Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tarot of the Zirkus Arrives!

Back in the glory days of Marvel Comics, it was not uncommon for Stan Lee to add an item to the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page whenever Marvel or one of its characters made a splash in the Mainstream Media. My, how things have changed: Marvel is now owned by Disney and *IS* the Mainstream Media! 

But the '60s were a different planet, and Stan was justifiably proud whenever Marvel was, say, referenced in a movie in some way, or featured in mainstream mags like Time, Life, or The New Yorker.

So it pleases me now to be able to do the same thing, and mention that My TAROT OF THE ZIRKUS MÄGI received front cover mention and an eight-page spread inside the latest issue of SOMERSET DIGITAL STUDIO magazine! Good Things have a habit of wearing off fast, so I'm crowing about it while I can. 

Here are some snaps from the interior of the magazine. Click on them to enlarge.


I wasn't just whistling Dixie when I made this deck. I wanted it to be THE deck: a great-looking, working deck that would attract reader and novice alike. You can find it right here:

Meanwhile, links to all all of my oracle deck projects are gathered in one convenient place:

Thanks to the editors at Somerset, and thanks to you all for helping to make this the happiest creative work of my career -- so far!

-- Frede.

Monday, February 23, 2015

An Independent View of The Zirkus

Rach Jardine, the UK's very own Tarot Ninja, just posted this review of my TAROT OF THE ZIRKUS MÄGI! Thank you very much, Missus! She has some nice things to say, and Anglophile that I am I could personally listen to her say them all day long!

In addition to her work as a tarot professional, Rach does the most amazing face painting... and she made the bag that you'll see in the video above. Visit her at her own site, right here:

-- Frede

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dreams in The Bat House

In the early ‘80s Hollywood was beginning to forget how to dream; and at the same time, it was only just beginning to learn the language of the fantasy film.

Fantasy as we know it is a product of other media: books, comics, pulp magazines: a combination of the written word and art. With a number of exceptions that can be counted on one hand, the great works of Science Fiction and Fantasy were not to be found on the silver screen.

On the other hand, the movies early on perfected a kind of wakeful dreaming that was beyond the power of the written word: Carl Dreyer and F.W. Murnau were among its earliest practitioners, and the age of the silents was its greatest era, but all the great filmmakers up to and including Woody Allen knew how to weave their own little dream worlds around viewers. Internal logic is the only logic that matters: up until the early ‘80s it was possible to walk out of a theater and experience the same feeling as waking up.

George Lucas changed all that; computers changed all that; Hollywood’s realization that money could be made from straight-faced adaptations of comics and SF books changed all that, and now the movies’ stock in trade lies not in dreamtime, but in adapting the more concrete and literal fantasies of the written word.

Coming in 1984 as it did, Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape attempts, more or less entertainingly, to combine Dream Reality with Literary Fantasy. It ultimately fails because it is thoroughly of its time, providing too little in the way of dream, too much in the way of ‘80s storytelling tropes, and what is today a stunted sense of adventure.

Though Christopher Plummer and especially Max Von Sydow, he of Bergman dream/reality, are on hand to lend their gravity to the thing, it begins at a disadvantage with the casting of Dennis Quaid as the hero. Quaid has only two expressions: “Smirking” and “Trying to Look Serious.” True, this gives him two more expressions than Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio combined, but it’s not enough to make for an interesting lead character. Meanwhile, Kate Capshaw appears here all done up and looking just like an eighties porn star ... and serving much of the same function, though she gets to keep her clothes on. Dreamscape is not, to put it mildly, a bright and shining moment in the history of feminism.

By today’s standards, the structure of the movie is almost painfully expository. A quarter of the runtime is spent convincing the hero to do what we all know he’s going to end up doing anyway; another third is spent explaining what’s about to happen in the final third. A government conspiracy is thrown in just because Government Conspiracies were all the rage then: all of this dates the movie painfully, because modern audiences already know and accept the things that Dreamscape laboriously spells out. It’s not a bad picture: but more so than movies that were made decades earlier, time has not been kind to it.

It would be nice to compare Dreamscape with Christopher Nolan's Inception, which is, on the face of it, virtually a remake of the earlier film. Alas, Nolan’s picture stars the egregious Mr. DiCaprio, and my own personal code of honor forbids that I waste even a single minute of my life or a dime of my money on anything with him in it.

