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Posts tagged “mythology

From the Vault: Everything Old Is New Again

A post from last year: updated to reflect the fact that my memories of both Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness have soured considerably.


Courtesy Relativity Media

I’ve been blogging for years. I’m not sure if you’d call what I’ve done or have been doing successful or not, when it comes to blogging and other areas of my life, but what I keep coming back to is the fact that old stories still have something to tell us. I have no problem, on a fundamental level, with something getting a reboot or a re-imagining, as long as the core of the story remains intact and the talented people telling the story are either plying close to that core or going in an entirely new direction with it.

The problem, as I see it, is that it is far too easy to stick to the old story points and simply apply modern thinking to them, rather than take a tale’s themes or characters or message in a new direction. What really bothers me about the practice is how lazy it seems. If you want to use an old tale or property to tell a story, go for it; all that I would ask is that you do something new with it. Another example would be the difference between Immortals and the Clash of the Titans retread: while Immortals had a little trouble staying on-point with its storytelling, its visual imagination and portrayal of ancient Greece felt unique and striking, while the new Titans felt drab and lackluster on pretty much all fronts. I mean, sure, it was still fun to see Sam Worthington fight giant scorpions, and Liam Neeson was born to play gods, but the thrust of the story felt weak because there was nothing new about it.

As scarce as new ideas tend to be, it’s no wonder that older stories often come up for a rehash now and again. As I’ve said, I’m all about old stories getting told in new ways. The emphasis here is on ‘new’ – a good storyteller should try to do something that hasn’t been done before, or mix things together that haven’t been mixed. Any idiot with a keyboard can bash out a story about a superhero or vampires or old myths – the question is, what makes your story about a superhero or vampires or old myths stand out? What will make people want to read it? Why, at the end of the day, do you have to write it?


Flash Fiction: Gods and Robbers

Courtesy Wallpaperswide.com

Chuck’s weekly demand this time is to include four random items. Can you spot them all?


They dragged him into the office by his arms. His legs felt weak; there was no way they could support his weight with them yanking him along. He was tossed onto the carpet like a sack of garbage. He found himself looking at the skull of what some might have considered a large lizard, but he recognized as a small dragon. It had been re-purposed to serve as the base of an umbrella stand.

“We found him, Father,” said one of the twins.

“He thought to hide from you among the mortal officers of the law.” The other twin tossed the badge onto the expansive desk that blocked most of his view. He struggled to look up, fighting down waves of pain. He got a kick in the kidneys for his trouble.

“Castor, Pollux, I’m surprised at you.” The voice from behind the desk was deep, grandfatherly, almost kind; yet in it was the rumble, the muted flash, the sense one gets when a storm is blowing in. “This is my guest, not some common churl. Get him in a chair, for Gaea’s sake. And clean up his face. I won’t have him ruining my carpet.”

The twins obeyed, hauling him into one of the chairs facing the desk. A wet rag all but smashed into his face, and as the blood was wiped away, he tried to will his bleeding to stop. Whatever charm they’d used to stunt his powers, it seemed to have faded, as his head cleared immediately. He blinked, and looked up to face the man he’d been dragged to see.

Behind the chess board on the desk sat what appeared to be an elderly man with broad shoulders and the solid build of someone who’d spent a lifetime perfecting his physical form. His suit was tailored, hand-made, and clearly costly. His white hair was long, and his beard was somewhat fluffy. Had the suit been red, one might mistake him for Santa Claus.

“Now, Prometheus. What would possess you to put on the airs of a policeman? In the game of ‘Cops and Robbers’, would I not be the cop?”

“It let me get close to one of Chronos’ servants. I was trying to help…”

Pollux backhanded Prometheus. “No lies before the mighty Zeus!”

“Pollux, please! Castor, look after your brother.” Zeus reached down and plucked the bishop from his side of the board, examining it. “Prometheus, you and I have had our differences. I’m still not certain how you escaped your prison in the first place. But we both know that my word is law. And that law cannot be countermanded, not by the cleverness of any being, mortal or Titan.”

“I could be back on that mountain now, if you willed it.”

“Perhaps.”

“Then why am I here?”

Zeus smiled, and replaced the chess piece. “I’m curious more than I am angry. How did you escape, and why?”

“The how doesn’t matter. The why does. I told you: I can help you fight Chronos and the other Titans. Time is against us. You should hear what I have to say.”
Zeus raised an eyebrow. Thunder rolled in the distance. “Have a care, Titan. I am not so curious that I am willing to permit you to command me. Begin at the beginning. How did you escape?”

