On Evil Dead (2013)

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The word of mouth that I heard about the remake / reboot of Evil Dead was that it fundamentally misunderstood the thing that made the Evil Dead trilogy so great in the first place: the comedy. There’s a zaniness to the Raimi original that brushes close to camp, slapstick comedy, and legitimately creepy horror (by the time we get to fan-favorite-for-some-reason Army of Darkness it is full-on camp mode). It’s a difficult tone to match, and the weird sing-song waffling of the trilogy suggests that it is more of a stumbled-upon alchemy than it was an exact empirical science. Still, they’re wonderful.

I agree with the general criticism that 2013’s remakeboot by Fede Alvarez misses that comedy mark and replaces it with the worst excesses of the post-Saw / post-Eli Roth horror cinema. It’s a brutal trip full of gore for gore’s sake that literally reduces the plot of the original film down to a Final Destination-esque “all these people will die horribly one-by-one” formula.

I have a fairly strong fortitude when it comes to these kinds of films–I’m not queasy or avoidant when it comes to blood and gore–but there were moments in this film where I simply had to look away. I don’t know if conjuring these images is a strength necessarily, but Alvarez certainly has the talent for it.

Yet, despite needing to look away, I found myself laughing more often than I thought I would be. This version of Evil Dead doesn’t generate comedy through traditional beats or visual gags or through showing a character falling down. It does it through a weird ironic reference to its source material. For example, there’s a scene directly riffing on the possessed hand from the original trilogy. A woman is bitten, and her hand begins to grow necrotic, shaking with the power of murder. She takes an electric carving knife to it, and sheets of blood rocket up into her face followed by some close ups (and worse) of the severed limb. When other characters come enter the room in horror, she looks at them and says that she feels much better.

And I laughed. Not at the gore, or the excess of it all, or at the (so gross) aftermath. I was laughing at the film holding the originals in stasis for a moment only to totally squander what comedy they could bring with the most brutalizing, literalized violence possible. The film generates comedy not through punchlines but through side reference to the original films; it’s a comedy of being in the know, of getting the reference, and of feeling the friction when a reference does or does not land in the way we expect it to. It’s a movie worth watching just for that quality alone.

But, as I said, it’s brutally violent and extreme, so be aware of that.

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You Buy It, I Play It: Lifeless Planet

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Lifeless Planet is a beautiful object.

It’s graphically “simple” in the contemporary world of both prestige and grungy independent game development. The astronaut you play as is this wonderful almost-lump that can double jump by using his astronaut jet pack (my technical lingo here is lacking). You progress through this wonderful science fiction story that has all of the elements of the most beautiful Ray Bradbury tale, and I was legitimately impressed with how the game’s simple plot beats slowly cohered into something that I was legitimately interested in. Simple science fiction always has a way of racing toward the mean of silliness, or triteness, or finger-wagging political statements, and Lifeless Planet manages to avoid all of that in order to prod at something wonderful.

At least all of this is true through how much of Lifeless Planet I managed to play. Because no matter how much I love all of those elements, they cannot carry my interest for a long time. A double jump (plus long jump, plus robotic arm) is not enough to capture me for several hours. A simple mystery, something that I could read in twenty minutes in any of those beloved Bradbury collections, isn’t enough to keep me invested over four or five hours.

I did it to myself. I played half an hour of Lifeless Planet and was so engaged that I was recommending it to people. I sold it like this: “it’s this short, tight hour-long thing that really tells this great story.” I thought for sure that I understood the structure of this thing, and I idly searched it on HowLongToBeat to make sure that I could complete it before going to sleep–if it was another 30 minutes I would attempt it, but if it was another hour I was going to wait.

Five hours. I couldn’t image how the game could sustain for that long, or worse, how my interest could hold that long. And as soon as I got to the puzzles where I might have to use a robotic arm to solve a puzzle, I put the game down. The proliferation of mechanics, scenarios, and plot grandeur filled me full of dread. I put it down.

