So it’s Halloween week but, due to my not being brought up with such a tradition, I never too compelled to feel, well, Halloween-y. Still, I suppose I have some candies for all of you trick or treaters… but wait, the candy is actually SPIDERS! AHAHAHAHA!
I’m actually feeling Halloween-y after all.
The past month’s controversies over #GamerGate (or as I like to call it, #GooberGrape, or simply “that congregation of misogynist dickless shit weasels”) near put me off the very idea of games, but here’s something that reignited at least some interest on such matters – this new trailer to The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. It truly has everything a fancy piece of CG needs: a magic lady, horse decapitation, head explosion by electric crow, nu-model Geralt of Rivia with rugged beard and a budget the size of a smaller nation’s GDP.
In case that trailer was too exciting, here’s something to calm you right down – Badger’s Day Out, a lovely little piece of interactive fiction based on Howard Hardiman’s illustrated book of the same name. You’re Badger, and, well, get to spend a day going out and about. Or simply inside, at home. You can also do that. It’s pretty much the gaming equivalent of having a cup of tea during a rainy day, in that it’s the exact amount of sweet and melancholic.
Current reading – Sergio Toppi’s The Collector, recently collected in one fine hardcover volume by Archaia.
The Violent Violets released their debut album, Tame, just a couple of days back. It was one hell of a launch, and the album’s already lodged itself firmly as one of this year’s favourites.
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION (dir. Michael Bay, 2014)
As I get older, I look for certainty in my life. Such certainty, of course, also includes the media I consume on all too regular basis. After all, I worked hard to create the comfort zones I want to inhabit – last thing I want is to unintentionally break them down. However last year I broke down such a comfort zone with my watching of Pain & Gain (2013), a Michael Bay film I’d watched with the assumption of hating it, only to instead finding it surprisingly, genuinely watchable. With view on Bay’s take on cinema well and truly rocked (or at least softened), I eventually got around to watching the fourth installment of the Transformers (or “Bayformers” oh I’m so clever) and, I have to admit, also found it genuinely watchable.
Of course, by “watchable” I don’t mean flawless. Like Pain & Gain, Age of Extinction is hemorrhoid-inducingly overlong, and like the other Transformers movies proceeding it suffers from nigh on incomprehensible backstory and plotting. This latest film opens 65 million years ago, where we learn how the dinosaurs really got extinct – not by asteroid, but by asshole aliens in giant snail shell-shaped spaceships who razed the world with some kind of metal on order to give birth to robots. Or… something. Fast forward to the present, where inventor Cale Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg) finds Autobot leader Optimus Prime, who is near-dead and in hiding in a world where, following the Chicago-destroying events of Transformers 3, alien shape-shifting robots are persona non-grata. Marky Mark who, bless his muscly heart, fails to convince of his being an inventor, has a teenage daughter with a tendency of wearing all too short shorts, who in turn has a walking, talking douche creep for a boyfriend. Anyway, Transformers film stuff stuff happens, namely explosions (good), convoluted nonsense (bad) and unfunny situation comedy (also bad). The usual. And yet…
If there’s one thing Age of Extinction is, that’s a satire. I refuse to believe otherwise. For instance, take Optimus Prime. The first words this leader of the supposedly heroic Autobots bellows are, no exaggeration, I WILL KILL YOU! Again, this is our hero, a surrogate robot dad for all the boys brought up by 1980s television. Optimus also contradicts himself constantly, speaking of freedom and the sanctity of life one minute before switching to threats of violence and death in the other. It’s kind of amazing, really. His Autobot pals aren’t much of good guys either, being basically horrible robots who don’t really want anything to do with the planet Earth, never mind humanity. I can’t really remember their names – there’s John Goodman-bot, the fat (CAN A ROBOT EVEN BE FAT?) gun covered mother hen of the crew, Ken Watanabe-bot, who’s a racist caricature complete with samurai-style helmet, and my favourite, John DiMaggio-bot, who simply wants to kill things. At one point he declares he is going to “LAY SOME HATE“, an amazing turn of phrase I want to use constantly (so for instance this is not a review, this is the LAYING OF SOME HATE). Oh, Bumblebee is also in this film, but he sucks and still can’t speak like people. Are these robots really our heroes? I have my doubts, and that’s surely the point. And what about the villains? A thinly veiled Apple-alike led by Steve Jo… sorry, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) and “Cemetery Wind”, the Transformer-hunting unit of the CIA. Also the US government, which is in league with Lockdown, an alien bounty hunter on a mission to capture Optimus Prime. Lockdown is awesome. He can turn his face into a giant gun, jets around in a giant spaceship that looks like a cathedral/prison as designed by H.R. Giger, and his attitude towards humanity is the disdain one might feel should they get talked at in imperious tones by, I don’t know, an ant or a fruit fly. His first appearance is also genuinely impressive cinema. Essentially, Cemetery Wind are seen hunting down and harassing some Autobot or another, and while this is going on Lockdown silently emerges from a distant swamp and snipes down the robot with his gun face. Again, awesome.
