Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My Father's Birthday

     Truth be told, what little life plan I had cobbled together about a decade ago was heavily reliant on my not living into my forties.  There is a rather serious history of heart disease in the family – both my grandfather and father had massive heart attacks, though both survived them – and I have never, or at least not since 1985, lived anything approaching a healthy lifestyle.  I had gotten quite used to carrying around entirely too much fat (and yearly diminishing muscle) around on my short, squat, defective frame.  I had missed my chance, or repeated chances, at making anything out of my life and the very low goal I was targeting was simply making it to the end without causing any more major disruptions in the lives of others.
     There was a period of time where I wasn't speaking to most of my extended family, the result of my grandmother attempting to place the blame for everything in my life – like she had with my father before me – squarely on the shoulders of my mother.  Sure, my mother is a contributor to the emotional train wreck that I am and long have been, but so is my father, my brother, a half-score of teachers, and most importantly, I am.  I am the one who has made the disastrously bad decisions in my life, and I am the one who has never made good on what was once assumed to be a great amount of potential.
     At my lowest in my adult life, though it can be argued that I have done much to avoid living as an adult, I reached out to my family for help.  My grandmother put a price on her help: blame your mother for everything.  Blame your mother, free your father from blame, and more than that, free myself from any realization that I am the author of my miseries.  And all I had to do was say it. I didn't have to mean it.  I didn't have to live my life affirming it.  I just had to profess something I didn't believe to be true and she would be willing to help me, which is to say that she would intercede with my grandfather on my behalf.  Blame my mother, the woman who could have easily had me sent off to jail at that particular time, and all would be made right, all favors would be granted.
     I couldn't do it.  I may have been (and maybe am still to this day) a most reprehensible creature, but I was not going to assign my troubles – those of the moment – to my mother and my mother alone.  If I were going to be assigning blame within the family, I would start with me.  And I wouldn't absolve my father for his part.
     Not long before this moment –which took place in some forgettable restaurant in Oak Brook, Illinois – I had reached out to my father for help.  I was at a serious low point; almost Fall of '92 in how close I came to just quitting on everything.  I was scheduled to visit my father in about three weeks, but it would have been much better if I could have gotten out to see him before that.  I hadn't really seen much of him since we lost the apartment in Orland Park, Illinois.
     He went off to live with his sister in Winfield and I with my mother in Oak Park.  He stopped by a few times for some reason or another; I remember him helping track down my mother's wayward cat in a search that lasted more than three hours.  I remember him showing up to celebrate my 18th birthday – which wasn't on my 18th birthday (I spent that day driving to and from Michigan to retrieve a friend who promised to come back and watch Jurassic Park on opening day with me and a collection of friends – to show off his new motorcycle; he introduced it with the quip, "Do you like what I spent your tuition money on?".
     My father drove me out to Iowa City and back to register for classes – I really could have used some help with that – and find a place to live.  Not to stay, like the regular freshman who went off to the dorms.  Floods and circumstances placed me in an apartment a little over a mile off campus with a pair of drop-outs.  Don't get me wrong, I came to really like my roommates (and I cannot apologize enough for them having to put up with me), but I could have strongly benefited from living like a student and being surrounded by students.  Then again, I would have severely benefited by going to any other school in the country.  Live and learn, but I didn't aspire to doing much of either.
     I saw him that Christmas (1993) back in Illinois.  I had done as bad as a student could do and still earn credit.  The message I was given was "do better".  That April, I he swung through Iowa City on his way out to Denver.  I drove the majority of the trip from where I joined, finally giving into exhaustion in Brush, Colorado – I had been hallucinating behind the wheel and figured it was time for some sleep – having been up for nearly three days straight constantly waiting for his "I should be there in six hours" time frames.  I never saw Denver on that trip, only the old airport as I was put on a plane for Cedar Rapids and my room mate Dave being kind enough to make the trip to come get me.
     I was invited out to see my father once.  Flying out on a United Airlines pass – and arriving an hour early because that was the flight with open seats – I was greeted not by my father but by his landlord, Rich Charles.  Rich got my bags to my father's jeep (and showed me how to get into it when it was locked) and word to him that I had arrived.  An hour later, Rich came by and found me again; no sign of my father.  Well, since I would be staying at Rich's house, he could take me there if my father never showed up.  But he did show up.
     He hadn't come up with any kind of plan for what we would do, at least not one he wanted to let me know about.  Rich had to strongly suggest that my father get some food as there was nothing for me at the house.  Other than my father looking absolutely lost in a supermarket – and not in the way intimated by the Clash – the only thing I remember from that night was that Rich's ex-wife (?) had a thing for Kip Winger.  Come the next day, my father spent most of the morning in the basement with his girlfriend.  Eventually he emerged and we had a brief conversation, but he retreated back to the basement.  The only activity of the trip ended up being a trip out to see a country music festival she wanted to see.
     At the time, I was supremely upset that he would invite me out for a weekend he had already prioritized to someone else.  I got to sit around in an unfamiliar house without much to do, take a long uncomfortable (because of how I behaved) trip to and from the festival, and then during the festival was ignored enough that I took the ski lift up the mountain just so I could walk back down and kill time.  I wasn't behaving at all like an adult, and I want to say that I was 20, so I should have been something more than a pouting child.
     Of course, this girlfriend of his ended up being his wife of fourteen years (I honestly am guessing here; it is hard for me to be definite when I wasn't invited to or even notified of the wedding).  My father went on to, in his way, build a life in Colorado that was quite different from the one he had in Illinois.  The next time I was invited out to Denver was in the summer of 1998 and I needed to be there a little before we had arranged.  I needed to get out of Illinois in a way not unlike my father did when he transferred four years earlier, but my need was more personal.
     I called him from a pay phone at the White Hen Pantry convenience store at North Boulevard and Euclid in Oak Park; I couldn't make the call from home.  Dad, I pleaded with him, I need to get out of here.  Can I come and see you now?  It will still only be a week, but I just can't stay here and I have nowhere else to go.  And all of that was true.  I had no friends left to turn to, no family that would have me.  Whatever damage my mother may have done to me over the course of my entire life to that point I had repaid more than tenfold over the space of a year.  My brother and I had come to blows frequently over the months leading up to this phone call.
     My father just couldn't be bothered to change his schedule.  He was too busy.  Maybe next time.  I was suicidal, and that was tough, but there was nothing he could do about it.
     We didn't speak again until I went down to visit him in Florida after his heart attack.  I felt uncomfortable as I climbed into my aunt's SUV and my grandfather beamed that he was just so glad that he was able to see me again, that I had come down.  Of course I did.  I may have still had an intense resentment of my father for neglecting me when I reached out to him, in the moment when I wanted someone to allow me to see if I thought my life was still worth living (and when I came to the realization that it wasn't I proceeded to drift aimlessly towards an early death), but I wasn't going to compound that by deciding that I was too petty to come down and see him.
     He could have died.  It was the most serious heart attack I've ever heard of somebody surviving, or at least of that level of magnitude.  I brought some of what I had written – because I still occasionally wrote back then – and bought a special edition Time Magazine full of pictures for him when I was told he couldn't concentrate well enough to read.  I didn't want him to die, but that is a sentiment without context.  As angry as I have been perceived to be – and I want to make the point that frustration and anger are different – I don't really want anyone to die.  But I didn't want my father to die down in Florida.  I didn't want his parents, my grandparents – the ones who would have helped me if I had turned on my mother – to have to bury their son.  I didn't want him to die on a trip where he had gone down to help them out by doing some chores and repair work in their townhouse.
     I probably could have gone the rest of my life – because I wasn't doing any living in it – without ever speaking to my father again, but it seemed like it would have taken a force of pure spitefulness to not be there in whatever fashion I could be when he was in need.  Not that I could do anything.  No matter what kind of ego centric spin I want to put on it, I was little more than just another face in the crowd of family that was there wishing for him to get better.  The difference was that I, like my brother and my father's wife – who I will eventually get around to referring to as Theresa...I don't know why I have been so reticent in giving her credit for her role in his life thus far in this story – had to make a journey to see him.
     My father got well enough to go back to Colorado.  He was well enough to return to Florida after his father died to clean out the townhouse and get it ready for the market.  My brother and I were enlisted to be labor in this project.  My brother was told as much; I was not.  I was told that we should all go visit Grandma and make sure she's doing okay.  If I had known I was to be moving boxes and furniture around in 90 degree heat, I would have packed different clothing.
     One night (on that trip) when we went out to eat, the we in question was just my brother and I.  My father handed over his Harley Davidson credit card and told us to not go crazy.  We ended up in an Outback Steakhouse in Naples, but it could have been any western suburb of Chicago from the look of it (or the people inside, many of whom were refugees from the Chicagoland area).  Even when we were together, my father found a way for he and I to not be.
     So our conversations, which could be as frequent as twice a month or as infrequent as twice a year, revolved around nothing important.  I had long ago resolved to not accomplish anything in my life, so even if he had good advice to give about how to move forward, I wasn't going to make myself into the kind of person who would ask for it.  There was only a narrow window of our shared past that he cared to revisit.  I couldn't get him to talk much about his time in Vietnam or racing.  I took four months to get him to talk about his relationship with his grandfather and how it was vastly different than the relationship I had with his father.
     I didn't want to talk about work – unless I had done something that would have gotten a regular employee fired (yay to being the kind of worker who is good enough to get away with that) – and he wasn't working.  I didn't have any kind of relationship with Theresa or her children, and that was the family that was closer to my father than I was.  We had been largely removed from each others' lives for four years when we stopped speaking, and it was seven years of that silence.before the heart attack.  By the time we established any regular contact, it had been thirteen years since we spent much time with one another.
     We weren't strangers, but we certainly kept a distance in our relationship.  I went to Denver once since the trip to Rich's and the festival.  I went out to play some Living Arcanis, listen to the Q&A with Henry Lopez – who insulted me (though not by name) in front of everyone present – and also see my father, his house, and Theresa.  I stayed at the hotel where the convention was.  I wanted some distance even when I was there.
     This year, about a week before my birthday, I called him just to talk.  He was very upset and I gave him the kind of advice that a friend or a son can give, but a professional (which I am not) mental health care specialist cannot and does not.  He had built up a fantasy of where he could return to Illinois and live with me or my brother.  Again, I had been long building towards not being around, to not living an adult life.  I have a cat and I can't support it, much less a person.  My brother was not in a position where he could help, and given something that transpired a few years earlier, I don't think he would have been eager to do much other than encourage my father to seek his ends elsewhere.
     There was no succor to be had back home.  It wasn't malice.  His sons simply couldn't give him the rescue option he wanted to be there.
     I spoke to him on my birthday, very briefly.  The kind of exchange between people who know they should be talking to one another but can't figure out what they are supposed to say.  There was some kind of distraction in the background on his end and I asked him if he had to deal with it.  "No," he said, "I just live here."
     And then, four days later, that ceased to be true.
     Today would have been my father's sixty sixth birthday.  Before this year, he was always – the ten week discrepancy not withstanding – thirty years older than me.  Not that I thought of him that way.  He was, at least until his heart attack and back problems forced him from work and the hobbies that defined him, an active man.  I tended to think of him as he was at thirty eight – for some reason I never really sought to figure out how old my father was before the third grade, and he remained at that age (in part) to me.  And not just me.  I discovered that my brother thought of him at that age, too, during our long drive out to his memorial service.  Thirty eight year old Larry McNeil hadn't yet gone to work for United Airlines, hadn't yet gotten into Harley Davidson motorcycles, hadn't moved to Colorado and started a new life.
     Thirty eight year old Larry had all the trappings of 25+ year old Tim McNeil in terms of not taking meaningful steps towards real adulthood, except that he had a family and belief that he would find that something that would pull everything together.  The Larry McNeil that moved out to Colorado was forty eight years old, aged by ten years of raising his sons (most of 1989-1992 as the primary parent to me, the dates being different for my older brother) and not being free to pursue life on his own terms.
     We never got to talk about that.  We never got to have a serious conversation about how I had disappointed him, and he had done the same to me.  We never even mentioned forgiving one another, or even one of us doing as much for the other alone.
     Today would have been my father's birthday.  I would have called him up and had an awkward conversation with him.  I would have asked him about what he had planned for today and known that for the most part the response wouldn't matter to me.  He might have said something about how he missed his mother, who died the year before.  He might have been as angry as he was on the 22nd of June.  He might have been sad and depressed and focused on his ailments.  He might have been in a great and positive mood.
     But he isn't any of those things, now.  He isn't anything anymore.  Some of his remains are out in the front room, awaiting a time next summer when my brother schedules to scatter his ashes in Palos Park, Illinois and at Burt Lake in Michigan (just couldn't be one place, could it, Dad?).  The rest are out with Theresa, and I doubt that they are any comfort for Larry not being there any more.
     Today is a day when I would want to call my father and talk about him.  The kind of day I would want to be there for him.  At least as much as I could be, given how I have done so much in my life to be of so little consequence as to not be able to really help.  Even if perfunctory communication was all that today would have entailed, it would have been something.
     There are so many parallels between 22 June, 2011 and – God help me, I can't give it a specific date (and I'm betting the letter with the date has long since been destroyed) – Fall of 1992 that it is beyond sad.  The major difference is that something went wrong in '92 and didn't in '11.  I wouldn't be here if not for a malfunction, or if I were, it would be with some severe and lasting damage.  I didn't consult my father about that decision, nor did he call my brother or me.
     And now there is no special meaning to today.
     My father is dead.  He isn't going to hear what I have to say, and even if he could I'm not sure it would matter much to him.  We hadn't done much to build a solid relationship, and I know how much of that is my fault.  My father is gone and I will never have a chance to get to know him as an adult.  I will never get back the years of anger, animosity, and hurt.  What's worse, I'm sure that even if those had been great years between us, I would still be writing a piece on my father's birthday today.
     Because 22nd June, 2011 wasn't about me.
     Just like Fall of 1992 wasn't about him.
     And now 31 August is just another day in the year.  It used to be my father's birthday; he isn't going to have any more.  I can keep what memories I have of him with me, but that is a poor substitute for his actual being.  The only bright point I can find is that I failed where he succeeded, and he had good years out in Colorado not tainted by my need to be anywhere other than alive.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Great Short Stories: Quick Reads by Great Writers (2005)

