Justice League (no spoilers)

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Okay. I wasn’t going to see it until next week, but reviews said it was sorta good, so I caught a 7pm sneak tonight.

The theater was mostly empty, a very bad sign.

The movie itself was “pretty good for superhero movies” if that’s any kind of rating that matters. They finally got the heroes right. The villains were still cgi ciphers for a supers plot, with three macguffins that have to be gathered and joined to end the world, etc etc. The parademons were effectively animated but Steppenwolf was an empty shell.

Still, this is the first time I genuinely liked Cavill as Superman. He’s always looked the part, but I never really felt he was playing the Superman I grew up with. Affleck was terrific as Batman, and the others were excellent. Gadot especially. I’m glad they skipped the origin stories and I’m glad they cast charismatic people.

As action movies go, it was exciting, if a bit repetitive. Next time I hope they mix things up more.

Honestly, I can’t decide if this is the power of low expectations, or if I just had fun. Now I’m honestly looking forward to movies for these individual heroes.

Anyway, it’s a quarter after 11 at night and I’ve got a pint of black coffee beside me. THE PUNISHER starts in 45 minutes, and I’ll be sitting up to binge it.

Randomness for 11/8

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1) Why you should crack an egg in your coffee grounds.

2) “Why these all white paintings are in museums and why mine aren’t”

3) Dungeon Hobo Signs

4) Five Tips for Preventing Sexual Harassment We Apparently Need

5) An expanded list of Netflix genres, with links: “Dramas starring Virginia Madsen,” “Gritty Biographical Music and Concert Documentaries,” “Successful Korean Revenge Movies”

6) “Optimization is a form of calcification”: Cory Doctorow on a decade and a half of life-hacking.

7) Every Batman: the Animated Series Villain Ranked from Worst to Best.

Mohawks, Barrel Fires, and a Few Nice Shots: a highly qualified defense of episode 7 of STRANGER THINGS 2

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This post contains spoilers for the second season of STRANGER THINGS 2. You should only read it if:

a) You have already seen the show
b) You actively like spoilers
c) You enjoy discussions of storytelling but have no interest in this particular show.

Moving on: episode seven, is widely regarded as the weakest episode of the entire show, for good reason. It steps away from the setting we, the audience, are invested in, and it drops all of the regular characters except one: Eleven. (I should start calling her “Jane” but I’m not ready to move on.)

Do we care about Kali and her band of punk murderers? We do not. Kali herself has a few nice moments, but the rest of the group never gets a chance to be funny, or charismatic, or to have a worthwhile goal the audience can root for. Their dialog isn’t clever or witty, either. They make fun of Eleven’s clothes, for god’s sake, by singing “Old MacDonald”.

The members of the gang say they’ve been “saved” by Kali, but that’s something that needs to be shown, not told. If you can’t actually show why these punks are so dedicated to her–and all it would take was to show Kali using her power to calm someone’s panic attack or withdrawal symptoms–then it seems that the real reason they’re with her is that they really enjoy is robbing and killing people.

And no cutesy slow-mo walk is going to make that palatable.

As 80’s nostalgia, it’s dumb and also pernicious, on the level of an episode of QUINCY, ME.

Frankly, STRANGER THINGS has always played with the other people’s ideas. The whole show is an homage of one kind or another, but those old tropes are either actively pleasant (like the boys riding their bikes around the neighborhood) or their given an interesting tweak (see: Steve Harrington). Kali’s gang has zero interesting tweaks, and all the barrel fires and in-jokey graffiti in the world can’t make them pleasant.

Authors like to encourage newer writers to steal anything they like, because each writer’s individual voice will make these old tropes their own, but this episode proves that’s not always true.

But why talk only about the episode’s flaws?

First, there are a number of lovely little storytelling moments that elevate the show above the schlock it’s mining. Not just the steadicam single shot that turns 180 degrees to show both the gang’s pov and the cops’ pov or the edit from Kali’s face reflected in the van’s window to Eleven’s in the bus window, but a bunch of smaller choices, too. Each little edit from the moment Eleven sees the picture of Ray with his kids to the moment she TKs the gun from Kali is perfectly structured. Brava to the director.

Second, the show gets some much needed girl-to-girl time.

One of the problems with STRANGER THINGS is that its female characters are so isolated from each other. The women and girls on the show are surrounded by dudes and maybe a mother. Eleven has Mike and his pals. Max has those same boys and her step-brother. Joyce has her sons and Hopper. Nancy has Steve and Jonathan.

I’m convinced one of the reasons fans had such a strong reaction to Barb was that, aside from being a sort of Everywoman among all the TV-beautiful actresses, she was half of the only woman-to-woman peer relationship on the show, and that’s not something they can afford to throw away.

