TV REVIEW: Miracle Workers Season 2: Dark Ages

written by David Steffen

Dark Ages is the second season of TBS comedy series Miracles Workers. I use the term “series” very loosely here, because there is no plot continuity whatsoever between the two seasons–if they didn’t actually have the same name I wouldn’t call it a series. Besides the name, they do have a major connection in that most of the cast from season 1 returns… as entirely different characters in an entirely different setting. The other common element is that both are based on the comedy writing of Simon Rich, this season from the short story “Revolution”.

While the last one was a contemporary fantasy that took place in heaven with bureaucratic workers there trying to convince God to not destroy the world, this one takes place in a fictional city in mideival Europe.

Our protagonist this season is Alexandra “Al” Shitshoveler (Geraldine Viswanathan), daughter of Eddie Murphy Shitshoveler (Steve Buscemi). She has big dreams for exploring the world as she graduates from high school but she is obligated to follow in her father’s footsteps to follow the family business and shovel human poop for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Prince Chauncely (Daniel Radcliffe) lives in his castle and lives his life without any real hardships nor connection with his people, though he also lives in apprehension of the future ascending to the throne of his bloothirsty father King Cragnoor the Heartless (Peter Serafinowicz). Soon their paths happen to cross each other and they form an unlikely friendship and both see a glimpse of a life outside their own and yearn for something more.

The same sense of humor is evident in both seasons, and it’s great to see the original cast back again in different roles so we can see some of their range. Again, it’s particularly fun seeing Daniel Radcliffe playing a role different from what we’re familiar with, especially at the beginning as Chauncely is cowardly and exploitative if not bloodthirsty like his father he does not have a great deal of redeeming qualities. It builds much of its humor on historical elements from that time period, but often exaggerated for comic effect and also the ludicrousness of it pointed out by Al as she chafes against the boundaries of their small kingdom. Well worth seeing!

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #7: Foil by Weird Al Yankovic

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Foil by Weird Al Yankovic a cross-genre story with multiple twists and turns, which is a parody of Royals by Lorde (though the story has no relation).

The story begins very mundane, with our protagonist (Weird Al Yankovic) talking about how he never finishes all of his food when he eats at restaurants. With a segue where we see this on a video monitor it becomes clear that this is part of a pitch in an infomercial or cooking show titled “Now We’re Cooking”, overseen by a producer (Patton Oswalt). He describes the benefits of aluminum foil to seal in flavor and keep food fresh, and to up the marketing cheesiness he is joined by three 1950’s-style women backup singers with big hair and form-fitting outfits (apparently made from foil, natch). He takes a sip of tea…

…and the film takes an abrupt turn as he reveals, to the surprise of the producer, that he has figured out the secret to the shadow organizations running our country, and starts namedropping conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, black helicopters, fake moon landing, and that sort of thing, as the lighting gets dark and the videos all change to something darker, and the backup singers drop away as the producer looks on in dismay at the disaster this is becoming. All before saying he’s protected because he made this hat…

…from aluminum foil! And the story comes full circle as the lighting comes back up and the backup singers return again as he turns the advertisement around to aluminum foil hats to protect yourself from mind control and aliens! But soon two men in black arrive, and are directed by the producer onstage, where they inject our protagonist with something and drag him away (on camera, for some reason, you would think they would cut the feed first). The producer sighs in relief and pulls off his mask to reveal that he is apparently a lizard alien.

This story is so much fun, and the twists and turns especially the first time are great fun. The clear best moment in it all is the twist where he returns from the conspiracy theory segue and the backup singers return to promote aluminum foil as a way to fight the shadow government, but still with the cheesy overmarketed costumes and marketing. A great parody and comedy film.

Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson.

Diabolical Plots Submission Window Postponed

written by David Steffen

Hello everyone! Greetings and I hope that you and your family and friends are well, or as well as can be expected.

