Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hail, Caesar!

Okay so real quick I just wanna mention two reference points for my appreciation of the new Tarantino movie. First, the most amazing documentary I’ve ever seen is the “30 for 30” O.J.: Made in America (2016). Also relevant: Hail, Caesar! (2016, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen).

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino) is crafted around its setting—Hollywood, in August 1969. And its milieu of superstars and hippies, rising talents and fading has-beens, residents and transients, all overlap and blend together in a period rock-fueled kaleidoscope of a party time-capsuled at the moment right before its end. This thing’s gotta get nominated for the Best Sound Editing Academy Award.

The most fun is the way Robert Richardson, ASC wall to walls the proceedings with a Titan crane, making Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood Tarantino’s own studio product in homage to the era he’s romancing; and, Bob—who won his first Oscar for JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)—also uses 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, various aspect ratios and laboratory processes to distinctively recreate the era.

And Robbie’s SHARON TATE is the glue that holds the narrative together. So what if she doesn’t clock in that much spoken dialogue while on screen? It’s Pudovkin’s principles in action. 

Sturgill Simpson

What happened to Jim Jarmusch after Ghost Dog? Stranger Than Paradise (1984, Jim Jarmusch) is the quintessential indie; Down by Law (1986, Jarmusch) and Mystery Train (1989, Jarmusch) are exquisite fateful road movies photographed by Robby Müller; and Night on Earth (1991), a fun segue into his two greatest works: Dead Man (1995, Jarmusch) and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999, Jarmusch). (Counting Down by Law as prison movie seems a fitting trilogy.) Maybe after the wilderness of Dead Man and the urban Ghost Dog masculine genre forays he’d said all he could say?

The Dead Don’t Die (2019, Jarmusch) is a zombie comedy. Those two words together didn’t give me much hope going in, but I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt anyway. What a disappointment.
Even out of loyalty to maybe the single greatest American indie writer/director of the 80s and 90s, one can only find the remnants of his former talent. Jarmusch’s once spontaneous humor that would arise out of workshop chemistry between a tailored script for a handpicked ensemble is not to be found in The Dead Don’t Die—or at least it doesn’t feel that way. The meta-humor and attempts at a post-zombie genre concoction feel labored.

The slow pacing, abrupt punchline edits, and droll humor held my attention, but it comes off as second rate from the artist who perfected it over 30 years earlier. Yet with Bill Murray in the lead role I can’t completely dismiss The Dead Don’t Die. A few months ago I was on the set of Zombieland 2 and heard Bill Murray improvise a two and a half page dialogue scene for a couple of hours and saw him in action. He comes up with all of his jokes on the spot and just keeps riffing continuously. So yes, when I watched The Dead Don’t Die I was definitely in a Murray mood. It still sucks though.

I am offended at the pointlessness of having Tilda Swinton’s character in this movie and the arch of her storyline. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Forgotten Necropolis

This is a one-page dungeon type adventure of my own devising which I ran for my daughter using the Dungeons & Dragons B/X rules.  I knew she liked dungeon crawling moreso than hex crawling or role playing in villages, and give the players what they want, right?  So I had her create a separate party all her own of three characters.  These characters (the "Blackroot Three"!) I also located in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, although they started out at the southern edge of the Glow Worm Steppes and were making their way to the regional "metropolis" of Tarantis to seek their fortune.  A characteristic of the Wilderlands is that human settlements are typical small and far apart from each other, so it is easy to justify that the spaces in between contain abandoned, haunted, or re-tenanted towers, forts, tombs, catacombs so forth.  I therefore like to think this terrain is almost literally littered with remains of long gone ancient civilizations, and that although you may stumble upon a tomb, if you try to return to it you may simply not find it, the country being so wild and untamed.

Keeping with an earlier stated overall motive, I wanted to run a good orc adventure this time.  This posed the question: why are these Orcs in this dungeon.  What I devised was a simple tomb the party camps by, containing a single room underground (already long ago looted), but one wall of which has very recently been broken through, leading to secret stairs.  This in turn leads to a central domed chamber with a massive pentagram on the floor and bas reliefs of demonic worship (I also want lots of demons in my setting).  From this hub are further stairs leading down to undisturbed burial chambers, each eternally guarded by skeletons. In the last of these chambers the party finds the orcs' camp and two prisoners.  The prisoners reveal that the orcs are a tribe recently defeated by another orc tribe, but that the chief has found a map or clue indicating that there is cache of magical weapons in this necropolis.  The prisoners (now freed and part of the party as NPCs) insist they must stop the orc chief since he had previously sacked their village.

