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The End of Watchmen

November 29th, 2016

Watchmen

I really enjoyed Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie. I felt that, despite the limitations of its form and the flaws in its creation, it still managed to capture many of the things that were amazing about the original work. (And the opening tableau is jaw-droppingly awesome.)

But he totally prat-falled when it came to the ending.

“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

First, the plan from the original story shifts from framing aliens humans will never find but would be able to at least hypothetically defend themselves against (as evidenced by the fact they just made a mistake in their invasion plans) to framing a guy who humans absolutely, positively cannot defend themselves against (as demonstrated by the fact he just casually destroyed two major cities) and who is going to live on Mars. This fundamentally changes the tone of the plan from “humanity will come together to face a common foe” to “humanity will behave itself or the angry god will come back to punish us”.

More importantly, Snyder screws up the execution. What makes the line haunting in the comic book is that you linger in a moment of stillness and silence; the reader basically joined Rorschach and Nite-Owl standing in a stunned silence as the horrible implications of that simple, casually spoken statement. (I’ve also always read the line as being delivered the same way someone might say, “I picked up the groceries today.” But I recognize that that’s idiosyncratic.)

Snyder doesn’t give you that moment. He doesn’t let the meaning of the words settle over you. He doesn’t give your imagination a moment to catch up to the rest of your brain and go, “HOLY SHIT!” Instead he:

  • Cuts away from Ozymandias just before he says the line to a reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite-Owl.
  • Has the camera in motion.
  • Has the score rise to a crescendo.
  • Hard cuts away from the line to immediately show what happened 35 minutes ago.

The entire effect is to anticipate (and thus undercut) the line; and then place the emphasis on the action to follow instead of the line itself.

All of that, by itself, would completely ruin the effectiveness of the line. (Which is why you never see anybody quoting the line who hasn’t read it in the comic book: In the movie, it’s simply not quotable.)

He also rewrites the line. The first of these (changing “Republic serial villain” to “comic book villain”) is largely irrelevant to the current discussion (although it does needlessly remove nuance; one of the major points in Watchmen is that in a world where superheroes actually exist, they aren’t perfect heroes — it isn’t the Marvel universe where the Marvel comics are actually published; it’s a universe where superhero comics didn’t exist). But the crucial change is from:

  • “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

to:

  • “I triggered it thirty-five minutes ago.”

And the semantic shift, though subtle, is not insignificant. If you trigger something, you have set it in motion (which inherently means you could still stop it). If you did something, on the other hand, then it’s done. This, too, effectively undercuts the ability for the finality of the line to land.

If I was teaching a class in film editing, I would cue this up along with the special editions of the Star Wars movies as examples of how subtle the difference in editing is between a great film and a mediocre one.

It actually reminds me of the story told by the scriptwriters for Casablanca. That film was infamously being rewritten basically up until the last day of shooting, and they had just written the famous ending to the film the day before it was filmed. (“Round up the usual suspects.”) So the director films it, it gets edited, and then they call the writers to tell them that the ending isn’t working. So the writers head over to the studio and they discover that they’re basically trying to do it in one take, “Major Strasser has been shot.” (looks at Rick) “Round up the usual suspects.”

And the writers say, “No, no, no. You have to say, ‘Major Strasser has been shot.’ And then cut to Rick. And then cut to Renault. And then cut to Rick. And then cut back for, ‘Round up the usual suspects.'” You have to see the thought. And so they recut the scene and, of course, it’s a classic.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Since I’m talking about this, I’d also like to delve a little deeper into what makes the original Moore/Gibbons storytelling in this moment so utterly compelling.

Look at the composition of the full page:

Watchmen - I Did It Thirty-Five Minutes Ago

It consists of three panels, each taking up the full width of the page. (You can click any of these images to see them at a larger size.)

The first panel, of course, contains the definitive quote. The fact that it takes up a full page width causes the perceived moment to extend in the reader’s mind.

