Back in my day, video games had stick figures

When people complain about graphics in video games, and frame rate, and immersion, and lag, and whether PS4 is better than Xbox One, and how Skyrim “sucks” compared to Oblivion or Morrowind, and which Final Fantasy game is better than the others, and how PC is better than console, I’m all like…

“We played this in the 1980s and we loved it.”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Stellarnet Series jigsaw puzzles

Click on the images below to play some online browser-based jigsaw puzzles of the Stellarnet Series book covers.

preview35 pieceStellarnet Rebel

preview35 pieceStellarnet Prince

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A strange magical birthday with a butt cake

The other night at dinner, a friend joked that I should have an Arrow butt cake for my birthday.

Yes, that’s “butt” not “bundt.”

Challenge accepted.

Vanilla cake, fudge filling, green frosting, and four green candles with aluminum foil arrowheads, because I’m 44 today.

I celebrated my birthday — which I share with Emma Watson and Luke Evans, who are BOTH going to be in the upcoming live action BEAUTY AND THE BEAST movie btw — by watching the “Broken Arrow” episode, after playing a little Skyrim and seeing STRANGE MAGIC in the theater again.

I also received one of those Edible Arrangement fruit baskets and a friend made me some homemade baklava.

Best birthday ever.

For more about objectification and dude butts, check out The Hawkeye Initiative.

~ J.L. Hilton

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The Book of Life vs. Strange Magic

I finally saw THE BOOK OF LIFE yesterday, after hearing so many good things about it. And now I’m even more mystified by the poor reception of my new favorite, STRANGE MAGIC.

I’m not saying THE BOOK OF LIFE isn’t deserving of its success. It is. But I don’t see how the two films are so very different that one should make 8x as much money and the other should end up at the bottom of a dog pile of criticism.

THE BOOK OF LIFE, produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by award-winning animator Jorge Gutierrez, took in $97 million worldwide ($50 million domestic, $47 million foreign), after a Halloween 2014 release.

STRANGE MAGIC, with a story by George Lucas, direction by seven-time Oscar-winner Gary Rydstrom, and distribution by Disney, had a record-breaking bad debut and a box office total of only $12 million with a limited release (US only) in January 2015.

Disney may have been stuck with STRANGE MAGIC in the process of acquiring the Star Wars franchise, and just didn’t give a crap about it. So, are the box office differences due to the ways both movies were marketed and released? Or something else?

THE BOOK OF LIFE has an 82% on the Tomatometer, and STRANGE MAGIC only 19%. So, are critics responsible for getting audiences out to see THE BOOK OF LIFE while steering them away from STRANGE MAGIC? Why? Some of the features praised in the one film are the very same features disparaged in the other.

For instance, Common Sense Media calls THE BOOK OF LIFE a “beautifully animated film” yet calls STRANGE MAGIC an “uneven musical… stranger than it is magical.”

Both movies are strange, in their own ways. Both are set within magical worlds populated by supernatural creatures. Both have unconventional romantic storylines. Both have sassy sword-slinging heroines. Both have their share of fluff and foofaraw.

Both were beautifully computer-animated in lavish detail. STRANGE MAGIC gives us evocative fantasy forest and fairy imagery along the lines of genre stars Brian Froud and Amy BrownTHE BOOK OF LIFE delivers clever marionette-type figures and a Dia de los Muertos theme.

Both were musicals. I’ve seen several reviewers refer to STRANGE MAGIC with phrases like “bad karaoke” and “too much singing.” Yet THE BOOK OF LIFE features a full slate of pop songs, too, and the two movies even share one of the same tunes — “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (originally recorded by Elvis Presley in the 1960s). In THE BOOK OF LIFE, most songs are sung by Diego Luna as Manolo the Mariachi. In STRANGE MAGIC, you have the talents of Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming — hardly a list of “karaoke” performers.

And speaking of strange animated films: JACK AND THE CUCKOO CLOCK HEART. This steampunk musical with songs by French rock band Dionysos, produced by Luc Besson, made only $3.4 million in foreign box office (no US release, but you can watch it on Netflix streaming) yet has a 70% on the Tomatometer. Not quite as good as THE BOOK OF LIFE, but still much better than STRANGE MAGIC.

I can’t help wondering if maybe some of the critics who didn’t like STRANGE MAGIC simply found it more comfortable to pick on the animation, music, and vague, subjective qualities like being “boring and uneven,” than admit they’re too shallow to relate to the movie’s deeply emotional and unconventional narrative, “Everyone deserves to be loved.”

