twins nicholas conley

Writing for Grunge.com

Good morning, everyone!

So, I’m happy to share that I’ve joined up with the writers of Grunge.com. For those who haven’t read Grunge before, it’s a quality site, dedicated to diving deep into pools of weird information, exploring unknown facts, and correcting common misconceptions. Since I’ve always had the sort of brain that’s hungry to explore any corner of knowledge I find myself in, I’m having a great time.

Here are a few of my pieces so far. Thanks for giving ’em a read!

Weird Things That Medical TV Shows Always Get Wrong

House MD nicholas conley

Strange Facts You Never Knew About Twins

twins nicholas conley

Clever Movies That Trick You With Double Plot Twists

arrival nicholas conley

Animals That Evolved to Defend Themselves Against Humans

animals evolved nicholas conley

Advertisements

Dark Tower Trailer is Here!

Afters years upon years of waiting, the first trailer for the upcoming cinematic adaptation of The Dark Tower is real, it’s breathing, and it’s live:

As readers know, the Dark Tower series was hugely influential on me — as a writer, a reader, and as a person — so this is easily my most anticipated movie of the year. It’s a hard one to get right, but so far, I’m impressed.

As the filmmakers have said, they are pulling from multiple books in the series for this first film, which I think makes sense; the original book, The Gunslinger, is fairly slow paced compared to the subsequent books, with much of it consisting of Roland and Jake following the Man in Black through the desert. It looks like this one uses the general plot structure of The Gunslinger, combines it with the house/portal from The Waste Lands, and then uses some of the New York elements of the last two books. Having everything somewhat different from the books actually works with this storyline, in a way it wouldn’t with other adaptations, since the notion of alternate realities, timelines, and dimensions is sewn right into the fabric of the Dark Tower mythos. As Jake famously said in the first novel, “there are other worlds than these.”

Either way, I definitely got chills hearing that last line. Idris Elba seems like an absolutely amazing Roland, with all of the gravitas that the character demands. Jake and the Man in Black look to perfectly capture the characters in the books. Can’t wait to see this in theaters.

Batman v Superman: A Different Take on Superheroes

I have to admit, the negative reviews of Batman v Superman have really surprised me. But on further inspection, perhaps it’s to be expected: this is a superhero movie that, much like Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, takes a wildly artistic, bizarre approach to pop culture icons. It won’t appeal to everyone. It can’t.

Zack Snyder, the director of both this movie and Man of Steel, has done something startlingly different with both of his films. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, like the early X-Men movies, created a universe grounded in reality, where a man in a bat costume and a costumed clown were brought down to the real world. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies embraced the larger than life aspects of the comics, while simultaneously balancing them against bittersweet, sincere, indie-style character interactions. Marvel Studios’s Avengers multiverse, while it contains a variety of different tones and styles, is mostly molded on the adventure film aesthetic of classics like Star Wars and Indiana Jones; fun, humorous, but not afraid to dive deep when necessary.

bvsquad2

Though Zack Snyder’s approach has been likened to Nolan’s, it’s only similar on a surface level.  Though Snyder’s DC universe is filled with both religious and political subtext, never afraid to show violent rallies or catastrophic incidents, what he’s actually doing here is portraying his superhero characters not as comic book heroes, but as Greek myths brought to life.

When Lex Luthor — who Jesse Eisenberg portrays as a sort of supervillain version of Mark Zuckerberg — says that “demons come from the sky,” this isn’t just a character moment that explains Lex’s motivations, it’s the central question of the entire movie. Similarly, when Lex tells a US senator that the oldest lie in America is the notion that “power can be innocent,” it’s the movie itself asking whether potentially authoritarian figures such as Batman and Superman should be trusted with world safety.

In fiction, superheroes excite us. We know who they are, and we know that they’re good people. We root for them. But in real life, would we not be terrified?

bvs_destruc

Just consider Batman, and what a scary figure he is. While we all thrill to Batman’s adventures in the movies, just imagine if a real Batman existed in our world: imagine if a “terrorist,” as this movie refers to him, was creeping around in the shadows of your city, attacking criminals, taking the law into his own hands for reasons you don’t get to know. If Batman was real and we knew nothing about where he came from, would we trust him? Would we feel safe walking down the streets at night?

