Monday, July 31, 2017

2017 Fall/Winter Movies

Well, we're at the end of the movies I was looking forward to for the summer. I was pretty happy with my picks overall, though critics and the box office seem to disagree with me on a few of my favorites. Still, Wonder Woman did fantastic, and Spider-Man was pretty good. Woo! Alien: Covenant was better than I had feared; but not as good as I wanted. Life and The Void were so good, even if no one saw them.

Anyway, it's time to talk about the back half of 2017. Here's what looks good, if you ask me.

September 8 - It The remake of the classic Tim Curry adaptation of the Stephen King book. I'm not a Tim Curry fanatic, so I've probably got a lower bar than a lot of folks for this flick. I want a creepy clown who is also an arachnid monster that must be shot in the deadlights with the power of belief. Or something equally dumb.

September 22 - Kingsman: The Golden Circle This is the squeal to the campy spy movie from a few years ago. It looks just as fun, and it's got Halle Berry, whose absence in movies I care about has been noted for a few years.

September 29 - Flatliners I'm a sucker for horror scifi. I also like Ellen Page a whole big bunch. the premise is something I've seen before (The Lazarus Effect is my favorite example of this trope) but there's room for another in my heart.

October 6 - Blade Runner 2049 Man... I'm worried about this. Harrison Ford hasn't exactly been amazing lately. There's a lot of room for this to go wrong, what with Phillip K. Dick being super dead and all.  But the trailers seem fine. The soundtrack is good. It sounds like they're using the good ending from the first movie, so that's awesome.

October 27 - Professor Marston & the Wonder Women is the story of the creator of Wonder Woman. Professor Marston was a psychology professor who explored polyamory and kink (specifically bondage) in the 1920s and 30s. Obviously this is SUPER RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS allcaps. It's only getting limited release and as of right now there are no theaters listed for it in my area. I'm stoked to check it out, however I have to do that.

November 3 - Thor: Ragnarok This trailer is so good. Of course I'm going.

November 17 - Justice League Oh boy. I'm not 100% sold on this, but that hasn't stopped me in the past. The Flash looks pretty good. It's probably smart of them to strike while the Wonder Woman fire is hot. Cyborg has never been my favorite DC character, but he looks pretty cool. I'm still a fan of Batfleck. ...I think I'm selling myself on this.

December 1 - The Disaster Artist This is a Franco/Rogan joint. I usually enjoy those. I'm not as big a "The Room" fan as many people, but I'm familiar enough with that train wreck to enjoy a lampooning of it.

December 15 - Star Wars: The Last Jedi I liked the last one. I'm probably going to like this one. It's a good time to be alive.

December 25 - The Greatest Showman PT Barnum is a super interesting guy. Add Hugh Jackman? In. I'm afraid they're going to downplay the huckster aspect of this in an attempt to make him more likable. Also, I'm not a fan of musicals so... this might be a tough pill to swallow. I'm keeping an eye on it.

That takes us to the end of 2017. A lot of the winter/spring movies of 2018 don't have trailers yet, so I guess those movies will get covered in December. Spoiler: Black Panther. Did I miss any movies you're interested in?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Scariest Scene in Movie History

I'm a fan of the show "Movie Fights" on Screen Junkies. In their latest episode Elijah Wood, Kevin Smith, and Dan Murrell had to debate what they felt the "Scariest movie scene of all time" was. Here's their debate:

I'd like to make a case for a scene that terrifies me. Have you ever been to Alcatraz? Did you walk the narrow hallways of a prison that's been decommissioned for the better part of a century? Did you feel claustrophobic? Did you sense the a charge in the air of unrest and malevolence? Have you ever been in an active prison? A mental hospital? I have. Those experiences are pretty far up there in the list of terrifying things I've experienced.

Now imagine yourself entering a narrow hallway, more dungeon than modern prison. The hall is filled with four known violent and insane offenders. The staff politely refuses to escort you down it. Your destination is at the end of the hall. When you get there, you will meet the a man spoken of in hushed tones, even among his neighboring creatures.
You're a cadet at the FBI. You're not even out of training. You're not sure if you're even ready or qualified for the job yet. Regardless, Barney slams the barred door behind you and wishes you luck. You're terrified, but you're determined to rise to the occasion. You take each step deliberately, trying not to look at the monsters. The first calls out to you, a grin on his face like a child who's received a birthday present. It seems permanently fixed, but you can't spare him more than a glance. You focus on your breathing. Each breath triggers a step forward and a test of your resolve. 

