Ransom Riggs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The world has its outcasts. They often have unique talents, like creating fire out of nothing or transforming David Bowie’s music into worthwhile. This gives them power. Emma can burn you down, and Marilyn Manson has sold a lot of records. Power makes people to react to you in funny ways. Some hate you just because you’re weird, others because you’re a danger. Some follow you, either because they’re afraid or they think you’re some sort of badass God.

How the outcast manages their situation is a question for many authors to answer. After all, not all powers are the same. The hatred people have for Justin Bieber is vastly different than the hatred people have for Manson. People hated Manson because he ruined kids, told them God isn’t real and that they should remain weird. As for Justin Bieber, people hated him because girls loved him. How does this work I don’t know – maybe they were simply jealous. The X-Men series is supposed to be an exploration of this question. It’s about two factions with two different views on their position. Riggs’ novel features almost direct copies of these factions.

Now, the common platitude of “everything’s been done before!” will rear its head if you’re inexperienced in literature. That’s not how originality works. Copy a template, fine. Just fill it with different materials. For a while, Riggs is successful at that. His characters, in a way, live up to their ‘peculiar’ title. Their powers are small, often coming off as genetic defects. The levitating girl doesn’t control her levitation. She’s like a balloon and has to wear weighted shoes so she won’t slip off. The invisible person takes advantage of that, but it’s a radically different life when people can’t see you.

For a while, Riggs is interested by what being an outcast is like. Our hero is thrown into that position and everyone around him calls him mentally ill. They either feel sorry for him or reject him. He’s too confused in that position, so all he can do is shoot everyone including himself. His only solid connection is with his grandfather who’s an outcast like him. He can only connect to peculiar children like him.

There’s an interesting parable here to mental illness. Look at subreddits like Sanctioned Suicide. Many mentally ill people can only connect deeply to people in the same boat as theirs. Pro-ana communities develop their own culture and jargon. We’re so quick to judge them. X-Men was meant to parallel the struggles of LGBT people, but mental illness is different. Even with social acceptance, anorexia and suicidal thoughts and self-harm are weights people carry. Even with social acceptance, peculiar people are a minority. No amount of acceptance will give the floating girl the ability to control her power.

Too bad all these ideas are blended with a dull mix of genres. If Riggs wanted to write a multicolored story, hopping from genre to genre for fun then fine. It never feels like this. He never throws the story convincingly into the elements. There’s some conviction when he dabbles in horror. The spooky monster remains shrouded in mystery for a while, and even pushed aside for some pages. Focusing on the uncertainity of the spooky monster makes the horror aspect more convincing. Unknown things are pretty scary.

All mysteries dissolve when a character just spits out exposition. In fact, no information is actually discovered or figured out. People just hand over the answers to the questions when it’s time to advance the plot. It’s like a Game Master telling you the background and name and disposition of every NPC. The knowledge descending on your character makes it stronger, but also makes the game more boring.

The bad guys want to take over the world and subjugate humanity. That’s fine, since a lot of people in real life actually did that. Why, though? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Caligula were real people. They had philosophies, personalities, and inner lives. They didn’t laugh maniacally when they ordered massacres but saw their vision of their bright future taking shape. The villains may view themselves as right, but we never get the philosophy behind their desire for power. The reason they want power isn’t because power is attractive, but because that makes them evil and useful antagonists.

Their disease infects all other characters, too. Very few characters have unique reactions or talk style. Some are silly quirks that can’t be taken seriously. The two rapper dudes are straight out of a horrible John Green novel. The natives of an island talk with broken English because that’s how people in the sticks must talk like. Others fare a little better, but Enoch’s cynicism is never elaborated upon.

He’s a great potential wasted. His power is to put actual hearts in material and make it kind-of alive. That’s the sort of power that leads one to view the value of life differently. He can bring back people from the dead but only halfway. He uses hearts as tools. Enoch often slides into a cynical, detached speech. Even among the peculiars he’s an outcast. Yet Riggs never expands on that. What is his philosophy? To which kids he relate to more, to which less? What kind of things did he do besides building a miniature army?

The protagonist is the worst insult to character development. Again, there are seeds of something worthwhile – a little cynicism, insecurity and pessimistic worldview that might lead to something. It plays instead like a side-quest in a cheap RPG game. Person meets dying man, dying man leaves some clues and person goes on to explore these clues to discover a bigger mystery. Video game protagonists are rarely well-written since it’s the player doing all the acting. Fifty pages or so into the novel, Jacob loses all personality and follows clues. He’s sometimes not sure whether he can do something, but the only drive for his decision is the reader’s desire to know more. There’s even a silly romance there that doesn’t pretend to be profound. Green mined the trope of weird girl loving a skinny dude who’s sure he’s ugly (despite skinny people being all over magazines), but Riggs merely puts a few make-out scenes. It’s too boring to be creeped out by the fact the girl is actually 80 years old or so.

