Monday, April 30, 2012

On Bullshit (2005)

     I certainly would not have paid money for (Professor) Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit (2005), seeing as how it is little more than an exploratory paper on the nature of bullshit, and how it differs from things such as humbug and lying.  So long as I can still access the Roosevelt University library with my student ID, I have access to academic papers for free (if one considers how much money the school charged me for my time there to be settled with the degree, otherwise I am just afforded the opportunity to draw down against the account) and that means that I should be able to get things like this for free.  In book form, I was able to do the same thing from the local public library.
     On Bullshit tries to be academically honest in its exploration as to the nature of bullshit and how it has come to pervade situations where meaningful discourse should be more commonplace – Frankfurt places no onus on casual bullshit other than to note it is a way to keep some level of emotional reserve and protection from repercussions from outlandish ideas when used in casual situations – while at the same time maintaining a position that allows him to use mild humor rather than just dry, academic writing.  This makes it a marginally enjoyable read, but one that is marred by Frankfurt's inability to fully delve into the nature of bullshit and how it is employed in modern discourse.
     Frankfurt also gets lazy from time to time.  He goes too far astray when he wants to conclude that in the phrase "to shoot the bull", shoot is a stand-in for shit.  I wonder if he feels the same applies to "shooting the breeze"?  That would be messy, at least in the direction the wind was blowing.  It ignores the etymology of the phrase in favor of some wry humor, but Frankfurt never even introduces the phrase "to shoot the shit", which would defuse his entire line of thought on the matter while still advancing the examination as to the nature of bullshit
     For those who are willing to kill a small amount of time reading something mildly academic, On Bullshit is a fine diversion.  But it won't satisfy those looking for a more thoughtful examination of the linguistic and moralistic implications of the use of bullshit, nor will it make the casual reader happy with its lack of a definitive statement of conclusion.  I liked it, but I think it should have been much better.
     Now, the quotes stolen from the book (one of which was stolen right out of another book):

  • Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob?  Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined?  The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this.  Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped.  p. 21-22
  • Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I remember him very well and some of the things he used to say. ...One of the first things he taught me was, "Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through." p. 48 [Quote taken from Eric Ambler's novel Dirty Story (1967)]
  • Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game.  Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands.  The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether.  He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.  By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.  p.60-61
  • Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as that is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.  p. 67

Friday, April 27, 2012

Flashes of Mediocrity

Flashes of Mediocrity
  by Silence Do_nothing

   I've never been drunk, but I believe the writing process has allowed me to experience something similar to a drinker's remorse.  Ideas which seem great one day reveal their true terrible nature the next and I'm left wondering how I ever thought them good.  That's my explanation as to why,  instead of the short fiction piece I had planned, I have a short non-fiction piece on why I don't have the short fiction piece.
   As a dilettante writer (it's nicer than using "hack"), I was expecting to sift through a lot of garbage, but I figured a month's time was sufficient to generate the amount of acceptable material needed to build a presentable story several hundred words long.  I miscalculated.  The ratio of garbage-to-mediocre was higher than I expected.
    I struggled with three previous stories and two version of a fourth that weren't worth saving. Those were done on the computer so I tried pen and paper for a new rough draft.  The words flowed easily. The process of writing gave me a natural high.  I figured I had finally cracked it.  The next day, when I was typing it up, I saw that not even a tenth of it was worth a damn.  My enjoyment had clouded my judgement.
   I have a couple excerpts of the least bad of it.  I actually kind of like these, but I imagine an outside reader in even the most charitable mood would find them mediocre at best.
   Excerpt #1:

   Alan: "... Why don't you study engineering?"
   Braun: "Poor spatial reasoning ability.  It's like I have a female brain."
   Alan: "Glad you said it instead of me."
   Braun: "Because you were afraid of saying something offensive to me or offensive to women?"
   Alan: "Wait, is it offensive to you because a female brain is supposedly beneath you or offensive to women because your brain is beneath them?"
   Braun: "No one's beneath anything.  It's really more a matter of a mismatch.  Less suitable combinations."
   Alan: "You mean like your girlish long lashes?"
   Braun: "It's exacerbated by artificial tear drops.  The lashes absorb most of it."
   Alan: "Women wish they had your eye lashes."
   Braun: "Thank you."

   I believe I do have lousy spatial reasoning.  I have no mechanical aptitude whatsoever and I struggled when videogames transitioned from 2D sprite based graphics to 3D polygons.  My eye lashes are unusually long and full for a guy's.  Instead of softening my creepy look they exacerbate it.  There aren't a lot of cosmetics commercials touting products that give you thinner, less lustrous lashes, so my options seem limited.  Even if that weren't the case, it strikes me as less masculine to groom your lashes, even for a more masculine look, than it is to leave them in their natural less masculine state.  I'm an expert at avoiding eye contact, so I doubt many people notice anyway. Avoidance of eye contact solves another problem.  If the Greeks of mythology were less sociable, fewer would have succumbed to the Medusa's gaze of stone.
   Excerpt #2:

   Braun: "...if he had disparaged high school football or if he had written that beef wasn't real BBQ and that the best BBQ was in Memphis or the Carolinas, then they [Texas] would have threatened to secede unless they received a formal apology."
   Alan: "That's not a useful gauge of their fury."
   Braun: "You're right.  They threaten to secede every time a replay is reversed against the Cowboys."
   Alan: "What we need is for Quebec to secede along with Texas so they can unite."
   Braun: "That's actually not a bad idea.  You'd have Tebec."
   Alan: "No.  We are talking about the sovereign nation of Quexas."
   Braun: "Okay.  Quexas would be a superpower in both accents and strip bars."

   The Texas secessionist movement probably isn't as ingrained as the snippet suggests.  I do think Texans identify as Texans more intensely than people of other lower 48 states would identify with their respective state.  I've heard radio personalities rave about strip bars in Montreal.  I don't know why, but I just assume Texas is particularly keen on those establishments.  I think Quexas would be a good fish out of water idea for a stupid reality show.  Take independence advocates from Texas and Quebec and let them switch locales.
   That was the best material I could pull from a 47k text file of notes and a 20k partial rough draft.  That was why I had to abandon it.  My writing goal now is to reach a sustained level of mediocrity, instead of  merely brushing up against it for a brief time.
   I still feel entitled to criticize the writing of movies and comics.  Partly because I'm an amateur and have the right to hold professionals to a higher standard, in the same way that a fan who couldn't make 60 percent of his free throws still has a right to criticize a professional for failing at the same.  More important is the practical consideration that barring me from criticizing writing better than mine would leave no material other than my tattered copy of the 80s"Kool-Aid Man" comic book.  Hopefully.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fear the Fever – Hot Blood #7 (1996)

