Sunday, December 4, 2016

Use of Character Reveal in Story


So I took a week off for the holiday and also because I was suffering writer’s block. It’s tough to think of a good topic every week; at least for me. Anyway I can’t address today’s subject without spoiling major plot points from the Harry Potter franchise and the Now You See Me franchise. So if you haven’t seen those stop reading. I’m going to launch right into it.

Character reveal is a tricky plot device. When done well it delivers an insightful, often emotional ‘aha’ moment. But if done poorly it will frustrate and disappoint the audience. I’m sure an exception can be found, but in general a character’s true nature or secret nature needs to be built into the story from the beginning. That way the viewer or reader can go back over and see how it fits together.

A good example of character reveal done well, exceptionally well, is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter franchise. He’s cold, superior, and seems to nurse a hatred for Harry. In fact, he probably doesn’t like Harry very much. He certainly despised Harry’s father. But Rowling flips his entire character with one simple revelation: Snape loved Harry’s mother. He’s worked with Dumbledore the entire time, going back to book one. Rowling built that into her over-plot so that a reader could go back and see the bread crumbs. When his full story is known nothing in it fails to jive. It makes sense and it’s emotionally moving.

So here’s an example of character reveal done poorly. Actually, it’s not really billed as a ‘reveal’. It just happens. Let’s take a look at Lestat, Anne Rice’s vampire hero. Now, even in the film version of Interview with the Vampire, I think describing Lestat as a hero sounds odd. In the book he’s pretty despicable. Actually, Tom Cruise gave a terrific performance as Lestat in the film, and he lent the character his charisma and charm. I would say the 1994 film is informed by Anne Rice’s evolving perception of her character. But he’s still not a hero. Lestat is selfish, greedy, possessive, and that leads him to assist Louis in making a child vampire, Claudia. It’s an indefensible crime.

Without digging into the plot of The Vampire Lestat, the book will give you whiplash. Anne Rice has completely changed her mind about the character. Louis’s version and Lestat’s version of events are so different, that someone has to be lying. Lestat’s motivations change completely and Louis is just a sad, depressed vampire. By the way, Lestat is Rice’s character. She’s at liberty to change her mind. It’s just uncomfortable because you never get a sense of having an unreliable narrator in Louis or Lestat. But Rice continues with Lestat for a couple more books, so make of that what you will.

This brings me to my subject at hand of Now you See Me 2 (10 June 2016), directed by Jon M. Chu. This film franchise follows the adventures of four master magicians; illusionists, cardsharps, mentalists, and escape artists.

Actually the first film has a character reveal done right. When it’s revealed that Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who has obsessively chased them and attempted to stop them, is the one who brought them together and works for the super-secret organization The Eye, it made a surprising amount of sense. How better to ensure their success than by watching them obsessively with government resources? He fed them information and made sure the FBI never actually caught them. The entire plan to take down business mogul Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freemen) was his design. Tressler denied his mom an insurance claim after his father’s untimely death, while performing a risky escape stunt. Thaddeus is the professional skeptic and debunker who lives off of magicians he exposes. He goaded Rhodes’ father into attempting a stunt beyond his ability. So at the end of the movie Tressler loses a ton of money and Rhodes pins it on Thaddeus who goes to jail. And Rhodes’ ultimate revenge is in not telling him how the trick worked. It’s satisfying, because Thaddeus is a greedy, arrogant, heartless villain. He’s so sure that he’s going to win, and he loses instead.

This brings me to Now You See Me 2. I’m going to be honest and say that the first film did not cry out for a sequel. Everything is resolved and any return to the story was likely to be a letdown. In the sequel’s defense it is sharply written. It is exciting and entertaining. And I did enjoy Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Tressler’s unstable, spoiled, paranoid, illegitimate son. I thought that was a delightful character for him to play.

