Sunday, December 29, 2013

Prodigal Son: Inspirational Films for Space 1889

                                                                    Part Twenty One

    I’ve been thinking a lot about various roleplaying games recently, particularly about cinematic inspiration in relation to games.  I’ve already written a few articles about this, tackling player character groups, as well as specifically Call of Cthulhu and Ars Magica.  I thought this time I’d branch out a bit and do a slightly more obscure game, but one I like the setting for quite a bit.  This time around, I’m going to look at ten inspirational movies for the game Space 1889, a ground breaking early example of what would become Steampunk.

10.  Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959):  An excellent cast of characters goes on a wild adventure into the heart of our own world, discovering strange secrets, hints of ancient civilizations, weird pre-historic creatures, and dangers undreamed.  Victorian morality, self-motivated adventure, and hints of deeper history make this an especially charming tale.  (See also; At the Earth’s Core).

9.  The Jungle Book (1994):  British Colonialism meets native life in this classic tale of West meets East in India.  This film could be translated almost directly to one of the canal cities of Mars.  The British officers, their relationships with the locals, even the plot would all work.  In many ways, though the weather is different, Mars is the India of Space 1889.  (See also; Gunga-din).

8.  The Time Machine:  The Victorians were all about exploring and inventing.  In this tale of an inventor who rockets himself into the future, we see the perils of war and the potentials of Darwin’s dangerous idea.  The Time Traveler is a perfect character for Space 1889, even if he can’t get that particular machine to work (and goodness, what if he could).  (See also; The Golden Compass).

7.  The Prestige:  The darker side of invention and the wild showmanship that really came into its own during this time.  Mad science, mysticism, and the obsessions of driven men.  Plus, Tesla.  Thomas Edison plays a large role in Space 1889, but what if Tesla was luckier or craftier?  What if Tesla and Edison became epic and powerful rivals?  What would Tesla be doing in space?  (See also; The Illusionist).

6.  Sherlock Holmes (2009):  This more earthy, grimy rendition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mad genius is my favorite cinematic version, and just behind the Jeremy Brett TV version for all time favorite.  Here we see the world of the late 1800s in all its dingy, ugly glory.  Fast paced adventure that recaptures the pulpy aspect of Doyle’s work that has generally been lost in previous film versions, and excellent renditions of the various characters make for a very charming whole.  The Holmes-Watson relationship is one of the best, most honest friendships I’ve seen on screen, and the fact that Watson’s fiancé isn’t  relegated to nagging harpy was a pleasant surprise.  She’s got all the pluck (if not the screentime) of a good heroine.  (See also; The Wolfman [2010]).

5.  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954):  This action packed adaptation of the Verne novel features an excellent cast and amazing production design.  Once again, the issues presented could translate either directly to Earthly seas of Space 1889, or with very little work, into some area of the solar system.  Captain Nemo might be a disenfranchised native of Mars who flies an advanced ship through the either, blasting other ships in a protest against England’s continued expansion of influence.  (See also; Atlantis The Lost Kingdom).

4.  John Carter:  Though it fails to capture much more than the barest fraction of the magic of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, this film still visualizes some of the things that were obviously influences on Space 1889, including the Barsoom air ships.  Mars itself has a lot of the right look and feel, if you just put more fins and bat features on the Red Men, they’d make pretty good Martians.  The deep history implied in the film captures some of that ambiance, too.  (See also; First Men in the Moon).

3.  The Ghost and the Darkness:  Life on the frontier, building outposts of civilization can be difficult and dangerous.  It takes people with a lot of nerve and maybe too little smarts.  Capturing some of the societal situations of the day, this historically inspired yarn of killer lions also cranks up the mystery and horror.  (See also; The Mountains of the Moon).

2.  The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello:  A creepy animated story of plague and lost love, this film feels more like the tales told by children in the slums than an actual Space 1889 story.  But don’t those tales usually have a grain of truth in them?  A very creepy and dreamy film.  (See also; City of Ember).

