Xena: Warrior Princess Gets A Reboot

Word just broke that the long-rumored Xena reboot has finally materialized. While Lucy Lawless doesn’t seem to be involved in the project, Sam Raimi is back at the helm.

I admit that I had a lot of qualms about the idea of a Xena reboot when I first heard about it several months ago. Xena was one of my favorite shows growing up, and there’s a lot that could have gone wrong with a reboot if the project was handed off to the wrong people. Xena was a show that revolved around a layered and deep friendship between two women, and had a remarkable amount of diversity. Sam Raimi never shied from casting black actors, unlike many Hollywood types in his position who create a whites-only narrative behind the flimsy–and ironically inaccurate–excuse of “because historical accuracy!!!”

Learning that Javi Grillo-Marxuach (known for Lost, The Middleman, Helix, and seaQuest) is also signed on has given me quite a bit of hope for the series. I find this quote from the Cnet article I linked above particularly reassuring:

Let me give you an itty-bitty peek at the store by telling you a few words you won’t be hearing from me: Grim. Gritty. Dire. Depressing.

I’ve made no effort to hide how I’m bored of and exhausted by the 2edgy4me grimdark “not afraid to GO THERE” trend that has throttled the creativity and joy out of so many properties in recent years. If the Xena reboot will build on the fun and adventurous spirit of the original ahow, then I’m all for it.

My deepest desire is that they keep the balance between two differing types of feminine personalities: Xena the ass-kicker and her more diplomatic counterpart. So often in TV, movies, books, and games, women are left with one female character and a mass of male characters. As no single female character can speak to every female audience member, there’s often a very unsatisfying attempt to create a generic “strong female character” while the male characters are given distinct and unique personalities that set them apart from one another.

Xena never strayed into that territory because with abundance of female presence, there was something for everybody. The women were all allowed to be different and have their own flaws and strengths. Some were soft and quiet, some were loud and aggressive, some driven by love, some driven by vengeance, and many were blends of traits that were commonly attributed to women or men. It’s a theme I genuinely hope will continue on in the new series.

PS: Dear God I hope they bring back Joxer the Mighty. My fangirlism for Ted Raimi is just as strong at 30 as it was when I was 13.

Viscera Cleanup Detail: Santa’s Rampage

Santa's RampageI reviewed Viscera Cleanup Detail several months ago but I’ve been waiting for the holiday season to roll around before diving into the Christmas extra, Santa’s Rampage.

Santa’s Rampage is the jolliest time you’ll ever spend while knee-deep in elf guts and reindeer chunks. This time around you’re an elf tasked with cleaning up the fallout from Santa’s killing spree at his workshop in the North Pole. (Rudolf…doesn’t make it. I’m so sorry). Anybody who’s a fan of Weird Al’s The Night Santa Went Crazy is sure to love this gleefully gory holiday nightmare.  His Christmas At Ground Zero and BNL’s Elf’s Lament are also great songs to listen to while playing.

Santa's Rampage 2

As it’s just extra content for the main game, there’s sadly only one level, but at the same time that keeps the concept from feeling repetitive or stale. For those who enjoy a challenge there is an achievement for clearing the level without damaging or incinerating a single Christmas item. Overall it’s a short and sweet addition for fans of Viscera Cleanup Detail and it’s something I look forward to making into a personal tradition to get in the spirit of Christmas.

And because I just couldn’t resist:

The Middleman

I enjoyed Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s short-lived TV show The Middleman but never got around to reading the graphic novels they were based on. Recently I rectified that oversight and I couldn’t have been more delighted.

The MiddlemanThe Middleman centers around a main character of the same name and his sidekick Wendy. Wendy is an artist picking up odd jobs to supplement her almost nonexistent income from painting. When her temp job is quite literally obliterated by a giant tentacle monster, she gets thrown unceremoniously into the world of The Middleman, a former Navy SEAL turned fighter of fantastical beings who lives by the motto, “Fighting evil so you don’t have to.”

The series is slightly campy and lighthearted, an homage to an older generation of comic books where the good guy is a dashing model citizen.

The art is black and white but highly detailed. There’s a fusion of old and new styles. The Middleman and many bit characters have that Silver Age feel to them while Wendy feels distinctly modern.

The pacing is tight and never drags nor feels rushed, and the characters all have good chemistry and play well off one another.

