Unreview: Knives Out

Unreview Rules

  • I have to like it
  • I have to pay for it
  • I do my best to use E-Prime

NO SPOILERS

I grew up with Sherlock Holmes. He taught me the value of reason and logic (even if he did mix up “induction” and “deduction”). The quirky detective with all his faults and foibles served as one of my first heroes. Later, I learned of Hercule Poirot through The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Even later, Dashiell Hammett introduced me to the Continental Op and Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler gave me Philip Marlowe. But my favorite—my all time favorite—has got to be Columbo and his “anti-mysteries.” If you aren’t familiar, the structure of a Columbo movie (they were all TV movies) showed you the crime right up front, making the criminal the main character, and the suspense was wondering how Columbo would solve it. And that’s only half the fun. The other half is watching a seemingly bumbling, clumsy, rumpled police detective wander around from scene to scene. I say “seemingly” because behind that cigar and under that coat was a brilliant mind with a trickster’s smile.

So yeah, I got some game in this market. I sat down in the theater with my small bag of popcorn and watched the seats slowly fill up. For the first time in many months (I go to the movies a lot) someone sat in nearly every seat. I couldn’t remember a theater being that full.

Waiting for the movie to start, I’m thinking about the director, Rian Johnson. I love his work. He has this skill for taking the tropes of a genre and twisting them up. You’ve got expectations, he’ll dash them while maintaining true to the tropes themselves. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and he always pulls it off magnificently.

And this film takes the classic, old fashioned murder mystery (what Neil Simon calls “murder poo!” in his play Murder by Death) and plays that juggling act with the kind of expertise and clever plotting that he used in Brick.

(And if you haven’t seen Brick, you should. Like, right now.)

The audience around me visibly reacted to the movie. They laughed, they gasped, they inched to the edge of their seats and I was right there with them. And as I sat there in the dark, enamored with what I watched, I thought to myself, “This is what going to the movies is all about.” Getting a visceral reaction from the audience.

Benoit Blanc, as played by Daniel Craig, has quickly jumped up in my estimation of private detectives. Taking a little of Holmes, Poirot and Columbo, Johnson created a character I honestly hope to see again on the silver screen. I know sequels are traps, but I honestly love this character. And he’s not the only one. The entire cast chews on the scenery and has a blast doing it. And like Richard Levinson and William Link (the two gentlemen who created Columbo), he’s created a brand new way to tell a murder mystery. I won’t say anything else other than it amused me to no end.

A friend of mine recently said, “Rian Johnson is dead to me for what he did” to The Last Jedi. And while I felt that was probably his weakest film (I still liked it), I feel sorry for him because he won’t see this movie. I’m going back this weekend to see it again and I’d pay for his ticket.

My D&D Character: Barbarian

My name? I do not have a name. I am called The Heinig.

My people were a peaceful tribe living in the mountains. We abhorred violence, but we understood its necessity. That is why I was chosen to carry the wrath of the tribe. When I was old enough, I went with the other children of my tribe to stand before the shaman. I remember it now. A dark night, we sat around the fire and drank what she gave us. We went before the Goddess, and we were tested. When it was done, the Goddess chose me. And I became the wrath of my people. I was given this axe. I would be their protector. So my people would not need to commit the Gravest Sin, I carried this axe.

What is the Gravest Sin? It is murder. Why do you not know this? Why do your people and your gods not teach you this? Is there any sin greater than that?

This is why I am The Heinig. I carry this axe so no other in my tribe needs to.

But I failed them. A horde of humans ran through my village with steel and fire, killing them all. They left me alive. They thought it was a game. They were all dead and their protector is still alive. And that is how they left me: with my axe and my tribe bleeding in the snow.

When I am very quiet, at night, I can see them. Trapped in this world, unable to pass into the next, for their spirits are unavenged. They sing to me. They do not sing me songs of shame, for they are too kind for that. They sing me songs of strength, so that I may carry on. To let me know that I do not carry this shame alone. They are still with me. And when I am weak, they carry me. When I weep, they laugh. When I doubt, they remind me of what I am.

That is why I shaved my head and my beard and that is why I travel the world. Not for riches. Not for magic. All these things are a means to an end.

I hunt those who murdered my people for sport. And when I find them, I will kill them. Because I am The Heinig. The wrath of my people.

And they will be avenged.

Gencon 7th Sea Larp

 

At Gencon this year, I ran a 7th Sea LARP for about 40 people. Afterward, I got a lot of positive feedback and people asking me exactly how it worked, what game design process I went through and a bunch of other questions. Since I’ve gotten so many questions, here are some answers.

Now, just to let you know, this is a behind the curtain essay. If you’re the kind of person who watches a magic trick and doesn’t want to know how it works, I highly suggest not reading after a certain point. I’ll let you know when that is. But first, just a quick summary of how the rules worked for the folks who played the game in Indianapolis. Also, if you’re gonna be at Strategicon in Los Angeles around the end of August, this is the larp I’ll be running, so you may also want to avoid the spoilers listed below. I’ll be making some changes, and the game literally changes at the players’ whims, so don’t expect too much “advantage” from reading ahead. Besides, this is a live action roleplaying game. Who the @#$% tries to win a roleplaying game?

(Psst: vampire larpers.)

Oh, that’s right. Never mind. Forgot I asked.

How the Game Works

I set the game in the city of Five Sails. Now, Five Sails is an independent city-state. It belongs to no Nation. “The City where everyone is a king, but nobody wears a crown.” (I stole that line, by the way.) Now, the city is divided into Districts, each “governed” by one of the Nations. There’s a Vodacce district, a Castille district, a Commonwealth district, etc. Every year, the governors of each district vote on a mayor.

