Archive for December 2016

Passengers

Spoiler Warnings On!

 

The trailer for Passengers sucked me.

The idea of a generation ship suffering some mishap in space and two people being left to face the darkness and the catastrophe alone is an intriguing idea to me. I have read many stories with this premise. I wanted to see Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence walk around in this type of story.

Passengers provides this story as a backdrop but not the central idea. Pratt and Lawrence are passengers on a generation ship that has suffered catastrophe. The question that is asked is not how do you repair a ship with limited tools but what would you do when you are faced with dying alone out in the darkness.

So, going into Passengers, you are expecting sci-fi action and adventure and are given romance with a touch of soul searching. I am not averse to romance but was not expecting it here.

Pratt and Lawrence, as usual, give excellent performances. Pratt plays Jim Preston. Preston is a mechanic and an engineer who has left earth to find something that he can fix and build. Lawrence plays Aurora Lane, a write seeking to leave the shadow of a famous father and tell her own story. There is no way for these two to not have chemistry on the screen. They move with ease through the simple story they are given and allow the few times that the scripts tries to transcend to shine through.

The cinematography and effects are solid as well. The way that shots are handled both capture the futuristic feeling of the setting while also highlighting the isolation and alienation that such a trip would entail. There are points in the story where Preston is truding through a year alone on the ship and the shots and how they are woven together illustrates the descending madness of facing one’s demise alone and and unmarked can do to someone.

The movie is problematic for me when it comes to this choice moment. Preston is contemplating suicide rather than die alone. He makes a choice and begins researching other passengers. He chooses Aurora and then takes the time to choose whether to consign her to the same fate or live alone.

He makes the choice to have her join him. Thus begins the romance. Pratt is an excellent awkward lothario and the wooing is worth watching on the screen. The problem for me is that this is a horrible choice and Lane’s death is sealed without her consent. the secret comes out and the consequences are there but are impermanent. The ship must be repaired with death on the line. In that moment where Lane could lose Preston, she chooses to want him with all her heart. Lane chooses her murderer/lover and chooses to not die estranged from another human.

Passengers chooses to make normal this horrible decision. It follows the standard romance trope of love conquering all and the woman choosing to take the man back to not feel unfulfilled. It makes my skin crawl.

The writer, Jon Spaihts, could have done better. At minimum, the roles could have been gender flipped. Lane could have been the mechanic that was accidentally awoken by the accident that befell the ship. This would not make the choice any less icky but would have definitely flipped the power dynamic and making for a more interesting exploration of this moral dilemma. The moral dilemma could have been explored more as well. We get a montage of Preston working up to making the decision but the weight of the decision never settles. I wanted to see the weight of that secret come to bear as it was a beat that was left unheard.

We also get a brief flash of another person on the ship as Gus Mancuso, played by Laurence Fishburne, is awoken. He is underutilized as he serves as a tool to give the two a way to survive the ship’s problems as well to highlight what it means to die on this ship with others around you. He even has a line for Lane when she brings up that Preston consigned her to death to make it easier to forgive him. “The drowning man doesn’t mean to drowned you, he just doesn’t want to drowned.”

I was entertained by Passengers despite the problems. I wish it had made some effort to be something other than a standard romance. Exploring the central question and avoiding the common tropes of the genre would have made this a much better movie.

Two bear paws out of four. Worth watching when it comes to Netflix.

 

Rogue One

Spoiler warnings on.

 

I loved Rogue One.

It hits the same beats for me that made Empire Strikes Back my favorite Star Wars movie.

First off, the movie is gorgeous. It blends practical effects with CGI in a way that draws you into the movie. The opening scenes are just one example. We jump to the planet that is the home of Erso’s. The CGI of the planet from space is breathtaking as one would expect. When the camera brings us the the planet’s surface, the choice of location provides us with setting that is both familiar and alien all at once. The added effects of the farm that Galen Erso has constructed are sparse but build up this idea of an alien sanctuary far from the battles raging across the stars. The Imperial shuttle cuts the sky like an implacable shark intent on it’s prey.

This type of scene is repeated throughout the movie as we follow our erstwhile heroes. The vistas presented are varied and each adds another layer to the scope of tapestry that is the war for the soul of the galaxy. I liked that we are given so many different places. It gives the story both the room to move around as well as lending an grand scale to a story of just a few people.

I love the characters that we are given in Rogue One as well.

Four stood out for me in particular. First was Cassian Andor. In Cassian, we are given an agent of the rebellion that has done many dark things in the name of what he believes in. These things aren’t just stories that he tells us, as we get to see him sacrifice a contact in cold blood to ensure his escape to pursue a lead on Galen Erso. The audience gets to watch as he struggles with executing orders that would have him kill again in order to try and protect the rebellion from the weapon that has been created.

Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus are a pair that are found by the heroes on Jedha. These two are the last defenders of a temple that has long since fallen. They are like paladins adrift with nothing to defend and no cause to champion. They are adherents of the force yet not jedi themselves. One still firmly believes in the force while the other trusts in his weapons and his friend. Despite not being a jedi, Chirrut’s expertise with the staff despite his blindness provides us with a character that is force sensitive without needing a jedi. His mantra, “I am one with with force and the force is with me.” is an immediate classic for me. The relationship between the two is also an interesting aside. They present a close relationship between two men without it feeling forced, stereotypical, or sexual. They are just two men whom are best friends and normalizes this type of relationship without any of the macho overtones one would expect.

