Category Archives: TV and Film

Most Thrilling Monday, much thrilling news

Posted on August 31, 2015 by

(null)I’m so pleased that A Daughter of No Nation is included in the Charlie Jane Anders round-up, on io9, of the most thrilling SF and Fantasy books coming out this fall. It’s in great company, with books by Jim Butcher, Steven Baxter… woah, Salmon Rushdie (wasn’t expecting that!), Nnedi Okorafor, Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie, Tanya Huff and so so many others.

Some of those fall books are coming out in mere minutes, so this week will bring you not one but two author interviews here on my site, along with a write-up about S.M. Stirling’s The Desert and the Blade.

The next couple of weeks will be entertaining and action-packed. There will be Heroine Question interviews on Wednesdays, but I’m not sure what else the blog may hold.  We’ve built a bit of downtime into the early part of the month, and chief among the things I’m looking forward to doing with that time is hitting TiFF like a movie-going anvil. Kelly and I plan to see at least 13 films. As an appetizer for that fabulous experience, we’re also going to a special event tonight, where Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro is introducing the 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre as part of the Gothic Master Class he’s conducting there.

Will Orson hold his own against Toby Stephens? My assumption is no way. But I cannot wait to hear what del Toro says about the Gothic form!!

Joss Whedon, sports analogies and peeing on your allies #SFFLove

Posted on July 6, 2015 by

Conspiracy Keanu is into peace and love.

Conspiracy Keanu is into peace and love.

Kelly and I rewatched The Avengers: Age Of Ultron not long ago, and there are things about it that are just plain better on rewatch. The pieces of the plot make vastly more sense when you know where everyone ends up. In an fast-moving and fairly noisy movie, there are lines of dialog that just slide past me.

Turned out a few of them actually mattered.

The problematic stuff with Natasha is still problematic, no doubt about it. You can choose to believe that every word she utters to Bruce is, on some level, exactly what she thinks he needs to hear. There’s a little bit of set-up for this, and it’s a reading that can serve as the sugar necessary to make her monster speech go down. Still, if we give the film this reading, we do it knowing that we’re superimposing meaning, adding in stuff that isn’t really on the screen.

And, wow, Bruce really should have replied that not having ovaries and or a uterus isn’t monstrous, OMG. Or that cutting them out of your baby spies, against their will, is.

For my part, I was bothered by a related disconnect between them, one Nat’s failing to acknowledge. Bruce’s position in this exchange falls somewhere in the neighborhood of I’m afraid we can’t share a normal life and have babies because what if Hulkie Junior rips out one of my silky chestnut hair locks on a particularly bad day and I go all ARRRHGHGHGH!! and then pound everyone I love, you included, into a gooey red stain?

Whereas Nat’s is I’m afraid we can’t share a normal life because I have no organs anymore that will combine your genetic material and my genetic material. How ever will we find ourselves some tiny green-eyed, red-haired Baby-Gap wearing gamma monsters to raise and love?

She’s not concerned about becoming an abusive, family-annihilating nightmare. Come on, Nat, agree that it’s not the same. He’s pointing out that of the two of you, he has way more superpower, and he’s trying to be responsible about it, and do the stand-up thing.

This movie does barely pass the Bechdel test – Nat and Laura talk about baby names. And I am, like many a fan, curious to see whether a director’s cut can restore the things that felt missing from the story.

AAoU, and particularly the above segment, threw gasoline on some commentary that had been smoldering around the Intertubes for awhile. People have been asking things like: is Joss Whedon that much of a feminist anymore? Was he ever? They’re realizing that the Serenity crew from Firefly were basically bad guys and wondering if the feminist emperor ever had clothes.

Some of this conversation is legit critical discussion, respectfully phrased. Some of it is a big ol’ Internet pile-on. (The SF community’s started talking about pile-ons, just lately, and how to fucking not, and I couldn’t be happier. Have you all seen Andrea Phillips’ How to Not Be A Bullying Mob flowchart? I heart this!)

