Tag Archives: review

Geek Book Review: Liar’s Blade

liarsbladeI just finished reading Liar’s Blade, one of a batch of Pathfinder Tales novels I got recently. This is a line of novels set in Pathfinder’s Golarion game world.

This is a well-crafted novel, not standard tie-in fiction fare by any means. It’s a story of a scoundrel named Rodrick and his magical intelligent sword, Hrym. They get hired by some weirdos to go across the River Kingdoms and Brevoy to get some mystery artifact.

The writing is good, with less of the tortured translation of game rules into prose than is customary (I hate that…). The banter between Rodrick and Hrym (and to a lesser extent with their other traveling companions) is really fun.  The two people who hire them, the dour priest Obed and his freaky companion Zaqen, remind me of the tag-along bad guys from the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path, who we affectionately referred to as “The Boner Squad” – Shadow Count Sial was the dour one, and then if you kinda combine the perky Laori Vaus and the chain devil into one person, you get a bit of the same dynamic.

Rodrick as a rogue was a well-realized character.  He wasn’t uber competent or a hopeless schlep, and he was avaricious but not vicious, scheming but occasionally letting his emotions get away with him. And Hrym is pretty funny, he’s a sword made of living ice who can’t really remember all of his millennia of life; he’s fond of sleeping on piles of gold coins and of Rodrick’s “twisty little mind.”  In the afterword Pratt credits Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser as the inspiration for his two characters’ adventures, and the main characters’ bromance in Liar’s Blade definitely puts one in mind of Leiber’s characters.

The travelogue through the River Kingdoms and Brevoy is also nice. The fight scenes aren’t anything to write home about, but since Hrym is super-magical many of the fights end quickly with a blast of ice magic, so we don’t have to dwell on many of them.

I’ve read a half dozen of these novels and this is definitely the best-written. Liar’s Blade is very entertaining, I give it 8 goblins out of 10!

Geek Book Review: The Big Book Of Adventure Stories

Big Book of Adventure StoriesI was in the library and saw the lurid cover to the left and figured what the heck, there might be something in there good for a laugh.

What I found was awesome.  It’s like a Penguin book of pulp classics, if Penguin wasn’t so stuck up that they didn’t have such a thing!  This massive 874-page tome contains everything from stories I read in high school English like “The Most Dangerous Game,” “The Soul of a Regiment,” “To Serve Man,” Jack London’s “The White Silence,” and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” to representative stories from just about every pulp property you’ve ever heard of, from Tarzan to Zorro to Sheena to Buck Rogers! It’s a complete canon of pulp adventure fiction.

I’m not well versed in the pulps and so had never read the original stories for many of these – some yes, but others I know know through movies or general cultural osmosis. You have in one volume Lady Fulvia, Conan the Barbarian, Khlit the Cossack, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Peter the Brazen, The Spider, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Wandering Smith, Singapore Sammy, Beau Geste, Zorro, Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Rogers, The Cisco Kid, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, King Kong, Bulldog Drummond, Aubrey St. John Major, Allan Quartermain, and more! Plus stories by Clark Ashton Smith, H.G. Wells, O’Henry, Philip Jose Farmer, Sax Rohmer, and various other luminaries. Great, great stuff.

This is an awesome collection.  I may have to find and buy a copy; I already have recommended it to friends who have bought copies. I owe my library so much in fines now, it took me a good while to churn through this – it’s big and in small print.

It’s funny, the presentation is really over-lurid – the cover above, and it’s broken up into internal sections like “Future Shock,” “Yellow Peril,” and “Megalomania Rules”… I mean, perhaps it’s against their spirit to take pulps too seriously and present it like it’s a Penguin book but I really didn’t expect the sheer amount of truly great writing this book was going to contain from its cover. Otto Penzler did a great job with this too – it’s not all the “most famous” of each author’s works; there’s a generous selection of “never published before” in here too.  I am going to have to check out more anthologies this guy’s edited because he knows what the hell he’s doing for sure.

Ten Year Old Girls Review Rise of the Runelords Miniatures

I had my new minis out from yesterday’s post-purchase initial review of the new Wizkids Pathfinder Battles Rise of the Runelords minis. (My that’s a long name.)  Go there to see the pictures for context. My daughter and one of her little friends saw them and decided to give me their opinions on them.  It was hilarious. Here’s as much as I could capture from stream of consciousness 10 year old girlspeak…

Storm Giantess: “She looks like she’s about to do something to me.”
“Cut you into pieces?”
“Yeah.”

Ogre Brute: “Looks like trollface meme guy.” <brief interruption where they tell me I’m so uncool and not up with the hip new things and we have to Google trollface. He does.>

Mash-fell-knocker (their pronunciation of Malfeshnekor):  <in a high voice> “Who’s a good doggie, who’s a good doggie, who’s a good doggie?” <in a harsh voice> “I kill you!”
“He looks like a monkey with elf ears.”
“He looks like a mix between a bat, a dog, and the ‘My precious’ guy from Lord of the Rings.”

