Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In Theaters: Beowulf

Image from
Before I start things off, with the holiday shopping season upon us, I would like to point out that anything you buy from the various Amazon links on this site will give me a small commission, and that would be appreciated as expenses are piling up. I only harp on this because I have yet to actually see a single sale from this, and though there's no penalty for a lack of activity it is rather embarassing.

Most of the hubbub about BEOWULF, positive and negative, has revolved around the novel method of computer animation used to make the film, resulting in highly photorealistic CGI characters that bear a bizarre, uncanny-valley-treading resemblance to the actors playing them even though we’re not actually seeing said actors. Also it’s in 3D and IMAX in places that have such things. To some, this means thrills and visual wonderment, to others, the further degredation of true cinema in the name of video game plotlessness, or something like that. I tend to tune people like that out when they get going. Best way to get through life. Anyway, there’s been very little discussion of the film’s story and substance (with the former side not caring and the latter assuming there isn’t any.) But this is, after all, a film with a script by the usually-great Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, the less-famous writer of PULP FICTION, and even with the talented-but-let’s-not-make-a-big-deal-of-it Robert Zemeckis at the helm this isn’t the average holiday fantasy cash-in. (For starters, there’s pretty much no sequel potential, and if you think that’s spoiling anything you need to take English Lit. again.)

BEOWULF departs radically from the original myth, as retellings often do, and does so in the service of a fable of sorts about power and corruption and heroism and gold and femininity, among other things. In the midst of this there’s plenty of bone-crunching old-school heroic action, some nice monsters, and Angelina Jolie not-quite-naked-but-close-enough. It’s a really interesting mix, and it mostly works. It perhaps could have been more, but I have to admire what it does right.

Most of the action of the film takes place in the mead hall of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), which is swiftly closed after an attack by the man-eating misshapen monster Grendel (Crispin Glover), who has sensitive ears and is driven to rage by the sound of merry-making. Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone), fabled hero and leader of a band of brave warriors, who promises to slay the demon, and also has eyes on Hrothgar’s young wife Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). The hero of the Geats manages to kill Grendel after a long struggle, but soon finds he must confront the beast’s mother (Angelina Jolie). However, the she-demon manages to take a pleasing form (see above) and make our hero an offer he has trouble refusing...

Any literary type can tell you this is where the story goes off track. The original BEOWULF saga is, like most of these things, an episodic affair; Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and finally a dragon in a battle that leaves him mortally wounded. A nice three-act structure, but Gaiman and Avary have something different in mind- the bargain with Grendel’s mother and the hints about her role in Hrothgar’s life turn the story into one where the hero must overcome his own lust for power and glory, not to mention gold. (Grendel’s mother’s lair is strewn with treasures, and she herself first appears looking a bit like Shirley Eaton in GOLDFINGER.)

The end result of all this fiddling is that the story is actually much more coherent than the myth that inspired it; we can’t hold that against the original, which was written to be sung in snatches based on whatever the audience wanted to hear and how much they’d had to drink that night, but the film’s story is pretty memorable in itself and its thematic material is handled very well- imagery is juggled in a way that, while not exactly subtle, isn’t quite the equivalent of a sledgehammer. And even though the film changes a lot, the raucous Old English atmosphere is there- a couple of the characters actually slip into the old tongue, there’s a lot of boozing and wenching, and a certain dark, skull-cracking humor often crops up.

So what do I think of the animation? Well, I didn’t get to see it in full 3D (it may not have been such a good idea to harp on this point in the advertising, since IMAX theaters are still pretty spread out), but it looks good- the level of detail is enough that the characters are expressive and believable, and at times the photorealism is outright astonishing. Of course, if you’re not going to stylize your human characters at all, I have to wonder why not just use live actors against CG backgrounds, but maybe this was easier. Not all of the faces are equally convincing- Hrothgar looks pretty much like they photographed Anthony Hopkins against a blue screen (or are they all green now?), while some of the extras wouldn’t have been out of place in the third SHREK movie. The monsters really own this one; Grendel is a shambling, vaguely childlike nightmare, the dragon in the third act is a beaut, and well, a practically-nude Angelina Jolie, rendered with extra care by animators who are no doubt mindful of the fact that making this woman look unsexy is a capital crime in many parts of the world, is a sight to behold.

There are two issues I have with this film overall. One is that the budget of this film no doubt forced them to go for a PG-13 rating, and even though it really pushes the limits of that classification, it still feels like they’re stopping short of something. Let’s face it, the world of Beowulf was R-rated from the start, and the way the film dances around showing us too much seems forced at times. The best example of this is Beowulf’s fight with Grendel- since the monster has no arms or armor, Beowulf insists on fighting on equal terms, meaning he conducts the battle in the nude, and though the filmmakers can comfortably show him from the rear they take great pains to have various objects strategically placed throughout the sequence to avoid giving us full frontal. There’s a decent amount of blood and grue, but not quite as much as you’d expect, and of course certain parts of Ms. Jolie remain covered in gold throughout. A bit of a shame there, and I’d almost expect an R or unrated version to surface on DVD eventually but I wonder if they’d have spent the money to animate it. However, the real big problem is that the story Gaiman and Avary have crafted gets very glum after a while, and a lot of the wicked humor of the first half just drains away. The second part just isn’t as enjoyable as a result, and doesn’t quite reach the level of tragedy it seems to be aiming for.

