Monday, December 14, 2009

Dead of Winter 2009

I spent this weekend at the first Dead of Winter Horror Invitational, a very small gaming convention held at the Brookdale Lodge deep in the Santa Cruz mountains. My friend, Matt Steele, did an incredible job running this little monster, and despite a bunch of problems that could have wrecked any other con, I came away from Dead of Winter with a fantastic experience.

Just getting to the Lodge was an experience in and of itself. After getting out late and fighting through traffic to pick up my friend Basil in San Francisco, Google lead us astray and onto several miles of winding, mountain roads in hard, slippery rain, until we finally reached Boulder Creek for a good but late-coming dinner at the Boulder Creek Brewery Company (do not eat here unless you have hours to spare waiting for your food and resolving your bill). It was late by the time we got to the hotel, where we found most of the 30-or-so other DoW guests drinking it up in the bar.

The Brookdale Lodge, with a history of iniquity during Prohibition as well as a number of deaths (the most recent in September of this year) has a reputation for being haunted. As Basil and I discovered upon entering our room, "haunted" may simply be synonymous with "broken" or "code violations." Our original non-smoking room, for which we signed a document stating we would pay hundreds of dollars if we smoked in it, was filled with the stench of cigarette smoke. Also the lights wouldn't turn on. So we got ourselves checked into a new room, where the heater was covered by heavy-drapes but the window door to the patio wasn't (so morning light woke up whoever slept next to it), the lights worked (until Sunday morning, the bathroom light shorted-out in a rather explosive fizz... and the bathtub was made of steel, so no shower for us), and there wasn't a smoke detector in sight (speaking to others, they didn't have a smoke detector in their rooms as well). And these were the renovated rooms, as the un-renovated rooms had holes in them and windows in missing. All this might sound horrifying, but I actually had a decent time and, besides the shorted-out bathtub-of-doom that prevented showering on Sunday, was no different than any other room I'd stayed in at a con (for much mucho bucks).

I woke up around 8:45 on Saturday to receive my 8 o'clock wake-up call from an apologetic and addled front desk clerk, and, without any time for breakfast after showering, I made my way through the hotel (filled with buckets catching leaks and water-sogged carpets, past the electrical wires wrapped around a water faucet, and by the half-completed renovation of part of the hotel that burned down only recently). The hotel's main attraction, a long, three-level hall with a roaring creek flowing down the middle, was lovely in pictures, a bit worn-down and poorly maintained in person, and cold-as-hell in the rainy weather. Beyond that was the Log Room, a meeting room made like a log cabin (you could see daylight through the some of the slats) whose only heat was a large fireplace and the many space heaters Matt had place around the room (which went on-and-off intermittently as the outlets regularly shorted-out). This where we ran our games, and my first one was...

Silent Night (All Flesh Must Be Eaten)
It’s beginning to look a lot like TERROR, as a bunch of naughty department store Santas and their not-so-nice little helpers learn that the true meaning of Christmas is FEAR while trapped in a shopping mall full of last-minute shoppers and equally sinister things. You better watch out, you better not cry, and pouting won’t save you on this slay ride straight to HELL.
This was my game, which can more easily be described as Bad Santa with zombies. Absolutely the most offensive game I've run, the players got totally into it from the get-go, and everyone seemed to have a good time. AFBME was a nice, rules-light system for it, staying pretty much in the background, though I did feel that the characters were able to take down the main baddie a little too easily just with normal weapons. I liked the game, but I can't see it running it again (except for my regular gaming group next weekend) as it is so specific to the Christmas season.

Our catered lunch was surprisingly good, and was going swimmingly until just after the end of the session, the power went out throughout the hotel. This seemed fine as we had a two-hour break for dinner. Unfortunately, we all went to the Boulder Creek Brewery for dinner, so what should've been two hours stretched out into four hours as the place took forever to get us our food and then let us pay them for it. We were two hours late when all of us got back to the Lodge for the evening session, where it was discovered that the power was still out. This meant that we had to do everything - navigate the creaky hotel with the history of accidental deaths, go to the bathroom, and play role-playing games - by the dim, flickering light of candles or flashlights. In the "haunted" Brookdale and playing a bunch of horror-themed games, this was AWESOME.

The Night Tide (Basic Role-Playing)
Spring, 1721. Welcome aboard the privateer frigate Revenant. Crew: 261 Souls. The storm season has arrived with a fury and a venegance the likes of which no living sailor has ever seen. And while on a treacherous patrol through the dark heart of Kingbreaker Islands, the Revenant finds what she always seems to find: trouble and the unexpected.
My evening game was run by Jack Young, a great GM who I've had good experiences with in the past, and, despite the conditions (and kind of because of them), this game was no different. The game was set in his homebrewed world of a slightly fantasy version of 18th century piracy, where we played a cursed crew of privateers moving inexorably towards some watery doom of which we only had a vague foreboding. Playing all that in candlelight with a hard rain falling on a rustic cabin was the best atmosphere imaginable, but even after the power returned (by around midnight) it was still a pretty spooky game. BRP is the base system behind Call of Cthulhu, so it fared well for the horror game.

With the power back on, I slept easy through the night, woke early enough to get breakfast, and headed down for my last morning game...

At the Circus (World of Darkness: Mortals)
Dec. 15, 2000 - The small town of Circle Pines, Kansas, was shocked 18 hours ago when the horribly-mutilated body of local girl Ursula Wells, 16, was discovered. The shadowy Paranormal Investigations and Combat Bureau has noticed an unnerving trend, and is sending a team to investigate the cause and stop it before it claims more lives.
A solid and fun investigative horror game in The X-Files mold, this game played out well. I like nWOD as a system to play if not to run (the mechanic to spend Willpower to increase your chance of success is the only advantage I really find it has over BRP), and the investigative process ran smoothly. The GM, Travis Smiley, created a well-textured story of a German who shows up in the American Midwest after WWII, and creates a circus where accidents regularly happen and death toll strikes on a weekly basis. I liked how all the players, including me, immediately think Nazi occultism when we hear that, but it turned out to be something completely different. I played a hard-ass female ex-LAPD cop, and got to shakedown locals in a rough and abrasive manner. There were probably some things that we should've done differently, but the pacing was good and I had fun throughout.

There was an evening game slot, including a Jack-the-Ripper themed Don't Rest Your Head game that I really wanted to play, but I didn't want to drive home in the rain at 1 in the morning nor did I want to pay for another night at the Brookdale Lodge, so me and couple of others headed out in the afternoon. Even though it might sound like a nightmare with all the hauntings/code violations, power outages, and dinner snafus, Dead of Winter turned out to be one of the most fun times I've ever had at a con, and not in spite of all those mishaps. When the power went out at DunDraCon last year, there was a panic about how people would know what games they were in, much less how we would all play in the darkness; but, at Dead of Winter, there was a kind of glee in the air, as though it was all part of some (mis)adventure. That was the general tone throughout, and with such great players and GMs, and so many friends in general, Dead of Winter had a charm that just couldn't be beat. So long as it doesn't bankrupt him, Matt has to do this next year, and I am much looking forward to it.

Friday, October 9, 2009


This was a very stupid movie. An awesomely stupid movie. And, between this and being dragged to see G.I. Joe, I am now convinced that stupid movies tend to attract stupid audiences. Zombieland was no different, and as every zombie got killed and dismembered in an ever wider variety of cartoon violence, this audience of Neanderthals cheered it on like grape-gorged Romans screaming for blood in the Coliseum. It was mindless gore-porn, without plot or meaning or certainly anything approaching art.

I loved every fucking minute of it.