For the last several years, Diabolical Plots has opened for a regular submission window every July. I’ve found that having a single month every year helps me to compartmentalize the effort involved in reading the submission queue–because I find it exhausting and time-consuming, so I just schedule myself one very busy month where I get very behind on everything else, and then I go back to normal.

This year, because of COVID-19, I do not have the time to spare to handle a submission window properly–I have a full-time dayjob and no childcare, and as much as I dislike changing an established routine like this, I don’t see any way that I could handle the time and effort of a submission window in July.

On the bright side I’ve always kept a pretty long publication schedule between acceptance and publication, which does come in handy at a time like this–I already have the selections made in the 2019 submission window lined up to publish without interruption through March of 2021, so it will be almost a year before any possible disruption to the publication schedule will occur.

When will the next submission window be? I don’t know! Depends on, among other things, when I have childcare again. I will have to revisit that question later as more information is available.

In the meantime I will be doing the best I can trying to handle what I can handle–best of luck and best of health to you and yours!

TV REVIEW: Miracle Workers Season 1

written by David Steffen

Miracle Workers is a TBS dark comedy series which, so far, has completely different topics and focus each season. Season 1 aired from February-March 2019, and is centered around the bureaucracy of heaven which is not as heavenly as we would like to believe, and is based on the novel What In God’s Name by Simon Rich.

God (Steve Buscemi) has decided on a whim to blow up the Earth to give him more time to focus on his new restaurant innovation where guests eat food while floating on inner tubes in a lazy river. Eliza (Geraldine Viswanathan) has just transferred to the prayer-answering department which, until her arrival, was staffed only by Craig (Daniel Radcliffe) whose ultra-conservative approach to answering prayers makes it extremely unlikely that any prayers will actually be answered. They manage to talk God into making a wager: if they can grant an impossible prayer, then God will not destroy the Earth. The impossible prayer they choose is this: if they can get Sam (Jon Bass) and Laura (Sasha Compère), who are both socially awkward and both have crushes on each other, to kiss as a couple within the next two weeks.

This turns out to be much harder than they anticipate, given the minor physical aspects of the world they have complete control over, and making bigger changes can have major consequences. With two anxious people who are afraid to make their move, two weeks is a tight schedule. And all through this God is going forward with his plans and otherwise using his seemingly ultimate power and odd ambition to go forward with his own divine restaurant plans while our heroes try to thwart him.

This show is hilarious, great writing, excellent cast, it’s fun seeing Daniel Radcliffe in particular playing a role very different from his most well-known role. Highly recommended!

TABLETOP GAME REVIEW: Skip-Bo

written by David Steffen

Skip-Bo is a card game created by Minnie Hazel “Skip” Bowman in 1967, that has since been sold to Mattel.

The object of the game is to completely empty your stock pile of cards, which in the standard rules starts with 30 cards (rules recommend changing this to 10 for a quicker game). You can keep 5 cards in your hand, and you can lay down any number of cards on your turn into a limited number of ordered build piles, with Skip-Bo cards acting as wild cards. At the end of the turn you either discard into one of a set of personal discard piles, and play continues until someone depletes their stock pile of cards.

The rules are sufficiently different from other card games I’ve played that it does have a little bit more of a learning curve than most, you have to learn what the difference between a build pile and a discard pile are, for instance. But it’s still not a terribly steep curve and once you get the learning stage out of the way you should be able to play through pretty quickly.

Audience
Probably not suitable for pre-school kids as the rules might be a little more complicated than other card games for them to pick up, especially in terms of keeping track of the separate piles.

Challenge
Once you pick up the rules, mostly based on chance, though your strategy of how to organize your discard piles will affect your long-term game.

Session Time
If you play the main rules of the game, maybe a half hour? With a pile that big it can take a while to work through it.

Replayability
No more or less than other card games.

Originality
Even fifty years later, it feels sufficiently different from other card games to be notable.

Overall
A little bit more of a learning curve than most playing card games (maybe too much for pre-school kids), but not bad. Sufficiently interesting with a bit of strategy mixed with the chance to keep things interesting.

