Wednesday, December 31, 2014

GenCon 2014

This actually happened way back in August, but I haven't had time to write it up properly until today. Hey, my duties as CEO of Bob Canada's BlogWorld keep me busy! Don't give me that look, they do! It's the last day of the year though, so I either write it up today or never, so here goes.
A while back I wrote a post about working on the RARRR!! card game for Ape Games. You can read all about that here.

Sometime around April or May, Kevin Brusky, who I'd worked with closely on the project, emailed me and said he'd be premiering the game at this year's GenCon in Indianapolis. GenCon is the largest annual gaming convention in North America, featuring board, card, role playing and even video games. It's a huge four day event that draws people from all over the world.

Kevin asked if I'd be interested in attending the Ape Games booth at GenCon— as a guest (!). He wanted me to sit in their booth and draw sketches and sign copies of the RARRR!! game for customers. Yikes!

As a sullen loner and recluse, my first reaction was to politely decline. I'm not a celebrity! And I'm not very good at meeting and greeting people. And I definitely couldn't imagine why anyone would ever want my autograph.

I've been to a lot of these types of conventions before, and I've seen many artists and writers sitting forlornly behind their tables, desperately trying to attract the attention of indifferent attendees as they walk by. I didn't want to be one of those people. To quote George Costanza's mom, I was afraid "I'd be sitting there like an idiot without any cake." 

Eventually Kevin somehow talked me into it and agreed to attend. GenCon lasts for four days; I couldn't be there for the whole time, so I said I'd come Saturday, which I figured would be the busiest day.


I got up at the crack of butt in order to make the four hour trip to Indy. It's a three hour drive plus an unnecessary time zone change, which all adds up to four hours. It's been a long time since I watched the sun rise.

About halfway there I received a series of frantic calls from Kevin. He warned me that the Colts were playing later in the day at Lucas Oil Stadium, just down the street from the Convention Center where GenCon was happening. He said it was gonna be impossible to find a parking spot. I wasn't too worried about it and said, "We'll see."

A bit later he called and said word on the street was saying there was a three to four hour wait just to get in the door of GenCon. He said he's understand if I didn't want to come after hearing all that.

I was already halfway there and figured eh, what the heck, I might as well keep going, and said I'd be there as soon as I could.

Apparently the Force was with me. I exited the highway around 10am and drove past the Convention Center. I saw a parking garage with a "vacancy" sign and pulled in. I parked several levels underground and when I emerged back to street level, saw that I was literally across the street from GenCon. Luckeee!


When I walked into the Convention Center, this was the scene that greeted me. Oy gevalt!

My ticket was waiting for me at the Will Call window. I found the proper window and went to get in line. I walked, and walked, and walked some more, passing at least five thousand people before I finally found the end of the line. It was at least three blocks long. That's not an exaggeration either.

Admittedly it looked pretty hopeless. I figured I'd be cooling my heels in that line for a good three hours, just like Kevin feared. Fortunately the line moved amazingly fast. I stood in line for fifteen minutes, twenty tops. Incredible! Those GenCon people are very well organized. Must have something to do with playing games and following rules and all that.


I got my pass and headed for the vendor room. I opened a suitable-looking door and saw this— a room that was at least an acre in size, populated by convention-goers all playing the same game.

Obviously I was in the wrong place. I asked a security guard where the vendor room was, and of course it was on the opposite side of the Convention Center.

As I walked through the Center, I got a sense of just how huge this thing was. There were entire rooms devoted to just video games, or role playing games, and some of the larger game companies even had their own rooms. Plus there was a second floor full of game rooms, and the con even spilled over into the ballrooms of several nearby hotels.


I finally found the vendor room and when I entered saw this. Merciful Thor! It was easily several acres in size.

I was honestly flabbergasted by the sheer scope of the thing. I had no idea there was still this much interest in board, card and role playing games. I figured everyone these days was too busy playing around on the internet or diddling with their phones to actually sit down and play a game. I'm glad to see that's not the case.


I walked around a while until I found the Ape Games booth. I looked for someone who appeared to be in charge, assumed he was Kevin and said, "Well, I made it!" He looked puzzled, obviously having no idea who I was. 

We'd been working on this project together for two years, but through email only. We'd never met in person so he didn't know what I looked like. I introduced myself and he couldn't believe I'd made it there by 10:30. He was expecting me to be stuck in line until 2 or 3 pm.

Plus I think he though I looked like this, which has kind of become my online representation. For the record, I don't look quite like that. Yet.


The booth was filled with large cutouts of some of the monsters I'd drawn for the game. It was pretty cool to see my artwork blown up to that size. Luckily the art was all vector, so there was no loss of resolution when it was enlarged that much.

Kevin showed me to a table in the booth and said he wanted me to sign the game boxes for customers and to do sketches of the various monsters.

I was still dubious that anyone would want me to sign or even draw anything for them, and was afraid I'd have to sit there like an idiot all day, which would be awkward for me and Kevin both.


Fortunately that wasn't the case. People bought the RARRR!! game. A lot of them. And many of them wanted me to sign it! I probably signed 25 or 30 copies of it over the course of the day.

They'd buy the game, then sheepishly come over and ask if I'd mind signing it. I'd say sure, but every time I'd be thinking, "Are you sure you want me to sign this? You know I'm not anyone famous, right?" They all seemed quite pleased that they'd met me though.

The booth was maybe 20' by 30' or so, and other than a couple of brief lulls it was packed solid all day. They sell more than just the game I worked on-- they probably had 20 other games of various types.


I also sketched some of the monsters from the game as I sat at the table. Honestly it'd been so long since I drew them (two years in some cases) that I forgot exactly what they looked like. Luckily there were several copies of the game on the table, so I could look at them to refresh my memory.

