Book Review: Ghost Story

ghoststoryby Lucy Arnold

 

Ghost Story
Jim Butcher
Roc Books, 481 pp.

When I finished reading Changes, my first thought was, “Wow. Now how is he going to top that?” The climax of the previous novel in The Dresden Files amped up the power levels and put Harry in epic territory, in terms of deed and infamy. Butcher’s answer to this conundrum is Ghost Story, a novel that successfully follows up the climactic action of Changes by being a completely different kind of novel, its drama psychological and its heroes unlikely. Harry is at the center of the struggle, but his ghostly condition, a consequence of being shot dead at the conclusion of Changes, forces him to slow down, to think before he acts, and to reflect on his past and the choices he made in it.

As much as some of my favorite characters, like Molly, Murphy, and Butters played crucial roles in this newest offering in the series, I began to despair that I would see Harry’s best sidekicks: Mouse, Mister, and Bob. Hang in there: all three make appearances, of varying lengths. And nostalgic as I was at moments for the feel and the familiarity of the earlier books in the series, I give Butcher nothing but credit for shaking things up so viscerally. We readers, like Harry, lost a home, friends and family, and even a body, but this literally spiritual journey sets Harry up as a more complex, more likeable, and more believable hero than he’s ever been before. In short, Butcher nailed the nigh impossible task of following up Changes with something even better.

Hurry up on the next book, Jim!

Movie Review: Kick-Ass

kickassby Lucy Arnold

 

Taking Shit Seriously (or Taking Shit, Seriously)

In the vein of Watchmen and other “dark” superhero movies, Kick-Ass presents us with our very own flawed modern world and the flawed hero necessary to save it.

On the one hand, the movie is curiously engaging, particularly scenes including Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz (who hands-down steals the movie). Hit Girl is an intriguing character, one who could have made the movie all on her own, challenging as she does audience preconceptions about superheroes, little girls, and violence. Simultaneously thrilling and disturbing as it is to watch her pump lead into the brains of various villains, Moretz is absolutely believable. As her equally disturbing father, Nic Cage is brilliant. And their relationship raises questions about parenting outside of crime fighting. To what extent do all parents raise their kids with requisite baggage, churning out new generations of dysfunctional psychoses? All within the context of love.

In the mirror relationship, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is desperate to engage in his father’s criminal business, even though Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) is loathe to see his son’s potential. But compared to the understandable and compelling family bond portrayed by Moretz and Cage, this father-son drama falls flat. Far worse for the movie, the villainy exercised by the D’Amicos just doesn’t have that old-fashioned evil feeling. Neither fully businesslike or intensely scary, the bad guys were always doomed to fall at the hands of Hit Girl and Kick-Ass. Or maybe we’re just living out post-Dark Knight villain depression.

The heart and title of the movie is Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson), though, it is with him that the movie ultimately fails for us.

Bad shit happens all the time. A lot of those times people are perfectly aware of said bad shit, and often they do nothing. Certainly there are those rare occasions when ordinary people stand up against the madness and say, “This far and no farther.” That’s real-life heroism. Then there are those fictional occasions when exceptional people stand up against the forces of darkness. That’s superheroism.

But in real life, if you decide to be a rogue superhero, what’s stopping any given person with a gun from shooting you? Which leads us to the real question: if you suck at being a superhero but you keep right on doing it anyway, you’re really just a crazy person, right? For just such an example, consider the Batman copycatters in Dark Knight… the lucky ones were tied up and sent to prison, the unlucky ones died horribly.

And that, in a nutshell, is Kick-Ass. He’s just a lame-ass kid with no assets or principles. He just wants to get a girl into bed. The stuff he does isn’t heroic. It’s dumb. And devastatingly, it’s not compelling to watch, just painful.

Here’s to Kick-Ass 2 being renamed Hit Girl.

 

Alien Abduction

Alien Abduction

Illustration by Matt McIrvin

by Lucy Arnold

 

This is why I believe in aliens:

The possibility of being sucked into the sky
to be probed
Is part of what makes life meaningful
Because if human beings are interesting enough
that some aliens need to probe them,
If human beings are that complicated
and require that kind of study

Then people obviously
aren’t as simple as I suspect
They aren’t as easy to figure out
(i.e. evil, greedy, close-minded, violent, miserable)
as I think.

That’s what I hope
and that’s why I’m willing to sit around and wait,
Hoping that I’ll be abducted by aliens,
a scenario that would be

Bad for me,
Good for mankind.

 

Movie Review: Surrogates

Layout 1by Lucy Arnold

 

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

One thing that would be cool about the events of the movie Surrogates coming true is that I would have sent my surrogate to endure that too-long eighty-eight minutes instead of me. Meanwhile, I could have engaged in any number of meaningful activities, including but not limited to sock drawer reorganization and fingernail clipping. But, alas, here we are in 2009 with our paltry attempts at surrogates in Second Life and World of Warcraft

And on that note, if you can manage to keep your brain tied up in the social message of Surrogates, you might be okay. It does, in fact, offer an intriguing take on computer avatars and how our identities are constructed online. In one of the first scenes, it is revealed that a hot chick surrogate is actually being operated by a fat man. Speaking as a long-time MMORPG fan, I can attest to the reality of this sort of gender-swapping. I really liked how the movie asked me to challenge my thinking about online worlds. When I’m interacting with a hot female night elf druid in WoW, intellectually I know that that the odds are 10:1 that she’s a man in real life. But how often do I interact with online women as though they are women and online men as though they are men? And what difference would it make anyway? Since WoW introduced their new voice technology for grouping, I’ve been surprised many times by the type of voice I hear once the group is formed, often a players’ voice has nothing in common with the virtual avatar, whether they are men playing female toons or adolescent boys playing football player-sized avatars. For surfacing these kinds of questions, I was initially captivated with the film. The movie challenges the audience with these sorts of questions: how does the prospect of perfection impact our identities? How are gender and sexuality construed online? To what extent is “living” online just escapism? Who are you when you can be anything?