So, while I am happy that such movies as THE BOOK OF LIFE and JACK AND THE CUCKOO CLOCK HEART are being made, I’m sad that my STRANGE MAGIC fandom is so small.

No action figures, books and shirts for us.







~ J.L. Hilton

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No, this is not another negative review of STRANGE MAGIC

I love Strange Magic.

I know there’s a load of crappy reviews and it’s only earned about $12 million in theaters. I still love the characters, the animation, and the music. I love the unconventional storyline (says the author who won the 2013 Galaxy Award for Best Non-Traditional Romance). I would watch this 100 more times before I ever watched Guardians of the Galaxy again, and I know that makes me the weird one. I’m OK with that.

There’s a short list of movies I wanted to sit down and watch again immediately after just watching them, and that includes such oddities as Mystery MenKnights of BadassdomV for Vendetta and Repo! The Genetic Opera. And now, Strange Magic.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film, and that rarely happens to me. I’m going to lose my fucking mind waiting for it to come out on DVD in May. Meanwhile, I’m writing this blog post, and I’ve got the soundtrack going on my mp3 player right now.

Here’s how it all went down.

I’d had a hankering for fish and chips all month. Don’t know why, just one of those things. Usually the monkey on my back demands Hostess cherry pies, but I’m trying to cut back on sugar so maybe the monkey changed his attention-seeking tactics. The monkey is a crafty little turd.

My favorite place for fish and chips is Raleighwood Cinema Grill. Four big, flaky, battered pieces of fish arrive in a plastic basket with thick, perfectly-cooked steak fries and a scoop of cole slaw. If there’s anywhere else in Raleigh, North Carolina, with better fish and chips, I haven’t found it (but I’m open to suggestions, so long as they don’t involve tilapia — contact me).

Raleighwood is a movie theater as well as a restaurant, with tables and comfy padded swivel chairs instead of stadium seats. I didn’t care what movie I watched, I just wanted lunch, so I checked the 12:30 matinee schedule and found Strange Magic.

I knew nothing about the film. The movie poster featured an assortment of computer-animated goblin critters who looked like something out of Spiderwick or Shrek.

I read the synopsis:

From the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney and Award Winning producer George Lucas comes a fun animated madcap fairy tale musical adventure inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Popular songs from the past six decades help tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion.

Use of the term “madcap” — as with similar words “zany,” “quirky” or “whimsical” — is usually a red flag.

George Lucas produced another musical fairy tale and favorite movie of mine — Labyrinth — but I’d never forgiven him for cocking up Star Wars. I wanted to beat him with every discounted Darth Maul bed slipper I’d ever seen at K-Mart, so his involvement wasn’t a selling point.

And a Disney production where no one bothered to compose an original song for its soundtrack? Even Galavant got better treatment than that.

“Dad says it’s going to suck,” my 10-year-old told me. “He watched the trailer.”

“I don’t care, I’m just going for the fish and chips.”

One of the fun things about homeschooling is that if you feel like taking your kids out to the movies for lunch on a weekday, you can. So we headed over to Raleighwood, the 10-year-old eager for an ice cream sundae and the 14-year-old happy for any excuse to ignore chemistry and geometry for a little while.

Strange Magic begins the way so many children’s movies begin, with a happy, singing princess in an idyllic forest surrounded by magical things. Winged fairy Marianne is engaged to a handsome squirrel-riding fairy gentleman. Her loving sister Dawn assists with the wedding plans. All is right with the world.

My snarky teen offspring gave me the stink eye.

“I don’t care how much it sucks,” I whispered to her. “I’m just here for the fish and chips.”

Before she can achieve wedded bliss, Marianne’s heart is broken and she becomes a cynical, sassy, sword-wielding goth fairy who don’t need no man to help her run her kingdom.

Her former fiancé, the squirrel jockey, attempts to lure her back into his arms — not for love, but because he wants the power such a relationship would bring. She gives him a big musical “fuck off” with Kelly Clarkson’s 2012 hit “Stronger.”

Much of the story of Strange Magic is told through pop songs spanning the past 50+ years. Marianne opens with Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (1961), and her disappointment is expressed via Burt Bacharach’s ”I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (1968). The Bog King introduces himself with another Elvis song, “Trouble” (1958). He later sings “Mistreated,” a 1974 song by Deep Purple.