Sure, it can't beat 28 Days Later for nihilistic horror, or even Shaun of the Dead for managing to be both funny and a real movie with actual characters and plot. Nebbish Geek hooks up with Redneck Wahoo, they fall in with Hot Chick and Spunky Kid, they drive to Los Angeles, have a zombie celebrity cameo, do something really stupid to move the non-existent plot along, and then kill a lot of zombies. That's it. If you're pissed that I just spoiled the plot for you, when it comes to Zombieland, you're doing it wrong. Forget character, forget plot, this is about laughing at carnage and nothing else. It ain't much - but just as Tallahassee feels about Columbus - it'll do, pig.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dr. Octopoid, Occult Detective From Beyond Space and Time!

Courtesy of Flames Rising's Horror Plot Generator:
A gigantic octopus with psychometry, whose home base is in a Victorian funeral home, wants to bring the Earth closer to the sun. Supported by falcons, the gigantic octopus appears to have one weakness - bat tongues. Interestingly enough, the gigantic octopus is from the not-too-distant future.
Sounds silly at first, but consider this rewrite: in the last years of the twenty-first century, as civilization collapses due to an apocalyptic Ice Age, a small band of scientists use time-travel technology to send the consciousness of one of their own back in time to prevent this coming catastrophe. Now trapped in the body of a giant octopus, the futuristic Doctor, armed with hi-tech psychic powers that allow him read the sensations of memory by touch and control the minds of lower life-forms (like his flying army of falcons), plots from his tank in the basement of a Victorian funeral home, where he builds, with a workforce of cadaverous conscripts, giant rockets underneath London that will push the Earth further towards the Sun and save mankind from an icy demise two hundreds IN THE FUTURE!

And he also solves crimes and shit with the help of his plucky monkey assistant and a hot corset-wearing suffragette.

And he's allergic to bat tongues.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Once I Lived For Hate...

... but now I live for suck. For years, my entire enjoyment in watching the NFL has been based on schadenfreude. Sure, I've rooted for the Pats and the Steelers on occasion, but what really gets me off is the annihilation of those teams and players I detest. I hated Peyton Manning, and I watched him win a Super Bowl. I hated his brother, Eli, and watch him hoist the Lombardi. I hated Brett Fav-ruh, and am watching him tonight prove true the douchebags of ESPN. I can hate no longer. I must choose a team and stick with it, so I flipped a coin to choose between my two "home" teams.

And, starting tonight, I am officially a fan of this guy's product.

May God have mercy on my soul.

At least no one will accuse me of being a fair-weather fan. The starting quarterback has a passer rating lower than some major leaguer's batting averages. The head coach could soon be up on assault charges for knocking out his own assistant. The owner is so batshit-crazy old, I think his face has literally begun to melt. But, hey, at least I can now say I am rooting for something. That's a positive thing, right?


Wednesday, September 30, 2009


After a day spent cataloging them, I can now say that I own 424 Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Taking away PDFs (many of which are very short one-shots) and my own original scenarios (which may be still in-development), I still have 278 fully-written scenarios. Were I to run these scenarios back-to-back every week (and they were each completed in a single session, which ain't going to happen as a number of them are campaigns), I would be finished with them in over 5 years.

I really need to get an ongoing Call of Cthulhu group going.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why I Don't Buy More Comics

Tonight I was reading through my latest issue of Previews, a catalog I get from my local comic book store to order my weekly dose of books, and came across the most obvious example of why I am buying less and less comics these days. Behold, Batman/Doc Savage Special #1:

Doc Savage returns to DC Comics…and comes face-to-fist with the Batman! Superstar scribe Brian Azzarello (100 BULLETS, JOKER) and the breathtaking art of Phil Noto combine to shine the first light on a shadowy new version of the DC Universe, where the thugs run rampant, corruption runs deep, and even heroes can't be trusted!

The "shadowy new version of the DC Universe" that this issue inaugurates is what most fascinates me, as this seems to be setting up a new pulp setting for the DC superheroes. I love this stuff, both the author and the artists look solid, and I would be quick to gobble this issue up, except for one niggling little detail...

On sale November 11 - 56pg, FC, $4.99 US

$4.99. Four dollars and ninety-nine cents. $4.99 for a "prologue" (so not a self-contained story) that also includes a sketchbook that the publishers think is a plus but is actually just filler when you charge over FIVE DOLLARS with tax for fifty measly pages of story!

I don't care if it's the greatest comic on the planet, I'm not paying five bucks for an issue of anything sight unseen, especially when I don't even know if it will be total and complete ass. Maybe I'll wait for the trade, when, in the unlikely event that it doesn't disappoint, I can pick up the complete story on Amazon at a 20-30% discount off the cover price in a format that looks good on my bookshelf.

Over the past year, I've dropped more than a few comics that I was enjoying (Booster Gold comes immediately to mind) and never picked up others (the Lovecraft pulp one of the independents put out) because I refuse to pay more than $2.99 for a comic book. I wonder if the publishers really understand what I could do with $5... I can buy a used paperback of most novels, a used copy of many current-generation video games, a DVD of even recently-released movies, or go on Ebay and get a trade paperback of their own comics. I've heard rumors that the Disney buy-out of Marvel might result in a price drop to as low as $1.99 to rebuild the casual market that's been lost over the past two decades. Based on this kind of nonsense, I can only hope it's true or I might end up not buying any comics outside of trades on Amazon and Ebay.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Strain

The Strain, by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan, is the first book in a trilogy about an outbreak of vampirism in modern-day New York. A jet lands at JFK airport with its entire crew and passengers seemingly dead (a la the Demeter), with a mysterious coffin-like cabinet aboard. This first sequence is taut, and the free preview available on is what lead me to check the book out, but it's misleading. Whereas those first 28 pages are full of foreboding, that quickly fades as the book then goes on for literally hundreds of pages before anything interesting happens. The book is padded with repetitive sequences of uninteresting characters stumbling to their doom (usually at the hands of vampirized family members), and whatever is mildly interesting (the ancient vampire clans, the corporate conspiracy behind the outbreak) is left implied, presumably to be fleshed out in the next two volumes.

All that said, the real cardinal sin of The Strain is that it's just not scary. The vampires, an uneasy mix of traditional folklore and biological pathogen, are too mindless to work as the "monstrous human" of traditional vampires, while remaining too silly (the Master vampire still runs around in a cape) to work as scientific horror. It also doesn't help that none of the characters are engaging enough to fear for their safety. The protagonist is a recovering alcoholic workaholic who blames his ex-wife and her new boyfriend for the dissolution of his marriage, so you can guess how the authors lazily have this whiny jerk get his satisfaction. The rest of the supporting cast are cardboard cutouts, except for the absurdly over-the-top Van Helsing-esque vampire hunting ex-professor pawn broker, an 80+ year old with a heart condition and crippled hands who still swashbuckles around decapitating vampires with his silver cane-sword while belching his ridiculous catchphrase: "My sword sings of silver!"

Yeah, it's that bad. In the end, the book reads more like the pilot script for a television series, with more effort spent on creating antagonists and situation than resolving conflicts, setting us up for the next episode (book two) but not offering anything like a good read. Mercifully, it was a quick read, although I admit that by the end, I just shuffled through the tedious action scenes. The Strain was shit, and del Toro should still to movies.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

April 6, 2055

According to Wolfram Alpha, April 6, 2055 will be a Tuesday. The sun will rise in the San Francisco Bay Area at 6:49am in the morning and set at 7:40pm in the evening. It will be a waxing gibbous moon that night. And according to this website, that's about as far as I can expect to live.

45 years, 6 months, 28 days...

