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.

“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]

“Are They Expecting You?” “Not Like This.”: The Rehabilitation of MCU’s Danny Rand

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The Defenders came out last Friday on Netflix and a lot of people continue to kick Finn Jones for his portrayal of Danny Rand. While I understand audiences hated him in the first season of Iron Fist, I want to argue that Jones was not at fault, and that his performance in The Defenders proves it.

First of all, if you hate the idea of Danny Rand as a “mighty whitey” racist stereotype (and who could blame you, he is), The Defenders isn’t going to change that. He’s still the rich white kid who returned from a magical ancient Chinese city with a superpower that proves he’s the best.

But just as Dr. Strange tried to blunt the racist aspects of that character’s origin by turning The Ancient One’s monastery into a home for people from many continents, The Defenders tries to do the same for K’un Lun. The five immortal bigwigs in The Hand aren’t just enemies of K’un Lun, they were cast out centuries ago, and they’ve been trying to get back home ever since. What’s more, they’re a multi-racial group, including actors Babs Olusanmokun, Ramon Rodriguez, and of course Sigourney Weaver.

Is The Defenders trying to recast K’un Lun, which looked like a vaguely Asian never-never land in S1 of Iron Fist, into something less offensive? It seems so, and that’s a choice that should have been made from the very start.

Should the show have cast an Asian-American as magical martial arts hero Danny Rand? Sure, but considering how things turned out, I’m glad they didn’t.

Here’s why: S1 of Iron Fist had massive problems. It was shoddy and trite. The dialog was a godawful wreck, and no one seemed to understand what they needed to do to make Danny likable. But all of that could have been shrugged off if they’d paid real attention to the fight scenes. Instead, the martial arts was rushed and sloppy, then edited until it was impossible to enjoy. The whole thing was a mess.

And Finn Jones took the heat for it. Audiences didn’t care that he wasn’t the one choreographing the fights, they just blamed him for what they could see. And they didn’t care that he was put into trite situations and given on-the-nose dialog, they were annoyed by the character and blamed the actor.

Casting an Asian-American actor wouldn’t have changed the limited time allotted to rehearsing fight choreography, and it wouldn’t have made Danny’s conflicts with the Meachums any more subtle. Fans blame the lead, no matter who he was, and that would have gotten ugly. An AA actor would have taken all the heat that Jones got, plus he would have had jerks accusing him of being an affirmative action hire.

That feels like a dodged bullet.

Which brings me to The Defenders, and Finn Jone’s role in it. It seems to me that the showrunners have made a concerted effort to make Danny someone the audience can like, and they don’t do it by remaking him into a generic hero guy. They do it by taking the character from S1 of Iron Fist and letting him grow.

They also let him be badass in his fight scenes.

To address the latter first, Danny gets a fight in each of the first three episodes, and to be honest, the very first one in the prolog of the pilot, isn’t a winner. It’s dark, has lots of edits and frankly made me worry about the show.

In the second, he fights Luke Cage, and it’s the first genuinely fun fight scene. It’s played for humor, but there are real stakes, too, and even though Luke shrugs off all of Danny’s attacks (except the last) it’s shot and choreographed in a way that makes Danny look quick, graceful, and dangerous.

At the end of the third episode, the show brings all four heroes together for their big (obligatory) Netflix hallway fight. It’s no surprise that it starts with Danny fighting by himself, and that it’s a terrific scene. After all the shitty fight scenes in Iron Fist, it was great to see the character cut loose.

Later, when Matt Murdock enters the fight, he’s just as cool but with an entirely different fighting style. Where Daredevil has a boxing/MMA sort of thing going, Iron Fist has old school wu-shu body turns, sweeping kicks, and roundhouse punches. It makes a nice contrast between them.

Unfortunately, once you get to the fight scene that opens episode five, the shots are cramped, the action confused, and Danny’s choreography not nearly so distinctive. It’s even more evidence that much of what we like about the characters comes down to the writers and directors.

