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Five Goblins Walk Into A Bar…And Die: A Review Of “Goblin Quest”

June 26th, 2015 No comments

DISCLOSURE: A copy of the PDF was provided by the author for the purpose of this review.

Over the past several years, I’ve been intrigued by the assortment of modern pen-and-paper role-playing games which favor speed and storytelling over hundreds of pages of rules. I thoroughly enjoyed Dungeon World and would happily return to it if I ever found a regular group to play it with me. Others I’ve explored have been the revised edition of Fate, and the charming, kid-friendly Dungeonteller and Adventure Maximus.

Goblin Quest, written by Grant Howitt, is a recently-published rules-lite RPG that casts its players as the hapless fodder of an army of evil. Its level of complexity places it closer to Risus or Kobolds Ate My Baby than it does Fate or Dungeon World. However, its approach to character longevity brings to mind another classic: Paranoia.

As in that game, Goblin Quest players control not a single character, but a clutch of  five, functionally-identical duplicates that appear in sequence as their broodmates quickly meet with humorously gruesome death. According to the game’s fiction, the goblins are the lowest caste of warriors in a Great Battle Camp that certainly isn’t the Land of Mordor. They spawn rapidly because they must; their average life-span is a mere week. But in that short window, those goblins seek glory and foolishness, not necessarily in that order.

Goblin characters have a handful of attributes, which include an Honorific (or surname) for their brood, an Expertise (e.g. “Ganging Up on Things”) and a Quirk (“Covered in Stolen Hair”). Each clutch of duplicates has a shared Dream, and fortunately for them, their short life’s ambition is relatively simple. They also get an Ancestral Heirloom which has been passed down for generations…meaning that their great-great-grandgoblin probably found it a few weeks ago.

Oh, and two hit points.

Task resolution comes down to a simple roll of a six-sided die. A result of 1-2 is an Injury (mark off a hit point!); 3 is Something Bad (the next goblin to act gets -1 on its roll); 4 is Something Good (which grants a +1 instead); and 5-6 is a Victory. If one of your attributes might help in the situation, you can roll an extra die…but both dice count, meaning that victorious death is a not-unlikely outcome.

baerThe storyline–which is intended to run its course in a single game session–is cooperatively defined by the players by asking each other what they want to do and what they’ll need to do it. Each quest is broken up into three tasks of increasing difficulty, each further broken into three stages. To complicate things, a party of dead-goblins-walking will face three pre-generated misfortunes while in pursuit of their goal.

And…that’s really the gist of it. Your intrepid goblin will die, to be instantly replaced by one of its fellows lurking just off-screen. With just enough cleverness and luck, you might see the quest through before you run out of fodder.

This scarcity of rules is mitigated by plenty of fun-to-read background fluff and lots of full-color art, but the real value of the PDF is still to come.

For one, the game includes contributions from a murderer’s row of RPG designers, including Rob Heinsoo, Ken Hite and Robin D. Laws. They provide story ideas, character concepts and “alternate misfortunes.”

The biggest bang for the buck is the second (and slightly-longer) half of the book, which features six rules hacks and one stand-alone minigame. They include:

  • Kobold Quest – similar to the core game, but with kobolds combining forces to build a wacky contraption in hopes of fulfilling the decree of the Mighty Dragon King.
  • My Name is Inigo Montoya, Jr. – a swashbuckling game of revenge, inspired by you-know-what.
  • Sean Bean Quest – a wonderfully bizarre premise in which all of the players are actor Sean Bean attempting to survive one of his films and thus break a curse of infinite death.
  • The Cthulhu Files – a serious, campaign-oriented spin which simulates the encroaching madness of the traditional Lovecraft game.
  • Neither Super Nor Heroic – a group of inept supers brought together as a last resort against evil, whom generally make things even worse.
  • Space Interns – think Redshirts.
  • Regency Ladies – unrelated to the core rules, this is a bonus minigame of courtship in Jane Austen land.

This toolbox of ideas alone makes Goblin Quest well worth investigating, and the core rules themselves will please gamers who take perverse delight in playing easily-dispatched avatars.

You can purchase the PDF of Goblin Quest directly from the author a minimum price of $15.00, and you can also find it at RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.

 

Categories: Games Tags: ,

Let Them Fight

May 20th, 2014 No comments

I wheedled my way into seeing the new Godzilla film while on vacation in San Francisco because, come on, how many opportunities do I get to see Godzilla trash the city I’m in at the time? It wasn’t in IMAX or 3D, but the screen at the Metreon was plenty big. (I’m told that the Metreon is the premier movie theater in SF, and thought that the filmmakers missed an opportunity by not producing an exclusive cut of the film with a shot of the monsters crashing against the mall in which it’s housed, complete with an appropriate THUMP on the soundtrack.)

