Archive | June 2013

O Superman/O Judge

Spoilers ahead, so tread carefully.

I’ve always liked Superman more than most other superheroes. Certainly more than Batman, whose Christopher Nolan-led rise to domination in the pop-culture-sphere has inevitably led to countless online screeds about how he is so much more cooler than Superman because he’s just a normal dude with a ten-digit net worth and more scientific and engineering resources than the US Government.

Where was I? Ah, yes, Superman, whom I like more than Batman (though the first two films of the Dark Knight trilogy are really splendid and the third is invited to the dinner table with the other two so I talk politely about it) as a general character. But I’m not here to talk Batman, I’m here to talk Superman, and why Man of Steel was such a profoundly miserable waste of someone who inexplicably remains a character of so much unfulfilled cinematic promise.

Much has already been written about the sheer amount of senseless destruction in Man of Steel. Destruction porn is now so par for the course in action films that it seemed revelatory when the Avengers did things like set security perimeters to contain damage and help civilians escape with their lives. And while the wanton demolition of downtown Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel is every bit as miserable as reported, it’s not simply because The Avengers showed us the light and now we can’t have any collateral damage mingling in our action. Hell, the trailer for Pacific Rim still has me pumped from sheer giant monster silhouette at night potential (one of my more specific nightmare inducers) despite its potential for skyscraper dominoes.*

*That and a potentially star-making role for Idris Elba, whom you might know as Stringer Bell from The Wire and whom you should watch in Luther right about now.

And the problem, for me anyways, wasn’t even simply that Superman seemed not to give a flying turd about the fact that his mano-a-mano fight with General Zod was leaving many more people dead than the family he broke Zod’s neck to save from being unduly toasted to death. Or, for that matter, that he broke Zod’s neck, which annoyed many a Superman fan who insist that Superman would do no such thing.*

Look, the debate about whether or not Superman would have/should have killed Zod is actually quite interesting, but it’s also missing the forest for the trees. Yes, Zod was about to kill a family, but Superman had also almost certainly killed, well, hundreds of people when he took the fight to Zod in the heart of Metropolis, laying waste to high-rise after unevacuated high-rise.

The answer, however, is not “Well, that settles it, Superman should have let Zod kill those people because he’s a callous asshole in this movie”. The answer is that Zack Snyder has no clue what the hell he’s doing with Superman.

There was a modicum of comfort when Christopher Nolan was announced as the executive producer of these movies. If you squint hard enough, you might see his influence, perhaps in the more serious tone (compared to Snyder’s usual work) and the film’s legitimately interesting use of quiet and introspection in its first act, but don’t believe it; that’s just phosphenes from all the squinting. Truth be told, any half-decent Superman story is going to be introspective and reflective and, at its best, kind of poetic, especially in its first act. One of the reasons I like Superman so much as a character is that I’m fascinated by God-narratives. Rorschach is the best all-around character from “Watchmen”, yeah, but Dr. Manhattan’s chapters were the most fascinating to me overall. Alan Moore’s depiction of Dr. Manhattan’s view of the universe, of a person who is experiencing every moment of history and every inch of the universe at the same time, is one of the great inventions of the comic book medium.

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Superman is less obviously a full-blown deity as Dr. Manhattan, but his mythology is layered deeply with the Jewish diaspora and the American immigrant experience. He is a being with the powers of a god who wants to be a man while still fulfilling his duty as someone capable of so much more than anyone else. This is deeply fascinating stuff to me, and done right (for a stupendous recent take, seek out Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman”) it can stir the imagination in the same vein of great mythological sagas (think The Odyssey or Ovid’s Metamorphosis).

Or, for that matter, Laurie Anderson’s famous, eerie song “O Superman”. The song’s title might seem superficially tied to the superhero at best, a bit of art-house irony. But the song’s sense of mystery, of a person trying to find someone to communicate with in the face of deep uncertainty, evokes much of the same feeling of the very best versions of Superman’s story.