“I made a deal with the eagle.”

Zeus laughed. “A deal? What could you possibly offer it that was not the liver of an immortal?”

“I told it about America. I told it that it was a sacred animal there. It, too, could be truly immortal, and not simply tasked with devouring me. I said, ‘If you free me, I will take you there, and you will be adored and loved.’ It took a few days… and a few livers… but it believed me.”

Promet heus tried not to blanch at the memories. Centuries, millenia had gone by, and every day, atop that lonely mountain that killed any mortal that attempted its summit, the eagle tore him open and made him feel every snapping sinew and every bite at his innards until death came like a merciful, dreamless, abyssal sleep. He’d long stopped cursing his fate each time he awoke, and it was only through the tiny fraction of power he’d had left that he was able to learn of the far-off land the eagle wished to see.

“Where is it now?”

“A zoo, in Chicago.”

“Hah! Duplicity worthy of any of my children. Even as a fugitive you do not disappoint.”

Prometheus nodded. “I am happy to have amused you, my Lord.”

Zeus waved his hand. “Pshaw. I have Wingus and Dingus here to kowtow to me. You, however, never bowed. You defied me, and not from jealousy or fear or anger. You defied me to do what you felt was right. Defiance had to be punished, but I always respected what you did.”

Prometheus blinked. The admission felt earnest, but oddly timed. It slowly dawned on Prometheus that he was right, and Zeus knew it. Chronos and the other Titans were growing stronger, and time was getting shorter. Slowly, so as not to antagonize the twins, Prometheus reached into his pocket, produced the sealed envelope, and handed it to Zeus.

“This is why I escaped.”

Zeus looked at it. On it was written a single word. Hera.

After a moment, the King of the Gods opened the envelope. He read the letter within. Twice. When he looked up at the twins, his eyes were alight with the fire of the sky, the lightning that was his herald and his wrath.

“Leave us. Prometheus and I must speak alone.”

The twins bowed and retreated. Zeus set down the letter, glared at Prometheus for a long moment, and reached across the chess board to reset it. He moved his white king’s pawn forward two squares, gesturing at Prometheus.

“Tell me how this treachery began.”

Prometheus, in spite of the pain, smiled. He moved his queen’s pawn forward.


Everything Old Is New Again

Courtesy Relativity Media

I’ve been blogging for years. I’m not sure if you’d call what I’ve done or have been doing successful or not, when it comes to blogging and other areas of my life, but what I keep coming back to is the fact that old stories still have something to tell us. I have no problem, on a fundamental level, with something getting a reboot or a re-imagining, as long as the core of the story remains intact and the talented people telling the story are either plying close to that core or going in an entirely new direction with it.

It’s why I can’t bring myself to full-on hate or even mildly dislike the new Star Trek films. The settings and characters I and many others grew up with are being taken in a new direction. The storytelling stumbles here and there, and I’m not quite convinced that that Abrams and his crew can, in fact, give us something entirely new out of these old and familiar trappings, but I am cautiously optimistic. In fact, if I were to put Into Darkness and Man of Steel side by side, I’d say that Abrams and company are doing more right by the Starfleet folks than the current bunch at the helm of the DC film universe are doing in terms of breathing new life into their given amphitheater. At least Into Darkness didn’t rehash any of its narrative within the film and infused its characters with humanity and charm within the writing, rather than relying on the actors to do that stuff.

The problem, as I see it, is that it is far too easy to stick to the old story points and simply apply modern thinking to them, rather than take a tale’s themes or characters or message in a new direction. What really bothers me about the practice is how lazy it seems. If you want to use an old tale or property to tell a story, go for it; all that I would ask is that you do something new with it. Another example would be the difference between Immortals and the Clash of the Titans retread: while Immortals had a little trouble staying on-point with its storytelling, its visual imagination and portrayal of ancient Greece felt unique and striking, while the new Titans felt drab and lackluster on pretty much all fronts. I mean, sure, it was still fun to see Sam Worthington fight giant scorpions, and Liam Neeson was born to play gods, but the thrust of the story felt weak because there was nothing new about it.

As scarce as new ideas tend to be, it’s no wonder that older stories often come up for a rehash now and again. As I’ve said, I’m all about old stories getting told in new ways. The emphasis here is on ‘new’ – a good storyteller should try to do something that hasn’t been done before, or mix things together that haven’t been mixed. Any idiot with a keyboard can bash out a story about a superhero or vampires or old myths – the question is, what makes your story about a superhero or vampires or old myths stand out? What will make people want to read it? Why, at the end of the day, do you have to write it?