Still, Inception allows me to mention Nolan, and that makes for a slick transition to the other big movie for this week, The Dark Knight Ruses, I mean RISES. Here we have a movie that genuinely tries to combine old-style Movie Dreamery with New-Style Computer-Generated Funnybook splicers, and fails because it hates itself.

I’m glad that the name “Batman” doesn’t appear in the title, because as it happens Batman barely appears in the movie. The picture would be more aptly titled The Gimp-Man Rises. As the movie opens, neither Batman nor Bruce Wayne have been seen in eight years (and still the brilliant Commissioner Gordon doesn’t put two and two together). Wayne keeps himself locked in a wing of stately Wayne Manor (locked from the outside, oddly enough), and is even now incapable of moving, thinking, speaking or feeling without going “Ouch. Poor Me. Ow. I’m Hurting. Ouch Owie-owwitch!”

The front of the villainous forces this time around is a character called “Bane” — but comic book readers should be aware that this is not even remotely the Bane character that they are familiar with, and you have to wonder — if The Brothers Nolan had to change the character so drastically from the source material, why didn’t they pick a more interesting villain from Batman’s huge Rogue’s Gallery? The reason seems to have been that they wanted to use the specific “iconic” image of the muscle-bound wrestler lifting Batman overhead and then breaking his back — although this was a bad idea in the comics that nearly breaks Nolan’s movie.

Here’s the thing: the comic-book version of Bane pumped a kind of venom into his system to make himself all bloated and muscle-bound; this venom also had the Marvelous Magical Side Effect of Making Batman Stupid. Whenever Bane appeared, Batman simply forgot how to think: the only exception to this being a couple of marvelous episodes of Batman: The Animated Series in which writer Paul Dini effectively took the comics creators over his knee and gave them a damn good spanking.

The “let’s make Batman a Dumb-Ass” elements of Bane’s comic book appearances are about the only bits of Bane that Nolan held onto. In The Dork Knight Rises, (oops, I mean Dark) we have a plot that would be over in five minutes if Bruce Wayne had even two brain cells to rub together. Allow him to think, even for a nanosecond, and POW! The movie is over in the first act and Nolan doesn’t get to do all the apocalyptic end-of-the-world things that he seems to get off on.

But then, there are reminders all through the picture that Nolan hates making Batman movies and would rather be skydiving. In the final third, with the prisoners of Gotham having once again taken over the island (for the second time in three movies — sheesh, can’t these guys think of any other Nefarious Plot?), The Scarecrow appears as a circuit judge condemning the Good Folks of Gotham to a death worse than fate. Except that it isn’t the Scarecrow, it’s “ a cameo from the guy who played Jonathan Crane in the first movie.” No names are given and at no point does Crane even attempt to use his famous Fear Gas on the folks in the dock before him. At the very least, if this was a real Batman movie, Crane should have put his mask on as he pronounces sentence. But no. That would be, like, a comic book, you know, and Nolan will have no part of that, or as little of it as possible.

But then the ending comes around and turns everything on its head by pointing out how stupid much of the movie’s audience is. Shortly after its premiere, fanboys were online everywhere expressing mystification over the ending. “What did the ending mean?  Was Alfred dreaming? I don’t understand!

Well, no, you dumb fucks. The ending is as pedantic and literal as anything I’ve seen in any Batman movie, ever. It’s not open to interpretation. It means what it shows and it shows what it means. Pay attention. Or has the Bane venom had its effect on you as well?

— Frede

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Black Is Black (I Want My Characters Back)

Don't tell me that I'm a bigot because I believe in my fictional characters as I believe in people. 

It would be wrong to cast a white actor to play Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Cowboy Curtis or T’Challa, The Black Panther -- and what Hollywood is getting up to now is just as wrong.

If you want to cast Idris Elba as a British Secret Service Agent who carries double-0 status and is MI-5's current 007, by all means do so. I would go to see that. But don't call him James Bond, because he won't be James Bond. Give the character his own name, his own history, his own personality, and I'm with you all the way.

You want to cast a black actor as The Human Torch in a Fantastic Four movie, by all means do so. There's been more than one Human Torch in the comics, and one of them was an android. Just don't call him Johnny Storm, because he won't be Johnny Storm. Give him his own name, his own history, his own personality, and I'm with you all the way.

