Annihilation, a book by Jeff VanderMeer and now, also, a movie written and directed by Alex Garland, defies explanation. The neatest way to categorize it that I have found is as cosmic horror, a genre that blends science fiction and horror in an attempt to poke at our innate fear of the unknown. But as I found when I read the book last year, Annihilation is not meant as a conventional story. Its characters are broadly drawn and given few, if any, identifying characteristics; the back-and-forth of its plot is inscrutable and hard to parse; few of the mysteries that arise in the story are ever really solved, and by the end the reader is left with more questions than they had at the beginning. It is an inexplicable book, but in the best way; the author clearly knew what he wanted to portray and how to go about it. The movie, which retains some elements of the book and leaves others behind with extreme prejudice, is not quite so well-focused.

Annihilation (2018)
Image Source: IMDb

I try not to judge movie adaptations purely on whether or not they adhere to the book. As much as I may love a book and think it’s perfect as-is, the truth is that film is a different medium, and things that worked very well in a book may not translate well to the screen–and since everyone has a slightly different interpretation of words on a page, a director’s idea of a faithful adaptation can be very different from mine, and still just as good.

To be clear, Alex Garland’s Annihilation is not a faithful adaptation, and clearly wasn’t aiming to be. It takes the basic premise of the book and then heads off in a different direction with it, eventually coming to a wildly different conclusion. This is not, in and of itself, a problem, especially since the film captures the feeling of the book almost perfectly. Annihilation is an absolutely gorgeous movie, very thoughtfully shot and edited, filled to the brim with vibrant colors and lush set design that mirror the luxurious descriptions of nature in the book. And just as the book feels, at times, off-putting and weird, the sound design and score of Annihilation don’t feel right, and add a creeping sense of wrongness, even dread, as the action rises.

The problem with the movie, at least in my mind (this is a highly subjective story) is that it isn’t quite inscrutable enough. After a stunning and bewildering first two acts, the story actually resolves itself quite well, and though the film is somewhat open-ended, it has a fairly solid conclusion when all is said and done. Normally this would be a good thing, but for an adaptation of Annihilation it is not. The ending of Annihilation, the book, is hard to follow and makes little sense–but, after the previous two-thirds of the book have built to a crescendo of weird and disturbing anomalies, for the ending to be just as strange and inexplicable does make a strange sort of sense.

Annihilation by jeff vandermeer.jpg
Image source: Wikipedia

That isn’t to say it’s pleasant, necessarily. When I first finished the book the ending infuriated me, because after all the time and breathless anticipation I’d put into reading it, I wanted answers. But the longer I thought about it, the clearer it became that the book isn’t about answers. The book is about a strange phenomenon, so inexplicable and alien that humans cannot comprehend it without becoming part of it, becoming something else. To tell the audience why and how this is happening, whether it will end and whether the human characters could ever stop it, would defeat the purpose.

The movie almost grasps this. The first three-fourths of the film are, though different in plot and progression, very similar to the book in tone and content. But the climax of the movie, the resolution of it all, is disappointingly final. The main character appears to have destroyed the mysterious Area X, or at least stopped its slow advance into human territory. She leaves Area X and returns to the people who sent her on this journey. She reunites with a person who may not be what he seems, but is certainly a comforting presence. The movie does have an open ending, implying that more may be going just beneath the surface, but its conclusion still has an unfortunate lack of ambiguity.

A film adaptation is not obligated to lift anything in particular from the book; indeed,
some of the best films-from-books in existence are good precisely because they
picked and chose what they wanted from the source material (see: The Shining,
Jurassic Park, Jaws). But good books are good for a reason, and Annihilation in
particular is good because its intent and execution are clear and focused. The
movie doesn’t quite make it there. I don’t begrudge Alex Garland for taking the film
in its own direction; the film is, again, very beautiful and for the most part well
thought out. But I do think that in the case of the ending, of wrapping up a very
weird and disorienting tale, Garland should have taken a bit more of a cue from the

Addendum: My biggest problem with the movie, besides what I’ve already laid
out, is the casting. I have nothing against Natalie Portman and I think she performed admirably in this film, but she should not have been the first choice for this role; the Biologist in the books is described as being of East Asian descent, and the movies should have reflected this. Additionally, the Psychologist, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the movie, is Native American in the books and should also have been casted appropriately. Annihilation, with its nearly all-female cast, has been hailed as something of a victory for women in film; but with two of the biggest roles in the film having been whitewashed, this is at best a very uneven victory.

For more discussion of the casting of Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, read this article.


Throwback Thursday: Into the Storm

Throwback Thursday is for talking about older movies–from Golden Age classics to early-2000’s films that just haven’t been reviewed in a while. Discussions about movies tend to decrease the older a film gets, but that’s no reason not to examine older pieces of media–so we’re here to do just that.

Into the Storm (2014)

Into the Storm came out in 2014, and it’s pretty much your bog-standard disaster movie. It centers on an upper-middle-class family and a group of storm chasers, who become unlikely allies when the mother of all tornadoes touches down in a small midwestern town.

