Ready Player One. A movie review.

You know how spoilers spoil movies? Well, there are none here to spoil stuff. Just thought you’d like to know.

Ready Player One is the Steven Spielberg-directed movie based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel of the same name. I have the book but haven’t read it yet (it’s on my ever-growing list).

Wade Watts lives in overcrowded and destitute Columbus, Ohio, in 2045. Like most people alive in the future, he escapes day-to-day life to live in the Oasis, a limitless virtual world created by James Halliday. Before Halliday died, he created an Easter Egg to give control of the Oasis to anyone who finds it—or rather, finds three keys. Naturally everyone wants control of the Oasis, including the dastardly IOI corporation, who wants to monetize it. Yeah, it’s Willy Wonka for the 21st century.

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Ready Player One is a glorious CGI, video gaming and 1980’s pop culture fest. Every scene in the Oasis is packed full of characters (Batman! The Iron Giant! Gears of War! Halo! Wonder Woman! TMNT! Gundam! To name a few) and 80’s references (Atari! Dungeons and Dragons! Back to the Future! Star Wars! Just a couple) that you may miss the first time around (my son wants to buy the blu-ray later so he can freeze frame each scene like the nerdy gamer he is). Most of the movie is set in the Oasis, with about a third of it in the real world.

The special effects are fantastic, the music by Alan Silvestri is wonderfully complementary to the movies and characters referenced, and Spielberg shows he hasn’t lost any of his flair for direction in his old age. Some of the secondary characters are a bit two-dimensional, but I find most visual effects-heavy movies tend to overshadow character development.

If you’re a gamer you will geek out over Ready Player One. If you’re an 80’s pop culture nerd you will love the nostalgia. If you like a good teen-based action adventure, you’ll enjoy it. I had a great time with this movie, and my 20-year old son loved it more than I did. Check it out.

Rating: B+       

Tomb Raider. A movie review.

There’s no such thing as spoilers (in this review, anyway)!

Alicia Vikander is the new Tomb Raider (for those of you not familiar with the previous movie incarnation, Angelina Jolie was the titular heroine), and she ably fills the tank top—umm…role.

This is a reboot of the franchise, based heavily on the popular computer game reboot of 2013 (so many reboots…). Lara Croft (Vikander) is a girl with no direction to her life after losing her rich father (Dominic West) seven years ago. Refusing to accept that he’s dead, she hasn’t taken over the Croft fortune and title and is living a simple life as a bike messenger in inner city London. She receives a Japanese puzzle from her missing father which sets her on a quest to find him and the tomb of Himiko, the mythical Queen of Yamatai, a supposed sorceress with power over death.

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I enjoyed Tomb Raider. In this origin movie Vikander is a feisty, yet vulnerable underdog, who kicks some serious ass along the way. She’s very physical in the role (Vikander did the majority of her own stunts), but at no point does this Lara Croft seem unbelievably super heroic. Some of the set pieces are over the top, but through them all you believe that Lara is scraping through, stubbornly fighting on. One thing I would have liked was more opportunities for Vikander to show her stuff—a few more action set pieces wouldn’t have gone astray.

Go see Tomb Raider if you like gritty, believable action heroines who feel pain. And bring it, as well.

Rating: B  

Annihilation. A movie review.

Alex Garland’s new science fiction movie, Annihilation, is now available on Netflix in Australia (part of Paramount’s current risk management strategy is to recoup production and distribution costs in smaller markets by going directly to streaming).

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a Cellular Biologist with an Army background, whose army husband Jake (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year. One day he turns up, but he seems like a different man. He also starts vomiting blood. On the way to hospital, the ambulance is intercepted by government vehicles. Lena awakens and discovers the government has a secret watch post overlooking an area called the ‘Shimmer’ – a hazy and colourful border of light that frames the site of an alien meteor that hit a lighthouse on the coast. The Shimmer is expanding. Several military teams have been sent in, but none have returned, and the Shimmer prevents radio communications. Lena joins a group of female scientists, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, to attempt to get to the lighthouse and discover what’s going on. Inside the Shimmer everything is mutating—plants, animals, the environment itself. It isn’t long before the scientists find out what happened to the last team and the implications for them…

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Annihilation is a slow-moving thriller, with generally subdued acting (except when things get a little crazy). The special effects are exceptional, with the Shimmer almost hallucinogenic at times. None of the characters are particularly likable, but then, this is a movie about a concept, rather than the people involved. There’s a fair bit of explicit violence as well, so be prepared.

Annihilation has been hailed by some reviewers as both revelatory and confusing. I wasn’t confused, but not because I’m particularly smart. Annihilation is a movie you need to pay attention to and some viewers just won’t get it. I don’t believe that Annihilation is as ground breaking as some think. It is, however, a well-directed, intelligent, slow burn sci-fi movie, with a great concept and a nice twist at the end.

I enjoyed Annihilation. It’s not as good as Arrival, another recent thought-provoking sci-fi movie which provided a greater emotional connection with its characters, but it’s still an enjoyable concept film.

Rating: B-

Red Sparrow. A movie review.

A few minor spoilers!

Red Sparrow is a harrowing spy movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton and directed by Francis Lawrence. Why harrowing? Because it includes several excruciating scenes of graphic torture and explicit violence (there’s sex, too—surprisingly it’s kept to a minimum, but it’s generally pretty nasty as well).

Lawrence plays a Russian ballerina whose career is ended when her leg is broken. She’s about to lose her home and medical support for her disabled mother, and turns to her sleazy uncle, who works for the Russian Security Services. He places her in a situation where she witnesses a state-sanctioned murder and is forced to work for the government as a ‘Sparrow’, a spy trained in seduction. Off she goes to a dehumanising Sparrow school, where attractive women and men are taught psychological and sexual manipulation.

Lawrence is given a mission to discover a mole and encounters Edgerton’s disgraced CIA agent, who’s protecting the mole. That’s about as far as I can go without spoiling the story further.

Red Sparrow is a cat-and-mouse spy story about post-cold war politics, the incongruity of human nature, the patriarchal abuse of women and the lengths people will go to for revenge and survival. It’s better than you might think, although at times the director’s push for realism can make it a disturbing viewing experience.

Rating: B-

An Abundance of Katherines. A Book Review.

John Green has rapidly become one of my favourite authors. I’ve now read four* of his young adult (YA) novels, the latest being An Abundance of Katherines (AoK).

AoK is about Colin Singleton, a young prodigy who finds himself at loose ends after being dumped by his 19th girlfriend, all of whom have been called Katherine. His best and only friend, Hassan, a less than devout Muslim who likes nothing more than sitting around the house watching Judge Judy, suggests a road trip to cheer Colin up. An-Abundance-of-KatherinesThey arrive in a Tennessee town called Gutshot, where they meet local nerd turned popular girl Lindsey Lee Wells (with her Football hero boyfriend, Colin, or The Other Colin–TOC, as Hassan refers to him). After meeting Lindsey’s rich mother, who owns the local tampon string-making factory (the only business keeping the town alive), they gain employment conducting interviews with the town’s people for an oral history project. Colin is writing  a mathematical formula to accurately predict how long relationships will last, based on his nineteen dumpings. I won’t spoil any more of this clever and imaginative book. Aside from being a story about finding true love, AoK is also about finding and being your true self.

Green has a knack for writing interesting, humorous characters and snappy dialogue. Colin, with his genius IQ, quirky anagrams and stolid bookish ways, is no exception. Hassan is his slacker comic relief, constantly supporting Colin and putting him down at the same time. Lindsey (who you just know is perfect for Colin, no spoiler there) is smartly confined within herself, wrapped up in her handsome boyfriend and a façade of happiness.

AoK is one of Green’s funniest novels. Liberally sprinkled within are smart and amusing footnotes, which add to the experience. The math behind the relationship formula is by brilliant mathematician Daniel Bliss, and can be found in an appendix at the end of the book (the math is real).

I thoroughly recommend AoK to anyone who likes quirky, romantic novels. It’s Green’s shortest book, so you’ll finish it in no time. And be better for the experience.

* For reviews of some of Green’s other books, click on The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns and Turtles All The Way Down

Black Panther. A Movie Review.

No spoilers here!

Okay, you’ve read the reviews already. More than likely you’ve already seen it. I’m talking director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the latest Marvel Studios’ superhero film that ends up being one of the best movies Marvel has released since Spiderman: Homecoming. I’m not going to talk about the story. I’ll just give some impressions and you can make up your mind based on those.

Black Panther

Black Panther is a bright, colourful, hopeful, heavily African-inspired movie, with a majority African-American cast. It has a great story (although somewhat derivative of The Lion King, which was itself derivative of Kimba the White Lion), great acting, fantastic music full of African drumming, vocals and instruments (yes, this is the first Marvel soundtrack in ten years that doesn’t sound generic) and makes some great political points regarding anti-isolationism (take that, Trump). Yeah, some of the CGI is a bit dodgy at times, but the female characters’ strong roles and gritty resolve, and Black Panther’s/King T’challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) endearing openness and honesty more than make up for it. Even the bad guy, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), is sympathetic (and possibly one of the best developed Marvel villains since Michael Keaton’s The Vulture in Spiderman: Homecoming). There’s also some cool James Bond elements in the first act: T’challa’s sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) is his Q, but has better and funnier lines, and there’s a Bond-style mission.

You may have guessed that I really liked this movie. It’s not without its issues, but has a bit more gravitas than most superhero films.

So, go and see it. Give Disney your money (but please don’t do it more than once—Disney is evil, after all).

Rating: A

 

The Shape of Water. A movie review.

I’m a big fan of Guiermo Del Toro. I loved the Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth is in my Top 10. I’m also a big softie for romance movies (so sue me).

The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s homage to the monster movies of the 1950’s, a ‘beauty and the beast’ romance about a mute girl who falls in love with a South American water monster being held in a secret government facility. The creature is due to be killed and vivisected, so the girl and her gay next-door neighbour break him out to save him.

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This movie has all the elements to make it something special. Del Toro’s production design and practical prosthetic creature effects are on point. The actors are good, especially Sally Hawkins, who plays mute orphan Elisa. The 1962 setting is evocative, including commentary about the harsh treatment of African-Americans and minorities, and the brittle nature of Russian/American Cold War relations. There’s even a dance/big band musical scene with all the trappings. But something’s missing. What should have been an endearing and moving love story contains some jarring elements and has a predictable plotline that prevents this from being a Del Toro classic.

This is not a movie for kids. There are scenes of female nudity, masturbation, sex, and some brutal violence. Instead of lending the film an aura of realism/believability, they detract from the romantic, fairy tale plot and seem custom-made to titillate, rather than complement the characters or story.

Michael Shannon plays the same two-dimensional bad guy he’s typecast as nowadays. The ending is not only clichéd, but lapses into ET territory (but where ET the extra-terrestrial was a wonderfully woven story that remains a classic, Del Toro’s take on it is heavy-handed, derivative and predictable).