     Do erotica and horror go well together?  Should they?  I know that there has been a steady stream of sexuality in horror, but most of that seems to be there for the plausibility of having a moral to the slasher (sexual stalker) story.  It should appear valid on its face that we would not – if we have any interest in healthy psychosexual development – wed horror or terror to sexual arousal.  Because we can train ourselves to be aroused by things that just aren't right.
     Having written that little self-important cautionary note, I still went and read the seventh book in the Hot Blood Series, Fear the Fever (1996).  Not that I had ever heard of the series or read the other books.  I may be a fan of (well done) horror films, but I don't have much experience with the genre in short story or novel form.  Same with erotica; as a guy, I am much more acquainted with pornography.  Mind you, I don't mind pornography with a story (I think that there should be a reason for whatever is going on/being described/visually depicted, and that usually is accomplished by having some kind of plot-like element), but erotica seems to be of the mind to titillate without having the end purpose of serving as a masturbatory aid.  Who has time for that when there is so much in the realm of Literature I have yet to read?
     No, I went and had my library hunt this book down because Stephen Woodworth – author of the Violets series, starring Natalie Lindstrom – had a short story in it.  Same reason I went and read the book of zombie short stories back in December.  Sure, I could learn my lesson; read Woodworth's novels when they come out, avoid his short stories because I find the books (on the whole) lackluster.  But if I did that, how would I know what shape the erotic horror short story had been in 16 years ago?
     Like all of the short story anthologies I've seen, it was quite uneven.  The book opens with what is, effectively porn.  Porn with a story, sure, but porn.  Then it moved on to a werewolf sex story (where the werewolves were members of the undead, and that just pisses me off; I know there is a school of though that places them there, but I come from the D&D mold, and lycanthropes simply ain't undead...try turning one) which seemed to fit both the horror and erotica elements, but also fell short of explaining one key point.  Next was the story that drew me to the book, Woodworth's "Purple Hearts and Other Wounds".  Not great.  There are hints at what his writing style would become, sure, but it is too quick to move through its paces to develop any sense of dread or horror.  And Woodworth's Vietnam seemed to be one drawn from half-remembered scenes of Hamburger Hill (1987) or Platoon (1986) than any research on the war itself.
     From that point on there were some good stories sprinkled in with the bad.  Wendy Rathbone tried to turn the pain and struggle of a boy fighting his sexuality into entertainment (and it reads as unpleasantly as one would imagine).  Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee team up to write a story that would be a fitting episode for an erotic version of Creepshow (1982) or if Playboy TV did a version of Tales from the Darkside (1983-88).  It is also full of odd technical lingo (specific to fungi), which is infuriating because of the total disregard to actual functional biology.  John F.D. Taff plays with the idea of a magical tattoo in a story that really doesn't deliver.  He struggles with setting and characters – his forced imaginings of Bohemians feels worse than false, it feels like a purposeful lie.  And the moment that should be the most important, touching event in the story is glossed over in favor of moving the character to a sense of nothingness – he has no identity but wants to give his love to someone? – and then to being nothing.  This apparently is a problem for a lot of younger writers, but one that an editor should have caught and corrected.
     Lois Gresh doesn't bother to do any research on actual fetishists (she drew on her own, one-time experience with a man who professed a foot fetish) for her story, and it makes it unbelievable.  There are moments of decent erotica in it, but overall it is a disappointment.  Editor Jeff Gelb fills his story with interjections of music from the era in which he set it (why?) and doesn't bother to make any connective tissue between his long set-up and climax.  It is another story that plays false.
     "Two Hands are Better than One" by J.N. Williamson?  Here are my notes on it: Inarticulate writing meets...well, I don’t know what.  It reads a little like a masturbatory version of “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”.  It takes a long time to tell no story, and it isn’t ever erotic.  It is just kind of sad.
     James Crawford delivers a better than average piece with "Untamed Sex".  I wonder if this was pitched to The Outer Limits (1995-2002) when it was on Showtime but they turned it down because – well take your pick between hints of bestiality and budgetary concerns.  It works more as a Sci-Fi story (kind of rote, but not poorly done) than erotica or straight horror.  Unfortunately it is followed by Patricia D. Cacek's "Metalica", which was more disturbing than anything else.  I took it – hopefully quite wrongly – as a woman living out the fantasy of being raped by her father (or reliving the event) by use of a speculum.
     It gets worse with Tom Piccirilli's "Call It".  He has a problem with tense (I often do, but I try to find my errors before I think I'm finished with a piece), which is problematic for the reader.  What is the greater offense is that there is not point for the story, other than to give the writer a chance to have a character listen to two people fucking over the phone. It still gets worse.  Michael Garrett takes a tender subject and tries to make it shock-entertainment, this time a boy discovering something terrible about his parents.  But it is all narrated (with absence of the responses of the other person in the room) by a boy who can only refer to his father as "My Daddy".  The ending is a prime example of a cop-out of the worst order.
     Nat Gertler tries for horror-humor with sexual elements in "Restin' Piece".  I guess if I found any of it funny I would have liked the story more.  I also would have liked there to have been a reason why the character hearing the story had a reason to be buying drinks for the fellow telling it.  “Flesh and Blood” by Elsa Rutherford was predictable, jumped around for no reason, and had a real high creep factor at the end.  Alan Brennert's "Fantasies" felt undeveloped, and had a bad ending.
     That left “The Secret Shih Tan” by Graham Masterson.  This story was overtly moralistic and exceedingly unerotic – the sex scene felt like it had been imported from something else – but what hurt it most was the absolutely modern setting, coupled with the uncle’s acceptance of the requirements of the book in question.
     Now, I know that nobody else is going to take the time to track this book down.   Well, I suspect more than I know.  I would caution against it.  For the few decent stories, there is just too much crap to make it worthwhile.  Yes, I know that regular folks can just read the good and leave the bad alone (in which case it may make a pleasant diversion).  But taken as a whole, Fear the Fever just left me fearing another collection of erotic horror.

▸    “The Five Percent People” by Lucy Taylor
▸    “Feeding the Beast” by Bruce Jones
▸    “Purple Hearts and Other Wounds” by Stephen Woodworth
▸    “The Sinister Woods” by Wendy Rathbone
▸    “Love Letters from the Rainforest” by Jack Ketchum and Edward Lee
▸    “Orifice” by John F.D. Taff
▸    “Sole Man” by Lois Gresh
▸    “The Portrait” by Jeff Gelb
▸    “Two Hands Are Better Than One” by J.N. Williamson
▸    “Untamed Sex” by James Crawford
▸    “Metalica” by Patricia D. Cacek
▸    “Call It” by Tom Piccirilli
▸    “Daddy’s Dirty Books” by Michael Garrett
▸    “Restin’ Piece” by Nat Gertler
▸    “Flesh and Blood” by Elsa Rutherford
▸    “Fantasies” by Alan Brennert
▸    “The Secret Shih Tan” by Graham Masterson

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Waiting for Godot (1954)

     Tragic.  Sad.  Often funny (though I'm not much for the more physical comedy, and don't find the prostate issue funny at all).  Ultimately unknowable.  That Beckett apparently vehemently denied that Godot – a name North Americans have been mispronouncing for some time – can be understood to be God is perplexing, if only because God is just as vague and inaccessible as any knowledge of being, of why we, especially given that we are destined to not-be shortly thereafter.
     Waiting for Godot (1954) is absurd, but in the abstract.  Its primary characters are never referred to by their listed names (I don't know if that is brilliant or banal, but it is something).  It has no sense of place except that it is one incapable of giving the men what they need while simultaneously evocative of longing and change.
     I wouldn't want a steady diet of this from any playwright, but I finally understand why so many people are drawn to it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How Not to Abuse the Rules as a GM

