My Father

It’s been a rough couple of months here. My father was diagnosed with kidney cancer back in October and by November he was no longer able to move on his own. He went into hospice care and died on January 14th, hanging on until after both Christmas and my mom’s birthday. He hung on for much longer than the doctor’s thought he would. At some point I’d like to write something about him here, but for now I thought I would at least post the obituary I wrote for him here, so you all know I’m still around.

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Nigel Stevenson, my father, 1944-2016

Nigel Stevenson departed on his next great adventure when he died at 4:40am on January 14th, 2016. I hope that when my dad passed from this world he found himself at the helm of a ship sailing on a boundless silver sea with a golden horizon stretching into infinity, ready to explore an undiscovered dimension of existence.

Insatiable curiosity was an aspect of Nigel’s character that dominated his life. In his youth Nigel walked through the Valley of the Kings and climbed the Great Pyramids of Giza. He went behind the Iron Curtain to explore the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and when the Berlin Wall came down, Nigel was there to take a piece with him as a trophy. Later in Nigel’s life he began sailing the Puget Sound, a shimmering blue paradise that he grew to love with all his heart. Some of Nigel’s happiest moments occurred when he was on the water, whether it was watching the sun set over the horizon while moored on Blakely Island or being surprised by a pod of Orcas while out for a leisurely cruise.

And my father won’t be alone on that ship. Alongside him will be the many beloved pets who travelled alongside him in life, for my dad had an amazing affinity for animals. Beloved cats like his Archimedes and Cicero will guide him, and his faithful dogs Elmo and Quincy will be there to man the rudder, working alongside a crew of dozens of different animals that my father loved over the course of his life. My father was a great lover of antiquity, all things Greek and Roman, and as part of his wishes I placed two coins over his eyes for the ferryman to carry him across the River Styx. Another ancient Greek tradition was to celebrate a man’s life by partaking in all the activities he loved in life.

So in keeping with that great tradition his wife of thirty years, Julie, as well as I, would like to invite you to Normana Hall to feast at their monthly pancake breakfast. For twenty-five years my father took us to the pancake breakfast, and it was a beloved tradition, because the other thing my father loved to do was eat good food. And the pancake breakfast serves the best Swedish pancakes outside of Sweden itself. Even at the very end when his cancer was at its very worst, he still wanted a few bites of those delicious pancakes.

So come, join Nigel’s family and feast while we remember the life of an extraordinary man and to toast his voyage into the unknown that awaits us all.

I’ll be back soon with articles about XCom 2, as well as follow ups to my articles on Star Wars and Life is Strange that I never got around to completing.

Star Wars Redeemed: The Force Awakens

Happy New Years Eve, everybody!

I’m so grateful to have some of the greatest readers of any blog anywhere. XUfan2012 sent me a real Christmas miracle: tickets to a good Star Wars movie. Yes, a good movie that redeems the Star Wars franchise and turns it back into the fun loving adventure that made the original trilogy so magical.

(On a serious note, I want to thank XUfan2012 for his generosity. I told him I hadn’t seen the new Star Wars due to my father being in the hospital and he sent me a great gift in response. I’m lucky to have so many dedicated and generous readers.)

This is Star Wars as it should be: fun, packed with amazing action scenes, and featuring memorable characters. In some ways it falls short of the original trilogy, especially when compared to The Empire Strikes Back, but in other ways it actually exceeds its predecessors. And compared to the prequels… it doesn’t even compare. In fact, this movie is so good that I’ve almost forgotten that the prequels exist.

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Almost…

For the first time since Episode I came out, I’m actually excited about Star Wars. Everything that I liked about the trailer holds absolutely true in the full movie. So that’s my spoiler free review. It’s everything you could want from a Star Wars movie. Unlike the Prequels, The Force Awakens knows its supposed to be fun, and you’ll have a ton of fun watching it.

Major spoilers to follow. Turn back now if you haven’t seen the movie.

 

 

 

 

Seriously, don’t scroll past this point.

 

 

 

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Here be dragons…

 

 

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A Storytelling Review

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I think one of the reasons I was so wary of this new entry into the Star Wars canon, was the title. The Force Awakens? What, did it fall asleep? That seemed unlikely, but it turns out I was reading it wrong. It’s not the Force waking up, its the Force awakening the characters in the story. It awakens Rey to her abilities, Finn to new possibilities, and most importantly, it awakens us to what Star Wars is all about: the adventure.

The movie begins, as Star Wars always does, with a title crawl. It quickly tells us that a new enemy has arisen from the ashes of the Empire, the First Order. Opposing them is a plucky band of resistance fighters, secretly backed by the Republic which has been reborn after the fall of the Empire. One of the resistance’s greatest fighter pilots is going to meet an old ally, who has information as to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker who has been missing for years. This brings up my only big complaint about the movie: this is a lot of information to convey in only three paragraphs.

Why is it the Resistance fighting the First Order and not the Republic itself? How long has the First Order been around? How powerful are they? Can they match the Republic’s fleet and resources? Or are they a relatively small band of extremists? In A New Hope everything you needed to know about the Empire and the Rebellion was conveyed brilliantly by the size and technology disparity between the tiny Blockade Runner and the immense Star Destroyer. Meanwhile in this movie I never really had a firm grasp of how large or powerful the First Order was.

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Yes they can build a planet-sized death cannon, but quite frankly doomsday weapons pop up so often in Star Wars that it’s not an accurate measure of strategic power.

But while this bothers me to an extent, I also understand why these facts about this new universe are left nebulous. First of all this is the flagship movie of a new colossal film franchise and it’s entirely possible that even the writers and creative types at Disney haven’t quite nailed down the details yet. Secondly, given the metric ton of plot clues and foreshadowing in this movie, I can all but guarantee that the rise of the First Order will eventually be turned into its own movie.

But thirdly, and most importantly, by sparing us the expositional dialogue that would have been required to convey 30 years of Star Wars history, the movie maintains a consistent pace. When you see squads of Stormtroopers and resistance fighters start blasting each other in the opening moments of the film, your brain will register the only two facts you really need to know:

First Order Bad; Resistance Good.

It’s important to remember this is Star Wars, not Game of Thrones, there are no shades of grey here. And considering it was the focus on the political elements of Star Wars that gave the prequels their dull, plodding pace we should all be grateful this information was left on the cutting room floor.

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The last thing we needed was more of this crap.

It’s in these opening moments, after the resistance has been soundly beaten, that we meet two of the important players in this movie. The first is Kylo Ren. At first his appearance might put you off, because unlike the hulking cyborg that was Darth Vader, Kylo Ren is a slender man. Yet he makes an effective entrance as he stops a blaster bolt in mid-flight and holds it there while he savagely cuts the head off of poor old Max von Sydow. I think we all went into this movie expecting Kylo Ren to be the new Darth Vader, but instead The Force Awakens went in a different direction.

Darth Vader was powerful and imposing, he used his powers with cold and brutal efficiency. Kylo Ren is more like Anakin Skywalker as he should have been portrayed: powerful, ambitious, but emotionally unstable. Kylo is constantly struggling to control himself, but that control shatters with every setback he suffers. He wants so badly to be Darth Vader that he goes so far as to wear a mask that alters his voice just to emulate his idol, but he also knows that deep down he’ll never be Darth Vader. It’s this inner conflict, his inability to measure up to an impossible legacy, that leads Kylo to being constantly plagued by his insecurities. No he’s not Darth Vader 2.0, but if you set aside that expectation, you’ll find he’s a fitting villain for this new story.

In many ways this is a very meta, self-aware story point because it mirrors what the new Star Wars team must have gone through making this movie. How do you make a new Star Wars villain that can possibly match the gravitas of Darth Vader? You can’t, and you’d be foolish to try. So it’s a rather brilliant move on the part of the writers to not only acknowledge this fact, but then also use that idea to create a flawed and fascinating new villain.

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You can’t top this. You just can’t.

In fact, the struggle with identity and self reliance is a major theme throughout the movie. Take Finn for example, a stormtrooper we meet after the initial battle is over and Kylo Ren orders the execution of the prisoners. Finn watches in horror, unable to follow the order to fire his weapon, as the civilians and captured resistance fighters are slaughtered. Taken as a child, he was raised to fight and kill as a stormtrooper. He was meant to follow orders. But when Finn defects and helps Poe Dameron escape, the only existence he’s ever known is lost. In fact Finn isn’t even his name, it was given to him by Poe.

That’s why, when he meets Rey, a young scavenger who has befriended BB-8, he latches onto the identity of a resistance fighter. Meanwhile Rey thinks he’s a resistance fighter because of her own personal history. Living in near total isolation and scavenging parts from the crashed ships in the desert, Rey has been waiting for her mysterious family to return. Her own sense of identity is totally wrapped up in the idea that her family will return for her one day, despite the fact that it’s probably been close to twenty years since they left her. Despite living in dystopia-level poverty on a barren planet, she wants to return almost immediately in case her family comes back.

Both forced outside of the world they knew, Finn and Rey becoming incredibly endearing when they’re forced to flee ahead of the First Order. In the Millenium Falcon.

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That ship is garbage!

As they’re preparing to take off, Rey in the cockpit and Finn in the gunner’s seat, both say to themselves “I can do this. I can do this.”

It’s a great moment in the film that really endears them to us, because we see just how unsure of themselves they are. Who’s really ready for an adventure when it comes calling? Not a god damn soul, that’s who, and I’d be verbally reassuring myself if I were suddenly thrown into a crazy situation (and/or crying continously.)  Obviously because this is Star Wars, both Finn and Rey pull off amazing feats of gunnery and piloting on their first time out. Their celebration after destroying the Tie Fighters was just so damn genuine that I couldn’t help but celebrate with them. The movie does an exceptional job making you feel like you’re experiencing the adventure right alongside Finn and Rey.

Which makes it twice as magical when the Millenium Falcon is recaptured… by Han Solo and Chewbacca. Hearing Han say “Chewie… we’re home” was the moment we all thought “my god… Star Wars is really back!” It was like watching a dead friend suddenly coming back from to life. I think after the prequels we were all afraid Star Wars was gone forever… but it’s back.

And here’s one of the ways in which the new movies exceed the originals: the characters feel more human. Chewbacca in particular. In the original films he was just comic relief, he never once contributed anything other than a couple laughs, and he never even used his crossbow blaster. In the Force Awakens, Chewie feels like a fully realized character here. He still has some funny moments of course, but just as often his interactions with Rey reveal the wise and kind soul hidden under that mammoth mountain of fur.

