Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Smashing Pumpkins with the Monsters

Dreamworks' Monsters vs Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space attacked the airwaves tonight, and while it wasn't as screamingly good as the MvA movie was this summer, it was good enough to warrant a spot on the annual Hallowe'en TV special roster.

The story opens with a UFO dumping some sort of goo onto a pumpkin patch just before Hallowe'en. Ginormica, BOB, Dr. Cockroach, Link and Insectosaurus (or whatever the big guy's called now that he's fluttering around on wings, Heimlich-style) are called in to save the day when the gourds sprout limbs, attitudes, and a hunger for junk food and go on the rampage. Hilarity ensues.

Or, at least it's supposed to. Mutant Pumpkins was cute, and it certainly tried hard to bring the movie's style of humour into this half-hour production, but most of the jokes fell a little flat.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad follow-up. The bit about the slight against BOB's mother had me howling. It's just that there weren't quite enough jokes that worked.

This installment did keep with the tradition of referencing plenty of other films. Most were pretty obvious, but, without giving anything away, I have to wonder if the final scene was a deliberate allusion to the execrable 50's flick Invasion of the Star Creatures for those of us who really know our cinematic cheese, or perhaps to The Thing from Another World if they were trying for something more well known and vastly more watchable.

As you would expect, the special also delivers on a good fight scene, and the animation is top-notch.

In the end, Monsters vs Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space was enough of a treat to make it worth watching next year.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Like Giants in the Playground

I'm feeling a lot like Babylon 5's John Sheridan these days when I flick on the TV and I'm forced to watch Canada's big TV networks fight it out with the cable companies. It's "like giants in the playground".

Each fires volley after volley of propaganda at the other (sometimes back-to-back) for weeks on end as each tries to convince the public that their side is right. It's like watching the Vorlons and Shadows tear into each other. Cable companies keep gouging consumers. Meanwhile, the broadcast companies don't give a shit about viewers and, contrary to what they claim, have been killing off local programming and automating or closing local stations for years (the supper hour news doesn't really count as "local" when only 10-15 minutes of content are local news; these stations haven't produced other local programming for a long time: you sure as hell won't find them producing their own kids shows like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, or Buckley 'n Beave, or The Uncle Bobby Show anymore). The reality is, neither of them really gives a damn about what the consumers want - they just want our money.

Makes me feel like barking "Now get the hell out of our galaxy! Both of you!"

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Simpsons Back on Track with New Hallowe'en Episode

Without giving too much away, I can say I'm pleased with The Simpsons for Treehouse of Horror XX. For the past couple of years, I've been pretty indifferent to their annual spookfest - something was just lacking... the energy, the humour, the intelligence. For a long time, the Hallowe'en episodes were always the best of the year, and over the life of the series, the best the writers had to offer - period. Lately I'd become indifferent to them and I was worried I might have to cut them from my Hallowe'en tradition.

But this year they got back on track. The opener was weird enough to work, and while Dial "M" for Murder - Hit # for the Operator was a little weak, the second segment that took a whack at 28 Days and I Am Legend was brilliant, and the closer with the Sweeny Todd-esque play in Moe's Tavern had its moments.

Let's hope the Simpsons can continue to serve up the Hallowe'en treats in the years to come.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Strategies for the Last Lap of the 365 Short Stories Challenge

I have to admit, back on New Years, when I resolved to do a 365 SF Short Stories Challenge, I thought it would be a walk in the park. It's turned out to be a tough slog.

It's my own damn fault, of course. My initial thought was that I could make it through by alternating short story anthologies and novels - I'd gorge myself on a bunch of the small stuff and jack up my total for the challenge, then take a break with a long-form work for a bit, and back to an anthology again afterward, topping it up every quarter with an extra short story boost from the latest issue of On Spec or the odd copy of Neo Opsis. What could go wrong?

Well... me, of course. I'd hit a patch where I just couldn't resist reading a couple or more novels back to back without those crucial anthologies in between. Lost time.

