Friday, March 23rd, 2007

Jonathan Lethem – Amnesia Moon (2)

015603154X.01._AA240_SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg The premise is a marvelous riff on the post-apocalypse theme. Starting out as a classic, nuclear holocaust story set in the desert, complete with mutants and vigilantes in old cars. But we soon realize something isn’t quite as it seems, and as the protagonist makes his way from the desert back to San Francisco, we slowly understand that what has happened is much more apocalyptic than the mere destruction of the physical that bombs bring about: mental coherence, the very fabric of reality itself, has somehow been damaged, and dreams, paranoia and neuroses bloom freely and infest the world of the real. In keeping with the very lost feeling that pervades the story, we never learn the truth about what people call “the break”, though several alternatives of it are offered. And this, I feel, is also the shortcoming of Amnesia Moon: the exchangeability of the different narratives robs the story of some of its impact – when everything seems possible, nothing can mean much any more.

Friday, March 16th, 2007

Neil Gaiman – Coraline (1)

coraline.jpg Reading Gaiman, I frequently marvel at the way he manages to circumvent my defenses. Things I would normally consider cliche or kitsch, are all right when he does them, and a scenario that reeks of Cirque de Soleil and the fake weirdness of professional quirkers, is genuinely creepy and rings true, when he touches it. Buttons for eyes? Dead children behind a mirror? A talking cat? A blind doorway that leads to a spooky place? Bring ’em on.

bone-out-from-boneville-big.jpg The comic series created by Jeff Smith started off as a quirky lighthearted adventure story and ventured into more complex territory, creating a comic hybrid of Tolkien and Lucas, including a creation myth, an evil archvillain and the restoration of balance to a force, here called the dreaming. While the background plotline may be derivative, the storytelling and character design wasn’t, and Bone was a delight to read. Now Telltale Games, consisting of game designers who left Lucasarts after the announced Sam and Max sequel was canned after a decade of development, has started to make the comic epic into a series of adventure games with a SCUMM like interface. Smith’s design and dialogue are completely preserved, so much so that one might object that the result is an animated comic strip rather than a true game. This is less true of the second installment (The Great Cow Race) however, and isn’t a big criticism anyway. Unfortunately, the third installment will be a while in the making, with a brand new Sam and Max game (yes) scheduled for release later this fall.

lotr - bme ii.jpg I readily confess that I am a sucker for real time simulation. I loved playing Warcraft and Starcraft, and I enjoyed this game, too, though it seemed to me that the gameplay in the campaigns is slightly unbalanced, with little freedom for strategy. In one mission in the evil campaign in particular, any straying from a predescribed path of action would lead to disaster, which is not very enjoyable. But since the main action presumably is supposed to lie in online gaming, I guess that’s quite all right.

An odd observation I made in myself though, while playing, was that I disapproved heartily of the freedoms the designers took with Tolkien’s story. I’m not sure directing Sauron’s forces to their final doom at the hand of a halfling would have been better, but having ransacked Rivendell I felt the same feeling of futility that counterfactual history often evokes in me: that’s not how it happened, yet it pretends to be more than fiction. Of course when the counterfactuality lies in changing some other fiction, that might seem like a completely hairbrained objection to make. And smashing Rivendell certainly beats smoking out an orc pit or slaying Shelob.

seventh-seal.jpg Never before has the decay of society, the random death and destruction, and the hopeless metaphysical void that was left by the scourge of the black death depicted as stylish as in this chessgame action thriller. I expected dreary symbolism and found a wonderful meditation on death and life.

pcg_world_of_warcraft_elf.jpg I like the idea of multiplayer games, but this incarnation of it, with a rigid world full of unchanging story elements and a large number of people running around in it, doesn’t quite fulfill the promise. I’d like to see more interaction possibilities beyond the mere killing of monsters in a group, and some plasticity in the world makeup. As it is, the game is just a combination of chat and RPG. Nothing wrong with that, but nothing interesting about it, either.

Friday, June 9th, 2006

Kinka Usher – Mystery Men (3)

mystery_men.jpg It could have been a delightful superhero spoof, with touching undertones of melancholy and underdog happyness. But bad direction, design and editing destroy much of the movie, which occasionally shines (the confrontation betwen Captain Amazing and Casanova Frankenstein is hilarious, for example), but most of the time drags. It’s too bad, the writing is good, and some of the acting and improv (Stiller mentions in the specials that the script wasn’t fixed and actors would ad lib) could have been quite hilarious. Maybe it was meant to be watched in large groups, and the gaps are so people can finish laughing without missing a joke, but I’m not sure whether that would make the bad editing better or worse.

Friday, May 19th, 2006

Esta de Fossard – Monty Mouse (4)

montymouse.jpg This is the story of Monty Mouse, his adventures in the world, and his eventual return to his mother and his home. No need to leaf through the thing, for the cover shows all that’s wrong with this book in a nutshell. To wits: Monty “Mouse” is not a mouse, he’s a stuffed, dead rat, or, more likely, a collection of similar looking, stuffed dead rats. Upon realizing this, the adventurous and quirky photographs instantly turn very tasteless and cruel, not to mention the fact that I feel fooled by the author selling me one mammal for another. Some learning experience. But the worst fault lies with the story itself, for young Monty’s ingenious adventures invariably turn sour, and in the end send him running home for mom with nothing to show for all his inventiveness but a dirty coat. What a rotten message. Look at Monty’s stuffed carcass hanging miserably in what should be the world’s sweetest spot. No doubt he just spoiled his appetite for a nice Brussel sprout dinner, because he is sick from all the cake. That’ll teach him – and it teaches me, too: to run.

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

Kirk Mitchell – Procurator (4)

procurator.jpg The central idea of this book – Pilate pardons Jesus, the Roman empire thus survives the centuries and still dominates in modern times – seemed ludicrous yet original enough for me to buy the book, and the task of depicting a modernized roman empire promised to be interestingly amibitious. But, not surprisingly, the execution falls quite a bit short of the aim. Counterfactual history requires a depth of understanding and elaborate world building skills, and Mitchell posesses neither. His Roman empire is the cliched version of B movies, with a few gadgets added without rhyme, reason or technological context. The story itself is uninspired, too, dealing with an uprising of psychic rebels in the Anatolian province and an intrigue inside the empire, both told in brief abstract dialogues, interspersed with random action sequences, making the book a failure on pretty much all levels. It’s too bad, I still think the idea is cute.

howl.jpg If some of the battling nerds on the movie’s IMDB page are to be believed, Miyazaki’s adaptation of this beloved children’s classic was a disgrace. I read the book (the existence of neither it nor its author I suspected until I checked said IMDB page) with that criticism in mind, and have to say: balderdash. While it is true that the two stories diverge in minute details, and that Miyazaki added elements typical for his work, and created visuals not prescribed in Jones’ book, the two are remarkably congruent. The story does make a bit more sense in the book, but then I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing in a book about demons falling from the sky and stealing hearts. I was smitten with the strangeness of Miyazaki’s take, and the straightforward resolution left me a bit underenchanted. On the other hand, the character’s behaviour makes more sense in the book, making them both more likeable and more interesting than the somewhat randomly bouncing anime folk.