Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

     I want to go on the record and state that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is nowhere near as well crafted, compelling, or meaningful as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).  I am wholly aware that I am committing some form of literary heresy with that statement.  The latter is widely viewed as a children's story, but it contains more truth about the struggle to be an adventuresome boy while still growing into a man.  It deals with young (and honest) love, financial inequities, and life on what was essentially the frontier.
     In contrast, Huck Finn abandons its deeper truths after the first third of the story, first in favor of a comical take on Americana con-artistry, then in destroying the virtue built into the Tom Sawyer character nine years earlier.  Maybe it was how disrespectful Twain was to his own creation that soured me most on this book, but I think it also had something to do with the easy realization that there is no adequate ending to the tale.  Instead, Twain places Jim back in shackles and cannot seem to return Huck to the realization that a slave is also a person and should be respected as one.
     If the second half of Huck Finn had been as well written as the first half (or the first third, especially), it would be the American masterpiece it is celebrated to be.  Instead, the book gets bogged down with the idea that young women (especially) are creatures to be marveled at (and perhaps politely lusted after), that men are essentially creatures looking to take advantage of others, and that the injustice in slavery is largely based in the separation of families – a huge step back from the early revelations at which Huck grasps to understand.
     The absolute worst part of the story is the handling of the revelation of what happened to Huck's father (even worse than Tom's appearance).  It feels cheap, and it is quite obviously a cheat.  As a frustrated writer, I know the temptation to wrap up unattended – and sometimes forgotten – elements with a wave of the hand and a simple statement that voids any concern for them.  I was hoping for something much better from a book as well regarded as this one is.
     Now, all of this is not to say that I am not happy that I read the book.  There is enough good material to make the less than good sufferable.  But it doesn't end up being the story it starts out to be (yes, I have been insanely guilty of that myself) and seems to wander away from having a point or even a consistent point of view. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Grey (2012) (Review)

(Very mild spoilers included.)
     Yes, I went into seeing The Grey (2012) with the sincere hope that Liam Neeson would be eaten by a wolf.  Too often, filmmakers feel the need to make man's struggle against nature – weather, terrain, and animals – one that has a happy ending and makes clear that civilization is supreme.  I am of the opinion that the ending should be in question when going in, and that nature should remain something to be feared.  There is a reason we live indoors and light the night. 
     The last wolf-eats-man movie I saw, Frozen (2010), was a disappointment.  Not so much because the wolves didn't look good or get to eat people, but because there were just so many problems with the story.  Add to that the problems with trying to find incredibly stupid characters sympathetic.  There is something entirely different with people who put themselves in position to either freeze to death or be eaten by wolves and those who are thrust into that situation through no fault of their own.  And that is something that The Grey gets right.
     There are several things the movie doesn't quite get right.  Director Joe Carnahan – not known for subtlety – tries to infuse Terrence Malick-esque trippiness in oddly placed dream sequences.  Ottway (Neeson) serves as an unreliable narrator with his voice overs, and those don't add much to the overall story.  The pacing is much slower than I would have expected, and Carnahan chooses to linger over shots far longer than necessary when trying to convey the sense of wilderness and isolation in remote Alaska.  Most strikingly, the roughnecks and workers at the remote oil drilling station seem to come out of the 1970s in their make-up and backgrounds and personal histories.  The audience isn't given much information about these men other than they likely have little in the civilized world for which to live.
     Still, these few non-successes could not overcome the things Carnahan and writer Ian MacKenzie Jeffers got right.  The film looks great, including the mostly animatronic wolves, but really shines where it captures the desolation of the area where the plane crash occurs and the loneliness of the drilling station.  Sure, Joe Anderson (as Flannery) feels like he is aping his role in The Crazies (2010) and Frank Grillo (as Diaz) spends a lot of time overacting, but the cast is solid and most give convincing performances.  The Grey, like John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), does not shy away from an all-male cast and fights for dominance.  However, The Grey has a decidedly more modern feel with the machismo largely dialed down to believable levels.
     The action is not overwhelming and is usually on point.  There is a death amongst the survivors that feels like a cheat because of when it occurs, and it breaks the momentum.  That may not be a bad thing, but it did distract me a little.  For it being a wolf-eats-man movie, it is surprisingly light on gore (at least on how I gauge gore).  It is more introspective than  I expected, but for all that thought these guys couldn't figure out to attack their knives – each has one – to wooden shafts to make spears.  Because spears would have been a pretty effective weapon against the wolves.  There is a lot of history to back that up.
     At any rate, The Grey is a solid film.  It isn't feel good or cheery.  The leader does not always know best.  It captures a sense of verisimilitude that too many movies avoid in an effort to please the audience.  When it ended, a gentleman sitting to my left exclaimed that he felt cheated and wanted his money back.  Most likely, he was looking for a more conventional story with an ending that reaffirmed the belief that striving to survive is all it takes to best the wild.  The Grey is thankfully not that simplistic.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Learn the Rules

I think I am going to put this out as a table tent in front of me when I GM from now on.  As much as it may apply to me at times, I do make an effort.  And I know I don't avoid learning the rules in an effort to get away with things.
     Something happened on Monday that upset me.  Not a lot, but enough to tweak my enjoyment of judging a Pathfinder Society Scenario (read: being the Game Master for an roleplaying game, in this instance Paizo's organized campaign for Pathfinder).  And because I wasn't aware of the issue until we were about 40 minutes into the session, I didn't want to cause a scene and call the offending player out.
     Most of the players had 4th level characters (with one having a 5th level), so nobody was new to the campaign or the system.  In fact, I am nearly positive that all the players at the table had been to the Monday night games at Chicagoland Games before.  As such, I was not expecting any kind of problem.
     Now, I have gotten a little lazy in my attitude towards Pathfinder Society play.  I don't always update my records right away, I don't closely follow the ongoing story, and I don't dig through the rules to find all of the combinations the players are sure to want to abuse so they can play the most powerful version of their characters as possible.  But where I have truly gotten lazy is in how I handle the players before the session starts, probably because after eight years of judging organized play I have begun to think that experienced players should be responsible enough to play the game without cheating.  Or, if they feel the need to cheat, they will at least cheat on dice rolls and not the basics of the rules.
     Then there was the player with the 4th level Cleric.
     I had judged him before, a couple of months ago.  I remember him not really knowing the rules, which was okay at the time.  We are trying to get new players to show up – both because we want more people to help grow the campaign and because we want them to buy stuff from the store that lets us use the space – and that means that some people will start playing without really looking at the rulebook.  Fine.  He had problems with some of the core things about his character, but they were corrected as we played the scenario.  At the end, I very politely suggested that he go over the few areas about which he seemed to be completely unfamiliar.
     I didn't think that would necessarily solve the problem, but I thought it would be a step in the right direction.  Lo and behold, he shows up for the Monday session with the same character and proceeds to make even more egregious mistakes in regards to his character.  And I want to be clear I am not slamming somebody's play style.  Sure, it bothered me that he wanted no roleplaying, just roll playing (meaning that he just wanted to roll the dice for everything his character did), but because he seems to have come to Pathfinder through online play, I kind of expected that.  No, this player consistently misunderstood nearly every rule in regards to his character.
     He didn't want to memorize his character's spells ('I can just cast anything on my spell list, right?').  He wanted to add his character level to his channeling.  He wanted to roll the wrong dice for his channeling.  He would stop the action to look up a spell description on his phone (which does happen, but he waited until it was his turn to even start the search and that would stop the game dead for at least a minute), but he only did that a few times.  Not carrying around a rulebook (or a printed copy of his spells), he seems to have opted to keep his spellcasting to a minimum.  Again, that can be a fine play choice but he could have helped his fellow players by actually being familiar with what his character could do.
     And I don't mean as a 4th level Cleric.  I mean as any type of Cleric.  Or spellcaster in PFS. 
     I corrected him on his belief that he could spontaneously cast his spells (which I had done before), but he continued in his belief that he did not need to prepare his spells or make a spell list.  He got a little frustrated that he couldn't do whatever he wanted (I think this had as much to do with him wanting a more combat focused experience and I was trying to gives as much RP time as possible, so he may have had some legitimate frustration with my style).  But he has a 4th level character.  That means he must have played him – because I'm pretty sure he hasn't been judging – at least nine times.  To be fair, that is about five times too many to have any uncertainties on the basics of the rules, and at least three sessions too many to not know the basics of what his character can do (you know, by the actual rules).
      It pissed me off.  I was already in a bad mood because I forgot to pack a book for my train rides to and from the game (meaning I missed out on over two hours of reading I could have accomplished), but that anger was directed at myself.  I was hoping that the players would be able to give me as good an experience as I was planning on giving them.  I like to think at least three of the five players honestly enjoyed the session.  I enjoyed a lot of it.  But not the guy who shows up to play the game without any regards to playing by the rules.
     I can stand a small amount of cheating.  I don't view it as all that different from the people who try to min-max the hell out their PCs to get the best advantages they can find.  But cheating usually means having an understanding of the rules one wants to find a way to get around.  I respect that a whole hell of a lot more than showing up without knowing what one is doing in what is essentially a session not for beginners.  I see that as wasting my time and being discourteous to the other players.
     Just learn the rules, man.
Okay, I know it is in the Star Wars alphabet, but I think it conveys the thought just as well.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Dreamers (Original Text - Part Twelve) (1997)

     So one of the things that will likely forever plague me as a writer is being consistent in the tense used.  I am bad at it.  Didn't try to fix it since I am putting the original text up here.  You are forewarned. 
     On the other hand, this is probably the best section to serve as a stand alone. I also think it is the last one I included in the version I printed up in 1997.  There is one more, very rushed section to come after this one.


