Category Archives: Crossposted

Hardcore Henry —a Guest Review from Bob Defendi

Howard here…

I couldn’t bring myself to see Hardcore Henry. I was too busy, and too stressed out, and this did not look like something that would make me in the least bit less anxious.

Fortunately for all of you, my friend Bob saw it. He started to tell me about it, and I said “stop! Write this down and let me steal it.”

That’s probably not how he’ll tell that story…


BobDefendi

My good friend Howard Tayler asked me to review Hardcore Henry for him, so this will be a crosspost between robertjdefendi.com, schlockmercenary.com, and curiosityquills.com. I’ll break it into two sections, the review and an analysis from a more writerly standpoint. The analysis will likely have more spoilers but just a few. Read the sections that are right for you.

The ReviewHardcoreHenry

Hardcore Henry is, without out doubt, the most terrible movie I’ve ever loved without reservation. It’s fast-paced. It’s a riot. It is a popcorn movie in it’s purest sense. Unless you see it in D-Box like I did, and then the seats will fling your popcorn onto the row in front of you. So be warned.

Hardcore Henry is, in essence, the twitch.tv stream of the virtual reality first person shooter that’s coming out in ten years or so. Told from the point of view of Henry, a mute protagonist who is brutally murdered during the opening credits (and I mean brutally), the movie begins with the cybernetic rebuilding of his body, the introduction of his wife, the attack of the antagonist, and a blast into the non-stop action of the film. This is a movie where every punch is a literal blow to the camera and every stunt is entirely from the point of view of the stuntman. It takes the criticisms of “shaky cam” movies (which I generally hate), embraces them and takes them out to dinner and dancing. It owns every glorious flaw.

And there are flaws. My my God, are their flaws. From interviews I’ve heard with Sharlto Copley (Powers, District 9), they embraced these flaws. If these interviews are correct, Copley saved this movie, because the filmmakers wanted to make a serious film, and Copley seemed to understand that if they tried to make a serious film, what they got would be terrible, but if terrible was their goal, then what they got might just be genius. So this movie embraces its warts. The villain is hackneyed and terrible and has inexplicable powers (because technology!). The conceit that explains Copley’s character is more the pretense of an explanation than an explanation itself, and the climax involves a solution that seems to be making fun of action movies, video games, and Legolas all at the same time.

And here we come to the caveat of the film. This was, for me, the second funniest movie of the year. I rarely laugh out loud at a film and I burst out laughing at least four or five times during Henry. However about half the jokes are totally straight plays of action tropes. The other half are video game tropes. If you don’t get into either of these, you will lose at least half the humor. If it’s video games you aren’t into, it’s probably more than half (the movie literally has a silent protagonist and at one points goes into full tooltip-style quest tutorial).

If these facts sound appealing to you, you will likely love this movie. If you didn’t understand half of that last paragraph, you might want to skip it. It aims at a certain few groups of viewers with a laser focus. It ignores the rest, and that’s okay. It’s pretty clear from the trailer that this movie knows what it is and makes no qualms about it.

But if you get motion sick, maybe watch it from the back half of the theater. Or take motion sickness pills before you go.

The Analysis

The genius of this film is its paradoxical two-fold stance. Most movies that approach this level of absurdity feel like they need to wink at the audience and prove that we are all in on the joke. Hardcore Henry embraces this absurdity, but it never wavers in its viewpoint. It never blinks. It play its tropes with a perfect poke face, and if I can mix metaphors, doubles down. Its rare you see a film display this amount of courage. It knows what it is, and it plays the entire thing entirely straight.

The first time I laughed out loud, Henry was trying to escape in underground tunnels, a subway I believe. He darts down a side tunnel only to see it filled with cops, looking for him. He turns and runs down another tunnel, and for the briefest moment you see not one, but two…two…women pushing baby carriages, blocking the way. Two. I burst out laughing at the movie’s own self aware ridiculous moment, but what won me in the scene is that the camera barely registers the two mothers. Henry takes them in and immediately Jackie Chan’s his way up the wall. I’m not sure if I was the only person laughing because I was the only person who got the joke, or if I was the only person who saw the joke. I really wonder how much I missed. That other viewers got.

Technically, this movie is very challenging. It is not natural for a stunt man to do the things he has to do in this movie as Henry. A stuntman enters a zen state to do his work. In one scene, a scene pointed out by Copley in interviews, the stuntman playing Henry doesn’t just get set on fire and have to hit his mark. He has to be set on fire. Then jump through a window. Then hit his mark. Then catch the appropriate images on camera on the other side. Then perfectly time turning back to catch the other two stuntmen also on fire. The stuntman part is probably old hat. The cameraman stuff is probably pretty old hat too. But doing them both at the same time? It’s like trying to chew and cry on camera, two mechanically exclusive actions that can happen naturally but are very difficult to manufacture at the same time.

