Terminator: Genisys

I'm listening to the Terminator: Genisys soundtrack, by Lorne Balfe, as I write this. It is quite good.

Per my remarks on Twitter, Terminator: Genisys is NOT the movie in which Starbuck says to Sarah Connor "this is my friend Neo. We're here to help with your robot problem." That impossibly wonderful crossing of the streams was my brother Randy's idea, and we both know that it's something we'll never have.  Perhaps our grandchildren will get it on SpacePirateBay, or Googazon's hTube, but it will never be ours.

Terminator: Genisys does manage to cross some streams, though, and to great effect. If you're familiar with the first two films, and perhaps a little confused by the third, the fourth, and the TV show, (the confusion results because you're trying to use the word "continuity" in conjunction with the words"time" and  "travel,") you will find that  Terminator: Genisys plays with all of the source material, and will reward those familiar with the franchise for paying attention.

(As of this writing the original Terminator film, starring the inimitable Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, is available on Netflix. Should you watch it first? Maybe!)

I would have enjoyed the film much more had I not seen so many cool reveals in the trailers. They telegraph quite a bit of what's coming, but the studio did manage to hold a few things back, and the surprises were delightful. I want to talk about those things, and how effectively the story turned expectations upside down, but then you'll have less fun in the theater than I did, and that is almost the exact opposite of what I should be causing to happen with these reviews.

Emilia Clarke, who plays Sarah Connor, initially struck me as looking far too young and tiny for the role. Funny thing: she's within a year of the same age Linda Hamilton was when she defined Sarah Connor for us in 1984's Terminator.

Despite being four inches shorter than Hamilton, Clarke had me convinced by the end of the movie. It's probably because she's a fine actress, and has that amazing ability to project herself as larger than life. Not having watched enough Game of Thrones to see her as Daenerys, I can't speak for everything she does, but that particular piece resumé should speak much more loudly to you than anything I say.

Terminator: Genisys did what few* sixth installments in a cinematic franchise do: it crosses my Threshold of Awesome, entering my 2015 list at #8.

Regarding that, it seems that either my standards are slipping, or this is a good year for movies that I enjoy. Or maybe I've become a better judge of what I should see in the theater. My Threshold of Disappointment has only been tripped once (Furious 7), and the middle ground between disappointment and awesome is occupied by four titles: Inside OutInsurgent, Strange Magic, and Seventh Son.

The year is half over. I hope this does NOT mean that I've accrued a stack of movie karma that will require balancing in the coming months.

(*Note: sixth installments that cross the Threshold of Awesome: The Avengers in 2012, and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies in 2014. Sixth installments that don't?)  

A Planet Mercenary Play Test

On Saturday, June 27th, we had a Planet Mercenary RPG play test at LibertyCon. Alan Bahr ran the game, and Steve Jackson joined us. Our small band of mercenary officers was cast as follows:

  • The purp doctor: Howard Tayler
  • The tetrisoid attorney: Alijah Ballard
  • The ursumari engineer: Keliana Tayler
  • The mobile-chassis A.I.: David Pascoe
  • The Ob'enn captain: Steve Jackson

The adventure began at MercCon, held in a dilapidated station in orbit around Damaxuri. We roamed the expo hall looking for swag, and while the captain adorned himself with things that blinked and glowed, our one-meter-tall attorney decided to prank random strangers by injecting them with stim samples he lifted from one of the booths. When an angry neophant caught him at it and grabbed him, the doctor whipped out a syringe and said "if you want the antidote, you'll put my friend down." It worked, and now that we could see that our attorney player was going to play as a rogue, we adjusted our deployment to keep a better eye on him.

The A.I. went sniffing through the data-streams, and determined that there was money to be made on the surface of Damaxuri, but only if we moved fast, and got there before the news broke to the rest of the mercenaries at the convention. After evaluating several slow, or bad, or slow-and-bad options for getting to the surface, the captain decided we should find a civilian ship with immediate clearance, hijack it, and then remove its transponder to provide OUR ship with clearance.

