Us: Dissecting Jordan Peele’s Sophomore Effort

Us 2019

Last night, I had the good fortune to see over 95% of Jordan Peele’s newest film, Us. I know what you’re wondering – the missing 0-5% came when I had to go let my brother into the theater. Luckily, it was in the beginning of the film, and I didn’t miss much from a narrative standpoint. I definitely saw enough to form an opinion. So – Us, is it good? Is it as good as Get Out?

Continue reading Us: Dissecting Jordan Peele’s Sophomore Effort

The Importance of Constructive Editing

Here’s a fun fact about me that some of you may not know: Every year I run a 10-lesson course over at the Abington Public Library (currently in the process of expanding to the Thomas Crane Library as well). This course, dubbed The South Shore Writing Initiative, gives me the opportunity to connect with and hopefully improve the lives of other local writers, published and aspiring. This year, our focus will be on constructive editing.

What’s constructive editing, you ask?

I define it as “the process of critiquing written work with the goal of identifying and improving writing technique.”Essentially, constructive editing is an advanced form of reviewing a written document with the sole purpose of making it better.

Now, you may ask: What makes this different from normal editing? After all, the point of all editing is to improve. I would say it all comes down to the layers.

Anyone can Edit

If you’ve ever read a book, watched a movie, or played a video game, odds are that you had an opinion about it. Believe it or not, this is the first step of editing. Before you’re ready to change anything, you must know how you feel about the original. Sometimes, the flaws are obvious, such as:

“Man, that story would have been great if every other word wasn’t a typo!” or “I was loving the film until the projector short-circuited and I couldn’t see the ending!”

These are easy problems to identify and most will spot them right away. So let’s go deeper. Here is another criticism that most people can do:

“I hated the character.”

This is actually a little bit deeper. It’s a very definite criticism that required some thought and understanding of the work in question. Here is where most people end, at least in their ability to really articulate what they think. We all feel our opinions but not all of us have the tools to really dissect what we saw and identify what was good/bad about it.

If you ask the average person why they hated said character, you may get a response like “he/she/they were so dumb” or “I thought they were lame.” There is nothing wrong with this response, it’s just vague. You’re no longer sure what the person really thought, you just know they didn’t like it.

For most people, this is enough. Not for writers.

Constructive editing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
And please remember, art is subjective. This is why some people can love something while others hate it.

Writers Need Better Feedback

My least favorite form of criticism is “it was good!” Look at those three words. They are useless. While I guess I’m happy that the person liked it, it gives me little to go on. Again, this isn’t so bad for a finished product, but it is a nightmare when drafting.

Stories go through many stages and forms on their way to publication. This process is essential (for every form except self-publishing) as it often separates which ideas are finally put to paper from those that are shelved for reuse in later stories.

To be a writer, you only need to read and write. To be an author, you must know how to read, write, and edit. Writing is a wonderful, freeing process – I love every opportunity I get to do it. Editing is…less glamorous. While there is still freedom, it must be refined and logical. As someone once said, you write with your heart and edit with your head.

What many people may not realize is that editing is actually the more important part. Not even Stephen King publishes a first draft. No matter how brilliant your initial manuscript is, odds are there are mistakes – especially if you didn’t do much planning before you started writing.

Constructive editing is an advanced form of editing designed to help you identify the bigger problems. Anyone can spot a typo but not everyone is going to tell you that your protagonist has a weak character arc, the stakes are too low, and your rapid switching of perspectives is confusing. All are needed critiques when it comes to shaping a draft into a polished product.


How to Edit Constructively

There are a couple of guidelines to follow when you’re trying to edit constructively. First off – throw the personal stuff out the window, for both others and yourself. This is especially important when editing work from someone you don’t know very well. Never assume motivation as it can lead to problematic interpretations and unrealistic expectations.

When it comes to you, ascribing personal meaning to something may make you hesitant to cut it, even if it isn’t working. For instance, if one character symbolizes a lost loved one, you may consider it a personal insult if your editor says “they do nothing and aren’t interesting.”

It is no reflection of the dearly departed but rather an observation on the storytelling – this is what constructive editing is all about. When you strip a story down to its bones, certain issues become clear. You’re not asking if a character works as a metaphor for modern struggles with homosexuality – you’re just asking if the character works. If they do – great, ask the second part. If not, the latter becomes irrelevant.

Focus on the storytelling, be as negative or positive as you feel you have to be – but stick to what is on the page.

I have told my class that every editor should follow at least three criteria:

  1. Did I enjoy that?
  2. Could I understand it?
  3. Can I improve it?

These are the basic questions that begin the editing journey. Obviously, you can look at more complicated issues like character development, plot arcs, and consistent tone but #1 remains paramount. People rarely read what they don’t enjoy.

