The Dead Don’t Shuffle (They Run)

The above title is taken from a rather excellent Miracle Of Sound song. I suggest you listen to it, not least of all because it makes what I’m about to dissect here seem even more appalling by comparison.

So the new trailer for next year’s World War Z film adaptation has gone live. To say it disappoints me is grossly selling the point short – it looks like a fetid, congealed piece of Hollywood garbage, and a quite possible contender for worst film in the history of existence. That might sound a bit over-the-top even for me, but I’m not exaggerating when I say the World War Z trailer got me really goddamn angry.

You might say it’s a waste of time being angry at a film, especially one which many people predicted years ago would turn out to be rubbish. You might also say that I shouldn’t judge this book by its cover, but the problem is that the book this is a cover of (see what I did there?) is freakin’ excellent, and easily one of the best zombie fics ever written. But really, how many people mouth off at Gavin Hood because he raped beloved Marvel characters in Wolverine? How many slews of fans took some chunks out of Julie Anne Robinson after One for the Money turned out to be a crapshoot? I feel I’m well within my rights to rail on Brad Pitt’s newest feckless addition to his CV, despite the fact it ain’t out yet, as both a fan of the book and a fan of zombies in general.

First, let’s examine this as a fan of the book – the original World War Z was a documentary-style text that compiled a series of enlightening interviews with survivors of the zombie holocaust that befell an Earth not too far removed from our own. Max Brooks, son of legendary comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks, did painstaking research to add as much realism and believability to the story as possible, making this zombie threat something that could conceivably take humanity on and entrench itself in every level of our society – political, environmental, military and anything else you care to name. The book was a damn good read and genuinely horrifying quite a few times throughout, and didn’t feel the need to resort to using a heroic protagonist on an epic quest to rid the world of undead shamblers. The only real main character (for lack of a better term) is the omnipresent journalist who documents everyone’s experiences during the war, and who deliberately stays out of having a characterisation or a purpose beyond expositing backstory for the inteviewees. This makes the ensemble cast stand out more as universal entities rather than satellites orbiting an action hero protagonist.

Instead, Brad Pitt has now given himself a character (and a name) with a familial element to his story that will no doubt be so pumped full of cheese and sap I’ll need a tarpaulin to stem the flow. He’s also no longer a held-back entity merely providing a framing device for the narrative, but is instead presented in the trailer as an action hero protagonist with apparent knowledge of how to kill the shamblers. The Wikipedia article claims that Pitt’s character goes around interviewing people about how to hold back the undead, but I saw absolutely non of that in the trailer besides Brad Pitt being how Brad Pitt usually is in an action film. This either means the press release is lying its ass off or the trailer does an incredibly poor effort at dissuading the notion that this has been turned into Dawn of the Dead 2.0.

Speaking of, they’ve made it an action film – it never was an action story. There was plenty of action, certainly, especially in the military recaps of events like the Battle of Yonkers, but it was not presented as a strictly linear action film the way something like Transformers is. They don’t even make it appear to have the horror elements needed for a good serious zombie film, like in 28 Days Later. It’s just action. Don’t we have enough of that already? Isn’t Michael Bay good for that kind of shit? Just saying.

Also, by the look of the cast list it’s a predominantly-American gig. The book was incredibly multicultural, going out to places like India, Pakistan, Israel, China, Russia and even my dear old Oz to interview natives who’d experienced the terror firsthand. Here we just seem to have Brad Pitt, a bunch of Yankees and a few (being the operative word) other ethnicities. I can’t help but feel the filmmakers are going to take an ‘America save the day’ angle if that’s the case, which, while they did certainly help in the book, didn’t happen that way. The victory was only assured through a collaborative effort between a variety of nations, not the Americans riding in on their tanks and Bradleys and turning the zombies into plant food. The implied jingoism there makes me uneasy, and possibly speaks volumes about what the filmmakers thought about the original text’s solution to the zombie problem. Does that mean if America falls first in a zombie invasion we’re all screwed because we’re clearly not as advanced or heroic as our Western comrades?

Now, looking at it as a zombie film – THE ZOMBIES RUN. And I don’t mean the way some of them rush forward in The Walking Dead or Zombieland, I mean they’re the frikkin’ Usain Bolt of the zombie pantheon. The trailer barely even gave us a look at them since they were moving apparently faster than the speed of light, like an unholy combination of The Flash and Solomon Grundy. In fact, for a while I wasn’t even sure I was watching the right trailer since there seemed to be no sign of zombies when trucks started taking Brad Pitt’s car door off and the streets turn to chaos.

Then it was revealed that they were just moving really super-fast. A later scene in the trailer had piles of them trying to climb up what looked like a dam wall, dogpiling on each other like monkeys chasing a balloon. That was the point I slammed my hands down on my computer desk and cried “F**K OFF. NO F**KING WAY.” That, for me, was the moment the trailer did a nice little hop over the shark and entered the territory of utter garbagey bullcrap.

Not to sound too much like a purist who’s as open to innovation as the Tea Party, but zombies do not run that way. And even if they did, they wouldn’t move at a speed that’d make Cathy Freeman hang her head in shame. Something like the 28 Days Later movies work because technically they’re not zombies, or at least not presented as zombies in the traditional sense. This just makes them look superhuman, undefeatable and completely Hollywood. What, did the producers not think a horde of millions of slowly-infected shambling corpses was enough of a stake-raising threat for Brad Pitt’s action hero? God forbid they decide to include latent superpowers in Pitt as the only method of their eventual defeat.