Overall, I enjoyed it. It may not be the Godzilla My Dreams, but it certainly demolishes the previous attempt at an Americanized ‘Zilla. I agree with the general gist of the reviews: bland human characters, and not enough Godzilla. The former is endemic to the giant monster genre; I’m hard-pressed to think of a single interesting human in a kaiju flick. (UPDATE: I was later embarrassed to realize that I’d overlooked the tragic Dr. Serizawa in the original Gojira. The character even gets a namesake in the new film.) I wouldn’t go so far as to declare it a feature rather than a bug, but neither can I complain too loudly about it.

The relative lack of Godzilla is a bit harder to reconcile. I welcome restraint in the “more is more” era of the modern blockbuster film, yet there was a point in which I was thinking that the film was a continuation of its own marketing campaign, which perpetually teased those who wanted a good look at the monsters. I did appreciate the slow build, but I think that once we got the first full reveal of the Big G in Hawaii, it was high time to stop playing coy. Smash cutting away from the big fight to Elizabeth Olsen’s kid watching the carnage on the living room TV? Cute, but perhaps a bit too clever. People always credit Steven Spielberg with holding back on the shark in Jaws, but later interviews revealed that the real reason it largely remained hidden is that the mechanical prop didn’t work. We don’t have that problem anymore.

Now for the good stuff. Unlike the disastrous 1998 American film, Godzilla ’14 respects the character and does him right. The monster-on-monster action, when it does come, is thrilling. Both the Big G and his “Muto” opponents display personality that makes them more than dumb brutes. And the movie succeeds at one of the most challenging aspects of the kaiju genre: integrating the vastly different scales of humans and monsters. Like Cloverfield, much of the destruction occurs from the people’s-eye view. There’s a shared moment between Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character and Godzilla himself that gave me a happy chill.

That’s it for the non-spoilers. Join me under the photo for all spoilers, all the time.

godzilla2014

One thing that I did not suspect at all was that the script would skip past the conception of Godzilla as a malign force or indiscriminate destroyer to something approaching his heroic mode of the ’70s. While the military would be quite happy to exterminate him along with the Mutos, the latter are clearly viewed as the primary threat. The U.S. Navy goes so far as to escort Godzilla to the final battle in San Francisco.

Godzilla is positioned as a defender of nature/Earth, much like Mothra or the ’90s version of Gamera. He’s not quite Godzilla, Friend of Children (though we do get a young Japanese boy who, surprisingly, is not named “Kenny”); his approach to Hawaii creates a tidal wave resulting in massive destruction and loss of life. Yet, when the San Francisco news media proclaims him as “Savior of (most of) Our City,” it’s without irony. In that regard, it’s a more optimistic film than the most recent take on Superman.

Oh, and I couldn’t wrap this up without mentioning the return of Godzilla’s atomic breath, which the makers of the ’98 ‘Zilla found too hard to swallow. When the spines on his tail began to light up, I mentally punched the air. And, of course, there was Godzilla’s finishing move against the Queen Muto, a use of his breath I don’t believe we’ve ever seen before!

All in all, it was a good film and I’m glad to see it doing well enough to immediately green light a sequel. Go, but temper your expectations for the first hour and save some popcorn for the final reel.

Categories: Sci-Fi Tags: ,

The Big W

February 12th, 2014 No comments

Sid Caesar died today, and as with Monday’s death du jour, Shirley Temple, I was surprised to learn that he’d still been alive. I missed Caesar’s heyday on Your Show of Shows by a good decade, so for me he was more a historical figure than a significant part of my TV viewing, but I’ve actually seen quite a lot of him recently.

That’s because I bought the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release of the 1963 mega-comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Director Stanley Kramer brought together dozens of funnymen–and a few funnywomen–for his epic car chase, and Caesar had one of the largest roles.

If you’re not familiar with it, I won’t try to sell it as the most hilarious film ever, but it’s arguably the biggest movie comedy. That’s not just because of its colossal cast, but its running time (originally 192 minutes) and theatrical presentation (the super-widescreen Cinerama). Mad World was made and marketed as an event, and given a limited, reserved-seating “roadshow” release. Nearly a half-hour of material was trimmed for the later general release, leaving it at a still-bloated 154 minutes.

I recall seeing it a lot as a kid, at least a couple of times in the theater. This was back in the day when long movies were presented with intermissions. A lot of the comedy star cameos were lost on me, but I loved Saul Bass’ animated title sequence, as well as the endless vehicular mayhem.

The plot involves an unrelated group of motorists (including Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters and Milton Berle) who witness the fatal crash of a crook played by Jimmy Durante. As payment for their attempt to help, he tells them of a fortune in stolen money hidden in a state park several hours’ drive away. The only clue to its precise whereabouts is that it’s buried under a “Big ‘W.'”

It’s a deeply cynical film. Sid Caesar’s character is initially the voice of reason, attempting to craft a fair method of splitting $350,000 among the eight people originally at the crash site, but disagreements fueled in large part by Ethel Merman’s harridan of a mother-in-law quickly turn things into “every man, including the old bag, for himself.”

