dmilewski: (Default)
Portal 2 (2011) is a first person, puzzle solving video game that attempts to catch lightning in the bottle twice. Like Portal, it features Chell (our silent protagonist), a portal gun that create teleportation portals from point A to Point B, malevolent testing computers, deathly hazards, and a story. Unlike the original, it doesn't catch lightning in a bottle, but don't take that as a criticism. Valve took what worked in the first game, added more puzzles and narrative, kept the wickedly evil sense of humor, and generally gave you more game for your buck. For me, this took the game past that sweet spot of the first game, creating an experience which pulled me to the end rather than slamming me into the end with so much energy that I wanted more.

With more game play, Valve gave us more acts and more mechanics. The first act of the game lasted about as long as the original, with enough puzzles and plot after that to total 2 to 2.5 more game than the original. If you like puzzling, getting this game for cheap is worth your money. New mechanics include flingers, light bridges, light tubes, and various goos.

Towards the end, the puzzles trended harder than anything in the original, with solutions that approached so crazy that they just might work. Rarely did I run into puzzles that made me scream, even if I did die a lot.

I must admit that the ending was madness. It didn't give me the utter satisfaction that the original ending gave me, but I found it frightfully clever and satisfying.

I had no crashes during any play session.

At no point was the world at risk in this game.

I got both game bundled, on sale, which proved an amazing value.
dmilewski: (Default)
Portal (2007) catches lightning in a bottle. It's is a humorous first person puzzle video game developed and published by Valve. In this game, which is essentially a 3-D puzzle platformer, you use a portal gun to create teleportation points to solve physical puzzles. The gameplay develops wells, moves snappily along, and then throws you into the deep for an outrageous final level.

The humor and the storytelling in this game is top notch. There's just enough of this game to really make it work, giving you a good game play experience, while not so much of it that you're tired of the game by the end. Just like a good story, the game play adds hints of what's coming up, so when game play changes, you've been forewarned.

The game itself walks a nice line between challenging and frustrating, so even though you sometimes fail, you don't walk away in disgust or shout in anger.

What makes the game really work is the computer. Apparently, you are in an abandoned complex and the computer running you through scenarios isn't quite right, producing a very twisted comedy. They didn't need to make the computer that upbeat and that passive aggressive and that intolerably evil, but they made it all work out wonderfully.

Then there's the end song which is just the icing on the cake. My wife and daughter have been singing it for a week because it's so catchy and twisted.

The software itself was stable the whole time. I experienced no crashes.

I bought my copy for $5. If you can get this on sale, do so.

dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I went into Superman 4 (1987) expecting to see a total train wreck of a film. Instead, what I found was a mostly pleasant Superman film with some issues, but far fewer issues than Superman 3.

Was the film really that bad? No, it wasn't.

Valiantly, the script reached for what worked in the first two Superman films. For the most part, it touched its mark.

In the cultural zeitgeist, it chose the themes: nuclear weapons, corporate takeovers, tabloid journalism, and greed. Recall that the 80's was the era of greed. "Greed is good." With a nuclear summit breaking down, a boy asks Superman to solve the nuclear problem. Meanwhile, the Daily Planet has been subject to a hostile takeover and turned into a sleezy tabloid.

Overall, I found the setup acceptable, the pacing good, the procession of events clear, the acting appropriately stylized, with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep keep our hero jumping.

That's not so say that the film entirely work. There was a better film here at one point but it suffered under two problems. By my best guess (and this is a guess): 1) the production didn't get enough budget, and 2) the suits demanded that a 120 minute film be cut down to 90 minutes.

I'll be honest here. The early film works, but there are place where it gets choppy later on. I'm positive that too much of the film was removed to make the studio executives happy. This being the 80's, that's a good bet on my part as film were being released to fit neatly into 2 TV hour slots (with commercials). Yeah, it was a thing. Look it up. (Don't take my word for it.)

The other area where the film suffered were the special effects. The miniature work remained excellent, but the bluescreen work looked uninspired.

Taken together, Superman 4 is a middle-weight 80's action flick. Nothing special, but nothing really terrible, either. Competent, if uninspired. So what changed? Why is this Superman film so reviled above all others?

I blame Frank Miller.

In 1986, Frank Miller rocked the comic world with The Dark Knight Returns. An increasingly specialized comic market fell in love with this grittier Batman and gritter Superman. The comics fans now wanted different fare. Now that they've read Frank Miller, how do you keep the kids in Metropolis?

The message that Superman 4 brought was the exact opposite of the comic fan base. This is a film founded in idealism and hope. The fight scenes weren't realistic, they were based on those crazy things Superman did back in the 50's and 60's, where physics were optional. S4 is literally a world-wide fight to save the world from nuclear destruction. S4 is the exact opposite of what the cynical 80's comic market wanted. S4 represented the sort of comic that the comic market now considered cheezy and bad, a low point in DC comics. Thus, S4 was bad. And once fan boys start piling on, you either agree or get pummeled. Thus, S4 became a whipping boy for comics fandom.

