Category Archives: Storytelling

4 Thoughts I Had While Watching Transformers 4

Transformers 4 - Wahlberg, Peltz, Reynor

Look, let’s get a few basics out of the way. Plenty has been written over the years about Michael Bay’s storytelling problems, his directorial tics, his troubling portrayal of women, homosexuals, and non-white characters, and his fetish for big guns and magic hour. You can also debate whether Transformers 4 is his most blatant cash-grab ever or the prototype for a new international-era blockbuster. (Maybe it’s both.)

But here’s the catch: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Michael Bay film that I completely hated. In fact, even at their most flawed and least coherent, Michael Bay’s movies are still entertaining. They’re also surprisingly rewatchable, as you realize every time you catch yourself watching Armageddon on cable.

So how does Michael Bay manage to make films that fail on both a taste level and a logic level, yet still excel as cinema? Here are four things Michael Bay gets right in Transformers 4 that explain his cinematic upside.

Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be American.

Yes, nearly half of Transformers 4 takes place in China, but it’s still an American movie — not just in its financial origins, but in its central theme. After the city-smashing alien battles of the previous Transformers films, this is a story about America trying to figure out its place in the changing world. Its three subplots involve a widowed American inventor who just wants to provide for his family, a wealthy American scientist in search of his conscience, and a grizzled American operative who’s determined to defend his country from alien incursion at all costs.

Is this all a metaphor for immigration, foreign policy, global finance, and the double-edged sword of the military-industrial complex? Of course it is.

It’s also a film that takes bizarre pride in the minutiae of laws. This is a film about giant alien robots that still finds time to include plot-driven arguments about intellectual property, search warrants, and statutory rape. Its villains have a binding contract, to which they honorably adhere. And while the entire third act is basically a nonstop chase-fight scene, it’s happening because one character’s crisis of conscience negates a different contract, which means the villains are essentially justified in exacting their violent revenge.

It all seems to imply that America is nothing without its laws, and without people who live within them, even when they disagree with them. You don’t like a law? Work to change it. Laws are meant to serve the people, and as the needs of the people change, so must the laws. Not exactly a concept I expected to see in a film about a robot pterodactyl, but there you go.

But the characters in this film also grapple with Americanism on an individual level, because…

Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be a man.

Mark Wahlberg’s hero Cade Yeager (Seriously? Yeah, seriously.) is a macho ex-football star and widowed inventor with a hot teenage daughter whom he tries to protect from the leering advances of every other guy on the planet. He doesn’t want her to make the same mistakes he made as a teenager — a teenage pregnancy among them — and he hates the idea of men lusting after the daughter he still thinks of as pure and perfect. She’s the embodiment of the future he always thought he’d be able to sustain and provide for, but with every year he finds himself farther from his idyllic self-image. And with his daughter about to head off to college, who will he be with no one else to worry about but himself?

Kelsey Grammer’s black ops director is a shadowy figure working to keep America safe at any price. He doesn’t have room for emotion. He doesn’t even seem to take pleasure in his work. What he wants is success, and what success means to him is a complete and total elimination of external threats. It’s a fool’s dream, and if this was a movie with more depth, Grammer might get a scene where he admits what the audience already knows: that no matter how effective he is, he’s just delaying the inevitable need to adapt and assimilate with outsiders. And yet, the need to defend what we know from our worst expectations of what could be is as fundamentally American as wanting to provide for our families and excel in our chosen fields.

Which brings us to Stanley Tucci, who gives the film’s best performance as industrialist Joshua Joyce, a thinly-disguised caricature of Steve Jobs at his most tyrannical. Yet, like Jobs, Joyce just wants to make a difference in the world. Sure, he wants the world to remember that he’s the one who made that change, but it’s progress that fuels him. And it’s his fundamental similarity to Cade — the innocent spark of curiosity mixed with the hubris of wanting to be remembered for having done “the right thing” — that sets the events of the final act into motion.

And yes, all of this happens amid car chases, shootouts, fistfights, and sweaty closeups of muscles, breasts, and luscious legs filmed against hypersaturated sunsets. Because Michael Bay movies are also obsessed with the human body and its place in the world. And with masculinity vs. femininity, and with vitality vs. obsolescence, and with thought vs. action. If you’re not acting, if you’re not defending or attacking, if you’re not trying to get somewhere or obtain something, then you’re just waiting to be passed by. That’s life. That’s America. That’s humanity.

That’s cinema.

Michael Bay movies are always going somewhere.

Michael Bay – What is Bayhem? from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

This short clip explains Michael Bay’s aesthetic better than I ever could, and it’s totally worth your time from a film studies perspective. But I can sum it all up by saying you know you’re watching a Michael Bay film when small people are caught between giant problems and have to keep moving to survive, both literally and figuratively. There are almost no static camera moves in a Michael Bay film, or flat medium shots. The close-ups are always dramatically lit. The wide shots are in motion on multiple planes of action. And the characters are almost always shot from below, framed against massive backdrops that constantly remind us how insignificant they are against the collective shrug of society, industry, or nature.

Transformers 4 is about age and decay, about desire vs. actuality, and about man’s (and robot’s) eternal quest to understand why things happen. The “what” is the MacGuffin that keeps the story moving forward — hunted robots, kidnapped daughters, stolen weapons — but the “why” is what every hero is truly after. For all his presumed favoring of style over substance, Michael Bay’s movies are gravely concerned with where we as a nation, as a species, as a gender, and as a planet, are headed — and whether any of it actually matters.

