Saturday, June 30, 2012

Log Cabins sans Stakes

A Review of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

You can pretty much count on movie posters being misleading when it comes to plot these days.

Mrs. Obscure wanted to see Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter more than Brave, so we went to see it last night.  (I'm still hoping for Brave before the weekend is through.)  While the schtick of the Grahame-Smith industry has worn a little thin with me, I was curious.  After all, I'm a sucker for period pieces, it is alternate history and fantasy, and it's got vampires.

  • Visually well done in general
  • Constant action (don't come if your in the mood for anything else)
  • New actors do fine overall (exception below).  
  • More Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  Yay!
  • Rufus Sewell doesn't overpower the characters of new actors as injudicious use of him easily could have.  Makes a fine villain.
  • Some nice details: new vampire killing tool and combining vampiric enslavement trope with Southern slavery (though rather imperfectly)
  • Thin plot.  Only a series of hooks keep the thin line from disintegrating.  Don't breathe hard in the cinema, though.
  • I hate exaggerated action without in-story verisimilitude.  (Did you forget to mention that they are superheroes or something?)  You've got to give me something to turn off my realistic-demanding switch.  Things vampires can do, humans shouldn't be able to.
  • The farcical nature of the story comes out in the lines.The young actors are promising and I'm glad to see new folks get work, but I think the actors (and certainly the young actors) that could play this straight and make us believe it are in the minority.  Rufus Sewell, however, is (and was) in that number, but it is easier for the villains than the heroes, anyway.  Attempts to elevate the film to heroic moments struggle.
  • Add another to the long line of 3D movies that do not capitalize on the medium as they should.  Why are we still getting so few (visually) great 3D pictures?
  • Even though the screenplay is based on Seth Grahame-Smith's own book, the writing is not as good as his other recent vampire flick: Dark Shadows.  Or do the stable of expensive, more experienced actors fool me?
In sum, it's not a terrible picture.  It's not unwatchable.  The spectacle (visuals + action) kept my attention and moved me along to the end without too many interruptions to allow the brain to analyze the film's failings.   

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Greater Cleave to the Expectations

Welcome back, Tomeful Tuesday!

When it comes to the companies we like and the designers we like, we don't always look forward to upcoming projects with the same level of excitement.  That's fine: we all prefer differ things and we are all looking for different things at different times.  If one is not in the market for a new way to open wine bottles, for example, the best wine bottle opener of all time is likely to garner little attention.

Such is how I found myself in regards to this Clockwork Gnome offering, when I heard that fellow rambler and guest blogger Paris Crenshaw was working on The Rogues Gallery: The Cloven Hoof Syndicate.  I expected good work and something useful, but it just didn't hit my future salivation button at the time.

And then, I saw it.

Publisher Taliesin and his workship of gnomes just keep improving their craft.  The Cloven Hoof Syndicate's layout and design is clear and gives the right moody look for the dark content.  The choice of illustrations is strong overall, with two minor complaints (see end of review).  But while the Cogs from gnomeland are getting shiner and prettier, the real blow that split my adrenal gland asunder came from the functional content.

Designer Crenshaw has provided a uniquely flavored, fully realized thieves guild.  While it is set in CGP's Eorthe in the city of Aerendal, it is easily adapted for use in other worlds.  It brings together alchemy, faerie, and daemons to create a criminal underground stocked with villains dangling plot hooks left, right, and center.  These characters fit within the goals and activities of the syndicate (again, more plot hooks and possible plot elements), and draw on the full range of options available at this point from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.  For those of us who are still digesting the Core Rulebook and have little time for putting together new options from Advanced and Ultimate books in the PFRPG, here are key members who are coherent that will stand out as memorable and challenging due to these options in their builds. 

I will not give examples due to spoiler issues, but trust me: these are far from shallow or run-of-th-mill characters.  They are colorful and complex; the result of lots of creativity and time investement.  When your time is saved and you've been given better material than you would have created even with time, that's a very good thing.  (Ain't nobody happy if GM ain't happy.)  Below the key members, the supporting cast of NPC rogues would take a lot less work for the GM to build, but Paris provides appropriate sample NPCs to fill out the rest of the syndicate's roles.  Just the right level of guidance for further customization as needed that fits the organization as conceived.

