Month: July 2014

Worst Best Picture: Is You Can’t Take It With You Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1938 winner You Can’t Take It With You. Is it better than Crash?

Frank Capra directed two movies that won Best Picture. One of them, It Happened One Night, is one of the greatest love stories ever told. The other one is You Can’t Take It With You, and it’s a goddamned mess.

It’s supposed to be a romantic comedy about how money isn’t everything. The title comes from the idea that it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got because, of course, “you can’t take it with you.” Sure, okay, I get that. It’s all about what you are inside, man. Everybody love everybody.

It is that, but it’s a lot of other things, too. Jimmy Stewart (who is barely in this damn thing) loves a girl from a weird family. His family needs her family to sell their house so his family can expand and keep making sprockets or whatever. It’s very The Lorax. There are no shades of gray. The good guys are wacky and don’t want to sell, the bad guys are stuffy and need them to sell. There’s your Romeo and Juliet love story set up, but it basically doesn’t matter.

It’s almost unbelievable how little of this movie is about the central love story. It’s the driving force for everything, but it fades away as the two patriarchs turn the movie into a spirited debate about if money and status matter or not. The rich guy can’t believe he has to talk to these silly people, which sounds pretty standard for a story like this, but…

I really have to point out how far this movie goes to remind the viewer that the poor family is “strange.” The entire movie rests on the viewer understanding the conflict between greed and contentedness, but it’s absurd how far they go to explain this. At first it all makes sense. The family argues with the IRS over income tax, which is fine. Then they… make unlicensed fireworks and set them off all over their house in the middle of the city. Okay, cool, 1938. Whatever you say. I guess that’s a thing now. Then, a man in a silly mask runs up from the basement to scare the police so they can go back to their xylophone song.

You Can’t Take It With You is off the rails from the very first scene. The absurdity is ticked up to 11 early, so it has nowhere to go to get crazier when it wants to. As a result, nothing ever matters more or less than anything else. People behave like lunatics, it’s really close to Duck Soup levels of silliness. The plot is fine and a few of the performances are well done, but this is a really silly movie, even beyond the parts that need to be silly to drive the plot.

The Best Part: The IRS scene is pretty great. A straight-laced IRS agent yells at a family playing the xylophone about income tax for five minutes. It feels like a Mr. Show sketch.

The Worst Part: The craziness is too crazy in general, but when a cop tells an old man “you’re playing Boogeyman, eh?” because he has a silly mask on for no reason, you start to wonder how this whole damn thing was allowed to happen. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s out of control.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashBoth movies have big “lessons.” You Can’t Take It With You has a big courtroom scene to explain itself. Crash has a car crash. Neither movie is really very good at getting below the surface (racism bad, money bad, got it) but You Can’t Take It With You is really trying. I don’t think you can fix Crash, but you could fix You Can’t Take It With You with more love story and less… xylophone.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: Screen Insults

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Song of the Summer? Disclosure – Latch

Jonathan May

Disclosure – “Latch”
PMR Records

On my quest for the perfect summer song, I seem to have stumbled back in time, or so my radio would have me believe. Though the song came out from British dance-pop band Disclosure in 2012, it didn’t really quite make the charts on our side of the pond until it was used in So You Think You Can Dance during a routine, after which point it sky-rocketed into hourly rotation on the pop stations. The song itself is incredibly simple, built on a tale of enrapture within desire. The accompanying video reinforces the lyrical motifs by drawing pairs of lovers into constructed tableaux of lights, water, and ample second-base. We’re given two straight and one lesbian pairs, which added at least some shade of variety. However, the variety ends there.

The song has all the potential for a summer hit. It’s dance-y, easy to sing the chorus, and has a hip, sexy video. So why am I on the fence? We’re given nothing outside a world of pure desire. I understand the song has a particular focus (most do), but the exact representation of the subject matter displayed so matter-of-factly within the video eliminated the possibility of any tension. It’s definitely more of a radio song than an “experience” in any way, which is 100% fine with me. I expect little of pop music these days, and this song certainly holds more aural pull than most. The chorus (“Now I’ve got you in my space/I won’t let go of you/Got you shackled in my embrace/I’m latching on to you”) at least has some erotic edge even. Given the general ennui assigned BDSM these days (due to 50 Shades and the like), it’s nice that at least musically we are given something restrained (no pun intended) and simple that’s not vulgar. While this doesn’t reinvent the love song, the song deserves some volume this summer on a slinky night.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Worst Best Picture: Is The Greatest Show on Earth Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1952 winner The Greatest Show on Earth. Is it better than Crash?