The New Mythology

Joseph Campbell

Some of our stories are hundreds or even thousands of years old. Every once in a while, a book or TV series will claim it has an ‘all-new’ story, but in reality most of the plot points and character turns have probably been told before. This is likely not a conscious decision of the writer, and it in no way dilutes the deeper truth the story strives towards, but it cannot be denied that the roots of most stories run very deep into our past.

Mankind has been telling stories since before language was something you wrote. Around fires and in caves, they relayed tales of great hunts, related how rivals were overthrown, and wondered about dreams and the world beyond what they knew. People wanted to learn about the triumphs and tragedies of others, and sharing these experiences enhanced them, gave them weight, and made them timeless. While more than a few of these simple, primal stories may have had some details forgotten, threads of them can be seen here and now, in the 21st century.

Themes and patterns such as the hero’s journey and good men struggling against their own natures as much as they do a rival or the elements persist because they still have something to teach us. Just as the ancient civilizations of the world found inspiration in their gods and champions, so too do we find it in big screen heroes and, occasionally, the actors who portray them. Myths have always been stories larger than life, speaking in broad terms to draw in as many minds as possible, and at the core of many you will find one of those timeless threads. The hero may be looking for his own identity in the face of a world that wants to redefine or obscure it. A good man is betrayed by a friend because of jealousy or greed. Tragedy causes someone to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of justice. None of these ideas are new, but the fact that they continue to captivate us means they are not without merit.

Our new myths connects us to the old, entertaining and educating and provoking us to think just as they have for thousands of years. Your message is still important, even if someone else has conveyed it before. What’s new about that message is how you convey it. Stories may share common elements but your voice is unique. Let it be heard. The new mythology needs new myth-makers, new storytellers to keep our stories going further into the future. Are you going to be one of them?


IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Bunraku

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Bunraku is a preposterous title for a film, and also slightly pretentious. It refers not to a character or a location, but rather a type of Japanese shadow play, a theatrical production using puppets that tells broad stories based on archetype and fable. It’d be like naming Flash Gordon “Raygun Gothic Adventure with Queen.” Or Taken “Liam Neeson Driven Suspense Action”. Or GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra “Giant Letdown.” On the other hand, nobody can accuse Bunraku of being less than what it promises in the title, and if someone is disappointed by the film, it should not be on the basis of said promise. And if you’re an ignorant Westerner who doesn’t know what bunraku is, the opening sequence gives you a demonstration while the narrator sets the scene.

Courtesy Picturesque Films

In the not too distant future, mankind has waged war to the point that people have finally taken notice of how atrocious, unnecessary and dehumanizing modern warfare actually is (the actual warfare, that is, not the first-person shooter). Guns are universally outlawed in the wake of some sort of war-driven cataclysm and folks now have to get by settling their disputes with edged weapons and bare fists. The most powerful man east of the Atlantic with these methods is Nicholai the Woodcutter and his nine numbered assassins. Into Nicholai’s favorite casino comes a nameless Drifter who’s quick and deadly with his hands, while his favorite restaurant’s owner has a nephew who’s a driven but compassionate and well-spoken samurai. Can you guess how these two strangers are going to get along? If you guessed “they team up to take down Nicholai and the colorful array of supporting trained killers”, try not to break your arm patting yourself on the back.

Bunraku is a film that seems to have no time whatsoever for things like character or plot development. What it plays on is themes, mood and metaphor. That said, the character work that does happen isn’t all that bad. Josh Hartnett continues to demonstrate the sort of chops that earned Clint Eastwood his immortal spurs, while his samurai friend is played with surprising conviction (if a bit of melodrama) by Gackt. If you can tear your eyes away from these fine specimens of driven and handsome young men, you’ll find Woody Harrelson in an understated mentor role while Kevin McKidd give us a villain arguably more memorable than his imposing boss, played by none other than Ron Perlman. The other actors, including Demi Moore, don’t have much more than bit roles but we’re honestly not here for introspection as much as we are for spectacle of seeing Slevin & an extremely attractive musician take on Hellboy & Poseidon.

Courtesy Picturesque Films
Lucius Vorenus got himself an excellent tailor.

Unlike your typical Hollywood big-budget explosionfest, Bunraku‘s style comes from its unique setting, composition and pacing. The best thing about it is how stylistically striking the whole production is. Some of the longer shots are truly impressive in their construction, while transitions and even entire scenes are works of art in and of themselves. It’s the sort of film where ‘eye candy’ extends past the attractive cast and bright orange explosive special effects. It’s also something of a low-key musical, with a pervasive but atmospheric score adding tension and pace to the many fights, which have the energy and passion of large production dance numbers without everybody breaking into song. With this sort of energy and drive coupled with a unique aesthetic somewhere between a Western and an Akira Kurosawa film, here’s always something cool to look at, which means Bunraku will not leave you bored.

