Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Purging John Carpenter

Warning - This post is rife with spoilers!


I'm a big fan of the Purge movies, and am looking forward to seeing the newest one, Election Day.  When I watched the first film, I remember thinking, "This is the most John Carpenter-like film I've seen of the new John Carpenter wannabes."  I thought the same thing about the even-better sequel.  They carry on Carpenter's great strengths - pounding synth scores and completely batshit-insane, yet brilliantly simple, central concepts.  On reflection, though, I realized it wasn't just the music or the stories that reminded me of Carpenter films... They're actually remarkably step-by-step remakes, with new titles. 


Assault on Precinct 13 - A traumatized man seeks shelter inside a fortified station which comes under waves of attacks from subhuman gang members. There is a focus on race relations as the black captain and the white convict must cooperate to survive, gaining mutual respect in the process.

The Purge - A traumatized man seeks shelter inside a fortified home which comes under waves of attacks from subhuman Young Republicans. There is a focus on race relations as the white family must decide whether to sacrifice the black victim to save themselves.  

In neither movie do we learn much of anything about the primary target - He's simply there as a magnet to draw down the wrath of the horde.  Assault gives us a middle-class Average White Guy, who attracts the gang's attention by shooting one of their members in anger over the death of his daughter.  We don't know who he is, why he was there, and he's virtually mute for the rest of the film.  The Purge is even simpler - We're given zip about the main target except that he's a black man of lower social class, and presumably that's all that's needed to make him a target for the rich kid psychopaths.  

The interesting thing is the total inversion of the villains. In Assault, it's two working class men defending the middle class against the zombie-like attacks of a subhuman street gang - Characterless, near-mindless killing machines that are invading the safe neighborhoods. In Purge, it's wealthy people with consciences defending the lower class and themselves from the psychotic attacks of... their own young. Assault fears the street gangs consuming the working class, Purge fears the upper class consuming itself and the lower class both.  It's a testament to the times and the decades between the films that there simply is no middle class in the Purge movies.  Everyone is either the wealthy or the working poor or homeless. 

Also diverging are the final messages - Assault is ultimately a much more positive film, despite its grimness.  In Assault, the black guy and the white guy, the hardworking policeman and the "gentleman criminal", come together in understanding and realize that their values are far closer than the creatures they're fighting.  When Bishop insists that Napoleon not be chained, and that they walk out to meet the dawn together, it's a triumphant moment.  The values of hardworking decency have been defended, and even though Napoleon is going back to jail, you understand that the day is won for civilization, for the moment.

Purge is very similar in structure - The black man sides with the white family and in the end, saves those who sheltered him.  The victorious survivors walk out to meet the new day in an almost identical ending scene, except... in Purge-Land, there is no victory.  The chasm between the wealthy family and the poor guy remains, and now the wealthy family realizes the depth of the hate and loathing and jealousy that their own "kind" have for them also.  They've survived the night, but they're living in a nest of people who all want to kill them, just because they're perceived to have a little bit more than the next wealthiest household.  There's no real victory, and only a thin veneer of icy smiles and cocktail parties will cover the seething violence that's being held in check until the next Purge Night.

They make for a fascinating comparison, back to back.  If time and interest permit, look for a follow-up post to this on the virtually identical storylines of The Purge 2: Anarchy and Escape from New York.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mad Max - Fury Road

NetFlix NA
IMDB 8.2/10
My Rating: 6/10

The internets have been going crazy with gaga reviews of this for some time now, and I finally got to see it last night.  Sadly, I'm going to have to go with the counter opinion.  I thought it was entertaining but overdone, and like way too many modern movies, instead of presenting an absorbing story it just tried to pummel you into submission with constant action, which to me is actually boring when I don't really care much about any of the characters.  Which I didn't, really, because I thought Hardy's Max was a poor substitute for Gibson's, and I also wasn't particularly engaged by the fact that he was the sidekick in his own movie. 

Before I get into specifics, I want to point out that it seems like every review I've read has either been glowing praise about it for its theoretical "feminist narrative", or hostile MRA guys complaining that a chick was the star.  I don't give a shit about either of these political hoophole positions, I just wanted it to be good, but for me it was lacking.   Like, I don't care that Max took a backseat to a woman, but I was annoyed that Max had no arc, no skills, and basically contributed virtually nothing to the movie other than to be a victim and tag-along passenger, all to a secondary character who was not the character I sat down with popcorn to see.  It was like going to a Batman movie and having the whole movie be about Commissioner Gordon instead. 

