Fifty Authors I Will Not Read

I think most people have authors they won’t read, even if other people love their books. I have quite a few. Some are authors I tried in the past and have no desire to revisit, and some are authors I refuse to read on principle.

So for instance…

  1. Philip Pullman
  2. Mercedes Lackey
  3. John Norman
  4. James Joyce
  5. E.L. James
  6. Dan Brown
  7. Victor Hugo
  8. William Faulkner
  9. Ayn Rand
  10. Bernard Cornwell
  11. Richard Dawkins
  12. Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins
  13. Jean M. Auel
  14. Margaret Mitchell
  15. Nicholas Sparks
  16. Marion Zimmer Bradley
  17. Candace Bushnell
  18. Friedrich Nietzsche
  19. Blanka Lipinska
  20. Peter David
  21. Clive Barker
  22. Diana Gabaldon
  23. Anne McCaffrey
  24. Junji Ito
  25. Alice Oseman
  26. Warren Ellis
  27. Barbara Kingsolver
  28. R.F. Kuang
  29. Ernest Cline
  30. Chuck Palahniuk
  31. John Steinbeck
  32. Ernest Hemingway
  33. Anne Bishop
  34. Dan Simmons
  35. Isabel Allende
  36. Scarlett St. Clair
  37. Herman Melville
  38. Michael Moorcock
  39. J. D. Robb
  40. Chuck Wendig
  41. Joe Haldeman
  42. Glen Cook
  43. Franz Kafka
  44. Brian Herbert
  45. Jodi Picoult
  46. R. A. Salvatore
  47. Kevin J. Anderson
  48. James Patterson
  49. John Updike
  50. John Ringo

I think I’ve got a pretty diverse listing of books I refuse to read – science fiction, fantasy, classic fiction, modern fiction, mystery, romance, comics, etc. The one thing they have in common is that I have zero desire to read them, even ironically or to explore/review how bad they are (which is why L. Ron Hubbard is conspicuously absent from the list, even though he wrote the worst book I have ever seen in my life – and I have seen some crappy books).

There are also pretty diverse reasons why I refuse to read these books. A lot of these authors bore or annoy me, for instance. Kevin J. Anderson, for instance, is like eating a diet of only white bread to me – it’s boring, it’s unmemorable, and I immediately start craving something with flavor and meatiness. Another is Herman Melville, whose magnum opus is about six thousand pages of whaling minutiae. Or James Joyce, because… James Joyce. Or R. A. Salvatore, who has been writing basically the same pap for decades.

Another large category is authors who are bigots. Typically, bigots against me and people like me. I don’t try to force anyone to boycott artists who disagree with them, like many do. But I reserve the right to criticize, to call out and to make it clear that these people are bigots. For instance, Philip Pullman, who wrote an entire fantasy trilogy about how much he hates Christianity. He’s not getting my money, because he’s a bigot filled with hate, and anyone who claims to be against hate better also be against him.

There’s a lot of bigots on that list. Some very big names. Nobody is too famous to call out.

A much smaller category would be ones that I have political or religious disagreement with. I am willing to listen to people of various political or religious persuasions, although I am obviously not going to entertain and agree with all viewpoints. Only idiots do that. But someone like Ayn Rand simply doesn’t make any sense in the real world, and promotes a hideous way of thinking mixed with childish self-worship, which we already have too much of in the world. And guys like John Ringo and John Norman are just… blech. Their attitudes towards women are hideous.

I also don’t think that authors should necessarily be expected to be any better than any other person; having skeletons in their closet, addictions or bad stuff in their past is not a reason to avoid someone’s work. However, I am not going to read books by Marion Zimmer Bradley – not just because she was a pedophile, but because her work is so suffused in her spiritual corruption that it is literally painful for me to read, and it was painful long before I learned what she was.

This is kind of tied into the bigot and political/religious thing, but some of these authors are simply awful people, and it’s unpleasant to put your mind in their playground.

The smallest listing of all – only two people, actually – is people I don’t want to read because they do their job too well. That is the only reason Junji Ito is on it, so… if you’re a fan of his, you can unclench. Being listed on here is actually a compliment.

I’ll probably come up with more authors I refuse to read in the future, but for now, fifty is plenty.

Sonya Blade – Badass Lady Fighter

I have a confession to make: I kinda like the Mortal Kombat movie from 2021.

I mean, it’s not as controversial as saying you’re an unironic fan of Battlefield Earth or something like that. But as I understand it, fans of the video games didn’t like it a great deal, even just compared to the 1990s movie.

