July 2008 Archives

I've taken a week and a half now to digest this movie, to try and separate the hype and the anticipation from the substance.  I've seen it twice now, once at the Art and once at an IMAX theatre up in Chicago, and I feel like I've been able to take a step back and judge the film on its merits.

I suspect most people are not going to be surprised to hear that I liked the movie (and so does every other critic, it seems, from the film's 95% score at rottentomatoes), but there's a lot more to this than simply a popcorn flick.  It is a seriously dark and emotionally complicated film, and it is significantly elevated even over its predecessor, which was an excellent film in its own right.  It's definitely the best movie I've seen this year, probably in several years.

Before I get into that too much though, a few words about the Watchmen trailer.  I got to see this on the IMAX screen last night, and now I'm really excited about seeing this next year.  A bit late to the party, I read the graphic novel for the first time a couple years ago, and while it wasn't quite so earthshattering twenty years after the original release, it was just as good as people claimed.  And now, from everything I've seen, from the production stills to the trailer, I'm considerably less worried about the movie not standing up to the graphic novel.  The movie uses a much more modernized aesthetic (Ozymandias, for instance, does not have his bright purple and gold costume), but I don't see that being as much of a problem; audiences today expect those things from a "modern" superhero, despite the fact that the movie still takes place in 1985.  The original Minutemen, however, still have the look they had before, as you can see from this photo.  The trailer, to me, managed to capture the dark, doomed tone of the novel, and if the movie can do the same, and back it up with good performances, I'll be very happy, so long as they keep the storyline at least mostly intact.

Back to The Dark Knight.  This is definitely a movie that needs to be seen as free of preconceptions and spoilers as possible; I noticed a distinct change in my reactions to many of the movie's twists and turns on a second viewing, just because I knew what to expect.  I'll discuss exactly what those are behind the cut, but there's plenty more to say before we get to that point.

I don't think there's any part of this movie that isn't expertly done.  The sets and cinematography are amazing, with great detail -- not quite Blade Runner levels (someone I know mentioned the fact that they can't seem to decided if the police are "GPD" or "GCPD", both of which appear many times in different places), but there are a lot of other things you can catch; I noticed last night that there are a lot of Gotham-specific things on Harvey Dent's desk in one scene, including a Gotham phone book, for instance.  The action scenes drop you into the middle of things in a visceral way (especially in IMAX), and it seemed like the shakycam Greengrass-style shooting of the fight scenes had been dialed back considerably, making it much easier to follow the action.

But even that doesn't stand up to the true strength of this movie, which is the writing and acting.  While Heath Ledger's performance is every bit as good as it has been hyped to be, the frightening portrayal of his Joker owes as much to the excellent script as it does to his acting.  This is not the Joker that Jack Nicholson portrayed -- that Joker was kuh-raaaaazy! and goofy, and it's probably fair to say that a lot of it was just Nicholson playing Nicholson.  While his performance was appropriate to the Burton-aesthetic of the 1989 Batman, it wouldn't have fit with the style set up by Batman Begins.

Ledger's Joker is not goofy...he is fucking insane.  His "jokes" are twisted and sadistic, his motivations are far deeper than simple amusement, and he is utterly frightening, one thing that I think was deeply lacking from Nicholson's portrayal.  He has a few moments of levity (the "magic trick" he does early on brought out some nervous laughter, though it made a lot more people squirm), but for the most part, the only one that finds his antics funny is himself.  He also does a great laugh that seems to be a more sinister version of Mark Hamill's voice acting.

The only problem with Ledger's portrayal is that it overshadows some other performances that are worthy of note.  While Christian Bale does a good job, as do the other returning actors from the first movie (plus Maggie Gyllenhaal), but really, Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent is also worthy of special praise.  I won't go into it too much, since it will go a bit too close to spoiler territory, but he does an admirable job with Dent's descent into Two-Face and brings across the change from one to the other.

One note on Bale's "Batman voice" -- I know a lot of people give him crap over this, but I don't think it is as bad as they claim.  I think Michael Keaton did it a bit better, but Bale doesn't do too bad when his lines are kept to short sentences rather than long soliloquies, something that this movie failed on a bit.  Of course, the person who has done this better than all of them is Kevin Conroy -- but then, it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that a trained voice actor manages to convey the difference between Batman and Bruce Wayne (sorry, couldn't find a good example) the best.

