Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Home Campaign vs. OP RPG Experience - Part One

Home Campaign: A series of RPG sessions that share a common theme, setting, and background played by the same players (with the same respective characters) and traditionally a single Game Master (DM/GM/Storyteller/etc.).  While the rules as written may apply, house rules (rules specific to a specific group of players) often develop.  Home campaigns are often very focused around the personal goals of the players' characters.

Organized Play (OP): A campaign, often sponsored by a company to promote their products, that relies upon standardized mods, character creation rules, and ultimate authority resting not in the Game Master but the head of the campaign.  In OP, people often function both as player and GM at different times (often playing and/or GMing the same mod for XP credit). OP campaigns may have an ultimate focus, but it is determined by the campaign staff and writers and not tied to what the players (or their characters) want.

     When it comes to RPGs, nothing competes with a solid, reliable, and enjoyable home campaign played with friends.  That, however, seems to be a luxury that few can afford.  It takes a lot of time and effort to craft stories from scratch – or, if you're Dave Jendrusiak, you borrow liberally from movies such as Willow (1988) and a variety of mid-grade fantasy novels to cobble a story together – and I'm betting that most adults just don't want to make that kind of commitment.  It isn't just the DM/GM/Storyteller/whatever-other-title-is-used-for-the-person-running-the-game who has to put in the time to make that work.  There is a very personal investment, and that requires a serious time commitment.  OP play is much more willing to let the player decide how much of a commitment he or she wants to make.  It may be a little harder to play as much as one wants when opportunities are limited to game days or conventions, but those allow for the player to step right in and participate as he or she sees fit.  The person who only wants to be a player (and never GM) doesn't have to learn more than the rules for his or her character and enough about the setting to understand the basics of the game world.

Steven Pfiel Update (for Google Searchers)

     Steven Pfiel is incarcerated (under the name Steven Pfeil).  He is serving sentences for the murders of Hillary Norskog and his older brother, Roger Pfiel, Jr.

     This should satisfy those who Google search "Whatever happened to Steve Pfiel".  There may come a day when I am would be in the position to properly interview him, but that will not be any time soon.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Old Technology and Conceits: Will they be Forgotten? Do they Matter?

     I stumbled across a Wired magazine article titled "100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About" and it got me to thinking.  First, I am solidly on the path to never having children – something that is likely best for all prospective people involved.  Second, I was convinced that the article would be heavy padded, or in someway fluffed up with bits that are so selectively applicable as to make one wonder if there should be any reason for them to be widely remembered by anyone.  Also, it being Wired, I felt pretty confident that it would be almost all tech related (though to look at the home page, I would have to conclude that the magazine has given itself over to film promotion).
     But, as recent times have been hastening the end of the modern bookstore as we know it – and there is an effort to replace the book itself – I have to admit that I have a good deal of dread about what the implications are on the things I assumed would always exist..  Actually, I have a little bit of faith that books will be with us so long as we can keep civilization together.  After all, the tablet is clearly inspired by the PADD from Star Trek and all of the Captains were shown reading honest to God books, so books as we know them should be fated to survive.  Then again, J.J. Abrams can destroy that, too.
     Still, one has to imagine that in order to get to 100, the list has to include some dubious choices.  And just why am I not letting these hypothetical children of mine know about some of them?  I know about laundry mangles, butter churns, washboards, ticker tape, teletype machines, gramophones, mimeograph machines (and of course the Ditto machine, but I it saw in use), the telegraph, kinescope, and a host of other now out-dated implements or technologies that have had no direct impact on my life.  Why am I raising my children in a perpetual now that denies what came before?  Sure, there are some things I wouldn't concentrate on.  'Hey, kids, back in my day – okay, my father's day, because I never handled them – spark plugs needed to be replaced with shocking frequency.  What's a spark plug?  Well, it was a part of the internal combustion engine.'  
     So I thought I would give some thoughts on a few of the selected items that made the list of 100.  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Find Me Guilty (2006)

     Maybe I shouldn't expect too much from Vin Diesel.  He has made his bones in Hollywood by being more movie star than actor.  In the company of Alex Rocco, Peter Dinklage, Linus Roache, and the late Ron Silver, Diesel looks a little lost and overwhelmed at times.  He isn't helped by the aging prosthetics and make-up which simply make him look formless and/or of indistinct age. But even with that being the case, Sidney Lumet's Find Me Guilty (2006) – his penultimate feature film – has a certain grace or charm that accommodates Diesel's limitations.
     The script could have used some trimming as there are parts of the story that add nothing to the drama or understanding of the situation at hand.  Lumet, though, accommodates this surplus material with consistent and nearly old-fashioned pacing that keeps the viewer involved in both the particulars and overall story all at once.  The only real deficiency, and one I find is quite common to films, is that there is a difficulty in translating just how long a period of time is being depicted; the day count in the bottom corner of the screen was the only real indication of how lengthy the trial was supposed to be.  On the other hand, some of the conceits – such as when Judge Feinstein (Silver) calls Jackie DiNorscio (Diesel) into chambers to inform him that his mother has died and offer sympathy (which makes a degree of sense since they had been judge and defendant/pro se lawyer for about a year at that point) – make a degree of thematic and emotional sense.
     I am generally not a fan of films that glorify organized crime or demonize any government efforts to curtail it as being harsh and often borderline illegal.  Find Me Guilty, however, plays more as the story of Jackie's somewhat naive belief that loyalty and love are the only factors he needs to guide him in life – the fact that his life is in a sorry state by the time he is standing trial is one with which he has to come to terms.  Alex Rocco, on the other hand, gives an excellent performance as an out for himself Boss who cannot stand Jackie because he can only believe that Jackie is as duplicitous and self-serving as he is.  He may have good reason to blame Jackie for the case the government brings, but his anger is more tied to Jackie's iconoclastic performance in court.  He takes the cynical view that Jackie is only trying to win freedom for Jackie (and Jackie, by the way, is the only one in jail) and Rocco plays the ugly hatred as perfectly as I've seen in recent films.
     Find Me Guilty isn't a brief movie, and it may not really have a lot to say.  It is evocative of an older style of film making that tried to balance story and character instead of bravado and manufactured surprise to keep the viewer entertained.  And, to some degree, I have to appreciate that Diesel was willing to challenge himself with a role well out of his comfort zone.  That he doesn't quite nail it may ultimately weaken Find Me Guilty, but it doesn't keep it from being a well-made and worthwhile film.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tim writes some fiction - Part Two (What is in Question)

      Okay, this was started shortly after I finished “Dialogue” (so it should still be fall of 1997) and never finished.  It was inspired by a particularly hurtful conversation with my best friend who flat-out accused me of trying to steal his then girlfriend (now wife?) and how it was apparently my forever goal to sleep with my friend’s girlfriends.  So this was – if I remember correctly – my imaginings of how women saw me at the time, particularly fictionalized versions of people I knew.
     Of course, I made the mistake (as I always do) of using the real names where convenient with the goal of later going back and changing them.  I didn’t at the time, but given how obvious this would be if I didn’t change those names (and it is still pretty obvious) I had to do that now. 
     This is definitely not my strongest work.  I do like that with it I was able to identify (if not address at the time) a lot of the self-important BS I had made myself think to be important.  I don't like how accurately it reflects my inability at the time to get over something that had happened three years prior.
     Anyway, there are supposed to be eight women giving 'testimony' and two instances where they answer as a group (and for some reason there is a fictional woman getting these responses from the fictionalized women).  

