My current reading material is Tom Shippey’s JRR Tolkein:Author of the Century, a compilation of critical essays on Tolkiens work (and no prizes for guessing from the title that they’re largely very positive). It’s an absolutely superb book and one that I’d encourage anyone with more than a passing interest in Middle-Earth to acquire and read but I’ll save the details for a Trash Culture review piece sometime. Rather, Shippey raises a point almost at the beginning of the book that has wide ramifications for anyone, anywhere who likes fantasy, whatever they think of Tolkien himself, and it’s particularly pertinent to gamers. The observation in question is that the hobbits in the books, and particularly Bilbo in The Hobbit fulfil a role that anyone reasonably familiar with fantasy or sci-fi will recognise: a guide that the modern reader can identify with and use to help ease them into the unfamiliar surroundings of an imaginative world. The most common archetype for this is someone who is literally from our contemporary era but who suddenly finds themselves - for whatever reason - in a fantasy realm, such as Thomas Covenant from the Chronicles that bear his name. By use of this literary device the author can immediately give us a protagonist who knows as little about the world in which they find themselves as we do, thus making us immediately sympathetic to their plight as well as having a useful device to create mystery and, later, explain those mysteries to us. Tolkien takes a slightly different route. Rather than giving us a genuine contemporary character to identify with, he subtly sets up the Shire and its inhabitants as a place and a people with whom many readers of the day would have a shared culture. Look at Bilbo’s home: it’s underground of course and in that way it seems fantastic and alien to a modern-day reader but much else about it is instantly recogniseable: it has a hall, a pantry, a drawing room, even a bath and several guest bedrooms. This is a million miles away from the grand castles, gloomy caves or lowly huts that we would presume an inhabitant of a mock-medieval fantasy would dwell in and has far more in common with a comfortable, middle-class Edwardian family home. The Shire also has a number of curious cultural and technological innovations which are extremely recent in origin such as a postal service, a relatively enlightened form of government, clocks and pocket watches, handkerchiefs and waistcoats and various other anachronisms. Bilbo might immediately establish his fantasy credibility by being four foot high, having bare hairy feet and living underground but he’s equally obviously a reasonably well-off Edwardian gentleman. The fact that so few people (including me) ever spot this contradiction is a testament to Tolkien’s skill as a writer. So far, so good. It’s a common literary device and having established it, Tolkien rapidly moves on from the Shire in both his hobbit-books and plunges the protagonists into a dangerous world far more invested with the trappings of medievalism that we have been expecting. He can forget about his anachronisms and not bother to examine them again. But whilst it’s not problem for Tolkien it does present a problem to his predecessors which is pretty much the entire fantasy genre. You see, one part of Tolkien’s genius was that he created the illusion of depth in his fantasy world by giving it a rich mythology, history and by using his extensive knowledge of languages to create names and cultural motifs that feel real and valid and serve to make the reader unconsciously bind together the members of one of the many and varied civilizations of Middle-Earth and pretty much no author following him has ever been capable to doing the same thing. Instead both fans and authors look at his work and what they perceive is simply detail. And so lacking the ability to mimic the sort of detail that Tolkein created they instead substitute much shallower, mechanical details: dates and places for real history and mythological sweep, clothes and mannerisms for rich culture, ever more complex maps and geographies for linguistic cohesion. The issue with these kinds of detail is simply that because they don’t trigger the sorts of subconscious association making in the reader that languages and myths do (since we’re steeped in them as we grow up) they instead rely on seeming directly believable. Few modern fantasy authors would get away with the huge sleights of hand that Tolkien does regarding the mechanics of their imaginary worlds, the most obvious of which is the many times that Tolkien ducks the question of what exactly “Elvish magic” is and how it works. Readers nowadays, provided with ever increasing amounts of shallow information about the fantasy world they’re scrutinising would expect an explanation of how magic works in that world that makes sense when fitted together with all the rest of the surface detail. And yet, such is the impact of Tolkien on the genre - and indeed it must also be allowed such is the promise of variety allowed by the genre - that readers also expect to see the sorts of anachronisms presented by the hobbits as a simple literary device present in that world. This immediately creates a huge problem. If one culture in your fantasy world has pocket-watches where did they get them from? Where are the pre-requisite other advances in science and technology that allowed them to invent the pocket watch? Why haven’t other neighbouring cultures in the world managed to copy the pocket watch? Suddenly, because all the surface detail has to make sense, these questions, that Tolkien managed to skip past, need answers. And there simply is no satisfactory answer. Suspension of disbelief is shattered. The problem becomes even more acute when one considers cultural innovations such as the postal service. No-one would mind much if an author left out some of the technological oddities in the name of cohesion, but readers to tend to expect to see cultural aspects of a fantasy world that mimic things in the contemporary world, not least because to most people the medieval mindset is all but-impenetrable centuries later. This sets up an inevitable stylistic clash. Authors can generally manage to get around this problem for two reasons. Firstly, due to limited time and space readers don’t usually expect them to explain the entirety of their creations in laborious detail. Second because they’re in control of the plot they can simply avoid or skip rapidly past sections of narrative that would highlight these anachronisms. And this is where the issue becomes important to gamers because in a game world - particularly a role-playing game world - neither of these things is possible. There will be an army of fans with the time and the motivation to pick over and examine the most intricate detail of the created world, and because the world itself (unlike the plot of the game campaign) is something shared between designers, games-masters and players there’s no way of glossing over the cracks. Hence the sorts of pointless, annoying fan-boy arguments we’ve all witnessed around the gaming table about the plausibility of some facet or other of the game world. So what’s the answer? Clearly the only approach is not hold up such high standards of believability. Use some imagination: this is supposed to be fantasy after all. Perceiving this sort of thing as an “issue” is really something that’s only in the realms of the most die-hard and obnoxious obsessives in any case. But the next time you encounter one you’ll have a counter-argument and an explanation. And if you find yourself wanting to blame someone as you sit and grind your teeth whilst listening to the latest rant as to why Gnomish culture could never possibly have invented custard you have a target: blame Tolkien.