As for Danny personally, at the start of the season, he’s the same guy at the end of Iron Fist: still fighting The Hand because it’s his sworn duty/destiny, even though he doesn’t really understand why. Still tormented by the fact that he left K’un Lun unguarded, and that The Hand attacked while he was away. Still telling everyone he meets that he’s “The Immortal Iron Fist, sworn defender of K’un Lun.”

He still hasn’t accepted that the life he’s led, with its mystical cities and dragons, is so far outside the experience of most people that they just can’t accept it.

But the events of the season, especially his interactions with the other heroes, change him. He’s often played for laughs, still telling everyone his origin story (which the other characters don’t want to do), and still young and impetuous.

He’s learning, though. His story arc for the whole season has him stepping away from a personal vendetta and moving toward the sort of heroism that Luke and Matt embody. He’s also given a bunch of fun, light-hearted moments where he either bonds with the other characters or they deflate his portentousness a little. He’s not a perfect guy, but he’s not the annoying twerp from his own show.

I get that people hold an animosity to the character based on both the character’s racist underpinnings and the awful first season of his own show, but judging by my Twitter timeline, slamming Danny Rand has turned into a competitive sport.

All I say is: if you’re going to watch The Defenders (and if you like superhero stories, you should) do it with an open mind, even if you feel burned by season one of Iron Fist. With new showrunners, new writers, and new choices, it’s worth seeing this new take on Danny Rand, especially since he gets a lecture from Luke Cage on his own privilege, and he takes it to heart.

I want to write a review of the show, but I never seem to make time for reviews anymore. I always have too much to say and not enough free time to type it all out. Maybe soon.

“It’s Complicated”: A Brief Review of IRON FIST

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Originally, I was going to call this review “I don’t even know what I’m doing or saying until it’s taken the wrong way” but that’s too long for an auto-share on Twitter, and it’s only said once, while the characters in IRON FIST say “It’s complicated” a bajillion times.

So this is going to be a brief review, as promised, although I usually have more to say about stories that don’t work than stories that do.

The first thing I’ll say is that, while the show is not great, it’s better than its Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest. (It’s 18% from the critics, although the audience gives it an 83, which is a solid B-.) It’s not even the worst season of Marvel/Netflix made so far, which would be S2 of DAREDEVIL. Like that season, it has some terrific performances, compelling characters, and real tension. It also has genuine problems.

First, as I mentioned before, put me down as someone who thinks the show would have been better (and better-received) if they’d cast an Asian-American actor as Danny. This isn’t a criticism of Jones; I think he does good work with what he’s given here, but the show would have been deeper and more complex with that change.

Second, like every Marvel/Netflix show, they don’t quite have enough story for 13 episodes, and it feels a bit padded. With JESSICA JONES (the best of the shows, imo) that padding is near the end where the pace should be building. It’s smart of IF to do what LUKE CAGE did, and slow things down at the start.

Because apparently every one of these shows needs padding somewhere. I’m hoping an 8 episode season of DEFENDERS will do away with this entirely.

So the early episodes are repetitive, and while it makes sense for the Meachums to have Danny committed, did we need an entire episode for that?

Third, it seems a strange choice to put a hero like Iron Fist into yet another neo-noir storyline, but once we get past the obligatory acknowledgement of his identity, momentum begins to build and the plots surrounding the supporting cast take shape.

Fourth, the general consensus is that Colleen Wing is a great character. That’s not wrong.

Fifth, a lot of folks are hitting Jones because the fights aren’t what we’d hope for in a show about a mystically-powered martial artist, and Jones isn’t a martial artist. But then, neither was Charlie Cox before he was cast as Daredevil, and neither was Keanu Reeves when he was cast in THE MATRIX.

What those actors did have was time to practice the choreography. As Jones has said in interviews, sometimes he only had 15 minutes before the shoot to learn the fight scenes, and you are not going to get good action scenes. They needed to give the action the attention it needed, because with a hero like Iron Fist, it’s not something you can half-ass.

