Finished Mad Max (The Video Game)

So over the Winter Break, I finished Mad Max, a video game based on the Mad Max character and world, but not based on the movie Mad Max Fury Road.  It is an original game using the character of Mad Max and the apocalyptic world that he inhabits as the focal points to tell a unique story.  While I did finish it, I did also feel that it was a bit of a slog to get through (more on that later), but more than that, I had real issues with the way the story was told, or perhaps more accurately, how the story unfolded.  According to my year-end Playstation stats, it was the 3rd game that I spent the most time on this year, clocking in at about 124 hours.

Unsatisfying Journey
Part of my issue is that the story was really very good up until the final missions of the game.  Essentially, (without massive spoilers) the game is essentially a massive “rebuilding” operation where you do various missions for various “faction” heads and then “build” up that faction.  The missions were side missions, but they also acted as “gating” missions, meaning that your progress was locked (i.e., “gated”) until you completed the side missions/story mission for that faction.  The way it worked seemed to imply that at the end of the game, these “factions” would aid you in your story after you had done all of the things you could to help them–alas, this was not the case.

The “Circular” Story
In the last few missions of the game, your character (again, no spoilers) makes several choices in the cut-scenes of the game that you as the player probably would not have made and you’re left with the ramifications of the choices that he’s made.  For an open world game that is all about player agency and choice, the story oddly takes the narrative out of your hands in the most unsatisfying of ways.  In games like this, there are sometimes multiple endings (InFamous series springs to mind), but most often than not, the ending is the same, but little things are able to be changed here and there so that even though the ending is the same, the choices that you made seemed to have mattered (even if, in truth, they did not).  MM doesn’t even give you the illusion of choice–you see the moment when the creative director rips control from your hands and see the results of the outcome and then the game gives you back control.  Worse yet, the character doesn’t learn anything from the experience.  He goes back to being the exact same character that he was in the beginning of the game, which leads to a Why does this even matter question after one finishes the game.

The Audience changes, but the Character Does Not
In this game, the story wants the audience to feel for a character who doesn’t feel at all.  I can understand that narrative, but I also question it.  One of the reasons Hamlet works is because we see that Hamlet, the prince, is conflicted.  Hamlet isn’t dead inside like Mad Max, but Hamlet feels–one might argue that Hamlet feels too much and that because he doesn’t just kill the king when he has the opportunity, he sets in motion his own downfall.  MM falls into that nihilistic category that modern storytellers seem to love so much: let’s not change our character, but let’s instead change our audience.  Let’s tell them this really (insert adjective here–gory, sad, disgusting, etc.) story and then destroy everyone except the hero and then watch him or her ride off into the sunset.  This will wring pathos from our audience.  I was really disappointed with the way the story turned out–if it is an open world game, then please give me, the player, agency over the story.  That’s what video games are all about and that is the strength of the medium over other mediums, say books or movies.  Let the player decide the outcome of the story, rather than the other way around.

Sidney
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Star Wars The Last Jedi Mini-Review (No Spoilers)

So, everyone’s in a tizzy about The Last Jedi.  I finally saw it on Saturday, but I wanted to get my head around the movie, the story, the experience, and yes, the controversy that is surrounding it.  My local theater showed it only in Imax 2D as has been there wont lately, so I can’t tell if 3D would have made an impact–I suspect not (as you’ll see below).  A note on Spoilers–there aren’t any (hopefully).  I tried to talk about more my impressions and be as oblique as possible, but that comes at the expense of really delving deeply into what I thought was right/wrong with the movie as I’d have to point out specific examples from the film to make the points that I wanted to and that would make this post far too spoilery–so I chose not to do it.  I may revisit this movie with a post in the future with full spoilers, but for now, this review is as spoiler free as I could make it.

In a nutshell, am I disappointed in the movie?  I’m ambivalent towards it.  There are good things to like and there are bad things to dislike.  In the original trilogy the good far outweighed the bad, while (for me) in the prequels, bad far outweighed the good.  So while I see these new movies as “okay,” I don’t really feel that they are close to greatness that the originals achieved.  I’d say these rank solidly in the middle for me–better than the prequels, but not nearly as engaging as the originals.  Now, on to a more nuanced discussion of The Last Jedi.

