September 29, 2012

Twilight: The Civilised Tribe

Twilight, pp. 123-126.

This week, I'm not going to go on about why I hate the characters or how the conversations are nonsensical or the way Meyer stacks the deck in her self-insertion main character's favour. No, this time it's strictly Carl Eusebius going on about bad writing. Specifically, how not to handle exposition.

Last time, I gave Bella's side of the conversation with Jacob that was the entire reason she came on this trip to La Push beach with her so-called friends. This time, let's take a look at the unwieldy wad of exposition poor Jacob is forced to spout once Bella's flirting has got him to open up about "the treaty" that he was specifically forbidden to talk about, with Bella's narration and responses (consisting entirely of "[word], what's that?") omitted. Remember, these are supposedly the words of a boy who "just turned fifteen".

"Well, there are lots of legends, some of them claiming to date back to the Flood--supposedly, the ancient Quileutes tied their canoes to the tops of the tallest trees on the mountain to survive like Noah and the ark. Another legend claims that we descended from wolves--and that the wolves are our brothers still. It's against tribal law to kill them. Then there are the stories about the cold ones. There are stories of the cold ones as old as the wolf legends, some much more recent. According to legend, my own great-grandfather knew some of them. He was the one who made the treaty that kept them off our land. He was a tribal elder, like my father. You see, the cold ones are the natural enemies of the wolf--well, not the wolf, really, but the wolves that turn into men, like our ancestors. You would call them werewolves. So you see, the cold ones are traditionally our enemies. But this pack that came to our territory during my great-grandfather's time was different. They didn't hunt the way others of their kind did--they weren't supposed to be dangerous to the tribe. So my great-grandfather made a truce with them. If they would promise to stay off our lands, we wouldn't expose them to the pale-faces. There's always a risk for humans to be around the cold ones, even if they're civilised like this clan was."

This, my little droogies, is what we in the bad movie world call an info-dump. That's a scene in which the screenwriter has a whole bunch of information the audience needs to know and can't be bothered to work it organically into the story. The solution is simple: Have one or more (but usually one) character dump the information on the audience through a lengthy explanation to another character.

Exposition (a fancy critic's term for "explaining stuff") is tricky to write, especially when it's information the characters all already know. You've seen this handled badly in films before. You may not have consciously noticed the problem, but your brain did, and something probably felt "off" about the scene. Jaws: The Revenge provides an example. Ellen Brody is on the phone with her granddaughter, and her son Sean says, "Ask the big doctor about his job. Tough life, you Bahamian beach bum, playing in the water all day." Now, I think Ellen already knows what her own son does for a living, and she might even know where he lives. Sean also knew these things. These two lines are only in the film to tell the audience what Michael's job is and where he lives.

It's easier when one character actually doesn't know the information, because then another character can explain it for both her benefit and the audience's. You've seen this done well in other movies, though exposition done well usually isn't noticed. An example from the original Star Wars film is Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker about his father, the Empire, and the Jedi. Short, sweet, and Kenobi gives us our first glimpse of the lightsabre, so we have something to interest us besides just him talking.*

But sometimes you have a situation in which you need to deliver a lot of exposition. The world the characters inhabit is so different from anything the audience is familiar with that they can't make sense of events without this information. Still, even if one character doesn't know the information, having another character launch into an uninterrupted lecture is an info-dump that puts the audience to sleep. So a talented writer finds a way to break this exposition up. The Matrix is an example. Once Neo wakes up, he needs the Matrix explained to him. This is done mostly with Morpheus's dialogue, but it's not one long scene of him lecturing. A few hints are dropped when Neo is being medically treated, and then Morpheus meets him in the resistance's Matrix-like program and brings him up to speed partly through dialogue, partly through images, and partly through training. Perhaps the finest example of exposition done well is the original Terminator (1984). Reese has to explain to Sarah Connor that he is from the future, that he has travelled through time, there was a nuclear war, humans were enslaved by machines, humans built a resistance, that resistance is about to defeat the machines, the machines desperately sent a terminator back in time, a terminator is a nigh-indestructible robot that looks human, and that terminator is programmed to kill Sarah because it is her future son that will lead the successful resistance. He delivers all of this information, but while he's doing so:

1) The terminator engages in a car chase with them.
2) Reese and Sarah escape briefly as they change cars.
3) Reese and Sarah crouch inside the car because at any moment the terminator might spot them.
4) Sarah, hearing part of this exposition, understandably concludes Reese is a nutjob and attempts to flee.
5) The terminator reacquires the pair, and they engage in another car chase.

The final bit of exposition is delivered when the cops attempt to convince Sarah--who's taking him more seriously now that she's seen how unstoppable the terminator is--that Reese really is crazy by letting her see him ranting about time travel and laser guns.* Reese does come off as loony, and Sarah begins to doubt her earlier trust in him. This sets up the terminator's attack on the police station, when Sarah is hiding and Reese is looking for her. There's a moment where we wonder: Will she trust him? Or will she trust the police, who are utterly unprepared for what awaits them? An exposition scene ends up setting up a suspenseful payoff later in the film. Thus, the necessary information reaches the audience, and it does so in a way that emerges organically from the events of the film.

Now imagine Reese and Sarah standing in a room and Reese proceeding to explain the entire backstory of The Terminator, the only interruption being Sarah saying, "Cyborg? Like, a robot?"

That's an info-dump. That's what this scene here is. That's Meyer's atrocious writing.

I don't want to shock you or anything, but the Twilight film shortens this scene quite a bit. Plus, as I noted last week, the movie only has Jacob drop hints about werewolves and vampires, never using either of those words. In fact, I think--it's hard to tell from the acting--that movie Jacob doesn't know the Cullens are vampires. He just knows, like his nameless pal, that "the Cullens don't come here".

Book Jacob dispels any mystery there might have been. Yep, we're werewolves, and the Cullens are Good Vampires.

"What do you mean, 'civilised'?

"They claimed they didn't hunt humans. They were supposedly somehow able to prey on animals instead."

I tried to keep my voice casual. "So how does it fit in with the Cullens? Are they like the cold ones your great-grandfather met?"

"No." He paused dramatically. "They are the same ones."


They call the Cullens civilised because they're easy to sneak up on.

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* Though since Kenobi is played by Sir Alec Guinness, a scene consisting entirely of him talking would've worked just as well.
** The film also deftly avoids the pitfall of trying to explain how time travel works without getting itself all tied up in knots. Reese is a grunt, not a technician or scientist ("I don't know tech stuff"), and so there's no reason he ought to know the intricacies of how time travel works.

September 26, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

What is with the accents in this flick?

For reasons known only to themselves, the makers of Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) hired two American actresses to play the heroine and villain and then forced them to use posh English accents because, hey, English accents mean royalty, amirite? Then, for good measure, they hired an Australian guy to play a Scotsman.

Snow White and the Huntsman starts out more or less following the plot of the title folktale. Snow White (Raffey Cassidy) is the young daughter of the king. Her mother's death leaves the king distraught until he meets the Wicked Queen (Charlize Theron), who seduces and then murders him, taking his kingdom for herself. Snow White is locked up in her own castle's tower prison, kept alive by the Queen for...some reason. After ten years or so pass, Snow White turns into Kristen Stewart, which means the Queen is no longer the fairest of them all. So she sends her brother Jaime Lannister Finn (Sam Spruell) to kill her. Because Finn is a moron, Snow White easily escapes, eventually reaching the Dark Forest. This is a place so scary that even Finn isn't dumb enough to blunder into it, so the Queen hires the unnamed Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), who's been in the Dark Forest yet lived to tell the tale, to go in and get her.

Snow White and the Huntsman is part of the Empire's conservative turn in the 2000s, putting us in the familiar territory of an innocent and very, very hot young girl who defeats the evil career woman using nothing more than the power of her virginity. A lot of people have said that Kristin Stewart is miscast as Snow White, but I disagree. I can't think of a better actress to play a submissive, passive woman to disempower young girls than the star of the Twilight "saga". And honestly, Stewart isn't bad in this film. In fact, she delivers the movie's version of the "we few, we happy few" speech about as well as can be expected considering how bottomlessly terrible it is as written. I mean, when you're watching a movie in which Charlize Theron gives a cringeworthy performance, what chance does Stewart have? Theron doesn't approach anywhere near Nicolas Cage levels of overacting, but she's about on par with John Revolta at his worst. If only Cate Blanchett had been cast as the Wicked Queen. The movie still would've sucked, but at least Blanchett would've told first-time director Rupert Sanders to go to hell when he told her, "Great, that was great. On the next take, though, could you be more cartoonishly evil? Oh, and shout, because yelling your lines is scary." I guess Sanders was more interested in boinking Kristen Stewart than in making sure his actors didn't commit cinematic suicide. I hope the embarrassment on Theron's behalf felt by every poor soul condemned to see this film was worth that piece of tail, Rupert!