Superman takes this to the next level. Seriously, imagine that an alien swoops in from the sky and saves the world, but that this super powered battle destroys a major American city. In the wake of this devastation, the world now has to reconcile with the known existence of a godlike creature that can tear apart skyscrapers, bolt across the planet in seconds, and survive bomb blasts. Would the people, the government, or the media trust him to do the right thing?

Considering we live in a society that has been perpetually involved in never ending wars, that doesn’t seem so likely.

bvs_supes

Essentially, the reveal of Superman would undermine everything we think we know about our place in the universe. The vast majority of human cultures and religions have always cast humans as the center of it all, the makers, the masters.

A real life Superman would shatter that illusion. That’s about the most terrifying concept in the world.

Batman v Superman asks us to truly examine how the world would react to the existence of superheroes, without pulling its punches. When these heroes battle against cosmic threats, it does level a city block, and these actions do have real consequence on people’s lives. While the comic book Superman can usually rescue a building full of people without any fatalities, this cinematic Superman makes mistakes. He tries his best, but he’s like a giant trying to maneuver through an ant farm, and sometimes people get hurt.

bvs_false

This means that the film doesn’t possess the sort of positivity or excitement that we expect out of most superhero offerings, so I can understand the disappointment that many feel. This is a shockingly different sort of film from what most expected.

Now, I enjoy those films as well. I love the MCU, I love Superman: The Movie, and all that. But there’s something to be admired about the fact that Snyder and his writers were willing to take a chance on a movie of this scale, to truly examine the consequences of superheroes that are often ignored. For the record, I expect that the upcoming Captain America: Civil War will examine similar questions, albeit in a different way, and I can’t wait for that movie as well.

In any case, while BvS mirrors some of the themes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen — which in comic circles is widely considered to be on the level of a religious text — where it differs is that this movie does believe in its heroes. It’s just not afraid to put them through the ringer.

635941756438912981-BVS-FP-0588

I don’t think that Henry Cavill’s Superman gets nearly enough credit for what amounts to a surprisingly subtle depiction of this classic character. Superman here is a more introverted and self-doubting figure than how he’s normally been represented, but it works. Unlike the obsessive and driven Batman, Clark Kent is basically just a good guy who wants to do the right thing, and hopes that he’s doing it the right way. He’s a normal man who possesses the gifts of a God, and struggles beneath the weight of what his existence means to the world.

So yes, Clark was born a God, but probably would have preferred to be a man. On the other hand, while Bruce Wayne may have been born a man, he has turned himself into a god.  In contrast to Clark’s humble unsureness, Bruce Wayne is a person motivated by obsession, constantly dedicating himself to an ideal that has stripped him of his youth, his friends, and every other aspect of his life. By the time of BvS, that obsession has only grown more fervent, and he’s lost sight of the idealistic goals that motivated it to begin with.

bvs_bruce

Batman’s motivation to kill Superman, who he refuses to see as a human being, is essentially a midlife crisis. Bruce Wayne has spent his entire life fighting to make the world a better place in his own small way, and when two aliens drop down on the world and blow up half of a city, he sees in a very real way just how small he is, and how everything he’s ever done could be wiped out in a millisecond now that real gods walk among men.

This conclusion is driven home by two scenes in particular. First is the opening, which takes us back to Man of Steel‘s epic conclusion, and shows Bruce Wayne  helplessly turned into a bystander. Second is the Batmobile scene, which replicates the style of the Nolan Batmobile scenes. This scene shows Batman dominating everything in his path, succeeding the way we’ve always seen him succeed…

Until the Batmobile smacks into Superman, spins out of control, and is totaled.

