Thursday, June 28, 2012

Beneath the Darkness (2011)

     I guess I am a bit of a fan of Dennis Quaid.  If I were to look at it objectively, I would realize that there is no reason to be.  Sure, there are films like Breaking Away (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), D.O.A. (1988), and Smart People (2008) that are in the decent to great range where Quaid's performance matters.  But there are many more awful – albeit some in a very enjoyable way – movies featuring Quaid.  The brief list is Jaws 3D (1983), Enemy Mine (1985; I respect what they were going for, but Enemy Mine drags for its entire running time), Innerspace (1987), Flesh and Bone (1993), DragonHeart (1996; now, if you didn't go in expecting the action movie the trailers promised, you are likely to view DragonHeart as a fun fantasy action-comedy with heart), Switchback (1997), Traffic (2000; I know Traffic was widely praised, but I found it to be a disaster that was simultaneously too obvious and lacking in having a substantive point addressed by the material), Cold Creek Manor (2003), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Flight of the Phoenix (2004), the remake of Yours, Mine, and Ours (2005), Vantage Point (2005; I don't want to fault Quaid for the overall quality of the film – the plot is just rife with holes), Legion (2009), and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009; see Vantage Point for fitting criticism).  But there is something likeable about Quaid, a rough charisma that works when he is the man forced into the 'heroic' role.  As a villain, he has a tendency to overact to the point of ridiculousness.
     Put Beneath the Darkness (2011) in that category.  Quaid plays Ely Vaughn, who runs the local funeral parlor in a Texas small town.  It being in Texas is kind of thrown in as an aside, as no one has much of a Texan accent (from any part of the state) and the people certainly don't seem as devoted to high school football as they are suggested to be by TV, movies, and real life.  The sheriff does where a cowboy hat, but a lot of lower budget movies struggle to find distinctive headwear for small town sheriffs.  Anyway, Ely is mildly creepy guy who recently lost his wife.  Well, she is dead but decidedly not lost.  Movie wouldn't work if she were dead and lost.
      Ely is also a kind of obsessive whose tendencies are restricted to one particular province of his life.  While I'm sure somebody thought this was a good idea – because many obsessives can lead functional lives – it plays as both false and as being an obvious plot device.  What kind of guy would Ely be if he didn't keep his dead wife's body around for company?  What movie would there be?
     Chances are, a much better one.  Much of the time given to the Ely character is utterly wasted, especially given how Quaid has no consistent physicality for the character.  Is he the guy who can shrink into himself, blend in to a crowd, and appear to be the mild-mannered minder of the dead, or the brute who can lift a high school athlete off his feet by grabbing him – one-handed – about the neck?  Similarly, the teen protagonists/potential victims are given a fair amount of screen time only to be developed in clichéd broad strokes.  Even the circumstances that should make Travis (Tony Oller) unique come across like they were borrowed from The X-Files (1993-2002) and number of supernatural themed low-budget horror movie.
     For some reason, it isn't supposed to matter that Travis steals the star QB/kind-of-friend's girlfriend.  Now, if I am going to be honest in my recollection, my friends in high school didn't mind going after girls other guys (even friends) were dating.  How much more miserable would I be today if I had followed that route?  But seldom is this kind of behavior endorsed as being appropriate for teen heroes in a (soft) horror film.  The girlfriend in question is Abby, played by Aimee Teegarden.  Teegarden comes across as the kind of actress forced upon audiences, the kind that is serviceable but not quite ready for a good deal of screen time.  Moreover, she comes across as though she were playing an updated Topanga Lawrence from Boy Meets World (1993-2000).
     The are holes in the story that could have been covered with better dialogue and maybe two days of reshoots.  Instead, they stand as a testament that Beneath the Darkness was operating well beneath the desired budget.  The action, what little there is, is lifeless; the suspense nonexistent.  There are worse movies, certainly, but few that seem to be fighting every chance to elevate themselves from sub-mediocrity every step of the way.  I'm not sure Beneath the Darkness has enough of its various elements to satisfy any crowd.  It is too soft for horror fans, too lacking in suspense for thriller junkies, and too stingy with the emotions of the teens to satisfy younger viewers. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Writing Popular Fiction (1974)

     A lot has changed since the mid-1970s, especially if one is writing about that period while still cognizant of the lingering impact of the late-1960s.  It would be wrong to think that the market for fiction is anywhere near the same.  While the shift is likely less jarring than the pre- to post-Hemingway era of American literature, genre fiction – the subject of Dean R. Koontz's Writing Popular Fiction (1974) – one must consider how different the world is the more recent now.
     Koontz was writing about a world where Peter Benchley's Jaws was just released as a book and had not become the first modern blockbuster.  George Lucas had made two films at that point, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973); there was no such thing as Star Wars (1977).  Star Trek (1966-69) was a show that had a decent run on network television and had not yet emerged as a presence in syndication.  The use of vampires in successful fiction wouldn't emerge until Stephen King penned 'Salem's Lot in 1975, and it would not be until Anne Rice brought the sexy vampire back with Interview with a Vampire (1976) that the undead got to be in something more than a sub-category of the horror genre.  Cable television had been around for 25 years but was still something more common in remote rural areas than the sameness of suburbia.  Satellite television existed; it had its first single purpose satellite launched in '74.  The personal computer was effectively unknown.  The VCR existed, but was extremely expensive.  It wouldn't be until 1975 that Betamax came on the scene and allowed for the average person to record broadcast television or watch movies at home at one's leisure.  Hell, print magazines were still a major and viable outlet for a writer to submit fiction.
     Koontz lists seven categories of genre fiction: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Suspense, Mysteries, Gothic-Romance, Westerns, and Erotica.  I would argue that Sci-Fi (wildly expanded over what it was by the mid-1970s, for better or worse), Fantasy, Suspense (still very strong), Mystery (Koontz writes about the more traditional, Agatha Christie style mystery, which has been superseded by a more active plot structure since the early 1990s at least), Gothic-Romance (this is a chaste kind of romance, part Brontë sisters' young girl sent off to live in a strange house and long for the unobtainable man, part supernatural mystery; my understanding is that this market died before the 1970s were over), Westerns (another genre that has widely gone by the wayside; it takes a very well-written book to garner any attention beyond people who go purposely looking for a Western; however, the more modern Western follows a much different plot structure where a man can be a man instead of a slave to the modern world), and Erotica (Koontz divides this category into the Big Sexy Novel and the Rough Sexy Novel; the former category includes everything from the bodice-ripper romance novels of the 1980s and 1990s to the sex-filled stories of Jacquelin Suzanne or Harold Robbins, and even more, while Rough Sexy is effectively porn).  To his credit, I think that Koontz did a fantastic job of delineating the categories and his understanding of them.  I could not think of a kind of genre fiction that would not fit in these groups (though as noted, I believe the Gothic Romance is dead).  More to the point, Koontz, who was not yet 30 when he wrote Writing Popular Fiction, clearly understood all of the genres and the necessary elements to make one acceptable to a publisher.
     Koontz is a little too eager to go to numbered lists (this is more of a personal complaint, because if one is keeping the book handy as a resource then this tactic is fine, but it gets cumbersome if one is just reading through the book as a book).  Then, when doing so would make the most sense, he avoids the tactic and just lists the information with paragraph breaks.  It feels a little odd, but once I understood that he was going to change it up whenever he felt like it, I became much less concerned about it.
     One of the better parts of any book on writing is how many forgotten (or at least unknown to me if they have remained popular) books the author mentions as good examples of the genres.  For the most part, Koontz rattles off well-known and renowned titles and authors, though in some instances he seems to be well ahead of his time.  He praises Lucas' THX 1138 as being one of the two worthwhile (meaning not derivative) science fiction movies, which is impressive mostly because nobody saw THX 1138 when it was released.  Still, it became quite clear that not only was Koontz very well read, he also had no problem throwing other writers under the bus when it came to their abilities and works.  This stood in odd contrast to his straight-out advice that a writer is better served by writing sub-standard, by the numbers genre fiction to earn a paycheck than in taking a 9 to 5 job and neglecting writing for even a few short months.
     Koontz also gives great insight into why the authors of the era were so eager to use pen names.  This always confused me, but apparently there was a prevailing belief that an author could compete with himself (or herself) instead of a loyal following buying more books by the same author.  Likewise, there were genres (this may still be the case) where the audience was thought to only endorse on gender of author – Westerns needed to be written by men, Gothic Romances only by women – and an author often took a name for each genre in which he or she worked.  It still seems crazy to me, but Koontz does an excellent job of explaining that when the publisher tells you to use a different name if you want the advance check, do it.
     According to Koontz, a good story needs:
❶ A Strong Plot
❷ A Hero or Heroine
❸ Clear, Believable Motivation
❹ A Great Deal of Action
❺ A Colorful Background
     That all seems super-obvious, doesn't it?  Yet there are several stories I'd love to develop that I have have yet to figure out how to move the plot to the forefront of the tale.  I have been known to try to force weak or unlikeable characters into the main role.  I cannot remember I time I did not try to hide the characters motivations.  I love restricting action (for no reason).  And I am weak at describing the alien (Science Fiction or Fantasy) settings, or in bringing out the particulars of an environment and making the story come alive because of them.  It is all simple advice, but sometimes I need to be clobbered over the head with it.
     My overall reaction to this book is positive.  I think I would enjoy a conversation with Koontz more than his books (and non-fiction to his fiction), but he clearly has mastered the craft of getting the readable, serviceable story in print quickly.  Dated, sure, but worthwhile.

