Category Archives: Featured

Skyrim Mashup Pack

Skyrim MinecraftI love Minecraft. I mostly play on my Xbox since I prefer playing my games on a big screen with a controller, and my computer kind of sucks.

 

So, when I found out that two of my favorite things, The Elder Scrolls and Minecraft, were being combined, I got super excited. I present you with the trailer for the Skyrim Mashup Pack for Xbox 360. It’s out today. You should download it. I will be.

 

 

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Trailer)

So, the new Hobbit movie looks like a fun romp with a lot of dumb action, eh? I have no idea if I care about this movie or not, but I’ll probably lay down some money to see it. LEGOLAS.

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Superman is Old

There’s not much I need to say. Just watch this. It is everything that is good about Superman.

 

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The Cool Ship Watches… Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

CoulsonWe at the Cool Ship love all things comic book. Last night, a number of us watched “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Here are our thoughts:

Colleen —

After months of breathless anticipation and subsequent lightheadedness, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered.

First, points to them for not overplaying the Coulson not-death. It’s referenced, but not constantly shoved in our faces. (Whereas with me, if I cut myself and, for the rest of the week, I demand subservience from those around me BECAUSE I HAVE SUFFERED, PEOPLE!) There is a bit between Shepherd Book and Robin referring to a larger mystery surrounding Coulson’s return from the white light. Let’s all pretend that we we don’t already know he’s a life model decoy or an android and enjoy the slow reveal. But Coulson is turning out to be more than just a wry avatar for the unpowered in a superhero world. He gets to show depth and compassion not previously shown in the cinematic universe. I want to get to know him better.

There is a lot of characterization happening here. Joss Whedon, he of juggling the massive Buffyverse fame, ably introduces each character without making it seem like a roll call. There are also the self-aware nuggets that made Firefly, Buffy, The Avengers fun to watch. There’s even a few tiny comic references (“Are you ready for our journey into mystery?” Journey into Mystery is the recently cancelled comic that had the first appearance of Thor.).

It looks like it’ll become a procedural in the Marvel universe. Sort of a Fringe, but hopefully with fewer instances of Mike yelling at the TV. I fully expect that once this hits its Joss-free stride that there will be some reduction in quality. However, since the only other show I’m watching consistently is the Headless Horseman waving an AK-47 Sleepy Hollow, I think I’ll stick with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

MING-NA WENTJ —

Overall, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a good time. It didn’t have the slow start I expect from many Whedon shows (like Dollhouse), and it quickly got into the action while giving me a good idea of what the characters are like. I like most of the characters, except for Agent Ward, who I found to have very few redeeming qualities in the context of the episode. He’s just straight boring. I hope they give him more to do. I’m also looking forward to seeing more Ming-Na. I thought her arc about “being afraid of combat” was resolved a little to quickly and neatly.

I also hope that the technobabble from Agents Fitz and Simmons doesn’t get out of hand. I really don’t want this turning into CSI: Comic Books.

WardLike, Colleen, I’m worried about the post-Whedon drop in quality, especially if Jeph Loeb is involved. I really saw some drops in quality after he was involved with Smallville and Heroes, and I REALLY want this show to succeed.

All-in-all, I enjoyed this episode. It didn’t feel like it was low budget, and I’m looking forward to seeing more.

Gabrielle —

Phil Coulson is the coolest. Hands down. He’s also totally a robot.

It’s something I’ve been harping on since ole Phil wheezed his last around the giant spear thing sticking out of his chest. Sure, Joss has a disturbing penchant for slaughtering beloved characters, but when news of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. broke (particularly the bit about Clark Gregg’s casting), my favorite theory became Coulson would be reborn as The Vision.
SkyeWe got a hint that all is not as it seems with Coulson from Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill and Shepherd Book (I don’t care what his name is in this show. He’s Shepherd Book.). My guess is Tahiti is not an actual fond memory of relaxation and recovery. Rather, it’s an implanted memory fed to Coulson to hide from the titular S.H.I.E.L.D. agent that he’s a LDM (Life Decoy Model).
Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
I loved Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s got a solid cast of quirky characters, and the show has a pleasant blend of action, humor, and heart. It’s earned a place on my overfull DVR. How about yours?

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CONfessions of a Journeyman Gen Con Attendee: Part 2

This is the recap of the experiences I had at Gen Con 2013. Part one can be found here.

Day 3:

When I went to bed on Saturday morning, I was running on fumes. Upon waking a few hours later, though, I was energized and ready for Kobold Press’ Freelancing 101 panel.  (The Tome Show recorded the panel). Wolfgang Baur, Ben McFarland, Colin McComb, and Brandon Hodge discussed the steps to break into freelancing for the game industry (and some cheats for breaking in as well).

All of these guys have a bunch of experience in freelancing, so their advice was useful. I would strongly suggest that you listen if you’re interesting in busting into the tabletop games biz.

1004508_10151790782957438_1057252889_nAfter that panel, I attended Publishing 101. This one was a Wolfgang Baur solo affair, and he related stories from the first year of starting Kobold Press. He did a great job of relating the trials and triumphs of getting into publishing. I’m sure I’ll be listening to both of these panels again soon.

We were hungry, so our group ate some brunch (street food–I got some delicious wings) and did some shopping in the exhibit hall. We had a lot of downtime, so we spent part of it simply sitting and watching people. We also got to watch some games of Giant Star Trek Attack Wing.

Giant Attack Wing played exactly like regular Attack Wing, just on a much larger scale. In fact, I think they just attached a bunch of old Trek toys to larger versions of the bases, and let people play. They had giant dice, giant movement markers… it was pretty cool.

After our period of laziness, we headed over to True Dungeon.

True Dungeon is basically a life-sized dungeon supplemented with actors playing monsters. I was expecting something like a LARP, but it was something very different. Combat was resolved with something that reminded me of shuffleboard (you wanted to try to hit a 20 on a play area shaped like the monster). I think it was an interesting experience, but I can see it being a major money drain.

