Jan 30, 2013


This little story's about four years old, and it isn't doing much other than taking up a tiny percentage of my Google Drive space. So I'm throwing it out here for you, if you haven't seen it already, and then I'm going to forget it.

So here it is. And don't worry, it's pretty short.

Speak Softly

The first time I saw the ghost was on a Sunday morning. I was trying to sleep in that morning, and even the 10 AM sun pouring through my cheap curtains had been unable to rouse me. I was having a pleasant, somewhat nebulous dream involving a nubile pop star whose music was the only thing about her I didn't like.

She wasn't even a real pop star, just some amalgam of various singers too young for me to fantasize about without feeling like a dirty old man, but she and I had just hit it off wonderfully. We were walking together on the beach in front of a beautiful sunset. She stopped and looked up at me, her deep blue eyes full of desire. As I pulled her toward me to kiss her as she desperately wanted me to, she spoke, and her voice was peculiar in that it sounded distinctly like a middle-aged man.

"The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us," she proclaimed seriously.

The voice was gruff, but it was quiet enough that it didn't immediately startle me awake. I just opened my eyes, puzzled. I lay in bed for a long moment, and while I regretted the sudden disappearance of my paramour, I found myself deeply curious as to what the hell she'd been talking about. After a moment, however, I sat up. I then blinked with some alarm at a silent figure seated near the end of my bed.

He was a stout, fifty-something man with a bushy, grayish mustache and dark hair slicked down and parted down the middle. He was dressed in a dark brown twill suit, so old-fashioned and odd that it was more a costume than an outfit.

"Who are you?" I demanded, attempting to sound more indignant than fearful.

The man peered at me with a critical eye over a ridiculous pair of pince-nez spectacles. After a long, uncomfortable moment's contemplation, he looked away, gazing around the room. He nodded at my closet, which was overflowing with a chronic backlog of dirty laundry.

"I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life," he said. "I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well."

I stared at him for several seconds. He smiled at me and chuckled, hopping off the bed with a surprising spryness.

"There is not a man of us who does not at times need a helping hand to be stretched out to him," he said, pulling my over-full laundry basket out of the closet. He began gathering various dirty socks, shirts and jockey shorts off of the floor and placing them atop the pile. "And then shame upon him who will not stretch out the helping hand to his brother."

"Seriously," I said, climbing out of bed, then picking up and pulling on a tattered bathrobe, "who in the hell are you, and why are you in my house?"

He stood up, hefting the full basket, and nodded toward the bedroom door.

"Roosevelt," he said, balancing the basket somewhat precariously on one knee and holding out a large, meaty hand, which I found myself shaking without thinking about it, "Theodore Roosevelt."

He winked at me. "Friends call me Teddy," he said with a smile, "And I've got a lot of friends." He let go of my hand and stood there holding my laundry.

"Teddy Roosevelt," I said.

He nodded.

"The president," I said.

He nodded.

"The dead president," I said.

He shrugged.

I sighed, relieved. "For a minute I thought you were some crazy person," I told him. The ghost offered no response so I opened the bedroom door. "You want some waffles?"

After hauling my laundry into the garage (I had to run it myself -- he had no idea how to work the washer), Roosevelt sat at my kitchen table and watched me as I put four Eggos in my toaster oven. He watched me as I got the syrup out of the cupboard and the butter out of the fridge. He watched me pour the orange juice. I poured us each a small glass, because I was almost out.

When I tossed the empty container into my recycling bin, Roosevelt nodded approvingly."The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem," he said. "Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others."

"Yeah," I agreed. "Maple syrup?"

Roosevelt nodded. "Please."

We sat at the kitchen table and ate our waffles in silence. Occasionally, I would look up and meet Roosevelt's gaze. He'd smile and raise his fork in mini-salute.