As I said earlier, there’s little to no horror presented in the trailer. I understand it’s only two and a half minutes of footage, but part of the purpose of a trailer is to present an idea of what you can expect in the final product. Something that is universal in the majority of good serious zombie pieces is the horror factor, the scary element that really augments the sense of isolation, hopelessness and real struggle that things like The Walking Dead pull off nicely. All I really got out of this was a bit of Cloverfield-esque city-wide panic and a bit where Brad Pitt and family attempt to get through a door, praying there isn’t anything on the other side. The rest of the trailer was just explosions, helicopters and Americans. If this is an indication of the finished product, I’d probably get a more fulfilling zombie experience playing Resident Evil 6 instead. It’d certainly have the aforementioned real struggle element, at least.

As always, I’m happy to be proven wrong. I had someone come down on me the other day for condemning the Star Wars Episode VII announcement as a bad idea, but I emphasised I’d be quite open to both seeing the film and having all the things I’ve just whinged about be thrown aside like banana peels. While I admit I’m significantly more pissed off about this than Star Wars (especially when you consider the fact that World War Z‘s writer has had middling reception to his previous work, and the director made Quantum of Solace), I’ll still give it a go. As with Fifty Shades I can’t really condemn a work until after I’ve experienced it, so if nothing else I’ll probably check it out to make a follow-up post either proving my incredible prescience or my lack of open mindedness. But on paper, and based on the stupifyingly awful excuse for a trailer it squeezed out, World War Z‘s filmic adaptation looks like an absolute mound of regurgitated fail. Hell, it might even be so bad that Transformers 4 beats the crap out of it.

Though if it does, enjoy your last days since the apocalypse will be nigh.

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A World of Bland Imagination

How well does a reboot really do?

Seriously, think about it for a second. Amongst the pantheon of reality shows, home makeovers and re-runs of Bargain Hunt, how many reboots, remakes and reskinnings of corpsified televisual entertainment can you name that have really been successful on TV these days?

Battlestar Galactica was a step in the right direction, having stories, characters and settings that referred to and took inspiration from the original before spiraling off into a separate magical fantasy world of suicide bombings and baby-snatching. By the end of its run it was almost indistinguishable from its predecessor, succeeding both as an artefact title of its progenitor and as a show in its own right.

How many others are there, though?

As with anything obviously it’s not a universal quality, but the number of absolutely balls-tastic remakes out there is staggering. Dross like Charlie’s Angels, Knight Rider and Kath and Kim (the US version with fitted tees and distinct lack of Melbournian accents) only serves to pollute the already-muddied waters of television, and it’s not helped when the majority of alternatives involve the Real Housewives of Redneckville or another Who Wants To Be An American Idiot Idol mashup.

This kinda bleeds back into a rant I did a few months ago on television, but why the hell are we even bothering anymore? Is the televisual gene pool so diluted that all we can do is recycle anything with the slightest brand recognition or ability to conjure nostalgic memories through contemporary reinterpretation? Is there nobody out there who can save us from this television ennui that threatens to engulf us in so many regurgitated visions that sooner or later TV will just look like a washed out football jersey?

Actually, there is someone – several someones, with names like Whedon. Nolan. Morrison. Fuller. Abrams. Sorkin. Davies. These won’t come as any surprise to the four or five people who read this blog, but it’s my firm belief that without more creative and innovative input from this A-Team of art we will one day be reduced to seeing Beauty and the Beast reinterpreted as a tween crime drama starring Lana from Smallville.

Oh, wait.

Contemporary Vintages

My first full thesis draft, at time of writing, is nearing completion – and by that, I mean that within six hours I will have close to 15,000 words typed, smooshed together and submitted to my supervisor for first review.

This is a tremendous day for me; nine months of research, essays, classes, blood, sweat, tears, scotch and more research has finally led to the first entire draft of what will be my 2012 brainchild. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now, seeing the fruits of my labours begin to ripen as it all comes together towards the explosive finale on October 4th.

This entry is not about that thesis.

Instead, I’m going to adapt an idea I’ve had for a while now. Last year I wrote a piece for my Creative Non-Fiction class that compared the three comic book stores closest to me to three different kinds of places – the high-end shop was akin to the Hilton, the mid-level was like a favourite pub with punch-ups every other day, and the abortionate hole-in-the-wall alley store was…an abortionate, hole-in-the-wall alley store, but with sweatier Europeans.

This time, I’m taking a similar path with something else – comparing comic books to alcohol.

This might sound like a very indulgent piece, and you’d be well within your rights to switch off and read something else, but since this process is calming me a little from the hectic maelstrom that is thesis drafting I figure I’m gonna be indulgent for a moment. Plus, it might be kinda funny. A bit. Maybe. If you like that sort of thing.

As I’ve already covered, I’m always the first to jump up and tell people what to read when they want to start on comic books, so consider this an augmentation of that process. Admittedly, the current company-wide reboots DC and Marvel and instituting have, in some cases, made it far easier for neophyte comicphiles to get involved with all the superheroes they loved seeing on the big screen (and Superman). Having now experienced a large portion of DC’s New 52, and seeing the recent Marvel offerings for most of their favourite heroes over the last few years, here’s some tips on identifying the best brand of book booze for the affluent new reader. As an addendum, I’m positive I’ll regret this idea by the end of writing it.

For the purposes of staying contemporary, the following examples will only be plumbed from 2000 onwards. Please also note this list isn’t particularly exhaustive, so if I’ve missed your favourite writer or story it’s not because I hate them – it’s because this thesis won’t write itself, and I need to make a quick point between panic sessions.