Tales From A Galaxy Far, Far Away

As another installment of the journey to The Force Awakens, Disney Lucasfilm Press released four stand-alone novellas by Landry Q. Walker. All are subtitled Tales From A Galaxy Far Away, and are part of the same series as The Perfect Weapon.

All four are compact stories that take place far outside the purview of the main Star Wars film characters and storyline. As they’re so short, I decided to review all four here instead of creating individual posts for each story.

All Creatures Great and Small: First up, we have a tale with a unique concept. It centered around an elderly storyteller with an affinity for communicating with small creatures. It had a Jim Henson vibe that I found particularly enjoyable. The hero was a very original choice in a franchise that’s usually dominated by swaggering blaster-wielders and powerful Force users. There were also plenty of fun and funky alien pets for the Star Wars fauna lovers to enjoy. This was definitely my favorite of the four tales.

The Face of Evil: This was by far my least favorite of the series. Everything about it fell flat. The lead was a cardboard cutout with motivations that were hard to believe. All her decisions defied logic. The ending was extremely obvious from early on and it just felt cheesy when the dramatic reveal was made. There was also a really bizarre attempt to cram in a Frankenstein parody, complete with a hunchbacked assistant supposed to be an Igor stand-in aiding the mad scientists who used bolts of lightening to bring life to their monstrous creations. There was no protagonist and nobody for the reader to actually care about.

High Noon of Jakku: This was an enjoyable read that chose a unique take. It opens with a show-down between the constable of a small barren town on Jakku and a rogue droid before pulling back to unfold the tale of how the two came to face off. There was a distinct Western flavor that was a bit reminiscent of Firefly. It was a droid-heavy story, which is always a big hit with me personally.

The Crimson Corsair and the Lost Treasure of Count Dooku: Finally we have the story with the closest ties to the Prequel trilogy. There’s many references to the Clone Wars peppered throughout, which makes sense as this story has its roots there. As it was driven by the concept of the mysterious fate of a long-lost treasure, there wasn’t an abundance of characterization. The characters felt pretty flat, owing in part to the fact that there was a bigger cast of main characters than in the other stories; nobody got much time for the audience to connect with them.

Twitter Creeps Steadily Towards Facebookification

Following on the heels of news about Twitter executives trying harder to make the social media platform generate more income, Twitter has begun to move away from the one thing that truly set them apart from the competition.

The raw feed known as the timeline, unlike Facebook, was always available in its entirety. Users were free to adjust that raw feed as they saw fit (if they saw fit) with third-party apps like Tweet Deck, lists, and mute. Where Facebook chose for its users how many and which posts from any given person a user is allowed to see on their feed, Twitter wisely kept their nose out of such matters.

First, the “while you were away” and “moments” features were introduced. They were annoying additions but still easy to ignore for the most part.

Now, however, Twitter has begun limited release of a “feature” which distorts the chronological timeline of the Twitter feed. Vague comments from Twitter about challenging their own beliefs and wishes to promote the “best” content fail to address the heart of the matter: Twitter is getting ready to start to pick and choose which Tweets (and by extension, which users) get to skip to the head of the Timeline and receive the most visibility. Why is that so important? Aside from the intrusiveness, when taken in context of Facebook’s long and sordid history of such maneuvers, it’s not hard to see what might possibly be down the road.

Facebook’s seemingly-innocuous forays into this territory eventually resulted in the pay-to-be-seen policy, where users willing to cough up money were guaranteed to show up in their followers’ feeds much better than users who didn’t wish to pay. People who didn’t buy better “reach” saw up to 90% decrease in engagement from their followers. Such a move could have even more repercussions on Twitter, as there is no distinction between business and personal accounts on the latter.

Even assuming Twitter doesn’t require payment for visibility, complex algorithms often tend to favor people who spend more time learning how to game the system over those who try to bring quality content and genuine conversation.

Most of all, Twitter seems to be ignoring one of the biggest reasons people choose Twitter: Because it’s not like Facebook. Trying to become “other Facebook” is a move that will alienate more of their users than Twitter seems to be anticipating.

I like the people I follow on Twitter. I like hearing about their day-to-day lives. Twitter has no place telling me the “best” Tweets–be they purchased or trending–are more important than whatever hi-jinks my friend’s cats just got up to or the screencap a guildie sent from World of Warcraft. I curated my follow list under the assumption that I was being trusted to search out the “best” content for me, the user.

Krampus Was Nice, But The Director Was Naughty

THIS CRITIQUE CONTAINS MULTIPLE MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE KRAMPUS, INCLUDING THE ENDING.

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Michael Dougherty’s Krampus was an excellent concept that stumbled on execution, due in large part to the ending. It was a film I really wanted to love, and it was for the most part and enjoyable movie. But there were a few things that really dragged down what could have been a holiday horror classic.

Krampus chose to walk a fine line between humor and horror. Think Return of the Living Dead rather than Night of the Living Dead. In and of itself, that wasn’t a poor choice. Humor and horror have usually paired well with each other. But towards the end, the humor in Krampus often dulls the fangs of what should be more climactic and emotion-driven scenes.

The film opens with a long slow-motion montage of Black Friday mayhem in a large store, with people beating each other senseless to the incongruous yet highly effective Christmas music. Though at first it merely seemed like a funny way to encapsulate the already morbid turn Christmas has come to take in our society, it was brilliant setup for the story to come.

The festive carnage enacted by grim-faced consumers segued into the aftermath of a fight between Max–one of the main protagonists–and a classmate who spoiled Christmas for younger kids by telling them Santa wasn’t real. Max tries to explain to his mom his reason for getting into the fight, but his defense of the Christmas spirit by engaging in fisticuffs doesn’t exactly engender her sympathy, especially as she is preparing for the onslaught of a visit from her sister’s difficult family.

The sister, Linda, and her husband Howard are the typical Christmas movie ‘redneck relatives.’ Their entire family was cribbed rather heavily from movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (albeit much surlier) but the acting was good enough to save the concept from being too cheesy. Max’s cousins bully him mercilessly, leading him to shred his letter to Santa and toss the pieces out of the window.

The next morning, the family awakens to a blizzard and power outage. Max’s teenage sister Beth, for some unfathomable reason, is allowed to leave the house and go check on her boyfriend several blocks away. She ends up running for her life from Krampus only to be attacked by a “present” he leaves behind just as she thinks he’s abandoned his pursuit.

Beth’s encounter with the jack-in-the-box was an excellent teaser that ultimately failed to deliver. We were set up to believe, “Well, this is serious. Kids can die in this movie.” But Dougherty didn’t commit to that, instead leaving anyone who fell victim to the minions of Krampus in an underwhelming limbo. Beth, as it transpired, wasn’t dead (supposedly?), being heard shrieking off-screen when her father and uncle managed to dredge up enough enthusiasm to go look for her.

This wouldn’t even have been the worst of it, but the adults in the film never seemed to take the disappearance of Beth nearly as seriously as they should have. The audience takes its cues from the characters in situations like this. The parents failed to treat the disappearances of the kids with urgency, and so that lack of urgency was passed on to the audience. When we realized that the kids were likely not dead but merely captive, there was virtually no sense of relief because their captures had been thoroughly downplayed and upstaged by other events at every turn.

This error in judgement comes, I think, from the characters being written as if they had the filmmaker’s knowledge of how events would turn out, rather than as parents whose children had been taken by unspeakable monsters. Despite repeated silly posturing from her uncle Howard to her father Tom about how “a shepherd takes care of his flock,” both men were content to abandon their search for Beth after returning to the safety of the house, despite a) hearing her screaming and b) encountering a mysterious creature in the snow that brutally savaged Howard. Her mother and aunt seemed equally blasé about leaving her to fend for herself in a blizzard stalked by monsters.

While the parents reacted a little more believably to the losses of the other children, the treatment of Beth set up an unfortunate precedent in how the audience should expect to feel after such events. The loss of several of Howard and Linda’s kids was then rather upstaged due to being followed by an admittedly hilarious scene where Howard was chased through the kitchen by psychotic murderous gingerbread men wielding a nail gun. The other adults encountered similarly humorous monster toys including a savage teddy bear, a spooky angelic doll, and a red-eyed robot of some kind.

Eventually we learn about Krampus from Max’s grandmother, Omi. Relayed in an animated segment that couldn’t quite decide between two different visual styles, Omi tells of when she was a little girl and unwittingly set Krampus after her entire town because they had forgotten the spirit of Christmas.

After Krampus eliminates the rest of Max’s family, he confronts the monster, first offering to sacrifice himself. When Krampus merely laughs and has his cousin thrown in a fiery pit, he says the magic words: I’m sorry.

And in the worst move I’ve seen from any movie in recent memory, the reset button was hit and everything that the audience spent and hour and half watching was relegated to being little more than a big dream sequence. The Doughtry tried to offset this by having Max receive a bell with Krampus’s name etched on it, but it was far too little, too late. It’s hard to imagine repeated viewings of this movie will be very enjoyable when the audience knows that there were zero lasting consequences and that all the characters would wake up to a happy Christmas morning of unwrapping presents.

