Welcome to POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION for November, or as I like to call it NoIamnotgoingtodoathingfuckyouvember! Seriously, what is up with November? I’ve asked that question many a time and never got a satisfactory answer!
Lars von Trier’s latest, Nymphomaniac, gets a trailer. It has heavy metal and also, how shall I put it, fuckery. However, since this is a von Trier film expect it to also contain near pornographic doses of melodrama and/or crushing despair.
Those who follow this here column AND the suggestions contained within (that’s… both of you!) will be pleased to learn Gatchaman CROWDS is getting a second season, one with the very imaginative name of Gatchaman CROWDS Second. Fantastic, I’m sure you’ll agree. No other details are yet known, but hopefully it’ll be as good as the first series. Speaking of CROWDS, there’s an artbook out, and I’d really like a copy…
Do you remember Bubsy? No? Oh man I am jealous – it means you’ve failed to misspend your youth on something as dumb as videogames. Even so, Bubsy is back, in 3D, and… he’s visiting a James Turrell retrospective? Yes and also yes. There’s talking frogs, pointless collectibles, actual works of light/space art by Turrell and even a spot of art appreciation before you die. And become a ghost. Games might not be art, but they can be art criticism, if ones plagued with near unplayable controls. Also cheats. Oh god, the cheats.
I watched the first episode to the 2013 NBC take on Dracula and good grief I tire of dull, aggressively stupid schlock. Fuck off, Dracula, before you make me go through an audio-visual sabbatical.
This is what I’d like the soundtrack to my life to be like, but only if my life was less about writing nonsense for the internet and more about solving crimes and sexing broads.
GRAVITY (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
Space, the final frontier. A location perhaps far removed from the 21st century’s collective consciousness, the glamour and excitement of the rocket age long gone. Star Trek, once the paean to the hopes of an era, is now little more than a series of action films, and even singing astronaut Chris Hadfield has retired. Thus, when a director like Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men) makes a film – in Three Dee! – about the subject, one gets to stand to attention.
As Gravity kicks off, Cuarón pulls no punches. Together with regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and a team of surely overworked special effects wizards the Mexican director portrays the stars – or higher Earth orbit, rather – as never seen before on the cinematic screen. All is initially fairly idyllic, as rookie astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and charismatic veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) install modules on the Hubble space telescope. However the situation goes FUBAR due to high-speed debris from a destroyed Russian satellite causing a destructive chain reaction, obliterating the Hubble and the shuttle that brought the astronauts to space. Stone is flung off, leading to rescue from Kowalski and a tentative rescue plan – reach the International Space Station, board a capsule and get the hell back on planet Earth.
One cannot overemphasise just how stunning and immersive Gravity is. Vast, luxurious panning shots make way to closeups and in-helmet shots, effectively portraying the sheer horror of Stone’s situation. The camera lurches, twists and turns, seemingly in the mercy of the Newtonian physics governing stomach churning zero gravity movement, aided further by subtle yet effective use of 3D. Space, lacking in up and down, is never portrayed as anything but cold and dark, even as it’s awash with stars and the brightly lit globe that’s our world.
However, around halfway through Gravity goes awry, and that’s not merely reference to Stone’s unfortunate situation. The film shifts from chillingly tense to nearly tiring as the space-based hurdles Stone faces grow increasingly contrived. The ISS becomes a burning inferno, an escape craft gets caught in wreckage AND runs out of fuel, and preceding the finale is a literal chase after a second space station, one that’s also on fire AND plummeting towards the Earth. Matching such bombast is the soundtrack, changing from minimalist and quasi silent to blaring strings and percussion more suited to typical Jerry Bruckheimer productions. Souring the film even further is a heavy handed religious subtext – perhaps expected, but still disappointing coming from the man behind a film as subtle and pragmatic as Children of Men.
Still, misgivings aside Gravity is worth watching, preferably (surely) on the hugest screen possible. 2011: A Space Odyssey might remain the po-faced king of realistic-slash-philosophical space-based cinema, but even that lacks the vistas on show here.
RELATED VIEWING: In a parallel universe Gravity is actually about the goings on of an Inuit fellow who gets to talk to an astronaut on his radio before doing an Old Yeller on one of his dogs.
