I Refuse to Make an “Elementary” Joke in This Post

I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to do it, but this weekend I went and saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie.

I’m still trying to decide if I liked it.

Now, as with many a geek out there, I’m a big Holmes fan. And, like every fan of anything anywhere, I have very particular ideas about the object of my fannish devotion. There is a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it. The right way, of course, is any way that makes me go, “Yeah! I liked that!” The wrong way is any way that doesn’t. Of course, as with most fans, this comes down to matching my vision and understanding of, in this case, Sherlock Holmes. If it matches what I thing Holmes is closely enough, I like it, and I say, “Man, he just gets Holmes!” If it doesn’t match it, I say, “Man, he just doesn’t get Holmes!”

What I’m trying to say is that, while I am as set in my fannish ways as any fan out there, I also recognize that I don’t own the idea of Sherlock Holmes, and that my view of what Holmes is is purely subjective and personal.

This is important, because Guy Ritchie seems to have a very different idea of what Sherlock Holmes is than I do, and I’m trying to reconcile what he did with the character and world on the screen with what it the character and world mean to me.

Baseline on my Holmes fixation: I think that Jeremy Brett gave us the best portrayal of Sherlock Holmes ever. He captured innate cynicism, self-involvement, and arrogance that I think define the character: Holmes is trapped in his own head a lot of the time, looking for the next challenge, and he finds most people so mundane and slow that he can’t help but feel smugly superior to them, and view them with, if not contempt, then at least disdain. Balanced with this is a real core of compassion and thirst for justice – the better angels of his nature that struggle with the demons of his genius. Brett, in my opinion, brought that wonderful dichotomy home. As does Laurie R. King in her Mary Russel novels. Normally, I hate that sort of thing – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes Sherlock Holmes. No one else. But King gives us a great vision of Holmes in his later years, somewhat mellowed, more human than Doyle’s version, without losing anything essential.

So. That’s where I’m coming from as I go in to watch the movie.

I’m going to go through my impressions in a second, but first I want to put in a

Spoiler Warning!

Not big ones, and nothing that most Holmes fans won’t see coming a mile off, but just to be safe. I’m going to talk about what happens in the movie. If you don’t want to know, don’t read the bullet list below.

  • I like Robert Downey, Jr. I always have. And in the past few years, he’s given me more and more reason to like him. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, for example, or his brilliant portrayal of Tony Stark in Iron Man. He does a good job here, as well, though the character is less goofy and light than he usually does. He gives us a dark, selfish Holmes that still has a core of humanity hidden inside him, frustrated by the rest of the world.
  • I’m not as big a fan of Jude Law, though I certainly don’t hate him. And he delivers big time in this movie, giving us a great Dr. Watson. See, mostly the Watsons in Holmes movies are bland, stupid, and just there to give Holmes someone to explain things to. After all, that’s the role Watson filled in the stories: he was there so that there was someone slightly stupider than the reader for Holmes to explain things to so that the story would make sense. But this movie, Watson is strong, and smart – smart enough that you can believe he’s a doctor – and has learned a lot of Holmes’s tricks. Indeed, he’s learned enough of them that he’s no longer impressed by them, and is instead mainly frustrated and bored with them. He’s got a brain, and a spine, and a heart. Good job, I say.
  • Irene Adler. Bah. Okay, I realize that, according to the Action Movie Formula(TM), the hero needs a charged romantic interest, and that the only woman from the stories that could possibly fill that role is Irene Adler, but I’m tired of her being dredged up to fill the role any time someone does a Holmes pastiche and needs a woman. Yes, she had a profound impact on the character, but she only appeared in one story, people! That said, Rachel McAdams does a decent job of portraying her, though the way she fluctuates between cunning adventuress and damsel in distress makes me wonder even more why they bothered.
  • Moriarty is another bone of contention I have with people doing Holmes stories. Again, the man appears in only one story – well, two if you count narrative flashbacks. Yes, his influence is profound, and yes, Holmes did spend months in his private, secret war against Moriarty, but none of that actually happens in the actual stories. The idea of Moriarty lurking in the background, playing his own game behind the scenes, as he is portrayed in this movie, makes me forgive them for using him… right up until I think about how blatant a set-up this is for a sequel.
  • Boy howdy, if you’re a fan of Victorian London Scenery Porn (and who isn’t?), you will get a nice fix from this movie. It’s beautiful.
  • I had some real trouble with the sorcerous idea behind the main plot of the movie, but that all got nicely wrapped up in strictly scientific terms. Kudos.
  • Holmes as a fighter works. He fights a few times in the stories, and he’s good at it, both because he’s made a scientific study of the martial arts, and because he’s smart. The way Guy Ritchie portrays that in the movie comes together nicely, with some great deductive observation coupled with an understanding of how to hurt people.
  • I still don’t know if I like the quick flashback or flashforward sequences they used to show Holmes thinking or reveal his previous preparations. They worked, but it felt a little like hand-holding.
  • I like what they did with Lestrade. It made me smile.