His plan worked, Despite all the flashing lights and eye candy bombarding people everywhere they looked, the sight of a guy simply sitting at a table and drawing attracted people and drew them in. I drew a ton of sketches over the course of the day. In fact I was afraid I was going to run out of paper-- the tablet I brought only had 50 sheets in it. I didn't buy a thicker one because I never dreamed I'd need it.

I drew a bunch of sketches for kids that bought the game. They were all suitably impressed because they're kids and they don't know from famous people. I tried to talk to the kids as I drew, so we didn't just sit there in silence. I'm not used to talking while I'm drawing, so that was new. 

One father was there with his little girl and he said she liked the game art so much she'd started drawing (I guess they saw the art online?). That was nice to hear, that I'd inspired a budding young artist.

Oddly enough some of the adults were just as impressed with the sketches as the kids, which surprised me. One lady stopped to watch, and said she just wanted to watch a "real" artist draw. When I was done I asked if she wanted the sketch, and she about flipped her lid, saying I'd "made her day" by giving it to her. She must have been having a really bad day.


At one point a family with two little boys came in to demo the game. The boys were about six or seven and looked like they might have been twins. Kevin walked the whole family through the game, and then they played it for about an hour. I watched them playing, and the little boys looked so happy. They were smiling and laughing and whooping it up when they'd score a point or whatever was happening.

Then they came over to my table and their mom said they liked the game so much they bought a copy with their own money, and wanted to know if I'd sign it for them. I signed their game and gave each one a sketch. It did my cynical, black heart good to see something I worked on give someone so much happiness. I generally don't get a lot of feedback on my work, so it was nice to see that people really do like it.

I got up and one point to get a quick snack and walked around the vendor room to see what was going on. I only made it about halfway through before I gave up, realizing it would take all day to look at everything. 

Again, I am amazed at the sheer amount of games, gaming supplies and game related items that exist. I had no idea gaming was still so popular. Kevin said there are about a thousand new board & card games released every year. Incredible!

People came to GenCon from all over too. One man and his little boy said they drove NINE hours to be there. Another said he was from Washington D.C. Oy! I thought my three hour drive was bad!

The con lasts for four days, and Kevin said the vast majority of people attend every day. I can see why. There's no way you could see everything or do it justice in just one day. I saw maybe 10% of it. If that.

I also have newfound respect for people and celebrities who man the booths at shows like these. It's exhausting! All I did was sit in a chair and draw all day, but I was worn out by 5 o'clock. Kevin was on his third day of the show! I don't know how he did i

It was fun though. Much more fun than I thought it would be, and I'm glad I did it.

The vendor room closed at five (although the rest of the show went on until midnight). Since we'd never really "met" until that day, Kevin suggested we go out to eat so we could have a chance to talk. The aforementioned Colts game had just finished, so the area was packed full of rowdy fans walking down the middle of the streets. We eventually made it to a pretty good pizza place and had a nice dinner.

I headed back to beautiful downtown Evansville and got home around 11pm my time, and flopped into bed. I was worn out. So ended my first experience as a convention "celebrity."



It Came From The Cineplex: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies was written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. It was directed by Peter Jackson.

At long, long, long last, we reach the end of our journey through Middle-earth. A journey that began thirteen years ago, way back in 2001. Love the films or hate them, you've got to admit that Peter Jackson has accomplished an impressive feat with these six films. I don't think any other director has ever spent so much effort, money and years of his life filming the works of a single author.

Savor this last trip through Middle-earth though, because this is it— there're no more stories to adapt. There's The Silmarillion of course, but it's unlikely it'll ever become a film series. It's more like the Bible than Lord Of The Rings, as it's a series of separate tales without any overall narrative. It would be extremely difficult to adapt it into a movie. 

It's a moot point anyway, as the Tolkien estate owns The Silmarillion lock, stock and barrel and won't part with it anytime soon, as they reportedly don't care for Jackson's adaptations.

This is the shortest of the three Hobbit films, clocking in at a lean (for Peter Jackson) 144 minutes. Terabytes have already been written (much of it by me!) about how The Hobbit should never have been turned into three films, so I won't flog that dead horse any further. 

I will say that despite the fact that the story's been spread out over 474 minutes (almost eight hours) of screen time, there's still a ton of stuff that's left out at the end. Not only do events in the book not get proper closure, but neither do incidents Jackson invented from whole cloth himself. Puzzling, to say the least.

SPOILERS FOR A 77 YEAR OLD STORY!

The Plot:
Picking up right where the last film left off, Smaug the dragon flies to Laketown to destroy it because... um, why is he doing it again? Oh yeah, because the men of Laketown gave aid and comfort to his enemy Thorin Oakenshield.

Anyway, Smaug proceeds to firebomb Laketown, which is kind of ironic, since they, you know, live on the water. Bard the bowman breaks out of prison and uses his super secret Black Arrow to shoot Smaug in the heart, killing him. He falls onto the fleeing Master Of Laketown, which kills him. Roll opening credits.

Bard then leads the Laketown survivors to the ruins of Dale, which lies outside the Dwarvish city of Erabor. Inside the city, Thorin searches through the vast treasure for the Arkenstone, the glowing jewel that bestows kingship on its owner, or something. The other dwarves are afraid that the treasure is cursed with "dragon sickness," which is starting to drive Thorin a little nutty. Bilbo secretly took the Arkenstone during his encounter with Smaug, and decides to hide it. Thorin orders the entrance to Erabor sealed.

