Monday, June 27, 2016

The Lost Boys (1987) review

    The Lost Boys remains one of my favorite 80s movies, which is notable for the fact it was my first vampire movie and also a movie which is a triumph of style over substance (while still having plenty of substance). Do you remember that this movie was done by Joel Schumacher? Yes, the Joel Schumacher of Batman and Robin and Batman Forever. A favorite movie of mine was done by the same man who did those movies.

    :mind blown:

    I didn't but it makes a lot of sense as it's a mixture of darker subject matter with broad comedy with all of the speed of a music video. At an hour and a half you don't really get a chance to think about much of what happens on screen but everything is individually a great scene so you don't really have to worry about how it all relates together.

Kiefer Sutherland is awesome in this movie.
    It's difficult in this post-Buffy and Underworld reality to articulate just how much this movie changed things for vampires. Previously, they were still largely trapped in the mold set by Count Dracula or knock-offs thereof. The Hunger had already come out but even then, that was about old rich vampires (and was awesome). This was the movie which, along with Near Dark, presented a bunch of vampires who were products of the modern world and lacking any sort of aristocratic pretensions. It created the teen vampire and gave us Kiefer Sutherland's epic performance as the apparent head vampire David.

    The premise of the film, if you haven't seen it for whatever reason, is Michael (Jason Patric),  his younger brother Sam (Corey Haim), and their mother, Lucy (Dianne Wiest), to the beach community of Santa Carla, California. They're forced to live with their eccentric taxidermist grandfather (Barnard Hughes) and are bored out of their skulls living in California party town with its own boardwalk amusement park. Some people are never satisfied. Michael gets distracted by a beautiful young girl, Star (Jami Gertz), who "belongs" to the aforementioned David and his gang of teenage vampires.

Mmm, maggots.
    David is intrigued by Michael and initiates him into his gang which, after several cruel mind games, results in him being turned into a vampire. Michael hates the possibility of becoming a killer and this allows him to avoid being beyond hope. Possibly. Sam tries to recruit a pair of self-declared vampire hunters who work at the local comic book shop, the Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander), in order to help stop the menace afflicting the "Murder Capital of the World."

    There's more than a few holes in the script like how the hell the Frog Brothers know about the vampire menace. Sometimes, it seems like they're just screwing with Sam and other times they seem to be dead serious about their warnings. If they'd just gone full tilt with the Frog Brothers just screwing with Sam only to be caught up in a real vampire story, I think the story would have been slightly better.

The Frog Brothers are hilarious and awesome at once.
    Another flaw of the movie is the character of Star is completely superfluous other than being an object for Michael to lust after. Ironically, her best moment in the film isn't even related to her supposed romance with the lead. An extra Lost Girl who was fully immersed in her vampirism would have rounded the group out a bit more or just eliminating her character altogether. David's sexual chemistry with Michael is probably enough to sustain the movie by itself as he seems far more interested in our protagonist than his girlfriend.

    The soundtrack is another amazing element of this movie with "Lost in the Shadows" and "Cry Little Sister" being my favorite from the movie. None of the songs are bad, though, and this is some classic Eighties music. I also give the movie mad props for making each and every scene memorable in some way. The murders, the train rail hanging, the immortal "maggots, you're eating magots", and the laugh out-loud final line. There's nothing which fails to remain in your head during this film and that's quite an accomplishment.

    The movie does a great job of balancing horror and comedy with immensely gory scenes crossing the line into camp silliness next to dead serious ridiculousness. Horror-comedy is amazingly difficult to pull off and this movie does an amazing job doing it. There are some slip-ups as the sections with Sam are sometimes a bit too cartoonish even as the scenes with Michael aren't all that interesting. This is due to the movie's history (basically starting as The Goonies/The Monster Squad before Schumacher turned it into the awesome proto-Buffy it became).

    Why is this movie so memorable? I think because it's actually one of the few movies which functions on a level everyone can understand or relate to. Despite being only an-hour- and-a-half long, there's a lot of stuff going on with three major plots. There's Michael's attempt to get Star while being seduced into David's gang, Sam and the Frog brothers planning their vampire hunt, and Lucy trying to get her life back on track after a painful divorce.