It may, however, leave you somewhat empty. As I said, there’s very little depth to the characters or plot. Playing as it does on broad themes and the sort of metaphorical storytelling reserved for fairy tales and the like, Bunraku isn’t going to set the world on fire with its story. And as impressive as the sets, shots and fights are, many viewers may draw parallels between Sin City or Kill Bill. For better or worse, Bunraku does have a much more diverse color palate than Frank Miller’s work and not as much verbosity or as many oblique references as Tarantino’s. It’s a kissing cousin to these other works at most, and it goes about its simple but stylish little tale with admirable gusto, unfettered by Miller’s monochromatic cynicism or Tarantino’s obsession with grindhouse flicks and Uma Thurman’s toes.

Courtesy Picturesque Films
You wish your bartender was this cool.

If anything, it reminds me most of indie darling and Game of the Year, Bastion. The bright colors, vibrant combat, initially simple characters and even the smooth tones of the world-wise narrator immediately bring that experience to mind, in a very positive way. While Bunraku lacks the ultimate emotional depth of that game, it does keep your eyes occupied and imagination delighted for its running time, and on its visual panache and enthusiastic presentation alone I’m going to give it a recommendation. It’s not groundbreaking or anything but it’s at least trying to go about storytelling in a slightly different way, even if the archetypes and themes are older than dirt, but I’d rather have an older fable told well than a pandering remake or sequel of a recent work take up my time. Although, in the latter case, you can replace the words “take up” with the more accurate and expedient “waste”. I’m glad I spent some time with Bunraku, and if you’re looking in your Netflix Instant queue for a production with a great deal of panache, a bit of whimsy, some grown-up themes and unapologetic devotion to unique framing devices, I think you will be too.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.


Movie Review: Immortals

Every once in a while, I’m made aware of an opportunity that makes me feel like an actual professional critic. Much like Salt, my bros of the taped glasses over at Geekadelphia hooked me up with passes to see Immortals last night before its release to the general public. Considering my tendencies towards breathing new life into old myths, I was excited. While the trailers pretty much sold the film as a re-dressed 300, I was curious to see what director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar did with some of the oldest storytelling material in the world.

Courtesy Relativity Media

Our story revolves around Theseus, humble son of a dispossessed woman in a Hellenic village by the sea where he trains as a warrior to protect her. He doesn’t have much faith in the gods, even as they look down from Olympus on mankind while under strict laws from Zeus not to directly intervene. Indirect intervention is fine, but doing too much in a godly fashion would threaten to rob humans of their free will. There is only one circumstance in which this law is to be broken: if the Titans, sworn enemies of the Olympian gods imprisoned in Tartarus, are ever released. That is the plan of Hyperion, diabolical king at the head of the vicious Heraklion army, who would see the gods slain and he as the sole ruler of humanity… but not if Theseus has anything to say about it.

Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s first film was The Cell, a crime drama from 2000 that is remembered far more for its unique visual style than any of the story or actors involved. Many of his images, while surreal and otherworldly, were shot so cleanly and with such aplomb and definition that they could be framed and considered works of art in and of themselves. So it is with Immortals, only this time around, the works of art are in motion more often than not.

Courtesy Relativity Media
Seriously, if you were going to live forever, wouldn’t you want to look this good?

It’s the decisions the director makes that stand out in the film. For one thing, instead of the usual stable of established, operatic actors, the Olympian gods are played by beautiful young people in peak physical shape, and the gentlemen especially are dressed in minimalist costumes to show this off. This lends itself well to the depictions we see in Greek sculpture and art: bearded as they often are, the Greeks were not shy about their bodies. Nor is Immortals shy when it comes to violence, but again the director sets himself apart. It is only when we see these golden gods in action that the slow motion so familiar to fans of 300 and other movies of its ilk comes into play. Violence at the hands of humans is not dressed up in fancy camera work or tricks of post-production other than ribbons of blood and thrusting spear-points; rather, it’s presented with visceral intensity and earnestness that definitely demands attention.