EARTH REBORN came out at the end of 2010, and it turned out to be the dream game that I didn't know I was looking for. It's got my favorite type of gameplay (SPACE HULK command point stuff), a theme I really dig (post-apocalyptic), sweet components, limitless playability, so on and so forth. I can stop looking for that perfect game that takes what made SPACE HULK so great and truly takes it to the next level, which I don't believe any game of its ilk had done up to this point.
But there's still that dream game, the one that I know that I want. It seems so simple, yet its so elusive: A truly great superhero game.
I'm not asking for much, am I?
From the country that gave you furniture you pay to build yourself and delicious meatballs - Let me show you the games of my people!
Sweeping epic of two brothers caught up in the maelstrom of the Korean War. Through it all, their self sacrifice and brotherly love help each to save the other in turn. Although a Korean film with subtitles, the production values are as good as anything out of Hollywood. The battle scenes are gory to the point of being gruesome, filmed with the "shaky cam" a la Saving Private Ryan, and while one or two sequences would have been quite breathtaking and powerful, by the second hour of watching people get blown to bits and shot through the head you become somewhat numb.
Netflix status: DVD only
As if we hadn't had enough TDK stuff around here already, last week, bouyed by all the hype surrounding the new Batman film (including quite a bit from this very site) I went out to the cinema for the first time in three years to see The Dark Knight. The only other film that caught my radar during this whole time (a self-imposed cinema exile due to having a small child about the house) was No Country for Old Men which I was content to wait for on DVD and maybe try and read the book first. Having been a longtime fan of Batman (about the only comic book character I have much time for) I was obviously up for seeing TDK, and since was a more action-based film and one, that I figured, might be worth seeing on the big screen. This isn't a review, since Ken has already done a far better review piece than I ever could but rather a collection of my feelings about the film and the thoughts it inspired (and here's some more bracketed text since I've already used lots in this introduction).
On the afternoon of June 24, 1989, my parents took me and my brother to a movie theater in Willimantic, CT to see Batman. I was 4 years old. It was the first movie I saw in a theater. And it changed my life.
Perhaps not so over the top as The Road Warrior but in a similar vein, The Book of Eli takes us on a trip across a bleak and barren wasteland. Denzel Washington, perhaps the best action star working in Hollywood today, is the requisite bad ass loner hero. Gary Oldman is the semi-sadistic bad ass for the antagonist. This role is not on par with his best villains such as Zorg from the Fifth Element or Stansfield from The Professional but even at 3/4 power, Oldman is great. We've got the ultra hot Mila Kunis who shows she has more talent than she was ever allowed to display on That 70's Show. The whole movie is shot with a bleached out look devoid of colors which I thought added to the atmosphere greatly. This is an old testament post apocalyptic tale filled with action. adventure and a decent story. The producers had a moment of bullshit politically correct pussification for a second right at the end which I found annoying as hell but outside of that, the movie is well worth your time.
Netflix Status: DVD only
To the best that my memory serves me, The Death of Superman was the first big comic book event that I saw since I started reading comics. Before it even happened, everyone knew that Supes would die at the hands of an enemy called Doomsday, knew that it would be followed up with a company-spanning event called "Funeral for a Friend," and I'm pretty sure everyone knew that Superman would eventually come back. And what sort of impact did it have on Superman as a character? Well, for one thing, he returned sporting a mullet. Superman and all his Justice League buddies can make the occasional comment on how he died but came back. Elements of his death and the appearance of the Cyborg Superman played a significant role for Green Lantern, but there really isn't a whole lot of impact it made on Superman. He died, he came back to life, it's been referenced here and there since, but pretty much everything has been put back together and Superman is still Superman as we all know him.