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For a walking carpet he’s pretty well characterized. 

It’s at this point that Han explains Luke Skywalker’s disappearance. Turns out Kylo Ren is actually the son of Han and Leia, and Luke tried to train him in the ways of the force. Of course as teenagers are wont to do, Kylo has a bit of an emotional crisis and goes all emo on him. Again this highlights the running theme of identity in the story. Luke, after ending the Empire by acknowledging his own dark side, probably assumed he was destined to create a new Jedi order. One based on a new philosophy that didn’t repeat the mistakes of the Jedi. And then Luke fails on his very first attempt, creating the very evil he defeated forty years earlier. No longer having a clear path in front of him, Luke does what most of us do in that situation, we look for a new path.

As good as it is to see Han and Chewie and their wistful reminiscing on the glory days of yore, there is a small hitch in the story here. And I’m not referring to the speed with which Han finds the Millenium Falcon, sure that’s awfully convenient but again it also maintains the pacing. Which is why the next section which features a bunch of bounty hunters and a monster chase so odd, because you could cut this entire section and not lose a thing to the story. It felt like and a weird little tangent that didn’t go anywhere.

Fortunately the story doesn’t take long to get back on track, and we meet Maz. This tiny yellow female Yoda forces this group of adventurers to make hard choices, and this is where our main heroes Refuse the Call to adventure. Finn is convinced the First Order can’t be stopped, and he doesn’t want to be a soldier, he doesn’t want to fight. Rey finds Luke’s lightsaber (though why it’s blue and not green I have no idea) and has a flashback to some disturbing images (and I’ll conjecture about these in a later post.) Maz describes the force to Rey, and because she never once mentions the word midichlorians, it’s a great callback the mysticism of the Force and why this franchise is such a magical experience.

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It was a great callback to the same scene with Obi Wan. 

Unfortunately the First Order strikes while they’re all separated. Han and Chewie kick complete ass, while Finn goes Mano A Mano with a stormtrooper wielding some kind of huge stun baton. This seems like a missed opportunity to use Phasma. I was excited that Gwendoline Christie was in this new movie and was looking forward to seeing her kick ass as an elite stormtrooper. Unfortunately she only has like 5 lines and literally does nothing in this movie, and I get the nagging feeling she was only including to market action figures of her character. It seems Finn could have been fighting her just as easily, giving her something to do and showcasing her badass abilities.

But regardless, the best sequence is undoubtedly watching the resistance X-Wings skimming over the water. The sight of those gorgeously rendered ships combined with their excited pilots and the swelling of epic Star Wars music was easily the most memorable shot in the entire movie.  Unfortunately Rey is also captured at this point and taken to Starkiller Base, leaving Finn, Han and Chewie to save her.

Except she rescues herself well before they get there. Watching Rey stare down Kylo Ren and then turning his mind probing abilities back on him is one of the defining moments for both characters. Rey embraces her burgeoning powers and Kylo Ren is confronted by his greatest fear: that his power is weak and his control of the force is rudimentary at best. Kylo sees in her everything he wants to be, a naturally talented force user, and I think he sees something else as well but I’ll leave that to my later conjecture post.

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Seeing inside Kylo’s mind is what makes her go from terrified in this shot, to openly mocking him later on.

As Rey makes good her escape by mind tricking a Stormtrooper, the movie begins building towards its climax. A plucky band of of X-Wings begin making their run on the one vulnerable point on the giant Deathball while Han, Chewie and Finn run into Rey. Now I understand a lot of the criticisms here, the attack on the Deathball really does do a bit too much the same as A New Hope, but I enjoyed it. It was a big, fun action scene that was clear and fun to watch unlike the unwatchable mess every prequel battle turned into.

And the aerial battle is really just a sideshow as the real climax takes place inside the giant vulnerability machine. Han and Chewie begin placing explosives along the inside of the vulnerability generator when Han sees his son. I felt a chill when Han called out Kylo’s real name.

“BEN!”

They named him after Ben Kenobi! I thought that was a great callback to the great old man whose performance helped give The Force, and Star Wars as a whole, its magic. In many ways I wish the rest of the scene had as much emotional impact as that one word did. Unfortunately I felt like this scene telegraphed its intention a bit too loudly.

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We all knew Obiwan would die here, but he at least put up a good fight.

I understand the visual metaphor of Kylo standing on the edge of a literal precipice, caught between a dark infinite chasm and the lighted section Han steps out from, but it proves a bit heavy handed. I mean we already knew this confrontation was coming, we didn’t quite need such an ominous stage for it. That said I really enjoyed watching Harrison Ford’s performance here. When the inevitable happens and Kylo Ren impales him on his lightsaber, Han looks confused for a moment. Then he just reaches out and touches Kylo’s face, and smiles. It was a much needed touch of subtlety to the scene that gave it an appropriate emotional punch. Then Han plummets into the darkness. I suspect that’s why the filmmakers chose this location, so the camera wouldn’t have to show Han’s lifeless body on the floor to the kids in the audience.

Now this is where I was expecting to find that Han had kept and armed one of the explosive charges on his person. I thought perhaps that was why he’d carefully waited for Kylo to be in the middle of the bridge when he announced himself. It just seemed like that would so Han Solo, to have a backup plan. If he couldn’t redeem his son, he would make sure Kylo couldn’t hurt anyone else. Then Kylo would have Force Jumped off the bridge as it began to collapse, because we obviously can’t kill him yet.

But regardless, Han Solo is finally dead and the film builds up to the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the lightsaber fight.

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I was incredibly happy about how visceral and brutal this scene was. Gone was the ridiculously over-choreographed ballet of the prequels, no excessive back-flipping and pirouettes, no lightly tapping lightsabers together so the actors can rush to keep up the lightning fast pace. No, it’s just Finn and Kylo brutally hacking at each other.

I’ve read the criticisms that say that Finn shouldn’t have been able to hold Kylo off for so long, but I disagree. I think a lot of people are thinking that Kylo is this incredibly badass Dark Jedi, again because I think people were expecting a Vader 2.0. The Force Awakens doesn’t have a badass villain though, and while you can argue whether that’s a good or bad thing, I feel the filmmakers didn’t set out to make Kylo a badass. In fact they spent quite a bit of time establishing that he’s basically an emotionally unstable kid rebelling against his parents.

He couldn’t finish Finn faster because, as Yoda warned Luke against decades earlier, Kylo chose the “quick and easy path.” He’s relying almost entirely on pure emotion, hate, to win his battles. I got the impression that he never finished his training with Luke, and Snoke is obviously holding back, hence why his control over the Force and his saber technique are so raw and unfocused.

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He wants to become Darth Vader without putting in the work it takes to become Darth Vader.

Which is why when he finally dispatches Finn, Rey is able to overpower him. Again I’ve read criticisms of people saying Rey is totally untrained and shouldn’t have been able to win, but I think those people forget about Rey’s staff that she uses on Jakku. She uses it to disarm and disable three men trying to steal her droid, and later puts Finn on his ass with it. She knows how to handle herself in a close quarters combat. I’m sure the lightsaber is a totally different animal from a staff, but to say she’s totally untrained is untrue.

They also seem to forget that at first Kylo wins handily, but once he provokes her emotionally, Rey does what Luke did at the end of Return of the Jedi: she taps into her dark side. Armed with that additional strength she’s able to use her anger and grief to slice some important things from Rey’s body (I honestly couldn’t tell what.)

Kylo escapes to live another day as do our heroes. When they return R2-D2 awakes and reveals the location of Luke Skywalker, which doesn’t make a lot of sense but I’m hoping it’ll be explained in the next movie. The fate of Finn is left somewhat up in the air, he seems to be in a coma in the final scenes. And Rey leaves to find Luke.

Which brings me to my final criticism of the movie. Rey making her way up the weird little island thing to find Luke seemed really out of place. Like The Force Awakens was just intentionally killing time at this point, but I have no idea why that would be. Seems like these minutes might have served better at some kind of funeral for Han Solo, but whatever. Then Rey points the lightsaber at Luke and Luke just kind of stares at her like he’s stoned off his ass.

 

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*Bong Hit* Dude, so that’s why they call him “Sky Walker.” 

I’m kind of unsure as to what effect JJ Abrams was shooting for here, but it didn’t work. At least not for me.

The Force Awakens has plenty of strange moments, I didn’t even cover them all here. Despite the flaws though, this is still a great Star Wars movie. It’s well written, it tugs on the heartstrings when it needs to, and most importantly, it’s fun to watch. Fun, you remember, it was that thing that was missing from the Prequels? Yeah, it’s finally back.

Maybe it’s because I never really hopped onto the hype train, but I didn’t go into this movie expecting anything other than a fun adventure film. I also didn’t expect it to outshine the originals. All I really wanted it to be was better than the prequels, and it was. And for that, we should all be thankful.

All that said I will be expecting more of the second movie, because while I had a great time at The Force Awakens, I also see the potential for some much more. Here’s hoping that in 2017, we get exactly that.

Life is a Strange Journey

Life is Strange is an amazing story that I recently got to experience thanks to the generosity of one of my readers, Martin, who gifted me the game on Steam. The only catch? To do a review of it.

Which wasn’t much a catch, because Life is Strange is an amazing story filled with memorable characters and a unique time traveling mechanic that requires you to think outside the box to solve most of the puzzles. It’s also a game that explores important themes and shows you that life is a strange journey for all us, and sometimes we all need a little help to get through it.

Life is Strange:

A Storytelling Review 

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Life is Strange is the story Max Caulfield as she returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy. It’s a game that fills its cast with typical trope characters: the bitchy popular girls, the fat loner, the crazy rich kid, and every other character you can think of. It’s beginning is a giant cliche as Max walks down a long hallway filled with students while monologuing about her life to an admittedly great song.

It lures you into making assumptions about characters and let’s you think you know where this story is heading… and then completely challenges all your expectations and turns the tropes on their head. In most adventure games, you have to explore your environment to find the solutions to the puzzles. In Life is Strange you have to explore the characters around you, talk to them, in order to find many of the solutions. It’s a game that rewards you for interacting with its NPCs, something more games need to do. And most importantly, it’s a story that makes you examine yourself just as much as the characters you meet.

I fell in love with this game less than twenty minutes in when we’re introduced to the Blackwell’s groundskeeper, Samuel. Max’s internal monologue states right up front that people find him creepy, and Max tells us that he isn’t stalker creepy, but more X-Files creepy.

