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‘Member Star Wars?

Writing this in December 2016 a couple days before Rogue One comes out in theaters. I’m excited about the movie because it’s Star Wars, it looks like it’s going in a new, mostly good direction, and Alan Tudyk is involved and many of the things he’s involved in are awesome (Firefly, Wreck-it Ralph, Baseketball). On the other hand, Tudyk has been involved in some stinkers (In my opinion: I, Robot; Death at a Funeral; and his webseries Conman). The robot he is giving his voice to also looks a bit like a hillbilly with his overalls hiked up too far. (Edit from 7/2/17 I’ve seen the movie now and, interestingly enough I liked that it was going in a new, mostly good direction, but was not as pleased with it as I hoped)

Also disturbing is that Forrest Whitaker is in the movie. I have yet to see Forrest Whitaker be in a movie that’s actually good. The closest is the Crying Game, which was memorable mostly because it was disturbing, not because it was particularly good. Somehow he has a reputation of being a good actor, and while I can’t say he’s a bad actor, I can’t really think of a time where I was struck by any of his performances. I think he’s one of these arthouse actors that get thrown into a movie to give it gravitas, only it often seems to backfire. (Edit: Did NOT like Forrest Whitaker in this movie either.)

It’s kind of a shame, because I get the impression that Whitaker has a good sense of humor and likes a lot of the same things I like. It’s just he always gets these overly serious roles. In most of his scenes he seems to be expressing dismay at having learned some unfortunate truth. At any rate, his being in the movie makes me think that we’re going to have a scene at some point where there is a field of dead soldiers and several lines bemoaning the horrors of war. I suppose that could be a good thing for the movie, I just hope it’s not what the movie is about.(Edit: I was a bit off. Instead of a field of dead soldiers there was a tremendous apocalyptic wave of earth and death)

On a somewhat related note, I just finished playing a Star Wars game from about 8 years ago called Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. This was a game released from LucasArts, before the rights to Star Wars were sold to Disney, but after the last of the three prequels came out. There is a funny moment in  the game where you’re fighting in a room of collectibles and on the wall is a gungan frozen in carbonite that looks an awful lot like Jar Jar Binks.

It’s a frustrating game to play, mainly because the targeting system is so buggy. You can move things with the force, shoot them with electricity, or throw a lightsaber at them, but only if they have a blue square around them, AND you have a clear line of sight, AND they aren’t something that’s immune to the attack you’re trying. Not to mention that if you move a little bit the blue square winks off, and sometimes you can attack somebody even though they don’t have a blue square.

This frustration aside though, it’s fun fighting with and against wookies, jawas, and Rancors; throwing spaceships around with the force; and seeing all the iconic robots and ships from the movies. Also you get to be Darth Vader for a bit, which is neat. The story line of the game isn’t too bad either. It at least has one or two interesting characters. Not the main character, Starkiller, who, while voiced excellently by Sam Witwer, has a strange arc that makes it hard to figure out his motivations. Rather it’s two side characters that I wanted to know more about.

Proxy is a droid that can use holographic projectors on its body to appear as any one he’s studied sufficiently. He repeatedly says that it is his mission to kill the main character, but he obviously cares about him too. Also he has strange insights into the people he pretends to be. There’s a line about midway through the game after Proxy becomes Darth Vader to deliver a message. Proxy says “I hate having to be him” and Starkiller says, “I think he does too.”  I would love to play a game where I could play as Proxy, or see a movie where he was around more. But I’m not even sure if he made it to the sequel of the game, and since the story is no longer canon, we might never see his like again.

The other character I wanted to know more about is Maris Brood, the apprentice of one of the Jedi Knights Shaak Ti. Shaak Ti herself is a canon character now, I think, but at least in the game Maris Brood was way more interesting. She was trained by someone who followed the light side, and yet she herself was dark side. She had an affinity for animals, notably a Megarancor that you have to fight when you battle her. She also could teleport and used lightsabers like tonfas. Shaak Ti’s fight by comparison was something of a letdown and I didn’t get anything of where she was coming from. Maris Brood seem to have a genuine beef that I would have liked to know more about.

Doing research for this post led me to a novelization of the game, which I might check out later, because overall the game was like a glimpse into a much larger story. I play games for three reasons, to pretend to be someone else, to challenge my brain with interesting puzzles, and to be entertained by an engaging, if often not particularly sophisticated, plot. The game had definite good points in all three categories, although it stopped frustratingly short of complete success in any one of them. The ending was a bit contrived and the one choice you could make to influence the plot was way too little, way too late. By the time it comes, you’re almost not even aware that it is a choice, since the rest of the game is so linear.

