crackle

Fair warning: I feel no qualms about spoiling a film based off a book that was published in 1937. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. You’ve probably read the book by J.R.R. Tolkien. You’ve probably seen the Rankin-Bass animated film from 1977. You’ve probably, god help you, read The Silmarillion. Maybe you had an Elvish wedding. Maybe you named your firstborn Aragorn, son of Arathorn, even if she was a girl, and now she’s old enough to resent you for it, you hapless nerd.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Spoilers ahead.

Continue reading ‘Chekhov’s Dwarven Windlass: My Thoughts on the 2nd Hobbit Film’


TALES-FROM-THE-HOOD

Title: Tales from the Hood

Genre: Horror

Subgenre: Anthology Film

Vintage: 1995

Director: Rusty Cundieff

Netflix’s Lying Description: “In an experience more frightening than their worst nightmares, three friends tour a funeral home with a creepy mortician (Clarence Williams III) in this Spike Lee-produced horror anthology. Along the way, they hear a story about each of the corpses. From cops turned bad to a child with uncanny powers, a bigoted politician tormented by voodoo dolls and a drug dealer who undergoes sensory rehab, all of the spooky tales have racial implications.”

What I remembered: I’ve seen this movie before, but all I recollected was Clarence Williams III chewing the scenery and the trick ending, in which – OMG! SPOILERS! – it turns out we were in Hell all along! AAAAAAAAAH!

Why I was pleasantly surprised: This movie is fabulous. Recently, I haven’t had much luck with horror movies in general and horror anthologies in particular. Too often, these films get so wrapped up in trying to make the audience squirm that they neglect to make the audience think. Tales from the Hood is a horror movie with a message, and the real boogiemen of the film are the specters of institutionalized racism represented in the film by corrupt cops, bigoted politicians, and marauding gangs of disaffected youth. The imagery isn’t  subtle. For example, in one hallucinatory montage director Rusty Cundieff juxtaposes a violent gangster rap song against photos of real life lynchings, while in another psychedelic sequence he draws visual parallels between American prison culture and slavery. In a third sequence a terrified bigot attempts to ward off the nightmares that confront him by pummeling them with the American flag. It’s not subtle, but it sure packs a heck of a punch.

What’s the best part: The movie has a great sense of humor. Tales from the Hood is a film that realizes how goofy some of the subject matter is, and it has no qualms about mixing in gags among the grotesqueries. The dialog is crisp and snappy, especially among the trio of gangsters trying to pretend that they aren’t unsettled by the spooky surroundings of the funeral parlor. And while Clarence Williams III plays his role for high camp and melodrama, other actors play their parts straight. Particularly noteworthy are David Allan Grier in a chilling turn as an abusive step-father and Lamont Bentley as Crazy K, a criminal who comes unhinged when confronted with the spirits of the innocent people he has slain.

What I learned:

  • Everybody, regardless of their ancestry, thinks that dolls are creepy.
  • This is not, in fact, the Terror Dome.
  • Even hardcore gangsters scream like little girls when confronted with Clarence Williams III, maestro of the diabolical.

What’s coming next: The gods of the random number generator decree that the next adventure shall be…

Evolver

Evolver.


In an effort to empty my burgeoning Netflix queue, I’m embarking on a new writing project with the aid of a random number generator and a list of bizarre and terrifying films culled from the bottom of the streaming video barrel. And so without further ado, I present the first entry in my Netflix Adventures:

initiation

Title: The Initiation

Genre:  Horror

Subgenre: Slasher

Vintage: 1984

Director: Larry Stewart

Netflix’s Lying Description: “Tormented by recurring nightmares, sorority pledge Kelly must come to terms with her visions to get through an initiation that requires her to spend the night in an empty department store. But an escaped psychopathic killer is targeting the pledges.”

What I expected: From the title and the poster, I anticipated that this would be a “killer frat” movie. A hazing ritual would turn deadly. Or a random psychopath would stalk the sorority house, picking off co-eds one by one, with the unsuspecting victims thinking that the disappearance of their friends was simply fun and games.

What I got: Something significantly weirder. As the movie progressed, my mental roulette wheel for “what’s really going on” expanded to include entries for: split personality, psychic phenomena, red herring, and evil twin. To the movie’s credit (or perhaps to its detriment) I wasn’t certain which of these possibilities would end up being the true explanation until the big reveal at the end. The Initiation kept me guessing, but mostly because I couldn’t fathom what constituted the killer’s murderous motivations. Daphne Zuniga (Princess Vespa from Spaceballs) plays the resident “final girl”, who also happens to be a traumatic amnesiac suffering from recurring nightmares with some particularly obvious Freudian overtones. She’s a rich, white girl surrounded by other rich, white people with rich, white people problems. They all get murdered with gardening tools.

What’s the best part: The cinematography. The Initiation features some solid point-of-view camerawork and some well-framed sequences where the characters (and the audience) only catch a glimpse of the marauding maniac. Thus, the movie manages to maintain a decent amount of  suspense, even if the victims are sometimes unsympathetic (or undefined) and the killer’s motivations are just a wee bit inscrutable. I also enjoyed the imagery involving mirrors and other reflective surfaces, but I wish the filmmakers hadn’t foregrounded it so bluntly. There’s even a line of dialog where resident “handsome doctoral candidate” James Read overtly references the symbolism, as if the audience needed it explained to them at that point.

What I learned:

  • Mental asylums in movies are invariably filled with stereotypically crazy, nursery-rhyme-chanting lunatics.
  • Sorority house pledgees spend an inordinate amount of time showering and / or prancing in their lingerie in front of picture glass windows.
  • Murdering people with garden implements DOES NOT leave conspicuous pools of blood / piles of corpses for other people to discover later. (NOTE: They explain this plot hole away with a single line of dialog in the final act.)
  • The preferred reading material of any night watchman is out-of-focus pornography.

What’s coming next: The gods of the random number generator decree that the next Netflix Adventure shall be…

TALES-FROM-THE-HOOD

Tales from the Hood.


Cabbage

The Hunter welcomes me to her campsite, offering me warmth and shelter and the use of her cooking fire. She makes friendly chit-chat as I prepare a bowl of cabbage stew. I politely ignore her. Then she mentions that she doesn’t think that the King will mind her poaching, since she takes so little from the forest.

“Poaching? Oh, hell NO.”

I whip out my long bow and shoot her in the face.

This is why I shouldn’t play games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. They turn me into a psychopath.

Continue reading ‘The Cabbage Thief, or Role playing as Psychopathic Escapism’


wolvie

So, is The Wolverine any good, or do we have another The Last Stand on our hands? Continue reading below to read my mildly spoiler-ish thoughts on the most recent film starring everyone’s favorite mutant berserker.

Continue reading ‘My Thoughts on The Wolverine’


Traps!

06Jul13

mousetrap

Your party of intrepid adventurers bravely explores some shady grotto, sunken temple, or mildew-scented dungeon. The players advance cautiously, their eyes peeled, ears aquiver, nostrils flared. Everything proceeds smoothly until WHAM-O! Without warning, the sound of plastic polyhedrons clattering on the table top. Attack rolls, damage, saving throws. Your party triggered a trap.

Traps don’t work for me. Too often they destroy my suspension of disbelief. For a trap to be effective, it must be a.) lethal b.) nearly impossible to detect or disarm and c.) installed in such a manner that its creator is unlikely to accidentally trigger the trap themselves.

Let’s look at the first element: lethality. The ideal trap is designed to kill and / or maim, but the more effective the trap is, the less pleased your players will be when you wallop them with it. In Dungeons & Dragons, character death must always be a possibility, but everyone wants to go down swinging. Everyone wants a heroic death. They want to punch the Tarrasque in the uvula as it swallows them whole. Nobody wants to lose a character when a hundred-ton load of bricks falls on their heads, or when they tumble down a sixty foot shaft and land on a dozen adamantium spears smeared with owlbear poo. There’s no real struggle in that, no conflict, no choices to be made. No agency. But traps by their very nature are designed to rob players of agency. For a trap to function as intended, it must be unavoidable.

Which brings us to our second element: detection and disarmament. A trap is generally no good if its intended victim can see it coming. But if your players are anything like mine, they are hyper-vigilant. It’s nearly impossible to surprise them, because they’re content to explore a dungeon in a series of five-foot steps, stopping constantly to search every conceivable surface for any pressure plate, tripwire, or panel that might trigger a trap. They poke with fifteen foot poles. They tie ropes around the waists of slain hobgoblins and drag the bodies along with them, tossing the corpses into unknown corridors to sound their path for danger. They drive herds of sheep into the Tomb of Horrors.

Tombs2

“INSERT SHEEP HERE.”

The only time a trap should be obvious is when there’s no way for the victims to escape its effects, e.g. a sealed room that slowly floods, or one where the ceiling lowers to crush anything beneath it. There’s no drama in that. For a trap to create conflict, players need to be able to detect, avoid, or disarm it. The players must be able to take some sort of positive action. But traps are fundamentally unfair. They’re not designed to be detected, avoided, or disarmed. Traps are created and installed by villains, and villains shouldn’t give their enemies a fighting chance.

And thus we reach our final point of discussion: the safety of the trap’s creator. Also known as: “Why do we even have that lever?”

lever

Too often in movies and games, the heroes encounter some improbable, intricate, Rube Golberg-esque trap, and my immediate reaction is to wonder: “Who on Earth would build that?” Perhaps the trap’s construction would pose a significant danger to its creator, such as the one-way tunnel lined with broken glass in Heavy Rain or the razor-wire maze in the original Saw film. Or maybe the trap covers a vital pathway, such as the entrance to a keep or the only stairwell in a wizard’s tower. People are creatures of habit. We fall into routines. We get lazy. We get sloppy. We get careless. We forget to lock our doors. We forget to activate our burglar alarms. We forget to arm / disarm our traps. Imagine what would happen if you were an evil warlock, and you forgot to step on the third floor tile with the engraving of the monkey instead of the second floor tile with the engraving of the goose. WHAM-O! Scything blades, spike pits, boiling oil, toxic slime, hails of venomous scorpions…

Traps don’t work for me. Perhaps they work for you, but I can’t reconcile the form (a device designed for maximum lethality but minimum risk to its creator) with the function (screwing my players over, or forcing them to play in a manner that amounts to hyper-paranoid meta-gaming).


dark-souls-1

For those who’ve never heard of it, Dark Souls is a Japanese action / RPG video game created by developer From Software, available for the X-box 360, PS3, and PC. A spiritual sequel to the earlier game Demon Souls, Dark Souls is a Gothic, high fantasy tale that is light on exposition and heavy on atmosphere. It plunges the unsuspecting player into a world of relentless danger and moral ambiguity. The player assumes the role of one of the Undead, an accursed human branded with the mysterious Darksign, and ventures to the land of Lordran in search of their destiny. The actions you take in-game may save the world or destroy it.

Heavy stuff, right? Too bad I’m doing it wrong. Continue reading ‘Dark Souls: “I am Doing it Wrong.”’