Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Terra Nova: A Great Show No One is Watching

Terra Nova, a new show on Fox from Steven Spielberg and Brannon Braga that launched this season, starring Jason O’Mara (Jim Shannon) and Stephen Lang (Commander Nathaniel Taylor). The blurb from the Fox website dedicated to the show is as follows:

TERRA NOVA follows an ordinary family on an incredible journey back in time to prehistoric Earth as a small part of a daring experiment to save the human race. In the year 2149, the world is dying. The planet is overdeveloped and overcrowded, with the majority of plant and animal life extinct. The future of mankind is in jeopardy, and its only hope for survival is in the distant past.
When scientists unexpectedly discovered a fracture in time that made it possible to construct a portal into primeval history, the bold notion was born to resettle humanity in the past – a second chance to rebuild civilization and get it right this time.

Okay: what follows is a great adventure and suspense story, with family values. Yeah: family values and dinosaurs. This is not Land of the Lost nor Swiss Family Robinson, but a whole new creature.

When I watched the first episode I was actually turned off to the show. The set up and writing were trite and fell back on expected tropes. Examples within the pilot you have the angry eldest son who is so much like his father that he tries to go opposite of the man. The brainy and awkward middle child (daughter) and then the cute and oh so adorable youngest. Then there is the heavy handed social issues rammed down the throats of viewers on the environment and, oddly enough, population control. The hook is set immediately with a splinter group called Sixers (they came on the 6th pilgrimage) trying to usurp Terra Nova and Commander Taylor’s son is involved. Taylor himself seems to know what is going on but keeps it close to the vest.

Fortunately I kept watching. Despite Brannon Braga (The guy who I hold responsible for watering down Star Trek to a thin gruel) being involved, and the family oriented view point this show is good! (Not that there is anything wrong with a family oriented story, I just like my pulp a little harder than that.)

After the shaky start, the writing and plots have improved exponentially. The dinosaur effects and the fact there are dinos actually falls to the background, because the story and the characters do pull you in. The setting is the back drop to the larger drama. The scaly predators enhance what is all ready there.

The real star of the show to me is Stephen Lang, despite the films Avatar and Conan the Barbarian, this guy is awesome! This actor has some serious chops, and is not given enough credit for the solid, and believable performances he is capable of. Not only that, he is THE Bad Ass of Terra Nova. The man will go toe to toe with a T-Rex with a pocket knife! He will also do anything to insure the survival of Terra Nova and the people under his protection. (Totally unrelated note: This guy would have my vote to be Travis Morgan, The Warlord, in DC comics hollow world setting Skartaris.)

The interaction with the family unit at times strains the sweetness factor and too often hit’s the awwww factor. But that is my personal issue with it. The meaty exchanges are between Jim Shannon and Commander Taylor. As the only cop in Terra Nova Shannon has become Taylor’s head of security, and quasi-right hand. Their relationship is true bromance stuff. Shannon is willing to back Taylor’s plays, trusting the man to do the right thing. As an example in a recent episode Taylor tells Shannon: “You are the only one I trust 100% right now.” I hope to see even stronger exchanges between them, those things that strain friendships and build the strength of their trust further.

No one in this show just phones in a performance. The interactions, motivations, and dialogue are top notch. From Dr. Elizabeth Shannon’s ( Jim’s wife) relationship with an old college boyfriend to the villains and spies that all have strong personal motivations.

The show is not doing as well as it should in the ratings and I fear it will not see a second season. The budget was astronomical in the production and that is seen in the thirty-five minutes of run time vs. twenty-five in advertising. The value is apparent on the screen: the sets, the creatures, the tech, all are top notch. I think it is the lack of dinos in ever episode that seems to be a detractor for folks, but it falls to the background for me, because the story has evolved to something that good!