Tim writes some fiction - Part One (Dialogue)

I think I wrote this in 1997 (I didn't make any notes as to when, but it was around the same time I was writing Dreamers).  Very self-indulgent, but it is kind of finished (I do enjoy how vicious it is towards some intellectual pretensions I harbored at the time).  And, as always, always interested in any feedback from people who finish reading it (it is about five real pages in length) – for example, maybe not rely on 'friend' so heavily.

Dialogue (Love is a Beautiful Thing)

     "I haven't seen you in four years and I don't even rate a hello?"
     "As I recall, you're the one who had her best friend throw me out of your life.  I just assumed that things haven't changed since then."
     "If they haven't...I thought, I was told that you weren't too happy to be thrown out.  So, if things haven't changed, shouldn't you be glad I'm here, speaking to you again?"
     "But you just said—"
     "I'm well aware of that.  Look, for however long it's been since we last saw each other, we haven't been on speaking terms.  I grew comfortable with that.  You and I aren't on speaking terms, and that was what hadn't changed."
     "You're talking to me now."
     "Well, it would be pretty rude not to, wouldn't it?  I'm sort of screwed here.  I have to try to handle this with the right amount of maturity and tact.  I know it's impossible to do, but I have to try.  So, to make you happy, 'hello'."
     "Gee, thanks.  That made me oh-so happy."
     "What do you want from me?'
     "Don't you dare!"
     "I asked you that before. —"
     "No, what you asked was, 'what do you want?'."
     "It's the same thing."
     "I don't see that.  I really don't."
     "I thought we were friends."
     "Oh yes.  I forgot, but you're right.  We were friends.  We were all friends.  I'm not the one who got it into her head that I was trying to bed you.  Rumor has it that it wasn't you either.  But it became a belief you claimed.  That is what your question was all about, wasn't it?  Did I want to sleep with you?"
     "I already know that answer."
     "Good.  I never answered it, myself."
     "Bullshit, —"
     "He was my friend!  You have no idea what a betrayal like that feels like.  The second I knew he had a thing for you, I would have to put all desires aside.  That's friendship.  That's loyalty."
     "That is what you want me to believe?"
     "We were friends.  Why is it so hard for either of you to believe?  I don't know why I wanted either of you as friends, in retrospect, but I honored the friendship.  I didn't betray.  I did everything I could to make sure I didn't, but sometimes it's easier to think that I was out for only me, I guess.  Because of the situation, that was a luxury I couldn't afford."
     "I forgot, you're completely selfless."
     "Just walk away.  I didn't come here to fight."
     "Neither did I.  I came here to have a good time and enjoy a night out.  Then I saw you and I thought it would be nice if we could be civil to one another.  You know, for it being so long, and for you not having a thing for me, you sure have a bad attitude about all of this.  Guess it was easy to put it behind you.  Just a couple of friends."
     ". . ."
     "No?  Talk to me.  If you had absolutely no sexual interest in me, then it shouldn't be hard to put the friendship back together."
     "You've changed.  I've changed.  I see no reason for us to be friends.  Not now."
     "But there was then?  Tell me it wasn't about sex."
     "It was never about sex."
     "It couldn't have been about love.  As I recall, you don't give any weight to the idea of love."
     "Not romantic love, no.  I still don't."
     "Because you've never been in love? You've told yourself you never have.  You've felt it and ignored it.  How sad."
     "No, I just know it doesn't exist."
     "You're wrong.  Love is the most beautiful thing in the world.  Don't walk away from me.  I'm telling you, if you allowed yourself to love, you would understand more about people.  You'd be happier."
     "You're wrong."
     "Love.  Love isn't a beautiful thing.  Love is forever.  It's supernatural and all-powerful, but it is hardly a beautiful thing."
     "At least you're lecturing me about love again."
     "We have this discussion one last time, and then you leave me alone.  For good."
     "I still say love is beautiful."
     "What is love?"
     "This again?  What was the one kind of love you allowed for?"
     "And that was why people got married, right?"
     "Sociologists would disagree, but that is part of the reason."
     "Okay, if love is forever, how can it exist, even in families?"
     "You were almost a mother, and if you had gone through with it, you'd know.  There is a strange bond about a family, a sense of needing to protect and be near something that is partially like you, genetically.  It's an odd sense, and its strongest amongst the most direct connections.  First to siblings, then to parents.  When children of your own are introduced, that completes the bond with your mate, making the connection real.  Up until that time, all you had was marriage to say that your mate was part of your family.  That is how you say you love somebody."
     "I forgot how utterly depressing your view of the world is, but it does seem to have gotten more clinical."
     "That would be the studying and education.  However, to get back on the subject, the above being true, for I have yet to find anyone willing to dispute it as false, that the family is the not the source of love, it is impossible to love outside the family.  One can lust, or like, or tolerate as they may, but one cannot love outside the family."
     "So I take it you give incest a big thumbs up."
     "No, but I'll ask you a question I ask everybody.  If you and your brother were only one year apart, and he was handsome and sexy – your ideal man –would you sleep with him, given that there is no chance that he will get you pregnant?"
     "Why not?  You do love your brother, and you sleep with the men you love, don't you?  The incest taboo exists to prevent inbreeding, and since you won't be impregnated, that really isn't an issue, is it?  So, why wouldn't you?"
     "He's my brother!"
     "I know.  That was one of the pre-existing conditions."
     "I just wouldn't.  Would you sleep with your sister?"
     "I don't have a sister to sleep with."
     "You don't sleep with your brothers and sisters, or your parents.  God, it's just sick."
     "To have sex with the people you love?"
     "They're family—"
     "But you love your brother, right?"
     "Of course I do."
     "And you claim to love the men you sleep with."
     "So I don't love them because I sleep with them?  Then you and I must be madly in love, because we never had sex.  Is that where you're going with this?"
     "No, not at all.  I'm just saying love is not a beautiful thing."
     "And that I don't love the men that I sleep with."
     "Probably not, but you have to answer that for yourself.  Now, we are agreed that you love your brother, are we not?"
     "But you don't have any sexual desires towards him.  However, you have been angry at him before, haven't you?"
     "It didn't cause me to want to sleep with him."
     "You may have even hated him for a short while, but you never stopped loving him."
     "Of course not, he's my brother."
     "So your love for him, for all your family, is independent from how you feel about them.  It is a love that exists because you are family."
     "If you say so."
     "You don't agree?"
     "But it isn't an argument wholly without merit, is it?"
     "It's the argument of why is all-powerful and forever.  You don't love him because he is your brother, he is truly your brother because you love him.  Ever since he has been your brother you have loved him and until he is no longer, you will not stop."
     "So you've taken a few philosophy classes."
     "A few."
     "But I can love whomever I choose, can't I?  That is the other half of the argument, isn't it?"
     "Isn't what?"
     "That 'friends are the family you choose'?"
     "That's part of it, though I feel you're going to pervert it."
     "So you and I were friends, which means we were family to one another, which means we loved one another.  Then, if love is forever, we still have to be friends."
     "No, friends come and go.  I'm sure you've noticed that."
     "Then what am I missing?"
     "That you and he decided that both of you were no longer friends to me.  That is the violation of the contract, such as it were, and thus being violated, means we never were friends.  Not true friends."
     "Good, another definition."
     "In being true friends lies the beauty."
     "So we can't be friends again?  Not even just regular friends?"
     "Don't you see that as a waste of time?"
     "No.  I have lots of friends.  Don't you?"
     "No.  Just my brother and Cervantés, Carp and little Carp, Tep, and the Jew. It's a small list, but they're my family.  There is love there, and that's about it.  We don't have common interests, or hobbies, or work in similar fields.  We're a family we put together, though not all are family to each other.  But in it there is both love and beauty."
     "So there was not an ounce of beauty in our friendship?"
     "I wish there had been."
     "So, since we weren't going to sleep with one another, and we've tried this before, why can't we just be friends again?  What constitutes the beauty?"
     "What is a beautiful thing?"
     "I don't believe you."
     "Answer the question."
     "Trust.  He had every reason to think you were trying to sleep with me."
     "Yes, you told him I was, and was that before or after I turned one of your suggestions down?"
     "Anyone else and even you would agree he was right in doing what he did."
     "Maybe.  But it was me, and all he had to do was trust.  All you had to do was trust.  But seeing as how both of you were cheating on each other, I can understand why that would be hard.  Tell me, did you love the guys you slept with while he was at his school and you at yours?"
     "Did he love the girls he slept with?"
     "So neither of you loves the people you have sex with.  That was easy."
     "We love each other."
     "No you don't.  You don't even trust one another.  I'm not saying you wouldn't marry him and bear him some children.  Even with all that, I don't think you could love him.  There is no trust as to how long he would be your husband."
     "So unlike you."
     "I wouldn't marry you, out of deference to him."
     "Because as his friend, he would have to trust that I wouldn't.  As his friend, I would have to be supportive without personal motive.  More of a selfless act than a loving act, but because he trusts I cannot betray that trust."
     "But he didn't trust."
     "Doesn't matter.  Not really.  I can't hope that he will.  I have to do what the friendship obliges me to do.  If he doesn't trust me, he'll see I didn't betray him.  Unless he was lied to by someone he thought he could trust, or just believe."
     "You would have slept with me if you could have."
     "But don't you see that is a hypothetical that can never be answered, because I never could allow myself to even think about such a betrayal of trust.  He had nothing to fear from me, and I think that would have been fine with him.  You had nothing to gain, and maybe that was the problem."
     "So now I wanted to sleep with you?  I'm not the one who stood outside your bedroom window at two in the morning just looking at it.  I'm not the one who wrote a series of demented letters to the other, who followed the other to church.  You chased me."
     "We were friends."
     "You wanted to sleep with me."
     "It might have appeared that way, but I never asked, did I?  I never hinted at it, or made any move or maneuver to get you to sleep with me.  I stopped my efforts at getting a friend."
     "I still say you wanted to sleep with me."
     "Did you ever ask me to sleep with you?"
     "To spend the night together in a bed in your dorm room in a hot and sweaty manner?"
     "Weren't you asking me if I wanted to and would be willing to have sex with you with that question?"
     "I said no, didn't I?"
     "Yes, you—no, no you didn't.  That was why I asked you what you wanted, because you said that even if you did, you still wouldn't get what you really wanted."
     "You have quite a memory on you."
     "It was an important night."
     "For both of us."
     "So answer the question."
     "I can't.  It will incriminate me.  My answer would give cause for me not to be trusted."
     "So stop your crying over all that happened."
     "Why?  You never had evidence that I wanted more than a friendship.  Did I want to sleep with you?  I couldn't, even if I wanted to, so the fact that I didn't 'want to' want to sleep with you should be enough.  Had I been able to, maybe I would have wanted to be able to want to sleep with you."
     "That doesn't answer my question."
     "What question?"
     "What do you want?"
     "How did we get to this?  I thought after the discussion of love you were going to leave."
     "But the answer is love, isn't it?  You're all hurt that you loved me but you didn't think I loved you.  Of course I loved you, but you wouldn't do anything about it because you thought you were being noble."
     "Ethical, not noble."
     "What was the answer?"
     "It wasn't love."
     "Then what was it?  Are you just stalling for time or are you that scared to answer?  That's why you didn't sleep with me, isn't it, that you were scared?  It's still the same thing."
     "It's a two word answer."
     "Then spit it out."
     "A lifetime."
     "A lifetime?  Of what, for what?  Not a lifetime of love?"
     "No, just a lifetime."
     "For what, then?"
     "A lifetime for beautiful things."

