Flash Fiction: “Hoovertown Knights”

I can never stay around from my homage character to Hunter S. Thompson. Especially not when I get a wild story prompt like I did from my friends in Burbank.


Hoovertown Knights, by Alexander Willging

Word Count: 684

At some point, along the way, I stopped caring about how absurd all this was. It wasn’t every day that you force your brother-in-law to commit a daring heist on his own jewelry store in East Vancouver. Sure, call it insurance fraud. But what are such paltry crimes against the chance for immortality, babe?

Yes, dear readers, it’s your favorite madcap journalist Armand Boston, reporting live from the bushes outside a factory in North Canton, Ohio. I sit here, adorned in a Pith helmet and several thousand dollars’ worth of ruby necklaces. These accoutrements are my lone defense against what I can only assume is the dark magic protecting this lonely red brick palace.

“And yet,” my brother-in-law Phil muters at my side, “we could be doing this during the day. Could’ve taken the tour and everything—!”

“Hush,” I whisper back. “El Monstruo approaches!”

And sure enough, with terrible plodding steps, out comes the night watchman. I can barely see the brass buttons gleaming on his starched, pressed uniform. He sweeps his flashlight right over us, and my breath goes tight. Phil looks ready to grumble some more.

Perhaps he’s still mad about his smashed-up jewelry store?

In total silence, I reach into my pocket and pull out a tiara. A bit small, but Phil says nothing as I plant it atop his curly head. Still pissed, but hey, with this diadem, he’s now royally pissed.

Then, ignoring his grunt of protest, I ready the softball I had in my other pocket.

Right as that security guard turns around, I hurl that sucker hard as I can.

Plop! With a groan, the guard collapses. With a clatter, his ring of keys drop onto the pavement. And just like that, Phil and yours truly are making our way inside the main building for the Hoover Vacuum Company.

Most vacuum cleaner enthusiasts know about W.H. Hoover, the brand’s esteemed founder. But few know about the massive vault under his former office in North Canton, Ohio. Or the fact that, in 1945, a team of spies working for the Office of Strategic Services made a secret deposit into that same vault. Something big and heavy, shipping straight out of a Nazi base somewhere in Tunisia.

Of course you wouldn’t know this story, dear readers. The mainstream media wouldn’t suck so hard unless it were owned by the likes of Big Vacuum.

One elevator ride later, Phil and I are measuring our steps down a long, dark corridor. The jeweled medieval compass—the one that I stole from Phil’s shop when his boss wasn’t looking in all the chaos—points our way true. Within minutes, we are directed toward a turn in the corridor and arrive at a pair of giant, nondescript steel doors.

On the doors is a black circular port. Looks like something the size of a compass could fit there…

Well, you know how these things go, reader. Click, boom, doors swing open, lights switch on—

And there she is.

Atop a gleaming white pedestal, bathed in a heavenly afterglow.

A grail. The Grail. That gold cup that all the knights and archaeologists and conspiracy junkies have been hunting for centuries.

And of course they’d hide it out in freaking Ohio.

“Phil, mi compadre,” I whisper. “One sip of this, and we’re gonna live forever!”

“Um, about that.” Phil taps my shoulder. “I think we’ll need to. ‘Cause in case you hadn’t noticed…?”

He points to the glittering shelves. Good God, they’re all here. The Ark of the Covenant. The Hand of King Midas. The sword Excalibur. The Shadow Constitution that James Madison wrote up in 1812!

And, of course, guarding it all is a giant three-headed dog.

A big, black growling son of a gun.

“Right,” I say, not losing my cool. “Right, so… we go downstairs…”


“…And turn on every vacuum cleaner we can find.”

“You’re insane.”

“And you married my sister. So what does that make you?”

Phil sighs. For, like, a minute.

“Go on three?” he asks.

I slap him across the shoulders. “Now you’re starting to use your head, man!”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Isle of Dogs and Wes Anderson’s Wild Animations

Copyright © 2018 by Fox Searchlight Pictures

I love Wes Anderson movies. They’re the epitome of quirky American cinema, but there’s a lot of heart in those stories and some pretty clever cinematography at work, as is Anderson’s style. When you see a lot of yellow? That’s Wes. When you see a whole dialogue within an extremely symmetrical scene? That’s Wes. When you track an impressive line of characters moving horizontally across the screen? Yep, that, too, is Wes.

I adored The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I fell for Moonrise Kingdom. And now I’m pleased to watch the director’s latest project, Isle of Dogs.