Again, because of Superman, Batman’s efforts are rendered meaningless. Insignificant. He’s just a pawn in the game, shown to be worthless against an alien being that he perceives to be a threat to world safety.

bvs_aff

I had a lot of doubts about Affleck, but he delivers here in every way. I’ll admit, Affleck and Snyder’s more sociopathic version of Batman isn’t my Batman. While this version is clearly influenced by Frank Miller’s brutal take on the character in the classic Dark Knight Returns, I’ve always preferred the more idealistic, moral, and human Batman that Denny O’Neil wrote — the version brought to life in both Batman: The Animated Series and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Because of that, Christian Bale will probably always be my favorite live action Batman, but Affleck does a great job here at depicting Frank Miller’s caped crusader.

Where the movie falters, compared to other superhero films, is in Zack Snyder’s lack of maturity compared to a more experienced director like Nolan. Whereas the Nolan brothers adeptly weaved together storylines that paid off in every way, Snyder sometimes leaves threads hanging, or unnecessarily kills off characters for shock value. Still, he’s his own director, and he’s telling a very different story from the one that Nolan did.

bvs_nolan

I’ll put it this way: Nolan used the Batman mythology as a framework to tell a politically-charged parable about American life in the 21st century. Now, this worked amazingly. But what Snyder is doing here is telling a story centered around just how impossible these characters are, instead of making them more realistic.

Snyder and the writers want to ask the question of what happens to the real world when you drop an impossible figure like Superman into it.Once we understand this, I think Snyder’s approach starts to make sense.

bvs_knightmare

It’s not a fun movie, certainly. It’s often bleak, slow-paced, and doesn’t flinch from having terrible things happen to good people. I’m glad that this isn’t the blueprint for all superhero movies, because I do think it’s important that the majority of superhero films are more positive — and more accessible to younger audience members — but every once in a while, it’s good to have a different take on the genre.

BvS is not the expected approach to a superhero movie, but it’s nothing if not ambitious as hell. Whether Snyder succeeds or fails in his attempt is up to the viewer, and based on the reviews it’s clear that this is turning out be a divisive movie.

But all in all, I highly recommend it. It’s not for everyone, and you might hate it — but it’s a rare sort of film that doesn’t often get made in Hollywood, and for that bravery alone, it deserves a little recognition.

bvs_supess

 

 

 

The Failure of the Bayformers

It’s crazy to look back on it now, but I actually liked Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie.

Hell, I still do. Not that the movie doesn’t have its issues, but there’s a touch of Spielbergian magic to the whole thing that made it shine; it’s a traditional, relatable rite of passage story about a boy getting his first car, a car that just happens to be an alien robot. The action was believable, the characters were likable and the Transformers themselves were wonderfully adapted from their toy/cartoon/comic versions with a surprising sense of affection, right down to the unexpected surprise of Peter Cullen returning to voice Optimus Prime. There were some annoying Bay-moments™, no doubt, but the strengths he does have as a director overcame them.

So yes, I liked the original.

trans1

And that’s exactly why the sequels have been so utterly disappointing.

See, the problem with the Transformers sequels hasn’t just been the weak, infantile character development (the entire narrative arc of our protagonist is based on the fact that he’s scared to say “I love you” to his girlfriend? Seriously?), the nonsensical storylines, or even the bastardization of the Transformers mythos. Yes, all of that is true. Yes, the movies are poor. But the reason that they’re so aggravating is because within each Transformers sequel – this newest entry, Age of Extinction, in particular – lies the seed of something that could actually be really, really good, and everyone involved in making the movie is too lazy to actually put the effort in.  Why?  Because they know they can get away with it. 

The special effects and action scenes in these movies are, without a doubt, absolutely stunning. Beautiful, even. But every time these movies come close to developing a meaningful plot—

Look, it’s not that they fumble. It’s not that the writers, director, producers or whoever is in charge of this thing are stupid, because they clearly aren’t. No, the problem is that whoever is in charge of this mess, whether it’s Michael Bay or someone else, he/she just doesn’t care. And it shows. These movies put in just enough effort to create a popcorn blockbuster, but not the extra effort to make something meaningful out of it.  Why make a good movie if you can make a bad one, and still be successful?

trans2

It’s pretty clear that these movies are enormously disrespectful to the Transformers mythos, even to those who know nothing about Transformers.  But let’s pretend, for a moment, that there was no Transformers before Michael Bay came around. Let’s pretend, just for the hell of it, that the Autobot/Decepticon conflict didn’t exist before the movies. If that’s the case, the movies wouldn’t be any less frustrating, because they would still be using potentially interesting ideas and then throwing them away for the sake of lowbrow punchlines.

