Thursday, April 28, 2016

My Thoughts on "Mad Max: Fury Road"

            Another of the movies of 2015 I did not think I would have the spirit in me to actually review but I found the resolve.  Though most of this is not a review but a deconstruction of the movie….


            “Mad Max: Fury Road” is the most visually interesting film that came out last year.  Every vehicle, costume, and location shot oozes with visual personality.  It won basically all the Oscars related to visuals and sound and deserved to do so.  Its tone is consistent, its action primarily made of real people doing real stunts with computer effects used to ramp up the splendor instead of replacing it.
            The world is imaginative with a sort of fantasy logic applied to a post apocalypse allowing for plenty of mental flow, the evil king in the tower with the captured princesses must be saved by the knight (Furiosa), the ranger (Max), and the soldier (Nux).  I don’t know how but the movie manages to stay grounded even while the reality of it is heightened.  It is a good movie that I think lots of people should watch and appreciate.

            With that all in mind I am going to write something that will make me sound like a loon.  Maybe I should consider it part of a series of social commentary blogs along with the “Ghost in the Shell” one from earlier this week.  Either way, go see the movie first because SPOILERS beyond this point.

You know, I have seen “Mad Max:Fury Road” described as a feminist movie, but I actually find problems with that.
The main villain, Immortan Joe has founded a religion, has a functioning stronghold, produces enough food and water to commoditize them with the other surrounding city-states of Gas Town and the Bullet Farm, and clearly has some technical knowledge evidenced by how much machinery he has lashed together to make a working civilization in the middle of a desert.  Most of which appears to be muscle powered by lots and lots of people working the gears by walking on them.
Joe ostensibly operates on a meritocracy based system (outside of his own sons being given preferential treatment), as his second in command is a handicapped woman whose leadership is not questioned or commented upon (her gender is never commented on).  A woman with one arm was taught by someone to drive and fight and rose to a position of honor and authority in his military.  That can’t even happen in our society.

Though our society doesn't have such sweet cyborg parts either.
By contrast the god guys of the movie, the Motor Grandmas were unable to maintain the green environment they started with, and aside from a satchel of seeds have no resources of value.  The grannies make a living baiting and robbing people in the desert.  They build and contribute jack all to the world and actively take from others who have something to take.
And while Joe is sexist in many ways (not the least of which being keeping a god-damn harem) the Grandmas are also sexist.  When one of the brides worries that they will give birth to another warlord, rather than saying something like, "he or she will grow to be who you raise it to be" the grandma instead says, "Maybe it will be a girl".  I don’t know why that character automatically assigns such motives to a gender, but there it is.  No background about their menfolk abusing them, or causing the issues that destroyed the green place, no story about the loss of the men of their culture in a war.  They just say it and it hangs there in the air.
Ultimately the Grandma’s plan is to drive off in a random direction in hopes of finding something before running out of food.  They have no armies, no fortress, no food, no water, and no goals.  If it were not for the titular Mad Max they the story would have ended on that ambiguous (but certainly downer) note.  Instead Max’s idea is, “Why don’t we just slip in and usurp Joe’s ruler ship?”

"So the plan is to NOT wander off in a random direction till dead?  Could that work?"
They succeed in taking over what can only be described as post-apocalyptic Castle Grey Skull.  But there is something important at the end: these people have no idea what they are doing.  The movie shows them giving away the one resource they have a monopoly on and destabilizing the economy the whole thing was built on.  Water and food is what they have, and having murdered (rightfully in self-defense) the leaders of Gas Town and the Bullet Farm, and blocking out all of the best troops, weapons, and vehicles they have no way of holding onto what they have.

Joe could have definitely worked on a better way of distributing it to the masses.
They now have nothing to sell or barter with as they are now just giving it away.  And having killed what is effectively the War Pope of the wasteland they have no ability to keep the army fighting on their side.
 Joe was an asshole who kept slaves for his own enjoyment, but he was also a nation builder.  His designs had much more long term promise at rebuilding humanity as a species than the grandmas' governance promises.  Is that the point?  To end on a note of, “maybe it will all work out?”  It is undoubtedly happy, the bad guy is dead and his evil minions are scattered in hostile territory but this is not a substantive or long term victory.  There is no clear, “Men bad women good” message and there isn’t any, “men and women equal” message either.
I got this fresh perspective from a discussion of another post-apocalypse, water is important, and conventional morality applies less in these instances: the “Fallout” franchise.  In “Fallout” there is an evil organization called the Enclave and… Asshole has a point.  This video goes into greater depth, but overall it made me question “Fury Road” because of the settings.

