Monday, December 22, 2014

Thoughts on Alfrid

Now that we've had time to absorb The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, I'd like to discuss one particular element of the film today. The character Alfrid (played by Ryan Gage) has had a largely negative reception from viewers, being seen by many as an irritating and pointless addition to the story. Being invented solely for the movies and having a strong resemblance to the character Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings have never helped his case. It's tough to disagree with the complaints about him in the latest Hobbit movie, but perhaps fans, like the survivors of Laketown, shouldn't be too quick to dispose of him.

I actually found Alfrid really interesting in The Desolation of Smaug. Even in the theatrical cut where a lot of his scenes are omitted, you can tell he has his own agenda. There's something about the way he speaks to the Master of Laketown, watches the other man's reactions, and behaves when the Master isn't looking that suggests he hates the disgusting windbag and is just using him as a puppet to control the town. It's a real testament to Gage's subtlety as an actor.

You would think then that the Master's death at the start of The Battle of the Five Armies would allow Alfrid to step out of the shadows and shine as a character. Instead, the film reduces him to a string of punchlines until he scurries off. He doesn't learn anything, he doesn't oppose the heroes, he just reminds us that he's a jerk and runs off in a dress. Why make a point to spare him from Smaug and the other townspeople if the plot isn't going to make use of his survival?

Granted, this might be smoothed out in the Extended Edition next November. That's a long time from now though, and since I've got this cemented in my head, here's my personal take on what the movie could have done with the character:

After falling out of favor with the townspeople, Alfrid starts contemplating how to win back their approval while grudgingly following Bard's orders in the meantime. He eavesdrops on the meeting where Bilbo gives the Arkenstone to Bard and Thranduil, then just like in the movie, Gandalf forces him to look after the hobbit. This of course ends with Bilbo promptly escaping from Alfrid, which makes the man look even worse and gives him a personal reason to resent Mr. Baggins.

Later, when Bard reveals to Thorin that he has the Arkenstone and Bilbo prepares to explain his role in it, Alfrid steps forward from the crowd. He informs Thorin of Bilbo's actions and describes them in the most dastardly way possible. This feeds Thorin's paranoia to the point that when Bilbo explains himself truthfully, the dwarf king refuses to believe him. Bard angrily asks Alfrid what he's up to, and Alfrid explains that exposing a traitor among Oakenshield's company will make the dwarves violently turn on each other, thus removing the need for a battle.

That's Alfrid's plan to win back the townspeople's approval -- to be the one who got them the gold and prevented war. His triumph is short-lived though, as Gandalf intervenes to save Bilbo and then the orc army arrives gung-ho for a fight anyway. No longer seeing a future for himself among the survivors of Laketown, Alfrid lies low during the battle and flees with his stolen gold at the first opportunity.

It's possible that something along those lines could happen in the Extended Edition. Philippa Boyens said in the commentary for The Desolation of Smaug that Alfrid's character is supposed to "blossom" in the third film, which doesn't seem to have happened yet. Some may cringe at the thought of him getting even more screentime, but as we saw with Beorn's introduction in the last film, sometimes material in a theatrical cut gets removed from the Extended Edition to make way for a better alternative.

And just for the heck of it, here's a crazy fan theory to walk away with: maybe in the movies, Alfrid is Grima Wormtongue's father.

They look, sound, and act a lot alike, right? Wormtongue has a vastly different appearance from the other Rohan natives, and sixty years do pass between the two film trilogies. Perhaps after slipping away from the battle, Alfrid found his way to Rohan, changed his name to Galmod for good measure, and found a woman stupid enough to marry him. Having a ton of cash on him probably helped in that department. The end result was Grima, who apparently followed his father's example and attached himself to two powerful figures.

And as for Grima's creepy habits with women...well, he probably overheard a few arguments between his parents about whose dress from Laketown that was in the closet.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Hobbit: The Long and Short of It

It's fairly safe to say that the latest Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, is a polarizing film. It seems like for every viewer who loves it, there's one who detests it. The US stock market looks steady and consistent compared to the ratings on this movie's IMDb user reviews. That's nothing new for Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy, but one thing that most of the reviews for this film appear to agree on is that it feels way too trimmed down and even incomplete.

I just got back from seeing the movie myself, and while I of course loved it...I do kind of have to agree with that complaint. I don't know why The Battle of the Five Armies ended up being so much shorter than the other Hobbit films, but I think its 144-minute run time suffocates it a bit. A lot of storylines and characters don't get the closure that they need or deserve, including a few that don't come back in Lord of the Rings. The movie is so conspicuously edited down that even before its premiere, Peter Jackson announced that 30 minutes of footage would be restored to the film's Extended Edition.

This brings me to my topic: the Extended Editions. Releasing these versions in their elegant, book-like cases with disc upon disc of special features has been a tradition since the first Lord of the Rings movie, and while they can be tougher to view in one sitting than their theatrical counterparts, they are much more in-depth and truer to Tolkien's source material. It's no surprise that the book fans tend to prefer them.