But then I'd give myself a kick and figure I could double up: read one short story a day and then let myself spend the rest of the day's reading time with a novel. It ain't that simple though. Different anthologies have different ideas about what constitutes shortness in their collected works. Some are consistently brisk, with a whole bunch of stories that don't exceed a dozen pages. Easy to toss back one or two a day. Then you've got the ones that are all over the map - including items that are just a page or two alongside gigantor works that are up around 30 or 40 pages - novelettes or novellas or however they're classified. Big ass stories at any rate that can easily consume limited reading time in a day and not infrequently push over into the next day.

'Cause that's an important factor too - the time available to read each day. Some people may be militant about budgeting their reading time. As much as I love to read though, I'm not one of them. How much time I allocate fluctuates greatly depending on dinner, conversations or outings with my wife, quality time with the cat (and you cat owners out there all know that cats are very particular about getting every second they feel they're entitled to), plans with friends, TV time, blogging, work, yadda yadda yadda. Some Saturdays, I may spend hours with my nose in a book. Other times, there just ain't no time to read more than a page or two. When you run into a 30 page not-so-short story, a scheduling issue will set the short story tally back a pace.

Now, you might just be laughing right now and saying "Read faster, pokey!" But I like to enjoy my books. No point in reading if you're going to whip through so fast that you can't remember anything that you read along the way.

You might also suggest that if I really want to hit the magic 365 then I ought to play it smart and skip the big ones - say, set an arbitrary limit of however many pages and if a story exceeds that then pay no attention and move on to the next. But I don't like the idea of that either. If I'm reading an anthology, I want to read the whole thing, unless I've encountered one of the stories elsewhere recently and am indifferent to it. Those are the stories I'll skip. Otherwise, I've got to take on the whole thing.

Then I hit the summer and threw back a bunch of novels without many short stories in between. Lost a lot of time there. So, for the past three months or so, I've devoted myself entirely to anthologies and will stick to a diet of short stories only until I'm done this thing. (unless I see a new novel from one of my favourite authors, in which case I might feel the uncontrollable need to put off the short stories for a while so I can read it right away - but I can't let myself go down that road... must stay in control) At approximately 220 now, I figure I can down another 145 before the end of the year. I hope.

Even within this short-story only strategy, there are tactics I could employ to get through it faster. Sure, I won't skip a longer story if I come across it in an anthology, but I could choose anthologies specifically for the length of their content, setting aside ones with tales that are too long. In fact, I could hunt for anthologies that are specifically geared towards super short submissions, like Futures from Nature, where no story is longer than three pages. I could make up a lot of volume blasting through that one! Problem is, I read that book last year, so it's too soon to go through it again - at least, not without a vague feeling of cheating or running the risk of over-exposure to its stories, and I wouldn't want to get bored by them. I guess I'll stick to the straight-forward approach of picking up the next anthology on the pile, regardless of story lenghts inside, and power through cover to cover.

I've got more than enough anthologies to do the job - old ones that I haven't read for several years and new ones I haven't touched yet. Now it's just a matter of getting through the next 145 stories in a little over two months. So what am I doing here writing about the reading I should be doing when I could be doing it?

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Proper Sendoff for Poe

After 160 years, the melancholy genius Edgar Allan Poe finally has been given a proper funeral. The CBC site has a pretty good rundown of why Poe was given short shrift during his first sendoff back in 1849, along with details of what the good people of Baltimore did yesterday to make up for it.

For me, The Cask of Amontillado was the first Poe story that I read as a kid, and still has the power to make me squirm a bit with the thought of the helpless terror of a person being walled-up. Because it's one of my favourites, I always get a bit of a smile when I rewatch the episode of Babylon 5 where Bester the psicop quotes it. The Raven, of course, is another one that ranks fairly high up, and I loved the Simpsons' rendition of it in their first Hallowe'en special - still have that one on tape after all these years. Other favourites of mine include The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether and Some Words with a Mummy.

But as Poe is regarded as a master of horror, I have to say that of his works, the story that I've always found most frightening is The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. I won't give any spoilers for this one, just the recommendation. If you haven't read it yet, find it and experience it for yourself.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Chef Sinks Teeth into Animation

Having whetted his appetite with culinary reality TV, spectacularly foul-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay is now set to dish out his personality in an animated format. CBC's site picked up a last week that Toronto's Cuppa Coffee studios is working with Ramsay on 20 episodes of a stop-motion show called Gordon Ramsay, At Your Service.