     Yet another book from the Dover Thrift Editions collection – a collection that would not be amassed were I one of those people with a Kindle, or of the mind to own a Kindle – Great Short Short Stories: Quick Reads by Great Writers amasses thirty short stories in a scant 193 pages.  Being a DTE product, I knew to expect some overlap with the other short story compilations in the DTE catalog, but at the supremely reasonable price of $3.50, that didn't really bother me.  It also dipped a little further into the ghost story and horror genres than I would have expected, but not to poor effect.
     Of the stories I read – skipping over five from previous DTE collections and one from the Edgar Allan Poe collected works – only three really popped for me: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "If I Were a Man" (1914), H.H. Munro's "The Open Window" (1914) – a story that has been done so many times since that it is remarkable how well it holds up, and Oscar Wilde's "The Sphinx Without a Secret" (1887).  The rest were in the decent to strong range, but often felt dated in their style.  I was only frustrated with Franz Kafka's "A Country Doctor" (1919) – but Kafka has long frustrated me as a reader – and Jack London's "The White Silence" (1900), which just seems like so much more of the same after a while.
     The complete list of stories is below (with those skipped in red) with the listed sources DTE used:
▸    “The Egg” by Sherwood Anderson (1921 – The Triumph of the Egg: A Book of Impressions from American Life in Tales and Poems)
▸    “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce (1909 – The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. II)
▸    “The Enchanted Bluff” by Willa Cather (1909 – Harper’s Weekly)
▸    “A Malefactor” by Anton Checkov (1918 – The Witch and Other Stories)
▸    “The Veteran” by Stephen Crane (1896 – The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War)
▸    “The Appiration of Mrs. Veal” by Daniel Defoe (1705)
▸    “Nobody’s Story” by Charles Dickesn (1853 – Household Words)
▸    “If I Were a Man” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1914 – Physical Culture)
▸    “Squire Petrick’s Lady” by Thomas Hardy (1891 – A Group of Noble Dames)
▸    “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte (1870 – The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches)
▸    “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1837 – Twice Told Tales)
▸    “A Ghost Story” by Jerome K. Jerome (1892 – The Idler)
▸    “A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett (1886 – A White Heron and Other Stories)
▸    “A Country Doctor” by Franz Kafka (1919)
▸    “Wee Willie Winkie” by Rudyard Kipling (1899 – Wee Willie Winkie and Other Stories)
▸    “Sanctuary” by Nella Larsen (1930 – Forum)
▸    “Second Best” by D.H. Lawrence (1914 – The Prussian Officer and Other Stories)
▸    “The White Silence” by Jack London (1900 – The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North)
▸    “Germans at Meat” by Katherine Mansfield (1911 – In a German Pension)
▸    “A Piece of String” by Guy de Maupassant (1903* – The Works of Guy de Maupassant: Short Stories)
▸    “The Open Window” by H.H, Munro (Saki) (1914 – Beasts and Super-Beasts)
▸    “The Furnished Room” by O. Henry (1906 – The Four Million)
▸    “With Other Eyes” by Luigi Pirandello (1901)
▸    “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846)
▸    “The Coffin-Maker” by Alexander Pushkin (1916* – The Prose Tales of Alexander Pushkin)
▸    “The Three Hermits” by Leo Tolstoy (no date)
▸    ‘The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by Mark Twain (1875 – Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old)
▸    “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” by H.G. Wells (1895 – The Pall Mall Budget)
▸    “The Sphinx Without a Secret” by Oscar Wilde (1887 – The World)