Our heroes, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
    All of these plots eventually come together and are influenced by the others which is what we in the author business call "good writing." The teenagers actually feel like teenagers too, being mature for their (perceived) age while also immature assholes. Which of us wouldn't be tempted by the apparent freedom and "I don't give a crap" attitude of David's gang right until we're randomly murdering people? Just me? Whoops.

    In conclusion, The Lost Boys remains one of the top all-time best vampire movies because it did something different with the formula, it was fun, and it didn't overstay its welcome. It's one of those rare movies which I would have liked to have seen more of without feeling like it had to be longer. Someday, I'm going to have to watch the sequels even though I know that's just going to be punishing myself.


The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine review

    And so the saga of Geralt of Rivia comes to an end. As successful as the Witcher saga is, I'm of the mind we probably haven't seen the last video game starring either the eponymous witcher or his adopted daughter Ciri, but I do think this is very likely the end before a reboot or for a number of years. As a hypothetical end to the franchise, though, it's a pretty enjoyable piece of fanfic. Certainly, it's less depressing than the way Andrzej Sapkowski left it.

    Blood and Wine's premise is Geralt getting approached by a pair of Toussaint knights asking him to help them fight a monster terrorizing their fairy-tale kingdom. It doesn't take Geralt long to deduce this is the work of a higher vampire and is stunned by the return of an old friend who offers his peculiar insight into their condition. What follows is a tale of betrayal, greed, love, and frustrated ambition which goes in a bizarre direction before the exciting conclusion.

Toussaint is a triumph of artistic design and color.
    It's not really a spoiler to say Blood and Wine has a serious focus on vampires after the monsters have largely been absent from the Witcherverse. They're an established part of the lore with a vampire brothel showing up in the first game and the novel character of Regis, a vampire alchemist, making his return to the franchise. I like the mythology of the Witcherverse vampires with them coming in three varieties: Higher Vampires, Bruxa, and Katakans.

    Higher Vampires are near-indestructible Count Dracula in Castlevania types, Bruxa are very powerful sexy vampires, and Katakans are mindless evil vampires. Each of them plays a unique role in the setting and you get to slay all of them by the end of the game. The DLC also expands on their history and lore in the setting. One of my favorite parts is visiting a vampire temple where you learn about how the undead have fostered civilization in order to make humans easier and more available prey. :shudder:

This is one of the good guy vampires.
    Toussaint is a beautifully rendered setting and, combined with the Heart of Stone DLC, easily could have been a third Witcher game or a spin off by itself. At about twenty-hours of gaming, it's well into the size of a separate game. The culture, personalities, and adventures are all well developed with the feel of Southern France. I came to love Toussaint despite my passionate hatred of Nilfgaard and wouldn't actually mind Geralt settling down there despite, again, it would be in the territory of the Black Ones.

    I came to love the characters of Duchess Anna Henrietta, Syanna, Dettlaff, and, of course, Regis. All of them have very big and bold personalities, which contrasts nicely to the more subdued ones of the main Witcher game. Indeed, it is a common thread in the story that the people of Toussaint are just plain nicer than the people of the North. That doesn't apply to the main story, though, which is fundamentally about decent people being warped by their circumstance until the point they do terrible things to one another. There's no ending which doesn't end with someone being horribly burned.

The ladies of the court manage to be regal yet not snooty. Amazing accomplishment there for an avowed noble hater like me.
    There's a running theme throughout the DLC of the differences between true honor and the appearance of honor. This is a theme visited in Game of Thrones repeatedly but makes sense here as well. The people of Toussaint can afford to look brave and act heroic because they have the money to do so. However, their true faces come out when their positions are challenged or they aren't being rewarded for goodness. Dettlaff is a character I particularly liked and feel his endings were undeserved every bit as much as Syanna's potential ones.

    Players wondering what they'll get in terms of gameplay benefits should note the Blood and Wine Expansion comes with a base of operations for Geralt to store his booty, raises the level cap to an absurd 100 levels, and provides Grandmaster Witcher gear in order to have the best armor in the game for whatever school you prefer. There's also the option to dye your armors whatever color you prefer, which can be quite nice if you prefer Geralt in all-black or pink. I also appreciated the fact, if you deleted your save, you can just play this separately with a pregenerated character of the appropriate level as well as equipment.

