Villains

Sep. 4th, 2017 10:58 am
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I've been thinking about antagonists, or anti-heroes, maybe, people in general. Ones I liked as people, ones I liked the writing of, ones I didn't like, what worked well and what didn't.

And it occurred to me, what commonly works well, is that they have a sympathetic/plausible/justified motivation. But that they go too far or do bad things in the cause of it.

That most of what they think, what you'd see in a story from their point of view, is what you might agree with. That doesn't apply to everyone, some people genuinely spend all day doing horrible things, but there are several advantages to using a character like that, the audience finds it easy to sympathise with them, and so does the writer.

But the other half of the equation is that they do bad, unjustified things, but they usually don't *think* about whether they're ok, they're usually not "here is my complicated justification for why X is ok", they just take it as the way the world is.

You can recognise a spectrum. Some antagonists are not really better or worse than the protagonist, we just empathise with the protagonist because it's their story, the differences is that each just happen to be opposed by circumstance, their moral choices aren't very different. Some antagonists do clearly horrible things.

A common choice is a character who *usually* does bad things but isn't *right now*, and you can get invested in their story and then see if they redeem themselves, or if you get to know them before deciding they're still a horrible person even if you came to like them.

It can also be done inconsistently where the villain see-saws back and forth across "can the audience empathise" because the writer picks some things which are kinda bad and some things which are really horrible without regard to an overall arc.

The first couple of Game of Thrones books do this very well, most of the viewpoint characters I find very sympathetic, even if I hated some of them when reading about what they did from the outside.

An example prominent in my mind was Magneto. I recently saw someone saying "Magneto was right", and I thought that a lot after the first film I saw: that if he *could* fight back and do anything to prevent mutants being systematically contained and abused by society, that makes a lot of sense. It's possible Charles' approach is more likely to work, but it's possible Magneto's is (or more likely, both approaches together are more effective than either alone).

However, as I watched more movies that characterisation seems lost. It seems like in every single movie, Magneto's noble goals lead through a train of tortured reasoning, to "and then mass murder", or "and then genocide". And then the X-men get to be the 'good guys' without having to ask whether a more targeted campaign of violence they'd be wrong to oppose. I'm inclined to put that down to the characterisation suffering for the needs of the plot, because I like the character and don't want to condemn them. Or that it's pushing the message that "any violence leads to too much violence" which I *generally* agree with, but probably not for a minority fighting against their extermination. Or that Magneto has a character flaw where his justified hatred of non-mutants, leads to all his plans ending "and then a massive indiscriminate slaughter of non-mutants" which doesn't seem to actually help.

Books, tv

Aug. 30th, 2017 12:25 pm
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Russel's Attic #3

I think it was kaberett who put me onto these. Some people have not-exactly-supernatural-but-better-than-humanly-possible talent. Cas does maths, so well she can predict paths of bullets and other matrix-reminiscent stuff in real time. And works as a freelance "acquirer".

What's lovely is her relationship with the few people she works with, the PI, the hacker, the office assistant, where she's instinctively opposed to human connections at all, but comes to value a few of them anyway. And Rio, the scary I'm-a-sociopath-but-happen-to-be-on-your-side character.

One of the side stories is "Rio adopts a puppy" and it's, um, very moving, in good ways, but also, without anything very gory happening, rather emotionally scary too.

In book #3, we finally have Cas interacting with research mathematicians, and learning her opinions on various maths research, and it's really quite cool. If you like books about freelance mercenaries and cutting edge mathematical research.

Shambling Guide #2: Ghost Train to New Orleans

A protagonist sucked into working for a publishing house run by a vampire, writing a travel guide for supernatural creatures, the second volume now visiting New Orleans. I enjoyed it, maybe more than the first book, as the worldbuilding has settled down a bit, and it doesn't feel like everything that they encounter came out of nowhere.

Good place

A recent sitcom about a woman who goes to the afterlife, "your notions of heaven and hell are not exactly correct, but there's a good place, and a bad place", and is in the good place by mistake. Or rather, it gets more complicated than that, but that's the premise.

