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Everyday People

So, I’ve been finding it really hard to blog lately, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why, exactly, that might be.

I mean, I don’t want to blame it all on 9/11, but it certainly didn’t help.

There’s a lot of little reasons, of course, but I think the one it comes down to is the way I write. I really have a hard time writing about something until I’ve thought it over a lot. I’m the only person I know who drafts the comments I write on other people’s Facebook posts. It’s actually one reason I hate reading my own writing; it always feels so labored and forced. I read other people’s blogs, and I’m sure they put, if anything, more work than I put into mine, but the end result just feels more natural, refreshing even. I wish I could write differently, but this is the way I know how, and the end result of all this is I have a very hard time just picking a topic and writing about it. Most topics I’ve written about are the ones that got stuck in my mind and I worked them over and thought about them until I felt confident enough to put something out there.

And, as of late, all of those topics are political. And this presents something of a problem for me.

It’s not that I think politics is not a topic worth writing about (obviously), and this isn’t even a promise that I won’t write about politics in the future. But my biggest problem, I think, comes from the unstated goal of this blog.

My very first post (so long ago now) was prompted by, and largely in response to, a comment thread on my Facebook wall in which two people argued back and forth about the merits of downfalls of Noah, a film that neither of them had seen.

And I decided then that I wanted to use this blog, such as it is, to oppose that sort of closed-mindedness. I didn’t have delusions of grandeur. I wasn’t out to change the world or reshape our cultural conversation. But even if I only got two readers, I’d hoped to use my posts, even in a small way, to promote thoughtfulness, reasoned (and reasonable) discourse. Dialogue.

And right now, when it comes to politics, I’ve just got so much anger. I’m starting to worry that I’m becoming what I’ve always hated. But even if that’s not true, even if every part of my anger is completely justified, what does that leave? If all I’ve got to contribute to this field is rage, I’ll keep it to myself. There’s already more than enough of that going around.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about what (or if) to write, because every other topic felt so small, so insignificant right now.

But as I was thinking about how all these other topics, movies and TV and art and sports, “don’t matter” anymore, from nowhere a very powerful memory came back to me.

It was July, during my bachelor party weekend in Minneapolis, and we’d gone to the Jazz and Funk Fest to see Sly and the Family Stone. It was very warm, and I was quite drunk, and I’m shockingly ignorant about music history so all of the songs they played were more or less new to me. And then they paused to talk to the crowd before kicking off their set closer.

“I’ve been around forever,” the speaker said. “And this is the craziest election I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But one thing I do know…

I-I-I am everyday people!

“And so are you!”

And as they kept singing and repeated the chorus, everyone in the crowd began to sing along. Even I caught on eventually. And there was just this weird, unspoken bond in the crowd. It didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat, Making America Great Again© or With Her™, or throwing your vote away on a third party.

I’d never felt that connected with strangers. And never, before or since, had felt more assured that things would work out okay.

I don’t know why that memory came back to me or what prompted it, but it was like a cold splash of water to the face. It helped me remember something I’d always known. That these topics aren’t inherently frivolous. That anything that can connect us is worth celebrating and promoting.

And that is the main reason I, for one, herald the return of the NFL Draft tonight, with the start of the season soon to follow.

There’s so many divisions in the country right now. Don’t get me wrong, the issues are important, I would never say otherwise. Discussion and debate are necessary.

And at the same time, at the end of the day, we are just “everyday people.” “Sometimes [we] can be right and [we] can be wrong,” but “we got to live together.”

And anything that can make us feel united, even for a brief moment, is a good thing.

Which is why, I swear, if I see one more person try to politicize sports, I’mma smack ‘em.

I’mma do it.

Fantasy Booking: Suits

Some days you sit down intending to write about education, and what comes out instead is a ramble about how a legal drama needs to be more like professional wrestling.

Wallpaper-suits-34619277-1920-1080

So I discovered this show called Suits recently, and by “discovered” I mean I pulled a Christopher Columbus and found something millions of people already knew about.

As is my wont when I get really into a show, I started researching it, mostly how well it’s been received. I’m only a little over two seasons in at this point (the fifth season just started airing) but I was really shocked to see that pretty much everybody else in the world thought the second season was significantly better than the first.

Even though I disagree with that opinion, once I thought about it a bit I can’t really pretend I don’t understand why. The storytelling in the first is a bit… shit, really. Even though the show’s Wikipedia page says it had 12 episodes, thinking back on it I can only remember… two. There’s the first episode, explaining how the two main characters came to work together, and then there’s the one where they win their case because a random side character makes a casual statement that leads to an epiphany and they form a brilliant argument that legally probably makes very little sense.

It wasn’t exactly wildly original storytelling is what I’m saying. But it didn’t need to

And when this is the guy inspiring your epiphanies...