My #1 complaint was the constant barrage of action.  Stuff happening constantly, all over the screen, and I just tuned out after a while.  Good action films have rhythm like music, with lulls and plot and just normal stuff that makes the action stand out when it happens.  This was all action, and the result was much like the hour long battle in Man of Steel - I just stopped caring much about what was happening because it was constantly "EVERYTHING IS EXPLODING AND EVERYONE IS ALMOST DYING IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME!!!"

It's entirely possible my opinion may be influenced because I just recently rewatched the original Mad Max and then Road Warrior, in anticipation of seeing Fury Road. 

Lots of spoilers to follow...

OK, I've often said the original Mad Max was kind of bleh, in that it's a generic revenge story and really only has two great action scenes, at the start and at the end.  On rewatch, though, it's disturbing in a way the sequels aren't.  It's apocalypse-in-progress rather than post-apocalypse, and there's something quite unsettling about the weird combination of society clearly falling apart at the edges, and normal people still trying to carry on normal lives.  Roadside diners are open, garages work normally, families go on vacation, etc, yet at the same time, the bikers are free to maraud and there are No-Go zones within easy reach.  Anyway, it was better than I remembered.  Also, it's all clearly about Max, whose arc IS the narrative.  He's the best driver in the MFP and a happy family man with friends untill things go bad and he becomes a cold-hearted killer.

Road Warrior still has Max as the central guide, and this time his arc goes from being an empty, soulless husk to actually wanting to help out other human beings again. 

The fundamental difference between Gibson's Max and Hardy's Max is that Gibson's has the skills to make him a heroic protagonist.  He suffers a lot of shit but ultimately he's still the best driver on the road, summed up handily in RW when, even mangled and battered and barely standing, he tells Papagello, "I'm the best chance you've got" for driving the rig.


Fury Road opens with a traumatized Max being immediately chased down, easily wrecked and captured and victimized.  He spend the first half hour of the movie tied to a bumper, and has no personality at all.

Road Warrior opens with Max being pursued by superior numbers, and using his excellent driving skills ("RE-flexes, that's what you've got!"), he dispatches every car that's after him.  Then, in the same running time, we see that he has a heart (buried) via the wind-up music box, that he's cunning (His encounter with the Gyro Captain), ruthless, very intelligent, and basically an all-around cool character. 

This is better Max:


By the point in the running time when Fury Road is still showing us big CG landscapes and vistas and constant action, Road Warrior has given us a relatable hero with a plan, a sense of conscience, and a lot of skill to back it up.  Fury Road's Max was a steering wheel holder, a guy who just got stuck in the middle of someone else's story and clung on for dear life, and didn't bring any particular skills to the story.  RW's Max was a guy with a plan who was the only dude who could help the refinery people, and his determination and stupid-fast driving skill ended up making him an accidental hero.  Like Eastwood's Man with No Name, he's in it for himself, but still gets the good guy job done.


Finally, I missed the humor.  RW is actually a fairly funny movie, often unexpectedly so, and yeah it's black humor but it still has laughs.  Particularly the Gyro Captain and the running gag with Max's shotgun:

Bottom line - I did enjoy Fury Road.  I didn't think it was as good as Road Warrior, though, nor was it "the ultimate action movie ever made" as many of the reviews have claimed.  

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Doc Savage - Skull Island

My Rating: See Below

After King Kong's deadly fall from the Empire State Building, Doc and crew are contracted to remove the body, leading Doc to narrate the account of his first encounter with the giant ape.  Many years before Doc was "Doc", he and his father discovered Skull Island and King Kong while searching for his lost grandfather, Stormalong Savage.

In recent years, writer & fan Will Murray has brought Doc Savage & crew back to life in the form of newly released adventures "written in the style of Lester Dent".  I'll get back to that point in a moment because I had some issues with the writing, but first up, HEY, it's Doc Savage meeting King Kong!

