Saturday, January 16, 2016

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Love Never Dies

This is a bit of a cheat, I admit.  Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies is not a proper movie musical.  Rather, the cinematic version of this sequel to The Phantom of the Opera is merely a filmed performance of the stage musical.  However, having done such an in-depth review of Phantom, I can't pass this one by.

Often, the stage musical is filmed after a botched attempt at adapting it to the screen, to demonstrate how the musical is supposed to be.  Such was the case with the Final Performance of Rent, and the 25th Anniversary performance of The Phantom of the Opera.  Other times, the stage musical is filmed so that those who likely will never be able to see it live can still see what it's about.  That's likely the case with Love Never Dies, which won't be arriving on Broadway any time soon.

It almost feels cruel to kick a musical when it's down.  The critical shredding of Love Never Dies has been universal.  Most of it is of the nature of "You really thought The Phantom of the Opera needed a sequel?  Where this time, Christine stays with the Phantom?  That's fucked up!"  However, much of it focused on the musical's many drawbacks.  Some called it Love Should Die or --more damning-- Paint Never Dries.

Lloyd Webber came up with the idea of a Phantom sequel as early as 1990, but didn't start working on it in earnest until 2007.  Originally intended to debut simultaneously in London, New York, and Shanghai, Love Never Dies shut down after nine months in London due to poor reviews and never premiered in the other two cities.  Instead, it was reworked and premiered in Melbourne, Australia, where one of the performances was filmed.  The filmed performance then aired in select U.S. cinemas and was otherwise released on DVD.  Hence, we have Love Never Dies: The Movie.  Love Never Dies is still playing here and there, and it's even rumored to be headed to the U.S. for a tour.

Viewed as a separate piece, Love Never Dies isn't bad.  It's muddled, dark, and lacks humor, but it has some creative set pieces, lovely costumes, and great singing (a must).  Viewed as a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, it's a "disaster beyond your imagination."


Plot Synopsis

The year is 1905, 10 years after the events of Phantom (despite Phantom clearly taking place much earlier than 1895).  After the Paris Opera House fire, the Phantom was smuggled by Madame Giry and her daughter, Meg, across the ocean to New York, where he established Phantasma, an amusement park on Coney Island.  Despite Meg and Madame Giry's every attention, he pines for Christine, now married to Raoul with a 10-year old son named Gustave.

When the Phantom learns that Christine is coming to New York to sing at the opening of a new opera house, he lures her and her family to Coney Island with the desire to have her sing for him once more.  It is revealed that Christine's marriage to Raoul is difficult, with Raoul drinking and gambling away all of their money.  Meanwhile, Gustave reveals heightened musical gifts, and the Phantom determines that he could be the result of a brief tryst with Christine the night before her wedding.

Will Christine refuse to sing and leave with Raoul, or will she finally choose to stay with the Phantom?  


The Good

Singing Performances.  If the performances had been bad, this would have been a merciless review.  Instead, the performances are quite good for the most part.  Ben Lewis and Anne O'Byrne took over the roles of the Phantom and Christine from Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess (best known for their performance in the 25th Anniversary of Phantom), and both are of excellent voice.  Lewis can't quite bring the unhinged quality to the Phantom that Karimloo evoked so effortlessly, but no matter.  Simon Gleeson is good as Raoul, letting his humanity show when it's too late, but is underused.

The most impressive performance may be that of young Jack Lyall as Gustave.  Child performers are so hit and miss in musicals, and to its credit, Love Never Dies requires a performance that's at least decent -- no trotting on stage to sing a few cutesy lines and then die, like Gavroche in Les Miserables.*  Lyall meets this challenge while singing with the voice of an angel.  Enjoy being able to hit those high notes while it lasts, kid.


No one gives a bad performance except perhaps Maria Mercedes as Madam Giry, making the character too shrill and hammy.

Production Design (Mostly).  Love Never Dies received a production design revamp between London and Melbourne, and it really makes a difference.  Compare the London staging for "Beauty Underneath" to the Melbourne staging.  The London staging is so flat and cheap looking, it's difficult imagining anyone finding it "beautiful."  The Melbourne staging feels more vast and multi-dimensional.

While it can be tough to truly judge from a filmed version with constantly shifting camera angles, the Melbourne production looks as lavish as that of Phantom, albeit much darker.  So much darkness can sometimes be a drawback -- the reason it worked in Phantom was because there was a balance between the dark and brightly lit scenes.


The costumes are also excellent and quite a feast for the eye with their color and period accuracy.  (Though I don't know if in 1905, Raoul would have worn a top hat anywhere but to a black tie affair, quibble-quibble.)

Some of the Music and Songs.  It's Lloyd Webber at his most Lloyd Webberiest, which means that the music is frequently lush sounding and grandiose, and sometimes inspired.  There are several nice melodies, including for "Beautiful," "Beneath a Moonless Sky," and, of course, "Love Never Dies."  The song lyrics seem sharper than in Phantom, though that's clearing a very low bar.


While several of the songs are good enough, none stands out like "The Phantom of the Opera" or "Music of the Night."  The best are probably "Love Never Dies" (though I think I liked it better as "The Heart Is Slow to Learn") and "Beauty Underneath."  The latter has become a favorite of mine largely because with its rapid rock energy, it is the most like "The Phantom of the Opera," and features angel-voiced Gustave to boot.  That said, it's a little creepy that Gustave and the Phantom would sing about finding trapped creatures in glass cones beautiful.