Monday, September 7, 2009

PacifiCon 2009

Evidently ConQuest is dead and it's long live PacifiCon now. It was all Cthulhu all the con as I ran a game of Call of Cthulhu (Toteninsel), and played in games of Call of Cthulhu (A Black Brothers Production, Here There Be Tygers, and Once Men) and CthulhuTech (Nemesis). SPOILER WARNING for those that might play those games at future Bay Area conventions.

Toteninsel (Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green)
1943: On a remote German island in the North Sea, the Nazi “resuscitated casualties” program has broken the barrier between life and death. Your team of Allied commandos must infiltrate the island and discover the true purpose of Projekt DRAUGR, or much more than the war may be lost.
I first ran Toteninsel (at a convention) at ConQuest 2007, back before they changed the name to PacifiCon. The game is a Nazi zombie sequel to Herbert West: Reanimator, with plenty of Where Eagles Dare action involving characters like an OSS/Delta Green spy, a descendant of Herbert West's first victim, a Bavarian ex-bergfilme actor, and a PISCES necrophagistic interrogator, among others. The game has seemed to work for almost every player I've run it for, and this time was no different as everyone said they had fun. Almost all of the players were very solid roleplayers, and the only slightly hairy moment came up when it looked like the characters weren't going to get a key bit of information to easily proceed forward with the scenario. They still got it and I could've winged it otherwise, but it proved another example that such instances usually have more to do with scenario design than game mechanics. Even if I'd been running Gumshoe, I can't give the players a clue if they don't go to the scene where the clue is located; although, that system's greatest strength is, had I been using Gumshoe, it would've forced me to pay closer attention to the clue tree when designing the scenario and take these questions into consideration.

A couple of changes I made was to add some house rules, most importantly the use of the Professional Competence rule, where the players could flip a percentile roll (change 84 to 48) once per scene on an occupational skill. I'll have to try it again as I forgot to ask the players whether it worked or failed, but it didn't seem to have a negative impact. I also changed impales from 20% of a skill chance to rolling doubles (44, 77, etc.), which made the rolls less math-intensive and thus quicker but did reduce the chance to 9%. Next time I run CoC, I'm just going to come up with character sheets that include the impale chance % with the skill.

A Black Brothers Productions (Call of Cthulhu)
Like their fathers before them, film producer/writer/directors Wally and George Black plan to make "adult" movies until they can break into legit film. Their latest big-budget production "Deep Behind the Iron Curtain" is shooting in an ancient unrestored castle in Estonia. A pre-production crew was sent to the location a week ago to make it livable. A sat-phone call from the Production Manager 2 days ago let everyone know they're ready to begin Principal Photography tomorrow. The cast and crew head into the mountains...
Saturday morning I played in my friend Matt Steele's game, and it rocked HARD. Everyone was either a porn star or a member of the film crew, and I played "Shank", who was the lead co-star before the Ron Jeremy character joined the production and took it over as his comeback film. Shank, an egomaniacal idiot who always spoke of himself in the third person, was less than pleased. This is the first time I've ever roleplayed out an orgy scene (as part of some "Lord of the Rings" parody porn), where my retard character mispelled the ritual summoning in his script ("H'ahys e rro eeh'll ghta hgn-nhu's...") as "Here's a real phat gnu", causing him to wonder if antelope bestiality would be part of the movie. The naked Shank almost helped by going insane and trying to "shank" the giant tentacled plant-monster like it's never been shanked before (which would also have fed him to the beast and made the necessary human sacrifice), but one of the PC's fell unconscious from above and landed on his back, bringing up Shank's memories of his pre-feature bear work as he fell into oblivion. Fantastic game, every player at the table instantly got into the spirit of things, and a telling example of why DunDraCon's family friendly RPG policy is misguided.

Here There By Tygers (Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green)
An old pullman car, a surly lawyer, a gung-ho reporter and four relatives who have never met. What could possibly go wrong? Other than the fact that you seem to be somewhere... unexpected.
This game was made for me. A Call of Cthulhu game involving Delta Green, the Karotechia, and the Fate, set during World War II, filled with insanely-detailed prop handouts, run by a well-paced GM that was a trained actor (so he role-played the hell out the NPCs) and was also rock-solid with the rules.. this was the kind of experience I always hope to find at cons. It also helped that all but one of the players at the table was a friend of mine, so the game was more like a home group and was tons of fun as we got into proceedings while cracking wise at each other.

We started out in the modern-day (I played an ex-Peace Corps doctor), got catapulted back to 1943, and were quickly recruited by our great-grandfather Delta Green agent to find our missing great-grandmother, taken by what first seems like Nazi spies but slowly develops into something even more sinister. There was a LOT of stuff in this game, moving swiftly from scenes set across the country, and we eventually had to compress some investigation at the end due to the late hour, but the GM brought us to a very satisfying ending. Besides all the WWII DG vs. Karotechia goodness, I also got to enjoy the scene where one of the players, who had just remarked that his B.A.R. seemed so powerful on burst fire that it broke the game, then immediately come face-to-face with an Outer God in the next round. Good times.

Once Men (Call of Cthulhu)
Here you are trying to make a honest (?) living driving spirits into USA from Canada when someone is taking a cut.
Sunday morning, I was signed up to play a Call of Cthulhu involving bootleggers in the 1920s, but the GM couldn't print the character sheets, so we ended up playing a scenario in the "CoC in space" monograph Once Men. We were members of a rescue vessel in the late 21st century, sent to investigate a derelict spaceship lost 6 years ago while testing an experimental Gate system. The other players including my con roomie Basil, and trio of young guys who had all either played Toteninsel the night before or at previous cons and were very good players to a man. What I most took from the game was that, after games like Eclipse Phase and even Shadowrun 4th Edition that put a lot of effort into exploring future tech, this kind of "sci fi" with the standard Alien-esque setting (we live in the future exactly like now but inside a spaceship) seems as old-school as the ray-gun pulps of the thirties must've seemed to Alien itself. Any futuristic game that doesn't take into consideration the ramifications of commonly projected advances like nanotechnology and genetic engineering just doesn't float my boat anymore, unless they fully embrace themselves as the "classic" (tired) space opera they've become.

Nemesis (CthulhuTech)
As the Aeon War rages around the world; a darker, more secretive battle is fought in the shadows. As the chosen of the Eldritch Society, you are among the elite who have given yourselves to Rite of Transfiguration, bonding yourself with a “higher being” to protect mankind from your former comrades, The Children of Chaos. But are you ready to face what could be your most harrowing challenge, yet?
This was a happy surprise. The pickings were slim on Sunday evening, so I chose this game as I knew the GM was good and was kind of interested to see if CthulhuTech would be as cheesy as I thought it would be. Though there may be a tradition of Lovecraftian elements in anime, I haven't seen anything that really captured a Lovecraftian mood, and the idea of Evangelion-esque mecha blasting Deep Ones has no real appeal for me, as I'm not an anime fan... but then I actually played the game, and it is good. While it's not a horror game and (without reading the book, which has some gorgeous art btw) the Mythos entities are used in such a general fashion that there's nothing particularly Lovecraftian about them, the basic premise of young humans and their alien allies using inhuman technology to destroy even more inhuman enemies is just full of fun. CthulhuTech is Evangelion-vs-Cthulhu, but once I actually started playing that, I really got into it. The game mechanics themselves felt close to White Wolf with added-on Drama Point mechanics, and, though the rules were intuitive and functional enough that I'd have no hesitation playing CthulhuTech as is, I think I might want to use a simpler system if I (being a rules-retard) ever tried to run it. I was pretty sleepy come Sunday evening, so I didn't get into the game like I wish I had, but it was a great taste of the system and a solid roleplaying experience.