Your equipment is represented by tokens that you put on your character card before the game starts. You can buy extra packs of tokens, but you are given a certain amount before the game starts as well. There are also tokens for spells, potions, and other useable items; though, you have to give them up to the room’s DM when you use them.

1209341_10151790783407438_425928493_nIt was fun, but I had a few problems with my playthrough. 1.) There were two many people. The party was 10 people, and I think it was just too much. There were rooms when six people would be doing something, while four just hovered around. 2.) There was a dude in our group that stank really badly. That isn’t True Dungeons fault, but this guy was pretty pungent. Maybe he was staying at the convention center and got sick one night or something, but it was pretty bad as far as Con funk goes.

All-in-all, it was fun. I got to play a barbarian, and I was pretty good at the combat game (so was John, and he had to throw two at the same time because he was “dual-wielding’). Now that I’ve done it once, though, I’m hesitant to do it again. Maybe if I get 9 friends to do it.

 

1005481_10151790783302438_334450510_nAfter that we had dinner  at the Marriott hotel attached to the convention center. The food was pretty delicious. Miranda and I had the Turkey leg covered in gravy and served on a bed of mashed potatoes. As you can see, it was pretty delicious.

After that was the Masquerade Ball. This year’s theme was “Dance of the Dead,” but I don’t think theme mattered that much. It was a lot of fun to see all the costumes. And watch people lay on the floor and play their Nintendo DS.

Finally, the night ended with Artemis. We were all getting pretty exhausted at this point, but I think we overall had a good time. Our captain was getting a mite bit douchey and not really listening to his crew, but you know, sometimes that’ll happen. You just play the best game you can. We beat level 4, which was my personal record, so that was good. After that, it was time to sleep. The drive to the hotel took a lot longer than it normally would, since I was tired and kept missing turns.

Final Day

We slept in on Sunday. I’m sad that we skipped our first game, but I was barely able to move when my alarm went off that morning, so I just slept. I think the rest of the group was glad. After waking, we had the long task of packing up all the stuff we had bought in addition to all the stuff we bought. The back of the van was stuffed full of gaming paraphernalia.

We got to the convention center around 11:30 AM and played a fun little game called “Cosmic Encounter: Cosmic Alliance“. It’s a game of making and breaking alliances and stabbing your buddies in the back. Our game basically devolved into two teams, in which one side of the table started picking on the other side of the table. It was fun, but not very sportsmanlike.

After that, Tyler and I entered a tournament of Star Trek Attack Wing. He won his first game and lost his second, and I did the opposite. Either way, he walked out of there with three new Attack Wing ships to add to his fleet, so not a bad tournament. Certainly much better than the Magic: The Gathering tournament I took part in.

After that, we waited in line in the parking garage to go home. We were sad and exhausted to leave, but I’m already planning on how to do things better next year. If we decide to go (and I hope we do).

Tomorrow, I’ll relate my tale of running a game at Gen Con for Kobold Press.

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‘The Bling Ring’ Fails To Sparkle

I’d be lying if I said that Emma Watson wasn’t a huge factor in my decision to see The Bling Ring. Aside from her badass cameo in This Is The End, she had been conspicuously absent in my summer movie picks. Unfortunately, Sofia Coppola‘s latest production suggests Watson’s absence would have been preferable.

The stars of ‘The Bling Ring’. (via Business Insider)

For those of you who have not heard of The Bling Ring, it is about a group of pretty, rich people who rob slightly prettier, richer  people. That’s it. Sure, it’s stylish enough. Designer labels and trendy hip hop abound. But substance is elusive. There’s no commentary on morality or ethics, no case for viewer sympathy. Furthermore, the film does nothing to combat the standard mediocre portrayals of teens in media.

The characters are based on real people, but they function solely as vapid, reckless stereotypes. Their possible motivations for burglarizing–i.e. unstable home lives, personal insecurity, lack of self-esteem–are hinted at but not sufficiently explored. Meanwhile, their interactions never leave the range of “It was totally chill” and “Quit being a little bitch.” The Bling Ring is the type of movie that makes you feel sorry for those who took part in it.

Which brings me back to Emma Watson. Over the years, I’ve seen enough interviews and featurettes to attest to her intelligence and poise. While I’m reluctant to pigeonhole her as Hermione Granger, it was that role that convinced me she is capable of portraying characters with integrity and emotional depth. Needless to say, watching her apply lip gloss and talk about outfits (in a phony American accent) was disappointing. If she, as well as her young costars, had been given more opportunity to deviate from the shallow teen cliché, perhaps The Bling Ring would have been palatable.

As it stands, The Bling Ring is a forgettable film whose relative pointlessness is, in fact, the point. Viewers feel empty after watching it because the actions of those onscreen were empty. I’ve accepted that now. Kudos to Coppola for having me search for meaning where there is none.

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CONfessions of a Journeyman Gen Con Attendee: Part One

Gen Con is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s one of those times when I can completely geek out about gaming, and it’s perfectly okay to do so. It’s a time where I can chat with established game designers and meet with up-and-comers. If I was physically able, I could game 24 hours.

Now that I have steady internet (the hotel wi-fi was extremely slow and spotty), I can relate a little about my experiences.

Day 0:

This year, my Gen Con started in Columbus, Ohio on August 14. I received an invitation to attend “The Sundering” event hosted by the Thurber House at the Columbus Museum of Art. The Thurber House frequently hosts author talks and signings, and I was excited when RA Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, and Erin M. Evans were announced as guests pre-Gen Con.

All the authors seemed like extremely nice people, and Ed Greenwood even chatted with me about  beards for a few moments while he was signing a couple of my books. All seemed excited (especially Ed and Erin) about this new Sundering series, so I’ll be delighted to finally begin reading them.

You can see more pictures from the event, as taken by the Thurber House, here.