This is the image I use for Kiara, my Arcane Monk (meaning she is mostly Wizard with a few levels of Monk).  She and I (since she is really just an alter-ego that allows me to experience dangerous adventures in Paizo's setting of Golarion) had a rather unsatisfactory experience in her final time being played.  And I blame the GM who didn't know how to properly cheat.
     If there is anything I have learned about cheating at roleplaying games (RPGs) – and let's not assumed that I have, or that what I have learned is worthwhile – it is that it is best left to the person running the game (the Game Master, or GM).  And the only reason to engage in cheating is to make sure that everybody gets to have a good time.  One of my fundamental assumptions – repeatedly proven wrong over this past weekend – is that people want their player characters (PCs), their in-game alter-egos, to succeed after being significantly challenged.  I would prefer that the players have some vested interest in story, and in integrating their PCs into the world, but since the PC has to overcome challenges (not all of them all of the time), I know that successes matter.
     Now, the game I played and judged (was the GM of) this past weekend was Pathfinder.  It is, like it or not, the true heir to the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons that WoTC threw away when they introduced 4th Edition.  I have been playing RPGs – starting with the Basic Rules set of D&D – for almost 30 years; longer if I consider playing with no understanding of the rules.  But rules are actually important.  They shouldn't be paramount, because there are the concerns of story and character and player investment, but in an Organized Play (OP) environment, rules are damn near the top of the list.
     Not that everybody needs to know every rule.  Not that anybody need to know every rule.  There is a reason we carry the books around.  Actually, these days most of the referencing is done on tablets (for access of the pdfs of the rulebooks) or on smart phones (for the website that has almost all of the rules material).  We need access to those rules.  Some of us are gracious in our ignorance, and others are fat pieces of shit who I will sooner see die then ever realize that their partially informed opinions – the same way most of the rest of us formulate opinions – are not universal truths. 
     As a player, I know not to cheat.  Hell, I don't want to.  I do want to avoid having bad things happen to my characters.  I don't want them to be killed, or robbed, or imprisoned, or raped, or any of the other unsavory things that can happen to real people (and the chances for the aforementioned possible consequences drastically increase if the PCs are adventurers).  But I see the easiest way to put the odds in my PCs' favor is to minimize the risk as much as I can, and that is just play style.  I also try to make sure that my PCs have utility, that they can do several different things (though not as well as any character that chose to specialize in them).  It means that I don't spend a lot of time wondering when the fight is going to happen so I can finally do something.  I prefer the stuff that isn't combat.  Not everybody is like that.
     The aforementioned fat piece of shit (and I'm sure in about a week's time I'll regret repeatedly referring to him as a fat piece of shit, but at least I'm not calling him or her out by name as a fat piece of shit) decided that the adventure he was running for us, the players, was too easy.  Fine.  Those of us who GM in an OP setting have been there.  Lots of players want to crack their PCs out, usually for combat.  Hell, combat is the only true measure of success in OP, so those of us who don't so it are just harming ourselves (or looking for some degree of challenge to be left in the combat encounters).  But he increased the difficulties of the encounters to counteract the combat ability of two PCs in such a way that those PCs were the only ones who could meaningfully contribute to the battles.
     That is how to be a bad GM.  It is a prime example of how not to abuse the rules.  All GMs want to feel that what they are doing matters to the players.  Players want to think that the actions of their PCs matter (though this isn't all that likely in OP sessions).  Often, players aggravate the GMs by not paying attention and having silly table talk, bullshitting with each other until it is time to roll dice.  And we should feel bad about that.  But the GM doesn't just want attention because he or she is there.  The GM wants attention because the actions of the beings he controls (the NPCs and monsters and such) present some degree of risk and challenge to the PCs. 
     The FPoS decided that one encounter had to be against a monster with an AC 41, SR 27 (maybe...we never surpassed it to know for sure, but the mechanics of it would be right), over 300 HP (all of that is meaningful if you know the system; the short version is that the monster was tough).  Our party consisted of 10th and 11th level PCs.  To put this in perspective, none of the PCs had an AC over 40 (my Arcane Monk did get her's up to 38 for this combat), none of us had SR (spell resistance), and none of us had more than 120 HP.  The monster could deliver over 70 points of damage in a single hit, and since it was attacking with better than +30 to hit (meaning that it would hit my Arcane Monk with a 60% frequency and come close to killing her on the first attack, with five more to follow that same round).  The only PCs who could fight it were the ones who were making a joke of all the other combats – the giant Robot and the dainty Archer (with his suspect dice that consistently rolled in the 17-20 range all weekend). 
     Everyone else was fucked.  And we knew it.  It didn't make the combat more exciting (the chance of losing does that to some degree, but knowing there is nothing a PC can do means that there is less reason to pay politics in Chicago).  But FPoS sat in his chair chuckling like he had found the way to bring balance to the game.
     As someone who frequently cheats as a GM, I can assure him that he did it incorrectly.  When the PCs who are built to break the game are doing just that, the GM needs to introduce elements that slow down and hamper the (usually combat) successes of those PCs.  Someone's archer is killing everything on the battlefield?  What if all the bad guys could deflect those arrows (by ability or spell), at least for a short while?  The other PCs now get to step up and help out.  The raging barbarian/ultimate fighter/giant robot is killing every NPC with a single hit?  Why not have the bad guys steal his or her (or its) weapon (even if the bad guys normally wouldn't have a chance in hell of succeeding)?  The the battle beast of a PC has to come up with a new tactic and the rest of the party gets involved.
     Maybe it is just laziness, but I think it points to a fundamental misunderstanding of how to break the rules for the good of everyone.  I first encountered people doing it the wrong way when Carl Hewelt decided to make a Living Arcanis module more difficult for us because my Barbarian/Fighter was killing everything.  The end result was the only PC who could do anything meaningful in combat was my Barbarian/Fighter.  He pissed off the other players because he was trying to show me that my PC could be made less effective, and he didn't even do that.  I think that there has to be a misreading of the situation where these GMs think that since they have to increase the difficulty of the scenario, they should only let the PCs who made that necessary (?) succeed from that point forward.
     I don't know if the players I GM for know when I am cheating.  I think they have a notion, sometimes, but they often seem surprised by the fact afterwards.  With experiences like the one the FPoS put together, everyone at the table knew right away.  And I think we all would have been fine with it had the FPoS found a way to make it a more equitable experience.  But if you are too single minded to see anyone else's opinion on anything, I guess you are not likely to consider whether or not they see the general experience the same way as you.  And the FPoS is of the belief that he can make the most effective combat builds out there, so his attempts to frustrate those who are combat monsters may have been a qualified success, but it also shows how little he understands the game.

Monday, April 23, 2012

CodCon 2012

My convention badge.  I had to have it on me all weekend to deal with people who know me by sight.  Though I would wager most of them have no idea what my last name is when it is not right in front of them.
     It was that time of year, when I get to drive to and from the College of DuPage at what should be unreasonable hours (when taken together) in the ever elusive effort to enjoy myself with – though a small and largely known group of – random people.  Not so long ago, it was slightly different.  There was more of a known quantity as to whom with which I would be seated.  Hell, well before that it was an entirely known quantity – but that was before the days of playing in Organized Play campaigns, of attending local gaming conventions, or of not having a set of close friends where it was just assumed that we would get a home campaign of some kind of RPG going.
Mike Clarke modified one of the table tents I had put together to make this table tent.  I could have done the same thing for him.  Even printed it in color.  But he – very jokingly – asked to make the blog with it, so here it is.  I remain pro-table tent and think this is more than serviceable.
     CodCon was pretty good this year.  I agitated for Brad Ruby – he who is COWS conventions – to get Matt Flinn out to run Arcanis for some time, and Matt was there running people I had not seen since Living Arcanis took its last bow in 2009.  Matt gave of himself the whole weekend, making a much longer trip than I would do just to judge, and I'm glad that he has the passion and availability to do it.  Also there were Terry Doner (running Arcanis as well, but he had a much shorter commute...insanely close in distance as mine) and Benjamin Klahn (playing, it seemed, almost every type of RPG game offered in the room).  It was good to see those people again.  But I was, by my own design slotted for a weekend of Pathfinder Society play.
Most of the player characters (PCs) and baddies (NPCs) from an encounter in Realm of the Fellnight Queen.  Not much to challenge the PCs, but I also felt that one of the players was actively fighting the spirit of the adventure while another's preoccupation with winning the roleplaying game made my experience less fun.  Because I was the world and all things opposing the players and I didn't have a chance if I played by the rules.
      For what it was, I had a good enough time.  Not great.  Probably not bad enough to really piss me off.  There was the reminder that while I don't mind being wrong, I do – desperately – want to put an end to an absolutely unjustifiably arrogant smartass whose opinions of the rules and how to play the game are only by happenstance in accordance with the reality of the former and the consensus of the latter.  I had some issues on Sunday keeping a group of players focused, and that has to be my fault more so than anyone else's.
I do not get Cosplay.  Not at all.
      There are things I can still do without.  I don't need the Cosplay stuff there (because I don't get it and find it creepy).  The person-I-pretend-to-be is a creation of my imagination (and a rule set), and it functions as a type of alter-ego.  I don't dress up and pretend to be something defined by someone else.  That's my prejudice.  I don't want to begrudge others of their good time; I just want it to happen away from mine.  Same thing with the asshole who shows up dressed as how he thinks I medieval minstrel would look and sings bad folkish songs about D&D.  But CodCon is, unfortunately, a shared convention.  And the people who aren't COWS Conventions think that I'm supposed to pay – like everyone else – to be able to game all weekend.  Like I'm not supposed to be able to do it for free (I actually pocketed $5 for the weekend on convention costs) and get free books, minis, and t-shirts.
Three of the miniatures I got for free.  I can't believe other people expect me to pay to get things like this.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