Michael Bay movies are a textbook example of emotional logic.

Look, Transformers 4 is a pretty dumb movie. It’s a “dark” take on a popular ’80s cartoon that was created to sell toys to preteen boys, so you’re not dealing with unimpeachable source material here. And yes, the characters make intellectually questionable decisions at every step, not just because this is an action movie that requires them to keep getting themselves in trouble in order to justify its own existence but because Michael Bay doesn’t really care about the same logic that you and I care about.

Instead of logical cause-and-effect — “He did X, so they did Y, and therefore he should now do Z because he wants to achieve A” — what Michael Bay movies deliver is emotional cause-and-effect: “His actions made me feel X, and now I the viewer want to feel Y.”

For example, Cade spends most of the movie trying to keep his daughter safe. At least, that’s his stated goal, but his actions perpetually debunk his statement. This is a dad who nearly gets his daughter killed numerous times, sends her out to shoplift, and belittles her boyfriend at every turn, all under the guise of protecting her physically and emotionally from external threats.

While Cade’s intellectual logic doesn’t hold up, his actions (and his daughter’s reactions) fuel our emotional logic. We know he can’t protect her forever, and we also realize she’s probably more capable than he gives her credit for. So what we, the audience, end up wanting from this story arc is to know that Tessa can take care of herself so Cade won’t have to worry about her. And her final act in the movie closes that loop and provides us with the emotional catharsis we needed, even if its intellectual logic is as questionable as anything else in the film.

Similarly, Tucci’s Joyce isn’t just the most entertaining character in the movie; he’s also the movie’s resuscitated heart. While Cade has been brave from the beginning because he’s fighting for his freedom, Joyce is the one who has to choose between what he could be and what he wants to be. And when a film gives us a villain who realizes the error of his ways, we spend the rest of the movie hoping he’ll live long enough to become a better man.

Whatever that means in Michael Bay’s world.

12 Thoughts I Had During Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-mocap

1. If they had titled this Generic Action Movie, would they have been wrong? What exactly happens here that was demonstrably different from any other “us vs. them” action film of the past 40 years?

2. My god, the distracting CGI… If you ever want to see the uncanny valley in action, this is the movie for you.

3. Did the human characters have anything to do in this film?

4. Did “The Black Guy Who Doesn’t Operate the Radio” (because I don’t recall him being called by name, and because there were only two in the movie) actually tell his cohort — AKA “The Swarthy, Scowly, Trigger-Happy Guy Who Trusts No One and Yet Whom They Bring Along Anyway Because There Would Be No Plot If They Didn’t” — to “stop playing me” at one point?

5. When the humans are escaping from the ape village, please notice that Kerri Russell — the only female human character in the entire movie — is also the only one who falls while running. Because of course she is.

6. Were you surprised by anything in this film? At all? Ever?

7. When you watched the continuous tank shot, was your first thought “omigod this is so COOL,” or “ohhhhh I can’t WAIT to ride this on the inevitable Planet of the Apes theme park ride!!!” or “I guess this is what they showed the producers when one of them asked why there wasn’t more character development, and then afterward they were like, ‘Oh, so, yeah, at least there’s that tank scene, which the target demo will fucking love'”?

8. Quick: name two human characters from this movie without using Google.

9. Quick: explain to me why the two lead Americans are played by a Brit and an Aussie. (Hint: it’s because Ed Harris was probably already booked for Snowpiercer.)

10. Do you think they told the actors to “dance like a song is playing on the gas station’s PA system and we’ll just figure out the song rights later,” and then — only after they’d locked the footage of The Black Guy Who Doesn’t Operate the Radio dancing like he was really getting into the music — did someone say, “Hey, we can get the rights to a song from The Band really cheap?”

11. In a movie where one of the human characters is willing to commit acts of atrocity in order to ensure the survival of the human race, do you think it’s profound for his last line — in response to the question “What are you doing?” — to be “I’m saving the human race”? Or do you think maybe the audience might have understood his motivation after the other 5 scenes in which he proved he was willing to commit acts of atrocity to… oh, fuck it.

12. How much more interesting do you think this film would have been if any of the four male leads (Human 1, Human 2, Caesar, Koba) were female?

77 Thoughts I Had While Watching the New Godzilla

Godzilla2014What happens when you take amazing actors, a stellar FX team, a competent director, an inept script, and $160 million, and try to make a profit? You get this following stream-of-consciousness play-by-play as I sat in a mostly-empty theater and tried to make sense of what went wrong with the making of the new Godzilla movie.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead (although the movie is called Godzilla and not How All The Characters Lived Through That Little Godzilla Incident, so you probably shouldn’t be all that surprised).

1. These opening credits with all the redacted info must have seemed clever on paper, but after trying to read the 20th one they’re just giving me a headache.

2. I bet they’re going to tell us where this helicopter is flying by using a “place and year” overlay, like — oh, there it is. Philippines, 1999. Great.

3. Sally Hawkins is going to be in this movie just to look concerned and stare at things, isn’t she?

4. Oh, there’s the English-speaking guy surrounded by local extras, so he’ll be the one who explains the whole backstory while we walk and talk through the first set piece.

5. Are they making Ken Watanabe speak like a Japanese caricature, or is that naturally how he speaks English? Either way, this feels uncomfortable.

