Friday, December 13, 2013

Myth Campaign: October 5 through 10, 166 Sword Age

The Road to Ywrmasr

[Update: Blogger tried to eat this post, so I had to republish it. This was originally posted yesterday, before the Desolation of Smaug review.]

Myth, The Shield Age: A dramatic synopsis of the tabletop RPG campaign I'm currently leading my friends through. It's a variation on GURPS, built up from and inspired by the excellent computer game Myth. In it, the player characters begin as a selection of relatively ordinary folk in an unremarkable town. Their adventures grow, the dangers swarm, and the PCs? They pretty much just have to deal with it without serious power progression. It's gritty, it's deadly, it's fantasy with a political and social edge and an emotional timbre: it's Myth: The Shield Age.

Last time I introduced the plot of my GURPS Myth campaign. Today's entry is going to continue Alrid Hock's account of the events at the beginning of the adventure. One of the really fun things about (some) tabletop RPGs that you can't get from a video game is dramatically emergent gameplay. This is purely a function of the interaction of the game and the improvisation of the GM, and in this write-up the improvisation allowed the players to take the reins of the quest and do it on their own terms in a way that genuinely surprised me.

Now as a GM you might be tempted to view this in an adversarial way, like the players are out to destroy your plans. Don't. View this as an opportunity to expand the story to encompass your players' goals. Then twist and corrupt those plans with the harsh reality of consequence and adaptive antagonists. Or use it as a way to create an endearing, tragic NPC that the players not only welcome into their party, but also protect diligently.

Note: This segment begins with a pretty awful implication as the party finds Giselbert about to be set upon by the leader of her captors. This part is very important and also a pretty delicate topic. The threat of sexual assault here was something I carefully weighed against my group's love for Rob Roy, Braveheart, Game of Thrones, etc. where such deplorable acts are inciting plot events. The players' actions in quickly finding Giselbert that night, however, allowed them to prevent the worst of it.

Even so, Danlyra's player's first reaction was "Oh, maybe I don't have what it takes to play a woman in this setting afterall..."

In addition to being a non-traditional and emotional start to a fantasy RPG campaign, this session set up a tenuous balance where the characters constantly abuse their despicable prisoner even as they have to take him in for justice. That's a huge running theme throughout the first leg of this campaign.

A man was in the cave partition with Giselbert. Tall, hale, and dark of skin, this man looked like a Gowern by Ten Green Gem Vine's estimation. He sneered at the intruding blacksmith and Heron Guard, even with his armor and sword set aside. Giselbert had clear been abused.

The brigand went for his sword, a curved eastern blade, and drew it on the two men in a flash. But the young Heron's blooded fangs struck out, one carving into the man's forearm whilst the other divested him of his weapon. Keagan's hammer fist struck out and bandied the villain about the head. The fight done and out of him, the man surrendered to the tips of Ten Green Gem Vine's swords.

With boot and gauntlet, they got a name from him--Guy, if his blood-bubbling words could be believed. The party might have questioned him further, but four bandits lay bleeding and pleading in the front of the cave. Out of mercy and prudence to bring captives to village justice, Ten Green Gem Vine plied their injuries with his Heron ken, and saved three men. While the Heron tended his enemies, Guy began to heckle the distraught Giselbert. Keagan quick had enough, and put Guy's face to the cave wall and boot to earn them all a swift silence.

Donovan's daughter recovered her senses shortly after Guy fell to Keagan's blows, and even helped staunch the gored spear-wound in Crow's side. For all the beating the girl had surely taken, she seemed intact. I have Ten Green Gem Vine's testimony to that fact. He offered to swear as much to Regan, but I declined it. The vow of a Heron Guard is a terrible thing.

There they were, four now made five with Giselbert, and four prisoners under hand. Guy's wounds would leave him in darkness for hours, and one of the bandits that had lost an arm had passed out as well. Crow's wound was well-tended, but the walk back to the village could tear open his wound and leave him dead in his own blood. And too many hours had passed into the dark autumn night, cloaking rock and pit in shadow. So they stayed the night in that den and broke for Misty Downs in the morning.

With the morning's fog the party developed new questions. Guy spat venom and invective at them, and it soon became apparent that Keagan would beat the man to death before he gave useful answers, so Vera gagged him. The bandit who lost his arm, one called Muck or Mook by Guy, answered every question put to him. Apparently, Guy was a deserter from The Legion who had become an infamous bandit in the Realm over the past year. The Gowern had hired Muck and the other bandits with a purse of shillings for a very specific job, plus whatever they could take. At the time none of the bandits knew what a fiend Guy was, but they soon learned. That was all they got from Muck before his arm's feverdreams got the better of him.

Before arriving at Misty Downs, the party oriented themselves to the Craw farm to most swiftly deliver her to her father and brother. The girl ran to her family in tears, while Donovan eyed the group's prisoners. Innocent Giselbert, though, dominated her father's attentions and insisted they take care of Crow, who'd been wounded fighting her captors. Donovan agreed and sent his son Laanor to help with escorting the prisoners to the village.

It was near midday when the party ambled into town, and the cry amongst our village was great. Laanor immediately began telling an exaggerated tale of the bravery of his sister's rescuers, and as I assembled the village council the matter was made fodder for the gossips. Nara Pugh, however, insisted on calling upon the divines before passing her judgment. Over the next day, our village recovered and celebrated, while the four prisoners awaited their fate in the cellar of the Flooded Downs tavern. When Nara called the council the next day, she related a vision of stars converging around The Great Comet and of a blood moon. We agreed it was a sign that these prisoners were part of some greater plot, and so they needed to be brought into higher scrutiny.

But first, they needed to be saved. Ten Green Gem Vine's knowledge of medicine may have patched wounds and staunched bleeding, but Muck and another of the bandits were bleeding out, and Guy had been pressed with questions to the point of death. Afraid their portent would pass away with them, we ordered a company of our village's men to escort them to Fort Ywrmasr on the frontier of The Barrier, a day north.

Before the prisoners were brought up from the cellar, Ten Green Gem Vine addressed the village in the square. In my years in The Legion, I have fought and served alongside many Heron Guard. They are all valorous and inspiring. Ten Green Gem Vine rallied our village like a commander marshaling his standard. Of our village's seventy houses, thirteen men stepped forward to see the task done. Amongst them were Vera the huntress, Crow the vagabond, Keagan the blacksmith, and Danlyra the Gowerna. At Danlyra's volunteering, my hot-blooded grandson, Baith, pledged his mettle. And at the end Laanor Craw, brother to the girl Giselbert, stepped out from his father's side and bound himself to the task as well. But most surprising of all was when Tiernan Seithkarl, Magistrate of Misty Downs, pledged to lead the expedition.

The Magistrate is a good man, but his ways are quite unlike ours. He rips the clouds with his nose, wearing fine clothes in the spring fields and glutting over every meal. To see him pledge to lead the expedition was a surprise to all the council. But his authority over our village would extend to any requests made of the garrison at Fort Ywrmasr. He packed up several books into a fine leather traveling bag and threw an extra week's worth of provisions onto the blacksmith's donkey as they headed out.

Traveling to Fort Ywrmasr takes about a day for a man with light burdens. For the Magistrate's assembly, bringing four wounded captives, it would take longer. The blacksmith's donkey pulled a simple two-wheeled cart along for Muck and carried much of the group's provisions. The Gowerna Danlyra profanely rode her horse for the duration, acting the maggot in our country. In all, it took two days of slow progress to reach the fort, and it was not uneventful.