Meanwhile, the culture that needed Superman in 1978 didn't need Superman now. When Superman: The Movie and Superman 2 were released, the whole summer blockbuster thing had just gotten started. Superman was the first successful franchise following Star Wars. It redefined the superhero film. It gave an entirely new direction to action and adventure. In 1981, the world met Indiana Jones in Raider of the Lost Ark. Other films showed up: ET, The Road Warrior, The Terminator, Ghostbusters, Alien, Aliens, Back to the Future, Conan the Barbarian. By the time that Superman 4 showed up, trying recapture the magic of Superman: The Movie, a decade of innovation and excitement had changed audience's expectations. What once awed us was now expected.

Two years later, 1989, Batman took to the big screen. Warner Brothers had learned its lesson and gave the audience what it wanted.

Superman 4's main problem was it was the wrong film at the wrong time. The studio executives had failed to spot the changing public trends and gave them a film that could not resonate with film audiences.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I find myself charmed by Superman III despite the flimsy nature of the film. It seems to stand astride two basic foundations, one the foundation laid down by the original Superman films, and the other by the 80's and what the suits wanted. As you can guess, these didn't go together well at all.

I found myself most charmed by the computers. Despite the fact that they really didn't act like computers at all, because the writers were pretty ignorant of computers of the day, they only had period computers to work with, and all the misconceptions about computers were period misconceptions, only workable in that period. We saw green screens, amber screens, keyboards, tape reels, and all other sorts of stock computer tropes, all slightly updated for the 80's and the personal computer revolution.

Not surprisingly, the big villain turned out to be a computer created by the supposed big villain (who was Not-Lex-Luthor and Not-Lex-Luthor's evil sister). This computer became self-aware, seized the evil sister, and turned her into a cyborg to fight Superman. I can't say that this is the first film that depicted the fear of computers taking over, but it certainly brought the subject out of the cult sphere and into mainstream conciseness. Computers strip away our humanity.

In that way, I suppose that S3 had the theme of humanity being stripped away, and without that, we become cruel. There's a place where Superman is split in half to fight his evil self. His human self is the part that wins, not his super self. It is then this human-superman that defeats the evil computer by using his human smarts. Despite their seeming divinity, computers, not matter how well programmed, are not our new gods, for even if they are all powerful, they cannot be all knowing.

This is re-emphasized with the updated Lana Lang, a "today's girl" who's a level-headed single mother struggling to raise her son well. She's got her act together, not like the flighty or defenseless women of previous decades, but also not aggressive, like Lois Lane. Her Superman is not a man who flies around with a cape, but a man who comes home and helps her to make a family, which makes Clark quite the Superman indeed.

What is humanity? Family. Middle-American values. Sober living. Sweaters draped across the shoulders and conservative dress. All the stuff that makes the Moral Majority happy. (There would be no more Superman bopping Lois Lane in the 80's).

The first two Supermans were products of the Carter era, or more importantly, the Post-Nixon era, where our icons have fallen and we really do need a new icon to stand up for America. In the 80's, we are now into the Reagan era, the Conservative have come into power, and the center of symbolism has changed.

The new villains are Corporations, not dictators, and their limitless ambition only worships at the altar of money. We saw this begin with Lex Luthor's in the first Superman, but then he was just this guy with an evil plan. This time, the villain leads and entire corporation. Out in the real world, this is an era when corporations are always changing their names (or so says Jefferson Starship), merging, and synergizing. Old corporate names are literally disappearing as new ones emerge, moving factories to other countries, and playing a new kind of economic politics to their own advantage.

The film makes strides against racism. I don't think that we saw a single black face with a speaking part in the last film, but in this one, the co-star is Richard Pryor, a black man. We also see a black fire chief amid a sea of white faces. Even so, the majority of all faces remain white and male.

The actual plot of the film is rather ridiculous, even by Superman standards, with an weak overall ending. The main villain creates fake kryptonite, which turns Superman evil, then splits him in two, but after he literally pulls himself together, flies off to defeat the evil computer which has run out of control. The story feels like a modern Hollywood film, where someone wrote a decent script, and then suits demanded changes until the whole film rattled along, good-enough, but not great. Honestly, I can't stay that it's any more incoherent or stupid than the latest X-Men film.

What missing from the film is everything 80's. If you will, this film depicts an idealized 80's, with no modern music, new wave fashion, punks, Japanese cars, smog, or anything else rejected by middle-America. In a way, the film de-urbanizes Superman, saving him from the East-Coast elites. It's only his return to middle-America that reconnects Superman with his White Christian American roots, that makes him a truly American again.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Star Trek: Beyond (2016) is a fine example of a popcorn movie. You walk in, stuff happens, stuff keeps happening, you eat popcorn, if there's someone special, then clutching happens during the exciting parts, eye candy appears on the screen, and eventually the film is over. The end.

There's also a plot and a motivation, not that those matter very much.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the latest film offering by J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter universe. Newt Skamander loses magical beasts, catches magical beasts, and collides with a plot all set in 1920s New York.

Having recently written a fantasy book in the 1920's, I had a an extra layer of interest in the film. I won't compare the two, because the stories are baseball and ping-pong, but I will follow her game and say what I think.

First, color grading. I detested the color grading. While I don't require the film to look fully naturalistic, having it look less gray would be great. This current fashion of colorless color films is detestable. Where color does exist, it exists in the wizarding world, so I do appreciate that the directory made a choice here. I respect that choice, but I still detest results.

