Author Archives: Chris

A Quiet Place (2018)

I saw A Quiet Place more than a week ago now, but I’ve been distracted by too many other things (work, D&D, personal stuff, probably more) to remember to write a review. The short version is, it was good!

The longer version is that it was a very spare, quiet movie that indicates John Krasinski[1] has a future as a director. I mean, haha, quiet, but the truth is, it may be some of the most effective uses of sound and lack of sound that I’ve ever, um, seen. See, there are these monsters[2] who move incredibly fast and hunt by sound. So, if you make much noise anywhere, they’ll get to you in seconds rather than minutes, and if you make noise when they’re close, they’ll just get to you. Also they’re powerful and indestructible. So, life in this modern world kind of sucks.

Perfect setting for a family drama, right? This particular family has one deaf child, which made them uniquely suited for quiet communication, and they’ve done a good job of sound-proofing their pretty much everything. But there are conflicts that it would be spoilers to describe further, and there’s a new baby on the way, and they are about to have a very, very bad day.

So: yes, this is a horror movie. But I’m not sure that is the primary classification, because the interrelationships are a lot more important than the body count. Even if it wouldn’t normally be your thing, I say give it a chance.

[1] If you know him, you know him as Jim from The Office.
[2] Where did they come from? Why are they hunting? (They don’t seem to eat, only destroy.) We won’t ever know, the monsters are setting rather than plot.

Player’s Handbook (5th Edition D&D)

Full disclosure: I did not read the entire Player’s Handbook cover to cover. Because, like, there’s a section with a bunch of spells in alphabetical order, right? Except for a couple to get a flavor of the formatting, I did not read those[1]. I may have skipped other stuff too? I forget.

That said, this is a pleasing book. I last played 4th Edition, in the 2010-2011 timeframe, which it turns out was a long time ago? I liked how they handled combat, but came to greatly dislike how they handled the characters, who all seemed like smudged copies of about four types. And that’s where I have good news! Combat in 5e is about the same, it does a good job of working out timing (I mean, who goes when), positioning, movement, reactions, all of that. But the character mechanics are nearly as diverse as they were in the first and second editions, while being simultaneously streamlined[2] for ease of use.

Even better, there is a good variety of resources available for ensuring that your character has a backstory and a current story outside the adventure itself. This is the kind of modernization of the game I can definitely get behind. Obviously you could always make your character’s history as rich or as vague as you wanted, but formalized rules to assist in the endeavor are entirely welcome.

So anyway: good stuff.

[1] I want to know how to play and run the game. I do not need to read reference books. See also: why there will not be a review of the Monster Manual.
[2] A point that was driven home to me when I looked up the 1e stats for the spell Dimension Door earlier this week. It had a casting time, which I remembered, but it also had a recovery time after use and the weird AD&D conceit of “inches”, which we used to call areas. (I don’t know why? Maybe the book also called them that.) But 1″ is either 10 feet inside, or 30 feet outside (if I remember correctly), because magic would somehow work that way? I’unno. My point is, it’s possible that my longstanding desire to run a first edition AD&D campaign has been, um, misguided.

Red Sparrow

I want to talk about the fact that the last three movies I’ve seen theatrically[1] have touched on the action genre and had female leads, but I’m not certain Red Sparrow is the movie best suited as a capstone to that rare achievement. Because Jennifer Lawrence’s dancer[2] turned honeypot spy is explicitly free of any kind of agency. I mean, that is what the film is about, start to finish.

Please don’t take that as spoilers; it’s theme. (It’s not even revealed theme, it has been hammered home before the end of the first act.) Within that framework is a taut spy thriller full of head fakes and direction changes that could as easily be set in 1988 as 2018, save only some pieces of technology that indicate one direction over another.

So if you like that kind of movie, it’s a fine example of the genre, and I enjoyed the roller coaster; plus it’s nice that it doesn’t feel too modern, considering Russian spycraft and its effect on modernity. If you don’t like this kind of movie, it does not rise above its type. But that’s okay! It fills a niche I hadn’t visited in quite a while, and fills it well.

Also: if you want to pretend that the character’s name is Natasha Romanov, I do not believe that hurts the film one whit, so go to town. But it is guaranteed that Marvel could never have made this movie.

[1] without going out of my way to make it happen, is a key aspect of why that matters.
[2] A thing that impressed me is, they took an entire other take on the psychological thriller genre and compressed it down into ten minutes when it would easily have supported an entire move all on its own. This is a dense one!

Tomb Raider

The single biggest problem with Tomb Raider as a movie is that it’s based on a video game. I mean, it’s based on the truly outstanding reboot of the original series, and that helps a lot. But it’s a really solid modern take on the 1930s pulp adventures serials, in much the same way that Raiders of the Lost Ark was a really solid modern take on those same serials when it came out in 1981, but this is nearly two generations later and so the modernism is taken up a few notches, is all. (Also, it’s not set in the 1930s, which, good call.) And to the extent that it was rushed and messy, that extent is because it was following the broad script of a game that you play for twenty plus hours, and yet was given only two hours to tell that story.