For me, the biggest measure of how different this movie was from all the other movies I've seen this summer, and even how different it was from its predecessor, was how emotionally wrecked I felt when I left the theatre the first time I saw it.  It was blunted the second time, but I still felt like someone had punched me in the gut at the end, and I remember squeezing Marc's hand pretty hard.  This is not a "fun" movie, like Iron Man; it is extremely dark and it will push you around emotionally if you let it.  I compared the experience to that of something like The Godfather or Platoon; leaving aside whether it is as good a film as those for a moment, I think that kind of experience is most like what I took out of The Dark Knight.  There are very few moments of levity, even less so than in Batman Begins; I can probably count them all on the fingers of one hand.

To cut a long story short (too late!), this is an excellent movie; I have to concur with Todd Alcott's assessment that it elevates itself from a "good superhero movie" to simply "a good film" in the same way that The Godfather elevated itself above preconceptions of gangster movies at the time.  It is well worth seeing, especially if you can see it on an IMAX screen.  You won't regret it.

For more specific comments, read on...
"...depending on whether you're Dr. Manhattan or Rorschach."

Trickstergod, on RPGnet, about an upcoming Watchmen video game.  You'll have to have read the graphic novel to get this one.

Speaking of Watchmen, I'll be putting up a minireview of the trailer when my review of The Dark Knight gets posted later today.  If you haven't seen it yet, check it out.

The Empyrean Age

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Last weekend, I finally received the much-hyped Eve novel in the mail, which I had picked up largely because I wanted to know if the plotlines that had started coming to the fore in May were really as poorly thought out as I had suspected.  I admit I was predisposed not to be particularly happy with the book, especially since I had extremely strong feelings about the Caldari storyline being portrayed.  Still, I held out hope that it would end up being better than I expected and that it would help restore some of my confidence that the lapses I had seen were just one-time oversights or different, but valid, interpretations of how things have gone in the past.

If nothing else, I hoped it would be a good distraction and a decent tie-in novel, which are hardly exalted classics of the literary arts.  After all, I read and enjoy plenty of stuff that isn't exactly going to win the Pulitzer (or a Hugo or Nebula), including a number of the Dungeons and Dragons tie-ins, most of the Shadowrun novels (yes, even those not written by Tom Dowd or Nigel Findley), Sue Grafton's mysteries, David Weber's Honor Harrington series (at least the first several), the first several Tom Clancy novels (when he actually wrote books), and dozens of others.  There's nothing wrong with a good, exciting yarn that's the intellectual equivalent of comfort food.

And having read the book, what do I think?

I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to anyone.  It suffers from a number of crippling problems (some of which I've decided to discuss behind the cut to prevent spoilers for people who really are convinced they want to read it), most of which have absolutely nothing to do with the plot problems I thought were going to be my biggest complaints.  I realize that this is Tony Gonzales' first novel, but even compared to other tie-in products, The Empyrean Age is simply lacking in many areas.

