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The Ultimate Straw Man Argument: How Nostalgia Effectively Impedes the Fair Analysis of Sequels

I’ll readily admit to being an optimist.

The rampant and persistent cynicism of the Internet – seemingly punctuated by a billion voices trawling incessantly for negativity – continues to mystify me.

I go into most films with the hope of seeing something good, enjoyable, or even legitimately fantastic.

To be certain I’m often disappointed but the idea of being predisposed to dislike something even before seeing it is difficult for me to fathom, especially when the film in question is a sequel to something I enjoyed immensely.

In a couple of weeks, the sequel to the seminal and massively influential science fiction masterpiece Blade Runner drops and outside of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it is my most anticipated film of the year. Directed by the talented auteur filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, The Arrival), and starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, this long-gestating and belated sequel is a project many of us assumed would never come to fruition.

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Everything about the film has looked entirely on point, from the tone and the aesthetics to the casting, yet I recently stumbled onto a large smattering of individuals who are convinced that this movie will be at best a disappointment and at worst an unmitigated disaster.

The rationale employed by these naysayers is largely rooted in speculative conjecture that appears to be housed primarily in their nostalgic reverence for the original. The most common complaint levied against the small amount of footage shown is that it looks and feels “different” than the original movie and that it will never live up to the greatness of the first film.

I’ve always found such criticisms – especially those that are rooted in speculation – to be utterly meritless. For such a criticism to have any validity, you would first have to demonstrate – either by inference or by explicit statement from the director – that the intention of this or any sequel is to somehow supplant or surpass the original.

In logic we call this the straw man fallacy, whereby you refute or attack an argument that was never actually posited, making it easy to knock over. The entire notion that a sequel must be equal or superior to the original is a classic straw man because rarely (if ever) has anyone associated with a sequel proclaimed it as superior to the first.

And for certain, nobody associated with the making of Blade Runner 2049 has suggested it will eclipse its progenitor.

The thing is, even if Blade Runner 2049 is the better film – something I don’t consider impossible given the tremendous coalescence of talent behind it – I would argue that most of the pessimists would never admit it for two very specific reasons:

Pride and nostalgia.

The first isn’t something I’ll waste time addressing other than to state that pride gets in the way of humility and we tend to learn the most when we are humble beings.

As for the latter, nostalgia is sweet glaze that warmly coats our memories and experiences with a thin layer of golden honey that makes even the bitter seem saccharine upon reflection.

But it also makes difficult the ability to give new things and endeavors a fair shake.

My theory as to why this is stems from the power of belief and how it acts like cement of the mind, holding us firmly to an idea with no room to expand, shift or pivot. This type of cognitive stagnation is never a good thing, even when analyzing art, yet people cling to their beliefs with a stubborn, almost desperate tenacity.

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For them, it doesn’t matter that Villeneuve is a master craftsman or that Harrison Ford is reprising his role or that the screenwriter who penned the original script returned to help write the sequel but instead what matters is that the very existence of this film is a threat to the status of their beloved original.

They do not want this film to be better or to even approach the proximity of the original because in doing so, the microcosmic perspective where their favorite films hold sway forever over anything that will ever come afterwards is splintered into irrelevant fragments.

Even if Blade Runner 2049 is a critical darling, there is already a large faction of people who have decided – without seeing the film – that it is an inferior work and those individuals do themselves and the medium a disservice by fallaciously asserting that the quality of a sequel in any way diminishes the impact and legacy of the original.

The respective merit of these two films is not a binary scenario; both can be excellent and the sequel can be a great movie without taking anything at all away from the accomplishments of its forbearer.

And the sweet confection of nostalgia can be pleasant and comforting without acting as a sticky adhesive for the mind, rooting us in place and robbing us of new, expansive experiences.

Just a thought from an eternal optimist looking forward to a long-awaited sequel.

