Thursday, May 30, 2013

If a Sexist Comics Fanboy Locked You Up In a Jail Cell He Made Himself

YOU: I can't believe you locked me in this cell!

FAN: Look, I don't have time for your hysterical delusions. There's no cell here, okay? You're free to leave any time you like.

YOU: cell? What about all the freaking BARS?

FAN: Well, yes, there is a bar there. It's definitely something that I can agree with you on. But that bar was put there ages ago, and it's really a tradition by this point. I'd hate to get rid of it now. Besides, you can just go around it.

YOU: I can't "go around it", there's another bar right next to it.

FAN: Yes, that bar really is regrettable. I sincerely apologize for the existence of that bar. But you know, it's there now, and I don't want to take it back because then what would we learn from it? Let's just accept it's there, call it a learning experience, and go around it.

YOU: I can't go around it, dumbass. There's another bar next to that one, and they're spaced too narrowly for me to get between.

FAN: Whoa, what's with all the unwarranted hostility? I don't see how you can possibly expect me to take your arguments seriously if you won't discuss them civilly. I'm being perfectly polite to you--

YOU: Polite? YOU LOCKED ME IN A CELL! Look at these bars!

FAN: I acknowledge that bar as being problematic, yes. But let me play Devil's Advocate for a moment. How does that bar really impede your progress?

YOU: Um...because it forms part of the cage you've locked me in?

FAN: But you can just go around it. It's a minor obstacle, but you continue to treat it as a huge thing. Do you know that there are people out there locked in prisons made of big, obvious blocks of stone? And all you can do is complain about these thin pieces of metal. It's really very selfish of you.

YOU: Just because it's not big and obvious and made of rocks doesn't mean it's not a prison, dammit! Any one bar might be a minor obstacle, but there's always another one right next to it! LOOK!

FAN: That's not a bar.

YOU: Yes. It. Is.

FAN: No, sorry, I'm really not seeing it. I think you might just be over-sensitive to this whole "bar" thing. I can sympathize. I know that you've had to deal with bars in the past. But I think it's just made you read too much into things.

YOU: F**** it. (pulls out a spoon and begins chipping away at the moorings)

FAN: HEY! You're ruining my hobby!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dangerous Food Ideas

I'm not much of a cook. I enjoy good food, and I can follow a recipe, but the idea of cooking food to produce a good meal always seems like a very labor-intensive method of getting good food. I tend to prefer some method of getting others to do the preparation, whether with money or through projecting enough of a sense of general food-based haplessness that people take pity on me and offer to cook. (There's probably something wrong with me.)

Between that and the diabetes, there are a number of reasons why I will probably never cook the ideas I sometimes have for desserts. They're sort of the dessert equivalent of Tesla's thought experiments, the ones he wrote up on a notebook towards the end because nobody would trust him with scientific equipment when he explained to people that he was pretty sure he could split the planet in half with it. And yet, I think they could be yummy if properly prepared. To wit...

1) Root beer syrup. Like maple syrup, only instead of maple sap you use root beer to flavor it. The simplest way, of course, would be to take a twelve-pack of root beer and boil off the excess liquid to thicken it, but I suspect some experimentation would be needed to get the proper consistency. But pouring thick, dark root beer syrup onto your pancakes? How could that not be delicious beyond all possible measure? (In theory, of course, any soda flavor could be used once you worked out the basic recipe. But honestly, I don't think the world is ready for Mountain Dew-drenched pancakes and waffles.)

2) Gourmet cereal treats. This one feels like it could be someone's start-up business. Sure, rice krispies are known as the de facto cereal base for one's marshmallow food-based adhesive. But it's always seemed odd to me how few people experiment with the possibilities. Crispix or the Chex family seem like they could have interesting textural effects, due to the way that liquid marshmallow would seep through the holes. The flake series (frosted, corn, et cetera) seem like they would produce a denser, crispier treat. Frosted mini-wheats would perhaps create an almost cake-like texture? And of course, Lucky Charms might do interesting things with their existing marshmallow treats when exposed to liquid marshmallows.

