Movies: Apparently, I am the anti-Kevin Smith

There have been several movies in my recent past. Half of them were The Avengers, because I liked it a lot and ended up seeing it five times as I dragged other people off to see it.

Tonight was Rock of Ages. The story is weak, and the soundtrack is awesome. Frankly, if you went to this movie for the story… what the hell? I’ll give a pass to people who were not yet alive in the late 1980s, but everyone else has no goddamned excuse. Rock! Anthems! The movie is cheesy and they’ve replaced the “drugs” part of “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” with alcohol to avoid an R rating, but if you’re the type who feels that you can express yourself using songs just as well as words (or used to be during the 80s), it’s a fun flick. Not a *good* flick, but a fun flick. Mind you, it’s a musical: if you’re not comfortable with a movie world where it’s perfectly normal to break into song on a bus and have the rest of the passengers sing right back at you instead of glaring at you and demanding that you shut the hell up… you should probably avoid this movie, because that’s the opening scene. I’m not sorry that I saw it nor that I paid full price, and I’d see it again and still pay full price, just to be able to chair dance and pretend to sing along. (I sing along for real in private spaces, but I recognize that in movie theaters, the other patrons are more likely to glare and/or hit me than cheer me on or sing back at me, bus scenes notwithstanding. So I content myself with lip-syncing.)

Also, I giggled insanely at the very last line in the credits, which is the usual disclaimer of “None of these people are real people, they are all fictitious and not intended to be depictions of any persons alive or dead.” Yeeeeeaaaah. They may not be exactly biographical, but they were very much inspired by real people. Like the music, the characters are mashups of multiple real people, but still very recognizable if you were paying any attention in the late 80s and early 90s.

So I was excited when the big ad plastered all over Cracked.com was for Spoilers with Kevin Smith where the topic of the episode was Rock of Ages. A mainstream(ish) show produced by Hulu (yay, Internet entertainment revolution!)? Starring Kevin Smith? Discussing movies? What’s not to love?

… well, if you are me, Kevin’s taste in movies. Spoilers takes a bunch of people to see a movie on the condition that they talk about the movie afterward. They pretty much hated Rock of Ages. Complaints about the story, I can understand. The one chick who claimed to be the target demographic because she “is a theater major and likes musicals” and then complained because they used a Jefferson Starship song is quite deluded about being the target demographic. I realize it used to be cool to make fun of Jefferson Starship to show how “elite” your musical tastes were, but 1) that was decades ago, and now you’re supposed to be making fun of Justin Beiber to show you have taste, 2) I like the song, 3) it *is* a rock song whether she likes it or not, and 4) the song completely fits the situation. Complaints about not knowing whether the movie is trying to take itself seriously or not are… not terribly observant, because the entire movie is one large parody of the late 80s, and it opens with a goddamned “everyone on the bus is singing at the female lead” scene. Why on earth would you have ever gotten the idea that the movie thinks of itself as serious?

To be honest, I have no idea if they relented later in the Spoilers episode, because I stopped watching it. I was intrigued by the title of the first episode, Girls Just Wanna Have Guns, so I switched over to that episode in the hopes that it would be better. It turned out to be about Snow White and the Huntsman, which I saw with my sister-in-law and the kids last Thursday… and which Kevin and crew loved.

Snow White and the Huntsman is not a good movie. The first problem is with casting: Kristen Stewart as Snow White against Charlize Theron as the evil queen leads to a serious problem with suspension of disbelief, because even when Theron is digitally aged, she’s still hotter than Stewart, so that whole “fairest” thing goes right out the window. Part of THAT is with costuming and make-up: Stewart isn’t exactly a horrific monster in the looks department, but the clothing doesn’t suit her and neither does the dark-and-grim setting of the entire effing movie. Stewart also doesn’t do so well at the “naive and pure and innocent” character that they’re trying to make Snow White out to be. A notable problem for me is her smile, which 99% of the time has a strange little lip-curl that makes it look like a sneer (she’s got one nice, sweet smile in the entire movie, and all it accomplished was to make the sneer-smile more off-putting). There are lots of characters I could see that sneer-smile working for. The perfect Snow White they’re trying to push in the movie is not one of them.

The second problem is with motivation. Nobody seems to have a very good one. There’s a part of me that thinks maybe all the motivations ended up on a cutting room floor, because the evil queen DOES have a backstory that tries to provide a motivation… it just doesn’t really start showing up until the last 20 minutes of the movie, by which point it’s too little, too late. What might have been trying to be hints and setup for that just comes off as bored justification. The Huntsman actually manages to get his story out, so points there. The rest? Not so much. Random people follow or help or bless Snow White and claim that she’s going to be the one to make it all better, but there’s never any explanation as to why they’re so sure.