Lucretia: “Her hair and eyes look evil.  She’s kinda bald but pretty. She must be the queen of something.”
<imitating Lucretia>  “You must obey me or be cut into pieces!”

Lyrie Akenja: “For Pete’s sake woman, put on a shirt!”
“Put on a shirt!  Put on a shirt!  Put on a shirt!” <chanting together>
“She has a wand, what is this, Harry Potter?”
“Oh look she has a kitty!”
<a long discussion on the pros and cons of kitties ensues>

Ogrekin: “Looks like Invader Zim with a muscly body and something on his head.”
“Looks like a bodybuilder with a messed up face.”
“Yeah, his face is jacked up.”
“Is that a baby rattle he has?”
<i do have to admit the ogrekin’s weapon is underwhelming, needs more meat on it>

Faceless Stalker:  “It looks like a beast that paints itself.”
“Put on some clothes!”
“His weapon looks like a spoon.”
<reading the base> “6 of 65!  Wow!  Good job for nothin’, guy!”
<this is a pretty weak mini, I agree with the girls>

Wraith: “Tornado man!”
“He kinda reminds me of the Statue of Liberty!”
“I know!”
“He’s not the Statue of Liberty, he’s the Statue of Liberty’s torch.”
“Yeah.”

Goblin Commando on Goblin Dog: “Oh look it’s a gremlin!  It’s a gremlin riding a puppy.”
“He looks like the guy from that book… Origami Yoda!” <I feel pain and regret that apparently kids nowadays don’t know Yoda except via derivative media.>
“He looks like the gremlins from that movie where the girl’s little brother gets taken and she has to marry someone and they attack her face!”
<a long Q&A ensues where I try to figure out what movie she’s talking about>
“Yeah, Labyrinth!”
“I’m bored, can we go play Littlest Pet Shops now?”

RPG Movie Review: The Wild Hunt

I was bored and looking through Netflix for something to watch, and it recommended to me The Wild Hunt – an independent movie where Canadian LARPers go a little mental. It had won a couple film festival awards, so I figured what the heck.

The setup is that Erik, an Icelander in Canada, heads out to a big ol’ LARP weekend in the woods to try to get his worthless girlfriend back. He’s not a LARPer but his brother is really big into it; Viking heritage, Norse sagas, the whole bit. The whole batch of LARPers are very, very, very serious about it – it almost converts over into cool, actually. You have other movies like Role Models where the people are into LARP but it’s still very cheesy and you’re like “whatever, diversity yay, ponce around all you want,’there’s nothing wrong with that’, but eek.” But here they are all so into it and put a lot of work into it – if you can make LARP seem cool, this movie comes closest to doing it.

It’s a pretty interesting  movie. It starts out weak mainly because of the unsympathetic main characters – Erik is a certifiable wuss, his girlfriend is a bitchy whore, and the initial crop of LARPers you meet are reasonably insane – but evens out its keel once you get to know more of the (better, and more interesting, frankly) secondary characters and they quicken the pace. It’s a low budget thriller set in an isolated setting where romantic hassles etc. end up cascading into Lord of the Flies. The ending is a lot more dark and brutal than I would have expected from the first act. About a third of the way through, I wasn’t sold and wondered if I should bail, but after seeing the whole thing I’d give it a 5/10, decent.

Of course some roleplayers are worried that this will “demonize the hobby.”  To that I say bah, many of the movies/TV shows with killers, they are doctors and lawyers and cops and moviemakers and other such. It should just be a rush to see your own niche thing breeding killers for a change. And it’s not like anyone will actually be afraid of this happening for real; they’re Canadians for God’s sake.  Everyone knows Canadians can’t kill anyone; they don’t have the constitution for it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Eight

One week isn’t enough for Fantastic Fest!  No, it’s a week and a bonus day.  And good thing; I saw my favorite two movies of the fest on this last day.

After a week of being in a movie theater, and often getting about 3 hours sleep between the late showing and getting in the early morning ticket line, I started to get sick.  A fistful of meds kept my sinuses in line till afterwards (I’m still suffering even now…)

14 Blades (8/10) – Donnie Yen stars in this period HK martial arts movie.  It’s well done and showcases some of the Mongol type areas.  Nothing too new and unique, but it was solidly executed – which made it better than the higher profile movies of the fest, True Legend and Legend of the Fist.  Duty!  Honor!  Kung fu!  All that good stuff.  It has light supernatural elements; occasional wire-fu and one baddie has a cool “evade death blows and leave a garment hovering behind” ninja trick kind of thing.

