Tag Archives: movie

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending delivers fantastic visuals, including lepidopterous attack ships, galactic palaces, refinery cities inside gas giant planets, and gothic cathedral styled battle cruisers. The last I suspect were a conscious homage to 40K, especially given that at one point the protagonists need to “break through a field of war hammers” (some sort of geometric space mine). Warning, there may be some mild spoilers below, though I do not think they would really spoil the movie.

The plot is somewhat ridiculous, though not nearly as bad as some reviews I read made it out to be. The Wachowskis retain their fixation with harvesting human resources as seen in The Matrix. The universe is apparently ruled by giant space cartel noble families that live for millenia due to youth serum harvested from subject planets after they have marinated in DNA diversification for long enough. I actually enjoyed the over the top performances of the antagonist Abrasax siblings. Eddie Redmayne’s Balem Abrasax in particular was suitably Harkonnen with his decadent rasp, though his final behavior was not really believable for a semi-immortal space magnate.

Channing Tatum, unfortunately, does not sell the space wolf character at all. Someone with more believable sense of violence and threat was required, and the primary impression I got from his performance was tranquilized. Further, he looked soft, clearly not having trained very hard for the role. Chris Evans, Henry Cavill, and Hugh Jackman as action heroes have raised the bar and Tatum just does not cut it here. This is especially clear in his shirtless farmhouse fight scene where the camera seems to recoil from ever focusing on his midsection. It does not help that he has zero chemistry with Mila Kunis, who also does not seem particularly committed to her role as Russian immigrant housekeeper turned space princess (yes, you read that correctly). Her character is not particularly competent or clever and seems to be largely carried along with little agency of her own.

The major plot arc is essentially the navigation of galactic inheritance law. The process of claiming her title requires Jupiter to proceed through a host of kafkaesque and ridiculous official requirements. The source of this bureaucracy is unclear, but the sequence itself is enjoyable enough, and it culminates with Terry Gilliam himself playing some sort of heraldic functionary, in a clear homage to Brazil. There is a capitalist exploitation theme under all the action, with the Abrasax heirs being primarily concerned with the profit from their youth serum business.

The combat, both in terms of style and power level, looked on screen like how Numenera reads, especially the gravity parkour boots and materializing energy shield. The gravity surfing is not something I think I have seen on the screen before, and it was genuinely kind of exhilarating to watch, especially since much of the action happened in my city, Chicago. I think I could even see my apartment building in a few of the scenes.

Overall, the parts are more interesting than the whole, but we do not get many big budget space operas. The vistas are probably worth it alone, though occasionally the style overwhelms the substance so much as to be distracting.

Oh, and there are dragonborn (which, surprisingly, I can not really find any good pictures of).

jupiter-ascending-005-970x646-cjupiter-ascending-0030-970x646-cjupiter-ascending-00390-970x646-c(Images from here.)

Ghosts

You're going to die in there (source)

Cropped image from here

I just recently watched the first season of American Horror Story, which was way better than I expected (Jessica Lange in particular is wonderful, but the entire cast does a good job). Rather than discuss the series in detail though, here is a review in monster form.

After death, sometimes spirits remain trapped partially in the material world, unable to cross over completely to the next phase of existence (be that some unknown Elysium or only pure nothingness). This can happen either due to black magic or spontaneously out of a particularly horrific death. Ghosts are trapped in incompleteness, forever yearning for that which they sought in life, be it companionship, insight, victory, or something else.

Ghosts have free will but are stuck, to some degree, in the mindset they were in at the time of death. The longer they remain bound to the material world in ghost form, the more extreme this becomes, until they become, to a mortal perspective, insane and completely fixated upon past concerns. All ghost actions should be performed with an eye to the ghost’s longing. Most ghosts are not immediately violent (though some are), but instead are manipulative, seeking to extract from the living what is needed to fill their hollow, unending existence.