As for the story itself, we have something of a mixed bag. Reinterpretations of Greek myth are certainly nothing new, and the writers of Immortals do make a few interesting decisions, such as keeping the war between the Olympian gods and the Titans on a human scale and the things done with Theseus’ battle with the “Minotaur.” And there was one bit in the plot that I honestly didn’t see coming. The script, however, is far more inconsistent than the quality of the visuals. There were a few points in the plot where I had unanswered questions or sensed a bit of a hole, while at others I felt the characters could have used less talking and more showing through action and expression. Hyperion especially stood out to me as something of a problem, despite Oscar-winner Mickey Rourke giving him an imposing physical presence.

Courtesy Relativity Media
It’s a dumb pun, but it works: Cavill looked pretty super even if his performance wasn’t.

This is not to say the acting was terrible; I’d say it was about average for material such as this. I’m not sure why Mickey Rourke spends half his time seeming so bored with the goings-on, but I’m willing to chalk that up to the script having Hyperion all but bellow “I AM A BAD GUY AND I WILL DO BAD GUY STUFF NOW”. Henry Cavill as Theseus is perfectly passable and Freida Pinto as the Oracle does all right, but I felt their little romance sub-plot was a little rushed. The Olympians, Luke Evans and Isabela Lucas in particular, brought a measure of humanity to their characters and presented their godliness with sufficient gravitas, so I guess I can’t complain too much about this part of the film. They struggle to elevate the mediocre script and never overshadow the visuals with scenery-chewing or laughable execution.

While certainly not a perfect movie, Immortals delivers an experience that’s enjoyable and engaging without feeling pandering or terribly rushed. The clean, smart direction and bold, lush visuals go a long way to get the audience past any narrative issues that crop up over the course of the film. At no point did I feel confused as to what was going on, as can be the case in some other action flicks, and it never felt like the movie was talking down to me. A little more polish on the script and more solid performances from some of the cast would have made the movie truly fantastic instead of merely impressive. But if the only real complaint I can make about Immortals is “there wasn’t enough of it”, I guess you can take that as a recommendation.

Stuff I Liked: For all the negativity out there regarding 3D, this movie did it just about perfectly. Gods played by young, beautiful people instead of well-established, older actors. No technology that felt overtly anachronistic.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: A little sloppiness in the plotting and screenwriting. Mickey Rourke looking bored more than anything else. Other actors not quite selling the melodrama. Only faltering attempts at scale in terms of size and distance. The romance sub-plot moves a bit too quickly.
Stuff I Loved: The stunning visuals, the very canny use of some of the action tropes that drew in the 300 crowd, extremely well-shot action and a Greek myth that feels as lurid, sensual and bombastic as a Greek myth should.

Bottom Line: The very clever and skilled direction of Immortals lifts it just far enough out of mediocrity for me to give it a recommendation. It won’t win any prizes or hearts for its script or acting, but its blend of unique original flair and old-school Greek mythology does delight the eyes and get the blood pumping. A solid, above-average period action flick.


Anthology of Interest

Courtesy impactguns.com

A few of them exist here in draft form, and I’m keeping others under wraps for now. But the fact is I’ve written six short stories mixing old folk tales and myths with relatively modern genres. While I dive headlong into to the rewrite of the novel currently entitled Citizen in the Wilds, I want to keep these yarns on the backburner, because I think there’s potential here to entertain and maybe inspire.

But I have no idea how good it is or how soon I can present it… or even what to call it!

Maybe I should hunt down an agent. I’ve been considering that possibility, as it may help relieve some of the pressure of hunting down everything that needs to be done in order to bring this thing to life, rather than having it lay around my metaphorical table like so many dead components. But how does one go about pitching an anthology? Is it as simple as saying “Hi, I wrote story X, Y, and Z and want to put them together, it’ll soar like an eagle in outer space and you totally wanna tap this”?

I’d like to hire an editor. Some of these stories are months or even years old. I’m certain they need work. I’m perfectly willing to put two in the chest and one in the face of any turns or beats that don’t work – I just need to know where to aim. Hopefully I can make arrangements for that after getting my feet under me again thanks to the new dayjob.

By the same token, I’m going to need a cover artist. If this anthology does make it to Kindles and Nooks and whatnot, there’s no way I’m letting it leave my sight when even the potential exists for it to look like it was put together by a scrub. It’s another step between the raw form of the stories and the finished anthology I’d be willing to pay for.

Finally, the whole thing needs a name. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, because how does one sum up the conceptualization of a Japanese mythic figure in a period horror piece, a Norse myth in the Old West, a Chinese celestial tale cast as a modern romance, a Grimm fairy tale dressed as superheroics, a Native American creation story in the dark streets of cyberpunk and a Greek myth played out through science fiction?

I’m still trying to figure it out. Ideas are welcome, as are volunteers to take a stab at the aforementioned aspects I can’t handle myself.


IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

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Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

Joseph Campbell is famous for basically saying that all storytellers are essentially telling the same story. Be it a myth based on the perceptions of the ancient Norse of their weather patterns or the all-caps melodrama and bright, splashy colors of a comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, our stories are a way of exploring ourselves and the world around us. Sometimes, the old stories are reimagined and transitioned into new forms that appeal to the altered sensibilities of modern audiences. Sometimes this works; other times, it doesn’t. Not every middle schooler is going to have a nascent interest in the mythology of ancient Greece, so author Rick Riordan took it upon himself to set those stories in the foundations of those tumultuous schoolyards, giving us Percy Jackson & the Olympians. The first volume of this chronicle, The Lightning Thief, got the major motion picture from Hollywood treatment.

And by ‘treatment’, I mean the potential for storytelling that’s worth a damn got tied to a chair and worked over with a baseball bat.

Our titular character is a struggling middle-school student with apparent dyslexia and ADHD. His mother is married to a complete and utter douchebag while his birth father scampered off while Percy was still a newborn. His best friend, Grover, walks with crutches and has a penchant for cracking wise that works really hard to put Chris Tucker to shame. A visit to the local museum and a lecture by his wheelchair-bound Latin teacher begins to reveal some truths to Percy: his dyslexia is due to his brain being hard-wired to read ancient Greek, mythological creatures want him dead, his best friend is a satyr and his teacher’s a centaur. Oh, and he’s the son of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. He must undertake a quest to return the lightning bolt of Zeus lest the king of the gods starts a massive war over its theft. Why Zeus would leave his trademark weapon which also happens to be the Olympian equivelant of a tactical nuclear strike laying around unattended is one of the many, many unanswered questions brought up in the course of this plot. Odin had a damn treasure vault for stuff like this, and Zeus couldn’t even slap a “No Touchie” magical whammy on the thing? But let’s move on. I don’t want to spend my entire rage quotient in the second major paragraph.

Having never read this series of books, I can’t comment on how well the narrative of the novel transitioned into the screenplay. What I can comment on is a visible shift in style and pacing by director Chris Columbus. This is a man best known for his light-hearted, kid-oriented films such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Lightning Thief feels a bit like an act of teenage rebellion against those more childish forays into filmmaking. While once we might have spent more time with Percy at home or school learning about what makes him tick and how he deals with the challenges of his young life, we’re thrust into the action almost immediately and given very little time for exposition.

This is both a good thing and a bad one. Exposition, after all, is difficult to get right and more often than not becomes an anchor welded around the ankle of the story, dragging the audience into the cloying darkness of boredom. However, without even passing attempts at exposition the story is left adrift, batted without foundation between one event and the next with nary a thing to connect them. Percy’s got a quest for a series of magical MacGuffins and an incidental need to rescue his mother to keep things going, but these elements have their own problems, seperate from those plauging the rest of the film.

It would be one thing if the MacGuffins were tied one to the other by clues that needed to be investigated on the scene where each is found. Instead our heroes have a magical map that just tells them where to go. Cuts down on stuff like intellectual curiosity and character building, sure, but who needs that stuff when you have mythological creatures to battle with swords? As for Percy’s mom, her character is also given something of the short end of the stick, and while most people would be genuinely concerned with a parent’s sudden death or disappearance, Percy reacts to the incident with a bit of dull surprise, quickly lost when he spots the girl. Because, you know, hormones are a much better motivator for moving a story along than concern for a loved one.

Without decent motivation or characterization for our hero, all we have left is action and spectacle. Again, the film falls short of delivering these elements without making things either bleedingly obvious or unnecessesarily dense. Instead of discovering the ways and means of his water-based demi-god powers, Percy has to be ham-handedly told how they work. Our heroes get out of their first two major scrapes thanks to everybody in the world having seen Clash of the Titans at some point, without explaining this point in-universe. The intrepid band spends five days in a pleasure palace before Percy’s dad calls him up on the Olympin telepathiphone to inform him of the fact that they’re farting around in a pleasure palace. And this says nothing about the aforementioned girl, supposedly the daughter of the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy, not employing the most practical and straightforward means of ending confrontations possible. Sure, it’s in keeping with traditions to train with swords and bows and whatnot, but just think how many of these encounters Annabeth could have resolved more quickly, directly and painlessly with the implementation and distribution of fucking guns.