Here’s some food for thought: Age of Extinction is an overpacked, overlong movie.  Okay, but you know why? Because believe it or not, it actually has four—count ‘em, four—separate storylines mashed into the same movie. All four of these plots have potential. And all four of them are wasted. Don’t believe me? Listen:

trans4

Plot 1: A broke, single, hard luck inventor dad (Mark Wahlberg) struggles to scrounge up the money for his unappreciative daughter to go to college – and when working on an old truck, finds out that it’s actually Optimus Prime.

This is the plot that they showed in the trailers, which was smart, because it got people into theaters. It’s relatable. It’s human. It has the same Spielbergian sense of magical reality as the “boy and his car” plot from the first movie. Personally, I think it would’ve been smarter for the dad to be a mechanic instead of an inventor – more realistic – but still, it works. One can imagine that, in a perfect script, the science fiction/Autobot plotline would somehow connect to this one in a way where a common, deeper theme is found – perhaps a theme about fatherhood, about what it’s like to support a child who doesn’t appreciate that support, whatever. There’s additional potential (that gets squandered) when Wahlberg and Optimus discuss the concept of a soul, a theme which (in a better movie) could have been an emotional high point. Either way, the working class father/daughter plot presents plenty of storyline options.

Except that the daughter is inconsistently characterized. Is she really unappreciative? Or is she actually kind, generous and supportive?  Is she even interested in going to college—and if so, what for? Is she only in the movie because Michael Boy wants a “hot girl” character, and didn’t bother giving her a realistic personality (BINGO!)? And while we’re at it, who the hell is this annoying “best friend” character who supposedly works for the inventor?

Like I said, the plot has potential. Wahlberg is one of the highlights of the movie, and he does the best he can. But there’s little attempt to expand the dad/daughter story beyond its most basic elements, and once the daughter’s obnoxious twenty-something boyfriend is introduced, the script falls back on pretty standard clichés. But that’s okay, because we have plot number 2…

Uh...cyborg dinosaurs?

Uh…cyborg dinosaurs?

Plot 2: Oh boy, aliens killed the dinosaurs! And they created the Transformers…and now they’re ready to come back and collect their old toys!

Okay. Yes.  So the idea of alien creators (in the Transformers universe, these are called Quintessons) isn’t the most original plot of all time, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential—again, there’s that word—for some pretty epic, mind-bending plot developments. Right?

Except that this idea – possibly the biggest one in the movie, considering it basically pits a Godlike entity against the Autobots and Earth – is totally forgotten about for most of the runtime. Oh, it flickers on the screen every now and again, and it definitely is part of the movie’s climax, but it’s hard not to feel like the whole thing was thrown in more as a setup for the next movie than anything else.  And with a storyline this big, it can’t be thrown in.  It demands attention.  It needs to be the focus.

But okay. I’ll accept it.  They want to do a new trilogy, right? Got to plant some seeds. But if that’s the case, they could’ve planted them in a way that implied that they have some idea where they’re going.  We’ve already seen the Egyptian pyramids being put together, a new take on the moon landing, and now the dinosaurs going extinct.  How many historical events on Earth are we going to see reimagined?  And furthermore, will this beaded string of hints and clues ever get tied together?

The “creators” are barely mentioned throughout the movie, and so much else is going on that the viewer mostly forgets about them. And when the classic Dinobots arrive on the scene, they seem to be thrown in with no setup and no explanation.  Are they somehow connected to how the real dinosaurs went extinct?  What’s the deal?  The viewer wants to believe that the next movie might offer clear answers, emotional high notes and maybe even catharsis, but past experience demonstrates otherwise.

trans3

Plot 3: The evil, dark, corrupt United States government wants to kill off all of the remaining Transformers.

