Monday, August 6, 2012
Monday, April 9, 2012
The year was 1999, and I was fully immersed in a game called Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. There are tons of reasons why Ocarina of Time was an amazing game, and even more articles explaining (/ frothing at the mouth) as to why. Today I want to focus on just one, the one that can actually translate to other mediums.
OoT starts out with your main character, Link, as a young child. (Seriously the dude must be five or six.) You’re growing up in this happy, bright forest home, surrounded by pixies and fairies and I don’t know what the fuck else, spending your time with your bestest bud who happens to be an adorable elf with anime eyes times ten. Then you start out on an adventure which involves you walking around your immediate vicinity and noticing that, hey, everywhere else is whimsical and cute too.
But then, things change. Your character hops into a time portal and comes out the other side a fully grown man (which happens at the age of 17 according to the Japanese.) The world changes drastically from a cute, bright and overall pleasant society into something permanently dark, with a lot of miserable people and monsters all over the place. The cause is a guy named Gannon, but what he does, I have no idea. (You miss it because of the time warp.)
Anyway, this is such a brilliant narrative move. You have no idea what Gannon does to mess things up, but you hate him anyway. You hate him because you saw how bad he makes things when you fail. It adds an immense amount of pressure to the game. You know that your character must succeed because you know how nice the world is without this schmuck in it.
Compare it to the world of, say, Star Wars, for example. Despite his shady administrative practices, can you really say what the Emperor or Darth Vader did to the galaxy to make it so terrible? I mean, everything seems to be pretty ok, right?
As an audience, we need to be shown what’s at stake to create tension, and only a few pieces of entertainment (that I can recall) actually go so far as to show you what happens when the hero loses. In general, these tend to be very good games or movies.
To take another example from movies, recall the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. Throughout the entire trilogy, we’re shown and reminded that the Shire is a blissful, peaceful existence, free from any worry in the world and seemingly picturesque in its perfection. Then, as the characters’ minds begin to wander, they arrive at thoughts of the orcs arriving at the Shire, and effing its es up. “There won’t be a Shire, Pip,” is the epitome of this idea. The hobbits are sick of this whole business and want to go back to where life is easy, but the only thing that stops them is the fact that the Shire won’t be easy peasy no more. You almost get a general sense of, “Well, fuck the rest of the world, but don’t touch the Shire.” Again, this furthers the tension in the movie, as you really don’t want to see a hobbit get murdered in his little hill house.
Going back to video games, recall Final Fantasy VI. In it, you spend roughly half the game in an admittedly imperfect world, and then seemingly out of nowhere, the antagonist destroys it. The continents shift, populations are wiped out, your team of heroes is divided and distraught. One of your characters joins the enemy side. One of them contemplates suicide. For the most part, all of your people just give up on fighting.
In this scenario, there wasn’t really a “perfect world”, but the results are still the same, if not more devastating. Here, life goes from being “so-so” to “completely fucking unbearable.” You begin to see that it’s not a question of the antagonist ruling the world or somebody else ruling the world, but instead realizing that if this bad guy stays in charge, everyone will slowly, mercilessly die. It makes you despise the antagonist and puts so much pressure on you as a gamer that you feel you have to defeat him. There’s no way he can allowed to do this! That little 32-bit son of a bitch!
This seems like such an effective method that I have no idea why more movies and games don’t do it.
Friday, April 6, 2012
Wolverine and the X-Men
First off, this title is improperly named. However, I understand why they used this name; if you throw the word “Wolverine” in the title of anything, it’s bound to sell more books. And while Wolverine does play a starring role in this book, I wouldn’t say that the main focus is Wolverine himself, but instead his students.
X-Men has always been, at its core, about a school of strange young people in a world that hates them. It’s a very relatable concept, and it’s easy to see why it’s been repeated throughout the X-Men universe so often and achieved great popularity. However, focusing on students as they sit through classes is hard to make into a superhero comic book. It can easily be a drama comic book or even a romance comic book, but superheros? It’s hard to do. Wolverine and the X-Men has turned the focus onto the school, its students and its teachers, while not sacrificing any action or slowing down the pace. On the contrary, the pace is one of the defining characteristics of this book, as the endless series of problems facing Wolverine’s new school keep everything feeling frantic, but not cluttered.