Costume was half a win and half a loss. I adored the costumes on the girls. For large swaths of the film, they got to wear ordinary clothing that fit the era. In general, all the costuming looked well done, and the designers used appropriate period sources. Where the designers fell down for me was with the American aurors. All aurors wore the same trenchcoat outfit. Back in the 20's, gendered outfits were the norm, so the female aurors should really have had a feminine auror look all their own, just as sharp, and just as professional, with a skirt. (Women in pants? A definite no-no.)

I liked some of the revived archetypes that showed up the in film. A ditzy but sweet blonde, an ordinary joe, the stereotypical banker, the New York cop, the religious zealot, these all drew off those older character types. Their revival felt fresh compared to the modern archetypes. The only place where the characters really lost me was when they weren't the old archetypes. (By the way, these old archetypes were popular for decades because they worked.)

They had the architecture and technology generally right. Those madmen made a complete 3D model of New York for the era, and a skyscraper under construction in the film was likely a famous NY tower, my guess being the Chrysler Building. (The Empire State was closer to 1930.) The only thing NYC needed more of was cars. Even back then, it had a maddening number automobiles. As for the horse carts, they were still in widespread use in the 1920s, so they're accurate. (For a period comparison, watch the Jazz Singer.)

I loved the set for the girls' room in the boarding house. (I like how it was a boarding house but they simply didn't explain it. Good.) The set for that was spot on, down to the mix of era being shown, and the accumulated clutter. This looked like apartments in old movies and felt lived in. That really sold it.

I thought the story bit off a bit too much to chew. I would have dropped the political plot. I was having enough fun with the primary characters in the comedy that the real plot was an annoying distraction, which would have freed up more time with the characters. There were many good opportunities left untouched.

Given the same setup, I would have veered towards the ever-complicating comedy, where all the crazy solutions come crashing down at the end and the main characters are doing the damnedest things to keep their plan from falling apart.

I felt disappointed with the character arcs. Newt wants his animals back. OK. Good enough arc. Cop girls wants to become an auror again, but her actions only don't seem to get her there. That doesn't seem to be her motivation at all. She's just there as the straight man. The donut guy follows along but doesn't ever seem to be helping himself, or even saying, "hey, this is better than a canning factor." And finally, psychic blonde doesn't seem to have any mission at all, or aims, or anything. With each character now having a goal, each character's action can now impact the other characters, advancing and disrupting the other goals. It's a good comedy setup with real potential, but has to get written that way from the get-go. You can't just slot it in. You can keep the story comedy adventure as well, but the final conflict would be the result of Newt's mistake. I'd even be up for saving a rare creature from destruction by the wizards as that's what Newt's theme is. As it stands, the political stuff has nothing to do with most of the film. The bad guy could want the bad thing to destroy all donut shops just as much as some other vague and unexplained plot goal.

I found the film lacking in heart. This film needed more of that. Much, much more. I needed that heart to love the characters and care about their goals.

Although the 1920s were the backdrop, they mattered too little in the overall arch of the film. I could just as easily have set this in 1980's NY with almost no changes. (Yes, there would have been the whole national TV thing going, so the end deus ex machina would have to be different, but it would still be a deus ex machina.)

I noted some seeming lore conflicts with the earlier films, but I don't care. Perfect continuity sucks.

I think that the whole "exposing wizards" didn't work, as people didn't believe in magic anyway, so I was often left mystified by this plot point.

The street preacher was under-used. I suppose that she was supposed to be some sort of red herring, of the sort that doesn't work. I never suspected her of anything other than fanaticism. Indeed, she wound up confusing the tensions within the film rather than heightening them or deepening them. She represented a conflict that just didn't pan out.

Overall, I found the film perfectly entertaining fluff, and well done fluff at that. (Fluff may seem easy, but it's not. Fluff isn't an insult. The world needs good fluff.) Don't think about it too hard and you'll be adequately entertained.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Children of Methuselah" (1973)

Looking for the backup bridge, our trio breaks into an area designated "off limits." To their bad luck, it's inhabited by a group of overly serious, eternally young psychic children who are running the ship. Given the explanation that the Ark is off course, they believe that our protagonists are lying. Yet even as the boy Captain strives to deal with the intruders, the human culture that they bring with them infects the children, bringing a breakdown in order. In the end, Devon shows that the children aren't running the ship at all, they are merely in an advanced training simulator. The episode ends with the children sealing themselves back in their complex, potential helpers if the trio should ever find the backup bridge.

This script actually works. The writer of this episode did a bang-up job. The script relies on the time tested structure of television drama, often called the 45-and-5. You have three acts of build up and tension raising, one act of conflict, and a final act of wrap-up. At 40 minutes in, the conflict/breakdown between the trio and the children comes to a head, and at 45 minutes, the showdown happens. The last five minutes is cleanup and consequences.

The writer makes good use of all the characters in a way that demonstrates their basic strengths and their basic approaches as a character. Devon is the communicator and the explainer, the one likely to notice the details. Garth is the hothead, the pusher, the one with mechanical sense. He's the one with insight into the strange machinery. Rachel is the human touch, the one able to bridge the human gap where force or logic won't work. She's also the smallest among them, but no less able. Each expresses their role well through the episode, so much so that you can't switch their actions around.