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That Just Happened: Why IT’s Success Should Bode Well For The Horror Genre

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Various outlets are reporting that the Warner Bros. adaptation of Stephen King’s novel IT has grossed a staggering 117 million dollars in its first weekend of release.

Now, just let the reality of that revelation waft over you for a few moments.

One month after the colossal disappointment of The Dark Tower, which was eviscerated critically and largely ignored by the general public, another King adaptation has just become the highest grossing September release of all time and is tracking to be the most commercially successfully horror movie ever made.

So why is this a big deal?

For one, horror films are traditionally regulated to the lower tier of the film industry. While often profitable because of their relatively low budgets, most horror films don’t enjoy anywhere near the resources or the promotion of other competing genres. Even larger horror films released by major studios tend to have much smaller production and advertising budgets and many of these films are given the Video-on-Demand treatment, which entails a limited theatrical run followed by streaming and physical media sales.

By contrast, Warner Bros. implemented an aggressive and clever advertising blitz that began nearly a year prior with strategical leaks of images and information leading to the reveal of the first official trailer, which dropped on March 28 of this year. The preview subsequently earned the record for the trailer with the most views in a single day. In the months since that preview was released, additional stories, pics and trailers have generated a considerable and ever-growing fervor, culminating in a debut that puts many of the movies earmarked for blockbuster status this year to shame.

To place this success in perspective, IT will enjoy the same initial weekend earnings as Spider-Man: Homecoming, and that was Marvel’s tentpole film of the summer.

But beyond the financial success, the deeper question is what the film industry can learn from the accomplishments of this film.

IT is a hard-R horror film; an unapologetically dark, mature movie that pulls no punches and doesn’t cater to the adolescent crowd. The film also has a modest production budget estimated at 35 million, which is a fraction of the budget of the typical blockbuster yet is relatively high for a horror film. IT also has garnered widespread critical acclaim and is being hailed as one of the best King adaptations ever made.

When you examine these elements both separately and collectively, what is clear is that the same message consumers and critics have been attempting to convey for years to the obtuse corporate culture within the film industry has been once again made readily apparent: Make quality films that don’t pander to the lowest common denominator and when adapting beloved source material, create and deliver a reasonable filmic approximation.

And above all else, know that a quality horror film with a decent budget can yield some of the healthiest profit margins within the industry.

With the success of IT on the heels of the impressive performance by Jordan Peele’s Get Out – which has grossed more than 200 million dollars from a production budget of less than five million – studios may want to start considering how to effectively produce and release more high-profile horror films over the next few years as clearly, there is a voracious and insatiable demand for quality movies within the genre that far outstrips the current output.

IT is the kind of seismic shift that can forever alter the topography of the film industry.

Let’s hope the studio heads and producers are learning the right lessons from IT’s success.

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The Top Ten Bad-Asses of Gaming (Part One)

I Rank Them So You Don’t Have To. (But you probably still want to)

Videogames are all about player agency and the proactive roles we assume when picking up the controller.

Games are also about empowerment; letting us assume the role of a persona – good or evil – and becoming somebody else who acts definitively and unapologetically.

The following is the first part in a two-part series where I rank the most prominent gaming bad-asses; characters who in turn make us feel like bad-asses when playing as them.

10. Sergei Dragunov (Tekken)

The Tekken universe is filled to the absolute brim with a colorful and lethal assortment of combatants, ranging from hulking androids to demonic martial artists, yet even among this collection of heroes, rogues and villains, Sergei Dragunov distinguishes himself as a force to be feared.

First introduced in Tekken: Dark Resurrection, Dragunov is an icy-blooded member of the Spetsnaz Russian special forces and is highly trained in Sambo – a form of grappling that places an emphasis on breaking bones and pulverizing joints. With pale, almost translucent skin and a deeply scarred visage, Sergei looks as if he can withstand as much physical brutality as he doles out and his fighting style is a combination of sharp, withering strikes coupled with vicious and relentless ground techniques that can end a fight in seconds.