XII

     "What exactly is your problem, Pudenski?"
      Larry Pudenski was as much in Jason MacLeod's face as Jason was in Larry's.  This was an unsightly confrontation happening in Vicki Souser's living room.  Everyone else was in the basement, at the pool table of watching a movie in the adjoining room.  It was a large basement, but Larry was wise enought to bring the fight topside.
     "You, you sanctimonious bastard."
     "You're already drunk, " Jason quipped.  "You came here with some bug up your ass and started drinking right away."
     "You know what I'm talking about."
     "But do I know what you're talking about?  That is, can I apply the knowledge of what I know to that which you are referring?  See, I'm still functional."
     "She called you."
     "Jason stopped smirking.  "Okay, you're right.  She called me.  She asked if she could stay at my place if she came into town."  Larry was still glaring at him, so Jason thought he should diffuse the situation.  "You called her, then."
     "Yes, I did."
     "I hadn't told anyone.  I hadn't decided if I should say yes.  I thought she should wait until you found someone else."
     "Fine.  Then I'll tell Melissa."
     "I'd like tot hink you were joking, Larry.  I'd like to dismiss how you try to convince everybody else that Melissa is too good for me.  Lynn didn't call me for some devious reason."
     "Why then?"
     "How did you leave things, Pudenski?  She didn't think you'd be real receptive to the notion of her visiting."
     "What, because I was in love with her?"
     "Then talk to Lynn about it."
     Larry stepped back a pace.  "You didn't tell Melissa that Lynn wants to spend a week at your place?"
     "I will, when I can think of a diplomatic was to say it."
      Wait here, buddy."
     Jason grabbed Larry's arm as the latter was turning to go back to the basement.  "Why does everyone want to make this more difficult than it needs to be?"  Jason sighed.  "Are you able to handle seeing Lynn and not sleeping with her?"
      "Who said I wasn't going to sleep with her?"

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Nightmares (2011)

ORIGINAL FICTION
(very short story)
9040 W. 140th Street (the red arrow is pointing to the balcony for Apt. 3B, where I lived from May 1989 to February 1993), Orland Park, IL  60462.  This is where I did, in actuality, write a letter much like the one I use in the story.  That little red door is to the entryway with the mailboxes, where – much like the unnamed narrator in the story – I could not retrieve a letter I too hastily committed to sending.