Well, the mayor is gone. Presumed dead. Presumed murdered. And one of the governors is responsible. May not have done it themselves, but one of them has the mayor’s blood on their hands.

The players each represent a faction of Heroes working for one of the governors. In the Indianapolis game, I let the players choose which governor they wanted to work for. (This is the first thing I’m changing for the Los Angeles version: players will get divided randomly by drawing numbers out of a hat.)

First Economy: Traits

The game had a number of economies going on (things the players could use during the game.) The first was Traits.

Each player had an index card sized character sheet. The card had only the five 7th Sea Traits: Brawn, Finesse, Wits, Resolve, and Panache. Heroes had scores of 2-5 in their Traits. I also gave some return players (folks who had played in previous 7th Sea larps and brought the same character) and folks who dressed in costume a bonus ability they could use during the game. I had a half-Sidhe pirate, a Montaigne Porté mage and an Eisen mercenary who all got bonus stuff on their sheets.

Next, I introduced the players to the Clues on the table behind me. Each Clue was in a manilla envelope with a cryptic description. Each envelope also had a number of Trait points the players needed to spend to open the envelope. Brawn: 10, for example. That meant the players needed to get enough players to agree to spend 10 points of Brawn to open that envelope and read the Clue. Some Clues were cheap (Finesse: 5) and some Clues were expensive (All Traits: 5). The value of the Clue corresponded to the number of Traits the players had to spend.

Each Clue read similar to this one:

The Governor of ___________________ District owed the Mayor 10,000 Guilders.

I told the players they could fill in whichever governor they wanted. It could be the Vodacce governor, the Castillian governor, etc. And they didn’t have to fill it in right away. They could keep it, show it to the players representing another governor’s interests, and bargain for a trade of some kind.

The clues were deliberately vague for a purpose: at the end of the game, everyone would vote on which governor was responsible for killing the Governor. More on that in a bit.

Second Economy: Guilders and Improvements

The players also had a number of Guilders (coins) they could use as they saw fit. They could use the Guilders to buy Clues, for example. But each district also had a number of Improvements it wanted built in its part of the city. Montaigne wanted a new opera house, Eisen wanted a new garrison, etc. Each Improvement cost 10 Guilders. Once a player–and it had to be a single player–gave over the 10 Guilders for the Improvement, they got the card. Completing an Improvement was worth one Trait refresh. That is, a player could turn in an Improvement card and completely refresh one Trait (Brawn, Finesse, etc.).

Third Economy: Hero Points

Players also had Hero Points they could use like Style Points in my Houses of the Blooded larp. In short, I offer you a Hero  Point and ask you a question: “Isn’t it true that I beat you in a duel two years ago?” You can either say, “Yes” or “No” to this question. If you say, “Yes,” you get the Hero Point. If you say, “No,” I can offer your more Hero Points or just move on to another player, offering them the Hero Point.

Players can also ask me questions about the city, the mayor, etc., by offering me (the Host) Hero Points. If I say, “Yes,” I add it to a list of truths about the city at the front of the room. If I say, “No,” I can’t be bribed. It’s just one and done with me.

Hero Points give the players the opportunity to create stories and backgrounds between themselves, create rivalries, allies and enemies. You cannot force someone to take a Hero Point. It’s 100% consensual. (Because RPGs are more like sex than most people realize.)

The Artifacts

Finally, there’s the Artifacts. Hidden in the game were four Syrneth Artifacts: relics from a civilization that walked Théah before humans. If a group found an Artifact, they could use it to establish whether a governor was a Hero or a Villain. Of course, this significantly influenced the question of which governor was responsible for killing the mayor.

The Pirates and My Ringer

Oh, and in addition to the city factions, I also had a pirate faction. They were in town and offering their services to help solve the murder. I made up the pirate faction as soon as I saw so many people dressed appropriately. They turned out to be a loud, rowdy group who sang shanties and did their best to cause trouble.

I had Jessica along as a ringer. She was playing the half-Sidhe pirate. Jessica is perfect for this job. She’s helpful, knowledgable and when you give her the ability to do anything, she uses it responsibly. So, I gave her the power to do anything. She is a Sidhe, after all.

How It Played

The players made their character sheets out–a total of two minutes–and listened to the description I gave above, the whole spiel took about ten minutes. That included questions. After that, we were ready to play.

Each group started haltingly, testing the waters. Except the Eisen bunch. They went straight to work.

Two duelists–one a Montaigne and the other a pirate–seemed to start a kind of rivalry. They came to me and asked me how the system would handle a duel. I told them, “Offer each other Hero Points. Whoever accepts gets to say who won the duel.” They apparently decided to spend the game collecting as many Hero Points as possible to offer the other at the end of the game to win the duel. That meant they had to say “Yes” to a lot of things to get those Hero Points. And, at the end of the game, they offered each other a mass of Hero Points and agreed on a winner. But more on that later.

The flow of the game was groups of players trying to work together to get as many people they could together to “find clues.” One by one, they opened them up and decided on how to fill the blanks.

They exchanged Hero Points establishing relationships with each other, creating rivalries and friendships. And they showed the Clues to each other as they opened them, asking rival factions how much they wanted to pay to keep the Clue from pointing at their governor.

And I… did… nothing.

