Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review (sort of): Mass Effect 1 & 2 (X-Box 360)

I have always been fascinated by interactive storytelling. I remember being a big fan of the Fighting Fantasy books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone as a wee tyke. These fantasy or scifi-themed books would allow you to choose your own adventure, along the lines of: ‘If you want to check out the spooky hovel on your left, go to page 235. If you would rather head into the ominous cavern on your right, go to page 42.’ Looking back on it, it was pretty much just a paper version of the text adventures you could play on your pc. You’d be running around on a lofty mission with death lurking around every corner: a bad choice, a bad roll of the die, or just plain bad luck could have you flipping back to the last page you remembered going to before you ‘died’ (for this reason, I kept a meticulous cheat sheet with all the pages I’d visited). There were several endings for each adventure, both good and bad. At some point there was even an adventure which featured two books that crossed over and could be played with a friend. That sort of interactive complexity totally blew my mind.

If I had come across Mass Effect at that point in time, I think I might have died of shock. Mass Effect is a computer game trilogy of which the first two parts have come out so far (part one in 2008, part two in 2010). They aim to tell a complete story – a space opera in which you save the galaxy quite a few times - spread out over all three games. Unique is that you can carry over your self-modeled character from one game to the next and that the choices you make in one part of the story affects how the story will unfold in the sequels. Games with multiple endings and meaningful choices are nothing new, but in combination with the sheer size of the universe and the amount of malleable characters in it, it can’t fail to impress: it’s interactive storytelling on a massive scale. Interesting is the amount of optional story spread all around. You can talk to any number of people (or aliens) with interesting things to say, deepening the world around you. Or you can ignore most of that and just shoot things.

Admittedly, I have found that in reality BioWare (the company behind the games) cheated a bit: no matter what choices you made, you will end up ultimately in the same set-pieces with changes (major or minor) to dialogue and cut-scenes. Game 1 (minor spoiler) makes you choose between two team members: one lives, one dies. In game 2 you have a scene with the surviving one, but on a grander scale, it doesn’t matter much which of the two made it there. The attitude and dialogue options you get from certain characters may vary, but not in a very consequential way. And the main set-up for the second game, regardless of what happened in part one, is fixed: get enrolled by a morally dubious organization, gather team for vital mission, gain loyalty of team members (optional), upgrade ship and team (optional) and lead them on said ‘suicide’ mission. You can do all this following the way of the Renegade (a ‘goals justifies the means’ bad-ass) or as a Paragon (a morally upright goody-two-shoes): the difference is mostly in the dialogue, not in the follow-up. However, if you left certain characters – minor or major - alive in the first game, you might come across them in the second one and have a chat. They will ‘remember’ how you handled them during that first encounter.

If you skip the upgrades and loyalty missions, things will end badly, so although this is optional in theory, you sort of have to do both. But then, rushing through the game would be missing the point in any case: the emphasis on story and immersion is what makes Mass Effect special. The game tries to make the main missions have an urgent feel to them – the clock is ticking for the universe after all – but somewhat counter-intuitively, you have to ignore that push in the back and take your time to bounce from one side-quest to the next as much as you can, until the next ‘main story’ mission ends up being the only thing available to you. Given how rich the created universe is, the action parts can come off as filler in-between narration. There’s enough variation to keep you entertained, but the ‘beats’ of a mission tend to be the same: bits of story in between moments when you end up in large spaces with a puzzling amount of stuff lying around for no other apparent reason than to serve as cover for you while you fight off various baddies. End with a slightly larger confrontation and an emotional climax, then on to the next mission. A lot of the fun is actually in the random detail, such as overhearing ridiculous conversations, buying a pointless ‘space hamster’ or giving a ringing celebrity endorsement to every single store on a space station for a little discount until you hear your voice echoing everywhere: ‘I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel!’

Mass Effect has run-and-gun as well as RPG elements to it. The first game required a lot more inventory and ‘stats’ management than the second one does. As an adult with limited time, I greatly appreciated the boiling down of the concept to just the best bits: characters, action and adventure without too much micromanagement. I also appreciated Mass Effect gaining more of a sense of humor in the sequel, after the slightly too clinical part 1. The third one will apparently follow the same approach as part 2. I hope that the total of decisions you made in the first two games will have a bigger impact this time around. Ideally, not just the cut-scenes and dialogue but also the set-pieces leading up to the big climax(es) will be variable. However, I have a feeling that the tight production schedule of games would preclude the development time needed to make two essentially different second-halves for Mass Effect 3. In any case, it will be at the top of my to-buy list. While I appreciate the slightly geekier, RPG-driven sprawling stories and the atmosphere of a choice-heavy game like Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2’s sleeker, more polished approach to epic storytelling is – for me – the direction more games should be heading in. Should you dive in, make sure you start with the original Mass Effect though: things heat up in the sequel, but it’s just a waste to miss out on the beginning of this continuing story.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From Bored to Board

Games at the ABC, board or otherwise, by Steven

(written for the American Book Center Blog)

Reading is a great way to spend your free time, but can be a bit solitary. Gaming with others makes for a good change of pace, but a lot of digital gaming systems like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are focusing on online multiplayer games, so you still end up at home alone. More ‘gezellig’ is definitely inviting people over for some face-to-actual-face time around a table. Instead of cussing each other out over a microphone, you can eat, drink and be merry, while having a game experience together. There are different group dynamics you can go for: in some games you compete or actively try to trip up other players, in others you work together to achieve a common goal. So even if you are not particularly competitive, you can still have a good time with a board game.

Pandemic is a good example of cooperative play: you have to band together to stop a disease from spreading across the globe and dooming humanity. Surely a noble way to spend an evening.

There are a lot of games, with a broad range of themes, to be found at ABC, both in The Hague and on the first floor in Amsterdam. Some of them don’t require a board, just cards you can carry around with you for a game on-the-go. Our selection ranges from games that are easy to pick up and play in a couple of minutes to complex games that can last three hours or more. The last category (containing games like Arkham Horror and Battlestar Galactica – the board game) requires a bit of a time investment when it comes to figuring out the rules, but makes up for that by depth of play and these games can really drag you and your gaming group into a particular world.