CHEAP GOON (BAD WINE FOR ALL NON-AUSTRALIANS)

Novels have Mills and Boon as a crap alternative to the really deep, cerebral stuff. Movies have Sci-Fi Channel Originals. Comic books are no different.

Admittedly, I have found large amount of recent material has managed to be somewhat enjoyable (most of which falls in the next category) which means these days I find only a handful of particular authors and storylines fall under the subheading of Cheap Goon – the kind of comic book you read for the sake of reading something with pictures and words on the page. If I’m completely honest, these are the books and authors that make me want to take up penis-flensing as a pastime.

Authors/Artists:

TONY DANIEL – Vintages include Faces of Death (possibly the worst Batman book ever written) and Life After Death (probably a close second to the above)
ROB LIEFELD – Vintages include Deadpool: Merc with a Mouth (ignoring Victor Gischler’s otherwise fine dialogue) and Hawk and Dove: First Strikes (which included necrophilia, kind of, and a rather abrupt ending)
DANIEL WAY – Vintages include almost every Deadpool book released since 2007 (alright, some of them are good, but it’s gotten way too tired, formulaic and boring)

Titles:

JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRY FOR JUSTICE (almost turned me off team books altogether, with dialogue provided by an eight-year-old Captain Planet enthusiast)
KICK-ASS 2 (should probably go in the next category, but the hyperviolence, rape and depressing atmosphere make it look like Mark Millar is trying too hard)
X-MEN: ENDANGERED SPECIES (the kind of wine that makes you depressed and wishing you got that lost time back after drinking it)
ANY MAIN CONTINUITY SUPERMAN STORY BEFORE 2011 (Enough said)

WORKHORSE BEER/ALE

This is the reliable, solid, kinda fun but not excellent sort of drink you take for a quick bit of fun after a long day at the office, supermarket or slave torture pit. Don’t expect anything too revelatory or incredibly cerebral, but it’s a step up from Rob Liefeld at least.

Authors/Artists:

PETER TOMASI: Ales include Nightwing: The Great Leap (a good precede for Dick Grayson’s time as Batman) and Green Lantern Corps: Blackest Night (a great chance to see Guy Gardner get comeuppance for mooning Batman)
JUDD WINICK: Notable stouts include Batman: Under the Red Hood (reintroducing Jason Todd as something other than a clay replica) and Batwing: The Lost Kingdom (a good chance to see African Batman go up against African Jason Voorhees)
KIERON GILLEN: Particular lagers such as Uncanny X-Men (a great intro for new readers, but disappointing to veterans) and Thor (provided a great conclusion for the preceding run, but meandered around a bit too much afterwards)

Titles:

THE RESURRECTION OF RA’S AL GHUL (the art can get a bit schizophrenic, but on the whole it’s a great supernatural punchfest)
THE WALKING DEAD (an exceptional story that does tend to fluctuate quality-wise, but is no less reliable as a source of entertainment)
BATMAN: BATTLE FOR THE COWL (could’ve been deeper, but the art’s pretty and the punches are visceral)

LOW SPIRITS (CHEAP VODKA, JACK DANIELS AND JOHNNIE WALKER RED)

This is better on the quality scale, while not quite reaching the awesomeness drunkenness of the next level. These are good, solid, reliable, entertaining and contain a level of depth beyond anything Rob Liefeld’s capable of. This list’d be the one I have most titles on, but for the purposes of this entry I’ll limit it to three of my favourites:

Authors/Artists:

MATT FRACTION: Labels such as The Invincible Iron Man (an excellent serial almost on par with the Dark Knight trilogy in terms of progression) and Fear Itself (might’ve failed as a major crossover event, but had some quite deep psychology to it nonetheless)
GEOFF JOHNS: Great imports like Green Lantern (which’d take too long to explain how cool it is) and The Flash (better than it sounds – seriously, go read it)
SCOTT SNYDER: Top-shelf stuff like The Black Mirror (hands-down the best Batman story of 2011) and Swamp Thing (like the Flash, better than it sounds)

Titles:

BATMAN: EARTH ONE (a great example of what can really be done with Elseworlds-style parallel universes. Plus, Alfred with a shotgun)
MARK WAID’S DAREDEVIL (easily accessible to newbies, greatly satisfying for veterans, and finally gives ol’ Hornhead some positive elements for once)
SCOTT PILGRIM (I’d be stunned if no-one’s heard of it – videogames, Canada and Ramona Flowers. Need I say more?)

HIGH SPIRITS (SMIRNOFF, JOHNNIE WALKER BLACK AND GLENMORANGIE SCOTCH)

The best that contemporary comics has to offer. The creme de la creme. The anti-Rob Liefeld. This is stuff that’s not only formed the backbone of my thesis, but is highly enjoyable in its own right.

Authors/Artists:

GRANT MORRISON: High-end bottles like Batman (you all know it by now) and New X-Men (if you disliked X-Men The Last Stand or Wolverine, read this to wash the taste out of your mouth)
ED BRUBAKER: Outstanding collections like Captain America (the best interpretation of the character) and Gotham Central (Law and Order meets Batman – only thing missing is Sam Waterston)
BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS: Premier stuff like Daredevil (depressing, but an excellent character piece with some grungy art) and Dark Avengers (Seinfeld meets supervillains)
JOSS WHEDON: Well, duh (do I really need examples?)

