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June 28, 2005

And For After Serenity

Just in case you thought this year's movies ended at the end of September, here's a little reminder of a small, personal sort of drama that's all too easy to overlook.

(Thanks to AICN)

Posted by ghoul at 10:15 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 27, 2005

Back Home

Well, now I'm back from The Black Road. Fun was had. Details below the fold.

No surprises on the drive down, except for how little I miss driving the outer loop around Boston every other week. It's now been most of a year since I've done that, and 495 is still as crowded (albeit mostly moving at speed) as I remembered.

The hotel was less hockey-youth overwhelmed than it has been in the past, it being summer and, therefore, not really hockey season. Still, there are apparently summer "skill camps" and the like, so we weren't completely without pre- and barely- teens with big bags of gear. There were no noticeable problems this year, and that may be more than just reduced numbers... Apparently the hotel has taken to having hockey-youth parents sign promises to keep the kids under control as well.

First slot was my GM'ing, and "Nine Lives in Amber" went reasonably well. This set of cats managed to unite into an effective team rather quickly, with much of the credit for that going to Jenn's PC, who ignored a couple of provocations from other cats and focused on her (mostly self-assigned) "save the castle" mission. The image of Gerard with a 30+lbs Maine Coon on his head and a full boat of hot turkey gravy in his lap (all for his own good, mind you) won't vanish from my head anytime soon.

My second slot were unfortunately derailed by Bryant's last-minute absence, which prevented him from GMing his "Dogs in the Vineyard"/"Amber" crossover. I decided to take the slot off to try to catch up on some sleep and get onto a more con-friendly schedule (my own normal 5AM - 9 PM doesn't fit to a con that runs more like 9 AM to midnight). It was probably a good choice, because I was pretty tired by Sunday's slot even with this break!

Third slot was a challenging experiment by Michael Curry, "Mountain of the Sorcerer King", an Amber-flavored recasting of The Mountain Witch. We didn't quite have the time to develop the whole feel of the game (we only had 3 "chapters", and we over-ran our slot by 90 minutes even with just that), and all of us had trouble getting into the conflict-resolution mindset. Still, there was some very nice play, character Fates were well (if quickly) developed, and the final resolution was satisfying and appropriately bloody. The Trust mechanic (the revolutionary idea of the game) made for some very interesting dynamics in the group, though I'm not sure if it was the relatively small number of chapters (where Trust is re-set), the lack of a direct way to use Trust to hamper another PC, or our skittishness about using Trust to swipe narration and undercut other PCs (only done once or twice)... Still, the overall result was quite enjoyable.

Slot Four and I played in Meera Barry's Monsters! There were frights and funnies galore, and the most disturbingly right portrayal of Flora I've seen in a long time. Amber kept a ton of quotes from this one, which I expect will be up soon.

And last slot it was back to M. Curry's indie games crossovers, with a 2nd go at kill puppies for satan mixed with Amber, The Puppies of Tijuana. Having been run out of Akron last year, the ultimate pale shadows of the Amber Royal Family play their trashy, petty games south of the border. As Eric, I focused on a couple really crappy schemes, then on taking over when Dad was killed (for real, this time), and then on making others believe I really had taken over (since no matter how clearly I pointed at Dad's door, now painted "Eric's Room", few believed me). I ended up dead in a drug war crossfire, killed at the end of the 2nd chapter in an effort to defend the family. Well, okay, the parallel to the original story is thinner than that... Corwin used Eric for cover as he ran off, Eric having not exactly noticed what was going on yet.

Great fun! I didn't want it to end!

Posted by ghoul at 07:10 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 24, 2005

Heading Down the Road

I'm off the The Black Road for a weekend of Amber and related gaming.

Depending on where my room is in relation to the hotel's wireless network (last year, I was just out of range), I may be reporting in as things progress.

Posted by ghoul at 09:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 19, 2005

Some Less Conflicted Comments

Okay, so I was a bit divided about Batman Begins, but I'm less conflicted about the two TV series I watched yesterday and today thanks to internet downloads of international broadcasts...

So let me take a minute to talk about Doctor Who (2005) and Justice League Unlimited.

(Extremely limited spoiling again... but I'll go under a fold anyway.)

So, first, the Doctor.