It should be noted though that their bonus scenes are usually just that -- bonuses. They enrich the movies but aren't necessarily required in the story. The only bonus scene from the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions that I would call necessary is Saruman's death in The Return of the King, as it finally gives a proper send-off to the most prevalent villain from the first two films. Other than that, the Rings Extended Editions don't have to prop up the theatrical ones too much.

The Extended Editions for The Hobbit have been a slightly different matter. Sure, An Unexpected Journey was satisfying enough even without that 13 extra minutes of fun sprinkled onto it, but the 25 minutes added to The Desolation of Smaug practically gave us a different film. Entire characters with entire subplots were added, sporadic character decisions were explained, and seemingly pointless characters were suddenly given reason to be there. It's the biggest skyrocket in quality that I've seen from an alternate version since the Assembly Cut of Alien 3.

The obvious question then is why so much of that material was cut. The commentary by Peter Jackson and Screenwriter Philippa Boyens seems to point the finger at pacing issues, and while that likely was part of it, I think the answer can be hit a little more on the nose. The reason was probably box office reports.

One of the biggest criticisms of An Unexpected Journey was how slow and meandering a lot of people found it to be. Since its earnings also reflected a drop in viewer interest from Lord of the Rings, the studio likely pushed the filmmakers to shorten the next film in an effort to restore those numbers. Thus we got the theatrical version of The Desolation of Smaug...which actually earned even less money.

Luckily, DVD's don't have to worry so much about pacing, so a lot of that cut material returned in the Extended Edition. You can still argue that most of the bonus footage isn't necessary to the plot, though it does make for a much clearer and less rushed product.

And then there's The Battle of the Five Armies. My theory again is that the studio panicked over the previous film's drop in revenue and (still feeling that brevity was the way to go) pressured the filmmakers to make the third one even shorter. The problem is that while skimping on closure can work in Part 1 and Part 2 of a trilogy, it doesn't work in Part 3. There are no more parts after that to save the closure for.

That's part of why The Return of the King's Extended Edition ended up being an hour longer. Too many subplots, albeit minor ones, didn't have endings in the theatrical cut. Yes, I just said that The Return of the King didn't have enough endings in it. Not so many people objected to those loose ends though because The Return of the King was by far the longest installment in the series. The filmmakers made it as long and as sufficient as they possibly could for a theatrical release and eventually just had to stop.

The Battle of the Five Armies, on the other hand, is by far the shortest installment in the series. What's more, it was made that short for reasons beyond the filmmakers' control. Why would they announce anything about the Extended Edition so early if they were happy with the film they put in theaters?

This leads me to a belief that I think a lot of fans have had for a while: that the theater is not the right venue for these movies. Jackson and his crew have to cater to that venue first since it's where most of their budget money is made back, but those watered-down versions of their films only play for a month or so. Then they can release DVD's of the original longer versions, which will be around forever. I think that hardcore Middle Earth fans will likely look back on the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogies not as films that were followed by Extended Editions, but as films that were preceded by condensed editions. 

And no, The Battle of the Five Armies hasn't had a scene of Ori showing Bilbo his journal yet. That just gives me something else to hope for next November.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

There's Something About Ori

It's no news to Hobbit fans that the Extended Edition of The Desolation of Smaug came out a few weeks ago with 25 minutes of bonus scenes added to the film. I enjoyed those scenes as much as the next fan, but watching that version brought a rather amusing and puzzling trend to my attention. What makes that trend puzzling is that it centers around the character Ori.

For anyone not familiar with The Hobbit, Ori is one of thirteen dwarves that the hero Bilbo Baggins joins on a quest to reclaim their kingdom from a dragon. Even though Ori appears all throughout the book, he has no real personality to speak of and never gets a single line of dialogue. He's basically just there to be the thirteenth dwarf. His character is much more fleshed out and talkative in the movies, yet he still remains something of a featured extra.

But have you ever noticed how often he's right next to Bilbo?

I'm not talking about scenes where the two of them actually interact, either. I'm talking about scenes where Bilbo and the dwarves are just standing around, running around, wandering around, or doing anything else around; scenes where the placement of the characters is meant to be random. There are so many times where Ori is either directly beside, behind, or in front of Bilbo. Even in a lot of shots where Bilbo is the main focus, Ori will be the most prominently visible other character.

Okay, that last one doesn't count. I just think it's a funny picture.

But why does this keep happening? Why does this seemingly unimportant character keep popping up so close to the main protagonist? Is it just a coincidence? Are the filmmakers doing it on purpose, or aren't they even aware of it?

If they aren't aware of it, I have two theories:

         1. It really is just a coincidence.

         2. They're doing it subconsciously.

A bit of background for Theory #2 -- The actor who plays Ori is named Adam Brown, and when he first auditioned for The Hobbit, he actually tried out for the role of Bilbo. He wasn't quite what they were looking for, but the screenwriters loved his audition so much that they wrote Ori's characteristics based on Brown's personality for him specifically to play. Since Brown had a lot of Bilbo-like qualities to begin with, it's no surprise that the film version of Ori wound up with a lot of those qualities too.