Titles:

BATMAN: HUSH (my favourite Bat-story ever, and the best jumping on point for fans. Also, Catwoman)
UNCANNY X-FORCE (fast becoming another favourite, following an eclectic collection of Marvel nutters killing other Marvel nutters)
JUSTICE LEAGUE: ORIGIN (so far my favourite of the reboot, with great parallels to the Avengers movie and the prettiest Superman costume I’ve ever seen)

CLASSIC VINTAGES (ANYTHING YOU’D NEED TO SPEND A YEAR’S ALLOWANCE ON)

The classics are, like any narrative medium, as relevant today as they were back then. These are the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings of the genre, some of the best works comics have ever produced to make Rob Liefeld look like a six-year-old with a box of crayons.

Unlike the others, these are taken from pre-2000.

Authors/Artists:

ALAN MOORE: Fine, aged work like Watchmen (the definitive superhero deconstruction) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (as long as you distance it from the movie)
CHRIS CLAREMONT: The greatest bottle of pre-90’s substance for X-Men (plus dialogue to rival Joss Whedon)
FRANK MILLER: Awesome stuff, before the vineyard went weird, like The Dark Knight Returns (as dark and gritty as an unwashed bathroom) and Batman: Year One (the only real origin story that hasn’t been too heavily retconned recently)

Titles:

THE SANDMAN (pushing the envelope of the comic book medium, with an engrossing plot and a truly tragic hero)
BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN (chronologically, one of Batman’s earliest and most enjoyable adventures with a great murder mystery plot attached)
SPIDER-MAN: BIRTH OF VENOM (the emergence of one of the comic book world’s most iconic supervillains)

Alright, I was correct – this was a terrible idea. Almost as terrible as Rob Liefeld’s ability to lose a fight gracefully. Was it clear that I think he’s a douchebag?

In all seriousness, if you’re perusing the local comics haunt and wondering what chaser you’d like to go with your microwaved cordon bleu and mashed potato, check out the list and see what appeals. Or, y’know, splash out and just buy an Xbox instead. Whatever works.

Fifty Shades of Braindeath

There are times in our lives when we do things that seem like a wonderful plan at the time, then quickly devolve into a miserable, gut-wrenching experience we later regret. In hindsight it was probably best not to engage in whatever pursuit it was that gives us heartbreak and despair at its unprecedented failure to enlighten or enrich our lives, yet we’re glad we had the experience anyway. These moments are learning curves, where we learn what not to do and end up, despite whatever bleak and horrible feelings the moments evoke inside our hearts, being a better, stronger person because of it.

Reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I got the first half of this moment; it seemed like a good idea to read it, so I could condemn its poor writing, flimsy characters and atrocious pacing from a place of experience and knowledge, rather than jumping on the “We hate Fifty Shades” bandwagon that I’m willing to bet most people jumped on for conformity’s sake. While I never go into a book ready to hate it by default (yep, even if it’s a Twilight novel…seriously), I was prepared to probably dislike it then be able to tell everyone I knew that it was a dross-riddled piece of feckless crap.

Well, I certainly can do that, but that wouldn’t go far enough. I have read innumerable books – graphic and textual – and I’ve read some bad ones throughout, but in terms of adult literature – which would discount the godawful books I had to read for my School Certificate in Year 10 – Fifty Shades of Grey is the worst, most horrific, most poorly written, most flimsily characterised, most atrociously paced piece of rank, vile, despicable, pus-filled garbage I have ever had the displeasure to pick up.

Now, while I did go into this knowing I’d probably dislike it I actually tried to do the opposite when reading it; I know a lot of people hate it, and I certainly was on the bandwagon and hating it through principle and Wikipedia summaries alone, but I was trying to just read it for what it was. It wasn’t going to Altered Carbon or Lord of the Rings, and it would not transcend the boundaries of what it is to be a novel. But surely, I thought, if there’s sex in it, it at least has to be more enjoyable than Twilight, right?

Oh, past-Chris, you are a naive little bitch.

I’m sure you all know the plot by now, or at least the scant salient elements that pass for one – ingenue Anastasia Steele meets and falls in love with Christian Grey, the enigmatic 27-year-old head of a company who’s secretly into BDSM. The novel explores not only her losing her virginity (in a scene that cannot possibly be taken as realistic in any sense of the word) but the escapades they both get up to as teacher and student in the ways of the Force.

For those of you who may not know, Fifty Shades actually started life as a Twilight fan fiction; when it was discovered the book could be marketed to more than just the patrons of FanFiction.net, the character names were changed, the story tweaked and de-fanged and presented as the abominably awful story that stands before you. Honestly, I’d’ve preferred it if it had been a Twilight fanfic – at least I would’ve had the satisfaction of seeing a franchise I’m not partial to get creepily torn down and displayed as the dross it actually is.

Working with the story as an original idea, however, it’s abhorrent. As I trawled through the horrendously-padded tale of sadomasochistic conquest I found myself not only grinding my teeth at grammatical and structural issues – not least of all being the fact that too many words are repeated within the same paragraph, with “breast” being the example that springs to mind for me – but also hating everyone presented within the story. Like, with a fiery burning passion hate.

Christian Grey – eponymous torture technician – is a dark, disgusting, twisted, hateful little man who has forever ruined the idea of wearing Converses for me. Anastasia Steele is a weak, unempowered little girl who brings the last few decades of the Feminism Fortress crashing to the ground in a pile of broken bricks. Kate Kavanaugh – Ana’s friend who first gets her to meet Christian – is a bitchy, self-obsessed, egotistical harridan  who is unapologetic for putting her friends in hot water when necessary. And don’t get me started on former werewolf Jose Rodriguez. Seriously. Just don’t.