And when this is the guy inspiring your epiphanies…

be. What made the show work was not its plots, but the dynamic between the characters. The first episode sold us on the idea of a snappy, wisecracking legal super team: Harvey, the experienced, jaded lawyer who makes a living knowing what you’re going to do before you know, and Mike, the rookie who still wants to save the world and makes up for his lack of experience with the fact that he’s memorized every court case in history. Both the characters and actors played off of and balanced each other perfectly, and the fact that they never lost worked in the show’s favor because it made you want to be them. They were the legal system’s Superman…s. Supermans.

Moving into the second season, the show ditched the first’s episodic formula in favor of slow-developing, overarching story lines, which in theory was probably a wise move. However, as a result of this, the legal team that’d spent the first season as the smartest guys in the room spent basically the entire second season two steps behind the new antagonists.

In a lot of ways, it’s not hard to see the logic behind this decision. The idea of creating some drama by throwing our heroes a loss or two is not a bad one on its own. What was a bad idea was to keep those losses coming, consistently, for an entire season, because this really hurt the show in two unintended ways.

First, Harvey became absolutely insufferable. Harvey’s basically every cocky lawyer

Ugh. This guy. Probably still wears his high school letter jacket, too.

Ugh. This guy. Probably still wears his high school letter jacket, too.

character you’ve seen on every TV show ever. His brazenness works in season one because it’s absolutely well founded and he backs it up by being the best lawyer in town. But as soon as season two makes it clear there are better lawyers, his swagger immediately goes from charmingly abrasive to regular abrasive. He becomes that guy at every college party bragging about how awesome he was in high school.

Second, it showed us that these guys were not Supermen, they were losers. And this really hurts the drama at the end of the season. In one of the last episodes, Harvey gets a lawsuit he needs to win to protect the future of his firm. As soon as this storyline was brought up, I was fed up with it. The writers had just spent the better part of a year convincing me that Harvey couldn’t win a case to save his life. Now suddenly I was supposed to believe he could win one to save his firm?

And this is where the show needed to take a page from the best booked stories in professional wrestling.

I’ve mentioned my love of professional wrestling before and I’ve caught flak for it in the past. I will freely admit the claim that it’s little more than a soap opera is fairly accurate. But I love it because when it’s well done, it tells the most basic story of a hero overcoming incredible odds better than any other medium I’m familiar with.

Because it’s scripted, and more show than sport, wrestling often gets unfairly stigmatized for its storytelling. But even though the stories are basic, making them compelling is more difficult than it might initially seem. Push a face too often or too hard and fans get tired of him winning all the time. That’s been John Cena’s problem for years since he’s been WWE’s top (sometimes only) babyface for a decade.

Of course, when your heel looks like this... Yeah, good luck building any challenger to look like he has a chance to win...

Of course, when your heel looks like this… Yeah, good luck building any challenger to look like he has a chance to win…

However, fail to book a face to look appropriately dominating and fans lose interest quickly. In the run up to WrestleMania 31, the WWE had a laundry list of booking problems, but their biggest by far was that their heel champion, Brock Lesnar, had been getting pushed in exciting, high-octane matches in which he would beat people within an inch of their lives, while Roman Reigns, the babyface and (alleged) contender was booked in slow, plodding matches that saw him struggle to beat second-tier opponents. No one cared about his shot at Lesnar, because, in storyline, Lesnar should have kicked Reigns’ teeth in from bell to bell. The writers never gave the fans a reason to care.

I still really enjoyed season two of Suits. Mike’s development was still very well done, and I had enough positive positive feelings about the characters

Although if Gabriel Macht could look more like the Rock, it might help.

Although if Gabriel Macht could look more like the Rock, it might help.

from season one to stay invested. Even so, I still can’t get over how much better it could have been had they “booked” Harvey appropriately; had they just gotten their WWE on a bit more. If I’m going to care about a character’s big case, first I have to believe he can win it. And by the same token, someone with the swagger of the Rock can’t back it up with the winning percentage of Dolph Ziggler.

Tell it Slant*

“Anything worth saying is unsayable. That’s why we tell stories. Because life is too complicated to be explained any other way.” —Professor Peter Stine

Back in November, I said I was beginning a loosely-connected series of posts, which I didn’t follow up on until March, and I’m finally (sort of) wrapping up now, a month and a half later.

Three posts in six months. Slow and steady wins the race, right?

When I started, I acknowledged that I was beginning in a bit of an odd place, and, though I didn’t acknowledge it, I think I probably continued to an odd place, as well. In the English classes I teach, one of the concepts my fellow teachers and I try to drive home to our students is the “So what?” principle. If someone were to reader your thesis and their first question is “So what?” you probably need to choose a new thesis. So, if the thesis for my first two pieces was “These are two things I saw that didn’t tell very good stories,” I would agree that “so what?” would be an understandable response. So two stories were told poorly, why should anybody care?

