Month: September 2014

Worst Best Picture: Halfway Through the List, Let’s Revisit Crash. Is it Really that Bad?

crash

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… Crash. Again. Damnit.

I just wanted to find an excuse to watch all the Best Picture winners. That’s all this was supposed to be, and now it is breaking me. Crash is winning. How did we get here?

There are 86 movies that have won Best Picture, though technically some of them won before it was called that exactly. The point is that there are 86 movies that The People That Make Such Decisions have said are the best of the best. There are other ways to watch 86 of the supposed greatest movies of all time, but there are no other ways to think about Crash, the 2005 winner, every single week for a year.

It’s an inane project to compare the other 85 to Crash — clearly — but it serves a purpose to me. It forces my hand. It’s much easier to give up on something when you don’t have to represent yourself publicly. For that reason, these are sometimes just for me. No one really cares what I thought about Mrs. Miniver or You Can’t Take It With You, I don’t have any delusions about that. What I do have is a need to see all 86 of these damn movies in 2014, and the way to do that is to have a space to come talk about each one. Hopefully I’m doing so in a way that’s interesting, albeit it Crash-filled. You be the judge of that.

The point is this is the halfway point. At the bottom of the page you’ll see 43 links to 43 articles about 43 movies. Some of them, like It Happened One NightMidnight Cowboy, and Kramer vs. Kramer, will stick with me for the rest of my life. Some of them, like Amadeus, Shakespeare in Love, and The Last Emperor, are already beginning to fade in my mind. As with any list of things, it is not a perfect summary of greatness in film history.

But is that the rub with the entire project? Has anyone ever said “these are the best?” I’d argue that they have, even though some of them have rightfully faded from memory. You have to get real deep in film history for anyone to care about Cavalcade or Grand Hotel, both rightfully so, but on the flip side some modern films on the list, like The Silence of the Lambs and No Country for Old Men, are instant classics. The list must be considered to at least be a summary of what people found great at the time, and thus can be used as a functional canon for what has constituted a “great film” over history.

So why in the hell is Crash on there?

None of the first 42 other movies came close to Crash. I hated The Artist, I was bored by Shakespeare in Love and A Man for All Seasons, and I can’t wrap my mind around the inherent strangeness of You Can’t Take It With You, but none of those came even close. They all have merits, and after watching Crash again last night, I still contend that Crash has none.

The weirdest part is that this is a divisive opinion; not everyone hates Crash. It’s certainly the movie that comes up the most in lists of the worst, but it’s by no means considered a “bad movie” on its own. The hate seems to have come from people putting it on a list with Casablanca and The Godfather.

I originally felt that way. I thought Crash was a little dumb, but not offensively so. It’s only after spending so much of my free time considering what Crash is and what it hopes to be that I feel a real hate for it, like an embittered ex-spouse. We are having a prolonged, public divorce and I never loved you, anyway, movie about racism.

After 43 straight posts about it, I got worried that I was losing touch with the source material. Rewatching it unearthed some new feelings, which I will now share with the class:

