Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Mutant Sunset

The New Mutants (Josh Boone, 2020) isn't the complete disaster I expected. Blending the superhero and horror genres makes the difference, transforming a generic superhero coming-of-age story into a mildly interesting, claustrophobic chiller. Tonally, the film is, at least, consistent; this time around, the mutant teens study not in a palatial mansion, but an abandoned ruin, and rather than the sympathetic Professor X, their mentor is, essentially, a mad scientist. It's all very gothic and rusty, with a few effective freakout moments. 

That the characters feel true to their comic book origins also helps, as do the performances; the actors do pretty well with a bland screenplay, and their abilities are captured quite faithfully by the visual effects. It's also nice that this is the first mainstream majority-women superhero team to appear in film. (It would be nice to see more of that; there's no reason Disney or Warner couldn't assemble a mostly-women team of Avengers or Justice Leaguers.)

The plot, however, is by-the-numbers teen angst; there's a nice kid, a mean kid (good at heart, of course), a blossoming romance, rebellion against authority,  awakening adolescent sexuality, and finally the necessary teen bonding, the resolution of their inner turmoil through the conquest of horror, and finally the promise of further adventures (a promise surely to be broken, now that Disney is taking over production of the X-Men films). 

This is not to say that The New Mutants is good; merely that the filmmakers avoided a Dark Phoenix-level catastrophe. And so the Fox X-Men films go out with a reasonably dignified whimper.

Friday, November 20, 2020

"I'm Allergic to Peanuts!" Said the Prankster

One day in the future, when it's safe to gather in restaurants again, I'd love to try the following gag: 

Before we enter the restaurant, I stuff a few peanuts up my nose. I think I could fit at least one peanut in each nostril; perhaps even two or three per nostril. 

Then, I order something with peanuts in it. 

I enjoy the dish normally. But as soon as the server comes around, I start to look a bit ill and frightentened. "Oh gosh," I ask, "Does this dish have peanuts in it?" 

When the server says "Yes," or even "I don't know," I yell "I'm allergic to peanuts!" And then I sneeze the peanuts out my nose and onto the dish. 

Of course I would leave a generous tip for the server.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A Passing Grade for Passchendaele

Paul Gross’ Passchendaele (2008) starts off strong with a gripping, evocative, and even artful small-scale battle in the muck and rubble of a ruined small town. I had high hopes for the film based on this sequence, but once Gross’ character winds up back on the home front in Calgary, the artistry and power of that opening is replaced by a not terribly compelling story of young love and PTSD  that feels like a TV movie of the week. The film does pick up a bit when the story moves back to the battlefield, but even then the filmmakers fail to show why Passchendaele was such a milestone moment in Canadian history. Instead, we get an obvious and awkward homage of Christ’s carrying the cross to his doom, for no particular reason that I can see. 

It’s not that the film isn’t competently made; the performances are solid, and the melodrama is fine, if not ambitious. But it’s too bad that Gross couldn’t sustain the excellence of the opening sequence throughout the rest of the film.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Dread Pirate Rogers

Yo ho ho, the pirate with a heart of gold, Dread Pirate Rogers. This one did not come out nearly as cleanly as I had hoped, but on the other hand, my ambition is increasing, so I shouldn't be surprised that more complex challenges will take more time to complete successfully. I'm pretty happy with the skin tone, the ripped pants, and the shirt; the chest is okay; the sword is messy and the sash is just a mess. I probably should have painted it something other than black, but I thought it would work well with red. Maybe, but it also obliterated the detail...

I figure Dread Pirate Rogers fell in with a really despicable lot, and is now looking for a way out. But first, he needs some loot to finance a less-troubled lifestyle...

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Atari Binder

During its all-too-brief golden age, Atari produced some pretty evocative artwork for its hardware and software products. The most visually arresting art was found on their video game packaging and instruction manuals, but even the staid 400/800 documentation binder was designed with the same art style. 
 

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Game of Khafka-esque Proportions

Caverns of Khafka took seemingly forever to load on our Atari 410 Program Recorder, but it was worth waiting for the software to load from magnetic tape. Your goal in this diabolically difficult game was to make your way through a deadly maze overflowing with different traps, monsters, lava pits, and other obstacles. Sean and I played this game until the cassette wore out. That was a sad day. 
 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

An XElent Computer

We retired the Atari 400 after several years of yeoman's service, replacing it with the more powerful Atari 130XE in the summer of 1987. This was the computer that carried me through my first two years of study at the University of Alberta, and it was also the computer that, combined with the Atari XM301 300-baud modem, pulled me into the world of electronic bulletin board systems, or BBSes. Before the Internet became a mainstream service, BBSes were the destination for early adopters of the world of online communications. Edmonton's BBSes were limited to discussion rooms and primitive file sharing, and most of the ones I visited could only support one visitor at a time, since most people back then had only one phone line. 

