Thursday, November 27, 2014

Movie #282: The 13th Warrior

The 13th Warrior is an action/fantasy movie based on a Michael Crichton novel, and starring Antonio Banderas, Vladimir Kulich, Dennis Storhoi, and Omar Sharif. Reportedly Sharif was so disappointed with this movie that he retired from acting for a period after its release. I dunno, I didn't think it was that bad.

The movie follows the travels of Ahmed ibn Fahdlan (Banderas), an Arab courtier made ambassador to the savage northlands after he, liked, looked at a woman wrong. He and his mentor (Sharif) meet up with some Norseman, just before Bulyif (Kulich) becomes king. Ahmed gets roped into going with 12 other warriors, deeper into the northlands, to combat a terrifying race of monsters called the Wendol. They all have some personality, but the one that he bonds with is Herger (Storhoi).

Eventually, they find the monsters - actually a primitive race of people that live in caves. There are several bloody battles, but eventually the warriors tromp into said caves, kill the Wendol's "mother" (actually a young woman, because they filmed it with an old woman and it didn't test well), and then fall back to their encampment, where Bulyif, dying of poison from the woman's claw, manages to live long enough to kill their war-chief. Bad guys flee, movie ends with Fahdlan writing the story.

This movie was a huge flop, apparently. It was originally going to be released as Eaters of the Dead (after the title of the novel), but test audiences hated it, so Crichton got involved and rejiggered it, and then it was better, but it was still not especially well-reviewed. And I have to say, there are issues. It kind of plods along at this weird pace, the action scenes are OK but jumpy, and it completely wastes Sharif.

But that said: It does spend a little time addressing the language barrier and showing us Fahdlan learning the warriors' language. We do see some camaraderie born. There's no magic montage showing us Fahdlan becoming a warrior; he apparently has some training, but not with the huge heavy weapons that the warriors use. Oh, and, most importantly, he doesn't save them. Their king is the one that goes into the hole to kill the monsters, gets poisoned in the process, and then takes on the war chief. Fahdlan is the POV character and the narrator, but not the central figure. And he's Muslim, and keeps and practices his faith the whole way through. Now, he's played by a Spaniard, not an actual Arab actor, but you can't have everything, I guess (and at least he's not white).

Also, Michelle informs me that the Latin dialog actually parses fairly well, but I wouldn't know.

My Grade: B-
Rewatch value: Medium-low

Next up: The Dark Crystal

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Movie #281: The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk is the second movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tyler Blake Nelson, and Tim Roth.

Rather than being an origin story, this one picks up with Bruce Banner (Norton) having already become the Hulk, and smashed up his lab, leaving his girlfriend Betty Ross (Tyler) and her father General Thaddeus Ross (Hurt) injured. He's been on the run for a while, and settled in Brazil, working at a bottling factory and corresponding with a mysterious benefactor named Mr. Blue. When he accidentally gives away his position, General Ross sends a team in, led by Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Roth). They find Banner...but of course the Hulk kicks their collective ass.

From there it's a game of cat and mouse, if by "cat and mouse" we mean "elephant and slightly smaller, louder, elephants." Banner goes home and finds Betty, now shacked up with a shrink named Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell, hoping desperately to play him as Doc Samson at some point). But the army finds them again, the Hulk comes out again, and then it's on to New York, where they meet up with Mr. Blue - actually a scientist named Samuel Sterns (Nelson).

Sterns attempts to cure the Hulk, but then winds up creating the Abomination as Blonsky, already flying high on a super-soldier serum that Ross gave him, forces (well, asks, because Sterns cheerfully agrees) to give him some of Banner's blood. And then it's a showdown in Harlem!

This is probably the weakest of the MCU movies, but that doesn't mean it's bad. It's actually a pretty good movie, but it doesn't feel as tight as some of the others, and y'know, I have to assume that's because they let Norton run rampant all over it. But it was only the second one in the series, before they really found their footing. I have to say that, now having seen Avengers, I rather wish we'd gotten a Hulk movie with Mark Ruffalo instead, because I prefer his take on the character. Norton feels...kind of conciliatory and milquetoast, and his while you buy the history of his relationship with Betty, the chemistry isn't quite there. But Roth is awesome as Blonsky, desperate and jealous of the Hulk's raw power, and Nelson is a lot of fun as Sterns; you can see the super-villain origin plain as day. I actually really hope they have him back at some point.