So, there it is. As I said, I’m not really sure how much I like the movie. It was fun, and the good parts seem to outweigh the bad, but I really dunno.

I’d say go see it, on balance of everything. But don’t set the bar too high.

I Don’t Trust the New Guy.

Or, The Problem of Betrayal in Small Character Sets

Before I get going, I’m gonna put up a big spoiler warning:

Spoilers!

I’m going to be revealing plot twists in the following:

  • NCIS: Los Angeles series premiere
  • Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
  • The Inspector Morse mysteries
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Bones season 3
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman

So, we good? Good.

I was watching the series premiere of NCIS: Los Angeles the other night*. In it, the team are trying to track down a kidnapped girl connected to a South American drug cartel. Her mother gets a phone call from the absent father, and calls him Luis. And instantly I decide that he’s in on the kidnapping, because of the hispanic name. And sure enough, he’s the bad guy.

This brought into focus something I’ve faced before in creating adventures, writing stories, reading, watching movies and TV… basically, any time I interact with a story. Stories contain, of necessity, a limited subset of real-world things. Specifically, the only characters in a well-constructed story are those that contribute in some meaningful way to the story. This means that, especially in mysteries, we pay extra attention to the introduction of each character, looking for how they fit into the story*. And it becomes hard to hide things in the background, the way things get overlooked in the real world. There just isn’t enough background noise to conceal things.

This can make it hard to sneak in a betrayal, especially if the audience (or the players) are expecting one. This generalizes to any mysterious identity, including the identity of a murderer, or the missing heir, or the superhero’s secret identity, or what-have-you. I’m going to focus on idea of betrayal in this little screed, because that’s what brought it to mind.

Case in point is Turn Coat, by Jim Butcher. Going in, we know that there’s a traitor on the White Council. So when there’s a new character introduced – a fussy little bureaucrat that happens to hate Harry Dresden – he really stands out as the potential traitor. And you know what? He is the traitor*.

What made him obvious? He was a new character who didn’t seem to have a purpose that wasn’t served by one of the established characters. It made him stand out as a sacrificial lamb, so to speak. He hated Harry – but so did Morgan. He was a staunch traditionalist – but so is the Merlin and Ancient Mai and several others. He showed up, they made a big deal out of how much of the White Council’s information got processed through him, he made himself annoying, and basically made the reader want him to be the bad guy.

Yeah, this is all meta-thinking, based on what we know about how stories work, but it’s thinking that happens, whether in a reader, an audience, or a gamer. We know how stories function, and we can’t turn that knowledge off. You can come down on players for meta-game thinking, but it won’t stop them from doing it – just from acting on it.

And when you’re building a story – whether it’s a novel, a script, or an adventure – you’ve got to be aware that your audience is very sophisticated and knowledgeable in the area of story. Everyone is.

Some authors play with this. In Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, for example, he tells you up front that one of the group is a traitor, and then has each group member tell his or her story in a Chaucerian style. As you go through the book, you examine each story minutely for the clues that might reveal the teller as the traitor. The traitor turns out to be the last person to speak, but in the meantime, you come to the conclusion that each of the previous characters could be the traitor. Until the blatant reveal at the end, there is good cause to suspect each of them.

So, this actually creates two sorts of things that happen when traitors are introduced. One is fixing the identity of the traitor, and the other is seeding clues as to that identity.

By fixing the identity, I mean deciding who’s going to be the traitor. In an ongoing series (TV, novels, games, etc.), it can be tough to surprise with a betrayal. Either you have to introduce a new character (as in Turn Coat), or you have to make an established character the traitor. Introducing a new character draws attention to the addition, and makes the character an immediate suspect. Had the traitor in Turn Coat been introduced a couple of novels previously, he would have been much less obvious. On the other hand, making an established character a traitor can be jarring and unbelievable, such as the third-season finale of the Bones TV series, when they revealed that Zack Addy was the Gormogon serial killer – well, his apprentice, anyway.

The problems with fixing the identity of a traitor can be alleviated or aggravated by the seeding of clues as to who the traitor is. If you don’t give enough clues, then the reveal can strain credulity, as in Bones. If you give too many, then the reveal is not a surprise, such as in Turn Coat. Finding the right balance of clues to make the reveal both believable and surprising is tough, especially from the omniscient seat of the author. What’s the right amount of clues? Tough to say.

My assumption through this posthas been that you want the audience to have a chance of figuring out who the traitor is, but you don’t want to make it too easy. Like a good crossword puzzle clue, you want the solution to be obvious once understood but still surprising when you first discover it. You’ve got to know your audience, and you’ve got to know what they are (and aren’t) going to pick up on. You take a look at the clues you could seed, and try to use the bare minimum. In a game, you have the advantage of watching player reactions, so you can adjust things as you go to provide more or less information. In other forms of story, you take your best guess, and adjust when revising.