So check it out on Hulu, or other media, give it three episodes or even less. If you like Jurassic tension with a side of home town goodness thrown in, and a dash of pulp bad-assery this show has what you need.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Conan the Box Office Bomb

There were other words I could have used to start this blog, but none of them are family friendly. To say the least, I did not like, nor enjoy Conan the Barbarian. I am a fan of Robert E. Howard, I have devoured the Conan stories over and over. Conan the Barbarian ‘82 with Arnold Schwarzenegger was about as close to the original Howard stories as Mamoa’s Conan, but I loved that movie for its own sake. That film as well as the horrible pastiches by de Camp and Jordan made me seek out the original in turn allowed me to discover the rest of the great writer’s work.

I went into the film late and this blog is too late for many who have all ready spent their money, and the gods forbid on the 3D version. But it was so bad, weighs so much on my pulp lovin’ mind, that I have to get something out there to warn others.

First, I went into the movie with the idea that, like ‘82, this would not be Conan as Howard had seen him, but like ‘82 I would get a fun fantasy sword and sorcery movie. I didn’t get it. As a matter of fact when the credits started rolling all I could think was: ’Thank the Gods that train wreck is over’. When I come out of a movie emotionally exhausted I want it to be because it was that damn good!

The opening credits pissed me off! The opening voice over started with the famous Howard lines….. Know O Prince that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis gleaming cities and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas…… then they are corrupted to introduce not Conan but the friggin’ McGuffin for the plot! Once again, a movie maker decided that we need to waste twenty minutes of film with an origin back story to set the rest of the story. Though I love Ron Perlman and thought as origin stories for Conan go, the sequence wasn’t bad until the village was raised. Just because the whole “it takes destroying his village to make a hero” thing has been done to death!

Conan himself was okay. I get hung up on character features if they are strongly presented in the original prose. Conan’s blue eyes were made much of by Howard. They are usually a feature very prominent in action fiction because of the emotion description they can convey. Through out the film, I kept thinking that though piercing, seething, and volcanic could be used to describe Mamoa’s glare, his eyes were not the startling blue I should expect. Mamoa, a guy I like as an actor, was a good pick, physically and through his presence. He just had nothing to work with. Also, the lack of armor where appropriate bothered me. I understand that Conan is perceived as the bare chested barbarian and Mamoa spent the majority of the film that way. But Howard’s hero wore armor of various types when appropriate, there were a few scenes where a shirt of mail might have been wise.

The dialogue lacked any spark like Howard’s prose. Now I was not expecting or wanting Shakespeare, but a little more than the grunts and snarls that our protagonist issued, reinforcing the dull barbarian stereotype that Arnold had been saddled with. As with most films the villain had the best lines, but even these were so trite to the genre that they left me flat.

The costuming was not too bad. I could see the interpretation of Howard’s Hyborian races as it was presented, especially the Bossonian archers, though I was expecting long bows, not recurve designs. The make up on the other hand was ridiculous. The characters looked more like something out of Fall Out or Mad Max. I’m still puzzling over how Pictish warriors (loosly based on Native American tropes) sound like Tuskan Raiders. Now Howard had characters with some extreme features like the filed teeth of The Man Eaters of Zamboula. Often times this was a cultural thing like ritual scarring. Some of the level bosses (because that is what these guys were, but more on that to follow) looked like radiation mutants.

Certain features were well done, Messantia and the Cimmerian village both had the look of living, breathing communities, much like what was seen in the HBO series Rome and others that have learned what a good set can do for a story. The regions that were explored as ruins had the feel of being there for ages, or in the case of abandoned outpost, age and neglect. Then you have a massive mobile fortress on the backs of elephants! ARRRRGH!

The fortress (not the mobile command center) of the villain Kylar Zym, looked like a twisted nightmare vision of something Sauron would call home. Yeah, I know a twisted nightmare vision for Sauron, yes that is how over the top it was. Then the infiltration of the fortress, and the level bosses. Yes, I saw the potential for the first person Conan video game. Zym was surrounded by several level bosses, and in order to be ready to face Zym Conan had to defeat each one. It got stupid ridiculous when one of them was in the bowels of the fortress seemingly just waiting for Conan to come up so he could defeat said boss and move on to the next level.