Syanna is a beautiful character.
    There's some silly elements to the game which don't quite fit like when Geralt is forced to visit an illusion-based land of Western European fables which seems contradictory to the otherwise Slavic tone of the series. Also, I felt bad for slaughtering the Three Little Pigs after blowing their house down. I will say, though, this is more than made up for by the fascinating story branches and overall very serious storyline that draws from my favorite short story in the novels.

    The DLC's tone is some of the most mature in the franchise, even if it never quite reaches the epic tragedy of Heart of Stone. The writing is top notch and all of the various adventures reinforce the themes of family, betrayal, honor, glory, and love. One of the things I love about the story is a major motivation for the games events is a man being willing to do anything for his ex-girlfriend, not quite realizing she's just not that into him.

Detlaff is a wonderfully hard boss. But, for me, I prefer him not to be fought at all.
    There's also the fact the best ending of the game requires some evil people to get away scott free while some good don't get punished. The Witcher has always been one of the most mature games in fantasy so it's nice to see them push the envelope even when they're being lighter and softer. Fans of grimdark fiction will note the people of Toussaint aren't starving in the streets and have a sympathetic merciful lord but it's a place where daggers are always hiding behind pleasant smiles.

    I think the game could have benefited by having a couple of other love interests and a few more paths to take in the final choice but I also believe the game worked spectacularly. Dettlaff is probably my favorite character out of a very good collection of choices. He's a vampire who thinks more like a pack animal than a man. He protects those he cares for, destroys those he loves, and doesn't have any concept of betrayal or manipulation save that it permanently severs any trust he has for a person.

A less memorable but still intensely hard monster.
    The difficulty spike of the game is significant this time around with vampires being some of the hardest foes in the game. Even at the recommended levels for fighting the monsters, they proved to be things which required a great deal of dodging and high-level equipment in order to survive. I also regretted I didn't make more ample use of potions as they were desperately needed in several places. Really, I wish they had given some tougher armor for this game but I was most satisfied with the final equipment I possessed.

    The handling of vampires is also something I'm back on forth about. They're done masterfully and some of the best-developed vampires in gaming. However, they're also a group which contradicts the handling of them in Sapkowski's books. Sapkowski made a whole race of friendly vampires with the idea of them being a threat to humanity the result of dumb human prejudice and jealousy. Here, the vampires are some of the most threatening I've seen in years. I generally dislike friendly vampire depictions so it's kind of ironic that I'm so mixed in my feelings here.

Goodbye Geralt, enjoy your vineyard.
    In conclusion, I'm sorry to see the Witcher saga come to an end but if it had to do so then I'm glad it went out this way. Geralt of Rivia gets the option of retiring in a land which is beautiful and peaceful or he can move on to fight for justice following another tragedy. Whatever way you choose to play Geralt, you'll have a load of fun with this installment. It really is The Witcher 4 in many ways and I think every fan of The Witcher 3 should play it.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Splinter Cell: Barracuda review

    Splinter Cell: Barracuda is the sequel to the Splinter Cell novel by Raymond Benson. Both are, more or less, prequels to the original game but serve as independent adventures in their own right. For those unfamiliar with Splinter Cell, it is the adventures of Sam Fisher, secret agent operating for Third Echelon (a classified division of the NSA).

    In the previous novel, Sam successfully decimated the arms dealing terrorist organization known as the Shop but he did not destroy it. This novel, they make a return with vengeance on their mind. Having made an alliance with a renegade Chinese general, they hope to sell him the necessary nuclear arms and guidance systems in order to attack Taiwan.

    Meanwhile, Sam is starting up a relationship with his Krav Maga instructor Katia, despite the potential danger to both their lives. A mole has infiltrated Third Echelon and compromised not only Sam's identity but numerous other important operations. It's a race against the clock to prevent Taiwan from being invaded and the US coast potentially getting nuked.