But more than that, I feel like there are whole unexplored vistas in the areas of mixing and topping. Marshmallow treats, as generally done, tend to have rice krispies, marshmallow fluff, an infrequent dash of peanut butter depending on taste, and perhaps chocolate chunks or M&Ms if you want to be "decadent". But that ignores so many possibilities! What about sprinkling in Reese's miniature peanut butter cups? Crushed toffee, or crumbled mint patties? Chocolate chip cookie dough? Heck, if you want to go insanely decadent, miniature Cadbury's creme eggs mixed in with the cereal! (I know that some of you may be forming a theory on how I developed diabetes, but these really are mostly thought experiments. I didn't have an insane sweet tooth even before sugar went off-limits for good.) And then you can top the whole thing off by dipping it in a coating of caramel or chocolate or both.

3) Dessert poutine. Substitute sweet potato fries for the french fries, use deep-fried cream cheese balls dusted in cinnamon instead of the cheese curds, and perhaps a thick cream for the gravy (or caramel sauce, chocolate sauce...really, lots of possibilities here), and you have a dessert that is guaranteed to bust an artery. And taste delicious while it kills you.

4) Thick Mints. Think "Thin Mints", except that instead of a thin crunchy cookie, you have a devil's food cake wafer about the thickness of a double-stuf Oreo. Still minty, still chocolate dipped. Tell me you wouldn't buy it.

Does anyone else out there have diabolical food creations they would never actually make, but can't un-imagine once thought of? Share them in the comments!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Why the Theatrical Ending to "Little Shop of Horrors" Was the Right One

"Little Shop of Horrors" (the 1986 musical) was on television the other day, and as always when I think of "Little Shop of Horrors" I think of the original ending Frank Oz filmed but never used due to unfavorable audience response. (In fact, according to Wikipedia, it was extremely unfavorable response; the ending got a score of 13 on a 1-100 scale.) The original ending, based on the stage musical, changed drastically from what was eventually released in theaters. For those of you not familiar with the planned ending (it has been around on YouTube now and again, and was on the first release of the DVD before they pulped it after a week or so in stores due to the inferior picture quality of the original footage)...

In this version, Audrey was fatally wounded by Audrey II's attack, and as her last request asked Seymour to feed her to the plant so she could help make his dreams come true. Seymour did as she asked, then prepared to commit suicide--only to stop when he got a proposal to grow cuttings from the plant and sell them in stores (as in the theatrical release.) In this version, though, the salesman has already "taken the liberty" of sneaking a cutting when Seymour wasn't looking, and has a tiny little Audrey II ready and waiting for sale. Seymour goes back to confront Audrey II, as the salesman shouts to his rapidly-receding form, "Hey! We don't need your permission, you know! Our lawyers have told us--you can't copyright a plant!"

From there, events transpire as in the film, with Seymour telling Audrey II that he knows its plans, and the plant launching into 'Mean Green Mother From Outer Space'. But in the original ending, Audrey II eats Seymour at the end of the song (the same fate he meets in the stage version, as well as in the original Corman film.) From there, the chorus goes on to explain that the plants were sold by the thousand to gullible jerks who were suckered into feeding them blood. Now, the plants are on the rampage (lovingly depicted in an absolutely astounding special effects sequence that still holds up today) and are coming after everyone...EVEN YOU! The film ends with Audrey II seemingly bursting through the movie screen, laughing wildly.

This version is now available on a Blu-Ray "Director's Cut", and I'm glad. The original ending had some fantastic miniature work, absolutely stellar for its time and even now, and it deserves to be seen...but frankly, I think that the studio made the right move in forcing Oz to switch to a more upbeat ending. Here's why.

1) It doesn't fit in with the tone of the movie. Up until Audrey dies, the movie is a comedy in the classical sense of the word; the protagonists begin the series in a predicament, and overcome numerous obstacles to escape their predicament while growing in the process as individuals. In the end, a moral order is asserted, with the just rewarded and the villains getting their comeuppance.