Strong Visuals
This is where the movie excels–say whatever you will about The Last Jedi (TLJ), but it has very strong visuals and visualization of the actions.  It is a very striking movie and looks very good in terms of how a “modern” Star Wars movie should look–even more so than the Prequel Trilogy.  I love the color scheme and the look of the characters and the integration of practical effects with CGI effects.  It all looks amazing and has a strong visual flair to it.  I think that perhaps JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise is slightly more visually appealing than TLJ, but not by much although that’s a pretty subjective determination on my part.

Okay Story 
So this is where it begins to get a little dicey–yes, TLJ has a coherent story that has a beginning, middle, and end, but (without spoilers) it felt a little disjointed in places.  It is as if there were several different plot threads running through the movie, but none of them have a solid through line.  I once read/saw something that said after The Force Awakens there was nothing written (i.e. a roadmap) for the rest of the trilogy.  If that is true, that’s what this seems like.  A set of striking vignettes/subplots all rolled into one movie in which “moments” happen, but nothing “big or revelatory” happens.  The story just exists, but doesn’t actually “say” anything once its finished.

Not sure about the Characterization
So, the characterization feels off to me for some reason.  The characters are all there, but they don’t necessarily act in ways that I would expect them to do so having seen all of them, the infamous Christmas Special, the Muppet Show Episode with Mark Hamill, the animated Droids, and pretty much everything else (except the latest episodes of the animated SW show on Disney XD because of the hefty price tag).  The characters are sometimes on note and sometimes are way off.  I don’t want to throw the director under the bus (as many websites and fan review videos are doing right now), however, he wrote Looper, which was among my least favorite Sci-Fi movies of recent years–although it was (to be fair) critically lauded.  However, while he may be a good Sci-Fi writer that doesn’t immediately give him cred. for being a good SW writer.  Sci-Fi comes in different “flavors” and there was nothing in Looper that said that he would be a good fit for SW as a time travel story is much different than a science fantasy story.  Without spoilers, Finn lurches between cowardice and unrelenting heroism, Rey is sometimes really strong, yet really naive, and Po gets to be a “rebel” with a cause, but his plans never come to anything substantial in the story.  I won’t even get started on Luke’s character–suffice to say, many SW fans are not happy with the way he’s portrayed.  I personally felt ambivalence.  When a major thing happened in the movie, I just watched, but didn’t actually feel anything.  It was as if I was just watching someone move figures around on a chessboard–I didn’t engage/root for the characters and the story didn’t seem to make me want to care so it was as if I was just going through the motions.

Overall Grade: B-.  Hey, it’s a SW movie, so there’s a ton of nostalgia built up for the movie, but I look at it this way–when I was a child, the wait between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was interminable.  However, no matter what Episode IX will be called, I can wait for it–easily.  In fact, only the fact that my mother wanted to see it in the theaters and it is because of her prompting that caused me to buy tickets for it.  I was content to just watch it on bluray/streaming based on the weak trailer.  There are no burning questions/characters that makes me want to find out what happens to these characters right now.

Implications for My Writing
Twofold–1) practice at different forms of the genre and know my limitations.  While I like history, I’m probably never going to be able to write lots of strong Victorian Steampunk.  The Victorian era, while I know quite a bit about it, isn’t an area where I really find myself drawn to in writing works or reading various works.  So I’d have to do a lot of work to really make sure I hit my marks, knowing that there are other writers who could hit it out of the park far easier than I ever could.  2) Characters–Johnson’s visuals could only carry him so far, but in the end, the lack of affinity that he had for the characters really was distracting.  I wonder if what I feel towards Rey, Finn, and Po right now are what editors are feeling for my stories–just sort of ‘blah.’  I really need to work on characterization and truly getting awesome characters in order to combat this problem.

Die Another Day (The Farce is Strong With this One)

Having watched half of Die Another Day, I now know why 1) I’ve been so resistant to seeing it and 2) why it is considered such weak entry into the Bond franchise.  I will be honest and say that I haven’t completed it as of yet (I’m about half way through), but even halfway is enough to start to figure out where it went wrong.