I was introduced to the Doctor in 1979 thanks to the US publication of some episode novelizations. I was 14 and had slightly heard of the show reading science fiction fan 'zines of the era, but didn't really know much about it. The first of these was Terrance Dick's Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks, adapting the 60th story of the long-running series. The story spoiled me for most of the series, unfortunately, as it actually featured honest-to-goodness time travel as part of the plot (all too often, the Doctor only travels at the start and end of stories, sticking around as if just another native during the adventure). Here, bad guys (the titular Daleks) use their limited powers of time travel to manipulate events to lead to their conquest of Earth, said manipulation made possible in the future because they have conquered the Earth. Except, of course, the Time Lords forced an exiled outcast of their race (The Doctor) to set things right.

And what a character this Doctor was. It was a 1972 episode, so the Doctor was Jon Pertwee, who came across as a brilliant but more than a bit cranky pseudo-Victorian scientist, assigned to assist (and be watched over by) a United Nations anti-alien task force. It was all a bit silly, didn't really make too much sense, and I loved it. Of course, I was reading a book, so the Daleks came across as the frightening, inhuman death machines they're described as, not the comic dodgem-cars mated with a pepper grinder I later saw them looking like on PBS re-runs of the series. No, to my imagination, they were something really frightening, a relentless, heartless killing wave that could be pushed back but never stopped. (Sort of like what the Borg were much later in Star Trek: The Next Generation, at least before they started humanizing them for "greater drama").

I eventually saw and read a lot more Doctor Who. I've seen episodes with all the various versions (a clever writers trick allows the Doctor to be re-cast with a new actor whenever needed), and liked most of them. I suffered through a painfully mistaken attempt to Americanize the series that, thankfully, lasted only one two-hour special. And then, for nearly than a decade, it went away.

And now, it's back. And is it ever!

Writer Russell T. Davis, clearly a classic Doctor fan from way back, somehow convinced the BBC to bring the Doctor back, this time with a bit less cheese and a bit more SFX budget (though it doesn't always escape its roots; often, though, that looks to be on purpose). A brilliantly funny man, Christopher Eccleston, was cast in the lead, and this Doctor manages to have all the best and worst of his past selves. He's cross, razor-tongued, quick to judge, impatient, sarcastic, reckless, and just a little bit too harsh in how he deals out "justice". He's also funny, charming, impossibly clever, and given to forming deep and unshakable loyalties to the right people. In this case, that's the sweet but apparently unimportant Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), with whom he happens to cross paths in the first episode (entitled "Rose", so you know where the real focus is).

Through the 13 episodes of this series, we also meet several other recurring characters, including Rose's mother (Camille Coduri), who never really understands what is going on; her boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clark), loyal and true but just a little bit wrong to make it onto the Doctor's team himself; Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley), a near-future techno-nerd who is just a little too tempted by technology; and the roguish Captain Jack (John Barrowman), who can't seem to decide if he wants to seduce Rose or the Doctor. Plus tons of other interesting people, creatures, and things. The world is saved, the world is accidentally put in peril, the world is saved again. And a rollicking good time is had, including an amazing episode poking fun at BBC game shows (including an Anne-droid who mercilessly disintegrates the "weakest link"... voiced by Anne Robinson herself). And, in the end, it all ties up into a complex but astonishingly neat pattern.

And, amidst it all, the Daleks, still looking like they always have, are somehow made just as scary as they ever were in their descriptions.

This is worth checking out! And if the next series (coming in 2006, with a one-shot special for Christmas first) is anywhere near this good, then the Doctor is not going away again anytime soon! (And there are rumors I've heard about Cybermen, another old foe who could use a modern touch to make them as scary as they should be.)

Now, Justice League.

I commented in my Batman Begins review that I really like what the WB animated team has been putting together since they started Batman the Animated Series. Well, JLU is the culmination of that work, now broadened to include most all of the DC Comics universe (including many parts I never expected to see on TV). In the US, we've seen an excellent season so far, including some unexpected hostility between the government (especially a top secret group called "Project Cadmus") and some unlikely romantic sparks (or did anyone honestly see the Huntress and the Question as a couple in advance?). We've also had an astonishing degree of continuity, with references back as far as the first season of the Batman animated, and countless tiny plot threads, many probably not even intended by their original authors, picked up and run with.

Well, America, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Canada's YTV has already shown the next four episodes, a four-part epic that brings everything to a head. (The one episode left in this season, "Epilogue", is an obvious afterward, an anti-climax, and shows there next Friday, but since I'll be at The Black Road, I'll review the series now.)

What the US is still to see is a story arc the likes of which was completely unexpected, even with the high-quality work this series has shown from day one. Even the titles were designed to tease and excite JLU fans.