The last pages of the book are a long-winded action scene. This is too sad to talk about, because it makes the book seem entirely worthless when it isn’t. The idea of a loop is quite brilliant. These kids may live long but they haven’t matured a bit, and here you have a chance to mediate about time. Riggs occasionally paints a pretty picture in his prose. The few paragraphs about the bombs and reset have enough to suffice for a short story. Why does he fill the last pages with chasing the bad guy, shooting people and a cliffhanger that relies on reading the rest of the trilogy?

Riggs’ prose is easy and pleasant enough. It’s fast, sometimes slides into introspection but never too much. That makes a decent story bearable. It’s not offensively boring, just kind of ‘there’. If Riggs did something wild with his ideas and failed, fine. He barely tries since it concludes in info dumps and shoot-outs. The photographs are actually real, which is cool but doesn’t add anything. Riggs intergates them by saying “here’s a photograph” and showing them. It’s like illustrations, only pictures instead. Maybe if Riggs tried to write a single short story surrounding them, he’ll have a safer but wider space to work his ideas.

It’s not a terrible book but not a great one, either. Maybe, as a distraction, it’s good enough. There are good ideas that may stick around and the prose is pleasant. Life is too short for distractions, though. If you like X-Men or stories about hidden strange worlds just beneath our own you might enjoy this. It’s too inoffensive for me to tell you to avoid, but also too unremarkable to offer it to anyone.

2 photographs out of 5

Saw (2004)

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It’s mostly nonsense, but it’s an admirable piece of nonsense.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I still meet some people who are impressed by the ‘ideas’ in this film. Jigsaw’s ideas are retarded. Not only do they sound bullshit to anyone a little familiar with antinatalism or right-to-die (This is what happens when people are unfamiliar with pessimistic philosophy), but it doesn’t make sense. Jigsaw rambles about appreciating life, yet he clearly doesn’t. His games are cruel and impossible to win. Plenty of times other people have to die. A person who appreciates life wouldn’t put them in such dangerous situations. Moreover, these horrifying experiences leave people with PTSD. People with PTSD hardly end up appreciating life. They have a high suicide risk.

But Saw is nonsensical from the start, but it’s nonsense with spirit. Somewhere around here is a brilliant, slightly silly and slightly deep psychological thriller. This could’ve easily been Se7en‘s and Cube‘s weirder brother. Jigsaw barely has a presence here, anyway.

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What went wrong? This was before the series became pure Torture Porn. That didn’t happen until the third installment. Rather, it’s an expansion on the claustrophobic thriller. The genre has a built-in emotional appeal. We’re immediately thrown into the psychology of the characters. Human beings love puzzles by nature since, well, the world is a puzzle. Birth throws you into life and you have to figure out what to do with it. Life also happens to be as terminal as Jigsaw’s game (Oh! the Irony!).

For a while, this goes really well. The film moves like a point-and-click game. Writing characters with unique reactions to their surroundings how you avoid directing an actual video game and it works. Lawrence and Adam, even if they aren’t the deepest characters, react differently from the very beginning.

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The art direction is also important, and that’s something the franchise never lost. If you’re telling your story using visuals, make those visuals count. Saw has a rusty, industrial aesthetic. Very few scenes depart from this. Jigsaw’s concept may be moronic, but at least he has a style of his own. The ‘games’ often consist of rusty, broken-down machinery and the rooms always look decrepit and falling apart. It’s the visual equivalent of Industrial Music and I mean that in the best way possible.

Another important aspect – and Saw’s biggest contribution to the world of cinema – is the soundtrack. It’s almost sad how one of the best scores in film history is wasted on this. The ending theme isn’t the only highlight although it’s so epic it should appear in every film. Clouser did a brilliant score consisting of creepy ambiance, metallic drums and buzz-saw guitar riffs. The last 30 minutes owe half their intensity to the soundtrack. A rusty world consisting of broken machinary demands the sound of these machines in the soundtrack.

Clouser is a versatile composer, so it’s not just those noises that are effective. Throughout the films there are some melodies and rhythms. They’re just as important at adding tension. What makes Clouser’s score so different is the fact he chose a specific sound that fits the film’s visual style. Most composers just stick an orchestra that gets louder in the climax. Clouser uses a few strings, but “Hello Zepp” has those rusty electronics, too. Listening to the soundtrack alone, it’s easy to forget how the film doesn’t live up to its promise.

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The film has various flaws, but it’s hard to pinpoint the big problem. Something those hold the film back from being Very Good, but what is it? It’s not the ridiculousness of the premise. Jigsaw’s presence isn’t felt too much and the twist in the end is just too bizarre to hate. Unlike other claustrophobic thrillers there are plenty of scenes in the outside world, but that’s a better option than info dumps. The direction feels amature-ish, but the unique aesthetic and odd premise points to an undeveloped but unique mind.

Perhaps it’s the needless sadism. The film isn’t as cruel as later installments, but these moments still feel wrong. The fact we’re meant to somewhat agree with Jigsaw is plain sick. He’s a psychopathic torturer who disregards human life and basic rights. The camera often lingers on people screaming in pain, which is uncomfortable. These characters are just pawns in the game anyway. Seeing them being tortured and crying in pain isn’t easy because of that. It’s their lack of humanity that makes their suffering so hard to watch, but also unpleasant and pointless. Fictional characters don’t exist, but they’re meant to portray living human beings. The disregard the creators show for them is unsettling.