The Death of Superman seems to have made a bigger impact on us than it did him...because the one thing it did do was it made a whole lot of people buy The Death of Superman.
Look at me. Are you looking at me? Good. Now listen to what I'm about to say and believe. Do you remember in Empire Strikes Back when Luke asks Biggs how he feels as he is getting into the snow speeder to engage in the doomed delaying action as the base on Hoth crumbles around him and Biggs says "I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself!" and you wanted to push Luke out of the way and get in that speeder yourself"? Do you remember in The Wrath of Khan when Kirk yells "Fire!" after the codes to lower the Khan's shields have been sent and the Enterprise blows the Reliant all to hell? Do you remember in Saving Private Ryan when Captain Miller is firing his .45 pistol at the advancing panzer and the bullets are just bouncing off and then the Mustang swoops in and blows that fucker up? This whole movie is like that. Meeting and exceeding expectations. That such an uncompromising blockbuster can still come out of Hollywood makes me want to jump for joy. The only real question is "Why are you wasting the five seconds to read this review when you could be spending the time getting you, your family, and everyone you have ever loved to the theater to see this movie so that you can share 164 minutes of pure bliss with them?"
There are movies that deliver a message that you disagree with vehemently but they do so in such a stylish and subtle manner that you scarcely notice. You actually enjoy such a movie even though its philosophy is counter to your own. This is decidedly NOT one of those movies. Were you aware that the white male is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world, pitiless, cruel, self serving, and implacable in his use of power to crush the spirit of all those around him? Did you know self fulfillment is only obtained when one shirks duty and honor and worries only about self gratification? Well you won't be allowed to forget it as this movie beats you over the head with those facts with all the style of a bar room drunk and all the subtlety of a beer bottle to the face. The so called romance lacks fire or believability and it's only purpose seems to be to give the female lead one more thing for the evil male to destroy. Garbage...complete and utter garbage.
For one, like myself, who is overly familiar with the story of The Hobbit, it is difficult to break the bond with the story as written and take the movie interpretation on it's own merits. However, this is a thing you must do, If you don't it could ruin your enjoyment of this movie and that would be tragic because it is spectacular. From a purely visual perspective, every frame is a delight. From the intial scenes of the kingdom of Erebor to the scenes of Rivendell to the escape from Goblin Town to the flight of the eagles. They are all are mind blowing. Martin Freeman totally nails it in his performance of Bilbo. Some of the dwarves don't get enough screen time to make an impression but those that do, namely Thorin and Balin, are well done. I loved how I felt the menace of Gollum in The Hobbit which is something that was never really achieved in The Lord of the Rings. There are many sequences that take a sentence or two in the book and elaborate upon them until they take up whole segments of the movie. The sequences featuring Radigast are the most note worthy. They may be done with creative liscense but they are done with a quality and tone in line with the rest of the film which is to say they are very well done indeed. This movie is destined to be a classic but don't cheat yourself. Go see it in the theater if only to reward your eyeballs for having to look at so much ordinary stuff the rest of the time.
Technical note if you are wondering, I saw it with the standard frame rate in 3D
Come on in and read the latest (belated) edition, where I confess to not following through on my movie watching, detail some games played at a local boardgame night, and do reviews for Dream Factory and Campaign Manager 2008. Join us, won't you?
Jim Henson was a genius. Plain and simple. A man who put his stamp on the soul of every person of my generation. First with his work on Sesame Street and then with the Muppet Show and later with The Muppet Movie. His humor, charm, and sensibilities are impossible to replicate but that does not keep the producers of The Muppets from trying. All the ingredients are there. We have our favorites from Kermit to Miss Piggy to Sam Eagle. We have the song and dance numbers. We have the celebrity appearances. We have the cornball humor, puns, and asides to the audience. On paper it should work but it just doesn't. It's like watching a band from the 70's that were once great but now only have one member left of the original line up and he was the bassist. Same songs, same name, but it's not the same thing. Without Jim Henson the muppets are just another tired cover band. The original music could have been lifted straight from the Disney Channel's prime time line up and by that I mean they kinda suck in an inoffensive way. Not to say it's all bad and little kids will certainly like it. I especially liked the Manamana song over the end credits.