DP FICTION #63B: “Synner and the Rise of the Rebel Queen” by Phoebe Wagner

The Greyhood Gang created the boards to escape the guards. The Gallows Hand Gang modified the design with runes, potion washes, and badass art. The last gang, the Blacksmith Bitches, put the boards to their true purpose: rooftop raids on the rich.

It went like this. Rich folks live at the highest points in the city, up on the sea cliff and in these walled gardens that we only get let into to weed and harvest. As the city spirals downward, so does the wealth. The royals always say the gods will let the money trickle down like rainfall, but the only thing that slides down is their sewage.

The gangs have always been stealing to make meat, but usually the goods stayed in your alley. Everyone else, well, that’s the city for you. We’re not all touchy-feely neighborly like the hunters and farmers at the edge of the Woods. The boards changed that because you had to go to the Greyhoods for the best wood, the Gallows Hand for potions, and those two had to work together for the best wheels—part wood, part crystal. We made the bolts, the bearings, the mounts and the grips from thin metal shavings stuck on top.

We knew our secret wouldn’t last—playing peasant was in fash that year. A noble sees some street kid kicking flips and offers to buy the board for his son. Offers more gold than that kid ever going to have again. Then another noble’s son gets jealous, and we got servants scavenging our secrets or palace craftsman offering to purchase them.

But the three gangs said no, collectively, and began to bargain. That’s where the Bitches got the name, after the nonhuman blacksmiths’ union. A bard reported that the king called them the Blacksmith Bitches after the union appealed to him. Anyway, we bargained to be let inside. Our boardmakers would only be allowed to produce for the royal families—no stealing secrets.

But that didn’t mean we wouldn’t be stealing.

A request came next sunrise.

We entered the castle while each gangs’ best cartographer followed by rooftop and shadow-way. We felt their eyes even keener than the guards’. They’d chalk the best lines for escape. Then it was up to our master riders to make the escape happen. We would be seen, no doubt of that (the heads piked outside the wall mouthed yes), so it would come to speed and darkness.

The queen’s aide took us to the princess’s room. Us grubby gutter-gangs, standing in the towers that cast shadows over the sweaty backs of our parents, our siblings. We—the leftover kids of makers and farmers and prostitutes and cart-drivers and shit-shovelers—requested by the castle for something more than to chuck a spear or the noose.

When the aide knocked in a rappity-rap that anyone could tell was secret, the princess peeked through. A smile split that fey face. She swung open the door and stuck her fists on her hips.

“I’m ready.”

Leather trousers stuck from her fluffy skirts, and she’d bound her feet (incorrectly) in peasant wraps with the double-thick saddle soles. A silk handkerchief wrapped her windless-weaving hair from her face.

The aide fidgeted. “Princess Sydney, these are—”

“I know who they are! Everyone does!” She pointed at each of us and rattled off our names and gangs: Cyclops riding for Greyhoods, Litch riding for Gallows, and Jett riding for the Blacksmith Bitches.

We glanced at each other, the guilt worse than the Devil’s Tavern shit-stalls. We’d cracked jokes over pipes and brews about the snotty princeling who’d scream “off with their heads” the first time he cracked his bum. This kid . . . seemed better than that.

Princess Sydney waltzed into her rooms the size of a whole slum street. The aide closed the door but stood beside it.

The princess looked around our slouched, fidgeting forms, then leaned in to whisper. “Call me Syd. Only they call me that.” She rolled up her sleeve and showed a mark traced over and over with black ink, the retraced design blurring at the edge where it seeped beneath her skin, a kid’s attempted tattoo. A cross with curled horns growing from the angles. A half-orc rebel, like us, had been burned at the stake. The king, this girl’s blood, claimed the half-orc had killed a guard during a robbery. Really, we were just illegal. All the halfers. Half-elf, half-human, half-scale, whatever. Anyway, the cross and horns had become the downunder’s symbol, whether you were one-drop or pure. Being poor meant you couldn’t be pure because the gods only cursed sinners to the slums. Ha.