Even worse are the action scenes that are badly framed and shot. I can understand dimming the lights to disguise the stunt doubles, since Danny Rand doesn’t have a mask or giant Jessica Jones hair, but we still want to see what’s happening, and see it clearly.

The fight in the hospital records room is perhaps the worse of the lot (and it comes so early in the show). It’s choppy, fake, and routinely violates the 180 rule, making it hard to follow. Later fights work better.

When the second season comes (and I’ll bet one no-prize that it’ll happen) they’ll need a show-runner willing to give the action scenes the time and energy they deserve.

Sixth, Marvel/Netflix continue to create really interesting antagonists. Loved every moment that David Wenham was onscreen.

Finally, I was interested in Danny Rand. Yeah, he’s a privileged fool in a lot of places, and he’s severely damaged, not just by the plane crash where his parents were killed, but by his time in K’un Lun. His time in the monastery turned him into a superhero, but at a terrible cost. He’s a fucked up dude, and he’s constantly stepping on his own dick.

At the same time, it’s clear he’s trying to navigate his different identities and do the right thing. Once the story turns away from “Can Danny prove his identity?” to “Can Danny stop The Hand?/find allies he can trust?/reconcile his dual identies?” the story works.

So yes, there are problems with the show, but as the reviewer at Forbes said, it’s a stumble, not a face-plant. It’s not the best of the Marvel shows, but it never sinks to the ludicrous plot points of DAREDEVIL S2 or the unconvincing character beats of something like ANT-MAN. Instead, it’s somewhat slow, unconvincing in places, and too repetitive.

I expect history to treat this season more kindly than the present, and I expect an AA Iron Fist when the MCU gets rebooted.

Three Reviews and a Pre-review

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I’m going to post three quick reviews here, so obviously there will be SPOILERS.

LOGAN

Logan is a solid, competent movie, the way most big budget superhero films are nowadays, but because it aims for tears instead of cheers, people are hailing it as revolutionary.

It’s not. It’s good and it’s sad. All the right buttons are pushed in the right order, and both Stewart and Jackman put in good performances and get to play their big death scenes. If you want mutant action with a tragic tone (and I do I really do) this is the place to get them.

But the emotional weight comes from 17 years of seeing these actors play these roles. Look at this:

LOGAN worked because it was the end of 16-20 hours of movie adventure, using characters with decades of comics and cartoons behind them. If it had been about a magical ninja whose healing spells were finally failing, it wouldn’t have gotten past the script-reading intern.

And it’s troubled by unjustified, reverse-engineered sequences. They needed a “family” scene for the little girl to see what a family looks like, so–despite being on the run from stone cold killers–they crash at the home of an Average Loving Family.

And got them all killed, which… come on. Logan and Xavier knew they were putting that family in danger, and nothing in the movie or the previous movies suggests they would put folks’ lives at risk. I call bullshit on that.

They did get the violence right, though. Finally. Rated R for brain-stabbing.

TRANSISTOR

This is a game I bought on Steam because I enjoyed BASTION, although it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. The premise is simple: In a weird but pretty and possibly virtual city, a group of urban planners have unleashed something called The Process to remake things to their liking. Then The Process gets out of control, and Only You Can Stop It.

The main character is a woman named Red, with a giant-ass science sword that gives her attack powers, each of which comes from dead people she finds and uploads into the sword. The very first person to be killed and uploaded is Red’s unnamed boyfriend: he’s the “narrator” throughout the game, although he’s not really narrating because he’s talking to Red (and by extension, you the player).

They hired a great voice actor for the part, and his dialog is well-written. The city looks fantastic. The enemies are varied and fun (I especially liked the eggs w/ chicken feet). Even the music is interesting. And the game is long, but not insufferably long.

