Terminate With Extreme Prejudice

Putting Grace Into Grease: Greasy Space Monkeys

One of my favorite webcomics is Greasy Space Monkeys, by Reine Brand, with the help of her mysterious editor Mark Kestler (who may be a robot or AI program, but who I hope is a human).

The premise – our Big Damn Heroes, Nathan and Caspar, are actually under-appreciated maintenance workers on a run-down space station – looks like it will make for some nice low-maintenance throw-away humour, but not for sophistication, satire, emotion, eloquence, or superb storytelling. Guess what?

It is true that there are many one-off jokes that are not the most graceful, and often even outright gross.

But many jokes are on the theme of robots vs. humans, and those are connected, and even quite deep, sometimes.

There’s also something for the aficionados of fighting in space, and it’s done with wonderful visuals, which is all the more astonishing given the strip style format of the comic.

And there’s also some romantic tension to be found, which is, IMHO, done so well that I’m dead serious in calling Greasy Space Monkeys my favorite romantic comedy.

But the most awesome thing about this comic is that there are several storylines, of different length, often intertwined, and typically also with tie-ins from the trow-away jokes.

But before I discuss these storylines, I admonish you to check out and read Greasy Space Monkeys first, because there will be spoilers.

Now, if you are back, or if you don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss (that’s what the comments are for, duh).


Kingsman – More Badass Than Bond?

Note: This is another post where I don’t mention webcomics, but talk about a movie; but at least, it’s a movie based on a graphic novel: Kingsman.

Of course, I’m not writing a review in the classical sense. If the word praise doesn’t betray my reluctance to highlight flaws and problems, and the word provocative doesn’t betray my unwillingness to restrain myself from deriving lessons about storytelling in general rather than focusing on the item under review, then the word scrutinizing should make it clear that I will discuss the movie in depth without regard to spoilers, and with the expectation that the reader has watched the movie to know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I went to see the movie last Friday, expecting it, informed by the trailer, to be dramatic, violent, actionesque (I just made that word up, I believe), irreverent, and amusing. Without doubt, it is all of this.

I was skeptical, however, about the claim that it is more badass than Bond. In my humble opinion, it really delivers on that promise.

I didn’t expect it to become an object of my most diligent scrutiny. Turns out, it is an example for superb storytelling.

All of this doesn’t mean that Kingsman is indisputably an exceptionally good movie, or in fact better than Bond. What superb storytelling really means that the story as given was carefully constructed and very well executed, and everybody involved did a great job.

In other words, I don’t claim that it is an extremely good story. What I’m trying to convey here is that the story, whatever its merit, was told exceptionally well.

Now, you could certainly argue that the fight choreography (and maybe even some dialog) was artificial, the violence gratuitous, and villain’s plan overblown, and the whole premise unrealistic. Just like you could argue that Swan Lake is artificial, Hamlet is full of gratuitous violence, the world-building of The Pirates Of either Penceance or The Caribbean is overblown, and Mozart was an idiot because it is totally unrealistic that a man would start singing a duet with his rival who just pronounced the supposed infidelity of his lover.

I seek to understand any story on its own terms, within the form it’s been molded in, and to look for cohesion, for internal consistency, rather than chasing after the flimsiness of realism or verisimilitude. Let’s see what we will find out.

As always, you are invited to chime in with your thoughts on the matter in the comments.

But since the most important issues cannot be discussed without MAJOR SPOILERS, you may want to go see the movie first, or steel yourself to bear them with composure, before you continue … (Also, make sure you are okay with a candid discussion of violence in fiction, because …)


Terminate With Extreme Prejudice

What better way to start off the new year – yes, I know, belatedly – for this blog than by talking about things that end satisfactory? (Also a good time to drop the Start every post title with a gerund shtick.)

More specifically, by explaining how novels and movies that stick the landing are great, and those that don’t are rather disappointing. Of course, I’m not talking about the Happy End. Neither is my point “All’s well that ends well“. I’ll talk about novels and movies that fulfill the promises they make. (I will not talk about webcomics in this post. That’s not because I ran out of material. Truth to be told, there’s so much great stuff out there that I don’t even know where to start and where to end. And after every single post I wrote about webcomics, there came an update that made me think “Why didn’t I got to include this wonderful example?” So I will continue writing about them in forthcoming posts.)

If a movie disappoints me, it is typically because of one of two specific failure modes: Either the movie is entirely different from what I expected, or the movies ends rather different from what I expected based on the build-up of the story during the beginning and the middle. If I know beforehand that the movie – or some part of it – is bad, and watch it anyway, I may experience discomfort, but it would be wrong to call it disappointment.

The first failure mode can only happen when I watch a movie cold, without reading up stuff and watching more than one trailer. I won’t give examples, but rather a counterexample: I was not disappointed after watching Prometheus, because I already had been fully aware of the problems with the plot and the characterisation, and I went to see it for the cool visuals only.

The second failure mode happens more often. Typically, the issue is not that the movie was outright terrible, but that it could have been much better.

One example of this is the movie InTime, a science fiction – though I would call that kind of story fantasy – story about a world where people have to buy additional lifetime, time is literally money, and will drop down dead when their clock is down. The plot is about a man and his girlfriend fighting the system, so it could be called a Bonnie & Clyde story. Since a the beginning of the movie the hero’s mother dies in his arms just a second before he could load up her clock, the dramatic end could mirror that by either him or his girlfriend dying in the other’s arms. Or, true to B&C, the end could leave them both dead.  Another possible ending for an against-the-system plot is the open end, the Bolivian Army Standoff, where the cut comes before we see either the final confrontation or the budding revolution, and are left to wonder how it will work out. What does not work for such a story is a cheesy Happy End. Unfortunately, that’s what the movie makers used. The movie was still quite good, IMHO, but not nearly as good as it could have been. (To be perfectly frank, I don’t think that the movies’ premise could have supported a really great movie.)

If a story mixes different genres, styles or themes, a really great ending depends on a good mixture during the third act (in a movie, that’s roughly the last quarter). The dominant genre, style or theme for the third act needs to be chosen correctly. Thrillers and action movies are prominent examples of this. In my opinion the best ones are those that mix the thrills and / or the action with some deeper questions:

  • The Silence Of The Lambs mixes police procedural thriller with psychological drama / horror
  • The Matrix mixes action / sci fi with philosophical exploration

Each of these is a fine example of excellent mixing, throughout and at the end of the story.

Ok, any discussion of how a story ends will have SPOILERS, so make sure you have no reason to mind before you continue …