Within their domain, ghosts may use minor telekinesis and telepathy at will. They may also physically manifest. This material form should be listed in standard stat block form, and will generally match statistics in life, with several minor adjustments, as noted below. The material form of a ghost will often reflect the method of death (visible wounds, and so forth), though such marks may be suppressed by the ghost with effort or occasionally forgotten. When material, ghosts may be hurt, and even slain, exactly as if they were mortal, though such a death will not permanently destroy the ghost. If slain by mundane means, a ghost will reconstitute within one exploration turn (10 minutes). Despite being dead, ghosts can still feel pain (though it is muted somewhat by their alienation from the warmth of life), and thus being killed often puts them in a foul mood. If slain by magic or mystical means (including holy water and turning), a ghost will take a full day to reconstitute. Every decade of bondage adds another hit die (usually to a maximum of 10), and the difficulty of turning a particular ghost should be proportional to its hit die total.

Ghosts may only leave the location to which they are bound once per year, on All Hallows’ Eve. Otherwise, their influence is limited to the place of haunting or actions taken by mortals in proxy. If this location is a structure, destroying the structure itself may temporarily prevent the spirits from affecting the world directly, but any new structure built on the remains of the old will slowly come to be haunted by the previous location’s spirits. And anyone living long near the ruins will feel a strange compulsion to build on the site.

Anyone slain in a haunted place becomes a ghost themselves, bound to the same location eternally. Such places can become quite crowded. Some ghosts may be laid to rest by righting some past wrong, or satisfying their hunger finally, but others are insatiable, especially if things have been stolen from them that are irreplaceable.

Dwarves on Stilts

I recently noticed that Mirror, Mirror was available for free on demand as part of my cable service. I’m not going to say much about the writing, acting, and plot because, well, they weren’t very good (though I admit that the actress for Snow and a few of the dwarves did grow on me by the end).

However, there were a few worthwhile visuals, including bandit dwarves who use stilts to appear as giants, and a scene involving puppet golems controlled from afar by the sorcerous queen. Also, the costumes were pretty good in a totally over the top Lady Gaga sort of way (I could totally see this palate used in the Dying Earth). I also quite liked the depiction of the pocket dimension and the mirror as portal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any video clips of the good bits, but here are some images from around the web which might get across the general ideas.

Dwarves on stilts

Dwarves on stilts (source)

Puppet golems

Puppet golem creepily walking backwards Voldo-style (source)

Vancian wedding costumes

Vancian wedding costumes (source)

Prometheus

I saw Prometheus over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. There have been many overly critical reviews going around, so perhaps this can function as a dissent. In addition to suspending your sense of disbelief (something necessary for engaging with any work of fiction), you must also be willing to accept a story which can support multiple interpretations, as not everything is spelled out. If you don’t like any kind of symbolism or theme in movies, this is not the movie for you. If you are irritated by characters that go to investigate dark hallways alone in horror movies, this is not the movie for you.

Some of the characters made bad (even stupid) decisions. Many reviews I have read latched onto these plot elements as flaws in the movie. However, people can be stupid, vain, greedy creatures who don’t necessarily think things through, even when they are spending trillion dollar space ship budgets (and this is when they don’t need to make split-second decisions). Consider Christopher Columbus spending Queen Isabella’s money (and all the other explorers that were not as successful). And speaking about some of the mercenaries, what kind of person rents their life to a megacorporation and risks death in a two-year suspended animation in order to make some money? Apparently, some people are only satisfied with stories about people who always make smart decisions (see The Alexandrian’s take, for example).

That being said, there were some problems with characterization in the movie. It was hard to feel sympathy for many of the characters, and some motivations were not terribly clear, especially for Charlize Theron’s corporate ice queen. Why was she there? What did she hope to get out of the mission? And, the captain’s final action. The motivation did not feel authentic to me for the captain, and it felt even less so for his subordinates, who, as far as I could tell from what came beforehand, were basically just hired technicians.

It is possible that Prometheus is one of the better cinematic adaptations of Lovecraft that has yet been produced, despite the fact that it is not directly based on any Lovecraft story. It is certainly more in the spirit of Lovecraft than either Alien or Aliens. I would also add that many of Lovecraft’s protagonists also make “stupid” decisions, and that this is part of the point. Humans tamper with an unknown and dangerous cosmos. To quote from Joe the Lawyer’s list of D&D rules broken by characters in this movie: “Never trust the unknown. Everything in the universe is fucking hostile.”