My grade: B
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: 13th Warrior, The

Vampire: Chomp

Last night was Vampire. Let's get to it!

The characters split for the day last time, and woke up the following evening. Delphine resolved her Lethargic Condition, and Mordecai his Competitive. Thus unburdened, the characters decided to feed. Delphine set up her Tarot stand and cold-read someone into following her into an alley for a more "thorough" reading. Myra seduced a guy at Binion's and took him upstairs. Heath set up one of his famous poker games, and left some poor sod mostly drained (but alive). His security chief, Morgan, asked him, "hospital or morgue, sir?"

Delphine went to work, waiting tables as usual. She met another vampire sitting at a table, and approached him. He introduced himself as "Bob," and said that he'd been in Vegas before, but wanted to make sure he didn't step on any toes. He asked who claimed domain here, and Delphine told him. Then he asked after Myra, and Delphine that she came in her, too. Bob then locked eyes with her and Dominated her, telling her not to tell Myra that he'd asked about her, and dropped a $100 on the table and walked off.

Mordecai was at work, running his museum. He did some digging into a pet project of his - a rumored earthquake proof vault constructed by the mob. He got a call from Gus, the bus driver who'd tipped him to the house holding the baby a few sessions ago. Gus said that he'd met an older man who claimed to know someone who'd helped build it. His knowledge of dirty Vegas was otherwise sound, so Gus was hopeful. Mordecai told him to set up a meet.

Myra walked down to the artists' row where Mo Fuji used to sell her photos. She talked to a couple of folks, and learned that Mo had been there the night before, but then a man on a motorcycle had chased her out (probably Dex), and she'd run off. Myra followed her trail to a construction site, where she found blood.

She followed the blood inside; it was enough for her to think someone had bled out. But then something jumped on her back and bit her, ripping out a chunk of her neck. She fought it off, thinking it was Mo, but it was a man in construction worker gear, looking dead and grey. She Dominated it and asked it why it attacked her, and it rasped, "hungry." She fled.

Back at Binion's, Myra burst into Heath's office, bloodied, and told him about what had happened. Heath called and left a message for his sire, Courant, the Koagion. She rounded up Delphine and Heath called Mordecai, and on the way back to the place, Myra told them what had happened. Mordecai asked why she'd been to see the Prince, Myra told him it was none of his business and lashed out with the Seductive Beast to distract him...but they wound up just distracting each other.

En route, Heath stopped at a red light, and a man got into the car. It was Courant. He confirmed the character's suspicions that what Myra saw might be a larvae. Mordecai noted that he'd heard of Kindred actually controlling these things, and Delphine recalled lessons from her Crone schooling talking about the First Descent (the Embrace) and how some folks never made it all the way back. Courant posited that a Larva was "half an Embrace," and the characters guessed that maybe Mo had tried to Embrace someone but been interrupted.

They arrived, and Courant wished them luck. They shut off their phones (for stealthy!) and went in.

Meanwhile, back at Binion's, Morgan surveys carnage. "I know she took someone up here," he says to the other employees, "but why'd she cut him open?" He calls Heath's number, but gets not answer. "Clean it up, I guess."

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Movie #280: Inception

Inception is a 2010 sci-fi drama, nominated for Best Picture, among others, directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, and Cillian Murphy. So basically the cast of The Dark Knight Rises with a couple of substitutions.

Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) and his partner Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) work as extractors, going into people's dreams and stealing information. They get hired by a billionaire named Saito (Watanabe) to perform "inception," the act of planting an idea in someone's head so deeply that the subject figures it for true inspiration. The subject in question is the son of an energy magnate, Fischer (Murphy). At first declining the job, Cobb agrees when Saito promises to fix his criminal record and allow him to go home to his children.

See, Cobb's wife Mal (Cotillard) was doing dream-research, too, and they wound up trapped in "limbo," a subconscious null-space. Cobb eventually wound up planting an idea in her head: that this world wasn't real and that by killing herself, she could wake up. Trouble was, that idea didn't fade when they woke up, and Mal winds up not only killing herself, but framing Cobb in hopes that he'll join her in death.