Samuel L Jackson has been playing the head honcho of S.H.I.E.L.D. in all the Marvel movies, and I'm fine with that — he's got the gravitas plus some. But they shouldn't oughtta be calling him Nick Fury, 'cuz he's not playing Nick Fury. Fury’s history spans from leading the Howling Commandos in WW2 to becoming the head of SHIELD in the swingin’ ’sixties. You can’t shoehorn Jackson into that history, and they haven’t tried. The character in the movies has a name and an eyepatch in common with Nick Fury… and that’s all. 

There's a right way and a wrong way to integrate Pop Culture. If you do it right, it's the right thing to do. But what Hollywood is doing with these casting choices is nothing less than slathering blackface make-up on characters who aren't black. It's APPEASEMENT, not integration. At best, it's Lazy. At worst, it's Hollywood's continuation of the Minstrel Show.

— Frede.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A New Victorian Tarot

Work on The Marvelous Oracle of Oz is completed, and I expect that deck to become available for sale sometime next week. In the meantime, in-betweentime, I've begun work on my next great oracle deck project: This will be a full Tarot deck in the Marseilles style, with a Victorian Punch & Judy theme. 

The new mini-site for The Tragically Comic or Comically Tragic Tarot of Mister Punch is already online, and two card designs have been posted to date. I expect maybe two more by the end of the week.

If this sort of thing interests you, be sure to check out my Tarot of the Zirkus Mägi, available now it its own mini-site. Even better, you can find links to all my growing line of Tarot and Oracle decks at my dedicated Tarot site right here. Bookmark it -- because all my card projects will be available there, and you can bet that I'll have an interesting announcement or two posting there sometime in the coming months.

Thanks to all who have made this Tarot Journey so interesting and fulfilling!

-- Frede.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Marvel Soup

If Marvel Studios had a specific intent for Guardians of The Galaxy — I mean, other than making another hit movie that would rake in van-loads of money — it must have been this: to specifically demonstrate that the Marvel Universe runs deep, contains an almost bottomless well of characters, and that any or all of these “second and third string” characters, although unknown by the general public, are more than capable of shouldering movies that the general public will still flock to see.

In other words, Guardians of the Galaxy makes a statement: “We’re not just Spider-Man and The Hulk and Iron Man and Captain America. We have so many movie-worthy properties that it will make your head spin.”

To that end, Guardians pulls out characters from the whole length and breadth of the Marvel Universe, from its beginnings in the ‘50s as a publisher of B-Movie style SF monster stories (where the Guardian “Groot” has his origins) to the refined Kirby oddball-isms of the ‘60s, the ’70s “Cosmic Period’ driven by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, and on to the endless Revisionism of the ‘80s and beyond. This first (we assume) Guardians movie is not faithful in detail to any of the group’s iterations that I ever read about in the comics; still it is quite faithful to their spirit — and by throwing vast hunks of the Marvel Universe into a blender and onto the screen, the filmmakers are essentially saying, “As big as this is, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! We are just getting started.”

This is pure showmanship on a grand scale: P.T. Barnum meets Stan Lee meets Walt Disney. If it’s annoying on certain levels (and it is), the annoyance is drowned under skillfully manipulated excess.

For someone like me, deeply steeped in Marvel Comics and their whole Universe from the early ’60s all the way through the mid-’80s, but who has not read a single new Marvel comic book in going on thirty years, this Guardians of the Galaxy is confusing and disorienting in a way that it probably is not for the average viewer. Because I’m not just seeing the movie that’s in front of me (which is complicated enough): I’m seeing twenty-five years of Marvel history essentially ripped out of its original context and re-fitted into a densely-compacted new form. 

I can’t just watch the plot unfold. My brain cannot stop deconstructing what I am seeing: “Oh, this bit’s from 1979, and that bit’s from 1968, and this here is from the early eighties… why are the Kree angry at the Nova Corps? Whoops, what are The Eternals doing here? Why is Ronan the Accuser answering to Thanos — two characters that never met in the comics?

It’s like eating a plate of leftovers: your brain can’t stop trying to process where each bit originally came from before it was blended into this… new thing. Someone who never ate the original meals is free to enjoy the new dish (or not) in a way that you can’t.