Check back in the following weeks for more of my thoughts on editing. I hope they can help you out!

Why I didn’t love Thor: Ragnarok

It’s been a few weeks but the critic and audience reactions continue to come in: everyone is having fun with Thor: Ragnarok. Why they can’t remember the last time they’ve enjoyed watching a movie this much (hint: Spider-Man: Homecoming) and wonder when’s the next time they’ll see a movie this light-hearted again (hint: Black Panther). Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – the Marvel superhero formula continues to turn out grins and box office dollars.

But for some reason – likely partly due to the fact that Thor: Ragnarok was the fourth superhero film I saw this year – I walked out frowning. Before I dive in, let me say a couple things: This film is much better than the dull Thor: the Dark World. Second, I applaud director Taika Waititi for making a genuinely funny movie.  But overall, I feel like Thor: Ragnarok missed the mark, leaving it an almost success, which can be more infuriating than a failure.

Comedy and Death

When crafting a story, it is vital to pick a tone and stick to it. Tone can be described as the “attitude of a writer toward a subject or an audience.” Usually a tone is determined by the story’s content. For example, if I were to be writing about a mother struggling to feed her family, I would probably go darker than if I were writing about two young children experiencing a first crush at the carnival. There’s wiggle room in every scenario but general rules apply. Death = darker, sex = more adult, clowns = horror. You get the idea.

Let’s look at the main events in the plot of Thor: Ragnarok (warning – spoilers)

  • Thor loses Jane (the woman he gave up the throne for).
  • Loki abducts Odin, effectively killing him.
  • Odin’s death frees Hela, who bashes Thor and Loki across the galaxy before murdering most of Asgard – including three of Thor’s best friends.
  • Thor is broken and made to fight. He meets a fellow Asgardian struggling with alcohol abuse and PTSD and his friend, Bruce Banner, who has been a mental prisoner of the Hulk for years.
  • Thor escapes his bonds and returns home.
  • Thor loses an eye.
  • Thor is unable to stop Hela without completely destroying Asgard (which he does), banishing the survivors to wandering uncertainty amongst the stars.
  • (BONUS after credits scene) Thanos shows up and looks to butcher the remaining refugees.

Sweet mother of Mary, that’s a lot of heavy stuff. The tone: WACKY IRREVERENT COMEDY! Seriously, there is a joke is almost every scene of the movie and nothing is off limits. Odin being forgotten to die – joke. Valkyrie’s alcoholism – joke. By the end of the movie, I was surprised Thor didn’t do some weird pantomime with one of the Warriors Three’s corpses.

A lot of people Thor cares about die during this movie.

The problem with setting such a bizarre tone (apart from its strangeness) is its effect on the sense of consequence. You would think Loki killing Odin would be, at the very least, an evil act but Loki is regarded as at his most heroic in this film. That’s a larger disconnect than no one pointing out that Tony Stark was responsible for every death in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Serious, depressing events unfold in Thor: Ragnarok but we’re made to laugh and smile. Only occasionally does the movie ever try to be dramatic and even when it does, you know the scene will climax in a joke. This works fine for a comedy or even a dark comedy but Ragnarok isn’t trying to be just those things (it isn’t trying to be a dark comedy at all… for some reason), it’s going for the typical Marvel bundle of laughs, action and drama, only none of the drama works. It simply is not allowed to.

Too Many Plots

When I structured Thor: Ragnarok, I focused on the main plot – mainly Thor’s banishment and return to Asgard but the movie has more going on.  Subplots are fine in films if they meet two criteria. One – there aren’t too many of them. Two – they all exist in service to the story’s central idea.

Buried under all the jokes and laughs of Thor: Ragnarok is actually a really compelling commentary on the evils of imperialism. Asgard’s dark secret past is exposed, capped off in a wonderful line by Hela that was something like “where do you think the gold for this throne room came from?” Thor is stripped and made an immigrant, a refugee at the whim of those in power – much in the same way Odin and Hela must have done to countless civilizations in the past.

That’s all great…but it’s not all there is. We also have a very brief arch involving Dr. Strange and his introduction to Thor and Loki. We also have Bruce Banner battling with the Hulk for control of one body. We also have Valkyrie struggling to come to terms with the loss of her girlfriend and battling her alcoholism/PTSD. We also have Loki searching for some new material/purpose. We also have a slave uprising on a gladiator planet. We also have Scourge struggling with his sense of loyalty. We also have Heimdall struggling to keep the survivors of Asgard safe from Hela’s tyranny.

Not to mention the fact that we have to introduce new wacky side characters!

There’s a lot going on and some of these plots work better than others. One which definitely gets short-changed is Valkyrie, who seems to pull herself out of complete human mess very quickly. Another is Hela who strangely has no subplot of her own (more on that later). People can praise the progressive nature of Ragnarok ‘s anti-imperialism all they want but… how come the women really had no time devoted to them?

It’s not just the ladies though. I’m really not sure how Banner’s struggle resolved itself. He became the Hulk again and then turned back into Bruce soooooo I guess it’s all good now? The inclusion of characters like Dr. Strange and Scourge took away from time that really could have been better spent elsewhere.

Especially Scourge – who the hell is Scourge and why do I care?

Endless Quipping

After Avengers came out, I started to hear how Joss Whedon had ruined Marvel dialogue forever.  His love of Bathos and Buffy Speak seems to have infested every Marvel superhero film since. Truth be told I never minded and I will tell you why: not everyone was witty. Not everyone had a one-liner waiting in the wings. I think back to the first two Avengers films and look at them as comedy compositions.

Iron Man was the wise-cracking sarcasm guy. Captain America was clueless in a hilarious way. Bruce Banner made often uncomfortable jokes about how he could kill everyone. And Thor was the straight man – he didn’t try to be funny or see the humor in his actions.

Well not anymore baby! This new Thor quips! He has one-liners galore and is always happy to diffuse tension through some snarky observation. In other words: he is much more Star-Lord than Odin-son. I know people found this new Thor funnier (I did too) but it came at the expense of his identity. If I wanted to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, I have two (soon to be three) films to choose from. I’ve got my snark fix. Thor was supposed to be my superhero Shakespeare and that is now completely gone.

In case any Marvel execs were wondering, the serious tone of Dark World wasn’t what made it bad. Comedy does not equal good, just ask Justice League.

Hela and the continuing Marvel villain problem

Before I go any further, let’s go back to Hela. Man does she make an entrance. First she breaks Thor’s hammer and then she murders the Warriors Three and takes over Asgard. Hot damn! What’s next?

Oh…oh that was it, I guess.

Hela is evil – for some reason? We’re never really told why other than she is very ambitious and aggressive. A conveniently hidden mural later helps flush out her backstory by essentially saying “See? This happened!”

Her grand plan is to use some magic fire… to bring back an army of the dead and a giant wolf… then sit in Asgard for a bit before eventually leaving – I think?

Hela’s undead army doesn’t appear particularly strong. In fact, they can just be shot by earth bullets. I have a hard time believing these guys were going to conquer anything.

We don’t care and that’s a real shame. Last time Thor had a sibling he turned out to be Marvel’s most compelling villain. We’re repeatedly told how powerful Hela is and early on we see it – she smashes the hammer but then… she makes pointed sticks.

Increasingly large pointed sticks and she can shoot them very fast. Yes, she is a super-charged evil version of Spyke from X-Men: Evolution.  Cool.

Hela didn’t need a lot of character to be effective. Heck, she could have enhanced the imperialism commentary if she went on about divine right and acted more racist/xenophobic but all we get is the generic “I’m evil!”

She’s the goddess of death, did she mention that? Someone should have told her that death is not innately bad – also she has no specific death powers so I call bullshit. At the end of the day, Hela is poised to take her place alongside the whip-guy from Iron Man 2 (not worthy of me remembering his name) and Red Skull from the first Captain America. Oh well, at least she was better than Dark Elf Man!

An Honest Question

If I were ever to meet Taika Waititi, I’d ask him this question: Did he ever really care about/like Thor to begin with?

I love Waititi’s work but honestly I hope he never does another Marvel movie. His original stuff is much better.

The callous end to the Warriors Three, the complete rewrite of Thor’s personality, the dismissal of Loki to just comic relief, the immediate removal of Thor’s hammer for a recycled plot exercise (it’s just a more dramatic repeat of the first film), the inclusion of the Hulk – all of this, to me, says “I don’t really get this Thor guy but I know how to make an entertaining movie!”

Often times, when a director takes over a project they don’t care about, it goes badly. Think Godzilla (1998) and X-Men: The Last Stand levels of failure. Here we avoided that but I think it has less to do with Waititi’s love of the character and more to do with his skill as a comedic director.

Thor: Ragnarok, to me, ultimately feels like a much better version of Thor: the Dark World. It’s still a product, but this one was put together by somebody who knows what they’re doing. Kenneth Branagh remains the only director who seems to approach the material with love and a seriousness that comes from knowing it can be good as it is.

Sadly, I have given up hope that we’re ever going to see a Thor sequel that understands and respects the source material in its entirety. I can understand why Natalie Portman wanted no part of this bombastic, uneven mess of comedy.