Story
To say that the story doesn’t make any sense would be disingenuous because there is sense to be had if you really take the time to follow the convoluted logic of the story, but none of the story scenes really resonate.  There is a tenuous tie through out the first half of the movie of uncovering the identity of spy/source who gave up Bond’s identity and helped to “burn” him (in spy parlance).  Yet, Bond goes from scene to scene without the audience clearly knowing what is driving him.  For instance, a short time after escaping from what we assume is a MI-6 recovery room after being tortured for 14 months in captivity, James is back to his normal “antics” with Jinx.  He is supposed to be consumed with a desire for revenge on the unknown “person” who set him up and a desire to clear his name, but he is back to his old “self” and is as right as rain, even back to the clever quips and ridiculous sword fight that would have (at the very least) sent members of the supposed fencing club running for their phones to call the police or running for their lives..

Too Much Farce
Which brings me to another point.  In DaD, there’s just simply too much farce to take seriously.  In one scene, Bond strolls into a ritzy and glamorous hotel (5 star) in his pajamas completely unshaven.  Now, let’s be real, even the local McDonalds has a no shirt, no shoes, no service policy.  If you or I tried to do what Bond did in real life, we would be turned away.  If we insisted, the police would be called.  Yet none of this happens in this movie.  Bond turns heads, but it is meant to be humorous/funny, but the writers forgot that humor doesn’t come from ignoring the way things work in reality, but highlighting them and pointing out the absurdity.  Guardians of the Galaxy‘s humor works because Rocket the Raccoon knows he is a Raccoon and comments on the fact (& takes umbrage when others belittle him for his origins).  Groot’s humor works because the audience only hears “I am Groot,” but we know based on the others’ responses that he is expressing himself in some manner that we are not privy to and that’s funny.  And so on with each of the characters.  DaD, on the other hand, expects us to laugh when they break the rules of how the world really works, when in fact, they are calling attention to the fact that this is unreal, that this is a “movie.”

Changing Tastes in Realism
M: The world changed while you were away.
B: I didn’t.
This is exchange was meant to emphasize Bond’s dedication to the mission, but what it really did was emphasize how Bond refused to change to be relevant to the change in audience tastes and expectations.  While Goldeneye still maintained much of the Bond tropes, it was actually a “forward-looking” Bond movie that was more realistic in a fun way than the dour realism of the Bond movies under Timothy Dalton’s reign.  Obviously, Ge’s realism was nothing compared to the gritty realism Casino Royal and Skyfall under Daniel Craig’s stewardship, but at the time, and for its time, Ge was fairly well received as a return to form for the Bond franchise.  DaD, so far at least, undermines this.  Yes, I know I like Roger Moore’s Bond and those Bond movies are often as silly as this one, but in the mid to late 70s and very early 80s, you could still get away with that.  Movies like Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, Silver Streak and even as late as Superman III with Richard Pryor were a lot of what the Roger Moore Bond movies were taping into with their campiness.  However, with the introduction of the Bourne movies with Matt Damon, the world’s taste in spy movies changed, and DaD didn’t change with them.  Audiences craved a more realistic depiction of the clandestine spy hero, but DaD regressed at the very time it should have been more like its more realistic sibling, Ge.

So, I’m going to wrap this up for this week.  If all goes well, I will either finish this up piecemeal over the coming week while I wait for my phone to be repaired or I will finish it next weekend, but unless something major changes, this one is very much neck and neck with the George Lazenby Bond movie for the one I currently dislike the most.  I will, however, reserve judgment until I finish it completely.

Whale Song Revision

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MTSU Writing Center, Image Source: Tucolla.Wordpress.com

Another short (and late) blog post.  I went to the writing center yesterday as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post entry and it was EXTREMELY helpful.  I had a short-story entitled, Whale Song that I’d sent out for a while before becoming frustrated by the rejections.  Specifically, when markets gave feedback on the story, they mentioned that the protagonist felt very “high-handed” and didn’t come across as sympathetic.