Let’s see, what else is wrong with this flick? Grover’s irritating from start to finish, the only character who has interesting motivations and character beats in the slightest gets maybe five minutes of screen time, there’s no real tension and any attempt the story makes at trying to be more than a pandering and predictable distraction for middle schoolers just trying to make out in the back of the theater is slapped down in favor of more of that blunt telling over showing bullshit I’ve harped about for the last three minutes. Given my personal interest in stories like this reworked into other settings and genres to prove their viability and longevity, I wanted to like The Lightning Thief, but the more I watched the angrier I got. No amount of Sean Bean or Kevin McKidd can save this flick. Harry Potter does a much better job of giving us relatable adolescent characters in a fantasy setting, and cribbing notes from Clash of the Titans made me yearn for the early 80s schlock of that original film and wonder about how bad the new version is. I guess I’ll find out next week. For now, skip Percy Jackson. Give the books a try if you’re part of the target demographic, but if you’ve already read Harry Potter and aren’t frothing at the mouth for more of the same, I doubt you’re missing much. Find Madeline l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or T.H. White’s The Once and Future King instead. They’re classics, they’re poignant, and you don’t have the token black character weighing the whole thing down with his attempts at being both the ethnic wisecracking sidekick and the Magical Negro. But at least you can make a fun drinking game out of every moment the so-called heroes of The Lightning Thief just get a solution handed to them and don’t have to think for themselves, much like the audience.

Wait. Scratch that. I don’t want to be responsible for any of you dying from alcohol poisoning.


A Writer’s To-Do List

Checklist

So last week’s ICFN was delayed. It’s still on hold. I’m waiting to hear back from third parties that were interested in conveying it to a different format. Awaiting correspondence always makes days or weekends feel longer, from responses to job postings to queries about Magic trades.

But while I was waiting I took a look at the various projects I’ve lined up for myself.

There are three things that go against me when I try to sit down and get my writing pants on: I’m always thinking of new ideas, I’m not terribly organized and I’m easily distracted. All it takes is a cat darting across the floor, a ringing phone or a stray thought on something awesome unrelated to the project at hand to force me to refocus my efforts. I do turn off HootSuite and other things when I’m actually writing, but that only addresses the distraction problem.

You can take a look at my desk, my kitchen sink or either basement I have stuff in (here in Lansdale or at the ancestral place in Allentown) as silent testament to my lack of organization and pack-rat nature. This also ties in to my ideas. New ones creep into my brain all the time. An action sequence, a bit of dialog, a new character in an old setting… this stuff floats in and out from time to time. It takes conscious effort to nail it all down. And once I do, I need to get it into some sort of organized sequence.

Obviously I want to finish things I’ve started before I begin anything new, so let’s get some priorities straight here. This is pertaining mostly to my own publishable (eventually) writing, not other projects I’ve taken on (the Vietnam manuscript) and the weekday drivel in this blog.

I feel I should finish Red Hood first. It’s the shortest piece, and with it my collection of mixed-myth stories reaches a total of five. Akuma (Japanese oni in a period slasher story), The Jovian Flight (Greek myth IN SPACE!), The Drifter’s Hand (Norse myth in the Old West) and Miss Weaver’s Lo Mein (Chinese myth as a modern romance) round out the rest. That may be enough for an anthology, but I’m uncertain. I may want to do a sixth story.

The rewrite of Citizen in the Wilds must come next. I’ve started outlining the new opening, and will track the appearances and growth of characters to ensure they’re consistent and sympathetic, two problems pointed out by at least one review on Book Country. The problem with the way it opened before was I was cramming too much exposition into the first few pages and not giving the characters enough time to develop and establish connections with each other and the reader – in other words, I opened too late. So I’m starting a bit earlier. Giving these people more breathing room. You know, before I kill most of them.

I have an idea for a Magic: the Gathering piece but as it may be nothing more than fan fiction and Wizards has better things to do than entertain the notions of a relatively unknown hack like myself (as opposed to known hacks like Robert Wintermute), I’ll try not to devote too much time to it.

Once I finish up with the other stuff I’ll go back to Cold Iron. I plan on taking this lean, mean and well-intentioned supernatural noir thing I threw together during my commutes of the last few months and putting it through the prescribed Wendig cycle of editing my shit. The Wendig cycle, by the way, has little to do with Wagner’s cycle. More whiskey and profanity, less large sopranos and Norse symbolism.

Meantime, the blog will keep the writing-wheels greased. More Westeros fiction for the Honor & Blood crowd. More flash fiction challenges. Reviews of movies, games and books. Ruminations on trying not to suck as a writer.

And Guild Wars 2 stuff, because that MMO looks pretty damn awesome, not to mention damn pretty.

Stay tuned. I may be down, but I ain’t licked yet.


IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Big Trouble in Little China

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It may appear at first glance that Big Trouble in Little China is one of those clever, funny deconstructions that film students are always raving about. There are even some moments where someone over-analytical may mistake it for a parody. But John Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek but straightforward action-adventure is not interested in tearing down the conventions of the genre nor in necessarily poking fun at it. It’s point seems to be simply having a great time telling a unique story with some inventive action. The hero just happens to be the guy who isn’t the big-name Hollywood tough guy. The hero isn’t even white. And that? Is fantastic.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

We’re first introduced to Jack Burton, a wise-cracking long-haul trucker with all of the swagger and bravado of any 80s action hero you’d care to mention. He’s friends with Wang Chi, the young owner of a restaurant in Chinatown. The pair head out to pick up Wang’s fiance from the airport, only to witness her being abducted by members of a Chinese street gang. Following her into Chinatown they stumble into not only a brawl between the kidnappers and their rival gangs, but three supernatural warriors called the Storms and their ghostly lord, Lo Pan. Lo Pan wants the girl for himself, and it falls to Jack and Wang to rescue her.

This might seem like a run-of-the-mill setup for an 80s action romp, but Big Trouble in Little China isn’t all that interested in re-treading old ground. Carpenter and Kurt Russell, the man playing Jack Burton, are clearly looking to do something different. Rather than making sure the tough-talking strong and manly white man conquers the bad guys and scores the girls, the two have set out to give us the story of a man who thinks he’s the action hero, when really he’s the comic relief character. This must have been a fun subversion for Russell, as his roles in Escape from New York and The Thing thrust him firmly into the action genre. It’s the mark of a smart man who looks to avoid being pigeonholed as soon as possible.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
If nothing else, Jack’s got a great war face.

I mentioned before that Big Trouble isn’t a parody. It isn’t looking to lambast the action genre the way Hot Shots! would. Instead, it cleverly presents Jack as both sidekick and audience surrogate for the narrative. Since this is a movie shot & released in North America that deals at least tangentially with Chinese mythology, there’s going to be a marked cultural difference in terms of aesthetic, foundation and execution. By putting us in Jack’s boots while the powers of the Three Storms are revealed and the depths of Lo Pan’s fortress are explored, we see this unfamiliar world through his eyes and he voices many of the same reactions we might. And for the most part, they’re hilarious. For example, a monster menaces the party as they make their way to rescue the girls who’ve been kidnapped. The sorcerer Egg Shen, accompanying our heroes, simply says “It will come out no more.” Jack’s response? “WHAT? WHAT WILL COME OUT NO MORE?” Not exactly the hysterics you’d expect from a big, tough action hero, right?

As much fun as the movie has with the conventions of other action flicks, it also takes us on a rather uncontrived adventure that has more than a few surprises in it. It introduces us to aspects of a culture to which we might have been ignorant in a way that’s appealing and not terribly difficult for an unenlightened American movie audience to understand. I can’t say all of the portrayals of Chinese myth are entirely accurate, of course, and how exactly does one become an ‘evil bodhisattva’? Being a product of the 80s, some of the effects may seem a bit dated to a few viewers, but there’s plenty of action and fun to make up for that. Even the studio couldn’t stop the movie from having a good time. They had Carpenter throw in a superfluous prologue scene for fear of the audience not understanding the fact that Jack’s a supporting protagonist, but from the reaction of the guy in the suit interviewing Egg Shen, not only does our writer & director show he has confidence in his audience, he understands the sort of folks who just don’t get it.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Fashion and hair design by Ming the Merciless’ majordomo.

Originally planned as a Western, with Jack as a drifter whose horse is stolen, setting the film in Chinatown with Jack just wanting his truck back while Wang & Egg Shen take up a divine struggle against a deathless sorcerer allows Big Trouble in Little China to tease and tip over so many aspects of action movies it becomes scarily close to a deconstruction. Deconstructions, however, tend to take stabs at their origin material with varying degrees of bitterness. John Carpenter, however, clearly has affection for action movies and isn’t interested in tearing down the walls of the genre, just coming at them from a different angle. In doing so he created one of his best works. It’s narrative, while at times oblique or even silly, is tightly written, and the characters behave in human ways, especially Jack. It’s a fun time at the movies, a unique adventure and a great example of the so-called main character needing to take a back seat when he enters a world he (and we) are not familiar with. The only thing I can really say against Big Trouble in Little China is that it isn’t available on Netflix Instant – you have to wait for the disc in the mail. But trust me when I say, the wait will be well worth it.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.