And there are moments in the first act of “Man of Steel” that conjure some of that magic. The wildly sloppy depiction of the destruction of Krypton aside (holy hell, that was the worst-edited sequence of a major film I’ve seen in a long time), the depiction of Kal-El’s transformation into Clark Kent, leading into his rediscovering his past, was at times quite (and this is a rare thing to say about a Zack Snyder film) lovely. It was low on over-the-top symbolism and plot-based handholding and heavy on well-done scenes that showed more than told, like Clark’s rescue of the burning oil rig, or his handling of a dickish customer at a diner he works at. These scenes are really solid depictions of Clark Kent’s constant struggle between doing the greater good and weighing the risk of said good. He’d love to punch the guy who sexually harasses a waitress, but that’d kill him. Better to just turn his truck into an electrified sculpture.


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There are some less-good scenes in the first act as well. The death of Jonathan Kent was a mind-boggling series of incredibly dumb decisions mixed with totally unbelievable actions and one of the goofiest deaths you’ll see in a superhero film (Kevin Costner looked like he was really looking forward to getting to ride in a tornado before he died). But for the most part, I was impressed with Snyder’s restraint and I was genuinely enjoying myself.

And then the rest of the movie happened.

More appropriately, the film’s extended action climax happened. And in the wake of “The Avengers”, what we got with “Man of Steel” just won’t do.

I really missed the sense of continuity and place that Joss Whedon pulled off in his film. At no point during the final battle of “The Avengers” did I wonder where anyone was or why they were doing what they were doing. Every fight within the larger battle had a point, and every character had a purpose. It was stunningly well-choreographed. In “Man of Steel”, Snyder appeared to decide that Superman’s ability to move very quickly through the air was a get-out-of-jail free card to allow Superman to intervene whenever it was convenient (say, Lois Lane, or a random soldier, needs saving).

But as building after building exploded or collapsed with Superman making no effort to, you know, move to fight where there’d be minimal risk to civilians, I realized that Snyder was just not giving a crap. He was in his element, and unfortunately that element is “FIGHT FIGHT SMASH SMASH HAHAHAHAHAHA”. This worked much better for him in 300, a movie that was much more aware of its own goofiness and based on significantly less loaded, more superficial source material)

I grow weary very quickly when action devolves into movement+destruction. Pretty much the entirety of the ending of Man of Steel was just that. Gone was any attempt to continue to explore the evolution of Superman as a character. Even the killing of Zod was half-assed in that regard at best; He snaps his neck, screams, and that’s all she wrote. That would be forgivable in a movie that was a) more purely action driven and b) had more competently filmed action, but having that scene represent the apex of Superman’s character development  is incredibly childish, especially in a movie that had done a decent job in that regard up to that point.

This is just a stupid, stupid movie. It’s dumb. It’s aggressively unpleasant. It’s the kind of movie that decides Superman as Jesus is a cool idea out of absolutely nowhere, spends three scenes hammering that metaphor home with embarrassing literalness (Superman consults a priest who we’ve never seen before and never see again for advice and a stained glass image of Jesus is right there next to his head the entire conversation) and then drop the idea completely for the rest of the movie. It’s the kind of movie that has a “scientist” character whose entire purpose is telegraphed as “the guy who’ll solve an impossible alien algorithm to save the world” and that algorithm is turning a wheel. It’s the kind of movie that will have Superman standing around doing nothing while the spaceship that holds the fate of humanity is under attack, and then snap back to attention only when Lois Lane is about to plummet to her death.

Superman remains one of the most interesting superheroes to me. But if Man of Steel is to be his Dark Knight  trilogy, then he’s already hurtling in the wrong direction. Batman Begins was tightly honed film driven by character, tone, and world-building. Man of Steel began with the possibility of that, but devolved into the world’s most expensive game of Jenga.

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The narrative gravitas of “The Last of Us”

I finished “The Last of Us” last week. It’s an extraordinary game in a lot of ways. Yes, there are some quibbles with its gameplay (clickers entered Half-Life 2’s manhacks territory of irritation for me) but really, this was a splendid piece of interactive storytelling. Here was a true post-apocalyptic narrative, one that had no quibbles about the player’s agency or decision making.

Now, I thought about writing a traditional review for the game, but I really wanted to delve into a proper discussion of the game’s narrative. That is impossible to do without getting into major spoiler territory, so if you haven’t played the game and intend on doing so, please stop reading now.