Here are some of the fun bits I marked:

Koontz wondering about the future for a science fiction novel: Will marijuana be legal? p. 18

History lesson on American politics: In a short novel, appropriately enough titled If This Goes On..., Robert Heinlein writes of a future in which the church's tax-exempt status and the gullibility of the masses propel a backwoods evangelist into national politics and, eventually, a religious dictatorship that covers North America.  Heinlein's argument that the church should not be given an inch of influence in government, lst it take a mile, is given plausibility by the manner in which churches, in recent years, have pyramided their moral influence over government into a multi-million-dollar-a-year pro-church lobby in Washington. p. 21

Just kind of funny: For example, if you were primarily concerned with writing about the total failure of law and order in the city streets after dark by the year 1990... p. 22  (I had forgotten how focused on urban decay 1970s Sci-Fi was.)

Avoid cliched plots: Do not, for example, propose "secret organizations" who are out to overthrown some government and destroy the world.  Only governments themselves have the power to destroy the world.  And organizations out to overthrow governments are usually not secret, though their machinations may be. ...Never propose a villain who, single-handedly, sets out to destroy the world, no matter how wealthy or resourceful he may be. p. 78  (People still violate this all the time, and it is sad that it has endured.)

On p. 83, Koontz misunderstands the duties of the Secret Service while criticizing authors who misunderstand the duties of the Secret Service (he states they only protect the President and candidates).

The unlikable narrator: There is no hard and fast rule for this, in any genre; every story demands its own voice.  However, a good rule of thumb is to use third person for a story whose hero is hard-bitten and extremely competent.  A first person narrative by such a hero, in which he must regularly comment on his own prowess and cunning, may seem ludicrous to the reader.  He may dislike the hero and, therefore, the entire novel.  (This is how I felt about Patient Zero.)

Best title for a book some should be ashamed to be seen reading: Thirteen and Ready! p. 148

Koontz on Women Readers: Many women who read the Big Sexy Novel are terrified of divorce and, rather than seeing it as an answer to the problem, might find it a frightening and depressing non-conclusion.  This might change, too, in coming years, as more and more women realize their value, as people, outside of the institution of marriage. p. 144

Keep it simple: The vocabulary of the BigSN should always be simple.  The fewer multi-syllabic words you use, the better.  This does not mean that the BigSN reader has a more limited vocabulary than other genre readers; however, most BigSN want a book that can be read at the beach, over several evenings, between household chores–in short, a book that is interesting but not so demanding that it must be read carefully and in as few sittings as possible. p. 146

Respect the rules: Writers break rules and still get published all the time.  But these are writers who have published, for the most part, numerous other books: people who have learned all the rules, have proved they can use them successfully time and again, and have therefore earned the right to break a tradition or two. p. 151

Don't write in a particular dated style: Finally, avoid using the observer frame for your story, in which the first person narrator prefaces and ends the story with statements that this was the way he saw it all happen.  This technique, made popular by Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories, renders the plot all past even, one long flashback, and it robs the story of its immediacy. p. 166

Style: ...[I]f you are trying to write beautiful prose full of catchy similes and metaphors and other figures of speech, you have reached a point where you should stop and reconsider what you are doing.  Whether or not you recognize it, you have your own voice already, one the reader will identify as yours, and you have only to let it grown of its own accord. p. 166

Style: There is one rule of style that every writer can benefit from: say it a simply, as clearly , and as shortly as possible. p. 167