I'm willing to give this one a shot, but I'm not getting my hopes up. We all remember what happened when Emeril Lagasse tried his hand at a sitcom a few years ago. Besides, if you're looking for a fictional show about a cook with a ferocious personality (albeit live action, rather than animated), why not just watch Lenny Henry's hillarious show Chef! which came out of the UK back in the 90's? But even that show, as good as it was, ran its course. I enjoy Ramsay's shows from time to time, and I'm certainly a fan of animation, but there's only so many servings of this kind of personality one can take. I hope this isn't overkill and that Ramsay doesn't end up having reached too far and getting served humble pie.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

VCon Day 3 - The End

The last day of VCon 34. I strolled in mid afternoon since none of the morning or early afternoon sessions interested me much. Having borrowed a couple of bucks from my wife (because I knew I wasn't going to spend enough to warrant the credit card) and armed with two VCon dollar vouchers that you get with your registration, I went to the dealers room to score a couple of used books. I ended up buying The Star Rover by Jack London (until I stumbled on this paperback, I had no idea London had ever written SF, but those Victorian/Edwardian era authors weren't worried about the SF cooties like mainstream authors are now) and Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld and Other Stories. Had a nice chat with another guy browsing at the used book stand about everything from online publishing to fanfic to which stories in the pile in front of us were worth reading.

Then it was over to the art room to pick up the little golden glass dragon (done by Kristina Gray) that I'd purchased yesterday as an anniversary present for my wife. Chatted briefly with the chief art room volunteer. Sounds like this year was a tough year for the art room: lots of great pieces, but very little buying - people liked the work but, due to the economy, just didn't have the money to buy.

After that I put my sanity in harm's way and went to the Turkey Readings. To the uninitiated, the Turkey Readings are a tradition at VCon, where a panel reads pages from a selection of the worst SF ever published (usually from the 1970's) mind you - while volunteers from the audience act out the story at the front. The rest of the audience can bid money to have a particular reading stopped. Another person might then pay even more money to have it continue. The money collected goes to the Canadian Unity Fan Fund (CUFF), which every year pays to bring one fan from another part of the country to whatever city is hosting the annual CanVention (the national SF con, which rotates between the regular regional cons like VCon or KeyCon or TorCon, etc). Depending on how terrible a story is, you could see bids of up to $15 or $20 to end the damn thing before people have had enough. The readings are so completely awful that you can't help but laugh (because the alternative is for your brain to cave in with the horror of what you're listening to), and this year was no exception. One truly painful inclusion in this year's roster was a tale by Conan creator Robert E Howard about French highway robbers. In order to save all of you from the suffering we in the audience had to endure, I won't bother to describe it.

This session was followed by a bit of a break before the Closing Ceremonies and the Elron Awards took place. Like the Opening Ceremonies, the Closing was short and to the point, something I very much appreciated. Then came the Elrons. The Elron Awards are VCon's tradition for the close of the event, where spoof awards are given for stupidities that have occurred over the course of the year. This year's Elrons went to:

NASA for staging a contest to build a robot probe that could walk on the Moon - but only requiring the entries to walk on Earth.

Stephen Colbert for having a treadmill named after him when NASA refused to name the new space station module in his honour, even though he won the agency's naming contest by a landslide.

The wife of Japan's new Prime Minister, who claims that while sleeping she was taken to Venus by a UFO.

The Syfy channel in the US for, well, rebranding itself as Syfy.

The late Forrest J Ackerman for inspiring legions of SF fans. Now, before you get all up in arms, understand that in this case the award was given out of gentle humour and respect. The folks running VCon had actually been set to give Ackerman an Elron a number of years ago, and he was happy to come in person to accept, but he had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. Thus, because Forry would have quite happily gone along with it, this award is in good taste.

Dan Brown for continuing to write bad novels using the same formula he always does.

And lastly, John Norman for inflicting yet another Gor novel (it was released last November, about a month after last year's VCon) on the world. It should be noted that it's tradition for Norman to get an Elron every year for some reason or other.

And that was VCon 34. Felt smaller than last year, but it was fun and I can't say enough how much I enjoyed the choice of venue. Thanks to the organizers, the guests/panelists, artists, dealers, and volunteers for putting on a great event. See ya next year!