Prior to Audrey's death, the movie makes a strong effort to adhere to that structure. Mushnik is made into a less sympathetic character, less "crusty and cantankerous" and more "greedy and abusive", specifically so that his death at the hands of Audrey II will seem deserved. Doctor Scrivello went from being merely a sadistic dentist to a comically brutal dentist, and more than that, an abusive relationship with Audrey was added to his character solely to make you root for him to get chopped up into bits and fed to a killer flytrap. But more significantly, Seymour's role in the deaths was reduced. (In the original film, he killed three people, and while he did have diminished responsibility in all three deaths, they were as a result of his direct action. In the musical, he's more or less just in the right place at the right time when people die.)

But by killing both Audrey and Seymour, the movie abruptly upends that moral structure. Suddenly, the universe is a place where bad things can happen to good people, and there's no justice. It's kind of an unpleasant way to end a movie that's been full of laughs and jokes. And even if you are willing to grant that Seymour deserved his fate (while writing off Audrey as an object lesson to Seymour about the dangers of getting what you want, which denies her agency in a terribly sexist way...)

2) It's too abrupt. If you do want to structure the film as a morality play, with Seymour as an illustration of the dangers of making a deal with the green and thorny devil, you need to show a descent into sin, not a sudden fall off the cliff. Most of the cut numbers from the film are the ones that made Seymour's actions seem more deliberate (he originally had a solo where he sang about being willing to do what he had to do in order to get the material wealth he thought was bringing him Audrey) and more importantly, there's not enough time to absorb the change. The director's cut literally goes from "comedy bickering between Seymour and Audrey II" to "Audrey dead and Seymour standing on a rooftop ready to jump" in under five minutes. That's a hell of a wrench to ask the audience to absorb. And assuming they do...

3) It's surprisingly hectoring and preachy. Because it's not enough that Seymour suffers and dies for his greed in this version, or even that he takes his girlfriend with him. His attempt at redemption by killing the plant he created is rendered meaningless (and as a sub-reason here, it's also remarkably flat from a dramatic point of view--Audrey II spends three minutes singing about how tough and powerful and unstoppable it is, and tough and powerful and unstoppable. You really can't spend that long telling the audience exactly what to expect and still hope they'll be surprised when you give it to them.) Audrey II wins, in every way. And then the final musical number is basically just the chorus telling everyone, "Don't do what Seymour did!" Finishing the story by yelling at the audience for five solid minutes, just after yanking the rug out from under their expected happy ending, makes the movie feel joyless and prudish. It's as though, having spent the preceding 90 minutes telling everyone to have fun and enjoy themselves with the blackly comedic material, the writers suddenly feel the need to punish everyone for doing exactly that. And with a song, that, well...

4) The closing number sucks. Let's face it--'Mean Green Mother From Outer Space' is easily the most memorable song of the whole movie. It's arguably the best. (Although I've got a soft spot for "Dentist!") It is certainly the signature tune of the musical. Following it up with 'Don't Feed the Plants'--a slow, muddy, mumbling dirge that scolds the audience instead of leaving it as your catchy, peppy closing number that everyone walks out humming? Not a good move. And even if it was a good song...

5) The sound mix at the end is horrible. Because they went with the big, epic "killer plants destroy New York" ending instead of the symbolic "everyone's faces appear as flowers to sing about how bad they feel about what they've done" ending, most of the final song is buried under the sound of falling bricks, screeching cars, falling bridges, gunfire and shattering windows. Whatever hope the final song had of having impact is buried right along with it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not 100% satisfied with the filmed ending. Because it was added so late in the process, it's kind of abrupt and choppy. (And the inserted shots of Audrey are clumsy and obvious.) But their mistake was in sticking with the original ending for as long as they did, instead of listening to the studio (who wanted changes at the script stage.) That said, I am glad the original ending is out there.  Not just because we would have lost some amazing effects sequences without it, but also because the theatrical ending somehow seems that much sweeter once you've seen the original. Knowing what Seymour averts with his last-minute heroics makes you all the more grateful that he and Audrey wind up with their happy ending.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Exorcising Another DC Idea From My Head

I don't really want to write for Marvel or DC anymore. There was a time when I really did, because let's face it, between them they've got the biggest sandbox and the coolest toys in all of comics. But I think it's pretty clear to me now that there are some really unpleasant people running the playground, and people have been pissing in the sandbox for a decade or so now and most of the toys are broken. But I still like my old ideas, from time to time.