If you are a bit daunted by the amount of games on offer, not sure which one to pick, you can of course ask our ABC crew for advice, but there are also sites that can help you find a game to suit you and your particular group of friends.The main site to go to for information is BoardGameGeek. They rate games, feature reviews and game session reports by players, have tons of themed ‘geek’ lists, post alternate rules if the original ones for a game are ‘broken’ and give vital statistics on a game, like: average play time, recommended amount of players, recommended age and so on.

There is also plenty to watch on YouTube: video reviews of games and tutorials for games, for people who find it easier to learn how to play this way than to read a manual. There are also flashy official trailers to be found for some games, if you want to hear the sales pitch. The most ‘present’ of reviewers is Tom Vasel, who has his own site The Dice Tower and a podcast. Seated in front of a wall of games, he gives articulate opinions. Another well-made YouTube feed of note, apart from ‘thedicetower‘, is ‘boardtodeathtv’. Additionally, there are somewhat less polished enthusiasts like ‘Grudunza’, ‘snicholson’, ‘theboardgamefamily’ and ‘Kerbster76’.

Currently in stock at The American Book Center are English versions of classics like Scrabble, Risk,Settlers of Catan, Monopoly and Carcassonne, but we also have games you might never have heard of:

Apples to Apples: A word game matching noun cards (i.e. “Abraham Lincoln”) to cards with adjectives (i.e.”frivolous”)
Fluxx: The card game with the continuously changing rules!
Munchkin: A very funny card game take on role-playing games.
Ticket to Ride: Connect your two train end destinations and try to monopolize as many routes as possible in the mean time.
Battlestar Galactica: Play as one of your favorite Battlestar Galactica characters and help save the last of humanity from the Cylon attacks. But who among you is secretly a Cylon themselves?
Axis & Allies: The World War II strategy game.

The following titles aren’t in our online database but should be in stock or available to order: Taboo,Zombie Dice, Harry Potter Hogwarts, Pandemic, Dungeon Quest, Arkham Horror and many others.

We also sell a lot of different Dungeons & Dragons guides, which help you set up a roleplaying session. And there are card sets for the well-known Magic: The Gathering card battle system.

If you can’t find a game you are interested in at our stores, ask at the register (first floor in Amsterdam or at The Hague), as we might be able to order it for you. If you want to get in touch with other gamers, come visit one of our game nights, visit Ducosim , join the Netherlands Roleplayer’s Guild or have a look atthis list of clubs.

Drop by on December 12th and game on!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: Under the Dome

Dome Spells Doom for Dum-Dums

Stephen King’s latest, Under the Dome, is a massive literary achievement, at least in actual size. At over a thousand pages, this book can sprain wrists over a prolonged reading session and fracture skulls when wielded with evil intent. It’s not King’s longest work, at least if you count his multi-volume Dark Tower saga as a continuous story, but it’s a long-term commitment for the reader all the same. On the American cover, thriller writer Lee Child blurbs: ‘The Best Yet, From the Best Ever’. While calling King the ‘best ever’ is in the realm of outright silly hyperbole, the question remains: is this King’s crowning glory?

Well, not quite, but at least it comes within a Green Mile of being it. The concept is as follows: an invisible barrier – a ‘dome’, if you will – plonks down over one of those small, typically American towns King loves to write about. From there on, things swiftly proceed to hell in a hand basket. After the first death toll (a plane and multiple cars crash into it, people and animals get sliced in two), unwise behavior of people under pressure soon leads to more fatalities. Then the semi-permeable barrier starts to cloud up because of pollution, the temperature slowly begins to rise under it and the clock is clearly ticking for all those who are trapped.

The major catalyst for most things Bad are selectman/used car salesman ‘Big’ Jim Rennie and his son. The first stops at nothing to gain control over the town as soon as external authorities are cut off, the second is just plain psychotic. The most important players on the side of Good are former military man/cook Dale Barbara and Julia Shumway, owner of the local newspaper. They have to find a way to counter ‘Big’ Jim, while at the same time figuring out what is keeping the dome in place and how to make it go away. Complicating matters, especially in the second half of the book, is a meth lab which also ends up getting locked in.

As almost every review has pointed out – a little gleefully – Stephen King must have been annoyed when this exact concept (‘small American town caught under see-through dome’) played out in The Simpsons Movie for laughs. King has claimed that it doesn’t bother him though, as the execution of the idea was completely unlike his version. King definitely came up with it earlier: 25 years ago he already took a stab at the first chapter for the book – which he actually used this time around, mostly intact – but he gave up because he didn’t know how to make it work.

He does make it work this time around, though it’s not a complete success-story. First, the good. As always, King’s prose should come with racing stripes painted on the side. You are sped along, invested in the characters and interested to see what will happen next. There is always something exciting going on, so you don’t really ‘feel’ the length of the story, except in actual weight in your hands. There is the occasional duff, awkward line or simile but those are quickly passed by and forgotten. All of this is true of most of King’s books, whether he is going for straight-up horror or something more cerebral and literary. The basic set-up of Good versus Evil while under the assault of some overarching bad situation is also typical King. There isn’t a whole lot of moral grey area in the book: people are pretty much bad or good, with only a few stragglers lingering in the middle. Interestingly, there are a lot of Jesus-lovin’, Bible-thumpin’ hypocrites on the bad side.

As a deeper allegory for the True Nature of Humanity or for global warming, Under the Dome doesn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye. King cheats too much with the specifics of the town that is portrayed. When it comes to keeping the action going, he probably was wise in having someone truly, insidiously Evil under the dome to speed up the decline of civilization, but psychologically more interesting might have been a slower slide into decay of a more morally ambiguous crowd. He cheats on the environmental aspect by having a meth lab complicate things, instead of stewing people in a prolonged local simulation of global warming. More grey area and a longer time-frame could have made for a more profound – if slower – story.

