Creating a Blockbuster

I love movies and as I’ve gotten older I not only enjoy the movies for what they are but have come to appreciate how a movie is constructed in terms of its story and cinematography. So when I see an article about Damon Lindelof describing both the writing process and how a story can morph because of the modern studio system I am hooked. If you don’t know who Lindelof is you have likely seen a tv show or movie influenced by him. He executive produced Lost, and has writing credits on Cowboys & Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and World War Z. And those are just the big ones, he has been involved in lots of other shows and movies as a writer and producer.

In an article which originally appeared in New York Magazine Lindelof describes how a simple adaptation of the fable of John Henry and how he beat the steam powered drill goes from small stakes but big moral of the story takeaway to huge world saving stakes. All because the modern studio system demands a product which can be easily sold to as many people as possible, and because there are only a few story beats which are easily translatable to a large mass of people there are only so many ways to tell those same stories without having to increase the stakes with each iteration. So in the original Superman films with Christopher Reeve it was enough that Superman saved Louis Lane. Now, it seems like it is not enough unless Superman saves the world.

From the middle (Link to the full article):

“It sounds sort of hacky and defensive to say, [but it’s] almost inescapable,” he continues. “It’s almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake. You basically work your way backward and say, ‘Well, the Avengers aren’t going to save Guam, they’ve got to save the world.’ Did Star Trek Into Darkness need to have a gigantic starship crashing into San ­Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”

With that in mind, I’ve given ­Lindelof—who’s written some hugely embiggened pictures and successfully wrestled others down to human scale—a challenge that only a five-star general in Hollywood’s elite fantasy screenwriting corps would have the chops to attempt: Pitch us a summer blockbuster based on something very, very unblockbustery, a simple American tall tale. Let’s say, the ballad of folk hero John Henry: the nineteenth-century ex-slave who raced a steam-tunneler through a mountain, won, and perished, the first martyr in the great war twixt Man and Machine. Lindelof, not missing a beat, tongue firmly in cheek but mind fully engaged, dives in—no notes, no pauses, barely stopping for breath. Then he goes even further, giving us anticipated revisions as the notes come in, as the blockbuster hormones surge, as Story Gravity takes hold.

“Well, I think the first thing that would happen is you would say the fundamental, most important part of the story is that he dies—[and that] he is victorious, he beats the machine. It’s the triumph of the human spirit over technology. But with that comes a price. And all the studio execs would say, ‘Absolutely. That’s what we love about this story.’ Two drafts later somebody would say, ‘Does he have to die?’ ”

Read the full article if you are at all interested in the construction of the modern blockbuster, you won’t be disappointed.

The Civil Wars Review

When the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White did a short session together at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia in 2009 The Civil Wars were born and in the 4 years since they have put out some awesome music. In November of last year they announced there were irreconcilable differences in ambition and were going on hiatus; today they released their second, eponymously titled The Civil Wars, and likely last album. I’ve given it a few listens from beginning to end today and I wanted offer up my thoughts on it.

It is most definitely a darker album. While Barton Hollow, their first album, had some dark songs on it there were more than a few light and airy songs to lighten the mood. The Civil Wars has few if any rays of sunshine to it. Even the lightest song which has a bluegrass feel to it, “From this Valley”, still has some hard lyrics about future redemption when looking up from the valley. The rest of the songs still have some amazing vocals and music but the tone is pretty bleak.

Along with “From this Valley” I would recommend the first single “The One That Got Away” which is mostly a lament by Joy Williams about taking things too far and wishing it had never been, and “I Had Me A Girl” which starts off with a pretty good guitar lick and is mostly sung by John Paul White.

I would recommend giving the NPR interview of Joy Williams a listen. She is pretty candid about what drove a wedge between her and John Paul White. And if I may speculate I think the myth, in some ways self created, about them being an item didn’t help matters. They are each married to another but the subject matter of their songs, the promotional images, and stage performance created an image of them being together and trying to live up to that image became too much for White to handle. If that truly is the reason, combined with the hard road life they forced themselves on are the reasons then I can’t blame him for wanting to break things off. I will however miss the music they created because even though this new record is darker in tone it is still pretty good. It will just take listening to it when you’re in the right mood.


Review of The Wolverine

Ever since I was kid watching the X-Men animated series which aired Saturday mornings on Fox one of my favorite superheroes has been Wolverine. The tough guy who couldn’t be stopped because of his healing powers and the adamantium claws that popped out of his hands (snikt!) easily put him at the top of my list. While I couldn’t see it on opening weekend one of my priorities this past weekend was to go see The Wolverine.