In the middle of the night, with but one of the farmers on watch, the party awoke to the sound of nuzzling followed by shrieks coming from the cart. A wolf had wandered silently into the camp and was worrying open Muck's bloody legs. The crippled bandit lay sobbing and panicking as the party threw themselves upon the beast. Keagan Na Anyon ran the beast through, spitting it upon the thrust of his broadsword, and Ten Green Gem Vine tended to Muck as his blood muddied the soil anew. He needed the attention of Journeymen now more than ever, and of the band of captives he deserved it most. In the morning, Keagan had Seth Drafend skin the wolf and prepare the hide in exchange for letting the huntsman keep the meat.

Misty Downs' expedition reached Fort Ywrmasr in the cooling light of the next afternoon. Crossing a military foot bridge, the group took great care leading Keagan's burro across. Legion engineers make carefully-designed foot bridges surrounding their frontier forts. They are designed to permit only a few men wearing heavy armor at a time, enabling the bridge to crumble under the weight of massed hordes or easing sappers' deconstruction of such edifices in battle. And while the ass pulled the near-dead prisoner across the small bridge amicably, Danlyra's fine-bred horse balked at the creaking timbers of the flexing construction. I am told she had to coax the beast like a mangy dog to cross, much to my villagers' amusement.

They arrived at the fort late on the ninth of October. Ten Green Gem Vine quickly conducted Magistrate Seithkarl to treat with the fort's commander, an older Heron Guard named Seven Eagle Falling Sun. Quickly making the matter plain to him, the fort commander dispatched the fort's Journeymen to tend to the prisoners.

Magistrate Seithkarl didn't come forward with his account of the Journeymen's art and none of the others bore witness to it, but in my time in The Legion I have seen senior Heron Guard treat similar wounds. They intone a deep throaty song, lost words in deep sonorous notes that shake your core. Then they break roots of the mandrake over the men, from which blue smoke pours and falls onto the men's wounds. The cut and festering flesh sizzles and burns, filling the nostrils with the acrid stink of burning men--an odor that parches my blood to this day. The patient feels everything as the magic peels back skin and dissolves torn sinew, devouring the flesh until the original wound is replaced completely with a new one. It is only then that the curative magic knits the newly exposed muscles and tendons, drawing the meat to grow and fill the gouges and gore of battle. The blessed arts taught to the Guard by Regan himself can even reattach limbs under the right circumstance. But the healing magic is never complete--only time can sponge away the last injury. The wound is always left as a raw, tender sore that is inured to infection but susceptible to re-opening. The scar that remains is clean and distinct.

With the prisoners tended to, the Magistrate worked with Seven Eagle Falling Sun to determine the fate of the prisoners. With three companies under the Oghre Standard beneath his command, the fort commander could not spare men for our village's quest, but he did offer to judge the three bandits and allow the Magistrate's party to keep custody over Guy to bring him before the Emperor. Despite Muck's willingness to help the group, Tiernan had no more use for the crippled brigand. Ten Green Gem Vine supported the decision, but Keagan, Vera, and Danlyra all pointed out that the fort commander would surely summarily execute the brigands within a week. Tiernan reminded them that he who pays the piper calls the tune, and thereby sealed the bandits' fate. They would be left at Fort Ywrmasr.

On the following day, the party set out to return to Misty Downs with a restored Guy in their thrall, though with his health largely restored they decided to gag the brigand. They made good time that day, but still they had to make camp before reaching home. That night was a restless one of ill-omens and poor sleep. Ten Green Gem Vine stood the second watch along with young Laanor Craw, though it seemed more than the suddenly docile prisoner merited.

Ten Green Gem Vine rousted the rest of the party with a terrible start. And they quickly discovered that not only had Guy somehow slipped his bonds but he had also spirited away with Laanor Craw. As the final hours of October tenth waned, the party assembled in darkness and set out to hunt down the villain once more.
Gowern: a man of Gower, a hilly kingdom to the east, part of the Empire. Fem. is Gowerna.

Gower is superficially similar to a medieval Middle East: defined by steppes and scrub-land, with dark creatures frequently wandering out of the far east and attacking their settlements.

Keagan will be freely beating Guy quite a bit in this campaign.

Regan: the Heron god, patron of the Heron Guard. Protector of wisdom and longevity.

"The vow of a Heron Guard is a terrible thing." -That's called foreshadowing, kiddos.

This first post-battle sequence was my chance to remind the players of how deadly combat was, and to also give them a chance to see how difficult first aid would be in a combat situation.

I also wanted to establish here that the players could expect to get sympathetic portrayals of characters they'd be tempted to label "bad guys". Muck proves to be helpful, but things don't pan out for him.

These first few sessions of the campaign were extremely emergent in terms of the players helping to guide the plot to delve into certain themes. Characters that had originally been throw-away NPCs to illustrate the dynamics of the game and setting, both Laanor Craw and Baith Hock become important figures in the campaign. My players like Laanor quite a lot, but I'm a sucker for the idiot romantic in Baith.

More emergent gameplay: Ten's player made a great speech calling the men of the village to action, then made a great roll on top of that. Bam, all of a sudden they have a party of commoners helping them along. That can only be a good thing, right?

Rips the clouds with his nose: he's arrogant. An expression of The Realm.

One of the core features/mysteries of my take on the Myth setting is that Emperor Alric has never ridden a horse or used cavalry in any way. No one knows why, but in the patriotic Realm everyone assumes that riding horses is bad in some way, or at least unpatriotic.

Acting the maggot: behaving foolishly. An expression of The Realm.

Wolf attack! I love wolves, and this was a great chance to let the players know that random events would also be present. Of course, if the party had been smaller, an entire wolf pack would've attacked them. But as it is, only one was brave enough to sneak past so many people.

Sketch of Fort Ywrmasr scribbled out by me during player character creation. Inspired by Roman motte and bailey forts used to fortify barbarian Europe.

Yes, all Heron Guard have funny names. And it is an insult and bad omen to give them nicknames. So nyah.

Parches the blood: to make afraid. An expression of The Realm. (I told you I gave everyone a colloquialism and culture sheet, right?)

I hate healing potions. I want players to have scars, to favor bad legs, and to fear the long-term effects of wounds they survive. So even though the Heron Guard have miraculous healing magic, I wanted the cost of that magic to be somewhat horrific. If you have a minor wound, you certainly don't want a Journeyman to look at it. (Description inspired by a foot incident I had back in my college days.)

He who pays the piper calls the tune: he who has the gold makes the rules. An expression of The Realm.

I told you things didn't pan out well for Muck. It gave me a sadistic GM happy to see my player grimace as I revealed the helpful NPC they'd saved had no life worth saving. Good times.

Wow, so congratulations on making it this far. I know that was a pretty mammoth wall of text, but a lot of the details of these early sessions are really important to later characterizations and themes. This covered a little more than two game sessions, too. And yes, that means that one session featured no fun violence except for a little wolf-slaying. That's how I roll as a GM, yo. Deal with my thespy nerdiness.

And as you should be well aware, tomorrow is the release of The Desolation of Smaug, the second installment in The Hobbit trilogy. Accordingly, I've got a crazy few hours ahead of me. Here's and overview:

8-10PM crash period. Nerd poppa needs sleep, occasionally. Or at least time laying down and mopily surfing the net on my Powerbook while watching kids' programming.
10-11PM critical caffeine period. Mountain Dew goes here. Just like being a punk kid all over again.

11-12AM go to movie theater. As a bonus, I use this pre-show time to creep people out by bringing a notepad to the movies. Few things are as disturbing to movie goers as to bring writing utensils to a film. "What're you going to do with that?" "I'm gonna manually bootleg the script, fool."

12-3:30AM watch Desolation of Smaug. This is the phase where I watch the film. Gripping, no?

3:30-4:30AM hangout and post nerdview. Just for the heck of it, I'm going to put up a link to a Google Hangout while I work on my nerdview post of the movie. If you're insane enough to want to join me in a little red-eye post-movie discussion while I type out my thoughts, watch my Google+ and Facebook pages for the link to be posted.