Meanwhile, Galadriel, Elrond, Radagast and Saruman enter Dol Guldur to rescue Gandalf. They're attacked by Sauron and the Nine (who will eventually become the Ringwraiths in The Lord Of The Rings). Galadriel hulks out and drives Sauron away with her awesome powers. Gandalf heads for Erabor to warn the dwarves of the approaching orc army. If only these guys could text one another! Think how much easier their lives would be.

King Thranduil and his elvish army arrive at Erabor and team up with the men of Dale. That's two armies. Thranduil is after certain elvish gems from the dragon horde, while Bard wants the gold that was promised to the citizens of Laketown. Given that Thorin is currently sitting on several billion cubic feet of gold coins, their requests don't seem out of the question. Unfortunately Thorin refuses to part with any of it. Just then his cousin Dain Ironfoot arrives with a battalion of dwarves. That makes three armies.

Just as the three groups are about to fight, the orcs attack. That makes four armies. It's never quite clear what the fifth army is. The bats? The eagles? Who knows? Hundreds of thousands of cgi soldiers then begin fighting one another in front of Erabor. 

Thorin eventually overcomes his dragon sickness and joins the fray. An hour or so later the battle ends as Azog kills Fili, while Kili is killed protecting Tauriel. Thorin kills Azog, but not before being mortally wounded.

There's still lots of questions to be answered, but apparently they're none of our concern as Bilbo heads back to the Shire and the movie abruptly (for Peter Jackson) ends. Cue the Billy Boyd song.

Thoughts:
• After all the buildup Smaug received in the previous two films, he's dispatched very quickly here. Almost anticlimactically, in fact. He's dead before the title screen appears!

It seems like an odd way to start a film– with what should have been the end of the previous one– but there really wasn't any choice. Based on where Jackson ended the second movie, there was no other way to begin than to kill Smaug in the opening minutes.

Blame Tolkien for this one though, more than Jackson. The book is structured the same way. The dragon is killed, which is the whole point of the book, but then the story goes on for another fifty or sixty pages.

• All through the second film we're beaten about the head with the fact that normal arrows can't pierce Smaug's armored hide. The only thing that can kill him is a Black Arrow. Despite this, Bard climbs a tower and spends a good deal of screen time shooting normal arrows that bounce futilely off Smaug's scales.

Bard knows regular arrows won't hurt Smaug, so why's he bothering? Is he trying it because he feels like he has to do something, even if it's futile? Or more likely, are they showing that normal arrows are useless for the benefit of audiences that didn't see the previous film? I'm guessing the latter.

• I was under the impression the Black Arrow had to be fired from the massive four-pronged windlance crossbow we saw in the previous film. Here Bard fires it from a normal bow. A broken normal bow, to be exact. So I guess it doesn't matter what the arrow's fired from after all?

Also, the black arrow is a good five feet long, and appears to be forged from iron. It's gotta be pretty heavy. It seems unlikely that any normal bow would be able to fire it more than a few feet.

• That elvish medicine is downright miraculous! In the previous film, Kili the Dwarf was only minutes from death after being shot with an orcish arrow. Tauriel treated him in the nick of time, bathing his wound with boiled athelas as she spoke a few elvish incantations over him.

Suddenly in this film he's up and around like nothing ever happened. Note that this movie picks up exactly where the previous one left off, meaning Kili recovered in the space of about five minutes. As I said, miraculous!

• Peter Jackson made a cameo in every previous Middle-earth film, but I couldn't spot him in this one to save my life. I'm sure he's in there somewhere though. Surely he wouldn't give up the chance for one final appearance?

UPDATE: After seeing the film three times (once in the theater and twice on home video), I still couldn't find Jackson anywhere, so I looked to the internet for help. Turns out Jackson is in the film after all. Eh, sort of.

At the end of the movie, Bilbo returns to Bag End and is dismayed to see all his possessions being auctioned off, as he was apparently presumed dead. Once he runs everyone off, he wanders through his ransacked home. He stops to straighten paintings of a man and woman above the mantle. 

The people are most likely supposed to be his parents, but in reality they're Peter Jackson (sans beard and glasses) and his wife Fran Walsh.

I did see his daughter Katie as a Laketown resident. She's had a cameo in every film as well.

There's also an extra in Laketown who looks amazingly like Bryan Cranston. Google was no help confirming if it's him or not. I kind of doubt if it is, but man, it sure looks like him (sorry, that's the best photo I can find for now).

• Whose film is this anyway? It's supposed to be Bilbo's, right? After all, his name is in the title (well, sort of). Oddly enough he practically sits out this last movie. 

The whole point of the story is seeing the meek and contented Bilbo leave his comfortable little world and to go on a dangerous adventure and find his courage. One would think that would happen in the final installment of the trilogy, right? Unfortunately he completed his little hero's journey way back at the end of the first film, when he attacked Azog the Defiler in order to save Thorin. 

That was a big misfire, in my opinion. That action effectively wrapped up Bilbo's storyline prematurely, giving him very little to do in this final film. He's been reduced to bystander or observer in his own movie. The focus is unquestionably on Thorin this time. They might as well have called it The Dwarf.

• In the book, the thirteen dwarves are little more than ciphers and are practically indistinguishable from one another. The only appreciable difference between them is the color of their beards and hoods. With the exception of Thorin and maybe Bombur, the rest of them have little or no personality.

Peter Jackson did a terrific job of making each dwarf an individual. He gave each one a very distinct look and unique characteristics, and made it easy to tell them all apart. In the first film, that is.

In the second film, a few of them are allowed to shine, while the majority are shoved into the background.

By the time this last film rolls around, almost all of them have been reduced to nothing more than glorified extras. Half of them don't even get a chance to speak. They've gone from fully realized characters back to the interchangeable blanks of the book.