Other small flaws are easy to forgive. The characters may lack a deep psychology, but Gordon and Adam react to the world in their ways. The actors aren’t great but they do put effort. Even little utterances and phrases are spoken differently. The best example is Michael Emerson as Zep. Although the script gives him no unique lines, he imbues his character with the instability that a person in such a position would suffer from.

It’s a shame the film’s legacy was ruined. At first it was called a Se7en clone and now it’s considered the bomb that kickstarted the Torture Porn genre. What it really is, is a bizarre, deeply flawed but fascinating claustrophobic thriller. It’s worth a single watch or two, just to absorb its ideas.

3 Industrial guitar riffs out of 5

Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums

Feminism in Star Wars: Rey Vs. Princess Leia

The new Star Wars film has a woman with a gun shooting people and committing other acts of violence. She also has various other skills. This has been described as feminist by some, in contrast to Princess Leia. If people want more characters (or worse, people) like Rey, then I’m afraid feminism still has a lot to accomplish.

If you praise Rey for her skills and ‘strength’, you’re probably uncomfortable with a female character being a human. This new obsession with resilience, with a power fantasy also leaked itself into discussions around Mad Max. I don’t know which is worse. A power fantasy about violence, or a fantasy about being weak and defined by how a man feels about you.

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Your average Fallout protagonist

Rey has no unique line of dialogue, no reactions that are specific to her that define her personality. Han Solo is a sarcastic, gritty smuggler. Chewbacca is his partner who growls and says whatever is on his mind. Finn is a moral hero who’s too afraid to be a hero. Kylo Ren is an angry teenager dying for a little bit of power. BB-8 is a childish, more energetic version of R2-D2.

What makes Rey unique?

People praised Rey for being strong, for being skilled and ‘surviving on her own’. If you played a Fallout game, you know that’s not much of an achievement. A character survives on a wasteland because the author wrote it so. A character can fix a spaceship because the author put skill points into that area.

Characters are not defined by skills. They are defined by their personalities, their desires and needs and flaws and inner conflicts. These are the qualities that drive stories. If skills were enough, then my Amazon in Diablo II would have been one of the best female characters ever.

The skills of the Amazon don’t move the story of Diablo. Why the Amazon would go chasing after Diablo could be an obsession with morality, or revenge, or desire for glory. Each of these traits would lead to a drastically different story with different themes.

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From one fantasy to the next, we still struggle to draw women as human beings

A hero concerned more with glory would interact differently with characters. They would boast and they would only take missions that will grant them fame. A hero that seeks revenge will have tunnel vision, won’t bother about anything but killing Diablo. In all of these stories the Amazon still has the skills. She can still throw javelins, yet they’re so different.

Princess Leia is more of a human than Rey. She might be a damsel in distress, but that’s her initial role. It’s not her personality. Throughout the film we learn who she is by how she speaks. She’s confident in her position of power. She’s so used to it she speaks to everyone in a bossy way. As soon as she’s rescued she takes command of the gang. Notice how, before they reach Leia they’re a bunch of weird buffons.

Rey doesn’t affect her surroundings like this. I often forgot she even existed. I cannot remember a scene that her personality contributed anything to. There is a bit of ‘tough girl’ persona going on, but it’s not well-developed. Rey screams here and there for Finn to stop holding her hand. Instead of sounding strong, she sounds like a grumpy tsundere. It’s shocking she also didn’t call him ‘baka’.

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Looks feminine, relies on a guy and still has more personality

The tough girl persona can work, of course. Furiosa was a cliche, but the creators (kind of) knew what makes the cliche work. Everything in her appearance pointed to a hero so rugged they have no existence outside of posing with shotguns. She has a distinct look that fits her archetype. Rey’s archetype is more vague. She’s tough, but not in a unique manner. Furiosa was tough in an 80’s action way. She’s inspired by Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone – the desexualized human who exists to kill people because it’s fun. Of course, they did tack the whole redemption thing but I already addressed Fury Road‘s failure at feminism.

It’s weird how Western cinema still struggles with female characters. You don’t have to explore anime too much to find diverse casts. Just look to Neon Genesis Evangelion or Attack on Titan. Even shows that rely on sexiness and fanservice, like Freezing, still have a cast that’s as diverse as their design. What’s better is that all of these characters can be developed without hiding their femininity. The characters of Freezing don’t need a tough exterior to fight the Novas.

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Leia isn’t satisfied with just getting rescued – she reacts.

The request for more women who ‘kick ass’ (basically, are violent) is odd. The obsession with power also makes me question whether these people even understand how fiction works. Fiction isn’t a fantasy to escape from reality to. Fiction, like any other art form, brings us closer to reality. It’s supposed to connect to it in some way. It can be anything from exploring pure visual beauty or themes of life and death. A character that is a wish fulfillment is boring.

I wonder how long it will take until this trend will die. Trends come and go, anyway. We now have an obsession with toughness and grimdarkness. We used to have an obsession with escapist brightness. Someday we’ll look at it all and laugh at how stupid we are.