In the near-future, the Japanese city of Megasaki has seen an outbreak of dog flu, and Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has decreed all dogs be banned and sent to Trash Island. He faces public opposition from Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who seeks a cure for the virus, as well as opposition at home from his nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin), who will do anything to find his beloved dog Spots (Liev Schrieber). Meanwhile, on the island itself, a pack of four dogs (voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban) come across Atari after he crashes his plane into the island, as well as a stray dog named Chief (Bryan Cranston). As the clock ticks down to the Mayor’s final plot to eliminate all dogs from the area, Chief leads his newfound pack to help the boy find Spots and get word back to the mainland about their plight.

As dramatic as the above synopsis sounds, the story’s pretty simple. A pack of dogs and one determined 12-year-old take on the Mayor’s oppressive regime. Even so, for something that seems goofy, the spirit is definitely heartwarming. Anyone who’s even been a dog owner will get half the jokes. There’s also a nice recurring motif and exploration of the line, “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Isle of Dogs spends as much time making fun of the way we treat dogs as it does exploring how dogs and people view each other. Loyalty’s a huge theme here, and it shows on both sides of the conflict.

The casting for this film is excellent. I mean, you’ll get exhausted just trying to keep track of who’s who in this movie. So I’ll just keep it simple and say that Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeff Goldblum are ideal for the dogs they voice. Greta Gerwig blends in well with her sharp, uber-serious diction as Tracy Walker, the lone English-speaking student in a Megasaki City high school. Also, the Japanese voice acting blends in well with the English voice cast. Much credit is due to Kunichi Nomura, who helped Anderson develop the story and how brings both pathos and power to the role of the cruel Mayor.

The stop-motion animation is breathtaking, with so much detail poured into the way dog fur moves and the subtle changes of human expression on characters like Atari and Tracy Walker. I’ll admit that, at this time, I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox yet, so I can’t say how it compares, but I imagine it’s on par.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I, in fact, am not of Japanese descent. Therefore, I can’t really claim to be a credible witness about cultural appropriation with this movie. This is, after all, a film written and directed by Wes Anderson. But even so, given his collaboration with Mr. Nomura and the amount of work that went into representing all the details of modern Japanese life in stop-motion, there is a certain syncretic spirit within the plot. English-speaking characters like Tracy aren’t made superior to native Japanese like Atari, and even her place in Japan as an exchange student gets commented on at various points. The dogs also speak in an English vernacular, but they highlight that life as a housepet in Japan wouldn’t be all that different from the life of a pet in America or Europe.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m not giving cultural appropriation its due. I can only say this much: go see the movie. Whether you love Wes Anderson or you just love seeing dogs in action, consider going to see Isle of Dogs. For all its quirks and commentary, at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty heartwarming story for all ages. It’s an offbeat, funny, farcical romp with a dramatic core that never lets up.

Isle of Dogs is available through Fox Searchlight Pictures. It is currently playing in theaters.

Bibliography: Isle of Dogs. Directed by Wes Anderson. Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, and Jeremy Dawson. Screenplay by Wes Anderson. Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. Perf. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, and Frank Wood. Indian Paintbrush; American Empirical Pictures. Fox Searchlight Pictures. US release date: March 23, 2018.

Pyre: Even When You Lose This Game, You Win

Go Nightwings! Copyright © 2017 by Supergiant Games

Supergiant Games is quickly becoming my favorite video game dev team. While I didn’t get hooked on their first hit, Bastion, I fell immeasurably in love with their follow-up title Transistor. And now, I’m enamored with the imagination and energy of their latest game, Pyre.

In a distant fantasy land, Exiles from the prosperous Commonwealth compete with one another in the wastelands, known as the Downside, performing the “Rites” so that they might achieve Liberation and return to society, pardoned for all their crimes. One such Exile becomes the Reader for a group known as the Nightwings. Joining such characters as Hedwyn, Jodariel, and Rukey Greentail, the Reader performs the Rites against different teams, expanding their roster and developing their skills in pursuit of their freedom. And, as the Rites grow more difficult over time, in pursuit of justice as well.

Half the fun of this game is getting to know and experiment with different characters on your team. There’s not only standard trios like the optimistic Hedwyn, the brooding Jodariel, and the self-interested Rukey. There’s also Bertrude, the hissing snake-woman alchemist with some strange ideas of benevolence. There’s Ti’Zo, the absolutely adorable drive-imp who’s been around for a long time. There’s Sir Gilman, the wyrm-knight whose boasting and melodramatic speeches belie his deep-rooted fears. Everyone in the cast adds a fresh angle and splash of color to an already well-designed game.

(And did I mention how cute Ti’Zo is? Because he is. He is a little fluff-ball of delight and mayhem that makes me smile every time he’s onscreen.)