Nightmares
 
     "I had another nightmare."
     Part of me – hopefully hidden and on the inside only – cringed at this.  Joe had nightmares all the time.  Well, maybe not all the time, but certainly with enough frequency that his close friends could be assured that he would have at least a couple a month.  Even his casual acquaintances were likely aware that he had memorable nightmares, by his estimation.  I likely would be categorized closer to the latter than the former, but I know he has had them.  He had been having them since at last his early teens.  But there was something about his nightmares that just didn't speak to me.  It was all I could do to offer a shrug.
     "It was much worse than usual."
     Well, usual for Joe meant something like monsters or demons or something that really scared him.  Not in the monster movie or horror film way, because his conjured beings struck at his core being in his dreams.  To my mind, however, it just wasn't that interesting.  Maybe it was because I usually had some sense of dreaming during my own fits of nightmares.  As soon as one knew there is nothing at risk in the dream, the nightmare could be experienced as theater.  How could Joe not see that his monsters and demons could not exist in the waking world?  He wasn't some kind of delusional.
     "You aren't saying anything."
     "Sorry, Joe."  I looked up to meet his gaze.  He looked a little haggard, but that could have just been him being less than diligent in his grooming that morning.  I'm sure he would have looked more put together if he had been going in to work.  "I guess I don't have anything to say about that."
     "Don't give me that shit.  You have nightmares, too.  I know you do.  I thought you would be a little more sympathetic about this."
      It shouldn't have surprised me that Joe still thought enough about me – my meager moral character – to think that I would be some kind of sounding board and support for him.  It did, but it shouldn't have.  I dropped my head to hide my smirk.  At least I managed to find enough within me to feel guilty about it.
     "Yeah, Joe, I have nightmares."
     "When did you have one last?"
     "Last night.  Why?"
     Joe didn't expect that.  Maybe he did, but my estimation of his reaction was that he didn't expect that to be my answer.  I shouldn't be so cavalier about assuming what Joe expected.  He asked the question and "last night" was a foreseeable answer, so maybe he had been expecting it as a possibility.  One would not associate idiocy with Joe. 
     "Fine," Joe finally managed.  He looked as though he were shocked by my response, but maybe he wasn't.  "What was your nightmare like?"
     "It was surprisingly a lot like this, but with different people."
      Joe thought on that for a few seconds.  I guess he decided I hadn't really told him anything, so he said, "What the fuck does that mean?"
     "It means that my nightmare – really all my nightmares – are a lot like my real-life.  You know, waking life.  You aren't in them, so you can take that as a compliment if you want."  I threw that last bit in because I assumed that people don't aspire to be in the nightmares of others. 
     "I still don't understand what that means.  How is it a nightmare if it is just like life?"
     "Maybe because I'm living a fucking nightmare, Joe."  I paused for effect, smugly thinking that this is what one should do when making a show of one's personal failings.  "If you think I can dream something worse that what I'm living, you have too much faith in my imagination.  The only difference in the nightmares is that I have to deal with the people I'm avoiding.  Or the ones avoiding me.  I think a lot of it is mutual by this point in time, but there are social confrontations between those people and me in my nightmares."
     "You want to talk about it?"
     "No.  There isn't anything to be gained in that discussion."
     "You might figure out what they mean."
     "I know what the meaning in them is, Joe.  I think I do at any rate.  Seeing as how they pretty much match-up with real life, I don't think there is much need for interpretation."
     "They still have to be about something."
     "You want to know what they're about, Joe?  You want to know that they stem from the knowledge that in my life, only one person ever loved me.  Seriously, one person.  And not even family.  You come from a marginally functional family—"
     "Hey!"
     "Hey yourself, Joe.  There is nothing in your family dynamic that even approaches being damaging to you or your emotional well-being.  Enjoy that.  Not everybody gets that."
     "If you were never loved, you'd be some kind of a monster."
     "I am some kind of a monster, Joe.  The one person who loved me broke my heart the night he told me that he would fuck me over in a heartbeat if it meant he had even the slightest chance of getting laid."
     "How old were you when this happened?"
     "Seventeen."
     "What?  Was this your dad?"
     It was not my father.  Mind you, I kind of knew that my dad placed his own sexual satisfaction ahead of any kind of relationship with his sons earlier than that.  He made me swap seats with him on our flight from Seattle to Anchorage so he could sit next to an attractive woman.  He ended up fucking her, too.  At least he had fun on that vacation.  Still, even with his self-centeredness, it would have been undoubtedly better for me if he had found a way to love me.  The closest he came was trying to be proud of whatever meager accomplishments I had as a child because those reflected well on him.  No, I learned later that the only person he was capable of loving was himself.  I knew somebody else like that, too.  He married the person I dread most in my nightmares.
     "No.  My best friend.  Was my best friend."  I paused, but this time it was to contain my emotions.  I didn't want to start crying in front of Joe.  Not that he'd think that I'm weak or something; it's just that he knows that I'm mostly emotionally dead inside and I'm sure that seeing me crying would be a little weird for him.  "In late May of '86, when it wasn't certain that we'd ever see each other again, I told him that I loved him.  You know, in a friend sort of way.  Nothing sexual about it."
     "I wasn't assuming there was."
     "Anyway, he told me he loved me.  We made a little plan that we'd always be there for each other.  Forever."
     "What happened?"
     "I think that he assumed – if he remembered it at all – that our declaration of that eternal commitment was just kids stuff.  I'm sure he had no idea how fucked up my home life was.  His dad may have been a dick – the guy threatened to beat me with a belt when I was nine – but his parents certainly loved him.  His brother probably did, too.  There was a degree of involvement in his life.  Anyway, I think that he began to grow up and didn't understand how much I needed him to always be there for me.  No matter what."
     "So he told you he would rather chase pussy than be there for you.  Then what happened."
     "Then I went home.  Nobody was there.  My brother was at Madison.  My dad may have been working, but I'm almost positive he was at his girlfriend's that night.  I cried.  I wrote a lengthy, rather hateful suicide note.  Then I went into my father's bedroom, took his little .22 pistol, put it to my head, and pulled the trigger."
     Joe sat silent for a few seconds.  "Didn't check to see if it was loaded?"
     "No, I did.  There is a lot that I am compressing in my retelling here.  I was crying most of my walk home from the party where he told me that I didn't mean as much to him as the chance of sex did.  I got the gun out and made sure it was loaded before I started writing the letter.  It is very important that it be conceived as a letter, because I actually mailed the fucking thing.  Written with a DOS version of Word Perfect."
     "Holy shit!  That is a long time ago."
     "Not really.  In a lot of ways, its yesterday.  Something being a long time ago assumes that you fill the span between then and now with living.  If you don't, then it will always be close.  If you don't do anything with your life, it will be yesterday.  Anyway, I wrote the suicide letter without ever mentioning that I was killing myself.  Wrote the thing for someone with whom I had no real relationship.  Printed it out without proof-reading it; back then you had to run spellcheck, the program wasn't set to let you know whenever you fucked up."
     "I remember."
     "Put it in an envelope.  Addressed the envelope.  Put a stamp on it and ran it downstairs to the entryway where the mailboxes were.  Went back upstairs and checked the gun again.  Sat at the edge of my father's bed facing the TV – it was off – and pulled the trigger."
     "It didn't fire?"
     "Nope.  And you know that thing they say about jumpers, the ones that survive?  How they immediately regret the decision to jump the instant they jump?"
     Joe nodded.
     "Well, I experienced something like that.  It scared the fuck out of me.  It emotionally drained me.  I'm not so proud as to hide from the fact that I am terrified of dying.  Still am.  And there I was, not dead, after I had found the strength to try to kill myself.  For a couple of seconds I thought about finding the other pistol he kept hidden in his room and trying with that one.  If I couldn't find it, though, he'd have been really pissed that I went digging through his things.  I really only wanted to kill myself in his room because if I did it in my room or the front room, there would be a chance he wouldn't notice right away.  If I was going to be dead, he should know about it.  Didn't leave a note for him, though."
     "What was in the letter?"
     "How the fuck should I know?  I didn't keep a copy of it."
     "How did it start?"
     "'I don't know why I'm writing this to you except that I have the feeling you hate me.'  Not my best work."
     "You remember that?"
     "Yeah.  Like I said, in many ways its yesterday.  I couldn't tell you what else was in it.  It was three pages long.  The plan, such as it was, was that she would have to ask my best friend why I had sent her this letter and he would have to tell her that I was dead.  In that way, both would be hurt – yes, I'm aware of how stupid it sounds now, even then the next day – and neither would have the full picture.  I tried to get the letter the next morning so it wouldn't be sent but the mailman came before 11am.  Or one of the neighbors took the outgoing mail to the post office; there was a woman who did that from time to time.  Also spent two days trying to convince my friends to help me steal the letter out of the mailbox after it was delivered.  Even got them to drive me over one day to try, but it hadn't arrived yet."
     "Slow mail."
     "Tell me about it.  Then it was embarrassing dealing with her after that.  But I found a way to make her deal with me and even having contact as fucked up as that felt better than being alone all the time.  She was the one who talked me out of my plan of enlisting in the Army or killing myself, right and proper, after graduation.  She didn't know that she did, mind you.  To her it was just an off hand comment.  But I was so starved for any kind of attention I interpreted it as having much deeper meaning."
     I didn't want to talk about it any more.  I never want to talk about it.  I knew a kind of constant fear of every having to deal with this person ever again.  After a short while, Joe wanted to talk again.
     "So, that is your nightmare?"
     "In a sense, I guess.  Its emblematic.  My nightmares, the ones when I'm asleep, involve having to deal with her.  Or my best friend.  Or some of my other close friends from back then.  Or the only woman I've ever loved, whose parents once offered to pay me to sleep with her because it might break up her relationship with her boyfriend.  They did not like him.  My nightmares harken back to a time when I still had promise and potential, a time when my life could have been anything other than utterly wasted.  Come to think of it, if I ever do kill myself, that's the line I want as both my note and on the headstone.  Not that I think anyone would pop for a headstone.  'There was a time when I had potential and promise, and friends expected great things from me.'  My nightmares are just dream versions of the truth of my situation.  That I have no meaningful emotional connections because I pissed them all away.  My nightmares remind me that I am unloved, Joe, and that the people who might have helped me save myself from that simply ran out of patience long ago."
     "Oh."
     "Yeah.  And I may have hidden the point, but I am a monster because I effectively used a total hateful impulse to manipulate someone into my life.  And I wasn't especially kind to her while she was enduring all my bullshit.  Can't be that pissed that she grew tired of it.  Or that she threw me out of her life.  Just wish she had done it face to face."
     "She do it over the phone?"
     "No, —"
     "Because I'm betting this is before email and texting."
     "There was email.  She had an email account through the university.  No, she had her roommate do it."
     "Ouch."
     "Could have been worse.  She could have had her boyfriend do it.  Or my best friend.  Important thing is that she doesn't have to deal with me anymore.  And my nightmare is as much that she would have to deal with me, me like I was then, as much as it is that I would have to deal with her.  Or any of a number of people from back then.  But she is the easiest one to explain."
     "So, your nightmares are what, just talking to her?"
     "They tend to be a little more involved than that.  They are still nightmares, but I don't think there is any substitute imagery.  The things that scare me are the truths of my life.  I would like to be able to hide from those in my dreams."
     "Ah."
     "You still want to talk nightmares, Joe."
     "Yeah, I do.  But not with you.  Yours are kind of fucked up."
     "Thanks."
     "You should probably see somebody about them."
     "They're just dreams, Joe."  I said this last bit with a forced, wry smile.  "They don't mean anything."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Legends of the Dragonrealm, Volume III (2011)

     Sure, Richard A. Knaak's Dragonrealm setting hasn't changed much since I started reading the novels in 1989.  Then again, most the books and novellas were written between 1989 and 1994, so there isn't a lot of room for change.  I was rather excited when the novels were collected into the Legends of the Dragonrealm books.  Volume I had Fire Drake (1989), Ice Dragon (1989), and Wolfhelm (1990).  The only real reason I had to pick it up – assuming really liking the Dragonrealm setting enough to buy the book just to support the re-release isn't justification – was the inclusion of a rather crude map of the setting.  Volume II collected Shadow Steed (1990), The Shrouded Realm (1991), and Children of the Drake (1991), and the short story/novella "Skins" (2003; previously available in pdf only).   "Skins" was a major disappointment and made me less than hopeful for where Knaak could take the characters after having worked in licensed fiction (Dragonlance, Conan, World of Warcraft, and Diablo) for so long now.  And it wasn't like the last full-fledge Dragonrealm novel, The Horse King (1997), was one that I enjoyed.
     But my fears have (momentarily) melted away with the novellas that make up the last third of Legends of the Dragonrealm, Volume III (2011) – it also contains the previously published novels The Crystal Dragon (1993) and Dragon Crown (1994).  Though "Past Dance" (2002), "Storm Lord" (2003), and "The Still Lands" (2004) all have been available as pdfs, I never risked reading them before now.  It turns out the three – when taken together – make up a fun and compelling mini-novel that does more to tie the ongoing Dragonrealm story together and move it forward than any of the previous novels. 
     Now, one should not expect Knaak to challenge the reader with unsavory choices and frequent character deaths.  As a matter of fact, I don't think I can point to an author I've read who is reluctant to kill of his creations.  The one character who dies over and over again is actually resurrected in the short stories and is finally linked with his much earlier self.  Sure, I was disappointed that original him wasn't given more due, but I was about as excited reading the novellas as I was when I was tearing through the original novels back in high school. 
     Part of the reason is because Knaak feels as invested in these characters as he was some twenty years ago.  Part of the reason is because I've read most of the novels three times (though I have never re-read the two novels which did not make the cut for the Legends colllections).  But there is a real story being created, and I was happy that it wasn't rooted in the daddy issues that sometimes dominate Knaak's fantasy novels.  Instead, the very powerful mages of the Dragonrealm continue to run up against forces and beings just as powerful as they are and cannot rely solely on their ability to magick their way out of all situations.  Maybe the master of Wenslis deserved much better treatment (I still want to see him get his own novel), but the rest felt as though they were given their proper due and more.
     Now, one should not jump into the Dragonrealm at Volume III.  It is best experienced in order, though I could easily see reading Shadow Steed after the two Origins of the Dragonrealm novels (The Shrouded Realm and Children of the Drake) and getting more out of it.  There may not be an ultimate moral to the Dragonrealm stories, and they certainly have not been as celebrated as George R.R. Martin's lengthy Song of Ice and Fire novels, but they are enjoyable light fantasy fiction.  More than that, they are engaging.  And the addition of the novellas in Volume III show that Knaak still has great love for his characters and setting.  That means there is still life left in that world, and I would encourage anyone who likes the genre to give the collections a chance.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Warrior's Way (2010)