Now is a good time to pick it up if you’re looking for something to play that’s not too expensive, since it’s got a lot of good Star Wars references, but if you want a game from around the same time period that’s easier and more fun to play, Infamous is probably a better bet. You have many of the same powers, but without the clunky UI. Also Infamous has choices all the way through it that affect gameplay as well as the character’s appearance. Granted the affect on gameplay isn’t very drastic, there are mostly a few lines of dialogue that are different and a few missions that turn out differently. Still, it’s much more satisfying from a roleplaying perspective and it meshes with the storyline better too. I think a good takeaway might be that Force Unleashed tells a better story, but Infamous tells its story better.

Along the lines of remembering things from the past, I’ve run into a lot of stuff on Alzheimer’s research lately. First there was an episode of 60 minutes that aired recently about a group of people living in Colombia that have a rare genetic mutation, making it almost inevitable that they will develop Alzheimer’s. It’s a recessive mutation, so not all of the people get it, but by testing for it, researchers can know ahead of time who’s going to get the disease, and therefore they can know how well whatever therapy they come up with will work. Most of the therapies they currently have show little or no effect on the disease, but that might be because the patients who receive the therapies aren’t getting them early enough.

Far more exciting in my opinion, though, is the research coming from Li-Huei Tsai about using the light from flickering LEDs to lessen the beta-amyloid plaque in the neurons of rats with Alzheimer’s. Beta-amyloid plaque build up is though to be one of the major contributing factors in the development of the disease. It was theorized that causing neurons to fire at a certain rate, known as the gamma frequency, would encourage janitor cells in the brain (microglia) to clear up the plaque. Initially Tsai, used a rather invasive procedure (optogenetics) to cause the neurons to fire at the right frequency. She found that there was, in fact, up to a 50 percent reduction in plaque using this procedure. However, when she simply tried using LEDs with no further surgery she found it had almost the same effect!

Now here’s the clincher, and the thing that ties this whole blog post up. A human gamma wave is a neural oscillation of between 25 to 100 Hz, 40 Hz being the most typical. The unit Hz stands for “Hertz” and means “per second.” Most monitors and TV sets show images at around 60 frames per second. This equates to a light oscillation of around 60 Hz which is well within the gamma range. Furthermore, Gamma oscillations occur when the mind is in a state of extreme concentration, which can occur during meditation, during a difficult calculation, or…playing a particularly engaging video game.

Playing video games could possibly keep you from getting Alzheimer’s.

Review of A Dangerous Method

image from IMDB

This movie is about Sigmund Freud ( played by Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) and their interaction with a patient/ doctor named Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley). I’m a fan of both Viggo and Keira, so I was looking forward to seeing this not just for the intriguing subject matter, but for the acting as well.

Unfortunately the movie was something of a mixed bag. The worst thing about it was Knightly doing her crazy freak out routine. The story begins as Sabina is taken by force to the institute Carl Jung works at while she writhes and screams. She pulls out her jaw, arches her back, whips her arms around. She looks like she’s possessed. She does a pretty good job, but the problem I have is that it goes on for too long. About a minute into the freak out session I remember that Keira Knightly is not crazy, and that this is a performance. Then it begins to just seem ridiculous and I question whether anybody actually reacts like that.

I don’t blame Knightly for this. I blame the director, David Cronenburg. He started  out making horror and scifi movies like The Fly. There was a movie he made in the seventies that involved an a woman with a stinger in her stomach that she used to suck blood out of people. One of the things that becomes evident when watching these movies, is that Cronenburg  enjoys shocking people. More specifically, he likes scenes where the humanity of a character is questioned. So I think this is why he let the freak out scene happens so long. It’s a director’s responsibility to let an actor know when they’ve done enough, and Cronenburg was probably egging her on.

The movie went over a number of themes. There was the question of whether we should quench our passions or let them rule us. Carl Jung decides to have an affair with Sabina, but later regrets it, even though he ends up getting another mistress that’s more or less just like her.

There was an issue of race. Sabina and Freud are Jewish, while Carl Jung is Aryan, and this is brought up at odd moments as the characters talk to each other. This puts an interesting light on things as the second world war happens a few years after the movie, but sometimes it seems a little forced.