People hate this movie. It constantly makes lists of worst Best Picture winners. I read a lot of the worst lists to inform my own journey through these movies and man people hate the circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth. Is it really all that bad?

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is not a very good movie. It feels 20 or 30 years older than it actually is, mostly because no one edited it at all. You could cut more than half of the movie out and still be left with a full story. It’s a circus story, but it’s far too in love with the pageantry of the circus itself. “Murder your darlings” they say, but like the worst Tarantino movies (looking at you, 40-minute diner scene in Death Proof) this just goes on and on.

It’s supposed to be a love triangle. Brad (Charlton Heston, before he became a lunatic) doesn’t have time for love. He’s too busy running the business end of the circus to notice that his girl Holly (Betty Hutton) is in love with the new trapeze guy The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, who gives a pretty awful performance). The German elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) — what else could he have been named in 1952, I guess — is also in love with Angel (Gloria Grahame), but Angel has no time for him. Everyone falls in and out of love with each other for various reasons. That’s supposed to be what this is about.

It’s not, though, because director Cecil B. DeMille fucking loves the circus. You know you’re gonna get some circus when you watch a movie called The Greatest Show on Earth, but at one point there’s a ten minute scene of people taking down a circus tent, complete with narration about “the giant’s skin coming down.” It’s a quasi-documentary about circus life, and it’s straight up boring. The love stories aren’t enough to make a great movie, but the documentary elements aren’t really anything at all. They wouldn’t be out of place on a nature show from 40 years ago. They’re goddamned terrible, and they’re shoehorned in between every scene.

Jimmy Stewart is also in this weird damn movie as Buttons the clown. Buttons is a doctor who mercy killed his terminally ill wife, and now he’s hiding out in greasepaint at the circus. It’s really an interesting idea, especially in the non-digital world of 1952, and the movie deals with it far too rarely.

The biggest problem is that it’s just plain boring. It’s far too long and the good parts are few and far between. Most of the performances — outside of Charlton Heston’s cartoonishly “serious” Brad and Cornel Wilde’s “how much are you paying me again” The Great Sebastian — are fine. The problem here is that no one ever asked the question “is 90 minutes of circus footage too much?” It really, really is, but in a world that includes some truly awful movies with Best Picture on their DVD box, you shouldn’t hate The Greatest Show on Earth. You just shouldn’t watch it, either.

The Best Part: Jimmy Stewart gets a lot of love for his portrayal of Buttons. Most of the blurbs about this movie on other lists basically say “it sucks, but Buttons is interesting.” I think that’s a fine summary, but I really enjoyed Gloria Grahame’s character, Angel. She’s almost murdered by an elephant at one point. How do you play “almost murdered by an elephant?” I’d say she’s set the gold standard.

The Worst Part: The ending is outrageously stupid, but this is the spot where we need to talk about this train scene. Steven Spielberg is on the record saying that the climactic train wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth (stop it with the *spoilers*, you weren’t going to watch this, were you?) was a huge influence on him. It’s true that it was a technological marvel at the time, but it’s really funny to watch the toy train scene now. If you want a worst part that doesn’t have to do with how the movie has aged, go with that stupid damn ending. Motivations like “I love you because the movie is over” are a sign you’re watching something dumb.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There’s no discussion of race at all in The Greatest Show on Earth. The only black people in the entire movie are in the crew that sets up the circus tent. But there is a comparison between the two that has nothing to do with race. Both movies are full-on hamfisted. They’re both trying to do something (talk about racism and show a love for the circus) and neither one does a great job of anything else. The problem with one movie is the problem with the other; both movies eschew interesting characters and pacing for “message.” Racism bad, circus good. Both movies are failures because their components don’t support the bigger message, they just fall down like a BAD CIRCUS TENT I HATE THAT I MADE THAT JOKE.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: Telegraph

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Five – Gladys

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Spoilers on this ride.