And on a related note, but separate from my themes discussion: where does Max think he is going to go at the end of the movie?  He has no car, just gave a lot of blood, and he just walks off into the amassed throng of peasants.  Max, buddy, you should maybe at least take one of the motorcycles and a side car full of guns and water before you go.
(I actually got a “Conan: The Barbarian” vibe off the ending, like the wizard Mako starts narrating, “In time, Conan--- Max, I meant Max.  In time, Max would become a king by his own hand, this story shall also be told…”  Which is fine, I like that movie.)

 
Somehow, no fan art exists of Max sitting on a throne looking bored.  Get on that internet.
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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

1,000,000 Words, Year 3

            Three years ago today I started a personal project to write 1,000,000 words.  This was inspired by the adage that, “the first 1,000,000 words is practice”.  Since that time I have logged movie reviews, half-finished novels, random bullshit, and lots of grad school assignments.  I have thru this time kept a log of how many I have written.  Starting at first with a goal of 500 words each day, under the reasoning that some professional authors write as much as 1,800 words each day.  That was optimistic in the extreme.

            I quickly fell behind and even as I banged out huge assignments at school and tried to write down something about more and more of the shows I watched less and less stuff interested me as targets and I personally felt less creative in a lot of ways.

            My first year doing this I logged 139,441 words.  This doesn’t include facebook statuses, tweets, or comments in forums (unless I later turn those into blog entries).  It is work that I either put out into the world to be evaluated via school and this blog, or it was work that I wanted to one day put out in a grander form to be evaluated.  This worked out to 382 words each day.  Close to the 400 words a day I have seen recommended by Neil Gaiman an author whose work I hold in great esteem.

            In the second year I kept up the pace for the most part.  134,511 words.  Much of which came from a single massive assignment to complete my first Master’s degree.  A lot more math was required at this point, with hours of time spent hammering out projections and breakdowns as part of a political evaluation for my degree.  Writing was less a priority and less a part of my day to day functions.  Overall this was a step down, but was still in the same range of 368 words each day.

            This last year has been less a step down and more of a ladder down.  I didn’t feel nearly as creative; most of my school work was doing basic learning in a foreign language or using mathematics, mapping, and design tools; and even the yearly movie reviews I typically do just to drive up my word count… I didn’t feel the drive to put them out there as most of the movies I saw last year fell into the very grey middle for me and hardly required comment (though there have so far been two exceptions).  I was and still kind of am mentally burnt out.  I only wrote 46,886 words in the last year.  A third of what I have done in the past.  128.5 words each day… Except that is wrong, it was only 128.1 because I have to include a leap day.  This is only the 5th blog I have written in 2016 and it is April.

            Now that isn’t the whole story, I have been writing more in forums, discussion sections, and comments on various websites so that lets out a lot of ideas before they have fully developed.  Maybe those pasts are letting out too much creative energy and I should give up on that talkative aspect of my online self.  Maybe those posts are good enough to consider as real writing effort and I should start counting longer or more in depth posts toward my log.  I will probably compromise and start turning more of them into blogs, the one from yesterday is an example of that.

I have also stopped counting the fiction I write until it is finished, which means that a dozen chapters of a novel that will never get done, those thousands of words go nowhere.  I have also not been sharing or measuring stuff for when I write a setting for Dungeons and Dragons, which can translate to thousands of words.  Maybe I should start putting out lots of stuff related to my Dungeons and Dragons imaginings.  Perhaps my actual word count is not as bad as I think.

            It is not like the exercise is not doing its job.  My writing is much better than it was.  I rarely need a second draft, and aside from the numerous typos I feel that my thoughts are coming thru in clear waves to those who read my stuff.  Heck, before I started logging my word count I was blogging in the note section of my facebook in a deliberate effort just to hammer out more words for fear that I would be too glib for success in graduate school (some of those old entries are on here, upgraded a small amount, artifacts when I only wrote about comic book characters).

            Oh, for the halcyon days when a 1,345 word blog about Black Panther was the longest I had ever written.  Compare that to the 6 part epic I did on the Florida Legislature and the need for a new Parliamentary system to combat Gerrymandering.  Or if you want to stick to comics the 8 part series I did on just making up 3 different teams of DC superheroes to be Justice Leagues.

            What I am saying is, I have most definitely met goals of improving both the verbosity and virtue of my writing.  Though I am sure many of my Professors remain unimpressed.

            I do hope that in the future I get a job that requires regular writing as part of the job’s function.  I feel that prodding is important, and being paid for writing is the right sort of positive association that will keep me writing recreationally.  And maybe this next year I will be able to push myself to write something with enough substance that even if it is not great in volume it will be greater in quality.