The word that keeps coming back to me is “interesting.” This is not the best thing you can write about a movie, obviously, but BEOWULF turned out to be smarter than I expected it to be, and that I’m still thinking about it has to be a good thing. I think there’s a problem with my ratings system- I’m giving this a lower grade than 300, but think it might actually be a better movie. This probably means I gave the former too high a grade to start with, but that was my impression at the time and I think I was able to support it, so- the thing’s flawed. Of course, so is every other gradiated ratings system for movie reviewing, but we put them there for you to look at, and I’m sure it’s not completely useless. Perhaps anything beyond the simple “thumbs up”/”thumbs down”, etc., is too much. So I’ll just say that I solidly and confidently recommend BEOWULF- it’s a fun action movie with a better story than most and has plenty of eye candy. See it while I take a wrench to the Club’s quality-meter.

Written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Grade: B+

Friday, November 23, 2007

Verity Lambert, 1935-2007

Verity, left, with actress Carol Ann Ford
The death of Verity Lambert comes nearly fourty-four years to the day after the first airing of the first episode of DOCTOR WHO, the show Lambert helped usher into the world, producing for the first two years of its run and setting the direction it would take through its run. Having such a key role in the birth of what would become a British institution would be enough of a feather in one’s cap, but Lambert was also the BBC’s first female producer, the youngest to ever take charge of a series (WHO started when she was 27), and was active for decades, also behind JOHNATHAN CREEK, REILLY: ACE OF SPIES, and the film CLOCKWISE. I’m going to talk mostly about DOCTOR WHO because that’s what I know, but Lambert was arguably one of the most respected women in British TV.

Though the idea for WHO came from Sydney Newman, Lambert was instrumental in developing the series, overruling him on some key decisions. (The Daleks, whose instant success guaranteed the show would survive past a first season, were included despite Newman’s protests that these were exactly the sort of bug-eyed monsters he didn’t want the show to have.) In the show’s earliest years, Lambert would effectively crystalize the show’s atmosphere and tone, elements that would persist despite numerous changes in creative direction. Though ostensibly a “children’s show”, WHO was produced by the drama department, and Lambert made sure that the show aimed at serious science fiction adventure, not dumbed down but still accessible. The show was always produced on a low budget, but Lambert always managed to stretch it beyond what you’d expect- even the most threadbare stories, like the season two finale THE CHASE, are visually creative, and stories like THE AZTECS and THE DALEK INVASION OF EARTH are downright epic. The show quickly established a tense, mysterious atmosphere, which keeps the stories compelling even when the monsters are heaps of fabric. It’s possibly this quality that gained the show the reputation of sending kids behind the sofa; as much as scaring children is looked down on by society, the works that stay with us as we grow older are inevitably the ones we found just a bit terrifying. Lambert knew and appreciated this.

Lambert moved on to a very long career, working as late as this year on the show LOVE SOUP. For her work she has received an OBE, several BAFTA awards and an Australian Film Insitute award (for EVIL ANGELS, best known here as A CRY IN THE DARK.) It’s to her credit that something as big as DOCTOR WHO is merely one chapter in her career, but it’s perhaps especially gratifying that Lambert lived long enough to see the show return from a 16-year-hiatus to become as big as it has ever been, and still effectively the show she helped create. It wouldn’t have been anything without her, and perhaps the best thing that can be said of anyone in the art and entertainment business is that they created something which brought joy to millions and continues to do so to this day. She was quite a woman, and may she rest in peace.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

In Theaters: American Gangster

Image from
AMERICAN GANGSTER has a very classical feel; it’s an old fashioned crime drama, straightforward and not too stylized. This is somewhat unusual for director Ridley Scott, but he’s got a good script and the nearly-impossible-to-fail-with pairing of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe (I haven’t seen VIRTUOSITY so can’t comment on just how reliable the team-up is), and generally works in service of the story more than anything else. It’s a grand showcase for talents both in front of and behind the camera, and avoids sensationalism, taking a more naturalistic approach to the protagonist’s rise to power. There have been complaints that the film changes and even sanitizes the Frank Lucas story to make him look better than he was, but I think by this point we’ve established that I don’t care about that sort of thing.

We first meet Frank Lucas (Washington) when he’s working as the driver for Harlem kingpin Bumpy Johnson (apparently not credited, but I’m dead certain it’s Clarence Williams III). When Johnson dies, the area becomes open territory for all the other New York mobsters, big and small time, and Lucas decides to try and assume Johnson’s mantle. He hits upon the idea of directly buying his supply of heroin from growers in Southeast Asia, taking advantage of the turmoil of the Vietnam War and having the army help ship his stuff in. Lucas’ product, branded as “Blue Magic”, is purer and more potent than anything anyone else is selling, and he can provide it at a lower price, cornering the market very quickly. Meanwhile, Richie Roberts (Crowe), a Jersey cop, has run into trouble because of his refusal to share in the taking of drug money that’s become rampant in the force- since he won’t partake, he can’t be trusted not to rat on his fellow officers, and is made a bit of a pariah. He’s offered a position at the slightly more ethical anti-drug task force being set up by the Nixon administration. As he starts looking into
the U.S. heroin trade, he starts to notice the figure of Frank Lucas, and wonder just what role he plays.