MIRRORMOON EP (Santa Ragione, 2013)
One of videogame medium’s strengths is the possibility of truly putting one in an unknown place, letting them figure out not only where and what is going on, but also how to do exactly that. Of course most games don’t even try doing so, instead placing the player in the utterly familiar (in the name of so called “realism”) before pointing exactly how they get to do, well, anything. So bless Santa Ragione for making MirrorMoon EP, as pure a first person exploration game as the form can begat.
You start off floating in space, inside a transparent starship armed with the Fisher Price take on the Nostromo’s cockpit from Alien. Stabbing and pulling the hot pink switches and dials at hand eventually beams you on a planet’s surface, where you get to do your business – collect the parts of a weird gun and use it to manipulate the moon (yes, the moon) in order to chart the world you’re on and solve its main puzzle. Solve the puzzle and you get a glowing orb, before getting back to your ship. Then? You repeat the process on a fresh world. Why? That’s the greatest mystery of them all, of course. Just don’t ask me what’s that about, I’m still figuring it all out.
The worlds in question are beautiful in their stark simplicity, crystalline low polygon takes on the desertscapes prevalent in the work of the late, great Moebius. Equally haunting is the soundtrack, a minimalist electronic number perfectly suited to the bleak, mysterious environments one finds themselves in. Admittedly this is not a game for everyone – it might too alienating, too cold, too opaque. Not everyone’s cut for the sheer loneliness of the stars. But for the brave, MirrorMoon EP is potential bliss.
RELATED READING: Here’s an interview with the team behind MirrorMoon EP detailing the influences behind the game.
GONE HOME (The Fullbright Company, 2013)
On paper Gone Home sounds like a disaster. It’s basically a fucking scavenger hunt set in a Resident Evil-style creepy mansion, if one without the zombies. Or the characters. Or anyone, really. You trundle around, slowly, picking up audio diaries and finding keys to open doors to pick up more audio diaries. Eventually you learn why everyone’s gone and the game ends. Big whoop. The one thing left to make it more game-y is a traipse around some sewers, although a hilariously oversized basement near makes up for that. Oh, and it’s 90 minutes long.
Yet Gone Home actually works. It remains, ultimately, a scavenger hunt, but it’s also a fantastic interactive short story for the digital age. Being limited in resources, the 3-man Fullbright team wisely scale their ambitions back, creating a relatively small yet highly detailed and atmospheric place for you to explore. Oh, and the writing is fantastic. Granted, this is videogames, a form where plots have hardly stepped beyond the level of a Star Wars prequel, but the diaries scattered within the house are genuinely well realised. The diaries tell an A plot – that of the protagonist’s sister and the reasons behind her leaving the house – but the environments also tell B and C plots of deep sadness and eventual familial breakdown, of love gained and lost. Admittedly it’s nothing too original, and at times it skirts towards the melodramatic, but it’s also effective and, ultimately, affecting. And the ending? Something of a gutpunch, to say the least.
At 90 minutes (more if you’re like me and spend too much time examining all the props and scenery), Gone Home rates as something of a perfect videogame novella. It will make you smile and it might even make you cry. Recommended.
SUPPLEMENTARY LISTENING: I have nothing! But the game ships with 90 minutes worth of developer commentary so maybe you can indulge in that.
MASTERS OF SEX season 1, eps #1-8 (Showtime, 2013)
Masters of Sex is Mad Men if Mad Men was about 1950s America learning how to get its freak on.
Okay I’m being facetious. Being set in the same historical era does not require Masters of Sex to directly quote Mad Men, especially since it deals not with sexy high functioning alcoholics but with sexy, err, scientific pioneers. What the two shows do share are a photographic style (very stately and replete with earthy tones), a languid, almost plotless, slow burn and the propensity of ending episodes with montages set to remixes of contemporary music, not to mention a general skirting of the sexism and racism prevalent during the era. The 21st century might be ready for lady parts on cable television (but not boy parts) but Lord forbid anyone tackling still relevant issues, right?
Anyway, back to the show at hand. An adaptation of a 2009 book of the same title, Masters of Sex tells at least part of the historical tale of William Masters and Virginia Johnson and their partaking of a groundbreaking study on human sexuality. Masters (Michael Sheen) is little more than a issues and neuroses on legs, a famed pregnancy specialist failing at getting his wife pregnant, who wants to study sex exactly because he knows very little about it. Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is his secretary-turned-assistant, a confident, worldly divorcee set on keeping her job, at any costs. Together they move Master’s study from mere peeping at prostitutes to actual science at a university hospital, the cast grows incrementally larger and any number of potentially touchy subjects get, well, touched upon.
