Ex Machina

Every now and then I’ll post about a film or a book or something else that catches my attention enough I want to write about it. I did it with Fury, sort of, back when I wrote about my love of ensemble pieces, and now I’m doing the same for Ex Machina, the Alex Garland-directed science fiction film starring Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac, who is fast becoming one of my favorite actors.

At first glance, it looks like a tightly constructed, lightly cast sci-fi flick that grows into a horror film fraught with suspense. In fact, on the surface, that’s likely exactly what it is. The concept, however, approaches some much more complex ideas, things that are more appropriate now with the growth of artificial intelligence and the movement of non-traditional sexualities.

To take a step back, look at the movie Her with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson’s voice+ about an introvert with a broken heart and inability to handle a traditional romance. He starts a – at first – platonic relationship with a companion A.I. named Samantha. Over the course of the film, Samantha grows as she absorbs knowledge into an intellectual. The information she gleans through her conversations with Theodore (Phoenix) allow her to talk with him like a friend.

Because it begins as a conversation between a man and a program, he confesses things to her that he is unable to get out with other people. He tells her his fears, his aspirations, his irritations, and she responds to them as a friend does. As a person. As Samantha grows, so does her personality. She develops a mentality with opinions and emotions of her own, and though (for the most part) physicality is completely out of the occasion, a romantic relationship develops between them.

It strikes a very curious question in terms of what defines a human. Is it the physical body, or is it a more emotional connection, one that comes from comprehension, critical thinking, and empathy, and if it is this latter thing and artificial empathy is developed, does that mean that an A.I.’s consciousness is on par with one that develops biologically?

There has been a lot of discussion lately among esteemed scientists about the potential dangers and life-changing implications that come from the growth and development of artificial intelligence. It’s something that has been explored in movies like The Terminator (eradication of the human race), A.I., Short Circuit, and more recently Transcendence, and Chappie.

Still, Ex Machina stands out in the same kind of way that Her did. The primary focus seems to be on a small cast of characters (Isaac’s Nathan, Gleeson’s Caleb, and Vikander’s Ava) much like the bulk of Her was Theodore and Samantha.

This allows for a tighter focus, a more personal story, one that explores relationships, the strength and equal fragility of them. It (hopefully) doesn’t lose itself in a sprawling plot of explosive set pieces. It explores what can be considered human sentience.

This interview with the director is an excellent read, and it’s encouraging in that he seems to have an understanding of what science fiction, good science fiction should be doing: asking difficult questions. Hard questions. Questions about things we don’t understand, and that includes what makes us, us. It’s a familiar question (if we lose a leg, or an eye, or our heart and get a cybernetic replacement, at what point do we stop being human? If it’s our personality, or mind that makes us human, and something similar can be replicated perfectly, does that not make them human also?).

Garland is going a step further in bringing sexuality into it. And man, I’m fascinated by sex. As I’ve stated before, I tend to have a pretty liberal view on sex and sexuality, so any time something is explored in pop culture in a way that is new and intriguing, it immediately piques my interest. My knee-jerk reaction is to say that I’d never have sex with a robot. But then you take a look at films like Blade Runner with its replicants, the Terminator series, or even the Pretenders from the Transformers series, and it’s hard to say. If they look, sound, act, think, and feel (physically and emotionally) like a human, would you even know if no one told you? Or would a real relationship develop, in the same way that meet communication brought Theodore and Samantha together?

Ex Machina may not explore those themes as deeply as I’d like or would benefit it. It may wind up being a sexual body-horror film in the same way the Species series was, and I can’t say that won’t be entertaining in its own right. But the interview with Alex Garland seems to imply that it’s something he’s at least thought a lot about, and I hope it carries through.

Ex Machina is rated R and hits theaters in the United States this Friday (April 10th, 2015).

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How to Make a Convincing Fantasy Film

I came out of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies a little bit ago and wrote a post nerd-gushing over that and Lord of the Rings because I love them, I love the lore, I love the books, and I’ll watch the extended editions of the DVDs repeatedly, and if you don’t like them, I’m sad for you. You poor thing.

The process of watching that film and then writing about all six films made me consider once again something that has bothered me for quite some time: the lack of quality fantasy films on the big screen. I’m not talking fantasy films like Pan’s Labyrinth or Pirates of the Caribbean, which are well done and quite enjoyable. I’m not talking about adaptations of existing books/comics, although there are several and most aren’t very good. I’m talking about epic fantasy, magic spells, dragons, liches, and a party of diverse professions and races to stop them.

Lord of the Rings was a resounding success, but the Dragonlance series made TSR publishing a powerhouse in the 80s and 90s and the Chronicles trilogy (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night, Dragons of Spring Dawning) would make for excellent screen material. The closest we got was a direct-to-DVD cartoon with less than savory art.

There are elements of predictability and the characters are a little stiff, but the action is taut with suspense and spectacle, and dialogue can be re-written. There are a greater variety of monsters, races we’ve never seen before (like the kender), stunning characters like Lord Soth the death knight, not just one dragon, but dragon riders and dragon battles, incredible displays of sorcery, betrayals, deaths. This is exciting stuff.