This is a movie that desperately wants to be epic but lacks both the script and the sure-handed direction to pull it off. I don't understand why Hollywood would hire a man with essentially no experience to handle a movie made up entirely of spectacle, but I guess that's why I'm not a rich studio executive who dines on caviar and the souls of aspiring starlets. There are too many characters, too many sets, and too many subplots. As for characters, there's the duke who's loyal to the late king and his son, William, who is Snow White's childhood friend and is set up (sorta) as her love interest. His scenes with his father only exist so he can first angst over having abandoned Snow White when she was imprisoned by the Queen and then be heroic when he rides off to rescue her. Okay, that's not fair, they also have a scene that lets us know the screenwriter really enjoyed the argument between Theoden and Gandalf about attacking the enemy army in the open field rather than hiding inside Helm's Deep. These two characters could've been dropped from the film without losing anything. Why do I say too many sets? It's somehow possible in this film to walk from a frozen snowscape to a swamp to a river crossing to a castle on the beach all in the same day. The subplots? The Seven Dwarfs', for one. The dwarfs have to be there, of course, because it's Snow White, but the movie doesn't really have time for them. One of the dwarfs prophesies that Snow White is the Christ (in so many words), one has a crush on Snow White that doesn't go anywhere and is only there to try to get us to care when he dies (we don't), one laments that the dwarfs used to be proud but without the old king they've become drunks who sit around remembering their glory days--none of this amounts to anything. It's just more distraction to fool us into thinking the movie is deeper than it really is.

The film steals from the expected places in its attempt to be epic, like Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia. (The animals don't talk to Snow White, but she has a hippy Greenpeace "connection" to them, including to a white deer with an impossibly huge set of antlers). What I didn't expect to be pilfered from is HBO's Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series of novels. The director undoubtedly instructed Charlize Theron to ape Lena Headey's performance as Cersei Lannister, which is fitting since the script provides her with a blond twin brother who serves as her warrior-protector and has a creepy incestuous relationship with her. Now this film is way too uptight to show us anything sexual, much less something as taboo as close incest, so this relationship is only hinted at. Still it's definitely there, and Theron's faux-Cersei is enhanced by the art direction, which makes her castle Winterfell on the outside and King's Landing on the inside. It was so blatant that when the Huntsman says he doesn't trust the Queen to hold up her end of their bargain, I almost expected her to say, "A Theron always pays his debts."

Speaking of the Huntsman, I have to admit that I was quite surprised to find Chris Hemsworth effective in the role. Really, he gives the best performance in the movie. Unlike Theron and Stewart, he never misses with his accent (though his is inexplicably Scottish, when no-one else in the film has a Scottish accent), and he has one scene in which he got the only emotion out of me other than amusement (with Theron) and boredom (with everything else). I thought he was rather lacking as Thor in Thor--though he was hardly the worst of that movie's problems--but here he seems believable as a grizzled woodsman, and I assume he ignored director Sanders's demand that he ape Viggo Mortensen's Strider performance, which is a good decision any way you look at it. Hemsworth renders the William character even more superfluous, since there's no way you believe that Snow White would choose a nonentity like him over the Huntsman. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if in earlier drafts of the screenplay she does end up with the Huntsman, but I guess some idiot producer said, "No no, Snow White marries the handsome prince", and that was that. You can change the plot so Snow White leads a cavalry charge with sword in hand, but you can't make it so that the pure pretty princess hooks up with a lowly pleb!*

The film ends with, of course, a ludicrous battle sequence, because that's what really makes a film epic these days. Snow White, who as far as we can tell has never held a sword nor worn armour in her life, dons a set of field plate armour and grabs a sword and leads the charge against the Wicked Queen's castle. There isn't even a fig leaf training montage in which she learns in a few lessons what it took actual medieval warriors their entire boyhood to master. One night she declares she will lead the army to victory, and the next day she's armed and suited up despite the fact that two days ago she was sitting in the prison cell in which she'd been in isolation for at least a decade. In perhaps the movie's sole believable moment, she gets her ass handed to her by the Wicked Queen in the final showdown. But the script says she wins, so she does, because, it seems, the Queen just lets herself be stabbed. The Queen has been stabbed before and wasn't even injured, but now she dies, because Snow White is "pure".

Snow White and the Huntsman is god-awful boring, despite Charlize Theron's attempts to liven it up with some Bette Midler-style overacting and likable performances from Bob Hoskins, Nick Frost, and (really) Chris Hemsworth. The film's myriad failings can't be laid at the feet of Kristen Stewart, but neither is she capable of rising above them. This is the worst kind of bad movie: almost decent, and nowhere near entertainingly bad.

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* This despite the fact that it's the Huntsman's kiss that revives comatose Snow White (oops, sorry), so I officially have no idea what they were going for. If you think they might have been trying for a New Moon-esque love triangle between the lady's obviously obvious true love and an even more obvious red herring, then I'm so terribly sorry you saw New Moon.

September 23, 2012

Twilight: Paint It, Jake

Twilight, pp. 114-122.

Well well well, my little droogies, the time is finally upon us, to meet the third piece of our sad, sick love triangle. But first, the set-up:

At least Mike was happy to see me.

"You came!" he called, delighted. "And I said it would be sunny today, didn't I?"

"I told you I was coming," I reminded him.

"We're just waiting for Lee and Samantha...unless you invited someone," Mike added.

"Nope," I lied lightly, hoping I wouldn't get caught in the lie. But also wishing that a miracle would occur and Edward would appear.

Mike looked satisfied.

"Will you ride in my car? It's that or Lee's mom's minivan."

"Sure."

He smiled blissfully[!]. It was so easy to make Mike happy.

"You can have shotgun," he promised. I hid my chagrin. It wasn't as simple to make Mike and Jessica happy at the same time. I could see Jessica glowering at us now.

So much wrong in so few lines. Then again, you could take any group of lines from this book and likely find a dozen things wrong with them. Of course we need to be constantly reminded that Mike is interested in Bella, as if we'd forgotten, since that's the only reason he's in the story. Okay, that's not fair, he's also here to be not-Edward in this first book, since the real not-Edward non-rival is still to be introduced (and doesn't become an alleged rival until the sequel). I especially like that Mike smiles "blissfully" that Bella will be riding in his car. I guess he's already assuming she'll be sitting next to him--and brother, if that isn't bliss, I don't know what is--though he's blissful before she's actually done this. Bella, ever concerned about others' feelings, squeezes Jessica between herself and Mike to placate her. We're supposed to think Bella's such a great friend that she's putting her own happiness second to that her two friends', but she doesn't want to sit next to Mike anyway! (You may notice there's a lot of "we're supposed to think, but" while reading this novel.) She wants someone else to talk to Mike so that she won't be bothered.

Notice that Mike expresses surprise that Bella showed up. As I said last week, I, too, am surprised. In fact, it's almost as if there's a hidden, omnipotent power manipulating events behind the scenes so that things happen even if they're not consistent with anything we've seen before. What's laughable is Bella's reminder that, "I told you I was coming." Is Meyer really this blind to her fauxtagonist's actions? Bella's word isn't worth anything! She lies frequently and well. I wouldn't trust her to take my order at Denny's.

The funniest part is how easy Bella is to predict. Mike's "unless you invited someone" is the last sentence on the page. As I was turning the page, I knew Bella was going to lie, and sure enough, she does (lightly, whatever that means). Anybody remember way back on page 65?

"It matters to me," I insisted. "I don't like to lie--so there'd better be a good reason why I'm doing it."