There is also the question of Freud’s insistence that sex is central to all human motivations. Carl tries to prove that Freud is wrong about this, but he offers in place of sex bizarre ideas about telepathy and mysticism. There’s even a scene where he predicts that something will occur in Freud’s office based on a burning sensation in his gut. It does occur.

Finally, there’s the issue with Freud’s resentment of Jung’s relative wealth, and the dissolution of their friendship as a result of this, the Jewish-Aryan thing, and the affair that Jung has with Sabina. Freud at one point acts as a mediator between the two of them and he cites the event as the main reason he lost respect for Jung, thought the movie leads one to suspect that it might have been for other reasons.

Viggo Mortensen, well known for his role in Lord of the Rings and his tough guy characters in crime movies and westerns, does an amazing job as Freud. I can’t say how true it is to the real Freud, since I never saw a video of the actual guy, but his accent and mannerism made me forget it was him most of the time. Kiera Knightly, aside from the freak outs that happened early in the movie, also did a good job becoming a different character. Her performance was completely different from her character in Pirates of the Caribbean and  her character in Domino. Michael Fassbender did a good job too, but before I checked the actors on IMDB I thought it was the best acting job Ewen McGregor had ever done.

Overall, the movie didn’t do much for me. The ending just sort of sits there like the last roll in the basket waiting for someone to pick it up. There’s an epilogue which seems to tell a more interesting story than the movie itself.  So I have to say that despite the great acting and the subject matter, the movie isn’t something I would recommend to most people. I give it a 6.5/10

Review of The Windup Girl

Image from http://bit.ly/9zOK9t

It’s a dilemma we all face to one extent or another: we like technology, but we hate what it does to the environment. We like driving, but not oil spills. We like electricity but we don’t like to think about what ecosystems are being damaged to produce it. You’ve got solar cells? Great, what are they made of? Is that recyclable? We are in the process of resolving this conflict, but we’re not there yet. Let’s say the fossil fuels we rely on finally go out. Let’s say all the things environmentalists have been warning us about actually happen. What’s next? How would people cope?

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, takes place in a different world. A world that is born after the world as we know it ends. The primary sources of energy are metal springs wound by hand or by the use of elephantine beasts of labor, and the methane produced when burning the refuse from men and beasts alike. The main police force is the Environment  Ministry,  who patrol the city in their white uniforms, ruthlessly burning or destroying anything that might pollute resources too much, or release plague into the populace. The only edible plants that survive are genetically modified to resist such plagues and even then have to be closely monitored. The “white shirts” are at constant odds with businesses, who often hire mercenaries to protect their cargo from destructions when bribes to corrupt white shirt officers don’t work. And then there are the people who are genetically modifying the crops. Called gene rippers, they are loathed by all because they are the source of the plagues that threaten the populace, but tolerated because without them, there would be nothing to eat.

From this short description, you can already get an idea of the vast amount of world building that Bacigalupi did for this book, and his characters are as complex as the world they inhabit.

Anderson Lake is a gene-ripper who has a cover job as the overseer of a massive kink spring factory. The factory is huge, with giant elephant beast turning giant cranks in giant baths of algae. Helping him out with the logistics of this operation, and with bribing the necessary officials is Hock Seng (pronounced hock sahn), an Chinese refugee from the genocidal massacres that had taken place in Malaysia several years before. Hock Seng’s entire family was killed during the tumult there , and he had barely made it out alive. So now, even as he pretends to do Anderson’s bidding, he is secretly making plans to steal enough money to establish himself as a merchant in a country where he won’t be persecuted.

The book starts as Lake finds a bizarre fruit in a market that seems to be immune to plague. Realizing that this means there must be another Gene-ripper around, and that this gene-ripper must have access to other sources of genetic information, Lake quickly makes meetings with important business leaders in order to leverage himself into getting access to the gene pool. One of these meetings takes place in a brothel where a beautiful looking Japanese girl, with skin eerily white and smooth, serves Lake. She moves in stops and starts, identifying her as a genetically modified or “new” person. She is Emiko, the wind-up girl.  She is lower than a slave in the brothel, only allowed to exist because of the bribes paid to white shirts. She is mocked, ridiculed and despised by almost everyone she comes into contact with. But Lake is intrigued by her, and he tells Emiko of a village of wind-ups to the North where Emiko might be accepted. This gives Emiko hope for the first time in years.

