Spidey’s Reboot

There’s a big problem with all the different continuities of comic book stories; it’s a chore to keep track of which version of a given hero you’re talking about.  That’s been less of a problem with the current Marvel superhero movies, because there has only been one series for each hero… but that comes with two notable exceptions.  The Hulk storyline has been rebooted once and had an actor swap twice, and now Spiderman has been rebooted and given an actor swap.  I enjoyed the first Spiderman movie with Tobey Maguire (it was also the only one that I saw) and so I’d ignored the new one.  But with a second new Spiderman movie coming out, I thought I should take a look.

If anything, I think I liked this new Spiderman more.  As my friend pointed out to me, new Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) isn’t as convincingly a picked-on nerd as old Peter Parker was.  But he makes a far more convincing chatty Spiderman, something I always cherished when I first read the comics at the age of seven, and the way that he chokes out his newly picked name when asked who he is is just perfect.  As an added plus, I’m glad that they went back to his original external web projectors rather than having them be a natural element of his transformation.  I also think Garfield makes a much better version of Peter Parker as an outgoing and snarky-ish photographer.  If that’s the direction that they want to take Parker from the very beginning of this reboot I’m willing to see where it goes, even if it means glossing over some of Parker’s original role as a nebbish geek.  It’s not like we saw much of that in the first Spiderman movie anyway, is it?  I’ve mostly forgotten by this point, so I’m not especially worried about it.

More thoughts after the break.

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The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Surreal and unsettling, The Haunting of Hill House is engrossing and admirably well constructed.  It starts strong and ends even stronger, though it did lose my focus for a little while in the middle.  I’m not sure how to describe my interest in how the story is told; I’m very uncomfortable with the narrator… no, that’s not right, I’m mystified and intrigued by the narrator, which I find disorienting and stylistically unlike nearly every other book that I’ve read.  I haven’t read many other narratives that use a disjointed third person semi-stream of consciousness, and which somehow manage to convey a distressing strangeness that seems to be crucial to the horror of the story.

And this book is most certainly a horror story.  Shirley Jackson seems entirely aware of “less is more,” the same principle that so clearly guided Aliens, but she takes it to an extreme that I hadn’t even realized was possible.  The whole story becomes the experience of the narrator, told at just enough of a remove that we can see the ways in which the narrator is changing and is effected by the horrible house, all while we remain very nearly as confused as she is about what is actually happening.

It’s an incredibly short book, one that moves along quickly if you’re willing to stick with it.  If you’re interested in looking at a formative piece of the horror genre, I suggest you pick it up.  I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but so long as you’re able to accept the unconventional narrator I think you’ll enjoy it.  Or at least find it worth reading, just to have the experience.

 

Post delays, 4/28

This is a post to tell you that I’m not posting today.  I suppose I’m actually lying to you, but I think you understand what I mean.  I plan to have something for you tomorrow, but today’s schedule is totally full and is topped off with a red-eye flight.  I hope you enjoy yourselves in my absence.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I just watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the second time last night.  I loved it both times.  I liked the first  Cap movie as well, but The Winter Soldier leaves that first one in the dust.  They found an excellent balance between action, comedy, and serious trouble, striking a note that felt remarkably similar to the delivery of the first Iron Man movie, less the odd bit where I felt a little underwhelmed by the final fight between Obadiah and Tony.  Which is to say that it’s pretty frickin’ spectacular.  I’d say that it’s worth watching the first Captain America movie in order to better understand what’s going on in Winter Soldier, but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Almost all of the rest of this article is going to be spoiler-rich, so if you haven’t yet seen the movie I suggest that you stop reading before the break.  Take my word for it and go watch the movie; I’m almost certain you’ll enjoy its pulpy action-intrigue comic book goodness.

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Aliens: A Love Letter to Ripley

What a masterpiece.  Aliens is one of those few movies that I can watch again and again, an exceptionally good high-tension thriller in which you will learn to hate some of the humans even more than you fear the ostensible monsters.  That’s not to say that the monsters aren’t scary; they are often terrifying.  But no matter how disturbing they look or how frightening their eventual appearance is, it’s the way in which we come to dread their inevitable appearance that sets this movie apart from its peers.

Time and again, Aliens refuses to completely show us the fearsome foe that everyone knows will show up.  This is typical thriller-fare, but Aliens stands out in its ability to build anticipation and fear of what is yet to come.  I mean, Aliens is really good at this: when I watched it again with my friends last Friday, I was surprised to find how tense I was.  I knew the movie, and we were forced to pause several times due to bathroom breaks or problems with our disk, but every time the movie stopped I could still feel the tension in my body.  Even though I knew what was coming and even though the building tension was interrupted multiple times, I could still feel the pressure of my anxiety increasing.  Where many other thrillers fall apart if you interrupt them, Aliens still delivers.