Style: Economy of language is the most important stylistic goal. p. 170

Monday, June 25, 2012

Vote Fascist

     Fascism gets a bad rap.  It should.  It is a rather oppressive form of government, one that favors militarization and has inherent in its existence a sense of racial/national superiority (given that there doesn't seem to be any objective reason to support racial/national superiority, the latter component is just irrational).  The only benefit Fascism has as a government type in Civ III is that it allows for endless war without losing the support of the people.  War sure seems like fun when it is other people's lives, fake people.  People who exist only in terms of numbers, or solely on film or in print.  A war that goes on forever should be looked upon as something that, if not bad, is likely far from good.
     I made up a batch of "Vote Fascist" buttons back in 2003 or 2004.  I had borrowed a button maker from a co-worker (who in turn borrowed it from his soon-to-be fiancée) to make silly little buttons and button shaped magnets for things vaguely related to Living Arcanis.  I still have a few of those, sadly.  The idea of the Fascist Party encouraging active voting seemed to me – at the time – the height of irony.  It isn't, of course, but I do think there is some commentary to be grafted onto something so simple as a button that reads "Vote Fascist". 
     Around Chicago, the "Vote Fascist" button got a few raised eyebrows, but mostly sly nods as though whoever read it was in on the same joke.  People on the far Right saw it as a message critiquing the Left, and the far Left saw it as a simple explanation of where the far (Christian) Right wanted to go.  It isn't as though either major party candidate in '04 could have been proud to think that a supporter was getting the message out by saying that 'We, the American people, should vote our rights away and install a militaristic regime that will take control of our lives in ways we never dared imagine a generation earlier.'  Of course now I think the moderates on both sides try to make that argument about the opposition. 
     Down in Florida, fifty nine years after World War II came to an end – and with a sizable contingent of folks who actually fought against Fascists living there – the button was seen as the ultimate slap in the face of  men whose service and sacrifice (it was entirely men who had a savage reaction to it) ended Mussolini's and Hitler's respective reigns.  The Greatest Generation didn't earn that monicker for a deep and abiding love of irony.  Things were (and I suppose are, to those still living) supposed to be straight forward and as honest as circumstances politely allowed.  I don't think that is better, since that generation also had some pretty strong support for racial segregation, not exposing child molestation, and holding a worldview where there is something inherent in the American character that makes he or she better than any other kind of person.  A soft bigotry, sure, but bigotry nonetheless.
    Anyway, I am getting a little upset that I haven't posting anything in a short while.  I have a couple of movies that just didn't sit right with me (one felt rushed, the other was just...what is the right way to describe something that is a failure on every level except for lighting?) and some books that I haven't addressed.  But mostly I have been spending too much time mucking around with a game that is only supposed to be enjoyed on brief spurts (and when all other work is done). 
     Real posts are coming.  I promise.
The last surviving "Vote Fascist" button.  Might move it to one of the hats so I can sport it around town this summer.  Wonder what kind of reaction it would get almost ten years later.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

There will be posts

     Spent the better part of the last two days sorting out what unit animations I have just for the Chariot, Archer, and Spearman units for the Civ III rebuild.  I had completely forgotten how much work went into getting it done the first time.  I am dreading the point when I get to the air units and likely won't have the energy to do it correctly (the learned trick is to leave slots for units to be put in the right upgrade location and edit later).
     I do have one movie and about three books waiting for reviews (such as they are).  There may be one tomorrow.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Happy Birthday, Blog.

     I have apparently been doing this for a year.   In many ways it feels much longer.  That may because the focus of the blog has shifted quite a few times (or maybe it never had any kind of focus and I just imagine that it was closer to what I thought it would be from time to time).  Or it may be because of how it started.
     I really just wanted a place to put some thoughts regarding the movies I was watching on Netflix.  Seeing as how I closed that account on 6 July, 2011, it wouldn't have been inconceivable for me to just close shop on this fledgeling enterprise and just ruminate on films and such with no outlet.  That seemed like a worse option at the time.
     The second post-Netflix post was my paper on Steven Pfiel.  It is undoubtedly the most read thing I have written since a very short, not entirely clear short story ended up in the RSI updates for the Hyborian War play-by-mail game in 1992.  I didn't get paid for either, but that isn't the point.  I tried to use the blog as a means to make sure that I could get back into the habit of writing on a regular basis.  That wasn't always successful.  I have quite a few posts that are old school papers or transcriptions of things written well before the time of the blog.
     Still, it did get me back to writing.  Losing the Netflix account meant not having access to the streaming documentaries, and that got me to stop watching documentaries.  That is the lamentable part.  Less bothersome is the severe reduction in the amount of time spent watching movies or old television shows for no purpose other than distraction.  Watching complete seasons of recent shows was never going to serve as inspiration for writing, at least not original fiction.  No, with the amount of time freed up by not watching a movie a day I was able to actually start reading in earnest.  They say you have to read if you want to write.
     And I have been writing.  Not that much of it is of the quality that I want to share with people.  There is at least one short story on the blog that I wish I had given more than a cursory revision.  At the same time, I have over a dozen pieces that have been frozen by my need to rip them apart before they are finished.  But I feel that I have not been able to give the time to the writing that I would like.  Sad as it is, the limited moments here and there this thing requires sometimes interferes with the scheduled time for writing (and more often, with the fits of inspiration where story ideas get sketched out).
     So I am going to step back from the Monday-Friday posting schedule here.  At least for a while.  I'm still going to post things, thoughts on movies (I'd love to get back to the more complete reviews that fell by the wayside), books, and television.  I'm sure I'll have a few thoughts on the campaigning for the Presidency of the United States of America.  But my goal is to start getting the fiction into focus.  Probably posting the almost-finished versions here so that my few followers can see that I am working on something.
     At the same time, I very much want to keep this as a place where I can put things up that are all about me.  Or at least in part about me.  I have a rather long piece about what it was like to live with my father (while he was living) that is just screaming for photos – proof that I am neither lying nor exaggerating – I would like to share with the world.  Not that there is reciprocal interest in it.  Or most anything here.
     But it is a year's worth of work here to date.  And seeing how the first sixteen days of the blog's existence (June 2011) garnered 59 views, I am surprised I found the strength to keep going.  This was never meant to be a mostly private, yet somehow public, endeavor.  Hell, part of me hopes that certain people (who have decided to not maintain a cordial relationship with me) can read a few posts and get pissed off all over again. 
     So...that is my long way of explaining that the schedule is going to become erratic for a while.  Maybe a short while.  Maybe longer.  There will definitely be posts coming.  They just won't be rushed out because of a deadline.  For now.
     And at the same time, I want to throw open the gates and get a few more contributors to break up the monotony of me-think.  We'll see if I can convince anyone else to join in this meager endeavor.  It certainly would make the place more interesting. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Fifteen Books

     Are you well read?  I am certainly not, though there has been a concerted effort to go from the stage of reading less than six new books a year (let's call that from 2000-2009) – though to be fair, I did re-read a number of books during that period – to actually reading more than one per month; the goal has become to read at least four books per month.  If I could keep up the rate I have going for this year (I cannot, because it is inflated with many short books), I would read 936 books over the course of a decade.  That seems like a lot of reading to me.  I'll be happy if I pass 1,000 total before I die.  Well, no I won't, because the specter of death will be forever before me until I'm dead, at which point all of everything just won't matter.  But I will be momentarily pleased that I managed to take in some of what the written word had to offer in my time amongst the living.
     But for as much as I may be reading this year, it occurs to me that I may not be reading the books that everyone is, or rather the ones they have already read (because I wasn't much of a reader before I took a decade off).  There are so many books out there that I sometime wonder how – school assignments aside – we end up reading the same material.  I know that I only came to read Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park (1990) because the paperback release had a stand at the front of Crown (or was it Walden?) Books in the Orland Square mall for something close to six months.  Somewhere along the line I figured that people must be buying it (presumably reading it as well) if they kept the stand up.  So I borrowed a copy, ruined it via a leaky bottle of contacts solution, replaced the original and bought one for myself and finished it in what was for me short order.  Then the movie ruined everything – including, I assume, people's desire to read the novel.
     What I have come up with here is my best guess at the fifteen books I have read which I suspect most of the people with whom I associate (for better or worse) have read.  No particular order.
☞  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
☞  The Hobbit
☞  Fahrenheit 451
☞  A Doll's House
☞  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
☞  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
☞  Treasure Island
☞  The Great Gatsby
☞  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
☞  Lord of the Flies
☞  The Glass Menagerie
☞  Heart of Darkness
☞  The Pearl
☞  Ethan Frome
☞  The Red Badge of Courage
     But I am more curious as to what books other people assume that other people have read.  Feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Haywire (2011)