Honestly. I’ve heard so many people tell me how busy a GM is at a larp, and during my larps, I largely walk around and listen or sit down and watch. That’s because with Hero Points (Style Points in Houses of the Blooded and Blood in my little vampire larp), the players make the drama. I don’t need to do anything. I just toss the pitch and let the players hit the ball, and let them field it.

Because every player has Hero Points, they’re all empowered to make decisions. They can see a player they want to engage and can offer them Hero Points to engage them. I give them the power to do it. But more importantly, I give them the permission to do it. Hero Points are abstract, they aren’t just GM encouragement. They’re a mechanic. And because of that, it’s okay for you to spend them any way you want, so long as you can convince someone else to say, “Yes.”

In a matter of an hour, three of the four Artifacts were found. The players decided which governors were Heroes and which were Villains. The fourth was in Jessica’s possession, and I knew she’d have it show up when it was appropriate. One group who found one of the Artifacts asked if they could use it on the captain of the pirate faction. I told them, “You have to get his permission.” So, they went to him, offered him Hero Points, and he agreed to become a Villain.

And speaking of Villains…

These were mine. My friends I met in Italy. They were the representatives of the Vodacce district. I asked if they would play Villains for me, and they jumped at the chance.

I gave them Villain Points instead of Hero Points. And I said, “Tell the players that Villain Points act exactly like Hero Points, but when you spend them, something awful might happen. Be sure to tell John when you spend them.”

They asked me, “What do Villain Points do?”

I told them. And they smiled. But that’s for later.

I also told them, “Your job isn’t to thwart the players. It’s to get thwarted by the players. You are obstacles to overcome. Let them do it.” They agreed.

So, I gave them Villain Points, a bunch of coins to bargain with, and they were off.

(And that’s Jessica grinning in the background.)

How It Ended

The players managed to discover all the Clues and Artifacts and get all the Improvements made. (That tells me I made things too easy for them. I’ll change that for Los Angeles.) Jessica gave out a few faerie gifts and it looked like the Eisen were in a clear lead for “most productive faction.”

The two women (Pirate and Montaigne) who wanted to perform a duel did so. I set it up like the pro wrestling larp my friend Dan and I run: I had them sit in two chairs just out of reach of each other and asked them to narrate the duel to the other players. They offered each other Hero Points to determine the winner and the Pirate came out on top. They narrated the duel with a lot of pantomime and drama and because the other players didn’t know who was going to win, they were cheering and booing the whole way.

After considering all the Clues, each faction voted on who was responsible for the mayor’s death: the Montaigne governor. And then, when it was all over, I had everyone vote on which player would take his place. Then, we all cheered, I closed the game, and we took pictures.

Spoilers: Behind the Scenes

Like I said, a lot of folks asked me to break down how I pulled all this off. It must have seemed like an incredible feat of game design engineering. At least, that’s what I’m told. People asked me how I kept all the players so entertained. “I’ve never been to a larp where I wasn’t bored at least part of the time.”

Well, here’s the big secret, folks. And, like I said, if you don’t want to know any spoilers or see how the trick is done, turn away now. Just stop reading. And now, with no further ado…

 

 

 

 

 

… I made it all up.

Seriously. I just made it all up.

I sat down on the morning of the larp and wrote down 30 Clues. Took me about forty minutes.

Then, I thought about what kind of cool thing the players could do with the Artifacts. I took a shower–the source of all good ideas–and thought about it. I decided, “The Artifacts let the players decide which governors are Heroes and Villains.” That worked.

How many coins did I give each faction? Eh, I made it up. I had a bag of coins and I decided some factions should get more than others. I knew the Montaigne faction was the smallest, so I gave them the most coins. Seemed to make thematic sense. (Also, the Montaigne faction came damn close to winning the election. They were good players.)

And finally, while I was running the game (which was me pretty much walking around and watching), I rewarded players with Hero Points and Kewl Powerz. Like giving some folks a free Trait Refresh. Or giving others bonus Brawn.

But the most important thing I did was trust the players. I gave them the ability to be GMs themselves (with Hero Points) and let them go. And when one of them got a little over-eager with the idea, I reminded them, “This is just a game. There’s no winning or losing. It’s about telling a story.

Now, you may argue that “winning” is figuring out who murdered the mayor. Yeah, sure. I guess. But really, everyone was going to vote on that anyway.

You may say that getting the Artifacts was winning. Yeah, sure. I guess. But it wasn’t zero sum winning. You didn’t win because someone else lost. You wanted to say something true about the governor, and you did. Great! You set a goal and you got it. But that really doesn’t count as “winning,” does it? At least, not at another player’s expense.

The players set their own agendas and had the tools to accomplish them…as long as they got consent from other players. And that’s really how the game runs. That’s the big secret:

 

Give players the power to be the GM and trust they’ll tell stories with it.

 

If you tell players that’s what your game is about–like I did–they’ll generally do it. Didn’t Mr. Miyagi teach us all that? Let me paraphrase: “No such thing as bad player. Only bad game. Game say, player do.” The game says, “Here’s narration rights. Be responsible.” Do that, and players will, generally, do what they’re told.

A bunch of larp people were at the game and they commented on how it seemed there was no system. No formal dueling mechanic, no mechanic for sorcery, no mechanic for mass combat. “Yeah,” I said. “We don’t need it.”

And that’s the truth. In a cooperative storytelling game (like RPGs and larps), what mechanics do you really need? I’ll tell you what you need: a mechanic that encourages people to cooperate and tell stories.

Everything else… it’s just nonsense.

 

 

Oh, and what do Villain Points do?

My Vodacce players know. Ask them. I’m sure they’ll quote you a fair price.