And so the chase is on, with the former good Samaritans taking every opportunity to get out in front of the pack. Others are soon drawn into the hunt, including a conniving Phil Silvers and a fussbudget Terry-Thomas. Meanwhile, all are under the watchful eyes of the police, led by a soon-to-retire captain played by Spencer Tracy. The latter has been seeking the cache of loot for years, and is willing to see the contest play out in order to find it.

By the end, virtually everyone who learns of the money has been corrupted by it, even Dorothy Provine’s lily-white character, who wants nothing to do with it until she spots the Big W and realizes that she could buy her way out from under her horrible family. There’s a lot of tragedy roiling under the surface, and things end badly for most of the cast.

The big selling point of the Criterion release is that most of the footage cut from the original “roadshow” version has been restored, albeit in poor quality and sometimes with only video or audio present. It’s fascinating as a historical artifact, though to be honest, I think the material adds little aside from clarifying Buster Keaton’s brief role in the general release version.

I’ve already watched it twice, once for each cut, and am currently on the third go-round to listen to the highly-informative commentary track by Mad World aficionados including writer Mark Evanier. For me, there’s a megaton of nostalgia packed into this disc.

 

The Desolation Of Smaug, Based On The Novel “Push” By Sapphire

December 14th, 2013 No comments

Like many, I was underwhelmed by the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit film trilogy.* It’s significant that I only saw it once in the theater, and still haven’t bought the Blu-Ray.

I’m similarly with the consensus on part two, The Desolation of Smaug. It’s certainly a step up from An Unexpected Journey, even as it remains a long trek from Jackson’s triumphant take on The Lord of the Rings.

I think that it’s probably time that we stop referring to this as an adaptation of The Hobbit and call it “sorta suggested by” the book. It follows the same general premise of a bunch of dwarves and their reluctant burglar on a quest to recover a dragon’s hoard, but is so far removed from the source material that it’s very nearly an original story that happens to be set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

It’s one thing to shoehorn LOTR‘s Legolas the elf into the story, as the novels established him as the son of the Elvenking of The Hobbit. As an immortal, he surely would’ve been around when Thorin and his dwarves came calling.

But the addition of an elven love interest named Tauriel is a bit harder to accept. Certainly, Middle Earth is short on female characters, and as portrayed by Evangeline Lilly, Tauriel kicks all kind of orcish ass. Still, the romantic subplot between her and Kili the dwarf (or is it Fili?) is just…odd.

Another major deviation from the book is that the dwarves are given much more agency. In the original story, they were mostly peril monkeys in need of constant rescuing by Bilbo. Thorin’s claim on the treasure of the Lonely Mountain seemed especially weak considering how little he’d done to win it. But in The Desolation of Smaug, there’s a huge action set piece in which he and his crew lure the dragon into a trap.

Imagine, if you will, a remake of To Kill a Mockingbird in which Bob Ewell hires bounty hunters to track down Atticus Finch and Dill has a hot older cousin who pursues a secretive affair with Boo Radley. That’s the effect of watching The Desolation of Smaug on someone who grew up with the novels.

None of which is to say that I didn’t enjoy it, or that I won’t see it a second time. After all, I’ve only experienced the 2D version. There are still so many options: 3D, IMAX, high-frame rate and D-Box motion seat. There’s a Hobbit for everyone.

*Though now that I look back at my review, I see that my initial reaction was more positive. 

Categories: Movies Tags: ,

Defining Gravity

October 21st, 2013 No comments

I was hesitant to see the new space disaster film Gravity, as the trailers made it feel too much like a specific nightmare I’ve had of being trapped inside a spacesuit. I’m not especially claustrophobic, but the idea of being encased in a suit and surrounded by the implacable void? Yeesh. Plus, it looked as if it would be kind of a downer, what with what appeared to be the lonely death by asphyxiation of America’s Sweetheart, Sandra Bullock.

Still, from all accounts it was quite an accomplishment, and demanded to be seen in 3D IMAX. So, I ponied up my 16 bucks and put on my plastic glasses.

And…well, it was very good. I have my reservations, most of which I’ll keep to the spoiler section, but I don’t feel that either a Best Actress or Best Picture Oscar would be undeserved. For the most part, this is a one-woman show, and Sandra Bullock is excellent in it. And, as was the case with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gravity should at least be recognized for the chutzpah of its production.

As I expected, Gravity tops off its nightmare fuel tank. For nearly all of its short (91 minute) running time, it’s one harrowing near-death experience after another, as an exploding spy satellite sparks a chain reaction of debris which wipes out pretty much every man-made object orbiting the Earth. Bullock’s astronaut is always a moment from running out of air, bursting into flame and/or caroming off the hull of a space station. Gravity makes clear that while space is a beautiful place to visit, it is one that does not welcome your intrusion.

