Monday, July 09, 2018

Top Ten Sci Fi Movies That Aren’t on Anyone Else’s List of Top Ten Sci Fi Movies

Sci Fi movies are hard to do well. You really have to get your audience to suspend a lot of disbelief, and if you don’t finesse it enough (or go so over the top campy that belief is not even an issue), it’s very easy to fall flat on your face. Bad sci fi movies tend to be cartoony, or completely lacking in internal consistency, or make no sense at all.

Perhaps this, then, is the reason that a few sci fi movies have really risen to the top, and year after year, these movies are upheld as the gold standard when it comes to science fiction storytelling.

I like a lot of those movies. Others I’m not so impressed with. I sort of have my own rubric when it comes to sci fi movies, and I often find that the ones I really like aren’t usually on the top of everybody else’s list.

Here then, is my list of top ten sci fi movies that aren’t on anyone else’s list of top ten sci fi movies. With each one, I’ve included the movie whose place I think it would probably take on the “real” top ten list. My choice and the popular choice won’t necessarily have anything in common, but when they do, I’ll comment on it. So, without further ado and in no particular order….

Pitch Black (Popular Choice: Alien)

Pitch Black is almost the anti-Alien. In Alien, our band of heroes is trapped in a contained space with a monster. In Pitch Black, that contained space is an entire world, and the monsters are everywhere. I’m not sure why some of the best sci fi movies are horror sci-fi. Maybe because what’s exciting about what’s out there is also what’s scary. But they are, and I love when horror tropes, like the idea that horror has to take place in dark, enclosed spaces, are turned on their ear.

Aliens, the sequel to Alien, has a lot of that, too, but what it doesn't have, in addition to the unique visual style of Pitch Black, is Riddick. The character of Riddick, before two sequels and the turning of Vin Diesel into a household name softened him up beyond all recognition, was one of the all-time great anti-heroes.

Source Code (Popular Choice: Close Encounters of the Third Kind)

I think Source Code is a great example of a modern science fiction movie, one that a lot of movies and TV shows going forward are going to use as a template, consciously or unconsciously. It’s one of the few movies to have a credible, realistic take on something resembling time travel, and it uses concepts of VR, digital consciousness, and similar ideas that are sure to shape our world in the years to come. Close Encounters is a movie that I think was great for its time, but doesn’t quite hold up. I think movies like Contact and Arrival do a better job at expressing a realistic depiction of our first encounter with alien life.

Total Recall (Popular Choice: Blade Runner)

Listen, I am a sucker for any movie based on Philip K. Dick’s work. Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck, I dig ‘em all. And I know Blade Runner is considered by many to be the greatest science fiction film of all time. But I think a lot of that comes from the visuals more than the story. And after having seen the overwrought, garbled, Ryan Gosling sequel, I actually like it a lot less.

Seeing the shitty remake of Total Recall, on the other hand, only reminded me how great the original was. Total Recall is Pure PKD, complete with mindfucking, bizarre adventures and non-stop action. It’s ‘80s Arnie at his finest and a timeless sci fi classic.

Robocop (Popular Choice: Metropolis)

Robocop is a movie from the same era and of the same ilk as Total Recall. What makes Robocop special, however, is how effortlessly it mixes political satire with over the top humor with cool cyborg action. What was so horrifying about the shitty remake of this one is that it wasn’t funny. Like, not even a little. Like, it makes you want to hang yourself.

Metropolis may have been funny, but I couldn’t tell you, because I had no idea what the hell was going on for most of it. It seems like mainly a mashup of science fiction tropes that were popular in 1927, and I think it’s just the idea of a “science fiction art film” that has people so seduced by it.

The One (Popular Choice: 2001 A Space Odyssey)

When it comes to cultural cache, “The One” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” are on opposite ends of the spectrum. 2001 is hailed as Kubrick’s masterpiece, while a lot of people think that “The One,” belongs in the discount bin at Walmart. To these people I say:

Are you fucking kidding me? A science fiction martial arts movie that dealt with parallel universes before that was even really a thing in movies and that ends (SPOILERS) with the hero’s evil twin playing a literal game of King of the Hill in a Hell Dimension warding of countless waves of kung fu fighting doppelgangers? How is that not on EVERYONE’S “best” list?

