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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What Went Wrong With Chappie

Okay, let's talk about Chappie.

Since I saw its trailer, I've been through months of indecision whether or not to put it on my Netflix Queue. I love robot movies, but reviews were terribly mixed - one YouTuber put it on his best of 2015 list and another put it on his worst list. When one critic called it a combination of "Short Circuit" and "Robocop", I couldn't say no anymore.

Overall, it's a highly flawed movie. The concept isn't original, but it's not a cliche. The story has peaks and valleys, like it should, but it's overshadowed by hammy actors. I can't help but see it as a replication of "Short Circuit". Maybe because that's my favorite movie of all time.

But even if it wasn't all the parallels are there. There's the same "learning to walk" moments, not saying words correctly, seeing death for the first time, being fascinated by TV, an Indian programmer who's his "dad", a "break the woobie" scene, a problem with the battery running out, being duped into committing a crime, then going psycho when he learns about it. They both even get covered in graffiti.

You can tell how plausible the movie is going to treat this concept by the "creation" scene. Our kid genius is the lead programmer for cop robots (of whom Chappie is), but he's trying to create an AI in his spare time, drinking Red Bull fetched by his proto-bots. Then there's a montage of him in his hacker cave, typing and compiling -- action! screens! mayhem! excitement! beeping! No one will be seated during the programming scene!

And the only way he can tell it's "done" is if it passes 100% of some arbitrary test. Isn't the real test of intelligence something only humans could measure? Isn't that the point of making it? And at the end, the whole of consciousness can be contained in a single .DAT file.

This is a movie made of two parts. One is the evolution of learning. This is something we've seen before in every robot story: Star Trek's Data, Pinocchio, Terminator. They all have that "cute learning" scene where they look around at stuff and inadvertently break it. He gets a book and gets all "Dis is Chappie's book?" He accidentally pours out milk and freaks out. He starts imitating He-Man on TV. It would be just a rehash of "Short Circuit 2" if it wasn't for the second part: Gangsta Life.

Instead of Johnny 5 Chappie being raised by a kind-hearted animal lover, he's captured/held hostage by two street punks (a girl and a guy). This causes conflict between what his creator wants and what the punks want -- a cop robot in their pocket. (And I'm not even talking about how freaky they look/act or their grinding music.) The "mom" is more nurturing, but all the "dad" wants is something he can use to steal cars and make heists. He acts like Shredder in "TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze".

Babies! They are... babies!

This is where it loses the audience. There's too much dissonance between the culture that's enthralled by AI and the one interested in gangsta life. I applaud the creator for trying to put the two together -- I love mixing genres like this -- but it just doesn't work. You can't combine "Menace II Society" with "Bicentennial Man". It doesn't work because their goal is to turn Chappie into a jerk. He becomes like the bullies in high school, acting tough and doing what anyone tells him. Plus he gets lots of other annoying characteristics, like a faux-South African accent (which sounds more Jamaican to me).

And then there's the "my god, not all humans are friendly!?" scene, where "daddy" drops him in gangland territory and leaves him to get tortured. You'd think if he wanted to get rid of him he could have thought of something more profitable. But this is so we can have our "break the cutie" moment. In "Short Circuit", it's enough to make a man cry, but in "Chappie", it's so forced and telegraphed it's laughable. There isn't enough time for us to fall in love with him before this happens. Granted, Johnny Five had the benefit of a previous movie, but if you haven't earned it, you can't play it.

Who am I supposed to sympathize with here? I know it's supposed to be Chappie, but you're not going to accomplish that when he's talking too fast and continually wiping his non-existent nose like he has a coke problem (because that's a thing gangstas do, apparently). Certainly not the gang-bangers. The Indian programmer? He doesn't have enough personality or backstory to make me care, not even with Hugh Jackman punking his ass. I thought Jackman was a good villain until the movie browbeats us when he throws down the programmer on his desk AT WORK AND HOLDS A GUN TO HIS HEAD. What company wouldn't fire him after that? Is this a South African thing?