     I am just going to assume that everyone over the age of ten – those who were raised in the USA or the UK, at least – has more than a passing awareness of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950).  The copy of the book that I read showed up in the house some time around the mid-1980s (itself published in 1970, so I assume it was a hand-me-down from my cousins), which was well after I had been traumatized by the animated version of the story (the vision of a shaved, sickly Aslan still haunts me...well, on the exceedingly rare occasion that I have cause to think of it).  I know that the second book in the series, Prince Caspian (1951) was also a lurker among the books my brother and I never read, but it apparently did not survive the 10 moves since leaving Palos Park, IL.
     My motivation for reading this now was two-fold.  One, I had never read it (and it is a staple of fantasy literature, even if it is aimed for younger readers).  Two, I figured I could finish it rather quickly.  As a matter of fact, it got picked up when it did because I needed something to read while having new tires put on the car.  I judged – rightly so – that it would not be so demanding that the noise of the adjoining garage would preclude any progress.  In the 45 minutes I was there, I got 71 pages into the story and filled out three pieces of paperwork for the work order.
     Now, having seen the big budget live action film version (2005), I was on the look out for differences.  I enjoyed the Disney/Walden Media version, but I really only took the time to see it because they had the presence of mind to include the shot of the charging minotaur in the previews.  I had no idea if there were minotaurs in Lewis' book (there are), but I want them in most of my fantasy films.  Whether they belong or not, I want axe-wielding minotaurs.  To get back on track, I was impressed at how well the film teased out the bits of the book and made the world seem more whole.  It also softened how harsh the story seems to be on Edmund (who does not have much of any redeeming characteristics in the novel).
     Yes, it is weird that Father Christmas exists in the fantasy world of Narnia.  But not as much as I thought when watching the movie.  Lewis tells the entire tale in a conspiratorial – yet grandfatherly – manner.  It is clear that it is meant for younger children, full of wonder and willing to give magical qualities to the world in which they live (in this case, it is another land accessible through some magic furniture).  In that regards, it really works.  The Christian overtones may be too obvious to adults, but they would most likely be reassuring to children (that what they are taught in church, and presumably by parents who take them to church, has meaning in the fantasy world of Narnia).
     I wouldn't put The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe up there with The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) in terms of quality of story or writing, but it is much more accessible.  It is the kind of a story that a younger reader can understand (I remember friends who read The Lord of the Rings in 5th grade, and I hold to this day that they would not be able to get much out of it at that age).  It doesn't have much to say other than that those whose need to exercise control are born out of greed and fear are the tyrants we cannot allow to remain in power (apply that lesson to current politics as you will).

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Journey to Sorrow's End (1982)

     ElfQuest got started back in 1978.  I was introduced to it in December of 1984 by Michael Pempek.  He let me borrow the first graphic novel, and soon afterwards I was collecting the Marvel versions of the ElfQuest comics, had the first four graphic novels, issue #21 from WaRP Graphics (the almost no artwork, lots of background on how Wendy and Richard Pini made a go of it), the board game (wholly unplayable), and the role-playing game from Chaosism, Inc. (with the few supplements that were made for it).  I even had all of the Ral Partha produced miniatures, though I never dared to try to paint them.
Bearclaw vs. Madcoil
     The novelization of the first graphic novel – itself the compilation of the first five issues of the comic – arrived in 1982.  Published by Playboy for some odd reason.  During the summer of 1986, I managed to read it.  Probably the first book I read that wasn't an assignment or made to feel like an assignment (I remember there being a reading list some point in the elementary school years, and that I did the absolute minimum to keep myself out of trouble with it).  I knew the story.  I had read the story – as a graphic novel, in the Marvel  reprints (under the Epic logo) where sometimes extra material got added – already.  But I wanted to read it again.  And for it to be about reading it and not just looking at the cool looking, human-murdering elves.
     Jump forward in time almost 26 years.  I picked up my copy of Journey to Sorrow's End (1982), I guess one of the rare Ace printings to feature the original cover, for the first time since the early 1990s.  But I have been thinking about how much I really do miss the World of Two Moons and its elfin inhabitants.  It is also one of the few novels I have where it feels right to see an occasional illustration pop up.  Because it is, still, a very visual story.
     Unfortunately for me, what I imagined while reading the book again was simply the panels of the first graphic novel.  I shouldn't make that sound like a complaint.  I think that it is great that Wendy's artwork is forever in my mind, but there wasn't a whole bunch on the written page to draw that same imagery out.  If I didn't know exactly how the elves looked – or what a Zwoot was – I don't think the novelization would have been enough for me. 
Ral Partha mini of Kahvi
     At the same time, it drew me back into the story enough to get me all excited for ElfQuest again.  I even tracked down the two other novelizations of the later graphic novels.  Let me note my outrage here that there is not a fourth novelization, that in the novels there is no war with Guttlecraw's trolls, no reaching the Palace of the High Ones.  What the hell, man?!  No Kahvi?  No protective armor vs. the brawn of the larger trolls?  No Two-Edge?  No showing how all of it, the seemingly randomness of it all was shaped by an individual?  That the creators had a sense of story and that it played out, somewhat precisely, in the space of 20 issues?  It makes such a huge disconnect between the novels and their graphic novel sources that it troubles me to think about reading through them.
     Anyway, the whole of the ElfQuest catalogue – the comics that it – is available for free at  I cannot be clear enough in my hope that everyone at least take a look at the stuff from the Original Quest.  As for novelizations, I think Journey to Sorrow's End works in that it is both true to, and evocative of, its source material.  But it does not surpass it.  It just gives another format in which to enjoy it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Death of a Salesman (1949) and Mr. Peters' Connections (1999)