6. How many times are people going to look up in awe in this movie?

7. Oh, good, Bryan Cranston gets to play The White Guy Who Knows Better Than Every Asian Scientist in Japan.

8. Juliette Binoche is in this? For all of five minutes? They could have literally cast anyone to play Cranston’s wife for as little screen time as she had, and yet they wasted one of our generation’s greatest actresses as an emotional prop for the male characters?

9. Of course the dad is too busy to appreciate his birthday. And of course that kid is getting on that bus and somehow the entire rest of this movie is going to be about Bryan Cranston trying to find his son while Godzilla destroys Japan.

10. Huh. I guess they’re making every Japanese actor in this film speak like they just learned Engrish. Jesus.

11. He’s sending his wife to her doom and he’s going to have to live with that as his motivation for the rest of the movie, isn’t he?

12. Oh, here we go. Radioactive doom cloud. Time for her to die inches away from him.

13. And now that Bryan Cranston is done emoting into a walkie talkie…

14. I guess the director decided we’d spent exactly as much time as we — and Bryan Cranston — needed to spend with his dying wife before literally sealing that room off so we — and Bryan Cranston — can forget about her and get back to the plot.

15. Yes, in a school of Japanese students, let’s all stop and make sure we care about what happens to the token white kid.

16. Nice cut to the white kid all grown up as an angsty adult soldier. I bet half the audience has no idea that this is the same character.

17. Is the soldier’s son derpy because his dad’s not around, or because Elizabeth Olsen is being forced to play Steretypical Wife and Mom Character with No Additional Motivation? Either way, that kid’s gonna be hard to root for if he ends up on a bus separated from his parents, too.

18. Elizabeth Olsen was phenomenal in Martha Marcy May Marlene, so they cast her in this so she could do… what, exactly? Just sit around and laugh and look worried? Did she see the script before she signed on? What was the audition process like? “Have you ever seen a movie before? You have? Oh, okay, good; so you know basically what every female role in an American film is like, right? Do you think you can do that, or would you need us to, like, write you a character and stuff? Because…”

19. They’re going to get interrupted before they have sex, aren’t they? Just like in the new Robocop, when Joel Kinnaman’s character comes home to his derpy son and worried wife, only to be interrupted before they can have sex by The Inciting Incident. Because this is America and we can’t show people having sex in our family-friendly violencefests.

20. Speaking of families, I wonder what the black family in front of me is thinking. If I were them, I’d be so bored watching white families in every blockbuster. What do they tell their son? How’s he going to expect to see himself represented onscreen as he grows up?

21. Then again, if this movie starred a black family, would white audiences come see it? That I even have to ask that question kind of summarizes all of Hollywood’s problems in a nutshell, doesn’t it?

22. Yup, there’s the phone call. So much for the sex. Wait… who the hell is Joe? Is that her ex-husband? Is this — oh, that’s the guy’s dad. Huh. They really did a shitty job ensuring the audience knows the characters’ names.

23. His son has to go to Japan to get him? Why? Other than plot excuses to get them in the same frame, obviously.

24. His son disables bombs for a living. I’m sure the entire plot will hinge on him having to deactivate a bomb with seconds to go.

25. Ford? He named his fucking son Ford?

26. This scene in Bryan Cranston’s apartment is boring the living shit out of the family in front of me. Seriously. Two of them just got up to go to the bathroom.

27. They shouldn’t have even bothered writing dialogue for that scene. Or filming it. They should have just put up a title card that said Bryan Cranston Convinces His Son to Go Back with Him to the Quarantined Area Because the Plot Requires It.

28. Bryan Cranston was just arrested in the Quarantine Zone yesterday, so he goes back the next day and DOESN’T expect to get arrested? Like they’re not expecting that?

29. Of course the Happy Birthday sign is still hanging there 14 years later. Juliette Binoche must have put it up with Superglue.

30. Where’s he going to find a ZIP drive to access those disks?

31. Of course you take the captured trespassers directly inside the very place they were trying to go. Of course you do.

32. Bryan Cranston is being held in the monologue chamber.

33. All these scientists are feeding this glowing talon a steady diet of radiation and they don’t foresee how this could possibly be a problem? Nor can any of their equipment detect the “mating call” that Bryan Cranston’s fucking fisherman buddy picked up with two seismographs and buoy?

34. Yes, Ken Watanabe: go listen to the raving lunatic instead of dealing with the emergency right in front of you. Because that’s what any man of science would do.

35. “Kill it.” Sure. With energy. Because it lives on energy, so yeah, giving it more of what it eats will surely kill it. Surely.

36. THAT’S what the evil bug in this movie looks like? Was that a first draft sketch that accidentally got greenlit, and by the time they realized they’d spent $100 million animating someone’s first pass at a concept they were too embarrassed to admit it?

37. FINALLY, a non-white character in a position of authority.

38. … who, in the very next scene, is revealed to be subordinate to a white guy. Did the filmmakers not realize that literally every single black, Hispanic, Asian, or other nonwhite character in this film exists solely to support, defend, or otherwise serve the white characters? Or is that somehow a theme?

39. Is that David Strathairn? Has he done anything since Good Night, and Good Luck? What the fuck is he doing in this movie? What are ANY of these actors doing in this movie? Were they all shown a different script, or do they all have overdue mortgages?

40. Oh. So Bryan Cranston is dead and now we have to care about his son? That’s how this works? The movie is just going to keep forcing us to follow less and less likable characters until none are left?