I get what they were going for here. I do. It’s an allegorical statement on illegal immigration, and a pretty clear one at that. It also brings to mind the terrible way that this country has often treated old war veterans.  I just wish that if they were going to do a statement on something, they’d actually, you know, follow through on it.

And by that, I mean actually give it some depth. Examine the real issue, instead of just glancing at it and nodding. Kelsey Grammer does a good job in his role, though, and this plot is actually a pretty good way to follow up on all of the destruction that has been done in the previous movies. The main problem with this plot isn’t that it’s a bad storyline—it’s that with all of the other stories going on simultaneously, it has no room to breathe.

Trans6

Plot 4: Steve Jobs creates his OWN Transformers

Okay, so it’s not actually Steve Jobs. But for all intents and purposes, that’s who Stanley Tucci is playing here.  As usual, he does a great job.

Basically, the idea here is that a multimillion dollar technological corporation gets a hold of the metal that the Transformers are made of, copyrights it as “transformium,” and then creates their own Transformers for mass merchandising purposes. And these Transformers, being man-made, aren’t just the equals to their alien predecessors; they’re better, stronger and able to reshape themselves into literally anything. Unfortunately, when one of the man-made Transformers gains consciousness—Galvatron, the robot made from Megatron’s spare parts– let’s just say that the big guy has his own ideas about how to do things.

Now, putting aside the humorous fact that a Michael Bay movie (a movie inspired by a line of action figures) is making a statement about over-commercialized American society, this storyline is actually the best one in the movie. It inspires a number of the movie’s most intriguing moments.  In particular, there’s one noteworthy sequence where the Autobots face off against Tucci’s character, who informs them that “they don’t matter anymore.”

There’s a sort of postmodern near-brilliance to this notion. The idea that the Autobots – who are, remember, inspired by a line of action figures—now have to face their own obsolescence in the presence of new, improved, brightly-colored toys, is clever.  It makes the viewer consider the fate of all technology. Laptops, cars, microwaves, cell phones—every few years, every piece of technology that we cherish will be replaced by the new, more colorful model with brighter colors. As Optimus Prime stands there facing Stanley Tucci, essentially being informed that his hardware is out of date, the mighty Autobot leader suddenly seems small and helpless.  He’s been turned into a dated old flip phone, rendered helpless before the new iPhone.

In addition, this is the first major storyline since the original movie to bring something new to the series. Every other movie has dealt with how these alien entities came to Earth in the past, influenced history and are now coming back with violent intentions. This plot, in contrast, shows how humans can become their own worst enemies. It shows how scientific progress can corrupt us if used incorrectly. It (potentially!) makes us question the way we casually dispose of outdated technology and childhood toys.

So yes, this storyline is good.

But then it’s crammed in with three other storylines, and it has no room to breathe.

Oops.

trans5

 

Yes, I know. Christopher Nolan did it in all three Batman movies—but that’s because Nolan is a master storyteller who knows how to weave his storylines together, how to make each character arc resonate, how to have a purpose behind the whole thing. Michael Bay doesn’t care about story—he’s an overeager, hyperactive type who really cares about the big explosions—and as a result, whatever storyline he uses is really only a way to fill time between said explosions. That’s why he uses juvenile humor so much; he doesn’t know how else to keep you interested when he’s not blowing up alien spaceships.

That’s why this movie is so frustrating; not because it’s bad, but because it could be good. Every time there’s a hint of depth, it is quickly tossed aside for the sake of another throwaway joke. The movie’s conclusion is a long, dragged out mess, because by that point they’ve written themselves into a corner.  While Steve Jobs is running through the city with a bomb, the Autobots have to stop Galvatron and his man-made robot army, while they simultaneously have to stop Lockdown from attacking the city with his giant evil UFO, while they also have to stop Kelsey Grammer from doing…something, and in the meantime (don’t forget!), these alien creators are out there somewhere, doing something. Oh yes, and here’s the Dinobots…

It doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t care to make sense.