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Art by Matt Stawicki

Or you could do an original story, but you have to be careful not to fall into the same trap as the Dungeons and Dragons film, a film that failed because no one understood the property to the degree necessary to make a story that made sense and because no one had faith in it enough to cast stronger writers, stronger leads and a stronger direction.

Now, to change the subject a little bit, the original Star Wars trilogy is often considered a space fantasy. It’s obviously science fiction, what with the space ships, aliens, blasters… and space. You have bacta tanks that heal and a mechanical suit that helps sustain life. Giant mechanical walkers carrying troops, and droids who aren’t allowed into bars. However, the elements of fantasy are still there. You’ve got your basic hero’s journey, with the prodigal son realising he comes from powerful stock and is destined for great things. You have a mysterious force that allows air choking, laser deflecting and lightning bolts to shoot from your hand. There are even sword fights all the way through it. And your traveling party? A wizened old mystic, a princess turned rebel, a farm boy with his father’s sword, two droids, a scoundrel and a Wookie. That’s classic Dungeons and Dragons-style diversity, my friends. Space. Fantasy.

I mean, look at this:

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The tropes work in a science fiction setting, and science fiction is EVERYWHERE. Man, there are so many good science fiction films with broad scopes, huge ideas, incredible concepts and memorable characters. We don’t laugh at aliens (unless they’re meant to be laughed at), we embrace them. We’re scared of them. We want to meet them. We want to kill them. There are so many kinds.

So it bothered me that there weren’t more fantasy films on screen. Why wasn’t it working? Jupiter Ascending is coming out, and it looks gorgeous, but it looks like more than a science fiction film, despite corporations seeding worlds and massive spaceships and rocket boots. But then you have returning/reincarnated royalty, beautiful coronation ceremonies, an elf guy and a dragon man. I mean, come on.

But I think I figured it out. People can rationalize technology and alien life but not monsters and magic, and so they don’t consider that the same basic steps go into building a solid, visual world for the latter that goes into the former. So here they are, some tips to make a decent fantasy film. If any of you are bigwigs in the film industry or know someone who is, feel free to thank me in your academy award speech, or whatever.

Note: I’m probably going to compare to Star Wars a lot. Sue me.

1. Make compelling characters. I’ve said this time and time again, and I stand by it. My boss, at my day job, looks over our metrics several times a month. Of the ten, he insists that the customer service related metric is the most important. Make sure the customers are satisfied and feel taken care of. They’ll feel safe, they will trust you, and the rest of the metrics will come from that.

In much the same way, I believe that at the core of every great story are great characters. These are people you aspire to be, aspire to meet, that you root for, cry for, yell at, rail against. For whatever reason, you are invested in that character. Maybe they have the best lines. Maybe their relationship is tragic. Maybe it’s their personality flaws that you want them to overcome or that make you sad because they’re breaking him/her down.

Characters are important, and their relationships with each other are important. Do they trust each other? Has that trust been injured? Do they love each other? Did they once and no longer? Is there a secret language between two of them?

Think about your relationships with the people in your life, and not just the positive ones, and not just your friends or family. Was there a teacher you hated? Someone who didn’t believe in you? A person who broke your heart, or someone whose heart you’ve broken? A friend you’ve grown distant from, or a family member you consider a best friend?

Just because this is a fantasy film doesn’t mean the characters and their relationships should be anything less than authentic. Read their dialogue out loud. Does it sound like something a real person would say? Does one character have a certain cadence of speaking or prefer to be proper instead of using more casual lingo? Do they have an accent?

The audience is going to spend the story with these characters. If they feel fake, if they’re not interesting, if they’re not likeable or hateable, then you’ve created a disconnect right out of the gate. This will always be my first step.

2. Magic is your technology substitute.

Think about holograms and displays. Think about all the gadgets, from the Predator’s shoulder-mounted cannon to floating mapping devices in Prometheus, from the regular ol’ cool-looking flamethrower in Alien to hover boots and laser weapons and robots. These technological advancements are eye-catching. Things like mech suits and glowing nets arrest the attention and draw you in to all the neat little advancements of the future.

In a fantasy setting, for those who don’t use magic themselves (sorcerers, wizards), there are magic items. A ring that might slow your fall, a wand that fires missiles, a bracelet that increases your musculature when activated, or gives you rock skin. For those who actually cast spells, there are fireballs and lightning bolts, people can be transformed into animals or objects. Beasts can be summoned, demons trapped, enemies bound, weapons melted.

Magic can be as explosive and brilliant as any piece of cutting-edge technology, and it can be as versatile and creative as you want it to be.

In the same way that the sleek look or the gritty integration of your technology can define your science fiction world, the magic you use sets your fantasy world apart just as much, giving it its own life and catching the imagination of the viewers. Sure, you could make a call to someone and talk to their three dimensional hologram, but you could also mix some ingredients in a goblet and have a glowing spectral image appear.