Unfortunately, the movie does not take even one of these questions and pursue it. Instead, Surrogates quickly devolves into another in a long line of “science-as-monster” fiction, warning against scientific progress because it will only come at the expense of man’s essential “humanity.” Whatever, whatever. This movie is a missed opportunity in that it could have been a really interesting exploration of the anesthetization of human beings in an online world but instead decides to paint the world with unrealistic swatches of “good” and “evil.”

The result is that we get The Matrix Lite. It’s got the same sort of beautiful perfection versus people who haven’t shaved or applied make-up (though with fewer dowdy sweaters). It also suffers from the same hero complex, with the fate of the world resting on one person; think everything that was wrong with The Matrix’s sequels and you’ll kind of get the picture.

Before this review comes off sounding overly critical, there were a few moments that I really enjoyed. I liked the overweight system operator who refuses to use an Avatar. I connected for long moments at a time with Bruce Willis’s actual human being, forced out into the world when his avatar is destroyed. Willis is nothing if not good at playing the slightly-perplexed-but-good-hearted-everyman. And Ving Rhames was fabulous.

The two chase scenes were both well shot and effectively showed off the advantages of police avatars versus plain old human beings. But for me, the movie lost its focus during the first chase; with lingering shots on the fearful expression of the human being chased by Willis’s avatar, I felt my sympathy conflicted. I was hopeful that this was a conscious move on the part of the filmmakers who planned to complicate the story, but this hope did not pan out. Rather than complicating the moral message of the story, the filmmakers led us a wild goose chase of a plot, winding up where we all could have predicted we were going from the beginning but figured it would be too obvious.

I wanted to like Surrogates substantially more than I actually liked it in the end. Too many missed opportunities for my taste.

 

Movie Review: G.I. Joe

Layout 1by Lucy Arnold

 

G.I. Joe as a Uni-cultural Fantasy

When I went to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra with my boyfriend, I did not have high expectations. But like most other people, I don’t mind occasionally vegging out by watching a mindless, violent romp with cool CGI, myriad chase scenes, and lots of inexplicable cleavage.

Ironically, in the areas of CGI, chase scenes, and boobs, G.I. Joe receives high marks. Unfortunately, in terms of just enjoying the ride, it fails miserably. I was so overcome by the anti-diversity subtext of the film that I just couldn’t enjoy the other stuff.

From a female perspective, this movie was downright disappointing. Both female characters began with really interesting potential: the Baroness is a bad-ass bad chick, and Scarlett is a science-brained kick-ass commando. But then… Scarlett cries after a fight. Really? Was Duke crying? Snake Eyes? (To be fair, he could have been weeping throughout the film, since we never got to see his face… but his mask wasn’t wet at any rate.) The only female on the team? Uh huh… Then she has to be rescued, physically cradled in the arms of the Big, Strong Man™. By the end of the movie, she disavows her scientific stance with the worst line in the movie, “I feel… emotional.”

The Baroness gets it even worse. First of all, I had been assuming throughout the movie that she knew Dr. Bald Guy was her brother, which is why she began working for Cobra. But no. We also discover that when she was “good” she was also blonde. Of course, she had to dye her hair darker to connote evil. Oh stereotypes, do you ever become tiresome? Then she starts cutting eyes at Duke (Isn’t he dreamy?). Her betrayal of the bad guys was imminent and would have been bad enough for her character. But this movie, to its credit I guess, decided to go whole-assed in the anti-woman arena. Because it turns out that the Baroness, well, she was being mind-controlled all along! She didn’t really want to do bad things! She wanted to be—blonde! And, just like that, the strongest female character in the whole movie never did a single thing of her own volition. Except love Duke. I feel nauseated.

Don’t worry, women, you were not the sole target of this movie’s ghastly subtext. The Snake Eyes vs. Storm Shadow battle also managed to highlight the superiority of white males over Asians. The backstory of these “brothers” is that Snake Eyes, a child of European descent, probably British or American, shows up somewhere in Asia and kicks the martial arts asses of a passel of Asian fighters, including Storm Shadow. Why this should be is never explored. The archetypal imagery of their final battle pits brother against brother, and, of course, who is the victor but the one of European descent.

But wait. There’s more. Who is the comic relief in this movie, cutting the fool with jokes, physical hijinks, and complete stupidity throughout the movie? The black guy, Rip Cord, apparently developed straight out of a 1930’s black male stereotype. I could also add a point about the required heterosexuality of the film; the women ended up paired with good guy-type males, both redeemed from their faulty thinking (Cobra and science). And all of the other guys were essentially asexual but totally masculine. Whew, homosexuality averted.

Before you begin shaking your head at me and saying that I failed to appreciate this movie for what it was trying to be: a brainless popcorn movie, let me step back a bit. As I tried to intimate at the beginning of this review, I love brainless popcorn movies. But this movie is insidious in its attempt to paint a picture of an America that is not only untrue but isn’t worth idealizing. I’m left reading this movie like it’s a white male American fantasy. Is this someone’s ideal America, ruled by tough guys, filled with compliant women and defeated or subverted minorities? I sure hope not.

Give me a popcorn movie, sure. But do I have to choke on it?