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Whole Wide World (1996)

     With the 2011 version of Conan the Barbarian fresh in my recollection, I thought it would be fitting to get around to seeing the movie that dealt with the Cimmerian's creator, Robert E. Howard.  That film would be the nearly forgotten The Whole Wide World (1996), directed by Dan Ireland.  I have a feeling that fans of the Conan character would not be very much enamored with the often quiet, emotionally grounded tale of a troubled writer from West Texas; to make the brutal warrior little more than an escapist fantasy for a social misfit robs Conan of his power.
     I don't know that there is terribly much to say about the movie without getting into the elements of the plot.  It is shot in a style more frequently seen in the late 1970s or early 1980s; it is clear that Ireland was not going for anything innovative in his feature length film.  The music, while quite effective, occasionally booms when it doesn't have to.  I will also note that the West Texas of the movie looks much greener than than I imagined the real 1930s West Texas to be, but it may be that my preconceptions are based upon nothing but confusing West Texas with Oklahoma.  Renée Zellweger is a little more restrained than I would have prefered, and Vincent D'Onofrio sometimes plays his role as though he were on stage, but both are fully invested in their characters.  The supporting cast is equally strong, and provide for great moments of humor and levity to break the tension of the relationship between the leads.
     I do think that the story does give some proper credit to what it means to be a writer who has to produce on a regular basis.  Howard (the character) lives inside his fantasy worlds so he can understand them and bring them to life.  He knows that what he is doing is work, same as any other kind, but one that allows him the freedom to call as many shots as he can.  He opines that a person cannot have a job and write; you can only do one.  I think he has that well identified, but I think the underlying notions that he needed to have a receptive fan and inspiration – in his case, his mother – is more telling of an author willing to be very critical of his works.
     This isn't the kind of film that would make me want to go out and read the collected works of Robert E. Howard.  I have been working through a short list of American authors I must read, and he is not on that list.  What it did do, however, was make me want to get back to writing.  And made me grateful that I have – at the very least – a passing understanding of the emotional state (and its construction) that led Howard to his ultimate end.
     I recommend the movie for those who are looking for something involving human interaction and not just special effects with a loose story to connect them.  I will also encourage people to give it a second viewing with the commentary track; that has more to do with the making of the film and staging of the shots, but it quite informative. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)

     Let me make my bias clear from the beginning: I have absolutely different expectations about films made for a theatrical release and those for the direct-to-video (now DVD/Blu-ray) market.  That is probably not fair, and it is definitely not consistent.  I haven't figured out a way to counteract the bias yet, and so it continues.
     John Pogue's Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011) is about 85 minutes of been there, seen that entertainment that isn't going to be hailed for bringing anything new to the genre of plague zombie movies.  It does attempt to build a credible tie-in to John Erick Dowdle's Quarantine (2008), but – for several reasons – that proves to be problematic.  Too much is known about the events of the first film, especially by the villain of the second.  Instead of a slow build to understanding what is going on (and then being realized by a veterinarian), it gets blurted out by a combat medic and accepted without question.  Most problematic, this sequel completely forgoes the idea of one of the participants shooting the action (and not just as the eyes of the film) – a faux cinema verite style I first witnessed in 84 Charlie Mopic (1989) – and offers most everything in a straight ahead style (until some thermal vision is introduced, and that plays like a cheap rip-off of the low-light scenes at the end of the "original").
     For all of its faults, I was still mildly entertained by Quarantine 2: Terminal.  Protagonist Jenny (Mercedes Masöhn, doing her best to channel a mixture of Amanda Peet and Piper Perabo) may be the less likable of the two flight attendant characters, and she doesn't evoke the same range of emotion or bewilderment one would expect for the events, but she is somewhat accessible.  The villain is, while stock in his motivations, is played with some very human touches.  The action sequences are a touch above the standard low-budget horror film (the estimated budget of $4 million may explain this).
     What didn't work?  Most of the characters aren't properly developed; the movie could have used about ten more minutes of set-up and a lot less time in a cluttered looking baggage handling (?) building at the airport.  The efficiency of the response team is all over the place, which begs the question of how news of the situation won't spread quickly.  There is a shot in the airplane of a rat where – for no reason – the speed is racheted up; as if shooting another take of a rat moving would have too difficult to produce a better effect (or letting it stand without alteration would have not gotten the same point across).  That isn't a complete list, but Quarantine 2: Terminal avoids being a disappointment by limiting its ambition.
     [Now, for the entire Rec (2007) vs. Quarantine (2008) debate?  I heard good things about Rec, but by the time I was in the mood to see it I knew there was going to be an American version coming out.  As such, I've only seen about the first 12 minutes of Rec and don't have proper grounds to compare.  I do know that I didn't find Quarantine lacking as a film (it seemed, to me, like a film that did a fine job in translating from low-budget Spanish horror movie to mid-budget, glossy American horror movie).  Will I get around to seeing Rec?  Yeah, probably.  I have a fair amount of missed movies on my list ahead of it, but I do think I owe it a look.  I would just like to wait long enough to let the remake not be as fresh in my mind; I would like to appreciate it on its own.]