Part of this, I think, is because Aliens uses the maxim of “less is more” with incredible effectiveness.  I’ll mention this again later, but it will be full of spoilers.

Instead, let’s talk about immersion.  The sound design is a real marvel, with both the music and the effects offering a great deal.  The music is evocative and sparse, creating a pervasive sense of isolation and threat despite the apparent strength of the heroes.  And sometimes, in the really tense moments, it drops away into silence and lets us stew in the tension of what is happening on screen.  The sound effects are similarly impressive, from the repetitive and increasingly stressful click of the marines’ motion detectors to the dull pounding of the sentry guns as they fire offscreen, several bulkheads away.  Better yet, it’s clear that there were scenes that were specifically included for the fear and anxiety that their sound design would create.  Witness those desperate moments of trying to get people’s attention through soundproofed glass.

Another element which I only realized after re-watching the movie on Friday is that almost all of the technology in the movie has its own distinctive sound.  Or, more accurately, almost all of the technology has a a sound cue.  Whether it’s the whirr and beep of the movie’s computers or the hydraulics of the power loader, everything has a very audible presence in the world.

This goes hand in hand with the excellent job that they did in designing technology for the movie.  Despite looking very much like the future of the 80’s, complete with classic dot matrix printer paper with little holes running down the sides, everything looks very solid, real, and believable.  Maybe this is a generational thing, and people who grew up in the 2000’s won’t feel able to accept this as futuristic technology.  But I felt like the chunky, tough and utilitarian machines all have a certain appeal of their own, and they certainly pull me deep into believing the setting of the film.

Speaking of believing the film, I’m incredibly glad that Aliens wasn’t made with awkward early CGI.  Lately, every time that I’ve seen old CGI I’ve been pulled out of the film; I’m glad that my immersion in Aliens isn’t spoiled by something like that.  Furthermore, I’ve been amazed by how well the effects that they did use have aged.  Despite being almost 30 years old, the film’s visuals still feel convincing.  I think part of this, again, has to do with “less is more”: because the film doesn’t ever try to show more than just enough to increase tension, it almost never tries to create things that look unconvincing in retrospect.  H.R. Giger’s terrifying alien and environment design helps too.

Oh, and let’s not forget one of the very best parts of the movie.  Sigourney Weaver‘s Ellen Ripley is definitely my favorite movie heroine, and without doubt one of my favorite movie heroes of all time.  She is a grimly realistic survivor instead of a stupidly overcompetent action hero, and yet despite not fitting the action-hero mould she is still incredibly strong and impressive.  In many ways, Aliens feels like a love letter to Ripley’s indomitable determination despite obviously impossible odds.  And that doesn’t feel unreasonable.  There’s a very good reason why Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Ok, time for a few spoilers.  I hope that you’ve already seen the movie, but if you haven’t, you should avoid this section.

*SPOILERS*

Back to “less is more”; the fact is, we don’t really see very much of the aliens until the very end of the movie.  What we see instead is the mental breakdown of the commanding officer, the collapse of the squad of badass marines as they’re torn to pieces after their commander hamstrings them.  But we see those collapses through the very same fuzzy team video channels that the commander is watching; we only get hints and bits of the horrible experience that these people are going through, and that’s far more frightening than seeing everything in its entirety as it happens.

This comes up again with the sentry guns a little later in the film.  Instead of watching the guns blowing apart aliens, we watch the marines as they stare at the sentry guns’ ammunition counters, falling precipitously as they chew through their last precious rounds.  Listening to the sentry guns’ firing as the ammo counters on screen blaze downwards is chilling, and seeing the tense expressions on the marines’ faces at the same time is even better.  We see only a brief glimpse of the aliens in that whole scene, and we don’t actually need to see any more.  In fact, the most tense part of the entire scene comes when we cut back and forth between the guns, one smoking and empty while the other fires sporadically, and the ammo counters, showing the last few rounds as they dip towards zero.

*END OF SPOILERS*

So yes, I do love this movie.  If you haven’t watched it, give it a try.  If you’re paying attention, maybe you’ll see all the little pieces of the film that have inspired so much other media that has been made since.

 

p.s. It’s refreshing to find an action-thriller that doesn’t shy away from having powerful and strong female characters fulfilling the same roles as their male counterparts.  I love seeing that.

Wednesday Digest, 4/16

There’s no narrow focus for today’s update.  Instead I have a bevy of options available for you; more thoughts on Dominions 3, a brief glance at Knights of Pen and Paper +1, a few words on Shirley Jackson, and just a tidbit on The World’s End.