I remember when this movie came out; I saw one or two trailers for it and couldn’t figure out if it was meant to be a documentary or not. It’s a completely fictional story, but part of Into the Storm‘s gimmick is that it incorporates a lot of found footage into its story. The storm chaser characters are attempting a documentary, and the two teenaged protagonists are aspiring videographers, and the footage that each character captures is woven into the narrative. The film isn’t one hundred percent found footage, which works in its favor, but it does use that stylistically amateurish touch to punctuate certain moments.

The found-footage gimmick is one element that keeps the film from being just another disaster movie. The other element is the visual effects. Into the Storm is basically just a modernized version of Twister, and its budget isn’t anything special: it cost fifty million dollars, roughly the equivalent of the budget spent on The Sixth Sense. But where The Sixth Sense is a relatively quiet mystery/thriller with slight horror elements, Into the Storm is a disaster movie about tornadoes. On a fifty million dollar budget, that’s hard to pull off, or at least hard to pull off well. But Into the Storm did it, and did it well. By being careful and intentional and planning out every one of their visual effects shots, the creators of Into the Storm were able to stretch their budget further than many filmmakers do. There are a lot of tornadoes of various sizes in Into the Storm, and all of them look absolutely stunning.

That’s good, because tornadoes wreaking havoc is basically the only big draw this movie has. The characters can barely be called two dimensional and the plot is nothing to write home about. Into the Storm isn’t the worst movie around; it’s mostly just aggressively mediocre. It’s not something I would choose to watch over other, better, movies–but if it’s your only option, say on late-night TV or a long trip by airplane, it wouldn’t be the worst idea. It’s got amazing special effects, competent cinematography, and Richard Armitage. And really, what more can you ask for from a disaster movie?

Missing the Hype Train: My Thoughts on Season One of Stranger Things

This post was originally published at the Turnagain Currents site on November 29, 2017.

I would like to start by saying that I almost never get to ride the hype train when it comes to new pop-culture phenomena. If ninety percent of the folks on any given Twitter feed are freaking out about something, it’s a safe bet that I know almost nothing about it, and won’t read, watch, or play that new thing for at least another five months. Due to the quirks of my upbringing and my own lazy, unmotivated free time habits, I think the only thing I’ve ever experienced while it was hot was Pokemon Go. And even that was only because my sister picked it up; I myself never downloaded the game.

I am probably a deeply uncool person.

Anyway, I started watching Stranger Things on November 6, 2017. Everyone on my Twitter timeline had been losing their minds over the show for a solid week, ever since the second season dropped on Halloween. Most if not all of my friends had already seen the first season and weighed in; when the second season arrived and everyone I knew decided it was the BEST THING EVER, I figured it was finally time.

I really like the show. I can see why everyone’s been raving about it for so long, and I can see the elements that brought everyone together to make it so massively popular. There’s a lot of 80’s nostalgia in the setting (as everyone thirty and older has pointed out ad nauseam). The main characters range in age from around twelve to nearing forty, so there’s someone for almost everyone in the audience to relate to. The storytelling is tight, and the creators use expert cinematography and editing to make things like flickering lights or a blank wall suspenseful.

Stranger Things is a good show. But it’s become more than that. Since its release, Stranger Things has become a cultural phenomenon. And having experienced the phenomenon before experiencing the show itself, my viewing experience certainly had a weird (though not necessarily bad) tinge to it.

You see, I wasn’t all that interested in Stranger Thingswhen the first season dropped, and I was sort-of-but-not-really trying to avoid spoilers when the second season arrived. As a result I absorbed a weird mush of spoilers and commentary, most of which didn’t make very much sense and was also wildly out of order. For example: there are two scenes I remember gaining a lot of popularity and being passed around on various social media in the form of screencaps or stills. One has Eleven walking into a store and then walking out with several stolen boxes of Eggo waffles, and the other has The Kids (none of whose names I knew before I started the show) calling their teacher in the middle of the night to ask a science question, for lack of any other reference materials. (The internet hadn’t been invented yet! It was the 80’s! How nostalgic!)

Those scenes take place, respectively, in the sixth and seventh episodes of the eight-episode season. There is a lot of narrative buildup and a lot of establishing character moments that happen before those scenes do, and in context those scenes are a lot different than how I thought they were. They’re entertaining, but in my opinion there are other scenes that are far funnier and more poignant—scenes that I had no idea about going in! The Kids talking about how they’re going to tell Will about his own funeral, while they’re attending said funeral, is both really funny and really sad if you think about it long enough. And Steve showing up at the Byers’ house literal minutes before the Demogorgon does, with no idea what he’s walking into or what’s going on? Priceless. I laughed out loud.

Actually, let’s talk about Steve. Everyone decided he was the best Stranger Things character to grace the Earth after they watched season two. As of writing this I haven’t seen season two, so the jury’s still out on that, but I want to state for the record that I hated Steve Harrington when I started season one. I cannot stress this enough. I heard all this talk about how he was so cool and relatable, the Mom Friend of the group, and then I actually started the show and had to put up with his clichéd vaguely misogynistic teen drama bad boy shtick for a whole five episodes. And no one warned me.