The director did some nice things in this episode bringing out the humanity of our lead actors and the children. Rachel is particularly important in this arena, as its their humanity that the children have lost, and their humanity that will save them. Because she's a woman, she is seen as less of a threat, but her interactions prove far more disruptive than Garth's or Devon's. The children all have numbers, not names. Its she who gives them names. The children don't play. It's she who teaches them games. It's she who subverts the social order.

Time and again, the physicality of the staging brings a depth to the episode that the lines don't necessarily dictate. There no single example that makes or breaks this, but continuous small choices that build up to a coherent whole. There's one scene where the children as still talking as the meeting comes to order, just like kids in a schoolroom. The staging feels mildly chaotic at times, adding to the atmosphere rather than taking away from the story. These kids are machines, but they are not perfect machines. Even the way that the boy Captain slouches in his chair shows this humanity coming through despite the numbers.

This episode, more than any other so far, shows what this show could have been, an echo of what was imagined for the series. This episode shows that the parts are good, the concepts sound, and its ambitions reachable.

In terms of fashion, the Boy Captain had a zipper with a ring as the pull. I remember those kinds of zippers. I had one myself. Indeed, all the hairstyles of the children are early 70's children hairstyles. Nobody got a haircut for this show. What you see is the real deal. I know. I was was there. Those were my peers.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Pisces"

While hanging about the Ark, our protagonists are on hand to see a ship arrive. This ship, the Pisces, had left the Ark many years before, and failing to rendezvous in a timely manner, had hit relativistic speeds. For them, only ten years had passed.

How did they greet these newcomers on realizing that they were actually crew members? Did they reveal the accident immediately? No, they went along for a while, not asking questions, not providing answers, until the protagonists finally told the newcomers that they 400 years had passed.

Even stranger, the newcomers were hit with a relativistic dementia, whose only cure was to go back into deep space. In service to that, the two junior crew members, both women, hijacked the ship and set course for Earth because they didn't want to die when the Ark collided with a star. (And who could blame them? They tripled the number of available men on board.) Eventually our trio of tedium broke up the mutiny and got dropped back on the Ark, whereupon reset button was pushed and the Pisces left the Ark to preserve its crew members.

What did our protagonists learn? They had learned that a few reactors had blown up. That's it.

I'm pretty sure the navigator got some nookie. Given who her crew mates had been, a big strong blacksmith who could go for longer than 30 seconds must have seemed like an irresistible opportunity.

On the whole, this episode felt like an acceptable 22-minute plot stretched into 50 minutes. Almost every bizarre storytelling decision of the plot can trace itself back to this overstretched plot.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Starlost, Episode 3, "The Goddess of Calabra" (1973)

The journeys of our protagonists take them into a dome dominated by a military society. All the women died centuries ago, while the men have continued onward through cloning. It's an all male society, where the governor wins his position through mortal combat. If this doesn't sound bad enough, all strangers are immediately suspect as mutants. To make things awkward and slimy, Rachael is a woman, and is immediately declared a goddess for the political advantage of the governor. He plans to marry her to seal his position against all rivals. Rachel's companions fight free, taking sanctuary with the priests, who actually know something about the ark and its purpose. Deciding to end the charade, one of protagonists fights the governor in moral combat, winning the fight, but leaving the governor alive. They manage to escape.

The plot of this particular story seems straight forward at first, but that's only because I explained them well. As played out in the show, the plot resembles a demolition derby, where the various points crash into each other until all the plot points are fully broken, and even the sole surviving plot point is barely operational.

You'll recognize some familiar faces in this episode. Barry Morse played the chief priest. John Colicos played the governor. Not surprisingly, both went on to playing similarly toned SF roles in the future.

This particular episode took me three sittings to get through, the overall episode having the engagement of a minefield.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Starlost, Episode 2, "Lazarus from the Mist" (1973)

In the second episode of The Starlost, Lazarus from the Mist, our protagoinsts revive a cryogenically frozen man and learn pitifully little with their opportunity.

The episode picks up where 101 left off. The trio walks from the bridge to the main medical section. There, a group of people descended from guards protect the area, killing pretty much anyone who shows up. What lies in the medical area is sacred. Somehow our protagonists make it through, and there discover a hold full of people in suspended animation. Working things out, they succeed in reviving on such man, but as luck would have it, they revived a man with radiation sickness. He's dying even as they try to win his help. For some unfathomable reason, the ark builders thought it okay to send a dying man even in an emergency merely because his wife asked for this to happen. The man answers some of their questions, they beat off the guards again, and then they put the man back into stasis. As for the degenerate guards, they find a nearby dome and give it to them as their home, presumably locking them in.

Some things amaze me. The protagonists were unbelievably unlucky in finding the one person in the whole frozen section who was dying. Next, with the lives of everyone on board at stake, didn't try to revive anyone else. Given the literal life or death stakes, they should have revived everyone. Instead, they walk off after the episode is over and never consider the frozen people again.

Just as confusing, the security people didn't know about the other domes or didn't have access to them, so they became degenerates in the halls. If anyone would know about all the areas, and have access to them, it would have been the security people.