     Arthur Miller must have been writing about something endemic to, if not something so broad as human nature, the soul that can know doubt and misery found in what was supposed to be a full and rewarding life.  At least in these two plays – Death of a Salesman (1949) and Mr. Peters' Connections (1999) written half a century apart.  The earlier play is one of the great accomplishments in American theatre, and I am positive that I am not interested in investing the time to produce a meaningful musing on it.  What I am going to do instead is write about how these two plays seem to inform my understanding of my grandparents.
     If ever there were a person who was the unwholesome combination of Willy and Linda Loman, it would be my grandmother Ethel.  All of the unrealistic expectations and boundless excuse making for her children with a built-in self-support system, an unquestioning, undying belief that her beliefs were always right.  From my perspective, she never failed to blame external forces for any and all failures that befell her children and grandchildren.  I cannot say that she believed that superficial charm and the trappings of success were as important for her as they were for Willy Loman, but they certainly ranked quite high in terms of what she found important. 
     Where Biff eventually comes to terms with his shortcomings, that he remained trapped between his father's view of the world and a deep and abiding need to not fulfill those misbegotten expectations, my father remained a slave to the belief that the world was forever doing him wrong.  He came to believe the lies invented by my grandmother – that my mother had tricked him into marrying her (I vividly remember when this fiction was formed in the summer of 1986 over two nights, when it was slowly formed into a truth they could all accept), military service ruining my father's ability to start his own business, that he was not at all responsible for the fact both of his children took multi-year breaks from speaking to him – I suspect because that had been a way of life in the house in which he grew up.  Such as it was for the Lomans.
     I am sure there is something deeper going on in Death of a Salesman, but because there is something so real about it, I found it difficult to see it without comparing it to my family.  Where my grandfather managed to get something akin to Willy's dream funeral – and there was much to be made about his own grandfather's funeral, with the myth (maybe truth) that even the Governor of Michigan was in attendance – my grandmother was left with a small service, almost entirely restricted to her children, grandchildren, and people from the church where the service was held (who didn't really know her).  To be fair, both lived to be quite old, and the life-long friends they had fostered (they do have me there) were almost all dead. 
     Where Death of a Salesman felt like an examination of the danger of being raised to be a valueless narcissist (and the people who create those kind of children), Mr. Peters' Connections felt like an imagining of my grandfather's later days.  When he was scared to live in his own home, essentially confined to his bedroom (it cluttered with books and video tapes collected by my grandmother, so she could pretend to be interacting with a dead friend – and clearly looking for something, anything to justify his hanging on to his life.  Where Harry Peters was a pilot for Pan Am, my grandfather flew for United.  Both felt that retirement was forced upon them too damn soon. 
     I doubt that there was a woman for whom my grandfather forever pined – he was quite honestly in love with his wife, but there may or may not have been instances when he strayed – and he didn't have a dead brother to fret about, but so much of the rest felt true.  That Miller could continue to find the angst of the end, and for it to be as true in its emotion is quite remarkable.  While absolutely nowhere near as focused as Death of a Salesman, Mr. Peters' Connections still has something to say.  Instead of being concerned with the damage that can be inflicted on children, it examines the danger of having nothing left to identify as ones' own at the end.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"The Hour of the Time" (2010)

     I gave a very brief review of Vincent Hobbes' short story "The Hour of the Time" on on 29 March, 2011.  Very brief.

     This really feels like a story written in a single session with minimal
     revising. And it is entirely too easy to see where it is going because
     I've seen this story before (in different iterations).
     Hobbes manages to find a tone after the first couple of pages, but
     it is so brief that there isn't much to do with that tone.  I think he
     would have been better off developing the setting more and trying
     to see if he could have found a way to convey to the reader that
     the character of Charlie Hoag is one anyone should give a damn
    Okay for free, but if Hobbes were a friend I would have sent back a
    heavily edited version with notes on what may (because I'm not an
    expert) have made it a better written piece.

     Even with my name attached to it, I feel somewhat protected by the anonymous nature of posting reviews to places like Goodreads or Amazon.  However, in this instance, the author of the piece went and read my (if we are going to be frank about it) less than helpful review.  Worse – from my perspective – rather than rejecting my conclusion or commenting on where I may have missed the point, he decided to like the above review.
     Dammit, Hobbes!  Don't encourage my overly negative, hyper-critical style of commenting on...well, everything.  Seeing as how most of the people who left reviews for it were very pleased, I was clearly in the minority.  But I did read the story, and I'm not without some kind of expectations.  (I didn't pay anything for it because it is available for free on Kindle and Nook.)
     The real question becomes not what I think of this Hobbes' short story (which I do think is a little too obvious in its endgame and not interested enough in developing the setting or singular character), but rather how does one tell a story that the reader most likely has seen before in some other presentation?  As soon as I see that I am writing a story, or part of a story, that I know I am drawing from a single source, I get freaked out and either scratch-out/erase that passage or set the piece aside for a good long time.  I want to avoid frustrating the potential reader so much that my work ends up having little chance of ever getting to them.
     Hobbes finished this story.  It is readable and, after a rough start, finds a decent pace.  But I think he could have developed the specifics of it more to help me (and maybe other readers) get something new from this type of story.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008)

     I'm not sure why I chose to read Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008).  I certainly don't have a history of reading a lot of pirate-themed tales.  But I have been trying to work at crafting better short stories, and reading some more contemporary ones – I cannot stick with reading ones that are almost exclusively from the 19th Century – should give me a better idea as to where to contemporary market is.  Several of these authors are, apparently, more than a little successful.  It couldn't hurt to take a look.
      Having written that, Fast Ships, Black Sails is a very odd collection.  More science fiction and fantasy stories with sea-going (or space faring) elements grafted on than tales of pirate living (and pirate dying) than I expected, that is sure.  I would suspicion that editors Ann & Jeff VanderMeer did not have a wealth of choices when they put this together, but also that their collective taste is quite broad.  The only author whose name I recognized was Michael Moorcock (I've noted previously that I had never read anything by him), but some have had quite a lot of success it would seem.
     Some of the stories – "Boojum", "Pirates of the Saura Sea", "The Whale Below", and “Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe” – felt like they were conceived as novels or novellas and condensed in order to find publication.  This isn't much of a complaint, but rather an observation that there seemed to be much more in the backgrounds that the authors wanted to write about, and that the pacing may have been better if they were allowed to run more than 50 pages.
     Some of the stories were just horrible.  Waldrop's "Avast, Abaft"  steals from Gilbert & Sullivan, has no narrative flow, and (worst of all) has no fucking point.  Moorcock's "Ironface" felt more like a couple of pages of notes with the veneer of prose to hide the fact that he had nothing going on.  Thanks for the notes on a guy in a setting, Mike, but where was the story you were going to submit?  "Pirate Solutions" has the less than savory pirates=hackers theme, but it also has odd jumps in terms of whose narrative it is and a total lack of concept for what is propelling the activity (or, if there is one, it is completely at odds with the rest of the tale).  Connell's "We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Sea" is a poorly written story that seems to fight having any sense of self until the very end, and not because the author was trying to be clever. 
     You want something even worse than horrible.  Okay.  When anyone asks me what the worst thing I’ve ever read (that wasn’t self-published), I will point to Aylett’s “Voyage of the Iguana”, an unfunny, mostly unwritten, yet terribly long excuse of a story.  Just a piece of shit.  I'm sure he thought it was smart, clever, and sly.  It isn't.  It is the equivalent of used toilet paper: it is shit on the page.
     There were some stories that just weren't what I thought they'd be.  Barnhill's “Elegy to Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores and Righteous Thieves” never comes together as a story (which I thought it would), remaining a shadow of someone retelling a tale.  Howe's "Skillet and Saber" gets a little too caught up in the dread of forced sodomy, decides that a lot of the characters don't need to be developed, and the ending should try to work in a staple of the pirate mythos.  Freer & Flint's "Pirates of the Saura Sea" had some good elements, but felt like they were more interested in the setting than the story. Blaschke's "The Whale Below" tried to mix technologies (airships and flintlocks) to poor effect and was overwrought with the author's need to make the crew as Spanish (or maybe Portuguese) as possible, but there was a rather decent story trying to escape those traps.  Swirsky's “The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth” was much more straightforward than I expected; you give me rats as pirates, firing guns at ducklings, and I am expecting it to be much more tongue-in-cheek. 
     So, what really worked?  Hughes' "Castor in Troubled Waters" has nothing to do with pirates and everything to do with British pub humor.  I know only a little of that brand of storytelling, but this short story was witty and winning.  Vaughn's "The Nymph's Child", while a little too friendly with its dragon fantasy element, is well written and engaging.  Batteigger's "A Cold Day in Hell", where Ice Pirates (1984) meets...well, pirates on the ice.  A good example of how to sell a setting with little notes through the story rather than trying to hammer it out in huge chunks.  And, of course, Nix's “Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe".  So much of the setting is missing (the characters in this story apparently have appeared in a novella prior to this adventure, so I'm betting he felt it was as developed as it needed to be) as to make the reader curious more than frustrated.
     Overall, I don't think I can recommend Fast Ships, Black Sails.  But how many collections of short stories are full of must read writing?  There are some good stories, and it is certainly telling how some people approach telling stories in a shorter format (and that the editors let them get away with it; Naomi Novick, I'm referring to you and your blatant abuse of the comma).  For the regular reader of Sci-Fi and fantasy, most of these will be in your comfort zone.  But there isn't a lot of examination of what it means to be a pirate, or the life of a pirate.  And I was kind of hoping for a little of that.