  • Mr. Gonzales desperately needs an editor to tell him "no" on something.  Many of the other problems I'm going to discuss probably could have been fixed if he had someone reading his book with a critical eye and telling him why certain things would or would not work.  In addition to stylistic problems and poor pacing, the book is riddled with shifts between present and past tense (usually involving infodumps -- see below for more on that), inconsistent word choice (in every Eve product not by Mr. Gonzales, the citizens of the Caldari State and Gallente Federation are Caldari and Gallente respectively -- in The Empyrean Age, they are Caldarians and Gallenteans), and other problems that could easily have been fixed by a good editor.  I suspect the fact that this is basically a marketing ploy means that CCP is paying most of the publishing costs, and therefore the publishing company had little reason to care (or even the ability to care) if the book was edited or not -- I know that very few other first-time novelists would have gotten something like this out the door without that kind of oversight.
  • The book has been way overhyped by CCP, with podcasts featuring game designers and writers gushing over how great the book is, and honestly, the way the book has been marketed is completely pretentious for what amounts to a run-of-the-mill tie-in novel.  The back of the book jacket says "These are the times that will test the human spirit," a bit of an overblown statement for what it really is, especially since none of the characters, to me, really felt like they went through a significant character arc.  The book itself is a hardcover (I don't see that a lot with tie-in novels, and it tends to only happen with authors who are already established) and everything about it is set up to raise expectations.  People who buy this book because it looks vaguely interesting and well-produced will probably be disappointed with what they find inside the elegant package.  I do not think I would have been quite as harsh on the book had it been marketed as something neat to pick up on the side, but not the greatest and most innovative new idea since sliced bread.  Tie-in novels are nothing new, even ones tied closely to a major development in an ongoing metaplot.
  • The book falls victim to that most treacherous of pitfalls in many tie-ins and SF novels, the infodump.  The first piece of advice any aspiring writer gets in a writing class or author's workshop is "show, don't tell."  Unfortunately, many authors feel like it's important to drop a bland wall of text in the middle of some other scene.  This can be done well; usually by keeping the information brief, limiting it to only the bare minimum of what the reader needs to know to understand the current situation, and trying to break it up and work it into the action somehow so that it isn't so obviously exposition.  Unfortunately, The Empyrean Age drops what is essentially an encyclopedia entry into the narrative on dozens of occasions (once right in the middle of one of a sex scene, for crying out loud) and brings the action to a grinding halt, often going on for paragraphs or pages about facts that are only tangentially related to what is going on at the time.  Most of this is regurgitated almost verbatim from background information on the Eve website.
  • One of the worst parts of this book for me -- frankly, to a level where I was often simply too disgusted to continue reading and had to take a break -- is that it is riddled with poorly written "sex" scenes, including a number of rather lurid descriptions of pedophilia and other pretty sickening stuff, which serve no purpose but to either titillate or provide some sort of hamfisted emotional manipulation to make you hate a character.  I am hardly a rabid feminist, and I would like to think I'm not a complete prude (despite what some of my coworkers would have you believe), but these sex scenes were repetitive and, to be quite honest, boring, served no purpose with regard to character or plot development, and it literally seemed at times that I could not go more than 20 or 30 pages without one.  There are few if any female characters who are not portrayed as some sort of sex object, something that maybe shouldn't come as a surprise considering the likely audience, but here's a hint: if you are baffled why women don't seem to be interested in a lot of games, it's writing like this that turns them off, folks.  Most of these scenes read like something you'd see from someone in a first or second year writing course who is trying way too hard to be "adult" or "edgy" (and boy, did I sit through a lot of those in college) and ends up coming off as fake and empty.
  • Though the female characters may get the shortest shrift, I didn't find any of the characters to be particularly three dimensional, sympathetic, or even comprehensible in many cases.  Almost every character, whether a Federation combat pilot, Caldari megacorporate CEO, Minmatar ambassador, or Amarr noble, spoke exactly the same way with one or two affectations (the Amarr throw in "my lord" every once in a while, for instance).  People change loyalties and toss away deep seated beliefs in less time than it takes me to wash my hair, apparently have no critical thinking skills, and don't show any sign that they fit in to whatever role they serve in the novel; rather than feeling like real people, the seem like actors called in to improv some lines about characters with power and responsibility they barely comprehend, then get shuffled off as quickly as they arrived.  Surprisingly (at least to me), Tibus Heth is probably one of the characters with the most depth in the novel, but that is damning with faint praise.  Many of the characters come off as "GM PCs" or Mary Sues, something I warned about in my post on metaplot earlier, with godlike abilities that seem completely out of whack with a "gritty scifi setting," as Eve's developers claim it to be.
Many of these problems are compounded by the fact that I don't think The Empyrean Age knows who its audience is.  If it is intended for hardcore Eve players, especially those most interested in the ongoing storyline, they may overlook the parts of the book that are lacking, but most of them aren't going to need the multi-page infodumps that are injected into the text at regular intervals.  If it is intended for a wider audience, people looking for an Honor Harrington-style space opera romp, they might be willing to sit through the infodumps, but the language and the trying-too-hard shock value of a good portion of the book is going to make it inaccessible.  It doesn't even have the boringly by-the-numbers appeal of a cheap romance novel or the two-fisted pulp action tale.  This is another case where an editor could have focused the book into something that would have been far better than the result.

To be fair, the book does improve somewhat in the last section, as the action kicks into high gear describing the events that transpired on 10 June.  Unfortunately, even those events suffer on the plausibility front because of the frailty of the previous 400 pages and the time in which we're expected to believe these things all happen; the complete subjugation of Caldari Prime, for instance, takes only 13 minutes from the moment the Caldari fleet enters Federation space to the minute Heth gives his ultimatum to Foirtain.  It's also riddled with the same sort of cliches and manipulative writing that haunts the rest of the book.  I'm tempted to give it some slack on this issue, as the day-long transition from peace to war was somewhat of a game requirement; still, I think that with proper planning, that could have been done at a much different and more natural pace if some more care had been taken in designing the storyline.