While still keeping a lot of action in the mix, Wolverine and the X-Men has been able to focus almost entirely on its characters and it does a damn good job of it too. I’ve always lamented the fact that the X-Men were too large a group, with too many personal relationships floating around. After M-Day and Schism, however, I can see that all that is changing. The focus has been set on the personal relationships between the teachers and the students, amongst themselves mostly.
The resounding overall theme here is that of being something more than you could have hoped to be. There are so many examples of this I don’t even know where to start. Well, that’s not true, I suppose you’d have to start with Wolverine, since his name is in the title and all.
First of all, if I told you, as a reader, that Wolverine would be the headmaster of a school, you might think that’s, at best, a somewhat wacky idea, and you’d be correct. That’s one of the issues dealt with here, as Wolverine himself has to come to grips with being a professional, official headmaster, being a team leader instead of the lone wolf.
And it only begins there, since Schism, the X-Men have been split in two, and it seems as though the more august superheros have gone in one direction, and the misfits have headed towards Wolverine’s school. As a result, many of them have to come to terms with how they want to act when they’re in the classroom and, in some cases, how they act administrators. For example, Gambit, who has long been defined by his shadiness has discovered recently that he loves being a role-model to young students. Rogue is now an extremely capable and well-liked leader and teacher, but a terrible subordinate. Iceman has been experimenting with what his true potential is, while lamenting the fact that he’s been underperforming for years. I can’t repeat it often enough: It is stories such as these that make an excellent comic, not the quality of their “fight scenes” or how cool their characters appear.
When I stated before that the “misfits” had made they way to Wolverine’s school, that applied to the students as well. Some of the younger mutants had remained with Cyclops, and those students were indeed the more serious group. At Wolverine’s school, however, we find many students who feel as though they’re less than this ideal image of a “School for Gifted Youngsters” attendee. We have Broo, who is struggling with what appears to be the unavoidable fact that he is a monster trying to be a well-educated, polite and kind young boy. Genesis, who may or may not be irreversibly damaged to be the point of being the most evil person in the world, has to find his own identity and then come to grips with being the reincarnation of genocide and destruction. Quentin Quire represents every good-for-nothing and smart aleck know-it-all that ever cursed a classroom since the dawn of time. It’s interesting to watch him grow and change, and as a reader, you want to see him succeed. In fact, you want to see all the students succeed as they struggle to not only survive and thrive in a world that hates and fears them, but also overcome their own setbacks and shortcomings.
In general, I regard the art to be secondary to the story by a great deal, but not here. Not only is Chris Bachalo providing beautiful pencils for this book, but moreover, it fits. His cartoony, playful style absolutely represents the characters that he’s drawing. Anywhere else and I would absolutely hate this artwork, but here, dealing with characters who live their lives as the butt of the joke, who revel in their strangeness, who have never seemed to have found a home for themselves, this tongue-in-cheek style of art absolutely fits and the book would certainly not be the same without it.
Friday, March 30, 2012
But first, some interesting and relevant backstory on the movie itself. From what I understand, The Muppets is the product of the efforts of one Jason Segel, who has essentially made the world’s first wide-release fan-fiction-film. This in and of itself is a pretty cool thing to do, considering that he took the Muppet’s real history of not being famous in a long time, and their fake history of how they met and who married whom (SPOILER: It’s Beaker and Dr. Teeth) and plays it straight. He even goes so far as to, basically write himself into the movie, not as the character he plays, but the one who loves the Muppets and desperately tries to bring them back together. It’s pretty much exactly what an average fan-fiction writer would do, and maybe even more so: They know and love the universe they’re writing about, adhere to its rules strictly, and, at least in Segel’s case, love it so much they would write themselves into it. If you think the part about knowing the universe, loving it, and adhering to its rules is not that special, ask yourself this question: How much different and better would the Star Wars prequels be if a fan-fiction writer penned them instead of Lucas? We wouldn’t have C3PO being created by a young Vader because a fan of Star Wars would know that’s fucking stupid. Yoda and Chewbacca wouldn’t know each other, because a fan of Star Wars would know that’s fucking stupid. This advice I mentioned before, about making what you want to see, it could have fixed those movies and here’s why.