The final fight between Conan and Zym was lack luster, no epic clash. Of course the fortress had to spontaneously exploded and tumble after Zym was defeated juuuuuuuust after the hero escapes. Now this is a pulp staple, but I was left wondering how and why when it was done.

The female lead was there to scream a lot and to give Conan someone to share his feelings with. Actually adding only as much to the story as the McGuffin, the Mask of Acheron.

This was such a lost opportunity for those with the Conan property. There was a chance to create a sweeping epic adventure that would have been part-pulp part high adventure. Stories that would have made great films still languish for adaptation. Howard has yet to be discovered by this generation of movie goers, I was fortunate enough to seek out Howard after seeing Arnold as the iconic barbarian. Others, considering the box office returns and stock pile of bad reviews will not be as fortunate.

As a post-script I would actually recommend the novel adaptation by Michael A. Stackpole. The story has elements that Howard himself could have written and makes the craptacular story of the movie work, while weaving it into the greater Conan cannon.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

John Carter of Mars: The Teaser

Last week the teaser for John Carter of Mars hit the net and the blogs started chiming in on the movie’s prospects. Well, I’m no different.

The teaser left me indifferent. I was not excited about it, just slightly apprehensive, as much so as I was when the Conan trailers hit. At least John Carter of Mars claims to be an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars.

The story presented does appear on the surface to be the plot of Burroughs’ book. John Carter is transported to Mars via something akin astral projection and the adventure begins with the incomparable Deja Thoris and his friend and ally Tars Tarkis. How closely this film represents Burroughs’ work remains to be seen. Like Conan, the movie theater will get my eight bucks.

Visual this did not seem like Burroughs’ Mars. No red sands, ocher vegetation The Barssomians (Martians) were red, but it was more Alabama red clay pigmentation than the coppery red of Burroughs people. The costuming appears to belong in a sword and sorcery film rather than the sword and planet of Barsoom. Considering the characters in A Princess of Mars were close to naked I understand some costuming changes needed to be made. But where is the glittering harness, the jewels and gold? The precious and base metals of rank? Where is the richness and age of Helium?

The choice of Taylor Kitsch for John Carter did not impress me, seeing the trailer, I still stand by that impression.

The weapons and warriors of this production made me wonder where John Carter of Mars was in this film. In Burroughs’ books, fencing and the honor of hand to hand combat is a central cultural theme, even for the Tharks, the ten foot, four armed, green Martians. The weapons again are sword and sorcery props. Where are the rapiers and thin bladed long swords of Mars? John Carter is duel-wielding large scimitar like blades--because any hero that is cool HAS to duel-wield.

The air ships left me completely cold. The odd “wings” displayed appear to be rudders. This is not any design I saw in my mind’s eye. The fliers of Barsoom stay afloat because of the discovery and control of the “Eighth ray” and appear to be like sleds or of sailing ship configurations.

There was none of the science fantasy that the pulp era offered in the scenery, weapons, or costuming. It has too much of the modern CGI slickness to it all. Rather than utilizing the CGI to tell Burroughs’ story it is “improving” it to its detriment. I only hope this Disney production does not have the feel of Prince of Persia or other over the top productions.

Admittedly this is a teaser so it could not show everything and post production may add much. Visually I do not think this film will meet my hopes or expectations. I did not see Barsoom or John Carter. I saw a Kull, a Conan, or a Dar of Beast Master fame. It may be sword and planet adventure, but so was Krull.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

When to End a Story: No This Is Not Another Star Wars Rant……Yet

I am in no way qualified to offer writing advice to anyone, other than this very sporadic blog….and I’m working on that. Despite my lack of qualifications that is indeed what I am doing. When to end the story is as important as where and how to start it. (Perhaps a future post on those topics) A story needs a great end as much as a beginning. The end must satisfy the author and the audience. It should meet the promise put forth by the writer and live up to the reader’s expectation.