The job doesn't go as planned; Cobb and his team wind up in a dream from which they can't just wake up. Because their bodies are sedated, they need to be woken up by their support in the waking world, or they wind up in limbo for decades of subjective time. They wind up going down through levels of dreams until Cobb finally hits limbo, reconciles with "Mal" (whose been running roughshod through his mind, fucking up his missions, the whole time), and returns to his children.

Maybe. The last shot is Cobb's totem, a top that never stops spinning in a dream. It seems to wobble, but doesn't fall, leaving the viewer to wonder if this has all been a dream or if Cobb has really come home. According to Nolan, it really doesn't matter; that ambiguity is deliberate.

This is a really well-made movie on a lot of levels. The dialog is tight and is sports a bunch of repeated lines, nailing home the story and the themes of uncertainty and unreality. The filming jumps around, making it hard to determine clean transitions from place to place (which is also dreamlike). And of course the cast is spot-on. Ellen Page plays Ariadne (oh, what a giveaway!) the student that Cobb hires to build the dream-mazes.

Inception suffers from some of the same problems that a lot of Nolan's movies do. The plot doesn't always hold up to scrutiny, and he makes use of that noxious "we only use 10% of our brains" BS, though thankfully it's a throwaway line, not the basis for the movie. Plus, gotta say, Nolan doesn't know what the hell to do with women a lot of the time. Ariadne is at least not damseled or fridged (which is more than you can say for Cotillard, though she also acts as a good antagonist), but her character isn't especially well fleshed out. Now, we don't learn much about anyone except Cobb and Mal, granted, but considering that Ariadne winds up being the secondary character with the most screen time, it would have been nice if she weren't just a foil for Cobb.

With that said, though, the movie nicely straddles action/sci-fi and drama, and provides some decent emotional impact in with all the mind-fuckery.

My grade: A-
Rewatch value: Medium-high (good but long)

Next up: Incredible Hulk, The

Monday, November 24, 2014

Monsterhearts: Season Three

Woof. After the tragedy that was the finale of season two, we picked up to being season three. We just made characters and firmed up the class schedule, with a bit of light roleplaying.

Made characters? Well, yes.

Season three picks up in late April, senior year. The students from the first two seasons have...undergone some changes.

  • Briar is still the Chosen. She's been dating Austin after Austin and Cassi split, and she spent the summer in Copenhagen. She's been monster hunting with Austin and Skylar since she's been back. 
  • Cassi...oh, dear. After Rook's death, she grew more and more withdrawn and depressed, eventually even withdrawing from Austin, but obsessively trying to use her telepathic link on him. Finally, the link broke...and so did she. She's changed from the Queen to the Hollow. 
  • Genesis focused more on her art over the summer. Her class track is strange; she wants to go to college and keep painting, but she isn't sure she can, since she has no legal identity. She also lost her skin again; she heard it was in the lost and found at school, but then she went to get it and its gone.
  • Skylar is still "living" at Rook's house, haunting it, you might say. She's also thrown herself into the "life" that she's made - since she can apparently be part of the living world, even as a ghost, she's trying to get prepared for the future and for college. Maybe he can be a real person?
  • Dora has dropped out of school, and is working towards her GED. The other students don't see much of her anymore, even her friends (Miguel, Julia, etc.). 
  • Rook is, of course, dead. He gave his key to Cassi with his dying breath, and she's never taken it of. 
Now, into the mix, we add a couple of new folks:

  • Ash Morton, the Calaca. Ash awoke in the cemetery the same day Rook died, pulled on a skin, and came to school. He seems to know a lot about the other students and tries to cover for them when necessary. He's happy, but kind of clueless about live-people things. 
  • Erica Perez, the Infernal. Erica was a member of Dora's coven, and is Cassi's cousin (on Cassi's mother's side). Erica is an overachiever - 2nd chair alto sax, straight As, college bound. So when she joined the coven and just couldn't do the magic like the others could, she kind of snapped, and made a deal with a dark power. She knows it as Chantico, the Aztec goddess of the hearth fire. It...might not actually be that. 
We start off on a Monday in April. The students are in Ms. Freese's homeroom. Austin and Briar chat about the upcoming prom, and Briar has the idea of having their own event that night, since bad things tend to happen at Perdido High dances. Austin agrees, and asks the others what they think; Genesis coins the term "un-Prom." Ash enthusiastically agrees, and suggests the amusement park as the venue. It isn't open yet, of course. Briar, Ash, and Austin decide to go out there after school and check it out. 