    This is an okay follow-up to the original novel, resolving many of the original story's lingering plotthreads but it's not something I'm exactly overwhelmed by either. There's no real dramatic anchor the way the first book had Sarah's kidnapping. It doesn't help the Shop repeatedly shows itself to be foolish by attempting to directly challenge a branch of the US government. Likewise, General Tsun never receives any characterization other than he wants to conquer Taiwan no matter how many people has to kill in order to do it.

    Sam Fishers' relationship with Katia could have been better developed and possibly become a major part of the character's arc in the books. Instead, the relationship blows through the various stages of romance before coming to a swift climax which I think was used for cheap dramatic effect. The character of Katia is used more as a prop than an actual character and I think the book suffers as a result.

    Oddly, my favorite character in this book is one of the lesser villains in Mike Chang. Mike is a Triad infiltrator of Third Echelon who wants to make a fortune selling information from the NSA to terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, he's so confident of his backers he never stops to think that he's nothing more than a loose end they'll need to clean up. It results in him making some truly stupid decisions which is a wonder to behold. By the end, I think he's one of the more despicable but entertaining villains I've read in a while.

    The book isn't entirely without humor and I found a lot of fun to be had in hilarious moments like Sam getting captured by his targets wife, thinking he's just a burglar only for Sam to try to convince her he's a private detective and unwittingly set off a domestic disturbance incident which gets his surveillance target killed. It's comedy of errors moments like that which make this better than a generic run of the mill techno-thriller.

    In conclusion, this was an entertaining novel but not as good as the previous edition. It's a fairly paint-by-the-numbers work and one I think is okay but not especially noteworthy. It's most enjoyable for seeing the Shop finally get what was coming to them but even that's not a massive selling point. Raymond Benson could have done better (and has in other books).


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Splinter Cell: Double Agent review

    I really shouldn't be doing a review of this as Double Agent is almost certainly a game way-way too old for the majority of my reviewers. It was also one of the less regarded entries into the Splinter Cell series. It's, however, slated to be one of the Xbox 360 games which Ubisoft is going to be re-release as Backwards Compatible for Xbox One. My opinion? I wish they'd re-release the PS2 HD re-release of the first three games instead. But it's still pretty enjoyable. Warmed over Splinter Cell is still Splinter Cell. There's also a few really good elements.

    The premise is Sam Fisher, operative of Third Echelon, is on a mission to sabotage a group of Russian terrorists when he receives word his daughter Sarah was killed by a car wreck. This story element has no further bearing on the plot and apparently exists just because it's apparently "uncool" for a manly badass to have a daughter. Clearly, the developers of this game never saw 24 with its psychotically interesting protagonist or played Joel in The Last of Us. Which, fair enough, The Last of Us is six years latter but come on!

Good, bad, he's the guy you don't see coming.
    After hearing this horrifyingly traumatizing news (which is retconned in Conviction to much fan-rejoicing), Sam proceeds to get himself arrested so he can go undercover in John Brown's Army. This is a right-wing (?) domestic terrorist group which plans to strike at America for reasons which remain nebulous. Honestly, I don't expect much from Splinter Cell games in terms of villain motivation but given they chose to name themselves after a famous abolitionist and employ a black woman as their chief medic, I wanted to know a lot more about their motivations.

    Ultimately, John Brown's Army just exists for the purposes of Sam Fisher to infiltrate it and eliminate the members. Strangely, despite the fact they're engaged in gross terrorist acts from the beginning, Sam goes along with several missions while they prepare to launch a devastating strike which will cripple the United States government. According to the developers, there was originally an option to join the JBA for real and it's a shame that wasn't included in the main game as I think the premise is a lot more interesting than it's really allowed to be.

The Hong Kong mission is my favorite.
    The big draw from Splinter Cell: Double Agent is the decision system. At several points during the game, usually at the end of a level, you will be given a choice to either do an act to further the aims of the JBA or subvert them for the NSA. Each action will result in you gaining or losing reputation with one faction or the other. If you lose your reputation with one or the other, the game ends as you're disavowed by one. As a Double Agent, you have to maintain at least a bare minimum of activities for both sides.