     When I first saw a trailer form The Warrior's Way (2010), I immediately lamented that someone greenlit this project in a world where I cannot get a game of Ninja's & Superspies together.  But I am game for most crossover movies that don't go the Shadowrun route - you've got sci-fi in my fantasy; you got fantasy in my sci-fi - and I assumed that there had to be good action sequences.  Plus, there had to be a chance of there being a story hidden in there.
     There is, but it isn't handled especially well.  Ultimate swordsman Yang (Dong-gun Jang) murders his way across Japan in the name of a Clan feud, but he cannot bring himself to kill an innocent baby.  This leads to lot of killing of his former Clan mates.  The action is stylized, but somewhat sanitized.  There is no weight to any of the killings and it is up to Jang to show how the conscious of a stone cold assassin can be touched.  I think Jang succeeded, but he doesn't have a lot of help along the way.  He winds up in an odd town in the US West that is all barren ground and semi-retired circus folk.  Throw in Kate Bosworth overdoing an accent and Geoffrey Rush barely registering, and that is kind of how The Warrior's Way operates.
     There are competing bad guys (which doesn't really work) and comical action sequences (which do work, and hint at how this could have been a much more sly and clever movie) to balance out the stilted dialogue.  Jang is spared of having to say much – it fits the character – and his character isn't supposed to be overly emotive, so the little things he does end up working quite well.  Unfortunately, he is often removed from his own story and forced to interact in the less compelling drama of the townfolk.
     It is not surprising that The Warrior's Way didn't find a large audience.  It is not an expected mash-up.  Sadly, it would most likely have been a much better film without involving any American/Australian actors and letting the whole of the film play out in Asia and with substitles (when dialogue would be necessary).  It would have felt much more like a stylized graphic novel done right that way.  As it it, it can serve as a diversion, but I doubt anyone is going to watch it and declare, that's what I've been waiting for.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bad Teacher (2011)

     It struck me rather quickly that Bad Teacher (2011) had assembled a rather good cast and that it might be wasted in a shallow, cynical, largely unfunny comedy.  That turned out to be partially true.  It may have just been that I would have preferred to see a more conventional comedy that allowed Dave 'Gruber' Allen, Lucy Punch, John Michael Higgins, and Jason Segel much more screen time and character development.  It may be that I found most of Cameron Diaz's lines to be delivered in a most unsatisfying way.
     There is a fair amount in Bad Teacher that could work in better hands.  While the cast and crew may be convinced that Diaz is a comic genius, it certainly isn't on display here.  Not only is she about eight years too old for the role of Elizabeth Halsey (this is not a knock on Miss Diaz's looks or fitness, but she is clearly too mature for the set-up her character is given), but she does not give her fellow actors much to work with.  The sole exception seems to be her scenes with Segel, whose character is written to thrive in being ignored and disengaged.  
     The real problem with the movie is that it cannot find a way to make the story of an unlikeable woman's quest to land a man with money interesting.  Never mind that the story is ridiculous, it isn't crafted in such a manner that one can understand how it should drive the story forward.  There isn't even an air of absurdity to allow for increasingly inappropriateness because the film is just so determined to be grounded in relative plausibility.  Further, there is also a problem with trying to work the children into the story when it is well established that Miss Halsey cannot be bothered to learn the names of her students. 
     It seems that a much better film would have largely dealt with the rest of the good-natured and well meaning staff of the school trying to make-up for the short comings of a bad teacher.  It still could have had the Halsey character at the center, but it would have allowed the rest of the cast to have something to do that contributed to the story.  Instead, director Jake Kasden treats his material here the way Miss Halsey approaches teaching: he'll just show a bunch of images and hope that it amounts to something and when its over, he gets enough money to move on to his next project.  I miss when comedies were more about finding the humor or absurdity in situations than in being cold-hearted and cruel.
     Now, I should be honest and admit that the only reason I got around to seeing this is because I became aware that Kathryn Newton (as Chase Rubin-Rossi) was in it; I miss her being one of the bright spots in the short-lived Gary Unmarried (2008-2010).  I was kind of hoping that she – and the other child actors – would be given more to do.  I guess I don't see the point of setting a story largely within a school and not knowing how to involve the children.  Or even how to ignore them properly.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I'll Give It My All...Tomorrow Vol. 1-2 (2010)


Japanese Slacker(s)
by Silence Do_nothing

     Despite not being keen on the horror genre, I will acknowledge that it has the advantage of only needing to get across a fraction of its characters' feelings to strongly move the audience emotionally. The most important criteria I look for in a creative work is that it makes me feel something (although I'm usually not seeking the sensation of revulsion). I don't know if it was intentional, but manga author Shunju Aono's dramedy I'll Give It My All...Tomorrow transfers its slacker characters' apathy to the reader.
     Forty year old single father Shizuo Oguro abruptly gives up his middle management career to "find himself." Much to the chagrin of his father Shiro, he finds himself only motivated to indulge in Playstation, comic books, and rubber costumed superhero shows. Upon taking a part time job at fast food establishment H Burgers, he befriends co-worker Ichinosawa, a twenty-something fellow slacker who hasn't found a passion for anything. Shiro isn't placated when his "D" in art class son decides to pursue manga professionally.
     Lacking plot, the story consists of Shizuo enduring ridicule over his perceived loser persona, but his situation is sympathetic enough (at least to one of similarly little ambition like myself) to undercut this. His biggest failing is not gutting out one more year at his office job to provide a secure income all the way up to his daughter's high school graduation, but he still presumably provided for her adequately the previous seventeen years. His reduction in earning power didn't deprive her of any necessities.
     His manga aspirations are mocked as childish and irresponsible, but given that he was able to secure multiple meetings with an editor from a major publishing house to critique his submissions, it shouldn't seem so harebrained. It's equally likely that he has a talent that was going to waste at his "real" job.
     Videogames and comic books aren't considered the most respectable fare for adults (I won't defend the rubber costumed superhero shows, unless, of course, it's the awesome Specterman), but they're harmless leisure pursuits. Admittedly, he also frequents a pub, but it's not as if he's an alcoholic, and, as appearances go, it wouldn't matter if he were, because it's much more socially acceptable for an adult to take part in destructive drinking than video games and comics (much to my annoyance).
     Shizuo and Ichinosawa's fast food employment is presented as an embarrassment, but I'll defend it on a couple grounds, the first being that, as someone who has worked fast food and other menial near minimum wage jobs, I agree with the belief that there is no shame in honest work. Shizuo working at H Burger while pursuing a creative vocation is no different than aspiring actors taking low paying day jobs to pay the bills as they try to make it in Hollywood.
     Scorn for this occupation doesn't serve the vast number of people who patronize these kinds of restaurants. It does no good to attach shame outside of actions we don't want done. I don't see how promoting someone's job as a joke helps instill a sense of pride (not that the uniforms help, either) or motivates him to provide better service. I would support the addition of a fast food employee to the faces of Mount Rushmore if it increased the chances of getting my order right.
     Even if Shizuo's actions aren't as defensible as I make them out to be, there's a part of me that thinks people are entitled to take it easy one year out of every forty-one. The only problem with that is that it will be all the way to at least the year 2700 before I can expunge my slacking debt.
     Shizuo is largely immune to people's disapproval of his lifestyle, nor do his actions cause others any great harm, so there isn't much dramatic impact to the story. It's lighthearted, but not very engaging. It wasn't until the last fourth of volume two that I felt anything for the characters, and that involved flashbacks of Ichinosawa and Shizuo dealing with a death in the family. The characters weren't entertaining enough on their own to do without noteworthy events surrounding them (a better take on apathetic characters would be the the 80s film River's Edge).
     Aonos's crude drawing style lends itself to humor, but it didn't live up to its potential. The gags weren't stupid or lame. It's just that their usual effect was to make me think "Oh, that's nice" rather than laugh. It was never as funny as the premise had made me hope.
     There were parts of I'll Give It My All...Tomorrow I would have liked to have seen expanded. Shizuo's manga-within-the-manga, featuring his own unathletic image as the hero, was kind of funny. It had potential as parody of the medium. The H Burgers setting was my favorite. I've wondered if the clips I've seen of super cheerful and smiling fast food workers in Japan, a contrast to the sullen atmosphere we expect at our fast food eateries (regardless of how unrealistically commercials portray them), were just for the camera, or if it is typical. I would like to see how the Japanese obsession with details combines with fast food culture. If there were an H Burgers spinoff, I'd give it a chance.
     I can't say the manga was bad, or boring. The lackadaisical atmosphere had a charm to it. But there wasn't enough to leave a strong impression of any kind.
     Maybe the real problem is that I've been engulfed in the slacker lifestyle too long to feel Shizuo's antics as sad or ridiculous. Oh well.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I'm busy trying to get my Civ III game back together

     I was not really happy with my post for The Debt (2011).  It didn't get done when it should have and I didn't give it the time necessary to make it worth the delay.  And now I'm spending a bunch of time trying to get a game that took me seven years to be what I wanted it to be (before it was destroyed by somebody thinking that not saving the files he was instructed to save when the OS was changed on the computer) and don't have time to write a proper post.
     But Civ III is still cool.  Don't think that everything needs to be new.  Civ III rocks because it threw open the gates and let the community create material and give it away.  There was no need to charge for what people were willing to create.
     I am nowhere near having all of the units reacquired.  That is a monumental task.  Then sounds need to be added, and glitches caught and fixed (there are so many typos in the .ini files that it just hurts to try to fix them all at once).  I spent about four hours today just downloading Leader Heads and buildings.  Anyway, this is how I am wasting some time right now.
Yes, somebody made the Hall of Justice for Civ III.  I am going to use it for my Wraith Archives.
 There are also Blood Bowl arenas.  This is the Evil one.  But Blood Bowl arenas!