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

     It strikes me that this story would have been more compelling if it had been set in the late 1940s to early 1950s.  I don't know Dick set his short story, but I honestly feel that the story works better in a time when people may have felt more (or as) tied to the hand of God or fate than to modern technology.  As it was, I thought that it made little use of modern day New York as a backdrop to the story.
     It may be my own short-sightedness, but I don't see why Emily Blunt has been snagging some lead roles lately.  I liked her fine as Ruthie "Pignosed" Draper in Dan in Real Life (2007), and I am aware that she can act, but she seems to lack a certain sense of weight in scenes that demand them.  Otherwise, Matt Damon and a cast of well-dressed men walk, walk quickly, and run at the a relatively slow pace (except when running through the rain) and this serves as a type of action. 
     The lack of depth in the philosophical implications of the story aside, I think this is a fine film.  It looks okay – I would have preferred a grittier look for a modern day setting, or an overripe color-flushed version if it had been more retro – and stays on point as much as it can.  Damon's character doesn't seem to have enough of a sense of self to fit in with his projected destiny, but that doesn't make it unrealistic or unlikeable.
     A fine rental, I would give The Adjustment Bureau (2011) a strong B-, almost a B.  It was fun watching John Slattery and Terence Stamp strut about in the Bureau's outfits, delivering restrained (but not cryptic enough) readings.  I just would have preferred a few changes to keep me more engrossed in the story, and to make me really care about the characters.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Next Three Days (2010)

     I am going to do everything in my power to keep this brief.  The Next Three Days (2010) is an old-school kind of caper movie, with an attempt at some high energy moments in the final act.  It is not entirely successful, largely because the characters – save Liam Neeson's brief appearance as jailbird-turned-author Damon Pennington and Daniel Stern's turn as attorney Meyer Fisk – are all are presented as wooden, mostly unemotional beings.  It is not unlike the restrained manner Daniel Craig affected in Enduring Love (2004), but it applies to all of the character, with Russel Crowe's John Brennan only given three scenes where he has some human level of emotion showing.
     There is a certain level of non-commitment to the whole thing.  Brennan doesn't know how to go about doing what he wants to do, but figures it out in time to keep the movie going.  The police officers are neither the bad guys or co-sympathetic protagonists, but cut-scene filler.  The action is almost – with the exception of a ridiculous FX sequence on the road – as restrained as the emotion in the film.  Sometimes that really works and gives it a grounded feel, and it never draws stark contrast against the play of the characters.
      I feel kind of ambivalent about this movie.  I think that Pittsburgh deserves better than this, Striking Distance (1993) and Sudden Death (1995); maybe that is Taylor Lautner's new movie.  Yes, I know who Taylor Lautner is (the shirtless guy from the Twilight movie commercials, and thus presumably the movies as well).  Back to the point.  This is a decent, consistently paced movie that delivers a mildly interesting story in a competent manner.  Yes, it could have been much better, but it isn't bad enough for me to bad mouth it.  I'd say C+, and think that if it were allowed to drift a little more towards the melodramatic it could have been a solid B.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Walking the Tightrope of Reason (2003) (Review)

     Robert Fogelin's Walking the Tightrope of Reason: The Precarious Life of a Rational Animal (2003) is not the most accessible book on the shelf.  While it starts out quite well and is very engaging, Fogelin eventually gets lost in the very subject he is exploring and ends up coming away with little to contribute to the discussion of the problems facing rationality.  It also ends up requiring the reader to have a fair grasps of the philosophical concepts he introduces to keep himself from reaching a satisfactory end.
     I would recommend this book on the strength of its Introduction and first two chapters (the first 67 pages).  It does a great job of showcasing the typical deadfalls in the everyday exercise of logic and reason, and of breaking down Wittgenstein to a pretty basic level.  Where it goes wrong is where Fogelin has to account for Kant and Hume's views on the inherent problems of purely intellectual enterprises.  Neither is particularly easy to express in lay terms, so Fogelin doesn't.  Not being a Kantian, he doesn't indulge in Kant's complicated systems for understanding – this would have been more rewarding for me as Kant's views have largely been adopted by Cognitive Psychology in explaining how human beings process perception in order to formulate ideas and interpret the world.   As a Humean, he somewhat over indulges in Hume's explorations of the problems of skepticism, and not in a way that makes it accessible to those who are not well acquainted with Hume.  (I would like to thank Dr. James King of Northern Illinois University, himself a Humean, for instilling in me – I think – enough of an understanding of Hume to understand the points Fogelin is attempting to make in the later chapters.)
     At a list price of $13.95 this isn't overpriced for a philosophy text, but it is for a casual read.  It is far easier a read than a Hume, Kant, or Wittgenstein treatise.  It also has something to offer, at least in a cautionary manner, about how supposedly rational thought can go wrong.  It just would have been better if he had made it more applicable to everyday life and less to the dogged pursuit of knowable truth.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Red Riding Hood (2011)

     I avoided seeing this in the theater, and I am still glad I did.  It is overlong and the story underdeveloped.  The winking reference to the elements of the well-known folk tale don't come off well.  Most bothersome, the costume designer seems to not know that a riding hood would have to allow for one to ride a horse; the film's heroine, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is often pictured with an immensely flowing cloak – like the train of a wedding dress – of the brightest red.
     Still, despite all of its flaws – and the film has many – I found myself liking the style of it.  Director Catherine Hardwicke – of Twilight (2008) fame – has an eye for set design (which she should), but here it borders on the fantastical.  The trees have been trimmed in a menacing fashion, created a Pricklespur Forest like environment.  The village has the feel of a (North American) western outpost or fort crossed with a late medieval Scandinavian village, yet it gets to have a very Balkan bacchanalian festival to celebrate a momentous event.  Grandmother's house is a truly ridiculous affair, an immense cottage in the middle of the woods that gives hints that she may be a witch.  The snow may as well be sand, and it is clear that almost all of the shots are on a soundstage; and it still captures a sense of imagined reality.
     Somehow, all of those absurdities work.  Likewise, the over-rich tones of the colors should be a distraction.  Instead, they serve to give the entire movie a mildly trippy storybook appearance.  The costuming is also ridiculous; characters strut about in absolutely modern fashion with just enough of an old world touch to let them fit into the story without ruining it.  The entire look of the film is what I liked, and it was done so in a way that allowed the CGI wolf  looked right at home.  The wolf, for its part comes off like an updated version of the Gmork.  It is a fun kind of menacing beast.
     Continuing on with how the movie looked, I found myself liking the model good looks of most the entire village.  Hardwicke does juxtapose  the traditional representations of the typical rich boy and working class love interest, both visually and in the tone of their characters.  Shiloh Fernandez (woodcutter Peter) sports a full Twilight love interest look, brooding with arched eyebrows and moused hair.  Max Irons (as wealthy lad Henry) gets to have the tousled hair and quiet manner.  Seyfried gets to dress in a way where she can alternate between pure, innocent, and wide-eyed and seductive, cagey, and determined – all to good effect.  The almost always sexy Virginia Madsen – excepting Candyman (1992) – isn't given much to do, but she does get to look good not doing it.
     Truly ineffective in this movie was Gary Oldman as Soloman, and his holy soldiers.  The audience knows that Soloman is a badass because he comes into this somewhere in Europe medieval village with black dudes in tow; he also has a mix of other ethnicities, so we know his renown and powers must be great.  He gets to strut around and ineffectively deliver lines.  He locks a boy in a metal elephant.  He threatens the villagers and fights the wolf.  It is all very ho-hum.  Oldman often doesn't match the tone of the rest of the film in his less than serious roles, and this instance is no different.  He ends up as being a lead weight in an otherwise decently moving story.
     I can't say I recommend watching this for the story, or even for the acting.  All I can say is that I enjoyed almost all of the look and feel of the movie.  It felt like a wry, but not-quite-adult vision of the illustrations found in children's books.  Yes, there is too much voice over material where there doesn't need to be any.  And the better actors of the cast – excepting Oldman – are pushed to the side to let the children play.  But it looks good in a fantastical way.  Largely because of that, I'd give Red Riding Hood a C+ (solid B look, B- acting, C- script, and C- pacing once Oldman is involved).
     I will also admit I spent a fair amount of the movie wishing that this was the level of set design, budget, and tone taken with Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004).  It is clear that Red Riding Hood had a finished script when shooting started – something Ginger Snaps Back did not – and a more bankable cast.  But the similarities are not few, and maybe that contributed to my positive feelings towards the project.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Building a Better GM Challenge

     First, I would like to thank Josh Brown for bringing this to my attention.  I'm pretty sure I'm not the target audience for this challenge, but I have been playing table top RPGs – by the actual rules – since 1982 and Game Mastering since 1987; I would like to think I may have some insight on the matter, however limited it may be.  So, here I go trying to answer the challenge put forth by Hill Cantons.