There are a few minor problems of pacing. I could have done without the entire section near the beginning depicting the android teaching himself about human culture while everyone else was in stasis on the ship. I feel like more mileage could have been gotten from the exploration of the alien ruins. And the writing was not spectacular, though I didn’t feel like it was bad enough to negatively affect the rest of the movie.

I can’t say for certain that the makers of Prometheus consciously meant to allude to Dungeons & Dragons, but there certainly seemed to be a number of references. For example (paraphrasing from memory here), near the beginning there is the following dialogue: “Before the adventure begins, Ms. Vickers would like to speak to you.” There is a “skull mountain” vista which looked like it was straight out of Holmes. I suppose these could just be coincidences. Also, the mapping robots. All I could think of here was that this is a DM with players who clearly don’t like mapping. Did I mention that the entire plot revolves around what is essentially an alien megadungeon?

In total, I think the visual power of this movie is enough to carry it for a viewer that appreciates such things. The score was good too, in an unobtrusive sort of way (I generally don’t like scores that call too much attention to themselves, with the exception of Kubrick, but then all bets are off with Kubrick anyways). And, if you play D&D-style adventure games about exploring dungeons, you will see a lot in Prometheus that is familiar, and probably get some ideas from it too (I certainly did).

Holmes cross section, just because

John Carter

Short review: I loved it. This is the best fantasy adventure movie I can remember seeing since The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars trilogy. The cute sidekick (Woola) was actually cute rather than annoying, and all the characters were well-drawn (though John Carter himself was a bit dour).

The visuals were amazing and the acting was mostly top-notch. There are a few minor cosmetic things I would have changed, but I’m not going to go into those because they were for the most part irrelevant to the spirit of the story. I think it is admirable how close they stayed to the original stories, especially compared to what Hollywood writers usually do with scripts. I’m also impressed by how they did not water down the Confederate soldier aspect of John Carter’s character.

Personally, I think the name of the movie should have been Barsoom. John Carter is just too bland for most movie consumers. Most of the people I talked to had no idea what it was about and were not familiar with the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. John Carter of Mars would have been better, but still not ideal, as I think it would read as too campy for mainstream audiences. Barsoom sounds mysterious and alien. It would have given the studios a better franchise to work with too. Future titles could have followed the pattern of the book titles (“Warlord of Barsoom,” “Gods of Barsoon,” etc). Unfortunately, due to the studio’s loss on the first installment, we will likely not get a second.

The major criticism I have read by others is regarding the addition of the tragic backstory (see Grognadia and Howling Tower). This actually didn’t bother me that much; being a soldier on the losing side of a war is pretty tragic too, and I don’t think the addition overwhelmed his character. The courtly southern gentleman aspect didn’t really come through at all though, which in my mind is a bigger failing. And where was the southern accent?

Season of the Witch


Playing tabletop RPGs again has started to change, or maybe widen, what I look for in movies. Specifically, ideas and inspiration for my games are beginning to be just as important as other more common measures of quality in film. By this measure, Season of the Witch was a great success (and was not a bad movie apart from that either).

I would highly recommend it especially to fantasy game players. In fact, in some ways this story is a model for how to run a weird fantasy scenario. It is set during the Crusades. Right from the very beginning, it is clear everything is not quite right, but the day to day existence is still mundane. And I think every D&D player will recognize the small troupe of main characters as an adventuring party.

There were a number of small touches that I greatly appreciated. For example, everyone doesn’t speak in a British accent just because the movie is set during medieval times. A standard American accent was used by most actors throughout, which I enjoyed. More period movies should take this approach. Accurately representing accents is impossible, so why not make it feel natural?

Once the movie decided what kind of story it was going to tell, it didn’t dick around with you and keep making you second guess what was going on. It just went for it, and didn’t make any apologies.