My favourite games supported by this computer probably would have been Rescue on Fractalus, Ballblazer, Preppie, Karateka, and Star Raiders II. 

Sean and I retired almost all of our Atari hardware a couple of years ago to help create more space at Mom and Dad's place. I rescued this manual, among other Atari detritus. I was going to recycle it, but Sean will take the materials into his care instead. They're certainly fascinating artifacts of a lost era. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Few Finer Than Miner 2049er


Miner 2049er was a top-tier game for the Atari 8-bit line of computers. Sean and I and our cousin Darwin poured hours and hours into this charming platformer. You control Bounty Bob, a Mountie who must reclaim an abandoned mine by touching all the platforms on each level of the mine. Simply walking over the platform tiles does the trick, but you have to avoid deadly radioactive monsters, falling from heights, being crushed by pulverizers, beaming into a monster while using the teleporter, and accidentally blowing yourself up by using too much dynamite for the level with the cannon. Bounty Bob's death animations were particularly satisfying and cartoonishly gruesome. 



Friday, November 13, 2020

Where the Horror Lurked


 
The Lurking Horror also included this double-sided map of the catacombs beneath G.U.E. Tech. Beware all ye who enter here...

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Remnants of The Lurking Horror


Even though I wasn't clever enough to do more than scratch the surface of Infocom's 1987 text adventure The Lurking Horror, the game's dread atmosphere, chilling surprises, and pervasive sense of doom made it one of my favourites in the genre. 

Infocom games were famous not only for their excellent writing and clever puzzles, but for the "feelies" they included with their games, such as this guide to the university you explore in the game.

More than just trinkets, the feelies often provided important clues to unlocking the mysteries of the game. The G.U.E. at a Glance guidebook included this map of the campus, accurate to the game. 

Unfortunately I lost it long ago, but The Lurking Horror box also included a rubbery creepy-crawly centipede thing, which served its intended purpose by startling me the moment I dug into the contents of the game. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Paperclip


Here's the manual for the software that got me through the first two years of university: Paperclip. Paperclip was pretty primitive compared to modern word processors, but it did precisely what I needed it to do: made it possible for me to type and print my assignments instead of writing them longhand, which would have surely doomed my chances at graduation. 

Paperclip came with a unique form of copy protection: the Paperclip Key, a small grey dongle you plugged into the Atari 130XE's joystick port. Without the dongle, the software wouldn't operate. It took me years to wonder idly if the key was just an electronic switch that made the computer think a joystick button was being held down. So I pulled out the key, plugged in a joystick, held down the fire button, and lo and behold the software worked. A determined pirate could have copied the software, plugged in a joystick, and held the button down with electrical tape. Still, they wouldn't have gotten the manual, and for all the bother why not just buy the software...

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Autoduel Manual


Here is all that remains of Sean's copy of Autoduel for the Atari 8-bit computers. It's a thick manual rich in complexity and lore, back in the days when computer games often included not only really well-produced manuals, but also maps, keyboard or joystick inserts and attachments, reference cards, and, best of all, little tokens and toys that represented something you might encounter in the game. 

Autoduel itself was a fantastic game, based on Steve Jackson's popular Car Wars strategy game. The premise is simple; you start out with $2000 and need to buy a car to start "auto duelling" in the arena or on the highways of the northeastern USA. Sean and I played that game for years, until at last the disc stopped working. 

The road to fun with this game got off to a rocky start, however. Sean bought the game with birthday and Christmas and allowance money he'd saved for quite some time, and the first copy we bought was defective. Sean and I returned to the computer store in Heritage Mall where he'd purchased Autoduel, and the proprietor refused to help, claiming we were returning it under false pretenses and had pirated a copy of our own before returning it. 

This is one of the few times I've gotten really, really angry in public. All I remember saying is "He's ten years old," in quiet fury. The man behind the counter grumbled and muttered a little more, but in the end he exchanged the defective copy of the game for a fresh one. Thankfully, the new copy worked. 

Incidentally, Sean and I recently Kickstarted the latest edition of Car Wars, so at some point in the future, when COVID-19 is no longer a threat, we'll get together to reignite the spirit of a game we really loved back in the 80s. 