I got sucked in and sang along quietly to myself in the theater. My 14-year-old noticed my lips moving and whispered, “How do you know all the words of a movie we’ve never seen?” She’s used to me singing like Miranda around the house, but suddenly I seemed to have music telepathy.

“They’re using old songs for the soundtrack,” I told her, feeling very old.

It reminded me a bit of the way Moulin Rouge! used a contemporary soundtrack to tell its story. Which, turns out, wasn’t far wrong, since Marius De Vries was the music director for both Strange Magic and the 2001 film with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

* * *

* * * SPOILER ALERT * * *


* * * SPOILER ALERT * * *

* * *

When Marianne battled Bog, I loved how they crossed sword and staff while singing Heart’s “Straight On” from 1978. And as their relationship transformed from contentious to romantic, they sang the best version of “Strange Magic” I’ve ever heard — all due respect to the original by ELO, a band I’ve loved since roller skating to their Xanadu soundtrack in my driveway in 1980.

Yes, this is a movie where the heroine and the villain actually FALL. IN. LOVE. You have no idea how many times I’d wished that would happen, but of course it never does. Perhaps because the villain wears a mask and hides out in a sewer (Phantom of the Opera), or because he’s a powerful wizard and she’s a young girl (Labyrinth), or because for some inexplicable reason she prefers the stupid hero over his broody nemesis in black leather and guy liner (BBC’s Robin Hood).

A critic dude at the New York Post called Strange Magic “jaw-droppingly terrible.” He obviously doesn’t have a deep, heart-wrenching affinity for Beauty & the Beast stories.

Related reading: “Redefining sexy with dwarves, demons and aliens” by J.L. Hilton

The Bog King & my favorite Cardassian, Gul Dukat, from Star Trek: DS9.

This is the version I’ve always wished for — where the beast does not transform in the end, but remains his hot, monstrous self and is loved for it, not in spite of it. I cheered when Marianne declared her love for Bog with the song “Wild Thing.”

This is the movie I’d waited for all of my life.

I also loved Strange Magic because the lead characters were equals. Marianne and Bog were both strong, intelligent, flawed, and possessing the same level of power, being royalty of their respective kingdoms. This was not a story about a peasant girl winning a prince with her good looks, or a hero rescuing a helpless princess from a tower.

Both of my girls liked it, too. Even the teenager.

The Bog King & Teldryn Sero, my favorite character from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Dragonborn DLC). Do I have a thing for guys who look like bugs?

Alan Cumming, who voiced the Bog King, said in an interview, “I like the message that weird people will find each other. And I do really like that in both these big films (Frozen and Strange Magic), the handsome princes are total dicks.”

“The story is about the difference between infatuation and real love,” said George Lucas in a recent interview. “Real love is on the inside, with someone you have common ground with. You share the same values, you share the same interests, you share the same humor — things that will last you for the rest of your lives.”

Thank you, George. I might almost forgive you for Jar Jar Binks. Almost.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Rated PG
Story by George Lucas
Directed by Gary Rydstrom

  • Alan Cumming as Bog King
  • Evan Rachel Wood as Marianne
  • Kristin Chenoweth as Sugar Plum Fairy
  • Maya Rudolph as Griselda, The Bog King’s mother
  • Alfred Molina as the Fairy King, Marianne and Dawn’s father
  • Elijah Kelley as Sunny
  • Meredith Anne Bull as Dawn, Marianne’s sister
  • Sam Palladio as Roland

Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Release date: January 23, 2015
Running time: 99 minutes
DVD release date: May 19, 2015

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Snippets and Smut at IllogiCon 2015

I had a great time at IllogiCon 2015. Saw some old friends, met some new ones. Sold a little bit of jewelry in the artist alley. Met the nice folks at Needles and Nonsense who make geeky pillows.

Being a Smutty Fan-fiction panelist was wonderfully fun and supportive, though I’m pretty sure I was the oldest person in the room. According to con guest of honor Christopher J. Garcia, “Young fans love fanfic.” So, I no longer feel like a creepy old lady writing video game erotica about naughty uses for troll fat — I’m one of the cool kids writing about naughty uses for troll fat!

My daughter enjoyed meeting game designer Duncan Davis in the game room and playing his pirate-themed deception card game Exploit! Lacy ran a kick-ass con suite. I didn’t catch any “con crud,” despite being around a crowd of people during the height of flu season. That’s a win.