If you like comedy that regularly mentions Kant and Hume, this is it :) The humour isn't very intense, but isn't very cringeworthy, but the relaxed humorous tone lets it explore what that afterlife might be like in ways a more serious attempt wouldn't be able to.
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So, Arrival (the film, adapted from the Ted Chiang story). I didn't have a lot to say about it. Aliens, were great. Linguist, was great. Kind-of-sympathetic kind-of-antagonist military were a bit gratuitous, but generally good. But I did have thoughts about a few specific things.

And, yes, I'm annoyed it wasn't EVEN MORE like a Ted Chiang story than it was, but please do adapt as many Ted Chiang stories as you can. The tower-of-babel one would be amazing...

Spoilers )
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In Lucky Number Slevin, there's a bit where a guy who's life is a disaster gets a second hand tip and makes a bet on a horse race with an (illegal) bookie he can't afford, and unsurprisingly it goes horrible wrong and they try to kill him.

The main moral is "prohibition makes for good films and disastrous government policy".

But then I got to thinking about the mechanics of running a bookie without access to law enforcement and banking infrastructure, and I didn't actually understand it.

I assumed, illegal bookies would exist on a spectrum. The more honest implementation being like a legal bookie: accept bets with cash up-front, or from people you're pretty sure are a good credit risk. Pay out if they win. That's it.

The other end of the spectrum being like a loan shark: extend credit to as many people as possible, let people get in over their heads, and then milk them for as long as possible before their life falls apart in ruins. If anyone decides to just not pay, force them or make an example out of them with physical violence.

But in Slevin, it seems like, the organised crime people knew in advance the mug was broke and could never really pay. So why do they accept the bet at all? As soon as the horse loses, they make a move on him. So they never expected to get *any* money from him whatever the race outcome. Even if you're *willing* to messily kill people, what do they gain by getting into that in the first place?

Is it just to get a splashy example so other people pay up? But don't you want them to dig themselves in FIRST? If you START by scaring everyone, maybe they just won't borrow money from you?
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Caped anthology

A collection of superhero short stories. Not a must-read, but I found all were a good read in a different way.

Archivist Wasp, book

Which was on the wiki of "potential hugo nominations" with a great title. I loved the basic setting, a post-apocalyptic world, where the protagonist is honoured/trapped as the archivist, ghost-hunter, forced each year by the priest to fight to the death to keep her role as intermediate to the supernatural. Straining to keep the community safe from dangerous ghosts, and to record what scraps of information she can, to add to the archives for future archivists.

Then she meets a pre-apocalypse (or contemporary-with-apocalypse) ghost, much stronger than any other, and they flee together, passing through the ghost underworld, and... Well, I liked the start but got bored, so I didn't finish it.

Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi

I loved the premise here, all about life in a mostly-post-uplift solar system. The inner planets are ruled by some of the cabal who were uplifted first, now effectively Gods. The Oubliette is one of the few havens for non-uplifted, but ruled by a massive shared exo-memory, people share or refuse permissions from. Other humans live in the Oort cloud. Jean Le Flambeur is an anti-hero thief, with unspecified ties to the "gods", broken out of a virtual prison to recover... something from Oubliette.

When I first read it, I completely bounced off it. On second reading, all that mostly made sense to me, and I was really interested in it. But I wasn't sure how consistent it could be, if it would be kept up for the following books or not. I will probably try them at some point.

And it constantly felt like they waved "quantum" around as magic, and I'm not sure, if my understanding is lacking, or the book's is.

Better Call Saul

The prequel series to Breaking Bad, about Jimmy McGill (later aka Saul Goodman), an ex-huckster small-time lawyer trying to make good, and torn between his impulses to "be basically decent", "screw everything up" and "open his mouth at the wrong time". From the reviews it sounded like I would enjoy it more than BB, and I quite enjoyed the first half-a-dozen episodes, but then I mostly lost interest.
jack: (Default)
That was pretty good. None of the MCU were perfect for me, but this one did a lot of good stuff. (And some awful stuff as usual :( )

Read more... )
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Another film I think I watched once, but then absorbed a lot more of from popular culture. I think it held up pretty well.