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Popular Choice: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

I’m not going to make the argument that VI is an objectively better movie than II. I don’t expect I could ever win. What I’ll say is that I think Star Trek II embodied the best of what Star Trek was, while Star Trek VI embodied the best of what it could be. That, and the cultural relevance of the Cold War parallels that were so meaningful at the time VI was released is what puts it over the top for me. I think both movies are head and shoulders above every other Star Trek movie before or since.

Edge of Tomorrow (Popular Choice: E.T.)

The science fiction movie I loved most in the last ten years (maybe more) has to be Edge of Tomorrow. Based on a Japanese novel with the lost in translation name of “All You Need is Kill,” Edge of Tomorrow is fun, it’s funny, it deals with alternate realities/time travel in a convincing way, the characters are compelling and easy to sympathize with and the characters’ goal is noble and relatable. If you have not seen this movie because you hate Tom Cruise, or because you thought the premise was silly, or just because it escaped your notice, do yourself a favor and go see it (I think it has been retitled: Live, Die, Repeat)

Oh. It has no relationship to E.T. other than the initials and, you know, aliens. E.T. is a fine movie and you all should see that one too if you haven’t.

Tron (Popular Choice: The Matrix)

Full disclosure: The Matrix and I got off on the wrong foot. I saw it for the first time after being up all night studying for something or other and did not even really follow the story. I have seen it since and I get the premise, which does not make a lot of sense (why do the machines need to create this elaborate fantasy world for people just to feed on them? Doesn’t this take more energy than it provides?). I admire the Wachowskis for having and presenting a unique vision of a sci-fi world, but again, in a time where virtual reality machines are par for the Sci Fi course, it doesn’t really hold up.

Tron, with its “digital” world of 8 bit graphics doesn’t quite hold up either, but it fails to do so in an incredibly charming way, and Tron is a classic adventure story that doesn’t even really need the sci fi element, but it’s great that it has it because light cycles and identity discs are fucking cool.

Return of the Jedi (Popular Choice: The Empire Strikes Back)

Second full disclosure: I am a terrible Star Wars fan. One, I liked the Phantom Menace, also, when I played with my Star Wars action figures I always pretended they were characters from other franchises, and worst of all, I liked Return of the Jedi better than Empire. I blame this on the fact that I saw these movies when I was a kid, and when I watched Empire, I still really didn’t understand the concept of sequels or trilogies.

At the end of Empire, I thought that was it, it was over, Darth Vader won and the heroes lived miserably ever after, and as a child, that was deeply unsatisfying. Return of the Jedi gave me the closure I desperately needed. The opening sequence on Tatooine, where all the heroes (save Han) are in their full leveled-up glory defeating Jabba the Hutt, is one that burned itself into my memory and inspired my love of sci fi all the more. If I had seen these movies when I was older and more cynical, I’d probably have a very different take, but, there it is.

Escape from New York (Popular Choice: The Terminator)

I have nothing bad to say about the Terminator. I love the Terminator. It’s just that it’s bound to appear on anyone’s top 10 list. Escape from New York might not, although it should. Snake Plissken may be the greatest sci-fi anti-hero of all time. He makes Han Solo look like Jar Jar Binks. Snake stares death in the face, laughs at authority, but in the end, still saves the day, albeit in his own inimitable fashion. The way in which the film turns 1990s New York into the hellscape everyone outside of New York seemed to think it already was is another reason this film is rightly considered a sci-fi classic.

There you have it! Comments about how totally off I am are always welcome!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The New NRA: Solving the Gun Problem in America

The recent school shooting in Florida has given rise to renewed cries to address the growing gun problem in this country. The response is the same. Gun control advocates call for harsher gun regulations, anti-gun control factions panic that the government is coming for their guns, and politicians who accept millions from the NRA to make sure that kids like Nicholas Cruz have easy access to assault rifles either act confused and helpless, as if there is no solution to this problem, or find a scapegoat to deflect the blame to, like bad parenting, mental illness, or, most brazenly, lack of enough guns.