* Though Gavroche's role demanded more in the earlier versions of Les Miz when there was a turntable and we could watch him die.  Grrrr.


The Bad

The Characters.  Oh Where to Begin?  Love Never Dies makes sense only if you consider it Lloyd Weber's homage to fanfiction.  As Lindsay Ellis notes in her two-part examination of Phantom of the Opera, once the Phantom lets Christine go, their story is over.  There's no need for a sequel.  Christine would probably never see the Phantom again, and if he resurfaced at all, it would be in the spirit of leaving a rose on her grave, like in the final moments of the 2004 filmed version.

But in the world of fanfiction, Christine can stay behind with the Phantom, who is like sooooo much better than Raoul.  Countless fanfics must portray this exact scenario.  In his two-hour homage to fanfiction, Lloyd Weber does what is necessary for such a situation to work: he completely changes the Phantom's personality.  And everyone else's.


Lest we forget, the Phantom is supposed to be shockingly ugly and disturbed.  Yet in Love Never Dies, the Phantom hardly even appears deformed.  Lewis's Phantom looks virile and handsome, and Karimloo's Phantom goes even further in the sexy department, escorting Gustave around in a tight-fitting open-collared shirt.

The Phantom in Love Never Dies isn't a deranged, angry misanthrope, but a morose, respectable businessman.  The transformation is so great that I can't even view them as same character.  Therefore, the Phantom in Love Never Dies isn't Erik to me, but Rick.  Somehow, in the 10 years after Phantom, Rick learned how to function in society.  He's still a creepy, controlling asshole, but in a Bruce Wayne in his bat lair kind of way.

Erik spoke in riddles, threatening and murdering people right and left.  Rick tries to save lives, pleading: "Give me the gun, Meg."  No, really.  The Phantom is suddenly a suicide counselor.

Erik selfishly manipulated Christine and outright kidnapped her.  Rick... well, he kind of does that, too.  But because he's sexier and more respectable now, he's sooooo much better than Raoul and is a worthy mate for Christine and father to Gustave.  And of course, perfect, talented Gustave can only be Rick's kid because even Raoul's sperm sucks.


That's a long way of saying that if Lloyd Webber was going to pull off this type of sequel, he really needed a story bridging the gap, explaining the transformation.  Of course we'll never get one, so we're left to wonder what the hell happened to everyone since Phantom.

We're supposed to believe that Madame Giry, who was always wary of the Phantom, would become so obsessively devoted to him that she'd not only smuggle him to New York City, she'd launch his business empire.  We're supposed to believe that the woman who considered Christine like a daughter (at least in the 2004 movie version) would plot against her.

Then there's Raoul.  I know the creation of Love Never Dies pre-dates the 25th Anniversary performance of Phantom, but it's as if Lloyd Webber looked at Hadley Fraser's douchebag spin on Raoul and said: "Yep, that's him!"  Raoul in both the novel and Phantom was kind and brave, and definitely showed no signs of a drinking problem.  But to make the Phantom seem sooooo much better, Lloyd Webber reduced him to a snobby, selfish drunk who is ruining his family.  It's to the credit of Simon Gleeson that despite this, I still felt more for Raoul at the end than the Phantom.


And call me crazy, but I'm fairly certain Christine was in love with Raoul when she left with him, no?  Not that she entered marriage with him reluctantly and was secretly pining for the Phantom the whole time.

Yes, about Christine.  In Phantom, while she was intrigued by Erik, pitied him, and thrilled to his melodies, she was never in love with him.  It was Raoul she sang "All I Ask of You" with, not the Phantom.  She was afraid of him:
Raoul, I'm frightened.
Don't make me do this.
Raoul, it scares me.
Don't put me through this
Ordeal by fire.
He'll take me, I know.
We'll be parted forever.
He won't let me go.
What I once used to dream
I now dread.
If he finds me, it won't ever end.
When the Phantom finally stole her down to his lair, she said:
The tears I might have shed
For your dark fate
Grow cold, and turn to
Tears of hate.
If there's love there, or yearning for sex, it is very deeply hidden.  Very deeply hidden.  As in non-existent.  Yet Lloyd Webber would have us believe that soon after she sang these words, she decided she was hot for Phantom after all.  It robs Christine of whatever maturity she achieved in The Phantom of the Opera, which is unfortunate, given what a passive character she is otherwise.

Overall, the taint of Love Never Dies leaves no original character untouched, except for Meg Giry, and only because she had no real character to begin with.


And might I add how odd it is that Rick's business Phantasma deals with carnival sideshows?  Given that Erik grew up as part of a sideshow, only to abandon that world for the Paris opera house, it seems unlikely he would want to return, much less sing "my world is beautiful."  Erik in Phantom didn't want to create gargoyles.  He was the gargoyle.  He wanted to create beautiful music that would enthrall the people above, and stayed beneath the opera house so he could hide his deformed self from the world.  But I digress.

Story??  Let's pretend that Love Never Dies is salvageable.  What would make it better?  To start, it might have made more sense to tell the story from Christine's point of view, as was done in Phantom.  We would begin with her family traveling to New York, where Christine would reflect upon her life and wonder what lay in store.  The mysteries of Phantasma would unfold for both her and the audience at the same time.  Instead, we meet the Phantom and the Girys before Christine, so that when Christine meets them, the audience is doing it for the second time.