3. There is virtually no difference between science fiction and fantasy when creating creatures or races.

In galaxy-spanning science fiction, humans find themselves mingling with a multitude of alien races, often in any street or business you find. Star Wars has their humans, Mon Calamari, Hutts, Trandoshans, Wookiees, Rodians and many more. In a fantasy film, you have your humans, elves and dwarves, sure, but then there are halflings, or kender, or gnomes, orcs, gnolls, tieflings, dragonborn, or any number of other races.

They might still share the same world (not that they necessarily have to), but they each have different cultures, home regions, customs, beliefs and appearances. You can have multiple races of elves or dwarves or orcs, with different appearances, temperaments and stigmas. You can subvert the classic tropes of well-known races. You can create races no one has ever heard of before. This adds the same kind of exotic flavor that your Star Wars and Star Treks and your Guardians of the Galaxies do.

As far as creatures? You can look at the flying serpent creatures and cat-like predators on a planet like Avatar’s Pandora and marvel at the fauna on a planet so far away. You can long to ride a tauntaun or a bantha, or quail in fear at the monstrous wampas.

But a fantasy world is the same as an alien world. There are going to be monsters you might have seen before and others you might not have heard of. You can have your dragons, but are they scaled or smooth? Four legs, or two? Winged, or not?

Then toss in some bugbears!

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Or a displacer beast!

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Or if you really want to ruin someone’s day, a mind flayer.

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Now, granted these are all Wizards of the Coast creatures, but you can see the sheer amount of imagination and originality that went into it. Sci-fi does it and fantasy has the same capabilities because it also takes place somewhere besides the Earth that we know.

4. Make your locations stand out.
I honestly can’t tell you this better than I can show it, so I’m going to show how scenery and locations can make your fictional world come alive by comparing science fiction locales to Peter Jackson’s successful and thriving Lord of the Rings locations.

Here is a picture of Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, a paradise on a space station:

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And here are pictures of the elven outpost Rivendell:

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Here is a picture of Mos Eisley:

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And Lake-Town.

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Finally, here are Bright Tree Village on the moon of Endor…

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And Minas Tirith, in the kingdom of Gondor.

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The very sight of these places is evocative and stunning. Just because a fantasy setting is low-tech does not mean that the world is any less beautiful, jaw-dropping or transportive. And more than anything, it shows that fantasy and science fiction are two sides of the same coin, especially when the same level of care is given to the former as is much more often given to the latter.

I would love to see epic fantasy films as often as I see incredibly realised science fiction films. The stories are there, you just need to understand what the fundamental differences and similarities are and how to adapt them into the world you’re building. It’s all right there. Peter Jackson did it six goddamn times. Now let’s see more of that kind of love and attention to the story, to the genre.

I mean, Jesus, story-telling by its very nature is magical, isn’t it?

The Best Science Fiction And Fantasy Short Films Of 2014

I had a dream a couple nights ago that I owned a baby hippopotamus and we affectionately played with each other the way a man would a puppy. That alone was really weird, but toss in the fact that it murders more people in Africa than I think any other animal on a yearly basis, and I think my subconscious fancies me some kind of stressful Dr. Doolittle.

Still, how could anyone resist this face:

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D’awww.

Anyway, I haven’t updated my blog lately because I’m in the final stages of wrapping up my novel, As the Earth Trembled Part Two, and it has been taking up a lot of my focus because I’m trying to get it out by March. You can buy the first five parts of the Convergence story here or by looking up the titles for the Nook (the series, in order, goes Waypoint, Death Worth Living For Part One, Death Worth Living For Part Two, and As the Earth Trembles Part One. ArTE, which finishes it all up is due March 1st).

That being said, I have a list of posts I want to write, and I’ll be making some time soon to knock out a handful so I can release them periodically.

I didn’t want to leave you with nothing! So I’m sharing another link from io9 below, which is a compilation of some of the best science-fiction and fantasy films from the last year. They range from funny to sad to scary to inspiring, but they are all well worth your time. Some are only a couple minutes long while others are 15-20 minutes, so set some time aside tonight or over the next few days, but treat yourself to some cool stuff.

Thanks for sticking around! I promise I’ll get back on schedule soon.

http://io9.com/the-best-science-fiction-and-fantasy-short-films-of-201-1674600632

There and Back Again

The Hobbit was one of the first books I read as a kid and probably the first one I re-read. The version I had contained illustrations as well, and my mind filled with the daring of dwarves, the majestic terror of the dragon Smaug, and the relief that came from the last minute save by giant eagles. As a kid, it was difficult for me to make friends, so I devoured books like the Hobbit instead, escaping into fantasy worlds and imagining myself fighting off hordes of goblins. When I lost that initial copy of the Hobbit, I replaced it as soon as I could with the 50th anniversary edition despite how badly the cover wanted me to put it back on the shelf. You know which one I’m talking about. You know.

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Yep. The closest thing that is to a burglar is the Hamburglar, and if by “game of riddles with Gollum” you mean “a horrid demon is about to thumb my rear in a damp cave despite my brandishing of a knife I clearly don’t know how to use”, you’d be right. Still, I broke the spine and wore the pages down and it had it’s own special spot in the center of my bookcase.