The second room has a man slouched over, his face cloaked in shadow. You can feel his eyes on you through his glower. The third man is manic, he literally climbs the walls of his cell and croaks "I can smell your cunt" through coffee grayed teeth.
You reach the end of the hallway. This cell is different. There are no bars. The entry is framed with thick steel that holds three panes of three inch thick glass. Inside, a man, still as a statue, stares at you with reptilian eyes. His eyes follow you like a painting. He sees through you and speaks like a particularly well educated snake. He paints his face with a pleasant, well rehearsed smile and says "Good Morning."

You swallow your fear and put on an air of confidence. You will treat this man with respect, get your questions answered, and flee. "Doctor Lecter, my name is Clarice Starling, may I speak with you?"

  "You're one of Jack Crawford's, aren't you?"

He wasn't supposed to know that. Your confidence is cracked. He's locked inside a cell, and he has you at a disadvantage. You answer in the affirmative. "May I see your credentials?" he oozes. You hold up your credentials. He sees your fear. "Closer, please." he beckons. You extend your arm. "Closer," he taunts. You take a two measured steps forward. He stalks up to the barrier, his eyes locked on yours. The Plexiglas that separates you feels like plastic wrap. Every muscle in your body is begging you to run. He blinks and glances at your badge.

"That expires in one week," he says with a wink, "You're not real FBI are you?" Again, he's made you. You've stood in front of this man for five seconds and he has completely disassembled your careful presentation.

You tell him you're still in training. His eyes light up like a wolf who's spotted a wounded sheep. "Jack Crawford sent a trainee... to me?" You see calculations behind his eyes, as if he were playing a game of chess with Jack, and you realize that makes you a sacrificial pawn. As you present your case your voice wavers and cracks. Lecter spots this, deduces you realize your role in the situation, and a twinkle of respect forms in his eye. Like the respect a hunter has for worthy sport.

Lecter makes you repeat what his neighbor, Miggs, said to you moments before. Your cheeks flush and you stumble over the word "cunt." This earns you a little favor with Lecter - the man in the cell has you attempting to earn his favor. You realize you're out of your element.

You quickly attempt to get your task done. Lecter swats your attempt away and dives in to Jack Crawford's case. You don't realize it, but Lecter has just uncovered Crawford's motive in sending you here. 

Lecter looks at the questionnaire you brought, then verbally cuts you down. He describes your life remarkably well, with brutal cruelty that you cannot rebuke. You aren't sure why his opinion of you matters, but it does. Despite the clear wound he's dealt, you challenge him to look inward. He's clearly upset by your jab, and slams the questionnaire back through his meal slot.

"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. You fly back to school now, little starling."

Feeling defeated you gather your things and begin to walk back. Miggs is laying naked on the bunk, screaming. "I bit my wrist so I could dieeee-he-he." You turn your to face him. "Look at the blood!" he shouts as he flings his seaman through the bars and into your hair. So lost in your conversation with Lecter, you forgot the dangers of your environment. You realize quickly that you've been sexually assaulted as you cringe away in disgust. The other inmates begin to go wild.

Lecter calls you back.  "I would not have had that happen to you. Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me." There's no pity in his voice, you doubt Lecter even knows what pity feels like. 

You quickly gather your wits amid the chaos in the hall. "Then do this test for me!" 

"No, but I will make you happy. I'll give you a chance for what you love most."

"And what is that, doctor?"

"Advancement, of course." He continues on with vague clues that you don't have time to digest. 
Every single element of this scene from the first 20 minutes of Silence of the Lambs is terrifying to me. Walking as prey among predictors. Being thrust into a game you didn't realize you were playing until too late. The sexual assault. Hannibal Lecter's ability to dissect so much of Clarice history in a few moments, and his willingness to use that ability to destroy someone. Finally, there's the realization that even though Clarice demonstrates no uncanny mental ability, she still comes out of the situation better than I would have. And I'd argue her results were mixed at best. It paints a picture of a believable world that I would be completely unable to function in.

All of this amounts to a feeling of dread that hits me on a primal level. I must have watched this movie a dozen times, and that scene haunts me for hours after to this day.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Female Characters in Stranger Things

This post spoils Stranger Things and assumes you've seen it. This is your chance to get out.

With the second season Stranger Things on the horizon the first season has been on a lot of people's minds. Recently a friend argued that the show was unwatchable, to her, because of how poorly the female characters were written.

I am not here to say she's wrong. The female characters are clearly underwritten. I will argue that Eleven is the star of the show, but she is written in such a way so that she starts off virtually incapable of speech, and by the end of the show can barely string together a couple sentences. Nancy and Joyce are critical to the plot, are empowered throughout, and never occupy a pure 'damsel in distress' role. But they're never fleshed out.