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His spirit animal is a squirrel guys… this is seriously the nicest guy in the game.

Yet despite Max’s reassurances, as soon as Samuel spoke I said to myself, “oh yeah, he’s creepy as fuck.” And I hate that that was my gut reaction to him, because it says something horrible about me. It says I’m willing to judge a person based on his appearance and voice, and I don’t like that one bit. I think of myself as a tolerant and nonjudgmental person, but when confronted with someone who doesn’t conform to societal norms… I acted like a total Trump. The groundskeeper ends up being one the kindest and quite possibly wisest character in the game.

That’s when I fell in love with this game, because I think the best stories are the ones that make us look at ourselves and consider how we might act. Games have the unique advantage of actually putting us into those situations and seeing how we act. Life is Strange held a mirror up and I didn’t like what I saw in the reflection, and it made me want to change that about myself. So now when I meet someone in real life that acts or sounds like Samuel, I hope I remember the monster I saw in that reflection and treat them like Max treats Samuel; with dignity and kindness.

Which is really the theme and message of the entire game; treat everyone you meet with dignity, respect, and with the understanding that they’re all facing struggles of their own.

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Shockingly, treating people like crap doesn’t pay off for anybody.

One of the most shocking moments in the game comes when a viral video of Kate Marsh hits the internet. Kate is one of Max’s classmates, and she’s incredibly sweet. She’s a shy girl that keeps to herself, to an even greater extent than Max, and she’s very religious. As a shy person in school myself, I can attest to the fact that often times shyness is taken for arrogance. People assume you don’t hang out with them because you think you’re better than them, when in fact you don’t hang out with them because you’re afraid they don’t want you to. Combined with the fact that Kate is very religious and the rest of the students at Blackwell assume she’s an arrogant, holier-than-thou stuck up bitch.

So when a viral video pops up of Kate making out with several boys at a party, everyone is quick to pile onto the poor girl. Because now they can label Kate a hypocrite, and there’s no worse kind of bullying then self-righteous bullying. People wrote horrible messages on her dorm room panel [Will Fuck 4 Jesus being one that stuck out in my mind as being thoroughly disgusting] and posted links to the viral video everywhere they could. As Max, I did my best to erase these disgusting remarks and links, and helped Kate when I could.

But no… that’s not entirely true. One morning things were clearly coming to a head for poor Kate, she ran crying out of Mark Jefferson’s class after he refused to help her and she was keeping to herself far more than usual. Earlier that day using my time bending powers, I’d explored her room and seen terrible messages from her family about how she had disgraced them and shamed herself. I knew she was in pain, I knew she needed help.

But I was with Chloe at the time, playing with my time powers.

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Her mind went to exactly the same idea mine would if I had time powers…

So when Kate called while I was with Chloe, I chose to ignore it. After all, it’s a video game, what’s the worse that can happen?

Kate Marsh Jumps
OH
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MY
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GOD

 

This is one of the most powerful scenes in the game and an unfortunately accurate portrayal of what leads people to suicide. When Max sees Kate leap off the roof, her sudden burst of emotions freezes time its tracks, giving her enough time to reach the roof and try to talk Kate down.

I tried to reach her, I really did. Unfortunately I tend to get tunnel vision playing through a good game and rush towards resolving the main plot, skipping a lot of the optional stuff so I honestly didn’t know Kate very well when I tried talking her off that ledge. And because of that, I ended up metaphorically pushing her off that ledge. Kate felt utterly alone and because I didn’t know her well enough, I couldn’t provide the human connection she desperately needed.

And she jumped.

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I’m so sorry Kate.

What I absolutely love about this game is that it’s entirely possible to save Kate, and you don’t have to find some secret McGuffin or complete some sidequest to do it. All you have to do is invest a little time into talking with Kate and get to know her, so that when you are on the roof with her, you can show her she’s not alone. Having metaphorically been on that roof a few times in my life, I know that the most important thing in those moments is knowing someone out there cares.

And if you do manage to save Kate you meet her at the hospital, where she’s already feeling much better. Because suicide is always a spontaneous decision (with the exception of end-of-life euthanasia that is) and the reality is, the desire to die never lasts very long. It’s one of the most sensitive and accurate portrayals of suicide I’ve ever seen, and the first one I’ve seen in a video game (at least the first one that didn’t involve a zombie bite.) The game is worth it just for this sequence alone.

I found myself so invested in the characters and their relationships, I actually found the mystery plot surrounding it to be almost dull by comparison. The mystery revolves around the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the Vortex Club, where girls are getting drugged and abused (including poor Kate, which leads to the viral video). Max is also haunted by visions of a massive tornado destroying the entire town of Arcadia Bay. Honestly I think the game should have spent just a little more time on these plots, because they feel almost like afterthoughts compared to experiencing the interpersonal relationships between the characters.

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The big reveal at the end of the mystery is that Mark Jefferson, the famous photographer turned teacher, the reason Max came to Blackwell, is actually the serial killer she’s been hunting. This was a brilliant twist because it makes complete sense in hindsight. Mark Jefferson’s creepy fixation with Max’s entering his contest, the weird photographs he was famous for that were plastered across the campus, and even his personalty: his Ted Bundy like charm designed to make someone lower their guard.

Max manages to stop Mark Jefferson, but only by doing multiple warps through time and space, and by the end time itself begins to unravel. The huge tornado that Max had seen tearing through Arcadia Bay is the result of Max’s continuing use of her powers. Leading to one tragic, but ultimately inevitable decision.

Max has to return to the moment it all started… and let Chloe die, rather than change history.

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Two moons is nature’s way of saying you’ve really fucked something up.

Or you can choose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay and kill thousands, get a 30 second clip of Chloe and Max driving through town, and roll credits. I honestly have no idea why this ending is in the game, clearly the team didn’t like it since they put no effort into making it emotionally fulfilling or offering any sense of closure. Maybe this was a decision by some soulless corporate suit that wanted to appeal to a wider audience or something, I don’t know. The fact this crappy ending is in the game is almost insulting, and tarnishes an otherwise shining jewel of storytelling.

The confusing thing about Life is Strange‘s two endings is that it really didn’t need it. I hold up the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead as one of the finest storytelling experiences in gaming, and it didn’t need two endings. Instead Life is Strange should have done something similar to the Walking  Dead: offer a single ending but with two small but still incredibly emotional choices. The Walking Dead let you choose to let Lee turn into a zombie or have Clementine mercy kill him. Life is Strange should have had the same kind of choice, and I’m honestly surprised they didn’t offer it. It should have offered us the choice of sacrificing Chloe, which they gave us…

Or sacrificing Max.

I was expecting this option to appear and was rather shocked when it didn’t. Nathan was already so keyed up that all Max would really have to do is jump out from behind her cover and scream at him, and he would have shot her on instinct. Yes she would be changing the timeline one last time, but Max would also die, and with her, the power that was destroying time.

2015-11-26_00003

Honestly I think sacrificing Max would have been the more tragic and emotional ending. Not to mention making more sense. After all I don’t think trying to save Chloe was the reason time began unraveling and created a huge tornado. It was Max’s continuing use of her powers and ripping time a new space-hole in the process. And while Chloe was indirectly the cause by forcing Max to continue saving her, Max is the real problem. Even with Chloe dead now, how long until Max uses her power again?

At several points in the storyline, Max uses her power instinctually to protect herself or others. What’s preventing that from happening again?

Still all that said, as long as you pick Sacrifice Chloe as your ending, the final act of Life is Strange is still emotionally satisfying. Would I have preferred something a bit less conventional and less of carbon copy of The Butterfly Effect? Of course. An ending that challenged my expectations just as much as the early chapters did would have made Life is Strange a narrative on par with the Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but as it is, it falls short.

Yet I have to admit that the final scenes of Life is Strange hit all the right emotional notes and provided closure to the series, which is all I really look for from an ending.

2015-11-27_00017
I’ll admit, the appearance of the blue butterfly brought a few tears to my eyes…

The ending isn’t what I would have liked to see, but Life is Strange is still an amazing game filled with memorable characters and a great message we should all take to heart:

Life is a strange journey for all of us and we should all try to help each other through it as best we can. Because one day we’ll all find ourselves staring out into an unstoppable storm and when we do, we should have someone at our side…

The Very End.png
Even if it’s just to hold us until the very end…

 

Jessica Jones: Marvel’s Darkest Side

It’s no secret (or perhaps it is since I never got around to doing a review,) that I love Daredevil. It was the first Marvel franchise where I was actually on the edge of my seat during the fight sequences because, unlike the immortal demigods of the Avengers, Daredevil could be injured. Horribly, horribly injured. I think half of the show’s budget was used on practical effects to simulate all the compound fractures they kept showing on screen. It was brutal and visceral, and featured a hallway fight sequence that may be one of the greatest martial arts fighting scenes I’ve ever seen.

More than that, Daredevil understood the gravity of the situations he was in. Gone was the sarcastic quipping of the Avengers as collateral damage and civilian casualties are occurring all around them.  Daredevil painstakingly prevented civilian casualties, and when civilians were killed by his enemies, he was genuinely enraged. This was a Marvel franchise that actually got me emotionally involved in the characters, it told a story that fascinated me, rather than just distracted me on a hot summer day.

Jessica Jones is not Daredevil. Jessica Jones isn’t even Marvel, at least not in the way we’ve come to know it. This is a different, darker Marvel. Jessica Jones is far less physically violent than Daredevil, but that violence is replaced by a far more disturbing kind of mental and emotional violence. It’s a story that shows us an abusive relationship in excruciating detail, it will make you uncomfortable and it will make you want to take a shower at some point. But if you’re ready to explore the darkest depths of human depravity, Jessica Jones is all too ready to take you there.

Netflix’s Jessica Jones

A Storytelling Review

jessica-jones-netflix-poster

Jessica Jones is easily Marvel’s most powerful and darkest installment in its cinematic universe. And while I’d love to recommend it to everyone, the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone is going to like it. It’s a great show, but if you come in expecting a typical superhero show, you will be bitterly disappointed.

For one, this isn’t a superhero show. This is a personal revenge story and gender-reversed noir detective story that just happens to have superheroes in it. Unlike every other franchise in the Marvel Universe, New York City isn’t in mortal peril. No one wants to destroy the world. No one is looking for infinity stones or the secret of immortality. It’s just Jessica Jones trying to survive after an unthinkable trauma, and her quest to hunt down the man responsible.