     This is the kind of movie where the critical part of my brain would prohibit any level of enjoyment.  Because having hot coffee thrown in your eyes will leave you (at the very least) momentarily blinded.  That isn't a question of will.  You can't just decide that it doesn't affect you because you are USMC-tough.  No, I pretty much went with where Steven Soderburgh wanted to go in Haywire (2011) because it required less effort than noting what the superspy/assassin can do because she is the best.  If I learned anything from the action movies of the 1980s, it was that there doesn't have to be any relationship between the real world and what the action hero does, so long as it looks cool.
     For the most part, Haywire does just that.  It has the just-obvious-enough edits that sell the practicality (instead of camera trickery or CG shenanigans) of the fight scenes.  Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is able to survive a blow that should crush both cervical and thoracic vertebrae, stay conscious and combat effective after being repeatedly punched (full force) in the face by a much larger opponent, and braid her hair (for combat effectiveness?) in a matter of mere minutes because it is simply more interesting than the alternative.  If Mallory is knocked out in the opening scene, then there isn't much of a movie.  Unless Soderburgh was going to give an audience a torture sequence like the one in Casino Royale (2006), and that really would be torture-porn.  I'm glad he went the more conventional route.
     I found myself mostly enjoying the quick pace, the lack of any real connection of the events to a sensible plot (for any of the major characters), and the soundtrack.  Haywire has quite possibly the best action film music (discounting Sword & Sorcery fare) I have heard in the last ten years.  It helps drive the action forward, and even to hide how normal (safe) the camera shots are.  Now, if I wanted to think about it, I am positive I would have a long list of problems with the movie.  But it isn't something to think about.  See.  Enjoy.  Delete from memory banks.  That is how I feel about Haywire.  It is a diversion that is not likely to do more than make one think Carano can fight (which she had already proved before getting into acting) or notice that Bill Paxton no longer resembles Hudson from Aliens (1986) at all, even while you know that it is him.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Planet of the Apes (1963)

     I have to wonder what it would be like to be able to read Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes (1963) in its original French.  Knowing only enough of the language to be able to fumble my way through the label on a package of cheese (this actually was useful at the previous job), it would be impossible for me to be able to handle something as simple as a picture book in French.  Actually, in most any language other than English.  Still, there is an air of something – a kind of self-possessed importance – that permeates the book, both in the overstated purposeful way that space-faring journalist Ulysee Mérou carries his indignation and in the general attitude that Boulle seems to have towards mankind's achievements in general.  In my limited experience, this feels very French.
     From the format that apes the Victorian through Pulp-era adventure stories to the experience of a learned man stranded amongst alien others (and cared for by a wise and kind female), much of Planet of the Apes comes off like a refutation of the points made in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915).  The French are not renowned for being progressive (as a society) in regards to gender roles – see Sartre's commentary on how women tricked men into running the world – and Boulle repeatedly hammers home the superiority of man the gender (perhaps man the species as well, at least when compared to apes).  Naming the planet Soror (Latin for sister...thanks, Wikipedia!), Boulle is not trying to hide the parallels.  Instead, he paints a horrific vision of general society and what happens when one is pulled from the top level of civilization.
     Other than struggle with his commentaries on humanity, the false promise of feminine progressiveness, and the existential quandaries that come from being forced to doubt one's place in the universe, Boulle manages a rather decent piece of low-action adventure science fiction.  I suspect that enough of the rhythm of the language is lost that is seems more pedestrian in English, but that is a guess.  I'd like to think it was more profound, more earth-shattering in its unique vision when it first was published.  It seems that Boulle wants to hint at and dance around the issues rather than confront them, even in an oblique manner.
     Now, I am extremely biased on the subject.  Franklin J. Schaffer's Planet of the Apes (1968) is one of my all-time favorite films, one that is direct and forceful in the many commentaries it fires at the audience.  It also has a much more American hero, one who is easy to hate while impossible not to view as humanity's most unlikely champion.  That isn't what is embodied in the novel, and while part of me knows this is for the best, it left me feeling that Boulle did not completely capture the possibilities of his own story.  At the same time, the many people who have adapted the "Apes" movies and TV series did their best to draw out the elements Boulle included.  Indeed, the much despised shock-ending of Tim Burton's version of Planet of the Apes (2001) – one Kevin Smith stupidly claimed as having originated – is presupposed in the novel.
      Planet of the Apes will never replace the 1968 film in my heart.  But I am glad that I took the time to read it.  There is something worthwhile buried within it, sure, but it is (even as a translation) a fine book to read to break up the more serious titles.

Monday, June 11, 2012

John Carter (2012)

