Finished Goosebumps

So, for Halloween, I thought I’d mention that I finished Goosebumps over the weekend (well, not really–it turns out that GB is on the list to go away from Netflix’s library in Nov).  As I had seen about ⅓ of the movie, I wanted to finish it before it left, so I watched it over the weekend.  I have to say that I liked it.  It was more fun than I thought it would be.

It is the quintessential Young Adult movie with a few scary elements.  It actually reminds me a lot of the Spiderwick Chronicles and Inkheart.  It has a lot of heart and isn’t a cynical cash grab like some other “YA franchise films.”  Some of the students at my old Middle School really loved this film, but it has enough for adults too.

Without spoilers, basically, the movie is a “What if?” scenario:  What if R. L. Stine was real (well, he is real, but real in the movie’s world) and the monsters in his books were also real and can literally leap off the page?  It takes some of the most famous characters and books from Stine’s work and creates CGI monsters to bedevil our protagonists.  There’s not a lot of teen angst and the love story is “sweet” (not saccharine, but really nice one that actually has a basis in the plot of the movie).  That being said, there are a couple of cringe-worthy moments that kids won’t mind, but adults will roll their eyes at, but on the whole it is a fun movie.  And, to be honest, the movie earned major cool points with me for having Jack Black’s R. L. Stine character take on Stephen King on who’s a scarier writer and a better bestseller.  The scene is small, less than two minutes of screen time, but it was a nice Easter Egg for a former Bookseller/Librarian Assistant like myself who sold/checked out countless Goosebumps books.

Overall Grade: B (Above Average)

Here’s hoping everyone has a fun (& safe) Halloween!

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Finished Star Trek Deep Space Nine

So, last week I wrapped up the seven seasons of Star Trek Deep Space Nine in my continuing goal to watch all of the Star Trek series.  I suspect that much like Disney movies, Paramount (the owners of the Star Trek brand) will probably want to move their shows over to their fledgling streaming service CBS AllAccess when their deal with Netflix is up (no concrete info on that, but it does seem reasonable given their desire to withhold their newest show Star Trek Discovery “hostage” in order to get CBS AllAccess into more homes–and to dig deeper into their audience’s wallets.)

Sorry, I digress.  Corporate shenanigans really make me a little irritable.  Back to the issue at hand: Deep Space Nine.  As a Star Trek show goes, I really liked it.  I thought that it was pretty intriguing.  One might think that being stuck on a space station would limit the writers’ toolkit for creating meaningful stories, but that wasn’t the case.  Mainly, the writers are able to create tension by using a “war” motif for most of the run of the series.  Either we are recovering from a disastrous occupation by the Cardassians in the early seasons or we are engaged in a war with the Dominion in the later seasons.  Either way, war and its after affects plays prominently as a key component of the show.

The characters are engaging.  I actually enjoyed, on the whole, most of the cast.  I thought they were an interesting and varied bunch.  I wasn’t a fan of the Doctor’s portrayal in the last season–as I feel his relationship was rushed and forced in order to give his character a happy outcome at the end of the series, but before that, his character worked just fine for me.  I also felt that Cisco’s character was pretty intriguing.  Now Cisco gets a lot of heat because Avery Brooks changed Cisco’s demeanor mid-way through the series to better reflect another character Avery Brooks played, Hawk from Spencer for Hire.  I actually didn’t mind as I had watched and enjoyed this series with my uncle (and the spinoff series, A Man Called Hawk), but as it is a strong portrayal of an African American man who moves from more of a mild and understated command to a more forceful and brash command style, I know that Avery’s change in performance likely rubbed some fans the wrong way–especially after the “diplomatic” portrayal of Jean Luc Picard by Patrick Stewart.  I found it refreshing, actually (and familiar–remember I watched Avery Brooks in the Hawk role growing up).  There are also some pretty insightful nods to race, race relations, and racism in the stories told here, both interspecies racism and racism based on skin color (via Time Travel and Time Travel-like stories) in this series.