A general criticism of King tends to be that the denouements of his books don’t live up to the skilful build-up. Unfortunately, the same goes for this one. Without getting into specifics or spoiling too much: for a large part of the book, things seem to be building up to a direct confrontation between Rennie, Barbie and their respective posse. Though there are some scuffles and casualties, the two main men never really face off. The ultimate explanation for the dome is also a bit vague and silly but ultimately irrelevant to the meat of the story: human behavior under extreme circumstances.

Is it the best of King? Probably not. I prefer him a bit more creepy and my personal favorite is still It, which scared the pants of me, admittedly when I was a lot younger. And he has written books with more depth to them. But it is definitely a very entertaining read and should not be passed up by anyone who fancies sinking his mind into a big chunk of blood-speckled suspense.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Television Review: Death Note

I have seen some great anime movies (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, etc.) but anime series have never really appealed to me. There must have been some I watched as a kid, though none I can actually remember much about. As a grown-up, I think it was mostly stuff like Pokemon and Dragon Ball that made me steer clear of the genre. They seemed too dumb and meaningless for someone who’s past puberty. When I think of those series, I picture a lot of close-ups of distorted faces – disfigured by intense emotion or possibly constipation – with energetic lines around them, meant to convey fast motion while in slow motion. Dragon Ball in particular seems to use the ‘soap’ formula for telling its continuing story: it tells a very intense story at a frustratingly mellow pace. Interior monologue and hysterics get in the way of forward momentum; it’s like someone is trying to tell a story, but the brakes are on.

Out of curiosity and to test my own prejudice, I recently decided to try out an anime series. Thematically there are a lot of anime aimed at ‘mature’ audiences like me, featuring extreme violence and more gratuitous, kinky nudity of the female variety than a gay guy like me could possibly endure. But I was looking for something with a little depth to it, like most of the best anime movies have. Googling around, I found a series that was in the ‘top favorite’ list of a lot of anime fans: Death Note.

Death Note is about a very intelligent but morally misguided student (Light Yagami) who finds the Death Note of the title. This is a notebook in which demons known as Shinigami write down the names of people who are to die. Shinigami’s Western equal would be the figure of Death, minus a scythe, plus a notebook and with an odd fondness for apples. Because Light has found the Death Note, he automatically becomes the owner of it and the Shinigami gets tied to him. The Death Note is governed by all sorts of interesting – though somewhat random – rules for the series to play around with. (For a listing, look here.) The basic rule is this: if you write down someone’s name in the notebook, he or she will die of a heart attack unless you specify a cause and time of death. Light ambitiously sets out to rid the world of Evil with it, offing criminals all over the place from the safety of his bedroom. He makes his intention known publically under the adopted identity ‘Kira’. His intent may seem noble, but pretty soon Light is corrupted by his own power and he starts to dream about having all of mankind cowering at his feet. His morals get trampled even more when he starts killing authorities who are on his trail.

Enter ‘L’. He is the leader of a special task force, formed to hunt down the enigmatic mass murderer Kira. Because L has figured out that Kira needs to see a face and know someone’s name to kill him, he stays hidden until he has put together a posse he can trust, among whom happens to be Light’s father, a police inspector. The plot thickens even further as a second Death Note pops up and a second killer starts imitating Light.

L is actually the most interesting character in the series in both looks and personality. He is lanky, barefoot, a bit awkward socially, has a weird way of sitting on a chair and is always eating something sweet. He can seem cold and uncaring, because reasoning and intellect rule over all else. The series is at its strongest in the beginning, when L and Kira are basically playing a lethal game of mental chess. Both are trying to outmaneuver each other, to get each other to make a fatal mistake and reveal himself.

The close-ups that annoyed me in anime do feature in Death Note and especially in the beginning it’s indeed the initially feared interior monologues that are driving the narrative, more than action. It actually works here though: the story doesn’t get boring, because the stakes are life and death and the cat and mouse game is very engrossing. Bu it does start to get obvious after a while that the chase is being stretched out too much. New factors are thrown in that distract from the basic set-up and dilute it. Some of the mini-arcs within the bigger arc are entertaining seen on their own, but disrupt the overall pacing.

About two thirds of the way into the series, there is a massive, daring twist. Unfortunately, it’s one that doesn’t pay off and one the series never fully recovers from. It loses momentum and for the last few episodes I found my attention wandering too much. I am not entirely sure if the plot became more convoluted towards the end, or if I just missed pieces of exposition here and there because I zoned out. The finale itself is satisfying even though the last part of the route there is a little logistically foggy and unbelievable. The ultimate fate of the main characters seems fitting, but doesn’t surprise, as there was a certain inevitability about it long beforehand. Without spoiling too much, the ending reveals the whole series to be a tragedy, so don’t expect people to end up skipping off into the sunset.

Even though Death Note lingers for too long and the series should have been cut by about ten episodes out of its 37 episode run, it would have been a tragedy squared if I’d missed out on the first two-thirds of the series. It works as pure entertainment, but there are also some interesting musings about morality and the finality of death. ‘Carpe diem’ seems to be what it boils down to: appreciate your life while it lasts. Give it a look, if only for proof that the pen can truly be mightier than the sword!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Television Review: The Vampire Diaries

I blame True Blood for getting me into The Vampire Diaries. My boyfriend needed a vampire fix in between the all too short seasons of True Blood, so we decided to add The Vampire Diaries to our watchlist. Though I carefully sidestepped the Twilight movies and have managed to avoid any amount of novels starring werewolves and vampires, I have ended up following ‘Dawson’s Creek with Fangs’, as some might call it. It is based on a series of books by L.J. Smith, which I will never read, and was developed into a series by Kevin Williamson, who also created the Creek series and wrote the first two Scream movies. His trademark is well-written peppy dialogue with a lot of wordplay and pop culture references. The episodes he writes himself do indeed feature that, though the average script for the series is noticeably less sharp.

