Tuesday, March 18, 2014

To Squee Or Not to Squee, vol. 4

Another year, another cornucopia of upcoming (or recently released) pop culture events by which to get potentially excited. Just to remind folks, these are all things that I’m looking forward to experiencing, while at the same time dreading for one reason or another. Sometimes, when you reach into the barrel of pickles, you get an electric eel. No idea where that analogy came from. There’s a tenuous theme this time: science fiction and the cosmos! So it’s only fitting to call this post:


American Gods: The TV Show
WHAT IT IS: With no exaggeration, I consider Neil Gaiman’s American Gods to be not only one of the best examples of modern fantasy, but one of the finest 21st-century novels, period. It’s a whirlwind of gods, mortals, and stranger beings; it’s a love letter to Americana; it’s a murder mystery. It’s a masterpiece, which is not a term I just toss out. And it’s apparently gonna be a TV show! Someday. Maybe.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Because American Gods is a novel that cries out for this type of serialization. Tons of main and recurring characters, interesting subplots, a lot of fantasy but not a lot of crazy special-effects crap. A high concept in a largely urban setting. Thanks to Game of Thrones, the mega-budgeted TV epic is no longer a pipe dream. And you don’t have to be a mythology buff to appreciate modern-day incarnations of Odin, Loki, Anansi, Anubis, Kali, and other such deities. It’ll have something for everyone. And everything for me!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Well, besides the usual potential for cock-ups, the status of the show is a wee bit tenuous. HBO originally nabbed it, which would have been perfect, but then they dropped it and now it belongs to FremantleMedia, the folks behind American Idol. Okay, they’ve done a lot more than that, but I would’ve preferred HBO because this is not a story that can be watered down. Okay? It can’t. Make it into another Supernatural and I will kill you all, TV network people. This is almost my favorite book of all time and I expect you to blow me away with delight. Is that too much to ask?

Broken Age
WHAT IT IS: It’s the thing that made people realize the world is now ruled by Kickstarter. Well, in part. Tim Schafer, the man behind such gaming gems as Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, and Psychonauts, decided to raise money for a modern-day point-and-click adventure, and wound up with more moolah than many world charities. Hence, Broken Age, a game following both a young man in the future and a young woman in a fantasy realm. The game’s first act has recently been released.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I thrive on games like this -- artsy puzzlers with real atmosphere. Some people say point-and-click is obsolete. I say, eat a dick strudel. I love Schafer’s work and it gives me such hope that so many people are willing to pay to support a new, “traditional” game from him. This could start a true rebirth of the genre!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Unfortunately, it seems like the old ways are lost. Modern point-and-clickers, even good ones like The Cave, often seem scared to alienate anyone by being too difficult. By contrast, a game like Monkey Island could keep you puzzling for hours, and that was the damn point. I’ve heard Broken Age is pretty easy, which isn’t entirely a bad thing if the writing and design are topnotch. But I still fret. Also, I fucking hate the new trend for releasing games in installments. I do not fucking want to play half the game and then wait around. I fucking want the entire fucking product. Which is the main reason I haven’t bought Broken Age yet. Ugh...it frustrates me. Don’t get me wrong, I plan to love the hell out of this game. I just insist on holding it to an unfair standard. I must be aging.

UPDATE: I played Act I of the game! Read about it here.
UPDATE 2: My post on Act II can be found here.