The most beautiful example of this that I’ve ever encountered personally is in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. You know all along that Wednesday’s up to something, and that Shadow is in over his head, but I didn’t twig to the actual shape of the con until about a paragraph before the reveal, simply because I never said the name Low-Key Lyesmith out loud. As soon as I realized that Loki was in the mix, I realized that Wednesday was playing both sides for his own ends. And then about a sentence and a half later, Gaiman spells it out. For that sentence and a half, though, I felt very clever. Then I knew that I’d been very successfully played. It was brilliant.

There is an alternative, though. If you’ve ever seen a Columbo episode, you’ve seen it. Technically, it’s called dramatic irony, when the audience knows more about what’s going on than the characters, but really its a sort of reverse reveal. Each Columbo episode started by showing you the (usually incredibly arcane) “perfect murder” perpetrated by the killer. The rest of the episode is a cat-and-mouse mental duel between the killer and the detective to find the flaw that will unravel the crime.

This approach shifts emphasis away from the surprise reveal to the interplay of character and investigation, and can be tough to pull off without becoming very formulaic. Still, it’s worthwhile considering as a device.

So, to sum up: adding betrayal (or another secret and reveal) to a story can be tough, because of the limited range of choices for identity, the difficulty of choosing the correct person for the villain, and the balancing act of seeding appropriate clues. Understanding the difficulties and keeping them in mind can help avoid the common pitfalls.

*Yeah, I like NCIS. You wanna make something out of it? Back

*Back in before-time, my friends and I used to watch the Inspector Morse mysteries. It got so that, whenever a new character was introduced, we’d race to see who could be the first to shout, “He/She did it!”* Back

*Unless, of course, the woman was a love interest for Morse. Then she was either a victim or the murderer. Back

*Well, he’s a traitor. I don’t know about the traitor. The world of the Dresdenverse is a twisty, deceiving place, and Jim Butcher is not above pulling a bait-and-switch on us. In fact, I hope he does. Back

Rough Magi(c)k(s)

Gonna talk about two different things, now. They’ve got similar titles, and both deal with Lovecraft; one’s a DVD and the other is a game supplement.

Rough Magik

This is a television pilot from the BBC that never got made. It’s available on DVD from Lurker Films, on Volume 2 of the H.P. Lovecraft Collection – Dreams of Cthulhu: The Rough Magik Initiative.

The set-up is simple: twenty years ago, a group of covert operatives in the UK ran into a cult that worshiped a strange, ancient god that slept and dreamed beneath the seas. I don’t recall them using the name Cthulhu in the episode, but the sculptures and themes make it very clear that that’s who they’re talking about. They called themselves the Night Scholars, and the cult was called the Dreamers. Through great sacrifice and skill, the Night Scholars pretty much wiped out the Dreamers, though most of the Night Scholars wound up dead, insane, or exiled.

Now, the cult is stirring again, and the powers-that-be in the British government find they need to reactivate the Night Scholars they had previously disavowed and driven away.

If that sounds like a great framework for a Delta Green campaign, you’re not alone in thinking so.

Now, as I said, the series never got made, but the DVD has a pretty detailed description of the episodes that would have been made. In fact, according to the list, the episode on the disk is, in fact, episode 2: An Age of Wonders. The plan was for 14 episodes, and the brief descriptions of each of them make me very, very sad that they were never produced.

I can understand why, though. This is powerful, disturbing stuff, both on a horror-story level and on a human level. The episode on the disk opens with a middle-class mother sacrificing her young children to Cthulhu. There are scenes of atrocities in the Falklands as part of the story. Some unfriendly things are said about what people are capable of.

They manage all of this on what seems a shoestring budget. They use the cheap option for night-time scenes that we all know and love from low-budget kung-fu and horror movies – film during daytime, and use a dark filter. The scenes of gore and dismemberment are done in quick cuts (so to speak) and uncertain lighting. Most of the true horror creeps in as you start to think about the implications of what you’ve just seen or heard, rather than from buckets of blood or rubber monsters jumping out at you.

There are four other shorts on the DVD:

  • Experiment 17, which does a great job of looking like a WWII German Army archive film of a paranormal experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong.
  • Experiment 18, which is a sort of sequel, and loses a lot by abandoning the stark, simplistic style of 17 in favour of trying to tell a longer, more complex story.
  • The Terrible Old Man, which is pretty good, but longer than the pay-off is worth, in my opinion.
  • From Beyond, which shows the futility of getting actors to speak the dialogue Lovecraft wrote for his characters.

There’s also a bunch of extra stuff that’s of interest to Lovecraft and/or horror movie aficionados.

As I said, I’m very sad that the series never made it past the pilot, but I’m very glad to have the pilot. You should get it and watch it, if you like Lovecraft.