That said — Guardians of the Galaxy is undeniably a great ride, and undeniably Marvel. It builds on one of my favorite movie tropes, the creation of a family from deeply disparate elements but with bonds that run deeper than blood. It returns the space opera to a world of light-heartedness and pop-culture brightness that has been bled out of it by people like George Lucas and Ridley Scott. Although Deeply Calculated in the manner of all modern Hollywood Blockbusters, it does have a freshness and a lightness of touch.

I just wish I could tell you what’s happening in the plot. I’m still trying to piece together the bits that make it up.

By comparison, X-Men: Days of Future Past confused a lot of people who have never read the comics that it is specifically adapted from, whereas I found it by far to be the more easily digestible of the two movies. It is as faithful to the specific story it is adapted from as it could possibly be, given the ways that the film franchise has diverged from the comics. Watching the movie, I am entertained without having the sense of feeling my brain explode. 

The first, original X-Men movie, all those years ago, was and remains a high water-mark of the genre simply for proving, as we all previously thought impossible, that a picture devoted to a group of superheroes could be made to work when it took itself and its audience seriously. Its sequels haven’t had the impact, in part because the barrier had been broken down: they could not have the spectacular impact on audiences that the first one did, because the impact had already been made. The best they could do was sustain, and in greater and lesser measure, sustain is what all the sequels have done. 

Days of Future Past is no different, except that with the franchise running out of steam, they needed a story that did rather more than maintain the status quo. It was a gutsy move to make this picture, but it was a move that needed to be made. To a large extent it pays off: but I can’t help but wonder (and even hope) that this is where the franchise ends. Director Brian Singer has skillfully shaped this as a period at the end of the sentence. When seen as a finale, it is a spectacular and pleasing one; but they have nowhere to go from here.

Anyone who knows anything about these Marvel movies knows that a real fan must sit through the whole final credits sequence (sometimes as long as ten minutes) in order to view a Special Bonus Scene that always closes out the picture. Guardians of the Galaxy has my favorite of these so far.

I was dismayed to go online and find so many people who didn’t get it: so many people who never heard of Howard the Duck. Just one more example of how Young People of every generation are forced to live in an increasingly ignorant and stupid world.

I won’t explain the character or give its history here. Howard the Duck was the reason I started reading comics in the first place. On returning to Maine from a visit to my grandparents in Minnesota, two things were waiting for me: an issue of The New Yorker which included, in its “Talk of the Town” section, a brief, impressed and impressive piece about Howard the Duck, and a catalog from the Supersnipe Comics Shop in New York City. Those two things combined to explode my brain and change my life. 

I could go on and on about Howard the Duck, the memories of those days, the almost mystical experiences I had in New York, and the group of friends that coalesced around comics and Duck Soup, friends who are friends to this day. 

So I was thrilled to see the sudden re-appearance of Howard the Duck on screen at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy — looking just as Val Mayerick drew him, and sounding just as he should. I cannot help but think — I cannot help but hope. Does this mean a new (and better realized) Howard the Duck movie is in our future? I don’t dare ask. 

But with all that it implies, and the opportunity it takes to recognize the late Steve Gerber (who wrote a Guardians story or two in his day) it makes for a wonderful moment, a kind of Time Bubble for me, and the perfect ending to a movie that’s essentially a Reader’s Digest Condensed Novel version of an entire subset in the once-great Marvel Universe.

— Frede.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Duck Soup Brings Home the Bacon!

Just like Peter Pan, I gotta crow: My TAROT OF THE ZIRKUS MÄGI was just voted Self-published Deck of the Year in the 2014 Tarosophy Awards, voted by Tarot Professionals. 

Additionally, it's going to be featured in the next issue of Somerset Digital Studio, available at better newsstands and art stores nationwide.

Fewer then 230 copies of the deck remain, and those aren't going to last forever. If there's a Duck Soup Production I'm proudest of, it's this. View all the cards, read the story behind the deck, and get your hot little hands on a copy right here:

-- Frede.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Shot from the Past

Probably most Normal People would have thrown these out when they made a move as big as I did in the winter of 2010-11. Not me. I kept them all. I keep little stacks of them in various places around the house, and a big stack in the studio cupboard. In a pinch, if nothing else is available, I can jot a note down on the back, but I don't like to do that. I just like having these cards around. 

After we lived on Edgcumbe Road, we lived in four other houses, three of them halfway across the country. Mom always kept these cards long after their usefulness had ended. I don't know why she did that, but I won't throw them out now.