The majority of the film focuses on Frank’s life as a kingpin, which is less sleazy than you’d expect. He treats the whole thing like a legitimate business, emphasizing the importance of “Blue Magic” as a brand name and making sure its quality isn’t diluted by the middle men. He brings his mother (Ruby Dee) and brothers up from North Carolina and sets his siblings up in town with various business that act as fronts for drug distribution. He makes sure they don’t dress or act too ostentatiously, trying to avoid the appearance of gangsterism even though he lives well and buys his mother a mansion and marries Miss Puerto Rico (as played by Lymari Nadal). The skill with which he keeps his activity secret is half the fun, but at the same time he sees himself as a kind of community leader in the Bumpy Johnson mold. We also see a lot of Roberts’ troubled personal life as his devotion to his work crosses the line from selfless to self-destroying. The contrast is obvious- good work is costly, banal evil has rewards. But the two people aren’t entirely different, and when they finally do meet they find themselves able to arrive at an agreement.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay effortlessly bounds across the globe and across events, keeping the action moving at a good clip even though there’s a lot of ground to cover. It’s not necessarily a fast movie, but it is efficient, showing us Frank’s operation and the investigation into it in compelling step-by-step montages. As serious as the proceedings are, there’s something genuinely fun about this; it’s smart stuff, understandable without being dumbed down. The strange moral ambiguity of the film also works in its favor. We understand, and are shown, that Lucas is dealing in a vile and reprehensible trade with a long human cost, but the appearance of social responsibility and entrepreneurship he puts on his business, especially in relation to his family and the Harlem community, makes us almost want him to get away with it. At the same time there’s no denying the fierce intelligence and persistence Roberts shows in trying to pin down the operation. (There’s also the presence of Josh Brolin as an extremely crooked New York cop who is pretty much equally a jerk to both sides.) The film’s racial subtext, heavily played up in the trailers, isn’t quite as prominent as you’d think, but there’s no denying that part of what makes Lucas’ story unique and himself an odd antihero is that he was a black man beating the overwhelmingly white Mafia at their own game.

Washington and Crowe don’t actually share a lot of screen time, but they do have one big conversation in which the sheer intelligence of both characters is on full display. Washington makes Lucas a man of hidden depths, always with a number of things on his mind at once, while Crowe brings his usual intensity. Scott does an excellent job letting both actors play to their strengths, and there are some great supporting performances as well (Chiwetel Ejiofor’s amazing taste in projects continues, and he appears here as one of Frank’s brothers.) We even get a brief appearance by Cuba Gooding, Jr., which may go a long way towards redeeming his image after films like SNOW DOGS and BOAT TRIP.

It’s hard to articulate what makes this movie work so well, which may explain why I’m still working on it a week after seeing the film. It’s simply really, really good; it’s a solid story, neatly laid out, well-acted, well-filmed, working slickly and engaging the viewer on an emotional and intellectual level. There is no one thing you can really point to about it (apart from Washington and Crowe being brilliant actors, and everyone knows that already), but somehow this is one of the best films of the year. Trust me.

Based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson
Written by Steven Zaillian
Directed by Ridley Scott

Grade: A

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On Strike

The big news in the entertainment world is obviously the Writers’ Strike, and it’s something I’ve been following with interest, and though I’m not really going to make this a news blog I do feel some basic comment is in order.

I side completely with the WGA on this issue. Basically, the writers want a percentage of revenue from online distribution of movies and TV shows, and since they get residuals from other forms of distribution this is only logical. The studios have claimed that there’s no money coming in or that the market is untested, but the first is patently false (somebody’s paying for those embedded ads) and the second is all the more reason for the talent to stake a claim on their fair share.

This isn’t kneejerk union loyalty (for one thing, I don’t belong to any union.) I disagree with the WGA on a number of issues, their arbitration system being the main bugaboo. But their demands are reasonable, simple, and straightforward. The residuals system is a good one, that helps keep writers in the business during periods of unemployment (which can be lengthy) and gives them a bit of a safety net, as unemployment benefits are hard to qualify for in this profession. Of course, I’m a writer, so that biases me in their favor, but I tend to be sympathetic to actors, directors, etc. asking for cuts as well, because that’s how the industry has grown to work and it’s a good system. (Compare to the music industry, where artists only get royalties once the album has paid back the advance plus promotional and other costs, and where they can even end up in debt to the label if the album doesn’t sell enough.)