Rough Magicks

This is a sourcebook for Trail of Cthulhu, from Pelgrane Press. First thing you need to do is check out this cover art. That, to me, is the essence of magic in the Cthulhu mythos. “Yay! My spell worked! My dark god has arrived and OH MY GOD IT’S EATING ME!!!”

The book is written by the illustrious and inventive Ken Hite, and offers an expansion on the magic system from the core Trail of Cthulhu rulebook. It’s short – 38 pages, including a new character sheet – and inexpensive – $9.95 for the hard copy. And it’s quite good.

The new system is pretty light, consisting of just adding a new ability (Magic), and saying basically “Use this instead of Stability when you do magic stuff.” It’s a little more complex than that, and the book does a decent job of spelling out just exactly how it all works, but there’s not that much more to it.

There is also the obligatory collection of new spells, some examples of how to use the Idiosyncratic Magic from the Bookhounds of London campaign framework, and an analysis of what magics Lovecraftian magic Lovecraftian.

The two parts of the book that I really love, though, are very short. One is a page-long sidebar called “Names to Conjure With,” which gives the Keeper a list of names of historical or fictitious magi to seed into histories or spells or scrolls or whatever. I love stuff like this, that lets me name drop and create a sense of a vast mystical world lying below the surface of the mundane one.

The other part runs two whole pages, and gives a variety of options (reminiscent of the section on Gods and Titans in the core book) for what magic actually is. My favourite has to be the idea of it being the corrupted bio-technological operating system written into the DNA and crystalline structure of the world by the Elder Things. Using magic means hacking the degenerate code fragments still in place.

Anyway, as I said, it’s a short book, so this is a short review. I like it. If you play Trail of Cthulhu, or even Call of Cthulhu, there’s a lot in this little package to take your game up a very weird notch or two.

My Left Footloose, Again

So, a long time ago, I posted about a site created by some friends of mine called My Left Footloose. It’s a fun site and, after some initial growing pains, is now going great guns. The more observant among you will notice that I’ve added their RSS feed in the right sidebar.

Why this renewed attention?

Well, now I’m one of their official writers and editors.

So, I encourage you to go check them out. Not just because they’re great people, and not just because I’m doing some writing for them.

Go check them out because the site is a lot of fun.

End of commercial.

Obligatory Star Trek Review

Yeah, I’m a geek with a blog, so I pretty much have to tell you what I think about the new Star Trek movie, right?

I liked it.

Actually, I liked it quite a lot.

Lots of other places will give you all the talk that I could about the way the cast really works well together, or how the visuals are amazing, and all that other stuff. I agree with it, though I’d like to relate the following discussion between my friend, Chris, and I as we sat in the theatre:

Chris: Count the lens flairs. I think that’s going to be the new geek drinking game.

Me: Okay.

Me, three minutes into the movie: I’ve already lost count.

Me, thirty minutes into the movie: If this is the new geek drinking game, the geeks will be dead of alcohol poisoning before the Enterprise reaches Vulcan.

Still looked great, though. And for the first time, the Enterprise (and other Federation ships) actually had interiors that made them look like functioning vessels.

But that wasn’t the stuff that really sold me on the movie, much as I enjoyed it. I’m going to be rather oblique in the next few paragraphs in order to avoid spoilers.

What I really liked was the way they took chances with the story, making some big changes to the Star Trek universe in an effort to build a firm foundation for the franchise to continue*. It was a risk, a huge risk, given the entrenched fandom and following that Star Trek has**, and the number of those fans who are heavily invested in the continuity of the franchise, in all its incarnations***. If J.J. Abrams had made a misstep with how he handled those changes, if the movie had been not quite as good, it could have blown up in Paramount’s collective metaphorical face.

He didn’t, though.

He treated the deviations from pre-established canon with the understanding and explanation they deserved. He made the big changes big on screen, showing an awareness of what he was doing, and what he owed the legacy of Star Trek. And he dealt with the ramifications and fallout from those changes in a way that left me feeling, “Wow. It’s all new again. I wonder what they’re going to do next?”

Hell, he made me want to run a Star Trek game.

I’m going to go see it again, maybe one evening this week, maybe this weekend.

Maybe both. I liked it that much.

 

 

*I almost said, “firm foundation for the franchise to unfold,” but that would have just pushed the alliteration over the brink.

**The Onion had a neat little segment on it.

***Fans like me, in other words.

I Watched the Watchmen

Just got back from seeing the movie. I’m a huge fan of the graphic novel, and had some real trepidation going in. Overall, I liked the movie. I’ve got some detailed thoughts outlined below, but first I want to put up a

Spoiler Alert!

Yeah, I’m gonna be talking about stuff that happens in the movie or the graphic novel. If you don’t want to know, don’t read any farther.

We good?

Good.