I’m not going to argue that AAoU is a better film or a more feminist movie than you think it is. If you want to get into legit critique, and give that deeper consideration, here’s an open letter by Sara Stewart to Whedon that looks at all the women in the film.

I am, instead, going to argue a proposition that I hope many of you will buy into:

For starters: during the BtVS years, Joss Whedon was at the heart of a creative team who produced a cutting edge, explicitly feminist, heroic fantasy adventure.

Cutting edge doesn’t mean perfect, or without challenges. It simply means “The position of greatest advancement or importance. The forefront.”

If the idea of putting heroes of the female gender on our flicker boxes could be said to be some kind of distance race, Buffy ran a lot of her predecessors–fantastic fictional women who inspired us all–into the ground. She and Willow surpassed Red Sonja, Uhura, Leela, Romana, Captain Janeway, Ellen Ripley, Xena and so many more. The show set a pace that was hart to beat.

Hard, but not impossible.

Other creators started running faster. Nobody wants to be running behind the shapely spandex-clad ass of Cutting Edge forever. They want to be out in front. Otherwise, why run?

(Yes, my metaphor has bled into itself, and Buffy has somehow morphed into Joss, and they’re both being hopeless jocks. I hereby apologize for this now, which is helpful to me financially because, as you all know, Canadians who never apologize for anything do pay higher taxes.)

Where was I? Joss’s fellow TV and film creatives, running bigger, harder and faster. Meanwhile we in the stands were howling–with glee and joy and the occasional burst of fury–as our expectations rose. And rose. And rose some more. And were, occasionally, disappointed. We have been hoping for the best and making fan GIFS on Tumblr and examining strong female characters wherever they pop up. We’ve been asking if we can have more diversity. Can we have more heroes of color? Can we have female-led Marvel movies that aren’t Electra? When Imperator Furiosa punches someone in the face with her nubbins (as Nospockdasgay puts it)  or I turn on Sense8 and am confronted with what might as well be an actual snapshot–not an approximation, not a rose-colored glass half-full skewed vision–of my fucking queer GenXer life… well, holy shit, right? We see a world created in this massively expensive and entertaining art form that is welcoming. That is delightful and kaleidoscopic and more complete than the tunnel we’ve been staring down since the days of Star Trek and Charlie’s Angels.

We are insatiable. We want more. We want better. We want to be surprised and blown away and damned well included.

And the creators respond. Art is a conversation. People coopt and embroider upon the best that front-runner can do. So George Miller and the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have pulled ahead of Joss Whedon, for now. Look at the cool things they made, and rejoice!

Is this a reason to throw dog doots all over the track?

These things have a natural rhythm. Having one person drive that cutting edge forever would, in itself, be limiting. If Joss kicked forward our standards in the Nineties, how much of a shame would it be if nobody had, by now, exceeded him? The fact that people are busting their buns to give us things that make BtVS look hokey and retrograde in comparison? Hey, that’s cause for joy!

Falling into the pack for awhile… this may not be the sexiest phase of the artistic life cycle, but is comfortable ongoing success really the thing that makes you try harder? After seeing the second and third Matrix movies, I forgot about the Wachowskis. I would never in a billion years have expected them to turn up in my living room and blow my mind to smithereens. Maybe I should have. Maybe I should’ve been sending them ransom-style cut-out notes of encouragement over the years.

ransom

Joss Whedon has put his money and his mouth as well as his creative visions on the side of the angels for years. Surely we can criticize AAoU and all his other work while allowing him a little space, now and then, here and there, to be imperfect. We know he has the talent and the resources to create something, some bright future day, that could jolt the whole media-creating pack of his peers into the next breakthrough. Won’t that be fantastic? Imagine how much you’ll love it! Take a breath, send him a good vibe, and keep an open mind. Give the man time to pick up his pace.

And, by the way, M. Night Shyamalan and Sam Raimi, innit time you laced up your running booties and gave us all a run for the money?