Kilgrave
This bastard right here.

When I said this is a gender-reversed noir detective story, I fucking meant it. The hard-boiled private detective is Jessica Jones, the reporter looking for a scoop is Trish Walker, and the unscrupulous defense attorney cheating on their spouse is Jeri Hogarth. Fifty years ago, all those roles would have been male. And as for the “Femme Fatal,” the alluring seductress who is either involved with or is in herself the inciting incident that puts the story in motion?

That’s played by none other than David Tennant (pictured above.)

A standard femme fatal uses her sex appeal to lure the protagonist into his own downfall, much like the Sirens of Greek myth. Kilgrave’s power isn’t sex appeal, though he does have that in spades, but instead he’s a superpowered um… Menne Matal? No… that can’t be right. Anyway, he controls people’s thoughts. But not just their thoughts, their desires. How Jessica describes her experience with Kilgrave is absolutely chilling. Unlike say, Borg mind control, you’re not simply compelled to do something against your will.

You’re compelled to want to do whatever Kilgrave wants. His desire becomes your desire. I can’t think of an idea more repugnant than that.

the-hunting-ground
Well, except for the real world equivalent. Speaking of which, everyone should watch The Hunting Grounds because it’s fucking horrifying and we need to do better as a society. 

So now not only are you acting against your will, but when you’re finally free of Kilgrave’s influence, you’re left to deal with the horrific guilt. Because you wanted it. He compelled you to want it, but the desire was still there.

That’s the villain Jessica Jones is up against and with the power to command whomever he chooses, he’s not easy to take down. Again though, Jessica Jones doesn’t follow the usual superhero structure. There is no escalating sequence of battles culminating in a climactic fight here, instead the entire season is a game of cat and mouse. Or perhaps cat and cat might be a better analogy since Jessica Jones and Kilgrave circle each other, probing each other’s weaknesses and waiting for the right moment to strike.

If you’ve ever seen any old detective movies you’ll feel right at home. First there’s the investigation, painstakingly hunting for clues and last known whereabouts of Kilgrave. This is by far the best part of the show, and takes up a fair amount of the show’s run time. I found Kilgrave to completely and utterly terrifying. His calm but cold voice, the manner in which he held himself, the calculating and meticulous planning he relied on. You barely even see him at first, just in the flashes of memory that Jessica suffers from.

Bitch slapped by a bus
Watching Kilgrave get repeatedly bitch slapped by a bus is pretty satisfying.

Though just as brilliant as his ominous introduction, is his clever deconstruction as we get to know the character. Kilgrave seems to be so powerful at first and so incredibly intelligent, the kind of cold calculating sociopath you’d expect. But when Jessica is forced to move in with Kilgrave, you get a glimpse at just how insecure and immature this man is. It’s a credit to David Tennant’s acting ability that he can go from confident and utterly terrifying mind-controlling pyschopath, to a cringe worthy man-child that throws a tantrum when things don’t go his way. Which is exactly what he is.

Kilgrave is revealed to be nothing more than a twelve-year-old boy who never had to grow up because his ability to command people meant he could do whatever he wanted. He’s also the stereotypical abusive boyfriend/spouse, if something bad happens to his partner (in this case Jessica) well she secretly wanted it! Or she did something to deserve it! Or she doesn’t know what she wants! Any excuse will do, as long as he doesn’t have to admit that he’s brutalizing people.

But the fact of the matter is that Kilgrave is just a troubled human being. I began to pity the man after a while, despite his horrible actions, because he was just so overwhelmingly insecure and afraid. As Jessica continues to press him and defy his control, Kilgrave’s suave, confident facade cracks and falls away to reveal the trembling, scared little boy he’s always been.

Kilgrave loves his Mum
Kilgrave just wants his mommy!

It’s the exploration of Kilgrave’s character, the ramifications of his actions, that truly separates this show from typical superhero stories. Unlike Tony Stark’s crises of faith he has in every Marvel film he’s in, all of the traumatized characters in Jessica Jones experience their trauma in a realistic and authentic ways. The violation they feel and the different ways they deal with it all feel real; guilt, shame, rage, insecurity, fear. Well, they feel real aside from one stupid part at the end when they all form a lynch mob for a horribly contrived reason.

As much as I love this show, it’s not without its problems. One problem is when the show tries to use Simpson as some kind of alternate villain. It’s not that I mind that Simpson ends up being a superhero/villain, this is the Marvel Universe, every other person you meet probably has some kind of weird ability.

Unluckiest Nurse
Even if that ability is being the world’s unluckiest nurse. 

No the problem wasn’t so much that he was revealed to be a superhero so much as he was boring and contributed nothing to the story. His power is dull; he’s like an even less interesting version of Bane, his only ability is getting ramped up on a super steroid. He takes a few too many of Underdog’s pills and goes berserk. It’s boring. Combined with the fact that Simpson’s character was so two-dimensional he was basically just a line segment in some scenes, and this new threat just fell utterly flat.

Compared to the incredibly complex character of Kilgrave (and the incredible gravitas of David Tennant), Simpson was utterly anemic as a threat. I didn’t feel an ounce of tension during his fight with Jessica and Trish, instead I just got extremely impatient waiting for them to deal with this incredibly dull diversion so we could get back to the actual story of the show: stopping Kilgrave.

Simpson needed a much more realized backstory.
I’m sorry, but no amount of “slowly walking away from a cool fire without looking” can make him interesting.

And I know, he’ll be back in the next season of either Jessica Jones or Daredevil, and then they’ll probably give us a proper background on him, give him actual motivations beyond ‘roid rage, and he’ll probably make a cool bad guy. But Marvel, you don’t have to shoehorn upcoming characters into every franchise you own, we all know you have a cool cinematic universe where everything is connected. We don’t need to be constantly reminded of that by forcing future villains into shows and movies at the expense of pacing and story. I thought he was properly foreshadowed as a future villain even before he started popping pills.

There was an intensity to him that seemed off even at the start, he revealed he had been a black-ops interrogator at some point, and he had both the expertise and the recklessness disregard for human life to want to use a bomb in a residential neighborhood to kill one man. That was all he needed, his eventual return as a villain was already foreshadowed. But instead of stopping there, they introduced the mystery doctor and his red/white/blue pills (real subtle with the imagery there guys.) And he mucked up the first season by needlessly slowing it down for a completely needless and drawn out fight sequence.

Now when he inevitably returns, I won’t be thinking “yes, I fucking called it!” and be excited to see how his character evolves. When I see him again I’ll just groan and say “oh god, not this douchebag again.” Which is a shame because he does have the potential to be interesting, but you ruined it by awkwardly forcing him into a story where he didn’t belong. He can probably be used again at some point, but when he reappears he’ll have to work twice as hard to make the audience think of him as anything other than that annoying guy from the first season of Jessica Jones.

Disappear him here.png
They should have just disappeared Simpson into a black van at the end of this scene and left his disappearance a mystery.

The other main problem was that, as much as I enjoyed how dark Jessica Jones was, it may have been a bit too dark. Daredevil had both an incredibly endearing romance plot between his law partner and secretary, plus several incredibly funny scenes, to counterbalance the ultraviolent tone. Jessica Jones doesn’t have that, Jessica’s life is ripped apart so utterly and so completely, that by the end you’re just kind of numb to it. Hope killing herself should have been an emotional climax, a heart-wrenching death that should have put fury in my heart, but honestly I barely blinked an eye. By that point Kilgrave had amassed such a body count and Jessica Jones had been through so much trauma, Hope’s death barely even registered with me.

Even at the end, with Kilgrave finally dead and her free of him, the show doesn’t let up in its dark, gritty tone for even a single moment. The final shot is of her back to drinking alone in her office while she desperately tries to ignore the people calling her for help. She could have at least cracked a smile at some point, or ended it with her moving back in with Trish for some semblance of human connection. Anything but a return to the status quo that left her just as miserable as she was to begin with.

Visual Metaphor
Though I did like the visual metaphor of the broken window.

Of course another significant part of why the emotional impact fell off towards the end is that there just wasn’t enough story to stretch out over 13 hours. Jessica almost catches Kilgrave about a half-dozen times over 13 episodes and while some of these near misses are great at building the tension, after a while it becomes clear it’s just needless padding. The worst example of this is when Kilgrave manages to escape again when a lynch mob tries to kill Jessica thanks to the deranged ravings of a crazy woman. It felt contrived and unnecessary.

Despite these problems, Jessica Jones is still an amazing show and it’s worth a watch for David Tennant’s amazing performance if nothing else. Still, this is not a Marvel series for everybody. If you like the cartoony, lighthearted action of the movies and want more of that, this is not the series for you. If you find implied rape, mental and physical torture, and gruesome deaths too horrifying to contemplate – DO NOT WATCH THIS SHOW! 

Marvel’s Jessica Jones takes us into the very darkest corners of the human psyche; mankind’s predatory instinct to conquer and dominate everything around it. It explores in detail what happens when people are able to bend others to their will, the trauma caused when people are mentally and physically violated, and the sick motivations of the people willing to inflict that on their victims.

 

They Can’t Win

So everyone must know by now about the terrible attack that took place in Paris last night. First of all I’d like to express my sympathies for the people of France, and hope that all my readers there are safe. I know I’ve had a few French people comment here on my blog, so if you’re reading this, drop me another comment and let me know you’re okay.

As always happens during a tragedy, people start to lose hope in humanity. But I’m here to tell you that yesterday’s attack only gave me more hope for humanity. Not because of the attack itself obviously, but because of what the attack represents and how humanity has chosen to respond to it.

The perfect response to terrorism.
The perfect response to terrorism.

The attacks in Paris is the last desperate flailing of a dying monster. What ISIS wants is to make us as violent, savage, and xenophobic as they are. They see a city like Paris, filled with people from all over the world come to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world and welcomed with open arms, and it frightens them. They’re terrified of a world where we no longer divide each other by race, nationality, or gender. But that day is coming, sooner than they’d like, and it scares them.

We’re living in the most peaceful era in human history.  There has literally never been a time where there has been less wars, less violence, or more equality, and more peace. There has never been a happier, more peaceful time to be a human being living on Earth. A scant seventy and some odd years ago, Germany was invading France. Today they’re pledging their support. That’s how much as changed in such a short time.