 

My Superman

 

(With acknowledgement to Mike Curry without whom this story wouldn’t exist.)

A bank robbery. Six suspects, all with incredible, inhuman speed and strength. Their eyes glowing an eerie cobalt blue. Fortunately for them, they decided to rob a Metropolis bank and not a Gotham bank. If they had chosen the latter, they’d all have broken bones and possibly brain tissue trauma. Fortunately for them, they chose Metropolis.

About one minute and fifteen seconds after the robbery starts, he shows up. Like a blue and red blur, he moves through the bank, grabbing guns and bending them around the robbers’ bodies. He does this so quickly, cameras can’t catch it.

When he gets to the last robber, the man has a hostage: a man in his sixties who looks like he may fall apart at any moment. The last robber–Reggie Spenser–is a black man with a crew cut. He moves like a professional soldier because he was one. Reggie makes a couple of threats, then finds himself in the same position as his comrades: his gun melted and bent around his body, immobilizing him. Reggie looks up and sees the clear blue eyes and black hair. But what he doesn’t see is malice or hate.

“@#$% you!” he shouts at the Man of Steel. But instead of more violence, the soft baritone asks him a question.

“What led you here?”

Reggie looks confused. “Whuddyou mean?”

“I mean, what led you to the decision to rob a bank? You’re strong. You’re smart. What brought you here, this day, to aim lethal weapons at people and threaten their lives?”

That’s when Reggie realizes that the Last Son of Krypton isn’t just super strong and super fast, but there’s something in his voice that…it isn’t mesmerization. It isn’t anything forceful. It’s just…

Empathy.

Reggie looks into those eyes and hears the voice and realizes, He actually cares. 

“We were Marines. They did something to us. Put us in a box. This blue smoke filled it up and we passed out. And when we woke up, this is what we were. They said we were a mistake and tried to kill us. We’ve been off the grid ever since.”

Reggie hears sirens. And the baritone voice again.

“What’s your name?”

Reggie tells him.

“Reggie, you’re going to face the criminal justice system. More than likely, you’re going to jail. I can’t help you with that. Tell your story to your lawyer. Trust him. I know the woman who runs the Public Defender’s Office. They’re overworked, but they’re good people.”

The sirens get closer and he continues.

“You’re probably going to jail.” He puts his large hand on Reggie’s shoulder. “But when you get out, I’ll be there. And we’ll both make sure you get a fresh start.”

 

Three years later…

 

Reggie Spenser walks out of Metropolis Prison. He’s carrying only what he carried in with him. Standing outside the prison is a tall man in a blue suit with a red cape.

“Hey man,” Reggie says. “Thanks for the visits. I don’t know if I could have made it without ’em.”

The man in the blue suit says, “You’re strong. You would have made it.”

Reggie smiles and says, “Those cookies really come from your mom?”

“They sure did.”

“Tell your mom she makes great cookies.”

The Man of Steel says, “I found the men who did this to you. They’re in custody. The District Attorney says he needs your testimony to finish off his case.”

Reggie thinks for a moment. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll do that.”

“It’s not going to be easy,” Superman says. “You’ve got a hard road ahead of you. There are people who want you to fail.”

“@#$% them,” Reggie says.

“Not the language I’d use, but I appreciate the sentiment. Come on. I’ll fly you over.”

 

Meanwhile, across the river, Gotham Central Hospital just admitted four bank robbers with cranial fractures. Two of them might make it.

 

* * *

 

Mike Curry and I were talking.I had just watched a documentary on Mr. Rogers and was commenting on how decent a human being he was, all the way through. That got Mike thinking about how to introduce Superman to a group of roleplayers. He said “I have Batman, but I haven’t gotten Superman figured out.”

Then, he said, “What if Superman was like Mr. Rogers?”

And thus, this story.

Thanks, Mike.

 

Unreview: WWE 2018 Survivor Series

 

Vince McMahon has committed many sins in his life (And by “sin,” I mean the original meaning of the word: “falling short.”), but this is perhaps the one sin for which a wrestling promoter can never be forgiven: he has lost control of his audience.

Everything you see in a wrestling show leads to a single purpose: to control the audience. Make them cheer, make them boo, make them laugh, make them cry. Wrestlers do this in their matches by structuring the contest in such a way that you feel what they want you to feel. The villain cheats, you shout angry epithets at the ring. The hero makes a comeback, you jump to your feet and cheer. And a wrestling show is constructed in the very same way. Just like plays, movies, books, and TV shows, promoters design their wrestling shows to manipulate the emotions of the audience.

Last night on WWE’s 2018 edition of Survivor Series, after taking a brutal and seemingly endless beating which left Ronda Rousey with a beet red chest, a broken lip, a bleeding ear, criss-cross marks on her arms, and visible open wounds, the crowd boo’d her out of the building. The problem was, the beating she took was designed to make the crowd boo her opponent…who walked out of the arena with cheers and chants of “Thank you!” It was the exact opposite result McMahon and his writers wanted.

Watching Rousey walk the ramp to the back choked me up right to the edge of tears. Yes, wrestling matches are choreographed stunt shows, but you can’t fake gravity and you can’t ignore pain. The beating Rousey went through was real. You can watch it. Just do a Google search and look at what her body looked like.

See those marks on her arm? Those aren’t make up. Those are legit marks from getting hit over and over and over again with a shinai. The woman was in pain. The attack—performed by Ric Flair’s daughter, Charlotte—was one of the cruelest and vicious things I’ve seen in years. And as a wrestling fan, I lived through the Horseman beatings in GCW. I saw the Piper-Valentine strap match. I’ve seen Bruiser Brody and Abdullah the Butcher. And I watched the Mick Foley-Undertaker Hell in a Cell match live, holding my breath the whole time. This was uncomfortable to watch because Charlotte did not pull any punches. It felt real.