Red Hill (8/10) – Ryan Kwanten from True Blood stars in an Aussie film by Patrick Hughes.  It’s a constable’s first day on the job in a small outback town, Red Hill, when there’s a prison break and an infamous criminal from the town gets loose.  The locals freak, and are sure he’s coming back…  What could have been a straightforward slasher movie instead has a big twist, and the movie keeps tension without dragging.  We were all pleasantly surprised by this one – it’s not great, but it’s quite good.  [Side note - my gay friends that lust after Kwanten in his Jason Stackhouse role are concerned that he is not as dumb, and therefore not as adorable, in this part.  Fair warning.]

13 Assassins (9/10) – Now that’s a movie!  Takashi Miike gives us a samurai movie in the vein of Seven Samurai.  There’s a bad noble who has the favor of the Shogun, and a bunch of samurai are recruited to take him out before he goes and plunges the entire country into chaos.  The bad guy is Caligula bad, and the 13 samurai are cool – it’s hard to take a large cast like that and make them all distinct but they did a good job of that.  The entire latter part of the film is the 13 taking on like 200 guys in a town they’ve turned into a kill zone.  It is awesome.

Sound of Noise (9/10) – I didn’t know what to expect from this movie, but I heard from people that really liked it so I gave it a go.  It’s a Swedish film about guerrilla musicians and the tone deaf cop from a famously musical family who’s after them.  That description doesn’t really do it justice, but it’s quirky, fun, musical, dramatic, and more.  I hope more people get a chance to see it.  It gets my nod for best of the fest.

And that’s Fantastic Fest 2010!  I’ll do a recap next, but there were a lot of movies and the vast majority were very good.  I’ll be there next year, and since I managed to score a VIP badge I’ll be able to get some sleep!

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Seven

Son of a bitch.  I just wrote up a huge long post and WordPress ate it.  Sorry, I’m not going to do it all again, here’s the highlights though.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (7/10)

  • HK movie starring Andrew Lau
  • Sequel to Fist of Fury (Bruce Lee) or its remake Fist of Legend (Jet Li)
  • Starts off strong with kung fu WWII action scene
  • Then goes noir with a lot of hanging around a nightclub unsubtly called “Casablanca”
  • Masked avenger subplot a la Black Mask, but should have either been cut or gone into more, it was an odd thing to be a small sideline
  • End fight scene in Japanese dojo a shout-out to earlier Fists movies, but wasn’t nearly as good
  • Starts strong, then goes downhill

Bedevilled (8/10)

  • S. Korean movie, didn’t know what to expect based on blurb and pic
  • Self absorbed bitch Hae-won living in Seoul goes back to the island she grew up on, which has only about 9 souls living on it, eking out a 12th century subsistence lifestyle
  • The men abuse, the old ladies enable, and the one woman friend of Hae-Won, Bok-Nam, and her daughter are the ones to take the brunt of it
  • Hae-won keeps to her “not my problem” policy as bad things happen
  • Slow build and then in the last act the payback begins
  • Very well done movie, not a typical slasher/revenge movie, great indictment of those who stand by and won’t speak up when others are doing bad things

Red (8/10)

  • Based on Warren Ellis graphic novel
  • Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren are retired secret agents who get provoked by Karl Wagner et al. and have to swing back into action
  • A straightforward but well done comedy actioner, much better than the “Expendables”/”A-Team” kind of crap we’ve gotten lately
  • In theaters soon – heck, I may go see it again when it comes out

The Last Circus: Balada Triste (3/10)

  • Strongly hyped by Harry Knowles (AICN founder, FF co-founder) in slavering terms
  • Balada Triste = Sad Trumpet
  • Spanish film by Alex de la Iglesia about a kid whose clown dad is killed in a battle during Spanish Civil War, which is fun
  • Forget that and skip forward, now he’s a sad clown and working for a circus, he falls in love with a circus performer who has a violent happy clown boyfriend
  • He gets his ass beat
  • Both he and the other clown get all deformed and have Joker transformations
  • They fight over the “sad strumpet” a lot and are all surreal
  • I want to cut myself
  • Some people justified the movie’s weaknesses because of its “compelling imagery” but just because you’re Spanish doesn’t mean you’re Guillermo del Toro
  • Q&A indicates that Knowles loves this because of the comic book references
  • Worst film I saw at the fest, agreement on that assessment from the people I was attending with

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Six

Day 6, I wasn’t going to mess around – I put down five movies like they were unruly hookers.