At the conclusion of an encounter that inevitably leaves his opposition defeated and crumpled before him, the stoic Russian remains silent, allowing the violence of his actions to speak louder than any words.

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Games Featuring Dragunov:

  • Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection
  • Tekken 6
  • Tekken Tag 2
  • Tekken 7

 

9. Samus Aaran (Metroid Franchise)

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Though equipped with powerful and versatile armor that affords this interstellar bounty hunter a broad swath of functionality, what truly defines the lovely and lethal Samus Aaron is her courage and resolve as well as her willingness to explore the deepest and most solitary subterranean destinations in the galaxy to obliterate the eponymous Metroid and those who would use this lethal lifeform as the ultimate bioweapon.

First introduced to the gaming world with the original Metroid in 1986, the developers purposely hid the gender of this lone protagonist, which the player discovered only after beating the game. A trailblazer for female characters, Samus shattered the oft-utilized trope of the girl as the helpless princess or sidekick and instead gave players a female lead as tough and heroic as any man.

A skilled warrior with a myriad of combative-centric talents, Samus is a woman of few words but copious action. Nimble, fast, and efficient, she’s less a mercenary than a rogue hero; a singular force capable of taking on a planet of pirates or an entire species of parasitic organisms.

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Games Featuring Samus Aaran:

  • Metroid
  • Metroid II: Return of Samus
  • Super Metroid
  • Metroid Fusion
  • Metroid Prime
  • Metroid: Zero Mission
  • Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
  • Metroid Prime Pinball
  • Metroid Prime Hunters
  • Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
  • Metroid: Other M
  • Metroid Prime: Federation Force
  • Metroid: Samus Returns
  • Metroid Prime 4
  • Super Smash Bros. 1-4

 

8. Strider Hiryu (Strider Franchise, Marvel vs. Capcom)

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Essentially a cosmic ninja, Strider Hiryu has been a gaming mainstay since his debut in the original arcade version of Strider. Armed with a singular, atom-slicing blade called the Cypher, Hiryu can best be described as a whirling dervish and acrobatic harbinger of death. Fast, precise and fearless, this lithe hero is forthright and honorable but also a merciless warrior, hacking his adversaries into trace molecules while somersaulting about, dodging bullets and engaging in a combative ballet that would make even the most accomplished shinobi feel inadequate by comparison.

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Hiryu has enjoyed a storied legacy, including a classic arcade game and an altogether different NES version that is a masterpiece in its own right, both of which portray Strider as the definitive one-man army capable of toppling all comers, including a mystical despot and traitorous members of his own organization. Strider has also enjoyed the distinction of being included in the Marvel vs. Capcom series and remains a popular choice for his distinctive and relentless playstyle.

Games Featuring Strider:

  • Strider (arcade)
  • Strider (NES)
  • Journey from Darkness: Strider Returns (Released by U.S. Gold)
  • Strider 2
  • Strider (2014)
  • Namco X Capcom
  • Marvel vs. Capcom Series

 

7. Kain (Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver Franchises)

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Kain is a complicated fellow.

We first met him as a wandering nobleman; a spoiled aristocrat who is murdered on a cold, dark evening and given the chance for vengeance through resurrection as a vampire. Filled with rage at his abrupt death, he hastily agrees, setting off a chain of events that would go on to span a slew of games and complex timelines that sees Kain as both the hero and the villain of a sprawling and dense mythology .

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But what truly defines Kain is his haughty, almost poetic dialogue and regal demeanor fused with his unremittent brutality. For much of the series, Kain is an antihero, willing to slaughter anyone – innocent or villain alike – to achieve his ends. A master swordsman, Kain is able to dispatch his victims and levitate their very blood in thick streams that feed directly into his maw, sustaining him with their fleeting vitality. Kain is also inhumanly agile, capable of shapeshifting, mind control, telekinesis and can even dissipate into fog, emerging to kill and vanishing back into the mist.