And, for some reason there is a statue for the Cthulu Wonder.  Make way for your own dark overlord.


I get to finally use an actual Wizard's Tower for the Wizard's Tower improvement I put in the game back in 2004. 

I haven't played a game with the Eiffel Tower as a Wonder since Civ II.  But I didn't have a Wonder Splash this cool to use.

And few things make me feel better than knowing that I will, eventually, be able to play Civ III again with the Super Veritech Fighter from Robotech as a buildable unit.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Debt (2011)

     There is a compelling story wedged into The Debt (2011), but I cannot come to say that it is delivered in a way to maintain interest or allow for the dramatic tension that should be there.  Part of the problem – or maybe even most of it – comes from director John Madden's choice to let the action and espionage remain thoroughly grounded in the realm of reality.  For a film that was not short on known actors or budget, it was a daring choice.  Unfortunately, it made the Mossad agents at the center of the story seem ill-prepared and amateurish – even more than the events of the story would suggest.
     Having not seen the 2007 original version of this movie, I cannot comment on how closely the remake hews to original plot points.  I will note that the manner in which the story is told does little to build dramatic tension.  While the cast is solid (somehow Sam Worthington keeps getting work, and that is something I cannot explain), there is such a disconnect between how the characters' looks and mannerisms in 1965 and 1997 that I had a difficult time convincing myself that they are supposed to be the same people.
     There are some really good moments in The Debt.  Jessica Chastain (as Rachel in 1965) portrays vulnerability and resolve in a quite compelling manner.  Actually, the scenes that showcase the vulnerability were so well constructed and acted as to make me decidedly uncomfortable in watching them.  Likewise, the attempted escape from East Berlin is quite entertaining.
     Still, I don't think there is enough in The Debt to make it worth recommending.  Maybe I did not take the proper approach in watching this movie.  But it felt more leaden than mature.  And even though the scope of the story should be large and inspiring, it played much smaller.  Ultimately, the impact and weight of the original mission doesn't seem to translate through in the English version.  Madden may have assumed that an audience will know how important the capture and trial of a Nazi war criminal is to Israelis as the nation was establishing itself, but he failed to bring that feeling to the screen.  And that is where I think The Debt failed the most.
     It is not a bad movie.  Nobody is likely to feel that their time has been wasted in watching it.  But I would suspect that most people who see it will wonder why it isn't much better than the end result.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Poetics (c. 335 BCE)

     It is more than a little disconcerting that what we have of two of Aristotle's seminal works – The Ethics (be it the Nicomachean or Eudemian version) and Poetics – have not survived as complete works, but rather as the assembled class notes that were subsequently used as the basis of the actual books.  This means that we, who didn't experience the direct teachings of Aristotle, do not get the benefit of the poetry of his language or the true insight of his thought.
     Poetics is perhaps one of the most celebrated texts in Western culture.  Should it be?  Probably.  It serves as the basis for critical interpretation of poetry (and prose, since Aristotle is essentially concerned with how to tell a compelling and meaningful story) and lays out the necessary elements to constructing a story.  The problem – for me – is that it is essentially an older version (and an incomplete one) of a text book.  I'm almost positive that there has been much work in the field of deconstructing the elements of a story, and that amongst them emerges a much more complete (and contemporary) picture of what it takes to effectively enact a plot or structure a tale in such a manner that it is consistent with the point envisioned by the author.
     Indeed, were it not for the lengthy and well written introduction to the text (by translator Malcolm Heath), I think I would have failed to appreciate much of what Aristotle was explaining.  What is more telling is that Aristotle correctly anticipates that the failures of structure are ones that can – and have – endured to the present.  Clearly, Aristotle was more than just paying attention to the poetry and plays of his day (and well before it); he found a way to properly appreciate them as an art form.
     I know that I am nowhere near well-versed in real criticism to truly appreciate what Aristotle accomplished with the Poetics (and yet I am arrogant enough to work in the medium on this blog).  It is doubly painful that his commentaries on comedies – as implied in the text – are completely missing from history.  But I am certainly glad I finally got around to reading this book.  Why it wasn't required for any of the theatre classes I had, I cannot answer.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Hannah (2011)

     I don't know what to make of director Joe Wright's Hanna (2011).  It is part hard-edge espionage thriller, part standard action fare, and part tweener (or maybe young adult) yarn about friendship and family.  It also calls upon established stars Cate Blanchett (as CIA maven Marissa Wiegler) and Eric Bana (as Hanna's father, Erik Heller) to adopt over-the-top accents for no real reason.  That is not to say that it is poorly made or unenjoyable.  Hanna is fine, but it probably could have been better if it had been more determined as to how it wanted to tell its story.
     I will say that Saoirse Ronan (Hanna) has the creepiest, most expressive blue eyes I have seen in recent cinema.  There is something otherworldly about them.  As such, they help sell the notion that Hanna is some government concocted being, not an ordinary human being.  Add in the odd education her "father" gives her in the remote, snowy woods of Finland, and Hanna may as well be an alien in human form set out amongst the people to complete her secret mission.
     Hanna works best when the government pursuit of their renegade assets gives way to the interactions between a vacationing British family and not-quite-properly adapted Hanna.  These scenes are lighter – almost breezy – but retain the hint of danger and suspense.  More than that, they show off the contrast between people who grow up as part of a society and those who can only mimic as much.  Unfortunately, these scenes are likely not what one is expecting from Hanna
     Blanchett and Bana are fine here, but their roles could have been easily handled by a number of mid-grade actors.  The history between Marissa and Erik isn't given enough weight in its presentation – and where it is shown, it strikes a harsh contrast against the lighter, comic scenes – and the resolution of it is most unsatisfactory.  There is a nice call back to end the film, but that, too, stands in contrast to how the story had been developing.
     I wouldn't steer anyone away from seeing Hanna – it is entertaining, if inconsistent.  But I would warn them to not expect it to be gritty or serious.  It is a bit of fantasy, a (perhaps ill-conceived) parable about the power of women who are coming of age and the risks of the adult world they must enter that throws a little government conspiracy into the mix. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dreamers (Original Text - Part Eleven) (1997)

     When I get around to rewriting this story (and I mean thoroughly rewriting it), I hope to avoid hammering a term into the readers heads like I unintentionally did here with "the group".  Can't be that lazy in my writing.  Fine for a first draft to get the idea out there (and all I really have is the rough draft), but it doesn't help if one wants their work to feel complete.
     Anyway, another incredibly short section. 

XI

     Nancy didn't like not getting together with the group, especially when it was everyone.  Still, she decided to follow through on her decision to explore a relationship with a man she knew and respected.  He wasn't from the group.  He probably wouldn't have much interest in the group.  It would be a shame to lose him because of the group.  Besides, Nancy could keep who she wanted from the group.  In the long run, she could deal with most of them being out of her life.
     Jason MacLeod was almost part of that subset.  He would have been if he wasn't going out with Melissa.  Nancy's discoveries about his sexual tastes, and the subsequent conversations they had engaged in had been enough to make her question the friendship he and she shared.  Well, that wasn't entirely true.  They were still friends, and they would probably stay friends for quite a while.  Nancy could, in Jason's terms, afford such a friendship.  She wasn't bound by work or school constraints.  She came from a family with less money than Vicki's, but unlike Vicki, Nancy wasn't encouraged to work.  Her parents liked giving her money.
     Not everybody was like that.  Not everybody was privileged or damned, and maybe more information should be had before she rushed to judgment on Jason.  He was, supposedly, in a faithful and satisfying relationship with Melissa.  He He had come so close to telling Melissa he loved her the night before.  There was a chance that he had said it at some point when Nancy was out of ear shot.  But he had spent the night on the couch, and Melissa slept in Jason's bedroom with Nancy.  It was a good thing because Nancy felt disoriented all night, and Nancy had something Jason was reluctant to call Night Terrors.
     Nancy wasn't out with the group, so she couldn't talk to anyone in it about how she was feeling.  She didn't want to draw her new interest into their ways, at least not as it stood.  Worst of all, she still wanted to know what had gotten her all rattled.  She instead decided to patiently wait for her man.  The patience helped.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Red State (2011)

