Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Geekly Oddcast Star Wars vs. Star Trek

On September 23rd, the fifth episode of The Geekly Oddcast premiered. I listened to the whole thing while at the gym and it turns out I'm actually in it--it's one of the episodes I contributed to via Skype because I couldn't actually get to Grand Master Thomas Herman's house on time.

(Yes, I actually forgot I was in a podcast. Sue me.)

The topic: Star Wars vs Star Trek. This has apparently been the subject of many a playground fight, although one of the podcast crew wonders what kind of playgrounds Thomas has been hanging out at. Based on my own childhood, it seems like playground fights had more to do with kids making fun of each other's parents or similar silliness--Star Wars vs. Star Trek seems to be the stuff of never-ending squabbles on Internet message boards.

Stuff I contributed a lot to in the episode:

*How the two franchises appeal to different groups of people. Star Wars is an epic fantasy story in space--although there are spaceships, laser weapons, etc., the science behind them is rather vague, you also have fantasy archetypes like the commoner-turned-hero (Luke Skywalker), the abducted princess (Princess Leia), the dark knight (Darth Vader), and both good and evil wizards (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine), and the Force is a kind of pseudo-magic. Star Trek is more realistic and the science is harder--based on its logo the Federation seems to be a successor state to the United Nations, the warp drive is theoretically possible, and members of the crew are from still-extant Earth nations (Kirk is American, Sulu is Japanese, Chekov is Russian).

*Comparing the Star Wars prequels with J.J. Abrams' rebooted Star Trek films. I like Star Wars better in general, but I think the new Trek films are better than the new Star Wars films (and that includes The Force Awakens). Spears were shaken. Comparisons of Into Darkness and Wrath of Khan occurred. 9/11 Trutherism and the "the real enemy is your own military" tropes were denounced.

*The quality of Star Trek: The Next Generation, whether or not it was preachy, and the influence of Gene Roddenberry. I found Captain Picard extremely sanctimonious at times, but I think the point of Star Trek First Contact was that he was a giant hypocrite--he disdained 21st Century people as savages but when pressed (the Borg) he could be just as violent ("THIS FAR AND NO FARTHER!").

*In which I sing Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and mimic Jar Jar Binks, much to Daniel's irritation.

Want more details on those topics or want to know what else we discussed? You can listen to it via Podbean here.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Geekly Oddcast: How To Improve The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy

The fourth episode of The Geekly Oddcast has come forth, and this time we're discussing the Star Wars prequel trilogy. One of the major topics discussed was how to improve the prequels. Here's my chance to elaborate on what I said...

For the record, I didn't hate The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, at least when I saw them in late middle school and in high school. In fact, I remember enjoying both movies. However, Revenge of the Sith came out when I was in college and when I saw it, I was incredibly disappointed. My disappointment culminated in the infamous "NOOO!" that, instead of being tragic (Palpatine claims Vader, who had sold his soul to Palpatine to protect his wife Padme from dying in childbirth as he had foreseen, had actually killed her--and in a way that was actually true), was unintentionally hilarious.

Watch it below and weep. Or laugh.

So how to make things better?

*For starters, nix the bit about "midi-chlorians" from The Phantom Menace completely. It's established in Return of the Jedi with the whole "I have it, my father has it, my sister has it" bit and followed up with Han and Leia's son in The Force Awakens that Force-sensitivity is often hereditary, but there was no need to actually explain it. Just leave it mysterious.

*Daniel suggested following a single character the way the Original Trilogy followed Luke Skywalker. Even if the story is ultimately about the damnation of Anakin Skywalker, we can see him through someone else's eyes. Daniel suggested Obi-Wan and that's a really good idea. One of Thomas's friends (I don't know his crew that well so I don't know his name) suggested Anakin's fall would have more impact if we focused on how it affected other characters and Kenobi watching his beloved student turn into a monster would really hurt. In Return of the Jedi, he tells Luke about how he thought he could have been as good a teacher as Yoda..."and I was wrong." The guilt that might have been tempered by time in the original trilogy would be red-hot in the prequels. Boba Fett, as someone who isn't a Rebel or a loyal Imperial, could be another possible central character.

*I liked Christopher Lee's performance as Count Dooku, but his name is just so ridiculous. Apparently they had to change his name in Portuguese and Brazilian releases because "Dooku" actually means "from the ass." Plus the name "Dooku" in the U.S. at least seems to have some scatological connotations, which further undermine him.