I can't discount Chappie's design either. It's not that he's all CG. That never bothered me -- I never thought that Chappie wasn't there. As I understand it, Sharlto Copley did the mocap in-scene, like Andy Serkis. So the fact that the acting is fine is also its downfall -- Chappie moves too humanly. Too fluidly. Chappie is shaped and moves like so close to a humanoid that, from a distance, he could be easily mistaken for a person in a helmet.

Whereas Johnny Five was intentionally designed to look like a clunky robot. Even though he was cute, you could never mistake him for a human. And that was the point of the story. His "tankness" affirms his original purpose for battle and violence, which makes his changeover all the more poignant. Chappie moves like a human who was rotoscoped. Which is what he was.

Robot movies are meant to give the audience a renewed appreciation of life by showing it through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time. And how important free will by showing someone designed not to have any. But none of this gets covered. Chappie acts like a curious toddler, calling his kidnappers "mommy" and "daddy", even when they abuse him. His journey is marred by the ridiculous gang members and his desire to be like them. The ending provokes some agonizingly recondite philosophical questions when human consciousness is transferred into a robot body. Doesn't anyone have anything to say about that? We now have a way to make people immortal and bring them back from the dead? No one wants to acknowledge that the Singularity just happened?

You get a robot body! You get a robot body! Everyone gets a robot body!
From a movie-maker's perspective, it's just kind of sad -- taking these themes and corrupting them with a comic mess of "blings" and "Chappie no crimes". I just want my Short Circuit 3.

P.S. I want to see Chappie vs. the District 9 aliens. Can that be Neill Blomkamp's next movie?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Books I Read: March - April 2016

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

For some reason, my library sent me Calamity, the third book in the series, before Firefight. This made me have to buy Firefight and quickly read it. Last year, Steelheart was one of the very very few five star books I read, so I figured I had to pick up the sequel. It does a good job of expanding on the world established in the first book, while not deviating too much from the formula (going to a city to kill a powerful superhero). This time, it's a water-manipulator in a flooded Manhattan, who's got an exploder and miscellaneous other villains.

Like most second parts of a trilogy, it's the saggiest, weakest of the three. But it's just as fast-paced, raised stakes, and blend of character and action. Once again, the action is pretty cinematic, which means if you have trouble visualizing what you read, you're gonna have a bad time. But if you're reading the second book in a series, you probably read the first. Which means you already know what to expect. So why are you reading this?

Calamity by Brandon Sanderson

So the big thing that everyone wants to know with a trilogy is whether it ends on a satisfactory note. I can tell you that this one does. A proper blend of conclusion and surprises that lets you know the journey was worth it.

If you're on the third book of a tightly-focused trilogy, either you're going to read it or you aren't. You don't need a review, you already know what you're getting into. What I will say is that, although there are definitely flaws (it feels like Sanderson is writing a movie instead of a book) and there are hanging plot threads that make one wonder "what happened with that?" or "how does that work?" But the characters are people you want to be around, and many people report "being blown away". So try it, why not?

Your Movie Sucks by Roger Ebert

I must be some kind of media sadist, because I cannot get enough of tearing down bad movies, books, and songs. That's why I can't stop watching Channel Awesome and YouTube. But before them, we had Roger Ebert. I've already remarked how I never appreciated him enough as a writer, especially when you've got to talk about the same subject over and over in a million different ways. And even more especially when that subject is "Freddy Got Fingered".

These reviews are so fun to read. He's so creative how he finds different flaws in each movie, even when they might be the same exact thing, like Resident Evil and Jason X. I especially love the ire he has for romantic comedies -- the ones with uber-contrived plots and implausible characters. This is probably only for the generation within the timespan of the 2000's or so. If it's a movie you haven't seen, chances are you won't appreciate the snark.

They're not all gold. Sometimes the reviews are just asinine, like the crux of his "Good Dog!" review is that the animals' mouths don't move. In another, he complains that they do. Neither of these things have any impact on the actors, story, cinematography, or anything else. It's a stylistic choice. Of course, if you've already made your decision to see "Good Dog!", there's little a Pulitzer Prize winner can do to convince you otherwise. Like the Nostalgia Critic says - if the movie is good, you overlook the mistakes. And if not, the nitpicks glare at you.

Coming Out Like a Porn Star: Essays on Pornography, Protection, and Privacy edited by Jiz Lee

All the essays are the same and reinforce the cliches. Either the parents couldn't believe it or didn't care. They come from crappy backgrounds, got into it on a whim, and ended up going nowhere. Lots missed the point of the collection - talking about how one's job in the industry affects those around you. Most are self-centered essays about how hard it is being a porn star when everyone hates you. And they're too short to build up a decent narrative. There's too much focus on the LGBTQ industry and niches-within-niches. I'd only heard of three of the authors, and I try and keep up on the big starlets. Erm, for research. On current events. That's it.

The First Book of Swords by Fred Saberhagen

Is there such a thing as a revenge-read? In college, my roommate lent me this trilogy because I was writing a fantasy novel. But I was just not in a place to be reading fiction at the time. I forced myself through the first book and gave up partway through the second. But now I'm grown up with a longer attention span and more downtime.

Turns out I didn't remember much of it at all. Things I remember happening in a small town actually happened in a castle, and to different characters, whom I didn't remember. It has all the earmarks of eighties fantasy. Saberhagen's talent for word choice is not great. In one sentence, he uses the term "earth" three times. And that ends up in the front-page excerpt. It has a brutal "Conan the Barbarian" overwritten style -- epic battles are bogged down by too much description and not enough dialogue -- but I do love me some magic weapons.

It's a fine premise, but a product of its time -- poorly executed, full of tropes. It's fine for people who grew up on early D&D. There's a reason I had to buy this used. It's one of those books that could become a good movie, but remains a bad book. Too bad -- imagine the merchandising behind twelve swords. That's twelve collectible Burger King cups!

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

When I learned in the first chapter it's about a teenager dealing with her dad's sudden death, I wasn't sure I could get through it. But I did, and I'm glad. The problem is it seemed to go on forever (pardon the pun).

It's a romance, which means that the plot events within are few and far between. It's more about two people getting to know each other and overcoming the secrets they keep within. And as far as "sticking it to the bad guys" (in a romance, that means the guy everyone thinks she's 'meant' to be with, like the fiancee in "You've Got Mail"), that is left unsatisfying (especially because he's a little robotic twerp).

But there are some nice lines and some quotable passages. The main characters aren't terribly memorable, but the side characters are (there's one pair of girls that are like a female Jay and Silent Bob). It's not forgettable, but it's not unforgettable. I'd say it's worth a read, if for nothing else than the wit.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Why Video Game Movies Keep Failing

Why do video game movies keep failing? Look at this list: Not one cracks through the "fresh" barrier. Not one above 50%. Not one broke $400 million. Yet, they keep on coming.

"Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" is the highest grossing of them all and it had fuck all to do with the video game. Not to mention white-washing several characters. It was the John Carter of its time (which was actually at about the same time, directed by Jerry Bruckheimer, he of "The Lone Ranger" and "G-Force", the movie about spy hamsters). "Resident Evil" movies have had some success, but they're full of tedious action and zero plot. Only fans of the video game series keep the movie series going and no one with a newspaper to write for is going to praise a movie full of zombies, CG, and girls flipping around with guns.

More known is the fact that video game movies are some of the worst every screened - "Alone in the Dark", "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation", "House of the Dead", "BloodRayne", "Street Fighter". By money and reviews "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" is the best that has been offered. Why does this keep happening?

I'll tell you why. Because the producers and directors keep twisting them into things they're not.

"Resident Evil" is not an action-horror game. It's an atmospheric setting of terror inspired by the films of George A. Romero. It's full of jump scares, camera angles that hide stuff, and lots of dread. There are no matrix jumps or rogue AIs.

"Mortal Kombat" is not a buddy movie about three strangers becoming friends as they discover the innocent place they were going harbors a dark secret (that's Harry Potter). It's a martial arts movie like "Enter the Dragon" combined with violence like "The Running Man". It's not PG-13.