     Kevin Smith's Red State (2011) stands as a near perfect example of how not to tell a story in film.  From its awkward imposed monologues to insert expository material to its inconsistent, schizophrenic emotional tone, to its thorough lack of any point or entertainment value as a whole, this movie is an unabashed disaster.  That is not to say that there have not been worse movies made, but I seriously doubt the directors of those have been as smug or self-satisfied as Smith seems to be with his own work.  If I were more generous, I could point out that Smith could have broken this into three separate films – each of which would have allowed for traditional storytelling or plot structure – and been better off for it.  His attempt to mash the disparate elements together comes off as amateurish and unimpressive; he should definitely be beyond the first by now.
     The sole bright point of the movie was the character of Cheyenne (Kerry Bishé), who has some depth and meaning beyond the leaden sermons and grindhouse style action sequences.  That writer-director Smith does not know what to do with the character – with any of the characters – may prove that Smith just isn't fit to be making films at this point.  Bishé stands out against the more established actors in being able to depict internal conflict without being obvious or dropping into caricature.  That may just be the writing, or Smith may have just decided that there only needed to be one role that really made the idea of conflicted loyalties and obligations well.  (I don't want to rag on Michael Angarano, an actor I usually enjoy, but he is not given enough to do – and what his character is allowed to do is often poorly shot – and his character feels thoroughly false.)
     There are many bad things I could write about this film, but what's the point?  It has the one bright spot.  Think of it as the cupcake in the pile of shit.  No matter how much you like cupcakes – and if you aren't starving – you aren't going for the one steeped in manure.  There isn't any social commentary here (though I'm sure Smith thinks there is).  It isn't the "actor's catnip" he thinks it is – who would want to be a part of something like this? – and it isn't going to matter in the space of a year.  All Red State did for me was convince me that Smith has no voice past Clerks II (2006).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Stake Land (2010)

     Sure, the impetus behind calling the film Stake Land (2010) seems to be to cash in on the success Zombieland (2009); the awkward announcement of a vampire-ridden America as "Stake Land" feels not so much self-aware as aware of the zombie-themed flick.  Stake Land also fails to explain how Mister (Nick Damici, who also co-wrote the script) knows so much about the various types of vamps while the general population breaks down rather easily into victims, huddled masses, and cultists.  But even with its flawed storytelling – and seeming to borrow from Kevin Costner's The Postman (1997) – the movie is rather enjoyable.
     The story is straight forward, with a few complications along the way to draw it out.  There are the vampires – and everybody should be afraid of them.  There are people trying to survive – they are very afraid of the vampires, and often their victims.  There are a few hunters – Mister being the one featured in the movie – who are unwilling to wait out the end of the world in quite desperation.  Then there are the religious crazies – claiming a brand of Christianity that has the vampire plague as God's means of cleansing the Earth for the True Believers and what I presumed to be their New Jerusalem – and they are the real bad guys.  They are the ones who take the situation from 'oh, this is bad' to 'well, the President's dead and all of the cities have been infected'. 
     It may help to think of Stake Land as a road movie with lots of dangerous, bloodthirsty obstacles.  The buddy-buddy element may play a little false (Connor Paolo's Martin is too slight a character to be any kind of equal to Mister), but there is a believable dynamic between the two main characters.  As one might expect in a horror film, not everyone is in it for the long haul.  But most of the deaths and slayings have a purpose beyond mere horror convention.  The action is a little more comedic than I would have preferred, especially given the more mature themes director and co-writer Jim Mickle is striving to explore, but it is effective.
     Damici plays Mister in a way that makes one think he could be Harvey Keitel's younger brother.  There is menace and sensitivity at the same time, almost all the time.  Paolo keeps Martin emotionally restrained through most the movie – which makes sense given his traumas.  The rest of the cast is serviceable, never overshadowing the leads or drawing away from the immersion in the setting.
     I say give Stake Land a chance if you haven't seen it.  This is the kind of independent horror that comes around too infrequently; we certainly don't see it from the studio films.  It may not be a cinematic classic, but it certainly isn't the dreck that constitutes the majority of horror offerings.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

     Should I admit that I have seen Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995) with Tim Daly and Sean Young multiple times?  Or that my enduring image of Edward Hyde comes from The Impatient Patient (1942), a Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoon?  I guess that is my way of saying that while I have been immensely familiar with the idea behind The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) – and I knew the title well enough to have thrown a fit when a contestant on Jeopardy! (1984-present) was credited with a correct answer while leaving "The Strange Case of" off the title – I had never gotten around to reading it.
     Robert Louis Stevenson's novella is rather brief, and it does not disclose much of the activity of Edward Hyde.  Instead, it functions as a precursor to the modern investigative thriller with a lawyer as the protagonist (see the works of John Grisham or Scott Turow).  Stevenson does not escape the device of having a character recount a lengthy story – the final two chapters function in this manner – but he doesn't lean on it like a crutch or drain the suspense away from the tale when using the device.  For the most part (and maybe this isn't surprising to those who have read Stevenson), he writes in something very similar to a modern style.
     However, I did learn that Hyde is almost always misrepresented in film.  Stevenson represents him as a hirsute man of diminished stature and bearing, and younger in appearance as Jekyll had not fed his selfish, malignant character as he had filled his nominally good self with a life well lived.  Movies tend to make Hyde into a gigantic mass of muscle and rampaging destruction.  Stevenson seemed to picture him as a slight, though powerful man with animalistic gait and savagery.  Hyde represented the seed of evil given form, and as such it was necessarily smaller than the whole from which it sprung. 
     I liked this story.  It was far better than the film versions I have seen, though I will freely admit that adapting this faithfully would result in a slow moving, cerebral movie.  Stevenson doesn't quite invest it in the investigation of morality or self-control to which I became accustomed in my philosophy or psychology classes, but I would be wrong to expect it from him.  There is a compelling investigation here, and the threat of what madness (of a sort) can inflict on both the self and others.  Ultimately, I feel stupid for not having read it before now.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

     I think most people look at Planet of the Apes (1968) and see little more than the talking gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.  It would certainly explain why every film after the first ventures more into the realm of silly science fiction and away from intelligent social commentary.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) tries – very hard, in fact – to honor the legacy of the original film and subsequent important canon.  At the same time, it manages to keep the science as soft as possible and the action supremely PG-13, thus making it clearly identifiable as a popcorn flick.
     One of the things that struck me was how unmemorable most of the human characters were.  Sure, they are important to the story, but I doubt I could have named more than two of the characters after having seen the movie (defaulting to recognizing the actors or the stereotypical role they had been given).  Now, this is largely a problem with my attention to the details of the film, but I feel that if more attention had been paid to crafting the characters I would have been much more invested in them.  As so much of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is centered on the humans, I kind of feel that director Rupart Wyatt dropped the ball here.  For a blockbuster, that isn't a problem – just get to the CGI apes and the havoc they can cause – but given the cult status and social commentary of the original, I was hoping for more.
     I liked most of the CGI (Caesar's pants being a constant source of why? for me) and thought that it did a great job of seeming realistic without ever threatening to look real.  The chimpanzees had a range in looks that seemed to borrow from several films – Jumanji (1995) for Casear, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) for Rocket, and Tim Burton's horrible Planet of the Apes (2001) for Koba – and helped give them character and distinction.  I think I would have enjoyed the action sequences much more were I not so violently pro-human; hey, I've seen the world the apes have and I know how it ends.  I'd rather root for the humans, bad eggs and all.
     I would have liked a more realistic approach to the science in the movie.  I was also supremely disappointed that Dr. Hassline neither appeared nor merited a mention (if there was one, I missed it).  He is such an important figure in the canon of the series that it felt wrong for him not to be included.  On the other hand, there were so many callbacks to the first film (including a very unfortunate lifting of the original's most famous line) that it was clear the writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were willing to be faithful to that which had come before (something Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman were unwilling to do for 2009's Star Trek).  I think I only found one moment where I was thinking, that's not how it is supposed to happen...well, two if one considers how the movie ends.  Come on, the plague is supposed to hit the pets, people.
     The story's multiple storylines –one concerning the recklessness of human enterprise and the other about Ceasar's recognition of his duty to his tribe – don't exactly blend in seamlessly, but they don't detract from one another.  I feel that there wasn't enough real to root for the humans, but as a fan of the original, I am solidly predisposed to believe that the worst human world is better than the best ape one.  Will Rodman (Franco) is a weak character who endeavors to do good things, including saving the world from Alzheimer's.  Without his father, Charles (John Lithgow), there is no real connective tissue to allow Will to advance the story.  Indeed, Charles and Caesar seemed a much more compelling set of characters and Will the plot device to move them along.  Caesar's own story, escaping the cruelties of the human world, probably deserved its own film, but I doubt that the casual fan would have understood it without a set-up.
     For whatever reason, I didn't feel a need to see this in the theater.  Maybe it was just wariness about how Burton's version had turned out, or maybe the casting of James Franco as the human lead.  It certainly didn't feel like watching it at home robbed it of any scope or majesty.  That is not to say that the movie didn't look good, because it did.  But it didn't try to be grand (and maybe that is a good thing given how grounded the "Apes" movies were in the cinematography).  Maybe that is something best to be saved in whatever final conflict is set between man and ape in a future film.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes may be the third best Apes film – I'd still put it fourth, but I have a soft spot for Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – and it doesn't feel like an embarrassment.  I am going to count it as a win for honoring the legacy.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Dreamers (Original Text - Part Ten) (1997)

