Building a Pepakura helmet for Denver Comic Con

DSC_1273At this year’s Denver Comic Con, I spent one day cosplaying as Cadavre from Broodhollow. (If you don’t know what Broodhollow is, I’m not surprised. Exactly one person recognized the character. But if you like Lovecraftian horror and quirky fun characters, and really clever jokes you should check it out.)
Anyway, this post is not about my almost creepy obsession with Broodhollow. This post is about how I built the mask that’s the heart and soul of the costume. (Warning: this post is really long.)
At first, I didn’t want to make a pepakura helmet. (Btw, pepakura is both a computer program for turning 3D models into instructions on how to make that shape out of folded cardstock, it’s a general term for anything built out of paper. All of this will make sense if you read on.)  As obsessed as I was about reading build threads on the Replica Prop Forum, it all seemed too daunting. Besides, I didn’t need to take on yet another time-consuming and expensive hobby. But I’d already been doing paper-craft as a means of trying out my burgeoning interest in automata and kinetic sculptures. But I’d been distracted from that by more general woodworking projects, which had since been put on hold while I get into model making. During which I, for reasons that remain fuzzy, was also doing an online course in Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. You get the picture. I’m in the midst of a hobby storm. I did not need another project.
But then I ran across a cool looking paper craft skull on Etsy. And it only took about an hour to build it out of regular paper. And, hey, would you look at that, it fits on my head. So then I built another one out of cardstock. I naively bought a color that I thought would match the color of a skull. That was when I thought I could just strengthen the cardstock and wear it like that. If only it had been that easy.
Here’s the cardstock skull. Just paper, glue and tape.

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The traditional next step in a pepakura build would be to coat the cardstock with a couple of coats of polyester resin. But since I was taking the “let’s not buy too much stuff if we don’t have to” approach to this, I chose to eschew the resin, which is a bit expensive, and requires an expensive and clunky mask. Instead I used wood glue thinned with water. Knowing that adding all that water would soften the paper and make it prone to losing its shape, I tried to prop it up with a couple of pieces of cardboard. Which kind of worked, but not really. I still had a slightly lopsided shape, and the point of the jaw flared out wildly at one jaw. On the second through fourth coats, I used bits of foam jammed into the mouth, and thin strips of wood glued to the jaw to try to reshape it. It mostly worked, though the nose remains a bit off-kilter.

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Next, I added fiberglass cloth to the inside of the skull. Again, traditionally, this would be done with more resin, but again, I chose to use wood glue. I know that if I ever do this again, I will use the resin for these steps. It’s not all that hard to work with. (Though my results with it were not good. See below for my tale of woe.) Either way, though, this step is pretty much guaranteed to be a sticky mess. You wipe down an area with wood glue thinned with water, then stick down a small swatch of fiberglass cloth, then stick it down with more glue. Cover the whole inside, let it dry for a day, then come back and add another layer. I honestly don’t remember if I did two or three coats of fiberglass. Whichever it was, it gave the mask plenty of strength. I wouldn’t try to stand on it or anything, but I have no fear of it collapsing under normal conditions.

DSC_0196 DSC_0197 DSC_0199By now it had become clear to me that the cardstock had warped and wrinkled too much for me to ever be happy with it as the final surface of the mask. I would have to inch one step closer to full-on pepakura technique and coat the outside with Bondo (aka body filler). There was a bit of a financial investment, since I had to get a bona-fide vapor mask. A basic dust mask (which I usually wear when sanding or sawing) is not good enough. Bondo and resin (which can be used to thin Bondo and by extension ruin your day (see below)) both give off harmful fumes. With mask, safety goggles, rubber gloves and a very old, sacrificial sweatshirt, I was ready to (safely) proceed.
I also covered part of the workbench with wax paper, just to minimize the mess. I used a layer of blue painter’s tape directly on the workbench to mix the Bondo with its hardener paste. The little rubber spatulas are also made by Bondo. They’re cheap, and you know you have enough hardener when the Bondo matches the color of the spatula. Not that mine ever did. But the first coat cured well.

The first few patches I did went on pretty smoothly. Later, I got sloppier, figuring I was going too slowly and that I’d have to sand it all down later anyway. I long to be skilled enough to lay down a perfectly smooth surface in one pass, like I’ve seen on YouTube, but alas what you get instead resembles the surface of a lemon meringue pie.