Yes, you can look around the world on any given day and see horrors beyond imagining. Extreme poverty, starvation, civil wars. But we’re getting better at solving each of those problems with every passing day.

A graph of the incredible progress humanity has made.
This is humanity getting better-
At
at
EVERYTHING!
EVERYTHING!

And yes, people like the members of ISIS will continue planting bombs in shadows and shooting at unarmed civilians. But again, those are the last desperate actions from people who can see a world of unified global peace approaching, and are utterly terrified by it. Their time is quickly running out and they know it.

And you know what frightens them the most? What they’re afraid everyone is going to do?

They’re afraid everyone is going to go out there and do exactly what they did yesterday.

And that’s exactly what most of you did today without even thinking about it. I myself went to go eat some delicious pancakes this morning and didn’t think twice about it.

And this frightens ISIS because it means their most desperate acts, their most powerful blows… ultimately amount to nothing. It reminds them of a single, inescapable truth that frightens them to their very core:

They can’t win.

Barring a third world war that blasts us back to the stone age, ISIS simply can’t win. Humanity has evolved beyond them. Whereas they desperately try to hold onto a past world that ran on violence and cruelty, the rest of us are marching toward a world of unprecedented peace and prosperity, where everyone is equal. We’re getting so close to Star Trek levels of utopia that you can practically hear the Warp Engines powering up.

This is how I know in my heart that ISIS, and others like them, can’t possibly win:

New York
New York, The United States
Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico
Shanghai
Shanghai, China
Australia
Sydney, Australia
New Zealand
Auckland, New Zealand
My home city of Seattle
My home city of Seattle

That’s just a fraction of the world’s monuments that have been lit up to show support for France. Across the world, millions of people have taken to social media to voice their support. An entire planet’s worth of people have stood up and said that the death of 129 civilians is unacceptable.

That’s how I know that national, racial, religious and every other flavor of extremism, whether it be from terrorists like ISIS or blustering fear mongering politicians, can’t win.

Because against an entire planet determined to make a better future for itself…

They simply can’t.

The Star Wars Episode VII Trailer: A New Hope

When the sneak peak, or teaser, or whatever they call the shorter version of a trailer now, aired last December I was understandably cynical; it had a weird soccer ball droid which seemed to be trying way too hard to be cute, and I was terrified this was going to end up being the new Jar-Jar Binks; most of the trailer was set on Tatooine (or at least a similar desert planet) one of the most objectively boring locations in the Star Wars universe; there was a goofy looking lightsaber that used other, smaller lightsabers as a cross guard; and finally there was overwrought dialogue from a voice-modulated villain. To me this seemed like the movie was trying to copy the prequel films and not the much better originals. To me, it seemed like doom.

My god...it's boring...It's nothing but boring for as far as the eye can see!
My face upon seeing the original teaser.

But then last night, I saw the new trailer.

And guys…

I think this is going to be amazing!

Now let me give you a long, verbose, overly complicated list of reasons why:

4. The Battles Make Sense

The prequel trilogy featured several huge battles, and I mean huge, with thousands of combatants on screen at once. The problem was that they were all mind numbingly  boring to watch. Bigger does not mean better. Thousands of combatants who we don’t know shooting at other combatants we don’t know was utterly pointless. Worse yet, even visually these scenes weren’t interesting. Yes the graphics were impressive, but that was it. There was so much going on that you couldn’t tell who was winning or losing, there was no ebb and flow to the battle. It was all just lights and explosions that amounted to nothing.

Look at this noise. What the fuck is even happening?
Look at this noise. What the fuck is even happening?

Even the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi suffered from this (though to smaller extent than the prequels did), until the actual run on the Death Star, most of the time you can’t tell what’s actually happening in terms of who is winning or losing.

Now obviously this is all speculation considering we only see like fifteen seconds of actual fighting, but just based on those few seconds, it’s clear that the battles are not only gorgeous, but we’ll also be able to see who’s winning and care about what’s happening.

Star Wars Battle

Look at how clean that battle looks: X-Wings on one side, Tie Fighters on the other. Two sides, two distinct ship designs and a clear, but interesting backdrop to frame it. They’re not lost amid a clutter of thousands of X-Wings and Tie Fighters with giant cruisers in the sky shooting at each other while below them a thousand nameless CGI clones shoot at a thousand nameless droids. The shot attracts your attention to the battle at hand, framing it beautifully so that it remains visually interesting but also comprehensible. It’s a scene that looks like it will actually serve the story and move it forward, rather than make the story wait in the corner until the battle is finished like what the Prequels tended to do.

3. Lightsaber Fights have Emotion Again

Revenge of the Sith ended with a 45-minute lightsaber waltz that succeeded in turning one of the coolest and most iconic sci-fi weapons in history into one of the most boring things imaginable. What the Prequels failed to understand about the original trilogy was that lightsaber fights were never really about the lightsabers themselves, they were a way to explore the characters and highlight the emotional duel that was taking place. From Obi-wan’s calm acceptance of his death at the hands of his former student to Luke’s final rage-filled confrontation with Darth Vader, what made those moments amazing was watching the emotional interplay both between the characters and within the characters themselves.

The Prequels on the other hand, were so devoid of emotion that the only really interesting thing about them was how over-choreographed they were. Here’s what Darth Maul looked like:

maul

And here’s Qui-Gon Jinn:

Qui-Gon_Jinn

Both calm, cool and collected. And utterly fucking boring. If everyone is just a badass with a lightsaber then there’s no real point in watching it, real fights are all about emotion whether it’s a brawl at a bar or a boxing match. Without that, we’re basically just waiting to see who makes the first technical fault. We’re just a bunch of Olympic judges waiting to see which of the amazing, world-class performers makes a near imperceptible mistake we can grade them on. It can be interesting from a technical point of view, but utterly fails as a storytelling method.

Now here’s the look on Finn’s face when confronted by the villain’s lightsaber:

giphy

Thanks to one of my readers, Gabbendi, you can see why this scene is so much better than all the prequel lightsaber fights. The villain activates his lightsaber and Finn visibly flinches and steps back. He’s feeling an actual, genuine human emotion: fear. Look at how his eyes are locked onto the blade of the enemy’s lightsaber, you can almost feel the dread washing over him.

Finn is  afraid of his opponent, and that’s an emotion I can actually relate to. And I think the lightsaber fights have emotion again because…

2. People Have Emotion Again

What the hell do I mean by that? I mean they don’t look or act like this atrocity:

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They don’t act like the unemotional drones of the Prequel trilogy where everyone (including Academy Award winning actors) delivered every line with a completely flat affect.

Here’s a range of emotions we never saw in the prequels:

Grief

Grief

Fear

FinnFear

Anger

Anger

Despair

SadLeia

Each and every one of those faces is telling us a story. We have no context for what’s specifically going on in any of these scenes, but those faces tell us everything we need to know about what’s happening. Leia’s face in particular really drives home how utterly helpless and sad she’s feeling. Why is she feeling that way? What’s going on?

I have no fucking idea, but I want to know. Which leads me to the best part of the trailer:

1. I Have No Idea What the Story Is

It’s true, I’ve seen every trailer they’ve released so far and I don’t know any more about the story than I did before I saw them. And that’s the best kind of trialer. They didn’t ruin their story in the promotional material like so many movies tend to do. I have no idea what the guy with the weird lightsaber wants, I don’t know how Finn goes from being a Stormtrooper to a lightsaber wielding Jedi, I don’t know who the girl is or why she thinks she’s no one.

A girl is not ready to be no one...
“A girl is not ready to be no one…”

That has me more excited than anything else, so much so that I’m almost afraid that the actual movie won’t be able to live up to the amazing story I’m starting to imagine in my head. But I’m still excited because this 2-minute trailer told a greater story than the entire prequel trilogy combined. If the movie is even a fraction as good as the trailer, it will blow my mind.

So yes, my original thoughts on the initial teaser was totally off-base. Never let it be said that I’m not big enough to admit my mistakes.

That said if the movie still somehow turns out to be awful, I’m deleting this entire post and taking credit for totally calling it way back in December.

And hey, look on the brightside, if it does turn out to be awful we all get to call this guy Jar Jar Abrams for the rest of his life.
And hey, look on the bright side, if it does turn out to be awful we all get to call this guy Jar Jar Abrams for the rest of his life.

The Walking Dead: Burying the Lead

So today I had a piece of toast and went outside for a bit. I talked with some friends. Went shopping. Had another piece of toast. Played some video games. Went dancing. And then I came home.

And then I had another piece of toast.

SHUT UP!
SHUT UP! (By the way if any of you get this obscure Futurama reference, I love you.)

That, what I just did up there, is called burying the lead. How many of you gave even the slightest inkling of a care about anything I wrote up there? None of it is relevant to this blog post (most of it isn’t even true, I hate toast), and you didn’t need to read it to get anything out of this post. That’s what “burying the lead” means, slowing down the pacing of your story beneath a bunch of pointless irrelevancies. It was originally a phrase in journalism; if you were a reporter that had a juicy story about a president eating his vice president alive, you don’t start your article with a history about the president’s childhood or how he got elected. Do that later, if you have to, but for God’s sake your opening sentence better start off with:

“PRESIDENT ARACHNOID BITES HEAD OFF VP, SERVES BODY TO CHILDREN.”

The Walking Dead is a show that I hate-watch. Every week it does something to infuriate me, makes rookie mistakes in its writing, and every episode I swear is the last one. And yet I’m always back for the next one. It’s strangely compelling, and unlike it’s spin-off, there’s still enough interesting about the show to make it worth watching. Even if I hate it.

Last week Rick made the mindbogglingly stupid decision to unleash a horde of thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of zombies and herd them away from their town like the world’s most boring parade. The episode ended with a horn going off from their town, sending the entire zombie horde slowly shambling towards the noise. For those who saw the Hardhome episode of Game of Thrones, it was basically that (only not nearly as exciting or well made), it was sudden spike in the stakes of the show and a great lead-in for the next episode.

So how did last night’s episode start? With an army of walkers pounding on the gates of their city? With a panicked Rick and company desperately weaving through the horde, trying to get home before the zombies do and warn their loved ones?

No, it started with this.

Riveting.
Riveting.

A girl we don’t know and don’t care about lost in the woods. Jesus Christ, AMC you buried the lead so deep I’m surprised ExxonMobile didn’t try drilling for oil.

Context for those who haven’t seen the show: the girl in the picture is the love interest for Carl.

Carl.