It does sound like a recipe for disaster, if not mediocrity, but that’s not the case here. Partly it’s thanks to the chemistry between Martin Sheen and Lizzy Caplan- Caplan is especially watchable, and thus the show’s true highlight (actually I can go on for ages on how good Caplan is, but take my words she can spend hours doing tasks such as putting on her stockings or badly cook an omelette and it’d still be riveting) – but this is also gutsy, (mostly) sharply written TV. Sex and nudity might be passe in the steamy era of True Blood and Game of Thrones, but the human, honest dealing with topics such as female sexuality, homosexuality and sex among the elderly? Not so much. Admittedly the scripts carry a few clunky lines, and least part of the extended cast and their related stories appear to belong more to a hospital-based soap opera, but otherwise there’s enough of genuinely thought provoking entertainment – not to mention chemistry – to go around.
RELATED READING: Here’s a Chicago Tribune interview with Thomas Maier, author of the book that inspired the show. Warning, spoilers… from history!
SEX CRIMINALS #1-3 (Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky et al, 2013)
Sex Criminals is such a great name. Think about it – they have sex, and then do crimes! Or do they do sex-related crimes? Or maybe crime-related sex? Anyway Sex Criminals is kind of about exactly that – protagonists Suzie and Jon actually can stop time through sheer orgasm, and they use that power to… well you can guess. Okay, they try to rob a bank.
It’s also about the characters’ dealing with such an ability, meaning it’s all actually about their sexual history and the like. And it’s all a sex comedy of sorts, if the contemporary American kind (think Judd Apatow) and not, say, the 70s Italian kind involving a near naked Edwige Fenech and Lino Banfi.
Man, Edwige Fenech. Nothing on the internet will ever match her breasts appearing on fuzzy early 90s television. Sigh.
Anyway, despite a promising setup Sex Criminals rubs me the wrong way. It’s too cutesy, too nice, it tries too damn hard to be too damn safe. Such a story should be in the least slightly transgressive, but Fraction and Zdarsky appear to be doing their utmost to avoid being exactly that. Or rather, they stab at that, but it’s done in such a fluffy a manner it doesn’t really matter. And while it’s more than fine to be sex positive, the comic fails to carry actual sexuality, or at least anything approaching the “real” thing.
Fraction’s writing here takes the quirky angle, with 4th wall breaking narration courtesy of the two protagonists. “Don’t worry, jokes are coming,” leading lady Suzie tells after recounting of a tragic childhood moment. Unwarranted levity, ho! Suzie is a liberated modern woman who works at a rundown library. Her partner, Jon, on the other hand, is a bank clerk. She loves her job, he doesn’t. Both are bookworms. They meet at a party and chemistry happens. Fair enough. The third issue features a couple of mentions of “butt stuff,” although none of said “stuff” takes place. That’s fine. But nothing else.
Further compounding such issues is Zdarsky’s art, which while also fine enough (as much as these things tend to be, although his colours are quite standout) fails to be either sexy or too comical, despite a plethora of some very amusing background gags. But sexiness should be key to such a comedy – why not – and, hell, Matt Fraction’s earlier has had its share of sexy art courtesy of the Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s work on Casanova (which remains Matt Fraction’s best work to date, but that’s a topic for another time).
Meanwhile the stopping of time, unlike sex, is one of the worst concepts to depict in comics, for the simple reason that comics are all about slices of fixed time to begin with. Of course, one can sidestep it in a few ways – for instance Naruco Hanaharou’s conceptually similar The Distance Between The Two also has a couple stopping time in order to indulge in sexual proclivities, but in it simply handwaves the issue by simply telling that’s what happens, not to mention having the characters getting their freak on in front of a frozen public (then again this is “pure” porn comics and not high concept weirdness of the Shintaro Kago variety) (yes ask me about Japanese comics smut). Sex Criminals does something similar, if with the addition of perhaps needless glowy effects denote whenever time is frozen. I prefer Hanaharou’s take since it’s more likable. But anyway.
SUPPLEMENTARY READING: Naruco Hanaharou’s The Distance Between The Two, is on the internet, in full. It’s got erect penises entering vaginas and such like, so don’t read it in front of your boss or your parents unless they’re cool with that sort of thing.