Zombie Apocalypse – Archers on the Run!

I watched a movie on the SyFy Channel yesterday titled Zombie Apocalypse.  I feel like I need to justify this.  I caught the flu and was feeling miserable and wanted something on television that didn’t require too much cerebral effort while I laid on the sofa like a sick puppy.  So I turned on the SyFy Channel and was treated to a marathon of zombie movies.

Though a lifelong science fiction fan and admitted trekkie, I am not a connoisseur of zombie movies, or even of horror movies in general.  I can’t pretend to be an expert giving a review.  I can only give you my impressions of the movie as viewed from my feverish stupor.

This movie has the feel of something that would be produced by a high school student production.  It’s what you’d expect if the English class wrote the script (and not even the honors English class) and the extras were made up of fellow classmates and the family and friends of the production crew; if the make-up was done by the cosmetology students from the community college; if somebody who is good with a Mac did the special effects; if they borrowed a lot of the props and probably built a few in the machine shop, and filmed the scenes in deserted backlots in Toronto.  Somehow, they talked a Hollywood B-lister, Ving Rhames, into starring.  The production budget was raised from a PTA bake sale.

The story follows a group of survivors across the country, trying to make it to the island of Catalina off the coast of California.  Along the way, they kill a lot of zombies, some of them get turned into zombies, and some of them just get eaten.  Oddly, they keep killing the same zombies, though I suspect this had more to do with a lack of extras than the re-spawning abilities of the undead. They do eventually encounter some kewl zombie zoo animals.

The acting isn’t horrible.  It’s what you’d expect from a community theatre.  There is some dialogue designed to get you interested in the characters, but it was written by somebody with the emotional repertoire of a teenager.  The gory fight scenes, which follow one right after the other, fill in where a more expensive movie would have drama.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie.  I was entertained, though sometimes not in the way the film makers wanted me to be.

So why am I talking about a zombie movie?

There were archers!!  Well, sort of.

Some of the survivors were the school archery team of some university (I didn’t catch the name) and their coach.  And, on the screen, their arrows went exactly where they were supposed to.

Allow me to clear my throat here.

I know that the budget was near zero.  But is it too much to ask that they find a real archer who could give the actors a half-hour lesson on how to shoot?  Or lacking that, isn’t there some professional responsibility on the part of the actors to say, “Hey, if I’m going to shoot a bow on screen, I’d better look like I know what I’m doing.”

It was painful to watch these actors playing competitive college archers, demonstrate that they hadn’t held a bow in their lives until five minutes before filming started.

The scenes which show them loosing arrows are almost comedic.   I tried to find online photos of these scenes, but the produces wisely kept them off the internet.  Ironically, there was a bit of dialogue where one survivor asks the other, “Why bows?”

“Because all the ammunition was already taken.  The sports stores still had archery equipment.”

“That’s because almost nobody knows how to shoot a bow!”

Zombie Apocalypse was followed by Resident Evil: Apocalypse (see the connection here?) which I could stomach until the scene where, knowing that the dead once again walked the earth, they decide to take a short cut through the graveyard.

I don’t believe I’ll ever develop a taste for zombie movies.


Sometimes we have to make the hard choices

Review: Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age: Origins is the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate.”

I have no idea what that sentence means.  I never played Baldur’s Gate.  And if I didn’t get sick (I don’t know if it was swine flu, but it knocked me on my butt for a week) in early December, 2009, I wouldn’t have played Dragon Age: Origins. But there I was, looking for something more creative to do than watch television, and I didn’t have any new books on hand to read.  My son, Galen, suggested, “Why don’t you download Dragon Age? It has logic puzzles and is driven by characters and story-line.  It isn’t just a ‘shoot and loot’ game.  I have it on my old laptop.  You can borrow it.”

That’s how I got hooked on the game.  Even more so when I found out that Estel, one of my archery/SCA friends, was also playing the game.

The aspect which hooked me is that, during game play, one must make a series of ethical decisions that are not always cut and dried. In spite of my best intentions, people still suffered because of the choices I made.  There are all these unintended consequences that are not apparent at the time.  What does this remind you of?  Real life, perhaps?

The game is a reminder that we live in an ethically grey universe, that not all evil comes from external daemons. Even the arch-badguy really did have the best interests of the kingdom in mind when he betrayed the king.   There is a scenario in the game where you have to decide what to do with a human who is dealing in elven child slavery.  You don’t have the resources to eradicate his organization.  And you know that if you simply put a stop to his current operation, he’ll be back as soon as you leave the city.  And the local gendarmes don’t care about elven children.  But there may be a way to profit politically from the situation.  How do you deal with it? Indeed, the world of featherless bipeds in this game-universe is rife with racial tension between humans, elves and dwarves, and your character must successfully navigate this social minefield.

Your character will accomplish this through a series of dialogue vignettes, where you must choose a response from a list.  The response that you REALLY want to give isn’t always listed, but that’s part of the storyline, and the responses will vary from cowardly to insane, with a few reasonable ones in the middle.  You learn quickly that picking a single style of response is not always situationally correct.  Sometimes you have to be deferential, sometimes a badass.  Diplomacy comes in all flavors.

Then there is the possibility of romance with some of the AI characters, including same-sex romances.  There isn’t any total nudity (although, one would think they could have found nicer under-things) and the sex acts are implied.  Regardless, the game strongly deserves its Mature rating.  There is some foreplay dialogue that caused me to flush.  (Something about licking poles in winter.  You had to be there.)

I am loathe to call this product a game.  It’s more like an interactive epic movie, with voice acting done by huge names in science fiction and fantasy:  Kate Mulgrew, Tim Russ, Tim Curry, Claudia Black and Steve Valentine.   It’s certainly far more engaging than television, and can be more interesting than a book as the plot can go in many different directions, depending on your choices.  You may even have to make the Ultimate Sacrifice in order to win the game.

Asylum Improv – Pacifica Spindrift Players

Review: Asylum Improv
Pacifica Spindrift Players
Pacifica, California

I cannot imagine a more challenging social situation than trying to be improvisationally funny. Telling memorized jokes is easy. Reading a comedic script is a snap. Doing a stand-up routine that has been rehearsed and choreographed is a piece of cake compared to what the Asylum Improv does several times a year at the Spindrift Players in Pacifica, California.

It’s because of this that we don’t expect the actors of Asylum, lead by the very brave Roger Genereux, to be as funny as Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, who are comedic geniuses, but they’re already funnier than Drew Carey.

It’s perhaps fortunate for the cast of Asylum that the audience consists primarily of the family and friends, and some die-hard community members, so we aren’t as critical as we could be. Asylum really does try hard to be funny, and one often gets the feeling that they are trying too hard. Sometimes desperately hard, which is evident when the look on an actor’s face plainly says, “Will somebody Please end this scene?” Which is echoed by Roger’s expression which says just as plainly, “Will somebody Please say something funny?”

There are, however, gems which make waiting through the embarrassing moments worthwhile.  We especially liked the efforts of Steve MattesKevin Myer and Lourie (whose last name I couldn’t find, but he’s the bloke with the almost-Irish brogue, softened, I think, by his years in the States).  Lourie can always be counted on for a funny routine involving the alphabet and/or the English language.  Tricia Callero once again wow’d us with her superb vocal skills.  We can’t help but think that if the entertainment industry really was a meritocracy, she’d already be head-lining.

The presentation could be improved if Roger could just relax a little.  We think he’s very smart and talented, but he often comes across as if he believes his entire worth as a human being is riding on the success or failure of the show.  And considering the amount of work he invests at Spindrift, we can’t blame him for feeling that.   But Roger:  We are going to like you anyway.  You have already proven yourself.  So relax.  Also, if you can’t read one of those audience suggestion slips, you should just toss it.  There is no entertainment value in watching you try to decipher somebody’s scribble.  And we know that it’s supposed to be improv, but perhaps a little more structure would help lubricate the show.

And we will be there when you return in March!

Review: The Colony

The Colony

Discovery Channel

“Reality TV”

From the network that gave us Mythbusters comes a show that seems to be a fusion of Junkyard Wars and Survivor. The show takes 10 people of varied backgrounds – a physician, a nurse, a handyman, a marine biologist, a couple of engineers – and sets them in a world where most humans have perished from a global virus.   Each episode has started with a head shot of Adam Montella, a “Homeland Security Advisor,”  telling us “We are on the edge of a global catastrophic disaster.”  The background shows a grim picture of Century City in ruins.

The “world” where these 10 survivors spend the next 10 weeks is located in an abandoned warehouse park on the edge of the Los Angeles River.  They are cut off from communication, electricity, and running water.  They must solve the problems of shelter, food and water and even the occasional “marauder” in the archetypal form of a motorcycle gang.

If you read the credits carefully, there is a disclaimer reading, “The participants in ‘The Colony’ experiment are presented with situations that were created by the producers.  They receive support from off-camera experts when their health and safety may be in danger. Viewers should not attempt to engage in the activities depicted in the experiment.”  So, they aren’t really cut off from the world.

I don’t believe this show was envisioned to be an actual show about people surviving.  You know they are going to survive for ten weeks, or they wouldn’t have a show.  There are experts on hand to advise and help the cast with their projects.  However, it does provide a vehicle for inspiring discussion about how people react in extreme conditions.

There are ethical questions to consider:  Is it really okay to steal food from somebody else, knowing that you may have condemned them to death by starvation, just so that you can have another day’s worth of food?  Would it have been better to invite the guys who owned the goats to join them in the Sanctuary?  (Not in the script, though.)  In order to survive for long, they are going to have to reinvent agriculture, a very labor-intensive activity without 21st Century technology to help.  They’re going to need every hand they can get come the harvest.

Questions of desperation: How hungry do you have to be to eat a carp caught in the Los Angeles River?

Questions of personality: Okay, the handyman is probably over-reacting in order to get more air time on the show.  Do you notice that the camera rarely focuses on the quieter, more rational types?  The handyman is an a-hole, but his skills are necessary for the survival of the group.  When does one side of this equation overrule the other?

The show offers a lot of instruction — I didn’t know about the wood gasifyer, but, day-um!  How kewl is that?  I suspect that the little two-stroke engine that they attached it to won’t last long on that fuel, but it’s still a good idea!

I don’t believe this show will offer a lot in the way of plot twists and surprises, but it’s still good fodder for discussion of human nature and survival.

Book Review – Conquistador

Books –
S. M. Stirling
ROC, 2003

If you’re not, as I am, a native Californian, you may skip the next paragraph.  It probably won’t mean much to you.

I have often wondered what it would be like to visit pre-Columbian California.  To see all those animals that have gone extinct since the arrival of Europeans, including the many native tribes.  It would be breathtaking to look upon the Yosemite Valley, Mount McKinley, Mount Shasta, the San Francisco Bay, Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, the redwood forests, and the wild Pacific coast before modern technology put its footprint there.  Being able to time-travel back to these days has been the core of many a personal fantasy.

I won’t begrudge living in modern California.  If it weren’t for modern technology, much of it invented here, I wouldn’t be alive today.  But the fantasy remains.

This is sort of what S. M. Stirling does in his book, Conquistador.  In the very first chapter, he opens a gate to a parallel universe, a staple in modern SF for lo these many years, where Europeans never made it to the Americas.  A young veteran, just back from the war in the Pacific, invites his friends on an adventure through this gate, and by 2009, where the bulk of the story takes place, things have progressed quite a bit.

It dawns on you during the early parts of the book, that the story doesn’t start off in our universe, either, but one that is very similar.

The vet, John Rolfe, decides that secrecy is the best policy, and manages to hide his universe  for over 60 years. But the problems with secrets is that they become increasingly difficult to keep.  Along comes Tom Christiansen, a game warden for the California Department of Fish and Game, who literally stumbles across this secret.

After this, the book takes on the familiar tone that Stirling set in his other books.  Huge fighting Swedes, beautiful plucky women, lots of battle scenes, descriptions of weaponry, and an array of stereotyped support cast.

We follow Christiansen through a travelogue of this Alternate California, which isn’t entirely pre-Columbian anymore since Rolfe’s arrival, but it’s close enough.  Those of you who are purists when it comes to native species ecologies will be aghast to learn that Rolfe has introduced a number of large game animals from Africa and Asia to the California landscape, which certainly adds to the exotic nature of the narrative.   You’ll also cringe at the part where we learn that the native human population of North America is about 10% of what it was before Rolfe, due to that ol’ friend, disease.  Stirling is quick to point out, however, that Rolfe was not any sort of epidemiologist, and had no intention of killing anybody through germ warfare.

Note to self: Upon discovering alternate universes, hire a group of ecologists and epidemiologists.

If you liked other Stirling books, you’ll like this one.  And vice versa.

Review: Camelot, Presented by the Pacifica Spindrift Players – Part II

This is a follow-up on the review started on October 5th.

One of the impressive aspects of the play is the French accent affected by Greg Frediani in his role as Lancelot.  I turned to my companion who has studied the french language for some years and asked, “Is his accent real?”

“No,” she said. “But it’s very good!”  I’ll have to take her word for it.  The amazing part is that he also sang with a French accent.  Usually, accents disappear in song.  Mr. Frediani sang like a frenchman.

Much of the communication in this play is done with the face.  There were so many times during the action where it was important to pay attention to the face and body language of the actors.  When Arthur, still in the throes of his man-crush on Lancelot, first realizes the extent of the relationship between his wife and his best friend.  There’s a lot going on on the stage at this moment, but Chris Olson made sure you noticed his reaction.  Another example is of Levi Morris as Mordrid, who was positively smarmy, dreadfully loathsome, and reminded me a lot of some politicians I know.  He really nailed the role, showing gleefully evil delight in Arthur’s fall from grace.

Andy Serrano, in his role as Sir Dinadan, also mastered the body language of the role.  First humorously, in his deference to the wizard Merlin, and then far more seriously in his face off with Lancelot, calling him a “sermon on a mount.”   The pun on the word “mount” could have lead to a flippant or farcical treatment of the scene, but one look at Serrano’s face convinced you that the words were no joke but a biting commentary.

Kevin Myer and Nivek Reym played a duel role as Merlin and King Pellinore.  (Get it?  Nivek Reym is Kevin Myer spelled backwards and Merlin lived life backwards?  Sometimes the program at Spindrift is as entertaining as the play.)  Kevin is a delightful comedic distraction, and we wondered if he hadn’t played Don Quixote in a different incarnation.

I hate sounding like someone on a popular reality television show, but we were disappointed in the dancing.  My companion and I both felt that the dancers were capable of much more, but since this is only Pacifica and their relatives came last week, they didn’t give it their best shot.  It made us wish we had been their when the dancers’ relatives were also there.

The group dancing was awkward on such a small stage.  There wasn’t enough room for everybody to get into the swing of it, especially Bradley Bollinger, as Sir Lionel, standing at over six and a half feet.

As I said in Part 1 of this review, we have no complaints about the singing and acting.  The play was, however, visually unappealing.

Arthur – Chris Olson

Guenevere – Michele Choe & Tricia Callero

Lancelot – Greg Frediani

King Pellinore – Kevin Wm. Myer

Mordred – Levi Morris

Sir Dinadan – Andy Serrano
Sir Sagramore –  Mike Fair
Sir Lionel – Bradley Bollinger

Morgan Le Fey – Marti Coyne

Nimue – Robin Hansen

Tom of Warwick – Ted Keil

Also Laurie Wall, Candy Plato, Rita Wolper, Sterling Wolper, Cat Woish, Elizabeth Winfield