And I won’t lie – it’s flawed. Cole is a pretty bland lead character who isn’t from the games, though he’s inoffensive and he avoids the whole Gary Stu character aspect. Kano is lots of fun to watch, and I suspect the actor had a ball playing him. Shang Tsung is not really very intimidating, There’s some eye candy for women and a small number of men (Liu Kang is basically this ALL THE TIME). The special effects are pretty decent. Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim are basically perfect as Scorpion and Subzero, and there’s a reason the entire climax is about these two whaling on each other.

But I think of all the characters, I enjoy watching Sonya Blade the most, because she is an example of a warrior woman written correctly. And we don’t have a lot of those anymore – a lot of female characters in current-day action movies are essentially written as power fantasies…. which are okay, as long as it’s acknowledged that they’re nothing better than that. These characters are coldly constructed to maximize feelings of shallow empowerment without risking upsetting anyone by making the character look “weak” by having them be vulnerable, struggle to do anything, or need anything from a man.

Disney, I’m looking at you. You gave us Rey, Live!Mulan and Captain Marvel.

Sonya Blade is literally not like the other girls… and for once, that’s a good thing. The first thing to note is that she is always depicted as a butt-kicking badass – she’s a military veteran who’s good enough to fight in Mortal Kombat, and she’s strong and skilled enough to capture Kano and keep him chained up in her house. When Subzero is chasing down Cole, she’s the one that Jax sends him to to keep him safe.

But it’s worth noting that in raw physical power, she’s not the strongest. On average, men are much stronger than women physically, which many movies and TV shows don’t want to acknowledge because… I guess acknowledging it would be considered misogynistic. But Mortal Kombat does implicitly acknowledge it, because Sonya is shown going toe to toe with physically powerful men not based on raw muscle power, but using her brains, her training, and her agility. Her part of the climax is a wonderfully intense game of cat-and-mouse, where she not only has to battle Kano’s physical power but his laser eye, which she manages through manipulating her surroundings as well as physical attacks.

Which brings me to another aspect of Sonya that many other action heroines don’t have anymore – she struggles. Watch the Disney action heroines mentioned above, and you’ll be lucky if they EVER struggle to take down their enemies.

In the shallow minds of the people writing these stories, I think they imagine that a woman struggling would make her look weak… and that idea is bad storytelling. Seeing your hero struggle is part of the experience of wanting them to triumph – you watch them sweat, get punched, collapse to the ground and struggle to get up again, and lose their initial fights. That makes it all the more cathartic and satisfying when they finally triumph – because you know they worked for their triumph over the bad guys, and all the sweat, blood and tears were worth it in the end.

If the hero’s only flaw is “he/she needs to realize how AWESOME he/she is!”, and they breeze through, effortlessly winning the day without breaking a sweat… the only people who find that satisfying are people who just want a power fantasy.

And yes, Sonya struggles. She follows the arc of HERO FIGHTS –> HERO FAILS –> HERO REGROUPS/TRAINS –> HERO FIGHTS AGAIN –> HERO WINS AFTER STRUGGLE, like Luke Skywalker and other classic heroes. Her ultimate triumph over Kano – and gaining an arcana – is narratively satisfying because we watched her grapple with him right to the end, and it was a near thing. So when she looks at her dragon mark and laughs, it feels earned.

I do not get that feeling from a Captain Marvel, a Rey, a Live!Mulan. They don’t struggle to win, so there’s no cathartic satisfaction when they do win. It’s like watching Usain Bolt outrunning a toddler. Who’d find that satisfying?

I also really like Sonya’s relationships with the men around her. She doesn’t really interact much with the female characters – I think she only encounters Mileena, who skips out on murdering her because she wouldn’t get Mortal Kombat street cred from it. I guess she probably meets Cole’s wife and daughter at the end of the film.

Anyway, throughout the movie Sonya interacts mainly with the male characters, and for the most part… they treat her no differently than if she were a man. The only exception of Kano, who is a walking mass of personality defects, who is sexist to her because he’s casually offensive to everyone (and also he’s salty that she chained him up). But the men on her side treat her with respect and admiration, not considering her any less worthy because she’s a woman, and it’s hard to imagine that, say, Cole would treat her any differently if she were a guy.

That also goes for her relationship with Jax. I’m not sure what the age difference is between them, but it seems like they have a big brother/little sister connection, with a hint of mentor/student.

One thing I’ve noticed about movies in recent years is that women are often not allowed to be the mentees/students of men anymore – a woman must either know everything she needs automatically, or she must learn from another woman. See Rey, Captain Marvel, etc. That makes it kind of wholesome when Sonya admits that when she first entered the military, she wanted to make Jax proud, and that was clearly an important motivation in her training and her service.

