Archive for March, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful (Movie Review)

Oz the Great and Powerful promo poster

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful is a slight, by-the-numbers movie that you can expect to enjoy while watching and then forget about within a week. The plot sticks to broad brushstrokes that the audience is already expected to know by heart: An egotistical circus magician gets sucked into a land where magic is real and picks up a couple cute animated sidekicks. He tries to continue as a con man, claiming to know real magic, until he’s forced to become a hero after all. It also helps that this is based on another movie the audience already knows, so there’s no need to confuse anyone with new ideas. (In fact, this Disney movie cannot be legally associated with Warner Bros.’ classic The Wizard of Oz, but they push the boundary frequently with likenesses to that movie’s icons.)

Oz coasts along on slick CGI that is enjoyable but never notable, and photogenic actors who fit smoothly into their two-dimensional characters. Sam Raimi directed this, but his flair for low-budget surprises is completely lost in the safe big-budget atmosphere. There are a good number of laughs and clever tricks, and it finds an inoffensive way to appeal to our modern deconstructionist takes on fairy tales. (Despite that, the good and pure rubes that Oz meets sound more like a cynical person’s idea of a guileless one, rather than like true innocents.) The only real surprise, though, is how predictably it plays out. The movie contains a single clever twist, but rather than playing up any uncertainty about the new information we get, the movie proceeds as if it were proven. Even the citizens of Oz immediately seem to switch loyalties after this private four-person conversation occurs, because why should the audience have to remember that not everyone knows the same things? For all its efforts at a modern, self-aware twist on a classic, Oz subscribes to a clear-cut view of good and evil that even most fairy tales would consider unsubtle.

For all its inadequacies, this movie mainly works as a light popcorn flick suited to today’s formulas. One thing keeps me from giving it a half-hearted recommendation, though: Its portrayal of female characters is especially bad. I normally don’t talk about this too much, and just agree from time to time that, yes, as The Bechdel Test demonstrates, most movies still have a subtext that women only matter for their relationships with men. Here, though, that’s not subtext so much as a starting assumption. The only things that define the female characters here are whether they’re Fairy Tale Good or Fairy Tale Evil, and what their feelings are for the title character. It’s never questioned that the competent woman who drags Oz along to his destiny will gratefully fall in love with him when given the chance, because why should she hold out for an equal? And when we learn the backstory of the Wicked Witch, I found it to be tragic and a little disturbing. She’s driven entirely by vindictiveness over a man who shouldn’t matter that much, and tricked into that by someone who is manipulating her to the dark side. Even when she finds out that she was tricked, she sticks to evilness and jealousy, because she literally gives up her agency and cannot make another decision.

I’ve discussed those concerns with a few other people, but they didn’t mind it at all. I think that is just because we already know the Wicked Witch is evil, so this is just interpreted as required backstory rather than something happening to a real character. And they’re right that the movie is too cartoonish to take its characters seriously. But it’s not really a good sign when a movie is saved by the fact that no one will care much about what happens in it.

Grade: C

 

Jo Walton – Among Others (Book Review)

Among Others cover

Jo Walton – Among Others

Jo Walton’s Among Others is a fantasy story about someone who loves science fiction and fantasy literature. New books are the most exciting thing in fifteen-year-old Morwenna Phelps’ life, and often the only reason she keeps going when she feels all alone in the world. It’s a clever trick for the book, given that it’s aimed at an audience who probably felt the same way. Of course, the audience didn’t have real fairies and magic to compete with their reading attention, but Among Others manages to thread that needle very well. The fairies in Morwenna’s life don’t work at all like the ones in books, and she prefers the stories to her reality. If your fifteen-year-old self could identify with that, you’ll find this to be a sensitive character portrayal.

The story is told through Morwenna’s journal, and it frequently pays more attention to the books she’s reading than the events going on around her. If you’ve ever read Walton’s posts at Tor.com, this will feel very familiar to you. Walton blogs specifically about the novels she is currently re-reading, and has a new one to discuss every few days despite also reading plenty of new books. Her character here has the same speed and enthusiasm, as well as also being born in Wales in 1964. The book gained an interesting subtext when I realized that I couldn’t tell where autobiography ended and fiction began.

Morwenna’s voracious reading may be a bit too much, though. I also read a lot at her age, with a focus on the classic SF from this novel’s setting, but not nearly to the extent that Morwenna does. I did at least know of all the authors mentioned, but many of the references were lost on me. And since she applies the lessons and ideas of her favorite books to the world around her, it’s important to be able to keep up. While I identified strongly with the broad strokes of her character, the details often made her seem as distant from me as a character who didn’t read at all. (Don’t even bother with this if you aren’t familiar with Heinlein. It also helps to know Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, but you can get away with just reading the Wikipedia page.)

Fortunately, Morwenna is a good character throughout. She is sympathetic, she grows, and the tension between real fairies and science fiction stories makes a perfect metaphor for a geek coming of age. (Other characters are also well-drawn, and seem to be three dimensional even when Morwenna is too self-absorbed to notice. However, they tend to come into focus and then fade away when her social situation changes. It feels realistic for a teenage diary, though it means we don’t see any real story arcs other than hers.) Among Others is a tender story about both youth and genre literature. And surprisingly, that makes it completely unique withn genre literature.

Grade: B

 

Are We Entering a Post-Webcomics Era?

I’m becoming a little wary of writing about how the webcomics industry is changing, because every time I look back on those articles six months later, they seem so obvious that I’m a little embarrassed to have written them. But I want to respond to a blog post from Monday written by John Allison (of the excellent Bad Machinery).

Titled “Post webcomics“, Allison explains his worry that we’re leaving the era in which webcomics like his could succeed. His take is that online comics of the past decade used a dedicated website to create an identity and maintain loyal readers. Now that most people experience the internet through social media services instead of individual websites, that relationship between artist and audience is lost. Instead, sites like Tumblr let many more people distribute comics, but everything goes into a single messy feed that doesn’t promote loyalty. Allison’s concern is that it’s becoming easier to get people to click a Thumbs Up button, but harder to find anyone who will stick around to give you money.

I want artists to get paid for their work, and I sympathize with Allison’s concerns. However, I don’t think it’s really getting harder to succeed. It’s not like the webcomics industry has ever been a safe, static one, and I’m sure Allison (who has moved confidently between three major comics now) understands this. Yes, the trend towards social media sites is a challenge, but the movement towards social media itself is an opportunity. By definition, social media gives you the chance to create the fanbase and identity that Allison wants his website to provide. The recent explosion of webcomics Kickstarter projects is evidence that fanbases are still willing to support creators. In fact, Kickstarter is a brand new way for webcomics creators to make money. We also seem to be getting closer to iPhone apps that provide a small, regular revenue stream for creators. And as sites like ShiftyLook show, webcomics have become so popular that companies are willing to fund them for their own marketing purposes.

That last point is my key takeaway. Not because I think that corporate sponsorship is the wave of the future, but because webcomics have become that popular. I remember in the heyday of John Allison’s alleged “webcomics era”, when Joey Manley posted his predictions for the year 2007. Chief among them, that popular comics would become ever more entrenched and that no new ones would challenge their popularity. That seemed self-evident at the time… but 2007 turned out to be the year of XKCD. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of Homestuck, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Axe Cop, and many others. (Not to mention juggernauts like Dresden Codak, which existed before then but hadn’t yet become popular.) Name your ten favorite webcomics, and I’ll bet you that Manley’s prediction predated half of them. The webcomics world is a much more diverse, vibrant place now than it was at the end of 2006, and a lot more money seems to be changing hands as well.

If I were going to summarize the difference between making webcomics now and making them in the last decade, it wouldn’t be in terms of websites vs. Tumblr streams. Instead, I think the difference is that webcomics readers used to be a small, dedicated scene, and now they’re basically the world. In 2006, your webcomic could only be successful if virtually everyone in the community was aware of you. Today, there is no “community”, because “people who browse the web for entertainment” describes pretty much the whole developed world. You could be virtually unknown in the wider world and still have thousands of true fans willing to support you. That requires a different way of approaching things, but it’s not necessarily bad.