First up, the awesome Rare Exports (8/10).  Scandinavians have weird myths, and this one delves into the early Swedish myths of Santa Claus – think less “jolly old Nick” and more “demented goat-beast.”   It’s the tale of a boy and his (modern day) reindeer-ranching village as Christmas approaches.  Some Americans (those goddamn Americans are always behind it) are blasting up on a nearby mountain, and it appears wolves have eaten all the reindeer…  But then you find out that the mountain may be where the natives froze and buried Santa because he was so nasty….  And next thing you know there’s fifty naked old guys running through the snow chasing a little boy.  This was a very enjoyable movie, it never goes over the line to slasher horror but you really think that any minute it’s going to…

There was a cool short before it, Unholy Night,  that similarly deals with the Icelandic Santa myths, in which there are 13 Santas, one of which is named “Meathook.”  You can imagine how that ends up.  They want to parlay the short into a film with all 13 Santas.  Sounds like a winning idea for a one-season Showtime special to me!

Then it was time for Mutant Girls Squad (6/10), the newest from the three Japanese psychos behind Tokyo Gore Police, Robogeisha, and Be A Man! Samurai School.  It’s Troma-esque schlocky gore.  I didn’t find it too engaging.  It was better than last year’s Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl at least, but there’s only so far the sophomoric imagery takes you – “Girl with a chainsaw coming out her ass” and “Girl with katanas coming out of her breasts” were two of the characters in this flick.  It was enjoyable in a middle school kind of way for the first hour, and then I got sleepy.

Next was a real high point, Drones (9/10) – like Office Space, but with aliens!  Kinda.  A true low budget success, we get a tale of intergalactic domination told only with office workers in cubicles.  The writing is the real star here, and the film is clever and engaging.  The protagonist, “Brian”, discovers in short order that both his best friend and his girlfriend are alien infiltrators, but from different races that oppose each other…  But it doesn’t go all “Bros vs Hoes,” it’s a good-hearted film where the characters pull together.  Very, very funny.  We all came out of that showing reinvigorated and chatty.

Then we watched The Dead (7/10).  Fair warning, the people I was with liked this film less than I did.  They shot a zombie outbreak movie in Africa, on the border of Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso.  An American military man involved in some brushfire war there gets stranded when a zombie outbreak happens.  He travels across the country, teaming up with a local military man for much of the journey.

This film just didn’t have the bite it should have.  First of all, “zombie outbreak” is only about a 6 on the 1-10 scale of fucked up shit that happens in that part of Africa every day.  The filmmaker shied away from showing any of that, possibly out of ultra sensitivity to the inevitable charges of racism that would follow.  (They talked about some of the Internet nimrods that are already tooting that horn; there is absolutely no reason for it but people like to bring themselves some measure of fame by crapping on other stuff.)  Second of all, they talked about the transformation of the main character from selfish to altruistic over the course of the film, but the movie I saw doesn’t support that one bit (that he was that selfish, or that he changed).  I did like how the people in the movie weren’t all “turn on each other and be more dangerous than the zombies,” that’s such a cliche now; seeing even disparate people band together despite their differences (besides black/white, they were on opposite sides in a war a day ago) in the face of such a threat.

A side note, they started this movie way before Resident Evil decided to have its newest incarnation in Africa, so no copycat charges please.  I think some of the problem may be that they just couldn’t get some of the scenes they wanted in the can; between customs delays and bribery and being held at gunpoint and knifepoint and suffering from dysentery, they really had a hellish time trying to make a movie in Africa.  There’s a scene where he finds a baby and gives it away to some soldiers about one minute after; the director expressed his frustration that they wanted to do more with that but just ran up against the limits of their time in country.

Finally, we had Rammbock (9/10), a German zombie outbreak movie.  A sad sack going to bug his ex-girlfriend gets caught up in an outbreak and he and several other residents of the townhouse barricade themselves in and have to help each other.  This film also had a fairly positive view of human nature post-zombie, though there was the one “Mr. Twitchy” who endangers everyone by being a big selfish tool.

I thought their take on the zombie outbreak was a very compelling one. It’s a disease, and the result is 28 Days Later style fast-zombies, but you find out that being bitten isn’t 100% fatal, and that an infected’s immune system might fight it off if they stay calm and avoid adrenaline rush.  So you have a reason to not just kill anyone bitten, and a reason to be seeking after sedatives and other McGuffins.  It opens up a lot of interesting avenues that the now-traditional zombie disease closes, and I’d be interested in seeing more riffs on it.

It was also clever in that all their attempts for random townspeople to confront zombies with violence end badly – they really have to use their brains, they don’t all go Ash like so many movies depict.

This was one of the best days of the fest!  But even better is yet to come…

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Five

Day five, and the second week of Fantastic Fest.  All the weekend partiers have left, and Fantastic Arcade rolls up its mat.  Now it’s just the hardcore movie watchers.