            For now I will just have to keep writing.  And get thru this patch.

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Whitewashing and "Ghost in the Shell"

This will be a fun topic.

 I am a big fan of the Japanese animated series called “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” a series I have mentioned before in this blog though in a very different context.  The show is set in Japan, decades from now in a dystopian cyber punk future in which people have so augmented themselves with robotic parts and computerized thought processes that the ability to hack into the minds of others and alter their memories and perceptions has caused many to question what it is to be human.  It has a lot of action, with battles between futuristic tanks, cyborgs, and terrorists, but punctuated by deep discussions on what the nature of intelligence, individuality, reality, and the number “0”.  It is one of my favorite shows.
 
The woman with the Purple hair is the source of this blog.
They are making a movie starring Scarlett Johansson, the biggest female action star in film currently as the main character.  And this has caused some controversy because the main character is a Japanese woman, and Scarlett is not.  To be fair, in the context of “Ghost in the Shell” the main character is actually a cyborg, with only her brain as the biological part of her and she could function in the body of a white woman, a black man, or an Asian person of ambiguous gender.  The fluidity of self is a part of the show.

However, there are not a lot of opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood to star in a big budget science fiction action film, and considering the setting and origin of the story, to have a movie that could be the break out role for a young Japanese actress and cast of Japanese actors to instead go to a star that is already huge seems to be a problem that I can understand and appreciate.

I do find it strange that a movie set in Japan about Japanese characters is being cast with white actors, but I also know that cannot really be avoided.  Max Landis, who at this point seems to be more a person who complains about the movie industry rather than functioning as a writer in that industry spelled out in his vlog how important having a star in this kind of movie is.  And what he is saying makes sense.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, you need a star, there are no Asian stars, you don’t use an Asian star in the movie, there continues to be no Asian stars because no one will take a risk on trying to make one.

I would propose a compromise, it would be prudent to do what they did with "Edge of Tomorrow".  Localize the material by changing names and locations.  “Edge of Tomorrow” was originally a Japanese novel called “All you need is Kill” (the stupidest name ever) and they changed the setting from Asia to Europe, the star is now an older white movie star rather than a young Japanese man, and (I say this having read the book) the story is far more coherent and streamlined (though still not perfect by any stretch).  For “Ghost in the Shell” make Tokyo into San Francisco, Kusanagi becomes Kathrine, and Section 9 becomes Section 9 because somethings don't need to be localized.

And if they did localize the property they could also Americanize some of the designs rather than slaving themselves to remaking those found in the original property which often times scream of being overly sleek and stylized.
The story of "What is human in a world of cybernetic augmentation and robotics" is not a new one (I have talked about "Bladerunner" in this blog before, and “The Matrix” too for that matter). Saying that the story is somehow inherently Japanese and incapable of being adapted in such a way is meaningless. I've seen all of "GitS: SAC" and the idea of government officials being manipulated by a pharmaceutical company for massive profits at the expense of people's health is a pretty universal story in the US too.

I would go further to point out that Japan has adapted American stories like Spiderman to suit their needs in the past, and we have done the same with Sentai in the form of Power Rangers.  Many anime are based in Europe (or Europe-esc areas) like "Fullmetal Alchemist" and "Attack on Titan" and Japan has cast Japanese actors in their live action adaptations of these movies. This sort of racial compromise is seen as necessary because there are not a lot of white people in Japan for them to make the movie with, just as there are not a lot of Japanese actors in the US to make movies set entirely in Japan.

This actor portrays a guy named Eren Yeager.  Cause I guess he was the most German looking person to show up at casting.
I suppose the industry could compromise and cast "Asian" actors in the various roles, most people in the US wouldn't notice the difference between someone who is Korean or Chinese playing a Japanese person, but those who do would find it offensive I am sure.  This has happened in the past (though I didn’t notice until told) with John Cho, a South Korean actor being cast a Lt. Sulu in the new “Star Trek” reboot, replacing George Takei, a Japanese actor.  But then Takei voiced a Japanese man in “Mulan” a movie that used many different actors of different races to play parts in China.

But, maybe they are doing the worst possible compromise, but keeping the setting and the names and just using white actors, which is white washing, even if there is a canonical explanation as to why a Japanese brain could be in a white looking body.  If they use a white actor to play a character that has in all previous instances has been Japanese, this echoes a practice of casting white actors in roles where they portrayed minority characters, though in those past instances it was done without class and is frequently the blemish that keeps movies of the past from holding a place in the modern cultural lexicon, for instance when John Wayne played Genghis Khan. In general studios should avoid such practices when adapting properties by taking care with adaptation and casting decisions.
 