Do a search on this blog for "lie" or "lying". Click the tag at the end of this post labelled "lying". You'll come up with a half-dozen times Bella has lied in the, what, three days that have passed in this story so far? (Yes, weeks have passed off-screen, but I'm pretty sure we've only spent three or four days in the company of the characters.) And that's only the times I've mentioned it. I'm sure I've skipped over a few of the more minor lies. For someone who doesn't like to lie, she certainly does it readily, easily, and often, so much so that when this opportunity to tell a lie came up, there wasn't a question in my mind that she would take it.

Oh, and if you remembered that Bella told her "I don't like to lie" lie in reference to something that wasn't even a lie, give yourself a cookie.

Once at the beach, a few of the kids (one of whom is Mike) decide to go hiking. Bella makes the decision to go based on who she most wants to avoid (in this case Lauren, Tyler and Eric, who've decided to stay on the beach), and she gets "a huge smile" from Mike, of course, for choosing his group. (Poor bastard.) She's completely enthralled during the hike by all the wonderful sights and sounds and "wonder[ing] what Edward was doing now, and trying to imagine what he would be saying if he were here with me". When they get back to the beach, some kids from the Indian reservation are there chatting up the ones who stayed behind. We know which one of them matters because he gets a name, Jacob Black. Jacob, being a male, is instantly smitten with Our Bella, "looking at me appreciatively in a way I was learning to recognise". Remember when I talked about how Bella is alternately too jaded and too naive to be 17? Here's an example of the naive part. "Learning to recognise"? This is something I imagine most girls in the Empire start to get a handle on around age 12. Bella grew up in Phoenix, not the backwoods of Appalachia. How could she possibly have reached 17 without recognising boys' interest in her? Answer: Because Meyer, despite having been a 17-year-old girl who grew up in Phoenix, is such a terrible writer that she's less able to write a convincing 17-year-old girl who grew up in Phoenix than I am.

Lauren, of course, notices this and is (wait for it) jealous of Bella. With her "pale, fishy eyes" and "insolent tone", she's really interested in this boy who "just turned fifteen", but of course, every boy only has eyes for Bella. One of the other boys--this one doesn't get a name--says "The Cullens don't come here" when Lauren mentions Edward for no reason. Now the film more or less leaves it at that. It simply has Jacob and Bella walk on the beach with Jake expositing that the Cullens aren't allowed on the reservation and in exchange the Indians aren't allowed to--uh, go to their house, I guess. The novel, however, has Jacob straight up tell Bella that the Indians are werewolves and the Cullens are vampires. Now the film's way of handling Bella's discovery that Edward is a vampire isn't exactly brilliant; she basically does a Google search and concludes vampirism is the only possible explanation for Edward's pale skin and avoidance of the sun. (I guess her search didn't turn up "emo kid".) But it still beats the novel's having Jacob flat out tell her. I mean, a Google search isn't overly exciting, but at least Bella found out on her own. Here, even that tiny sliver of agency is absent, because she doesn't have to do anything but listen to Jacob tell her.

Wait, no, that's not quite true. She does do something: She uses her sexuality to manipulate Jacob into doing something for her. Get used to it, as it won't be the last time she does this to him. Again, this isn't my analysis. She tells us that's what she's doing.

I was still turning over the brief comment on the Cullens, and I had a sudden inspiration. It was a stupid plan, but I didn't have any better ideas. I hoped that young Jacob was as yet inexperienced around girls, so that he couldn't see through my sure-to-be-pitiful attempts at flirting.

Again, Bella is allegedly a 17-year-old girl who went to public school in a major urban area, yet we're to believe she has no experience flirting with boys. I'm going to quote these "pitiful attempts" with Jacob's part removed. Here's some raw Bella action for you:

"So you're, what, sixteen?" I asked, trying not to look like an idiot as I fluttered my eyelids the way I'd seen girls do on TV[!].

"Really?" My face was full of false surprise. "I would have thought you were older."

"Do you come up to Forks much?" I asked archly, as if I was hoping for a yes. I sounded idiotic to myself, afraid he would turn on me with disgust and accuse me of my fraud, but he still seemed flattered.

I purposefully lumped myself in with the youngsters, trying to make it clear that I preferred Jacob.

"Oh, I won't tell anyone, I'm just curious." I tried to make my smile alluring...

"I love them," I enthused, making an effort to smolder at him.

I focused on keeping the vital interest I felt out of my eyes.

Our Bella, she doesn't like to lie. Nope. There'd better be a good reason why she's doing it.

September 19, 2012

Twilight: Creative Writing

Twilight, pp. 105-113.

This chapter just...ends. There are four more pages, sure, but absolutely nothing happens. Now I know what you're thinking: Did he fire six shots, or only five? Damn, I did it again. What I meant was, you're thinking, "But Carl Eusebius, absolutely nothing happens in the whole book!" Well that's not strictly true, as something does in fact happen in the last, oh, 100 pages of this 500-page tome. But the point is well taken that not much happens in this novel. Still, for these four pages there's nothing to comment on. Our heroine and her ephebophiliac partner listen to some of their favourite music (Debussy, so we know they're pretentious clowns with no taste), Bella describes her mother ("irresponsible and slightly eccentric"), and the couple re-hash the "do you think I'm dangerous?" thing for the 387th time. The only part that perked my interest a teeny bit was when Edward asks her age.

"I'm seventeen," I responded, a little confused.

"You don't seem seventeen."

His tone was reproachful; it made me laugh.

"What?" he asked, curious again.

"My mom always says I was born thirty-five years old and that I get more middle-aged every year."

Well, that explains why Bella thinks and talks like a 35-year-old woman (though author Meyer was only 29 when she wrote Twilight). I'd have preferred, though, a 17-year-old main character that was, I don't know, believably 17. Like Juno, Twilight gives us a high-school girl who speaks mannered, overly-scripted cynicism.

It gets old real fast.

And really, what does Edward care? She's in high school. Why does he need her exact age? When you're a century old, would it make any difference to you if someone were 15 rather than 17? I'm not even half a century old, and I don't notice a difference between 15 and 17. This is just another example of our being told that Edward's 100 years old even though he doesn't act at all like someone from another century. It's also evidence for my theory that Meyer wrote only a single draft of the entire novel, with perhaps some spelling corrections here and there. She suddenly realised she's on page 105 and hasn't told us Bella's age. Solution? Well, in this scene Bella's talking to Edward, so just have him ask her! There, problem solved, moving on.

Wait, you already guessed her age? Edward and Bella are in the same biology class and he's a junior, which is enough information to figure out her age without having it spelled out for you?

Everything must be explained! No assumption of reader sentience will be made!
Anyway, on to chapter six. (Yes, we're five chapters in, and this is how little has happened.) Bella isn't looking forward to today, Friday, because...well, I don't know. She knows Edward isn't going to show up at school, true, but she later cites that as "the worst part about Friday". What else made her not look forward to Friday? She doesn't give any other reason. Well, she'll have to interact with other, non-Edward people, so I guess that's a bummer. Bella tells us that "it more than lived up to my non-expectations". What does that mean? She clearly had expectations (since she "wasn't looking forward to Friday"), and as the day does turn out badly (by Bella's standards, at least), it did, in fact, live up to her expectations.

This is probably the kind of crap Meyer learned in her "creative" writing courses at Brigham Young. "Irony," intones the failed fiction writer teaching whichever class it is, "is when you take what's expected ["live up to my expectations"] and invert it ["live up to my non-expectations"]." Creativity! Either that, or Meyer took that Alanis Morrisette song as a template for her writing. (That would explain a lot, actually.) Isn't it ironic, don'cha think? No, Alanis, I don't think. There's nothing ironic in the song "Ironic", including its being named "Ironic" even though it isn't ironic. Rain on your wedding day isn't ironic. Being married by the same judge who presided over your last divorce--that's ironic. And damn funny. This isn't the appropriate place for irony, anyway. C'mon, Steffy, the way to write that line was "it more than lived down to my expectations". I'm a talentless hack writing a blog no-one reads, and I know that.

Hey, I've got an idea. Let's do a remake of Twilight, this time without the sucking.