But look at those choices: the lead character is a woman who has had her voice stolen by The Process. She’s a singer and we hear her songs, but she doesn’t get to speak. Only the man does. And her name, Red, is a stage name because of her hair. In short, he’s specific and interesting, with a voice. She is a cypher who runs around doing the work. And at the end, when they realize she can’t get her lover out of the sword, she impales herself, over his pleading, so they can be trapped in the weapon together.

She gives up her life for a guy.

This is something I’ve been saying a lot about modern entertainment: it’s beautifully executed but makes questionable choices.

BOSCH

Do you like mopey detectives? I do. The first two seasons of BOSCH are on Amazon Prime, and they’re excellent examples of a really common and generally mediocre thing: the American police procedural.

One of the things BOSCH gets right is that it doesn’t put cops on a pedestal. Some of them are bad at their job. Some are lazy, careless, or corrupt. They’re people, not a corps of heroes who are always proved to be righteous.

And it changes things up from the books. I thought I’d spotted the killer in S1 because I read the book it was based on, but nope. They tricked me. I’m easily tricked, I admit, but I’m pleased when it happens.

I can be a cheap date, story-wise.

Season two was stronger than season one because the character motivations were more believable, and I’m hoping that, when the third season comes out next month, it’ll be another improvement.

IRON FIST

Here’s the thing: I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I don’t get all excited. I don’t cheer. I don’t rattle on about the stuff I enjoy.

But I do like things. Sometimes too much. And when I do, I experience it as an unpleasant, obsessive anxiety.

I’m feeling that way about IRON FIST, which is due out from Netflix this week. I know reviews have been bad, but I’m still anxious to see it.

Yeah: Iron Fist’s origin is a racist narrative in the “Mighty Whitey” tradition. As much as I like the character, there’s no quibbling with this. But there is great stuff about the character, too.

First, martial arts is awesome and it looks fantastic in the comics.

It’s great in movies, too, obviously, because you can see movement and speed, but sometimes that speed makes it hard to follow. Martial arts illustration in the comics, when it’s done well, is beautiful and dramatic. It captures a moment, and that’s why it’s so common. The medium is a wonderful way to portray it.

Second, punching things like a wrecking ball is awesome.

This honestly worries me about the show, because sometimes I would love to just smash something without breaking my hand. Punch through a wall. Smash a tree to splinters. Whatever. Even if I didn’t do it often, just knowing I could would be intensely satisfying.

But the show runner for IRON FIST isn’t impressed. Having the iron fist is

not the greatest superpowers. All he can do is punch really hard … you can use it in some ways but in rest of his life, it’s not really all that significant.

Um, yeah. Let me introduce you to the concept of superheroes. They live in a narrative universe where punching is a significant part of life. That’s a basic part of the appeal. It’s not realistic, but it is fun.

There are several warning signs about the show, and this is one of them.

Third, Danny Rand went to a cooler school than I did, and he learned more interesting stuff.

I was 11 or 12 when I discovered Iron Fist, in the summer before seventh grade. August, 1977. I bought five comic books out of the spinner rack at a local drugstore: One was the issue where the X-Men fought the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and I couldn’t even tell which characters were the good guys, or who had which name, or what the hell was going on. Eventually, I realized the hero’s faces were on the cover, so I went through and picked them out, and comic made more sense.

(If my sister hadn’t called me an idiot for buying a copy of Dr. Strange that ended on a cliffhanger–with Strange facing off against a warthog version of himself–I might not have gone back the next month just to prove her wrong and I might not have become a lover of comics.)

I discovered Iron Fist shortly after and he was one of the earliest characters I followed. I loved the way he was drawn in those early John Byrne issues, and when I tried to teach myself to draw comics, it was often Iron Fist illustrations that I tried to copy. And why not? Was I supposed to draw Spider-man with his nasty, gross armpit webs? Or Iron Man flying through the sky with his elbow slightly bent?

Nope, I tried to draw Iron Fist kicking some dude in the face.

This was seventh grade, and seventh grade sucks. It wasn’t just the usual teasing and other bullshit, not for me. I had a kid hold a knife blade to my throat. I had… I had all sorts of shit happen. If I could have gotten away from all of that to go to a place where a guy named “The Thunderer” would teach me how to be a superhero, I would have gone in a second.