Yeesh!

Let’s talk about a movie that has done the opposite of this and cast a black actor in a traditionally white role: Idris Elba played Heimdal in Marvel’s “Thor” Franchise.  Heimdall was described as “the whitest” in Norse mythology, a mythology that is entirely composed of white gods, for a white people.  The stories were adapted by a white artist/author (Jack Kirby) for an overwhelmingly white comic industry to sell to a white audience.  He is played by Idris Elba, who if you are unaware, black guy.  So why am I so okay with this?  A number of reasons.

In the Marvel Universe the Asgardians are aliens that inspired the Norse myths.  In my mind (as in this is my explanation, feel free to ignore it, but I think it works pretty well)… In my mind the Norse people saw the Asgardians, saw them as gods, and as the legends of them passed into myth people started to re-write the legends to better suit how they wanted them to be.  In the Marvel cinematic universe, the Norse people white washed Heimdall to be a white person so that they could feel that they could claim to more closely resemble their gods.

And let's also be clear, having a cast that looks like the international audience they are trying to attract is helpful to recoup all that money they spent on special effects.
 In the real world, the Norse gods are not real.  They are stories and we as the story tellers are free to picture these fictional people as however we want.  As aliens, as gods, as people who did exist and have since been elevated to godhood in myth (like how Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires).  BUT, “Ghost in the Shell” is not about aliens or gods, it is about Japan.  It is about people who look a certain way and live in a certain place.  If you want to take the thematic trappings of that story and put them in another setting with people who look different in a different place that makes sense.  But to put a white person in a story where she is Japanese is downright silly.

Cyborg or no, watching Scarlett tear her own arms off trying to break into and disable a tank would be a rather interesting thing to see.
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Thursday, March 31, 2016

My thoughts on "Avengers: Age of Ultron"

            A whole that is not as great as the sum of its parts.  Really ironic all things considered.  Much like my issues with “The Amazing Spiderman 2” this seems more like multiple scripts put together as there is stuff that just does not have to be in there.  Since this is one of the most watched movies of the year and came out months and months ago I feel comfortable talking about numerous issues at once and will be moving between them freely, kind of like how I reviewed “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (which also had a robot apocalypse as its plot… and it’s sequel will have an Apocalypse apocalypse).  There are SPOILERS thru out this review and that cannot be avoided.
            Why is Ultron Magneto?  In the comics Magneto has three children: a green haired woman with magnet powers, Polaris; a silver haired guy with super speed, Quicksilver (Pietro); and a red headed magic user, Scarlet Witch (Wanda).  In the comics all of Magneto’s children realize that he is dangerous and join superhero teams to thwart him, Polaris joins the X-Men while Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch join the Avengers.  In this movie, Ultron talks frequently about evolution, humanity’s need to change, and talks to Wanda and Pietro in terms of being rejected.  Their ultimately turning against Ultron makes him act very hurt and betrayed.  There is also a scene of Ultron using magnetic powers to pull and toss Iron Man.  I feel like this script would have worked better with Magneto in the role of Ultron… Or they should have done away with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.


            Wanda and Pietro are kind of useless to the narrative.  They are colorful goons for Ultron and they ultimately turn to heroes when they see how he wants to kill everyone, but their role in the story could have just been played by Vision.  Have Ultron create Vision after escaping Avenger’s tower and he fills the same role in the story as Wanda, using the mind gem to drive all the Avenger’s into strange VISIONS of their own nightmares and turning the Hulk into a rampaging monster in Africa.  As the movie continues have Vision be defeated by Thor, have Ultron carry him off and put him into that pod, the movie could then continue mostly unchanged, as the Avengers capture the pod, download Jarvis into it, rewriting Vision as a good guy.
            Thor’s side quest to be shirtless in a pool of water was a waste of screen time, by having him fight Vision or Ultron in the middle of the movie (like I talked about in the previous paragraph) he would have been put to better use.

Though Marvel might have it in his contract that they must have a shirtless scene with Hemsworth.  The man lives on nothing but white rice and lean chicken for months at a time, have to make the most of that.
            While having Wanda and Pietro in the movie was unnecessary but if they had been taken out we would have missed out on the best scene in the movie, Hawkeye being the team’s dad figure.


            I can picture in my mind a younger version of Clint giving a similar speech to a younger version of Black Widow, saying instead, “You step out that door you are a SHIELD agent.”  And contextualizing that speech and what we know about how he has a family you can picture him using he skills as a field operative as a dad, and his skills as a dad in the field.  He greatly deepens his character.