I want to break this down a bit more. Let's start with the bad.

Does the show pass the Bechdel test? I mean, maybe..? That uncertainty is pretty damning by itself. I'm not going to look it up to see if Stranger Things technically passes. Here's the ambiguity: Joyce (Winona Ryder), Jim Hopper (the chief cop guy), and a tertiary female character have a conversation about a woman and her missing daughter. Sort of. Joyce and Eleven have a conversation about how brave Eleven is...for going to the Upside-down to find Joyce's son. Every other time two female characters are on screen they're talking about hooking up with a boy or a missing boy. So, not great.

Two characters are given flashback sequences to fill in back story. Eleven and Jim Hopper. Jim is introduced as a drunk who's bad at relationships. It's mentioned that his daughter died, but he doesn't admit to it. He's not super likable initially. Then we get his flashbacks. Jim's story is about the loss of his daughter. It provides some emotional connection to the character, and recasts him in a more sympathetic light. It also provides a (flimsy) reason for him to give so many damns about Joyce's son and later, Eleven.

Eleven's flashbacks are mostly about her treatment in the military experiments. The government clearly considers her a weapon and treats her as such. They send her after the demigorgon knowing that it will likely kill her. I don't think this raises our emotional investment in Eleven beyond the narrative up to that point. It does serve to provide specific explanations as to why she doesn't speak much, and how the gate was opened initially. Personally, I would have been just as happy with an extra couple minutes of Eleven opening the gate and escaping the facility in the first episode.

We're not told of any of Nancy's interests beyond school and boy named Steve Harrington. She is largely unconcerned with Joyce's son disappearing, and uses it as an excuse to sneak out of her parent's house. She becomes invested in the story when her friend Barb goes missing. Literally no one else in the story seems to give two shits about Barb's disappearance, including Barb's mother. That tidbit actually makes me angry and sympathetic to those who choose not to watch this show over it's treatment of women. But it gives Nancy a reason to be in this story that isn't tied to a man. So, great. I guess.

The other women in the story, Barb, Nancy/Mike's mom, the women in Steve's group, the Ives sisters, and Agent Frazier (played by Catherine Dyer, who does a great job despite having so little to do) are largely incidental. I imagine they were on the board in the writing room as single line plot elements. Barb may have gotten a couple of sentences under her name. She's one of two (maybe three, if you count Dr Brenner) characters we're expected to have an emotional reaction for when they die.

Now the apologetics. If I can criticize a piece of fiction I can also talk about what I think it did well.

A criticism I disagree with is the female characters are only there because of their relationship to the protagonists. This show has ten characters who appear in every episode, all of them could be viewed as the protagonist. With the exception of Eleven, this story could easily be about a community banding together to find two missing kids. but if we have to narrow down who our heroes are, I choose Eleven and Hopper. Eleven defeats the villains (I guess technically hubris gets Dr Brenner, but Eleven sets the stage) and Hopper gets a redemption arc and co-saves Will.

Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is defined by her relationship to the missing boy. Because she's his mother. This sentence reminds me of the "Taken" movies with Liam Neeson. Anyway, if "mother" isn't a feminine role that lends itself to strength I give up on trying to understand gender politics. Joyce is an employee at a retail store. She's a single mother of two. It's never explicitly stated, but heavily implied that her hobbies include working her ass off to support her family. As the child of a woman who was a single mother for part of the 80s, this squares with my recollection of the time.

Joyce behaves like the kind of bad ass I'd like to believe my mother would be in the same situation. She secures her ability to focus solely on her missing son. She confronts her (implied) abusive, deadbeat ex. She follows evidence even though she appears crazy for doing it. She correctly identifies the fake body the military uses to attempt to cover up the incident. She insists on taking part of the investigation. She braves arrest by a secret government agency and the Upside-down to find her son.

Nancy. Man, Nancy. She feels really tacked on until the last couple episodes. Even then it feels like she's there to fill out Jonathan's story a bit. Right up to the last episode. She's just found out her friend Barb has been killed by the demigorgon. Her rescue mission? It just got turned into a revenge mission. Jonathan is ready to sit back and let his mom and Hopper handle it. Then Nancy's like, "Naw son. Now's our chance to wreck that monster's shit!" Between Nancy and Jonathan, I'd argue Nancy is more effective at monster slaying, but Steve ex machina ultimately executes Nancy's plan. None of them are Eleven, but who is?