Friday, July 22, 2011

Due Date (2010)

     I am not a fan of Todd Philips as a director – his most palatable work to me still being Road Trip (2000) – but he has somehow become popular because his efforts produce significant returns above the production & promotion budgets.  Due Date (2010) isn't as aggressively unlikeable as The Hangover (2009), but it is far from a complete project.  Operating as an edgier Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), Due Date doesn't quite capture the spirit of the earlier film.  It tries too hard at times – because pot is funny in and of itself, right? – and just as often has no sense of itself whatsoever (any explanation of what happens with the Range Rover left in Mexico?).
     Overall, the movie is a very mixed bag.  There are a few truly funny moments, mostly involving Peter Highman (Downey Jr.) being unable to control his anger.  The notion of a soon-to-be father punching a child because he is frustrated may seem beyond inappropriate, but Philips and Downey Jr. really make it work in this movie.  Zach Galifianakis doesn't do anything new here, and that is pretty disappointing.  He has better range than what Philips allows to come through.  Juliet Lewis plays within her range and is gone soon enough so as to not grate on the viewer's nerves.  Soon afterwards, however, unfunny-man Danny McBride shows up to stop the momentum dead.  The movie drags until Jaime Foxx shows up (why is he even in this movie?), but his character seems to exist for the sole purpose of setting up a sight-gag in the hospital at the end.
     While I Due Date was nowhere near as bad as I had expected, it is a rather forgettable effort.  It really feels like two separate projects crammed together and made me wish I was watching Steve Martin and John Candy instead.  On the other hand, I do think Downey Jr. did his best to rise above the material and direction; he really is a gifted actor who can almost salvage a movie on his own.  Philips fans will get what they expect, but whatever heart he allowed to slip into his earlier films has given way to crass and (somewhat) angry humor.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My Time with Netflix - Part Six (The Complete List)

     So, in looking over this I come to realize that I skipped some really bad movies (I'm not going to write any kind of reviews for them).  But The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), Saw VI (2009), and Eyeborgs (2010) are all some kind of awful – though Eyeborgs is still more entertaining than Terminator Salvation (2009).  Dreamcatcher (2003) is quite derisible, but it was better than I had heard so I kind of view it as an average movie for my purposes here.  When I take a look at what I watched, I cannot complain about the cost-to-value of Netflix.  But even with that being the case I'm not in a hurry to renew my acquaintanceship with them.

My Time with Netflix - Part Five: The Good Streaming Content

     Now I finally get around to the movies and television shows available to Watch Instantly I found rewarding.  No big preamble to this one.