     What should a good GM do – what should his or her practices be – in three steps?

1. It is laudable to over-prepare; it is lamentable to over-plan.

     This could be an entire argument in and of itself, so please allow me to limit this to the detail I will provide in the following paragraphs.  One of the traits a good – meaning functional – GM is to be prepared to run the game, by which I mean the system.  This does not mandate that a potential GM needs to lock him- or herself away and study the mechanics as though a proper understanding would enable him or her to pass the Bar Exam.  It does, however, mean that the GM should have a mastery of the basic rules and if not a knowledge of the more complicated concepts and mechanics, than any easy reference to them (say, like a GM Screen with various rules printed on the inside).  Nothing does more to draw everyone out of the experience than constant rules referencing.  Some rules referencing is unavoidable, if only to settle questions between players about how some situation is resolved, but knowing the rules helps the GM attain and maintain the position of authority at the table.  After all, he or she is the ultimate arbiter of what happens in the game.
     That is not the extent of preparation, but the beginning.  It better serves a GM to prepare as much of the game world/universe as is practical before the actual playing begins.  I note "as practical" because fully fleshing out the world/universe can lead to a restrictive outlook from the GM and a constricting environment for the players.  Fully developing the game environment before the players have any level of input falls squarely in the camp of over-planning, and that will be addressed later.  The prepared GM has more than an idea of the setting, but rather has a concept that can be well described and explained to the players in a consistent manner.
     The game world/universe is not just an empty box into which concepts can be plugged, but a vibrant entity that has a life given to it by game play.  As such, the game world/universe needs to be able to meet not just the vision of the GM, but also fit the expectations of the players, and accommodate both the backgrounds of the players characters and the consequences of the actions taken by said characters.  Preparation allows the GM to exercise a more consistent mien and the freedom to be creative within the established framework, thus not bringing about unintended moments of parody or absurdity.
     Over-planning, on the other hand, prefigures the actions the player characters will take.  It established a plot-line which the players must navigate in order for the evolving story to make sense.  In actuality, over-planning diminishes the evolution of the story; the only changes that end up happening are the ones that either allow for lost player characters to return to the regularly scheduled plot or – in extreme cases – to abandoning the ruined story in favor of a simpler one the PCs can't help but follow.  Over-planning is not only restrictive – for all parties involved – it can also lead to resentment because the value of choice is trivialized when the GM adheres to the planned scenarios.
     Being prepared means being able to handle the rules, the world, and the PCs' choices affecting what is happening.  Over-planning means anticipating the actions of the PCs and plotting out plot lines and story arcs for the players to follow.  One allows for interactive creativity, the other for creativity (maybe) forced upon the rest of the group.
     By means of example, I would point to a brief Vampire: The Masquerade (3rd Ed.) chronicle I ran titled Dallas: By the Light of the Silvery Moon; I believe it lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty sessions.  I had a spiral notebook with 300 pages of notes, maps, and stats for the anticipated NPCs (and that was just for Dallas proper).  I would reacquaint myself with the notes between sessions, updating them with what the PCs did, who they met or influenced, and locations visited.  I would then review where the last session left off – and what may have been left unresolved from sessions prior to the last – and have a loose plan for the introduction of the night's session.  The players would take the game in whatever direction they pleased, oftentimes scary and wholly unanticipated, but I could react to them in a responsible manner because I had prepared for as much of the game world as possible and knew the rules backwards and forwards.
     The opposite of this would be an AD&D 2nd Ed. campaign in which I played where, regardless of anything the players wanted to do, the PCs were moved from location to location towards some eventual goal that – lo and behold – was instead accomplished by an NPC (so that the players couldn't screw it up).  Yes, that is an extreme example of planning (and plotting) out a story and sticking to it, but many GMs still indulge in this to a larger degree than necessary.  It ruins spontaneity (or at least reduces the impact of it to nothing) and kills the cooperative aspect of evolving the story the players and GM are experiencing.

2. Know your players; know their characters.

     I am sure this is a subject often brought up and with many different points of view, but there is such a person as the problem player.  The first step a GM should take, when taking inventory of his or her players, is identifying whether any of them are of this breed.  The problem player is oftentimes, but not solely, one whose primary goal at the table is to foster some sort of discord among the characters.  This is a problem that cannot be easily solved once it has reared its ugly head, in part because the problem player has exposed him- or herself as a person who has little regard for the other players' enjoyment of their characters.
     My recommendation – and one that it took me a good long while to adopt – is to view each potential player as an applicant.  Are they well suited for play with others?  Some players come right out and let the GM know they enjoy playing characters who are disruptive.  This has happened to me four times in the last three months (they were looking to get into any type of home campaign), and in each instance I let them know the following:  I would not ask them to join an established group I had (they seem to want to disrupt a functioning dynamic), I would not want to start a new group for them (as they have expressed that they aren't interested in building a good group dynamic), and that I find that approach to playing very immature.  This is not a process that is simply limited to when a player enters the group, but one that should be revisited whenever a conflict seems to arise without legitimate cause.  Players should likewise be consistently evaluating the GM to see if he or she is delivering the kind of experience the group – and individual players – want and deserve.
     Once the group is established, it may seem more than a little difficult to consider removing a player from the group.  It should be, but it should also not be the first resort to conflict.  If the GM has taken the time to become acquainted with the players, it should be easy to have discussions with the players about the problems that arise during play (it is my position that the GM should not take on the responsibility of managing real-world relationships of the players; such a proposition would require the role of GM to pay extremely well).  Still, problem players are like a cancer for a game group, and it they cannot be treated with a discussion of what led to some early conflicts, they should be excised from the group.  Likewise, players who are unhappy with the role their GM has taken on – oftentimes in regards to the level of responsiveness to the players – should first have a discussion about their disappointment with the GM, and, if the problems continue, leave the GM (which may also mean leaving or ending the group).
     Knowing the players has more benefits than being able to identify problem players and taking early action to resolve conflicts at the table.  It allows the GM to have a better grasp on what these players are looking for in the gaming experience.  This is not an absolute – I played in a Dungeons & Dragons 3E campaign at NIU where the GM and three of the players all favored combat over roleplaying sequences, but only one player was disappointed when we did back-to-back sessions without a fight (and the GM was the happiest person of all!) – but it is a great place to start to get an idea of what kind of experience the players expect.
     Knowing the player characters is a little easier, but in order to do it correctly one must have some kind of understanding of the player.  I think many GMs are against the notion of the broken character.  I am against the disproportionately powerful character, but that can often be regulated by some simple instructions on character creation at the beginning of the campaign; for example, not allowing mega-heroes in Heroes Unlimited.  On the other hand, I find it a little high minded for a GM – especially when it's me – to tell a player he can't make the kind of character he or she wants to play.  The only question is how to accommodate the type of character into the world – and this is where preparation again comes into play – which is easier if the GM does not have an overly restrictive view of what belongs in the game world/universe.
     Knowing the characters means being aware of their motivations and their capabilities.  This enables the GM to interject (personally or emotionally) meaningful moments for the player characters into the game.  It enables the grander story to blend in various elements that would otherwise be disparate appeals to individual character desires that become known only in retrospect.  The more obvious aspect of knowing the player characters is that challenges and encounters can be properly proportioned to be – or appear to be – risky without being over- or underwhelming.  Knowing the characters makes preparation much easier, and can reduce the desire to over-plan.