When I got a little older, I decided it was far past time to return to Middle Earth. I was skeptical of The Lord of the Rings at first. I wanted clumsy homebody Bilbo back. Who was this Frodo kid? How could he possibly live up to the adventures his uncle had embarked on. But soon I was captivated by the mysterious Strider and the trash-talking between Legolas and Gimli as they each tried to outdo the others in orc murder. I was tense while I read about Frodo’s growing corruption, and I was saddened by Boromir’s sacrifice.

These books meant a lot to me, and though it’s been some years since I’ve had a chance to read them, they mean a lot to me still.

I was thirteen when The Fellowship of the Ring came out and it was everything my young mind could hope for. It was unusual, to me, because I can’t recall there being any genuinely good fantasy films out at that time. I was reading Dragonlance novels and The Sword of Truth, while I found science fiction to be lacking, while in cinema it was the opposite. Alien and Terminator were favorites of mine, but there was a dearth of quality sword and sorcery stories.

Then Fellowship came out of the gates like a cave troll, smashing the competition to pieces. The costumes look worn, the Uruk-hai were terrifying to behold, the action was choreographed brilliantly and the set designs were gorgeous. What better way to illustrate the natural beauty and range of terrain than use the beautiful spots of our own planet? OH MY GOD. A BALROG.

I watched Fellowship multiple times in theaters. I watched The Two Towers and gawked at the Ents and railed at Christopher Lee’s sneering menace as Sarumon revealed his true colors (still white, but…an evil white?). I was transfixed by Andy Serkis’ excellent portrayal of Gollum arguing with himself. I cheered at the flooding of Isengard.

I watched Return of the King multiple times in theaters, and let’s be honest, I didn’t give a shit about Legolas surfing on a titanic elephant because Eowyn declared that she was no man, and I didn’t mind the gazillion endings because I didn’t want the movie to end. I wasn’t ready to leave Middle Earth!

So of course I bought all three extended editions when they came out, and I wish this was a joke, but I watched them my girlfriend at the time over the course of three nights and halfway through Return of the King, I rebuffed her sexual advances because there’s only 90 minutes left, Jesus.

It would be nine years before The Hobbit got the cinematic treatment. If you ask me, it was worth the wait.

Now, let me be clear: The Hobbit films are more CG heavy, which is kind of a bummer, but locations like Rivendell and Erebor and Mirkwood still look absolutely stunning. People complain about the way the dwarves all seem to blend together, with a few notable exceptions (namely Thorin, Kili, Balinese [the old one] and Bombur [the fat one]), but that was the way it went in the books, also, with a handful of character traits being sprinkled amongst them through the course of the book.

Some people also claim that they’re too silly or cartoonish as compared to the Lord of the Rings, which 1. The books are largely considered the same way, and 2. As you get into Desolation of Smaug and Battle of the Five Armies, that’s most definitely not the case. There isn’t anything silly about the deaths of Thorin, Fili and Kili.

Perhaps the biggest complaint, though, is that there films felt unnecessary. Bloated. I thought so, too, at first. But then I thought about the reasons it works.

1. A lot happens in the Hobbit. It’s only a 300 page book, but that’s because it’s designed to be read in brief by younger, more easily distracted minds. Even so, there’s the initial congregation, the troll encounter (which was showcased in the background of the LotR, and added treat for anyone watching the movies chronologically), Rivendell, capture by and escape from the goblins (this Misty Mountain sequence also showcases the stone giants throwing boulders at each other, a nice detail from the book), the Gollum riddle scene, the spiders of Beorn, the spiders of Mirkwood, capture by and escape from the elves of Mirkwood, Bard and Laketown, confronting Smaug, the destruction of Laketown, Thorin’s growing insanity, and of course the climactic final battle of five armies.

Sure, that was all written into 300 pages, but to actually develop them and do them justice takes more time. Oh, so there’s a bowman in Laketown who kills a dragon. Who is he? Why do we care? The time spent in Laketown makes it feel more like a thriving community with real people and real families. In fact, this time and care is shown in the goblin kingdom and Mirkwood, too.

We get movie-stealing sequences with Gollum and Smaug that work because they’re not rushed. They’re paced brilliantly and the performances that go in it are done so with panache. The final battle feels like a war, and it feels desperate. The paired battles feel earned by that point, and while they’re a little over the top, they were fantasy gold and it brought to mind my favorite Dungeons and Dragons sessions.

By taking the time to develop each step of the journey, it made it feel like more than “and then they went here, and then they went there”  but instead like an actual adventure with numerous varied perils.

2. The added stuff develops Middle Earth even more. There are parts of the Silmarillion in the movies. These parts add the extra lore and background into the varying races and conflicts. This is a land with history and blood feuds and fallen kingdoms. And we get just enough of a peek into it as to help us immerse ourselves in this world again. It adds complexity and tragedy to some of our characters.