The second panel is a completely silent reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite Owl. Their faces are completely blank in shock; like they’ve been hit in the face with a two-by-four. Notably, the panel is framed to show a bank of clocks in the background. The current time in New York is shown as being one minute to midnight: Which is where the Doomsday Clock has been for the entire comic. Snyder tries to do the same thing, but (a) puts the reaction shot before the revelation and (b) makes the metaphor literal by showing the the actual countdown clocks of the operation at 00:00 (which also means he cuts away from the moment).

The third panel shows a street in New York. Utterly silent. It is, in fact, the fourth page in a row which has the final, page-wide panel depict that New York street:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

The previous instances had Ozymandias talking over them in captions; but this one does not — it further extends the moment of silence that persists in that room between Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Nite Owl. And it simultaneously reveals that all those shots of New York you were seeing were, in fact, in the past… which inevitably leads you to imagine the destruction which is about to happen.

And then you turn the page and there it is. But you still don’t actually see a giant explosion. You see people react to it. And then you see them vaporized by it:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

It’s absolutely brilliant visual storytelling in every single way.

Snyder, of course, goes for the disaster porn instead.

A Very Brief Review of Chobits

September 2nd, 2016

Chobits - CLAMPChobits is the story of a young boy who discovers a robotic girl (a chobit) in a garbage pile, takes it home, and turns her on. It quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary chobit, and a great deal of mystery builds up around the chobit’s true identity and the strange abilities she appears to possess. Along the way, CLAMP kind of flirts with commenting on the objectification of women (but seems to mostly just use that as an excuse to objectify them). The central enigma and the flirtation with deeper commentary on the “fan service” of modern manga kept me reading until the end and then… Well, let me just tell you.

REALLY SERIOUS SPOILERS

This is the truth behind the great engima of Chobits:

We discover that Chi — the chobit discovered by our protagonist — was created by a pair of computer scientists who wanted to create a fully sentient AI, and they think of her as their daughter. One day, however, Chi realizes that she wants to experience true love. So she comes up with a foolproof plan to do that:

“I will give myself amnesia and enter a comatose state. I want you to throw my comatose body on a trash pile and hope that my one true love finds my unconscious body there.”

I… umm… Wow. Okay. That’s really stupid.

Not done yet, though, because then her mother says: “We wanted our daughter to find true love, so after she went into a coma and couldn’t consent, we reprogrammed her so that if her first boyfriend didn’t marry her she would not only commit suicide but murder every other android on the planet.”

Guys, that’s not really a great plan, I think–

“Also, we specifically made our daughter so that she could fall in love with someone. But then we designed her body with an off switch in her vagina so that if she did fall in love with someone and then they had sex, it would delete her entire brain and functionally murder her.”

What. The. Fuck. Is. Wrong. With. You?

And just as you’re reeling from the big reveal that this entire story is about the secrets kept by some phenomenally fucked up people, they follow it up with: “Why did you call them chobits? Why not just call them robots?”

“Oh, because we didn’t want them to be bound by the Three Laws of Robotics.”

Because, obviously, that’s how the Three Laws of Robotics work: You just name something a robot and the Holy Spirit of Asimov fills their corporeal form and binds them forevermore by the Three Laws.

Fuck off, CLAMP.

GRADE: D

A guide to grades here at the Alexandrian.

Review: Ten Candles

May 19th, 2016

Ten Candles - Stephen Dewey

Ten days ago something, or someone, blotted out the sky. Now no stars can be seen, all communication with satellites has been lost, and the sun no longer lights up the sky. Five days ago, They came. No one knows who or what They are, but two very important things are clear:

They fear the light.

They’re coming for you.

Ten Candles is a masterful storytelling game by Stephen Dewey. The basic premise of the game remains the same every time you play: The sun and stars went out. They came. You and a handful of other survivors are clinging to flickering sources of light and trying to find a safe haven. But the mechanics of the game vary the identity, nature, and goals They possess, and this can be combined with an almost endless variety of starting conditions (which the book amply demonstrates by including twenty-five radically different modules) to create something unique and special every time you play.