To those of us watching these politicians defy any standards of public decency and safety for reasons that openly and unabashedly boil down to their own greed, the situation seems hopeless. The Republican party is firmly entrenched in the pocket of the NRA, who have millions upon millions of dollars to spend, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it.

I believe that there is a solution though, and it comes from the very conservatives from the state of California who likely support the NRA.

The Solution

If there’s one thing corrupt politicians are great at, it is distorting and obfuscating the truth. So, for the safety of our children, let’s put aside our ethics and take a page from their book.

California suffers from what some might call an excess of democracy. Every Election Day, multiple propositions are put on the ballot for Californians to vote on. These are real policy changes, like allowing gay marriage or tightening environmental regulations. Since many of these propositions are overwhelmingly good for the people and would easily pass if that were clear, each year, corporations create counter propositions and use their influence to get them on the ballot.

These counter propositions look exactly like the good propositions, except that if you manage to get to the end of them, the policy change they would enact is exactly the opposite of the original prop.

The idea is not to get these counter propositions to pass; they rarely do. The goal is to confuse voters so much that too many of them either vote for the wrong proposition, or become so uncertain that they don’t vote for either, so neither pass. This almost always works.

So what does this have to do with the NRA? Well, here is my proposal, and I hope someone with the time and resources reads this and decides to try it.

The New NRA

I propose we create a new organization. Call it the New National Rifle Association, or NNRA. We create a fancy logo with a nice big automatic weapon on it, maybe a majestic bald eagle, and state as our mission to protect the ownership of guns and responsible gun use. We then send newsletters to as many voting gun supporters as we can find.

The NNRA can even set up programs to encourage good marksmanship and responsible gun ownership, just like the real NRA used to almost exclusively. However, when it comes time to elect a pro-gun politician, the NNRA will blanket the electorate with reasons why that politician shouldn’t be elected. 

The NNRA wouldn’t need to have the money and influence the NRA does, because the goal is not to win—its just to confuse the electorate enough so that they won’t vote for NRA cronies. If the NRA tries to fight us, we won’t fight back. We’re all on the same side, responsible gun ownership, right? So, nothing to fight about. Meanwhile, we keep diluting the NRA’s influence and there’s nothing they can do about it.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is great, but it's David without his slingshot vs.Goliath. We can't win by taking on the NRA head-on.

I am sure this would work, so I really hope someone tries it. The only way to beat the NRA is by fighting fire with fire—A philosophy I’m sure its members will appreciate.

Monday, January 01, 2018

In Defense of Captain Daly

Warning: Major Spoilers for Black Mirror Season 4 Episode 1: USS Callister. I’m going to reveal the whole plot. If you haven’t seen it and you plan to, come back after. And if you don’t watch Black Mirror, start immediately (I would start with S1: Episode 2: “Fifteen Million Merits” but it’s your call).

Okay, now that that’s out of the way. “USS Callister” is the eagerly awaited first episode of season 4 of Charlie Brooker’s unparalleled “Black Mirror” series. All we knew going in is that it was some kind of Star Trek parody, so no one knew quite what to expect.

What we got was a classic Sci Fi trope of the weak, mild-mannered, bullied guy who suddenly is gifted with great power and uses it to terrorize everybody. It’s poetically appropriate as it’s the kind of idea that was seen in genre shows of this era, like “The Twilight Zone,” and the original “Star Trek” itself, but of course, with that Black Mirror twist that it’s modern technology that is causing all the problems.

In “U.S.S. Callister,” Jesse Plemons, who really is a tremendously, tremendously gifted actor, plays Robert Daly, a former digital wunderkind who has created the INFINITY game engine, a state-of-the-art MMORPG (Massive multiplayer online role-playing game), which is all the rage. Think “World of Warcraft,” but Sci-Fi and better. Of course, being the creative type, he is mostly relegated to the background of his company “Callister,” which is built around the game, while his partner, the marketing genius, CEO and face of the company, James Walton, played by Jimmi Simpson, gets all the credit and glory. While Walton is worshipped, Daly gets little respect from his employees, who don’t seem to understand that all of their jobs only exist because of his genius.