Tauriel, on the other hand, is a brand-new character. Some purists decry her presence as unnecessary, but without her, the only women in the story would be Galadriel in her brief scenes and random citizenry here and there. Tauriel adds the Eowyn affect, being part of the conflict without disrupting the main story. Her presence excused the appearance of Legolas, but Legolas’ inclusion also added more weight to Thranduil’s involvement and general vindictiveness. We see how far he comes from his absolute racism towards dwarves to his grudging acceptance that banding together can sometimes accomplish a greater good.

Now, these first two things are necessary under a Peter Jackson direction. Jackson’s LotR trilogy and the Hobbit movies have a scope that feels epic when you watch it. The world is big, their journey is long, the battles are energetic. Guillermo del Toro, who was originally slated to do two Hobbit films, likely could have condensed it. He tells more personal stories, more tightly focused, and between that and his excellent creature designs, I believe they would have been excellent films, but they wouldn’t quite have fit in the same realm as Jackson’s trilogy.

And that works, for the books. The Hobbit is one kind of animal, light in tone and a swift romp for a rainy afternoon where Lord of the Rings is heavier material with deeper consequences and greater stakes. That’s fine.

But on film, we’re talking about two grand adventures, and a legacy that passes from uncle to nephew. When Jackson came back, with his scope and the expansion of the adventures, three films make sense, because…

3. They’re a perfect companion saga to Lord of the Rings. You have Bilbo’s full story and Frodo’s full story and they complement each other well. You see how two little Hobbits each adapted to a large world with very different types of conflicts and experiences. Bilbo is given as much time to grow and endure and adapt as Frodo is, and both films have their perfect beginnings, middles and ends. They bookend nicely. The comparisons are heart-felt while the contrasts set the two apart well enough that you don’t feel bored and you don’t feel like you’re running over the same ground.

At the end of the day, maybe The Hobbit films aren’t a great adaptation, but I don’t think that’s fair or even entirely correct. There is extra material there, but it supplements the Hobbit story which is recreated in pretty stellar detail. I do think that the Hobbit films are top to bottom the best fantasy films I’ve ever seen. The action is tight, the world feels real, the monsters are amazing, the quest feels fun. They’re as well-developed as any science fiction film.

Taken as a whole, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films are full of heart and adventure, and they’re either going to inspire people to read the original books and decide for themselves which they like better, or they’re going to be accessible for people who don’t like the older, drier style of writing Tolkien used. I don’t think that people who read the books should be so purist as to pick the movies apart.

I grew up on the books. They introduced me to fantasy, and fiction like it got me through hard times throughout my life. I was just excited to see these things I love so much translated on film, liberties and all. I was so excited to see these things that as the final credits rolled and Billy Boyd sang The Last Goodbye, I teared up in the theater.

And no matter what you say, this is one of the most perfect music videos ever made.

Recap Redux

I’ve written or shared a hundred posts now, and it has been an absolutely rewarding experience so far. From being able to experiment via short stories set in worlds I plan on exploring in more detail later to reflecting on my life/my relationships/my family and friends, what started out as sort of a trial outlet for my thoughts and creative endeavors has turned into a cathartic routine.

Even more so, by sharing it online and via Twitter and Facebook, I’ve received a number of comments and personal messages expressing a wide variety of emotions. That’s good! That has been the point of this. I want you to be able to experience my type of art. I want you to think and to feel things, and if you’re going through an experience or feelings similar to something I’ve gone through,  I want you to be know you’re not alone.

Every fifty posts or so, I’ll create one of these as sort of a recap. With so many posts coming out of me and with no real regular schedule,  there’s a chance you may have missed something that pertains to your interests. This is meant to act as a quick guide to the posts, separated more or less into different categories.

If you read something you feel particularly thought-provoking or touching or infuriating or garbage, I encourage you to share it with others.

First off, you can find a quick recap to the first 49 articles here: FIVE OH.

Then:

About Me:
My Own Worst Enemy
I’m a Man Who Was Raped
Oktoberfest, Or That Time I Crippled Myself
Vagabond
Distilling Who I Used to Be
The Metal That Gave Me Mettle
Hundo
I Fell In Love
Playing the Doldrums
Kisses Have Pictures Beat
Office Space
Story Time With Grampa Jered
Just Plane Silly
The A Word

Family and Friend Profiles:
Go Out and Get ‘Em, and a Birthday Note
Mama Mia
Blondie
Father Of Mine

Writing Tips and Opinion Pieces:
Six Reasons Why 50 Shades of Grey Sucks, and Why It Doesn’t
Ten(ish) Books That Tickle My Fancy
Getting the Gang Together
Things I Love: The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Thanksgiving: A Better Christmas
No Place Like Home

Miscellaneous:
The Best Medicine
The Beautiful Last Breath of Day
Remembrance
The Wedding Bells Are Ringing
The Carolina Reaper

Fiction:
A Nice, Slow Day
Satori and the Key
The Wrong Kind of Flop
The Velvet Anchor
Love and Bullets
The Balloon Trick: An Absolute Zeroes Story
The Owl Part I: A Curious Shoppe
Trixie: A Flatliners Story
Yellow
The Lost Journey of the Stalwart