To be fair, the last three episodes of the season see Steve realize some things about himself and start to get better, and he does help fight the monster in a pretty heroic way, but still. No one warned me. As for other characters the Hype Train misled me about, for all everyone talked about her, I really thought Barb would factor into the plot more. Or at least make it past the third episode. And Jonathan! I didn’t even know Jonathan existed, which is a damn shame, because he’s the central character’s older brother, and a main character himself, and sibling relationships in fiction are like catnip to me. I knew I going to relate to this guy from the first scene he was in, and I ended up caring about Jonathan and his mom so much that they were one of the initial reasons that I kept watching the show, instead of starting and then abandoning it like several others. One scene later in the season between Jonathan and Joyce even made me tear up; I felt like it was written for me.

That, I think, is the heart of Stranger Things’s popularity. Between the adults, teenagers, and kids all playing out their own storylines, there’s something that connects with almost everyone. And beyond that, the show has a perfect blend of creepy suspense, light-hearted fun, and wholesome all-American nostalgia that engages the general audience without pushing them at all out of their comfort zones. That’s what generated the staggering amount of hype that propelled the show to such popularity. And for all that I was initially misled about the characters or events of the show, the comforting familiarity mixed with edge-of-your-seat suspense is what kept me watching, too. In a time of anxiety and stress in my life, it was nice to be able to watch a show both imaginative and predictable. Stranger Things has earned another fan—and when season three rolls around, it’ll be my turn to board the hype train.

Throwback Thursday: The Snow Walker

Throwback Thursday is for talking about older movies–from Golden Age classics to early-2000’s films that just haven’t been reviewed in a while. Discussions about movies tend to decrease the older a film gets, but that’s no reason not to examine older pieces of media–so we’re here to do just that.

Snow walker.jpg
Image via Wikipedia

The Snow Walker is a Canadian film released in 2003. It tells the story of a white Canadian pilot and an Inuit woman, whose plane crashes in the Canadian bush and forces the two of them to work together to survive.

This is a beautifully made, remarkably meaningful, and criminally underrated film. Adapted from a short story by Canadian writer Farley Mowat, set in the wilds of northern Canada in 1953, it has easily identifiable themes of respect for nature and respect for Indigenous peoples’ way of life–along with a well-worn but no less compelling arc for its main character.

Speaking of which, the viewpoint character is Charlie, a World War II veteran and standard hotshot pilot archetype who starts the movie as a sort of personification of colonial attitudes toward the Canadian bush and the Inuit people who live there. During a routine flight into the bush, Charlie meets Kanaalaq, an Inuit woman sick with tuberculosis. Kanaalaq’s family pays Charlie to fly her back to the town of Yellowknife, where she can receive medical care. Charlie reluctantly agrees and deviates from his flight path to go straight back to Yellowknife–but then the plane goes down, and Charlie and Kanaalaq are left to fend for themselves in hundreds of miles of empty wilderness.

The movie unfolds from there as a more-or-less standard survival story, with the two protagonists fighting to stay alive and find the closest settlement of people. Setting this film apart from other survival narratives are two elements: a nuanced depiction of the Canadian tundra setting, and a respectful portrayal of its Inuit main character.

The Snow Walker was shot on location in several provinces of Canada, and it shows. Sweeping, epic wide shots of the landscape and the sky communicate the vastness of the setting, and something I noticed as I watched the film was the frequent portrayal of gorgeous sunsets. Animals native to Canada, from mosquitoes to snowy owls, make appearances as well. But the cinematography also reveals a different side of the tundra, the smaller sort of beauty in the shrubby plants and small bodies of water that occur in that biome. Behind it all is an understated score, and in the end The Snow Walker gives us neither a bombastic, monstrous wasteland nor a defanged, park-like habitat that was really filmed in Maine. The Canadian tundra in The Snow Walker simply exists, like any other environment on Earth. It’s undeveloped and largely untouched by humans, yes, but it’s neither harmless nor evil. It just is. As an Alaskan who has hiked and filmed in locations very much like this, this framing of the Canadian bush almost as a secondary character of the film struck a chord with me.

The movie’s other great defining factor is its treatment of Indigenous Canadians. From the very first scene, The Snow Walker makes a clear effort to center Inuit people in its narrative. One of the two central characters is Kanaalaq, an Inuit woman played by an Inuit actress Annabella Piugattuk. Kanaalaq is a clear foil to Charlie; where he is brash and quick-tempered, she is calm and clear-headed, and where he panics about their situation and makes bad decisions like leaving the site of the crash, Kanaalaq begins collecting food and supplies almost immediately after the plane goes down, and ends up saving Charlie’s life.