1.  The Man Who Would be King:  Daniel and Peachy are fantastic Space 1889 characters; men ready to take on the world, looking to make their fortune, and just about mad enough to pull it off.  A beautiful epic of two mad bastards putting their mark on a mysterious land.  (See also; She).

    There have also been a few TV shows over the years that capture at least something of the spirit of the game.  The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne was deeply, deeply flawed, but did have some cool elements.  The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., as well as the original Wild, Wild West give the American West a steampunk vibe that works pretty well with Space 1889.  The Amazing Screw-On Head was the pilot for what could have been a great show.  And the Sherlock Holmes TV series starring Jeremy Brett is quite excellent.


Matt’s Week in Dork! (12/22/13-12/28/13)

Mmm. Crack.

    Ugh.  Glad this season is nearly at an end.  I miss when I could actually enjoy the holidays, when they weren’t just oppressive, depressive, stress filled weeks of gloom and frustration.  Flippin’ retail, man.  Flippin’ awful consumers.  I’m all for commerce, but the holiday season is sickening.  Like human swine pushing each other out of the way for more space at the trough, where they’re sucking down foul smelling bits of waste.   Anyway, the week was made better by a bunch of new movies.  I’ve been trying to cram in a bunch of 2013 films as we get down to the wire for writing the Dorkies.

The Prowler:  “If you were just a dame, it’d be different.”  Van Heflyn plays a failed sports star who became a cop for all the wrong reasons.  When he latches on to a bored housewife, the force of his persistent personality on her.  And it’s probably no surprise that things start getting ugly fast.  Heflyn is repugnant.  He should get together with Ann Savage from Detour.  The movie itself isn’t all that great.  But it’s fun to watch such an awful monster try to get one over on the world.

Stoker:  After the death of her father, a strange girl must deal with a distant mother and a sinister uncle.  Family secrets slowly creep out.  Things get weirder and weirder, as relationships become more tangled.  And then murder.  The film is extremely kinky and strange.  It’s beautifully shot and drips with a kind of Gothic eroticism.  I can’t say I loved the movie, but I definitely found myself enjoying watching it.  It’s like Poe writing a Noir.

Blancanieves:  This silent, black & white take on Snow White is a worthy attempt, though I don’t think a particular success.  There are some great bits, and I like some of the ending.  But it’s too often too modern, in spite of its early 20th century setting.  And, to be honest, the first hour is kind of bloated.  Still, there is charm, and it isn’t a bad movie.  I think it could have been much better, though.

Sapphire & Steel:  When I first tried this show, I wasn’t especially enamored of it, but for some reason kept watching, and came to really like it.  The atmosphere is kind of amazing; the surreal mystery and existential danger, with time and space being cracked in unfathomable ways.  I would love to try to recapture some of the gut-level weirdness this show managed to maintain.  Each story keeps you guessing, not just about where things will go, but even about where they’ve already been.  Really something.  And what an ending.  Holy crap.

Computer Chess:  “It could be Sanskrit, it could be Pig Latin.”  Set in the dorky world of a 1980s computer programmer chess tournament, this awkward slice of low budget comedy is very, very odd.  I suspect that much of the film is at least in part adlib, which definitely adds to the discomfort level, but I don’t know if it adds to the plot or characters all that much.  Man, things get so danged creepy and awkward as the film goes on.  Swingers are creepy, man.

Getaway:  Wow, this is some low-budget, shot in Eastern Europe garbage.  Cheap looking, boring, irritating, and ultimately dumb.  The ‘twist’ ending is f’ing stupid.  This along with The Purge, puts Ethan Hawke in two of the worst films of 2013.  I’ve never been a fan, but dang man.  What happened?  And Selena Gomez?  Some people have it.  And then there’s Selena Gomez.  I’ve now seen entirely too much of her attempts to act.  Enough.