At least telling the story from Christine's perspective might have given her something approaching an active role.  Here, she's so passive it's offensive.  In her very first scene, despite being the one addressed by the press, she doesn't say a single word for three minutes, except "Gustave."  The scene makes clear that her true purpose in Love Never Dies is to serve as the vessel to unite Gustave with his father.  Gustave is the one who gets to voice his hopes and dreams as they enter the carriage bound for Phantasma.  A better, if not necessarily good, musical might have emerged had the story been about a more mature Christine overcoming the Phantom's abuse once and for all.


Instead, Love Never Dies is told more from the Phantom's perspective.  We're supposed to root for him as he sets a trap for Christine when she reaches New York.  We're supposed to sympathize as he threatens to withhold her son unless she sings for him.  Sorry, I don't find manipulation and abuse sexy.

So you're left with a boring, asshole Phantom and Christine the posable doll.  That doesn't compel the viewer to care about their fate.  Christine is such a pointless character that after she's shot, no one makes any attempt to staunch the blood or take her to a hospital.  Once she's fulfilled her purpose of uniting her crotch dumpling with his true father, she's free to die.


Other aspects of the story also underwhelm.  We get hints of scandalous things the Girys, especially Meg, had to do to finance Phantasma, but they are so marginalized, they never become their own plotline.

Everything in Love Never Dies is shallow, shallow, shallow.  Even Phantasma underwhelms.  What might have been an intriguing character in the musical never feels fully developed.  But I guess that's no surprise.

No Humor.  I tend to prefer dramedies, so I don't usually clamor for humor.  But boy, did this musical need some.  Phantom's humor might have seemed forced -- how much ridiculous Carlotta did we need? -- but at least it existed to balance out the darker aspects of the story.  Without humor, the story for Love Never Dies feels too leaden and self important.  The viewer really needs something to make fun of -- otherwise, it might end up being the aspects we were supposed to take seriously. 

It's Boring.  That may be the greatest knock against it of all.  If Love Never Dies was at least fun, it could be a compulsive viewing experience.  Instead it plods from one leaden, self important scene to the next.  When Christine reunites with the Phantom for the first time, they sing for such a long, monotonous stretch that I was in danger of dozing before it ended.  Paint Never Dries indeed.   


Conclusion

If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber at his emptiest and most grandiose, if you like pretty costumes and lavish sets, and if you think Christine should have always ended up with the Phantom, Love Never Dies is for you.  If you were satisfied with The Phantom of the Opera and felt it needed no sequel, Love Never Dies will drive you to drink.

You can purchase it at Amazon.com to view the carnage, or find it somewhere on YouTube.


The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Downton Abbey: Well That Fucking Sucked

A little bird told me how Series Six went down, and how it most recently ended this past Christmas.  I won't blog about my impressions until after all episodes air in the United States, but with one or two exceptions, to say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Telltale's Game of Thrones: Game of Yawns?

Okay, that was a bad play on words, I admit.  Telltale's Game of Thrones is definitely not boring, even if at times it feels one note.

For those who haven't played the game yet, there be spoilers below!

What is Telltale's Game of Thrones?  For the uninitiated, Telltale Games is a gaming company that produces graphic adventure series, many in multiple chapters.  Its Game of Thrones Season One follows House Forrester, bannermen to House Glover and Stark family loyalists.  In the books, House Forrester is mentioned in passing, little more than a hill clan.  In the episodic series, which follows the show, House Forrester is a minor noble house with the motto: "Iron from Ice."

The story begins on the night of the Red Wedding, where the Forrester patriarch, Gregor the Good, is slain by deceitful Freys.  Before he succumbs, he gives his squire, Gared Tuttle, a mysterious message: "The North Grove must never be lost."  Gared returns to the Forrester fortress Ironrath, only to be sent to the Wall by his own uncle, castellan Duncan Tuttle, for taking revenge on Bolton bannermen who murdered his father and sister.  Gared then goes on a quest to find the North Grove in order to use its power to help House Forrester, which is under siege by the triumphant Boltons and their bannermen.  

The Boltons' rise to power has tipped the balance in a nasty generational war between House Forrester and Bolton bannermen House Whitehill.  Both families harvest ironwood from vast groves of trees, but only the Forresters have managed to create wooden products that are as tough as real iron.  The Whitehills blame the Forresters for "stealing" their forests and covet their lands.  Now, with Ramsay Bolton roaming around to ensure that every family bends the knee, the Whitehills see the opportunity to ruin House Forrester for good.

Players control the story through five points of view.  Depending upon the plot, you are 
  • Gared Tuttle
  • Ethan Forrester, a young teen-turned-lord far too soon
  • Asher Forrester, the son exiled to Essos, called upon to return home with an army
  • Mira Forrester, a handmaid to Margaery Tyrell in King's Landing
  • Rodrik Forrester, the dead heir who has a surprising resurrection

Each POV character faces certain decisions, and it is not always obvious which is the right one, if any.  The choice you make can subtly impact the outcome of the story as each chapter unfolds.  One notable aspect of the game is that POV characters will meet up with characters from the show, especially Mira.  So you could be plotting with Tyrion, answering to Cersei, defying Jon Snow, or running a mission for Daenerys.  As Season One is set between Seasons Three and Five in the show, the POV characters will inevitably be involved with some of the biggest moments.  

