Review — Pawn of Prophecy

I first heard about David Eddings’ Belgariad Saga through Matt Colville a highly respected dungeon master in the D&D community and, I assume, a very competent writer as well. Matt is ever the proponent of classical media, and often uses it to inform his own design choices, so when he explained a plot point of one of his favorite books series, I felt obligated to put that book series on my list.

Pawn of Prophecy, published in 1982, is very much the textbook hero’s journey. I joke about how the first installment of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is just a ripoff to The Lord of the Rings, which I still think is quite fair, but I’m even more amused to say that Pawn of Prophecy and Eye of the World start almost exactly the same way. The only difference is that the Belgariad focuses on the journey of one boy, whereas The Wheel of Time centralizes around three. It makes me wonder—was the epic fantasy genre so limited and niche decades ago that what few books there were were all exactly the same? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the Sword of Truth series. Okay, well now I have, but I can’t simply be cherry-picking here. There must be some validity to it.

Anyways, enough talking about the similarities, let’s talk about what this book is in a vacuum. Overall, I think it does feel a bit dated compared to the fantasy of today. It does have much less action scenes, not to say that modern books need that or that that fact detracts from the story, just an observation. Pawn of Prophecy is very much the opening to a larger world, where big things are happening but the young hero—and by extension the reader—is ignorant of these events.

What amazes me most about this book is that it’s a great character study for a typical D&D setting. It features some classic archetypes for player characters, but also houses very realistic places and digestible politics. My favorite interaction in the whole book is when guards are interrogating the party as they pass through town. The con-man of the group has a very normal conversation with the guard that is obviously about discussing a bribe price, even though neither person mentions anything outright. To a casual observer, they’d just as soon have been talking about the weather. Clean but meaningful exchanges like that is something that this book excels in, and a writer would do well to learn from these things.

The biggest drawback to this book is its classical nature. Things take quite a bit to happen, and for any avid reader or anyone familiar with the Hero’s Journey, this book can’t surprise you with any event or plot twist it tries to throw at you. Especially if you’ve read the Wheel of Time first. Having admittedly only read the first book of the Belgariad, I would so far summarize it as an “Easy Mode” version of The Wheel of Time. The former is five books long, the latter fourteen. And to be honest, I only got through the first five books of WoT before I realized I still didn’t care about a single character, and thus put it down (forever?)

So while there’s nothing truly innovative about Pawn of Prophecy, it’s a short, relaxing read. Not much suspense, but quite immersive for what it is.

Me — My Dislike for Televised Media

I’m not a big fan of televised media as a whole. It’s characteristics don’t synergize well with my personality for a number of reasons, and as such I don’t watch a whole lot of things. It has led to this new problem, though, that I can’t relate to analogies people bring up in movies or TV shows, even classics, so there’s this barrier that happens between me and other writers. It’s something I need to work on, and I’ve tried forcing myself to start a weekly classic movie night, but it has never stuck.

I’ll say this much—I like movies way more than TV, and this is almost entirely because of the time investment. I really don’t want to watch the same characters dealing with the same issues over and over again for twelve one hour long episodes for ten seasons. That’s just… insane to me. One season I can get behind, but investing hundreds of hours watching one thing? What a waste of time. (And yet here I am complaining when I’ve binge watched almost 500 hours of Critical Role. Humans are nothing if not contradictory.)

I can enjoy movies without complaint because I know it’ll be over in three-ish hours. It’s not something I’ll spend the whole day getting a fraction of the way through. I’ll meet the characters, experience their story, and be done. Rarely are movies made with the intent of cliffhangers to explore in the sequel. We can’t all be the MCU.

But the biggest roadblock for me is the fact that TV shows tend to be much more character driven than plot driven. I know how to write a plot. Telling stories is my jam. The thing that my writing is lacking in is character, so I would learn a lot more from TV than movies.

Okay, I do have an explanation for the Critical Role thing. The biggest reason why I’m not just watching televised media constantly is that it demands all of my attention and focus to consume it properly, and if you know anything about me it’s my incessant need to be multitasking whenever I can. I’m not just playing games, I’m listening to podcasts. I’m not just eating I’m making a new playlist of music. You get the idea. I can’t do that with movies or TV, so I can’t help but feel like I could be spending my time more efficiently.

Also, going to the movie theater is awful. $10 for 2 or 3 hours of entertainment, are you kidding me? I would expect a video game to entertain me for at least 15 hours with that price. (You’ll notice I dislike going to see things in theaters in particular.)