The story mainly deals with exploring BDSM pastimes, and while I’m not particularly familiar with the intricacies of the lifestyle beyond what’s presented in other forms of fiction, I have seen on the internet several leading BDSM experts who state that some of the scenarios presented within – as well as the mindset of Mr Grey himself – are completely missing the mark, and casting a shadow over BDSM as a whole. This could potentially damage what is regarded by its patrons as a valid, enjoyable method of social lifestyle, and while it may not appeal to everyone – personally, I’m not into the idea of being hog-tied and flayed with a whip anytime soon – it’s still something to be enjoyed by those it appeals to.

Fifty Shades makes BDSM seem akin to pedophilia, bestiality and rape in terms of how ashamedly awful and socially unacceptable the lifestyle allegedly is – and since a lot of its audience probably won’t be in tune with the actualities of the lifestyle and will take what the book says as read, then it’s a scary proposition for what should be a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice for anyone who partakes in it. As long as the participants are two willing, consenting adults, who’s to say they can’t enjoy the kind of elements a BDSM lifestyle contains?

See, I just used the word “lifestyle” four times in that paragraph, and even that dull repetition was better than seeing the words “gasp”, “breast” or “inner goddess” fifty or sixty times in a sentence.

This will not come as news to most of you, since as I said everyone’s been jumping on the Fifty Shades of Gay bandwagon for months now. One thing my father always taught me was that if you were going to condemn or lambast something, you should do it from a position of knowledge; know the thing before you destroy the thing. Knowing what’s really inside Fifty Shades of Grey, beyond what the cliff notes and internet summaries give you, doesn’t make it any better – all it does is make me fearful, annoyed, angry, resentful, bitter, sarcastic, sardonic, melancholic, homicidal, rage-filled, snarky and bored.

Under normal circumstances, a book producing that many emotions could be seen as a potential recipient for a Man Booker Prize – if the award-givers are reading this post, please don’t go there. Don’t give E.L. James impetus to write another one.

The Middle Child

The Empire Strikes Back. The Dark Knight. Spiderman 2. Mass Effect 2.
The commonality between them; middle children in families of three that garner the most praise, adulation and support from their parents and friends while their younger and elder siblings just don’t quite hit the mark the way they do.
Why is that?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while – the second installment of a trilogy is, more often than not, the most well-remembered and beloved of all the installments (besides sagas like The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, I mean). It seems that with many of these examples the developers of the respective franchises appear to put the majority of time, effort and willpower into making the second installment the standout piece of the series.
Look at my first example – The Empire Strikes Back. Great character development and interpersonal drama dispersed throughout the grand, galactic warfare plot with a genuinely scary villain (who manages, in effect, to win by the end of the film), some amazing acting even by today’s standards and some epic, well-remembered fight scenes throughout. Personally, it’s my favourite film of the ‘Wars.
Then comes Return of the Jedi – still good, but with an admittedly decayed villain (who gets usurped by the end by his boss), removal of a lot of the character development which is then replaced by goddamn Ewoks, and the defeat of the big bad through truly ridiculous methods – I mean, come on, a bunch of two-foot tall koalas manage to take down roughly the entire main force of the Empire? (Disregarding the novels for now)
Or, look at the Spiderman films – same premise as the above example, except in the third they replaced the koalas with angst, the character development with emo fringes, and the ridiculous villain’s defeat with a kinda cool final battle that ultimately leads to an even bigger ridiculous villain’s defeat. Thank God Marc Webb saw fit to reboot that tangled nonsense, although let’s pray Amazing Spider-Man 3 doesn’t have Andrew Garfield dressing up like a Placebo band member.
These days, I’m often given to wonder why it is we prefer the second installment of a trilogy, or why it seems developers and directors just don’t seem to put as much elbow grease into the conclusion. I’ve spoken before about endings not living up to expectations, but there’s got to be more to it than that. In most cases, surely the developers are as much fans of their property as the general public is, aren’t they? I mean, unless you work for companies like EA or Twentieth Century Fox, you’d really care that you’re giving a satisfying ending to a great story, wouldn’t you?
Maybe I’m just being romantic; these days, too much art is driven by consumerist fanbases and money-hungry executives, and as such the third installments of trilogies tend to be neglected somewhat in the pursuit of hastily whipping out a movie or game for a quick buck. That would probably explain by The Matrix Revolutions was A. shot back to back with Reloaded and B. given a hasty ending that wasn’t helped by the subsequent MMO zombie released in its wake. I’m guessing Reloaded got the lion’s share of budget, time and loving attention in that little conjoined-twin birth.
This is not to say I don’t enjoy these third installments in some capacity – Return of the Jedi was a seminal film of my childhood, The Dark Knight Rises is probably tied with Avengers as my favourite film of this year, and Mass Effect 3 was a mind-blowing gaming experience severely let down by its DLC-trimmed lack of an original ending which, despite being subsequently re-attached by the Extended Cut, still leaves a bad taste in my mouth to think about. They’re still good in their own ways; it’s just when you pit them against their middle siblings, they don’t quite measure up.
Maybe that’s why Matt Smith, third doctor of the 2000’s revival and follower of David Tennant’s epic ending footsteps, will probably just be given an off-screen regeneration after a quickie with Amy Pond when his time comes. Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad ending at all.