So those are the basics.  Is the game any good?  

My verdict is that the game is good enough, but not great.  It is good enough to make me care about the Forresters as individuals and not merely as Stark stand-ins.  It is not good enough that I can overlook aspects of sheer laziness and sloppiness in the storytelling.  It's $30 for the entire game, well worth the price.  Despite my title, it is usually not a boring game, even if some of its story beats do get monotonous.

The Good

The Visuals.  Some hate the oil painting look, but I find it rather fitting.  It gives the game a lovely storybook quality fitting for its quasi-medieval fantasy setting.  Also, seeing familiar characters from the show as oil paintings makes them appear far less creepy than they inevitably would if a more realistic visual style had been chosen.   

Characterization.  This should be divided into Game Characters and Show Characters.  The Game Characters, consisting of the Forresters, the Whitehills, and characters they meet, are generally top notch.  It would have been so easy to make Mira little more than "the Sansa" or Rodrik little more than "the Robb."  Instead, the Forresters each have distinctive personalities and a past that is separate from the Starks.  On the other side, there are the Whitehills, with instant-villains Ludd and his fourth-born son, Gryff.  Then there's Gwyn Whitehill, the wildcard in the game, who wants peace between the houses and is sometimes willing to aid House Forrester to get it.  If I have lots of criticisms of this game, it's because the game makers have done such a good job making me care about the characters, I can't stand to see them get the short end of the stick.  

Secondary characters are generally well drawn, even when they are meant to be obvious stand-ins for other characters, like Frostfinger for Alliser Thorne, or Lord Rickard Morgryn for Littlefinger.  My favorites are Tom, the coal boy with mysterious ties who aids Mira, and Beshka, Asher's best friend and all-around badass sellsword.

Then there are the Show Characters.  For the most part, they are portrayed faithfully.  The one that comes across worst is Daenerys, who sounds cold and stilted throughout.  Dany is capable of acting like a real human being, writers!  Cersei and Jon seem mostly like their show selves, as does Tyrion, though he sounds a little too light hearted given where he would have been at that point in the series (ex-Hand, constant punching bag for his family).  Margaery actually comes across better here -- still selfish, but much more cautious and vulnerable.      

Fidelity to the Source Material.  By "source material," I mean the books as well as the show.  If you watched the show alone, you could be forgiven for thinking that the North is just a barren wasteland filled with the Boltons and their loyalists.  Thankfully, Telltale remembers that the Starks had other bannermen, such as the Glovers, and that they in turn had bannermen of their own.  House Forrester is briefly referenced in A Dance With Dragons, though as a hill clan, not as a distinct noble house.  No matter.  Such details show that the creators were paying attention, along with "book only" phrases like the oft-repeated "Words are wind."  Of course, I also have many criticisms of their fealty to the source material below, but I should give credit where it's due.   

Some Voice Overs.  Among the Game Characters, the voice acting is generally high quality, with Asher and Rodrik's voice actors standing out in particular.  Some complain about Gwyn Whitehill's inconsistent accent, but I never really noticed.  She sounds appropriately no-nonsense and badass.  The only clunkers may be the most recent additions in Chapter 6, Elsera and Josera Snow.  Elsera's voice, in particular, grated on me instantly and made me dislike her.

As noted above, the Show Characters sounded mostly like themselves, with the exception of Emilia Clarke's slightly stilted delivery.  The best voice acting job, by far, is that of Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton, who manages to replicate his Joker-like psychotic delivery perfectly.

The "Divisive" Choice in Chapter Five.  As those who have played the game know, you must make a gut-wrenching choice at the end of Chapter Five whether to continue on as Asher or as Rodrik.  Most choices in this game don't substantially change the story direction, but this one does.  Depending upon whether you're Asher or Rodrik, you get some interesting story choices.  In my "canon" playthrough, I chose Asher to continue on, and had the option of forging an alliance with Gwyn.  Now I'm curious to see what that relationship will entail next season.  Those who chose Rodrik will want to know whether his fiance, Elaena Glenmore, will get out of trouble.  Should provide an interesting challenge to the game makers.    


The Less Good

Plausibility.  For a very minor noble house, the Forresters sure are popular in Westeros!  When it's not Cersei taking time out of her day of ill-plotting to grill Mira in the throne room, it's Tyrion marveling at the Forresters' awesome ability to produce ironwood products, or Gregor Forrester being charged by Robb Stark to lead forces against Casterly Rock.  Never mind that Robb Stark in the source material put only his highest bannermen in charge.  Never mind that a handmaiden like Mira -- if her parents didn't have the sense to get her the hell out of Dodge long ago -- would either be beneath Cersei's notice, or would be swiftly executed for being from a traitor family and possibly a Northern spy.  Never mind that many greater houses like Hightower and Manderly haven't even been mentioned.  The Forresters are apparently just that awesome.

For that matter, despite Ironrath being such a modest fortress, held by a small force, the Whitehills seem to move heaven and earth to conquer it.  In addition to the 500 soldiers in their army, they're also sneaking around King's Landing gathering sellswords and talking strategy with the traitor on the Forrester council.  Did Gregor Forrester sleep with Ludd Whitehill's wife once?  The level of animosity Ludd feels toward the Forresters feels out of proportion with any power they actually hold.         