Although I was about two years old, at most, when my mother had these cards made, I remember the day that they came in, and I remember the evening when the printer man came to the house to discuss the design with her.

I remember so much about those years when I was two or three, remember it visually, and yet I can't remember something that happened a week and a half ago.

For me, the cards are a reminder that my mother once had a vital artistic and entrepreneurial spirit; and they remind me where I got those qualities.  Over the years, life really kind of beat that spirit out of her. She stopped making art after her divorce from my father, but she never stopped in the Antiques business, even when that business was horrible, until other people's stupid decisions closed down the group shop she helped manage, and then her body started actively conspiring against her. 

She never gave in and became a wage slave. That's something I have to repeat to myself now. It's something I've got to work for. If nothing else, these cards remind me that I have a legacy to fulfill.

-- Frede.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Charlie Hebdo's "I Am Charlie" cover

The PBS News Hour and other news agencies are refusing to reproduce this latest cover cartoon, depicting a crying Mohammed, from France's Charlie Hebdo.

If they won't do it, I will. 

By not broadcasting the image, PBS and others are bowing down to Terrorists. Period.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on all political cartoonists, everywhere, and by an extension an attack on all artists and writers. 

You don't bow to that. You don't tacitly allow these bastards to accomplish their objectives by suppressing cartoons like this. 

This is part of what Freedom of Speech is all about. Any news organization that truly believes in Freedom of Speech should be printing this cartoon. 

I'm angry at the media for what amounts to encouraging terrorism; but I have to confess that I'm also angry at Muslims who are getting all outraged and all bent out of shape over this innocent, eloquent and poignant image -- an image that most of them have not even seen.

To them I say: get over it. These are the same people who profess not to condone these kinds of acts, who insist that terrorism is not encompassed in their values or religion, but who, and this needs emphasis,  don't do anything in their own back yards to put an end to it. 

The one may cost me some friends. So be it. Either you support terrorism or you don't. If you don't, the time has come to stop saying it and demonstrate it with your actions.

Jes suis Charlie.

-- Frede.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Marvel: The Descent.

Jim Shooter killed Marvel Comics for me. 

I suppose it was inevitable: eventually, Shooter was replaced with people who were even more bone-headed. But it was Shooter’s tenure as Editor-In-Chief that drove the stake through Marvel’s heart.

It didn’t happen all at once. Stan Lee was still in the picture as publisher, still exercising some basic control over the line. The minute that Stan retired, the nanosecond that he set foot on the airplane headed Out West, that was when Shooter started living up to his name.

One of the first things that he did was to take away editorial control from certain key Marvel writer/editors. These guys had been with the company a hell of a lot longer than Shooter and had shaped the Marvel universe for many years: people like Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, Archie Goodwin. 

They responded the way anyone would when some young dunderhead comes in and promptly revokes the creative freedoms that they’d known for years: they left the company. Virtually all of Marvel’s top-flight creators — both writers and artists — beat a path for DC and the burgeoning Indie houses, where they would never again have the same impact that had once been theirs.

Shooter became the Master Plotter of the whole line. His style of “storytelling” — and I use that word loosely — trended towards Big Events: change Spider-Man’s costume, kill off Shang-Chi, turn Hank Pym into a wife-beater, declare that several years’ worth of Hulk continuity “never happened,” pull all your major characters out of their timeline and plunk them down in a giant arena so they can beat the crap out of each other.

And worse.

As a reader and fan, I hung on for about a year before I couldn’t take it anymore. Stories and humanity and The Imagination fell by the wayside and were replaced by Big Events, Sensational Marketing Ploys, Variant Covers. Marvel Comics — once a great source for tales about the differently-empowered struggling to find their place in the world — joined the status quo and became Stupid.

And although he may not have finished it, Shooter was the one who started it.

The point of all this is: if it’s happened in the Marvel Universe since about 1982, I don’t know anything about it, and I don’t want to know anything about it.

If you had told me in 1981 that Marvel would one day launch a successful and unified “movie and TV universe” that included SHIELD, The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy, I would have laughed you right out of my shop. 

In those days Marvel was indeed trying to press their way into the movies and onto television, but the results were pretty much universally dismal. Spider-Man and Doctor Strange on TV, anyone? Yeah, there’s a reason you don’t remember it. 