No, my main problem is with Thaddeus Bradley. From the first film, to the dramatic opening of the second with a flashback to Leon Shrike’s (Rhodes’ dad) death, to the end of the second film, there is no hint of another quality to Thaddeus’s character. We see him look at a child version of Rhodes and say and do nothing. Now, he’s bitter and seeking revenge. I can’t remember if it’s said outright in the first movie, but one of the implications of his mean-spirited pursuit of other magicians was that Thaddeus lacked the talent to be a successful magician himself. Okay, okay. In the sequel his interactions with Rhodes are more enigmatic and less malicious. You can read some of his actions two ways. It’s still weak sauce.

Then at the last minute of the film (spoiler alert!) it turns out that Thaddeus was working with Leon Shrike the whole time. They were a team. He would generate buzz and interest by goading Shrike, and Shrike would prove him wrong with feats of magical mystery. Now, I’m not saying this is an unbelievable story. Or that it’s not interesting. It makes a lot of sense.

What doesn’t make sense is to reveal it at the last second. They try to cover it up with a conversation where Thaddeus lists the reasons he never told Rhodes the truth. Sorry, it doesn’t make any sense. He doesn’t tell him that he loves his father and they were friends and business partners. It was a horrible accident and he felt bad about it. Thaddeus never tells him for thirty years. Okay, but it’s awkward. Fine. But then he doesn’t tell him when Rhodes chucks him in prison—for twelve months. And then he still doesn’t tell him when they’re alone for hours on a plan, flying to Macau, China. He acts cryptic and mysterious about Leon Shrike, but he never pulls the trigger. Until the very end so we can have our ‘aha’ moment.

There were sequences of magic and illusion in the film that were a bigger stretch than the original film, but I suspended my disbelief because I wanted to have a good time. But I couldn’t get around Thaddeus. It was far too clear that the script writer had one idea of his character in the first film and completely changed it for the second. Because they wanted to match the big reveal of the first film. But Luke can have only one father.

And I thought it was unfortunate, particularly because it short-circuits other motivations Thaddeus might have had. What if he didn’t want them to go down via Tressler and his son or via the FBI? What if he had his own revenge in mind? How about the reveal that he’s a master magician, who’s just an evil douche, who didn’t want anyone to know how good he really was? And that’s the big reveal at the end of the second film. It sets up the third film.

Oh, well. They didn’t take a route like that, and I’ll be surprised if they cough up another one of these movies. It’s a shame.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Gears of War: Ground Gained and Lost

 Gears of War: Judgment

The game that induced me to buy the arcade version (read cheap) of the Xbox 360 was Gears of War. Gears looked great and the play style was exceptional. I often have trouble with anything first-person and this was a third-person shooter. Its cover-fire system was unique and instantly copycatted by others in the industry. Your character felt heavy and each action required planning and skill. If you ran up to your Locust enemies, you’d be shot to bits. And to go along with that Gears of War effortlessly pulled its audience into a unique post-apocalyptic story about a planet called Serra. Characters had unique voices and characterizations.

Gears of War 2 could be argued as an improvement on an excellent first game. The game play was polished and levels required deep strategy if you played on higher difficulty settings. The story was enhanced with a huge war effort against the Locust threat that felt risky and important. Characters drove the story at nearly every important stage of the title.

At the same time Karen Traviss had been hired to right companion novels. And at first blush I figured this would be little more than a money grab. But Epic gave her free reign to enhance and expand the world. The first two books are really good. She was involved in the writing for Gears of War 3 and it shows. It has more story nuance than some RPGs. The game play in Gears of War 3 wasn’t quite as epic at 2, but it still felt good. And it tied up all the loose story ends.

And then somebody decided we don’t need a serious campaign or characters, and we got Gears of War: Judgment, released on March 19, 2013. This consisted of a main campaign and a smaller mini campaign. Our lead character is Baird, the usually douchey and always sarcastic guy who’s been in every title. He’s stripped of his rancor and it’s explained that this story is before he got embittered. Cole joins the team but he lacks any of his old energy. The other two I can’t even remember their names; stock Slavic guy who’s done evil and stock woman with a pony tail. And this is all framed around a trial being held by an obnoxious colonel whose main accusation against Baird seems to be how he chose to fight. How dare he use Locust weapons! Oh, I think they stole a hammer of dawn and used it without permission. Anyway the story felt small and petty just like the colonel.