I repeat: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

The lack of player agency in “The Last of Us” has been the source of some debate amongst critics. Forbes.com (which, despite its business-based pedigre ehas some of the internet’s better gaming writing) has some well-written points of view on the subject. Critic Carol Pinchefsky gave the game a positive review, but criticized the game’s ending.

A quick recap of the ending before delving into more analysis: The bulk of the plot of “The Last of Us” concerns the game’s protagonists, middle aged survivalist Joel and the scrappy 14-year old Ellie, traversing across a post-apocalyptic United States in an effort to find a group called the Fireflies. Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps fungi that has led to the collapse of civilization, and the Fireflies are supposed to provide her a safehouse, and perhaps study her to provide a cure.

When Joel and Ellie finally find the Fireflies, they take Ellie away to harvest her brain on the chance that they can turn it into a vaccine for the Cordyceps. Joel will have none of this, and kills most of the Fireflies (including the unarmed surgeons about to begin “operating” on Ellie), saving Ellie’s life in the process.

Pinchefsky was annoyed that the game gave the player no other option but to free Ellie, rather than let her die for the good of humanity. You can’t even progress without killing the surgeons. “I wanted to let Joel let her die, because it would be better for humanity. Also, he’d be living with even more regret,” she said in a reply to a comment of her review.

And that’s a perfectly fine take on the narrative choices of the designers. We all have preferences for the actions characters take.

However, I disagree that it was fundamentally mistaken to force the player into one decision.

For starters, Naughty Dog games have never had any illusions about having interactive stories. The “Uncharted” games give the player about the same amount of storytelling agency as “The Last of Us” (which is to say pretty much none). Unlike “The Last of Us”, The primary appeals of the “Uncharted” games are their action. The combat and puzzle sequences are of foremost importance. The story is strong enough to lend a sense of purpose to the action, but not much more. They’re similar to action films in that regard.

“The Last of Us”, however, is a post-apocalyptic narrative that happens to let you play along. That, I think, is why its ending is more jarring than the turns of the “Uncharted” games, or even the ending of similarly genre-narrative driven games like “Red Dead Redemption”. “Red Dead” was still about letting the player do their thing. No, you can’t dictate the bulk of the story, but you’re also free not to play it at all. A lot of  “Red Dead Redemption’s” appeal was how free and open it felt. If you wanted to spend your days wandering the desert shooting rattlesnakes, you were free to do so. If you wanted to abandon the story and spend your time wreaking havoc, you could (with difficulty, but it was possible). “The Last of Us” lacks the open gameplay of “Red Dead Redemption” and is significantly more story-driven than “Uncharted”. And games have taught us that when a game is overwhelmingly story-driven, then that story should be gamer-controlled.

The “Mass Effect 3” controversy from last year speaks to this. A common complaint about the game was that the ending robbed players of a sense of agency that they had enjoyed for nearly 100 hours of gameplay. After seven years of being told that their decisions in the game were essential to their own, unique experience, it turned out that those choices just didn’t matter that much.

But unlike “Mass Effect 3”, “The Last of Us” doesn’t give a damn about the player’s take on the narrative. It has its own narrative, and it asserts this consistently. You can choose whether to sneak through a hostile gang’s house or to try to fight them, but you don’t get to choose not to go through the house at all.

At one point in the game, you come across a young man named Henry and his teenage brother Sam. You play through some of the game’s most thrilling sequences with them. At the end of one these sequences, they agree to accompany Joel and Ellie west, in search of the Fireflies. You can’t tell them not to.

Later, there’s a sequence where Sam is attacked by an infected and, it is later revealed, bitten. He turns. Joel pulls out a gun. Henry pulls a gun on Joel, before shooting Sam and then himself. It’s a brutal, highly tense scene. And it also plays out entirely in cutscenes. In “Mass Effect”, this would have likely been rife with dialogue wheels, like the infamous standoff with Wrex in the first game. In “The Last of Us”, it’s simply the game telling us its story. And I like that. It was at this point that I realized that this game wasn’t just telling us a story, but it was telling us its story, one that took precedence over anything else. The player has no control, and that’s the point. We’re there for the ride.