41. This movie loves transitioning from one plot point to another within the same scene. Bryan Cranston’s wife dies, the door she’s dying behind closes, and immediately he’s focused on something else. Bryan Cranston dies, his body bag is zipped up, a door opens, and immediately his son is whisked away to be given His Next Plot Assignment.

42. Are they just showing Ford the exact opening credit sequence from this movie as a way of explaining the entire backstory to him? Why would they do that? It’s just a jumble of archival footage, and they’re not even talking about it, they’re just zooming through it. Who in the Navy cut all this footage together like this? Why would this supercut even exist? What purpose would it serve, other than “setting a mood”? Are we paying the Navy to make mood reels during natural disasters?

43. Also, in what world would they bother telling Ford anything? Just because he’s physically present doesn’t mean he has a right to know anything, except that the screenwriters decided that now was the time to dump all this useless backstory on us as a way to explain what our new lead character will now have to do for the rest of the movie.

44. Obligatory Elizabeth Olsen Being Concerned on the Phone Scene. Movies like this are why the Bechdel Test exists.

45. Oh, great. Now Ford is stuck babysitting a lost Asian kid, which will be the whole reason he gets trapped in Hawaii as it gets destroyed by giant monsters. And now we, the audience, are supposed to care about whether or not Ford can help the kid find his parents? Because what we really need when there are giant monsters onscreen is a subplot about a lost child to really grab our attention…

46. And if one lost child isn’t enough, here’s a little blonde girl to worry about.

47. And a dog.

48. How are those ground floor glass windows withstanding a tsunami?

49. In what world would radiation cause Godzilla to mutate into a biped?

50. And right as the long-awaited battle between Godzilla and the giant bug FINALLY begins… we cut away to Ford’s derpy child watching the whole thing on TV. Because obviously we all came to a movie called Godzilla because what we really wanted to do was watch a supporting character watch the battle on TV while his mom repeatedly tells him to turn it off, like this is 1948 and none of us have ever seen a movie before.

51. This film seems to fundamentally misunderstand what its audience wants. Or maybe that’s the point — what humans want doesn’t matter to Godzilla, so why should it matter to Godzilla’s director?

52. Don’t worry, we won’t actually have to spend any more time worrying about the nameless Asian kid, since of course when Ford gets him to the triage center amid a throng of thousands the kid’s parents are literally standing yards away. And now that this useless bit of plot exposition designed to kill time is over, Ford can literally turn his head and see a military convoy that will magically allow him to join them, thus enabling his geographic plot trajectory to continue. This is like a road movie without any of the humor or sex or music. Ford is just Don Quixote, and now he has a Hispanic military sidekick named Morales to be his Sancho Panza.

53. It’s nice to know the military keeps track of its nuclear waste to the extent that it doesn’t notice a 300-foot tall mutant bug has eaten its way out of a nuclear landfill and is marching directly toward Las Vegas.

54. I can’t tell which city’s destruction I care less about in this movie. We’re three global tragedies in and the destruction porn is already reaching “I’m oblivious to it” level. The only place left to go from here is “I resent having to watch it.” Please don’t take me there, Godzilla creative team.

55. Is that Taylor Nichols??? I LOVED him in Metropolitan and Barcelona! Why doesn’t he get more work? And in what inexplicable casting universe did they find an actor from the Whit Stillman multiverse to deliver some exposition about a nuclear warhead? I swear, the entire cast from this movie should have defected to another script.

56. So the only way to kill the monsters is with a nuclear warhead, and since the monsters emit EMP blasts that fry electronic grids, the only way to get the warhead into place is… a train? You have 300-foot tall mutant bugs traipsing around the United States, walking through buildings, and you entrust the delivery of the only device that can kill them to a train track through the mountains? Great planning, US military.

57. Of course Ford ends up in the same city where the nuclear warhead is being trained through. And of course he argues his way onto that train with absolutely infallible logic. “I need to get home to my family.” Yes, what superior officer could resist that stirring request during a national emergency?

58. If you have a guy on the train who could disable the bomb in case of an emergency, why would you ever let him get off that train?

59. Whoops. Bye, Morales.

60. Good thing Ford washed up on the beach at the very spot where the next plot-related convoy was coming through.

61. I like how the bus driver in an emergency evacuation is willing to stop his vehicle and let Elizabeth Olsen monologue into the bus until she feels like she’s done.

62. Did the bus just accelerate for ten seconds as an attempt at a scene transition? Was that supposed to be an homage to manga, or did someone think that watching the world blur by outside the bus doors for an indeterminate amount of time would somehow be “a cool effect”?

63. Obligatory Shot of Unnamed Admiral Looking Up in Awe at Godzilla. Note to filmmakers: after about 4 of these shots, they cease to create awe in the audience, so having about 40 of them in this movie actually has the opposite effect; it makes spectacle seem commonplace, and occasionally laughable.

64. Hey, look, the bus driver is black! I’m sure he’ll do whatever it takes to keep that bus of mostly white kids safe, because that’s the kind of movie we’re watching.

65. And the lesson here is: when the military tells you to stop, you just drive on through their barricades anyway because if you don’t Godzilla will kill you. Luckily, the only buses that died on that bridge were all of the other buses, not the one with Helpful Negro Bus Driver and His Important White Children.

66. We’re at the point in the movie where the only characters I can empathize with at all are the mating pair of mutant bugs.