That was PacifiCon for me. I didn't attend Monday as my funds are too tight right now to waste another night on the hotel room. The con itself was run pretty much exactly as last year, so it's still a little less polished than DunDraCon and KublaCon, and there still seem to be less games available than at those other Bay Area cons. That said, I got into the first choice of every game I signed up for, and all of my games were either filled up with players or close to capacity. I can see no reason not to attend PacifiCon next year, although for godsakes I need to find something else to run other than Toteninsel.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

I had to see this film, not out of any affection for Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof sucked so hard, I ended up fast-forwarding the DVD to the end, something I almost never do), but due to childhood memories of the original Italian movie. I saw The Inglorious Bastards numerous times as a kid, since , besides being just the kind of cheap knockoff of WWII commando movies that I love, it also had a scene where the heroes nearly get killed by machine gun-wielding topless German maidens frolicking in a stream. Back in my day, we didn't have "bittorrents" or "Redtube" - we had Eurotrash titties, and they were pimply and pasty, and you only got to see a second of them, and WE LIKED IT!

So like any other right-headed American boy obsessed with floppy titties and dead Nazis, I loved The Inglorious Bastards, and had to see the Tarantino remake. Turns out though that Inglorious Basterds has absolutely nothing to do with the original, being an entirely new story consisting of two different plotlines - a French Jewish girl escaping an SS intelligence officer, and "The Basterds" a special American unit of Jews terrorizing the Nazis in occupied France - that converge upon the gala screening of a Nazi propaganda film that provides the opportunity for both the girl and the Basterds to take down the Nazi elite in a fiery Götterdämmerung. And it's all completely mediocre.

I mean that literally, not as a synonym for "bad" because this is a mostly well-acted and executed movie. Despite its 2.5 hour length, I felt it moved speedily along and was (mostly) interested in every scene. Of the performances, much has been made of Christoph Waltz as the "Jew Hunter", but just because an actor doesn't devolve into a Germanic Snidely Whiplash as soon as he puts on SS black, doesn't make him Oscar-quality. Brad Pitt tries well, but he ain't no Lee Marvin. Melanie Laurent gives the best performance of the film, which is not surprising as the most fully-realized and only human character amongst a cast of caricatures.

A movie about burning/blowing up a Parisian theater full of Nazis is not a bad idea, but it is not original nor is Inglorious Basterdds interesting enough to be elevated above its mediocre lineage. Tarantino's direction doesn't even try to elevate Inglorious Basterds above the spaghetti war-xploitation genre. It's not funny enough to be parody, and not biting enough to be satire - although the Nazi film-within-the-film, Nation's Pride, does a spot-on eviscerating of American war films like Black Hawk Down and even Saving Private Ryan, where faceless enemies are gunned down in exacting detail by amoral patriots:

But don't be fooled - this film isn't about the dangers of war as spectacle, or anything else deeper than how far one can bury a baseball bat through a Nazi's head. And even that is pretty tepid - while the violence sometimes goes over the top and there's lots of loving shots of scalping and carving swastikas into foreheads, Inglorious Basterds is surprisingly violence-free. So the gore-porners will be disappointed by all the talking, and the history nerds will have heart attacks over what may be the most ahistorical WWII film ever made, leaving this film only for douchebag hipsters who think Tarantino is still relevant. Or even still trying.

All this said, I can't fault Inglorious Basterds for not being more than it appears to be. It's a dumb over-the-top WWII spaghetti western with Nazis instead of bandits and Schmeissers instead of six-guns. It's also talky as hell, and not as full of action as represented. It's not really stimulating, either to the intellect or the testosterone, but if you really love watching Nazis get murdered in every manner imaginable, you might like this flick. I do, and I did, but even I could've done with it as a rental.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I just finished running my BRP superheroes-in-prison one-shot game called SuperMax, which boils down to my take on The Authority meets OZ by way of The Boys. I went overboard creating a faux-Wikipedia as setting background and didn't put as much effort into constructing the plot, but it was refreshing to play it by ear, and the players seemed to have a really fun time. The best moments came from the Superhung character, from Fedayeen getting his leg caught in his urethra as Superhung created a "penis elevator" for everyone to ride down the ventilation shaft to freedom, to Superhung dealing the killing blow by stretching out his penis to launch himself through The Redeemer's chest, with the Jesus-Freak Superman sliding lifelessly down his member. About my only regret was that I didn't get a chance to work in my Wolverine/Punisher/alcoholic Boston sports fan character Boston Crab, because the PC's found a way to escape early on.

While the game was insane, BRP leaves much to be desired as a system. The way the effects of powers are handled requires a lot of math, stripping away the best quality of the BRP system (its quick simplicity) and leaving all its vices (too easy failure). I mitigated this by including "Luck Points", poker chips that could be spent to re-roll, flip rolls (turn an 81 into an 18), and other stuff that made the characters significantly more competent. Still, I had to fiddle with almost everyone's powers during chargen, and handwave a lot of effects to keep things moving. Spirit of the Century would've worked much better, but I wanted to go with a system I knew when running a setting I'd created wholly on my own.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is an odd duck. Erik Larson's well-received "history" of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair seeks to tell the tale of "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that changed America" through the parallel stories of Daniel Burnham, the architect that oversaw construction of the Exposition, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer that preyed upon young women attracted to Chicago and the "White City" of its Fair. Larson is a good writer, and the story of Burnham, Holmes, and the Fair are interesting enough; but, while the book is a decent read, it's not really satisfying.

For one thing, there's no real theme that unites Burnham and Holmes, whether in the similarity of their passions or the juxtaposition of their accomplishments. Larson's well-crafted pace, which uses a lot of foreboding to build suspense of the doom sure to strike at some point in the narrative, only makes the constant switching between the two plotlines aggravating. There were several times where I wished I was reading a single book on either Burnham or Holmes, but I held hope that Larson would tie it all together in the end. He doesn't, and that failure is compounded by the fact that Larson never really gets into how the Fair "changed America." The epilogue lists a number of new ideas and inventions that the Fair inaugurated, but that should have been the meat of the book rather than a paragraph (and sometimes just a sentence) at the tail-end of the story.

I was also unimpressed with Larson's approach to the subject as history. While I don't really have a problem with his "novelist" style of prose (Larson frequently writes of what his subjects were thinking), I think it failed him with the Holmes story. He creates a narrative of Holmes that portrays him more as a Hannibal Lector psychopathic god than the more banal portrait the evidence shows: a psychopath, but one ultimately motivated by greed, more fraudster than Jack the Ripper. And it feels as though Larson wrote Holmes like this simply because it makes for a more interesting story.

On the flip side, Larson's story of Burnham is a waste, as he becomes much more concerned with personality duels between board directors and the administrative challenges of building the Fair than what is the most interesting aspect of his story: how Burnham's vision of the Fair affected the course of American architecture for the next half-century. Although Larson finally brings the subject near the end, and while he obviously admits its importance as it becomes a central part of the book's climax, he only devotes a few paragraphs to what should have been more fully explored.

The Devil in the White City is an okay book and I enjoyed Larson's writing style; but, it doesn't achieve greatness in theme nor does it fully capture its own subjects. It probably makes a good starter for those interested in late nineteenth-century Chicago, American architecture, and serial killers of the period, but nothing more.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Witchcraft in the Southwest

Witchcraft in the Southwest, Marc Simmons' 1976 work on "supernaturalism" among Native American populations along the Rio Grande isn't much of a read. As an academic work, even forgiving that it is now over a quarter century out of date, it lacks theme or focus (as well as an index). And as a work of popular non-fiction, the prose is unengaging and reads more like the author listing out a series of sketchy anecdotes.