    The game contains, for the first time, a potential love interest for Sam Fisher in Enrica Villablanca. In the original (P2/Xbox) version of the game, Sam and she actually consider running away together while the second (Xbox360/PC) version of the game has him just playing her. It's really disappointing as the game seems almost pathologically afraid of showing Sam Fisher as possessed of human emotions when these qualities are what separates him from other generic action video game protagonists.

Enric is perhaps the first love interest in Splinter Cell history.
    There's some really good levels in this game like a prison break, Shanghai, and a cruise ship. The controls are somewhat combative but work well for making it clear Sam is not an individual who should be engaging in combat. This is a pure stealth game with combat deliberately designed to be clunky and only useful when you have someone from behind. I think the game would benefit from a different control scheme but, overall, it works well.

    Michael Ironsides' performance is the heart of the Splinter Cell series and without him, it's just not the same. He doesn't have as much to work here as in Conviction, but he still manages to make Sam and intimidating yet likable figure. Don Jordon's Lambert is also an excellent performance and his character has a great send-off before his replacement in Conviction.

Emile Dufrane is quietly menacing, albeit not exceptional.
    Keith Szarabajka does a decent job as Emile Dufrane, being both intimidating as well as evil. Sadly, again, we don't have any real understanding of his motivations. I really think Rachel Reenstra's Enrica was too likable for the story and could have been much-much better developed but that's my problem with the game as a whole. The plot seems very phoned in.

    Still, the big appeal of Splinter Cell is and, hopefully, always will be the fact it is an unforgiving test of your stealth abilities. It's possible to simply murder your way through much of the game but this is less recommanded than simply avoiding conflict in the first place. There's not much interactivity in the game compared to later stealth games which would allow you to hide virtually anywhere (here, it's only under tables and desks) but it's still perfectly serviceable ten years later.

Run away! Run away!
    Double Agent adds a couple of useless features to the game like different colors of night vision which don't add any benefit to the game whatsoever. Also, there's a couple of sections in the game where visibility is obscured for Sam Fisher but not his opponents. You can also unlock a staggering variety of equipment but I never had to use anything but my trusty silenced pistol. The best device bonus I could have used there was more ammunition and even that is something of an unnecessary bonus.

    Overall, I had a pretty good time playing it. It's not as good as the previous episodes of Sam Fisher's adventures or later ones like Conviction and Blacklist but it's still entertaining. I hope they'll re-release the game soon and it'd be awesome to compile this, Conviction, and Blacklist into a single game.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ten tips for writing a vampire novel

    I love vampires but, God almighty, it's getting hard to do anything new with them. It occurs to me the thing I'd love to do most is a vampire novel but for years I couldn't think of what I could bring to the table which wouldn't be warmed over Vampire: The Masquerade. Hell, I've even contemplated doing a Young Adult mummy novel because at least that didn't seem completely ripped off but still deal with some of the same themes.

    It then struck me what I was doing wrong: I was trying to apologize for the genre. I kept trying to write the next vampire book in the same style as a bunch of other works which had been played out rather than just presenting something I felt was good. I needed to stop trying to be different but just be good. This wasn't quite enough as I realized if I was going to  do a novel in the genre then I should at least follow some rules which I jotted down for myself.

She's got enough going for her.
1:] Stop with the Mary Suedom of Vampirism

    I think part of the problem a lot of vampire movies and media have today is everyone is desperately trying to eliminate every downside to their condition. When you make vampires impossibly smooth awesome sex gods, you remove any reason why anyone but teenage girls would want to read about them. The vampires in this movie are pathetic and there are serious drawbacks to their condition.

    Every protagonist needs challenges to overcome and vampires have a ridiculous number of potential ones to deal with ranging from the classics like sunlight and repulsion by crosses to the more obscure like needing to sleep in the Earth of their homeland. Adding things like an inescapable need to count, which is an actual vampire weakness and not just something on Sesame Street, is a way of taking the polish off the undead.

    This leads to my bigger point with 2#.

Have a few drawbacks to dating her.
2:] Don't make vampires inherently romantic

    This includes in places where you're actually having romance with a vampire. Part of why the original vampire novel, Dracula, became flanderized into a romance was because the repulsion of the character was part of the charm. There's nothing inherently curious about why beautiful, rich immortal sex gods get laid. You might as well question how Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie would attract someone.