Further reading: Keely’s series of posts on Strong Female Characters

John Green – Paper Towns

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You can trace growth if you follow Green’s novels in the order they came out. In Alaska, he used literature as a way to live his fantasies. On Stars, he used literature to come to terms with a devastating experience. Paper Towns is a direct response to Alaska. If that one was wish-fulfillment, this is about bursting the fantasy.

Only Green can’t completely abandon it. The similar cast isn’t because of a lack of ideas. It’s the same story as before but it’s told differently. This time everyone is more flawed, slightly less quirky. The teenagers are no longer a bunch of outcasts who conquer the world because outcasts are charming. They’re a bunch of losers who know their place and try to break away from it.

It’s more realistic in places. Being an outcast is only fun if you have a huge group of it. You still wish you were one of the popular kids who have more fun than you. You still have the same desires for women and big social events. These desires of wanting to break out add a degree of realism that’s important. Green blurs a little the duality of the Cute Nerds and Asshole Jocks.

Then he completely slides into wish-fulfillment fantasy again. Asshole jocks get their payback, and there’s a little sympathy but mostly sadistic glee. A complete loser whose  one major achievement is blending in with the cool boys somehow wins the heart of a hot girl. Our protagonist, who’s mostly an unpleasant loser too wins the heart of the ultimate girl.

If only Green could see through it all. Margo is better than Alaska, but by not much. The main idea behind her is ripping off the curtian of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Quentin is John Green when he lusted after that girl, only Green now knows that women don’t exist to bring excitement into men’s worlds. They’re supposed to be flawed human beings like us.

How flawed is Margo though? It’s clever how Green rarely shows her good traits. We get them mostly second-hand from Quentin, emphasizing that it’s just his perception. There isn’t enough of the counter story, or the counter story doesn’t match the novel’s concluso.

Margo is a spoiled brat, a horrible person, the sort of person who’ll fall in love with an abusive rock star and justify it. We’re meant to think she’s flawed, but Green is unaware of how terrible she is. She’s an angsty teenager with no reason to be angsty. Her only problem in life is that the world around her is ‘fake’ or some bullshit philosophy like that.

What’s so ‘fake’ about the suburbs, though? Margo actually leads an exciting life in Orlando. She has everyone wanting her. She has the guts to take trips and midnight drives. Her environment doesn’t really confine her, since she could still go through all kinds of adventures while still studying and graduating. Margo’s myth is questioned, but not her desires. Her desires are just every silly teenager’s fantasy.

Only the jocks and the nerds are mature enough to understand you can’t live your life as a constant, glorious adventure. Humans are social animals and you have to be a part of the community even if only for your own good. Green never looks at how ridiculous and self-centered this is. He’s willing to admit women don’t exist for men’s pleasure, but he’s still selling us the fantasy of the Ultimate Girl.

Maybe I could’ve bought it if Margo was genuinaly weird. She’s not. She reminds me a lot of a certain person. It’s the sort of privilege that gives birth into hedonists with expansive vocabulary. Margo may read literature and use big words but in the end all she wants to do is have fun. She’s a kid who refuses to grow up. When her parents express disdain I was told outright how terrible they are. All I really thought was, they’re right. Margo is horrible. There isn’t enough psychology to her to make that horrible-ness interesting, so I just wanted for somthing bad to happen to her

The storytelling is often more convinient than realistic or weird. The characters are quirky in charming ways, not in odd or conflicting ones. There’s a brief rift in the friendship between Ben and Quentin which is the most exciting part of the novel, but it only lasts for a few pages.

During these few pages Green proves he can be a good writer. He can ask questions and not just emotionally manipulate. It’s a fight between friends, the kind that throws in their face the fact they’re changing. Bubbles bursting are always exciting because that’s when our worldview changes, when we’re in an emotional storm. Green just writes it away so quickly.

The novel could’ve easily taken a better route. What if instead of it being about finding Margo, Green made it about growing up and realizing how stupid our teenage dreams are? What if it’s about realizing there’s no Ultimate Girl, that the jocks are people too, that hot girls can have a personality and that we have to live with rejection?

The ending isn’t too happy, but the kissing was forced. There’s no reason for Quentin and Margo to be together. Quentin is an observer protagonist whose main trait is that he’s a self-centered asshole who only cares about his own fantasies (That’s not addressed). I already commented about Margo. I don’t think ‘unpleasantness’ is the sort of trait that makes for romantic relationship. Since when did hedonistic girls like Margo have long crushes on boring, timid guys like Quentin?

Green’s prose is good though. It flows quickly and he has a better tone here. It’s more sombre and reflective which fits with his desires to question his fantasies. The banter remains out of place, though. Only Ben’s wisecracks have anything to do with his personality. Quentin suddenly becomes clever for a second and then goes back to being Shinji Ikari without the psychology.

The theme of suicide also crops up in a few instances, but then it comes back to the hole. Sometimes the novel is on the verge of understanding it. The cliches of how you should never give up don’t appear. Anytime he comes close to saying something interesting he chickens out. He wasn’t ready for this yet.