The scene with Kali and Eleven on the roof is a moment that the show needed: a scene of bonding and caring between female characters. They had an opportunity to revisit that at the beginning of episode nine when Max met Eleven, but they shrugged it off for an understandable but unwelcome moment of jealousy. (If season 3 doesn’t open with Max and Eleven as the best of friends, I’ll be seriously disappointed.)

This episode was also a mentoring moment. The show has routinely showed how much stronger Eleven’s powers were becoming, but with Kali she managed the leap that justifies the climax.

Third, it provides space for an unexpected escalation of the stakes.

Most of us watching these Netflix miniseries recognize by now that the climax is spread across the last two episodes, and the big oh shit! moment comes at the end of the episode just before that climax.

STRANGER THINGS 2 thwarts that expectation in a pleasant way. I was genuinely startled by the end of episode six, when the baby demogorgons begin to climb out of the hole, and there’s Chief Hopper looking incredibly vulnerable in his hospital scrubs.

It’s a nice cliffhanger, arriving as it does an entire episode early, and all of episode seven leaves us dangling off the cliff. Personally, I enjoyed the anticipation, but I would have enjoyed it more if ep seven had been a little stronger.

Fourth, it expands the world and sets up Kali as the villain for season three.

The show wisely opened the second season with the gang on the run from the cops, then Kali’s nosebleed and tattoo. That it later fumbled those elements doesn’t negate their importance in continuing and expanding the story. Eleven can’t be the only test subject in this world, and the others can’t be duplicates of her.

Season three will need to introduce other kids with tattoos and powers (all of them little girls, if they’re smart), and it will need Kali as one of the villains. Establishing her as a betrayed sister in this season was a good move.

Besides, you can mine a lot of terrifying moments out of a horror show where people can’t trust their own senses. Season three can’t get here fast enough.

So, to sum up: the episode had a lot of necessary and worthwhile elements, but was hobbled by the thoroughly ham-handed way it handled the supporting characters. Definitely a weak moment, but still interesting.

How about that! A Buzzfeed Video worth watching (about TV settings)

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This is my first time trying to embed a video from Twitter. I’m curious to see how it turns out.

And btw, I did binge S2 of Stranger Things when it premiered overnight, and it’s terrific.

Blade Runner 2049: Beautiful and Sad and WTF? Come on, Guys

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In my attempt to return my online activity to spaces I control, I’m going to be dropping reviews here, too. To start, Blade Runner 2049.

First of all, it’s a beautiful movie. And it’s a sad one, too. That’s not a spoiler; it’s obvious from the first few minutes that this shit will turn tragic.

Also, it’s part of the Staring School of filmmaking. Nowadays, when filmmakers want to signal that their movie is Capital A Art, they show lingering shots of the actors staring at something without speaking. It’s meant to suggest that there’s a lot of emotions churning around on the inside, but hey, they’re underplaying it.

I’m honestly getting a bit bored with the Staring School. Imagine a film where eloquent people expressed their feelings in compelling ways! I’d love to watch that.

Another problem is the way the film treats women. Does it seem even remotely likely that every hologram advertisement in the future will feature a fully or semi naked woman? Not one dude at all? What happened in the future to remove the cigarette-holding cowboys and the models with washboard ads and half-buttoned pants? It just doesn’t make sense.

And it’s clear the film won’t be a financial success, although I’m certain it’ll turn a profit over the long run. I saw a matinee on the day it was released and, flaws aside, I loved it. On Sunday, my son asked me to take him, so we went.

He loved it. (The Staring School is one of his favorite things.) But as we left the crowd of friends in front of us were complaining about how boring it was. “Nothing happened!” they said, which I guess is code for no chases, no big action set pieces, and a lot of looking at things with no expression.

Which is fine, if that’s what they like, but honestly, I wasn’t bored for any part of the 2+ hour run time. If they’d been smart, they would have cast more non-white actors in major roles, which boosts ticket sales. Yet another missed opportunity.

So, a flawed movie, but also a beautiful and sad one, and I really liked it.

Moving Past the Trope: Creativity Through Lists

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At the moment, I’m brainstorming for a new novel, and I thought I might help myself along by writing about the process. (And by “help myself along” I mean make myself stop goofing off on Twitter.)

In the moment that any writer looks at a blank page without a good idea of what to put on it, the possibilities are basically infinite. I could write about anything, really, including a random jumble of geometric shapes and nonsense squiggles.

But I don’t, because I’m a fiction writer. And I like magic and crime. And I’m a white dude living in America 2017.

And each of those things narrow that range of infinite possibility, because there are some things I’m more likely to write than others. Sounds obvious, right? Sometimes it helps me to think through obvious things.

Other times, I narrow that range with an easy answer. So the question: “Who will be the main antagonist in this book?” could be answered quite easily with a trope: A vampire. A werewolf. A Voldemort. A Lucifer.

And that’s fine. Some people love those tropes and want to play with them. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the intent. For me, it’s not the intent. I’m hoping to find something on the far side of that trope. Something weird or unusual that readers maybe haven’t seen before.