Desolation of Smaug

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

Oh my, it is late. I'm not talking about the hour either. I'm talking about the crushing realization that I didn't do a nerdview of last year's An Unexpected Journey. Whatthefrak, nerd? Well, last year's failings aside, here's a toasty nerdview of the second film in The Hobbit trilogy.

Expectations 'Odor': I was not blown away by the first installment of The Hobbit. I didn't hate it, but the fact that I wasn't rushing to review it last year is really damning evidence that the movie just wasn't that spectacular. (Did I really not review it?! What planet is this? Am I just losing it after one midnight showing too many?) An Unexpected Journey didn't have the same heart as each movie of The Lord Of The Rings, and too much of the story felt compromised for flashy additions to the world and total BS action sequences. The skiing derrick down the rock face of the goblin caves was especially eyeroll-inducing. I didn't like the abundance of CG baddies--especially the George Lucas Goblin King that was just outright gross. And they didn't include "fifteen birds in five fir trees", which I had already said I really really wanted to see included.

But this next movie stands to include so much more that I'm excited about. Mirkwood and Thranduil's creepy elves. Laketown and Bard the badass the bowman. Erebor revealed. Mega Nibelungenlied imagery. The battle with Smaug over Laketown.

And, if I'm honest, I'm intrigued by the inclusion of an auburn-haired elf-maiden. And by intrigued I mean, intrigued…

But seriously, I expect Bard to really shine as a common man hero in this film, taking the spotlight completely from Thorin and maybe even Bilbo. I want Smaug to be intelligently scary. But I want them to tone-down the over-the-top BS of the first Hobbit film and stick closer to believable, visceral action. An Unexpected Journey had very few action sequences that weren't cartoonishly unbelievable. And while you could say that this is deliberate because the films are actually a recreation of Bilbo's book, that's not highlighted as a theme of the movie and is a poor excuse to make such ham-handed glittery special effects pieces instead of real hands-on fights like the ones that made The Lord of the Rings popular. Overall, I want a film guided by a more controlled and focused plot than last year's film.

Appreciation 'Beef': Well, frak that feldercarb.

No, seriously. Bad bad badness.

First let me begin with a non-spoiler spoiler alert. This movie is pointless. I am totally going to spoil the crap out of this movie in the course of this review because none of the so-called plot movements actually matter and there's no real dynamic--no change--to the characters or setting in this film. It is seriously just a long piece of exposition to get us to the third movie.

Before I really let into the movie, though, let me get the good stuff out of the way. The opening of the film is interesting, showing a scene based on Tolkien's notes that shows Gandalf was the one to strong-arm Thorin into starting his quest for the Lonely Mountain. That's followed by a nice bit with Beorn, a shape-shifting bear/Liam Neeson type. But the film starts to dip with the spiders of Mirkwood sequence--it's well-done, but it's too long compared to how rushed most of the film is, and the fighting begins to get implausible here. Characters repeatedly free-fall from hundred-foot tall trees only to be conveniently caught by spider webs, just-right branches, or outright plot protection.

Bard is cool, and is probably the only character in the film that is worthy of his depiction in the book. That's not to say that he's faithfully adapted from the book--not even close--but he is at least as cool as the literary Bard the bowman, and just what I'd hoped from him. I do think that Thorin, Bard, and Kili look way too much alike, though, and considering Thorin should have like at least one foot of beard this is just salt in the wound. Luke Evans plays Bard perfectly and he looks the part, but coming in alongside Thorin the visual similarities tend to wash him out as a tag-along.

Let me spell it out: Thorin Oakenshield uses his beard as a measurement of masculinity in the books. He wishes people well by saying stuff like "may your beard grow ever longer". We should have no clue what his cheeks look like because it should be underneath three pounds of beard.

Of course, Bard is also mired in the middle of one of the dumbest settings in the movie: Laketown. Rather than being a hardy bastion of men living in the wet blindspot of Smaug, the Laketown of the movie is a frigid derrick of the same Tudor-style buildings we saw in Bree except suspended over water. The culture is soulless and the people accordingly bland to the point where no one even seems to register that they're living under the tyranny of the most toothlessly impotent mayor ever. I might consider this a dramatic criticism of society if the police state imagery was consistently realized, but the town guards only come out to prolong the plot of a film that is mostly filler. Bard makes a big deal out of needing to smuggle the dwarves into Laketown--which was no problem in the book--and the sequence of him bringing them in is good for a little tension. But later in the movie, a band of thirty orcs in armor and two elves just show up in Laketown without any mention of how they did so or any recognition from the rest of the town at all. Seriously, with orcs jumping across the rooftops of the town for like twenty minutes in the middle of the night, no one seemed to notice. When I'm in my basement and my toddler's running around in his room, I hear it above me like a sack of potatoes being bounced around a port-a-potty. I think thirty armored orcs would be slightly less stealthy than my two year-old son, as hard as that may be to imagine.

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is hot without showing any skin. Here endeth the nice part about her character. Tauriel is the dumbest, least articulate, reactionary, over-powered Mary Sue sleaze I can recall from any movie ever. An "original" character forced into the plot of the movie, they decide that in order to make us like her she should be better than everyone at everything. She out-BSes Legolas in terms of absurdly super-powered shots and moves. Like shooting an Orc's arrow out of the air to save Legolas. She also heals Kili from a Morgul wound with so much ease that it makes Elrond look like a stuttering poseur rather than a three thousand year-old sage. And when she meets Kili, she immediately puts on the googly-eyes at him and proceeds down a clumsy romance sub-plot that ends with her being the worst person ever.

Before I explain that, though, let me spell out another gem of truth from Tolkien's Middle-Earth: elves and dwarves do not get along. Gimli and Legolas' friendship is supposed to be a historic exception by a wide margin. Let alone romantic compatibility--labradors do not mate with spaniels, so to speak, in Tolkien's books. Heck, human-elf pairings are so rare in the setting that every one of them is well-known and eminently proven to be a bad idea. That's the whole subtext of the tension in Aragorn and Arwen's relationship--which was a century-long courtship that was still awkward for them.

Anyways, back to how Tauriel's randiness ends up making her the worst person ever. So after getting all oo-lala over Kili, Tauriel meets with Thranduil, Legolas' d-bag lush of a father. Thranduil, tells Tauriel that Legolas wants her bad, but he won't let his son get his elf on because Tauriel is a common elf. She acts hurt by this even though she was just checking out the dwarf meat she tossed in the dungeon. Later, when Kili is wounded while escaping Mirkwood, she abandons her home to try to catch up to him and help him. When Legolas, too dumb to know better, follows her she immediately smirks and wiggles her nose at him, saying she knew he'd follow her and help. Yeah--she leads on the prince of the elves to get him to commit treason all in an effort to save the dwarf hunk she met one day before. Then, when they finally catch up to the dwarves, Tauriel ditches Legolas in the middle of a fight to go play doctor with her favorite beardy-boy.

Worst. Person. Ever. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh included her as a tack-on character to try to give the film some grrrl power, and instead they made a cliched slander against the entire female sex.

There are more BS moments throughout the film, but one of the biggest is molten gold apparently having a melting temperature of Hershey's chocolate. First, century-old kilns full of gold are melted faster than defrosting a Thanksgiving turkey. Then Thorin rides a river of molten gold on a metal bucket with his bare hands inches from the molten ore. Finally, Smaug gets completely submerged in it and hops out as easily as a kid getting out of a hot-tub.