Your characters will die. The story we’re going to tell today is not one of survival, but one of hope and loss. This is a story about what happens in the dark and the final few hours in the lives of a group of survivors fighting against it, losing themselves within it, and inevitably being consumed by it. Though their endeavor may be doomed to fail, it is our duty to make this story of their struggle as meaningful as possible.

During character creation, two major things will happen: First, your character will be defined by a Vice, a Virtue, a Hope (a moment which will give your character hope if it occurs during the game), and a Brink (the place to which your character can be pushed when things become desperate; and a place to which one of the other characters at the table has seen you go before). Second, ten candles are lit in the middle of the table.

Once character creation is completed, the first scene begins. The players receive a communal pool of 10 six-sided dice (equal to the number of lit dice). Whenever a conflict roll needs to be made, the character initiating the conflict rolls the communal dice pool:

  • As long as you roll at least one 6, the conflict is successful.
  • Any dice that roll 1 are lost and discarded for the rest of the scene.

If the roll results in failure, a candle is darkened and the scene comes to an end. At that point, the communal dice pool is restored to the now reduced number of lit candles, and the GM gets a pool of dice equal to the number of darkened candles which can be rolled in order to seize narrative control of successful conflict rolls away from the players.

The major wrinkle to this simple resolution mechanic is that players can choose to burn their character traits: Each trait is written on a card and placed in a stack when the game begins, allowing each player to burn the top card of their stack. Literally burn it: Light it on a candle’s flame and toss it into a burn pot in the middle of the table. (This doesn’t destroy the character trait in the sense that it still defines who your character is, but it does force each trait of your character to be placed in the spotlight as the game proceeds.) Vices and Virtues can be burned to reroll 1’s. You can attempt to achieve your Hope by staging the moment and making a conflict roll. And your Brink, which is always a character’s last card, can be used to reroll all dice in a check repeatedly… until a check ultimately fails, at which point the Brink card is lost.

Once only one candle remains, unsuccessful conflict rolls now result in the death of the character attempting them. When the last character dies or the last candle burns out, the game concludes.

PERFECT PACING

The atmospheric effect of playing Ten Candles in a darkened room is tremendously effective: The candles going out one by one. The ritualistic elements of burning the cards. It all greatly heightens the mood of horror, suspense, and fatal tragedy engendered by the game’s premise.

But what makes Ten Candles a great game is its perfect control over pacing: Each scene builds in tension as the dice pool dwindles… and dwindles… and dwindles until failure seems absolutely certain and a candle is darkened forever. The restoration of the dice pool relieves this tension, but now the path to desperation is shorter. And so each scene generally becomes shorter, more intense, and more desperate creating an ever-escalating cycle of tension and release.

This simple pacing pattern is expertly disrupted, however, by the Brink mechanics: As the game nears its end, more and more of the characters will be pushed to the edge. And because each Brink survives until a roll is failed, at the very end of the game — as things reach their most desperate level — there is a momentary suspension of hope.

All of this is then thematically colored by the GM’s growing dice pool, allowing the GM to seize narrative control more and more frequently and viscerally creating in the mechanics the loss of control being experienced by the characters.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

A few years back I talked about how the fundamental failure of Dread — despite the strength of its core novelty — was the fact that the mechanics of the game ultimately created pacing that was deeply and irrevocably flawed: The collapsing Jenga tower created a similar “rising tension” to the Ten Candles scene mechanics, but on a scale of time which combines poorly with early player elimination and which lacks a satisfying conclusion. Although Ten Candles uses a completely different set of mechanics, I’ve repeatedly found myself comparing the two games because of the similar pacing hard-coded into their mechanics.

And, at the end of the day, I feel like Ten Candles basically just kills Dread and takes its stuff.