Alright, so another episode that starts violently and leaves the rest of our time this week in a slow grind. Gladys’s stoning could be viewed in religious terms with Matt Jamison’s of the Jesus and Thomas conversation. And there is some interesting play between fire, burning, Gladys’s cremation, and the conversation between Laurie and the Guilty Remnant leader over burning in reference to doubt. It’s more ambiguity, and that could be cool, someday.

But is anyone really surprised at the character shifts in this episode? Laurie doubles down in the cult, right after doubting everything, and this after divorce papers are presented. Matt tries harder to invade people’s lives. Liv Tyler decides to join, for real. And Kevin cries into a pillow after yet another existential night episode. It’s not like we weren’t prepared for this.

What we really weren’t prepared for was an offer for Kevin told over the phone to remove the Guilty Remnant from the face of the Earth. Kevin doesn’t talk much, but we can barely hear the other line. A show cannot have both sides of the call with neither making sense, and it played like a bad take. Don’t try good storytelling by making key information obscure.

Kind of like having someone writing, “Neill” on a “doggy bag” and placing it in front of a house without any foreshadowing or directorial stunt pilot maneuvers. I supposed we’re meant to wait until the big reveal episode some time later when we go, “Wow, I had no idea that was Neill,” but just leaving fragments of a story like batons to be picked up later is not a good way to write. In fact, whether it involves way-too-quick flashes in a psychologist session with Kevin, horrifically slow panic attacks with Laurie,  fire nerf gun peer pressures with Jill, or paper bags, most directorial moves on The Leftovers feels intense without earning it. People say things like that all the time, but I mean it: it’s literally impossible to feel their sadness. The people are gone, and it’s been three years.

Okay, so, real quick, more parallels to lack of family ties. Nora and Matt are obviously not having it. Kevin and Laurie getting a divorce, Liv Tyler belongs to no one, Jill will not hug her father while he is in post-drinking sad times. Gladys had no family to mourn for her violent death. Tommy’s phone got broke… I GET IT.

One thing I do enjoy is the occasional dark humor. Last time it was the twins’ funny Jesus drop off, while the alarm this time going off right when he got the phone call for the agent in Washington was a nice touch.

Maybe I’m missing the point, But when I see a sneak peek of the next episode and it involves Nora holding an armed grenade in public, I feel as though someone else missed it.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Bob’s Burgers

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Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: how Bob’s Burgers is what Modern Family isn’t.

The Simpsons didn’t get nominated for an Emmy this year, and that’s apparently big news. I haven’t been a Simpsons watcher for some time now, but I know that it being left off the nominations list speaks to how much animation on TV has changed lately.

Bob’s Burgers is about to return to finish its fourth season (it comes back on October 5, my birthday, so thanks, Fox). The show started hemorrhaging viewers in the fourth season, so if you’ve been gone, it’s time to come back. You can’t let this one die on us. Bob’s Burgers is the only place on television that “heart” isn’t a dirty word.

Modern Family, one of the most popular shows on television, is built on the idea of “heart.” It’s a kind of The Wonder Years moral machine where someone learns a lesson and then tells it to the audience. In an episode about learning to love your gay son, Dad learns his lesson visually and then explains it through narration just before the end of the 22 minutes. It’s insulting on a colossal scale. It’s lazy and it’s infuriatingly bad television.

Bob’s Burgers has episodes that are also about learning things, but it has mastered “show, don’t tell.” The family in Bob’s Burgers has to learn to love each other through some pretty tough times, but they do so without turning to the camera and saying “you know, we have to learn to love each other through some pretty tough times.” It’s television, animated or no, the way it’s supposed to be.

You can read elsewhere about how the voice acting is amazing or how the music is the glue that keeps the show together. A note on that last bit, you absolutely should check out Song Exploder‘s episode about the theme song. You can read elsewhere about how it’s smart and funny and quick and worth your time. All I want you to know is that the last show on earth about being good to your family — without a garbage tagline at the end or a heartwarming guitar song — is coming back soon. Go watch the last few so you’re ready.