 

Early Look At Don’t Starve: Shipwrecked

Don't Starve Shipwrecked IntroDon’t Starve, the whimsical roguelike sandbox game that has drawn many comparisons to Minecraft, released the Early Access version of its new expansion on Steam.

Though I’ve seen a few people on the forum mention crashes or minor bugs, my experience so far has been completely smooth and stable. It must be pointed out that as yet there is no ability to manipulate the frequency of material or mob spawns. There is a very noticeable scarcity of many basic materials like gold, flint, and saplings. That is a feature, not a bug. Players who relied heavily on the ability to add extra materials via the world settings in the base game should be prepared for a struggle.

Don't Stave New Pig Houses

There are new mobs and materials in keeping with the island theme. The three most obvious mob additions on land are parrots, monkeys, and snakes. Parrots are simply the replacement for regular birds. Monkeys are a big nuisance; they will follow the player and attempt to steal any nearby materials. They can be attacked, but they will fling poop in retaliation. Snakes are the most troublesome. They are fairly persistent, and can poison players. They can be found both roaming freely and attack players who cut down trees, bamboo, and thorny bushes.

Don't Starve Shipwrecked Open Water

Most islands are fairly small and poorly stocked, so players will dedicate a significant amount of time to traveling between islands. Several boats can be made right from the beginning and do not require a science machine or prototypes. The boats themselves have health gauges. They last pretty long in most cases, though they can take damage and anybody playing on Willow should be aware that she can cause the boat to spontaneously light the boat on fire like any other flammable item.

Don't Starve Boats

There are changes and tweaks thrown in to give players more to figure out. Marine-based foods like seaweed seem to severely deplete sanity when eaten raw. There are tons of new recipes, and existing recipes are different, with several costing noticeably fewer resources. Overall, Shipwrecked does an excellent job at providing new content while retaining the spirit and character of the original game.

FanMail Subscription Box

Fanmail November crate: "Wars Among the Stars."
FanMail November crate: “Wars Among the Stars.”

In mid November I saw someone mention a mystery subscription box for lady geeks. As I never got around to trying Loot Crate I decided to give it a try. FanMail bills itself as “A mystery box designed for lady geeks (by lady geeks!)“. The November box was themed “Wars Among the Stars.” My reaction was 50/50. There were two items I really liked, and both arrived with minor defects. The rest was either filler or just stuff that didn’t appeal to me.

First up was the set of stormtrooper helmet lapel pins:

Stormtrooper Lapel PinsI’ll admit I was a bit confused by these and had to Google what to do with lapel pins, but they’re very cute. This was one of the items that arrived defective–both posts were slightly bent despite being packed with foam in a cardboard jewelry box.

Next up was a geeky coloring book:

Coloring BookI like the idea better than the execution. Coloring books are making a comeback with adult versions being very popular, but the designs in this one were extremely simple and they printed each design twice in what feels like an attempt to pad the book. They included a set of four crayons: red, yellow, blue, and green. Astute observers will note that BB-88, like many of the other pictures in the coloring book, cannot be colored in with the selection provided.

My favorite item was the Death Star soap:

Death Star SoapIt arrived somewhat mushed-looking despite the plastic wrapping, but the scent is very nice.

They included two comics, Leia #1 and Marvel’s 100th Anniversary* Guardians of the Galaxy issue:

Fanmail ComicsAs I’ve never ordered a subscription box before, I don’t know if it’s common to include issues of comics that are eight and twelve or so months old, respectively, but it seems like a poor choice; like a large percentage of lady geeks, I already own the Leia comics.

*The “100th anniversary” thing was sort of a joke by Marvel.

The shirt was a Groot design:

We Are Groot ShirtI’ll confess to being one of the few nerds on the planet who hasn’t gotten around to seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, so I won’t hold my apathy for the shirt against the box’s curators. The material was of good quality and the design is nice.

Finally we have some temporary tattoos for The Lunar Chronicles:

Lunar TattoosI can’t really see myself using these. I was intrigued enough to consider buying the book, which I suspect was the point.

I know part of the risk of subscribing to a mystery box is that some of the items just won’t be your cup of tea. I really liked what I saw from their previous boxes on the web site, so I’ll give it one more month before I decide if I want to discontinue my subscription.

Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon

Star Wars The Perfect WeaponStar Wars: The Perfect Weapon by Delilah S. Dawson is the first in a series of novellas being released as part of the journey to The Force Awakens.  It was a mostly solid entry in the series with two minor exceptions.

While the main character Bazine Netal was likable enough, she felt a bit like the Generic Strong Female Character so common in science fiction in general and Star Wars in particular. After reading Dark Disciple a few months ago, I can’t help but feel like she bears a strong similarity to Asajj Ventress, though that could also be attributed to some similarities in the narrative.

The ending felt like a bit of a let down as well, but for the sake of remaining spoiler-free I won’t go into detail. It wasn’t necessarily a bad ending but it lacked a certain sense of satisfaction.

Aside from those two downsides, it was an enjoyable read that felt right for the price; it neither seemed rushed nor dragged on, striking a good balanced pace for a novella. Bazine had effective chemistry with the other characters in the book, particularly the is-he-or-isn’t-he potential traitor, Orri Tenro.

The Perfect Weapon delved a bit into what happened to Imperial stormtroopers after the New Republic came to power, giving tidbits to whet the appetite for The Force Awakens without revealing too much. We also got a few unique locations that felt very Star Wars-y, including some fun and gruesome alien fauna.

From the official blurb:

There are plenty of mercenaries, spies, and guns for hire in the galaxy. But probably none as dangerous and determined as Bazine Netal. A master of disguise—and lethal with a blade, a blaster, or bare handed—she learned from the best. Now it’s her turn to be the teacher—even if schooling an eager but inexperienced recruit in the tricks of her trade is the last thing she wants to do. But it’s the only way to score the ship she needs to pull off her latest job.

An anonymous client has hired Bazine to track down an ex-stormtrooper and recover the mysterious package he’s safeguarding. Payment for the mission promises to be astronomical, but the obstacles facing Bazine will prove to be formidable. And though her eager new sidekick has cyber skills crucial to the mission, only Bazine’s razor-sharp talents will mean the difference between success or failure—and life or death.

 

The Perfect Weapon, despite a few minor faults, was an enjoyable read and I look forward to the next few novellas in the series.

 

The Black Tapes Podcast Is Fearfully Delicious

I have to state up front that The Black Tapes isn’t a podcast best listened to while browsing, gaming, or multitasking. I tried to get into this podcast several times and failed before I fell completely and utterly in love with it.  Finally I decided to give it a try without three or four other things dividing my attention and the difference was night and day. This is a story that thrives on the eerie atmosphere it creates, and like the great radio dramas of yesteryear, the listener has to do their part and use some good old fashioned imagination.

The Black Tapes is a podcast about Alex Reagan, a digital radio journalist trying to start a series about people with interesting jobs. The first people she profiles are a group of ghost hunters and paranormal researchers. As the events of the first few episodes unfold, Alex and her producer decide to shift the focus of the podcast from a variety of people and careers to researching the mysterious Black Tapes she comes across when interviewing the famous skeptic Dr. Strand.

Via the podast’s website, the story is:

a serialized docudrama about one journalist’s search for truth, her enigmatic subject’s mysterious past, and the literal and figurative ghosts that haunt them both.

The production values and voice acting are both excellent and highly professional. The enigmatic Dr. Strand in particular has a compelling and rich voice that makes the listener eager for every line. He’s the sort of voice actor who could read the phone book and make it sound exciting.

I only have a few minor criticisms. At times indistinct sound effects take place before Alex explains what is going on, leading the listener to imagine the actors doing something much different from what actually happens. Now, that’s not a bad thing when they use it for suspense and humor. But on several occasions it happened for what seemed to be no narrative purpose. For example, after heated words were exchanged at one point, there are sounds like footsteps across floorboards and a door opening, seeming to suggest that one character was storming out, only for the listener to belatedly be informed that the characters were simply entering another room all together.

The only other minor criticism is that Alex’s introductory descriptions seem to veer slightly into purple prose territory on occasion, trying a little too hard to paint a picture. Generally speaking I think listeners will imagine a character’s appearance to fit the voice on their own, especially as the scenes progress and they forget the detailed descriptions they were fed. The descriptions of people often feel slightly at odds with the rest of the podcast. It’s not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the show, however.

It’s been a long time since a scary story has gripped me as tightly as the Black Tapes has. Give it a listen in a darkened room with a quality headset or sound system and be prepared for chills and thrills.

 

 

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