  • The cast is pretty much perfect. Not only does each actor really look a lot like the character from the comic book, they get most of the character traits down wonderfully. I can’t be happier. They are fantastic. Of special note are Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, but there really isn’t a bad word to be said about any of them, in my opinion.
  • Zack Snyder sticks very, very close to the comic book, both story-wise and visually. Whether this is being faithful or slavish is going to vary by viewer. For me, I like it most of the time, but it does make his departures from the source material, in those few instances when it happens, somewhat jarring for those of us who are really familiar with the comic book. Yeah, it’s a geek thing.
  • I heard a lot about gratuitous sex and violence before I saw the movie, and I dismissed it. There are a lot of that in the comic book, and it’s not entirely gratuitous; instead, it makes a sort of meta-statement about the use of gratuitous sex and violence in the medium. Having seen the movie, I gotta say, a lot of the sex and violence, while not necessarily gratuitous, is exaggerated and emphasized rather gratuitously. The rape scene is pretty over-the-top violent, as is the mugging scene, and the sex scene in Archimedes is about as graphic as you can get without being labeled porn. And I’m not sure it carries the impact in the same way the gratuitous stuff in the comic book does.
  • The ending, as most have probably heard, is not the same as in the comic book. They don’t do the alien creature manifestation/mock-up, but opt for framing Dr. Manhattan as the villain. This makes for a much tighter story, not having to run the whole kidnapped artist subplot, and speeds up the exposition at the climax, but I really wanted to see the giant alien thing, so I was a little disappointed.
  • They’ve only got three hours to tell their story, so a lot of the layers and depth gets compressed into easy explanations or dismissed entirely. I think that, for people who are not familiar with the comic book and its deep and intricate backstory, sections of this movie may feel rushed or confusing. In addition, certain bits were included that may have been better cut for time or continuity, but were great geek-joy moments that we geeks certainly wanted to see.
  • Time to complain about a specific storytelling choice. There is a scene, in both the comic and the movie, where Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter get mugged, and kick the crap out of the muggers. In the movie, they kill several of their attackers, deliberately, and in ways more violent than even Rorschach’s murders are portrayed in the film. I found this very jarring; in the comic book, Dan and Laurie are the most “normal” of the masked heroes; they’re the ones we can most easily identify with. To show them cold-bloodedly slaughtering thugs breaks that empathetic connection, undermining the link we’ve established with the humanity of the characters. It distances us emotionally from the only two characters presented in a human, sympathetic light, and I think that was a mistake.
  • Time to compliment a specific beautiful acting moment. Throughout the movie, I found I was missing the dynamic tension between the ideals represented by Ozymandias and Rorschach. In the comic book, they balance each other: one who will never compromise, and one who will do whatever it takes to do good. This didn’t come across very well in the movie, for several reasons that I’ll have to think about more before I can identify them beyond saying that it was led by the visual emphasis over story. Anyway. In Rorschach’s final scene, where he pulls off his mask and forces Dr. Manhattan to kill him, that entire dynamic tension, the pull between the man who will not compromise and the man who wants to do good, is made manifest completely within the character of Rorschach. He begs Dr. Manhattan to kill him, knowing that it must happen to preserve the peace Ozymandias has created. It was a beautiful, perfect moment that captured something vital and important to the work that Alan Moore introduced in the comic book. It captured the idea of monsters on both ends of the spectrum, and the torment of where they meet. That moment was almost worth the price of admission all by itself.
  • The opening historical montage sequence is worth the price of admission. My god, that was wonderful, filling in so much necessary backstory in such a beautiful, moving, and effective way.
  • One last complaint: having Dan and Laurie go back to crimefighting at the end of the movie really, drastically undermines the idea behind the comic book. It changes the meaning and nature of the entire work, and I don’t much like it.

So, in closing, I liked the movie, but not unreservedly, and not completely. The comic book, as an ironic, insightful look at the superhero phenomenon is so intricate and layered in subtext and superhero reference that it is pretty much impossible to do it complete justice in a movie. Having said that, Zack Snyder gave it a really good try, and made a movie I enjoyed. He came about as close as I can envision someone coming. The source material is just too dense and nuanced to translate with complete faithfulness in three hours.

It’s not the comic book, no matter how much it might look like it.

But it’s not bad, either.

Are You Watching Closely?

Last night I went to see David Copperfield at the MTS Centre here in Winnipeg.

Bit of background for you folks who don’t know me. I’m a big-time magic geek. I love the stuff. Back in University, I used to perform professionally, and I was pretty good. Then the arthritis set into my hands, and a lot of the things that I loved doing just weren’t possible any more, and I let my practice slide.

Recently, I’ve started trying to get back into the hobby. Y’know what? It’s not a hobby. It’s a craft, and an art, every bit as challenging and respectable as acting or painting or writing. Anyway, I started trying to get back into it. I’ve been picking my effects carefully, based on what I can and can’t do with my hands, and I’ve started practicing with cards and coins and sponge balls to increase my finger strength, flexibility, and dexterity. They’re never going to be what they were, but they’re getting better.