It’s also worth noting that in the second act, she also spends a lot of time just supporting Jax. She’s told that she can’t train for Mortal Kombat because she doesn’t have a dragon mark that gives you superpowers, and instead of pouting or kicking up a fuss, she decides to go support her best friend, who just lost both of his arms and has been given little dinky robot ones instead. She doesn’t make it all about her, but about her friend who needs help.

On the subject of Sonya not having an arcana, I also liked that she’s demonstrated to have actual morals rather than a vague sense of goodness that is never challenged or confronted with temptation. You see, Sonya wants an arcana because she wants to engage in Mortal Kombat (DA DA DA, DADADA DA DA DA!), but there are only two ways to gain one. Either you are an elite fighter and vague supernatural powers bestow it on you, or you gain it by killing someone else who has the marking.

Kano has the marking. Now, Kano is a person who has done all sorts of hideous criminal things, and killing him would probably make the world a better place. In fact, he keeps taunting Sonya about killing him, even to the point where she fights him but does not kill him, just to demonstrate that she can in fact beat him. But she doesn’t kill him, because at that point he was technically an ally and wasn’t a direct threat.

Does she kill him? Yes. But only after he turns against the group and tries to murder her twice, in self-defense.

The same way a hero has to struggle for his success to mean anything, a hero’s morals have to be challenged for their morality to have any depth. If the hero is never tempted to do the wrong thing, then their morality doesn’t really mean anything. This is especially true in a situation where doing the wrong thing feels like it might be the right thing, such as killing a loathsome murderer who will get superpowers and probably misuse them to kill even more people.

Anyway, those are my scrambled thoughts on the character of Sonya Blade in the Mortal Kombat movie, and why I liked her far better than most action heroines in current-day films. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s compassionate, she’s skilled, and she fires pink laser beams. Not bad.

Cruella and the illusion of genius

Sorry it’s been awhile since I last ranted about something that bothered me, but upon watching JLongbone’s rant about the movie Cruella, I had to talk about it.

Specifically, I had to talk about how… I am not sure how Disney came to the conclusion that Cruella was a genius. The movie is crammed with her referring to herself as a genius, and others talking about her genius, and the narrative acts as if she’s a genius even though she does very little geniusing. The entire movie revolves around the idea that she’s not just an artistic genius, but a criminal mastermind who can dominate and manipulate everyone.

Just… where did this characterization come from?

Because I have seen 101 Dalmations, and she is most assuredly not a genius. She is literally just a rich bitch who hires other people to do minor crimes for her. Even if she did the criminal acts in person, it wouldn’t be genius – it would be breaking into a middle-class London house and stealing baby animals that can be easily stuffed into a sack. That’s not Mission: Impossible. It’s not even Ocean’s 11. Actually, I was never quite sure why Roger and Anita never had the police investigate her, since she was literally the only suspect.

And lest you think that she was a fashion design genius… no, she was a consumer of fashion. There are plenty of bibliophiles who can’t write four coherent words, and there are plenty of fashion enthusiasts who know absolutely nothing about making fashion. They’re called celebrities. Ba-dum-tish.

The point is, wanting a coat made out of spotted dogskin is not the same thing as being a fashion designer of genius caliber. Hell, in the original book, Cruella’s husband was the one with actual fashion knowledge and experience; she just took advantage of his position to get lots of furs. Yes, someone actually married… that.

And of all the Disney villains I can think of off the top of my head, Cruella is arguably the least genius of them all. The closest to her in lack-of-genius is Gaston, and… well, at least Gaston knew how to rile up a crowd and manipulate people. Cruella just screams at them, hits them and throws money at them, and then ends up crashing her vehicle and being outwitted by a pair of dogs.

Who looked at this loony rich skank and thought, “Yes, she is a true genius”?

Maybe its one of those really sad attempts to inspire young girls by telling them that they’re brilliant and brave and talented and all-around glorious when… the majority are not, and likely never will be, and setting them up with big egos and inflated self-image is just going to make things rocky later on. Maybe people think that all girls will be amazing brilliant girlbosses if they have self-confidence, and that’s just not true. Self-confidence is often bestowed on people with nothing to back it up, and they typically make life harder for everyone around them.

And don’t even get me started on how the movie makes Cruella not do evil things. This is a woman that is famous for wanting to skin baby animals – whose bright idea was it to have her be kind to dogs? It’s like Disney wants the edgelord cred of having movies about villains, but they’re too cowardly to have their villains actually… do anything villainous.

Remember that one Justice League episode where the Flash and Lex Luthor switched bodies, and Flash declared that he wasn’t going to wash his hands “cuz I’m evil”? That was more evil than Cruella.