Because, quite simply, the stories we tell (and the way we tell them) are very important.

And that’s a truth that’s been undermined in American society.

That sounds extreme, but I don’t mean it in the same way that, say, a Fox News anchor would say Obama is undermining our freedoms. I don’t think anyone is actively trying to make people believe that story doesn’t matter. But as a culture, we’ve largely forgotten the idea that it does, and are resistant to considering this idea.

Consider a few statistics. 90 million US citizens, 30% of the population, currently are functionally illiterate. That makes up almost one in every three people that you meet.

Similarly, in order to be considered an “avid reader,” a person only needs to read two books in a year. On average that comes down to roughly 30 minutes a week. Is there any other hobby that this would be true of? No gym is designed for someone who might log 26 hours in it over the course of a year. TV shows don’t need to fight over viewers who can only make time for one of them every other week.

But that’s the market that any writer is forced to target.

This is especially important, because the written medium can be especially influential. Reading a story, unlike nearly any other activity, causes you to enter into the mind of another person, to see the world from his or her perspective. However, stories can influence us through a number of media. Even though reading is influential by its very nature, other media, such as film, can be influential through the use of powerful images or music, and compelling characters and conflicts.

And as a counter example to all that, take this year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that is blatantly, aggressively uninterested in telling a story.

To put it succinctly, the central conflict of Age of Ultron is caused by Tony Stark messing with powers he’s too arrogant to realize are beyond him. He creates the main villain by putting a super A.I. in a robot body. And then he defeats the main villain by… putting a super A.I. in a robot body.

What, exactly, is meant to be accomplish in that? From a storytelling perspective? A character perspective? A thematic perspective? As someone much quippier than I has already quipped, what has Stark learned except to push the “NOT a genocidal monster” button this time around? For that matter, does any character in this film have anything approaching an arc? What does this film have to offer to our cultural conversation beyond robots and punching?

Not a damn thing. And God help us if we don’t love it for that. We love it so much that it’s the highest-grossing movie in the country this year, and one of the best reviewed to boot. It’s a bit uncommon to see critics and audiences agree. It’s a bit unsettling to see them agree on this.

By buying this schlock again and again, as a culture we’re telling our story tellers that this is all we want. That we don’t need to see characters struggle or learn anything. We don’t need growth. All we need are explosions and one-liners.

This matters. This isn’t me trying to be smarter than a comic book movie. I love silly comic book movies. But we need stories, even the silly ones, to take risks. To challenge their characters, and consequently their audience. To pose bold questions that don’t have pat answers. To push us to consider a viewpoint other than our own.

Humans need stories. If we didn’t, why would they be such an important part of every culture in written history? And stories impact people. If that weren’t the case, why did Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspire the Civil War? The proof is all throughout history. Cultures are always reflected in and defined by the stories they tell.

But the truth of this should be even more obvious when approached from a Christian perspective. Any number of examples could be used here, but quite possibly the most noteworthy comes from the story of David and Bathsheba. After David has impregnated Bathsheba, had her husband murdered, and taken her as his wife, he receives a visit from the prophet Nathan, who’s been sent to convict David of his sin. Reading the chapter, the natural expectation is for Nathan to lay the holy judgment of God on David’s head, which he does… but in an unexpected way. Instead of a sermon a la Jonathan Edwards, what we get is a story about sheep.

And yet, that story drives Nathan’s point home far more effectively than any argument, threat, or curse ever could. Just as Stowe did with her story, or Harper Lee and Mark Twain in theirs. Or even contemporary writers like Collins and Green, whose impact on culture has been undeniable in the short term.

This may seem far removed from where I started, with video game nerds in high school and, well, video game nerds in virtual reality. But I finished watching those series shortly after hearing Gary Schmidt deliver an explanation of the importance of story, and the three topics became intertwined in my mind. As he showed, stories need to be told, and they deserve to be told well.

And if there’s any doubt left as to the importance of story, I think one of Schmidt’s anecdotes can lay it to rest. He recently was asked to lead a writing workshop for teens in Michigan, and was warned before beginning that one of the kids had recently lost his father, who had taken his own life. During the workshop, Schmidt noticed this kid writing with more fire and passion than anyone in the room.

He was writing a story about a boy, who was lost and alone. He was looking for his father, but his father had disappeared. Everywhere he went, the boy was surrounded by monsters, “the Uglies,” and he didn’t know what to do or where to go.

But everything was going to be all right. Because his father had left him a magic sword. All he had to do was find it, and he could make all the monsters go away.

And I’m just going to let that thought hang there. Because I have no way to follow that up.