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First introduced to gaming audiences in 1997’s Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, the eponymous character hasn’t been seen since 2003’s Legacy of Kain: Defiance, yet the vampiric savior of Nosgoth remains an immensely popular icon and an example of what a true and distilled badass looks and sounds like.

(A special mention is required here regarding the excellent voice work done by Simon Templeman, who imbues Kain with a rich, nuanced personality and is largely responsible for the success of the character.) 

Games Featuring Kain:

  • Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain
  • Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
  • Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2
  • Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2
  • Legacy of Kain: Defiance

 

6. Chris Redfield (Resident Evil Franchise)

Like his partner Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield has been with Resident Evil since the beginning of the franchise and over the last two decades, our heroic protagonist has gotten bigger, better, and…well…bigger.

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When not fighting zombies or other vestiges of Umbrella Corporation’s bioweapon division, Chris apparently takes growth hormones, eats lots of protein and prepares for Mr. Universe contests.

When we first met Chris, he was a highly trained but decidedly mortal soldier who needed keys to open doors.

By the time Resident Evil 5 arrived, Chris had transformed into a hulking mass of zombie-killing muscularity, capable of punching boulders into submission.

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Chris also spends his spare time fighting amongst the illuminati of the Marvel vs. Capcom roster, where he is able to hold his own with metahumans and makes everyone except the Hulk and Thor feel puny and inadequate.

While at this point he’s a walking, talking sack of testosterone, Chris is also a genuine hero, a fearless soldier, expert gunfighter and puncher of anything that needs to be laid out, be it man or mutated monstrosity.

Games Featuring Chris Redfield:

  • Resident Evil
  • Resident Evil – Code: Veronica
  • Resident Evil Umbrella Chronicles
  • Resident Evil (Remake)
  • Resident Evil 5
  • Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles
  • Resident Evil 6
  • Resident Evil: The Mercenaries
  • Resident Evil: Revelations
  • Resident Evil 7 (Cameo)

 

5. Faith (Mirror’s Edge)

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It has been opined by some that the avoidance of conflict is the ultimate combative art; that the ability to stop a fight or nullify it before it escalates is the purest form of conflict resolution.

If there’s any truth to that statement, the character of Faith – protagonist of the Mirror’s Edge series – is a posterchild for such an ideology, as the swift-of-foot courier and would-be rebel is as apt and able to evade her opponents as she is to fight them directly.

An expert practitioner in parkour, Faith is nimble, fearless and moves with the deliberate speed and grace of a jungle cat, able to deftly pounce, hop and slide her way through even the most dangerous and fortified of spaces. Where most see obstacles and impediments, faith sees alternative routes and environments where she can press her sprightly advantage, moving in such a way as to leave her pursuers far behind.

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That isn’t to say Faith can’t fight because when she does engage her opponents, her martial arts skills are honed, precise and can render an adversary unconscious in seconds. She’s also handy with a gun but what defines Faith and makes her such an interesting and distinctive bad-ass is that she is somebody who uses violence only when cornered; lethal when necessary but more invested in getting to her goal than sending men to their graves.

There’s something uniquely compelling about a character who – amongst videogame contemporaries that kill at the slightest provocation – seems compelled to spare life whenever possible and avoid rather than engage.

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Games Featuring Faith:

  • Mirror’s Edge
  • Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst

I’ll be back soon to complete my list, revealing who I consider the ultimate bad-ass of the gaming continuum.

Faces of Fathers Forgotten: Why The Dark Tower Should Have Been a Cable Series

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Recently, the international trailer for The Dark Tower hit online, prompting a bevy of analysis and discussions about the impending release of a film still very much shrouded in mystery, anticipation and a heap of trepidation. The filmic adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus – which serves as a lynchpin for practically the entirety of his shared fictional universe – has slogged through developmental hell for decades, finally coming to fruition as a modestly budgeted end-of-summer film that is being marketed as something between an action movie and a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid. Many fans of the series have expressed their concerns regarding the footage shown in the trailers, as very little of what has been revealed looks familiar. To a legion of King devotees who have waited decades to see this particular universe brought to life, this is incredibly disconcerting.