The Shape of Water was another near miss for me. So close to being good, but still disappointing overall.

Rating: C

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. A Movie Review.

No Spoilers!

My son dragged me (literally) to see the new Jumanji film. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Four teens given school detention find an old game machine with the Jumanji game loaded. They are sucked into the video game-world of Jumanji, where they take on the roles of four game characters to try to return the ‘Eye of Jumanji’ to the final level to stop some bad guy from taking over the jungle world. Along the way they discover the meaning of friendship, yadda, yadda, yadda. All very uncomplicated.

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Dwayne Johnson (that guy is in everything, lately), Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillan, all have a ball with their roles, with Black (playing a self-centred teenage girl in a middle-aged professor’s body) and Hart (a jock in a nerd’s body) getting the funniest lines (although most of the jokes fell flat with me, the teens in the audience seemed to be chuckling enough). There are some decent action set pieces, but the bad guy and the overall threat to Jumanji are pretty shallow.

The movie manages to deliver some nice moral messages—don’t judge a book by its cover; be yourself; your real friends are the people you can rely on—and it wasn’t even from Disney. And in an era of over-the-top violence and overwhelming narcissism (which, ironically, also feature in this film), that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Jumanji is a movie best appreciated by gamers, teens and kids. And the occasional adult dragged along for the ride.

Rating: C

Child of God. A book review.

Cormac McCarthy is a damn fine writer. He’s also a very disturbing one.

Child of God is one of his older books (1973), and tells the story of Lester Ballard, a lonely and erstwhile Tennessee hick who loses his home to live a vagrant life in the mountains. Lester comes across a dead couple in a car. It’s at this point he realises, for the first time in his life, that he can have a woman. After this, Lester satisfies his perverse lust by becoming a serial killer.Child of God

This is not a comfortable book to read (but then, most of McCarthy’s books aren’t). He eloquently describes Ballard’s dark decline with humour, compassion and a frightening edge that makes for gripping reading.

Child of God is well worth a look for anyone who enjoys exemplary writing; it’s a chilling and almost apocalyptic tale of the American South.

The Search for Everything. An album review.

Being a poor student I don’t often buy new CDs (how times have changed—in my previous middle class existence I would buy two albums a week). Being a guitar player I (sometimes) gravitate to guitar-oriented music. Such is the case with John Mayer’s newest album, The Search for Everything. (I’m going to refrain from commenting on Mr Mayer’s purportedly douchey private life. He’s a great guitarist and song writer and I admire him for those things, rather than his tabloid exploits.)

After a few country-tinged albums, Mayer has returned to his blues-funk roots. The twelve songs showcased here are sad and remorse-filled tales of heartbreak, love, drunkenness and loneliness (hmmmm, my four favourite things, it seems). The lyrics, like most of Mayer’s other work, reflect a deep personal melancholy that obviously strike a chord with me.

Still Feel Like Your Man is the funkiest and best cut, and had me grooving out and marvelling at Mayer’s tasty and ample riff work. Other faves included the punchy Helpless, the tasty instrumental title track, funk-filled Moving On and Getting Over and poignant piano strains of You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me.

Mayer’s singing and playing is top notch throughout, and as usual he surrounds himself with top musos to back him up, including regulars Steve Jordan on drums and Pino Palladino on bass.

I know Mayer is not the mega-selling artist he used to be, but The Search for Everything demonstrates aptly that he is still an amazing song writer and musician, who struggles with his personal demons. Just like the rest of us.

Heartily recommended.

Two John Green Books. A review.

I recently read two John Green books, Paper Towns and Turtles All The Way Down. For those of you who don’t know, Green is a top-selling writer of literate young adult (YA) novels with a flair for smart, sassy characters and quirky humour.

Paper Towns features straight-laced Quentin Jacobsen (Q), who has lived most of his teenaged life next door to the high spirited and unreachable wild child Margo Roth Spiegelman. When they were nine they discovered a dead body, and although they run in different social circles now, they share a bond over that event. Margo decides to let Q to be her driver on an amazing night of payback, then promptly disappears. Whilst her parents are unconcerned, Q and his friends follow a trail of deliberate clues (including a Walt Whitman poem) attempting to find out what happened to Margo.

Paper Towns is a fast-paced mystery and road trip that touches on the reality and unreality of suburban life, the facade of personality and the lengths people go to find their real selves.

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Turtles All The Way Down is Green’s latest novel. It features terminally anxious Aza and overwhelmingly exuberant Star Wars fan fic writer Daisy as two teens who decide to pursue a missing businessman on the run from police, in the hope of claiming the reward. Aza used to be friends with the businessman’s son, Davis, and reuniting with him ignites a love complicated by her anxiety issues.

Turtles All The Way Down is about friendship, loyalty, first love, the incredible difficulty of living with mental illness and coming to terms with profound loss.

Green’s books are always humorous, well written and paced. He’s a smart writer, utilising his precocious teen characters to tell love stories with deeper meanings than most average YA lit. Often (at least in the three novels I’ve read so far) his leads tend to be very similar—unusually smart, funny, quirky, well-read middle class teens with a significant issue and loving parent/s—but his stories are so engaging I can overlook it.

I love that Green’s books are short. I can knock them over quickly in between uni texts and other, more weighty tomes. He is not an ‘overwriter’ (yes, Stephen King—I love your writing but your books can drag at times) by any means.

I have another couple of Green’s books on order. I guess that makes me a fan.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A review.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is Wizard of the Coast’s (WOTC) official new rules supplement for D&D 5e. Its 192 pages contain new sub-classes, racial feats, spells, magic items and lots of tables, including expanded magic items, random encounters and character background generators.

Overall, I felt a bit ripped off. All the content included is non-essential reading. Sure, it’s nice to have some new class options, and the tables of names and backgrounds may come in handy for some of my players, but the rest of the material is already available elsewhere (most of the spells are from the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure / free Elemental Evil Player’s Companion) or is stuff that I already homebrew (rules for simple and complex traps, for instance). This book is the same price as the core rule books ($60 AU / $50 US) with far less pages and useful content; maybe if it was $40 AU I wouldn’t have been so negative. XanatharsThe production and art is a high standard, as with all WOTC products, but is it worth $20 more than what a supplement should be priced at? And still no free PDF linked to the copy you buy, as most other game companies do. I’m willing to bet that this book also costs a motza on D&D Beyond, the new online pay-for-content digital toolset.

I would have preferred some of the tables (random encounters, for example) be added to the next printing of the DM’s guide, so that future DMs get the updated versions (I don’t use encounter tables, but there are others who would appreciate them). I must admit that I did like the inclusion of Tool Descriptions and DCs for tool usage (really, this should have been included in the Player’s Handbook originally), but once again, it’s not essential to play the game.

I am realistic and aware that WOTC needs to keep making money, so they can keep producing content. I’m hoping future supplements won’t be as short shrift as this one, though.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is a supplement ideal for new DMs and players looking for new character options, spells, feats and backgrounds. More experienced DMs and those who own all the existing books may want to save their money and give it a miss.

Justice League. A movie review.

I read about twenty negative reviews of Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon’s Justice League prior to going. I took my son with me to see it and we and everyone else in the theatre had a fantastic time. Screw you, critics.

The big DC heroes come together in this huge romp ‘em, stomp ‘em popcorn flick. I’m not sure why critics had probs following the story. I didn’t, and neither did my son. And the CGI was fine.

Basically, Batman and Wonder Woman bring Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg together to face bad guy Steppenwolf, a failed Apokoliption commander who lost the original battle to take earth for Darkseid thousands of years ago. The forces of the Amazons, the Atlanteans, the humans and a Green Lantern(!) capture Steppenwolf’s three Mother Boxes (living energy sources he was planning to use to change Earth into a version of his home world Apokolips) and hide them away. When Superman was killed in Batman vs Superman, the Mother Boxes came back to life and called Steppenwolf back to finish the job. No more spoilers!

Every hero got their fair share of screen time. There were laughs, there was conflict, there were heroes facing off against heroes and heroes versus villains. And yes, it all made sense. The fight scenes were well done, the action was great. The camaraderie and the character scenes were great.

Yeah, the story was a bit old hat and the villain was a bit blah, but we had an absolute blast with this movie. Go see it. Oh, and hang around to see the two awesome post credits scenes.

Rating: B

The Fault in Our Stars. A book review.

It seems I can’t stop reading profoundly affecting books.

A friend of mine loaned me John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, the mega-selling young adult novel about two teenagers in cancer remission who fall in love. “You’ll need some tissues,” she said, and she wasn’t wrong. This book brought me close to tears on a number of occasions.The fault in our stars

The Fault in Our Stars is about 16-year old Hazel, a far too smart and interminably sassy girl permanently attached to an oxygen tank since her thyroid and lungs were attacked by cancer. She’s on an experimental drug which prevents her tumours from growing, but like many victims of the disease, she is somewhat cynical about life and her place in the world. Augustus Walters is a 17-year old interminably good looking ex-basketball jock who also happens to be smart and sassy, who lost his leg to cancer. The two meet at the local support group, hit it off and gradually Augustus’s positive world view starts to rub off on Hazel. They have a shared love for An Imperial Affliction, a book about a teenage cancer victim who dies abruptly leaving the ending up in the air. It was written by a retired author now living in Amsterdam and a big part of the story sees the two teens travelling to meet him to learn what happened to the book’s characters (An Imperial Affliction is a metaphor for The Fault in Our Stars’ protagonists and their yearning for something meaningful in a world that seems and often ends uncaringly).

I won’t spoil any more of this wonderfully written novel. John Green deserves the praise—this is a literary achievement, something much more than the average YA contemporary romance. It seethes with pathos. It’s sad, fast and funny. The characters are well developed and incredibly engaging. It’s a celebration of living for the here and now, because you never know how long it’s going to last. I found it hard to put down.

I guessed two of the major plot points—they weren’t telegraphed at all, but I knew they would happen (and no, I hadn’t seen the movie or read any spoilers), so I guess in some way perhaps those two elements bordered on cliché (or perhaps I’m just good at prediction). But other than that, this book was like a breath of fresh air (and that’s not a pun about Hazel’s lungs).

If you like tragic romance, you’ll love this. To paraphrase a line from the book: reading The Fault in Our Stars is “a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”

Thor Ragnarok. A movie review.

By Odin’s shaggy beard, there shalt be no spoilers here!

I’m one of those moviegoers who felt the Marvel formula was getting a bit stale. Well, Thor Ragnarok hasn’t varied it too much, but has added enough humour and lasting change to a major character and setting that I’m still interested.

Thor Ragnarok is a fun ride. Thor has always been a bit, well…boring. Compared to the rest of the Avengers, anyway. Director Taika Waititi has added his quirky comic flair (and propped up the NZ film industry, judging by the number of Kiwi actors in this) and allowed Chris Hemsworth to display some impressive comedic chops (expect to see him in lots of romantic comedies over the next few years).