  • The very first scene of Crash opens with a car crash, where a white woman asks an Asian woman if she noticed her “blake lights” instead of brake lights. It sets the tone early, in the way that a fire will eventually be a pile of soot. It is completely unnecessary.
  • It’s moments like “blake lights” that make you wonder just how worried the writers of Crash were that people would miss their DEEP AND COMPLICATED MESSAGE about racism. There are films on this list that talk about race better than Crash. Some of them are six decades older than it. That is inexcusable.
  • “Hey Osama, plan a jihad on your own time” is said in scene two of Crash. I’m not going to go scene-by-scene, but you have to understand that these things happen essentially while there are still credits rolling on the screen. It feels like a tonal suckerpunch. You haven’t even had time to understand this world yet, but you already know that everyone is terrible all the time.
  • Ludacris enters the movie with a monologue about not getting offered coffee while eating spaghetti. This may be the best part of the movie, because no one ever addresses that these things are incongruous. When I was 15 I had to find a fancy dish to add some specificity to a short story I was writing and I went with something insane — turkey parm, I think — the point is that any decent editor would fix that, but they left in this insane coffee/spaghetti pairing. No one has ever had coffee with spaghetti.
  • The general direction for the acting in Crash seems to have been “no, even angrier.” Everyone is mad at everyone for every reason. This is supposed to feel “gritty” and “tense” but it feels “forced” and “ridiculous.” People treat the attempted murder of their children with less malice than a door not closing right.
  • Tony Danza. Don’t watch Crash, but if you do, watch it just for the scene where Tony Danza confronts Terrence Howard about someone not sounding “black enough.” Within the narrative of the movie it’s supposed to feel racially uncomfortable, but Tony Danza is a little too silly for how shameful this is supposed to be. It also happens after a much more intense white vs. black racial interaction with Terrence Howard, but this breaks him. Maybe being berated by Tony Danza is the most shameful thing possible. I take this back.
  • Don Cheadle does a good job with a complicated role. They make him say some really stupid things because Crash was written without an editor (“can’t talk mom, I’m having sex with a white lady” is hall-of-fame-bad) but he’s a tragic figure that I actually really connected with this time around. Great job doing more with less than less.
  • Brendan Frasier is married to Sandra Bullock and their storyline is terrible. Sandra Bullock may play the least compelling character in film history in this movie. Every single line she says is supposed to establish that she’s a terrible racist, but everyone is a terrible racist, so she just seems to be some kind of sociopath.

We have 43 movies to go. There are some classics on the remaining list, like The Deer HunterWest Side Story, and The Godfather II. There are also some famous duds, like Around the World in 80 DaysCimarron, and Dances With Wolves. All 43 will be compared to Crash. All must be judged. We came here to find something worse than Crash. So far, the task has been unfinished. I’m going back into the breach.

The Best Part: Don Cheadle.

The Worst Part: Sandra Bullock. Or Brendan Frasier. Or Tony Danza. Or Matt Dillon. Or the writing. Or the editing. You pick.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It is Crash. It is terrible.

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 | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash Revisited |

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.

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Major Issues: Butterfly #1

buttercover.jpg

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

Gardner Mounce

Butterfly #1
Story by Arash Amel
Written by Marguerite Bennett
Art by Antonio Fuso
Published by Archaia 9/24/14

New artforms all fight the same uphill battle to be respected by the artistic community. Like movies and novels before them, comics have gradually transcended their “juvenile” origins to gain a modicum of respect. Critics, aggregator sites, and culture publications have even started using that thorny word, “literary,” when it comes to comics. But what is a “literary” comic? In a Google search for “literary comics” you’ll find the realists like Craig Thompson, Will Eisner, and Daniel Clowes, which is to be expected if the same folks compiling the literary canon are compiling the graphical one. But unlike novels, these lists of “literary comics” also allow for the more fantastic (Watchmen, Maus, Bone). In this regard, the comic literary canon has more in common with the cinema canon that generally includes aliens and killer sharks. I bring all this up because Archaia, the publisher of Butterfly, says its goal is to publish graphical literature. Whatever that means, I took it as a cue to judge Butterfly carefully.

Butterfly is the story of a secret agent (codename Butterfly) whose cover is blown after she’s blamed for a murder she didn’t commit. Writer Marguerite Bennett deliberately paces this first issue with tense scenes and violent action bookended by flashbacks. It’s a complex introductory issue, but with just three issues to go, it needed to hit the ground running.

The writing is lyrical yet terse, with a penchant for the poetical. Take one of the opening pages in which Butterfly recounts a memory of her father teaching her how to shoot. More than just a pretty page, we see Butterfly’s personality and worldview jump off the page. The careful, clean pacing reflects her highly analytical mind, and the language speaks to her intelligence and insightful nature.

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The art, too, is astounding in its reflection of the narrator’s psyche. Harsh lines and black shadows enclose muted colors. This reflects how Butterfly bridles her world in strict self-imposed rules and conduct. When Butterfly is in control of the situation, pages are evenly laid out in six panels of equal sizes. Notice how this technique is used when Butterfly stalks a man to an elevator and kills him.

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She is calm and in control. Elsewhere, when Butterfly is out of control, the panels vary in size and shape, to reflect the frenzy of the moment or the fractal nature of memory (couldn’t find an example of that online, so unfortunately you’ll have to go buy one, ya freeloaders).

