The Friday Happenings & Surviving the Political Open Season

conan

So Monolith Board Games LLC has an amazing looking Conan board game Kickstarter going on. I may or may not invest in it just to get my hands on one of the most awesome tributes to Robert E. Howard’s work. But I need to get off my butt and organize a game night or two with friends. Once we got that ball rolling, the game is easier to justify. Regardless, you should check it out.

On the subject of Kickstarters, Shadowrun: Hong Kong is closing in on its final funding tier of $700,000. A thing of note by the way, Racter and Duncan Wu will, as I suspected in my previous post, get their personal missions as part of the game’s regular story.

Outside the realm of games, I’m really looking forward to the new movie Chappie, coming this March 6th, directed by Neill Blomkamp of District 9 fame. The story is a familiar one, I admit. Robots are used to police third world countries, giving the people there the chance they need to work their way out of poverty. But the designer of said police robots has, of course, a vision for machine learning that results in an actual artificially intelligent robot hence named Chappie.

ChappieBased on the commercials, I suspect the film follows this pattern: Showcase of how these machines have changed the world. A distrusting head of some division (Hugh Jackman) is in charge of rival bigger-badder-better robot development. A developer (Dev Patel) finally creates a machine that thinks, names it Chappie, and it charms us. Hugh Jackman’s character finds out and tries to kill Chappie, who then escapes and allies himself with a street gang who is less than-thrilled with the tilted status quo. So Chappie fights back, accidentally causes chaos and has to correct it. Probably dies at the end or leads us to believe he has.

In my theory, the material is nothing new, so I suspect that Blomkamp is just aiming to do it well. Movies tend to be the short stories of film, at least compared to television. And there’s only so much time to tell your tale, making novelty a challenge.

Originally, I wanted to write a full blown blog post about surviving the dreaded political season that is approaching. As both partisan groups are currently courting their candidates, tempers have been high on news channel comment boards.

Instead, I’m just going to give a few safety tips for the upcoming season. Politics is a very fast and easy way to make lasting, unforgiving enemies. Having an expressed opinion at all is all it could take. If you have no interest in earning your “wing” from labelists and igniting the inevitable controversy, remember a few rules:

Political Survival Tips for the Neutral:

1) No matter how funny SNL’s skit about such-and-such candidate was last night, keep it to yourself. Don’t retweet or share it from any source. Likewise, stay away from dressing as any politicians for Halloween as you are courting the controversy.

2) If you’re moderating on comment boards, your Facebook account or just dinner, remember to shut down any talk involving politicians or the election. You have to be fair though and shut down the discussion and topic as a whole, not just the guys you disagree with. Shutting down one side over the other can paint you as unfairly partial. While this might be seen as overkill, the willingness to host said conversation at all can be seen as a “flare” for others to join in.

3) If someone is being a true zealot, and will not stop spamming news and op-eds from politically-slanted news sources, remember that Facebook has a handy “I don’t want to see this” option on the top right of every news feed post. This will reduce posts of said nature. You can also do the “Unfollow <name>” option to entirely remove this person from your news feed without unfriending them, a great way to placate family members without alienating them.

4) If you’re an artist-type who is tempted to take a side, remember that doing so will revoke your status as “neutral.” You might curry the favor of the side you join, but you’ll lose the opposition. Worse, those who were neutral before will have less reason to trust you as they probably enjoyed the relief you offered from having no obvious political stripes, and they may even suspect a bias in your work. Do as you will, but remember that declaring allegiances has a cost!

5) Finally, don’t attempt to engage the conversation from an open-minded neutral point of view either. Both sides are firmly capable of the with-us-or-against-us mentality where you can be branded just for being willing to hear out the opposition. While you might entertain the possibility of being the great peacemaker, the reality is that the only thing that effectively changes peoples’ minds is experience. And painstakingly few are willing to weigh the facts and points without trying to rabble rouse.

Hopefully that should keep your beige alert from going more than mellow. Stay out of trouble in 2015, folks! It’s Banh Mi here at work and I maybe talking about that this weekend.