“The Eternals” should have been a TV show (not much in the way of spoilers)

I kind of went off the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Avengers: Endgame, primarily because it bid farewell to most of the original Avengers who made the brand what it was, while ushering in an era of much, much lesser superheroes. It also was when Marvel started spewing out Disney+ TV shows like a geyser, and so far all of them have had serious issues of varying degrees.

But there is one Marvel show that should have been a TV show, and that’s The Eternals.

I admit that I am only about halfway through this Chloe Zhao superhero movie, but I sincerely doubt that it’s going to turn around and suddenly blow me away in the second half. It is, to put it simply, plodding. It just trudges along rather than sweeping the audience in its wake, never making you excited about anything that happens. Even when something shocking or cataclysmic occurs… you don’t feel it.

In the first half of the movie, there is a horrifying revelation about the protagonists, their natures, their mission, their very existence and everything they believed about themselves… and their general attitude towards this is, “Aww, that sucks a little.” It is so anticlimactic, and it just made me even more indifferent to most of these characters, most of whom are generic (Thena, Sersi), bland (Ikaris) or annoying (Sprite, Druig).

Remember when Captain America discovered that HYDRA had been infesting SHIELD for the past seventy years, and had corrupted it completely from within? That was a shocking moment, and it held the weight of its import. But I don’t feel that with The Eternals.

I should care. It doesn’t make me care.

Part of the problem is just that Chloe Zhao’s direction is very uninspired, and the script is extremely meh. It’s just boring. But even if there was some pep and zing in this movie, it would still have some serious issues that need to be addressed… and most of those could have been handled by making it a TV series rather than a movie. Ten, maybe twelve episodes could have told the same story, but with more meat on its bones.

Part of the problem is that the main cast is too large. Look at the Guardians of the Galaxy – they have five members of their main cast, and a small number of supporting characters bouncing off them. Each of the Guardians has a distinct personality that complements or conflicts with every other member, and the cast is small enough that nobody gets lost in the shuffle. This is not the case with The Eternals – there are too many Eternals in the main cast, and thus there isn’t time enough to explore any of them except maybe Sersi. Most of them are extremely underdeveloped, and I just ended up thinking of them as “the Superman clone” or “the guy who looks like Credence Barebone” or “the little annoying one.” The only character traits that really set them apart were that some of them were very bitter and pissy.

This problem would probably be lessened in a TV format, where we could have episodes focusing more on the many different characters and what sets them apart from each other, as well as their feelings about their mission, their history, and the events of the story unfolding in the present. Maybe they could give Ikaris a personality.

The other problem is simple: the scope of the story is too big for a movie with this many characters. The Eternals have been on earth for seven thousand years, and supposedly have been defending and assisting humanity for most of that time. We get some flashbacks to their time in the past every now and then, but again, it feels pretty underdeveloped, and it doesn’t really give the feeling of those seven thousand years. We need more to really grasp it.

A TV show? You could introduce multiple glimpses of the past, all across the world, and you could work your way through those seven thousand years incrementally, all the way to the present, rather than hopping straight from 5,000 BC to the 1600s, with a ten-second wedding detour.

I admit I have not finished the movie yet, but the handling of it so far has not given me confidence that Chloe Zhao is suddenly going to give me a wild, exciting experience. It’s been dull and plodding, and all signs point to it continuing to be dull and plodding.

What Ghostbusters: Afterlife brings to the table that the 2016 reboot didn’t

The Ghostbusters franchise is getting something that few do: a reboot of an unsuccessful reboot.

Usually when a franchise has a dud reboot, the attitude from the suits is either that the IP is poisonous and nobody wants to see it, or that they just need to wait awhile before making another bad reboot. They most definitely don’t listen to fans, who are considered the bane of entertainment companies – creators and companies will not only give the fans stuff they hate, but will insult them for not liking it.

But after the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot embarrassingly failed to bring in audiences – partly on the back of an obnoxious “if you don’t like this, you’re sexist” campaign – something unusual happened. Sony actually listened. They announced a new sequel to the original Ghostbusters movie, directed by the son of the original movie’s director, with the three surviving Ghostbusters returning (and Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts).

What immediately made people happy was that… this is the kind of movie that fans had been screaming for for years – the classic Ghostbusters passing the torch to a new generation, and suitable respect being paid to the original.

And despite some retreading of familiar territory (demon dogs and Staypuft marshmallow men), respect and passing the torch is what the trailers are all about. We see familiar sights such as Ecto-1 and the PK-meter, and there’s a thrill to seeing them resurrected in a modern movie. There are even brief glimpses of a collection of spores, molds and fungus, showing that even throwaway gags from the original movie are being taken into consideration here.

