Escape to the Movies and The Big Picture have been cancelled

Bob Chipman, also known as Moviebob and the Game Overthinker, has been let go from the Escapist. His last video for the site appeared this week. The firing is pretty clearly connected to the closure of Joystiq and the firing of a number of other Escapist regulars—it seems like the video game newsmagazine format is not as profitable as it once was.

This is truly sad news. In recent years even the Zero Punctuation videos have begun to lose their sheen, and the main reason to go to the site was Chipman’s criticism in his articles and his two video series—Escape to the Movies, a weekly review series, and The Big Picture, a loosely formatted show that looked both critically and not-so-critically at pop culture.

Chipman has always been a rare breed—a critic well versed in pop culture and with an interest in the sleazy and cheesy world of science fiction and video games, but who has enough in-depth training in an art form that he can bring some intelligent, sensitive critical judgment to the table. When he agrees with the mainstream point of view, he always seems to go one further by stating his points more eloquently than others have. When he disagrees, he usually has an interesting point that others have overlooked.

It was through his shows that I was turned onto films like Cabin in the Woods, The Raid, ParaNorman, Detention—smaller movies I would otherwise never have heard of, let alone seen. If it wasn’t for his review it would never have occurred to me to take Michael Bay seriously enough to watch the astounding Pain and Gain. I believe his takes on the battles and blowups in pop culture criticism have more accurately and regularly captured the lay of the land than anything else, and his explanations of trivial comic book minutiae are always entertaining. The annual Schlocktober event has always been a great pleasure.

Even his misfires—his initial praise of Man of Steel, his mawkish review of Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, his incessant slamming on the beneath-contempt Sony Spider-Man movies—have left him looking pretty good over all. And this is saying nothing about his work on video games, with which I am less familiar (though I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen).

The loss of Chipman’s shows and column should come as a great blow to anyone who wishes to turn a somewhat serious eye to modern pop culture. While the Escapist has to do what they have to do, and Chipman will no doubt find some other outlet soon, one has to wonder about the strategic wisdom of firing the people who make the site worth visiting. Certainly the “journalism” there is largely worthless, and with the recent culling I have to say that the site is of considerably less value to the community than it was in its heyday, and I can’t imagine I’ll be visiting nearly as often as I used to.

Official announcements from Chipman can be found here and here. His site carries a PayPal tip jar for those so inclined, and he also has announced that he will likely be running a Patreon campaign in the near future.

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Left Behind

It’s been a while. I’ve started back at the Manitoban doing something very different, so that’s taken up a lot of time. I’m also applying to grad schools, a process that from what I’ve seen and heard is infinitely more stressful than actually doing a master’s degree.

I managed to steal away enough time to see the movie Left Behind this weekend. It still seems hard to believe that this is a real thing—if you want to give your Rapture movie mainstream credibility (as they apparently did), Nicolas Cage is a puzzling choice for lead actor. He has ascended to a higher plane of existence and cannot appear onscreen with mortal actors, even such luminaries as Chad Michael Murray and what’s her face, without appearing photoshopped in. The ontological whiplash alone is worth the price of admission.

They appear to have blown the entire budget on Cage, which means that there is little room left for such expenses as effects, writing, or a cast. This makes it a B-movie of a kind rarely seen in theatres nowadays, which means that if you’re looking to be entertained by wooden acting, unconvincing graphics, or bathetic and oddly composed shots, then you’re in for a treat.

Unfortunately, the movie takes a minor subplot from the early part of the novel and blows it up into feature length, which means that a lot of the real fun stuff with the Antichrist and the United Nations didn’t make the cut. It also means that the second half of the movie is pretty much a wash, once the characters have accepted that the Rapture has happened and begun to focus on the practical problem of getting the plane back on the ground safely.

Fred Clark has famously dissected the series page by page and frame by frame to show how its literary failings are necessitated by the narcissistic theology underlying belief in the Rapture and the End Times (a couple personal favourites: here, here, and here). There’s not much of that in evidence here, but that’s probably because there is hardly a hint of End Times theology in the movie. The Rapture happens, sure, but it’s treated more as an inexplicable disaster than a religious event. There are Christians, but it seems unlikely that anyone, even the most die-hard Left Behind fan, would not be annoyed by them. They don’t even attempt to make Nicolas Cage’s character seem unsympathetic for distancing himself from his Bible-thumping wife.