67. Of course Ford is going to be airdropped in to deactivate the bomb that the bugs are using to feed their larvae. Because I’m sure he’s literally the only explosives expert the US military has, or knows, or can find.

68. When did Ford get trained as a paratrooper, anyway? Is that just standard military training these days? No matter your speciality, you’re also competent at parachuting?

69. How are those Chinese lanterns surviving all this destruction? Did Juliette Binoche hang them up with Superglue too?

70. That bomb looks like it was made in 1930, yet a dozen soldiers can’t rip off a jammed door panel, or even try?

71. I seriously feel bad for the mutant bug parents. They just want to have a family. This movie essentially casts Godzilla as a homewrecker who assaults the wife and murders the husband, and then his human partner kills all the kids. When the wife hunts down the human responsible, Godzilla bails out his bro by basically raping the wife with his atomic breath and throwing her skull in the ocean. Why do I feel like I just watched a movie where all the bad guys won?

72. Did they only cast Taylor Nichols for one fucking scene???

73. Is this the worst movie I’ve seen all year, or is that still Noah? I can’t tell.

74. Of course Ford’s family is reunited in the end. Because in a movie called Godzilla, what I’m really concerned about is whether or not the guy who was conveniently intertwined with the plight of the monsters can go home to his happy family while countless millions are dead.

75. Did they tell Ken Watanabe that his only two actions in this entire film would be to climb things and stare in awe?

76. Leave it to humans to crown Godzilla “King of the Monsters — Savior of Our City?” As though he exists to save us, because of course he does. We’re the special ones, after all. Thanks, bro.

77. If the theme of Godzilla is that humans should treat nature with respect, I’m pretty sure that lesson was lost in translation. If anything, I think the implication of this movie is, “Do whatever you want; God will always find a way to sort it out so the humans live in the end.” And if that fails, just make sure you get on the bus with the guy who ignores the military’s orders, and you’ll live happily ever after… if you’re white.

9 Annoying Plot Holes in Thor: The Dark World

Clearly Tom Hiddleston feels the same way about this script as I do.

Clearly Tom Hiddleston feels the same way about this script as I do.

I enjoy the Marvel movies, but I don’t always like them — mostly because their stories are a bit lazy. They have excellent actors, talented directors, exemplary lighting and sound, decent FX, and a crowd-pleasing mix of action and humor… but they also have some of the most frustrating, illogical, and convenient scripts imaginable, which drags the entire viewing experience down a notch for me.

Here are 9 things I couldn’t get past while otherwise enjoying Thor: The Dark World.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

1. It’s basically just the first Thor movie all over again

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

After opening with an Odin-narrated flashback that establishes the film’s external threat, we then introduce the film’s interpersonal conflict during an expository scene on Odin’s throne, followed by a CGI-heavy off-world battle where Thor beats up some creatures with a hammer.

After a post-battle dining hall celebration where everyone is having fun except Thor — who leaves all pouty while ignoring Sif’s lovelorn advances — we spend a lot of time on Earth with some bumbling scientists as they stumble upon the MacGuffin around which this movie will revolve. Then Thor shows up, and he and Jane fall in lo– er, they resume their love, which consists mostly of pining looks and a single kiss.

But their love is threatened (as is the existence of the entire universe) by an ancient evil that will be conveniently expunged by the end of this film — but not before Thor disobeys his father, Heimdall fails to see a cloaked enemy that invades Asgard, Odin tells Thor he can’t do what he wants to do, Heimdall is forced to commit treason so Thor can do what he wants to do anyway, Sif and The Warriors Three are forced to… um… also commit treason, Loki is allowed to scheme his way onto the throne, and Thor once again earns the right to the throne, only to turn it down.

(If this sounds really familiar, it’s because Iron Man 2 was basically Iron Man all over again too, so you’re probably trained to expect this from Marvel by now.)

2. Who’s paying Jane to live in London?

In Thor, all of Jane’s scientific machinery was confiscated by SHIELD. Yet for some reason she’s in London when this movie opens, still trying to find Thor (even though he already came and went in New York during the Avengers movie and never bothered to call her). Her intern Darcy complains that she’s not getting paid, yet Darcy herself somehow has an intern. Why do they need another intern? What are they even studying? And who’s paying them? Speaking of…

3. Why is Darcy still working for Jane, anyway?

In the first movie, Darcy is revealed as a political science major, not an actual scientist. (“She was the only applicant.”) She’s clearly not good at her job, and she drives Jane crazy… yet, somehow, she’s still working (for free?) for Jane in London a full two years after the whole New Mexico incident, during which time Darcy at least had the excuse of earning college credits. What’s she doing now, and why?

4. Do these scientists not use the Internet?

Erik Selvig is arrested at Stonehenge for public insanity, which you’d think would be major news. Yet our intrepid scientists repeatedly call Erik’s cell phone because they have no idea where he is. And when they do finally hear about the incident, how do they find out? On television. (Of course they do; because finding out on Twitter wouldn’t be very cinematic.)

5. The geographic odds of the climax happening in London are astounding.

When the Convergence happens, the universe will be destroyed. It takes both Thor and Jane’s team to stop it. So how convenient is it that the epicenter of the Convergence just happens to be a few blocks away from where Jane is living in London? If the epicenter had been anywhere else — hell, if it had been in Manchester — there’s no way Jane would have gotten there in time to use her… whatever the hell those crutches with the AM/FM radios glued to them are.