And yet, when it was over, Charlotte was the one who was cheered and Rousey’s hometown crowd simply turned on her. The exact opposite effect of what the creators desired.

How could this happen?

Because Vince McMahon has lost control of his audience. And tonight was just a symptom of a much deeper problem: he thinks his fanbase is stupid.

Let me explain using an example from last night. In wrestling, there’s a long tradition of something called “the promoter’s son effect.” That is, whoever happens to be in charge of the wrestling company pushes his (or sometimes her) son above all the other talent. This creates resentment in the locker room as they watch someone without as much talent, charisma, or wrestling skill gets pushed above and beyond everyone else. It was true of the Von Erich boys in World Class, it was true of Greg Gagne in the AWA, it was true of Erik Watts in WCW…the list simply goes on and on.

Last night’s PPV was to pit the two WWE shows against each other: Raw vs Smackdown. And in the end, Raw won 6-out-of-6 matches, giving them a clean sweep. Why was the show written this way? To give Shane McMahon—Vince’s son—a reason to “turn heel.” That is, to become a villain.

That’s right. Vince threw an entire show’s roster under the bus so his son could have an excuse to become a villain. He made everyone on that show look weak and/or foolish for his son. Perhaps the ultimate example of the promoter’s son effect.

And he does this thinking the fanbase won’t notice. But there’s a problem here. Wrestling fans are a lot more media savvy than they were back in the ’70’s and ’80’s. More savvy than they were in the ’90’s, when wrestling had its Modern Golden Age. We’ve been through TV and media that have demanded a lot from us. Shows like LostAmerican Horror StoryGame of ThronesThe Sopranos, and Breaking Bad actually forced its audience to smarten up and watch with a critical eye. Websites devoted to finding easter eggs and foreshadowing in shows have made their audiences keener than they’ve ever been before.

Problem is, the WWE thinks they’re still selling their product to rubes and marks.

Used to be, when a villain cheated to win a match, the crowd would get angry at the villain. They left the sports auditorium thinking, “That dirty Ole Anderson is gonna get it when Dusty gets his hands on him!”

But a modern audience doesn’t think that way anymore. When they’re unhappy with a match’s results, they get mad at the promoter.

Case in point: two years ago was the Year of Daniel Bryan. Bryan is a wrestler with incredible skills, one of the best performers in the world. And at the time, WWE treated him like a joke because he didn’t look like Hulk Hogan, John Cena or Roman Reigns. He was a comedy act. The fans hated this and voiced their displeasure whenever they could. They’d chant his name during his matches. They’d chant his name during other peoples’ matches. And when he lost, they’d boo, even though he was a heel. The fans simply did not care how McMahon treated Bryan, they cheered. Because, at the time, the crowd felt that if they cheered loud enough, Vince would change his mind.

Well, their plan worked. Sort of. Daniel Bryan did become the WWE champion…but his reign would be short-lived. He would be played off as a fluke and lose the title to someone of McMahon’s choosing and the fans would be happy to watch it happen. Circumstances would strip Daniel Bryan of the title early: a lifetime of hard matches convinced the WWE medical staff that wrestling was no longer safe. And for two years, Bryan was a non-wrestling talent in the WWE, serving as a manager.

But Bryan was, like last night’s event, a symptom of that same problem. So were wrestlers such as Sasha Banks, Bayley, Asuka, and Finn Balor. All great talents that the fans were ready to get behind…but Vince remained unconvinced. So, he buried them in the middle of the roster while his hand-picked heroes and villains thrived, despite what the audience wanted.

The crowd believed it could change Vince’s mind. After all, it worked with Daniel Bryan. So, they continued to cheer for their favorites, regardless of what Vince was doing with them. This includes a woman named Becky Lynch.

The fans have decided they love Becky Lynch. And, as a lifetime wrestling fan, I can see why. She’s got talent. She looks fantastic in the ring. She has charisma. And she can put on a damn good show. Everyone loves Becky Lynch…

…so Vince made her a villain.

And the crowd didn’t care. They kept cheering her, no matter what the WWE tried to do.

Last night, Becky was supposed to be on the show. It was supposed to be Becky Lynch vs Ronda Rousey. Unfortunately, one of Vince’s hand picked golden tickets—the Rock’s cousin, Nia Jax—hit Becky in the face, breaking her nose and giving her a concussion. (The latest in a long string of injuries dealt by the severely undertrained Nia Jax.) That meant the WWE needed to replace Becky Lynch. They replaced her with Charlotte Flair.

As soon as the match started, the crowd started chanting Becky’s name. They didn’t want this match. They wanted Becky Lynch. Fortunately, the two women put on one of the best WWE matches I’ve seen in years. And I mean any match, put on by men or women. I was on the edge of my seat.

And then, in the middle of it, Charlotte just decided, “Screw this, I’m disqualifying myself.” In wrestling parlance, it’s called a “F—ck finish.” And when you do one of these, you have to make sure the crowd is with you, or they’ll turn on the match.

And that’s exactly what happened last night. The crowd was so pissed at the “non ending” of the match, they started booing the hero and cheering the villain.

At long last, the crowd has figured out a troubling truth: if they can’t yell at Vince, they’ll yell at the talent.