• Inside Erabor, Thorin accuses Bilbo of secretly possessing the Arkenstone. He asks Bilbo what he's hiding in his hand, and he shows him that it's an acorn from Rivendell. Bilbo plans to plant it in his garden if he ever makes it back to the Shire.

It's never really stated, but this acorn is probably the one that grows into the Party Tree, site of Bilbo's birthday party in The Fellowship Of The Ring.

• Gandalf's rescue at Dol Guldur was pretty darned cool, even if it wasn't in the book. I especially liked seeing Saruman battling the Nine as he blasted them and protected himself with his own personal force field.

Galadriel going ballistic on Sauron was also pretty awesome. She's not an elf to be messed with!

One thing about Saruman's powers though. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, Gandalf and Saruman have an epic wizard battle. They wave their staffs around, knocking each other off their feet and pinning one another against walls. At no time do sparks, rays or anything else come out of the magic staffs.

Peter Jackson was adamant about this, saying he didn't want to see cliched red or blue rays emanating from the wizard staffs.

He must have changed his mind about this or forgot he said it, because Saruman appears to be shooting all kinds of energy out of his staff in this film.

• Legolas and Tauriel travel to the orcish stronghold of Gundabad to scope out the situation. Once there, they see an army of Angmar orcs preparing to attack Erabor. 

A couple things here. First of all, if you want to get all Tolkien-nerd about it, Gundabad is about 350 to 400 miles from Erabor. Legolas and Tauriel make the trip there in what seems like an hour. Maybe they know an elvish shortcut.

Secondly, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever for this scene to be in the film, other than it was Peter Jackson's last chance to include the admittedly awesome-looking fortress at Gundabad.

• As the men of Dale and Thranduil's elves are about to attack Erabor, Thorin's cousin Dain Ironfoot arrives with an army of dwarves.

I really liked Dain (played by Billy Connolly) and his awesome battle boar. Too bad he wasn't in the film more. It could have used a bit more comedy from him.

• Just as the men, elves and dwarves are about to attack one another, several sandworms, er, I mean Were-Worms burst out of the nearby mountains. An army of orcs then pour from the tunnels dug by these worms.

I wracked my brain, but couldn't remember any mention of giant Were-Worms in the book. 

Turns out they're in there after all! Well, sort of. Near the beginning of the book, Bilbo says to Thorin, "Tell me what you want done, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-Worms in the Last Desert."

It's a good bet that these were legendary creatures and Bilbo was just referencing them for emphasis (like unicorns in our world). Apparently Jackson took the statement literally and included them in the film. 

I admit they were cool, but they don't make a lot of sense. Why use them just to bore tunnels? Why not use them as weapons? Three or four of them could have wiped out the opposing armies in minutes. And where'd they go once they dug the tunnels? Did they squish themselves to the side so the orcs could run past?

• In the book the five armies were men, dwarves and elves against orcs and wargs.

The wargs make such a fleeting appearance in this film that they shouldn't even be counted. So who was the fifth army? The second band of orcs? Or was it the eagles (the birds, not the band)?

• Another major departure from the book: the scale of the battle. In the book the five armies total around six thousand soldiers. Here it's hundreds and hundreds of thousands, as Peter Jackson seems determined to top the Battle Of Pelenor Fields from The Return Of The King.

The battle also took up about five or six pages in the book. Here it goes on for over an hour of screen time. It pretty much had to though, since by the time this film rolled around there was very little story left to tell.

• During the battle, a frantic Bard runs though the ruins of Dale looking for his children. A woman runs past and says she saw them on Stone Street.

I'm pretty sure this was an in-joke, as most of the film was shot at Stone Street Studios in Wellington.

• As he did in previous films, Legolas is full of more amazing signature moves, defying the laws of physics as he runs up a crumbling wall of debris. If seeing Legolas skate down the trunk of a dead oliphant bothered you in The Return Of The King, then you're gonna have a bad time during this movie.

• Bilbo's sword Sting is supposed to glow a bright blue whenever orcs are around. I only saw it glowing in one brief scene. Given the sheer number of orcs in the battle, you'd think it would be glowing white hot.

• In the first film, Bilbo and the dwarves were captured by three trolls named Tom, Bert and William. Bilbo outsmarts them by delaying them long enough for the sun to rise, which turns them all to stone.

There are quite a few trolls participating in the battle here, and none of them seem adversely affected by the sun. Tom & Co. were stone trolls— are they the only strain that turns to stone under UV rays?

• I'm very surprised that Tauriel survived this film. She was invented out of whole cloth just for these movies and she's never referenced in The Lord Of The Rings (how could she be, since those films premiered before she was created?) so I was sure she'd end up dying here.

Despite the fact that her ill-fated romance with Kili the dwarf wasn't found anywhere in the book, I thought it was pretty well done.

• At the end of the film, King Thranduil tells his son Legolas to head north and look up a "promising young Ranger" called Strider. A couple things here.

First of all, this little scene was so blatant that the two elves might as well have turned to the camera and given the audience exaggerated winks.

Secondly, many fans have pointed out that this is a major error, since Strider, aka Aragorn, would be about ten years old at the time this story takes place.

Eh... yes and no, depending on how you look at it. 

In the books, about seventy seven years pass between The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. When Bilbo leaves his ring to Frodo, Gandalf suspects it may be the One Ring. He tells Frodo to keep it secret, keep it safe, and then heads off into the wilderness to find out if it's Sauron's ring or not. This seemingly simple task apparently takes him a whopping seventeen years, because as much as I like Tolkien, he couldn't write fast-paced suspense to save his life.