Core of the series are Damon and Stefan Salvatore, brothers who were both turned into vampires in 1864 by the evil vixen Katherine, who happens to be the spitting image of Elena, a girl the siblings both meet and fall for in current day. There’s an explanation for Elena and Katherine looking the same, but let’s just say it’s complicated. (And let’s overlook the fact that the age difference between the Salvatores and their love interest is pretty damn creepy when you think about it.) This all happens in Mystic Falls, a town where the brothers own a mansion in which they lurk around moodily, from the first episode of the series onwards. There is a love triangle between the brothers and Elena, of course, and there is a lot of angst and romantic entanglement among the whole teenage (but really in their twenties) cast. At first the vampires seem to be the only ones out of whack in a fairly normal world, but soon there are witches, vampire hunters and rings that revive you if you die. Werewolves are also likely to put in a first appearance soon.

The series has two main narrative problems: the stakes seem low even when they are high (accidental pun there) and the series hasn’t figured out how to keep its main, popular bad guy around in a way that’s believable. To start with the first problem: those back-from-the-dead rings are a lazy narrative cheat, not to mention a somewhat silly one. In a recent episode, it was suggested that the reviving would only work if something or someone supernatural was involved in the wearer’s demise. So a vampire could twist your head around and you’d die for a bit and ultimately end up just fine, but if you’d trip and hit your head on a coffee table, you’d be toast. Apparently. A couple of times already, the writers have made a spectacle out of killing a main or regular character only to have them – ta-daa! – sit up with a jolt a couple of scenes later, none the worse for wear. That really takes the edge off the threat of mortality. Admittedly, some deaths in the series did take and some people stayed in the afterlife, but watching a death scene with the initial thought ‘Meh, maybe it won’t stick anyway.’ dulls the dramatic impact. Call it the ‘Comic Book Superhero Revolving Door of Death Syndrome’, as also seen on Heroes, where it was part of the decline of the series. The origin of these magic plot-device rings has not been revealed yet, but then the same goes for the rings the Salvatores wear to be able to walk around in daylight, thankfully not glittering Twilight-style as they do so. I wonder if an enigmatic mystic jeweler will soon be putting in an appearance.

The second problem is Damon (Ian Somerhalder), the cool, morally ambiguous and funny ‘bad’ Salvatore brother who gets all the best lines. There’s no doubt he is the most entertaining character and it’s clear he should be kept in the series, but he has done some fairly unforgivable things and been forgiven nonetheless. When one of the leads just mopes around for a couple of episodes when Damon kills (or at least tries to) one of their friends or relatives, you start to wonder why you as a viewer should care, since even the people on screen don’t seem to mind that much. The cast in general seems a bit too blasé about innocent bystanders falling by the wayside at least partly because of their own actions and the emotional impact of a life lost, doesn’t last much beyond a single episode. The good guys come off as irresponsible for letting a loose cannon like Damon run around and even go so far as to hang out with him in a semi-friendly way. The writers are pushing him out of the ‘bad’ zone and into a moral grey area lately, to make his prolonged presence believable, but he still takes the occasional detour across the ‘evil’ threshold. To make him too good would ruin the character, but somehow he needs to be forced into being a relatively good boy for the long term, against his more evil nature. Hey, it worked for Spike from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, even if it took first sticking a chip into his brain that prevented him from hurting humans and then giving him his soul back. For The Vampire Diaries a witches’ curse might do the trick, as I think in this series vampires still have their soul.

Hopefully The Vampire Diaries will find a proper place for Damon and do away with cheap gimmicks that deflate the tension. The series is unlikely to stick in the mind after it’s all done and dusted years from now, but it makes for entertaining, if highly disposable, viewing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Television Review: Medium (Seasons 1-6)

Medium is a guilty pleasure for me. Not because it is necessarily badly written or produced but because it is less edgy than the stuff I generally go for. To sum up the concept: psychic mom Allison Dubois (played by Patricia Arquette), her loving husband Joe and their three wholesome daughters deal with complications caused by mom’s gift, as she uses it to help Phoenix law enforcement solve crimes. In early episodes the emphasis was on the crimes, but over the course of six seasons the home front has been gaining more and more screen time. This is just as well, as the cases tend to be a bit formulaic and in Medium, home is really where the heart is.

Pretty much every episode starts with Allison waking up in a shock from a dream related to a crime past, present or future. Sometimes the dream is a simple fly-on-the wall observation of the act or of moments right before or after, but you can be sure you’re not being given the full picture. The perpetrator is rarely clear and the visions are often remarkably tricky and subjective, setting up a twist for the writers to pull out of their hat for the final act of the episode. It seems that Allison is meant to prevent further crime on the basis of the dreams, but the rules that govern them are confusing and inconsistent. It’s not really clear why the spirits don’t just spit out what’s on their mind but prefer to peel back the layers on their message bit by bit, in a series of dreams. Allison also sees the occasional ghost. These ghosts seem to know what’s coming up in the future from their vantage point, guiding or manipulating her one way or the other. Why these ghosts have it together more than the ones reaching out through her dreams is not explained. She also has the occasional vision when hearing someone talk or when holding an object. But this apparently happens only when a case would be dead in the water otherwise. In early seasons, it was stated that Allison’s power rarely - if ever - gave her insight into (or affected) people she knew personally, but as the focus of the series shifted to her family, so did her visions.

The more you watch Medium, the more you realize the modus operandi of the afterlife is molded to the needs of the plot of a specific episode. This makes the tension feel artificial, as you are aware you are being pretty blatantly manipulated by the writers. Additionally, once you have watched a bunch of episodes, you tend to get wise to what information is being distorted or left out early on. You’ll end up seeing the twist coming long before Allison does. Of course, the viewer has the unfair advantage of knowing Allison is in a television series, being moved through a plot, but figuring out the truth long before she does – time and time again - does make her seem a bit slow on the uptake.

Allison works on her cases with district attorney Manuel Devalos and detective Lee Scanlon. Neither of these characters is given a lot of depth or heart and mostly they serve to regurgitate plot points. Devalos is a straightforward, moral man who lost a daughter and truly loves his wife. Scanlon is a taciturn, rigid guy, with limited emotional range and commitment issues. Neither of them overflows with charm. They have odd lapses in skill, sometimes forgetting about fingerprints or DNA evidence which you realize – once it is revealed to you how a crime really happened – should have been found earlier on in the investigation.