The worse thing to be said about Butterfly is that at points its plot is too overtaken by its style, which results in confusing storytelling. To go any deeper would be to spoil a key part of the story, so I’ll just say that my hope is that the questions I have now will be answered in subsequent issues.

Should You Get It?

The creative team behind Butterfly achieves a rare unity of purpose that most comic teams can only dream of. Art and words work in tandem to construct a world grounded in its character. It tells a story, but it also creates a graphical language which transcends it. I don’t know if that makes it literary or not, but it does make it a must-read.

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 

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls

dark souls

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.

My wife is out of the country on a business trip, and I bought Dark Souls to help fill the time I spend waiting for her to come back. It’s been on my radar for at least a couple years, but I’ve put off actually giving it a try due to one factor: every time I gave any thought to it, a companion thought came along and said, “Yeah, but do you really want to suffer that much? It’s like the hardest game of all time.” I beat it in six days, and it is actually not that bad. I’m writing about it here partially because it is fantasy, but mostly because it has dominated my life for the past week.

The main piece of buzz the uninitiated know about the game is its overwhelming difficulty. This is a positive feature – it was probably part of the marketing team’s campaign for the game. The problem is that so many people avoid it because they do not want to be punished in their leisure time. Here’s the thing: Dark Souls is not really that much harder than something like Halo or Halo 2 on Legendary. Sure, I died like 983 times, but that’s not as frustrating as it sounds. Death in this game is like jumping in Mario: it is the protagonist’s defining superpower. You are the Chosen Undead, a zombie selected to play a part in the ending or renewal of the world. When you die, you resurrect at the last checkpoint with all items, abilities, and stats intact (the penalty is that you lose all XP accrued since the last checkpoint). Dying and inexplicably resurrecting is a part of almost every video game. When Harbinger eviscerates Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, nobody explains how he’s alive and well after the next load screen. In Dead Souls, resurrection is a game mechanic. The main character is unkillable and will always resurrect at the last place he rested. From that point, the player can move through the level again and learn to avoid the things that murdered him last time. For example, I was fighting a difficult enemy on a stairwell. I rolled backwards to avoid his swing and fell to my death (the first time I met him, I did not avoid his swing and died immediately). On the third try, I got his attention and ran away until I was on solid, cliffless ground. Modifying my strategy slightly with each new attempt led to success, and that’s how it works with every challenge of this game. Die, die, die, succeed. By the time you’ve made all the necessary incremental adjustments, it’s baffling how you could ever have struggled as much as you did – when you finally move past, it seems like the easiest thing in the world. There were only three points in the game where I felt real despair: a ridiculous final boss of one level (Ornstein and Smough, the bastards), an absurd puzzle dungeon where it took me four hours to learn how to not get knocked into a pit by swinging blades over narrow bridges, and one of the very first levels where two zombies and three rats murdered my dagger-wielding, unleveled sorcerer continuously. The beginning of this game is absolutely brutal: you do not know the rules, you do not know how to move, and you do not have the skill points necessary to keep common vermin from destroying you. The great thing here is that it’s an RPG, so after the first 10 hours of pain, you start getting some real power. There is nothing in an RPG that cannot be solved by more experience points, and it is extremely gratifying when enemies who used to laugh at you as you hit them with a piece of blunt metal start disintegrating with an idle wave of your hand and a flash of blue light.

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The thing on the top killed me 23 times straight at the start of the game. Towards the end of the game, I killed the thing on the bottom effortlessly in a giant explosion of ethereal flame.