Is it possible that in the backs of their minds, the filmmakers still saw Adam Brown and Martin Freeman as the same character, and thus kept seeing Ori as the most natural choice for someone to frame with Bilbo?

If the filmmakers are aware of the trend, I have a few other theories:

         3. They're doing it as an in-joke to the fact that Adam Brown auditioned for Bilbo.

         4. They're doing it because Ori is the smallest and least distracting-looking dwarf.

         5. They're doing it to hint at how protective the other dwarves are.

See, most of the dwarves are well aware of how dangerous their quest is -- except for Ori. He's the kid who signed up with no clue of what he was getting into, much like Bilbo did. Since the two of them are the weakest and least experienced members of the group, it would make sense for the others to lump them together. That would make keeping tabs on both of them easier.

It's also possible that as the journey goes on and becomes more dangerous, this would start happening more often. That could be why Ori and Bilbo are seen together far more in The Desolation of Smaug than in An Unexpected Journey.

And then there's the crazy theory:

         6. The filmmakers are trying to subliminally convey that Bilbo and Ori have a lot in common.

Think about it. The movies could be gradually conditioning us to associate Ori with Bilbo and we don't even know it! If in some bizarre universe this really is the case, then why do it? Did the filmmakers feel bad that they couldn't give Adam Brown a bigger subplot so they decided to showcase his character more covertly? Or better yet, maybe it could be some very subtle foreshadowing of things to come in the next movie, The Battle of the Five Armies.

Probably the most notable aspect of Ori in the films is that he's a scribe. His job on the quest is to document everything in a journal so that future generations can someday read about his group's accomplishments. The only problem is that the films still have yet to clearly introduce his journal. The most we've seen of it so far are a few shots of him handling it in Bilbo's house, and one of those shots features him (of course) in the background behind Bilbo.

That instance really lends to the idea that the filmmakers are trying to subtly draw a connection between the two characters. It happens when the wizard Gandalf tells Bilbo, "All good stories deserve embellishment. You'll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back." Look quickly, and you can spy Ori behind the hobbit, writing in his journal; he's in the process of telling his own "tale or two."

It's also worth noting that Ori tends to play second fiddle to another dwarf, Bofur, in scenes where the latter interacts with Bilbo. In An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo's rant to Gandalf about what the dwarves have done to his house is book-ended by an exchange with Bofur and an exchange with Ori. Later, when Bilbo nearly falls off of a cliff, Ori assists Bofur in a rescue attempt.

In The Desolation of Smaug, Bofur, Bilbo, and Ori are the first three to approach the enchanted river in Mirkwood. When it becomes apparent that Bilbo will have to cross the river first, he looks to Bofur and Ori for confirmation.

In the scene where Bilbo frees the dwarves from an elf prison, Bofur and Ori are the only two characters who speak before the hobbit arrives. Lastly, when the group reaches their destination without Bofur and sends Bilbo in to face the dragon alone, Ori is the first to voice concern for the hobbit -- a job that Bofur usually has covered.

So what's my point in bringing this up? Well, Bofur has one of the closer relationships with Bilbo among the dwarves, and having Ori as the third wheel in that relationship seems to suggest that the little scribe has a similar fondness for Mr. Baggins. Since Bofur is currently not among the group and it's allegedly been hinted that Ori and Bilbo have a lot in common, perhaps the two will have a moment to bond with each other in the next movie. And perhaps it will be over Ori's journal.

We see in the very beginning of An Unexpected Journey that Bilbo eventually decides to write his own book about the quest. We also see him dig up an old sketch of his younger self while preparing to write his book. I can easily imagine a scene in the third film where Ori shows Bilbo his journal and unknowingly plants the seed of inspiration for our hero to become a writer too. Given how dark and dire The Battle of the Five Armies seems to be from the trailers, a warmer and more innocent scene like that might be greatly welcome.

As for the old sketch of Bilbo, I'm not the first person to speculate that Ori drew it for him.

But at the end of the day, that's all any of this is: speculation. Come December 17th, I might look back on this essay and think, "Wow. I was an insane person three weeks ago." That's the fun of watching a story play out over multiple installments, though. It gets the creative wheels in your head turning.

In all likelihood, regardless of why he's there, Ori will probably remain off to the side and in the background throughout The Battle of the Five Armies. I see potential for his character and an opportunity to show it, but that doesn't change the fact that his character is a peripheral one that the film might not have time for. Who knows? Maybe he stands a better chance of getting the spotlight in the next Extended Edition. I have hope, even if it is, as they say, just a fool's hope.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

What Happened to Loki in "Thor: The Dark World"?

Well, I've been on blog hiatus for long enough, and since Thor: The Dark World came out on DVD/Blu-Ray/Digital Download/Personal Hologram Projection this past week, I think I know an interesting topic to discuss today. For anyone who hasn't seen the movie, big spoiler alert:

Loki dies--maybe. I'm not really sure. That's what I wanted to discuss.

