Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Breakfast Club (1985) (Review)

The Breakfast Club is a John Hughes film from 1984. It bears all the hallmarks of a low budget, low risk film. The cast is small. There are no special effects. There are no actors on board who break the budget, but they are all well known enough in teen films of the era. The film doesn't even have a set. Instead, he filmed it it a real high school at nights and on weekends.

The copy that I watched on Netflix has not aged well. I remember the colors as brighter and the tone as clearer. Perhaps that was merely my rosy-eyed youth, as I haven't seen the film since '85, or maybe I've just gotten used to digital stock.

The film is more of a drama than a comedy, featuring five high-schoolers who have to spend 8 hours in Saturday detention. They have literally been sentenced to boredom and an essay. We meet all these characters, all these purposeful stereotypes, who we contribute our prejudices to before we even know them, which is entirely the point.

The main motivator of the film is John Bender, and ADHD young man with many problems. For literally the first half of the film, if the pace slacks even the tiniest bit, it's Bender who gets bored and makes things happen. He jumps into the plot truck, fills it with TNT, and aims for the front door. Without him, I dare say, there would be no film. Every other character had every reason to shut up, sit down, and wait out the boredom. But even with motivation, Bender can't stop because he's got this motor running in him. I'm not kidding when I call him ADHD. The character literally can't stay in his seat.

I found Molly Ringwald's performance note perfect. I never doubted her character, or her humanity, for a second. Where Bender was over the top, a person that you couldn't know, Molly played the girl that you did know. She really could have sat next to you, and really been that narcissistic as only teenagers can be.

I found Ally Sheedy's character conflicted. I feel like I saw two characters, one who was the character that John Hughes wrote, and the other, the physical character, who Ally created. As long as Ally remained seated, you believed that character, but the moment that she stood, her posture was too strong even when it wasn't supposed to be strong. She screamed "dancer" to me. Looking at her bio, yeah, ballet. You can't take the posture out of a dancer. To be honest, I liked Ally's take on the character far better than I liked John Hughe's take on the character. Inherently, the problem with silent characters is that they are silent, and that always poses a problem in films where exposing oneself is the point of the film. In the end, her character felt plopped out, just as she dumped her bag onto the sofa.

Anthony Michael Hall returned as the smart kid in all his adorable dorkiness, but perhaps a little too so. Perhaps because geeks start off as human beings, so thinly masked, you never discover quite so much about them, and what you do discover, you expect.

Emilio Estevez put in a performance as a sports guy, a wrestler. I thank John for not making him a football player, but it was winter/early spring and there wouldn't be football anyway.

The script has its issues, often hitting the limitations of the both the medium and the writer. This was a tough concept to pull off, and I'd have to say that John Hughes eeked out a competent script, but maybe not the script that he wanted, and certainly not the script that he could have developed with more time. At some point, you have to film the damned thing and he filmed it.

I'd love to see the cutting room floor. I am absolutely certain that there were more scenes in this film than made the final edit. At 90 minutes, the film was short even by 80's standards, which lends me to believe that pacing drove the need to cut the extra scenes, or perhaps the studio mandate that the film only be 90 minutes. There are definitely places in the film where a few more lines here and there would have made it roll along better.

I most definitely salute the costume designer for the film. The costumes for each character telegraph exactly what you need to know about each character without feeling cliched. For example, the smart guy wasn't at all dressed like a stereotypical nerd, yet you did take him for the dork that he was, through a combination of his haircut and his lack of fashion. These costumes screamed "bring along your preconceptions", but never made you eat those preconceptions. I love the whole metaphor of taking off coats and layers in this film, for as the characters take off layers, we find what's underneath what we see. Bender, in particular, wears layer upon layer, as does Allison. Where Bender is always more of the same, for his layers of self-defense are deep, Allison reveals white in stark contrast to her dark outer layer, for inside she is light, purer than she may otherwise seem.

Each character began in a car, and even the cars told you about their station and their family life. The cars wound up telegraphing far more about the characters than their clothing did. In just a few moments, you knew about each character's family life without one word being spoken on the subject, most magnificently with Bender, who walks to school, no connection at all to his parents.

After getting to know everyone's stereotype in the early film, the later film slowly breaks those stereotypes. It doesn't strip away the reasons for why each character drifted into their stereotype, but it does let them go beyond those types, letting them be more human. Brian smokes weed, the strange girl doesn't smoke weed, and all the kids close ranks against the vice principal even if they don't like one another. Eventually they all wind up on the floor, talking, revealing themselves to each other, and judging their peers as well.

As the 90 minutes wrap up, you feel as ready to go as they do. You are happy to see the light of day. You're happy to be done with Bender. Then you walk out of the theatre, and maybe you watch that film again thirty years later.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dragon Age 2 (Video Game Review)

A few years back, I bought a slew of Bioware games for dirt cheap. By the time that I completed Dragon Age, I was thoroughly sick of Bioware games. Fast forward two years, and I finally felt up to playing Dragon Age 2.

It was a game, I played it, and what there was of it, well, it had a lot of it.

I'm not a fan of Bioware storytelling. I find the whole cinematic story a bridge too far for me. For crying out loud, drop the cut scenes and give me shit to fight, OK? Fortunately, I learned the use of the ESC key to grind through the cut scenes faster.

I finally learned what it was that annoyed me about the cut scenes. I think that they use novel writers to create the dialog, which I think is a pretty bad idea. You do want the novel writers creating the story and the world, but when it comes to dialog, if you want a cinematic story, you need SCREENWRITERS. If Bioware ever gets smart enough to hire halfway decent screenwriters, those cut scenes might become worth watching.