    It's much more interesting to have vampires inherently repulsive on at least some level. Maybe they look like corpses rather than just pale, have innately terrible personalities, or are, you know, genuinely frightening. When I made a character a vampire in The Rules of Supervillainy, I actually got complimented for the simple fact I made it clear getting bit in the neck hurt like hell and wasn't the slightest bit romantic. Challenging even a small trope of the undead made it more enjoyable for people. Hell, Anne Rice's vampires actually couldn't have sex but just had orgasmic bites.

3:] Balance your vampire rules (or don't)

    Vampires come in such a wide variety of shapes and sizes, it's pretty much proof that you're always going to have that scene where the guys discuss what the vampires of this setting can or cannot do. As mentioned in 1#, it's important to give your vampires weaknesses to go along with their power so they're not just Superman with fangs.

    I generally also believe it's a good idea to give them one for every power they have. One of the mistakes Anne Rice made, in my opinion at least, was she made all of her vampires invulnerable superbeings and thus took away a lot of their bite (so to speak). Make it clear and concise what your vampires can do is a good idea, but you can also go the opposite direction.

    In the Hammer Horror classic Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, they had a very interesting idea that vampires are inherently different: "As many different kinds as predatory animals." When you became a vampire, you developed your own weaknesses and abilities which were confusing as hell for hunters. Making vampiredom as mysterious for the vampires themselves as the reader is arguably much more interesting than a coherent set of rules.

Now imagine these guys eating kids.
4:] Let vampires be horrifying

    Most vampire fiction actually forget being one of the undead is supposed to be awful. I've mentioned giving back weaknesses to sunlight and de-romanticizing them but one thing I think will really help a vampire's depiction is outright atrocity. It's easy to let vampire victims be assholes or people the audience has no attachment to.

    It's quite another to have vampires, sympathetic or otherwise, tear into those who the audience likes. These sacrificial lambs were one of the reasons the early season of Buffy's vampires actually had some edge as the first episode opens with a "fake" member of the Scooby Gang, Jesse, getting murdered by the undead.

5:] Keep your vampire numbers intimate

    One thing to make a choice and commit to is whether vampires are the focus are a guest star, which is a good thing. A single vampire can be a force of nature in a book. They can tear through humans and possibly other supernaturals with ease. The Rules of Supervillainy's single vampire is a powerful creature even surrounded by superhumans. Esoterrorism has its own version of vampires as a background presence which exists as a sort of menacing shroud hanging over the rest of the world.

    Even if you're doing a vampire book about a society of vampires, it's good to keep the number of vampires low rather than turning them into cannon fodder. Vampires should never be mooks and giving them that sort of power and respect will prevent them from turning into a joke in your book.

Dark Age vampires vs. 90s vampires.
6:] Get into the nitty-gritty of vampiredom

    Very few vampire works actually give a shit about what the day-to-day life of vampires are. Usually, they're just about establishing the vampire and whatever nefarious deeds which they're going to be up to. In my opinion, this skips over the really interesting part of the condition. What do the vampires feed on? How they do they acquire their victims? What sort of victims do they prefer? Where do they live? How do they stay hidden? Most vampires just get away with their undead lives in books because the books are uninterested in telling the story. For me, I'd love to see a vampire slice-of-unlife work.

7:] Don't be afraid to mix up your genre

    Vampires can be inserted in just about genre possible. You can insert vampires in the Wild West, into science-fiction, Tolkien fantasy, or even spy fiction. Imagine James Bond using his undead abilities to help Queen and Country. They're a very flexible sort of monster that way. Going away from traditional Gothic Punk urban fantasy or the Victorian era is a pretty easy fix to make if you want do something different with your vampires.

8:] Don't try to parody but play it straight, even when parodying

    Twilight jokes are not just dated, they're carbon dated. So is making fun of Dracula. Bluntly, any parody of a vampire is going to age out of relevance by the time you get from writing to publication. Vampires are something which need to be treated completely serious if you're going to sell them to your audience and this includes if you're trying to joke about them. What We Do In the Shadows was one of the funniest vampire films of all time and the reason for that was that it played everything completely straight so that the ridiculousness of uncool vampires in New Zealand was all the more highlighted.
Some of these guys are fine. Just not all of them.