Finally there are Jaidee and Kanya. Jaidee is the captain of a squadron of white shirts. He started out as a Muay Thai boxing champion and carries his fighting spirit into his job. When there is a ship full of suspicious cargo, he doesn’t bother trying to sort through it, he burns it all. Even while most of the Environment Ministry are despised by the people for their corruption and meddling, Jaidee is well-liked because of his pure motives. But his exuberance has cost a lot of powerful businessmen, and they are going to try to make him pay for it.

Kanya is Jaidee’s first officer, and where Jaidee is boisterous, Kanya is quiet. She rarely ever smiles. She seems at first to be a relatively minor character, but she has many secrets, and after a series of catastrophes, she becomes one of the most important characters in the book.

The Windup Girl is science fiction written as epic fantasy. If you’re ready for it, the plot is intricate and engrossing, but if you aren’t, it can also be complicated and confusing.  There are also several sections depicting gory scenes, and there are two rape scenes that I find disturbing. These scenes aren’t gratuitous. They are important to show the arcs of the characters, but you should know this isn’t a book of chaste kisses on gleaming spacecraft or anything. This is a gritty depiction of an all too possible future, a future that you could argue is already taking place in some developing countries.

So why should you read it if it’s so depressing? First off, I wouldn’t call it depressing. I would say illuminating and even uplifting to an extent. The book illustrates an important point about the conflict between technology and nature: there is no real conflict. Technology comes from us, and we are part of nature. Nature changes all the time, and like all creatures, we must adapt or perish. We can now control larger and larger areas of nature. As part of nature, we have to adjust to this. We can’t eliminate technology, but we can’t be reckless with it either. We’re grabbing the steering wheel of the Earth-mobile. If we don’t pay attention, this could go very badly.

This isn’t the only theme of the book,  and I’m not sure if the author would even agree completely with my interpretation. You don’t have to agree with the theme to like the book, though. The characters carry the story. They are all flawed people trying to do the right thing even while they end up fighting against one another. Anderson Lake is my least favorite of the point of view characters, but even though he can be arrogant and inconsiderate, even cruel, he has a discernible arc, and his motives are understandable.  All of the characters, Anderson included, had numerous moments where I was rooting for them.

http://paolobacigalupi.blogspot.com/

On the negative side, there were some ends that were a bit too loose at the end of the book. Particularly for Hock Seng. He was the biggest underdog in the story and his fate was a bit too unclear for my taste. Although some things made sense after thinking about them for a while, the ending initially felt a little too abrupt too. I wasn’t sure about the arc of all the characters. Once I figured out how everything tied togethera couple days after finishing the book, I was struck at how moving it all was. As I figured out, there is an emotional theme along with the semi-political one. To paraphrase Jaidee…Cities don’t matter. Plans don’t matter. In the end, what matters is people.

There were some moments as I was reading to the book that I didn’t like it much at all, mostly because some of the scenes with Emiko were a bit hard to get through, and because it took a while to get a grasp on the plot, but by the end of the book, it was a 7/10, and after I reflected on it, it reached 8/10. (This is a pretty high score. For comparison, the Lord of the Rings movie series gets an 8/10 from me).  I bought the book after attending a panel at The Southern Festival of books where Bacigalupi was a guest. He does an incredible amount of research for his books and seems to look deeper into things than most people. After reading this book, I want to meet him again so I can be properly impressed.

Why Death Valley is Better than The Walking Dead

For those of you who don’t know, there are (at least) two shows on television right now that deal with zombies. One is on AMC, called The Walking Dead, and like many shows on AMC it has a lot of interesting elements but tends to be a little…artistic. The other show is Death Valley, which shows on MTV and is fast paced, humorous and done in a reality tv style similar to Reno 911 where a task force of police are in charge of taking care of paranormal nuisances that are plaguing the city. On the surface, Walking Dead seems to be the show to watch if you have the choice, but here are a few reasons why I think watching Death Valley is the better way to spend your time.

1. The Walking Dead is boring. Yes there are some intense scenes of zombie violence, but these are brief moments in a series of long, drawn out scenes where people talk about how they’re feeling and admire the scenery. You can call this “atmosphere” if you want. I call it filler. The stuff in the book you flip past to get to the good stuff. While you can scoff at Death Valley’s sophomoric humor and sensationalized violence, when it comes right down to it, things actually happen  in Death Valley. The plot moves forward, whereas in Walking Dead the characters  can spend a whole hour long episode trying to fish a zombie out of a well

2.Death Valley has vampires and werewolves as well as zombies. Much as l like a good zombie movie, the intense feeling of trying to escape a shambling, inexorable wave of undead former friends and loved ones is something that is difficult to sustain over time. After a while, I begin to wonder why the zombies haven’t expended all their energy yet. How are they moving? Why haven’t the people tried a more systematic approach to eradication?  These questions start to come up during quiet moments of building tension, and Walking Dead doesn’t really do much to answer them. Death Valley, however, neatly skirts these problems in three ways. First, it’s not all about the zombies, so there’s some variety to distract from niggling details. Second, the premise centers around a task force in charge of systematically eradicating the zombies. The zombies aren’t an apocalyptic force, they are just problems that need to be dealt with so that the general populace can be protected, which to me seems more realistic. Third, even though in the title sequence of the show, Death Valley says that no one knows why the zombies came to the city, the show actually explains a lot of the questions about how the zombies operate. Because of the reality TV-esque nature of the show, the characters will often argue over whether a zombie does one thing or another, and by the end of the scene you find out.

The cast of Death Valley

3.Death Valley has better, more rounded, believable characters, whom I actually care about. Every character has humorous moments, moments where they are the hero, and a definite worldview that you can see play out against the other characters. Even the most MTV-ish character, the guy always says perverted things as part of his schtik (he’s holding his pistol gangsta style in the photo), looks out for his partner (the older-looking bald guy) and actually works as a foil for him. Death Valley doesn’t have to endanger children to get its thrills. Its characters are good enough that when they’re in danger, you worry about them without any added reason. Walking Dead’s characters, on the other hand, are all tortured souls living one day to the next. At least half of them have threatened suicide at one time or another and all of them have done something morally reprehensible. The women all have to cry at least once an episode, and the men all want to sleep with their best friend’s girlfriend. Nobody seems to have a plan to stop the zombies. They’re all just stumbling over each other and dying at random intervals. This isn’t to say there aren’t some interesting arcs. It’s just that I’m not as vested in characters if they don’t have any motivation, aren’t any good at what they do, and have only a vague sense of morality.

4.Death Valley has an arc. One thing you can say about Walking Dead is that it’s not episodic. Things don’t go back to normal at the end of every episode. Story lines thread through several episodes and end naturally. At first glance, Death Valley doesn’t seem to do this. Everything seems cheerful and breezy, there’s heart gripping terror, things get resolved and that’s the end. But slowly, as the episodes continue, a conspiracy is starting to reveal itself. Although some of the culprits are known, there is a tantalizing amount of mystery to it. It creates a new challenge for the characters they have to figure out. Meanwhile, the arc in Walking dead, while not episodic, hasn’t moved forward much. The people are still trying to survive in the face of a zombie apocalypse. No new information, no real change in the problem. Basically every episode involves retrieving some resource from a zombie infested area. No one has thought of, say, luring a large number of zombies into a trash compactor. Or off of a cliff. Or using a series of traps to keep them in place. Or figuring out what keeps them moving. Or anything really.

5.Death Valley has a higher death toll. I watched a little of the Talking Dead, a interview show about the Walking Dead hosted by Chris Hardwick. He had a segment where he went over the death toll in the show and it was depressingly low. I think it was one human and three zombies. By contrast, in the last episode of Death Valley alone, a whole elevator full of zombies (about 8 of them maybe) was mowed down by automatic rifle fire and a grenade. Then, later on, one zombie with an incendiary device attached to it blew up in a dumpster. A higher death toll doesn’t make a show better, of course, but it does give a coarse reading of the amount of action that takes place. More stuff happens in Death Valley. There are emotional scenes, but they last only as long as they have to and then it’s on to more humor, horror, or violence.

The season isn’t over yet, but I would say so far that Death Valley gets a 8/10 from me, while this season of Walking Dead gets a 6/10.

Review: Ring of Fire

Last Saturday I got the chance to see a production of Ring of Fire performed by the Gaslight Dinner Theater at the Renaissance Center in Dickson, Tennessee.  The show plays until October 15th and features excellent performances of songs by Johnny Cash as well as scenes depicting times in his life. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch it, but the sheer amount of talent on the stage was mind blowing. Every one of the twelve cast members acted, sang, AND played a musical instrument as good or better than anyone I’ve seen on the stage, and I’ve seen several Broadway musicals.