Cute Fuzzy Video Game Movies
WHAT THEY ARE: At first, this entry was just about the Ratchet & Clank movie coming out in 2015. And then along came the trailer for 2016’s Sly Cooper flick. Good lord. Two game franchises I love, both starring charismatic furballs, both getting the big-screen treatment. By the same film studio. It’s a sinister plot!
WHY I’M EXCITED: Well, not only do I adore these two series, I feel like both of them could use a jump-start. Ratchet’s been twiddling his oversized thumbs. Sly just had a fun new game that, I fear, wasn’t successful enough to warrant another sequel. But if their movies take off...it might open the door for awesome new gaming. Plus, of course, both films look like they’ll be fun, silly, exciting, and overall faithful to the source material.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Besides the fact that most of Rainmaker Entertainment’s oeuvre consists of Barbie films? I guess I just fear that nobody will take these seriously. In today’s animated feature film world, you have to work your ass off to compete with the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks. Will these films even snag a theatrical release? If they do, I have different qualms about each. Based on its trailer, the Ratchet film looks like an extended video game cutscene, and it’s also an origin story, which’ll be exasperating to us fans. (Ratchet started out as a real douchebag...) Meanwhile, the Sly film features a massive redesign of the characters (my God, they gave Sly PANTS!) that could alienate the fanbase. And both will have to appeal to the uninitiated. And, again, Barbie films.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
WHAT IT IS: Hang on, is there an Avengers movie this year? No? Okay, then this might just be the big honking superhero event of 2014! Somehow tying together all the X-Men movies, this epic escapade sees Prof. Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine, Storm, Mystique, and the rest of the mutant gang travel back in time to avert a horrific future caused by mutant-hunting robots created by Peter Dinklage. Did I really just write that sentence?
WHY I’M EXCITED: Mostly out of shock. I like the X-Men movies but they are all the fuck over the place in quality, and after the confused mound of misfortune that was X-Men 3: The Last Stand, it seemed like the main franchise was kaput. So I was utterly bewildered (in a good way) when they not only lured back original director Bryan Singer, but also got so many cast members to return! It feels like the Greatest Hits album of the franchise, and it’s dealing with a very beloved story arc from the comics, not to mention introducing fan favorites like Bishop and Quicksilver. Bottom line, this might well be the incredible world-shaking X-Men spectacle that The Last Stand tried and failed to be. It’s a miracle that this project came together and I hope for its sweet miracle juice to spurt from theater screens.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: On the flip side, this looks like it could be a trainwreck more historical than the Old 97. One of the series’ biggest problems is having too many mutants bloating the storyline, and Days of Future Past will have more mutants than ever before. Original superteam plus younger prequel team plus a bunch of newcomers? Yeah, remember how Mystique had like three minutes of screen time in The Last Stand? It may be like that, only worse. A HUGE warning siren already went off when they revealed that Anna Paquin’s Rogue has been entirely cut from the fucking movie during the editing process. So, no biggie, we’re just treating our beloved main characters like disposable resources. This film is a bomb waiting to explode, but when it does, will it shower us with glory or decaying whale blubber? Jump-start the franchise or dip it in cement and bury it forever?

UPDATE: I watched it! Read my reaction here.

Guardians of the Galaxy
WHAT IT IS: Hold the phone, perhaps this is the big honking superhero event of 2014, though the term “hero” must be used loosely. The Marvelverse is reaching out to its more eccentric properties and exposing us to this, a kooky space adventure featuring a team of lawless mercs that includes a humanoid tree, a trigger-happy raccoon, and Zoe Saldana with green skin. Basically, if you had no clue what was happening after the credits of Thor: The Dark World......this. This was happening.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I like weird. Nay, I have a massive love affair with weird. And I’m super-chuffed that Marvel’s biggest movie event of the year is something so kooky, anarchic, random, and WTFish. Hell, I never even read the source comic and I still think this looks awesome. As we’ve learned from Master Downey Jr. and Master Hiddleston, the Marvel movies are best when they mix action with humor, and GotG does that in spades, with extra humor. Also, it looks like they’re staying true to the comic (for instance, Rocket Raccoon is not a cuddly-wuddly mascot; he’s a mean, ruthless badass). Just watch the trailer and tell me it didn’t make you grin. All the message-board people going “Baww, this looks retarded!” can fuck off, because they said the same thing about The Avengers and look how that turned out.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: I’m not. Not really. Well, maybe a little. This film could fall into the trap of trying too hard. “Look, something funny and random! Aren’t we clever?! BE AMUSED!” I’ve seen that happen enough times. Action plus yuks can equal poison. But the Marvel films are the cure. I’m confident that this rude, oddball cousin will fit right into the family. And maybe one day...dare I imagine...a Guardians/Avengers crossover? Oh, my stars and garters.

