These are pretty much all of the new films I’ve watched while travelling this year. Here are my brief reviews. Some mild spoilers, but generally no more spoiling than what the films have already done to themselves.

In Time

Alternate In Time

Tries to be Philip K. Dick; ends up as Pralines and Dick. I expected better of Cillian Murphy. D

Drive

DRIVE

Slow, predictable, total lack of exciting car scenes. The Emperor’s New Motor. C-

Immortals

Immortals poster

Excellent, if you like looking at the same CGI cliff face over and over again. B-

Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses

Could have been a really funny, sharp take on Strangers On A Train; spoiled by crude/misogynistic bits. B

Spiderman 3

Spider Man 3 International Poster

Nobody captures the depressing, miserable existence of a superhero like Toby Maguire. B

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides

On Stranger Tides Poster

Exactly what you would expect from a franchise that’s three movies too long. Better ending than the last 2 films though. B-

Chronicle

Chronicle movie poster 540x404

Kids get superpowers, documented in the style of Cloverfield. Predictable conclusion, but engrossing. A-

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible 4 poster

Aka Shaun of the Spooks. Run of the mill plot with some spectacular scenes. But, this movie has spoilers in its own credit sequence so it can fuck right off. B

Jeff Who Lives At Home

Jeff who lives at home poster

Oh, we love dysfunctional family comedy-drama, don’t we. Actually pretty funny, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. A-

Man On A Ledge

Man on a ledge poster

Dumb heist movie that loses any interest it held once the weakly concealed plot is revealed. And Jamie Bell could have worn the shiny catsuit; the director just wanted to show Genesis Rodriguez in her pants. C-

John Carter

John carter movie poster 3

Mediocre plot, unremarkable acting partially redeemed by animation and flying ships. B-

The Woman In Black

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p>Woman in black

Distrustful locals, spooky noises, fatal accidents with children. Repeat until dead. B-

One of the consequences of international travel is screwed up sleeping for a few days. It’s 5:45am now, and I’ve been awake on and off for about 3 hours.

On the plus side, I looked at the goodies that were waiting for me: a copy of the All Flesh Must Be Eaten revised rulebook together with One of the Living, Atlas of the Walking Dead, and Eden Studios Presents (vol 2) which is a sort of digest for all of their Unisystem lines (and in many cases shows how they interoperate).

AllFlesh

Kurt Wiegel of Gamegeeks is a self-confessed Unisystem fanboy. Gamegeeks’ first review was AFMBE. There are a load more reviews for AFMBE products on their site. And I am a self-confessed Gamegeeks fan – Kurt’s reviews are (nearly) always positive, well informed and entertaining.

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Like the Angel RPG, I bought AFMBE on the strength of the value proposition in the reviews. And although I have only skimmed the books, I haven’t been disappointed yet. Just like Angel, AFMBE really manages to balance flavour, setting and system in a very concise fashion. The editing is good quality – no screeds of bad prose (hello, World of Darkness), no ambiguity, no digging through a thousand words of text for one crucial fact.

The book size is a hair larger than my copy of the Savage Worlds Explorer Edition, which makes it much better to hold when reading. The all black and white internal art is the only questionable part of the game (well, that and the list of zombie films – no 28 Days Later? Come on!).

The best part of the system is Zombie Creation. It’s a very flexible, high value system for making up antagonists, geared towards zombies but could be used for any genre. Categories include weak spots, how fast the monster moves, and how it transmits the zombie virus. It’s point based with the overall intention of matching monster power with PC ability, which is a rare thing.

The other commendable area are the Deadworlds – game or campaign settings. There are a bunch in the core book and more in One of the Living. Basically they give a particular concept for a campaign (where the infection came from, how people react), the zombie antagonist for that world, and some brief adventure ideas. Perfect for someone like me who doesn’t need a scenario, but does benefit from ideas. The Deadworld concept doesn’t go into creation in the way the Zombie Creation is points based, but it’s a good start. (I wonder if the Wild Talents chapter on building superheroic history could be applied here).

I’ve been thinking about a zombie game for a few years now. The problem is it’s a genre that (I believe) cannot be run in a narrative style simply because the GM needs to be able to kill their PCs. It needs fear checks, and it needs players to keep track of ammunition. I didn’t have time to develop something that did all of this, and was also fast. AFMBE gets these details right, and it fits right into the Unisystem line – even giving some scope for a cinematic unisystem zombie game, which would be my preference.

