High School Legacies & The Resonance of Cobra Kai

Folks, strap in because the following article is going to connect some threads that may leave you thinking, “Wow, he’s really thinking too much about Cobra Kai.” In fact, I already received this feedback a few months ago while writing about my enjoyment of the show on Facebook:

Cobra Kai The OC

I was seven-years-old when The Karate Kid was released in 1984, and like many others I grew up with it being a touchstone movie of my childhood. I certainly saw The Karate Kid Part II in the movie theater and I enjoyed various callbacks to the series in pop culture over the years such as Sweep The Leg by No More Kings and the video essay presenting the case that Daniel was the real bully in the original film. And I still get fired up whenever I hear ‘You’re The Best Around’ by Joe Esposito.

Resurrecting those characters and that franchise over 30 years later should not work. It did not work out well (for some) in Star Wars last month, and as Randal remarks in Clerks, “Let the past be the past.” And yet, Cobra Kai works on multiple levels and I remain delightfully dumbfounded by how effective it is. In an era of sequels, reboots and retcons, Cobra Kai manages to pay homage to the source material and give a slight wink to the audience while also taking the current premise seriously.

How do they manage this feat? And why did this show resonate with me?

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The Rise of Skywalker’s Audacious Cynicism

It has been quite the ride in recent years following Star Wars. What started out as a standalone film a year after I was born evolved into a trilogy of films that captured the hearts and minds of a generation. After a long hiatus, the creator of those films returned for another trilogy – and whether you liked those six movies or not – there was no argument about which individual was making decisions about the events taking place, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”

Star Wars was the brainchild of George Lucas and of course he was influenced by countless stories that came before him and benefited from the amazing talents of those around him as the films were created. If we had a problem with the events that played out on screen, then it was easy to point to Lucas as the individual responsible. And many people did hold him responsible after the conclusion of the prequels. So much so that he sold the franchise to Disney and moved on with his life.

The sequel trilogy announced by Disney produced excitement that perhaps the old magic of Star Wars could be recaptured. They brought on J.J. Abrams to direct a script that was written by at least three people including Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3). It was announced that the original cast would reprise their roles, and fans were tentatively hopeful the new films would positively jolt the Star Wars universe.

The Force Awakens accomplished that by stylishly redoing the plot of A New Hope with an enjoyable cast of characters. We got an emotional end to the story of Han Solo and a major tease for whatever might have happened to Luke Skywalker. For whatever reason, Luke’s reveal in the new trilogy of films was held for the second installment; The Force Awakens hinges on the story of Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren. It produced memorable scenes, funny lines of dialogue, great visuals, and offered intriguing questions:

  • Who is Rey? Are her parents anyone special? Is she a Skywalker, Solo, Kenobi or Palpatine?
  • Is Kylo capable of redemption? Will he turn to the Light Side or go further to the Dark Side?
  • Who is Snoke? 
  • What’s the deal with The Knights of Ren?
  • Why was Luke hiding? What’s he going to do when he finally speaks to Rey?

As the start of a new trilogy and purposeful jumpstart to the flagging Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens worked well. Critics and fans alike embraced the movie, and it set the stage for two more films that could go continue to mirror the original trilogy or do something a bit different.

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A Star Is Born With My Guard Down

Spoiler Warning: The following post contains numerous plot details for the film, A Star Is Born. I encourage you to see the film before reading any further. If you continue reading, multiple plot points will be ruined for you. Thank you.

Are you happy in this modern world?

My wife and I took some vacation time from work yesterday to have lunch together and see a movie. It was a rare weekday date for us while our son was in daycare. She picked me up from my office, we ate lunch at Wahlburgers in the Mall of America (she refrained from asking our waiter if he ever met Donnie), and went to see A Star Is Born at the mall’s new theater palace.

I stayed away from reviews because I knew I wanted to see the film, so I entered the theater with a blank slate. I knew there were prior versions of the same film, but I could not recall too many details about them. I assumed A Star Is Born would provide a compelling story and engaging music. I’ve found Lady Gaga to be an intriguing and impressive artist over the years; for example, I respected her dedication to a performance during the 2011 MTV Music Awards when she took on another persona and COMMITTED to that as she launched into You & I with Queen’s Brian May. I remember watching that, and just finding the whole thing so epic; the BALLS it took to do that. The creativity required to generate the idea and the fearlessness to execute it was inspiring. I recall showing it to my wife and saying, “You should watch this. It’s amazing.”