     I get it now.  I understand how Disney's John Carter (2012) failed to resonate with audiences and ended up as the most costly film venture in recent memory, surpassing Waterworld (1995) but not Heaven's Gate (1980) (because Disney still exists) when it comes to huge budget disasters.  There was much chatter that if Disney had simply gone with Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars (1917) as the tile and advertised it in a serious manner (just where did Disney spend $100 million when the supposed target audience was barely aware of the movie, and not at all of its premise).  I think the fundamental flaw with John Carter is that so many other films have already borrowed from the concept that it cannot help but look and feel derivative.
     Now, I am not a Burroughs fan.  According to Dean R. Koontz (from his 1972 book Writing Popular Fiction), Burroughs was the most translated author of the 20th Century (again, through '72), so there were undoubtedly fans out there at one point.  My exposure to him has been having the first two Tarzan books read to me (it was the whole class who got this treatment, and it happened in the 6th grade, so I still find it a little creepy) and the various film and TV incarnations of Tarzan.  I am aware of much of the art inspired by the John Carter stories, and people started making Tharks, thoats, white apes, Dejah Thoris, and John Carter animations for use in Civ III in coincidence with the movie's eventual release (most of these being converted from an existing game it seems).  There should have been an interest in the character, but it also appears that people who are into the stories that brought adventure Sci-Fi into the 20th Century are about as numerous (and as self-important) as diehard Jazz enthusiasts.  It is cool to see the futuristic fantasy images in a painting (I have not added any of the Barsoomian units to my Civ III games, though I have thought of using Dejah Thoris animation for the king unit for my civilization of Amazons), but I don't know how smart it is to design a film around of couple of cool images.
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris
     To be fair, when those shots to pop up in the movie, there is some undeniable charm and simultaneous cool factor immediately accessible to the viewer.  In brief snippets, director Andrew Stanton and the thirteen person art direction team have provided a glimpse into not just the soul of the story, but why it should be so appealing to everyone.  However, these are just snippets, and largely supplied by Lynn Collins ability to give the impression of a painting come to life (though not forced to wear a metal bikini or go topless – not unsurprising for a Disney release).  These cannot overcome the obvious weaknesses the keep showing themselves.
     Let us first consider the casting of Taylor Kitsch.  I am willing to admit my complete unfamiliarity with him prior to seeing John Carter, but with this, Battleship (2012), and the minimally viewed Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) as his major roles, I am hoping that his days as a forced-upon-the-audience-leading-man are over.  He isn't a very good actor (not terrible or irredeemable), and spends much of John Carter fighting against a wig that changes color and looks like somebody glued rough shorn  doll hair to his head and asked him to let it lifelessly dangle whenever possible.  It is also readily apparent that Kitsch did a lot of working out during the length of filming as his musculature changes depending upon when the scene was shot.  This isn't a huge deal, but many directors and actors learn to hide the early stages with less definition with clothing.  Stanton decides to put a fit (but not yet buff) Kitsch into the shirtless scenes right off the bat.  I found it a little distracting, but at the same time I am willing to admit this is a nit that needs no picking.  Had I any rooting interest in the actor, I am sure I would have ignored it.  But because I found Kitsch to be unable to make Carter a compelling character (I am going to have a few things to say about the writing in this regards), his shortcomings screamed out to me. 
     Next, let us ponder why the need to insert Edgar Rice Burroughs as a character in the movie.  Having not the books, I have no knowledge of whether this is appropriate.  It didn't feel like it was, and the result is the forcing the obvious fiction into the reality of the man who wrote the story.  Add to that that Burroughs seems like a bit of a geeky loser who would not have anything in common with his brooding uncle (yet the two somehow share a close relationship?).  Burroughs the character seems to exist as an excuse to have the story related (this is more appropriate to late 18th and early 20th Century fiction, but keeps cropping up in recent films as screenwriters apparently feel that a story cannot exist on its own), and then to set-up the least exciting climax possible.
     Stanton had help writing the screenplay for John Carter in the form of Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon.  Andrews also has a credit on Pixar's upcoming film Brave (2012), which may be more his speed as he largely has worked in animation.  Chabon is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of books like Wonder Boys (1995) and The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2007; I started this book in 2008 and quickly abandoned it, wondering what the critics, and my brother, saw as being so praiseworthy).  I blame Chabon – without any evidence beyond my brief exposure to him – for importing the tropes and clichés from other science fiction stories into John Carter.  I am sure that the thought was to make a more mature but relatable tale, but it felt more like an unholy amalgam of ideas that didn't quite work in other films.  From Therns that closely resemble the Necromongers of The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), to the battle in the Thark arena that looks like it was excised from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), and awkward sky-bike piloting that borrows first from Return of the Jedi (1983) and then Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).  At some point it doesn't matter if Burroughs had these moments in the original story or not; good screenwriting, in combination with effective direction, would ensure that the movie would aspire to do more than to ape that which has gone before.  If you can look at the moving city of Zodanga and not immediately form an unfortunate associate with Wild Wild West (1999), then you are carrying less film-viewing baggage than I am.
     The John Carter character retains his service to the Confederacy, which may be the kind of fidelity I could have done without.  If one is unaware of the popularity of the the post-Civil War rebel turned anti-hero, I would direct you towards the legend (largely through the dime novelization) of Jesse James.  Joss Whedon milked the same teat in coming up with Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly (2002-03).  Personally, I am about as anti-CSA as one is going to get.  The idea of Southern honor is a joke that too many people appear to take seriously.  I can't fault the writers for not taking liberty with this aspect of the story, but my preference would have been to just make him a Civil War vet and leave it at that.  But then we wouldn't have the least funny and most repeated joke in the movie, where Carter is referred to as Virginia. 
     Since it is a Disney film, there has to be at least one part of it that screams for merchandising.  That would be the Barsoomian lizard/slug dog, Woola.  Much like Teddy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) or Muffit II from the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-79), Woola seems like the toy/pet that everybody would want to have.  Despite myself, Woola was the character I cared most about in John Carter.  Perhaps it is because their is no fake political machinations or manufactured angst driving the little beast.  Woola, despite seeming to exist wholly in the realm of computer constructed pixels, felt like the most honest of all the films inhabitants.  It also had the cute factor dialed to maximum, and that should appeal to all but the most hardhearted.
     Now, I have spent several paragraphs bitching about the problems with John Carter while giving it little praise.  I feel this is where I should point out the strengths (other than Woola).  It is a serviceable movie.  It looks good, better than most of the other movies set on Mars made in the last 20 years.  Strange that all of those movies lost money, because I would think it would discourage studios from revisiting it with inflated budgets.  The main fault is that it doesn't feel like something that one would think much of a week after having seen it.  Part of that is the result of the Blockbuster-ization (and now Netflix-ization) of movie watching.  Even mega-blockbusters are treated as being disposable, and when films become cotton candy instead of food, they achieve the result of momentary distraction with no lasting value.  John Carter doesn't carry the weight it should because, it would seem, Stanton and the rest of the crew only know how to do big and familiar.  Had most of the movie been done on a smaller, more intimate scale (it would still need a huge budget and lots of special effects), then the larger moments would be intensified.  As it is they play out as filler pieces, killing time until a predictable battle that itself feels more like how the House Harkonnen assault on Arrakeen would have looked if there had been a budget for it in any adaptation of Dune (1965). 
     Too much seems borrowed (even what may have been original to the story in 1917) to make John Carter feel like its own movie.  And if it isn't its own movie, then it cannot succeed as a momentary blockbuster.  So, I get it.  I get why it didnt draw a large audience.  But I am sure that the curious will give it a chance at home.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Tales of an Ancient Empire (2010)