To be a little more on the nose, there's a fight scene about two-thirds of the way through the film where Loki is apparently killed, then a few scenes later, we see a guard who's clearly him in disguise get up from the spot where his body was left and return to Asgard. The payoff for this is a reveal of Loki sitting on the throne of Asgard in Odin's place at the very end of the film. We can probably all agree that the God of Mischief was carrying out some kind of scheme the whole time, but what viewers do disagree on is whether Loki just faked his death or actually died and somehow came back to life. The movie doesn't explain, so we pretty much have to speculate about what happened until the next Thor installment comes out.

With that said, let's weigh the pros and cons of each theory.

First, there's the theory that Loki just faked his death. That seems more likely since obviously, it's a lot easier for someone to fake death than to come back from it. Another obvious point is that Loki is a master illusionist who can magically alter his appearance whenever he wants. That would explain how he was able to look fatally wounded and turn pale as he seemed to fade out. On top of that, he can alter other people's appearances too, which could mean that the villain Kurse impaling him through the chest was also an illusion. For all we know, the real Kurse could have been standing around in confusion with some sort of invisibility spell over him while that fake image was playing out.

There's just one problem with this idea. Illusions can only make a person look dead; they can't make a person feel dead. I know Thor isn't very bright, but don't you think that a thousand-year-old warrior like him would at least know how to detect vital signs? He even had his hand under Loki's neck--one of the places where you can feel someone's pulse--all throughout his brother's death scene.

Granted, Thor was pretty upset at the time and might not have noticed that little detail, plus a huge sandstorm was starting up that forced him and Jane to move on and look for shelter right away, but Loki had no control over those factors. He already knew from his prison-break scene that Thor had learned to recognize his illusions, meaning there was a chance that Thor wouldn't fall for that trick again, and it's very unlikely that Loki planned for that sandstorm to start right after he faked his death. Considering that, it seems like he had no plan for how to get Thor away from him before those pesky vital signs could give him away. Could that be because he wasn't planning for his death to be fake?

That brings us to the other theory, that Loki genuinely died in the fight with Kurse and then resurrected shortly afterwards. Probably the biggest reason why people side with this idea is because something similar did happen to Loki in the Marvel comics. In that storyline, he was able to come back to life because of a deal he'd previously made with Hela, the ruler of the underworld, to have his name removed from all of her books. Having his name removed basically meant he had no more appointments with death and was therefore immortal, and he used this advantage in a scheme that involved him dying and reincarnating to throw the other Asgardians off of his trail. It would make sense if this was also the case in the movie, because then he wouldn't have to worry about casting any illusions. It's easier to really be dead than to act dead.

This wouldn't be the first time a character resurrected in the Thor films, after all. The God of Thunder did it himself in the first movie, and seeing how Loki has a knack for magic and inter-realm travel, it wouldn't be a stretch for him to manage the same feat. In fact, in the scene in The Dark World where Loki gets back up in his guard disguise, he appears to be winded or disoriented. It would seem odd for him to be in such a state if his battle injuries and death were faked, so this could be a sign that he really was recovering from something very painful or jarring. Also, the realm of the dead in Norse mythology is known as Hel, so Loki's line right before he kills Kurse may have actually been, "See you in Hel, monster!" rather than, "See you in hell, monster!" He could have literally meant that he was going to see Kurse face-to-face again in the underworld in a few minutes--and maybe even rub a good-bye in Kurse's face on his way back out of Hel.

Just like with the first theory though, this idea has one problem: why in the world would Loki ever take such a huge risk and actually let himself be killed? How did he know his plan to resurrect would work? Assuming he'd made his deal with Hela just like in the comics, how did he know she would uphold her end of the bargain and not decide to lock him up in Hel after all? I don't know much about Hela as a character, but isn't the ruler of the underworld in just about every religion and mythology prone to making loaded deals with tons of loopholes that they can exercise to get what they want? I suppose if anyone can outwit the ruler of death, it's Loki, but that still seems like a huge, unecessary gamble for him.

Even so, I still find myself leaning towards the resurrection theory. There just seems to be more source material behind it, plus it would open the movies up to feature Hel as one of the nine realms in  the next installment. This is all speculation of course, so I could turn out to be completely wrong on opening night of Thor 3, but that's the fun of theory rants. They're a brain exercise, and in some cases, they can even leave you with some interesting, original ideas that you can integrate into your own writing.

And whatever did happen to Loki in Thor: The Dark World, it's a good thing Thor didn't bury him. Wouldn't that have had a funny implication later in the movie?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Are Borrowed Ideas Bad Ideas?

If you're a writer, you've probably been in this situation at least once: you come up with an original idea for a story, you get really enthused about it and start building on it, and then you discover that the idea isn't so original after all. It can be pretty disappointing for some of us to reach that realization, and looking at how much flack movies like Avatar and books like The Hunger Games have gotten for supposedly "borrowing" ideas from other works, it can also be pretty discouraging. Granted, both of those examples have been insanely huge successes, but not many aspiring authors have that kind of confidence in ideas they've barely begun to develop.