I considered going out and getting the paper, but ghosts can be peculiar about current events, and the thought of the conversations that might force us to have was a bit much. It depends on the ghost, of course, but generally you don't want to open a newspaper in front of them unless you're looking for a four-hour discussion in which you explain things like American Idol and how that whole Soviet Union thing turned out.

For his part, Roosevelt seemed content to just eat. He nodded politely to me when I took his plate.

"Um… Anyway," I hemmed, "I'm supposed to go down to the park and play a little ball at noon…"

Roosevelt nodded, smiling, as I spoke. He took off his spectacles and cleaned them with a handkerchief.

"So, uh … I guess I'd better take a shower," I finished.

"To borrow a simile from the football field," Roosevelt said, "we believe that men must play fair, but that there must be no shirking, and that the success can only come to the player who hits the line hard." He smacked his hand on the table to emphasize something, but I wasn't sure what it was.

"Yeah. Well, it's basketball," I told him, "but I'm sure the sentiment is the same."

He nodded.

"Okay, well, I'll just go take a shower, then."

So I did. A long shower.

"I saw a ghost this morning," I said, as Jeff's free-throw bounced off the backboard. He caught the rebounding ball and dribbled it idly, considering."Again?" he asked.

I pointed toward Roosevelt, who now sat at a court-side bench. "That's him sitting over there." Roosevelt grinned and waved as Jeff looked over.

"Oh. I thought he was just some guy," Jeff said, waving back automatically. "So who's this one?"

"Says he's Teddy Roosevelt," I shrugged.

"Huh." Jeff pondered this for a moment. "You're moving up in the world, then, eh?" He grinned and I gave a noncommittal grunt. Jeff cocked an eyebrow. "Come on. He's better than that lawyer who was following you around in April."

"Hey, Frank helped nail Al Capone," I reminded him.

"Yeah, but he was kind of annoying with all that bitching about being left out of The Untouchables."I couldn't argue with that, it had been annoying. I still wondered how anyone could be upset that he was left out of a Kevin Costner film, particularly one I hated that much.

"He looks like he wants to play," Jeff observed.

Roosevelt was dressed in a grey, shapeless track suit or wrestling outfit. It had "HARVARD" stenciled across the chest. He also had a white towel draped over the back of his neck.

"He'll have to wait ‘til Adam gets here," I said, and Roosevelt sat patiently while Jeff and I played a little half-assed one-on-one.

Adam showed up about five minutes later.

"Who's that?" he asked

"Teddy Roosevelt," I said. "He wants to play," I added, as Roosevelt jumped up and strode over to us, a big smile under his bushy mustache.

Adam smirked. "He's on your team, ghostbuster."

I frowned, eyeing Roosevelt. He was spry but a bit thick-looking, and not particularly tall. Adam and Jeff were both taller than me, and better shots, too, so this seemed a bit unfair. The ghost of Frank Wilson had been following me through most of the previous Spring, when they had been really into playing pool, and I had perpetually been teamed with the ghost lawyer, whose skill with a cue was nearly as nonexistent as he was.

We separated, Jeff and Adam taking the ball to their end of the court. Roosevelt clapped me on the shoulder.

"It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed," he said.

I rolled my eyes and he laughed, punching me lightly on the shoulder.

Jeff and Adam laughed at some joke as they came down the court, passing the ball back and forth.

"Ready, Mr. President?" Adam said with exaggerated formality.

Roosevelt inclined his head toward Adam slightly and answered, "Optimism is a good characteristic, but if carried to an excess, it becomes foolishness," prompting the other guys into polite laughter.

It was the last laugh either of them had for the next 20 minutes -- Roosevelt was dynamite.

After he had stolen the ball and scored three times in as many minutes, Jeff and Adam started double-teaming him. It didn’t help much. He was just as adept at passing it to me as he was at rebounding.

When it was starting to get pretty embarrassing, Adam made the mistake of fouling Roosevelt rather obviously. An "accidental" elbow to the solar plexus from Roosevelt forced Jeff to call a time-out while Adam sat on the court wheezing.