They even found a way to make Egon Spengler central to the story, even though Harold Ramis sadly died some years ago. While Egon has passed on in the Ghostbusters universe, his work and legacy are clearly very important to the story, and his family members are central to the action. It feels like he’s still playing a part in the story.

And despite Leslie Jones’ howling about how the new Ghostbusters would all be men, it looks like it will be an even split between boys and girls. The kid most prominently displayed in the trailers is a young girl who looks like a female clone of Egon, and seems to act like one as well. This is pretty pleasant – there was a nasty undercurrent of “go feminism, down with stupid men!” to the 2016 reboot that extended to both the marketing and the script, so it’s nice to see some actual equality and the inclusion of female characters without the exclusion of males.

It even has greater racial diversity, since it looks like there will be an Asian kid in the mix as well as a black one, which also means they aren’t just making new versions of the same characters.

It also has something the 2016 version didn’t really have much of – innovation. That movie provided some proton-pack variations of weapons, but none of them felt like anything but supernatural pistols. But the trailers for this movie show the kids doing some new stuff – specifically a chase scene in the Ecto-1 where Phoebe pops out of the side on a seat, allowing her to fire a proton pack while the vehicle is moving. At the same time, there’s a trap with newly-installed remote-controlled wheels that allows it to move independently.

That’s fresh! That’s new! The 2016 movie tried to dazzle us with giant slabs of incomprehensible technobabble about the tech from the original movie, which drained all the life from the already-bad dialogue and just highlighted how inferior it was as a film. This new movie shows us the innovations being made to existing technology, and it feels natural and organic.

Then again, Ghostbusters 2016 didn’t bring a lot to the table, except a “villain is an incel” plot twist that nobody liked. It’s one of those reboots that really highlights how good the original one was. Okay, the original Ghostbusters wasn’t high art or anything, but it was tightly-plotted, clever, witty and creative. The reboot was a disaster, a mess of bad improv, a flabby incoherent script, stupid lowbrow jokes, sexism and a quartet of howling hammy harpies at its center.

Two words: Melissa McCarthy.

It also lacked scares. Though the original Ghostbusters was and is regarded as a comedy, it’s actually pretty much a horror movie with some genuinely impressive, suspenseful scenes devoid of laughs. Ghostbusters 2016 not only is not scary, but it doesn’t realize that a funny movie doesn’t have to be funny ALL THE TIME and can take itself seriously.

In short, the original was a serious movie that just happens to have a lot of comedic dialogue.

It’s hard to tell just from the trailer what the tone of the new movie will be; it seems a bit more somber, which admittedly is more a typical supernatural-movie/TV atmosphere in the 21st century. It will have some humor in it from what I’ve seen, mostly of the dry Venkman variety. I do like that it seems to be taking the whole storyline seriously as a supernatural thriller rather than just going “yuk yuk, the villain is an incel nerd troll! Let’s shoot him in the crotch! LOL! Fart jokes, dancing and screaming!”

So overall, I’d say that from what we know of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, it sounds much more promising than the 2016 movie… although that admittedly wasn’t saying much, since that movie was a stillbirth of a project. At the very least, this reboot seems like it has its heart in the right place, in terms of respecting the original and the fans, and yet trying something new and different.

And I’ll be showing my support financially for Afterlife, in order to support those who treat their fans and franchises right.

The Two Documentaries about JT Leroy

I’m kind of fascinated by scandals, and hoaxes, and the like. And one that has drawn me in in recent years is a scandal from perhaps fifteen years ago, when author JT Leroy was outed as being an incredibly elaborate literary hoax.

As a general explanation, JT Leroy was a famous writer of edgy semi-autobiographical fiction, who became extremely famous and beloved by a lot of people. His unique quality was that he was a former child prostitute who had been a drug addict, who had been homeless, who was gay and genderfluid and HIV-positive. He was this sort of fragile, ethereal artist who produced romanticized tales of his past, being sexually abused by men and emotionally and physically abused by his beautiful mother Sarah. Celebrities loved him, he was a bestseller, he was rich and famous, a movie was made from one of his books.

And then it came out – he didn’t actually exist.

He was a fictionalized persona created by his supposed foster mother (who also faked her own identity by pretending to be a British woman named Emily), Laura Albert, who had a weird habit of calling help lines and pretending to be a boy. The physical presence of JT Leroy was Albert’s boyfriend’s sister Savannah Knoop, who dressed up in androgynous clothes and a bad wig and pretended to be the person in question (Savannah also wrote a memoir about it some years ago, which I recommend).