New Blood

 

The corridor outside, leading to Bill’s office, was almost empty. The gunmetal walls resembled a marriage of a hospital and a prison, being foreboding but surgically clean and tidy. Apparently it was intentionally coloured to make both prisoners and failed agents uneasy, like being called to the principal’s office at school. The rumour mill said Bill had based the colour scheme off an old internment camp called Auschwitz, and even had his own “Little Red House” for executing incompetents and captives.
                The entire underground carried a very authoritarian feel, like the sort of bunker you’d expect the President to hide in when the nukes start flying. In truth it had once been an extensive fallout shelter, created a century ago during the Korean March, repurposed now as the headquarters of the Obsidian Guild.
                I hated it.
                Too many nights spent in bomb shelters when I was young gave me an impassioned distaste for living underground, feeling like a lab rat stuck in a lockbox. I’d been close to the shelter in Johannesburg when its central module caved in from enemy ordnance, thanking whatever God lived upstairs that I wasn’t currently crushed under tonnes of burnt metal and fractured concrete. Being underground wasn’t always a sure thing when it came to war, especially in this day and age.
                On the way to Bill’s I came across one of the Whites, a young lad named Squire, stepping out of the Cold Lab. He’d just been transferred from the Miami Arm with rave reviews from its coordinator. He looked like one of the Whites you knew wouldn’t be around for long, with that kind of enthusiasm.
                “Andrew!” he called jovially, striding over. “How’s it going?”
                It baffled me sometimes who the Guild saw fit to hire. Someone this cheerful belonged either in a children’s ward or as a punching bag for manic depressives. “Not bad, Squire. Just on my way to Bill.”
                He didn’t seem to get the hint. “Yeah? I’ll come along too, got to talk to him about this Kyoto op.”
                “You anticipating a problem?” I asked, trying to mask my irritation at his presence.
                “God no! Just need to finalise some specifics, wanna make a good first impression, you know?”
                Unless his personality had undergone a drastic shift recently, I doubted there was any way Bill could be impressed unless the sprog could give him a naked Yolanda Russo on a platter. “I do.”
                We were silent until just before we got to the office, when Squire held up a hand as he approached. “I think he’s on a call.”
                I had seen the faint yellow hologram glow coming from under his door before we’d arrived, so I already knew he was busy. I decided to indulge the White anyway. “Alright. He’ll only be a minute, he knows we’re coming.”
                Before Squire could reply I quickly slid out my gun, twisting it around my finger to rest in my palm in one fluid motion. The White was taken aback a bit, but seemed to relax a little when I simply ejected the clip to check on the ammo count. I kept it out, hoping it’d stop any more questions.
                Most Whites won’t say a word when a gun’s handy, especially the optimistic ones like Squire. Perhaps they think we’ll put a bullet in them. Fucking kids.
                The door opened after a minute and Bill swung his head around to look at us. He caught sight of my hands. “You planning on shooting this guy? Already?” He jerked his head at Squire.
                I shrugged. “Not yet. Maybe later.”
              I couldn’t see Squire’s face but I could tell he was at least a bit worried; he let out a weak chuckle, and I saw his body fidget a little in my peripheral. I holstered the gun and followed Bill inside, with the White on my heels. Maybe I would kill him later, when he inevitably screwed up Kyoto.
                Bill was a tall, lean man with a thinning crop of silver-grey hair and a long, slightly ovoid head. He’d been installed as the Arm Administrator for the past thirteen years, originally from the New York Arm with a passion for our business. He’d come up with the idea to revamp the front door and make our front company a bit more believable – apparently he got the idea from a very old television program that was popular in the Second Age.
                He took absolutely no shit from anybody.
                Bill sat behind his desk in a large and obviously comfortable magenta armchair at the opposite end from the door, next to a tall and oddly-spacious black wardrobe, and picked up a half-filled tumbler of what I could only assume was some kind of scotch. He eyed Squire cautiously, as if expecting bad news. “What is it, White?”
                All trace of joviality and enthusiasm evaporated instantly when Squire spoke. You could tell he was nervous. “All ahead for the Kyoto drop, sir. Just double-checking the specifics.”
                Bill looked annoyed. “You go in, eliminate the target, and leave no evidence. What’s there to double-check?”
                The White began shifting his weight from foot to foot like a metronome. “Well, sir, it’s just the implant –”
                “You got the surgery from the Blacksmith, didn’t you?” Bill cut him off.
                “Y-yes, sir,” Squire stammered, “but it hasn’t been…uh, field-tested yet. The Blacksmith was supposed to –”
                “Send me a report?” Bill finished for him. He picked up a blue folder lying on the desk and waved it. “Yeah, I got that. He said it was up to you to field-test the implant, and that was three days ago.”
                Squire looked dumbfounded. “Sir, y-you want me to kill an innocent civilian just to, to test an implant?”
                I could see the thunder clouds gathering inside Bill now. “Squire, you’re an agent of this Guild, aren’t you?”
                “Yes, sir.”
                “And you’re aware that all Arms of the Guild are required to carry out operations that involve necessary executions?”
                “Yes, sir, but this is –”
                “And that the necessary execution in Kyoto cannot be adequately accomplished without this implant being fully functional?”
                He swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
                “Good.” Bill suddenly threw his tumbler, still half-filled, at the terrified White.
             Instinctively my hand went to my gun, in case Squire decided to do anything stupid to defend himself, but as the glass smashed straight into Squire’s forehead and made him stagger backwards I saw Bill raise his opposite hand at me. I kept tense, in case the situation got out of hand, but if Bill reckoned he could handle it…
                The tumbler had shattered all over Squire’s face, and shards of expensive glass were lodged in the surface layer of his skin. The White was suddenly thrown off for a few seconds, small rivulets of blood making their way down his cheeks, unsure whether to cow in acceptance of his punishment or retaliate on his assailant. Bill strode towards him, still very visibly pissed off.
                “If this Arm is going to succeed, all my agents need to be ready.” He rolled up his left sleeve, and held his forearm out to Squire. “Use the implant on me. Now.”
                Squire blinked away the pain for a moment and shook his head. “I can’t do that, sir!”
              I could see where Bill was going with this now; I dropped my hand and hung loose, almost amused.
                Bill grabbed Squire’s right arm forcefully and pressed the White’s palm against the exposed forearm. “Now, dammit! Or you don’t have any future outside this office!”
                I always hated the sound toxic implants made when they injected their payload; it was the sickening noise of hypodermic needle piercing thick flesh that put you in mind of someone very loudly fondling raw meat in their hands. It wasn’t the piercing of the needle itself that made the noise, rather the technophage itself moving from internal storage canister to deployment device. It only lasted a second or two, but it still made me queasy to hear it.
                Squire’s implant must’ve put enough Neural Lockdown technophage in Bill’s bloodstream to give a rhino brain death. The Admin fell, withdrawing his forearm from the needle and collapsing to the ground. Blood began to dribble out of his ears, and his eyes stared glassily at the ceiling.
                The White freaked out.
                “Oh my God!” he screamed, as if someone else had been driving his body the whole time. He withdrew the needle and fell to his knees. He turned to me, his face contorted with anguish. You’d never have guessed he’d been chipper five minutes ago. “What have I done?”
                “What I asked you to do.”
                I swear Squire went as pale as his rank colour; he turned his head towards the voice that had come from inside the black wardrobe near Bill’s desk. The doors swung open and a clean, undamaged Bill strode out, clad in exactly the same clothes as the corpse lying bloodied and brain-dead on the floor.
                He looked at the body plainly, as if it were all perfectly normal. “I had that one for nearly five years. Probably about time for a reboot.”
                I didn’t need my intuition as an agent to tell me that Squire had absolutely no fucking idea what the hell had just happened. This was always my favourite part about meeting new Whites; seeing them find out the one big thing they don’t tell you in the job interview.
                “See that?” Bill pointed at the wardrobe. “You could call it a clone closet, I guess. It’s where my physical avatars grow, ready for deployment.”
                The White’s hands were shaking badly now. “Deployment?”
               Bill nodded, walking over to his desk and reaching for the scotch bottle. “I can’t operate efficiently in my natural state, so I grow clone bodies to walk around in. I find that being a head on a computer screen leaves new agents feeling unsettled.”
                Not that it stopped him using it unsettle the experienced ones, too.
                Recognition finally began to sink into the sprog. “You’re…an AI?”
                “Yep.” Bill filled up a fresh tumbler all the way to the brim. “Seventh generation, programmed for tactical application. Easy install into new bodies, Administrator of the San Francisco Arm for the past thirteen years. Let me tell you, travel through this Arm’s conduits is a breeze compared to the clogged shit they’ve got over in New York.”
                I’d been to the NY Arm, and whilst not experiencing the conduits myself if they were anything like the rest of the place – half-functional and covered with electronic detritus – then it must’ve been like trying to move through a choked artery. I was a little surprised the brass hadn’t shut it down; they’d never really recovered from the Bolivian rebel attack.
                “So,” Bill continued, starting to gently sip at the liquid, “can you handle this job or not, White? Because if not, tell me now so I can start finding your replacement.”
                Squire still seemed pants-shittingly terrified, but he regained a small measure of composure. He straightened up as best he could after another fleeting glance at the corpse. “Yes, sir. I can handle it.”
                “Good.” He gestured to the door with the tumbler. Squire didn’t need to be told twice.
                After he’d left I let out a quiet laugh. “I love it when they go pale like that.”