But one little, tiny thing happened at IllogiCon that bothered me, and it had nothing to do with the event itself, the organizers or the vendors. It was a snippet of conversation overheard in the parking lot of the hotel, between a young man and woman.

“People really shouldn’t wear costumes like that, unless they’re built for it.”

I have no idea what costume(s) bothered them, or how exactly the cosplayer(s) of unknown age, race or gender offended the couple. I wasn’t wearing a costume, so they weren’t talking about me, and I didn’t see anyone else around. But there I was, privy to a stranger’s unkind private opinions about someone who’d gone to the effort of dressing up for our enjoyment and theirs.

People wear costumes “like that” — whatever “like that” might mean — for the joy of it, don’t they? The same reason children dress up on Halloween. You wouldn’t tell a 5-year-old not to wear a Superman suit until he bulks up, or a child in a wheelchair that they can only be Professor X but not Wolverine. You wouldn’t say, “Maybe that little girl should go as a bag of jellybeans and not as a princess.”

Unless you’re an asshole. And despite the very unsavory examples of bad geeks on the Internet, in my experience geeks are generally not assholes. They’re really the opposite. So, I guess it just took me by surprise to hear “one of us” say such things. Though, I’m not even sure they were “one of us” at all. They may have been hotel guests passing through.

I don’t understand the attitude some people have, that if you don’t look exactly like someone they would personally bang, you shouldn’t be in a public space, enjoying life and doing anything fun. It makes people happy to dress up. Why should there be any restrictions on happiness?

I say go for it, regardless of race, gender, age or body type.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Teldryn and Zephyr, to level 82 and beyond

This comic is a collaboration with spaceskeleton, based on my Skyrim character Zephyr Silvertongue. My story, her artwork. Skyrim and Teldryn Sero belong to Bethesda.

Check out spaceskeleton’s other Skyrim comics. They’re awesome.

Teldryn had a habit of overreacting to the smallest provocation…

… but he’s become quite the badass now, with his Ancient Falmer armor, Diadem of the Savant and giant’s club. I’m actually up to level 85 and he’s had no problem keeping up, but my PS3 can’t handle it. The game crashes every 15 minutes.

~ J.L. Hilton

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The Curious Case of the Coffee Contraption Chronicles

Belle Epoque coffee machine by Elektra

When first I scrutinized Professor Phineas Fitzwhistle’s Marvelous Mystifying Mechanical Mocha Maker, I experienced considerable consternation at the contrivance of cogs, cups and coils.

“I believe it is, in equal parts, polished brass and poppycock,” I said.

* * *

I found the above text in an old computer file of story ideas. Just this and nothing else. I have no clue when I wrote it or where I’d intended to go with the tale of Professor Fitzwhistle. I often jot down odd sentences here and there, usually around 3am, then find them months or years later with absolutely no explanation or recollection.

I imagine it was just some steampunk silliness, along the lines of a character I created called Captain Pippi Liederhosen, the Swedish airship pirate with a fear of heights.

Meanwhile, here’s an actual steampunk coffee shop. This is Truth in Cape Town, South Africa.

Photo by Shanna Jones

Photo by Shanna Jones

~ J.L. Hilton

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IllogiConIV science fiction convention January 9-11

I’ll be at IllogiConIV this weekend at the Embassy Suites Raleigh-Durham / Research Triangle. This is a smaller, fan-coordinated convention dedicated to any and all forms of science fiction in all media.

I’m on two panels:

  • Smutty Fan Fiction – 10pm Friday in the Cameron Room.
  • Newly Professional Older Writers – 9pm Saturday in the Cameron Room

And I’ll be selling my steampunk, sci-fi and fantasy jewelry in the artists alley Friday 3pm-8pm, Saturday 10am-7pm, and Sunday 10am until close.

Hope to see you there!

~ J.L. Hilton

Read about past IllogiCons.

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The Halloween Adventure

Upon Samhain time, so the Druids told,
When doors opened wide to the Otherworld,
The fey folk, sprites, elves, banshees and trolls,
The dear departed and the wandering souls,
Sightless spirits, ghouls, imps and wights,
Entered the mortal realm for just one night.
Though few will remember, and fewer believe,
And we now call this time of the year Halloween,
There’s still ancient magic upon the air
And a mystery awaits you, if you dare!

~ J.L. Hilton

I love anything like a treasure hunt, whether it’s easter eggs, trick-or-treating, or Goonies. One of my first paid writing gigs came courtesy of Lost Treasure magazine, where I interviewed people who found old buttons and coins with metal detectors. I even wrote a Firefly fanfic script that involved a search for hidden treasure.

