Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Painting Zombies

I've been having a good time with Last Night on Earth, but poking around on BoardGameGeek I've always been a little jealous of those swank miniatures that some people have painted. I've also noticed that it's very possible to confuse the heroes while playing, so the painted figured do serve some functional value. So I decided to take up an arts and crafts project to paint the pieces from my game.

I've never painted anything like these soft plastic miniatures before, so I posted a query to the BGG crowd for tips. And I'm so glad I did, because those people were ridiculously helpful. Armed with pages of discussion on optimal painting techniques I headed to Michael's to get my materials.

Supply list:
  • Apple Barrel 24 color acrylic paint set - $4.99
  • Apple Barrel white, 2oz - $0.79
  • Apple Barrel black, 20z - $0.79
  • Delta Ceramcoat matte interior varnish - $2.29
  • Loew-Cornell set of four sable brushes - $6.99
  • Elmer's adhesive putty - $1.99
  • Solo bathroom cups (package of 80) - $2.39
Total: $21.88 (including tax)

The first step was to wash the minis. Apparently they have some residual stuff on them from the mold, and if you don't wash them the paint will have problems sticking. So I washed all the minis and left them to dry for a couple hours.

The next step was to prime them. I started with the zombies, because you've gotta screw up pretty fierce to make zombies look bad. Two coats of black paint later, my zombies were looking like freaky little tar monsters.

Someone from the boards had the excellent suggestion of using sticky tack to affix the figures to something so I didn't have to actually touch the figure while painting. Thus the plastic cups. There are two colors of zombies, green and brown, and since I needed to preserve that in my final output I marked the cups with either a "G" or "B".

With all the prep complete it was time to break out the color. I wanted to preserve the original skin tone difference between the two sets of zombies, so I mixed two not-quite-human skin colors. After the skin was painted on zombies I was able to go nuts applying various clothing colors to them, making full use of the 24 colors in my palette. Lastly I finished off the bases, starting with a dark-green base (to match the game board) and then accenting them with either a light green or brown to bring back the two zombie team colors.

The final step was to apply a coat of matte varnish to make sure that the paint won't wear down as the figures get handled during gameplay.

You can see more photos of the final result here. Personally, I'm extremely happy with how they turned out. Now that I've cut my teeth on the zombies, the next step is to tackle the heroes. There's more detail to worry about with the heroes, but the core steps should be the same. I'll post photos when I'm done.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Always a Critic

I worry sometimes that I'm too negative. If I scan back through what I've written on this blog, I see more negative statements than positive statements. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with criticism, but when that's all you've got to say it's pretty darn depressing. Saying the glass is half empty is fine, but focusing on the fact that it's one eighth empty is taking it a bit far. I don't want to be that person.

Sometimes the most succinct way to describe something is in the ways that it differs from something similar. If you had to illustrate everything from scratch every time, building up from the base to the small details, it would take forever. It's far easier to talk about things in relation to other things. This is a fundamental optimization of communication. But hidden in these comparisons are value statements. You say what something is, and you say what it is not. And it saying what it is not, you are often describing what it should be. And in pondering too often what things are not, it is too easy to lose sight of what they are.

This is a common problem. No one really talks about the ways in which the world's religions and denominations are similar; we focus on (and wage wars over) the miniscule ways that they are different. We don't talk about similarity because similarity is understood. There's nothing more to say. Everybody likes ice cream; everybody likes bacon. It's far more interesting to talk about ways in which we are different. But there's a difference between knowing how you are different from something and defining yourself by how you are different.

I don't think of myself as a negative person, and I don't think that I'm overly negative in my interactions with other people. I enjoy a good argument, but that's not the basis for how I relate to others. So is this disproportionate negativity just an anomaly of my writing?

I definitely know that I struggle with it constantly in blogging. Far more topics flit through my head than I have the time to put to words. So there's an ongoing selection process for deciding what topics to write about. The topics I write about are the ones that I have the most to say about. I've talked before about how this leads to me writing about games. But it turns out it's also a factor in contributing to an overall negative tone.

Concrete example: You'll notice I never wrote about Iron Man. Why? Iron Man was freaking awesome. Thoroughly enjoyable. I'd recommend it to almost anyone. But everyone knows that Iron Man was awesome. I didn't feel the need to tell anyone. It was just understood.

I also haven't written anything about The Orange Box, which was one of my favorite games from last year. Portal is gaming perfection, Team Fortress is refinement of a classic, and Episode Two ends with one of the most epic gaming sequences I've experienced in a long time. It's not like I decided to not write about it. It's still totally on my list. But I've subconsciously preferred so many topics over it. What's wrong with me?

I think it's a natural tendency, and one I'll probably always struggle with. Constant Vigilance, I guess. But at least I'm aware of it. I began this blog as an effort to help my memory, and in respect of that I think it's important to keep my personal time capsule from becoming a depressing log of spiraling negativity.


I have no recollection of how Paprika ended up in my queue. Maybe someone else recommended it to me, maybe it popped up on a Netflix related list. Regardless, going into the movie I really had no idea what exactly to expect. I knew from the sleeve that it was an anime, and that's about it.

