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‘The Dark Tower’ Is A Genre Mashup, So Why Is It So Generic?

dark tower

The Dark Tower was directed by Nikolaj Arcel and is the latest film adaptation of a popular Stephen King novel, this one being the first in a fantasy series that is more or less about a western gunslinger hunting down a sadistic wizard in a universe of competing genre ideas. And yet the film itself seems to be completely uninterested in what makes that set up appealing in the first place.

Go on…‘The Dark Tower’ Is A Genre Mashup, So Why Is It So Generic?

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How ‘Stranger Things’ Ended up Becoming the Best Movie of the Summer

stranger things best

To be clear, the Netflix original series Stranger Things is not a “movie” in the traditional sense. There was no theatrical release, it runs as eight hour-long episodes, and it’s obviously crafted to fit the specific medium of television. That is, it’s not trying to be anything but a TV show.

But if you can broaden your definition of “movie,” or in this case, a summer movie, to that of a contained experience that is meant to be watched in one sequence, then you’ll find that Stranger Things fits the framework.

That’s why I’m convinced that Stranger Things is the surprise hit that Summer 2016 needed, and I’d even push that it’s definitely the best movie of the summer, without question. An eight-hour movie, but a movie nonetheless.

And that’s not solely because this summer has been a series of painful disappointments with few bright spots, though that is a major reason why Stranger Things has stood out as prominently as it has. If anything, this Netflix series that few people saw coming had more reasons to fail than most tentpole blockbusters this summer had to succeed.

stranger things best

X-Men: Apocalypse, a film I did enjoy for the most part, was widely panned, despite following a succession of good X-Men sequels starring Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, directed by Bryan Singer, the man behind some of the best X-Men films and Usual Suspects.

The marketing for Independence Day: Resurgence had most of us convinced that this would be 2016’s Jurassic World, but we ended up with something closer in quality to Alice Through the Looking Glass, the unremarkable sequel to a hugely successful Disney live-action film from 2010 that was followed up by critical darlings like CinderellaMaleficent, and this year’s The Jungle Book.

Warner Bros. followed up the most polarizing superhero movie in recent memory, Batman v Superman, with one of the most yawn-inducing films of the entire year, The Legend of Tarzan, despite featuring a fantastic cast and being directed by David Yates.

The movie positioned to redeem Warner Bros. in 2016 was Suicide Squad, which ended up being a decent, yet flawed movie that maintained the divisiveness of the DC cinematic universe, spawning far more arguments and “flame wars” than real discussion about how the movie has truly affected people.

Do we even need to mention Ghostbusters?

stranger things best

When you consider what makes a movie the “best” out of all the others, there’s a lot you might miss when settling on your conclusion. Everyone likes bad movies, and the vast majority of people even love bad movies (see Secret Life of Pets), and that’s because it’s quite impossible to enforce a list of rules that determine what makes a film objectively good, bad, or the somewhat ubiquitous okay, which does little to paint a true picture of a film’s quality.

Deciding which movie is the “best” has to speak to a larger list of criteria than your personal judgement, or even a critical consensus. You can turn it into a numbers game, gathering all of the reviews and fan reaction scores to calculate some kind of average that gives you an answer…

…But that’s a lot of effort for very little reward, and for many reasons, it’s still an ineffective way to call out a movie for rising above the rest and deserving to be remembered in 2026. This conclusion should be about more than getting better marks based on a small sample of opinions. True, you can factor in box office and impressions to make your guess, but as we’ve covered earlier, bad movies are quite easy to like, which makes the best movies hard to quantify.

All that said, my conclusion, obviously, is that Stranger Things is the best movie of the summer, despite not even being in the official running. I guess you can say that like the show itself, Stranger Things has a knack for defying expectations.

stranger things best

I reached this conclusion by considering a more nuanced trait of the show that no summer movie of 2016 seemed to achieve. But first and foremost, Stranger Things is fundamentally a well-crafted piece of entertainment. It’s well-written and edited, the characters transcend the tropes they’re based on, and there’s a polished feel to every aspect of this show that immerses you into Hawkins (and it’s “Upside Down”) like no other location we’ve been transported to all summer. Or all year, even.