*http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/247292

Sword Art Online

Imagine a world where people who play massive, multiplayer online games don’t just sit at their computer eating Cheetos and guzzling Mountain Dew Code Red, but enter into the mind of their character, guiding his every action because technology is magic. Also, because watching a bunch of nerds play World of Warcraft for hours isn’t particularly compelling, they’re unable to logout until they beat the last boss in this game and (because technology is magic) if they die in the game, they die in real life.

sword_art_online_wallpaper_hdWelcome to the first 20 or so minutes of the Japanese anime Sword Art Online, and to this point in the series I was very intrigued. Our hero had a Herculean task to perform, our villain, the man who trapped all the players in the MMO, had some unique motivations to explain, and the adventure had the potential to raise some interesting questions about life, reality, and most of all relationships.

So, if you’re the creator of this show, what do you do next?

If you thought the obvious answer was “skip around, not really telling most of this story and keeping the focus solidly on the everyday routines of the characters while barely showing any clips of the actual adventure and halfway through, just screw it all and move the characters to a new world in which death has no consequences and there are no stakes. Ooh ooh! And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the established, interesting villain, having him fade away into nothing with no explanation as to who he was, why he would do this, or how he was able to do this, instead replacing him with the anime version of Snidely Whiplash” well… You must actually be the creator of this show.

100 floors? Based on what we've seen it seems more like... four.

100 floors? Based on what we’ve seen it seems more like… four.

The sudden shift in narrative, only halfway into the show’s first season, is one of the biggest letdowns I’ve experienced in terms of storytelling. This story had potential, and it felt clear after the first episode that the creators were onto something that could be very compelling. And then, for no clear reason, they just stopped telling that story and replaced it with a show where we watch nerds play World of Warcraft for hours. But while this didn’t manage to be compelling at all, it was enough fun that I could say it was not the worst decision the show’s creators made.

The worst decision the show’s creators made was making the main character a classic Gary Stu. He’s the best MMO player in the world and no one else is worthy to go on quests with him. He achieves a god-like status almost instantly, to the point that by the fourth episode he wins a fight by standing still while seven other players wail on him until they realize they aren’t doing any damage and just give up. By the time he does lose a fight, 10 episodes in, the only conclusion you can come to as a viewer is that his opponent cheated… which turns out to be true.

Oh, and there’s also the fact that every girl in the show falls in love with him. That’s not an exaggeration, even the girl who thinks of him as her big brother, and who he says reminds him of his sister (who’s actually his cousin) falls in love with him. Oh, and also his cousin falls in love with him. Okay, as a loyal and devoted friend, I’m obligated not to object to that. From a moral standpoint. But from a storytelling standpoint? Even in a world where people can get locked inside of a video game thanks to absurd pseudoscience, this strained my suspension of disbelief and, worse yet, makes for a very uninteresting story.

That said, it’s not as though this show is unlikable. More than anything else, the love story that develops between the two main characters is enough to make you keep watching, and this really became the core of the show. These two characters have never actually met, but, through risking their lives together again and again, come to mean a lot to each other. But at the same time they have to deal with the fact that if they even make it back to the real world, they already have established lives and relationships there. Trying to incorporate a new person into those lives… gets messy. And of course there’s the ever-present question if the experiences they are sharing actually mean anything, since none of them are technically “real.” It’s a surprisingly complex idea and completely belies the simplicity of other parts of the story. On top of that it’s very well paced and the main characters are very likable.

Well, I thought they were likable.

Well, I thought they were likable.

And, most importantly, unlike the show’s main arc, the creators actually told the love story they set out to tell in the beginning.

I come back to this because, well, every aspect of this show comes back to this simple disappointment for me. Anything else that can be said about this show, positive or negative, is all wrapped up in this one, big “What if?” What if the creators had not changed the setting of this show? What if they had stuck to their original plan? How much more interesting could the story have been? How much more compelling would it be if there were more tangible stakes?

My big complaint about VGHS was that it didn’t have a clear idea of what story it wanted to tell, but that’s not the case with SAO. It had a very clear idea of what its story would be, but, for whatever reason, decided to tell a less compelling version instead.

Maybe they thought could they could save money by adopting a simpler animation style. Maybe less ambitious stories are just inherently easier to tell. But whatever the reason, it took what should have been a fun, intriguing idea and made it thoroughly unsatisfying.

The creators had a clear idea of the story they wanted to tell. But if you want to tell a great story, that’s not enough. If you want to tell a great story, you have to actually tell it.

Jupiter’s Ascension and the Wachowski’s Decline

If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what you’re going to do tomorrow, amirite?

I mean, it was almost three months ago now that I made my first post in what I planned to be a series that would be very important to me. A post which I immediately followed up with yet another piece on Nebraska football, and then not blogging for over two months.

And now that I’m making time for it… yeah, I’mma blog about a movie instead.