As far as the fantasy storytelling, I still can’t decide if its brilliant or if the game designers couldn’t be bothered. In the beginning, four Lords came out of the darkness, grabbed the power of the First Flame, and started killing the everlasting dragons. As long as the flame burns, the age lasts. At the beginning of the game, the flame is guttering, the world is ending, and people with the curse of the undead are popping up and being locked away. You escape and go to the world of the gods in order to pursue the power necessary to either save the world or help speed along its end. As far as explicit storytelling, that’s pretty much it, but the designers spend so much time giving weight and texture to every location that the setting ends up telling a lot of the story. It is the end of an age, and everything is rundown and crumbling, so drooping and rusted with age that it’s oppressive. NPC comments, item descriptions, and the setting itself give some hints as to how everything capsized, but mostly you just wander around dealing with the consequences and guessing at the causes. It’s refreshing. In Mario games, you know you have to save the princess. In  Mass Effect, you know you need to save the galaxy from terrifying, enslaving ship-bugs. In Dark Souls, the only thing that is clear is that everything is trying to kill you. I finished the game, and I chose the “good” path, but I’m still not sure if I made the right choice. Whose interests did I serve? Was I just a pawn of the gods? Did I really save anything at all, or did I perform what is at best a holding action against the encroaching dark? I still don’t know, but it was a joy to move through that world.

This game is three years old, a lot of people have played it, and a lot of people have avoided it. If you are avoiding it because of the reported difficulty, please give it a chance, especially if you’re the sort of gamer that doesn’t feel like a game is “finished” until you’ve beaten it on the hardest difficulty setting. The difficulty is bad, but it’s not that bad. Besides, in a gaming environment where difficulty is a constantly lowering bar, it is good to see a game that offers a challenge instead of just an experience. The worst gaming of my life was in Fable II when an entire dungeon consisted of hitting a floating, colored ball through a certain pattern. Here’s the twist: it changed colors, and you had to figure out to use an arrow, magic, or a sword to move it to the next location. It was insultingly easy, and it is important to have games like Dark Souls on the other side of the spectrum.

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 Are Your Pet Peeves?

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

What are your pet peeves?

Rules are simple: WHAT MAKES YOU SO ANGRY YOU TYPE THE INTRO TO A THING IN ALL CAPS?

Alex Russell

People… who talk online… like this… I want Twitter to have a function that deletes your tweet if it ends in an ellipsis. You see it all day. People don’t understand what it means and they just trail off all of their little missives into the world. Caring about Twitter punctuation might be the most curmudgeonly way to answer this question, but it always reads to me like someone’s doing the textual version of “Not to be an asshole, but…” You’re still being an asshole.

Brent Hopkins

My biggest pet peeve is people eating with their mouths open. I live in a country and region of the world where it is common and widely accepted and it grates my nerves to no end. It is so irritating to me that it might be a relationship-breaker for me. It tends to be the only thing I can focus on during meals and it just kills me.

Andrew Findlay

As I get older, the pool of things that annoy me shrinks. I feel this is an evolutionary adaptation, because if a sixty-year-old’s heart had to put up with the level of indignation experienced by your average teenager, the AARP would not exist. One pet peeve that has not fallen by the wayside deals with word usage. My fascination with reading stems mostly from an obsession with words, how they are put together, and what they can do. The more you know, the less you should use, like a kung fu movie hero who only fights when absolutely necessary. It’s always the people he beats the crap out of at the end that are the flashiest at the beginning, and their flashiness is the result of insecurity. An incisive, well-placed common word is a lot more effective than a bloated, ludicrous, damned-near archaic word. My pet peeve is when people use ungainly, gigantic words just to show they know them. There are many tiers to this offense, ranging from misdemeanor to outright felony. If you study reptiles for a living and someone asks you what you do, it’s okay to say “herpetologist,” because that’s what you are, and saying “I’m a snake herder” sounds a bit strange. If you use “pulchritudinous” instead of beautiful and “tintinnabulation” instead of ringing, you should be fined because you like hideous words and you don’t care if other people have a clue what you’re saying. If you use “hermeneutics” while discussing a TV show at a bar, you are a monster. If you use “hermeneutics” incorrectly while discussing a TV show at a bar, you are a dumb monster.

Gardner Mounce

The words quite, indeed, perhaps, and rather. They’re foppish.

Jonathan May

I have too many of these to quantify, but what follows are the major offenses. I hate improper texting. I hate when people don’t walk on the correct side of a sidewalk or staircase. I hate when my students don’t print off their papers or staple them. I hate when people complain about something at a restaurant to the staff, yet don’t want any action taken. I hate when people aren’t on time for lunch dates. I hate having to repeat myself. I hate when people try to moralize at me on Facebook or Instagram; I don’t give a shit. I hate when people use “LOL” as a passive-aggressive way of disagreeing. I hate when people say they don’t vote because it feeds into the system; grow up and vote, or go change the world, hippie. Also, I hate coffee shop people in general, but that’s just because I worked at coffee shops for ten years.