Telewitterings on Hell’s Kitchen and its pet Devil

Posted on June 5, 2015 by

imageI wanted to love Daredevil. The casting was exemplary: Charlie Cox, Elden Henson, and Deborah Ann Woll made a perfect Nelson-Murdoch-Page family triangle, and  Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin was a mind-blowing idea. Whoever came up with that one, I hope you’re still blissfully drinking champagne as all your friends and loved ones toast your incredible cleverness. Rosario Dawson was fantastic and it was nice to see Scott Glenn again, even though he did bring with him that first hint of “Uh oh,” because he’s one of those actors who lately seems to specialize in things that, ultimately, turn out to be not that good. (Also in this category: Gabriel Byrne and Donald Sutherland.)

My first Marvel love was Spiderman and I partook heavily of all the mutant titles in the Eighties, but Daredevil always spoke to a particular sliver of my soul, even through writer switches and artist changes and wild swerves in tone and direction. He had a Don Quixote quality and loads of Catholic guilt, in a mix that appealed heavily to my readerbrain. Matt’s particular brand of self-imposed isolation always seemed to me to be more believable than Peter Parker’s. I think I’ve seen every attempt to adapt Daredevil to the live-action screen format, even the disastrous attempt to launch Rex Smith in a tie-in, “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.” (I’m only choosing to not mention the film because then I’d have to confess to liking it far more than it, and its lead actor, more than either of them deserves.)

Anyway, I came to the newest version ready to enjoy, ready to love, and at first things were going swimmingly. The line about Matt’s father always being on his feet when he lost a fight? Perfect. Great characterization, a smooth start-up, and the tease of knowing that eventually D’Onofrio was going to appear–everything seemed on track. The chance to see Manhattan regrouping after the events of the first Avengers movie was also a plus.

Ultimately, the story didn’t quite hold up. Fisk’s scheme was haphazard and poorly executed, and when you undercut your villain, your hero loses juice, too. It takes a smaller amount of grit and brains to defeat a random chaos machine. You find it and spork it, which is about what Matt did.

The true failure in the writing, though, was a lack of payoff on the thematic promises made by the earlier scripts: they talked about friendships that are more meaningful than romantic relationships, and then left Foggy and Matt in business-marriage detente. Losing on your feet? Didn’t happen. Who did put the devil in Matt, and did it get bored with the fight to drag him to the dark side? Fisk chips away at his villainous base of support while Matt builds his, but where was the underlying point? Additionally, I’d like someone to send all of us who watched this series about $50 for every time after the first incidences of either Matt or Fisk getting all emo and then starting a sentence with, “This city…” *

(C’mon guys, vary it up a little next year!)

I will say that Karen’s story arc was beautifully executed, and I loved where she ended up. As for the rest, what we got, in the end, felt like half of a season. Nothing much resolved, and everything put on hold.

Daredevil wasn’t a complete disappointment so much as a faint let-down, and there are still characters and storylines I’m fascinated by. So I’m a sucker, but since it is a very special kind of poison, I’ll tune in for at least the first couple of Season Two stories. I’m glad they got a next year. Still, it was more or less a swing and a miss.

Mysterious Informants, care and feeding

Posted on April 27, 2015 by

imageThere are scenes that form basic building blocks for novels, teleplays, screenplays, and even video games of various genres. One of these crops up most frequently in the mystery and thriller field. It goes like this: a main character who’s engaged in trying to solve a puzzle, understand a mysterious event or literally solve a crime has an encounter with someone who parcels out tiny little morsels of information about what’s going on.

(I titled this essay before realizing that Mysterious Informant is, of course, the name of a related TV trope. What I’m talking about is very much in the same wheelhouse, but it’s less about what it is and more about how to do it. Because sometimes this is well worth doing.)

Anyway, they get together. One wants info; the  other has it. Some verbal fencing ensues. The in-the-know character (henceforth, the Source) makes a few frustratingly vague statements and takes off, leaving their interrogator (let’s call them the Seeker) to experience frustration and other related feels before plunging back into their quest for understanding.