I really can’t say more without getting into spoilers, so stop here if you don’t want to know what happens. Otherwise, please rejoin me after this photo of Gravity‘s stunning special effects.

You may have noticed that I don’t talk about the film’s other star, George Clooney. Well, that’s because while the film ultimately balks at suffocating America’s Most Beloved Actress Who Isn’t Julia Roberts, it has no problem snuffing its Most Charming Rogue. Actually, that’s not completely accurate, as Clooney simply drifts away after cutting himself loose from Bullock so as not to drag her to doom. His fate is assumed, not depicted.

She declares that she will be coming to his rescue, but the film quickly abandons this notion. (In fairness, she never has the opportunity.) Oh, we get one last scene with Clooney, but it’s an oxygen-deprived hallucination she experiences after she resigns herself to suicide. I guess that the idea here is that her own subconscious is recalling a crucial bit of training she needs to survive, but having Ghost Clooney show up to say “buck up, buckeroo” seems like a bit of a cheat.

To be honest, I kinda resented the death of Clooney’s character in much the same way that I did that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s in Titanic. It’s another case of one character dying in part because he/she spends so much effort attempting to rescue a less-resourceful companion. One could argue that Clooney is at least partially to blame for eventually running out of jetpack fuel due to his unsuccessful side trip to recover the dead body of one his fellow astronauts, but Bullock’s panicky and useless (in the first act, anyway) character surely seals the deal.

But, of course, we’re not here to see a veteran astronaut calmly and competently going about their business; we prefer a terrified, emotionally-scarred neophyte who will ultimately Summon Immense Reserves of Pluck and Rise Heroically to the Occasion. And, since constant death by freezing/frying/falling isn’t enough, Bullock gets a tragic backstory about a daughter who died in a freak accident. It’s cheap and unnecessary.

I know that I’m coming off as pretty negative about Gravity, and that’s not the impression that I want to leave you with. My beef with it has more to do with the movie I wanted it to be than the one that it was. It’s well worth seeing, and really needs to be seen on the big, big screen.

Categories: Movies Tags: ,

Destroy All Kaiju

July 16th, 2013 No comments

I’m just speculating here, but I imagine that the average anxiety level in the production offices of Legendary Pictures has risen a few notches. Here they are, trying to drum up interest in next summer’s Godzilla reboot at the same time that the American public is demonstrating its indifference toward their current giant monster epic, Pacific Rim.

Maybe it was just a scheduling issue, but it did seem odd to me that Godzilla is being produced as the follow-up to Pacific Rim rather than the other way ’round. Godzilla has the name recognition, but it also has (so far as we know at this time) just the one giant monster. (EDIT: Ding dong, I’m wrong. The official description was just released, and say “this spectacular adventure pits the world’s most famous monster against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.” So there’s that.) Pacific Rim, on the other hand, has lots of monsters (and robots), but isn’t based on an existing property.* Coming out second, Godzilla risks being seen as the lesser spectacle, a potential problem made worse if Pacific Rim appears to have poisoned the giant monster well.

Unfortunately for Legendary Pictures and Godzilla fans, Pacific Rim isn’t just a mediocre box office performer, it’s a mediocre film.

I’m torn here. I really, really, really, really want to love it. I want to hold it to my bosom and proclaim it as the Second Coming of Spielberg.

And, lest we forget, I am very forgiving when it comes to giant monster movies. I unreservedly love Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, despite production values perhaps 1,000 times lesser than those displayed by Pacific Rim. Hell, recently I voluntarily watched the nadir of the Toho Studios film series, Godzilla vs. Megalon, in its native Japanese.

Now I’m in no way saying that Pacific Rim is inferior to Godzilla vs. Megalon, in that very little that exists in any of the known states of matter is less than Godzilla vs. Megalon. It’s just that, considering both its production budget ($190 million) and pedigree (acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro), I hold Rim to a higher standard.

The main problem for me is the assortment of stock character types with their off-the-shelf backgrounds and motivations. That wouldn’t be a problem if they brought a bit of personality or fun to the party, but the only ones who seem to be having a good time are Ron Perlman as a dealer in monster body parts, and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the comedy relief scientists. When the frog-faced guy from Torchwood is the most entertaining member of your ensemble, that’s a concern.

My other major complaint is that, with the exception of a couple of flashbacks, every monster appearance takes place at night, in the rain and/or at the bottom of the ocean. I thought that we were past the point that we needed everything to be dark and rain-streaked to hide the special effects seams.

So, what does Pacific Rim do right? A lot, actually. It’s got a bit of a Top Gun vibe with its international team of pilots. The monster designs–many courtesy Hellboy artist Guy Davis and master alien illustrator Wayne Douglas Barlowe–are varied and bizarre. A great deal of attention has been paid toward world-building, with such details as a slum built inside the carcass of a dead beast and a misguided attempt at border-security known as the “Wall of Life.”**

It’s far from a disaster, but it’s a definite disappointment coming as it does from del Toro, whose love for this subject matter runs deep.

In light of this, I say good luck, Godzilla. Your long-anticipated comeback just got a bit more difficult.

*And if you doubt the power of intellectual property, look at the many Internet comments declaring Pacific Rim to be a Transformers rip-off, even though what it’s really ripping-off predates the robots-in-disguise by several decades. Furthermore, consider that Transformers: Dark of the Moon made nearly as much on opening day (a Wednesday) as Pacific Rim did in its first weekend.

**It, of course, works here about as well as it does in real-life, never taking into consideration–for example–that the evolving cavalcade of creatures might eventually exhibit the ability to fly.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

June 17th, 2013 No comments

I’d been wary of Man of Steel from the moment production of the film was announced. I was unhappy about the prospect of producer Christopher Nolan’s grimy “superheroes in the real world” aesthetic being applied to my pal Superman.

Early trailers did nothing to allay my concern. I felt a bit better once I saw the clip of Henry Cavill and Amy Adams discussing Superman’s S-logo as a symbol of hope, but then the reviews came out and seemed to be confirming my fears of a dark and dour Kryptonian.

I recently got into an argument on Facebook by writing “If (Superman’s) brooding, you’re doing it wrong.” It was an intentionally flip, reductionist statement, but it got at the point I’ve been trying to make for years, that Superman is an intrinsically optimistic character.

The modern view of fellow crimefighter Batman is that of a grim vigilante inspired by his earliest, pulp avenger adventures and conveniently ignoring the three decades he spent trading quips with Robin and punching aliens. It works because Bats was conceived as a figure of menace who operates at night.

Superman, by contrast, flies overhead in plain view. He wears bright, primary colors. He”s powered by the sun, for Rao’s sake. Possessing the ability to do virtually anything, he chooses to do the right thing.

That’s what I was afraid of losing once I began to see photos of Henry Cavill in the muted colors of the Kryptonian full-body condom he sports for Man of Steel.

So, now that I’ve seen the movie, what do I think?

Let’s be clear, Man of Steel is not the Superman movie that I wanted. However, on the whole I quite liked it. It preserves what I value about Superman…with a couple of major caveats that I’ll get to shortly.

The movie establishes Kal-El/Clark Kent as an outsider among humans, but Cavill’s portrayal was much less emo than that of Tom Welling over on Smallville. His Superman displays the right instincts, and I sensed that he could play the lighter character of the early Richard Donner films if desired.

The script is well-constructed, and carries through its theme of nature-vs.-nurture. Tellingly, Superman has two complimentary fathers in his life, whereas his counterpart General Zod has none.

Zod himself is a more complex character here. He’s by no means a sympathetic figure, but by the end you do understand that his motivations run deeper than wanting people to kneel before him.

My primary criticism of the film–at least in its IMAX version–is that it’s an assault on the senses. It’s achingly loud. Every punch is another jolt to the inner ear. It literally took hours for my hearing to fully return to normal.

It’s also very, very violent and destructive. When brawling Faora and Nam-Ek in downtown Smallville, Superman tells people to take shelter, but what good is duck-and-cover when airplanes are crashing in fiery explosions on Main Street?

In Superman II, the villainous Kryptonian Non–the counterpart of Man of Steel‘s Nam-Ek–was punched through a building, trailing a vaguely Non-shaped wake of destruction but leaving the skyscraper more or less intact. In the new film, buildings tumble into plumes of debris. And while I wasn’t quite as bothered by the imagery as was Bully over on Comics Oughta Be Fun, there’s no doubt that thousands of people were NOT saved by Superman. I do wonder just how much humanity could ever truly trust him–despite his many good deeds–in the aftermath of 9/11 a dozen times over.

And there is one moment which is so completely at odds with the traditional character of Superman that it must be discussed. This is huge spoiler territory, so stop now if you don’t want to know how the movie ends.

Superman KILLS Zod. He snaps the villain’s neck.

It’s an entirely justifiable action, and clearly it is meant to be a moment of failure and anguish.

As Bully suggests, the script doesn’t give Superman the chance to do otherwise. Having already exhausted the plot device that exiled the other super-criminals to the Phantom Zone, Kal is left to fight alone against a Zod who–devoid of any future purpose in life–states his intention to murder every last human. With no strength-sapping Kryptonite or convenient “molecule chambers” around, there’s no way out. Zod has to die.

Again, it’s not presented as a punch-the-air moment, but rather one that is emotionally wrecking for Superman. Unfortunately, the movie is pretty much over at this point, so there’s no room for reflection, no suggestion that this is the beginning of his long-standing moral code against killing.

Now, none of this is truly an indictment of Man of Steel. I thought that it was a well-written, well-acted movie. I could see “my” Superman within it, and I hope that next time they let him come out and play.

