Saturday, February 2, 2008

Review - Sleeper

1974 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation
1975 Nebula Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Remember when Woody Allen was funny instead of melodramatic and creepy? Yes, there was a time when Woody Allen was best known for comedy rather than pretentious dramas about neurotic, Jewish New Yorkers and seducing teenage adoptive daughters. Admittedly the comedies were also about neurotic, Jewish New Yorkers but at least if you didn't like one of his movies you weren't told how you were too unsophisticated and too not from New York to appreciate the subtle nuances.

In Sleeper Allen plays a man frozen after complications from removing an ulcer who awakens in a bizarrely run dystopia, something like what it would be if Big Brother was one of the Three Stooges. The resistance wants to use him since he doesn't have a registered identity but Allen runs from them and the police (I don't think the character name matters there since Woody Allen is always playing Woody Allen regardless of the name in the script). Eventually he abducts a socialite while getting away from the police and through standard plot #7 they start out hating each other but grow closer until they must work together to bring down the repressive government.

I'm being unfair to the plot there but it doesn't really matter since it's just a coat rack for Allen to hang comedy routines onto. A typical sequence is Allen is avoiding the police through some kind of wacky method, then he encounters a crazy bit of future technology which malfunctions horribly for him causing hijinx, then he is found and must run again.

The bulk of the humor is sight gags and slapstick which didn't connect with me. There are several sequences that are built like silent comedies particularly when Allen is running from Big Brother's Keystone Cops. When he's not running around to sped up film Allen may be miming like a domestic robot or spinning a wheelchair around. The sight gags are mainly some piece of zany future technology that goes out of control when Allen attempts to use it. I just don't find that kind of physical humor very funny.

Perhaps that's why my favorite segments of the film dealt with Diane Keaton's character. When she's onscreen the jokes tended toward wordplay and odd situations which I appreciated more. She's the one who is really given the story in the film which I think made me more interested in what she did than what Allen did. In Sleeper Allen's character wakes up and then spends the whole movie reacting while Keaton's character develops and takes action.

While I'm talking about this movie, can someone tell me why science fiction movies are obsessed with the idea that humanity will do away with sexual intercourse in the future? At least until a virile twentieth century man comes along and teaches the hot woman of the future how to love (please don't snicker too much at the concept of Woody Allen as "virile"). I don't encounter this idea is written science fiction but there's quite a few movies where machines and drugs have replaced sex. It's not subtle or clever, it just makes me wonder what the screenwriter the screenwriters are doing in their sex life that makes them think that.

I didn't care for the movie myself but if someone came up to me and said "I loved Sleeper, it was so funny!" I wouldn't be able to fault them for it (as opposed to saying "I love Meet the Spartans, it was so funny!" in which case I'd rush them to an emergency room before the neurological damage became permanent). Humor is a very subjective thing and this film just didn't work for me. Here is a simple test to give you an idea if it might match up for you: if the thought of Woody Allen in a giant inflatable suit is funny to you then you may want to give it a try.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Basic reading ability is needed to fully enjoy this post

I haven't played a lot of games lately, I've been spending more time reading than playing. Still I have for the first time been playing a Pokémon game (I know, I'm about ten years behind the curve). I've hit a point where I'm finding it hard to continue since it is so repetitive, but what got me is this warning on the back of the package:

It's just sad that Nintendo feels the need to say that you need to be able to read to play their games. Did they get a lot of complaints from illiterates and parents who bought the game for their four year olds?

Also a coworker wanted to know about what board games to play with his wife. I lent him a small selection of games I intended to give him a taste of the range available. It's not the ideal set, but I selected from my own collection what I thought would be easy for two unexperienced players to learn on their own:

10 Days in Africa - This Alan Moon game is a lot like Rummy in its design. That gives them a foundation for understanding and the game's rules are easy to understand. Each player tries to built a run of ten countries in their hand linking them by being neighbors or through special forms of transportation.

Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers - I prefer this version of Carcassonne to the original. Carcassonne is a great game for introducing someone to modern board gaming since it is easy to understand and play.