Announcing the Technophage™!

Feeling a bit down coz the old neurons aren’t firing like they used to?
 
Sick of forgetting birthdays, anniversaries and funeral times?
 
Want something to make the old noodle work just that little bit better?
 
 
All your problems are now solved thanks to:
 
TECHNOPHAGE™
FORGETFULNESS IS A THING OF THE PAST!
 
Developed by scientists from the best BioMed labs in San Francisco, Beijing and Melbourne, the Technophage is a fully programmable viral solution to all your mental health problems! The virus is injected directly into your bloodstream, making its way straight to your crooked cranium. It’s adaptable to any neural pathway or psychological pattern, and can seamlessly fill any gaps your brain might have!
 
WANT TO LEARN ANY LANGUAGE OR INSTRUMENT INSTANTLY? TECHNOPHAGE.
 
INTERESTED IN DIGESTING ALL OF FOUCAULT’S SOCIAL THEORIES IN ONE SITTING? TECHNOPHAGE.
 
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YOUR CEREBELLUM WILL THANK YOU!
 
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WARNING: Technophage developers not responsible if virus causes any of the following; insanity, paranoia, psychosis, bi-polar disorder, ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, or any other form of mental instability. Virus has been clinically trialed but patients who use it do so at their own risk. Not all mental chemistries have been accounted for.

A Ballad of Bones

It’s only a shadow, right?



The bearer could never become the borne without first passing


Through those gates that only lie within


The eye of the needle.






But when is it proper?


For should I turn against the thrice-wounded center


And lounge with Lucifer


In damnation’s living room.






For how is there hope?


The apex is only as high as the reach of the lowest man


But within it is the chance


For one’s redemption.






Stay tuned for next week’s episode.


 
Submitted as part of my mid-semester Writing Poetry assignment. What’d you guys think?

Espress-To-Go: A Fluke Street Excerpt

It had been the busiest day Miranda could remember.

There was nothing particularly memorable about it; no parades, no Olympic torch relays, no NASCAR derbies going on in the next town over. Yet somehow they’d made a bucketload of cash from several busloads of patrons, and her boss could only have been happier if Miranda had told her she was a lesbian.

Which she wasn’t, of course. That could only hurt her chances with Dirk if he ever found out.