            Tony Stark is TOTALLY CORRECT in trying to create Ultron. Captain America is ENTIRELY WRONG in trying to stop it.  Earth is under threat of alien invasion at all times and since Thor refuses to let Earth utilize the Tesseract (Cosmic Cube) to build ray guns and other super weapons, Earth will be at a hopeless disadvantage should a full fleet of alien ships come and attack.  Constructing a legion of robots that are capable of repelling such an eminent threat should be a top priority before it shows up again, waiting until the attack comes is not a winning strategy, and relying entirely on the Avengers to protect Earth is a foolish decision on the part of Captain America, and one he should in no way be in charge of making as he is a tactical genius, not a strategic one.  We cannot count on Thor and Asgard to protect us from someone like Ronan or Malakith, who were only defeated by the slimmest of margins.
            Vision is awesome.  I like his look, I like Paul Bettany in the role, I like how Jarvis became Vision, the only problem I have with Vision is that he was not in more of the movie.


            This movie is too long, especially the action scenes which often go on for such a long time that I start to get bored by them, which is a shame because they are all so good, that had they each been the final highlight fight of another movie I feel they would have worked better.  By the time we get to the flying city I am so tired from all the action that the whole final act drags for me.
            Unfortunately Hulk and Black Widow’s romantic subplot does not get enough time.  I saw it in the first movie more than most people (for some reason people thought Hawkeye and her, but I never saw that, do those people just not have friends of the opposite sex?)  And since they are both living weapons as a result of outside forces compelling them to become such monstrous things I think they make a good match to one another narratively.
            I would also like to point out and underline: TONY DID NOT CREATE ULTRON.  He and Bruce were not in the room when the machine switched itself on.  The OS they were using to create Ultron was taken from Loki’s scepter, which in turn was (most likely) created by Thanos.  Thanos is in love with Death, and the idea that the software he used for the scepter would be an artificial intelligence bent on omnicide makes sense.  Sure Ultron was the name of the robot legion Tony wanted to create, but it is pretty clear Thanos was the guy who got the ball rolling on all of this.  Just like you can’t blame Hulk for being mind-controlled to rampage, you can’t blame Tony because his robots were high jacked by a killer alien computer (especially because he left it turned off).

For some reason this has become the most used image of Ultron afterword.
Which just looks like he is about to give the audience the finger.
            Pepper Potts and Jane Foster should have made guest appearances in this movie.  What is the problem?  The script is already bloated but you don’t have time for existing valuable supporting characters?  Just drop hints that they might get their own powers because in the comics they both end up doing just that.  Pepper gets a suit of armor and becomes Rescue, a super hero who specializes in fighting natural disasters.  Jane gains the ability to wield Mjolnir and becomes THOR, while Thor becomes Odinson… Which is stupid on several levels as his name is Thor, but whatever.
            As I mentioned in my Predictions for future Marvel movies, I do not think Vision destroyed Ultron, and instead Ultron is trapped in the Mind Gem on Vision’s forehead.
Score: 6/10

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Initial Thoughts on "The X-Files"

            I have been for a little while working my way thru the “X-Files” on Netflix.  I did this because I remember disliking the series in my youth because of its confusing BS.  I know realize that the BS did not come until much later and was mostly concentrated in the “Mythology” of the series, the long ongoing plot of an alien conspiracy that never gave solid answers and logically should have wrapped up in season 6 but kept trucking a long time after the audience felt that it would ever really deliver.
            But, I digress.  I have been watching the series and overall really enjoy it, and I liked a few of the new episodes that were on Fox this year as part of a revival.  To that end I am going to look over some of the series and point out some of the highs and lows.  Before I dive into that though I would like to point out a broad observation that started to crystallize as I watched.

“The X-Files” Episode Categories.
            Different episodes of a show, especially a show with such a consistent mood tend to use certain standard ideas.  These help to outline and pitch stories to the producers.  Being a horror science fiction show with lots of police procedural aspects and romantic tension “The X-Files” has a lot of bleed in how it handles things.  Things start as a serial killer, but the killer uses telekinesis or is a shape shifter, is a for instance.
Watching the first couple of seasons I have noticed some broad categories.  They are not exclusive, plenty have elements of others but the focus of the story tends to be on one of these particular core elements.