The most striking aspect of Simmons' writing is his uncritical approach to the subject. He strongly connotes Native American paganism with European witchcraft (although he does nothing interesting to explore how that was transmitted or its cultural effects), and when he describes the condemnations of Catholic missionaries and local villages fetted upon "evil" witches, there is a distinct tone of sympathy with such attitudes. You can almost read the glee whenever he describes how some witch (usually an old, lonely woman) receives "just" punishment for her curses, which almost always results in getting flogged to death or suspended from a mission rafter by her elbows. That he doesn't question why the villagers have these attitudes, how the role of witches (whose herbalism seems to harken to practical medicinal purposes couched in occult trappings) might've been marginalized in the move from paganism to Christianity, or any other meaning than that these are witches and they deserve death is both frightening and ultimately boring.

The book is too small and Simmons' treatment too facile to really do the subject justice. There are a bunch of details that suggest the richness of the subject, both to the academician and those simply curious, but Simmons never provides anything other than a simple description. An example is the following:
One night Juan Perea, a notorious male witch who died in San Mateo in 1888, sallied forth on a nocturnal ramble after depositing his eyes in a saucer on the kitchen table and borrowing those of the cat. While he was away, his hungry dog upset the table and gobbled up his eyes, leaving Juan to spend the rest of his life wearing the green eyes of the cat.
That's deliciously crazy (even moreso as it's only one of three times in the book where a witch loses their eyes and ends up with those an animal), but that's also the entirety of Perea's story in the book. Simmons does this with every anecdote: write a few sentences describing the instance and then going on to the next one, with little comment or detail. Ultimately, this is a maddeningly underwritten work by an author with a dull, conservative perspective on what could have been a much-more promising subject.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker is the best movie I've seen this year, and the best war film I've seen in quite awhile. A series of vignettes depicting the last days of a three-man EOD team before they rotate out of 2004-era Iraq, the film moves briskly from one frightening encounter to another, as though the movie is trying to give some sense of the terror of war. While terrifying, The Hurt Locker never becomes anything more than action movie - a gritty, powerful and highly effective action movie, but in the end, just an action movie.

Directed by Katheryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break), the film's three protagonists are James, Sanborn, and Eldridge. James is a veteran EOD man, an adrenaline junkie in love with war and nothing else. Sanborn is a professional just looking to get home but unsure of what he really hopes to find there. Eldridge is a younger soldier haunted by a death he might have prevented and generally burnt out by Iraq. Besides a few scenes inside the wire that define the characters' backgrounds and relationships, the bulk of the film is taken up by six set-pieces on the battleground, where the characters either have to defuse improvised explosives or dodge ambushes.

Despite an opening quote about war being a drug, The Hurt Locker doesn't really have any message. The greatest focus is on James, and the he could be seen as an archetype for modern-day America, so desperately dissatisfied with our suburban Wal-Mart existence that we crave overseas combat just to jolt us from our ennui, that we might have once fought out of love for democracy and freedom but have come to love war for its own sake.

But that's a stretch: this film is about explosions, about men facing death and being manly about it (the scene where James and Sanborn punch each other comes off more like a hurt/comfort slashfic than male bonding). The character of James - the angst-ridden death-obsessed badass who is the best there is at what he does, but what he does best isn't very nice - might've seemed original once upon time before almost every action movie made since the 1950's used that character as its protagonist. Jeremy Renner's portrayal of James is okay, but he is so underwritten than there's just no depth.

Which is also true for the movie. The Hurt Locker packs an immediate edge because of its timeliness, and it will mistakenly be lauded as the first movie made about the Iraq War to capture the grunts-eye view of the war. However, it's not Platoon or The Big Red One or All Quiet on the Western Front - I may be naive or uninformed, but I doubt that the average grunt is like James, so high on war that he often forsakes basic precautions just to get to the action quicker. If the film focuses on Sanborn or Eldridge, it might've be closer to The Grunt's Tale that critics want to paint it as, but James is such an action hero cliche that The Hurt Locker can't rise above those genre roots. And while the film's portrayal of almost all Iraqis as sinister figures ever-ready to explode hidden bombs may be spot-on for a film that is from the American soldier's perspective, it also means that the film can't be taken seriously as a more general perspective on the war.

But this is a good movie, a damn fine movie, one that belongs alongside other full-muscled if simplistic military meditations like Hell is for Heroes or Hamburger Hill (it starts with "H" too!). And if Bigelow had mixed in some well-considered commentary, The Hurt Locker would have probably ended up sacrificing its visceral energy for labored pretentiousness. It may just be an action movie, but the film does reminds us that you don't need robots terminating or transforming to make an exciting summer blockbuster: you can also do it with poorly thought-out tragic misadventures in the Middle East.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Children of Earth and Curse of Yog-Sothoth

This is a joint post to my gaming livejournal and my personal blog, due to the cross-topics being discussed.

This week, I saw that latest (last?) Torchwood series, Children of Earth, and read the first act in the Curse of the Yellow Sign series for Call of Cthulhu. I expected one to be marginal and the other to rock, and was surprised on both fronts. MAJOR SPOILER WARNING for those that continue...

Torchwood defines the term "uneven." When it premiered three years ago, I had expected a darker, adult take on the Doctor Who mythos, one where humanity faced the same kind of otherworldly threats as the Doctor but had no Time Lord know-how or status to succeed without loss and sacrifice. Instead, Torchwood saw "adult" as an excuse to inject more sex and violence into the mix, while maintaining the goofy cheese of the new Doctor Who series. There's nothing wrong with trashy sex-&-gore (see the current HBO series True Blood), but British have always been able to inject a dark and unsettling political subtext when they made adult sci-fi. Torchwood failed in this, and could never elevate itself beyond cheese-tastic in those all-t00-few moments where it was more than adequate. Yet, in its latest series, Children of Earth, it finally became something more.

The first three episodes of the mini-series were effective, with its murkily-seen alien antagonist and hints at a horrifying exchange of children in the past. Then, with the fourth episode, Children of Earth ramped up the horror in a brutal and intelligent manner, as political leaders sat around a table and slowly descended into a moral hell where not only would children be given over to the aliens, but it would the "right" kind of children (first the illegal aliens, then the poor, then all those but the politically-connected). Even in its absurd trappings, that scene is frighteningly realistic, and, as with the best sci-fi, more about our present than anything fantastic. Then it gets even darker in the finale, where a political figure who was in that room murders his family and commits suicide rather than watch them turned over to the aliens and live with his complicity in the act. And then the usually cheesy Captain Jack pulls the switch to sacrifice his own grandson in the only chance humanity has to end the alien threat and save the 10% of the world's children that would otherwise be handed over. Both are unimaginable crimes, made all the more horrifying in that they were also absolutely reasonable things to do in that situation, carried out by "good" men.

On the other hand, we have Curse of the Yellow Sign: Act 1: Digging for a Dead God, a Call of Cthulhu scenario by reknowned game designer John Wick. As its title suggests, it's only the first part of a trilogy of scenarios, so this individual product is rather thread-bare: nothing particular of the Hastur Mythos appears, and the scenario doesn't end with any kind of conclusive climax. Indeed, there are no set events in the scenario beyond introducing the characters to the plot. What does exist is the premise: the setting is sub-saharan Africa in 1939, and the characters are German SS personnel working on a covert operation to mine diamonds when they unearth something alien and malevolent. While that alien prescence exerts a sanity-damaging influence on the characters, there is no plan to foil, ritual to carry out, Gate to close, or cultists to slaughter. All that is likely to happen in this unstructured game is that the characters will carry out acts of depravity and violence until... well, I guess everyone decides they've had enough and call it a night.