Day 1:

John already went into detail about our first day of Gen Con, but I wanted to talk about my experiences a bit as well. Let me start by saying that this was easily the busiest first day I’ve seen since attending. The lines for retail were un-real, and I kept hearing rumors about people finding copies of the completely sold out Firefly game. Finding a copy of Firefly was like living in a weird gamepocalypse where conjecture and rumor are your only companions and you don’t know if someone is deliberately throwing you off the trail.

I just decided that I’ll get the game online sometime.

Turns out, it WAS the busiest Gen Con ever. There were almost 50,000 attendees–almost a 20% growth over last year!

Thursday was also my first face-to-face meeting with some of the good folks from Kobold Press when I attended their book signing at the Paizo booth. Ben McFarland, Brian Suskind, and Wolfgang Baur were super friendly. You should go buy their books; did I mention they won two Ennie Awards?

Next up was the Magic: The Gathering tournament, where everyone but me did amazing. Seriously, I lost all my matches. I only won a free booster pack because I was given a by in the last round. The judges must have felt bad for me or something.

We ended the night by checking into the hotel and eating. I had pork loin. I remember it being delicious.

Day 2:

Friday is a blur. I started the day by running “Madman at the Bridge” — an adventure by Kobold Press. I had a great time, but I’ll detail it later this week in another post. It was the first game I’ve ever run at Gen Con, and I doubt it will be my last.

After that we played a game of Battletech. It wasn’t the tabletop game but instead was a series of 16 pods networked together that basically let us experience 16-player MechWarrior. The pods are completely enclosed, and you get a radar screen and a HUD screen, as well as various levers for movement, shooting, and firing your jump jets. It looks like a lot of fun, and if I get time, I’d like to experiment with it next year. I heard that late at night is the best time to go, so maybe I’ll take an evening to play a bunch of rounds of Battletech.

After that, we played a session of Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator in order to get our Gen Con newcomers prepared for our 2-hour session on Saturday night. We did well, and I didn’t have to give up my engineer position.

After that, shopping and food ensued. St. Elmo’s has some awesomely spicy shrimp sauce that I recommend you try at least once in your life.

And finally, we ended the day with the Giant Pathfinder Society Scenario “The Siege of the Diamond City.” I’ve never experienced so many people playing the same Pathfinder adventure at the same time. I think Paizo did a good job of making the group feel like we were contributing to the greater experience. However, the part of the adventure we played seemed a little basic. I’m guessing it was necessary in order to keep things simple for the people who had to calculate all the information presented.

All right, that’s the first half of Gen Con. Tomorrow, I’ll detail Saturday and Sunday, and on Friday I’ll talk about running a game at Gen Con.

 

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The Long Con

Another GenCon Indy has come and gone. In celebration of surviving the annual pilgrimage, here are some quick tips for outlasting four or more days of pure indoor living.

Strategic Food Outcomes

By stigma and stereotype gamers, comic book fans and geek aficionados are not considered the healthiest demographic. Couple that with a nerd culture that is damn near synonymous with Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew. Now consider that thousands of people enjoying accommodations in the hospitality industry with commercial vendors and restaurants as their only food source.

What you have is a perfect storm of garbage eating. You’re going to have the strong temptation to eat whatever is delicious (because hey, it is a vacation after all!) and whatever is readily available. During this last con I had Starburst for breakfast and at least one day where I ate 1500 calories worth of pasta, pizza, breadsticks and Cherry Coke at a Fazoli’s.

This isn’t a preach about eating better or losing weight. The simple fact is that the best four days of gaming is a marathon, and you need to do whatever you can to stay energized for maximum satisfaction. Half a week of chips and candy will bring anyone to a crawl and dehydrate you. It will also carve a hole in the wallet where sweet games, comics and merchandise could go instead.

Go in with a food strategy, stay hydrated and bring snacks where possible for the best results.

Pack For Bear

Aside from the snacks and water you should already be toting, you’ll need enough space for your phone charger, spare clothes, entertainment, and all the swag you are going to buy/win and any other essentials you find necessary. That means you’ll need a pretty serious bag. And you need something you can carry around for up to 18 hours of standing and walking.

My suggestion is a backpack, which we do see a lot of at conventions. Tote bags, hand bags, fanny packs, plastic cases and pretty much everything else can be spotted at a sizable con, but a backpack is, pound for pound, the best choice you can make if you’re in it for the long haul.

You Need The Me Time

Most of us only get to go to a few conventions a year. When we go, we want to go hard. During our trip we would wake up at five or six in the morning and not get back to the hotel until midnight or later. By Saturday, members of our party were hurting for some rest. Unless you’re a vendor or someone else there to promote a brand, it’s a great idea to plan out some time to decompress.

Not to mention a great way to alleviate the aches of walking all day. Almost anyone, regardless of physical fitness level or convention veteran status is going to be feeling it after a couple days, especially if you’re following our second suggestion.

Pick a morning to sleep in or take an afternoon to play some games with friends. Read a book or listen to some music. And definitely get away get out of the artificial lights and Cheetos stank of the convention center for a while. Most conventions take place in landmark cities that deserve to be explored.

Con With Purpose

During GenCon this year there was a Dance of the Dead masquerade. It was held in the ballroom of Indianapolis’ Union Station area. While 20130819-162610.jpgdancing and mixing it up with other guests, I noticed a body sprawled on the ground next to the dance floor. For a moment I thought someone had literally died, raising the irony level considerably. That was until he refreshed the screen on his Nintendo DS and I realized he was gaming.

If you’re going to make a full trip to a convention, do it with purpose. Figure out what it is you like and find it. It may very well be that our friend lying on the dance floor was taking my advice to get a little me time, but it struck me as an odd location. And it also made me think that was time he could be spending doing something not normally available at home.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Con Alone

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Nothing sounds worse than traveling to a strange city alone for a massive convention.

I look forward to next year knowing that The Con is a marathon and I need to stop sprinting.

