Sunday, June 28, 2009

Book Review: Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism

Recently, I ordered Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism from Amazon, and have just now finished the last page. There are many elements which make Joseph Laycock's look at the vampiric subculture both fascinating and impressive. It can be said - accurately, I would add - that the work is educational without being dull, entertaining without being exploitative, funny without being insulting, and honest without being biased.

It is the work's impartiality that I find most impressive. Years ago, I studied religion back in Hampshire College (along with Joseph Laycock, by the way, which gets us past the requisite "interest of full disclosure" acknowledgement). While it was easy to find resources about large, organized religions, the only information about smaller movements tended to be produced by practitioners themselves. Trying to locate unbiased information about the Neo-Pagan movement, for instance, was an exercise in frustration: anything I found online was suspect by it's very nature.

"Vampires Today" was written for scholars of religion and cultural trends who are writing and approaching those who identify as vampires. Laycock provides a careful appraisal of the community, revealing, among other things, that these are not frightening people. Despite some very entertaining warnings, Laycock describes his interactions as being relatively mundane; certainly no more unusual than one would expect from other groups outside the mainstream.

The central point of the book is that the Vampire Movement cannot be understood as a religion, at all, but rather a culturally significant identity. Laycock's arguments are direct and rational, and his conclusions are highly convincing.

Laycock's exploration delves into the subcultures, organizations, and religions of the "real vampire," as well as their portrayal in the media. Laycock refuses to speculate on the validity of the vampires' claims: like any good scholar, he is observing, not judging.

While the book seems to have been written for academics, it has far greater appeal. Judging by the movement's positive reaction, it seems likely that many in the vampire community will purchase "Vampires Today." In addition, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the supernatural and history of the occult movement.

But, more than anyone else, this book needs to find its way into the hands of the myriad confused and depressed teenagers all over the world. New religious and cultural movements suffer from a lack of impartial literature, and, as a result, it's difficult to gain any perspective or realistic appraisal. Right now, there are unknown numbers of Twilight fans who are toying with the idea of adopting the label "vampire." This book provides a window into that world, along with a summary of vampire literature, film, and role playing games, which could provide an invaluable resource to those trying to define themselves. And, whatever choice they make, they'd be better prepared for what they would find.

Likewise, if you are a football player looking to elevate and better direct your insults against the goths you're giving wedgies; there is no better resource available. Truly, this is a work with wide appeal.

Whoever you are, if you are interested in the vampire subculture in any capacity, Laycock's book is a far better place to start than Google.

Joseph Laycock is an "independent scholar" and a graduate of Harvard University. He is not a vampire himself, however I can confirm that, during a long running Dungeons & Dragons game I ran, he once played a wizard who became a vampire.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Movie Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

In its first day of release, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" managed to make more than sixty million dollars, all the while receiving a Tomatometer in the low twenties. The success, I think, is mainly owed to the fact that no major movies have been released in almost a month.

It is easy to dismiss it as merely a "bad" movie, as all but a slim minority of critics have done, but such a description is an incomplete picture. The movie is strange cocktail of awesome and awful. It is a flawed gift to geeks, but a gift nonetheless.

First, know that this is less a movie than a string of disparate moments and disjointed ideas. I would say that at least half the characters have plot arcs or situations which are never resolved. I could easily make a list of characters whose fates were never explained. I fear it would be a long list.

And yet, there are advantages to this format. The good parts - and there are several - are able to stand on their own, unencumbered by context.

Beware, though, that like Autobots and Decepticons, every good aspect is mirrored by a negative.

It is not my intention to spoil this movie for those who've yet to see it, but I cannot go on without provide some specifics. I shall try to be ambiguous where possible, but those wishing to avoid all detail should consider themselves warned.

The movie shines brightest during two fight sequences: one starring Optimus Prime; the other, Bumble Bee. These moments, while brief, raise the bar on action.

Unfortunately, most of the remaining action suffers from the same confused jumble of motion that hindered the first. There are many times where it is simply impossible to tell what is happening or even who it's happening to.

There are some brilliant characters, among them Jetfire, who is impossible to dislike. For this, the price is painfully high: we must endure "The Twins." It is difficult to explain these to one who's yet to experience them: imagine if Jar Jar Binks had a brother and they spent a movie bickering.

To the extent that the movie works, it does so as something of an unintentional parody. The sheer levels of cliche and melodrama are off any mathematical model developed to measure such phenomena. Even the Shatner Scale can't contain it. Yet this allows the movie to function as a comedy. Likewise, the reoccurring montages of military preparation open the door to numerous possible drinking games: this is a movie whose potential has yet to be realized.

The plot of "Revenge of the Fallen" tends to devolve into something of a video game, where obstacles drop randomly between characters and their arbitrary objectives. But it's impossible to take such things seriously: there's too much fun to be had. There are robots here which could have carried a movie of their own; who cares if the main villains are less inspired?