For one, it seems to me that anything marketed for mainstream audiences don’t have much artistic appeal to them. In other words, they blow. Trying to make everyone happy is how the world came up with pop music and romantic comedies; our world is a much worse place because of these things. We’re no longer experimenting with unique and creative ideas, but instead trying to please all people at all times. I feel like this applies to so many things that I can’t even point to just one example. Actually, since it’s fresh in my mind, or maybe just because it sucks the hardest, let’s go back to the Star Wars prequels again. Lucas tried to insert lots of different things in these movies to make a lot of people happy. There’s romance, action, political intrigue. He even attempts to appeal to children with crude, cartoony humor. While trying to appeal to so many people, it ended up appealing to none of them, and, even if it did, nobody would still think it would be a great movie in any sense of the word.
The Muppets, on the other hand, seems to be almost directly opposed to appealing to everyone except for fans of the Muppets. It actually makes of point of stating in the movie that the Muppets just aren’t cool anymore, people who like the Muppets must be stuck in the 70s, people don’t want this type of entertainment anymore, etc., and the thing is, they’re right about all of that. The Muppets aren’t really cool any more, and they haven’t been in a long time. As for people not wanting this type of entertainment anymore, look at the trend comedies have been following lately and how they’re getting raunchier and dirtier. Movies like Bridesmaids, The Hangover 2, and Horrible Bosses were some of the most popular comedies last year. In this culture, if someone suggested making a comedy with nothing but clean jokes, where the dirtiest thing they could come up with was “fart shoes”, would you imagine that movie would appeal to everybody? Hell no. But, here’s the thing. The movie works because it sticks to this principle and doesn’t compromise on it.
Secondly, making the movie that you want to see means that you’re going to be crazy excited about making it. Each step closer towards completion means you’re more anxious to see it, and that energy fuels your creative process. As I said before, this whole movie was a labor of love, and I believe it shows. Segel didn’t want to do anything shitty in this movie because it would be destroying the movie that he would have loved to see. Any artist should be thinking like this. Every decision should be framed in a way that makes the artist ask if it will make him or her stop loving this creation. I feel like that would create more labors of love in this world.
Thirdly, the thing that you want to create is something that just plain doesn’t exist. Because, of course, if it did exist, you would be enjoying it instead of wishing it existed. It’s this quality that I think makes this advice so powerful. Not only are you making something that you love, something that appeals greatly to a well-versed group instead of minutely to everyone in the country, but you’re making something that doesn’t exist and perhaps would never exist if you hadn’t come along and made it.
Same goes for The Muppets. I think that if there wasn’t somebody in Hollywood intent on making this exact movie, nobody else would have done it. Nobody else would have thought of it. Again, look at the current climate for comedy movies. There’s a lot of dirty jokes, and if somebody would have suggested making a comedy that involved musical numbers just because that’s what they did back in the 70s, it would have been impossible to get made.
I never would have considered myself a “fan” of the Muppets in the sense that I was waiting for another movie to get made or that I would even think about the Muppets at all. However, seeing what Segel and the cast and crew of this movie have done, I’m extremely impressed with the love and effort they put into making the movie that they wanted to made, not what everybody else wanted to be made.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
I should also point out that I’ve never actually been hunting. The opportunity never actually arose without any effort on my part, but nope, never been hunting. I’ve also never shot a gun. Both of these things don’t bother me that much, even if people who think that half-chromosome called Y is the most important thing ever would call a sissy.
Now that all that is out of way, I need to get something off my chest. Hunters are nerds. Nerds nerds nerds nerds nerds NERDS. Not only are they nerds, but they even be the biggest, saddest nerds in all of nerddom. Allow me to explain.