Hollywood simply didn’t “get” comics in those days — and even when they started to come around, the budgets didn’t exist, computers didn’t exist, in five minutes Jack Kirby could create something on paper that was more spectacular than anything we’d ever seen on the movie screen. The first two Superman movies were a crack in the iceberg, but let’s face it: Star Wars is what changed everything, albeit at such a slow pace that the future crept up on us.

Now? For the first time, Star Wars — even the Genetically Modified Star Wars that George Lucas can not stop dicking around with — actually looks like what it is: a forty-year-old movie. Everything’s changed. What was impossible in the late ‘70s is commonplace today.

Every single year, Movies (plural) are being made about my favorite Marvel characters. Except — as you might have guessed from the above — it’s not my Marvel anymore and these are not my heroes. Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and The X-Men have been pretty lucky in their new movie iterations. Spider-Man and The Hulk and Ghost Rider have not, and don’t even get me started about what Fox has done, is still doing, to The Fantastic Four. Among other things — it’s all well and good that the stories should be racially integrated, but turning Nick Fury and Johnny Storm into black guys is not the way to do it. Likewise, Victor Von Doom is a monarch, not a CEO, and his armor does not grow on him. AAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHHH!!!!!

This intro has grown long enough for a single post, so that’s what I’ll make it. Next time, I’ll get down to the meat and potatoes: in the past two weeks, I’ve viewed X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time. So, what did I think? What did they do to the comics and the characters and how did my old friends fare? I’ll give you three words as a tease: Howard the Duck.

— Freder.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

It's All in the Name -- At Least, That's What They Tell You...

Until now, my nom de plume for novels and other book-length publications has been FREDER. This is both a derivation / shortening of my real middle name, and the full name of the protagonist in one of my favorite movies, Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS.

The reason I adopted it was not to hide behind anything, as if I had anything to hide, but simply because I strongly believe that it's hard to encourage word of mouth when no one can pronounce your "real" name. And the fact is that I live under a surname that is cursed -- really, genuinely cursed, although the origin of the curse is lost to Swedish history

I need to find some way to get out from under it if I am to find any real success in this life.

As 2015 begins. I have decided to drop the "r" off the end of my nom de plume and become "Frede" -- pronounced with a long e, just as you think; pronounced "freed."

Although I have not reached that point yet, it is the one thing in life that I am aiming for, the one thing that I need in order to call this life a success.

-- Frede.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Movies, Movies, Movies

In The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, producer Steve Krantz and director Robert Taylor do a reasonably good job trying to ape the design and animation style of Ralph Bakshi, but that’s where the goodness ends. The X-rated original had a dark heart and something on its mind: this sequel is just one prolonged dirty joke, and not even a dirty joke worth telling. If Robert Crumb hadn’t already killed off his notorious quat in the comics, this movie would have made him do it, and this time he’d be justified.

Young Detective Dee is another sequel that failed to capture my attention. The original, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, had as the title suggests a compelling mystery and real magic at its heart: this one, in the way of many sequels, is bigger and louder but loses its focus early on, and gives us nothing to emotionally invest in.

I can’t tell you the number of big-budget martial arts fantasy epics that I’ve sampled over the last couple of weeks that fall into the same trap. The Sorcerer and the White Snake is one; Painted Skin: The Resurrection is another. They’re gorgeous, all of them. Really stunning to look at. But the characters are so far removed from anything that’s recognizably human that I’ve found myself walking away from them. Give me something to care about, damn it, along with your pretty pictures. Beyond that, the martial arts action is actually undermined by all of the computer-generated eye candy surrounding it. How can we believe, even in movie terms, that the action is real when everything else happening on the screen is pure CGI artifice?

The one exception in this category was Stephen Chow’s comedy adventure Journey to the West. This I loved. I mean loved. The bad things that happen have real impact, the funny things that happen are really funny, the strange and magical things that happen are really strange and magical. I shut it off halfway through so that I could go online and buy it. Chow has the knack of populating a fantasy universe with characters that have real-life concerns. I loved the hero, who is so good-hearted that he conquers demons by reading them Nursery Rhymes. You can bet I’ll be checking out Chow’s other films when I get the chance.