She stood at the main register, counting out what seemed like a thousand twenty dollar bills. The two secondaries were being unloaded and banked by her co-workers, who were as elated and worn out by today’s business as she was.

“Was it the Napuccino that did it?” Jervis asked. “A recent study pointed out that most businessmen these days are sleep-deprived, and we got predominantly males, so maybe they were in need of a sleep aid?”

Berry shook her head. “Nah, it’s totally the Long John Black. Rum coffee’s always a hit when the weather gets a little cooler.”

Jervis seemed unconvinced. “Are you insinuating that our customers only want our coffee coz it’s cold and they need booze to keep warm? Coz that’d mean most of our clientele are closet alcoholics, and I’m pretty sure the health department would frown on us promoting alcoholism so flippantly. Besides, vodka’s the one that warms you up, not rum.”

“Have you ever had rum?” Berry asked, sounding affronted. “One time, over in Silk Valley, I got stuck with my boyfriend Terrence coz of a landslide near Providence-On-Black. All we had was a bottle of Australian Bundaberg that he’d brought back from Melbourne.” She winked knowingly. “We kept ourselves warm after that.”

“Because you screwed him in a prop tent?” Jervis asked scathingly. “The rum made you drunk enough to fuck, it didn’t make you warm by itself. Vodka is the one to do that. Why do you think the Russians have adopted it as their national mascot?”

Berry’s voice took on a very pissed-off quality, one that Miranda recognised as the ‘you’ve just accurately pointed out that I’m an idiot, but I’m still going to argue with you anyway’ tone. “If Russia had a mascot, it’d be that stuffed Lenin corpse they’ve got in Red Square. Wasn’t he, like, their version of Santa or something?”

Before Jervis could shoot back with a venomous retort Miranda stepped in. “Have you ever noticed that all our coffee names are just puns on coffee that most people probably find horribly cheesy?”

The two bickering co-workers stopped dead in their tracks to look at Miranda as if she was crazy. Berry looked murderous. “You mean the names that won us national coffee awards, like the Peppermint Peach Potbrew and the Coco Loco Mochachino? Those cheesy names?”

“But they’re so obvious!” Miranda protested. “I mean, Espress-To-Go is kinda cute, but why are we ploughing on with names like the Jumbalino Frappucino or the Cunning Lemon Linguist? I mean, are we meant to be a serious coffee shop or a comedy store?”

“A little of both, I’d think,” Berry argued. “If you need proof that people love stupid puns, just check this out.” She held up her hand, clutching a wad of greenback as proof.

Jervis took on a mocking tone. “You know what it is?” he said, his tone scandalous. “Miranda’s worked here too long. The puns are bleeding into her Harvard English-Speaking Skills, or whatever it is she studied –”

“Critical Discourse and Language Specialist,” she interrupted, cutting Jervis off from further mangling the name of her degree.

“Whatever it was,” Jervis continued, “it’s become infected by years of constant worldwide punomenons that have pervaded her precious, pretty little head. So now she can’t take one more customer asking her for a Ginseng Rinsing. She won’t be able to brew one more Caramacchiato with the knowledge that she’s directly supporting the horrid, despicable puns she’s come to loathe, hate, despise and detest with every fibre of her being.”

He raised a dramatic hand into the air, his voice going quite Shakespearian. “Damn the money! Damn the regular work! Damn the neverending supply of free coffee whenever you ask for it! Miranda Dillinger, the puns have invaded your life for too long! Will you finally free yourself from this torture, and abandon the independent coffee shop you helped build from the ground up? Will you cast off the shackles of the business you aided in toppling the local branches of Sundeers and Estefan Corduroys?” His hand dropped down, pointing an accusatory finger at her. “Will you yield your job and leave us forever?!”

Inside, Miranda was laughing her ass off.

Outside, she merely nodded grimly, her expression downcast and forlorn. “Yes, Jervis Baker, you’re right. I am so dissatisfied with my life of puns, I’m just heading off to Spectre Point to commit sepuku and cast my lifeless body into the shadowy abyssal maw below. I cannot live with the knowledge I’ve fostered such puntastic behaviour.”

Jervis nodded, his expression equally defeatist. “I know, sweetie. It’s a hard admission, but we all come to it at sometime.”

He held Miranda’s gaze for a moment, as they both looked at each other in grim assurance of Miranda’s sealed fate. The air became like dampened electricity, with the two coffee workers watching like mournful vultures circling the abyss below. Miranda heard a slow, funeral-like dirge playing slowly in her head, minor key in full force and piano meshing beautifully with deep horns.

Jervis was speaking the truth.

“But you can’t die! You’re my friend, and I’d be sad!”

Miranda and Jervis turned their heads slowly to regard Berry, her expression horrified and her hands lowering from her mouth towards her chin in shock. The young girl’s pale grey eyes were wider than Miranda had ever seen them.

There was a pause, then the laughter that Miranda had felt when Jervis accosted her exploded outwards in a wave of hilarious reaction. Jervis joined in, laughing jovially and squinting his eyes shut as they burst out into jolly sounds. Miranda haphazardly put down the bills she’d been counting and walked over to Jervis, giving him a hug and still laughing herself sick.

It took Berry a few seconds to work out that she’d been duped, at which point she fixed Miranda with an icy, decidedly un-joking glare. “That wasn’t funny.”

“Are you kidding?” Jervis shouted through laughs. “That was the best thing I’ve heard all day!”

A shrill cry rang out from the back of the shop, where Mildred was running up EFTPOS receipts. “What’s going on out there?”

Miranda and Jervis turned and answered in unison. “Nothing, boss!”