In other words, Stranger Things gets the details almost perfectly right. The makers of the show, Matt and Ross Duffer, certainly gave it their all with this project. But the more nuanced trait that I mentioned earlier goes beyond the details. It’s all about the complete picture of Stranger Things that makes it the most satisfying experience of the summer, in just about every way you can think of.

You know what’s refreshing? The ability to have a long and meaningful conversation about the show, even if you disliked it, with people who share a different opinion. Yes, even online. Because almost no one is letting this show be about something else

With Ghostbusters, we were forced to start every review or analysis with our take on whatever irrelevant controversy we had the most thoughts on. Suicide Squad has been a purple and green train wreck in terms of how critics and fans think and react to each other, despite that not being a fault of the actual movie. Even movies that most audiences have loved, like Captain America: Civil WarFinding Dory, and Star Trek: Beyond, have been monopolized in conversation as sequels and franchises, not a unique or personal experience that actually changed anything.

stranger things best

Stranger Things, to be fair, did not achieve anything all by itself. At first glance, you might even get a bit cynical of its strengths because of how obviously reminiscent they are of classic 80s movies and novels, especially E.T.Poltergeist, and Firestarter to name a few out of probably dozens of relevant inspirations.

But Stranger Things does something unexpected with these established tropes. It turns them into new ideas. It does for 80s clichés what George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels did for Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and fantasy platitudes repeated ad nauseam since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

More specifically, Stranger Things persistently subverts its own genre, setting up your expectations to think the story is going one way, only to pay off its plot with surprises that still fit within the context of what you’ve already seen.

For example, you don’t have any reason to believe the character Nancy Wheeler isn’t someone capable or competent enough to stand up to supernatural threats. But the show wisely lets you think this when we’re first introduced to her as a love-struck teenager who doesn’t have time for her little brother and his friends, which isn’t hard to believe either. Her “jerk” boyfriend, Steve, is also set up a certain way, only to defy your expectations with his own distinct twists and turns as a character, and none of that feels reminiscent of what we’ve already seen in Spielberg and King stories. Far from it.

stranger things best

This allowed the show to grab and hold on to both key demographics of its potential audience: people old enough to remember these 80s tropes and everyone else. You’re hooked either way, because the movies and novels of the 80s influenced prominent filmmakers today, through movies like Super 8and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, both helmed by the quintessential 80s geek, J.J. Abrams.

But while those projects felt more like a celebration of 80s culture, Stranger Things finds impossible ways to both defy and evolve them for new audiences. It’s not a sequel, like Captain America: Civil War or Finding Dory, but it is a successor to something else, and in the most original way possible for what it is.

I haven’t mentioned the most memorable and important character of the entire show: Eleven. Her presence in Stranger Things deserves to permeate the culture, and it’s already starting to with devoted fans who are evangelizing 2016’s breakout role in Millie Bobby Brown. It’s easy to celebrate Eleven because of the child actor’s performance, of course, but there’s no reason to forget that she benefits from a script that effortlessly makes you feel every big moment of its running time. El works because just about everything else in this show works.

For me, the choice is clear. Stranger Things is objectively as good as the best movies to come out all summer. In my opinion, it stands above most films of the year. But what makes it the “best” piece of entertainment to sit down and enjoy this summer is its lasting effect through how it’s talked about, the point in time it was released, and the loving care that was put into just about every aspect of the final product.

stranger things best

And even though it’s over, complete with one of the most satisfying endings I can think of in 2016, it still manages to leave you wanting more, questioning everything you just watched, and speculating what’s possible when we’ll eventually (hopefully) revisit these characters, and Hawkins.

Season Grade: A


What did you all think of Stranger Things? I left out great highlights from the show (sorry Hopper!), so be sure to share your take in the comments. 

Also, thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hello on Twitter! @JonNegroni


The Three Steps to Writing Your First Story

For the first time on this site, I’ve opened up a post to someone else. The following is a guest think piece written by Tim Wilkinson, who was gracious enough to lend some of his advice on writing to you guys.

Tim majored in Screenwriting in college and has taken a variety of creative writing classes on the side. He moved to Hollywood and hung out with other writers while doing freelance work on the side. During his time there, he met a lot of great (and not-so-great) writers who have helped shaped his strategy for making what you make, well, great. Enjoy!