This is explored a lot more in the documentaries Author: The JT LeRoy Story and The Cult of JT Leroy, both of which I watched recently. These documentaries actually complement each other perfectly, because they tell both sides of the whole hoax. Author is almost exclusively told from the perspective of the hoaxer, Laura Albert, as she tells the whole thing from her perspective and her life story and so on. Cult focuses more on the people who were taken in by it, how they feel and see it. And I don’t mean the customers buying the books – I mean people who thought they knew and had deep, close relationships with JT Leroy.

Author has a big bias. Normally I don’t disbelieve people with stories of abuse, both sexual and physical, and so on. But it becomes very obvious in this documentary that Laura Albert fetishizes child molestation and abuse. She romanticizes it. She wrote literally nothing else in her JT Leroy phase, and it was revealed to be all made up. I don’t feel comfortable believing anything she says about her past that cannot be confirmed by a reliable third-party source.

Remember, this is a woman who literally lied for a living, for a decade. She tries to claim that no, it wasn’t a lie or a hoax, it was “real” and JT Leroy was real to her – but we all know it wasn’t. You literally cannot believe a person like this; you should be skeptical of the things they claim, especially if they try to get your sympathy or argue that their sins and crimes are not that bad.

Always remember: if someone has a motive to lie to you about something, you should question every word that comes from their mouth.

In a way, Cult almost feels like a response to Author. This movie eventually centers on Laura Albert from the perspective of people who met her, including her ex-boyfriend Geoff, who confirmed the hoax after they separated. It’s a lot less flattering – a lot of people in it, including Albert’s psychiatrist, offer their viewpoints on her behavior, and it ranges from “mentally ill” to “she’s just a trained con artist.”

It also deals with the repercussions of the hoax and the lies. Author downplays the actual effects of Albert’s lies, presenting it as not being that bad, or even not being “real” lies at all.

But Cult bluntly presents the effects that those lies had on the many people who admired and followed him. Not the celebrities who latched onto the trendy it-kid of the literary world, but the authors, agents, doctors and fans who spent years conversing with him over the phone and emails, crafting seemingly-deep and emotionally-intimate relationships with him, and sometimes even coaching him through mental crises and suicidal periods. They formed online groups and communities, had readings of his work, and bonded over their love of him.

And it was all a lie – all those people were earnestly devoting their love and energy and time to someone who… wasn’t real. It was just some lady with a fetish for pretending to be a damaged, sexually-abused boy.

It wasn’t just the people who actually “knew” JT Leroy who were hurt. One scene in Cult features LGBTQ teenagers living in a shelter in San Francisco, and many of them are homeless, many have drug addictions, many prostitute themselves, and many have sexually transmitted diseases. I can utterly understand why these people were angry when JT Leroy was revealed as a fake – because their lives are hard and painful and sometimes very short.

And yet this woman used their suffering and their experiences as an “edgy” backstory for her fictional alter ego. It trivializes the reality of what they experience, and that is a terrible thing to do to anyone who is suffering.

For the record, I’m not saying an author can’t represent things they haven’t experienced in their fiction, because I don’t believe anyone should be forced to “stay in their lane” when it comes to writing. Write whatever characters with whatever backstory – do it sensitively and with respect if the experiences are something that others have had, but don’t let people tell you “it’s not your story to tell.”

But that isn’t what Laura Albert did. She basically played pretend with these serious issues, and presented this as reality – and that was a lot of what JT Leroy was. It made him stand out, it made people empathize with him, and it made up his fiction.

I know I’ve spent most of this blog post ranting about Albert and her lies, and how she hurt other people, but I really do recommend watching both Author and Cult. Watch them in that order – get Laura Albert’s side of the story, then flip around the narrative and listen to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the people she hurt.

It’s a fascinating story, and I really wish someone would write an in-depth, all-the-nuts-and-bolts, every-possible-perspective chronicle of the entire ten-year saga. If you enjoy reading about stranger-than-fiction escapades, it might be fun.

Subverting Expectations and “Mob Psycho 100”

People don’t talk as much about it now, but for a few years it felt like aspiring critics (and some actual bad critics) were wibbling on constantly about stuff “subverting expectations,” which they treated as if it were the Holy Grail of storytelling. The actual quality of the storytelling in question was rarely actually examined – all they cared about was that the showrunners and directors didn’t give audiences what they wanted or expected.

Thankfully, the end of Game of Thrones seems to have killed the popularity of this trend, as I haven’t heard much about it for awhile. I will admit that I still hear it pop up occasionally when a failed intellectual sings the praises of The Last Jedi.

And yes, I’m going to go there – I’m going to say that The Last Jedi sucks. It is not subverting the audience’s expectations to create whole subplots and characters in a movie that ultimately achieve nothing and lead to nothing. That is just wasting the audience’s time, and the fact that people expected competent storytelling – and were disappointed – doesn’t make it genius when that expectation is subverted.