And as for the special effects, I’m sure there’s some CGI cable replacement and non-stunt CGI, but the stunts themselves are spot on and live, and there’s a visceral power to knowing that you’re seeing what the man himself sees. The moment in the trailer where he drops a grenade in a van, speeding down the road, and the van explodes, hurling him into the air, and he lands perfectly on the back of a motorcycle? There’s no CGI in that. No cuts. That scene was filmed live and presented as is. They used a crane, sure, but how hard is that shot even with a crane? I can’t imagine getting it in just a few takes, and this movie was too low budget to afford a lot of tries. And that is mentioning all the stuff that’s just improved. “Hey, you think we can shoot a running chase scene right up the girders of that bridge?”

Usually I analyze plot and character. This movie has no plot and character. The plot and character are so bad that this almost has to be intentional. The villain’s final monologue is only one step above, “Evil plan, evil plan, this is my evil plan, mwah ha ha ha ha ha!” And it’s only that so they could play it straight. The movie hits a bare minimum of plot points and twists and then it moves on. It doesn’t pretend you’re there for anything else.

Hardcore Henry is a prime example of knowing your goals, making your promises, and then fulfilling them with the deftest hand you can manage.

And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it succeeds.

Force Multiplication almost ready to go to print…

Sandra and I have been grinding hard for the last week in order to get Force Multiplication out the door to the printer.

Cover Rough 0409-5-FRONT-thumbnailSaturday we¹ arrived at a final cover. Monday we got test prints, in color, for the whole book. Today? Well, today is spent fixing things².

Our goal is to send this to the printer on Friday. Pre-orders won’t open for at least 45 days, though. Be patient!


¹Me, Sandra, and K.B. Spangler, who drew some amazing circuitry for the cover texture.
²Including the cover.

 

Sunset Is a Pretty Word, But…

SunsetSansAppWhen I worked in the software industry a decade ago there was this lovely term we used when a particular product or code-base was being terminated. We called it “sunset,” and that lovely, red-orange noun with its purple shading would get verbed, and we’d say we were “sunsetting” something, because that’s so much nicer than “terminating.”

On to the point, then. The Schlock App for iOS and Android is being sunsetted, put out to pasture, end-of-lifed—pick your favorite word, there’s no truly nice way to describe this. Let’s talk about what it means, and why it’s happening.

The TL;DR

rssHere’s the short version of the rest of this post: we can’t afford to continue supporting the app. If you’re using the app, we recommend that you switch to an RSS app, and use that to consume the Schlock Mercenary RSS feed.

Why Sunset?

Ultimately it comes down to time and money.

In the early days the Schlock App was a labor of love, and Gary Henson’s passion for a clean interface gave thousands of Schlock fans an unparalleled reading experience. We were never able to successfully port that experience to Android, and as mobile devices matured, we became increasingly unable to comprehensively test the app on the wide range of devices where it might be run. Bugs proliferated.

And then, two weeks ago, I crashed the app by putting a frame in a blog post. Gary discovered that in order to identify the problem he would first need to update the entire app for iOS 9, which is only a very small step away from rewriting it, since it was originally coded for iOS 3. As last straws go, this was a hay bale, or perhaps a cord of firewood.

Gross revenue from the Schlock App has been about $2,000 per year, which is less than 10% of the total ad revenue generated by the comic. The time spent managing the Schlock App is twice, or three times the amount of time spent managing ads on the main site.

By that math alone, the Schlock App is a time sink that does not pay for itself. Consider, however, that the gross revenue is split between us and Gary. $1,000 per year comes out to far less than minimum wage for Gary.

I asked Gary what it would cost to re-code the app, assuming a fair hourly rate for his engineering services. Without divulging his rate, let’s just say that the app is nowhere near justifying that level of investment, and that’s not even taking into account the drudgery involved in rewriting 5-year-old code.

I can divulge that after shopping around other app studios we learned that an app coded natively for iOS and Android, portable across and tested against the most recent 3 years of devices and OS releases, and designed to read via a hybrid onboard/online cache of comics would cost between $80,000 and $250,000.

But, The App Is AMAZING!

It sure is.

Unfortunately we could not get people to support “amazing.” Less than 1% of Schlock Mercenary readers use the app, and less than half of the app users bought subscriptions. Ultimately we have to come to grips with the fact that in demographic terms, the app isn’t actually something the fanbase wants.