UPDATE: I watched it! Read my reaction here.

WHAT IT IS: A new game by the creative team that made Myst. It’s a first-person puzzler, like Myst, in which a mysterious object transports you to a cryptic world. Like Myst. Another crowdfunded project, details on this remain scarce, but I hear it might be a lot like Myst.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Omigod. Omigod, you guys. Did I or did I not write an entire series of blog posts about Myst and its sequels and legacy? Do you have any idea of my reaction when I learned about Obduction? I may have screamed a bit. This is my new favorite thing to watch breathlessly for updates. I love the concept art they’ve released thus far. I love that they’re keeping the focus on puzzles and exploration. See, I told you games like this will never die! This one’s powered by the Unreal engine and seems to have a vaguely steampunkish flavor, and absolutely everything about it makes me happy. When it comes out, I will take any steps to ensure I can play it right away. Including buying a whole new fucking laptop, if need be.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: In my last Cautious Enthusiasm post, I mentioned that it’s sometimes awkward when an artist returns to their defining work after a long absence. I want the makers to remember what they did right, and not compromise their vision at all. There’s no real reason to assume this won’t kick ass. I’m just paranoid because this game’s a dream come true. I’m afraid it’s going to pop like a soap bubble. I’ll feel better after I go play some more Submachine.

WHAT IT IS: Christopher Nolan’s next film. And we all know who that is. I don’t even have to mention that he directed the recent Batman trilogy, Inception, and Memento. You already know that. Interstellar will be about a group of cosmonauts (including Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway) who set out to explore a wormhole.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Everyone else is, so why shouldn’t I be? Nolan is a darling at the moment, with a reputation for mixing intense action with artfulness and Big Ideas, dragging the action/adventure genre out of the pits of inanity. Even his weaker films (like The Prestige) are a cut above average. Like Inception before it, Interstellar is being kept under wraps and projects a great cloak of mystery; all the first trailer told us was that rocket ships are cool. We’ll be learning more as the year progresses, and I’m pretty confident that the final film will be exciting, brainy, and profound.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Every great director fumbles now and then. Spielberg had his 1941. Scorsese had his Gangs of New York. Shyamalan had his Everything After Unbreakable. Will Nolan finally drop the ball? I mean, if it’s too nerdy, the drooling masses will be scared away, but if it’s too dumb, we’ll feel betrayed. Plenty of people like to point at Nolan’s work and scream, “Overrated!” and the things he’s often accused of -- weak female characters, plots that don’t hold up to logic, pretentiousness -- will probably resurface here. And you can’t make a sci-fi action film and not tell anyone what it’s about; we learned that from the tragic fate of John Carter. So let’s not crown this with accolades until we know more about it, mmmkay?

UPDATE: I watched it! Read my reaction here.

More Freaking Harry Potter Films (Sort Of)
WHAT IT IS: You thought the franchise was dead? Fool, it NEVER dies! Yep, there’s gonna be more Potter films, though they won’t be about Harry himself. Next up is an adaptation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the popular textbook/field guide that J.K. Rowling published IRL. The film will be set in the early 20th century and will focus on Newt Scamander, famed wizard zoologist and “author” of the text. Google “Newt Scamander” and you’ll find many, many photos of Benedict Cumberbatch, so I guess we know how the fans swing.
WHY I’M EXCITED: Hey, Harry Potter is fun. I never said it wasn’t. I’m excited to see a Potterverse story set in the past; Rowling has clearly plotted out the entire freaking history of her world, and this gives both her and the filmmakers the opportunity to explore deeper. Also, something tells me Fantastic Beasts may have a lighter, more whimsical tone, and I’m down with that. I mean, the later Potter films were very good, but all that gray, drippy grimness wears on you after awhile. This could be something younger kids will like, while still bringing the wit that appeals to adult viewers. And I agree: Cumberbatch.
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: Welllll....the first two Potter films were very light and whimsical, and they were also absolute rubbish, ignoring atmosphere in favor of carefully checking off plot points. Fantastic Beasts won’t have to worry about such things, but that leads to another problem: the book is a fucking field guide. It is literally just a list of weird creatures -- fun to read, yes, but to adapt into something with a plot and characters and stuff? Turning it into a film seems a bit like a forced attempt to get more moolah from a franchise that has already reaped bajillions. And where do you go from there? Quidditch Through the Ages might be neat, but...Tales of Beedle the Bard? Give me a break. I worry that twenty years from now, a withered J.K. Rowling is going to be wheezing, “Great news! They’re remaking the entire original series from Percy’s point of view!” I’m all in favor of a movie about magical monsters, but don’t create a monster.