A Star Is Born
Jack & Ally

Meanwhile, I’ve been on board with Bradley Cooper since his performance as Sack in Wedding Crashers; probably the most I’ve ever laughed inside a movie theater. He’s provided quality performances in other movies too, and I gleaned from kinda-sorta, not looking at headlines that he took this movie with Lady Gaga very seriously.

So I had high hopes for A Star Is Born, and I assumed it would have something important to say.

My guard was down. I was not prepared.

I can only imagine what it would be like to see this film without living through the experience of my brother ending his life last year. You ever wish you could “unsee” a movie so it could surprise you all over again? I’d love to “unsee” The Shawshank Redemption, The Usual Suspects or Fight Club so I could experience that “ah-ha” moment all over again.

I imagine A Star Is Born would still be a powerful film to watch had my brother not decided to end his life. However, I only know this reality where I sat in my seat yesterday watching the final portion of the film – knowing and dreading what was unfolding before my eyes.

I am happy this movie exists, and I hope it increases the volume on a conversation about depression and mental health that is still much too quiet in this country and worldwide.

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Ego Check with The Id DM – Episode 15 – Wayne June

Wayne June bio
Wayne June

This week I am joined by Wayne June, voiceover artist and narrator with extensive experience in the audiobook industry. He is perhaps best known recently for his work as the voice of the Darkest Dungeon; he performs the lines of The Ancestor, who serves as the narrator throughout the game. Wayne first discusses his years as a musician and touring with the guitar icon, Johnny Winter. He pivots to detail how he became interested in the voice recording business, and how he found he niche in “creepy” literature such as volumes of H.P. Lovecraft works. Wayne talks about the shift from collaborating in a band to the isolation of voice work, and how the request from the Darkest Dungeon team thrust him into the gaming community. He shares the process for finding the voice of The Ancestor, and what it’s been like to gain attention for his work in the game. He closes by talking about current audiobook and gaming projects.

Enjoy the 15th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:

You can also listen to the show right here:

 

Please consider leaving a review on iTunes and help spread the word about the show. New episodes are released the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month. The next episode will post on June 6th, 2017.

If you are interested in coming on the show for an interview, or would like to become a sponsor, contact me to make arrangements.

What Itch is Pokémon: GO Scratching?

PokeStops
I never did find the Ninetales!

It’s 10:30PM on a Friday night in a quiet suburb north of Minneapolis. A friend and I have come voluntarily to walk around an American Legion parking lot – and we are not alone. We are first encountered by two teenagers that appear to have fallen out of the pages of Scott Pilgrim; tattered jeans with brightly dyed, floppy hair. The boy wipes his blue hair away from his eyes and gives us a knowing nod as I inquire, “Hey, find anything good around here?”

He easily responds, “There’s an Evee by that water tower. Somebody set a lure off so we’re waiting to see what comes by from that.” We thank him for the tip and swing by the Howitzer Statue to refuel on PokéBalls before hitting the Water Tower. We find the Evee and return to the parking to in time to be approached by a vehicle transporting a family. The driver slows down next to us, “How’s it going?”

We update him on our progress and share some stories from earlier in the day, “We found a Jigglypuff down the road, but that was a few hours ago.” The driver is not impressed, “Oh, I already have one of those anyway. I’m just going to hit all the PokéStops to get more balls.” A few more pleasantries are exchanged before we go our separate ways, “Well, good luck!”

My friend and I continue our laps around the American Legion to hit the four PokéStops. Our last encounter is with a taxi driver and his fare for the evening. The couple exiting the vehicle remarks that they have not started to play yet and advance inside the Legion Hall; so far, they are the only two people we’ve seen that are on this property for something other than Pokémon: GO. The taxi driver expresses his curiosity about the roamers around the building, “You think if I advertised to drive around PokéStops, people would be willing to pay for that?”

We informed him there is likely a market for such as service considering there are already drones available to cheat the game. He hopped back into his car while letting us know, “Yeah, I think I’m going to try that. Thanks, and have a good night. And remember my name if you need a ride for more Pokémon or whatever.”