It’s similar to the wish fulfillment inherent in Hogwarts, except Hogwarts is better because it’s not a generic racist fantasyland.

But liking the character in the comics is different from whatever they put in the TV show. Look at this fucking trailer:

It’s just so disappointing.

Every trailer has to intrigue. It has to set up the central elements of the show, establish tone, and assure the audience that they’re going to see something clever and interesting. This trailer absolutely falls on its face in the last task.

“How in the hell did he learn martial arts?”

“Where did you train?” “K’un Lun.”

I get it; they have story elements they need to set up. But you don’t put a line like “How in the hell did he learn martial arts?” in a script, let alone a trailer. Anyone can learn martial arts. I could, even, if I was willing to practice hurting people and take a cross-town bus a few times a week.

No, the line is “How in the hell did he take out a team of our best hitters?” or something like that. Something that sounds dynamic.

And you don’t need to put the name “K’un Lun” into the fucking trailer. It’s meaningless to the people who don’t know the character’s history, and the people who do don’t need it. Just say something indirect like “A far away place” or “you haven’t heard of it” Even better, make a joke:

“Where did you train?”

Montage of Danny in monks’ robes, Monks, the beautiful city of K’un Lun.

“Oh, there’s a little place near the mall.”

The trailer needs some grace. It needs to show cleverness and competence, which it absolutely doesn’t. Is it any surprise that the filmmakers didn’t seem to understand why fans were hoping for an Asian-American Danny Rand?

Early reviews of the show have been pretty terrible, slamming it for being dull and talky, but you know what? I’m doing my usual Marvel Netflix thing anyway. On March 16, I’m buying two six packs, ordering a late pizza, prepping a pot of coffee for 4 am, then I’m going to binge the show straight through. I expect to finish sometime Friday afternoon. That’s what I did with the other Marvel Netflix shows. Then I watched them a second time that same weekend. Then, for Jessica Jones and S1 of Daredevil, I watched a third time the following week.

Will I be disappointed by Iron Fist? Probably. I still have hope that they’ll make his origin work somehow (After all, the MCU Punisher’s origin changed from a random tragedy into a complex plot and coverup that ran through most of Daredevil S2.) Can the filmmakers do something unusual/interesting/worthwhile with the whole “White Guy is the Best at Everything” trope? I’m doubtful, but I hope so.

Notice I haven’t called myself an Iron Fist “fan.” That’s because, as I mentioned, I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I’ve seen people waiting in line for movies and books who are giddy about the new thing they’re about to experience, but I’ve never felt that.

I experience my enjoyment as a sort of anxiety. I’ve been anxious and distracted for two weeks, thinking about this show. Maybe it will be terrible, but it will be a tremendous relief if it turns out to be good. Or at least not as bad as it could be.

In fact, I’m hoping it will live up to this:

We’ll see.

“… to interfere for good.” Annual repost of my favorite version of A Christmas Carol

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Every year, I watch this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and post it:

If the embedding doesn’t work, here’s a link.

It’s under half an hour, and while it feels a little rushed, it’s also full of fantastic choices: dark colors, spooky ghosts, and both Ignorance and Want.

It’s fantastic. If you haven’t watched it before, check it out.

Baby’s First Audio Book

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Today I finished listening to my first audio book.

It was the unabridged Fellowship of the Ring, read by Rob Inglis, and I enjoyed it. A lot.

I didn’t expect to. When the audio book for Child of Fire came out, I found it impossible to listen to it. The narrator’s voice was fine–excellent, even–but it was completely different from the voice I heard in my head when I was writing it, and the dissonance was unbearable.

And the format itself seemed utterly wrong for me. I love to drive but I don’t have a car so I never do. I don’t have a phone to carry with me when I walk. My apartment is tiny, so when would I be able to listen at home? Besides, no skimming? No reading quickly through the exciting stuff?