As with many films *about* violence, it walks an uneasy line between talking about it and exploring why some people are drawn to it, and exploring why it's bad.

Spoilers:

Read more... )
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One of the classic films I saw at some point on TV, but wasn't paying enough attention to really follow at the time.

Mostly recounted by Verbal Kint, a small-time confidence trickster in an interview with the police after a bloodbath at a freighter ship, recounting how he and four other guys met at a police line-up, did a robbery, fell into a job set up by legendary illusive crime-lord Keyser Soze, and how he ended up involved in the massacre.

And questioning, what else is going on that makes these events only make sense in retrospect.

It's not exactly a heist movie, but it has some of the same feel, it's a classic if you don't object to fairly violent crime movies, and enjoy an air of intellectual questioning.

Lots of spoilers )
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Hudson Hawk

A film with Bruce Willis as a once-famous cat burglar just getting out of jail, blackmailed into taking several Leonardo Da Vinci related heists. I once played a very good 8-bit platform game based on it, which captured the feel of catburgling quite well for the time. It was one of the first games I actually finished, which was really exciting.

A few bits are really fun, when they sing the same song to time themselves and keep themselves in sync as they go around different parts of the building. And the introduction of the gang with candy-bar codenames. But then it descends from heist movie into slapstick action movie and I mostly lose interest.

Steven Universe

One of the animated children's TV shows which lots and lots of people have been very excited by recently. The crystal gems are three gemstone-themed alien people who protect the earth from various monsters, aided by half-human half-gem Steven.

A lot of people praise the handling of emotional themes, eg. Greta Christina on episode 5: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2015/12/10/steven-universe-episode-5-frybo/ on how one of Steven's friends disappoints his father. It's generally a good role model, having lots of examples of flawed people who are not all good or bad and easily-accessible examples of complicated emotional stuff.

The episodes mostly about some of the humans don't hit my emotions as hard as they do other people, but I also liked a lot else about it.

The gems are all aliens who, it seems, don't have two different sexes, but are all coded as "female" in the show, whatever their role in society. Which I think works very well, considering the number shows which have used "male" as if it were equivalent to "default, no marked gender".

Steven's emotional maturity and skill with his gem powers are shown growing really realistically. It's not always a straightforward "he learns how to do this, and then can do it henceforth", but there's a clear sequence of "he can't do this", "he can do this some of the time and is excited when it works", "he makes a lot of effort and isn't sure if he'll succeed", and finally "he does this fairly reliably". I think, if you watched episodes slightly out of order, it would still work nearly as well, but there's a definite benefit to watching the whole series mostly in order.

And in many ways, the "struggling to learn how to do it" is more realistic than having a "one episode where he learns it". It's very moving to watch Steven progress from automatically being left at home during missions, to being automatically included in the team.

The worldbuilding is great. The early episodes do a very good job of painting the general situation, the gems, raising Steven, protecting the world, etc. But as we slowly learn more, learning about the gems original homeworld, and where the monsters come from, and the history of Steven's mother, we learn a richer story that doesn't contradict what we learned. And it's all sufficiently consistent, it's possible to speculate and be correct, and things introduced in later episodes don't make nonsense of the earlier episodes where they weren't established yet.

I'd rather have MORE of that, but then, it's not aimed primarily at me.

Lucy

Sep. 27th, 2015 05:01 pm
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Lucy is not bad. Lucy is a struggling drop-out in Taipei, who is dragged unwillingly by her new boyfriend into a drug deal gone wrong, used as a drug mule, accidentally ingests a fictional drug which unlocks human potential, acquires lots of psychic powers, and begins transcending humanity into... something.

The first bit, with Taipei drug gangs who don't speak English, is quite effectively scary.

As long as you manage (with GREAT difficulty) to ignore the "only use 10% of our brains" premise, the science is internally fairly consistent.