Don’t worry, nameless, loosely-intertwined series. I’ll come back to you one day. And I’m sure the 17 people who read your first post will love you just the same. But right now, I gotta strike while the iron is… already a week old.

Someday I’ll figure this “blogging” thing out.

jupiter_ascending_character_poster_3(1)Since the first Matrix made them superstars, the Wachowskis have been doomed to ever decreasing returns on their efforts. Cloud Atlas gave them by far their most critical success in six years, sitting at a mediocre 66% with both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, and even that seems to be just a blip in the ever-descending spiral of their careers, careers that could be in jeopardy now. Their latest film, Jupiter Ascending, has been reviled by critics and audiences alike and finished a distant third at the box office on its opening, February weekend, behind American Sniper, which was in its fourth week in theatres. It seems entirely possible Jupiter has brought the siblings’ careers to a shuttering, pathetic end.

And the saddest part about all of this is that Jupiter Ascending is one of their best films to date.

In fact, watching it, I kept comparing it, favorably, to two other sci-fi epics from last year, which critics and fans fell all over themselves to heap praise on: Snowpiercer and Guardians of the Galaxy. I talked about both of these in an early post and I liked them both a lot. But they both had critical flaws that keep me from completely endorsing them. And these films’ flaws are areas where Jupiter was exceptional.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a ton of fun, Indiana Jones in space, and yet somehow sillier than that implies. But for all that, it failed to be truly compelling as a film, notably in comparison to the real Indiana Jones, because we know so little of substance of the film’s universe that we can never truly understand what’s at stake. We know little about the culture or society the heroes end up defending, and nothing about the society of the villain or his motivations. How do we know he’s evil, just because he’s a jerk? What makes the Nova Empire worth defending, and why does Ronan want to destroy it in the first place?guardians-of-the-galaxy-drax-the-destroyer-02

On top of that, there’s this weird, almost Dragon Ball Z-like idea of power at work in Guardians‘ universe. Take, for example, Drax (top) and Ronan (bottom). Based on their respective physiques, if these two ever got in a fight they should be on a roughly even playing field. If anything, Drax should actually be the stronger of the two, and yet when they fight in the movie Ronan no-sells several unblocked shots from Drax before casually tossing him aside. More notably, when each tries to wield the ultimate Macguffin of ultimate power infinity stone, Ronan is able to do control its power with ease, while none of the Guardians cfe7a7gYan, and even their joint effort as a group is barely enough to hold the stone for a few seconds.

Is this because they’re different species? Is Ronan a demigod? Maybe Dave Bautista kept pulling his punches like it was WWE? We never get any sort of explanation. For all we know, it’s because Ronan picks his nose and eats it more often. When the rules of a universe are never established, how can anything that happens in that universe properly have any weight?

Jupiter Ascending serves as an excellent counterpoint to this, because it consistently makes the stakes clear. In part this is certainly due to the Wachowski’s decision to make Earth, rather than some other, made-up planet, the target of the film’s villain, but the truth is the annihilation of Earth never seems that threatening. It’s definitely part of the film, and a part that matters, but, as with all good journeys, the real focus is almost always our heroine’s (self-)discovery. Even though we don’t see much of it, we know a lot of the society the film introduces us to and, aside from a few scientific advances that feel more at home in the world of Harry Potter than serious sci-fi, it makes sense. It seems like something that humans could make, given the time and access to resources.

Probably most refreshing, though, is the lack of any unclear classification of “power.” There’s no need to break out a scouter or scream about power levels being over 9 (or 8) thousand! The beings who hold power in this universe do so through a combination of divine right and having a lot of money. You may recognize this as the same two ways most people throughout human history have both gotten and kept their power. This, to me, was the capstone to a very well-built universe, and what made the entire society feel very organic, especially compared to the poorly defined universe we visit in Guardians of the Galaxy.

I think we can all agree, 7 or 8 hours of this would have made Guardians the perfect movie.

I think we can all agree, 7 or 8 hours of this would have made Guardians the perfect movie.

Snowpiercer, too, serves as a great example of a film that establishes its universe very well, though I’m sure it helps if your universe is only as large as a train. Where it didn’t do so well was in its message. I’ve said this before, but this really felt like a movie that wanted to say something grand, but just kind of… didn’t. For all of its high concepts and trendy topics, it never seemed to be able to get past the blatantly obvious. “Class warfare is bad. Done.”

On the other hand, Jupiter Ascending was the opposite in nearly every important way. It was advertised as a decidedly nine o’clock movie, but actually ended up having some interesting themes and creative ways of expressing them. The ideas Jupiter Ascending has to share aren’t shockingly original, but they’re well done. And they feel surprisingly relevant. I’m hesitant to go into too much more detail to avoid revealing major plot points, but I will say in a lot of ways it reminded me of In Time, although In Time was another high concept movie that failed to develop its concept in any meaningful way. So it’s In Time: But Done Well This Time, with Channing Tatum replacing Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis filling in for Amanda Seyfried. Upgrades all around, as far as I’m concerned.