If you want to count the brief cameo in X-Men: First Class this is now the sixth movie that has starred Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and it is now almost impossible to separate him from the role. If, however, you have not seen him in any of the previous films you need not see them if you do not want to, this is a stand alone film and can be completely understood without them. I would also say that this is the best incarnation of the character and if you were to only see one then make it this one.

The adamantium skeleton and claws, plus the healing powers, and the bad attitude are what almost everyone who has a passing knowledge of comics knows about Wolverine. Thankfully, this is the starting point for this movie and is not the end point, what follows is a rough adaptation of the first solo Wolverine comics series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. Wolverine goes to Japan to reconnect with a Japanese soldier he saved from the Nagasaki atomic bombing and becomes embroiled in a family struggle when this soldier who has since become the head of a global conglomerate dies.

The most interesting parts of the movie are the inner struggle that Wolverine goes through as he is forced to come to terms with the near immortality his mutant powers give him. Everyone he has loved and hopes to love will die while he continues to live on, this is most visibly shown by his dreams with Jean Grey played by the still beautiful Famke Janssen. Then for a brief time his healing powers are impaired and he has to continue to fight and protect, making him a true samurai instead of a ronin.

Unfortunately, the third act in which all the pieces come together is a convoluted mess. There are too many enemies running around and it is not clear what exactly all of their intentions are both in the grand scheme of things and for Wolverine. It is in this act that the movie most clearly diverges from the source material and you the movie is worse off for it. In the end though it works and for once we get a conclusion of a super hero movie without an entire city being destroyed. And continue to watch past the headline list of credits and before the long scroll of names, the next X-Men movie is hinted at with the return of two great actors.

As a side note, the creators of the source material, Chris Claremont and Frank Miller are not even credited or given a shout out in the credits. That is a shame, even if they weren’t paid would it have killed them to give a word of thanks in the credits? You can read Claremont’s thoughts on the character of Wolverine and the movie here.

Civilization 5: Brave New World Review

I haven’t done much blogging recently because I have been playing the game about I am about to provide a review of, the expansion pack to Civilization 5, Brave New World. It was released a week ago today and since then I have already poured quite a few hours into it, trying to adjust my strategies and trying to try out all of the new gameplay mechanics. Every time I boot up the game I am reminded of the amount of time I have poured into this game, and as of this writing I given a total of 661 hours (27 days if you must know) to this game since it was released 3 years ago. The game is that addicting, it is not for nothing that the tagline to this game is “Just one more turn”.

If you are not familiar with this game I will do my best to explain it, however a game like this is almost impossible to explain in just a few sentences. With the release of this new expansion pack you can pick from over 40 different civilizations from all of history and build up an empire from 4,000 BC to the far future. It is turn based and your goal, in the early stages, is to get a solid set of cities from which to push towards victory. Each city can work up to 3 hexagonal tiles away and has the capability to produce worker units, which can improve these tiles thereby increasing their productive capacity, and constructing buildings which improve various things. In the early game you have a lot to choose from and half the battle is setting priorities on what to build. Do you build a worker to immediately start improving the tiles around your first city, do you build a monument to improve your culture, how about a shrine to get your religion started, and when do you build a settler so you can found a second city? Ultimately, your goal is to either outplay the computer or other human players in multiplayer and either outproduce them in culture, diplomacy, military, or in technology.

The base game, as it was released in 2010, was a pretty good and it is in this version that I have spent the most time. The Gods and Kings expansion pack released last summer added more civilizations to choose from and added new game mechanics, or I should say newer versions of old game mechanics found in Civilization 4, religion and espionage. I found these things fun to play with but they didn’t hold my interest for as long as the core game, I think it may have been that I had already put several hundred hours into the base game. With the release of the Brave New World pack I have really gotten back into playing Civ 5 after having been away from it for quite some time. This pack like the previous one adds civilizations but also revamps the victory conditions for culture and diplomacy while also adding new world wonders to build, creating trade routes, and rebalances other game mechanics only in smaller ways.

As I put more and more hours into the core game of Civilization 5 back in 2010-2011 I came to realize that the true challenge of the game is getting off to a good start. Once I established myself with my core cities it was easy to tell when I had gotten to a dominant position via technology, or production, and knew it was just a matter of time until I achieved victory. My preferred victory path has always been the science victory, in which you outproduce research into new technologies until you get to the point where you can build a spaceship which will colonize a new planet. I always found the domination victory, in which you capture all of the other civilization’s capital cities, too tedious since moving units around the map is not very fun for me, and the diplomatic and cultural victories too passive since you basically just waited for more money or culture to accumulate in order to buy off another city state or open a new social policy respectively. Brave New World revamps the victory conditions for the diplomatic and cultural victories and it gives you more things to do with in the late game. It is now harder to tell when you have reached a dominant position and often the game can be in doubt well into the later stages.