6. How unreliable are the nurses on Asgard, anyway?

Okay, so they couldn’t get the Aether out of Jane Foster. Fine. The Aether is older than they are; I’ll accept that they can’t cure it.

But remember in the first movie, when Thor and his friends first go to fight the frost giants on Jotunheim? They retreat in part because Fandral gets stabbed through the entire chest by a stalagmite. Yet while they don’t get him back to Asgard for at least fifteen minutes, the next time we see him he’s fine, like it never happened. “Nice health care they must have on Asgard,” you’re thinking, right?

So why is it that Frigga gets stabbed by a sword just once in this movie and she dies?

You mean to tell me the Asgardian healers can reconstruct Fandral’s entire torso, but they can’t patch a stab wound? Or did that giant stalagmite conveniently miss every organ in Fandral’s body while that thin sword skewered each of Frigga’s?

Mm hmm.

7. “Oh, you’re a host for the Aether? You’ll be fine.”

When the Aether is in Jane, Odin explains that it will kill her if it isn’t removed because it’s feeding on her life force to sustain itself. Yet when Malekith forcibly removes the Aether, Jane collapses… and then she’s fine. Considering the Aether had been sapping her very existence like a soul tapeworm, shouldn’t Jane have been near-death, or completely dead, without it? And yet she’s up and running a few minutes later, like it was no big thing.

Mm hmm.

Just so we’re all on the same page, the hierarchy of “Serious Injuries in Thor Movies” is:

impaled by a stalagmite < having soul eaten by Aether < stabbed with a sword

Right. Got it.

8. Odin is the least perceptive king (or dad) ever.

Let’s skip the logic problem from the first movie, in which Odin rescues Loki as an infant even though he just slaughtered every other frost giant on the planet, and then proceeds to raise this frost giant as his own son, just in case that would come in handy sometime.

If both of your sons have a history of disobeying you, how do you not have someone tailing each of them at all times so they don’t start another war or, you know, try to kill you and take the throne? Especially when you just kidnapped your son’s girlfriend and told him he can never see her again. Yes, because now he’ll listen.

“Sire? I couldn’t help but notice Thor and Heimdall — whom you just fired — were conspiring in a public grog house. Would you like me to follow them?”

“No, I’m sure it’s fine.”

“I could station someone outside Fandral’s house. Or Volstagg’s. Or Sif’s.”

“No, don’t worry about it.”

“Do you at least want to have one of your crows follo–”

“What part of ‘I don’t think my son who always disobeys me is going to try and save his girlfriend this time’ do you not understand, nameless guard?”

9. Did the guy who played Hogun piss someone off during pre-production?

Thor has twelve supporting cast members that you know by name — eight on Asgard (Odin, Frigga, Loki, Heimdall, Sif, Hogun, Fandral, Volstagg), and four on Earth (Jane, Erik, Darcy, Ian). That’s a lot of glorified extras to stand around and ask questions that advance the plot. And yet I find it hard to believe that a producer somewhere took a look at an early draft of this script and decided to make a hard choice.

“Hey, yeah, that is waaaay too many characters. Reduce it by one.”

“Uh… just one?”

“Yeah. That should clear everything up.”

“Okay… which one?”

“Doesn’t matter. They’re all kind of the same. Maybe one of those three guys that no one else can tell apart, but whom we still kind of hope to spin off into their own Netflix series someday?”

“I heard the Asian guy joking that he’d be cool with sitting this one out as long as we still make him an action figure.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever. Do it. Rest of the script looks pretty bulletproof, though.”

8 Lessons I Learned from Playing Video Games

Arcade I was born in 1977, so I’ve been playing video games since they became part of the American mainstream. I grew up in video arcades, and I’ve had a video game console in my home since I was 7. From Pac-Man to Mario to Mega Man, my childhood memories — and my outlook on life — have been shaped by what I learned from video games; both from the games themselves and the act of playing them.

Here are eight lessons that pixels and joysticks taught me about life and love.

We Are All Playing Someone Else’s Game

ms-pacman-cabinetWhen I was 5 or 6, my parents used to go to Perkins every day for breakfast. (Perkins is like Denny’s, only green.) This particular Perkins had a Ms. Pac-Man machine next to the restrooms, and I would play it every day.

Even though I played it all the time, I wasn’t very good at it. I’d rarely get past the first few levels. My parents would give me a few quarters every morning, and I’d usually be back at the table asking them for more after just a few minutes.

That winter, my parents bought me a book of level-by-level maps and strategies for beating Ms. Pac-Man. As I learned from the diagrams, there were patterns you could follow to safely complete every maze. All you had to do was memorize them.

I was shocked.

Because in my little kindergarten brain, I realized that someone — a human being — had to have programmed those ghosts to move in a certain way. And that meant I was playing a game created by a person. Which means I wasn’t just trying to beat the game; I was trying to outwit a person.

And that’s really what each of us does with every social system we encounter, all life long.

Everybody Thinks the Game Is Fixed

One day, we took my grandfather to breakfast. When I asked my parents for a few quarters so I could play Ms. Pac-Man, my grandfather told me it was a waste of money.

“You can’t win. Those games are rigged. You can’t beat ‘em. They just take your money.”

I tried explaining that there were patterns you could follow and you could win, but he remained convinced that these games were just money-making schemes for their creators.