From the orcs' camp another wall is found broken through, leading to more stairs, a large cavern, and another burial chamber, at which the last of the orcs, including the Chief, are attempting to break through a large stone door.  After defeating the orcs, the party notes some depressions on the door which match brass sigils set into the floors of each of the burial chambers found at the upper levels.  The party removes each of the sigils from above, and inserts them into the spaces on the door, and the door at last opens revealing the crypt of an ancient king and his champions in the classic form of skeletons seated on thrones and benches, along with some +1 weapons and armor (which includes the necessary treasure experience points to level up the entire party to 2nd level).

The Adventurers in this session were:


Hitty - a first-level figher
Fafnyr - a first-level fighter
Amber - a first-level cleric


Matis - a first-level fighter (partial NPC)
Lina -  a first-level fighter (partial NPC)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Goblin Gully

I ran this one-page dungeon as a follow-up adventure to Giant Slayer for my kids using the B/X rules.  I'm pretty sure by this time they were using three characters a piece and maybe had a hireling (a longbowman) as well.  Also by this time I had plopped the setting into Wilderlands of High Fantasy by Judge's Guild, in the area maybe 100 miles north of the Citystate of Invincible Overlord.

Although not their first experience with a role playing game, Goblin Gully was my kids' first experience with something resembling a dungeon crawl, and I must say that I found them to be much more engaged with this adventure than with the prior one.  Goblin Gully is an old prison pit from long ago that a band of goblins has recently taken up residence in.  I forget how I hooked the party into taking care of it.  The Wilderlands village nearby had a chaotic-type leader who I decided didn't really give a shit if goblins were in an abandoned prison or not.  My kids were shocked that a "leader"  would be so visibly uninterested in solving a problem.  However this is a theme of the Wilderlands' setting, with the majority of human settlements being run by powerful chaotic-types rather than wise law-types.

The adventure as written (please note this review includes spoilers) described goblins as the almost sole occupants of the dungeon, except for a pudding-lite monster living at the very bottom as the "boss-fight".  I kept the goblins but threw 3 dire wolves (a significant upgrade in degree of difficulty) into the first room containing goblins, made two swords found in a secret vault +1 each, and upgraded the pudding-lite to a full-blown Black Pudding (another bump in difficultly).   I figured the Wand of Cure Light Wounds they acquired in the prior adventure should be sufficient to push them through these fights.  I had also put together a "basic adventurers kit" list of equipment that they could buy and be done with, which included two flasks of oil, torches, and a tinderbox.  When the time came I would slyly suggest using those on the Black Pudding.

The first fight against goblins and dire wolves ended with one character slain (alas poor Edric!) and the party beating a retreat out of the dungeon.  This was entirely due to absolutely atrocious dice rolling by the party combined with the higher difficultly of the dire wovles.  However, with the help of the aforementioned Wand of Cure Light Wounds, the party was able to return to the dungeon the next day fully healed, while the goblins and wolves were only partially healed.  The rest of the dungeon went quickly, and it was at this point that I realized the kids seem to take a simple joy in finding out what the next room contained, and in tension of deciding to go into room A or room B.  The fight against the Black Pudding was sufficiently dramatic, especially as one character was engulfed and had their armor eaten (the Pudding was slain before it could start eating the character). The players recoiled as the description of the Black Pudding's "million tiny mouths chewing at their armor".
The Adventurers in this session were:

Zamor, a cleric
Parry, a thief
Solyssa, a fighter
Garfield, a magic user
Jatton, a fighter
Edric, a fighter - SLAIN
Walter, a npc longbowmen hireling

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A note on HEAVY TUNES of 2019: Dancin' in the Ruins: Try(-ing) to feel (better)

Couple weeks ago, just trucked at work, main assignment in nigh-omnishambles, bummed and exhausted, no obvious joy to be sensed or found, and leery of retreating to any known founts of less-bad for fear of tainting the good thing with bummer vibes, I collapsed onto the mattress, tiny glowing misery rectangle in hand, Bluetooth enabled, thereunto to mash the OH CRIMONY JUST STREAM ME ... SOMETHING button.

What came up was, perhaps predictably, Operators, Radiant Dawn. Maybe my endorsement will be found to be compromised, because Dan and Devojka are friends of mine, but if you try to enforce a position that a critic can't like the stuff a friend makes ... that's just actually sad, man. I mean, like: what do you stand for? How do you live?

Those are, maybe not coincidentally, some of the questions the record asks.

Anyway, the record was good from the moment I heard a note of it, and fantastic the night they played it for me (and, uh, I guess a couple hundred other people in SF or whatever), but that night, pummeled and scraped empty and just tired ... it was exactly right. The insanely good motorik beats of Faithless and Low Life, or the extremely precise sentiments of my state listening that night in Terminal Beach and Come and See or the basically perfect textures and flourishes everywhere (if I don't cop out like this I'm just going to name something great about every song, which may bore you) (and this is, after all, for you), all of it was just ... the word is perfect.