Yes, Allison is right that 99% of the audience is just going to glance at comics as they stream by. But if the audience itself has increased one thousand-fold, then the 1% who are active represent a huge increase overall. It’s always been true that most webcomics will fail to find an audience, and that most people at comic conventions won’t appreciate Bad Machinery. Allison has seen that before, and I think his current worries come just from seeing a different angle on it. It seems to me that the webcomics industry is healthier now than it’s ever been.

Board Game Capsule Reviews: Fillers

My board game reviews have rarely looked at any “fillers”. These are the simple ten-to-twenty minute games you might play as friends start to trickle in for game night, or when you’ve finished your longer game and are waiting for another group to finish theirs. Almost by definition, fillers are rarely as satisfying and replayable as the longer, more complex games. Even so, there is an art to making good ones. Here are reviews of four fillers I’ve gotten in the past couple years.

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Robin Sloan – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Book Review)

“There are plenty of people who, you know — people who still like the smell of books.”

“The smell!” Penumbra repeats. “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell.”

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore cover

Robin Sloan – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

The tension between physical and digital books is a big topic today, and so it’s unsurprising to find a novel based around that. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore strikes an admirable balance, appreciative of the past while also celebrating the future. Its characters generally don’t see this divide in black-and-white terms, either. There’s the mysterious old bookstore owner, for example, who is actually fascinated by the promise of new technology. Also, people on both “sides” share many things in common. But this nuanced look at technology and cultural changes is overshadowed by a plot about a puzzle-solving secret society, and the series of missions that the narrator must go through to learn the truth.

When he isn’t caught up in his especially arbitrary Dan Brown pastiche, author Robin Sloan manages to pass for Neal Stephenson-lite. He has a firm understanding of modern technology and culture, and that permeates the book in a way that seems real but will also make this feel dated in three years. However, Sloan doesn’t mind adding obviously false details to make the plot work, which clashes with the realism. Overall, it seems best to think of this as a parable about our time, but the points are still a little unclear. For example, at the start of the book, narrator Clay Jannon is a techie facing long-term unemployment in today’s economy. But Sloan also wants to comment on today’s new media and commercial opportunities, so every supporting character he introduces is successful and fulfilled in their unique, quirky job. To accept the story, you need to appreciate both that jobs are nearly impossible to find and also that everyone is defining their own successful niche, and the novel never does anything to address this contrast.

Despite the nuanced view on books-versus-technology, characters aren’t very fleshed out. Effectively, they are plot tools just as surely as the made up technologies, books, and even subcultures that all turn out to be just what Clay needs to overcome challenges. In fact, Clay seems especially one-dimensional. For the most part, he just reacts to events around him, and the only hint of character development we get early on is that he is so eager to keep a job that he goes along with the mysterious events happening at the bookstore. But later, he turns out to be dedicated to open source software and free information, so every time he is entrusted with information he immediately tells someone else about it. This sudden willfulness surprised me, and I kept expecting him to get in trouble for betraying other peoples’ confidences. It turns out not to matter, though. Everything that Sloan writes is in service to the plot of the book and its mysteries, so basically, once the reader has learned something, why should anyone bother hiding it from the rest of the characters any more? (Similarly, even fleeting characters who shouldn’t even know about the mystery are presumed to be really interested in its outcome at the end.)

Mr. Penumbra is a cute book (if a little too confident in how charming its modern setting is), and it almost succeeds as a light, turn-your-brain-off-and-ignore-the-coincidences, mystery. This worked sometimes, but I had trouble letting go. The problem is that the novel’s hook is supposed to be about something, with a lot of tantalizing glimpses of the way technology is changing our culture. But since I kept rolling my eyes at the plot and characters, it wasn’t possible for those ideas to go anywhere. This book would have been more enjoyable if it hadn’t tried, and failed, to address serious themes.

Grade: C