It’s a decent novel and Green is an expert in manipulating emotions. It’s almost commendable and I’m sure I’d eaten this up if I was in high school. I’m no longer there and I see through my fantasies. There are a lot of good moments and good writing, especially in the middle. Green’s strength in at least capturing how teenagers feel like is here. It’s sad that he uses this mostly to wallow in his own fantasies. He can write insightful. He can write a Young Adult novel that will crack open the genre but this is not it.

2.5 manic pixie dream girls out of 5

Inside Out (2015)

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Pixar’s films were always deeply psychological. Toy Story wasn’t just a film about funny toys coming to life. It featured a mental breakdown. The main message behind it was that we can’t be anything. We have to understand our limitations and make the best of them.

Inside Out is the most overt psychological film yet. The main setting is, after all, the inside of a girl’s head. It’s also their most metaphorical film to date. Nothing about the film is meant to be taken literally, not even the life of Riley. There is clear meaning behind everything happening outside her head. It’s that meaning that makes this film a success.

I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this film unless they’re past high school age. The fact that Riley is frustrated with the moving isn’t the point. The meaning of moving to a new environment is an extension of the new environments we encounter when we grow up.

Growing up is receiving blows to our core worldview. High school, a new job or a new town makes us question who we are. We’re forced into a new environment and have to make sense of ourselves over again. Riley moving away is paralell to any other radical change in your life.

The same goes for her running away. She’s not running away but she’s running back. She’s trapped in nostalgia. It’s reminiscing over old memories taken to the extreme. Since so far she only knew how to be happy, she thinks that simply going back to the old place means going back to happiness.

Happiness isn’t enough for deep thought, however. It’s often when we’re depressed that we ask questions. It’s when we’re depressed, seeing problems that we actually search for solutions. Sadness also makes us see reality for what it is. When Sadness (the character) colors the core memories with that emotion, it’s the realization that it’s over. You can’t go back.

The original meaning of ‘nostalgia’ is a form of homesickness. The term was coined to describe how Swiss soldiers felt, missing their land. I first felt this fully in the military when I was away from home. Looking back, I noticed how nothing will be the same. I was still with the same people, but how we are now is vastly different from the past. Growing up is having a whole chunk of past to look behind to and feeling sadness over the fact these happy moments ended. That’s why Sadness colors these memories.

Growing up also means seeing the various colors of life. In truth, no moment of our life has a single emotion. Entering a romantic relationship, you’re happy that she said yes and fearful she’ll break it tomorrow. Some people said of their loved ones’ suicide that they’re at least happy their pain has ended.

Inside Out doesn’t recall Toy Story just because of the artificial details (both films feature two characters who are opposites, on a journey of return). The main message behind it is that we should embrace our emotional comlexity. It’s anti-‘Be positive’. It’s amazing how a film with bright colors and cute characters can have such sentiments. It goes to show you that no matter how many gangsters, witty lines and suits you have in your film it doesn’t equal depth.

At this point, talking about the technical details of Pixar’s films is boring. They know their formula. The good old journey of return is back. Since it works, since they have enough visual ideas and depth to make it feel new again it doesn’t matter. After all, it’s the content, rather than the form that’s harder to get right. So if following this pattern means Pixar can focus on the themes and ideas I don’t mind.

There is a small alteration to the formula. Pixar tends to push their journies to the extreme. It’s amazing how always, no matter how hard they push the characters the solutions make sense. This time they’re more restrained. Althugh they had an oppurtunity to roll the snowball more and make it bigger, they didn’t. They stopped it just in time. The grand moment of realization is also more subdued this time. That’s a good thing. Pixar are always one step away from becoming manipulative and after the brilliant behemoth that is Toy Story 3, it’s good to see them more restrained. Success can get you drunk.

Inside Out is as brilliant as people say it is. Of course it’s beautifully animated and cleverly written. What makes it unique and what makes it another classic by Pixar is the deep psychology, the complex emotions and how maturely they treat their material. At this point, it’s ridiculous to call these films for children. Sure, Pixar never has any violent or sexual content but they can say so much without it. They make it seem so simple.

4.5 voices in your head out of 5

Stephen King – Carrie

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It’s odd to read this now. King is a behemoth. People who don’t read books probably know his name and he’s synonymous with Horror fiction. It doesn’t feel like he wanted to be a horror writer in his first novel. There’s blood, cruelty and a general depressive tone. What defines a story is more than these techniques.

At its heart, this is a psychological novel. Its main concern is not with horrifying, but exploring different viewpoints. A lot of characters are pushed to the extreme, especially Carrie’s mother. It doesn’t make them any less understandable. King just makes everyone equally exaggerated.

Carrie’s mom is terrible, but she has reasons for what she does. While she’s an exaggerated portrait of an overprotective mother, she never becomes a strawman. King writes events that make her personality understandable. She was already predisposed to extreme religious views. When so many things happen that only strengthen that position, her already narrow view becomes narrower.

It’s weird to see King forgive his antagonist like this. He didn’t do it in other stories, where someone was evil because of something in the past and ruined the fun for everyone. Margaret White is more of a warning, showing us how we can become so protective (and thus dangerous).