3. Remember that it is your game, too.

     Being a GM is not just about being the world and its reactions to what the player characters do.  Ultimately, the GM is another player at the table, and one who deserves as much of a chance to enjoy the game as everyone else.  Just as the GM shouldn't reduce the amount of influence the other players have in the story, he or she shouldn't feel that they can't add their voice and contributions to the story and setting.  Table top roleplaying is a cooperative experience, and while the GM is weighted with the authority of being the final arbiter, he or she has to find a way to be an equal in terms of having a good time.  Luckily, many GMs find pleasure in how a good story unfolds, and how players take unexpected routes and find novel solutions to the resolution of the challenges in the game.
     As a GM, one of the things I like to do is create tiny rewards for those moments where the players surprise and impress me.  These oftentimes have little more in-game (mechanical) effect than what the player characters may have acquired on their own, but I make every attempt to tie them to the moment, the character, and the overall story.  I have had a fair amount of success doing this, but I also know that there are players for whom it does not do much.
     I apologize for not being able to fully articulate how to exercise a level of participation in the game that does not rise to the level of ownership nor sink to a level of being subservient to the players.  I do know that it is very important to find this level of balance.  This may seem to go against the notion of the GM being the one who gets to choose who is fit to sit at the table – that is an inconsistency I cannot easily resolve, either.  Maybe the easiest solution to this is to make sure that enjoyment can be found in various ways, and that there is more of a need to allow to exercise caution when exerting the powers available to the position of GM.

     I hope that meets some of the criteria of the challenge.

Case 39 (2009)

     Please indulge me in this small amount of snarkiness.
     "Some cases should never be opened."  
     Yeah, I'm assuming you mean the DVD case for Case 39 (a 2006 production, 2009 release in Europe and Latin America, and a late 2010 release in the U.S.A.).  Okay, I'm done being snarky.
     This is a bad movie.  Renée Zellweger looks downright unattractive as social worker Emily – if this was by design it is to no effect other than distraction – and delivers 80% of her lines in some kind of a forced whisper.  She seems largely disconnected from her character through most of the film.  There are a couple of scenes where she does seem in the moment, but those come very late – by that point, I was just watching the clock waiting for the movie to be over.
     Always attractive Bradley Cooper and Ian McShane also seem lost in their few scenes.  For the most part, they are talked at by Zellweger, only to be given horror scenes that are dreadfully boring.  Maybe McShane's garage sequence is supposed to be reminiscent of The Omen (1976), but it comes across as lifeless.  Cooper's bathroom sequence is as believable as the CGI creatures afflicting him, which is to say not very.
     Callum Keith Renne – so good as Jim Field in Falling Angels (2005) – gives a decent performance, as does Kerry O'Malley as devil-girl Lilith's parents.  Jodelle Ferland (Lilith) is all over the place in terms of consistency of character, which may be a choice the director made, but she also does not give the other actors in her scenes much to work with.  Cynthia Stevenson shows up for two scenes and is given the worst line I've heard in a recent movie: "Walk the talk."
     I would gladly watch the new Conan the Barbarian (see review here) multiple times rather than have to sit through this half-finished product.  I had heard good things about it, but was consistently less interesting than most SyFy Channel Original movies.  If I had to give it a grade – and assuming that "Incomplete, see me after class" is not an option – I'd give it a D.  Zellweger has been much better than this, and hopefully will be again. I like it when established actors take a chance on a genre film, but I like it much more when said film turns out to be engaging or engrossing, and I can come to care about the characters and the story.  None of that happened here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

My Soul to Take (2010)

     There were a lot of unfavorable (and that is being kind) reviews for Wes Craven's My Soul to Take (2010).  The criticisms "mindless dribble [sic]" and "a collection of the usual, lame, horror movie misdirections" are among the kinder ones offered.  Still, there might be something worthwhile in its 107 minute run time, so I gave it a chance.
     It turns out that My Soul to Take  is nowhere near as bad as mainstream and die-hard horror critics have labeled it.  It is almost good, struggling against its supposedly accessible slasher film elements.  Writer/director Wes Craven starts the film off with a killer soul (?) lurking inside a family man.  He has a lot of other souls in there, too, or just multiple personalities – because that is how schizophrenia works in horror films – and if he weren't out killing people, he'd be a loving father and husband.  But the killer soul is an insatiable one (and one that doesn't seem to have any motivation of its own) and can keep the body going even after it should either be dead or in shock.
     That is the set-up, and the killer soul is at work in some form throughout the movie.  The man who housed this killer soul came to be known as the Riverton Ripper, and a bunch of children were born on the day he may have died in a fiery ambulance crash.  These children have created a ritual where they ward off the spirit of the Riverton Ripper every year (on Ripper Day), and in the one seen in the movie one of the children, Jay (Jeremy Chu), fashions a scary puppet to represent the Ripper.  This is essentially how the Ripper appears through the rest of the movie (scary puppet is not scary monster or person, though), and there is the possibility that the events of this year's ritual is what sets everything in motion.
     Truth be told, My Soul to Take works better as an examination of the shared relationships of these children and their adolescent lives – with a couple of supernatural twists included – than it does as a slasher or horror film.  No, Craven doesn't develop these relationships enough for them to pay off in their own right – even siblings don't seem to have much of a relationship until the final act – but in individual scenes, Craven shows an oddly deft touch in making some of the adolescent hope and angst ring true.  He makes the best use of a Marx Brothers routine – with a supernatural twist – since it first appeared.
     Yes, the production values look more in line with an ABC Family channel series and there is no real rhyme or reason behind the killer soul in question.  It is just bad for the sake of being evil.  The conclusion is lackluster, and the many possibilities of who is doing the killings is more a result of denying the audience any worthwhile information than clever writing or ironic plotting.  But it does have a killer who is willing to run after the victims – and that actually worked when first seen – and attempts to build a stable of characters who would really be invested in each others lives.  On the other hand, it would have been refreshing for the lone African-American character to not also have to be the blind character.
     It is far from horrible, but it isn't exactly a good horror film either.  I would grade it a C-, noting that the scenes with Bug (Max Theiriot) and Alex (John Magaro) work better – especially in the first two-thirds of the film – as an outcasts against the in-crowd teen movie than the slasher scenes do.  I think that one of the things that frustrated other reviewers was not so much that Craven had failed to build up the audience's emotional investment in the characters' lives, but rather that he tried to do it at all instead of concentrating on more blood-soaked and gory death sequences.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Conan the Barbarian (2011) (Review)