The show is really more of a concert than a musical. In fact, I felt that some of the acted out scenes took away from rather than added to a few of the performances, but the blocking and musical-style frame work did allow each performer to showcase their considerable talent and it prevented the scenery from seeming stale as it can with a standard concert.

I would caution that the show is a PG or PG-13 affair, as they do go into the time Cash spent in prison. If you are familiar with Cash’s oeuvre, though, this isn’t a surprise, and it provides a nice contrast to the other songs in the show.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys Cash’s music. I give it an 8 out of 10, which is a high mark for me (I would have to have a quasi-religious experience to rate something a 10 out of 10). I’m a Johnny Cash fan by way of U2 and Nine Inch Nails, so I’d say you don’t have to be a country music person to enjoy the show. On the other hand, don’t be expecting Walk the Line in musical format. Although the show does dip into the darkness a little with a few somber set ups, it doesn’t have the sturm and drang of the movie. That’s a good thing, though, as far as I’m concerned. Ring of Fire is a fun, feel-good showcase of the songs and life of Johnny Cash. The feeling I got from watching it is actually similar to watching a good show at at Opryland: A friendly atmosphere punctuated by explosions of talent.

Review of After Dark

If you’re interested in being a writer, every now and then it’s good to go ahead and read, watch, or listen to something you’re pretty sure you aren’t going to like. First,  you might be surprised and actually like it. Second, even if you don’t like it, there might be things about it that you do like and you can use them in your own writing. Finally, if you still don’t like it, you can try to figure out why you don’t like it so you can make sure never to do those things yourself.

Along these lines I recently listened to an unabridged audiobook of After Dark by Phillip Margolin. The story is about a wealthy female prosecutor, named Abby. She’s accused of killing her soon to be ex husband  and pinning it on a serial killer she had failed to keep in prison.

I got the audiobook at a garage sale because of the reasons I’ve outlined above, and because I thought it would be something to listen to while I was cleaning and what not. Although you might think it was a horror novel from the title, it’s actually a courtroom thriller. I’m not particularly fond of those, which is why I wasn’t very excited about it. But there are a few examples of the genre that I have enjoyed, or at least, I’ve enjoyed the movies inspired by examples of the genre. Anyway, the book wasn’t that bad. There have been novels I actually haven’t been able to listen to because of their terrible-ness and this was not one of them. With four tapes comprising the audiobook and two sides to a tape, I had seven golden opportunities to stop listening, but I kept going, and not out of any bloody minded determination to continue to the end, but simply because I wanted to know what would happen next.

Why was this? Well part of it was, of course, that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. The other part was that I cared about what happened next. I would say the first part is relatively easy to recreate in a story: you just don’t tell the reader everything all at once. I say it’s relatively easy, because it can be hard to remember to be coy about exciting details when you’re chomping at the bit to let them all come out in a gush of exposition. The second part is harder, though. It revolves around creating sympathetic characters, or at least characters who are interesting.

The most interesting character in After Dark is the serial killer Charlie Daniels, with his charmingly evil demeanor and love of game shows. You pretty much know he has had something to do with all the deaths, the question is more about how Abby and her attorney, Mathew Reynolds can prove it. Matthew has a quiet intensity and a desire to not let any of his clients get the death penalty. The title of the book, After Dark refers to what defense attorneys have to do when their clients get the death penalty. They have to go to a court house after dark the night they are executed. It is the thing Matthew is most keen on avoiding. The title phrase is used perhaps over much throughout the last part of the book, but I am glad when an author chooses a title for a reason, rather than on a whim.Tracy, Matthew’s competent assistant, is arguably the main protagonist, as she discovers some secrets that provide many of the twists and that move the plot forward, but oddly, I found her to be one of the least fleshed out characters. In fact for half the book I kept confusing her with Abby. Abby is probably the second most interesting character. At least in the beginning, she shows herself to be very resourceful and assertive, but she has to deal with a very difficult situation.

These characters were just interesting enough to make me worry about them and how their stories panned out. Why, though, wasn’t I more interested?

It’s tempting for me to say the story was clichéd, because it felt like a lot of other crime dramas. Even though my experience with the genre is limited to the few Grisham novels I’ve read, I feel like I sort of know the drill. But while it seemed like old ground, it wasn’t predictable. Yes I knew all the way through it that Charlie was up to no good, but the main thrust of the story is proving Abby’s innocence, if she is in fact innocent. All of which left me guessing. So if it’s not predictable, what about the story makes me feel as if it is?

I think perhaps it’s the way the new information is presented. Although I don’t know what exactly a character might reveal in After Dark, I can tell, simply by context, that they’re going to reveal something surprising. It’s unpredictable, but it’s predictably unpredictable. The feeling is a little like watching a soap opera. When the camera comes in for a close up, you know something emotional is going to be said, even if you don’t know for sure what that might be.

The take away of this for me is that although having plot twists may be enough for some readers (Margolin did, after all, get his book published and made into an audio book, which suggests that a good number of people must have read and enjoyed his work), it’s not quite enough to make a work seem fresh. You have to vary the way the twists are presented too. In other words, you don’t want the plot to feel like a mad libs game, where there are surprising moments in a cookie cutter frame work.

I think following a character’s natural motivations will tend to keep the cookie cutter feeling from coming up. I’ve never read any interviews or anything from Margolin, but my guess is that he’s a plot first kind of guy. The characters in his stories are colorful, but they seem a little animatronic, tied to the things they must do to get to the next scene rather than free to do as they really wish.

One place where I feel this most acutely is when Abby is supposed to fall in love with Matthew. At this stage doubt has been placed on Abby’s innocence, and the seductive manner in which she addresses Matthew lends credence to the idea of her guilt, but it doesn’t quite mesh with how she acted in earlier scenes. This isn’t the only problem with Abby. Before her trial starts, she seems like a competent and intelligent woman, but once the trial starts she seems passive and confused about everything. She’s a lawyer, but there are times where she seems ignorant of courtroom procedure.

In one of the Amazon reviews, someone has complained about not knowing whose story the book is telling. I agree with this, but I also know that there are books without a definite singular main character that still work. I think if I have to put my finger on what is wrong with After Dark, it’s that the characters aren’t given enough freedom to act appropriately.

Overall I give the book a 6 out of 10.

Big Dumb Aliens

The alien Mo-Ron from the show Freakazoid

Last night I watched yet another movie with big dumb aliens in it, Cowboys and Aliens. Don’t get me wrong, C&A was a pretty good movie. I’d give it a 7/10. It’s fun, and it turns out Olivia Wilde is a sexy alien, which I always kind of suspected. But it seems that if an alien isn’t humanoid, they have to be some kind of horrible beast that kills people for some inadequately explored reason. Just listing some recent ones there’s Cowboys and Aliens, Super 8 (7/10 I’ve downgraded it from a previous score), Battle: Los Angeles (6.5/10), and the tv-series Falling Skies (4/10). Not so recently there was Independence day, and who can forget the aquaphobic aliens in Signs. Basically ever since the movie Alien, there’s this trope of big dumb aliens attacking us, that kind of has me peeved.

In Alien it made sense. The Giger alien monster didn’t come to us, we came to it. It was a creature, not an intelligent being, at least not in the first movie or so. But in all the movies I listed, to a greater or lesser extent, all the aliens come from innumerable light years away using technology we can only dream of, and when we see them we are distracted by how coldly they are separating our heads from our torsos using their serrated appendages.

There are other cases where this makes sense. I included Battle: Los Angeles because the aliens are big and burly and are attacking us, but in that movie they were just the soldiers sent to Earth by the weaker, presumably nerdier ruler aliens. In fact for all we know in the movie the soldiers might even be another species conscripted into battle by their previous conquerors.  I still call Big Dumb Alien in B:LA, though,  because there’s something missing in it that’s missing in all of them. Communication. You can’t really develop any advanced level of technology without communicating. You can’t organize the concerted invasion of a planet without it either. And yet we hardly see the aliens communicating at all in Big Dumb Alien movies. Not to themselves, and certainly not to the humans.

Super 8 is a little bit of an exception here. The alien does eventually communicate with a human and vice versa, but, I still include it, because the alien acts like a savage animal throughout most the movie. It can make people understand it if it touches them. Fine, but as my brother asked after he watched it, why doesn’t it just touch everybody then? Why not do that instead of killing people, or tying them up in some cocoon thing?