The following thirty minutes of game play were pretty hilarious, and included safe-cracking, recruiting, remote piloting for maximum "soft" collisions, a false alarm about an outbreak of smuttorhea, and us racing to the surface well ahead of anybody else who may have wanted the job that just posted. The attorney did the safe-cracking with the ursumari's boomex, and only the fact that the safe contained both currency and blackmail material pacified the ursumari.

I'll spare you any further spoilers, since the adventure (with some tweaks, of course) will be part of the final product. The final tableau: while our ursumari roared in frustration, literally bristling with shuriken from her violently defective weapon, the doctor stabilized our target and began counting out pain killers and happy-pills for the angry wall of "friendly" fur. Meanwhile the lawyer and the captain managed the "recruiting" of our target's hench-folk, and the A.I. rolled through the warehouse evaluating whether or not we could collect the bounty *AND* salvage the inventory of a profitable criminal enterprise.

Steve, Keliana, and I had to bounce out to another event, but everybody (including us!) kept talking about what our characters would do next. The game was over, the players had to leave, but we were all still telling the story. That's a pretty successful game.

The "speak first, go first" initiative system worked perfectly, in part because our captain spoke first and began issuing orders. Steve Jackson played that really well, which is no surprise, and the other players rolled with it equally well. Whether or not the captain was right about this plan to blow a hole in the bulkhead, we were going to pour our bullets through it and get the job done.

The mayhem cards also worked well. The doctor's fire team gained a bonus to all combat actions by virtue of being terrified of him, and our company's charter lost a couple of points of reputation because despite getting the job done there was an embarrassing video of our ursumari covered in bits of her own weapon. Both of these elements would have played straight into further adventure sessions, informing our role play and the math of combat.

Most auspiciously, the game played *fast.* The fun we had voicing our characters carried straight into the combat scenes at a pace which felt natural, and which, even though we were all still learning the system, did not bog down.

To paraphrase Steve's remarks to Alan: "This was fun. I suspect you could run any game well, but you've got a good thing here." I don't remember the exact quote, but that was the spirit of it, and Alan was grinning for the rest of the day.

I had microphone responsibilities at the luncheon which followed, so I wasn't paying enough attention while Keliana sketched. I caught just enough to realize she was drawing our Planet Mercenary party, but before I could ask to see the finished piece, she'd given it to our play-test guest of honor.

Inside Out

 
Disney/Pixar's Inside Out is one of those films that I didn't really enjoy, but which I believe to be incredibly important. It's certainly clever enough and deep enough to entertain grown-ups, but I believe the target audience for Inside Out is children who need a memorable, functional model for understanding how emotions control their perception of the world.
 
In terms of societal value, then, Inside Out may be the most important movie Pixar has ever made. The world is definitely a better place with this movie in it.
 
In terms of entertainment value, your mileage is going to vary wildly depending on the manner in which you've built your own models for understanding your brain, not to mention your awareness of mental health issues. I believe that the film is trying to portray an ordinary emotional crisis for a young person, but as I watched the destruction wrought upon the model of Riley's mind I was terrified. I stopped seeing the film as a quest to restore happiness, and started seeing a descent into madness whose only possible happy ending began with immediate medical attention.
 
Since that's probably not what the movie wanted me to see, it didn't work as well for me as it did for the audience full of college-aged kids at the Thursday night showing. They laughed and cheered while I white-knuckled.
 
I know that this is *my* problem, not the movie's problem, and in spite of the fact that I'm sure there are others who will white-knuckle during Inside Out, I stand by my earlier statement: this movie is incredibly important. Whether or not they see it in the theater, kids should see it, and then spend some time talking about it. Oh, and it will almost certainly be fun for them, too.
 
My movie rankings are based on the amount of fun I had in the theater, and on that scale Inside Out enters my 2015 list at #11, and is the first Pixar film I've seen since Cars 2 that has failed to crack my Threshold of Awesome. Please don't let that fool you into thinking Inside Out is not awesome. There are other scales than mine, after all.
 