As for its practical prospects- well, obviously my knowledge of the business is deep enough and broad enough that I can easily forecast the outcome. Damned if I know. The last couple of major actions or threats of action by the writers resulted in compromises where they got some of what they wanted but not much, which is what happens with most negotiations, so maybe it’ll be the case here as well. I’m optimistic enough that they’ll be able to stake out some share of online revenue, and this will be enough for them to have leverage to increase it in the future. Going from “nothing” to “something” is the big step, after all. There’ve been some defections from the soap opera circuit, but now news writers are coming in, and it looks like the DGA and SAG have their back since the issue will be coming up for them very soon. There’s some indication that the studios have been handling this badly thusfar, which may put them in a weaker position than normal, and the public seems to favor the strikers more than the studios. It’s a shame that the technicians have fewer jobs as a result of the work stoppage, but even they have a vested interest in this; though individual technicians don’t earn residuals, residual money is paid into their union pensions and health plans, so they’ll be wanting a piece of the action when their contract comes up as well. So far most folks are supporting each other, which is the whole point of collective bargaining, so that’s good.

You can follow the strike from United Hollywood, which is very obviously from the pro-writer side, but really that’s what I’m interested in. I’ll be putting up the banner for the duration, and of course I won’t cross any picket lines. Not that I really have the opportunity (I don’t even have a working copy of FINAL DRAFT at this point), but there you

Best of luck to everyone on the picket lines. Especially you, Tina.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dethklok: The Dethalbum

I’m a bit late reviewing this record, and I’ll tell you why. The Dethalbum ended up selling much better than Adult Swim anticipated: due to a printing error the Deluxe Edition (which, for a true Dethklok fan, is the only version worth getting) sold out extremely quickly, and it was in fact nearly a month before I could find it on the shelves. The funny part about all of this is that I am not what anyone would call a metal fan; I don’t dislike the genre, I’m even sort of interested in it, but I’ve never embraced it. I am, however, a big fan of Adult Swim’s METALOCALYPSE, a genuinely captivating animated series about the death metal band Dethklok, who control millions of fanatical followers and seek to make the entire world a metal world, while at the same time being intensely stupid. The music on the show, done by showrunner Brendon Small (the creator of the semi-autobiographical HOME MOVIES), is consistently good even when it strays into genre, so I was looking forward to a soundtrack album- I didn’t quite expect them to do a proper metal record, though. And that’s the triumph of the Dethalbum- it’s genuinely good heavy metal music despite also being a lampoon of the genre.

Dethklok, metafictionally, consists of lead guitar Skwisgaar Skwigell (taller than a tree), rhythm guitar Toki Wartooth (not a bumble bee), bass William Murderface (Murderface Murderface), Pickles the Drummer (doodily doo), and frontman Nathan Explosion. In truth, Brendon Small performs all vocals, guitars, and keyboards, while Gene Hoglan drums. All this, of course, is possible through the miracle of modern mixing technology, but honestly you’d never guess it if you didn’t look at the liner notes. I have no idea how Small does it so I’ll just assume he’s some kind of bizarre super-genius.

Anyhow, the music. My theory on why rock-and-roll had been for so long losing pop culture ground to R&B (though there’s been a turnaround recently), is that rock was full of very earnestly intelligent and thoughtful bands who eschewed any pop-like qualities to perform sophisticated and mostly serious material. Even metal itself seems a less lively scene than it used to- backlash to the “hair bands” of the 80s has resulted in groups of intensely nondescript people wearing black T-shirts and well-cropped goatees. You see, rock (and I count metal alongside it, at least for purposes of this argument), has an inherently “willing to be stupid” quality about it- it can be smart, as long as it’s dumb at the same time. It is inherently music that, to quote the “Trashmen Tests” developed over at the late and lamented Quarter Bin, is loud at any volume, dumb, and annoying to parents. It has to be transgressive, and it can’t be transgressive if it can double as easy listening.

Enter the Dethalbum to show us the way. This is an entire album of calculated idiocy backed by genuinely brilliant production. Songs have titles like “Murmaider”, “Bloodrocuted”, and “Briefcase Full of Guts”, and yet have lyrics that are clever and funny in sometimes subtle ways. (The joke on “The Lost Vikings” is so subtle I had to go back and re-read the words.) It’s smart, but not in any guarded or pretentious way. At other times, as with the songs “Hatredcopter” and “Face Fisted”, the point is to deliberately ratchet up the stupidity.

Make no mistake, though, this is not an album that it in any way denigrates The Metal. A parody this good can obviously only be done with a solid grounding in the genre, and it’s also just plain good music- unlike, say, Spinal Tap, which set out to suck just enough to still be listenable, Dethklok sets out to be good just enough to still be funny. The actual music is good, with some great high-speed guitar riffs and, to quote the liner notes, “insane drumming”- in particular the opening of “Go into the Water”, featured prominently in the show’s first season finale, is downright beautiful in its way.

The deluxe edition of the CD features a second disc with some more songs from the show and a final track, the inexplicably funny “Dethklok Gets in Tune”, as well as a video for “Bloodrocuted” and, best of all, the entire first episode of the new season. If I have to complain about the album in any way, it’s to say that some of the funnier and more inventive non-metal songs heard in the show aren’t included- from Toki’s upbeat underwater number (sung as he’s hovering in a tank of liquid oxygen) to a song by Dr. Rockso, the Rock’N’Roll clown and a sharp lampoon of David Lee Roth (or maybe just hair bands in general), there’s a lot of stuff I would have liked to have. But then, that would make this less of a metal album, so maybe those will be released separately or in another album or something. It’s a tiny flaw overall.