One of them, which really isn't usable in the post-Flashpoint universe, was a crossover that was a sort of pre-Infinite Crisis Infinite Crisis. A single villain, with a master plan and seemingly total knowledge of the heroes of the DC universe, has engineered the single worst day ever. Every hero faces insurmountable odds, villains that have been carefully manouvered into striking at them where they're weakest. Every hero faces his greatest challenge, every relationship is tested, everyone basically faces their hardest fight ever...

And meanwhile, in a back-up feature that runs through the crossover as it jumps from issue to issue, we see Triumph. Remember Triumph? He's the superhero who sacrificed his whole existence in our timeline to save the world, only to come back to a universe where nobody remembers what he did and nobody cares about him. When we last saw him, he'd lost his powers, his sanity, and had been turned into an ice sculpture by the Spectre. In the back-up, we find out he's regained the latter two, but he's working as a janitor in a public school in Cleveland. He's given up on trying to be remembered, or trying to be a hero, or trying to be anything. He's given up completely, and is just watching the days go by one by one. And then someone steals some cleaning fluid from his supply closet, and he wants to find out why.

But that runs as a backdrop to the major run of stories. Everything bad you could imagine happens, all at once. Superman loses his powers, Paradise Island gets attacked by Darkseid, Batman is dropped out of an airplane sans'd just be this crazy, intense, "how did it get this bad this fast?" life-or-death struggle for every single superhero, all at once. But through this struggle, we see their best qualities come to the fore. Every hero rises to the challenge and overcomes it, fighting their most difficult battle when they're at their worst and winning. They come together, they work as friends and teammates in a way they hadn't done in a while, even then, and they figure out the truth behind it...whoever was behind all this didn't want them dead. They didn't want them humiliated. Batman recognizes the pattern first, but the others are only a few seconds behind. Whoever was behind all this wanted every single superhero on Earth to be as far away as possible from Cleveland, Ohio, on this particular day and time. And it's worked.

At which point, we cut back to Triumph, who's tracked the thief back to his lair. It's the Key. He's been behind all of it. His entire career as supervillain has led up to this moment, a mystical initiation that has led him to power, to madness, to sanity, and finally to the perfect purification that has made him ready for this moment. He has constructed the Lock. (The cleaning fluid was needed to purify the area it will stand on.) The moment he enters it, he will open the true mysteries of the universe and attain perfect cosmic oneness, the ultimate fulfillment of the spirit. Of course, the universe will cease to exist, but he's okay with that, because he won't be in it anymore.

The only problem is that the Lock will only be in convergence with our universe for five minutes of real time. And during that five minutes, all the Key's powers will disappear and he'll be just a normal human being. Meaning that he needs five minutes of time in which he can be absolutely sure that not a single superhuman will interrupt him. And he's arranged all that. Every superhero, every supervillain, everyone with any kind of special power whatsoever, is neatly out of the way for the five minutes that will lead to the Key's apotheosis.

But Triumph isn't anyone special. He's just a janitor. The Key didn't account for him. And so, for five minutes, Triumph becomes the most important person in the whole universe, because he's the only person in between the Key and the Lock. The fight that follows isn't pretty, it isn't graceful or athletic or even all that heroic. There's scratching, there's hair-pulling, there's biting. But it lasts a full five minutes, and that's all that matters.

At that point, the Key loses his chance, but regains his powers. He's about to take his vengeance on the powerless, bruised, battered Triumph...when every single superhero in the entire DC Universe shows up to stop him. Having saved the day, Triumph stares into the sunrise and realizes that what's important isn't being powerful, or famous, or idolized or rich or important. He remembers why he became a hero in the first place, to do what's right and to know that the world is going to keep on turning one more day. And even without powers, that's enough.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Magic Is Making Me Weirdly Nostalgic

It's weird, but I've had a hankering lately to get back into Magic: The Gathering. I got out of it in the mid-90s (somewhere around the release of 'Tempest', when I realized that my completist urges, my retail job, and WotC's release schedule made for a very bad combination) but the closure of 'City of Heroes' has made me long for tabletop gaming once again, and so I decided that I could get back into it on a limited basis. So I bought ten bucks worth of commons, a stack of basic lands...and I was surprised to discover that something I thought would be timeless was anything but.