"Question Authority"


"Panic in the Sky"

"Divided We Fall"

Well, if you're a JL fan from, oh, the second season and, say, episodes 37 and 38, you may think you see a thread in those titles. You're right. And you're wrong. You probably went down the path they want you to follow, and if so, they will surprise you at every turn. Dwayne McDuffie, the writer of this arc, proves deft and clever. He also proves to know and care for the DC Universe deeply. This is great TV.

Don't miss it. The next four weeks (and almost certainly five; I don't expect "Epilogue" will disappoint) are ones of the record books.

Posted by ghoul at 11:09 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 18, 2005

Rebooting the Bat

I'm not sure just how to express this. I haven't been this ambivalent about a movie in some time. But I'm just back from Batman Begins and I'm really not sure what I thought of it.

(Very limited spoiling in what follows, but I'll put it behind a fold anyway.)

Is it the first film version of the Batman to really have a coherent theme that fits the main character? No... I think Mask of the Phantasm achieved that, as did Mystery of the Batwoman. Maybe the first live-action movie to manage that feat, but I don't discriminate against animation. So it isn't unique there, and it doesn't even succeed quite as well as its cartoon predecessors, if only because it tries too hard and so drops a few of the many subplots it tries to juggle.

Does it do the best job of the live-action Batman films at keeping the focus on Batman/Bruce Wayne and not on the villains? Sure. But that's saying it's good because it doesn't make the mistakes that trapped others, not because it's actually good itself. Now, it does manage an impressive feat by having an all-star cast but still keep its focus mostly on its main characters, most of whom are lesser names. (And big props to the director for bringing along one of the lesser-known actors from his amazing Memento to give another fantastic supporting performance.) And it does so without forcing the big names into the background, because everyone gets a chance to shine. It's hard to fault the acting of anyone, except perhaps Katie Holmes, but that's more because she has no coherent role in the plot than any glaring problems with her performance.

As many reviews suggest, this film tries to "bring realism to the Batman story" Well, yes, it tries... but in many ways it goes too far with this effort, setting us up with a long prelude (it's easily an hour in before we even glimpse the Batman) of martial arts training sequences; repeated discussions on the nature of Justice, Vigilanteism, Right, etc; demonstrations of military prototype equipment; etc. But then, once the mask goes on, the film lets itself change gears and then action-movie rules apply. Both halves are reasonably well done, but the last sixty minutes of this movie takes place in a very different world from the first sixty, and the twenty in the middle don't manage to explain the changes.

It has very many good points, but it also is too ambitious, trying to be a movie with at least a half-dozen villains. We have two major, name supervillains (both excellently done), one named henchman of unusual skill (with countless unnamed henchfolk), a mob boss (built up too much for how easily he falls down), one name corrupt cop (with countless other unnamed), and the street thug who killed Bruce's parents (thankfully restored to his correct identity from the mistaken merger with the Joker in the Tim Burton Batman). They all have to get built up, they all have to get knocked down... and that's just too much for the film to manage. None of them quite get built up high enough to perform the role of a villain (that is, to make the hero look good when they are beaten). Meanwhile, it also wants to re-tell the Batman origin story (exceptionally well, and including many details often skimmed over, though with a few changes I could do without; the traditionalist in me really wants the Waynes to be leaving a Zorro movie, not the opera), establish its supporting cast (Alfred, Gordon, and a surprisingly good take on Lucius Fox, all of which manage to work because of the talented actors who establish their roles with expert craft even when given only limited screen time), and develop a love story (the most skimped-on subplot, painfully under-developed to the point where it is more distraction than anything else). This is just way too much to do.

And maybe that's why I came away feeling like nothing was quite complete, like there was a lot of good starts put there, but far fewer good ends. It's hard to dislike a film that does so many things as well as this film does, but it has to be admitted that it fails in around a third of what it tries, and some of those failure are painful to sit through, especially when there's so much done so well.

Am I glad this team wants to do another film (in fact, rumor says they want to do two more)? Yes, because I think they have the basics down better than anyone not working for WB's animation division, and because they could probably bring some of their dangled threads to completion with more time. Plus, I like superhero movies that are done well, and this one is done well (or, at least, isn't done poorly like I'm very worried this one will be). Still, this is no Incredibles or Spiderman (I or II).

So, a limited recommendation from me. You may find it too slow, too convoluted, too serious or too silly (and it can be both, depending on which half you're in), but if you like superhero movies, you could do far worse.

Posted by ghoul at 06:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack