasi-believing things because so many other people we know believe them, and not questioning them *too* much because doing so is uncomfortable (both socially, and to our own identity as a good person.) Like Ra, ideology hates it when you try to pin down terms and reasons too precisely.

I challenge readers to cut through this cloud of vagueness, and write down somewhere, anywhere, What is the true reason deep down that you believe what you believe? What evidence could convince you that you were wrong?

I'll go second.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Book Review: Self Made Man

So I read the book “Self Made Man” by Norah Vincent. And I’m of many minds about it, but anything this interesting deserves to be talked about. ( A free sample you can download, which gives the tone well.)

Update to Previous Post: Leveling

Since people will inevitably ask "what is leveling representative of if not the power fantasy of becoming the ubermensch?" here is an actually considered breakdown of that mechanic in videogames.

Warcraft: Mechanics Criticism

The key to writing good videogame reviews is to not focus too much on the plot as revealed through some cut scenes, but to fold in discussion of mechanics and the interactive experience themselves. But it's completely uninteresting to say "this mechanic was/was not fun" or "this vintage platformer builds on the challenge modes from [other game]" in terms of the mechanics alone. The point is to describe how the mechanics relate to the other themes of the game, and represent a work of art in themselves, complete with ideological explanations.

For instance, this piece about the matchmaking system in World of Warcraft and modernity.

This doesn't mean that any political analysis of mechanics is correct, like the cliche that "leveling up" is just a desire to become the ubermensch or something like that. You still have to do good and correct analysis.

(In the above piece, the author could have taken the time to draw a connection between the Rise of the Bourgeoisie narrative so common in fantasy epics, where various classes are liberated and meritocratic capitalism succeeds overcoming tribal prejudices, and how that relates to the LFG tool deconstructing informal social networks.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Monday, October 17, 2016

Been a busy weekend, but I should have a post on the Terminator series up soon. Tuesday or later this week.

Friday, October 14, 2016


This joke of a presidential election has inspired a lot of discussion about empathy. One side emphasizes that empathy is an important trait for people to have, and that people on the other side don't have it. And since the people on the other side lack empathy, we should be free to dehumanize them. Link. Link. Link.

Whatever. People gonna vote the way they gonna vote and it's an irrelevant exercise of powerless protest anyway. What interests us is this discussion of empathy.

Let's take this logic about "empathy makes you good" to it's conclusions. Shouldn't we be able to make, like, a test that can tell how much someone empathizes? And, those who can't empathize, should be neutralized from causing more harm - and if they respond to the threat of neutralization violently, then they will need to be dispatched violently too, right? They're a threat to us, as their violent rebellion shows!

What if we made a movie about that?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I Am Legend (I Am Lonely)

I've talked a lot about Will Smith lately, and also about zombies, so I might as well lay out my thoughts about "the Will Smith zombie movie" which is also an excellent exploration of the nature of isolation that anyone reading this blog can relate to.

We are talking about the Alternate Version that did not see theatrical release (though the meaning of different cuts of movies is worth a post all on its own.) Spoilers for why immediately under the cut.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Office Space: Left

Some of these posts are "in depth analyses of specific scenes and talk about the philosophical concepts they relate to." Other posts are just "everyone knows what is going on here, right?"

Today will be one of the latter, and it's about Office Space.

Quick Review: Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children

Walter Chaw is correct here in his one-star review, that points out the small Burton-esque side-details are much more intriguing than the centerpieces of the movie.

I'd add that the first half of the movie is generally weird and interesting in a way you usually don't get from YA novels. Florida is shot in a banal, over-saturated way that gives it a whole hyperreal aesthetic reminiscent of the Prequel Trilogy, but also mumblecore classics like American Beauty and Garden State. The main parent is fundamentally broken in a way that isn't cliche or dismissive. And the first few appearances of Eva Green's Miss Peregrine are very disturbing in an overly-possessive mother type way: she will plan every minute of your life every day, to keep you young and innocent forever, and is dismissive of any part of her personality that does not relate to raising children. It's creepy and the whole thing comes together make it seriously questionable whether the protagonist Jake should or would want to stay in this fantasyland.

