The best D&D movie of the year

It’s no secret that movies intentionally based on D&D tend to suck ass. But there have been some great movies and TV shows that take bits and pieces from the game and make really entertaining stuff. Dave made a maze manages to capture what a dungeon should be like: filled with perils and wonders, and somehow animate and malevolent. The maze which is the location of 90% of the scenes is simultaneously silly and scary. Logic and physics are just guidelines there. The maze clearly has a mind of its own and is hostile. In an early scene, someone cuts their hand and the blood is absorbed — drunk? — by the cardboard floor of the maze. There are a number of traps and tricks that would do any old school dungeon proud, and while there not many monsters, the main baddie is suitably scary.

The film is ultimately a comedy, and the characters are not heroes but bunch of thirty-something hipsters, artists, and slackers. The visual effects (which seem to be mostly practical) are stunning and the writing and acting are pretty good. It’s actually considerably better than the trail suggests. The writers/director might be the next Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonez.

Although this does not appear to have an MPAA rating, it got CA-14 in Canada so that’s basically PG-13. There is some strong language, extremely cartoonish violence, and some adult sight gags. You can stream it online or purchase the DVD, but if it’s an option, find it in a theater!

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Published in: on August 19, 2017 at 9:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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The hateful eight

Just quicky review. I went to see The Hateful Eight over the holidays, which was perfectly timed to coincide with the Boot Hill campaign my gaming group is now running.

If you usually like Quentin Tarantino’s films, you’ll like this; if you like Westerns, you should like this; if you enjoy ensemble casts, you’ll also like this movie — but only if extreme violence is not is a problem. The level of gore and blood is far beyond your normal Hollywood movie and fairly strong even for Tarantino. The (minor spoiler) effects of a poison reach horror-movie levels of gore. If you’re still in, it’s a really fun movie. The three hours it takes to tell the story never feel overly drawn out. In fact the time flew by. The writing is good; the 70mm panavision is used to good effect for about 10% of the film when the action is outdoors, but oddly wasted on a movie that mostly takes place inside a single-room building.

It’s tough to say too much about the plot without spoiling the mystery aspect of the movie, but my one complaint about the plot is that the bad guy(s) has to know that a blizzard with detain the main character(s) well before the blizzard hits. I’m not sure how good forecasting was in the 1870s, when I guess the action takes place.

Some of the other things that caught my attention:

  • great music
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh was great, and I wonder if the script was written with her in mind, as a few incidents (like the poisoning) seemed to reference her role in the somewhat obscure movie Flesh + Blood.
  • the voice-over midway through the film was unnecessary, or should have been

On a scale from derringer to buffalo rifle, this one’s a freaking Gatling gun. The best Western I’ve seen since Unforgiven.

Published in: on January 8, 2016 at 9:00 am  Comments (3)  
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The Force Awakens (no spoilers)

  • They did not resurrect Mr. Spock
  • Jar-Jar Binks played a pivotal role which redeemed him for his crimes against the galaxy in previous films
  • Highlights from The Life Day celebration featured in the 1978 CBS Star Wars Special are included in the end credits

OK, maybe not. I was kind of holding out hope for Jar-Jar to return though.

Anyway I had the opportunity to see the movie last night and it was WAY better than I would have expected. I’d been avoiding news, spoilers, and even trailers for this, so my expectations were pretty much based on knowing Lucas is doesn’t make the best judgement calls, and Abrams was pretty roundly criticized by fans of the Star Trek franchise for straying so far from canon. My only thought was that straying from the prequels would probably be a good thing. I still haven’t even seen episodes 2 and 3, but I guess I will have to give them a fair shake.

Anyway The force awakens was pretty terrific. Does it owe a lot, in terms of plot, to episode 4? Sure it does. That actually didn’t bother me too much because after all the franchise itself is an homage to old serials that were themselves very derivative and repetitive. Does treat the old characters with reasonable respect? Yes. Does it introduce new characters that are as engaging as the old characters? Yes, pretty much so. Presumably they’ll more of a chance to develop in sequels with less involvement of the older characters. Maybe the best thing about the movie was that it was slightly darker. My brother commented that the action seemed pretty consistent with the old d6 Star Wars RPG, and I think he’s right about that, so that’s another plus. Overall, a good sci-fi/fantasy film, a really good action film, and one of the better Star Wars films — I’d rank it right up there with episodes 4-6, especially considering that as an adult I know I’ll never experience any movie the way I did the original Star Wars as a child.