I’m writing this from the lounge in Chennai airport, at the end of an 11-day business trip.

There are a lot of stories about the trip I’d like to write about, but I can’t because they’d disclose sensitive business information. (I can however write about our taxi running out of fuel and coasting to a stop outside Chennai zoo.)

Don’t get me wrong – being sent to exotic places is a priviledge, without which I wouldn’t have visited half of the places I have. So far they’ve sent me to France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, South Africa, 11 states of the US and Humberside.

But, but, but – travel takes me away from home, friends and family. I don’t really think of myself as someone who gets homesick, but this trip is the second this year where I’ve been away over a weekend – and unlike last time this is a country where I have no friends to visit.

And although I get on with my travelling companion, he’s not my friend. My patience for smalltalk is already perilously short. One more conversation about football over breakfast and blood may have been spilled.

Actually, interacting with colleagues has by far been the most tiresome part of planning the trip. For months I’ve been “that bloke who’s going to India soon”, and had to endure the “so, when are you off to India?” question on a daily basis.

I’m so very lucky to be travelling. It’s going to be one marvelous vacation.

The boss has asked me to bring something back for the group. Well, I’ve got some Loperamide left.

  

Hot on the heels of Anita Sarkeesian’s ordeal, we hear that gamers will “want to protect” a vulnerable year one Lara Croft who is subjected to attempted rape and “turned into a cornered animal”.

“That wasn’t what we meant” cries Crystal Dynamics. “Yeah, well it’s what you said,” says Kotaku.

The GuardianNew Statesman, and even the Sun pitch in by varying degrees. Helen Lewis in the New Statesman has the best, most pointed commentary – read that if the ad script doesn’t slow your browser to a crawl.

The strangest commentary I found was this rather conciliatory missive on destructoid. “Everyone is Right and Wrong,” says the author Jim Sterling.

Everybody has a valid concern here, whether their concern is just wanting to enjoy a good game or wanting a female character to be more than a frail woobie that needs a fire blanket and a cup of cocoa. Everybody is wrong, however, in the way that they cannot debate these issues without screaming, raging, and making frankly ridiculous assumptions.

Jim, you have missed the point. Missed the whole fucking barn, actually. Aside from the fact that journalists are perfectly able to debate these issues rationally, the clue’s in your own article:

The concept of “protecting” Lara was boasted of by Ron Rosenberg in a Kotaku article that has set the Internet aflame with debate.

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p>See that word? Boasted. That’s what happened. To write a game with rape elements is bad enough, but to boast about it, to claim it as your USP, is repellant. That’s why the collective internet has gone “WTF?”.

Franchises have died for less. If this game is ever finished it will likely feature in a “top 100 most questionable decisions in video game development” article years from now – that decision being to allow Ron Rosenberg to open his mouth to a journalist.

Sugar’s Copper Blue has been remastered and released in the ubiquitous deluxe packaging with extra tracks:

LP Sugar Copper Blue

Remasters and deluxe editions are usually cynical marketing exercises to get fans to pay for the same album twice.

I only found out how bad the original mastering was when I went nostalgia shopping in HMV a few years ago. Listening on the original tape through a crappy stereo covered a multitude of sins, which were now revealed – a compressed flat and muddy sound with drowned-out vocals.

A remastering couldn’t have made it much worse, and in fact it’s a huge improvement over the original – better dynamics1, clearer vocals. The extra tracks are great and the packaging is nice too.

Even more awesome, Bob Mould is touring this year and performing Copper Blue in its entirety (and supporting the Foo Fighters in Prague and Italy)!


  1. Curiously my dynamic range tool shows the wav files of the original have greater dynamic range than the equivalent remasters – which is contrary to received wisdom from loudness war opponents. Indeed there are arguments that the loudness war isn’t decreasing dynamic range – though that doesn’t explain why an album measured with lower DR would sound better. Either there’s something up with my measuring tool, or there’s more to good sound than just DR.

 On the last shopping trip to the wine merchants I happened to find a bottle of 2009 Domaine des Nugues Beaujolais Villages among the 2010 bottles.