But then the bad guys show up and everything is off to YA cliche-dom. Of especially disappointing note is that there is a scene (in a Tim Burton movie) where: a skeleton army fights eldritch monsters in an amusement park, and it is drab and unexciting, completely lacking in the phantasmic horror you would expect.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Warcraft: Legion of the Underclass

Okay, a break from TV week to discuss the latest World of Warcraft expansion. Specifically, the top level zone Suramar. Suramar is fucking fantastic.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Seinfeld and God

Seinfeld was the most successful sitcom of the 90's, and has since been denounced as one of the most morally bankrupt pieces of art of the generation. The "show about nothing" to many critics became "nothing matters."

This is completely wrong, and instead Seinfeld provided a valuable contrast between morality and ethics, two words often used interchangeably but importantly different.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Ferrante and Reading

Wow, this entire saga about Elena Ferrante insisting on being anonymous so people read her work rather than the ineffable person behind her work says some pretty brilliant things about Ferrante.

It has become natural to think of the author as a particular individual who exists, inevitably, outside the text—so that if we want to know more about what we’re reading we should address that individual, or find out everything about his more or less banal life. Remove that individual from the public eye and, as O’Rourke says, we discover that the text contains more than we imagine. 

Aaaaaaand the literature review industry has just turned Ferrante's anonymity into an object of fetishization itself, to have an idol to discuss (and reel in horror at the violation of) rather than discussing the text of her books.


Marvel's Luke Cage came out this week. I don't want to review it without a chance to think about it for a while, so instead let's talk about the first of these Marvel-Netflix shows (where they released an entire season at once, and based in the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU)) : Daredevil.  It is much moodier, darker, and more visually interesting than an MCU movie (or Agent Carter or Agents of SHIELD), and so in that way it is more like the DC movies we see coming out (Dark Knight, Batman vs Superman). (In contrast, the Flash show might as well be part of the MCU.) 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Love, Actually

Christmas is almost here, and you know what that means. It's the season of thinkpieces about the controversial British romcom "Love, Actually". No, really, the movie is a perennial battleground, whether you love it or hate it. Let's talk about LA - and why it evokes such strong, opposing reactions - now so you have something to link to when arguments about it come up on your dashboard.

Image result for love actually

Crystal Society Heads Up

For those of you who like rationalist serial fiction, you may want to read Crystal Society. The author just announced the release date for Book 2 (January), so this came to mind. For when you've finished (go ahead, we'll wait), or those who have already read it, here's a quick thematic head-check below the fold:

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Magnificent Remake

The Magnificent Seven (2016) came out last week, which is a titular remake of a classic western from 1960, which itself is a thematic remake of Akira Kurosowa's uber-classic Seven Samurai. That's fertile ground for the question of "how do remakes work in the modern era?"

Image result for magnificent seven Image result for magnificent seven Image result for seven samurai

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Batman vs Superman: Ignorance

A frequent criticism of BvS is that it's morally empty, with nothing but frat-boy Zack Snyder's love of gritty fight scenes and tepid plot to justify them.

Which is weird, because BvS has some of the most blatant thematic statements since the first Magnificent Seven.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Television: Sweeps Week

Next week this blog is going to spend more of its focus on the philosophical messages conveyed through various television shows, and how their techniques contribute or detract from that.

If you have a television show to request (not anime), or your own critical essay to submit, please do so. Anyone who thinks seriously about art is welcome.

Hancock: Apologies

A touching moment to end our exploration of Hancock, is a contrast of the two apologies given by Hancock.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hancock: A Good Ol' Bank Robbery

The "superhero stops a bank robbery" is probably the most standard trope that Hancock uses, and Berg subverts the cliche delightfully while maintaining its essence. Let's go over it today.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Hancock: Back to the 1930's

A great deal of this movie is wrapped up in the 1930's, which is the time period of Hancock's origin. We're not given any flashbacks, just occasionally told hints of what happened that fateful night. This is a really telling period of time for Berg to use.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Die in a Fire

If "literally" has become just an intensifier adverb due to linguistic drift, and the word diagetically has taken the role it used to hold instead, then I look forward to when diagetically also becomes a figurative intensifier.

"He was diagetically killing it last night!"

Hancock: Miscege Nation

It's not really possible to discuss Hancock without discussing cultural attitudes towards black-white romantic pairings in media. So let's rip the bandaid off and jump right in.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Storks: Wow, a Good Review

Megan Garber reviews Storks.