The Evil Hot Girl gets a worse treatment, but it’s still there. Things make sense from her point of view. She’s used to getting what she wants easily. Such people react with anger when people challenge them, especially if it’s to protect a weirdo. Chris was raised in praise of normality. Her cruelty comes from hatred towards Carrie, but the hatred doesn’t come out of nowhere. Carrie was a challenge, a weirdo who made her presence known and that people sided with. Of course Chris will feel threatened.

The novel isn’t about horrifying readers. It’s about bullying. It doesn’t even use this controversial subject as an instigator to spill blood. The first half of the book is concerned with what bullying is and how it can affect people.

There’s an irony here. Parents want to protect their children, especially from bullies. This overprotectiveness can become bullying. Margaret has good intentions, but she still bullies Carrie. Confining, locking away and limiting a person’s freedom is a form of bullying. It’s just as harmful as insults. It’s a form of violence. Margaret tried to protect Carrie from the world, but her overprotectiveness made the world more dangerous since she never taught Carrie how to handle the world.

Bullying doesn’t start from pure sadism. A person becomes a target for bullying when he’s odd enough and don’t know how to react. This what makes the locker room scene so effective. The whole blood-from-vagina thing isn’t an a horror thing. It’s just texture. The purpose of that scene is to show what makes kids bully another. Carrie was a weirdo, getting her period late and not knowing what it is. It’s something the kids can use for their entertainment.

Yes, bullying is that cruel. There was nothing very exaggerated about it. Bullying escelates from insults to such acts of violence, complete with the crowd cheering. Not everyone is going to jump in, though. This is a surprising insight from King. Instead of painting everyone as just out to make Carrie miserable, he recognizes not all of them are evil.

Some of them may even regret. Some of the popular kids are probably busy having too much fun to care. That is far more realistic. Some people will get drunk with power being at the top of the popularity chain. Others will have too much confidence, enjoy their life too much to make time to make someone else miserable.

It’s hard to trust them when you’re used to bullying so much. When you’re a nail, everything looks like a hammer. Carrie isn’t an antagonist but a tragic character. She was pushed around so much that she couldn’t believe a good thing was happening. She is quick to look for how other people will hurt her and jump to conclusions.

The most horrifying thing about the explosion at the end is not all the blood and the damage. It’s the fact we understand Carrie and that her reaction seems reasonable.

There are excerpts from various fictional texts scattered around the novel, and they further emphasize that people were acting based on what they know and what seems reasonable to them. It’s not just a way to show off writing styles. The focus is how each text treats the case – an autobiography with a personal tone a cold interview and an academic text that remains skeptic of everything.

This causes King to spoil his own book. He would continue doing it in later novels, but it doesn’t matter here. The novel relies more in its exploration of viewpoints than withholding information. The fact King already dispenses How It Ends and the Secret Power allows him to spend the rest of the pages developing characters.

It does take a nose-dive in the climax. While it remains fun, all the depth is gone. It’s a typical King climax where everything goes batshit crazy. Gas stations explode, people die, blood pours like rivers and so on. It’s not scary anymore. It’s just one disaster after the next. It moves in brisk pace, but there’s nothing to it.

At least it never becomes too pornographic. King doesn’t waste two paragraphs on drop of blood and keeps the events moving. Still, it’s disappointing. It doesn’t have any of King’s weirdness which lifted his weird stories. It doesn’t develop the characters furhter. The editor went AWOL in that section and it shows.

Overall, it’s a tight book. I guess the reason King’s later works are so unfocused is because he was beyond editors. Here,

3 periods out of 5

The End of Evangelion

Let’s get rid of the obvious first. The End of Evangelion is inaccessible to anyone who didn’t watch the series. This shouldn’t be a point against the movie, though. There are enough great sequels who needed the first film. The fact this is two episodes smashed together to form a movie has no bearings on its quality.

There are far worse problems here. Evangelion was a brilliant series with a disappointing ending. Instead of using intelligence to lift up its story of saving the world, it went full retard. The deviation is only impressive if you haven’t been to the edge of weird storytelling. It contributed nothing to the series but was just a scattered essay with moving pictures.

The film was supposed to fix that, but sadly it doesn’t. Evangelion was never as deep as people say it is. It attempted subversions, but it lacked a theme to unite it all together. Religious symbolism and psychological portraits do not necessarily mean there’s a grand theme. They are ways to express ideas.

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The problems are already apparent in the beginning. It kicks off into a huge action sequence that lives little room for character development. It also perfectly replicates the intensity that made the TV show so fun.

Nobody talks about how fun the TV show us. The drama was engrossing and the action scenes were beautifully animated. Every metal bending, every hit, every explosion is full of power. The enemies have the unique, Angel-esque design and the scene is clean. The environment is bare, making it easy to follow exactly what’s happening. Michael Bay has a lot to learn from this film.

The film attempts the same psychological-monologue-slideshow thing, and it’s just as unnecessary and messy as in the series. It’s a little better, but the core problem remains.

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Moving to such territory is unnecessary. The story isn’t made for such experimental methods. At its heart, it’s a simple story about saving the world from the Unknown Enemy while realizing that humanity can be its own enemy, too. All you need for this story are characters who are convincing enough.