The true fun is to be had with Allison’s husband Joe (played perfectly by Miguel Sandoval) and the three daughters, who are moving through their growing pains as the seasons roll by and are dealing with the psychic abilities they inherited from their mom. The eldest is sensitive and all about boys and make-up, the middle one is willful and goofy - more frogs and snails than sugar and spice – and the youngest one is quiet and shy (so far). Having kids on a show who are charming and funny without being obnoxious or precocious is a pretty rare occurrence and Medium has nailed it. My personal favorite is the middle child, though a friend of mine disagrees and gets irritated by the ‘funny’ one, so personal mileage may vary. Joe is also someone you care about, as he tackles his unusual home life with an entertaining and believable combination of pragmatism, humor and worry.

What makes the show work is the contrast of this charming, happy family with the big, bad outside world in which horrible crimes occur. In a sense, the writers hold the family hostage, constantly threatening to have something happen to one or more of its members. It is an empty threat, because they know it would destroy what works about the show if they carried through on it, but you still care because the characters are so damn involving. Occasionally the show can feel a bit static, because nothing really changes within the family as the crimes-of-the-week are solved and forgotten.

The creator of the show is Glenn Gordon Caron, who also created Moonlighting. There aren’t that many similarities between the series, but there is a feel for funny-but-realistic dialogue that carries over and a willingness to experiment playfully with the format of the show. Oddly, there is a ‘real’ Allison Dubois with a husband and three daughters, an alleged psychic on whom Caron based the series. She has written a couple of books about the role she played in solving various crimes, though the police denies having worked with her. This by itself doesn’t discredit her, as law enforcement can’t exactly go to a jury and admit their evidence was gathered by way of a psychic. But a lot of the stories she tells in the books were also discredited by regular people who were involved in them. She is somewhat aggressively dismissive of skeptics and has stated that the portrayal of her family in Medium gives a fairly good impression of her home life. If that is indeed the case and she does indeed have dreams and visions like the ones in the series, she might want to ask those in the great beyond to stop being so damn cryptic and give her something to undeniably prove her powers once and for all.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Review: ReWork

Opinions are like a Box of Chocolates

Life is full of opinions, advice and people of the opinion that they are giving good advice. Many veterans from the world of Big Business feel the need to share their knowledge, to help others and – of course – to sell books and cash in on them with speaking engagements. The biggest obstacle they run into: the ambitious professionals they are trying to inform, are too busy working late and climbing ever upwards on the career ladder to make time for someone telling them how to do things differently.

The best way to tackle this problem: deliver the information bite-sized, be to the point and make it look like something someone could enjoyably inhale within one or two lunch breaks. It famously worked for Spencer Johnson’s bestseller Who Moved My Cheese?. Marketing guru Seth Godin also has a couple of very successful books in print, using the same principle: Free Prize Inside being his first and The Dip being a recent New York Times bestseller. Godin’s books are indeed fun to read, but then you would expect so from a writer whose whole career has been built around connecting with an audience.

New kids on the business book block are Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, with their title ReWork. They are no strangers to writing, contributing to Signal vs. Noise, one of the web’s ‘most popular’ blogs, and they follow the nugget approach, with success. On top of their writing accomplishments, Fried and Hansson are the founders of 37signals, a ‘trailblazing’ software company with an unusual structure: there are a relatively small amount of employees, spread out over different countries, working across time zones. Every once in a long while, everybody meets up in person to touch base. The 37signals work ethic is interesting: overwork is frowned upon, Facebook and YouTube distractions are okay and the time spent in meetings is kept to a bare minimum.

Their book is a rapid-fire of ideas. Some examples: don’t always try to grow bigger on principle, as it might be bad for your company, don’t always do what the customer wants and don’t stress yourself out about skipping ‘good’ to get to ‘great’ straight away.

You might want to reread ReWork after the first time you finish it, as you are likely to zip past the various concepts só fast that a lot of them won’t stick with you. Beware that some of the ideas likely won’t be applicable to you: the book flap makes it seem like the book will be highly useful to everybody. However, it’s mostly geared to people who are (thinking of) running a business, and a few points are specific to the software industry. For instance, 37signals institutes long periods of ‘alone’ time, so people can work on projects efficiently, without distractions from colleagues. There are plenty of jobs however, where communicating with colleagues and customers makes up a large part of the actual work.

While the writing is nice and lean, the book – in its hardcover edition – has been injected with some steroids it seems: large margins and space-wasting but not terribly useful illustrations make the book unnecessarily bulky. It was clearly done to make the book look more appealing, but feels like overkill. Rest assured however, that it’s not overcompensation for something lacking in the content department. Fried and Hansson themselves appreciate a good writer: ‘Writing is today’s currency for good ideas’. They advise to always hire the better writer, in case of doubt, the thought being that someone who can express his ideas clearly is a precious commodity, as it also indicates a clear mind. They would definitely hire themselves on the basis of this book.

Book Review: Sh*t My Dad Says

From Wit to Twit - Dads Say the Darnest Things

Twitter is becoming more and more entangled in popular culture. Not only are Classics like Romeo & Juliet and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being relived there, there are now also phenomena that originate on Twitter, but make their way off there, into other media.

Case in point: Sh*t My Dad Says. From Twitter to book to television series; it’s a strange route to take, but none the less, that’s the route the Sh*t My Dad Says phenomenon will end up taking if the series gets off the ground. William Shatner would end up playing Sam Halpern, author Justin’s dad, a smart-yet-crude curmudgeon with a nifty turn of phrase.

How did it all get to this? When Justin had to move back in with his parents because of an unfortunate break-up, he decided to start Twittering things his dad said. Surprisingly quickly, his account went viral and spread all over Twitter. Inspired by this, HarperCollins decided to publish an accompanying book by Justin. It is a character study of his father, from Justin’s perspective, as he grows up. Each chapter describes an interesting ‘father event’ and is followed by a selection of his quotes. The short stories call to mind David Sedaris, but often lack the finesse and a twist. It’s a bit sad to say, but the most entertaining bits are still the quotes. Such as: ‘The dog is not bored. It’s not like he’s waiting for me to give him a f*cking Rubik’s Cube. He’s a goddamned dog.’ Or: ‘I’d say I was gonna miss you, but you’re moving ten minutes away, so instead I’ll just say don’t come over and do your f*cking laundry here.’