Well duh! Right? Yes, yet many fail in this regard or fail to deliver or even in certain cases deliver too much. This goes for novels, short stories, screen plays/movies, and a little known and important story telling device role playing games.

Look at some great examples of story endings: All three of the original Star Wars films New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Each ended on a note that wrapped up the current film and with the first two set up the events for the sequel.

New Hope ended with the destruction of the Death Star (the climax) and Darth Vader’s Tie-Fighter spinning off into the depths of space, the later letting the viewer know that this is only the first part of the tale. Then the award ceremony to have an epilogue that ends on a high note. Empire ends much more darkly, the rebellion set on its heels, Han Solo lost to the companions, and the huge reveal that Vader is Luke’s father. People could not wait for the last installment with Return of the Jedi, the tale was wrapped up, the villains defeated, and in the original theatrical version: The Yub Yub song. (Star Wars fans know what I am talking about.) What the three films accomplished so well that Lucas was hailed as genius was follow the heroic journey and express it so well to a wide eyed generation. Each ended with a strong climax and did not belabor the epilogue. We didn’t need to see Vader return to the Emperor after his defeat in New Hope. We did not need to see the adventures between Empire and Return that led to Han Solo’s rescue. Writers have filled in these blanks to adnauseam in comics, fan films, and novels. They allowed the viewer to leave the theater feeling satisfied, their own imaginations filling in those blanks, and each sequel paid off on the promise of the previous film. These movies fulfilled their obligation to viewer without, in my opinion, short changing them.

Robert E. Howard’s The Frost Giant’s Daughter depicted a young Conan of Cimmeria far from his race fighting among the Vanir and Aesir far to the north. After the battle he pursues a pale beauty across the ice fields, half-dream, half-mirage, yet wholly real to his dazzled senses. He battles her brothers, giants, and sons of Ymir, the northern god. Upon the defeat of the brutes he is rendered unconscious by what the reader perceives is the power of the god summoning his daughter away from the mortal realm and the grasping Cimmerian youth. He is found by his Aesir allies, and he learns that he did indeed chase the daughter of Ymir. The men brush the tale aside as a product of a ringing skull from a sword dent to the blinding and white and cold of the north. That is until the Cimmerian un-clutches his left hand revealing a gossamer cloth that had been the only garment of Atalia, the giant’s daughter.

This tale ends perfectly! The writer gives a brief epilogue to sum up the hero’s experience and then leaves the reader pondering with the bit of cloth in a warrior’s grip. Was it snow madness? Then where did the cloth come from? Again the reader is allowed to decide and let their own imagination take over.

Lovercraft’s stories all ended with that shock, that what if that made readers look askance at dark alleys and walk a little more quickly past a deserted house.

Pickman’s Model is a prime example. The tale is written in a first person style where the narrator is answering an unheard query from a companion, launching into a tale of macabre art. Pickman would paint demonic scenes with realistic backdrops or human models. The tale is the set up for the punch line. The narrator explains how Pickman is of old Salem stock, claiming an ancestor burned as a witch. Pickman’s ostracization from the art community at large for his disturbing imagery. The story weaves around the themes of the art, the models used, the backdrop settings. The reader has a dawning horror of what is to come so when the reveal is made, one is horrified because their fears are realized with the ending. The subjects of the work, the horrific models, were not fever dream imaginings of Pickman, but rather as the narrator states: “It was a photograph from life!”

Now let us take the tales that failed and why: for films one of the greatest examples is the first Back to the Future film. With the “To Be Continued…..” tag at the end had viewers chomping at the bit for the sequel. As my friend commented when we saw this film in theaters: “They better make another one!” So in an attempt to satisfy the viewers and make more money, the downfall of all sequels, the second film came out and disappointed. Fortunately the franchise was saved by a great ending to the trilogy. This is an example of where to stop the story. What if they had not followed though with a sequel? Would viewers rather been satisfied with a great ride the first time round and not sitting through the disappointing, almost repetitive, second film?