Streaming Movies and TV that were Worthwhile
The Crazies (2009)
     This is another cheat.  I saw The Crazies in the theater, but I wasn't sure if I liked it as much as I was glad Breck Eisner handled the tone with the right mix of tension and absurdity.  Given a second viewing, I might like it a little less, but I am more convinced that it works as a movie.  I'll give Radha Mitchell a chance in nearly everything, but it is Timothy Olyphant who is most successful in hitting the right notes and meeting the intensity level required throughout the calamity.  The Crazies satisfies nearly everything I look for in a disaster movie – it introduces the audience to the characters, then to the disaster, and the audience gets to watch (in this instance) the disaster kick those characters asses.  There is no uniformity in how the people are afflicted in The Crazies, which plays as both more realistic and more terrifying.  Even with a somewhat limited budget, it doesn't feel constrained.  Given how much I enjoyed it, I thought it would only be fair to give the original 1973 version a watch.  I couldn't make it through the first half hour.  Where Romero appeared more concerned with selling conspiracy theories and orchestrated inefficiency, Eisner opts for a more focused approach showing the deterioration of a town through the eyes of a select few residents.  Maybe it doesn't work as commentary, but I'm convinced it was not intended to.  It is an almost horror, mostly suspense, disaster movie where people behave in decidedly less than civil ways.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Humans of Golarion (Review)

     I have not been a subscriber or even a particularly faithful purchaser of Paizo's Pathfinder products.  I have invested in the books that I feel I need to have in order to play PFS (the Core Rulebook, Bestiary, Advanced Player's Guide, and Ultimate Magic), the ones I thought would better inform my interests of the Golarion setting (the old Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting that has given way to The Inner Sea World Guide, Faiths of Purity, Seekers of Secrets, Elves of Golarion, Andoran: Spirit of Liberty, and Qadira: Gateway to the East), and the ones I suspected would be most useful in homeplay (the old $2 Pathfinder Player's Guide – a fine introduction to what Paizo had in mind for Pathfider – and the first two chapters of the Rise of the Rune Lords arc: Burnt Offerings & The Skinsaw Murders for v3.5 play, the Game Mastery Guide, and Faction Guide).  Clearly, there is so much more I could be purchasing from Paizo.  Then again, I am not about to make the same mistake I made in liberally spending money of gaming products that will see limited use that I did from 1998-2005.  So, Humans of Golarion would have to do more than just regurgitate what has already been written about humans in order to make it worth my while as a purchase.
     I do like that Paizo makes good use of referencing their other products – for example, Humans of Golarion directs readers to five other print products that have dealt with human half-breeds – but I sometimes feel that Paizo could better serve the customer by not scattering all of this related material, and that a book about humans that addresses the two PFS playable half-humans could easily have contained more information on the other half-breeds.  This isn't a make-or-break feature for me.  As my primary use for Pathfinder products is PFS play, I have no real need for information on the half-humans beyond what is readily available in the three books referenced.  But I would have liked for them to have received some kind of treatment in the Humans of Golarion book.
     There is a brief overview of the history of human empires on Golarion.  It is nice, but it is heavily reliant on the reader knowing the empires and lands being noted.  Even stripping the other races from this overview, the authors couldn't present the timeline in a linear fashion, but the few steps back to recount a different region or power are not distracting.  It is also a reminder of the quibble I have where Paizo believes that a fantasy world needs thousands of years of recorded and remembered history (and wars that go on for 600 years).
     Paizo wisely forgoes giving any of the cultures bonuses in and of themselves, allowing them to serve only as flavor and add depth to the fantasy world of Golarion.  However, there is not so much here that is new or different from what is already present in The Inner Sea World Guide.  It also has a tendency, perhaps because of the brevity, to reduce the "sub-races" (as Paizo terms them) to stereotypes – and then goes and lets the reader know that these stereotypes have exceptions.  And, where Paizo does a laudable job in presenting cultures that reflect real world one often neglected in fantasy settings, sometimes I feel challenged in trying to make a character because there is no substitute for Gaels or non-Scandinavian northern Germanic peoples.  I wish Paizo had been able to work real world cultures and peoples into their world as well as the team at PCI did with their Arcanis setting, but they didn't.
     Humans of Golarion is rather light on crunch.  Normally this isn't a draw back, but as the background material is largely retread from other sources, it counts as a definite negative.  I do like that there was an effort made to identify weapons with a region and culture on Golarion, but all of these weapons are published in other books; this simply functions as an optional modifier to material you are already assumed to have put into use.  It does add some flavor to the weapons, but it absolutely feels like filler.  Likewise, the few added spells don't feel like much of a gain – the exception being Summon Totem Creature for the Shoanti.  The traits seem to cover ground that has already been handled, but I guess that giving more story related reasons for picking up whatever bonuses a player is after is a good thing.
     I am unclear as to why Aroden gets included as the god of Humanity, unless it is true that he is going to be coming back from the dead.  Paizo does a good job giving a history of Aroden and the state of his churches in the century since his demise.  He is a very important figure in the overall story Paizo is crafting, so I'm happy for the information, but I wonder if it made it into Humans of Golarion because it hadn't been published elsewhere.  At this point, why not just include him in the Faiths of Balance book?  On the other hand, selecting a single god to represent humanity almost requires using Aroden, even if he is dead.
     At a list price of $10.99 ($7.99 for the pdf), Humans of Golarion isn't a bad value (it does have the great production value I've come to expect from Paizo), but it is overpriced when compared to what one can get from other Paizo products in the same price range (for example, one can get the pdf of Ultimate Magic for $9.99).  If one has a means of discounting this price – I have the benefit of several $5 coupons at the game store where I judge PFS mods, so my cost is just $5.99 + tax – then it becomes a more palatable purchase.  But I would not recommend this as a purchase unless one has a need to own the complete Pathfinder library.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

My Time with Netflix - Part Four: The DVD Gems

     Something I never did when renting from RedBox, Blockbuster,Oak Park Video, or Orland Video was rent foreign language films.  I kind of viewed my renting dollars as too valuable to risk checking out a movie I didn't know much about and would have to read all the way through.  This was a foolish outlook, and not just because I've learned to watch movies with the subtitles on even when they are in English.  Netflix, however, made me feel a little more free to add the movies I had heard good things about to the queue (I was already filling it up with absolute crap), and this included two fantastic foreign language films.
     As these are – on the balance very – good movies, I know that my reviews of them will not do them justice.  I will make an attempt to explain what I saw in them that made them more than worthwhile, but I recommend taking a look at real reviews of them or (better yet) giving them a chance yourself.  I will also note that there are only a few titles that made this list, and that is one of the reasons why I feel that – even if Netflix is a good deal for the price – I wasn't using it correctly.