There are no Llanowar Elves in the latest edition. No Fireballs, no Lightning Bolts, no Counterspells or Prodigal Sorcerers. No Terror or Pestilence, no Disenchant or Circle of Protection...somewhere in the intervening decade or so, the decision that there were certain "indispensable" cards that would carry over from one edition to the next (of course, they're not called "editions" anymore, they're "core sets") went by the wayside. Even the rules changed--no more Interrupts, no more burying creatures, and many mechanics I'm already familiar with like "Walls" and "Can block creature with flying" and "remove from the game" got codewords like "Defender" and "Reach" and "Exile".

It's a little bit weird to me. I'd always known Magic was putting out new sets while I was away, but somehow I always assumed that getting back into the game would just be a case of shaking off the rust and refamiliarizing myself with the cards. Now I find out that it's like learning a whole new game all over again. This isn't a bad thing, don't get me wrong--I learn new games all the time. But an experience I thought would be like coming back home has turned out to be a visit to a whole new place, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about that. Maybe this is just what getting old feels like. Any day now I'll start talking about how back in my day, when you tapped too many lands in one turn, it actually hurt you! And we liked it! Then I'll start longing for Shivan Dragons and they'll put me in a home.

Or not. Maybe I'll embrace this strange new world where you can have planeswalker buddies and there are sometimes two spells to a card. Who knows? Either way, I'm determined not to let completism get the better of me this time. Magic might be a new game, it might be a familiar game...but it's a game. Not a collection. Not for me, at least.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bonus Blog!

I just wanted to take a moment to introduce everyone to my new Doctor Who-focused blog, 'A Madman With a Box (Without a Box)'. It's going to be a mix of new Doctor Who posts, and old posts from a variety of sources (I've written about Doctor Who a lot, in a lot of places over the years) that you probably haven't seen. It will remain separate from 'The Doctor Who Book Project', which I'm writing with my lovely wife as an overview of the Doctor Who novels (we're just finished up with 'Blood Heat'.) Also, anything I published in print will not be reprinted there (so you'll need to actually buy 'Outside In' to read my essay on "The Web of Fear".)

So in short, if you're a Doctor Who fan who comes here for the Who stuff, you'll get a concentrated dose there (the new stuff updates once a week, the old stuff every other day.) If you're a fan of my writing, you'll also get a concentrated dose there. If you're not a fan of my writing or Doctor Who, you probably didn't read this far so I can say whatever I want about you. Puppy-killer.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

How to Watch 'Room 237'

I've been reading some reviews of 'Room 237', both before and after watching the film itself, and it seems to me that the people who liked it all had one thing in common, and the people who disliked it all had an entirely different thing in common. To wit: People who hated the movie thought that it was about 'The Shining', and people who loved the movie (and I confess, I count myself among their number) thought that it was all about the interviewees.

And in that light, I think that both sets of reviews make perfect sense. Because as a movie about 'The Shining', 'Room 237' clearly fails. The interviewees are all (in the immortal words of XKCD) raising confirmation bias to an art form, viewing the film through the lens of their own preoccupations and focusing on irrelevant (or in some cases imaginary) details in the mistaken belief that Kubrick's "perfectionist" tendencies and refusal to provide people with easily-digested homilies about what his film "really means" translate into coded messages hidden in the film for the diligent. There's no benefit to be gained in listening to these people talk about how this is really a film about the Holocaust or the genocide of the Native Americans or the secret conspiracy to fake the moon landing footage, or at least not enough to justify sitting through a documentary on the subject.

But if you assume instead that this is a movie about obsession and fanaticism, about how a movie can become a sort of cinematic Rorschach test reflecting our own thoughts and ideas back at us, then it becomes fascinating. By allowing each of the interviewees to speak, unfiltered and uncensored, the film becomes a sort of Freudian analysis of the kind of person who would fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy thought. Hearing person after person offer a variation of, "I don't know why nobody but me sees that this is what Kubrick was trying to do, maybe it was because I was thinking about this so much  just before I saw the film..." It's illuminating, as well as tremendously entertaining. (At one point, the camera freeze-frames on a scene where one commenter claims that Kubrick airbrushed his face into the clouds...and just pauses, as if to say, "Yeah, folks. We got nothing.")