The supporting cast are great, even if they are given little to do (although Mark Ruffalo as Hulk gets more space here than ever before. And it’s about time). Cate Blanchett as Hela, Goddess of Death, is a bit of a missed opportunity to add real gravitas to the Asgard story (the film’s humour tends to overshadow any of the implied tragedy), but I think she’ll be back to link up with Thanos in a future movie (he’s all about hooking up with Mistress Death, after all, and I’m sure it won’t take Marvel much to tweak that and change it to Ms Blanchett. You read it here first).

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The special effects of Thor Ragnarok are impressive as always and the designs and bright colours really capture the Kirby-esque feel of the 60’s and 70’s Thor comics. As a lover of all things Led Zeppelin, I enjoyed the inclusion of their Immigrant Song. Jon Bonham’s drumming rocks!

Whilst I liked the lighter (and oddly, heavier) themes of Thor Ragnarok, I’m hoping Marvel doesn’t go full on camp with future outings. I love my superheroes and occasionally I like them taken just a bit seriously. But in the meantime I’ll enjoy the bright bluster of this.

Rating: B+

In The Winter Dark. A book review.

I read a lot of books, but don’t often get the chance to post a book review. Then along comes a book that stuns me into submission, like a two-by-four wielded by some grinning, dream-fisted maniac.

“If only we hadn’t had so many things to hide, so many opportunities for fear to get us.” Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark is a short (132 pages) suspense novel. It’s about an aging couple and two strangers, who live in a country valley where their farm animals are being mutilated by an unknown agency. All four are brought together by circumstance for the first time; all four hold dark secrets that are played out slowly and succinctly, a tragedy in the making.In the Winter Dark

As with Winton’s other books, it is superbly written and paced (for more about Breath, click here). His prose is like liqueur: it’s smooth and warm and something to be experienced patiently and magnanimously. There is no rushing a Tim Winton book, even when the suspense is building and you can’t put it down. Unlike some novels, which can be overbearing to the point you skip sections parsimoniously to move the story along, Winton’s stories make you savour every moment. Every turn of phrase and piece of imagery is like dark chocolate, melting insipiently on the tongue and in the brain.

The theme of cats as a symbol of our darkest secrets and fears plays a big part in this book. I’m not going to spoil the story, especially one that demands so doggedly to be experienced.

Beg, borrow, steal (or better still, purchase) a copy of In The Winter Dark. If you love a thriller and love masterful writing, this is the book for you.

Cheers

Steve 😊

Mutant Year Zero – Gamma goings-on in the wasteland

MYZ book cover

I said ages ago (yes, literally eons, in a time when winter frost covered the land like icing sugar. Hmmm. That’s a stupid simile) that I would review some Tabletop Role Playing Games, as I am a complete nerd nut for these things.

Today, I’m going to talk about a lovely little Swedish RPG called Mutant Year Zero. It’s an update of an RPG that originated in the 80’s in Sweden, and was very popular. Mutant Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic future, where a colony of mutants on the ‘Ark’ is eking out a meagre existence amongst the ruins of the ‘Zone’, battling for the colony’s survival against various threats and attempting to solve the sterility of the ark survivors—no new ark children have been born in years.

I loooove post-apocalyptic anything! This isn’t Mad Max, it’s not Gamma World (the mechanics in Mutant Year Zero are MUCH better than d20), but it’s a crap load of fun.

Mutant Year Zero is a sandbox game, meaning that your players basically call the shots as to what they want to do and where they want to go. Two Zone maps, of future London and New York, are included, or the Games Master can create their own Zone for the players to explore.

Some cool things about Mutant Year Zero:

Excellent Dice Pool mechanic. Uses six-sided dice (D6) of three colours: Base dice are yellow, used for attribute checks; Skill Dice are green, used for skill checks; Gear dice are black, and are used to supplement checks when a character is using special gear or weapons. A six on any of the dice means a success, a 1 on either the Base or Gear dice can mean raging mutant powers or gear breaking, respectively. The number of base dice you roll are determined by your attributes, the number of skill dice you roll by your skill level. The number of gear dice depends on what gear you are using, and these are added to the dice pool.

Character attributes equal the number of Base dice rolled. Simple as that. Four attributes: Strength, Agility, Wits, Empathy. Assign 14 points amongst these, with your key ability (depending on your class) having a maximum of 5. The attribute number is how many dice you roll in a check, and each attribute is associated with particular skills, so the base dice are supplemented by skill dice.

Skill levels equal the number of Skill dice rolled. 10 points to distribute amongst skills, with a maximum of 3. You also get Talents, special abilities determined by your role (class, for all you old grognards). Some of these are Fast Draw, Loner, Zone Cook (more important than you think!), Sleepless, etc.

MYZ stalkerCool Roles/Classes. Eight roles, like Enforcer (the heavy), Gearheads, Stalkers (scouts), Fixers, Dog Handlers(!), etc. They are all well balanced, and have their part to play in the game.

Everyone is a mutant. Yep, everyone gets to have a crazy mutation (or two, in some cases). They are all powerful, interesting and relevant (i.e. none are there for show). There aren’t many, but the idea is the gaming group isn’t going to be huge so there won’t be any overlap in powers. You spend Mutant Points (MP) to activate powers during the game. You can win more MPs by pushing your rolls, where there is a greater chance something could go wrong. The powers include Acid Spit, Human Magnet, Puppeteer (mind control), Rot Eater, Telepathy, etc.

Everyone works together and the ark is a major ‘character’ in the game. You are working with your fellow mutants to save the ark. You interact with NPCs, get involved in disputes, deal with petty jealousies, food shortages, external attacks. The ark has four development levels: food supply, culture, technology and warfare, and you can undertake projects to improve any of these, using your skills, your characters and time. This is another fun aspect of the game, much like building a community in computer games like Fallout 4.

Combat is easy. Anyone familiar with a tabletop role playing game will find the combat generally easier than most other games. There’s the usual rolling for initiative, take one action (roll a skill check, activate a mutation, help another character, defend, etc.) and one manoeuvre (advance, retreat, flee, etc.), or two manoeuvres. You roll a number of D6s equal to your Strength plus your Fight skill to hit in melee combat; if you use a weapon, you do the weapon’s damage (e.g. Brass Knuckles do 1 damage) plus additional effects if you score more than one 6 on your roll. The target can defend to reduce damage and effects. Ranged combat works similarly. Damage effects attributes, and if one is reduced to zero your character is broken, with the impact relating to the attribute e.g. if Agility is zero, you are physically exhausted. You can also get critical injuries, which can kill, maim and traumatise your character.

Recovery is relevant. Resting four hours and eating a ration of grub helps recover Strength; water for Agility, sleep for Wits, company for Empathy. It makes the resources you recover in the wasteland more important to your characters, as well as the ark.

There are lots of opportunities to role play. Essentially, the players drive the plot by exploring and interacting with NPCs on the ark. Each sector on the map is one square mile, and it will take time for the PCs to search. The GM rolls random encounters for the sector, or uses some handy pre-designed Zone settings/scenarios (which are very open ended to cater for the players basically doing anything they want). You will find that those players who thrive on the role playing aspects of RPGs will love this game. It also encourages team work—working alone or against the group will quickly get your character killed.

Lots of adventures. Over half the book is devoted to campaign materials, so you won’t run out of things to fuel your sessions for a long time! Some of the sectors include a crazy cult in a missile bunker, a trading post in a grounded ship, and a full campaign arc, The Path to Eden.

There are a number of extras available: Genlab Alpha (a complete game in which you play intelligent, bipedal animals), Zone Compendiums (with additional scenarios/settings), maps and signature dice.

Mutant Year Zero has won several design awards, and so it should. It’s a player-driven, open-ended experience, that is fun and easy to play, with great mechanics and minimalist rules. It’s one of the best post-apocalyptic RPGs available at the moment, and well worth your time and investment.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

Mutant Year Zero  is available at the Modiphius Games website–https://www.modiphius.net/

MYZ ruins

 

Blade Runner 2049. A movie review.

Spoilers? Don’t think so.

Okay, so you saw the trailers and it looked interesting. Maybe you were interested enough to stream the original 1982 Blade Runner (actually one of the four director’s cuts, because the original with the horrible Harrison Ford voiceover is long gone). Maybe you read the fauning reviews or glanced at the positive score on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Denis Villeneuve (who previously directed the brilliant Arrival) has made a methodical, smart, and visually spectacular film. Blade Runner 2049 is a superior sequel that stands on its own as a great movie.

A lot has happened in the 30 Years since the last film, and the old school tech has evolved along with the replicants, which are now used everywhere as slave labour (previously they were only used offworld). Ryan Gosling is K, a replicant blade runner who discovers a secret while hunting an old Nexus 8 (same as the ones in the first movie), a secret that could change the balance of power in the world and leads K to question his own reality. The first act is a noir-style detective story, as K slowly puts the pieces together. And that’s about as much as I can say without spoiling the movie. And this is one film you don’t want spoiled.

Blade Runner 2049 is dark and it’s looong. It’s a thinking person’s flick with some cool action sequences, but it’s a slow burn the rest of the way.

You know from the trailers that Harrison Ford is back as Rick Deckard, giving his best performance in years. Gosling is fantastic as K, and Jared Leto is a standout as Wallace, a blind and weirdly charismatic multi-billionaire who recreated replicant technology after the original Tyrell Corporation went bust. Robin Wright is K’s hard-nosed police captain, Sylvia Hoeks is Wallace’s violent right hand. Everyone in this film is good.

The script is layered, includes lots of throwbacks to the original movie, and no knowledge of the first Blade Runner is required to understand the story. Set design and an emphasis on practical effects really help to capture the feel of the original film. The music by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch is coolly reminiscent of Vangelis’ original soundtrack.

Who would have thought that a sequel to an 80’s movie could be so good (even if it does drag a little in parts). If you like an intelligent sci-fi movie that poses interesting philosophical questions about the nature of humanity, rock solid performances and a great story, then Blade Runner 2049 will be right up your blood and rain-soaked alley.

Rating: A

Breath. A book review.

Tim Winton’s Breath is the kind of book that challenges your thinking about what it means to be a writer.

Winton’s prose flows like poetry, with immaculate meter and dialectal mastery. Breath makes me ashamed to say I’m a writer, because Winton is so good: I am not worthy. I have never been so profoundly affected by a book as I have by this one.Breath-Tim-Winton

Bruce Pike is a paramedic who witnesses the aftermath of a boy who has suffocated. It brings back memories of his past, and he ruminates on his solitary life, his parents, his love of surfing and the sea, his friendships, his jealousies, his role models, his sexual coming of age, his breakdowns and how he finds himself again. Breath is a journey into a man’s scarred psyche: it’s about facing fear, the addictive adrenalin rush of near death experience, and the profound cost left in its wake when it fails. Breath is poignant, disturbing, and uplifting, all at the same time.