But this princess had a symbol hand-drawn on her arm that would get her some sort of lash, even if it was just with the tongue. We glanced at each other, then motioned her to lower her sleeve. She looked at us with a pixie grin, then her eyes flickered to the boards. She caressed the nose of Sleepeater as if the board were a famous sword.

We nodded at each other. Let’s do this.

Some of us taught Syd while her watcher settled into a chair with a book. The rest of us perused the room of the little rebel. We wondered what this would mean, if the next ruler might help us. But she was so young, so impressionable. She hadn’t seen the downunder, seen what she might one day help.  Heard of us, yes, but we were the brags told at the tavern beer-dippers and by the bards entertaining over trash fires. We were the parentless, the death-defying, the hungry-but-running, the riders of Sleepeater, Killcount, Bloodless, Firestorm, Dragonwing, famous in the downunder as the royal sword Bloodsoaked. Except that sword drank our blood, and all the other poors who sold broad shoulders for the army’s bread ration and the flour-oil money sent home once a month. Our boards, they gave something real, even if it was only hope.

Tonight would change what we could give.

Syd learned fast. Already, she could glide. Her board was sewage, but once we assembled a new one, she took to the quick turns. That pixie smile never left her face.

We wondered about it in whispers or looks when she laughed like gold coins spilling into a pool. Yeah, not cat-slit eyes, no pointed ears, no ghost-wings. But didn’t mean she would pass the one-drop test or the priests’ fervor exams. Being a princess would save her, but not the board bums that led her down such a path.

We named our boards to keep us and our friends safe. And, when we inevitably broke our necks riding the roofs (or the guards got us), someone else could pick up the board, or another just like it, and Dragonwing would still fly, Firestorm darting just ahead, grinding sparks. Sleepeater would wake the guards with silly jumps rattling their roofs and sometimes their helmets. Killcount would kill it on the biggest drops, so high all the downunder witnessed. Bloodless would never fall.

What would happen if we put a princess on a board?

Same thing that would happen to any twelve-year-old. She would fall.

She flipped her board into her hand like we always did. “I want to smoke a roof!”

We told her, not yet, little slick. She rolled her eyes when we said she needed to ollie first and hopped onto her board. One shove, and that princess proved she could get air. Still not tuned to the board, she stumbled on the landing, but rolled into her fall just like we would have taught her. Her watcher didn’t even look up from the book.

So, we made her a roof. Piling furniture against one wall, creating a few levels, a ramp. Any of us, burly street drippings that we were, would be too heavy so we couldn’t test it, but sometimes you didn’t get to test roof lines before you carved. We lined the ground with pillows and bedding. It felt good to tramp the silks and linen with our dirty grip-boots.

Syd climbed up two dressers. We’d created a drop to a long table (the legs balanced on chairs for height). The other end, a ramp went up to a bookcase. From there, she’d drop to a smaller bookcase, then another smaller one, then to another table. She’d have seconds to react. Most roofs were easier than this rickety thing.

She knew it, too, but we said if she could master this thing, then she could ride.

We helped her cast a sight line, plan each jump, catch, footstep, drop. She fell, of course. Didn’t land the first drop onto the table, the board skidding from her feet.

She climbed right back up. Again, again, again.

When king’s guard came to spear-nudge us out, she’d completed the first half but couldn’t quite figure the transition from off her board, run the ramp, then jump into the first drop.

With the guards nicking our heels, she winked. “See you soon!”

That pixie grin sent us wondering again.

We made the raid that night. Sleepeater and Dragonwing took the headline and we followed the leader, mirroring their jumps and drops. We scored big and didn’t lose a spark of gold or blood. Our favorite merchant waited on the other side of the waste grate back in the downunder, and we passed him the wares. Our stuff sold wild outside of town in the cities of living revolution. Here, found owning a piece of royalty, hands and heads went chopped.