You can watch Bob’s Burgers on Netflix or Fox’s website or, on television, I guess. You’re so smart, you find it.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Snowpiercer is a delightful sci-fi concept film. The concept is that, amid concerns of climate change, humanity released a relatively untested “cooling” chemical into the upper atmosphere – an anthropogenic solution for an anthropogenic problem. By the way, if you are a person who still denies that something is happening to the climate and that humanity is largely responsible for it, please leave. Even offering a counterargument to deniers is creating a semblance of rational disagreement and debate, which only serves to allow major actors to continue down a path that, unmitigated, will quite literally end the world as we know it. Many scientists are worried that there is a point of no return, and that, once we pass it, there might be a runaway greenhouse gas effect that will radically alter the makeup of the only known body in the solar system that can support human life. Current governmental response to it is insane. Not only are they not freaking out, a full 58% of Republican lawmakers – over half of one major political party – doubt that it exists. The people responsible for legislating measures that might save us aren’t doing anything because a quarter of them are idiots. As a brief aside – a lot of climate change deniers are also evolution deniers. Evolution denial is similar to climate change denial, if the consequences of denying evolution made the whole human race lose their neocortex. That’s the thing – you can deny evolution all you want, and it will change nothing. Dismissing sound climate science, or even just fostering the appearance of any debate on the issue, weakens our ability to respond, in a measured and timely fashion, to a set of circumstances that could lead to mass famine, destruction, and loss of life. I don’t get it. During the Cold War, everyone was terrified of the world ending in a nuclear holocaust. There’s an outside chance the world might end if we don’t stop freely burning fossil fuels, and about a quarter of us are responding with  “Eh, fuck it.” (25% being the rough number of people that actually deny it. Probably a lot more don’t give a shit).

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, around 2128, Mars and its citizens stood as an oppressed colony of Terran corporate interests. Martians get a fighting chance when a major humanitarian crisis strikes Earth and diverts resources from harvesting efforts on Mars to relief efforts on the homeworld – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, dooming all Terran coastal areas with slow but inexorable inundation. Robinson, writing a far-future novel in 1996, trying to think of a semi-plausible disaster for purposes of his plot, came up with that. It happened eighteen years later. If that isn’t enough to terrify you, a science-fiction author’s future apocalypse scenario coming true less than two decades after his book was published, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, they release this quick-fix chemical into the upper atmosphere, and the immediate consequence is that they cool the Earth to far below the threshold for sustaining an ecosystem. All life on Earth is flash-frozen, save for a small enclave on a constantly-moving train run by a perpetual motion engine. Snowpiercer is a great example of the type of science fiction that takes a real science problem from the world, extrapolates it, and then uses it as a backdrop to have Captain America beat the crap out of people. Chris Evans, of Captain America fame, plays the rebellion leader Curtis Everett. Don’t come here for that though – other than hitting people with blunt (or sharp) objects, he’s not very Captainy. This film is way too grim for that.

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He also starred in this movie. We do not speak its name.

The grimness comes from the fact that on the train housing the last remnant of humanity, you have your first-class passengers, your coach passengers, and your oh-my-god-the-world-is-ending-let-me-on passengers. This last category is kept in constant poverty and misery, beaten by guards, and despoiled by the rich. They eat protein gelatin while first-classers eat steak and fish. They pile in squalid bunks while the rich lounge in private cars. The whole drive of the movie is Chris Evans’ character fomenting a rebellion, the stated purpose of which is to reach the front of the train and gain control of the engine, thus gaining control of the entire train. There is a lot of ingrained hierarchy and a lot of guards in place to keep them from doing just that. There is also a lot of propaganda, whereby the owner of the train is cast in a numinous aura of near-godliness. The lead propagandist is probably my favorite character in the film, and she is played marvelously by a ridiculous Tilda Swinton.

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Oh, Tilda.

The most remarkable achievement of the film is its transformation of the vertical, metaphorical rich on top/poor on bottom dynamic into a horizontal, literal rich in front/poor in back dynamic. The protagonist and his band struggle through car after car, moving from industrial-revolution level squalor, to clean and economical, to absurdly elegant and polished. This results in visual cues signaling Curtis’ progress – the further up he gets, the nicer everything is. It is a physical diorama of oppression. Another thing the film does nicely is the action – there is plenty of gritty, bloody scuffling as they inch forward to the engine. Much of the killing is done with improvised weaponry, as the oppressed poor are of course not permitted firearms. Some of the scenes, while not nearly as cool, reminded me of the transcendental hammer hallway fight scene from Oldboy. If you have not seen Oldboy, it is on Netflix. You should probably see Oldboy. Here’s the scene I’m talking about:

This is pretty much what happens as they move through the train cars.