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Gen Con II: The Wrath of Con

In which we avoid crying cat girl, meet John’s GenCon crush and defeat the scourge of metropolitan parking.

Day One of Gen Con is always a chaos. You always forget something. Sometimes something really important. And you always struggle with Indianapolis traffic, regardless of day or time.

However, yesterday was delightful as me and TJ, and newcomers Tyler and Miranda, got our bearings at Gen Con 2013.
Per the usual, parking was a 40 minute affair. Not one, but two garages put “full” signs up only minutes after we entered. Still, we did find something for only ten dollars. Having defeated parking, we strode into Gen Con like the kings and queens of promise.

We started the Con in a line. The line, however, was much shorter than last year. I was able to pick my badge and tickets very quickly, and by the time I was done there, the others were finished in their queue.

So, we hit the exhibition hall. So much stuff to buy. And I couldn’t believe the lines. Paizo, the makers of Pathfinder, had a line around the booth, and Fantasy Flight Games and Privateer Press had some of the longest lines I had seen outside of Space Mountain and Disney World. (Hyperbole!)

After wandering about and buying things we didn’t really need, we tried our hand at learning Mage Wars. It’s an awesome combination of a board game and a card game. I really wish I could have spent more than an hour with it.

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I was also haunted by a living meme. We saw a crying girl in cat cosplay and immediately became fixated. Why are you crying, crying cat girl? From where does your suffering come and is it part of your costume? Will you still take photos with my friend or is it weird now?

And then she vanished into the throng of people.

I would also like to take this moment to begrudging compliment Indianapolis. The core of the city is a beautiful, bustling metropolis that does a great job masking the horror that is rural Indiana.

Except for the homeless girls sleeping in the church doors across the street from The Con. That hurt my soul.

 

We also got a photo of TJ with my GenCon crush, Marie-Claude Bourbonnaise. We saw her last year in full anime garb and failed to get a photo with her. NEVER FORGET.

I thought it was gonna be a whole thing where we search and search and keep missing each other and just at the end, when we are both leaving, I see her and walk up. She would look at me and I would look at her…

And I would come up with a really good lie about liking whatever cartoon she was dressed as and then she would take a photo with TJ.

But I spotted her in the first 2 hours and we got it done.

So I guess I need to ratchet up my bucket list.

We also played Magic: The Gathering and I actually won all three of my matches. My winning strategy was to take all the green cards and black cards I booster drafted and add land. And now I’m the champion (one of several) of the 5pm Beginner’s Level 2 No Elimination Tournament. No doubt I’m blowing up on Twitter (@jcal101) right now.

Today’s recommendations:

Skull Kickers by Jim Zub (@jimzub). Though freely available on the Internet in web comic format, a hard copy is worth a look with beautiful art and extras in the Image Comics hardcover version I think it’s worth the investment.

Star Trek: Attack Wing by WizKid Games. I have to qualify this by saying I haven’t actually tried this game yet, but it looks great. For fans of Star Trek that want to do miniature battle without actually having to paint them this is worth a look.

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Going Broke Over Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad might be the best TV show I’ve ever watched (of course, we’ll see if the ending messes that up for me). There are only 7 episodes left, so I thought it was about time to make a post. I’m not going to get in-depth; I’ll save that for when the show is over. Today is just for some of the fun stuff that has sprung up around this wonderful series. In other words, I’ll “tread lightly.”

First up: If you need a recap of the show, watch this “Middle School Musical” version by local commercial masters Rhett & Link.

Wash The A1A Car Wash:

Last weekend, Breaking Bad fans were treated to a number of car washes around the country being rebranded as “Walter White’s A1A Car Wash” (You’ve tried the rest; now try the best!).  People who went in to have an A1 day (and a clean car) were treated to various prizes, such as Breaking Bad air fresheners and T-shirts! I’m sure Bogdan Wolynetz would be super jealous that his little business has expanded so rapidly!

 

In-Universe Websites

The creators of Breaking Bad are masters of viral marketing. See a website on the show? Its real-life counterpart probably exists. Remember when Walt Jr. (when he wasn’t eating) made a website for Walter when he was dying of cancer? Yep. SaveWalterWhite.com really exists, goofy Geocities-style yellow-on-green font and all.

Walter White

Along with this awesome picture

It doesn’t stop there, though. Are you having legal trouble in Albuquerque, NM? Have you been caught with a live tiger? Want to sue someone? Maybe you were ALLEGEDLY dealing drugs? Did you get a theft misdemeanor with an attached double homicide?

You better call Saul.

CandyCandy!

While I could spend the next 12 years showing you all the awesome T-shirts that are based on the show, I wanted to show you this instead. I’ve heard that it “kicks like a mule with its balls wrapped in duct tape.” And that it’s nearly 100% pure. This rock candy is the good stuff. And at this price for a pound! A steal! They must’ve robbed a train to sell rock candy at this price!

 

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‘Twin Peaks’: What A Brief, Strange Trip It’s Been

Better twenty-three years late than never. (That’s how the saying goes, right?) It certainly applies to my latest foray into cult television, Twin Peaks. I was a wee tot when the series first aired, but the Internet gods preserved it for me.

On the surface, Twin Peaks is a murder mystery/cop drama set amidst the pines of the Pacific Northwest. Following the death of Laura Palmer, special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) comes to the aid of local law enforcement. Other notable characters like Audrey Horne, the Log Lady, and Garland Briggs round out the quirky band of townsfolk who help (and sometimes hinder) the investigation. The deeper the law men delve into the secrets of Laura Palmer and her loved ones, the further the show strays from its original format.

Screen Shot 2013-07-30 at 12.01.58 AM

Here we see David Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan giving their enthusiastic approval for ‘Twin Peaks’.