The monologues just go in circles, bouncing from one subject into another with no ideas concluding or connecting. This technique works in novels, but not so for films. You read novels in your own pace, so you take your own time to digest the word salad.

Movies set their own pace, so Anno is throwing at you images and words in machine-gun velocity. This could still have a chance of being entertaining, but experimental films often have a plot that works well with the method. You couldn’t tell the story of Pi without going full retard. It’s an abstract story at heart that happens only in Max Cohen’s head.

There is something about loneliness and the desire to connect. I heard this before and searched for it in this film. While the conclusion does touch that in a symbolic way that works, everything else was over the place like I remembered. Shinji is a neurotic and angsty teen, but his type of angst isn’t focused on enough. Is he a person who gave up on connecting to people like Mirai Nikki‘s Yukki? Is he an obsessive person who sees everything in absolutes like Max Cohen?

Perhaps I missed something in the series, but nothing here connected to a single theme. It starts to look like Digimon Tamers is an attempt to remake Evangelion with coherency. At least Tamers has a theme and symbols that point to it.

I once read that Anno said Evangelion could mean anything the viewer wants to. If so, then the show is about nothing. This isn’t how vagueness works. A story should not give simple answers, but it still needs to ask questions. Asking questions means it confronts a subject, and it’s not just about anything. Medabots asks whether weapons only lead to destruction, or whether they can be used for fun. The vagueness is in how the series makes strong cases for both viewpoints.

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The film still gets by because of its visuals. Despite the attempts at philosophy, the second part works in the same way the first part. Its epicness is exciting. It’s not as meaningful as before. We get monologues, instead of seeing characters in action but the visuals are still beautiful, and there’s a sense of self-importance that actually makes it fun. It stretches itself so far so just seeing how crazy it will go is entertaining. Despite the philosophizing, the film never forgets it’s a visual medium and that it should take advantage of it.

It’s an interesting addition to the Evangelion canon, but it supports the haters more than the fans. Instead of giving Evangelion a coherent ending, it shows how the series never had a grand theme to begin with. Knowing your limitations is important. If Evangelion stuck to its story of saving the world, it would’ve been fantastic. Still, a scattered but creative mind still has plenty of worthwhile ideas.

3.5 Angels out of 5

 

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

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What a terrible title. I’m not with the Anti-Americanism thing. Among products that sell like hot cakes, Anti-Americanism is one of the most insulting ones. Still, the title feels like it came straight out of the American Exceptionalism everyone hates so much. America is an interesting country, sure, but the sorrows of an American aren’t more profound than others.

The novel avoids this exceptionalism, thankfully. In fact, it’s the opposite of what its title suggests. The novel is concerned with the emotional turmoil of many people. It seeks to understand them, even when they’re creeps. I doubt the disconnection between the self-centered album title and the thoughtful story is deliberate, though.

Siri rambles again. There is a center for these ramblings, something resembling plot. The ramblings are also less elegant than that novel about a summer without men. In that Siri could just ramble on and even if it felt like a digression, it was pleasant to read.

Sorrows has an oddly clunky prose. Imagine if someone stuck a lot of gears inside Auster’s writing. This style is supposed to flow easily and be easy to read. If it isn’t, then the abundance of words is frustrating. Why Hustvedt fails here when he succeeded later is hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because Sorrows is more descriptive.

Maze of thoughts tend to ramble, but their content always remains subjective. We get a lot of thoughts but few details. Sorrows tries to combine both. Sometimes it works. There are some objects in the story with great importance who needed detailed descriptions. Even there Hustvedt disappoints. She tries, but she doesn’t manage to come up with powerful imagery like McEwan.

There is also a family tree which is hard to keep track of. Here’s a tip for writers. Don’t just give a list of names of who was in the family and what’s their relation to the main character. Simply have them appear when their role in the story is relevant. Unless you’re into the study of naming, a name without something attached to it is a random collection of letters.

She’s better at keeping track of her present-day characters. They drive the story with their personalities and desires. A mystery kicks the novel off but it’s pushed to the side. Even when it’s solved, the resolution only exists to put all the characters in one place and have them clash. This is more exciting than just solving a murder mystery. Hustvedt has the tools to produce a nice psychological thriller.

The best parts is how she treats characters who otherwise would’ve been antagonists. The characters who create conflict, bother the protagonists and otherwise ruin everything for everyone aren’t defeated. The end of the conflict is understanding how the others think and why they do what they do, even if we still disapprove. In fact, we can’t really disapprove of someone’s behavior if we don’t understand it at first.

This is where Hustved deviates from Auster. Auster’s novels are a self-centered psychodrama. He traps you inside a character’s head and only shows his point of view. We’re not meant to necessarily side with the protagonist, but examine his flaws and strengths. Hustvedt wants to examine a large cast. It’s more admirable, but she’s not as successful as Auster is at his game. It’s the clunky prose again. The smooth prose is also what brought the characters in Summer Without Men to life. If only that one was as long as this novel.