The third problem is that story elements that could have been interesting just show up when it’s plot-convenient and then disappear (like the village full of scarred women. They do explain why they’re scarred, which is a total spoiler, and why there are no men… but not why there are no young boys, nor how they got where they are, and once Snow leaves the village the women never show back up ever again). Having a vibrant world that exists independently of the main characters is a good thing. Having a bunch of “wouldn’t it be cool if” areas that exist only to help the main characters out of a jam and disappear back into the ether is a bad thing. The difference? You have to see the “vibrant world” pieces again, and have something have happened off-screen. Or have the pieces of the world talk about each other. Or interact with each other. The only acknowledgement from the rest of the world that any given area exists is when the queen’s enforcers show up on Snow White’s heels to capture her, and she has to flee to the next “wouldn’t it be cool if?” area.

I stopped watching that episode of Spoilers when Kevin Smith said that Snow White and the Huntsman is “The Avengers for girls.” No. You know what The Avengers for girls is? The Avengers. Please stop thinking that girls have to have their own kick-ass movies because “boy” movies just aren’t good enough for them, and just make good movies. Chances are pretty good that both genders will like them. If nothing else: despite all the flack about Black Widow “just being there for the T&A”, The Avengers has some amazing eye candy for the ladies. Also, I do not understand the “Black Widow doesn’t have any special gimmick and therefore must just be there for show” complaint. The other characters have to rely on their gimmicks and can be rendered nearly useless by taking away their One Special Toy, whereas Black Widow can kick some serious ass with whatever’s handy, even when she is in an evening dress and tied to a fucking chair.

After the “Avengers for girls” comment, I also didn’t bother watching the second episode, which is about Prometheus. John and CJ saw it; I wasn’t interested enough to go with them, and I was about done listening to people with the complete opposite tastes from me talk about how much they liked what I hated and hated what I liked.

A quick wrap-up for the other movies I’ve seen since The Avengers came out:

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Sweet, mostly. The character I most wanted to slap for the majority of the film turned out to be … well, still annoying, but I liked her resolution far better than any of the other options. I didn’t like the one death; not because it was unexpected that there would be at least one death in a movie about retirees heading off to India because they couldn’t afford to live in England anymore, but because the timing was too trope-like. Details would be spoilers, and I know at least one person who still wants to see it.

Pirates!: Better than it had any right to be. Queen Victoria is evil. Charles Darwin is evil. Pirates are masters of disguises. It’s based on a book that I had no idea existed, but CJ had read. (He’s since loaned it to me, and the movie is sufficiently different from the book that part of my interest is just in “what else did they change?” Both are really funny.) The trailer did not do this movie justice, and I’m sad that it went away rather quickly, because I totally would have dragged people off to see this movie.

Men In Black 3: With the exception of the “daddy issues” gun-on-the-mantel for most of the movie (and the resolution of that, which you could spot a mile away), I liked this movie. They had a perfect opportunity to destroy all of the continuity, and they didn’t– instead, they ended up using the time travel to reinforce the existing movies rather than make changes to the timeline. John and I both enjoyed MIB 1 & 2, but I was a little worried about how well it would translate for CJ, who had never seen the first two movies, but he said that everything mostly made sense to him, so that’s an extra plus. (On a related note: we would have made CJ watch the first two movies, except that our copy of MIB 1 seems to have gone missing. If you have any information on where it might have ended up, or if you have acquired a copy of it and you can’t recall how you got it, please let me know.)

Movies: The Avengers

I don’t generally do movie reviews. I’m much better at books. Movie reviews tend to be more time-sensitive, and I’m not so good at time-sensitive. It’s also a lot harder for me to talk about movies without revealing spoilers (I think I did okay here; the ones that I did reveal are minor, and usually in the prequels rather than in The Avengers itself). That said: The Avengers was so amazing, I feel inspired to talk about it… which is not exactly the same as reviewing it.

I admit, I was both nervous and excited about The Avengers. I love a lot of what Joss Whedon has done, but the parts I don’t love, I tend to reeeeeaally dislike. Whedon has a history of killing off people you’ve grown very attached to, just for the emotional impact of it, regardless of whether it helps the story along. (Minor spoiler: he does kill off a character in The Avengers. While I was sad to see that character die, I do think it helped the story along a little.) Whedon is known for strong female characters and less so for strong male characters, so I joined the crowd in worrying about the movie becoming The Avengers: Black Widow and Her Slavering Idiots. I hadn’t even bothered seeing Captain Americabecause that movie seemed boring, and I truly disliked The Incredible Hulk. Thor was a weak film, and Loki was a weak villain in that film. I did love Iron Man and Iron Man 2, largely because I heart Robert Downey Jr., but I was also really worried about this movie being The Avengers: Tony Stark Brings Some Friends Along To Tell Him How Awesome He Is While He Does All The Real Work.