I have plenty of more specific notes, but I've kept them behind the cut.  If you're curious what else I have to say, proceed on....
I have had this scene running through my head for the last day and a half.  Thank you so much, Gracie.

I had to be up in Chicago today for my second surgery letter, so I went up on Saturday to spend the weekend so I could see Sam, Gracie, and Marc.  Sam and Gracie are always gracious hosts (no pun intended), and as always I had a great time with them (and obviously with Marc).

Saturday I didn't get up to Chicago until almost 1800, so Sam, Gracie and I just stayed in for the night and watched some movies while I caught up on some email (Deidei also introduced me to the Totally Rad Show over IRC Saturday, which I encourage folks to check out if you have some time to waste).

Sunday, Sam dropped me off downtown where I met up with Marc near Union Station and we went to the Art Institute, which is the last of the "big" Chicago museums I hadn't yet been too.  I have to admit that I am not exactly a huge art buff, but I do like to consider myself at least a bit cultured, so I figured this was as good a chance as any to see the museum (and frankly, to live this close and never visit some of the most important artistic works in the world seems a bit neglectful).  Marc and I spent most of the day there, and I definitely enjoyed myself -- we managed to see most of the museum, though some of it is closed for the construction of the new Modern Wing, and I got to see Nighthawks, which is one of my favorite pieces of "real" art.  I think the biggest deal for me is just seeing things that are hundreds of years old sitting right there in front of me; knowing that something can survive that long and wondering about everyone else who has been in that position during their entire history.

After the museum, we walked from there to Fogo de Chao to meet Sam, Gracie, CK and Mel for dinner.  This was Marc's first time there and he was very impressed (and very full) after the experience as usually happens with a visit to Fogo.  Stuffed to the gills, Marc and I went back to the Hotel Blake where we were staying for the night.  After checking in, we went to see Hancock since we were too full to really do anything else. :) I have to say that I wasn't quite as impressed with the movie as Mike was; my opinion is pretty close to that of Roger Ebert, though I don't know that I would give it three out of four stars; it was a solid two and a half though.  I certainly don't feel like it was a waste of time or money, but the movie wasn't really anything super-special to me; if we had chosen something else to see instead I think I would have been just as happy.  Worth checking out if there's nothing else you are particularly interested in seeing at the theatre though.

Monday morning, after dropping Marc off at his office, I went back to Sam and Gracie's and hung out with Gracie for the day, catching up on some of the writing I've been slacking off on, and then the three of us went to the Greek Islands for dinner (unfortunately, Marc was stuck at work; I'm definitely looking forward to when he'll be done with this project!) and I had saganaki for the first time, as well as some very tasty calamari and their ambrosia dessert, which was delicious.

Today I had to go to Evanston for my appointment, which was a pleasant commute, once I actually figured where I was actually going (I need to learn to trust Google Maps instead of my own sense of direction -- I spent about 15 minutes looking for Western Avenue when I was actually on Western Avenue to start with *sigh*), and I was back on the road by about 1300 and home by 1530, so it wasn't too bad a day of driving, despite some construction on the Kennedy.

All in all a good and fairly productive weekend -- I think that's the last of the preliminaries for my surgery, which is probably a good thing with it only six weeks off now (which means the first half of my payment is due this week).  I am not looking forward to writing a ten thousand dollar check, but on the other hand, I've been saving that money for a reason, and it's about time I did something with it.
It's been almost two weeks since the last installment of the Caldari Dialogues, and I apologize for the delay.  This is the last installment of the original batch I had planned, so any further installments will probably be spun off of discussions about these articles and not from that original conversation with Yoshito and Kai (by the way, if you haven't seen Kai's new site yet, The Zion Chronicles, you should check it out).

In this part, I'll be talking about the other 10-20% of the Caldari population -- the people who, either by choice or by circumstance, have found themselves on the outside of the corporate system.  These are the people that have conventionally been the heroes (or antiheroes) of cyberpunk literature and RPGs.  They live in the shadows of the rest of society, living on their crumbs and cast offs, or trying to scramble back into the system that has left them behind.  So, without further adieu, let's get to the main event.

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