I know it's been a while since we had some Jessica-bashing, but don't worry, author Meyer knows what we readers crave. First, Jessica especially enjoys the story of Bella's fainting. Bella notes that Mike doesn't add to her embarrassment by revealing anything he saw or heard about her fainting spell, though of course he isn't appreciated or thanked or even acknowledged for this. (Bella declares it "lucky" that Mike stays silent. It's not luck, genius; he made a conscious decision to say nothing, presumably for your sake. The least you could do is say thank you.) Jessica then asks what Edward and Bella talked about. Bella is evasive, which annoys Jessica. Bella attributes this to Jessica's hope that Bella would give her some gossip, but I think she's just annoyed that Bella keeps dodging her questions. After all, Edward and Bella were talking in a public place, not behind closed doors. I don't think "what did you talk about?" is particularly intrusive. And Edward is someone who has refused to talk to anyone else for the past couple of years. If he suddenly started talking to someone, isn't it natural that people would want to know why? Jessica notes that Bella looked angry during the conversation. (Who wouldn't be, trying to talk to that jagoff?) Because Bella suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, she interprets this simple act of human concern as more probing into her affairs and so responds only with an arch, "Did I?"

Later, Bella notices that Lauren* has been giving her "a few unfriendly glances". Remember Lauren? No? That's okay, because she hasn't appeared before now. Yes, with all the people Bella met in chapter one, Lauren wasn't one of them. She's here now because Meyer needs someone to be jealous of Bella. No, I don't know why she doesn't just have Jessica do it, since she's taken pains to establish Jessica's jealousy in earlier chapters. (That must be why I don't write best-selling novels.) Meyer has decided to bring in another girl to be jealous of Bella, so despite this character's never appearing before, Meyer acts like she's been here all along. That's certainly some...creative writing right there.

To find out why she's getting "unfriendly glances", Bella eavesdrops on Lauren's conversation with Mike. Lauren says she doesn't know why Bella doesn't sit with the Cullens instead of with them. Oh, snap! Oh no she di'nt! We're supposed to be shocked at this betrayal by someone we've never seen or heard from before, but frankly I think it's completely fair. Why doesn't she go over the Cullens? At no point in this novel has she taken any interest in anything her "friends" have had to say or expressed any desire to spend any time with them. She's agreed to go to the beach with them, but immediately before she noticed Lauren's "unfriendly glances", she heard the weather might be good that day and thought to herself that because of this good weather, the trip might not be "completely miserable".** On her way to the beach, she doesn't speak to anyone. Not a single person. On the way back, she purposefully sits next to someone who won't talk to her so that she'll be free to think about Edward without interruption.

So Lauren, painted here as a bad person because of her dislike of Bella's favouring the Cullens over her own friends (as Lauren speaks, Bella notices "what an unpleasant, nasal voice she had"), is only reacting to the obvious implications of Bella's behaviour. And she's completely right. Bella doesn't like anyone in Mike's group of friends. She avoids talking to them, is evasive and dishonest when she's forced to interact with them, and never listens to anything they have to say because she's obsessed with Edward. And this isn't my analysis. Bella states all of these things directly to the reader. She tells us she doesn't want to talk to these people because she wants to think about Edward. She tells us she lies to them. She tells us she doesn't listen to what they say when she's in conversation with them. And she's told us the Cullens are perfect, even though she knows nothing about any of them except their names. So Lauren's question is a damn good one: Why isn't Bella sitting with the Cullens instead of with her non-friends?

Oh wait, I forgot, a proper lady doesn't talk to people to whom she hasn't been introduced. See, that would require taking an action (of her own volition!), and upper-class women in 19th-century England 21st-century high school girls in Washington state don't do that. So she'll need to wait for someone to give her permission to speak to the other Cullens. I'm sure Edward will do that, when he thinks the time is right.

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* Occasionally I've pointed out how even the crappy Twilight film is a marked improvement over this terrible book. I noted in an earlier post that the "all the girls are jealous of Bella" subplots were excised from the film version. Unsurprisingly, the character of Lauren doesn't appear at all. There's no reason for her to; her entire character is "I'm a bad person because I don't like Bella". Since the filmmakers were wise enough (I like to think) to realise this doesn't portray Bella in a particularly favourable light, they probably told Meyer that these story beats and characters had to be nixed "for time". (As noted above, Jessica is also jealous of Bella, but as her primary purpose in the story is to be less awesome than Bella, she remains in the film version, with most of her jealousy eliminated.)
** So if Bella expected the trip to be "completely miserable" until she saw the weather might be nice, why did she agree to go? Well, that would be because Meyer needs this to happen so she can introduce a plot thread that will become important in later books. This requires Bella to be at a particular beach to meet a particular character, who will then have the opportunity to exposit this plot thread to the reader. Once again, Meyer somehow manages to give us two hallmarks of bad writing for the price of one: Even though Bella is a Mary-Sue, to the extent she has a character, Meyer doesn't hesitate to violate that character for the convenience of the plot.

September 16, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

Resident Evil: Retribution is the stupidest movie ever made. My list of worst movies puts the four previous films collectively in the number five spot for worst movie in the history of humankind, the universe, and all matter and energy. Yet somehow, writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson managed to make the 5th film even worse. I know people who hate Anderson's Alien vs. Predator because the movie's so dark you can't see anything in it. Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) is what happens when an Anderson movie isn't dark enough to hide how hard it sucks.

Now, I've noted that the only fun to be had from a Resident Evil film is figuring out which film it's ripping off. Part 1 is Aliens with zombies and steals Blade's original denouement. Part 2 is a clone of Escape from New York. Part 3 is a retread of The Road Warrior. Part 4 is a badly-Xeroxed copy of The Matrix. This installment, however, is the most rip-off-errific of all. It's a Frankenstein's monster of a movie, stitched together from bits and pieces of better films. It plays like a film school project: Put as many homages to other films into your movie as possible, only without any of the skill or artistry of the films you copy. The movie tosses in these steals at random, with no rhyme or reason beyond "I saw a talented filmmaker do this once in a film that was good", even when it's completely out of place.

For instance, the opening sequence is a direct steal from Memento. Yes, Memento, that action movie classic. Remember the opening sequence, in which Leonard's shooting of Teddy is played in reverse? (If you don't, by God man, go watch Memento again.) Paul W.S. Anderson does, because he starts his movie with a pale imitation of it that's only in the movie because he saw Memento and thought, "Showing things in reverse looks cool!"

"You're a big jerk, Carl Eusebius!" I hear you shouting to no one as you brush the Cheetos dust from your neckbeard and heave your enormous bulk forward to reach the keyboard to type out your absurd complaint on a blog no one reads. "Anybody can use reverse motion. It doesn't mean he ripped off Memento. That movie doesn't have a single shot of someone flying through the air whilst firing two guns! Who'd rip off that arthouse crap?"

Well, take a gander at this, my basement-dwelling friend! The opening sequence of RE5 consists of numerous flying thingies that are really, really trying to be the hunter-killers from The Terminator attacking a giant barge:
 1. The main character Alice, in reverse time, catches the pistol she tossed aside, just like the main character, Leonard, in Memento.
2. A spent casing, in reverse time, flies back into the chamber of the gun, just like in Memento.
3. Immediately after the entire sequence is shown in reverse slo-mo, it's then shown forward in normal time, just like...yeah, that's right, in Memento.
4. Oh, and this entire reverse sequence takes place while the credits are being shown; after the credits end, it's shown forward, just like...are you getting the picture now?
Watch these sequences back to back and tell me I'm wrong. No, really, I dare you. Ha! Sucker, that would mean you watched two minutes of Resident Evil: God's Judgement Upon a Doomed World.

By the way, the film opens with Anderson taking "A Film By" credit. This is no mere movie that Mr. Anderson was hired to shoot quickly and cheaply. No sir, this is "A Film By Paul W.S. Anderson". Take that, Hitchcock!

The film then segues into a recap of the earlier films to bring new viewers up to speed, a recap that's hilariously stupid for several reasons. First, since the movie is an epic 95 minutes long, you've got to burn up time somehow. This sequence does that, eating up at least 5 minutes of screen time showing Milla Jovovich narrating things most of the people watching this film already know. I mean, how many people thought to themselves, "You know, I skipped the first four Resident Evil films, but man, this fifth one just looks dynamite!" Zero, that's how many. The second funny thing is that for some reason some of this footage is re-shot, and some isn't. They got a number of the original actors from the first film back, but because it's been 10 years since that film was made, the actors are noticeably older in these re-shoots. The third and most triumphant aspect of this sequence is that it doesn't tell you anything you need to know. You find out about all these events from the first four films that have no impact whatsoever on this one, and you don't find out why the attack on the barge in the opening sequence was taking place! That kind of incompetence deserves a reward. How do you shoot a recap to explain what's going on for new viewers without explaining the unexplained battle that opens the film?

