My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalog, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo-Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.) And then there is Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of amazing movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.

Movie Review: The Forbidden Kingdom

The Forbidden Kingdom is a Chinese-American fantasy movie loosely inspired by Journey to the West. And It’s really terrible. Journey to the West is one of the big classics of Chinese literature, written in the 16th century. This movie is a cheesy portal fantasy in which an American kid is transported into a magical version of medieval China after he finds a magic staff in the shop of an old Chinese man. He quickly runs into a kung fu master, a love interest, and a monk who tell him that he’s destined to return the staff to the Monkey King who has been turned to stone, so that he will come to life again, just as it has been prophecised.

This movie reminds me both of Last Action Hero and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Except that Last Action Hero knew that is was a parody of the Action Hero genre. I think this movie actually seems to take itself serious as a wuxia movie. But it’s really more of a travesty. The setup is stupid (I hate Portal Fantasy and Chosen Ones), the plot not really existing, the acting ranges from bland to bad, the villains are forgetable, the jokes are not funny, and the action scenes are pointless. It doesn’t even look good.

I admit that I have not actually seen the whole movie. After about two thirds I could not take it anymore and there really wasn’t any indication that there suddenly would be plot or characterization appearing out of nowhere.

Rating this movie is really very easy. Nay! Don’t watch it. It’s a complete waste of time. It’s even worse than Conan the Barbarian 2011.

Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Synopsis: What a shitty movie.

I’ve watched this movie about a year or so ago, but my memory was a bit hazy so I watched it a second time before doing a review of it. Why did I even bother?

The movie is called Conan the Barbarian, which is exactly the same name as the famous and highly regarded movie Conan the Barbarian. It’s neither a remake nor a reboot, nor anything like that, so why us the name of an already existing movie? There is an infinite number of possible titles, and so many options to name it that make it clear that it’s Conan. And now we always have to call it Conan the Barbarian 2011. Conan the Barbarian is not even the name of the series of stories, comics, and other stuff. Conan the Barbarian is just the name of a single movie. The Ahnold movie. This is a cheap attempt to cash in on someone elses good work. Despite not being a remake of Conan the Barbarian, and I think the director explicitly said it’s not a remake but a completely separate movie, Conan the Barbarian 2011 recycles the stupid subplot of Conan searching for the warlord who destroyed his village and killed his father. Which is a completely original invention of Conan the Barbarian and doesn’t exist anywhere else in the story of the character. Totally not a remake. Because they said so. Even Conan the Barbarian could barely be considered an adaptation of the Conan stories. Conan the Barbarian 2011 does a bit more name dropping so you know that it takes place in the Hyborian Age, but feels even less connected to the source material. Conan the Barbarian may not really have had much to do with the original stories, but I think it did a great job at visualizing the setting and bringing it to life. This movie doesn’t.

The movie is way too dark most of the time, so you can’t see anything. The music is also way too loud and the voices way too low, so you can’t hear anything either. Not that there would be anything to hear either. The plot is pretty much nonexistent. Any 20 minutes episode of Conan the Adventurer had more plot than this. And this is no joke. I actually mean that literally. While the indoor shots are always too dark, the outdoor shots of cities and fortresses all look terribly fake. They look like out of 300 or a Diablo III cutscene. Pretty, but completely inappropriate.

The first half hour is wasted on Conan’s childhood and the raid on his village. Conan’s dad is played by Ron Perlman, which could have been really cool, but he doesn’t actually get to do anything but die in a ludicrous way. The two villains, a daddy sorcerer and his daughter sorcerer, could potentially have been interesting. Of course in the actual movie, they are not. Originally, the sorcerer wasn’t the real Big Bad, but his wife was. But she was defeated and burned while he and their young daughter survived. And now he has some plan how to bring her back to life and continue with her original plan. There are a few moments where his daughter hints that she is not really feeling quite comfortable with bringing her sorcerer mother back from hell and that could have been the hook for a really great plot. But the movie completely forgets about it quickly and it’s instead about the daddy sorcerer needing the blood of the last descendant of Archeron to activate a mask that will make him a god. That idea of having the villains of a story being only the henchmen of the real evil mastermind, but one of them having doubt if they should really resurrect her was the one thing that made me want to take another look at the movie to see if there were any more details I didn’t remember. (Hopefully without spoiling too much, there is very interesting similar plot thread in Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I really loved.) But no, there wasn’t. It was a hint of something interesting and nothing ever comes from it. The other characters are a black guy Conan knows who shows up in a few scenes, apparently his second in command, but who never does anything. Then there is a woman who screams a lot and also doesn’t do anything. And finally an annoying thief character sidekick who screams just as much and does even less, and should have been played by Rob Schneider. Because when you’re producing utter crap, then do it right! I can’t remember the names of any of these characters and that is always a very strong indicator that the plot of the movie is shit. It means that there isn’t any relevant conversation in which people talk about characters. Instead they are just cardboard cutouts. I had the same experience when I was watching Avatar. Which was also bad, but not nowhere near as crap as this.