9:] Throw in a black or plain-looking vampire  

    This is just a personal observation but there's a lot of white dudes in vampiredom. Indeed, ninety-nine hundred out of a thousand vampires are white with Blade, Aaliyah's Akasha, and Blackula being about the only exceptions. Also, the vast majority of vampires are portrayed as inhumanly beautiful almost to the point of parody. So much so that Eddie the overweight vampire played Stephen "Jimmy James" Root was a memorable character simply by being an average-looking middle-aged man. Having vampires of different ethnicities and appearances, you know to better reflect the world, seems like a good idea.

10:] Don't be afraid to just write your story

     But most of all, just have confidence in your work.

What We Do in the Shadows review

    I love vampires but, God almighty, it's getting hard to do anything new with them. It occurs to me the thing I'd love to do most is a vampire novel but I can't think of what I could bring to the table which wouldn't be warmed over Vampire: The Masquerade. Hell, I've even contemplated doing a Young Adult mummy novel because at least that didn't seem completely ripped off but still deal with some of the same themes.

    But dammit, vampires are still awesome and I always am open for another example of the genre. In this case, though, I give them extra credit for making it a humorous example which tears the sacred cows (few as they remain) to shreds. It's not a perfect laugh-a-second example of comedy but it approaches that at times with its low budget almost completely irrelevant to its value as a parody.

    One might even say satire.

Viago is something of a messy eater.
    What we do in the Shadows is a faux documentary about a film crew which has been invited to join a group of four vampires living together in a New Zealand two-story house. Viago (Taika Waititi), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), Deacon (Johnathan Brugh), and Petyr (Ben Fransham) are a parody of Lestat, Dracula, The Lost Boys' David, and Count Orlock. Each of them represents an era of vampires in film. They're joined, in the end by Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who unironically compares himself to Edward from Twilight and is (of course) the least offensive member of the group to the point of not even being recognizable as a vampire.

    We follow the four, then five, of them during the build-up to the masquerade ball which is the highlight of their year. It's a slice of life comedy which shows how life for the undead goes and all of its foibles. This includes adjusting to their new flatmate in Nick as well as the fact none of them are particularly good at being a vampire. Vlad may be 800 years old but he's still hung up on his ex-girlfriend and refuses to acknowledge he may have (completely) lost his edge.

It's hard to keep fashion relevant when you're immortal.
    The vampires are used as a kind of mirror to the reality television show culture which desperately wants to think itself to be cooler and relevant than it is. The vampires have invited a crew to live with them and watch them hunt humans (frequently killing them in hilariously awful ways--which is funny because our protagonists are so bad at it) because they believe themselves to be suaver than they really are. At one point, they bring the crew to a vampire nightclub only to find the place is entirely empty that evening but for the sole person they invited.

    Indeed, the joke of the movie is predicated on the fact the main characters are convinced they're the kind of sexy awesome godlike undead of fiction but are really just four losers living in New Zealand barely able to keep the lights on. The fact they're aware, on some level, this is the case but in active denial is a wonderful source of tension the movie exploits regularly.  One of my favorite moments is when they start hassling a group of clean-cut Christian werewolves to show hardcore they are, only to come off like they're in fifth grade.

Selfies are a problem when you cast no reflection.
    There's not really much in the way of story here. It's really more a series of comic vignettes loosely tied together by the premise. Even so, the movie does an excellent job of setting up jokes in one seen and then having the pay off a few scenes later. For example, Viago is a fastidious neat-freak who insists on everything being perfect. He chews out, no pun intended, his fellow vampires for not doing the dishes in five years as well as ruining his favorite couch with blood only to accidentally hit an artery and cover an entire room in gore.

    I think part of the problem a lot of vampire movies and media have today is everyone is desperately trying to eliminate every downside to their condition. When you make vampires impossibly smooth awesome sex gods, you remove any reason why anyone but teenage girls would want to read about them. The vampires in this movie are pathetic and there are serious drawbacks to their condition.