(cross-posted from howardtayler.com)

Spy

 
I had forgotten how good a proper comedy can be. Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy, did everything right. I laughed hard, and left the theater on that happy high that comes from laughter with, rather than laughter at.
 
This isn't a sit-com kind of movie where we laugh at the absurdity that grows out of an absurd situation. It's a comedy with character, and the absurd situation is actually kind of terrifying. In order to maintain tension we aren't allowed to laugh at it very much. That's fine. There's plenty of funny elsewhere.
 
After having seen Scarlett Johansson, Charlize Theron, and now Melissa McCarthy in action roles, I'm afraid Scarjo's Black Widow finishes in a distant third place. Theron's Furiosa was amazing, and set a new bar, but I'm putting McCarthy's Susan Cooper over that bar and in first, because she was the only one of the three to ace the delivery of the stand-up-and-cheer moment.
 
I could write a 5,000-word treatise going into more detail about how this works for me, but I have comics to make and an RPG to write. I'll just say that Spy clears my Threshold of Awesome, and leaps to the top of my list. I had so much fun...
 

UPDATE
One of the reasons this movie worked so well for me is that it treats its genre, the super-spy thriller, in much the same way my own Schlock Mercenary treats science fiction.
 
This quote from writer director Paul Feig is telling:
I'm a big fan of spy movies, and I wanted to create a broad action comedy in that genre. The comedy comes from the characters. It's not a spoof or satire. The danger and action are genuine. We wanted it to have the tone of a spy film, but still be as funny as we could make it. I also wanted to create a relatable story in which we could all wonder, 'If I was recruited as a spy and sent on a mission, how might I react?' —Paul Feigcited on IMDB
That's not the only reason it works, but that's a big one, and for me that was the biggest surprise. I went in expecting a spoof, and what I got instead is the very thing I most love creating.
 
(cross-posted from howardtayler.com)

Jurassic World

Let me lead by saying that Jurassic World cleared my Threshold of Awesome, and enters my rankings at #2, just behind Avengers: Age of Ultron. Sandra, Keliana, and I enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and had no regrets about springing for the IMAX 3D showing. The film made good use of the technology.

With that out of the way, the film has some weird flaws. Most of the interpersonal stuff falls flat, and while we do get lots of on-screen dinosaur goodness, Sandra and I both came away feeling like the filmmakers didn't want to bother with "sense of wonder."

There was story purpose for this, I suppose, since we are told (but not actually shown) that the crowds want bigger, faster, meaner attractions.

Which the park provides, of course. Chaos and catastrophe ensue. Rawr chase chase chomp rawr shoot shoot scream rawr repeat. To good effect, of course, but if the action had been supported by a really well-crafted human story it would have been more powerful. If the film had been allowed to cast off a couple of the less-engaging human stories, the action could have been dialed up a bit, and Jurassic World would have shone as a really good monster movie.

Don't get me wrong: I wasn't actually disappointed—I have a threshold for that on my list, and this film escaped that handily—but I did have to tip my head to the side and raise my eyebrows at the film a couple of times to quietly say "really, movie? That's as hard as you're going to try to sell that to me?"

(Note: in IMAX 3D the movie can totally see you do that, and it will feel guilty for having let you down. Try it!)

I can't say much more without spoiling things. Sandra made a great observation which I won't share for exactly that reason. Spot on, though.

Fans of the original John Williams soundtrack will be delighted by Michael Giacchino's work on the soundtrack for Jurassic World.

William's themes are present (and properly credited) but this is definitely NOT a re-hashing of leitmotifs we've already heard. It's fresh, and powerful. I've enjoyed Giacchino's work on other soundtracks, and knew by the end of the film that this one goes on that list. I'm listening to it as I write this, and I'm totally not thinking that something is going to chomp me from behind. Totally.

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