Poetry:
Shadow Hurt
Stoke the Fire
She, Of the Pale Stars
You Know
I Could Write
The House In the Ocean

Guest Entries and Shared Posts:
Life Is a Coping Mechanism by Jessica Michelle Singleton (follow @JMSComedy)
10 Tips and Tricks For Creating Memorable Characters by Charlie Jane Anders (follow @charliejane)
As Good As New by Charlie Jane Anders
How to Create a Killer Opening For Your Science Fiction Short Story by Charlie Jane Anders
Cars. Booze. Central Oregon. by Robert Brockway (follow @Brockway_LLC)

So there you go. Hopefully you’ll find something you haven’t seen before that you like, or you’ll have a convenient way to link a friend.

Thank you to everyone who has followed, shared, commented, read, or even encouraged since Word Whiskey has started. It means the world to me.

FIVE OH: A Recap

Until recently, it had been a long time, years, since I had been on a legitimate date (as in, they even showed up). Longer still since it had gone well. It’s been a long time since I’ve met a woman who made me fire on all cylinders. I have dated and I have loved, in a way, since the woman who broke me almost irreparably, but I’ve closed a lot of myself off since then.

It’s a different experience to meet a creative person who brings words to me and sparks an inspiration and drive that I lost somewhere amidst a lot of funerals and broken promises. Somewhere along the line, I had stopped believing that trying was good enough because even my best friend of 15 years won’t see or speak to me. It’s a bit different to have someone invested in my writing and my words after most people I cared about left.

So it’s difficult to let that go after a few months of really trying to build it up and make it work. Emotionally, I mean. When everything about a woman, from shared familial experiences, to creative endeavors, to aspirations and personality and lord, I find her gorgeous…It’s difficult to not cling to that, to not ignore all the signs that, bro, she’s just not that into you. No matter your words, or your humor, or your beard.

And it hurts to finally find a muse, one whom I can attribute a few posts for inspiring and more than one poem and realize that that aspect isn’t going to happen. Call it a night, pull the cards.

I don’t regret it. The inspiration isn’t minimalized by the revelation. It hasn’t vanished. I still want to write and be better and keep getting people hooked on nothing more than the way I phrase things. There are posts I never would have written otherwise. I suppose that’s the point: these emotions that will never find a home somewhere else should mold themselves into something that can benefit a reader who needs them. I just don’t need to put myself in a position again where wishing on a star leaves me stung.

This is my 50th post and it’s a big whine. A little self pitying, but here’s the best place of any to vent it, my word whiskey. I’ve had 49 other posts of various genres and topics,  so whether you’re new to my blog or you missed some posts or you want to share with your friends, I’ve organized the bastards by type. Here you go:

The Post That Started It All:

The Begending Of The Inn

About Writing:

Jered’s 3 1/2 Magic Rules For Writing
Behind The Curtain: Why I Write
Fucks Given: Sex and Swearing In Writing
Create a Horror Icon In Six Steps
Against “Against YA”
Care Needed: Remakes
Care Needed: Reboots
Care Needed: Sequels

Life and Personal Experiences:

Love Is a Bowl Of Pho
The Swim
The Darker Side of Karaoke
Life Is a Decoy Duck
Life Was Simpler When I Was Dying
My First Porn Star
The Importance of Talking About Suicide
Orphan Tears

About Family:

Bompa: A Grand Father
Tutu: A Grand Mother
Santa Wears a Black Hat
Daddy Issues

Short Fiction:

In a Pinch
Something Sweet Part 1: Goodbye, Horses
Something Sweet Part 2: With a Kiss In the Wind
Something Sweet Part 3: Something In The Water
Something Odd Part 1: Beer Run
Something Odd Part 2: An Unexpected Invitation

Personalized Flash Fiction Birthday Gifts:

Birthday Notes I
Birthday Notes II
Birthday Notes III
Birthday Notes IV

Poetry:

Passion
A Toast
Heat
4AM
The Anatomy Of a Kiss
What A Muse Meant

Assorted Other Musings and Updates:

Testing Doesn’t Equal Teaching
What If Godzilla Was One Of Us
Rooftop Music
The Liebster Award and Me and You
The Goddamn Facts
Bloghopper
A Memorium
The Last Few Days
Checking In
Three Tens of Sober

Reblogged Posts From Other Bloggers:

My Opinion and My Advice and Listen To It: Paranormal and Supernatural Stuff
Life From First Person POV

And there you have it. My first 49 blog posts, two of which are from other talented folks. I hope something here can make you feel some kind of way: love, laughter, anger, sadness,  happiness, inspiration. I started this blog to let some of myself out and to share projects and opinions and (hopefully helpful) advice and it has been an absolute blast so far. Thank you for sticking with me! I look forward to th next 50.

Care Needed: Sequels

OH MAN, we’re back for another opinion article about how to make things work in an industry I know nothing about! This is the third part of my Care Needed series. You can (and should) check out my pieces on Remakes and Reboots before diving into this, but it’s up to you (it’s not; go do it).