The setting for Pyre makes for an interesting type of gameplay, too. At the end of the day, the game is basically in the same vein as Rocket League or DOTA, but with far more drama and pomp than your typical basketball tournament. Every game is a Rite ordained by the holy Eight Scribes of eons past. Everyone wears “raiments” instead of team jerseys. The Downside is a multilayered, multicolored world where each match takes place near the remains of a long-dead Titan, and where Celestial Orbs are cast into flames in order to score points—er, I mean, gain enlightenment…

And on that note, can I say how refreshing it is to have a game that takes such a positive note on spirituality? As a religious person, it’s easy for me to only see faith in modern media depicted in evil fundamentalists and heroes who “stopped believing in God a long time ago.” Getting a mystical flavor in the Rites, and seeing faith in the Scribes depicted through characters like the Moon-Touched Girl, really adds to the setting for me.

Even if the gameplay boils down to “throw a ball into the enemy’s goal enough times to win” (which is pretty exciting all by itself), the devs did a good job of heightening the stakes as the game continues. Thanks to Greg Kasavin’s writing, we see a larger story unfold with the introduction of Sandalwood, the Nightwings’ mysterious backer, and the Liberation Rites at Mount Alodiel. Character goals and pasts come into focus with these Rites, and every new cycle of gameplay means the opposition gets harder as well, but in a more fulfilling way, I think.

Honestly, the best thing about Pyre is how story and gameplay are integrated. Players might have a story-based issue to explain why they’re stronger now, or why you can’t use them for a certain match (like how Jodariel and Pamitha can’t be on the same team). Even when you lose a match, the story goes on, and your teammates continue to grow in wisdom (which, in the game’s context, translates to actual skill and bonuses in future matches). Losing doesn’t trigger that automatic frustration or demand that you go back to your last save for another try. You could do that, but even a loss against the high-flying Essence team can still be a valuable lesson in the future. And the game is equally merciful when it comes to giving you practice rounds with Sandra the wraith and the Beholder Crystal.

If you want a game with beautiful scenery and an equally touching mythology, then go play Pyre. If you want a game with colorful characters and an amazing soundtrack, then go play Pyre. And if you just want to have fun playing match after match against the Beyonders or the Pyrehearts, then go where the stars align, dear Reader, and play Pyre. It may have taken a while to get here, but this is one title I’ll be coming back to for a long time.

Pyre is available for purchase through retailers like Steam and the PlayStation Store.

Bibliography: Pyre. Developed and published by Supergiant Games. Designed by Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin. Programmed by Gavin Simon and Andrew Wang. Art by Jen Zee. Written by Greg Kasavin. Music by Darren Korb. Microsoft Windows; Linux; Mac OS; PlayStation 4 (platform). Original release date: July 25, 2017.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Need to Confront Change

Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

Never before has a line of dialogue so perfectly captured the spirit of a movie. And it came from the mouth of Luke Skywalker no less. A worn-down, bitter, cynical Luke Skywalker. Not the fresh-faced hero from yet another desert planet, but not exactly the edgy antihero of so much post-Nineties TV and cinema. This is a broken man tired of living up to his own legend.

This, then, is the new face of Star Wars. It’s what happens when we ask which legends are worth saving and which are worth losing.

In Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we find both our hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the whole of the Resistance in a state of freefall. Rey has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but he’s neither the hero nor the mentor she wanted. He’s made too many mistakes with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and he won’t be responsible for her downfall, too. Meanwhile, the Resistance reaches its breaking point in a series of counterattacks by the First Order fleet, jumping from one system to another as new leaders like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) take command, leading to clashes with ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and subversive acts by Resistance loyalists like Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). All this, of course, only serves to empower the First Order’s leader, Snoke (played by Andy Serkis), as he and his apprentice Kylo Ren work to corner and eliminate the last Jedi Knight and the fire of resistance once and for all.

When it comes to the storytelling behind this new installment of Star Wars, I give a lot of credit to Rian Johnson’s writing and breathtaking use of colors in his cinematography, the script doctoring by the late Carrie Fisher, and to the performances of Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver. This movie has plenty of callbacks and echoes of the original three movies, but it’s also its own creature, complete with Kurosawa-style splashes of red, homages to Monte Carlo casinos and Rashomon, and plenty of comedic moments that keep the film alive.

Everyone who came to the movie brought something unique, and I think that it’s connected to the film’s overall theme: that no one can change things by themselves, but by working in concert with others, however small their actions might be. Poe Dameron can’t fly in an X-wing and blow things up to save the day. Rey can’t find the reclusive Jedi Master and learn everything like in the old days. Finn and his new friend Rose can’t break the First Order’s weapons from within, or throw their lives away to stop the war machine’s relentless advance.