The Playstation 4
WHAT IT IS: Oh, come on.
WHY I’M EXCITED: I’m just hardcore enough of a gamer to get all worked up over a new console generation, and my loyalty has been to Sony ever since I watched a friend play Shadow of the Colossus. They misstepped a bit with the PS3, but now it seems like they might be on the right track, helped along by the fact that Microsoft hilariously shot themselves in the balls by attempting to present the Xbox One as a combination Facebook app, creepy stalker, and money-burning device. Because it’s about the FUCKING GAMES, guys. And the PS4 has some cool-looking ones. The Witness. InFamous 3. Rime. And...maybe...one day...if God is merciful...The Last Guardian. For that alone, I want a goddamn PS4. I want to help it win the 8th-gen war. So far, the Wii U is too gimmicky and the Xbox One has already become the Newt Gingrich of consoles. Go, Sony!
WHY I’M SKEPTICAL: I can’t make any real predictions yet -- especially now, when console exclusivity is a thing of the past. Consoles always seem to disappoint with their starting lineup, probably because game studios don’t know when the console shift will happen and often have to hurriedly revamp an in-development game, with painful results. Believe me, I will be getting a PS4. But not for awhile. I have a whole bunch of PS3 games I haven’t even gotten around to yet, and just because the 8th-gen graphics look great doesn’t mean the gameplay is any good. The PS4 needs to prove itself before I’ll take it seriously, and its victory over Microsoft is due mainly to the fact that Microsoft went first at E3. Wait and watch. And never let your guard down. To be a console gamer is to be paranoid.
SQUEE FACTOR: For the games, 9 or 10. For the console, too early to say.
DANGER LEVEL: It goes to eleven.

So, these should keep me busy. If I totally run out of ideas for blog posts, at least I’ll still have my Cautious Enthusiasm series. Don’t forget to check the old lists for updates (here, here, and here). And stay optimistic, because I’ve found that my enthusiasm pays off more often than not. Woohoo!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

To Squee Or Not to Squee: Bobby Dollar

I’m working on a fourth Cautious Enthusiasm post, but in the meantime, here’s something from the first list!

I love to read, but there are very few authors of whom I can say I’ve read their entire body of work. Hell, I worship Neil Gaiman, but I’ve never gotten around to Stardust, mainly because it looks like something silly he scribbled down in between official projects. But talk to me about Tad Williams. I dare you. I’ve read every damn adult novel he’s ever published, and loved each one. It’s partly because, rather than whip out a bookshelf’s worth of quickies, he’s published a modest number of books, all of which are gi-freaking-gantic. I suspect he’d feel unworthy of his ancestors if he ever published a book that had fewer than four hundred pages. And I devour long books like Adam Richman devours Texas-themed steakhouse challenges. Williams is probably best known for traditional fantasy, but the man ain’t content with a single genre. Thus far, he’s written three series: Memory, Sorrow & Thorn (Tolkien-style high fantasy), Otherland (ridiculously epic cyberpunk), and Shadowmarch (more Tolkien-style high fantasy), as well as the standalone novels Tailchaser’s Song (like Watership Down but with cats and way weirder) and The War of the Flowers (best described as “fairy tales meet heavy metal”). Now he’s doing something brand-new. Well, to him.