Of course, our faces became the new guard graffiti, papering the taverns and community houses. Downunder, nobody turned us in, but we couldn’t go back to finish Syd’s lessons. Smart kid like that already knew she would get us for only a day.

*

For the next year, we kept it cool around the castle. The king outlawed boards, which made it popular as dragon scales among the nobles for a hot second. That royal score had fed plenty and the city had many other pockets of wealth. We emptied them.

Some of us fell. Dragonwing’s rider went to surf the stars with a split skull. Sleepeater landed in a net and never left the guard barracks. Killcount broke both legs dropping off a wall, but they came back even stronger with a young rider whose brother had been hanged for looking at a royal wife. Just the kind of burn Killcount needed to brave those gaps.

Once our faces had bone-bleached off the walls, we planned another castle hit: an anniversary celebration with no fear of revolution from blow because the King held a feast for the whole city. Can’t blame them—when you can eat, you eat. But we still had a chance to grind some tops.

We scored and went straight to the old sewers to cache it until the right merchant came looking for dictator-era jewels.

Except as we ramped into stink, we counted a thirteenth rider. Like us, she wore all black, a scarf around her face, a hammer-battered skull cap. She kept up on the roofs, but it was the ramp into the sewer-dark where she stuttered. Just the slightest hesitation before she pushed, like the first time skating a new roofline.

We circled up at the first turn, riding over her head on the slick stone walls. She braked and flicked her board into her hand. Jagged red spelled “Synner” on the belly.

The Y clued us, and when she tugged down her mask, that same pixie grin waited. The princess looked older. A scar curved over her jaw. Her legs had thickened with riding muscles.

You can’t be here! we told her. A princess gone missing would be assumed kidnapping and ransom, would mean the raising of the downunder, murdering the most capable to destroy another generation that maybe would have said no. She didn’t know what payment she required.

“No, no, it’s okay. I covered my tracks. My double is posing.”

Your double?

She thumbed the scar along her jaw. “I’m not princess enough for the people, according to my father. She looks the part, even if she’s just my half-bastard-sister. She hates it as much as I do. She told me it was time.” She dropped her board and stepped onto it. No longer the wobbly girl we gave lessons to, she turned fluid, riding the board like driftwood on the river. “I can’t do much up there. You can make me something else.”

We looked at each other. Dragonwing and Sleepeater ollied their acceptance immediately. They spoke for their gangs, the Greyhoods and Gallows Hands, but the rest of us wondered what one more sinner downunder could do.

We explained that we didn’t need more bodies but leaders. If she showed her face right now—might as well break our boards.

She flashed the belly of her board. “Then make it a rumor. Make me something more. When they check on me, it will just be my sister Kess. They won’t know the difference. Never have.”

We huddled up. Dragonwing and Sleepeater hadn’t changed their stance, but we wondered at the choice to gamble another young life. We took the big air each night because what else did we have to live for—rat meat and cricket grain? But this kid, she might be something.

With us, she’d just be a criminal.

Some argued we’d run more dangerous lines than this at a younger age.

Others agreed and said who were we to stop her, a bunch of halfies with scarred-up knees.

The Blacksmith Bitches held the deciding vote. They held their turn.

Show us you’re serious, we said. Prove you’ve thought it through.

She turned that pixie grin. “I was hoping you’d say that.” One shove and she parted us, clattering up the sewer ramp. Sleepeater followed, with a few Greyhood runners flanking, but the rest of us waited. We had loot to sell and mouths to feed.

The news came later, with sirens. Due to the king’s sizeable collection of mounts, his stables had been moved just outside the first level, and the shit was raked into a runoff that led straight downunder. With Sleepeater’s help, they’d carved up the barn roofs, panicking the guards and slave mounts, but Syd dropped to the gate, showed her face, sent the guard scrambling to give her the royal treatment, then vanished into the barns. Syd opened all the stalls, then Sleepeater clattered the roof, sending all the mounts rushing.

By the end of the night, the horses, griffons, dragons, wyverns, minotaurs, centaurs, and dire wolves had been absorbed into the downunder. The king’s men came with the royal pedigree papers, with lists of markings, but we did our job well. Only a handful were stolen again.

When Syd rolled into our park, still shit-stained and beast-smelling, we couldn’t help but welcome her.

Then we waited for it to get worse.

We stayed low, skated our traditional paths in the downunder, never crossed out of building’s shade or sewer’s shadow. Not until a little thing happened did we believe Syd, not until her double stood beside the king at an announcement about “schools for the children” shite. Not until we knew we had a secret on the king—his royal child had escaped.

Synner unleashed on the middle-castle dwellers and the nobles: breaking into a speciesist grocer, surfing through the upper-castle farmers’ market, thieving a child-beating blacksmith. We skated flank, let her face forward, let that board leave a trail. We tagged the hits with Synner, but one of the best paint-magickers turned out a stencil (her shadowy face bleeding into the top of her board, name on the belly), and princess propaganda went wall-to-wall.

Some worried the king would see, but some said, yes, that’s what we needed. If she wanted a true revolt, he’d know. All the downunder knew her masked face, and most suspected her heritage, so whispered the crows. Somebody would take it kingside.

So it happened. We were staying low, keeping the boards hidden, after a big hit on a shop selling slave-diamonds. The guards had chased us all the way to the sewer head before we lost them in the stench. Wild riding, we’d been drunk off it, but knew enough to relax. Breathe it all in. A week later, Synner went out with Killcount and Firestorm just to land a few tricks, grind a few gutters, so the downunderers saw us safe and laughing.

Maybe someone knifed us, maybe it was fate. The guards hit so hard the three boards were caught up in the wave. Riders went down, but the guards took Syd, of course. That’s how we knew their goal. A good rebel, she kicked her board into the fearful crowd.

A new Synner picked it up.

She held the board above her head. She screamed with half-scale metal: “To war!”

We rode the way of revolt.


© 2020 by Phoebe Wagner

Author’s Note: This story was inspired by my love of Dungeons & Dragons, skateboarding, and revolution.  In epic fantasy, the tiered city is such a staple that it seemed a waste to only ride skateboards on the streets rather than the roof tops—what a perfect ramp! Because I knew revolution would be a key aspect of this story, the first person plural voice came with the  characters. 

Phoebe Wagner holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment and currently pursues a PhD in literature at University of Nevada, Reno. She is the co-editor of two solarpunk anthologies: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation and Almanac for the Anthropocene: A Compendium of Solarpunk Futures. When not writing, reading, or grading, you can find her kayaking the nearest river. She can be found on Twitter @pheebs_w or at phoebe-wagner.com


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MOVIE REVIEW: Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein

written by David Steffen

Alvin and the Chipmunks meet Frankenstein is a 1999 straight-to-video cartoon film distributed by Universal Studios revising the version of the title characters from the 1983-1990 TV show. Three child-sized anthromorphic chipmunks Alvin (Ross Bagdasarian Jr) , Simon (Ross Bagdasarian Jr), and Theodore (Janice Karman), live with their adopted dad/manager Dave (Ross Bagdasarian Jr).

It is part of a short series of revival films, one of which has been previously reviewed: Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman. As with that one, this one focuses on the boys coming across a class pulp era movie monster, this time Frankenstein (well, and Frankenstein’s monster).

The movie starts as the chipmunks are performing at Majestic Studios theme park and they get lost and they wander into an attraction where an actual Victor Frankenstein (Michael Bell) is laboring to create an actual Frankenstein’s monster (Frank Welker). As with the original Frankenstein’s monster, the creature is actually pretty friendly and befriends the boys, and Dr. Frankenstein has other plans.

As with the previous one, the title kindof gives away any possible suspense that there might have been about what was going to happen, and though some unexpected things did happen those things seemed unrelated to the Frankenstein plot at all, and so were just kind of… baffling? It’s an okay movie with some catchy numbers, might be worth watching with the kids if you see it streaming.

TABLETOP GAME REVIEW: Bears Vs Babies

written by David Steffen

Bears Vs Babies is a tabletop/card game from the makers of Exploding Kittens and The Oatmeal, wherein you build fearsome Frankensteinian monstrosities to defeat and eat armies of vicious babies.

Each turn you have several moves (how many depends on how many players) to stitch together your monstrous armies, attaching heads and limbs to bodies to build your fighting force to overpower the vicious elemental baby armies. Each additional body part adds fighting power, and certain attachments give extra moves as well–like tools that will give you an extra move per turn (at the expense of a point of fighting power) or a hat which multiplies that monsters fighting power. Then anyone can use their turn to provoke an army of babies and see who wins, at which point all the monsters who fight in that war are discarded whether they win or lose and you build up your armies again.

The game takes a bit to figure out exactly what the objective is and how to go about it, but once you get the hang of it it moves pretty quickly. If you have a game fresh out of the box I recommend following the instruction manual which starts you playing with a smaller simpler deck to get some of the basics down before adding additional types of cards to the deck.

It’s a fun game for a variety of ages, which depends some on skill and some on luck so can be a good choice kids in early grade school, who will have a chance to win. It’s fun and silly and as with Exploding Kittens much of the appeal is looking at the cool and silly illustrations.

Audience
Broad appeal, most kids should be able to play this at preschool if you want (and as long as you’re not worried about them being upset at the premise of fighting vicious babies).

Challenge
There is some skill trying to figure out how best to build up an army, and especially if you’re playing with people who try different strategies there is a decent challenge in trying to figure out how best to counter what you think they will do.

Session Time
Once you get the hang of it, you can probably play a full round in 15 minutes or so.

Replayability
A lot of the initial appeal is just seeing the silly and fun illustrations for the monster parts, so that wears off after you’ve seen them all, but it is a quick game to play and the strategies and style can shift quite a bit depending on what cards you get so there’s quite a bit of replay value.

Originality
I like these game-makers in large part because they come up with silly ideas, cool illustrations, and do a great job finding a new feel and strategy so it feels like its own unique thing.

Overall
Fun game for a wide range of ages, if you like Exploding Kittens you’ll probably like this. Definitely worth a play!

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #6: She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters, about an epic and violent battle between a couple at a restaurant. Fair warning: the film does depict quite a few acts of domestic abuse. As well as the title implying a stance about gender roles that some may prefer not to delve into.

And if I had to change one thing about this film it would be the title, intentionally misgendering a woman because she is aggressive. I think it’s done for a laugh, but I did not find that funny. If I didn’t enjoy other aspects of it greatly I might not have recommended it at all.

The film starts with a couple, a man and a woman, seated across from each other at a table at a restaurant, chatting (we can’t hear what they’re saying) and enjoying each other’s company. This mood does not last long as apparently he says something that offends her, and she responds in anger, visibly shouting “What?!” with a wave of her arms. I got the impression they are no strangers to sudden fights breaking out, apparently having been together for quite some time and having come to accept them as part of the relationship.

The film is a series of escalations in this fight. She escalates the fight by throwing her napkin at him, which they are soon sending back and forth as quick as a tennis match. Soon they both escalate the fight simultaneously by both reaching for the surprisingly large knives in their table settings and dueling over the table with them. He collects all of the plates and she dares him to throw them. He does, and she dodges the first few, and catches plates in both hands, her teeth, and between her feet and throws these back at him, hitting him with every one, and she breaks another thrown plate in mid-air with a karate chop.

Although she has shown incredible physical abilities, we start to see her more supernatural powers next as she doffs her jacket and sets it flying across the room to punch her man in the throat, leaving him gasping.

The waiter comes out with new plates and she throws one of them as well and the waiter makes a heroic dive to retrieve the plat before it impact. He manages to hit her for the first time with the remaining plate, and then she really flies into a rage. When the harried waiter arrives with a new covered platter he places it and retreats before she throws that, but the man launches the platter into the air, spilling the lobster out of the platter, and makes a super-human jump to catch it and launch it at her; the claws catch her long hair and sever it at the shoulders.

One of the restaurant staff picks this unfortunate time to deliver the check and she splits him half up his torso with her bare hand, and moments later cuts the chef clean in two. Finally she delivers the coup d’etat by using her magic to compel her jacket to hold him still while her severed locks of hair strangle him until he goes limp. Once he is lying on the floor she makes a show of regret and she picks him off and carries him out of the scene while they seem to chat cordially again.

Before I get into examining the plot and themes further, I would like to mention that what made this film remarkable to me was not the plot or the themes, but the practical special effects on display here. The legs of the two characters on the screen are clever puppetry performed by black-clad puppeteers who are often entirely visible against the black background of the scene. In addition, anything thrown or moving of its own volition in the scene is also operated by puppetry. The most impressive part, in my opinion, was the man’s jump to reach the lobster–the scene takes what looks like a 90 degree camera “bullet-time” style camera rotation from horizontal to looking directly down on the scene, but as far as I can tell the camera is stationary throughout the whole film and any apparent movement is actually the set and characters being moved instead. In this case that included all of the surrounding tables being lifted off the ground by more of the puppeteers and rotated 90 degrees while the actors did their best to hold the same facial expressions and upper-body position except for the rotation. It was really quite impressive! Many of the special effects, especially the stick-thing legs, look kindof weird, but I was really impressed by it and the surreal look of it was very appealing.

As for the subject matter of the piece, it depicts a very serious subject (domestic abuse) in a light that seems like it’s meant to be aiming at humor–if that’s the intent I think it misses most of the time. While I enjoyed the film, much of that had to do with the awesome special effects, although when she cuts the kitchen staff into pieces with her bare hands and they manage to get themselves off stage under their own power that was darkly humorous. But overall it is a very hard film to recommend to people because of the “domestic abuse as humor” angle.

Somewhat tied into that, I find the title of the film makes me wonder what the filmmakers were trying to convey: “She’s My Man”. I’m not sure if they’re trying to say that she is the more “manly” of the two because of her determination, physical prowess, and aggressiveness, asserting dominance in the relationship through her abuse, in the role that stereotypes dictate is the man’s to hold, a woman holding a role defined by its toxic masculinity?

I’m not sure. But, even if it’s hard to recommend without knowing if the person I’m talking to has a history that involves domestic abuse, the practical effects in this are really extraordinary!

(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be “Foil” by Weird Al Yankovic)

MOVIE REVIEW: Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman

written by David Steffen

Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman is a 2000 straight-to-video cartoon film distributed by Universal Studios reviving the version of the characters from 1983-1990 TV show. Three child-sized anthromorphic chipmunks Alvin (Ross Bagdasarian Jr) , Simon (Ross Bagdasarian Jr), and Theodore (Janice Karman), live with their adopted dad/manager Dave (Ross Bagdasarian Jr).

Alvin has been having nightmares about monsters, and is constantly reading his monster facts book, having become convinced that their new neighbor Mr. Talbot (Maurice LaMarch) is a werewolf. Alvin seeks out proof of what he believes to be their neighbors dark secret while trying to navigate their everyday life, including acting in the play adapted from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

This might be appealing to kids of the appropriate age, but it doesn’t have very broad appeal like the best cartoons do. Much of the mystery of the movie is kindof spoiled by the title because you know from the title that there must be a werewolf somewhere in the story and so Alvin’s crackpot theories have to be true of someone, if not the neighbor. It’s fine if you have a kid at a young enough age to enjoy it, but it’s not too likely to have broader appeal. (We happened to catch it on streaming)