And that is a sort of narrative gravitas that blockbuster games rarely exert. There’s another bravado sequence in which Joel has been badly wounded in a fight with (yet another) gang inside a university building. In a sequence that is largely scripted (if not entirely cutscenes), Ellie shoots her way out of the building and gets an increasingly delirious Joel to safety.

It’s an extraordinary scene. Not only is it effective as an action set piece, but damn, I can’t imagine anyone NOT feeling a conflicted mess of feelings, both cheering Ellie on and feeling some sadness that the kid has become such an effective killer. I thought of a review by Polygon’s Philip Kollar, in which he talked about his preference for sneaking to fighting:

“The seconds that I spent waiting for enemies to walk past felt like white-knuckle, on-edge eternities. These instances left my nerves frayed, but I also felt good about progressing without forcing my young traveling companion to witness even more horrifying violence.”

On one hand, I totally understand this mindset. When Ellie turned into a mini-Joel, effortlessly killing many to save one person, it was impossible not to feel sad. I can relate to wanting to protect her from this sort of thing.

But actively playing the game to protect her from violence? That’s purely player-invented agency. This game’s world is a miserable one. It knows what we probably don’t want to acknowledge: that there’s no protecting Ellie from the horrors of this world. And the aforementioned scene is thrilling, yes, but it’s also heartbreaking. And that sort of narrative step; not just moving the plot forward, but being so in tune with the magnitude of internal character changes; is essential to this genre.

“The Last of Us” has received inevitable comparisons to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, which is perhaps the most important post-apocalyptic narrative of recent years, in which a father tries desperately to keep his son alive, knowing that the boy will inevitably be exposed to things no child should see. He constantly refers to him and his son as “good guys” and always has an answer for when his son wants to know if others they encounter on their journey are “good” or “bad”.

Of course, to the man, “good” and “bad” are irrelevant. His single goal is keeping his son alive, and anyone who can help is good and anyone who gets in the way is bad. “The Last of Us” is a rare game to own up to this sort of storytelling. Joel develops a paternal attachment to Ellie, one so strong that at the end of the game he will kill anyone who threatens her, much like the protagonist of “The Road” would do to anyone who would threaten his son.

And that’s where Naughty Dog won me over. They were telling a full-blooded story here, a character-driven drama that was happy to have me tag along, but that wouldn’t dare let me tell its story for it. In another response to a reader comment, Pinchefsky said that Naughty Dog “blew it” by limiting what she felt could have otherwise been one of the most poignant moments in gaming history. I disagree. Presenting a choice there would have diluted the narrative. It would have been like turning the end of “The Road” into Choose Your Own Adventure.

“The Last of Us” is a landmark in interactive storytelling. It makes “Heavy Rain” seem cheap by comparison. “Heavy Rain” (which, for what it’s worth, I like a lot purely on its own terms) achieved drama by aping cinematic cliches in an interactive format. “The Last of Us” is a rare game that achieves the narrative gravitas of good fiction in a way that’s achievable only in a game. Yes, the combat can be frustrating at times, But damn, does this game ever earn its pathos. It has guts enough to know that it doesn’t need to coddle the player with choices to make them care about its story. And it knows that every moment of tension, hiding from infected, or desperately engaging another person in brutal hand-to-hand combat, is part of the storytelling experience, adding to the narrative, as opposed to being the reason for the story to exist in the first place.

I don’t blame anyone who finds “The Last of Us” too grim to recommend. But I cannot fault the game’s delivery of its story. It’s an astonishing experience. Joel saving Ellie might not have been for the greater good of humanity. But after spending 20 hours with these characters, I didn’t think for a minute that either one would consider the world worth saving if it meant sacrificing the life of the other. And that, right there, is good storytelling.

Monsters University: The problem of perfectly fine

“Monsters University” is perfectly fine for what it is. It wants to be a cheerful backstory of a couple of Pixar’s most beloved characters. It is. It wants to feature hijinks and drama without putting too much at stake. It does. Its aims to entertain, It succeeds.

But the film left me feeling unfulfilled. There is nothing at all wrong with simply entertaining. But saying “It’s just entertainment” can also be a copout for a film that could have been significantly more entertaining that it actually is. And that was the case with Monsters University.