Before I finish, I do have one final ax to grind with the first few minutes. Optimus Prime is a hero and a warrior, who deserves better than to be portrayed coldly executing a helpless foe. I'll dwell no longer on this here.

On the "Chronicles of Riddick" scale, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is deserving of two and a half stars. Keep in mind that this is something of an average, however: there are scenes far more deserving.

This is not a good movie; indeed, it's hardly a movie at all. But, if you've already seen Star Trek, there are more than enough cool moments here to recommend it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Listen Up

I expect most readers of The Middle Room will have seen this already, but, in case you missed it, Gabriel McKee, geek prophet, was recently interviewed on "Listen Up," a Canadian program about religion:

I particularly like the part where Gabe is asked to expand on the possibility of using a time machine to visit Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Future Market 2009, Part IV: The End of Summer

The Middle Room approaches summer... differently. Here, speculation and prediction are key. As such, I make it a point to offer some reflection on upcoming films, how I expect them to be received, and what sort of critical response is required for me to pay the price of admission.

This is, as the title implies, the fourth and final part of a series. You can find the first three here, here, and here.

July 24: G-Force
Estimated Tomatometer: 45%
Minimum Tomatometer: 85%
Okay, technically this movie should have been considered in the previous installment. In fact, for a time it was going to be. But then I saw the trailer once more, and deleted it. What's happened since? Well, I saw a slightly different trailer; one in which a guinea pig threatened to tear off a young girl's finger. Suddenly, a glimmer of hope emerged, that this could be... the one.

"The one what?" you may ask. Very well. I will explain. Every few years a movie comes out in which animals are implanted into a world of espionage. I've toyed with the idea myself, in fact.

The problem, however, is that no director has been willing to take these ideas seriously. Such films have always descended into comic relief and slapstick. I want to see a film in which rodent secret agents are handled like they're in an action movie. I want to see them infiltrate, investigate, and - preferably - kill those who seek to do evil. Based on the trailers, I estimate there is less than a ten percent chance this will be that movie. In fact, the reviews make the movie look absolutely horrible.

But this is a Disney movie, and while that once meant less than nothing, they've recently produced some exceptional live-action pictures which have blended genres in unexpected ways. I refer primarily to Sky High and Enchanted, two movies which also looked awful from their trailers. This isn't meant to raise expectations, but rather to point out that there is, in fact, hope.

August 7: GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Estimated Tomatometer: 50%
Minimum Tomatometer: 35%
There are movies I expect to be good, movies I expect to be bad, and then there are movies I expect to reject such simplistic labels. This, I hope, will be the third.

After the success of the Transformers, it was inevitable that Hasbro would look to turn their other 80's animated program into a franchise. To do this, they enlisted Stephen Sommers, who I consider entirely appropriate.

While it may be less than accurate to call Sommers a brilliant director, he is something of a specialist with an instinct for adventure. While Van Helsing was a rather large disappointment, the first two Mummy films and Deep Rising are fantastic examples of popcorn film making. Personally, I want nothing more from GI Joe.

The first Mummy movie received a score of 50% on the Tomatometer. This is most likely a good indicator for how movie critics respond to his brand of zany adventure.

August 14: District 9
Estimated Tomatometer: 94%
Minimum Tomatometer: 85%
I've known about this movie for a while now. The premise was certainly intriguing enough, as was the viral marketing campaign. But I had very little interest in the movie, itself. That is, at least, until I caught a trailer. As the preview played out, a single thought emerged: "My God... they made this movie." When I reviewed Watchmen, I observed that, at the very least, it had succeeded in making superheroes feel like they existed. The preview for District 9 makes aliens real and places them in the real world. Nothing feels like fantasy or fiction: nothing.

If I'm wrong about this movie, it will readily become apparent. But, if I'm right, this film may prove to be stronger than expected.

August 21: Inglorious Basterds
Estimated Tomatometer: 80%
Minimum Tomatometer: 90%
Ultimately, I find this less intriguing than Kill Bill. There is an expectation that Tarantino's audience is somewhat constant, that those who have seen his past movies will feel the same about his upcoming pictures.

While I respect him as a director, I find the war movie a less enticing genre. If this turns out to be a masterwork, I may relent. Really though, my decision to see this movie will be based more on the reaction of friends than anything else.

September 9: 9
Estimated Tomatometer: 78%
Minimum Tomatometer: 40%
There are few trailers which have caught my attention as quickly and effectively as the one for 9. This post-apocalyptic fairytale looks absolutely stunning, and, on the heels of Coraline and Up, makes me wonder if there could be real competition at the Oscars this year.

And that concludes the list. Of course, there will almost certainly be at least one movie that I don't know about that gets released and demands my money. Last year, it was Tropic Thunder. We'll see what surprises the summer holds....