It's comparatively male-gaze-free, and just passes the Bechdel test (though maybe could have done better).

It paints a good picture of becoming superhuman. OTOH, I was left feeling a bit "...and? so?"

And a few things bugged me. Do international drug gangs really storm French universities in the teeth of a machine-gun battle with interpol? Like, I know I tend to over-estimate how much civil order is the norm, but that seems a bit... blatant? I thought drug gangs, even big ones, tended to try to keep things deniable, to get expendable minions to take the rap and keep going, not take on governments head on. Like, sure, you appear to be able to outgun the first twenty or so police who turn up, but France has tanks.

It wasn't unrealistic, but I was amused by "she won't give up" -- no, you haven't really established whether she'd give up if she had any reason to give up, you've just established she's immune to bullets.

I get, part of becoming superhuman may be caring less about individual human lives (whether or not I agree). But "flipping three policecars into a crowded street market" just seems gratuitously carnage-ful. What was wrong with plan A, "have your policeman friend ask them nicely to stop"? Or plan B "let them follow you to the drug-gang-shootout where they'd be quite handy"? Or plan C, "just ignore them?" Or plan D, "use psychic powers to make them just roll gently to a stop?"

Inside Out

Jul. 30th, 2015 01:21 pm
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Wow. I loved the way the emotions were characterised and worked together in running Riley. I wasn't as engaged by the plot as some people were or as I was in some other Pixar films, I was really interested, but I expected things to happen basically as they did.

There were lots of funny moments. There were a few things that really annoyed me, but not as many as I feared from the trailer.

I thought the basic message about how different feelings contribute to the whole person was really well done, more detail and caveats below.

And wow, it had a lot about feelings and depression and sad moments, which left me really thoughtful, but I suspect will not matter to some people and maybe hit other people like a hammer blow.

Spoilers )
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My tolerance for embarrassment humour has fallen quite a lot. I'm not especially fond of it even in when it's done very well (eg. Fawlty Towers??) And I was questioning why Home (nee The True Meaning of Smeckday) worked for me when many films don't.

I think it might be that it felt compassionate to both sides. Early on in the film there's characterisation of Oh, who is constantly trying to make friends with the other aliens, who are constantly avoiding him. Which is the sort of thing that's usually just painful to watch, and was the point that came closed to cringe-worthy-ness (and may have exceeded it for some of my cinema companions).

But partly, it wasn't doubling down on how awful it was: it was sad, but it didn't get MORE and MORE humiliating. And partly, I empathised with Oh (who was genuinely trying to be nice to people) and also the people he knew (who were being forced into a social situation they didn't want).

That's just a guess, but I find it hard to explain what I want in humour (lots of it but not excruciating) and I keep introspecting about it...

Home

Mar. 30th, 2015 12:27 pm
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Home is an animated film about a teenage black girl who got an A in geometry and a hapless well-meaning alien.

I really enjoyed it! It managed to be really quite funny a lot of the time while never (for me) veering into cringeworthy and embarrassement. I'd like to drill down into exactly what makes that work for me, but at any rate, it did.

And the information security, while cartoon-y, was considerably more accurate than almost any other film I've seen :)

It was also, for me, a good example of a film I had almost no pitpicks about. Like, it had gravity control, and cars that run on slushies, and a magic chip that embeds alien technology in something which are not actually consistent if you look at the physics closely. But THAT'S COMPLETELY FINE because major plot points depended on what we already knew all those things COULD and COULDN'T do and DIDN'T depend on examining them closely. This is what I mean when I worry about films with plot holes -- the worldbuilding should be at a CONSISTENT level of worldbuilding, not necessarily a HIGH level of worldbuilding.

And, similarly, the morality was surprisingly good, while completely implicit. "Conquering a planet with good intentions = BAD" is clearly conveyed without being on the gritty parts. "Running away all the time = ENDEARING, SENSIBLE BUT FLAWED". Etc.

