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

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One Punch Man

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Many bad shows are a case of good ideas poorly executed. It’s rare for a show to miss its target in the premise, but One Punch Man does. For a while, the series assumes that powerful characters are a problem in fiction.

They’re not. Anyone who’s concerned with how intelligent or strong or agile a character is should stop talking about fiction. These aren’t role-playing characters. They don’t have charcter stats and skill trees. If a character has a trait, it’s supposed to be meaningful to his personality.

A character isn’t defined by how strong he is but by simply being strong. It’s not hard to write intelligent characters. Just have someone solve mathematical problems and put the answer in the character’s brain. It doesn’t matter that Max Cohen is a walking calculator. What’s interesting is how his genius affects his worldview and isolate him.

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In the first episodes, the series piledrives into the ground the idea that overpowered characters are silly. I don’t think anyone thought otherwise, so we get something like Kill La Kill only with less charisma. Everyone looks like Arnold Schwarznegger. Everyone screams and every conflict is solved with one punch. Mr. Krabs also makes a cameo appearance in the first episode, but he’s transformed into another bodybuilding loudmouth.

There’s only so much you can do with a character who solves everything with one punch. Thankfully, Saitama is not as bland as his skill. He’s a great protagonist with a personality that’s connected to his super-strength. It’s almost psychological how bored he is of all the macho bullshit, but he’s also vain and wants the attention. The anime remains satirical and exaggerated but the protagonist has a realistic psychology.

It’s Saitama’s desire for stardom and everyone’s megalomania that shapes the main arc. At this point the anime abandons making fun of obvious targets and starts creating actual absurd situations. The villains are rarely interesting. Their purpose is to always get knocked out by one punch. Rather, it’s stardom that’s being satirized.

How ironic it is to discuss the Bandwagon Fallacy in a review of a popular anime? Popularity doesn’t prove quality. Just because you don’t have a diploma from an Intelligence Institution doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Yet we take these things very seriously. People are often more curious about whether my writing is popular instead of how good it is.

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Diplomas or popularity don’t prove you’re talented. They only prove someone thinks are you are. Popularity is even worse than diplomas, though. Diplomas are given by people of authority who take their topics seriously. People can be easily swayed.

The most popular people on earth aren’t the hard workers or the life savers. The most popular people are those with the highest social value. They are the charismatic, the beautiful, the entertaining. Taylor Swift is more well-known than a person who saves a baby from a fire. That’s because Taylor is charismatic, beautiful and writes catchy songs. Just because you save a person from a fire doesn’t mean you’re a desirable social presence. It gets even worse with peolpe who Famous Because They’re Famous.

The series is wise enough not to pull that strawmen. There are these silly celebrities, but here the popularity of most heroes are justified. They’re both charismatic and talented, but they’re never as talented as Saitama.

That’s because, unlike them, he never worked on being popular. He became the strongest hero because he only put effort into being strong rather than being popular. That’s the cost of talent. Sometimes you focus so much on it that you forget to make people notice you.

There’s a major rise in quality once the series finds its satirical target. While it presents it well, pointing absurdities without resorting to strawmen it can never attain a sense of madness it aims for.

In the first episodes, it thinks it will get by having everyone scream and some stupid ideas like a muscular crab and a kabuto macho dude. I used different words but this is the same idea. It tones down later but the series never gives up on this.

There are some interesting visual ideas, but almost everything is given the macho look. It fits with themes, but after the 10th dude who looks like sirloin steak it becomes boring. When Tornado appears and we get a cute girl it’s a shock.

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Just as they are all macho dudes, their personalities are all macho. Besides Saitama’s everyman personality and Genos, who acts like he walked into the wrong anime, characters blur into each other. It makes for a consistent world. At least the anime tried to find variety in macho bullshit rather than pretend their kaleidoscopic. Still, it makes for a world that’s always less exciting than how the characters perceive it.

One Punch Man isn’t amazing and quickly stops acting like the Most Hyped Show of the Season. That’s a good thing. It’s when it realizes its limitations (the world is monochrome and tame, overpowered characters aren’t worth satirizing) and its strengths (satirizing celebrity culture, finding variety in macho bullshit) it becomes a worthwhile show that has enough personality to appeal to those outside the genre.

3.5 one punches out of 5

Iron Man (2008)

Iron-Man-2008

I almost wish she was the center of the film

“Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?