Hmf, I said.

Then I heard a piece on NPR where a woman said she listened to Rob Inglis’s reading of LOTR every year, and I found it at the library. The first book was 19.25 hours long on 16 CDs! [1] And I just happened to get my copy of Obduction from Kickstarter.

A quiet, Myst-style game and an audio book through the headphones seemed like a perfect combination.

And I loved it.

The game was done before the audio book and I’ve been having trouble squeezing time to listen, but all the things I thought would be bugs turned out to be features. As annoyed as I was when I read Tolkien’s description of hiking through rough terrain (was this really the sort of challenge you want to devote page space to?) being forced to listen to it had the opposite effect. I could visualize the scene. I didn’t feel impatient because I couldn’t skim ahead to the next plot point. Taking away that small measure of control was surprisingly relaxing.

Anyway, I have never enjoyed Fellowship of the Ring quite so much before (although I still say Fuck Tom Bombadil) and I’m wondering how I can find 17-odd hours for the next book. I can’t. It just won’t fit into my life, but I wish it did.

Until I get a car, maybe.

[Update] I forgot to mention that the third book in my Great Way series comes out today in audio book. If you subscribe to Audible, you can listen free. If you bought the Kindle version from Amazon, the audio version is startlingly affordable. The series begins here.

[1] Don’t laugh. I’ve just had to order a new CD player online, because our old one is going wonky and my wife doesn’t want to have to fuck with a computer to play her music while she paints.

Spoiler-Free Review of Daredevil, Season 2.

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I was sort of excited to stay up all night and binge-watch season two of DAREDEVIL, even though I expected it to be a disappointment. What can I say? I like staying up.

First thing: the show is really good.

Second thing: except for the parts that aren’t.

Third thing: the good parts outweigh the bad by a lot. A whole lot.

The first episode of the season was by far the worst. It wasn’t just that it was unimaginative; it looked weird, too, like cheap video. Were some scenes shot on someone’s phone? I couldn’t tell.

The first, second, and most of the third episodes were also full of bullshit about What It Means To Be A Hero. You know what? At the start of the season, I don’t want to hear two vigilantes have a philosophical discussion. I just don’t.

Then, near the end of the third episode, the show gives us another of its excellent fight scenes, and it seemed to find its groove again.

Part of the problem is the costume. When it showed up at the end of season one, I was upfront about how much I disliked it. The full red suit from the comics would look ridiculous, and while the devil suit at the end of S1 is an improvement, it still doesn’t work. I suspect the showrunners realized this, because they contrived to change it slightly. That’s another improvement, but it still doesn’t quite work.

What’s more, I don’t think they quite understood how to make a live-action masked superhero story really work. Basically: use the mask as little as possible.

The best and cheapest special effect a show can have is an actor’s face, and most masks that are reasonably faithful to their comic book versions look flat and silly on screen even after you’ve been awake for 27 hours and have been watching a show for ten. So I’m not really a fan of actors wearing their supers costumes when they’re not a) hurrying to the rescue, b) scaring the hell out of a bad guy or c) beating the hell out of a bad guy. Action scenes. That’s what masks are for. Otherwise, give us human expressions.

Because a dude in a superhero costume just standing around having a conversation looks like a grade A fool. For example, if a costumed vigilante is going to have a conversation with someone, it should not look like this:

Costume No

Yeah, that’s a bit dark, but you can see Daredevil on the right standing face-to-face with Turk on the left. Just two dudes standing around chatting, except one is wearing a horned helmet.

This is a much better choice:

Costume Yes

In case it isn’t clear from this single shot, the man foregrounded on the left is on his back, slightly raised off the floor. The background is the roof.

It’s an unusual framing. It’s interesting. It’s dynamic. It’s not two dudes chatting.

Oh, one last thing: Hey Karen Page, is season two filled with bloody violence and hair-raising sound effects just like season one?

Sound effects

Gotcha. Thanks.