Conan barely has any resamblance to Conan at all. The only thing that feels a bit like Conan is when he shoves other people around with complete disregard for their complaints. That is a trait the character actually has. But Conan is a guy who is usually pretty cheerful and energetic. This guy is just mopey and gloomy while trying to be edgy. And then they have the audacity to have him say “I love, I love, I slay, and I am content”! A real quote from a Conan story that is a very popular line to sum up the character of Conan in a few words. Here it is just a sad joke. This is not the man of gigantic sorrows and gigantic mirth. This is just a whiny emo crybaby.

Of course, there is something like a romance sub”plot”, but I think most porn movies would feel to embarrased to try anything like this. Conan looks at the women for a few seconds, suddenly they kiss and then there’s a dark sex scene. The next morning she secretly leaves him while he still sleeps and is captured by the villains no less than 20 seconds later. A bit earlier, some unidentified men in boats board Conans ship early in the morning. Then there is a fight scene, the attackers are all killed, and Conans crew cheers, and then it’s cut to the next scene, the whole event never mentioned again. Now probably these were meant to be some more of the villains minions, but this scene has no narrative content or pupose at all. It’s just five minutes of fighting without sense or reason. And I believe this movie exist entirely for the stunts and effects. Which aren’t even that great or interesting. And during all these action scenes the movie uses Michael Bay cutting more agressively than even Micheal Bay, cutting about once per second on average and at some points even more often. Good luck finding any point in a fight scene where you get more than 3 seconds without a cut. And since I am at fight scenes, Conan always only fights in loincloth and the other costumes also look bad. And the two villains both use utterly ridiculous swords. Again, if you produce crap, do it right. They should have used the weapons from Krull and The Sword and the Sorcerer instead.

Crom, what a shitty movie! I think this is even worse than The Scorpion King. I think it might actually be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. And this includes Dungeons & Dragons. I am glad I only use a two point rating scale, or I would have to really think hard how shit this movie really is. But so I can say without doubt in my voice: Nay! Do not watch this shitty movie, but crush the DVD, see it driven before you, and hear the lamentation of its makers.

What an utter turd.

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

When Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in 2007 the oppinions I hear about it were mostly pretty bad and calling it by far the worst Indiana Jones movie and absolutely terrible, and it causing the series to be ruined forever!. So I never watched it in all the years and had no desire to ever do so. But I got the series on DVD for christmas and it had the movie included and yesterday my parents were visiting, and since we wanted to watch a movie and none of us had seen it before, we watched it. Otherwise I still wouldn’t have watched it, preferring to simply don’t know what’s in it. (I might do the same with the new Star Wars movies.)

Right from the start some things seem to be odd. Indy aknowledges being old and mentions his father having died, which doesn’t match the ending of the previous movie. But no explanation is ever given or the events of the movie mentioned, which I found rather odd. The second scene is set in the famous warehouse from the first movie and we get a quick lool at the arc as its box is broken, but otherwise the first movie isn’t mentioned either. It’s just like “look, we made a reference to the other movies!” That’s weak. Indy starts the movie with a new sidekick, whose name I can’t even remember, which always is a very bad sign about the strength of a movies characters and dialogues. It’s never explained who he is or what his relationship with Indy is, and except for two short scenes he has no real relevance to the plot or any meaningful dialogue. The other new character is Mutt, who follows Indy around after fat moustache guy has left for a while and after his first scene has no real impact on the plot either. Later of course we meet Marion again, who is a fun character but also has just one relevant dialogue with Indy and doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot. John Hurt also plays a character who gets picked up with by Indys crew and hangs around for the rest of the plot, but after drawing a map in his first scene does not have any meaningful dialogue or impact to the plot. Indy himself is okay, but you probably can see the problem here. Indy could have gone on this whole adventure by all by himself, or at least with only one companion to give an opportunity to explain the plot to the audience.