Body for days, *and* he's never been part of N'SYNC? Sold!

Body for days, *and* he’s never been part of N’SYNC? Sold!

Simply put, Jupiter Ascending definitely had its share of flaws, but has enough strengths to rival even the best science fiction films of the past few years. It deserves better treatment than it’s gotten and is being unfairly dismissed by critics simply because it has a plot that demands more than half your brain and maybe another viewing or two.

I’m still trying to figure out why that’s a bad thing.

VGHS

Okay, so first things first. I haven’t really blogged about Husker football for a while. And since Husker football seems to be all I blog about any more that means I haven’t really blogged about anything for a while. It started innocently enough–for one reason or another I missed several games in a row. Without seeing the games I couldn’t exactly say anything about them. But the reason changed when I read this article from TIME. It told the story of a high school player who suffered a traumatic brain injury and died during a routine football play.

Not a helmet-to-helmet collision. Not even a particularly violent hit. Chad Stover dove at the runningback’s legs, the back moved to avoid the tackle, and a helmet connected with a thigh. A few minutes later Stover fell to the ground as if his legs had turned to water.

The tagline of the article, “Is Football Worth It?” got me thinking that day. By which I mean I literally asked myself ‘How many deaths is it worth it to be able to enjoy this game?’

And as soon as I thought that, I was, thankfully, appropriately horrified at myself. Because the answer should be obvious. Stupidly obvious. It should be so obvious that the question becomes irrelevant.

So I decided I need to take a step back from football and evaluate how important it is to me. I’m not saying that no one should ever watch football again because it’s an immoral activity. I’m not even saying I’m not watching it any more. But I definitely need to make it a less important part of my life and less of a focus for me.

Which is probably good. It had really come to dominate my blog in a way that I never really intended. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve been meaning to blog about and had trouble finding time.

So I’m going to start by critiquing a popular internet series that ended two weeks ago and everyone’s already made up their minds about or hasn’t heard of yet!

VGHS

Okay, so it’s an odd place to start, but there is something of a plan here. This actually is part of a planned series of loosely connected posts on a topic that I feel is very important and not very frequently discussed.

So, the internet series in question is the Freddie Wong creation Video Game High School. If you didn’t know that from the title of this blog post then you are obviously unacquainted. I weep for you. It debuted two years ago on YouTube and I loved it. I watched it several times, recommended it to anyone I thought might even slightly enjoy it, and quoted it incessantly to any of my friends who’d seen it.

But as much as I enjoyed it, I wasn’t satisfied. The show had created a world that intrigued me, a world where they interrupt news reports about the president’s being apparently kidnapped to tell you what happened in recent game of Field of Fire, the most popular (and apparently only) first-person shooter. A world where students have to get invited to attend a high school that only teaches them how to be better at video games.

I had so many questions. Are they the only school that does this? What happens to kids who don’t get an invitation? We know the FPS team is like the school’s football team, so what do their competitions look like? What was the situation with the president?

The show never got around to answering these questions, instead focusing in on the lives of a few of the characters. So you can imagine, then, my excitement when a friend informed me that season 2 was about to begin filming.

Season 2 expanded its scope on this little world, exactly as I’d wanted, and was followed by season 3, which showed us the playoffs our heroic FPS team had qualified for and culminated in an epic climactic showdown between the show’s heroes and villains. I loved it.

And at the same time I really, really hated it. Season 1 may have left me unsatisfied when it ended, but season 2, and especially 3, for all the good things you could say about them, and there are a lot, left me feeling frustrated and empty.

For all of its flaws and shortcomings, season 1 worked wonderfully because it knew what it was. And what it was was a professional wrestling storyline. Which is amazing, I love professional wrestling! They told the story perfectly (seriously, WWE, take some notes): the hero, BrianD, was likeable. The villain, The Law, was delightfully hammy. The main character is a clear underdog who has to overcome incredible odds, and does. It was well-crafted story telling. It may have been a simple story, but it was told well.

When the showed moved into the second, and especially third season the creators

John Cena, you may have gotten the best of me at Wrestlemania. But this month at Backlash, it's gonna be you and me. In a cage match!

Jon Cena, you may have gotten the best of me at Wrestlemania. But this month at Backlash, it’s gonna be you and me. In a cage match!

tried to move it in a darker, more mature direction… sort of. And it worked… sort of.

It’s definitely possible to make such a transition. The Harry Potter series is a fantastic example of this. The first book tells a very lighthearted story about several 11-year-olds who save the world by overcoming obstacles that were designed to stop much older, smarter, more powerful wizards. No matter what mistakes they make, the consequences the characters face are minor, and no matter what the characters may tell us, the stakes never seem very high. Heck, one of the climaxes of the story is over who wins the school’s award for most brownie points. It’s definitely a story told from a child’s perspective.