The representation here is not perfect: Kanaalaq dies of tuberculosis at the end of the film, unfortunately playing into a long tradition of female characters, and indigenous characters, being killed off to further a (white) man’s story. But it’s important that the film treats Kanaalaq with respect throughout the narrative, never sexualizing her or turning her into a stereotype. It’s also reassuring that an Inuit actress with extensive knowledge of traditional hunting and subsistence practices was cast, since it brings an uncommon level of authenticity to the character and story.

All in all, The Snow Walker is a beautiful and compelling movie, with interesting characters and an intriguing setting. As unique of a survival story as it is, it doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention as it deserves. If you can, give it a watch.

Molly’s Game

Image result for molly's game posterThere’s something about “based on a true story” movies, isn’t there? Stories with some basis in reality boast complex characters and narratives that twist and un-twist themselves in a way purely fictional tales rarely replicate. And the true stories that make it all the way to the silver screen–inspiring movies like Catch Me If You Can and The Big Short–are nearly always about larger-than-life people doing unbelievable things. It’s an added draw, to see implausible stunts and the ensuing drama play out onscreen, and to think to yourself, That actually happened.

Molly’s Game is in that category of movie, based on a true story that seems, at first glance, almost too far-fetched to believe. The film, based on a memoir, tells the story of Molly Bloom, who worked her way up to running (in her own words) “the most exclusive, high-stakes underground poker game in the world” while still in her twenties. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, cutting back and forth between Molly’s rise to prominence as a host of poker tournaments and her court case almost a decade later, where she faced federal charges of gambling and money laundering, among others.

In terms of style, Molly’s Game is somewhat similar to The Big Short, especially in its use of character narration (from Molly), ironic cuts between scenes, and simplified explanations of complex topics–in this case, poker strategies. The writing, production design, and editing are all excellent, which is to be expected from an Aaron Sorkin film. The cinematography is equally good, and the film notably had a female director of photography, Charlotte Bruus Christensen. This is important partly because female cinematographers are rare; in 2016, just five percent of Hollywood directors of photography were women. But it also informs the gaze of the movie. Molly’s Game is, at its core, the story of a young woman becoming a very powerful figure in an extremely male-dominated space. The choice of female director of photography means that the framing and camerawork in the movie is centered on Molly and the other women who work with her, and never treats them like objects or eye candy. As a contrast to a lot of other camerawork in the industry, that’s refreshing, but it’s also important to the emotional narrative of the film.

Speaking of emotional underpinnings, the movie not only gives Molly a solid emotional arc (throughout the nonlinear narrative!), but prods at some intriguing moral questions about her work and her reactions to her court case later in life. It’s this rich inner core that lends the story real depth and makes it more than just a flashy tale of money and power won and lost. (But did we expect anything less from Aaron Sorkin?)

Molly’s Game is still an R-rated film about high-stakes poker, with all the moral issues that implies. (The rating is for language, drug content and some violence.) But it’s an exceptionally well-written film all the same, with respectful and thoughtful cinematography to match. If your thing is movies based on true events, with all the tangled ethical questions and complicated characters that they come with, Molly’s Game is one to see for sure.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Image result for jumanji 2017 posterA confession right at the outset: I have not yet seen the original Jumanji film, which probably makes me a Fake Fan and disqualifies me from Having Opinions. Nevertheless, I have some thoughts–mainly that this sequel/soft reboot is far cleverer than you think it is.

At least, it was that way for me. I went into this movie with fairly low expectations, and I came out smiling and having greatly enjoyed it. The comedy aspect of it was, for the most part, genuinely funny, and didn’t rely too much on low-hanging fruit and cheap shots. The cinematography and editing was competent, as was the CGI. The writing, like the comedy, was much better than I expected it to be; though the characters are all fairly well-worn high school stereotypes, their growth throughout the story felt genuine and none of their dialogue came off as particularly tired or eye-rolling.

And the acting.

If there is one thing this film deserves actual praise and applause for, it’s the frankly stellar performances of its adults leads–Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black. As the video game avatars chosen by our four unfortunate heroes, these actors brought established comedic skill to their roles, but they also brought the ability to embody four awkward teenagers stumbling through an adventure and trying not to bicker too much. It’s clear all four actors spent time prepping for their roles and studying how their younger counterparts moved. Dwayne Johnson moves with the self-consciousness of a small, weak nerd; Karen Gillan stands with her shoulders and arms tucked in like a shy, geeky girl; Jack Black carries himself easily, confidently, and moves his head around a lot, not unlike a self-confident high school girl; and Kevin Hart swaggers like a 6’5″ football player. Their speech patterns match up, too, and it all adds up to a set of very convincing performances. Jack Black, in particular, is utterly convincing as popular girl Bethany’s avatar, and though he is a middle-aged man portraying a stereotypically self-obsessed teenage girl, neither his performance nor Bethany’s overall storyline ever comes off as mean-spirited.