Last night’s audience turned into an angry mob, and they were going to throw their feces and fire at someone. Vince wasn’t there, so they decided to throw it at Ronda Rousey. The woman who just went through a real beating, had open wounds on her scalp, on her ear, on her arms and legs. And as she walked up the stage, and she heard those people throwing their derision at her, she started to cry.

That’s when I knew I just couldn’t watch the WWE anymore. I just can’t.

I can’t watch Vince McMahon take talent like Asuka, Bayley, Daniel Bryan, Finn Balor, and many, many others and piss their careers down the drain because he doesn’t know how to “get them over” with the crowd.

Sorry, Vince. Your failure of imagination is not my problem. And I’m tired of rewarding it.

 

 

 

Unreview: Suspiria

 

Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to pay for it,
  2. I have to like it,
  3. I do my best to use E-Prime

 

Go see it. I mean what I say. Go see it.

Don’t read reviews, don’t listen to anyone else. Just go see it. Sit in a dark theater—alone or with someone you trust—and sit through the whole movie, even through the credits. The whole thing, start to end, to after the end. Go see it.

Why? Because I’m sick and @#$%ing tired of Vancian magic.

What is “Vancian magic?” Well, according to TV Tropes.com:

 

  1. Magical effects are packaged into distinct spells; each spell has one fixed purpose. A spell that throws a ball of fire at an enemy just throws balls of fire, and generally cannot be “turned down” to light a cigarette, for instance.
  2. Spells represent a kind of magic bomb which must be prepared in advance of actual use, and each prepared spell can be used only once before needing to be prepared again. That’s why it is also known as “Fire & Forget magic.”
  3. Magicians have a finite capacity of prepared spells which is the de facto measure of their skill and/or power as magicians. A wizard using magic for combat is thus something like a living gun: he must be “loaded” with spells beforehand and can run out of magical “ammunition”.

 

I’m sick and @#$%ing tired of wizards being treated like Swiss Army knives. A spell for every occasion! Memorizing spells, forgetting them when cast, and having to re-memorize them again.

I’m sick of it. And I want more people to see this film and understand what I’m talking about when I talk about real magic.

Now, remember: I’m a skeptic and an agnostic atheist (an antitheist on my angrier days). When I talk about “real magic,” I’m talking about the kind of stuff we humans came up with when addressing the world. Anthropomorphic answers to difficult questions. Giving names to powers older and greater than us. I can be an atheist and still find magic fascinating. Specifically when someone does it as beautifully as its done in Suspiria.

The whole movie is about a single magical act. Yes, others happen during the course of the film, but this one important magical act is what we’re talking about here. And this isn’t a spell. It’s what Crowley called “a working.” It’s a prolonged work of art. A demanding work of art. Something that makes you…work for it. An exercise of changing the world through will.

I sat in a dark theater—as you will—and watched this working unfold. The price it demanded. The consequences. The blood. Oh, yes. There’s blood. And horror. Because magic isn’t like reading instructions from a manual. You don’t read the spell from the book and it just happens. You have to pay for it.

Wait. You don’t know the Three Rules of Magic? Here, let me line them up:

 

  1. It always costs too much,
  2. You never get what you want, and
  3. You can break all the rules.

 

Keep those in mind while you’re sitting in the theater. Consider them a compass or a guide. You’ll need them.

That’s why magic is like dance. In fact, dance is magic. It demands more than you can give. Dance until you sweat. Dance until you vomit. Dance until you fall down. Dance until you feel the ecstasy rush through you. To reach that level, you have to pay the others first. You have to pay for it.

And just like the working in the film, the film itself is a working. Art designed to transform. You will not be the same when the lights come back on. You’ll be transformed by what you see.

And that, my friends, is real magic.

 

Unreview: Bohemian Rhapsody

Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to like it,
  2. I have to pay for it,
  3. I do my best to use E-Prime when talking about the thing itself

I write “unreviews” to highlight the subjective nature of reviews in general, and as you’ll see, talking about this film exposes the fact that I cannot be “objective” about it. I loved Freddie Mercury and Queen remains one of the bands who continue to play my emotional heartstrings. I cannot listen to music passively. When other writers like Stephen King say he listens to music while he writes, I just don’t understand that. When you’re listening to Queen, how can you do anything but stop anything else you’re doing and pay attention? I can’t. I start to sing, I play air instruments, or, if it’s available, I get behind my drum kit. Case in point…

Back in 1985, I was a Junior in high school living in Georgia. Live Aid was going to be the biggest concert of all time. Friends of mine and I had MTV on in the background while we played D&D. I was distracted by the music, but it didn’t matter much. Most people don’t remember that before Queen arrived, the show was dull as dirt. The bands who showed up didn’t seem to want to be there. They ran through their 20 minute sets and walked off. “St. Bob” Geldof was worried. His show was going down the toilet.

Then Queen showed up. They weren’t supposed to be there. But they took the stage and, as St. Bob said it, they saved the day. The D&D game stopped dead cold and we watched as Queen showed the other bands how to capture the hearts of a billion people.

I cannot be objective about Queen or Freddie Mercury. That’s probably why I cried all the way through this film.

The plot structure resembles every other band bio pic you’ve ever seen, but Rami Malek uses the same voodoo Karl Urban used to capture the spirt of DeForest Kelly to bring Freddie Mercury to the screen. (I should also say Gwilym Lee does a similar voodoo spell when playing Brian May, the often overlooked musical heart of the band. I honestly thought to myself, “Astrophysicist Brian May of 2018 must have invented a time machine, went back to 1970 and pulled his younger self from the past.) I found myself nodding with the scenes pulled from stories I already knew but my chest heaved every time Malek’s Freddie had to be Farrokh Bulsara: an awkward, sexually confused and lonely geek with big teeth who knew he didn’t belong in the cool kid’s club.