In addition to taking care of time-consuming major NPCs, TRG:TCHS provides some interesting new items that fit fantasy organized crime.  But more importantly, the ebook provides a strong sense of place for the syndicate's base and the players' adventuring.  What's more important to the fantasy thieves guild than the guild hall?  Here the chief clockwork gnome himself adds the maps that aid the imagination with crisp representations to guide the GM in manifesting the location in game.  And for those of you who remember the publisher's strong interest in the mythic underworld, you won't be surprised to discover that the tunnels below lead into an entire network, fanning out to the scenes of the syndicate's business interests.  A sidebar makes clear that the mundane underworld is deep and extensive enough to allow contacts with the mythic underworld.

I have one criticism of note to make of The Cloven Hoof Syndicate, and it centers on the toughest area for a small third party publisher to deal with: art.  Take the criticism within the scope of what I have said about the ongoing improvement in appearance that Clockwork Gnome's products have been evincing, which I believe has reached a new high mark with this product.  Original art commissions are the most expensive part of publishing.  In responding to my questions about CGP's products, I was surprised to learn that TCHS depends completely on stock art for illustrations (not including maps, of course).  Allen is accomplishing a lot with stock art.  There were two pieces that didn't work as well for me, though.  The illustration on page 21 doesn't really communicate fiendish half-orc to me.  Perhaps creative needs and art resources are just too difficult to match here?  The derro illustration on page 25 looks strange in perspective and proportion.  More importantly, it does not particularly say "alchemist" to me.  However, these two examples point out the overall success of the art in the work.  As the publisher continues to wrestle with how to get the most out of his art budget, perhaps budding fantasy artists will note the quality of his products and be willing to come to mutually benefiting arrangements for some of these more difficult instances.  Take a look, artists looking for a start.  This is the kind of quality material you'd like to be able to show you had a part in as you try to grow your business.

On the persnickety side, there is a text/illustration crowding issue on page 11.

Even if I allow these two issues to lower the appearance from an A- to a B+, the content gets a solid A+.   Pathfinder players should avail themselves of this imaginatively conceived and finely carried-out thieves guild.  Labyrinth Lord players can look forward to the release of its upcoming LL version.

Finally, a musical dedication to hark back to my entry point.  Good game writing and design has the ability to fan the flames of imaginative desires where previously they burned low, and for me this is a testimony to The Cloven Hoof as an accomplishment.  I'll be on the look out for the occasion to use this to improve my game.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place ~or~ A Room of One's Own?

Time is not a luxury I have had in the past month.  I had really hoped to get my Ygg PbP going this month, with support from my faithful interested, and while I might have been able to find time to play some, there is no way I could have GMed.  Summer school at the new school is more compact and intense than any other in my career.  Sleep has been an issue, and as you can tell, blogging hasn't really picked up to its pre-move level.  Still, I am planning and preparing for the future in which I and the school will have settled into one another and I have significant free time again for things mythopoeic and luditory. 

First one must create space.  The space in the mind is created, but with space in life unavailable I turned to my physical space.

I have an office space in the apartment, but with a dedicated classroom and an office for all of my academic stuff I have no need to set up an office dedicated to work.  The apartment was set up and it already contained a part of my game collection, so I took the space and tried to make it inspirational for my imagination with the materials I have at hand.

Recent finds from Goodwill and Half-Price Books mix with the Free RPG haul and the contents of the lately arrived Pathfinder subscription package.  Not the largest or the most extravagant setting and supply, but plenty here to work from, easily in reach, and a display for the eyes to feed on. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Artist Appreciation: Anna Christenson

Yes, a hot elf chick to kick-off the weekend and shamelessly pander Google hits.

I had seen one of her works (above), but now I have identified her and her body of work.  She has been a busy gal, producing quality gaming illustrations for a number of companies before her work for her Paizo.  I also particularly like the pieces she's produced for the Dragon Empires, Golarion's oriental analogue.  If you don't know about Anna Christenson's art, check out DeviantArt, her site, and her blog.  I look forward to seeing more of her contributions.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Free RPG Day Haul

Oh free RPG day, how I love thee.
This Mythopoeic Monday will be spent in thine afterglow.
Soon I think thy map shall go up in splendor, over my desk.
Was it just me, or was this one of the better years?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bring Me the Heart of Snow White

Or better yet, Charlize Theron in a slinky evil queen gown.  Rawr.

What do you do in a world dangerously lacking in meaning because you are overworked and it will be nine months before Game of Thrones season 2 comes out on Bluray?  Go see Snow White and the Huntsman.  At least, that's what I would have done, if I hadn't promised Mrs. Obscure that I would wait until she was in town so we could see it together.  Finally, last night, I got to see it.