 

 

The Cumberbatch Maneuver

May 18th, 2013 No comments

Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie about which I find it difficult to be objective. I have tremendous affection for the ’60s TV show, and so adored what director J.J. Abrams did to revitalize Captain Kirk and crew in his 2009 Star Trek movie reboot that the four-year wait for a sequel felt interminable. There are other films I’m anticipating this summer, but Into Darkness was number one with a photon torpedo in terms of my level of interest.

And I’m going to need to see it a second time to be sure how I feel about it.

There’s certainly a lot to like. The old/new cast are back, full of youthful exuberance and familial banter. From the start, they’re the fully-integrated ensemble that the original TV actors only intermittently became.

Chris Pine’s Kirk may be the center of the action, but Zachary Quinto’s Spock effortlessly carries the film’s emotional weight. The core of the ’60s series was a triumvirate with Kirk at its head, flanked by rational Spock and emotional McCoy, but I’d argue that the nuTrek dynamic places Spock in the middle, with Kirk and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura each appealing to different aspects of his human half. The affection between the three fuels Into Darkness even more than its over-complicated, conspiratorial storyline.

There are big laughs and spectacle aplenty. It looks and sounds fantastic. For the first two-thirds, it’s as good a Trek as we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

It’s the final third that left me pondering the whole, and I’m afraid that the rest of this review crosses the Neutral Zone into massive spoiler territory. So, if you don’t want to know more, go no further than the U.S.S. Enterprise spiraling out of control…

For the past couple of years, IDW has published a comic book of the continuing voyages of the nuTrek crew. Early issues were fairly straightforward retellings of ’60s episodes, with minor divergences demonstrating the rippling of the timeline caused by the arrival of future villain Nero in the 2009 film.* As the comics have progressed, the changes have become more pronounced and the stories, while still obviously inspired by specific incidents from the TV series, play out very, very differently.

And that’s what happens in Into Darkness. Except when it doesn’t.

The first rumors about the secretive sequel’s plot involved Khan, the genetically-modified ubermensch played memorably by Ricardo Montalban in the 1967 installment “Space Seed” and the 1982 film The Wrath of Khan. I immediately thought, “Oh, God, no.” Retelling past stories is fine in a monthly comic book, less so in a film franchise with chapters four years apart. Furthermore, both the 2009 movie and its predecessor, Star Trek: Nemesis, already seemed like bald attempts to replicate Khan’s revenge-driven villainy.

There was a final consideration: The Wrath of Khan is largely seen as both the dramatic and emotional high point of  the Trek films. A remake was unlikely to live up to it.

Despite attempts at misdirection and ever-wilder theories about other returning foes,** it turned out to absolutely no one’s surprise that yes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison” is really Khan.

And for a while it works. As with recent issues of the comic book, the storyline is more “inspired by” than “remake.” This Khan has a new backstory and motivation. I was starting to believe that they might almost do the unthinkable and make him Kirk’s stalwart ally against a common foe.

But once Khan does a heel turn and seizes control of a powerful Federation starship, we’re back to Wrath of Khan 2.0. Even some of the dialogue is cribbed from the previous film. The difference here is that it’s Kirk who performs the act of sacrifice to save the Enterprise from destruction, with Spock left to mourn outside a radiation-proof door.

Reversing the roles is sort of clever, but it’s not enough to save the scene from feeling like a lesser imitation. We know that Kirk’s not going to die, and not just because he has script immunity. We were shown the solution–the regenerative power of Khan’s blood–in the first act. The stakes just aren’t there.

Fortunately–aside from an ill-considered shout of “Khaaaaaaaaannnn!”–the rest of the movie plays out differently, with Spock and Uhura tag-teaming the villain in an exciting climax set in future San Francisco.

Perhaps now that the production team have gotten out their remake ya-yas, the next time we’ll finally go where no Star Trek film has gone before.

*While both the films and comics suggest that the timelines of old and new Trek began to diverge when Nero killed Kirk’s father, I’d argue that Nero arrived in an already-altered reality. The changes in costumes, technology and even species (the reptilian Gorn in the canonical Star Trek video game appear nothing like their classic counterparts) strike me as more than reasonably can be pinned on the “butterfly effect” created by the destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin. (On the other hand, the inclusion of models of the Phoenix from First Contact and Jonathan Archer’s Enterprise suggest that much of this new timeline’s history played out as before.)

**The goofiest was the fan theory that John Harrison was one of the androids seen in 1967’s “I, Mudd.” I can see where they got the idea, as con man Harry Mudd’s daughter showed up in the comic book prequel; it’s her commandeered ship that Kirk pilots on the Klingon homeworld in Into Darkness. The theory was that the android’s pseudonym was a bastardization of “Harry’s son.” Urg.