Breath is not for everyone. But I dare you to read it and not come away marveling at the writing. I will read Breath again; multiple times, no doubt.

And I’ll repeatedly wish I had one iota of Tim Winton’s talent.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

PS I’m not giving up writing. This book sets a worthy benchmark to aim for. “Damn you, Tim Winton and your glorious writing!” Steve cried.

American Assassin. A Movie Review.

Minimal spoilers. But it won’t matter much, because you know what’s gonna happen before it happens anyway.

I was dragged along to see American Assassin. My best mate paid for the ticket, and it got me out of the house, so I couldn’t complain.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) watches his girlfriend and lots of people killed at a Spanish resort by Islamic terrorists. He dedicates the next 18 months of his life training (18 months? That’s not much. Bruce Wayne spent 12 years becoming Batman) to infiltrate and take out the terrorist cell. He’s picked up by the CIA, sent to covert ops specialist Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) to be part of his assassination team. Rapp has issues with authority, is a loose cannon, blah, blah. Soon they have to stop one of Stan’s best students (oooh, didn’t see that coming. Yeah, you did) from using a nuke to take out a bunch of Americans.

american assassin

American Assassin suffers from the weight of numerous clichés, from characters to story to stunts to dialogue. It’s not the worst action movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s not memorable and not a movie I would recommend—you’ve seen all of this before with better scripts and direction.

Michael Keaton, as always, is great, but his role lacks depth and so he does what he can with the material he’s given. Dylan O’Brien looks alternately depressed and angry, but doesn’t muster much in the way of leading man charisma. The bad guy (Taylor Kitsch) is just an average bad guy.

My advice is save yourself the price of a ticket and see something better. This is one to stream on Netflix or rent on DVD (can you still do that?).

Rating: D

It. A movie review.

Nein spoilers!

A mini-series of Stephen King’s horror novel, It, was made in the late ’80’s. At the time it was considered pretty scary, but by today’s standards it’s very tame. My favourite horror movie is The Grudge and I tend to compare it to every other horror movie I see, in terms of scare-value. It is not in The Grudge‘s league, but it’s a solid viewing experience.

The new version of It focusses on the first half of King’s book: titular fear clown Pennywise terrorises and murders children in the Maine town of Derry in the late ’80s, is confronted by a motley collection of nerdy kids who dub themselves ‘the Losers’, and general creepiness and gore ensues. There’s also encounters with bullies and overbearing and abusive parents.

The direction and production values are excellent, but some of the scenes are telegraphed and less scary as a result. A cliched score doesn’t help. Despite this, It remains compelling viewing.

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One of the things I took away from this movie was the stark portrait of emotional and physical abuse perpetrated by the parents of several of the child characters. In some cases this was more shocking than Pennywise the clown’s antics. More than anything else, It is an empowering coming of age tale, as the Losers overcome not only the clown, but the monsters in their own homes.

It is a good Stephen King movie adaption, and it’s not often you can say that. The already in production sequel, It Chapter 2, will cover the ‘kids grown to adulthood’ side of the novel. Based on It‘s box office performance alone, I predict a spate of King books-to-movies appearing in the next few years, riding the horror rebirth gravy train.

It is not as scary as one would have hoped, but it is a good movie, one that most horror fans will enjoy.

Rating: B

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. A Movie Review.

Spoilers? No, none needed for this. And even if there were, they wouldn’t spoil this mess.

Luc, Luc, Luc. Here you had the perfect opportunity to wow audiences with some unique and memorable SF, and what did you do? You blew it. Here I was, waiting for the next The Fifth Element, and you gave me this fiasco instead.

Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (try saying that five times fast) is NOT his brightest movie moment, and will probably go down along with a number of his other forgettable movies as yet another misstep. It has gorgeous special effects, but aside from two sequences early in the film (a marketplace in another dimension and the hero running through a number of walls on the space station), you’ve seen it all before. And I’m sick and tired of cutesy space-monsters. Not to mention three aliens that look like winged platypuses that just aren’t funny, despite the fact they’re there for comic relief.

The story is a yawn and devoid of much humour at all (which this flick desperately needed). In the 28th century, Alpha, a giant space station floating through space and home to a thousand races, is under threat. Valerian and Lorelei need to uncover the dark conspiracy behind it and save everyone. Yeah, that sums it up. In between: a few nice special effects scenes, the usual bad guy stuff, some lazy writing and a short nap, depending on your age and/or attention span.

Dane DeHaan (Valerian) phones in his performance (he’s not a bad actor, he was excellent in Lawless) in perhaps one of the most poorly miscast roles of the year. Cara Delavingne (Lorelei) brings little to her role, but does look great in body armour (why do you only see half their heads in the shot above? Because the rest of their faces show just how disappointed they are). Clive Owen and Ethan Hawke aren’t given much to do, although they are much better actors than the rest of the cast and beefing up their roles would have helped the story no end. Rhianna dances well. ‘Nuff said.

I am waiting, waiting, waiting for a movie that doesn’t let me down. Where are you, non-disappointing movie? Find me!

Rating: D

War for the Planet of the Apes. A movie review.

Let’s get this out of the way right now. War for the Planet of the Apes is one of the best movies this year. You should do yourself a favour and see it. Matt Reeves has directed an incredible movie (which bodes well for his proposed Batman trilogy).

Andy Serkis as the driven and emotive Caesar, leader of the apes, and Woody Harrelson as the fundamentalist Colonel, commander of the human soldiers, are ideally cast and give nuanced performances throughout. Most of the apes speak in sign language, with a few exceptions. Bad Ape is a great new character, providing some light relief to the seriousness. The CGI apes are amazing, with only a few quirky jitters in some of the action scenes. 

WftPotA has themes that should resonate with any audience: retribution, family, redemption. There is more focus on drama than action, allowing for greater lead character development. The overarching story is a Moses allegory–freeing the slaves and leading them to the promised land.

I’m not going to spoil any more of this for you. It’s probably my first ‘must see’ call this year. This is the best of the current crop of Planet of the Apes movies, and certainly the deepest.

Rating: A+

Manchester by the Sea. A movie review.

Thar be spoilers ahead…

Manchester by the Sea is a depressing movie. Even with the great dialogue and character performances, it leaves you wondering what just happened. In truth, not much did. Kenneth Lonergan’s script, from his play, won the 2017 Oscar for best original screenplay; he directed as well. But a story is supposed to show the protagonist (in this case Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler) learning something and moving forward in some kind of constructive way. This is not the case in Manchester by the Sea.

Casey Affleck’s restrained performance won him the best actor Oscar and it was well deserved. He plays a loner with repressed anger and grief issues. He’s a man who has never recovered from the loss of his children in a house fire he was responsible for. When his brother dies he returns to his home town and finds out he’s been made the guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. What ensues is 131 minutes of Affleck not coming to terms with his grief. Everyone is excellent in this film, from Kyle Chandler, who plays Lee’s brother in flashback, to Michelle Williams as Lee’s wife, who has moved on and had a new baby with another man, to Lucas Hedges as Patrick, the nephew, caught up in his own pain and self-absorbed lifestyle.

But by the end of the movie Lee admits that he can’t face living in Manchester anymore. The hurt is too great. There is no endearing moment or uplifting ending: Lee gives up and moves to Boston to work in another janitor job. This leaves the audience (well, me at least), feeling a bit miffed that Lee doesn’t have a proper character arc. Yes, I know real life doesn’t work out. But we go to see movies to be entertained. If I wanted to see a character not going anywhere I’d take a look at my own sad life. I want to see the protagonist make some sort of worthwhile change, no matter how minor. This movie doesn’t do that.

Manchester by the Sea has wonderful writing and performances. It does tend to drag a bit in places (as you would expect from a low key drama), and there is no real resolution to Lee’s issues. So if you’re looking for escapism, steer clear of this movie. But if you like to get a bit teary and enjoy great acting, Manchester by the Sea is for you.

Rating: C+       

Dunkirk. A movie review.

So, if you haven’t seen the movie Dunkirk by now, all I can say is: “why not?”

Dunkirk is a movie about the evacuation of 330 000 British and French troops from the Dunkirk beach after being surrounded by the German offensive in 1940.

No doubt you’ve read piles of reviews praising this movie and how well it presents the claustrophobia and confusion of the beach, the heroism of the pilots and troops, the grit of the average joes who answer the call to provide their own boats to rescue many of the survivors. Chris Nolan is one of my all-time favourite directors, and there’s very little that he can do wrong. What he’s done here is create a tense and subdued war film, very different from any war movie that’s come before. The photography, sound and music is amazing, as you would expect. The performances from the actors are spot on, even if they are generally limited to running and looking anxious.

So what’s missing? This is not a conventional movie. There are multiple characters who are there to show what’s happening on the beach, in the air and at sea, but there is no character development, something you usually expect from a movie. It’s a bit like a personal documentary of an event with no voiceover describing those events. But the good thing is it doesn’t need it. This movie puts you in the shoes of every man on the beach and boats, from facing screaming Stuka bombs to u-boat torpedoes sinking  ships. You feel the fear of the soldiers hiding on the grounded boat waiting for the tide to come in as German soldiers play target practice with the hull. You feel the anxiety of the fighter pilot as his plane goes down and he can’t get out of the cockpit. You feel the patience, the courage, the fear, the apprehension.

Dunkirk doesn’t include anything other than a brief mention of the courageous rear guard action by around 80 000 British and French soldiers. Maybe this could be covered in a later film, as it is a disservice to those men who fought and died valiantly so that the troops could be evacuated.

Dunkirk is a good movie, and deserves to be seen in the theatre, with big sound and screen. Some people will be dissatisfied by it. Others will love it. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one you are.

Rating: B+      

Spider-man: Homecoming. A movie review.

Spoilers? What spoilers? No, none here

Okay, okay, I was a bit late coming to the party on this one, but I finally got to see it today.

Great movie! Excellent performances: Tom Holland, perfect as 15 year old nerdy high schooler Peter Parker; Michael Keaton, who’s very menacing as the Vulture (and possibly the second most well-developed Marvel super-villain, after Loki); great cameo(s) by Robert Downey Junior as Tony Stark, Peter’s mentor (and he doesn’t steal the movie – yay!). Some nice Avengers’ developments with Gwyneth Paltrow at the end, as well. The young cast surrounding Holland are fantastic and they have some very funny lines. Lots of laughs all around.

The story is fairly straightforward, as are some of the set pieces, and the CGI animation of Spidey is a bit jerky at times (I seem to remember the first Spider-man movie in the 90s having more fluid animation, so I was a bit surprised this time around), but it’s the characters and the actors portraying them that really sets this movie apart. Tom Holland is likable and brings a fresh naivety to the role. His best friend (whose name escapes me) is a hoot. It’s amazing how many times Spidey lets people find out his identity. And thankfully the origin story is covered in a few brief lines of dialogue (yay!). I’m not sure how I feel about Spidey having a Tony Stark-designed super-suit, but it led to some funny situations.