The movie isn’t perfect or even particularly outstanding. A few elements of it did annoy me, mainly the portrayal of Karen Gillan’s video game avatar, the token girl of the group who (as pointed out in the trailer) wears a crop top and short shorts throughout a mosquito-ridden jungle adventure. The presentation of this character is critiqued in the movie and Gillan’s performance does a lot to offset the stereotypically sexy appearance of her character, but the costume choice remains throughout most of the movie. Additionally, the sole black character in the main cast, played by Ser’Darius Blain in the “real world” and Kevin Hart in the video game, is the target of the most comedic violence throughout the movie, and though he gets a share of character development and touching moments, he’s generally the most laughed-at member of the cast, and also the only one without a love interest.

Still, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a cut above most of the sequel/reboots that have come out recently, purely by having decently clever humor, some interesting ideas, and a story that flows along without being especially irritating at any point. It’s probably more fun without having seen the classic movie; but even if you have seen the original Jumanji, be sure to keep your expectations low and this movie will not disappoint.

2017 Recommended Books List

Well, it’s almost here: the end of 2017. It’s been a long and particularly busy year for me, full of exciting new experiences and important milestones. I did a decent amount of writing this year, but unfortunately didn’t get around to reading as many new books as I maybe would have liked. This year’s list might be shorter, but it’s still a list of books I read this year and absolutely loved, books that I think more people should read. The list is more varied across genre than it was last year–maybe I’m branching out a bit more–which means there should be something for everyone here. If you’re looking for something to pick up in the coming new year, consider giving one of these a try.


1. The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov
High above the planet Florinia, the Squires of Sark live in unimaginable wealth and comfort. Down in the eternal spring of the planet, however, the native Florinians labor ceaselessly to produce the precious kyrt that brings prosperity to their Sarkite masters.
Living among the workers of Florinia, Rik is a man without a memory or a past. He has been abducted and brainwashed. Barely able to speak or care for himself when he was found, Rik is widely regarded as a simpleton by the worker community where he lives. As his memories begin to return, however, Rik finds himself driven by a cryptic message he is determined to deliver: Everyone on Florinia is doomed…the Currents of Space are bringing destruction. But if the planet is evacuated, the power of Sark will end–so there are those who would kill the messenger. The fate of the Galaxy hangs in the balance.

Isaac Asimov didn’t just write about robots; he wrote space opera too, and The Currents of Space showcases Asimov’s skill and ingenuity, his ability to write a story both entertaining and meaningful. I already reviewed this one back in August, and I don’t want to simply retread what I said then, so I’ll say this: it’s short, it’s sweet, and it’s Asimov. That’s a winning combination in my book.

2. Soul Survivor by Phillip Yancey
Philip Yancey, one of America’s leading Christian thinkers and author of more than a dozen books with sales of more than five million copies, returns for his most profound and soul-searching books yet. Soul Survivor is the story of his own struggle to reclaim his belief, interwoven with inspiring portraits of notable people from all walks of life who have succeeded in the pursuit of an authentic faith.
Readers will find these inspiring portraits both nurture and challenge for their own understanding of authentic faith. Yancey fans will devour these new glimpses of how he has held onto faith while acknowledging with utter honesty its inherent difficulties. New Yancey readers will be drawn in by the theme of faith versus religion and drawn along a compelling narrative of signposts on a spiritual journey.

Taking a hard left turn away from old-style space opera, Soul Survivor is an intensely personal theological journey. There is a lot that can be said about this book, and I have no doubt that much of it has been said, by better writers and thinkers than me. All I have to add is one of my impressions of it: Phillip Yancey writes about himself, and the effects his mentors have had on him over the years, but at no time does Soul Survivor come off as self-centered or self-serving or in any way driven by some ulterior motive. It is written out of a desire to help others, and it does help. Despite being, as I said, very personal, the themes explored in this book are, if not universal, than very wide spread and applicable to a wide swathe of people. This allows what could have been a lagging memoir to become something much, much deeper.

3. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
In It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein identify two overriding problems that have led Congress—and the United States—to the brink of institutional collapse. The first is the serious mismatch between our political parties, which have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties, and a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act. Second, while both parties participate in tribal warfare, both sides are not equally culpable. The political system faces what the authors call “asymmetric polarization,” with the Republican Party implacably refusing to allow anything that might help the Democrats politically, no matter the cost.

I generally try to avoid the political commentary section of my local library, since it’s all too often filled with incendiary, up-to-the-minute hot takes about a certain party or political figure, books that rarely age well. This is not one of those books. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks is a thoughtful, measured commentary on the increasing polarization of American politics. The two authors are congressional scholars whose analysis is balanced and avoids hyperbole, even when it seems warranted. Though it was published in 2012, Mann and Ornstein’s observations in this book have overwhelmingly held up and still apply to the current state of things. If you read any book of political commentary, make it this one.

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s.

I’m not going to recommend The Great Gatsby for its plot, because honestly the plot itself is of middling quality, and I’m not going to recommend it for being a classic, because enough people do that already. What I will recommend it for is its writing. The genius of The Great Gatsby is the atmosphere, the way the narrator maintains a distinctly lonely and almost detached feeling even while describing the events of a wild party or a tense emotional showdown. This is an element that tends to be lost in adaptations (particularly Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version), and thus I recommend the book. It’s a novel that speaks of loneliness, obsession, loss, and even spiritual emptiness, wrapped up in the glittery coating of 1920s New York. The preponderance of those themes in every page of the narrative is, again, something that gets lost easily, and is in my opinion the best reason to read the book. That kind of writing should be experienced for itself.

5. 1984 by George Orwell
Winston Smith toes the Party line, rewriting history to satisfy the demands of the Ministry of Truth. With each lie he writes, Winston grows to hate the Party that seeks power for its own sake and persecutes those who dare to commit thoughtcrimes. But as he starts to think for himself, Winston can’t escape the fact that Big Brother is always watching…
A startling and haunting vision of the world, 1984 is so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the influence of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions—a legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.

It’s 1984. What more do I have to say? If you haven’t read this book you should, because it’s a classic and it’s always relevant, and it’s good to have a firm grip on the book that people are constantly, constantly referencing in political debates. But while we’re here, let me add this: don’t stop at 1984. Read more of Orwell. Shooting the Elephant in particular is the number one piece of writing from Orwell that’s I’d recommend, but read Animal Farm, too. Read Down and Out in Paris and London. Read Burmese Days, if you have the patience for it. Try to really understand Orwell’s philosophies and politics. He had contributions to literature beyond what was thought of in 1984, and though 1984 is undoubtedly one of his best, it’s not his only work. This is a recommended books list, but really I’d like to recommend the author. Start with 1984, maybe, but don’t stop there.


Five recommended books for 2017. As 2018 bears down on us, I hope this list is helpful to you in finding new books to read, and I hope to find more books for myself next year than I did this year. For now, until my next post: Feliz Navidad, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to all.

Fantastic 4 and the Case for Story Arcs

Image result for fant4stic
Image Source

I recently saw Fantastic Four (2015), or “Fant4stic” as it’s come to be called, to differentiate it from the 2005 film of the same name. It was bad, for a lot of the same reasons that other recent superhero movies have been bad. I don’t doubt that the story had potential, and director Josh Trank’s original cut might have even been good, before 20th Century Fox started meddling with it. But the potential good version of this movie never made it to theaters, and as the director himself said, we’ll probably never see it. What we do have is a cut of the movie that’s shoddily made–and worse, poorly written. Hard as it tried, the movie just isn’t very good, and I’m ready to talk about why.

(Here’s a hint: It’s not Michael B. Jordan’s fault.)

The biggest problem with Fantastic Four (2015) is that it has no story arc and no character arcs. The characters experience changes in circumstance over the course of the movie, but none of them change internally, and no greater point or theme is examined. This makes the story totally unengaging and dull.

(Let me pause here to say that there is no one thing wrong with this movie. I’m going to focus on the writing, since that’s the area I’m most qualified to talk about and the biggest problem I found, but this film is rife with problems. It seems to be attempting a darker, grittier tone, but has nothing of substance backing that up. It has the same terrible color grading that Batman v. Superman had. The visual design is incredibly poor, making things that should be cool and interesting look boring. The editing, although mostly serviceable, doesn’t hit the story beats that it should and can’t hide certain bad shot compositions. When I said this movie was shoddily made, I meant it.)

There are five main characters in Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm, and Victor Von Doom. Victor, of course, becomes the villain of the story once he gains powers, while the other four become the superhero team bent on taking him down. The problem, as I stated before, is that none of these people have any real personality. Reed and Sue get the worst of it: all that can really be said about them is that Reed is a genius and Sue is good at reading people. Neither of them have an arc or even change much at all over the course of the story, despite supposedly being the male and female leads.

This is especially frustrating because Reed Richards is a flawed character. He’s repeatedly portrayed as selfish and too focused on science for science’s sake. It wouldn’t have taken much to show him changing, realizing that being part of a team means being there for your teammates. The movie even has the perfect opportunity to set this up: there’s a scene near the beginning where Sue point-blank tells Reed that he wants fame, and that he’s only out for himself. Reed rejects this; his actions later on indicate that he might be motivated by fame, but then the movie skips to a year later and that plot thread is cut off. That original conversation between Sue and Reed could’ve been the perfect opportunity to set up an actual conflict, where Reed is selfish and fame-seeking and Sue deliberately distances herself from him and everyone else so she doesn’t have to deal with their repetitive nonsense. But it doesn’t; neither character goes anywhere, and by the end we’re still not sure what they’re like as people.

Johnny Storm is the same character he’s always been: hot-headed, impulsive, and careless. He’s smart too, and good at building things, but doesn’t see the value in working in a lab. After the movie’s one-year time skip, Johnny seems the least bothered by his powers and new living situation; he’s just as impulsive as ever, jumping into a career with the military with barely a thought. And then the climax happens, and by the end of the movie Johnny is the same as he ever was. He’s arguably better off than Sue or Reed, since he as least has an identifiable personality; but he’s still a static character. He has no change, or growth, or arc. And the supposed sibling relationship between him and Sue is barely there.