I’ve probably ignored or overlooked a lot of the film’s flaws and I simply don’t care. Moments from the movie broke my heart, and while I wish there cold have have been more of them, I honestly do not care. For example, after watching the scene when Freddie and his beloved Mary watch footage from the first Queen in Rio concert, I will never hear Love of my Life without shamelessly weeping.

Queen made bombastic, hyper dramatic and even hyperbolic music. They threw everything they could at the audience: sound, image and even mythology. That was the whole point of Queen. When Brian May says, “I want to write a song the audience can play along with us,” he meant it. You can say a lot of things about Queen, but one thing you cannot say is they were cynical or insincere. They believed in what they were doing.

This film made me cry and more than once. I was a blubbering mess when my two favorite Queen songs ran over the credits. The first, “Don’t Stop Me Now” is Freddie in full persona: a Dionysian god. The second, “The Show Must Go On,” was written and performed when he knew he was dying. I was wrecked.

While the rest of Bohemian Rhapsody came across to me as a very high priced Behind the Music episode, I simply don’t care. The moments I wanted are there, including a breath-taking full recreation of those 20 minutes that Queen held the attention of the world. And Rami Malek deserves some sort of award for being able to invoke both Freddie Mercury and Farrokh Bulsara.

I cannot be objective about this film. But then again, that’s the whole point isn’t it? We can’t be objective about art. Saying otherwise avoids the whole point of art in the first place: to elicit an emotional response from the audience, to force us to put away our analytical mind and enjoy. Try thinking analytically about any Queen song. Go on. You can analyze the mechanics of it, the musicianship of it, the arrangements, the sound production, but when it comes to Queen, what really matters is how you feel.

BOOM, BOOM, CLAP
BOOM, BOOM, CLAP
BOOM, BOOM, CLAP

 

 

Unreview: Halloween (2018)

Let’s review the Unreview Rules:

  1. I have to like it,
  2. I have to pay for it,
  3. I try my best to use E-Prime.

See that first rule? Read it again.

All right. Let’s talk about Halloween. I mean, the movie that scared me witless when I was ten years old.

 

 

See that frame right above here? See it?

That’s the first time I ever stood and screamed while watching a movie. I saw it in Ames, Iowa. That theater was in a mall and had only two screens. The one on the left was generally G and PG rated films. If there was an R rated film, it was in the theater on the right. A friend and I paid to see a movie on the left screen, but we snuck into the right screen to see Halloween. And let me tell you, that film scared the bejeezus out of me. I wasn’t right for days. Weeks. And when something scares me, I want to study it. I want to know why it scared me. Also, looking at it with a clinical eye tends to reduce the fear. 

As the years went on, I kept watching that movie whenever I could. When it came on HBO, I’d watch it. Late at night with the TV turned down real low so my parents wouldn’t hear me. Sitting in the dark, all alone, I’d study every frame of that film. I also watched the other “slasher flicks” that followed. Friday the 13th, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine…all the rest. And I’m sure it isn’t flying in the face of conventional wisdom to say that none of them matched up with Halloween. But it’s clear to me a lot of people don’t understand why. This evening comes to mind. Here, let me explain why horror works.

Let’s take a movie like Alien. You’re sitting in the dark theater and you know there’s an alien on board. You just saw it rip out of some guy’s chest. What does the crew decide to do? They split into teams, arm themselves, and have a plan for getting the alien off the ship. Sounds like a solid plan. But it doesn’t work. One of the crew gets killed (you think) and the rest of the astronauts have to figure out what to do next. They come up with a plan. They split into groups, arm themselves, and…oh well. Now the captain’s dead. Dammit. That plan didn’t work, either. Okay, new plan. Let’s get the hell off the ship. We’ll get into the escape shuttle. Screw the alien, we’re outta here! Oh, that didn’t work? Well, crap.

See a pattern here? Everything they do is smart. It’s exactly what you would do if you were in the situation. You sit in the theater and watch smart people do smart things with a smart plan…and one of them dies. And in your head, you’re saying, “If was there, I’d go along with that smart plan and…oh, crap. I’d be dead.”

And that my friends is why horror works. Because you sympathize with the people on the screen. You empathize with the people on the screen. They’re doing what you’d do…and they end up dead. Not because they did something stupid, but because they did something smart but the killer—the alien, in this case—was one step ahead. That’s why horror works.

When you watch the 1978 Halloween, you’re with Laurie Strode. She’s smart, she’s capable, and most importantly, she’s babysitting kids. You see her talk to the kid, be on the kid’s side. She talks him down from being afraid of the Boogeyman when the other kids try to terrorize him. She says, “I’m here, and I’ll protect you from the Boogeyman.”

And you know what happens? THAT. That happens. She protects him from the goddamn Boogeyman. We’re on Laurie’s side because she does smart things. Not only that, but she’s protecting a child.

Now, if you make your movie full of stupid people doing stupid things, I’m going to stop caring about them because I know they’re gonna get killed. And when I stop caring…well, my friend, you just broke one of the oldest rules of storytelling: Never lose your audience. And that’s why the subsequent slasher films just don’t work. You don’t give a single turd for any of the kids at Crystal Lake. Not one of them. In fact, you want Jason to kill them all. You hate them because they’re pretty and stupid. And the film makers go out of their way to give them qualities you’ll hate so when Jason shows up with his big goddamn bladed thing, you’re cheering for him to kill the kids.