Simply put, people like the Game of Thrones showrunners and Rian Johnson are the sort of people who like to break things for the sake of breaking them, because that is what subversion for its own sake is. That doesn’t lead to good storytelling.

But… subverting expectations is not always horrendously bad. It can be done well – it just usually isn’t.

That brings me to Mob Psycho 100.

In case you haven’t seen it, Mob Psycho 100 is an anime series centering on Mob, a young boy with apocalyptically strong psychic powers that are unleashed when his repressed emotions reach 100%. Despite his powers, Mob’s personal life is filled with very relatable concerns – he wants to be popular, he wants to win the affection of his first love, he wants to improve himself physically, and he works a part-time job with a con-artist pretending to be psychic.

So how does this show subvert your expectations? Well, that happens in the second episode, which is about a Telepathy Club at Mob’s school attempting to enlist him so that they won’t be abolished and lose their meeting room. If they don’t enlist another member – and Mob is their only potential candidate – the room will be given over to the Body Improvement Club, a gathering of musclebound jocks.

Anyone familiar with anime – or high-school settings in general – would probably expect the episode to end with Mob joining the good-hearted oddballs in the Telepathy Club, saving the day and protecting the club from the intrusive, probably bullying jocks. But… it doesn’t.

Throughout the episode, we see that the Telepathy Club is less a bunch of open-minded oddballs being picked on by the establishment, and more a bunch of slackers who hang out and eat junk food. At the end of the episode, he joins the Body Improvement Club instead, and it’s revealed that rather than arrogant bullies intruding on the club, the Body Improvement Club is actually made up of very nice, good-hearted guys who happily welcome a new member to their club.

Part of the reason that this works is that the episode doesn’t waste your time, as The Last Jedi does. It’s lean and well-written, with every scene ultimately serving a purpose in the narrative. Furthermore, when you get to the end, you can look back on everything that happened before, and realize, “Oh yeah, that makes sense now.”

But another way in which it succeeds in subverting your expectations is because those expectations are based on tropes and cliches, not in subverting the story progression up to that point. At no point does Mob Psycho 100‘s second episode try to overturn what has been previously established, as The Last Jedi and Game of Thrones did. So it doesn’t need to twist characters or waste build-up – all it needs to do is tell a familiar story from a different angle.

Here’s an example – take the Chekov’s Gun. In the first act, we focus on an antique rifle on a mantlepiece, and mention that it is the only weapon that can kill vampires. In a Rian Johnson movie, the third act would have someone irreparably break it, and toss it out like so much garbage. A waste of your time, and bad storytelling.

So the lesson is… avoid most media that “subverts your expectations,” and focus instead on stuff like Mob Psycho 100. Embrace media that wants to tell a good story first and foremost, and has expectation subversion as a natural and organic part of the process rather than an attempt to flip a table into the audience’s faces.

So… watch Mob Psycho 100. It’s really good.

Women and “The Thing From Another World”

The Thing From Another World is usually dismissed as the “original” version of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and considered to be an inferior adaptation of the original short story. After all, 1950s special effects were simply not up to the task of making a shapeshifting monster, and the direction of most 1950s movies cannot measure up to one of the greatest horror/sci-fi movies of all time.

But despite the carrot monster, I do think this is a good movie seen on its own merits. Not because the story is particularly interesting or unique as 1950s sci-fi goes, but because of the way its characters are presented.

Specifically, the female characters.

The 1950s weren’t the best time for female characters in movies. Not saying they were all bad, because the existence of this movie clearly shows that they weren’t. But there were some extremely misogynistic attitudes in many movies that went unchallenged. These weren’t even hateful in many cases – some of them were just people who couldn’t break out of their mindsets, like in Forbidden Planet or It: The Terror From Beyond Space.

So it’s worth noting that The Thing From Another World has a pretty egalitarian approach to its characters, and treats the women with an impressive level of respect. The most basic level is just the fact that they’re there at this scientific/military outpost, holding important positions. And at no point do they fetch coffee for the menfolk, on the assumption that men will turn to sea foam if they make their own food.

But that isn’t enough to really earn my respect. It’s more that the women and men interact casually as equals – the men don’t treat the women with the casual condescension often found in old movies. In fact, they banter and pal around with the female lead in the same way they would with a male character, including when she teases her male romantic partner.

Speaking of which, the romantic subplot is also refreshing. Rather than a macho hero sweeping a woman off her feet, the two have a cute backstory that involved him falling asleep during a date, and being kind of embarrassed by it, especially since she thinks it’s so funny. It feels much more organic and realistic, and less like a personal fantasy.