But anyway, back to the satire. One has to point out the product placement, which is so aggressive it makes the film feel like an exaggerated The Simpsons parody on the corporate-driven cinema of the future. For instance, when the action moves to Hong Kong (because… reasons) there are not one but two cuts to Stanley Tucci drinking some kind of Chinese milk drink, with label prominently facing the camera. If anyone wants a true snapshot of the current zeitgeist, this is it – China will own us all, and we better start brushing up our Mandarin Chinese and taste for weird milk drinks. After all, while the establishment of the United States is depicted as either incompetent or outright corrupt, China is shown as honourable and, well, competent, as well as being a place where everybody knows kung-fu, and its government is the one mopping up the mess left by our heroes in their struggle against whoever the villain of this piece is. Okay, that’s Lockdown. Although he is actually in the service of the alien assholes who blew up the dinosaurs in order to make robots, which are actually… THE TRANSFORMERS! This makes them the real villains, and as such in the end Optimus decides to fly off to space in order to meet them. It’s like the ending to Prometheus (2012), only in this case the robot basically wants to KILL GOD.
Other than all of the above, the main appeal of Age of Extinction comes from the action. Maybe it’s due to the limitations of shooting in 3D (shots can’t be too short, the camera cannot be swooped around too fast), or simply Bay being comfortable with the technology, but Age of Extinction has some of the most spectacular action sequences in recent memory, far surpassing whatever seen in the current crop of superhero films. Bay shoots in actual locations, rather than green screen-clad sets, lending genuine scale to the action, and the integration of real and CG elements within his shots is all but seamless. This really comes into play in the Hong Kong sections, which really take advantage of the simultaneously vertiginous and claustrophobic architecture of the cramped, overpopulated city. Added to this is how, finally, each robot has a different colour and design, allowing for far easier readability of whatever is going on at the moment. Admittedly Bay’s bag of “Bayhem” tricks remains perhaps limited, but it provides genuine blockbuster results, as opposed to the half hearted showing of some “action” on screen.
So there you have it: Transformers: Age of Extinction in being good shocker. If the next Transformers will also be directed by Bay, and will actually involve the killing of space gods then… oh my, I can’t wait. Comfort zones sure get blown up easily, right?
POP CULTURE DESTRUCTCAST
ACCEPTANCE (Jeff Vandermeer, 2014) + SAFARI HONEYMOON (Jesse Jacobs, 2014)
This month Schlock’s own Teodor Reljic and podcast virgin Philip Leone Ganado join the DESTRUCTCAST in talk about two works about life and death in a mutant landscape – the closing book to Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Acceptance, and Jesse Jacobs’ Safari Honeymoon. We also get music, courtesy of friend of Schlock Alastair Rennie and his band Mongaliech.
00:45 – We are forced to accept to closing of the Southern Reach trilogy with, err, Acceptance with talk on the entire trilogy, namely Annihilation and Authority. Which of the trilogy’s parts is the best, is its conclusion even satisfactory, what should genre be and what exactly is Area X?
23:25 – Discussion moves to Safari Honeymoon, and with it more talk on the horror of nature. For the curious, I’d originally thought I’d gotten Connor Willumsen’s Treasure Island, the first part of which you can read in the link. Relevant to the discussion is Werner Herzog talking about the jungle and its “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”
39:09 – Alastair Rennie and his band Mongaliech close the podcast with This Place Alive, a track from their latest album, The Infernal Children, whose title we actually found more than apt when considering the themes of this month’s podcast.
BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS (Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët, 2009, 2014)
Can a group of little people – as in a literal thumb-sized folks, the kind one can describe as pixies – survive in the outside world following a forced expulsion from the safety of human imagination? Fabien Velmann and Kerascoët (the nome d’arte of illustrator duo Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) posit this dilemma in Beautiful Darkness, and the answer found in this handsome French graphic album is just about “maybe”… if with a caveat of darkness. It’s right there in the title, after all.
Following a violent birth of sorts, Beautiful Darkness opens with an almost idyllic tone as its cast sets out to carve a living out of the forest it finds itself in. True, the pixies are small and vulnerable to danger, and the art does not attempt to hide the more gruesome side of the forest, but one might even suggest it’s all somewhat Disney-like. However this is hardly the case – after all the European fairy tales Beautiful Darkness takes inspiration from tend to have a rather violent streak. And while de-facto pixie leader Aurora attempts to organise her myriad companions, darkness soon seeps into the little community. Or, perhaps, it was there all along. Aurora shows the best of intentions throughout her leadership, but her charges have an own agenda, and in the end she too succumbs to her darker side. But nature does not judge between good and evil, and as such Vehlmann’s narrative is not bound by what is normally thought as morality. Sure, bad pixies get killed but so do good ones, at times through their actions or and others simply by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way life in the forst ticks on as it always does, violent and dark and with sights both horrifying and almost too beautiful to behold.
Not that Beautiful Darkness is a sombre rumination on the nature of the fairy tale and the humanity that brought it about, mind. Within the vignettes making its overall structure Beautiful Darkness has plenty of amusing moments, even if the humour tends to be of the jet black variety, with deadpan punchlines to intensely dark jokes. However, as the tale goes on proceedings take a more serious tone, and the narrative seamlessly shift from blackly comic anti-fairytale to outright horror before a finale steeped deeply in violence and the grotesque.
On the visual side Kerascoët’s water colours are luminous and vibrant. Lively, loose pencils illustrate out the pixie characters, bringing them in contrast to the more realistically rendered forest creatures and surroundings. The result is a story that takes full advantage of the comics form in its marriage of art styles, sheer sense of scale and, ultimately, the undefinable quality known as relatability. One can immediately find part (if not parts) of themselves in the loosely sketched characters, and Vehlmann’s writing is wise enough to be keep itself back; the art does the heavy lifting when it comes to storytelling, and the dialogue merely provides helpful struts. As a result, Beautiful Darkness is a triumph, and cannot be recommended highly enough.