Six book’s later, the story had completely changed. We had seen the characters face dire consequences for their actions over and over again, and the story was no longer told to us from the perspective of a child but of a maturing adult. Regardless of anything else about the story, one thing Rowling’s series did very well was to allow its characters, and its audience, to grow over time.

For a much poorer example of this type of storytelling, consider the character development (or lack thereof) of Barney Stinson in the otherwise great How I Met Your Mother. When the show started, Barney was a childish and insincere womanizer. Toward the end of season 3, the writers got bored of that or something and decided he’d be much more interesting with a love interest. So they made him fall in love with Robin (and then a series of other women probably because the show went on longer than they intended it to and then Robin again) and he

Pictured: Definitely a sympathetic character.

Pictured: Definitely a sympathetic character.

became a character we were supposed to sympathize with and take seriously.

Except he also wasn’t. The writers couldn’t commit to getting rid of the frat-boy character they’d created, so they kept him. Barney became a character we were supposed to alternately laugh at as he hatched yet another scheme to trick some girl into sex, then shed a tear for because he couldn’t land the girl of his dreams.

It’s no coincidence that this is when the show went downhill and never really recovered.

For its part, VGHS follows the Stinson arc much more closely than the Potter one. Possibly because there were “too many cooks” (the series had four creators, each of whom were also involved in writing and directing), but the series really lost a clear sense of direction, of even what it was trying to be after this first season. It became a show where its two leads can have a very well done, believable, even poignant breakup in one episode (a scene that definitely benefited from the fact that the actors are actually married), and the next episode squabble like a couple ripped straight from a sitcom while a laugh track plays in the background.

And when the sitcom gets dull, a main character dies and we spend the rest of the episode contemplating death and grief and the relationship between parents and children.

Provided we can get Ted Danson's skeleton, this thing will run for years!

Provided we can get Ted Danson’s skeleton, this thing will run for years!

Taken by themselves, any of these parts are fine. Great, even. But pieces of a show don’t exist in a vacuum. There has to be a logic to it, some amount of internal consistency.

And this problem ultimately culminates in the series finale. See, I can believe in a world where a ragtag group of high schoolers come together and somehow beat a team of professionals at their own game (literally, in this case). And I can believe in a world where beating someone at a video game not only prevents them from demolishing your school, but somehow undoes the business deal that gave them ownership of it in the first place.

I could accept all that.

But I cannot reconcile that with a world where the two characters who clearly love each other, characters who the story has been telling us were meant to be together from the second episode don’t end up together.

If you want to tell a story, you can’t tell it in a world where some conflicts have resolutions that are easy to the point of stupidity, and other conflicts have no resolution at all.

If you want to tell a story, you have to have a clear idea of the story you want to tell.

And that’s where VGHS fell so frustratingly short. For all the great successes and lesser flaws in the series, that’s where it was ultimately, fundamentally flawed.

The Bi-Mon Sci-Fi Con

Sometimes I look at this blog, and I think ‘Man, what happened here? Post after post of topics that I thought might be interesting or concerned recent events. I need to get back to my roots: talking about movies that are so old people have stopped caring.’

So I saw Snowpiercer this week. It was definitely a film that grabbed my attention. One that almost demands a response, and I was definitely planning to give it one.

Then I saw Guardians of the Galaxy the following night. And while that was a much more “by the numbers” approach to filmmaking, it also seemed like a much easier topic to write something about. And if there’s one thing the internet has taught me, it’s “Always go for the long-hanging fruit.”

But then I realized that this is (probably) the first time in my life that I’ve seen two sci-fi films starring someone named Chris in the same week. So rather than writing a boring post just talking about one of them, why don’t I write an exciting post comparing them and telling people which is better? That could be fun, right?

Well, I think it sounds fun. So here we go with our first point!

Plot

The interesting thing about these films’ plots is that Snowpiercer started really strong but faded to a very unsatisfying end, whereas Guardians started poorly but turned into a thoroughly enjoyable ride. By watching them back-to-back, I basically saw the weakest two acts of these films sandwiched in between four fantastic acts. But which three made the stronger overall film?

Snowpiercer definitely feels like the more ambitious of the two. Guardians, not surprisingly, is much more content to tell its silly story and exist primarily for fun. Not that it doesn’t have any important themes or things to say about (and I’m quoting the main character here) “[Giving] a shit,” but it never gets any more serious than, say, The Lego Movie.

On the other hand, Snowpiecer can get very serious at times, and it has a lot of serious things to say about class warfare. For example, it wants to make sure that you know that… it’s bad. Not only that, but global warming, another relevant topic addressed in the film, is… problematic.