Carl: the kid on the show who, for the first three or four seasons, everyone wanted to see eaten alive because at least that would shut him up.

Carl: the kid who is literally so god damn annoying he managed to annoy a zombie into eating one of his costars.

Mother. Fucking. Carl. 

And for the first five minutes of this episode, the episode I remind you that is the follow-up to an impending zombie invasion, we watch Carl’s future girlfriend’s backstory. It’s not even a good backstory, all they show is her wandering around looking sad and afraid. And then she eats a turtle.

Turtle, if I were you, I'd have a long, hard talk with your agent about this...
Turtle, if I were you, I’d have a long, hard talk with your agent about this. You deserve better.

You want to waste five minutes of my time watching a girl whose name I can’t even remember eat a turtle? Okay.

You want to waste the momentum (which by the way, you badly needed) from your last episode on setting up the girl’s J.S.S. initials as some kind of future plot contrivance? Fine. You could have stuck that backstory anywhere, but hey, you’ve been doing this for six seasons, you must know what you’re doing.

You want to establish that this girl is traumatized in a world populated by flesh-eating monsters where that fact is already safely assumed by every audience member about every character we meet? Terrific.

Just promise me that now we get to see the zombie invasion! Keep me interested, Walking Dead. I’m rooting for you!

Oh, for fuck's sake...
Oh for fuck’s sake.

Creamed celery.

Creamed.

Fucking.

Celery. 

Is…is this real? Is AMC’s Walking Dead just trolling me now? There’s no way anyone actually thought this was a good idea right? Right?

Guys?

I think we made a wrong turn. We were supposed to hit zombies about five minutes back.
I think we made a wrong turn. We were supposed to hit zombies about five minutes back.

For five molasses covered minutes, we watch as Carol and a group of housewives that, again, we don’t know and don’t care about, giggle over recipes. First of all, this is incredibly sexist. Like, just incredibly. That’s usually not a problem for the Walking Dead, with Carol being it’s resident badass, but, really? All the men-folk are out on a cattle/zombie-drive and the ladies are back home cooking supper? Really? 

Okay maybe the Desperate Housewives of Zombie Village aren’t ready for zombie murdering, and Carol is staying an undercover badass for reasons I still don’t understand, but what about Maggie? She can handle herself, but is she out there? Nope. She’s back home too, getting ready for planting season.

I’m sorry, I thought this was The Walking Dead but somehow I started watching Little Home on the Prairie instead.

Only after fifteen solid minutes of watching the citizens of Alexandria milling around, and talking about their personal problems that we don’t care about,  does something actually happen.

Oh shit, did they start the episode without us?
Oh shit, did they start the episode without us?

Alexandria is attacked by…yet another gang of mindless, bloodthirsty humans because people in this show only have 2 settings: helpless or cannibal rapist. What I found odd is how different “The Wolves”, their name apparently, are compared to last season. Last season Morgan and Daryl almost got eaten when they fell into an elaborate trap set by the wolves. They seemed organized and intelligent. But here they’re just a pack of wild animals.

But that’s another blog post altogether.

Overall once the episode actually starts, it’s not bad television. Too bad it doesn’t start until 15 minutes in. That, combined with the 18 minutes of commercials mean we really only had a 27 minute episode.

So keep this in mind for your next episode AMC, you have something interesting going on in your story now, don’t bury it under useless backstories and unneeded characterization for people who die five minutes later. Next episode I better see that zombie horde.

Stop burying the lead.

Fear the Walking Dead

Fear the Walking Dead came to an end on Sunday and quite frankly I’ve never seen a show destroy it’s own premise quite so quickly. It’s clear that this spinoff of The Walking Dead isn’t an attempt to do anything creative or fun with the Walking Dead series. Rather, it’s an attempt to make a carbon copy of the original and hope that it makes just as much money while at the same time using cheaper actors and effects. It’s the Law and Order: SVU or CSI: Miami of The Walking Dead franchise.

I’ve reviewed the first season below and [spoiler alert]: I won’t be tuning in for Zombies on a Boat next season.

Fear the Walking Dead:

A Storytelling Review

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I was genuinely excited for Fear the Walking Dead specifically because I’ve always thought the collapse of human society is the most interesting part of zombie apocalypse stories. What I was hoping for was a prolonged look at how society tried to deal with the zombie crisis before succumbing to utter anarchy. Instead what I got was…well I don’t know actually, but it sure wasn’t what I was hoping for.

The first episode was awful. It wasted ninety minutes setting up a lot of pointless relationship problems that even a soap opera would have cut from its script, the characters were bland and uninteresting, and it schizophrenically jumped from boring family drama to zombie horror with no regard for pacing. And yet… I loved it. 

Because at least it was trying to do something new and interesting with the setting. It wasn’t succeeding at it, but I appreciated the effort, and the first episode did have some redeeming moments. One of the best scenes was when the characters come to the traffic jam at the freeway off-ramp. You can’t see anything and until the gunshots ring out, you can’t even hear anything. Yet there was this palpable sense of dread, because they didn’t know what was happening, and there’s nothing we fear more than the unknown.

It did such a great job capturing that creeping uneasiness that the hairs the back of my neck were standing straight up, and I knew it was a zombie causing the ruckus. Thanks to that scene, for a few precious moments I thought that Fear the Walking Dead could turn into something truly great.

Then I saw the second episode.

And *poof*, just like that, it was gone.
And *poof*, just like that, it was gone.

To be fair, the second episode added several plot elements that I thought had the potential to really make this show great. There was a mysterious Spanish Flu-like illness sweeping across the city, and possibly the world, which would explain how so many people became zombies so quickly. Civil unrest was mounting as people interpreted police attempts to contain the outbreak as police brutality, and given the police’s record with reckless shooting I thought this was perfectly realistic response. And finally zombie footage was beginning to flood social media, probably completely drowning out any official responses from government agencies, and spurring massive panic mongering and conspiracy theories. It was a perfect stage for creating the panic, death toll and chaos that could lead to a zombie apocalypse.

This should have been the foundation for the entire season and the show should have spent the next four episodes exploring those elements, slowly building up to the zombie apocalypse. Something like a man dies of the flu in his home, comes back as a zombie, bites his family and turns them, they attack the neighbors, and soon half the neighborhood is zombies. The government and media begin disseminating information on the undead plague, while social media sabotages their efforts by claiming it’s a government conspiracy. This sparks riots and protests, the huge crowds making the flu spread faster and zombies infiltrating the crowds causing mass panic. You know, a logical progression of events.

Except we didn’t get a logical progression of events, we got the main character sitting in a barber’s shop while everything interesting about this show occurred outside and off-camera. When they emerge from the barber’s shop, society has collapsed and it’s basically game-over as far as civilization is concerned. For the record, nearly four million people live in Los Angeles (that’s a lot of people to turn into zombies all at once) and its had its fair share of violent riots. One riot should not have brought the entire city to its knees.

For any other city this is a major disaster. For L.A., it's Tuesday.
For any other city this is a major disaster. For L.A., it’s Tuesday.

Watching the slow decay of society as it struggles to deal with the zombie apocalypse was the entire point of the show. Here’s the official synopsis for the show:

What did the world look like as it was transforming into the horrifying apocalypse depicted in “The Walking Dead”? This spin-off set in Los Angeles, following new characters as they face the beginning of the end of the world, will answer that question.

Except you didn’t answer that question, AMC, you skipped over the entire premise of your show so you could make it into a carbon copy of The Walking Dead. Everything interesting about your show was happening while your main character was stuck in a barber shop, and he didn’t even get a nice haircut to show for it. The plot was literally the only thing keeping this show together and you utterly ruined it before the first commercial break in your second episode.  The only way to make the show interesting at this point was for interesting characters to carry the narrative. And that sure as hell wasn’t going to happen.

Not only are the characters completely boring, but worse yet, every single one of them acts like they’re in a zombie movie. And by that I mean they act on information that they shouldn’t rightly know yet. When Madison finds her daughter taking care of her sick boyfriend, she sees he’s bitten and immediately tells her daughter to get away. Now hold up, how do you know that the disease is transmitted by bite, Madison?

Did this guy tell you how his disease is transmitted?
Did this guy tell you how his disease is transmitted?

Yes, she saw the drug dealer earlier in the first episode as a zombie, but she didn’t even fully understand what he was let alone how the disease was transmitted.

Later in the show there are several instances where characters immediately aim for the zombie’s head. Now obviously we all know, as the audience, that you aim for a zombie’s head, but how the hell do the characters know this? Do zombie stories exist in the Walking Dead universe, were all the characters playing Left 4 Dead before zombies suddenly became real?

These are important details because without them, the characters lack that sense of horror and confusion that is pretty much the entire mythos surrounding zombies, and suddenly the main threat of the series is just a minor annoyance. Which is why they felt the need to introduce a new threat to the characters, and gave us a version of the U.S. Army if it were run by Cobra Commander.

Now I’m not a jingoistic patriot who refuses to see the U.S. Army as anything but a force of heroic freedom fighters, especially given their recent bombing of a fucking hospital, but even a cynic like me was a little insulted at just how evil the soldiers were. They stopped just short of using puppies for target practice.

Also, why in the hell are you using an anti-materiel rifle for killing zombies? Overkill much?
Also, why in the hell are you using an anti-materiel rifle for killing zombies? Overkill much?

At one point one of the kids sees a light in a far off house, blinking in a pattern and probably a call for help. The kid tells Travis, Travis tells the commander, and at the end of the day Travis sees gunshots going off inside the house. The implication being the soldiers killed whoever was inside.

Why? What possible advantage would that grant the soldiers? This isn’t a foreign war zone. This is their home. If anything the army would be conscripting every person who could hold a rifle in order to combat the endless legions of the dead, not killing people out of pure spite. If Fear the Walking Dead wanted to portray the army as the bad guys, that’s the route they should have gone, coercing people into serving and using other civilians as slave labor. In a cataclysmic emergency like this, I could see the army resorting to such tactics. But just slaughtering people for kicks? Not so much.

The army’s prison system was equally baffling. Just a bunch of people sitting in cages for no apparent reason. Now I get that this was some kind of quarantine facility, but what kind of moron sets up a quarantine in the same building they’re using as a headquarters? If the illness turned out to be airborne, the entire garrison could have been infected. It would have made much more sense to confine symptomatic people to their homes, far away from where they could infect your soldiers.

Also, what's up with this show and chain link fences?
Also, what’s up with this show and chain link fences?