Aliens… What the show is “about” in the broadest sense
            Is the government trying to kill you?  Have you seen strange lights in the sky?  Have you lost time?  Transmitters in your teeth?  Then Mulder and Scully need to talk to you.  This is also where the cyclones of BS start to swallow the show in later seasons.
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Balrog Infestation... the scientists dug too deeply and too greedily
            Are you a scientist or industrialist who wishes to explore the world for knowledge or profit?  Well get ready to be infected, eaten, or encounter that which man was not meant to know because for some damn reason there are horrible monsters living in the shadows and just beneath the skin (often literally).  Retroactively these stories make a lot of sense based on the nature of the shows aliens and how they have interacted with earth in the distant past.
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Brotherhood of Evil Mutants
            Are there a series of murders with a uniting theme and something that seems to be gross going on?  Then you are probably dealing with some horrible branch of the evolutionary tree, or the inevitable outcome of global climate change or the splitting of the atom.  While they are not always evil they are a slave to the dark instincts that exist within all of us.
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Frankenstein’s (Blank)
            Do you or someone you know wish to better the world thru science?  Get ready for that science to murder the shit out of you, me and everyone else because there is often a murderous instinct in the base code.  I don’t know why, but nobody seems to have read, “I, Robot” in this universe and refuses to program their creation with the very basic command of, “Do not harm the creator”.
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I am not saying it was magic.... But it was magic.

Ghosts?  The Afterlife?  Magic?
            Having nightmares of a past life?  Or are you seeing horrible things happen to the folks around you after a friend/loved one’s murder?  Who are you gonna call?  The FBI.  This is when things stop being about science and start going straight into the land of magic.
This is also an area in which the show starts to highlight how insane Mulder would be.  The man believes in everything.  You know, just because you believe in aliens doesn’t mean you believe in voodoo, ghosts, or werewolves right?  Thinking that there is enough evidence to believe in one thing does not mean you have faith that other seemingly equally crazy things also exist.
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Just Some Asshole
            Rarely there is an instance in which there is no supernatural component.  This really should have happened much more frequently… But for some reason tracking down serial killers, the central conceit of nearly all other FBI procedural dramas is considered too boring.  I feel this is a missed opportunity as having Scully be right about something from time to time would have been good for the show, but here we are.
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This is actually a kid friendly version of the "X-Files" based on a series of books I read when I was a kid.  While it has budget issues the writing and acting are top notch and very funny.  If you want something lite to watch I recommend it.
It is also on Netflix.

Spooksville
            Are you in the middle of nowhere and follow a religion or lifestyle at odds with Midwest American values of the 90’s?  Then you are probably about to be involved in some kind of horrible conspiracy.  I guess Chris Cater grew up near a lot of gated communities that he just grew to dislike them.
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Wacky Comedy
            Numerous episodes play with expectations of the audience and use to differing effect the premise of the show to illicit a laugh at its own expense.  I tend to find these the strongest of all the episodes and they are the highlight of any season.


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Monday, January 18, 2016

Dungeons and Dragons, "Rocks or Boiling Oil"

            I am putting off doing movie reviews this year, since few movies really inspired or surprised me in 2015 I am kind of not-all-that-motivated to write about them.  I may get around to it, but I just have more pressing matters for the moment.  However I still want to write and have been kicking around stuff, her is a little of that.

            I play Dungeons and Dragons.  For those who do not know Dungeons and Dragons (henceforth DnD) is a table top game, a group of players use some loose rules for characters, events, monsters, and magic to collectively write a story together.  One person is the main writer, called the Dungeon Master (henceforth DM) who creates the world and adventures, and the rest are the players who each control one (and in rare cases a few) characters that go thru the adventures.
            A good DM makes efforts to encourage creativity in the players by giving them obstacles and a variety of resources with which to combat them.  Rather than just a straight up sword fight, you must sword fight while balancing on rafters, swinging on chandlers, and dodging arrows fired from other enemies.  Instead of just attacking the enemy army you can cast spells to make the terrain slippery or muddy, you can poison their rations, sneak in at night and kill the leaders, or cause a stampede of wild beasts thru their camp.  A DM wants the players to be participants in the story and make the adventure their own.
            Bad DM’s do not suffer the creativity of their players and instead push their players to play the game the way it SHOULD be played.  Rather than fostering creativity they instead take the track of, “I’d really like to discourage this behavior.”
            There is a lot of online material focused on DnD, it is a cultural institution in many ways and served to inspire countless video games, novels, and movies (for good and ill).  One of these websites is “Table Titans” which is primarily a comic strip about a group of friends playing the game, and the epic fantasy adventure that their characters get up to.  However the website also has a section called “Tales from the Table” in which various stories are told about funny or strange stories that can come up in a game of DnD.

This is the start of the comic's 3rd season and introduces an interesting fantasy world to explore.
Most of these stories told in “Tales from the Table” are caused by DM’s who are complete assholes.  Either taking things literally, shutting down creative ideas, or not playing the game the way the players are interested in playing (or vice versa, players not showing respect for their friend who often times puts lots of work into stories and adventures that the players in turn ignore or complain about).  The website has no comment section or boards on which to discuss these stories and as such I can never level any criticism on the situation, and since one recently came up that I thought was especially bad I decided to respond to it here.