Saturday, October 03, 2009

VCon Day 2

The day started with another trip to the art room, this time to buy something for my wife. The encounter with the two volunteers at the room's purchase coordination/bag check table would have tried the patience of a saint though - a mother-daughter team where the daughter was constantly bitching at the mother and occasionally being rude to me and other con-goers.

After taking care of my purchase, I got out of there and headed over to the 2-hour Advance Previews session. Nothing as grand as Comicon in San Diego where they actually get movie teasers - in this case we had a movie critic who comes up for the con every year from Hollywood to give us the scoop on movies coming up in the next two years. It was one of those 50-50 type of sessions - about half of the news I'd heard before from other sources, but the other half was new, and the guy was entertaining enough with some of his insider gossip. All in all, the session was worth while.

From there, I went on to the Pacific Northwest as a Setting session which ended up being a disappointment (for the short time I put up with it). The first 15 minutes or so were bogged down with the host and a bunch of people in the room rattling off names of movies or TV shows that have been or are being produced on BC's Lower Mainland. Okay - fair enough for a minute or two, but not that long. Sure, they diverted once or twice in the direction of a worthwhile discussion, touching on the darkness of the area during winter being key in setting mood - but they didn't really expand on this; then they asked why so few stories are set in this neck of the woods (with rare exceptions like Spider Robinson's Very Bad Deaths and Very Hard Choices). Problem is, instead of flushing-out these topics, they kept drifting back to the whole what's filmed here nonsense (made worse by late arrivers who repeated what had been said earlier). So I bailed in fairly short order.

At that point, I headed up the street for dinner at Vera's burger shack on Denman. Had to get there via Robson Street - realm of the hipsters, fashionphiles, the rich, the famous (we've seen Robin Williams there, as well as Nathan Fillion a couple of times), the gawkers, the tourists, the showoffs, and the wannabes. The Scene. Along the way I passed something of a sight. A group of people in their 50s-60s was standing around talking - two of them normal enough, but the other two... She was wearing makeup so heavy and badly applied that it looked like she'd tried to put on kabuki makeup while drunk. Her hair was a gigantic frizzy triangle. And her coat was a puffy fur jacket (don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those hippies that have a problem with fur - I've lived in places so cold people respect the wearing of fur) that looked a little too similar to the mink coat in Ghostbusters 2 that came alive. For his part, her gentleman was sporting a puffy white pirate shirt (where's Seinfeld when we need him?), black leather pants, and a black ankle-length coat like a Catholic priest, or Neo in The Matrix, might wear. Now, if they'd been at the con hotel, I wouldn't have given them a second glance. Costumers. Not my thing, but I've got no problem with it if they want to do it. But this wasn't the con hotel. And they weren't costumers. Nope. They figured they were the cutting edge of fashion. And people say geeks are weird.

Back to the con for the informative Where Are They session with a UBC astronomer giving an update about the search for Earth-like planets.

I finished the evening at the Worst SF Movies & TV of All Time session. Pretty entertaining for the most part, but they left out a couple of productions that I think rank among the worst ever made: Invasion of the Star Creatures (Amazon women from space with giant carrot men facing off against two half-assed Abbott & Costello rip-offs are never a formula for success) and Babylon 5 - The Legend of the Rangers: To Live & Die in Starlight. If only I could forget them.

One day left.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Conning Again - VCon 34 Day 1

It hasn't even been 2 months and I'm stumbling around a science fiction convention again... a pilgrimage to WorldCon/Anticipation this summer in Montreal, now my annual jaunt across town to VCon here on the Wet Coast. Does attending two in one year propel me into a whole other level of geekery? Perhaps the question is moot: a geek's a geek.

In my last post, I was complaining about the ongoing absence of the con program on the VCon site. During a brief period a couple of days ago when I managed to get my thrice-damned PC at home to get online (Windows is, in fact, the spawn of the devil) I noticed that they'd gotten around to putting a draft up. Sure, its incompleteness was such that you could have piloted a star destroyer through the holes, but I appreciated the effort of at least having something there.