The DVD Gems
Winter's Bone (2010)
     Writer-director Debra Granik adapts Daniel Woodrell's 2006 novel of the same name into a tight, intense look at the determination of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) to do right by her family in the wake of her father's disappearance.  There is no romanticism here; Granik presents the present day Ozarks as a criminalistic feudal society living on the fringe and sharing some trappings with mainstream America culture.  Family and lineage, no matter how worthless they may seem, mean everything in this land, and the sins of the father can and will be rained down upon the children if Ree cannot find a way to satisfy the forces on both sides of the law who are working against the Dollys.  While Jennifer Lawrence gives an Academy Award nominated performance, the true soul of the movie is presented in the powerful portray of Teardrop Dolly by John Hawkes. While Ree undergoes a more geographic hero's journey, it is Teardrop who takes the emotional journey from one brand of darkness to another, sadder brand of darkness.  To audiences born and raised in affluent suburbia, Winter's Bone may seem slightly overwrought in its portrayal of rural desolation and criminal activity as the norm.  It isn't.  And it story being told could easily fit into nearly any time period in American history. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

My Time with Netflix - Part Three: Streaming Mistakes

     I'll be up front and admit that all of the Watch Instantly activity of my now defunct Netflix account was done through my laptop; no gaming console or other device that allows the service to work with the television.  Because of that, I tended to view it as computer watching and not analogous to being a replacement to broadcast/cable television, and it occupied the times when I didn't want to watch 'television'.  It also had the benefit of being readily dismissible; if I had started watching something truly horrible [Moby Dick 2010 (2010)], I could abandon it early on and feel that I was still in control of my activity (unlike suffering through the disappointing DVDs).  Still, I managed to make it to the end of some movies that I wouldn't recommend to anyone; they are detailed below.

The Streaming Mistakes
The Alphabet Killer (2008)
     I guess I became aware of this movie because somebody, somewhere mentioned that Eliza Dushku has a brief "nude" scene  in it.  That isn't much of a selling point to me, but it did manage to keep the title in my head.  When I saw it in in the Watch Instantly category for Suspense movies – with Dushku, Timothy Hutton, and Carey Elwes – I thought it would be, at worst, a middling project.  It kind of is, but what makes it truly disappointing is that the script by Tom Malloy decides to use the trappings of the real-world "Alphabet Murders" as a framework for an underwhelming tale focusing on Det. Paige (Dushku) with quasi-mystical abilities...except that those abilities are really just the manifestations of psychosis.  There may have been a good movie idea in here, but it is hard to watch as Elwes and Hutton both give performances out of their standard repertoire (they may as well have been pulled from other movies and dropped in here) and Dushku plays emotionally troubled as even more detached and distant than her normal, limited range.  As for the "nude" scene, it is oddly superfluous.  Det. Paige is changing clothes and there is a millisecond shot of the side of one of her breast's.  Why is it included?  It doesn't serve to titillate (one of the primary reasons to include nudity), and it doesn't serve to soften and make to seem more vulnerable a hard or tough character (which I think is a better use of nudity in legitimate films).  Reading about the actual "Alphabet Murders" was a more rewarding experience, as I imagine watching the Discovery Channel documentary would be.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My Time with Netflix - Part Two: The DVD Mistakes

     One of the tasks I didn't like with Netflix was assembling a list of movies I wanted enough to see that I would be willing to watch them soon after they arrived.  At the beginning, I was just adding titles that I might want to watch under the right circumstances.  Then I started adding movies I knew I missed in the theatre, hadn't bothered to rent from Blockbuster or RedBox, and had a vague interest in seeing.  Neither of these strategies proved to be very good.  Below is a sampling of what I consider to be wasted viewing experiences.

The DVD Mistakes
The Reeds (2009)
     I had just finished reading "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood and was somewhat hopeful that a horror film titled The Reeds would at least, even if by accident, embody some of the flavor of that short story.  Sadly, that didn't happen.  I want to stop short of calling The Reeds a bad movie, because somewhere within its complicated mythology and economy-level special effects there just may be an interesting story.  But what I remember is that it had a long and plodding build-up, one in which I didn't feel the audience was being introduced to the characters (so we can care about them and what happens to them) as much as we were witnessing them doing uninteresting things.  Then things happen in such a manner that we know that time isn't a set concept in the titular reeds, and that goes from being interesting to a cop-out used to end the film on an indefinite note.  The movie isn't scary, it doesn't evoke a consistent mood of impending menace, and the cast is quite unremarkable. All in all, I guess I consider The Reeds to be a mistake largely because it was the first DVD Netflix sent to me and I just didn't enjoy it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Time with Netflix - Part One: Bad for a Purpose

     The first thing I noticed after accepting a free month with Netflix was that I suddenly found myself much less motivated to read.  After all, I had one month to get as much viewing as I could before the charges kicked in.  So, I started looking for movies I might want to see...and was surprised that I wasn't that excited about the movies or television shows I had not seen.  Still – after some problems with Silverlight – I started to like the idea of being able to stream movies whenever I had the time and the mood struck.  I figured that the price, which was all of $7.99/month at the time, wasn't bad.  I would find some good movies eventually and if I ever didn't feel I was getting my money worth, I would just walk away from the service.
     That didn't take a year.  Mind you, I ended up with two months for free; the introductory month and a credited month as Silverlight needed to be re-installed every other day during my third month of service.  I found that in regards to DVDs, I was either fulfilling a near pathological need to see all of Katharine Isabelle's performances or just selecting titles I didn't make any effort to see up to that point.  While there were some titles I greatly enjoyed – I'll note them later in the post – I very much felt like I was wasting the DVD portion of the account.  Was it worth keeping Netflix just to watching movies and TV shows on the computer?  Well, once the User Interface changed, that answer was 'No'. When the ability to use other members' reviews – and I mean going to an individuals reviews page, not the anonymous reviews that were part of the change of removing members' avatars – it became 'No, and I'd like to make sure I don't get charged a cent more than I have to be'.
     So, what were the worthwhile selections?  What were the really bad choices?  What were the movies I found through other members or selective manipulation of the sortable function?  Well, I am going to attempt to answer that, but it will take more than one post here.  I have decided to start with the works of noted Canadian film and television actress, Katharine Isabelle, I watched through Netflix.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Arcanis Fast Play

     I had made the determination to take a break from Arcanis after the conclusion of the Living Arcanis campaign.  I liked the setting -- though I thought it needed to be more concrete and less vague as more materials became available, a thought that didn't mesh well with the perspective of the books.  I knew that, for the most part, PCI printed quality products that far exceeded the mean of the third-party offerings.  I also got to know most of the PCI staff, people who (I would very much like to write without exception) I like and respect for what they do and how they comport themselves.  Though I didn't get on-board with Shattered Empires, I was very much still curious where Arcanis was going and how it was represented.
     Lucky for me – actually, lucky for everybody – PCI has made two products available free of charge to get prospective players ready for the launch of the Arcanis Roleplaying Game. The first is the Fast Play book (available as a free download from PCI: click here), which introduces the basics of the new rules system in an effective manner.  The second, as noted on the inside of the back cover of the Fast Play book, is the celebrated -- and award-winning Codex Arcanis (click here).  While the Codex Arcanis is not quite up-to-date in regards to the ongoing political evolution of Onara, it serves as one of the best primers ever written about a roleplaying world.  I would very much recommend that anyone taking on the task of recruiting players to Arcanis (or doing the world justice in the adventure included in the Fast Play book) at least have a passing familiarity with the material presented in the Codex Arcanis.