Furthermore, the women don’t end up as damsels. Despite the DVD cover, there are no screaming women in peril here… or at least, no more peril than the men are in. There is a woman threatened by the monster at one point, where she is forced to hide behind a flaming mattress, but she isn’t screaming and she actually chose to take this perilous position rather than being transparently corralled into it by the screenwriter so the men can save her.

So while The Thing From Another World isn’t a standout as old sci-fi goes, it does have some qualities that bring it above the herd. It can’t measure up to The Thing, but it’s still worth seeing.

Truly Great Acting – Christopher Lee

Here’s how to tell when you’re watching truly great acting.

Way back in ancient times, when The Lord of the Rings movies were in theaters, I went to see Fellowship of the Ring thirteen times. Thirteen. I saw it in the company of many different people, from screaming four-year-olds afraid of the Nazgul to my elderly grandmother, whose immersion was ruined by the presence of tomatoes.

Honestly, I think that that movie trilogy is probably the finest display of its actors’ talents; I’ve never seen a better performance from any of them. And one of the best displays of this came from the late, great Christopher Lee. I feel a bit sorry for him because apparently in his earlier days, he dreamed of playing Aragorn or Gandalf… and I’ll admit, in his youth he would have made an excellent Aragorn. Tall, kingly, imposing, et cetera.

But make no mistake – nobody else could have played Saruman as well as he did.

And I know this because not only did he look like Saruman, but he had the compelling, persuasive voice that the character is supposed to have.

This was evident from the audience at one of these screenings of the first movie, when he’s revealing his master plan to Gandalf. Some of the people in the audience started getting glassy-eyed and looking like they were thinking, “Yeah, that makes sense…” until the film snapped them out of it by reminding us that yes, he is evil and he’s in league with Sauron. He consistently had that effect on people, and it was amazing.

RIP, Mr. Lee.

The aliens of “Battleship”

The movie Battleship is bad. Very bad.

I could write a book on all the ways this movie is terrible, starting with the fact that it is essentially a Michael Bay movie without Michael Bay. Everything you hate about a Michael Bay movie is here – the destruction porn, the fetishization of the American military, the hot women that exist to be hot, the obnoxious lead character, the ludicrously dumb plot… it can go on forever.

I will be fair, however, and note that it is better than a Bay film in several ways. There is no racism on display, not much terrible comic relief, the obnoxious lead character is actually acknowledged as being an idiot and a perennial screwup, Rihanna is realistically de-glammed, and real military personnel are shown genuine respect rather than being treated as square-jawed macho dolls for Bay to make pew-pew noises with.

But in the many ways that this movie is bad, one thing really stuck out at me: the aliens.

Yes, instead of making some kind of period wartime story about depth charges or missiles, they decided to make it a science fiction story about a bizarre alien invasion. Again, I could write a sequence of essays about the many ways this is mishandled, but today I’m going to address the fact that the aliens are really bad.

A lot of this comes down to the design. If you’re going to have your aliens show up in scary-looking all-concealing armor and masks that hide them from sight, one of two things has to happen.

One, they have to remain armored and masked so that they seem more menacing.

Two, they have to be really well-designed. If you pull off that mask, people have to gasp in horror at what they are seeing, and marvel at just how alien and freaky the creature underneath looks.

Battleship… does neither.

The sad thing is that the alien armor is sufficiently menacing-looking that the aliens could have worked if they had just kept it on, maybe with some subtle glimpses of something weird peeking through the visor. The problem is, partway through the story, the Navy captures one of the aliens and pulls off its helmet.

And it looks… pretty bad. By “pretty bad,” I mean it’s wildly unimaginative – they basically took the overall look of a human, stuck some keratin spines on the chin, gave them catlike eyes, and tweaked the details just enough that they don’t look technically human. It’s a design that you’d expect to see in a subpar episode of Star Trek.

I don’t know about anyone else, but the sheer lack of imagination in their design really killed any sense of menace they had for me. All I could think was a sarcastic, “Oh no, the Earth is being invaded by goat people.” Even when we saw them striding around in their intimidating armor, I couldn’t stop seeing those terribly-designed goat people. There’s nothing about them that activates instincts of fear and revulsion.

And remember, this was a tentpole blockbuster. It had a budget of well over $200 million (which seems like way too much for a movie that doesn’t have a well-proven franchise or director behind it). I do not for a second believe that it didn’t have the money to spare to make something really bizarre and creative! I’m not talking about John Carpenter’s “Thing,” but throw on some nonhuman skin textures or a bunch of extra eyes or tentacles or something.