Victor Von Doom is the villain of this movie. If you couldn’t figure that out from his name, you probably could from his constant abrasiveness and the anti-establishment remarks he makes every few minutes. In this version of the origin story Victor gets lost in the negative zone Planet Zero, and emerges a year later with metal skin, telekinetic powers, and a thirst for the destruction of Earth. He’s a cynical anti-government protester given the ability to finally tear it all down. It’s… a halfway-decent motivation for a villain, better than nothing, but there’s nothing to make Victor sympathetic to the viewer, and again, there could have been. Victor’s anger at the world could have been understandable. His anger at the team and especially Reed could have been justifiable–they did sort of abandon him on Planet Zero, after all. His inevitable turn to the dark side could’ve been less inevitable–it could’ve been a direct result of Reed’s selfishness, or Victor’s own determination to be disillusioned.

None of that happened. The villain tries to blow up the world with a beam of energy in the sky, and the heroes stop him. And the whole mess of a climax is poorly lit, to boot.

Last in the list of main characters is Ben Grimm, the Thing. Ben is Reed’s childhood best friend, despite the two of them not really having much in common. When Reed gets the science internship of his dreams, he and Ben part ways, and Ben completely drops out of the story–until Reed drunk-dials him and talks him into coming along on the trip to Planet Zero, because… well, they’ve always been friends.

To put it another way: whoever wrote this story, or whoever edited it, had no idea how to work Ben Grimm into the narrative, and had to rely on the flimsiest of excuses to have him go to the negative zone Planet Zero and gain powers.

(I don’t know why they bothered; Sue Storm didn’t ever visit Planet Zero and she still got powers, and that’s never explained. The segment where the whole crew gets superpowers is just incredibly weak.)

Again, this is frustrating because there are a lot of ways that Ben’s characterization could have gone. He’s depicted in this adaptation as a latchkey kid with a family that’s unsupportive at best and abusive at worst; did he latch onto Reed because Reed was the first person he ever met that made him feel wanted? Ben isn’t a man of science and clearly doesn’t completely understand what he and Reed are doing–but he still spent seven or eight years hanging out with Reed despite “not getting it”. He’d have to have some brains for that, or maybe he picked up some baseline knowledge from Reed along the way. That idea could’ve led to a narrative thread where Ben is underestimated, by himself and others, until something galvanizes him into reaching his full potential.

Failing that, there’s still the fact that Reed is a selfish friend, and Ben could’ve been a foil to him, or the one to give him a wake-up call about how hurtful his actions are. This… seems like the storyline the filmmakers might have been attempting, but the lack of real characterization for Reed or Ben and the lack of consistency in the editing makes it fall flat. The only consistent character trait that Ben displays is anger at Reed for abandoning him, which conveniently dissipates after the battle with Doom. Even Ben’s classic rivalry with Johnny Storm is absent except for a one-liner at the tail end of the film.

At this point, you might be wondering why I’ve written so much about every character in this movie. I’ve spent a lot of time just recapping what each character does, and offering suggestions on how their personalities and progressions through the plot could be improved. This sometimes seems like an exercise in futility, even to me, but I keep doing it, because good stories mean a lot to me. I believe that the heart of a good movie is an engaging story.

As computer-generated special effects get better and cheaper, it seems that more and more movies are relying solely on flashy VFX to sell tickets. This is fine in moderation–who doesn’t want to sit back and watch photo-realistic dinosaurs or apes slug it out every so often? But when a film substitutes VFX for a real story, more often than not it falls flat. I am firmly of the belief that no matter how much CGI is in a movie, no matter how many superpowers or robots or dinosaurs factor into the plot, a film will not work unless the underlying story boils down to a simple, human story, with the protagonist learning and changing and arcing as things happen. Without a strong story at its core, a movie will feel empty no matter how good the special effects look.

A good example of this is one of my favorite movies of all time, Pacific RimPacific Rim‘s plot mostly consists of fifteen-story mech robots and lizard-y Godzilla knockoffs trying to punch each other into the ground, all rendered in breathtaking CGI. But that’s not all there is to the story. With the CGI monster fights removed, Pacific Rim is about a veteran recovering from the traumatic death of his brother during wartime. It’s also about a young woman balancing her relationship with her adoptive father and her desire to avenge her dead family. Pacific Rim has very hopeful, very human stories at its core, and this is what makes it good. It’s a fun movie to watch, but it also has an element that stays with you after the last bomb goes off and the alien monsters all blow up.

Fantastic Four lacks this central story. (A lot of mediocre blockbusters do, really, some of the worst offenders being Jurassic World and Batman v. Superman.) And without a meaningful arc for any of the characters, the movie ultimately doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t teach the audience anything; it doesn’t even really make them feel anything. So the audience doesn’t care.