First, I saw The Man From Nowhere (7/10).  Somewhat of a South Korean riff on The Professional, starring Won Bin, which according to the movie blurb on the FF site I guess I would know if I were a teenaged South Korean girl.  I’m not, so I could give a crap.  But the movie was decent.  It starts out with some reclusive guy running a crappy pawnshop in an apartment building; his junkie neighbor has a little kid and then the bad men come and it turns out he’s ex-special forces and then he becomes the KILLDOZER!  The bad guys basically snatch kids, use them for various criminal schemes, and then harvest them for their organs.  I enjoyed the movie but can’t help but feel like since they had Korean pop star Rain in the bloody Ninja Assassin last year at FF this was a deliberate attempt to duplicate that.

Next, I watched a movie about a cannibal family in Mexico called We Are What We Are (7/10).  It was interesting, not a slasher flick, but a serious movie about a family that is – well, it sounds weird to call them “normally” dysfunctional, with the crazy mom and the brothers both wanting to bang their sister, but they’re not all Texas Chainsaw Massacre crazy.  They are cannibals, and seem to believe strongly that they have to, from time to time, eat someone in a ritual manner.  Interestingly, the corrupt cops and locals seem to treat cannibalism as a pretty common thing there – when a would-be victim escapes and finds a cop, the cop radios in a “code 17 in progress,” which one would think is a pretty low number for “cannibals on a rampage.”  I liked that they left a lot unexplained, like the exact nature of the ritual and what exactly happened to the father (he dies in the first 30 seconds of the film, but it’s never clear who did it and how).  The main thing that seemed off was that in the end when the cops are on their trail, they somehow home in unerringly in packs to their one apartment in a whole barrio.  As a bonus, thanks to the Alamo’s extensive menu I ate a big bowl of puerco guisada while watching it, and my cackling discomfited my neighbors.

The high point of the day was Stake Land (8/10), a post-apocalyptic vampire movie like unto I Am Legend, or The Road with vampires.  These are more feral vampires only slightly differentiated from fast zombies, not “sexy prince of the night” vampires.  A guy named “Mister” and a kid named Martin travel across the mostly-wasted American countryside, where only small enclaves of humans still hold out against the hostile world.  They slay vampires in roughneck style, and directory Jim Mickle must be making John Carpenter jealous, since he knows how to make it look good.  It has rednecks throwing vampires out of helicopters as a terror weapon.  And nun raping, lots of nun raping.  (All the men seem to be all over the old nun, played by Kelly Gillis, as opposed to the oddly fresh-faced young women for whatever reason.  Maybe it’s because they all touched themselves to Top Gun too.)  More dangerous than the vampires are the psycho fundie militia that’s taken over swaths of the area.  Dark and violent, Stake Land is a really good vampire movie.

I finished out the day with the disappointing Bunraku (6/10). It seemed really interesting at the start – Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, Ron Perlman, and some Japanese chick (I really did think he was a woman for his first two scenes – really it’s some pop star named “Gackt”) star in a Sin City meets Moulin Rouge, cowboys-and-samurai action romp!  But after the initial imagery wore off, the plot really started to lag.  They have to kill the “top ten killers” and I started napping towards the end of them.  Although it had loads of visual style, it definitely needed some tighter pacing and editing in the last third of the film.

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Four

This was Sunday, and I took off most of the day to go to an amusement park with my daughter; my company had rented out Six Flags Fiesta Texas for Family Day so it was too good to miss.  But it’s Fantastic Fest, so even after a reasonably brutal day in the Texas sun it was back for a couple movies!

First I saw Primal (7/10), an “Ozploitation” movie in the vein of Cabin Fever, The Descent or The Ruin, where some college kids on a camping trip to look at cave paintings way out in the middle of nowhere, Australia run afoul of a… Well, we’ll call it a “disease,” that turns people into feral “fast zombie” style savages.  This was decent; a simple premise but well done.  There is almost a tentacle rape, and the heroine takes some good punches in the uterus.  Good times.  It wasn’t an exceptional movie but I thought it was an enjoyable representative of that “camping horror” genre.

Then I saw Gallants (5/10), a Hong Kong martial arts comedy.  It was billed as “Cocoon with kung fu” because the protagonists are old, I guess.  HK humor is admittedly a bit of a different beast from American humor, but I didn’t enjoy this movie all that much.  The comedy was just goofy slapstick, the martial arts sequences weren’t all that good, and the melodrama was eye-rolling.  The most memorable part for us was that the villains had an odd penchant for carrying man-purses (much like Elijah Woods, who attended a lot of Fantastic Fest).  I suspect you are supposed to like this because the old guys are huge kung fu movie stars from the old days.  But, no.

Only two movies on Day Four, but I crank it back up into overdrive in Day Five!

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Three

The third day of Fantastic Fest kicked off for me with a large selection of shorts.  As is traditional, they ranged from the “meh” to “really good” to “that’s messed up, I need to write that down and use it in my D&D game.”  Fard and Cages were my favorites.  Pixels is fun but so slick it looks like it should be a Coke/car/something commercial.  I was just happy there was nothing as wretched as the “Mexican toilet banger” short of last year.