Alice in Wonderland:  Disney’s take on the classic surreal children’s novel is kind of definitive Disney.  It has some really good moments and some technical mastery, but is ultimately a bit soulless and bland.  Alice wanders around, dealing with Warner Bros. cartoon type odd situations, where I guess she learns some lessons…sort of.  I feel about this movie sort of what I feel about the 1939 Wizard of Oz.  While taken on its own, it’s a heck of an achievement, but being familiar with the source material, I can’t help but be disappointed that more of the essential nature of the work didn’t make the translation.

Her:  This subject is something I’ve read a good deal about.  Emerging A.I., our relationships with them, the possibilities and pitfalls of romantic love with non-human intelligences, etc.  And Her does get into some of the less obvious, less ‘Hollywood’ areas of it.  And it creates a very buyable near-future world where this relationship becomes possible and very relatable.  It also manages to go in directions that kept me guessing for much of the film, which was itself sort of surprising.  That said, I didn’t love the movie.  I think part of what never quite worked for me might be what works for other people.  At its heart, it’s a movie about a guy and his difficulties with love.  OK.  That’s fine.  But while it did deal with some of the issues of human-A.I. love, it didn’t explore them to the depths I’d have liked.  The social aspects, the ramifications, etc.  Still, it felt more ‘adult’ than a lot of films about robots and A.I.  Less sensationalistic, and much less anti-tech than I expect from this sort of film.  And it’s well acted and well shot.  The movie looks beautiful.  Overall, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

The Future (Il Futuro):  “At the beginning, we’re all good.  And at some point, we all turn bad.”  The beginning of this movie reminded me of Rust and Bone, and other such depressing slice of European life movies.  You’ve got despondent young people, an emotionally confusing (and confused) young woman with an uncomfortable relationship with sex, thuggish petty criminals.  You know, all that Euro stuff that’s considered so ‘real’ and ‘not Hollywood,’ but is just as cliché as anything churned out by the US studios.  Not my favorite genre of film (Euro-Depression).  However, once Rutger Hauer appears as a former body builder and actor in schlocky 60s beefcake action movies, the film got my attention.  Hauer is typically excellent, playing a sad, former champion.  As he and the young woman, played by Manuela Martelli, begin their relationship, we see deeper levels of each.  She unravels his demon haunted past while he wakes her up to the wonder and possibilities of life.  Had the film not featured the whole drug dealing, weight-lifting thug subplot, and focused instead entirely on the Martelli-Hauer relationship, I think it would have been a better film, and I’d certainly have been more interested.  I don’t know that Martelli is a great actress (like most European actresses, she spends most of her time staring and looking sullen), but she and Hauer are excellent together and their scenes raise the movie several notches.

Tomb of Torture:  Yes, more like Tomb of Boring.  Perhaps not my most clever of reviews, but bloody true.  This movie looks pretty good.  The set design is nice and it’s shot competently, if not masterfully.  But it’s just so, amazing, completely, excruciatingly boring.  Even the Italians have done this kind of wannabe Edgar Alan Poe monster movie better elsewhere.  To say nothing of Corman and the like who could make a more interesting horror movie with a super 8 and fifty dollars.  Skip it.

John Dies at the End:  “Apparently, it’s Eyes Wide Shut World.”  Scott Pilgrim VS. The Naked Lunch.  Fear and Loathing in Las White Castle.  This hipster vision of a drug fueled break in timespace has elements of William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and H.P. Lovecraft.  Unfortunately, it’s got a couple extra doses of Chris Hardwick and the MTV’s Wild ‘n Out.  There’s definitely a lot of things in the film I enjoyed, but at no point did it ever feel as authentically weird as the authors it was obviously harkening back to.  I never quite connected; never quite bought into the weird world.  I’d be curious to see a follow-up to the film.  I liked it enough to say that.  But I can’t sing its praises.  And really, I spent a lot of the film thinking about how much I'd like to punch in the smug faces of the two leads.  They're extremely unlikable in that jock/cockbag high school cool kid sort of way, with their constantly ironic tone and bored contemptuous expressions.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues:  Occasionally very funny, this sequel to one of my favorite modern comedies just doesn’t have the magic.  It’s not bad.  There are a bunch of really good bits.  But there are too many moments that just call back to the first one, and few of those are particularly good.  Everyone does a fine job and there are some good humorous shocks.  However, it seems like this is another sequel from 2013 that misses the boat.  Not as bad as Die Hard, Star Trek, Monsters Inc., or Machete, by any means.  But it doesn’t thrill.