Peter Jackson chose to ignore the seventeen year gap and compress the timeline. In the films, Gandalf tells Frodo to keep the ring safe, rides to Minas Tirith and spends a couple of days in the library, then comes back and tosses the ring into the fire to test it.

So if you follow the book's timeline, then yes, Aragorn would be about ten. If you follow the movie chronology, which I suppose we should do here, since we're talking about the movie, he'd be twenty seven. So it's not really an error. From a certain point of view.

By the way, Aragorn is eighty seven years old during The Lord Of The Rings. He doesn't look a day over forty though, because he's descended from the Numenoreans, a strain of men who were blessed with long lives.

• In the first film they made a big deal out of the fact that Bifur the dwarf had an orcish axe permanently stuck in his head. This scrambled his brains, making him able to speak only in Khuzdul, the secret language of the dwarves.

It's never mentioned in the film, but supposedly Bifur was constantly on the lookout for the orc who wounded him. I predicted he'd meet up with this orc in the final film and pull the axe out of his head or something and kill him with it. I was disappointed when this didn't come to pass.

Or did it? At the end of the film when Bilbo's saying his goodbyes to the dwarves, we see Bifur in the background (of course) and the axe is no longer in his head. Did my prediction come true after all, just offscreen?

Expect to see this scene in the inevitable Extended Edition.

• Many viewers complained about the numerous, prolonged endings in The Return Of The King. The multiple endings didn't bother me; after all when you've just sat through a nine hour long story, you need a proper amount of closure. Jackson apparently took these criticisms to heart though, and wrapped up this film pretty quickly. Too quickly, if you ask me.

I can't believe I'm saying this about a bloated trilogy that lasts almost eight hours, but... it's not quite long enough. As crazy as it sounds, it needed to be a bit longer. Jackson skipped over quite a few very important endings that really needed to be dealt with. Thorin's burial, for example. In the book he's buried with the elvish sword Orcrist and the Arkenstone. Seeing him put to rest, and seeing the fate of the Arkenstone, which caused so much tsuris throughout the trilogy, seems pretty important.

After Thorin's death, his cousin Dain Ironfoot was crowned King Under The Mountain. Bard also became king of Dale. And Laketown was rebuilt. Those seem like pretty important scenes as well.

Was the gold all distributed? Did Thranduil get his elvish jewels back? What happened to Tauriel?

Apparently none of those things are any of our concern, as the film suddenly remembers its title and becomes all about Bilbo again.

I'm hopeful that all these dangling plot threads will be dealt with in the Extended Edition, but they really should have been included here.

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is a reasonably satisfactory ending to a very long journey, that amazingly manages to leave out some important scenes. I give it a B+.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Tree? Out Of Danger?

Just in time for Christmas 2015, Hallmark has released sneak peeks of next year's line of holiday ornaments.

Among them is this recreation of Spock's final moments from Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, in which– THIRTY TWO YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT– he dies slowly and painfully of radiation poisoning after saving the Enterprise.

Seems a bit on the morbid side to immortalize a beloved character's death in Christmas ornament form, but eh, what do I know?

The ornament reportedly features sound bites from the film, and if it doesn't include the lines, "The ship? Out of danger?," "I have been and always shall be your friend," and "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" then I'll turn in my blogging license.

Who knows, this "death ornament" thing might just catch on. Just think of the possibilities! Why, a Walking Dead line could keep Hallmark in business for literally decades.

Who wouldn't want to adorn their Christmas tree with an ornament of this touching scene between Carol and Lizzie from The Grove episode? 

And how about a Game Of Thrones line? Imagine how many death ornaments they could make from that show. My god, is there that much petroleum left in the world?

Bring The Pain

For those who may be interested, Chris Rock's new Direct-To-DVD film goes on sale today.

Monday, December 29, 2014

An "A Christmas Story" Story

Whether they realize it or not, the Chinese restaurants of America all owe a debt of gratitude to the holiday movie A Christmas Story.

About ten years ago my family was sitting around on Christmas Eve, avoiding eye contact with one another as we watched the lights on the tree short out and tried to decide what to have for dinner. Having seen the film a hundred times (at least), I jokingly suggested we go out for Chinese. There were a few weak chuckles (the only kind you'll hear in our family) as everyone thought, "Eh, why not?"

It's been our Christmas Eve tradition ever since. It just doesn't feel like the holidays unless we sit down in our favorite Chinese restaurant and listen to Dad make his "hilarious" joke about why there are never any cats around the place, explain to Mom what's in Sweet/Sour Chicken, and read the Chinese zodiac placemat for the fiftieth time.

Of course in the film Ralphie and his family eat Chinese food on Christmas Day, but whatever. The night before's close enough.

It's not just our family that's adopted this tradition either. This year as we sat in the restaurant eating, a friend of my sister walked by and, totally unprompted, said their family had also been enjoying their annual A Christmas Story Chinese dinner. I've heard many a coworker say the same thing. In just a short time it's become a holiday tradition, like trimming the tree, hanging up stockings, maxing out your credit card and drunkenly telling your boss what you really think of him at the company Christmas party.

I'm positive I'm right about this. After all, six or seven instances is more than enough datum for an accurate scientific poll, right?

So thanks to A Christmas Story for kicking off the first new Yuletide tradition in a couple hundred years. And thanks to you, Chinese restaurant owners of America, for staying open late on a holiday you don't care about in order to cater to customers trying to reenact a movie you've probably never seen. 

The Interview: So Close, Yet So Far

After all the bleating I've done the past few weeks about the controversial new Seth Rogen comedy The Interview, you're no doubt wondering if I went to see it over the holiday weekend. 