The story is this: Lara Croft is a wealthy young heiress to a fortune about which she cares nothing; her only interest is in finding her missing father, who she refuses to accept is dead even though his estate is about to dry up from underneath her since nobody is in charge of it due to his years’ long absence. And she goes looking for him, but it’s one of those “goes looking for” kinds of stories where the person you really find is yourself. Will Lara Croft, rebellious twenty-something who spends her time kickboxing and racing bicycles become Lara Croft, globe-trotting, er, tomb raider? I mean, duh, but not in this movie. This movie is how she finds out those things about herself, while in the midst of drive-in movie mayhem. I wish I’d realized soon enough to keep up the drive-in totals, Joe Bob style, but I can assure you that there is a body count, faces melt, dicks get punched, the whole shebang.

But since she starts off as a novice and ends up far from that space, two hours is maybe not enough time to really buy into her ability to survive on her own, take down an army of mercenaries, and solve archaeological and literal puzzles along the way. To be fair, that’s not entirely what the movie is about the way the game was, but it’s a little close for comfort. My prediction is that the sequel I’m hoping for will do better, since it won’t have to spend any time establishing her credentials, and since it maybe won’t be based on a different game (that I have yet to play, but maybe this year?).

My point is, there’s a great series here, and if they realize it, it will be better than the pretty good movie I watched last night.

The Walking Dead: Lines We Cross

I find that Walking Dead graphic novels come out at the right pace. Twice a year, six issues each (which okay, that’s a pretty obvious rate if you pause to think about it), and whenever I get one in the mail it’s just about exactly the time that I think it’s been a little while since I read the last one. I wonder if I would itch for them more, if the show wasn’t also coming out on about that schedule (eight episodes instead of six, and closer to the turn of the year than an even split, but nonetheless) to fill in any extra itchings.

Sometimes I can tell what they were going for from the title, and other times (like now), not so much. I mean, Lines We Cross is a rich mine for the entire series, certainly, and most of the individual characters have a lot of story dedicated to that question. But this specific book? Nah, not seeing it.

That said, it is an introspective, quiet, rebuilding book, in which people have time to take stock of lines they have maybe already crossed, regrets they have, relationships lost and found. And I will never get tired of the parallel story arcs between two characters that would be very spoilery[1] to call out. But if introspection is not your thing, there’s a new hilarious character (right on the cover!) and the promise of a brand new storyline springing from the culmination of the radio conversations that built throughout the Whisperers arc. So, Kirkman’s definitely not out of ideas yet. And, at least for now, I’m not tired of hearing them yet.

[1] For a lot of reasons

Aftermath: Empire’s End

If you are looking for a book that explains why there’s wreckage all over Jakku in The Force Awakens, then Empire’s End is the book for you! If, however, you are looking for information on where Leader Snoke and the First Order came from, well, you’ll hear somewhere between one to five percent of that story, tops. (Which to be fair, at least until the trilogy of movies is over, you had to know that nobody would be allowed too close to direct backstory, in case the writers wanted to do it on film instead. I mean, you had to know that, right?)

On the bright side, I’m still very much enamored of the characters in this trilogy, and it’s nice to see someone telling a full-sized story in the Star Wars universe where Skywalkers are relegated to a side role at best. (There have been other such stories prior to 2015, but really not very many.)

Just in case there’s confusion, I should note that the book does a lot more than explain Jakku wreckage. But it’s the third book of a trilogy, so why go crazy with spoilers? It continues to do well what the other books also did well: present a living, breathing galaxy reacting to Palpatine’s demise and the birth of a new Republic, while telling a personal story about several people on both sides of the lingering conflict. In other words, if you care about Star Wars, this has star warsy stuff worth caring about.

Annihilation

Thanks, random invite to a sneak preview from Alamo Drafthouse! The last one of these I got was for Mother!, which I liked quite a lot. This time, Annihilation. Which, like the last one, is pretty hard to describe, but unlike the last one, doesn’t hold together quite as well on reflection. That’s not a big criticism, mind you. I really liked Mother! a lot. Just not in a rewatch it kind of way, whereas this one I think I could.

See, Natalie Portman, because reasons, is going on a mission into a weird area of land called the Shimmer, in which (per the sentence long description on IMDB) the laws of nature don’t apply; and also previous missions have not ever returned. From there, a movie length mind trip[1][2] ensues, in which Natalie is accompanied by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jane the Virgin, and the Valkyrie on a quest to solve the mystery of the Shimmer.

That’s quite enough to say, I suppose. It’s nice to see a movie with very few men just a few days after seeing a movie with only one white person. It would be I guess nicer if it didn’t also have the feeling of being bread and circuses while I ignore the shitshow outside.