One common theme I remember seeing in post after post online about how to do pepakura is how much sanding there is to be done. Heavens to Murgatroyd, so much sanding. This was only the the beginning, but already it seemed interminable. I spent a couple of hours sanding this first layer down. Oh how I wish I’d had my random orbital sander then. Bondo chews through sandpaper in a hurry, clogging it after only a few minutes. It’s a pain.












I came back and added a thin rim of bondo around the inside of all the holes in the mask, just to add some strength and give it a clean edge. Well, clean once I’d sanded it.



Next up was a bit of pre-planning for how to secure the beret, so it would stay on top of the mask while I’m wearing it, but no interfere with putting on or taking off the mask. I decided to do this with some rare earth magnets. By sewing some washers to the beret, and using epoxy to stick the magnets to the inside of the mask, I could just slap the beret on top, and feel confident it would stay in place. (Spoiler alert: it did exactly that. It never moved unless I moved it.)


Showing the placement of the washer, and an initial strength test. The magnet easily held up the weight of the beret.
Here’s what the magnet looks like.
The next two moments of importance are sadly without corroborating photographic evidence. I’m not too surprised, though, as each of them was traumatizing in their own way, leaving me apparently forgetful of the camera.
The first event was the second layer of Bondo. Feeling confident after my first, relatively successful layer, head filled with new techniques gleaned from YouTube tutorials, and in full grips of the Dunning Kruger Effect, I decided to thin out this coat of Bondo with some resin. The idea is to create a less viscous mixture that can be manipulated more easily. It’s called Rondo (ha! get it?) and it’s often used to “slush coat” the inside of a helmet. (A task I decided, probably wisely, to skip.) Anyway, my goal was to make a thinner, more easily spread mixture that would be easy to get smooth.
Instead what I got was a thin, too-gray mixture that spread easily, but never cured fully. Normally Bondo cures to a rock-hard, sandable consistency in only 20 minutes. This coat was rubbery and tacky after an entire day. After spending a couple of days in denial, I did the only thing I could do: sand the entire coat off and start over. I thought that sanding normal Bondo was difficult, but this stuff was much worse. It gummed up sandpaper at a startling rate. Sometimes I’d get fed up and attack it with a file instead. At one point, I tried scrubbing with a rag and some acetone. In the end it was just a lot of sanding. I spent an hour or two a night for about a week to get it off. I spent a lot of that time on the phone with my girlfriend, or listening to podcasts.
Once it was finally gone, I (again without photos) added a fresh coat of non-thinned Bondo to the whole skull, and sanded and sanded and sanded it until it was more or less smooth.
The next momentous event was much more successful, but much more nerve-wracking. It had become clear shortly after the fiberglass stage that the mask would no longer fit on my head. I mean, it would, if I could get my ears through the opening on the bottom, which I couldn’t. Meaning the only way to make the mask useable was to cut it in half. I had to create a hinge in the mask, so I could fit my big melon inside. I measured and planned, and looked up stuff on the internet, and stalled, and measured again, and stalled, and admitted  to myself that no matter how many times I measured, I couldn’t be sure that it would actually fit on my head, and I stalled some more, and then finally I cut it in half. I used a disc cutter on my Dremel tool, which cut through the Bondo and fiberglass and glue with frightful ease. I got a couple of knicks in the edge, but otherwise it was a clean cut.
Here are some pictures of the two halves. I added more Bondo to the edges here, again for strength. I also built up a little platform to give me a nice surface to epoxy the hinge to.
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Given the hinged top, and the fact that I was going to secure the back flaps with magnets again, I couldn’t trust that the mask would just stay sitting on my head. I needed to fasten it more securely. I ended up getting a scuba mask strap off of Amazon; one of the cushioned neoprene kind that are really comfortable. I cut some plastic D-rings and attached straps off of an old backpack that I no longer use because of a broken strap. (Which is actually not a healthy development, because it only encourages me to keep more stuff on the off-chance it might prove useful some day. (No, *you’re* a hoarder!)) Anyway, I secured the D-ring to the inside of the mask with epoxy, and also epoxied in the magnets for holding the beret on.
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I also attached some metal L-brackets that I’d bent nearly straight to the back of the front half of the mask. They’d match up with magnets on the flap section, to hold it in place.
Allow me to pause here for a quick moment of thanksgiving. I found in amongst all the pictures of the mask, a picture of my shop stool. I suppose I was grateful to have it that day; I honestly don’t remember why I took that picture. But here it is, my bad-ass shop stool. (Because why *wouldn’t* I get the one with flames on it?)
I spent a lot of time sanding down my final coat of Bondo until it had a nice smooth surface. Which is not to say that there weren’t scratches and pits and other flaws. I used wood filler to fill in some of the most egregious of these, especially those along edges.
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Then I put two coats of primer on the mask, followed by two coats of a flat white spray paint.