The story goes like this: Thor finally returns to earth and Natalie Portman is dead.  In his grief, he becomes an alcoholic. (Is that even possible when drinking only mead?)  The evil queen (she made it impossible for me to pretend she was just misunderstood.  And I REALLY wanted to.  And I prefer brunettes.  Such is the power of Charlize.) promised Thor she would bring Natalie Portman back, if only he'd bring her that chick from Twilight.  The one who is not a good actress, but is very good at doing things with her face.  To be fair, I think she could be a good actress and I might like her in a role that didn't annoy the bejeebers out of me, but she is not ready for the demands that this role strived for.  (The plot writing also failed these high ideals, so she's not alone to blame.)  Any way, Thor goes into the super creepy hallucinogenic woods after the Twilight chick, who, even when she's dirty, now has a much better wardrobe than she used to have.  They meet a troll.  Possibly the most awesome troll ever.

Troll. I think I love you.  (Still not as much as Charlize, though.  But close.)

Thanks, Hollywood.  This scene wasn't in the movie, but it's the biggest pic of the troll I can find.
After not enough time with the troll, Thor and TC go on to spend time with the Iraqi marsh people before they meet the dwarves and the fairies.  Dwarves, you never fail me.  Eventually, there will be the apple and the kiss (oh, I didn't spoil it for you, did I?) and the big battle.  Surely no one doubted that Snow White could be made better if you added a big battle scene.

I love a chick in armor.  Especially if she is leading dwarves.  I tolerate TC in armor -- though I love her armor. 
Thor also thought she looked good, but he was still drunk: we know this because he referred to plate as "mail".

The wife liked this movie better than Mirror, Mirror.  While I prefer it in terms of tone and spectacle, it is not tighter or better written.  The narration at the beginning lagged and took too long -- they needed to find other ways to set it up.  The story has moments of great potential it never capitalizes on, and so it disappointed me as a story, which is what a film should be first and foremost.  However, sets, costumes, effects, and Charlize Theron demand that it be seen.  Because of subject matter, great visuals, and some creative versions of fairy creatures, it manages to pull off a B+

Payoff: if you are working or playing with faerie or the Raven Queen, then I'd say this a must see.  If you are working or playing with vampires, Snow White, the Shadow Plane, or dwarves, then this is a probably should see.  If you saw Prometheus and need more Charlize Theron? Must see.  Chris Hemsworth fans?  Probably see, but after Thor and The Avengers.  Kristen Stewart fans?  Seek help.  I will say this: she made a better Snow White than I thought she would.  But can't they afford to get black hair die for her?  And the little girl Snow White, too, who's hair was way too light.  Seriously, movie makers, if you don't know your subject material, at least listen to your own prologues.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Dark Shadows and Prometheus

I have been ridiculously busy since my move: setting up my apartment, my office, and my classroom -- and then summer school started up right away.  I have had little time for anything else, though I have squeezed in two movies when I felt like my brain just had to do something else: Dark Shadows and Prometheus.  These were two movies that I had been looking forward to, and overall I was not disappointed in either.

I have a special place in my heart for the Dark Shadows franchise, partly because my mother and grandmother were fans.  (I wish I knew how they'd take this turn of the original story towards dark comedy.)  If you don't like the Tim Burton-Johnny Deep take on the macabre, skip it, because this is another addition to that duo's establishment.  However, it may be my favorite of their partnerings, and I enjoyed Burton's placing it in 1972 for all the little period touches -- like the mug that Michelle Pfeiffer's character drinks out of at breakfast, which is almost identical to the one I inherited above from the aforementioned grandmother.  The cast works together as a nice ensemble, keeping up with Mr. Depp, the show ends with the promise of a sequel.  As much as I generally decry sequels, yes, I will give you more money, Mr. Burton, if you bring it.

Prometheus has two annoying flaws in my opinion that both involve verisimilitude in action, but it is great in every other way and lives up to the hype and beyond the facile criticisms I've heard.  It's neck-in-neck between Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender for who takes the brass ring in the this one.  As far as the Alien franchise goes, this movie is second only to the original.  Aside from my spoilerific complaints which I'm keeping to myself for now, the film is brilliant.  While I guess I can stretch my imagination to understand those who don't like Burton, I can't quite do the same for those who don't like Sci-Fi of this quality.

One movie is good plain fun with some thoughtfulness about (gasp) outsiders injected, the other is grand visual sweeps and effects with reflection on what it means to be human threaded throughout.  Though very different kind of films, and likely to earn as much disparity in respect as in profit, I think I'd still give both the same grade.  Don't pass on either of these, is my advice, with the one caveat above.  Here's to 2012: a great year for films so far!

Yay, more Giger!