I'm being pedantic, of course. These films lack continuity of any sort. Oh, each film begins where the previous film's sequel bait ends, but events never follow logically from one film to another. (Well, events don't follow logically within each film, either.) Part I ends with Alice escaping the Hive where the zombies first appear in the nick of time before it permanently seals shut, only to see Part II begin with the Hive being re-opened. (I guess "permanently sealed" doesn't mean what I thought it means.) Part II ends with Alice seemingly having been programmed to work for the evil Umbrella Corporation--leaving  us with the cliffhanger "Project Alice activated" and Alice's irises changing into the Umbrella symbol--but Part III completely drops this plot thread, with Alice heroically fighting zombies as she always does. Part III ends with a shot of hundreds of Alice clones, every single one of which is destroyed in the opening sequence of Part IV. The last film ends with Alice and her friends sailing around on the barge offering sanctuary to any survivors of the zombie apocalypse and, as noted, this film begins with the barge being sunk!

Unlike the movie itself, I'll tell what you actually need to know from the previous films: Alice (Jovovich), the main character of the series, is an employee of Umbrella Corporation (essentially all multinational corporations fused into one--just go with it). Umbrella gave her superpowers so director Anderson could shoot Matrix rip-off action sequences and amnesia so writer Anderson didn't have to bother writing her backstory. Umbrella's favorite thing to do with its seemingly limitless power and wealth is to conduct illegal and highly silly experiments on human beings, like giving them superpowers, turning them into zombies, and turning them into zombies that have superpowers. One of their many, many experimental centers was The Hive, a massive underground complex built underneath Raccoon City. Scientists in the Hive created the T-virus that (wait for it) turns people into zombies, and when it started infecting Hive residents, Alice and some cannon fodder were sent into The Hive to investigate. To make a long story short (too late), the virus eventually got out of the Hive and spread all over the world. Civilization collapsed, and five years later the tiny remnants of humanity wage never-ending gun battles against 28 Days Later rejects despite there being no existing civilization to produce bullets. Also despite the collapse of human civilization and near-extinction of humankind, Umbrella not only continues to operate its extensive network of massive underground research facilities but also refuses to abandon its study of virus outbreaks in major cities that no longer exist. In fact, it continues to clone people for this very purpose, which is handy for the filmmakers in case they want to bring back people who died in earlier films.

As noted, Alice has the power to shift into the Matrix so that she can punch harder, run faster, jump higher, and shoot more accurately than any human being possibly could. In Part II she is injected with...uh, some red stuff that gives her even super-er superpowers, including both psionic powers and the power to instantly kill an entire platoon of masked machine gun-wielder stormtroopers when the director gets bored with all the Matrix-fu. In Part IV the villain injects her with...um, some more red stuff that takes away the powers the other red stuff gave her (though not the powers she had before), but I guarantee you won't notice. They make a big deal out of her getting and losing various powers, yet in every film she remains completely untouchable. Any time you see her get hurt or even fail to accomplish something, you can be sure it's actually a clone of her in yet another Umbrella research facility somewhere studying virus outbreaks in major cities that no longer exist.

Now that you have the appropriate background, allow me to briefly explain the plot of this movie. Ha, I kid, there's no way to explain the plot of this movie that isn't brief. Alice gets blowed up in the attack on the barge and is captured by the Umbrella Corporation for at least the third time in the series. What happened to her friends on the barge, two of whom have been her companions through two previous films? Don't worry about it; Alice certainly doesn't. The stone-faced mannequin that serves as the primary antagonist for this film is actually Alice's friend from the second movie, Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory). The series is so desperate for ideas that it reuses plot points from the previous sequel by making Jill mind-whammied by a giant red bug attached to her cleavage, exactly as Claire Redfield was in the last movie. Jill is my favorite character, if only because the actress playing her is so terrible that I laughed aloud in the theater every time she spoke. (Anderson makes perhaps the only smart decision of the entire franchise by giving her fewer lines than Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Terminator.) The filmmakers prove to be fans of The Prisoner since they have Jill demand to know why Alice doesn't want to work for Umbrella anymore, and then security in this even more massive underground Umbrella research facility briefly goes off-line, providing Alice both a skin-tight black leather bodysuit and a chance to escape.

Alice runs outside to find herself in a Tokyo unaffected by the zombie apocalypse. After she loots a laughably huge pistol from a police car (man, Tokyo cops pack some serious heat), a disembodied voice announces the simulation is beginning, and people suddenly appear on the street and re-play the Tokyo zombie outbreak sequence from the last movie. Alice then runs back into the Umbrella facility and ends up in its control room, though not before killing approximately 3000 zombies that followed her inside. Suddenly, a lifelike humanoid robot in a tight high-slit red dress gets the drop on Alice. Oh, I'm sorry, that's Chinese actress Li Bingbing, not a robot, but when you see her acting, you'll forgive my mistake. She's in violation of Ken's Rule of Guns, though, so Alice quickly turns the tables on her. But the joke's on Alice, because this woman who was just pointing a gun at the back of her head is actually there to help her escape. Alice doesn't trust her because she's Ada Wong (how's that for originality?), the top operative of Wesker, the villain of the two previous films. Wesker is played by Shawn Roberts, an actor they apparently hired by auditioning for Hugo Weaving impersonators. Go ahead, watch any scene featuring Agent Smith and Wesker back to back and see if I'm wrong.

Wesker isn't a bad guy anymore, though. It's revealed that the Red Queen, the artificial intelligence that ran The Hive back in Part I, is now running Umbrella (how? why? since when?) and Wesker has turned against the corporation, having apparently only just now figured out that stopping the elimination of the human race by the zombies should be a higher priority than running simulations of virus outbreaks in major cities that no longer exist. Wesker himself appears on a giant screen in the control room and spits out a whopping 10-minute wad of exposition--where Alice is, why she's there, what the facility is for (you guessed it: running simulations of virus outbreaks in major cities that no longer exist), why he's helping her, and exactly how she is to escape. I know Resident Evil is based on a video game, but do we really need a "brief the player on the next mission" sequence that plays like it was taken directly from a video game? You know, maybe Wesker's escape plan should involve more, like, escaping and less droning on about Umbrella's business model.

Wesker exposits that Alice can only escape the facility by going through each of the four city simulations (Tokyo, New York, Moscow, and Raccoon City) one by one and then meeting up with a mercenary team he sent in to help her get out. Said team sets a bomb that will go off in two hours and trap them all inside if they don't make it out before then. The rest of the movie is a series of absurd action sequences, with only the briefest of pauses for additional bits of exposition.

I skipped over a scene earlier that I want to get back to. After Alice gets blowed up on the boat, we cut to her waking up in a house, with a husband and daughter and seemingly normal life. Now as I said, this series constantly toys with the notion that Alice will finally remember her former life. But I know this cynical cash-grab of a series for what it is, so I immediately suspected that this was, in fact, a clone of Alice in an Umbrella research facility, a suspicion that was confirmed when the ersatz Alice is killed by a zombie. (Credit where it's due: This sequence contains a well-crafted and genuinely startling moment that I won't spoil, the sole bright spot in this pile of crap.) This sequence intersects with our main story when Ada and the real Alice, having fought their way through the simulations of New York, Tokyo, and Moscow,  reach the Raccoon City simulation. They enter one of the houses and find the dead Alice clone. Since the daughter, Becky, was hiding in the closet when the Alice clone bought it, I instantly knew the following:

1) Alice would go upstairs and find Becky unharmed in the closet.
2) Becky would treat Alice as her mother, and Alice would reciprocate.
3) Alice would take Becky with her.
4) Becky would be captured near the end of the movie, and Alice would need to rescue her alone.

Sure enough, every single one of these things happens. I'm a regular Nostradamus! No, actually, it's just that I've seen Aliens, and so has Paul W.S. Anderson. In fact, the Aliens steals only get more blatant. Not only is the little girl captured, but she is captured by a monster (rather than a person, like Jill) in the midst of making the final escape just before the bomb goes off, forcing Alice to risk not making it out in time in order to go back and rescue her. One of the mercenaries--if you must know which, it's the one played by the guy you hire when you can't afford Sean Bean--declares he will accompany Alice, and I immediately thought, "Okay, he has to get injured so that he can't go, because that's what happened to Cpl. Hicks in Aliens." No sooner did I finish the thought than he gets shot and so he can't go. Alice goes back into the facility alone and quickly locates Newt Becky, who's trapped in some disgusting biological goo produced by the monster that Alice has to break her out of. Hmm, where have I seen that before?