     I did not ever expect to find a film that would make The Curse of Count Chocula (2003) look like a cinematic masterpiece by comparison (though, to be fair, the movie does have some great lines and even a few scenes that make it worth sitting through the rest).  Seeing as how The Curse of Count Chocula was made with a low-rent video camera and a budget that probably came close to $200, it would take some serious dedication to the art of making an absolutely disastrous movie.  Then I happened upon the forgotten as soon as it was made, direct-to-video effort that is Tales of an Ancient Empire (2010). 
     Why would I do this to myself?  The honest answer is that I like Kevin Sorbo.  I think that his post-Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-99) career has not been filled with roles that showcase what he can do.  In 2005, he made a sitcom pilot that didn't get picked up where he played an athlete trying to figure out what to do after his sports career.  That would have served him well.  Sorbo can do funny as long as it is subtle, and he hasn't been able to keep the muscle mass up after whatever condition befell him late in the Hercules run.  But no, we get to see Sorbo in a string of thankless guest star roles and low-budget genre flicks.
Curse of Count Chocula.  It exists.
     And it is at this point that I want to discuss budgets, because I truly believe that Tales of an Ancient Empire had the professional equivalent to the $200 range for a backyard movie.  It shows right from the get-go.  Michael Paré and a few anonymous castmates start off the film standing in front of what appears to e a white sheet, holding weapons like they've never seen them before, and either giving cold reads from cue-cards or ad-libbing lines that somehow made it into the final product.  My guess is that these were not the first shots filmed, but rather the last ones as director Albert Pyun was desperate to get enough footage to make a movie.  Indeed, that is how this whole enterprise feels.  Like somehow trying to acquire footage without knowing how to stage scenes of what would be needed when it came time to edit it all together.
     Now, if I am going to resort to facts, the movie actually starts with an awkward introduction from Hekate (Cassy Colomb), where the character mixes tenses in an effort to let the audience know that nothing in the next 70-ish minutes is going to make sense.  It goes a little like this:
          "I am here [present tense] to bear witness to an age when sorcery and
           adventure still thrived [past  tense], a time when all things were yet
           possible [uh...past and,  I'm not sure, but I think future imperfect].  So
           listen now [present imperative] of this tale long past."
As a frustrated writer, this bothers me.  Because I don't think this is just an inability to read the lines that were written.  I'm convinced that somebody actually wrote those lines; they thought it sounded both compelling and sensible.  Another group of people went and spent money to buy the script and make the movie.  Seriously.  Read it again and tell me if you wouldn't have thrown it out just based on that.
     Michael Paré gets to play Oda Nobunaga.  Now, if you don't know who Oda is then you haven't read the Call Me Temujin script that is on this blog.  Read that after this and imagine how Trevor would feel about making his John Wayne playing Genghis Khan comment after this thing got released.  Instead of uniting Japan, Oda is a mercenary who fucks a lot of women.  Usually after helping them, but this is supposed to imply that he is a bad guy.  Except that, horrific performance aside, Oda is the closest thing to a good guy the story can put together.
     Oda has to go to the Isle of Lost Souls to fight a Sorcerer and his vampire daughter.  Clichéd, sure.  But what makes this worth noting is that with the subtitles on, Oda has to go to the Aisle of Lost Souls.  After his business is done there, Hekate tells the audience that "...Oda strolled off into the mists of legendary...".  I don't know where these mists would be, but I assumed there were on the other side of the movie from the Aisle of Lost Souls.
     After Oda is done not really doing anything, the opening credits arrive (almost sixteen minutes into the movie).  Then a string on new characters are introduced, mostly with the purpose of leading to the next character and eventually back to Oda.  Sorbo plays Aeden, one of Oda's bastard children.  He has some fun playing him as a shameless drunken man-whore/scoundrel, but at the same time it appears that he must have had something like four days of availability.  As so many of the characters don't really interact, I have to think that they just filtered them in when available.  Yet another possibility as to why the story remains – except as explained by voice-over narration – incomprehensible.
     Don't bother with it.  Not even as a dare.  It is worse than having to watch Battlefield Earth () while having John Travolta fondle you.  Okay, no it isn't that bad, but it is worse than any movie I have seen with professional actors.  It is even worse than the kind of movies aspiring filmmakers make with the video camera, a few friends, and a budget of under $200.
     Here are a few of my notes I made while watching it.  You'll notice that I quickly gave up on it.
           4:03 – "Hey, Oda.  You better get up there and kill that wizard and his
                       daughter  before he finishes his conjure." (Rodrigo)  It isn't just
                       the lazy writing (I'm hoping this was the terrible actor improving
                       the line in place of what was written), but that it is delivered with
                       a flat affect and no body language to suggest that it is important.
            4:59 – "Oda, my cursed nemesis, just in time to see my greatest feat."
                       (Xuxia)  Again, a completely lifeless reading.
            5:19 – "You realize how silly this looks?" (Oda)  This should be the
                       movie's tagline!
            7:54 – "So what now?" (Xia)  This is a perfectly acceptable reaction
                       from a vampire on being subdued by the great mercenary (and
                       Queen fucker) Oda.  Sure it is.
             8:55 – "Perhaps we should hang around in this empire we just saved
                        and experience some of its pleasures." (Rodrigo)
           11:20 – "Maybe some midwife at the palace will take you in."  (Oda,
                        speaking to his child just cut from its mother's womb.)  Uh,
                        why would a midwife have any special interest in an already
                        'birthed' child, Oda?
            No time listed – This is a movie with more VO narration than action.
            No time listed – Then vampires rules the world and Hekate goes
                         looking for Aeden.  What?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Civ III - Just One Picture from the Test

     Just a screen grab from the current test.  As you can see, Pinscher is finishing up its Horse Racing Track, Monument City is producing a Factory (regular improvement that comes with the game), Pempek is close to finishing its Hockey Rink, and New Wolfe is pretty progressive with its soon-to-open Buddhist Temple.  The only unit added to the test are the improved Workers for Wraith (Wraith Engineers).  That is all of those guys standing around looking like regular Workers who figured out that nobody likes to wear overalls.

     The homeland for Wraith (though kind of the Hinterlands of it).  Lighthouse in Panakes, Opera House in Pyreses, Tennis Courts in Brooks and Noah Brandenburg, Golf Course in Katharine Isabelle (yes, named after the actress), Slaughter House in Borones, Synagogue in Monk, and a Golf Course in Moranthal.  Gormynn actually has the Waste Disposal Site (the scenario's version of a toxic waste pit). 

     Apparently people really want Buddhism (see the adviser).  Or see that Castle McNeil (the capital) is running away with a Culture score of 15,560.  It helps when the United Center, Stanley Cup, and the Olympics are all contributing.  Or just notice that it has more improvements in it than come with the regular game.

     And this is what I have been working on.  Stuff about a movie tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Civ Building Eats Time