     I am happy to recommend that anyone interested in a well thought out and developed (I don't want to say fantasy) roleplaying game setting and emerging system give the Fast Play rules a shot (and definitely take a look through the Codex Arcanis).  It is a quality product with few real errors.  And it presents the rules in a manner that is – for it being an alien system to me – quite accessible.  Chances are you will like what you see and give serious consideration to picking up the core rulebook.  It certainly far exceeded all expectations I had, and had done a great deal to erode much of the resistance I have had in regards to where Arcanis is going.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Case Study of Steven Pfiel (2010)

    Steven Pfiel was considered by many to be an average child from an average family acting out normal adolescent rebellions.  On 17 July, 1993, those assumptions would begin to unravel.  What would emerge is a clear, though not definitive, picture of an adolescent psychopath.  Unfortunately, Steven would go on to become a serial killer, engage in sex acts immediately after one of his murders, and leave both families of his victims without answers as to what motivated him.  This paper will examine the troubling history of Steven Pfiel, from elementary school to an inmate of the Illinois Department of Corrections, with specific attention paid to the two murders and one rape he is known to have committed.  It will make the case that not only is Steven a serial killer, but also a psychopathic sexual sadist.  This paper will attempt to showcase that while all of the popular assumptions regarding these definitions may not apply to Steven, he meets the criteria nonetheless.  This paper is formatted as to detail Steven Pfiel=s history and then to attempt an analysis of his behavior as meeting the thresholds for inclusion in psychopathy, serial homicide, and sexual sadism.

     Sometime after leaving a party in a Cook County, IL, forest preserve with Hillary Norskog in his car on the night of 14 July, 1993, Steven Pfiel murdered her ( McWhirter, 1994; Sloan & McWhirter, 1993b; Sloan & McWhirter, 1993c).  He stabbed the thirteen year old girl at least twelve times (Heinzmann, 2001; McWhirter & Sloan, 1993; Sloan & McWhirter, 1993c; Ziemba, 1998), particularly about the head and neck (Caro, 1995d).  This vicious attack resulted in Hillary having to be identified through dental records (McWhirter & Sloan, 1993).  The police did not even attempt to let Hillary=s mother, Marsha Norskog identify the disfigured body (Sloan & McWhirter, 1993b).  The body was found on 17, July, 1993, in unincorporated Palos Township (Cytrynbaum, 1996h; McWhirter, 1994), dumped in a field (Sloan, 1995c; Ziemba, 1998). 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tim tries his hand at describing Panari

     What follows is the work of five credited authors (David Bauder, Josh Brown, Carl Hewelt, Christopher LaLiberty, and me; my contributions in red).  It was composed for a Panari IK mod for Living Arcanis that never saw the light of day.  I plan on giving some thoughts on PCI's Fast Play rules for their new Arcanis Role-Playing game in the next few days, but I wanted to give some background to the world and my feelings about it.  The reader will note that this was still very unfinished.  These selections are taken from the first ten pages of the work done on Deliver Not Unto Evil.  Well, from the one revised draft I could find.

Box Text Open

     Though it is but moments after dawn, the soft, warm rays of Illiir’s light have already begun to turn the shadowy and gray streets of Panari into sepia-tinged panoramas of subtle naturalistic beauty.  With the coming of a new day, it is easy to realize how truly alive this city can be.  Giant sequoia trees rustle in the slight breeze while the distinct aroma of lilac can be detected as the flowers slowly open.  The mournful calls of the horned owl have given way to the cheerful songs of finch and thrush.  Squirrels dash from a nearby patch of wild carrots as a litter of kits awkwardly bounds after them, unaware that they are not playing a game.  Even a few score of Panari’s citizens have made their way into the streets, with bakers, coopers, and cartwrights already well into their work day.  It will not be long before this gentle harmony of man and nature gives way to the sounds and smells of a major city.
      Few townsfolk out and about at this early hour are without purpose in their movements through the streets.  Those few who do not appear to be diligently heading toward some earnest endeavor give the distinct impression of having spent the night prior indulging their more selfish desires. It is unclear how the upstanding members of Panari view you, as you are standing outside of the Wolf’s Fang, a modest tavern, but you most assuredly came here with purpose.  As you are slightly early, it is closed.  You do see a number of other likewise determined people who also seem to be waiting for the tavern to open.
     The smell of apple tarts and pork sausage slowly creeps from under the door and through the shutters of the Wolf’s Fang.  It cannot be long before [insert proprietor’s name] unbars the door and your day can truly begin.  In the interim, you content yourself with the sights of the neighborhood. 
     Across the way, a merchant still opening his shop is approached by a small Myrantian scribe, and a discussion ensues.  You can clearly hear the merchant tell the Mryantian man something about “Paldarin paper.”
     Further down, approaching the Wolf’s Fang, a young lad is whistling a happy tune as he skips down the street, a courier’s pouch at his side.  He pauses to pet a sleeping dog, tied to a tree, before continuing on his way.

Non-Box Text
     The scribe is discussing getting a discounted rate on the cost of paper from the merchant (Listen check DC 10). Whichever PC had the highest check will hear “You clearly do not understand the value of this stock.  Perhaps I can interest you in some of our lesser quality vellum.”
     Should the PCs approach the Merchant and/or scribe, both will eye them cautiously.  Though there is nothing illicit in their dealings, both will be hesitant to make their affairs public.  In addition, there is a fantastic chance that the PCs will be wearing armor and carrying weapons, and when persons like that approach a simple pen and paper shop, bad things are likely to happen.
     If pressed, the scribe will inform them that he is looking for paper so that he may finish a work he began before the fall of Abessios (which is true).  He wants no trouble from the PCs, but he will not scamper away if threatened, as he does believe that the authorities will arrive to protect him from bodily harm.  The merchant, on the other hand, will sternly ask the PCs to wait no less than fifteen feet away until he has finished his business with the scribe.  Should the PCs threaten him, he will draw a bell from his belt pouch and ring for the Watch. [This will immediately trigger the assassin’s strike and ensuing combat.  In such an instance, the merchant will implicate the PCs in the courier’s death, which will certainly make it harder for the PCs over the course of their investigation.]
     The Boy is hesitant to discuss his delivery.  He will ignore people on the street unless stopped.  Even then, he wishes to complete his task, stating “It is against the Courier’s Code, and we never open the package” If he is pressed (Diplomacy or Intimidation 15 -- the DC increases to 20 if a bribery attempt is made -- he is very honest), he states that his package is bound for the Academy, and he mustn’t dally.
     The assassin will not attack while the courier is directly next to the PCs.  If the PCs do not allow the courier to his appointed task, he will threaten to call for the Watch.  If he is still detained, he will escape by use of author’s fiat and then be killed by the assassin as soon as he is in the predetermined position.  That will teach him to use author’s fiat to escape.

Development: Go right to encounter 1.

 Set-Up for First Combat
     Suddenly, a familiar sound sends a chill along your spine.  As quickly as you realize that an arrow has been fired, you note that it has found its target. The young courier falls, a preternaturally black shaft piercing him from his left scapula to his right hip.  Armed men charge from a nearby alley to the scene.  One of them, glancing at you, sinks his weapon deep into the young lad’s back. 

     It appears that breakfast will have to wait.