And while we’re on the subject of other stupid things:

  1. The football. Yes, the football.
  2. The Autobots. Evidently, someone got the memo that much of the audience couldn’t tell the robots apart in the previous movies, and decided to respond by turning all of the new Autobots into exaggerated cartoon characters. Look, disbelief can only be stretched so far. I can accept the notions that the robots can speak English.  But when they present a supposedly alien robot that, for one, smokes a cigar—with what lungs, and what happens when the cigar burns out?—and on top of that, has a prominent beer gut (how does a robot get overweight?), it suddenly becomes very difficult to take it seriously. Then we have an Autobot with a trenchcoat, made of…uh, metal?  And finally, an Autobot that looks and behaves exactly like a samurai.
  3. The “boyfriend” character. Totally unlikeable, but for some reason the audience is expected to root for him in the end. I don’t know why.
  4. Inconsistent characterization for the Autobots, and a general lack of heroism.  The general immorality of the “heroic” characters here genuinely bugs me, and honestly, that might even be my biggest issue with the film.  How are we supposed to root for these guys?  I’ve never seen Optimus Prime so grim, impulsive and antagonistic as Michael Bay portrays him.  In Age of Extinction, his new tendency to flip out, break things and make constant death threats doesn’t ring true to the noble leader he’s normally portrayed as. Bumblebee is even worse; although everyone’s favorite yellow Autobot has always had a youthful energy about him, he’s never acted like a rampaging toddler before.  And the three new “heroes” are even worse.  Drift is a stereotype, Crosshairs seems to be the Autobot version of Starscream, and Hound, the John Goodman Autobot, is a violence-loving sociopath; there’s even a scene where Hound executes an innocent, caged alien creature just for being “ugly” (see Film Crit Hulk’s review for more on this). When the main heroes are so quick to violence, the viewer starts to wonder who they’re supposed to be cheering for.
  5. Possibly the stupidest, most disturbing scene in the film is the one where Optimus convinces the Dinobots to join him and take down Galvatron.  How does he do it, you ask?  Perhaps a stirring, monumental speech?  Maybe the Dinobots see the great Autobot leader in danger, and they rise to the occasion?  Nope.  He just takes out a sword and fights them.  And as he fights, going on and on about how if they fight for him they can have “freedom,” he suddenly takes a sword to Grimlock’s throat and threatens him that he must “fight for my freedom, or die.”  You know what this means? That Optimus is a hypocrite, warning a fellow warrior (who has been imprisoned for God knows how long) that if he doesn’t fight for the freedom of the Autobots, then he will kill him.  Freedom?  Not quite.
  6. Optimus Prime just flies off into space, even doing the classic Christopher Reeve Superman spin around the world.  If he could fly the whole movie, then why didn’t he–ahh, never mind.  I give up.

It’s easy to make stupid jokes. It’s easy to film an explosion.  But it’s damn hard to make people care about an imaginary world, or the characters that populate it. And that’s why these movies fail as worthwhile entertainment, box office success notwithstanding, because they don’t bother even trying to reach for more. The Bayformers movies are thoroughly content to be popcorn entertainment, with no deeper meaning.

Sure, it’s fun.  It’s exciting.  It has nice explosions.  But it’s a film that falls apart moments after you finish viewing it, as a depressing realization sets in—that was it? And that’s the key to why these movies have been so financially successful, and yet why reactions continue to be so universally mixed and/or negative. Sure, they’re really entertaining, but they’re really lacking something, too. And that something is, simply enough, effort. 

Honestly, these movies pale in comparison to the eighties cartoon that they draw so much inspiration from.  Hell, it’s not even a comparison; the cartoon is a classic, and for good reason.  The animated Transformers: The Movie, back in 1986, had more genuine emotion in one scene – and yes, you know exactly which scene I’m talking about – than this live action series has mustered out of four movies.

trans7

Looking back on the first Michael Bay Transformers movie, back in 2007, it’s really a shame to see where the series has gone. The first movie had its flaws, but the future seemed bright.  Against all expectations, this was a series full of potential.

Well, that potential has officially been wasted. We’ll see what the next movie looks like, but I’m not getting my hopes up.