I can't say the sequence is entirely ripped from Aliens, though, since Ripley didn't leap thirty feet into the air and defeat the Alien queen with a gunshot to the head in approximately three seconds. So where's your accusation of plagiarism now?

The climactic battle of RE5 sees Alice getting the shit kicked out of her by Jill while I fought against the urge to shout "Smash the giant glowing red mind-control bug on her chest!" at the screen. After 5 minutes of being brutally beaten by evil-Jill (as evidenced by the tiny red smudge of blood highlighting Jovovich's cheekbone), Alice suddenly remembers that this happened in the last movie and destroys the bug, making Jill almost immediately fine. However, one of the Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez) clones (almost every speaking character in this movie is a clone) has taken some red stuff that gives her superpowers and she's laying the smack down on two guys from Wesker's merc team.

As I watched this scene, I realized with sadness that this movie is another example of Lead Actors are White. The fight between Alice and Jill looks exactly like what it is: Two spindly models who've probably never thrown a punch in anger in their lives slapping away at each other. The special effects people add all kinds of audio and visual wazoo, like Jill's punch causing Alice to fly 15 feet through the air, but all the FX wizardry in the world can't disguise that Jovovich and Guillory can't remotely carry off the tough gal vibe the director clearly wants them to project. I don't know what either actress is like in real life, but onscreen they look more likely to collapse from malnutrition than to deliver a blow that would knock a person down. Rodriguez, on the other hand, looks entirely credible taking on two beefy men.* I know Resident Evil is a godawful series and I shouldn't wish its lead role on my worst enemy, but in a world with any respect or human decency in it, Rodriguez would be playing the lead role in this movie. I've no idea if she can really act, but it doesn't matter since the role doesn't require acting. All she needs to do is look tough and hot. She's at least as hot as Jovovich and a lot more believable as an ass-kicker, but she's just got a little too much skin pigmentation to land the lead role in a crappy American action film these days. Gone are the days when Whoopi Goldberg could headline an action film. Angeline Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, Kristen Stewart, sure, but Zoe Saldana? Forget it. I blame Halle Berry's Catwoman.

Ah ha, but what about Ada Wong? She's right there with Alice, blasting zombies with aplomb. (I guess she has superpowers, too.) It's true that she starts out as something of an equal partner to Alice, but the scene in the house I talked about above is her last appearance before the last five minutes of the movie. That's right, despite being set up as Alice's sidekick, she abruptly disappears from the movie until the very end, when she shows up as Jill's hostage. Here's what happens: The Umbrella commando team sent to stop Alice (made up entirely of clones of characters from earlier movies, natch) fires a grenade launcher at Ada. In the split second it takes the grenade to reach the house, Ada recognises it's coming, grabs an assault rifle off the table, shoots a person-sized hole in the floor (yes, with a rifle), leaps into the hole and crouches down to avoid the explosion. She isn't seen or heard from again until the climax, when Jill surfaces the Umbrella submarine (what? Umbrella has submarines) underneath the fleeing heroes, and she doesn't play any part in the climax beyond serving as a hostage to be rescued by Alice. There's your women's lib: now chicks can rescue damsels in distress, too, as long as they're white. Considering the target audience for this movie, I'm surprised there wasn't a swell of romantic music and a kiss.

The denouement is taken straight from the "John Connor walks through his command center and then looks out over the battlefield" sequence that opens Terminator 2, assuring us there will be a Resident Evil 6. It's fitting, I suppose, that the film ends as it began: ripping off a better film.

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* Just like Vasquez looks entirely credible as a Colonial Marine in Aliens, which is why Rodriguez must play Vasquez in the remake I know is coming with the certainty of the grave. Her entire career consists of playing Vasquez in other movies anyhow.

September 11, 2012

How to Save Hollywood

It's no secret that the Imperial film industry is sinking. Budgets are higher than ever, fewer tickets are being sold, and the money stream of DVD sales and rentals that has sustained Hollywood's current model is drying up. The Olympics and crazy people with guns are getting the blame, but where does the fault truly lie? The system is in danger of collapsing under its own weight, but fear not, my little droogies! Your old buddy Carl Eusebius is here with a plan to save Hollywood. Follow these simple steps, rich studio executives, and you'll continue to produce a steady stream of godawful films for the undiscriminating masses to eat up like the cinematic pigs they are.

1. Free Wesley Snipes
Okay, I know he didn't pay his taxes, and that's all, like, illegal and stuff. And yes, he defended his non-payment by claiming to be a non-resident alien even though he was born in Florida. But he must be released, and that now! Not because he's a celebrity and therefore the law doesn't apply to him. No, because the man could be making awful sequels in the Blade franchise and painful Woody Harrelson collaborations at this very moment. But no, he's locked up in prison, his prime years of crappy action movie-making being squandered away behind bars. Hollywood, just pay off whatever Mitt Romney shell company owns Snipes's prison and Let My Daywalker Go!

2. More Nicolas Cage Insanity
Overacting is a dying art. These days, bad actors are schooled in the cutting-edge technique of "not acting". Your Hayden Christiansens, your Zooey Deschanels, your Channing Tatums--their method of sucking is to impersonate a department-store mannequin whenever the camera is on them. The Al Pacinos, Faye Dunaways, and Ray Liottas of the world will soon be lost to us, and then whom can the next generation look to for training in the hallowed traditions of rampant scenery-chewing? Let us drink in the euphoria of the Madness of Nic before it's too late! I accidentally watched Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and the filmmakers blessed us with but one scene of that patented Nic Cage crazy. And not even one scene of him punching out women while wearing a bear suit. Get this man $10 million and a director with no ability to rein him in! HADDAGEBURN? HADDAGEBURN? HADDEGEBURN, HADDEGEBURN!

3. Ban Peter Jackson
Sure, his movies suck, but not in a fun way. Every film he makes now is seventeen hours long. Who wants to see that? Nobody. The Hobbit has ballooned up to not two but three films. New rule: Peter Jackson is to go back to New Zealand (alternate name: "Australia's Canada") and live off the blood of the young virgins he sacrificed to make people think his Lord of the Rings is any good. All movie cameras everywhere are to be wired with self-destruct devices and proximity fuses to detonate whenever Jackson comes near them. Seriously, even if you like Jackson's Rings--and God help you if you do--please ask yourself if we really need three Hobbit movies.

4. Enough With the Remakes
Wait, I'm not complaining about how Hollywood isn't original anymore. Hollywood was never original. I know better than to ask for an innovative story, a new take on character, or a fresh perspective. All I'm asking, Hollywood, is that when you rip off an old idea, change the name. That's it. How long does it take to put words in a configuration into which no one has put those exact words before? The next time you decide to steal from Philip K. Dick (by which I mean, oh, tomorrow), have the decency to try to hide the lack of creativity behind a slightly different name. Instead of doing a remake of a beloved classic like Fright Night or Conan the Barbarian, just do what you used to do: Steal the story and characters but slap new names on them. No fresh characters, no plot that avoids cliche--just take 5 minutes to change the names. You know, like Avatar. Xerox the exact same movie as Dances with Wolves, but like, the title's different. Creativity! Oh, and don't let Kevin Costner be in it. Because, really, Kevin Costner eats more than Rosie O'Donnell at a Golden Corral.

5. Pander to a Different Demographic
Wait, you thought I was going to say stop pandering to the audience and green-lighting movies based on demographic "research"? Puh-shaw! This list isn't about making movies good. It's about making them entertainingly bad. So instead of pandering to 13-year-old boys and making every movie Transformers, start pandering to 13-year-old girls and make every movie Twilight! Let's have more Blood and Chocolates, more Snow White and the Huntsmans, more Red Riding Hoods. I can't get enough of pale teen-agers staring moon-eyed at each other and occasionally mustering up enough energy to stammer out a half-formed sentence before sinking back into Hot Topic-induced lethargy! Give me half-baked alleged rip-offs of Romeo and Juliet or give me death! But mostly give me the rip-offs.