Stylistically, Twin Peaks is perhaps the most complex show I’ve seen. Creator and director David Lynch teases viewers with abstract scenes of scarlet drapery and distorted conversations, but he doesn’t fully indulge them until the  end of the series. What he consistently delivers, however, is a combination of parody and pastiche. Overwrought portrayals of love and loss call soap operas to mind, while Angelo Badalamenti‘s jukebox score lends a distinctly retro feel. In turn, these elements find harmony amongst snappy dialogue, shared secrets, and cups of coffee.

What I love most about Twin Peaks–aside from dorky dreamboat Dale Cooper–is its commitment to weirdness. Watching via Netflix, I almost could not believe it had ever aired on network television. The premise of the show is palatable enough; primetime is saturated with dramas that depict similar situations. But the show’s intent can be challenging to navigate.

One could reasonably approach the soapy scenarios with an earnest mindset. Yet, it seems more likely that Twin Peaks is an exercise in the uncanny. Often the characters are caricatures and the subjects are clichés; this only seems obvious when contrasted with scenes that break from convention. (In other words, it takes a giant in a red room to suggest that there is more than meets the eye.) Viewers must possess a fair amount of patience and mental acuity to stick with a show that leaves so much room for interpretation. If one is a fan of the cerebral and the supernatural, however, the journey is well worth it.

 

Note: Both seasons of Twin Peaks are available on Netflix streaming.

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And the New Doctor is… (Drumroll Please)

Peter Capaldi!

That’s right, shipmates. The new Doctor is none other than Peter Capaldi. He’ll be replacing Matt Smith when his version of the Doctor regenerates during this year’s Christmas special.

We won’t really get to see Mr. Capaldi’s Doctor in action until next season, which will start later next year, be we here at The Cool Ship welcome him with open arms and minds and look forward to his time in the TARDIS.

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Much Praise for ‘Much Ado’

Prior to seeing Much Ado About Nothing, it had been a couple years since I last sat down with The Bard. For a while, my life was filled with lectures, essays, and Sparknotes dedicated to the plays of Shakespeare. But as semesters passed by, so did my reference bank. I figured my failure to preserve those works would be detrimental to my evaluation of Joss Whedon‘s latest venture. Happily, I was wrong!

Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) engage in a battle of wits. [Image: The Atlantic Wire]

Much Ado is at once classic and cutting edge, a seamless blend of style and content. Black and white cinematography lends an air of sophistication and makes the amiable cast even more attractive. The film feels indulgent and sensuous, from its dreamy, lounge-room soundtrack to its glistening scenes of revelry. In contrast, the use of Shakespeare’s original dialogue stimulates the mind. (Baz Luhrmann may have done the same in Romeo + Juliet, but Whedon handles his source material with more finesse.) The actors–most of whom are beloved repeats from the director’s previous ventures–deliver their oft recited lines with unparalleled freshness and ease.

Verges (Tom Lenk) and Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) add levity as ne’er-do-well policemen. [Image: Wired.com]

Amy Acker beautifully renders the shrew-like Beatrice into an independent, multi-dimensional woman. Meanwhile, Alexis Denisof adds equal parts swagger and silliness to Benedick, the bullheaded leading man with a sentimental streak. Whether they’re exchanging verbal jabs or tender kisses, the chemistry between these two leads is effortless,. What’s more, supporting players like Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, and Tom Lenk contribute more than their fair share of wit and wiles. They prevent the story from drowning in melodrama.

Though the film brims with stylistic and theatrical integrity, perhaps the most impressive achievement is Whedon’s ability to cultivate a sense of familiarity. As I’ve expressed before, Shakespeare can seem a bit intimidating. Accessibility and applicability to the modern viewer is always a gamble. Yet, it seems that sort of uncertainty is what fuels Whedon’s projects. After all, one might also question the relatability of vampire slayers, superheroes, or struggling villains. Whedon asserts that all of these characters have stories to tell, and those stories hold universal appeal. In the case of Much Ado About Nothing, he proves that revisiting Shakespeare is worth the fuss.

 

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‘Portlandia’: A Work In Progress

I blame Netflix. For a solid year, Portlandia was present in my “Top Ten for Laura” list. A year is plenty of time for expectations to grow. Turns out it takes significantly less time for those expectations to wither.

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein as the volatile proprietors of Women & Women First bookstore. (Image: newstribune.com)

The first few episodes capitalize on novelty. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein write and portray an array of quirky Portland citizens, their feminist bookshop owners being the most engaging.

Unfortunately, after roughly three episodes of zany caricatures, the shtick gets pretty stale. Armisen and Brownstein tend to draw out or force feed the punchlines to their sketches, and they sully opportunities for satire with lackluster jabs at the counterculture.

Before I sound overly negative, I should throw Portlandia a bone. I powered through all of the first season in one sitting. I recognize this was not the wisest decision. Had I spaced out the episodes, it’s likely the cavalcade of parodies would have seemed less repetitive and more inventive. Certain shows are best when marathoned; others lend themselves to a weekly break between installments. Portlandia falls into the latter category.

Although Netflix’s “Top Ten” suggestion currently feels like a misjudgment, I have not ruled out watching the second season. I remain intrigued by Armisen and Brownstein’s undertaking. The pair could easily win me over if they simply put more trust in their raw material. The characters from which they draw inspiration require few modifications to be entertaining. I’m confident that Portlandia finds its balance in season two. But maybe I’ll give it a week before I find out for sure.

 

Note: Seasons one and two of Portlandia are available on Netflix. Season four is set to premiere in early 2014. Clearly I’m not the only one willing to dole out second chances. 

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Can’t Beat ‘The Heat’

It’s July, the midway point of summer. For those of you keeping track at home, I have watched sons make peace with fathers, celebrities face the end of the world, and monsters accept their personal differences. This week I was able to add a feminist flick into the mix.

McCarthy and Bullock bring ‘The Heat’–and the laughs–as an unconventional police duo. (Image: hollywoodreporter.com)

The “buddy cop” plot of The Heat is a familiar one. A strait-laced FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) comes to work on a drug case in Boston where she is paired with a local foul-mouthed policewoman (Melissa McCarthy). The two butt heads as they try to solve the case but eventually recognize each others’ strengths as crime fighters and as friends.