The World’s End is the third in a series of parody movies starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, and it delivers more or less exactly what I had expected.  It was not as uproariously funny to me as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, but it was certainly enjoyable.  Maybe I just wasn’t familiar enough with the genre that it was sending up to really notice all the especially good bits, but I actually think that The World’s End was intentionally less funny than its predecessors.  Its central characters are certainly sad enough for that to be the case, seeing as how the film revolves around a man whose last best memory is of getting shit-faced drunk 20 years prior.

On to the next piece!  I’ve been working my way through Shirley Jackson‘s The Haunting of Hill House.  It started off feeling rather inaccessible to me (apart from the first paragraph, which was great), but now that the main character has finally arrived at Hill House and started meeting and talking to other people I think I rather like it.  I haven’t been reading it at speed, but that will almost certainly change over the weekend.  It seems promising, and I’ll have more for you once I’ve finished it.

As for Knights of Pen and Paper +1… I picked it up for a pittance through a Humble Bundle, and thought I’d give it a look.  It offers a fairly standard faux-RPG experience, and then takes it a few steps towards the meta by including the players and storyteller in the game itself.  While I’ve found it entertaining, it’s not exactly challenging.  It seems to favor grinding and power-leveling, and rather than offering much of a story it has its (admittedly amusing) meta-based gimmick.  Once the novelty of having your characters sitting around a table and fighting things obviously conjured from thin air by the storyteller wears off, I’m not sure how much is left, though I should note that I haven’t yet gotten very far.  Regardless, it certainly does hit those much loved compulsive-reward circuits every time you level or buy sweet new loot.  I expect your mileage may vary.

And now for another brief moment with Dominions 3, making it the game that I have most often posted about.  Be careful who you play with and what rules you set up beforehand for how players will interact with each other.  Different people have different expectations about the veneer of civility covering players’ interactions, and Dominions 3 is designed in such a way that hurt feelings are likely to follow from “strategically optimal” play.  I put that in quotes because, well, it hardly seems strategically optimal for a game to result in hurt feelings, now does it?  My experience of playing thus far has taught me that I prefer people to be very upfront in their dealings with me, and it’s taught me that one of my housemates will take whatever he can get when he feels threatened and sees an opportunity.  I really should have seen that one coming.

Oh, and last but not least, I should have a short story for you soon!  I’ve finally managed to pull apart a piece that I’d been working on and outline something that seems acceptable, so I expect you’ll see that here some time in the next week or two.  We’ll see how editing goes.

Europa Universalis IV: Becoming Leviathan

Leviathan_by_Thomas_Hobbes
Out of many, one.

I wrote a love letter to Crusader Kings 2’s intricate dynastic backstabbing a while ago, and I thought I should let you know about the game’s semi-sequel Europa Universalis 4.  I’ll even toss in a few tidbits about the myriad DLC available for both titles at no additional charge.

First, a brief introduction: Crusader Kings 2 is strategy-as-individual, a fascinating look at the intimately personal nature of politics and power, spanning the years from 1066 CE (867 CE with Old Gods DLC) to 1453 CE.  Europa Universalis 4 follows this with a shift from the myopically personal to the strictly national, covering the years 1444 CE to 1821 CE.  With both games and the appropriate DLC, it’s possible to convert a CK2 save game into an EU4 mod, letting you pick up the reins of your budding nation-state right where your Machiavellian ruler left them.

I loved CK2 from the start, even though it took a long time for me to feel like I could play the game without stumbling over my shoelaces.  Despite having an easier time learning how to play EU4, it took longer for me to really fall into it.  I think it was because the game is simply less personal.  It certainly wasn’t because of the interface, which has only improved.

In my first game of CK2, I was presented with a moderately ugly portrait of a lecherous Irish earl, told that that was me, and told that I really ought to get married.  I lived that earl’s life with gusto, trying (and failing) to better my position in the world, and I still have fond memories of him.  I identified with him, in much the same way that I have since identified with Queen Ximena and several other rulers of mine, and I felt connected.  EU4 simply doesn’t offer that experience, and at first I was dissatisfied.  I didn’t understand why I would want to play this grand strategy game without all the little people desperately trying to grease the wheels of power in order to ease their rise to the top.  I put aside the game and didn’t come back for a few weeks.

I’m still not sure what it was that pulled me back in, but I’m glad it did.  Despite looking so similar to CK2, EU4 is a very different game; it offers you the chance to shape a state as it transitions from the deeply personal politics of feudalism to the larger scale conflicts of colonialism, nationalism, and empire.  It gives you a chance to make Thomas Hobbes proud.

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SHIELD takes a turn for the better

First things first: if you haven’t watched The Winter Soldier you should most definitely not watch any more Agents of SHIELD.  Captain America 2 is lots of fun to watch, and is way better than Agents of SHIELD.  It would be a shame to have the less entertaining one spoil the better one for you.