But this is not how we first meet Robert Daly. The story cleverly opens in a Star Trek-style pastiche scenario, where “Captain” Daly, sporting a classic Shatner-esque Captain Kirk accent, is leading his crew on a bridge that looks suspiciously like that of the Starship Enterprise through a perilous conflict. Captain Daly naturally wins the day, to the considerable admiration of the crew, at which point, Captain Daly says “Exit Game,” and we are in Robert Daly’s apartment, where we learn that the entire scenario took place in a special “Space Fleet (this world’s version of the actual Star Trek)” mod of the Infinity engine that Daly has sealed off from the online game universe for his own private amusement.

So far so good, right? Our introverted tech genius spends his spare time pretending to be a space hero in a virtual world video game, no harm, no foul. But of course, in Black Mirror, like The Twilight Zone before it, things are not always as they seem.

We get another look at Daly’s real life, and it’s easy to see why he prefers the game. At one point, a new coder arrives, in the form of Cristin Milioti’s Nanette Cole, who is in awe of Daly and his own coding genius. Daly’s awkward appreciation of Cole’s adulation is short lived, as Walton quickly arrives to sweep Cole off her feet, and Daly later overhears another co-worker, Lowry (Michaela Coel) basically telling Cole to give Daly a wide berth because he’s a bit of a creeper (don’t worry, she’ll get hers later. Sort of.)

Frustrated by his impotence, Daly steals a bit of Nanette’s DNA from a coffee cup. Why? To create a digital doppelganger to put in his game, where he has ultimate control. We then meet the digital Cole, who, like Jon Hamm’s hapless victim in “The Black Mirror Christmas Special,” seems to feel as if she is just as real as the IRL original.

As “Lieutenant Cole” meets the other residents of the digital U.S.S. Callister, we learn that everyone in the game feels just like their real life counterparts, being forced by Daly to role play for his amusement, on penalty of being subjected to horrible punishments like being forced to asphyxiate but never die, or being turned into a horrible, slobbering monster trapped on a barren planet.

Cole, who we soon come to realize is our hero, is undaunted by the godlike threat, and devises a plan to save the stalwart crew, involving communicating with and blackmailing her real world self (who has no way of understanding her digital counterpart’s predicament), into aiding them by threatening to expose the sensitive photos on her hacked “PhotoCloud,” account.

After some harrowing detours, Cole’s plan, to steer the ship into a “wormhole” (actually an update patch) and join the isolated game mod with the rest of the online Infinity universe, not only works, but frees the digital copies to explore the new universe on their own, while trapping the real Daly in his rogue mod, which is deleted by the system with him in it, leaving the real Daly a comatose, drooling mess at his computer chair at home, locked into the game, where he will no doubt be long dead before he is discovered, as everyone is away on Christmas holiday.

So, a fairly upbeat conclusion for a Black Mirror story, right? The heroes escape with their lives and freedom, while the villain is condemned to a horrible fate. Early praise for the episode touches not only on how expertly the creators poke fun at some classic sci-fi tropes, but in the way the episode allows a female character who is normally resigned to just what her digital copy was meant to, an object designed to reflect the glory of the main, male character, to actually break out and be the hero of the story.

The few critics of the episode so far seem to have complaints with the same issue. They don’t care for the portrayal of Star Trek as simply another vehicle for predatory, white males to self-aggrandize, and feel that turning the nerdy coder into an immoral, evil bully inside is just bringing us back to the pre-Bill Gates days when smart introverts were mercilessly picked on.

I would like to set all that aside, however, and ask this question: 

Is Robert Daly really the villain of this piece? That assumption is predicated on the idea that the digital Cole and all the characters in the virtual world have real consciousness, and there’s no real reason for Daly to believe that this is the case. 

If the “Callister” characters really are just digital copies, what’s the harm in what Daly is doing? After all, Grand Theft Auto players allegedly beat prostitutes by the score on a daily basis and no one seems to think they are evil. Allegedly. I’ve played my fair share of open-world crime action games and I don’t even think it’s possible to beat prostitutes in most of them. I’ve certainly never seen a situation where it had any game utility. But the fact remains that there are many video games where you are encouraged to explore your dark side, killing, beating, stealing and generally doing bad stuff to digital people, and everyone understands that it’s just a game. When I was a kid playing with action figures, I would on occasion have them do horrible things to each other (NO RAPE), and I never gave much thought to what the consequences were for the figures themselves. Of course, the action was all taking place in my mind, but in a way, the same is true for Daly. Granted, stealing people’s DNA to make a game copy of them for your personal use is an inappropriate invasion of privacy, but I wouldn’t exactly elevate it to the level of monstrous behavior.