The only limitation of Ten Candles is that it’s tied to the central conceit of the sun going out and Them appearing. But I don’t think the ties are particularly tight: Although you might lose the thematic connection which exists between the candles and the loss-of-light premise, there’s really only one step in the character creation process which would need to be adapted for other premises. (There’s one card during Brink phase on which a player writes the Brink for Them. You would need to shift the nature of that card to match whatever survival horror scenario you were running.)

In any case, Ten Candles is great. I’ve only had the game for a couple of weeks and it’s already hit my table multiple times, which is a strong testament to its quality. An even stronger testament, perhaps, is that multiple players have bought copies of their own and are either planning to run or have already run their own sessions. That only happens when a game is getting something very, very right.

In short, Ten Candles nails it.

THESE THINGS ARE TRUE.

THE WORLD IS DARK.

AND WE ARE ALIVE.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Stephen Dewey
Publisher: Cavalry Games
Print Cost: $28.00
PDF Cost: $10.00
Page Count: 90

Batman vs. Superman - Dawn of Justice

Two and a half years ago, I concluded that Man of Steel was a thoroughly mediocre film. It was so thoroughly mediocre, in fact, that I wasn’t planning to see Batman vs. Superman in the theater. But yesterday a friend’s birthday celebration included a viewing of the film, and so I ended up seeing it after all. My conclusion?

This film is significantly less mediocre than Man of Steel.

I’m still not going to recommend that anyone see it in the movie theater, but I will say it’s probably worth checking out after it hits the rental market. (And if the purported Director’s Cut actually materializes, I’ll even go so far as to watch the movie again to see if that will correct any of the film’s flaws.)

The biggest difference is that the core storytelling elements of Batman vs. Superman (unlike its predecessor) are not fundamentally broken through a combination of incoherence and inconsistency: The first half of this movie is not about Pa Kent being portrayed as a pillar of virtue while teaching Clark to never become Superman; nor does its second half feature numerous scenes of Superman being completely indifferent to civilian casualties before breaking an “I Don’t Kill” rule that the film never bothers establishing because four people are being threatened.

But while Batman vs. Superman doesn’t share Man of Steel‘s big, macro-scale problems, it shares a similar plethora of bone-achingly stupid errors of execution. What drags the film down (and prevents me from calling it a truly good movie) are the plot holes, thematic inconsistencies, and a simple lack of care and craft. There are some truly amazing and wonderful moments in the film, but the whole enterprise has been weighted down with stupidity and shoved off the end of a pier.

SPOILERS AHEAD

I am not going to attempt to catalog every stupid thing that the movie does. This will instead just be a sampling of the nearly constant, low-level failures of basic scriptwriting and film-craft that Batman vs. Superman suffers from.

Let’s start at the beginning: Superman is framed for killing a bunch of terrorists by a mercenary team who shoots the terrorists with a bunch of bullets… Since when did Superman use a gun? If you saw Superman somewhere and then found a bunch of bullet-riddled corpses, what possible leap of logic would make you say, “Superman must have done that!” (What’s even weirder is that the mercenaries use very special bullets that can be tracked back to Lex Luthor. The bullets don’t actually have any special properties that make them better for shooting a bunch of terrorists and there is absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t just use normal bullets. But, sure, use the bullets that can be traced straight back to you. Why not?)

Adding to this oddity is the fact that all of this happens directly in front of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lois Lane. But for some reason she… never writes the story? Nobody cares what an actual eyewitness has to say?

(There’s also a bit in this sequence where Jimmy Olsen is a CIA agent who is pretending to be her camera man and gets himself shot in the head. Lois also never reports that the CIA nearly got her killed. Snyder then continues the trend of pointlessly killing supporting cast members from his source material by having Lex Luthor send Mercy Graves to die in a bomb explosion for absolutely no reason whatsoever.)