There are two villains in this movie. One is a Russian psychic played by Kate Blanchet, who tries to read Indys mind once but fails and then never shows any supernatural abilities for the rest of the movie at all. She keeps chasing after Indy for all of the movie but except for one scene in the middle of the movie she never catches up to him so her impact on the plot is also almost nothing. She has a henchman who commands a group of Soviet soldiers, but since he almost only speaks in Russian without subtitles and very little of that, we don’t really know anything about him. *sigh* And yes, he also does not do anything relevant for the plot. Indy has a fist fight with him, but he simply falls over ans gets pulled into a hole by a swarm of ants. It doesn’t remotely reach the fight against the random German mechanic in the first movie, which is clearly what this scene tries to allude to. At two point during the search for a lost ancient city in South America does Indy run into local tribes of Indians who menacingly sneak around with seemingly supernatura skill in the dark. But they show the Indians the skull and they back off, doing nothing at all and then disappearing while Indy explores the city.

And that really expresses the big problem of the movie. People move to different places and have chase scenes, but nothing ever happens. Nothing is accomplished, nothing is gained. In most of the chase scenes there isn’t even a reason why they are getting chased. They just move fast in vehicles. Occasionaly the classic red line on a map shows us where they are traveling to, but it happens randomly without anyone saying “we have to go to X to do Y”. It’s like the ending of a Monty Python sketch. When they don’t know how to continue or end a scene after they have said what they want to say, you get a shot of the map and then go to “something completely different”. Probably the most infamous scene in the movie is where Indy gets into a nuclear explosion and only survives by hiding inside a big refridgerator. Yes, the scene is stupid, but not because he survives being thrown miles through the air and crashing very hard into the ground. In fact the scene happens about 5 minutes into the movie when Indy escapes from the Soviets who had kidnapped him to have him help them find a specific box in the warehouse where the CIA stores all its secret artifacts. Which happens to be a simple airplane hangar inside the testing area for nuclear bombs. The Soviets probably chose to go to the site on that day at that time because the whole area had been evacuated. That makes sense so far, but wouldn’t that mean the warehouse is now destroyed with most of its contents? That doesn’t make any sense? Why is it just a hangar on a military base and why do they have nuclear tests there?! And worst of all, It has no relevance to the plot! At all! Indy already escaped from the Soviets and was just somewhere in the desert after they had left with the thing they had come to get. There was no point to the scene at all! Maybe to put it into the trailers? Bullshit.

Though I give it to the movie that it is eight years old, I have to say the effects look pretty bad. There are big swarms of goophers in the first scene and monkeys in a schene in the jungle (which have no relevance to the plot), which are obviously only there to show of the effects. And look terrible. The nuclear explosion looks fake too, as do most efects.

It’s also extremely predictable. We usually never do riff-tracking for movies and we didn’t intend to be fooling around, but in the big scene at the end, when they reach a room with alien skeletons, our comments were this:

  • “These will be 12 skeletons, plus one additional one that is missing the skull.”
  • “Which they need to return back home.”
  • “And then the Russians arrive.”

Which was of course exactly what happened.

The ending was also bullshit. Supposedly the reward for the person who returns the skull would be gold, but in Mayan the word for gold also means treasure. And the treasure they found wasn’t riches, but knowledge. What a nice message. But what knowledge? What have we learned at the end? Nothing! The whole trip accomplished nothing! There was some excuse for first finding a missing friend in trouble and then about preventing the villain from getting the power to telepathically turn all Americans into loyal socialists. But in the end Indy and his large entourage don’t really do anyhthing and the villain fails anyway. In fact, the villain only gets this far because Indy leads her there. And why does he even keep trying to get the skull to the lost city once they stole it from the Soviets? Even the other characters are wondering. So Indy tells them that the skull told him so and he has to. And they just go with it.