The moment Mike stepped onto the Monsters University campus, I started smiling. Here was another opportunity for Pixar to showcase its immense visual creativity. And what a goofy and delightful concept: a college film among monsters. Even with the family film restrictions to keep it from being a full sendup of the Animal House genre, there was so much potential here. And the first half of the film realizes it. And then the plot takes over.

And then the film is… perfectly fine.

There’s nothing at all wrong with ignoring any sort of a collegiate narrative for the bulk of the film, eschewing it in favor of a predictable sports-film narrative. That’s perfectly fine. It just ignores what was a huge part of the appeal of this film, and a major selling point: Monsters University as a setting. The film’s remarkable promotional website is an example of the sort gleeful immersion into a universe full of interesting nooks and crannies that I was hoping for. “Monsters Inc.” relished in its setting. Even though it ended on a rather obligatory action climax (these can feel really odd in the more high-concept Pixar films; the ending of “Up” feels more incongruous upon each viewing) it was a thrilling visual experience, taking full advantage of magnificent features of Monsters Inc. itself.

“Monsters University” makes no such attempt to use its universe so creatively. The bulk of the action is tacked to one of the more tenuous set-ups in a Pixar film: Mike and Sulley are kicked out of the Scaring program, but get a chance to get back in because of a bet with the dean- if they win a fraternity and sorority scaring tournament, they can be readmitted, but if they lose they are expelled.

The entire thing feels cobbled together with string and chewing gum. It’s a series of artificial stakes with no logical connection tacked together to form a plot. And that’s… well, fine. A weak plot can be compensated for with good characters and humor and whatnot, and the film has those and it looks great, so… yeah. Fine.

But wouldn’t a story that gave a damn about itself be better?

Dean Hardscrabble is the film’s primary antagonist, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. Her motivations are non-existant. She has a vendetta against Mike and Sulley because the plot requires her to. There’s not even any inference of something deeper, like the genuinely spooky, unspoken story of what Charles Muntz has been up to all these years in “Up”. She just pops up at plot-required intervals to put the heroes down and provide obstacles. Never has a Pixar villain been so underdeveloped. The bear in “Brave” had more characterization.

MonstersUniversityDean1

But, you know, that’s not fatal to a movie. A good villain can transform a film, but a bad villain doesn’t necessarily do the same. Dean Hardscrabble serves her purpose and moves the story forward. That’s not great, not preferable, but it can still work in a movie.

And a formulaic film can be quite memorable when it’s done right. I really, really liked “Warrior”. Its script is boilerplate sports movie material, but it’s tight and splendidly acted. There’s not an ounce of filler. Nick Nolte deserved his Oscar nomination, and he gives the third best performance in the movie (cheers to Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy). It’s a formula movie that wants to transcend its material and, somehow, it kind of does. It stands out in my memory above the slew of sports movies that, superficially, resemble it at a glance. It could have been perfectly fine. It ended up being a genuinely moving, rousing experience.

By comparison, “Monsters University” (and make no mistake, this movie somehow ends up following the sports movie template to the letter in its second half) makes no such attempt to tighten its screws and trim the fat. It coasts on the pre-established charm of its characters and the knowledge that this movie will eventually turn them into friends (they begin, of course, as adversaries). And the scaring competition scenes are lively and quite entertaining. But I watched them with mild trepidation as I realized that the movie was abandoning what had made its concept seem to appealing in the first place.

The very end of the film does serve to cleanse the palate a bit, as Mike and Sulley find themselves in a dire situation that Mike must think himself out of. But even then, the film hedges its bets, far overselling the results of Mike and Sulley’s escape to one-up a villain I simply did not care about. That the ending doesn’t line up at all with the narrative (Mike and Sulley generate an atomic bomb strength scare, literally hundreds or thousands of times better than the previous record, and they still have to work their way up Monsters Inc. from the bottom?) only confirmed to me that it, like pretty much everything in the movie, was hurriedly slapped on. There was never any intention for this to be a film as interesting as its setting allowed it to be. It was only concerned with being just fine.

And when too much of a film is glaringly fine, when excellent was clearly within grasp, then it feels like less than the sum of its parts. There’s nothing outwardly bad about “Monsters University”. But watching it glide along without even trying made it, in a way, even more frustrating than “Brave”. I didn’t care for “Brave”; I thought its story misfired on so many fronts; but  at least it was clearly aiming to be something memorable.