Vlad isn't very good with shape-changing anymore.
    There's a wonderful quote from Viago which is actually poignant despite what a bizarre parody of everything vampiric this movie is. After Nick loses a friend, Viago talks about how vampires lose all their friends among mortals, come to hate them as they grow old and lose their minds then hate themselves when they're gone for that resentment.

    It evokes real-life guilt which rings too true for those who had lost a relative to a deteriorating condition. Then it becomes hilarious again when, after this depressing monologue, Viago asks if that made Nick feel any better. It's another authentic moment where even the most genuine (especially the most genuine) attempts to help are horribly awkward.

    We're all vampires in that respect.

Jam session!
    So do I recommend this movie? Oh, hell yes I recommend this movie. There's a few clumsy parts to this movie, specifically whenever they try to add plot like at the masquerade they're attending. Likewise, the low budget is mostly unnoticeable but there's a few moments it does stick out like with a few poor special effects. Still, overall, this is a hilarious piece of work and one I recommend for all vampire fans.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Splinter Cell (novel) review

    The Splinter Cell series by Ubisoft has about as much to do with Tom Clancy as I have to do with the proliferation of grimdark fiction. Which is to say, not much other than my name on a few works. Tom Clancy created the character of Sam Fisher as well as Third Echelon but everything after that was the work of Ubisoft's writers. Despite this, the Tom Clancy name has a good deal of clout in literary circles and they wanted to see if there would be an audience for it. There was, albeit not as large as the video game audience.

    While the series is officially written by David Michaels, this is a pseudonym for a variety of authors of which the first was Raymond Benson. I am a huge Raymond Benson fan from his time on the James Bond books as well as his Hitman novel. He's a great writer and the perfect guy for writing spy stories of a slightly exaggerated nature, which is what the Splinter Cell games are all about. So, is it any good? I think so, albeit more of a satisfying hamburger than lobster bisque. Call it Tom Clancy-lite, if you will.

    The premise for Splinter Cell is Sam Fisher is a 47-year-old ex-CIA agent and Navy Seal who has been recruited in his middle-age to serve as a spy for a secret branch of the NSA. Sam is not an assassin but someone who is designed to use his covert ops skills to go behind enemy lines and undercover to gather information from hostile situations. You know, what actual spies are supposed to do.

    A secret techno-savvy Arabic terrorist organization known as the Shadows (basically, ISIL before ISIL existed) is threatening Western-allied countries around the world. The Shadows are assisted by a Russian-backed crime syndicate known as the Shop. It's the sort of alliance which you'd find in a Splinter Cell game and Sam swiftly finds himself in-between the two. Sadly, in a Kiefer Sutherland's 24-like twist, his daughter Sarah ends up becoming a pawn to use against him.

   The biggest appeal of this novel is the fact it gets into the head of Sam Fisher, a character who is too often ignored in the games in order to focus on gameplay. Raymond Benson creates an image of a reserved taciturn man who has been isolated by his job but loves what little time he gets to spend with his family. Unlike James Bond, Sam is forced to be near-celibate because his job means he can never allow anyone to get too close without endangering them or the secrecy of his work.

    While threatening Sam's daughter Sarah is a somewhat easy way to create drama, it works well here as we get to know her before it happens as well as suffer through her ordeal. It's her plot rather than something which is designed to give Sam motivation to rescue her. The fact Raymond Benson was able to craft so realistic a character is something which makes the scenes where she is imprisoned and tortured all the more moving.

    The villains are nothing to write home about with Arabic terrorists and renegade Russians being played out by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Even so, Benson adds his own twists to the formulaic foes by having the leader of the Shadows more interested in his vendetta against Iraq than fighting America. The Russians are also businessman first and foremost, uninterested in the specter of a fallen Soviet Union. I found the would-be honeypot Eli to be the most interesting of them as he finds himself less than happy with the fact he's led his fake girlfriend to her (apparent) doom.

    In a very real way, this book reads like Tom Clancy-lite with realism juxtaposed against dangerous spy adventures. It's a fun little popcorn thriller and one I recommend to anyone who wants to enjoy reading about a semi-realistic spy against only slightly exaggerated terrorists. Certainly, I'm going to read the rest of the series.