1960: The Making of the President - Neither of the other two games I provided were very thematic and I wanted to include something that took the complexity up a bit without going off the deep end. Most of my other heavily themed games either require more players, need a player that is attached to the theme, or take the complexity right off the scale of what I would want to show a new player. The card game mechanics of 1960 and the election theme should make this one easier to follow.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Review - Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead
by Orson Scott Card
1987 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1986 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Orson Scott Card was flying high coming off of Ender's Game. It was popular with fans and critics. He had plans to write sequels that were guaranteed to be best sellers. When the first sequel, Speaker for the Dead, was released people pounced on it and decided that their golden boy could do no wrong. The faults in Speaker for the Dead, though, are vast and despite being the first person to win back to back Hugos for novels the book is one of the worst of the Hugo winners.

Thousands of years after Ender's Game Ender is still alive and wandering the universe thanks to time dilation. To atone for what he did he has founded a philosophy called the "speakers for the dead" who turn up at funerals and speak the truth about the person who died. Humanity has finally encountered a third sentient species in the universe, a primitive group they call "the piggies", and establish a Star Trek style non-interference rule for them while maintaining a small colony on their world to study them. Ender receives an invitation to speak for a blue collar worker who died on that world and discovers a conspiracy to break that non-interference oath.

Let me get my polite words out of the way fast. The segments in the book about Ender dealing with the consequences of his actions in Ender's Game are good. They're very good. But they can't carry the book. People have to react like human beings to his reactions and they don't; they treat Ender as the second coming complete with not very subtle Messianic pretensions which fall apart when you try to examine them closely.

Those messianic abilities are my first major problem with Speaker for the Dead. Ender turns up in a house where decades of cruelty has left every child a shattered wreck. And fixes it by talking for less an hour. One of the children has become withdrawn and doesn't speak and Ender heals him by hugging him. So if you've got autistic children you should know that letting strangers into your house to hug your children is apparently the cure.

And then there's the entire concept of a "speaker for the dead". Despite Card's belief just saying the truth does not make things better and can quite often make things worse. The colony consists of very religious Roman Catholics and are more than willing to just accept the web of lies that has been built up over decades with more taboo breaking than you can shake a stick at just because it was true. They're not going to stone the people involved but they're not going to accept them with open arms either.

Speakers may be dedicated to telling the truth but what is the "truth" about someone who died? The image described is colored by the facts that the speaker chooses to present and giving a complete picture of a life could take almost as long as that life took to live. Do lies of omission not count for speakers? It makes their dedication to truth seem hypocritical. Since the beliefs of the speakers is the hook that pulls the novel forward the problems with their philosophy weighed on me constantly while I was reading.

The biggest single plot hole though is the fact that the biologists working on the planet have performed genetic modification to native plants. All native life on the planet has a very unique life cycle and the fact that people don't understand it (despite some of the least subtle hints ever) is a key plot point. So a group of genetic engineers and biologists working on life that has this feature don't understand the basic principles of its life cycle. Wait a second... that's the same plot as the also horrifically awful Dreamsnake! The fact that science fiction authors think that not understanding sexual reproduction works as a plot device I think says something...

Speaker for the Dead is a bad book. Don't let the fact that it is a sequel to a very good book fool you into accepting it. Capping off its problems as a Hugo winning book is that it doesn't even stand on its own; it ends on a cliffhanger that leads to yet another sequel. I haven't read that sequel and have no intention of doing so; I hated Speaker for the Dead and it convinced me that I have no need to read the other two dozen books that Card has milked out Ender's Game.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

No Update...

I spent the day being a nursemaid to a hypochondriac so you can imagine how much fun I've had. Assuming that the person who woke me up in the middle of the night and hasn't let me stop to eat or drink a thing all day lets me work expect the review of Speaker for the Dead tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

When you've just killed off a main character, what do you do for an encore?

Kill off the rest of the team, of course!

They got better but looking back I'm bothered by how many times the basic storylines for the six months of X-Men #137-143 have been reused over the years. How many times has Jean Grey become the phoenix and died now? And how many different dark and terrible endings for the X-Men have we seen? It's kind of sad that they've been spinning their wheels ever since 1981...

Monday, January 28, 2008

Review - Ender's Game

Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card
1986 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1985 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Ender's Game is a novel that launched thousand sequels. It's Card's masterpiece, an achievement that he has been unable to equal. It's a fix up of an earlier novella that for whatever reason didn't get as much attention as its extension but this is easily one of the greatest of science fiction novels.