The movie is well worth seeing. Its idea-driven plot, its ambition, its worldbuilding, and its unique sets more than win it the right to your time. However, it does fall apart in some areas. First off, the majority of the characters are pretty simply sketched out. There’s no real change or development throughout the film. Also, the ending is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. It’s fine, it’s fine – I still like the movie. But watch out for that ending. Overall, it’s nice to see small concept-driven sci-fi being produced as opposed to ginormous explosion-driven sci-fi (cough Transformers cough). Take an afternoon for yourself and check it out.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Tough Questions: What’s the Most Meaningless Game You’ve Ever Cheated In?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the most meaningless game you’ve ever cheated in?

Rules are simple: what are you capable of doing to win, even when the chips aren’t down? A story about cheating to win is still a story about winning. A story about cheating in something meaningless — something truly, truly meaningless — is a story about depravity.

Alex Russell

Either only children cheat in games more often or that’s what I tell myself to excuse my shitty behavior. I was ruthless as a kid. I would move pieces when people looked away. I would do anything it took to give me an upper hand. There’s a great term in the world of video games for this now, a euphemism for some kinds of cheating: “clever use of game mechanics.” I’ll take my best moments to my grave, but my dumbest “use of game mechanics” surely has to have happened in a bowling alley. I have a ton of hubris about my bowling (which is dumb in a different way), but like anyone else with too much pride, I fear the fall. I’ll talk in your backswing. As the expression goes, “It is not enough that I succeed, others must fail.” Bowling doesn’t matter, but damn if I don’t forget that instantly in those places.

Jonathan May

Monopoly: the game my mother calls a “marriage ender.” It’s the kind of game where people generally agree upon “house rules” beforehand, but I generally also operate on a few private rules of my own. For instance, I make deals with players concerning property and free passes and such, and I’ve been accused of cheating many times while taking the “Free Parking” money. But I just consider those who call “cheat” to be jealous. Monopoly is totally the kind of game that reveals everything about someone. It should definitely be played with Xanax.

Brent Hopkins

I don’t remember the last time I cheated in a game. I am a bit of a “knight” when it comes to competition and I’d rather get beaten badly than win unfairly. That’s probably why I never accept handicaps in games, also. How else am I supposed to be the very best? Like no one ever was.

Andrew Findlay

I do not resort to cheating. I mostly just yell loudly at whoever is beating me. I am going to tell of the most egregious cheating that has ever been practiced upon me. I was at a wedding in Germany with a lot of good friends and my wife. German weddings are uh, kind of next-level when it comes to festivities. I don’t even mean drinking – I mean all the skits and games the ones close to the bride and groom are supposed to come up with. The groom’s best man, his brother, decided that his contribution would be to introduce dizzy bat to Germany. He was successful, and it was great. It was also girls versus boys. The men stood up, taking this very seriously, most having already tied quite a few on. All of us were very dedicated, and I can definitely say that spinning around on a bat, drinking an entire pint, then running down the room is almost a terrifying experience. I cannot remember any other time in my life where, running, I could literally not tell where the ground was going to be the next time my foot hit it. Anyway, we committed. The women went through their whole relay a split second before we did – damn, we lost! Then we saw five entirely full beers on a table right next to their team. They were just setting the beers to the side, and our entire team was too into competing to even notice.

Gardner Mounce

I’m sure I cheated at games a lot when I was a kid, but nothing sticks out except for this dick move I’d do when my older sister got “Free Parking” in Monopoly where I’d dig my fingers under the board–really get both hands under there, as close to center as possible–and I’d try to make the board hit the ceiling. Then I’d laugh like it was funny, like no one else had been enjoying the game either and I had just livened the mood. Except everyone had been enjoying the game, especially my older sister. It’s okay. I hate myself, too.

Colton Royle

I could insert any video game from the 1990s into this category. In all seriousness though, our family played Bible Trivia, which is just a religious Trivia Pursuit. We would have a weekly bible study and my sister and I would try to convince my parents to play trivia instead. During these games I would do anything I could, whether it was keeping a bible in the bathroom, or just something simple like looking behind a card, to get the “answers.” I can’t tell if I was a either good player for being desperate for answers or a terrible person for cheating at bible games.