Categories: Sci-Fi Tags: ,

Labors Of Love(craft)

April 24th, 2013 No comments

I am not about to get up on my high horse about the intrinsic value of independent film. I like soulless, studio-driven, explosion-delivery systems as much as the next popcorn-muncher. But it’s fun to be swept along in the joy expressed by an indie filmmaker pursuing something he or she loves, financial compensation be damned.

Last week I was introduced to The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, one of the least commercial–and most joyful–films I’ve seen in some time.

It achieved notoriety by being the lowest-grossing film of 2012, though that’s a technicality. According to director Paul Bunnell, after winning an audience award at the Kansas International Film Festival–which is apparently something that exists–it received the prize of a one-week run at a single Kansas theater, where it made $117. Admittedly, there weren’t a lot of people at the midnight screening I attended, but surely we doubled that gross.

Johnny X is a pastiche of ’50s drive-in fare, specifically 1959’s Teenagers from Outer Space. But it’s more ambitious and entertaining than that low-budget junk, a semi-musical with song stylings ranging from surf guitar to rockabilly to Sondheim.

It concerns a gang of alien punks, led by the eponymous Johnny, who are “sentenced to Earth.”  (The Grand Inquisitor is genre veteran Kevin McCarthy, wearing a Devo hat in his final performance.) In addition to his non-comformist ways, Johnny is being punished for his theft of the powerful Resurrection Suit. Oddly enough, he still has it when he’s sent to Earth, but it’s best not to think about that.

His on-again, off-again girlfriend is Bliss, played by De Anna Joy Brooks, who steals the show with the vamp number “These Lips That Never Lie.” She grabs the suit and runs off with a soda jerk, with the Ghastly gang in pursuit.

Reggie Bannister (from the Phantasm film series) shows up as a club promoter looking to score with a concert by legendary rocker Mickey O’Flynn (Creed Batton, formerly of the band The Grass Roots) who is, unfortunately, dead. Did I mention that there’s a Resurrection Suit?

The Ghastly Love of Johnny X could’ve used a trim: at 106 minutes, it’s a good twenty minutes longer than the movies to which it pays homage. Still, the music is catchy and the whole affair is fascinatingly weird.

In a not-entirely-dissimilar vein comes The Whisperer in Darkness, the second feature film produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Like Johnny X, it was a long-gestating project kept alive by passion. And it too is an intentionally retro flick.

In 2005, the HPLHS released The Call of Cthulhu, their adaptation of the core work of horror author Lovecraft’s mythology regarding slumbering alien gods. In a clever conceit, they filmed it as if it had been a “lost” film produced in 1926, the year that the short story was published. As a silent movie utilizing impressionistic sets and low-fi special effects, it effectively disguised its low budget and amateur crew.

For their follow-up they went bigger.  The Whisperer in Darkness was published in 1931, so they intended to approach it as a sound film of the same era as the early Universal Studios horrors. And while Cthulhu was a brisk 47 minutes, Whisperer more than doubled that at 104.

In one sense, it’s less successful than its predecessor: as a 1931 pastiche, it fails. Keep in mind that ’31 was the year that the Bela Lugosi Dracula hit theaters. Dracula, for all its cultural influence, is crude and stagy, with sparse musical accompaniment provided by a couple of classical music pieces, notably “Swan Lake.” Whisperer appears considerably more polished, and features a full orchestral score of the type that wouldn’t be introduced until two years later when the original King Kong debuted.

Unlike the intentionally-jerky stop-motion animation employed for Cthulhu, the filmmakers this time opted for CGI. It’s an understandable decision, as the monsters are on-screen quite a bit and would’ve taken months to film by traditional methods. Yet, despite an attempt to “dumb down” the effects to make them appear more like stop-motion, they’re simply much smoother than would’ve been possible two years before (or really, twenty years after) Kong.

Most damning of all, it’s in widescreen. While that format existed in the early ’30s, it didn’t come into common usage until 1953, when it was seen as a way of bringing television viewers back to the theaters.

Aside from the opening titles, the entire film looks much more like something that would’ve emerged from the sci-fi boom of the ’50s. And honestly, that’s okay. The HPLHS might not have achieved their stated goal, but they made something that’s as good as some of the better genre flicks of the mid-20th Century.

Matt Foyer is appealing as the central character Albert Wilmarth, who travels to rural Vermont to investigate a farmer who believes that he has been beset by buzzing aliens emanating from a nearby mountain lair. The stories of the Mi-Go are just folklore, right? Right?

Whisperer incurs the potential wrath of Lovecraftians by extending the film past the end of the short story. The original tale concludes with a twist that would normally ring down the curtain on Act Two. Instead, there’s an action-packed third act which sees Wilmarth infiltrate the Mi-Go caves and attempt to escape their wrath in an old plane. Ultimately, it goes to a place no less bleak than Lovecraft’s own writings.

The only real downside to it is a mustache-twirling human villain who wears a cultist get-up that charitably can be called “unfortunate.”