The difference between today and the game’s release window in 2011 is that today that kind of game is not only possible but existing everywhere. The “vignette game” (as Nina Freeman calls them) has proceeded from periphery to full genre, and we’re better for it. Lifeless Planet could be this amazing hour experience where a player wakes up, finds an abandoned town, and then travels deep into the planet for plot revelations.

But instead, in the interest of the general ideas of what a game is meant to be, Lifeless Planet stretches, adds mechanics, escalates the plot, and generally just continues. And I’m sure that’s great for some, but something I increasingly value in games is tightness, a kind of strict coherence, and the languid proliferation of Lifeless Planet goes the other way.

Speculative theory: a world where we could take the elements of a game and reorient them to make fan cuts in the same way that films can be recut toward different ends.

Thanks to Sparky Clarkson for purchasing this game for me literal years ago. You can read more in the You Buy It, I Play It series here. You can support this site and the work that I do here.

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On X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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I. SOME HISTORY

Fox’s X-Men franchise has had more hits than misses. 2000’s X-Men was an excellent introduction to the world and the film franchise’s core character Wolverine. Following three years later, X2 solidified many of the themes that director Bryan Singer evoked in the first film by ratifying them in explicit scenes–in a classic scene framed as a “coming out,” Ice Man’s mother asks if he’s ever tried not being a mutant, hammering home the key metaphor that Singer carries through the rest of his work on the franchise.

A string of less-than-interesting X-Men films followed then as Singer took a break from this particular universe to put his own spin on Superman, Nazi rebellion, and some folk tales. The Last Stand is a nonsensical almost-mash-up that falls prey to a plot that wants to do way too much with not enough time or substance. Origins: Wolverine tells the goofiest possible story with that character’s origin. It was a dire time to be a fan of the X-Men.

In 2011, Matthew Vaughn saved it all with X-Men: First Class. Set in the infancy of the X-Men, the film adopted the aesthetics of 1960s culture and filmmaking to anchor the weirdness of the X-Men in a time and place. By the grace of God, the film was able to secure James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender to play the past versions of Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellan’s Magneto. (I cannot stress enough that this was the best choice that anyone has made in the entire franchise, period.) The next film, Days of Future Past, saw Singer taking the reigns of the films back for himself and grounding X-Men in the paranoiac political thrillers of the 1970s.

And, after yet another Wolverine film lodged in there, we have now reached Apocalypse.

And it’s terrible.

I’m not sure if it is worth enumerating the problems with the film. There are angry nerds and pedantic YouTube channels for that. I’m going to spend the rest of this piece talking about one thing that continues along the trajectories of the films I’ve mentioned already so far in my recounting: the periodization in these prequels.

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2. THE WONDERFUL 1980s

First Class spent a chunk of its runtime getting us invested in the character of Magneto as a James Bond-ish Nazi killer. Instead of wonderful, weird technologies, Magneto had his mutant powers, and it is an engaging replacement that not only poses an alternate history of “what if these beings were here at this time” but also an alternate aesthetics: “what if films were made at this time with these ideas in them?”

Days of Future Past doubles down on the idea with a little more continuity with the Singer films of the early 2000s. Where the core conflict of First Class is around political intrigue and the Cold War, ultimately ending in an alternate Cuban Missile Crisis where mutants intervened, Days of Future Past takes us to the political thriller film of the 1970s. Mustaches, confusion, and technological races for power dominate the who-knows-what plot, and terrorism and assassination become the axes around which the plot revolves. We’re trading in the macro, yet secret, Cold War battles for a micro, yet wildly public, battle that runs through the press and establishes mutants as a fact of the world.

Apocalypse, gloriously, takes us to the 1980s and its wonderful cohort of classic teen films, slasher sequels, and action films. Those genres have amazingly specific dress codes, just like the Bond films and thrillers that the previous two films borrowed from, and the ceiling for aesthetic mixing and matching was very high. And there was so much promise in the first thirty minutes of the film. Jean Grey’s shoulderpads, Jubilee’s entire outfit, and Nightcrawler’s red jacket combined with the Sisters of Mercy music video mutant fights and muscle-man Polish steel mills gave me so much hope.