The plots were mostly good.  Like other Star Trek series there are some really good episodes along with some really bad ones.  On the whole, the stories were mostly good and I found I fast-forwarded through about the same amount as had for Star Trek Voyager.  I did notice that this show seemed a lot more grim than other Star Trek shows.  Death is very common among many of the minor characters and not just “red shirts” even.  These are characters who might have a few episodes or even a full season’s worth of character development, but they still are killed in fairly grim ways.  If you’re expecting Gene Roddenberry’s original, more hopeful view of the Star Trek universe, you might not want to stop here first.  However, even with the grimness, Deep Space Nine is a destination one should visit at least once–and who knows, you might even find a nice home somewhere on the Station’s promenade.

Series Grade: B (Above Average)

Great Actors in Small Roles: Haley Bennett in The Magnificent Seven (2016)

I wanted to take a moment to call out Haley Bennett’s performance in the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven.  I don’t do these type of blog posts often, but when I see an actor in a “smaller” role and that actor leaves just as much of an impression as the named actors, I do want to take a moment to highlight his/her performance.

Pathos
I think that the role that Haley Bennett played was a crucial one to my enjoying the movie as much as I did.  She brings a level of pathos (emotion) to the story that was sorely needed.  The other male actors emoted, true enough, but they were all playing hardened men, seasoned killers, and (generally speaking), you don’t get to be a “tough guy” while still being able to emote.  Their performances, like their characters, had to come across as reserved.  About the only passionate emotion the male actors could display was anger–such as when Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke’s character) swears mightily when trying to train the townspeople to shoot. Yet, it is Bennett’s performance through her character Emily Cullen to express the rage and anguish (sometimes quiet, sometimes tear-filled) of a woman who has nothing else to lose after the villain’s actions.

Reaction Shots
While I could have wished that her character had a bigger role (speaking), her character does at least get quite a bit of screen time in relation to the other actors.  Many of her scenes are “reaction shots” (her character’s reaction to some action and/or dialogue by other characters).  This, to me, is where where she really makes me believe in Ellen Cullen.  Based on her emotions, I actually believe that Ellen would emote in much the same way that Bennett portrays on the screen.  While I wish Hollywood would involve women into the plot in a more integral way (a la Wonder Woman and Black Widow), Bennett’s portrayal of Ellen made an impression on me as I watched the movie and really stood out as a truly standout performance in a small role.

Hopefully, this blog entry will serve as a handclap of praise for a well deserved actor with a well delivered performance.  Great work!

Baby Steps To a Novel

So, yesterday I took my first steps to trying to complete a novel.  Regular readers of the blog will note that I’ve tried before (without much success) to try to write a novel, but this time I’m using my university’s Writing Center to help.  I’ve worked in the Writing Center myself all last year and I have a friend and colleague who is working there now who has agreed to a “Writing Partnership” with me–a fancy term for a standing appointment to talk about writing over the course of the semester.  Generally, they are used for long term projects (thesis, dissertations, etc.), but they can also be used for just improving one’s writing in general.  We talked about what I wanted to do ultimately (short-stories or novels) and we decided that writing a novel would be a good way to “grow” as a writer.  Then we discussed the idea I had for a novel and what the next steps should be going forward.

Character Sketch
So, my homework is to complete at least one character sketch–the main character/protagonist–and have it ready by the next meeting.  We talked about who the main character is (Skye–which longtime readers will remember from earlier blog posts) and what is her personality like.  If possible, I’d like to write a character sketch for her father as that is her major familial relationship in the book, but based on school work and obligations, there may not be enough time for that.  We spent quite a bit of time talking about the importance of characters and how they should act appropriately–something that I don’t think that I always do well because of my interest in the plot.  Hopefully, I can really nail Skye’s personality and be able to create a convincing character arc for her.

Plot Outline
I also need to produce a plot outline for the next meeting.  Again, one mandatory, but two if possible.  I have “story map” that I use that is a 1 page “synopsis” of the characters, setting, plot, climax, and resolution.  However, I’d like to also provide a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the story as that is where I always seem to break down when writing the novel, but I may find that that might be better suited to do after we talk about the character sketch/synopsis of the novel.  In any case, I do intend to do what Brandon Sanderson noted about how he writes novels on his podcast, Writing Excuses, where he notes that he writes down big tentpole scenes as he’s generating ideas for his novel.  I think that the tentpole scenes, in addition to the synopsis, would be helpful to do before trying to tackle the larger, chapter-by-chapter breakdown.