What kind of civilization wouldn't have its own specific house of sports worship?
     While I am sure that building a computer game from the ground up – every line of code and all that – is immeasurably more time consuming than my efforts to rebuild/surpass my Civ III  scenario.  I remember laboriously typing in the basic script for character creation programs (TMNT & Other Strangeness) or no image games (those coming straight out of some magazine that had basic code for the Commodore 64) close to twenty five years ago, and the end result was always disappointing.  Just like that kind of not-really-programming, simply getting the already created animations and pictures to work in the Civ game takes all kinds of time.
     It isn't just adding all of the units in the actual scenario.  That takes about thirty hours of work (without taking into account how long it takes to find the animations that go with each unit).  Then there is the the soul-crushing task of seeing how many errors are hidden  in the text command file for each set of animations, which results in simply watching the game crash again and again, with the saving grace of learning one error each time.  I am not even at that stage in the rebuild (though I do have most of the animations selected) because it saps the belief that anything good will ever come from all the work.
     No, I found myself with a small amount of time to be able to dedicate to adding in the improvements (buildings and such) I'm used to having in a game.  Well, actually I went well above and beyond what I used to have in the scenario.  More than 150 have been added now.
     Some of perfectly normal: Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Trafalgar Square, Angkor Wat, Hagia Sofia, the Kremlin, and Tourism Bureaus.  Some of pretty specific to the imported civilizations: the Mithril Forge (liberally borrowed from Middle Earth), the Library at Penacles (from Richard A. Knaak's Dragonrealm books), the Uruk-Hai Birthing Chamber (straight out of the Lord of the Rings movies), and the Gengengian War College (for Gengenbach, which was slowly built in response to how Steve Genge would build his perfect civ). 
The Bomber Research Facility, which manufactures Heavy Bombers.  Why play without it?
     There are rather mundane improvements: Television Network, Adult Book Store, Baseball Stadium (build enough and you can build Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium), Football Stadium (build enough and you can build the Super Bowl), Basketball Stadium (build enough and you can make both the NCAA National Tournament and Madison Square Garden), Strip Club, Slaughter House, Hockey Rink (build enough and you can make the Stanley Cup and the United Center), Soccer Stadium (build enough and you can make the Allianz Arena, Estádio do Maracanã, Wembley Stadium, and the World Cup), Golf Course (build enough and you can make the Open Championship), Tennis Court (build enough and you can make Wimbledon), The Olympics, Plaza de Toros (bullfighting arenas, with two famous ones – the Ronda Bullring and Maestranza Bullring – also included), Sniper School, Amusement Park, Brewery, Winery, Amphitheatre, Fishery, City Park, Opera House, Prison, and so on.
     There is even an extremely offensive Wonder that the AI insists on building. 
     Anyway, each building needs to be entered into the scenario.  It has two images (one 128x128, one 32x32), both saved as pcx files in 256 colors.  If they are not in 256 colors, the game will crash.  All wonders need Splashes – images in 320x320 and still in 256 colors.  A lot of these need to be created, which is only time consuming in looking for pictures that would look good all squashed up. 
     That small amount of time I had turned into about twenty hours of adding the improvements and just as long running through a version of the scenario to make sure it will run when it comes time to actually play.  And it is at this point that any sane person would realize that much more time is being invested in the preparation to play than the actual game play. 
     Anyway, it eats time.  And it kept me from writing a real post for today.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Immortals (2011)

     I was on the fence about whether or not a should hate Immortals (2011), Tarsem Singh's re-imagining of the legend of Theseus.  It isn't that I am wholly against rewriting old stories.  I just think that if one is going to mess with something that has endured for more than twenty five centuries (and at least five distinct languages) by the time a writer or writers sits down to work the magic and change the details, those changes need to make marked improvements that won't leave anyone familiar with the tale sitting there thinking, who is responsible for this sacrilege? – or at least must make the story relatable to a modern audience without gutting the essence of the original.
     Immortals fails in that regard.  Instead of having Theseus (which, incidentally, should be pronounced THAY-soos) be the half-god who battle's with King Minos' beast in the Labyrinth and who founds the city of Athens – you know, perhaps the most important city in the history of Western culture – writers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides cast him as an angry iconoclast (intentionally and unintentionally) who thinks primarily only of himself and has a last minute conversion to the typical Ancient Greek concept of immortality being capable only through performing deeds that were certain to be remembered.  For some reason, this Theseus needs to be not only thoroughly uninteresting but still the center of attention for all the other characters.  Just as baffling was the notion of the Ancient Greek gods having a 'no interference' rule with humanity in general, and specifically with the heroes. 
     Let us also consider that the Parlapanides place the action in the 13th Century BCE and refer to the assembled 'peoples' as Hellenics.  Not Hellenes, which would be appropriate, at least after the Greeks came to see themselves as sharing a common culture and heritage.  They also imagine Ancient Greece as a cross between Arrakis and a post-apocalyptic Dover.  There are no signs of life other than the people.  The single body of water we see is thick with an oil that would preclude the chance of finding any life there.  Theseus comes from a cliffside village that is built up in a pseudo-Pueblo style, where the only activity seems to be either getting ready to be a warrior (though not being one) or hanging out in the temple.  The stark nothingness over which these non-characters fight only highlights the lifelessness of the whole enterprise.
Hank and his bow.
     All of that wasn't enough to make me hate the movie.  It was bad, sure, but not without a few moments.  Putting Hank's bow from theDungeons & Dragons cartoon (1983-85) sure stretched the credulity of the film, but it is nice to know that it would look good in a major motion picture.  The torture bulls were an effort to get something right, and they worked in spite of the ridiculousness with they were employed.  Henry Cavill (Theseus) has all the right moves for an action movie, even one set in the ancient world, and Stephen Dorff gave a good turn as the rapscallion lieutenant and ally of Theseus.  Even the movie having the worst lighting I have seen in years wasn't enough to make me despise it. 
     No, that came from making the mistake watching one of the extras where so-called experts argued that since the Ancient Greeks changed their mythology (this was more the result of the different regions and city states having different takes on the same stories or replacing characters from one story with their own heroes or city-sponsoring deity), it was fair game to change the story.  Kellan Lutz, an alum of the Twilight film franchise, challenged why people expect to see Poseidon as an older man with flowing white hair and beard.  'Because you saw that in some movie?' he asks.  No, jackass.  Because the Ancient Greeks presented him that way.  Always.  Without fail.  Because, as a people whose lives revolved around the sea, they saw the need to have the master of the waves – and the guy who gifted them with horses – appear as an authority figure.  I see Immortals as being in step with Lutz's lack of understanding.  Too stupid to actually do research on the people and gods being portrayed, and too in love with big budget effects to notice that there wasn't much of a story put into the works.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