Lois’ entire arc for the rest of the film, however, is investigating what really happened at the terrorist compound. She does, in fact, figure out that Lex Luthor is behind all of it. Bizarrely, however, this has absolutely no impact on the film because she never tells Superman (or anyone else) about this despite having multiple opportunities to do so. (Amy Adam’s Lois Lane — like Cavill’s Superman, Affleck’s Batman, Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Irons’ Alfred, Fishburne’s Perry White, and… well, basically every single actor and character in the movie — deserves so much better than what Snyder is apparently capable of giving them.)

There is, in fact, a lot of, “Just freakin’ SAY IT you idiot!” problems to be found here, as if the movie had been penned by the writers room for a mediocre sitcom. Lois, for example, realizes that somebody knows that she can be used as bait for Superman and, in fact, has been doing exactly that… but then just completely fails to tell Superman that, either. Later, Superman refuses to simply say to Batman, “Hey! Lex Luthor is playing us!” opting instead to say, “Just listen to me!” over and over and over again while walking slowly towards him triggering a series of pressure plate traps. (Although why you would build pressure plates to target somebody who can fly is a little mind-boggling in its own right.)

Speaking of the fight with Batman, the entire basis of Batman’s anger with Superman is a result of Superman’s seemingly callous disregard for incidental damage and civilian casualties during the battle at the end of the Man of Steel. If that’s going to be the ethical backbone of the film, however, you can’t have Batman’s big solo action scene in the middle of the film feature… tons of incidental civilian casualties. (Or, if you do, there should be some self-reflection or at least authorial reflection upon it. This film, on the other hand, just doesn’t seem to realize what it’s done.)

On a similar note: Batman, having forged the Spear of Kryptonite Destiny to fight Superman, leaves it in Gotham after realizing that Superman is actually just a guy trying to do the right thing. (Which, I may note, is realized in a moment that is absolutely fantastic.) Seeing Doomsday, he realizes that he needs the Spear. So he decides to go back to Gotham, get the Spear real quick, and then come back to where Doomsday is. Ha, ha! Just kidding! He decides to lead Doomsday into the city to where the Spear is.

Speaking of that Spear: After Batman chooses not to kill Superman, he throws it aside. Lois Lane picks it up and decides she wants to get rid of it so that no one can use it against Superman again. So she walks over to a stairwell twenty feet away (which is flooded for some reason) and… throws it in. “Ha, ha!” she thinks to herself. “No one will ever find it in this shallow pool!”

Five minutes later, completely ignorant of Doomsday or the fact that the Spear would now be useful, Lois suddenly gets an, “Oh shit!” look on her face and goes back to retrieve the Spear. (I can only conclude that she suddenly realized that what she did with it was really stupid.)

Most of this litany is dwelling on basic logic problems in the storytelling. That’s largely because they’re easy to explicate. There’s also a lot of pretty basic problems with things like editing and pacing. One clear-cut example happens just before the confrontation between Superman and Batman: We’ve just had a big face-off between Superman and Lex Luthor. Luthor reveals that he has kidnapped Martha Kent and, unless Superman kills Batman, he’ll have her killed. Superman has acquiesced. We cut to Luthor’s henchman placing a timer next to Martha telling her when she’ll be killed. We cut to Superman telling Lois that he has to go convince Batman to help him… or kill him. Superman flies up into the sky. We cut to…

… Wonder Woman checking her e-mail? Yup. And then we get a 4 minute scene in which she literally clicks on a series of e-mail attachments, each showing a video of one of the future members of the Justice League. These videos are pretty cool, but they’re completely irrelevant. Whoever said, “We should interrupt this rising tension here to lay some pipe for our cinematic universe.” should be taken outside and shot.

(This sequence also creates a weird continuity glitch where Wonder Woman walks into her hotel, checks her e-mail, and then five minutes later is boarding a commercial airline flight.)

Finally, let me mention the really bizarre dream sequences that stud the Bruce Wayne story. As far as I can tell, these seem to exist primarily to generate footage that could be included in the trailers. (It’s possible that the most self-indulgent of them is an actual “vision from the future”, but even as such the narrative role it plays in this film is dwarfed by the amount of film time it chews up.)