Paprika is a story about dream therapy. Not any sort of traditional dream therapy, but rather an invention that allows a therapist to enter your dreams and help you work through reoccurring dreams and nightmares. Unfortunately the device falls into the wrong hands, and a sort of dream terrorist emerges. Victims of his nightmares go insane and start throwing themselves out of windows and such. It starts strong, but the plot gets fuzzy real quick. There's some detective work going on to track down the culprit, but it's not told particularly well and I quickly became lost. I mean, I got the gist of it, but it wasn't exactly crisp.

Thankfully the visuals are amazing. The dreams are appropriately vibrant and surreal. The parade of insanity is creepy, but I especially liked the first patient's reoccurring dream sequence with everything from film noir to a circus to shrinking hallways. The waking scenes also are really well done, with a realistic style that sharply contrasts the insanity going on in people's heads.

But overall I was left disappointed. It was definitely pretty, but I felt like the premise was squandered. Basically the plot was two stars, and the visuals were four. So it really would depend on your mood how much you'd enjoy it. When I sat down to watch it I guess I was in the mood for plot, because in the end the movie didn't quite do it for me.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I Am Legend

I think zombie movies are most successful when they focus on what it means to be a survivor. Take our world, fuck it up, and then tell the story of the people living in that world. The world is some modification on ours, so we can relate to it; but the world is also changed, so it's a little more interesting.

Zombie survival stories are distinct from other post-apocalyptic stories in that the world is largely intact. All the stuff that mankind has built for itself is still there. The difference is that all the people are gone. The stories generally revolve around being lonely and coming to understand how much we depend on each other (both for infrastructure and for emotional support). But of course we live in a world that celebrates the resilience of the individual, so at the same time the stories are about how one resourceful person can survive untold odds and carve out a life. And that of course is one of the other themes: transcending just surviving to rebuilding civilization. These are the nuts and bolts that hold a zombie film together. The monsters, the action, the gore… these things are all secondary.

I Am Legend is a zombie movie (although you might not know it from the preview). Well, they're technically supposed to be vampires, but the vampires exist in great numbers and resulted from a worldwide infection. Whatever, they're nocturnal zombies. Anyway, the story is most successful when it concentrates on Robert Neville's (Will Smith's character) survival story. It's fascinating to watch the desolate city, his daily routine, and his bond with his dog. That stuff is all goodness. That's what a good zombie movie is made of: a great survival scenario.

I thought everything about the movie was quite successful until somewhere around the point where he makes contact with another survivor. It's not that adding someone else to the mix was inherently bad, it just happened so late in the film that it couldn't be fully developed. And the ending was just plain terrible. Why do we need so many stories of needless martyrdom? There's a place for sacrifice, but it has to have meaning. More often than not it feels like a cheap Hollywood cash-in for emotional filler. I personally like it when a storyteller has the balls to kill off a primary character when it fits the storyline. When characters survive everything unscathed it takes the bite out of their dangerous environment. But its another thing entirely to have a character take their own life in the face of danger when there were hundreds of valid alternatives. That's just cheap. It's not like the story of I Am Legend was lacking loss. Robert Neville loses everyone he knows, his whole family, and most poignantly his last companion, Sam. But Neville's death is pointless.

But I digress. The ending left some large questions about the evolution of the infected unanswered. Supposedly Robert Neville is some sort of brilliant scientist, yet he is completely oblivious to the obviously evolving intelligent behavior in the infected. In the theatrical ending, none of that was addressed. I didn't realize it at the time, but apparently that wasn't the original ending. In the original ending Robert Neville begins to see himself through the eyes of the infected. To them he is a murderous invader; he is the villain. The meaning of the title is different: he is a legend to them, as opposed to him being a legend to the remaining human survivors for creating a cure or some crap. The role reversal is a far more interesting premise, but apparently it was deemed unpalatable by the general movie-going public.

You know, I had the same problem with Wanted last week; an interesting story adapted to film and being changed for the worse. Sure, you have to change some things to a story when it crosses mediums. But don't change the freaking premise. In doing a little research on the original book I found out that it's been called out as a key inspiration behind such films as Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. This is a story that was instrumental in shaping a whole genre, and had already inspired two direct film adaptations. What about this makes a filmmaker think they can make a last minute change to the ending and have the same impact?

Okay, I'm done ranting. Seriously, I really enjoyed the first two acts. It's just frustrating that the ending was a total cop out.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Pixar has a pretty strong track record. They don't make many films, but every single one of them has been thoroughly entertaining. They might not all completely rock your world, but with those animators painstakingly scrubbing frame by frame it's pretty hard for complete crap to make it to the final cut. WALL-E completely lives up to its strong pedigree.

After the movie I polled our group to see where WALL-E ranked relative to the other Pixar films. We made it a little technical and did a quick and dirty ladder elimination. Here are the results:

  1. The Incredibles
  2. WALL-E
  3. Ratatouille
  4. A Bug's Life
  5. Monster's Inc.
  6. Finding Nemo
  7. Toy Story
  8. Toy Story 2
  9. Cars

It wasn't the most scientific process, so the list is imperfect. I don't think we ever did all the proper matches in the secondary bracket. But it gives you the gist. WALL-E is one of the best of a very strong list of animated films.