    I found myself really digging M.I.A. this week, too.  Her album Kala has an old school Rap sound, mixed with some cool world beats.  The whole thing trips off my Cyberpunk love.  I imagine the sounds of the under-dome being something like this.

    And that was it.  I’m still scanning through various roleplaying game books to get ready for trying to run a game in the near future.  We set a date for the first meeting, near the end of January.  There are so many great games, and so little time.  I have a dozen or more that I’d love to run, and most of them I’d especially love to run as long term campaigns.  Obviously, that’s not going to happen.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Matt’s Week in Dork! (12/15/13-12/21/13)

    Other than getting out to see a movie with Ben on Sunday morning, I spent much of this week either at work, or half passed out on my couch.  The holidays are not a good time for anyone who works in corporate retail.  And I’m no exception.  Physically and emotionally brutalizing, it’s left me with little ambition but to snack and veg in front of the TV, wishing I could sleep.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug:  The second film in the unnecessarily overblown adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel for kids is OK, but not as tight or dramatically packed as the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films, or even as much as the first Hobbit film.  It’s still watchable, and as I’ve brought up several times with friends, I really like Peter Jackson’s take on the setting, and would be completely willing to come back every few years for a new entry.  A Silmarillion trilogy?  I’m there.  Children of Hurin?  Sure.  Those words scrawled on napkins and receipts and backs of business cards that Christopher Tolkien keeps mining to release new books?  Yeah.  I’ll watch movies of those, too.  I also don’t mind the addition of characters this film features.  It doesn’t get in the way, and provides for some elements of surprise.  And as with Jackson’s other adaptations, the spirit remains true, even if the exact content doesn’t (often for the better…Tom Bombidil, I’m looking at you…or more importantly and thankfully, I’m not looking at you).  I have three basic complaints about the film, and none of them are deal breakers.  First, there is some serious tightening to be done in a few spots.  Second, and related, several action scenes go on for far too long and aren’t especially well done.  None are as unneeded and poorly executed as the canyon chase from Jackson’s King Kong (a movie I otherwise love, but that scene...oh, man...), but they could be trimmed/cut for the better of the whole.  And last, but not least, the end credit song is bloody awful.  I don’t love the credit songs from these movies, overall.  But this is the first one I straight-up dislike.  The singer sounds like ass and the song is far, far too modern.  It doesn’t work.  So, this second Hobbit movie is, as expected, more of the same; and I’m OK with that.  With about 20 minutes cut out, mostly from the action bits, it would have been much better.  Well, maybe cut some of Orlando Bloom and his weird CG'ed face.

Man of Tai Chi:  An OK movie about a young, impatient student of Tai Chi who becomes a sensation in the world of underground, illegal fight clubs.  There’s some kind of conspiracy, an intrepid police officer, and a shadowy villain in the form of Keanu Reeves.  Nothing ground breaking or amazing here.  But there are some pretty good fights and I always like seeing Karen Mok in a non-comic role.  It’s not that good, but it’s worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a fight flick and don’t have anything in mind.

Gargoyles:  I have to give ‘em credit for making the attempt.  And the movie doesn’t play out in the way you expect from something like this.  The monsters are just sort of matter of fact, showing up and doing their thing, without much mystery or magic.  But the movie is also not all that exciting.  It is never able to rise above its made for TV look and feel.  I don’t know that it’s a good idea, but this feels like it could use a remake.  Del Toro?