Still, grouses about the authenticity of its alleged time period aside, it’s still a fine film straddling the line between fan effort and something more professional. I hope that the HPLHS will tackle The Shadow Over Innsmouth next!

Needs More Batman

January 15th, 2013 No comments

I was in no rush to watch The Dark Knight Rises, the allegedly final film in director Christopher Nolan’s triptych about everyone’s favorite rodent-themed superhero, Mighty Mouse Batman. I was already predisposed against it; I had begun to resent the overrated previous installment, Dark Knight: The Jokering. Then the shootings in Aurora–sadly, only the second most horrific mass killing in America last year–dulled whatever remaining interest I’d had.

However, as I’ve previously stated, I prefer to bitch about things with authority. So last Saturday I spun a Blu-Ray of Rises. And…

I kinda liked it. It wasn’t the best Batman movie ever, but it didn’t actively annoy me either.

The main beef I had with it was its relative lack of Batman. There are thousands of movies I can watch that don’t have Batman in them, so I prefer my Batman films to feature frequent appearances by Batman. Instead, there were long, Batman-free stretches which found Bruce Wayne too mopey to Batman it up.

The previous installment ended with Batman taking the rap for the death of Harvey Dent, the crime-busting district attorney who, unbeknownst to Gotham City, had been transformed into the villainous Two-Face. This deception was deemed necessary to prevent undoing the progress Dent had made against organized crime.

Rises begins eight years later, with the gangs brought low under draconian sentencing laws and Batman fading into legend. Gotham is by no means crime-free, but people seem content with the current state of low-level thuggery.

While Bruce Wayne’s sacrifice made a certain amount of sense as I was watching the film, something nagged at me afterward. Okay, I can see that Batman would see great value in eliminating organized crime. Yet the mobs had nothing to do with the traumatic event that spurred his lifelong crusade: his parents’ murder at the hands of a garden-variety mugger. It struck me as out-of-character for Bruce to allow street-level crime to continue in his self-imposed exile.

Rises piles on the villains. As with The Dark Knight, there are three* of them: Catwoman, Bane and a third whose reveal is meant to be a surprise but is pretty easy to guess if you’re more than passingly familiar with Batman’s comic book history.

Of them, Catwoman was the one I enjoyed the most, and not only because Anne Hathaway in skin-tight leather trips at least a couple of my triggers. She was the only one who seemed to be having fun being bad. Happily, Rises expunges the “licked back to life by cats” backstory from Catwoman’s last two movie appearances, and gets back to the original idea of a cat burglar who shares a mutual attraction with Batman.

Bane is a character I’ve greatly disliked since his first appearance. He was everything that I hated about ’90s comics: an impossibly-muscled, ‘roid-raging brute with a badass name. (Also an inexplicable resemblance to a Mexican wrestler. Not that I have anything against luchadores.) He improbably managed to defeat Batman despite a glaringly obvious vulnerable spot that the World’s Greatest Detective failed to notice for the editorially-mandated reason that the “Knightfall” storyline had another forty-skillion issues to run.

Anyhow, the Rises version of Bane does away with the super-steroid tube and the wrestling get-up. Which, honestly, are the only visually interesting things about the character. Instead, he gets a weird breath mask that (somehow) helps him manage his constant pain…and also makes him difficult to understand. (I didn’t have as much trouble with this as did theatergoers; watching it at home without background noise helped.) Bane also gets a fur coat, so there’s that. Overall, he’s effective enough as a generic terrorist baddie, as well as a bait-and-switch for the actual mastermind.

I was confused by the part in which Bane left the broken Bruce Wayne in prison–ostensibly to rot while Gotham burns–but in the care of two guys who made it their personal mission to rehabilitate him and motivate him to climb out of the pit. Did they not get the memo? I was waiting for one of them to turn out to be a disguised Michael Caine, but it was not to be.

I did enjoy the excesses of Bane’s inverted version of Gotham, particularly the kangaroo court presided over by Jonathan Crane (aka the Scarecrow) perched atop an enormous, improvised judge’s bench.

The film’s conclusion puts a coda on the Caped Crusader’s career. In the context of the trilogy’s overall story arc, this works well enough. It does, however, strike a note of dissonance in that it suggests that Batman’s eternal quest for justice is something he can take or leave.

In the end, I generally enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, yet it’s just not what I’m looking for in a Batman film. As a longtime fan of DC Comics’ stable of characters, I find it repeatedly frustrating that I have to look to the Marvel Comics adaptations for the fun and adventure I want when I plunk down my money for a superhero flick.

*Or five, if you count the out-of-costume cameo by the Scarecrow and the surprisingly knowledgeable hallucination of Ra’s Al Ghul. Seriously, if Bruce is imagining Ra’s, how is it that he knows things that Bruce doesn’t?

Categories: Movies Tags: ,