Sadly no, I did not. I wanted to see it though. Not so much for any dubious entertainment value it might provide, but out of defiance and a sense of patriotic duty. I don't particularly like oppressive regimes telling me what films I can and can't see.

Unfortunately none of the lily-livered corporate owned cineplexes in my city had the guts to stand up to a tin pot dictator on the other side of the world and screen the damned thing. The closest theater playing it was sixty seven miles away, according to Google Maps. That's a bit too far to drive just to see a movie. Especially one with Seth Rogen in it.

I'm aware you can download it or stream it or something online for six dollars, but... meh. If I'm going to pay for it, I want to see it on a big screen, not a tiny laptop monitor.

So unless the theater owners around here decide to grow a pair, I'll have to wait until it comes out on DVD to defy North Korea.

Doctor Who Christmas Special 2014: Last Christmas

Believe it or not, Last Christmas is the tenth Doctor Who Christmas Special so far! Ten! It doesn't seem possible. Savor this episode though, because if the pattern holds, the show probably won't return again for another nine or ten months. At least.

Christmas Specials seem to be a thing in England, a tradition I wish would spread to our shores. Sure, most American TV series have Christmas episodes, but they're just part of the regular season. They're not, well, special.

Technically this is Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi's second Christmas Special. He appeared in the final seconds of last year's The Time Of The Doctor. His appearance there was so fleeting though that it probably shouldn't count. This is his first fully starring Special. 

Show runner Steven Moffat wrote Last Christmas, and as with most of his episodes from Season 8, it appears he assembled it from bits and pieces of various movies and previous Doctor Who episodes. It's part ALIEN (which one of the characters even points out), part The Thing, and a whole lot Inception. There's even a little bit of Titanic tossed in for good measure at the end. And the "Base Under Siege" setting has been done many, many, many times before on the show.

Even the "new" monsters in the episode are familiar. They've got the trademark Moffat "don't do something" rule about them that worked so well with the Weeping Angels. Give it up, Steven. You're never going to top the Angels, so please stop trying. 

Moffat seems to be completely out of ideas at this point and keeps on trotting out his old plots and characters, hoping we don't notice. Nice try, Steven, but throwing Santa into the mix isn't going to distract us from the fact that the Dream Crabs are pretty much the same thing as the Weeping Angels, the Vashta Nerada, the Silence and the Hiders.

Did you ever see the Star Trek episode The Ultimate Computer? It concerned a scientist named Dr. Richard Daystrom, who invented a revolutionary new type of computer when he was in his early twenties. He then spent the rest of his life trying to top his early success, which eventually drove him mad. I'm starting to think Steven Moffat is going to end up just like Dr. Daystrom.

This episode was a bit on the dark side, especially for Christmas day. Maybe a little too dark. In addition to the seriously terrifying Dream Crabs, the heartwarming theme of the episode was "Every Christmas is someone's last Christmas." Good night, everybody! Happy Holidays!

Lastly, this episode seems a bit less epic than past Christmas Specials. The Runaway Bride, Voyage Of The Damned and The Next Doctor were all very cinematic and could have easily been shown in a theater. This one is much less expansive and seems like a regular episode with a few scenes of Santa grafted onto it to qualify as a Christmas episode. There doesn't seem to be anything all that special about it. 

Was the lack of epic scope the result of yet more BBC budget cuts?

CHRISTMASSY SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
Clara is awakened by a noise on Christmas Eve, and finds Santa Claus has crashed his sleigh on her roof. As she's trying to decide if he's real or not, the TARDIS materializes and The Doctor emerges and tells her to enter.

Meanwhile at a remote Arctic outpost, which absolutely doesn't remind us of The Thing, a group of scientists are studying colleagues who've been taken over by Dream Crabs, which absolutely don't remind us of face huggers from ALIEN. The creatures attach themselves to a person's face and induce a dream state while they slowly devour their brain. To top it off, the Crabs are only active when you're thinking about them.

Just then the Doctor and Clara arrive at the base. Seeing the Crabs, they think about them, which causes them to attack. They're saved at the last second by the timely arrival of Santa.

While the others are discussing the situation, one of the Dream Crabs attacks Clara. She wakes up in a perfectly realized Christmas dream world, populated by her dead boyfriend Danny Pink. The Doctor willingly allows a Dream Crab to attach itself to him in order to enter her dream and save her.

He does so, and the two awake back in the Arctic base, as the Crabs attached to their faces fall off and turn to dust. The Doctor then realizes that they're still not in the real world. He, Clara and the four scientists are still victims of the Dream Crabs, living inside a dream within a dream within a dream, which absolutely doesn't remind us of Inception. With the help of Santa, they wake up.

Clara reminds the Doctor that they met Santa before they arrived at the base, proving they're still in yet another dream level. The Doctor tells them to all dream of Santa again, and he returns to save them once more.

They all escape in Santa's sleigh. While sailing through the air, the "scientists" realize they're all just ordinary people from different areas and perhaps even different time periods, who were attacked by the Dream Crabs. One by one they disappear from the sleigh as they wake up in their real lives.

The Doctor wakes up on an alien planet, and senses that Clara is still dreaming. He races to her side and uses his sonic screwdriver to get the Crab off her face, which causes us all to wonder why he never thought of that until now. As the Dream Crab turns to dust, we see that Clara is now an old woman. Sixty two years have passed since she and the Doctor last parted. Clara tells him she's had a good life, but never really got over him, which absolutely doesn't remind us of Titanic.

The Doctor regrets not connecting with her sooner. Suddenly Santa appears and gives the Doctor a second chance. He races to Clara's side once again, sonics the Crab and sees that she's young again. The two take off in the TARDIS, as Santa leaves a tangerine on Clara's windowsill, proving he's real after all.