*One of the worst parts of Revenge of the Sith was Hayden Christiansen's awful delivery in what're supposed to be some very important scenes. Either he should have been recast with somebody who could actually act (I didn't mind him in Attack of the Clones, although I do remember a reviewer claiming he was "vapid, not Vader"), or they should have brought on a different director.

*Heck, the different director might've been the best way to make a difference in the quality of the acting. The Empire Strikes Back, widely believed to be the best Star Wars movie of them all, was directed by Irvin Kirshner, while Return of the Jedi was directed by Richard Marquand. Although one must give credit to Lucas for writing and directing A New Hope, by the time we got to the prequel trilogy (in which he wrote and directed them all), he might've been wearing too many hats.

You might wonder what the point of posting about this is, given how the movies are years old now and nothing's going to change? Well, some people might be inspired to write "fix fics" that showcase how they would have done the films. Think my fan-fic "The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot," which is how I would have done Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. If this post inspires some fan-fics that improve upon the prequel trilogy and fill readers' hearts with wonder and joy the prequels ought to have inspired, I will consider myself well-rewarded.

(Heck, "The Skywalker Heresy" is a good "fix fic" for the prequel trilogy that makes Anakin's characterization more akin to that of the television series The Clone Wars rather than the whiner of the movies. You all should check that out.)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dan Wells DragonCon Panel: "I Am Not A Serial Killer"

Dan Wells, author of the mystery-horror novel I Am Not A Serial Killer that was recently adapted into an independent film, was allowed to spend over a week on the film set, a rare honor in the film business.

At the 2016 DragonCon screening of the movie (you can see my the spoiler-free review of the movie here), Wells said most of the time writers of the source material aren't included much. He cited the case of one writer who was only allowed on-set one day and not allowed to talk to anybody. However, the director of IANASK was a friend of his. So Wells got to be on-set ten days and talk to the cast members about their characters. Speaking as someone who'd love to see his books adapted into movies (Battle for the Wastelands could easily be a cross between Gettysburg and Lord of the Rings), this would be a high honor indeed.

Furthermore, the film's low budget--$1.2 million--gave them a lot more creative freedom than a big-budget film with a lot of studio money people involved did. Executive Meddling is a common problem in the film business, especially if there are concerns the filmmakers' vision might alienate audiences. With costs so low, it's easier to make a profit and thus more risks can be taken.

During a Q&A session after the movie, I asked Wells about why the movie looked so old-fashioned. He said it was shot on FujiFilm that's no longer made. The director of photography had two movies' worth of this film stored in a refrigerator in his garage. They wanted an "old, gritty-looking" feel to the movie and this they got. I read elsewhere the film was shot on 16mm film. I'm not familiar with how movies shot on different media look (although I did notice when I last saw Dog Soldiers that it looked in part like it was shot in the 1970s and apparently older Dr. Who episodes were shot at least in part on video), so I guess that's why movies shot in particular time periods look the way they do.

I also asked why the killer didn't attack John when John came across him killing another character and Wells said it was clearer in the book that the killer was too weak to do both.

Wells also said he wrote the book he wanted to write and the book served as a test for finding "his people." Wells paraphrased how they'd react below:

"I thought this was a crime novel. Holy cow, this is a monster. This is so cool!"

The audience also learned that half of the I Am Not a Serial Killer extras also worked on the television series Fargo. Given that both stories take place in the cold Upper Midwest, this is a pretty good choice.

Before the film, Wells' Writing Excuses cohort Brandon Sanderson (yes, the one who finished the Wheel of Time series when Robert Jordon died) interviewed Wells. They spoke about their long friendship and the easygoing competition they have with each other. That got the audience a tale of the origin story for IANASK--Wells worked for a scrapbooking company and read serial-killer biographies to ward off the excess of kitsch. When Sanderson gave him a ride home, he regaled him with the MacDonald Triad, which informed the first line of the first draft.

"There are three traits common to serial killers. I have all of them."

Wells also said that he wanted his adaptation to be different from the book. After all, he's written the book already and knows what's going to happen. For example, John's love interest (as much as he can love) Brooke in the novel is blonde, but the actress is brunette. Although he was skeptical at first, after seeing her performance it was hard for Wells to see Brooke as blonde afterward. And although he and the director had some "friction" over how the movie had a different ending than the book, Wells did say it looked good on film and overall, it was fun to see others' interpretation of his ideas.