There you have it, my ideas for how to save Hollywood from a mortal slide into the failure of utter mediocrity. Follow these suggestions and...well, you'll still fail, but your implosion will provide some damn fine entertainment! Forget the whimper and go out with a bang! What do you say?

September 9, 2012

Twilight: When Subtext Becomes Text

Twilight, pp. 99-104.

This week, we readers of Twilight are treated to a boring conversation about nothing between Edward and Bella. So yes, the same as last week. Unlike Stephenie [sic] Meyer, though, Carl Eusebius will take a different tack with the analysis. This time, instead of banging on about how Meyer hasn't thought through her characters, I'm going to rip into how the conversation is contrived, badly written, and doesn't make any sense even in the context of a crappy tweener novel.

"You scared me for a minute there," he admitted after a pause. His tone made it sound like he was confessing a humiliating weakness. "I thought Newton was dragging your dead body off to bury it in the woods."

Huh? He thought Bella was dead? But why would he think that, when he could just read Mike's mind and know exactly what happened? Or are we to believe that Mike thought Bella was dead? This just doesn't make sense on any level. Edward says a few lines later that he saw them pass by his car, so he must have seen Bella walking. She needed Mike's help, but she was clearly providing much of her own locomotion. Do people normally carry dead bodies beside them, with the corpse's arm around their neck? Does he think she's a walking corpse or something?

Wait...he's a walking corpse,* so I guess they've got me there.

"Honestly--I've seen corpses with better colour. [Yeah, every time he looks in the mirror! Zing!] I was concerned that I might have to avenge your murder."

"Poor Mike. I'll bet he's mad."

"He absolutely loathes me," Edward said cheerfully.

Okay, who talks like that? Take any conversation in this novel--choose one at random--and say the lines aloud. See how unnatural you sound. Feel how difficult it is to talk that way. It's got to take mental effort to write dialogue this mannered and artificial. Surely Meyer has had conversations with other human beings in real life. How hard is it to translate that experience into writing? (Very hard, I guess.)

"I was concerned that I might have to avenge your murder." Why? Even if Edward could somehow believably think Bella's dead, why would he think she's been murdered? Being a century old, he must have seen people die from all sorts of causes all the time. And why doesn't Bella react at all to this odd and deeply creepy statement? "Poor Mike"? How does that statement follow from "I might have to avenge your murder"? Also, note that this may be the only time Edward ever says anything "cheerfully". And, of course, it's because he's inspired intense dislike in someone else. Isn't he dreamy?

Mike becomes the hero of the story when he interrupts their conversation by dragging another fainting student into the nurse's office. Edward immediately makes to get Bella out of there, because God forbid she see another drop of blood. That would make this scene go on longer! Then--and I swear to Edward James Olmos this happens--the following exchange takes place:

I spun and caught the door before it closed, darting out of the infirmary. I could feel Edward right behind me.

"You actually listened to me." He was stunned.

"I smelled the blood," I said, wrinkling my nose. Lee wasn't sick from watching other people, like me.

"People can't smell blood," he contradicted.

People can't smell blood. People can't smell blood? Wha...what? This line brings you to a screeching halt. Like Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse saying "Pain don't hurt." It's just...the mind boggles. You have to stop, wonder if you misread it, go back and read it again. People can't smell blood? You might as well say that birds can't fly at night or left-handed people can't drive cars on Sunday or Congressmen can't use their expense accounts for hookers and blow.

You know, I tried to read this statement in the light most favourable to Meyer, so I thought maybe it's supposed to be some vampire thing. Like, say, compared to their vampire senses, we humans with our puny sense of smell can't really smell blood, something like that. Only that doesn't work, because he never says that about anything else. He doesn't say people can't hear music, or see trees, or feel velvet. Edward does, in fact, listen to music for pleasure, so it's not even the case that he only mentions blood because that's all he cares about. I don't know how this is possible, but I really think Meyer thinks Bella's (and therefore her own) ability to smell blood is unusual. I can't escape the conclusion that she is somehow unaware that people can smell blood. Just about all people can, and do, and have. That, in fact, it has a very distinctive odour. One would think that merely existing in the human world would have imparted this information to Meyer. I'm simply thunderstruck that someone has lived three decades yet missed this simple fact.

Oh and one more thing: "he contradicted"? I mean, that's just...that's just wrong.

Mike comes back to make sure Bella's okay and to confirm that she's still going to the beach with him and his their friends. (She is.) Bella humiliates him some more--though mostly in her narration--and he leaves, despondent that she's in the presence of Edward. This is, naturally, portrayed as jealousy on Mike's part, though I prefer to think he's saddened to know that she's caught up in Edward's mind games. After Mike departs, Edward uses his hypnotism power--I think--to get Bella out of gym class, declaring to the school nurse that he will take her home. Bella then invites Edward to the beach, even though Meyer made sure we knew that Mike made it a point not to invite him. This adds a whole John-and-Yoko vibe to Bella, as if we needed any further reason to despise the character. Edward joins in on the Mike humiliation when he declines the invitation because Mike might "snap", though we'll find out later that the real reason he doesn't want to go has more to do with the location than the people involved.

Edward then assaults Bella when she heads toward her truck to leave. He grabs her by the jacket and "yanks" her back to him, and then he hauls her over to his car.

He was towing me toward his car now, pulling me by my jacket. It was all I could do to keep from falling backward. He'd probably just drag me along anyway if I did.

"Let go!" I insisted. He ignored me. I staggered along sideways across the wet sidewalk until we reached the Volvo. Then he finally freed me--I stumbled against the passenger door.

"You are so pushy!" I grumbled.

Yes, pushy. That's it. That's what you call someone who jerks you around and drags you bodily over to his car while you demand to be released. Pushy.

"Get in, Bella." 

I didn't answer. I was mentally calculating the chances of reaching the truck before he could catch me. I had to admit, they weren't good.

"I'll just drag you back," he threatened, guessing my plan.

You know, sometimes I wonder why I write this blog. In my earlier posts, I interrogated Edward's words and behaviour to expose them as the emotional manipulation that they were. I examined Bella's thoughts and actions and how they reveal a kind of dependent passivity and powerlessness. But now the novel just has Edward directly controlling her person through physical force. I mean, do I even need to talk about this? There's no deeper level to probe, here. The misogyny is right there on the surface. Why continue with this madness?

It became an instant bestseller when published originally in hardback in 2005, debuting at No. 5 on the New York Times Best Seller list within a month of its release and later peaking at No. 1. That same year, Twilight was named one of Publisher's Weekly's Best Children's Books of 2005. The novel was also the biggest selling book of 2008 and the second biggest selling of 2009, only behind its sequel New Moon. It has been translated into 37 different languages. When first published, Twilight gained much critical acclaim.[Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, yeah. That's why.
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* I know I'm striking a deceased equine here, but it continues to astound me that anybody thinks falling in love with a vampire is a believable idea. They're dead, people. They're shambling corpses that reek of the grave. They subsist on the blood of living human beings. There's no heat in their bodies, no life in their eyes, no light in their souls. They are inhuman. Stop saying you love them. It's disturbing.

September 7, 2012

EJO Review: Stand and Deliver

This week in our review of the body of work of Edward James Olmos, we look at the only performance for which He was nominated for an Academy Award: Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1988). If you know anything about the Academy, that right there tells you exactly what kind of film this is. Oh, and for a particular reader of this blog, I'll just point out that the Oscar that year went to Dustin Hoffman. That's right, Admiral Adama lost the Oscar to Rain Man.

I don't want to shock the hell out of you, but Stand and Deliver sees Olmos playing a Latino character trying to make something out of Chicanos trapped in the barrios. Don't even pretend like you saw that coming! This time he's a Bolivian maths teacher who takes underachievers from Garfield High School and soon has them passing the AP Calculus exam. (The film helpfully explains, for those of us who don't know, that less than 2% of all high school students in the Empire pass this exam. At least, in 1988.) The drama in the first half of the film stems from Escalante's attempts to get the students to go from expecting to fail in school and then get menial (or criminal) jobs to believing that school is worthwhile and that they can succeed. The second half deals with the problem of racism when the students do in fact do well.