The episode concludes with the protagonists learning a few more tantalizing clues, then essentially hitting the reset button. This pattern will continue, frustrating so, as the series progresses. One is given the illusion of progress rather than actual progress.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Starlost, Episode 1, "Voyage of Discovery"

Summary: This episode opens the series. Three stilted young people from the dome Cypress Corners, as wood as their home implied, discover that their home is actually part of an ark in space, a colony ship headed towards doom.

Synopsys: Our lead character wants to marry Rachel, but is denied by the Creator, whose voice is heard from a black device. It turns out that the zelot leader of these space-quakers is using his own voice to speak as the Creator, that Rachel must marry the town smith. There's nothing wrong with the marriage at all. When our hero is chased by a mob of his fellows, he flees into the tunnels of the ship where he discovers the truth about his home. The ship will soon crash into a G-type star. On returning, he grabs his girl and escapes with her back into the ship, this time chased by the smith. When they discover the bridge together, the truth becomes self-apparent.

The show itself contained none of the pacing or humor that rival American shows had been showing, following instead the dryer pacing of early 70's British programming, such as Doctor Who. (If you doubt me, go watch the contemporary Doctor Who series "The Ark in Space.") However, as Doctor Who usually had colorful characters in the lead, this show didn't. I am honestly stunned by blandness of the main characters, who work to show little to no emotion at all. If there was any cast more lacking in chemistry, I want a showdown.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2015) is the purported sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In this Netflix color-by-numbers film, an evil monk is conquering the martial arts world, and now he wants the Green Destiny so seal his control because some random witch told him to.

Rather than feeling like a wuxia film, Sword of Destiny felt like a modern fantasy TV series wallpapered with a wuxia motif. Think "Game of Thrones, now with new Michelle Yeoh action!" The choreography, cuts, pacing, themes, and dialog all felt mismatched to the genre. To compare this film to Crouching Tiger is like comparing Hannah Barbara to Pixar. Yes, they both purport to be the same thing, but no, they obviously are not.

Quite honestly, the script just wasn't there. It was a mess. I often found myself going into a scene questioning whether we even needed the scene at all. That I thought about whether the scene should exist, rather than being engaged in the film, is damning with the faintest praises possible. Even worse, some of these scenes felt like padding. For a 90 min. film to feel padded takes an extraordinary level of mediocre screen writing combined with an utter failure of film editing.

So, I think it best to not review this film as a wuxia film, nor as a sequel. I will simply review it as its own stand-alone pilot episode to some future TV show that won't exist.

It was dull. What can I say? Despite all the characters getting back stories, despite all the setup that happens, despite all the fights, despite everything that they did to ensure that this was a workable show, they gave us a dull film. Even with adding a magic sorceress woman, it felt dull. I don't expect a made-for-TV show to be perfect, but the audience should be left with a better regard for the characters than a ho-hum feeling.

While I can't call the film awful, because I've seen awful films and this didn't reach that level of abysmal (not even close), I certainly can't rate it highly unless you like the "Game of Thrones" feel to the whole shebang. If you really like the modern fantasy TV film, this just might work for you (but probably won't).
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I have an issue with The Force Awakens, this issue centers around the use of the MacGuffin. The structure of a MacGuffin works roughtly like this: everyone wants its, everyone talks about it, you learn about it, and at the end of the film/story, the conflict is directly over it.

The Force Awakens breaks almost all of those basic rules of MacGuffining.

Clarity. What exactly is the MacGuffin? Is it the map, BB-8, or Luke Skywalker? Not much time is spent on any of these items in the film despite them being central to the film. For example, Luke is important because he's a jedi. Once he rejoins the Republic, or the Resistance, something very vague will happens, so vague that nobody knows what it is, not even his enemies. Likewise, there's a map to Luke, but the map never matters until the end of the film. The gaining of the MacGuffin is supposed to feel like a big moment in the film, but in this one, which moment is it, and more importantly, why don't most of them feel like big moments?

Conflict. The MacGuffin drives the final conflict. In Episode IV, there's the plans to the Death Star, which leads to a showdown with the Death Star. The MacGuffin is directly tied to the finale, the final 15 minutes of the film. In Episode VII, BB8 and the map leads to a battle against Starkiller Base, which has nothing to do with either the map or Luke Skywalker. Essentially, Starkiller Base walks in from offscreen. That's the point where resolving the MacGuffin should reside and dealing with the implications of that resolution.

So the First Order is trying to get the map as well. Cool. That's conflict. What exactly are their PLANS once they gain the map to Luke Skywalker? We don't know. Will they blow his planet up? We don't know. Will they attempt to sway him? We don't know. What did Rylo Ken hope to get out of this? The audience needs to know what failure will cause, but in this film, we don't know any of the implications of failure.

Likewise, we needed to know what what failure to find Luke meant to the resistance. What exactly would he turn around if he were present? We really don't understand what good Luke would accomplish. I find it amazing that we don't know what success means for the Resistance who began the search for Luke.

Obviousness. Although a MacGuffin is obvious from the outside, for the most part, a MacGuffin should fit into the film as if it belongs there. That wasn't the case in Episode VII, where the MacGuffin of the map said, "I'm the MacGuffin." Its use felt too obvious, and its obviousness was amplified by the trope's poor use.