By which good means "actually looking at the techniques and how it overall contributes to the message of the movie and the culture we live in" without defenses of "I liked it, it was exactly what it knew what it wanted to be, like a good hamburger."

In the mfing Atlantic of all places.

Hancock: Celebrity

One of the few things most critics noticed about this movie was the imagery of celebrity. But beyond "I guess superheroes are like a basketball star or OJ", not much was added to the discussion. Let's examine these allusions more in depth.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Videogame Criticism

Reading through "Paean to Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri", which seems to be another writer that takes their subject seriously.

Video game criticism is interesting, since it needs to avoid the twin pitfalls of "ignore the mechanics" and "focus only on the mechanics and how fun it was to play." Good criticism needs a way of relating the mechanics to other elements of the game, and what combined message they relate. Toss in box art, controller experience, and franchise context as well.

And whoever can do that properly, needs to tackle the whole Hideo Kojima oeuvre.

Movies Coming Out

This fall actually has a large number of potentially interesting feature films coming out. Some will probably be rubbish, but at least some of them should have the redemptive potential of an Alien sequel.

Hancock: Noted Stanford Professor and Bank Robber...

After the big three, very few characters in this movie even get multiple scenes. Aaron is the lovable moppet who always likes Hancock despite his gruff exterior. And there's the villain, who is relatively minor but pretty interesting for all that.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hancock: Mary Part Deux

So Hancock the movie spends the first hour establishing how systemic racism (primarily through class signals, and not explicit antipathy towards blackness) degrades black men who become depicted as angry and slovenly and thus not worthwhile members of society, even when they have so much to contribute.

Having done that, Peter Berg goes for the hat trick by applying the same lens to feminism and intersectionality too. It's so great.

Hancock: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

The plot of Hancock is like an M. Night Shyamalan movie where the twist is... the woman was an actual character all along.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hancock: PR Man vs Realism

Before jumping in to a character like Mary, let's actually give a bit more space to the philosophical stances represented by Ray.

Hancock: Boy

Just for a focus on the use of one word in one scene, I'm going to copy paste SMG's analysis of how Hancock uses the word "boy". Like most SMG critiques, it uses historical context and the tone used in the film, and it takes the form of arguing with forum trolls.

Hancock: Ray, a Drop of Golden Sun

At first blush, Jason Bateman's Ray is the cliche hero of this tale. But there's more nuance to his position.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Comments: No Longer Requiring Log In

I did not realize comments required users to be logged into to gmail. I have turned that off and anyone can comment.

Comments will still be screened before posting, but only for outrageous spam or personal attacks. Thus far every comment submitted has been approved and I expect this to continue.

(This is less a statement that personal attacks are unacceptable, but more that they are boring. We are here to engage with the text, not to identify and expunge "bad people".)

Hancock: What Could Have Been

Something that's interesting about this fairly weird movie, is that the original script that inspired it was completely different.

Hancock: the A-Word

And when we’re talking “uncomfortable class imagery” there’s nothing more direct than the pervasive use of profanity. The defining word of this entire movie is…

Friday, September 16, 2016

Hancock: Weather and Critical Observation

As mentioned before, Hancock contains a lot of uncomfortable class imagery. Holy hell, does it contain a lot. And the easiest thing to do is dismiss this as juvenile attempts to appeal to "frat boys" with no more substantial meaning in the film. "That's a nice theory but do you really think the director was thinking that?"

This is the wrong outlook. As a demonstration, let's talk about weather in this movie.

Hancock: Progression

Hancock's character arc is the evolution from Jar Jar Binks to Luke Skywalker.

(Obviously, full spoilers ahead for all posts from now on.)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Hancock: Preview

Tomorrow or over the weekend I'm going to write about the best superhero movie of the post-2000 age of cinema, Hancock. This is a very controversial and very rich movie. There are so many details and social lessons we could pry into.

Individually, Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Peter Berg are all signs that a movie is going to powerful commentary on class and oppression. (I Am Legend, Mad Max Fury Road, Friday Night Lights.) When they get together...

Except I think most people reading this blog haven't seen it. You should, you can rent it for $3.

So I'll probably only write one post. But if people have seen it, sound off in the comments letting me know (or +1 this on some social media or whatever). If so, we could really dig into this one. You know, form a truly authentic reading of the text and re-examine our role in the social hierarchy? If that's not your idea of a fun weekend why are you even reading this blog.