I’m pleased to report that all of those fears were unfounded. Black Widow holds her own, but doesn’t run circles around the rest of the team. Tony Stark doesn’t ride roughshod over the plot, Captain America is interesting enough that I’ll probably go back and watch his prequel now that I know a little more about the character, The Hulk has been recast and rewritten to be interesting as well, Thor has more depth and less of a fish-out-of-water aspect to him, and Loki does too– I could actually buy him as the major villain this time. What’s left is Whedon’s remarkable storytelling abilities, with a goodly amount of humor mixed into the serious and poignant.

And thus ends the obligatory review portion of my babbling. On to slightly more philosophical musings:

I have a friend who writes off any movie about superheroes simply because it’s about superheroes. I’m going to try to convince her to see this one anyway, but I already know it’s going to be an uphill battle. The thing is, she’s not exactly wrong. There’s two ways to write a superhero story.

  1. You can focus on the powers and the awesome things the hero can do
  2. You can focus on the person underneath the hero, how being a superhero affects them and the reasons why they do what they do with their powers– why are they a superHERO instead of a superVILLAIN?

Most movies focus on the powers. Most movies are bad because of it. Oh, they’re profitable, because they’re effects-filled extravaganzas most of the time. They are usually wildly entertaining; they’re just not very GOOD. That’s fine, if what you wanted was mindless entertainment with no redeeming value– and there’s a place for that. You can’t be constantly bombarded with just culture and thought-provoking stories, because if you were, you wouldn’t have any time to think about the thought-provoking stuff. But there’s plenty of mindless entertainment already out there, so there’s no reason to bother with mindless entertainment in a genre that doesn’t do anything for you.

The movies that do focus on the person tend to provide weak reasons for them being a hero rather than a villain. The Phantom does it because his family has always does it. Superman does it because his alien parents told him to protect the planet he landed on and his human parents were “good people”. Spiderman does it because his early actions get his uncle killed and he feels guilty– which is better motivation than many, so it’s a pity that Spiderman is generally portrayed as such a whiny loser. Batman does it to avenge his dead parents, which is also passably decent motivation, but I didn’t find Batman terribly interesting until the Christopher Nolan films, in which Batman was willing to do what needed to be done regardless of whether it made him LOOK like a hero. The X-Men movies have a good dichotomy of “mutants should protect the humans” and “mutants should rule over the humans” as played out by Xavier and Magneto, but the individual reasons why each mutant chose the side they did is either lacking entirely or rather weak– and never was that more obvious than in X-Men: First Class when Angel switches over to Magneto’s side. (“Wanna join us?” “Yeah, sure, let’s go.”) Some of this is just a function of the format– when you’ve got a large team of people and two hours to tell a story in, you can’t focus on each of their individual backstories and still have time to tell a decent team story. (The decision to make all the prequels for The Avengers was inspired, because it saved a lot of setup time and produced complex characters with real depth, but I don’t know how well it will work out for people who didn’t see the prequels. I still had a decent grasp on Captain America without seeing his prequel, so I guess it will be okay.)

Contrast this with the two Iron Man prequels. Downey Jr. as Tony Stark makes such a compelling character that he actually becomes LESS interesting when he puts the suit on and starts flying around. He’s a hero, but only in the loosest sense of the word, and mostly because he’s already tried villain (as an arms dealer who sells to the highest bidder regardless of what they plan to do with the weapons) and he’s bored with it. He protects the people and things he cares about, and as for the rest of it…. meh. In other words, just like a real person who was suddenly handed an inordinate amount of power. And yet, Stark already had a lot of power in the form of wealth. The Iron Man suit is just a way for him to play superhero, like an overgrown child who doesn’t want to come in from recess. He’s at his most interesting when circumstances force him to grow up for a little bit– but if he had to grow up all the time, the juxtaposition that makes it interesting would be lost.

There ARE movies that tell a good story about why a person makes the choice between good and evil. Many of them are not superhero movies, and some of the ones that are superhero movies might be better stories if the superhero part were taken out– because to be a superhero, one needs to fight supervillains, and plenty of superheroes fight lame-ass villains who get in the way of the story rather than augment it. (Spiderman, I’m looking at you. Until the Downey Jr. Iron Man movies, I was looking at Iron Man too, so there’s some hope for Spiderman in the future.)