Game Review: Guacamelee Gold Edition

image source: punkandlizard.com

image source: punkandlizard.com

Brent Hopkins

Guacamelee is a game that has gotten plenty of acclaim across every platform it has been released on (so, all of them, since it has been released on all of them). The game is a typical “Metroidvania” style game where you explore different levels that can’t be completely finished until you get all of the different abilities. The initial release was in 2013, but the definitive version titled  Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition, came out this past July for the new generation of consoles and Steam. This review covers the stopgap Gold edition of the game, which isn’t missing too much.

First, I will have to admit I have never beaten a Metroid or Castlevania game, so I understand the concept, but I don’t actually have a frame of reference for the Metroidvania style.

Guacamelee looks really nice. The characters are bright and colorful and the environments match perfectly. The feeling I got while playing was a movie or Looney Tunes depiction of a Mexican village, which completely sucks the player in. The game follows a luchador named Juan who has to stop the villain, Calaca, from merging the land of the living and the land of the dead by saving his childhood love. This is not a story that will change the way you see games, but it is sufficient.

The whole game looks like this.

The gameplay is simple, but equally solid. The combat is your basic beat-em-up-and-dodge but when the game begins spawning multiple enemies that have special shields that require you to use certain attacks to break, battles can get extremely hectic. There is also a combo system which requires you to chain attacks without getting hit or taking lengthy breaks between attacks. The higher your chain, the more money you make. The money can be used to upgrade your character in basic ways like health and power but also you can unlock costumes. Each costume has its pros and cons and can be switched out at any save point. This is a cool little addition but some costumes make combat a complete joke on Normal difficulty.

The other gameplay aspect is the platforming. This is where the game gets hard. Juan can switch between the land of the living and the dead at the press of a button and the game often requires you to do this and use abilities to clear rooms. This can be tricky — but never unfair — so I commend Drinkbox Studios for doing platforming right.

The game is a solid 15-hour game if you do everything. Rushing through the game, you can easily complete it in four or five hours, which is a bit disappointing for a $14.99 game, but that would be a disservice to yourself to play it that way.

This game lived up to the hype and I highly recommend picking it up, if this is your type of game.

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.

Music Review: Trust – “Capitol”

“Capitol” by Trust

Jonathan May

Space plays a significant role in this dream-pop, synth-heavy song, presented by Canadian duo Trust from their sophomore album Joyland. We ebb into the main architecture of the song slowly; in the beginning, I had a very hard time understanding what phrase the singer repeated, but I don’t care. When we get around to part where the words become clearer is probably where they matter most: “Will I die? Will I die? Will I die?” sung out hauntingly over sequences of endless starry space. This refrain, coupled with the gorgeous counterpoint of synthesizer and ambient noise, produces a haunting and important moment not often heard in “new-wave” bands’ attempts to kill their creative fathers. Flow is important within this song, and its many transitions indicate a willingness to be ambitious and show maturity. The video definitely adds a layer of visual appeal as well, with a striking young woman actualizing somehow through communion with forms of herself, although the whole thing reminded me a bit of the film Cocoon. The singer, who also films well, darts frantically around his space microphone and space backdrop, almost afraid to deliver his utterances to the electronic tribe. I find the added visual element overall quite potent. Though we’re given some expected ideas regarding “mystical actualization” (triangles, space, emanating light), we’re brought back to reality in the end, wherein the young woman finally seems to have found an object worthy of her unending attention and gaze. It would help if one enjoyed this particular genre of work, yet I would like to imagine that even a casual listener would find something mysterious and lovely about the song to call her own.

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 Amadeus Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: virtual-history.com

image source: virtual-history.com

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 1984 winner Amadeus. Is it better than Crash?

If you haven’t seen Amadeus yet, are you going to? Are you, really? Yeah, see?