"Technically, I'm a Grotesque."

Upstream Color:  Featuring hot foley artist action, this well prepared plate of What the Hell? is brain-breakingly weird.  Like the best independent science fiction films, it demands careful thought, conversation, and likely repeat viewing(s).  What’s going on?  Who’s the pig farmer-foley artist?  What are the secrets in the pages of Walden?  What the heck did that guy pull out of that woman?  And did he put it in a pig?  Darned strange, and demanding.  And beautiful.  Fascinating.  I guess I can’t be too surprised that this is from the guy who did Primer, probably the best time travel film ever made.

    In the middle of the week I finished Sam Harris’s new book, Lying.  Like his book, The Moral Landscape, it sure gives plenty of food for thought on living a better life, both for yourself and those around you.

A Matter of Life and Death:  A darned peculier, but also darned fine film from the little spoken of masters Pressburger and Powell.  It’s kind of hard to talk about the film, at least in a sense of its story or plot.  What I can say is that it’s gorgeously shot and makes interesting use of Technicolor and black & white.  In many places, the film feels very modern, while in others very much of its time.  And it’s all profoundly British.  Highly recommended.  This should be seen.

The White Dove:  A surreal film, in many ways almost a silent film, The White Dove is filled with interesting images and crazy experimental sounding music.  I love the sequences with the artist as he tries various means of expressing himself.  I don’t know that I ever understood the stuff with the girl on the beach, though some of it was beautiful.  Where was the wheelchair bound kid’s parents?  I don’t know.  Overall, nice to look at, and generally pleasant.  But also darned odd.

Byzantium:  Vampires suck.  They’re boring and played out.  However, this movie is enjoyable, thanks in large part to the cast and direction.  It feels rooted in Hammer Horror, dripping with Gothic atmosphere, but not cheesy.  It’s a fascinating movie and very pretty to look at.  This would probably make a good companion film to Let the Right One In (or the remake, Let Me In).

The Seventh Seal:  Probably Ingmar Bergman’s most famous and popular film (Stateside, anyway), this Medieval meditation on the nature and meaning of life and death is beautifully shot and filled with meaning.  It’s on the strange side of Bergman’s work, but is more approachable than The Magician.

Jaws:  Though this movie never features on my favorites lists, nor is it a go-to watch, every time I do catch it, even in part, I’m reminded of just how darned good it is.  The characters, the tension, the little human moments; it all comes together.  The relentless, almost supernatural horror of the shark, lurking always under the surface.  Intense.  In some ways, this movie reminds me of The Thing.  Partially it’s the seclusion, but it’s also the group of unique men, thrust together and forced to deal with some unprecedented horror.  And like The Thing, there are lots of moments where the actors are able to raise the film above what’s in the script.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Prodigal Son: A Bit More Homework

                                                                        Part Twenty

    As I’ve been reading over my Prodigal Son posts, thinking about the upcoming push to start a regular roleplaying game, I thought I’d turn again to inspirational movies.  One of my favorite games, one that I very much want to run, is the medieval fantasy game (one of the few fantasy settings I like) Ars Magica.  Ars Magica, typically, takes place in medieval Europe, often around 1200 or so, but in a version less tied to history than to myth, less how it was and more how people imagined it was, ‘Mythic Europe.’  Forests full of fairies, dragons in the mountains, angels & demons, ghosts, and of course, wizards.  The game is about wizards; a secret society of magic users who live throughout Europe, studying, experimenting, and increasing their powers.  There are three levels of player characters in the game.  Magi (wizards) are primary, Companions are secondary, and Grogs are tertiary.  While Magi are the main focus of the game, companions are also fully realized characters with goals and histories.  Grogs are medieval equivalents of  ‘red-shirts’ from Star Trek, rarely becoming more than background players.  Countless movies set in the medieval world have been made, but few that capture the essence of the atmosphere I most connect to the game.  What follows is a list of a few of the best Ars Magica films.