The first game that I completed in Brave New World was a cultural victory with one of the new civilizations, The Shoshone Native American tribe. Like I said above the cultural victory was one of the most passive victories you could compete for in the older versions of Civ 5 and now it is one of the most active. Instead of waiting for more culture to be produced and then picking a new social policy which provide defined buffs to your civilization, you now have to actively pursue both the accumulation of culture and promoting tourism to your civ. Instead of just hunkering down you now to have to actively create great works of art, writing, and music and place them in cultural buildings to attract tourists. You can engage in diplomacy and attempt to keep borders open which buffs tourism, and allows you access to archeological sites which you can excavate and place the artifacts in museums in your cities. In a nice touch the in game archaeology sites are on the same tiles where important events occurred in the first few turns, such as battles with barbarians or other civs.

This review is already getting long so I don’t want to keep droning on. Needless to say I love the expansion pack, is it perfect? No, there are still some things about the new game mechanics that need to be rebalanced, such as how the computer votes in the World Congress, but overall there is a lot of good things that make this expansion pack well worth the money. I am now poised to pour even more time into this game.

Random Thoughts on Baseball

The mathematical halfway point of the baseball season was this past weekend and it is a perfect time to provide some thoughts on it.

Most predictions about the standings at the end of the baseball season are foolish. Turns out mine were even more so if you just look at the standings at the halfway mark. The division I have come closest to predicting correctly so far is the NL East where the only discrepancy was in putting the Nationals above the Braves, but I acknowledged at the time that it was going to be a close race. I have been pleasantly surprised by my own Braves, they have the largest lead of any division leader, have the best home record so far (28-11) and have played more road games than home games to this point.

I have not watched as much baseball lately because one can take only so much of the stupidity of Joe Simpson and Chip Carey, broadcast booth partners for Atlanta’s ballgames, before losing one’s own mind. How one can take so much pride in being ignorant of modern baseball analysis as Joe Simpson has repeatedly demonstrated is beyond me. And with at least 3 of the other 14 possible games each night blacked out on national networks here in Charlotte I don’t have much of chance to watch good baseball and good broadcasting.

Can we please restore sanity to the All-Star Game. If I hear that “This Time It Counts” one more time… The players are not picked like it counts, the game is not managed like it counts, and the players do not play like it counts. Please stop telling me it does. Either make the players and managers act like it counts and true ability determine the teams or let the game be what it currently is, a showcase of all the best, if not most loved players in the game. Either way I will be happy, just don’t sell me and everyone else a false bill of goods.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have also pleasantly surprised this season as well. As of today they have the best record in all of baseball and a two game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central. They have done well in the first half of the last few seasons while fading in the second half, it remains to be seen whether they can hold on this year. However, at this point in the season they are 21 games above .500 and even if they fade it is hard to imagine that this won’t be their first winning season since 1992.

I take some pleasure in the struggles of the Yankees this season. It looked for a while there like they may put together a pretty good season out of some spare parts hastily arranged into a baseball team but now it looks to all be falling apart. Hardship in moderate amounts is good for everyone because it makes you appreciate success that much more. At least now Yankees fans know what it is like for a lot of the baseball world.


The North Carolina Memorial on Seminary Ridge

The North Carolina Memorial on Seminary Ridge

In case you did not know today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War battle at Gettysburg. I never fail to forget about it because my interest in this battle is what set me on the course towards loving history. The details are fuzzy, I may have been 9-10, but I remember my mom coming home from work one day with a video-tape and on it was a recorded copy of a movie given to her by a co-worker. It was Gettysburg, produced by Ted Turner and directed by Ron Maxwell, and I remember watching it together.

The scene which set the hook and captured my imagination was the depiction of Pickett’s charge. This was the pivotal moment of the entire war and has been called the high-water mark of the Confederacy, never again would the South come so close to winning the war. But as I said I was only 9-10 and did not fully grasp what was at stake, what I did understand was 15,000 North Carolinians and Virginians marching over roughly a mile of open ground, exposing themselves to fire the entire way to Cemetery Ridge.

The Virginia Memorial on Seminary Ridge, Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveller.

The Virginia Memorial on Seminary Ridge, Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveller.

Since then I have read quite a bit about the war and have been to several battlefields, some of them more than once. I don’t read as much about it now as I used to, but it remains my favorite period of history to read about to this day. Yet the thing I still do not understand after all this study is how so many men could willingly lay down their lives for the cause of Southern Independence or Union. I would like to think I would be capable of laying down my life for my family and for Jesus Christ but I have a hard time picturing myself laying down my life for anything else.