     I actually remember the dream that inspired this section, and suspect that I would even if I hadn't loosely adapted it for fiction.  Not a lot of dreams stick with me for years.  I don't think I did the original justice, nor do I think that I really got the elements I wanted to introduce as an author.  Still not horrible.  Not without problems, either.  I have let a couple of very problematic sentences stand as written in testament to that.
     There was a lot that was supposed to follow from this section, but I think it will have to be in a completely separate story as I can't see it making the cut in the rewritten Dreamers.  The entire angle of J.B. as the wannabe author goes nowhere and shouldn't have been introduced.  But it is there in the original text.


X

     It was a nice house.  The problem was he couldn't remember it being his.  It was Victorian design he thought.  He and his mother lived there.  Maybe.  It looked like the house in the movie "Casper".  It was just J.B. and his mother.  The inside was dusty and vacant.  As he wandered through it, he could not find a single piece of furniture.  No matter which room he ventured into his mother was just within earshot.
     It was a gloomy, depressing house.  J.B. couldn't have been happier that his friends would soon be over to take him out for the evening.  It felt like late fall or early winter, but there was no snow on the ground.  Cold wind blew dead and crisp brown leaves across the front yard.  The sense of death was scary.  His older brother's old sort-of girlfriend, from the days of high school.
     She was like a shadow lurking in the halls just outside of whatever room J.B. was in.  When they shared the halls, she would shrink back, almost into herself.  From time to time she would actually find herself capable of asking where J.B.'s brother was.
     "Where's Magnus?  When will he be back?"
     J.B.'s older brother, Magnus Bradley Binghampton, never went by Magnus.  Their grandparents called him Gus.  He himself went by Brad, but this girl always thought she was closer to him because she called him by his God given name.  J.B. himself always had trouble dealing with that.  Just as much as he did with calling her "Debbie".  He remembered it because she was blonde and the older brother wasn't all that into blondes, so each one stood out.
     "I don't know when he'll be back," J.B. snapped when she asked the question three times in a row.  He didn't think that the older brother actually lived in this house.  It didn't feel like it.  There was a certain air that he would have lent to the structure, and it wasn't there.  How fitting that he had managed to leave his high school baggage behind him, and tragic that J.B. was stuck with it.
     J.B. was off towards the front door before the eerie doorbell even rang.  He knew it would be a flock of friends, males and females, that imagined sense of belonging without attachment that could only be fostered in high school.  It was like a movie from the Seventies depicting the Fifties or early Sixties.  It wasn't real, but since it happened, it had to be considered real.
     He couldn't even remember the first six people who came through the door.  The seventh he remembered because he lost his virginity to her, but he couldn't put a name to the face.  That was probably just as well.  His closer friends were toward the back.  He saw some faces that seemed out of place, but they were good friends.  Just as Larry Pudenski was coming through the vast double doors everything seemed alright.
     "I didn't expect you to bring a small army."
     A strong gust of wind blew one of the heavy doors off its hinges. J.B. caught hold of the handle as it was blown inside the house.  He barely managed to keep his feet on the ground.
     "I certainly didn't expect that to happen."
     J.B. and Larry managed to put the door back in place, and everyone quickly had their fill of the house.  J.B. announced to his mother, who was in the house, somewhere, that they would all be leaving.  The entourage had already gone outside and most were standing by or leaning up against Larry Pudenski's ugly orange truck.  The only thing missing was for about a quarter of the guys to be wearing letterman's jackets.  That would have made it perfectly high school.
     Outside with them was Debbie.  She was next to what looked like a metal bike rack, but there was no reason for one to be at the house.  She was dressed well for the cold weather.  She had a loose knit hat and a scarf to go with he dull synthetic coat.  Her face was red from the cold and the wind.  She was a ghost to the group.
     "Where's Magnus?"
     "I don't know where he is."
     "When will he be back."
     J.B. made his way over to where she was standing so that the conversation was between just the two of them.  No one else was paying attention, but it was wise to use good form.  This close he could tell she had been crying.  She shivered with the cold.
     "I don't think he's coming back."  J.B. paused to let her take in that statement.  "You know, he's probably off with Chloe.  The girl he's in love with."
     "Oh."  She looked as though she had never even considered that to be a possibility.
     "Yeah, so you probably shouldn't wait for him," J.B. offered.
     "Oh," she said again, her face blank.  Then it filled with emotion.  "But I love him so much, I can't imagine him not wanting to see me.  Where is he?"  She went on and on.  In short order her words became little more than a cry with different tones.
     She fell into J.B.'s arms as he reached out to her.
     "Listen, —"
     But she just kept crying.
     "You'll be fine."  He gave her shoulder a squeeze.  She stopped crying.
     "Thanks, J.B.," she said.  She stood on her toes and kissed him on the cheek.
     He responded by quickly kissing her.  At first he only kissed her lower lip.  It was an odd sensation, but she didn't resist.  He kissed her again and got it right this time.  It was passionate in its trappings, but driven by nothing.  She felt warm in his arms.
     "Oh, J.B., I love you so much, ..."  She gave the same list had just given for his brother.


     *     *     *     *     *     *    

     Now awake, J.B. was torn between calling his brother and telling him about the dream, or using it as the launching point for his latest story.  He chose the latter.  His brother could read about it later.  J.B. had an awful of habit on not following through on things.  He dropped out of Med School in the sixth week.  He had no trouble making it as an EMT.  It was a shorter, safe route.
     J.B. fancied himself as being the next James Joyce.  He purposely copied Joyce's style because it was the one he admired most.  So long as there were praises to be sung for Joyece, there had to be so echoes to be passed along to J.B.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

TV Shows That Didn't Change the World

      There is a lot of pretension that comes when people evaluate the TV shows and movies they like.  Many insist that their favorite shows somehow changed the world. Some people have (quite incredibly) made that claim about Firefly (2002), a show that was entertaining but flawed enough that FOX couldn't attract any viewers even with constant promotion (fans who discovered the show on DVD make the claim that FOX killed the show by airing episodes out of order or insisting on a pilot episode that would entice people to want to see more of the show, but as they didn't watch it when it was on I ignore their ill-informed repetitions of other people's opinions).  Likewise, people have made the claim about The Cosby Show (1984-1992) – a show that may have changed Middle America's attitude about black families – but seeing as how I watched about 80% of the first four seasons and all I can remember is that Theo tried listening to MacBeth on a record and Ridy had a friend named Bud, I am not going to treat it as a game changer.
      I would dare say that most of the shows that I spent my time watching were so much fluff that I couldn't ask anyone to believe that they have had any kind of lasting impact or deeper meaning.  Such is the fate of anyone who has dedicated entirely too much time plopped in front of the tube, effectively doing nothing.  But there are some shows of which I am quite fond that never really seemed to get their due.  None of them were high art, ratings darlings, or critically acclaimed.  Still, these shows – all of which aired at some point in the 1990s – that didn't change the world deserve a few words. 