So what do you do in this situation? Should you abandon your idea altogether, should you alter it beyond recognition, or should you leave it as is and see how things turn out? And actually, is it even so bad to have a story that isn't 100% original?

One defense that people often make for alleged ripoffs is that there are only so many story ideas out there, so of course every book, movie, or TV show is going to remind us of something else. While I personally don't agree with the idea of there only being "so many story ideas" in existence, I will consent that we haven't come up with many new ones in a while. That being said, I do agree that stories shouldn't be condemned right off the bat for having familiar elements. What it comes down to, at least for me, is just how many familiar elements a story has and how well it presents them.

On the surface, The Hunger Games does have a similar premise to the 1999 novel Battle Royale; it centers around an annual tournament in which a group of children are thrown together in an isolated place and forced to fight to the death while being heavily monitored by the government, and (spoilers) two competitors end up defying the rule that there can only be one victor and walk away from the tournament together. Where The Hunger Games differs is that its tournament is constantly juxtaposed with a social commentary on the shallow glamor of celebrity life and how morally blind the public can be to things that are trendy. Also, the rules, setting, and reasons for the tournaments in each story are not the same, just the intended outcome.

Lastly, whereas Battle Royale is a single book, The Hunger Games is a trilogy of books that pretty much stops focusing on the tournament and becomes an entirely different entity by Part 3. What happens to the boy and girl who survive the tournament in Battle Royale? We don't know, because the story ends there. The Hunger Games sequels, however, go into great detail about Katniss and Peeta's lives after they defy the rules and how they eventually overthrow the dictator responsible for the tournament. Suzanne Collins had an idea that wasn't entirely new -- unbeknownst to her at the time, by the way -- but she gave it a unique spin and developed it into something that was able to find life and a storyline beyond its initial premise. The first Hunger Games book only sounds like a ripoff if you describe it as generally as I did at the beginning of the previous paragraph.

And then there's the film Eragon. I can't speak for the book series by Christopher Paolini since I haven't read it, and I'll give the screenwriter the benefit of a doubt too, but I find it very hard to sit through the movie without recognizing story elements from the original Star Wars film. It's one thing to have the same premise as another work; it's another thing to have the same plot. I know the idea of a lowly peasant getting thrown together with a princess, a wise old man, and a rogue scoundrel to battle an evil empire wasn't new even when Star Wars used it, but the specific storyline in that film was unique. The movie Eragon's storyline, in contrast, is practically note by note identical to Star Wars. Replacing the lightsabers with swords and the spaceships with dragons and horses doesn't make the narrative different.

What makes this worse is that Eragon doesn't even retell that story well. A lot of its scenes just putter out and give up at the end, and you never feel like you know anything about the characters or their personalities. It doesn't even feel like you really saw a film by the time it's over. Believe it or not, I might have actually excused the movie if it had told that story better than Star Wars. At least then it could have argued a case for its derivative-seeming nature.

This is the way I feel about Avatar. I never really minded how unoriginal the story in that film was because honestly, I don't think the movies it supposedly ripped off were that good to begin with. Condemning Avatar for borrowing from movies like Pocahontas and FernGully: The Last Rainforest is kind of like condemning The Hangover for borrowing from Dude, Where's My Car? It's not exactly tainting the good names of any masterpieces. Avatar may be corny and as subtle as a brick to the face, but it's one of the better versions of the "ignorant-person-destroying-the-forest-until-he-bonds-with-the-natives-and-saves-it" story.

Getting back on topic, what should an aspiring writer do if they realize their story idea isn't so original? Before deciding to pull the plug on your idea, you should take some time to really examine what you've got. How much does your story remind you of that other one that already used your premise? Does your story offer something unique from that other one? Most importantly, do you as the writer see potential in your story? If you have enough confidence in your idea and if you can even devise a way to make it more distinct from other similar works, you should proceed with it. If it seems like a weaker retread of something else, I would suggest setting it aside for later and going back to the drawing board in the meantime.

And if by chance you don't discover those similar works until after your story's been published, then hopefully you made your story as good as you possibly could.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Is "Conan the Barbarian" a Good Movie?

It's no secret that I love fantasy films, but it's probably fair to say that before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy came along, the genre had a rather mixed reputation in Hollywood. Most of its best known entries like Hawk the Slayer, Beastmaster, and Willow were considered mediocre at best, and they usually fall into the "guilty pleasure" category for a lot of viewers today. By far the most infamous member of this lineup is the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Conan the Barbarian, a film that was destined for countless parodies (including a fake preview for a sequel called Conan the Librarian in Weird Al's movie UHF) and was panned for straying from its source material long before the name "Tauriel" ever hit IMDb.

I saw this film for the first time just a few years ago, and I didn't exactly think the world of it going in either. In fact, I really just rented it for a laugh. It's an Arnie flick from the '80's, right? How good could it be? Suffice to say, I completely fell in love with the film and became so immersed in its drama that I actually got choked up when one of the heroes died three-fourths of the way through the story. Yes, Conan the Barbarian tugged at my heartstrings. I can't believe I just admitted that on the internet.