I really don’t have much free time to myself. Even devoting enough time to watch one new movie a week feels like a lot, and I no longer consider that free time. In an ideal world I would have a time every week where I just sit down and watch a new movie, but my schedule doesn’t currently allow for that.

So until that day comes I’ll sit here twiddling my thumbs and grumbling about how I dislike television like an eighty year old man that doesn’t understand texting.

Review — The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

(Sorry for the late post! Busy week!)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is an interesting movie. It explores the lives of three men struggling to get by in America circa the 1920s. It’s a gritty film about greed and its power of corruption.

As far as genre goes, it’s very hard to place. I wouldn’t immediately classify it as a western, for example. It is set “on the frontier”, has gunfights, and features thematic elements of “civilization versus nature”. But there is no lawful sheriff-type hero, and the movie is much more about inner and intrapersonal conflict rather than about external political or territorial disputes. In fact, I would argue that this movie has no hero, as the only two “good people” are not proactive at all, merely reactive.

But at the same time, I would say this movie identifies most as a western. There is no mystery, little suspense, no easily identifiable antagonist, and an admittedly predictable plot.

To be honest, I didn’t like the film at all. It had a cool adventure element of the main characters going out into the wilderness on their quest for gold, but it proved early on that their quest was not a significant plot thread. It had a few scenes of action; a short train scene of robbers assaulting a train and later when the characters fight off the same bandits, but this was also clearly not a focus of the movie. The plot didn’t revolve around them attacking the bandits or a raid on the local town, for example. The movie had little mystery, as it was obvious that as soon as mistrust was foreshadowed, the camaraderie of the group would deteriorate by the end. At the same time, though, this specific element isn’t specific enough to tie it to a specific genre.

So it’s difficult to pin down. It clearly has strong “western” leanings, but it pulls away from that in the fact that there really is no hero. The first character established in the movie solidified in my head as “the protagonist” (even though it was more of a Three Musketeers situation), so when he was the one that was consumed by greed, I was frustrated as a viewer because I felt betrayed. I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, because he was given so much attention it felt strange to root for anyone else.

The whole movie felt unsatisfying in that it seemed to be half-finished. Every subplot it introduced was either resolved too quickly or given so little attention it seemed out of place. What’s worse, the main plot of searching for gold, figuring out the logistics of transporting it, and the devolution of trust, was uninteresting to me, so I was actively searching for something new to grab my attention, but everything the movie brought up seemed arbitrary or half-explored.

Watching movies that are obviously classics and being extremely disappointed with what it turns out to be is always strange. I suppose it’s safe to assume that in cases like this, cliche things that happen are because that movie established the cliche, so at the time it was made it was revolutionary. I’ve found that in such cases, these things don’t tend to age well.

Review — Singin’ in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is one of my mom’s favorite movies, but the last time I had seen it was probably when I was five or younger. (The only two things I had retained from that age was the last scene and the “Moses Supposes” number). As such, I was pretty excited to see what I would think of it now, and even though I expected to like it, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a great film, with one big exception I get to later.

I think the biggest reason I loved it was how natural the humor was, especially the back and forth between Don and Cosmo. (My favorite two lines include “Okay, you’re a cab” and “Hey, Joe! Get me a tarantula!”) There’s simply a chemistry there that is scarcely achieved in cinema.

Singin’ in the Rain does a lot of things simultaneously, and it uses sound to employ lots of them. One moment is the film’s asynchronous sound during the first premiere of Don’s talkie. The repetition of “no, no, no” and “yes, yes, yes” being voiced by the wrong actor is very comical for the audience (both in the film and the real life viewers. But it also sparks Cosmo’s idea to have Kathy lip sync for Lina’s role. It’s this duality of many scenes that truly make the movie shine.

What’s more, the title song “Singin’ in the Rain” expertly employs a great deal of action accompanying Don’s emotion. In this scene, both internal diegetic sound and external diegetic sound play key parts. This song is an entire musical number of one person, but in the reality of the movie, Don is singing alone in the pouring rain. None of the passersby can hear the music that is clearly in his head (as proven by the loud timpani synchronizing with Don’s stomping in the puddles). In this circumstance, the full orchestra actually is diegetic, it’s simply in Don’s head. Without the music, people might think he’s crazy, which is exactly what happens when the police officer approaches him with disapproval.