Beaujolais

The 2009 tastes better than the 2010 (more body, better balance of acidity, fruitier), which is what I expected since 2009 was a really good year for Beaujolais. A 2009 Fleurie is a great value bottle that you can lay down for a few years, if unlike me you can restrain yourself…

The thing about Beaujolais is it’s rarely discounted in supermarkets so doesn’t feature in the outrageous 3 for a tenner discounts – so it’s always the wrong side of a fiver a bottle (usually closer to ten) and doesn’t look like good value. But here’s the rub – the discounted supermarket wines are not worth their alleged full price when compared with the likes of a decent Beaujolais. They’re worth the discounted price, that’s all (still good value if you want to make a nice coq au vin).

The massive discounts and market presence of Australian wine in the UK has more to do with volume discounts and less to do with quality. But I’m a bit biased because I don’t really like new world wines much – too much alcohol and sugar and not enough acidity to cope with food. I do think you get what you pay for with wine and the unsexy French wine could actually represent better value for money, albeit at a higher cost per bottle.

We’re working our way through Angel at the moment. On impulse I ordered a cheap copy of the Angel RPG – mainly on the strength of this review:

I don’t like franchise games, or expect them to be any good – I particularly don’t expect the system to be any more than an afterthought. But from what I’ve read so far it exceeds expectations.

Angel uses the “Cinematic” Unisystem first seen in the Buffy game (Gamegeeks review here), a stripped down version of the original Unisystem… er, system that first appeared in C.J. Carella’s Witchcraft:

Witchcraftcover

I have to say, I love that cover – although its similarity with the cover of early 3rd Stone issues makes me wonder if it’s deliberately targeting wiccans.

It’s difficult not to see Witchcraft as anything other than a me-too product. It’s 8 years after Vampire and 6 years after Mage: The Ascension, the game that it’s most comparable to. It’s well written, sure, and it has a more coherent framework for a campaign. The layout reminds me of 1e VtM, though the interior art is superior.

Overall for supernatural games you pick your poison. They all provide secret societies, antagonists, monsters and personal horror. If you want something towards the human investigator side there’s CoC or Chill; if you want occult supers there’s Nephilim; if you want modern angsty horror supers there’s the whole World of Darkness. Witchcraft balances WoD’s personal power/horror with Chill’s creature features really well, but it will always be the poor sibling of WoD because it came late.

I do think it has a superior system though, and you can’t argue with free. Interestingly in the post-WoD modern fantasy landscape it’s one place where other games can differentiate themselves from the White Wolf legacy, and I wonder how the FATE based Dresden Files game plays (preview here). Oh, and Gamegeeks have reviews of Witchcraft and the Dresden Files rpg.

I’m not sure if either Witchcraft or the Buffyverse games are being printed any more. There certainly won’t be new Buffyverse game materials written following Eden Studio’s settlement with Fox in 2006. For Angel there’s only the core book and a Director’s screen.

Angel

I can see why Kurt Wiegel is so keen on the Buffy game. The Cinematic Unisystem is very nicely streamlined – it has fewer skills, just the right focus on supernatural powers and spells. When I read the system in Witchcraft I was underwhelmed at first, but maybe the greatest strength of this system is it doesn’t get in the way.

Also, the Buffyverse games feature Drama Points which expand on the Fate Point / Bennies concept. Given that regular Unisystem is supposed to be dangerous for combat, Drama Points are a neat tuning device to make a deadly game less so. This fits with an argument I heard about running pulp genre games – if you want a more pulpy game, just add more fate points. The nice thing about Drama Points is that they’re not just for saving against death; they let the players improve their chances in rolls and even direct the plot. I’m not sure whether they should be flying across the table in the way Spirit of the Century intends, but they differentiate between Champions and Investigators very well (the latter has much lower stats, but a lot more Drama Points – plus they can buy more for less xp cost).

The other worthwhile mechanic of this system is the way bad guys can be reduced down to three attributes – Muscle, Combat and Brains. This means the GM

  1. never has to roll dice if she doesn’t want to, and
  2. can scale monster power easily.

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p>The first point means during combat, all of the rolls are done by players – so the outcome of bad rolls is the players’ bad luck rather than the GM’s good luck, and the players then also decide whether to spend those precious Drama Points.

I initially thought of this as a 1-off game – but the Drama Points disparity between Champions and Investigators makes experience points more significant. It’s probably best suited to short campaigns, and I’d be tempted to reward play not with xp but with Drama Points (or a mix of the two).

I can see myself running Buffy/Angel, but will I ever run Witchcraft? Probably not, unless I can apply some of the streamlining from the cinematic system.