 

By Tim Wilkinson.

A strange mistake writers make when they decide to write something is when they think they have to start by crafting a novel. If you were just learning how to sew, you wouldn’t start by making a California King-sized quilt, just like if you started running yesterday, you wouldn’t attempt a marathon this coming weekend.

Don’t get me wrong, I want you to get to wherever it is you want to be (creatively speaking). I just think you’re going to need to start by developing your tools and endurance (yes, writing a novel is an exercise in endurance) before tackling the beast.

Part the First: About Writing Itself

The first mistake that many intrepid young writers make is to think that writing is “easy.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing can be fun, rewarding and extremely satisfying, but I’ve never once considered it especially easy. As a result, many new writers tend to dive in and quickly flame out on their project. Or just get lost in the world they were trying to create. Then they stick it in a drawer and never look at it again.

My advice is simple:

Read. As much as you can. You can’t write if you don’t read. Don’t like to read? Guess what? You’re not a writer. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.

Reading helps you develop your own voice (likely by first emulating writers you love and then growing from there) and keeps your brain in what I like to call word mode. I read every day on my commute and most nights before bed.

Write. Every. Day. This one is even harder. There are days when you’re not going to want to. Days when the words won’t come. Days when you think everything you’re writing is crap and you’ll be right.

It’s going to suck sometimes, but you’ve just got to muscle through it. All professional writers do it, and they’ll all admit to having days when they want to pull their hair out and scream until they lose their voices. But they still do it.

Study. You need to learn story structure. I’ve heard too many new writers say, “I don’t need to learn story structure because it will mess up my story” or some other line that implies that they are too “artistic” to bow to the traditional guidelines of storytelling.

If you’re one of these people, let me tell you something: you’re just like everyone else who thinks they’re a genius until that moment comes when you discover that your really cool plot twist or story structure was actually done (better) by someone before you were even born.

Writing is extremely humbling if you’re doing it correctly.

So just suck it up and learn story structure. Pick up a copy of Story by Robert McKee (it’s targeted to screenwriters, but the story elements translate to prose fiction as well) and On Writing by Stephen King. Read the crap out of them.

Then grab a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and learn it by heart. I also recommend The Little Red Writing Book by Brandon Royal. But grammar and spelling are only important if you want other people to read your work.

Find a Community (but don’t get too caught up in it). This is optional and not for everyone. I’m sure that if you’ve started writing something already, you’re a bit annoyed because writing sounds like a lot of hard, lonely work.

It is.

That’s why it’s good to have friends who understand what you’re putting yourself through.

Search for a good local writers group (lots of libraries have them, depending on where you’re located) or even online. Reddit (r/writing) is a nice place to hang out as well. These people will be a tremendous resource for you and will help you find your way—or at least be a support group that your non-writer friends won’t be able to be.

However: Note that there is a fine line between being a writer and playing the writer. People who play the writer want to have all the “perks” of being a writer—the prestige, being able to say you’re a writer to impress people at parties, etc.—without actually writing. So be sure you’re finding an actual writing group that will help you progress.

Okay, now you’ve established the building blocks. Hopefully this means you’ve started kicking out a few pages every day. Awesome. Now we can move on to:

Part the Second: About Writing a Novel

All novels start with one thing: An idea.

You need an idea that is going to keep you interested for at least a year, probably more. The idea that birthed my novel was simple: What if a teenaged boy became obsessed with capturing proof of the giant monster living in the local lake?

(Side note: Don’t be paranoid about not telling people ideas like this—you can’t copyright an idea, and even if they did steal it, their story would be completely different from yours. Just look at vampire and zombie novels if you don’t believe me).

So now that you have your idea, you’ve got to figure out a few things:

  • What genre will my novel be?
  • What is your narrator’s point of view?
  • Will you follow one character or jump around between multiple ones?

I find knowing these few things at the outset to be tremendously helpful. I’ve actually rewritten an entire project because I decided after one draft that past-tense/third person was the wrong way to go and changed it to present-tense/first person.

Now this is where things get tricky. You have to decide if you’re a gardener or architect.

Gardeners plant a story and let it grow organically, often starting at the beginning and then letting it grow as they write.