So, that lets you know where I’m coming from when I talk about David Copperfield, which is the point. I’ve got some knowledge of the inner workings of magic, and some ability to judge technical expertise.

And my conclusion is that the man is good.

Technically, he’s tight in his workings, and clean in his handlings. He is very crafty when it comes to handling the dirty work of the various effects. His show runs very smoothly, and any gaffes (and I didn’t spot any) are quickly handled.

But what really makes him shine is the way his show is put together.

Every trick is chosen for the power of its effect. Smaller things lead to larger ones. Close-up and parlour effects are mixed into the big stage effects to display a wide range of talent and accomplishment. He even pulled out a floating tissue paper effect from one of his earlier TV specials (which effect I had first seen performed by Kevin James at a magicians’ convention in about 1989). It’s a charming effect that works right up close with a spectator, ending with a fiery transformation of a tissue paper rose into a real rose for the spectator to keep.

And he looks so totally at ease during the entire show. He seems to be having fun, he cracks jokes, often at his own expense, and generally charms the pants off the audience. How charming is he? So charming that none of us minded when he showed us a four-minute video of one of his big escapes down in Las Vegas.

Yeah. I paid $100 for my ticket, and didn’t mind that he showed me a clip from his TV show.

I dunno. I see a lot of negativity about Copperfield in some corners of the magic community. Some people say that he’s all flash and no substance. I think this may be because he represents, in a way, the complete, absolute refinement of one type of magic – the grand illusion show*. There’s been a sort of backlash to that type of magic, first evidenced in Penn & Teller’s revelatory magic act, and then retooled in the David Blaine street magic tradition. Copperfield is seen as kind of “old school,” while Blaine is “new school.” In the middle, you get people like Criss Angel, doing a mix of both, with a more modern persona.

But magic is a HUGE space in which to work. Along with these household names, you find less-well-known but perhaps more influential magicians like Max Maven, Eugene Burger, Tony Andruzzi, The Amazing Jonathon, and Jeff McBride. Kreskin and Larry Becker and Lee Earle and Banachek work in the niche of mentalism. Tom Mullica does an amazing (and somewhat nauseating) routine working with cigarettes. Daniel Garcia and Wayne Houchin have developed a number of absolutely incredible close-up effects, and have even produced an entire deck of special cards that they have created.

Magic isn’t just one thing, anymore than music is. We’ve got room for the street and the stage and the parlour table.

Wow. That was a bit more of a rant than I had intended. Deep breath time.

Okay.

Back on topic.

David Copperfield gave us a great show last night, with a mix of well-chosen, high-impact effects. His magic is stunning and his performance is just so much fun. I’m going to try and list the effects he performed now, but I can’t guarantee that I got them all, or got them in the right order.

  • Appearance on stage on a motorcycle.
  • Audience participation “You can’t follow me” trick with clasping of hands.
  • Passing through a steel plate.
  • Dancing borrowed tie.
  • Video of his Fires of Passion straitjacket escape in Las Vegas.
  • Card trick with scorpion.
  • Compression box, where David is squeezed down to hat-box size.
  • Lottery prediction, which finishes with the production of a 1942 Lincoln Convertible**.
  • Floating tissue paper rose production.
  • Vanishing while walking through a giant fan, reappearing in the middle of the audience.
  • Vanishing and reappearing duck in a bucket, with a slow motion repeat.
  • Vanishing 13 audience members, with them reappearing in the audience.

I think that covers it. It was a fun evening. If you enjoy magic, or even just if you don’t hate magic, I recommend the show.

And if you want to learn magic quickly and easily, I find I’m really liking the stuff at Ellusionist.com. Check them out.

 

*I’m not going to get into a discussion of other illusionists, here. Suffice to say that others at that lofty peak include Sigfried & Roy and Lance Burton.

**I think that’s what he says it was. I don’t know cars.

Catching Up

Man, I have got to get on a more regular blogging schedule. Sorry for the neglect, folks.

Been a bit of a busy time round my place the past few weeks. Here’s what’s been going on:

Dresden Files RPG

Not a lot happening on this front. I’ve been lurking on the Burner list, and reading some blogs, and of course reading the new cut of the rules. The only real rules bit that’s come down so far has been the city creation stuff, and it’s pretty similar to the version we Bleeders saw. It’s nice to read the list and see that a lot of the Burners are having as much fun with it – and discovering as many cool things about it – as I did.

Mutant City Blues

I’ve had a few people say that they’re interested in trying this, but we’ve had scheduling issues. Summer is actually a pretty hard time to schedule games in our group. Especially pick-up games or one-shots. Many of the people I play with have kids out of school, and vacation trips, and all sorts of other things that come up in the summer. They’re willing to schedule around the regular, ongoing campaigns, but trying to shoehorn in a one-shot is difficult. Hopefully soon.