Looking back on all the jabs that this film's taken over the years, I have to wonder now: Is Conan the Barbarian a good movie? Has it been judged unfairly all this time, or does it deserve the mockery? Did it only impress me because I went in with severely low expectations that were easy to exceed? I've done a good bit of research since my first viewing, so let's see if I find an answer today.

For starters, there are a lot of undeniably good elements in the movie. The soundtrack in particular is amazing, one of the best ones out there, and the cinematography does an excellent job in conveying the grand scope of the setting. The special effects are also competently done for the most part, despite the limitations before CGI.

I'll even go out on a limb and say that the acting is halfway decent. Arnold can turn out a suitable performance under the right circumstance, and honestly, playing a big, awkward tough guy who doesn't say much is the right circumstance for him. It also helps that the supporting cast is able to pick up the slack and carry the more emotional scenes.

The main deciding factor for me though is the film's story.

It should be noted that Conan the Barbarian came out in the early '80's, right before Arnold Schwarzenegger and Reagan-era action films really became popular. Because of that, I think it narrowly avoided that over-the-top cheesy vibe that most of Arnold's other movies have. The filmmakers took it seriously, so the film ended up having a sense of dignity and weight to it. It's sequel Conan the Destroyer, however, did fall victim to that over-the-top '80's cheese and was a complete mess. And really, I think that sequel is a huge part of the issue. A lot of people probably regard Barbarian as a silly movie because they either lump it together with Destroyer in their heads or just get the two films confused.

That doesn't mean Barbarian is without its silly moments, though. There are some slapstick jokes and shots with hammy mugging sprinkled here and there, plus Arnold drops a one-liner or two that feel rather out of place. One scene that I never found necessary is when Conan steals a cult priest's robes in order to infiltrate the villain's fortress. He starts a friendly conversation with the priest and then slyly asks if they can continue the discussion in private, to which the priest agrees. I always thought the scene should have ended there and then cut to Conan already marching to the fortress in the priest's robes, much like how the scenes of him killing wolves for their fur and another character stealing a priestess's robes are just implied. Instead, we get an extra clip where the characters go to that private spot, Conan makes more idle chit-chat, knocks out the priest, then says a snide remark about it. That bit just feels like it was thrown in for a cheap laugh and doesn't really add anything.

On the other hand, some of the silly scenes do add something to the story. There's a scene earlier where Conan and his friend Subotai are wandering through the streets drunk and the former punches out a camel that's in his way, drawing a ton of stares from nearby witnesses. This would be pretty stupid and pointless on its own, but Subotai's comment afterwards that Conan is "too big to be a thief," actually turns it into an establishing plot point. Up until this moment, both the film and Conan's peers totally glorify his senseless violent behavior. By suddenly putting him in a situation where violence is uncalled for and garners negative attention, the film demonstrates that its hero's greatest strength is actually a flaw. He's a brute who charges head-on into everything without thinking, and that gets him into trouble later in the story. The whole point of his character arc is that he learns to be stealthy and strategic and becomes something greater than a barbarian by the end, and without that camel scene, this arc wouldn't have been properly set up.

Also, for all the goofy moments, there are just as many serious ones. I mentioned before that the movie was very loosely adapted from another medium, namely a series of stories by Robert E. Howard. A few scenes and subplots in the movie are taken directly from Howard's works, most notably the storyline with Conan's love interest Valeria, and while they're fairly simple, they're done quite well. My only gripe with that storyline is that Conan says virtually nothing to Valeria in any of their scenes--her name isn't even said once in the whole film--so their moments together do tend to feel one-sided.

As for the serious material that was written strictly for the movie...the subtext is usually stronger than what's said onscreen. I was never exactly clear on how the "Riddle of Steel" storyline was resolved since the characters stop talking about it after Act 2, but their actions convey an idea that's close enough to what was intended. I strongly recommend watching the DVD commentary, as director John Milius gives a lot of insight into the symbolism and character motivations throughout the film, but since you shouldn't have to watch a movie with footnotes to fully understand it, I still have to fault it.

So what's my verdict on Conan the Barbarian? Well, it depends on what version of the movie you watch. The original theatrical cut is the version normally shown on TV, and many of the deeper scenes are missing because the studio felt they broke up the action too much and made the film boring. That's a rant for another time. The version on the DVD has those scenes restored, and while they still don't make the movie Oscar-worthy, I think they do make it far better. Bottom line, the original cut merits way more teasing than the restored one, but both versions deserve a higher respect for what they're trying to do. I say it's a good movie.

But the 2011 reboot should be crucified on the Tree of Woe.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Epilogue Text in Movies

I don't have many pet-peeves in movies, but one that I do have is with epilogue text. That's when a movie ends by showing a series of paragraphs onscreen that explain what happened to each major character after the story's resolution. It's typically done in movies that are based on true stories, such as Goodfellas, Ed Wood, and Milk, but it can also crop up in purely fictional pieces like Legally Blonde and Animal House. Every time a movie does it, I just groan in disgust and slump back in my chair until it's over. But why?