"Super Mario Bros." is not... whatever that movie was about. "Super Mario Bros." the video game is about... well, I'm not sure about that either. But it should never have been a movie. It's too trippy, doesn't have a story, doesn't have character relationships, and the only reason producers made it is because they're the most recognizable mascots.

"Silent Hill" is about being lost in a misty town where satanic shit's going on and disfigured monsters want to kill you and you have to figure out why. That's why I like the Silent Hill movie. Even though it used different characters and a different plot, it stayed true to the spirit of the material. And that's the key.

You aren't going to be able to perfectly translate a video game into a movie -- not even a cinematic one like Parasite Eve or Vagrant Story or God of War or Deus Ex. The mediums just don't line up. But we're not asking for a perfect translation from game to screen. We're asking for respect of the source material.

There is no reason there can't be a good video game movie. It just hasn't happened yet. Because these directors and producers don't care. They see some franchise that the kids like and slap it on whatever screenplay was shoved under their bathroom stall yesterday. But as time goes on, people who did grow up with these characters, who know what it felt like to play the game, will be able to put that same feeling into the movie.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

How to Prevent Trolls

I figured out a way to deal with trolls. You know banning accounts and IP addresses only you gets you so far. It's easy to create new ones or spoof addresses. There hasn't been a successful way of preventing them from returning from the pit, except "don't feed them". Until now. How do you do it? Simple.

To register a new profile, you have to fill out a new required field: Mom's phone number. And it must be confirmed for the registration to go through (so you can't give it to your friend). No need for banning, no need for strikes or filters. Anyone caught trolling gets a text to mom containing the offending content.

We'll see how many trolls stick around after that.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Let's Laugh at the Guy Who Doesn't Know Marvel Comics (Part 6)

Human Torch

Blond guy who can light himself on fire and shoot fireballs. Can also fly because the fire "makes the air around him lighter". Personality is a lovable smart ass with poofy blonde hair. He's part of a group called the Fantastic Four, which is a quartet of people who went to space and came back with powers based on the four elements.

Hydra Agent

I think he looks more like an agent for Lizard. Cannon fodder for the evil organization HYDRA, which is, I believe, what Hitler left behind. They are fond of saying "where one head dies, two more grow back". How they continue to get recruits is beyond me. You gotta be both a cult and a criminal AND a holdover secret society from 1945. And the green bug costumes aren't doing any favors.


You know I'm not playing. Devastate to show what the turtles are saying. The X-Man who has power over ice and cold. Opposite to Pyro. And Human Torch. And Ghost Rider. He can coat his body in ice and fly, kinda, by creating an "ice slide" he skids up and down, kinda like Frozone.

Invisible Woman

As you can see in this picture, not always invisible. Unrelated to any H.G. Wells fiction, Invisible Woman is married to Stretchy Man (Mr. Fantastic). But she can do more than turn invisible -- she can also form forcefields and throw telekinetic strikes.  Unfortunately, she really doesn't have much of a personality beyond that. She seems like a damsel in distress and she's rarely appeared in the comic books I've read. They always focus on The Thing and Mr. Fantasy Mr. Fantastic. Sorry, Mr. Fantasy is a totally different comic book.

Iron Fist

Wait, didn't I just do this guy? Oh, no wait, this guy is some sort of karate guru. He must know Super Karate, otherwise he wouldn't be a superhero. Plus he's wearing rather villain-y clothing -- same color scheme as H.Y.D.R.A., Green Goblin, Polaris, etc.  Unusual to see a chop socky martial artist in a gang of superheroes.

Iron Man 

All the Iron Man's have different abilities and configurations, which makes him basically a superhero Swiss army knife.  Heroic Age is the most basic -- the ENIAC of Iron Man suits.  The Hulkbuster is the most fun. It's like piloting a mech. And when it comes out, you know there's going to be a fight of Godzilla proportions. Mark 42 is the most useful--it has lasers for burning, missiles for long distance, flight, and computer unlocking.  Everyone's favorite.