I would have gone my entire life without seeing this, and I’m still trying to process how I feel about it. I don’t think I’m done with Amadeus, even a few weeks later. It’s an insanely long movie, but unlike a lot of the longer slogs on the list, there’s a ton to cover. Mozart is a young buck who just wants to flirt and get drunk and act like an asshole, while Salieri wants to create the music that will secure his legacy. Just as in life, in Amadeus the asshole is rewarded.

It’s complicated, though, which makes this worth your time. The movie happens in the framing device of an elderly Salieri detailing the sins of his life to a priest. It’s a neat device — and it’s done much better than the nearly identical one in The Last Emperor — and it allows for the telling of a ton of absurd stories. All it needs to be is the central Mozart vs. Salieri conflict, but it’s largely the story of Mozart’s sad life behind his giggling demeanor. There’s some heavy stuff with his dad and his family that feels much more compelling than the standard “he only cares about his work!” stuff in your typical movie about a mad genius. It’s not impressive because it’s risky, it’s impressible because of the scope of the story.

That said, I led this off the way I did because this is definitely what you think it is. It’s a movie about two men battling with classical music, so don’t expect it to wow you if that kind of thing doesn’t wow you. You’re not going to give an eighth of a day to it at this point if you haven’t already, but you will be missing something unique if you don’t.

The Best Part: I rolled my eyes a lot during Amadeus, but Tom Hulce is just a damn delight as Mozart. His laugh will stick with me for a long time, so here’s some guy on YouTube that made a supercut of all of it:

The Worst Part: Holy shit, this is a long movie. A significant number of Best Picture winners are more than three hours long, but few of them feel as long as Amadeus. The most important conflict of the film is that Salieri can’t handle Mozart at all. It’s a compelling conflict, but it centers on Salieri’s shortcomings compared to the great composer. Maybe this is crass, but it’s definitely a bit difficult to feel for a guy whose main failing is that he kinda sucks compared to Mozart.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? This is the halfway point with 43 down and 43 to go. I’m not entirely sure where my mind is at after talking about Crash for most of a year, but it’s nowhere good. I like Crash far less than when I started, which I certainly didn’t think was possible, but I also love a lot of these movies so far. Next week I’m going to do a rewatch of Crash to remind myself what even happens in it, because I’m much clearer on the list of great movies that follows this paragraph now. Comparing it to Amadeus seems impossible. One is the story of a man’s lifetime struggle with the reality that genius pays off more than hard work and one is a testament to how our process for rewarding movies with the “Best Picture” distinction made (at least) one tragic error. I guess they are alike. I did it. Don’t check my work.

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 | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is Mrs. Miniver Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: nicksflickpicks.com

image source: nicksflickpicks.com

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 1942 winner Mrs. Miniver. Is it better than Crash?

If Patton is the story of people who choose to make war their entire life, Mrs. Miniver is the story of people who don’t have a choice about it. It’s an entire movie about the homefront in war. It focuses on events at home — both mundane and not — and how they are complicated by the ridiculous nature of war. Cavalcade and The Best Years of Our Lives are also about that, but they’ve got much different messages than Mrs. Miniver.

This one is entirely about suffering and liking it. In another setting, a movie about being resilient in the face of strife on this scale would be a tough sell. A movie about the British resistance at home during WWII, though, we’re comfortable with that story. The entire international perception of England was changed by WWII. It is taken as fact that the British are tough and can handle the worst without complaint. It’s just one of those “things” now, and Mrs. Miniver was an important part of that myth-making.

There’s nothing going on in Mrs. Miniver other than the war. Men decide they need to go to war to protect Britain and the women need to stay home and be brave and true and good. It’s full on propaganda, but it’s distinctly Western propaganda (and Allied, I suppose, which is an even easier sell) so an American audience may not feel as manipulated. It’s just two hours of bad things happening and good people staring into the middle distance while they wonder how they’ll move on.

They’ll move on because they’re British and because they must, is the message, and it’s told again and again. There’s no real reason to watch this in 2014. You’ll get everything you need from any particularly badly written history book. The bombing of London is one of the iconic domestic tragedies of our time and a movie about the bravery and difficulty involved in surviving it is nothing to roll your eyes at, but at one point the entire family reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under a staircase and it’s just a ton. It’s heavy and it should be, but other than the patriotism, there’s no there there.