Some have complained Hustvedt’s male protagonist sounds like a female. I found it so surprisingly male I wanted to take off points for it. Hustvedt’s prose is so similar to other male writers, but there’s not a touch of femininity in it. She writes it with a straight way and doesn’t show the female’s spin on it.

When Hustvedt describes how the protagonist lusts after a female, I almost felt like I’m reading another male author who needs to let out his fantasies. Hustvedt never crosses the border. She only describes the female the protagonist notices, and at points where he’ll notice something specific. One thing that Hustvedt describes well is those little moments where you notice a woman’s leg or hair or arm and aroused by it.

It’s not ‘wimpy’ or other such macho bullshit descriptions. Guys need girls. I’ve seen a lot of macho dudes who work so hard trying to achieve positive feedback from females. Without it, they’re nothing. Sexuality makes fools out of us all. Most people who are cool about it just happen to have it at the moment.

Hustvedt still sounds like Paul Auster in Sorrows, but that’s okay. Her attempts at understanding others and her wider scope means a different spin on that style. Without Auster’s smooth prose, though, it goes nowhere. The irony is that Sorrows has more purpose and a better story than Summer, but its prose keeps all the events distant. I’m still interested in what else Hustvedt has to offer, but this isn’t her masterpiece.

2.5 secrets out of 5

Vacation (2015)

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The film opens with a series of photos from a family vacation. Something wrong goes in most of them, something that is supposed to be funny. ‘Going wrong’ here means things like a horse urinating, or a child seeing animals having sex.

I don’t go to movies to look at hot women. If I wanted hot women, there’s plenty of places to see them without distractions. In fact, whenever a film tries to dazzle me with how beautiful the actress is, I get the urge to message a philosophical question to a friend so he’ll entertain me. When I find myself enjoying the presence of a hot woman in a film, it’s clear it has nothing else to offer.

Vacation also has Chris Hemsworth showing off his muscles and lack of fat. I appreciate this stab at equality, but I’m not sure it’s worth sitting through an hour and a half of terrible jokes for. Couldn’t they just shot a short video of him flexing and put it on his Facebook page?

There’s an attempt here to make a dark comedy, only it’s not really dark. Like a lot of shitty comedians who use ‘shocking’ content, they’re afraid of going all the way. They gross you out, but it’s just unpleasant.

There are two ways to go about it. You can either go complete light and pretend it’s not dark. That’s hard to pull off, but it worked brilliantly in Borderlands. You can also confront the darkness. Use the jokes not as a way to cheapen the darkness but to magnify it. Make it both dark and funny. That’s why Catch-22 and the anime series WataMote are funny.

The creators put the characters through a lot of hardships, but none of it is meaningful or interesting. They bath in raw sewage, which goes on for 3 minutes. Someone actually thought that extending that scene to 3 minutes was a good idea. It was kind of funny at first when they didn’t realize it, but the scene goes on and on. We see them rubbing shit over themselves for a few minutes, which feel like they’ll never end. How does that extra length contribute to anything? Even splatter films don’t linger so much on the ugly details.

Some people die in this film, which is supposed to be funny. I’m not sure where the joke is in the scene with the suicidal guide tour. He kills himself after his fiance breaks up with him which is pretty sad, but where’s the joke? Wikipedia has a list of unusual death which is both hilarious and terrifying. What’s funny is not that these people died, but that their circumstances are so absurd.

No situation here even tries to be absurd. Things just go wrong. They want to go to hot springs, and they end up in raw sewage. Debbie tries to prove she’s wild at heart but she vomits pitcher of beer she just downed. The older brother finds a pretty girl and along comes the dad to make things awkward.

What defines absurdity is that it’s unpredictible. How funny can you be when every joke is so obvious? It would be easier to stomach if it wasn’t so cruel, though. When your jokes are cruel but lack wit, you just come off as a sadistic bully. Vacation is no different from the Saw films in that aspect. You see characters having a hard time and trying desperately to get out of it.

There’s no joy in here, no pain. They can’t even rely on joyful/depressing contrast to make jokes. The creators are so cruel they don’t allow the characters even a small victory. At least the Saw film have a unique visual style and a killer soundtrack. Vacation can’t justify all the pain it inflicts on its characters.

Ed Helms tries hard to make something good out of the material. Maybe that’s the joke. Maybe I was supposed to laugh at him trying to be funny with such weak material, but at this point I’m sad. The guy stayed for three Hangover films. Can the Coen Brothers take him to one of their movies now? There’s an almost effective scene where his characters break down. Helms tries to inject a little darkness to that scene. Seeing a character breaking down would’ve been truly shocking, but you can hear one of the executives telling him to stop. We’re here to gross out the audience, the executive says. Then Helms walks away like he should’ve done long ago and the car blows up. That’s a clever metaphore for his career.

There’s no reason for this film to exist. The kid behind me laughed a lot, but I also used to find shit and sex funny when I was younger. Now, I found life to be much more crazier and weirder than just these two subjects. Sex and shit can be funny. I have a personal anecdote involving shit, but it’s not just the shit that itself is funny. Mainstream comedy is just as terrible as it always was.

I can’t believe my friends chose this over Inside Out.

1.5 suicidal guide tours out of 5