As I said before, I’ve never gone hunting. I never had a chance to, and even if I did, I wouldn’t go, simply because it doesn’t appeal to me. It involves donning the aforementioned goofy clothing, traipsing the woods for hours on end, shooting an animal that did me no wrong, doesn’t taste that great, and can’t fight back a tenth as well as I can with a gun, and then there’s something going on that involves deer pee. I don’t know.
In fact, when I start thinking about, I’m a little hard-pressed to come up with reasons why this would appeal to anybody, actually. When I was younger, I went fishing with my grandfather. Although I didn’t know anything about fishing or care or even enjoy it, these are still some of the happiest memories of my childhood. Why? Because I got to spend quality, quiet time with a man that I admire, talking about mostly nothing, listening to the sound of nature, and stealing the pieces of American cheese that were meant to be used as bait. At its best, I suspect hunting is like this.
However, when my grandfather (not I) would catch a fish, there would be a moment of fanfare, and then we’d throw it back. There was a sense of achievement when the fish was caught, because it, like hunting, involved patience, luck and skill, but there was no need to kill our fish. We did what we set out to do. Even if we did kill it, there would be no joy or fanfare in it, no necessity for the act of bonding that we were in engaged in. If a few guys wanted to put on those stupid clothes (seriously, you guys look like such asses) go into the woods, drink a few beers, and then peg a doe with a paintball gun, that would be fine. That would be bonding. But then, the killing must be done, mustn’t? I can’t imagine anyone actually going through all the effort of hunting without actually killing or trying to kill something, which means the appeal of hunting over other activities must lie elsewhere.
There are two things that separate hunting from other sports. Aside from bullfighting, hunting is the only recreational activity that requires real weapons and actual killing. So what’s the appeal in these two things? Well, I think it’s pretty easy to see that the appeal is acting like a badass. I mean, don’t you feel cool holding a gun and shooting it? Doesn’t it make you tough to kill something?
Well, no, not really. Because buying a gun and shooting it really isn’t being tough, but just a facsimile of what actual tough people do when they’re in a war. And because killing something doesn’t make you badass, especially since the thing you’re killing doesn’t fight back and you’re holding far superior weaponry. (Try killing a deer with two dull kitchen knives that are taped to your head and then I’ll be impressed.) Also, feeling cool for killing something should be cause for concern about your mental state.
So, alright, killing and shooting isn’t actually badass under these circumstances, but instead just makes people feel badass. I want to make this clear: that’s totally ok. Really. Because we all do things all day long in big ways and in small ways that make us feel cooler than we really are. When I listen to music, and when I really rock out, I get to pretend that I’m as cool as the singer is. When I play video games with my friends, I get to pretend that I’m as cool as the character I’m playing (which, come to think of it, is usually something lame like a clinically depressed mummy or a fucking unicorn person.) Hell, even the act of writing this article let’s me pretend that I’m somebody cool. So the point is, pretending to be cooler or tougher than you actually are is fine.
With this in mind, this “let’s go into the woods and pretend like we’re tougher than we actually are” activity, I’m immediately reminded of something very similar: LARPing. For those of you who don’t know what LARPing is, bless you. However, I have to explain it. LARPing is live action role-playing, and it involves dressing up as a fantasy character, using tinfoil swords or make-believe magic, and vanquishing fake monsters. This is almost exactly the same thing as hunting. Ok, maybe not superficially, but the components are the same. You have your specialized outfits, your weapons and a creature that you must best, all while pretending to be tougher, cooler and stronger than you really are. Hunters are LARPers. Hunters are nerds.
So, alright, why do I say that hunters are the nerdiest of the nerdy? Well, the reason LARPers feel so comfortable openly playing make-believe in public is because they’re not afraid to call it make-believe. LARPers and paper-and-pencil role-players have never been shy about the fact that imagination fuels their experiences, and you can only call it imagination when you know that it’s far removed from reality. If they didn’t openly admit they were just pretending, if they thought that they were actually a knight in a shining armor, or a wizard casting spells, you would, first of all, worry about them, and then feel an immense amount of pity for them. Hunters are like this. Some of them even use bows, just like Legolas. They hunt to feel cooler than they are, but then instead of admitting that they’re just playing pretend, killing animals that can’t fight back as though it’s tough and cool, they think they’re actually tough and cool. They think that this whole process makes them more of men, they think that because of this they’re tough. Whereas a LARPer knows that pretending to be cool doesn’t actually make you cool, hunters get confused on where reality ends and make-believe starts. First you worry, and then you feel sad.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Hippos are big, easily-angered, in possession of large teeth, and big. If you piss off a hippo, you’re absolutely boned, because the things are so tough and huge you can’t hurt it, and it knows at least two ways to kill you, fifty if it gets creative. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to get killed by a hippo than any other animal in Africa besides people. And yet, people do not fear hippos.