At any rate, the con got under way this afternoon and I was able to get there in fairly short order after work. As venues go, the Marriot Pinnacle downtown isn't anything to write home about (so why am I writing about it in this blog?), but it's an adequate hotel and a hell of a lot better (both as a facility and in terms of the neighbourhood) than last year's joint in Surrey. I didn't get a chance to pre-register this year, but I lucked into a pre-registered rate at the desk because a couple of people weren't able to make it and had to have the con sell their memberships for them.

Something that struck me right off the bat about this year's con is that the schedule looks smaller. I don't have the programs from any of the previous year's cons, but it seems like there are fewer sessions per hour. A cursory glance also left me feeling that a lot of the session topics aren't that interesting. One of the things I have to give VCon credit for in the past is that the schedules had enough of a variety of interesting topics that for any given hour I was frequently having to choose between two sessions that had potential. This year, not so much. In fact, there are a lot of hours (too many) with sessions I couldn't care less about. Looks like I'll have plenty of time to head out for meals, take reading breaks, surf the net on my phone, or whatever. And that's unfortunate. I'd like to be in the position again of having so many interesting choices that there wasn't time enough for everything.

The dealers' room had a lot of the usual suspects - the costume dealers, game shops and book publishers that come out every year. But there were a couple of new merchants, including a guy with a stand guaranteed to pull in every steampunk fan in the building: lots of boxes of old Victorian and Edwardian era cogs and other machine parts - perfect to use in assembling your own steampunk gizmos. And for the non-do-it-yourselfers, he had a few sets of goggles for sale, and what steampunk afficianado doesn't want the latest in leather and brass adventure eyeware? In addition he had a few antiques that would have fit in at any weekend flea market. I had my eye on an old travel typewriter, but with two cons this year plus vacation plans, my budget just can't hack it. He was also hawking some Dr. Who-inspired wood carvings.

The art room was another usual suspects scene. This included more proof to back up my theory that there's some law of the universe at work that dictates every SF con art room must have at least three paintings of cats or lions/tigers/other oversized felines - sometimes with wings - submitted by female artists. Don't get me wrong, I like cats too - we have one that thinks he's the boss of the house - but just once I'd like to go to a con art room that doesn't have paintings of cats - winged or not.

At this point I dropped into the Monster Craze session about mid way through. It was basically a description of monsters from old movies and TV - how the costumes were made, who some of the actors inside the costumes were, stories behind the production, etc. Nothing wrong with that if you're a media monster history buff, but not something I want to sit through a half hour of. I left to get some supper and went from a gathering of geeks to a pub full of downtown big business powerbrokers and wannabes. Ate quickly and got back to my nerdy world.

Got back in time to catch the last few minutes of the presentation by artist guest of honour Miles Teves. Art sessions aren't usually my thing, but I'm glad I was able to see some of his stuff. Very cool concept art for some films, including a version of Medusa he created for the updated Clash of the Titans (currently in production, though there's no indication if they went with his design) and a take on the Lady of the Lake for a planned remake of Excalibur.

From there it was on to the opening ceremonies. I'll give the organizers credit: it was short and sweet. They had an hour but only used about 10 or 15 minutes - a welcome to everyone and the intros for the guests of honour. No need for anything else. Loved it.

I finished the day at the Preparing for the Upcoming Zombie Apocalypse session. Normally zombies aren't subject matter I enjoy, but this panel was so tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top I couldn't resist. The timing of this session couldn't have been more perfect either: the CBC site had an article today about the University of Florida cutting a zombie outbreak scenario from its disaster plan exercises (I'd actually heard previously that law enforcement and other agencies have been known from time to time to incorporate paranormal elements into exercises to test member ability to adapt). Getting back to the session, there were lots of fun solutions to zombie problems, like preying on their tendency to congregate at shopping malls and other large stores by luring them into Ikea outlets where they won't be able to find their way out. Comics guest of honour Lar DeSouza had the best take on how to meet the menace if it just wasn't going to be possible to go away: go to the liquor store, get some bottles of Jack Daniels, head on over to the comic store and wait for the end. Aside from a few moments where everyone was wishing an inebriated over-enthusiastic fanboy would shut up, this was a really fun session. In fact I'd go as far as saying this session alone was probably worth the price of registration at the con.

Must sleep now. Not getting up for any early sessions, but it's been a long day of work and con attendance. The challenge for tomorrow is to figure out what, of the small selection of sessions available, is worth going to.