There’s a second aspect here worth discussing, that of Team Movies and how teams start working together, but this is already too long. Perhaps I’ll muse about that some other time. Perhaps not. Time will tell.

Book: Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

I laughed my butt off. Stephanie continues her recent pleasant trend of being vaguely competent, Lulu continues her trend of being really annoying, and the host of sidekicks this time around are amazingly funny. At least this time I didn’t want Lulu to die in a fire, so I suppose that’s progress.

Book: So Faux, So Good by Tamar Myers

I have a soft spot in my heart for Tamar Myers, because she was one of the authors I latched onto early into my foray into mysteries, when I was first realizing how much I like the genre. But if ever there was an author who has a formula, it’s Myers– if you took the character names out of the books, it would be virtually impossible to tell which series the characters are from.

Mostly, this book taught me that I’ve outgrown Myers. I found myself even more frustrated with the heroine than usual, and 90% of the book was her completely and utterly failing to talk to her companions. Also, I could happily strangle pretty much all of the recurring sidekicks.

Book: The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Often, you can figure out where a piece of writing is going by asking yourself “What does the author want to be true?” Pullman wants The Church to be evil. And thus you have a series in which The Church is pure, unvarnished evil.

Story-wise, the series isn’t bad, but there are definitely moments in which I had to stop reading and ask “Seriously? You think God is responsible for all that? WTF?”

This book is clearly the second of a trilogy, and feels weak. It’s chock-full of setup, in which Pullman ties up loose ends from the first book (the body count is shockingly high by the end, and not just faceless minions, but characters I knew and liked) and puts some guns on the mantle so that they can go off in the next book.

In addition to the “that could have had more to it” moments, I was actively disappointed in how the entire-book arc of “Will is looking for his father” ended. Really, Pullman? Why even bother?

But I still plan to read the next one, partly because it’s already been lent to me and partly because I want to see if the third is as good as the first was.

Book: Immortal In Death by J.D. Robb

I still like this series, but I felt this book was weaker than the first two. I’ve gone on and on about the line between “keeping the killer a secret” and “keeping your reader in the dark” and I’ve also written about the challenge in an ongoing series of keeping the character from becoming stale. This book felt “off” on both counts; I knew almost as soon as a certain character was introduced that he was the killer, but it never even occurred to the detective until the very end. Knowing early on is okay, if you can keep the reader second-guessing that knowledge, but I spent most of the book mentally yelling at Eve to stop and *censored* think. Also? Three books into the series, Eve’s nightmares have turned into full-fledged flashbacks and her entire backstory is laid wide open, PLUS she gets married. In the same book. I’m surprised there was room for a murder. I feel like I was cheated out of Eve’s character development; it all got shoved into this book instead of progressing gradually.

And yet? Robb still did a good job of keeping my interest. I’m hoping that this is just a temporary downturn, and more interesting things will happen in the series now that all that icky backstory is out of the way.

Book: Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich

Remember when I said that I was pleased about Evanovich letting the main character of this series get a little more mature? This book felt like a step backwards, in which Stephanie does more stupid things rather than less. Which is a shame, since she handled the bounty-hunter bits with more class and less bumbling than usual.

Also? Lula needs to either grow up or die in a fire, because I’m seriously tired of her.

Book: Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

One of the books that magically appeared with the rest of the Stephanie Plum novels from AJ. It’s a fairly light-hearted romance, with a twist of intrigue and some missing pieces of backstory. I like the main character most of the time, which puts it a step ahead of a lot of romances. Much of the story required an awful lot of suspension of disbelief, but that’s light-hearted romances with twists of intrigue for you.

Book: Glory In Death by J.D. Robb

As good as the first book in the series.

[Note: Not the most useful of reviews, I admit, but that’s how I found the post when I copied it over.  I presume I meant it as much as a “hey stupid, you already read this book!” reminder as an actual review.]

Book: Lethal Justice by Fern Michaels

Not the murder-mystery I was expecting when it was given to me. Not even a mystery, really, since you know exactly who did what right from the start. (The name is completely misleading, as not one person died in the story.) It’s a little weird, jumping into a book that is so obviously in the middle of an ongoing series. Several times, I felt like I was being beaten over the head with “and *this* reference is from an earlier book, and *this* reference is from an earlier book, and…” It was also slightly weird in that I got the sense that one of the major story elements was “tying up an old arc that spanned a couple of books.”

I had considered picking up some of the earlier books and seeing if that made things better, since on the whole the story was enjoyable, just weird. Then AJ sent home 10 books for me to read, and … it will be some time before I get any more of this series. Or any other series.

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