Finally, there is K-2SO. He is a reprogrammed imperial droid voice by Alan Tudyk. He provides a dose of comedy in what could easily be a dark and brooding movie. Unlike C-3PO, his statements are plucked from the minds of the audience and given voice on the screen. In once scene, Jyn has “acquired” a blaster. K-2SO’s response to this is succinct. “Why is she allowed to have a blaster?” When the decision is made to allow her to keep the blaster, K2 quips, “Would you like to know the odds of her using the blaster on you? They’re high…very high.” Hilarious! and yet, despite being a droid, K-2SO sucks you in with that cutting personality and a soul housed in the machine.

The wonderful and horrible thing about these characters is that they suck you in and make you care about them. You connect with them despite knowing how this ends. And even knowing where this movie goes, Each death is a punch in the gut that leaves you misty-eyed and sad to watch their passing. When K-2SO locked Cassian and Jyn inside the vault so they could continue searching for the plans as his systems failed under the assault, I had tears in my eyes.

I also enjoyed the two appearances of Lord Vader in Rogue One. Both are short but highlight the malevolence and power that is Darth Vader. First we meet Vader in his fortress. The Administrator of the the death star has come in search of his lost power. He provides a report on the capabilities of the weapon and asks to be given control of the station as Vader leaves. The audience gets to watch as the iconic force choke begins and vader states that administrator should, “Be careful not to choke on his aspirations.” The next we see of vader is at the end of the movie cutting his way through rebel soldiers to get to the plans on the flagship of the rebel fleet. He is too late and we get to see him watch as leia’s ship streaks off into the darkness.

Badass!

I am not blind though. I know the movie has problems. The plot is straightforward and ending is telegraphed. There are bits that were wonderful in the trailer but are never seen on the screen, such as the iconic, “This is a Rebellion, I rebel.” The CGI Tarkin quickly descends into the uncanny valley, especially given how much screen time this character gets in Rogue One. This character is only outdone by the CGI princess leia that just looked weird and felt even more wrong.

Despite these things, Rogue One takes it’s place as my second favorite Star Wars movie. It echoes the things I loved in Empire Strikes back and gives me characters that I come to love and mourn their passing each time I see it on the screen. Definitely four bear paws out of four!

I bearly recommend it!

 

Volo’s Guide to Monsters

dnd_trpg_volosguidetomonsters_alt_coverIf you have been in the table top roleplaying game scene for awhile, you will have come accross the Monster Manual. It is a mainstay of Dungeons and Dragons and iterates itself across the fantasy genre like a zombie plague from patient zero.

They follow a format that is predictable and leaves one only looking forward to seeing what the artists were able to do with their orders. The variations are organized around settings or play style but rarely provide a book that is enjoyable and satisfying.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters takes a step outside of the lines to try something a little different.

The conceit of the book is that it is a collection of information on the various creatures of the realms gathered by the inveterate adventurer and writer Volothamp Geddarm.

Volo to his friends.

Scattered throughout the book are observations on the various beasts and ecologies from Volo and his longtime friend, Elminster. The tips range from useful ideas for how the creatures could be used in the game to humorous asides on how interactions with the aforementioned creatures went awry.

The change is presentation is refreshing.

The book opens up with a section that talks about the ecologies of several monsters from previous monster manuals. The very first entry deals with an iconic creature of Dungeons & Dragons, The Beholder. The reader is treated to an analysis of how the creature operates and the reasons behind the behaviors that they display. The description of a creature that sees itself as superior to everything, always aware, and yet in a constant state of fear for something trying to come take what it has is interesting. It takes a monster that you drop into a room without thought and gives it a a background and a purpose that is both entertaining and a useful guide in using it in play.

This section covers a large amount of ground in regards to creatures that are ubiquitous in D&D campaigns. In particular, the information presented on the Gnolls and Illithid is enlightening and entertaining. With the gnolls, Their behavior as slavering monster that ravage the countryside is put in the context of being creations and devotee’s of Yeenoghu. Their being is suffused with the savagery and hunger derived from the depths of the Abyss. Rational thought is something that is difficult for the ordinary gnoll to maintain. The illithid are painted as dimensional refugees that have fled their slaves who have risen up to destroy those that had used them so cruelly. Each story provides both hooks to add these creatures into your story, explanations as to why they behave the way they do, and collects information that has been spread over several tomes in previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons.

This book also collects several new options for races for Player characters. In this edition of D&D, player character race options have been few outside of one or two presented in the appendices of adventures. The addition of them here seems a much more natural fit. The options for player characters is increased by seven.  The authors have brought back another favorite of mine from Fourth edition, the Goliath as well as adding in more exotic choices with the Tabaxi, cat people, and Tritons. This section also adds in rules for handling goblins and other monsters as player characters as well. This is something I always like to have as an option and am glad to see it included in this book.

The rest of the book presents more monsters for use in the game as well as collecting a series of NPCs for quick use of any game master. They are exactly what one expects from a book of monsters.

The book itself is gorgeous.

I picked up the special edition which has a black cover with an Illithid on the front and back cover. The book is full color throughout like the previous books for D&D with new artwork throughout. It weighs in at 224 pages with a retail price of $49.95.

Volo’s Guide to Monsters is an excellent addition to the Dungeons and Dragons Library. It goes off script for a Monster Manual and gives the reader a much better read and a much more useful tool. My only quibble is that for $49.95 I expect a bit more page count. Despite this, it is a definite must have for any fan of D&D.

Four out of Four bear paws.