Netflix Status: DVD only. Is available on Starz On Demand
I read quite widely, but my literary diet certainly includes a fair amount of military history. Because I don’t read that much military history I generally prefer to focus on “big picture” books, the sort of thing that looks at history from a very high level, covering a campaign or even a whole war in a single book. Inevitably these sorts of books don’t generally dwell on individuals beyond the high command and spend virtually no time looking at conditions on the ground. I’m conscious this gives me a fairly one-sided and warped view of warfare but sadly I don’t have time to read everything in the world.
I'm just going to come out and say it. I love "pulp" fiction. I love adventure stories. The kind that were produced in prodigious quantities in the 30's and 40's. The Prisoner of Zenda is one such story. It has everything it should have. A handsome and strong hero who puts honor and duty ahead of personal interest. A beautiful woman worth fighting for. A dastardly villain we can hate and his even more reprehensible henchman. It has gun fights. It has daring rescues and narrow escapes. It has one of the finest sword duels I have ever seen. The technicolor pops right off the screen. You can't help but like the hero and his allies and hate his foes. A great performance is also turned in by James Mason as Fritz von Tarlenheim. One of those villains that just steals every scene he's in.
Netflix Status: DVD only.
I recently finished reading "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. It's a book set in a post-apocalyptic world and I'm using that as a pretty thin justification for reviewing it here - beyond that setting there's precious little here that's left of America and virtually nothing at all that's trash. Indeed, I was simply so struck by the book that I wanted to be able to share a few words about it, hence my flimsy justification. I have often wondered in the past why it is that science fiction seems to offer authors such a rich ground for exploring important questions and ideas whereas my favoured genre, fantasy does not. Having read this I'm left wondering - and wishing - even more.
This is a animated feature is distributed by Disney but do not make the mistake of thinking this is a Disney Movie. It is a Studio Ghibli movie. The same people who brought you such classics as Princess Mononoke and Ponyo. That means that the adult themes in the movie are not directed at your little crumb cruncher. They are directed at you the adult. Also, unlike Disney Movies, there is no comedic relief in the form on an anthropomorphized animal. This is a story of the weight of loneliness, of dealing with the hand of cards fate has dealt you even when it's total shit, and how we all need someone to connect with. The movie did not feel overlong despite it's leisurely pace. The music, mostly Celtic inspired, outside of one garbage pop tune in the end credits, was very good. I spent an enjoyable afternoon with the charming Borrowers.
Status: Still showing in theaters
It's amazing how fascinated I am by trying to figure out my favorite games. There's something about ranking and ordering that injects a small dose of reason into what is really kind of a silly hobby. I think it also gives voice to what I like and don't like in a game. I don't think I could explain that in a sentance, but I could express it through the other games I like. Maybe that's why so many people get up in arms about the Boardgame Geek rankings. On some level those rankings are the expression of the whole community, so when you are out of step with that community it feels wrong somehow. When we share the games that we enjoy, we share a little about ourselves. So it seemed time to share that list with the F:AT community.
You mix a flawed or emotionally wounded protagonist, a femme fetale, some whiskey taken straight and a mystery and you've got yourself a Film Noir, right? The Two Jakes has all the components even going the extra mile to include the required American made convertible that is issued to all graduates of The Hard Boiled School of Detection. It comes very close to being a great example of the genre but it is missing something. Perhaps it's as fundamental as the plot. Film Noir and mystery stories in general should have a plot you need to pay attention to. It should have twists and turns and "hey wait a minute" moments but most importantly when the mystery is revealed it should be satisfying and it should make sense. It should make you feel all the trouble and bull shit our suffering hero went through to find out the answer was worth it. In this movie I got to the end and thought "That's it?" It was a ten minute mystery stretched over 2 and 1/2 hours. That extra hour of film is the other major flaw. It was long and it felt long. The one thing it really nailed was the look and feel of post war L.A. right on the verge of exploding into the modern day metropolis of our time. Vilmos Zsigmond was the cinematographer. Jerry Wunderlich did the set design and he and his team deserve an oscar for their work here. I can only imagine the effort it took to find so much art deco.
Netlix Status: The Two Jakes is a sequel to Chinatown. Both of these are currently streaming on Netflix.
An epic length mini-series following the trials and tribulations of one family through the course of the second world war. It was made for television in 1983 and it looks it. Like a soap opera, the acting is bad and the dialog is atrocious, the set up implausible in that at least one member of the family is present at each hotspot of the war. The famous personages are depicted as over the top, cartoonish caricatures of themselves. The history is light, although, no glaring mistakes are made. However, like a soap opera, it can hook you if you let it and you find yourself watching yet another hour and a half installment of this seven part story. Got a week of bad weather coming up? Home in bed with the flu? Popped your Achilles tendon and you're laid up for a month? Winds of War might take your mind off your troubles for a time as long as you don't spend half the movie yelling at the screen about how stupid Ali MacGraw's character is.
Netflix Status: Currently Streaming
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