The Incredibles won out in that list, but it's hard to really crown a champion. Fundamentally it's too early to properly place WALL-E (time and another viewing could shift the mix), but there's no doubting that it's really good. Thoroughly enjoyable. Easily recommended to anyone with a pulse.

The premise is kind of similar to that of Idiocracy, except this time there's actually a worthwhile plot. Oh, and robots. Robots make everything better. These aren't your standard mutinizing deathbots, but they're so adorable that I'll forgive their lack of hatred for meatbags.

Most Pixar stories have a strong moral, with varying levels of subtlety. I'm okay with there being a message, but I don’t like being beat over the head with it. It's one of the few things I dislike about Monster's Inc, actually - it gets a little too warm and fuzzy. WALL-E has a message, but I never felt like I was being preached too.

Anyway, WALL-E is a totally charming. Unless you have a heart of coal I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it.

Monday, July 7, 2008


In watching Wanted I kept thinking of Assassin's Creed. Not just because they are both stories about leagues of assassins, but because they are both stories with a lot of style but not a lot of heart. That sounds cheesy, and in no way do I mean to imply that the film was lacking some awful stock romantic comedy love story. I mean that the story callously blew by some serious events that most humans would stop at. I felt guilty every time Altair needlessly knifed some guard who was just doing his job; similarly I couldn't help but notice the extreme collateral damage left behind by Wanted's Wesley Gibson. Seriously, train wrecks that kill hundreds of innocent bystanders are hard to let slide. I'm a reminded a bit of Die Hard 2 (which by the way is terrible), where McLane saves the day but somewhere along the way an entire passenger plane of people is incinerated and nobody seems sad.

Keep in mind that I don't have a weak heart for violence. I play video games, I watch action movies, and I enjoy a good zombie flick (especially when the good guys lose and everybody dies). I'm properly desensitized, right? Well, there are different types violence. The right setting can make violence contextually appropriate (sometimes entertaining, sometimes funny). Catch the wrong balance and you'll have me actually thinking about what's going on onscreen (which has a place, but only if you have the story and maturity of emotion to back it up). Wanted doesn't completely miss the mark - there are scenes that pull off the action with style or humor. But there were quite a few moments where I found myself thinking "was that really necessary?"

It's a delicate line. For example, stabbing someone in the eye with a carrot = awesome. Shooting someone through someone else's eye socket = gratuitous. It's a shame too, because the triumphant march of bad assery leading up to that moment is nothing short of beautiful.

All the chaos surrounding Wesley Gibson's rise to power left me undecided about his character. He's no lawful good hero, that's for sure. That's fine, I can handle the dark and vengeful hero (hey, it works for Batman). But that doesn’t really fit Wesley either, as he feels far more self indulgent than righteous. I'm not saying that everything has to be black and white good vs. evil, but instead of being complicated everything about Wanted's morality is just plain muddled. They try to fix this by providing a lame back story of The Greater Good, reinforced only by a quick fire-side tale from Angelina, but it doesn't stick.

Apparently this movie came from a comic book. And in doing a little research on the comic to film adaptation I began to understand more where the alignment got all out of whack. In the comic The Fraternity is not an order of righteous assassins, but rather a band of super villains. These quotes from the writer about the adaptation help put things into perspective:

"The only thing that they really changed substantially was where the assassins came from, and that does obviously mean a radical change running through it, because suddenly Wesley isn’t a force for evil – in some ways, he’s a force for good"
They changed the justification but let the actions and personality untouched. Maybe it's more palatable by the general moviegoing public, but it doesn't make any sense. Fundamentally, the righteousness is not what Wesley's journey is about. It's about him finding out he's special, standing up for himself, transferring from being shat upon to shitting upon others. It's not like the motivating factor in his transformation is that he found some higher calling to help people. Actually, the turning point is when he checks his bank balance and finds out he's rich (no really, that's the pivotal part for his character - go capitalism). So why bother adding justification to his actions if his journey is inherently self-centered? What was wrong with this being a story about villains?

"if everyone was outright villains, it made it hard to root for the guys, which I could appreciate, but not agree with. The Godfather is all about villains, and you end up rooting for them. You just have to put them against guys who are more evil."
This was another shortcoming for me. Even with the changes they made I didn't really feel like the villain was any more evil than the protagonist. I wasn't rooting for anyone in particular. Which is sad, because that's almost the same as not caring. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I liked the original concept so much more. Most of the things that bothered me during the movie are the same things that were changed in the comic to film adaptation. Guess I'm going to have to give the graphic novel a flip through.

Anyway, when it comes down to it I do always try to judge movies on very basic criteria. Was I entertained? Absolutely. Yes, I realize I just spent many paragraphs talking about stuff that bothered me. But there was totally good stuff in there. I really enjoyed how pathetic Wesley is in the beginning of the movie, hitting a little on that vibe that worked so well for Fight Club and The Matrix. Stylistically the movie had some strong images that are memorable. I had a good time watching it. It just didn't bring anything new or particularly impactful to the table, but that's not always necessary if you're just looking for an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.