The director – Nikolaj Arcel – is a relative unknown, especially when contrasted to the previous directors attached to this project, including Ron Howard and the man who resurrected Star Wars, J. J. Abrams. Both men publicly outlined their respective strategies to tackle the Dark Tower universe in a manner that would be respectful to the source material, with Abrams wanting to do a full slew of films and Howard wanting to do both theatrical entries and a TV series to bridge the gaps between installments. While neither was necessarily a perfect approach to tackling what is an incredibly dense and nuanced work, what we apparently have now is the very thing fans have always feared: A quick and cheap cash-in via an ultra-condensed version of The Dark Tower mythology that will probably confuse the uninitiated and aggravate the fanbase.

In other words, something that was made to cater to both segments of the populace but will ultimately serve neither.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m still very eager to see this film. Both the director and King himself have stated that they see this movie as the equivalent of a sequel to the books – something that will make sense to those who have read them. I’m also open-minded enough to embrace the fact that whatever this film is, it won’t be the Dark Tower film I’ve envisioned since reading the first book as a kid. I would also be remiss not to mention that both Elba and McConaughey are fantastic actors – absolutely top shelf – so my hope is that, at the very least, this film will be an interesting addendum to a series of novels that I adore. I sincerely believe that The Dark Tower could be a great film on its own merits, removed from the burden of being a direct adaptation of the source material and instead function as a genuine sequel, especially given the inclusion of The Horn of Eld, an artifact that lends serious credence to the theory.

That understood, I do think that anyone truly vested in translating this universe to the screen should have taken a hard and protracted gander at the success of Game of Thrones, HBO’s phenomenally popular series adapted from the works of George R. R. Martin. Like King’s Dark Tower franchise, Game of Thrones is a dense, complex work filled to the brim with a variety of characters, parallel and intersecting plotlines, and shifting factions. The very notion of taking such a complex work and condensing it down into a two-hour movie is, at this point in the show’s run, unimaginable, and it is clear just how much character development, plotting and details would have to be winnowed down or otherwise tossed out to adapt even one of the GOT novels into a theatrical film.

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The Dark Tower saga would lend itself beautifully to the cable series format, with each novel potentially being represented by a lengthy string of episodes that would fully encapsulate the rich tapestry of characters, settings, and sights afforded by King’s work. This isn’t about artistic merit or the capability of the director but rather a simple equation; an understanding that you can’t fit hundreds of thousands of words worth of storytelling into a two-hour construct and not expect to lose some pretty important details in the process. If King’s series of novels is a lake, the movie would be the equivalent of a 16-oz. water bottle – a container so fundamentally inappropriate for the task that it becomes difficult to imagine why they even bothered.

Compounding this disappointment is that studios clearly have come far enough to know better, yet persist in attempting these cash-ins instead of selecting the proper format and proceeding without the benefit of a long-term perspective. Consider for example the upcoming theatrical release of IT, which has garnered tremendous excitement. Based on another of King’s novels, IT is a massive tome and so the producers and director wisely decided to slice the story in half, essentially making two films to adequately address the content rather than dilute the impact of the narrative. And while there is most certainly franchise potential in The Dark Tower, the very fact that this film isn’t called The Gunslinger – which is the first novel in the series – suggests what we are getting is either very condensed or heavily altered.

Truthfully, we won’t know what we’re getting for a few more weeks but regardless of what the final product is – a grand continuum to the franchise or a muddled, incoherent cash grab – those of us who wanted a literal translation clearly won’t be getting it, even when the model to successfully accomplish such a tight adaptation has been around for six years,  generating millions of dollars in revenue for all parties involved.

That said, I’ll be in the theater come August 4 with the sincerest hope of being proven wrong.

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