Published in: on December 18, 2015 at 9:49 am  Comments (10)  
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Turbo Kid! (with no spoilers)

So Turbo Kid ran its limited release in Akron and I did get to see it.The regular D&D group was down two players that week so we decided to catch a flick, and gathered an hour or so ahead of time at the hipster cinema to drink and loudly discuss politics while we waited for the show to start. It turns out that the several beers we tried were all ridiculously strong craft beers (9% ABV or so) so by showtime I was a little tipsy. I expected chemical enhancement to improve the viewing experience anyway and was not disappointed. Though I’ll need to see it again some time stone sober to see if it dampens my enthusiasm.

From the opening credits (listing the distributor as “The leader in laser disk sales”) it was pretty much perfect. Low budget? Yeah. But special effects can still look pretty decent these days on a budget, and the mix of computer and practical effects was never distracting, even though there were exploding bodies, geysers of blood, and laser-powered glove weapons. It all worked. The landfill sets and BMX chase scenes were filmed with love and the cheesiest lines were delivered with heart. You can tell everyone involved was having a great time and wanted nothing more than to make this gory retro sci-fi epic.

The actors are mostly obscure, apart from the always entertaining Michael Ironside. But they all do a great job. Even the wild-eyed, overly enthusiastic Laurence Labeouf doesn’t get old.

Someone has surely already described this movie as “The Road Warrior on BMX bikes,” or “Cherry 2000 directed by Luigi Fulco,” or “The Troma version of the Power Rangers,” so I won’t try to compare it to anything else. Go see it. You’re welcome.

Published in: on September 9, 2015 at 9:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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Are you freaking ready for 1997?

Warning: link is to a trailer for an independent post-apocalyptic/horror/sci-fi movie that is rated R and shows graphic (but unrealistic and cartoony) violence.

Still with me? Great.

Go ahead, click THIS.

This.just.opened.

Review to follow after I see it in Akron next week.

Published in: on August 28, 2015 at 12:01 am  Comments (2)  
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Spartacusploitation

So I’ve been watching some of the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and sand (actually each season seems to have a different subtitle…).  I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that it kind of veers between frenetic splatter-action and soft-core porn. I’ve read they intentionally emulated Zack Snyder’s 300 film in the first episode or two, and it shows. The action sequences also owe something to Tarantino’s Kill Bill — geysers of blood, a bit like old samurai films, and crazy stunts, more like the Shaw Brothers’ work, only less of it. The special effects are not always convincing but they certainly out-splatter pretty much any other film in the “peplum” genre. The sex scenes — and there is clearly a quota that each episode must meet, with four or five topless scenes for the lead actresses and full frontal nudity for at least one actor or extra — are a little off-putting, juxtaposed as they are with ultraviolence. In fact about half of the sex scenes are intentionally repulsive, and this actually works in the show’s favor. The decadence of Rome is meant to be shown in a repulsive light. Moreover, despite the exploitation levels of sex and violence, the show is not that bad. Some of the acting is quite good — John Hannah and Lucy Lawless tend to steal the show in their scenes, but the whole cast is reasonably good. The plot is melodramatic and violent, and kept my interest. It also really works as an indictment of Imperial Rome. You can’t help but hate the Romans. They are portrayed as relentlessly decadent, greedy, venial, lustful, and basically evil in every way. A show about a bloody slave revolt probably has to dehumanize the Romans some in order to make the rebels into heroes. It’s too bad the show has to get so much history wrong.