NaNoWriMo
November is National Novel Writer’s Month (NaNoWriMo).  I’ve never really tried to do anything for the month because I always had school (or a ton of things to do in the month of November), but as I’m in the midst of trying to write a novel and as the Writing Center will be holding a “Write In” on November 17, I guess I’ll give it a try.  I don’t know what the outcome of all this will be, but I’ll blog about the process here to hopefully inspire other writers (aspiring or practicing) and maybe provide, tangible techniques and tricks to my fellow writers out there as well.

Wish me luck! 🙂

 

Moribund Genres: The Western

Watching the Magnificent Seven over the weekend and reading some of the critical reviews of the movie (I often skip reading movie reviews until AFTER I see a movie as I want to go in fresh/not have any preconceived notions and/or opinions), I see that the Western genre, after having its hey day in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s is still in a moribund phase.  While the dictionary that I’m using lists several possible definitions, I’m going to use two as a way to guide my discussion.

1. Near death, dying
While I don’t think the Western genre will die, it might as well be dead to both movie-going audiences and the majority of non-genre (i.e., Western genre) critics.  Every year or so, we see one or two major movies released, but rarely do they seem to draw any real attraction to themselves or garner any steam (pardon the pun).  I can remember all the way back to the mid 1980s with the movie Silverado watching and enjoying a western movie that seemed to get no love critically or commercially (even though it helped to introduce Kevin Costner as a rising star who would go on to become a major movie star in another western Dances With Wolves).  For some unknown reason, audiences reached a saturation point with Westerns as a movie genre in the late 1970s and the lack of interest around the remake of the Magnificent Seven shows that the audience interest for western movies still remains tepid.

Now there have been bright spots here and there: the above mentioned Dances With Wolves (which I haven’t seen all the way through–managed to catch parts of hit) and Clint Eastwood’s early 1990’s movie Unforgiven were standouts both critically and commercially (and I’m sure that one can argue for others exceptions to the rule), but for the most part, the western is no longer a part of the American movie-going experience.

2. Not progressing, stagnant.
This probably the most important reason as to why western movies are having such a tough go of it right now.  In many of the reviews that I read, reviewers touched on the “cliches” of the Western genre and how many of them are in play in the movie.  The audiences (perhaps rightly so) don’t think they can expect any new surprises from this genre.  If you were to name ten “conventions” (or cliches) that one often sees in western movies, you could probably find at least half of those on your list in the Magnificent Seven.  Now all genres (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Adventure, Horror, etc.) have certain tropes, but it is Horror’s turning the tropes on their head through race relations (GetOut), atmosphere (Stranger Things, Stephen King’s It) and flat-out scares (ANY of James Wan’s recent successful movies) that have turned Horror from the also ran of the 1980s and 1990s into the rising juggernaut that it is quickly becoming.

And there is an audience for Westerns as a genre.  One of the hottest video games during the last gaming console generation was Red Dead Redemption, an open world western adventure game and its sequel, Red Dead Redemption 2 is one of the most anticipated games for this current console generation.  So the audience for the genre is there, but filmmakers are going to have to look for new stories to tell and new ways to tell those stories.

The Death of Single Player Games?

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EA shuts down Visceral Studios, Image Source: YouTube

So last week was a bad week for gaming in general and the single player game, in particular.  Two of the largest gaming companies, EA and Activision, both had stories hit the media that showed that they are not necessarily committed to the development of strong gaming experiences for their player base (especially players of single player games–like myself), but may be using the games a “vehicles” to increase their own war chests with anti-consumer practices.

To be brief, EA shuttered a well known & respected gaming development studio that was making a Star Wars single player game. They moved the game over to another division in order to (paraphrasing) open it up to better reflect their players’ wants in a game.  Activision, on the other hand, had a patent discovered by players, that could be used to match players together, not based on skill, but on the purchase of extra content and could match players with “premium” content with those who had not yet purchased the content in order to create an unfair skill gap between the players and incentivize the non-purchasing player to go out and buy the “premium” content to stay on a level playing field.

So why does this matter?  Players were incensed last week with these revelations and decried the death of the single player video game.  The problem is that this situation was made BY THE PLAYERS years ago.