Is it a bad movie? Yes, it is. But not for the reasons people always complain about. The reason this movie is bad is that things are happening with no rhyme or reason but it’s still painfully predictable. There is no plot worth mentioning and nobody ever does anything. This movie only exist because it had been decided that there should be another Indiana Jones movie. But nobody seems to have had any real inspiration for a story. There are characters and locations, but nothing is ever done with them. The are introduced and then immediately forgotten about. At several points of the movie I had the feeling that the script originally started as a decent story but then was shortened and shortened to make for a shorter film and leave more time for special effects until nothing of the plot remains.

But ruined forever? Yes, the movie is bad. But it is simply very weak. It is not insultingly bad to fans of the series. It really mostly ignores the other movies and it doesn’t do anything really ridiculous except for the refrigerator. And extradimensional aliens? Sure, why not? It’s not a cheap twist at the end as I had assumed, but made clear right from the start that this is what the movie is about. It’s not a good choice, but it didn’t seem to me as particularly unfitting for the series.

But when it comes to asking yay or nay, I think I would like to introduce a third rating: “Meh”. Because that’s really what I feel about this movie. It really isn’t great by any stretch, but it is so utterly bland and without plot that I’m not even mad.

Movie Review: Reign of Assassins

Reign of Assassins is a Chinese fantasy movie from 2010. It’s a pretty conventional wuxia movie (as far as I can tell as a casual viewer) with lots of deception, secret societies, doomed lovers, and of course lots of swords and kung fu!

The story is about a woman who was one of the most feared assassins of the Black Stones, a secret society of kung fu masters, who not only made the bad descision of trying to leave the order behind and start a new life, but also take with her a sacred relic which all the assassin groups are after: Half the body of the ancient monk Bodhi, the founder of kung fu. He is said to have been such a great master that even studying his mumified remains would allow anyone to reach nirvana, become the greatest master of kung fu in the whole world, and also gain all kind of other supernatural powers. When the Black Stones found the hiding place of one half of the body and attacked the people who had it, the heroine Drizzle snatches it away and disappears with the help of a surgeon who alters her face. Of course, her former master very much wants the body back and see her dead for betraying the Black Stones, and all the assassins of the society go out to hunt for her.

The first half of the movie spends an extensive amount of time on showing Drizzle settling into her new life as a cloth merchant and her slowly growing affection for a charming messenger and courier whose eye she had cought. There is not a lot of action here, which might be a bit disappointing for people who are really mostly looking for movies with lots of of stunts and swordfights. I did quite like this part of the story, though, and think it’s quite well done. And of course, this wouldn’t be a wuxia movie if her new happiness were going to last. During a bank robbery she is forced to use her kung fu skills to take out a large band of robbers and it doesn’t take long for not only the Black Stones to pick up her trail again, but also the other secret societies to send their own people on the hunt for the body.

Like most wuxia movies, Reign of Assassins is not a massive budget production. $14 million is not even enough to pay the catering for the last Hobbit movie. But the sets and costumes are looking just as fine, if not even better, and the visual quality and stunts are very well done. It’s very obviously not an AAA-movie, but certainly not a B-movie by any measure either. I very much enjoyed all the cast and liked all the acting and character writing. None of the characters are boring, overly cliched, or inappropriately overacted, even though a lot of them are quite excentric. The newest recruit of the Black Stones, a young woman who murdered her husband and two other people on her wedding night is obviously batshit insane, the wizard always dresses in a rainbow colored silk cape, and the noodle-maker tries to be incredibly cool at everything he does, but I think they are all acted much better than most of what you get to see in Star Wars or The Hobbit.

The plot manages a great balance of being predictable and having plenty of unexpected turns. Often I knew that something was up with one character or another, but couldn’t really say what exactly it would be when it came to be revealed. Reviews for the movie seem to be “generally positive”, which is an assesment I would agree with. This is not a movie that makes you want to tell all your friends about or get the DVD for your own collection if you saw it at someone elses place. But the movie does a lot of things very well while at the same time not doing anything actually bad. If I absolutely had to make some negative comments, I might say that in the first five minutes there is perhaps a bit much jumping back and forth between scenes as the backstory is told, but it’s not really something that hurts the movie in the long run. So yay or nay?

Clear Yay! from me.

This is a good movie. Perhaps not an outstanding movie that everyone should watch, but if you’re looking for a decent wuxia movie you havn’t seen yet, Reign of Assassins is one I can definitly recommend. And probably would place quite high on my list.