I have important things to say here... probably.

I have important things to say here… probably.

I guess that’s one of my problems with Snowpiercer. I know that there’s a point the director wanted to make, and given the overwhelming praise from critics, some people clearly thought he made it well. To me, though, any themes or commentary the film had to offer seemed stunningly simple, and it looks like I’m not the only one. There’s every possibility this is caused by a cultural difference, Snowpiercer being a Korean film, but I didn’t find anything thought-provoking in this film that I couldn’t have found in The Hunger Games. Which is not to say it’s by any means bad, it’s just… been done.

This is a tough choice, but I’ll give a close nod to Guardians here, because it at least was aware of its lack of depth.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Better Chris

This, too, feels like a tough call, but only because I’ve been sort of a fan of both of these actors for a while. From an objective standpoint, Evans is head and shoulders better.

For starters, Pratt just is not believable as an action start. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen him get beaten up by this twerp. More likely it’s his role as the hilariously dim Andy on Parks and Recreation. He certainly has the look for it, but any time he was asked to do anything in a combat scene (which, to the filmmakers’ credit, was not often) I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to, but… I mean, look at that face!

Chris Pratt

Exhibit A

More importantly, though, Pratt just lacks the acting chops. He’s never had to get in front of the camera and carry a movie before, and don’t get me wrong, for the most part he does a fantastic job. Unfortunately, he stumbles at the worst possible time: when giving the customary hero monologue. This comes as his character, Peter Quill, is trying to rally his friends to stand up to the evil Ronan the Accuser. Pratt’s delivery here was so bad, I assumed they were trying to make a joke, satirizing the “inspirational heroic speech that convinces otherwise rational men to willingly agree to a suicide mission.” Turns out Pratt just can’t deliver serious dialogue for more than a minute, I guess.

This is in stark contrast to Evans, who, in addition to filling the part of an action star nicely, gives an absolutely brilliant performance as Curtis, especially in delivering his hero monologue at the end. It’s moving, it reveals his character, and it answers questions that were raised early in the film. There’s not a whole lot more to say except that his performance alone was worth the $7 I paid to stream that flick.

snowpiercer-poster

Best Supporting Cast

Comparing these films’ casts is not quite fair. Both have villains that are played by excellent actors (Ed Harris in Snowpiercer, Lee Pace in Guardians) who give strong, memorable performances despite a limited presence in the script. Apart from that, however, they’re vastly different. Besides Evan’s Curtis, Snowpiercer has only a handful of significant characters, many of whom die or are left behind by the plot partway through, and it consequently focuses mostly on Curtis for much of the run time.

Conversely, Guardians has four other main characters, with Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista appearing in the flesh and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel lending their impressive voice talents. With the exception of Baustista, each gives an excellent performance, and even Bautista was a pleasant surprise. Having been a wrestling fan for a few years (shut up), I can tell you that watching Bautista try to act is painful (and that’s compared to other wrestlers). It’d be a stretch to call him “good” here, but he’s in the perfect role and isn’t asked to say much, and he does manage a few hilarious one-liners.

Drax will hold tiny knives all day long! Just don’t ask Drax to give a believable performance!

Unlike Snowpiercer, then, the five main characters of Guardians split the screen time fairly evenly, each getting their own moments of development, and the film is better for it. So comparing these two different approaches to forming a cast, let alone declaring a winner, is difficult. Ultimately, though, I have to go with with Guardians on this one because Vin Diesel is just so darn wonderful as a voice actor. In fact, if every single movie from now on involved Diesel voicing one animated character with almost no dialogue I would be extremely happy.

Guardians of the Galaxy

So, by a score of 2-1, your winner is… Okay, no, I’m not declaring a winner, at least not using that method. Doing that is the worst thing in the world, as if you can break down the quality of a film into a series of points, each of which have equal weight. We might as well start measuring poems. The great thing about film, or art in general, is how subjective it is, especially in determining what makes a particular work “good” or better than another.

Oh, hey man, what's up? Yeah, I just killed 100 guys with my voice controlled arrow. Yes it was exactly as disappointing as it sounds.

Oh, hey man, what’s up? Yeah, I just killed 100 guys with my voice controlled arrow. Yes it was exactly as disappointing as it sounds.

These were both very good films. In fact, lump these together with the Cruise/Liman film Edge of Tomorrow, and it’s been a surprisingly strong summer for science fiction. On the whole, Guardians of the Galaxy was probably the more satisfying film, although Snowpiercer is the one I want to rewatch more (and gets points for not having the dumbest weapon I’ve ever seen in a science fiction).

It’s not hard to see why they’re the third- and second-highest reviewed movies this summer, respectively, and there’s absolutely no reason to choose between them. Watch both for two great tastes that taste great together.

Guess I should have saved the Neutral President picture for the end…