I’m not actually going to give the Dethalbum a letter grade, because I don’t know nearly enough about the genre of music it inhabits to compare it to anything similar. I do know that I enjoy it a lot and should find plenty of opportunity to listen to it in the future, whenever I feel my eardrums have had it too easy (I write a lot with just ambient noise in the background. Bastards are lazing about already.) It’s a great reminder that first and foremost this popular music is all about having fun and not taking yourself too seriously, and I think the real message is that you can be smart so long as you’re also stupid. I think that’s valuable advice for all of us.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Random Movie Report #38: Dracula's Daughter

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER is a little oddity that I happened to have out from Netflix in time for Halloween. It’s one of the earlier Universal horror follow-ups, and really a minor one by their standards; while it was easy for Frankenstein and the Mummy to be sequelized ad nauseum, the studio had trouble following up on Dracula in a really satisfactory way. It’s not the kind of story that invites follow-ups for some reason. Still, even though this is really just an average movie, it has a few points of interest for horror fans.

The film starts right where DRACULA ended, with Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan again) just having driven a stake through the Count’s heart. He isn’t even out of the crypt when two policemen, disturbed by the noise, find the old man standing in a tomb having admitted to killing a man. The whole “he was a vampire” defense draws some weird looks, so one of the doctor’s psychiatric colleagues, Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) is called to London to help his friend out. In the meantime, Drac’s corpse vanishes from the low-security police department and is burned by a mysterious woman later revealed as Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden). She, apparently, is the titular offspring of Dracula, and is out to somehow purge herself of her father’s vampiric influence. Of course, when she arrives in London, bodies with neck wounds start showing up (the film actually repeats an “operating theatre” scene from the last one, establishing the same information), and the influence of her strange henchman Sandor (Irving Pichel), who is apparently her personal Renfield, isn’t helping. She goes to see Dr. Garth, and the two start falling in love, much to the consternation of Garth’s secretary/helpmate/obvious love interest Janet (Marguerite Churchill). (If you’re thinking this sounds vaguely like the plot of CAT PEOPLE, released six years later, you’re not alone. But there’s probably some antecedent I’m missing.)

If the film has one major problem, it’s that it can’t quite decide on the tone it wants. In some early scenes with the astoundingly goofy police constables, they seem to be going for the campy humor of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but with less success. In others there’s an effective sense of eeriness, and in still others they’re trying for some kind of tragic love story. In particular, a lot of time is spent having Garth and Janet bicker with each other in an attempt to set up their inevitable love, but here the actors overshoot the mark, and instead of Tracy and Hepburn they come across as two people who genuinely despise each other and have no reason to work together. Honestly, the attempt at a normal relationship arc sabotages much of the movie, taking up too much space and distracting us from the horror.

And it’s a shame, too, since Holden has been perfectly cast. Thin, pale, vaguely aristocratic, she comes across as unearthly and vulnerable, and plays her character’s internal turmoil well. There’s a very effective scene where the Countess, a painter, has Sandor hire a model off the street, who very quickly becomes her next victim; there’s a strong lesbian undertone to the sequence, and it’s drawn out just enough to be both spooky and sad. If the film had actually focused on her like you’d expect it to, it would be much better, but unfortunately it’s more about the bland Dr. Garth. (As for the Van Helsing case, it never really gets to trial, and that whole subplot has become a blind alley by movie’s end.) More’s the pity.

This isn’t really a dull movie, or a particularly bad one, but it’s the sort of thing I can only recommend to people with an interest in the genre. The Universal Horror movies do pretty much uniformly deliver a unique and interesting vibe, and there’s Holden’s performance to tide you over. More importantly the less-good parts are campy enough to quip your way through, and the whole thing’s too short to overstay its welcome. So, not a thumbs up, but some of you might like it.

Based on the novel "Dracula" by Bram Stoker
Suggested by Oliver Jeffries (a.k.a. David O. Selznick)
Story by John L. Balderston (with Kurt Neumann)
Screenplay by Garret Fort (with uncredited work by Charles Belden, Finley Peter Dunne, and R. C. Sherriff)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer

Grade: C

Sunday, November 04, 2007

In Theaters: The Darjeeling Limited

Image from impawards.comThere are those critics who argue that Wes Anderson’s formal, anti-realistic style is immature, emotionally distancing, and fundamentally inferior to the gritty naturalism that we all know defines great drama. These people are not only wrong, they are narrow-minded snobs (inferior to normal snobs who will at least hate things equally in all genres) who seek to reduce the diversity of approaches to the cinema as art. Sorry, I’ve wanted to get that off my chest ever since LIFE AQUATIC. Anyway. THE DARJEELING LIMITED is Anderson’s latest, a fun odyssey through India that, like so many such odysseys, is really about the characters discovering themselves, but at least has the decency to laugh at the idea.