Hammer Horror & Cleric Power Delegation


I had not heard of Hammer Horror films prior to being a regular reader of Grognardia (see this post). After reading the argument that Van Helsing was one of the inspirations for the cleric class, of course I decided that I had to watch some of the Hammer films. So, I did some web research, and this DVD set seemed to be a good place to start. Quatermass and the Pit and The Devil Rides Out also seem interesting.

Speaking of clerics (this is my attempt at a segue), The City of Iron recently wrote about doing without the cleric class using blessings & pacts. I was just thinking about sources of cleric power, and one of my ideas was “Hierarch; source is a higher-level cleric (it’s turtles all the way up)”.

Following on that, what if delegation is a standard mechanic for cleric spells? Here’s how such a thing might work:

  • Any cleric can grant spells to other characters.
  • Max level of spell that can be bestowed is one less than the highest level the cleric can cast (e.g., a cleric that can cast third level spells can delegate first and second level spells).
  • As long as the spell remains granted, that spell slot is occupied.
  • The cleric can revoke the granted spell at any time.
  • The cleric will know when the spell is discharged, but not the specific circumstances.
  • Some monsters could also be able to bestow similar blessings.
  • Non-clerics can at most retain one granted spell.

I’m not sure if I would actually want to play with this system, but I think it is an interesting variation.

The Joker on Refereeing

The Joker
It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did, to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hm? You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
The Joker
[Joker hands Two-Face a gun and points it at himself] Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh and you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.
Two-Face
[with the gun in Two-Face’s hand, Two-Face pauses and takes out his coin]
Two-Face
[showing the unscarred side] You live.
The Joker
Mm-hm.
Two-Face
[flipping, showing the scarred side] You die.
The Joker
Mmm, Now we’re talking.

Script text source (scene from The Dark Knight, of course)

Mad Max Meets Van Helsing

Being a review of the 2011 movie Priest.

If you move past the awkward writing and badly-acted gravelly voices, this movie is actually pretty good, from a gaming and setting point of view.

I submit the following points as evidence:

  • The priests are clerics of the ass-kicking school. They even have a weapon restriction (though it’s against guns rather than bladed weapons, and is not explained; this restriction was probably meant as an excuse for martial arts, but it still made me think of D&D clerics).
  • There is a party of adventurers (ultimately made up of 2 clerics and 1 fighting man).
  • Vampires are nasty monsters, not misunderstood antiheroes. Since “the eyes are the windows to the soul”, vampires have no eyes. They are insect-like horrors.
  • The setting is a very good fit for a wilderness in the D&D sense. The only places safe from monsters are the walled cities, which are ruled by a corrupt priesthood.
  • The city is a self-conscious homage to Blade Runner.
  • It also brings to mind a mock-serious goth version of Trigun (I mean that as a compliment); I like the use of the Western (in the sense of cowboys and outlaws) imagery and stereotypes. (Aside: Wolfwood from Trigun is also a post-apocalyptic ass-kicking cleric.)

There are a few truly cringe-worthy scenes (for example, evil guy “conducting” the pillaging of a town as if he were Beethoven). The Matrix-inspired fight scenes are not bad, but I feel like the ambiance might have been better served by less martial arts and more gritty action. That being said, these elements are more than balanced by the beautiful post-apocalyptic grey and brown vistas. I particularly like the scene with the huge statues when the priest is first leaving the city, and the bird’s eye view shots when they are driving though the skyscraper ruins. Something that came to mind: it could possibly be interesting as a silent movie with a creative soundtrack and a few scenes cut.

One site/encounter directly inspired by this movie: ancient train, eternally moving back and forth between two ruined city sites. Train has been repurposed as a lair for something and can be included on random encounter tables for the hexes that it moves through. It is essentially a mobile dungeon. Train is large, multiple rooms per car. It is more or less linear, but in this case the linearity fits (and might be a nice change if your campaign is mostly made up of heavily Jaquayed sites). The train could be used as a mobile base by PCs if they clear it without destroying it. Compare also to the haunted train from Final Fantasy VI.