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Movies to Study (For Budget to Special Effects)

So I’ve started putting together a list of movies with two criteria. One, the movie must have special effects and great settings, preferably in a fantasy setting. And two, the budget on the movie must be cheap. I would drag out these movies and watch the “making of” to gather ideas and some know-how. Although there are other movies I’d want to pull my inspirations from, these movies are crucial to look at from a financial light.

Because the new one was not as amazing...

Because the new one was not as amazing…

Here is the list thus far, not adjusted for inflation.
Conan the Barbarian: $20,000,000.
Conan the Destroyer: $18,000,000 (est).
Following: $6,000 (est).
Rocky: $1,000,000.
Night of the Living Dead: $4,200,000.
Excalibur: $11,000,000.
The Blair Witch Project: $750,000 (max est).
Paranormal Activity: $15,000.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: $17,000,000.
Halloween: $320,000.
 
Of the movies listed, you maybe wondering about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Conan movies. Compared to the average fan film makers budget, these price tags are still quite high. However, they are a degree of mentionable quality that can be achieved at a decent enough price.
 
Let’s discuss what each of the films brings to the table and why. The first thing of mention is that the horror films are among the cheapest. Halloween, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity all have price tags well below a million.
 
Yet these horror movies bring a few mentionable qualities to them: TBWP brought strong use of the setting to it. Halloween manages its bloody special effects while Paranormal Activity uses a few clever illusions with their camera work. While Night of the Living Dead is critical for its application of makeup.
 
There are three that really stand out for different reasons.
 
The first is Following, one of Nolan’s earliest films. The Wikipedia article on it currently mentions that the most expensive aspect of the movie was the film that Nolan used, jacking up the price to approximately $6,000 which is a maximum estimate at best. I’ve yet to see this but it’s on my to do list.
 
Rocky is a critical reminder of the importance of an interesting, central character. A movie can be defined by only a strong central character, and frequently is. This means that a well design, well prepared and well acted main character can be a tremendous deciding factor if all else fails.
 
The last movie is Excalibur. While $11,000,000 is still high of a price tag, it was a movie filled with tremendous props and setting. Amazing costumes, splended settings and violent, glorious battles. And yet it maybe filled with more battles and bloodshed than even Conan the Barbarian and yet almost half the price.
 
Unfortunately, only the Conan movies are in my collection. I’ll have to rectify this…

Origins, Origins…

So I just watched the first (and thus far only released) episode of Awake. The premise is simple if a bit strange; a detective, his wife and his son were involved in a car accident. The detective then isn’t sure if he’s awake or dreaming, when he goes to sleep, he visits two worlds. In one, his son survived but his wife didn’t. In the other, vice versa. And somehow, the details of his cases in one world reflect the other, despite the fact that (thus far) the crimes are different, but committed by the same person.

After finishing the episode, the sneak peek of the next episode immediately brings up hints about how and why this detective, played by Jason Isaacs, is experiencing these two alternate worlds. Desperate to keep their baby alive, the show’s producers put the detective’s son on the line in the next episode, hoping that a snap of drama and the possibility of finding out the origin of this psychological phenomenon will keep audiences hooked.

In the next episode, stuff might happen. But does it? Stay tuned...

In the next episode, stuff might happen. But does it? Stay tuned...

I have to say that this kind of bugs me. For some reason, it feels like American audiences (or at least our television and movie producers) have an obsessive need to clarify the origins of everything unusual. While the origins of a problem need to be clarified in order to diagnose the solution (as House would be quick to remind us), does every situation or every character need a completely fleshed out background story?

Why?

To understand the nature of my complaint, take a look at the past three Conan the Barbarian movies. In the first with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the rebooted third with Jason Momoa, the developers felt they needed to explain Conan’s childhood and origins.

What makes this strange is that Robert E. Howard never actually clarified Conan’s origins. The only crucial detail* Howard ever gave was that his father was a blacksmith, and that Conan had a wandering foot. The two origin stories where Conan was taken by slavers and the other where his father was slain by a power hungry madman were never part of the original Conan tales.

I remember reading (though I can’t recall where, probably IGN) about the new and rebooted Spider Man movie coming out. The author suggested that Marvel skip the whole origins story. I couldn’t agree more. It’s been done, we get it, we don’t need to hear it again. Not only do I recall it from the first movie, I have seen it retold in no less than two animated series.