The first reason is that epilogue text, to me, just feels like a cop-out. It's like the screenwriters gave up near the end of the script and settled on giving us CliffsNotes for the rest of the story. You can get away with epilogue summaries in literature, but film is a medium for showing, not telling. I think there are much better ways to integrate that wrap-up information with the action onscreen.

Take Goodfellas, for instance. I was really enjoying that movie's frantic build-up towards the end, but then it abruptly stomped on its breaks and threw a bunch of words up on screen that basically said, "Sorry, we didn't want to film what happened because it was way too boring." I understand that it's retelling actual events and that real life doesn't always provide thrilling climaxes, but did Scorsese really have to resort to that? Why not show a quick montage of the characters getting their closure while the protagonist narrates over it, and then show the ending with Ray Liotta getting his newspaper? Most of the movie is narrated anyway, and it uses other montages, so a wrap-up like that wouldn't be out of place.

Another example is The French Connection. That film doesn't end, it just stops. The characters are literally right in the middle of the climax when everything suddenly cuts to black and gives us a written summary of what happened afterwards. This is especially frustrating because even though it's modeled after a true story, the movie itself is a fictional account--which was followed by an entirely fictional sequel. In other words, The French Connection could have given its climax any resolution it wanted, but it opted not to give any at all. Oh, Popeye...

Another problem I have with epilogue text is that it tends to disarm what the characters went through in the story and ruin the initial ending. The movie Ed Wood concludes with the premier of Plan 9 from Outer Space, where Ed is proud of himself for overcoming the odds and finally making the movie he wanted without compromising his creative vision. This is very heartfelt and inspiring until the epilogue informs us that Ed was deemed the worst director of all time after Plan 9's failure and spent the rest of his life filming porn until he died of alcoholism in his 50's. Kind of deflates the whole movie, doesn't it?

I should also mention that at the time of Ed Wood's release in 1994, one of the characters, Bunny Breckinridge, was still alive in real life. The epilogue text acknowledges this, but then the real Breckinridge died two years later. When you watch the film now and read that text about his character, your first thought is, "Wow! That guy must be immortal!" Not only does that epilogue betray the film's resolution, it also makes the film out of date.

My third and final issue with text epilogues in movies is that I simply don't think they're necessary. The majority feel tacked on and beside the point, and the ones that do say something worthwhile, again, can be replaced by integrating that information more creatively. Throwing footnotes at the viewers is just such a clumsy tactic to me.

The crime comedy Big Trouble isn't a great film by most standards, but I applaud it for leaving out the character-by-character epilogue that Dave Barry wrote in the novel it was based on. It would have been so easy for the screenwriters to copy and paste that text straight from the book, but they refrained from doing so because it wasn't important to the story they'd shown on screen. I think a valuable lesson can be learned from this simple act of restraint, and I hope that future screenwriting moves far away from the trend of wrap-up paragraphs.

On that note, I'm going to make a sandwich for lunch.


Katelyn never made that sandwich. Thirty seconds after updating her blog, she was beaten unconscious with Loki action figures by fangirls who didn't care for her "Was Loki a Good Villain for The Avengers?" entry from the month before. She is currently recovering in a local hospital, unless you're reading this after January of 2014, in which case she's been released.

When informed of this incident, actor Tom Hiddleston stated that while he does not condone violence, he did find the story "strangely flattering." 

Monday, January 13, 2014

The All-or-None Ending

This blog entry might contain spoilers.

I got reacquainted with the Whodunnit comedy film Clue earlier this week. In case you're unfamiliar with that movie, it's adapted from the classic Parker Brothers board game (back in the days when movies based on board games were clever and memorable) and was originally released in theatres in three different versions, each with its own unique ending. Each version can be viewed on the DVD, either with all three resolutions shown one after the other at the film's end or with just one resolution that the DVD randomly chooses.

The three endings go as follows: In Ending 1, one of the six suspects turns out to be the murderer, who also had some help from an accomplice before adding them to the body count. In Ending 2, another suspect who worked entirely alone turns out to be the murderer. In Ending 3, every suspect turns out to have killed one person each over the course of the film. While none of these endings makes total sense, I've always liked the version where everyone is guilty the best. Not only does it take the film's over-the-top-confusion motif to the maximum, but it also feels truer to the original board game, where every suspect has been the killer at some point.

This brings me to today's topic, something I like to call an "All-or-None" ending. This is a type of narrative outcome, specifically in stories containing a competitive element, that either combines or dismisses every option that the story originally presented. In murder mysteries like Clue, the usual assumption going in is that just one of the suspects is the culprit, so an ending where everyone's a culprit is far more surprising because it shows that we were right to be suspicious of every character the whole time. In Clue's case, the "everyone's a culprit" ending also makes the overall story and ensemble cast of characters feel more unified and balanced since it doesn't suddenly pick one suspect to focus on at the end.