The theory that I always hear is that people aren’t afraid of hippos because they look cute. That may be true or partially true, I guess. My theory is that people aren’t afraid of hippos because they don’t look like they move very fast. I’m not talking about how fast they actually move and I don’t care either. The damn things just look so slow. I can’t be the only one that feels as though I can get within 10 feet of a pissed-off hippo and survive merely by walking away at a brisk pace.
A lion, however, is a different story. If I got within 10 feet of a pissed-off lion, running away is no longer an option. My brain switches over to fight mode, or maybe even “fuck it” mode. It is in the context of this awkwardly fumbled-through analogy that I’d like to talk about Insidious.
First, typical movie review stuff: I loved the shit out of the soundtrack. The opening scene is amazing, and I’m certain I’ll never love the beginning of a movie more than this one. The characters are utterly devoid of any kind of personality. The plot, and the way it’s revealed, is horrendously clumsy to the point where the entire move is basically explained in two banally shot conversations in the living room. The “twist ending” is lame.
Anyway, moving on. I’m not rocking any worlds when I state that horror movies depend on tension. Without any tension, there is no horror. Insidious does a great job of building up tension, and then diffuses it in two different ways, one forgivable, the other deal-breaking.
First, the forgivable one: Insidious has a habit of throwing goofy shit at you to lighten the mood. I say it’s forgivable because I can understand what someone was thinking when they wrote these scenes and these characters. They want to give you a moment to relax, or they might think that these moments of relative peace just makes the scary scenes scarier. First of all, I’m not sure it works. All it really does it take you away from the fear and bring you back down to zero, so you have to build your fear back up again during the next scene. I can’t recall any movie that inserted a comedic routine into its storyline and still came out scary. I can, however, recall the movies of Sam Raimi doing this and turning into pretty enjoyable works of film, but certainly not tremendously scary ones.
Second, the deal-breaker. Insidious just flat-out destroys its tension and I don’t know why, especially since it does a great job of building it up in the first place. To set the stage a little bit: the story of the movie is that a little boy goes into a coma after accidentally projecting himself too far. (Again, to gripe about the story some more, the audience is told all of this information in a conversation in the living room instead of being shown any of it.) The trouble begins when several spirits try to enter his body to come into the land of the living, in particular, a Satan-looking demon that the movie makes quite a bit of hullabalo about.
I’m going to pause here and talk about some other movies that created brilliant, unbroken tension. When you read the summary of this movie’s plot, you might have been reminded of The Exorcist, and that wouldn’t be an unfair comparison. In The Exorcist, a little girl is possessed by the devil, and while one could theoretically physically get away from the little girl’s presence, she herself is unable to do anything but be tormented. Not only that, but not until the end does it become even somewhat clear why the devil possessed this little girl in the first place. (It took me over ten years to finally figure out that he only intended to kill the old priest.) Because of this, a constant tension is created, and there’s no getting away from it. You begin to feel it as it takes its toll on the main and supporting characters; they become physically exhausted from fighting this monster from which there is no escape, which has no clear motive, and whose powers are wholly understood. And thus, a classic was born.