Do heroes and villains always need origin stories? Heather Ledger’s Joker didn’t in The Dark Knight. Look how unforgettable he was.

I guess I ask all this because of my own writing. I would say about two thirds of my tales have addressed origin tales for both heroes and villains. Yes, even villains who die off at the end of the story get origins and reasoning, an explanation for their dastardly deeds. They hurt people because it is worth their time too. And probably because they enjoy it.

I guess it worries me because one of the heroes of my stories does not get a background. There is a story of course, about all the other supporting characters and the villain but not for the hero himself. Or perhaps I’m going about this wrong. Maybe he isn’t the hero, but an element that just happened to be there to help the main characters. Man, am I glad the story is only in draft form.

* – There are details I missed/forgot in my first draft, but Howard did keep Conan’s origins fairly vague. Thanks to Al Harron for this tip and correction.

Mr. Miyagi Me

Last Friday, I saw Crazy, Stupid, Love. In it, Ryan Gosling‘s character is trying to teach Steve Carell how to pick up women. Gosling asks Carell if he has seen The Karate Kid, mentioning the scene where Mr. Miyagi teaches his pupil by having him wax. By paying attention to Gosling, Carell had been figuring out how to connect with women.

For me, I get the same thing through reading various authors.

There’s J.R.R. Tolkien. His stories are powerful, but most of the story isn’t told through narrative but through the conversations of his characters. It’s not difficult to imagine Ian McKellen telling the tale of Sauron in his powerful and magnetic voice. But by using dialogue, the words and sentences are simpler. It’s easy to digest and harder to put down, simply because of how well the tale is told.

That's the one, officer. He changed my writing style against my will... with AWESOMENESS.

That's the one, officer. He changed my writing style against my will... with AWESOMENESS.

Then there’s Robert E. Howard. The creator of Conan the Barbarian, he had a passion for bold and powerful descriptions. His character was beyond larger than life, but rather like Atlas, a titan who carried the world on his shoulders. The poignant paragraphs swamped the mind and made the stories a challenge to enter. But once you were in the story, you keep going. And it grows on you and grows and grows. But it frustrated me because most of his work was short stories, so they often came to abrupt endings. Only The Hour of the Dragon kept going, and as such it was probably my favorite of his works. Like a horse walk that builds to a trot before galloping to glory.

Stieg Larsson is new to my repertoire, and his writing style is completely different than the rest of them. The difference being is that the pieces written by Howard and Tolkien were fantasy pieces from the imagination, but Larsson’s work stemmed from his experiences as a writer. I’ve only finished one of his books and will check out the other two eventually, but the thing I love about this guy is his ability to develop characters. They are very deep, complex characters who don’t always follow society’s rules. Sadly, I cannot really rely on his writing style for short stories because a single character would eat up so much space within the story, unless introducing the character is the entire point of the tale.

I could go on with more examples, but I think my point has been made. That in reading of the work of these men, I like to pretend that I’ve learned a little something about writing.

Maybe. Possibly. No? Okay…

Still, everyone learns from someone. We are usually fans before we are writers ourselves. And I figured, it’s always good sometimes to reconnect with those people who inspire you. To never lose sight of the where it all comes from. And to build these little shrines in our own writing, these mementos so we don’t forget. Guess I’m just sentimental like that.

Blood for the Blood God

Rock for the Rock God!

Rock for the Rock God!

Yes Union Jack’s, I will not use your wifi connection for terrorism or to make nuclear weaponry. I promise.

Okay, sorry about that. Today I’m reviewing a book by C.L. Werner, who is something of a mentor to me writing wise. The man is the heir apparent to the writings of Robert E. Howard, creator and original author of Conan the Barbarian. Robert Howard’s writing was bold, full of description and depth. It was very hard to step into the short stories at first because of how thick they were. But once you did, you were enthralled, you kept going and going as you get sucked into the world that Howard wrote.

For these reasons, be ready for thick tale if you read this book. It’s probably best done when you have a few hour chunks set aside to really dive through the pages, so you can fully and honestly concentrate on the graphic visuals. Turn off the television, play music with no lyrics if you must and just read.