J. Jonah Jameson

Peter Parker's boss at the newspaper office. Funkiest hair in the world. Basically the Marvel version of Donald Trump. Wants pictures of Spider-Man.

Jean Grey

Psychic woman who Wolverine may or may not be in love with. Apparently she's the most desirable woman in the world despite having no personality. She's also the most psychic, more than Dr. Xavier. This means she can die and come back to life whenever the story wants it.


Giant man with a bowling ball head.  I guess when he starts running he can't be stopped unless he stops himself. Except for some things which are immovable? I'm not really sure. And it's not because he's a mutant, but he's got some sort of alien jewel in his helmet. The only ways I've seen him stopped are by Kitty Pryde dragging him through the floor or baiting him into knocking himself out.


A very big fat man who is the acting crime king in the Marvel Universe. I guess that's all muscle under his suit, not fat. He usually carries around a cane and wears an all white business suit. He's mostly the arch-villain of Daredevil, but I've seen him fight Spider-Man plenty of times to be in doubt.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Lure of the Dark Side

In 1989, Batman came out. The first to show a superhero living in a world that took things seriously. As serious as you can when a man falls in acid and can't stop laughing.

Now what I didn't get, being a sociopathically lawful good paladin, was why everybody loved the Joker so much. You can't *like* a bad guy. That's just not done. He kills people.

Over the years, I've learned the appeal of bad guys. It's because giving into your dark side lets you release the frustrations and feelings that are not so good to do in real life. I think that's one of the reasons why so many people claim the dark side of the force. It's easy to see people giving into their impulses and say "I want to do that". (Just as long as you don't call it "magic".)

That brings me to Kylo Ren. It seems the world is split in the opinion that he is either a emo white male with so much privilege that he has temper tantrums when he doesn't get his way. Or he's a good kid raised in bad circumstances, and that if he had a loving mother and father and no force sensitivity, he'd be fine.

I, in particular, like Kylo Ren, maybe a little more than I think I should, because I identify with him the most of the new Star Wars characters. People expected great things of him, but things went wrong for one reason or another. Like all of us, we think we're going to save the world, become president, do great things. No doubt Kylo Ren suffered from this. Saddled with being the son of not one but two of the galaxy's saviors, and taught by the third because he was discovered to be proficient in the magic power that won the war in the first place. Talk about expectations.

Now I don't know why Ren has an affinity for Vader, who was pretty much the Hitler of the rebel alliance. I believe that must have come after his turn to the dark side, but time will tell. In either case, that's another legacy he's got to live up to. Is it any wonder he feels entitled to rule the galaxy?

This is the person Anakin Skywalker should have been in the prequels. And he was, up to a point, but when the galaxy is clean and utopian, it just amplifies his whininess. Ren's whininess is still there, but less annoying. Because he's not a complainer, he's a doer. Someone fires a blaster at you? Freeze it in mid-air. Someone's not giving up information? Yank it out with the force. Woman you were interrogating escaped your torture chamber? Wreck the place with your unstable lightsaber.

We live in a world of moderation. You always have to be nice. You have to be civil. No tantrums. No killing anyone that annoys you. No drinking too much or too little. No going too fast or too slow. Everything's gotta be just the right amount. Problems with your boss? You can't just whack him upside the head and say "leave me alone, you idiot, just let me do my job". You can't shove moron cars out of your way with the Force.

Maybe that's why so many Star Wars fans embrace the dark side powers and characters. It revolves around power and fear. Its effects tend toward the short term or immediate. Light side revolves around healing and knowledge. It takes time to figure out how to use it effectively, and what to do once you've used it. Kylo Ren satisfies our darker impulses. It works on a more personal level.

I can't remember where I saw it, but each villain in the trilogies applies to our fears at the time. Episodes 4, 5, and 6 - a faceless dictator. Episodes 1, 2, 3 - a government plunging us into a distant war to gain power. For 7 (and presumably onward) an angry white male with a lot of power and entitlement issues.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Analyzing the Disney Villains: Shere Khan (The Jungle Book)

Origin: The Jungle Book (1967)

I had to double-check that I hadn't done this one already. Disney's done so many poncey cats that they all blur together.