Buffy is normally at full rpg price, but Angel can be found for pennies (presumably because it’s so limited). It’s missing some monsters and some magic (which the Buffy line can fill in the blanks for). But come to think of it, there’s no reason some of the Witchcraft monsters can’t be rendered down into Muscle, Combat and Brains and dropped right in. Bargain!

How excited was I to hear Ridley Scott was directing Prometheus?

Prometheus

Scott has been (almost) my favourite director since I saw The Duellists on Alex Cox’s Moviedrome. I keep hoping that he’ll do something to equal his last decent film, Thelma & Louise. I don’t know whether it’s poor choices with the script, excessive cutting in fight scenes or just an unhealthy association with Russell Crowe but I don’t think he’s made anything worthwhile since.

In the case of Prometheus my expectations weren’t high, but even those weren’t met. The direction is gorgeous but the script stinks, which I would have figured if I’d realised who’d written it before I watched the film. Half of the writing team is Damon Lindelof whose credits include Lost (I don’t have a lot of respect for a series that can be summarised in 8 minutes).

This is a rant rather than a review, and it contains some spoilers. If you don’t want to be spoiled I recommend the review in The Independent – not Geoffrey MacNab’s inexplicable review (which gives the film four stars despite calling the film “anti-climactic”) but the short round-up from Nicholas Barber, who summarises it all nicely:

if Alien was intended as a spooky little horror movie, only for it to turn out to be a visionary classic, Prometheus gets things the other way round.

Here Be Spoilers

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p>The problem with Prometheus is it’s trying to be worthy, hard-science sci-fi that tackles the questions sci-fi tackles – like what it means to be human. At the same time it’s trying to cater to the lowest common denominator of viewer, providing 3D thrills, explosions, and monsters. All this while trying to be true to the visual and thematic legacy of Alien.

In Alien the cast’s competencies were based on their job flying the space tug-boat Nostromo. They were hopelessly unprepared for what was being done to them – being duped into picking up a dangerous xenomorph – and acted according to available information and their abilities. Eventually the answers for the alien’s origin came from their android traitor, who told them that the Weyland-Yutani corp knew all about the monster and wanted it as a weapon. There was no need to go into how the company knew about it or what they were going to do with it. All that mattered was the present.

Prometheus is a bunch of pretentious plot ideas clumsily thrown together with no thought to coherence or closure (like Lost). Characters don’t behave believably, competencies are not used logically – either by the characters or by the scriptwriters. The cast are a mixture of scientists and spaceship crew, with the (yawn) corporate oversight character. Yet none of the scientific explanations for their situation come from the scientists – instead they’re the first to be killed in unnecessarily gory ways that far exceed Alien. The best we get is a theory from Idris Elba’s nonchalant Captain that this isn’t the Engineers’ homeworld, it’s a military installation full of biological weapons – and the Engineers plan to send their spaceship back to earth to destroy all the life they created having changed their fucking minds.

This theory suddenly becomes accepted wisdom by cast and creators, as the one opportunity to communicate with the Engineer race ends with violence, murder, and the traitor android getting its head ripped off. Oh, deja vu.

Ian Holm Ash Alien

If this planet were not the Engineers’ homeworld, why do the ancient star maps all point to it? Why would the gigantic aliens draw a primitive culture’s attention to a biological weapons dump in space, and communicate it clearly enough to humans that ancient civilisations with no properly evolved language could paint it on cave walls?

As for the rest of the plot – it represents a number of missed opportunities. Android Traitor David is clearly wrestling with the same why-am-I-created question that the scientists are trying to answer, yet his actions are sociopathic. Like Ian Holm’s original Android Traitor Ash he’s at the beck and call of his master, but his mission lacks clarity of purpose. Weyland (Guy Pearce), the hidden master of AT David is an irrelevance.

The final insult is that this film pretends to be a prequel to Alien, even placing the ruined alien ship ready to be rediscovered by the hapless crew of the Nostromo, yet there are visual inconsistencies with the original film – no-one in the pilot’s chair, for example. The corridors in the new Engineer ship are far smaller than those discovered in Alien. And the ending, with a fully-formed Alien bursting out of the dead Engineer’s chest is the worst kind of pandering to the Alien franchise.

Like Lost, this film promises a lot early on – but at some point the writers realise they’ve bitten off more than they can chew and resort to the usual tropes, ignoring continuity and even the plots they thought of at the start. This is straight-to-DVD material that somehow got a big screen airing.