Major Issues: Trees #3

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In Major Issues, we look at one newly released comic book each week. Updated Fridays.

Gardner Mounce

Trees #3
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Jason Howard
Published by Image Comics
Published: 7/24/14

As pop culture would have it, there are two ways that aliens are going to invade. There’s the Invasion of the Body Snatchers/Men in Black type where one day we find out that the aliens have been living right under our noses for years. And there’s the Independence Day/The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy type where the aliens just announce that they’re here and in a few seconds we’ll all be dead. The first thing we notice is that Will Smith has saved us from both types. The second thing we notice is that, in both scenarios, the aliens are accessible antagonists—they’re here among us for us to interact with or fight or whatever, or they’re above us in spaceships for us to throw rocks at. But imagine if an alien race left some undeniable symbol of their presence and utter superiority, and then just left us to scratch our heads about it.

In Warren Ellis and Jason Howard’s Trees, an alien race has punctured the globe with monumental, sky-scraping towers (which humanity has dubbed “trees”)—and then vanished, like, your move, humans, and haven’t returned or made contact for over a decade. Less us-versus-them-story and more human drama, Trees tracks a number of story lines that span the globe, from an ex-professor in Cefalu and the fascist’s girlfriend who stalks him to scientists in Antarctica studying a mysterious black bloom growing at the base of a “tree.”

Ellis handles it all with incredible subtlety. A lesser writer would have written swathes of heavy-handed narration, but after some necessary exposition in the first issue Ellis constructs the world scene-by-scene with zero narration at all. A narrator-less story gives the sense that the reader knows just as much as the characters do about the trees—hardly anything. It also stresses the importance of the present moment: the world has halted since the trees arrived; they are ever-present, in nearly every scene; timeless and unchanging; dominating the landscape and laying waste to our sense of importance and human scale of time. Subtle also is Ellis’ dialogue. It’s been ten years since the trees arrived, so it’s only natural that people aren’t having exposition-heavy conversations about them. People are solving small problems on their own small stages, leaving the reader to synthesize bits of information to form the larger picture. The dialogue is smart, clipped, and avoids pandering.

Jason Howard is one of those imminently readable artists whose art is so functional that it’s almost invisible. It takes a keen eye to discern his moves. He uses the same types of panels over and over, and, taken together, the pages form a rhythm. There are the borderless panels that suggest timelessness, the bordered action panels that break the borderless panels up, and the white-backgrounded panels that strip the world down to action, reaction, and emotion. The borderless panels often establish expansive spaces like arctic vistas, sterile cafeterias, and “tree”-dotted Italian landscapes. These ground us in the sense of timelessness that the “trees” have imposed. These borderless panels are the arena on which the story takes place, and the places to which we always return: huge silent spaces punctuated by human action. Much rides on Howard’s colors, which he uses to establish mood. From cool conciliatory blues to altercation-accompanying yellows and pinks, his art is about subtlety.

Alien invasion stories are generally heavy on action and light on mystery. And we usually know the invaders’ intentions by the end of act one, which gives us plenty of time for preparing for fighting, fighting, and high-fiving over the fighting that just occurred. Trees stands apart because, first of all, there are no roles for Will Smith to play in the movie adaptation, and second of all, we don’t have any idea why the aliens dropped these “trees” down on us. To study us? To suck the life from our planet? To mess with us? The whole fun is that not knowing makes us feel out-of-the-loop and insignificant, and that fear of our insignificance spurs us. Fun, right?

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Should You Get it?

Absolutely. As a writer, Ellis is confident as hell, and treats his readers with respect. These first three issues have been slim on action and heavy on establishing world, character, and conflict. He will not spoon feed, he will not pander. This is a serious comic for serious readers, and as with almost any Ellis comic, will most likely have tremendous payoff. Though, I will say, this comic might be more satisfying in trade paperback form where you can read a lot in one sitting.

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent. You can find him at gardnermounce.tumblr.com or email him at gmounce611@gmail.com 

Worst Best Picture: Is Cavalcade Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1932/1933 winner Cavalcade. Is it better than Crash?