Maybe I misremember. Maybe there lines which explained what the First Order's practical intentions were towards Luke Skywalker. If so, please enlighten me.

The thing is, none of those things above matter, because the real story is Rey's internal journey, which I found rather muddled. With the introduction of Luke's light saber, we had a MacGuffin appear that seemed to replace the map. The light saber's introduction and vision provided an implicit promise that it could lead Rey to Luke.

I suppose that we could use a series of MacGuffins, all to push Rey towards Luke, but that sort of film would be structured differently from Episode VII's structure.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I made it through 3/4 of Final Fantasy IV before I quit the game. Despite the fact that it looked like a charming game, instead it turned out to be one of those abusive girlfriends who passively-aggressively ran the relationship without any input from you. Yeah, you got to be there, but you didn't actually get to decide anything.

What brought about my quitting was a fight with Golbez, after a cut scene and a battle, kills 3/4 of my characters. I think that I could have done that fight if I was playing a proper RPG, but as Final Fantasy has this ticking time that doesn't like to stop for you, you are never quite sure when time has stopped. I usually got this right, but sometimes, as I'm busy selecting my next command, the game proved me wrong. I despise that sort of combat system, but I had muddled my way through thus far. Add to that the tendency of the touch screen to accept double-entries, along with a vague user interface, often left me doing the wrong thing. Finally, this fight occurred after an annoying cut scene, followed by a fight, followed by a cut scene, and then that fight, so losing meant a 5-7 minute penalty just to get back to it. I even looked up how to survive this fight to no avail.

Do you know what I don't need? I don't need a game that treats you like that. I'm all up for challenges, but that wasn't a challenge, that was voluntary misery. So Final Fantasy IV, I'm breaking up with you. Go pull your BS on somebody else. I'm done.

How did this even emerge from the adorable Final Fantasy III? That wasn't a work of art, but at least it was more fun that this pile of steaming bits. I want my $15 back.

I haven't walked out on an RPG in years. I think the last one I aborted was Daggerfall, not because I wasn't enjoying it, but because I somehow screwed up the main quest line and couldn't finish the game.

If this was the only game in town, I might try and finish it. It's not the only game. There's a metric ton of Kemko games out there that are equally dull and far less abusive.

In short:

The combat system is painful.
The story is dull.
Most spells are useless except for damage and healing.
Equipment doesn't matter.
Your heroes always feel stepped on and useless.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I finally pried myself from the house and made it out to Mad Max: Fury Road. I had been waiting for this particular film for years, having read about some of the production delays five years ago.

Was it the car crash spectacle that I was expecting? Yes. Yes it was.

Was the script or story brilliant? No That's never been the strength of these films.

Was the characterization there? Yes, but no Oscar winners.

If anything, this film was more human than any recent action film that I've seen. The film contained characters who had different perspectives than either the protagonists or the antagonists. Put another way, both the protagonists and the antagonists shared a worldview, one of the brutal fight for survival. The other was a worldview where violence was not the first reaction. These made for strange and haunting bedfellows, enabling the characterization to go places where no testosterone laden film could go.

In most action films, there is this firm channeling of the narrative towards violence. The women of this film rejected that approach, refusing the channel. That didn't stop all the violence, but it did stop some of it.

Others have already broken down this film far better than I.

I would like to say that I enjoyed the film, that I liked it, but I can't say that. There is little to like in this film, which means that the director succeeded in his visioin. The film depicts unlikable things, and despite their glorification, the director helps you to see their gorification. You grow to hate Max's world. That over-idyllic vision of the wives? That's the only thing in this film worth liking. They aren't the action heroes, and that makes them better. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar achieves much and achieves little, both at the same time.

The film itself tells the near future tale of an earth shaken by blight, where the mid-west has returned to dust bowl status, and our very technological advancement has come to a halt. The only option, it seems, is to double down and plant more corn, and ride that spiral down to global extinction. But there is a hope, and that hope is a wormhole to another galaxy, and in that galaxy, there might be a planet suitable for life.

The film itself was cut with Nolan's usual excellent editing. You bop back and forth between perspectives, complete with time dialations, so keeping track is especially difficult, but Nolan keeps you there without feeling it. This film deserves a prize for editing.

As space exploration films go, this one hits the ball out of the park. It's an order of magnitude better than any space exploration film that I've ever seen. (You don't want to watch those old films unless you are truly dedicated.) You see, space exploration is the stuff of science fiction, and on the screen, science fiction winds up boring. Thus, all too often, lasers and chase scenes get added to spice SF up. Congrats to Nolan for avoiding that cheap content. Some content was typical SF, and he made those work well, such as hostile planets and marooned survivors. We know those tropes well, and we keep using them because they work.

What Nolan replaced the cheap SF content with was cheap emotional content. Despite his attempt to make the story a human-centric story set against the backdrop of science fiction, Nolan gives us content equally sweet, like a Twinky, seemingly full of tasty filling but really mostly air and not very nutritious. You see, although the film claims to have substance, it lacks substance. The claim of substance does not adequately take the place of substance, no more than dessert takes the place of dinner. Despite their resemblance, the differences in nutrition matters more than the similarities in consumption.

I am most disappointed in the ending, where it seemed that all the hard choices weren't made. They seem like they were made, but they weren't made. A hard choice that comes out of a plot twist is not a hard choice. There a difference between someone in the audience saying to themselves, "Don't do it!" and feeling sick to themselves at the loss of a character, and the audience saying, "Everyone will be fine. SURPRISE!" If the audience isn't having a hard time with the film, if the audience isn't feeling uncomfortable with the hard parts, then I modestly suggest that the script isn't doing it's job. For a film that wedges itself into the moral imperative, it doesn't wrestle with those morals much.

Do you know what I wanted out of that film? I wanted a film with a science and a fiction ending, not some fanciful Hollywood ending. Make it hurt. The survival of humanity is at sake, so make it hurt. Imagine if D-Day soldiers suddenly found a giant diesel mech climbing out of the English channel, smashing the German defenses, and saving all their lives. Would't that cheapen the sacrifice of D-Day? The fantastical does not sit well in this sort of SF. (I level the same criticism as 2001, so I'm not playing favorites here.) That tells me that Nolan just didn't work hard enough for the end.

Endings are hard. I should know. I've written enough endings, over and over again, to know just how freaking hard they are. Your end makes or breaks everything that you've done. You could be a genius for 95% of your book only to blow it at that last 5%. This film had one of those endings that seemed freaking awesome at first draft, but when poked hard, proves empty. To me, the ending felt like a plot wrap, not an ending.

Overall, I found the film quite watchable and entertaining. It's good SF candy. Just don't look too hard at it.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
The Breakfast Club is a John Hughes film from 1984. It bears all the hallmarks of a low budget, low risk film. The cast is small. There are no special effects. There are no actors on board who break the budget, but they are all well known enough in teen films of the era. The film doesn't even have a set. Instead, he filmed it it a real high school at nights and on weekends.

The copy that I watched on Netflix has not aged well. I remember the colors as brighter and the tone as clearer. Perhaps that was merely my rosy-eyed youth, as I haven't seen the film since '85, or maybe I've just gotten used to digital stock.

The film is more of a drama than a comedy, featuring five high-schoolers who have to spend 8 hours in Saturday detention. They have literally been sentenced to boredom and an essay. We meet all these characters, all these purposeful stereotypes, who we contribute our prejudices to before we even know them, which is entirely the point.

The main motivator of the film is John Bender, and ADHD young man with many problems. For literally the first half of the film, if the pace slacks even the tiniest bit, it's Bender who gets bored and makes things happen. He jumps into the plot truck, fills it with TNT, and aims for the front door. Without him, I dare say, there would be no film. Every other character had every reason to shut up, sit down, and wait out the boredom. But even with motivation, Bender can't stop because he's got this motor running in him. I'm not kidding when I call him ADHD. The character literally can't stay in his seat.

I found Molly Ringwald's performance note perfect. I never doubted her character, or her humanity, for a second. Where Bender was over the top, a person that you couldn't know, Molly played the girl that you did know. She really could have sat next to you, and really been that narcissistic as only teenages can be.

I found Ally Sheedy's character conflicted. I feel like I saw two characters, one who was the character that John Hughes wrote, and the other, the physical character, who Ally created. As long as Ally remained seated, you believed that character, but the moment that she stood, her posture was too strong even when it wasn't supposed to be strong. She screamed "dancer" to me. Looking at her bio, yeah, ballet. You can't take the posture out of a dancer. To be honest, I liked Ally's take on the character far better than I liked John Hughe's take on the character. Inherently, the problem with silent characters is that they are silent, and that always poses a problem in films where exposing oneself is the point of the film. In the end, her character felt plopped out, just as she dumped her bag onto the sofa.

Anthony Michael Hall returned as the smart kid in all his adorable dorkiness, but perhaps a little too so. Perhaps because geeks start off as human beings, so thinly masked, you never discover quite so much about them, and what you do discover, you expect.

Emilio Estevez put in a perforance as a sports guy, a wrestler. I thank John for not making him a football player, but it was winter/early spring and there wouldn't be football anyway.

The script has its issues, often hitting the limitations of the both the medium and the writer. This was a tough concept to pull off, and I'd have to say that John Hughes eeked out a competent script, but maybe not the script that he wanted, and certainly not the script that he could have developed with more time. At some point, you have to film the damned thing and he filmed it.

I'd love to see the cutting room floor. I am absolutely certain that there were more scenes in this film than made the final edit. At 90 minutes, the film was short even by 80's standards, which lends me to believe that pacing drove the need to cut the extra scenes, or perhaps the studio mandate that the film only be 90 minutes. There are definitely places in the film where a few more lines here and there would have made it roll along better.

I most definitely salute the costume designer for the film. The costumes for each character telegraph exactly what you need to know about each character without feeling cliched. For example, the smart guy wasn't at all dressed like a stereotypical nerd, yet you did take him for the dork that he was, through a combination of his haircut and his lack of fashion. These costumes screamed "bring along your preconceptions", but never made you eat those preconceptions. I love the whole metaphore of taking off coats and layers in this film, for as the characters take off layers, we find what's underneath what we see. Bender, in particular, wears layer upon layer, as does Allison. Where Bender is always more of the same, for his layers of self-defense are deep, Allison reveals white in stark contrast to her dark outer layer, for inside she is light, purer than she may otherwise seem.

