Review — Wonder Woman

After all the raving reviews for this movie, and how everyone I know seemed to like it, I had high hopes for this movie. Even with it being part of the superhero bandwagon DC is jumping onto (which we all know they have been horrible at translating their stuff to the big screen), I knew it was going to be great. And, by and large, I think it was. Not a fantastic movie, mind you, but a pretty good one. As far as this post goes, I won’t be spoiling any specific plot related stuff, but I will talk about the general framework of the movie.

Now, when I tell people that I didn’t think this movie was amazing, most are surprised. Don’t get me wrong. This movie is amazing, especially compared to the other DC movies. But there’s nothing that makes it stand out as unique. The general plot is pretty basic, and one of my main issues with this movie is that there are never any direct consequences for the heroine. She wants to do a thing, and nothing in the world will stop her from doing it.

I, like much of the world of fiction, will consider this level of stubbornness and arrogance a character flaw. Only, she is never punished for her actions. (I realize you could argue this, but doing so would involve spoilers, so let’s just leave it at that.) But when I say she is never punished, I don’t mean there is no conflict. I mean that I wanted her actions to make the situation worse, and for her to learn something because of it. Instead, her arrogance leads her to take actions that don’t solve the problem, so she goes and does something else instead.

Overall, the plot structure is also very basic. “Here’s some exposition, now some action, and now we’ll be getting intermittent character development in between action scenes.” You hear a lot about character-driven fiction versus story-driven fiction, but this is definitely action-driven fiction. Characters will make dumb decisions based on the plot’s need for some slow motion action-y bits, of which there are a lot.

That isn’t to say that action movies are bad. But no action movie will ever get a perfect score in my book because I like interesting stories, and they just never do. Instead, they focus on cool shots and CGI. This movie did have some great shots, but I wasn’t a big fan of some of the CG. There were quite a few moments where Diana was moving in a way that looked wrong because the specific things that were happening didn’t physically work. I realize that I’m a product of my generation in that I have extremely high expectations for what looks real and what doesn’t, but still. (I will admit that all the horse tricks and the flips looked pretty dang snazzy, though.)

By far, the single best thing that Wonder Woman had was Gal Gadot. Her acting was pretty awesome, and she did a great job portraying a lost but stubborn character in an unknown world. I love naive characters like that, and she really nailed it without also being ‘dumb’. Plus, I think she really nailed the facial expressions, and as attractive as she is, I found it completely believable when all the characters who saw her for the first time were awestruck.

So, when I watch the next movies in the Justice League series, the thing I’m most excited for is seeing her act more. Unfortunately, it’ll be a ‘present day’ Diana where she’s acclimated to society, so we won’t get nearly as much of the naivety anymore, but either way I think that the quality of this movie is an probably an outlier. I don’t expect the next movies to suddenly be on the same level.

Review — Critical Role

I’m actually a little surprised that I have yet to actually talk about Critical Role as a thing. I know I’ve mentioned the fact that I’m watching/listening to it on a few monthly updates, but I never even explained what it is. So let me pose it to you this way. Imagine a Dungeons & Dragons group that professionally filmed all their sessions, and the entire cast, dungeon master and all, are famous celebrity voice actors who all happen to be great friends.

Now imagine that that’s a real thing, because it is.

There are a ton of reasons why this show is amazing. Even people that don’t like D&D would like it by virtue of the fact that it has some amazing storytelling, vivid description, and hilarious role-play moments. The adventures of Vox Machina are everything I want but have never quite achieved in a Dungeons & Dragons group, and I admit it makes me a little jealous.

Here’s the list of players and the characters they play, as well as one of their most notable roles (in that order). Keep in mind that while I know a lot of these people from video games, cartoons, or anime I’ve seen in the past, many of them are very prevalent actors in general.