10.  Brave:  Merida, with a few twists, could make an excellent companion.  In a world dominated by men, adventurous women can become more profound, more inspiring, and more interesting.  While Mythic Europe, especially within the world of magi and the Order of Hermes may not be as misogynist as the middle ages actually were, it’s hardly an enlightened world.  There's some good magic and the setting looks amazing.  (See also; How to Train Your Dragon).

9.  A Field in England:  Not even close to the correct era, this film is a perfect representation of the life and times of grogs.  Ignorant, earthy, and slightly cracked, these AWOL soldiers go through a strange, mushroom laced adventure in magic and madness.  While it might be more extreme in tone than I would go for in a game, I think it captures the right mindset for grogs when they’re not under the watchful eye of a magus. (See also; Marketa Lazarova).

8.  Beowulf:  A weird visualization of the myth, Beowulf embraces the crazy adventure and magical mayhem that is the undercurrent of Ars Magica’s Mythic Europe.  One could imagine this story being told around camp fires, inspiring young, adventurous folk to travel north, to seek their fortunes in strange and haunted lands.  (See also; The 13th Warrior).

7.  Brothers Grimm:  While set many centuries later than Ars Magica, this movie captures the more fanciful and mysterious vision of Mythic Europe I’m inclined to attempt.  (See also; Snow White: A Tale of Terror).

6.  Ladyhawke:  Getting past the absolutely awful music (or at least, absolutely inappropriate), this romantic tale is full of charm and magic.  A young thief finds the secret of a beautiful woman and a taciturn knight, and the curse that keeps them apart.  Etienne and Isabeau could easily be companions or a companion and an NPC.  Phillipe would also make a solid companion character. (See also, The Princess Bride).

5.  Kingdom of Heaven (Director’s Cut):  A sprawling epic of the Crusades, this film features various political and religious elements, while also taking us from backwoods village to the urban centers of the Holy Land.  Characters, plots, histories, and events to inspire abound.  (See also; El Cid).

4.  Excalibur:  The ultimate, high fantasy telling of the story of King Arthur, this wild and operatic film is pure magic.  Like Beowulf, it feels like the mythological base for Mythic Europe, a fundamental part of the cultural language of the people who live there.  If this isn’t what happened, it’s what people may have imagined happened.  (See also; The Fool of the World and his Flying Ship).

3.  The Virgin Spring:  A simple tale of lost innocence, a horrible crime, revenge, and a wrestling with faith.  The stark but somehow charming life of a landed man and his family is depicted in this film.  It’s idyllic, until it’s soiled.  The look and feel of the film capture Mythic Europe, including the danger posed by strangers in the wood.  (See also; The Reckoning).

2.  The Seventh Seal:  The disillusionment of Crusaders returning from the wars clashes with the consuming shadow of the Black Death in this haunting and surreal tale of life and death.  The knight and his squire would make obvious choices for companion character inspirations.  But there are plenty of other interesting characters in this film.  And the manifestation of Death feels very much like something one might face.  (See also; Valhalla Rising).

1.  The Name of the Rose:  While this film deals with the clergy and the Church, it doesn’t take much to turn the priests and monks into Magi and the monastery into a covenant.  William might very well be a Quaesitor, sent to investigate some crime against the Order.  Gritty and ugly, it’s also mysterious and oddly beautiful.  This film is kind of a must for Ars Magica players.  (See also; The Advocate).

    There are also several TV series that are worthy of seeing.  The 80s version of Robin Hood, Robin of Sherwood, the recent series Vikings, The Storyteller, and the Cadfael mysteries.  And there are other movies, perhaps not as good or as spot on, that might do for a watch.  Solomon Kane, Erik the Viking, Dragonheart, The Last Legion, Season of the Witch, and others have plenty of fun ideas.