How is excoriating Daly for his actions any different from the old crusaders who said that kids who played Dungeons & Dragons were budding Satanists, or, more recently, detractors of games like Grand Theft Auto claiming it encourages violence? If you want to be a son of a bitch in your virtual world so you can be nice to everyone in the real one, isn’t that preferable to the alternative?

Again, it comes down to whether the characters in the digital world are real, and the idea of artificial intelligence being sentient is not a new one. I’ve actually addressed it before. And for we, the audience, to perceive the crew of the U.S.S. Callister as “real” is inescapable. After all, no one in the stories we see on T.V. dramas are actually “real.” When Negan bashes in the head of our favorite character on “The Walking Dead,” we are horrified. We want that character to escape their fate, even though we know at the end of the day that the physical entity who received that killing blow is now sitting comfortably on their couch at home, or filling out the skin of a new character on some other drama. So out of the nature of the play-watching experience, we feel that digital Cole and her counterparts are real, we want them to succeed, we fear they will fail.

But it is fair to hold Robert Daly to the same standard? Yes, his digital characters behave with autonomy. They “believe” they are real. Walton even makes a reference to “sentient code.” But might that not just be a reflection of how great Daly is at his job? His is after all, a rogue program, a sandbox; the characters are not meant to behave the way characters in the live online game behave. If he believes, as he has every right to, that his characters are still nothing more than very clever bits of digital code, is he really such a monster?

Submitted for your approval: Computer genius Robert Daly, who tried to create a closed-off game world in which he could sublimate his baser influences, and instead became a victim of accidentally self-created malware, a Trojan Horse program that hacks people’s online photos unbidden, introduces unapproved code into the main game and then deletes itself without a trace, trapping its creator inside, leaving him to a horrible fate, “buried alive” in his own body, the kind of nightmare that could only happen through a Black Mirror. Or perhaps, in the Twilight Zone.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thou Shalt Not Use the Bible to Defend Your Abortion Stance

Congress is currently hearing H.R. 490, the “Heartbeat Protection Act,” a bill introduced by Republican Steve King of Ohio that would Federally ban all abortions after six weeks.

It is widely accepted that the bill is not intended to pass, but is another great Republican use of the taxpayers’ money, to wit: poking Roe v. Wade. The right wing is very excited about the prospect of The Donald stacking the Supreme Court with a bunch of activist Bible-thumpers, and this is their first shot across the bow. As usual, it’s a bunch of men proposing restrictions on the rights of women.

Now, the right wing, especially the religious right, but even your average underage-child-loving, gay-bashing, Confederacy apologist Republican politician, loves to cite the Bible to justify their grossly inappropriate and inhumane behavior. For example, when the recent allegations about Roy Moore’s propensity to chase underage girls emerged, Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler brushed them off with “Joseph was an adult carpenter and Mary was a teenager, and they became the parents of Jesus.”

One wonders if these guys are so eager to force women to have these babies because it will be only 13 years or so before they can start molesting them.

The Bible on Abortion

But since Pro-Life activists are so quick to wave the Bible, let’s see what the Bible has to say about abortion. Hmm…

Let’s see here….

Oh! I see! Nothing! Since it’s the Bible, the words can be twisted to say anything the reader wants, but there is nothing explicit in the Bible about abortion, early termination of pregnancy (other than a verse stating that if someone damages your pregnant wife, they owe you restitution, just as if they dented your fender), or frankly, anything about children really at all, besides the fact that’s important to give them a good beating now and then to keep them in line (Proverbs 13:24).

And WHY, do you suppose it is, that God, who had so much to say about what you should wear, what you can eat and who you can have sex with, was completely mum on the subject of abortion? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because 2000 years ago, if you didn’t want your baby, you would take it up a mountain right after it was born and leave it there. It was called exposure, and it was a very effective form of birth control, and no one gave a shit. Not God. Not anybody. “Hey, Jim, what happened to that little one you had on the way?” “Oh, it turned out to be a girl, so I had to go up the mountain,” “Ah, hard luck. You’ll get ‘em next time, old boy!”