That brings me to something about Mira's plotline that bothers me.  Remember, Sansa Stark was in King's Landing because she had no choice.  Mira Forrester was there voluntarily, and somehow that was okay with everyone?  Cersei grills her and is then like: "'Kay, but I'm keeping my eye on you!"?  What in seven hells prevents the ever-paranoid Cersei from seizing Mira right there and having her beheaded?  And how the hell could the Forresters leave Mira in enemy territory and think she would be safe?  You took part in a war against the so-called rightful King of Westeros, Forresters!  Cersei Lannister is well within her rights to want your daughter dead!  Seriously, any Northerner in King's Landing would either be a hostage or a prisoner.  Yet Mira's threatened beheading comes not from Cersei, but from some lame-ass third-tier Littlefinger wannabe who wants revenge because she made him feel inadequate.      

Plot Holes.  Less forgivable are the numerous plot holes that litter the game, as the creators strained to make the characters' actions fit the needs of the plot.  One outrageous one involved the traitor on the Forresters' council.  Not only did the reveal lack any ingenuity, but the traitor's actions made no sense.  At that point in the game, the Forresters had great leverage with Gryff Whitehill as their hostage.  The traitor wanted only to keep House Forrester strong, so what did he do?  Let Gryff go.  Moreover, players have complained that even if you did what the traitor suggested throughout the game, the traitor would still complain that you went against his counsel.

An even worse plot hole involves Mira's storyline.  Throughout the game, Mira's story seems to be building toward a confrontation involving Cersei and Tyrion.  Tyrion is accused of killing Joffrey, and I thought Mira would be called upon to testify or at least be condemned for being a "conspirator."  Nope.  Cersei and Tyrion are nowhere to be found in Chapter Six.  I don't know if the actors just weren't available and Telltale was forced to change plans, or if this was always the intention.  Instead of Cersei condemning Mira, it's Poor Man's Littlefinger, who does not exist in the source material, but seems to have unparalleled power here.  He can get a girl from a noble house locked up and sentenced to death for the killing of a guard.  No trial, not even by combat.  Can you tell I'm slightly upset about this?

Those are probably the biggest ones, but there are numerous others that sapped my enjoyment of the game.  For instance, Elaena's brother and the Glenmore elite guard followed me to the meeting at Highpoint, but somehow when I returned, in the split second my back was turned, Ramsay Bolton -- who would not have known which soldiers were with me -- found, captured, and tortured Elaena's brother.  That's some amazing time traveling!    

Lack of Options.  Both the books and the show are bleak, with more defeats than victories at this point.  However, the game may have them beat.  Options that could make your situation slightly more bearable are denied you.  Want to tell Ramsay that the Whitehills disobeyed him and claimed all of the ironwood forests?  No can do.  Want to communicate with Margaery Tyrell or another one of your friends before you face the block?  Sorry.  Want to avoid Tyrion?  You're shit out of luck.  Ultimately, your choices are what the game gives you, and too often they are relentlessly, sometimes unrealistically, bad ones.

Characters Poorly Used.  This game has a lot of well-drawn characters, but too few seem to live up to their potential.  What was the point of being nice to social-climbing Sera?  It never uncovered any advantage, except that Sera was only slightly less resistant to Mira joining the garden party than otherwise.  What was the point of Tom?  Who did he work for?  Why was his employer so concerned about helping Mira?  (I've heard some deleted vocals that answer this question, but since they are not official, I don't know if the game makers changed their mind.)  

What was the point of Asher hiring the pit fighters?  We were told that they were such unique, badass fighters, but in the end, only Amaya stood out.  The rest could have been generic sellswords (and the idea that Asher, with his gold, could not have purchased the services of any sellsword company besides the Second Sons is ridiculous).  And then there are Finn and Cotter, Gared's friends from the Night's Watch.  That Cotter is a wildling has no bearing on the overall plot; he doesn't provide any necessary skills or knowledge, then later dies from a shoulder wound.  Same with Finn, who exists only to die and later emerge as a wight.  Their quest to find the North Grove could have been a fun buddy adventure, but that aspect petered out far too quickly.


Conclusion

I complain, but as I stated above, this game is well worth the time of both a book/show fan and the casual player.  It has a nice visual style, an easy playing style, a basically good story, and well drawn characters.  Its drawbacks, consisting of plot holes and implausibilities, prevent it from being truly special.  But perhaps some of the inadequacies will be dealt with in Season Two. 

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween! Update

Happy Halloween, everyone!



Maybe some day I'll work up the courage to watch an actual scary movie.  Until then, watching Republican presidential debates is enough.

So what's new?  I'm steadily moving along with writing my second novel, the sequel to my Victorian novel Rage and Regret.  About 300 pages written, not as many as I'd hoped, but still steady progress.  One difficulty is that unlike the first novel, there are about 3-4 distinct plot lines I'm trying to steer to fruition, and not all of them are behaving properly.

At some point soon, I will also need to refocus attention on peddling the first novel.  I had taken a break to focus on writing the second, because peddling a novel is such a job in and of itself, with all of the ups and downs that entails.

I can't pretend that I will have time to update every week as I have in the past.  There's just too much on my plate.  However, I do hope to provide updates 2-3 times a month, on topics that I've written on before: introversion, movie musicals, novels, Victorian everything...