Do I recommend “Monsters University”? Yeah, I guess. Look, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. I did as I watched it. Perfectly fine movies tend to be perfectly enjoyable in the moment. But most perfectly fine movies are also perfectly forgettable. “Monsters University” is perfectly fine. It’s entertaining. But it’s completely disinterested in being great entertainment.

Some thoughts on “Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II”, AKA the most important film of the century

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II is a film that defies and transcends grades, criticism, and opinions on film in general.

Is it a bad film? I think so? Does it matter? Why are we bothering with such boring quibbles with a movie that doesn’t give a crap??

Is it the most entertaining film I’ve seen in a while? Absolutely. And not just in an MST3K sense (but occasionally in an MST3K sense). My number one sin for a film is to be boring. Not in a “Tree of Life” sense because “Tree of Life” wasn’t boring you butt it was great, but that’s a debate for another day.

All I can say it that it has rocked my world to its core and I am still trying to figure out how to process it as an experience.

Full disclosure, my only previous experience with Twilight as a thing before was the movie of “New Moon”. It was a terrible film, often in a “so bad it’s good way”, and it in no way prepared me for the experience of this movie. Because to call “Breaking Dawn Part II” so bad that’s its good is, well, woefully inaccurate. Even if it is bad. But I don’t think it all is. Maybe. Pray for me.

It’s a film with a simple a plot as one could muster (Voltari are mad because HUMAN VAMPIRE BABY) that manages to cram as much confusing exposition as I imagine is possible. At one point a whole bushel of new vampires (Lee Pace!) were gathered in the Cullens’ living room and I could not for the life of me remember who the hell they were. One of them was an Irish family and I didn’t even know they were Irish until like most of the way into the movie when the dad mentioned he fought in the 11 Years’ War. One of them is the Avatar. Half the film’s special effects budget seemed to be spent on their “vampire dash” which they all do instead of walking and it’s always hilarious.

Lee Pace wastes a poor guy on his way home with his skateboard as Nikki Reed crosses her arms and chuckles like a sitcom character. I think the movie thought this was okay because he’s just some human.

Taylor Lautner partakes in the single creepiest romantic plotline in cinematic history (as far as I could figure, he fell in love with Bella’s baby, a fact that is explained as being a “werewolf thing” that he can’t control and does this film realize how horrible this sounds? The film acknowledges the creepiness at the outset when Bella beats the crap out of him, and then slowly but surely decides that it’s not that creepy after all, and gives us a happy epilogue that shows the holy-hell-that-is-just-wrong romance at its future fruition, with Jacob and creepy-CGI-adult Nessie hanging out and meeting the parents.

Nessie is primarily played by a horrifying CGI baby, and then a horrifying CGI child, and then a normal real child for a bit, and then a horrifying CGI adult.

I just don’t know, either.

It is the kind of film that will give you an absurd, magnificent fight scene with multiple major character deaths and decapitations like crazy, and then have it all be a vision.

It’s not even just all a dream. It’s A VISION. A THREAT. Ashley Greene is just not going to be stopped by the fallacy of the predetermined outcome. You go girl. She also punts Michael Sheen and gets awesome hang time.

Also, she disappears for most of the movie out of the blue. I think they explain it, but seriously, this movie’s sense of exposition was truly strange. Many elements are wildly overexplained (Did you know just how much Bella wants to be a vampire?) and others just thrown on the screen (THE BRAZILIAN HALF-VAMP! He shows up out of nowhere and solves everything!!!!! Incredible!)

There’s no way to properly review this film but to present its individual elements and comment on their effect on my soul. It is the opposite of a tone poem. It is a series of shrieking disparate elements, slammed together at warp speed and allowed to simmer for two hours. It might be terrible. It is definitely a tremendous piece of entertainment. If you have friends who refuse to watch it with you, disown them for being boring. If there’s one thing I’m sure about, it’s that this film is the opposite of boring.

PS: The movie ends with Bella showing Edward a fan-vid of her own construction using scenes from the movies set to Christina Perri’s “1,000 Years”. That is a truly useful power. If I could show the world the Sailor Moon fanvid I have in my head set to DJ Sammy’s “Heaven” there wouldn’t be a dry eye.