“Knack is Kack”
I still remember this statement made by staff member of the Official UK Playstation Magazine on their podcast when the Playstation 4 was announced at Sony’s reveal way back in 2013.  Knack was a platform game that was developed to show off the potential of the hardware.  It was a good game, not great, but it was widely and roundly criticized in the media and online as being “old game design” and “antiquated.”  Now I personally liked it so much that I earned the Platinum Trophy for the game (do all of the in-game “requirements”) which shows how much I enjoyed it.  But if I had listened to the critics and the online community, I wouldn’t have given the game a second look as they considered it a waste of development time.  This attitude continued and now (in 2017) there are a dearth of good, triple A platforming games–their all either shooters or open world games.

The Order 1886
Here is another example of the market deselecting a type of game.  The Order 1886 was an alternate history game that full of promise and hype when it was announced.  However, that hype turned to bitterness and vitriol online when it was discovered that it was a short (5-8 hour) gaming experience and that there was no multiplayer involved when it was released in 2015.  What once was a darling of the press for its unique setting became an also-ran and a dog for its short campaign in regards to its price tag.  And based on the pricing models of games in 2016/2017 that are the same length (Ratchet and Clank remake and HellBlade) which are in the 29.99 price range instead of the 59.99 price range of The Order 1886, perhaps the price of The Order was too high, but the critical reception for both of those games (as well as the online reputation) is completely different that it was for The Order and that response to The Order was noticed by game development companies and (more importantly) game publishers.

Yes, last week was a bad week for gamers who like to play offline, single player games, but we have to remember that it is our choices as gamers that ultimately drive the market.  By being so dismissive to the single player experiences in 2013 and 2015, we gamers shouldn’t be surprised that publishers no longer want to fund or make these types of games in 2017.  Much like real life, if we say that we want diversity in our experiences, we actually have to show that we value that diversity.

Mini-Review: Magnificent Seven (2016)

I just finished the 2016 remake of the film the Magnificent Seven and I have to say that I was actually quite impressed by the effort of the actors and the filmmakers.  I really enjoyed the movie and thought that it seemed to be a credible remake of an old classic for a new audience.  After seeing it, I was a bit dismayed by the lack of critical and commercial success for it.

Now, for full disclosure: I haven’t seen all of the original version.  I’ve only seen bits and pieces.  Somehow, it never seemed to come on network TV (as I recall) and when it was on cable, there always seemed to be something more interesting on that I wanted to watch.  Also, if I recall, the original is a black and white film, and it is MUCH harder for me (personally) to “suspend my disbelief” with black and white films as I’m always doing the “Wizard of Oz” game where my mind tries to fill in what would the movie look like in color (as the original Wizard of Oz starts out in black and white, goes to color, and then moves back to black and white for its ending).

However, this movie seemed to be very much in the spirit of the older classic.  It told a great story with some pretty good performances by the various actors.  The story, in many respects, had a tone much like the latest (as of this writing) Star Wars movie, Rogue One.  I really liked most everything about it.  Sure, there were a few cliche western moments, but it really doesn’t deserve its 54% Metacritic score.  Now, don’t get me wrong–even without the western “cliches,” there are still problems.  One the main ones is the main character’s motivation for helping.  The movie made him seem way too altruistic even though he is getting paid for his services.  While the movie foreshadows the reason behind this a before the midpoint of the movie, we don’t actually get the revelation until the final conflict with villain.  Because we don’t get to see Chissom (Denzel Washington’s character) struggle, 1) he comes off as emotionally distant–we never see why the plight of the town really matters to him and 2) we don’t see him struggle–he has it all too easy.  He doesn’t really have to struggle with the town accepting him, he doesn’t deal with any major conflicts between his team (outside one conflict with another old time associate).

However, even with these issues, I still enjoyed it.  I had only intended to watch about half of it this week (about an hour) and then finish off the other hour next weekend, but I found myself so engaged by it that every time I went to turn it off, I stayed my hand, so the actors, director, and filmmakers did something right, even if the critics and the majority of the audience doesn’t agree.

Overall Grade: B+ (It probably would have been a B- due to the way the protagonist’s motivation was written, but a couple of strong performances more than made up for that flaw in my mind).