With all of that being said, there are also a number of things that the film does very well. The opening of the film (showing the end of Man of Steel from a different angle) is really clever. The first Batman action sequence shows us a version of Batman that is scary, effective, and utterly unique. Heck, the first appearance of Wonder Woman in all her glory is almost worth watching the movie for all by itself. (I’m listening to Zimmer’s exceptional Wonder Woman theme as I’m writing this.) In fact, the best compliment I can pay the film is that it made me much more interested in seeing Wonder Woman. And Warner Brothers needs to greenlight a Ben Affleck directed solo Batman movie ASAP.

Dresden Files – Reading Order

February 2nd, 2016

Dresden Files: Storm Front - Jim ButcherThe Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher primarily consists of fifteen novels, but Butcher has also written a dozen or so short stories and novellas (which, while generally not essential, often have events which reflect back into the novels). Butcher’s website has a list of where the various short stories fall into the Dresden Files continuity, but unfortunately every entry on the list includes a spoiler description of the story. While reading the series, my efforts to find an alternative list duplicating the chronological order failed. So now that I’ve finished the series, I’m putting together a spoiler-free version of the list in the hope that it will prove useful to others.

There are currently two short story collections: Side Jobs and Working with Bigfoot. Butcher plans to collect the rest of the stories (along with some not yet written) in a collection tentatively called Brief Cases, but since that doesn’t exist yet I’m including references below to where the stories can be found.

INTERNAL CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER

“Restoration of Faith” (Side Jobs)

1. STORM FRONT

2. FOOL MOON

“B is for Bigfoot” (Working for Bigfoot)

3. GRAVE PERIL

4. SUMMER KNIGHT

5. DEATH MASKS

“Vignette” (Side Jobs)

6. BLOOD RITES

7. DEAD BEAT

“I Was a Teenage Bigfoot” (Working for Bigfoot)

“Something Borrowed” (Side Jobs)

8. PROVEN GUILTY

“AAAA Wizardry” (Dresden Files RPG)

9. WHITE NIGHT

“It’s My Birthday Too” (Side Jobs)

“Heorot” (Side Jobs)

10. SMALL FAVOR

“Day Off” (Side Jobs)

“Backup” (Side Jobs)

“The Warrior” (Side Jobs)

“Last Call” (Side Jobs)

“Curses” (The Naked City, ed. Ellen Datlow)

11. TURN COAT

“Love Hurts” (Side Jobs)

“Even Hand” (Dark and Stormy Knights, ed. Pat Elrod / Beyond the Pale, ed. Henry Herz)

“Bigfoot on Campus” (Working for Bigfoot)

12. CHANGES

“Aftermath” (Side Jobs)

13. GHOST STORY

“Bombshells” (Dangerous Women, ed. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois)

14. COLD DAYS

“Cold Case” (Shadowed Souls, ed. Jim Butcher and Kerrie Hughes)

15. SKIN GAME

RECOMMENDED READING ORDER

My recommended reading order for the series is basically identical to the internal chronological order, except for “Restoration of Faith”. I think that story functions best as a proper prequel, and I would hold off on reading it until some point after Grave Peril.

If you’re less interested in the short stories, the novels largely stand on their own. However, there are five stories which are prominently referenced and which I recommend seeking out if you’re looking for an “Essentials” reading list:

  • “Something Borrowed”
  • “Heorot”
  • “Backup”
  • “Aftermath”
  • “Bombshells”

Also: The first three books in the series are pretty good pulp fiction. They’re entertaining, but they’re not really anything special. If you start reading them and you’re thoroughly “meh” on the whole thing, skip ahead to Summer Knight and read from there. (That’s where Butcher starts kicking the whole series into a different gear and it just keeps getting better.)

But I don’t recommend doing that, because the first three books do lay a lot of pipe that will enhance your enjoyment of the later stuff.

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