It’s urban fantasy! A genre I find slightly tiresome because...well...it tends to all look and sound the same to me. Oh, look, we’re in a noir cityscape and everything is dark and gritty, but there’s also supernatural creatures and magic and shit! I’d put Tolkien-style as the most overdone fantasy genre, but urban is close behind. That’s why I was cautiously enthusiastic: I knew I’d enjoy anything by Williams, but the idea of badass angels and demons who keep silver-bullet-shooting magnums in their trench coats is so tired. Hellblazer did it. Dresden Files did it. Night Watch did it. China Miéville has done it several times in several ways. Those are just the examples I don’t have to look up. And let’s not forget that the current market is swamped with repetitive romantic tripe in which some streetwise woman or girl is armpit-deep in vampires, werewolves, demons, immortals, faeries, genetically enhanced superhunks, blah blah blah blah blah. I really wanted Tad Williams to try a less abundant genre. But we’re resigned, so how does his “Bobby Dollar” series compare?

Based on one book, I like it fine. If it’s gonna embrace urban/biblical fantasy clichés, at least it does so with some flair. Our hero is Bobby Dollar, a wry, likable dude who inhabits the parched, history-stung metropolis of San Judas, California. Bobby’s seen a lot in his life...and his afterlife. You see, his official name is Doloriel and he’s an angel. Heaven, Hell, angels, demons -- all exist. Thankfully, Williams doesn’t waste time with logical explanations for any of it. It all just is, and your average mortal is conditioned to ignore the celestial and infernal beings duking it out right under his or her honker. Bobby is an advocate, basically a divine lawyer, who appears on behalf of the recently-deceased and argues that they should go to Heaven rather than Hell. When he’s not working, he hangs out with his angel buddies and drives gorgeous old cars. As you’d expect, weird things start happening. Certain deceased souls are beginning to vanish, and neither Heaven nor Hell knows where they’re going. A demonic advocate is horribly murdered. A monstrous shadow-beast begins hunting Bobby to the ground. There’s a mysterious MacGuffin that everyone seems to think Bobby possesses, even though he doesn’t even know what it is. There’s a love triangle, complicated by the fact that one of the female elements is a drop-dead gorgeous demon. There’s gunplay and sex and comic relief and a tangled plot with many red herrings. It all gets the job done.

I admire Williams’ ability to change his narrative voice. He excels at the overly arch fantasy tone (“I am undone, sir!” cried Briony tremulously. “Would that I could but know your true feelings!”), but with Bobby Dollar, he shifts easily into a modern, snarky voice. I believe this is the first book he’s ever written with a first-person narrator, but you wouldn’t know it. Bobby’s a fun guy, wisecracking but never grating. His love affair with San Judas is palpable, and his flair for rule-breaking is refreshing if typical. Williams surrounds him with an entertaining mix of angels, demons, ghosts, clueless mortals, and even stranger entities (Bobby’s information broker is a reverse were-hog; it’s complicated). As with most noir, there’s a long list of possible suspects, and it’s likely that more than one dirty deed is underway, and everyone has a secret to tell, and so forth. The difference is that Bobby knows the clichés himself, and keeps his damn eyes open. Well, most of the time. The narrative gets a bit weaker in the second half when Bobby gets cozy with the aforementioned gorgeous demon. He does that annoying thing that male protagonists do where he can’t get over his romantic conquest, and -- recite with me! -- the more she pushes him away, the more he wants her. Because women, even strong women, are somehow defined by how much a man wants them. Come on, Tad, that’s old-school chauvinism, and the annoying thing is, it’s possible he’s doing it on purpose because it’s another noir archetype. The Hero and the Dangerous Woman. Tale as old as time.

Anyway. I still wish Williams had tried something off the beaten path, but his take on urban noir fantasy is quite enjoyable. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is the first in a trilogy about Bobby’s escapades, and the ending solves the mysteries that need solving while establishing the footwork for the sequels. I’ll read them for sure. Honestly, Tad Williams would have to drop the ball pretty hard for me to not read his work. I respect him for genre-hopping, for crafting incredible epics, and for keeping fantasy literature from sliding entirely into the mire of Forgotten Realms bullshit. Keep fighting the good fight. Maybe I’ll be able to join you one day.

VERDICT: Holy squee.