What began as a hopeful improvement on the first film quickly slides down into every mistake made by the first movie. The drama is drowned out by over-the-top posturing and wide angle shots, ensuring that you can't even see the actor's expressions during the most tense moments. There is no close up face-twitching drama of Denethor's hall in this flick, just shouting in front of beautiful backdrops. The fight sequences are dazzling displays of special effects with no practical integration to make it feel real or plausible. It's so bad that Gandalf's encounter with the Necromancer is literally him standing still, staff upraised while putting out a Sue Storm shield of white light while a shadow shrinks his personal bubble.


Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Oh man, I think you can guess I did not enjoy this flick too much. Amongst its many flaws, this film indulges in way too many Byrne holds for any one plot to bear. A Byrne hold, named after comic artist John Byrne, is when a character holds another aloft by the throat. It's a moment of abject helplessness, where the victim is spared from death only by the capriciousness of the one holding their throat. And usually the only reason the villain doesn't snap their neck then and there is because of bad writing--the writer needs the victim to survive, so the victor hesitates for no good reason.

In this movie, we have 13 dwarves, Bilbo, Gandalf, Tauriel, and Legolas who all directly fight bad guys throughout the movie. The antagonists have Azog (the white orc), Bolg (his strapping son), Smaug the dragon, and the Necromancer. All of them engage in personal combat at least once in the movie. Bolg several times. None of these characters die in the course of the film. Twenty-one principal characters all actively fighting and trying to kill each other in a three hour film: no one succeeds. And when you remember that most of these characters were in An Unexpected Journey, you have the worst kill ratio of all storytelling time. And that's not for being able to. For fully one half of the movie, Azog and the Necromancer could easily execute Gandalf but don't because of the Byrne hold effect. The dwarves dump a dwarven statue of liberty's worth of molten gold on Smaug, and he not only isn't wounded by the attack but he also doesn't kill them as he so easily could at that point. Smaug's entire conversation with Bilbo is twisted from the casual biplay of the book to be "I am totally going to kill you, but I won't just yet…cuz." It's infuriatingly stupid and I can't comprehend how we're supposed to be engrossed in this action when every character is plot-protected anyways. Heck, a mortally-wounded Kili falls down a circular staircase with an armload of swords and axes and he even makes it to the ending credits. It's an absurd lantern hanging on the fact that these characters are invulnerable to stupid flashy plot twists until the third movie, at which point two-thirds of them will die. The only character they could have been killed off in this movie, but wasn't, was Tauriel. And she's never in any peril in the film because she's superwoman.

I've got a lot of other issues with this film, many of them relating to comparisons between the book and the film, but these ones are just issues of a clumsy movie itself. The film has no natural arc--no beginning, middle, and end, no development of the characters. Though we did get some of that in the previous film, this one just throws "action" and scenery at us until it ends in the most unforgivable manner possible--in the middle of a fight.

This movie was supposed to be about Smaug, yet he wasn't in half of it and he survived the non-climax of the film. Not to be dramatic, but I wouldn't blame anyone wanting their money back.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese'This film stretches my goal as a reviewer--I'm not sure someone reading my words would decide to see the movie. Unless their mind was already made up, of course. And I think I'm happy about that. This is the sort of big-budget clusterfudge that I use to weed out bad reviewers in my own reading. See someone who liked this film? Idiot. Complimented its pacing? Hack.

Now, I'm not saying you can't enjoy this film. I'm really not. I think people with no love for the book and a sort of Harry Potter expectation of events could enjoy what they see. But for people who love the first trilogy and even merely like the books, I don't see how they could enjoy it. And I don't see how anyone at all could honestly look at this movie and say it was really necessary for anything more than introducing a few elements that could have been elegantly fit into the other two movies.

Then again, Peter Jackson doesn't seem to know about elegance anymore. Like Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim or George Lucas when making his prequel trilogy, he seems lost in a sea of funding and yes-men glad-handing along his bad ideas.

So not worth an all-nighter.

Yeah, desolate is right

Saturday, November 23, 2013

It's a-Me, Stereotype-io...

In 1993, one of the very first, and worst, video-game-to-movie adaptations were made. That movie was Super Mario Bros. And boy, was it a pile.

So I should start off that this isn't a Nerdview. My Nerdviews are meant to be exemplars of professional reviews, and a key trait of them is that anyone should be able to read one of my reviews and come to a contrary opinion of the movie. A fair, well-explained and contextualized review should allow for people who have opposing tastes to mine. A review should not tell people whether they should or shouldn't enjoy a movie, but whether they're likely to enjoy it or not. That's an important distinction, as nuanced as it is.

So this is not a review, because I'm going to flat out say it: you should not see this movie, unless you need to cure yourself of optimism for the video-game-to-movie franchise. In that case, Dr. Ben will prescribe 200cc of Super Mario Bros after eating--because it will ruin your appetite.

First of all, the plot of the movie was a mess. Inspired by the cartoony idyllic landscapes of the games, the plot naturally transplants the protagonists in a formless cyberpunk world of super-pollution and made Dennis Hopper King Koopa, the sleazier-than-usual president of a parallel dimension where humans descended from dinosaurs. Mario, played by the awesome Bob Hoskins, is dragged along by his brother Luigi, played by the toothy John Leguizamo, as they chase Luigi's best-girl Daisy across the ick-dimension. Daisy, played by Punisher-wife Samantha Mathis, turns out to be the long-lost princess of the suck-dimension, and for arbitrary reasons that makes her the key to Koopa uniting the dimensions and make him the de-facto ruler of both worlds. There's a lot of cheap fights with the most ridiculous little-headed goons of all time, a devolving-weapon that reduced Daisy's father into a fungus and other political enemies into goombas,  and the super-jump gimmick of the game is a pair of jump-jet boots that elicit some of the worst wire work in the genre.

The awkwardness of this screenshot is seconded only by the film's total fail.

Just reviewing my recollection of the film, I'm asking a dozen why's all over again. Why is Mario the punk of the plot? He's not initiating the action, central to the plot's conceit, or even getting the girl in the end. Why make King Koopa the president of a dystopian bolthole of retarded dino-men? How is that more plausible than a naturalistic fantasy land of colorful critters? And president, really? Way to make the story more accessible to the 7-12 year-old age range you were shooting for with your film. I'm sure they'll appreciate the mock election posters and "environmentalist" message.

See that "elect Koopa" poster? That makes it edgy.
Being edgy distracts from the stink, right?

Probably the biggest travesty of this film is that Bob Hoskins is actually good. As far as the cringe-worthy script and head-poundingly dumb directing lets him go, that is. He pulls off the swaggering of a Brooklyn plumber-turned-reluctant-attache-to-the-hero with his natural aplomb. And with this coming two years after his role as Smee in Hook and five years after starring in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I think he was positioning himself to play more kid-oriented roles. And then this was inflicted on his resume, the poor bastard. The production values around his veteran performance are just staggeringly bad when you bear in mind that this movie came after Terminator 2 championed early computer-generated effects and Aliens showed how effective purely practical effects could be. Not to mention that a little over a year later, Jurassic Park would be coming out and really rubbing our noses in how pathetic this movie's effects were.

The uber-intimidating badguys

Now, at the time, I'm sure every decision to deviate from the source material of the games was made on the assumption that literally depicting the game would be unbelievable to audiences. But in moving away from a surrealistic world that was already completely familiar and plausible to the target audience, the inept filmmakers made something that highlighted its own stupidity and failed to live up to the consistency of a cartoon world.

Yeah, burned.

But you can make something that starts with a familiar, real-world palette and then successively introduce fantastic elements that bring it even closer in line with the source material. And in so doing, you could make a Super Mario Bros movie that is both fairly faithful to the games and yet still accessible to non-gaming audiences.

As an example, and to apologize for dredging up bad memories of Super Marios Bros, I present to you: The Four Players.