Maybe "this is very good if you're depressed" isn't the recommendation you want to hear. Certainly it isn't the one I want to give! So let's talk instead about the world we've found ourselves in, the one we inherited and tacitly, quiescently allow, daily. My state's on fire, my work besieged, my home threatened, my brothers and sisters caged, my every value rejected and punished. Nearly all of the good things that matter and that we might care about seem to be in ruins.

And yet: we're alive, and we can't just give up / succumb to despair—if we do, there's no point to any of this—hence ... dancing:

(Stick around for the chorus: it's worth it.)

You—we, I—gotta find bright spots. Some of them will be people who understand you. Others will be people who make you feel better. This record does both, and it's hard to ask for more than that. You're gonna be tired tomorrow anyway, and it'll be hard to do what needs doing, always: you might as well dance all night tonight, and give yourself something to smile about.

—Fat, kinda tired

Note one: As Marx said, and as I suspect Operators would agree:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways;
the point is to change it.

Note two: we're not fucking dead yet. And we're not giving up.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Giant Slayer

I ran this adventure as an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons (the basic/expert edition rules, or "B/X") for my two kids, each of whom ran two characters, maybe three (I don't remember).  I didn't really bother with setting or world building but later on the ongoing campaign would be placed in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy by Judge's Guild.

As I've been running B/X (which has slowly slid over to running Labyrinth Lord), an underlying motive has been to provide certain touchstones in the RPG experience that I myself never got to experience, many due to rather unimaginative DMs and co-players, and also due to being a stupid teenager.  My personal D&D experience was limited to everyone making fifth- or sixth-level characters and the "DM" then rolling on the random encounter tables in the back of the Dungeon Masters Guide and just having at it.  You earned money and treasure but there was never any real multi-room dungeons and no real campaign with named locales or anything.  To put it another way, my personal experience is what I wanted my kids to not experience, so that they know how fun, engaging, and multi-dimensional a RPG can be.

Giant Slayer was certainly a good first-run for first-time players (please note this review includes spoilers).  A village is terrorized by a hill giant who will return in a week's time and if he is not given what he wants (treasure? People to eat? I forget) he will destroy the village or something.  Villagers tell the party that the titular retired heroine lives in the nearby woods and maybe she can help.  The party then ventures into the woods, which is a sort of splitting-then-rejoining adventure path with different encounters set upon it (go left and fight giant crabs, go right and fight some satyrs, but both paths eventually rejoin at a rock promontory where there's a harpy [see Note]).  After that it’s a straight shot to the giant slayer's cottage where she joins the group. 

Returning to the village, the party and the villagers set up some seven samurai type tactical defenses (the hunters will shoot arrows at the giant! The farmers can dig a big tiger trap!).  Bulk damage is assigned for these two events once the giant shows up, so he ends up loosing over half his hit points in narrative effect (he falls in the tiger trap! 15 damage! The hunters shoot arrows! 15 damage!), such that he will basically get one attack on the retired heroine before falling before the combined melee attacks of the party and the heroine.  If this sounds a little "rail road"-y, it is, but again, as a starter adventure to get mechanics down its perhaps not so bad.

I ran this adventure without miniatures or a combat map, and used "theater of the mind" (as it were) to handle combat instead.

The Adventurers in this session were:

Zamor, a cleric
Parry, a thief
Solyssa, a fighter
Garfield, a magic user
Jatton, a fighter
Edric, a fighter

[Note]  I substituted a lot of the monsters so I could say "I used a harpy!"  This review may not accurately reflect the complete contents of the actual adventure.  A downside to my pre-teen DM's reliance on random encounters and mid-level characters was that I never got to combat with a lot of the classic monsters.  I also gifted the party a wand of cure light wounds (as a item found on one of the slain satyrs), usable on every party member once a day, as a way to "punch up" the party a bit.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

The Wicker Man

Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster) sucks because it’s a horror movie that’s fucked up instead of scary. Alternately creepy and trippy, its sex and violence amount to nothing more than shock value in a plot that’s predictable and tedious.

However, its setting is wonderfully crafted—the hidden pagan Swedish commune evokes a believable place that most of the movie takes place in. And in contrast to the stark terror there’s an abundance of nature, flowers, happy, innocent folks enjoying themselves, and sunshine. Also, in a nifty aesthetic choice it’s something like the solstice is depicted with a raw image softened by not adding shadows to the grade; whatever the technique is exactly, it looks and feels like long days without ever shifting into the darkness of night.

And above all the narrative really works towards the subtext of DANI’S (Florence Pugh) emotional development. The whole story has an impact on her as the central protagonist, with a satisfying climax and resolution. But none of this makes Midsommar the horror movie it should have been.