Beginning of Encounter Two
     As the last thug falls, an eerie silence falls on the street.  Apparently, the town guard either hasn’t heard the ruckus, or has yet to arrive.   It cannot be long, however, until the Watch does arrive. 

     The Watch will arrive in one minute if summoned by the merchant’s bell, or four minutes otherwise.  This is not intended to derail the story, but when people get murdered in the streets in one of the nicer sections of a major Imperial city, the Watch does show up to investigate.  So long as the merchant did not summon them, the PCs can easily claim self defense (a DC 15 Diplomacy check to be released on their own recognizance with a 50 gp bond per PC; this will be returned at the end of the module).  While murder is illegal in Panari, there are enough witnesses that can be found to vouch for the PCs’ actions. 
     If the merchant did summon the Watch, the PCs will be detained for one day while a more thorough investigation is conducted.  The PCs will be fined 100 gp each and escorted from the city with a warning not to return for at least three months (80 TU).  PCs who cannot pay this fine will be held in prison for one day per 10 gp unpaid.
     Feel free to roleplay the interaction with the Watch as little or as much as the players feel appropriate. 
The top of the line character sheet

     My job was to be an editor, but I took the liberty to replace text as I saw fit.  Probably not the best attitude to take, but at the same time there was simply too much work to do to simply make suggestions and notes and wait for revisions. I also wanted to put references to (at least) four deities in the opening paragraph, so I did. Anyway, this was Living Arcanis (or at least aspirational Living Arcanis) under the v3.5 rules.  The rules have changed.  I am not writing anything for it, but as I didn't get anything published or played -- that Faiths book never went anywhere -- that shouldn't change things for the players.
     But I cared about the game.  Spent lots of money on products, more on the costs of gaming.  Judged for at least eleven different conventions (MSR, DCV, Conflag, CodCon, Concentric, Ides of March, Fall into Gaming, Stuffed COWS, HeliadaCon, Origins, and GenCon) and attended even more (GenghisCon, Arcanis con Carne, PentaCon).  I used to be devout.
     I'll post my opinions on the Fast Play book soon.  Just trying to give the authors a chance to respond to my requests for comments.  Until then, I hope you enjoyed some box text without any context.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mugabe and the White African (2009)

     If one did not already know that Robert Mugabe was a thoroughly reprehensible human being, Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey's documentary Mugabe and the White African (2009) will provide a rough overview.  The film focuses on one family's legal struggle -- in an international court of law, because the Zimbabwean government acts counter to its own established laws -- to keep their farm as well as the danger they face for trying to preserve their rights.  Mugabe's government, an unfortunate mix of brutal thuggery and kleptocracy, established a policy of driving white Zimbabweans (under the belief that "Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans", and that can't include the descendents of colonists) from their farm land and resources.  Once taken, the land goes untended.  The 'Zimbabweans' who worked the land are beaten and/or driven off, and are also left without a source of livelihood or the community they had built with the resident farmers.
     Ben Freeth, the son-in-law of Mike Campbell (the man who brought the suit against Mugabe), asks the question, "Can a white man be an African?", noting that there is a very strong movement to deny that possibility.  The film does not explore the far-reaching implications of colonization and what legitimate resentments and countermeasures may be valid.  It shows the remaining white farmers in Zimbabwe as good people who respect the land, the people who work for them (this feels a little like a magnanimous plantation system and far from ideal, but it does seem better than the semi-tribal lawlessness of the government supported thugs), and the rule of law.  Campbell and Freeth risk their lives (literally) in pursuit of the idea that they have the right to remain on land Campbell should and does legally own.
     The movie has both happy and tragic endings.  It is a sober examination of civil rights in Africa (and perhaps in way we're not used to seeing).  It gives hints to some of the external forces driving the expulsion of Europeans and people of European descent (China) but doesn't explore them.  It also has some pacing issues that occasionally lessen the tension, but not so much as to take the viewer out of the story.  I cannot say I enjoyed Mugabe and the White African, but I do think it is a more than worthwhile watch.

Fall from Grace (2007)

     Undeniable force-of-hate-in-the-name-of-Righteousness  Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church are the focus of Fall from Grace (2007).  We learn much about Phelps, the man, in this movie.  We learn that he graduated high school at sixteen ("top of [his] class") and that he had a religious experience while awaiting to be old enough to enroll in college.  We learn that he was also a lawyer (in perhaps the most succinct summation of Phelps, Pedro Irigonegaray -- who also appears in Flock of Dodos -- describes him as "being disbarred for being an unethical human being") at some point prior to his crusade against homosexuality.
     I will express my ignorance of something right here.  I have never seen nor known to exist advertisements enticing people to attend certain churches.  I am not saying they do not exist still today, nor do I know if they were or are commonplace.  What I do know is that much of Phelps ad for the opening of his church scares me.  His attributes are listed in bullet points: Independent, Fundamental, Premillennial.  In addition to (?) his sermons, revival services will be held.  All of that is perfectly coded to get the right kind of people to attend his church and fall in line with his brand of viciousness (Phelps is also not the only Premillennialist, though that is hardly shocking).  I do not know when the ad showed in the film ran; it should be 1957 or thereabouts. The ad appears very early in the film and quite properly sets the tone for what to expect from the Phelps family.  It is unclear as to whether it ever attracted any worshipers to his services.
Rev. Phelps
     For example, Rev. Phelps, his son (Jonathan), and granddaughter have no problem labeling homosexuals as "fags", to remind everybody that "GOD HATES FAGS" (written on a protest sign, also said aloud by Rev. Phelps as he is describing his mission), and to cite Luke 16:23 as evidence that "FAGS BURN in HELL".  [By the way, the KJV translation for 16:23 is "And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom."  Never mind that the context there is about the rich failing to attend to the poor.]  Rev. Phelps proudly points the audience to his website, (though he and his group have others).  This is the God of Light, the God of Love, the God of Abraham...and Phelps is here to tell you that He hates fags!  Phelps seems to have enough hate for everyone -- veterans, people who live in Indiana, even President George W. Bush (who is termed a "mongrel" on the website).  Phelps' concept of God hates America, but to be fair, He also hates Sweden.  What Phelps' God does love, however, are IEDs.  These are good because they kill American soldiers and, in the mind of Phelps, soldiers = fags.
David Trosch
     Phelps is not alone in his ignorant hatred.  Though it appears that his protestors are just members of his family (his congregation is just his family) -- having thirteen children (nine who haven't escaped) has its benefits -- the film gladly points to other Men of God who have likewise spoken or preached against humanity.  These include homophobe and advocate of murdering doctors who perform abortions David Trosch (formerly Father Trosch), Rev. Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson.
     There is little more disturbing than the interviews with the children -- intercut with Jonathan Phelps calling all children outside his family "ratty-ass" or "nimrod[s]" and noting that their Christianity doesn't have Halloween (understandable), Christmas (somewhat understandable), or Easter (seems to be an important holiday in regular Christianity) -- talking about their favorite signs (such as "God Hates Fags") and the fun of protesting being serving the Lord out in the street.  These children have no chance to escape this hate.  Hearing a child under ten say that "God hates America because they are evil beasts" should be a cause for alarm.
Phelps sure has a long list of who God Hates
     We learn from two of the four children who have left the flock that Rev. Phelps is a violent, emotionally unstable man.  He (reportedly) beat his children with a barber strop and a mattock handle.  His goal as father, we are told, was the threaten and beat his family into total submission.  None of this seems out of place with the Rev. Phelps seen on screen.  He absolutely appears to be a cult leader, but one who has only ensnared his own offspring. 
     Pastor Jeff Gannon describes Phelps' version of Christianity best when he calls it "religiosity".  Phelps is only filled with hate for everything and is waiting for God to attack his perceived enemies).  The family believes that soldiers being killed by IEDs are suffering Holy retribution for a pipe bomb being set off at their church a decade before that.  The Phelps family wants to let you know that you are as worthless as their father has made them feel to be before the eyes of God.  One of the most telling clips in the movie is Julie Banderas of FOX News just absolutely losing it when trying to talk to Shirley Phelps-Roper (full FOX News segment attached below).
     This is not a fun movie to watch.  Its subjects are not nice, likable, nor do they seem redeemable.  It is telling of how much hate one can carry in one's heart, how that hate can be inflicted upon a family and caused to spread.  I would recommend it to anyone who can tolerate the hate of the Phelps family just to witness the calm reason (not in Ms. Banderas' case) that many who have had to suffer them for years can still bring to bear regarding turning the other cheek to such hatred.