The result is a movie that is much more watchable than the 2000 Kirk Cameron vehicle, but that is stripped almost entirely of the peculiar worldview that is what makes the rest of the series so entertaining. It’s good for an evening of laughs, not so good as an entry into the politico-theological bestiary.

Inspired to vomit: Music, education, and Mr. Holland’s Opus

Mr Holland’s Opus is a bad film. It is a miserable, overlong, poorly structured specimen of the “inspirational teacher” genre of movies (mercilessly parodied in School of Rock and Here Comes The Boom) in which a charismatic teacher uses unconventional methods to inspire apathetic students to apply themselves. It is pornography for the worst kind of educators, and like all pornography it profoundly distorts the things it claims to illustrate.

Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me, The Emperor’s Club. Starting high school in 2007, I was taught mostly by people born in the 1980s who had grown up on this glurge. I had many teachers who were “inspirational” in the cinematic sense, not a few of them so inspirational that they never got round to teaching us anything.

The genre, and Mr. Holland’s Opus in particular, is sentimental trash, but that’s not my main reason for criticizing it. It’s simply too easy to say that Mr Holland’s Opus is bad because it is cheesy bullshit, and if that was all I had to say it would be hardly worth writing about. This movie fails in a very special way, through its egregious abuse of a subject near and dear to my heart. Ultimately its flaws are spiritual, and they shed some light on why the inspirational teacher movie is such a malicious force in popular culture. Continue reading

Review: White House Down

You have to respect Roland Emmerich. Over a long and distinguished career he’s regularly put out exciting, well-made thrillers full of iconic moments. He’s basically Michael Bay with a brain. His movies are crammed with explosions, balls to the wall action, and witty one-liners, but it’s all woven together with care and craftsmanship, a solid filmmaking technique backed up by an eye for crowd-pleasing setpieces. Even when he’s working with material that is stupid (The Day After Tomorrow) or forgettable (2012), he still manages to land on his feet with a level of grace that few others could manage.

White House Down is a bit of an experiment for him: what if the destruction of a famous landmark, instead of being the most heavily promoted shot from the movie, was the whole movie?

The movie is built around a familiar stock structure and evolves exactly as you’d expect. Channing Tatum (what is the world coming to that we now have action stars with names like Channing Tatum?) is being interviewed for a job with the US Secret Service—which apparently likes to save money by skipping the extensive background check and just spending a few minutes with the candidate in a back office like McDonald’s. Just before he leaves, a group of armed men set off a bomb and take over the building. They kill off some of the world’s most highly trained guards like a bunch of chumps and pretty soon Tatum is the only dude left who’s bad enough to save the president. This is complicated by the fact that his eleven-year-old daughter had accompanied him to the White House to take a tour and is being held hostage by the bad guys.

Emmerich is probably the only man alive who could have so much fun with the setting. There is, I shit you not, a high-speed chase scene with presidential limos on the front lawn of the White House, while hundreds of thousands of people and a National Guard tank look on. You can’t make this stuff up. If that were the entire appeal of the movie, it would be enough. But, as others have mentioned, Emmerich gets a bit political. You see, the president is essentially Barack Obama. Not the actual, drony, indistinguishable-from-Bush Barack Obama, but this guy:

Meanwhile, the intruders are a group of white supremacists, defense company shills, mercenaries, and hackers secretly backed by the Republican Speaker of the House. In short, everyone that all the vaguely left-wing folks in the states are mad at. One of them is named after a Tom Clancy character. They invade the White House. The movie’s president embodies all the self-serving social justice myths of the theme park version of American history. It’s glurgy stuff, simplistic and often a protective ideological mask for pernicious ideas. Nobody seriously believes in it except for everybody, and they’re tired of being jerked around.

The president takes these bad guys and he shoots them in the face with a rocket launcher until they go away. Naive? Probably. But goddamn, what a ride!

Review: Pacific Rim

There’s not a whole lot to say about Pacific Rim that hasn’t been said already. It’s scarcely necessary to mention that it’s awesome—that was clear enough from the early trailers. What hasn’t been emphasized so much is just how awesome it is, and in what ways. There was never any doubt that the fight scenes would be something else. This makes it easy to lose sight of the movie’s other qualities. Continue reading