This movie, for the most part, is an action-driven and emotional ride that makes it the longest-running Star Wars film to date. I think it delivers the same dramatic punches as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with maybe one or two missteps. Some of the second act runs a bit overlong, especially with so much time given to the CGI love-fest that is Canto Bight, and some of the sequences on board Snoke’s flagship are one or two minutes drawn out for my liking. But apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi and I’m left breathless and excited for the next and final installment of this sequel trilogy.

I’m aware that there are plenty of criticisms about the movie, and that a number of fans have taken exception to the changes made by Rian Johnson and others in this new film. But as a longtime Star Wars fan myself, well-versed in the old Expanded Universe of decades past, I couldn’t help but love this. This movie is funny, exciting, dramatic, heartwrenching, affectionate, and downtrodden in so many ways. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s surprising. Yes, it’s tearing down the status quo.

But that’s exactly what Luke is trying to tell Rey, and it’s a lesson he needs to learn himself. Don’t make people into legends. Make your own journey instead.

At the time of this writing, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is currently in theaters everywhere.

Bibliography: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Directed by Rian Johnson. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman. Written by Rian Johnson. Based on characters created by George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro. Lucasfilm Ltd. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 15, 2017.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: Same Galaxy, Same Heroes, and Some Fresh Beats

Copyright © 2017 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

I have to be honest, here. The last Marvel Cinematic Universe film I watched in theaters was Guardians of the Galaxy. Not that I’m not intrigued by what the studios have put out since then, but nothing else really matched the insane energy and ethos of that movie. It seems only fitting, then, that I hit the theater last week to watch its sequel.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 picks up pretty soon after where we left off with the first movie. Our heroes—Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot—are flying across the galaxytaking odd heroic jobs for money. After a job with the “superior race” of the Sovereign goes south (thanks to Rocket’s last-minute petty theft and snark), the Guardians find themselves hunted. Even worse, Gamora’s sister Nebula and the Ravagers under Yondu, Peter’s old mentor, take up the pursuit. Our heroes then split off when Peter encounters his long-last father, Ego (played by Kurt Russell). But Ego’s intentions aren’t what they appear to be, and soon the gang is striving to get back together, uncover the truth, and stop a maniacal plot that—you guessed it—threatens the whole galaxy.

I must admit that, when this film started rolling, I was a little bit thrown. It didn’t have quite the space adventure flair that the first Guardians film had. Vol. 1 (if we can call it that now) had an obvious Dark Lord, a quest, a magical item, and tons of space battles from start to finish. Vol. 2, meanwhile, has a more introspective take on its adventure. Sure, they’re saving the galaxy again, but it’s from a more personal threat. And in the meantime, they’re dealing with their personal issues, from fatherhood (Peter and Yondu) to estranged siblings (Gamora and Nebula) to self-worth (Drax, Mantis, and Rocket).

Not that any of this is bad, mind you. I mean, this is Peter Quill coming to terms with his heritage. That kind of soul-searching is expected (and, at times, a little obvious considering where the main twist was headed). But nowhere did I expect to love every single scene between Rocket Raccoon and Yondu. They were two of a kind in this film and I couldn’t get enough of them. Especially in the epic Ravager battle in the midpoint (you know the one, where the Jay and the Americans song starts playing up).

Meanwhile, I do like some of the new characters they’ve added. Mantis is a bit one-note at first, but her interactions with Drax and even Gamora add a lot of personality over time. She’s genuinely sweet in an otherwise cynical universe. And there’s the introduction of Stakar Ogord, a top dog Ravager, played by honest-to-God Sylvester Stallone. Honestly, the movie would be lesser without him in the role. He made it his own, and he has a great tie-in to Yondu’s story.

And on that note, let’s talk about Yondu. Without spoiling anything, he’s the unsung hero of this entire story. As much as I like Quill (and I do!), Yondu had a pretty good character arc. We learn a lot about his past and we get to see him grow a little. Which is appropriate when you pair him up with Rocket, and you learn that, between the two, Yondu’s a little more humane than his furry counterpart. But this is also a story about fatherhood, and Peter’s learned as much from Yondu as he has from his mother back on Earth. Watching their interactions adds a depth to the film’s central theme: that family isn’t about genetics, but who’s in your corner.

If you liked the first Guardians movie, then you’ll like this one, too. It has the same great characters, all shown in a new dimension, and it’s a rip-roaring series of twists from start to finish. It’s also a science fiction film with a good emotional core, beyond all the cool stunts and visuals. I wouldn’t quite say it’s better than the original, but at least it’s on par and I’d rather watch these outer space comic tours out of anything else Marvel is offering these days.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is available through Marvel Studios. It is currently playing in theaters.

Bibliography: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Directed by James Gunn. Produced by Kevin Feige. Written by James Gunn. Based on the comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Perf. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Baustista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillian, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, and Kurt Russell. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US release date: May 5, 2017.