I love this video, which depicts Mario as a gruff everyman who sort of goes through a more mundane Mr. Incredible workout routine to become the block-smashing bruiser of the game's stories. Just the label of 'the fixer' evokes many of my favorite hero tropes. Mario isn't just a happy Eye-talian--he's a hard-nosed man you count on to snake your toilets and rescue the princess.


Alright, I'm not crazy about Luigi going full pyro at the end there. If he would've stuck with breathing fire, or even just being a nutso pyromaniac loading up a rucksack of flower-powered molotov cocktails, would have felt much more natural to me. That said, I love the juxtaposition of Luigi as the strung-out bad brother who only reluctantly gets his act together when straight-shooter Mario comes a-calling. And who doesn't love the blunt characterization and drama of a well-done support group confession?

I need to watch You Kill Me sometime soon.

So I'll admit, that when Peach started singing, I was ready to roll my eyes. But cutting between the idealized club setting of the song and the 24-worthy torture scenes was genius and by the time the music crescendo'd, I was digging the song both on its own merits and for being so epically moving given this woman's circumstance.

Although regaining the fingers was kind of a cop-out, in my opinion. I like consequences in my story-telling, and I think an eight-fingered Peach would subvert the classic princess trope completely. When flesh-eating piranha eat your fingers off, they stay ate.

(Alright, now I'm getting sissy-weepy re-watching the video…)

Toad here as the soldier, is one of the most game-accurate visions of the character, but at the same time he's totally rocking the Guillermo Del Toro vibe. I could just see him riding a giant frog from beneath that tree in Pan's Labyrinth. Yoshi, anyone? Anyways, I'm a big fan of underpowered characters that get brutalized by their own heroism, so giving him the green mushroom (which gives an extra life in the games) is a great way to characterize the fanatically loyal soldier.

So there you go, cynics. You can make a video game adaptation from a really sparse, cartoony game and actually make something with film-worthy drama and consistency. It just doesn't happen. But at least we have awesome fan trailers to give us hope every once in a while.

Have a good weekend, nerds.

So so so wrong
(Oh, and Luigi should have a mustache. Nerdery out.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

New Mandate Trailer

I've talked about The Mandate a couple of weeks ago, but I couldn't wait till the weekend to blog about this latest update on the Romanovs-in-space epic. Perihelion Games has released a cool new trailer for their game, featuring Brit David Bradley doing a kickin' voice-over as Admiral Suvarov for an incredibly enticing trailer for the in-development space epic. Now, I'm not familiar with David Bradley (I'm not a fan of Harry Potter or Doctor Who, and I'm too scared of fleshy bits to watch Game of Thrones), but apparently he's got about six miles of nerd-cred. For me, he sounds a heck of a lot like Adam Nicolson, British author of the book examining Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, Seize The Fire. (I absolutely love that book, and Nicholson's wry English consonants most recently accompanied me on a kind of creepy bus ride from Indianapolis to Chicago last summer.)

In addition to the awesome VO quality that we're going to get for this sci-fi gem, I just love the tone they establish in this game. This is going to be a game where NPCs aren't just faceless meeples that you stat-grind as a parallel leveling mechanic--they're an engaging, dynamic, and fragile element of the game. They're your friends and your resources, and nothing you do can shield them from the risk that entails. Your crew will suffer losses, and the way you manage that loss on a dramatic and tactical level is going to be a central gameplay mechanic. It is very Nelsonian in that way, which grabs me all the right ways. (Seriously, check out Seize The Fire--the author-read audio book at least.)

It also makes me think of how exciting and avant-garde Mass Effect was going to be back in the days leading up to the first game's release. In particular, there was this commercial spot that still resonates with me to this day:

The idea of having mutually exclusive, NPC-destroying, time-based decisions to make is so much fun, and we never quite got the pay off in Mass Effect that the above commercial promised. Each game had very specific set-piece decisions that would very transparently give you a choice to kill person X or Y, but it never made it a heavy, pressed-for-time, combat-based choice like you get from this 48 second commercial. The first Mass Effect came close with the Virmire decision, but that still was a very canned moment. No matter how many times your NPCs got railgunned to the face, they were immune to any real injury until the script suddenly decided they were mortal.

With The Mandate, though, they're repeatedly stressing that every time your ship's hull tears open, you're losing crew, and that loss will not only potentially kill off individual characters, but having to replace or evaluate crew will impact the character of your ship and your character. This dynamic will make it where even the most assured victories will still have weight, as you try to grab as much power as you can without losing critical crew.

Oh, man, if this game doesn't get funded to the moon and back, I will be so disappointed in you, internet.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Agents of SHIELD (First 6 Episodes)

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the Nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

This is my first review Nerdview of a television series, and as such it's perfectly appropriate that I weigh in on the latest Marvel media property: Agents of SHIELD. I've got several other more important projects on the blog-burner right now, but this is probably the most immediately timely, as I can actually sound off on the series in the middle of its first season.

Expectations 'Odor': If you read my blog post earlier this summer, then you know that I've been looking forward to Agents of SHIELD for some time. I love the way SHIELD stories interweave the greatest characters and plots of the Marvel universe into a coherent story, especially in the post Civil War continuity (which at some point in the future I'll probably cover for those who aren't Marvel-fans). Secret War in particular was a great mini-series that showed how SHIELD and The Man push around superheroes to make the world safer--whether they like it or not. In particular, I like the SHIELD stories that expound on the ways mundane or low-powered agents of SHIELD are able to stand on the same field as Hulk and Iron Man. Sure, individual SHIELD goons don't last, but as an organization it pulls the strings of many of the heroes in the Marvel universe while still being a fundamentally mundane organization. As a fan of watching little guys push big guys around, it resonates.

So with Agents of SHIELD I want to see at least a bit more development of that theme: what place do NSA-types in suits have in a world of girder-grinding, lightning-throwing, super-sonic super-humans? But I also know that what we've got here is also a Joss Whedon series, and with that we're pretty much guaranteed several specific elements. First, that means a women-heavy cast of primaries, women warriors, and not necessarily in in believable roles or casting. I mean, Eliza Dushku kicking more butt than Tahmoh Penikett in Dollhouse--the heck?! Second, it means that disestablishment themes are probably going to either erode this version of SHIELD, or the team will be some sort of Black Ops splinter group to maintain Whedon's happy for rogue heroes. Third--and this is really something to be excited about--it means that the show will probably have different ages played on-screen and in the plots. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had Giles' personal life and character growth become a significant plot thread while also making us endure Buffy-as-waitress type plots. Firefly had Book alongside Kayleigh and River. Even Dollhouse, which revolved around brainwashed youth themes, showcased a lot of drama amongst the middle-aged conspirators being mocked by their own vapid creations. In Agents of SHIELD, then, we can look forward to Coulson and the youngest agents having distinct characterization and focuses in the meta-plot of the series.

But do I think Agents of SHIELD will be good? Yes. Great? Honestly, maybe. Just maybe. Because there's one element that I think could make a SHIELD show superb that I don't think Whedon would ever touch: the procedural. The thrill of investigation, of plots having certain core steps repeating to represent that the characters are in fact doing their jobs and not looking for this week's interesting thing. The Mentalist, Law & Order, and detective classic shows like Columbo are all great procedural series. In those shows you're guaranteed certain steps to get thrown into the matrix of a new mystery for nearly every episode, and it works. The most critical procedural to compare to Agents of SHIELD, of course, is The X-Files. Even though The X-Files featured outlandish plots, special effects monsters, and conspiracy theories, most of the episodes fell into a procedural format that established that even in the BS-filled land of The X-Files, they were still part of the FBI, which was a job and an organization that stretched beyond the cast of the show. Heck, they even had a petite warrior-woman mismatched with a physically uninspiring nerdy guy, all the better for Whedon to take notes.