     Somewhere, there are people who would just assume end all association with me forever because I made the effort to see Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) but I could not be bothered to go see The Avengers (2012).  I'm not sure why having more interest in fantasy – faerie tale or not – than superhero stories is somehow a disqualifier for contemporary American manhood.  For the record, I'm a little surprised that I haven't seen The Avengers, but now that I have to choose between seeing it in 3D at matinee prices or paying full freight for a 2D ticket I'm not sure I will see it before it jumps to the home market.  I'm sure that I'll be entertained by it whenever I see it, but I have taken to watching how much I'm willing to spend just to see a movie sooner rather than later.
     Anyway, I didn't know what to expect from Snow White and the Huntsman.  I've seen quite a few awful movies of late – I imagine at least two of them will be discussed here this week – and figured there was a chance that this re-imagining of the fairytale would do everything in its power to hit the wrong notes (at least for me).  And as I was sitting next to a small child (I would guess that he was nine or ten), I had an idea that I was decidedly not the target audience.  Well, the trailer for the Katy Perry movie let me know that straight out.  But I had paid my $4.50, so I was in for the duration.
     Though it started slowly, intermixing laborious narration with character development, Snow White and the Huntsman started moving right along once they managed to get the titular princess out of the castle.  From that point on it is more of a small scale travelogue, with a hallucination-inducing forest, a fishing village, and an enchanted glen on the way to the necessary rallying of the troops.  The effects are better than I expected, hampered only by director Rupert Sanders aversion to focus (or deep focus in scenes that practically call out for it).
     I am positive that there will be legions who savage Kristen Stewart for her performance here, but I found that she showed some restraint in a film where most everyone was overacting at the audience.  Sure, that is quite fitting for a fairy tale, but I want my hero and/or heroine to be something more than a caricature of an archetype.  Sanders could have helped Stewart out by giving her better direction on how to interact with the not-there-yet CGI creatures (Stewart's eyes darted back and forth, a cross between showing that she is engaged in the scene and that she doesn't know where to look).  Sam Spruell, playing the evil Queen's brother/lackey, could have used a character who didn't slowly build into being a force to be reckoned with because it makes most of his early scenes contradictory to his ultimate character.
     What I liked the most was how the movie evoked the feel of a 1st Edition AD&D adventure.  That is in part due to the fact the the two badasses on the side of good are in the Ranger-mold (William uses a bow in melee combat, I'm calling that more AD&D Ranger than Fighter).  As every LoTR fan knows, Rangers are the guys who kick evil's ass; the other character accomplishes the main goal only because it would make the rest of us feel inadequate forever if the Ranger does that, too.  No, the good forest and creatures had such a classic feel that it dragged me right back to how I felt with AD&D leading me into fantasy stories and artwork.
     Having said that, I have a feeling that this isn't going to rank as one of the new classic films.  Because it moves along so quickly (once it gets going), the story does not seem as epic as it could have been.  There was also a missed chance in making more out of Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and her complicated backstory.  It was nice to have the story couched in the dangers of a world where men can – and do – take what they want from women and dispose of them when the interest fades, but I think it didn't dig deep enough into that metaphor.  Maybe that was to avoid upsetting the littler ones seeing it.  Maybe it was because if it came off as man-hating, the audience would quickly shrink.
     Whatever.  I would have preferred bolder, but I liked it.  I think that if one can accept that Stewart is not acting as the same intensity (or at the audience), there won't be any problems with her performance.  It certainly is a more interesting take on the tale than the one Disney did, and it almost looks as good.  I say give it chance...probably at home.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons & Dragon (2011)

     I have waited a long time to post on this book.  In part because I didn't want to simply give voice to my anger and disappointment that a purposely (seemingly) vacuous person has a position with the company that publishes – and seems to have great joy in rescuing and destroying – Dungeons & Dragons while having no real personal attachment to the game.  Shelly Mazzanoble writes about the lessons she has learned from D&D the way I could try to detail the length and breadth of humanity from having to aid them with finding the products that are right in front of them at the store.  Hey, I'll straight out admit that I used to visit the comparative stores in other markets when I was on vacation, meaning that I must have had some attachment and involvement with that job that went beyond taking home money every Thursday.  It would be extremely hypocritical of me to suggest that Mazzanoble could not have developed an attachment to D&D through her workplace association with it.  But I will insist that her connection is inferior to mine because mine is from my formative years.  Like it or not – and I came to terms with it over a decade ago – I am a Dungeons & Dragons guy.  Just not the kind that could get on board with 4E or be bothered to read any of the Forgotten Realms novels.
     Mazzanoble, on the other hand, is the kind of person that I think my brother aspired to be for about a minute in 1993.  By that I mean that I'm sure he would have loved to have interned at SubPop Records around that time, and he lasted a whole semester out in the Pacific Northwest at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.  Mazzanoble comes off as a cross between a self-doubting/self-obsessed ditz and a functional, conscientious person who has a clue on how to get through life without needing to relate it to a game where the goal is often to murder and rob others.  She seems to have to work backwards, giving information about her life and how her understanding is truly formed by her mother, and then inserting how Dungeons & Dragons doesn't countermand those important lessons.
     Like her other book, it would seem that Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons and Dragons (2011) was written in an effort to redeem D&D of its image from...well, I honestly don't know when D&D had an image problem in my circles.  I know there was some uproar about it when AD&D was breaking big in the late 1970s.  I also know that bad press continued into the mid-1980s.  But there were D&D boxsets at Toys 'Я' Us and Kay•Bee Toys, the AD&D books fully stocked at the tiny Palos Park Public Library, and a successful cartoon show during the 1980s.  Hell, the worst thing I can think of associated with D&D – other than how some of the players really did look like greasy trolls who shun meaningful human contact, but since many of them were teens or in their early 20s, it is entirely possible they just hadn't mastered good hygiene yet – is the Dungeons & Dragons (2000) movie.
     For all of my bitching, and there could be much more than what I'll show here, Mazzanoble isn't a bad writer.  She is just (in my estimation) writing for the wrong audience.  I have a feeling that the people who think that reality television on the opposite side of the spectrum from Mythbusters (2003-present) or Deadliest Catch (2005-present) aren't likely to be drawn to Dungeons & Dragons.  There isn't a huge Say Yes to the Dress (2007-present) vibe to most D&D sessions.  I'm not trying to knock shows that clearly appeal more to the ladies, but Dungeons & Dragons – even in its more introspective, personal moments – is usually not running short on testosterone.  Every character has a means to go about killing, and most games expect it to happen on a regular basis.  Hell, the original formula for advancing characters was largely predicated on how tough or dangerous the monsters were which the PCs were killing.
     Mazzanoble seems to see D&D as a cooperative game – which it is – but doesn't seem to grasp that it is quite different from a sedentary team sport.  There is almost no mention of character development, by which I mean how the player comes to know and understand his or her PC as a separate being (more than just an alter-ego).  Instead, she seems to think that character creation is the time to understand the character; after that, it is a figure to be moved around on the combat grid and a sheet on which abilities and powers are recorded.  She doesn't come across as cognizant of how D&D may be different from other roleplaying games.  Why could she not learn everything she needed to know from Rifts or Deadlands – except for the fact that she isn't employed by Palladium Books or Pinnacle Entertainment Group?
     She also largely ignores the role that having something that could draw a diverse group of outcasts together, as D&D did before the world became one that accepted and celebrated things like World of Warcraft or Skyrim, would have on the players.  Coming to the game as an adult, where one can play it at work (on the clock), I am sure that she didn't give it much thought.  Her one example of introducing it to children showed her to have little concept of how it might bring people with nothing else in common together.
     This wasn't a bad book.  But it certainly wasn't written with people like me in mind.  Then again, several WoTC employees had no problem telling me that they had no qualms if all the longtime D&D players walked away when 4E was launched (because they had a plan to get a new generation of players).  They also told me that they weren't interested in listening to feedback outside of organized play (because home campaigns can always change the rules as they see fit).  I really wish I had written down those guys names way back when, because I know that one of them ended up being a prominent player in 4E; more than that, I would like to be able to back up my statements by saying something more than the WoTC employees at the GenCon booth told me those things.
     Mazzanoble seems to have to make up for some of that damage, but she still isn't trying to appeal to longtime players.  And I would be forever baffled as to why anyone who wasn't playing D&D would buy or read the book.  It is a fake self-help book that is really an excuse for Mazzanoble to write about herself.  I won't begrudge her that.  I think a lot of us would do that if we were given the opportunity, and I know that I wouldn't be able to make myself as sympathetic as her.  I just don't think that her efforts to wedge D&D into her personal story served her, her story, or the property.