Ender Wiggins is a young child but he may also be the tactical genius who can save the Earth in a war of extinction against mysterious aliens only referred to as "the buggers" (my theory is that a British person called them that and an American not knowing what it meant copied them). Ender is recruited into a military academy where he quickly demonstrates his skill at both organization and tactics while undergoing repeated tests specifically designed to place him under greater and greater stress. Those in power justify their abuse by hoping that he can complete his training in time to prevent the bugger invasion.

The end of the book is one of the greatest in science fiction and I had it spoiled for me years before I got around to reading it. I strongly recommend reading it without being spoiled which may mean that you should run out to get it right now. And if you have read Ender's Game don't think that telling someone about the ending will make them want to read it.

Ender is a very broken child which makes how he's being used by the adults around him even more tragic. In the course of the book Ender performs some horrific acts in dangerous situations manipulated by his teachers. If Ender had not been forced to continue military training then I can only imagine that he would spend the bulk of his life in an institution. Card does a wonderful job of putting us in Ender's head and seeing his distorted worldview.

By far the weakest part of the novel are the sections about Ender's siblings who through the power of blogging have become the greatest political force on Earth. Really. His brother who was being groomed for the same position as Ender but completely broke down under the strain is plotting to use political commentary on the global computer network (the book being written before the Internet was a household word) to conquer the Earth. None of this has anything to do with the actually interesting portions of the novel which left me just wondering why it was in there at all.

Card's few attempts to demonstrate Ender's tactical genius bothered me as well. A major part of it, for example, is Ender reorientating himself on a different axis from his opponents in zero-gravity combat and choosing a different direction to define as "down". This is given as the reason why Ender is so good in free fall combat but picking any orientation is a weakness in that situation.

Still despite my reservations I found that Card had crafted a strong story built on fascinating ideas and populated it with characters that are richly drawn, albeit disturbing to observe. Ender's Game is a spectacular book that deserves all of the attention it has received over the year.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review - Slaughterhouse-Five

1973 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

Allow me to give you a one line review of this film from the person I watched it with last night:

"What the hell was that about?"

And that pretty much sums up the film Slaughterhouse-Five. While Vonnegut's novel is chaotic there is a rhythm and underlying pattern so that we build up a view of the whole thing. The movie is an odd mix of faithful sequences that lack context to give them strength and things that have been changed for no reason and undermine the story they are attempting to tell.

It reminds me a lot of the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone if you're not in the United States). Both films throw images from their source material at the viewer and ignore any attempt to have the characters explain it. If you're not one of the people who read the original work then you're out of luck and you have to piece together some vague understanding out of the scraps. The only people who could enjoy it are people who are already fans.

And that is what I'm suspecting is behind the movie's award. People are remembering the Vonnegut book which is worthy of attention but this film is not. You'll note how it has fallen pretty much off the radar in recent years. The DVD, for example, was out of print for years until fairly recently.

I can't give you a propper plot synopsis just due to the nature of the movie but in brief it chronicles the life of Billy Pilgrim a man who "has become unstuck in time" which causes him to view moments of his life out of order. It flickers between his time a prisoner of war in Dresden and his life after the war where he is eventually abducted by aliens with no sense of time who explain that everything is predestined and this somehow makes it all okay.

Those aliens are a good example of the problems with the adaptation. They spent quite a bit of time explaining their view of time which was lifted straight from Vonnegut and then impatiently demand that Billy Pilgrim have sex with another abductee, their repeated impatient demands directly contradicting the speech that was given just a few minutes before.

Most of Billy Pilgrim's life after the war is told linearly in the film though in the book it jumped around quite a bit. This served to have oddities like Billy try to stop a disaster that he knows is coming despite the fact that he should already know that it is impossible for him to change thing.

I would have hoped that the Dresden sequences would be as horrifying as they were in the novel but we never get to know Dresden in the movie and the after effects look just like any other bombed city rather than one that was reduced to ash. So we don't have a real connection to the people being attacked and we don't have the scale of the horror that Vonnegut described.

Billy Pilgrim in the movie is a complete blank. This is more acceptable in the novel since we know why he is that way but in the movie it makes him seem a bland, personalityless manikin. Since he's the central focus of almost every single shot in the film it drains the life out of it even worse.

I can't recommend this film. It fails to stand on its own as a movie and even as an adaptation it isn't very good. Slaughterhouse-Five would be a challenge to film but that doesn't excuse their failure to adapt it well.