But at least it won't be Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.

Appreciation 'Beef': Bumbly bumbly bump. What's that? Oh, Agents of SHIELD is on? I mean, we're six episodes in and I'm still waiting for it to get started. I feel like these first six episodes have been part of a long, exceptionally badly-paced pilot episode. The writing is weak with only brief commercial-length moments of good scripting. The cast ranges from sublime to bland all the way down to absurdly annoying.

"As a fan of watching little guys push big guys around, it resonates."

In terms of the greater plot of the show, they've introduced a good number of elements from the greater Marvel universe, with Extremis, (proto-)Graviton, and the Chitauri being featured in the show so far. I'd probably suggest they slow down with their inclusion of these diverse elements, taking their time to establish more drama and mystery around them, but for the most part these kinds of Easter eggs are the most exciting thing in the show for Marvel-philes like me.

The action is fairly well-done, with Ming-Na Wen pulling off the physicality of warrior-woman Melinda May capably. Brett Dalton as Agent Grant Ward definitely does a better job of selling his stunts and action, but that's to be expected. So far two of the six episodes aired ("Girl in the Flower Dress" and "FZZT") have not featured much traditional action, and that's a positive trend I'd like to see emphasized in this series. In a world of superpowers and eldritch gadgets, combat should be brief and deadly, and there's a very real trend towards inserting bland fist fights to pad out the show where drama and actual investigation should sit.

Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson is great, and when he's actually placed in a scene where he gets to chew the scenery a bit, it's awesome. His moment with the terminally ill firefighter in FZZT was a gripping bit of drama that helped shed a little light on his seemingly spastic behavior--he's a man crushed by his own brush with death. I think the mystery around his revival/resurrection/reboot is a bit over-played, but since it is the only real over-arching mystery of the show right now, I guess I'll have to take it.

The rest of the roster, though, makes very little sense. First of all, six principal characters always feels light to me. (Heck, if you include Zordon and Alpha Five, the Power Rangers show started out with seven.) And that tiny roster is exaggerated by the red shirts of this show who are so paper-thinly developed that names and characterization are hardly ever given. In "Eye Spy" and "Girl in the Flower Dress" there are way too many scenes where there's no one on screen except two or three main characters, which is silly when you stop to consider the enormity of these plots, SHIELD itself, or even the density of SHIELD personnel in the movies. You can try to justify it by saying they need a small independent team or whatever handwaving goo-gawing you want, but in the end it's just a way to cheap out on production costs with a smaller cast, and it shows. Heck, half the episodes don't even show an actual flight crew for the massive plane they fly around--and if that bird can be managed by a lone pilot and no flight crew, then I'm a body double for Chris Hemsworth.

(I'm not, by the way.)

Setting the light weight of SHIELD in the show aside, though, the simple composition of the team is ridiculous, both in a contextual sense for the purpose of the team and in a meta-textual sense for the purpose of the show. They have a combat-competent leader in Coulson, but his almost petulant need to flout the regs is pretty vain since the show doesn't seem to have a boss for him to report to and have conflict with. As it is, having Coulson as leader constantly have to explain himself to basically all of his subordinates is not only tiresome, it's eminently stupid. Agent Ward is pretty strait-laced for a SHIELD agent type, but in a group full of recalcitrant misfits he ends up being either a sullen by-the-book regs-thumper or broody pretty boy by way of compensation. Melinda May is also very capable in combat, but reluctantly so due to her unexamined backstory. And in any case she's the only character we've seen piloting their plane, so the lady should be sitting in the plane most of the time anyways. Fitz and Simmons are a victim of their own silly premise--both annoyingly interchangeable, mutually-dependent, and inept at combat. The plot of "FZZT" revolves around the two characters being plot clones of each other, highlighting how they're doubly tiresome. So all in all, we have a SHIELD roster of a six person team with only three combat effective members, two of which do not ordinarily want to be in potential combat situations, and two who are incredible liabilities in combat situations.

"...we're six episodes in and I'm still waiting for it to get started."

And then there's the sixth member of the team: Skye. Skye is a former info-terrorist hacker the team brings on…'cuz. Normally a television show brings an outsider into a team of specialists to give the audience--also outsiders--a sympathetic window into the specialists' world. I call this a schlub (see my post on Gerard Butler for another example), and Agents of SHIELD has no need for a schlub, because everyone is largely ignorant or obtuse to each other team member's area of responsibility. So what does Skye bring to the team? Smug uselessness and pathetic attempts to be sexy with a smoker's voice? At first I thought they'd use her to introduce a sinister traitor meta-plot to define the first season, as it was clear she was maintaining contact with her Rising Tide info-terrorist group. Instead, that betrayal plot gets ham-handed four episodes in with the revelation that she was just doing it for her boyfriend, and that her acts of treason that got federal agents killed were mitigated by her stupid hormonal love connection. Not only do Coulson, Fitz-Simmons, and the plot itself give Skye a pass on her crimes, but the cast collectively tells Agent Ward to just get over it by the next episode. What was the point of introducing the betrayal and treason plot if the end result was to ditch it at the earliest and clumsiest opportunity?

Ugh. I can rant about Skye all night, but I won't. I will just sum up with this thought. The crew of the Serenity, assembled by luck and lowest-bidding to accomplish odd-jobs of the criminal underworld, was better selected, more disciplined, and more capable of addressing most SHIELD-oriented threats than the team in Agents of SHIELD. They had four combat capable crew (five on River's good days), a dedicated pilot, tech person, medic, and a seductress who could stay in character long enough to actually pull cons off.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Agents of SHIELD has got me going through the motions. Don't get me wrong, I'm still watching this show every week, and I honestly believe there's potential in the show they've created, but so much of it is bumbling along right now that I feel like a Marvel-holic getting a watered-shot of a simulacra of the stuff to which I'm actually addicted.

Now, it may seem like I'm being a little harsh in light of the excellent Marvel movies, but wait: I'm going to get even more acerbic as I dial in my disappointment. We're six episodes into this series. Let's put that into perspective. By this point of screen-time (using show chronology, not airing chronology), Firefly had introduced Niska in "The Train Job", developed the entire crew's fabulous rapport in "Shindig", and blown everyone away with "Our Mrs. Reynolds". The X-Files had already given all of us the uber-willies in "Squeeze" with a boneless super-malleable cannibal serial killer, and established a good procedural investigative style and partner dynamic with "Conduit" and "Shadows". And Agents of SHIELD's stumbling is made even more unforgivable by the fact that The Blacklist, which started the same week, has been superb--especially in the ways that the Marvel show fails. They've got a great team that is diverse-yet-plausible, fantastic writing, good pacing, and several interesting meta-plots.

I'm waiting for Agents of SHIELD to come into its own, but I'm not holding my breath.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': As it stands, I think Agents of SHIELD will only appeal to a very small section of fans of the Marvel cinematic universe. I'm not going to assume everyone is going to get annoyed by the same elements the same amount as me, but there are just too many compromises to something that needs a very focused formula to work as a show. It still has too many superhero and genre elements to appeal to viewers who don't like the movies or comics, but those elements are so watered-down and subverted by the cliched action of the show that the movie and comic fans are going to feel let down at best or outright alienated at worst.

I hope that people will, like me, give Agents of SHIELD a chance to fix their problems, but even more so I hope that the creative team behind Agents of SHIELD will actually take the effort to fix these problems to make a series worthy of Mordor five or more seasons.

After Avengers, Joss Whedon is the magical summoner of comicbook fans.