Architects plot everything out in advance so they know how to build their story.

For example: Stephen King is a gardener; J.K. Rowling is an architect.

I am very much an architect. As such, I’ll walk you through my process.

Start with a deck of 3×5 index cards. Write out each scene in one sentence on the card. If you find you’re adding more than one or two sentences, tear it up and start over.

Your sentences should be simple, like:

Jeff kicks in the door, shoots the guy on the couch and takes the drugs on the table.

Worry about the details of it when you’re actually writing. If you obsess over the details now, you’ll have nothing to keep your interest when you finally start to write.

Write all of your scenes out like this. Now lay them out and read through them. You may start to notice that this scene here would go better there, and so on.

This is why you use index cards and vague-ish scenes. So you can move them around.

Rearrange, add, subtract and generally play with it to your heart’s content. Then, once your satisfied, number them (trust me) and then type them up in a single document.

Viola! Instant outline!

Now you begin to write. Set a daily goal. My current one is 500 words a day because I work full-time and have a pregnant wife. It’s what I can do, but I make sure to do it every single day. And yes, there are plenty of days when I don’t want to at first.

Now write and write and write and write and one day it will be done.

And it will be horrible. Or at least, you’ll hate it. You’ll hate everything about it. You’ll consider self-immolation. You’ll consider taking up an “easier” artistic outlet, like painting with fresh rattlesnake blood that you procured yourself.

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams: Don’t Panic.

This is normal. Calmly put your hard work aside and do not look at it for at least one month. Maybe longer. Fight the urge to tool around with it. Start something new. Go have an adventure. Just don’t touch it. Right now, your manuscript is a wad of dough, and it needs time to breathe and rise. Which brings us to…

Part the Third: Turd Polishing

After enough time has lapsed, go back and read it.

Don’t start rewriting immediately. Read it.

All the way through.

Tough it out. It might hurt in places, but you’ll also notice little pockets of prose that you don’t hate. Feel free to keep a notepad handy, but don’t spend more time writing than you do reading that first time. Re-acquaint yourself. Note any large plot issues, but save the finer stuff for later.

After your read through, it’s time to rewrite.

Start by fixing any gaping plot holes and work down to the smaller details. Take good notes. A good rule of thumb I’ve learned is that your second draft should be 10% shorter than your first draft. Usually, this can be easily achieved by editing out extraneous words.

One thing we should talk about here is grammar, which is literally the last thing you should worry about. Your first draft (as well as everyone else’s) will be a hot, steaming turd. You don’t ever want to polish a fresh turd. Your successive rewrites will act as a coat of varnish on your turd, making it nice, shiny and less horrifying.

Once you’ve applied several coats of Rewrites™ brand varnish, you’ll be able to polish (or, if you prefer, proofread) without getting dirt under your fingernails. Besides, what’s the point of correcting spelling and grammar if you might just rewrite that whole section anyway?

Now it’s just a matter of banging it into shape until you’re happy with it. Once you’re satisfied that your story is absolutely as good as it is going to get, then you can fix your grammar and spelling. Once you’re done, find that one friend of yours who, when asked for story feedback, only ever points out your typos.

“Uh, it was good but you misspelled butt cheek like six times in chapter nine.”

All writers have this one friend, I promise you. Right now, he’s your best friend.

Now you’re finally ready to show your bad boy off. Ask a few trusted friends to read it and give you feedback. This will likely spur another round of revisions—again this is totally normal.

Also, be sure to give a copy of your manuscript to your mother (or whoever loves you unconditionally).

Because who doesn’t occasionally need to hear how great they are? Just don’t expect it from anyone else. You’re going to have to earn it from everyone else.

I really hope you find this piece helpful. If you’re a little freaked out now, that’s good.

If you still want to write a novel, that’s very good.

One final note: Find what you’re comfortable writing on and stick with it. Clive Barker writes his novels longhand and then types them up. I use a program called OmmWriter to do my daily 500 words, then paste it into Scrivener, an amazing (and cheap) writing program that has its own index card system (which I now use instead of actual index cards).

Just find what works for you and do it.

 

Thanks for reading! You can follow @Tim_Wilkinson on Twitter.

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