There’s a reason why the film ends with the riff from the famous Black Sabbath song but without the lyrics. Black Sabbath’s song described a flawed and conflicted person. He might be interesting, but nothing we’d hope to be. The same thing can’t be said of Iron Man‘s Tony Star. Black Sabbath said about their character that nobody wants him. You couldn’t find a more unfit description for Tony Stark

If this was just a dumb superhero film, I might have forgiven that. It wouldn’t work well as one anyway, though. There isn’t enough violence and the characters aren’t insane enough. Too many moments hint that the creators wanted to make this an important superhero film. The nature of weaponry is an obvious theme. The creators understand a superhero should be a symbol for some idea, not just a human with superpowers.

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A time before duckface

Tony Stark’s suit leaves little room for exploration, though. It’s not a Medabot. Medabots symbolized toys as weapons, and were an exaggerated portrayal of violent toys. It’s not a Terminator, which was a weapon with the appearance of a human being. Tony Stark’s suit is just a means to save people and instigate the final action scene.

There is something about how weapons can be harmful in the wrong hands, but that’s an idea that goes nowhere. The film never asks if there is more to do with weapons other than attack other human beings or if weaponry (and violence) is a part of being human.

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No hair, no heart?

The people who represent the bad way of using weapons are evil clowns. The Ten Rings are just a gang of mooks who are like the bandits from Borderlands without the humor. As for Obadiah, he was stuck under Tony’s shadow and for some reason we’re expected to dislike him for his evil deeds. No matter how hard the film tries to make Obadiah look like the devil, his story remains more interesting psychologically.

Obadiah’s development happens off-screen, but his is a story that can never get old. He’s a man stuck under another’s shadow who felt like he never got what he deserved. This is a common sentiment and the fact Obadiah still lives a kickin’ life makes it even better. Even as a villain, these ideas could’ve been explored. Why Obadiah wants Stark’s place so much? Why can’t he be content with still being stinking rich? They say no matter what you do there’s always someone better than you. What if there’s only one person who’s better than you?

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This is a sci-fi film, in case you didn’t notice

Obadiah’s motives have nothing to do with these. He’s evil so there will be someone to fight with (and also because he’s not as pretty). These so-called motives are here to put a cover that a film is serious and that its villains have motives.

Tony has some sort of arc, but it barely qualifies as a cheap psycho-drama. His development happens in 20 minutes. After spending some time in a cave and seeing that people shoot each other in real life, he develops a desire to save the world. That’s all that happens. It doesn’t affect anything else. He’s still a womanizer and he still loves being funny.

He was a selfish person in the beginning. That was why we saw him have sex with a lot of women and being told he has nothing because he doesn’t have a family. You’d think that such a person would change dramatically along with his desire to save the world. You don’t have to make a complete 180-turn. Impmon became less of a bully but he still retained his sarcastic personality. Tony doesn’t become anything new but is just given a desire to save the world.

Allow me to be cynical, but that’s because the film wants to keep Tony’s coolness. The beginning isn’t meant to satire the lives of the rich and famous. It’s meant to portray them as cool, charismatic and living an ideal life. Tony may have given up selling weapons, but no way will he give up the cool lifestyle of casinos and having sex with anyone he wants. Even if the rich truly live such perfect lives with no problems at all, isn’t it insulting? Most people will never live this way, so why dangle the carrot?

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Tony aims for Chris Martin’s ex

The seriousness of the film is ridiculous when you look deeper, but there’s a good side to this. The storytelling is so focused that it feels much shorter than it is. No scenes are unnecessary. There are no extra characters that don’t serve some purpose later. Action scenes don’t clog the film with incoherent explosions. In fact, there are few of them and even in those scenes they don’t go full retard. They’re not a series of endless explosions but a collection of set-pieces that build up to a conclusion. It’s not one of the best action scenes ever, but it’s purposeful.

Pepper Potts is also a unique character to see in such a film. It’s been a while since we had a female side kick that could be worthwhile without packing heat. She’s not developed, but the script never lets her fall into cliches. She never becomes pure eye candy, or a woman whose character is passed off as strong because she kills people. She almost ended up as an empty character, but Paltrow’s performance gives her a humanity everyone else lacks. Everyone is charismatic enough, but Paltrow is the only one who plays like her character can star in a variety of other stories.