A few mistakes that beginning writers tend to make with Mysterious Informant scenes are:

  • The actual exchange of information is insignificant.
  • The Source has no agenda, and in particular no adequate reason for withholding the information except that if he or she spilled, the Seeker could proceed directly to cracking the case.
  • There’s no subtext. The characters speak honestly, without recourse to half-truths, double entendres and outright lies.
  • Sometimes, there’s no reason for the encounter to have taken place at all.
  • The Source appears more than once, in scenes with a similar construction, emotional tone, and outcome.

 

Let’s look at a scene that works. Take that first encounter between Buffy and Angel in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot, “Welcome to the Hellmouth.” At first glance, Angel seems to be doing exactly what I am complaining about: mouthing off, being mysterious for the sheer joy of it, and offering up nothing of use. (If you run a web search for this episode title and “transcript”, you can find the whole script, or a reasonable facsimile, online.)

In point of fact, a tremendous amount of information is exchanged between the two characters. It is Angel who reveals to Buffy that Sunnydale is on a Hellmouth, a hint that she and Giles research in greater depth later on. He tells her to get ready for the Harvest, a big upcoming vampire attack on a town that should really just put all the major evil holidays in a calendar on the City Hall website.

By offering up a few tidbits, Angel ensures that Buffy makes real progress on her problem, and thereby lets her know that like it or not, he might have his uses.

What else happens? Angel gives Buffy a cross. Blessed Bling, useful for fighting the undead! It is a dual declaration. It says “I like you” and also “I want to fight on Team Good!” Unspoken but significant is his fulfillment of a cherished personal agenda, which is basically to get a look at the Slayer up close after stalking her for… was it months?

Note, too, that in keeping with best Mysterious Informant protocols, Angel engages in a little wordplay, telling Buffy he doesn’t bite. His intention is for her to understand that he knows she’s a Slayer, while simultaneously having her take him for something other than the vampire he is. What he says is literally true, but at the same time it’s a conflict-avoiding obfuscation. This becomes even more of a complication when it turns out they’re strongly attracted to each other. They are, after all, each other’s natural prey. As becomes obvious later, they most emphatically should not date.

Two other things that make this encounter with Angel work, where less carefully crafted scenes might fail:

  • It is exceedingly short. (Shorter even, I fear, than this analysis of it.) The two characters dance around each other for less than a minute, and he’s gone.
  • There’s no history between them. It is harder to pull off a mysterious in-the-know visitor, I think, when the person withholding information is someone the other character knows well.

 

Still. Aside from the fact that it’d be boring for us viewers, why doesn’t Angel show up and say “Hey, here’s a flyer about living on a Hellmouth, and while you’re at it the Harvest will be starting at the Bronze at exactly midnight, and I’ve made up a handy infographic about the local vampire government and its plans. I’m older than you and stuff, but you wanna date?”

His motivation for being reticent is, in large part, shame. He doesn’t want to admit to having been Angelus. Who would? Angel wants to help out, to fight on the side of good, but without having to say how he knows what the local vampires are up to. He doesn’t want to tell Buffy he’s one of them.

So, how do you construct one of these scenes – which can be immensely suspenseful and effective – without leaving the reader feeling as if the Source is jerking the Seeker around for no good reason?

First, figure out how the informant got into the scene. If they entered the exchange willingly, then it follows that there is at least some small piece of information they want to divulge. This ties into the question of their agenda.

What if they didn’t seek out your protagonist? Sometimes it does turn out that the Seeker is a nice active kind of detective, the sort who digs up witnesses on their own initiative. In that case and assuming the informant can’t simply run away, clutching his precious knowledge to his chest, the Seeker is probably going to offer up the absolute minimum information required to get them out of what is effectively an unwanted interrogation.

In either case, the Seeker wants more! They want all the info, with drawings and annotations. This is where some of the conflict comes from.

Second, it is necessary to have a legitimate and defensible reason as to why the informant doesn’t say: “Here’s everything I know, so please eff off now.” Why are they giving partial information? It can be out of fear for their own safety. to protect another individual, because of national security, or because, like Angel, they have some reason to be ashamed. (I suppose that sometimes they might just be a serious dick, but I promise that is harder to pull off.)

Your guideline here is that as long as it is a believable reason, great! If it’s just to drag out the plot, readers are going to feel justifiably jerked around.