The announcements reveal that there's an assembly today before lunch. At the front of the room. Damon Richter (another overachiever) turns to Erica and says that the assembly was added last-minute, but he doesn't know what it's about. They lament losing the review time in AP Calc, but agree to get together after school to study. 

During Programming class, Austin approaches Cassi and tells her about the "un-Prom," and asks her to go. She says she'll think about it, which Austin reasonably figures is a polite way to say "no," but he asks her to consider it. 

The assembly happens. The teachers are all dour, and the principal announces that one of the teachers (Mr. Clark, who teaches Psychology to the seniors, including all the PCs), died of a stroke over the weekend. The students are appropriately shocked, and there's some talk about counseling and so forth...and then the characters head to Psych.

Their new teacher walks in and up to the board, his back to the students. He writes his name on the board - "MR. BARON" - and then turns around.

It's Rook. He's aged 20 years or so, but it's him. 

Next time, I suspect we'll be doing a lot of holding steady. :)

End credits song: "I'm Going Slightly Mad," by Queen. A slower cover would be good.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Promethean: Blast From the Past

Last night was Promethean. I seriously need to do some more game prep for this game. But I improvise well.

So! Last time, the characters were at the Shedd Aquarium and saw someone - an older man named Charles Rivers - die. They determined he'd been murdered (someone poisoned his inhaler), and, got shed of another throng of Prometheans. Grimm didn't trust them; Legion's talk about "neutralizing threats" worried them (and made Enoch think of Skip), but Feather pointed out that if Legion was following the Refinement of Bronze, he might be simply in protector mode.

The throng decided they'd go to Charles Rivers' apartment; it was nearby, and they wanted to know more about this mysterious man with a Pilgrim Mark tattooed on his hand. They took the El and Matt picked the lock on his door, and they stepped into an apartment full of books. Most of the books were old, many of them metallurgical or medical texts. They also found a full alchemy lab, too. Avalon looked at the materials (and Enoch at his notes), and realized that this guy was making various alchemical preparations, many of them to stave off aging or help him medically. They didn't find anything especially toxic, and nothing as deadly as the poison he'd died from.

Grimm found a strongbox, with a bit of black powder in the lid's groove. Avalon analyzed it, and realized it was rigged to incinerate the contents. She used Transformation to render the dust inert, and inside they found his important papers - lease agreement, car title, deed to a warehouse, and a handwritten diary. The diary detailed Mr. Rivers' Ramble. He was a Redeemed Promethean.

In addition to the details of several complex Refinement (Aes and Mercurius, which the characters knew about, plus one dedicated to "boiling away impurity" called Cobalus, which intrigued Enoch and worried Avalon). The diary said that Rivers had been created in Canada, and then worked his way through the US and into Chicago. He fell in love with the city, met many of the supernatural inhabitants and they knew him as...Calogero. Enoch was floored; he wasn't aware that it was possible to achieve the New Dawn and remember one's life as a Promethean.

Matt looked around for correspondence, and found Rivers' outgoing mail. There were several letters with "RTS" written on them, and the return address was from "POAC." Enoch recognized that as the Pristine Order of the Auric Chalice, a very rich and very exclusive group of alchemists.

The throng decided that they needed to figure out who killed Rivers, and what else they could learn. They decided to go to the morgue and talk to his corpse. Matt bluffed his way in, using his new ID as Matthew Paul Anderson, and let the others in the back. They found Rivers' body, and Enoch used Corpse Tongue to ask some questions. They learned that no one in Andrew White's throng had murdered Rivers, which was a relief.

Then they headed to the warehouse. Getting in took some doing; Matt picked the lock, but Grimm noticed cameras. Avalon used Soul in the Software, spat out a little boltfly, and disabled them. They went in, and Grimm realized a silent alarm had been tripped. Avalon disabled it using Transformation (just make the wires non-conductive!), but they weren't sure if it was too late.