Blood for the Blood God is a stand alone book that takes place in the Chaos Waste, far to the north of the Empire. Although there are many tribes that exist among the wastes, the story is a tale of eight, who are caught up in an ancient feud. Dorgo is the son of one of the eight chieftains. In an ambush led by one of the other tribal leaders, Dorgo witnesses the chieftain slaughtered by the Skulltaker, a menace as old as the feud itself. The news is not well received by Dorgo’s father. But when Dorgo’s words are proven true, the lad is set out on a quest that may allow him to kill the Skulltaker.

Blood for the Blood God is a strong tale, mixing several great components: The history of the tribes and their political bickering, the elements of a heroic quest against the dark setting of Chaos. C.L. Werner’s book is a window into tribal life in the servitude to the dark gods.

Ask him about his tailor. I DARE you.

Ask him about his tailor. I DARE you.

The book is a prologue, a precursor to the daemon known as the Skulltaker: who he was and what he became. But more importantly, Blood for the Blood God is an eye opener into the cults of Khorne. The usual stereotype is that all Khorne worshipers are just crazed blood lusting warriors with no regard to the necessities of food, maintaining their equipment or doing anything to survive beyond what they can take from their victims. But in truth, they are not as one dimensional as people believe. Other stories written about the cults of Khorne would also work to minimize this stereotype. But make no mistake, for despite Khornite warriors having to go through the same struggles to survive as everyone else, they are still awesome warriors. And despite whatever sympathies you may have for Dorgo’s strife, no tale about the struggles of Chaos can ever end on a happy note.

Quakin’

I wish it was that kinda Quake...

Quake II wasn't bad, but Quake D.C. kind of sucked.

Alright, so yours truly was temporarily delayed yesterday thanks to tremors that struck the east coast of the United States.

The rumbling started while I was at my desk at work. For a moment, I wondered if someone was jumping around or intentionally shaking my cubicle, but when other people mentioned it as well I realized it was quake tremors. I imagine that explosives, like some people guessed, are more likely to be a powerful shake and then done. That is unless they were placed to demolish a building, where proper placement and timed detonations would collapse a building. Hence when it started going down, I acted on my elementary school training and threw myself under my desk should anything fall. About five seconds later,  I was told we were to evacuate the building. So I snatched my bag and joined everyone else in orderly but hasty departure.

Everyone dashed outside after swamping the staircases. We assembled in the parking lot, laughing about it. My Facebook news feed was abuzz with news about it, and during the jog down ten flights of stairs I even managed to squeeze out a message via my phone. Everyone was fine, just shook up by the experience. Unlike the west coast, we don’t get many earth jiggles in these parts. Still, we slowly began to laugh and take it easy about the news. 5.8 in Virginia. Could have been worse than a few broken bottles and minor scraps. Phone signals were weakened by traffic of people calling but still got through to make sure my family was alright after a few tries.

Still, you can’t go through a mid-sized earthquake without some collateral damage. The news later said that the Washington Monument and National Cathedral both took some structural damage. The Cathedral definitely got it worse, with three of the four pinnacles falling. Those tops are the highest in all of D.C., so repairing them will be a pain. Still, anyone who has attended the church on a Sunday knows that they’re good for it, either now or soon enough.

Also of interest, certain animals at the Washington Zoo started acted erratically a full fifteen minutes before the tremors ever struck. Taken from the Washington Post’s article:

The first warnings of the earthquake may have occurred at the National Zoo, where officials said some animals seemed to feel it coming before people did. The red ruffed lemurs began “alarm calling” a full 15 minutes before the quake hit, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said. In the Great Ape House, Iris, an orangutan, let out a guttural holler 10 seconds before keepers felt the quake. The flamingos huddled together in the water seconds before people felt the rumbling. The rheas got excited. And the hooded mergansers — a kind of duck — dashed for the safety of the water.

We WILL persevere!

We WILL persevere!

So we’re fine over here. Let go early, so we jetted on home. Some people were a little shook up over it, but we’ll be alright.

My plans to see Conan the Barbarian tonight got canceled however as traffic flooded the streets, so I parked myself at my favorite bar and chatted with my bartender, and backlogged a review for C.L. Werner’s Blood for the Blood God.