A film like this succeeds or fails according to the performance of the actor playing the teacher. (See Dead Poets Society for what happens when you accidentally hire Robin Williams for the role.) Fortunately for the movie, Olmos is Olmos, so despite the very quirky affect he adopts (reportedly based on the real Jaime Escalante, as the film is based on a true story), we like Escalante and want him to succeed. The film is also helped immensely by the charisma--if not necessarily strong acting--of a young Lou Diamond Phillips, who made this film before his star-making turn as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba (though it was released after it). The best scenes are those between Phillips and Olmos and between Olmos and Vanessa Marquez as the top student whose working-class father doesn't see any value in her going to college. In addition to watching the students first reject, then accept, then excel for Escalante in the classroom, we also see snippets of their lives outside of class and the obstacles they face in their home lives. One memorable scene has Phillips asks for a second set of books to leave at home so that his fellow gangstaz don't see him carrying, like, books back and forth to school.

But in the end, I have to agree with Roger Ebert's review, where he notes that something's missing. The story should come alive more than it does. Ebert points out that the film is murky in places, often where it's most fascinating. The most grating example involves the Marquez character. Olmos has a wonderful scene in which he confronts her father in the restaurant the father owns and where he expects her to work as a server. Escalante remarks that the AP exam can lead to university which can lead to a better life for her than waiting tables. The father angrily retorts that he started out washing dishes for a nickel an hour, and now he owns the restaurant, and Mr. Escalante may consider himself thrown out of said restaurant on his ass! Marquez's chair is, of course, empty in the next class. But a few days later, she suddenly shows up and continues in class with no explanation. Did the father forgive Escalante? Did he come to see the value of a university education? Did her mother or someone else intervene? Is she attending in defiance of her father, and if so, what are the consequences? We never have any idea. A powerful dramatic scene in which Escalante, for once, may have cocked things up, and it all gets resolved, off-screen...somehow.

I can't agree with Ebert, though, about his other reason for saying the movie is weak: that the students' lives outside the classroom are uninteresting. (Well, he's right that the love story is out of place and goes nowhere.) In fact, I wanted more of these scenes. The film runs but 103 minutes. Another 15 minutes or so of these scenes might have strengthened our connection to the kids and gotten us  more invested in their success and (especially) anger when they are accused of cheating on the AP exam.

The strongest scene in the second half of the movie has Escalante directly accusing two ETS investigators of only doubting his students' scores because they're kids with Spanish surnames attending a barrio school. Andy Garcia, as one of the investigators, angrily shouts that no one can accuse him of racism because he's a minority himself. The film doesn't have Escalante challenge this; it's instead left to ring hollowly in the air like the meaningless claptrap it is. The students are forced to re-take the test, and there's tension there: If they pass again, will they get an apology from ETS? Yeah, right, you're more likely to get human dignity out of Sean Hannity.

What can I say? The film worked for me. It's maddeningly vague at times, a few of its subplots don't pay off, and it doesn't explore the students' lives enough, but when my big criticisms are that I want to know more, it can't be that bad. If you're a sucker for upbeat, uplifting films about real heroes doing a truly tough job (actually teaching socially-disadvantaged kids and not just marking time in the classroom until the bell rings), Stand and Deliver is for you. If you're a cynical misanthrope like Carl Eusebius, well, Edward James Olmos might just win you over anyway.

September 2, 2012

Twilight: Couch Potato

Twilight, pp. 91-98.

Bella has obeyed Edward's summons. They sit together in the school cafeteria, not saying much. Oh, they talk constantly, but they don't say much of anything. Edward first asks if Bella is hungry. I thought it was rather cute that he even remembered what it's like to desire food. (Watch Shadow of the Vampire to see a real vampire's understanding of human food. Or a plausible interaction of a real vampire with the modern world. Or a decent film. Or a reminder of why people consider Willem Dafoe a good actor.) Edward then demands to know how Bella thinks he got his superpowers. She suggests a radioactive spider (har, har), and he says that's wrong and that he doesn't fear Kryptonite, either (ho, ho).

So Edward knows the origin of Spider-Man and Superman's great weakness. Being that he is a century old, how, precisely, did he come by this information? Since Edward never speaks a word to anyone, I picture him spending 17 hours a day watching television to stay up on pop culture. Though given that he never talks to anyone, I'm not sure why he needs to know these things, especially since he can just read people's minds to understand references.* Meyer here gives us more evidence--as if we needed any more--that she hasn't given even the briefest thought to what it might be like to be one hundred years old.

Once again, Meyer has put her characters into a potentially interesting situation, which she then immediately cocks up because she doesn't see her characters as characters but as stand-ins for herself and her adolescent sexual fantasy figure. I noted last time that there's nothing about Bella that should be attractive to Edward. But there could be, if only Meyer would write for her characters rather than herself. Edward shouldn't know anything about contemporary culture. That would mean Bella knows a lot that he doesn't know, stuff that allows her to function in the world far easier than he, and since his powers don't work on her, he can't use his mind-reading trick to fake it for her. That would make him vulnerable in front of her. She's got something he doesn't have, doesn't understand, and wants to know more about. But no, Meyer's crippling need to have it both ways manifests itself. Edward somehow just knows what any other high school senior would know, and any chance for dramatic tension is gone, as is any shred of hope that Meyer might give Edward a reason to desire Bella other than "she's me and I want vampire hunk!".

Any writer worthy of the label should be able to do something interesting and romantic with the "I can read everybody's mind but yours" trope. Think about it: Edward can't read Bella's mind, and so he's forced to figure out what she's thinking in the same way that we lowly humans do. Here's your believable reason for Edward to be attracted to Bella: She, as a socially adept high school girl (which she is, remember, even though she's also an introverted wallflower who shuts down everyone who tries to befriend her), can effortlessly read people without Edward's mind-reading powers. He, on the other hand, is helpless without them, having long ago lost the human ability to read people through body language, posture, tone of voice, and non-verbal cues. Edward would be impressed by this mundane skill that everyone else takes for granted because he's a vampire and has been such for 100 years and isn't human and isn't just like everyone else. But no, the fatal flaw of this novel is that Edward is just like everyone else. Despite his being 100 years old and a vampire, everything about his interaction with Bella plays exactly as it would if he were a typical high school student. So Edward can read Bella just as if his mind-reading power worked on her, he's not impressed by her ability to read people without powers, and I continue to wonder what people see in this series.

And now, my little droogies, it's time for more of Edward warning Bella away because he's bad. Man, I just can't get enough of that. Bella finally accepts that he's dangerous but not that he's bad. Suddenly, he proves her wrong by telling her...wait for it...he's not going to class! Whoa, I take back everything I said about Edward not being dangerous. This badness is too much for Bella, who hurries off to biology, where the teacher is telling students to stab themselves with scalpels and drip the blood onto cards so they can learn their blood types. Who went to a high school that allowed this? I can't imagine my old high school ever handing us knives and telling us to cut ourselves open with them. A few thousand pounds of lawyer would've been hurling lawsuit at the district before the blood hit the card. The teacher even grabs Mike by the hand and without warning pricks his finger! With a scalpel! I'm pretty sure that constitutes assault with a deadly weapon. What kind of high school is this?

Bella immediately feels faint at the sight of this teeny drop of blood (you, because she's a girl). Mike half-carries her toward the school nurse's office--despite his bleeding being the cause of the problem--and suddenly Edward is there. How? Why? Who knows. Well, I know, because I've read the book already. Later we find out that Edward's mind-reading powers are apparently not affected by distance. He can read the mind of any person at any time anywhere, and because he can't read Bella's mind, he constantly monitors the thoughts of people around her. If you're getting a creepy stalker vibe from Edward here, that's because he's a creepy stalker. That, I presume, is how he knew she was faint, and he personally showed up to repel Mike's challenge to his access to Bella make sure she's okay. He picks her up like he's going to carry her over the threshold, over her repeated protests (men know best), and carries her to the office. Well, at least this vampire is finally doing something a little bit monstrous, carrying a protesting girl who can't escape his super-strong grasp. Yeah, it's weak, but I'm reaching for anything, here.

Edward takes Bella into the office, continually laughing about her fainting spell, and lies to the nurse so he can stay with her while the nurse leaves. Then they have a long, boring conversation that we'll get to next week.

Yes, I know they just had a long, boring conversation two pages ago. But see, then they were in the cafeteria, but now they're in the nurse's office. Totally different.

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*Maybe that's what Edward does all day: reading people's minds for trivia he might be called upon to know at some point. One hundred years is a lot of cultural change to keep up with.