TFA Review: The Light

The broadest theme of "The Force Awakens" is that which awakens, which is the light side of the Force. Let's talk about this terrifying concept a little.

Tim Rogers

Some quick links before a new post on The Force Awakens later today.

Tim Rogers is the best videogame critic out there. He combines a sophisticated understanding of how games work, with thoughtful appreciation of symbolism, and a great deal of words.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


While Worm has us on the topic of superheroes, I'll review and analyze some of my favorite superhero movies this week. But weird superhero movies. So, starting with Birdman.

It’s about Michael Keaton dealing with life after being a superhero movie star, and struggling to be taken seriously as an artist, and what “being taken seriously as an artist” even means. It’s heavy on monologues and bold cinematography, and has the acting and set-pieces to back that up.

It also says a lot about LARPs, and emotionally losing yourself in transparently artificial art.

The movie elicits comparisons to JCVD, a similar vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damm. It’s pretty good and more people should watch it.

The long review contains spoilers. This isn’t a movie ruined by spoilers, so feel free to read on if you haven’t seen it. But just to warn you. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Every Frame a Painting on Musical Score Choices

Just a reminder if you aren't following Tony Zhou, your popular film criticism needs to level up.

Worm: The Tail

We're wrapping up the week of Worm posts here. I may return to some topics in the future as I reread my favorite passages, but it's been enough for this breakneck pace.

You know who we've barely talked about? Taylor. Skitter. Weaver. Khepri.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Worm: Normals: the Bad and the Badass

Most superhero stories actually have a high proportion of characters without powers, who still affect the plot and characterization in many ways. The MCU and DC movies both have more normal humans as characters than they do metahumans. The world of Worm has an absolutely tiny number of normals who make more than a token appearance, especially for a work the equivalent of 20 novels long.

How normals are depicted often matters in superhero works because they portray how much you can get done, and how much you can *matter* in this world if you haven't been gifted powers. Can you use sheer grit or emotional connection to become a real player, or do external factors dominate over human will? Are you a joke, or are you a badass normal?

Normals after all usually get pigeon holed into one of those two groups. A person without any powers who through cleverness and stubbornness makes the godlike characters have to contend with them, is a badass normal. In other stories, a character who tries that may be doomed to patheticness for their hubris, or become evil with their obsession (such as in The Incredibles.)

Let's go over these often overlooked characters.

Comic Recommendation

If you've been enjoying this analysis, and think you enjoy superhero stories with rich themes regarding moral philosophy, you should try Strong Female Protagonist.

Tagline: "What are you going to do, punch poverty in the face?"

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tarot of the Ages of Humanity

"Seriously, kids, hardcore semiotics can be hazardous to your epistemic health, don’t try this at home…"

Worm: Cauldron and Privilege

Worm is not particularly good at depicting class. Yes there are *plots* going on regarding characters' position in the class structure (New Wave, Grue), but they aren't *aesthetically* drawn based on their class. We have a couple deliberate class-defined characters (Bitch, Grey Boy) but by and large most of the characters don't show these traits. Does Tattletale (upper class) talk differently or have an appearance in contrast with Taylor (middle class) or Grue (lower class)? It's not Star Wars where you generally know a character's place in the class structure the second you see them.

That's fine because there's still some fantastic commentary on the power structures of society.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Worm: The Wyrm

Dragon's secret of course, is that she's human.

Star Wars: Link

Someone shared with me this analysis that I am linking to despite the hideous domain title, where they critique imperial actions in terms of real world military politics.

In fact, our very first glimpse of the Imperial High Command is an argument between the Army and the Navy about the strategic vulnerability of the Death Star. The stakes are high: For the Navy, the Death Star represents the ultimate in bureaucratic power-grabs, a guarantee of perpetual dominance on top of the Imperial pecking order. For the Army, the Death Star represents the potential death of their service as a viable political force. 

Nowhere is inter-service rivalry more apparent than in the lead up to the Invasion of Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. After coming out of light speed, an Army General reports to Vader that the Navy fleet has come out of light speed – a clear attempt to cut Admiral Ozzel off at the knees. Vader’s view of the situation is completely colored by the Army’s spin on the situation. Instead of allowing the Navy to give a report (and a possible justification for the strategy), the Admiral gets killed, the Army gets the glory, and CAPT Piett moves up a slot after learning a valuable lesson about the utility of throwing his Army colleagues under the bus.