The trip is taken by three brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody), Jack (Jason Schwartzman), and Francis (Owen Wilson), the instigator, who plans the excursion after suffering a motorcycle crash (he spends more or less the entire film with his head in bandages.) He’s written up a full itinerary, booked passage on the titular rail line through the country, and has even hired a consultant to help manage things. But, needless to say, neither of the other brothers are wholly on board with his plans, and everyone’s got their emotional damage to work through. Peter is using the trip to spend some time away from his very pregnant wife, whom he loves, basically, but whose condition is something he never expected to deal with because he thought they’d be divorced by now. Jack, a writer, has been living in hotels for some time and is trying to break away from his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman.) We get a glimpse of their relationship in the short film HOTEL CHEVALIER which immediately precedes this one in release prints- it’s entertaining in and of itself, but it’s mostly of a piece with this film. They’re all still suffering the aftershocks of their father’s death, and Francis eventually reveals an end-goal of sorts for the voyage- they’re off to see their mother, who lives in a mission somewhere near Nepal, and who they haven’t seen since before dad died.

From the start, Francis is pitching this as a spiritual journey, and is intent that all three find themselves and each other. This is, of course, the heart of many such road movies whether they admit it or not, and we think we know what to expect from it. But Francis’ plans are a little ridiculous, meticulously written and even laminated. Jack and Peter seem reluctant to even be there, and respectively set about hitting on a stewardess (Amara Karan) and buying a poisonous snake, neither activity endearing them to the chief steward (Waris Ahluwalia). All three have brought along an impressive amount of luggage, and their shared compartment becomes a little fortress against the environment that’s supposed to change them. Of course, the reality of India often intrudes on Francis’ goal of a mystic retreat- there are temples, yes, but also noisy markets and shoe thieves and old German ladies. Anderson is clearly after the messy reality of India rather than the Bollywood ideal, and his imagery is appropriately cluttered, if still beautiful in its way.

At the same time, the film doesn’t reject the idea of the spiritual journey altogether. The brothers ever so slowly become introspective, realize the problems they’re running from and what they have to deal with. It’s just that their path ends up more twisted and confusing than anyone
can predict, and nobody’s quite sure where or when the journey will stop. There are moments of tragedy and enlightenment, and there are revealing flashbacks, and an almost inevitable fistfight. It’s still a road movie at heart, it’s just a very messy one. It’s almost necessary that the film start wandering a bit, and though I’m not entirely sure about the final act it’s of a piece with what’s gone before. There are just a couple of threads that maybe could have been explored more.

Still, this is never a less than enjoyable picture, and it has a warm and inviting atmosphere even while dealing with distinctly unhappy people. Anderson’s love of artifice and color and, well, whimsy is evident throughout, but so is a more honest engagement with the land and with his characters. I’m still not entirely sure what grade to give this film, and whatever I’ve posted below is likely a quick decision. But it’s definitely another great picture from Anderson, and like his other films will be worth revisiting.

Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, and Jason Schwartzman
Directed by Wes Anderson

Grade: A-

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Tabletop: Battlestar Galactica- The Roleplaying Game

Roleplaying games. I play them, when I have a group, and I've reviewed them for before. They're a unique hobby and medium, and the books are always a fun browse. So, I'm going to start posting game reviews up here, and fellow geeks can enjoy, and everyone else- well you can read them too, or just read the other articles. I said I'd been planning to expand the site's remit a bit. So, to start, the official licensed BATTLESTAR GALACTICA RPG. (The following review, minus this intro paragraph, appears on here.)

Back before the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA actually made its way to our screens, word got out that showrunner Ronald D. Moore, in the series bible no less, had proclaimed that “Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of science fiction television.” How could we possibly have expected him to deliver on that? As much as the skepticism of sci-fi fans before the miniseries aired is derided now, with the show not just a cult phenom but a mainstream critical darling, comments like this (along with rumors of sexy female Cylons and the like) couldn’t help but make me skeptical, reacting the same way I would to the young guy who walks into a boxing club for the first time and proclaims he’s ready to take down the champ. (Granted, for this metaphor to work you have to assume I’ve been in a boxing club and not just seen them in movies.) Even when the show was on it took me a while to warm to it; it was dark and intense and grueling, not really my style. But around when I caught the second season finale (the one where they demolish the status quo about halfway in) I realized there was quite a lot going on, and quickly became wrapped up in the show’s unique blend of gritty drama, moral ambiguity, and pure mind-frackery. I remember hearing about the RPG a long while back, but was a bit surprised when I happened to see it on the shelf at the local big bookstore. I’m not entirely sure why I wrote all that, but consider it context.

The BATTLESTAR GALACTICA roleplaying game comes to us from Margaret Weis Productions, Ltd., the group behind the popular and award-winning SERENITY RPG from 2005. This isn’t quite as good a pedigree as it sounds, as the SERENITY game, while not bad, lacked a few things like explicit rules for starship combat (and, in early printings, a character sheet), and felt rushed to come out roughly around the same time as the movie. Seeing that this game uses the same system as SERENITY, which didn’t exactly blow me away the first time I saw it, made me seriously question the policy of every game company having one house system that they apply to everything by default. Still, I picked the book up, and I think it’s a success. It’s a solid system matched to setting material that gets the vibe of the series down right and offers many suggestions for expanding the game’s possibilities beyond standing behind Commander Adama as he does everything cool. There are a couple of areas where it doesn’t work so well and a few nitpicks, and it’s a bit pricier than I expected, but none of that really does much harm.