The promise of gold or rare relics is not the only lure, but the seeking, puzzle solving and adventure. I’ve been wanting to do a treasure hunt with my kids ages 10 and 14, something along the lines of the 1980 movie Midnight Madness, so I began gathering materials and ideas about a year ago. The Quest recently inspired me to follow through with my plans and I spent the month of September putting everything together.

Our own quest began this morning with a jeweled scroll case (spray-painted candy tin covered with plastic jewels) containing one scroll with the poem at the top of this blog, two ball-chain necklaces, and a coded message. I suggested they go to the imps to break the code.

Click here for my Fairy Code

The “imps” were a memory game where each card featured either a fairy letter or an alphabet letter drawn in the corner. Matching the pictures paired them up for deciphering the note, which read:

I have taken the human child to Avalon. If we can keep it hidden away until sunset then it will be trapped with us forever!

For completing the task, they were rewarded with two tiny “imp” skull charms. Then they looked up Avalon on the computer and discovered that “Avalon” means “apple land” so they decided to search around the apple tree in our front yard.

They found Sylph in the tree, but not the child. Instead, they discovered an Irish tin whistle and a small container with two sparkling star charms, which they added to their necklaces, and three slips of paper. The slips showed finger hole positions and music notes, but they had to figure out what order to play the three pieces of music.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star for the Irish tin whistle

When they played the tune correctly, the air spirit agreed to answer one question. My oldest daughter asked, “Where’s the baby?” Sylph told them that the baby had been given to the Banshee.

They went to the “Banshee,” a motion activated Halloween decoration in the house, and found her puzzle. To discover the words to the puzzle, they had to find 13 black tears — which were faceted black glass teardrop beads from Michael’s craft store.

For every tear, they were given a word to find in the word search, and after finding all 13 tears and all 13 words, the remaining letters spelled out: FIND THE GOLD SKULLS. They were rewarded with two tears for their necklaces.

The golden skulls were little plastic skulls with the bottoms removed and spray painted with gold paint. Three were filled with small candies, but the fourth contained two tiny brass charms, each attached to slips of paper with braille messages.

They looked up the braille alphabet online and deciphered the messages: “The blind giant has the baby” and “His eyes glow in the dark.”

My 14-year-old said, “The darkest place in the house is the bathroom. That’s where we always test things that glow in the dark.” It’s also where we sometimes play with sparking Wint-o-green Lifesavers.

They found the eyes and had to return them to the “giant” by tossing or bouncing the balls through the eye holes of a large face drawn on cardboard. He rewarded them with eye charms.

The giant told the girls that a gnome had taken the baby.  There are several gnomes in our home, but when they went to the yard gnome in our front garden, they found the Gnome’s Puzzle.

After solving that and earning charms, the gnome told them that Pooka himself had come for the child and taken her away, but had left behind a clue: A folding toy with pictures of Pooka’s various shapeshifting forms: a black horse, black bird and black spider. I’d created this by modding the puzzle found at this link.

They went to the fireplace, over which hung a large black spider and upon the mantle sat a black bird. From the spider’s leg hung a small cage containing a tiny baby made by Lori Hehn.

To unlock the cage, they had to solve the fairy logic puzzle* and figure out which of four silver skulls contained the keys.

But that wasn’t the end! Oh, no! After rescuing the baby, Pooka told them that a changeling had been left in the human world, and they would have to find her or she’d be trapped forever in the human realm.

They followed a series of clues and discovered the changeling, made by Dinky Darlings, then returned the baby to its cradle and the changeling to its cage.

Baby back in her cradle, safe and sound.

The naught fairy changeling back in her cage

Many of the goodies, props and puzzles used during the story.

The completed charm necklace at the end of the treasure hunt.

* Fairy Logic Puzzle (pdf) Note: This is not filled in. You would need to write “key, gem, candy, coin, sprite, pixie, brownie and gnome” down the left side, and “amethyst, aquamarine, ruby diamond, sprite, pixie, brownie and gnome” across the top, to do it exactly the way I did. But I left it blank in case you wanted to fill it in with your own variations. Just substitute the words in the clues accordingly.

Other resources:

Halloween Memory Game (printable)
Monster Matching Game (printable)
Skull flipper foldable puzzle (printable)
Make your own word search
Logic puzzle generator

~ J.L. Hilton

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