Let’s talk game play. Remember how Epic revolutionized a cover-fire system that made each action feel vital? Well, gradually designers let that slide. This title rewards people who charge up and attack. The mini campaign had more traditional levels, actually.

And then to underline how truly unimportant those two whose names I can’t recall were to the designers, Beard bumps into them years later in the mini campaign. And this was the element that irked me. So apparently stock woman took up with stock Slavic guy, for reasons that are never explained or implied. And then she’s on patrol and gets abducted, Slavic guys thinks by COG members. The implications here are unpleasant. He’s unable recover her.

That conclusion felt pat and disappointing. Gears of War always presented an unusually egalitarian message. In the books it’s explained that woman are too valuable to fight, but as the situation grows desperate they can and do. It’s not a huge setback, but I didn’t understand why she couldn’t have fallen in a shootout or something.

From what I hear the new Gears of War game is much better. I didn’t preorder it though and I’m waiting for the price to drop. The series needs to rebuild my confidence.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Arnold Schwarzenegger's Art Zombie Film; Why I Enjoyed It

I often wind up talking about movies I’ve seen. Movies are quick and a single scene can pack so much story and depth of concept. I can encourage someone to go see a movie and know that I’m not pressing a 300 page commitment on them.

That brings me to the film Maggie. Directed by Henry Hobson and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin, this film struggled to find an audience. Imbd has an average rating for it of 5.6 out of 10. Rotten Tomatoes is about the same. Only 32 % of viewers liked the film. So before I explain why I did like it, I’d like to discuss a few reasons I think it flopped with critics.

There’s no foreign language or highly complicated metaphors, but it is an art film parading as a zombie film. Oh, and if you’re expecting Arnold to kill zombies with headshots from his trusty shotgun, you will be disappointed. There are a few brief moments of action, but this film is not about fighting zombies. This film is dedicated to care and concern for his teenage daughter Maggie. So what I just told you is that this film violates genre norms. That’s always a risky gamble. In this case, I think most critics and viewers didn’t ‘get’ the story.

The other key flaw to this film is the pacing. It’s slow. There are neat story payoffs at points in the film, but some viewers may feel a little cheated. And if a viewer goes in expecting an Evil Dead or Walking Dead sort of thrill-ride, they will be disappointed.

So here’s why I liked Maggie. Arnold is just a father trying to help his daughter. He’s not an action hero and he’s not perfect. I realize that many stories have portrayed zombification as a virus. But I feel like this was more realistic. The virus has stages of progression. Zombies are called ‘Turned’. And zombies are not undead. A broken neck with kill one just as easily as a headshot. There are horror elements to the film. You have a sense that something awful is happening to people. But instead of wanting to shoot them, the viewer is invited to empathize with them. The climax of the film is why I decided the film is good. I won’t spoil that here.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

I'm finally a published author! Yay!

Well, I've been gone for a few years. But I'm back in action. I recently published my first book. I'm very excited about it. Here's a link:

Here's the general plot line:

Belthus is the fabled land of dense jungles and exotic spices. Sharpenia is home to large predators, vast forests, and frozen landscapes. Laura Mendlin dreams of visiting strange, faraway lands from her room in Holsten on the coast of Welchstad.

But Laura is not supposed to attend the Yuletide Ball, let alone sail the ocean to Belthus. Her parents expect her to rescue the family from financial ruin by marrying her to her father's new business partner. Excuses are heaped on her for why this must be. But Laura rejects them all.

Laura flees her lawful marriage to hide out at Castle Redscale's Yuletide Ball. She needs to marry well--and fast. She has no time for love or doubts about her plan. And yet she's plagued by doubt. She meets an eligible man but finds herself drawn to another. Yet her father is sure to come after her. She can't legally refuse his demand either. Marriage is her problem and solution. Laura wants another choice. But with even her friends pushing her to marry, will Laura ever get to choose a life for herself?