To take a similar position on tension from a more modern movie, let’s look at Paranormal Activity. Now, there’s nothing inherently scary about doors opening and closing, or footprints in flour, or even Ouija boards moving on their own. No, what makes this movie tense is that there is no escaping the haunting that is happening to these people. And when I say, “no escape”, there really is no escape. This, let’s say, demon sees everything that happens to this couple, whether it’s in the daytime or nighttime, whether they’re in the bedroom or the living room. And, unlike the little girl from The Exorcist, the demon has full range of everything in the house, including its inhabitants, going so far as to physically move the woman about while conscious or unconscious throughout the movie. You also definitely see the effect that this experience has on the couple. Again, they physically begin to break down, as does their relationship. There are no pauses in this movie for comedic scenes, just a slow spiral downward. Maybe you didn’t think “That plant moved by itself!” was so scary, and I won’t argue (or agree) with that, but one thing you must concede is that this movie is tense.
And finally, for my last example, Aliens, because while the movie starts off with the “demon possession” premise, it switches over to “monsters” at the end. There are many things that made the movie Alien scary, and while its sequel, Aliens, was not so much a horror movie as it was an action sci-fi movie, the aliens themselves are still terrifying. Recall my hippo/lion analogy. When the aliens are close by and able to reach you, you are dead. There is no getting away. There is no fighting back (unless you have mech-armor like Ripley.) In fact, when you’re up against the aliens, (what was the name again? I can’ quite reXENOMORPHS!) the only thing you can do is hope that there is a sturdy wall between you and them.
Anyway, back to Insidious. So, the movie does a great job of creating tension in the beginning, as the ghosts and the demon can seemingly pop up anywhere at any time. At one point, he’s chilling right behind some dude’s neck and he doesn’t even realize. That is tense. That is scary. The end of the movie fucks that all up.
It's worth noting that by the end of the movie, we have yet to really see the toll this experience has taken on our lead characters. The worst it ever gets is when the husband has a tendency to stay late at work. That's...about it. The wife doesn't develop any chemical dependencies. The husband doesn't acquire any suicidal or homocidal urges. These people don't even look tired. In fact, they seem to be pretty cool with the whole thing. But then the ending happens and anything that was somewhat decent in this movie gets thrown out the window.
For one, the male lead takes a level in badass, I guess, and he’s suddenly Neo. When he’s in the ghost world, he becomes ultra-strong and can now kill ghosts with a single blow. Snooze.
For two, the ghosts themselves then get nerfed into being nothing more than less hungry zombies. At one point, the male lead is running through a huge crowd of them with absolutely no concern at all. Then, he just gets away from them and we don’t even see them following him. These same ghosts then make an appearance in the human world, where they move so slowly it takes them over two minutes to walk ¼ of the length of the living room. There is nothing about that that scares me.
For three, the demon that spent so much time antagonizing these people throughout the entire movie seems to give up at the very end. So alright, there’s a scene where the male lead and his son sees the demon from across the room. Close-up on the man’s face, then pan left to the demon, then pan right back to the man and BAM! Teleportation! The demon is all up in his grill and he didn’t even see it coming. The little boy tries to run away but then BAM! Telekinesis! This motherfucker is at least three X-Men rolled into one, and you begin to feel like these two guys are flat-out screwed. They cannot physically escape, so what do they do? They physically escape, of course! How? I don’t fucking know. The demon literally watches them get away and just stands there.
For four, RUNNING AWAY. If you would like a thesis statement for this movie review, here it is: Shit you can run away from is not scary. So, like I said, the father and son escape the demon and get to another section of Ghost Land, whereupon they separate. The little boy encounters the demon hiding in a closet, and one cannot imagine a more one-sided fight than this. And yet, the scene just stupidly wastes your time. The boy spots the demon in the closet and then runs away. The demon does not chase. Then, he suddenly grabs the boy’s foot from under a bed. Got you now! But, no, I guess not, because the boy has mighty awesome calf muscles and frees his foot. But, oh noes! He gets grabbed again, and he...escapes...again. Scary.
The final time we see the demon, the boy is running down a hallway, while the demon chases him. Remember the aliens? Imagine for one second that instead of this being a teleporting, telekinetic demon, you have an alien. How long do you think it would take for it to kill him? Zero point nothing seconds, that’s how long. Instead, this boring demon in this boring movie take his own sweet time tracking down this boy and you hate yourself for ever being scared of this stupid fucking hippo.