A small semi-related gripe – they have little Fantastic Fest promo shorts they show before the movies.  While last year many were clever, this year they are just trying to make them as gross as possible – we’re talking oral-sex-while-on-period, six-year-old-having-coat-hanger-abortion gross.  I don’t mind a bit of gross if they’re actually funny, but these are just stupid.  The FF crew needs to rethink their approach next year – I haven’t seen one that entertained me at all, while last year I liked the majority of them.  Apparently The Human Centipede has given people the misapprehension that being as sick as possible is somehow entertaining in and of itself, and it’s not.

Next, I tried to get into Red Hill and was rebuffed, so went to see the unexceptional Bibliotheque Pascal (4/10).  Some passive Hungarian hobo named Mona gets put into forced prostitution in London, in a special “literary themed” brothel where the inmates are in theme rooms and have to learn lines from – in Mona’s case – Saint Joan.   It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for her – it’s really only that she has a daughter she wants to get back to that creates any connection between her and the viewer.  And the movie doesn’t seem sure what it wants to be.  It’s certainly not “erotic” in any way; it doesn’t really go into the torture-porn vein you might go with such a premise, and the little weird bit (I won’t give it away but it’s why they claim it’s “Terry Gilliam-esque”) was too little and really just served as a deus ex machina at the end.  Even the films I don’t rave about at FF are usually a 6/10 or better on an absolute scale, but this one is not.  People I spoke with afterwards generally shared my assessment.

Now came the big event of the day – off to the Paramount to see Master Yuen Woo Ping get a lifetime achievement award and see both his newest movie, True Legend (7/10), and his first, Snake in Eagle’s Shadow (8/10), which was Jackie Chan’s breakout film as well!  The award was presented by the RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, and was an engraved Chinese sword (a “dao,” I think…).  Even through an interpreter he was very charming and got several standing ovations.

True Legend is the story of “Beggar” Su Can, one of the Ten Tigers of Canton, who developed the Drunken Fist style of kung fu.  The martial arts action is great, the actors are engaging and the locations scenic – the only weird thing about this movie is, I guess because he was focused on telling the story of a real guy rather than fitting things into one dramatic arc, the third act seems like a “bonus movie” tagged onto the end of the otherwise complete first movie.  The first plot arc is Su Can’s family being killed/taken by the Five Venoms Fist-wielding bad guy and Su being wounded and then training and then going back to get him.  At the end of that, there’s a scene dissolve and suddenly it’s an unrelated bit from later in his life where he develops drunken style and fights furriners.  Which I guess I don’t object to, as the first arc was complete and I thought the movie was ending and I got another half hour instead, but really it should have been a second movie or crafted into a single narrative better.

And I don’t need to review “Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow;” it’s a classic of the genre (also starring Beggar So!) and still fun after all these years.  Master Yuen’s father played the old Snake master in it, and his stories about what it was like to direct his father (who was also a quite famous martial arts star by the time) in his first movie were funny.

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day Two

Man, I’m lagging behind with the blogging, this schedule is brutal.  Fantastic Fest Day Two, and even getting to the theater at 9:30 to wait in line to pick up tickets for noon showings means you are way back in that line.

Today’s slate started out with Mother’s Day (7/10), a home-invasion film that on the one hand was a remake of the Troma dark humor/abduction horror “Mother’s Day” but on the other was an adaptation of a real life horror story, the Wichita Massacre.  Director Darren Bousman (Saw I-III, Repo! The Genetic Opera) needed something easy to get off the ground, and Hollywood loves remakes, so in traditional exploitation film fashion he agreed to do one thing while using it to do another – he had always wanted to make a script called “Wichita” he had read, about a horrific series of crimes in Kansas, but no one would touch the dark subject matter.  In an interesting twist that makes the movie seem like a sequel to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Rebecca DeMornay is “Mother,” a woman who kidnaps babies and turns them into her own little criminal family.  The three brothers are off on a bank-robbing spree when one of them gets shot, and they retreat home, only to find out that the house got foreclosed on and Mother and their sister have moved out, and the new tenants are having a big party as a storm rolls in.  They take them captive, call Mother, and the torture/murder/robbery/rape/etc begins.

I enjoyed Mother’s Day.  I am not a big torture porn fan and don’t like the Saw movies, but I thought this was a bit better in that it had more reasoning to it that most of that genre – not simply “we like to torture people because we are inexplicably into that”; they need medical help, money, escape, and to control a house full of people, and being monsters that’s the way they go about it.  And it was great having Brousman and others in attendance, the Q&A was so interesting it made me like the movie better.  For example, the movie was shot at 5 hours long and had entire characters – both victims and perpetrators – that were cut out to get it to theatrical release.  And they were shooting a bank robbery escape film in Winnipeg without a permit and got mistaken for real robbers, leading to a massive police mobilization with the cast and crew being taken at gunpoint.