... oh, and Downton Abbey.  Yeah, can't quit the Downton Abbey.  I'll at least have a post summing up the series when it's at an end.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Wet Hot American Summer and the Smart "Stupid" Movie

My sister loves Seinfeld.  I don't.  I don't get the brand of humor where people overreact to small incidents, usually incidents that aren't really that bothersome.  And yet, what does it say that I absolutely love movies that consist of people doing nothing but going crazy at small things?

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that humor is highly subjective.  Reasons one person finds certain situations funny can be a complete mystery to someone else.  I can't fully explain why I'm such easy prey for the smart "stupid" movie, but I'm going to try.

The smart "stupid" movie is usually part of the parody genre, which mocks movie trends and offers insights into the mindset of a specific era.  When done right, the smart "stupid" movie can leave you rolling on the floor with laughter, while also recognizing that the movie just gets it somehow.  When done wrong, the smart "stupid" movie is just... stupid.

It is a very thin line between smart "stupid" and genuinely stupid, and staying on the smart side of the line is very difficult.  Often, smart "stupid" movies will have at least some lapses into pure stupidity.  Whether those lapses taint the movie overall depends upon the individual viewer's tolerance.  If you understand what the movie is trying to do, and appreciate that it hits its mark more often than it misses, you will still enjoy it.  If you don't see the method behind the madness, if all you see is stupid, then you will likely hate it.  These genres tend to not have much in between.

Take Wet Hot American Summer.  When it premiered in 2001, it was widely derided as a failed attempt at parody and juvenile.  Roger Ebert went so far as to write a sarcastic review about it in the form of the classic song "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah."  It did poorly at the box office and vanished quickly from theatres.

And yet... this movie quickly became a cult classic among intelligent people who would normally be quick to deride the mindlessness of mainstream movies and television.  Was it because so many smart comedians, like Amy Poehler and Jeanane Garofolo, were in it?  Was it because so many of the actors, like Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, and Elizabeth Banks, would go on to greater fame?  Was it because it captured a time of their lives in a way that no other movie truly did?  It could have been all of those reasons, and none of them.

Truth be told, even as a lover of the smart "stupid" movie, I find Wet Hot American Summer to be a bit of a puzzle.  Whereas I can easily laugh at Not Another Teen Movie because it parodies John Hughes and other high school romance movies, I don't have much of an impression of summer camp.  I went for a week when I was 11 and that was pretty much it.  So Wet Hot American Summer doesn't tap into any reservoir of feelings.

(From this point forward, spoilers follow.)  For anyone not familiar with the movie, the basic plot is that the year is 1981, it's the last day of an eight-week summer camp, and anything can and does happen.  That includes "Coop," one of the counselors, finally admitting his love of fellow counselor, Katie; two megalomaniac counselors holding a talent show; and camp director Beth finding unexpected romance with Henry, an astrophysicist, while at the same time a piece of Skylab is plummeting to earth and threatening to hit the camp.  You know, the usual.

As you likely guessed, Wet Hot American Summer isn't a clean plate where only one or two plot lines predominate; it is a stew.  An often weird stew, especially with any scene involving Gene, the camp cook and Vietnam vet with an affinity for refrigerators.

Gene.  Didn't really get him until the prequel series.
AV Club did an article on the cultural influences on the movie, some of which I recognize.  However, at times, rather than parody something specific, Wet Hot American Summer seems wacky and tasteless for the sake of being wacky and tasteless.  Like with Gene, or with Andy accidentally letting kids drown due to carelessness, then tossing the witnesses out into the wilderness.

Other times, even when I recognize the movie is parodying something, I'm not sure what it is.  Take, for instance, Victor's mad dash to get back to Abby Bernstein, leaving campers in danger on the white water rapids.  Or Beth and Neil's hysterical overreaction in the nurse's office as they try to locate Victor.

And sometimes, even when I know what Wet Hot American Summer is parodying, I'm not sure it always lands.  One example would be Gail's growing attraction to a young camper who gives her supportive advice over how to stand up to her ex husband.  It's a parody of any movie where the man or woman's best friend/colleague slowly rises from supporting role to the new love interest.  Here, the role is filled by a kid who's maybe 12 at most.  As it unfolds, the plot line is a cross between funny and skin crawling because it is so, so very wrong.

Yep that's... pretty wrong.
If Wet Hot American Summer has these issues, why do I still laugh?  For that matter, why would I find any movie with similar issues to be funny?  First, it's important to point out that many times, I don't find the jokes funny.  I don't care for Gene's refrigerator speech (although the talking can seems funnier in retrospect thanks to Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp).  Victor's antics get tiring, and there are even stretches of the movie that feel dull.         

What makes it click overall is that, when it works, it really works.  Part of it is due to the general absurdist tone the movie takes.  When that tone is put into the service of a truly crazy plot line, it works wonders.  For instance, in a different movie, the Skylab danger -- partially based on real life, partially based on sci-fi action movies -- might have been flaccid and overwrought.  However, here, every plot point and sudden plot twist is kicked up a notch in absurdity.  It's not just that the Skylab could land on the camp, but that it could land on the theatre right as the talent show is happening.  It's not just that Henry and his band of Goonies-like nerd kids can stop it with a homemade tracking device, it's that they can only stop it with a device made from doughnuts and a can of spam.