Scenes from Mad Men: “A Tale of Two Cities”

I’ve been a very bad Mad Men recapper. This one’ll be short, but at least I got it in this week.

“A Tale of Two Cities” is one of those necessary gear-shifting episodes of Mad Men. This show tells so many stories, so intricately, that sometimes an entire episode is needed to set the table for bigger things. Such episodes are rarely bad (this one was quite good) but they never rise to the level of Mad Men’s finest hours.

That said, there are certain pairs of characters with too much electricity when paired together to make for uncompelling television. Peggy and Joan are two such characters. One of the pleasures of Mad Men has been observing how little the personality dynamics of the characters shift even as they rise and fall within the hierarchies of SCDP(CGC). Joan and Peggy are both risers of high degrees; Joan from queen bee secretary to partner, Peggy from worker bee secretary to head of creative. And yet these two just can’t help but spar, even if they have a grudging respect for each other. It’s episodes like this that remind us how in touch the show is with its own lineage. Joan pegged Peggy as a naive little thing from the first episode, unaware of the competitive beast Peggles had within the whole time. Peggy, like others have cruelly done so this season, weaponized the fact that Joan slept with head of Jaguar’s accounts (never mind that it wasn’t her idea, she was pressured into it, and the co-partnership with the company was thrown in as incentive; she wasn’t sleeping her way to the top, the partnership was the tradeoff for her). Both Peggy and Joan are capable of needling each other where it hurts most. But at the end of the day, they also both know just how hard it was for the other to get as far as they’ve gotten in this hyper-chauvinistic workplace.

Which is why Peggy bailing out Joan at the end of the episode was so damn satisfying. Peggy is not a spiteful person. In the end, she sympathizes with Joan, because she’s been there: looking for any opportunity to make a move into a world that had previously seemed impossible to approach.

And really, anything done at Pete Campbell’s expense is worth it.

Liebster Award time!

Well isn’t this just a pile of ice cream sandwiches? Fellow blogger A Splash of Inspiration left me a comment informing me that they had nominated me for a Liebster award. After some research into it, I found it’s a rather adorable tradition designed to spread blogging love around this whole blogging planet. “Liebster” means dearest in German. Again, adorable. As a lover of adorable things, I’m all too happy to participate.

Apparently the rules are quite simple:

  • You are chosen for the award by another blogger, which then makes you the next judge.
  • If you are selected, do a little fist pump. Then, if you want, list 11 facts about yourself, and answer five questions that the blogger who nominated you provided. If you don’t want to, that’s cool.
  • After selection, you can, if you please, select five other bloggers you admire to receive the award. The only stipulation is that they have fewer than 200 followers. Provide them with five questions.
  • Let them know of their Liebster in a comment on their blog, and spread the love!
  • No tagbacks. I’m not sure what that means, but everyone who posts Liebsters mentions this, so I am too.

Also, you get to use this sweet badge:

Libester!                                                                        (source)

Sounds easy, right? Let’s begin:

11 Facts about myself

  1. The first movie I remember seeing in a theatre was “Aladdin”.
  2. I have a deep love for bubblegum pop music. I think Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Kiss” is a perfect album.
  3. The film I’ve seen more than any other is “The Lion King”. I don’t know the exact number but it’s north of forty viewings (most during the summer of 1995 on video).
  4. I’ve seen “Princess Mononoke” 21 times. After the first 20, I swore not to watch it again until I could see it in a theatre for the first time. That dream came true last summer, after three years of waiting.
  5. My holy trinity of favorite films is “Princess Mononoke”, “Three Colors: Red” and “Children of Men”.
  6. Non-film facts: I like coffee on two extremes: dark roasts taken black, or loaded to the brim with cream and sugar until it more resembles a milkshake.
  7. My favorite Sailor Scout is Mercury. Everyone has a favorite Sailor Scout. You do too.
  8. My favorite movie pastime is convincing non-horror fans that the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is one of the best films of the 1970s. And I mean that without any qualifications. It’s an incredible film.
  9. My favorite spot in the world is the balcony of Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square
  10. I have crooked index fingers that form a “V” when I try to put them together.
  11. When I was 13 I won my local library’s summer reading club and I still keep the trophy by my computer at all times.