That actually appeals to me, as I've been thinking about running a "sandbox" game to work out the railroad-y tendencies I'm worried might be prevalent in my GM style. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be running Digging for a Dead God for reasons that became apparent after I'd finished Children of Earth. You see, the reason Children of Earth was so effective was not that horrible acts happened, but that it was good people carrying out those acts, honorable and empathetic characters forced into a very dark situation. Yet in Digging for a Dead God, you've got Nazi player characters (mostly), so that when they murder and torture and fall into darkness, there's hardly any moral distance from which they have to fall. I am a great proponent of the kind of personal horror Digging for a Dead God is trying to attain, and I definitely agree that CoC needs more of that than yet another ritual to disrupt; but if you play scumbags, there's no room for personal horror when all the story asks them to do is engage in scumbaggery.

I could probably avoid this if I changed the characters from Nazis to something less intrinsicly evil, but it means nothing if I simply file the serial numbers off to make the characters mercenaries or put them in another setting. I would have to establish the characters as intrinsicly "good" (ie. likely to be upset about putting villagers in a hot box) and still create a situation where they would be doing the kind of actions they are in the written scenario. In other words, I'd have to write a completely new scenario, and considering how little there is in Digging for Dead God (literally, you're Nazis, you torture Africans, and a dark god whispers to you - that is pretty much it), it just wouldn't be worth it. So, while I will probably pick up Act 2 of the trilogy (I do want a sandbox game focused on personal horror), this first part does nothing for me, except reinforce why Nazis make for lousy player characters.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama's Speech at Notre Dame

But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what he asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that his wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.

For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It is no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the golden rule — the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. To serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this earth.

I may lack the faith to believe in this kind of Christianity, but I would be proud to stand alongside those believers who profess this faith.

The full speech can be read here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek

(warning: mild spoilers)

I enjoyed Star Trek. Watching the endless previews, I expected a big dumb summer blockbuster, full of explosions as hollow as the film's meaning, one that would abandon the rich subtext and ambitious social dialogue that the original series often (but not always) aspired to. And that's pretty much what Star Trek is, but it is so well done that I didn't care.

I liked The Next Generation, couldn't care less about Deep Space Nine, avoided Voyager, and was bored by Enterprise, but I've never considered any of them a worthy successor to the Original Series. Whereas TOS was a space western where JFK-like figures civilized the final frontier with equal parts brain and brawn, TNG and the others were tech-obsessed project managers solving the problem of the week by sitting around a conference table and technobabbling the episode to a conclusion. These shows shared in Roddenberry's vision of the future as a secular utopia, but they were bloodless and had none of the vibrant earthiness of TOS. As an origin story, Star Trek has yet to show that it heeds to Roddenberry's ethos, but it certainly brought back the gutsy bravado of TOS.

Now, the movie is far from perfect, though I think the reviews have made a little too much of the plot holes supposedly endemic to the plot. It makes sense for the narrative for certain characters to be placed in certain situation, but it takes a big suspension-of-disbelief for the narrative to flow the way it does. That said, the weakest part for me was that which so many folks (including my wife) enjoyed the most: all the connections between TOS and the movie. The quotes throwing back to the old days got a bit cheesy, and the appearances of Leonard Nimoy as Old-Spock did more to jar the story than to really connect it back to anything positive.

The film was really going to stand-or-fall on its cast, and both Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto delivered hard as Kirk and Spock. Quinto made me remember why I liked him as Sylar in the first season of Heroes (and thus forget how much I've loathed him in every season since), and Pine perfectly captured the likeability and swagger of the smirking Kirk. What Pine didn't capture was the hypercompetent masculinity of the serious Kirk, which can be forgiven this time as the whole film is about how rebel alt-Kirk grows back into the Kirk of TOS. It won't be forgiven if that growth isn't complete when Star Trek 2 rolls into theaters some future summer, nor will it be kosher if the sequel(s) don't move beyond the subtext-free nature of the origin story and start to explore the future while melding Roddenberry's ethos with modern storytelling.

Star Trek is nowhere near the best Star Trek film ever made, a nod that goes to Wrath of Khan, but then it simply can't be, as Khan had years of dramatic background that earned its story. We're just getting introduced to these characters in Star Trek, so there's no such background to call upon. Yet, that Abrams and crew made me feel that these characters were that new is an accomplishment in its own right. Star Trek is fun and exciting, but it is also a fresh start, and I am very interested to see where it's going to go from here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Perfect Summer

Subtitled "England 1911, Just Before The Storm", I read this non-academic history as inspiration material for the P Division Call of Cthulhu campaign I'm in the process of brainstorming. I'd hoped it would live up to the title and provide of a portrait of Edwardian life on the brink of the cataclysm that would soon engulf the world, but what I got instead was a superficial sketch of English socialites and assorted rich folk dawdling about in the midst of an abnormally hot summer.

The 1911 summer was certainly eventful enough in England, with the passage of the Parliament Act that officially established democracy in a country that had been lurching that way in fits since the 17th century, divisive fights over Home Rule in Ireland, women's suffrage, trade unionism, and a growing crisis with Germany that solidified the Anglo-French alliance leading towards the war that would wreak Europe three years later. All of these things are touched on, but that touch is utterly inconsequential. The author, Juliet Nicolson, is more concerned with the adultery and mild scandals of the noble class, which would all be fine and good if she focused on that subject and brought some meaning out of it. Instead, Nicolson gives it all the attention of a contemporary society page, foregoing any attempt at historical context. Her apathy is the ruin of the book, which fails so utterly that the only attention she pays to "the Storm" is to end with the wartime death of a character she writes all of one paragraph on in the 294 page book. This was crap, a slog to get through, and a waste of my time.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

Well that was garbage.

The first season of Galactica was some of the best television I had ever seen, and feels now like a the truest cultural monument to 9/11 to come out of those times. It's unrelenting approach to apocalypse, where, regardless of how one dealt with certain death - either by faith or reason - it didn't change the fact that Death was still there, and all you could hope for was one more day and fill that with life - that was more accurate than any patriotic paean that directly addressed the crisis.

But this... this was pap. Touched by an Angel kind of pap. And if the ultimate message is that humanity with its technology "has allowed its head to outrace its heart," anyone with a brain cell can see that's a load of shit. Religious fundamentalists who blew up buses or launch missile-fueled crusades, these are the real villains of our times, and they do not spread their evil because they have allowed their head to outrace their heart. Quite the opposite in fact. Humanity suffers from a surplus of faith, not a lack of it, and I mistakenly believed the show was better than that.

So yeah... garbage. I'm off to delete Caprica from Netflix queue.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Why Can't I Have Nice Things?

Watched Kings last night, and loved the hell out of it. It was imaginative, original, and literate, filled with good acting and interesting storylines. It is everything that I want out of a television series and so rarely find these (or any other) days. And, of course, America hated it:
Marc Berman's PI Feedback:
Beginning with Kings, the aforementioned two-hour debut was stalled at the gate, with a mere 4.1 rating/7 share in the overnights from 8-10 p.m. Take a look how Kings declined in every half hour (never a good sign, of course):
Kings (NBC) – series premiere
8:00 p.m.: 4.6/ 8 (#3)
8:30 p.m.: 4.3/ 7 (#3)
9:00 p.m.: 3.8/ 6 (#4)
9:30 p.m.: 3.7/ 6 (#3)

One year earlier in this block, the second half of a two-hour edition of Dateline and a repeat of Law & Order was considerably stronger at an average 6.3/10 in the overnights. Do the math and that is a loss of 35 percent. Let’s be honest: did anyone really think this show would work?
It's doomed, as the 18-49 demo made the result even worse (around 1.6). Television shows very rarely improve from their premieres, as most get cancelled before they get the chance. If Kings were an HBO or Showtime series, it would've probably turned out fine, at least getting a second season to bring the show to a decent conclusion (unless the creators couldn't care less); but on network television, there's just no incentive not to replace what looks like a relatively expensive drama with some cheap-&-easy reality show that can't possibly do worse.