▸    “Boojum” by Elizabeth Baer & Sarah Monette
▸     “Castor in Troubled Waters” by Rhys Hughes
▸    “I Begyn as I Mean to Go On” by Kage Baker
▸    “Avast, Abaft” by Howard Waldrop
▸    “Elegy to Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores and Righteous Thieves” by Kelly Barnhill
▸    “Skillet and Saber” by Justin Howe
▸    “The Nymphs Child” by Carrie Vaughn
▸    “68̊ 07'15"N, 31̊ 36'44"W” by Conrad Williams
▸    “Ironface” by Michael Moorcock
▸    “Pirate Solutions” by Katherine Sparrow
▸    “We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars” by Brendan Connell
▸    “Voyage of the Iguana” by Steve Aylett
▸    “Pirates of the Suara Sea” by David Freer & Eric Flint
▸    “A Cold Day in Hell” by Paul Batteiger
▸    “The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth” by Rachel Swirsky
▸    “Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphridrake” byy Naomi Novik
▸    “The Whale Below” by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
▸    “Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe” by Garth Nix

Friday, April 13, 2012

Why Can't the Americans...

     Close to a decade ago, a co-worker of mine quipped "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?", borrowing that from the Lerner & Lowe musical My Fair Lady (1956).  He was making a veiled racist statement that African-Americans simply refused to learn how to speak better American English.  Not that the overall message is much different.  Henry Higgins is espousing a harsh form of elitism based upon conformity to an elocution.  One's worth based on how well can speak, and an abandonment of any heritage hidden in speech patterns or word choice.
      But this isn't about that.  This is about how Americans – my people – and how we seem to refuse to learn how to separate that which we wish to be true from the actual examination of facts at hand to arrive at a consensus of truth.  This is apparent whenever there is some sort of artificial dichotomy forced upon, say in an election or in the discussion of religion.  The American, it would seem, is of the mind that one can simply decide to create a fact out of belief; it is in his or her nature.  This is not some sort of mere belief, but some construct the American has come to believe to be core not just to his or her own experience, but to existence itself.
     Why can't the Americans teach their children how to approach the world rationally, with respect for reason and a sublimation of personal inclinations?  Maybe that sounds as impossibly biased as Professor Higgins.  But there is something that diminishes us all in the American rush to abandon judgment.
     Recent things that have troubled me include the following (some of them are the same person):
  • A stubborn refusal to see how asking someone for identification before allowing them to vote is an example of an illegal search & seizure.
  • A stubborn refusal to believe that gun control laws exist because there are ways to purchase guns without abiding them.
  • Someone with an open mind as to whether on not the Moon Landings were faked.  Seriously.  There is absolutely no evidence (other than the will to believe) that we spent billions of dollars, employed the best scientists, and risked many lives in an effort to do something magnificent (at the time just for America) for humanity.
  • The belief that hating people can be justified because it is out of love, and the desire to save these people being hated from burning in Hell.  
  • The wonderment over just where our tax dollars go.  (Seriously, that information – save some classified spending – is readily available with just a small amount of research.)
  • A woman on CNN, representing the stay-at-home mother who decided that the values she was representing were tied to destroying the EPA, unions, and access to affordable healthcare.  Someone else's talking points are not knowledge, lady.
That's the thing, though.  We, the American people, don't want to do the work, the research to find out those things we just want to doubt.  We don't want to confront our prejudices with reason.  We don't want to doubt our convictions, because they don't.  And they hate us.  Except, of course, that they and us are the same group of people: Americans.
     When there isn't room for reasonable discussion, for reasoned examination of the world we encounter, there is only belief.  But what is the point?  That belief relates to nothing.  It is an empty thing, useful only for the beating of one's chest and shouting the other down.  And that just eats away at our collective soul.
     Well, if you suffered through that, enjoy some good entertainment.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Lake of Death (2004)

     I guess I didn't expect to be that rusty with the world of Krynn, but I also didn't realize I hadn't read a Dragonlance novel since 1996.  A sixteen year break from a setting – and one that I was not all that into to begin with – will make one a stranger to a much of it.  And things kept on happening in the in-between, so I shouldn't have been all that surprised that I there would be wait, what happened? moments.  My return to Krynn wasn't born out of a deep and abiding love of the setting (though I must admit I would have been more excited about a Living Dragonlance campaign than those for Greyhawk or the Realms), but the belief that I owed it to Jean Rabe to finally read one of her novels.
     I have taken seminars on writing from Jean (at GenCon, back when it was still in Milwaukee), been a guest in her home, and played RPG games with her (both as a player and as a GM).  While I had read some short stories and RPG supplements written by her, I just never got around to reading one of her novels.  When I think about it, that makes me quite the asshole.  Now, I guess I could have contacted her and asked which of her books best represented her style and ability (and I would be willing to bet that it probably wouldn't be a Dragonlance novel), but I also wanted something with which I was familiar because...well, what if I hated how she wrote?  It had been a long while.
     Luckily (and I mean that for me), The Lake of Death (2004) ended up being a pleasurable read, much better than I would have expected given how simple and direct the plot was.  Sure, Jean has to make references to what had happened before the story – this actually helped me grasp the way the world had changed and who the heroes have been after the Chronicles trilogy – and has to work with the creatures inherent to the setting, but I felt that she made the story very much her own. 
     The characters in The Lake of Death have clearly appeared in other books, so regular readers would be revisiting them.  In that regard, it felt a little unrewarding to jump into their story far from the beginning (I am not going to read a bunch of Dragonlance books, however, just to be better acquainted with the characters in this one).  But Jean does a very good job in defining their personalities (with the exception of Ragh, the sivak, who seems a little cardboard) and making it seem as though they would be worthy of a story without the preamble.  The relationship between Feril and a ghostly spirit is both funny and sad at the same time, and I think best displays Jean's ability to step beyond the normal bounds of licensed fiction.
     Anyway, TheLake of Death ended up being a fun, quick read.  I don't know that there would be much appeal outside those who read Dragonlance or feel they owe it to the author to finally start reading something from her catalog.  It is well better than average writing.  And I know that I won't have to hang my head in shame the next time I see Jean Rabe.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Young Adult (2011)

     Having suffered through Juno (2007) and Jennifer's Body (2009), I wasn't super eager to give Diablo Cody another chance at trying to hide a lack of sensible plot with forced, imagined hip youth catch-phrases.  Okay, if I am going to be honest, I didn't hate Juno, but I did find it to be a pale imitation (unintentionally, I'm sure) of Saved! (2004).  But there didn't seem to be much in the writing to make me think that this woman deserved the praise she had been getting.  (Note to everyone: I really need to stop bitching about how qualified a writer is once they are successfully working in the field, because I cannot finish my own projects and it just makes me look petty and small.)
     Still, there was something about Young Adult (2011) that looked interesting (it didn't look all that funny, at least not from the previews), so I gave it 93 minutes of my life.  Well, if I am going to keep being honest, I gave it about 110 minutes.  Mostly because I needed to take momentary breaks from just how damn uncomfortable the movie could be at times.  That is not a complaint.  Cody and director Jason Reitman found the right mix where unsettling meets less than diligent soul-searching, and it is the most perverse experience to sit there watching the pain and distress that plays out in Mavis' (Charlize Theron) attempts to recapture her life by reclaiming the promise she felt she had back in high school.
     The problem that I had with the movie was that Mavis did have some level of success.  If she were a total failure, I would have felt like I were watching a documentary about how people end up like me.  It could have been a little more biting (where were the notes that her YA heroine was supremely unlikeable?), but how much more could an audience take?  Sure, I would have thought there would have been more Minneapolis music scene music.  Sure, it was creepy that Theron found a way to look like a cross between Meg Ryan and Nicole Kidman (a kind of psychotic, emotionally stunted sweet everywoman).  But so much more worked in this tale of bottomless sadness and lack of self that I can't bring myself to do my regular nitpicking of meaningless crap.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Sword of Samurai Cat (1991)