Technically, we were both right. But just because a game is fixed, that doesn’t mean you can’t win. You just have to understand how the game works. Beyond that, I realized that my grandfather only saw games as something to be won, whereas I saw them as an experience to enjoy. And for that, I was willing to play (and pay) whether I won or not.

Everything Has a Price, Which Is Different from Its Value

That Christmas, after all the other gifts had been opened, my parents had saved one gift for last. My dad brought it up from the basement. It was huge, probably as large as I was.

I unwrapped it. Inside, there was another gift.

And another.

And another.

I probably spent ten minutes unwrapping a multitude of nested boxes, each one getting smaller and smaller, until I finally got to the last one. And when I opened it, I found the real gift:

Four quarters.

“What’s that for?” my grandmother asked.

“So he can play Ms. Pac-Man.”

My mom called it a booby prize. My grandmother thought we were nuts. I was just excited because it meant I could play four more games of Ms. Pac-Man the next time we went to Perkins.

Sometimes life is all about perspective.

Every Hero Is Just a Villain in Someone Else’s Story

Dig-DugDig-Dug is a classic arcade game. In it, you control a space helmeted dude who digs tunnels underground and destroys the monsters he finds there by blowing them up before they can reach the surface.

Dig-Dug is also a sociopath.

The game gives you no context about why Dig-Dug is tunneling underground and killing these creatures. Like any game, you play it because it’s there. You don’t ask questions… until you’re old enough to step back and realize that these creatures were probably just minding their own business underground when all of a sudden some terrorist jackass invades their homes and blows them up in front of their friends and families.

In life, the truth depends on the teller.

Learn by Doing

Growing up, my dad and I used to go to Putt Putt Golf & Games at least once a week. It was a mini golf course that had a video arcade, and we’d play all the latest games as they came out. That was where I first played the original Mario Bros., and Food Fight, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and perhaps the trippiest game ever created, Journey (in which you… uh… played as the band Journey).

dragons_lair_largeOne game that fascinated me was Dragon’s Lair. It was larger than most arcade games, and it was animated (by Don Bluth’s studio, which also produced The Secret of NIMH and An American Tale) to play like a movie that you could control. It was also the first game to cost fifty cents in an era when other games only cost a quarter. And, to me, it was hard as hell. The game flashes directional hints of what you’re supposed to do next at all times, but if you miss them, you make the wrong choice and Dirk the Dragon Slayer dies a horrible (but amusing) death.

One day, an older kid saw me playing the game. When I lost, he said that if my dad gave him fifty cents, he’d show us how to beat the game. So my dad did. And this kid proceeded to play, and win, the whole game. He lost a few times along the way, but he’d gotten much farther than we ever had — and we were so interested in seeing the ending — that my dad kept paying his way.

When it was over, we were both really impressed. I think the kid hustled my dad for a few more bucks — which was basically a tip — and then he left to go play a different game. But then a funny thing happened: I stopped playing Dragon’s Lair.

Having seen the ending meant I’d seen the whole thing, so what reason did I still have to play it? And yet, all these years later, what do I remember of that ending? Almost nothing. Watching someone else win the game was nowhere near as fulfilling as winning the game myself would have been, plus it robbed me of my appetite for exploring the experience myself.

Anything worth doing is worth doing firsthand. The rest is just a fee.

Teamwork and Tenacity Pay Off in the Long Run

By the time I was in high school, I had graduated from having a Colecovision to an NES to the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. And yet, despite having state-of-the-art home video games at my fingertips, I still spent most Saturdays playing video games with my friends at the Millcreek Mall’s two (!) arcades. Tilt was the seedy, maize-colored arcade located in the mall wing that no one ever walked down, while Red Baron was located next to the movie theater, the McDonald’s, and the coolest of the mall’s three (!) record stores. The Red Baron was obviously the “winner” of the two, and it was where we spent most of our time (and money).

Then Tilt got a new game called NBA Jam, and everything changed.

NBAJam1993Keep in mind that until 1993 it was extremely rare to see professional athletes portrayed in video games. They may have lent their name or likeness to a title or package, but you almost never got to play as them. And then along came this amazing game where you could play as two NBA stars at the same time, with sick dunks and clutch three pointers from anywhere on the court.

In the golden age of SportsCenter (and the NBA itself), my best friend Tom and I were quickly addicted.

One problem with an addictive game is that everybody else wants to play it too, and that means you have to get good if you want to stay on. So Tom and I played against the computer a lot, just in case two other guys came along to challenge us. We got good, and we won more than we lost, against both the computer and other players. We also learned each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we learned how to pep talk each other and pick up the slack when the other was off his game.

One day, two assholes challenged us.

We knew they were assholes because they chose to play as the Knicks (because who else chooses to play as the Knicks except a couple of assholes?), and because they were just absolute dicks. These guys were cocky, and they kept trying to intimidate us by mocking us out loud and by constantly knocking us down in the game so we could never get into a rhythm.

Because these guys were loud, they attracted a crowd.

And because Tom and I were good, we forced overtime.

And then came “the three.”

In my mind, this happened at the end of the first overtime, but I may be remembering it wrong. What I do remember is this: Tom and I were playing as the Orlando Magic, which was our usual team. He loved Shaq’s unparalleled ability to dunk and I loved Scott Skiles’s range. In the game, Skiles could hit a three from almost anywhere on the court.

I don’t know how we ended up in this situation, but with the clock running out, I (Skiles) had to attempt a three from well beyond half court or we were going to lose.