And then there is the pivotal moment of camper Steve's performance at the talent show.  Only in a movie as absurd as Wet Hot American Summer could a camper unveil superpowers and it would practically be considered an afterthought.  Of course Steve has the ability to create gusts of wind with his hands.  Gusts of wind that can only be observed inside the theatre, but somehow are enough to send the Skylab off course so that it crashes harmlessly into the ground.  In true parody style of films like Lucas, Steve, the friendless nerd kid, earns the appreciation of the talent show audience, leading to the slow clap.



The absurdist tone also lightens the effect of plots like the aforementioned Gail/camper romance that could otherwise be considered downright offensive.  Seeing Gail and the 12-year-old camper go off to get married in the end, few would view the situation realistically.  Instead, it could be read as the supportive friend role taken to extremes combined with Gail's desperation for true love.  Likewise, Andy essentially killing campers due to negligence invokes laughs because, again, it is an extreme situation meant to showcase Andy's narcissism, nothing more.  No one thinks that would actually happen.  Right?  Right??

The tone of Wet Hot American Summer is greatly assisted by the actors' performances.  No one does a diva theatre director/producer/choreographer better than Amy Poehler as Susie.  No one can make an asshole boyfriend quite as likable as Paul Rudd makes Andy.  Jeanane Garofolo brings a steady grounded quality to her performance as Beth, yet never in a way that detracts from the absurdity of the situation.  And few could be as straight-faced when delivering lines like "I've grown up a lot since before dinner when we last talked" as Michael Showalter's Coop.

Yet even so, why do I laugh?  Why do I find this funny and not the griping on Seinfeld?  Maybe because that's what most of Seinfeld is -- griping.  The characters spend a lot of time reacting like the world is going to end over very minor things, things that I often either do not notice or do not care about.  They gripe, complain, avoid.  While the tone of Seinfeld episodes can be absurd and silly, there is still this overlay of negativity that makes watching an episode tiring.  By contrast, movies like Wet Hot American Summer, or other parody movies that hit more than miss, like Not Another Teen Movie, have a very light, often whimsical tone.  Unlike the Seinfeld characters, the characters in these movies never take themselves too seriously, or if they do, the movie sends a clear message that they shouldn't.  That makes the plot, no matter how twisted or absurd, easier to digest.

George and Jerry griping about... something.
Furthermore, while Seinfeld is cleverly done, the gripes feel like the end result.  The show doesn't seem to aim for anything bigger.  Not that it should, but I like when movies or television shows, no matter what genre, aim to be more than just the next joke or the next plot point.  Wet Hot American Summer wants to make fun of 70's and 80's camp movies, comeback movies, romantic comedies, disaster movies, and movies where teenagers are played by 30-year olds.  It doesn't always succeed, but at least it succeeds more often than it fails.

And then there's the "get it" factor.  Except for Elaine, I don't really get the Seinfeld characters.  I don't relate to them.  While I don't necessarily relate to characters like Susie either, I get what they're about, what the movie seeks to parody with them.  I get Beth.  I get Coop.  Hell, I even get Gail to an extent.  I also get what Wet Hot American Summer is trying to do with its parody of the early 80's, and it often works.  There is just this unmistakable 80sness about everything, this sense that "yeah, that's probably what it would have been like, even without the falling Skylab."

And that is what matters most, what separates comedy that makes you laugh from comedy that leaves you cold.  You must get it on some level, even if you don't know why.

For the reasons stated above, I enjoy smart "stupid" movies like Wet Hot American Summer, as well as its prequel, First Day of Camp.

That being said, it is one thing to like a movie or television show that pretends to be stupid, and another to like one that is plain stupid.  Many smart people avoid movies and shows that are flat-out dumb, but there is that small circle of shows that are dumb in such a specific way that they are actually kind of awesome.  I'll be taking a look at that in a future article.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.             

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Through An Introvert's Lens: Inside Out

Beware of spoilers!

Inside Out, Pixar's latest release, tells a surprisingly complex story of what goes on inside one girl's mind as she confronts major changes in her life.  Yet it could also serve as a study of how extroverts routinely undervalue introverts, to everyone's peril.

The movie revolves around an 11-year old girl named Riley who has just moved from Minnesota with her parents to a run-down house in San Francisco (that probably cost $2 million *cough*).  Riley goes from perpetually happy-go-lucky to confused and withdrawn, in part due to the fact that her mental "control room" is in disarray.  That's because Joy, one of her five anthropomorphic emotions and the one who steers her reactions on a day-to-day basis, accidentally got sucked into Riley's long-term memory along with Sadness, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to run the show.  Inside Out chronicles Joy and Sadness's attempts to return to the control room to save Riley from further struggle, and the ultimate acceptance that such struggles are a part of life.

When we first meet Joy, she is perpetually upbeat, almost manic.  She is always trying to make lemonade out of lemons, always wanting everything to stay in the same perfect, golden state, or to dwell on happy memories in the past.  Though well-meaning and fun, she is also domineering, rarely permitting other emotions to interfere, least of all Sadness.