I really liked Spider-man: Homecoming, possibly my favourite Marvel Studios movie ever. Go see it. Enjoy.

Rating: A

Baby Driver. A movie review.

Ain’t no spoilers here

Edgar Wright has made some spectacular movies: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End, and one of my Top 10 faves, Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Having read several positive reviews, I went to Baby Driver with high expectations that this would become one of my all-time favourites. I was surprised, then, when what I saw was not what I expected.

What I saw was a slick, well-directed, edited and acted, but straightforward crime drama with fantastic live driving scenes (no CGI – take that Fast and the Furious). A movie aimed at a young audience, with the two leads Ansel Elgort (Baby) and Lily James (Debora) displaying some great chemistry on screen. Some great acting by Kevin Spacey as the kingpin mastermind, Jamie Foxx as the crazy and violent Bats, and Jon Hamm as Buddy, the smooth cokehead bank robber. Enough character development to keep things interesting. So why did it leave me cold?

Baby is a driver – one of the best. He listens to music constantly due to tinnitus, caused when his parents died in a car accident when he was a child. He’s working off his debt to Spacey by being a getaway car driver for Spacey’s heists. He meets Debora, a waitress, falls in love, plans to get out of the game, but when he’s even with Spacey he still can’t escape. One last job…

Baby Driver is quite different from Wright’s previous movies. The critics have generally loved it, and audiences have responded well. So why didn’t it appeal to me as much? I guess I was expecting more of the quirky humour of Wright’s previous films. There were two jokes in the entire movie—most of the time the movie was incredibly serious. The driving scenes were amazing. But as soon as the bank robberies and driving were over, the movie started to drag. I don’t think pacing was actually an issue, it was probably more me waiting for some amazing Edgar Wright moment to happen. And unfortunately it never did.

After the first incredible drive/chase scene, there was a continuous shot of Baby walking down the street to get coffee while manoeuvring amongst traffic and pedestrians to the sounds of Harlem Shuffle in his headphones. It showed signs of some of Wright’s quirky genius shining through, but then faded into convention again. There are some great ideas at play in this movie, but by the end I hadn’t connected with any of the characters. Maybe I set my expectations too high.

Baby Driver is a well-executed heist movie with great acting, fantastic driving scenes, incredible music soundtrack and great editing, that doesn’t make you care for any of the characters. I didn’t leave the theatre saying “that was a great movie”. I left saying “that was pretty good”. I expected more from Edgar Wright. Maybe next time.

Rating: C+

Adele – 25. Sing ‘em loud! A Review.

I’m a big fan of Adele. She has an amazing range to her voice and the tone has an earthy, time worn quality to it. She also revels in songs about lost love, which, being the sad sack that I am, I’m particularly fond of. So if you’re not a fan, you may as well click away now, as this will not be an unbiased review. Just saying.

I guess almost everyone in the world has 21, Adele’s sophomore album that blew minds with its dark and swaggering vocals and 60’s aesthetic. 25 is the follow up (all of her album titles reflect her age when the album was produced – I guess she’s not going to change that in a hurry). As usual, she has surrounded herself with great musicians and co-writes all of the songs. Adele has a capacity to take a fairly simple song and turn it into an emotive tale of longing and pathos that manages to take hold of your brain and not let go.

There are 11 songs on the album, all soaring ballads and torch songs. Hello is the big hit that everybody has probably heard way too many times by now. Send My Love, Water Under The Bridge and River Lea get a bit funky. I Miss You and Sweetest Devotion are boldly percussive. Melancholic piano strains fire up When We Were Young, Remedy, Love In The Dark and All I Ask, and the sensitive acoustic filigree of Million Years Ago is hauntingly sweet. This album never really steers a foot wrong.

Let me be clear: this is not an adventurous experiment that takes Adele out of her comfort zone. Adele has a formula that works and fans love it. We’ll be singing out loud accompanying these songs until the next album rolls around.

Wonder Woman. A movie review.

No spoilers on the Western Front

It seems like it was only yesterday that I was commenting about the superhero movie formula becoming stale (oh, it was – check out my Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 review here). Little did I know that I would be watching Wonder Woman and feel the excitement of seeing a superhero movie that’s different. And a character that I can care about, who actually cares about people (without the need for financial or selfish incentive, I mean).

Wonder Woman is an origin story, set in 1918 as the First World War is coming to an end. Steve Trevor is a spy who crashes his plane on the island of Themiscyra, hidden island of the Amazons. The Amazons are warrior women created by the Greek gods to help bring peace to the world. He is rescued by Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. They have their first encounter with German soldiers, who are chasing Trevor for a journal he has procured that has information about dangerous new gas weapons about to be deployed on the Western front, gas that could change the course of the war and threaten the upcoming armistice negotiations. Diana decides to travel with Steve to man’s world to help end the war.

This movie doesn’t shy away from exploring the horrors of the conflict and its effect on the soldiers and civilians caught up in it. In fact, Wonder Woman seems ideal for this period, and despite the fantastic/mystical nature of her origins, is more at home in this somewhat more realistic environment than you might expect. There are some amazing battle scenes–for instance, when Diana crosses No Man’s Land, and fights soldiers in a town behind the front lines. The characters of Diana and Trevor are well developed, giving both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine roles they can get their teeth into. Pine is particularly good in this role, stretching himself a bit more than his usual arrogant Star Trek demeanour. All the supporting actors give fine performances. A big thumbs up to Patty Jenkins, director, on a great movie.

Wonder Woman is a movie that seems to appeal to a broad range of people (I went with my son and my mum, who both loved it). It’s well paced, the special effects and music are good, the story keeps you interested all the way through and the final showdown with the big bad is pretty spectacular. Nice twist at the end, too.

I haven’t felt this good about a superhero movie in a long time. Wonder Woman is a movie about hope, about selflessness and about doing the right thing. It has been a while since I’ve seen a superhero with these motivations, and as old-fashioned as they may seem, it’s also a refreshing take in light of all the Deadpool and Logan-style movies nowadays (And I loved both those movies, by the way – you can check out my Logan review here).

Do yourself a favour and check out Wonder Woman. You will love this movie. Unless you’re a rabidly sexist/racist fanboy troll who can’t stand seeing a woman in the limelight. And I think the world has had just about enough of that.

Rating: A

Guardians of the Galaxy – the Marvel formula strikes again…A movie review.

No spoilers here…

I’ve seen all the Marvel movies and generally I love them (Incredible Hulk was a bit meh, but that’s okay, you can’t have everything). The last few have bordered on a bit average, though. So why is this? Is it because I’m basically seeing more or less the same film every time, just with different characters? Is the music basically the same every time, forgettable (don’t believe me? Can you remember any of the music from Dr Strange? Thought not). Maybe my love affair with Marvel movies is coming to an end. Maybe the first wave of characters were the ones I really liked the most. Maybe…

Which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy, vol.2 (GotG). Another Marvel blockbuster, filled with likeable characters, humour, huge explosions, crazy-ass comic book moments, and team-bonding experiences. So why did I come away from the theatre thinking, “that was pretty good”. Pretty Good?! Not, “that was mind blowing”, but “pretty good”.

GotG has lots of humour. Drax is the standout, with his complete lack of tact stealing the entire show. Every character gets their little bit of screen time (with the exception of Peter Quill/Star-Lord, whose plotline with Celestial “Ego” takes up the majority of the story). Every character gets some sort of emotional struggle to contend with (Gamora and her sister, Rocket Raccoon and his need to be loved, Star-lord’s daddy issues, etc.). There is a major character death (although by the end of the movie you’re struggling to feel much about it—and this from a guy who cries in movies if someone breaks a glass). The special effects were amazing, as would be expected from a film with a budget bigger than some small countries (far too much reliance on CGI, though). I loved the 80’s soundtrack, but it wasn’t quite as catchy as the first time around. The orchestral soundtrack, as usual, was cookie-cutter forgettable.

So, what was the problem?

I think we are seeing so many of these movies and their sequels every year (and now DC is in on the act, as well), that unless there is something new in the story, tone and feel of the movie, then we become a little jaded. At least I do.

So GotG was fun, but it didn’t have me wanting to talk about it afterwards (not in the way Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight movies had me discussing implications for days afterwards with my wife). We live in dark times, with economic stresses, rampant terrorism, crazed isolationist governments, growing homelessness and a host of other ills. People want movies that make them forget about serious problems. So, this movie achieves that. At least while you’re in the cinema. But it doesn’t give you anything meaningful to attach to it, to stick with you beyond the initial viewing. I’m sure many will disagree with me. Feel free.

I’m looking forward to Thor: Ragnarok later this year. Hopefully I won’t come away feeling the same.

Rating: C

Alien Covenant. A movie review.

No spoilers! Not real ones, anyway…

I just saw Alien Covenant. I was a bit concerned that it might be all promise and not deliver the goods (a bit like the rather crappy Prometheus that preceded it). But guess what? I was pleasantly surprised. Alien Covenant was good, it filled in the story behind the additional canon Prometheus introduced, and actually made that movie better as a result.

The colony ship Covenant is on its way to Origae-2, where 2000 colonists in suspended animation will start a new life. On the way the ship intercepts a transmission of human origin. They identify the planet it’s coming from as being suitable for colonisation, and make their way to the source of the signal. Landing on the planet, they find it eerily deserted. Then some of the crew members breath in alien spores…

That’s the set up for Alien Covenant. Ridley Scott returns as director, and as expected the visuals and set designs are spectacular. Michael Fassbender returns in dual roles as David (the android from Prometheus) and Walter, an android accompanying the mission, and gives a suitably nuanced performance as both. The human colonists are the usual selection of lesser known actors, with little to care about when they are inevitably killed in various gory ways. This movie belongs to the enigmatic David, and Fassbender’s performance.

Alien Covenant manages to resolve a lot of the issues caused by Prometheus, the movie that divided audiences with its bizarre logical leaps and glaring continuity problems. The pathogen, what happened to the engineers, the different early forms of the Alien progenitors, how the final Alien xenomorph evolved, what happened to the alien ship that took off at the end: all these questions are answered.

Unfortunately, the humans in Alien Covenant are still just as stupid as they were in the previous movie. Walking onto a new world without some kind of breather to protect against bacterial and viral infection? Come on, that’s almost as bad as running in a straight line from a wheel-shaped spaceship rolling towards you… And yes, you just knew someone was going to get killed in the shower. What is this, Friday the 13th?

Alien Covenant was fun, a little bit creepy at times, but not very scary (we’ve seen the Aliens enough by now). It answers the questions you probably asked when you saw Prometheus, improves that movie as a result, and sets up a potential sequel. Not perfect, but good stuff.

Rating: B+

Lion. A tear-filled movie review.

This review contains spoilers.

I never got the chance to see Lion in the cinema. In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t. Not because it’s a bad movie, but because it’s a movie that guarantees I’m going to cry, and I don’t want to be going to the movies with a mate and tear up (it’s a bloke thing). If I ever have a girlfriend again (and if you’ve ever read one of my dating posts, you’ll know the odds of that seem ever remote), then I will gladly accompany her and blubber away like a baby.

I borrowed my Mum’s copy (as you do when you’re poor) and watched it by myself (why don’t you go to the cinema by yourself, I hear you say. My life is sad enough already without going on my own, thank you very much).

Lion is, without doubt, the best movie I have seen all year. That’s a pretty big statement to make, so I guess I better back it up.

Lion tells the story of a five-year old Indian boy called Saroo (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar), who is separated from his brother and ends up on a train that takes him thousands of miles away from his Indian home town to Calcutta, where he is lost. Eventually he is relocated to an orphanage, and from there is adopted by Australian parents and raised in Tasmania. Later on, he discovers he can track down his mum and brother by using Google Earth, and does so.

The story sounds pretty straightforward, but it doesn’t prepare you for the sheer emotional rollercoaster this movie puts you through. From the squalor and heartbreak of the living conditions of Saroo’s family, to the plight and serious abuse of street kids in Calcutta; you are overwhelmed by incredible anger and profound sadness, and I was on the verge of tears throughout the first act in India. Saroo’s adopted brother is profoundly affected by the abuse he’s received, and this is a theme carried through part of the film’s second act in Australia.

Dev Patel is magnificent in the role of the adult Saroo, who suffers from PTSD as a result of the separation from his family. His adoptive parents are played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman (in possibly the best role I’ve ever seen her in. In Australia, Nicole falls into two camps: ‘national treasure’, or ‘can’t stand the frigid cow’. I quite happily sat in the second camp, until I saw her in this movie. Wonderful performance, glowing with warmth and intensity).

As expected, Saroo finds his mother and is reunited. Tears all around.

It’s not a perfect movie: there are times when the pacing drags, the secondary characters are often underdeveloped. But the cinematography and music are excellent, and the leads more than make up for anything else that is lacking.

I found this movie mentally and emotionally overwhelming to watch. But it was also profoundly uplifting. I challenge anyone to not feel for the characters and their situations. This is a movie you should see, even if you hate tear jerkers, if only to remind yourself that you are better off than you think you are.

My movie of the year. If I judged movies based on the number of tears I shed while watching, it would be movie of the decade.

Borrower.

This is a uni piece I wrote a few months back. It was actually the first appearance of Alpha Girl, Beta Max and Me. I’ve removed the academic references and included one of my discussion thread responses from that week. NOTE: This was back when I used social media. Nowadays I only use it to promote my blog, which makes me even less well informed then I used to be. 

I haven’t read a newspaper in well over a year. It’s not that I don’t like newspapers; it’s not like I don’t have a ready supply of them each day. It’s just that I’m not really bothered to read them when I get my news through social media and television.

(“Are you on Twitter again?” says Beta Max.

“No,” I reply, quickly changing to YouTube.)

So, I was a little surprised when I read the Insider Movies section of the Sunday Telegraph and found a number of well written movie reviews by Vicky Roach, the reviewer in residence.

(“Why are you reading the paper?” says Alpha Girl.

“Research,” I reply.

“Why can’t you be normal like other people?” she says. I extend my tongue.)

When I read through Critical Review in my uni course notes, I thought to myself: “this is a bit clunky – I don’t recall reviews being this structured.” Identification of work, Context, Description, Assessment, Identification of reviewer – it all seemed a bit robotic to me. I got to the bit about “blending the elements”, and was somewhat relieved. Heaven forbid I’d have to write a review in such a stilted way.

So, back to the newspaper: Ms Roach reviewed four movies: Passengers, Assassin’s Creed, Rosalie Blum and Paterson. I really enjoyed her approach. She was knowledgeable about the art form (script and director techniques, for instance), had a good understanding of the plot and themes of each movie, and raised relevant points and criticisms insightfully. Her comments about Assassin’s Creed succeeding on a “kinetic level”, but failing to deliver in the end due to the character’s “moral ambiguities” and a lack of viewer investment in the outcome, struck home with me as I was planning to take my son.

(“We’re still seeing it,” says my videogame-loving nerd.)

Ms Roach obviously loves the film medium. You can tell from the way she crafts her reviews. (I love women who write well about things they love, especially when it’s a subject I know and love as well. It’s a bit of a turn on. Um, that probably was more than you needed to know.) As expected the smaller “art nouveau” films like Rosalie Blum and Paterson rated better than the big budget movies. Is this a thing with reviewers? “I will always take art over fluff!” I happen to like a little fluff with my art.

(“It’s like chocolate, marshmallow and vegemite sandwiches,” says Beta Max. “They shouldn’t work, but somehow really, really do.”)

Each of Ms Roach’s appraisals captured the essence of the five ingredients of a review, including context and a witty summation of each movie in the legend (for example: “French crowd-pleaser sure to leave audiences blum-struck”, with an attempted pun, no less). I especially liked the intro headline for each movie, in punchy prose – for Passengers: “Sci-Fi romance has too much space in its plot”. For Paterson: “Story of a secret poet has its own rhyme and reason”.

So now I have to read the newspaper every week, just to check out the movie reviews. And maybe read some of the other stuff: news and the like.

(“Are you finished with the paper” says Alpha Girl.

“Not much longer,” I reply.

“Buy your own,” she says.)

 

One of my responses to the discussion thread:

Hi

I, too, like short reviews. I think it’s a measure of a “real” reviewer to be able to do a review in a short format and not leave anything out; to be able to capture the essence of a movie, book or CD in a short, almost perfunctory way.

I have to admit that I’m not good at short. I think I’m a bit verbose at times (read: boring). Maybe I should try writing reviews as Haiku – that way I’m deliberately restrained by the form:

Assassin’s Creed film
Started well but ended bad
Little investment

Could be onto something here. I’m just going to rush out and patent the Haiku movie review concept.

Cheers

Steve

John Wick: Chapter 2. A Movie Review.

No spoilers here!

I loved John Wick, the Keanu Reeves actioner from a few years back, about a retired assassin who returns to the business after some local mobsters steal his car and kill his dog. The movie features plenty of martial arts and Gun Fu action, with Keanu doing many of his own stunts.

The sequel has just opened in Australia (why so late? I don’t know. I prefer movies being released at the same time worldwide – less piracy that way). Chapter 2 continues on from the first, with Keanu reprising the lead and with a new dog (acquired at the end of the first film). He is approached by an Italian mob boss closely linked to the society of assassins Wick used to work for. He calls in a marker that helped Wick retire from the business. He wants Wick to kill his sister in Italy, so he can take her seat at the High Table that heads up the assassin society. I’m not going to spoil the movie any more than that, but will give my general impressions.

John Wick 2 kicks ass! This movie has a bigger budget than the last and it shows. The action and stunts are bigger, the story bolder and broader, production values have improved, more backstory is provided for the assassin society (which is more expansive than you’d think), and new characters are introduced that will carry over into Chapter 3 (yeah, it sets up a sequel).

Reeves’ stoic performance suits the character. Wick’s motivations are pretty basic: finish the contract, avenge his losses, survive. And he does these with aplomb: lots of killing with guns, knives, cars, hand to hand, and pencils (yes, you read that right). Remember the 1980’s, when people used to comment on how many people Sly Stallone and Arnie Schwarzenegger killed in their movies (alright, you’re probably too young to remember, but it was a thing)? Well they’ve got nothing on Keanu in this. Wick also gets run over (multiple times), stabbed, shot, tossed down stairs, and generally made a mess of. 

I thought John Wick 2 was pretty awesome. If you like action movies that cut to the chase and get on with it, with dramatic action and stunts, guns and cool fight scenes, this is the movie for you.

Versatile Blogger Award Nomination – Woo hoo! Cheers and thank you 😊

Having just gotten over the excitement of being nominated for the Awesome Blogger Award (read about it here), I was surprised and excited to find I’d been nominated the next day by Sonyo Estavillo from https://lilpickmeup.com/ for another, the Versatile Blogger Award. I’m only able to post this now as I have been doing assignments, seeing movies, posting other (shorter) stuff, researching blogs to nominate and generally screwing up my life (as I usually do each waking moment of my day).

Being the humble person that I am (NOT!), I was delighted to receive this nomination and thank Sonyo from the bottom of my heart (which is not bottomless, but it’s pretty deep – see what I did there, not quite hidden double meaning. Sometimes I just impress myself. And only myself. I told you I’m not humble).

So before I dig myself deeper into a hole of egomania countered by self-deprecation and self-loathing, let’s talk about the award rules and who I’ve nominated…

The Rules:

The rules say to thank the person who nominated you (also providing a link to their blog), nominate 10 blogs you feel should be awarded, and then share seven interesting facts about yourself.

The 10 blogs I’m nominating for the Versatile Blogger Award:

My apologies if you’ve already received it or don’t feel like participating.

 Seven Interesting Things About Me:

I’m not sure if these qualify as interesting, but what the hey, I’ll give it a go:

  1. I’m very fit, if I do say so myself – I work out regularly with free weights, 4-5 times a week, including walking, bike riding and other stuff (yes, I post about it, too. Last one was here). I do Wing Chun Kung Fu (you can read about that here). I’m healthier now than I have been at any other time in my life (including my very active 20’s). Unfortunately, the offset of that is I’m probably going through the unhappiest time in my life, but the exercise helps to keep my depression in check, so it all balances out…sort of.
  2. I always have about ten books on the go at any one time – I loooooove to read. Goes hand in hand with the writing thing. How do I keep up with them all? That’s a good question. Bookmarks, mostly.
  3. I loooove RPGs – what’s an RPG, I hear you say? To answer that, click here. I DM a group regularly, and it’s lots of fun. If you’ve never played, give it a go. You will be pleasantly surprised at how fun nerd stuff can be. Yeah, I’m a big nerd. A fit one, though.
  4. I like to make up stupid nonsense words – Certainly not to make myself sound smarter. More to make me look stupidlier (yep – new word). Which isn’t hard.
  5. I am a full time mature-age student with next to no social life – What’s this? A student with next to no social life?! Unheard of! Well, it’s true. On top of my ongoing depression I have loads of anxiety issues. And not many friends. See, this blog has cheered you up already, because you secretly realise you’re so much better than me. See? My blog is a ‘feel good’ blog.
  6. I am a true romantic – yeah, it’s true. Walking on the beach at sunset. Romantic candlelit dinners. Spoiling my partner (when I have one). I’m particularly good at buying presents (it’s a real skill, y’know). I cry in sensitive movies. I love blokey stuff, but like girly stuff, too. Yes, I’m as confused as you are about that. Maybe it’s some male menopause thing…
  7. I loooooooove movies – If I could live permanently in a movie theatre, existing on nothing else other than popcorn, I’d be as happy as a pig in you-know-what. I would have a little batch of bedding and a shelf of books (for when the movies aren’t showing), and be that lovable hermit over near the wall who never leaves. Come to think of it, that sounds more like something from a Stephen King novel…

Hmmm. I’ve just realised this is starting to sound like some sort of dating blog (Noooooooooo!!!).

Once again, thanks Sonyo for the nomination! Much appreciated!

Cheers 😊

Awesome Blogger Award Nomination – What the?!

I’ve just found out (well not really just, but almost just) I’ve been nominated for the ‘Awesome Blogger Award’ by outrightallie. Outrightallie’s blog is awesome, and I’d nominate her back, but she already has been, and if I did so again she might get stuck in a reality-distorting and paradoxical blog award feedback loop. Or not.

This was quite a surprise, as I didn’t think anyone actually read my blog (yes, I have a few followers, but I just thought those likes were ‘courtesy’ likes – you know, like on Facebook, or as I like to call it Fakebook–when you have friends who aren’t really friends, who like your post even though they have no idea who you are or what you’re talking about. I don’t do Fakebook anymore, except to promote this blog. Could be because I don’t have any real or fake friends…). What I will say is that I started this thing a few months ago to push myself to write every day, and so far, I’ve managed to generate a whole lot of crap (a reverse-adage: quantity over quality). Okay, it’s not all crap—some of it is decent. Sort of.

So that’s a rambling way of saying thank you outrightallie for the nomination, which you can find over here (enticing clickbait).

So, who created this award?

It was created by Miss Maggie over at Dreaming of Guatemala. This is a direct quote from her blog about it:

 “This is an award for the absolutely wonderful writers all across the blogging world. They have beautiful blogs, are kind and lovely, and always find a way to add happiness and laughter to the lives of their readers. That is what truly defines an awesome blogger.”

Here are The Rules:

  • Thank the person who nominated you.
  • Include the reason behind the award.
  • Include the banner in your post.
  • Tag it under #awesomebloggeraward in the Reader.
  • Answer the questions your nominator gave you.
  • Nominate at least 5 awesome bloggers.
  • Give your nominees 10 new questions to answer.
  • Let your nominees know that they’ve been nominated!

Following are the questions outrightallie posed for me to answer. I hate answering questions. I like the aura of mystery. Actually, it’s because I’m afraid my life is not very interesting and if people find this out they may read my blog even less than they already do. I will answer because my social skills (as you may have noticed) need some work and this is good practice.

Who do you look up to?

My best mate is a pastor at the local church. He is a keen surfer and is a down-to-earth optimist, who I only found out recently is an introvert. This is surprising as I have known him since kindergarten and assumed he was an extrovert. I guess I wasn’t actually paying much attention all those years. Could be because of my terrible social skills.

What do you want to accomplish in the future?

I want to meet the woman of my dreams, fall in love and have a complication-filled life bordering on wonderful. Failing that I want to be able to live in a place where I can own a dog who will love me unconditionally despite my obvious lack of social skills.

Oh, and finish my novel and become a published author. Not self-publishing. I seek legitimacy through multinational-corporate publishing houses that care nothing for the reader or the author, and in so doing I’ll receive a huge advance that will never be recouped as my book will lapse into obscurity in the first month of sales, become remaindered and sit on my shelf as a reminder of my failure as a writer. Or something like that.

If you have 1 million dollars, what will you do with it?

If I were a narcissistic drug-user I would say “lots of ice”, but as I’m not: I’d buy myself a nice house (where I could own a socially awkward dog that matches my personality), donate much to charities (did I just write that to make myself sound noble or do I really feel that way? Guess you’ll never know…), buy a better car (I own a bomb that gets me from A to B, in attempted style, if coughing and spluttering were in style) and self-publish my novel (didn’t I just say I wouldn’t do that? Yes, but if I had a million bucks, who cares?).

I guess I’d settle back and make music and write every day. Oh, that’s what I do already. But without the million dollars.

Are you a traveller who looks for budget or luxury on your holidays?

I’m a mature-age student eating up his minimal life savings with ongoing limited income who wishes he could travel. Big sigh. As you can see, I’m quite the catch. And that’s not counting my numerous mental health issues, hang ups and years of emotional baggage.

Of course, that’ll all change when I’m a famous author. Or singer. Or millionaire (see previous question).

What is the one thing you’d most like to change about the world?

I’d like to change the laws of physics and thermodynamics so superheroes are possible. And become one. Nothing major, just an infinitely powerful goody-goody type.

Oh, and world peace (but did I say that because it’s expected of me or because, as a superhero, I would eliminate all nuclear weapons and become absolute dictator? Hopefully, you’ll never find out…).

If you could offer a new-born child only one piece of advice, what would it be?

I know you love Christmas, but Santa is just your parents buying and hiding presents and lying to you for the first decade of your life. That’s your first life lesson. Trust no one. Especially anyone who teaches life lessons based on Santa Claus.

Oh, you said new-born. I guess my advice would really be: “Coochie, coochie, coo.”

What are you most grateful for?

My teenage son, who, despite his rampant disrespect and failure to listen to any of my ever-wonderful and incredibly wise life advice, is the best thing that ever happened to me.

It’s possible he doesn’t listen to me because of that discussion we had about Santa Claus.

What is your happiest childhood memory?  What makes it so special?

Learning all the swear words (including that really bad one) in kindergarten. Before that I never realised they existed, as my parents and friends didn’t curse.

My foul language has been the only constant in a world full of uncertainty.

If today was the end of the world, what would you do?

Become a narcissist, smoke loads of ice and nominate every blogger in the world for this award. No, not really. I guess I’d complain to anyone who’d listen that “I was only two weeks from retirement”.

If you knew you were going to die one year from today, what would you do and how would you want to be remembered?

Okay, let’s get serious.

I’d steal a million dollars (see earlier question), build a shrine to foul language on a hill overlooking the capital, hitchhike around the country accepting lifts only from people riding scooters, create a website with only one word on it (“What?”), try and read War and Peace in one non-stop, caffeine-fuelled sitting, watch every season of South Park, write a new version of Genesis for the Bible incorporating the latest cosmology and dark matter theory (subject to the okay from the Big Guy, of course), teach guitar to fifty chimpanzees and see if they can compose a Led Zeppelin-inspired guitar orchestra piece (the musical equivalent of Hamlet, say), and tell my Mum, Dad and son how much I love them. That last one I don’t do enough of.

I guess I’d want to be remembered for the good things, and not the stupid screw ups I’ve made over the years. Like this Q&A, for example.

Nominations and Questions to Answer

Here are some cool blogs I’m nominating. Further below are my questions for them to answer.

  • Nicolesundays – https://nicolesundays.wordpress.com/ (I am actually envious of how funny this girl is. My witicisms are but a pale shadow of her humourosity. That’s a genuine word I just created.)
  • Message in Stanza – https://messageinstanza.wordpress.com/ (I’m sure she would like this award nom. If not, she can write me and complain.)
  • SerotoninVoid – https://serotoninvoid.wordpress.com/ (I know we’re supposed to nominate happy blogs, but happy is not really my thing. I like what I like.)
  • Flash-365 – https://flash-365.com/ (I don’t know if he does awards, but he should. His flash fiction is awesome.)
  • Mindfump – https://mindfump.com/ (I don’t know if Mindfump does awards either; when I visited his site today my browser crashed. But if you do get there, it’s a great blog.)

And now, the awe-inspiring questions:

  1. Why did you start writing? Was poverty a preferred life choice? And if you have money, don’t brag— it’s unbecoming.
  2. If you could work in a trade, would you prefer to be an electrician or a plumber? Instead of a writer, I mean.
  3. What was the last book you truly hated? And how did you inform people it was bad? Are you the sort who quietly smoulders, or the ‘shout it from the rooftops’ kind?
  4. If you had a time machine, which evil dictator would you hunt down and exterminate?
  5. Now that you’ve changed history with your irresponsible actions, what exactly has come to pass? And will you need to change it back?
  6. If you had to pass a urine test, would you substitute someone else’s? If so, whose and why? What exactly have you got to hide?
  7. Have you ever played a tabletop role-playing game? Do you even know what a tabletop role-playing game is (hint: it’s not sexual)? If not, just pretend you do, without checking wikipedia, and make up an answer.
  8. If you could invite three horrible people to dinner, who would they be? The dinner’s not for you, it’s for your arch-nemesis.
  9. Who is your arch-nemesis, and why would you subject them to such a horrible dinner? Have you no shame? Who really has an arch-nemesis, anyway?
  10. If you had a choice between world peace and world peach, would you assume it was a spelling error or would you choose ‘world peach’ because you were trying to be cool and didn’t want people to think you weren’t hip to the new terms the kids use nowadays? You must answer in the form of a Haiku (a 5/7/5 syllable Japanese poem. But you knew that already, didn’t you?)

I think this was the longest blog I have ever written. A lot of work. I have uni assignments due tomorrow, y’know.

And yes, my spelling is English, not American, so stop picking.

The Laid Back DM #4 – ‘Tales of the Yawning Portal’ Leaves me Yearning for Something Better

I received ‘Tales of the Yawning Portal’ the other day, after ordering it from the Book Depository. I’d heard that Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) were updating some of its best known modules to 5e, and was looking forward to it.

Well, I’ve been reading it for a few days now. And all I can say is – WTF WoTC?! Let me explain.

‘Tales of the Yawning Portal’? They couldn’t come up with a more inspiring title? And the titular tavern is featured in TWO pages of the book. Why bother with it at all? It’s supposed to be a linking device for the adventures. But guess what? It’s not! It’s just…there. Maybe it’s a plug for a future Yawning Portal adventure. It’s fantastic that the Undermountain dungeon (Which adventurers can access via the tavern) is mentioned so many times in those two pages, but it’s NOT IN THE BOOK. Yawn!

These adventures were some of the best, and most dangerous, of all time. One small problem: they are all dungeon crawls. There is no variety. They are all dungeons, with no wilderness, urban or role playing components (okay, ‘the Forge of Fury’ has a tiny bit of wilderness). I love some of the old modules (I own the AD&D (1e) ones featured), but come on! A dungeon crawl is a dungeon crawl – but seven of them? 

And ‘The Sunless Citadel’ is boring (sorry, all you people who loved D&D 3e). ‘Tomb of Horrors’ is still spectacular. ‘The Forge of Fury’ and ‘White Plume Mountain’ are great.