The Best Part: The titular Mrs. Miniver captures a German soldier in her garden and they have a terrifying conversation in her kitchen. She makes him a meal at gunpoint before getting his gun away from him. This scene is either the greatest or worst part of the movie, and it probably depends on what you want Mrs. Miniver to be. If you want to marvel at strangeness, look no further.

The Worst Part: The entire movie is “climax” but my least favorite dramatic scene is a flower competition, and I would write more about it, but it’s a flower competition. Right before it there’s an unexpected death and right after it there’s a bombing. You can skip the flower competition. Please skip the flower competition.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? I hate to say it, but I’m only 100% sure I’ll never watch Mrs. Miniver again, of the two. I’m going to watch Crash again this week for a rewatch, but I feel no need to watch Mrs. Miniver again. I got it. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s one-note and it’s fairly repetitive. Crash is much worse, to be sure, but only because there’s not really that much in Mrs. Miniver to love or hate. If you boiled down any movie to three words you’d be missing nuance, but I don’t think you miss anything with a three-word summary here: British people endure.

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 | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver

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: Simon Barry’s Continuum

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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.

A few years ago, everyone was bemoaning the loss of quality SF programming on television. Lost had delivered one of the most reviled endings of all time, Battlestar Galactica had wrapped up, the Sci-Fi Channel had just been bought out by Swedish media conglomerate Syfy, which for some reason thought Americans only cared about ghosts and those who hunt them. There was a bit of a dry spell there for a minute, but in the past couple of years TV producers have looked at the success of shows like Battlestar and Lost and threw SF into a lot of their primetime fare with a gleeful what-will-stick-to-the-wall type attitude. The majority of these shows are major flops (I do not know first hand, but I hear Extant is terrible), but in defense of the television executives, a lot does actually stick to the wall. One such show is Continuum.

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Pictured: the man in charge of all Syfy programming.

Its premise hooked me quick. In the year 2077, governments across North America have defaulted, and corporations bailed them out. State sovereignty no longer exists, and the North American Union is administered by a Corporate Congress, where the most powerful corporations run everything. So what’s different, you may ask. Fair enough. Today, if a corporation does not like an organization, they will take a senator out to a very nice lunch and talk to them about all the nice lunches and campaign contributions to come in the future if they sponsor legislation against the interests of said organization. In the future of Continuum, corporations own the police, which is now a private security force, and they would simply pay these security professionals to kill literally everyone involved in any way with this organization. Ah, the invisible and silenced gun of the free market! The show opens with the apprehension of the leaders of a terrorist organization that bombed the Corporate Congress and killed thousands of people. They are going to be mass-executed in a weird future electric-dais thingy, but when the machine activates, the terrorists throw a device into it. Kiera, our hero, is a cop guarding the detainees. She sprints towards the machine to see what’s going on, and then all people anywhere near it disappear in a massive blast. Kiera wakes up in Vancouver in 2012. All the terrorists went back in time as well, and she has to singlehandedly stop them, relying on nothing more than her pluck, determination, and highly advanced bio-implants and supersuit.

The show is hybrid organism, SF-time-travel tissue over a procedural cop drama endoskeleton. The presence of technology in the show is appealing. Kiera is sent back in time solo, but she has many implants (for example, a communications suite implanted directly into her brain/ears, and an eye implant that provides a super-soldier style HUD, can take fingerprints, record evidence, etc) and a standard-issue supercop suit, which is bulletproof in addition to giving her enhanced stamina and strength, cloaking abilities, and a built-in taser. Aside from this, and the advanced technology sometimes employed by the terrorists, most of the show stays in 2012 as far as equipment goes. The technology is central to the narrative, but it is non-intrusive. Kiera’s main weapon is not her suit, but her ability to insinuate herself into the Vancouver Police Department and use police strategies to track down her targets. The story definitely relies on the tropes of future-tech, but it’s not overused, nor is it ever the source of some goofy deus-ex-machina. Kiera herself is the center of the show – torn away from her family (a husband and a little boy), unable to get back, knowing that any change made by her or the terrorists could mean her son will never exist (like Back to the Future, but with less Chuck Berry and more complete isolation and existential terror). The show also does well by not simplifying the terrorists – sure, these are mass-murdering monsters, but the system they want to bring down is horrifying. Kiera wants to take them out to preserve her way of life, which her and many people in 2077 enjoy. Fine, woohoo, let’s root for Kiera! On the other hand, if you go into debt in that world, they implant you with a chip that turns you into a hindbrain-using meatpuppet building microchips in a dark factory forever, so the goals of the terrorists, if not their methods, are eminently understandable. There is a delicious complexity around this issue – as an audience member, do you root for the good person supporting a corrupt system, or for the bad people trying to take down that system?