Some of the fiercest fighting occurred around the rocks of Devil's Den. The two people on top of one of the rocks give you sense of the scale.

Some of the fiercest fighting occurred around the rocks of Devil’s Den. The two people on top of one of the rocks give you a sense of the scale.

Roughly 43,000 men were either killed or wounded at Gettysburg, when compared to modern warfare today that is almost incomprehensible. So do yourself a favor and at least try to understand what happened there. Watching Gettysburg or reading the Pulizter winning historical novel upon which it is based, “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara wouldn’t be a bad start.

Confederate General James Longstreet's memorial. This is one of the newest memorials on the grounds, the success of "The Killer Angels" and the movie Gettysburg is credited with renewing interest and motivating the placement of his memorial statue.

Confederate General James Longstreet’s memorial. This is one of the newest memorials on the grounds, the success of “The Killer Angels” and the movie Gettysburg is credited with renewing interest and motivating the placement of his memorial statue.


United States v Windsor

I wish I could have said this day was coming and this soon but to be honest I did not. Until today there were strong reasons to believe the Supreme Court would punt on this case, deciding that it did not have the authority to answer the questions asked of it, especially when you consider the tenor of the oral arguments back in March. However, the Court decided to uphold the lower court decisions and struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. I am neither overjoyed or saddened by this decision and I hope my thoughts outlined below are both coherent and make sense.

The facts of the case are rather straightforward. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were in a long-term relationship from 1963-2009. In 2007 they decided to get married in Canada and the state of New York recognized their marriage. In 2009 Thea Spyer passed away, leaving her entire estate to Edith Windsor. Hetero-sexual couples are allowed to claim spousal exemptions to federal estate taxes but because of section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act which amends the Federal dictionary to define marriage between one man and one woman and spouse to be the partner of a person of the opposite sex Ms. Windsor was not allowed to do so. As a result she sued.

Standing issues aside the majority’s opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer, and Kagan turns on the concept of federalism. Beloved by conservatives I have no doubt they are now twisting themselves into intellectual knots to deny federalism in this case. Kennedy rightly concludes that the states have long had the power to define domestic relations and that the sole goal of DOMA, to treat one class of citizen as different just because of who they are, is not a valid reason to overrule the states.

I encourage you to read the full opinion but below is the concluding section of the majority opinion (case citations omitted):

The power the Constitution grants it also restrains. And though Congress has great authority to design laws to fit its own conception of sound national policy, it cannot deny the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

What has been explained to this point should more than suffice to establish that the principal purpose and the necessary effect of this law are to demean those persons who are in a lawful same-sex marriage. This requires the Court to hold, as it now does, that DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws. While the Fifth Amendment itself withdraws from Government the power to degrade or demean in the way this law does, the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amend- ment makes that Fifth Amendment right all the more specific and all the better understood and preserved.

The class to which DOMA directs its restrictions and restraints are those persons who are joined in same-sex marriages made lawful by the State. DOMA singles out a class of persons deemed by a State entitled to recognition and protection to enhance their own liberty. It imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper. DOMA in- structs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others. The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is affirmed.

It is so ordered.

As a classical liberal I am glad this decision was decided the way it was. The Court could have used the 14th amendment to instantly apply same-sex marriage to all states regardless of their wishes. Roe v Wade was decided in this manner and we are still fighting that battle today. Today’s decision strikes down an unconstitutional law and it allows the states to continue to define marriage as they always have. If the court had punted on this case then we would have continued to see people like Edith Windsor, and there are many like her, experience injustice. While not comprehensive a list of all the various forms of discrimination same-sex couples faced as a result of DOMA can be found in section 4 of the majority opinion (pages 20-24).

So where do we go from here?

I hope social conservatives do  not retrench and fight bitterly for every inch of ground in each state as the question of same-sex marriage moves across the country. This will only invite an equally bitter response from same-sex marriage advocates and in the end no one will be better off. While I would prefer to have no benefits conferred on someone because of their marital status in some ways I think this decision moves us in that direction. It also opens the door for social conservatives to use non-legal means to proactively live out marriage as it is defined in the bible instead of just condemning everyone who does not do so.

As if the opinion itself were not enough I give you more good reading…

Ross Douthat warns of a possible future where religious liberty may be lost of social conservatives fight bitterly  in each state for the biblical definition of marriage.

Ronald Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, urges his fellow social conservatives to proactively live out and preach the gospel with their actions instead of just through words, laws, and legal motions.

Relevant Magazine has an excellent article about how the gospel has never been about behavior control and defining proper behavior, it is about the grace of God and the work of Christ on the cross.

And last but certainly not least 1 Corinthians 5:12, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” Where Paul calls us to judge not those who do not claim to hold to the precepts of Christianity.