Actually it gets a fair amount of the history right, in terms of the Roman world. Rome really was very dependent on slavery (a fact that Hollywood has usually been unwilling to depict). The show emphasizes the horrors of slavery pretty well, though I’m not sure if slaves were quite so callously killed on a whim as the show suggests. The sets are convincing. The costumes of civilians and nobles are generally accurate, and military kit looks right too (hell, the Romans’ shields are oval rather than the usual later imperial rectangle we see in every movie).  The gladiators’ equipment is mostly correct too, in so far as they depict mostly depict real gladiator styles. (The axe-men I’m very dubious about — the show keeps depicting guys with a huge battle-axe like something you’d see in a video game, and they also have several gladiators fight with a pair of double-bitted axes. Granted they look awesome, but like the guy with a medieval flail in the Russell Crowe Gladiator film, it is just Hollywood being Hollywood. The hoplomachi are depicted as fighting in melee with their spears rather than casting them — that seems possible but it’s not how I usually see them depicted.)

I like the very formalized manner of speaking the nobles usually use — I’m not sure if it would really be common in private conversations but it does class up the dialogue, even with the occasional gratuitous but hilarious cursing.

The main things I think the show gets wrong, unfortunately, are pretty central to the plot. First, the show depicts Romans as being pretty shameless about sex. Every party involves live sex shows. This helps establish the ruling class as decadent. But Caligula, Tiberius, and Nero actually shocked the Romans with their orgies; the show suggests everyone in Rome was pretty much on their way to a brothel or stumbling home drunk from a party out of the movie Caligula. Yes, the Romans had a pretty open attitude about sex and fewer hang-ups than we do in the U.S., but I don’t think they were all voyeurs and exhibitionists as the show suggests. Also, while slaves could be used for sex, it was considered somewhat shameful for a free citizen to do so, while the series suggests it was normal and acceptable.

Secondly, the show depicts most gladiatorial bouts as being to the death. Historians who have studied the actual records of the Roman games have concluded that very few bouts ended with the death of a gladiator. Certainly there were times when there was massive loss of life, but those would be the “re-enactments” of battles (staged by condemned criminals) and executions by beasts or gladiators (the latter of which do figure occasionally into the show). So we see death after death in the arena and almost no defeated gladiators being given the chance to submit. I suppose that helps elevate the drama too, but the arena was terrible enough without exaggerating the lethality for gladiators. In reality the gladiators more often “fought” animals or prisoners than other gladiators, and they rarely killed other gladiators.

Now I know that most “historical” shows and movies are terribly inaccurate and I’m not someone who can’t appreciate them as drama. In fact, Spartacus does a pretty good job of creating really compelling characters. The bad guys are interesting. The good guys are interesting. The situations they find themselves in, or create, are interesting. If you can accept that this is a drama which plays up the exploitative elements, you will find this show pretty enjoyable.

 

Published in: on June 10, 2015 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Not a fan

The always insightful lemur-in-a-business suit over at Ten Bad Habits wrote a particularly good post the other day and it crystalized something for me that I’ve been mulling for some time.

You see I am into a lot of nerdy/geeky things but I find I have startlingly little in common, personality-wise,  with most people of similar interests.  The thing is, I am not really a “fan” of stuff.  I mean, I enjoy Adventure Time and Walking Dead and other touchstones of nerd culture.  But I don’t obsess about them; I don’t think making references to them somehow constitutes wit; I will not be crushed when they go off the air.  (In fact we recently canceled our fancy cable and I don’t miss them.) I like a lot of this stuff but I’m not a fan of it, and I don’t really understand fans, and they get on my nerves.

Here are some disparate things that are leading me to this conclusion:

Case one, the Monty Python fans:  One of the first times I vividly remember being seriously annoyed by my fellow geeks was back in college.  I was introducing a new roommate to some people I knew.  He was from Czechoslovakia (well, it had just become the Czech Republic) and his English wasn’t great and all my friends could do was make (lame) Monty Python references over and over throughout our conversation.  At the time I thought I was just embarrassed by the cluelessness of my friends (who would rather share some pop culture in-jokes than interact meaningfully with this guy who who could barely follow their conversation without their badly mimicked caricature accents of Monty Python skits).  But in hindsight I was less embarrassed by their “rudeness” than by the fact as I watched them mimic stuff they saw on TV I realized that they really were relying on old foreign comedy sketches to supply them with something worth talking about.  Don’t get me wrong, the occasional reference or quote has its place.  But these half dozen college students couldn’t get through a frigging conversation without breaking into repeated and extended recitations of sketches.  I will watch Monty Python almost any time it is on, but I guess I’m just not a fan.  I don’t think shouting “Ni!Ni!” is always inherently funny, and I don’t want a Monty Python screen saver or merchandise.  So I guess I don’t automatically feel a bond with people on the basis of a shared appreciation of a show, movie or book.