We get back into my car, laughing at the absurdity of the past 30 minutes. We just spent quality time on a weekend wandering around a parking lot speaking to strangers that in no other context would we encounter.

What is happening with Pokémon: GO? Why did it become more popular than pornography in less than a week?

What follows is my attempt to answer those questions, and to discuss the benefits of Pokémon: GO.

Continue reading “What Itch is Pokémon: GO Scratching?”

Clear Boundaries for Improvisation

I recently had the good fortune to play a session of Game of Thrones using Dungeon World rules. The experience was quite differently from playing or running sessions of Dungeons & Dragons because the Game of Thrones’ setting brings a different atmosphere to the game. In addition to traditional fantasy elements, the Game of Thrones’ world features a high level of political intrigue, tangled relationships, and short lifespans. It is entirely possible to run a Game of Thrones-style campaign in the Forgotten Realms. However, sitting down and inhabiting characters in Westeros a few years before the events of Game of Thrones take place forces the players into a different mindset than the average D&D session. Our game featured numerous social interactions, a brief flirtation with a combat moment, and a bevy of characters being introduced into the story.

Rey_Robb_HBO
“I’m not sure of my next move.”

Cooperative storytelling is a part of every roleplaying game session, and it requires those around the table to be willing to jump in with ideas to shape the events. Many articles have been written about improvisation in roleplaying games, and Mike Shea’s interview with designer Steve Townshend really speaks to some of the points I discuss below. There are two approaches to shaping events in any given session. The first is to plan ahead of time what a character will do in a certain set of circumstance. The person running the session could prepare a specific quest to move the players in that direction while players can build characters that always respond to situations in a prescribed manner. For example, a Cleric in D&D may always take action to help those in need; it’s not so much a choice at the table as it is a personality trait that is created before the session begins.

 

The second approach is to improvise as a session goes along to take the story in an infinite number of directions. The person running the game gives an outline of the setting and situation, and the players can respond how they like. It requires all players (including the GM) to be creative, spontaneous, and accepting of the contributions and ideas of each player. Every session I’ve experienced of a tabletop roleplaying game has featured elements of preparation and improvisation. I learned through my Game of Thrones experience that I need to bolster my improvisation skills, and I imagine others out their struggle with this aspect of RPGs as well. The following article offers some ideas to increase the entire group’s willingness to accept and engage in improvisation, and how to improve individual improv skills.

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WWJD – What Would Joel Do?

Spoiler Warning: Like my statistical review of The Games of Thrones novels, the following post contains massive spoilers for the Playstation 3 game, The Last of Us. By all means at your disposal, play the game first and then come back to read the article. You have been warned.

What would Joel do?
What would Joel do?

The Last of Us is a remarkable game. Playing the game over the course of a few weeks resulted in some anxiety and nightmares as I replayed a few of the creepy-as-hell sequences and brutality of dying repeatedly while trying to fall asleep. For example, nothing can quite prepare you for quietly creeping past a host of Clickers in a dark room – or that first time a Bloater rips your face open in shockingly-close detail. While the game travels well-established mechanics of cover-based combat and stealth in yet another post-apocalyptic setting, it is the acting, characters, and story that set the The Last of Us apart from titles with similar gameplay. The journey of Joel and Ellie is riveting, and the conclusion to their story is unlike any experience I’ve had with a videogame in the 20-plus years I’ve been an avid consumer of such entertainment.

After completing the game, I scanned around for other reactions to the game, which I had previously avoided for fear of spoilers. Some of the commentary was surprising. A discussion of the game by Polygon used the following terms to describe Joel at various points in their commentary: sociopath, psychosis, disturbed, and spook. Meanwhile, the New York Times commented that “Joel grows over the course of the game into an admirably complicated protagonist” between paragraphs that blast the game for its handling of gender roles. The later is I comment I disagree with slightly, but my thoughts about Joel are more in line with the Times’ take on him.

By the end of the game, I felt completely immersed in Joel’s experience of the world. I empathized with him. The following is my attempt to justify the actions of Joel at the end of the game – and rationalize why my thoughts were completely in line with his actions when I/he burst through the operating room to find Ellie about to be killed.

Continue reading “WWJD – What Would Joel Do?”