(Fourth post this week, so the deficit is down to 3 out of 31)

Movie Web Monday: Alan Tudyk

Movie Web Monday: Each article in the web, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Alan Tudyk: Probably Won't Survive This Post

Movie: 3:10 to Yuma (Own it. Minor spoilers ahead)

In 3:10 to Yuma, Alan Tudyk plays Doc Potter, one of the supporting townsfolk who gets wrangled into joining the posse seeking to deliver Ben Wade into the hands of justice. (Man, that sounded a bit like a line from The Tick, didn't it?) He's a minor character, but in true Alan Tudyk form, he instantly charms the audience. While digging into a shot Pinkerton named Byron McElroy (played by Peter Fonda) to prise free a bullet, Byron notices that the doctor's wall is decorated with skinless sketches of horse and dog musculature. Byron of course asks what kind of doctor Potter is, to which the only slightly shaken doctor replies wryly:

Doc Potter isn't an imposing character--neither very outspoken nor terribly useful in a fight, but he sets himself up as stubbornly moral and reliable. In this western, the protagonists stand shoulder-to-shoulder with bullies and cowards, and it's fitting that two of the bravest men in this band end up being the crippled Dan Evans and the soft-spoken doctor. And of course, he ends up dying right in the middle of a punchline.

Speaking of which...

Movie: Serenity (Own it, several times over. SPOILERS SHALL FLOW)

Oh Serenity, how you move me. Between the short-lived television show Firefly and the spin-off movie Serenity, the adventures of Malcolm Reynolds and his crew are some of my favorite fourteen hours of media. The characters are likable, charming, and quirky. The world is worn and eclectically appealing. The events are pure in their anti-classist nobility. And Wash, the ship's lovable pilot played by Alan Tudyk, is completely emblematic of Joss Whedon's beautiful tableau. He's sarcastic and pliable, stubborn and witty, and totally in love with his wife even to the point of embracing a lifestyle you definitely get the feeling he wouldn't otherwise lead. Even in the climactic ship-scramble of the movie, when his superb piloting skills shine for all to see, he reminds us how unsuited to this violent business he is with his simple calming verse:

It's a tremendous contrast to the destruction and danger all around, and it sort of highlights how out of his element he is. And the glory of that moment--and his crushing, sudden demise in mid punch-line--really encapsulates the kindness and childish devotion of his character. Wash was probably too principled and soft to be part of Serenity's crew, but he was also too loving and devoted to ever leave them. It's a really nuanced characterization for Alan Tudyk to bring out in a character we didn't even get to know for a full season.

Movie: A Knight's Tale (Rent it)

A Knight's Tale is a anachronistic teen-oriented fluffy movie about a squire who lies his way into becoming a knight's tournament champion, while picking up an allegedly hot noblewoman along the way as a spare. Now I'm not a huge fan of A Knight's Tale. But that boils down almost completely to the fault of the two main characters and the runny-eggs sloppy romance between Heath Ledger's William and Shannyn Sossamon's Jocelyn, because I love the supporting characters and antagonist. Rufus Sewell doing what he does best with a smirking, sadistic streak cloaked in the velvet of classism as Count Adhemar. And Alan Tudyk as the fiercely belligerent, barely conversant fellow conspirator in the group. He's stutteringly insecure and defensive on his own behalf and that of the group, as is made readily apparent when Chaucer joins their group and Wat decides to threaten the naked wastrel:

His delivery of the line is so energetic and committed to the moment of realizing a barely literate friend raging that it's pretty much impossible not to consider this one of the best moments of the little movie. (Alan Tudyk doesn't buy it in this one, either, so there's always that.)

Oh, and this is the third post this week, which means that's 2 out of 31 for my blog post deficit. And we're only two days into the week, too.

Movie Web Monday will continue next time with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day at the Nerdery

Today is the ninety-fifth anniversary of the Armistice of Compi├Ęgne, which ended World War I, or at least the war between the Triple(or more, really) Entente and Germany, on November 11, 1918. Starting the next year, many of the Entente nations declared national holidays on the anniversary of the armistice. In the United States of America, it was known as Armistice Day until 1954, when Congress officially changed the holiday to Veterans Day, which has remained associated with the holiday ever since. Now, in the US we have a holiday in May for the remembrance of those who died in the armed forces (talked about first here and again here). Veterans Day, on the other hand, is dedicated to honoring veterans serving, retired, or passed away and to connect that honor to our everyday lives in a way that is distinct to the respectful rites of Memorial Day.

Today, I'm going to quickly highlight Veterans Day with a short list of great science fiction books. These books fall into the great tradition of what is known as the military sci-fi subgenre. Military sci-fi comprises story where military hierarchies, tradition, logistics, and/or tactics factor as heavily into the plot and setting as alien worlds and futuristic technology. What's interesting about these sorts of stories, when compared to traditional space opera, sci-fantasy, or social drama sci-fi, is that it respects the interaction of characters and traditions as somewhat timeless in the scope of how men and women conduct war. The three books I'm highlighting below, however, are not just really good pieces of military sci-fi; they're also all written by veterans, which allows a reader to analyze the book meta-textually. In so doing, these books aren't just great action-packed sci-fi classics, but they're an alternative way of approaching and analyzing some specific veterans.

They're also pretty quick reads, too.

Starship Troopers was written in 1959 and has remained one of the flagships of the subgenre of military sci-fi ever since. It's less of a conventional war story as it is part snapshot of a military oligarchical society and one teen's coming of age within that tradition. I've been a fan of this book since the fourth grade, and I think I've bought it at least a half-dozen times over the years out of a compulsion to always have one at hand. (Not unlike the way Jerry keeps buying copies of The Catcher in the Rye in the movie Conspiracy Theory.) Starship Troopers was written by Robert Heinlein, who graduated from Annapolis Naval Academy in 1929 and retired as a Naval Lieutenant in 1934, and is one of a smattering of not insane pieces of sci-fi written by him. I also recommend Space Cadet, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and Red Planet for anyone interested in more of his books, but many of his others are really out there. But this one is a fairly short, fast-moving read that provides a good survey of the major themes of this category of fiction.

The Starfist series of novels is a great collection of 14 novels set in the 2400s. The premier entry in the series, First to Fight, was published in 1997, and presents the marines of the 34th FIST (Fleet Initial Strike Team) performing glorified police work on an inherently unstable world in the middle of yet another brushfire war. If you ignored the publication date, you might think the fiction is reactionary to early War on Terror military stories. The two things I really love about this series of books both relate to the elegance of the series' conceit: it all follows a specific company starting in a specific year. In the early installments, this means that the Confederation of Human Worlds has yet to make contact with intelligent (and hostile) aliens, and the conflicts of the first four books are about dousing political fires on the outskirts of human space. Secondly, the authors consistently draw characters and resources from a genuine military company, meaning that characters that are dropped as names in one book might become main characters you root for in later books, and that the politics of the unit's organization mean more to you as the series goes on. The series was written by David Sherman, who served 6 years in the United States Marine Corps before retiring as a Corporal, and Dan Cragg, who retired as an Army Sergeant Major after 22 years in uniform. They give the series a concentrated level of (US) military culture that sometimes comes off as a bit stereotypical but is always consistent and oozes bravado throughout.

Orphanage is the first of a series of seven (and counting) novels set in a near future interstellar conflict. The first book especially takes a lot of stylistic inspiration from Heinlein's Starship Troopers, though with a lot more action and dialed in characterization of the supporting cast. The first book begins with earth getting bombarded by aliens from the outer reaches of the solar system. As the entire planet reels from the devastating attack, they mount a suicidal expedition to counter-attack the alien presence on Ganymede. The mission is considered so dangerous that the powers-that-be declare that all soldiers selected for the mission must be orphans of the war, earning the book its title and setting a desperate, wounded motif for the series. Robert Buettner, who served as an Army intelligence officer, eventually takes the series into bigger themes, as the war forces humanity to reach out to other stars to battle the aliens throughout the galaxy. There's a lot of great sci-fi that plays intelligent homage to several other authors and series, though the focus and style of the action shifts greatly throughout the books as the nature of the war itself evolves. This is a great feature if you're prepared for it, but if you aren't it can be jarring as politics, logistics, and ethics quickly take the fore.