D&D 4E

I’m working on putting together a 4E campaign to start next year some time, probably after the Player’s Handbook II is released so that there are plenty of option for my players. However, people have been asking me to run a campaign – even a short one – and I wanted to try out the rules and get some familiarity with what works for me and what doesn’t. So, I started a campaign.

I sent out invites to eight people, hoping to get four. I got seven of the eight, plus one person asked to bring in a buddy. Yeah, I’m running with eight people. It’s a real crowd.

We’re using the Scales of War Adventure Path being published in Dungeon Magazine. We probably won’t finish it by the time I’m ready to start the new campaign, but it’ll give everyone a chance to have a taste of the system over a longer term than demos and one-shots. And I’ll get better at the game.

I’m not going to talk too much about the game – we’ve only had one session, and that was very combat heavy. What I do want to mention is the ease with which I was able to beef up the adventure to match my party. The adventure is written for five character; I have eight. It took me no more than an hour to go through and upgrade it to be a fair challenge for my larger party. Mostly, it just involved adding a few extra monsters, but I did have to add some traps/hazards, and I had to level up a solo monster to be a good challenge.

Under an hour. Sweet.

I also had to increase the treasure the way it talked about in the DMG; that took a little more guesswork, because the adventure had 14 treasure parcels to hand out, not the normal 10, so I had to increase the default numbers in the DMG to figure it out, but it was easy.

Anyway, it looks like it’s going to be fun.

The Dark Knight

Man. I love this movie. The performances, especially Heath Ledger’s Joker, are very good. The look is a little (well, a lot, really) brighter than Batman Begins, but there’s still the same sense of urban malaise that you need for Batman.

But the realy treat is the writing. The Nolans just get Batman. They get the rage and the obsession, which are easy, but they also get the hope and the diappointment, which are harder. Lots of times, they don’t come through.

But they do in this movie. You ache for Bruce Wayne fighting against the obsession that is overwhelming his life, all the while knowing that he has to give in to it if he wants to be able to live with himself. There are several moments throughout the movie where he reaches up to the light, hoping to leave the darkness behind, but, in the end, he always goes back to the darkness. He chooses to go back to the darkness. This is especially apparent in the last scene of the movie.

And the twisted, co-dependent relationship between Batman and the Joker is spot on. The Joker even sums it up at one point, saying (and I’m paraphrasing here), “We’re going to keep doing this forever. You won’t kill me because, well, you don’t do that. And I won’t kill you because you’re too much fun!” There are also a number of “jokes” by the Joker that simply happen and don’t get commented on, like the burning fire truck and the sign on the side of the semi trailer during the Harvey Dent assassination attempt. I like that the Nolans trust the audience enough to get these jokes, without having to shine a spotlight on them.

All in all, a great movie. If you like Batman, go see it. Even if you don’t like Batman, this movie may change your mind.

The West Wing

After talking to Jane Brooks, of MyLeftFootloose.com, at some length about Aaron Sorkin series, I started rewatching The West Wing. I’ve just finished the second season, which ends with one of my favourite episodes: Two Cathedrals. It’s a very powerful episode, with a lot of different threads coming together, and it ends with Jed Bartlet about to announce that he’s going to run for another term. The last eight or so minutes really stand out in my brain, because it’s set over the Dire Straits song, Brothers in Arms, and ends without Jed announcing that he has changed his mind and is going to run.

Another instance of Sorkin’s genius with storytelling, in my opinion. He often doesn’t show us the moment, because that would be anti-climactic. He shows us how you get to the moment, and then backs off to let us finish the job ourselves. He has the skill to lead us along with him, so that we know exactly where he’s going, and the trust to let us go the last distance on our own.

I love it.

GenCon Indy

My friend, Clint, and I are leaving very early tomorrow morning for the drive down to Indianapolis. We’re going to GenCon. Now, this isn’t something new for us – this will be our eighth trip down together, I think – but it looked for a while that I wasn’t going to get to make the trip. It worked out that I can, and I am almost as excited for this one as I was for the first one.

Anyway, I may be able to do some updates from GenCon, so check back. Of course, I may not be able to, so you might be disappointed. But I’ll try. And if any of you happen to be at the show, come on by Booth 1701, where I’ll be doing booth weasel duty for Pagan Publishing and Dagon Industries. I’ll be happy to say hello, and try and sell you some Cthulhu-related merchandise that you really don’t need, but really really want.

That’s about it for now. I promise not to take so long to post again.

Spies Like Us

I’ve been watching a couple of TV shows about spies lately. I’m not sure why, but I am.  And I’m enjoying them. Both of them are really interesting looks at spies, from very different angles, with a lot of differences. But the thing that’s got me thinking is the fact that they have a lot of things in common, too; things that I like.

The first one is The Sandbaggers, which is a British show from the ’70s, and the other is Burn Notice, which is a current American show.