Next, I masked off the interior with painter’s tape and used some acrylic craft paint to cover the whole exterior. I was looking for kind of a parchment, old bone color.


I knew that I wanted to have multiple layers of paint, and multiple colors. I wanted the mask to look like old, dusty bone. I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube and and about painting and weathering and I bravely embarked on a strategy of applying a layer of color, immediately panicking, and blending like mad to try to take off as much paint as I could. By repeating this process over and over (and over (and over)) I somehow managed to stumble my way to a paint job that I actually liked. But I’m fairly convinced it was pure luck.





I put a couple of coats of clear coat over the outside to protect the paint job.
I thought about a lot of possible solutions for covering the eye holes but still being able to see out. In the end I just took some cheesecloth, painted it black (though it ended up looking kind of gray), and glued it in. I used a darker, thicker cloth to cover the nose and mouth. I couldn’t wear my glasses under the mask, and had to wear contacts, but otherwise it was fairly comfortable. It could get kind of stuffy in there, though. My next full-head mask might have a battery-powered fan.
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It was finally time to re-assemble the two halves. I used three different hinges, epoxied together, then secured to each half. The resulting joint has an enormous amount of play, allowing the back flap to rotate more than one hundred and eighty degrees. This makes it easy to put on and take off. But, it also meant that there wasn’t enough keeping the two halves together at the top. They would sag apart, leaving an ugly gap. I had to add another magnet and metal bracket right next to the hinge to keep everything together. In the following pictures you can also see the foam padding I added to the inside to cushion my head and keep the mask riding where I could comfortably see out of the eye holes. The pad on the cheekbones were just a comfort thing: fiberglass can be scratchy.
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Finally completed! Here are the first pictures of me wearing the mask, and trying it out with the shirt.
As I mentioned earlier, only one person at Denver Comic Con knew who Cadavre was. But that didn’t mean I didn’t get comments on the costume. There were a couple of characters from animes I’d never heard of that people kept asking me about. A couple of people just came up and asked me who I was. I kind of wish I’d slips of paper with the Broodhollow url to hand out. A few kids asked to have their pictures taken with me, which of course I was happy to oblige.
The best part of the day came near then end, when my friend goaded me into doing a mime routine in the middle of an aisle. Not ten seconds went by before one of the ten million people dressed as Deadpool (seriously, they were *everywhere*) came up and started playing along. He played the other side of the wall I was exploring, then crouched down to the ground as I pressed in the top of a box above him. Then he shook my hand and walked off. It was spontaneous non-verbal improvisation and it was a joyful, playful, hilarious moment.
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And, finally, the cherry on top of the whole sundae. That night, I posted a couple of pictures on Twitter, and mentioned Kris Straub, the creator of Broodhollow. And he tweeted back at me, and it just kind of made the whole project seem that much cooler.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this. My assumption is that only my girlfriend and my mom will actually read the whole thing. So, hi sweetie, hi Mom, thanks for reading. 🙂
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Overly harsh movie reviews: 47 Ronin

Standard warnings about spoilers apply.