Again we get great performances and fast-moving plots with lots of twists. Also, instead of a mini-boss structure like season one, there are two separate ongoing plots for each of the featured guest stars that compete for Matt’s attention.

Like other Netflix shows about superheroes, this is more like a miniseries than a weekly program, so get ready to binge or follow a complicated plot over an extended period of time.

So, despite a shaky start and a costume that doesn’t quite work, season two of Daredevil is fantastic. Check it out.

A spoiler post will be forthcoming, I expect.

State of the Self, 2016 (aka, the “We’ll see” post)

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On Tuesday, I hit 100K words on the work in progress, currently titled ONE MAN, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to assess where things stand in a general way. No encouragement or advice, please, especially about the medical stuff.

Me, personally

I turned 50 last year, which I guess is supposed to be a big thing but it didn’t feel like it. Mostly, it felt (and continues to feel) like a timer ticking down. As more and more of “my” pop culture figures pass away (and more and more of them are closer to my own age) I’ve become increasingly aware that my own time is growing short. Right now, somewhere inside me, I probably have a cancerous tumor that’s lying quiet, small for the moment, but ready to expand aggressively under the right circumstances. If I’m very very lucky, I’ll live long enough to see my son married and living a stable life, to have earned a sense of accomplishment with my work, and to feel as though I’ve lived enough.

I can’t really imagine that, but that’s my hope.

The petty medical issues that have plagued me since 2012 haven’t gone away, but I’ve decided to work through them to focus on my weight. I’m down 10lbs in the last two weeks and plan to continue. The first few are always the easiest, of course. We’ll see.

Finally, for a long time I’ve pretty much avoided social situations. I talk to my wife. I talk to my son. I order coffee at the cafe. Beyond that, it’s extremely rare for me to speak to anyone aloud; all my interactions have been online. I guess the only exceptions have been the two-hour SF2W meetups that Django Wexler arranges, and I’ve been to, I think, two in the past year. Once in a rare while a reader drops me a note and we’ll meet face to face. Very rare.

Aside from that, I’ve been actively avoiding social events. I don’t go to conventions. I haven’t contacted the roommates I had 20 years ago to suggest we grab lunch. It’s been a very quiet life, and I like it.

But a week ago I cashed in the Christmas gift that my niece gave me: a tour of some of her favorite brewpubs in Ballard. It was extremely mellow, and we got the chance to just hang out and talk, which I don’t do much.

The following Friday, I had the event at the UW Bookstore, where a number of authors in the anthology Unbound signed books for readers. I suspect most of them were there to see Terry Brooks, but people were nice and it was good to talk to them. It had no noticeable effect on my book sales, but I enjoyed myself, and I enjoyed hanging out with the other authors afterwards. (What I could hear of it, anyway. People in bars are noisy.)

So I’m thinking I should put more energy into that sort of thing. Talking to people. I dunno. Maybe.

Family

My wife is doing pretty well, especially now that she has an APAP machine to help her sleep through the night, which she can do now, sometimes. She’s also spending more of her time painting. Making art was hard for her after her father died. She and her siblings inherited his canvases, which no one outside the family wanted and no one inside could bear to dispose of.

She began to feel the same way about her own work. Our apartment is already crowded, and she didn’t see a point to creating more stuff that her kid will have to deal with when we die. Slowly, she’s moved past that and is doing the work for its own sake, which is fantastic and makes me very happy. She’s also gotten into a couple of shows. Did I say it makes me happy? It really really does. Now I just need to write a hit book so we can afford a place with a studio. North-facing, naturally.

My son turned 14 a few months ago and starts high school in the fall. Homeschool is coming to an end, and I’m hoping that a) he’ll make more real life friends and b) I’ll have more writing time. It’s going to be a rough transition, but he’s ready for it. His sleep schedule might not be, but he is.

Games

I’m still playing Sentinels of the Multiverse on Steam. In fact, I’m playing it too much. I should probably download a program that will block Steam for most of the day. I’d get more done, and do less obsessive clicking.