Sunday, March 8, 2009


Herein be spoilers, ye have been warned...

I can't judge this movie outside of my own experience of having read the graphic novel twice, and from that perspective, Watchmen was mostly boring. The production was so faithful that I knew what was coming up each and every scene, and while it was sometimes interesting to see how the the filmmakers would translate Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' work to the screen, that source material was never vital or interesting enough to really capture my attention in the first place.

Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of modern comic books: it added artistic techniques and adult themes that matured the medium beyond what had hitherto been solely children's literature, but it has since been so copied that it's often hard to see the original work as anything other than quaint and tired. The truth is that Watchmen wasn't all that revolutionary, as the deconstruction of the superhero goes back to its earliest creation, when Philip Wylie created a superman in his novel Gladiator and then showed how that kind of power is ultimately rather powerless. Yet Alan Moore is a great writer and created the best comic book I've ever read... it just wasn't Watchmen, but rather his true masterpiece, From Hell.

So it's no surprise that the problems I had with the film are almost all down to the graphic novel itself. While at first I found the performances (particularly Patrick Wilson's Dan Dreiberg) clunky and uninvolved, the truth was that this was mostly due to Moore's bad case of Lucasitis when he wrote the prose-like dialogue in the comic. That the film takes so long to get started was also a failing of the comic. And that so few of the characters are likeable or interesting enough to empathize with is also inherent in their portrayal in the comic. Watchmen is a case study in why the anguish of fanboys should be ignored and filmmakers should first try to create their own good movie from comics rather than treating the source material like holy scripture that cannot be edited.

The film may actually be even worse than I found it, because, while I could easily keep track of all the various subplots and characters, and while I knew what emotions and ideas the film was trying to capture, all that was due to my having read the graphic novel. I wonder if someone who hadn't would able to do the same, and, when we get the shot of the pudgy costumed Nite-Owl screaming with over-emotion in the snow at Rorschach's blood spot, I can't help but feel the whole thing had descended into cheesy camp for the non-initiated. All that said, as the film neared its end, I began to feel it was turning out marginally alright. That Zack Snyder changed Moore's ending by replacing the giant alien squid to the threat of Doctor Manhattan himself actually felt like an improvement, but then they screwed it all up by leaving out the comic's most lasting note (for me).

In the end of Moore's Watchmen, Veidt implores Doctor Manhattan to reassure him that he did the right thing, that "it all works out in the end," but Manhattan simply leaves with the ominous parting words of "It never ends." It is a damning statement on the very nature of superheroes: the old-time heroes of the forties either faded away, their exploits having been little more than media-generated advertising, or turned into fascist nightmares like The Comedian; the later generation of heroes had become equally obsolete, serving as tools of a government that would later outlaw them, and finally are made irrelevant by the truly superpower of Doctor Manhattan; and Ozymandias, the last real human superhero, the "smartest man in the world", the only one who really understood how the world worked and the only one who was able to use his powers to actually change things, ultimately will likely also accomplish nothing, as Manhattan's final words suggest that human nature will one day take its course and mankind still likely awaits its own destruction. Watchmen's final message is that superheroes cannot save humanity from itself (these "heroes" are far too human to begin with, and are simply acting out their own "too human" neurotic fetishes). While it is clunkily delivered in the comic, it remains a compelling theme.

None of that is in the movie. The "nothing ever really ends" line is still there (spoken by Laurie to Dan in the next-to-final scene), but that it is not delivered by Manhattan to an apprehensive Veidt strips it of its thematic power. Watchmen the comic book may have its flaws, but it did try to be about something. Watchmen the film is, like all of Snyder's other work, absolutely meaningless - superficial and lovely in short doses, but with nearly three hours to examine it in detail, Watchmen is far too long to hide the fact that Snyder is a vapid storyteller.

I could go on about other things: the film is gratutiously more violent than the comic, Snyder's usual slo-mo camerawork destroys the pace in a film nearing three hours, all the Nixon scenes looked like Snyder was trying to rip-off Dr. Strangelove more than adapt Watchmen, but whatever. It should have been a rental.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In War Times

Kathleen Ann Goonan's novel is subtitled "An Alternate Universe Novel of A Different Present," but nothing like that appears until nearly the last third of the book. Strangely though, that's exactly where the book begins to fall apart, and, before then, In War Times serves as a rather charming WWII memoir with occasional ruminations on how DNA, string theory, and modern jazz can create the conditions for time travel and parallel universes.

The story concerns a brilliant but naive young engineering student named Sam Dance, who gets caught up in bureaucratic meanderings as a soldier-technician during the Second World War. This part of the novel reads more like Catch-22 or any other countless memoirs penned by ex-soldiers who eschew realism and put a slightly fantastic sheen on their experiences to capture the craziness inherent in the war machine. Here Goonan relies heavily on the diaries penned by her veteran father, but it works well.

The other part of the story deals with an attempt to rewrite reality by moving members of an international conspiracy into a parallel reality where war has been made obsolete through genetic manipulation, resulting in a liberal technocracy instead of the past fifty years of our own history (that is, in the author's opinion, war, oppression, poverty, and the inevitable threat of nuclear annihilation). This is carried out by a strange device that relies on DNA as the programming code of reality, and has a parallel in how modern jazz (i.e. Dizzy Gillespie and Bird Parker) rewrote the conventions of jazz to create a new musical reality.

It's all rather vague and tantalizing, but it's also not really explored by the author. Though the characters are unique (jazz-obsessed radar technicians, female OSS superspies), their personalities are utterly boring and don't change much over the course of the narrative. And Goonan's treatment of alternate history is completely facile (does anyone really still believe that a non-assassinated JFK would've ushered in a limousine-liberal utopia where civil rights would've been pushed through and a Vietnam-style quagmire could be avoided into the present day?), so the book is at its weakest when it finally gets around to focusing on that part of the story. It was a decent read, mostly as a memoir of non-combat soldiers in WWII, but it was definitely nothing more than that.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Southern California: An Island on the Land

Carey McWilliams "interpretive history" of Southern California from the appearance of the Spanish missions to the time of its first publication (1946) reads less like a history than a series of articles. This is no surprise, as McWilliams was primarily a journalist, but this is not to say that it reads like a reheated compilation of old work, such as that of other newsman who turn to the long form. Rather, McWilliams' book reads more like the history section in a Fodor's or Lonely Planet guidebook: ruthlessly condensed, lacking in sources, but readable and, if not factually accurate, then something that sounds true.

Each section focuses on a specific topic, from race to weather to socioeconomics, and McWilliams never blatantly attempts for a narrative except a constant theme that Southern California is a much darker place than it appears in the propaganda of city boosters, tourism boards, and Hollywood. That seems rather unnecessary, considering the modern popular vision of Southern California is that of a polluted suburban hell-hole plagued by gangbangers and yuppie douchebags; but in 1946 this was probably shockingly original. It is easy to see how this book supposedly provided Robert Towne with the inspiration for Chinatown (even though the water wars get little attention in the actual pagecount).