Next, I saw a Hong Kong film, Dante Lam’s Fire of Conscience (7/10).  This wasn’t innovative, but I like the genre – the film brings to mind scenes and characters from the classics Hard Boiled, The Killer, City on Fire, and Organized Crime and Triad Bureau.  Star Leon Lai does his best Chow Yun Fat impression while giving bad guys the beatdown; his squad of cops takes a good number of casualties in the inevitable huge tea-house shootouts.  In the end it’s just “another film, you know, like those other ones I listed” but heck, I like all those movies, so it was nice to watch a newer one.

That was followed up by Zombie Roadkill (7/10), which was put together from a series of Web shorts that are going to be running on FEARnet soon.  A campy little set, this is about some kids who are driving down a cursed stretch of road where roadkill comes back to life looking for REVENGE!  Think “Furry Vengeance but with exploding heads.”  It’s funny and totally unrealistic, and there’s a hilarious monologue from Thomas Haden Church as the park ranger where he explains that this stretch of road was built over an Indian burial ground and witches were burned here by Puritans and then the Puritans were burned and the government did experiments on child molesters and and…  Plus they gave out “roadkill” tacos afterward.  Anyway, it was short and goofy, and it’s a web series so you should probably watch it.

Do you think I’m done?  Oh, no.  This was a FULL Fantastic Fest day, which means two more movies.

30 Days of Night: Dark Days (6/10) is a sequel to the somewhat interesting vampire movie 30 Days of Night where an Alaskan town is taken over and pretty much wiped out by a vicious mob of vampires.  The sole survivor of that movie steps into what could be a “John Carpenter’s Vampires” sequel, and hooks up with some other people who Know the Truth ™ to hunt them some vampires.  They suck at it and largely get killed.

I didn’t dislike this movie as much as the other people I saw it with did.  I thought it was more well done than some of those aforementioned Carpenter ones (does he do all the editing himself, or does he have some buddy who’s a shitty editor?  Because every movie of his since Prince of Darkness has had awful editing.).  The two female leads were in attendance, and were cutely sloshed out of their minds for the Q&A.  I mean, it’s not “good” in the traditional sense, but as someone who once went on a quest to watch all the vampire movies he could get his hands on, it’s certainly not in the bottom half of that crowd.

Although we did all burst into laughter at the vampires screeching at each other like pterodactlys getting their nutsacks stomped.  In the first movie, they all spoke some weird Eastern European type of language.  In this one, only the “borg queen” leader seems to, the rest all just squeal.  There’s one scene where they seemingly conduct a lengthy conversation.

Vampire 1: “SKREEEEEEEEE!”
Vampire 2: “SKREEEEEEEEE!”
Vampire 1: “SKREEEEEEEEE!”
Vampires 3 and 4, in unison: “SKREEEEEEEEE!”

WTF.

And finally, I saw The Violent Kind (8/10) by the Butcher Brothers (Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores).  I didn’t expect much from the blurb in the program, but the porn stars handing out Pabst Blue Ribbon as we entered piqued my interest and the movie really delivered a heaping helping of B-movie fun!  A biker gang has a birthday party for one of it’s founders’ old ladies up in a house in the woods, and after most of them leave bad things start to happen, from possession to home invasion to unexplained electrical failures to lap dances (well, OK, that was from earlier). It was like Sons of Anarchy meets Evil Dead II with Blue Velvet thrown in – as well as bits of everything from The Exorcist to The Faculty.  It was a lot of fun; it was probably my biggest pleasant surprise of the day.

And that’s the end of Day Two.  I liked The Violent Kind the best, followed by Mother’s Day, Fire of Conscience, Zombie Roadkill, and 30 Days of Night: Dark Days.

Fantastic Fest 2010 Day One

It’s September in Austin and that means it’s time for Fantastic Fest!

Their new online ticket ordering system totally crapped out in the face of a thousand simultaneous clicks in the morning, so we went back to last year’s “rack out early and stand in line” method.  C’est la vie.  The Alamo Drafthouse staff and volunteers run the whole thing very smoothly so no real complaints there.

My first movie of the festival was Transfer (8/10), a German science fiction movie about rich old people who make use of a new “memory transfer” technology to put their minds into virile new bodies.  These bodies are technically “volunteers” from Africa and other third world countries, who get a bunch of money for their families and four hours a day back in their own bodies for giving up 20 hours a day (and much of their freedom during those other four).  As you might imagine the “volunteer” nature of this work and the validity of its rewards are debatable.