So, any Pro-Lifer who tries to shove a Bible in your face has no idea what they’re talking about. Shockingly. The war by the Right against abortion is about one thing, and one thing only: The subjugation of women.

Is Abortion Murder?

Now, if you are Pro-Life, you may personally feel that this does not reflect your opinion. You genuinely believe those clumps of cells are human beings being murdered. But let me ask you to participate in this thought experiment:

There is a virus raging through the country, killing everyone. There is a vaccine, but supplies are limited. You are six weeks pregnant with twins and have a four-year-old son. Do you give your one dose of vaccine to yourself or your four-year-old child?

If you choose to take the injection yourself and save your unborn twins in the process, you are a good, utilitarian, pro-life mother. Three is better than one. If, on the other hand, you choose to give the medicine to your four year old, it means you actually have children.

Well, you don’t have to have children to make the right choice, obviously, but I have a hard time imagining any real mother opting to sacrifice her son in this scenario. So, at the very least, the life of a fetus and the life of a living human are not equivalent. The Republicans in Congress know this. They do not care. It’s about subjugation. Don’t believe me? I have three words for you: “Baird v. Eisenstadt.”

What Is Baird v. Eisenstadt?

We hear a lot about the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that affirmed that it is unconstitutional to criminalize abortion. We hear very little about the decision the previous year, Baird v. Eisenstadt. That’s the one that legalized birth control.

Yes, that’s right. Even though the birth control pill reached the public consciousness in the 1960s, and some form of birth control had existed pretty much since civilization began before that, unmarried women did not have a Federally protected right to birth control until 1972, the year before Roe. And you read that right, unmarried women. It was just fine for married couples to use birth control, presumably because that meant the man was sick of his wife pumping out rugrats.

Attacks on abortion, just like attacks on birth control, are about keeping women out of the workforce, out of politics, out of anything but the kitchen and the bedroom, just like “the good old days.”

Abortion may be a tragedy, you may find it distasteful, but if it occurs before a fetus is viable, it is not murder, and if you support legislation that implies that it is, you are betraying the female gender. The next time a Pro-Lifer reaches for a Bible to defend their position, save them some time. There ain’t nothing in there for them. Perhaps you can convince them to pick up a book on gender politics in the 21st century instead.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

10 Food Rules for TV Characters (satire)

Image result for ncis thanksgiving

1. Your characters may never finish a meal, unless on a date at a restaurant. If they are at a Thanksgiving dinner, the show will end as someone is first cutting into the turkey. If they order a hot dog on the street, half of that hot dog is going in the trash.

2. Chinese food may only be eaten directly out of the carton and with chopsticks, and never during the day. Someone should always ask someone else to “pass the Kung Pao Chicken.”

3. Despite the glorious array of pizza enhancements available to us in the modern world, the only pizza topping your character may ever ask for is “extra cheese.”

4. The only fruit your character may ever eat is an apple. They never wash it, and, pursuant to Rule One, never finish it, unless they show up to the scene with one bite left, in which case they can take that bite and forcefully discard the core in a nearby wastepaper basket.

5. If your character leaves food labeled with their name on it in a communal refrigerator, another character will always eat it with no remorse whatsoever.

6. If one character is cooking for another, that meal will always include a large pot of some kind of sauce that the other character must taste with a wooden spoon and announce “needs salt/too much salt.”

7. If your characters visit a morgue, the Medical Examiner must always be eating to show us how immune he is to being surrounded by corpses. The sloppier the meal, the better.

8. In Sci Fi shows, alien food must always be disgusting.

9. “Chekov’s Peanut.” If a character announces he or she has a food allergy, he or she will always accidentally ingest that food before the end of the show..

10. The more distasteful a food is to 9 out of 10 of the characters on a show, the more that 10th character will love it. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Suicide Squad: Review

Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Katana, Col Flagg, Killer Croc and El Diablo: "The Suicide Squad"

(Warning: Spoilers for Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman follow)

I really wanted to like Suicide Squad. I really did. I thought it was a bold choice for DC to go with a villain-centric movie and I hoped it would be a home run. Sadly, it was not.