Monday, November 09, 2020

The Secrets That I Keep When I'm Talking in My Sleep

This morning, Sylvia informed me that I've been talking in my sleep again. According to her, this is what happened: 

"Do you really want pizza at three in the morning?" I asked, waking her.

"Yes," she said, playing along, thinking I was joking.

"Okay, but I don't think anyone delivers this late...what do you want on it?" I asked.

"My usual." 

I picked up my phone and prepared to order online. "Spinach, bacon, feta, and fresh tomatoes?" 

"Earl, what are you doing?" Sylvia said, alarmed, realizing that I was actually about to order. "You're sleeping!" 

"Oh," I replied, and put the phone down. 

But shortly after, I piped up again. "Why do you want Rice Krispies squares? I don't think we have any." 

Poor Sylvia. 



Sunday, November 08, 2020

Bah-tuna Meh-kaka

I finally watched The Lion King today, expecting greatness given the film's position on many best-of lists. But the film left me cold. I felt nothing for any of the characters except mild annoyance, the music left me unmoved when it wasn't actively annoying me, and I felt the story was not only generic but told in the laziest possible way. 

I didn't always feel this way about Disney films with singing, dancing, and talking animals: I remember enjoying Lady and the Tramp and Robin Hood back in the 70s. Therefore, I don't think it's my general indifference to animals* that's affecting my enjoyment. And it's not as if there's anything wrong with the animation, the screenplay, the music, the editing, the performances, or any of the other factors so important to film. I recognize the artistry and competence of the creators. 

Sometimes a film clicks for you, sometimes it doesn't, I guess. Hakuna matata, as they say. 

*By "indifference," I mean that I feel no particular affection for animals in general. However, nor do I wish them harm, and I recognize that not only are they vital to our ecosystem, they also deserve respect as living creatures for their own sake.

And yet, for reasons I don't understand, I simply don't feel the emotional bonds that most people form with animals, no matter how cute those animals may be. I feel a lot of guilt about this and I've spent my life trying to change it, but that fundamental bit of humanity just seems to be missing in me.  

Saturday, November 07, 2020

My God, It's Full of Hands


What do you call a footlocker that's been filled with hands? A handlocker? A handy storage solution? The digital error? 

Friday, November 06, 2020

Massive Damage Adventures: 3:10 to Salvation

Muckraker Peter Kent.

My friend and colleague Meric Moir has another podcast up; this time, he shepherds a band of adventurers through a bone-chilling train ride to Hell in "3:10 to Salvation," an adventure for the latest revision of the Deadlands roleplaying game. I play a supporting role as muckraker Peter Kent. Spoiler alert: I spend most of my time in the adventure taking photos of the action, but I do have a moment of derring-do later on. 

Listen to Part 1

Listen to Part 2

Thursday, November 05, 2020

What They Sent Me

It was only a couple of years ago that I supported the crowdfunded Deep Space Nine documentary, What We Left Behind. Months and months ago they sent me these cool pins as thanks for my support. The movie turned out great, and my name is in the credits as a supporter. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Crystal Bawl

Whoops...blog fail. There was supposed to be an amusing video here, and I'm not sure how to fix its failure to materialize. 

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Two Years Gone, Never Forgotten

Dad passed two years ago today, and I miss him. But I'm forever grateful for his kindness, his sense of humour, and his curiosity about the world around him. I like to think he's still exploring. 

Monday, November 02, 2020

First Impression of Last and First Men

 

Somehow dreamlike and ethereal but at the same time chilling and distant, Last and First Men (Jóhann Jóhannsson, 2017) is an atypical cinematic experience, one that asks its audience to relax and let the message flow through a mind open to a journey that spans the cosmos and eons of time while paradoxically remaining almost stationary. 

Nearly devoid of colour, entirely devoid of actors save the urgent but dignified offscreen message from the far, far future (voiced by Tilda Swinton), the film yet bursts with the full flower of life, or at least the implication of it, generation upon generation of an ever-changing humanity that in the hour of its doom calls back to us. 

Strange that a film capturing just a single landscape as its visual component, with no humans at all visible--merely our monuments--manages to capture the importance of human connections in such a compelling way. A worthy companion to Olaf Stapledon's epic

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Fantasy RPG Island, Part Two: We're Gonna Need a Bigger Tub of Green Stuff

I only had enough Green Stuff to fill in a few of the pits on my plastic island. I learned an important lesson: wet your fingers before working with Green Stuff. 

I read that it takes about 24 hours for this stuff to cure. This will become important when I finish applying Green Stuff, because it means I'll have to wait for that 24 hours before I start adding sand, rocks, grass, and other materials.