I hope you take the chance to thank the service people in your life this Veterans Day, and definitely check out these great novels whenever you get the chance. Besides being enjoyable nerd-fodder, they just might encourage you to think differently about these issues next Veterans Day.

Nerdview of Thor: The Dark World

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

This past weekend was the US release of Thor: The Dark World. As you could probably guess from my two reviews of Thor (regular and Thor-speak), from my glowing praise of Avengers, or my general love for Marvel, I have been anticipating this film for some time. What's more, the trials of parenting two babies demanded that I see the movie twice this weekend: once in 3D with my Friday gaming group, and once in 2D with my wife on Sunday. (Spoiler alert: I liked it)

Expectations 'Odor': As a Marvel-phile, I had a lot of expectations for seeing Malekith brought into the cinematic universe. In the comics, he's a magically-grounded half-dead dark elf, but based on the primordial narrative of the movie trailers, I imagine the film's origin for the dark elves would be more primordial, which can be a fine and elegant way to bring comic book issues to the theater. The first Thor movie had a bit more deliberate pace, with the most exciting combat front-loaded and the later action much smaller-scale skirmishes. Without the burden of origins and introductions for so many characters, I expected The Dark World to feature more evenly-paced, epic action sequences. Coupled with that, since the first movie already introduced us to so many Asgardians, I wanted to see the supporting cast develop and get their own moments to shine. Except for Jane Foster. I wanted her to get killed off and free up Thor for his true love: Sif.

Appreciation 'Beef': The first observation to make of Thor: The Dark World is that it has a definite sci-fi flavor to the action, as the opening sequence throws you into a fight that is part Battle of the Last Alliance, with fantasy-flavored Asgardians wading into dark elf laser fire while their dagger-like ships loom over head. The myth-as-science-fiction was established in the first movie, but in Thor it was more of a token explanation to make it easier for Thor to relate to Jane Foster. In Thor: The Dark World, however, that motif is brought to the foreground, as the bad guys use energy weapons, point-singularity grenades, have spaceships and agile fighters. Even the Asgardians show off some artillery and their own boat-like fighter craft. That, of course means dogfighting, and they actually do it quite well for a movie where such aerobatics aren't even expected.

Ornate and manufactured, but with a serial-killer sinister feel as well.
The overall aesthetic of the movie is just as well-done as Thor, with Asgard fleshed out a bit more this time around in its golden beauty. There's also glimpses of most of the other Nine Realms, but nothing to really evaluate other than variety. Though I must say that Svartaflheim (the titular dark world) was a really neat realization of that realm: blasted with ash and black sand, sky a sick not-quite-illuminated sickly mellow yellow with clouded veins giving the alien sky a thoroughly distinct look, and at the same time alluding to the twisted base perceptions of the dark elves themselves. Malekith and his people stand out against the fantasy look of the Asgardians with baroque sci-fi designs that reminded me of the Necromongers in The Chronicles of Riddick, which I really enjoyed. The dark elf foot soldiers in particular wear expressionless pale-faced masks with black eyes that I found really eerie and elegant at the same time.

Minor spoilers in the next paragraph.

I was pretty massively disappointed in Jane Foster as a character. And considering I was expecting, hoping, and needing her to die in this movie, that's saying a lot. To start with, she doesn't die. But we get teased as she comes oh so close to dying. What's worse, though, is that Jane Foster is by far the worst, most uninteresting character in the movie. She's snippy and childishly petulant for no reason, she drags down her scenes with cardboard delivery, and she's in general just a plain old plot cow. It's so bad that at one point in the film she's so useless she faints for no good reason other than to let Loki and Thor riff off each other while she kindly stays out of it.

That's right, I saw Battlefield Earth, and I haven't even purged it from my memory.

Foster's big fail notwithstanding, the rest of the cast is terrific. Chris Hemsworth is as at home and mature in the role of Thor as ever, showing genuine growth from the previous two movies. Tom Hiddleston as Loki reminds the audience of his chops, modulating between impishly mischievous comic, brooding schemer, and jealous brother. Plus, you'd have to be blind not to get lost in his smoldering stares in the first act cell-block scenes--just saying. And once again, Jaimie Alexander as Sif dramatically outshines Jane Foster on the screen. Physical, decisive, witty, and intuitive in her relationship with Thor, Sif in thirty minutes completely outshines her mortal competition for Thor's affections, and only the plot spares Foster from being shown up completely. Finally, Christopher Eccleston as antagonist Malekith gives a searing performance even through the hefty face prosthetics and voice distortion. Even when he's speaking in the dark elves' language, I got a kick out of his resonating, careful enunciation and the vile sneer he carries with his voice alone.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': Having seen the movie twice in its opening weekend, I think it's fair to guess that I enjoyed this movie. It's got most of the elements I wanted, and in greater quantities. Odin gets some token raven-time (important for us mythology enthusiasts), Idris Elba gets a bit more screen time to be awesome and thunder great Heimdall lines, and Darcy returns and has a slightly expanded role. (If Jane Foster has to come back, then so should Darcy. Although in order to avoid upstaging Portman's Jane Foster, Darcy is in three layers, a scarf, and a wool cap for about 90% of her on-screen time. And she's still more watchable than Jane.) Thor is mature in both his powers and character, and yet there's still a sense of growth in both areas, which is especially apparent in his interactions with Loki. And Loki....oh Loki, you're so awesome. I can't really think of anyone I'd rather see staring down a Kursed Algrim.

But Jane Foster! Grrr, in a movie that grabs me by the nerdlies so easily, it's very frustrating to have to endure her throughout another film. Expect a more in-depth, spoilerific rant about it in the future. Suffice it to say for now that she is, at best, a non-entity in the movie and probably the only thing I can pick out as an outright flaw.

I want to make a note here: I don't think this movie is worth the 3D up-charge. I rarely noticed it even when I tried, and those times when I did notice the 3D effect was normally in foreshortening shots. There it created a powerful depth of field, but I don't think it enhanced the movie as much as Captain America of Avengers did. I mean, subtlety in 3D is nice, but if you don't consciously notice or get at least thirteen bucks' worth of wow out of the experience, you might as well enjoy the movie in its 2D format.

Seriously, how the heck is this not the leading lady?!

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Anyone who enjoyed Thor should enjoy Thor: The Dark World. It does almost everything just as well if not better than the first movie. And for those who didn't like the first movie will likely still find stuff to enjoy. The action is much more kinetic and spread out, the emotional content is dialed in even more in this movie as it doesn't have to deal with stranger-on-earth tropes as such, and there's a lot of great performances spread out throughout an excellent cast.

Who definitely won't like this? People who don't like the juxtaposition of mythological figures and science-fiction elements. This seems to be a common cry amongst professional critics--I guess they weren't listening to Thor in the first movie.

After the disappointment of Iron Man 3, it's nice to see Thor: The Dark World getting it right. They change Malekith quite a bit to fit him onto the screen, but he's still riveting and adroitly meets all the thematic demands set by the comic book version of himself--unlike the Mandarin in the last Iron Man flick. Everyone other than Jane Foster shows growth in this movie and is an improvement over their earlier portrayals, while Portman's character is a dull cloud in the middle of an otherwise sterling film. Regardless, though, she can't sully this movie for me, and it's definitely set the bar high for the next Marvel movie. It's doubtful I'll get to see this again in theaters, but if the opportunity came up I'd definitely accept. In the meantime, I'm counting down the days to Winter Soldier.