The story itself follows a rags-to-riches structure. Hawke and family, fleeing from war, come as refugees to the city. Here, Hawke, a person of no particular character, advances through the city ranks through butchery of everyone else's foes. After enough butchery, she rises in status, and a new chapter of the story unfolds, with all the same heartless butchery as the previous chapter.

Apathy. That's what best describes the first act. I went though all the adventures with total apathy. With chapter two, apathy was replaced with disgust. By the time that I ended that chapter, I wanted to walk out of that city and let the place burn to the ground. It deserved it. Chapter three was just annoying, and I that I wanted to do was to board a boat with Tits, the Pirate Girl, who is most notable for her huge and well displayed tits, and Jugs, my sister, and leave the town in ruins, a victim of its own turpitude.

Your supporting party would have been better played by a slate of characters without any personality at all, as that would have beaten the annoying and irritating personalities that they were given. In short, they each deserved to be abandoned to their fates. It's only because you got almost free XP from helping them that you actually bothered helping them at all.

A major plot thread centers around the conflict between the mages and the Templars, the military mage herders. To say that each was institutionally stupid understates the pure strains of stupidity driving a wedge between the groups. It seems that mages can use demons to make themselves strong, and the only way to defeat them is by organizing into a group and not fighting them one-on-one. Given that the Templars can kick a wizard's ass, its doesn't seem that wizards should even be a problem, and yet, they are to be feared without limit. So naturally, the Templars stick all the mages together into one place, because that's safer, right? Right?

In my imagination, I walked out of the game at the end of Act 2. In truth, I took the game to the end, fought the final battle, then went to bed without thinking about the ending at all. At this point, the ending is already hazy, which shows you how important the ending was.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1975)

Published in 1975, Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld won a World Fantasy Award, and in my opinion, the book well deserved it. The book also give weight to my theory that 60k long novels have a specialness to them that the longer novels of today have lost.

The book follows a wizard woman, Sybele, who lives with the strange beasts collected by her father and grandfather. Fate gives her a goose when a man brings her a baby, the child of some relative that she did not know. That baby was the son of a king. So when the boy was grown, his fate pulled at her own.

The writing of Eld, especially in the first half, is somewhere between mythic and ritualistic, where the conversation themselves are more representative of what was said rather than the realism that preponders today. And when not in conversation, which is most of the time, the book takes its good old time describing whatever it is that the author wants to describe. The scenes, rather than flashy or huge, are often even and small. Even the most agonizing scenes are mildly agonizing and mildly distressing. The very technique that gives us the book's abstract representation takes away from the emotional immediacy. For most of its going, this is a distant book.

The weight of the book builds on itself as you read, especially when Sybele interacts with people outside her realm, the book often reading more like a stylized romance than a fantasy book. Yet, it is a fantasy book by no small measure.

The book wins points by being about something other than English or French feudal Europe. The book is more Irish or Scottish, more about clan against clan. The nobles have a say in their kingship, and they have a fair and equal chance to take that kingship themselves. The king of this book is not divine, and not the rightful ruler merely because he is king.

The magic of McKillip is more akin to psychic powers than to the sorceries of today. The heroine works through the power of her mind. Perhaps it is better to say that ESP is magic made plausible through science fiction. These two are certainly tied, and merely switchiing magic for ESP would almost make this a work of historical science fiction rather than fantasy.

On the whole, I enjoyed the work. I found myself pleasantly surprise from the first page and reasonably entertained through the read. If you like high adventure, then this isn't your book, but if you are open to a lower-key fantasy, then check this one out. It deserves a read.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Harpist In The Wind (1979)

Harpist in the Wind (1979) is the last of the Riddle_Master trilogy by Patricia McKillip. In this book, Morgon discovers more about his world and realizes his final DESTINY. This book won the Locus award for best fantasy novel, and also received Hugo and World Fantasy Award nominations.

Yeah, whatever. The moment that I hit the character of Morgon, I wanted him the hell off stage. I wanted Raederle back. Every issue that I had with Morgon came back, and this time, they came back with power-ups. Meanwhile, Raederle was patted on the head and received an also-ran.

I must confess that I skimmed over most of this novel. I skipped vast swaths of description and barely noticed.

To McKillip's credit, she's a good describer. When that woman is on, she is on. Her descriptions just flow across the pages and you can just drift along with them. For readers that like this style, the descriptions must be grand. Not so much for me. I found them somewhat useless. However, her great discriptivey-descriptions did prevent her from falling into any technobabble traps as magic was seen entirely from the experiential point of view.

To say the the entire point of this novel is to say, "Oh-mi-Gawd! I have to finish this series in one book!" would be the most accurate summation of the book that I can present. Everything that was hanging around unsaid in the previous two books had to all get said and explored in this one book, giving this book and overstuffed feeling. You eat the world too fast, getting no chance to digest it. We are at the buffet of fantasy building and the author only gets to fill one plate, so she heaps it on.

There's a big battle at the end, of course, not that it mattered, because the battle doesn't even matter. It's just a trope. We could have just skipped that battle and had a more interesting ending.

Especially in this last book, I just don't buy McKillips world. "Miners and farmers and her animals, oh my!" We hear about unrest, rebels, armies gathering, people gathering ancient cities, and I am struck by the sheer uselessness of humanity. Really? That's all that people can think to get up to? Eight hundred years of history and no militia? I am at a total loss.

My wife gets this book on a meta-level that I don't. For me, it just falls flat. Even with an explanation of the meta-level, it still falls flat. Judging by reviews over on Goodreads, this is a very loved book, so I'll just hang my hat onto the minority opinion and be done with it.