Inside this baffling labyrinth of chain link and bad lighting, we meet a smooth talking con artist who’s so god damn suave he should have his own theme music. And that music would be Smooth Jazz. When a guard arbitrarily decides the drug addict is really just a zombie who hasn’t hit zombie puberty yet, Smooth Jazz barters with him to keep the kid. Now first of all, why is the guard even interested in his watch and fancy cuff-links? There’s no pawn shops, no jewelers, there’s not even any currency anymore. The world just fucking ended, what is he going to use them for?

But let’s assume that the guard is just a greedy moron, okay fine. Why doesn’t he just take them? The suave con-man is a prisoner and the world is ending, who exactly would he complain to? Is this the only soldier in this army of evil that has a conscience?

Finally, and the worst part of this scene, is why does Smooth Jazz even bother with the drug addict? Nick is clearly the most messed up dude in the entire series, but Smooth Jazz says Nick has skills he can use. What skills? What possible use is he? Apparently none because he contributes exactly nothing to their eventual escape at the end of the finale.

Which is weird since everyone else had no problem turning into zombie killing badasses.
Which is weird since everyone else had no problem turning into zombie killing badasses.

After the group is reunited, they make their way to the medical ward where the doctor tells them about a magical, reality-bending exit that leads to the parking garage they entered from. Then the group leaves the doctor behind. A fucking doctor. One of the most important people you could possibly have with you in a post-apocalyptic environment. Even without access to medications or proper tools, she’d know how to set broken bones, how to diagnose illnesses, and even perform surgery. She’s worth her weight in gold! No, even more valuable than that, because now gold is just useless chunks of heavy metal.

And they leave her. They don’t even attempt to reason with her. Okay, maybe they don’t have time to reason with her, fine. The woman couldn’t weigh more than 150 pounds, everyone grab a limb and let’s carry her out. We can sort out her emotional issues later.

And those emotional issues could have been resolved in thirty seconds, because that’s about how long it takes for everyone else to deal with their emotions. When Travis finds out his ex-wife has been bitten, he spends about twenty seconds trying to convince her to live, and then spatters her brains like it ain’t no thang. Seems like the woman could have taken a few seconds to say goodbye to her son, it wasn’t like she was going to turn right then and there, but whatever. At this point I no longer cared.

I’m glad this series was only six episodes now, because at least it didn’t waste too much of my time. It destroyed everything interesting about itself, and then ended. Good, at least now I know I won’t have to tune in for the premier of Zombies on a Boat.

And a terribly CGI'd boat at that.
And a terribly CGI’d boat at that.

If you thought the farm from season 2 of Walking Dead was boring, just wait until the most boring group in the world is stuck on a boat surrounded by endless water for an entire season…

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

So this is the first of my draft purgatory articles, I’ve decided to to write a brief introduction to each and give you some insight as to why I didn’t post it. I originally wrote this three months ago when I saw Mad Max in theaters, but then made the mistake of reading other people’s reviews of it and decided I wasn’t saying anything new, so what was the point? The point is, of course, that you can never have too many points of view on something. In honor of Mad Max: Fury Road’s Blu-ray release I decided to make this the first draft purgatory article to be released into the wild. 

Mad Max: Fury Road is another movie I judged by its cover, a mistake I keep making. I never saw the original Mad Max, and what I saw of the previews made it look like another mindless action movie that would emphasize big, mind-numbing CGI battles and over-the-top characters over story and character development. All of that on top of the fact it was a remake of an old movie, something that typically never ends well, and I was totally uninterested in seeing it. But again, just like Spec Ops: The Line, I heard nothing but good things about it.

So high an uncharacteristic bout of courage and confidence, I asked a girl out on a date and we went to see Mad Max. This probably wasn’t a good movie for a second date, because I never heard from her again, but who cares? This movie is awesome.

Mad Max: Fury Road

A Storytelling Review

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Mad Max is a remarkable movie, and it’s not just because it’s a feature-length car chase with some of the greatest physical effects in movie history. It also has some of the tightest writing I’ve ever seen; every single sentence serves the story, there’s not a single piece of superfluous dialogue in the entire thing. Where most modern movies feature long-winded exposition and constant smart-ass quips between characters, Mad Max manages to leave all of that behind and focus entirely on its story and characters. Max himself has so few lines that he could have been played by a plank of wood, but of course that would have robbed us of Tom Hardy’s incredible performance. He manages to convey so much emotion in so few words that if he doesn’t get an Oscar nod from this, then those awards will become even more worthless than I already think they are.

The story starts after the end of the world, after thermonuclear war has destroyed most of the planet. It takes the movie about five seconds to explain this and while I’m usually not a fan of narration in film, in this case it works. Tom Hardy’s growling, guttural voice gives you the impression of a man who so rarely uses his voice that it’s become rusted from neglect. It really immerses you in the world of Mad Max because Tom Hardy’s voice, more so than the words he’s saying, let the audience know that not only is the world decaying but so are the people in it.

The only thing rustier than the cars are the characters' souls.
The only thing rustier than the cars are the characters’ souls.

After a look at the horrifically brutal life of deprivation that plagues the people of The Citadel we’re introduced to Immortan Joe, the deified warlord and ruler of the Citadel. Immortan Joe’s speech to his people is a great example of how concise this script is and t reveals all the crucial information the audience needs to know in the span of maybe thirty seconds:

We learn that Immortan Joe controls the water supply, but that his society values gasoline (guzzoline) more highly than the most basic need humans need to survive, revealing that his society is self-destructive to the extreme. Finally it introduces Furiosa as the most trusted of Immortan Joe’s most trusted lieutenants. This is all further reinforced by the great visuals.

Whereas another, lesser movie might waste time showing her slowly gaining Immortan Joe’s trust and then pulling off a convoluted heist to save her sisters, Fury Road wisely skips all that noise and jumps right into the story. Furiosa hangs a left and drives out into the desert carrying with her Immortan Joe’s enslaved wives, and the chase scene to end all chase scenes begins.

This is basically a good overview of the whole movie.
This is basically a good overview of the whole movie.

So you might be wondering where Mad Max is and why I haven’t mentioned him yet. Well the reason is he’s been hanging around as a human blood-transfusion bag attached to one of the disease-ridden War Boys, Immortan’s fanatical soldiers. After getting chased through a hellish combination dust and electrical storm, Mad Max attempts to free himself from the shackles and tubes tying him to the knocked-out War Boy. This is one of the most important scenes in the film because it sets the tone for everything that follows. Max begins desperately trying to cut the shackles off of him, and it’s that desperation that sets the stakes of the story.

Max is afraid to die.

It’s such a basic fear, but think about how rarely you see this in stories. It reminds me of the scene from the horribly disappointing The Dark Knight Rises where the old prisoner explains to Batman that not fearing death is a weakness because a person will perform amazing feats to escape death. This applies to storytelling even more so, if you’re characters don’t possess the most basic fear that governs all life on Earth, then you’re going to lose a lot of the tension in the story. I think Marvel’s movies are the best example of this, where not only are most of the characters invincible god-creatures, but they also go out of their way to make sarcastic quips while in the middle of apocalyptic battles. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy Marvel movies, I do, but they just don’t carry the same emotional weight.

The stakes are further reinforced by Furiosa’s fear of getting caught and her desire to protect her sisters at any cost. Max attempts to hijack the tanker from Furiosa and she kicks his ass pretty hard, which you might expect from a woman with a mechanical claw-hand. Max only manages to win by holding Furiosa’s sisters hostage, again emphasizing the fact that all Max wants to do is escape to live another day. Unfortunately he can’t drive the tanker without Furiosa and so for the sake of mutual survival, they team up and form the best buddy-duo since Turner and Hooch.

Given how monosyllabic Max is, that's actually a brilliant analogy.
Though I think Hooch actually had more lines in his movie.

The evolving relationship between Max and Furiosa was the best part of the movie for me. I’m a sucker for good movies about friendships and that’s essentially what this movie was, a look at how two people came to trust and protect each other in the worst of circumstances. It was especially refreshing since it was a friendship between a man and a woman that didn’t try to shoehorn in a romantic relationship. There’s no sexual tension between the characters or playful banter, which keeps the story focused on the story and characters. The monosyllabic Max has only a handful of lines in the entire movie, but the power of Tom Hardy’s performance manages to convey all of Max’s emotions without him needing to say a word. Furiosa’s sisters get very little screen time as well, but the tightly written script ensures they all feel like real, breathing human beings.

Not a single one of them falls into a stereotypically “princess in the tower” trope, they all have their own distinct personalities and all of them have been traumatized by years of sexual slavery under Immortan Joe. Angharad, heavily pregnant with Joe’s child, manages to save Max by using herself as a human shield before falling off the truck. Immortan Joe crashes his truck in a failed effort to avoid her, which is what gives Max and the others a chance to escape. Yet despite having lost one of her sisters, when Capable finds Nux on the truck, she shows him mercy.

Nux was the crazed War Boy that Max had been attached to earlier in the film, he manages to sneak aboard the tanker with plans to assassinate Furiosa. Fortunately he’s a bit of an idiot and immediately gets knocked unconscious. Nux manages to steal quite a few scenes thanks to Nicholas Hoult playing the character with such humanity. This is a movie that could easily have written off the War Boys as mindless cannibal rapists like so many post-apocalyptic stories, but Mad Max: Fury Road took the braver path and actually characterized them.

Kind of like this.
He’s not crazy, he’s just got a zest for life!

In Nux’s conversations with Capable, the girl who rescues him, he reveals that he’s just a kid terrified of the cancer eating away at his body. He joined the War Boys for the same reason a lot of kids join gangs, he wanted a sense of belonging and safety. And he followed Immortan Joe’s cult because Joe promised him a place in Valhalla, where Nux could see his friends again when he died. He was scared and alone, and he wanted some semblance of safety and belonging in a fucked up world. Not surprisingly, when confronted by compassion and understanding, Nux leaves behind his twisted beliefs and helps Max and Furiosa in their escape.

Their escape takes them through a swampland, a desolate and rotting landscape, emerging on the other side having finally put some distance between them and Immortan Joe’s army. It’s here that Furiosa reunites with her old tribe, the awesomely named Vuvalini, and a half-dozen of the most badass women in the world. When Furiosa learns that the dead swampland they’d just passed through is actually the fabled Green Land that they’d been searching for, and that most of the friends and family she’d hoped to reunite with are dead, Charlize Theron gives us one of the most heart wrenching scenes in the movie. It’s like the polar opposite of Darth Vader’s “NOOOOOO!” scene from Episode 3, a primal shriek that conveys the pain and frustration that can only come from having suffered so much to find out the paradise you hoped to find had died long ago.