No one. That's who. Her name implies she's the 11th test subject of a secret military experiment. Maybe she's the successor to Wolverine? She's telekenetic. She can astral project. She can travel across dimensions. Don't be fooled by the framing, Mike is her love interest.

There is an approach to writing where you give your main character the least possible amount of dialog. They're rarely the source of exposition. They're frequently learning about the world they find themselves in. In this approach, the audience adopts your main character as their lens into the world. And since this is escapism, they get to do the coolest shit. As you watch you think, "Huh, if I inhabited this world I bet I could do this cool shit." At least, that's the goal.

Since it's difficult to speak for your audience in their voice, you give the supporting characters the good lines. Quick, what's your favorite Luke Skywalker line? Now what's your favorite Han Solo line? What's your favorite Neo line? Now what's your favorite Morpheus line? Which role in those two pairs was easier to recall? Which was better?

Despite having nothing memorable to say, Eleven does the coolest shit. I'd agree that the writers may have taken this approach too far. Her motives are a bit hazy until the last couple episodes, and even then.... she appears to be acting out of altruism. Maybe it's supposed to be because she is learning about friendship. Anyway, because of this approach I have a fundamental problem seeing an argument for any other character as the intended main protagonist.

But what about Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin? They're certainly introduced as the primary focus of the series - especially early on. They're great for giving the audience exposition for the weird sci-fi stuff that's going on, as they relate everything to RPG terms. But in practical terms? When they're not busy being occupying the damsel in distress trope (it's literally all Will does, the rest of them end up there at least twice by my count) they're playing support for Eleven. It is fair to say that these four boys are the best written characters in the series. It's almost as if the writers were drawing from personal experience for these guys and making up the rest as best they could.

Another criticism I disagree with is that the boys use Eleven as a weapon. There's even a quote "She's a weapon!" that's said twice in the series! That's true. Once is by the villains. They say this, and it solidifies them as bad guys to us. The other is while the boys are packing up to find the demigorgon. One kid wants to bring a sling shot ("It's a wrist rocket!"). The others think this idea is dumb since Eleven is clearly more powerful than anything the boys can put together. Out of context it sounds like the boys are making Eleven into an object. In context, they're saying she's a bad ass. Which is true.

So yeah. This story has three fully realized male characters with no character arcs, one male character with a satisfying character arc, two female characters with middling character arcs, and a bad ass lead character with no arc to speak of.

Since I have such middling feelings about the characters of all genders, why do I like this show? I think all ten characters are identifiable, if not believable. I think the monster design is great. The pacing is spectacular; it'd be hard to trim this down to a 120 minute movie and have it be as satisfying. I like Joyce being super-mom. I like everything about Eleven. I like how the show perverts story telling tropes slightly (support cast introduced as main characters, girl chooses the dickish jock instead of the nice sensitive boy, damsel in distress is male, saved by a female, the hero and the victim have no connection, they don't even meet until the end, etc). It throws a lot of balls in the air and drops remarkably few.

The balls it chooses to drop look pretty shady. Hopefully they hear that criticism (and don't overreact to it) in season 2.

Edit: Alternate title: White male mansplans the bad and good treatment of female characters in "Stranger Things."

Edit 2: I forgot to mention context. This story doesn't get told until after "Aliens" makes it culturally acceptable for a woman to lead an action film. I think it would have been seen as progressive until "Firefly" came out. They still make tv and movies that I think do a worse job with female characters. Of course that doesn't earn this show a pass. I subscribe to the notion that we should always strive for equality in fiction, and "Stranger Things" falls short.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

VR - Where are the devs at?

I finally got around to cleaning my office, which means I have room for VR again. I went through some games that've been sitting on my backlog. My favorite of the batch was Batman Arkham VR, which was a ~45-90 minute 'experience.' Experience is a code word for 'barely a game.' Arkham VR had high production values, and it did some neat things with the space - particularly at the end.

Then there's a big drop off. Star Trek Bridge Crew Simulator looks good, and I hope to grab a couple VR enabled friends for that in the near future. But otherwise... indie games for days. That's not a bad thing, hell "TO THE TOP" looks like a lot of fun, and I'll be on that ASAP.

But where are the big publishers? Where are the top tier studios? At this point I'd be happy with a b-tier studio. I'm anxious for someone with a budget to come along and produce an actual video game.

I've been waiting for a super hero movement simulator. Fly like Iron Man, swing and stick to walls like Spider-Man, leap like Toad, whatever. I know several games approximate one or two of these ideas, but it'd be rad to see them all in one place. I imagine this game would rate poorly on the 'comfort' level, so it's not likely to see a big publisher or studio, so it'll always be a 'what if' idea that I pine for.