The aliens in Falling Skies might also be considered an exception because some humans eventually find out they communicate on radio frequencies. And they can also use children as cyranoids, speaking through them against their will. But why not do this all the time from the start? Their goal is to rape the Earth of its resources, fine. But it isn’t exactly working out that well if your operations keep getting attacked by the indigenous population. The idea is that they’re supposed to act like European colonists, but the European colonists had Indian guides. They didn’t start out mindlessly attacking natives. They ate with them, traded with them, gave them small pox that decimated their population, and THEN they killed them.

The other thing I don’t like about Big Dumb Aliens is that they aren’t just dumb, but big too. It just seems to me that any creature that can kill other creatures easily probably has little incentive to develop an advanced civilization. We humans have got opposable thumbs and our brains and that’s pretty much it as far as physical advantages go out in the wild. We have martial arts, but that’s a developed skill requiring technology. We have weapons, but that’s already technology right there. Just us, by ourselves, we ain’t much. That’s why we had to use our heads and work together to survive.

I just have a hard time believing that something with razorblades coming out of its armpits would ever try using a rock to kill something. The whole premise of these naked creatures being intelligent enough to travel through space seems off to me. It’s possible, but it just doesn’t seem likely. The whole reason we wear clothes is because we’re vulnerable. I just tend to think that if we didn’t have to wear clothes, we would have never invented the internet.

One of the best things about Cowboys and Aliens is the alien technology. There’s a nifty alien gadget that melts gold and floats it, dripping, up to receptacles that move it to the core of their ships, presumably giving them power somehow. Their ships aren’t just slightly tweaked versions of our aircraft, they look completely different and yet move how you might expect them to move. There’s a strange feeling I got while watching where I forgot that what I was watching was impossible. The mother ship is buried in the earth (which also seems to be a running theme in these movies now that I think about it) with a large part sticking out of the ground that looks similar to the rock mesas around it in the desert. When the camera first showed it, my eye just sort of took it in with everything else. There’s the plain, the sun, part of a mesa, an alien space craft, another mesa, a horse…wait what? The arm band thingy too, was different, yet it worked so naturally I wouldn’t have been that surprised to find out Steve Jobs or somebody designed it.

But all that care that went into the tech is rather wasted on the big dumb aliens that use it. A human gets a hold of one of their arm guns. Do they organize a group to go after that human and retrieve the weapon? Nope! They just carry on, tra la la, business as usual, kidnapping humans, making them watch television until they forget who they are and then cut them up and kill them for no real reason.

Of course in the movie, the humans are equally stupid. Okay, you know the aliens have these nifty arm guns that are the only things that seem to do them any noticeable harm. You manage to kill a few of the aliens that have the arm guns by luck and guile. What do you do? Keep shooting bullets so you can watch them ricochet off their impenetrable armor… WRONG! Cut their arms off and get their freaking arm guns! What’s wrong with you people!

…But I digress.

Basically the point I’m trying to make here is that if you’re going to write a movie where aliens are going to invade earth, take a few moments to think on things from the aliens’ perspectives. Yes, having a smaller alien body part come out of a larger alien body part is creepy, but how does that help the alien? Is it being creepy on purpose? Is that the alien’s way of saying hello? How about showing that the alien uses the smaller body parts for sophisticated tasks requiring a lot of dexterity or something? Anything. If you can let us know something about where the aliens come from and especially if you can show them working out some form of counter strategy to what the humans dish out instead of them just being evil, that will make the story so much better.

Just a thought.

Super8review and excuse

I recently saw Super 8 at the theater. It was great, like a mix between E.T. and Godzilla, I give it a 8.5 out 10.Watching it gave me the same feeling as riding a ride at Disneyland or Universal Studios. I always felt like there was something else going on. There’s practically a war going on through out most of the movie, but the camera focuses on the children who are the main characters. You see a lot of the effects of the war without ever seeing what caused them. In one scene the wall of a room explodes away from the kids unexpectedly. Surprising, and it keeps things interesting. At first the alien didn’t seem very intelligent. It acts like some kind of monster through most of the movie, which I find a little annoying, but the movie makes up for it by the end.

I originally wrote a more extensive review of Super8 as well as some other movies, but it got lost when I hit ctrl-c instead of ctrl-v. My family and I got back late today from garage sale-ing. We ended up going all the way (about an hour) to Brentwood to go to an estate sale, which, it turns out, wasn’t going to happen until tomorrow (my brother’s fault:-)). We went to some other places though, so it wasn’t too bad. I got a bunch of old books, a portable tape player and a CD holder.