The season one trailer, to get a basic feel for the actiony parts of the show

The most high-minded trope of the show is time travel. None of the big players fully understand how it works – they work under the assumption that present actions will change future consequences, but they don’t really know anything. The show draws a lot of water from this well, but it’s okay because the well is very deep. Some questions raised are how can the terrorists even know their actions will have the outcomes they want, how can Kiera ever return to her actual future now that her very presence in the past is changing it, and how, over the course of time, people become what they are. This last question is explored mainly through Alec Sadler, Kiera’s hacker buddy (no timewrecked futurecop ever goes long without finding a hacker friend). He meets Kiera because the rig he built in his parent’s barn can access her military-encoded communications chip. This is because he built that chip, or will build it – Alec Sadler is the CEO of the biggest corporation in the North American Union, which makes him de facto leader of the world. He is the one behind many of the evils of 2077, but in 2012, he’s just a shy, geeky tech dude. In a standard cop drama, seeing the hacker buddy becoming ever more competent, more self-confident, seeing him get the girl and outwit the competition, would be a positive thing. In Continuum, there is always an ominous shadow over his character development, as it is taking him ever closer to becoming basically King Bowser.

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Pictured: Alec Sadler. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. Of course, in the future, he feeds them with the blood of his enemies, so.

The show uses some tired cop-drama tropes, but it is concept-driven, entertaining, and while it’s not quite as cerebral as Primer, it explores the intricacies and implications of time travel with honesty and detail. You should watch it, and the following five words are the most convincing part of my (or really anyone’s) argument to watch Continuum (or really any show): every episode is on Netflix.

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.

Major Issues: Escape from Jesus Island #2

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

Gardner Mounce

Escape from Jesus Island #2
Written by Shawn French
Art by Mortimer Glum
Letters by Peter Parker
Self-published
Released 9/17/14

Full disclosure: I had trouble picking a comic to review this week. All of the comics I bought at my local comic shop I had reviewed before or didn’t come out this past week. So, heart pounding, I scoured Comixology’s new releases for something that struck my interest. Finding nothing, I went at it from a different angle. I tried to find the most ridiculous thing possible. I think you see where this is going. Ladies and gentlemen, Escape from Jesus Island.

Escape from Jesus Island is about a corporation called ReGen that attempts to clone Jesus on a remote island by using the nails once used to crucify him on the cross. Many mistakes are made, and ReGen is left with a horde of mutants (“Christards”) whom they use in divinity-testing experiments. The Pope catches wind of Regen’s efforts to clone the King of Kings and sends a team to infiltrate the island to rescue him.

Obviously, the creative team behind EFJI has two goals with this project: maximum camp and maximum horror. It’s all kitsch and viscera, exploiting every horror movie trope, pushing every limit until it’s all a hilarious mess. It had me scanning the credits for some mention of Sam Raimi.

It’s irreverent and silly, but some of the humor rises above the camp with a nimble Vonnegutian edge. Issue two opens with, “In the beginning, God created earth, where animals lived in harmony with the natural world for millions of years. Then God created man, and that was the end of that.”

The art has a photorealistic quality that lends itself to twisted violence. A more representational style would have made this feel less Evil Dead and more Stick Wars. But the horror is over-the-top and pretty damn scary. Just check out the following image:

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Should You Get It?

You’ll love this if you’re the sort of person who enjoys over-the-top comics like Preacher or movies like Evil Dead and I Spit On Your Grave.

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