Rocks or Boiling Oil?” is an example of a DM being both lazy and vindictive and putting the blame on the player.  If you ever feel a creative bug encouraging you to DM a group of friends (not just in DnD, but other games like Gamma World or D20 Future) please do not be like this guy.  Try to find a FUN way to resolve the situation, getting pelted with rocks for a few minutes before inevitable failure finally arrives is not fun.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Star Wars
            It is my 300th entry on blogger and I am going to use this entry to talk about the biggest movie in the world “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.  It will be an early start to my annual reviews of movies from 2015, and maybe I will get some sympathetic traffic to here from people randomly googling these kinds of things.
            Since this is the kind of movie that is really big and you could go thru it scene by scene to talk about things I liked or didn’t care for I will do my usual thing of disjointedly asking questions, critiquing, and giving out compliments.  SPOILERS obviously, overall I thought the movie was a solid 8/10, with a hearty recommendation from me.
 
Remember, this whole franchise is built around coincidence and destiny.  And an awesome score.
            People like to point out that the plot is (in an outline) the exact same plot as “Star Wars: A New Hope”, but I would posit that it has a lot of points and scenes taken from all of the original trilogy, which is fine.  The original trilogy is 38 years old, taking that same story outline and presenting it with modern effects and dialogue, and using that basic story to kick off the new franchise is a good idea.  It is akin to saying, “This is what we are going to be doing from here on out, this is how we are going to do it.”
            However there is some grander subtext at work here too.  The main character is a scavenger who makes their living picking thru the remnants of the old franchise, and the main villain’s central personal crisis is whether he will live up to the classic iconic villain.  It is almost like the movie is picking thru the old franchise to find the best workable bits and is terrified of not living up to the legacy of the original films?  Am I reading too much into this?  Probably not, they draw attention to this all the time in the movie, I feel this was exactly what they intended.  There is a literal shrine to Darth Vader in the bad guy’s bed room.
 
"I feel the pull of the light"
            Let’s talk about one of the things I really liked, Kylo Ren.  Kylo is the best villain in Star Wars.  He is powerful, he has a goal, you understand his motivation, you understand his inner conflict (say what you will about Darth Vader, if Luke did not say the words, “I feel the good in you” the audience would have seen ZERO evidence of Vader turning into a good guy), and he acts like someone who is powered by rage, fear, and pain.  My favorite scene with him is the final lightsaber fight in which he pounds on his wound to work himself into greater levels of frenzy, that is some brutal violent shit right there.
            His armor is cool, his lightsaber is cool, and he kills the most beloved character in the franchise.  The only thing missing from that scene is Han saying the words, “I love you” followed by Kylo saying, “I know” and then kicking Solo’s body in the blackness.  Also, have to love Chewbacca’s reaction, he has just seen his best friend murdered by (what I imagine) is his god son, he probably baby sat Kylo, had the family over for Life Day (HA!) and now he is trying to kill the kid.  That is some emotional baggage.
 
Boy was my character oversold in the marketing.
And now for something I didn’t like, anybody else think that the stormtrooper Captain Phasma was a huge waste? I can't help but think some script pages got lost or something got rewritten.  For instance, when that random stormtrooper has that electro-tonfa and fights Finn... Why not make that Phasma? It would make sense that she would call him traitor, it would even make sense that she would have that kind of unique weapon on her person (working with Kylo all day I imagine she mentally preps for the day he decides to hack her to pieces and so she keeps around a weapon that could block a lightsaber long enough for a retreat).
I also did not like how easily she is captured near the end. Han, Chewie, and Finn take her hostage and demand that she lower the shields... And she does. I kind of expected a marine captain to not just roll over and lower the defenses to the single most important military asset in the galaxy. It would have been cooler had she just said, "You're going to have to kill me." Then Finn doesn't (because he knows that would be brutal and accomplish nothing), and they keep her prisoner, then they find Rey, have her try to use the force on Phasma and then just have the Captain pull a Jabba and say, "I am not so weak minded." Then have her do something clever and escape down a garbage chute.
You might be saying, "Well, then how would they get the shields down?"  To which I reply, "Just have the plot move forward the same way with the group planting charges." Dropping the shields ultimately wasn’t enough, so why not just skip that scene all together?  Having them forced to use the charges to let the Resistance attack thru would be fine, it has the exact same impact on the narrative and echoes "Return of the Jedi" even more so.
With those two changes you take a character that barely has any lines and fights no one, and instead turn them into someone who is clever, tenacious, has unique armor, an anti-lightsaber weapon, and is resistant to the force. She becomes a cunning dangerous adversary that promises to be a recurring threat in future movies. As it stands she is literally thrown in the garbage.
She is apparently returning in the future but I can’t see why they should bother, she is already a joke.  Single biggest disappointment in the new movie.
 