And that’s why Halloween is different. You’re not cheering for Michael Myers. You’re terrified of Michael Myers. And you want Laurie to make it. Just survive. And protect the kids.

For example, if I was making a sequel to Halloween, the very last thing I’d do is put stupid people in the movie so the audience clearly knows ahead of time these people are doomed. Like showing a father and his son on their way to a hunting trip and they come across a prison bus with prisoners wandering around. Just wandering around. And you know what else I wouldn’t do? I wouldn’t have the father leave his son in the truck as he gets out to investigate. And to make things even dumber, after you just told the audience, “These two are on a hunting trip,” you have the father wandering around without a weapon. Then, after the son freaks out because his dad hasn’t come back to the truck, you have the 12 year old boy leave the truck and go looking for his father, shouting “Daddy!” at the top of his lungs until the killer snaps the kid’s neck. Yeah, snaps his neck. You see and hear it, right there on screen. I’d never do that. And it’s a good thing this is a hypothetical scenario and not a spoiler. Because I’d sure hate to spoil a good horror film for you, Faithful Reader.

Did I mention it was a twelve year old boy? And his neck just snaps.

Anyway, one of the small details most people miss about the original Halloween film is the lack of gore. There’s almost no blood at all in the film. The only blood you see is a gash on Laurie’s arm from a knife wound, and it’s clear its painted on. I mean, clearly painted on. The movie works not because it tries to gross you out, but because it uses mood, atmosphere, lighting and music to fill you full of dread. When the kills come (and there’s only 4 in the whole movie), they are sudden. It’s over in a moment. And the first half of the movie let you get to know the characters. Well, some of them. Some of them you don’t know, and yes, that’s a weakness in the original film. But Carpenter kept the body count low, so each death counts.

If I did a remake of Halloween, you know what I would not do? Throw in more than a dozen deaths. And make them as brutal as I could make them. Because that would be reducing Halloween to its shallow imitators who didn’t understand the original to begin with. Because each person you kill makes the audience care less. I mean, fourteen deaths would be a lot. Like a Friday the 13th movie a lot. Way, way too many. But who would do that? What kind of writer or director would throw in 14 or so murders knowing that each one has less of an impact, so by the end of the movie, the audience is so numb, they stop caring? I’ll tell you who would do that: someone who didn’t know what they were doing when they were making a Halloween sequel. That’s why wouldn’t do it.

But if someone asked me to make a Halloween sequel, you know what would be really cool? I’d do a flashback to the original with Laurie sitting in class while the teacher talks about a particular story. She’s distracted by a shape standing halfway behind a tree, watching her. The teacher asks Laurie a question and she answers it, looking back out the window to see the shape is gone.

Now flash forward to the present day. Laurie’s granddaughter sits in the same chair with the teacher talking about the same story. She looks out the window and sees Laurie standing in the same place the Shape stood, watching her from halfway behind a tree. The teacher asks a question, the granddaughter answers, and when she looks back, Laurie’s vanished.

You know what that tells me? Especially after you establish that Laurie has been preparing for Michael Myers to escape and return to Haddenfield? That she’s set up her house as a huge death trap? That tells me that the last act of the film is going to be a complete reverse of the first. It’s going to be Micheal wandering around the house while Laurie haunts and hunts him. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Wouldn’t that put so much power into Laurie’s character after she was nearly killed by this guy forty years ago? Watching Micheal become the victim as Laurie hunts the sonofabitch room by room? And there’d be a bit where he threatens the granddaughter or you could have Michael hurt Laurie so bad that the granddaughter has to pick up the plan and…

…yeah, that doesn’t happen. Don’t worry. No spoilers.

Come to think of it, this hypothetical sequel…you know what else I wouldn’t do? Have Laurie explain to her daughter and granddaughter the different qualities of each shotgun she has stashed in the house. “This one is for stopping power…this one is for accuracy…and this one is tactical.” The last example is a snub nosed shotgun, perfect for going room-to-room. You know what I wouldn’t do? After explaining that to her family, not five minutes later, she goes room-to-room…with the shotgun with the longest goddamn barrel she can find. Because that would be stupid, especially after explaining that the short barrel shotgun is the one you use for that kind of…

…yeah. I’m glad that’s only a hypothetical example. Because that would be a huge spoiler if it actually happened.

Halloween (1978) works because it’s the story of ordinary people facing off against unstoppable evil. And remember me talking about that moment I stood up and screamed? That moment right there in that picture? I stood up and screamed nobody knew it was going to happen. We thought Michael was just a lunatic. We didn’t know he was “pure evil.” Laurie just didn’t count on Michael Myers being what he is and neither did we. Who would be? The first time you watch the film, you have no idea what he is, so when he does his famous sit up, you scream. Because that’s when you realize exactly what she’s up against. It’s the Boogeyman. For real. Not a crazy guy in a mask, no. The honest to God real and walking talking goddamn Boogeyman. And that’s the moment when I was so afraid, I couldn’t sit still. I was trembling in my seat. Because this young girl who is protecting a ten year old kid—just like me—was in the same room as a real monster. A real monster. Not Frankenstein or Dracula or Wolfman. They were fake. This was a real monster. He could be in my closet, right now, waiting for me to come home. And the worst possible thing you can do when you make a horror film is fill it full of worn-out cliches from the original’s predecessor because that makes it something you never want a horror film to be: boring.

That’s why Halloween (1979) works. And that’s why…

…sorry. Rule #1.