"We must treat each man on his worth and merits as a man," Roosevelt said to me, winking.

"I couldn't agree more," I grinned in reply.

Jan 29, 2013

Game Review: The Cave

Rating: 6.5/7 Dark Secrets

The Cave is the latest game from DoubleFine, makers of Psychonauts, which is one of my favorite games, and Brutal Legend, which is not (but it's decent). It lets you delve into a mysterious sentient Cave with seven strange and darkly amusing characters.

The catch? There's more than one, actually.

For starters, you must choose three of the seven to guide through their journey, and that choice is tough considering who you are choosing from: the Knight, the Time Traveller, the Scientist, the Hillbilly, the Adventurer, the Monk, and the creepy Twins. Who you take on your journey not only determines what you can do (as each has a unique power or ability), but also determines which areas of the Cave you can access. There are both shared areas, such as the Zoo and the Gold Mine, which are experienced by all, and also character-specific areas, like the Castle, the Victorian Manor, and the Carnival.

I can probably short-circuit any qualms you might have about this choice by assuring you that the game was easily good enough to entice me to play it through three times, and thus take every character through at least once.

Every area is beautifully rendered, with an art style reminiscent of Psychonauts, albiet a bit less deranged-looking. The Voice of the Cave will also be familiar if you've played that game, as Stephen Stanton voiced Agent Sasha Nein.

My only criticism of this game is really a backhanded compliment: I wish it was longer.

There is certainly replayability -- in fact if you don't replay it at least as many times as I have, you won't even have seen all the areas -- but I would absolutely pay for some DLC if it involved new characters with their own secrets.

If you are going to judge it by a single play-through, I would highly recommend taking the tour with the Time Traveller, the Twins, and the Adventurer. Or the Scientist ... or the Knight ... The Hillbilly is fun, too. And the Monk. ... Yeah. Good luck deciding. Definitely the Time Traveller, though.

Jan 25, 2013

Improv, Revisited

So the last (and only) time I posted about improv in this space, I said:

It's a little irritating when you go into something thinking you're going to be great at it and you're just so-so.
Let me assure you that it's not a hell of a lot of fun to look back at a year and a half of working on something and feel about the same, or even feel that "so-so" might have been a generous self-assessment. 

I've done, by my very rough count, about 20-25 improv performances, and about 180 or so hours of classes, workshops, and practices in that time. A fair amount of work and, yet, generally speaking, I still wonder if I'm any good at this at all. 

I've worked with truly great coaches and teachers of the craft: Miles Stroth, Heather Campbell, Billy Merritt, Jeff Hawkins, et al. I've played with a great team of guys (Harvey Rocketship), all of whom I esteem greatly. 

And yet, after all that, I still don't know, when I'm out there, whether I'm inciting yawns or laughter. I know there are people who I think are pretty good who still strike out a lot, and I wonder uncomfortably about the math of that. I'm quite sure I'm not as good at this as X and here he is blowing it. If I blow it more often than he does in proportion to how good I think he is ... yeesh.

I think a lot of improv folks are probably reflecting on their progress over the last year and a half in the wake of Heather and Miles' unseating in the UCB Cagematch after 49 consecutive wins. It's a convenient era to measure against and, for anyone familiar with their work, it feels very significant.

Still, I did think I was going to be better at this than I feel, and I wish that feeling wasn't quite so familiar.

Hah! Made you look.

Desperate plea for attention or novelty post based on an email I happened to get from the blog traffic monitor? Who can say?

Well, thanks for looking anyway. For those of you visiting from Facebook or Twitter, this is what we used to do before technology advanced to the point that we could distill all important things down to about 40 words. I hear there was an even older technology based on some kind of crazy paper (like toilet paper? LOL) contraption, but the details are sketchy.