     It has been a while since I've read any Robert E. Howard or L. Sprague de Camp Conan stories.  Author-I've-met-and-had-conversations-with Richard A. Knaak has been contracted to write some very recent Conan novels, but I haven't bothered to pick them up.  I like the character of Conan, but there is something very immature about rooting for a barbarian-type to strike out against the "civilized" world; that is one type of fantasy story.
     Another is the revenge fantasy, and that is what director Marcus Nispel gives audiences with his 2011 version of Conan the Barbarian.  Where John Milius' 1982 version was a pitch-perfect example of how to tell an epic story – perhaps in a more subdued and grounded manner than can work today – Nispel blends the imagery and pacing from several more recent films (some of them good), making this effort feel a little like a high budget mash-up.  Milius's Conan was a conflicted soul driven in equal parts by his own greed, his loyalty to his companions, and a need to come to terms with his father's death.  In contrast, Nispel has a Conan who spends the first 22 minutes as a little boy – an extended sequence that did not work for me – then another 15 or so as a rampaging pirate for freedom before he gets on track to seek revenge.
     Visually, the film is parts Russell Mulcahy's Highlander (1986), TV's Xena (1995-2001; largely in the costuming, but also in some of the action sequences and Conan as a freedom loving pirate), Nispel's own Pathfinder (2004), Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999), and a fine helping of scenic vistas reminiscent of someone trying to ape Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03).  The comic book style blood added to the otherwise serviceable action sequences didn't help, but that was still much better than the acrobatic (Xena?) sand spawned creatures (The Mummy?) and a fight sequence that does nothing for the movie.  A fair amount of what Nispel cobble together works, even in the hodge-podge style he adopts, but enough of it was jarring to me to keep me from getting into the story. 
     Not that there is much to Conan's part of the story.  Much of the film is dedicated to Stephen Lang's Kalar Zym (if his dress wasn't enough to let me view Lang as a stand-in for an '80s Clancy Brown, they went and named his character Zym) and his daughter with an Electra Complex.  None of it is interesting – not in terms of plot or action.  Rachel Nichols appears to be in a completely different movie – and I am just going to assume there was a body double for a certain scene so that it remains like she isn't really in the movie – her character a maguffin and a foil to show that Conan isn't just a murderous, brooding thug.
     I guess my biggest quibble is how Nispel handled the Hyborian world.  I have slightly more than a passing familiarity with the geography, both from reading the Howard/de Camp stories and many years of playing RSI, inc.'s Hyborian War. I know my Cimmeria – grim, moody, covered in mist – but Nispel's looks more like MacLeod's village in Highlander (and the assaulting forces look like a score of Kurgan wannabes) and not a hilly Germanic forest.  Then we are taken to a Zingaran slave colony (if anyone can explain what a slave colony is, that would be great; I imagine this is a kind of shorthand for a place where Zingarans capture people to sell as slaves), so we are on the West Coast of the world.  After that, we go to Argos (Messantia), which makes sense only if Conan and company sail as close as possible to Zingara without actually going there once the slave colony is destroyed.  Everything after that is unknown to me, with a Shaipur monastery, a fortress called Khor Kalba, and a city-of-thieves that isn't Shadizar.  Now, combine my frustration with not knowing where I am in a world I kind of know with the rampant mispronunciation of Acheron and Hyrkania (that latter of which being a place no one who look's like Rachel Nichols' Tamara should want to go willingly; this is where '82 Conan was fighting in the slave pits).
     There will be people who will really like this movie.  I guess, like with the relaunch of Star Trek (2009), it helps to not have much vested in the canon of the characters and their universe.  However, I didn't think there was much in the way of fun to be had with this Conan the Barbarian.  Nispel stretched scenes longer than they need to be, and adopts a Peter Jackson approach – from King Kong (2005) – if some is good, then more is more, and much more must then, finally, be better.  It didn't work then, and it doesn't now.
This is how Conan should look, so kudos for that.
     Jason Momoa occasionally looks very much like Conan (more than Schwarzenegger ever did), and he may evolve into a pretty good action star.  He isn't what is wrong with the movie.  Treating Picts as though they are some type of human-goblin hybrid is what's wrong with it.  Not finding a proper balance between cartoonish, camp, and gritty action is what's wrong with it.  And not trimming about 15 minutes worth of filler because somebody thought the filler looked good is what's wrong with it.
     If I were unfamiliar with the original Conan the Barbarian (1982), I might view this as a C+ effort.  Compared to Kull the Conqueror (1997), I would rate it a B-.  But when viewed in the entirety of Howard's (and various other authors) material and how well it had been handled in the past, I have to put this at the C/C- level.  I didn't enjoy it, and there were parts that really grated on me (like having a second expository voice over to start the second act), but I can't view it as a disaster.  This is one I think most viewers can wait for on DVD/Blu-ray or to come to premium cable.

Fright Night (2011) (Review)

     It took me a while to see the original Fright Night (1985).  I had one of those mothers who tried to impose her own uneasiness with the horror genre on her children.  Actually, she held crazy beliefs like that KISS stood for Knights in Satan's Service and Rush (the Canadian prog-rock band) meant Ruling Under Satan's House and is still afraid to watch the movie Jaws (1975).  I'm pretty sure the first time I saw Fright Night '85 it was on cable television.  I soon went out and and rented it – and its inferior sequel – and found a movie I really liked.  It had the right amount of camp and humor, but it was the slow build to the horror element that made it, to me, a classic.
     Don't expect that from the new version. Fright Night '11 takes the same basic premise, but has none of the fun with it.  Marti Noxon – the Queen of Mean – transplants the Angelus character from the Buffy/Angel Whedonverse and hands the role to a more talented actor in Colin Farrell.  Let me make this perfectly clear: if you are going to see this movie, Colin Farrell is the reason to go.  He does truly embody the inhuman menace of the shark from Jaws, but is somewhat hampered by the direction and editing that occasionally sets him up as a vampiric Pepé Le Pew.  Though largely robbed of any kind of a backstory or motivation beyond being a vampire and what little we do get to learn about his kind mostly goes to waste – Farrell does his best to make this movie work.
     The problem is that he isn't enough.
     Anton Yelchin, an actor who has yet to impress me in any role I've seen him in, is the lackluster lead.  We learn that he is the kind of man who would betray his friends and hang out with assholes in order to score a tasty girlfriend, but still nerdy enough to not be able to close the deal.  Seemingly, a mere ten minutes – it may have been a little more or less – Yelchin's Charley Brewster is already aware (in a way) that vampires are real.  That sucks all of the tension out of the ensuing scenes and helps get the leaden feeling of the movie going.  Yelchin does have a couple of good scenes, but he – or director Craig Gillespie – doesn't know what to do with them.
     Instead of giving an actor as good a role as they did with Roddy McDowell in the original, David Tennant (as Peter Vincent) is required to start off with what looks like a Ben Stiller impersonation of Johnny Depp in any of the Pirates movies.  There is too much unpleasant self-loathing in this new Vincent to make him accessible.  He is a pompous coward – which could have worked – that never really is given a chance for redemption; it is up Charley to do that, too.
     Imogen Poots (as Amy) and Emily Montague (as Ginger) make for attractive and mildly compelling potential victims of the vampire.  Both seem to have unreasonable faith in the Charley character, though this is a problem with the screenplay and not the acting.  Much less effective are the other potential victims that wander about the film.  Most are disagreeable and unlikeable, and in the case of Dave Franco seem to be too old to fit into the film's high school age group characters.  Toni Collette (as Charley's mother, Jane) is largely wasted.  She looks good and should be a calm, capable, strong woman that has given Charley his moral compass and conviction.  Instead, she is quickly turned into just another potential victim and is removed from the third act in an unsatisfying way (though, to be fair, it does work in the overall story).  Chris Sarandon makes an appearance – my one lone laugh of the night – as does Lisa Loeb (???).
     The film looks bland and uninspired, and that isn't due to the special effects.  The FX work, almost without exception.  It is the sets and landscape that robs the movie of any sense of life.  Watching a cookie-cutter, Las Vegas McMansion in an oddly isolated subdivision burn provokes no reaction from me, except that many built unwisely during the housing boom.  There is no vibrancy to the movie, and that is a problem.
     I cannot comment about the 3D.  There was a problem with the projection during the previews, and while it was resolved to the point of where it wasn't just blurry, most of the effects that were in 3D never really popped.  Some are obviously meant to, and if they do it will add more to the experience.  Other than those flashy (and repetitive) sequences, there are only three or four shots that effectively make use of the technology (no, I am not counting the crossbow bolt shot seen in the previews).  Gillespie does a great job with one particular shot in a swimming pool early on, then seems to degenerate into some level of amateurism with his shot selection.  This is his first feature, and in retrospect, it looked as though he wasn't ready.
     My suggestion is to watch the original Fright Night (1985) instead of the cynical, cold-hearted '11 Fright Night.  The new one isn't horrible, but like a vampire, it has no life of its own.  Colin Farrell is great in what he is allowed to do (I never thought I'd ever write a sentence like that), but the rest of the cast is subdued and improperly handled.  This is a solid C effort, but I would have like to have seen a more accomplished director – and definitely no Noxon influence – for this movie.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The RPG Table Tent and Me