Some readers don’t like that. That’s fine. But for me, the question is always How do I get there?, and the answer is almost always With a list.

I came across the idea of using lists for creative purposes in a book about writing comedy, especially a standup comedy routine, and it’s served me well in my fantasy/horror books ever since. The first step is always to identify the question. The second is to list the easy answers I won’t use in my book

So, “Who will the the main antagonist in this book?”

Possible answers:

1. Werewolf
2. Vampire
3. Voldemort
4. Lucifer
5. Ghost
6. Genius Serial Killer
7. Shadowy Gov’t Agency

And on and on.

I put them on the list because I want them out of the way. I don’t have to think about them anymore because they’re already on the list.

And let me say once more that I’m not bashing these tropes. I’ve written two novels with werewolves in them, so I recognize that they exist to be used and they persist because of the readers who love them. But sometimes that’s not what I want.

Next, I force myself to keep going. I write down terrible answers, like “ghost horse” or “newborn god of public transit who’s sick of waiting for his human sacrifices”.

Eventually, I get to weird stuff, like maybe “super-intelligent hive-mind of wharf rats”. What do the rats want? How intelligent are they? Will they join the longshoreman’s union?

It’s weird. Twenty years ago, if you told me my most creative work would come from a nearly rote exercise of making lists, I would have been horrified. And yet, here I am, writing a book about a rat colony that share a single mind.

(Obviously, I’m just kidding. No way am I writing a rat book. The research alone would give me the heebie-jeebies.)

“You have nothing but a war inside you.” Final Punisher trailer and premiere date

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The show airs on Nov 17, which is less than a month after it was announced. I wonder if Netflix is hoping to build anticipation by delaying the release day announcement as long as possible.

Not that it matters, since I’ll be binge-watching it on the first day, and I won’t be watching previous Punisher movies to get myself in the mood.

Here it is:

One thing I didn’t realize at first was that this is the same day the new Justice League movie premiers. Marvel is literally counter-programming DC’s big gamble. And as much good will as DC/Warner earned with their Wonder Woman movie, I’m not all that excited about it. I hope it’s great, but I suspect it’s not.

One quibble about the trailer: nothing that I noticed suggested they are going to introduce superpowers into the series. If they don’t, that would be a huge mistake. It’s one thing to have a 13-episode action miniseries. That can be a lot of fun if they manage to vary the fights: context, situations, resources, etc.

But how much more fun would it be if they threw in a scene where Castle has to take on someone who’s bulletproof? Or someone who can regenerate?

All I’m saying is that the MCU is full of untapped resources. Put that shit on screen.

[Added later: Comments off because of a deluge of spam]

Bringing It Home: a followup to last post

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For the last few years, I’ve been putting more and more of my thoughts into Twitter threads, and it’s time to pull back from that. The people on Twitter are great, except for the ones who aren’t, but the company is a parade of fail. What’s more, it’s all so ephemeral. If I write about a Star Wars reboot on my blog, it’s always available to me when the subject comes up. If I put it Twitter, it falls into the memory hole before the day is out.

So, more posts in spaces I own.

This is probably a terrible decision, considering how little traffic I get. But I’ve been on Twitter for seven years. That’s a lot of bullshit to type out, and a lot of time to waste. It’s time I reclaimed time, if you know what I mean.

And as a followup to my last post, remember how I said I was working on a 20P novella? I just turned it over to my agent.

At the moment, I’m as free as a bird to watch creature features and daydream a new project. And I have a tall glass of celebratory bourbon beside me.

Happy Tuesday, you guys.

The State of the Novelist Address: I just sent a book to my agent

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I thought I’d pop in and update things for folks, writing-wise.

First, earlier this week I sent a new novel to my agent. It’s a crime/mystery novel, a genre I’ve been reading for years. This isn’t my first attempt at this style, but it is the first one that I feel comfortable with. Some aspects of it fall right down the middle of the genre, while some are probably all wrong and will make me tear my hair out in revisions. We’ll see! But it feels good to start a book and send it to her in under six months. I’m not usually that prolific.

Which means I’ve returned to revision on my Twenty Palaces novella. I know I’ve been talking about this for a while, but this mini-book has resisted several attempts to write it. At this point, I feel I’ve solved most of the problems and hope to have it on sale before the end of the year.

Once I finish that, I’ll be working on something new. No idea what it will be, but I’m just going to pick an idea that sounds cool and run with it.

Thank you for reading this, and being here.

Randomness for 10/2

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1.

2. How to control Alexa and Google Home through commands that are inaudible to the human ear.

3. A domino run in kaleidoscope: Beautiful. Video.

4. A Quick Beginner’s Guide to Drawing.

5.

6. Roald Dahl’s publisher threatened to drop him for being a jerk.

7. Why is it so hard to judge a screenplay from the movie that’s made from it?