Motivation: Shere Khan is the most fearsome beast there is. The Terminator of the Indian jungle. But he has one weakness - fear of fire. Why? We don't know. I expect something traumatic in his cubhood. But he's pretty safe because the only way to something starts on fire in the forest is lightning. No one can create fire except for man and there is no man in the jungle oh no wait there's TOTALLY man in the jungle.

Character Strengths: Classy, stylish, and supremely confident. Usually big cats, especially tigers, are portrayed too cuddly, as in Robin Hood or The Lion King. This one, by looking at it, I'm afraid he'll kill me. Others treat him like the Queen of Hearts, but where that was fantasy, this is teeth and claws.

Evilness: So if maintaining his throne is motivation, the movie does him a great disservice. Because while everyone acts intimidated enough, Shere Khan never DOES anything. He doesn't show up until the last fifteen minutes of the movie, and he cannot even frighten the one guy he's gunning for. Not only that, but Baloo and Bagheera overcome their fears when they see Mowgli in danger, making the tiger's reputation sheer bupkiss. Khan is nothing more than a maguffin to keep the characters moving.

Tools: He's got nothing but a reputation and claws. He doesn't kill anything. Kaa fools him, the vultures jeer him. This is not Life of Pi.

Complement to the Hero: The "idea" behind this conflict is good. When they finally meet, Mowgli is not afraid and Khan doesn't know what to do. I find that hilarious, but rarely do villains go down in history for not making the protagonist quake in fear. In fact, most of the movie is troubleshooting Mowgli's brash, childish behavior -- teaching him to fear what he should. On the other hand, the lack of fear works out for him, as if he'd run from Khan, I bet he would have died. On the other other hand, he's not exactly confronting his fears, making him hard to root for.

Fatal Flaw: Overconfidence. Khan is the six hundred pound gorilla in the jungle (I mean, besides the actual six hundred pound gorilla in the jungle). Everyone treats him like The Mad King. When Mowgli stands up to him, Khan should immediately notice something amiss. Instead, he thinks it's cute. He's even willing to give his enemy a ten-second head start. This, of course, violates one of my favorite rules of combat: never interrupt your enemy when he's making a mistake.

Method of Defeat/Death: Mowgli picks up a stick, daring Khan to attack him. He does, but Baloo CONVENIENTLY jumps in and stops him. While Baloo has the tiger by the tail, the vultures who Mowgli CONVENIENTLY came across fly him to safety. As a CONVENIENT storm rolls in, Khan shreds Baloo, until a bolt of lightning CONVENIENTLY strikes a CONVENIENT dead tree, setting a CONVENIENT branch on CONVENIENT fire. Mowgli ties it to Shere Khan's tail (who CONVENIENTLY doesn't notice) and the tiger runs off, presumably with PTSD for the rest of his life (if he didn't burn alive first).

Final Rating: Two stars

Aunt Sarah (Lady and the Tramp)
Yzma (The Emperor's New Groove)
Percival C. McLeach (The Rescuers Down Under)
Ichabod Crane (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad)
Lady Tremaine (Cinderella)
Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas)
Pinocchio's Villains (Pinocchio)
Sykes (Oliver and Company)
Alameda Slim (Home on the Range)
Rourke (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog)
Gaston (Beauty and the Beast)
Willie the Giant (Mickey and the Beanstalk)
Hades (Hercules)
The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland)
Jafar (Aladdin)
Shan Yu (Mulan)
Man (Bambi)
Clayton (Tarzan)
The Horned King (The Black Cauldron)
Mother Gothel (Tangled)
Cobra Bubbles (Lilo and Stitch)
Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians)
Madame Medusa (The Rescuers)
Captain Hook (Peter Pan)
Amos Slade (The Fox and the Hound)
Madam Mim (The Sword in the Stone)
Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Scar (The Lion King)
Prince John (Robin Hood)
Edgar (The Aristocats)
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)