So, the premise. The Cylons, sentient robots who a while back rebelled against their human masters and left to find their own home, have come back with the intention of exterminating us all instead- and they generally do a good job of it, driving humanity from its home on the Twelve Colonies and sending a group of less than half a million survivors off in search of the fabled Thirteenth Colony, known as Earth. The Cylons, who have now evolved to the point where there are versions that are almost indistinguishable from humans and “resurrect” on death to pass their experiences along a nearly-infinite line of clones, are in hot pursuit of the capital ship Galactica and the fleet of civilian transports it both leads and defends. Resources are scarce, tensions are high, and nobody’s really entirely sure that Earth actually exists, let alone knows where it is. So, it’s up to the PCs to defend humanity, or screw the whole thing up, and also to deal with personal drama and the moral question of whether humanity is worthy of survival and so on. Full character write-ups are given for the main characters of the show (well, most of them- it’s a big ensemble), and the thing seems to be “set” at about the start of the series. (Practically, a licensed RPG inevitably lags behind any ongoing source material due to lead time and the approvals process and so on- I’m not exactly sure how long the lag for this game was, though they obviously don’t incorporate a lot of later series developments.)

Characters are defined by six attributes- Agility, Strength, Vitality, Alertness, Intelligence, and Willpower- a decent-sized selection of skills, some derived attributes, and finally general Traits that can have roleplay or mechanical effects. What really defines the Cortex system is that these are all defined by die type- the overall scale reaches from d2 to d12 and some combinations thereof. Human attributes range from d4 to d12+4 (for some characters) and skills start at d2 and go as far as d6, but specialties can go as high as d12+d4. You get points to spend in each category based on whether your character starts as a Recruit, Veteran, or Seasoned Veteran, each level respectively getting more points than the last. Interestingly enough, character generation also incorporates, as a roleplaying mechanic, the idea of a character’s “home colony”- since there are 12, and they all relate to star signs (Caprican, Sagittarian, etc.), you can use the stereotypes for each world to influence your character concept. It’s kinda neat and a nice kick for ideas- after reading that Aquarians had a reputation as storytellers, I latched on to the idea of a grizzled writer of pulpy adventure novels, trying to find a useful place in the middle of a genuine war. Point-buy is relatively easy since every attribute costs its maximum die value in points (6 points for d6 and so on), with skills being similar but kind of different due to specialties. Equipment is basically a matter of GM fiat, since the Colonial economy has more or less devolved to whatever’s on hand. Experience comes in the form of Advancement Points, which can be turned into Attribute Points, Trait Points, and Skill Points (albeit expensively.)

Traits where were I was most apprehensive about how well the game would emulate the source material; I remembered them from SERENITY as not always covering the various psychological quirks I wanted to give my characters, with the expectation that these things would be roleplayed out. Which is all well and good for that setting, but on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA characters don’t just have drama; their drama impacts on their ability to do their job, and it’s not just the obviously crazy people (see Baltar, Gaius) who have issues. Traits are divvied up into Assets and Complications, each rated with a die type, sometimes with that die coming into play on actual tasks, while other times it just represents the cost. Again comparing against SERENITY, there seemed to be just a few more psychological/roleplaying Complications, and most Traits have a variable cost representing degrees to which they work for or against you. This works pretty well, and I haven’t run into any problems yet. Well, one- there’s no “Dark, Potentially Life Destroying Secret”-type Complication, though I’m sure most BSG characters have at least one (and this ties into something I’ll get into later.) I’d still have preferred something like the Madness Meters in UNKNOWN ARMIES or even PENDRAGON’s Virtue/Flaw system, but this’ll do. Of course, there are also the more tangible Assets and Complications, like Two-Hand Fighting and Dull Senses and the like.

Anyway, so far, so good. The basic system is a beat-the-target-number affair- you roll your Attribute plus Skill/Specialty, plus any modifiers, and try to beat a target number. There are 8 categories of action to roll for, ranging from “Easy” (difficulty 3) to “Impossible” (difficulty 31), and each also has a number which, if rolled, represents an Extraordinary Success at said task. Most rolls involve a Skill, but “Attribute” rolls can involve two Attributes or one rolled twice. There are three of these that are actually common enough to have names- Endurance, Initiative, and Resistance. One wrinkle I like is that with opposed rolls, characters can actually roll different Attribute/Skill combos for the same task if they go about it a different way- the example is Starbuck, Tigh, and Boomer playing cards, and one trying to bluff, one trying to be cautious, and one looking for tells. There are Complex Tasks, which have much higher difficulties that you reach over a number of rounds of rolling. Plot Points are supposed to play a big role in overall play- every character starts with six, and they can be spent in play to add dice to an action, add to the total after an action (more expensively, of course), reduce damage, and manipulate the plot in small ways. As far as dice go, one PP gets you a d2, two a d4, and so on up- and each die has a “minimum bonus” equivalent to the points you spent, so if you spend 6 points for a d12 and roll a 1, you still get a 6 added to your total. That’s a good guard against one of the common frustrations of “add a die” mechanics. Judging from the play examples and online chatter, you’re supposed to spend these points frequently, and earn them equally frequently as well- you get them for various plot and roleplaying accomplishments, coming up with cool ideas, etc., as well as playing out your character’s complications.