What’s the first “modern” movie that won an Oscar? What does that even mean? Cavalcade is a great place to start that discussion, mostly because it’s basically impossible to approach Cavalcade without engaging the fact that it’s nearly a century old.

Cavalcade is about a high society British family dealing with the events of the first 30 years of the 20th century. This involves a bit of history lesson at times, since an American in 2014 can be forgiven for not knowing the intricacies of the Second Boer War offhand. No one should be completely lost, though, because it eventually shifts to a love story about the Titanic and a dramatic climax involving World War I.

You can’t deal with Cavalcade the way you deal with Rain Man or Platoon. This is another world of movies, and it’s not really something you can judge by today’s standards. Cavalcade was the sixth winner — just a few years after the silent film Wings won the first Oscar — and it won in a generation where people wanted something entirely different out of a film. Lines are stepped all over, characters are never established, and huge diversions from the plot are common. That last one is the strangest trend about early Hollywood: everything made the final cut, no matter if it mattered for characterization, or the plot, or neither.

Cavalcade wanders around in a lot of ways, but it benefits from being the story of how a family changes through time. So, unlike the half-hour diversions in Wings, everything in Cavalcade is at least part of “the story.” A family experiences loss and a family grieves. Some of it is really strange — people just die in all of the early movies, it’s shockingly common for someone to just get hit by a truck or die in a plane crash or get shot — but it’s all part of a bigger thing.

I enjoyed it, largely. It won’t stick with me, and I know that because I watched it a week ago and I already am losing little bits of it. I feel like this is one of the few that’s on the fence for me. It’s a fine movie within the context of the 30s, but its one you can skip if you’re not a completionist.

The Best Part: There’s a haunting scene where soldiers are shown walking through time passing as they die in World War I. One of the most interesting terms in history is that of the “lost generation” in World War I. It means different things to different cultures, but the British use it to refer to the fact that nearly an entire generation of young men died at once. Cavalcade may not be an essential movie, but there’s no better way to illustrate that terrifying idea.

The Worst Part: You know how people sometimes say that Forrest Gump is a little silly because Forrest was “somehow” at every major world event in his lifetime? Well, that, but not a joke. There people really got the full British experience. Like, too much of it.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashIt’s tough to even compare these. Cavalcade makes absolutely no attempt to deal with race or class — it’s about early century London, so duh — and I still say no attempt at all is better than the one in Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: The Guardian

Final Fantasy VII and the Expanded Advent Children Universe

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Brent Hopkins

The title should let you know that this is going to be about a rather old game. Final Fantasy VII was released back in 1997 on the original PlayStation and immediately became the poster child for what RPGs could be. The graphics were amazing, the story was stellar, and the game itself spanned three discs, which was nigh unheard of. As I decided to write this article Alex Russell asked, “What is there new to say about FF7?” He had a good point and I held off writing for a few days because I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t just rehashing what thousands of others had said. I finally settled this inner argument because I actually ended up with two different ideas, and neither of them really focuses on the game. Instead, they focus more on implications and revelations of what Squaresoft/Square Enix has accomplished. There will be no review of the game or achievement rating. These two articles will purely be about FF7 and how they relate to the real world.

The first aspect I want to focus on is why Advent Children and the various spinoffs should be the general direction games –especially RPGs– should go in. So, spoilers.

FF7 is a game about a group called AVALANCHE that wants to save the planet. They do this through terrorist acts against the government, Shinra, which is stealing the life force of the planet to create usable energy. Imagine if when we used all the gasoline Earth would implode. They decide to use this opportunity and kill a bunch of people (AVALANCHE members and the poor) by literally crushing the entire town where AVALANCHE is headquartered. The government wants to move forward with draining the energy from the planet and decides to use an alien object called Jenova to do so. Jenova corrupts one of the most powerful humans in the world and he calls forth a meteor that will impact the planet and kill everyone. The main cast must race against time to stop this from happening.

That is the extremely watered down version of what occurs in the game, but just from that you can get the feeling that this is intense. The first few times I played through this game I was absolutely blown away by the story and the characters. There was no game that I had played where so many characters were fleshed out so well. This didn’t just include the main villain and the main cast, but side characters and family members as well. There were so many people that impacted the main story that it was easy to forget just how integral they were to the story. This led to an issue that occurs across all forms of entertainment: I was really interested in knowing more about these characters that received second billing and there was no avenue to get more.

There is an oddly accepted gaming mindset that once the game ends, that is that. FF7 ends with a meteor almost wiping out the entire planet. It is now 2014 and I know that I never really asked myself after 20 something playthroughs “What happened?” I, and most everyone I know who played it, accepted that the planet survived and some things lived. You see Red XIII in the post credits. This is unfulfilling, but that’s just the life of a game, it isn’t a real world.

Square then started releasing supplementary material to help flesh out the story of FF7, and most of it was solid in terms of world building. The two biggest projects were Crisis Core and Advent Children. Crisis Core is a prequel to FF7 and follows a character you hear a lot about in the main game, Zack Fair. This guy is probably the most important person in the story (he personally interacts with Cloud, Aeris, and Sephiroth, the triumvirate of plot driving characters) and Cloud more or less absorbs his life into his own. This prequel is stunning in that it manages to completely work on its own without using the main cast as crutches to push the plot along. Zack manages to be a beautifully tragic hero when his own story is told. This is a far cry from the sentiment you get when playing FF7, where you think, “Oh, so that’s where that sword came from.” You start Crisis Core knowing precisely how it is going to end and it carries that weight the whole way through. The general air for FF7 is tragedy. Zack is a purely bright star that is a foil to the general squalor and misery every other character is in constantly in 7.

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The misery is the next focus and that comes through in spades in Advent Children. It’s an animation that also has an accompanying collection of short stories, On the Way to a Smile. These stories take place in between the end of FF7 the game and the animation portion of Advent Children.

Square initially released Advent Children on its own and it was great to see all the characters fully rendered and running around the various locales you played through in the game. The problem was it came off as extremely heavy-handed because there was a lot of omitted information and it forced you to just accept: THIS is what happened in two years. There is a new disease called Geostigma which is killing people since the meteor was stopped by the planet. People seem to think it is the planet’s punishment for draining the energy. Also, Sephiroth is back after being completely stomped at the end of the game. These are all a bit crazy and just seem like a thoughtless means of bringing the Cloud and Sephiroth conflict to the big screen.

The 2009 release of On the Way to a Smile alongside Advent Children Complete changed everything. These stories manage to explain things that the creators clearly had thought about but were incapable of putting into a game or animation. Geostigma is explained as the corruption Sephiroth/Jenova is spreading through the Lifestream. The main means of infection? Attacking those who are fearful of death. How can Sephiroth exist in the Lifestream when most spirits simply dissipate into it? Through sheer hatred, and the memories that people have of him (Cloud in particular).

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The stories follow different characters from the game, but there is no story following Cloud or Vincent. Cloud has the most stories told about him in the series and Vincent received his own spinoff game so I find this omission understandable. The stories expand on each character’s personalities and occasionally overlap with one another to show that there are still ties that bind them to one another. This is done eloquently and it makes the reader/player really ask how the world would rebuild after such a close calamity. You always get the sense that everyone would just celebrate and everything would go back to normal. Square shows that this is far from the case and even the heroes don’t return unscathed.

This is the most jarring realization I got while reading OTWTAS: this world is HORRIBLE. They have the ability to use magic and all the technology of the modern world, but every single person is merely surviving. Throughout the game you have a slew of speeches to motivate the characters and they all culminate in a victory over the bad dude. The ending always felt a bit cheap since there was no real celebration like most games have, but really there is nothing to celebrate for anyone. These people were on the brink of destruction and then what they are left with is worldwide pain and suffering. Maybe it was because I was young, but I always thought it would have been amazing to be one of these super powerful characters. This quickly goes away when you realize that no level of power, even that of a god, saves anyone in this series. This led me to think about other games and you quickly realize that, yes, you technically won, but was the world still doomed (Looking at you, FF6).

The whole point of this article is really to ask why games are one of the few mediums where the happy or tragic ending is often seen as adequate. There used to be a lot of backstory and information in the booklets of games, but there was still that same sense of “great, I won and the game is complete.” More companies should run with the example that Square and Blizzard have set and give canonical story to the consumers. Many games set out to simulate life, yet there are tragically few that have realized that a game is usually not capable of relaying all of the details that make a story engrossing. Invest in animations, books, and sequels and consumers will keep coming back for another slice of these characters’ lives.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.