So when you watch 'Room 237', don't think of it as a movie about a movie. Think of it as a movie about the people who watch movies. You'll be much happier.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why 'Iron Man 3' **spoilers** Instead of **spoilers spoilers spoilers**

I went out and watched 'Iron Man 3' this weekend, and I did so with the movie's biggest plot twist already spoiled for me. Not that I minded--I have always been greatly of the opinion that if your twist is any good, you'd enjoy the story even if you knew it, and if it's not, then hiding it won't make it any better. (In that spirit, the killer in 'Saw' is the corpse on the floor. That's right, he fakes being shot in the head for ten freaking hours so well that the trained doctor sitting three feet away can't spot it. There. That saved you the cost of a rental.)

That said, I know not everyone feels the same way I do. So here's a spoiler cut, for those of you who want to experience 'Iron Man 3' without knowing the twist.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Review: The Wheel of Ice

'The Wheel of Ice', by Stephen Baxter, is the latest in the untitled series of "hardcover Doctor Who books by Proper Science Fiction Writers" that began with Michael Moorcock's 'The Coming of the Terraphiles'. It's interesting, really, how little difference there is between the Proper Science Fiction Writer books like 'Wheel' and the better parts of the existing Doctor Who series--this isn't a knock on Baxter so much as it is a paean to the way that the Doctor Who novels have produced quite a few stellar science-fiction writers who've gone on to have excellent careers of their own. Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Russell T Davies, Ben Aaronovitch...there's no shortage of people who made their mark as a Doctor Who writer and went on to bigger and better things.

Many of them, in fact, were writing Doctor Who in the period that Baxter first began his own career, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine that 'The Wheel of Ice' was a novel whose genesis was as a Missing Adventure that Baxter didn't wind up publishing. It might sound like more of a stretch to those unfamiliar with Baxter's career, but he did wind up having a short story in one of the later, non-Who Decalogs for Virgin, so he was clearly aware of them as a market. And as this book shows, he's clearly also a huge Doctor Who fan. This story is so filled with kisses to the series' past that it reads much like the first-time work of a Cornell or a Gatiss, someone utterly filled to the brim with talent but desperately afraid that this will be their only Doctor Who book and they'll have to fit in every single continuity reference right now or they'll never get another chance to bring up T-Mat and the Ice Warriors and the Karkus and and and--

Despite the slightly intrusive nature of the fan references, the Doctor Who aspects of this Doctor Who book are handled excellently. Jamie is wonderful, accessible and interesting and funny and resourceful all at once, while Zoe is written by someone who clearly gave the character's background actual thought instead of just treating it as a reason for her to act "smart". One of the other reviews I read of this book disliked the fact that she spends time near the end babysitting someone else's kid, but I liked the way that we saw Zoe doing something she never did on television...heck, maybe something she never thought she would do...and being very interesting while doing it. The Doctor isn't entirely Troughton--there are times he feels a bit Pertwee--but he's very recognizably the Doctor, in a wonderful way.

And the plot is exactly what you'd expect from Baxter, a hard sci-fi story that excellently synthesizes the genre with the humanist elements of New Wave science fiction. The characters are all sympathetic and interesting (especially MMAC, the robot raised as a human to calibrate its AI, who could sustain a novel all by himself) and the Big Idea at the story's heart is suitably big. And because this is Doctor Who, the series without a formula, you really can't be sure how things are going to go until the final page. Really, the only flaw is that Florian Hart, the human villain of the piece, can't decide whether she's a heartless mining tycooon or a comic-book supervillain. (Once you drop lines like, "You may have defused the bomb, Doctor, but you won't find it that easy to escape my wrath!" you've pretty much closed down the first option.)

On the whole, I'd happily recommend this one, and I think it's great that they're doing books like this again. Classic Series stories, written by great sci-fi writers, with appeal to's almost like the Virgin years all over again.