Finally, we also learned the first version of the script had a lot of voice-over, reflecting how the novel was told in first-person POV. However, this ended up cut out--people will assume the protagonist is safe. Furthermore, Wells said that actor Max Records, who plays Cleaver, conveys all the V.O. stuff through his facial expressions anyway.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Movie Review: I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (2016)

The evening of the first day of DragonCon 2016, I had the opportunity to see a screening of mystery-horror film I Am Not A Serial Killer, with Dan Wells, author of the novel on which it was based, answering questions before and after the show. The panel discussion will be its in own blog post; now it's time for the review...

The Plot

Teenage John Wayne Cleaver (Max Records) works in a funeral home, has a fascination with serial killers, and has recently been diagnosed as a clinical sociopath. To prevent himself from harming others, he lives by a strict series of rules. However, a serial killer has begun stalking his small Midwestern town and Cleaver may have to break his rules to defeat him...especially since the killer isn't human.

The Good

*The film has some extremely creepy and suspenseful scenes. Even though I knew the general outlines of what was going to happen, there are many scenes where you fear just what Cleaver or his seemingly-benign elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd) are going to do.

*The film has a lot of really good dialogue, including Cleaver's Crowning Moment of Awesome from the book where he terrifies the oafish high school bully at a Halloween dance. Records delivers the lines with what another review I read describes as aggressive cheerfulness in a sequence that drew laughter, applause, or a combination thereof from the audience. Cleaver's reaction to catching his mother at dinner with his therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) is pretty funny too, as is Neblin's reaction to his comments. The confrontation between Cleaver and the killer in a chapel just before the film rolls to its violent conclusion is also well-done.

*Geary and Lloyd deliver the best performances in the film. Neblin is extremely witty and obviously cares very much for Cleaver, while Lloyd lets the occasional flash of creepiness or rage shine through Crowley's kindly old neighbor persona, setting up something much worse to come.

*There are lots of interesting character moments. Although Brooke (Lucy Lawton) plays a smaller role than I remember her playing in the book, the friendliness and kindness that marked her character are still made clear in a couple scenes. Crowley displays some interesting depths--in one scene he quotes William Blake's poem "The Tiger" to reveal what in hindsight is self-loathing.

*The filmmakers do a good job showing rather than telling Crowley's love for his wife, which is an extremely important motivator for his character.

*I noticed the film looked kind of old-fashioned in terms of the coloration, how things appeared on the screen, etc. It turns out it was shot entirely on 16mm film, film that is no longer made but the filmmakers kept cooled in their garage for years. Wells said they were going for an "old, gritty-looking" feel and in that they succeeded.

*The violence in the film is sudden and brutal rather than stylized. This is much more like real-life violence than movie violence.

*Per my comment above, the scene where the killer's true identity--and true nature--is revealed is very well-done. John's reaction is also done well.

The Bad

*The movie was rather slow-moving. That was my single biggest problem with the movie. I remember checking my watch multiple times, which is my main indicator of whether a film is entertaining or not.

*It's not clear why Cleaver decides to interfere with the killer's activities at all, although when he does decide to, the movie does make it clear why he chooses to challenge Crowley personally. It's been many years since I've read the book, but the book jacket suggests he's doing to protect his family and the town--he's fighting "a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could." Although he doesn't have an emotional connection with anybody, he knows he should and is acting accordingly. Yes, Cleaver is a psychopath, but instead of thinking nothing is wrong with him, he knows he's damaged and wants to be better.

*Records delivers some of Cleaver's snarky dialogue really well, but I never got a creepy incipient psycho-killer vibe from him. In the book there's a scene where he discusses with Dr. Neblin trapping and torturing prairie dogs in a way that comes off like he's discussing playing with Legos. That illustrates just how warped he is, but didn't make it into the movie. He does watch Brooke and her family through a window early on, but the creepiness in that scene was too subtle. I expected someone far more intense and overtly unsettling. The closest we get to that early on is a scene where he has to restrain himself from attacking a trio of bullies, but that could have easily been him trying to avoid escalating a situation into a fight he can't win, not checking murderous tendencies.

*At one point Cleaver catches the killer in the act, but the killer frightens him away rather than immediately attack him as well. Wells said during the panel that in the novel it was explicitly stated he was too weak to kill Cleaver and finish what he was doing with the corpse at the same time and the film let the reader draw that conclusion. However, I didn't get that, which is why I had to ask in the first place.

*The final confrontation between Cleaver and the killer is rather underwhelming.

The Verdict

A rather minimalist film, but still creepy and suspenseful. 8.5 out of 10.