Like any film, The Heat is not perfect. It presents a weak portrait of people of color, makes cliché jokes about Boston accents, and includes a regrettable amount of anti-albinism humor. Nevertheless, The Heat has many other factors working in its favor. The script was written by a woman, and the soundtrack is full of female artists. The Heat also aces The Bechdel Test, which requires a film to include two named women who talk to each other about something other than men. The most obvious appeal, however, lies in the chemistry between McCarthy and Bullock.

Separately, these actresses are humorous; together, they are hysterical. Bullock’s traditional comedic approach is the ideal counter to McCarthy’s ad lib aesthetic. I found myself jiggling and crying from laughter multiple times due to their ridiculous rapport. Their mutual exchange of crassness and compassion makes a very strong case for more female-driven buddy comedies. The evolution of their onscreen friendship is an absolute joy to watch, one that is made even sweeter by their real-life  best friend status.

The chemistry and comedy in The Heat is enough to make it a must-see, but its message of empowerment will make it a must-own for me. The film carves out a place for funny, fierce (and, yes, fat!) females in pop culture. As someone who identifies as all of those things, I could not be more grateful.

 

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‘Monsters University’ Delivers Laughs, Lessons, and Likability

Monsters University combines two of my favorite things: Pixar movies and college. If that combo isn’t as big of a draw for you, no worries. The film is still worth your while.

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Mike and Sully weren’t always best buds. ‘Monsters University’ tracks their road to friendship. (Image: ign.com)

This prequel to Monsters, Inc. gives viewers a look into the lives of Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) before their career at Monstropolis’ mega corporation. After going on a pivotal field trip to Monsters, Inc. in his youth, Mike sets his sights on becoming a Monsters University graduate. His expansive knowledge of the art of scaring gives Mike an edge at the start of the program, but he is soon upstaged by Sully’s thunderous roar technique and prestigious family name. Their rivalry escalates until they find themselves competing on the same team during the university’s annual Scare Games. With a group of misfit monsters in tow, they learn they must work together to succeed.

Although the plot of Monsters University is somewhat simplistic, the film manages to win over viewers with its commitment to character development. Mike and Sully’s stories become more rounded; we get to know them just as the two get to know each other. Through the course of the film they show equal parts strength and vulnerability, humor and perseverance.

The motley brothers of Oozma Kappa (OK) toughen up for the Scare Games. (Image: youtube.com)

Mike and Sully are not the only monsters with whom we get acquainted, however. We meet Randy Boggs (Steve Buscemi) when he is still a gawky chameleon who wants to be part of the in-crowd. We also get acquainted with the brothers of Oozma Kappa, including Don (Joel Murray), the non-traditional student with a history in sales and Squishy (Peter Sohn), a multi-eyed creature with a good heart. Overseeing all of these students is the formidable Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), whose strict demeanor is as legendary as her all-time scream record.

Although the hijinks and personalities are plenty entertaining, it’s what we do not see that leaves the most positive impact. In typical Pixar fashion, Monsters University presents themes that are relatable and timeless: strive for your goals, celebrate your talents, and embrace the uniqueness of others. Those are messages that both monsters and humans can live by.

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Starting Summer With ‘The End’

This Is The End

Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel take the world’s worst trip to a convenience store.

I have a weakness for bro humor. I wish I could say this developed recently due to exposure to high school boys. The truth is that my appreciation for boorishness goes back long before my teaching stint. It’s only when I see movies like This Is The End that I realize just how lowbrow I am.

The premise is simple: Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel head over to James Franco’s housewarming party. While there, the end of the world begins. Safe in the confines of the fortress-like estate, the two friends band together with fellow survivors James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride.

SPOILERS

As expected, This Is The End takes full advantage of its R rating. People get impaled, crushed, and eaten. Survivors spend time getting high, roughhousing, and making cracks about their bodily fluids. Of course there are some line-crossing moments in this cavalcade of crudeness (rape jokes being the most distasteful example). Yet, for me, there were enough instances of badassery, bromance, and buffoonery to compensate for the parts that weren’t so agreeable.

These fellas get what’s coming to them in ‘This Is The End’.

First of all, Emma Watson makes a cameo that will cause any Harry Potter fan and/or feminist to cheer. There’s also a fantastic rap soundtrack, an appearance from a beloved boy band, a mock trailer for Pineapple Express 2, and copious pop culture references (especially about the actors’ own failures). In addition to all of that, This Is The End incorporates a surprising amount of heart. I went into the theater expecting nothing more than mindless humor; I came out actually caring about the characters’ friendships and fates.

What I arguably enjoyed most about This Is The End — aside from the aforementioned highlights–was its unique approach to the dystopian/apocalyptic genre. By executing the film as a comedy and by having the actors portray themselves, Goldberg and Rogen effectively buck conventions. When the box office is saturated with hackneyed dramas and thrillers, it’s refreshing to come across a film that’s willing to make fun of itself and its competition with equal gusto.

 

 

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The Day Before 30

I’m turning 30 years old tomorrow.

I’ll be as old as the 30 Years’ War!

It’s interesting thinking about the past–back to when I was turning 20. I was a brash college kid who thought he was better than most people and smarter than everyone.

I’ve changed. A lot. Because I certainly don’t think I’m smarter than anyone. I just feel like I’m BSing my way through life sometimes. Perhaps that’s just what everyone does. I certainly don’t have it figured out.

In the past ten years, I’ve graduated college, gotten married, had children, helped start a website, figured out what I wanted to do with my career-life, and worked many jobs.

In questing terms (I am, after all, a big RPG fan), my twenties were just the beginning of a greater journey. I’ve learned to cast Magic Missile with ease; now, I need to level up into throwing Lightning Bolt around. Or something. /nerd.