This one likely won’t be as long as the other pieces. When it comes to crafting a good story, the same three and a half magic rules apply that I use for my novels: make the audience care about the characters; keep the audiencd guessing, if only a little bit; if the outcome becomes obvious, make the journey worth it by amping up dread/suspense/anticipation; put in “Holy shit” moments.

Now there are a couple ways to go about doing a sequel. You can do them sequentially and build on the story you started in the previous film or you can go a different direction within the same universe.

Let me explain the latter by using the Predator series as an example. Predator, Predator 2 and Predators all take place in the same continuity but have almost nothing to do with each other. There is a nod here and there to the other films in the trilogy but the stories are self-contained with completely different protagonists (no-nonsense but more or less moral Dutch Schaefer, bad-ass police Lieutenant Mike Harrigan, generally scruple-free mercenary Royce).

This works because the writers realize that the story they have told with those main characters don’t need to go on further. They said what they needed to say with that protagonist but that mythos has more material to plumb, so they switched it up each time to keep the familar themes and iconic elements but maintain a freshness to it all.

Alternately, look at the Alien franchise. The first is my favorite just because it’s so different. A claustrophobic sci-fi horror film with a tight cast of well-developed and diverse characters. Aliens went bigger with it and expanded what we know. We get the Weyland-Yutani group, we get the xenomorph queen, and a few new memorable characters. The trash-talking, crumble-under-pressure Hudson, the collected and tough-as-nails Hicks, the ever-so-badass Vasquez, android Bishop, and the excellently slimy Carter Burke. It does a lot of the things a sequel should do, and while I prefer the survival horror of the first one over the action of the second, many feel Aliens was a better film.

Alien 3 was mediocre, but it again expanded on the universe. You’ve got a direct resolution for the survivors of the second film, Ripley’s tragedy and survivor’s guilt and, by the end of the film, a sacrifice that made for an excellent send-off to a top-notch heroine.

Then Alien: Resurrection fucked it all up. Ellen Ripley had a trio of excellent movies that took her for a complete and total story. It was all you needed to say for her. By ripping her back into the story (cloning, of course), you’re just treading water. There was a desire to go bigger and bolder, but it felt schlocky. It was gross to be gross, and while the film franchise has always had dark sexual undertones (due to late H.R. Giger’s uniquely deviant designs), Resurrection thrust it in your face in the most disgusting ways possible. They broke one of my six steps to creating a horror icon: know when to switch it up, start fresh or quit. Ripley should have died and stayed dead and a new trilogy could have taken off by going in a brand new direction.

See also: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which left Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner’s stories wrapped up and took fan-favorite traveling pirate Jack Sparrow on a solid stand-alone adventure.

This is an easy problem to address as long as you, as should also be the case with reboots and remakes, have respect for what has come before. But having respect for and building on what has come before doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go a lot bigger.

The Lethal Weapon series had high action from the get-go. Each film saw its new set-piece fights and its chases and its shoot-outs. There were always climactic final fights. It always felt grounded, though. It felt brutal. Riggs and Murtaugh got the shit kicked out of them and struggled back for a victory despite the fact that they were “too old for that shit”. Unlike the latter Die Hard films, they didn’t need to get crazier and crazier with their stunts and explosions (and I say this as a die-hard Die Hard fan). Their “holy shit” moments were with sudden twists or the anticipated confrontation between hero and foe. I’ve seen Lethal Weapon dozens of times and I still gape at Riggs’ bare knuckle brawl with Mr. Joshua. I still gasp every time John McClane runs across glass in Die Hard.

But Die Hard sacrificed meaningful character development for top notch action. Does he try to make amends with Lucy in Live Free or Die Hard and Jack in A Good Day to Die Hard? Sure, whatever. The plot is a paper man without any heart in it. The films are driven by the action. The first films had desperation. It had John trying to save his marriage, save his wife and save himself while constantly being out of his element. You felt he could lose in those films and it added a sense of suspense the latter two films forgot.

Lethal Weapon, meanwhile, weaves the lives of its characters through all four films. You see real advancement as ths characters and their families age. Riggs deals with depression and suicidal tendencies to redemption to the loss of a lover to an eventual re-marriage. Murtaugh deals with his age and his family, the fact that his kids are growing older and that eventually his baby girl isn’t a baby anymore. And these partners deal with it together. You see this relationship between them start with a borderline hatred and by the fight with Wah Sing Ku at the end of Lethal Weapon 4, they’re two old lions of the same pride, willing to put their lives ahead of each other and their families.

And I’m just going to throw this out there because it pisses me off,  but the Spider-Man films have fucked this up twice in five movies.

Spider-Man 2 is thought of by most as the best film (and a huge chunk of it is because Alfred Molina is a scene-chewing, talented son of a gun) and one of the better comic book movies overall. It took what came before (Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane, graduating high school, Harry Osborne’s misguided hate for Spider-Man because he thinks Spidey killed his dad) and builds on it. It advances these plot threads naturally. It keeps one major villain as a focus and has it spin out of a science experiment to keep in line with Peter Parker’s absolute nerdiness. It had bigger fight scenes but it didn’t feel so much bigger so much as the next chapter in a story. It fleshed out more of this mythology with a clean and clear narrative.