If you’ve never seen a movie before, you probably would have liked Suicide Squad. There was action, there was rising tension, and so forth, but in such a formulaic way it seemed like the screenplay was copied from a basic textbook on screenwriting. Our heroes are summoned, they resist the call, they face challenges, they even give up and take a break to have a drink and do some soul searching before inspiration strikes and they find the resolve they need to win the final battle.

The plot centers around the threat created when the ancient witch known as The Enchantress summons to Earth her brother, a big, nasty, fire-enshrouded demon named Incubus, who proceeds to wreak havoc on Midway City. The only thing that can stop him? A “Dirty Dozen” of supervillains, injected with remote-controlled nanite bombs in their necks to keep them obedient, who are then sent forth to save the day.

Supposedly, this “Task Force X,” or more colloquially, the Suicide Squad, was assembled in the wake of the death of Superman (which happened at the end of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, for those who missed it). The idea being “what if the next Superman is a bad guy?” This seems a little bit like closing the barn door after the horse has died. Couldn’t they just as easily have said “what if Doomsday (who killed Superman) survived?" or, “hey, there are a lot of super-powered threats out there, what if we had our own team to combat them?”

One of the first recruits to the new team is the aforementioned Enchantress, and the fact that the Suicide Squad’s first mission is to undo a mess that the assembler and big boss of the Squad, Amanda Waller, has created, by recruiting the Enchantress in the first place, sort of undercuts the credibility of the whole idea. In “reality,” Amanda Waller is a bit of a megalomaniac who just likes the idea of having a team of super-powered nasties under her thumb, and it would have been nice if they played up that angle a little more.

Margot Robbie as "Harley Quinn"

All these plot issues might have been forgivable, however, if not for the casting. Now, the first thing that I have to say is that all the actors in Suicide Squad are very talented, and they definitely bring those talents to their roles, but these just don’t FEEL like the DC characters we know and love. Jared Leto’s Joker is more weird and creepy than clever or scary. In fact, it feels like this character is a Joker copycat, a trope that has appeared in the comics from time to time. His moll, Harley Quinn, is played by Margot Robbie, and it feels like a great performance by someone who has never read a comic book before. She slips in and out of Harley’s trademark Brooklyn accent just often enough to remind us that she’s putting it on, and her character, while bad ass and hot and crazy and all that, just doesn’t have that Je ne sais quoi of Harley Quinn. Also, we are told that Harley used to be a self-respecting psychiatrist, but was seduced by the Joker into joining the dark side. Here the movie missed a great opportunity to show us some Hannibal Lecter-Clarisse Starling-esque mindfucking that the Joker used to win Harley over, but we get little to none of that. Apologists will say it was beyond the scope of the story but to me it just feels lazy. I could be wrong. David Ayers is a talented writer/director and I have to imagine he was severely hamstrung by studio executives in order to produce such a by-the-numbers script.

The point is, none of these characters feel right, and they should. The first time you saw Robert Downey, Jr. experimenting with pieces of Iron Man armor in his lab, you said “Yes! THAT is Iron Man. That is Tony Stark.” It felt right. Just as it’s easy to believe that Chris Evans is Steve Rogers and even Tom Holland’s brief appearance as Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War is totally on point. On the other hand, when I see Ezra Miller as The Flash, in his clunky red armor suit ringed by blue lightning halos like some kind of Millennial Terminator, I want to cringe every time.

DC’s movie casting may be hurt by comparisons to their TV casting, which is phenomenal. Grant Gustin is completely convincing as The Flash, and every character that appears on that show feels like they stepped straight out of the comic book that bears his name. Even Tyler Loechlin, who guest stars as the Last Son of Krypton on CW’s Supergirl, makes a far more convincing Man of Steel than Henry Cavil ever will. I think DC has been very wise to keep their TV and movie universes separate, unlike Marvel, who has pretty much thrown all its eggs in the same basket. It’s working for them, but most of their TV properties are streaming on Netflix, which has a much more cinematic feel to it than network fare.