Thoughts:
• All through the episode everyone calls Santa "Santa Claus." I thought they had "Father Christmas" in Britain? 

Technically they're two different characters with totally different origins. Has Father Christmas been shoved out of the limelight by Santa?

• A nice touch: In the opening credits, the TARDIS is briefly covered in snow before shaking it off as it zooms past the camera.

• Nick Frost makes a wonderful Santa Claus. I enjoyed the rivalry between him and the Doctor, along with the implication that he just may be a Time Lord himself.

He's got the perfect name for the part too. Who better to play Santa than someone named Nick Frost?

 Why does Santa only have three reindeer? Is it because three cgi reindeer are cheaper to render than nine?

 Santa's accompanied by two elves named Ian and Wolf. Ian, the one on the right in the top photo, is played by actor Dan Starkey.

Starkey's no stranger to the show, as he's played various Sontarans in numerous episodes. He's probably best known as Strax, of the Paternoster Gang.

• Santa thinks everyone likes his signature gift of a tangerine, and seems genuinely hurt to find out this isn't true. Sorry Santa, but it's true. I remember when I was a kid I used to get oranges in my Christmas stocking every year, and never much cared for them. All they did was take up valuable space that could have been used for toys.

• Apparently the Arctic base segment of the episode takes place in some indeterminate future year. The technology all seems more advanced than what we have now, and there's talk of neural links and body scanners and such.

 As I mentioned earlier, once again Steven Moffat comes up with another monster that preys on childhood fears and comes with a set of rules. This time it's the Dream Crabs, who are only aware of you if you see or think about them.

All his monsters require the suppression of some bodily function in order to survive an encounter with them. Don't blink, don't breathe, don't look, don't think and on and on. 

I can't wait for Moffat's next creations. Maybe it'll be the Olfactory Weevils, who only attack if you smell them. Or the Babbling Midges, who consume your brain if you stop talking. How about the Omni Maggots, who have every power you can't think of?

All that said, I will admit that the Dream Crabs were pretty darned scary, especially in that first sequence in which everyone's trying not to think about them. 

• In the Arctic base, scientist Shona McCullough is trying to make her way through an infirmary full of comatose Dream Crab victims. If she looks at or thinks about them, they'll come to life and attack.

To distract herself, Shona listens to Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody (which is a very popular Christmas song in England) on her headphones and dances her way through the infirmary. 

I get what she's trying to do here, but how about walking briskly through the room instead of performing an elaborate dance routine that takes twenty times longer? A couple of times her wild gyrations almost cause her to bump into the patients' beds, which I'm sure would have roused them whether she was thinking about them or not.

 There's a lone male scientist at the Arctic base named Professor Albert. He's played by Michael Troughton, son of Second Doctor Patrick Troughton! Cool! I can definitely see a bit of his dad shining through his eyes.

• While observing the Dream Crabs on a monitor, Professor Albert says what everyone in the audience is thinking, suggesting they look a lot like the face huggers from ALIEN. He probably didn't have time to list the numerous other familiar things in this episode.

The Doctor is then shocked and offended that humanity made a horror movie called ALIEN. He's over two thousand years old at this point. Seems like he should have at least heard of the film before now.

• Just as everyone in the base (including the Doctor and Clara) are surrounded by Dream Crabs, Santa bursts in to save the day. He sends in a small army of marching toys, including robots and Slinkys, to distract everyone and keep them from thinking about the Crabs. 

I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that Slinkys don't "walk" on a flat surface. I guess Santa can make toys do whatever he wants though.

• Santa's two elves accompany him on his rescue mission. Ian is holding a balloon animal like it's a gun, while Wolf is holding what appears to be a BB gun. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if it's an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two Hundred Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB Gun With A Compass In The Stock And A Thing Which Tells Time!

Was that an A Christmas Story reference, or just a coincidence?

• After Santa saves everyone from the Dream Crabs, Ashley, the leader of the base, asks him who he is. The Doctor says, "Oh, take a guess. Go on, push the boat out."

For all us non-Brits, "Push the boat out" means "to behave extravagantly, or make a purchase beyond what you can afford." Kind of another way to say, "Take a wild guess."

• As proof of his identity, Santa lists gifts he gave to Shona and Ashley when they were children. 

Santa praises Ashley for becoming a scientist, and says the microscope he brought her as a child really paid off. He says her parents wanted him to bring her a "toy microscope," but he took a chance and brought her the real thing.

Is there such a thing as a toy microscope? What would be the point? A toy microscope that didn't actually magnify anything would be a big waste of time. Heck, even an Easy-Bake Oven actually cooks something. 

• The Doctor had the best line of the episode: "You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy from reality? They're both ridiculous."

• Shona doesn't believe Santa is real, so she grills him with questions, trying to poke a hole in his story. She says it would be impossible to deliver gifts to the entire world in one night.

Santa agrees, saying there's no way he could deliver toys to the 526,403,012 children of the world in twenty four hours, because that works out to 22 million kids an hour. That's why he has a second sled. 

Um... a second sled isn't going to be much more help. Is that the joke? Did I get it?

• The Doctor and Clara have a Gift Of The Magi moment. The Doctor thinks Danny Pink is still alive. Clara says she told him that so he wouldn't fuss with her and would go find Gallifrey. The Doctor says he never found his planet, and only told her he did so she'd stay with Danny. Whoops!

• When the Doctor asks Santa how he gets all the presents in his sleigh, he says it's bigger on the inside. Either Santa's a Time Lord, or they've shared their technology with him!

• One of the biggest problems I had with the episode: The Doctor says the Dream Crabs' victims don't suffer, because they keep you happy and relaxed in a perfectly realized dream world.