5) Tour of Duty (1987-1990)
     No doubt put on television in an attempt to cash in on the success of Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), Tour of Duty (1987-1990) started off as a promising in the bush combat show, one that would allow for something beyond the allegory Stone employed.  Unfortunately, cast changes – some due to character death – and altering the tone to allow for soapy romantic interplays (not really necessary in a TV show about how the men of Bravo Company endure the war) robbed the show of its distinctive feel.  Moving the filming location from Hawaii to a Hollywood backlot also made it feel less authentic.
     Still, there is something raw (for the era) about Tour of Duty.  It addresses racial inequity and tension, and not in some kind of enlightened way.  Lt. Goldman (Stephen Caffrey) and SSgt. Anderson (Terrence Knox) may have great affection for their black soldiers, but they take almost no action to limit the racism of the white soldiers; it is the late 1960s and they don't have the answers.  This is a show that aired before "nigger" became the n-word, as is evidenced by it being used on multiple occasions (including in the pilot).
     Sadly, for all the good of Tour of Duty – it has good production values for its era, the action (especially in the first season) is compelling, the characters feel real – it simply feels lifeless once the period appropriate music is removed from it.  So much of the mood is killed that it makes the show seem second rate.  That, and the knowledge that the producers felt a need to compete with ABC's China Beach (1988-1991) for female viewers (not a battle they were going to win) by making it less of a combat-focused show keep it from being an all-time favorite.  But there are more than enough great episodes (mostly from Season One) to keep this show in mind when it comes to thinking about a time when the networks didn't have cable competition and were still willing to take chances.
     I have actually met and had brief conversations with series regular Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr. and guest star Tim Thomerson ("They Good, the Bad, and the Dead", 1987). Both felt that Tour of Duty never got its proper due from critics but that fans – especially those who have served in the military – have continued to be enthusiastic about it even 20 years after its cancellation.  I cannot speak for the critics of the era, but I do know that Tour of Duty started off as a show that was willing to let the soldiers be afraid of the threat of combat and desiring little more than making it through the day in one piece.  It wasn't the rah-rah piece that Combat (1962-67) or Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976-78) were, but it fell short of giving the audience a real feel of the dangers of war (I blame the era) while striving to be more realistic.
     I say give Season One a chance.  Forget that it doesn't have the period music and concentrate on the relationships between the characters or how nothing is ever as simple as a TV show of the time should have had it.

4) The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-94)
     Back before Bruce Campbell got fat or producer Carlton Cuse found success with Nash Bridges (1996-2001) and Lost (2004-10), there was a show on FOX with cowboys, rockets, and prostitutes.  And it wasn't Firefly.  Sure, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993-94) had some issues balancing the campy humor with western action, but Campbell was perfect as the Harvard educated lawyer who turned bounty hunter to avenge his murdered father.  There were elements of the supernatural and science fiction, but the show mostly existed to give a humorous take on the dime novel stories of cowboys and villains.
     The cast – limited as it was – could not have been better.  Campbell knows how to play charming, bordering on (but stopping short of becoming) smarmy.  Fit and young, he plays the role like a Han Solo in the fading days of the Wild West who is unburdened by a Luke Skywalker.  Filling in the Chewbacca role was Julius Carry's Lord Bowler, though Bowler begins the series as a friendly adversary of Brisco.  Christian Clemenson rounded out the regulars as the uptight lawyer for the Westerfield Club, Socrates Poole.  All seemed to luxuriate in their roles without crossing the line into self-involvement.  Recurring characters like Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford), Professor Wiskwire (John Astin), Whip Morgan (Jeff Philips), Pete Hutter (John Pyper-Ferguson, perhaps the ultimate TV guest star of the 1990s-present), and John Bly (Billy Drago) provided a sense of continuity and always matched the main cast in terms of tenor and tone.
     Brisco County was like the Deadlands RPG without the need for giant monsters or a Southerner's fantasy about the CSA enduring. It debuted in the same season as The X-Files (1993-2002) – and served as the latter's lead-in – and was actually the more enjoyable show of the two.  What The X-Files had was a monster-of-the-week formula it could through in to break up the alien mythology episodes, and that was wholly lacking on television at the time.  Brisco County had the additional burden of people thinking that it was a Western – a genre that draws less interest on television than mild sci-fi – and that kept some people at bay.  I would assume that anyone looking for a traditional Western would have been downright angry at the mix that Brisco County offered.
     I think there are only three or four dud episodes in the single season of Brisco County.  It was on its way to building a much more accessible and compelling mythology than The X-Files or Lost (2004-2010) with the "device" that set most of the events in motion, but Cuse has made public comments about how he imagined a second season of Brisco County would have moved in a different direction, so maybe it is for the best that it is all contained in the 27 episodes.  I only wish that TNT had produced a TV movie for the last adventure of Brisco and Bowler.

3) Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-99)
     I remember when I was watching the first run of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-99) that it was rather silly stuff.  And it still is.  But Hercules is much more fun and consistent than its spawn, Xena: Warrior Princess (1996-2000).  Kevin Sorbo was a more likeable lead than Lucy Lawless (at least at that point in her career) and his Hercules didn't need to spend endless episodes making up for his past misdeeds. One can argue that the Action Pack telefilms and Season One offer little reason to invest in Hercules.  Maybe.  But the show does go on to get better.
     It is never high art.  I don't think anyone ever had any illusions that it was supposed to be.  Sorbo and semi-regular Michael Hurst (as Iolaus) do their best to not let the humor undercut the dramatic tension.  Both managed to make the choreographed combats look interesting (if not realistic in any way).  Recurring guests Robert Trebor (as Salmoneus), Bruce Campbell (as Autolycus, King of Thieves), Alexandra Tydings (as Aphrodite), and the late Kevin Smith (as Ares) managed to match the energy and tone of the regulars in such a way that it was surprising to think that they were not always present.
     Given the limited production budget – somewhat maximized from shooting in New Zealand – it is amazing how good most of the episodes look.  Okay, maybe not some of the costuming, and definitely not the wigs and beards that look like they came out of a high school drama department's stash, but the overall photography and set design are well above average.
     Sorbo went on the make the vastly inferior Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda (2000-2005) and is apparently in the process of making a television show that seems eerily similar to My Name is Bruce (2007).  However, he will likely forever be thought of as Hercules.  And with good reason.  It was a fun show that relied almost entirely on the charisma of its star, and to good effect. 

2) Farscape (1999-2003)
     Nobody makes a soft Southern accent in space sexier than Ben Browder, and not in any intentional way.  Browder's John Crichton character is an RPG player's wet dream – the guy who gets to live the adventure and make constant pop-culture references and in-jokes during the action without breaking the mood.  He is the All-American hero, a Ph.D. and Astronaut who is good looking and (on Earth, at least) suave.
     Sure, Farscape (1999-2003) could have used a much larger production budget and less puppetry, but it endures as a quality show nonetheless. Creator Rockne S. O'Bannon and producers Richard Manning, David Kemper, and Robert Halmi, Jr. were never afraid to throw some darkness into the adventures of the earthling cast out amongst an alien universe.  At the same time, there was always a fair amount of humor to be found.
     The only bad things I have to say about Farscape are that there are four or five episodes that do nothing to drive the story forward or develop the characters and that the wrap-up film, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars (2004) is too compressed to allow for the character interplay that made the show one of the best programs on during its run.  Browder, Claudia Black, Anthony Simcoe, Gigi Edgely, Virginia Hey, Lani John Tupu, Tammy McIntosh, Raelee Hill, Jonathan Hardy (voice), and Wayne Pygram all seem to find something deeper in the characters than what is on the page. 
     I have never been happier to own a series on DVD than I am with Farscape.  I cannot figure out how it was not picked up for a fifth season (the show's producers and the Sci-Fi Channel – now SyFy – could not come to terms on the production costs), yet Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) ran for ten seasons.  Maybe having a movie tie-in and an established TV star like Richard Dean Anderson makes all the difference in the world.  But Farscape remains one of the better shows that cable television had to offer at the time, and it didn't need to use frequent swearing or gratuitous nudity and sex scenes to impress critics.
1) Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990)
     Sure, there is a pale imitation of Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990) on the SyFy channel called Warehouse 13 (2009-present), but the latter has a much lighter, comedic tone.  This is not to say that there wasn't humor in the old Friday the 13th: The Series, but not all of it was intentional.  No, Friday the 13th: The Series was about as close to a horror film as one could sell on American television in the late 1980s.
     The set-up is wholly implausible in every regard.  Antique shop owner Louis Vendredi (R.G. Armstrong) makes a deal with the Devil to sell cursed objects that both wreak havoc in the world and deliver the souls of those who use them to, you guessed it, the Devil.  For some reason, Louis decides he doesn't want to do this anymore and that doesn't want sit well wit Satan.  That sets it up for his distant relatives – this is never clearly established and how they are related changes over the course of the series – Micki (Louise Robey) and Ryan (John D. LeMay) to inherit his shop.  They meet former magician/item procurer/WWII hero Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins) and find out that they have just unleashed a flood of cursed items into the market.
     The rest of the series is supposed to be an effort to limit the damage these relics can cause, recover them and lock them away.  Louis reappears from beyond the grave a few times to menace the trio, but the show focuses much more frequently on the discovery of one of the items sold well before Micki and Ryan took over the shop.  Ryan exits after a two-part episode that is much more evocative of The Omen (1976) than slasher horror, making room for Johnny Ventura (Steven Monarque).
     While Ryan was really the heart of the series, Season Three has some of the best written episodes and the Johnny character may have developed into a compelling one given more time.  Instead, Paramount shut down production when they had enough material to sell the show in half hour installments overseas (under the name "Friday's Curse").  It would have been nice for Friday the 13th: The Series to have come to a proper conclusion, but that wouldn't be fitting for the horror genre.
     The effects may be cheesy.  The stories may use too many shortcuts that seemed obvious even in the era.  But there is something compelling and fun in the show.  It is one that could use a revisit, provided the right casting and respect of the characters as originally written.  Until then, we are left with the homage on SyFy.