Guitars also make constant apperance in the musical score. It’s a bold decision. It’s not the most uncommon element yet but it’s still rare compared to cliched orchestras. This adds some punch to many scenes. If the only point of Tony’s character is that he’s cool and macho, add some macho guitars to go along with it.

Iron Man became popular because it’s a well-constructed film. All the professionals in the film industry and I still see a lot of incoherent stories. Simplicity is rarely a death sentence in films, especially when you want to make some easy fun. Iron Man’s attempts at depth aren’t convincing, but it’s fun enough.

3 cool suits out of 5

Madvillain – Madvillainy

MADVILLAIN

Madvillainy is a record so brilliant, so unique that it couldn’t remain underground. It was an antidote to the horrores that plagued the radio. It was the antithesis of the the generic Rap-Rock* and the one-dimensional Crunk. It’s a record with a coherent concept. The lyrics are beautiful, funny and clever. The rapping is energetic and passionate. Almost no rapper raps with as much verve and passion as MF DOOM. Madlib’s production is even better. It’s wide-eyed, borrowing ideas from any genre it can. Madvillainy isn’t just the product of a talented rapper and a talented producer. It’s also a bold experiment. It completley destroys and rebuild the format with short songs that move quickly, throwing idea useless things such as hooks.

This is all true if your exposure of Hip-Hop can be summed up with Lil Jon, Nas and Jay-Z.

Madvillainy is such a wonderful failure that it’s surprising. It shoudln’t be. The Hip-Hop canon treats originality like the Nazis treated the Jews. It’s that Madvillainy actually fooled people into thinking it’s original. ‘Original’ artists like Tribe Called Quest are merely praised for hating women over a different style of beats. Madvillainy‘s gimmicks will fool the easily impressed that you’re listening to a precursor to El-P.

The few tricks that the duo pulls to come off as ‘original’ are pathetic. They barely hold for one song. The song’s format is short and without hooks. That’s cool, but Hip-Hop is already driven by the verse. Illmatic and Midnight Marauders didn’t have a lot of hooks either. Madlib is even worse. He doesn’t even pretend to be original. It’s just that people haven’t heard of Mike E. Clark or El-P before writing about this.

You know an album is awful when everybody mentions that it has an accordion in it, therefore it’s original. That song is called “Accordion”. This is how desperate they are to make you think they are original. Madlib may throw some funny noises occasionally, but his approach has already been beaten to death. His beats are smooth and calm. He may remove the basic breaks, but he relies on soul music like any other producer who’s scared of imagination. “Accordion”, in fact, doesn’t sound that different. He mostly mimics early Roots production, which is just a worse version of Black Moon anyway.

MF DOOM fails in the same way. He pulls some tricks, but he’s no different than Black Moon. His rapping consists of random words placed between references to how wack some rappers are and how good his own rapper is. He even occasionally talks about hustlin’ and pimpin’, just in case you’re worried he never heard of NWA. The whole ‘supervillain’ concept is present in a few samples, but that’s it. MF DOOM is a generic battle rapper who stays smooth because being loud isn’t cool anymore. He deviates a few times from this subject only to pursue even more generic subjects. On “Fancy Clown”, he gets heart broken. We already heard that. On “America’s Most Blunted”, he preaches about the beauty of weed. Cypress Hill already did that. There’s also some half-assed social commentary on “Strange Ways” that Chuck D probably ghost-wrote in his sleep.

DOOM’s slow is as boring as his lyrics. He has a unique voice, but that monotonous flow was never worked. It may have worked in a few Rakim songs, but without good lyrics it doesn’t do anything. It’s like a House beat that has a boring drum sound. MF DOOM doesn’t try to develop a personality with his vocals. There are no moments that show some emotion, like Tyler or Eminem or Cage. It’s the same old monotonous flow we already heard in a thousand Boom Bap record.

“America’s Most Blunted” is the only good track here, and the only one where the duo sounds like they care. If they love drugs so much, why not just make a Cypress Hill tribute album? It’s hard to make an original album with titles like “Hardcore Hustle”. If you wonder how dull the Hip-Hop canon can be, listen to this. Madvillainy is supposed to be one of the most original rap albums out there, yet it manages to be more boring than Liquid Swords. An absolute failure, but that’s classic rap to you.

*Which includes Pop Will Eat Itself, Urban Dance Squad, Linkin Park and One Minute Silence.

1.5 supervillains out of 5