Novels that fall into the trap of epilogues that offer too much information are Dennis L. McKiernan’s Tolkeinesque series of fantasy adventures, that I started reading with the Iron Tower trilogy. This series, while great story telling in the Tolkien high fantasy style, end poorly, at least to me. The epilogues tend to tell of the fates of each hero after the tale ended. Some ended as ignobly as many real life heroes. Which does lend the stories that air of reality, but destroys the reader’s imaginative speculation of the story that continues after the book ends.

Without pointing to specific series’, how many writers that are constant bestsellers, are writing sequels for their popular worlds/characters that need to retire them? How many really have nothing new to say, the adventures stale, or driven by corporate merchandising?

Here is where the story telling device of Role Playing comes into the conversation. I myself have fallen into this trap. In order to continue a game that has obviously wrapped up, because, frankly, the game was one of the best ever! (Which many role play groups have at least one of) I created a weak sequel that lost steam quickly and was flat when compared to the magic of the first series of adventures. The same goes for the idea of dusting off the old character sheet and “getting the band back together”, in this case the adventuring band back together. I have found that when those great moments of collective story telling take place, be content with them and relive them as remember when…… lightning hardly ever strikes twice.

Now how do these mini-reviews relate to knowing when to end the story? They offer the formula for do’s and don’ts. The best thing is to end the story where it ends. Simple enough, yes? No. Because of the pursuit of more money, or a greater word count, this one simple rule is ignored. The Matrix and the aforementioned Back to the Future fall into this trap, even Conan the Destroyer, so pale when compared to the operatic Barbarian film, pursued the franchise cash cow, rather than ending the story well. (Setting aside all Howardian complaints of both films.)

End the story where it ends. Do not attempt a sequel or several more chapters unless they offer something as strong as, or in the case of The Empire Strikes Back, something stronger than what preceded it.

To end a tale generally has to be a gut reaction. As a writer one must be objective enough to sit back and say, “Am I done?” If the tale is finished, is it a satisfying ending? This too can be a gut reaction, but first readers, honest first readers, help here. This is where the thick skin comes in. A first reader has to be able to tell the writer who is in love with the story: “You should have ended it three paragraphs back.” Or harshly: “This sucks!” Of course this needs to be followed by the why.

Now, those that are fortunate enough to have the combination of luck, skill, timing, and perseverance to become published writers of novels have the dreaded problem of “trilogy” or “series” when they are really lucky. This leads to the weak sequel, it happens with movies, music, and of course novels. The artist is giddy from the initial acceptance, the idea of a paycheck, and adoring fans. Those fans might not be so adoring if you let them down in the second act. Be prepared with a strong second act, or don’t offer one. Think of all the sophomore efforts that are spoken of in various art industries. Critics salivate for sequels.

Now that I have long since rambled beyond the point of where I should have ended this essay, let me conclude by saying look closely at your themes, what do you want to say? What will punctuate your message or simply grab the audience’s emotions, leaving them pondering or wishing for more? That is where to end the story.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Nerd Con: I was Uncool before it was Cool

Hey I’m back after a four month hiatus; hopefully back on track with my blog posts. So I am going to talk about the great little convention that I attended this Saturday. Nerdcon was a gaming convention that was held at Appalachian State University, in Boone NC. It was put on by the gaming club at the college. The group put on a good little event with a dealer’s room, media, and panels.

They had invited Ignitus (Untold) and Pinnacle (Savage Worlds) to the event at MACE West: Cudgel and I was happy to attend. The group was inviting, the venue was great with plenty of room, and well organized. The attendance was great even with a massive storm blasting over the mountain! Good enough that they will be doing it next year and expanding it!

I am looking forward to going back and would love to see them expand, not only the gaming, but the panels. I know several authors that would be happy to sit in and participate! Topics like publishing, collaboration, and world building in fiction, such as the one they had would be great.

So look for this little free con next year fans!