At a critical point in the film, four young members of the team go to the mall, and they play to have a joy ride with one of Professor X’s cars. “Hell yes,” I thought, “this is going to be our Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Breakfast Club moment where we get to hyperfocus in on what it’s like to be a mutant in the 1980s.”

I feel like I wasn’t wrong to have the belief that the film might go in this direction. First Class was so, so specific about making a film about a team, about the members themselves, and the personalities of those teammates was critical to how that film dodged around different perspectives. Days of Future Past brilliantly copied it with a fish-out-of-water-yet-familiar figure in Wolverine.

The focus-in gets deferred in Apocalypse. Instead, we’re denied any kind of interiority to these characters, and the necessity of balancing fifteen characters (and giving them all lines for some reason) means that Singer never settles on any subject positions as the important ones. So instead of a cool mall adventure, we get some generic fighting. Instead of learning about emotions, we get yet another Wolverine cameo (that goes on way too long). Instead of dealing with the apocalyptic worry of nuclear arms in the 1980s (it is, at best, paid visual lip service to), we get the same sort of plodding generic Big Massive Bad Guy fighting that ruined The Last Stand.

In a bitterly ironic scene, the one Mall Teen moment we do get is characterized by a cutting line about The Last Stand (something to the effect of “everyone knows third movies are always the worst ones”), but Apocalypse suffers from the same specific, exact failing of lack of focus, and you wonder if it isn’t some form of autocritique.

So the vibrancy of the 1980s pop culture landscape gets abandoned for a retread of apocalyptic scenarios available to us from Transformers to Independence Day. That specific failure to take the content and the aesthetic from the 1980s, to really ground X-Men in it, is a decision that I can’t even remotely understand in the context of the success of the last two films.

 

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Mages and Murderdads – Episode 1

Check out the new show that Danni and I are doing called Mages and Murderdads. The whole concept is that we’re playing through the Baldur’s Gate franchise. That’s it!

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A Thousand Plateaus as thriller

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The first thought that came to my mind after finishing A Thousand Plateaus for the nth time for my comps is that you could read it as a thriller contemporary thriller novel.

It has all the trappings of a Dan Brown novel: there are many pieces that we know fit together by virtue of their being within the same text. Each has their own story, and sometimes they seem radically unrelated to one another. Then, in the “Conclusion” (the only chapter you are definitively meant to read last), it is all given to us: the synonyms, the way the concepts fit together, and the revelation that each of the plateaus have really been the particularization of a monosystem grounded in different examples. The plateau names and dates were not different concepts, but rather they were markers to understand the differences in particular abstract machines.

Ann Cvetkovich’s Mixed Feelings makes a similar argument about the mystery at the heart of Capital: the mystery of the commodity. The formulation for A Thousand Plateaus might go something like this: the diagram (abstract machine) is around every corner, witnessing and controlling every move, and at the end it is revealed in all of its maniacal control.

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Justified and Military Discipline

Spoilers for Season 6 of the television show Justified.

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The last season of Justified opens with a plot that brings three Iraq War veterans to Harlan County as mercenaries for a hostile takeover of the county by outsiders. There’s the commanding officer, Walker, and his two subordinates, and it’s hinted that they are either Blackwater-esque PMC troops or just down-in-the-weeds wetwork men who are trained in torture, the hunting of people, and generally making difficult problems go away for higher ups.

The plot gets really outsized and strange, but watching it recently made me think about the argument of Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish around the community of the criminal. The prison, at least in part, becomes a crucible through which criminal networks are forged, and it seems that what Justified is saying here is that the Iraq War functions in much the same way. People from a diverse set of backgrounds are put through an immense amount of hierarchical discipline and released back into the world, and in the fiction of Justified, the best place for that discipline to be put to use in civil society is through creating a hyper-efficient criminal network.

In any case, not a full thought, but the case is interesting because the show often focuses on the military past of Tim, another Deputy Marshal alongside protagonist Raylan Givens. Tim is a complicated character with a wry sense of humor and a clear “I’m proud of my military past but it isn’t my entire being” which is nice for a tv show in the contemporary period. The valorization of the law in Justified is pretty extreme, and so to be given characters who are the most extensive form of the state’s ability to enforce law (the military) and using them critically is pretty interesting.

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Adam Kotsko on “pure dismissal”

Adam Kotsko has a post up at AUFS about how one can engage in dismissal in a world dominated by critical thinking.

This is something I’ve advocated before, and I’ve always gotten an almost extreme reaction of “how dare you not take a thing you disagree both on face and in principle seriously before disagreeing.” Kotsko sets up the problem beautifully, though, and I honestly think this is a great piece to read.

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Ian Williams on Total War: Warhammer

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I really enjoyed this piece by Ian Williams over at Giant Bomb about how Total War: Warhammer fits into the business plans of world-creators Games Workshop.

What I especially like about it is how Williams contextualizes the kind of rubber-band relationship that Games Workshop has with their game. He suggests that the search for profit over the past few years is going to cause a whiplash where people who want that old product are not going to be able to find it now that it has be eradicated in the search for additional monetary gain.

I also wonder how much of it is a problem associated with the heavy-metal, working-class aesthetic being forced to “grow up” in the increasingly disciplined world of intellectual property. Dungeons and Dragons (and the like)’s ability to borrow orcs from the Tolkien estate was critically important to generate a general mythology of fantasy that allowed people to have some degree of familiarity from generic fantasy product to generic fantasy product, but now that is understood to be a liability. I wonder what the proliferation of walled gardens of intellectual property is going to mean for the future of the “freedom” to move from different universe to different universe. Knowing a whole hell of a lot about DC Comics doesn’t help you much with watching Marvel films, and maybe enjoying X Fantasy game might not give you the ability to understand Y Fantasy world in the way that it did fifty years ago.

 

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Magic: The Gathering – Butt Company

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Here’s a TappedOut link to a Magic deck that I made for the Shadows Over Innistrad Game Day.  It’s called “Butt Company“, and it’s a fun little brew that I came up with when I decided that I didn’t want to buy very many cards (I’m not much of a Standard player).

It takes advantage of Assault Formation, a card that allows creatures you control to assign combat damage based on their toughness, and the various number of high defense creatures with evasion that you can grab at the end of your opponent’s turn with Collected Company.

I made quite a few mistakes playing the deck, the first of which was assuming that I was supposed to be playing it as a linear aggressive deck. I often just plopped my creatures down and dropped Assault Formation pre-combat so that my swings could be massive. However, the high amount of single-target removal in Standard right now meant that my opponent could just destroy my creatures one-by-one and prevent me from establishing that board presence that (I thought) would allow me to win the game.

After losing a bit in the tournament, I started playing the deck like I would a combo deck. I would play multiple creatures a turn, wait for my opponent to empty their hand of single-creature removal, and then Collected Company at the end of their turn. Often that CoCo would hit two evasive creatures that could swing into them for 8 damage in a single turn unopposed. I wish that I had played the deck this way from the beginning, but you learn what you learn.

In any case, it’s a very fun deck to play, and it is competitive against quite  few decks in the format simply because playing it as a combo deck and siding in Negates allows you to be very controlling. A good time!

Check out “Butt Company” here.

Also, it is called “Butt Company” because one of the bigger decks in this Standard is “Bant Company” (which is now shifting to Four-Color Bant). I just wanted this here for all the future Magic historians to have perfect clarity on what this weird deck was all about.

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On Nite Fite (2016)

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Damian Sommer has made this strange little machine called Nite Fite. In the tradition of the evolution simulator, Nite Fite gives us four little mages (?) who live in bubbles and constantly swing maces at each other. The ones who die inherit traits from their murders. I’ve spent a disgusting amount of time watching this game play itself at this point.

Play it here.

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