[1] As you can tell from the poster’s color palette alone
[2] One reason for a rewatch, besides that I’m not afflicted with underlying disturbed feelings from this movie, is that I know I missed a lot of things and would find the second time rewarding towards deciding if I think they stuck the landing or not.

Black Panther

It took me until Monday night to see Black Panther, which was in a way annoying but in another way heartening. Tickets all Sunday afternoon and evening were sold out down to the front couple of rows, you see. This pleases me, both for the studio and the character. And not having seen it on Thursday night, it’s not like my review was going to factor into much of anything at all, so.

The thing is, T’Challa is a compelling character and Wakanda is a compelling nation. There is a book that I have not read called Guns, Germs, and Steel that lays out an (as I understand it) compelling case for the idea that European dominance of the colonial and modern world has a lot more to do with geography and resources than with any innate superiority of its peoples. Enter Wakanda, a small African nation whose technology is far ahead of any part of the world not personally owned by Tony Stark, because that happens to be where a huge chunk of vibranium[1] landed lo these thousands or millions of years ago, and the Wakandans happened to get there first. And you can say that this is so much wish fulfillment. Probably that’s true? But it’s awfully comfortable saying that if you happen to be the person whose wish was fulfilled by reality instead of the person whose wish was not.

And to a large extent, that’s where my review ends, because as cool as the Black Panther is, and as fun as it was to see him rushing around the world fighting some of his biggest name enemies from the comics, and as well realized as his fellow Wakandans each were, and as socially and historically relevant as Killmonger’s origin story is, the real star of this movie was Wakanda. And they did that country up right, every bit as well as Asgard or Ego have been presented in previous MCU flicks.

[1] It’s what Captain America’s shield is made out of. More to the point, it’s virtually indestructible and has a number of rather intriguing properties in addition to this that make it a boon to scientific and military advancements over time. It’s, y’know, handwavium.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Did you know that they are still making Harry Potter movies? It’s true! But I got distracted and never actually saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them until now. (Not Black Panther like you’d think. I tried, but all the theaters with assigned seating were sold out down to the front rows today, so I still don’t get to go until Monday. That’s like five days of avoiding spoilers, you guys. Then again, I managed to go more than a year with functionally no spoilers on this Harry Potter thing I’m nominally reviewing, and that includes steadfastly ignoring the newest third of the Harry Potter exhibit on the Warner Bros. studio tour.)

So, a thing worth mentioning is that this technically was not a Harry Potter movie, seeing as how it was set in 1927, some 50 odd years before the boy who lived was even born. There’s this guy Newt Scamander, who wrote a book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and this is a story of him hanging out in America with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts, back when nobody really liked them (the beasts, not suitcases) and they were illegal to have instead of worthy of being studied and written about, and also there was a pre-Voldemort wizard bad guy that everyone is nervous about.

So if you care about cool magical creatures (you should) or how American wizardry differs from British wizardry in time as well as space (maybe you should?) or about characters who all share a sense of wonder about this whole magic thing even though they were born to it instead of being thrust into it as a cipher stand-in for the reader, and also they all care about each other and have genuine undeniable chemistry, both as actors and as characters (you definitely should, as this kind of thing honestly doesn’t happen that often), this is the movie for you. In a way, it’s better than its source material.

Not that I don’t like Harry Potter, but chosen ones who learn about the universe as the reader or watcher does with constantly ratcheting stakes are kind of a dime a dozen these days, whereas successful post facto world-building is a rare gem indeed.

Rider, Reaper

I liked this Deathlands book somewhat less than usual, for a variety of reasons, which I will now elucidate.

1) The plot was not organic, and instead was in service of a clear goal that took me out of the writing. See, albino knife-throwing murder machine Jak Lauren left the group a long time ago, to start a life on a ranch in New Mexico. Yet, the in media res opening of Rider, Reaper immediately took the happy ending away from him, solely so the series could have him back. Clumsily enough so that I didn’t even realize it was that style at first, and instead thought I had accidentally picked up the wrong book. (On the bright side, I like him. But man, the clumsiness. Maybe if his family had been murdered during one of the stretches of time when everyone else hadn’t been right nearby, and then found him along the way instead? I dunno.)

2) Due to circumstances, they team up with a group of Navajo warriors to take down the bad guys of the week, and those warriors are portrayed as hot-headed savages worthy of a team-up with 19th century cowboys showing that the white way is manifestly the correct one, instead of 22nd century survivors of a society-ending nuclear war. It was just so bad, and all the moreso for me being used to this series’ shockingly common egalitarianism. Ugh. I am pretty sure the author hasn’t changed yet and won’t for a long time, so I hope it is a one-off problem, and not a sign of things to come due to editorial changes or some other permanent shift.

All that said, the set up of the next few books is pleasing to me, and I continue to look forward to where things are going. Please oh please let this be merely a small bump in the road.