(And how can we not respect an article with subtitles such as "Systems not Sith"?)

Where I was worried about this article, but in fact it turned out to be good, is that by the conclusion all these errors are presented as not mistakes.

The comfortable materialist path is to treat these sort of systemic sabotages as exceptions. "If only the Empire's military wasn't so poorly set up, then maybe they would have ruled eternally. If I was the Emperor I would..."

But this is an Empire set up by a man who gets his jollies by watching his apprentices kill each other for his favor. Of course the system will encourage backstabbing by the top generals. It's an Empire that thinks all rule should be subservient to one powerful person. Of course corruption will undermine their defense contracting system. 

(And Vader is the one who consistently steps *outside* these systems.)

The logic of the Empire itself is contradictory and inefficient. The dream of totalitarian inefficiency is just that, a dream that can't even be fully realized in a 2 hour movie.

This will be relevant in today's Worm post.

The author of the article may believe he is "over thinking it", but the evidence and logic he lays out is true.

Worm: Random Thought of the Day

Bonesaw is Jack's Harleyquinn.

Anyway, there will be a longer post later today.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Worm: Taking Requests

There are several more posts queued up. But if anyone has a chapter or character they are interested in, they should post it in the comments. We can go over what sort of themes are explored by that scene or cape, and how they relate to the broader work of Worm as a whole.

Endbringers and the Failure of Enlightenment Philosophy

The most iconic line to come out of the Enlightenment was Voltaire’s “‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”[1]

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Worm: Golden Idol

One problem discussing bullying and this universe is that looking at what unites the characters risks “creating a false equivalence” between bullies like Shadow Stalker and the sort of things Taylor does in the end. It’s important to identify that they are using the same methods (psychological torment through imbalanced power relationships) while also understanding that they are doing it for different reasons (SS does it to define her personal identity, Taylor does it to protect the people she cares about). Of course, different motives might not feel any better to the people on the receiving end of bullying.

So do these motives matter? Is it the consequences that define whether this bullying is ok in this universe? What sort of rules can we even use to judge the morality of an action? Or is moral action just impossible in the Wormverse?

These questions are valuable when we talk about Scion. And about Christianity.

Because Wildbow is an atheist author who has written one of the best anti-Christian works I’ve ever encountered.


To be clear, maltheism - or the perspective that god is bad and religion is bad - is pretty common in genre fiction. It usually comes in two forms

  1. Spirituality is pure, but the church is evil. In these stories, the church is a corrupt institution where the leaders of it just seek to advance their own ambitions and crush any dissent. Eventually the heroes overthrow the church, usually with assistance from the very god that feels they have been cut off from their people (FFX, Small Gods, there are tons of examples.)
  2. Gods are really like people, and not worthy of worship. In these stories, the gods have a lot of supernatural power, but otherwise are just as petty and worldly as any mortal. The heroes either have to defeat them, or convince them to be more humble and not treat human beings like their toys. (Like, every piece of fiction by Neil Gaiman. Unsong, and most other rationalist fic that deals with gods.)

A radical Christian will counter that none of these are what Christianity means. Christianity is a revolutionary religion that describes God sympathizing with human suffering, and descending to show solidarity with the weakest, and put the power of his kingdom in their hands. To them, Christianity is not about the Church, or about angels and nativity but it’s about the Sermon on the mount:

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

Even if you don’t think the Christian church has stood for those ideals, the question still remains: are they good ideals?

(If you’ve read the earlier entries on this blog, the Star Wars movies describe this sort of sacrifice and “love for the lowliest” in expansive detail.)

And this philosophy is one that atheists and Christians alike should want to grapple with. Christians so their beliefs can get a fair test, and atheists because they should be confronting their opponent’s strongest arguments, not strawmen.

So who could argue with this revolutionary, divine ideal?

Worm does.

In Worm, God in all his power and suffering descends, and places it in the hands of the most abject, degraded person. Worm actually wrestles with the question of what would happen in this divine revelation.

Worm’s answer? It does not go well.


So this is why Scion is the best inhuman figure in Worm. Abrahamic God-symbol checklist?