Case two, a Facebook group: I ‘joined’ a Facebook group for fans of science fiction in my area.  I get one or two emails notifying me of activity there every week.  Usually it is someone gushing about a new science fiction film or TV show, or an old one now on DVD or Netflix, or a link to some piece of merchandise that slyly references Star Trek, Star Wars, Trek Wars, or Star Star.  I get the sense that the other folks in this group are excited just because the new film is science fiction, regardless of how stupid or derivative the trailer looks.  I have read a fair amount of science fiction, but I don’t read just anything and I have never, ever read single novel about Star Wars or Star Trek; I don’t know much of anything about Orson Scott Card (except that he makes himself sound like a real douchebag in interviews) or George R.R. Martin (except that he keeps writing some kind of soap opera fantasy saga and is unlikely to live long enough to finish it); I don’t assume Japanese animated films are going to be anything special.  (OK, I watched Akira and Vampire Hunter D and few other films 20+ years ago; they were pretty cool).  Sure I love reading fantasy and science fiction, and I probably set a lower bar for genre fiction and films than I do for non-genre stuff, but I can see I’m not a “real” fan because I don’t just get automatically excited to hear a new this or that is coming out.  So I guess I am not a loyalist to a particular genre.

Case three, Joss Wedon (or is it Josh Wedon? Is “Joss” a real name?): I have heard from many people I know that this Wedon character was behind some great TV shows or something and so I should look forward to anything else he touches.  In fact I can think of think of a couple of otherwise intelligent people who think anything he touches automagically turns to gold and shits rainbows.  I don’t get it.  It seems like they just outsourced their entire palate for what is clever, cool, or worthwhile to this one person’s imagination.  Because I’m not all that interested in binge-watching the entire Buffy or Firefly catalog, they have practically nothing to talk to me about.  It’s really weird.  I mean, I do have a few directors and writers I really like, but I can admit that, say, some of Ralph Bakshi’s movies are kind of lame (cough, Cool world) or that some of Poul Anderson’s books are pretty flat (cough, Beyond the beyond, Winter of the world…).  So I guess I don’t properly idolize any genre artists.

Is that what fandom is?  Idolizing pulp/genre artists? Uncritical loyalty to a genre? A sense of belonging based on this shared fanaticism?  Well then I’m not a fan.

And yet — I do enjoy “genre” entertainment.  I do have favorite authors and directors whose work I’ll seek out.  So maybe I’m a fan of the genres, just not of fandom?

Published in: on March 2, 2014 at 9:35 pm  Comments (10)  
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The internette has arrived!

So recently I stumbled across wimp.com, a curated collection of interesting videos which are all “family friendly” and (as far as I have seen) ad-free.  So it is basically a very small subset of the videos you might find on Youtube or Vimeo — a video version of the Internette.  Granted there are only a handful of guinea pig videos, but you can search “guinea pig” on wimp.com and not stumble onto a trailer for Gini piggu 2.*  This is a useful feature if you occasionally browse videos with your kid.

The videos it does have tend to be a mix of animals, educational shorts, music performances (skewed toward the unusual), and animation.  The curators accept submissions but basically accept only things they find interesting, family-friendly (not defined but I’m guessing no strong language, no violence, no sex), and not “sensationalistic” (? I think they mean nothing disturbing or upsetting?).   They add about 4 or 5 videos a day, so the content is much more limited than something like Youtube, and they tend to prefer shorter videos, citing the preference of their audience of children and seniors.  Wimp.com does not allow comments, which is something Youtube probably wish they’d thought not to do.

============

*I’m not sure Youtube even has  a trailer for this particular film, but you know what I mean.

Published in: on January 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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Prometheus

Just watched this the other night.  Apparently it’s polarized Alien fans.

I liked it.  It was a pulp sci-fi movie in my opinion. It’s hard to discuss it without spoilers though so there are some below.