Still, if you are a fan of the Twitters and want to know more about the man behind the mouth, you should definitely check out Sh*t My Dad Says.

Sam’s response to all the hype around him is typically blunt and practical: ‘What do I give a f*ck? I don’t care what people think of me. Publish whatever you want.’

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review: Keith and the Girl's What do We do Now?

For all your rude but effective relationship advice

There’s a new relationship guide on the market and it has a bit of an attitude, as the subtitle indicates: smart answers to your stupid relationship questions. Not for those devoid of a sense of humour, clearly. The writers of What do we do now? are themselves a couple and they run one of the biggest podcasts out there: Keith and the Girl. They ‘air’ five free podcasts per week, each one with a run-time of somewhere between one and two hours. Topics are varied: news, celebrity gossip, personal experiences and relationships, all given a comic spin. It helps that within the varied supporting cast there are a lot of stand-up comedians to join in with entertaining banter.

The show is known and loved for being very un-PC while having its heart in the right place. N-words, F-words and plenty of other bad, bad words are regular visitors and it may take listeners a couple of shows to figure out that there’s no reason to take offense here, as it’s all coming from a good place. You might not always agree with the opinions that are being aired, but if you get riled up about something, there is room for discussion on the message boards at the Keith and the Girl site. Time difference permitting, you can even sound off and give feedback during the taping of the shows in a live chat room.

KATG has been keeping itself alive and running with the help of sponsors and merchandise sold through the site, but has now branched out into the publishing world with their book full of ‘modern advice for modern couples’. The book is divided in chapters by topic (In-Laws, Money, Sex and Kink, etcetera.). After a short and personal preface on the subject at hand, Keith and Chemda (aka ‘the girl’) reply to conundrums presented by their listeners. They do this separately, sometimes disagreeing with each other and getting into a discussion. The playful tone is apparent from page one, with Keith gate-crashing the introduction by his editor and berating him. Soon after, Chemda ‘speaks up’ for the first time:

Keith: Hey, baby! When’d you get here?

Chemda: They just edited me in, I guess.

Their advice tends to be funny, broadminded and blunt. As with the opinions on the podcast, you might get rubbed the wrong way from time to time, or just disagree, but you’ll easily get over that because you’ll find yourself smiling for much of the rest of the way. If the dynamics of relationships interest you, then this is a lighthearted sounding board for your own thoughts on the topic and a good book to read with a partner and discuss.

A sample chapter can be found through this link. Also check out a video promo for it. If the book tickles your funny bone, remember there are also over a thousand very entertaining free Keith and the Girl shows to feast your ears on, available through iTunes and the KATG-site. What do we do now? Now we buy the book.

Comic Book Review: The Walking Dead Compendium

The Walking Dead might just be those WITH a pulse…

The Walking Dead Compendium, which was released last year, collects the first 48 issues of an ongoing, gripping and moody comic book series, which deals with a doomsday scenario involving zombies. Not the fast-running, overly aggressive kind as seen in recent pop culture, but the old-fashioned, lumbering, dumb kind, that will – however – still rip you apart, given half the chance. They roam around in hungry herds, attracted to noise and movement but solitary ones may also pop up out of nowhere for a fatal surprise.

The Walking Dead has a large and mutable cast of characters-who-still-have-a-pulse, with frequent additions as old friends and foes fall by the wayside. The ‘lead’ is Rick, a policeman. In the first issue of the series, he wakes up in a hospital-bed from a coma, after having been shot in the line of duty. The siege on humanity is already well underway at this point, the cause unknown. Rick heads out to find his wife and son, hooks up with other survivors and turns into a leader of sorts, trying to keep everyone alive and out of despair.

The dynamic between the survivors is what makes this book tick. It’s not so much brain-eating that takes center stage but the effects on the human psyche of a global disaster, with no clear hope that the situation will ever get better. Some people go crazy, others commit suicide, or let their base instincts take over and prey on the weak, while a few soldier on and try to live their life with some semblance of normality. Disagreements about the best way to survive lead to aggression and in-fighting. As you might suspect, this isn’t a very cheery book, though there are some bright spots now and then to alleviate the grimness and there is always enough tension to keep you glued to the page, wondering what happens next. No one is safe in this comic and even long-time favorites may be given the axe – or more likely the ‘chomp’. Author Robert Kirkman has stated that even Rick may die at some point, the book going on without its (former) main character.

Kirkman started out this series with the pitch: a zombie movie that never ends. He was left wondering ‘What happened next?’ several times when the credits started to roll on undead classics and decided to come up with his own answer. Now nearing issue 70 of the series, there is still no explanation for the downfall of civilization as we know it and no end in sight. It’s a testament to the strength of Kirkman’s storytelling that you don’t feel annoyed by this lack of an explanation. Providing one might take away from the feeling of being overwhelmed and out-of-the-loop, and the reason would likely be somewhat silly in any case. The artwork suits Kirkman’s story well, being somewhat coarse and gritty: Charlie Adlard has been the artist from issue 7 onwards. Tony Moore did the much cleaner, detailed traditional artwork for the first 6 issues but had to bail due to time constraints.

The Walking Dead is currently in production as a television series by Frank Darabont, director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It will only loosely be following the comic book series in terms of ongoing plot though, much in the same way Dexter – the series – only somewhat resembles Dexter – the books. So there is no excuse to miss out on the Compendium: dive into it as a primer to the characters and to just wallow in some good and moody storytelling. And rejoice, the credits won’t be rolling on this story anytime soon.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review: Gay Travels in the Muslim World

Gay identity is denied in most Muslim countries. That there are men and women within those areas who primarily love people of their own gender is a biological certainty. But most of them would not label themselves 'gay' or 'lesbian', they would see the attraction as just one small aspect of themselves that they try to fit into their lives while adhering to what is expected of them by friends and - especially - family. Family is very important, both caring for the current generation as well as raising the next one. Getting married before you are thirty and having children is the only accepted way to live in many places. Not doing so could lead to loss of honour for you and your family. This means that most gay love and lust takes place behind closed doors and isn't acknowledged even while everybody around knows it happens. As long as there are no witnesses and it isn't talked about, everybody can pretend that no social mores are being broken.