So maybe that’s why, in terms of the stereotypical-I’m-turning-30 freakout, I’m not freaking out at all. Of course, once you’ve had kids, you basically just feel tired all the time.

Anyway, here are some things I’ve learned in my 20s. I may not practice these lessons 100% of the time, but when I do, things go way better for me.

1.) Drop the cynicism.

Life is tough. There are so many times when something bad will happen in my life, and I’ll just have to shrug at my wife and say, “It’s always something.” And it is. I own a home; stuff is breaking all the time. And I don’t know always know how to fix it. I’ve learned, though, that a jaded negativity towards everything doesn’t help the situation.

Cynicism seems to pervade our digital lives. You can’t watch a YouTube video about a kitten jumping on a trampoline without the comments section being full of racism, sexism, and grammar-deficient morons. Cable news channels bombard you with everything bad that is going on (or spin things to seem worse than they actually are). It’s easy to get down.

I’m going to tell you, however, that there is happiness in the little things: going for a walk, eating some ice cream, listening to the birds chirp, enjoying a taco, making a three-pointer, swinging on a swing set. Life is full of small, wonderful things.

Cynicism, by contrast, is grating. It’s anti-good. It’s quick to take offense, and it’s quick to anger.

Being kind is more difficult, but I think you’ll get farther by being kind than succumbing to cynicism. (And this is coming from a guy that worked retail for a long, long time.)

2.) You don’t deserve anything

When I got out of college, I thought that an awesome job would be awaiting me when I entered the real world. I was wrong, and that was even before the recession hit! I was angry for a long time; I thought that because of my (mediocre) work in college, I deserved something great. After all, that’s what I was told so often during my childhood: Go to college; do anything.

I once had a job I loved. And I got laid off from it because they couldn’t pay me. I was depressed because I KNEW that I deserved that job. I was funny, wrote well, and always met my deadlines.

I quickly learned that people don’t always get what they deserve…for better or for worse. However, I also figured out that deciding what you want to do with your life, making a plan, and then working hard at that plan is the best way to get what you want.

It was a few years ago that I decided that I wanted to work in the tabletop games industry. I love gaming. I wish I could do it more,  but I want to help create something that brings joy to people.

So, I made a plan. And I’m working toward that plan. I’m not there yet, but I’ve made progress. Even working hard, I might not get that success; I don’t deserve it, certainly. However, that isn’t going to stop me. I’ll keep trying my best. And really, working hard on a project and finishing it well is a reward unto itself.

3.) Listen and understand.

I’m still pretty bad at this, but I’m trying to do better. Listening is a unique skill. Many people can hear what someone is saying, but few people can truly listen and understand what someone is saying. When you listen, you are forced to give attention to the person who is speaking. Attention is a powerful thing.

It’s easy to get distracted. My phone will buzz at an inopportune moment, or I’ll be watching something on TV when my wife wants to talk to me. However, when I truly listen to someone without distraction by focusing my full attention, I find that it makes me a better person. People are quicker to tell me things. I find myself being better at anticipating how people will react to certain things after I’ve truly listened.

My wife can attest that I’m not great at this. However, I’m trying, babe. I really am.

4.) Play games

My daughter is one-year old and has been playing games for months. She’ll cover her head with a blanket and will leave her face covered until I say something along the lines of, “Where is the baby!?” at which point, she’ll uncover her head and giggle.

You’re never too young or too old to play a game. Whether it’s something simple like “Cops and Robbers” or something more complex like soccer, basketball, or even Settlers of Catan, games are awesome.

And games are good for you! Want to be better at multi-tasking, making decisions, being more social, or being more creative? Play a game! And obviously there are  physical benefits as well to playing games in the form of sports.

Don’t have time to play games with other people? That’s fine. There are studies that indicate that even certain video games are good for you, too.

Want to relieve stress and be a better person? Play some games.

5.) Moderation

“Moderation” has been my soapbox for a long time, now. I try not to go overboard even with things I love and can be good for me. The old saying “Too much of a good thing is not” is something I’ve found to be absolutely true. It’s easy to dedicate too much time to hobbies, or work, or play, or anything.

If you can avoid obsessing too much over something, I think you’ll find your life to be much more harmonious.

I used to work at GameStop. I’ve seen people who have made video gaming their lifestyle. I’ve seen people who can’t make plans with their friends because they have to put in “video game time.” I’ve seen people who have made a lifestyle out of sports. Or drinking. Or any number of things that aren’t necessarily bad when they are taken in moderation.

6.) There are no guilty pleasures. There are just pleasures.

Sometimes, I like pop music. I bought a Demi Lovato album once because it was $3. It’s not great. But, it’s fun to mindlessly sing along with. She has a set of pipes.

I like frozen pizza. Some people couldn’t imagine putting that mess in their mouths. I think it’s delicious. Not all the time. But, sometimes.

What I’m saying is that you’re going to like things that people might make fun of you over. I get mocked for playing Halo 4, sometimes (even though it still sold a butt-load of copies, so other people MUST be playing it). People think it’s funny that I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons within the last three years of my life. Shrug.

Don’t listen to the haters if you like something that is innocuous. You can like what you like, and that’s fine. So dress up like Han Solo, or do whatever.

Unless it’s drugs. Don’t do drugs. That’ll mess you up.

The takeaway from these six things?

Be kind. Be confident.

“Do unto others as you would want done to you.”

Enjoy life because we only get one. Unless we live in a comic book; in which case, I’ll see you when the universe gets rebooted, and I get a brand new set of super powers and a new costume.

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Ridley Scott Lied to Me (Ask a Guy in an Unrelated Field)

Every now and then science comes up in the news. Since none of us at The Cool Ship are scientists, we turn to the one science-y person we know – Colleen’s husband, Mike Padgen. Mike is proud to be The Cool Ship’s resident non-expert and our Guy in an Unrelated Field.