Spider-Man 3 shoe-horned a revision to Uncle Ben’s murder so Sandman could be in it, you had Harry become the shittiest second version of the Green Goblin ever and then Venom was in there because….

BECAUSE?! You want an unexplained symbiote suit in there? Fine. You want it to bring the dark side of Peter out to fuck everything up? Great. You even want to introduce Gwen Stacy and Eddie Brock? Sure.

But have Eddie and Gwen be side characters. Have Pete lose the symbiote in the last third of the movie and have it disappear and find Eddie in an after-credits sequence. Take the good things, plant seeds and let them grow in a sequel. By forcing it all into one film, it turned out to be a rushed clusterfuck that I didn’t even like when I saw it in theaters and I would slap someone’s grandmother if she said she thought Spider-Man sucked.

So the franchise got rebooted, Amazing Spider-Man cast a perfect Gwen Stacy, got the science aspect of Peter Parker down pat, expanded on his parents, introduced some new villains. Good stuff.

Then the second film just felt so…disjointed. Electro was done pretty well. Introducing Harry was a smart move. But everything felt so rushed again! His transition from okay to psychotic, from healthy to dying, from normal to slavering Green Goblin came so fast! And here’s the thing: two more Spider-Man films and a Sinister Six spin-off have already been announced. There’s no fucking reason to rush it. These people are getting so excited about what’s ahead of them that they aren’t paying attention to where they’re at. They want BIGGER and BOLDER and EXCITINGER MORE MONEYER and not deeper and smarter and more natural, and the story suffers because of it.

So, and let me apologize really quick because this turned out longer than I thought it would, what steps do you need to take to do a sequel right? Here are my suggestions.

1. First off, decide if you really need one. Honestly. The Usual Suspects didn’t need another Keyser Soze adventure.

2. You do need a sequel? There is more story to tell. Does that story include any of the characters from the first film?

2a. If no, figure out what elements of the story should carry on. Avatar 2 will likely deal with characters from the first film, but you could have an entirely separate indigenous people in a different climate on Pandora and explore that. Taking the Predator out of the jungle and putting him in a city. The Purge sequel is dealing with the same concept of a night out of the year where all crime is legal but instead of one family in a house, they’re taking it to the streets.

2b. If yes, figure out which character has more story to tell. Consider how their arc went in the first film/book. Consider what they went through, what parts of their back story and habits and likes/dislikes were revealed. Consider where the ending left them. Consider their relationships with others. Once you do that, no matter where you take them or what situation you put them in, you have a solid foundation to help them evolve further. To expand their personality and their relationships.

3. Do different things while keeping the best ideas of the original. That sounds stupid or repetitive, but it isn’t really. Aliens worked by following Ripley’s story after leaving the Nostromo and keeping the memorable xenomorphs as an antagonist. The feeling was different, though. Alien had exploration and curiosity and horror and panicked, unprepared survival. Aliens had a group of mercenaries loaded up, ready to kill some “bugs”, and even though they got wiped the fuck out, they had training. Ripley gave them knowledge. But Aliens worked because it gave us a xenomorph we hadn’t seen before. It gave us combat situations. It gave us greedy corporate types (although Ash could be considered Alien’s more violent Carter Burke).

Finding new scenarios and settings to explore keeps things fresh without ignoring or retreading what came before.

4. Bigger is not always better. A tighter focus with real stakes and well-developed characters creates a gripping narrative. Your audience is watching a sequel. They are invested in the progression of either these characters or this world and they want you to guide them to more. If you can hook them with more than spectacle, they will feel something, and if they feel the story, they’ll remember it as more than just “Holy shit” moments.

5. For the love of God, do not cram every idea you have into one sequel. If you’re going a direction without characters from the first part, you have freedom to tell a self-contained story without a bunch of ancillary shit.

If you are continuing on with characters from the original, don’t ignore what came before. You have plot threads, always, that you can expand on or spin off from into something new. Hell, in Die Hard With a Vengeance, Simon Gruber used the man who killed his brother two movies previously, just because knowing who McClane was allowed him to use him as an effective pawn.

You can use existing relationships and story threads and charactet quirks to lead into brand new conflicts. You don’t need to pile that on and then this new thing and this character and then a dozen other things just because it’s all flashy and brand new. It stops being a story and starts being a bargain bin of somewhat related concepts.

To summarize: respect what came first. Have an idea for a natural progression of plot from movie/book one to movie/book two. Respect the characters, themes and details and recognize when that story has run its course. Keep the pacing in mind; if things are rushing from point A to point B, you either have too many things involved or you need to develop certain things more. Don’t do things just because they look or sound cool, do them because they make sense with the rest of the story.

Sequels allow the audience more time with characters and concepts they love, but they didn’t buy the car expecting their not to be an engine in it and they won’t be happy when they turn the ignition and nothing happens.