I liked the book and sense the truth in much of what McWilliams is railing against (his point-of-view is very pro-labor and progressive, and he portrays the strike-breaking and racist mobs of yesteryear in a distinctly, and probably deserved, bad light), but the lack of sources render it less than ideal as a history. That said, some of what it has to say remains strong, even over sixty years after it was published. McWilliams' description of the hard lot of Mexicans, both immigrants and native-born Californians, as perpetual outsiders hostile to assimilation, remains as much a glaring wound as it did then, and his interpretation is sadly better layered than today's simplistic "good guy, bad guy" viewpoints. His description of Southern California as a series of busts and booms seems like it could be extrapolated to the state as a whole (at least the urban centers), and that might be as much a part of the Californian identity as the "everyone is a immigrant here" meme. And, for those so inclined, there is a whole chapter on occult weirdness that is a must-read for anyone setting a Call of Cthulhu game in Southern California during the twenties and thirties, not so much for details but for the zeitgeist of the period.

All in all, a good read. I just wish he had included some footnotes.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

All The Cool Kids Are Doing It

I am listening to Paramore while looking over my brand-new Facebook page. I am either very with it for my age, or an inappropriate old man.

I do not feel with it for my age.


This movie was supposed to suck, but boy did I enjoy the hell out of it. I am, as my friends have told me, a notoriously picky reviewer. I consider films like Schindler's List and American Beauty to be facile and devoid of serious introspection. And yet I liked Push, which I can only describe as X-Men meets Twilight in Hong Kong. That sounds absolutely awful, but it works. This is a movie goes straight for your adrenal glands, not your head, and, while the pace never lets up, it's not a monotonous bore-fest like The Dark Knight.

The basic premise is covered during the title sequence: Nazis experimented on babies to create psychic powers, Americans carry on the research, creating a whole class of superhumans - "movers" (telekinetics), "sniffers" (folks that can read images from smells), etc. Now the psychics are escaping various government agencies that experiment on them to enhance their powers as Persons of Mass Destruction, experiments that have always killed them up until now. It all sounds very RPG (I can see the splatbooks already), so that's maybe why I liked it so much. Getting that exposition out of the way in the first three minutes also means that there is no time wasted dealing with mundane reactions to a preternatural world: the crazy psychic shit is considered matter-of-factly. That makes the film seem even more like an RPG on the big screen.

Everyone I've mentioned Push to says they thought it would be like the excrable Jumper, but what seperates those two are the characters and acting. Unlike the unlikeable douchebags in Jumper, all the good guys in Push are really good guys, acting not out of self-interest but because they don't want to see their friends get hurt. And whereas Hayden Christiansen can be out-acted by a block of cheese, Chris Evans can actually deliver a performance (also check him out in Sunshine if you can't get past the Johnny Storm thing). Dakota Fanning gives her typically weird "adult in child's body" thing, but it works for her character and she only stumbles when she tries to play drunk (somebody should've loaded the kid with booze and called it Method). The supporting characters are likewise strong, with only one real shit performance coming from the vapid Camilla Belle, but she spends so much time off-screen that it does no real harm.

The flick does stumble a tad in the last third, where it goes all Oceans' Eleven as the characters have to "con themselves" to avoid precognitive psychic knowing what they're going to do as they do it; but, I kept up with it and admired that they put some serious thought into how these powers work. It was a solid, fast-paced action flick, and while it's not going to win an Oscar or save Darfur, it was a damn good time.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Schadenfreude Forever!!!

About two minutes into this game, I turned to Jeannine (trembling with fear in her Ben Roethlisberger jersey) and declared that if the Steelers lost this game, I was done with football. No more watching the games, no more rooting for "winners" that fall apart at the last moment, and most of all, no more schadenfreude - the joy of watching those icons I hate crushed in defeat. I am a bitter little man, and get most of my pleasure from from watching people with vastly greater talent, character, and accomplishments than me have their dreams ground into dust. These last few Super Bowls have been hell for me: the Manning brothers, who I felt were frauds forced on us by the League and a sports media that craved the archetypal white, Southern pocket-passer, showed they were the real deal. Now it looked like Kurt "I love the retards unless they need the stem cells" Warner was headed for a second Super Bowl victory and I was being told by some Higher Power that a) "I exist, dumbass" and b) "I hate you and everything that you like." But instead, God is dead, Jeannine has now spurned the Raiders and declared the Steelers her first love, and I have all that I want from professional sports: gloating.

Life is good.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Night Over Water

I believe this excerpt from Ken Follett's novel best sums up its literary quality:
Now, while most people on the plane were still asleep, would be his chance of getting into the hold. Luggage locks would not delay him long. In no time at all he could have the Delhi Suite in his hands.

But he was wondering whether Margaret's breasts were not the most precious jewels he would ever hold.
Yeah, this was garbage. Like other Follett novels I've read (mostly when I was a teenager craving slightly richer stroke material than Penthouse Letters), all I'll probably end up remembering are the sex scenes (although, for some reason, I do retain the detailed passage in Lie Down With Lions on how shaped charges work using C4 and a Coke can). Still, I read the book because I needed inspiration for my upcoming game at DunDraCon (both involve Clipper planes and wartime intrigue, although less with the squamous horror here), and it certainly provided plenty of that. And I have to admit that Follett's formula of "MGM epic WWII romance if they had sex scenes on par with Caligula" is as much a part of the zeitgeist that informs my take on Our Darkest Hour as anything else.

This was trashy but mostly fun, basically Grand Hotel on the last commercial seaplane flying from Britain to the United States just as war is declared in 1939. Night Over Water lacks the excitement of Follett's espionage novels like Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca, mainly because the characters' motivations lean more towards adultery, business fraud, and theft than in the great struggle that looms over such mundane proceedings. Indeed, nothing really happens until the last twenty pages, and when it does happen, the bad guys are so toothless that it feels like Follett just got bored with it by the end. Any climax that involves a German U-boat where the author never shows the U-boat is by definition perfunctory. So yeah, I guess it sucked. A very readable kind of suckage though, I'll give it that.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I really wanted to like this book, and for the most part, I did. It kept my attention throughout, there were parts where I really didn't want to put the book down no matter how late the evening was, and I do plan on reading the following two books in the trilogy... but, for over 600 pages of just Act One of a three-part story, I came away from Winterbirth feeling rather unsatisfied.

I was expecting Winterbirth to follow along the formula set up by its fantasy genre relative A Song of Ice and Fire, and, in some sense, it does: a low-magic setting based on Anglo-Scottish history with the serial numbers filed off, forest-dwelling Elves-not-called-Elves as both antagonists and allies, all as background for a bunch of political struggles between short-sighted feudal barons while the Great Big Bad™ rises unseen in the shadows. What might sounds generic and unoriginal can, in the right hands, become deeply effective and mythic; and, the author Brian Ruckley, a Scottish eco-hippie turned genre novelist, is a solid writer.

That said, there's just not enough meat in Winterbirth. Whereas every paragraph of the Ice and Fire books are crammed with little details hinting at the myriad vastness of the world outside Westeros and the rich history yet untapped by Martin, Ruckley's world seems rather plain. Worse, his characters have no real complexity (the primary protagonist Orisian is particularly vanilla) and Ruckley spends such little time fleshing them out before dropping them straight into the narrative (which, in the first novel, consists almost entirely of people either fleeing or being pursued around the countryside) that it isn't until nearly the end of the book that I actually start to care about them. That's a real problem as a good third of those characters are killed off by then.

Where Ruckley does shine is in establishing the gritty and bloody mood these books are well-regarded for. Maybe it's that I watched the BBC's History of Scotland documentary before I started reading Winterbirth, or that the Black Road antagonists (think the love child of John Calvin and Osama bin Laden) are so grimly different from usual fantasy baddies, but the novel does give the reader the sense of wind-chilled mail rubbing on calloused flesh. It may have its roots in Tolkein, but its heart is of refreshingly sterner stuff.