During the session, I mentioned this and brainstormed ways to combat this impression while keeping the core of the story intact.  With the help of my consultant, I was able to think of ways to both change the character as well as the structure so as to better tell the story that I wanted.

I will post an Author’s Note here when the revisions are complete.  There is an anthology that I’m hoping to submit the story to and its deadline is Nov. 1, so (in addition to the graphic novel and the rough draft of the short story I’m trying to create), I will be revising the story with this deadline in mind.  I keep you posted on my progress.

Dark Tower Redux

 

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You know, I’m almost sorry that I posted that I was conflicted about the failure of the Dark Tower movie to connect with fans.  I mean, this very blog takes its name from a line that Jake speaks in the first book (paraphrasing): “Go then, Gunslinger.  There are Other Worlds Beside this one).  My point being simply that Stephen King DID NOT invent the Dark Tower or the mythos that has grown up around it.  His story is but ONE of MANY out there–yes, it is the most popular, but it is NOT the only story that has been told or will be told about the Dark Tower.  He doesn’t own the Tower anymore than J.K. Rowling owns “Magic.”

However, some really ugly arguments and memes have sprung up around the failure of the movie and just want to take a moment to address some of the most problematic ones.

SCRIPT
So this is where most of the critics and fans have expressed most of their disappointment.  The movie is only approx. 90 minutes long, but tries to infuse 7-8 books worth of material (from my understanding–haven’t seen the movie yet) into this (very) short time-frame.  However, the element that really concerns is the fact the movie writers are essentially “work-for-hire” contractors and considered the lowest on the totem pole for the creative endeavor of the movie.  This is where the problem lies–a movie is a creative endeavor, true, and you need all parts to work, but the script (the story) is the most important part.  Without a solid script, even the best actors and directors are going to struggle.  Yet, writers of screenplays get no version of royalties if the movie does really well nor is their input sought (usually) for rewrites as in many cases they are replaced with other writers and movies become written essentially by committee.  Another thing that hurts writers is the fact that it is a closed system that privileges only a few.  Even in today’s internet connected world, you still have to move to Hollywood if you really want a serious chance at writing a screenplay–how is this even still a requirement in 2017?  If there’s an awesome screenwriter in Wisconsin, the internet is MORE than robust enough to allow that writer to write wherever works for them.

IDRIS ELBA AS ROLAND
This one is the most troubling.  Yes, King based Roland on the “gunslinger” archetype made popular by actors like Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner.  However, nothing precludes Roland from being portrayed by an actor of another race, even though King’s description may have indicated/favored another race.  There is a tendency on the Internet today to label a person, or group just to be able to belittle said person or group.  Everyone wants a winner, or wants to be associated with a winner.  However, in a capitalistic structure such as the American movie industry there HAVE be winners and losers–there’s no way around it.  You can do things to help swing the pendulum in either direction, but there are no guarantees in a creative endeavor.  If it doesn’t “win,” then there’s this need to find a scapegoat and the Internet is currently on this kick where a diverse person/group gets the blame irregardless of whether or not its fair (I direct your attention to the 2016 Ghostbusters movie as prime example of this).

SONY
Speaking of Sony, I should probably note that Sony also has taken blame in this from many circles.  Sony, as a huge faceless conglomerate, tends to get a lot of blame for things that are beyond their control.  We (probably wrongly) think of the director as the most important component of a movie (I would argue it is probably an equal weight between writer, director, and movie talent), but I haven’t seen or heard anyone criticizing the director, but the studio.

We all hope for our favorite properties to “hit it out of the park” (a la The Lord of the Rings), but at the end of the day–is it the studio that failed to deliever on the story you wanted or was it the script?  Which of the two is more intricately tied to “story” and “story” formation, ideation, and creation?  For me, opening up the system and allowing it to be based on merit (good writers) and not location (living in Hollywood) or more importantly, networking (good a “pitching” a story instead of good at “writing” the story) would be a far more equitable system that might result in a rise in quality in the stories being told, and as a result, increased satisfaction from fans who just want their stories “done right.”