Anyway. Maybe I'll post here some more, since I have a vague idea that it's better to write even these little bits of nothing than to just fiddle around on the internet ... wait. Actually, this is just fiddling around on the internet. Shit.

Well. Let's say I reserve the right to write something here that isn't totally pointless. Whether or not I'm even capable of exercising that right these days is debatable. Maybe I'll just talk about improv or video games -- the two subjects I am most conversant with these days other than SQL and C#, which are not big crowd pleasers.

So, I guess it's time to think some shit up!

After coffee.

Feb 7, 2012

Five Things Wrong with Avatar that Aren't the Plot

Because I like commenting on movies I saw a couple years ago and thought were kinda "meh." Also because I forgot to post this at the time.

  1. Cameron missed the opportunity to create something more profound when Jake communes with Aywa. I would have liked to hear something, anything significant to Jake himself rather than just crowd noises signifying the spirits of Na'vi past. How about his brother's voice? I think Grace's voice would have been too cheesy.
  2. Who the hell watches their brother be cremated? Here's a hint, Jim: No one.
  3. Who the hell pitches a job to a guy while he watches his brother being cremated? For a hint, see #2.
  4. Col. Quartich could really have used a tiny shred of humanity. He was such a cartoonish villain that a twirlable mustache seemed like an omission. Contrast that with the equally violent and genocidal Lt. Coffey from The Abyss: despite everything he did you actually could feel a tiny bit of empathy for him right before he was crushed to death.
  5. I think we needed to see Jake tame the Toruk, or at least be told why it was considered such a big deal. The way it was presented made it seem a lot easier than when he tamed the Ikran (the banshee). Hell, even the Pa'li (the horse-thing) seemed more difficult to master.

Capsule Reviews

Here are several movies I've seen and been too lazy to blog about, collected in one half-assed burst, and in no particular order:

The Fountain - Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, 2006
This is a very beautiful movie with an amazing score by Clint Mansell. It is a surrealistic exploration of a man's quest for immortality, not for himself, but for the woman he loves. It's told as both a semi-linear narrative of a research doctor attempting to find a treatment for brain tumors and stumbling upon much more, and much less, and as a story-within-the-story, of a conquistador seeking the Fountain of Youth/Tree of Life. The conquistador portions have some action, but the film is very much in the vein of Solaris or 2001 in being a sci-fi/fantasy movie but not an action movie. I found it interesting, but slow and a bit repetitive. Overall, I'd give it a B, though it is really a matter of taste.

50/50 - Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, 2011
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll yell "shut up, asshole" at Seth Rogen's character repeatedly. Angelica Huston and Phillip Baker Hall both give great supporting performances, as does Anna Kendrick, though she seems to be in danger of early typecasting. There are a couple of stumbles, including a metaphor that gets picked up, bobbled, and forgotten. 40/50

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil - Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, and Katrina Bowden, 2010
The premise, that a pair of hillbillies are terrorized by college co-eds who believe they are psycho killers, is pretty ingenious, and the movie more or less manages to carry it off. Tyler Labine is extremely endearing as Dale, and Alan Tudyk's Tucker -- a cynical, wise hillbilly with a simple dream of his own vacation home -- is who you can't help but feel sorry for. The supporting cast is a bit of a let-down, and the villain of the film, a preppie asshole played by Jessie Moss, is way too cartoonishly nasty at times, but the title characters really do make the film a hell of a lot of fun to watch. B+

The Guard - Brendon Gleeson and Don Cheadle, 2011
Way too much "hey, hey, hey, look how quirky these crazy Irish people are," for me. Gleeson is always fun to watch but Cheadle is hit or miss, and largely miss here, for me. The villains of the film -- a trio of off-beat drug dealer refugees from a Guy Ritchie movie -- just don't work that well for me. I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I actually did. It certainly has moments, but I think it's pretty overrated as well. It gets a lot of comparisons to In Bruges, mainly because of Gleeson's presence in both, but In Bruges is a much, much better film, thanks largely to Ralph Fiennes playing a broader, nastier, funnier villain than the three drug dealers here put together. C

Dec 5, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Rating: Close Encounter of the 1/3 Kind

Dumb science fiction is sometimes fun. The first Transformers film was idiotic, but a real blast to watch. Hell, even Star Wars is pretty dumb, but it's one of my favorites.