BUT! I should say that, when I’m playing SotM, I don’t feel hungry, or itchy, or sad. I’m almost completely absorbed, even moreso than when I’m writing. It’s worth keeping around just for that. I just wish it was less irresistible.

Reading

After several years of feeling burned out on reading inside the fantasy genre, I’m finally feeling burned out on crime and mystery. It doesn’t help that I tried to shift from old classics to books that are popular and current, and really really did not enjoy them.

Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names, which I picked up solely out of a sense of gratitude for the social events mentioned above, is a flintlock fantasy that I enjoyed way more than expected. Recommended. At the moment, I’m reading Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon because everyone on reddit loves those books passionately. I’m 80 pages in and mostly enjoying it, despite the fact that I’m not usually fond of high magic settings.

Watching

I took the family to DEADPOOL, which is an objectively bad movie, but hugely enjoyable anyway. It’s been a while since I saw a modern Hollywood film (that wasn’t SPY) that made me laugh really hard. Now I hear that the people behind Batman v Superman are planning an R-rated version, because… I don’t know, they think it was the rating that made DEADPOOL a hit and not the humor? Don’t know. Don’t care all that much.

I’ve also dropped a number of TV shows that I was watching through sheer momentum, not because I enjoyed them. Most of what I found compelling in season one of ARROW is long gone, and I just don’t have space for it anymore. After trying both LUCIFER and LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, I’ve decided that they aren’t going to do that Star Trek thing where it takes them a little while to find their rhythm and they become awesome. Both are dropped. At this point, I’m only watching ELEMENTARY, FLASH (which has been way less fun this season) and AGENTS OF SHIELD (which has been improbably improving).
I’m looking forward to season 2 of DAREDEVIL, even though it will probably be a disappointment. We’ll see.

No one in my family is remotely interested in the upcoming DC adaptations. We’ll see, redux.

Writing

As I mentioned above, last week I crossed the 100,000 word mark of ONE MAN. What I didn’t mention is that last August 26th, I was at 31,000 words.

I know this because of this horrible new record-keeping that other authors suggested I do. All it does is tell me things that make me unhappy.
For example, last fall I took a month-long trip to Portugal, and my plan to squeeze out a few pages during quiet moments never worked. I got zero new words done that month.

After Thanksgiving, I stopped writing the first draft and went back to revise what I had. Revise it extensively, which took a month and a half.

When that was finished, I realized the game supplement I promised my Kickstarter backers was way overdue, and I spent three weeks revising that.
When I returned to ONE MAN, I re-outlined the rest of the book (using the virtual whiteboard app Scapple, which I like) and now things are tearing right along.

It’ll take another long revision process, and it’s going to be a long-ass book: at 100K words, I’m still looking ahead to the beginning of the climax. Still, I feel like this is good work. I just hope the market agrees.

I haven’t decided what I’m going to work on after that. The next book in the series is TWO DRAGONS, but I have a short story due for an anthology (soon) and I might want to write something else in between. Plus there’s that game supplement.

I wish I could be more prolific.

And that’s where things stand.

Amazon is having a huge sale on tabletop games

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I don’t usually pay attention to the sales that Amazon puts on, but this one is interesting: a big sale on tabletop board and card games.

“Up to 50%”, they say. I always love that “up to”. Obviously, it’s better to buy them at a local gaming shop (assuming you have access to one) because most have a library of games and let you try them out in the store.

Still, Ticket to Ride and Labyrinth are fantastic games, and I’ve become kinda obsessed with the iPad version of Sentinels of the Multiverse, since the fam doesn’t really like superheroes and I prefer to let the software track everything (SotM can be complicated to track).

And if you like RPGs, Fate Core is on the second page. Have I mentioned that I’m working on a Fate Core rpg supplement for The Great Way and Key/Egg? They’re Kickstarter rewards, and I should be typing in those documents rather than this one.

In fact, I think I’ll go do that now. In the meantime, check out my books.