     Well, it seems that most of Mark E. Rogers' Samurai Cat books are out of print.  Maybe that is as it should be.  The best part of the humorous tales of Miaowara Tomokato and his gun-toting pint-sized nephew, Shiro, were always the illustrations.  By the time 1991's The Sword of Samurai Cat came along, Rogers was trying his hand at telling the stories with a minimum of pictures (or at least the version I read was).  All that did was show just how unpleasant his attacks on others for not being creative were (especially given that his entire stock and trade was in satirical parodies of other properties, history, and/or myths and legends).
     The way I view it, The Sword of Samurai Cat consists of five connected short stories – all but the first like a half-novella – that do the disservice of having the entire thing be both part of the ongoing absurdist story and part of a shared dream spanning planets.  I'm not sure what bothered me the most – "Red Dawn of the Dead" with its pointlessness, "The Dead Lot" with its constant attack on Stephen King (I'm not a fan, but I certainly don't rank him as one of the most derivative authors of all time) while trying to make a case for Lovecraftian horror (excuse me while I yawn), or how poorly punny names translate when making endless appearances on the page.  It goes from not quite clever to maddening as the non-words stand in for real words in a mildly humorous way (at first).
     There is really only one good story in the collection, "Invasion of the Kitty Snatchers".  Actually, it is a better take on the well-told story of space plants that replace people.  Better than The Invasion (2008), by every measure.  Unfortunately, Rogers is too long in getting to a decent story.  He also feels the need to reference himself as the author, a way before Community (2009-present) omnipresent level of meta-referencing, but almost always just to point out his failings as an author.  Here's a note, Mark: if you know the story needs work, fix it – don't just bitch that others have failed in the same manner.
     The first two Samurai Cat books are, at least as I remember them, more friendly and more appreciative of the sources being spoofed.  It doesn't feel that way by this, the fourth book (the third book is not available via my library system and lists on at over $100).  It may be for some, but The Sword of Samurai Cat did not suit my tastes.  Stick to the The Adventures of Samurai Cat (1984) and More Adventures of Samurai Cat (1986).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Dark Empire (1995) & Dark Empire II (1995)

     If there is a lesson to be learned from good fantasy or science fiction properties, it is to get the story told in a timely manner and then get the hell out.  Loitering around, manufacturing what amounts to more of the same is both frustrating and disappointing.  Yes, the first Star Wars (1977) film begged for more exploration of its universe and deeper story, but what was has been churned out instead have been attempts to advance the story in not very exciting or interesting ways.
     In Star Wars: Dark Empire (1995), set some amount of years – and a few novels – after the events of Return of the Jedi (1983), the familiar characters come back and revisit places they have been before.  And by characters coming back, I mean from the dead.  Or supposedly dead.  But sometimes from the verified dead, and then from the verified dead again.  Even worse, the idea is put forward that the Dark Side is something that can be portioned out and assigned to certain loyal Imperial troopers.  That may have made sense to me when I was five – around the time The Empire Strikes Back (1981) came out – but it is just downright offensive to me in my supposed adulthood.
    Maybe I can get used to the same characters being brought back to essentially do the same thing – Han to fly the Falcon around and act all roguish, Luke to be all solemn and Jedi-y, Leia relegated to being a plot device or a way to wedge exposition into the story, Lando to fail at doing good things, etc. – but I am not going to be happy with it.  If it is enough to cause me to walk away from ElfQuest (1978-2006, I guess) and not follow the continuing adventures of Farscape (1999-2003), it is certainly enough to make me disinterested in the Star Wars graphic novels.
     I guess I would have been more involved in the story – most of which I knew because the people with whom I played the Star Wars RPG (we played the 1992/1996 Second Edition of the West End Games version) were kind enough to boil it down to its bare bones and keep me in the loop.  If Eric Wright could explain the two Dark Empire graphic novels I read in less than a paragraph, with maybe a supplemental paragraph to explain the return of everyone's favorite bad guy, then I have to wonder why it took over 300 pages for the Dark Horse comic series to do the same.  But thanks to Eric Wright and Dave Jendrusiak for keeping me up to date so that even the preceding events were not strange.
     The other detrimental aspect – one I could not get past – was the style of the artwork.  It bore a striking similarity to the small sample of Jim Steranko's work from the 1970s with which I am familiar, with constant odd coloration (but lacking the ability to imply fluidity in the stills) and attempted grittiness.  Not only did it not look like Star Wars, it didn't feel like it either.  Instead, the reader is reminded it is because there are characters and places from the novels.  See?  They are being consistent to the not quite canon of the expanded story, so it must be Star Wars, right?
     Luke goes to the Dark Side.  Luke comes back from the Dark Side.  Luke finds a stash of old lightsabers and potential Jedi Knights.  Jedi Knights are needed to keep order in a New Republic, I guess, because by themselves people kind of suck and will resort to evil.  Having seen how Lucas envisioned the Jedi Knights in the prequel trilogy, I wouldn't want them to act as guardians of order in my Republic.  Leia and Han run around.  Leia is pregnant.  Vacuum-cleaner/assembly plant ships replace the threat of the Death Star – if you've seen The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), you have an idea of what is at play – until they are defeated.  Then a cross between a Nova Cannon from GW's Battlefleet Gothic and the Genesis Device from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) replaces that as a threat.  The rebels lose a primary base but all of the leaders survive (I guess because they are needed in subsequent novels).  All the while, I was bored.
     I have read more graphic novels this year (the year stretching from August '11 to July '12, because that is how the Reading Project ended up being slated) than at any other time in my life.  They just are not speaking to me like they used to.  They seem to show the deficiencies in telling a story through stationary pictures and sparse words, but I have seen it work in the past so I have faith that I can find something I truly enjoy at some point in the future.  I would not recommend the Star Wars: Dark Empirei graphic novels to any but the most devout Star Wars fans, largely because I think that they play out like ill-conceived comic book stories.  Star Wars was always more measured than that.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Echelon Conspiracy (2009) vs. Eagle Eye (2008)