In other genres, other disappointments I’ve met with in the last week include:

• Night Tide, starring a young and kind of spacey Dennis Hopper. I’ve wanted to see this for years because it has a Great and Beautiful and Evocative poster, shown above. Despite an atmosphere enriched by its wonderful seaside location, the movie itself is None of Those Things.

Dredd — really grotty and nasty; not so much an adaptation from the comic as a mean-spirited, blood-soaked contemporary thriller with minimalist traces of the comic splashed onto it randomly. You know you’ve got a bad movie here when the infamous Sylvester Stallone version is better and more faithful to the source material.

• and Shadow of the Vampire: this latter was a particular let-down. Once you get the joke (which was part of the marketing, so you know it already going in), this picture has absolutely nothing to offer, not even good performances from some notable actors. The message that it tries way too hard to hammer home is “Who’s the Real Vampire Here?” — but the presentation is so lame that it has all the impact of a bad joke told by the kind of person who follows up with “Get it? Get it?” Yes, I got it an hour and a half ago. Leave me alone. If you want a real mindfuck of a movie about movies and movie-making, do yourself a favor and go for Richard Rush’s insanely brilliant The Stunt Man instead.

Now before you say “Doesn’t this guy like anything?” please read on.

Critics all over the English-speaking world have largely trashed A Long Way Down, the light-hearted dramady based on Nick Hornby’s book of the same name. They have called it tasteless and shallow, among other things. I disagree in a big way.

Perhaps these critics have never had a reason to want out. Perhaps they have been happy with themselves their whole lives (the reviews are certainly smug enough to suggest this). Perhaps none of them have ever had to face that moment: that five minutes standing at the edge, ready to throw yourself off. Perhaps they have never stood, as I have, on the inch of stairway on the other side of the bannister with a rope around their neck. 

What saved me was the certain knowledge that I would bungle it — and that’s funny to me now. I don’t expect anyone else to understand. I can’t tell you what causes other folks to climb down from similar situations — nor does this movie try to tell you what that is, and good on the people who made it for that.

The story concerns four people of wildly different backgrounds who, for their own reasons, find themselves on the same rooftop on the same New Year’s Eve, preparing to throw themselves to the street below. The accident of their meeting is not what saves them: but because they are all basically decent people, they can’t just walk away when someone else wants to top themselves. Although they don’t necessarily like each other, the group forms a pact whereby each promises not to kill themselves in the next month, and thereby hangs a tale of how four strangers can grow together when they have only one thing in common.

It’s a light dark comedy with the emphasis on light. It’s not terribly profound, and it doesn’t try to be. It doesn’t try to raise Big Questions or suggest answers for them. What it does do is tell one little story, a real story about real people. And all I can think of is that the critics are knocking it for not being more ambitious than it is.

They’re full of shit. This is a good little movie, and one of the best things that’s crossed my eyeballs during my current Movie Glut. 

More to come…

— Freder.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Noted in Passing...

On the January 1 edition of the PBS News Hour, two pundits debated the effects of raising the minimum wage. The person speaking against it, who was a woman with a very pronounced British accent, suggested that it was "Un-American" (her words) to raise minimum wage because it meant that workers with the lowest skill sets would no longer be able to get jobs.

Let that sink in for a little bit, and never mind that she was a Brit trying to tell us what's "un-American" and what isn't. She could have made any argument: but that was the tack she chose.

The man arguing in favor of the increase was very logical and dry and had the facts in his favor, but he committed the cardinal sin of Being Boring. We can't afford to be boring when making our points in the media. The better and more "entertaining" speaker will appear to win every time.

I wanted to know what fucking planet that bitch was from. Obviously a planet where people just pull made-up shit out of their assholes and pass it off as 'facts.' Who's paying her salary? Is she gang-banging Mitch McConnell and John Boner? What qualifies someone that flat-out stupid to argue for or against anything?

-- Freder.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Lion in Winter

Whether the new year is going to be a strong one for you, or whether you are going to need all the strength you can get, may La Force always have your back.

-- Freder.

The Great Movie Hunting Grounds in the Sky

That DirecTV is still trying to bill me months after I cancelled the service should tell you something about why I quit. DirecTV is nothing more than a monstrous money-eating machine that’s determined to pick your pocket no matter how little you use it. For my part, $65 a month just so that I could watch Doctor Who for three months out of the year, and have something mindless playing during the hour in which I make my dinner and do my evening chores, was in no way “worth it” — especially with money getting tighter.