Third, ask yourself: can the minimal revelations of the Source be exploited by your Seeker? If not, everyone’s time has been wasted and I shall be obliged to despair.

Fourth, figure out what else has happened in the exchange. The revelation moves the plot forward, and that’s lovely, but what is the effect on the relationship between informant and interrogator? What did they communicate beyond their lines of dialog?

Fifth: It’s worth it to remember that each time the mysterious informant appears, they’re probably going to get less mysterious.

Six: Like all relationships, the Seeker/Source connection evolves. When you’re trying to solve a problem and a person who knows a lot about it gives you partial information, it is only natural to take the crumb trail as far as you can and then try to return to the source. So remember that, with a scene like this, you can’t give it to us the same way twice. The next time these characters encounter each other, you need to hit different emotional beats.

This is why we so often see cops going back to their sources, only to find them beaten up, shot, gasping their last, fleeing town, terrified into silence, dead, or otherwise deprived of their ability to continue offering even inadequate aid to your fictional heroes.

Seven: What makes your scene a little different? Here, for further analysis, is a scene from Sherlock where the exchange is almost all subtextual and emotional rather than truly informative:

I’d have started it earlier, and I do recommend finding the whole scene if you can. Then watch it and ask yourself: what do these guys want from each other? Which one is seeking? Ultimately, what do these men tell each other? How much of it do they actually say aloud?

Check out your current work in progress and see if any of this resonates. And feel free to mention or share your own favourite mysterious informant scenes!

_______________________

*My Writing102 tag is a 2015 addition to this site – it’s meant to indicate essays for writers who aren’t entirely inexperienced. The Internet has a wealth of information for people just starting out, and less for those looking to develop next-level skills. In these essays, I’m trying to explore questions that might challenge people who can write coherent, readable prose and have some idea how a story may be structured–people trying to get to the next level. It’s a work-in-progress–in fact, this is the first attempt I’ve actually so labelled!–and I welcome your feedback as well as other suggestions for similar articles.

Keeping up with the Boresvilles

Posted on April 9, 2015 by

 

Lakeshore icicles.

Yesterday I threw together a quick post about how things have been filled with what we around here, semi-ironically, call virtue: writing, teaching, flossing, hard work, tax accounting, healthy food, yoga, and sincere attempts to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. I wanted to let you all know I hadn’t died or forgotten how to blog, more than anything.

Now I want to just as quickly throw together a note about a few attempts, made recently, to tarnish up that hardworkin’ halo. Because what that kind of behavior gets you, eventually, is burned the fuck out. I know it, you know it. (The cats, they don’t know it. This is because they get halo points from activities like stealing lettuce, one leaf at a time, out of the salad bowl and licking it to death in various corners of the apartment.)

Fun things! I bought us tickets to see Second City’s How to Kill a Comedian. We went on the Thursday before the long weekend; it was like a sketch comedy version of all the political things that sift up in my Facebook feed. Laughs were had. Also bellinis.

Kelly and I also went to a very convivial gathering of writers and book lovers on Good Friday,in a part of town we hadn’t seen.

Marine disasters! I am reading Eric Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania aloud to Kelly in some of our downtime. The kittens join us on the bed and roll around looking adorable while we learn about people getting torpedoed, sunk, and drowned.

Lakefront birding! Part of my necessary mental process for writing requires a certain amount of walking around outside, staring blankly at things like the lake. To that end, I finally made it to Humber Bay Park East a couple weekends ago, and shot many icicles as well as this red-necked grebe and some other birds.

Red necked grebe, looking for love.

It turns out this is the park I’ve been looking for since I got here: big, easy to get to, bird-infested, open seven days a week, and with deliciously varied terrain. Barb and I used to go to Jericho Beach every couple of months to chase bunnies, raptors, warblers and hummingbirds. This has a very different look, of course, but there’s a similar feeling and I am excited about exploring it more.

Marital Disasters! A Masterpiece adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is on. It has Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. If this is news to you, I totally understand if you need to go hyperventilate into a brown paper bag now. OMG, OMG, OMG.

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