Sadness is introduced as a sad-sack with impulse problems (she can't resist touching formerly happy memories and marking them permanently with sadness), a problem that Joy must solve.  Joy tries to do it by forbidding Sadness from providing input on Riley's first day at her new school (in an "upbeat" way, of course), only for Sadness to slip her bonds and interfere during a crucial moment.  This leads them both to getting sucked into Riley's longterm memory and... you'll have to see the movie to find out.

On one level, this is a movie about our (specifically Americans, though it could apply to varying degrees elsewhere) tendency to prize "happy, upbeat" behavior over inconvenient and messy "negative" feelings like sadness and confusion.  On another level, it could be argued that this is a movie that illustrates society's attitudes toward introverts, and demonstrates how much richer the world would be if introverted behavior were as welcome as extroverted.

That Joy is a stereotypical extrovert is without question.  Talkative, gaining energy through interaction with others, and little focused on her own interior state until she reaches a crucial nadir point in the story.  Sadness comes across as a stereotypical introvert -- or, more crucially, in the beginning, as an extrovert's view of an introvert.  As a refresher, introverts are typically:

  • reserved
  • interested in big ideas rather than small talk
  • need to be alone to replenish after socializing
  • think before they speak
  • prefer to observe rather than be the center of attention

Sadness appears to have many of these traits.  She doesn't say much, thinks it's important to "slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems," and typically views things in a more circumspect manner (such as when Joy wants to take the shortcut to the Train of Thought).  

To the extroverted Joy, Sadness is such a downer.  Always turning up when you least want her to, whining about life's problems and so mopey that at times, she lies sprawled out on the floor, unwilling to move.  Sadness can't be removed altogether, but she can at least be minimized and ignored.

Yet as the movie progresses, Sadness's persona subtly softens, and we see more of her wisdom and empathy.  During one crucial scene, she comforts a character who has experienced a powerful loss.  By helping him come to terms, rather than ignore the loss and move onward, as Joy would have them do, Sadness helps him find peace.  

I have some quibbles with Inside Out.  Despite portraying Sadness as a necessary part of a healthy emotional life, the story belongs to the extroverted Joy, and largely portrays her journey toward acceptance.  Sadness, to the end, remains an "other" in Joy's story, rather than a complex character in her own right, passively submissive rather than active in her own story.  Moreover, the personification of Sadness being portrayed by an introverted character grates a little.  People are not always quiet and reflective when they are sad, or loud and proud when they are happy.  Introverted does not equal sad.  Then again, an extrovert might take issue with the portrayal of Joy as someone who denies all other emotions, but that's for another blog.

Overall, despite Inside Out falling prey to the same tendencies of much mainstream media -- giving the extroverted character the story, rather than making the introvert and extrovert co-equals -- it at least acknowledges that introverts have a powerful role to play, that their input is just as important as an extrovert's.      

Conclusion

Number of Introverts: One

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes

Is the Introvert Active?: Somewhat, though the action is largely dictated by the extrovert

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?: Like an embarrassment that must be hidden, until they (or rather, Joy) learned to appreciate her unique qualities.


The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Things That I Love: Video Game PlayThroughs

Have you ever wanted to play a video game, but didn't have the money or the time?  Thanks to the power of YouTube, you can see how that game is played, and then some.

I first stumbled upon video game playthroughs, or walkthroughs, when I was looking for video on the famous Super Mario Brothers "minus world."  If you've ever played the classic Super Mario Brothers, you may be aware that there are certain glitches in the game, and those savvy enough to exploit them can find themselves in, as they say, a whole new world:



In case that wasn't weird enough for you, here is minus world in the Japanese version:



But playthroughs aren't just for watching cool glitches in beloved classic video games.  They are also for watching entire video games and interactive stories.  For instance, when I was young, I beat Nintendo's classic game, Mike Tyson's Punch Out.  Years later, they came up with an updated version on Wii, which I don't own and don't know when I'll purchase.  But thanks to more dedicated players on YouTube, I can at least watch the game and imagine I'm still dexterous enough to beat it!


As for interactive stories, since the beginning of this year, I have been following the chapters of Telltale's Game of Thrones.  For a little background, Telltale Games is a gaming company that produces graphic adventure series, many in multiple chapters.  Game of Thrones Season One follows House Forrester, bannermen to House Glover and Stark family loyalists.  In the books, House Forrester is mentioned in passing, little more than a hill clan.  In the episodic series, which follows the show, House Forrester is a minor noble house with the motto: "Iron from Ice."  Through six chapters (four presently released), you follow the Stark-like Forresters as they try to bring their family back from near ruin.

So far, the series has been utterly absorbing.  Yet I would have been denied the experience if not for the generosity of YouTubers, thanks to the fact that my computer schematics were not advanced enough for the game (*never mind that when I purchased it, Telltale claimed it could run on Snow Leopard, grumble, grumble*).  Now that I've upgraded, I intend to play the game at long last, but it has been great fun watching various players' choices for each chapter.  Watching each episode is really like watching segments of a miniseries.  When all six episodes have aired, I will write a review of the whole.


So there you have it: a special mix of nostalgia and desire to explore new worlds (as well as, let's face it, a splash of laziness) is what makes video game playthroughs so enjoyable.  Off to look for yet another new one... after I do some grown up, responsible adult thingys first.  Grumble.

Special thanks to Chozoth, Legendary Super Mario, MrBLT, and IGN for their wonderful video contributions, without which I could not have wasted so much of my valuable time and enjoyed every minute.