That’s kind of harsh, I know, and it will sound the harshest to that tiny¹ group of devotees who appreciate the Schlock app for what it is: the best way to consume a comic strip on your phone. No other app comes close.

Beyond the Schlock App

If you’ve been using the app, you may have noticed that we’ve turned off the subscriptions. We obviously won’t be taking money for something we’re not going to continue supporting.

We haven’t decided when we’ll be turning the Schlock App server off, but we’re 100% confident that the app server will not be running in 2017. It’s likely we’ll pull the plug this summer. Once the server is off, the app will no longer be able to pull down new comics, and it will instantly go from “unsupported” to “unusable.

There is a Schlock Mercenary RSS feed that you can consume on your mobile, and both iOS and Android users have a wide range of RSS reader apps available to them. Here’s a short list²:

iOS

  • Free RSS Reader
  • Feedly
  • Newsify
  • Byline
  • Feeddler

Android

  • Feedly
  • Flipboard
  • Newstand
  • Press
  • Digg

The new Schlock Mercenary website is much better than the old site for mobile users. It’s not as lovely as the app, but frankly, nothing is.

At the end of all this, the one bright piece is that Schlock Mercenary itself is here to stay. Apps, browsers, and operating systems come and go, but with each sunrise³ there will be another Schlock Mercenary strip.

AppSunset


 

¹Tiny is relative. At its most popular, the app had 500 paying subscribers. Today there are half that many. A group of 279 is an impressively large number at a wedding banquet, but is tiny when compared to 100,000 monthly readers.

² I have not provided links to these because I would prefer to not to be the one who vets the software you’re putting on your handbrain. If you use a mobile device, you probably already have a standard by which you decide what to install.

³ If the sun stops coming up,⁴  our plans will change. 

⁴ Contrary to popular opinion, I cannot stop the sun from coming up by ceasing to update Schlock Mercenary. If I had that kind of power, rest assured, we’d still have a Schlock app, and I’d have a great many things besides.

 

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

This review can be summed up by giving it a different title.

Batman vs Superman: It’s Not as Bad as All That, But Please Can We Have Some Color?

BatmanVsSuperman-color
Original movie poster on the left, saturation-adjusted poster on the right

Here are some selling points, although based on the film’s domestic gross, Time/Warner/DC does not need my help selling the movie to an English-speaking audience:

  • Very long, but not boring
  • Luxuriously paced, and every scene matters
  • Very good performances from the principals
  • Great soundtrack
  • Solid story
  • Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is delightful
    • Maybe—maybe—even perfect

The biggest downer is the absence of color. It’s like Metropolis, Gotham, and DC are all perpetually overcast. Even indoors. There are a few scenes that feel like they could have been set in our world, like an early scene in the Indian Ocean that had the blazing cerulean, teal, and green colors we associate with the tropics, but for the most part everything was muted to the point of being largely desaturated.

Here are a couple of examples:

The Daily Planet - original still above, saturation boost below
The Daily Planet – original still above, saturation boost below
Is it sad that the crowd hates him? Yes. Can he be both colorful AND sad? Also yes.
Is it sad that the crowd hates him? Yes. Can he still be colorful and sad? Also yes.

I’m reminded of a line from Trumbo, in which the titular character says “if every scene is brilliant, your movie will be boring.” By the same token, if every scene is bleak, we lose the sense of what “bleak” means. Yes, it’s pretty dark when a genuinely nefarious plot results in two powerful men with genuinely good intentions attempting to kill one another. But for that to really leach hope from us, there needs to be some color beforehand, a visual representation of the hope that is drained as the plot unfolds. And if we’re going to stand up and cheer at some point, if there’s going to be triumph—even one coming at significant cost—the color should flow back into the film.

VideoLab said this pretty well already when they gave us some Man of Steel shots with the color restored. Their conclusion: “Superman should fly in blue skies, not grey.” I agree.

Does the film have problems besides color? Oh, absolutely! Other critics have explored a great many of these in detail. All I have to say here¹ is that most of those didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the film. They may have prevented it from clearing the Threshold of Awesome (on the “fun” scale it’s very middle-ground) but, for me at least, they didn’t drag it across the Threshold of Disappointment and into the abyss.


 

¹Okay, not quite all. There’s a moment of absolute Bechdel failure² in which the film’s two dominant women—Wonder Woman and Lois Lane—don’t even speak. They just share a look, and yes, it’s totally about a man. And it’s their only communication in the film.

²Bechdel failure is not automatic film failure for me, but it’s a solid indicator of something being deeply wrong.