  • Something greater than and incomprehensible to humanity.
  • He appears as a floating golden idol, with a beard but no clear ethnicity.
  • He adopts the name Scion / Zion. (And loves the lost Eden)
  • His power level is basically infinite, be it delivering miraculous cures or dispensing wrath.
  • He finds a homeless man and carries out whatever charitable ideas the man has.

Kevin has a great line about platonic realism when replying to a comment that Scion looks sad.

“He doesn’t,” Kevin said.  “Don’t buy it.  He doesn’t look anything.  That expression never changes.  But whatever’s underneath, that’s what’s giving you that feeling.  He looks sad because he is sad.  Except you take out the ‘looks’ part of it.”

Kevin is a great character, of course. He’s poor. He’s dispossessed. He probably has mental health issues (and certainly appears to.) He’s anti-social and can only bond with his dog. He’s been used and abused but is so low that he can’t even get the recognition of victim status. He is the lowliest worm humanity has. He is without doubt “the meekest.” And so in the kingdom of God, it is he who will be exalted.

This monstrously powerful golden idol, that the whole world is fascinating with, appears before Kevin, and takes orders from him. He listens to Kevin. He tries to do right by him.

And Kevin is even properly humble about this power! He doesn’t enrich himself, he tries to help orphans and stop disasters. And Kevin feels true terror at the thought that all the problems of the world are now his responsibility. If he wastes this power, it will be on his head, and that (rightly) scares him.

The whole Interlude “The Most Powerful Man in the World” is just really brilliant stuff. The title ironically links “this is about Scion” with “the rants of a homeless man”, efficiently linking these two concepts. Kevin’s fear, but also his rage, and his hope, are expertly done. And Scion really does come across as… weird and inhuman. But also a potential symbol of goodness, now that we know his power can be directed to productive ends.

(It's also an incredibly funny scene: witness how Kevin constantly talks to his dog like a person, but talks to the most powerful entity on Earth like a dog.)

So many critics claim what makes Worm good is the consistent power levels and intelligent use of powers and the type categorization, and other immersive elements that read more like an RPG handbook. None of that fits in here. There’s not even “Taylor bonding with her friends.” There’s just two people being befuddled and in awe at the mysteries of the universe.

What more religious scene can there be than the sacrament of one High Priest of the Golden Man passing his mantle to a new successor, in symbolic exchange for a token offering?

In many works of fiction, this would be the last, triumphant scene of the entire series. (For instance, such a revelation is not too dissimilar from the ending of Return of the Jedi, where Darth Vader has sacrificed himself to rid the galaxy of the Dark Side, and now Luke must ponder what to do with his new responsibility and power. Or Elysium, or the Neverending Story.)


But it doesn’t work. The story doesn’t end here, and in fact it rapidly gets worse. How come?

Well it sure was fun watching Scion kick Behemoth’s ass.

But beside that, what sort of orders does Kevin have to contribute? It turns out he is not full of insight into reducing inequality, overthrowing oppression, and critiquing capitalist power structures. He saw there were some orphans in the news, and so he feels God should sort that out. He is not really that full of revolutionary fervor, and he’s probably pretty representative of his class that way.

Even what ideas he does have, he’s downright bad at communicating to God. The communication barriers between inhuman omnipotence and mere humanity are pretty high. It’s kind of a miracle they can relate at all, and after years finally get around to “take out those city destroying monsters.”

Worst of all, by the end, it goes horribly wrong. This sort of dispassionate helpfulness is easily turned towards destructive glee, as Scion enters the anger stage of grieving over his lost partner. And on his way to wiping out all of Earth, he slowly takes time to toy with the heroes and rub in the futility of their attempts to oppose him.

He’s not a suffering God. He’s a bored God.

(This is somewhat reminiscent of Mxyptlk in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” [spoilers for the comic book] .)


Literary nitpickers above will have noticed that I left one category out of “types of maltheism in genre fiction” : Lovecraftian. That’s the tradition of stories that depict gods who are beyond our understanding, who have no concern for us, and are so horrifyingly weird that the merest glimpse of them drives a human being mad. Humanity can barely, maybe fight them on a lucky day, but is by far best off avoiding their attention entirely.

(Hell, the only way Taylor takes him down is by finding his one vaguely humanist aspect - his aching grief - and exploiting it brutally.)

By the end of Worm, this Christian ideal has been transmuted to that Lovecraftian maltheism, and it’s a fairly chilling argument against wanting any involvement with the divine.