Lastly, one major part in many of the numbers, (especially the ones with Cosmo), is mixing. A lot of the energy put into these songs is placed in the very physical choreography, as shown by “Make them Laugh” and “Moses Supposes”. Without mixing the physical sound effects with the words being sung, these numbers would feel far less dynamic.

So what didn’t I like about the movie? Well, the entire ten-ish minute sequence of the proposed musical finish in The Dancing Cavalier. It has no context, little to no dialogue, three separate songs and three separate plot threads that don’t mean anything to the main directive of the film. I was honestly exhausted when I watched this movie, and had I known it was practically meaningless, I would have taken the chance to shut my eyes until it was over. There probably is a good reason for that sequence to be in the film, but it never would have made it through if I had produced it.

Overall, it’s a great movie. Rarely do I enjoy anything with important romantic plot narratives, but this one worked for me because it was neither overdramatic nor unrelatable. It depicted a very plausible relationship between two people, which was nice.

Review — Psycho

I saw Psycho for the first time recently, and I was actually pretty surprised with how little of the movie I was aware of. Basically, the only knowledge I had going into it was the shower scene and the fact that the Bates Motel was important. After watching it, it’s easy to see how Hitchcock got to be so famous.

The editing of this movie in particular struck me, because several shots managed to do a multitude of things at once. For example, the excessive cuts of close-ups in the shower scene did [some] things. First, it provided the audience with a sense of panic. If there was a single shot that showed the murdered stabbing the victim several times, it wouldn’t have held any suspense. Since the audience couldn’t quite see what was going on, but could very easily understand, it ramped up the tension. The cuts also make a point not to show the murderer, so even when you “know” who it is, not seeing the assailant makes it scarier. Lastly, the shots obviously have to be strategic, as Hitchcock didn’t really want to show a nude woman. So he took this handicap and made the scene all the more engaging for it.

At the end of this scene, there is a graphic match from the shower drain to Marion’s lifeless eye as the camera zooms into one, transitions, and then zooms out from the other. This shot does a lot of things, but I’d say it’s primary purpose is probably to give the audience a chance to breathe and take in what just happened, as well as provide a very clear transition to the pacing and “goal” of where the movie is going next. This was the moment that I became invested in the movie, because Marion had pretty much been the only important character thus far, and while I expected her to die, I didn’t think it would be until towards the end of the movie, and it got me far more interested in what might happen next. I’d hazard to guess that many first time viewers would feel the same way.

The last important edit I want to mention is the fade in of Norman’s mother’s skull at the end. It was pretty subtle, but I think all the implication that edit provided can speak for itself. I think it also serves as something of proof that the weird monologue after the climax was injected into the movie after the fact to give the audience more time to breathe and process. That fade in shot, I think, was all the explanation an audience would have needed.

I think the movie was great. The shots and cinematography of the entire movie did an amazing job at grabbing and maintaining suspense without wearing the audience out. It’s also not a modern horror movie in that you’re (probably) not going to lose any sleep after having watched it.

Review — Citizen Kane

I’ll be honest. I didn’t have an immediate sense of wonder from watching Citizen Kane (1941), and pretty much nothing at all ever stood out as amazing or captivating. I would attribute that feeling to my ignorance of a lot of the elements and techniques used throughout, but to me, it just seemed like an old movie with nothing special. The motif of “Rosebud” propelled a sense of mystery, of course, but with something like this, I knew all along that it had been something to do with his childhood (though I falsely predicted it somehow related to his mother). The nature of the name led everyone in the film to conclude that he must have been referring to a lover, but these were obvious red herrings, because if he was, the solution would have been found immediately and there would have been no film.

I’ll also admit that the exposition in the beginning establishing who Charles Foster Kane was and how he had become such a sensation was pretty boring. Plus, I was confused by the fact that Kane died, and then in the headlines it referred to his manager dying, only to come back to the fact that it really was about Kane who had died. All it did was confuse me.

After the “news sequence” encapsulating Kane’s life concludes and the newspaper studio discusses the fact that they’ll need to investigate what ‘Rosebud’ means, the sequence of events becomes much clearer. We know that Kane is dead, so every time we see him thereafter is a flashback. This is about the life of a once rich and powerful man, not the repercussions of his death afterwards.

I will say that my favorite thing about the entire film was the extraordinary lighting. I know that I couldn’t pick up on all the symbolism it depicted, but enshrouding Kane in darkness as he wrote his promise of honesty and having the entire press room stand in darkness as they discussed the significance of ‘Rosebud’ was very well done—it’s obvious that Welles didn’t put those shots in arbitrarily.