When Clara's attacked by a Crab, it sets up a perfect warm and fuzzy Christmas world for her, populated by her late fiance Danny Pink. So far so good.

But what about the scientists at the Arctic base? We eventually find out that the base is actually a dream that they're all sharing. How the hell is doing research in the harshest environment on Earth a perfectly realized dream world?

Clara's thinking about Danny when she's attacked. Did that have something to do with the content of her dream world? Were the others thinking about arctic expeditions when they were taken over?

• There are four Dream Crabs stuck to the Arctic Base victims. Santa brings in another Crab from god knows where, which attaches itself to Clara's face. The Doctor determines the only way to save her is to allow himself to be attacked and enter her dream world.

So where'd they get the Doctor's Crab? Did they have unseen extra ones in the infirmary?

They're all living in a dream within a dream at this point, so I guess we can chalk up any mistakes to that.

• Danny has my least favorite line of the episode, when he asks Clara, "Do you know why people get together at Christmas? Because every time they do it might be the last time. Every Christmas is last Christmas."

Oy gevalt! That's pretty dark for a Christmas episode. He's right of course, but damn, that's grim.

It reminds me a bit of my all time least favorite Christmas carol, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. One of the original lines in the song was, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last."

• Kudos to the producers for keeping Danny Pink's appearance a surprise. That's not easy to do in these days of Twitter and spoiler sites.

• The Doctor saves Clara from her dream world and they both wake up. As they do, the Dream Crabs fall from their faces and dissolve. The Doctor doesn't celebrate his victory though, as he begins to suspect they're all still dreaming.

He asks them all, "Have you ever woken up from a dream and discovered you're still dreaming?"

FOR THE LAST TIME, NO! A thousand times no. Once more with feeling, NO!

I've NEVER woken up from a dream, only to find I was still dreaming. Ever. No one has. That's something that only happens for shock value in lazy scripts written for TV and movies.

• The Doctor performs a test to find out if they're all still dreaming or not. He passes out four identical manuals to the scientists and has them all read the first word on a certain page. They all see a different word, indicating they're still in a dream world.

This test scene was very reminiscent of the one in the 1982 version of The Thing. That said, it was effective and suitably creepy though. Moffat really knows how to cherry pick.

• About three-fourths of the way through the episode I realized the Doctor was wearing his horrible top again. The black one that looks like battery acid ate holes in it. I don't know who thinks that thing looks good on him, but I wish it would meet with a severe laundry accident soon.

• After climbing up through several layers of dreams, the characters finally all wake up in the real world.

Shona wakes up to find she's not really a scientist assigned to an Arctic base, but a lonely shopgirl. She looks at her Christmas day itinerary, which reads:

1. DVD (ALIEN)
2. DVD (The Thing From Another World)
3. Dad Comes Round
4. DVD (Miracle on 34th Street)
5. Thrones Marathon 
6. Forgive Dave

Apparently the Dream Crabs cribbed their shared dream world from her list. There's an alien invasion (ALIEN), an Arctic base under siege from said aliens (The Thing From Another World) and Santa's even involved (Miracle On 34th Street). One could even argue that "Dad comes round" might have generated the Doctor's appearance!

Note that Shona apparently owns DVDs of three of the movies, but not Game Of Thrones. She's probably pirating it like everyone else on the planet.

Also, she crosses off the last item on the list, apparently deciding to forgive Dave, whoever he is.

Lastly, a lot of fans are apparently clamoring for Shona to become the Doctor's next companion. Eh, I don't know. She didn't do much for me, and I don't see what the big appeal is. Each to their own, I guess.

• When the Doctor wakes from the final dream world, he's lying on the surface of a reddish planet. Apparently that's where the Dream Crabs first attacked. So he's the one who started the whole dreamy ball rolling.

By the way, the planet looks a lot like the one where Clara tried to blackmail him in Dark Water. Is it really the same planet, or just the budget limitations kicking in again?

• After the Doctor wakes in the real world, he realizes Clara plans on staying in her dream. He rushes to her home, sonics the Dream Crab from her face, we see that she's now well into her eighties. He waited sixty two years too long to get back in touch with her.

When he asks her if she ever married, she says no, implying that no one could ever top him or Danny. But she says she travelled to every country and even learned to fly a plane.

Old Clara talking about her life experiences is very, very similar to Old Rose doing the same thing in Titanic.

• Santa appears and gives the Doctor a second chance. This time he sonics the Crab off of Clara and we see that she's youthful again. The Doctor says he can't tell whether Clara's young or old.

Yes, this was a nice little moment and reinforces the idea that the Doctor doesn't pay attention to our outer shells and sees what's really inside us. 

Unfortunately it just doesn't work. I get that he doesn't share human concepts of beauty, but surely to Rassilon he ought to be able to tell the difference between a twenty five year old and someone who's days away from the grave. It just makes him look like an idiot.

And if the Doctor really doesn't have any concept of human beauty standards, why is it that earlier in the episode he looks at Bellows, an older scientist in the Arctic base, and calls her "sexy?"

• About that "Old Clara" shocker: rumor has it this was supposed to be Jenna Coleman's final appearance. The original ending was for the Doctor to discover Clara was now an old woman, far too old to travel anymore. He then walked slowly into the TARDIS alone, regretting the sixty two years he wasted and could have had with his friend.

Then at the last minute Coleman decided to stay, and the ending was hastily rewritten to accommodate her change of heart.

I don't know if any of this is true or not, but I can certainly believe it. The ending in which Santa gives the Doctor a second chance certainly seems tacked on. We may never know what the original plan was.

And so begins the long, hard wait for Season 9.
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