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Furiosa plans to take what fuel they can and drive off into the salt flats, a sun baked hellscape, hoping to find a new home on the other side. Max, however, has a bolder strategy: go back the way they came and take The Citadel from Immortan Joe. What follows is some of the best action I’ve ever seen in a movie, men throw themselves from speeding cars and use giant see-sawing poles to board the tanker. Many of the Vulvalini don’t survive the battle, unfortunately, but they all go down fighting the good fight.

At one point Furiosa takes a knife in the back and thanks to the stakes set by the movie, it’s clear that this is a life-threatening injury. Unlike tons of other action movies, Furiosa can’t just shrug off her injury, but that doesn’t mean she stops either. Bleeding out only encourages her to use her last vestiges of strength to do what she should have done years ago.

Remember me!? – Furiosa to Immortan Joe

Those are Furiosa’s words to Joe as she rips most of his face off. This is another brilliant example of both the script and the movie’s director George Miller showing instead of telling. We could have had a scene earlier in the movie where Furiosa confides in Max the horrors of her life and what Immortan might have done to her, but such a scene would have been unnecessary because all the information we need to know is already there.

Furiosa starts out terrified of Joe, she’s incredibly courageous in her bid to escape from Immortan, but actually fighting him was never part of her plan. By the end of the film Furiosa has had a chance to mourn for the home she lost so long ago and remember the proud people she came from, she’s remembered the little girl she used to be before Immortan Joe took her. So when Furiosa tells him to remember her, she’s telling him to remember the little girl he abducted from her family, the defiant girl who he tried to break and brainwash into becoming the leader of his armies. She wants him to know that nothing he ever did was enough to break her, and now nothing will save him from her.

Remember that you're not nearly as badass as you think you are.
Remember that you’re not nearly as badass as you think you are.

Furiosa returns to The Citadel and presents Immortan Joe’s body to the surviving War Boys, the people rise up and celebrate her victory, and Max disappears into the crowd.

It’s not a complicated story, but the greatest stories never are. Mad Max: Fury Road is elegant. That might seem like a strange word to use in an action movie featuring monster trucks, exploding spears and crazed killers but it absolutely fits. The script is astoundingly concise, the characters are incredible, the acting is sublime and the practical effects are simply amazing. It’s an action movie that subverts all the typical themes and tropes we associate with action movies; it’s filled with powerful female characters, it doesn’t promote hyper masculine ideals, and most importantly it’s not just a mindless vehicle for explosions. It’s about home, redemption, and humanity.

It’s a story everyone can relate to, and it’s a story you all owe it to yourselves to see.

Tortured By a Dentist: My Last Two Weeks

So I’ve been AWOL for the past two weeks, and it wasn’t by choice. First my landlady’s internet went down, a niggling little annoyance that should have been resolved quickly. Unfortunately her internet service provider is… well an ISP in the United States, which operate under the assumption that their customers should pay them while providing as little service as legally possible. Still, not a big deal, I could go the library.

About a week after the internet went down another of my teeth decided to execute order 66, attempting to assassinate me from the inside. As my long time readers might remember, my mouth is basically Europe circa 1945, a series of craters and smoking ruins at this point. I buried myself in a few thousand dollars of debt in order to repair my front teeth, but the back teeth, arguably the more important ones that allow me to actually eat are basically gone at this point. Still a starving writer, I wait until these teeth are ready to implode before actually paying to get them ripped out. So finally another of my molars collapsed in on its self like a dying star and a sucking blackhole of agony took its place.

And then screaming in terror when we find massive stars being devoured by huge black holes.

I make so little money that the poverty line looks like the summit of Mount Everest, which means I get free healthcare thanks to Obamacare. Fortunately that includes some basic dental care, unfortunately that basic care includes getting your teeth pulled and cleanings, none of the major repair work required. Still, I was able to get in to see a dentist who would extract the tooth without charging me (or rather charge the state rather than me).

The dentist brought me in to the room and began to explain that the state only gives him $50 bucks to extract a tooth, a procedure that usually costs between $300 and $400. He quickly gave me a few shots of that numbing agent dentists use, and left to talk to another patient while the dental assistant continued to talk to me about that $50 dollars that the state pays them.

“If you could afford to donate anything it would be a great help, because if we only saw patients like you, we’d go bankrupt.” She said.

Alarm bells should have started going off at this point, but at this point it had been four days since the pain began. It started late on a Saturday night, when I took a drink of water. I drank and the motion of swallowing set off the strangest sensation I’d ever felt, a kind of suction in my tooth as if the air had been sucked out of it. A crushing, sucking, sinking pain went shooting down the length of the tooth and burrowed deep into my jaw, tunneling outward until it felt like a carnivorous worm was eating my face from the inside out. But it was Saturday night, and no one would be open until Monday. The only reason I didn’t go screaming into the emergency room was because I was terrified of being stuck with a $10,000 medical bill over a single fucking tooth. Plus I had a bunch of hydrocodone left over from my having my wisdom teeth out, so I was able to put myself in a tiny medically-induced coma.

I started channeling Dr. House pretty hard.
I started channeling Dr. House pretty hard.

I came to on Monday and scheduled the appointment, but there wasn’t an opening until Tuesday. So finally, mercifully, after four of the worse days in my entire life, I finally had a dentist willing to remove my tooth. The dentist’s office could have been named Joseph Mengele Memorial and had walls splattered with blood, and I probably still wouldn’t have clued in that maybe I was in trouble. The dentist talking about “patients like me” and complaining how the state underpays them just didn’t register as possible concern, especially since I agreed with them. The state should definitely pay these people more, maybe then it wouldn’t have taken me hours of phone calls to find a dentist that would take me.

No, I was grateful to this dentist. I was sitting in a room across from the children’s waiting room, listening to Elsa from Frozen sing Let It Go and looking up at a beautiful mural of some butterflies. I was fully prepared to give this man the donation he was asking for, I would get paid in a few weeks after all and the only reason I was rushing was because I was in soul-crushing amounts of pain. Or so I thought. In actuality, I had no real understanding of what pain was. But I was about to learn.

Shut up, I'm in too much pain to be subtle in my foreshadowing.
Shut up, I’m in too much pain to be subtle in my foreshadowing.

As the dentist came in, I told him I could still feel my tooth throbbing.

“It’s okay, let me just check your tooth out.” He said, reaching into my mouth with those big ass pliers they use. The cold metal latched onto the remains of my tooth, and the sucking, gnawing pain in my tooth was suddenly accompanied by a shivering cold pressure. I grunted in that international language of pain, a grunt that meant “holy shit it hurts, stop, stop, STOP!”

I don’t know what sound I made next because I couldn’t hear anything past the crunching, snapping, and grinding of my tooth as he clamped down on it and began yanking on it. Yet the sound was nothing. It was the pain. It was beyond description, but I’ll give it my best shot.

It was electric, a shooting, twisting, burning agony that shot through my entire mouth. Every muscle in my body seized up at once, and my eyes became strangely fixated on the black butterfly in the mural above me. I could see it, but I wasn’t really seeing, it was just something my eyes became focused on while I was struggling to comprehend what was happening. My left hand shot up in the air, the universal sign to stop and I was doing my best to gurgle-drool that same sentiment with his hand in my mouth.

I started channeling Dustin Hoffman pretty hard.
I started channeling Dustin Hoffman pretty hard.

“Put your hand down. Put your hand down.” He said, his once kind voice now had a harsh edge to it as he actually got angry at my resistance. “It’s a hot tooth, very difficult to numb.”

Bullshit. I’ve had infected teeth, my wisdom teeth had become so infected that the infection actually ate away part of my jaw bone. But when I had them removed, that dentist had taken the time and effort to make sure I was totally numb before proceeding. This bastard just didn’t want to take the time to humanely remove my tooth, because in his eyes this simply wasn’t worth his time. I wasn’t a patient of his, I was “one of those patients”, the kind that couldn’t pay and he was going to remove this tooth as quickly as possible regardless of my pain. Short of becoming violent, and wrapping my hands around the dentist’s throat until he let me go, I had no options. I simply had to let it happen.

With a final, sickening snap the top half of the tooth came out. A strange cold began seeping into my hands and feet, and it felt like the cold was filling me up like water in glass, slowly rising up into my arms and legs stopping just short of my chest. I felt utterly drained.

I was in so much pain, this sentence almost started making sense.
I was in so much pain, this sentence almost started making sense.

I remember reaching into my mouth to remove a huge chunk of tooth that was just sitting on my tongue, because there wasn’t anyone suctioning away the debris like I’d had in every other tooth extraction. Then he was back in my mouth with a sharp…something, and he jammed it deep into my gum, and began twisting and rotating it back and forth. I understand now that he was loosening the roots of my tooth, but at that time I really didn’t understand what was happening.

He finally ripped out the tooth after a few minutes of this. All in all, the entire procedure might have taken five minutes at the most, the shortest I’ve ever spent in a dentist’s chair. They handed me a wad of tissues to wipe away the stream of tears that had been streaming down my face, jammed a piece of gauze in my agony-hole and sent me on my way. I barely remember the drive home, I just remember rushing up the stairs into my room and downing half a bottle of Hydrocodone, and then curling up in a ball desperately waiting for sweet relief. Unfortunately since it was pill form, it took another twenty or thirty minutes for that relief to arrive.

And thus ended the single most painful experience of my life. When my tooth began hurting at the start of the week, I’d have classified the pain as a 7 on the pain scale. When I broke my ankle as a kid, that was probably a 9. This though, this wasn’t a 10. It was a 40 or a 50. My entire perception of pain has now shifted. That broken ankle would barely register as 4 at this point. I had nightmares for days afterward.

But I survived, and soon I’ll be back to posting our regularly scheduled content. I just had to let someone, anyone, know about the strange account of being introduced to 19th century dental practices.

I started channeling Dustin Hoffman pretty hard.
On the bright side, if I ever write a story featuring dental torture, I’ll know exactly how to describe it…

Later this week I’ll finally start posting some of those poor articles condemned to Draft Purgatory, I nearly talked myself out of it. But after having a tooth ripped out without anesthetic, posting a bad article is no longer a fear worth having.

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