It's the most natural pairing of pulp fiction era characters ever, really, given that Doc's headquarters was the Empire State Building's top floor(s), a 30's-style setup that nicely predated the Baxter Building.  The book kicks off just after Kong's death drop, as Doc and his men arrive on the scene.  While Renny coordinates the massive engineering task of removing a giant ape from the street, Doc sadly recognizes Kong from an earlier encounter, and the story segues into the classic "fireside chat" motif as Doc gathers his friends and tells the story of his first encounter with Kong.

Doc wasn't Doc yet, though he'd already picked up the nickname - Instead, we get the adventure of a 20 year old Clark Savage Jr. on an ocean voyage with his domineering father, the man who shaped Doc's entire life by having him raised by scientists.  The two Savages are looking for Doc's grandfather, the amusingly-named Stormalong Savage, who was presumed lost at sea.  In the course of their search, they butt up against a vicious tribe of headhunters, discover Skull Island and Kong, and fight dinosaurs and natives all the way to a blood-curdling climax.

So, that's the plot.  I've been looking forward to this book for some time, ever since reading about it in Famous Monsters magazine, and was delighted when it became available on audio. And overall, it's a win, though there were some elements I wasn't crazy about.  First and foremost would be its prequel status - It isn't really a Doc book, per se, it's more of a "Young James Bond"-style story.  The Fabulous Five are absent except from the wrapping chapters, and Doc isn't quite the character that fans are familiar with.  Young Doc is still the superman, but he's both brasher and more obedient, usually following his father's orders instead of commanding the adventure himself.  He's also a hell of a lot more ruthless about killing, and we get intimations throughout the story of how and why Doc will eventually eschew guns and lethal force, as well as a few excellent moments where key bits of Doc canon are first established.  So, my hopes of reading a full-bore "Doc & the Fabulous Five on Skull Island" story were somewhat disappointed.

There is also the issue of Will Murray's writing style.  In a nutshell, he takes ten pages to tell what Lester Dent could tell in one.  This may be the result of trying to serve a modern audience that's more accustomed to getting character insights and inner turmoil than the original pulp fans, but whatever the case, I thought it was a little unnecessarily long... The first half is a bit of a slog as you travel around the Indian Ocean watching young Doc tinker with his machinegun pistol and get repeatedly shut down by his bossy dad, who is the very archetype of the cold, commanding military father.  Dent, by contrast, would have taken the crew straight to Skull Island, probably in a flaming dirigible that was collapsing under them.

The audiobook is also read in an "old time radio" voice.  This is fun but distracting at times, and becomes a little wearing over the course of the book as EVERYTHING is read as if it was a case of life or death!!  Radio shows were a half hour, so the effect gets a little overwhelming in an eight hour book.  It IS enjoyable and the action scenes are downright terrific, it just gets a bit much after a while.

My final demerit is the role of Kong - He overshadows the island but isn't in the book very much, and his final encounter is disappointing.  The story winds up to a dynamite conclusion that's action from start to finish, but Kong's role is minor where I'd hoped for something more involving (In truth, it reminded me of Bane from Dark Knight Rises - a powerful presence through the first part of the story that fades out by the end).

Despite these caveats, it was still a whale of a good time - Doc gets to try on his Tarzan swings, Doc fights raptors, there are several classic "Doc is more human than human" moments, and a certain explosive rescue scene is easily Indiana Jones' level of awesome.  It's hard to give such mixed reactions one single rating, so I'll split it up:

As a fun adventure book: 7/10  (Action, dinosaurs, headhunters, what more could you ask?)

As an intro to Doc: 3/10 (The personality differences, the lack of experience, the absence of the Five... all these make it a very un-Doc-like Doc story.  The cues and motifs tucked throughout that resonate for longtime fans will be completely overlooked by new readers)

As a Kong story: 5/10 (Good atmosphere but limited use of Kong)

As an audio presentation: 4/10 (The radio-style reading was enjoyable to a point, but just got tiring after a while)

Despite my somewhat-mixed comments, I would still recommend it, as it is an intriguing look into what Doc's younger life was like, what his relationship with his family was like, and for Pete's sake, it's a new Doc Savage novel!  We need more!  Even 80 years later, the Doc Savage creed is still worth living by:

Let me strive every moment of my life, to make myself better and better,
to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.
Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it,
with no regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.