On the other hand, I did miss my one connection to the outer world: I filled the gap as best I could with DVD and weather apps, but sometimes you just want to “see what’s on,” if you know what I mean.

So my Christmas present to myself was a refurbished Apple TV device. For $75 and no basic monthly fee, this little box pulls TV in through your home internet connection, and while it’s not perfect (AirPlay doesn’t work for shit) my sense is that it will be a better televisual solution for me than DirecTV ever was.

It will be a while before I know for sure. There’s quite a lot to explore in the basics of what Apple TV provides by way of free content, but I am currently distracted from exploring those basics because it comes with a one-month free trial of Netflix.

I would never pay money for what Netflix offers (strictly temporary access to someone else’s movie library, most of it crap), but in no way am I above mining that free month for all it’s worth. 

In the mining, something has happened to me. I have become ruthless in my TV-watching. There’s so much out there that I can’t waste my time on the less-than-worthy. If it doesn’t grab me in five minutes, if it doesn’t answer the question “Why should I care?” in the first ten minutes, it’s history.

Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World? I’ve wanted to see this for some time. The animated sequences are indeed cool, pumped with jazz-age style, but the human characters are puerile at best, and the whole thing seems to be the product of a person with lots of talent but very little brain. I gave it ten minutes, then waved goodbye. 

Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Moon didn’t even last that long. I had such high hopes for it: here’s another SF film from the guy who gave us Metropolis, it’s got to be fantastic, right? Oh my god. Dismal is more the word. My heart fell through the floor in the first minute and a half. I fast-forwarded through the rest and still felt that my time was wasted.

I tried a mini-series called Tin Man, based on the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. The minute I saw the words “Sci-Fi Network presents” I knew that I was in trouble. Whilst still of customer of DirecTV I tuned in to SyFy for a mini-series based on Peter Pan. After ten minutes I shut it off, went to my computer, found the contact info for SyFy and shot them an email that read, in its entirety: “What does it feel like to fuck Peter Pan?”

Tin Man was no damn different. 

Did you know that they’re still making Red Dwarf? I didn’t. I consider Red Dwarf to be a beloved series. At least, I did before I saw the new episodes. It’s not just that the cast are all. like me, getting notably long in the tooth: but they’ve lost their juice, their sense of comic timing, and series writer and co-creator Doug Naylor has 100 percent forgotten how to write comedy dialogue. I switched it off: I have enough sadness in my life.

I was glad to have the opportunity to see the movie based on Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane: but despite a great cast and a great look, I ended up wishing that the movie had been more Howard and less by-the-book overused modern Hollywood tropes.

It was after these and other misfires that I began to wonder why I missed broadcast TV in any form. Thankfully, the good has far outweighed the bad: but that’s a subject for another post.

I’ve been genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the technology. Not only does it do what it says it does, but it promises to completely rewire my life, to completely reset the way I use media, the way I watch films, the way I listen to music. Until now, I have been buying physical CDs or burning my digital downloads to physical CDs, because this was the only way to get my music onto the main player and speakers. That’s now changed: Apple TV essentially transforms my entertainment system into a giant iPod. In the same way and for the same reasons, DVD is about to receive its only serious challenge since I bought my first DVD player — how many years ago now?

I think back to the early ‘80s and the rise of the VCR.

This was Radical technology at the time, boys and girls. The VCR changed everything. It gave us media-hungry young people control over our own viewing, turned us all into Programming Directors, and initiated the Quest for Content that can never be completely sated. The VCR was a really, truly magical device.

DVD was just the next logical step, a refinement that was too good to resist; Blu-Ray was not even a pebble on the road. 

I am now feeling what people younger than myself may have already been feeling for some time: that film and music no longer have any kind of physical component in their make up: that art and film and music can be plucked out of the air, stored in the air, available anytime, anywhere, everywhere: my favorite films constantly at my side, they can be projected onto the palm of my hand or a screen as large as the sky; I have but to wave my magic wand to free King Kong from the ether, or to send him back into rest. If I wish to revisit my old friends Steed and Mrs. Peel, I can have them beside me at will. This is real magic. 

Of course life still has its limitations. I cannot pluck my friend Howard out of the air, or my mother, or my Pandy Bear pussyquat: only their images. Magic still has a long way to go.

— Freder
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