I realised about half way through that Oh was played by the same actor as Sheldon from the big bang theory, and Oh was endearing in some of the same ways but (importantly for me) didn't seem to have some of the problematic aspects.
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Thank you to ghoti and B for taking Liv and me to the cinema, which we wouldn't have otherwise got round to do. And it was nice being with someone who could say what interesting things there were in the background that you only knew by reading the books.

I made a giant effort to be positive and not give in to the desire to nitpick, because there were lots of worldbuilding things that made NO SENSE (see rant below), and I do enjoy ranting about that, but I don't have anything more to say about that than I have in previous rants. Whereas it's easy to miss the good things in a flawed film, even if they're actually really interesting and exciting.

Brief summary

A post-apocalyptic world is divided into five factions: clever, brave, selfless, peaceful and honest (erudite, dauntless, abnegation, amity and candor). Except for people who don't fit who are taboo.

Things I liked

I liked that the middle book/film of the trilogy had the big climax, and the third is what's beyond that climax. (I loved the scouring of the shire at the end of LOTR.)

The protagonist had agency, and made decisions, and generally mattered.

I liked the characterisation of the factions, and the rest of the city, the visuals of each were very impressive.

The plot wasn't just a linear a-to-b, it goes through several iterations where different people's decisions matter.

There's a reasonable number of female characters, including amongst the soldiers and leaders. It passes the Bechdel test not as much as it might, but clearly.

Is this a VR sim? Is this still VR a sim? How about now?

Jack Kang (leader of candor, played by Daniel Dae Kim)'s face.

Things to think about

Is complete non-violence possible without a police force backing you up? (I'm leaning to no, that non-violence is an ideal which is attained by increasingly large proportion of society, but you always need to police people who don't agree somehow.)

When is it ok to make the decision to execute someone, if ever? (I'm leaning to, when they're clearly going to go on killing people if you don't.)

Divergent factions. Hogwarts houses. DnD alignments. Chalion gods. Myers-Briggs personalities. Real and fictional, which are the most interesting ways of categorising people? Which are useful? Are any a clear division rather than a spectrum? Are you more like onion-layers, or a mix, or a this-means and this-end?

Nitpick rants

Where is the train going from? Where to?

How can a post-apocalyptic society have 20% of people be solicitors and nobody work in factories? Where does all the high-tech come from? What proportion of people are faction-less and how do they live?

Why don't they use truth-serum in trials by default?

When people do unethical things for bullshit reasons, is that because the bullshit is bad worldbuilding true within the confines of the story, or because they're lying to themselves, or somewhere between?

Why does everyone expect evil power-grabbing woman to just stop when it's proved her reasons for power-grabbing were bullshit?

The whole thing feels like a small town level of population, but the propaganda and council politics don't seem to make sense on that level.

I think some of these make more sense in the book. But I'm trying not to dwell on them, most don't make a difference to the good bits.
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Lego Movie

This was really fun! A few things made me uncomfortable, but in general it was really fun. I must watch it again with Liv.

Where were everyone's posts they made when it came out and I didn't read because of spoilers?

Kick Ass 2

Good continuation of the previous film, building on Red Mist and Kick Ass's friends, and designing a world with a multitude of superheroes, and managing to make an idea of a world with superheroes seem both subverted and realistic. But it balanced less well on the tightrope of making the excessive violence seem non-gratuitous than the previous film, and didn't add as much.

Orphan Black

In many ways, this felt like the series I'd been waiting for for ages. Lots of clones, what-is-the-meaning-of-identity, good female characters, excellent gay character, characters with children who were characters etc, etc. But it felt like it almost came too late. It's excellent, but it didn't add much to what I already knew I wanted. We already have identical twins: human cloning is revolutionary biologically, but isn't really philosophically interesting; and I didn't care what plan the evil company/cult had, since I couldn't see why it would matter; and it fell into the trap of having tension which was obviated by events.

So it was excellent, but I didn't love it as much as I hoped to yet. (I hope I will love it more over time.)