And the science in a movie can be really terrible and still allow for a great time. The Matrix, for instance, makes no sense whatsoever, but I love it.

But even good science couldn't save a shitty movie, and Battle: Los Angeles is one of the shittiest I've sat through in quite some time. Laughable science is the least of its problems.

Taking its cue from a multitude of "bad idea" science fiction, the invading alien force eschews any sort of logical plan in their invasion of earth. In point of fact, they seem to have read the playbook of every poorly-planned invasion of our planet since the dawn of cinema. Two films in particular seem to have inspired them:

Independence Day: "Hey, let's rig up all our spaceships so they take energy and commands from one central hub, which the humans can't possibly destroy in a heroic third-act push."
Signs: "Sure we came light-years to attack this planet, and our technology is vastly beyond anything humans can even comprehend, but how about we run around on foot and kill them one by one?"

Why are the aliens here, you ask? Well, to save you the trouble of watching this ham-fisted, dull, and horribly unimaginative movie, I'll just tell you: They want to steal our water. Because, you see, Earth has it in liquid form.

Yes, you heard that right. These aliens are advanced enough to haul hundreds of thousands of tons of soldiers and equipment (at the very least) across the vast emptiness of space, and ruthless enough to obliterate an entire native intelligent species, because they apparently don't know how to melt ice.

Alright, so they need liquid water (a preposterous amount of it, as one idiotic "science-y" bit would have us believe that the ocean levels are dropping perceptibly in the few hours the aliens have been attacking). So, of course, the FIRST THING the aliens do when they have landed all their invasion forces in the ocean, is tromp out on land, attacking every major coastal city in the world (apparently --though only a dozen or so are actually mentioned, San Diego, San Francisco, and L.A. all get the treatment, so it has to be pretty widespread).

I know, I know, movies like this aren't about logic or interesting ideas -- they're about entertainment, right? Well, maybe movies like this, but not this one. This one commits every major sin a movie like it can possibly commit.

It is populated entirely by forgettable, one-dimensional soldier stereotypes (the rookie, the tough chick, the guy with a chip on his shoulder, the inexperienced officer, and, of course, the grizzled veteran -- in this case, Aaron Eckhart providing the grizzle). And alongside them are two children and two civilians, none of whom do we care about even a little. It wants to be like Aliens, where each soldier had a personality and, while we may not have become too attached to them, we at least knew their names, but instead it is like ... well, like every bad attempt to copy Aliens of the last two decades.

Its true sin, however, is that it is booooring. The battle scenes are Blackhawk Down-wannabe kinetic craziness, but it never manages to be even slightly convincing. The characters do a lot of talking that is clearly supposed to be "character building" but really just seems to lengthen the amount of time we wait for anything to happen.

One scene that seems to go on forever involves a field vivisection of a wounded alien in an attempt to find it's "weak spot." The intrepid soldiers divine that they should shoot the aliens "just to the right of where the heart would be," which one would assume would be sort of the default place you'd shoot anything that looked vaguely like a person. They proceed to tell the rest of the marines this important tip, and then everyone proceeds to ignore it for the idiotic time filler it is and run them over with trucks instead.

And the aliens are boring, too. We see a grand total of maybe five variations on the attacking forces: soldier, leader, "tank thing," aerial drone, and mothership. We never learn anything of any significance about the aliens, except that they are terrible at planning and carrying out invasions. They have no personality at all and they don't even look particularly good.

I've heard that the company that made the reputedly-terrible Skyline ripped this movie off somehow, but honestly I don't see anything at all worth ripping off.