So that’s all the news for now. Working on a few reviews and am considering a musing piece about Khorne that may rock your socks off. Might try to line up another 10 songs for writing, probably looking for more ambient tunes and music. Then I’ll be hitting up the rest of my piece for September. Got to stay focused, earthquakes be damned.

10 Musical Selections for Writing

Gary Moore. April 4th, 1952-February 6th, 2011.

Gary Moore. April 4th, 1952 to February 6th, 2011.

Okay, so my eye is feeling a bit better but I’m still going to hold off on the review. So instead, here are 10 more music pieces for writing. 10 more, you may ask? If you have not seen it, then allow me to direct you to the original 20 musical pieces post.

However, this post is a bit melancholy because I had just discovered that Gary Moore, a talented guitarist and singer from the UK, died of a heart attack earlier this year. Many people have not heard of the skilled musician and his amazing blues, but I had been listening to his music since before his death in February, 2011. For a lyrical taste of his work, check out Over the Hills and Far Away.

A quick note. This particular set of songs takes more from games than before. It’s easier to pick music from game sound tracks than it is from movies. The downside is that game sound tracks rarely show up on sites like Pandora.

  1. Cloud’s Theme, Final Fantasy VII Orchestral Soundtrack.
    It’s a strange theme that mixes hope with hopeless, and something on the lighter side with darker undertones. This song could work well for a overture of your piece.
  2. Doom 3 Theme, by Tweaker.
    Explosive piece that threatens something menacing until it just bursts into combative guitar and drumming, mixed with eerie vocal sound effects.
  3. Pandora’s Music Box, by Nox Arcana.
    Nox Arcana is an incredibly reliable source of subtle, creepy music sans vocals. Adding this music to any scene instantly turns it into horror material just because of its gentle yet eldritch nature.
  4. Underworld Domain, by Dargaard.
    A piece that is so pure, it was perfectly named. Unfortunately, this piece breaks the no lyrics rule, but given how well the singer blends her voice with the music, I’m making an exception.
  5. Wilderness, Diablo II OST.
    I love the Diablo series, and despite becoming slightly more cartoonish than it’s previous incarnations, I am still looking forward to Diablo III.  Here’s a piece from the second installment. Stay a while and listen!
  6. Arkham Bridge, Mechwarrior 2 OST.
    I used to be a huge, huge Mechwarrior and Battletech fan. As I got older however, I grew out of it. It wasn’t deep enough for me, just a constant mix of politics and warfare. That and I met one of the authors and wasn’t impressed with their attitude. If you don’t care for your fans, they’ll soon not care about you. Still, good music. You may also want to check out Umber Wall.
  7. Bloody Tears, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night OC Remix.
    Okay, I seriously believe that ‘Bloody Tears’ may just be the single most remixed game music of all time. There are dozens of versions, from classical pieces to piano solos, heavy metal jams to DJ dance mixes. The original piece started from the NES game Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and was updated in later titles. Here’s an acoustic guitar version, a violin version and the version from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
  8. Theology/Civilization, by Basil Poledorius.
    Straight from the original (as in, 1982) Conan the Barbarian, this ponderous piece is slow and mixes renaissance touches with classical music.  I admit that this is not one of my favorite pieces of music, but I suspect that others will enjoy this for its lighter notations. It can’t rain all the time.

    Explaining exactly what Berserk is about is... you know what? Find out yourself.

    Explaining exactly what Berserk is about is... you know what? I'm not responsible for what will happen to your sanity. Find out yourself.

  9. Murder, by Susumu Hirasawa.
    I honestly don’t watch much anime or read much manga anymore. But there is still one series I go out of my way to read, and that is Berserk by Kentaro Miura. Beautifully animated, beautifully told, I cannot stress how amazing is Berserk. This piece just keeps growing and growing in madness…
  10. The Loner, by Gary Moore.
    A non-lyrical piece by Moore, the original version of The Loner is 6 minutes long and takes a minute to warm up appropriately. However, compared to other versions, the guitar isn’t as distracting, but communicates its sorrowful melody well. To be honest, a chance to apply this to writing would be very difficult because it’s sad but also not slow. It may work well if a character is fondly recalling a person who has passed on. Rest in peace, Mr. Moore. You will be missed.