I really enjoyed this movie.  It touches on some of the same themes as the “use my clones/imprint my brains” kinds of movies like The Island or the excellent Joss Whedon TV show Dollhouse.  But while a Hollywood movie would degenerate into chases and action sequences, and have all (morally) black-and-white characters, Transfer was a lot more nuanced – all the characters had a lot of depth and complexity and “good” and “bad” – both the elderly German couple and the Africans who were being used in this way as well.  Science fiction is properly about human reaction to technological developments (and ideally more complex ones than “shoot the robots!” and this movie was a classic, thoughtful science fiction story without being inaccessible – too many filmmakers go the other way when reacting against mass-market sci-fi and make their work deliberately weird, cryptic, and symbology-laden.

The acting was great.  I was impressed how well B.J. Britt, the black male lead, did with depicting Hermann the German when his personality was dominant – Hermann has what we Americans call a “big ol’ shit-eating grin” and he totally nailed it.  And the story dealt in a very complex way with racial tension in European society.  While watching this I had a brief nightmare about Hollywood remaking this movie as a comedy starring Martin Lawrence or the Wayans Brothers or something.  “Look, I’m wacky, I’m acting white!”  Shudder.

There’s a lot of ambiguity in the ending – it wasn’t clear to me exactly how it turned out for the Africans, for example – but it was a very well done and enjoyable film.

Next, I saw Golden Slumber (9/10).  It was by the director of Fish Story, which was my absolute favorite film from last Fantastic Fest.  This Japanese film was a tale of the shared experiences between friends, using the Beatles song “Golden Slumber” as a recurring theme.

I liked this movie.   It wasn’t as good as Fish Story (which, I’m not ashamed to admit, made me cry) but was still good.  I felt that some of the film felt more forced where Fish Story felt more organic in its execution of the theme (and the titular song tie-in).  I think in trying to reproduce some of the “hook” of Fish Story instead of completely being its own thing, it suffered.

But let’s not make too much of the comparison; few movies are as good as Fish Story and this one was very good.  It follows a hapless Japanese man who gets set up as the scapegoat in a plot to assassinate the Japanese Prime Minister – “Just like Lee Harvey Oswald, ” the characters muse.  This meant a lot of intrigue and chases and even action scenes, but the movie was not about the action, which makes all the difference.  And while many movies here at Fantastic Fest are about “how we all turn on each other when the shit goes down,” this movie is a celebration of how we don’t – the protagonist’s family and friends (mostly) know the man and know he didn’t do it, whatever they are told by the TV or scary government hatchet men.  So it has a very positive heart.  And humor; the helpful serial killer “Kill-O” had the crowd whooping.

But it’s also not a “District 13″ kind of wish fulfillment fantasy where everyone gets their comeuppance in the end and the government gets set right…  Despite the heavy slate of coincidences, it strives to be a but more low-key and “realistic” than that.

Then, I went downtown to the Paramount to see the star-studded premiere of Let Me In (7/10).  The original “Let The Right One In” was a huge FF favorite from years past and there was a lot of trepidation about the remake.  But Tim League was out there claiming it’s “as good - if not even BETTER than the original” so I went.  I was on the fence about seeing it actually; going to the Paramount burns two Fantastic Fest slots and since many of the big gala movies are coming out into theaters in like two weeks, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay the opportunity cost.  But I heard some of the kid actors on the radio in the morning and thought the Q&A and seeing the stars would be more interesting than the average, so I went.  (Sadly, no Chloe Moretz; that would have made it a slam dunk.)

Let me be honest here – I haven’t seen the original.  Inconceivable, I know; I have it on my Netflix instant streaming queue and just haven’t gotten around to it.  So given that context…

I thought Let Me In was good.  Certainly better than most Hollywood horror movies by a long shot.  But it didn’t live up to what it could have been.  Things just seemed so…  straightforward.  Mysteries weren’t preserved for long, and times where there could have been interesting twists, there weren’t really any.  In the end, it was pretty predictable.  The young actors and actresses did a great job, though, and really carried the movie.  The director, Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) did a decent job of creating mood, including one clever trick of never showing the boy’s mother’s face to indicate his level of dissociation from her, but certain elements like the environment of bullying and the enclosed nature of their small apartment complex didn’t come through as strongly as I would have liked.

I don’t want to come off as too negative; it’s certainly way better than “Freddy vs Jason Round 18″ or whatever crap people are putting out nowadays, I was just lightly disappointed in an otherwise good movie and felt like a little tweaking could make it a lot stronger.

The Q&A went pretty long and I got back to the Alamo too late for the fourth slot, and I didn’t really want to sit around two hours waiting for the midnight slot, so I availed myself of some of the free Ambhar tequila they were giving out and went home to let out my long-suffering dog.  So that’s it for Day One of Fantastic Fest 2010!   It’s off to a good start;  I saw three movies I enjoyed to varying degrees, from “good” to “excellent!”  (And I hear I made the right call going to Let Me In instead of sticking around to see Ong-Bak 3, which by all reports was a real stinkburger.)