Citizen Kane has some great moments and scenes, and really shines not through its story, but through its presentation. The motivations of each and every character is established succinctly and thoroughly, which is certainly not easy, given how little screen time several characters had. I even felt like I understood many of the characters better than they did themselves — and making your audience feel smart is always a good thing.

As a side note: I looked up the significance of the screaming bird. It’s non diegetic, comes with no warning, and is out of place with everything. At first I thought that something weird had happened with the film. Then I thought it was symbolizing something I understand. Turns out, Welles said he just put it in to wake the audience up before a pivotal moment in the film. I found that interesting because today’s film industry would never do a thing like that to a modern audience.

Review — Wizard of Oz

 

There’s nothing I can say about The Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said — thousands of times. But after seeing it, I had to talk about it anyway. I thought about writing a different review and making up a conspiracy about how Toto was actually the antagonist of the story (he’s actually an evil wizard that cleverly and indirectly ruins Dorothy’s plans throughout the whole film), but honestly, it would have taken a lot more work that I didn’t have time to devote to it. So here’s just a basic review, with some fun stuff at the end.

It’s easy to see how Wizard of Oz (1939) became an instant classic in the film industry. It does a lot of things amazingly well, and I was genuinely surprised at how well the story telling holds up in the modern world, structure wise. Its use of parallels and symbolism, I feel, finally start to bridge the gap, and we start to see the true potential of what the cinema is capable of in a way an audience never has before.

We see that Dorothy is not satisfied with her life on the farm, for a number of reasons. (Interestingly enough, the cliche “This place is holding me back” actually isn’t one of them.) The whole set of the farm is colored a dirty brown. It’s gritty and messy, and Dorothy looks out of place here, as she’s pretty much the only clean thing here. She also sings, which brings a breath of color in the world, which is also out of place, since no color of expression really belongs here.

When she gets to the land of Oz, the world is now filled with color. What’s more, the munchkins and Glynda accept her here, with the implication being that she finds a sense of belonging here that she hadn’t felt at home. People sing here, like she did, and there’s tones of exploration and wonder that suit young Dorothy’s heart.

The whole form of this film, obviously, is the hero’s journey. The young hero(ine) accepts the call to adventure and finds themselves in the belly of the whale, adventuring a new world and gaining a crucial knowledge before returning home more wizened. Lots of stories follow this theme, and Dorothy’s eventual acceptance of her lot in life (living her days on the farm) shows a growth that she might never have learned had she not gone on her adventures in Oz.

Oz is colorful, musical, and most importantly, it isn’t real. Dorothy loves it, but the longer she is there, the more she misses and worries about her aunt. This place is wonderful, but she knows her purpose — she must find her way back home. Were she more childish, and not ready for life in the real world, she might have tried to spend her days in the land of Oz, forgetting her troubles and responsibilities. (With this in mind, we can also consider the function of Toto as a metaphor for staying young — he’s what spurred her to adventure to begin with, and he tried his best to make her stay in Oz once they were there, too.)

The content of the film is all about the contrast of color and wonder versus gritty realism. It’s a coming of age story about how Dorothy comes to accept who she is supposed to be. Her three companions on the way to the Emerald City were all characterized about what they lacked — a heart, a brain, and courage — but Dorothy didn’t lack anything. She was characterized by wanting to go home, right?

Well, in a way, yes. But even though Oz was discovered to be a sham, the three companions all got what they wanted, even if they expected some sort of magic to do it for them. In this way, Dorothy, too, got what she lacked — acceptance in two forms. She found that her family on the farm loved her, and that even if she wasn’t entirely satisfied with her situation on the farm, she could accept it and be happy there.

 

Anyways, this movie has some serious plot holes. What was the place called before Oz got there? “The land of He-Who-Is-Yet-to-Come?” Where was the Witch of the South, and why was she never even mentioned? What did the ruby slippers do, teleport you to Kansas? That sounds awful, and honestly, Dorothy should have given them up if that was the case. Sure, her family might have been killed by an evil witch, but the entire land of Oz would have been free of tyranny, and Dorothy wouldn’t have had to live with the knowledge that she was a murderer — twice over — I mean, that’s got to be traumatic.

Also, is Glynda really a good witch? She must have known Oz was a sham, and yet she let the entire populace live in ignorance, ruled by a fraud when she had real power at her disposal. Even Gandalf exposed the corrupt rulers of Men, I mean come on. She has to be guilty by negligence.