The Sandbaggers is pretty gritty, with most of the action taking place in the dingy offices and corridors of the British intelligence buildings, with occasional glimpses of the agents in the field. It is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the James Bond stuff. No one wants to use a gun unless they have to, and in that case things are already pretty much unsalvageable. There aren’t any cool gadgets or flashy cars or masquerading as international men of mystery. The story is all about gathering information, and making decisions when you know you don’t know enough. There are strong themes of loyalty vs. expedience, politics vs. patriotism, pragmatism vs. idealism, and the emotional toll that such questions take on people.

Burn Notice, on the other hand, is a fairly light show, with a lot more action. Every week, Michael Westen is taking on a new client, helping them straighten out a problem. There are guns, car chases, even a few gadgets. And it takes place in Miami, so there are lots of half-dressed women wandering around. There are some similar themes, though: loyalty vs. expedience, pragmatism vs. idealism, and the emotional toll are all explored, in addition to the question of who can be trusted when all your friends are professional liars, and your family is all accomplished amature liars.

So, what do I find in common between these two shows that makes me want to watch them both?

The trickster nature of the spies.

James Bond may look suave and genteel, but he’s not subtle; he’s intelligent, but not clever. He is, as M says in Casino Royale, a blunt instrument.

The spies in these shows are subtle, clever, intelligent, resourceful, and generally afraid of consequences. Willie Caine, the primary agent in The Sandbaggers, hates guns, and tries to avoid them as much as possible, though he’s skilled in their use. Michael Westen remarks how a hardware store is usually more useful to a covert operative than a gun, and proceeds to show you why.

There are layers and layers of deception in both the shows, showing the use of information and disinformation and information used as disinformation. The entire quest is to figure out what the other guy is doing, and what he knows about what you’re doing. Intelligence and counterintelligence.

Dirty tricks.

These are characters who live and die by their wits, not by their firepower. Sure, there’s a little bit of gunplay, and a chase here and there, but what’s really happening are the two sides are trying to outthink each other, to force their opponents to make a mistake, and then capitalize on it.

The other thing I really like about the shows is that they make it very clear the kind of price someone pays for living that way. Neil Burnside in The Sandbaggers is driven, alone, and very bitter. Michael Westen of Buirn Notice, though he comes off very charming when he needs to, seems almost dead inside – there are a few scenes when you see him put on his winning smile over a dead-eyed face when something unexpected happens.

They’re damaged goods.

Which makes sense when you consider the kinds of things they have to do every day. The lying, the deception, the danger… it’s got to wear on you. One of the lines in Burn Notice is, “People with happy childhoods don’t grow up to be spies.” You can see that.

Now, I know next to nothing about the real intelligence community. I don’t claim to be an expert on spies in any sense. I don’t know any, personally.*

But the way they are portrayed in these two shows makes dramatic, emotional sense. It feels right. And that’s what fiction needs more than actual accuracy.**

So, I like these shows. They appeal to my sense of what spies should be like. They are interesting, well-written, and tell good stories.

If that sounds interesting, check them out.

 

*As far as I know, that is.

**The value and cost of verisimilitude in fiction is a matter for another day.

My Left Footloose

So, every year for the past eight or so years, I go down to GenCon and work at the Pagan Publishing booth with Scott Glancy. I’m not affiliated with his company outside of that, but we’re friends, and we have a mutually beneficial arrangement going, so it all works out fine. I get a cheap trip to GenCon, he gets a booth slave to help him out.

Anyway.

It’s always a blast going down, spending time with him and, on occasion, his charming wife, Jane Brooks.

That’s where I learned The Movie Game, and it almost broke my brain.

Now, Jane and Scott have sent me this email that I feel compelled to share with all of you:

Hello, friends! Jane Brooks and Scott Glancy here!

Many of you have been victims of our obsession with The Movie Game, in which you combine one or more movie titles to make a new, more hilarious meta-movie. Terms of En-Deer Hunter. Gandhi in Sixty Seconds. My Left Footloose. You get the picture. If you’ve shared a long drive, a dinner party, or a hotel room at GenCon with us, you’ve probably heard the schtick. This game has the amazing ability to crush even the most lighthearted small talk with its obsessive genius. The Movie Game is evil… and now it’s coming to the Interwebs.

Scott and I are happy to announce the birth (well, public beta) of our new brainchild, My Left Footloose. Please join us in celebrating, beta testing, and creating a community around our game.

Go check out the site. Play. Have fun.

Though, for the full effect of the game, you have to be completely exhausted, lying on a hotel room floor at three in the morning, trying to get to sleep, and having various voices pipe up, just as you’re starting to drift off, with things like, “A Few Good Men In Black,” or “The Thin Man Who Wasn’t There,” or “There Will Be Blood and Donuts!”

Anyway. The link is here, and it’s going over in the sidebar, too.

Tell ‘em I sent you, and they’ll be sure to treat you right.