Each character began in a car, and even the cars told you about their station and their family life. The cars wound up telegraphing far more about the characters than their clothing did. In just a few moments, you knew about each character's family life without one word being spoken on the subject, most magnificently with Bender, who walks to school, no connection at all to his parents.

After getting to know everyone's stereotype in the early film, the later film slowly breaks those stereotypes. It doesn't strip away the reasons for why each character drifted into their stereotype, but it does let them go beyond those types, letting them be more human. Brian smokes weed, the strange girl doesn't smoke weed, and all the kids close ranks against the vice principal even if they don't like one another. Eventually they all wind up on the floor, talking, revealing themselves to each other, and judging their peers as well.

As the 90 minutes wrap up, you feel as ready to go as they do. You are happy to see the light of day. You're happy to be done with Bender. Then you walk out of the theatre, and maybe you watch that film again thirty years later.
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
I would really like to review Doctor Who, Season 8, with great gusto, but I just can't find the energy to review it with any gusto at all. Through most of the season, I've watched the shows and then promptly forgotten them. I feel like I've watched the show out of habit, waiting for the great shows to come along, but all that I got was a more of the same, none of it inspired.

I do have my complments. I greatly enjoyed Peter Capaldi as new Doctor, but I don't think that the writers have a handle on him at all. In a few episodes, I could tell that the dialog had originally been written for Matt Smith because I could hear Matt's rhythm.

I liked Clara well enough, but only just well enough. The thing about Clara, about her being split through so many timelines, is that she becomes infinitely recreatable. Do we get any of that? Nope. Consideirng that most companions last 1-3 seasons, I don't plan on seeing that much more of Coleman.

I like the new villain, Missy. I thought that Michelle Gomez did a bang-up job. Yet even so, I didn't really care.

If I had to use a tag, I'd say that this was the least clever and spunky series so far, at point losing clever and spunky all together, and that should make kittens cry. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
In the 1970's, you couldn't love dinosaurs without loving Land of the Lost, that Saturday morning darling of the dinophile set. How could a show which featured a dinosaur roaring into the camera go wrong? The answer is that it didn't, at least for a few seasons.

Land of the Lost opens with a toe tapping, banjo accompanying song describing the thrills and chills of the Marshall family. An earthquake sucks their raft down into a giant hole, which was really a portal into another dimension, the land of the lost. There, they find all sorts of things that should be, all assembled into the same place. In all of that, they do their best at being a family. They live in a cave up high off the ground, which they called High Bluff. They discovered and named dinosaurs galore, the most famous being Grump, the T-Rex that chases everything and roars into the cave to swell.

The family itself contained Dad, who had a name that didn't matter, Will, the teenage boy, and Holly, the gradeschool girl. Their sometimes visitor was Chaka, a humanoid called a Pakuni, who befriended them when they found the land. Chaka could speak Pakuni very well, but he was very bad at English.

The show wasn't just trash, either. This was full-blown juvenile SF. It featured a collapse alien civilization that had made the land, the last of whom was Enoch, the Altrusian. Their descendents, now nocturnal, are the Sleestak, taking every opportunity to terrorize the family. The land itself is runy by pylons which utilize the Altrusian crystal technology to regulate the sun, moon, weather, and even portals into other worlds.

The first series itself was designed as a loop, so that the last episode directly took you into the first. How cool is that?

Heaven isn't forever, and neither are perfect shows. After two seasons, Dad Marshall had enough of the show and the cave set for High Bluff burned down, so the family moved into a temple near the Forgotten City, trading Grumpy for an allosaurus name Alice and too many Sleestaks as neighbors. The great conflaguration that swallowed dad conveniently brought in Uncle Jack, who was a congenial fellow, but nowhere near as cool as Dad was. (Dad had a certain intensity and daring in the face of necessity that made you really admire him.) Chaka now spoke English pretty well and lost his family. They even got a few more creatures, such as a fire-breathing dimetridon. All in all, the third season was meh.

After filming enough episodes to go syndicated, Land of the Lost move to the weekdays and the magically profitable land of weekday repeats. Nothing as cool replaced it on Saturday morning.

Land of the Lost was not without competition. There was also the cartoon show The Land that Time Forgot or something like that, about a place with dinosaurs and cave men. Again, people got lost and wound up there. It wasn't nearly as good or as compelling, but if you wanted a dino fix, it did fill that niche.

Sid & Marti Croft tried to revive Land of the Lost in the 90's with a passable show. It wasn't nearly as fun as the original, but not nearly as bad as critics panned it. It was more passable than anything.

Will Ferrall bastardized the whole thing into a Will Ferrall movie, and you can guess how well that worked out. Will Ferrall is a "comedian" who produces "comedies." Personally, I think that he sleeps with all the financers. Gotta make all those little old ladies happy, right? Make a bad movie, then walk away with the profits. 
dmilewski: (Macbeth the Usurper)
This week's Doctor Who as the thoroughly forgettable "Robots of Sherwood." In my view, it was like a 70's style Doctor Who serial packed down into 50 minutes. At best, I can say that the episode reasonably amused me for the time that we had together. At worst, I can say the same thing. The episode did not have the decency to have me hate it.
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