It took way too long to find this picture.  Seriously, it should not take more than a minute to find a group shot of the new Light side characters for the biggest movie on earth.
Now a positive thing, Finn is now my favorite character in the franchise, more or less summed up by his first interaction with General Leia, as she tells him how brave he is for defecting from the first order.  Turning your back on the military dictatorship that is the only life you have ever known because you see the violence and suffering they are inflicting on the galaxy is brave, and without Jedi powers he fights Kylo Ren, a fight he cannot win.  He is also a great straight man to Poe and Han’s wise cracking, a position that is always underappreciated (honestly without the straight man most comedy just falls flat).
As for Rey, Poe, and BB-8?  I love them all.  Each is fun in their own way and they do not step on each other’s toes at all.  While Finn is my favorite, any one of the human characters could have been the hero in their own movie and would have worked great.  If these are the type of hero the new era promises then I happily await more entries.
 
Couldn't we have just had a fleet of Star Destroyers?
Now something I dislike, The Star Killer Base is the absolute worst kind of writing in a sequel.  Upping the stakes by increasing the destructive yield of bad guy’s weapons.  It is lazy.  WE HAVE AN EVEN BIGGER DEATH STAR.  Yawn.  The conflict and drama between the characters is what I am here to see, not just more planets getting torched.
If they had to have something like this, then it should not be in the first movie.  Hint at it.  Have rumors of a new Death Star being built and the Resistance not knowing where it is, have it show up in the 3rd movie as the big thing that dwarfs all other confrontations before it.  Showing the hologram of how the base is a 100 times larger than the Death Star comes off as comical in this movie, if it had been built up to it over multiple films it would have been terrifying.
The Star Killer Base is the thing I dislike the most about the movie and it does bring it down for me.

How is Harrison Ford still so devilishly handsome?
Unattainable standards for male attractiveness in films, I am being oppressed.
 Something I like, the returning original cast members.  While Luke is barely there at all he unquestionably looms over the whole film and looks the part as the hero who completed his journey to Jedi master.  The story in which is betrayed by the knights of Ren (how cool is it that there appears to be an entire clan of Dark Side Force users?) is legitimately sad, he was supposed to have been the guy to return order to the galaxy and he just couldn’t manage it.
Han, Chewie, and Leia are all great.  I did find it strange that in the 50 years they have been working together Han never fired Chewie’s crossbow, maybe they should have had Finn fire the crossbow, and since he is a storm trooper you could have him say something like, “This thing is so much more accurate than my old blaster” to joke about how Stormtroopers never hit anything.
C-3PO is used appropriately, he pops in to ruin the moment between Leia and Han (just like he did in “Empire”) is funny, offers up some exposition, and then steps back into the back ground.
Harrison did his best performance in a decade, fully embracing and saying goodbye to the best character he ever played.  Really, when it came to the old cast they did everything right, showing how they changed and where they went since the happy ending of Jedi, and using them as launch pads for the new cast.

General Hux, I actually think he is a pretty good character.  They do not directly compare him to anyone in the original trilogy, he gives one impassioned speech, and otherwise serves as the calculating counterpoint to Kylo Ren.
 Something I did not like, the politics.  I had to look up what was happening in the movie’s political conflict.  And while it makes sense after I look it up, the fact that it made no sense in the movie hurts the film overall.  It is not necessary I suppose as the movie moves very fast and is not about Space Politics (that should be left for Star Trek), but it is the motivation of General Hux, and General Leia, and the impetus of the story, so maybe making that a little clearer to the audience should be a priority.
 
So Carrie Fisher is delightfully mad in real life.  Can't say I saw that coming.
One last thing I do like, everything else.  The music, the effects, the costumes, the action, and the pacing.  If Disney were to put out a statement talking about how happy they were with the film and how they want to continue to be the mainstay of pop culture, I would just nod and be happy.  Much like Marvel, Star Wars is a huge franchise that will reach millions and millions of people, this film promises that the franchise will be committed to fun, adventure, and good characters that kids and adults all over the world can watch and love and serve as a common cultural touchstone for all the right reasons.
While this movie is not perfect, it didn’t have to be, we have decades to explore an entire galaxy of adventures, and a company that wants to put the people who love that universe in charge of making things people love.  Hooray.

Score: 8/10
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