In contrast, another Whodunnit comedy film called Murder by Death plays with our murder mystery expectations by revealing that there was never really a murder at all -- maybe. That's another confusing one. Either way, none of the detectives involved ever wins their host's contest by solving the case and identifying a culprit. In both It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Rat Race, none of the parties chasing after the cash prize ends up winning it. These resolutions again create unification and balance in their overall stories and ensemble casts by not suddenly favoring one character over the rest.

All-or-None endings are also popular in "Versus" movies. The assumption going into a film called Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus is that one of the over-sized sea monsters will defeat the other by the end, much like how a boxing match has a clear winner and loser in the final round. Instead, Mega Shark and Giant Octopus kill each other at the same time and there's no winner at all. Pokémon: The First Movie builds up to a huge throw-down between Mew and Mewtwo, but both characters end up deciding to call it a draw because they're too evenly matched for one to defeat the other. This could be a case of a fight having either no winner or two winners, depending on how you want to look at it.

Even when films like this do pick a victor, they don't always commit to it. Films like Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, and a large number of  Godzilla movies end with a last-minute hint that the loser is or could be a threat still. This seems to be a trend for two reasons: 1) It leaves the film open for sequels, and 2) it keeps the film from totally disappointing and alienating fans of the defeated character. While this may be a more cynical view of All-or-None endings, these movies are still aware that both of their titular combatants are equally important.

So what am I getting at with all this rambling? Mainly that the All-or-None ending has a place in storytelling even if it may seem indecisive at first. It's always important to have a clear hierarchy of importance in mind for your characters when you write, and in cases where all of your major players are of equal importance, suddenly shifting most of the attention to one of them at the end can feel a bit out of nowhere and arbitrary.

If you properly set one character apart from the rest throughout the story, perhaps by telling it from their point of view or by giving them the most emphasis in each scene, then making them the focus of the ending would feel a lot more natural. That's not to say that this rule can never be broken, but it's usually best to clearly set something up before paying it off. Otherwise, a lot more stories might come with multiple, interchangeable endings that don't always add up -- and that doesn't fare well outside of comedy.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

That's What She Said

As a writer in the twenty-first century, I sometimes find myself worrying about innuendos. It seems like no matter what you say these days, someone always laughs at it because they've found a sexual double meaning behind it. Sure, innuendos can be funny when they're intentional, like in the Spinal Tap song "Sex Farm" or the "Schwetty Balls" sketch on SNL, but when they're not intended, they can ruin the effect of a scene by turning something harmless into a filthy joke to the audience. Having your work taken the wrong way is probably the biggest fear of any creative person, and with so many slang terms and metaphors for sex floating around in our culture these days, it gets harder and harder to avoid dirty entendres when writing.

Err, I mean, "it gets more and more difficult to avoid dirty entendres when writing."

What's more aggravating is that language is constantly evolving, so words or statements that used to have one particular meaning can develop others over time. Not only does this end up dating a lot of texts, but it can make them a bit awkward to read today. Take the word "ejaculate" for instance. That word was once used fairly often in literature as a synonym for "exclaim" or "blurt out." Since our culture has grown to associate it with another action though, it isn't used much in that first context anymore, or even used much at all. The same goes for words like "penetrate," "erect," or "cleavage." You can almost hear the readers snickering when you put those in a piece of writing.

It can be especially challenging to avoid innuendos when writing fantasy or certain period pieces, since those genres typically use older dialects to make their atmospheres feel more authentic or other-worldly. You don't really like to say the above mentioned words in such stories, despite them being used often with different meanings in the old days. This puts some writers, including myself, in the position of either using replacement words that may not feel as natural for the setting or using the original words with gritted teeth.

It can be even more challenging to come up with names for places and characters in those kinds of stories. As someone who grew up loving Lord of the Rings and who spent a lot of time on message boards and fanfiction websites, I've come across more "Gimli, son of Groin" jokes than I can count. Gimli's father, who appears in The Hobbit, is really named Glóin, but because that name loosely resembles the term for a private body part, that's all some people see when they read it. What turned this annoying fad upside-down for me was reading Tolkien's other Middle Earth works and discovering that...sigh...Gimli's grandfather is actually named Gróin.

Okay, it's not like Tolkien named the character "Gnotti Bitz" or anything like that, but he HAD to be aware that a name like Gróin was going to look odd to readers. I'm pretty certain that the term "groin" existed in England at the time when he wrote those books. Tolkien didn't seem like the type to intentionally slip raunchy humor into his work, and since that name apparently means "Growing One" in Old Norse, I'm guessing that its use is just a case of cultural differences in fiction; it sounds funny to humans, but not to dwarves.

With that being said, I guess finding an innuendo in something serious is really the audience's problem more than the writer's, and I say that as someone who's laughed at a lot of unintended euphemisms myself. As readers, we need to be able to set aside our "That's what she said" mentalities and look at certain things in a more mature mindset. In turn, we writers should still be mindful of the words we use, but not to the point that we labor over every sentence in an effort to sound squeaky clean. We can't please everyone, so we need to learn to get a grip on ourselves, suck it up, and not think so long and hard about it.

And if you laughed at that last sentence, then one or both of us probably did something wrong.