Considering that gay sex is officially frowned upon and even punishable by death in many Muslim countries, the casual intimacy between men is one that will surprise many tourists. Much more than in Western countries, men are likely to be seen touching each other in a physically intimate way or even walking around the city hand in hand. The 'Western' gay identity threatens this way of interacting with each other by making it look suspect and threatens the entire family-oriented society. It introduces new options and choices that could upset the basis on which the society is built. Gay Muslims may start to question things and realise that the way their heart is pulling them does not have to point towards certain doom, but could lead them to a happy, if alternative, family life.

Gay Travels in the Muslim World is a series of autobiographical short stories, edited by Michael Luongo. It gives an impression of the Muslim world as described above. The majority of them deal with contrasts and conflicts between Western culture and Muslim culture, from varied perspectives. Most of the stories were written by Western visitors, one or two by people within the culture. The style, tone and attitudes of the writers vary, and while some of the tales are likely to annoy you, you will find a couple that are touching and interesting. I liked the story of an American who starts a long-distance romance with a Turk, only to find out he is married and has children. Rather than break up with his long-term lover, the Turkish man integrates him as an 'uncle' into his family, where he is lovingly accepted.

Not all stories are sweet though; in several of them, local men desperate for money and tourists desperate for sex with locals meet each other on a sharp and uncomfortable knife's edge between two cultures, using each other for selfish purposes.

All in all it is an interesting collection, well worth a read for anybody interested in this different perspective on gay identity. And if you want to take a more academic look at the topic, you may want to pick up Unspeakable Love - Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East.

Book Review: Wishful Drinking -Toasting Princess Leia

Carrie Fisher bares not-quite all in a funny memoir

Carrie Fisher's life was always an autobiography waiting to happen. As the daughter of the eccentric Debbie Reynolds - of Singing in the Rain fame, among many other roles - and singer Eddie Fisher, she grew up in a Hollywood family under great public scrutiny. Carrie compares their level of public interest to the Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie merger. Ms. Reynolds was soon dumped by Mr. Fisher for a certain Ms. Taylor, first name: Elisabeth. A merry dance of Hollywood relationships ensued, her parents making their romantic way among the famous and powerful.

Carrie meanwhile, landed a certain movie role that she would never live down, no matter how hard she still tries: that of Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy. The silly 'buns on the side' hairstyle and golden bra from Return of the Jedi haunt her to this day. She embarked on an ill-fated relationship with Paul Simon and then on an equally doomed relationship with a Hollywood producer who left her for a man, but not before gifting her with a much adored daughter. During all of this, she battled with what was ultimately diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and accompanying drug and alcohol problems. Oh, and I see I forgot to mention that one of her best friends died at her home one night.

Considering the large amounts of interesting material at her disposal, it is surprising how relatively thin the autobiography is that has finally hit bookstores: Wishful Drinking. When you also take into account its large black and white photo's and illustrations in combination with a large font size, it's no wonder that you will be able to go through it in a couple of hours. There are plenty of quotable lines to keep you entertained, but the book stays frustratingly close to the surface, skipping over interesting topics while hinting at untold depths. She allows the readers into her life, but only so far. She is admirably open, however, about her bipolar disorder and addiction problems. In fact, the reason for writing the book is supposedly that she is going through voluntary shock treatment to handle her condition and wants to capture her memories while she still has them.

Wishful Drinking apparently ties in with her one-woman show of the same name and it seems a little more could have been done to convert it into a 'proper' autobiography. There are jumps back and forth in chronology, certain events being referenced a couple of times in different chapters and some of the jokes are repeated. With references to Sarah Palin and the financial crisis, the book does feel fresh, but it gives the impression that it was rushed to the printer without a good final polish. Her writing is less tight than in her previous works, the most famous one being the semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. Often Wishful Drinking reads like a speech that has been transcribed: too much spoken language and not quite literary. Still, for anybody curious about Princess Leia in the real world - or Hollywood in any case - it is good for an entertaining couple of hours, even if you don't learn much about the behind-the-scenes at the Star Wars movies. But I did come away from reading this book with the knowledge that according to George Lucas, there are no bras in space. Which is important to know.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Movie Review: Wanted

Wesley Allan Gibson (James McAvoy) is a bit of a loser, to put it mildly; broke, working a soul-deadening job and too wimpy to confront his friend about regularly boinking his girlfriend behind his back. To his considerable surprise, he suddenly and violently gets drafted into a fraternity of assassins for paternal reasons. He didn't know his father when he was growing up, but he turns out to have inherited dad's ability to speed up his heartbeat, allowing him to experience time as if things around him are happening in slow motion. This device is used to great aesthetic effect throughout the movie, by showing the most outrageous action scenes at a crawl, giving the viewer a chance to chuckle at the fantastic absurdity of it all. The 'cool' dial is cranked up all the way to eleven. It almost makes you overlook the complete lack of stealth in the approach of the assassins, who are causing merry mayhem and riding around on metro trains without any regard for witnesses and security cameras.

Wanted is definitely a case of style over substance, but puts up such a strong, full frontal assault of it that you are likely to give in. You will smile as a car bowls over a bus and then drives off the side of it. And you will shake your head appreciatively when a lethal bullet is followed backwards in time across a cityscape to land in the gun that fired it. Winning the gold medallion of 'cool' in this movie is Angelina Jolie. I am far on the gay end of the Kinsey scale, but seeing her in this movie made me slide considerably towards the middle. She is ridiculously sexy, gliding across the screen in supreme femme fatale mode.