Second, despite how much I’m mentioning it this isn’t a review of Captain America 2.  I did love watching that movie though, and I’ll review it later and probably see it again in theaters.  You should go watch it, and keep in mind that all spoilers in this post will also effect your knowledge of that movie.

So then!  If you’ve been watching Agents of SHIELD you’re probably familiar with many of the problems of the show.  Even ignoring any complaints about the acting, one of the show’s big problems is that SHIELD agents (and especially our heroes) appear to be utterly incapable of acting in a clandestine fashion.  Nor are they very good at keeping secrets in a more general sense.  Their incompetency in the realm of secrecy is a running joke between me and my housemate.  And while I’ve been watching in the hopes that the show would improve and perhaps live up to the potential that I thought I saw at the beginning, it’s been stuck on maybe-not-quite-mediocre for a while now.  Every so often there are flashes of fun, little nuggets of something worthwhile jumbled into the dross, but they’re consistently buried.

This most recent episode helped change that.  Look below the break to learn more.

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Madoka: Tragically Magical Girls

There’s so much that I want to tell you about this show, but telling you would be a disservice to you and to Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  This show deserves better than that; I might even go so far as to say that it deserves to be watched.  I’m not saying that it is the alpha and omega of anime (or even of magical girl anime), but it is exceptionally well made.  From the standpoint of appreciating artistic storytelling craft, this is a show that you will want to see.

The art itself is of variable quality.  Some episodes received more time and effort than others, in part because of the end of the show’s release schedule coinciding with the 2011 tsunami.  Background facial animation, for example, is minimal regardless of episode, while the last two episodes truly shine with the extra time that the studio took to release them after the tsunami.  But the anime’s visual design is just as fascinating and worth attention as the storyline itself.  The witches, foes of the show’s magical girls, are bizarre and appropriately unsettling, and each feature their own distinctive style of illustration.  More on that later.

However much I liked the studio’s fascinating art choices, my favorite part of Madoka still has to be the storyline.  I’ll try not to spoil you, so let me put it this way: if you want a happy show, you should pick something that doesn’t have schoolgirls struggling to shoulder the burden of protecting the world.  Sound interesting?

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Brotherhood of the Wolf and the Importance of Editing

Monday night I introduced two of my friends to the oddly enjoyable mystery-adventure movie The Brotherhood of the Wolf.  At least, that’s what I thought would happen.  Instead, we suffered through an interminable introduction, nonsensical pacing, a piss-poor mystery plot that was never explained well enough to make the reveal make any sense, and some CGI that has aged a little harder than I remembered.  It was a train-wreck of a film, and I’m not sure who exactly signed off on releasing it.  I was at a complete loss and repeatedly apologized to my friends, because the movie that we watched was not the movie that I remembered seeing years ago.

It turns out that it wasn’t the same film at all.  Oh, the actors were all the same, and the footage was clearly all collected at the same time.  I doubt that the CGI aged any more gracefully in the version that I do remember, but at least the rest of the movie would still be there to back it up.  The problem, you see, was that we watched what we could only guess was the edit intended for UK theatrical release.  It was atrocious.

The version of the film that I first saw, and the one which I would recommend to my friends, is a lovely action-mystery-thriller which features slowly building tension surrounding a series of wild animal attacks, culminating in a wonderful set of reveals and some good old ass-kicking.  The protagonists gradually piece together that the mysterious beast responsible for the local deaths is no natural creature, and recognize that there are connections between the beast’s killings and a secret society which appears to be trying to supplant the King’s authority in the land.  The film is still a trifle weird, but it has pretty costumes, fun action scenes, and a rewarding reveal of a conspiracy plot.  It has inspired several of my own RPGs, and I would consider it decent background material for anyone looking for adventure ideas.

And thus we come around to the importance of editing.  I was already aware of how much influence editing can have on others’ impressions of your work, but I’d never seen such a painfully clear example of it with something which titillated in one form and disappointed in another.  The experience reminded me of Alison J. McKenzie’s good article on drafts, an intimately related topic, and to be honest I’m quite glad that I have chosen an art form in which the overhead costs for creating and prototyping new drafts are so low.  The costs and scheduling associated with film make it far less forgiving.

Unfortunately for the version of Brotherhood of the Wolf that I just watched, I can’t really bring myself to forgive it.  The experience that I wanted to share with my friends, the one that I thought I was sharing right up until the film started to diverge from my memories of it, was effectively ended by the bizarre editing choices that went into that version of the movie.  It was bad enough that I can’t really blame my friends for not wanting to find and watch the version that I remember.

I would still recommend Brotherhood of the Wolf to you for all of the same reasons that I wanted to show it to my friends, but be sure that you’re watching the more standard US release.  Otherwise, you may be sorely disappointed.