Flock of Dodos (2006)

     Randy Olson's Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (2006) takes a look at the repeated attempts to change to academic standards in Kansas to allow for alternatives to evolution-- the kind that are considered 'God friendly' -- to be taught to schoolchildren, and at the larger movement behind it.  At times light, cheerful, and breezy, Flock of Dodos is as respectful to both sides as a Ph.D. in Biology can manage to be.
     Olson spends a little too much time getting the audience invested in him and his story (his parents certainly are noteworthy people, probably worthy of their own documentaries).  He makes use of cartoon dodos (this disappears for a lengthy period of time to finally be revisited at the end) and title cards with definitions of words which the audience probably knows (but it serves as a great way to reinforce his points).  At no point does Olson get angry with or make accusations against the advocates of "teaching the controversy", the supposedly legitimate challenges to Darwinian evolution.
     Olson does end up laying the blame for this manufactured "controversy" at the feet of two groups.  The first are nameless, faceless PR firms (actually, he does name some firms in the movie, but he extends the bubble of blame beyond those named) pushing the debate because it is profitable.  The second group, and this is a view that has also been presented in Scientific American, is that scientists themselves have long neglected making any meaningful public outreach to explain their work, its evidence, and its implications.
     Flock of Dodos is probably the most approachable, most well thought out investigation of the Intelligent Design v. Evolution debate I have seen.  It gives both sides a fair amount of time to make their points (which would be more compelling if both sides fully understood their points and not just their talking points) and does not condemn ID for simply being anti-evolution -- though it does stop short of explaining that the very notion of ID prohibits effective scientific testing, citing instead that there is no way to test ID at the moment.  I think this would be a good watch for those who have been away from any kind of biology class for a while or children old enough to be introduced to the notion of taking scientific inquiry seriously.

Howard Zinn: You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004)

     From the outset, Howard Zinn makes it clear (both through his own voice and that of Matt Damon) that it is his job to take issue with the state of the world.  It is his responsibility as a teacher, he notes before the title credits appear, "to intercede in whatever is happening in the world".  Zinn believes that the power structure (presumably in the world, definitely in the United States of America) has been set up improperly and has unfairly disadvantaged the decent and hardworking while rewarding the corrupt and greedy.
     In a passage taken from his book (You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train, 1994), Zinn decries the Protestant Work Ethic and presumption that hard work will lead to success (Zinn purposely misunderstanding the possibility of hard work leading to riches for the guarantee of it to better frame his argument).  Zinn is a markedly better writer than a speaker -- he too often repeats himself in succession, he struggles to find simple words to express his point -- but in what the audience is exposed to here, it is not at all clear that he is worldly or wise.  His concept of the world seems to be largely forged from his childhood experiences, his anger (aroused by the abuses, excesses, and exploitations of American capitalism) seems too broadly spread , and his sense of self-importance/self-congratulatory paranoia speaks more of a man still looking to be validated (or lauded by those who endorse his views).  His zeal is not without merit; it is in fact excellent that there are people like Zinn who go beyond the reasonable in their (self-appointed) defense of the common man, the workers, the citizens who actually constitute the body politic, because they are the ones who stir us from our complacency with our lot, with the status quo.
     The film does a good job showing the evolution of Zinn's awareness (though the absolute naïvité with which he begins seems unbelievable, almost cartoonish and for effect) as to the political, social, and economic divides in the country.  It also shows Zinn's lack of intellectual curiosity; he is interested in events that relate to his upbringing, his past, his experiences, and is surprisingly easily brought into line with the orthodoxy (if such a thing can be said) of labor movement's radical side.  He places himself at the forefront of events, strategically rearranging the facts to fit his narrative (an example: he begins teaching at Spellman College in 1956, but identifies that as being before the Civil Rights Movement instead of in the early years of said movement).
     It is not surprising that Zinn would find himself involved (on the right side) with the Civil Rights Movement.  It is not surprising that (for valid reasons of earnest and honest self-reflection or intellectually immature, self-aggrandizing reasons) he would find himself involved in the peace movement (against the war in Vietnam).  The film does a decent job of showing Zinn's involvement and his (lasting) influence.  It does a fantastic job of showing where he is either ironically correct ("The best way to make sure that a country turns to communism is to put foreign military forces in it", a policy the Soviets definitely used in expanding Communism) or (will later be proven to be) factually wrong (stating that the conflict in Vietnam was driven by internal forces or that the Viet Cong were part of an uprising against the South Vietnamese government -- when in fact they were a part of the North Vietnamese army and were themselves, in a manner of speaking, foreign troops in their own native country). 
     I have the same problem with Zinn that I do with Thoreau.  They both expend a tremendous amount of intellectual energy to end up with arguments that have already been attended in 'modern' philosophy (which is to say that the intellectual arguments appear very immature, but Zinn is appealing to emotion and 'moral outrage' as much, if not more, than reason).  This is not to say that Zinn doesn't have a point.  Of course he does, and we are better represented as a people for his repeated and passionate presentations of his worldview.  But it is not well-rounded enough to be considered reliable.  He wants to avoid the whitewashing of history and that is most admirable.  Zinn wants to present the stories that history had, in the past, judged to be the dissent that could be omitted.  He does not appear to lay claim to the totality of history; he is not asking or attempting to censor other representations of how we came to be as a nation.  The sides he is representing are the ones that have been ignored.  His dedication to them is not an omission of other foci -- there is no shortage of the opposing points of view.
     I would imagine the fan of Zinn would find little more here than a nice personal warmth to associate to the voice on the page.  Those who would demonize him and his causes will only be infuriated.  Howard Zinn: You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004) didn't instill any greater desire for me to read Zinn, nor did it lessen it.  It serves as a pleasant, short overview of Zinn's life and work.  He comes off as likable, for the most part.  His points have a degree of positivity and hope that is often lacking in those made by people speaking for the opposition, if sometimes served up with a hefty amount of hyperbole.