Gone with the Wind

Holy cheesus, this was racist! I mean, I knew that, but... Good characters, good portrayal of the american civil war. A good portrait of how it felt really awful to be an American southern land-owner when all the people you'd enslaved ran off and you had to pick your own cotton. But, you know, nary a mention that "running off" wasn't just an irresponsible quirk, but a human right :(

Even looking at the main characters, it felt like a tragedy. Why couldn't Scarlett live in a time when she could have owned a lumber mill and ran a business, which she was pretty good at, and slept with whoever she fancied without having to make her whole life about that :(

Noah film

Nov. 10th, 2014 10:40 pm
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The Noah film was actually interesting, although only so-so to actually watch. It made more sense as a story than I was expecting, more sense than I expected from most Noah films.

In many ways it felt like a vision of interesting theology, an interesting view of the early pre-flood world with all sorts of weirdnesses which are gone now, interesting moral questions, interspersed with an angry red pen scribbling "needs more fighting!"

The ark was the least ship-like ark I've ever seen, more like a cuboidal container ship. Which I guess makes as much sense as anything else.

It was full of quite interesting questions -- I don't know if any of these come from religious tradition, I had the impression most of them were made up on the spot, but they fit the *sort* of thing you'd expect.

The world was populated with mostly descendants of Cain, who did all the falling-into-wickedness, here portrayed as over-building an industrial civilisation and over-hunting, in contrast to Noah who won't even pick flowers. Noah is the only proper descendant of Seth.

There were "fallen" angels, more of the curiosity, mischief and disobedience, cursed to roam the earth as stone giants with a hidden fire, until those killed defending the ark are freed to return to heaven.

Noah (Russel Crowe) is seized with doubt whether the human race should continue. He has three sons and an adopted daughter (Emma Watson) who is de-facto betrothed to eldest Shem, but can't have children. He tries to rescue some more women or girls, but fails. And takes this as a sign the human race should die out. And then Emma Watson is miraculously cured again, and everyone else takes this as a sign, but he doesn't. Which I think is wrong, but is exactly the sort of morality tale which plays out in the bible with a hundred different interpretations, like Abraham and Isaac.

In fact, there's almost quite an ecological message. Humanity destroys the world through over-hunting, over-mining, over-consumption and violence, which leads to a giant water-level-rise. The best, strongest people are completely vegetarian, probably vegan; eating meat is potentially tasty but really horrible. Serious thought is given to not continuing the human race, but on balance, it's decided on mercy.

And there's surprisingly little God. Noah has a prophetic dream. There's a few miraculous things left over from the early days of the Earth. But other than that, everyone wants to love or resent the creator but felt abandoned by Them. There's mention of temptation, but it's all abstract, there's no personification of the devil. I'd assumed the film was pushed by someone pushing a particular Christian ideology, but now I'm not sure, it seemed to try hard to be interesting and open, even if it had some unfortunate flaws.

Read more... )
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Now you see me had a good premise, as a fun artsy heist movie about four magicians who are recruited by a mysterious benefactor to form a show called the four horsemen, where each show climaxes in stealing money from a bank live on stage, while the FBI hesitate over whether to arrest them or not.

It's a natural fit, of "how did they do it" blending between heist and stage magic. But I felt it didn't follow through.

It had some excellent characters. Jesse Eisenberg as a Mark-Zuckerberg-esque smarmy but personable, clever and ambitious young magician, the de-facto leader. Woody Harlseston, playing a dark version of Woody-from-cheers. Mark Ruffalo as the FBI agent, and the other two magicians were reasonably good too, although the other two magicians didn't get enough time to shine.

And it had Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. But Caine and Freeman didn't really seem to have their hearts in it, they looked like they were reading from a script, alas, whereas the lesser known actors looked like they were doing it for real.

But the concept relies on lining up all the tricks so they look impossible and then make sense when you find out what's really going on, and that everyone who thinks they're one step ahead of the other side is actually two steps behind. And the film seemed to fall into a trap of doing things that looked cool, but then trying to justify them afterwards, and when that didn't really make sense, it ruined the effect of "these characters have a clever plan".