The phrase that kept going through my mind while watching Wanted was 'collateral damage'. The killers in this movie operate under the philosophy that by taking one specific life they are presumably saving many others. But they are not too concerned with the lives of any number of bystanders when the bullets and cars start flying. Even the good guys have landed a fair amount of innocents in the morgue by the time the end credits roll, and none of those who survived seem too concerned about that. Death is also being dealt to characters who simply seem misguided, without giving them a chance to reassess their situation. This is understandable in a movie that needs slow motion gunfights and therefore cannon fodder, but it makes the killing seem completely random for the most part.

The movie was based on a graphic novel written by Mark Millar. He has said he will not be writing a sequel to Wanted in comic book form, but one or more sequels are sure to hit the movie theatres, hopefully bringing back its few surviving assets.

Wanted, 2008. 110 min. Director: Timur Bekmambetov. Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman.

Movie Review: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy Trilogy doesn't seem to know when to quit. First of all, there wasn't any need to make it a Trilogy, discounting a financial one. Though the third movie attempts to freshen the formula by moving the action to China, it still feels too much like the previous two entries, in particular like the bloated special effects fiesta that was the second movie. It has been a while since I saw parts one and two. I remember that I found the first one charming, with a nice balance between action, romance and humour, while the second one was just a lot of noise and computer generated motion. It was okay as popcorn movies go, but did it really warrant another sequel, which recycles these thrills while piling on the silly pseudo-mythology?

The beginning of the third entry seems promising. There is the nicely Indiana Jones-esque uncovering of what looks suspiciously like the Chinese Terracotta Army. These scenes reintroduce us to Alex O'Connell (Luke Ford), the son of our couple of intrepid leads from the first two movies. He has aged alarmingly in comparison to his father (Brendan Fraser), who now looks more like his older brother. His mother has also changed; into a different actress (Maria Bello), as Rachel Weisz wisely bowed out of the franchise. That is addressed in an actually funny way, by suggesting that the previous flicks were film versions of two books the 'real' Evelyn O'Connell wrote, which in turn were based on her 'real life' adventures. You follow?

Though the adventurous family seemed happy at the end of part two, Alex is now oddly estranged from his parents, who for their part seem bored to tears in early retirement. When a new adventure beckons, transporting the Eye of Shangri-La to China, the couple eagerly jumps at the opportunity, leading them to run into Alex and to bond together once again through their adventures.

The story starts to fall apart as the action revs up, getting too hectic to give the cast room to breathe and enjoy their characters. The mythology seems to be getting made up on the fly by an over-enthusiastic storyteller deathly afraid of boring his audience. But bored is what I was, as the story failed to pull me in, despite all the plot being thrown my way: "There is this Evil Undead Chinese Emperor brought back from the great beyond and now looking for eternal life. Oh, and what if he controls the elements? And what if he can change into monsters for some reason? Then throw in a few Yeti's? Maybe an army of skeletons?" The writers needed to ask themselves 'why' rather than 'why not' a bit more than they did. Action scenes are strung together with some clunky emotional ones painting the characters in broad strokes and resolving issues the movie did not make us care about in the first place. Most attempts at one-liners fall flat and the dialogue is often wooden to the point where it seems to have been ghost-written by George Lucas. All the charm from the first movie has evaporated by now; let's just bury this franchise and not dig it up again.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, 2008. 112 min. Director: Rob Cohen. Starring: Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh.

Movie Review: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

The X-Files without conspiracies or aliens - I don't believe it! I watched X-Files regularly up to the point where Fox 'Spooky' Mulder (David Duchovny) was starting to turn into a guest star rather than being one of the leads. What made the series work originally was the core concept of a cynic and a believer investigating the paranormal, working as a sniffed-at-by-colleagues branch of the FBI. The chemistry between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson (as Dana Scully) was phenomenal even if they allegedly didn't always get along behind the scenes. They played off each other well, whether they were being action heroes, being funny or even being romantic. This chemistry unfortunately seems to have somewhat dissipated, going by the second X-Files movie. It's not the only element that is absent from the expected mix: I found myself missing the big-conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy angle that had started to bore and annoy me during the later seasons of the series. There isn't any international travelling, there aren't any aliens and there are no explosions of any kind. Unlike the first movie, the story feels very intimate and small-scale, like one of the stand-alone episodes featuring a case-of-the-week.

Scully is no longer with the FBI but working at a hospital. Her former employers reach out to her to contact Mulder. They need him to verify the authenticity of a psychic (Billy Connolly) who is helping them on a missing person's case, this person being an FBI agent who the psychic claims is still alive. The psychic is a former priest and a convicted paedophile who wants to atone for his sins. Is he working for God, the Devil or is he a con-man? Scully meanwhile has to decide whether to painfully treat a gravely ill young patient of hers or to let him die in peace. During all this, Mulder and Scully try to figure out their feelings for each other.

The location is a snowy town, used to great effect to create a feeling of cold, isolation and discomfort. Colours are muted and dark. The movie is about hope in the face of darkness and doubt, but the feelings it conjures up aren't upbeat, more ones of quiet despair. Apart from a hilarious use of the X-files theme in combination with a photo of George W. Bush and the occasional snarky line of dialogue, there isn't much to laugh at this time around. Seeing Scully defeated and Mulder as a slightly bitter, powerless recluse isn't the welcome reunion you might hope for. I'm all for introspection and reflection, but I expected something different from an X-files movie. More of a sense of fun and adventure.

If the story had been really strong, the movie could still have worked as an arty little thriller in its own right, but it builds on the theme of faith, using a psychic and religion, which means the writer gets a free pass to make unlikely things happen and hint that they were predetermined by a higher power. Which of course they were: by the writer, who is the God of the story after all. There is once instance in particular, involving a mailbox, which had me rolling my eyes. I also didn't like the way in which homosexuality was portrayed, in particular how it was dubiously linked to paedophilia. It seemed sensationalist, random and in bad taste. At least the explanation behind the disappearance of the FBI agent felt suitably X-files: far-fetched and appropriately gross. A short appearance by Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) also made it seem more like old times again for a moment. Here's hoping that in the next movie, they all find a nice big conspiracy to sink their teeth into and get to blow up some stuff real good.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe, 2008. 104 min. Director: Chris Carter. Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Billy Connolly.