Prometheus:Alien::Derleth:Lovecraft.  Same universe, totally different stories.    Like Derleth’s (or Lumley’s) mythos stories, Prometheus has characters that are more proactive, and strive to do more than survive.  In this way it follows in the footsteps of the Aliens sequels.  It is not really a horror movie like Alien was.  It is more of a classic pulp science fiction romp where wild ideas get thrown around.

On the other hand, Prometheus‘ story line is less about the creatures from Alien than it is about the deeper context, as it looks at the origins of humanity as well as the aliens.  Spoilers: The origins of them both appear to be with the same alien race: the Engineers.  These space-faring titans created humans and later planned to send the Alien aliens to wipe us out. (They apparently decide to destroy humanity at about the time Jesus would have been crucified, if he were a real person.  Maybe he was an Engineer too.  The Engineers had a reason to destroy humanity.)  The twist ending suggests there will be a sequel.  It’s not actually a cliffhanger, but it left enough loose strings that the continuation of the story would reveal more of the Engineer’s secrets.

There are a lot of imperfections in the movie (not a lot of characterization of the minor characters, plausibility issues, and very loose science), but the visuals and performances of the main characters make up for these enough to make it a good movie.  As far as writing goes, it is one of those movies like the Matrix that mentions rather than engages in philosophy. (Pulp fiction had deeper discourse going on in the hitmen scenes.)  Still, there is some promise that a sequel might develop some of the ideas the film suggests.

As D&D fodder, Prometheus is in some ways a dungeon crawl, complete with exploring and scurrying back to “camp” and various traps and tricks.  The Titans make great villains, and the monsters (the Alien/worm hybrids and the apparently different sort of infection we see when one character is “infected” by what might be Titan DNA, as well as the supersized face-hugger) would work in D&D.

Published in: on December 7, 2013 at 8:32 pm  Comments (3)  
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Fairy tales on the big screen: The magic sword

I’ve got a nice copy of English Fairy Tales, retold by Flora Annie Steel & illustrated by Arthur Rackham.  I picked it up at a library book sale for the Rackham illos but I’ve also been reading the stories to my daughter.  Some of them are deeply disturbing, naturally, but all of them are pretty good.  I’ve read most of them a several times but somehow kept skipping the very first one, which is about St. George.  The story of St. George is retold here at Project Gutenburg (the rest of the book is here too, with the pictures!).

What jumped out at me (apart from the fact that St. George killed way more pagans than I would have guessed; I only knew about the dragon) is that this story is actually the basis of the 1962 movie The Magic Sword!  Seriously.  Things get sanitized a bit (instead of sacrificing babies, the witch-mom is pretty nice in the movie, etc.) and naturally a lot got dropped (the crusades mainly) but the broad strokes are all there — raised by a witch, the six international knights who join him, the ogre/giant, dragon, and magic sword, horse, and armor; notice too that our hero is Sir George in the film.  Lodac is new, and kind of replaces Almidor, the Moorish villain from the story, but for a movie that is so seriously bizarre, I was surprised to realize just how much of this acid trip movie was folkloric.  (OK, there are many versions of this tale, so F.A. Steel’s specific version may not be the basis of the movie per se; still I never realized how much of it was from ‘real’ legends.)

You can see the whole film here.  I think that, like Night of the living dead, this movie must be one of the casualties of copyright law and somehow got tossed into the public domain, based on the number of cheapo DVD releases it has had.

Also, both the film and the Steel book are veritable gold mines of D&D ideas.  What game would not benefit from chimpanzees in clothes, two-headed and/or pin-headed magicians’ servants, boiling pools of death, two-headed dragons, and that ape-ogre, or the orange tree and the magical falchion Ascalon?

Digging deeper into the Steel collection of fairy tales, the version of “Jack the Giant Killer” here is quite good and a reminder that the upcoming movie is really not an adaptation of that story at all, but of “Jack and the beanstalk” (which is also in this collection).  “The bogey beast,” “The golden ball,” “The three heads of the well,” “Child Rowland,” “Molly Whuppie and the double-faced giant,” and “The red ettin” all have some interesting monsters or encounters.

Rackham illustration for "The true history of Tom Thumb."  Looks like a scene from the Hobbit to me.

Rackham illustration for “The true history of Sir Thomas Thumb.” Looks like a scene from the Hobbit to me.

Published in: on April 2, 2013 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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