Supposedly the adventures were selected so that you could play the book as a campaign. But why bother? In the same line WoTC suggests using them any way you like, as fillers. And there are no real reasons for linking them as a campaign, except for the first two adventures (which followed each other in D&D 3e), other than the fact your PCs should be at the required level by the next chapter.

And why make some of the maps so small? Would a map to a page for some of the earlier dungeons be such a big ask (some of the later dungeons have maps to a page).

There are heaps of monsters included in the back, many of them from ‘Volo’s Guide’ (I guess it didn’t sell as well as they expected).

In WoTC’s defence: the adventures have been converted well. The artwork is great. I still dislike not having monster stat blocks in the room descriptions. A monster name in bold is NOT ideal. I know WoTC wants to sell more ‘Monster Manuals’, but shortened monster stat blocks are used by other companies producing 5e adventures, so why can’t they? And like all WoTC’s offerings, the text entries for each room are always too wordy. When I’m running an adventure I don’t want to have to drill through loads of text to get the information I need.

In summary, I was a little disappointed by this offering. Yes, some of the dungeons are great. But after so many great campaign releases, overall this was a bit of a let down. And I wish they’d left the Yawning Portal tavern out of it. I would also prefer they excluded the seminal ‘Against the Giants’ adventure, and released it with ‘Descent into the Depths’ and ‘Queen of the Demonweb Pits’, all together, the way it should have been. In fact, maybe they should have released that collected edition rather than ‘Tales of the Yawning Portal’. 

If you’re looking for some killer (literally) dungeon crawls, then this is the book for you. If you already own most of these adventures, save your cash and do a manual conversion instead.

Novel Daze

My novel is back on track!

Rather than follow the advice of one of my previous blogs, and do it in bite-sized chunks (read about it here), I decided to devote myself to writing as a full-time job. As I’m a full-time student, I ironically have some time on my hands. I’ve shuffled my schedule (it’s not hard to shuffle nothing) and arranged my time so that I work on my novel every week day, for about 4-5 hours. Today was my first foray, and things are going swimmingly (that’s an old-fashioned expression, noobs).

I’m feeling a bit better about myself, I have a direction (one could almost say a purpose, but I’m not ready to believe that yet), and I have a better excuse not to work for a living (whereas before I had no excuse at all). My creative muse is flowing. I’m enjoying writing and I still have time to update my blog (yay!).

Now I just have to see how long it lasts (nooooo! The first wave of cynicism…).

In other exciting news (or average news, take your pick), I’ve nearly finished Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, an Australian classic about five women who work in the ladies frock section of a department store in 1950’s Sydney. It’s required reading for one of my uni subjects, and it’s a riot. I’ve never read any chick lit before, but it’s fun. Check it out, it’s available through Text Classics from book shops, The Book Depository, or Amazon.

Fun fact: My mother remembered attending the same Sydney boarding school as St John and her sister. Yes, at the same time.

Cheers

Steve 🙂

Mindjammer – SF role playing that’ll bring you back for more

I guess you can tell by the title of this post that I love this game. I included it in my recent Top 10 Tabletop Role Playing Games.

Mindjammer is far future space opera role playing, a la the stories of Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton. It’s a world of exploration, political intrigue, cultural conflict, post-humanity, virtual existence and rediscovery. The name of the game is taken from the sentient starships that carry communications and information between the stars.

Mindjammer uses the excellent Fate Core System as its engine. I wrote about this system recently, so to find out more about how it works, click here. The Fate Core System is about cinematic storytelling and making your players look and feel awesome. It empowers players and Gamemasters (GMs) to stretch the envelope. This means that Mindjammer adventures can be…flexible, and as such, the game probably requires a reasonably experienced GM.

The New Commonality of Mankind is the setting, 10 000 years in the future. And what a huge setting it is. The Mindjammer hardcover rule book is almost 500 pages long, and it contains literally everything you can think of for a sci-fi campaign–-technology, equipment, weapons, armour, starships (including sentient spaceships), constructs, vehicles, cultures, history, synthetics, races, divergent evolution, environments, life forms–and more.

Although characters can be New Commonality humans, there are also hominids (humans who have evolved to suit their new environments, like the genurgically-enhanced Chembu, low gravity Javawayn, symbiotic Hydragand-Dezimeer, and the artistic Viri), xenomorphs (uplifted animals, like canids, cetaceans, felines, pithecines, ursoids), synthetics (intelligent starships with humanoid avatars, mechanicals, organics, installations, etc.), Aliens (the warlike Hooyow, the mysterious Lowhigh) and post-humans (Evanescents, Evolvers, Extenders, and Longevitors). And the rules are flexible enough to allow creation of your own genotypes so the sky is, quite literally, without limit. There are multiple occupations, with suggested aspects, skills, stunts, enhancements and equipment for quick builds, but players have the freedom to create builds from scratch.

In the far future, nearly everyone has Mindscape implants that enable them to connect with everyone else via a virtual network, enabling technopsi powers. The Mindscape stores memories and personalities of the dead, and can provide additional skills. It’s another environment for players to adventure in, or can be used as an adjunct to their ‘physical’ adventures.

The New Commonality itself stretches over 3000 light years from Old Earth, and contains so many systems that only a small number are in the book (The included Darradine Rim is a great introductory setting, nestled on the edge of the New Commonality and bordering the Venu Empire–lots of intrigue and cultural stresses to fuel adventures). Full rules are included for creating your own systems and sectors.

Adventure seeds are peppered throughout the Mindjammer rule book, to give GMs ideas. There are extensive sections on creating adventures and campaigns, which can be any type of sci-fi the GM and players want. There is so much contained within that it’s a bit overwhelming at times, and impossible for me to cover here. The rule book is impeccably written and edited by author Sarah Newton (who also put together the great retro-fantasy Monsters and Magic RPG, which I’ll also get around to reviewing sometime…).

There are various adventures and supplements available, including The Far Havens, Blue, The City People, Hearts and Minds, and the quickstart PDF (introductory rules and adventure) Dominion, which is only $4.00 (Australian).

Mindjammer has a Traveller-version of the game, for grognards old and new (I have many fond memories of Traveller campaigns from my way-distant past).

Mindjammer is a fantastic game and setting. The Fate rules engine is flexible and easy to use, the sci-fi setting is suitably vast, fascinating and challenging, and the options for style of play are many. You can’t go wrong with this game. Even if you already have a preferred ruleset, you can just adopt the setting.

Try Mindjammer out with your gaming group. I guarantee they’ll be coming back for more.

 

Mindjammer is available via Modiphius Games at https://www.modiphius.net/collections/mindjammer-press

Fate Core System – Story telling table top role playing at its finest

I’ve been threatening to do a Fate Core review for some time now (it’s one of my Top 10 Favourite Role Playing Games), but you know how it is, so much to do and so little time… But today’s the day!

So, what is Fate Core? It’s a table top role playing game*, or TRPG**, which focuses on dramatic story telling. In the last decade or so, a number of games have entered the TRPG market that emphasise player engagement and involvement via storytelling and role playing***, including Apocalypse World, Mouse Guard, 13th Age, etc.

I believe Fate Core is one of the best cinematic story telling games around. It has some crunchy dice rolling mechanics and emphasises player awesomeness. It encourages players and Gamemaster (GM) to work together to create the story proactively as you play the game. And it enables you to play any type of game imaginable.

Here’s a few things about Fate Core:

  • Fate Core uses fudge dice. The player rolls four of these to determine if they pass or fail tests. Fudge dice have two pluses (+), two blanks ( ) and two minuses (-), and when rolled together show an outcome, where pluses are positive (obviously), blanks mean nothing (again, obviously) and minuses subtract from the pluses and blanks (you can use standard dice to simulate these if you don’t have fudge dice). When a player wants to do something cool (for example, running across the backs of crocodiles to get to the other side of the stream), the GM sets the opposition (the previous example might be considered great, or +4 opposition). The player rolls the dice and has the opportunity to invoke an Aspect (see below), or use stunts (see further below) or skills (see even further below) to add to the roll, or use Fate points (see even further down below) to influence the outcome. Once rolled, the player describes what happened and the game moves forward.
  • Players and environments have Aspects, which are phrases that describe some interesting and individual detail about the character or place e.g. “Tempted by Shiny Things”. These aspects are used in the game during Scenes, which are dramatic devices used to describe action and events. If you can describe how your aspect can add to an action, then you can get a bonus on your roll. This is called invoking, and usually costs a Fate Point. Alternatively, the negative component of an aspect can be compelled – that is, used to make things more difficult for the player. This earns them a Fate point they can use later.
  • Fate Points are the currency of the game. Players start the game with 1-3 Fate points (depending on how they build their character), and you can spend them to invoke aspects. You gain them for compelling aspects (see earlier).
  • Skills are used to do complicated or interesting actions with the dice, and are added either when you build the character or during the game – they range from +1 to +4, and you are limited in how many you have. For example, Rapport is a skill for social interaction.
  • Stunts are special tricks a player can use to get an extra benefit out of a skill or alter some rule in your character’s favour e.g. “Another Round?” Is a stunt a character with rapport can use to give a bonus to gain information when drinking in a tavern.
  • Damage is done to characters via physical stress or mental stress – a bit like hit points from D&D, but not. Physical and mental stress is recovered after each scene. A player or GM can also opt to take consequences from actions – these are longer lasting impacts that play into the story telling elements of the game, and in some cases, can affect your rolls.

What I’ve explained is very brief and doesn’t capture how cool all these elements work together when playing a game (I’m sure the authors, if they ever read this, will roll their eyes and say “But he’s just scratched the surface!”). Trust me, the rules are well written and play tested, and work really well in a live setting, allowing you to play any type of situation.

Fate Core also has an easy version called Fate Accelerated, which is quicker to learn.

One of the fantastic aspects of Fate Core is that the GM and players can make up any sort of background/setting they want to play in. There are also a number of pre-made Fate Core settings, that you can use for quick or extended games, such as Morts (zombie apocalypse), Red Planet (Soviet pulp sci-fi), Save Game (set inside a video game world), and Romance in the Air (political intrigue/steampunk), to name a few. These can be downloaded from DrivethruRPG.com, for as much as you want to pay for them.

Fate Core is also the system used in a number of other games, such as the totally cool far future transhuman Mindjammer (one of my top 10!), The Dresden Files, Spirit of the Century, Atomic Robo, Eclipse Phase (Transhumanity’s Fate), War of Ashes, and even an indie Fate Core version of Mass Effect.

If you haven’t played this game before, get some fudge dice (or regular six-sided dice), grab the rules from EvilHat.com or DrivethruRPG.com and start playing! You won’t be disappointed.

 

* Don’t know what a TRPG? You don’t know what you’ve been missing! Click here for an explanation

** Or just RPG for all the old school grognards out there who don’t get computer RPGs and table top RPGs mixed up

*** Despite what RPG implies, some RPGs are so crunchy and combat focussed that they are almost not RPGs at all, rather board games with character and skill building

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