Matt Mercer, Dungeon Master: McCree from Overwatch

Liam O’Brien as Vax’ildan (half-elf rogue): Illidan from World of Warcraft

Laura Bailey as Vex’ahlia (half-elf ranger): Jaina from World of Warcraft

Taliesin Jaffe as Percy de Rolo III (human gunslinger): Darion Morgraine from World of Warcraft

Marisha Ray as Keyleth (half-elf druid): Diamond Dog Soldier from Metal Gear Solid V

Travis Willingham as Grog Strongjaw (goliath barbarian): Roy Mustang from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Sam Riegel as Scanlan Shorthalt (gnome bard): Spider-man from The Amazing Spider-man 2 (video game)

Ashley Johnson as Pike Trickfoot (gnome cleric): Ellie from The Last of Us

Orion Acaba as Tiberius Stormwind (dragonborn sorcerer): Crazy Dave from Plants vs. Zombies

For starters, Matt Mercer, the Dungeon Master, is the most amazing DM I have ever seen. Not only does he spin awesome tales so well it looks like the entire game was made for this setting rather than an open-world thing he made up, but he is also an amazing voice actor. Never have I seen somebody be able to so accurately mimic what I would imagine monsters like giant spiders or goblins to sound like. And he does it all on the fly, too!

The party of this campaign is also pretty great. I could tell you what I like about each and every person in the cast, but since there are eight of them, it would take too long. Suffice to say that they’re all great in their own right. They’ve each had amazing moments, and while some characters are more enjoyable than others, you can tell they really love not only their own character but the characters of the rest of the party as well. This is a group of people that have grown to love each other and the game. You can really see what Dungeons & Dragons is all about by watching them play.

My favorite part about this game is that I can learn more about it as both a player and dungeon master just from watching it, and I get to experience this amazing story at the same time!

This is an ongoing campaign, as well. They stream it live every week, and they’ve been going for about four years, I believe, and they’ve filmed the last two. This means that there are well over a hundred hours of their campaign that you can go and watch right now, so just a fair warning there.

So, as a parting gift, here is a link to one of everybody’s favorite characters that Matt Mercer cooked up on the spot. It just goes to show that you don’t have to develop a huge boss monster or an important king to make a non-player character memorable.

Improv 101 — Two Line Vocabulary

Two Line Vocabulary is a little weird for a couple of reasons. It’s a fundamentally simple game, particularly because the scene is generally only about two minutes long. This is a scene game for three people, and it functions much the same way as Actor’s Worst Nightmare. This is often low energy because the humor derives from the things that are said, but sometimes the actions can be funny, too.

The way it works is that one person, the main character or “anchor” of a scene, has to justify everything that is being said by the other two people in the scene. The only caveat is that the other two people in the scene can only say two phrases each. For example, one person might only be able to say “Don’t touch that!” and “I love you.” and the other person can only say “Where are we?” and “Not again!”. Since the third person can say whatever they want, they have to make each of those expressions make sense given the context every time it is said. So, once you get a suggestion (typically of a location, but anything works) you go on your way and establish CROW just like any other time you would play a scene game.

As with every game, there are a few things actors should keep in mind as they play. The first is that for this game in particular, there are no stage entrances or exits. All three actors are on stage the entire time it is being played. This can be difficult, as it means nobody can come in to save you, but since everything should be tied around the anchor who can do whatever they want, this shouldn’t be a big problem.

The second thing is that the anchor is always the focus in this game. Since the other two improvisers are so limited in their dialogue, it’ll be impossible for there to be any meaningful interaction between the two. This means that the anchor should be talking roughly half the time, as after either of the other two says something, the anchor should be replying to it. (The anchor doesn’t have to reply to everything that is said. If the natural flow of the conversation doesn’t call for a response, it isn’t necessary.)

While it’s the primary job for the anchor to justify anything the other two say, it’s also important for them to carry the scene forward. Make sure all three people are dealing with (but not solving) the conflict as the game progresses. This can be the hardest thing for new improvisers to achieve, so when in doubt, move the scene to a new location. It’s also important for the anchor to not ask questions as, outside of silent gestures, each of the improvisers can only respond in two ways. So as long as the anchor carries the scene justifies statements without denying or asking questions, this game is a cinch.

Here’s a link to WLIIA performing this game a few years back.

Improv 101 — Four Corners

When I think of Four Corners, my immediate thought is always “discount Four Rooms”. It does have significant differences–primarily the fact that it involves four performers rather than eight. It’s also one that blurs the line between scene games and hoop games. If I were to pick one, I would call it a scene game strictly because improvisers still have to build a scene and establish CROW, but the focus of this game isn’t the scene, it’s the hoop. It’s sort of hard to pin down because of it.

Here’s how the game is played. You get four improvisers and you have them form a square, with the two people in front playing as the current performers. At any point, the ref can call “left” or “right”, indicating that the square should rotate in the respective direction. “Whose left or right?” you ask. Well, technically this doesn’t matter as long as everybody’s on the same page with what each direction means. My troupe orients it to mean “the current performers’ left or right”. So when the square rotates, the new side of the square is an entirely different scene, though one person will always remain the same from the old scene (acting in an entirely different character and situation). The specifics aren’t imperative, but for this game, I usually get the following suggestions in order: Location, Occupation, Relationship, and Wild Card.

But here’s the important thing about this game: the primary entertainment value in the audience is through disorienting your improvisers. This game doesn’t force the improvisers to justify ridiculous lines like in Four Rooms, and the rule for this game doesn’t interfere with the way the scenes are played, so if left on their own, the scenes will pretty much all be boring, especially since it will only be two people per scene by necessity.

How is this game fun, then? Well, it’s the referee’s job to confuse the performers as to what is actually happening and how the square should be positioning. First, I let them each establish CROW, calling “Right” until every scene has been performed for about fifteen seconds. Then I start to make things interesting. I pick up the pace, calling for a scene swap every five seconds, or saying “Left, left, right, left!” quickly in order to confuse them.

Now, this is actually more confusing than it sounds. Your brain doesn’t have time to do math and eliminate the redundant directions, and on top of that if you’re standing in the back, not performing, and I call “right”, that means “clockwise”, and to you, this direction means left. Why not just say “Clockwise/counter-clockwise”? Well, because the entire point is to be confusing! You don’t want to make it easier for the improvisers to get their bearings! Plus, way too many syllables for a quick direction.

The most enjoyment an audience will get from this game is actually in between the scenes when the actors are trying to figure out where they should be situated. The one thing I have to remind actors is to try to eliminate downtime between scenes. If I say “Left, left, right, right, right, left, right, right, left” in one breath, obviously it’ll take time to puzzle that out, but the key is to make sure every direction is followed. Don’t just stand there thinking about it and ‘solve the problem’, because the audience wants to see you suffer. And if at any point the square breaks, and people are caught in the wrong position, go with it. Combine the scenes. Make a joke out of it and laugh at yourself. Even if the entire scene fails to be entertaining, I guarantee that will be.

In any case, this game is a good energy builder, but since it’s entertainment relies on the actors failing, this game isn’t performed very often. There are better games more suited to showcase skill or simply bring up entertaining and memorable lines.

Life — Criticism

One thing that I’ve noticed lately is that society has very specific (although unstated) rules as to how things are judged. These rules seem arbitrary, and could admittedly derive as a direct result of my experience, but my understanding tells me otherwise.

When somebody performs, through singing, acting, or playing music, their actions are to be met with unquestionable praise. Now, the amount of resulting praise is obviously quite variable, but even if somebody doesn’t like an orchestral performance, an audience is only allowed to give one vote, so the only opinion you’re expected to provide is the same one as the rest of the audience, really. If I go to a play or a choir show, society doesn’t demand that I tell everybody that I loved the show, but typically I’m expected to say it was at least “Really good!”

If there are bad things that I typically didn’t like, and I’m talking to somebody about it (especially one of the people that performed), most often the blame will be put on somebody. One person didn’t learn their lines, or one group of people didn’t prepare for that specific part. In this circumstance, the problems are always referred to in the third person, because you’ll never be allowed to tell a specific person what they did wrong in a performance.

This is a little aggravating for two reasons. As an instructor that works in a high school theatre program, I’m sort of expected to go to school plays. Any time I talk about a specific play afterwards I feel obligated to point out how amazing it was and specific things that I like about it. Now, I know why this is–small talk is usually very positive, and when it’s negative there is an “antagonist” in that conversation, even if the bad guy is mathematics in general.

But here’s where my frustration with this lies. By virtue of what is happening, everything that’s happening is positive. Now, I won’t pretend that many blood, sweat, and tears are shed for virtually every performance that you go see (most of those things not positive), but the result of such effort is. But when it comes to something that is obviously more subjective, such as writing, drawing, painting, or anything that involves art, games, etc., negativity becomes a far more common and acceptable result. It’s okay to criticize somebody’s creative work because feedback is important and they should always try to improve. So after spending hours upon hours on end making this thing, you still risk harsh criticism, whereas with something like a performance, it isn’t okay to say bad things about it.

Now, I’m not saying the life of an actor is so much easier than the life of an author or anything ludicrous like that. In fact, my personal experience as a writer directly contradicts what I’ve heard being a writer is like, because I’ve gotten very, very few “bad reviews”.

My sole point is that, living in Southern California, ‘The Land of Famous Wannabes’, certain professions are more disheartening than others purely because of societal norms. I’m not arguing that things should be changed, mind you. I’m not advocating for positivity to be stripped from every day customs–there’s a very good reason it’s there. What I am saying is that honest, constructive feedback should be more available to everyone. All parties I’ve mentioned here could benefit from that, since performers could better understand where they can improve and creators can have a more consistent base of encouragement.

Improv 101 — Slideshow

Slideshow is a game that requires little explanation, but there is a lot to unpack. The success and quality of entertainment in this game relies heavily on the experience of the storyteller, as with games like Dime Store Novel. Since this is strictly a hoop game, there is no scene that needs to be developed (or at least not one that is necessary to actively establish), and this means that it can be taught to people with little to no acting experience.

This game is more pliable than most team games, and it can work from anywhere between four to six people, though the conventional four is ideal. One improviser works as a storyteller presenting a slideshow of pictures from their family trip to “X location a family would never vacation to”. (This premise isn’t vital. A storyteller can present these “photos” with any premise or location, this is simply what my troupe sticks to.) The storyteller stands downstage from the other improvisers (as if the improvisers are a screen) and gives their introduction. After this introduction, the improvisers stand in a series of poses and formations of their choosing, while the storyteller stares forward or to the side so they can’t see what they’re doing. When they make a finished picture, the ref gives a signal to the storyteller, and explains what is going on by justifying the often ridiculous poses in whatever setting this vacation happens to have been at. Once the picture is explained, the storyteller calls for “Next slide” and the improvisers take new poses to start the process over again. Depending on how long the explanation is for each slide, this should occur from five to eight times before the storyteller ends the presentation with something along the lines of “Thanks for coming, and I hope you all enjoyed my family’s trip to X.” At that point, the scene ends.

There’s a number of things that both parties should keep in mind as they play this game, as well as some more advanced things you can do when you get more experienced. As far as the posing improvisers go, their job is simple. all they have to do is make a few different poses, but there are still things to consider. First and foremost, when you take a pose, it should always be a pose that you can hold for at least a minute. If you do a squat and that’s the position you’re stuck in for the duration of this slide, your legs will start burning and you may or may not die if you’re not fit. This leads me to the second point of never breaking character. In this instance, your character is “a piece of a picture”, meaning you do not move. Ever. You get into position quick and you stay there until the storyteller says “Next slide.” Lastly, since you can choose each pose in every circumstance, you have the option of making things as easy or complicated for the storyteller as possible. Things tend to be funnier when you try to confuse the story, but it isn’t obligatory. You should also try to interact with the other posing improvisers. No collection of family photos will be filled with everyone doing things individually, there will inevitably be group pictures, so collaborate with your fellow improvisers. It makes things more enjoyable that way.

For the storyteller, things are a bit harder. Not only do you have to craft a story from scratch but you have to do it using people that may or may not cooperate with your ideas. The number one thing to remember is that you are doing a presentation. You should always explain what everyone is doing. If you have no justification for what one specific person is posing, the worst thing you can do is say “I don’t know what’s going on here” and move on. It’s your job to know what’s going on right there! You would never do a presentation where you’ve never seen the pictures you’re presenting, so find some explanation. Remember: it’s improv, it doesn’t have to make sense. Other things to think about: every picture can be independent of the next if you want it to be. You can swap characters around, only bring them up once, whatever floats your boat. As long as you give an introduction, explain each piece of every slide, and conclude the presentation, you’ve done your job.

If you’re confident in your storytelling ability, you can go further. You can say things like “The carnage that happened in this next slide still haunts me to this day” without having seen the slide. This will force you to explain why you said that, which is especially difficult if your improvisers choose to mess with you and deliberately make a particularly tranquil picture for you to justify. Audiences love when you do things like this. You can also throw in funny comments like “I don’t know how this slide got in there, lets skip it” to make the improvisers immediately change pose, or “Sorry, this slide is blurry” to justify improvisers on the slide that are laughing and breaking character. Just remember that if you do things like this, it cannot happen more than once in a game, and should never be in every game you play. These are shticks to use to cover mistakes or to get a quick chuckle, and if you oversell them they lose their charm.

Improv 101 — Four Rooms (325)

A lot of my most memorable moments in my entire improv career have been from this game alone, and hence it’s one of my favorites. Another reason that I like it is because it combines similar elements with other favorites of mine, most prominently Blind Line, which I covered last week. My group also refers to this game as “First Line, Last Line”, but I’m sure it has several other names. Let’s unpack it.

Four Rooms (or whatever you’re going to call it) is a group game that requires an even number of people (ideally eight). The improvisers will pair up, and they will each be in a separate “room”, performing (one at a time) an entirely different scene from the other groups. Each of the four rooms will have a different suggestion (we typically do ‘Location, Occupation, Time Period, and Wild Card’ in that order, but the suggestions aren’t important). As one pair of improvisers are performing, the referee can call “Freeze!”, at which point the performing actors will pause their scene, step back, and the next group will step forward and perform their completely different scene, beginning with the last line the actors before them said. The last line one group says before their scene pauses will become the first line the next one says, hence the alternate name. (As a side note, the very first group starting will usually be given a suggestion from the audience as to the line they will start the game off with.)

There are a few things the improvisers (and the ref) need to keep in mind in order to make successful, though. The improvisers don’t need to worry about establishing CROW as much as they normally would during scene games because the pieces of the scene don’t last very long before the ref can be expected to call “freeze” again, and CROW is often naturally established by whatever justification you use to make the line you are given make sense.

Instead, the main thing both the improvisers and the ref have to watch out for is to make sure the scenes are all distinct from each other. If one group’s suggestion is ‘bowling ball’, the ref cannot call freeze after a line mentions a bowling ball, because the next scene would have to then incorporate a bowling ball. If the ref isn’t careful, there will be a bowling ball in every scene and none of the given suggestions will matter anymore since all the scenes will be so similar. So by the same token, the improvisers must be careful of what they say. If every line the two people say involves a bowling ball or a bowling alley, the ref is going to have a hard time calling “freeze”. Necessarily, the ref needs a more open line like “Don’t touch that!” or even “You’re off the team”. The latter could obviously be in reference to the bowling team, but if the next scene’s suggestion was ‘cowboys’, they could now be referring to a competitive cow wrangling team.

There is one exception to this rule against crossover, however. In many games, especially ones that involve scenes, the best conclusion to the game is with a “button”. If something a character says or does makes a reference to something that happened in the beginning of the scene, making a complete circle, that is the ideal time to end the scene. It’s important to note that this can only happen after enough time has passed (because I can’t call scene if the game has only been going on for a minute), so if the cowboys somehow manage to find a natural and plausible way to reference starting a new bowling ball team after the game has been going on for three to four minutes, that is the perfect time to end it.