A movie can survive cheesy acting and low-budget special effects. It can even survive shoddy directing or editing if the acting is good, and stale acting can be disguised by inspired editing. But no film can thrive without a story that connects with the audience and then goes somewhere and shows them something. Fantastic Four (2015) had… well, it had a lot of problems, but its biggest failing was that it had no story. And, as box office earnings and critical reviews showed, the movie suffered for it. Let it be a lesson. Let it teach us that beneath whatever gimmicks we come up with, movies must have stories, and characters must have arcs.

Micro-Tension: What Is It?

I first heard the term “micro-tension” a few years back, when I visited Chicago for a writer’s conference. “Micro-tension” is, in essence, the concept of tension in a story taken to its logical extreme: tension built into every line of a written story, a kind of kinetic energy that propels the reader from one sentence into the next. This is a skill I’m still trying to master in my own writing, something that takes constant attention to detail and awareness of your work.

What micro-tension is not is a writing element commonly associated with screenplays. Scripts written for movie and television production have a different set of guidelines associated with them, the most obvious difference being that the description in a screenplay doesn’t need to have tension or vocabulary or finesse. It just needs to communicate the action that will be happening on-screen. In a script, only the dialogue needs to be written with subtlety, and even dialogue tends to be edited and moved around by directors and actors, depending on what works for the story and characters. So micro-tension is something you see a lot less of when it comes to screenplays, even if the writer is prone to describing the action in a way similar to prose. The exception, again, is dialogue.

Dialogue can be written with plenty of micro-tension; tension, of many kinds, is crucial in dialogue. Line-by-line tension, though not applicable in every case, keeps scenes and stories flowing, and it keeps the audience engaged.

The best example of this that I’ve seen recently is Agents of Shield, season two.

(This is the part of the article where I’m going to apologize for being really, really behind on pretty much every TV show I care about, Agents of Shield included. For those even more behind than I am, spoilers for the end of season one are just ahead.)

One of Agents of Shield‘s main characters, at the beginning of season two, has brain damage from an attempted murder at the end of season one. The character, Fitz, suffers from memory loss and is often unable to remember specific words. Other characters have to jump in and complete his sentences, proposing the words he can’t remember. And since the whole cast is constantly in danger and dealing with problems, the constant back-and-forth of Fitz giving half of an idea and the other characters having to finish it add a whole new layer of tension to already action-packed scenes.

In one scene in the fourth episode of the season, Fitz is trying to direct another character (Hunter) in fixing a virus-laden computer grid to stop the characters’ base from exploding.

Hunter: Uh, this one [wire] here?
Fitz: No, no! Dear God, no. The one beside it, the one beside it.
Hunter: Uh, uh, the left?
Fitz: To the right! To the right.

That’s dialogue from the actual show (in the fourth episode of season two, at about thirty-two minutes in, if anyone’s curious). This is micro-tension in dialogue. The feeling that both characters have to be on the same wavelength, because everyone will literally go down in flames if Hunter doesn’t get exactly what Fitz’s plan is, as he’s saying it.

Micro-tension is a small yet effective technique for hooking the reader–or viewer–and convincing them to invest time and attention in finding out how the story ends. It’s something that’s necessary to dialogue in screenplays just as it’s necessary to prose in books. Agents of Shield season two has a particularly good–and particularly unique–example of how to execute that micro-tension, while building character interactions and a compelling story at the same time. The show has its flaws, but this is something that it did especially well, and something other shows could stand to learn from.

Book Review: The Currents of Space

Image and summary source: Amazon

High above the planet Florinia, the Squires of Sark live in unimaginable wealth and comfort. Down in the eternal spring of the planet, however, the native Florinians labor ceaselessly to produce the precious kyrt that brings prosperity to their Sarkite masters.

Living among the workers of Florinia, Rik is a man without a memory or a past. He has been abducted and brainwashed. Barely able to speak or care for himself when he was found, Rik is widely regarded as a simpleton by the worker com munity where he lives. As his memories begin to return, however, Rik finds himself driven by a cryptic message he is determined to deliver: Everyone on Florinia is doomed…the Currents of Space are bringing destruction. But if the planet is evacuated, the power of Sark will end–so there are those who would kill the messenger. The fate of the Galaxy hangs in the balance.

Isaac Asimov is one of the great writers of scientific literature. He’s best known for writing about robots and artificial intelligence, but some of his novels also fell into what we now consider the space opera genre: sweeping, epic galactic stories, most of them with intricate political storylines. The Currents of Space is one of these. Its plot is based on carefully balanced interplanetary politics, futuristic science, and a cautionary tale about oppressive power structures. All this, and book is only about 239 pages long.

Asimov offers a collection of interesting characters, from low class workers to a functional princess, who keep the plot constantly moving in exciting and sometimes frustrating ways. Woven into the story are themes about systemic oppression, violence, and politics–themes that become much more apropos when you remember that the book was first published in 1952.

The Currents of Space is a short and fast-paced read with well-developed moral underpinnings and an intriguing ending. I would highly recommend it, not only to fans of Asimov’s work, but to all fans of thoughtful science fiction.