So you finally got around to watching Prometheus when your wife was out of town. What did you think of it?

It was fine. I enjoyed a lot of it. It was well made, but the whole time I kept thinking, “When is this guy going to show up?”

Georgio from tumblr

Really, Ridley Scott? Image courtesy of Tumblr.

The Ancient Aliens guy?

Yeah. It’s just such a silly show – “Why would these people have done this? How could this happen? Must’ve been aliens!” To make a serious movie using those ideas, it’s just boring to me. The possible answers to how life can come from non-life and, for that matter, what distinguishes life from non-life, are so much more fascinating than anything conclusions we could possibly draw by saying, “Must’ve been aliens!”

So then, if Ridley Scott is lying to us and it wasn’t aliens, how did life on Earth come about?

Well, it’s important to preface the rest of what I’m going to say with the fact that we will never know exactly how it happened on Earth. What we can know (even if they’re not fully understood as of yet) are plausible mechanisms by which the conditions on Earth 3.8 billion years ago (or so) would yield simple, self replicating life forms.

Life on Earth started 3.8 billion years ago?

Well, there’s no exact date, but it seems to have started soon after the Earth cooled enough to have liquid water on it, which happened when the Earth was only a few hundred million years old. Interestingly, the fact that life came about fairly quickly on Earth lends credence to the idea that life is common throughout the universe, even though we have no direct evidence of that.

So how could non-life become life?

The primordial soup, approximated in the famous Miller-Urey experiment, is not exactly right. One missing piece in that hypothesis is the lack of thermodynamic push – there is nothing pushing the ingredients in the soup to sustainably react with each other. Instead, it is thought that life originated in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea, which provide both reactive hydrogen and a state of thermal disequilibrium that can drive the formation of complex molecules. The porous rocks in these vents contain small compartments that allow the organic molecules to accumulate, allowing further reactions to occur.

Since all life on this planet uses DNA to store genetic information, it is thought that the last universal common ancestor must have also had DNA. However, the very first self replicators could not have used DNA due to a chicken-and-egg type problem. The proteins that duplicate DNA are also encoded by that DNA. There is no selective pressure that would ensure that the genes responsible for duplication are maintained. It has therefore been posited that the initial life forms on this planet used RNA, which is able to catalyze its own duplication.

But where did the RNA come from?

where did the lighter fluid come from

Come to think of it, where did the lighter fluid come from too?

Several organic molecules, including precursors of amino acids and sugar, can be formed in space and have been found on asteroids and meteors. The period before life arose, the Earth was bombarded with asteroids, so these interstellar organic molecules were delivered from space.

So it was aliens!

No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. These organic molecules form spontaneously in space, and with the right conditions on earth, can be organized into nucleic acids and proteins and all the other stuff life needs to exist. There is no infinite regression required.

Sounds like it was aliens.

Ugh.

Georgio from tumblr

Called it.

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“The Simple Minds Effect” or: How I Learned to Stop Teaching and Start Loving ‘The Breakfast Club’

Graduation is over. Underclassmen are taking exams and cleaning out lockers. The countdown on my chalkboard will soon be at zero. All of this means one thing: “The Simple Minds Effect” is in full swing.

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Shermer High School. It may be fictitious, but it’s real to me.

In case you were wondering, yes, I did just make that up. Nonetheless, I am convinced it is a real affliction. All this pomp and circumstance, the call for reminiscence. Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” has been playing on a loop inside my head for a week. I’m about one chorus away from loading up a station wagon and moving to Shermer, Illinois. (That is, if Jason Mewes hadn’t already debunked its existence.)

Naturally, my connection with Shermer and Simple Minds is The Breakfast Club. That Hughes‘ classic was supposed to be the last movie covered in my film class, but we ran out of time. The kids are bummed they won’t be seeing it; I’m bummed because I won’t be the one to show it to them.

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My forever style–and life–inspirations. (Photo: liketotally80s.com)

My fondness for The Breakfast Club goes back about seven years, when I was the age of my students. I was a sucker for all things witty and offbeat, anything that could distinguish me from my peers. (Strange I didn’t know the definition of “pretentious” then.) I took to The Breakfast Club like a lawn mower to grass. I lusted after Ally Sheedy’s grey tote and Molly Ringwald’s boots. I quoted the movie to friends until they broke down and asked to borrow my DVD.

Things change, things stay the same.

I still quote lines and covet wardrobes. I hold onto my DVD, quietly awaiting someone to borrow it. Yet, as my fanaticism has mellowed, my appreciation for the film has only grown stronger. I get it now. I get why Bender was so damn angsty, why Brian just wanted to shoot his defective elephant lamp, and why Allison showed up to detention on a whim. Their stories are built on common ground: the need for attention and reinforcement. They are too old to act like children, too young to be taken seriously. Thus, they are dismissed.

It’s this revelation that made my first (and probably only) year teaching high school so difficult. For starters, I was only 22 when I began. I felt like an older sister, not an authority figure. After listening to my coworkers talk about parenting, marriage, and employee benefits, I couldn’t help feeling a kinship with folks a little younger. Students talked to me about interesting YouTube videos; I told them about my cat. We exchanged goofy banter. Then, gradually, they shared more. I learned about their issues with school, their troublesome relationships. I heard about their raucous weekends and their resulting mistakes. I went from not knowing their names to knowing their lives. I hardly think this would have happened had I taken the Richard Vernon approach to education.

I maintain that I am not “Star Teacher” material. I suck at discipline, I hate taking grades, and I fail at keeping my potty mouth in check. Still, this year has been one of the most valuable of my life.  I revisited high school and survived. I resisted using “the simplest terms and most convenient definitions” to categorize my students. In turn, they showed their vulnerability, uniqueness, and character.  I cannot say if they learned from me, but I certainly learned from them. Even though I never watched The Breakfast Club with my class, I will think of them each time I see the opening credits.

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Well said, Bowie. Well said.

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