     Right or wrong, I am solidly of the opinion that everyone but Shane West signed on to Echelon Conspiracy (2009) because they liked the idea of being able to see Prague and Moscow on somebody else's dime.  Shane West clearly just needs the work – unless he saved all of his money from ER (1994-2009).  Between this and Red Sands (2009), he clearly showed that life after major network television wasn't full of open doors and opportunities in shown in theaters movies.  Then again, Ving Rhames may just live in Sophia, Bulgaria waiting for opportunities to make top-end low budget unofficial zombie sequels.  And Ed Burns, well, I may be the only fan of him as an actor.  I keep wondering why he hasn't landed in some kind of franchise film or as the lead in a premium cable channel show. 
     Echelon Conspiracy has a lot in common with a major motion picture that was released at about the same time, that being Eagle Eye (2009).  However, its real roots stretch back to War Games (1983), with West having all the machismo of a nerdy, near shut-in Seattle teenager.  But there is at least some degree of internal consistency and thought put into Echelon Conspiracy.  It may all be ridiculous, but there is a sense that everyone involved – excepting, perhaps, Martin Sheen – knows that the premise of the movie is beyond any rational belief, and that allows for the action to be fun without imposing any threat of real consequence.
     There is the oddity that everyone in Prague, at least those we see, speaks English (and most seem to be American).  One would think that Czech, Slovak, Russian, and German would be more common, but that wouldn't allow for our American technician, FBI agent, former FBI agent, and combat-trained agent girl to just go around like they were in some kind of not America that accepted English as the default language and the Americans as the guardians of order.  Actually, there is some nice, if overstated, commentary on that last bit to close the film. 
     Without a huge budget, Echelon Conspiracy does not rely heavily on special effects to move the action along.  There are a fair amount of practical effects, most of them in that range between oh my god, this is as bad as those Sci-Fi original movies and the Jason Bourne films.  Yes, using a shotgun blast to blow up a gas tank and thus send the car twenty feat in the air is stupid, but it is the fun kind of stupid.  It takes the false toughness of the 1980s and manages to treat it with nostalgia while admitting that there is no way to take it seriously.  Watching someone implore a computer – or rather a complex set of programs that allows for a Skynet-like diffusion over all connected computers – to learn how its stated programming is
     Somehow much worse – to the point of not even being that entertaining – is Eagle Eye (2008).  Operating along the same lines of a computer or super complicated set of integrated programs that has found a way to access each and every computer, cell phone, and remote-operated giant scrap metal scooping crane-claw with zero lag time, Eagle Eye manages to be leaden and boring at almost each step of the way.  Maybe that has something to do with casting Shai LaBeouf.  This is the guy who was uncompelling in Holes (2003) and managed to take his general deficit in charisma in new heights in (at least the first two) Transformers (2007; 2009; 2001) movies.  At least he is comfortable in special effects dominated films.
     The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast.  They seem universally confused as to why they are not allowed to do more than spend long sequences reacting to things that will be added in post-production.  If there were more continuity to the story, maybe the scenes where Billy Bob Thornton and Rosario Dawson are together wouldn't feel so damn awkward to watch. 
     Where Echelon Conspiracy may have some destructive chase sequences, they are limited to cars operated by actual people, Eagle Eye decides that wholesale destruction from mysterious sources should rule the day.  So mass transit trains can get thrown in reverse like it is nothing (which shocked me, because as a regular rider of the CTA, I know that this cannot be done via remote access), construction booms can be swung around with exact timing (and we should ignore the fact that they cannot generate the force to rip through half a floor of a steel building), and the aforementioned scrap metal claw cranes operate like some demented form of the coin operated grab-a-toy crane games. 
     There is also a complete and total lack of internal consistency.  The overriding program is supposed to be in some sort of a lock down stopping it from going through with its dastardly plan.  Mind you, this isn't a plan that is essentially what it has been programmed to do – which is how Echelon Conspiracy handles it – but rather something it has extrapolated to being a good and necessary step towards being able to perform its stated function.  However, it takes all of its steps during this lockdown.  There is no need to get Jerry (LaBeouf) or Rachel (Michelle Monaghan) at all, and no computer would go through the trouble of picking people from a thousand miles away from the objective.  They are selected so the audience can watch them have adventures while trying to survive the various dangers.
      Eagle Eye doesn't even look that much more polished than its lower budget counterpart.  It looks hurried and ill-considered.  It doesn't seem to be at all aware of just how stupid it is, which makes me think that the people involved thought it was a serious type of thriller.  It isn't.  I'm sure there are people who would enjoy it, but I can't imagine why.  At least Echelon Conspiracy had a better grasp on balancing the plot with the improbability of it all. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Expendables (2010)

     It took quite some time for The Expendables (2010) to turn into a hyperactive, old school action cum modern kinetic fight film.  But once it got there, it was just fucking awesome.  Sure, it is incredibly dumb.  That just means it is playing it true to its old school roots.  Chances are that most of the cast wouldn't know what to do with an intelligent script.
     Still, ten minutes of awesome, stupidity inducing action does not justify a movie, so there is an attempt to offer more than just that an remember that guy? moments.  It is full of those.  Dolph Lundgren?  Didn't he try to be an actor after Rocky IV (1985)?  Eric Roberts?  Didn't he have a brief run of sobriety and a sitcom on ABC?  Randy Couture and Steve Austin?  There used to be a lot of advertisement for...well, it had to something, likely different somethings...whatever the hell you did over a decade ago?  Mickey Rourke?  Well, you've been quite active lately, but since I best remember you from Diner (1982), every film you do these days is another reminder that you really fucked up your face.  Terry Crews?  The name sounds vaguely familiar.  Charisma Carpenter?  Well, maybe this will have more of an impact on your post-Angel (1999-2004) career than posing for Playboy.
     The actors who are closer to relevancy – Stallone, Statham, and Li – have more to do than most the others, though Li's inability to say more than a few lines of dialogue (at least in English) at a time keeps him as a sort of star among the other guys in the mercenary crew run by Stallone's Barney Ross.  That's right, Sly set out to make us find the name Barney scary, tough, and intimidating.  You know he is brooding because he has a fascination with ravens.  That is the kind of character development that...well, it makes no sense at all, but in a way it is entirely true to the old school action flicks.  Statham gets a slight break from just being the guy from The Transporter (2002) or Crank (2006), or even Ghosts of Mars (2001), but he does not get the kind of dialogue that would convince a viewer that he enjoyed his time on the set of London (2005).
     There isn't much to say about the plot.  When I was referring to movies that are crap, where one can mentally check-out and just let the pretty pictures dance across the screen, The Expendables is one of the films I had in mind.  It may be drenched in testosterone, but it is the more modern variety where the women are objects to be respected instead of just objects to be captured/fucked. 
     For total and utter crap, The Expendables really is awesome.  Except for Bruce Willis, who looked like a cancer patient and read his lines like the humor was supposed to be shard and off-putting.  It is not a great movie, and probably not even a good movie.  There is a wholly needless action sequence between the main action sequences that seems to be there to remind us that these guys are complete and total action stars; they can do more than throw knives, shoot guns, and go all MMA on your ass.  But I get the appeal and understand why so many were stoked about it.  Just don't count me as eager to see the sequel.  Because I don't think there is going to be anything new.  Because new isn't old school.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Doubt (2008)

     Doubt (2008) is the kind of film that I make a weak effort to see in the theater, fully comfortable in the fact that I will eventually see it at home.  It is what I really should be watching, but I am just too damn comfortable watching crap. Why take the time to watch something that invites me to think?  There are times when most of us like to be able to just have a movie play out without having to worry about it ever deviating from formula, but it is important to remember that thinking is good.  It is the defense against an endless and enduring stream of crap.
     Not that Doubt is the most demanding film to watch.  There is a smooth, sensible progression of the plot.  The characters are largely defined through their roles, with their personalities being defined more to show the contrasts between them and the range of humanity within the Church.  The conflict is intensely personal, avoiding the larger implications in direct presentation, but wholly engaging the audience to explore the implications of both the personal rivalries and damages covered up by the Church for such a long time.
     It isn't as though I did my homework and read or saw Doubt: A Parable (2004) before seeing the movie.  I read it shortly after seeing the film, but that sort of spoils the experience.  The dialogue takes on the cadence and rhythm of the actors who performed it, leaving the reader to simply remember the lines and scenes rather than to experience them anew.  But what it did allow was for me to better appreciate how John Patrick Shanley expanded his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play.  The film has no need to be as sparse or constricting as the play, and it brings extra life to it to have the children, other sisters and priests, and parishioners inhabit the same space as the essential characters. 
     I am positive that many qualified critics have dissected, critiques, and (largely) praised Doubt.  I am not going to lie.  I don't want to invest the time to even attempt to do that.  I am just going to encourage those who have not seen the movie or play (or read the play) to make time for it.  And to not be afraid of thinking.  Because one cannot question without thinking, and once cannot have doubt without questioning.