The final indignity of Suicide Squad is the post-credits sequence, in which Bruce Wayne played by Ben Affleck is acquiring information from Amanda Waller regarding the individuals who will become the Justice League of America. It feels EXACTLY like every Nick Fury/Tony Stark post credit sequence in which the formation of the Avengers is alluded to. Now, I know these companies copy from each other constantly and incessantly and they are both equally guilty, but inviting comparisons to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is just asking for trouble.

I’ll always be a dedicated DC fan, and I’ll go see all the movies, and I’m very excited about what’s happening on TV with the DC Universe. But Suicide Squad feels like just another attempt by DC to duplicate Marvel’s big screen success, and to me, DC’s just not built that way. That’s not to say that DC can’t kill it with an expanded movie universe, but I feel like a different approach may be called for.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

How Subway Ruined the Lives of Two Innocent People Forever

If you watch football on Sundays, or probably if you watch any network television, you have almost certainly been subjected to this commerical numerous times. No doubt Subway feels that repetition is the best way to ingrain their desired result in your memory, namely, that any day is a great day to go to Subway. However, their plan has backfired, because, like Bill Murray's long suffering Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, I have lived the unceasing Hell of this commerical so many times, I have finally uncovered what a true nightmare play is really unfolding.

Take a minute to watch the commercial and refresh yourself. I'll wait.

Okay, the first thing you have to realize is that this is the same couple going through different stages of their life, all of which have Subway sandwiches as a crucial element. It took me about five or ten watchings to realize that this was one evolving couple and not three different freakish couples who are obssessed with Subway sandwiches.

So, now that we know the story, what we are watching seems clear. This is a sweet story of how two people found each other through their shared love of Subway sandwiches; meeting, getting married, and ultimately starting a family whose scion is named after one of the sandwiches they love so dearly and the (according to Subway) corresponding day of the week.

Only look a little more closely, as I have after having seen this commerical thousands of times and being forced to scrutinize every terrifying detail.

Look at the face of the male character, whom I will call "NJ" for "Not Jared." It should be clear that when the young lady, whom I will call "CSL" for "Crazy Subway Lady," suggests a second date on Black Forest Ham day, that NJ does not know WHAT THE FUCK SHE IS TALKING ABOUT. However, like any red blooded nerdy teenager when faced with the possibility of a second date with a hot girl, he plays along.

We've seen numerous stories of a young man trying to impress a girl by convincing her that they share interests ("Oh, you collect vintage knitting needles too? What a crazy coincidence! I have to go log on to eBay now for a totally unrelated matter!"). So there is no question that this guy, realizing that he's never going to do better than CSL, went home and memorized the Subway Menu, possibly gorging himself on their sandwiches all week to become accustomed to the taste.

Flash forward to a time when Subway has not changed their marketing campaign for several years and still matches specific sandwiches with days of the week. Here we see, NJ looking at his wedding album with pride, reminding us of that amazing June day when all his dreams came true. Naturally, CSL is quick to remind us it was "Tuna Day." Watch NJ grimace as he remembers that he invited 200 friends and relatives to an affair which was catered not with your choice of steak or chicken, but with $3.50 tuna sandwiches on bread that may or may not have been made from ammonia by-products.

Finally, we see the happy couple with their new baby "Teri," Who do you think named this poor child? I promise you it's not NJ, who grudgingly echoes that his beloved offspring was named after a goddamn sandwich.

As should now be obvious, this family's entire relationship is based on lies. NJ clearly loves CSL, but CSL only loves her sweet, sweet, Subway sandwiches. I can just see their lives unfolding, NJ sneaking out to Quiznos just to get CSL's attention, which just drives CSL further into the arms of Tuna, Black Forest Ham and the rest, exacerbating the most bizarre eating disorder in the history of man and no doubt necessitating thousands of hours of therapy for their poor child Teriyaki.

Now, I'll admit, this campaign has a big edge over Subway's old "Eat our sandwiches, lose a bunch of weight and have sex with children," effort, but it's not much less likely to make me wake up in a cold sweat wondering what other horrors Subway has in store.

I'm not making any commentary about the quality of Subway's product (my understanding is that the Ammonia thing has been taken care of), however, their marketing strategists have a disturbing view of how relationships and food fit together.

Eat Fresh? More like EAT FRESH HELL!