5 questions from A Splash of Inspiration:

If you could blog about anything else in the world, what would it be and why?

Baseball. I dabbled in baseball blogging for a few months a few years ago but I consistently found that there were simply better writers writing about the exact same topics, and I preferred reading them to trying to match them. With film and TV, I’m better able to approach topics from an angle that is very much my own. But I probably know more about baseball than I do anything else, and I’m much more confident in my writing now than I used to be.

How did you initially get interested in the topic that you blog about?

Well, I’ve been interested in movies since I was a teenager. I honed my skills writing about them on a message board that I joined when I was 13 and still post on occasion. In recent years, I’ve developed a passion for applying critical thinking to my views on pop culture. I like being able to clearly describe why I arrive at my opinions in a way that can spur discourse.

Sike! That URL is taken and your site’s name is copyrighted.  Now you have to change your site’s name and web address. What will it be and why?

The Burly Bard. My brother thought it up the other day and I thought it was awesome. It applies to me (I’m burly and I sing) and immediately made it the name of my Tumblr.

This is your last post ever. What would you address in it?

It’d have to be my Reviewing Ghibli entry to Spirited Away, the movie that made me fall in love with movies.

You have to pick one specific topic (it can’t be too general like “movies”) to blog about for an entire month. What topic would you choose and why did you choose it?

I’ve actually done stuff like this before, and I know what it’d be: Analyzing, shot for shot, the opening scenes of horror films. In October, of course. Overanalyzing pop culture is one of my favorite pastimes, and I think it’s important to be able to discuss the visual language of the movies.

Now, it’s time for me to nominate five more blogs for this exercise. Drumroll please:

Soul Conversations

My good friend Nicole has a poetry blog. She’s great and very cool person and I know she loves adorable things even more than I do. There’s no “no friend” rule on this, so she gets dibs.

Cinema Enthusiast

One of the first film blogs I found on WordPress and still one of the best. The sheer rate of output on this blog puts mine to shame, and the reviews are consistently excellent.

Joshua Hoffine Horror Photography

I’m breaking the followers number rule here a bit. Hoffine has a hair more than 300 followers, and he deserves more. His horror photography is some of the finest horror work in any medium today. Brilliant, gory, and often legitimately scary, he is a master at blending the stuff of childhood nightmares with modern, adult horror tropes into a giant, bloody phantasmagoria of images.

SiroSoup

A very charming blog with a focus on Anime and cosplay (both the cosplay community and making the actual costumes). In the handful of conventions I’ve been to, I’ve just been transfixed by the costumes and the energy radiating from the time and energy put into making them, and this blog definitely captures that feeling that makes conventions fun.

The Stock Pot Inn

Is it cheating to nominate two people whom I know? I’m nominating this blog because its writer, Nate, is not only a good friend of mine but a very good writer whose views on video games display a critical eye and a voice that conveys the experience of playing a game, qualities that are sorely lacking in the world of gaming writing.

Finally, my five questions:

  1. Well, drat. Aliens have invaded Earth and, while they’re cool with humanity and all that, they just really really hate all our media. By sheer fate and Hollywood writing, you have the chance to save one piece of electronic, pop culture media. It can be an album, a film, a season of television, or a video game. Which one do you choose and why? Don’t worry about books, by the way. The aliens are down with books.
  2. What was the first movie that gave you a nightmare?
  3. I often describe “Spirited Away” as the most significant film for me personally, because when I watched it for the first time, it felt like it a movie that was tailor-made just for me. What was your first experience like that, watching, reading, or listening to something, and being overcome by how it seemed like it was made with you and your specific tastes in mind? Again, all forms of pop culture are eligible.
  4. You wake up and the Spirit of Story is about to teleport you to live forever in a fictional land from a story. Because you caught it in the act, it cuts you a bargain and lets you choose the location. Where do you go? Any fictional location works, including fictional towns in otherwise real countries (like Lovecraft’s New England gallery of rogues) Keep in mind though, you’ll be spending the rest of your days here.
  5. Burger or Pizza?
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