Combat works mostly in terms of opposed rolls, as you’d expect, and there are a number of modifiers which cover most major situations. Damage is based both on the weapon and by how much you exceed the difficulty, and each character has an equal amount of both Stun and Wound points, both based on Willpower and Vitality plus any relevant Traits. When you run out of Wound Points you’re dying and have to make Endurance rolls to stay alive until treated. Looking at the damage most weapons do and the average number of Life Points characters have, this comes across as a reasonably lethal system- combat is dangerous enough to reflect the rough, gritty nature of the show, and while a lucky shot is unlikely to kill a character outright (especially with Plot Points in play), it’s going to be enough to make him or her think hard about getting out of the situation as soon as possible. It’s hard to say how well this works without having had the opportunity to actually playtest it, but on paper it looks good. We finally get a Starship Combat system in this book, and it works on much the same principles; Ranges are different (given rather counterintuitive names like “Skirmish”, “Capital”, “Short DRADIS”, and “Long DRADIS”), and there are rules for vehicle pursuit and operating a vehicle you’re not quite strong or quick enough for and so on, and it covers some common show situations like escaping from a missile that’s locked on to you (though not shooting it down, which happens a couple times in the miniseries.) One qualm I have is that the damage system for vehicle combat doesn’t really reflect damage to specific ship systems, like FTL drives and landing gear and so on, when in most sci-fi movies and shows, BSG included, that’s most of what happens- a gimbal fails, sensors are acting wacky, so you have to do X to fix the ship and can’t use that system until you do. The rules imply that the GM can roleplay or rule on specific effects, but it’s a bit unsatisfactory. On the other hand, there’s a very good sidebar about how to run the big battle scenes the show is known for- zoom in on the stuff your PCs are involved in, zoom out to show the players some of the major effects of the combat, etc. We get stats for most of the major ships in both the Colonial and Cylon fleets, including, of course, the Galactica itself (there are also some nice interior maps.)

The Game Mastering section combines general advice on running an RPG (involve the players, share the spotlight, that sort of thing) with specific talk on the themes pervading BSG, as well as campaign building and adventure building and all that fun stuff. There’s nothing here that’s terribly new but it’s all solid, and the writers definitely “get” most of the conflicts and ideas inherent in the series. This section also talks about the Cylons a bit, and what we know and don’t know about them. The final chapter contains a number of writeups for supporting characters, both specific and generic, and including the Cylons (numbers 6 and 8 are statted out, albeit without Traits.)

This brings me to the game’s one major omission. When I was thinking of characters I would like to make for this game, the concept of a Cylon infiltrator or sleeper agent came up. I expect this is not atypical thinking. Now, the game doesn’t say you can play a Cylon. It doesn’t say you can’t. It doesn’t say “well, maybe, that’s up to the GM”, or “look for this to be addressed in the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA GAMEMASTER’S GUIDE”, or anything. I find one mention of it that seems to imply it as a possibility, but they never say so explicitly. The idea seems either to have not occurred to the writers altogether, or (more likely) been dealt with somewhere that got cut for space reasons. To be sure, it’s something you can easily kitbash- the basic information on humanoid Cylons is on page 211, and there’s nothing really game-breaking about them except their tendency to come back from the dead with extreme regularity. Now, the timeframe the book covers may have something to do with this. In the early episodes the Cylons were mostly distant and mysterious, and it’s only relatively recently that we’ve actually seen more of their culture and interactions, but even then you have one major character who’s unwittingly a skinjob, and it should have been obvious to everyone involved that every single player group would have at least one guy asking to be Number Six (though come to think of it, the kind of guys who would ask to play that character are usually the people who should not be allowed to under any circumstances.) I really hope they get around to addressing this in supplemental material, because it’s a very curious thing not to mention.

This is an attractive looking book- I’m not sure about $45 attractive, but then again it’s been a while since I’ve bought a new corebook and maybe that’s just what they cost nowadays. As a nice touch, all the pages have these little “missing corner” borders to reflect the look of paper in the BSG universe, and the whole thing has a vague military notebook feel. The text also tries to emulate a kind of genre-appropriate tough-as-nails tone at times as well, but it’s sort of inconsistent about it and the colorful intros don’t mesh well with the straightforward gamespeak. There’s the rare goofy collision between the two, as with “When you need to know if you succeed for (sic) fail, the Cortex System stands tall.” The writing’s not bad but I think there are certain narrative voices that don’t go well with rules for roleplaying games. On the upside, the appendix supplies us with all sorts of military lingo, as well as a full wireless “alphabet” (Alpha Bravo Foxtrot, etc., and this is actually the first time I came across an explanation as to why this practice is used.) There’s a decent-looking character sheet as well, and a good-sized index.

The word that best describes the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA RPG is “solid”. It looks like it’ll work just fine for a campaign based on the show, or even the classic series if you’re so inclined. There’s a degree to which I wish it were as daring and dynamic and wild as the show itself, or at least had more of that spark. But I can’t let such a lofty standard demean the achievements of what is, as far as I can tell, a good RPG that most fans will have a positively grand time with. You could do a lot fracking worse.

Grade: B