I recorded this movie off HBO mostly because I wanted to see the costumes and the special effects. My expectations going in where extremely low. In the end, surprisingly, it was a lot better than I expected. I won’t say it’s a great movie (even saying it was good may be a stretch) but I actually enjoyed it.
Before I get into more specifics, I have two tangents to make about why my expectations were so low.
First, Keanu Reeves. In the past (as my friends and families can attest) I was so vociferous in my criticism of Keanu Reeves that it was occasionally uncomfortable. I just hated his acting, and couldn’t understand why he was in so many movies. (Beyond the “looks good when well-lit” argument.) In recent years I’ve mellowed. First, because I’ve seen multiple accounts that amply demonstrate that Keanu Reeves has had more than his fair share of sadness and misfortune, and that he’s a genuinely considerate guy. There are several stories of him buying gifts for every member of a movie’s crew, or quietly donating significant sums to charities. All of which has made me feel some empathy for him as a person, which easily transfers to the characters he plays. Second is that I’ve grown as a person. I used to resent Keanu Reeves because I considered him to be untalented, and it just felt unfair that he should be living a life I could only dream of. I implicitly discounted the hard work he put in, the dues he paid that I couldn’t be bothered to. It was unfair and immature of me, and I now regret it.
As far as the movie itself goes, I think the marketing for it completely missed the mark. They focussed on the fantastical elements and special effects shots to the exclusion of all else. This movie was well-paced and occasionally contemplative, but you’d never know it from the way it was marketed. From the commercials and previews I saw, I was expecting Suckerpunch, only set in Japan, and not as good. And I did not think Suckerpunch was good. At all. The first preview I saw for 47 Ronin actually kind of made me mad, because the original, historical story of the 47 Ronin is a long-time favorite of mine. (I still think it deserves to have a straight-up period movie made from it.)
Instead 47 Ronin is much more like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, only set in Japan, and not nearly as good. But the story is interesting, if a bit predictable. The villain characters were two-dimensional and devoted most of their time to chewing the scenery. On the other hand, the three main protagonists had more depth and were well portrayed. Plus, all three of them had a real story arc where they grew and changed and sacrificed and struggled. There were some really beautiful landscape shots and sets, and the costumes were really good. The magic elements were well-grounded in actual Japanese folklore. I especially liked the make up for the Tengu. It made them feel otherworldly while maintaining enough human elements to keep them from being shallow CGI boogymen.
One last note about Keanu Reeves’ character. In the story he’s a half-breed (the son of a Japanese peasant woman and an english sailor), and I will give kudos that the producers cast a multi-racial actor. But I think they could have easily made this movie without bringing in a western star. In the end, I think the character’s history and story arc were interesting enough that I’m willing to overlook this. I just get frustrated when Hollywood does this kind of white-washing. (Or similarly, when they cast two Chinese actors as the (Japanese) lead characters of Memoirs of a Geisha.) I understand why they do it. People go to see their favorite actors. But I’d rather see Hollywood focus on telling good stories and casting actors who fit organically into those stories, and less on who has enough name recognition to make their opening weekend projections.

On Robin Williams and Depression

I never intended to write this post. It feels like everything I have to say on the subject of Robin Williams’ suicide has already been said, and said better than I could say it. And there are lots of big and important subjects that I’m going to brush by glancingly, or dodge altogether.
But a post from a friend on Facebook today, and a conversation with my therapist changed my mind. Because I have a perspective that is uniquely my own, and I have a voice. And choosing to use that voice and share that perspective — choosing to be vulnerable  — that to me is right at the heart of this whole issue.
I just gave away my thesis too soon. (Spoiler alert!) Let me back up and give some context. The things that have been the most upsetting to me in the debate following this tragedy (and every suicide is tragic) have been people saying that it was selfish to commit suicide. That Robin had to have known that people loved him.
Yes and no.
It’s been said many times before: depression lies.
But the trick is it sounds like the truth. Not an objective truth, not necessarily even something that can stand up to the scrutiny of logic. Depression manifests in your own thoughts, your own feelings. Imagine your brain is a computer infected by a virus. Most of the time your thought processes are normal. But every so often the virus pops up a message on the screen: “You’re worthless”. Like a perverse memento mori, it reminds you of your own faults. It exaggerates and catastrophizes them. And when it’s really got hold of you, the virus consumes nearly all of your processing power. Normal thought can grind to a halt, starved for resources as malicious code rampages through your head.
At the deepest depths, you may know that you are loved, but the lie that says you aren’t feels more like the truth.
This can be helped; it can be fixed. But it is not easy. It usually takes professional help and a lot of effort. Very rarely can a depressed person “just snap out of it” or “just choose to be happy”. Trust me on this one: unless you have battled depression, you have no idea how hard it is.
Okay, so here’s something important. If any good can come out of Robin’s death and the media furor that’s followed it, it’s this: we, as a society, must stop stigmatizing mental illness in general and depression specifically. I’ve seen figures that say up to one quarter of Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness or addiction. (Citation needed.) Think about your family and your friends, your co-workers, anyone you feel you know well. Chances are at least one of them suffers from depression. I’m sure I know people who do, and don’t talk about it.
Which is exactly the problem.
I spent most of my adult life believing (in that depression-y “it feels true” kind of way) that being depressed was a character flaw. That it was not only my fault that I felt the way I did, but that I had to hide it. That I could be happy if only I would buck up. Or change my attitude. Or get more exercise. Or, or, or. The possible solutions are endless, and most of them are useless. What I didn’t do was talk to anyone about it. Because people didn’t want to hear it. Or so my depression told me. I know my family and friends are there for me, but I was ashamed.
Shame is worth talking about. Shame is the whip that depression uses to keep you down. Depression says “you’re worthless” and you believe it. Which creates a disincentive to open up to people, because (in the warped logic of depression) only scorn and rejection could possibly follow.
Imagine you’ve broken your leg. You can only move around on crutches and it hurts like hell all the time. Think about what the next few weeks would be like, how hard it would be to move around, to keep up with house-work. Think about getting to and from work, and sitting in uncomfortable conference room chairs. Without help from friends and family, (and painkillers, don’t forget the painkillers) you would be miserable and stressed and overwhelmed.
Now imagine that you’ve got a broken leg but you feel compelled to hide it. No crutches, no help from anyone, no acknowledgement at all of the constant pain and difficulty. You struggle through on your own because you couldn’t bear the shame if anyone found out that you had a broken leg, that you were injured.
That’s what it’s like to live with depression but try to hide it. It hurts all the time, but you feel like you can’t ask for help. We feel no shame for an injury. We shouldn’t feel any for an illness either, which is what depression is.
For those who aren’t afflicted with depression, the single most important piece of advice I have is to not minimize it. Don’t dismiss it, don’t trivialize it, don’t stigmatize it. Treat it like the illness it is. Give the afflicted love and support and understanding. Advice on how to get better, though well-meaning, is often not helpful, and may even be counter-productive. (For a much better explanation about this subject, read this. Especially the part about the fish.) I’m a fan of counseling, and I would advise anyone living with depression to get help. Beyond that, I think that empathy is your best bet.
For those of us with depression, the way we can meet our loved ones halfway is vulnerability. Vulnerability is like kryptonite to shame. (Don’t take my word for it. Watch this and this. (I know they’re long. They’re still worth watching.)) And depression without shame as a tool is largely defanged.
Which brings me (finally) back to why I decided to write this post. It’s kind of dual purpose. Choosing to share this, to be vulnerable in this way, can help me to combat my own depression. And if enough people do the same, and are met with compassion and acceptance, then maybe we can remove the stigma from depression. And then more people may feel comfortable getting help.
And maybe we’ll remember Robin Williams’ death as not just a tragedy, but as a turning point.

Overly Harsh Movie Reviews: Valhalla Rising

Dang, it’s been a while since I blogged. I’ll try to get back here a bit more often. As should be unsurprising to those who know me, the reason I’m back is I hated something.

Spoiler alert, blah, blah, blah.




A coworker recommended this film, and since I’ve been on a real Norse Mythology kick recently, it seemed right up my alley. And the opening was really promising. It has that slow, methodical indie film feel about it. Nobody speaks for the first five minutes or so and there’s just shot after shot of beautiful scenery and medieval viking squalor. Our hero, a one-eyed slave (gee, I wonder if he’s supposed to be Odin. No, probably not, nothing in this movie is what it seems.) is forced to fight other slaves for the amusement of his captors. Our hero is quickly established to be a bad-ass as he kills challenger after challenger while tethered to a pole.

And I’m thinking, “okay, the violence is unusually graphic, but this might be a kick-ass action film”. Nope. Because the fighting soon stops and we go back to long, slow, methodical shots of One-Eye (no, that’s actually his name) being in a cage and stacking rocks and these weird flashes of red which we find out are visions of the future and Oh My God has it only been ten minutes? There’s a boy who feeds him and there’s some more talk about him being a bad ass, but let’s skip a bunch because none of it matters.

He’s sold. He escapes en-route to his new home. More graphic violence. The boy follows him. He meets up with some Christian Vikings who are going on a crusade. Oh yeah, did I mention that the hero of the story never speaks and the boy speaks for him, or maybe just makes shit up because who can tell? (I will say that Mads Mikkelson does a brilliant job of being a presence on the screen given that he never speaks and has exactly one facial expression for the whole film.) More endless shots of people staring into the distance. Ocean voyage with mist. People die because they’re stupid. They’re in the New World, but it’s also Hell. There’s a weird scene where they take some hallucinogen (with some implied man-on-man rape for those who weren’t yet disgusted).

I could describe the rest of the film, but I’m actually getting bored thinking of it again. There are a couple more fight scenes that are well staged and have a nice visceral feel to them. There’s never any posturing or hollywood fighting. Every encounter is vicious and over in a heart-beat. As gruesome as they are, the fights are by far the best thing about this film.

The trouble with the film? As far as I can tell, there’s no point to the story. I spent the whole film wracking my brain trying to understand the symbolism. Maybe the hero is Odin and he’s leading them towards knowledge or death? Is it a Pagan vs. Christian thing? A meditation on the nature of Faith? A metaphor for European colonization of the New World?

Nope. When the damn thing ended I went online and found an interview with the director.

When asked about the context of the film he says: “Disorientation.” He calls the movie a “fever dream” and compares the effect of it to taking LSD. He then has the unmitigated gall to imply that anyone who hates the movie (Ooh! Ooh! Me! Me!) was so deeply affected by it that they just don’t yet know why it is they liked it. Seriously read that interview. He refuses to believe that it’s possible to not like this movie.

But here’s what bothers me the most. I can stand a movie that I don’t understand as long as I can sense that there’s some point to it. This is why I was dissatisfied with but still appreciated No Country For Old Men. But this movie wasn’t just obscure, it was deliberately obfuscated. The director not only owns up to there not being a discernible point to it, he takes pride in it and then flips the bird to anyone who was expecting … oh I don’t know … a freaking recognizable story.

I’ll say it again. Your movie has to have a story and that story has to have a point. If it doesn’t, don’t call it a movie. Call it a “visual essay” so that I’ll know to avoid it.

Overly Harsh Movie Review: Lars and the Real Girl

Again, spoilers below. Beware.




I first heard about Lars and the Real Girl when a member of the HR department told me about it over lunch in the company cafeteria. I’ve been to the internet once or twice, so I of course had heard about Real Dolls.

(Oh. Hey, Mom. No, I was just kidding. I hadn’t actually heard of Real Dolls. I was just trying to look cool in front of my friends. I just now realized what a Real Doll was and immediately spent ten minutes in the bathroom puking in disgust. What a terrible, terrible thing. I’m going to go now … and volunteer … at a soup kitchen. See ya.)

The conversation with the HR lady was … let us say awkward. I had no idea where the movie landed on the continuum between wholesome comedy and Skinemax “drama”. So I just nodded and smiled and made a few mental notes.

Then I actually saw the movie, and now I understand that there was no reason for me to feel uncomfortable. The movie is actually ridiculously wholesome given that there’s a sex doll on screen so often.

My first thought when the credits rolled was “Ryan Gosling? Shit.” The problem there is that the only movies I’d yet seen Ryan Gosling in, he’d always been the six-pack sporting sensitive dream boat guy. Hollywood loves to cast this guy as the sexy male character who’s about as deep as a half a kleenex. Let me admit right now that I mis-judged him. Ryan Gosling looked like hell in this movie and turned in a stellar performance.

Here’s the part where I make an awkward confession. The tag for these posts is “Overly Harsh Reviews.” You know what bad things I have to say about Lars and the Real Girl?


That’s right. Nothing.

I loved this movie.

I loved this movie right down to the ground.

It’s smart, it’s clever, it has heart. It shows the common, everyday kind of love and decency that gives me faith in humanity.

There’s an awkward, damaged, unhappy character, who finds a powerfully human (albeit bizarre) way to work through his issues. Everyone in his family and his town bend over backwards to help him out. There’s conflict and arguments, but they’re motivated and well-grounded in real, three-dimensional characters. Ryan Gosling and Emily Mortimer give terrific performances.

There’s even a (relatively) happy ending.

I laughed, I cried, I felt happy and uplifted at the end of the movie.

It may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly for me. Lars and the Real Girl is the best movie I’ve seen in 2012. Hands down.

I urge you to watch it.

Overly Harsh Movie Review: Cabin in the Woods

Spoilers below.







I’m kind of amazed I managed to see this so long after its release without having it spoiled for me. I knew that there were spoilers to be had, which meant I knew that there was some kind of twist (though it being a Joss Whedon movie might have clued me in and of itself) but the heart of the matter was not spoiled for me.

And yes, I know that there’s been a scientific study that indicated that having a story/movie/book spoiled for you does not reduce your enjoyment. To which I say: bollocks. The study indicated (at best) that for *most* people that is the case. I maintain (as I will till my dying day) that it is not true for me. I don’t care what one study says (or five studies, or a thousand studies). I prefer to be surprised by stories, and not have them spoiled for me ahead of time.

Oh look, there appears to be a soap box under my feet. I’ll just step down from that.

Now, speaking of awkward segues.

Cabin in the Woods is super-duper clever. It’s a really clever, meta idea about what could explain the counter-intuitive, anti-logic that pervades and rules horror movies. What bizarre set of circumstances could possibly account for the remarkably stupid behavior exhibited by 99.9999% of the characters in all horror movies?

In terms of coming up with said explanation, Cabin in the Woods succeeds admirably. Here’s the problem. Once I understand that premise and spend a few seconds chuckling admiringly at their cleverness and how wickedly meta this movie is, I still have a hell of a lot of movie to watch. And that’s where things fall apart.

As a straight-up horror movie, it sucks, because it’s going to great lengths to show us how stupid horror movies and the characters in them are. As artistic commentary, it’s not much better, because it spends most of its time congratulating itself on how clever and meta it is, and not much time giving me a story I care about.

The real problem is that there are no characters I like. The horror movie stereotypes are never human enough that I bemoan their descent into horror movie stereotypes. The manipulative technicians are funny and human, but enjoy the evil that they do way too much for me to feel sympathy for the fact that they’re forced into it.

In short, I love the idea of this film, but not the execution. It’s a fun movie, but in the end I was left wanting. I enjoyed it once. I will most likely never watch it again.

Overly Harsh Movie Review: Requiem For a Dream

Here’s what I posted on twitter/facebook/google+ after watching Requiem for a Dream for the first time:

“Watched Requiem For a Dream tonight. The lessons I gleaned are: 1) Reality is bad and 2) Escaping reality through drugs is worse.”

But there’s more to say.

First of all, let me say that Darren Aranofsky makes movies that I either love or actively dislike. The basic milieu of his film canon seems to be that reality is a terrible place to be, and his characters do whatever they can to escape it. Occasionally (Pi, Black Swan) that escape is a profound and compelling character study. Other times (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) I’m left with a random pastiche of unforgettable images but no sympathetic character upon whom I can hang my hat. Which, basically, leaves me with a haunting story that does not uplift me or the characters in any way.

I have to applaud Aranofsky’s film-making. No matter the story, he does a great job visually. And he gets good performances from his actors.

The thing that is both a problem and something to be lauded is that he’s right out there on the edge of film-making. He’s treading the ragged edge between an incredible story and a disturbing amalgamation of pointlessly disturbing indulgences. When he succeeds, he does so brilliantly. When he fails, he tends to fail spectacularly. He leaves me feeling empty, sure. Many films do that. But he also leaves me with a psychic residue of scenes and moments and visuals that hang with me and haunt me for weeks or months.

After I saw The Wrestler, I kept flashing back to scenes from that movie for a long time. And the worst part of it was that didn’t get any of the catharsis that should come with fiction.

I had an acting teacher who once said to me “The job of the actor is to heal the human soul.”

I’ve since expanded that to my own maxim: “The job of the storyteller is to heal the human soul.”

Sometimes taking risks and pushing that boundary is the best way to do that. But sometimes you can push beyond the boundary. I won’t go as far as to say that new wounds are inflicted, but certainly no healing is forthcoming.

Again, I applaud Darren Aranofsky for his brave and ground-breaking work. I just wish I could tell ahead of time if I were going to love or hate the result.

Requiem for a Dream? Sorry. Hate it.

Whistling Past the Whorehouse

Anyone who has hung around me for any length of time will likely have noticed that I’m usually pretty good at spotting jokes. I have a sharp wit, and I’m very good at spotting obscure references and insinuated humor.

There is however, one notable exception to this ability: I very often miss double entendres and other salacious humor completely. I’ll blow right by them as if they never happened, completely unaware of their existence. During a conversation with friend of mine a few weeks ago, we coined a phrase to describe this trait:

Whistling Past the Whorehouse.


Our hero, enters, whistling.

Lady of the Evening: “Hey, baby”

Me: “Why hello there ma’am.”

Lady of the Evening: “Do you want to have a good time?”

Me: “Yes. Yes I believe that I do.” (pause) “Well, see ya.”

Exits, whistling.

… And scene.

Bull’s Laws: The Single-Character Rule

A quick introduction to this category of posts before I get to the meat of the issue. Over the years during which I’ve made my living writing computer code, I’ve uncovered, discovered, created or outright stolen several aphorisms about writing good code. In keeping with the arrogance that comes with being a computer programmer, I gave them the grandiose name Bull’s Laws of Software Development. Most of them aren’t really laws, just personal guidelines or humorous little sayings. Please do not cite them in a court of law. That would not go well for you.

One more quick note. I don’t know exactly how many laws there are, and every time I reference a law, I arbitrarily assign it a new number. (Please see my forthcoming* post on the impact of arbitrary numbering schemes on the efficacy of humor.)

Okay, enough dilly-dallying. Let’s get on to Bull’s Law of Software Development #37: The Single-Character Rule.

Put simply it goes like this: The longer you spend unsuccessfully attempting to fix a bug (or issue or what have you) in your code, the greater the chance that it’s caused by a single errant character.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been bitten by this. (Not because I don’t know the number but because thinking of the number makes me want to cry.) Semicolons in particular have wasted many hours of my life. A single missing curly brace can turn a finely-tuned piece of code into a steaming mess of compiler errors faster than a horde of programmers can demolish a pizza buffet.

I know some people will think this is blindingly obvious, along the lines of “it’s always the last place you look”, but this is the first Law I ever came up with, and still the one that comes up the most often. And I have occasionally found it to be a useful reminder. When I’ve been staring at the same code for an hour and can’t figure out what’s wrong, I think of this rule. It prompts me to take a break, walk away from the problem for a few minutes, and then come back to look at it from a fresh angle, thinking mostly of where that one character is (or isn’t). More often than not, I can spot the problem right away.

If any non-programmer type person has made it this far into this post, hopefully there’s a little nugget of wisdom that can be applied to other problems. Aaaawwww, who am I kidding, it’s just us nerds down here. Might as well indulge in some real nerd speak, then.

Can you believe the specs on the new Ramostat Quadthruster? Like anyone really needs a six-core multiprocessor on a Quadthrusting hyper-flangle. Am I right, nerds?


Man, now it’s just me.


* And by “forthcoming” I mean I will never write such a post.

Aunt Peggye Does the Hula

Last week I was in Boston for my great aunt Peggye’s 100th birthday. (Peggye is my maternal grandmother’s sister, and yes it’s spelled right. She added the terminal ‘e’ when she was fifteen and she insists that it be spelled that way.) She’s in incredible shape for her age, and still amazingly sharp mentally.

At one point during the day I was trying to explain to Aunt Peggye what I do for a living. She understands that  computers exist but knows basically nothing about how they work and has zero understanding of email. My attempts to explain led he to talk about her days in a secretarial pool and her manual typewriter. She retired at age 65 in 1977 (when I was five) and never used a computer in her life.

Her expectations for a relaxing retirement were crushed when her husband suffered a massive stroke about two years later. He never walked again and spent the next twelve years in a nursing home. Aunt Peggye never learned to drive, so she took a bus to see him every day. When Uncle Fred finally passed away, she told me she “got real active again”.

She joined a singing group (with her church I think) and went to nursing homes and the like to entertain. This while at the young age of 77. She told me that once they sang at a convent for a group of nuns.

What follows is (as nearly as I can remember it) what she said next:

After we sang, this little nun came up to talk to me. She was young and just cute as a button and shorter than me if you can believe it. (Aunt Peggye is five feet tall, if that.) She said she liked the way I rolled my eyes during one of the songs. I said that I would normally roll my hips but I didn’t feel right. There was a big crucifix, life-size. Six feet tall. As tall as you. How tall are you? Six feet. I said I didn’t feel right in front of the crucifix to move my hips. (Here Aunt Peggye shifted her hips back in forth in her chair in what I can only describe as the cutest imitation of a hula dancer I’ve ever seen.)

And the nun said to me “I think he would like it.”

I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.