     So one of the items – other than character sheets and my own brands of issuable favors and equipment – that I have claimed a sort of ownership of is the table tent (or character tent, if you prefer).  The only real purpose of this is to let other players know the name of the character you are playing; in a sustained home campaign, the table tent is simply wasted effort and space.  It doesn't need to be complicated at all.  In fact, I would wager that most table-top RPG players have had a piece in front of them that looked something like this.
Khalem Kaletar – a name borrowed from RSI's PBM game Hyborian War – was played by Michael Pempek from 1991-93 in an AD&D 2nd Ed home campaign.  I'm pretty sure there never was an actual tent for that character.
And it works.  Sort of.  This is the kind of the last minute, write out your character's name and class on a piece of paper on hand.  Inevitably, the other players have to pick up this brand of tent and view it from about ten inches away in order to read it.  You could be a little more bold, but that has some risks as well.
My thanks to Trent (as Trask) for posting this image in his review (available here)of Dragonfire Signs products.
See, this can be seen and read from across the table.  Both the character and player are identified.  It also makes me think that Trent may be either sloppy in his handwriting or a little crazy; most likely the former, but he is playing an RPG so both are possibilities.  But it still suffers from the fundamental problem of being a type of last minute production that screams lack of commitment to the character and/or the game.
     Sometimes a company, convention, or OP campaign will create a table tent for the players to fill out.  These are still – or should be – last minute affairs.  They typically sit up at a local convention's HQ along with blank character sheets, campaign specific rules guidelines, and other things that responsible players bring with them..  Paradigm Concepts, Inc. produced one for their Living Arcanis campaign.
Perfectly suitable.  Character name, player name, advertising the very game you are playing at the table – where everybody has already bought into the campaign.  And it is double-sided, so you play two different characters without need of a new piece of paper (and having to resort to the scrap paper option).
     Some players decide to take a low level of ownership to their character tents.  There are a group of players from Wisconsin who made rather simple but effective tents that looked a little like this.
To be fair, the Wisconsin players may have also included player name and land of origin on their actual tents.
I'm not sure why they felt a need to list – and only list – Charisma on the tent, but I guess it is the easiest way in d20 games to declare attractiveness.  Again, this gets the job done, usually can be read from across the table (there are always players who will want to see it with their hands, though), and has the added benefit of giving a visual representation of the character.  Granted, sometimes these types of tents forgo the step of letting others know who the player is – and maybe that's important – but they do evince a deeper level of commitment to the character than just scribbling out something at the last minute.
     My early efforts were along the same lines as the above.  I usually made the name large enough for everyone to see clearly, but the rest of the text would occasionally be declared too small to be easily read.  One of the things I did start doing, however, was making sure I could include some image – other than the character picture – that identified what the character represented.
So this was made sometime between Joe Abboreno making the LLT symbol and correcting the spelling.
Yeah, not the easiest thing to read from six feet away.  I liked to think it got the job done, but it certainly didn't look as good as this.
Again, thanks to Trent (Trask) for posting this image.  This is a Dragonfire Signs table tent.  This screams commitment to the character and campaign.
     Dragonfire Signs table tents were big in Living Arcanis.  They had the character name as big as life, two symbols – often a holy symbol on one side and a nation or faction's symbol on the other – and any kind of quote you felt best fit your character.  You could even order them double-sided, so you could just flip it over to have the same high quality tent for a different character.  The players who invested in these often had them out even when with people who all knew and had played with the character before.  Who cared, these things just looked that good.  Actually, you can still order them.
      I went a different route.  I may have need to change things that I would want on my tent, and the Dragonfire Signs were forever.  They also didn't have any character pictures, and what is the purpose of stealing quality on-line artwork if not to put into something for personal use?  I made some modifications for my Living Arcanis characters and came up with these.
My primary Living Arcanis character.  Artwork by Timothy R. Haldane.  Most people could read the entirety of the text.
Mistocles and his cohort, Valencia.  They would be together, so doing just a single tent seemed like a good idea.  Text, other than their names, proved to be too small.
Yes, the picture is of a Bugbear – and there are people who don't know that Bugbears are just the largest breed of goblins – but it really fit my idea for an accidentally abrasive bodyguard whose primary skill was killing.
This is my least favorite tent of all time (at least from ones I've created).  It was as though I had no idea what this character was really about.
Becks was a character I created after seeing Melissa Metedy's picture of a female satyr.  I immediately knew a way to fashion a personality to fit both the image and Arcanis.
      When it came time for the end of the Living Arcanis campaign, I decided to step up my self-made tents a step.  And it wasn't just making them more complicated than they needed to be – something that would mean making the text too small to be easily read – I also went through the trouble of having them laminated.  Since I would only be playing Mistocles (or Valencia if Mistocles went and got himself killed), they are the characters I made tents for.  Well, tents isn't the right work.  These were really just cards that had to be held up with slotted stands.  I made two tents for each; below are the ones I prefer for each.
The symbols are, in order, the House Sardis crest (actually the Clan MacNeil badge), Milandir's national banner (as drawn by Joe Abboreno, then colored blue), the symbol of the Obsidian Owls (a special military unit planned for an unreleased Arcanis book), the holy symbol of Cadic, the holy symbol of Yarris (actually, this is an internet image that just looked really cool), and the Coryani falcon (another image computer colored).  Couldn't fit all of those on a Dragonfire Signs tent.
Symbols are the Legion of the Watchful Hunter symbol (as modified and colored by me), the holy symbol of Cadic, a picture representing Valencia (Katharine Isabelle from Ginger Snaps Back), and the House Sardis symbol (see above).
I miss these characters.  If I ever get around to it, I'll finish some of the short stories – in a different setting – starring them and post them here.
     So, Living Arcanis finished and I had to find another game to play; apparently OP players just can't get out of the hobby.  I moved onto Pathfinder Society OP, or PFS.  It took a while to get into some kind of regular level of play.  Once I did, I immediately set to work making table tents for the benefit of letting people know which character they were experiencing.  Most of these are not up to date – and that doesn't speak well for my commitment and ownership in regards to the campaign.
I think this was Daenaris at 10th level.  She does have a better Perception for traps and AC now.  I really need to redo this tent just to put the better, new Andoran symbol on it.
This is the much lesser seen image for Kiara – the other one is very recognizable as stolen and I don't want to put it up because of that.  When I redo this, I'm thinking of swapping out her faction for her homeland symbol.
One of my two male PFS characters – I hate the image on the other enough to not post it.  It took some serious searching to find an image of a blond paladin.
The yet to be played Jennisa is my attempt to make a Summoner.  Hadn't figured out the math on an AC when I put this together.
     I'm not alone in making personalized tents for PFS.  Mine all follow a pretty simple format, and I like to think they get the job done.  Brad Ruby uses a different approach to end up in the same (or better) place.  Below are examples of two of his tents (slightly modified so I can present them).
     See, Brad gets plugs in for his Yahoo! and convention group (COWS Gamers), the game he is playing (PFS), America (see the flag), adds dancing cows for levity, and has everything else he could possibly need – including who is playing the character.
     In the end, I guess a (foolishly?) take a player more seriously if I see them commit to the character tent as being more important than something to be hastily made moments before – or after – game play has begun.  It speaks for how important the character is to them (or it does to me).  It means that the player is serious about letting the others at the table have a reasonable idea as to who the character is.  And, when done well, the look cool as hell.
     When it comes to cool nothing has beaten the Dragonfire Signs tents, though.