They split up and, bolstered by Feather's Control Transmutation, searched the place. Enoch found close to a million bucks in large bills in a valise, but he kept it hidden from the others (though he did take the valise). Grimm found a Dodge Charger under a tarp, and wanted to take it, but Feather, Enoch, and Avalon dissented; the car wasn't his, and it'd be noticed anyway. Grimm also found an old record box with files written in some kind of cipher. One of the had a big X on the front, and the name "Max Maurey."

Feather, meanwhile, found a big marble chest, almost like a small casket. She heard something moving inside and called the others. Grimm charged Piercing Sight and looked in, and saw something lizard-shaped thrashing about. Avalon used Transformation ("running low, guys") and turned the marble to glass (it was thick enough that it wasn't brittle).

The thing inside looked like a human spinal column with part of a rib cage, a shrunken head, and fleshy, flipper-like arms. Enoch identified it as a Pandoran, and figured it had become active because of their Azoth - once they left, it would go dormant. Avalon opined that it would be kinder to put the thing out of its misery; it had to be in pain, hungry all the time. The others weren't interested in lifting the lid and fighting it, so Enoch Firebranded the pilgrim mark for "Pandoran" into the chest, and they left. As they did, they teamwork'd a Stealth roll (Many Hands Make Light Work), and left so stealthily they might as well have been invisible (seriously, it was like 11 successes).

They headed back to Enoch's apartment to look over their finds and try and crack the cipher. So we'll see where that takes them next time.

Movie #279: In Bruges

In Bruges is a crime dramedy, I guess, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes, Clemence Posey, and Jordan Prentice. It was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 2008, which was why I saw it originally.

Ken (Gleeson) and Ray (Farrell) are two Irish hit men who, after assassinating a priest, are sent to Bruges by their hot-tempered boss (Fiennes) to lay low. Ray is anguished; when carrying out the hit, his first, he accidentally killed a little boy at prayer (for extra gut-punch, the boy had a list of "sins" in his hand when he died, one of which was "being too sad"). Ray attempts to cope with both the guilt he's feeling and with absolutely detesting Bruges - he has no interest in sight-seeing, and while Ken drags him around the city looking at Medieval architecture, he sulks and manages to be saltier than my stepson at a winery (which seems oddly specific, but let me tell you, it's saying something).

The first night there, they stumble across a film crew and meet Jimmy (Prentice) a dwarf (his preference on the term) actor, and Chloe (Posey), who, as she cheerfully tells Ray, sells cocaine and heroin to actors. Ray winds up snogging with her until her boyfriend/accomplice Erik (Jeremie Renier) comes to rob him, at which point Ray disarms him, blinds him in one eye, and after Chloe takes Erik to the hospital, takes her drugs, hooks up with Ken and Jimmy, and get very high.

The next day, Ken hears from Harry, who learns that he's to kill Ray in retribution for the little boy (Harry is a thug, but he has principles, and he's a devoted father himself). Ken goes to carry out that job, but sees Ray about to shoot himself, and intervenes. Feeling guilty for his own life of crime, Ken decides to try and save Ray, and puts him on train. Harry arrives in Bruges, and the climactic final night, in which everyone, basically, loses, plays out with bullets and beatings and blood on the street.

This movie is really well done. The shots of Bruges are amazing, and the script is tight and a lot funnier than the subject matter would indicate (my favorite line: "I was on a very powerful horse tranquilizer yesterday. Wasn't waving hello to anyone. Except maybe a horse."). The cast is small, which means we get to know them, which makes their fates a bit more heartbreaking. Even Harry, who's a dick, it's hard to watch him die because he dies tragically. You could compare In Bruges to Pulp Fiction, except that the dialog isn't so disaffected. Ray and Ken are both tortured by what they've done and what they have to do, but Ray, especially, tries everything to keep his mind off it. I think it's one of Farrell's best roles.

Oh, and: It's a game of A Tragedy in Five Acts. Maps fucking perfectly. Ray is the Son, Ken is the Parent, Chloe is the Lover, Jimmy is the Foil, Harry is the Authority.

My Grade: A
Rewatch value: Medium-high

Next up: Inception