And I hit it.

And these guys LOST THEIR MINDS.

They were convinced we were only surviving against them out of dumb luck, but what they didn’t know was Tom and I had played the game so many times before that we each knew I could hit that shot. Were we relieved? Hell yes. Did we think it was just dumb luck? Hell no.

And that’s when these guys started to sweat.

No matter what they threw at us, we stayed with them. When we realized what their game was, we started trash-talking them back. And when they realized we wouldn’t fade, they started to get frustrated.

Eventually we knew they were getting rattled and desperate because they started complaining about the game and yelling at each other. One of them would try to knock us down, but he’d miss and we’d score, and then his teammate would bitch him out. Or we’d get a goaltending call in our favor, and they would complain that the game was conspiring against them.

I don’t remember how much we won by. All I remember is that we won, and these two assholes stormed off while a few people in the crowd stuck around to congratulate us and tell us they were glad that we shut those other guys up.

Now, you could say this is a lesson about practice. Or about keeping your mouth shut and getting the job done. Or about respecting your teammates and keeping your cool, rather than panicking or blaming someone else for your own mistakes.

Regardless, the reality is this: when the trolls find you — and they always do — don’t back down. It’s your game, too. Know how to play it.

NBA_Jam_1993_Shaq_Skiles

Everyone’s Window of Mastery Has a Shelf Life

When the NES got popular, video games started getting more complicated. My dad’s interest, and his ability to stay competitive with me in these games, declined. The turning point for him was probably Super Mario Bros., which doesn’t seem complicated to anyone born after 1980 but which was just enough of a departure from games like Burgertime and Frogger that my dad voluntarily checked out of trying to keep up with the advances in arcade games.

But there was still one game that he and I could play at home: R.B.I. Baseball.

We’d first seen it in a hotel arcade in Orlando in 1987, before I even owned an NES, and we bonded over it partly because I’d just started collecting baseball cards and partly because it was one of the few games that let users play as real athletes. When my parents eventually got me an NES and I saw R.B.I. Baseball for sale at K B Toy & Hobby (!), it was a must-buy.

rbi_baseball1My dad didn’t have much time to play games at home, but we played that one whenever we could. The problem was, I had a lot more time to play it than he did. And I played it obsessively.

I got so good at it that I couldn’t lose to the computer anymore. I would win most games by the 10 run mercy rule before the fifth inning. The computer no longer presented a challenge, but I loved the game so much that I still played it anyway, because it was one of the only games that my dad could still play.

The first time I beat him, it felt great.

The second time I beat him, it felt a little less great.

The tenth time I beat him, it didn’t feel very good at all.

Eventually, he stopped being able to win against me, and we stopped playing R.B.I. Baseball… which meant we stopped playing video games together, because there were no other games left for him to play.

With video games being such a huge part of my childhood, it was sad to realize this was no longer an activity that my dad and I could enjoy together. It was also frustrating for me to think that a game as relatively simple as R.B.I. Baseball had too many nuances for my dad to keep up with. Maybe if he had as much time to play it as I did, we’d have still been even. But he didn’t, so we weren’t. And somewhere deep down I also realized this meant that someday there would be technological advances that I would have trouble keeping up with myself, even though they’d probably seem intuitive to the rest of the world.

Ironically, that day was only a few years away.

The good news is, my dad and I would find a different way to bond a few years later, when I would spend more than a year traveling the country with him.

The bad news (in this context, anyway) is that a new kind of game became incredibly popular in that year when I wasn’t gaming: DOOM, the first-person shooter that revolutionized the entire video game industry. By the time I finally sat down to play it, I was so hopelessly out of touch with its interface that I was terrible… and I didn’t feel like getting better at it. Either I’d moved on from games, or games had moved on from me.

Every Ending Is a Lie

As anyone who’s ever finished Super Mario Bros. knows, the endings of most video games suck. And if you feel compelled to win the games you play, very few of them reward you in such a way that seems worth your time and effort.

But that’s only if you’re judging the experience by its final moments, rather than appreciating all the fun you had in getting there.

The truth is, the endings of most films suck too. And most books, and most stories in general. That’s because it’s hard to end a narrative in a satisfying way. The best stories make us want more of what we just experienced, so even their earned ending feels bittersweet, while the worst stories leave us with unanswered questions and empty hearts.

Only after you finish Super Mario Bros. do you realize that it was never about rescuing the princess; it was about exploring and improving, and the thrill of new challenges and discoveries. The princess, like most goals, was just the excuse to attempt the adventure.

super-mario-princess-another-castle-message-generator.php

I haven’t played video games much since 1993.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Maybe what I should say is, I haven’t played most kinds of video games since 1993.

My love of sports games persists. I’ve lost years of my life to Madden and NBA Live, among others. And I’ve always liked simulation and strategy games. Every few years, I dust off my old CD of Heroes of Might & Magic III and I binge on it for a month, until the rush wears off.

But I’ve never once played Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Call of Duty, or Warcraft. I have zero experience with the whole post-DOOM evolution of combat games. I’ve played enough Resident Evil to know I don’t enjoy it, and I’ve never even seen Braid, though I’m told I’d love it.

Now I’m the one who doesn’t have time for video games.

But that’s okay, because I have video game memories. I’ve spent countless hours exploring someone else’s puzzles, and trying to outwit them at their own games.

And I don’t regret that experience for a minute, regardless of the ending.